Read Blacklands Online

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

Blacklands (5 page)

BOOK: Blacklands
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Steven’s uncle Billy—the very boy whose hands had constructed the space station—had been murdered!

Lewis had felt the hairs stand up on his arms when Steven said it. Even better, he’d been murdered by a serial killer and—best of all—his body was most likely still buried somewhere on Exmoor! On the very moor which he, Lewis, could see from his bedroom window!

At the time Steven was still cowed by the tellings-off and the tears in his household, and the sadness which came with the sudden shocking understanding of his own family’s suffering. But safely ensconced three doors down, Lewis was merely drunk with the gruesome thrill of it all.

It was—naturally—Lewis’s idea to find Billy’s body, and he and Steven spent the summer of their tenth year tramping across the moor looking for lumps under the heather or signs of disturbed ground. Snipers and Lego lost their charms in the face of the real possibility of the corpse of a long-dead child. They called the new game Bodyhunt.

But when the evenings grew short and the rain grew cold, Lewis inexplicably tired of Bodyhunt and rediscovered his passion for small colored bricks and beans and chips.

Surprisingly, Steven did not. Even more surprisingly, that winter he acquired a rusty spade and an Ordnance Survey map of the moor and started a more systematic search.

Sometimes Lewis would accompany him but more often he did not. He covered his guilt at this abandonment by loyally maintaining the secrecy of Steven’s operation, and by demanding frequent and fulsome reports of where Steven had been and what he had found. Then he would pore over the map and decide where Steven should dig next. This gave the impression that Lewis was not only involved but in charge, which both of them felt comfortable with and neither believed.

At first, when Lewis became bored by the search and was trying to get Steven to be bored by it too, he had asked his friend why he wanted to continue.

“I just want to find him, that’s all.”

If he had been put on a rack and stretched, Steven could not have been any less vague about why he continued to dig when Lewis had decreed that they should desist. He only knew that digging had become an itch he needed to scratch.

Lewis could only sigh. His best efforts were met with friendly but determined shrugs and finally he decided to let Steven be. They were still best friends at school but Lalo Bryant became his main after-school friend, even though Lalo had a lot of his own ideas about snipers and Lego, which made their relationship more difficult for Lewis.

And so Lewis and Steven developed a new, less perfect routine: one in which they hung out at school, compared—and sometimes swapped—sandwiches, and avoided the hoodies. Then Lewis went home to play with his Lego, and Steven went out onto the moor to search for the corpse of a long-dead child.

Chapter 6

S
TEVEN LAY IN THE HEATHER, HIDDEN FROM EVERY EYE BUT THOSE
of passing birds. His spade lay beside him, but without fresh soil on it. The unusual gift of February sun warmed his eyelids and made the breath that flowed evenly from his nostrils feel uncommonly cool.

Under his lids, his eyes flickered minutely as he dreamed a dream …

In his dream, he was hot and it was stuffy and he could hardly move. His arms were pinned to his sides and soft darkness pressed on his face; a slight pulling sensation on the top of his head …

From somewhere he felt Davey’s tiny hand touch his, groping for comfort; he squeezed it, but could not otherwise move. He could feel the fear coming through Davey’s hand, the small, hot fingers sliding through his, the boy’s body pressed against his legs …

Steven knew they must be wound in the heavy green curtain in the front room, the musty cloth wrapped around his head and spiralling upwards to the pelmet, taking a twist of his hair with it. Then Davey’s breathing jerked and his own breathing stopped and suddenly all he could hear was the sound of his own heart thudding in his ears, and Steven knew Uncle Jude had entered the room. Steven didn’t move—he couldn’t move—but he could feel Davey tense against him, and their intertwined hands gripped so hard it hurt.

Uncle Jude wasn’t ho-ho-ho-ing. He wasn’t giving them any warning. But Steven and Davey could hear the floorboards creak under his enormous feet, closer and closer, and Steven was suddenly seized by a terrible knowledge that what was coming to get them was not Uncle Jude at all, and that an old green curtain was their only protection from the evil thing that now moved towards them … Then Davey was crying, “I’m Frankenstein’s friend!” and breaking cover and giving them away but Steven felt no relief—only terror that this time the game was not about to end. This time it was only just beginning.

He jerked awake with a whimper.

He knew what he had to do.

Chapter 7

A
RNOLD
A
VERY STOPPED READING AND SAT BACK ON HIS BUNK
and gazed at the ceiling while the words floated around in his head like a magic spell.

Dear.

Mr.

Avery.

