In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Louise Mullins gives us a taste of her psychological thriller that introduced Welsh Detective Inspector Emma Locke.
Ty Mynydd, Llangynidr Road, Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale, Wales
Thursday 9th February 1994
There was no way anyone could know the soil and wet leaves of the freshly dug earth covered a body, but Bryn knew because he’d buried it.
He turned away from the window when he heard a key in the lock and moved from the sink toward the door, plastering a neutral expression on his face, acting as if everything was fine. He even managed to boil the kettle, pour two cups of tea, and join in with conversation. But while he sat at the dining table facing his spouse his sight was constantly drawn toward the window to the garden wall, where beyond it, in the paddock, lay a corpse buried four feet below ground surrounded by rubble and fallen branches. The mound visible only if you stood at the right angle or knew what the earth contained.
Pain jolted him from his thoughts. There were teeth marks indented on the skin around his finger, the nail bitten too close to the flesh. He moved his hand from his mouth and prayed Carys couldn’t see beneath his nerves and into his demonic soul.
Bryn’s daughter didn’t question why he wasn’t there to collect her from school. And so, he thought he’d got away with it.
Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale, Wales, 2018
I found the bones as I was clearing out the garden. The ground was waterlogged from a burst sewerage pipe, the paddock flooded. I stood with my Wellingtons slouched in inches of mud that had turned into an oily sludge as it passed through the irrigation system before spurting from the weed-riddled, overgrown grass. But it was what I discovered in the basement earlier that sealed it for me. Someone had died in my father’s house, someone who shouldn’t have been there. And I strongly suspected they had been killed.
The house was cluttered. Thick mould lined the walls of the attic where my father kept the memorabilia of my youth. Photograph albums were scattered around, boxes were stacked up covering the length and breadth of the wooden slatted floor. The low beams and lack of sunlight or air – my father having never fitted a Velux window into the attic – gave the large spacious room a cramped, dingy look. The place had a musty smell and left a dark cloak of foreboding to fall over me as I entered.
‘You weren’t joking when you said he liked to hoard stuff,’ said Lewis, my husband of eighteen years.
I glanced around the place and felt the hairs on my arms rise along with the swathes of discomfort I felt at being inside my childhood home for the first time in twenty years, surrounded by sharp awful memories and an unsettling feeling in my stomach as I treaded over piles of rubbish.
I took one last glance around the room then moved toward the hatch. ‘I’m going back downstairs, are you coming?’
Lewis followed me down, but Rhys stayed, finding interest in an old fax machine my father used to send invoices to his clients with, after he brought the accountancy firms office home with him.
I heard his voice in the back of my head, ‘home-based business is where it’s at now, Rhiannon.’ My mother looked at him and smiled warmly, shaking her head at his latest idea to make ‘big money’ without having to leave the farm. But it worked, much to her surprise. Hence that was probably how he came to afford all the stuff he’d filled the house with over the years preceding her death.
The stairs were cluttered too with piles of washing ready to be taken into the laundry room that had never made it there before he’d keeled over. The washing machine was housed in the small square space I passed as I ambled around downstairs looking for something to do before feeling my feet grow heavy and my head spin as I passed the downstairs broom cupboard.
As I was about to dip into the kitchen in search of something to clean the kettle with, so we could have a cuppa there was a loud knock on the thick wooden front door. I crossed the hall and opened it to a red-haired woman in her sixties wearing a deep vermillion coloured summer coat over a tight fitted floral dress that looked far too expensive to be seen out wearing in the country. She looked out of place. I stifled a laugh.
‘Gwenda,’ she said, holding out a bunch of keys. She fingered them and named each individually as Lewis appeared in the doorway behind me. ‘Shed, barn, garage, stables, basement.’
She went stiff but didn’t reply.
I couldn’t remember there being a basement in the property.
‘You must be my father’s neighbour,’ I said.
I gathered she was more than that when she’d called to inform me of his passing. I wasn’t surprised when she told me he hired her as his home-help. Unless paid, no one would want to be in my father’s company. Though looking at her I had a hard job seeing past her stony demeanour wondering what possessed my father to employ her.
