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Headteacher Bree Ashworth yawned, gathered up an armful of folders and headed out her office door. Sunset Grove Primary had had more than the usual problems over the long exhausting week and there was still the PTFA meeting in two hours. As the attractive blonde woman headed through the empty outer office, a buzzer sounded.
She turned to see a red console light flashing. This alarm was activated by class teachers for emergencies and came from the Badger Room, Jenny Dench's Year One class. Bree frowned. Jenny Dench was the youngest teacher on the staff but was also the daughter of her parents' friends from way back.
Why was Jenny still in the building? It was after five and the caretaker should have locked up by now. Perhaps there was another short-circuit. The new system had had more than its fair share of teething problems.
In one deft movement, she turned on the television surveillance system and pressed button twenty-three. It flicked alive, and Jenny's screams vibrated from the speakers.
"Oh my...!" Bree gasped. The folders in her arms fluttered to the ground.
A man was in the room, attacking Jenny. Even it those few microseconds Bree saw Jenny slumped backward over her desk, kicking and shrieking as a man wrestled with her. Bree hit another emergency button, hoped the caretaker was still on the premises, and headed outside.
She ran along the corridor and headed upstairs to the Top Hall. Trust Jenny's room to be one of the farthest away! To her relief, the Top Hall lights blazed. She could see Badger Room Door leading off the opposite side.
The screams and thumps reached her senses first. Without really thinkingof any consequences, she tore in the room. Jenny was pinned back over her desk with her skirt hauled up, her stockinged feet kicking into the air. Her shrieks had changed to almost inaudible sobs.
"Perhaps next time you might..." the attacker snarled.
Jenny managed to wriggle an arm free and gouge her fingernails down the man's face. Blood oozed from the wound but this only made him more violent. He slapped her face with so much force she staggered sideways and crashed onto the floor.
"Leave her alone!" Bree screamed. She launched her slender frame at the man and managed to topple him sideways away from Jenny. The petrified younger woman crawled away, but Bree had more immediate problems. The attacker turned and, with one almighty swing of his arm, knocked her sideways onto a floor mat. Before she could stagger to her knees, heavy work boots kicked out.
His leg movement was a blur; Bree felt a sharp pain in her ribs and gasped in agony as she crashed sideways over one of the Year One tables. Another kick grazed off her head. She screamed at the excruciating pain, but managed to roll sideways to fend off the third kick.
The man sniggered. "So, Headteacher Bree Ashworth is about to meet her maker."
Bree could see grinning lips and eyes totally devoid of empathy. The man lunged at her but she anticipated the movement, pulled back and pushed a child's table between them. The man flung the table aside and grabbed her hair, pulled her head back and squeezed her throat.
Her despair turned to utter terror when she couldn't breathe. A chuckle filled the air. He was enjoying himself!
The room spun and her vision blurred as she tried to swallow. She had almost lost consciousness when an object flew across her vision. A heavy mop hit the intruder across his body. Her attacker staggered back and released the pressure on her throat. His arm came up but the mop swung a second time and sent him careering across the carpet. A thickset man dived at the would-be rapist but the element of surprise was over. Spluttering, and with tears pouring down her cheeks, Bree managed to crawl further away between two more tables. She pulled herself up and saw John, the caretaker, run towards the door in pursuit of the man who had attacked them.
She attempted to speak but purple clouds enveloped her and she sank, unconscious, to the floor.
It was the unusual smell that tickled Bree's senses even before she opened her eyes, that antiseptic smell of enforced cleanliness along with the more pleasant aroma of roses. She felt crisp material touching her, something itching at her nose and the sensation of numbness across her lower body. Jarring pain shot across her ribs. The voice came through a fog. She thought she should know it.
"Bree, are you awake?"
Bree couldn't fathom why was she lying down. There was the PTFA meeting to attend. Someone had filed a complaint about the cost of lunches going up twenty pence and the blandness of meals being offered. She smiled. Of course, something like lunches would attract far more parents than if they were having a discussion about the new reading program.
