Red Haze On The Horizon – Gwen Parrott

This week Crime Cymru’s Gwen Parrott gives us an excerpt from her third book in the Della Arthur series set in the 1940s

In the third novel of my series featuring Della Arthur, a primary school headteacher, set in the early autumn of 1947, Della is still convalescing from the serious leg injury she received in her previous adventure. She is asked by the family solicitor , George Williams, to investigate the sudden death of his elderly great-aunt, who lived in the luxurious Hotel Excelsior in the seaside town of Abergorwel. He pays for Della to stay in the hotel as a guest. Although Aunt Harriet’s death doesn’t appear suspicious, one of the chambermaids, Alys Morgan, has disappeared. As it was Alys who mostly tended on Aunt Harriet, Della finds this interesting. The least intimidating of the well off denizens of the hotel, Captain Tommy Rhydderch, takes her on a walk along the beach, from one bay to the next. Expecting a gentle stroll she’s dismayed to find herself on a strenuous hike, but that is only the start of her problems…  

Extract from ‘Red Haze on the Horizon’

“No visitor had chosen this part of the beach and she could see why. The curve of the coastline meant that the waves came in more fiercely and there was hardly anywhere to sit. The sand was distinctly softer now, and she glanced apprehensively at the sea. However, she reached the rock safely, and her spirits rose a little. It was longer and flatter than it appeared. A number of sizeable rock pools lay along its length and the still water shone in the sunshine. She didn’t notice that Tommy had turned back and was hurrying towards her until the waving of his walking stick alerted her.

‘Is the tide turning?’ she asked.

But he seemed to be deeply shocked. He wiped his hand over his mouth.

‘Good God Almighty,’ he muttered hoarsely, as she stared at him. ‘Over the other side of the rock. A dead body.’

‘What? Where?’

Tommy looked around, shaking his head.

‘What’s the best thing to do?’ he muttered to himself. ‘We’ve got to go back and get someone.’ He shaded his eyes against the sun. Far behind them, behind the last outcrop, tiny figures showed that the beach in front of the promenade had emptied substantially by now, and the few people that were left were packing up to go home.

‘You go,’ said Della, decisively. ‘You’ll be much faster than me. But the two of us will have to look at the body first.’

‘Why?’ he asked in horror.

‘Because the tide may carry it away before anyone gets here. They’ll need a description, and two pairs of eyes are better than one.’

Tommy looked at her dubiously, but then led her past the large rock. The body lay on a slope against the rock, with the upper torso floating in the water of the largest pool. It hadn’t been visible from the other side. It was a young woman, in a navy blue coat of a light material. Della caught her breath for a second. Although it had been soaked and darkened by the water, she had glorious hair. Strands of it had dried in the warm sun to a reddish blonde.

‘A woman in her twenties,’ said Della, looking significantly at Tommy. He pulled an unhappy face. Della listed what she could see out loud, the one shoe, the laddered stockings, the colour of the hair, the nails painted red. ‘Do you think you’ll remember all this?’ He nodded, but he didn’t want to look at her. ‘You’d better go now,’ said Della.

‘But what about you?’ asked Tommy. ‘What will you do if the tide comes in?’

‘Limp out of the way,’ replied Della, ‘Don’t worry. There won’t be two bodies when you come back with the police.’

She didn’t need to say more. Tommy rushed off back towards the town and Della watched him use his stick to speed his steps. When he’d disappeared from sight, she turned and considered the situation. If she wasn’t careful, her confident words about avoiding the tide were liable to come back and bite her. The best thing would be to climb onto the flat rock and look at the body from there. Although it sloped down to the sea, the part next to the cliff was considerably higher. Thank goodness this bay was shingle and not sand. Using her stick, she clambered nervously over the slippery lower slopes of the rock and, skirting the pools, approached the body. Another yard or two and the sea would reach the base of the outcrop, so she had very little time. She sat down on a dry edge and stared at the body. The woman lay on her stomach with her face turned to one side and down. Was this the person she’d seen sitting on the bench on the prom the previous evening? Her clothes were different. That girl had been wearing a green coat. How many summer coats would a girl have these days? And it had been too dark then to see the colour of her nails. But the hair was similar. Was this body bigger than the girl on the promenade? Hard to say. She peered intently at her for some minutes, trying to commit everything she saw to memory.

