Chapter 1: Santa Baby
Christmas was a festival of nightmares, and Amy couldn’t wait for New Year’s Day.
It was the general consensus of the internet that 2016 had been a pretty terrible year and could get in the sea. She would be very pleased to see the back of it, and carry only the positive parts forward into 2017. Her freedom from the National Crime Agency, their new private investigation business, and, of course, Jason…
She had reluctantly participated in Jason’s family rituals for the past three years, sitting through roast dinners and gift exchanges and Eastenders Christmas specials. They were harmless, if slightly weird for being so different to her childhood memories. Growing up with absentee parents and crushing anxiety didn’t really encourage goodwill toward humans.
Gwen and Cerys Carr had always made her feel welcome in the family home, and she had done her best to tolerate the crackers and the pranks and the contests, like who could steal the most chocolate off the tree before Gwen noticed.
But this Christmas was different. Now Jason was her Boyfriend.
The word sounded ridiculous even within her own mind. It felt like a term for teenagers and students, but ‘partner’ was too awkward and ‘lover’ made her blush. She had a capital-B Boyfriend and she had to get used to it. She suspected Jason liked saying it just to fluster her. She was often flustered these days.
What she wanted to do today was put in some hours on the surveillance cases they had taken on to kick-start their private investigation business. She wanted to lock herself in their flat and bury herself in simple, logical things that did not involve foil wrapping or curled ribbon. She would’ve killed for a murder right now.
Yet here she was, about to get on a bus with Cerys to enter Cardiff city centre on Christmas Eve. She had officially lost her mind.
The advantage of Advent was that she could drink down a double Merlyn before 6pm without anyone batting an eyelid. It was not her poison of choice, but it was an acceptable Christmas drink of Welsh whisky and cream. Which was what she needed to get through this hell mission without resorting to the little blue tablets at the very back of the cupboard.
Cerys went along with her festive spirits and raided her cupboard for reusable carrier bags. Amy watched her stuff the excess back into the space, her spiky blonde head disappearing into the depths. Jason would not be happy to see the mess they had caused in the hour since he had departed.
But Jason wasn’t here. He was off doing something mechanical with Dylan and Lewis. Since Lewis had left the prison system with a clean slate they had been pretty much inseparable, except for when they had work on. Jason was angling for Lewis to join him and Amy as a private investigator, but they barely had enough work to sustain the two of them for the moment. Amy wanted to be generous, but to make this work she needed to be cautious.
Armed with half a dozen large bags, Cerys made for the door, with Amy following behind. She checked her hair in the mirror, admiring the berry-red streak she had chosen, and just about remembered to grab her keys before the door slammed behind them. The alcohol had gone straight to her head. It had been a while since she had indulged, because she preferred wine and Jason liked beer, and when they were together she wanted every moment to be sharp and immediate. Alcohol would just get in the way of her wonderment.
The buses ran regularly, and Amy was grateful to step inside. Despite everyone telling her that this was a warm winter, it was still bloody freezing to her. She loved their stuffy flat with the heating on full blast, even with Jason’s muttering about the gas bill.
‘What sort of thing did you have in mind?’
Amy didn’t know how long Cerys had been talking to her, but she at least recognised a direct question when it caught her attention.
‘I don’t know,’ she admitted. ‘Would he like… something about cars?’
‘He’s not really into models or books or anything like that. He’s a sod to buy for, really. I get him a pack of comedy socks and move on, I do.’
Amy considered and dismissed this idea in the time it took to take a breath. She hated Jason’s comedy socks. Besides, buying clothes for him seemed too intimate somehow, even if it were only socks and they had been living in each other’s pockets for over three years. She wanted intimacy with plausible deniability. She didn’t want to buy him a watch only to find out he’d bought her chocolate.
The first Christmas they’d known each other, their friendship was brand new, and he had bought her chocolates. She had belatedly reciprocated with a bottle of local whisky. It had been casual and acceptable, a good opening gambit.
The second year, they were completely different people, who knew each other inside out. She had just left the stifling safety of the private mental health unit and was coltishly taking her first steps back into the world. He had bought her a leather-bound journal to continue the diary she had started, and she had purchased tickets to a classic car show they could go to together in the spring. The only downside had been the niggling feeling that Frieda Haas’ National Crime Agency goons had been watching them the whole time.
Their third Christmas had been awkward and strange. Even without their former-friend-turned-agent Owain Jenkins in their flat for the actual day, they had danced around each other, unwilling and unable to perform their relationship for Frieda’s surveillance cameras. She didn’t even remember the presents, just the feeling of being trapped by a glass bubble that muffled her screams.
This year was something else entirely. It was like having a favourite graphic novel and then suddenly discovering it was part of a series, extending back years with still more to come. She’d thought she had known him, known them, but she was hurtling towards a cliffhanger with no idea what the next issue would hold.
