A STRING OF PEARLS

Short story

A STRING OF PEARLS

 

“That was ten years ago,” Frances Corry said.

DI Fyfe looked at her, but with eyes half shut – as if he was subtracting.

“But that meant you were only fifteen – and he was twenty five!” Fyfe said.

“That’s right. I don’t want to mislead you. That’s how those letters …”

“In his possession …”

“… came about.”

There was a pause.

“They are very personal Mrs Corry …”

“Ms,” she said, in a flat tone.

There was a silence.

“Ms Corry, as I explained, your former boyfriend has been murdered. We need to follow things up. I need your help.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t really. That was a long time ago. I never kept in touch with him. It ended years ago. It ended sadly.”

Fyfe’s colleague Detective Sergeant Pru Landis, who was only a handful of years older than Ms Corry, watched impassively but was struck by the her language. Sadly, not badly, she thought. The end of a romance usually evoked a stronger feeling. “Sourly” … “With huge relief” … “Angrily”. “We drifted apart in thick blue glue.”

Only a “sad” little word. Sad for her, obviously.

Or it could have ended violently, early Tuesday morning. She was their only suspect.

His pause lengthened. He took another sip of coffee. To Frances Corry, Fyfe came across as gruff, gray and jaded. Hair on the march. A contrast to Sgt Landis, bolt upright, a sleek black pony tail. High cheekbones, Asian features.

Fyfe continued: “Can I tell you the circumstances of his murder. Three days ago a person or persons unknown entered his flat, where Mr Ingrams lived by himself.”

“I knew he lived by himself,” she said….

“… where he lived by himself. He was stabbed several times in the stomach and then left alone to bleed to death when he fell back on the couch. A leather couch in his lounge room.”

She put her fingers over her lips and pressed, imagining the red blood bubbling around him on a couch that she knew very, very well. Welling in the leather indents, little dark pools.

DI Fyfe said: “He was found around ten am this morning. A teacher from the school called round because he hadn’t turned up at work for two days … without explanation, without a phone call. They were sick of rustling up emergency teachers for his class and decided to check if he was okay.”

“He was a very punctual guy,” Frances Corry said.

“So we searched his effects and found your letters.”

“They are very old.”

“Yes. All dated. I haven’t read all of them, but I’ve checked the dates.”

“Ten, nine years. A decade ago.”

“From grade ten to grade twelve.”

There was a pause in the mild-mannered interrogation. Frances Corry knew DI Fyfe expected her to confess that “it had been wrong”. But even now, to her, it wasn’t. She had never, ever thought it was wrong. Landis remained silent, listening. Fyfe continued.

“You are a teacher now, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

There was another silence. Waiting for the mea culpa. Her confession of callow foolishness. She didn’t oblige.

“Where were you on Monday night?”

“At home.”

“And your husband?”

“He was on a work trip to Melbourne. He left that morning. He came back yesterday. You can’t think I would ever want to harm anyone.”

“We’re checking with everyone who knew Mr Ingrams. You never kept in touch?”

“Not for years. As I say, it ended sadly.”

“The letters seem to indicate the relationship was very passionate?”

“While it lasted. I haven’t thought of him for years. Or even dreamt of him, unless it was in one of those one o’clock dreams. You know, the dreams you have in the dead of the night, but never remember in the morning.”

Frances was prattling slightly because she’d begun to feel a little uneasy. A little frightened. They were sitting in a Gloria Jeans café opposite the school where she taught. Sitting at a table amongst young mums and the odd traveler who had hived from the highway for a coffee in the mall. When the detective asked her for a few answers about Ben, she’d been glad to oblige – anything to help. But the questions were becoming  creepy.

“I’m happily married now.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you seem to think I might still be in contact with Ben.”

“I never said that.”

“But you think that don’t you?”

“Did you see anyone else on Monday night or early on Tuesday the night your husband was out of town and you were at home?”

“Only the girl at Blockbuster Videos”.

“When?”

“Eight thirty. Around eight thirty. After dinner.  I was bored. I’d knocked off a whole lot of marking.”

Inspector Fyfe paused again, looking thoughtful.

