A free short story for Christmas

I’m not a big short-story writer but once I got the idea for this one, I couldn’t let it go. It features Galbraith and Pole and is set soon after they first met in Something Wicked. You can enjoy it even if you haven’t read Something Wicked but I’m giving the book away free today and tomorrow (Wednesday) if you want to.

It’s in the early days of Galbraith and Pole’s friendship, as they are feeling their way. For Galbraith, the idea of friendship with a vampire is something he is not entirely comfortable with but Christmas brings them closer together.

It’s an unashamedly schmaltzy story because it’s Christmas. And it’s got tango in because Pole (like me) loves the dance and the music.

I hope you enjoy it.

Merry Christmas.


The pawn shop had one of those old fashioned bells that rang when a customer opened the door. The owner shuffled out of the back.

“Can I help you?” He spoke automatically before he recognised his customer. “Oh, Mr Galbraith. What brings you in here?”

“Afternoon, Sam. I didn’t expect you to be overjoyed to see me, but you could sound a bit more welcoming than that. It’s nearly Christmas.”

“You make me nervous, Mr Galbraith. I won’t tell a lie. I’ve been straight since – well, since you last ran me in, but you turn up and I wonder what a Chief Inspector is doing bothering the likes of me.”

Galbraith wandered over to the nearest of the display cases. It was the usual stuff: watches, some cheap jewellery, a few high-end mobile phones. “Maybe I’m just doing a bit of shopping, Sam.”

Sam said nothing.

“Fair enough.” Galbraith turned his attention to a pile of old vinyl records sat on the table. “I was just wondering if you’d heard anything about computers. A few seem to have gone missing from warehouses lately.”

“Not my thing, computers. Difficult to put a price on. Somebody shows up with a smart laptop in its box and all and then it turns out that they’ve changed the processor thingy. Looks fine, switches on and everything, but it’s a piece of junk. Been caught that way a couple of times. You can’t trust anybody these days. Too many crooks about.”

“Any particular crooks in mind, Sam?” He was looking through the records. The covers spoke of the bands of his youth: Oasis, Stone Roses, Blur, the Chemical Brothers.

Sam sniffed. Galbraith was a big man, generally easy going but able to exude an indefinable air of menace when he wanted. It was a useful ability in a police officer.

“Might have heard something,” Sam said. “Word is that the Bingham brothers have been offering a few laptops around.”

“Have they indeed?” Galbraith worked his way to the bottom of the pile where a few 78s sat incongruously alongside the shiny covers of the late 20th century. One of them seemed to be Spanish. ‘Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos.’ Galbraith slipped it out of its paper sleeve. ‘Odeon Bs As’ it said on the label.

“That’s very helpful, Sam.” He was careful not to sound as if it was particularly useful, though he reckoned it was just the lead he had been looking for. He felt, in the circumstances, it would be only polite to buy something. He held up the disc. “What do you want for this?”

Sam sniffed. “Call it fifty quid,” he said.

“Call it twenty.”

“If I sell it you for that, will you bugger off and leave me alone?”

Galbraith took £50 from his wallet. “And miss the pleasure of your company,” he said.

The bell tinged behind him as he left.

* * *

It was the first Christmas after he had met Chief Inspector Pole. He had wondered if it would be appropriate to offer his new colleague a Christmas present. Did vampires even celebrate Christmas?

He decided that finding the record was a sign that a gift would be well received. An old record from Buenos Aires was likely to appeal to Pole, with his fascination with tango. Galbraith decided to wrap it up and take it with him the next evening when he was due to visit Pole and enjoy the Other’s taste in whisky.

Pole’s apartment was, as ever, a quiet retreat from the world. There was no sign that they were barely a fortnight off Christmas: no tree, no cards. Galbraith wondered if his garishly wrapped gift – all cartoon Santas and reindeer – had been misjudged, but Pole seemed delighted with the idea.

“I don’t think anybody has ever give me a Christmas gift before. I’m not entirely sure of the etiquette. Do I open it now or wait until the 25th?”

In the absence of any sign that Christmas Day was to be marked in any way in Pole’s home, Galbraith saw no reason for not opening the gift immediately.

Pole smiled, apparently delighted with the idea of opening his present. First, though, he set it carefully on the desk in the corner of the room, opened a drawer and took out what seemed to Galbraith a wicked looking dagger. Noticing his glance, Pole explained. “It’s an Italian stiletto. I took it from an assassin who was quite anxious not to see James II flee the country. I use it as a paper knife. It’s too pretty to throw away.”

