Christmas Cracker by Jenny Kane and Catrin Collier by Jenny Kane and Catrin Collier - Read Online

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A page-turner... a terrific read' Susan Sallis "A powerful tale of survival and hardship, very well crafted and with strong characters" - Publishing News Such Sweet Sorrow - Book Five of the Hearts of Gold series by Catrin Collier In Pontypridd, in 1939, blackouts and conscription are beginning to strain the community. And three women are separated - perhaps for ever - from the men they love. Jenny Powell's husband, Eddie, abandoned her on her wedding night, and she must struggle to cope alone. Italian Tina Ronconi's sweetheart enlists, and she and her sister face internment as enemy aliens. And Bethan's doctor husband is called up, leaving her, along with all the women, with endless worry and fear. Forced to adjust to a world at war, all they can do is wait. Then comes news of the Allies' retreat at Dunkirk and, for many, life will never be the same again...
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ISBN: 9781681468754
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Christmas Cracker - Jenny Kane

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Page 1 of 1

THE GHOST BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Katherine John

Chapter One

Nia Phillips was three years old, and small for her age, but when she heard shouts and screams echoing up the stairs one night she tried to shrink even smaller inside her bed. The last time Mam and Daddy had quarrelled in the night, Mam had come into her bedroom and grabbed her. Daddy had tried to take her but Mam had held her so tight she’d hurt her, making deep red marks on her arms and legs.

When Daddy finally pulled her away, he’d cried. It was her fault. She knew it was her fault because every time Mam was angry, she said she’d never wanted her.

She had to hide before Mam found her and hurt her and Daddy cried. She slipped sideways, out of her bed, and crawled down the gallery on to the stairs. A nightlight burned in a socket next to the top step. It was dim, no more than a flicker. The shadows around it were thick and dark. She tried not to picture the monsters that could be hiding in them.

She slithered close to the high, carved banisters, and wrapped the fingers of her right hand tightly around each one until the knobbly bits bit into her palm. It hurt, but she knew if she was brave – and silent – she would reach her secret hidey-hole without being seen.

She clutched her penguin to her chest with her left hand. Pengy knew everything about her. What she liked, what she wanted, and how more than anything else in the world she wished Mam and Daddy would stop quarrelling and that Mam would stop hitting Daddy and her, even when she was being naughty. Her Uncle Dewi and Aunt Elin had given her Pengy and showed her his secret. When his tummy was pressed, a light came on inside him, but she didn’t dare do that. Not until she was safe.

The post she wanted was carved with deeper grooves and bigger bunches of grapes than the rest. When she reached it she stopped still. She held her breath, clenched her fists, and listened hard.

The hall, passage, living room, and dining room were in darkness. The voices were coming from the kitchen. Daddy always came in through the back door when he finished working in the pub. She peeked between the banisters and saw a strip of yellow light on the floor at the end of the passage.

She lifted the secret door and crawled through it, falling forward and landing with a bump that hurt her hands and knees. She pressed Pengy’s tummy. The light flickered on. She pushed Pengy ahead and moved forward. If she could get to her hidey-hole without breathing out, Mam wouldn’t find her. If Mam didn’t find her she couldn’t hit her. She made it to the second door, pressed it, and fell inside.

She charged in so quickly she hit her face on the back wall. She pulled the door behind her, catching her fingers. She stifled a cry, breathed out, and grabbed her blanket. An old one she’d taken from the laundry basket and hidden there. She wrapped it around herself. She’d brought in an old cushion as well. One that smelled of polish. She lay on top of it.

Wrapped up and comfy, she watched Pengy’s light dim and go out. Her father had told her if she wanted Pengy’s light to keep working she had to save the battery. It was a good job she wasn’t afraid of the dark because it wasn’t just dark like the hall and stairs in her hidey-hole. It was black. Blacker than the cellar in the pub with the light turned off.

She knew, because she’d followed Daddy down there once. He hadn’t seen her and she’d sneaked behind the barrels. When he’d finished changing the pipes he’d climbed the stone steps, turned off the light and shut the door. She’d watched him but she hadn’t shown herself because she thought he’d be cross with her for following him. She didn’t know how long she’d stayed there because she fell asleep. She woke when he picked her up.

‘What are you doing down here, poppet? Aren’t you frightened of the dark?’

