In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Dylan Young – writing as Rhys Dylan – sets the scene for the first book in The Black Beacons murder mysteries. Featuring DCI Evan Warlow, the series is set in Dyfed Powys, an area that encompasses nearly half of Wales. In this gripping and atmospheric extract from The Engine House, we meet Warlow investigating a double murder on the desolate Pembrokeshire coastal path.
The Engine House by Rhys Dylan
You can bury the bodies, but you can’t hide the truth.
When a landslip on Pembrokeshire’s stunning coastal path reveals the harrowing remains of two bodies, ex-DCI Evan Warlow’s quiet retirement is shattered.
As the original investigator for the two missing persons eight years before, Evan is recalled to help with what is now a murder inquiry. But as the killer scrambles to cover up the truth, the body count rises.
This extract comes from early in the book, when Warlow has been asked to return to the fold and bring his expertise. That may sound fanciful, but it isn’t. There are many instances of retired officers with extensive knowledge of these cold cases returning to help when a new twist reopens said case. I wanted to highlight the area as much as the crime in this book. There must have been dozens of occasions when I’ve been walking with my wife and the dog when I’ve stopped to look around and remarked, ‘this would be a great place to hide a body’. Fanciful, perhaps, but the coastal path, hived off from the rest of the world by the sea on one side and empty fields on the other, can sometimes be a very lonely place. A place where one’s imagination can run wild. I wanted to bring a little bit of that to add atmosphere. I hope I’ve succeeded here.
He does sleep on it. Badly.
At 7am the next morning, Warlow checks the weather and sees no rain due until the evening. He throws eggs and tomatoes into a pan and scrambles them with cheese for breakfast, drinks two coffees and by nine he’s in his Jeep with Cadi, heading up the coast. He parks at a spot halfway between the seaside towns of Aberporth and Cardigan.
The beach at Mwnt and its isolated whitewashed church is a tourist honeypot in summer. He knows all about the failed Flemish invasion in 1155 on that shore. A date once celebrated on the first Sunday in January as ‘Sul Coch Y Mwnt’. The literal translation being ‘The Red Sunday of Mwnt’, but of course the more accepted words are ‘Bloody Sunday’. It’s ironic that the sea lapping the shore is Irish yet there was a Bloody Sunday here long before Dublin’s.
West is Cardigan Island and it’s that direction Warlow takes with the dog. He needs to blow away some cobwebs. But Buchannan’s call haunts him more than he thought it ever would. Today he’s one of a handful of walkers. But he and Cadi are the only ones taking a path above the beach that leads to the Chough Walk out along the cliffs.
Chough. It’s an odd word referring to a red billed member of the crow family. Rare apparently. But birds are not his thing. Unless they’re stuffed with sage and onion and served with roast potatoes and gravy. He likes them well enough.
Few people walk here because the signs clearly warn that there is no access further along the clifftops. Much to the chagrin of the tourist board, the official path takes an inland detour thanks to an ongoing dispute between a landowner and the local council.
But, though it’s closed off, the path is still there. It’s wild and dangerous. There’s a drop of 100 feet to the craggy rocks below and Cadi stays on the lead, though Warlow doubts she would go near the edge.
Half a mile along the land curves inwards where the path cuts in and the precipice edge is sheer, with the shore below invisible because of an overhang. Man and dog ignore the NO ACCESS TO PATH signs and head up a bank towards a gate in the fence.
The path, now on his right, tracks down towards a ravine. Warlow unties the rough rope securing the gate, slides open a bolt and steps into a field that once contained cattle judging by the deep hoof prints he has to negotiate. This time of year there are no livestock and he follows the fence around to the top corner where he stops. The field stretches on and down towards the ravine. As it narrows and the land rises, two buildings nestle in the cleft between, one on each side of the divide. The one nearest to him, on his side of the steep inlet, has a garden and fencing and a few outbuildings. He counts three donkeys in a paddock and a dozen hens clucking around a coop.
The building on the far side is a ruin. Unoccupied for decades, it’s an industrial relic.
Warlow takes it all in. He knows both buildings well. The nearest started life as lime workers’ residence and retains the name Limehouse Cottage. The farthest, the Engine House, once functioned to transport stone and lime up and down the ravine from a perilous quayside.
He doesn’t know who owns Limehouse Cottage now, but it was the Pickerings’ home when they disappeared. Yet, even as he ponders this, a woman emerges from the rear of the house and looks in his direction. She’s young, mid-thirties he estimates, slim, dressed in wellingtons and a padded jacket, blonde hair under a beanie hat. She looks like someone who might care for, or at least about, donkeys. On impulse, Warlow raises a hand in greeting. The woman reciprocates, but they are too far apart to speak, even by shouting. After a moment, she turns and walks towards the paddock, glancing back as she does so.
