This week it’s the turn of Crime Cymru’s Rhys Dylan who gives us a taste of his recently released novel – Gravely Concerned
The first scene and chapter in my latest release, Gravely Concerned under the name Rhys Dylan is an example of the Ice Monster Prologue. Those of you familiar with Dan Well’s 7 point structure will know that this is a reference to GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones simply because that book starts by introducing the magical ice monster as a promise to the reader that there will be more of that to come. There are no actual ice monsters in Gravely Concerned of course, but it’s an action sequence that immediately sets up what the book is about by posing the problem as seen by characters caught up in the moment. The real terror of turning your back for one instant only to have your world turned upside down.
The hope is that the reader will feel that terror, too, and plunge them, along with the victims, into the meat of the story.
‘Mam! Mam! The chickens are on fire.’
Nerys Howells heard her daughter Fflur shouting from the backyard and squeezed her eyes shut. Day one of the Whitsun school holidays was in full swing, but at least the weather had relented and the sun, though hardly blazing, shone down. That meant the kids could be outside. Thank God.
Nerys had just come back from a big shop in Aldi with both kids in tow. They’d be wanting lunch in ten minutes. Plus, she had a wash to hang out. The last thing she needed now was for Fflur to start playing silly buggers.
She sighed, opened the fridge door, and tried to make room for the dozen yoghurts she balanced in her other hand.
Both front and back doors were open. Osian, her six-year-old son, wore a cycle helmet and a cape as he fought aliens with a stick in the front garden. He’d built a spaceship out of cardboard boxes and a wooden crate in the access way running up the side of the house joining front and back yards. She’d warned him it had better be gone by the time his dad got home or there’d be trouble.
There wouldn’t be, but Osian left a mess wherever he went, and he needed to be reminded to clear things away. His sister, on the other hand, had a thing for animals. Nerys forgave her that because it was one of her weaknesses, too. They had almost two-thirds of an acre on the edge of the village of Cwrt Y Waun. Plenty of room for the rabbit hutches and the chickens at the bottom where a hedge separated them from the farm fields they backed onto.
‘Mam!’ Fflur’s urgent yell reached her again. And this time Nerys listened because something in her daughter’s voice lent a sudden, urgent credence to her cries.
But how could the chickens be on fire?
Nerys hurried out of the back door and stared down across the area of lawn sectioned off by laurels from the vegetable patch to the lower garden that fell away towards fields. The smell reached her even before she saw the smoke. An acrid whiff of burning straw and then a column of grey smoke spiralling upwards.
‘Fflur?’ she shouted, panic flaring. ‘Where are you?’
Her daughter, ten and leggy in her jeans and a ‘This Girl Is Double Digits’ T-shirt, sprinted around the laurels, tears streaming down her terrified face.
‘We’ve got to get them out. We’ve got to get them, Mam.’
‘Shit,’ Nerys muttered, and ran.
The wind wafted the smoke north, away from the house, but the odd gust sent some of it towards her as she neared the wired-off chicken run. No flames, only thick billowing smoke.
The chickens clucked in full voice, fear stoking them into a terror-filled cacophony.
‘Get the hose,’ Nerys yelled to Fflur.
Having the vegetable garden nearby meant they had water to hand. Nerys took off her sweatshirt and tied the sleeves around her mouth, then opened the latch to the run and shooed the chickens out into the garden. Squatting low under the wafting smoke, she looked in to locate the source of the fire.
Not in the coop.
She backed out, coughing, tears streaming down her face, and moved around the coop towards where their garden led on to a field. The hedge needed cutting, but this was fledgling time, and the hedge would continue growing for a few more months before the farmer trimmed it. The blackthorn and hazel were already in full leaf, but she could see enough through the gaps to make out the remnants of a pile of straw smoking furiously. And she could smell something.
Was that petrol?
Fflur appeared next to her, hose in hand, adjustable spray nozzle attached.
‘Look after the chickens, make sure none of them get out onto the lane.’
Maes Awelon, the Howells’ property, sat next to an access lane leading to a path that went all the way to a water treatment works for the village. The property on the other side of the lane had a big paddock and a manège at the rear, so there would always be straw lying about. But this… this didn’t make any sense.
Nerys couldn’t see over the overgrown hedge. But by squatting and turning her face away from the smoke, she found a gap wide enough to get a good jet of water through and onto the straw. To begin with, all it did was make the smoke worse, but after a couple of minutes of steady dousing, the smoking eased, and the few flames died away.
She stood up. Behind her, Fflur waved her arms about, herding the chickens. They’d all forgotten about the fire and were busy finding new bugs to eat in her potato patch. The fence bordering the lane, tanalised shiplap mostly, gave way to beech hedge towards the bottom of the garden where Nerys now stood.
No sign of anyone in the Madge’s place opposite. They had teenage kids, but they were sensible. Studious and horsey. The last thing they would want to do was set a fire near animals.
