-ONE-

FOLLOWED

Few sixteen-year-olds could claim to have a stalker. Stalkers were typically reserved for celebrities, rock stars, maybe even reality TV contestants, and conventionally, ‘popularity’ was a prerequisite. A commodity not in abundance in Sammy Ellis’s existence. Not that it bothered her. She was cool with it. But if the universe had to present her with a stalker, did it really have to be a crusty old woman? As opposed to, say, a buff Sheffield University student?
       In the margin of her maths book, she absent-mindedly doodled a terminator blasting an old woman in the face with a twelve-gauge autoloader. Boom! Headshot!!! she scrawled over the top, underlining it several times.
       Rat-a-tat-tat. A fist rapped on the corner of her desk. It belonged to Miss Armatage.
       “The square root of x does not equal death by machine gun,” she said with a straight face. It was a bored, depressed face that had seen a thousand students come and go. An assembly line of kids that she regurgitated the same information to, before pushing them back out the door. She was a desiccated husk of a woman, probably in her fifties, but she could’ve easily been several centuries old.
       “It’s not a machine gun, Miss. It’s …”
       “I don’t care, Miss Ellis. You’re a tick in my register, a GCSE mathematics grade. A grade B is what I expect from you. And I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get it.”
       Sammy wondered if it were possible for Miss Armatage to look more disappointed than she already did. A bloodhound neutered on its birthday would look cheerier.

5

       Miss Armatage drifted out of focus, replaced by the clock above the whiteboard. 3.15pm. Sammy raised her hand.
       “I’m right here, Samantha.”
       “Can I be excused, Miss?”
       “There’s only half an hour before the bell. Can’t you hold on?”
       “Not really. I was dehydrated after PE, so I drank loads of water. Maybe I drank too much, but I was so thirsty I kept drinking …”
       Miss Armatage held up her hand to stop her. “Look at my face.”
       “Do I have to?”
       Miss Armatage frowned. “Just go.” She turned and walked back towards the whiteboard, then as Sammy reached the door, added, “Hurry back, my little statistic.”
       Sammy ran for the gates, zigzagging across the uneven tarmac outside the science block, dodging puddles while clutching her backpack to the top of her head to protect it against icy rain.
       She’d gone straight to the staff room after leaving class, as she had done every night so far this week. This time, the room had been empty, so she’d phoned the police and sacked off the last fifteen minutes of school. Tonight she wouldn’t be escaping across the football pitch and over the fence, tonight she’d be catching the predator.
       She slowed as she approached the school gates.
       A glimpse of powder blue shimmered through the grey sheets of rain. The old woman stood in front of the houses across the street, the same spot she stood every night, wearing the same pale blue headscarf and dressed in bedraggled brown clothes that resembled a heap of threadbare carpets. Her clothes were heavy, waterlogged and probably freezing. But there she waited, soaking up rainwater.
       She’d clearly identified Sammy as a loner, due to the fact no one ever came to collect her. So, then, why hadn’t she made her move yet? This had been going on for weeks and the old woman always stood outside, in plain view.

6

       Dark eyes fixed on Sammy’s. The woman smiled. Then her head snapped to the side and she tensed. It was Sammy’s turn to smile this time. She couldn’t see past the school wall, but she knew what was coming.
       The old woman raised her palms as two men in black trench coats came into view. The school gates framed a picture-perfect movie scene of two cops apprehending a criminal. One carried an umbrella above both their heads, the other held out a badge.
       End of the line, old bag.
       Voices clamoured behind Sammy. The lower school cloakrooms were emptying. A river of slate-grey bodies accented by flapping red ties swept towards her. She sidestepped, but not fast enough, and an errant satchel caught her in the face, knocking her down. She landed on all fours and pain spiked in her knees. She sucked in air through her teeth and closed her eyes while the other kids trampled past, kicking her satchel as they jostled to get to their parents’ cars.
       Sammy remained where she was, facing the floor, the water streaming from her blonde hair.
       No one stopped to help. Typical. No one had noticed her since she’d started at this new school, and no one noticed her now, even though they had to run around her to get out of the gate. Only the satchel that tugged at her arm as it got booted around served as a reminder that she still existed in their world.
       She waited until the traffic became lighter and flicked her sopping hair back from her face.
       The two policemen and the old woman had gone.
       Sammy’s knees were sore, her sleeves were saturated with puddle water, and she’d missed the action. That was probably the most – maybe even the only – exciting thing that was going to happen this term, possibly all year. And it was over.
       Miss Armatage stood at the corner of the science block, monitoring the stragglers. She peered at Sammy with an expression of exaggerated indifference and motioned for her to get up.

