In Gareth L. Powell's Ragged Alice a detective in a small Welsh town can literally see the evil in people's souls.
Orphaned at an early age, DCI Holly Craig grew up in the small Welsh coastal town of Pontyrhudd. As soon as she was old enough, she ran away to London and joined the police. Now, fifteen years later, she’s back in her old hometown to investigate what seems at first to be a simple hit-and-run, but which soon escalates into something far deadlier and unexpectedly personalsomething that will take all of her peculiar talents to solve.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.30(d)|
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BY THE TIME DCI Holly Craig pulled up at the scene, the local police had closed the road and placed a tent over the body. The last traces of the night's rain had blown inland on a stiff southwesterly, leaving a sky that looked spotless and freshly scrubbed. Flecks of sunlight danced on azure waves. Gorse flowers shivered in the wind.
She closed the car door and curled her lip. She hadn't been back to Pontyrhudd in fifteen years. And she hadn't had a drink in almost six hours.
"Okay, what have we got?"
A plain-clothed young man detached himself from a small knot of uniformed officers.
"Are you the new guvnor?"
He looked her up and down, taking in her long auburn hair and army surplus coat.
"Looks like a hit-and-run," he said hesitantly, obviously taken aback by her appearance. He must have been all of twenty-five years old. Pretty enough, but practically a child. His soul looked depressingly untarnished. "The victim's a local girl, Lisa Hughes. Works in the salon."
Holly pulled back a tent flap and glanced at the body. "Drunk driver?"
She let the flap fall shut. "What's your name, son?"
The kid bristled at her tone. "Scott," he said. "Scott Fowler. Detective Sergeant."
Holly smiled. A twitch of the lips. A couple of hundred feet below, a stream wound across the boggy valley floor like a vein of silver winding through slate.
"So, you reckon this was an accident?"
"I think so."
Holly rolled her eyes. She turned on her heel and walked up the road. It was a simple two-lane blacktop that connected Pontyrhudd with the A487, which swept down from Aberystwyth in the north to Fishguard in the south. It was the only way in and out of the town.
"He tapped his brakes here," she said, pointing to a smudge on the surface. "Then again here."
Scott pulled his phone out. He snapped pictures of the marks as she pointed them out. When she reached the bend, she stopped.
"He must have first seen her from here," she said. She closed one eye and held her thumb out at arm's length, lining up the car's trajectory. "Then he touched the brakes again and swerved right, and clipped her there." She pointed to a spot where tyre tracks had chewed up a patch of muddy verge.
Scott dutifully snapped each of the sites as she indicated them.
"So, not an accident, then?"
"No." She returned to her contemplation of the curve, visualising the car's path, the squeal of tyres and the thump of impact.
"This must have been premeditated," she said at length. "There's no way the driver would have had time to decide to run someone over. He had to have been already looking for her when he came around that bend."
Scott lowered his phone. "And there's definitely no way this could have been an accident? Maybe he lost control at the corner there, and overcorrected?"
Holly shook her head. "Just at the spot where our victim happened to be walking? No, I don't buy it. It's too much of a coincidence." She paused to listen as the breeze stirred the planted ranks of fir covering the north side of the valley. A wind turbine stood against the horizon, its blades turning with an insolent disregard for earthly matters. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her RAF greatcoat. The breeze ruffled her hair.
"Does the victim have a family?"
Scott consulted his notes. "There's a sister, down in the town. We sent a liaison officer down to talk to her."
"When was this?"
"About an hour ago."
"Then it's high time we paid our respects."
* * *
They took the road downhill, following the contours of the valley as it descended towards the sea. Holly's car was a hired Ford. She'd picked it up when she arrived in Carmarthen. There hadn't been time for the local office to assign her an official ride.
Scott sat in the passenger seat, gripping the grab handle above the door window. He was a nervous passenger. But she'd driven this road a thousand times in her youth. She knew every twist and kink, every dip and turn. Every sheep-short pasture, friable stone wall and crooked, black-limbed tree.
Fifteen years, and nothing had changed.
She downshifted into fourth as they came into the town.
Pontyrhudd had never really made it as a tourist destination. It couldn't compete with Aberystwyth, which had a direct connection to Birmingham New Street and the rest of the National Rail network. And with the main road four miles inland, the town saw little in the way of passing trade. Terraced streets barnacled the bracken-topped hills. Shabby cafés and run-down guesthouses adorned the seafront, their windows flecked with the dried salt spray from decades of winter squalls.
It was the kind of town in which rifts and enmities ran beneath everything like festering seams of smouldering peat, and the children in the local primary school stifled beneath the weight of generational feuds stretching back to the misdeeds of their great-grandparents.
