It was probably a mistake coming to the pub on a Friday. But then again, my whole life’s been a series of mistakes. Take my current situation. I’d only intended to spend a few weeks away, an escape from the press, since their dogged determination to catch me unawares still verges on the psychotic.
Aunt Felicity put me in touch with an old friend of hers who had a cottage on the coast near Aberystwyth. That felt remote enough to evade even the most persistent of the Fourth Estate. So, I packed up the trusty Volvo, by some miracle remembered to empty the fridge, and escaped London for some well-deserved time off.
Then, just as I was beginning to sort my head out enough to contemplate going back to work, a helpful fellow in China developed a cough and the whole world tumbled down around me.
I guess I could have gone back to London and locked down there, but actually Wales isn’t all that bad. I’ve even started trying to learn a bit of the language. Bore da, shwmae and all that. Not that I get much chance to practice. I don’t know many folk around here, and everyone’s been very good at social distancing.
Of course, they might all do that with us English anyway. There’s only so much isolation a girl can take though, so I’ve been making a habit of visiting the local from time to time, if only to listen to other voices and see a face that might be different to the one staring back at me in the mirror every morning. It’s not something I’d contemplate in London, going to the pub alone. Too much opportunity for a quiet drink to be spoiled by some unwanted attention. Llantwmp has proven to be much more civilised in that respect.
It’s nothing special, the Black Lion. Mostly I sit in the beer garden, nursing a pint and wearing my thickest coat. The bar’s like something from a cheap 80s sitcom – walls covered in horse brasses and unidentifiable bits of old agricultural machinery. There’s a juke box and a little platform in one corner that suggests bands play of an evening, but it’s clear that nobody’s picked up a guitar around here in months. There’s a telly on a high shelf in the opposite corner, and this is the first time I’ve seen it on. Some rugby match. Two teams of swarthy men playing with their odd-shaped balls. I never could quite see the point.
‘Pint of Brains and a couple of cheese and onion, is it?’
The landlady is straight out of central casting. Short, round, big hair, arms I’d not want to wrestle with. But Cerys’s smile is always friendly and genuine, even if I can hear the slight judgement in her voice. Fair enough, it’s not the healthiest of diets. If they did proper meals in here maybe I’d eat better, but from the look of the place not much.
‘Cheers, Cerys.’ I wait for my spoils, the chance for a bit of a chat somewhat ruined by the Perspex screens cutting the bar off from the rest of the room. At least I’ve got my phone.
‘You’re in later’n usual,’ she says as she slides my pint across the bar through the little opening that makes it feel like I’ve just made a bank withdrawal.
‘Evenings getting lighter, right?’ I tap the payment, shrug my shoulders. ‘Not so cold for sitting outside, either.’
‘Well, you’ll probably not be alone. Fridays are a bit more busy now the games are back on.’ Cerys nods in the direction of the telly at the same time as the door opens and two men stumble in. I’ve seen them before, kept out of their way. I think they work on one of the small fishing boats that sails out of Aberaeron. They certainly look like they’ve spent time at sea. One of them has a beard that would see off a grizzly bear, but no hair at all on top of his shaved and polished head. The other looks like a rat that fell into a bucket of used engine oil. Their gaze latches onto me uncomfortably, until Cerys finds the remote and turns up the volume on the telly to distract their attention. I give her a quick nod of thanks and escape out the back with my drink.
The sun was shining when I walked down the hill from the cottage, but by the time I take up my usual spot in the beer garden it’s gone. I can’t tell if the grey overhead means rain soon; I’m too much of a city girl for that kind of wisdom. It’s a bit chill to be sitting outside though, even with my coat on. Eating the
crisps warms me up a little, but the beer chills me right back down again. Perhaps I’d have been better off back at the cottage. There’s a wood burning stove and a seemingly endless supply of logs.
