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Had it not been for the death of the owner of Ex Libris, a second hand bookstore in Exeter, the truth of Avril Croft's end would probably have remained hidden between the pages of John Rowland's Poisoner In The Dock indefinitely. And who is to say if Prisoner C682101 would still be alive today...
Avril Croft was one of those women often labelled as a mouse, a simile not without foundation. She was small, no more than five feet and three inches tall, timid, quick in movement, thin in face and viewed the world suspiciously through black, darting eyes. Never beautiful, she nevertheless possessed a certain appeal, one that engendered a protective reflex in most of her male acquaintances, one of a favoured little sister.
Unfortunately for Avril, these feelings progressed no further than the occasional cuddle and friendly peck on the cheek. She was still a virgin at thirty-two and very much resigned to life as a spinster. And then came Evan.
Evan was a New Age traveller of uncertain years; he could have been more accurately described as a Middle Aged traveller. An unemployed (by choice) graphic design artist, he scraped a passable living here and there by doing five minute caricatures in pubs and precincts. At five pounds a picture, he could afford to work when he pleased. Or drink when he pleased. And the mood took him often. But at this time, Evan's darker side was unknown to Avril.
They met in the city's Rougemont Park, one Thursday lunchtime. She was sitting on the grass, nibbling away, mouse-like, on a cheese and lettuce sandwich; he had just retrieved a Frisbee, thrown into a goldfish pond by a fractious child.
"Not yours, is he?" said the darkly handsome man, as the child promptly hurled the toy back into the pond and ran off laughing.
"Gosh, no, I haven't got any," replied Avril, "And I wouldn't want one if they behaved like that, either."
"Free and single, are you? You don't look old enough to have a kid of that age, anyway."
Avril blushed. "My younger sister's got two older than him."
"If she's as good-looking as you, I'm surprised that she hasn't got half a dozen."
Unused to compliments, she coloured again. And then she giggled. He laughed with her and introduced himself.
"I'm Evan; what pretty name goes with that pretty face?"
Subliminal sparks flew; within ten minutes they were chatting away as if they had known each other for a lifetime. Kindling began to smoulder and flicker into flame. His eyes burned with a strange intensity as he looked at her, stirring her long-subdued emotions. The world became blurry and indistinct. She could see only him against the backdrop of the old castle walls and passing visitors.
Her lunch break passed like an English summer. They arranged to meet again that evening in a delightful little pub just off the cathedral. Evan captivated her with his traveller's tales of India and Thailand and places she'd never even heard of. She was a long time getting to sleep after Evan's goodnight kiss.
A month later, they were living together in Avril's flat in the lower part of the city. On top of his charisma, quick wit and looks, Evan was also a considerate lover and Avril's passage into complete womanhood was made with the minimum of distress and maximum of enjoyment. From that moment on, she bloomed, unfurling the petals for so long hidden by the thorns of her previous existence.
Evan, seemingly happy in their relationship, took a part time position with an advertising company and scaled down his operations as an ecological freedom fighter. Avril, on the other hand, began to re-invent herself. Gone were the staid hairstyle, round glasses, jeans and sloppy sweaters, to be replaced by a fashionable bob, contact lenses, feminine skirts, blouses and make-up. Out was the girl who hovered self-consciously around the perimeter of every social activity, in was a self-assured woman, at ease with herself and her surroundings. It seemed that Evan had transformed a caterpillar into a butterfly.
But it was not long before Evan also changed. He became the person he always was, not the person who, full of charm and humour, had swept Avril off her feet. The hunt was over; he had stalked and captured his prey and was now tired of it. His taste for new flesh returned. He was driven by a sexual hunger.
Avril, infatuated and still in a state of euphoria, did not notice the change in him at first. He would return late from the office, cursing his workload. In the nights he arrived on time, he would begin drinking early and heavily. His intensity became dark, a black hole in their creation. Conversation dwindled, unable propagate in the attenuated atmosphere. One night, after binging on cider and amphetamines, he lashed out at her, missing her face by a fraction of an inch. She had asked if he would like something to eat. On the following night she was not so lucky.