‘Not frightened of dark, only Mam’s shouts.’

Mam was shouting now. She could hear her screaming even in the depths of her hidey hole.

Nia put her hands over her ears and buried her head deeper in the blanket and cushion but she couldn’t block out the angry sounds. It was always Mam who lost her temper, never Daddy.

Alun had walked in through the kitchen door, locked and bolted it, and turned to see his wife blocking his path. Christine had always been what was termed ‘highly strung’ in Welsh Valleys terms, but since Nia’s arrival, she’d become expert at belittling him. Especially after she’d been drinking.

Even before Nia’s birth, she’d rarely visited the pub, preferring her own company to – as she put it – ‘that of people beneath her’. Using the excuse that she didn’t trust babysitters, she remained at home where she could indulge in solitary – and nightly – drinking.

He found the empty wine bottles she tried to hide among the pub empties. The supermarket brand was different from the one he bought in for the pub. Two a night had been usual, but in the last few months it had crept up to three.

As a result his married life had degenerated into one vicious confrontation after another. He counted himself fortunate if Christine limited herself to verbal abuse, not for his own sake, but their daughter’s. Nia’s bruises were only just beginning to heal after the last time his wife had lost her temper. 

‘You bastard … like all men you’re never on time … you promised you’d be here an hour ago …’

‘I didn’t, Christine.’ he looked quizzically at her. ‘You know I never finish before midnight.’

She narrowed her eyes. Tried to think. Wrong man! It wasn’t Alun who was late. But it was Alun she hated! She needed another reason.

‘You couldn’t keep your eyes off Rosie Thomas,’ she blustered. ‘I saw you through the window when I went into the garden. Eyeing her up …’

Alun made an effort to keep his voice soft, low, non-confrontational. ‘It’s difficult not to look at someone when you’re working with them.’

‘You’re supposed to be looking at the customers, not the barmaid. The clothes she wears! That blouse she had on tonight was disgusting, so thin everyone could see her bra … low enough to see to her navel …’

‘Christine …’

‘Don’t you Christine me. It’s Christmas Eve. Every other man – every other decent man – would be thinking of his wife and family. But not you! All you want is to get your leg over a nineteen-year-old …’

‘Chris, please …’

Chris, please,’ she taunted.

‘One day, you’ll push me too far!’

‘How far is too far?’ She reached for the knife block. Pulled out the cleaver. ‘You bloody womanising wimp …’ She stepped forward. Brandished the blade.

He held up his arms to protect his head. ‘Christine … for pity’s sake …’ His shout ended in a scream when the blade sliced through his jacket. Blood dripped from his wrist and splashed on to the floor. He looked up in disbelief.

‘For pity’s sake, Chris,’ she mocked again. ‘You … you’re the one with no pity. Making me live this bloody awful life in this bastard museum of a house …’ She brought the blade down again and again. First on his right arm. Then his left.

He reeled back. Crashed into the sink and staggered. Holding the cleaver in both hands, she lifted it high, bringing the blade down full force on the top of his head.

He fell forward.

It took Alun a long, long time to reach the floor, and when he did the tiles felt soft. As soft as a feather bed. The sensation barely had time to register before he plunged downwards into a black void that assuaged all thought – and pain.

Christine stared down at Alun’s comatose, bloodied body. She could hear the clock tick. She even looked up at the face but the time didn’t register.

She struggled to remember. She’s made a plan. But the man she’d been expecting hadn’t come to fetch her – the bastard!  She’d packed earlier before she’d opened the third bottle of wine. Her suitcase, coat, and travelling handbag were behind the door in the living room where they couldn’t be seen.

Her hands suddenly felt wet. She looked down at them. They were covered in blood. Alun’s blood! She was still holding the cleaver. She dropped it. It fell to the tiles with a clatter. She went to the sink. Rinsed her hands, dried them on a tea towel and dropped it. She wouldn’t have to pick it up. In fact she wouldn’t have to do anything in this mausoleum of a house that had closed around her, constricting and stifling, ever again.

It didn’t matter that the man she was expecting hadn’t come. She’d call a taxi. No! She couldn’t do that – Dewi and Elin would see it and ask where she was going.