When Holly thought of the town, she thought of it in terms of fish fingers and oven chips in front of her grandfather's television, his electric fire lit and his ashtray overflowing with the soggy remains of hand-rolled cigarettes; of her and her friends kicking empty Coke cans on the pavement outside the out-of-season amusement arcades; of enduring endless rainy Sunday afternoons spent looking out from the sash window of her bedroom; and of a general, all-pervading sense of being slowly smothered. So it was strange to see the place again with an outsider's eyes. Once, it had been her whole world. And although she had escaped and moved on, she had somehow been expecting the town to remain as it had been on the day of her departure.
Now, as she followed Scott's directions, she saw that a sort of halfhearted, creeping gentrification had transformed the local cafés into coffee shops and made space on the high street for an art gallery, a tapas restaurant, and a shop selling artisanal bread. Although, having said that, there also seemed to be a lot more charity shops than she remembered, suggesting not everyone had the means to buy into this new aspirational lifestyle.
Some familiar landmarks remained unchanged. Here, she saw the same fish and chip shop where, at the age of fifteen, she'd been taken on her first proper date. There, the bus shelter where she'd broken up with the boy a week later.
Negotiating the narrow streets felt like looking through an album of family photographs, only to find parties unknown had altered some of the pictures — an uncomfortable dissonance between the town she'd carried with her for a decade and a half and the town as it was now.
Still feeling mildly disorientated and unreal, she pulled up at the kerb outside the terraced house owned by Lisa Hughes's sister.
"Okay," she said as she unfastened her seat belt. "Is there anything I should know before I go in there?"
"Like what, guv?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't need to ask."
"I don't think so."
"Does she have a dog?"
"Not as far as I'm aware."
"Good." Holly opened her door. "I don't get on well with dogs."
* * *
Nicola Hughes's house stood a few streets back from the seafront. The window blinds were skew-whiff and the paint on the frames peeling. Holly rapped on the front door and a uniformed police officer answered. She flashed her credentials and was led through to the sitting room, where a tearstained woman sat crying on a sagging futon.
"My name's Detective Chief Inspector Craig," she said. "I'm here to find out why your sister's dead."
The woman looked up in horror and burst into fresh tears.
From the hallway, Scott muttered, "Way to be blunt, guv."
Holly ignored him. She crouched in front of the sobbing woman and put a hand on her arm. She could see the hurt behind the swollen eyes.
"I mean it," she said. "I'm going to find out who did this and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. But first, I'm going to need you to tell me what your sister was doing out on the valley road last night."
Nicola Hughes scrunched and wrung the tissues in her hands. She sucked in a breath and gave a nod.
"Good," Holly said. "Take your time."
The woman had taken a few knocks over the years, but her internal light still flickered like a stubborn candle.
"She said she was going out with Daryl. Up to the Galleon on the main road."
"Her boyfriend. They've been seeing each other for about a year."
"And you don't approve?"
"I've never liked him."
"Any particular reason?"
Nicola's face hardened. "He can get nasty when he's got a drink in him. Proper temper, like."
"Did they argue often?"
"They argued last night. She rang me about ten to eleven in a right old state. Said she'd just walked out on him. I told her to phone a cab, but she wanted to walk home by herself."
Holly glanced at Scott. "Did the victim have a phone on her?" Nobody had mentioned one.
Scott consulted his notepad.
"Interesting." She turned back to Lisa's sister and asked, "Does Daryl have a surname?"
* * *
Daryl Allen wasn't at home, and nobody at the garage where he worked had seen him since the previous day. So Holly and Scott drove back up the valley, passing the crime scene, and continued on until they reached the junction with the A487.
The Galleon Inn nestled in the crook of the junction. The stones in its walls had been quarried from the local hills, the blackened timbers in its frame taken from an eighteenth-century shipwreck. Its front door faced the road and the fields beyond. From its topmost rear windows, you could see the sea.
Holly parked at the side of the building and sat for a moment, gripping the steering wheel. The Galleon had always been the place the town's young people went. Its proximity to the main road gave it a liminal, edge-of-the-world feel, and as long as you looked vaguely of age, you could always get served. Looking at the chalkboards advertising happy hours and meal deals to passing motorists, she felt a sudden queasy nostalgia. This had been the place she'd first learned to drink.
"Are you all right, guv?"
The last thing she needed to think about right now was alcohol. She climbed out of the car and sniffed the air. A truck thundered past. She could do this. She really could.
She strode around to the front of the building and pushed through the thick oak door. Scott hurried to keep up.
Inside, the place was exactly what you would have expected: nautical paraphernalia on the walls, a fruit machine cycling in the corner. The wooden panelling on the walls bore a couple of decades' worth of accumulated scuffs and scratches, and the ceiling glowered the yellow-ivory colour of nicotine-stained teeth. A brass rail ran around the bar, and the pumps bore the colourful logos of independent breweries — tiny paintings of goblins, pirate ships and foxes. A giant wall-mounted flat-screen TV showed a rolling news channel.
As Holly stepped into the gloom of the public bar, the barmaid called, "We're not open yet."