“Mr Ingrams was killed a lot later than Eight. At around One AM. No sign of a forced entry. Let the person or persons in, straightaway. Your Mr Ingrams didn’t have a wide circle of friends.”

“He was a dedicated teacher. He worked very hard.”

Detective Fyfe raised his eyebrow, couldn’t help himself.

“You don’t have any views on the fact that he took advantage of you? As your teacher? Especially when you were below the legal age of consent? I mean if your relationship had been discovered, he’d have gone to jail. Full stop.”

“I know. We were careful.”

“Careful? There was nothing careful about what he did to you.”

Frances Corry said nothing, but stared at Fyfe with frightened eyes. Landis arched an eyebrow to signal her unease at Fyfe’s slight loss of composure. He nodded to his 2IC, took a deep breath. Calmed down.

“Ms Corry.”

“Yes.”

“I have to say, we’ve been through Mr Ingram’s things over the past day. We have checked with his colleagues. We have checked with his brother. We have listened to his phone messages, inspected his bills, his bank accounts and quite frankly, the only incongruity in his life that we can find, is you. Your pile of letters in his bottom drawer, wrapped in a red ribbon.”

“My husband doesn’t know about my relationship with Ben. I kept very quiet about it. Didn’t tell a soul. I’ve never talked about it until now … to you … given the circumstances. Will it come out?”

“I don’t know. Your old school identified your name from the letters, though they don’t know what’s in them. You were the only Frances at the school then. Or Francey – that’s what they remember you by. Can I ask you? You knew the man intimately, so to speak. He strayed once into an illegal relationship with an under-aged girl. Could he have strayed again?”

She’d thought about that. Obviously. As soon as she’d heard. The question didn’t surprise her.

“Possibly Inspector Fyfe, but who knows. I felt then, that what we had was different. He wasn’t that much older than I am now. Twenty five.”

“I’m a bloke,” said Det Fyfe quite rudely, “and 15 year old schoolgirls …are… too vulnerable in my eye. Vulnerable and at risk.”

He couldn’t finish looking at the frustration on Ms Corry’s face.

“Ms Corry you were a child, he was a responsible adult. Look, he committed a crime. And now we have another crime. Are they linked?”

“No. No, no.”

Fyfe looked at Ms Frances Corry and decided she was right. She was now the same age Ingrams had been when they had been lovers. A decade later, here she was – a young schoolteacher, rather pretty, in a summer dress with her hair tied back with a sheer and patterned scarf. Pale green spots. She was lean and looked physically strong, sporty. A girl who worked out. She’d been crying while he talked to her, in fits and starts, and mascara smudged her cheek. Fyfe couldn’t be sure – either she’d been involved in the murder, or the conversation was bringing back details of what she obviously regarded as a romantic liaison which “ended sadly.” He saw it, without a shred of doubt, as sexual abuse.

“I’m sorry.” She blew her nose.

“Don’t apologise.  I’m the one bringing up all this unpleasantness, said the detective. “You said your relationship ended sadly. How did it end?”

“He got frightened, then I got frightened. We saw each other for two years you know, almost, and I hid it well. Eventually my dad started asking about my strange behaviour, and lack of a boyfriend, so I told Ben that Dad was getting antsy. Dad suspected I had some dirty secret, some older boyfriend I didn’t want to reveal. As a traditionally minded Italian father with a beautiful daughter, Ben would have been  someone he’d instinctively wanted to kill. Ben knew what the repercussions would be. You have to understand – I initiated it all. I don’t think he’d even had much of a love life, from what I knew. My schoolgirl crush turned into something quite serious. You have read the letters?”

Fyfe nodded, biting his tongue.

“Anyway, he was scared. And I got angry and, quite rightly, I demanded that if he loved me, which he said he did, he should declare. Publicly.”

She choked slightly and hunted for a tissue.