How long had it been since he’d had a letter thus addressed? Nineteen years? Twenty? Before he’d been inside, certainly.

Since he’d been driven through the gates of Heavitree Prison in Gloucestershire and marched to his cell through a gauntlet of spit and hatred, he’d had letters which started in a variety of ways: “Mr. Avery” from his hopeless cut-rate solicitor, “Dear Son” from his hopeless cut-rate mother, “You fucking piece of shit”—or variations on the theme—from many hopeless cut-rate strangers.

The thought gave him a pang. “Dear Mr. Avery” made him think of gas bills and insurance salesmen and Lucy Amwell who’d gone off half-cocked trying to organize a school reunion, like they’d all grown up in California instead of a smoggy dump in Wolverhampton. But still, they were people who’d wanted to be nice to him and interact with him without judging and whining and grimacing with that cold look of disgust they couldn’t hide.

Dear Mr. Avery. That was who he really was! Why couldn’t other people see it? He read it again.

If Arnold Avery had had a cellmate, he would have been struck by the total stillness that descended suddenly on this slightly built killer of small and helpless things. It was a stillness more marked even than sleep—as if Avery had slipped rapidly into a coma and the world was turning without him. His pale green eyes half closed and his breathing became almost imperceptible. That cellmate would also have seen Avery’s sun-starved skin break out in goose-flesh.

But if the hypothetical cellmate had been privy to the workings of Avery’s brain he might have been shocked by the sudden surge in activity.

The carefully hand-printed words on the page had exploded in Avery’s brain like a bomb. He knew who WP was, of course, just as he knew MO, and LD, and all the others. They were triggers in the loaded gun of his mind, which he could use to fire off streams of exciting memories whenever he wanted. His brain was a filing cabinet of useful information. Now, as his body shut down to allow his mind to work more efficiently, he allowed himself to slide open the drawer marked WP and to peer inside—something he had not done for some years.

WP was not his favorite. Generally he used MO or TD; they had been the best. But WP was not to be sniffed at and, inside that mental drawer, Avery hoarded a wealth of information gleaned from his experience, from newspaper and TV reports of the child’s disappearance, and, later, from his own trial which had been moved to the picturesque Crown Court in Cardiff—supposedly to give him a fighting chance, which was laughable, when you thought about it.

William Peters, aged eleven. Fair hair in a fringe over dark blue eyes, pink cheeks on pale skin, and—for a short while—a grin that almost swallowed his ears it was so wide.

Avery had stopped at the crappy little village shop. He’d bought a ham sandwich because burying Luke Dewberry had been hungry work. Out of habit, he’d glanced at the local paper, the
Exmoor Bugle
.

Local papers were a rich source of information for a man like him. They were filled with photos of children. Children dressed as pirates for charity; children who had won silver medals at national clarinet competitions; children who had been picked for the Under-13s even though they were only eleven; whole teams of children in soccer or cricket or running kit, each with his or her name conveniently printed in the caption below. Sometimes he would call them, pretending to be another reporter wanting the story for another newspaper. It was so easy. Bigheaded parents were only too happy to milk their child’s paltry success and would hand over the phone. Only rarely did they snatch the phone from their child’s ear in time—alerted by the confused shock on a young face.

Sometimes he just used a child’s name and details to strike up conversation with random kids in parks and playgrounds. “How old are you? You must know my nephew, Grant? The one who just got the lifesaving award, you know? Yeah, that’s right. I’m his uncle Mac.” And he’d be off.

Anyway.

He’d just got back in his van with the sandwich when he saw William Peters—Billy, his mother called him later in the papers—go into the shop. Avery only caught a fleeting glimpse of Billy but it was worth waiting until he came out, he thought. He ate the ham sandwich while he did just that. He hadn’t bought the
Bugle
on the basis that it was too close to home. He didn’t live on Exmoor but this was where he’d just buried a body, so he’d made a mental note to avoid local children. But there was something about Billy …

The boy took a while and when he came out, Avery knew.

Now, all these years on, Avery still managed to recapture some of the thrill of that moment when he identified a target. The way he hardened, and spit filled his mouth, so that he had to swallow to keep from drooling like an idiot.

Billy was kind of on the thin side, but he had a little-boy jauntiness that was very appealing. He walked away from Avery’s van, blissfully unaware that he’d just chosen the last meal of his young life—a bag of Maltesers. It made Avery smile to watch the child swagger down the street, crunching on his sweets, kicking a plastic milk bottle along the gutter. He liked a confident child; a confident child was far more likely to be eager to help—to lean through the window just that little bit farther …

BOOK: Blacklands
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