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
“Yeah. I see.”
“Next time I come up to help, I’m digging at Blacklands.”
The other thing that Lewis did was eat his sandwiches. Steven had tried lying about what was in them, but Lewis always checked and then ate them anyway. And then Steven would have to eat Lewis’s sandwiches immediately, whether he was hungry yet or not, otherwise Lewis would eat them too and he’d be left with nothing.
And Lewis got bored. Rare was the day when he did not start demanding that they go home by four o’clock, when there was still a good three hours’ digging to be done.
Steven couldn’t remember ever digging more than three holes while Lewis was with him. Even so, when Lewis said he was coming to help, Steven always encouraged him. Having his friend there made Steven feel less weird—as if digging up half of Exmoor for a corpse was quite normal, as long as one had a companion.
Now he threw down the spade and pulled the Spar bag open.
“You took the good half!”
“You did! You took the half with the top crust!”
A look of astonished innocence passed over Lewis’s broad, freckled face. “You call that the good half? Sorry, mate.”
Steven sighed. What was the point? He and Lewis had discussed the good half of a sandwich on at least six occasions. Lewis knew the good half as well as he did, but in the face of such blatant denial, what could he do? Was the good half of a peanut butter sandwich worth losing a friend for?
Of course, Steven knew the answer was no—but he felt dimly that at some point in the future, the moment might come when all the bad-half sandwiches he’d had to swallow exploded out of him and washed Lewis away on an unstoppable tide of resentment.
He ate his own sandwich quickly, then picked the tomato out of the half of egg sandwich Lewis had left him—the bad half again, he noticed wearily—and ate that too.
Steven had not told Lewis about the letter. He was embarrassed by it, as if he’d written a letter to Steven Gerrard asking for an autograph.
Of course, if he had Steven Gerrard’s autograph, every boy in the school would have wanted to look and touch (except for Uncle Billy, the loser Man City fan, thought Steven fleetingly). But until such an autograph was granted, the author of that request would have had scorn—and possibly physical violence—poured onto him on a daily basis.
No, only if and when it ultimately yielded up the body of William Peters did anyone have to know about the letter.
Then Steven would admit what he had done, in the certain knowledge that Nan and Mum would agree—and be thankful for the fact—that the end had justified the means.
Steven’s initial thrill at receiving Arnold Avery’s letter was supplanted by disappointment when he read it. At first.
After a few days, however, the two neatly written sentences contained therein had begun to take on a deeper meaning in his mind. The very fact that—apart from Avery’s prison number along the top of the page—there were only two sentences required that they be pored over and analyzed in a way that a six-page rant never would have been.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” After a couple of days, Steven decided that this was just not true. Could not be true! Contrary to Lewis’s assertion, Steven had done his very best to think like a murderer when writing the letter, and he had more knowledge of how murderers thought than most twelve-year-olds.
After the bedroom incident where he had pissed his pants (which, mercifully, neither he nor Lewis ever referred to), Mum had told him about what happened to Uncle Billy.
At first Steven had been numbed with horror but, with Lewis’s excited encouragement, he slowly learned to be fascinated. His mother had told him Avery’s name, but would say little else about him. Instead, over the next year or so, Steven had read about serial killers. He’d thought it best to do this in secret, hiding library books in his kit bag and reading under the sheets by torchlight.
With many nervous moments spent hearing footsteps creak towards him outside the protective duvet cocoon, he learned more about murder than any boy his age should ever know.
He learned of organized killers and disorganized killers; of thrill seekers and trophy takers; of those who stalked their prey and those who just pounced as the mood seized them. He read of crushed puppies and skinned cats; of bullies and bullied; of Peeping Toms and fire starters; of frenzied hacking and clinical dissection.
Steven’s manic reading had two major effects. First, in a single year his school-tested reading age leaped from seven years to twelve. Secondly, he learned that despite the seemingly crazy nature of their work, serial killers like Arnold Avery were in fact quite methodical. This told him that if he was true to type, Avery was likely to remember those he had killed quite vividly.
For a start, each of his victims had been chosen deliberately and, if Avery hadn’t known their names when he killed them, he sure took the trouble to find out afterwards.
In the fifteen minutes of free internet time he could devote to his search on any one day at the school library, Steven had found only a couple of online archived reports of Avery’s trial, but from them he discovered that Avery had picked Yasmin Gregory’s name from the
Bracknell & District News
. Yasmin had presented a bouquet of ugly orange lilies to Princess Anne. There was a photo of her curtseying. The cutting had later been found in the house Avery shared with his widowed mother, along with newspaper reports of her family’s appeal for her safe return. The cuttings were discovered by police in a shoe box along with Yasmin’s yellow knickers with
in glitter-writing across the front. The knickers had been laundered; the report said Avery was “disgusted by bodily fluids.”
The report also said Yasmin had been kept alive for at least two days. Steven searched again and found a photo of Yasmin in a cornflower blue dress—a gap-toothed blond child with a lazy eye. The photo had been cropped to show Yasmin alone, but Steven could tell she’d been hugging a dog when it was taken.
Steven shivered, although the tiny school library was oppressively hot.
