It was difficult finding an excuse to go up to London. Until last year my parents wouldn’t even let me catch the bus by myself. So it was with a thumping heart that I entered the living room where my parents were seated.
“All right love?” asked Mum, making room for me on the sofa.
“Erm….yeah,” I said. I felt like a prisoner about to be interrogated.
“What’s the matter?” Dad asked.
Alex and I had talked about this in advance.
“Steph’s cousins were going up to London for a couple of free shows at the end of June, after our exams but they’ve found they can’t go because they’re going away on holiday.” It had been the best excuse we could come up with. We’d also agreed that Freddie would tell his folks it was my parents, Alex would tell his it was Freddie’s, and Steph would tell hers it was Alex’s. “They’ve given her the tickets and she’s asked if Freddo, Alex and I can go with her.” There. It was out on the table.
“They were going to stay up in London?” queried Mum.
I nodded. “For a few days.”
Mum looked at Dad. “I don’t see why they shouldn’t,” she said, and my heart leaped. “You could sleep in Georgia’s flat; I know she and Bill are away in America.” Georgia’s 21 and got married last year.
“You lot are nearly gown up, I think it’ll work out. We can trust you not to sleep with each other,” said Dad, who clearly wasn’t concentrating very hard.
Astonished at how easy it had been, I jumped up and kissed both of them on the cheek. “You’re the best!” I yelled behind me as I rushed to phone Alex.
“We’re go,” I said, and told him about my sister’s flat. “If all else fails and he does turn out to be a psycho, we can camp out there.”
“Robs, you’re amazing! In fact you’re entire family is amazing!”
“I know, aren’t we great?”
He laughed. “And really modest about it too. Don’t worry, I’ll tell Fred and Steph.”
“Cheers mate.” I put the phone down. For some reason, knowing Alex thought I was amazing made my entire day.
* * *
We went to London with our hearts in our mouths. This was where we started from. Four teenagers stepping out of Paddington Station. The casual observer would make all the wrong assumptions. Outwardly we seemed calm and happy, a bunch of friends celebrating the end of our GCSEs.
Inwardly, the adrenaline was pumping so fast that I could hardly stand for my stomach tying itself in knots.
“Did he say where they would meet us?” I asked as we came out of the station into the muted light of a cloudy day in June.
Alex was about to answer when Steph indicated a man standing in the shadows. As we turned to him, he beckoned. It was clearly the guy who’d sent the note.
His features were indistinct in the shadows of the alleyway he was standing in, but I could see he had dark hair, a broken nose and shifty, hunted eyes. There was something familiar about him, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint what.
On spotting us, he withdrew further into the shadows and beckoned to us.
“He must be our guy,” I muttered. Steph was already starting across towards him.
I looked after her. Steph seemed to have been more affected by this than the rest of us. I wondered why.
“You the four?” the strange man whispered huskily as we reached him.
I nodded. “How do you know about us?”
He glanced around. “Not safe here. Come with me.” He turned and hurried down the alleyway. Apprehensively the four of us followed him.
As the shadows fell over us a feeling of menace settled on me. The buildings on either side of us seemed to loom oppressively and the breeze blowing down the alley was chilly.
The feeling someone was watching me grew even stronger and, paranoid creature that I am, I glanced back to see a second man turn into the alley and begin following us. This one had ash-blond hair and a slightly squashed appearance, as though he’d run into a wall. Hard. Intuition told me it was not a harmless tramp.
I tapped Alex on the arm and pointed over my shoulder. “Trap,” I whispered.
He swore quietly.
The first man stopped about halfway down the alley and turned to us.
Pushing my way to the front, I confronted the stranger. He was still hidden in the shadows, but I could see the steel glint of his eyes.
“What’s this all about?” The bravado of my words was marred by the tremble in my voice. It was obvious what was happening.
“No need to worry, sweetheart.” His voice had gone from being a hoarse whisper to being sickly sweet, falsely reassuring.
Steph, who was as pale as a sheet, began to back up. We followed her, before I remembered the man at our backs.
I whipped around. “Steph, no!”
Too late. The second man lunged forward and wrapped his arms around her, securing her in an iron grip. She struggled, screamed, but he held fast. I turned around and started making for the other end of the alleyway. The first man made a grab for me, but I don’t go to self-defence classes for nothing. I punched him hard in the nose and he relinquished his hold on me, slipping on a manhole cover and collapsing against an alley wall, clutching his face. And suddenly I knew what was familiar about him. About both of them. They had both been with Rabman that day in the woods three years previously.