"Oh, Bree, please wake up," Jenny's voice pleaded. "You saved me, you know. He would have raped me. Now, you have to suffer.... The bastard took off when John arrived..."
Bree opened her eyes to see Jenny staring at her across a hospital room. "Where am I?" she muttered.
"Oh, thank God, you're awake. I'll ring for the nurse."
Bree managed a smile. "No, wait a moment. Oh my..." The memories returned with everything in stark detail. She attempted to sit up but her ribs were too painful. Her head spun but she was determined to stay conscious. "Jenny," she said. "Was I in time?"
The young woman opposite her blinked back tears and wiped a blackened eye. She nodded. "And I was one who reckoned the new surveillance system was a waste of money."
"And how are you?"
"Not as bad as you. Bruises and scratches. My confidence is shot to hell, though. How could the bastard? He said he was Jamie Hargraves' father. Like an idiot, I believed him..." Jenny's lips quivered. She shuddered and blew her nose. "The doctor reckoned the kick on the side of the head knocked you out. They've admitted you overnight just in case something goes wrong."
Bree felt a heavy bandage around her head and another across her chest. She glanced around. "I guess I've been out for a while? Where did you say we were?"
Jenny gave one of her famous little giggles. "I didn't, but we're in the Charing Cross Hospital. We been here almost an hour."
"A reluctant hero. You know how modest he is? The guy who attacked us ran across the Top Hall and down the back stairs. John was all ready to run after him but I screamed to let him go."
"So, it wasn't Jamie's father?"
Jenny shook her head. "No, the police followed that lead up. Jamie's father looks nothing like him. I was a cot case, blubbering like a baby, and the doctor told them to come back."
"Don't run yourself down, Jenny," Bree said. She gazed further around the room. There was a huge teddy bear propped up on the windowsill. She wriggled over to reach for it but felt queasy and collapsed back on her pillow.
"I'll get the nurse." Jenny's determined voice cut in through the haze.
Morning came, with Jenny arriving even before the police. Detective Constable Margaret Blackburn, who accompanied a uniformed constable, said they were following leads but nobody had been arrested.
"We'll follow up Miss Dench's information about the attacker's knowledge of one of your pupils. It appears to be someone who picked her at random, though. We've had cases of men hanging around primary schools before. The young teachers and mothers can be an attraction if a man is that way inclined." Constable Blackburn turned to Jenny. "Can you remember seeing the man any time before the attack, perhaps watching you cross the road, getting into your car or during an outing?"
Jenny frowned. "He looked a typical parent, was clean-shaven and wore a new suit..." She stopped and bit on her lip. "The funny thing is, I think I've seen him before."
"I can't remember. We meet so many parents and others on sports days and so forth. I don't think he was a parent of any of my pupils, though."
"Okay," Detective Constable Blackburn replied. "We'll get a more formal statement from both of you later."
"Meanwhile, if you remember anything, no matter how insignificant, just jot it down. If this is the person we're looking for, it may solve a number of similar attacks."
"Other teachers?" Bree asked.
"All work related places with a high ratio of female employees, Mrs. Ashworth. Several were in office buildings and all were when the victim was alone after hours in their own supposedly safe environment." The DC smiled slightly. "We believe this man didn't know about your surveillance monitors."
"They've only been in for three weeks," Bree replied
"That's interesting. Perhaps the attack was planned well in advance."
"He knew I was the headteacher and even called me by name," Bree added.
DC Blackburn frowned. "And you've never seen him before?"
"It's hard to remember. I doubt if I'd recognise him. I only really saw him from the side. It all happened so quickly."
The constable smiled and shut her notebook. "Thank you both," she said. "We'll be in touch."
Only moments after the police left another visitor arrived. Bree sighed.
"Rushing into things without thinking of the consequences again, Bree," the man said. "You're damn lucky the caretaker arrived."
