We were down by the reservoir, at our favourite hangout spot, the day the nightmare began. It was May 14th 2006, three years ago and we were young, innocent, celebrating the weekend. Well, young, but not very innocent. Fred had dared Alex to climb all the way up the big oak that stood beside the water, and, obviously, he hadn’t refused. He was about halfway up and we were all cheering him on.
Let me tell you something about my friends, Alex Elliott first. He and I met in about year 3 and have been virtually inseparable ever since. At thirteen he was rash, irresponsible, and one helluva laugh. He’s grown up a bit since then – at sixteen he became a little more like an adult, although he’s still one helluva laugh. He’s also one of the bravest people I know. If he’s got a fault it’s that he’s incapable of knowing when to stop. Freddie Hailer’s more or less the same, except he knows his limits, which makes them a good pair. He joined our little band in Year 4 - he’d switched from the other primary across town when the council shut it down because, to be perfectly honest, it was shit. Seriously, most of the Year 6s did drugs and sold them to them to the younger kids. Freddie’s always looked younger than he is, cause he’s got quite a cherubic face and is also quite short, which presents a problem these days when going to 15 rated films at the cinema.
And last, but certainly not least, Stephanie Francelli. Italian in there somewhere on her father’s side, as the name would suggest. Black hair, olive skin. Bright, sunny, the eternal optimist, she’s always joking how she was lucky not to be called “Ellie Francelli.” Very private most of the time. She’s known as the new kid on the block, as her family moved here just before we started in Year 7. She’s the sunniest person any of us know. Right now she was standing next to me, egging Alex on as he reached the top branches. We all cheered as he scrambled up onto the very top of the tree.
“Told you I could!” he boasted as he climbed back down and jumped lightly to the floor.
Freddie punched him lightly. “Not such a wimp as you look,” he joked.
“You can talk!” Alex pretended to take him seriously, pushing him gently. They fell to a mock fight on the floor.
Laughing almost as hard as them, Steph and I pulled them off one another.
“Play nicely children,” Steph told them, mock stern.
Still breathless, we flopped as one under the oak tree and broke open the 7-Up we’d brought with us. I can remember think that it was the most gorgeous day – bright blue sky and warm sun. Later on we’d probably go and get ice cream or something in town and detour through the woods on the way home.
Well, that was all about to change.
What happened to shatter the friendly, relaxed atmosphere was a shrill, high pitched scream, followed by deep throated laughing.
We all sat up, Steph wide eyed and fearful, the two boys looking worried.
There was no need to say anything. We all jumped up and followed the sound, which came from the woods which bordered around 10 paces from where we sat.
They’re slightly creepy, even in bright sunlight. The bracken and foliage is so thick that even the midday summer sun is filtered to the point where it’s more like evening than noon. It’s ancient as well. The trees are huge and knarled, all sycamores and horse chestnuts and oaks. It’s the sort of place where you can believe in ghosts and witches. Of course, at twelve and thirteen we all laughed it off, relishing the adrenaline rush of climbing up and down the trees, making rope and tyre swings and jumping out at people from in the bracken. But this time, with the screams bouncing off the trees and mannish laughter weaving in and out of desperate sobs, it was a rush of a different kind. The rush you get when watching a really scary movie. The rush you get when you’re staring death in the face and you know it.
The sobs got louder as we crept through the tall ferns and bracken. About 5 minutes from when we came in we reached a clearing with wide tree stumps where they had been clearing the trees as part of woodland management. Ducking down, Alex parted the bracken and we squatted beside him. We know this clearing very well. You can still see the remains of the tyre swing we made around five years ago with the Robinson’s from down the road. Normally it was completely empty except for the sad remains of the great trees which had once stood there. However, in the middle, there was a campfire, a Jeep and various pieces of litter scattered around.
At the edge, there was also a young girl tied to a tree. She looked about twelve.
I almost screamed. It was Jilly Stevens. She was two years below us. She lived three streets away from me. She’d gone missing yesterday, walking home from school. Apparently, this was where she’d ended up.
Her face was tear-streaked. Her hair was matted. Most of her clothes had been virtually torn off her. She was staring in terror at three men surrounding her.