“He looked at me. I remember the night. He looked at me and shook his head and said: “it’s my life”. He meant teaching, and reputation and all that. And I said. “Can we wait ‘til I’m finished school?” And he said: “It wouldn’t work,” and I didn’t know what he meant by that. I supposed he was falling out of love. I switched classes in the last few months of school so he wasn’t teaching me. I was devastated. Did really badly. My first three semesters carried me through to uni because the last semester was a real dud. I failed everything. After I finished school, I did contact him, and he was nice but distant. Distancing himself. We had dinner but he’d demanded the restaurant be located a long way away from the school neighbourhood. It was a horrible restaurant with chunky wooden chairs, and we were the only patrons. He was still frightened. He had no excuses. And I realized that he was in fact a very lame human being. But by then I’d gone through the grief and anger thing, and given up hope anyway and was looking around for someone else at Uni. I couldn’t rekindle it, I could see that. And that dinner at the empty restaurant was the last time I saw him. But for someone who appeared so frightened, I’m amazed he kept my letters.”

Det Fyfe looked at her again. The confession had poured out in a torrent of wordy emotion.

“He was right to be frightened, said Fyfe bluntly. He was committing a crime.”

“If you’ve got it love, a relationship, we should have waited. You don’t squander it like Ben did. That’s my view. But that was a long time ago. And I have to get back to work.”

“Ms Corry,” said the detective. “If you knew a young girl at your school was having a sexual liaison with a male teacher, would you report it?”

“I’d have to. I would have no choice.”

She knew if she’d said anything else, she’d have been in deep trouble.

*

“Frances Corry is smart. I can’t believe someone like her fell for a sleaze,” DI Fyfe said in the car.

Fyfe’s mouth, his slightly puffy middle-aged face, was twisted in puzzlement. Landis looked at his profile. The muted anger, the graying hair, the knitted eyebrows.

“Happens all the time, Sir.”

*

Fyfe and Landis checked the CCTV tapes at the DVD shop and sure enough at 8.28 there was Frances Corry hiring a couple of DVDs. Of all things Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (he borrowed it himself and had a look) and a James Bond thriller Live and Let Die. No irony in either choice. Those were her tastes.  He watched the greyscale vision of an efficient young woman in jeans, finding her borrowers card first off, laughing with the girl behind the counter and sweeping out of the shop.

Fyfe pondered the scenario. Ingram’s teaching record seemed unblemished except for this one criminal aberration. Quiet. Teacher of English and History. Organising cricket and athletics at the school where he’d taught all his life. No ambition to be a deputy principal or principal. Just loved teaching.

And the letters. They were red hot. Written by the young Francesca Catalbiano nee Corry.

*

Fyfe and Landis spent the afternoon at the school, interviewing kids. There really seemed nothing untoward about Ben Ingrams. One by one, the schoolgirls who to Landis, looked more and more like little dolls, and schoolboys who all looked like sock puppets, described him as a good teacher, quiet, who adored cricket. Only time he got excited was organizing the all night movie festival in the gym. Never touched the girls up, never made sideways suggestions to any boys. Even the boys that skulked and scowled at DI Fyfe, because he was a cop, seemed up front and fair dinkum in their views on Mr Ingram. They all had a middling to high regard for the fellow because he dedicated himself to them. No-one said a bad word, though one or two kids went so far as to say he was “boring”.

Similarly with his fellow teachers. They had drinks with him and invited him to parties, but there was nothing more to it. A couple of friendships with colleagues who liked orienteering and bushwalking. No known girlfriend. No known life outside school circles. One brother, kept in touch two or three times a year, parents dead.

The principal, who had been deputy principal then and advanced to the top through the slow drumbeat of promotion, said the school’s failure to detect and stop the relationship had been “very dilatory”. Fyfe and Landis were forced to check the police station dictionary. It meant slow to act.

Then the news came through from Ben Ingram’s solicitor that Ingram’s last will and testament dictated that the sole recipient of his worldly wealth was Mrs Frances Corry.

*

The Black Knight shed his gauntlet and placed his hard horny fingertips under her mantle and her skin tingled like small electric currents swirling and whirling fingerprint patterns folding out like ripples up and around her soft belly, and down towards her hidden place, as if it was a dark lake and a stone of destiny had been thrown in the center of the cool black water, rippling, in fingerprint rings, outward. And her nipples hardened and her face softened as he pressed lips down on her neck and mouth, and the ripples made her soften like butter and she couldn’t help but love this man with the blackcurrant eyes and the long lashes. And so small and frail, she moaned.