Holly put her hands in the pockets of her long coat and walked slowly to the counter, letting her eyes adjust to the stale gloom.
"I don't care. I'm here to ask questions."
The barmaid stopped setting up and gave her a look. "Are you the police?"
"Show her your warrant card, Scott."
Holly waited while Scott fumbled his wallet from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. In her experience, 90 percent of the British public had no idea what a real police ID looked like, but it always helped to flash one. It provided a framework for discussion.
"Did you hear about the girl who got run over last night?"
The barmaid gave a cautious nod. The light inside her skull was bright but blemished. She'd done things she couldn't have been proud of.
"Yeah, I passed the police cars on my way up here this morning."
"Did you know her?"
"Not personal, like."
"But you'd recognise her?"
The girl gave a shrug. "Lisa Hughes? Sure. She was in here last night."
Holly propped her elbows on the bar and leant forwards, trying to ignore the way the light glinted off the half-empty bottle of single malt on the shelf behind the bar.
"Who was she with?"
"Yeah. His dad owns the garage in town."
"How did they seem?"
Another shrug. "Oh, you know. Not happy. They had a few drinks and a bit of an argument."
The barmaid shook her head. "No, nothing like that. Just, you know, words. Then she barged out."
"And Daryl followed her?"
"No, he had another drink first."
"What was he drinking?" Holly's eyes strayed back to that bottle of whiskey in its shaft of sunlight.
"Pineapple juice, I think."
"And then he went after her?"
For the first time, the girl behind the bar looked worried. She didn't want to get anybody into trouble. "I don't know. He left about fifteen minutes after she did."
"And he was driving?"
Holly turned on her heel and left the way she'd entered. As soon as she was outside, she closed her eyes and inhaled, savouring the smells of warm tarmac and wild hedge flowers. It felt as if she'd been holding her breath the entire time she'd been inside. By the time Scott caught up with her, she'd regained her composure.
"Well," she said. "This all seems pretty straightforward."
She straightened up. "Lisa and Daryl argued. She walked out and he had another drink. Then he went after her."
Scott mulled it over. "That would have given her enough time to walk as far as she did," he said.
"He was angry and drunk. He went after her with the only weapon he had at his disposal."
She scuffed the toe of her boot in the gravel at the edge of the road. She could already hear her new apartment in Carmarthen calling to her.
"Put out an APB for Daryl," she said.CHAPTER 2
HOLLY HAD A ROOM booked in the Royal Hotel on the seafront. It was the kind of hotel whose corridors you could imagine being stalked by disappointed Victorian ghosts. She hadn't bothered unpacking. With luck, she hoped to be out of there and on the road back to Carmarthen as soon as Daryl Allen confessed to intentionally hitting Lisa Hughes with his car. While they waited for the uniforms to locate the young man, she and Scott took a break in the Royal Hotel's front bar. Scott took his coffee black, with no sweeteners, while Holly had her tea heaped with enough sugar to support a modest plantation. Across the street, waves rushed and hissed over pebbles. Gulls wheeled in the air.
"So," Scott said. "Do you think the boyfriend did it?"
"With any luck." Holly stirred her tea and placed the spoon on the edge of her saucer. A carriage clock ticked on the mantelpiece.
Scott chewed his bottom lip. When he finally spoke, he said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Have I done something to piss you off?"
Holly raised her eyebrows.
"No, not at all."
"Are you sure?" He scratched his cheek, not quite meeting her eyes. "Because I was starting to wonder."
Holly glanced out at a pair of elderly women in headscarves and raincoats dragging their wheeled shopping baskets along the front. She could have snapped back a one-liner, but it would have been like kicking a Labrador. Scott was young and keen. His suit wasn't expensive, but it was clean and pressed. His hair was smart without being overtly stylish, and his fingernails were neat and dirt-free. His build suggested he played sports, but his complexion suggested he tended to avoid the alcoholic binges that tended to follow team matches. If she had to come up with two words to describe him, she'd probably go for honest and ambitious.
"I'm sorry," she said, feeling something unwind in her chest. "I don't mean to be short with you. It's just strange being back here again."
Scott looked relieved. "How long has it been?" he asked.
"Fifteen years, give or take a couple of months. I went away to college in London and never came back."
"Do you still have family here?"
The question was well intentioned, but hurt. Holly clasped her hands. "No, not anymore." She let out a breath. "My mam died when I was a baby. My dad went into a spiral. Gave up on everything, including me. Died a couple of years later."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't pry."
Holly shrugged. "You're a detective. You like to know people's stories. It comes with the job."
Scott's cheeks reddened. "I guess I was curious."
"To find out why I requested the transfer back here to Dyfed-Powys?"
Holly sucked air through her teeth. Through the window, she watched the flags flap on the promenade.
"There was an incident in a school," she said, not looking in his direction. "It didn't end well. And after that, I decided I wanted to get away from the city for a while."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ragged Alice"
Copyright © 2019 Gareth L. Powell.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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