She’s nervous, he thinks. But then, living out here you had every right to be. Especially if you were mad enough to do so alone.
And, as if in answer to his concerns, another figure emerges in a waxed jacket, jeans and wellingtons. This time it’s a male. Tall, dark-haired, scarf around the lower part of his mouth. He doesn’t notice Warlow. Instead, he disappears into an outhouse.
Warlow has been in that outhouse. He’s been in every room of that cottage more than once. During the search for the missing couple, he led the team that had literally picked over the Pickerings’ abode. In fact, picking over the Pickerings had become an annoying alliteration that, once thought of, remained as a caustic reminder of how slim those pickings had been. How futile the police’s efforts turned out to be in uncovering what had happened.
And here he is once again. Staring down at the property that has no right in these days of conservation and preservation to occupy such a unique and idyllic position. Had it not been developed and occupied by two reclusive sisters – one a writer, the other a painter – after the Second World War, it would have remained, like the Engine House, an abandoned ruin. Planning permission for renovation would never have been obtained in this day and age. Accessible only by farm track, the old stone building sits in a cleft on a sharply sloping coast, both it and the Engine House barely seeing the sun in the depths of winter. Yet sheltered in their northern exposure from the gales and rain that howl in from the Atlantic to the south and west.
Cadi sits at Warlow’s side. She is a patient dog, but he senses that she might wonder why they’ve stopped at this lonely spot. If she could ask him, he’d struggle to come up with an appropriate answer. He remembers his words of dismissal to Tom last night and allows himself a hypocritical smile.
You’re not kidding anyone, Warlow.
He’s here because … because he wants to remind himself of the scene. Wants to know if someone else is living in the Pickerings’ place. It stayed empty for months after they went missing, and then he’d heard it had been rented out as holiday accommodation. But, judging from the sacks of building materials in the yard, someone is intent on making changes.
It takes seven years from being last seen alive before relatives can ask the courts for a grant of probate. It’s been nearly seven and a half since the Pickerings went missing.
Cadi whines gently. She’s getting bored.
On the other side of the ravine there is no sign of activity. The Engine House remains derelict.
Warlow retraces his steps to the fence and back down to the cliff edge. The path goes on to a wooden bridge spanning the narrowest part of the divide. It’s partially collapsed and not safe, though the stream is navigable with care. He’s below the cottage now, and the swollen stream rushes by beneath the broken platform of the bridge. He crosses and climbs up the slope and looks back. The top corner of the Pickering property is just visible. From here, there is evidence of ongoing construction.
Warlow reads an apology for the path’s disruption from Natural Resources Wales on a weatherproofed notice stuck to a post. The deserted path runs on for two miles and, behind him, the craggy headland of Pen Yr Hwbyn cuts off the view to Mwnt. He sees no choughs but there are gulls wheeling and bugling above him. Yet he’s seen what he came to see and there is no reason for him to be further along the path where he is now. But he’s drawn to these places and so he stands with the dog at his side, looking out over the grey expanse of sea at its incessant motion. As if a restless serpent roams beneath it. He considers the solitude that walkers sometimes seek. Considers how easy it is to underestimate the weather, the terrain, the imagination.
He’d considered all of those things when he investigated the Pickerings’ disappearance.
But, as with seven and something years before, there are no answers in the air, on the ground or in the waters here.
Cadi’s ears prick up and she turns, drawn by something only her canine senses register from the direction of the ravine. An animal of some sort? Warlow wonders. He puts his hand on the dog’s head.
‘What is it, girl? Rabbits? Cwiningod?’ He defaults to the Welsh, which is often how he’ll speak to the dog. She doesn’t respond, ducks away, refusing the reassurance of his touch.
How easy it would be to believe that she was sensing something else.
He snorts, ridiculing his train of thought. This isn’t the first time she’s acted this way on their walks. But only ever on the path, and only ever when they’ve been totally alone. If he was a nervous man, he might maintain that she was seeing, or hearing, or sensing something that he could not. Wales was a place steeped in legend, this coast especially. There were scattered remains of Iron Age settlements everywhere. And below there were caves and disused lead, silver and zinc mines. If ever there was fodder for an overblown imagination, it was here.
But Warlow prefers to deal with what he can see and hear and touch himself. And though Cadi remains slightly skittish on their way back to the car, they encounter nothing and no one. But, unusually, the dog sits and looks through the back window of the car until they crest a rise and the beach and church disappear from view.
You can find the ebook and paperback of The Engine House here.
You can find Dylan Young’s books on his Amazon page.