Two of them were watching in anticipation. The other, the meanest looking, who had thick dark hair in contrast with his dangerous look, was taping over her mouth with grey duct tape, muffling her screams.
I couldn’t watch as he raped her. None of us could. I hid my face in Alex’s jumper as first one man, then the others forced themselves into her again and again. They gave her no opportunity to fight back. She was bound tightly to the tree. Each time she struggled, each time she tried to lash out, bound as she was, the men only laughed. As if she was a sitcom, rather than a human being.
Freddie, behind me, touched me on the shoulder.
“We have to get out of here,” he breathed, indicating Steph. She was shaking like a leaf in windy weather.
I tapped Alex. “Let’s go,” I whispered.
“Hold on a sec.” He pulled out the pen he always carried around with him and started writing on his hand.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“Taking down the number plate of the Jeep.”
Slowly, we began to back away through the bracken. But not fast enough to miss the sound of the cocked pistol.
Not fast enough to miss the shot which shattered the air.
That was when we broke into a run.
I heard one of the men behind us shout something like, “Oi, Rabman, there’s someone there!” I didn’t care. I don’t think any of us cared. All that mattered was putting as much distance as possible between us and those murderers.
We burst out of the woods, past the abandoned cans of drink and sprinted for the road. Not one of us looked back.
We reached the park about ten minutes later. It was full of people out jogging, walking their dogs, having picnics with their children. Scenes of normal life in a normal small town suburb.
I couldn’t relate to them.
Not after what we’d just witnessed.
“In broad bloody daylight,” gasped Alex, doubling over, his hands on his knees. “Bloody bastads.”
“You don’t say,” panted Freddie sarcastically.
Steph said nothing, just sat there on the bench, white faced, breathless as the rest of us after the sprint.
I think I know what shellshock feels like. All four of us knew about rape, rapists, pedos, all that crap. Heaven knows it’s on the news enough. But what I had just discovered was that reading about it, seeing it on the news, and actually witnessing it firsthand. It left me feeling nauseated, that anyone could be that cold hearted, that immune to the screams of a child.
“So, are we gonna just sit here, or go to the police?” I asked.
“What makes you think they’ll believe us?” Alex asked. “They’ll probably think we were high on something.”
“Look, that guy just raped and shot someone in cold blood. This is something he’s done before. With any luck, they’ll know who he is and be able to round him up.”
“It’s a long shot Robs,” said Freddie, and then realised what he’d said.
“Well, if you want to go chasing after a murderous, homicidal lunatic with a gun and two accomplices, be my guest, but I’m going to tell the police what I know.” I got up and walked towards the town centre. As I expected, my three friends followed.
“I am not making this up!”
The chief inspector smiled at me indulgently. “You expect me to believe that you just happened across three strange men raping and shooting a girl. Pull the other one love, its got bells on.”
“Please don’t call me love. A girl has just died and my friends and I just witnessed it. The least you can do is bear with me.” I was feeling shaken, shocked, and right now it was taking every mite of self-control I possessed to stop myself from punching the burly police officer in his smug, patronising mouth. And Alex as well, whom I could tell had an I told you so smile on his face.
“Sweetheart, I think you’ve been watching too many cop programmes. I don’t suppose you’ve got a name you can put to this mystery man?” Still patronising, still superior. God, I wanted to thump him. And then kick him in the balls for good measure.
“Yes, actually,” Freddie piped up. “What did that man yell at us? ‘Rabman, that’s someone over there’ or something like that?”
The smile dropped from the inspectors face as quickly as wiping down a whiteboard. “Rabman, you say?”
The policeman looked at our pale, shocked faces for a few seconds and seemed to take them in for the first time.
“I think you’d better show me where all this happened.”
The clearing was swarming with forensics officers, policemen, and yellow tape. The girl’s body had been taken away. The Jeep had gone as well – presumably ‘Rabman’ and his mates had driven off in it. The number plate Alex had written down was winging its way to every police station in the county. Road blocks had been set up. I didn’t care, not particularly. All I wanted to see was the inside of my shower, and then bed and a film, probably something like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ or ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ Something long and amusing to take my mind off things. But no. Statement after statement after statement. Four different police officers asking you what you saw. Descriptions of the men. This form. That form. I felt like screaming.