“Move!” I yelled, grabbing somebody’s hand and racing for the daylight at the other end. I turned back to see one of the men forcing a gag onto Steph’s mouth.
“Run, guys, run!” she screamed. A scream that cut off abruptly as the second man succeeded in gagging her.
“Steph!” shouted Freddie. He made to run back for her. I grabbed his arm.
“We can’t just leave her!” he cried, trying to wrench himself free.
“How will you save her if you get captured yourself?” asked Alex quietly.
Reluctantly, Freddie sagged. Alex and I hauled him away. We ran down the street. Away from the alley.
Away from Steph.
Bill and Georgia own an apartment fairly close to the Thames and the London Eye. It’s a bit of a walk, but we managed it, I’m not too sure how. The minutes that followed Steph’s capture were too much of a blur. A blur of confusion and colour and sound. All I knew was that it was sunset by the time we finally stumbled through the door.
The apartment itself isn’t that large, but it’s comfortable. Two bedrooms, a sitting room, a balcony, a bathroom and a kitchen, and that’s about it. I’ve stayed in it before, but never under such circumstances.
The only thing Freddie would do was slump on the sofa with an expression of despair. I expect we all looked more or less the same. “They’ve got Steph,” he kept muttering as though he couldn’t quite believe it, couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t sit, but paced, through the sitting room into the kitchen and back again. The vision of Steph’s terrified eyes and the callousness of her kidnappers swirled around inside my head, making it impossible for me to think straight. I knew we had to work out a plan, a way to save her, but I couldn’t think of one in my current state of distress.
Alex was the only one with a level head.
“Tea,” he said firmly, searching through the cupboards until he found the teabags.
I turned to look at him.
“Tea? Is that it? Just sit around drinking tea while Steph’s being held by those animals? Like we’re having a bloody picnic?” I hissed.
Alex held his hands up in the well known ‘Whoa Nelly’ gesture. “Cool it Robs. The tannin and caffeine should clear your head a bit.”
Well, that made some sense.
“I don’t care,” Freddie muttered from the sofa. “I wish we’d never come.”
“We all wish that,” said Alex quietly. “I was an idiot. I should have realised it was a trap and listened to you, Robs.”
“Steph still would have come,” I said, accepting a cup of tea. “She was determined, and I don’t think anything would have stopped her. You know her.”
“She’d have found a positive. She always did,” Alex added.
“Why are you talking about her as though she’s dead?” Freddie demanded, looking up for the first time. “She’s still alive and we’re going to make sure she stays that way.”
I nodded. “He’s right. The problem is not that she’s been captured, it’s what we’re going to do about it.”
“I don’t see that there’s anything we can do. We don’t even know where they took her, and even if we did, what good are we against them?” Alex sounded like he’d already given up.
There was a loud clatter as Freddie knocked over the lampshade. He had stood up, and there was a look of determination in his eyes that I had never seen there before.
“We are not,” he said firmly, “Giving up. You shouldn’t even be considering that option. She your friend, she our friend and we’re not…”
I stood up, and pushed him back down. “What the fuck’s got into you, Freddo? We’re not giving up, nobody said we were.” I kicked Alex as I spoke. He winced, but I ignored it. “If we start arguing now, nothing’s gonna get done.”
Freddie slumped once again, and dropped his head into his hands.
“I love her,” he said, voice muffled. “Not just like a friend, but…you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do,” I said quietly. “And we will rescue her if we can, but we need a starting point, and I’m not starting anything without a night’s kip. Which we could all do with,” I said firmly, seeing Freddie’s look. “This is going to catch up with us very soon and we’re going to be useless for the rest of the evening at least.”
I could see Alex opening his mouth to start arguing, and then thought better of it. He just looked at me in a funny way.
“So what are we going to do now?” Freddie asked, still sounding impatient.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am going to put my head under a pillow somewhere, and swear myself to sleep. If any of you want to do the same, be my guest.” I turned and stalked from the room.
The guest bedroom isn’t that large, just a single bed and a chest of drawers, but it was plenty large enough for me. I could just see those sadistic bastards doing horrible things to her. My best friend. Virtually in hell.
I couldn’t cry. The adrenaline was still pumping far too hard for that. But I saw Steph in my minds eye, lying bleeding on the ground, and I wanted to kill myself for having abandoned her.
“Bollocks. Bollocks bollocks bollocks bollocks.” I did exactly what I said I was going to do. I stuck my head underneath a pillow and said every single swearword I knew in three languages, until I finally slid into unconsciousness.