"I fell over the cat and banged my face on the refrigerator," she said thickly to her workmates, explaining her split lip.
They looked at the bruises on her wrists and said nothing. The following week, she came to work in jeans, limping heavily.
"Slipped, playing squash," she told her friends. They could not see the rainbow of colours on her thigh, caused by Doc Marten boots. But they could see the tears in her eyes.
He disappeared for three days, the first of many such episodes, giving no explanation when he eventually returned. She did not ask; her body could not take the reply. He took her roughly in bed, that night. As she lay underneath him in the dark, tears running down her cheeks, she could still smell the other woman's perfume on his body...
His shadow loomed over her like some scene from a 'fifties Hollywood B movie. She shrank into a corner, her arms raised in futile defence. He lifted his hand. The buckle flashed in the lamplight. She screamed as the heavy leather belt seared her thighs.
She sat on the edge of the bath, crying and dabbing away blood from the angry welts on her legs. What had she done to annoy him? What had she done... Whatever it was, she hadn't meant to... She did her best to please him but now it, she, wasn't good enough... It was her own fault... she must have deserved it... she would try harder, next time, so help her, God, she would try harder...
Somebody touched her arm as she tried to make sense of the spreadsheet for the third time. She drew back instinctively before she realised that it was her supervisor.
"Avril, are you all right?"
She looked up at her through dark glasses. "Yes, Doreen, I'm just a little tired, I didn't sleep too well last night."
Doreen looked around the office. "Yes, I can see that. Seems to be fairly quiet, let's take an early tea-break, shall we?"
Avril followed Doreen to the canteen. Half a dozen people were scattered around the tables, drinking or reading newspapers. Doreen pointed her to a quiet corner and went to the counter. She came back with two cups of tea. They drank in an awkward silence for a minute or so. Doreen sighed and reached out for Avril's hand.
"Not often you see people with sunglasses in November. Especially indoors."
Avril looked down at her cup, jaw trembling.
"Listen to me, Avril, I know what's going on, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? These small accidents – the cat, sport, the stairs, the swing doors. The only accident that you've been involved in is meeting that boyfriend of yours. Isn't that so?"
Tears were rolling down Avril's face, behind her dark glasses. She nodded, unable to say anything. Doreen squeezed her hand. More tears pattered onto the table.
"It's all right, Avril, it's all right... tell me all about it..."
"...and he said that he'd kill me. I don't know what to do, Doreen, I just don't know what to do..."
Doreen reached into her handbag and passed over a tissue.
"Listen to me, love, it's the voice of age and experience speaking. You've got to finish with him; people like that never stop. They can't stop. Oh, I know what all the psychologists say – that they were mistreated themselves as children, that they're repeating the same pattern, that they have no sense of self-esteem, that they can only assert themselves among those weaker. They might be right, they might be wrong; I don't care about excuses. These people are sick and there's nothing to be gained by sticking around as a punch bag while they vent their inadequacies." She sat back in her chair and looked Avril in the eye.
"There's only one thing to do, Avril, and you know it. Tell him to go. Out of your home, out of your life, out of your head. Can you do that, for your own sake?"
Avril pushed up her dark glasses. The bruises around her eyes were livid.
"That's what I get for doing nothing, Doreen. Imagine what I'll look like if I really get him going."
Doreen winced at Avril's beaten face. "Threaten him with the police, love. Tell him that you'll press charges if he so much as lifts a finger against you."
Avril fought back a sob. "He told me that he'd break every bone in my body if I ever did that."
"No, love, he won't, I promise you. Now look – take the rest of the day off. Talk to him before he starts drinking; tell him that it's all over. If things turn nasty, you can phone me and I'll be right round with my husband and son; they're both six feet tall and not even afraid of me."
A small, frightened hand reached out. Doreen squeezed it.
"Have courage, love."