It was pretty, though the narrow blade meant it was far from an ideal paper knife. Still, Galbraith thought, it was better that Pole use it for opening parcels than that he decided to stab people with it. There was obviously a story behind Pole’s acquisition of the blade but Galbraith refused to give him the satisfaction of asking about it.

Pole put the wrapping paper neatly aside and examined the record.

“Where on earth did you find this? It’s an original Gardel recording from 1931.”

He poured Galbraith another whisky and, telling him to wait, he hurried from the room, returning with an old wind-up record player complete with a huge horn to amplify the music. “No electronics to get in the way of the sound,” he proudly informed Galbraith.

It had never occurred to Galbraith that Pole might actually play the record but, after he had wound the machine up and lovingly wiped over the surface of the disc, they sat and listened to the crackly sound of the voice of the legendary Carlos Gardel.

“Can’t you feel him, reaching out to us across a hundred years?”

It was a tango tune in waltz time. “Canaro dedicated it to his lover, Ada Falcón. He writes about her eyes and the love he sees in them.”

Galbraith enjoyed listening to Pole talk about tango, although he had to admit that he did not share the true aficionado’s enthusiasm for these scratchy old recordings. He was just happy to see how much pleasure his gift had given to his friend.

They listened to the record several more times and drank a few more glasses of Scotch before Galbraith set off home, his friend’s thanks still ringing in his ears.

* * *

It was a while before Pole was in touch again. He rang Galbraith in his office at Kensington police station – the way he usually chose to get in touch.

“I just wanted to thank you again for the record. I was very touched.”

Galbraith made the usual polite noises of an Englishman uncertain how to respond to effusive gratitude.

“I’ve been trying to think of something I could offer in return.”

Galbraith made more polite noises. The words “no need” and “my pleasure” were in there somewhere but Pole simply ignored him.

“People do say that the best gifts are experiences. I thought I could offer you an experience that reflects the spirit of the season. Do you think you could call over in the evening the day after tomorrow? And bring your car? I thought we might take a run out into the country.”

The day after tomorrow, Galbraith realised, was Christmas Eve. It seemed an odd day to be calling on his friend but, when he came to think about it, it wasn’t as if he had any other plans. Christmas, for Galbraith, was a solitary celebration and the idea of seeing Pole on Christmas Eve appealed. So, two days later, he arrived in Chelsea to find Pole already dressed in coat and hat.

“We’d best be starting. We’ve a little way to go.”

Pole directed him west. Galbraith suggested that he put their destination into the sat nav but Pole insisted instead that they rely on his road atlas.

Pole opened the large hard-backed book he had been holding under his arm. Galbraith could not remember when he had last seen an old fashioned road atlas. He was surprised they still made them and he could only hope that this one was up-to-date enough to get them to their destination.

They headed out of town along the Great West Road. After a while, it seemed clear to Galbraith that it would have been more sensible for them to take the M4 but, when he suggested this to Pole, he said that he had been using the Great West Road since the main traffic had been stagecoaches and that by now he preferred the route.

A few miles short of Reading, they left the main road and headed south. Although they were less than an hour from London, they seem to be deep in the countryside and Galbraith struggled to navigate the tiny unlit roads.

“Pull off here.”

They were in a paved yard. Galbraith could just make out a house in the darkness.

“It’s owned by a colleague,” said Pole.

“One of the Others.”


“I thought you were more town dwellers.”

“We generally are. But Simon has decided to live in the country. He says the isolation means he is less exposed to temptation.”

Galbraith said nothing. He knew that part of Pole’s job was to discourage the Others from indulging in their natural appetite for blood. Some, Pole had explained, found it easier than others.

“He’s not at home. He likes to wander the countryside at night. But he’s happy for us to be here.”

Pole led the way along a track that ran from the yard past the side of the house and into a field beyond.

In the distance was what looked like a shed just visible against the starry sky.

“It’s a stable,” said Pole. “Simon is by way of being a hobby farmer. He says he finds the animals restful.”

In the darkness, Galbraith heard the clucking of chickens beside the path.

“Odd sort of farmer who leaves his birds out at night. He must lose a lot to foxes.”

Pole chuckled. “It would be a very brave fox that took chickens on this land.” He pointed towards the stable. “Such a lovely night. Look at that star.”

There was one star, low in the sky, brighter, it seemed than the others.

“It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Following the star towards the stable.”

