The scream manifested in her dream, her brain taking the terrified, pitiful sound and making it part of her reverie. She shifted in her slumber, unknowingly pulling her sleeping bag tighter around her body, pushing her head further down into her pillow. After a brief moment of silence, the noise came again, but this time the sound travelled from her unconscious into her conscious mind – this was not a dream. Her eyes snapped open, and she momentarily, unwittingly held her breath, listening, listening, trying to work out what was happening. She pushed herself up on one elbow, head cocked slightly, trying to establish the source of the sound.
It was a cold night. The sky was clear and the almost full moon cast enough silvery light to illuminate the interior of her dark green tent. Tendrils of mist swirled around her nostrils as she breathed, fear now causing her breath to become shallow and ragged. What was that horrendous noise?
As if on cue, another scream pierced the night. Now fully alert she was able to attend to the cry; it was a female voice, high-pitched, petrified. From her position within the tent, surrounded by woodland in the dead of night, the sound was ethereal. As she continued to listen another scream shattered the darkness, this time lasting longer and seemingly more frantic. It sounded like a woman being attacked or… killed.
She sat fully upright and glanced around her tent for her thick fleece and goose-down jacket, the cold air making her skin prickle, causing her to shiver. As quietly as she could she slid the garments on, zipping them right up to her chin. As she was dressing she heard another shriek.
Quickly, she pushed her sleeping bag off her legs and knelt at the front of her tent hand poised over the zip, knowing she would have to open it to see what was going on but equally afraid to confront whatever might be out there. The screams kept coming; a scream, a pause, then another scream. But as she listened, she realised that in fact although the screams were different, they appeared to be recurring. It was as if they were on loop, lots of different screams repeating like some sort of sick playlist.
With a trembling hand, she unzipped the tent, slowly, slowly, trying to make as little sound as possible. Once the aperture was large enough, she peered out, eyes wide, her heart pounding. At first she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary; just shrubbery and trees, straight trunks, standing tall like silent, shadowy sentinels around her. Then she saw him, a black figure silhouetted by the light of the moon, perched on a small mound beyond the trees.
She could see the back and left side of him as he sat, body hunched over, forearms resting on his knees, holding something small in front of him. It took her a moment to work out what it was. In his hand he held an audio player; he was listening to a recording of women’s screams. As she watched, he rocked gently backwards and forwards, his collar-length hair swinging in time with his movements. Suddenly, he raised his right hand and rubbed the back of it against his face. She gasped when she saw he was holding a knife, its blade glinting in the luminescence of the moon. Perplexed and timorous, she shrank back from the entrance to the tent.
Kneeling, one hand over her mouth as if to subconsciously ensure she didn’t utter a sound, questions assailed her mind. Who were those women on the recording? Why were they screaming? Why was he in the woods in the middle of the night? And, does he know I’m here?
She gently patted the floor of the tent, seeking out her mobile. Upon finding it, she quickly tapped in ‘999’ and waited for what seemed like an age for the operator to answer. Finally, a male voice said: “What’s your emergency?”
“I need the police,” she whispered. A few seconds later she was connected.
“Police operator, how can I help?” this time a female voice.
“I need help. I’m in St Leonard’s forest. There’s a man listening to recordings of women screaming and he has a knife,” she whispered, aware that she must have sounded like a lunatic.
“Ok. Can you be more specific as to where you are?” the operator was seemingly unfazed.
“Yes, hold on.”
She quickly pulled a map out of her rucksack and using the light of the phone, determined her exact coordinates which she rattled off to the operator.
“Please, please hurry.”
She hung up the phone and shoved it into her pocket. The agonised wails continued to drift through the darkness.
Hannah had decided to go walking around the country, armed with only a tent, map and a few provisions to get away from her bitter divorce, her shitty life, the death of her son. This journey was a sort of pilgrimage, a way to assuage her guilt, put the past behind her. She had been broken by the death of her son, still an infant, but so full of adventure and love. She’d found him one morning lying dead in his cot, blue, cold and stiff. Her marriage hadn’t survived; her husband, Michael, seeking solace in the arms of another, finding her too withdrawn, closed and angry, unable to accept and unable to forgive. And just like that, she had lost it all. No child, no husband, no purpose. Sadness, that was all she had left.
Now, crouched in the tent, full of fear, she wondered for a moment, what should she do? She’d told the police where she was, but should she just sit here, hoping they would turn up before he noticed her tent? Or should she get out and try to put some distance between herself and this maleficent man? If he spotted her tent and sought her out, she would have no means of escape; she’d be trapped inside a nylon body bag. She didn’t have a weapon and although she was physically fit, she was short and slim, and wouldn’t be much of a match for a man with a knife. She decided to run.
The eerie screams still floated on the air, chilling her to the core and making her wish she could simply hide inside her sleeping bag like a child hiding beneath its duvet to evade the bogeyman. She let out a deep breath and steeled her resolve, her heart thumping wildly, her limbs trembling. She looked out. He hadn’t moved.
