I spin my legs furiously, like Wile E. Coyote going over a cliff edge, as I stumble, almost head over heels, down the steep slopes of the towering volcano that rises heavenwards behind me like a pimple on a giant’s cheek; the pus of the fiery lava flowing, gaining speed, closing the gap as it draws near, and the heat rising from it blistering my pale, naked skin, scorching my hairs and filling my nostrils with a foul smell. I can see the waves seething on the red sea on the far horizon.
But between me and the sea stands a thick, dark, evergreen wood and three ravening beasts guarding the edge.
The lion’s roar shreds my fragile nerves with ease, as the leopard turns to see me for the first time and the wolf howls into the night, calling the rest of his pack to join in the hunt. I look for the right path, but there is only despair here. Only darkness. Violence. Heartbreak. A place where the sun never shines. The landscape is lit for a moment by a bolt of lightning, before the earth trembles with the force of the thunderclap that follows seconds later. From nowhere, I see a stream well up under my feet, and widen and deepen just in time for me to plunge into the water before the creatures can take and eat me.
I float through the woods, not looking back. Around and above me, I see an endless pageant of horrors. Caves full of children in cells along the banks, pleading and begging for help; their bones tearing through their pale, translucent skin; their eyes streaming dark tears. Piercing screams rend the night. Faceless figures, wearing the masks of plague doctors, violate them, ravage them and beat them with whatever comes to hand.
A thigh bone with lumps of flesh still attached.
I pull my head under the water, trying not to have to see the horrors. But tonight it is not water that flows, but blood.
The blood of the children?
The blood of the earth?
All the blood of human history?
I raise my head above the surface and spit the scarlet out of my mouth. The woods and caves have disappeared, but the sea, thank goodness, has not shifted. Indeed it is closer now, almost within reach. I see a village of wooden huts on the banks of the river; the beams and the walls burning to the ground. To the accompaniment of hundreds of demons beating drums of bloodied human skin, I see the Devil himself rising gigantic from the blaze and staring right at me, in an effort to extract my soul without seeking permission. I hear Lowri’s voice echo in the valley. Thundering above the fire.
I turn my head in the direction of the sea. The red sea. The fiery waves. I dive again, as the river reaches its estuary, as a flame-red wave breaks over me. I swim into the murky waters, like a merman; my powerful fishtail propelling me through the blood-red, salty water, although tonight there is no escape. In a seabed cemetry, I see thousands of little graves stretching away towards the horizon, the final resting place of a host of children. I swim among them, searching frantically for one particular name. Without having visited this place ever before, I know he is here somewhere. I sense the diabolical presence closing in around me, the unmistakable presence of the Devil, but before the Evil One takes hold of me, I see the name and let go…
Rolant Price 1977-1993
“Can he hear us, Dr Williams?” It is Lowri, my wife, who asks. I open my eyes but there is nothing to be seen but a fog. A fog and three indistinct figures. One of them is Lowri, of course, and I am blinded by the light of the doctor’s torch, causing me to shake my head wildly in response. Fuuuuuuuuuuck! I shout, knowing perfectly well that my larynx, pharynx and vocal cords are not working as they should, which makes me sound like a calf being castrated without a hint of anaesthetic, no doubt.
“That’s a good sign,” says the doctor, which makes me want to sit up, grasp him by the throat and choke him to see how he likes that kind of torture. But thanks to the enormous quantity of drugs flowing through my body, there’s no chance of that, unfortunately.
I feel spittle running uncontrollably from my mouth, leaving a shiny trail down my chin like a snail would leave behind.
“What about that?”
Kingy! I yell, although nobody hears.
“Nothing to worry about,” comes the doctor’s reply.
I feel Lowri’s hand wiping away the spittle with a handkerchief, and then her worried voice.
“Are you sure he’s alright to go today?”
“The drugs will wear off in a couple of hours,” answers the doctor in velvety tones. “Detective Price is physically strong now.”
“But what about up here?” I hear Kingy ask, faintly seeing his hand raised and his index finger pointing and twisting at the side of his head.
“Richard!” Lowri scolds him and knocks his arm to stop him. “There’s nothing wrong with his ears.”
