He first suspected that they were going to eat him when he noticed the distinct lack of Yuletide smells. It wasn’t perhaps a conscious thought, at least not one which had been fully realised, but there was a clear growing uneasiness within him. Somehow he just knew.
Surely if a family invited you for Christmas dinner, the house would be filled with the wonderful aromas associated with that annual feast; succulent roast turkey, honey glazed vegetables, perhaps the fumes of mulled wine or a brandy covered Christmas pudding, but no, all of these were absent.
Yet the table was set.
It was a particularly bleak Christmas, and while snow was often welcome at that festive time of the year, the penetrating cold and frost which seemed to sabotage both homes and their residents’ bodies was not. The temperature had plummeted on the 7th, and there had been little sign of any forthcoming reprieve.
Families attempted as best they could to reach one another, but for many it was to be a lonely Christmas day. Travel, especially for the elderly, was almost impossible for fear of slipping on the ice. One fall was all it would take for a broken hip or shoulder, and for the more fragile individuals amongst them, recovering from such an injury was not an easy task. Certainly not as easy as it would be for those of a younger vintage.
The Cardinal family had taken pity on an elderly gentleman who had recently moved into the neighbourhood only a few streets away. They were of an upstanding stock and took part in a local home-help initiative spending time with the old and vulnerable. Everyone knew and loved them.
Timmy was the youngest, a boy of only 5 or 6. He was a child whom all looked upon with great adoration – never complaining, never causing trouble, always adorable – and his ten year old sister, Camilla, was equally as admired.
They were both a testament to the caring and nurturing parenting skills of Ben and Lucy Cardinal.
Each year as the cold winter drew in, the Cardinal family were admired for their dedication and commitment to those around them; their passion, almost zeal for helping those who were less fortunate. But behind the smiles and the skin-deep façade of that of a loving family, lurked a far more sinister purpose.
They had a tradition each year. A way to reward themselves for their kindness and generosity; one which stemmed back through many previous generations of the Cardinal family. Each Christmas they would invite a guest for dinner who would be welcomed with open arms into their home, sat down at a beautifully set table, provided with humorous and enjoyable Christmas conversation, and then by the light of the roaring fire, the guest would be stabbed to death and eaten gratefully.
They all reveled in the old tradition, with Timmy looking forward to it the most – he had a ferocious appetite and a waistline to match it – but children do get so wrapped up in the anticipation of a family Christmas and his parents were delighted to see a growing boy fill his belly.
Camilla was of a more quiet disposition than her stout little brother, slight of figure with a pallid complexion which reminded all of her mother, but make no mistake; she adored eating with the family and could render anyone silent with a sharp, cold insult.
Ben was the local police chief for the area, so covering up their annual feast was quite the cinch, while Lucy was, shall we say, a relation of sorts and was entirely enthusiastic about maintaining the Christmas tradition.
Their guests were invariably those without family, and often of a ripe old age. Forgotten by society, left to wither in their isolated little houses. Ben explained to the children yearly that it was almost a kindness to put the victims out of their slowly increasing misery, and besides, when they did eventually die they would be shoved into a box in the ground or roasted into ashes; what a waste of good meat!
This year Timmy and Camilla were especially excited. It was all their mother could do to calm their nerves, but on that Christmas eve it was nearly impossible, for they knew the special treat they were in for the following day. The cardinals were hosting a most special guest.
His name was Sergiu Moraru and he hailed from Eastern Europe. They had never had foreign meat before and the very idea of tearing into some delicious exotic muscle and fat, made this years feast something to really look forward to.
They had met old man Moraru just a few weeks earlier when Ben had noticed the unusual name on his home-help list. Each year as Christmas approached, the volunteers at the local church would be given names and addresses of pensioners in the area who had no family and would be left quite alone over the holiday season. At that festive time of year, and worried that many of the frailer residents might succumb to the biting cold, church committee members would visit each of these lonely individuals and offer a friendly ear, a helping hand, and often some hearty food to the poorest of those on the list.