As I check my phone for messages, the two fishermen come out into the beer garden. Too much to hope I’d have the place to myself then. I call it a beer garden, but it’s more the loading yard out the back of the pub, with a few cheap wooden tables arranged at a suitably distant from each other. They don’t need to sit anywhere near me, since the place is otherwise empty, but of course they do. I glance up briefly, not catching their eyes, then go back to my pint and my phone, hoping they take the hint. So much for Llantwmp being more civilised than London.
‘Look like you could do with some company, hen.’
Like I’d entertain either of them for a second. I’ve seen more appealing prospects on the underside of my shoe.
‘C’mon sweetheart. How’s about—’
I hold up a hand to silence whichever one’s speaking. Possibly Greasy Rat, although since I’ve not looked away from my phone screen I can’t be sure. I’m busy composing a text to Karen Eve back in London, but mostly I just can’t be doing with their shit.
‘Snotty bitch,’ the other one says, and I almost turn to give him a piece of my mind. A survival instinct honed by far too many similarly unwelcome and uninvited experiences holds me back, although I do have to correct what I was trying to type on the screen. Text sent, I down the remains of my pint. It might
have been a nice evening, a couple of pints and a chance to clear my head, but now all I want is to get out of here. Away from these two before they do something even more stupid than slaphead’s hairstyle. They’re sat between me and the pub door, so I leave my empty glass as I turn towards the other way out, the one where the delivery vans come in with the beer.
‘Don’t be like that, Hen. We’re only after a bit of fun, see?’
There’s something about the tone that shatters my patience. Facing the two of them, I put on a fake smile, like an air hostess with a machine gun hidden behind her back.
‘Sorry, boys. Not interested. I’m afraid you’ll just have to suck each other off tonight.’
Then, before either of them has time to register what I’ve said, I turn and walk out of the pub garden.
Yes, I know, petty. Trading insults with a couple of losers isn’t exactly mature, but they had it coming. And I’m getting tired of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Or at the far end of nowhere, given how close this village is to the sea.
I had hoped maybe to have had time for another pint, enough to take the edge off before climbing the hill up to the cottage and an early bed. But my encounter with the two of them has left me jittery. Time was, I’d not have been fazed by the likes of them – but it’s barely a year since I was almost killed by a would-be rapist not more than a few hundred yards from my flat in London. It didn’t end well for him. Sometimes, late at night, I still hear the cut-off scream, the crunch and crack of bone as the car ran over him. I hear it now, even in the fading light of the evening, and it makes me shiver. I need to walk.
The beach stretches in a shallow arc from the hill where my cottage is, all the way south towards Aberaeron. Describing it as a beach is generous, since it largely consists of shingle and rocks. A couple of caravan parks grace the inland side. I’d make a snarky comment about it being a pretty awful place to come for a holiday, but in truth it’s not that bad. And it’s not as if everyone can afford to fly off to Ibiza for a week of sun, even if they were allowed to right now.
I don’t walk far. Behind the clouds, the sun’s half in the sea already and a cold wind is picking up the waves, throwing salt spray at me. I’d wager that there’s rain on the way, but since this is Wales that wouldn’t be a difficult bet to win. A half hour is enough to clear my head of the sudden anxiety that had swamped
me, so that by the time I walk past the pub on my way home I’m back to being calm, relaxed and ready for bed.
It’s the scent that alerts me first, a mixture of sweat and grease and body odour, but mostly too much deodorant. Or not enough. It brings back that sick feeling I thought I’d got rid of. I don’t need to turn to know that at least one of my unwelcome friends from the pub has decided to follow me. Dogs usually
hunt in packs, so my guess is the other one’s not far away.
When it comes, the attack is swift and brutal.
Had I been less aware of my surroundings, maybe headphones on and zoning out to some music, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it is, the smell isn’t my only clue. Greasy rat comes at me from behind, silent except for the soft patter of his feet on the pavement. Slaphead steps out from the corner of the nearest building, presumably intending to surprise me, cut off my escape and let his friend do all the hard work. What he doesn’t realise is that I’ve been watching them both reflected in the window of a parked car on the other side of the road since I first noticed the stench of them. The rest is all about timing.