She’d drive. That was it. She wasn’t that drunk. She’d drive up to one of the holiday cottages, sleep for a few hours, then drive on in the morning. She didn’t have a key but she’d smash a window to get in. Tomorrow she’d go to an airport or a ferry. That was it – a ferry! She’d go to Ireland … stay there for a bit.

She opened the drawer, took out another tea towel, and wiped Alun’s blood from her dress, shoes, and tights. Then she remembered the most important thing. Money!

She went into the living room and picked up her handbag. There was room in it to pack the cash and things she’d hidden. She climbed the stairs. Usually she would have taken off her heels in case they marked the wood. But she was leaving – for good. What did she care about marks in a house that she would never see again?

Deep in her hidey-hole, Nia tried to forget the shouts, cries, and screams, and the awful wail that had ended in a moan. There’d been a thud then silence. Not a good silence.

Nia’s eyes were wet. She clutched Pengy closer, pressed his tummy so he would shed his light, huddled further into the blanket, and buried her head in the cushion. But she couldn’t block out the clatter of high-heeled footsteps overhead.

Christine regarded the secret chamber as a blessing, albeit a filthy one. The day she’d moved into the house she’d begun photographing the antiques her mother-in-law had prized and Alun’s family had accumulated over centuries so she could check their value on the internet. Once she’d determined which would bring in the most money, she’d moved them to the hidden room.

If Alun noticed their absence, he never commented on it. She usually gave each piece a month in hiding before arranging for it to be transported to a distant auction room.

It had been an easy system to put in place once she barred Dewi and Elin from the house. Elin was observant, and what was worse, possessive over what she called Dewi and Alun’s inheritance as if she, as Alun’s wife, deserved nothing.  

She walked along the long gallery, opened the secret door, reached for the torch she’d hidden there, and stepped inside. The foul acidic smell of droppings was overwhelming. She pulled a tissue from her pocket and covered her face. She turned to pick up the box … it had caught on something … she pulled it … there was a crash. The torch flickered and died.

She tried and failed to move because something large and heavy was pinning her to the floor. The door swung shut closing out the last gleam of light from the gallery.

She reached up, scrabbled with her nails. They broke, splintered … she cried out … struggled … pushed …

Her breath was loud. Laboured.

There was pain … unbearable pain inside her ribcage … then … nothing!

When Christine woke, she found it easy to move. Her body felt lighter than air. It was only a hangover. She’d survived so many of those. She picked up her bag, pulled the lever to open the concealed door and walked out into bright daylight …

Nia woke when she heard heavy footsteps above her. There were voices – strange voices – deep voices. Had Daddy invited people into the house instead of the pub? She pulled the blanket closer. She was hungry and thirsty but felt safe in her hidey hole and didn’t want to leave. Some voices were loud and sounded angry. She clung to Pengy.

When next she opened her eyes she’d forgotten where she was. It was dark – very dark – then she remembered the voices – Pengy – and her hidey hole. She listened but could hear only the buzzing in her head. She knew it was in her head because when she’d asked Daddy, he said he couldn’t hear it.

She pressed Pengy’s tummy so his light would shine, tucked him under her arm and pushed open the door. She crawled through and listened again. Still nothing.

She reached up and lifted. The ceiling moved. She slithered out, closed the secret door, and sat on the stairs. Light flooded around her. Morning time had come.

A huge strange man walked up the stairs towards her. He was wearing dark clothes and a dark hat. He frightened her. She shrank back, hitting her shoulders on the wooden stair. It hurt. She clutched Pengy so hard she could feel her fingers through his wing.

‘Now, where did you come from, Missy?’

Terrified, she stared at the man. He reached for his phone and started talking. A few minutes later another man in dark clothes and hat opened the front door. Her Aunt Elin ran into the hall. She held out her arms and lifted her from the stairs.

‘You’re freezing, Nia. Here.’ Aunt Elin wrapped her cardigan around both of them. ‘Wherever have you been hiding?’

Nia didn’t tell her. No one knew about her hidey hole except Pengy but she liked her Aunt Elin and hugged her.

‘You’ll be fine, Nia. Uncle Dewi and I will look after you. Everything will be fine.’ Aunt Elin held her close. Aunt Elin was kind and gentle, but she lied.

Nothing was fine. Not ever again.

Chapter Two

‘It looks idyllic.’ Lyn Joseph passed the photograph of the old stone farmhouse on to Daisy Sherringham.