The bus squealed to a halt almost opposite the block of flats in which Avril lived. She saw Evan's Volkswagen as she stepped from the platform. As if in a vacuum, her heart fell, loaded down with anxiety. What was he doing back at this time? She fumbled for her keys as she climbed the stairs to her first-floor flat. Even as she unlocked the door, her woman's intuition told her that something was wrong. That there was a cuckoo in her nest. She stepped into the hallway. A pair of blue shoes stood by the telephone table. Women's shoes. A red jacket hung from the coat rack. A woman's jacket. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd swirled around the flat. Her favourite CD. But, loud as it was, it was not loud enough to drown out the cries coming from the bedroom. Her bedroom. The door was slightly open. Avril reeled; a kind of vortex formed in her head... expanding... rushing... expanding... rushing... Unable to fight the terrible magnet that pulled her to reality, she looked into the room.
She could see, with cold clarity, her make-up on the dressing table. She had forgotten to replace the cap on her lipstick; her comb was wedged into the hairbrush, red on black. Her nightdress was hanging from the wardrobe door. It was half open, displaying the clothes that she had bought since meeting Evan. Since Evan.
They hadn't bothered to close the curtains; Evan's body was white in the clinical winter sunlight. A pair of stocking-clad legs was wrapped around his back. A towel lay underneath them. No evidence for when she came home on the 17.15 bus. On time. As usual. He was working hard, grunting loudly as he made love to one and destroyed another.
She lurched back into hard, cold world. Gasps of passion hid the click of the lock as the door, and her life, closed behind her.
She walked, oblivious to everything: the world going about its business, its occupants, theirs. Winter drew its curtains over the early evening; cars rushed past, their headlights blurred through her tears. A terrible, bleak coldness permeated every cell in her body; she was as alone as if cast away into some desolate, sunless, emotional wasteland. She stopped halfway across Exe Bridge and leant over the railings. A woman walking her dog looked at her curiously. Sodium lighting twinkled on the black lapping waters of the River Exe. She wondered if it were possible that anything could be colder than she was inside. It would be little effort to...
"Are you all right there, dear?"
Avril looked around. It was the woman with the dog.
"Yes... yes, I'm fine, thank you... just fine."
The woman looked at her again. "Sorry, dear, it's just that I thought you looked ill."
"I've not been well, but I'll be better soon," said Avril, "Thank you."
"Well, if you're sure," said the woman doubtfully, tugging on the dog's lead, "Perhaps you'd be better off at home, in the warm."
Avril was sure that she'd never be warm again.
Evan's car was missing when she eventually, and reluctantly, returned to her flat. She stepped into her invaded territory. The shoes and coat were gone. Of course they were gone. The bed was tidy, displaying no evidence of its previous condition. She looked into the laundry basket: the towel was lying on top, folded. That would be her; Evan had never tidied anything. She picked up a pillow and held it to her face. A new perfume? Or a new woman?
Sick inside, she went to the lounge. A half-empty flagon of cider stood on the coffee table, next to it, a glass. She looked up. On top of the television was a framed photograph. It had been taken at Torquay. It showed them sitting on the sea wall, arm in arm, smiling. The picture was facing the wall. She disintegrated.
He did not come back, that night. She slept fitfully on the spare bed and awoke dulled, on the edge of tears. It was cold; she pulled a curtain aside and looked out of the window. Frost dusted the grass and trees. She closed the curtain again, more comfortable in the security of darkness.
After a while, she dressed and caught a bus to the city centre. Within five minutes she was in the City Library. She found what she was looking for; there were several books on the same subject. She passed over Evan's library card. The assistant stamped the book with a cheery 'Good morning'. Avril smiled back weakly.
She walked slowly to the browsing section, sat down at one of the tables and wrote a note on a piece of scrap paper. She re-read it twice, slipped it between the last pages of the library book and left, putting the book into her handbag.
The elderly proprietor of Ex Libris was sitting behind a pile of newly arrived second-hand paperbacks, sticking price labels onto their covers. He looked over the top of his bifocals.
