It is late and Valerie Pickering is walking home from the pub. Even though it is dark, Valerie has made this trek many times and knows the way well. The scattered streetlights usually guide her way.
Valerie doesn’t need the streetlights tonight, though, as the sky is unusually bright. At first she thinks there must be a full moon in the sky. She checks her watch to see what time it is. 11pm. Too early for sunrise.
She peers down the road. In the distance she can make out the large steel gates of the high school and the buildings behind. A large orange glow is coming from one of the large buildings. Valerie squints to try and get a better look. Her body suddenly rocks from side to side and she grabs hold of the closest letterbox to stop herself from falling. “Oh, my,” she whispers to herself. “One too many whiskeys tonight, old girl.”
Heritage listed, the high school’s buildings are some of the oldest structures in the small sleepy town. Built in the 1920s after the First World War, the buildings once served as factories for the largest business in town: Helling Bros. The Helling brothers, Robert and Edward, used their father’s inheritance to purchase a small parcel of unused land in a fairly secluded area. An adjacent river gave the land its own water source.
They were quick to establish the land as a farm and made some meagre profits growing apple trees. An accidental discovery one day lead the brothers’ profits to sky rocket. What Robert and Edward thought to be a weed amongst the apple orchard actually turned out to be the biggest money maker they ever could have imagined. It was a peppercorn tree.
Valerie is awoken by the sun shining on her face. The strong smell of pepper fills the air as she brushes the small pink peppercorns from her hair. She looks at her watch and it tells her that the time is 6am. Sunrise. She glances up and sees a large peppercorn tree hanging overhead. Her head thumps as she licks her dry lips. She giggles to herself as she recognises the letterbox that she attempted to hold herself up with the previous night. “That does it. No more whiskeys for you, old girl.”
Valerie pushes herself up from the garden bed she is laying in and brushes the dirt off her knees and hands. “What are the neighbours going to say, Val?” she asks herself. “Who cares!” she laughs. She suddenly arches her back in pain and places a hand on her lower back. “Ooh,” she grimaces. “Certainly chose the wrong bed to sleep in though. Ah well, it could be worse.”
In fact, it could be worse for Valerie Pickering. She had never spent a night locked up in the local police station, even though she was often drunk. Sergeant Michael Anders made sure that all of the residents were safe and, as it was a relatively quiet town, he ensured that his officers would routinely pick Valerie up on her wander home from the local pub, The Grand Hotel, and take her safely home.
Michael Anders liked Valerie and was genuinely concerned for her safety. Walking home that late at night was risky, and he liked to ensure that she made it home safely. He would often make that late night patrol himself and saw to it that Valerie was okay. He just wished he could do more for her. He was the local law enforcement after all but, other than drinking too much, he knew that Valerie wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Besides, he couldn’t see her lose her licence. If she lost her liquor licence she would have to close The Grand Hotel.
“I wonder where Sergeant Anders was last night, old girl?” Valerie says to herself as she gathers up her handbag laying in the garden bed. “One can never say no to Sergeant Anders,” she smiles. She likes the police officer and quickly realises that she has missed seeing him.
Valerie steps down onto the road and starts to make her way towards her home. She looks up and sees the high school down the end of the road. She can see black smoke rising from one of the buildings. She can also see a number of emergency vehicles. Police cars, a fire engine and an ambulance all surround the entrance to the school.
Curious, Valerie heads towards the chaotic scene. As she moves closer to the school, she can see Sergeant Michael Anders standing out the front talking with other police officers. He sees her and runs quickly over to greet her. His face looks grave.
“Val,” Sergeant Anders calls out to Valerie.
“Sergeant Anders,” Valerie greets the police officer. “What’s happened here?”
“Val, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” Michael Anders begins. “It’s about Joanne.”
“My Jo? What’s happened?” Valerie looks to the smouldering school building. It has been completely flattened and she can see the paramedics amongst the rubble.
“She’s in hospital, Val. She’s been attacked.” Michael Anders can see tears forming in Valerie’s eyes. “I’ll get one of my officers to take you to the hospital.”
Valerie stares at the building’s ruins without saying a word. She can see the paramedics lift something up onto a stretcher.
“I’m sorry, Val,” Michael Anders continues, “but the doctor says that Joanne may never walk again.”
Sergeant Michael Anders tries to hold Valerie up as she falls to the ground. Behind them the paramedics lift a body bag up into the back of the ambulance.
Next Episode – Monday 9th February