‘It does.’ Daisy looked sideways at Peter Collins.

‘Trevor showed me the brochure earlier,’ Peter enthused. ‘Beautiful farmhouse, next door to a pub renowned for gourmet food and the landlord, Dewi, and his wife, Elin, have agreed to put up a Christmas tree and decorate the place. We’ll have food and beer on tap. All you girls will have to do is put your feet up, have a well-earned rest, and cuddle your babies.’

‘The big ones or the little ones?’ Daisy enquired.

‘As you’re offering …’

‘Why the hard sell, Peter?’ Daisy interrupted.

‘Just thinking of you, my darling.’

‘Really?’ Daisy raised her eyebrows. ‘You sound like a carbon credit salesman. This farmhouse, lovely as it is, happens to be in Wales.’

‘That’s the advantage. Beautiful scenery, good beer – the Welsh really know how to brew beer,’ Peter added. ‘Farm fresh lamb and beef, fresh cockles …’

‘You hate cockles, and you keep telling everyone you hate Wales.’

‘I don’t hate Wales. Just the roads –’

‘The sheep, the cows, the tractors, and everything else that slows the traffic when you want to play Grand Prix driver. Let me think, what else did you complain about, the last time you and Trevor were there?’ Daisy mused. ‘I know. The lack of takeaways and civilization. The beer, which, incidentally, you now say is quite good after all –’

‘That’s the beauty of this farmhouse, darling,’ Peter interrupted. ‘We won’t need takeaways with a gourmet pub next door. The beer there has won awards, so Trevor will be happy.’

‘Because Trevor drinks so much more beer than you?’ Daisy raised a sceptical eyebrow.

Peter ignored the quip. ‘For once, the four of us will be able to get away from it all. We’ll have that perfect Christmas everyone dreams of and never has. There are no mobile masts and no signal in the valley so the brass won’t be able to contact Trevor or me no matter how many crimes are committed on our patch.’

‘There are no phones in the valley?’ Lyn checked.

‘The landline will work, but we don’t have to hand the number over. Given your age you might not remember landlines,’ Peter teased. ‘They’re wired into houses. You have to pick up a receiver, dial a number …’

‘Very funny! I may be younger than Trevor, but I’m not that much younger,’ Lyn protested.

‘You’re a baby compared to the rest of us,’ Peter countered.

Sensing Lyn’s annoyance at Peter’s reference to their age difference, Trevor changed the subject. ‘One plus is, we get to see Dan Evans again.’

‘It’s generous of him to invite us to spend Christmas in Wales, and offer us this farmhouse at such a reasonable rate,’ Lyn said.

‘Much as I like Dan, I’ve a feeling his motives aren’t entirely altruistic.’ Daisy reached into her handbag and produced a newspaper cutting, with the headline:

ALUN PHILLIPS APPEAL DISMISSED

Trevor picked up a bottle of wine and topped up his own, Peter’s, and Lyn’s glasses. While he was on his feet he glanced into the travel cot next to Peter. A mop of dark curls and tiny pink nose was all that could be seen of Peter and Daisy’s three-week-old daughter, Poppy.

‘Dan could just be feeling lonely.’ Peter suggested. ‘Retirement must come as a shock to the system for coppers. One day, it’s working all the hours of the day and night and then some, and the next, it’s here’s your golden goodbye.’

‘More like a wooden goodbye these days,’ Trevor countered.

‘Whatever. I think Dan’s missing us.’

‘Play the naïve trusting soul, Peter, but don’t expect the rest of us to admire your act. You’re no Daniel Day-Lewis. Dan Evans offered us this farmhouse because he wants to draw on Trevor’s expertise,’ Daisy helped herself to grapes from a bowl on the table.

‘More like mine,’ Peter retorted. ‘Trevor might be the senior officer but I’m the one with the acumen.’

Daisy smiled. ‘Do you really believe that?’

‘I do.’

‘While you’re up, sweetheart, check on Marty, please?’ Lyn asked Trevor.

‘And miss an argument between Peter and Daisy? No, absolutely not.’

‘Suppose I let Peter try to explain why he has more acumen than you until you come back downstairs?’

‘That’s the most interesting bit, Daisy. I always know when he’s lost the argument because he starts ranting.’