Galbraith could not remember when he was last out of the city on a clear night. He was astonished by the number of stars he could see. There was a quarter moon too. Even without his friend’s night vision, Galbraith had no problem in keeping to the path.

“And here we are.”

Pole opened the door and reached inside for a light switch.

Galbraith could hardly believe what he was looking at. Inside a bull – a big bull with a ring in its nose, looking for all the world like an illustration in a children’s storybook – stood alongside a donkey. Half a dozen sheep were curled up beside them on the straw.

“As I said, he’s a hobby farmer. There’s no sense to it, but Simon enjoys the look of the place, especially at this time of year.”

It did, Galbraith admitted to himself, look amazing: a sort of recreation of the traditional first Christmas. He found himself looking around, searching for a baby in a manger.

“It’s certainly a different way to see in Christmas.”

Pole smiled. “But there is more. Do you know the legend of Christmas?”

Galbraith looked puzzled and Pole explained. “The legend says that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the ox and the ass are given the power of speech.”

Galbraith vaguely remembered the story from his childhood but surely Pole had not brought him here because he believed it.

“You shouldn’t dismiss these legends out of hand. After all, I’m sure you didn’t believe the stories of immortal creatures that feast on blood until you met them.”

Galbraith admitted that was true, but the story of the animals talking seemed even more implausible.

“Why not listen and see what happens?”

Why not? It was pleasant in the stable, warm with the body heat of the animals and peaceful in the quiet of the winter night. Galbraith stood quietly listening but, apart from the shuffling of the donkey and the occasional sleepy bleat of a sheep, he heard nothing.

After a while there was a sound, but it came from outside the stable. Somewhere in the distance, church bells were ringing in Christmas Day.

“Did you hear anything?” Pole’s voice was deep, calm, reassuring. It was what Galbraith thought of as Pole’s ‘hypnotism’ voice, though Pole always denied that he hypnotised anybody. If he was trying to hypnotise Galbraith, it wasn’t succeeding. The animals remained obstinately dumb.

“Nothing,” said Galbraith. “Perhaps the Others are more sensitive than we Mortals.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Pole. “After all, we have been honing our skills for a few hundred years.” He turned towards the door. “I’m sorry it was a wasted trip.”

“Hardly wasted,” said Galbraith. “There’s something magical about a scene like this on Christmas Eve.”

Pole glanced back over his shoulder and smiled. “Magical. Yes, I think there is.”

He opened the door and, as he did so, Galbraith could have sworn that somebody in the stable wished him a Merry Christmas. “And a happy new year.”

There was something odd about the voice. Something not quite human.

Galbraith turned away from the door and looked back again towards the animals. The donkey and the bull stood placidly. There was no sign that either of them had spoken. The sheep twitched in their sleep.

He had imagined it. That or Pole was somehow playing games with his mind again.

The bull raised its head and looked at him. Its eye was like a deep brown pool, strangely gentle in that huge head. It seemed somehow very wise.

“We’d best he on our way,” said Pole.

Galbraith did not move. He was staring at the bull. It had long, soft eyelashes and he watched as its eyelid drooped.

He could have sworn that the creature was winking at him.

Pole turned off the light and they started back towards the car. Behind him Galbraith heard a soft laugh that was almost, but not quite, human.

“Merry Christmas,” said Pole.

Something Wicked

Chief Inspector Galbraith thinks he understands murder. But when he finds himself working with a vampire, there is more at stake than catching one killer. Can the case be solved before a 500 year truce breaks down?


Bonus post: how to persuade someone to dance with you without saying a word.

Bonus post: how to persuade someone to dance with you without saying a word.

It’s been a while since I have posted anything about tango, but somebody has asked me to re-post something I wrote years ago about dancing in social settings. It’s not about the dance itself, but about the social rules, the código as the Argentinians call them. I’ll be taking a quick tour of tango around the world, so it may interest non-dancers. If you think it’s not for you, normal service will be resumed on Friday.

As the tango dancers I know are getting excited about venturing out and once again tangoing with friends, we all have to remember how we went about the whole social side of getting a dance. Perhaps that’s why this topic has suddenly become something we are talking about again.

