Thursday, 1 October 2009

Return of the Highwayman

June 5th, 2030

You don’t need to go far along Cliff Lane towards Stanton-Under-Bardon, before you understand that a unique yet derived form of crime has evolved along this isolated stretch of highway. Approaching from the north, where the road splits from the A511, you are instantly greeted by homemade signposts placed by helpful locals, to warn unsuspecting commuters who may have veered accidentally in the direction of this impending danger. ‘Beware of your valuables’, cryptically warns one sign in white paint on a piece of sagging plywood. The messages increase in urgency as one strays further from the throng of traffic on the M1; ‘Turn Back Now’, and even a skull and crossbones symbol give the signage a more sinister appeal.


The straitened times since the near collapse of the world market two decades ago, have naturally precipitated an increase in acquisition crimes such as burglary and armed robbery. Figures from the Department of Justice show an increase of 56% in home invasion prosecutions, and an increase of 42% in muggings and armed robbery across Britain since 2015. It is unlikely though, that the crimes committed on Cliff Lane will have figured in these statistics; for although more than a dozen people have been victim in the past six months, the local constabulary are no closer to finding the culprit. Indeed it appears that the ever evasive British highway man has returned.


Carl Bishop, 42, was making his way to his home to Leeds after a weekend in London when he became the first to fall foul of the modern day Dick Turpin. It was a Sunday evening and he had been driving for approaching four hours when he realised he was desperately low on fuel. Unsure of where the next motorway services were, Carl took a gamble and left the carriageway hoping to stumble across a local garage. ‘I’d been driving for about 15 minutes and was beginning to get a bit desperate, so I decided to follow the signs for Stanton-Under-Bardon which was not far off’ explained Carl. ‘About 2 miles along the road I noticed a large telephone pole blocking the way ahead. Once I had gotten out to examine if there was anyway past, a man approached me from the woodland wearing a scarf over his face.’ The masked assailant then produced a sawn-off shotgun and without saying a word, proceeded to relieve Carl of his wallet, phone, car stereo and any other valuables he could carry off. Forcing Carl to kneel with his head on the car bonnet, the hijacker then quietly exited into the surrounding forests leaving his victim stranded.


Resulting police investigations in the area turned up absolutely no traces of the attacker. Following his bold debut another thirteen people, some local residents, have been subject to practically identical attacks by the assailant, who has become known locally by the comic name Robber Johnny. It gradually began to appear that these hold-ups were being perpetrated by a gang of thieves and not just a single man. This was borne out by the circumstances in which one young couple were assailed. Three months ago Paul, 30, and Linda Shepard, 29, were halted on the road by a bonfire blocking further progress. Realising what was happening Paul quickly put the car into reverse, at which point unseen figures rolled two large industrial tyres onto the road behind them to prevent their escape. Yet again the disguised figure emerged from the roadside and removed their possessions.


As a criminal pursuit it would not seem to be the most rewarding venture, were it not for the fact that the road is the shortest route from the nearby Ellerays cash and carry to the town centre of Stanton-Under-Bardon. In fact the bandits have been fortunate enough on a number of occasions, to plunder everything from home entertainment systems, large volumes of alcohol and cigarettes and even a delivery van of prophylactics destined for a warehouse in Liverpool – hence Robber Johnny’s amusing moniker. The naming of the highway man seems to have endeared what would normally be considered an unwanted terrorist, to the community. Added to this Robber Johnny’s unerring ability to leave the police red-faced in any attempts to foil him, and his taste for the dramatic and daring, it is small wonder that he has become something of a parish celebrity. His myth has grown since that first routine smash and grab and he now a source of pride in the surrounding regions; looked upon as a sort of cross between Ronnie Biggs and Robin Hood.


Thus far every action by the police to trap or track Robber Johnny has turned up nothing. Searches of the woodlands surrounding the stretch of road have been in vain. Any attempts to lure him out by repeatedly using the road, whilst posing as a delivery van or a car laden with purchases, has passed without incident. This has led some to whisper that perhaps he has contacts within the local constabulary warning him of impending danger. Such accusations have been dismissed out of hand by the powers that be. The police however, did have one brief encounter with the stick-up artist which has gone down in legend. Apparently a patrol car was doing a routine sweep of the area when they were blocked by a telephone pole. A man in disguise appeared from the wood and on noticing the marked car, turned and ran for the cover of the trees. The two constables quickly exited the vehicle and gave chase. When they were no more than fifty metres from the road they heard their transport pulling away with sirens blazing. The subsequent search turned up no masked bandit and the two officers had to make their way back to the station on foot. Arriving a few hours later, they found their assigned car parked outside in the same condition they had left it, well almost. It later emerged that the daring thieves had relieved the panda of two cases of expensive whiskey, recently purchased at Ellerays as a Christmas thank you for the continued diligence of local law enforcement staff.


A final yarn tells of how the parish priest had the unfortunate luck late one night of puncturing a tyre along Robber Johnny’s Way (as Cliff Lane is now known). Whilst busy undoing the locking nuts on the wheel, he failed to notice a masked figure approach from behind and place a gun to his back. The fugitive marched the holy man to the edge of the road and instructed him to say a decade of the rosary, all the while with the end of a shotgun lodged close to his spine. Convinced that he was finally to meet his maker, the priest prayed fervently until on the final petition he felt the gun remove from his back. Looking around he saw his assailant stride slowly from view. As the story goes, the somewhat shaken and spiritually stirred priest returned to his car to find his spare tyre fitted and the flat stored neatly in the boot.


Given the level of gossip and speculation surrounding Robber Johnny it can be hard to determine what truth lies behind these tales. That said, in times such as these when violence plagues the nation it is peculiar to see how a community seems to have taken a law-breaker to their hearts. It seems that the gentleman highway robber has returned to add some light relief to modern day criminality.