The names would rarely change, but at least one person on that list would sadly pass away that year. Being an upstanding member of the community and a high ranking police officer in the area, Ben would often inform the church that one of their flock had sadly passed away, and with no friends or family known, he would concoct a lie which usually involved a long lost son or daughter, appearing to take their sadly departed parent somewhere far away to be buried. That or he would say that they had simply moved, having a bit of a deal with a local estate agent and solicitors firm to throw the proceeds from any property sales their way.
The family were not without influence.
It was incredible how little people questioned this, but as the Cardinals ensured that each Christmas meal was not an active member in the church or community, people just assumed that Ben knew best.
This year the Cardinals had been hoping to invite Lucy Rindridge around for her Christmas swan song, but unfortunately she had died during the summer. Ben had investigated and he suspected that an intruder had been inside the house with her at the time of her death, but it seemed as though the causes were natural.
No, the family would just have to have someone different for dinner. Then the name appeared on the list:
‘Sergiu Moraru – 86. Slight Emphysema, no family. Knows no one in the area as he has only recently moved here.’
Ben found Mr Moraru to be an absolute delight. While he was obviously very frail, his mind was still sharp and he regaled Ben with numerous colourful stories about ‘the old country’ and the adventures he had while in the full bloom of youth. Of particular interest were his war stories, and Ben was thrilled to know that their main course would be that of an intelligent, well-traveled man.
He even looked unlike any of the previous victims. He was quite tall, although slightly hunched with age, and with a long crooked nose and intense stare Ben fancied that in his youth Moraru would have been quite intimidating. His kind smile and obvious fragile frame, however, left Ben in no doubt that the kids would love him. They enjoyed eating those with character and a gentle disposition.
He always enjoyed the meat more if it had a keen mind and was out of the ordinary, as the family religion (one which had managed to stay unseen yet influential throughout the centuries) stated that the eating of another human being would transmit some of its strengths to those whom devoured it.
As with many of those who can only look into the past rather than into the future, Sergiu Moraru enjoyed the company greatly, and was touched when Ben invited him to sit at his family’s Christmas table.
The old man was extremely frail and required the assistance of both Ben and Camilla to help him in and out of Ben’s car and then into the house. His emphysema was particularly bad that day as each step was accompanied by the wheezing, fluid-filled sounds of struggling lungs.
Each room of the Cardinal home was draped in a multicoloured selection of rather crass Christmas decorations, with numerous cards adorning every visible table and mantelpiece showcasing just how popular Ben and his family really were.
The table was beautifully laid with a red cotton cloth resting underneath an elegant creme dining set. The old man found that the rest of Ben’s family were just as pleasant and congenial as he was. Timmy and Camilla were kind and very well behaved for their age, helping the frail old man to his chair carefully and then waiting on him, topping up his drink as their mother and father busied themselves in the kitchen.
Finally, Lucy appeared carrying a huge centrepiece plate. It was unusually large and as she sat it in the middle of the table, empty and devoid of food, old man Moraru caught a look on Lucy’s face. It was brief, and he immediately attempted to disregard it as a product of his imagination, but it unsettled him deeply. It was as if a private joke had passed between the eyes of Lucy and her children, a flicker of a grin, and not one of kindness or of Christmas spirit, but rather one resembling that of a conspiratorial bully. As if Sergiu was the unwitting recipient of some unwholesome prank, waiting to be ridiculed.
Just as the unease began to diminish, Ben appeared with a large jagged carving knife and a long, two-pronged fork which reminded Sergiu more of a butchers’ implement than that required to cut a decent sized turkey.
A turkey which became increasingly conspicuous by its absence.
There they sat for over an hour, each member of the Cardinal family replenishing the old man’s drink with enthusiasm and showing concern for every and each cough or moment of uncomfortable breathing experienced by their guest. But it was a strange concern.
There they sat gleefully, asking Moraru questions and then listening to the stories and answers which came about his life, where he had lived, how many battles he had fought in. But the interest and concern seemed to be distant somehow. It was only skin-deep. Each time their guest mentioned the old country, those same conspiracy-laden glances were traded across the table, as if excited, not by the content of the stories, but rather by the simple fact that Moraru was a foreigner.