7

       She should get up. Her tights were soaking up rainwater and the longer she stayed down, the heavier and colder they’d get. But then, if she got up, she’d have to start walking and she’d have damp, heavy fabric chafing back and forth across her skin and sucking in cold air at the edges.
       As she considered her options, a hand grabbed her under the arm and jerked her to her feet. She came face to face with a boy sporting a black eye and his tie knotted around his forehead like a Rambo headband. Wayne Grubby. They had maths and science together. He was less unpleasant than most of the other boys in the year, but that wasn’t saying much.
       “You alright?” he asked.
       Sammy examined the wet patches around her knees. “Yeah,” she said.
       “You should be careful,” he said. “The playground is right lumpy, you know. You new?”
       “I joined at the start of the year. So … no, not really.”
       “Yeah. Well, I don’t recognise you, but whatever. Bye.” And he ran off.
       They had maths and science together! She sat between him and the whiteboard. How could he not know her? Maybe he should spend more time paying attention and less time setting his mates’ books on fire with Bunsen burners. She didn’t care anyway. He was a moron.
       She watched him go. Cars crawled along the street outside the gates, their windows fogged with warm breath and smiling faces drawn in the condensation. Perhaps she’d stand where she was another minute. If she kept perfectly still with her legs spread and her arms out, then she could minimise the amount of wet cloth in contact with her body. Miss Armatage had gone, so there was no one left to shoo her away, and if she waited long enough the rain would stop and her body temperature would dry her clothes enough that they wouldn’t chafe.

8

       On the street, the last car pulled away. The rain wasn’t going to let up and her clothes weren’t going to get any drier. She should start on the long walk home.
       She took a step towards the gates and froze.
       The old woman was there, barring the way. She wagged a finger disapprovingly and shook her head. Then she reached into a fold in her clothes and pulled out a leather wallet. She threw it to Sammy but it fell short, opening as it hit the floor and coming to rest in a puddle at her feet. Something in the wallet shimmered through the water.
       Sammy looked up, but the woman had gone.
       She reached down and picked up the wallet. Not a wallet, but a police badge with the name Peter Marshall CID underneath. The photo ID was of a middle-aged man with a tidy haircut, and tucked into the compartment behind was an envelope. Sammy freed it from the badge and smoothed it out in her hands.
       Her name was on the front: Samantha Ellis.
       For a moment it was all she could focus on.
       She looked up, checked over her shoulder.
       There was no one around. She took a deep breath, opened the envelope and pulled out a sodden note, careful not to tear it. The message on the paper had been written in pen and had run, but it was still clearly legible. Meet me at the market.
       Sammy stared at the note until her heart rate returned to normal.
       If it had been the woman’s intention to kidnap her, she could’ve done it then. There’d been no one else around. But she hadn’t. She’d kept a reasonable distance and had invited Sammy to the market, somewhere that was always busy. That meant the woman wasn’t planning on harming her. But then again, she’d taken out two policemen, which meant she was a force to be reckoned with.
       Whatever the old lady was up to, Sammy knew two things: one, she watched too many US crime shows; and two, more importantly, someone had noticed her.

9

       She would go to the market and she’d find out what the old crone wanted.
       Across the street, a figure got up from behind a garden wall. Sammy recognised him as the policeman whose badge she still held, Peter Marshall.
       He leant on the wall, cradling his head. The second policeman got up beside him, stumbled and took hold of his colleague for support.
       Then they saw Sammy.
       Sammy dropped the badge and ran back through the playground.
       One of the men yelled after her but by then she was already heading for the football pitch and the fence at the rear of the school.

10

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