Maybe she’s not the neighbour, said a voice in the back of my head. How do you even know she’s Gwenda? You’ve never even met the woman.
‘I kept an eye on Bryn, and the house after he . . .’
She was the one who found him. Dead in his armchair in front of the television, a plate of dried uneaten food in front of him, a three-day-old newspaper opened on the sports page lying across the armrest. A heart attack, the coroner said.
‘Thank you, for . . .’ Finding him? Informing me of his death? Dealing with the funeral when I told you I couldn’t make it? Not questioning why his only daughter wanted nothing to do with him for two decades? Attending the will reading? Although you were left a substantial amount of money, I didn’t want a penny of it, not even for compensatory purposes. For the keys? ‘. . . everything.’
‘Yes, well, I did what I had to.’
Lewis smiled at her, but she didn’t reciprocate.
Bryn kept himself to himself. His house was his kingdom. He would have hated his estranged daughter charging into his home, manhandling his prized possessions, and throwing stuff out. So why had he allowed Gwenda into his private sanctuary?
I smiled, pleased with myself for disturbing the place my father, Bryn Howell, kept so untidy it was difficult to see anything of worth amongst the mountains of crap he’d accumulated in the years since I left.
‘It was my job.’
‘Yes.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say to the stranger stood in front of me who seemed to know the layout of the farm better than I could remember.
After an awkward pause, she said, ‘we should talk sometime. I’m a quarter of a mile down the lane.’ Then she turned sharply and left.
I closed the door, brushed the ripped, blackened net curtain aside and peered through the murky glass to see her wander down the path while looking up at the roof, missing a few tiles. I followed her eyes down to the kitchen window nestled above the basement. An area of the house I didn’t know existed until that day. My eyes fell to the key in my hand.
‘Let’s go and have a look,’ said Lewis.
I reluctantly followed Lewis back through the house to what I’d always believed was the broom cupboard, wondering why my father felt compelled to lie to me, and to lock it.
Lewis forced the key into the hole, it jammed tight. He wiggled it a bit then it clunked. The door swung wide and slammed against the wall, forcing out a blast of cold dusty air onto my face.
Lewis switched on the light. It flickered into life, dimmed to an orange glow, then died.
‘We’ll have to get some energy saving bulbs in here or this place is going to cost a fortune in electricity while we’re doing it up,’ said Lewis, holding out his phone to the pitch-dark basement, the torch function casting a bright white beacon of light across the concrete floor.
I noted the wires fed up through the bare floorboards and plugged into sockets for appliances we hadn’t yet figured out the locations of. ‘We should probably get the electrics PAT-tested too. I doubt this place has been rewired since my grandfather lived here.’
Lewis ran his hand down the wall and damp paper came away at his fingertips. ‘It needs a lot of work.’
The decorating wouldn’t start until we’d renovated the place, and we couldn’t even begin that until we’d thrown out or burnt the shit my father had collected over the years.
The farm was dismal and depressing no matter how much paint you slapped against the walls, but there were also structural issues that demanded immediate attention. Just thinking about it made my head swirl. There were at least two bedrooms I knew needed re-plastering, and thick chunks of it had come away from the walls of the passageway downstairs, leaving a crumbling mess to line the floor.
I did a three-sixty, something beckoning me to circle the basement I couldn’t remember living above. Surely, those were the things children never forgot: spooky doorways that led down to frighteningly dark cellars?
My father was the kind of man who would have tortured me with tales of goblins and bogeymen waiting in the dark to jump out and frighten me to death. If the basement had been in use when I was a little girl, I had no doubt he would have threatened to lock me in there at some point. Or perhaps he had, and that was why I was selectively seeking no memory of it.
I walked carefully down the stone-cold steps and into the thirty-six by twenty-eight square foot concrete basement. There were sheets covering everything from broken ornaments and rusty tools to smashed crockery and old kitchen utensils.
A knot of anxiety wove itself around my stomach at the sight of a mattress leaning against the wall for some peculiar reason, though I couldn’t understand why.