 

Pru Landis was looking at the letter with Fyfe.

“Geez,” he said, perplexed.

“Interesting, sir.”

“What do you think? There’s a lot like this.” Fyfe asked.

“Sir Lancelot stuff? Teenage erotica?”

“Oh I don’t know. From 1994 and 1995 she wrote scads of the stuff and he kept it, every single item. All letters. And she’s wanting it all back now.”

“Well it could be evidence boss.”

“It could well be.”

“It’s pretty good writing,” said Landis. “Flows nicely. Lots of imagery. The fingerprint thing is good.”

“You like that bit because you’re Police,” snorted Fyfe.

“Maybe. But for a 15 year old, it’s quite mature.”

“Really? It sounds like air-headed crap. But then I’m a middle aged bloke who likes to read airport fiction. When did you become a literary critic, Pru?”

“I like to read the good stuff, Sir,” said Landis.

She turned to another letter. It was dated late ‘95 when they were well into the relationship. It was a tad more desperate.

My love,

I wait. I wait in solitary confinement, my hand pressed between my legs, passive, and wish for you, every tiny squeezed minute, tiny second. My dreams bulge with you. When will it be? Every breath is a tick of the clock, and echoes in the emptiness of the dark hall inside me. Against the smooth oil of the old portraits of us, that line its walls. The one of us at the park, the one where you are bent over me on your divan, in divine amplexus; the one where we are laughing and licking ice cream cones. Those lovely paintings. Remember them?

 

Back to the police station dictionary. “Amplexus” was the mating grip of frogs.

“It’s getting sadder,” said Landis.

“Looks like he was trying to ‘distance” himself by then. Her words,” Det Fyfe said with a scowl.

He was a good listener. Remembered turns of phrase.

Landis said: “It’s a bit like she is demanding his undivided attention if you know what I mean. Maybe she was becoming his stalker. Maybe he just didn’t want a hot little puppy pursuing him.”

“Or, on the contrary, she was getting too grown-up for his tastes.”

“If he disliked it, why did he leave his worldly wealth to her? It’s like she was the centrepoint of his life even now.”

“Why indeed?”

*

Landis led the next interview because she had diplomatically told Fyfe, who was her superior, that tho’ he was good with womens’ motives, she was better with womens’ feelings. Fyfe had shrugged and said “fair enough”. They were in Frances’ kitchen, being Saturday. Husband John was out with friends playing golf.

“So, have you told John about the liaison?”

“Yes. He’s an understanding fella. He had his first serious girlfriend around 15 as well. He loves me. In a more regular way,” she said with a wan smile.

How had the explanation gone? It had been very hard for her, to release the best kept secret of her life. Frances had told John the evening before she’d had a fling with a teacher, now stabbed to death. She told him about letters found, and that for some reason she was a suspect. John had laughed.

His slim gentle poetic wife actually stabbing someone was so far-fetched to be beyond imagining. But she’d held back from John details about the breadth of the two year relationship, the intensity, the tone of the letters. He hadn’t asked for those details, consciously or subconsciously skirting the truth of first love’s magic.

Instead he had asked about the police questions, and worried that she didn’t have an alibi. She’d stared unflinchingly back at him because she didn’t want to appear guilty even about going to the DVD shop, let alone having time to kill Ben later that night.

Landis said:  “We’ve still no leads.”

“Meaning I’m it?” Frances said.

“There’s no evidence against you. But we do want to know what you saw in him. We need a steer. It may be that some other young girl has fallen for him and some bloke’s got angry about it.”

“I suppose you’ve read all the letters,” she said miserably.

“Yes.”

They couldn’t deny it.

“I want them back so I can burn them all. Make a little bonfire. I was so hopelessly immature. He was strong and masculine and talked beautifully. I showed him some of my poems, not the erotic ones. Hadn’t even tried writing that sort of thing. He loved them. The Poems. Said they were “more than promising”. We met one morning at a café and he went through them with me. I touched his hand. I was the one that touched first. He didn’t flinch. It started from there.”