The absence of not only food, but that of the mere mention of it was unsettling enough, but what was more perplexing was that Ben repeatedly stole looks towards an antique clock which sat on a mantelpiece above the fire. Looks which were poorly hidden, and betrayed their purpose: He was counting down the minutes to some event. While the old man had no idea what that event was, the certainty was apparent that it was not connected to anything cooking in the kitchen oven.
Moraru knew that there was simply no food being roasted, grilled, or even cooled on a window ledge nearby. Whatever was being planned it was not going to involve him eating a Christmas meal.
It was Camilla who stopped smiling first at his anecdotes and historical observations. She had ceased listening. No longer was she politely laughing at obvious jokes and the endearing sight of an old man repeating himself through forgetfulness. Camilla was simply staring. Staring with those pin point cold dark eyes. As a snake before a strike.
Timmy was next to abandon the act as he began to grin menacingly at Sergiu, as his hands gripped a small serrated steak knife intensely. The most alarming thing was that the focus of Timmy’s stare was not the old man’s face, but his wrinkled neck.
With one last glance at the clock, Ben ceased being the jovial, attentive host and began to run his fingers along the huge carving knife in front of him, with an a mixture of anger and lust upon his face.
Sergiu had seen many things in his time, but nothing as surprisingly strange and unnerving as this.
Finally, when the clock began to chime, Lucy relinquished her false, endearing shell, and exposed the cold hearted and twisted personality which lay beneath.
As the chimes slowly rang throughout the house, one by one, echoing and lonely and piercing in their symbolism, each of the Cardinals rose up from their chairs, sharp, jagged knives in hand, and waited.
The chime rang once and they uttered an indecipherable phrase in unison.
The chime rang twice and they increased their cult-like chorus in ferocity and volume.
The chime rang three times and then they stopped.
All were silent, the house devoid of sound, Christmas spirit, and that of hope. The old man’s wheezing grew in intensity as the uniquely bizarre sight of the twisted family about to dine dawned upon Sergiu.
The family then quietly, and efficiently, walked around the dining table and stood motionless, surrounding their guest. Just as the old man was about to inquire what was to become of him, the clock on the mantelpiece burst into life one final time. The chime was different from the others. It was sharper, somehow fouler, and echoed once and once only throughout the Cardinal home.
From behind, Lucy slit the old man’s throat from ear to ear as Ben thrust his carving knife deep into Sergiu’s stomach. Both parents then removed their knives and stood back watching with pride as Camilla cut and stabbed repeatedly, while Timmy thrust his steak knife in and out of Moraru’s legs, neck and arms.
After a a few minutes, the frenzy diminished as both children grew tired, and with one last downward thrust, Timmy drove his steak knife so deeply into the old man’s hand that it skewered it completely, embedding itself into the table on which the hand rested.
The children now ran to their parents’ collective embrace. They hugged and rejoiced in what was a fantastic Christmas game, and now could look forward with delight to some succulent exotic meat.
Arms wrapped around one another, they stared at their victim and began to laugh loudly commenting on the old fool’s stories of times gone by, the war, and the old country.
As they turned to each other once more, the laughter diminished and they looked into each other’s rosy, blood covered faces and shared a family moment. This had been one of Ben’s favourite sacrifices.
But the laughter had not completely ceased. One person was still laughing loudly. Confusion turned to abject horror as the bizarre truth revealed itself: It was Mr Moraru.
Sitting covered in blood, his head tilted back and the deep cut in his throat wide open, the dinner guest laughed loud and strong. A laugh which was both young and old.
His head arched forward as he pulled Timmy’s steak knife out of his hand, dropping it on the floor. Camilla screamed, as Lucy hid behind Ben. What they thought to be a corpse now stared at them all, as they had stared at it with a singular purpose.
Timmy began to pee himself and cry as two previously retracted fangs cracked through the old man’s upper gum revealing a serrated and terrifying grin. As he rose to his feet Lucy fainted, and with both hunch and age now gone, the Cardinals’ guest loomed tall and dark before them, his eyes piercing, telling tales of countries, and decades, and of centuries of existence.
Sergiu Moraru ate well that Christmas.