"Good morning, need any help?" he said.
"Just looking, at the moment," she replied.
He beamed and returned to his task. The shop was literally stacked with books on all subjects: paperbacks, hardbacks, dictionaries, atlases and encyclopaedias. Avril wandered between the tall shelves until she came to a pile of faded books, double stacked against the wall. A film of dust indicated that they had not been disturbed for some time. She removed the library book from her handbag, knelt down and, not without difficulty, slid the book under the obscure five volume set of Civil Engineering In South America: Problems and Solutions.
The proprietor was still busy with his paperbacks as she made to go.
"Nothing caught your eye, today?"
"No, not today," she said, leaving Poisoner In The Dock for some future reader to enjoy.
Doreen, concerned about Avril's non-appearance at work the next day and unanswered telephone, eventually called the police. After ringing the doorbell of her flat for some time, the two officers let themselves in with a passkey.
The flat was in darkness, the curtains drawn. When the lights were turned on, the officers made an unpleasant discovery in the lounge: the semi-naked body of Avril Croft. There was evidence of a struggle; the lounge was strewn with magazines, ornaments, photographs and clothing. She lay on her side against the wall, knees drawn up. She had two black eyes and extensive bruising to the upper torso, wrists and thighs, caused, according to the police surgeon, some time before death.
The forensic team found several Nembutal tranquilliser capsules under the sofa and traces of powder were found in a glass, which also contained stale cider and fingerprints, which were identified from the police database as those of a certain Evan Steadman. The most damning evidence came from Avril herself, scrawled weakly on the glass-topped coffee table in lipstick. It said, simply –
Within hours, Evan Steadman had been arrested on suspicion of murder. Listed among his personal effects were several capsules, later identified as illicit amphetamines and tranquillisers.
Investigation into his past showed that as well as being a drug addict, he had several convictions for assault, Grievous Bodily Harm and drug dealing. He had also been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, subject to violent mood swings. Several of Avril's work colleagues signed statements to the effect that she had come to work on numerous occasions, bruised and upset; her supervisor further testified that on her last day at work, Avril had told her that she lived in fear of Evan killing her.
Steadman was charged with the murder of Avril Croft based on overwhelming circumstantial evidence. The case did not go well for him, especially in the face of evidence given by several of his past partners. One former lover had two fractures of the jaw as a memento of his affections.
Death, according to the pathologist, was due to inhalation of vomit caused by barbiturate poisoning. The drug had been absorbed through the medium of heavily- laced cider and it appeared that the victim had fallen into a coma soon afterward.
Steadman was unable to establish an alibi. A married woman whom he claimed could substantiate his whereabouts could not be found. Two men drinking in a city pub stated that they had seen him in a wild state on the day in question, drunk and abusive. A publican had asked him to leave, in another. And he could not explain a reminder from the City Library that his book, Poisoner In The Dock was long overdue for return. Or where it was.
He was, in due course, found guilty of the murder of Avril Croft and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison...
The proprietor of Ex Libris, the bookstore, died of a heart attack, three years later. His son, uninterested in books, cancelled the lease on the property, hired a van and proceeded to sell the second-hand stock to various booksellers in the city. As he was clearing the last of the books away, a title caught his eye, tucked away in between patently unsellable volumes. Poisoner In The Dock. He flipped through it idly, wondering what a library book was doing in the shop. A folded sheet fell from between the last pages. Intrigued, he picked it up and read it.
May God decide when this comes to light. Evan Steadman did not kill me, at least not physically. Perhaps he has been in jail long enough to learn his lesson. Tell him that I hate him, even from beyond the grave. Whatever time he has done, he deserves. I didn't deserve mine.
Evan Steadman continued his life sentence, not for the killing of Avril Croft but of Prisoner C682101, battered to death in the prison workshops with a steel bar during one of his dark moods. If he hadn't been wrongly imprisoned in the first place, of course, it would never have happened. But then again, the same could be said of Avril Croft.