I have danced in London, Buenos Aires, Reykjavik, Paris, Lisbon, Cluj (Romania) and Istanbul, which may seem like a lot of places to non-dancers, but makes me considerably less well-travelled than serious aficionados. Everything that I say is based on that limited experience. In the end, it’s just my opinion, but what you have to remember is that the same goes for everyone else. I do get irritated by people who say that they know the only ‘correct’ way to behave at a milonga (a social dance). The right way to behave is how most other people behave and, if in doubt, in the way that will give most people a pleasant evening. For example, I’ve seen film of milongas in Finland where electronic signs say that men should ask women for this dance and, a little later, that women should ask men. As far as I know, that system is unique to Finland, but if I ever dance in Helsinki, that’s the system I will use.

Let me transport you to Buenos Aires a few years ago. (Places change, so the clubs may no longer be as I describe them.) It’s afternoon in a great barn of a place called the Nuevo Salon. The largely elderly clientele are dancing a traditional tanda – four dances one after the other. The music ends and couples leave the floor, returning to their tables. As the music for the interval (the cortina) plays, men rise to their feet and cross to women who stand to meet them. The next tango starts and, apparently approving of the music, more men stand and, as if by magic, their chosen partners rise to greet them.

Confiteria Ideal: Buenos Aires

How, in this huge hall, have the hundreds of men and women managed to sort out who is going to dance with whom? That is the magic of the cabeceo.

The cabeceo is the look that a man casts towards a woman to show that he would like to dance with her. The woman returns the look and the man approaches her. As he does so, she rises to her feet, he extends his hand and the couple take to the floor. It’s exotic and romantic and Europeans often insist that it’s the only way to invite a woman to dance.

Unfortunately, this simple view of the cabeceo is wrong in almost every particular. For a start, men (wise men who know the rules) don’t randomly cabeceo any woman they would like to dance with. They look for women who appear interested in dancing and, in Buenos Aires at least, the woman will signify her interest with the mirada (literally ‘glance’). This is a meeting of eyes, brief enough to be plausibly denied but bold enough to make it clear that a cabeceo would be favourably received.

The mirada/cabeceo duet can be enormous fun. I’m standing there, running my eyes along the followers sat (or, in London, more often stood) beside the floor and I catch a tiny flash of interest from a stranger’s face. I stop and return my gaze to her. There is a half-smile, the faintest flicker of an eye-brow and I walk toward her, extend my hand and there we are, no words spoken, holding each other as we dance. It is one of the smoothest and sexiest of social exchanges that doesn’t involve actual sex. If that’s how you expect to get your dances in London, though, you’ll spend a lot of time standing around waiting to strike lucky, for few women in London even know what a mirada is, let alone use it routinely. This, on its own, makes the cabeceo far from ideally suited to the London tango scene.

Dancing by the Seine: Paris

Back in the Nuevo Salon the men are offering their cabeceos and, if they read the signs correctly, they are being accepted. Here’s the second problem. Remember that in London the woman accepted with some tiny acknowledgement of the offer. But when I tried this in one famous Buenos Aires venue I was met with blank looks. Eventually a kind lady explained the rules. In this venue women did not acknowledge the cabeceo with anything so forward as even the tiniest of smiles. Rather they would glance away and then return your glance to check that you were still looking at them. That was it. Otherwise they would just keep their expression neutral with a look uncomfortably similar to that you would get if a woman was “blanking” you in London.

Mirada noted, cabeceo delivered and invitation accepted, you might think nothing else could go wrong. You’d be mistaken. More than once I have walked towards the woman I have invited and, milliseconds before she gets to her feet, the woman sitting directly behind her stands up. I’ve met some good dancers that way, but dealing with the embarrassment of the moment can be more than a trifle awkward.

Based on my experience, those enthusiasts who say that the cabeceo is simple and avoids misunderstandings and embarrassment have either been very lucky or have spent their lives dancing in a limited number of venues with lots of partners they know well. Of course the cabeceo works smoothly if leader and follower know each other. My wife and I can catch the shortest of glances across a crowded room and know that we want to dance together. But the whole point of the cabeceo is that it should allow you to dance with strangers. As I said earlier, when this works, it works really well. In some venues, it is normal not to ask your partner’s name. You meet as strangers, dance as intimates and part as strangers. I love it when this happens, but life is seldom as simple as that.


The legend of the mystical Argentine cabeceo has given rise to all sorts of stories that I can tell you from my own experience are just rubbish. Argentine women will not actively solicit dances, they say: one woman used to look out for me and half rise from her chair, smiling at me as the cortina started. The legend says that Argentinians will never offer a verbal invitation: not only has my wife been invited by men simply asking her, but I remember a woman approaching us as we sat together and asking Tammy if she could borrow her husband. The way that people invite each other varies from milonga to milonga: there is no straightforwardly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach.