“Just asking. Sorry. But we need to know these things…”
“You’re right. Sorry,” says Lowri, relenting.
“He’s supposed to come back to work in a month.”
“Is that realistic, Doctor Williams?”
Silence. Which speaks volumes. I open my eyes as wide as they will go, trying to dispel the fog. This works to some extent, and for a second the world comes into focus. In this camera-click, I see Lowri with her bulge in front of her like a balloon. Without warning, the memories come back to torment me, like a shocking slideshow, making me want to escape to my inner space once more, and lock the door on the outside world; the darkness, the nightmares, my profession, my future. I see Nicky first, covered in blood. Then her family under the collective oppression of their grief; angry, furious, stooped and lost. The video tape images all come at once, knocking the wind out of me. Then Ceri. Then the guilt. Then the despair.
“He’ll be physically alright in a couple of days. A week at most. But…”
“But?” asks Lowri anxiously.
“We’ll have to wait and see. Detective Price has come through a horrendous experience, which led to a nervous and emotional breakdown…” the doctor’s words tail off before the sentence is finished. I know very well what he is trying to say, but Lowri doesn’t want to hear it, which is quite natural, in fact.
“Everyone is different, right, Doc?” Kingy fills the gap.
“Exactly, Detective King. You’re taking him to a quiet, peaceful place, and I’m sure he’ll recover one hundred per cent. After all, he has something to get better for, hasn’t he?”
I hear Lowri murmur an answer, although she is not at all convinced. I have heard that sound a thousand times over the years. She should have left me when she had the chance. I’m sure she regrets that now, seeing me here. A husk of a man. A shadow of a detective. A father-to-be in a soiled nappy.
With a supernatural effort, I manage to lift my hand up off the bed. As expected, and just as I hoped, Lowri leaps to take hold of it. This is a little sign to her that everything will be alright. Although I really have no idea. But if I’ve learnt anything over the last year… everyone needs a little hope in dark times like these.
Lowri grasps my hand and then leans over and kisses me on the forehead. The fog clears again and I can see her cheeks glistening with tears.
I try to whisper “Love you” in her ear but I sound like Sloth from the Goonies and the words come out as “urrghhh oo”, causing Lowri to take a step back and give me a stunned look, her eyes shining and filled with anxiety.
“That’s a good sign too,” says the doctor.
“He’ll be composing poetry before the day’s out, right, Doc?” laughs Kingy, but Lowri does not join in the humour. Instead, she stares at me, so I try to smile, although the look of horror on her face suggests that I look like Sloth, as well as sounding like that hideous creature.
I must have passed out for a while, or something, because the next thing I remember is sitting in a wheelchair being pushed along the long, miserable corridors of the hospital, and then out through automatic doors into the fresh air beyond. The elements slap me hard in the face – the low sun, the sharp air and the biting, wintry wind – all of them, as it happens, helping and giving me a real lift. The fog clears and the colours, which have been so blurred for so long, click back into place. It’s as though I’m wearing brand-new glasses after years of struggling on with a pair from Poundland. I gaze around me at the cars and people going about their business; the trees and the grass and the buildings towering above me. And then I hear Lowri utter two words that make my blood run cold and stop the world from turning for a second or two.
Without warning, the words make me think of Nantlais, and that, in turn, takes me back to my teens. My first instinct is to run away, but with leaden legs and more drugs coursing through my veins than Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson put together, that is not an option. All I can do is howl. More like a lame cow than a wolf. This causes a group of smokers nearby to turn and stare at me, their pity making me want to disappear. In a puff of smoke, or in some other way; right this second I don’t care.
“Wait a minute,” I hear Lowri give the order, causing the chair to come to a halt. Then Lowri and Kingy appear in front of me, both of them squatting down. Kingy is smiling, but not Lowri. The look on her face brings on another flashback. I see a cave. I see blood. I see colleagues. I see the blue light of an ambulance. I see Lowri with the same mask she has on now – a muddled façade, pity standing alongside sheer horror. I smile at her, which certainly helps her anxiety. But inside, I’m screaming. I don’t know how long I’ve been in hospital, but I’d sooner stay there another year than go to Porth Glas today. Not that I’ve been there before or anything, but knowing that Nantlais will be there waiting for me is enough to make a fortnight in Aleppo sound like a more attractive option.
