Authors: Belinda Bauer
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Suspense Fiction, #Murder, #Investigation, #Mystery Fiction, #Crime, #Missing Persons, #Domestic fiction, #England, #Serial Murderers, #Boys, #Exmoor (England), #Murder - Investigation - England, #Missing Persons - England, #Boys - England
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Belinda Bauer
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition January 2010
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Designed by C. Linda Dingler
Manufactured in the United States of America
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Bauer, Belinda, 1962-Blacklands: a novel / Belinda Bauer.—1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.
1. Boys—England—Fiction. 2. Missing persons—England—Fiction. 3. Exmoor (England)—Fiction. 4. Murder—Investigation—England—Fiction. 5. Serial murderers—Fiction. 6. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
ISBN 978-1-4391-5759-6 (ebook)
To my mother,
who gave us everything and never thought it was enough
XMOOR DRIPPED WITH DIRTY BRACKEN, ROUGH, COLORLESS
grass, prickly gorse, and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the moor cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark—a twelve-year-old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade.
It had rained for three days, but the roots of grass and heather and gorse twisting through the soil still resisted the spade’s intrusion. Steven’s expression did not change; he dug the blade in again, feeling a satisfying little impact all the way up to his armpits. This time he made a mark—a thin human mark in the great swathe of nature around him.
Before Steven could make the next mark, the first narrow stripe had filled with water and disappeared.
Three boys slouched through the Shipcott rain, their hands deep in their pockets, their hoodies over their faces, their shoulders hunched as if they couldn’t wait to get out of the rain. But they had nowhere to hurry to, so they meandered and bumped along and laughed and swore too loudly at nothing at all, just to let the world know they were there and still had expectations.
The street was narrow and winding and, in summer, passing tourists smiled at the seaside-painted terraces with their doors opening right onto the pavement and their quaint shutters. But the rain made the yellow and pink and sky blue houses a faded reminder of sunshine, and a refuge only for those too young, too old, or too poor to leave.
Steven’s nan looked out of the window with a steady gaze.
She had started life as Gloria Manners. Then she became Ron Peters’s wife. After that, she was Lettie’s mum, then Lettie and Billy’s mum. Then for a long time she was Poor Mrs. Peters. Now she was Steven’s nan. But underneath she would always be Poor Mrs. Peters; nothing could change that, not even her grandsons.
Above the half-nets, the front window was spotted with rain. The people over the road already had their lights on. The roofs were as different as the walls. Some still wore their old pottery tiles, rough with moss. Others, flat grey slate that reflected the watery sky. Above the roofs, the top of the moor was just visible through the mist—a gentle, rounded thing from this distance. From the warmth of a front room with central heating and the kettle starting to whistle in the kitchen, it even looked innocent.
The shortest of the boys struck the window with the flat of his palm and Steven’s nan recoiled in fright.
The boys laughed and ran although no one was chasing them and they knew no one was likely to. “Nosey old bag!” one of them shouted back, although it was hard to see which, with their hoods so low on their faces.
Lettie hurried in, breathless and alarmed. “What was that?”
But Steven’s nan was back in the window. She didn’t look round at her daughter. “Is tea ready?” she said.
Steven walked off the moor with his anorak slung over one shoulder and his T-shirt soaked and steaming with recent effort. The track carved through the heather by generations of walkers was thick with mud. He stopped—his rusty spade slung over his other shoulder like a rifle—and looked down at the village. The streetlamps were already on and Steven felt like an angel or an alien, observing the darkening dwellings from on high, detached from the tiny lives being lived below. He ducked instinctively as he saw the three hoodies run down the wet road.
He hid the spade behind a rock near the slippery stile. It was rusty but, still, someone might take it, and he couldn’t carry it home with him; that might lead to questions he could not—or dared not—answer.
He walked down the narrow passage beside the house. He was cooling now, and shivered as he took off his trainers to run them under the garden tap. They’d been white once, with blue flashes. His mum would go mad if she saw them like this. He rubbed them with his thumbs and squeezed the mud out of them until they were only dirty, then shook them hard. Muddy water sprayed up the side of the house, but rain washed it quickly away. His grey school socks were heavy and sodden; he peeled them off, his feet a shocking cold white.
“You’re soaking.” His mother peered from the back door, her face pinched and her dark blue eyes as dull as a northern sea. Rain spattered the straw hair that was dragged back into a small, functional ponytail. She jerked her head back inside to keep it dry.
“I got caught in it.”
“Where were you?”
This was not strictly a lie. He had been with Lewis immediately after school.
“What were you doing?”
“Nothing. Just. You know.”
From the kitchen he heard his nan say, “He should come straight home from school!”
Steven’s mother glared at his wetness. “Those trainers were only new at Christmas.”
“Sorry, Mum.” He looked crestfallen; it often worked.
She sighed. “Tea’s ready.”
Steven ate as fast as he dared and as much as he could. Lettie stood at the sink and smoked and dropped her ash down the plughole. At the old house—before they came to live with Nan—his mum used to sit at the table with him and Davey. She used to eat. She used to talk to him. Now her mouth was always shut tight, even when it held a cigarette.
Davey sucked the ketchup off his chips then carefully pushed each one to the side of his plate.
Nan cut little pieces off her breaded fish, inspecting each with a suspicious look before eating it.
“Something wrong with it, Mum?” Lettie flicked her ash with undue vigor. Steven looked at her nervously.
“It’s a fillet. Says so on the box. Plaice fillet.”
“They always miss some. You can’t be too careful.”
There was a long silence in which Steven listened to the sound of his own food inside his head.
“Eat your chips, Davey.”
Davey screwed up his face. “They’re all wet.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you sucked them, shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t you?”
At the repeated question, Steven stopped chewing, but Nan’s fork scraped the plate.
Lettie moved swiftly to Davey’s side and picked up a soggy chip. “Eat it!”
Davey shook his head and his lower lip started to wobble.
With quiet spite, Nan murmured: “Leaving food. Kids nowadays don’t know they’re born.”
Lettie bent down and slapped Davey sharply on the bare thigh below his shorts. Steven watched the white handprint on his brother’s skin quickly turn red. He loved Davey, but seeing someone other than himself get into trouble always gave Steven a small thrill, and now—watching his mother hustling his brother out of the kitchen and up the stairs, bawling his head off—he felt as if he had somehow been accorded an honor: the honor of being spared the pent-up irritation of his mother. God knows, she’d taken her feelings for Nan out on him often enough. But this was further proof of what Steven had been hoping for some time—that Davey was finally old enough, having just turned five, to suffer his share of the discipline pool. It wasn’t a deep pool, or a dangerous one, but what the hell; his mother had a short fuse and a punishment shared was a punishment halved in Steven’s eyes. Maybe even a punishment escaped altogether.