"Hello, Colin," Bree replied without enthusiasm. She turned to Jenny. "This is my husband, Colin."
Jenny frowned and muttered a greeting.
"So, the trip will have to go," Colin said, after Bree gave him a brief explanation of what happened. "We'll lose the deposit but I'll cancel the tickets."
Bree's eyes fluttered with the first signs of emotion. "I'd still like to go," she whispered. "You know I've been asked to speak at the conference."
Colin glanced away. "There's been a change of plans. I was going to tell you anyway," he muttered.
"Tell me what?" Bree felt indignant.
"I've accepted that position in Birmingham. They want me to start at the beginning of next month."
"Well, I'm not going," Bree snapped. "I am not about to give up my position to follow you around the country, Colin. We've been through all that. I've done it before. No more..." Her eyes flashed. "...And I thought a holiday would help patch our marriage up," she added in a whisper.
Colin shrugged. "I tried," he whispered.
"Sure," Bree's voice rose an octave as thoughts came to the forefront of her mind. Who was it that turned a blind eye when Colin never arrived home at night, and during those business weekends over to the eastern seaboard? Who pretended she never noticed that his secretary was also out of town at the same time? Their marriage has been a sham for years now. She was just a suitable person to have at his social functions. If Jenny wasn't present she'd tell him that, too! Instead, she swallowed and glanced away. "And what about Linda Rouke?" she muttered.
Colin Ashworth ignored Bree but switched his eyes to Jenny. However, the flush on his cheeks did not pass unnoticed. "I'm sorry to hear of this attack, Miss Dench," he said. "I'm glad your caretaker arrived in time." His eyes switched back. "We'll talk later, Bree," he said. "Take care. 'Bye." He walked out without even a backward glance.
"Cold fish," Jenny said.
"Yeah," Bree replied.
"Who's Linda Rouke?"
Bree felt emotions rise through her body. "She was his secretary and they had an affair. She's moved up a notch to become his full time mistress. She recently transferred to Birmingham and I'm pretty sure he's set up a flat there for her." She attempted to remain calm. "His job takes him across there all the time." She turned. "That's the trouble with teaching, isn't it?"
"What do you mean, Bree?"
"It takes a total commitment and doesn't allow for personal circumstances. Colin is into the business circuit. Everything went well when I was the sexy, young wife to parade around. However, when I became a deputy, he changed." Bree shrugged. "I thought he'd be proud of me but the opposite happened. It was almost as if I was a competitor. It became worse when I moved to my present position as headteacher at Sunset Grove."
"Chauvinistic pig," Jenny replied.
"And that holiday?"
"I've been invited to talk at an international reading conference in January. I was looking forward to swimming in the ocean on New Year's Day."
"Midwinter! Where, Australia?"
Bree smiled. "Well, you aren't far out. New Zealand, actually. It'll be midsummer there and the conference is during their summer holidays. Colin had agreed to come as it tied-in with some takeover bid his firm is involved in down there."
Jenny nodded. "So, it's all off. A pity. After all this, a good holiday away is what you need."
"You, too," Bree replied. "Why don't you come to New Zealand with me?"
"Me?" Jenny laughed. "My God, I've only been out of the country once and that was only a weekend in France." She shrugged. "I couldn't afford the aeroplane tickets let alone accommodation and other expenses. Newly graduated teachers don't get paid a lot, you know."
Bree was discharged from hospital that afternoon with a whole weekend ahead. She braced herself for a final confrontation with Colin but it never eventuated. When he didn't answer her phone call, she took a taxi home and found the place empty. Colin was gone, as was everything even remotely connected to his half of the community property. Clothes, tools, one television, the main computer and even one of their bed sets were gone.
"The bastard," Bree muttered as she walked through the house. The new washer, only purchased a month back, had gone. In its place, the old one was reconnected to the water supply.
