Hide and Seek: Holiday Excerpt

Hide and Seek by Jane Casey is a Jess Tennant Mystery following the Christmastime disappearance of Jess's classmate Gilly Poynter from their small English town of Port Sentinel.

It's Christmastime in Port Sentinel, the tiny English town where Jess Tennant has been living for more than a year now. Jess wasn't sure how she felt about moving to Port Sentinel when her mom dragged her there right in the middle of high school, but even Jess has to admit the town has completely outdone itself for the holidays. There's a Christmas market complete with a mini ice-rink and fairy lights, and the bare trees stand stark against the sky.

But for Gilly Poynter, one of Jess's classmates, the Christmas season is anything but magical. She's disappeared, leaving behind only her diary and a lot of questions. Has she run away from her unhappy home, or has something more sinister happened? And will Jess be able to find her before it's too late?

1

As parties went, it was a fairly typical Port Sentinel night out: too many people crammed into a large, expensive house, most of them in some sort of costume, all of them determined to have fun. If there was one thing I’d learned in the five months I’d been living in Port Sentinel, it was that any excuse for a party would do. The mere fact that it was Friday night counted. When it was only a week until the end of term and the start of the Christmas break, a party was inevitable, and it couldn’t be anything other than Christmas-themed. There was fake snow dappling the picture windows that overlooked Port Sentinel’s pretty bay. Fairy lights decorated the mantelpiece of the feature fireplace, and a twelve-foot Christmas tree stood at the foot of the stairs, rocking slightly as people pressed against it on their way to the kitchen.

“Jess.” The hostess appeared in front of me and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her eyes weren’t completely focused and her mouth was stained pink: one too many Christmas cocktails. “Thanks for coming.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it.” I patted her back, wondering if and when she would let go. “How are things, Claudia?”

“Oh, you know.” She looked around vaguely. “Everyone seems to be having fun, but you can’t tell.”

“Everyone is having a great time,” I assured her. It was true. The music was louder than God’s heartbeat, there was more than enough to drink, and I’d just seen a reindeer kissing a very pretty snowflake. It was the point in the evening before things started to go wrong, I found myself thinking, and told myself off for being so cynical. There was no reason to think that anyone was going to cause trouble—except that it was as much a part of Port Sentinel’s social scene as music. Port Sentinel was a small town full of rich, spoiled kids, and arguments blossomed as easily as love affairs. It was hard to avoid people you didn’t want to see. It was proving impossible to stay out of trouble for long, if you were me.

Claudia sagged against me, shedding glitter from her fairy-on-the-Christmas-tree costume. I straightened her wings for her. “Such a relief,” she whispered. “I don’t know what I was thinking, having a party tonight. The pressure.”

“I can imagine.”

“This is it, you know?” She leaned sideways to take a gulp from her glass, still clinging to me. “The last big party of the year. Everyone’s away for Christmas and New Year.”

“Not everyone,” I said. “I’m not going away.”

“You know what I mean.” She flapped a hand at me. “Everyone important.”

“Thank you very much, Claudia.” I unwound her arms from my neck. “You can do your own standing up.”

“Don’t take offense,” she protested. “Loads of people.”

“Loads,” I agreed.

“Barbados and St. Lucia, mainly.” Claudia frowned. “I told Daddy. I said it was the Caribbean this year. He went and booked bloody Cape Town.”

“Shocking,” I said.

No one is going to Cape Town. Oh, apart from Sam and Belinda and George, but they’re doing the Garden Route first.” She sighed. “I mean, I’ll make the best of it. At least I’ll get a decent tan.”

“Thank goodness. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

“Exactly.” Claudia was looking over my shoulder and her eyes narrowed. “Oh my God, who let her in?”

I turned to see a slender angel with lots of dark eyeliner straightening her halo self-consciously. “Immy? Are you two still fighting?”

“She hasn’t apologized yet.”

I couldn’t remember exactly why Claudia and Immy were fighting this time. They were always falling out with one another over the stupidest things, but argue with one of them and you argued with both. I’d learned a lot from getting to know them—that appearances could be deceptive, that being wealthy didn’t mean you were happy or popular or anything other than rich. And I’d learned not to write people off just because they were privileged. They couldn’t help it.