Slaphead smiles broadly, as if greeting a long-lost friend. Perhaps he’s hoping to confuse me enough for Rat to grab me from behind. I don’t give either of them the satisfaction. At the last moment, I duck and spin, stamp my boot down hard in front of his leading foot. Rat’s momentum does most of the work, but I help him along with a hard shove in the back. His yelp of surprise turns into a shriek of pain as he hits the pavement badly. If he’s lucky, that wrist’s only sprained.
‘You fuckin’ bitch.’ Slaphead’s closer than I expected, coming for me with a snarl of rage. He’s a brawler. I take one step towards him, see the flicker of uncertainty across his features. It’s all the opening I need, that and his slightly wide-legged seaman’s stance. My boot connecting with his bollocks drives all the air out of him in a satisfying ‘whoof ’ noise and he crumples, first to his knees and then onto his side, hands cupping his bruised pride.
The punch catches me out of nowhere, snapping my jaw shut with a crack that would make my dentist wince. I’m lucky not to bite my own tongue off, and for a moment everything goes a little dark around the edges. I can’t say whether it’s an error on my part or just my sense of balance momentarily fucked, but I
feel the second punch whistle past me rather than see it. Greasy Rat is back on his feet, and even though he’s holding his injured wrist close to his body, he’s handy enough with the other fist.
Shame he seems to have spent time on the punchbag rather than the bench press like his bearded friend.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake.’ The words come out under my breath rather than as a direct insult. Not that Greasy Rat cares. He jabs in with another punch, far too well telegraphed for me to let it land. I grab his wrist as it goes past, and spin him round. He smells bad, so I’d really rather not get close, but needs must when the devil calls and all that. He screams as I get his other wrist behind him and force him to the ground, wishing I had some cuffs on me, or even a zip tie. A quick glance across at Slaphead, still lying on his side with his hands wedged between his thighs, reassures me he’s not going anywhere soon.
‘Fuckin’ kill you!’ Greasy Rat shouts, although his situation suggests otherwise. He’s a wriggler though, and I’ve got no backup. Stupid, Con. You should have thought that through. I get him in a choke hold, even though I know I shouldn’t. He keeps on struggling, but I can feel him getting weaker. Hopefully soon I can let him go, confident it’ll take him longer to get his strength back than it will for me to disappear. After I’ve got photos of both of them to pass on to the authorities, of course. They might not get charged with anything, but they’ll leave me alone if they’ve any sense.
Greasy Rat’s almost out of it, Slaphead is still curled up in a foetal position, clutching his privates and letting out the occasional whimper.
I figure we’re done here.
I’m just about to let go when I hear an all-too familiar sound behind me. The whoop-whoop of a squad car siren shatters the quiet.
Wonderful. The cavalry has arrived
by James Oswald
The gripping new thriller in the brilliant Constance Fairchild series, from one of Scotland's foremost crime writers.
On compassionate leave following the death of her mother, Detective Constable Constance Fairchild thought renting a cottage near Aberystwyth, Wales would get her far enough from London to finally relax. But trouble always seems to find Con, and it's not long before she is cooling off in a police station cell after defending herself from two would-be rapists.
In custody she meets a young Ukrainian woman, Lila, who confides in Con that she's been forced by her manipulative boyfriend into prostitution and running drugs. Fearing for her life, she has run away from him, only to end up in the cells.
Con offers to help, but when her cottage is ransacked, and Lila subsequently disappears, she realises she's stumbled into very dangerous company. International drug smugglers and ruthless people traffickers - those who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Out here at the end of the line, will Con find that there's nowhere left to run?
Praise for James Oswald:
'The new Ian Rankin' Daily Record
'Creepy, gritty and gruesome' Sunday Mirror
'Crime fiction's next big thing' Sunday Telegraph