She glanced up when she heard a larger wave than usual come crashing down. The tide had reached the far side of the rock, lifting the girl’s feet and then sucking at them as it retreated. That was all it took to change the balance of the body, and the girl’s head suddenly turned towards her. Della leaned forward. Large bruises covered her face. Her nose had been broken. Had the waves and rocks done that? Her mouth was slightly open and a tiny crab climbed out of it. Della followed the crab’s path up the girl’s cheek and watched it walk in a leisurely manner across the surface of one unmoving blue eye before disappearing into her hair.

The shifting motion of the body became more pronounced. Della got up and tried to see over towards the town. There was now a real danger that the body would no longer be there by the time the authorities arrived and who knew when or where it would reappear? She regretted that she hadn’t insisted on getting Tommy to help her drag it out of reach of the waves before he left, but she suspected he would have refused. Seeing him so troubled and indecisive had rather surprised her. Why was that, she wondered?  Sighing, she used the walking stick to push the girl’s coat to one side. It hardly mattered that she was touching the body if it was about to be sucked back into the sea. The girl was wearing a blouse and skirt, and the blouse buttons had come apart showing a pink satin brassiere. What was that darker mark on her right breast? A bite, or an injury? Peering at the legs in their wrecked stockings, she saw that they too were covered in bruises. 

Another large wave washed over the girl’s back and Della stepped away instinctively, only saving herself from falling by pushing the end of the stick into a crack in the rock. She had to move to a higher position or leave the rock entirely. If she was caught in the cove – and only a strip of shingle remained clear of the water by now – how could anyone reach her or the body? As she looked around her she saw that the cliff didn’t rise up as steeply as she’d supposed at first glance. A kind of rocky shelf protruded, some four feet up. From the healthy vegetation on it, the tide did not appear to wash over it very often. If she could drag herself up there, she should be safe for a good while. So, her own safety having been taken care of, the only problem that remained was how to move the body. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to do that, she thought. A good fifteen minutes must have passed since Tommy left. Surely he should be back soon. Pulling the corpse a few yards along the rock might be enough and the tide would help her with that, if she timed her tugging correctly.

She leaned forward and hooked the crook of the stick under the girl’s armpit. Waiting until the waves were rolling towards her again she pulled with all her strength. She fell back on her bottom but she didn’t care about that, because despite the weight of the sodden bundle, the drag of the tide hadn’t succeeded in tearing it from her grasp. It had moved a good yard in the right direction. Della rose and looked for another level patch before crouching there, with the stick still entangled in the girl’s clothing. She knew she would pay for all this effort later, but that did not concern her now. Despite that, she winced as the muscles of her shoulders protested. The seconds ticked past, as Della watched the tide. When would Tommy return? Would he return? He surely hadn’t been so frightened that he hadn’t gone to get anyone at all? Had he intended to leave her here? Don’t be stupid, she thought scornfully. He could not have foreseen that a convenient body would be lying on the rocks. Yet, as the tide crept ever nearer, she could only wonder why Tommy hadn’t found someone immediately as the town was full of people. Another foot and she’d have to shift the body even higher. Perhaps she should prepare for that, and for the worst, which was allowing the body to float away and save herself. Gritting her teeth, she waited for the tide.  ”

The Della Arthur Series in English.

Dead White

Beyond the Pale

Red Haze on the Horizon

All three are available on Kindle and Dead White is also available in paperback (original publisher Gomer Press, now available from Y Lolfa).

Cyfres Dela Arthur yng Nghymraeg.

Gwyn eu Byd

Cyw Melyn y Fall

Gwawr Goch ar y Gorwel

Ar gael mewn clawr meddal (cyhoeddwyd gan Wasg Gomer, ond gellir eu prynu nawr oddi wrth Y Lolfa)

Nofelau cyfoes Maeseifion

Hen Blant Bach (Gomer, trwy law Y Lolfa)

Tra Bo Dwy (Gomer, trwy law Y Lolfa)

Yr Eneth Ga’dd ei Gwrthod (Gwasg y Bwthyn)

Gwen Parrott writes crime novels in both English and Welsh. Having spent her childhood in an isolated village in North Pembrokeshire, she is well acquainted with heavy snow, living out of tins and coping with an unreliable electricity supply.

You can see the full range of her novels on her Amazon page here.

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