“And no-one knew.”

“No-one. I had lots of girlfriends. But every third or fourth sleepover at a girlfriends was actually with him. I mean, I knew the dangers for both of us. My Dad would have torn me to bits, charged him, the lot. I told no-one. And we didn’t meet that often, but when we did it was very intense. On the weekends.”

“Did he write poems?” asked Fyfe with interest.

“Not that I knew of.”

“Did he meet with other students.”

“Only through official school functions or events. That I knew of.”

“And this went on for two years.”

“Until the beginning of my last term. I told you. I bombed out because of it.”

Landis looked up from her notebook.

“Two years is hardly a fling. That’s a full scale relationship, isn’t it?”

‘We loved one another. I’d have waited just a couple of years and we could have got married. I’d have done it, and I told him. For some reason he didn’t want to.”

“Do you think its because he was only interested in very young women?”

“You know … I’ve always wondered that. Especially after he told me to go. Whether there were others. I’ve searched my heart. Thought about everything we said and did. But I’ve always believed him.”

“You know you’re the sole beneficiary of his will.”

“Yes. His solicitor rang yesterday.”

“And you haven’t had anything to do with him since you left school. No phone calls, letters, anything.”

“No.”

“What do you think about that?”

“I think it means I must have been the one. A bachelor teacher who fell in love with one woman, girl really – a student – and couldn’t commit. I think it’s sad.”

That word again, thought Fyfe.

“That’s a big inheritance for you,” Landis pointed out. “Mr Ingram didn’t spend much. 20 years of teaching. A lot saved. Superannuation.”

“I don’t think I will be able to keep it,” Frances said. “I’ll give it to a charity or something. The money means nothing to me. Truly. I could build a sunroom on the house with all that. And every time I walked into it, I’d be reminded of him, and the night he said: “it’s my life”. Truly, I don’t want the money.”

Fyfe piped up: “Did he ever say that you would be a beneficiary?”

“No. Never. I thought he had a brother anyway.”

“He does.”

“Then he can have the fucking money.”

Not getting far with that potential motive, though Fyfe.

*

My lover, when we’re twined like weeds and vines and hold tight and press and caress, and our curves lick against each other and skin warm and then you enter when I’m not quite expecting, and I widen with surprise, and we exasperate the world with our contortions, lascivious tensions. That’s us. That’s what “we” means to me, and will mean always.

*

“That’s one’s not so good,” said Fyfe.

“It’s sad,” said Landis.

“Don’t you start.”

“Well here’s a young woman bonding so tightly with a man she loves. And the world never knew.”

“Because he was a paedophile?”

“Hang on, this was written when she turned sixteen.”

“Don’t start singing Miss Denial’s song. No excuse – it started as a criminal act. And even after she turned 16 it was an abuse of power.”

“I know that, Boss. I don’t need a lecture.”

“Good.”

There was a pause while they recovered from the exchange.

“Look at her words. They are all about binding him to her, one way or another, forever. A declaration. He kept the letter. It didn’t shame him. He didn’t burn it. He liked it.”

“Maybe he wanted to live with the shame in his bottom drawer. Or got his rocks off every time he read them,” Fyfe said.

“Doesn’t strike me like that. Maybe he admired her as a writer. Knew that this was a body of work, excuse the pun. He couldn’t bring himself to burn them.”

*

Frances Corry lay in bed awake with John breathing slowly beside her.

Had she been wrong to reach out and touch his hand that day? She searched her mind for some fact, some instinct that persuaded her that love for Ben Ingrams had been corrupt, and that he had been a sleazy criminal. She believed he was honest, and gentle. She had lied to the police. She thought about Ben often. Their love had been the most formative event in her little life, and she’d become a teacher because of him. Not to have flings with little boys, but to teach. And teach well. His treatment of her towards the end had frustrated and puzzled her, but she’d forgiven him a long time ago.

She’d also lied about something else. Before she had reached out to touch his hand, to connect physically, he had whispered: “I like your poems, Frances, and I like you.”