I sifted through piles of Awake! magazines lining the walls, compelled to investigate the contents of some plastic containers my mother once used to sell at Tupperware parties before her friends stopped speaking to her.
A fleeting shadow descended on me and I looked up to find Lewis stood over my shoulder watching as I opened the lid of one to reveal a dead spider. ‘How did it get in there?’ he said.
‘Maybe grandpa collected insects,’ said Rhys from the doorway, a mischievous grin on his face. Always the one to invoke discussion on the macabre.
Did he? No, I didn’t think so. But then I couldn’t trust my own memory, could I? Not if I didn’t have any before the age of twelve.
For the next five minutes I moved lazily around the room while Lewis, at my instruction, picked up the boxes without looking at what was inside, carried them out of the basement, down the passageway, and through the front door. Dumping them on the ground outside ready for the first of what I understood would be dozens of trips to the rubbish tip.
‘We’re going to need a skip.’
I gave Lewis a look that said, ‘I told you so,’ and he reached out and pulled me close. I sunk my face into his chest, breathed in his familiar masculine scent and steadied myself, preparing for another bout of tears. I’d cried many since receiving the phone call from Gwenda, informing me of my father’s death, releasing all the pent-up anger and resentment I’d contained for years.
‘I found your number on the website,’ she said. ‘You’re still doing it then?’
She meant photography. I guessed my father had spoken about me to some people over the years. Gwenda it appeared was one of them.
‘Talked about you a lot, he did,’ she said, accusingly, as though it was my fault my mother had got sick and died, and my father was left to live on his own once I had the courage to leave home.
‘I bet he never told you why I left?’ I wanted to say. Instead I held my tongue and waited for her to tell me the story of an elderly man consumed with arthritis who’d died alone in a big old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere because his daughter had upped and left him to fend for himself. But she didn’t. She said, ‘he’s left you the house. It’s a mess so you’d better get over here before the end of summer if you want to sell it. I’m not sure the leak in the roof will last another stormy winter.’
Lewis wasn’t surprised by my lack of emotion when I told him Bryn had passed away, nor the subsequent tears of relief once I realised what it meant: that I was finally free of the man I detested. The invisible cord that bound us together through genetic history severed, at last.
Lewis tried to persuade me not to visit the place that had once been my childhood home, convinced it would upset me, but something drew me back. To gain closure?
I gathered up a box labelled Carys and kicked it along the dusty floor to where Lewis stood shaking his head. ‘I can’t carry any more than what I’ve got in my arms already.’
I stepped over the box and swiped him in jest. ‘Wimp.’
He laughed lightly and swung round hitting his head on the low strung lightbulb.
Iefan called down the stairs. My son had been in the attic, smoking no doubt. He thought I couldn’t smell it, but my nose was attuned to deceit. The lies were as thick in that house as the mildew covered walls that caused the paint to peel and the blackened windows to stick shut. The mould spores were seeping into Rhys’ lungs. And I noticed he was already wheezing.
He’d suffered asthma since he was a small child. It was under control with Ventolin steroid inhalers, but after just an hour inside the damp farmhouse he’d already begun to sneeze and when he pelted down the steps into the cold dank basement after vacating the attic to allow his brother to smoke a cigarette, I noticed his eyes were watering and his nose was running. The dust mites weren’t helping either.
I swallowed hard and pasted on a faux smile. The one nobody but Lewis recognised as a sign that being there was bringing it all back; the memory of leaving the house I’d shared with my parents, at sixteen years old and pregnant with Iefan.
‘It’s got potential,’ said Lewis.
Yes, I thought. The potential to cost far more resources than I’d estimated.
I surveyed the room but could not imagine my younger self living there. Sadness and desolation rebounded off the walls. I needed the noise of traffic and busy streets. The city was my home now.
The farmhouse held so many awful memories it was hard to keep track of them all when I was stood in the epicentre, where my nightmares had begun.
I shoved things aside with my foot, glad the only items I’d found belonging to me were housed inside the box Lewis carried up the stairs while he traipsed after Iefan and Rhys.