Lowri gives me another kiss on the forehead, and then the two of them disappear again and I begin to move forward, powered by Kingy’s muscles.
“As I was saying,” I hear Lowri begin again. “The place belongs to the bloke who owns the company…”
“That’s right. He was in school with me and Rol.”
“Is he the one who made a fortune in Silicon Valley?”
“Yes. He sold a couple of start-ups for something like a hundred million dollars.”
Kingy whistles on hearing this figure, but all I can see is my old friend’s handsome face, and I can imagine nothing but my fists mercilessly pounding it until the bones of his skull and the flesh of his features are a bloody pulp on the white floor of his house, which I once saw in Ideal Homes.
“I’ve been there a couple of times. That’s where we have our annual conference. It’s incredible.” I hate to hear Lowri talk about Nantlais, because it takes me back at once to school days when they were an item. But that’s not why I hate the guy. Oh no, our history is much darker than that.
“Gated community, is it?”
“It’s like Fort Knox. An electric fence and a thick area of woodland to keep the riff-raff out, and private police on patrol.”
“Is it a holiday village, then?”
“No. Well, yes. But, no… sorry. A bit of each. It costs a bomb to buy a house there, and there are certain criteria before you can set foot in the place.”
“I’m sure Rol will be very welcome there!”
I hear Lowri giving my partner’s arm another slap, but there’s no denying he has a point.
“One of the perks of my job, I suppose.”
Lowri whispers the next sentence, but I’m paralysed here, not deaf!
“Rol and Nantlais don’t like each other one bit, but there’s nowhere better for him to recover over the next few weeks than Porth Glas. We’ll be properly off grid.”
“It doesn’t sound like it!”
“No mobiles, I mean.”
“What, they don’t let you use phones there?”
“No. Like I said, the perfect place for Rol to relax and get better.”
“But what if you want to order a pizza?”
They both laugh at Kingy’s crappy joke, but I don’t. Not even on the inside. I don’t want to go anywhere near Nantlais or his gated community. I want to go home. But my tongue isn’t working like it should right now, and it will be too late by the time it gets going again.
We reach Lowri’s Mini Cooper, and I can see that the boot and the back seat are full of stuff – cases and coats and blah, blah, blah. Lowri thanks Kingy and the two of them hug. Then, like a hippo getting into a Hilman Imp, Lowri squeezes herself, with a lot of fuss and bother, into the driver’s seat, and Kingy half tips, half lifts and half shoves me into the passenger seat. It’s amazing that I don’t fall on the floor but my legs must be beginning to get a grip. Before he closes the door, Kingy leans down and puts his hand on my shoulder. I slowly turn my head and look right into his eyes.
“See you in a month, Rol,” he says kindly, but I can see that he doesn’t believe a word of it, which is fair enough, considering the state I’m in today.
In his latest thriller, master of Welsh noir Llwyd Owen returns once again to Gerddi Hwyan, a town somewhere in post-industrial south Wales, where detective Rolant Price and his sidekick Richard King are now faced with the disappearance of a little girl. With every new clue leading nowhere, and his boss and the community clamouring for an arrest, Price’s drinking rises with the stress levels. But when a tortured, mutilated body is found, Price is sent a film of the killing and the investigation takes on a personal dimension. Then another child goes missing. Suffering flashbacks, Price is increasingly haunted by traumatic and humiliating violence in his own past and irked by the constant presence of his wife Lowri’s boss, their old schoolmate Nantlais, now head of a phenomenally successful tech company and owner of an exclusive, gated holiday retreat in Pembrokeshire. Fearful of losing Lowri and their unborn child, and himself in physical danger, Price must conquer his old demons while racing against the clock.
Racking up the tension as the relentless narrative moves backward and forward in time, and from the grimmer streets of Gerddi Hwyan to the seaside playground of the rich, in his ambitious eleventh novel Llwyd Owen takes the genre to a new level.
'A gripping masterpiece. This novel won’t let you go for days once you’ve finished.’
‘In the vast collection of crime fiction, this is up there with the best from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Scotland, England and the US. A gripping plot.’
Elan Closs Stephens