Yasmin Gregory, who’d hugged a big yellow dog. Yasmin Gregory, who’d probably thought that being teased at school about her eye was as bad as it got. Yasmin Gregory, who’d left home in her Tuesday knickers but who hadn’t been killed until Thursday …
Steven quickly switched off the computer.
How long had Avery kept Uncle Billy alive?
The librarian tutted behind him. “You’re supposed to log off, you know. If you can’t play with it properly, you won’t be allowed on it again.”
“Sorry,” said Steven.
He walked home slowly, his mind whirring.
Slicing through every social norm, evading capture with supernatural ease, and preying on the small, the vulnerable, and the trusting, Avery had swept down like the angel of death and pulled a pin out of his family. Then he hadn’t even stuck around to watch it explode.
Steven’s mind could only snatch fleetingly at Avery’s crimes. He could think the words, but shortly after thinking them, the concept of what Avery had done kept slipping away from him, too evil and illogical to stick in his head for long. Avery played by different rules—rules that few human beings were even aware of. Rules that seemed to have emanated from another world entirely.
Once—unexpectedly—Steven caught sight of the world Arnold Avery inhabited, and it scared him cold.
One day in geography Mrs. James showed them a photo of the Milky Way. When she pointed out their solar system within it, Steven felt a jolt run through him. How small! How tiny! How completely and utterly insignificant it was! And somewhere inside that speck of light was a dot of a planet and they were merely microbes on its surface.
No wonder Arnold Avery did what he did! Why shouldn’t he? What did it matter in the whole scheme of things? Wasn’t it he, Steven Lamb, who was the fool for caring what had happened to a single one of those microbes on a dot inside a speck of light? What was everyone getting so hot under the microbial collar about? It was Avery who saw the bigger picture; Avery who knew that the true value of human life was precisely nothing. That taking it was the same as not taking it; that conscience was just a self-imposed bar to pleasure; that suffering was so transitory that a million children might be tortured and killed in the merest blink of a cosmic eye.
The feeling passed and Steven’s cheeks and ears prickled with the horror of it. It was as if something quite alien had momentarily invaded his mind and tried to tug him clear of reality and set him adrift on a sea of black nothingness. He looked up to see Mrs. James and the rest of the class looking at him with a mixture of interest and contempt. He never knew what he’d missed, or what he’d done to draw their stares, and he never cared; he was just relieved to be back.
Later, it was remembering this incident that made Steven realize why he was keeping his letter secret. This was much, much worse than writing to a footballer or a pop star. What he was doing was writing to the bogeyman; to Santa Claus; to E.T. the Extra-Terrest-rial—to someone who did not even exist on this plane of reality.
Steven was writing to the Devil and asking for mercy.
So, with his reading and his research and his epiphany in geography, by the time he wrote his letter Steven felt he knew plenty about Arnold Avery.
That was why he was convinced that Avery knew only too well what he was talking about. And if he’d lied about that, then wasn’t “Have a nice day” equally suspect? Once he’d thought it, Steven was convinced he was right about that too, and started to work out what Avery might really have meant.
Surely those four words had no place in any flat-out rejection of his request? Steven had not studied semantics or even heard the word, but Arnold Avery’s letter was a good introduction to the subject and Mrs. O’Leary would have been impressed by his deductions.
Steven lived in Somerset, but he was no bumpkin. He had an Eminem CD and had seen any number of loud and bullet-riddled Hollywood gangsta movies. Drawing on the experiences of those strange people in a strange land, he figured that a flat-out rejection would have looked something like this: “Don’t write to me again, shitbag.” Or “Fuck you and your mother.” Steven didn’t know what irony was either, but he could feel
coming off the page at him. He knew the four words did not mean what they claimed to. By day three, “Have a nice day” had become a code in Steven’s mind for “You’re a brave kid.” By day five it seemed to be saying: “I admire your attempt to get this information.”
By day seven he was pretty convinced it meant: “Better luck next time...”
PRING HAD TAKEN THE DAY OFF AND
ARNSTAPLE IN THE RAIN
was something even the most enlightened town planner had no solution to.
A blustery wind threw rain into faces, and raised a million ripples on the wide, mud brown surface of the Taw.
Even the high-street chain stores looked besieged by the weather, huddled in the shelter of the battered Victorian buildings above them. Marks & Spencer was temporary home to this year’s strappy fashions and, in its doorway, an angry one-legged drunk shouting, “Fuck the
Hanging baskets dripped miserably onto wet shoppers—the petals of the primroses and winter pansies plastered against their own leaves, or drooping, heads heavy with water.
Steven knew how they felt. Rain stuck his hair to his forehead and trickled under his collar. Nan didn’t agree with baseball caps and Steven declined to wear the laughable yellow sou’wester type of hat that Davey was too young to refuse. Now and then he tried to edge under Lettie’s umbrella without making it obvious.
Nan wore a see-through plastic headscarf that tied under her chin. It was the kind of thing that most people would have worn a couple of times, then thrown away or lost; Nan had had hers for as long as Steven had been alive—at least. He knew that when they got home she would lay it over a radiator to dry, then fold it like a fan into a ruler-sized strip. Then she’d roll it up and put an elastic band around it to keep it neat in her bag.