Cerys nudged her arm as they neared their stop, the city centre closing in around them. Amy had caught the bus into town before, but usually on a quiet midweek evening—not one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Her heart leapt into her throat as she saw the throngs of people at the end of Queen Street, all heading deeper into town.
‘Maybe this was a bad idea,’ she wanted to say, but nothing came out.
She followed Cerys in a daze, the oncoming darkness overhead broken by the bright patterns of the Christmas illuminations. The main shopping street had a ceiling of giant blue stars, their light casting a bobbing ocean over the people below. She tried to remember if she had seen the lights last year, but even if she had glimpsed them, she hadn’t felt like celebrating. This year, they seemed very much like magic, and she beheld them with childlike glee, resisting the urge to put her hands in the air and reach for the sparkling blue lights.
A jostle from her left, and then another on her right, brought her back down to earth. The street was densely packed with shoppers, all moving eagerly on their own course, unlike her dawdling steps. A hand grabbed hers and pulled her sideways, moving her on with the same determination as the jostlers.
‘Keep moving,’ Cerys said, like a military commander urging her through an untamed jungle. ‘We might just make it out alive.’
With the warmth from the liqueur thrumming in Amy’s blood, the clawing ravage of the panic was slightly muted, and Cerys’ insistent hand left little room for hesitation. They were going to the shops, whether Amy liked it or not.
‘There’s a gadget bloke store in St David’s 2,’ Cerys said, shouting to be heard above the chatter and the carols. ‘Maybe we can try that.’
Much to Amy’s relief, Cerys led them off the main shopping street and down a quieter road with mainly businesses, and only a couple of cafés and bars. A fair few people were using it as a cut-through, but it was nothing like the press of Queen Street. Amy did some deep belly breathing, as Cerys released her hand—but didn’t give up her breakneck pace.
‘Sorry to drag you out,’ Amy apologised, her heeled boots clicking along the pavement in a trotting rhythm as Cerys marched on in her trainers.
‘You’re all right,’ she said, easily. ‘I’ve still got to get something for Catriona and her dad.’
Amy was pleased that Cerys and Catriona had become friends, perhaps united in their resentment towards Owain—one as an ex-lover and the other as an ex-colleague. Amy hadn’t heard anything from him recently and was determined to believe that no news was good news, so that she didn’t have to add to her colossal list of worries.
Now that she knew Cerys was also present seeking, she felt a little less guilty about asking her to go shopping. No one would voluntarily step into this hellscape without good reason, not even for her brother’s girlfriend.
Girlfriend. Amy suppressed a little shudder. It was far too real.
To her surprise, they rounded a corner and came out near the cinema. Kept apart from the cinema since childhood by her crushing anxiety, Amy had recently fallen in love with it again. She and Jason always went for midday or late showings, but Amy’s goal was to one day make a midnight screening for one of her faves.
Cerys led her into the vast glass entrance of St David’s 2 and back into the melee. The strong smells of different cuisines wrapped around her, turning her stomach, but Cerys’ hand was back. This time, she pushed Amy through the shopping centre with a palm between her shoulder blades, as if she were a recalcitrant toddler.
Cerys’ phone buzzed and she expertly wielded it, while continuing to forge a path between sugared children. Amy caught her muffled swearing, before a blast of Wham! invaded her ears.
‘Who is that?’ she yelled.
‘Catriona,’ Cerys shouted back. ‘She needs me to get her a library book.’
That seemed like a seriously odd request for Christmas Eve, but maybe reading library books was an Aitken Christmas tradition. Cerys didn’t wait for a reply, just propelled her through the glass-bound ants’ nest and out through another massive glass door.
They were back on a shopping street, but Amy had completely lost her bearings. Cerys steered her left, towards a giant metal ring and rod sticking out of the pavement in front of a beautiful glass building with multi-coloured squares and blue lights dripping from the roof to make glowing icicles.
‘That’s the library?’ she asked incredulously.
She had never been much for reading books, preferring fan fiction if she wanted a story and streaming media for everything else. But this place looked like a monument to reading—a cool sexy kind of museum that made her actually want to be into books so she could geek out in there.
Amy found the momentum in her legs and no longer needed Cerys’ propelling hand to move towards the book temple in Cardiff’s city centre. She looked closely at the glowing wheel and its neighbouring spire. Something was niggling at the back of her brain. The light pulses from the spire were irregular, yet she seemed to know the pattern.
She hummed along to the light pulses, wrapping her conscious brain around the problem—and then she suddenly stopped.
Dot-dash. Dash-dash. Dash-dot-dash-dash.
Ignoring Cerys’ cajoling words, she watched the pattern through again. It was definitely her name. The glowing sculpture was blasting her name—but why? Was it even meant for her? Perhaps the artist’s partner was also called Amy, perhaps—
One last flash from the spire, and the library seemed to brighten like the dawn.
Then, everything went dark.