In the kitchen, she picked up a brown envelope. Inside was a formal inventory of what Colin had taken, and a terse letter. Tears brimming her eyes, she read it. He was so thorough that he'd even left a cheque to pay for the month's electricity, groceries and other domestic expenses.
She continued to the last paragraph.
You'll find I have closed our joint account. Don't worry, half the amount in it has been deposited in your own account. As for the trip, I never cancelled the tickets. You can have them to do with as you wish. As you know, my lawyer is...
Bree stopped reading, placed the letter back in the envelope, sat down and wept. This was so typical of the man. He was too cowardly to confront her face to face and the one time she could do with a little warmth and understanding, he up and left. Well, Linda Rouke could have him. She could flutter her eyebrows at his customers and pamper to his tastes until he became tired of her and found a new mistress.
Bree sat staring into space and almost missed the light tap on the outside door. It was Jenny.
"Hi," Jenny said. "There's nobody home and I couldn't stand being in my flat by myself so I.... "She stopped and stared. "What's wrong, Bree?"
Bree sighed. "Does it look so obvious?"
"It's more than your bruises and bandages. You look as white as a ghost."
"Come in," Bree responded. "I'm glad you dropped in. How'd you like a drink?"
"Cup of tea?"
"No," Bree replied. "I was thinking more of a stiff brandy. Bet the old bastard took all the liquor, too." She laughed sarcastically. "No, he'd have left each bottle half full."
"What is it, Bree?"
"Colin's left," Bree whispered. "He took half of everything, too. It's a wonder the bastard didn't rip our sheets in half." She took the envelope from the table and handed it to her visitor. "Have a read if you wish."
Jenny nodded, accepted Bree's wave into a chair and read the long-winded note.
"Well, you're best off without him," she finally said. "What a time to do it, though."
Bree shrugged. "What's your poison?" she asked and walked to the liquor cabinet.
With the busy final weeks of the term at Sunset Grove, conversation about the attack on two of its teachers dropped. Other items rose to the fore, and life returned to normal. Except for Jenny and Bree.
Bree immersed herself in work, but did not miss the fact that Jenny had withdrawn. The young teacher no longer visited the staff lounge after school, no longer chatted with the other teachers, no longer participated. Worse, her famous giggle had disappeared. Bree decided to take action. She called Jenny in for a conference.
One of the tasks Bree did during the last two weeks was to hold an informal interview with each staff member. Here, they'd discuss anything the teacher wished about their class, and children, parents or school life in general. The ones Bree had held the term before were somewhat formal, with teachers feeling apprehensive and often on defence. However, this time the meetings were relaxed and gave the staff a chance to air items in privacy. They trusted Bree now and knew any comments or criticisms would not go beyond the office walls.
During these interviews Bree found there was deep interest in her own welfare. Staff members asked how she was coping after her marriage dissolved. Several offered suggestions and supported her decision to still go on her New Zealand holiday. Also, Bree discovered that most staff members noticed Jenny's change in behaviour with concern. Several had tried to help the young teacher, but to no avail.
After morning recess, a relieving teacher took the Year Ones in Badger Room while Jenny went into Bree's office for her interview. She looked pale and appeared timid and formal.
"I'm sorry about the class, Bree," Jenny blurted out before the headteacher had even sat down. "They've been quite naughty and it's all my fault. I'm sure Joan has already.... "Joan was the manager of the Set One Classes.
"I've spoken to Joan," Bree replied, calmly. "She said she is proud of your efforts. Your planning and record keeping is suburb, parent interviews were thoroughly researched and everything is carried out professionally."
"But what about Mrs. Flores?" Jenny bit on her lip.
"Mary Flores has three children at this school. She complains about every teacher, every year." Bree smiled. "Frankly, if she hadn't mumbled about her little Christopher in your room, I would have wondered what was wrong. Next time, just refer her on to me. We have an understanding. She moans on and I ignore her. The poor lady is quite lonely, you know."