But lighting up half a bale might be some of the more reckless kids from the village’s idea of fun over half term. She couldn’t think of anyone, but some properties were council owned. Social housing on a small site.
She shook her head. What was she like? Nerys Howells, Thomas as was, born and bred in a council house in the Gwendraeth Valley. Still, some houses on the site sheltered people who were not local. People brought in from outside for reasons best known to themselves and the council officers who put them there. Interlopers, as one of the fussier old biddies she sometimes met at the post office called them.
She turned back to her daughter. ‘Right, come on, let’s get these chickens back inside.’
‘Is the coop alright, Mam?’
‘It’s fine. Get your brother and tell him I want him to help.’
Fflur ran back to the house, opening the door to the little side entrance and exposing her brother’s rocket ship, or ‘Moony Module’ as he’d christened it, shouting his name as she went.
‘Osh? Osh? Mam wants you.’
Nerys waved her hands, scooting the chickens back to the bottom of the garden. Behind her, she could hear Fflur calling, frustration growing in her tone.
‘Osian? Come on. Stop messing about.’
‘Look in the spaceship,’ Nerys called over her shoulder.
‘I have,’ Fflur yelled back.
A minute went by, or was it only thirty seconds? Long enough for the first tiny spark of concern to press Nerys’s anxiety button. Osian could be a little sod, always playing games, hiding from his sister, or, when asked to do something he didn’t want to, from Nerys. Bloody good at it, too, he was. But she knew his hiding places.
When Fflur appeared in the open doorway in front of the Moony Module, shaking her head, the little spark of worry in Nerys turned into a hot, gnawing anxiety.
She left the chickens and ran back towards the house, calling her son’s name as she went.
‘Osian! Come here, now. Osian?’
She joined Fflur and pushed past the haphazard arrangement of boxes to where she’d last seen Osian waving his lightsabre – a yellow-painted stick. A ‘weapon’ that hadn’t been out of his hands for the whole of the weekend.
‘Osian!’ No longer a plea, her bellow turned into an angry demand.
She hurried into the house, checking through the usual places she knew he liked to hide. Behind the sofa, upstairs under his bed, his sister’s toy chest. Fflur followed her, looking in the other rooms, calling her brother’s name.
‘Where is he, Mam?’
Nerys shook her head, not trusting herself to say anything. Not yet. He’d be outside. Of course he would. Hiding in the garden somewhere. The only place they hadn’t looked.
Nerys ran out through the back door, down through the vegetable patch and the clucking chickens that squawked in alarm as she scattered them and squawked again as she retraced her steps back to the spaceship and the front garden.
Her knees bumped against the stupid cardboard boxes and dislodged something from underneath. A yellow stick and a bike helmet skittered across the ground. Osian’s weapons and protection… abandoned.
The gnawing heat inside Nerys died instantly, only to be replaced by a cold, twisting fear. She picked up the stick, stared at it, ran out to the gate, and stood, staring up at the quiet, empty road and the nearest houses to the south a hundred yards away.
She waved the stick. A ridiculous movement, trying to conjure up something, anything that would change what she suddenly felt, the fear of what she intuitively knew.
‘Mam, where’s Osian?’ Fflur’s voice held all the terror that Nerys felt. But she didn’t answer because the world hummed around her, the colours in it painfully bright as she pieced together the little charade. The smoke had been a distraction. Someone had set it. Someone who’d wanted her away from the house for five minutes.
The five minutes that it took to steal a child.
The denial from Nerys, when it came, shattered the afternoon quiet and set a dog barking somewhere.
‘No, no, no…’ She ran through the gate, ran down the lane towards the field with the burning straw.
Ran into the Madge’s.
Ran up the road, calling Osian’s name every ten yards. Fflur followed, crying openly, but invisible to her mother, whose eyes had taken on a strange absence as if she was no longer there.
People heard the shouts, heard the desperation in Nerys’s voice.
They came out of their houses and stared. Asked what was wrong.
Those same people flinched when they heard. Turned to one another and murmured. Many of them joined Nerys and shouted Osian’s name.
But no one had seen him.
Fflur was still crying and Nerys still running fifteen minutes later when they got back to Maes Awelon after searching the handful of lanes that made up Cwrt Y Waun village and finding nothing.
‘Mam.’ Fflur wailed. ‘Where is—’
‘Check the chickens,’ blurted Nerys by way of distraction and with such feigned exuberance that it stopped Fflur in her emotional tracks. ‘Make sure they’re okay,’ Nerys nodded, smiling. Or at least showing her teeth in a way that made Fflur frown. But the little girl didn’t argue. She turned and ran out.
Nerys didn’t give a flying fowl about the hens. But she wanted Fflur out of her mind for a moment because she had no room for her there. Not now.
The world started to slide around her and all she could think of was doing what needed to be done before the gigantic black hole expanding in her mind swallowed her whole.
Fflur ran through the garden, still calling her brother’s name. Nerys picked up the phone, dropped it, picked it up again and, with trembling fingers, dialled 999.