Stealthily she crept out of the tent on all fours, twigs and stones pushing into her soft palms. She didn’t feel any thing, pain receptors numbed by the adrenaline coursing through her body. Carefully, she stood, never taking her eyes from his bent figure, willing him to not turn around, praying that she’d be able to slip away amongst the trees. But then, as if aware of her thoughts, he turned his face in her direction, a rapid movement, which caused his hair to whip around his head.
Hannah froze, paralysed with fear. She stopped breathing. He stood, unhurriedly, nonchalantly, and tapped the knife he was holding against his thigh as if taunting her. This was all the incentive Hannah needed. She turned on her heel and ran, heading she knew not where, but knowing she had to get away from this man, away from the malignancy he embodied.
Hannah ran and stumbled, ran and stumbled, crashing through the forest, twigs and thorns catching on her clothes, scratching her face, slamming into trees and low hanging branches, but still she fled. She could hear him thrashing his way through the woods behind her.
“Stop, woman! Stop” he shouted, his voice deep and thunderous. “I won’t hurt you!”
Hannah didn’t believe him. Why else would he be chasing her with a knife in his hand? She ran on, doing her best to remain upright, but frequently tripping and falling onto her hands and knees. She was acutely aware that every time she stumbled he was gaining ground. The cold air made her eyes stream, blurring her vision, slowing her down even further.
She felt something heavy land on her left shoulder as his hand grabbed her, causing her to fall off balance. She slammed to the ground, face down, winded, as he bore down on top of her. He rolled her over as she struggled and writhed beneath him, trying to break free. He was too strong and he easily overpowered her. He straddled her body and held the knife above her face in his right hand, blade pointing downwards; his left he placed around her throat, squeezing, squeezing.
“Stop moving bitch. What were you doing spying on me? What do you know?” he shouted angrily, squeezing Hannah’s throat harder with every question. She gagged and gasped desperately trying to suck in some air, her face reddening, eyes bulging. She wondered why he didn’t just use the knife on her. The knife, the knife. Use the knife.
Hannah released her grip on his arm and focused on the weapon. With a sudden burst of fresh adrenaline, she smacked his right arm away from her face. Surprised, he released his grip on her throat, just enough to allow her to gulp a breath of air. The knife dropped from his hand and landed beside her. Quickly, taking advantage of his confusion, she felt around for the knife, located it and thrust it upwards as hard as she could, cutting his cheek. He roared in pain and briefly let go of her throat before grabbing it again with both hands, squeezing as hard as he could. The world darkened as she felt her life force slipping away.
She saw her son’s sweet face before her closed eyes, heard his laughter and felt the warmth of his kisses on her face; she saw her husband, smiling on their wedding day, so handsome in his suit. She heard shouts and loud voices, dogs barking and a man screaming. Then… Silence.
The voices manifested in her dream, her brain taking the calm, kind voices, making them part of her reverie. She shifted in her slumber, unknowingly pulling the blanket tighter around her body, pushing her head further down into the pillow. The voices spoke again and travelled from her unconscious into her conscious mind – this was not a dream. Her eyes slowly opened and adjusted to the bright light of the room. She was in hospital, a man in scrubs and a woman in a suit standing at the foot of the bed talking quietly.
“Hi,” squeaked Hannah, her throat sore. “What happened?”
“Ah, you’re awake.” The man smiled. “I’m Dr Easton and this is DC Lane. You’re in hospital. The police would like to talk with you, if you’re feeling up to it?” he indicated towards the smartly dressed woman, who was also smiling at her.
Hannah nodded and the detective stepped forward. Dr Easton left the room.
“My throat is really sore, it hurts to talk.”
DC Lane raised her hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll do the talking. I just wanted to let you know that you have helped us catch a killer. We believe that the man who attacked you is linked to at least seven murders, all women. He was in the woods to dispose of a body. It seems he has been dumping bodies in the old mine pits that are dotted about St Leonard’s.”
Hannah’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “What about the screams? I heard screams, they were awful.” her voice cracked.
“We think he recorded the last few moments of his victims’ lives so he could listen to it again later.”
“Oh god. That’s so sick.” Hannah said, appalled at he notion. DC Lane nodded in agreement.
“I heard dogs last night too?”
“That was the police dogs. They did a great job of leading us to you, and they did a great job of planting their teeth into him. Extra dog biscuits for them last night.”
Hannah smiled, then her brow furrowed. “My tent and belongings?”
“Don’t worry. We recovered everything. You can have everything back when you leave here. For now, though, you need to rest.”
DC Lane took out a business card and placed it on the cabinet next to Hannah’s bed. “I’ll be in touch,” she said, heading towards the door. Upon reaching the threshold, DC Lane turned back and said: “You know Hannah, I am truly sorry you have been through this experience, but at the same time, if it wasn’t for you, we may not have caught this guy. More women may have died.” The detective walked out of the room, her footsteps click clacking down the corridor.
Hannah nestled back down into her pillow and closed her eyes; it didn’t take her long to drift back off to sleep.
This time she didn’t dream.