"I know, but..." Without warning, Jenny broke down into shuddering sobs. Her body trembled and, for a few moments, she just sat on her chair, unable to control her emotions. Finally, she stood and headed for the door. Bree stopped her, and Jenny huddled in her arms, sobbing.
"Here," Bree said a moment later and handed Jenny a tissue. "Just let it all come out. Don't hold back. I understand." She smiled softly. "I was there. Remember?"
"I know. Perhaps you're the only one who does understand, but it doesn't seem to affect you, Bree."
"It doesn't? Then perhaps you could explain why I've spent nearly every night since Colin left sleeping with a light left on?"
Jenny stopped sobbing, stepped back and wiped her eyes. "You have?"
"Yes," Bree whispered. "It's so silly but the house I've lived in for over a decade has suddenly started to make strange noises. I reckon I hear every creak and groan of the timbers. Colin was a ripe pain in the butt but he was always there or returning soon. Now, I wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and can feel the monster's boot kick me in the ribs."
Jenny whispered. "Me, too, but you're always so self-assured."
"A facade I've built up, Jenny. In my position, it's necessary. I've just used it a little more often in the last couple of weeks, that's all."
Jenny smiled through her tears. "I've always aspired to a position like yours. Fat lot of good I'd be at helping others when the first little thing that goes wrong makes me collapse in self-pity like a pack of cards."
"It wasn't little, and I believe you're coping well."
"Not necessarily. It's harder to talk about these things than to try to bury them in the back of your mind."
Jenny grinned. "My God, we're talking in cliches aren't we?"
"It makes what I'm going to say easier, though."
Jenny's eyes widened and her face paled. "Go on," she stuttered.
"Oh, it's nothing bad. You know all about the holiday Colin and I planned?"
"I can't cancel half a ticket. To re-book it for one costs more than I'd save, so I thought you might like to come with me."
"Bree, I'd love to, but I can't afford it. Anyhow, I'm not really into swimming."
Bree held up her arm. "I doubt if I can manage much swimming either. I'd still like to go for a dive in the ocean on New Year's Day just to say I've done it. I've managed to get the itinerary changed in New Zealand. Instead of pre-booked accommodation at the flash resort hotels Colin likes, I've booked into family motels. We can hire a car and go wherever we please."
"Damn, Bree. If I had the money..."
"You only need living expenses. Think of it as Colin's shout. The bastard owes me that much. If I go alone it will cost exactly the same amount. Besides, I'd like your company." She held another tissue out to her assistant, who was on the verge of tears again.
"But of all the people you could choose..."
"Stop arguing, Miss Dench. The offer's there. Do you want to come or not?" Bree's attempt at being formal faltered when she had to smile.
"How can I turn down a direct request from my Headteacher?" Jenny said. "My God, I haven't even got a passport, I'll need a new summer clothes and..."
"It's four weeks away," Bree cut in. "I'm sure all that can be sorted out."
"Thanks, Bree," Jenny replied. She gave Bree a tight hug before she glanced at her watch. "Damn, I need to get back to my room." She blew her nose and wiped her moist cheeks. "You're one in a million," she said and headed for the door.
"Another cliche, Miss Dench. You must try to be more original."
Jenny smiled. "Yes, Headteacher," she said, gave a mock salute and disappeared.
Bree glanced at her appointment book. Oh my, the next interview was with Jocelyn Hamilton, the one staff member who needed massive amounts of guidance, not that she would accept any. It was time to pull rank.
During the final week of the term Jenny almost became her old self again. The giggles and comical interruptions returned to the staff meetings, and she was there every afternoon.
"I reckon I'll buy my swimwear down there," she said to Bree one evening when she called around with a pile of pamphlets and books about New Zealand. "The whole country has a population a quarter of London's. I got a New Zealand Herald out at the airport. I thought their clothes were expensive until I realized one pound is over three dollars."
"It's one of the great outdoor tourist resorts of the world with mountains, lakes and geysers, as well as beaches," Bree added. "Well, that's what the brochures say."