In the most rigidly formal milongas, men and women are seated by a hostess on opposite sides of the room. Experienced dancers, known to the hostess, will be sat at the front, next to the floor. Visiting gringos are likely to be in the corner at the back. You know as soon as you are seated exactly where you are in the pecking order. (I was once given a bad seat by a hostess I didn’t know and I smiled sweetly and said I thought there’d been a mistake. I was promptly promoted.) You will stay in the same seat all night. If you are a regular, you will be given the same seat whenever you arrive. Thus everyone knows where you are and women know in which direction to make their miradas. Similarly, you know where the women you want to cabeceo are going to be sitting. It’s a system that works well if you are familiar with the club and the etiquette. If you are a stranger, sat on your own in a poor seat surrounded by people you don’t know, it can make for a really miserable experience. It’s worth trying it once, in a spirit of anthropological enquiry, but it’s not for everyone.

The system requires a seat for everybody at the dance. In Argentina, clubs will always sacrifice floor space to fit in more tables and seating. During the cortinas the floor clears, so men and women have an uninterrupted view of each other. The lighting is good so that people can easily see the expressions of those sitting across the room. In these conditions, with everyone knowing the rules, the cabeceo can work quite well. Contrast the situation in London. There aren’t enough seats, so people constantly move as they are forced to play musical chairs. Men and women are mixed together – fine for conversation, but tricky if you want to catch the eye of someone sat three seats to the side of you. Because there aren’t enough chairs, the floor never entirely clears, so you can’t see the people opposite you. The women don’t mirada and, because they think they look sexier without their glasses, many of them can’t see your cabeceo anyway. (I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.) Plus, in London, dim lighting is the norm, so even if you have got your glasses on, seeing anybody’s expression is tricky. Under these circumstances, relying exclusively on the cabeceo is really rather silly. That’s even before you look at the cultural differences.

Tango Terra: London

In Spanish South America women’s social behaviour was strictly curtailed. A woman could not simply enter into conversation with a strange man. The cabeceo allowed men and women to agree to dance (and only to dance – they return to their separate seats) without breaking social taboos on talking to strangers. Yes, things are different nowadays – but that’s where the cabeceo started. In England, though, the free mingling of the sexes has a longer social pedigree. If you want to ask someone to dance, you can do just that. It’s true that you risk rejection – but a cabeceo can be rejected too (and the rejection is just as public even if slightly subtler). But the rejection of a verbal invitation can be tempered. (I’m told that “I’m sorry, my feet are tired,” is the socially approved phrase.) Confusion is, in any case, much more easily avoided.

I’m not making a special case for the British here. My first evening in Reykjavik every cabeceo I offered was ignored. I had just decided that the women were seriously unfriendly when an Icelander explained that Icelandic women will only respond to verbal invitations. “Go over and ask them,” she said. “They want to dance and are wondering why you are ignoring them.” So I braced myself, walked across the floor and asked a total stranger to dance. And she said, “Yes,” and she was lovely and I was able to enjoy the rest of my time on the Iceland tango scene.

So what does my experience tell me? It tells me that the rules are different in different places. They vary from club to club and city to city. Watch what others do and try to follow them. If you are new to a place and people offer advice, take it. Beyond that, do what works. Look for eye contact and, if you get any, then respond positively. Smile a lot. (I don’t speak Spanish, Icelandic or Turkish. I really smile a lot.) If you can’t make eye contact, talk to people. If there’s a language barrier, smile more. If you think you are embarrassing people, back off. Otherwise, do whatever works. You have come to dance. They have come to dance.

“You dancin’?”

“You asking?”

Game on.

A tango fantasy

During the past year opportunities to dance tango have been (to put it mildly) limited. I spent some of the time I should have been dancing writing a fantasy novel with a lot of tango in it. Most of my books are historical fiction, so a story about vampires in London was something different. My vampires are not your usual creatures of the night: they are (mostly) sophisticated and urbane and they are very, very fond of tango.

Something Wicked has been described as “a cleverly-conceived, well-written and excellently plotted novel about murder, policing, vampires, and Tango”. It was certainly fun to write and I hope you find it fun to read. You can buy it on Amazon in paperback (£5.99) or on Kindle (£2.99).

London readers may recognise Alexandra Wood and Guillermo Torrens on the cover.

More tango on my blog

If you are new to tango and have enjoyed this, you might like to read this post about why I spend so much of my time dancing – and why you should too: https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/tango/