The chief inspector had told us that Charlie Rabman was wanted under numerous charges of murder, rape, robbery, you name it in six – now seven - different places across the UK and five in the USA. He was also fairly big in drug dealing, smuggling it into the country from various different places around the world. Our information seemed to have thrown the entire country into a frenzy. News crews were kicking around, looking for a scoop. I think we all just wanted to pack it in and go home to get over our trying experiences.
One of the officers suddenly yelled at the Chief Inspector. “They got him! Picked him up on the main road about 10 miles from here, driving like a maniac!”
They sent him down for life. He became one of those men who would spend the rest of their lives in prison. The others would serve a maximum of 25 years before they would be considered for parole. The county police force – and us four – became the heroes of the hour. All that mattered to me was the fact that’d he’d never kill, rape, or shatter the lives of any more young girls and their families. I thought it was the end.
I was wrong.
It had only just begun.
* * *
Three years later, we had all but forgotten about Rabman - though we couldn’t quite forget the scene - but tonight it was the last thing on my mind. It was Halloween and Alex and I were sprawled across his sofa, drinking Cola, eating popcorn, and watching ‘The Grudge.’ Well, curled up on one end might have been a better phrase. The Elliott house is a shambles at the best of times, because his parents have far too much stuff and he’s got two slobs for elder brothers. There is stuff piled on every surface and the sofa is no different.
Alex and I didn’t care – it was kinda cosy, but when his brothers got the wrong idea it did get annoying. Fortunately, they were at the pub.
“I love being the youngest in the family,” I said as the opening credits rolled.
“Why? Don’t tell me you like being bossed around by older siblings and having parents treating you like a kid?”
“No, but Steph and Freddo are both having to chaperone their small siblings dressed up as witches and ghosts and Lord knows what else while they try and beg candy off the neighbours in the cold, while you and I are sitting here, in the warm, on a comfortable sofa, eating popcorn and watching rubbish horror films on TV.”
I must have seen ‘The Grudge’ about 5 times, but it’s still so bad it’s funny. I know Steph thinks it’s creepy and freaks out when I make the noise, but I’ll never forget the time she put the DVD back in the wrong box, so instead of getting ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at her little sister Carla’s 4th birthday sleepover, they got this. To this day she still sleeps with boxes up against her wardrobe.
We’d just got to the part when she finds the bodies in the loft when the doorbell rang and something flopped onto the mat.
“I’ll get it.” Alex hopped up and went out into the hallway.
In a minute he was back. “You didn’t say ‘Trick’ to one of those kids did you?” he asked.
I twisted round. “No, why?”
He handed me the piece of paper.
‘We know who you are (it said). We know where you live. Bolt your doors and windows because we’re coming after you.’
“That is what happens to kids on too much candy. This is someone’s sick joke,” said Alex. He thought it was a prank.
“Maybe.” I was thinking hard. None of the kids around here would do this. Their parents would kill them if they tried. But I remembered this morning. Normally Mum gives me the morning papers after she’s finished with them, cause I like going through them and looking for interesting articles. But today she put them in the recycling before I could look at them. ‘Nothing in there to interest you,’ she’d said.
“You don’t have a copy of today’s papers do you?” I asked.
“Dunno. Think so – they’ll probably be in the kitchen if they’re anywhere. What do you want it for?” Alex never reads the papers – he says they depress him even more than he is already.
I went into the kitchen, which still smelled of microwave popcorn. The Times was sitting on the table. I picked it up and began leafing through it.
There it was, on page two. The screaming headline ‘RAPISTS ON THE RUN – MASS MURDERERS ESCAPE FROM TOP SECURITY PRISON.’
And, underneath, a picture of Charlie Rabman and his two accomplices.
The article went on to describe how the three of them had impersonated prison wardens, knocking out the real ones and had just walked out the front door.
I pointed it out to Alex, who had followed me into the kitchen and was looking over my shoulder.
“That’s just co-incidence, Robyn. It’s a prank, nothing more.”
“Maybe.” I wanted to believe him. But I just couldn’t.