Jenny giggled, unfolded a map onto the carpet and knelt down in front of it. "I got my passport," she said. "Told them there was a family emergency and I needed it straight right away." She glanced up and saw Bree's raised eyebrows. "Well, it is, isn't it? We had the emergency. I just forgot to tell them it happened here."
"Oh, Jenny," Bree said with a laugh. "I don't think we'll be bored down there, not even for a minute."
Ray Barnett was in the waiting room in one of the new sections of the hospital, a room with comfortable armchairs, low tables and assorted magazines spread around. The receptionist's counter was empty, as staff had since gone home. Three people were in the room--a couple in their sixties, and a man a generation younger, who endlessly strutted around. He stopped by a vertical goldfish bowl to gaze at the tiny creatures frolicking around in the artificial light, before running a hand over his day old stubble and continuing his relentless pace.
"Come and sit down, Ray," the woman said. "Can I get you another coffee from the dispensing machine?"
"Damn windows," the man replied. "Why don't they have windows in the place?"
"Something to do with the cost of making them earthquake proof," the third person in the room, a grey-headed man, replied. "It was cheaper to leave them out."
Ray's eyes were haunted and a vein in his neck twitched. "Sure, Ken," he said and switched the conversation back to what was really in his mind. "Why are they so long? They said midnight at the outside." He glanced at a clock on the wall that showed it was two-fifteen.
"Can we both have a coffee, Emily?" Ray's father-in-law Ken Preston said softly and walked over to comfort him.
"I'm sorry," Ray muttered. "I know it is just as difficult for you two, probably more so. After all, Maxine is your daughter. I've only known her for a decade." He acknowledged the hand on his shoulder with a faint smile and allowed himself to be guided into an armchair.
Ray's mother-in-law returned with two paper cups of coffee. She handed them out and Ray met her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered. "Whatever happens tonight, I want you to know you were the best thing that happened to Maxie..." Her own voice broke and she turned away.
Another quarter an hour slipped by before an end door swung open and a nurse dressed in operating fatigues entered. Her body language told the grim story before she even opened her mouth.
"Doctor Mansfield will speak to you in a moment, Mr. Barnett," she said.
Ray stood and stared. "My wife...."
"I'm sorry," the nurse continued. "Maxine died on the operating table at two-forty three, five minutes ago. Doctor Mansfield will be here soon."
The hushed room was cut by sobs as Emily broke down. Ray fought his own emotions as he watched Ken clasp Emily in his arms.
"Thank you," Ray replied. "We knew it was a long shot, and I'm sure you all did everything possible." Without another word he walked out of the room.
Ray watched Emily tip the bucket of dirty water down the sink and stand back to check the last cleaning up of the empty house. In the six months since Maxie's funeral, Ray had taken it hard. His in-laws had tried to persuade him to stay in Auckland but he'd made up his mind to accept a position to survey noxious weed spread in native forests three hundred kilometres away in the southern part of the North Island. He reasoned that this position gave him a chance to follow up his botany degree knowledge. Really it was just an excuse to move away from his memories. Perhaps he'd get it out of his system and return sometime. The home that he and Maxie had lived in for five years was sold and the furniture had already gone south to where he'd bought another property.
"An empty house loses its soul, doesn't it, Ray?" Emily interrupted his thoughts.
"The house lost it when Maxie went," Ray replied. "I thought I could cope, but the memories are too vivid. I must move on before I wallow in self pity and become embittered."
"But you can come back," Emily said. "Our home is always open for you, whether it's just for a weekend or for a longer term." Ray noticed her compassionate gaze. "Keep in touch, won't you?"
Ray nodded. "I will," he whispered. "You're my only family now." He stepped forward, wrapped his arms around her chubby body and kissed on her cheek. "Well, I'd better go."
"Sure," Emily replied. "I'll lock up and get the key to the lawyer."