‘You, Joseph, are a troublemaker.’ Peter ignored the grapes and took a handful of crisps.

‘It was your idea not to tell the girls the whole truth when we received Dan’s invitation.’ Trevor climbed the stairs and looked in on his year-old son, Marty. He was sleeping face down in his cot, his tiny fingers entwined in the ear of his ‘wabbi’ – the name he’d given the green plush rabbit Peter and Daisy had bought him.

‘Sleeping like an angel,’ Trevor declared when he re-joined the others.

‘So, can Daisy and I have the truth please?’ Lyn demanded.

‘From the beginning,’ Daisy added.

‘You were the one Dan sent the brochure to, Joseph.’ Peter sat back and slid his arm around Daisy’s shoulders.

‘You, girls, know the basics. Dan’s sister died a few months after her son, Jake Phillips, was killed in the Black Daffodil investigation. She left the family businesses to her surviving sons, Dewi and Alun. Two years ago this Christmas, Alun was found knifed, unconscious, and critically injured in his locked house. Although his wife Christine was thought to be in the house with him, she’d disappeared. Her body was never found, but Alun was arrested and charged with her murder. When Dan heard Alun was in custody he took early retirement so he could help Dewi and his wife, Elin, run the pub and family holiday cottage rental agency.’

‘Does Dan think the nephew killed the wife?’ Daisy asked.

‘He’s never said. I’ve never asked.’

‘Peter?’

‘I don’t know any more than what was published in the papers at the time, but from what I read, I never thought the local force would make the murder charge stick.’

‘It convinced a jury,’ Trevor reminded him.

‘Which proves my point: that most people are complete idiots and shouldn’t be trusted to make important decisions.’

Daisy patted Peter’s back. ‘That’s my man, bigoted to the last. Given that Christine’s body was never found, what evidence was Alun Phillips convicted on?’

‘Like Peter, I only know what the media chose to report, and we all know how selective they are. They tried to make out that Christine Phillips’ lover’s evidence was crucial.’ Trevor stared at the brochure of the farmhouse as if the answer lay there.

‘The oil rig worker, Michael Edwards, who said Christine had arranged to leave her husband that night and go away with him.’

Trevor turned to Peter. ‘So you did follow the case?’

‘Enough to know that Edwards looked decidedly dodgy, for all the emphasis on the loving text messages and e-mails he exchanged with Christine Phillips.’

‘Has Dan formally asked you to re-investigate the case?’ Daisy demanded.

‘We can’t re-investigate, Daisy, because whatever happened, happened outside of our jurisdiction.’ Trevor replaced the brochure in the envelope.

‘Dan only asked us to look over the evidence …’ Peter began.

‘You just said Dan’s never given you an opinion on his nephew’s guilt – or innocence.’ Daisy interrupted.

‘He hasn’t,’ Peter confirmed. ‘But Dan wouldn’t have invited us down there if he didn’t have some doubts. It won’t take us long to flick through a couple of files.’

‘You expect Lyn and I to sit back and watch you two work during the first Christmas leave you’ve wangled in years?’

‘Hardly work …’

‘It’s all right, Daisy,’ Lyn reassured.

‘It is?’ Peter was taken aback by Lyn’s response.

‘I’ve collected a pile of baby catalogues. We’ll have fun going through them. There are some marvellous ideas for decorating children’s rooms and some absolutely gorgeous furniture.’

‘Gorgeous as in make-a-large-dent-in-the-bank-account gorgeous?’ Peter didn’t know why he was asking.

Daisy smiled. ‘Armchair shopping sounds wonderful, Lyn.’

‘Sounds expensive,’ Trevor demurred.

‘You know that new car you wanted?’ Daisy turned to Peter.

‘Yes,’ he answered slowly.

‘You can forget it for a year or two … or three. Daddies have to make sacrifices. As I’m breastfeeding, mine’s another orange juice. You know the way to the fridge, darling.’ Daisy handed him her glass.

Chapter Three

‘Hello, Alun.’

Dan Evans struggled to squeeze his enormous frame into the fixed metal table and chair unit bolted to the floor of the prison visiting room.

‘Uncle Dan, it’s good of you to come. I know how busy the pub gets at this time of year.’ Alun Phillips perched sideways on the chair across from his uncle so he wouldn’t