“Maybe it’s time to forgive and forget,” I said. “It’s almost Christmas.”

Claudia gave me a long disapproving look. “I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the effort. It was her fault.”

“I know,” I said, having absolutely no idea if that was true or not. “But she’s here now.”

“I’m going to throw her out.” Claudia looked as intimidating as it was possible for a Christmas fairy to look.

“She’s your best friend, Claude.”

“She was.”

“And she will be again.” I patted her arm. “Go on. Make friends.”

“Why do you even care?”

I shrugged. “Life’s too short to fight.” I’d seen the things people did to one another in the name of hatred. I’d seen the things they did in the name of love too. Sometimes it was hard to know which was worse.

Claudia raised one eyebrow and squinted at me. “That’s not like you.”

“I don’t fight with anyone,” I said primly. “Sometimes people fight with me—”

“And regret it,” Claudia finished.

“I don’t go looking for trouble.”

“But trouble finds you anyway.”

“Not for ages,” I protested. “Nothing serious, anyway.”

“And you miss it.”

“No I don’t.” But even as I said it, I wondered if I meant it. I didn’t like other people’s pain—truly I didn’t. The fact that I kept getting involved in trying to solve other people’s problems was an accident, really. My cousin Freya’s death was a mystery I’d had to solve, for her sake and for my own peace of mind. And I’d had little choice about trying to work out who had left Seb Dawson half-dead when his little sister begged me to help. Since then, I’d been keeping my head down. Life had been quiet. Quiet and predictable. Restful.

Boring.

But I really couldn’t allow myself to think that way.

Claudia’s attention wandered back to Immy. “I’d better go and speak to her anyway.”

“Be nice,” I said, and watched her weave across the room toward Immy, who was furiously ignoring her. Before I could see how it played out, a voice spoke in my ear.

“I’m disappointed, Miss Tennant. What sort of a Christmas outfit is that?”

I looked up into Ryan Denton’s very blue, very mocking eyes, then looked down at my dress, which was brief and black. “Ah, you haven’t seen the back.”

He turned me round so that he could look at the silver star Darcy had glued on for me in her self-appointed role as chief fashion designer for all her friends. I had inherited Darcy from my dead cousin, along with so much else. She had been Freya’s best friend, and now she was mine.

“The night sky?” he guessed.

“A Christmas star.”

“I was hoping for an elf costume.”

“Never mind. Maybe Father Christmas will bring you one.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.”

“I know,” I said. “Anyway, you’re not in a position to criticize my choice of outfit.”

“I had antlers.” Ryan looked around as if he was expecting them to materialize in front of him. “Someone nicked them.”

I thought of the reindeer I’d noticed earlier. “I think I saw them disappearing upstairs with a snowflake.”

He shrugged. “I wasn’t really committed to it as a look.”

“I’m sure they looked dashing,” I said. “And prancing.”

He grinned. “If I was a reindeer, I’d be more of a Dancer. Hey, you can be my Vixen if you like.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Is Will here?” He said it carelessly, as if the answer didn’t matter, and maybe it didn’t any more. It was a long time since Ryan had told me he cared about me—at least five girlfriends ago, if I’d managed to keep track accurately.

And it was a good thing if he had given up, because I could admire his eyes and his cheekbones and his perfect mouth all day and all night without my heart missing a beat, but even the mention of Will’s name thrilled through every nerve-ending in my body.

I took a sip of my drink, hoping I hadn’t given myself away. How I felt about Will was between me and him, and since he was away at boarding school, it was something we shared by text and e-mail and phone call and any other way we could stay in touch with one another without actually getting to touch. It made me feel as if Will was a figment of my imagination, as if I had invented the whole relationship, and thinking about him coming back made me nervous as well as excited. But I wasn’t about to mention any of that to Ryan. “He’s still at school until next week.”

“Shame,” Ryan said, not sounding as if he meant it. “So how about that dance?”

“Not this second.” I’d seen what he hadn’t: his current girlfriend, Yolanda, on a course that would have her arriving at Ryan’s side in three … two … one …

“Baby, I’m bored.” She nuzzled his neck while giving me a hostile look. “Can we go?”

“It’s too early.”

She pouted, long eyelashes fluttering on her cheeks. “You never do what I want.”