She wondered why such a gentle man would meet such a savage end. She saw the living room in the house with intimate knowledge, the couch, the TV, the bookcases, the fireplace. She saw his limp body lying face up (as the papers described) the blood on the fabric, a couple of desperate bloody hand prints on the arm of the couch where he tried to stand and get to the phone. They hadn’t found the knife, a big carving knife with serrated edge, the papers said). It had entered his liver mercilessly twice and his stomach once. It snicked arteries and he bled dry. A steel tooth biting at his inner soul. His beautiful soul. And he’d been alive and injured for some time. She closed her eyes and saw it all, draining red on the couch. Bent into a pretzel of meat, marinating in blood. Could he have reached the phone with such awful injuries? Perhaps he’d lapsed unconscious quickly, scrabbling to get to the phone? Perhaps. She squirmed round on her side, as far away from John as possible, curled like a baby and cried with her hand over her mouth, silently, so her husband could not hear a sound.

*

Two of the letters, including the one with the Black Knight poem were in a tabloid newspaper the next morning, leaked by some anonymous weasel at  Surrey Hills police headquarters, probably for a couple of hundred bucks.  The front page. Next to a photo of Ingrams’ house. The phone started ringing off the hook at 5am from other journalists after a piece of the action: “are there any other of those letters that we could have,” asked the first reporter. “We’ll pay.”

John barked oaths at him and hung the phone up. They finally took it off the hook, just as tentative knocks began at the door. And they hadn’t seen the paper yet. John whistled up the Telegraph on-line and the headline ran: Raunchy Schoolgirl Letters to Murdered Teacher  naming her and proclaiming she was a person of interest.

Det Fyfe and Landis turned up soon after apologizing profusely. John was livid. He shouted at them and arranged an immediate meeting with the deputy commissioner to complain in person and to “see what could be done”. He was probably just as livid about the nature of his wife’s letters, having never read them, or known anything about their explicit nature. But what infuriated him the most was that Frances’ name had appeared with the outrageous second par: “Police sources question whether it is appropriate Ms Corry, now a teacher herself, should be in charge of children as she failed to ever report the relationship.” That’s rich, said faithful husband John, when the slimy bastard hooked her and took full advantage of her naivety and innocence.

Ms Corry. Francesca. Frances. Fran.

Fran suffered quiet and agonized despair at the turn of events. She could hardly speak. Tears brimmed in her eyes, like a string of tiny pearls, dangling on the edge of her eyelid. She was unable to rid herself of them all day. They just kept reappearing.

Then Landis saw John looking at his wife through half-lidded eyes and she thought: things have changed in his mind. He’s not so sure anymore. His eyes have question-marks in them.

“You need to go somewhere other than your house,” said Fyfe. “We’ll give you a lift. The vultures are descending already.”

*

While Fran sniffled in the back seat of the car, in the arms of her clouding husband, Landis received a call from the school on her mobile.

Landis was told a girl, Lucille Rennie known to the kids as “Lucy Lou” hadn’t fronted since Tuesday. The school’s office manager had rung because Landis asked them to confirm any absentee students from the day after the killing. She thanked the school for the information, and wrote down Lucy Lou’s address, but Landis didn’t let on to anyone in the car what had happened.

As Frances and John went into police headquarters to meet with the deputy commissioner, Landis and Fyfe drove back across the harbour to Lucy Lou’s house. She was Chinese according to the school. Landis suggested she take the lead given she had an Asian parentage on mum’s side. Fyfe said that if she was the killer, he would be the arresting officer.

The girl’s mother, called Natalie, was first generation Chinese. She spoke with a strong accent when she opened the door and quizzed the two police officers. They asked to see Lucy.

“Why do you want to see her?”

“We’ve got a couple of questions about her English teacher. We’ve asked all the other kids in the class, but she’s been away this week.”

“She’s not really ill, but hasn’t been herself,” said the mother. “Come in.”

The house was a MacMansion with harbour glimpses, light sparkled into the kitchen through large windows. The Rennies were doing well for themselves, thought Fyfe.  IT perhaps? They waited for Natalie to fetch her daughter, and could hear a fierce argument upstairs, voices raised, words smudged by walls.