I turned then, and a sharp pain shot down my back, sciatica and scoliosis- curvature of the spine and a damaged coccyx. My small frame had been unable to cope with the eight-pound child I’d birthed in a Bristol hospital barely of legal age.
I steadied myself by reaching for a box as I lunged forward, gripping hold of a sheet covering a large framed painting. It looked antique, though I’d never heard of the artist and had no idea what it might have been worth because money didn’t interest me at all. All I’d ever wanted was to feel safe, loved. And I did now. Motherhood and wifedom had given me the affection my inner child had always craved.
As my eyes left the oil painting of the North border of Gwent Valleys, the mountainous hills stood sentry above the River Usk, I spotted, again, the stained mattress in my peripheral vision and without warning a flashback hit me square in the face.
A clinically steel grey room. A bright light splintering the darkness, shining unforgivably in my face. A tall, male figure in shadow.
The image disintegrated like dust. I was bent double, Lewis was moving toward me, holding out a hand to reach for mine so I could grab hold of him and hoist myself back into a standing position to walk off the pain that spread down the left-hand side of my spine and into my tingling leg just past the knee. Sometimes it worked to alleviate the pressure of my wonky spine on my sciatic nerve, but mostly it didn’t.
‘Come on, let’s head outside.’
He led me toward the stables that were packed from floor to ceiling with the detritus of farming: unusable riding equipment, stacks of breeding ledgers and long-ago paid veterinary bills written in my father’s own illegible scrawl.
The rain had begun while we were inside the dismal enclosed space that still wore the tang of manure. The smell clung to the brickwork and the supporting wooden beams that looked about ready to collapse above us.
‘We’ll clear out the house before we start on the outbuildings,’ said Lewis, eyeing our stinking rotten surroundings.
I nodded in agreement.
I was soaked the moment I left the stable. The rain fell heavily and unsparingly, and I had to grip the compromised doorframe to prevent myself falling as my boots sunk and slid into puddles the colour of dark melted chocolate. I continued onward, despite the pain, and the difficulty caused by my stiff clothes sticking to my wet skin, and locked tight joints beneath my under-stretched muscles.
‘Careful,’ said Lewis.
I spun round, seeking firmer soil to find myself staring down at a pile of frayed clothes peeking out of the soggy earth. I lost my footing and reached out in time to grasp Lewis’ arm, my fingers sliding down his raincoat and finding his ice-cold hand as I fell.
Lewis held me at the waist to stop me from landing in a position that would have left me bedridden, my back in agony for days, and hoisted me up. It was then that the sole of my shoe caught what I’d assumed was a torn green rag. I tried to kick it away as the soggy material clung to the leather, but it dragged along the pool of water that continued to flood the ground as it left a cylindrical piece of metal that I thought was a drainage pipe several meters from where I stood.
Lewis pulled at it and the filthy sodden fabric unravelled at my feet to display the tip of a cracked skull. ‘A strange place to bury a sheep head.’
‘I’ve never seen a lamb that small,’ I winced as I knelt to retrieve the green cloth covering the rest of the bones.
‘Don’t,’ he said, as my palms instinctively loosened their grip. ‘It might be a device for satanic rituals.’
As I collected the offending item my eyes swept the ground, falling on the heaps of clay peat pushed forth by the force of the water that had sprung too abruptly through the soil, pumping out so fast it had created a river that ran toward the foundations of the house. ‘That’ll be where the damp’s getting in.’
To my left I peered through the open doorway of the barn in search of an altar, goblet or dagger in the darkness, but there wasn’t any evidence of voodoo. The barn was near empty. Which made my find more worrying.
My father had at one time collected stuffed animals brought to him by a friend who was a hobbyist in taxidermy. I wondered if the skull with a dent on its base belonged to a goat. Though how a once stuffed animal had ended up outside, I couldn’t fathom.
I glanced back down at the item I held, fingers ice-cold and trembling. The shape of it…
I dropped it then, nausea rising from my stomach and into my throat making me heave. My face grew hot, my legs started to give way, and my shaking palms began to sweat.