“That’s not true, Yoyo.” Ryan wound a lock of long dark hair around his fingers, drawing her toward him for a kiss. She grabbed hold of him and kissed him back, pressing her body into his. One of his hands slid down her back, his fingers spreading, digging into her flesh.

“Oh my God, get a room,” Darcy murmured, cannoning into me, off balance thanks to her ludicrous platform shoes. “Are you going to stay and watch or do you want to go somewhere else?”

“Anywhere else,” I said, grateful for an excuse to walk off. I had a fairly shrewd idea that Ryan and Yolanda spent their time making each other jealous, and I didn’t want to play any part in it. I started to follow Darcy through the crowd, dodging a wild elbow from one of the dancers. “Where are we actually going, though?”

“Somewhere we can sit down,” Darcy said over her shoulder. “My feet are killing me.”

“You could take your shoes off,” I called.

“No way. I’d lose them. Someone would nick them.”

“It’s kind of hard to hide glittery red platform heels. There are limited occasions when you can wear them. And also, you have teeny tiny feet.”

“Trotters,” Darcy agreed cheerfully. “No one can ever wear my shoes.”

“So…”

“Still no. If I’m sitting down, I can still pose in them.” She pushed open a door. “Ta-dah!”

It was a small snug, a room with an L-shaped sofa filling most of it and a wall-size television opposite the sofa. The lights were off. Someone had put on Die Hard with the sound turned down, and the room flickered as the characters on the screen moved. There was a group of girls gathered round one end of the sofa in a tight little knot, but in the half-light from the television screen I couldn’t tell what was going on—though as their heads turned one by one I felt, very strongly, that we were intruding.

“Thank God.” Darcy beetled across to the sofa and flung herself down, oblivious to the atmosphere in the room. “I was seriously about to cry.” She held out a foot and stared at it mournfully. “I love you so much, shoe, but you have to meet me halfway. You can’t torture me like this.”

“Do you mind?” It was Abigail Norris who spoke, her voice sharp. I didn’t know her well, but she was in my year. She ran her fingers down her long honey-blond hair, checking that it was still straight and sleek, a gesture I’d seen countless times. “We’re using this room.”

“I didn’t see a sign on the door,” Darcy said, crossing her legs.

“Take the hint and go.” Abigail’s expression was fierce. In the center of the group, one of the girls moved, pushing past her and heading in the direction of the door. Dark hair curling around a small, sulky face: Gilly Poynter, the quietest girl in my history class. Abigail grabbed her arm as she passed her. “We’re not finished.”

“Leave me alone.” Gilly’s voice was a whisper.

I reached behind me and felt along the wall until I found the light switch. The main light flared brightly, and I blinked along with everyone else. As Gilly’s face came into focus, I saw that she hadn’t been crying, as I’d somehow expected. She was flushed but she looked angry, not tearful. She stood completely still, head down, waiting for Abigail to loosen her hold on her arm.

“Gilly?” I said. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, but she wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes were fixed on the wine glass she held, cupping the bowl of it with both hands.

This was the point when a normal person would have taken the hint and found somewhere else to be. I wasn’t that person, as I’d proved before and would probably prove again before too long.

“Abigail,” I said. “I think you should let her go.”

“We were having a conversation.”

“Why don’t you just get lost?” Louise Manning was Abigail’s fair-haired best friend. She propped her hands on her hips, sneering at me. “You’re always poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, Jess. This is none of your business.”

“Gilly?” I said again.

“It was a friendly conversation,” Abigail insisted. Behind her, the other two girls were nodding enthusiastically, but that was nothing new: Stephanie Walton and Min Owen were both the sort to agree with the loudest person in their vicinity. And Abigail’s voice was loud—loud and shrill. Loud enough to attract attention, even at a party. I was aware of the doorway filling with curious onlookers. Some of them spilled into the room, pushed from behind by other partygoers who wanted to see what was going on.

“Oh God, no.” Someone said it under their breath, but it was a whisper that carried past me. I looked to see who had spoken, but I couldn’t pick a face out of the crowd: everyone seemed to look tense, curious and not a little perplexed, but no one appeared distraught. As I turned back, Gilly’s hands clenched on the drink she held, her knuckles shining white. I watched her without understanding what she was doing, until the thin glass shattered into a handful of long curved shards.

