Debbie took in a deep breath of clean air as she wheeled her daughter’s pushchair into the park.
As she glanced round, she noted that she and Becki seemed to be the only people in the vast expanse of green that stretched away from them.
It was slightly eerie being absolutely alone in the park, but it was only two PM, what was the worst that could happen?
She’d later remember that thought and shake her head at her naivety.
Any time of day could change your life in ways you couldn’t imagine.
That was later though.
For now, she admired the serenity as she took the path that snaked down the side-line of one of the two football pitches, past the skating ramps to her right and through the bright red metal gate that led into the play area.
‘You ready to go on the swings, Becki?’ she asked, tipping the pushchair onto its back wheels so she could see her daughter’s face.
Becki’s gap-toothed grin let her know that she was indeed ready.
Debbie put the front wheels back on the floor and ran in to the playground.
Looking back, she would wish she’d saved her energy.
She ran past the big boy’s slide to her left, which wound round and round from a height that Debbie found nauseating, and up to the swings.
Like the rest of the park, the play area was deserted. It was nice in a way, but still a little creepy. Still, there was a security camera on a pole, so she felt like she was under helpful surveillance.
These little things that reassure us so much, she would later think. When really they shouldn’t.
She made an enthusiastic whooshing sound as she lifted Becki from the pushchair.
Debbie held her fourteen month old daughter above her head and stared into her eyes. Becki’s nose wrinkled as she exposed her two front teeth in an adorable little smile. Debbie held her at shoulder height and flew her over to the swings, again making the whooshing sound.
Becki giggled, warming her mother’s heart.
Debbie carefully put her into the seat, wincing as one of Becki’s legs got caught in the metal bars.
Becki could have cared less, she was already bouncing on her cute little butt, eager to get the swing ride started.
‘Two seconds, sweetie,’ Debbie said, struggling to free the twisted limb.
Becki wrinkled her nose again and started bouncing even more enthusiastically.
‘There we go,’ Debbie said, beaming from ear to ear. ‘Hey, no time to play woof-woofs,’ she laughed as Becki’s front teeth clamped down on her hand.
She gave the swing a little push. Becki’s smile somehow became even larger. Debbie looked at her in wonder for a few seconds while she swung back and forth.
The utter happiness on Becki’s face thrilled her.
It would turn out to be the last time she could remember being truly happy.
And that was the moment right before her life changed irreversibly.
A few minutes into the swing ride, Debbie was into her catching feet routine and Becki was giggling away with an adorable hurk-hurk-hurk noise that her mother found hilarious and cute in equal measures.
Debbie grinned and rolled her eyes, inciting further mirth from her daughter, then a scream pierced her ear drums and echoed around the park.
She spun round, trying to locate the source of the noise.
There was still no one in the play area or the part of the park she had passed.
Behind the play area, hidden by a thick hedge, was the second football pitch. The pitch was on top of a hill which sloped down to the perimeter of the park, guarded by a wrought iron fence, supposedly there to keep the drunken teenaged louts out.
The scream seemed to have come from the direction of this football pitch.
In a decision she would regret as long as she lived, she lifted Becki out of the swing and into the pushchair and set off to investigate.
Becki cried out, and in hindsight Debbie had the impression that even a toddler knew what she was doing was a bad idea, but she shoved a dummy into her daughter’s mouth and carried on.
Becki suckled the dummy contentedly, her protests all but forgotten.
A second scream came, louder and more forceful than the first.
‘Get the fuck away from me,’ a female voice shouted.
Debbie felt a shiver run down her spine but she found the pull of curiosity impossible to resist. She moved to the hedges, carefully parking the pushchair so that Becki wasn’t getting prickled, and moved to where there was a gap.
She saw a girl in a black trouser suit moving away from a group of three youths.
The closest was a young lad, who looked no older than twenty.
The knife he held in his pale fist looked large enough to be classed as a sword.
‘Help,’ the girl shouted.
Debbie was torn about whether to get involved, knowing her priority was to protect Becki, but at the same time not wanting to see the girl get hurt.
Muggings were the rule rather than the exception round here, it was a sad fact of life. Still, one didn’t expect to be held up at knife point while taking an afternoon walk in the park.
Debbie resigned herself to watching the confrontation, then calling the police as soon as she got home. She’d left her mobile in the TV cabinet, having not ever needed it on any of her previous walks.
She regretted her decision a second later when the knife went into the woman’s gut with a force that lifted her off her feet.
‘Have that, ya fucking slag,’ the lad laughed as the woman hit the deck.
Debbie was utterly stunned by what she had seen.
A second teenager ran in and put the boot to the woman’s head.
Her screams echoed around the park, terror laced with agony and despair.
Hearing them made Debbie wish she was deaf.
The second teenager snatched the bag out of the woman’s hands and ran off.
A third youth came in, and this was the part that Debbie found hardest to take – though she should have expected it in this town – this attacker was female.
The girl took the gore-stained knife from her friend and raised it high above her head, reminding Debbie of a vampire slayer raising the stake to impale the undead fiend in the final act of some shit horror movie.
But this was all too real.
The knife came down, plunging into the fallen woman’s gut. Her scream of pain was utterly deafening for a few seconds, before cutting off abruptly.
The woman slumped back to the ground, blood racing out of the stab wounds.
The two remaining teenagers laughed as they dragged the body down the hill and hid it near the fence.
Debbie was frozen for a second.
She had no desire to meet the murderous teens herself, especially with Becki in tow, but she couldn’t let the girl die without at least trying to help.
The teenagers disappeared from view.
Debbie gave it a minute then cautiously moved through the hedge and across the field. She took the pushchair with her, not wanting to leave Becki on her own.
The teenagers had fucked off.
Thank Christ, she thought. She was ready to turn back at the slightest hint of something being wrong, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The woman had been dumped at the bottom of the hill near some bushes. She looked as pale and lifeless as a rag doll.
Debbie ran down the hill, almost tripping and tumbling in her haste to reach the woman.
She felt for a pulse and was mortified to discover that the woman didn’t have one. Her eyes were blank and glassy, her blood slowly staining the mud beneath her a deep shade of crimson.
Debbie let out her own cry at the sight of the woman’s corpse.
Then she clapped a hand over her mouth, in case the louts responsible were still within earshot.
She patted down the figure, looking for a mobile phone initially, then anything that might help to identify the woman.
She found a mobile in the woman’s back pocket. The screen was smeared with a thin coating of blood. Debbie cried out as her palm sunk into the slick warmth.
She dropped the phone as if it was red hot and wiped it with her sleeve, unable to stomach the feel of blood on her hand again.
Her guts lurched like she’d started a drop on a rollercoaster, and in a way she had.
It was all downhill from there.
While she tried to figure out how to actually make a call on the phone – it was a failing of phones these days, she found, they did everything but it was so difficult to make a call on the damn things – she heard footsteps from behind her.
She hoped for a brave passer-by to take over from her as she was feeling distinctly queasy now.
Instead she got the lad who had taken the woman’s handbag.
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