The skull at my feet didn’t belong to an animal. It was a child. A baby going by its size.
Lewis moved the green cloth aside with the toe of his shoe and we both gasped as several tiny bones fell from the fabric they had been disguised within. In the paddock, just beyond the garden of my father’s house. Where he’d lived alone for the most part of two decades, my mother having died just weeks before my hasty departure with a child in my womb.
Why is it here?
That was a question I couldn’t ask my father because his ashes were blown away by the wind over the Ebbw Vale Valley near the ancient ruins of a castle, according to Gwenda.
I stared at the skull, watching Lewis collect it from the deep water-logged ground where it had rolled and return it to the green cloth where he perched it on top of the rest of its mud-caked skeleton, piece by piece. He then folded the torn, dirty fabric back over the bones as they must have been when buried.
I watched him carry the covered skeleton into the barn, place it gently onto a dusty table beside a set of broken patio chairs and a worn King James bible.
Having disturbed the sinister object, I immediately backed away, consumed with dread.
What the fuck have I unearthed?
Human reason suggested the only logical explanation for burying an infant was if you were responsible in some way for his or her death.
I didn’t know the man my father became, but what I remembered of him during my teenage years wasn’t pleasant. He was cruel. But was he capable of something as abhorrent and heinous as murder?
Was it possible my father had more sins than I knew of?
I felt Lewis’s arm over my shoulder, drawing me close to settle my nerves.
‘We need to call the police.’
I nodded, unable to tear my eyes away from our find, shadowed by the walls of the barn.
About Louise and Buried Sins
I’m a Bristol born Cornish bred author now living in Wales. All of my previous titles are based in Bristol, Cornwall and London. Including the first which includes DI Emma Locke, who appeared as a DS working alongside DI Silver in What I Never Told You. DI Locke follows me to Wales and moves to Pontypool with her Welsh husband Johnno and stepson Jaxon, at the same time I arrive in Newport in 2016. She takes her experience working serious and complex crimes involving missing persons, murder, and child sexual abuse to Ebbw Vale in Buried Sins where she begins investigating the crimes that led to the discovery of a child’s bones.
The Lewis’ are a Bristolian family too, who come to Ebbw Vale to clean out Carys’ parental home months after her father’s death, of which she is informed by his home help Gwenda, because they aren’t close and she would never have stepped foot back inside the house that contains so many nightmares for her unless her father was dead and buried. But not only does their visit unearth the bones of an infant in the paddock, but also memories of The Shadow Man who abducted Carys as a child.
What ensues is a dark and twisted tale of family secrets taken to the grave and dug up and examined thirty years later. It’s written in first and third-person as some of the characters voices needed the readers perspective, while others had to be centre stage. It’s written in past tense in a way that suggests it’s a memoir, because that’s how it felt to write it. I was completely immersed in their lives throughout the writing process and lived with them through their grief and recovery to the gnarled end.
All of my titles are thoroughly researched and most of the stories are based on my experience working within the field of forensic mental health.
Buried Sins encapsulates everything that is wrong with a society where religion takes precedence over honesty and where justice comes in the form of revenge.
My current series (published by Aria) takes DI Locke, newly promoted, through several investigations including that of the murder of a teenage boy in Croydon whose death has a profound impact on a woman who’s just moved to Newport with her family (I Know You). In Kiss Me, Kill Me (published in January 2021) a woman’s past is brought to the surface when her rich elderly husband dies in a tragic accident after several thwarted attempts to kill him. And in the third book of the series (untitled) the disappearance of a husband and father reawakens a two decade old offence that resulted in the wrong man’s imprisonment. While each title contains its own sub-theme, the series’ overarching premise is that our past shapes our present, and often in profound ways, that we must learn to live with.
I’ve already begun writing the next title featuring DI Locke, which will push her beyond her professional limits as she’s forced to find a pregnant woman who’s been kidnapped by human traffickers, while the clock ticks down to her due date.
Read more about Louise Mullins
To discover more of Louise’s books, visit her Amazon page