Finally Lucy came in hovering, obscured behind her mother.

“Hi Lucy,” said Landis. “Do you want to sit?”

She sat at the breakfast bench on a high stool. She was skinny, Eurasian and very pretty. The Principal had said she was 15 going on 16. Fyfe and Landis knew immediately that she was the key. If her body-language had been translated into words, they’d have been curses. Contorted arms, angry eyes. It was awful.

“We are inquiring into the death of one of your teachers, a Mr Ingrams,” said Landis

“He was stabbed to death early Tuesday morning,” said Fyfe.

The detectives looked at one another annoyed at their unfocussed start, and Landis nodded imperceptibly and backed off.

“Did you know him well?” Fyfe asked gently.

Lucy nodded almost imperceptibly.

“He was my English teacher. Of course I knew him.”

She’d started snitty. Her voice had an aggressive tone.

“Did you ever see him outside of school hours.”

“We helped plan the cinema club – me and my friends. Sometimes we stayed after school to choose movies with him. He loved movies.”

Fyfe paused.

“Did you ever meet with him one to one? Just you and him? “

There was a pause before she said no.

“Are you sure?”

Lucy’s mother got cranky

“What’s this all about?” She asked. “Why are you asking my daughter these questions about this dead man.”

“My teacher,” said Lucy.

“Yes, this dead teacher?”

“Was Lucy home Monday night?”

Lucy’s mother had a think.

“She was at Lin’s with her study team. She stayed over.”

“Can I have Lin’s mum’s phone number?”

“Sure, I’ve got it here.”

As the mother turned to find her mobile phone, Landis watched Lucy’s face. She glared … well … daggers, at Fyfe and Landis.

What a fierce little face, Landis thought. How angry is she? Messed around? Led astray? Dumped?

Did he say: It’s my life?

This has to be the one.

DI Fyfe thought: you had to give it to Lucy Lou – at least she didn’t muck around when it came to resolving a personal issue with a pedophile.

*

John booked himself and Frances into a motel for a couple of nights to avoid the media stakeout in their street. Frances rang the school and asked for a few days leave, and gave the Principal her mobile number for emergencies. He was reassuring.

“You’re an excellent teacher. Don’t worry Fran. We chased reporters from the school gates this morning. The police were very helpful. And one or two parents have raised that story with me, but I’ve talked them down. And please, please make sure no more poems appear in the papers.”

“The commissioner is on a witch-hunt. I hope they don’t.”

“I hope so too. Don’t worry.”

Mixed message – I hope so/don’t worry, she thought. After all her personal interior, 15 year old love-language for two, had become an internet sensation and been read by millions including her colleagues, students, and students’ parents.

What wilted inside, kept on wilting.

The deputy commissioner had been curt, hinted that someone in the police station had personally advantaged themselves by giving a reporter the two letters. Intimated anger. The Deputy Commissioner promised an inquiry into the outrage, but in the end he didn’t look too concerned. It was about pedophilia after all. And Detective Fyfe had told him that this teacher had refused to declare she’d been a victim. Utterly refused. Her problem.

Later, Fran and John were lying on the motel bed up the central coast watching the late news when it was reported that a young female school student had been arrested and charged with the alleged stabbing murder of Ben Ingram. Police had gone through the child’s home and it was understood possible evidence had been found. Being underage, her name was not to be released.

“I knew it, said John.”

*

John Corry couldn’t sleep. He worried about Fran relentlessly. He would get up after trying to nod off for hours, make a cuppa, read the paper and come back to bed. She’d be lying there warm and cosy, safe under their roof. John sipped his tea. He looked at the little smile on her sleeping face, on her sweet lips, and wondered.

*

Ben,

These are dark places. Crevasses in all of us, holes and cracks where the climbers fall and whose frozen bodies are never found.

These aren’t the pink fleshly cracks we love to touch and thrill so well.

These are cold crevasses where people die of hypothermia

Dangled on a rope.

Your house is becoming icy.

Your voice discordant.

Snow has started to swirl at our plodding feet, and cake our hair.

I don’t understand why, but we are both at risk of falling,

And dying,

As the rope between us frays.