There was an exclamation from everyone who had seen what had happened, and a general surge toward her. Gilly looked up slowly. She seemed to be in a dream as she tightened her grip on the broken glass. Liquid started to seep between her fingers—wine mixed with oozing red blood that trickled down the backs of her hands and slid along her forearms, branching out as if her veins were suddenly, shockingly, on the outside of her body.

Everyone had stopped dead, frozen in shock. It took me a second but I stepped forward, reaching out for her wrists. Nessa Mullen got there first, flashing past me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nessa and Gilly were generally inseparable. Sullen Mullen, the boys called her, and I only knew that she was small and spiky and devoted to Gilly. Nessa held onto her friend, peeling open her fingers and letting the glass fall to the floor. She looked at the other girl’s palms. “Gilly—oh my God, what have you done? What have you done?”

“Leave me alone,” Gilly said through gritted teeth. She tried to pull away from Nessa, but the other girl held on tighter. They were about the same height, but Nessa had been a gymnast when she was younger and she had far more strength than Gilly. The blood smeared on Gilly’s forearms as they struggled. But all of a sudden the fight went out of her and she leaned in to Nessa, putting her head on her shoulder.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“I’m sorry,” Nessa said, and it didn’t occur to me until later that it didn’t seem to make any sense for her to be apologizing.

The only answer Gilly gave was to shake her head, and it seemed to mean something to Nessa, even if it wasn’t how she wanted her to respond. Nessa bit her lip. “Come on.” She guided Gilly out past me, snapping, “Stand back.”

Most people did move to allow the pair to pass, but I could see them murmuring comments, their faces avid with curiosity and alive with the strange kind of excitement that came from being near, but not involved in, Trouble with a capital T. Gilly had dropped her head again to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze. As she disappeared from view, the onlookers started to drift away, the noise level rising as the party began to take off once more. I turned back to stare at Abigail, who stroked her hair again.

“I don’t know what you’re looking at. I don’t know why Gilly did that. I don’t know anything at all.” Her voice was high and defiant.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard about you,” I couldn’t resist saying.

She glowered. “I didn’t make Gilly hurt herself. You saw her. She chose to do that herself.”

“What were you talking about?”

“Nothing. Life. Love.” She turned and threw a look in the direction of her three associates, who nodded supportively.

“Well, I can certainly see why you didn’t want an audience for that.” I allowed plenty of sarcasm into my voice, so much that even they couldn’t miss it. Darcy raised one eyebrow at me. She was still sitting on the sofa, swinging her leg as if nothing had happened.

“If you hadn’t come in, nothing would have happened,” Abigail snarled at me. “You made her behave that way, not us.” She pushed past me, followed at high speed by the others.

Gilly hadn’t been upset when I came in, it was true, but I hadn’t caused her to injure herself. When I played it back in my mind, it seemed to me that it was the comment from behind me that had upset her: Oh God, no. I wished I knew who had spoken, but I couldn’t even guess. It was a whisper, unidentifiable, anonymous.

Darcy came to stand beside me. “I thought Gilly and Nessa were friends.”

“They were,” I said.

“So what was going on between them?”

“I’ve got no idea.”

“And what was going on with Abigail and Gilly?”

“Again, I’ve got no idea.”

Darcy wriggled her shoulders. “Drama, anyway.”

“All the best parties have it.”

She slung an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go and make some of our own.”

I went with her. I smiled and chatted, danced a little, drank some Christmas punch that reeked of cloves, and abandoned my cup as soon as possible. I looked as if I was having a good time, I think. But one sentence was playing in my mind, over and over again.

If you hadn’t come in, nothing would have happened.

Abigail was just trying to upset me. But there were times later when I thought about that remark and how weirdly right she had been without knowing it. Because if I hadn’t walked into that room at that moment, maybe everything would have worked out differently.

Maybe everything would have been all right after all.

 

Copyright © 2015 Jane Casey.

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Jane Casey was born and raised in Dublin. A graduate of Oxford with a master's of philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin, she lives in London, where she works as an editor. Hide and Seek is the 3rd book in the Jess Tennant Mystery series.

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