nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Jolly Hockey Sticks

written for the Poptober Challenge 2009

This was it. Mummy and Daddy had gone, with goodbye kisses and admonishments to be good, work hard and enjoy herself. Jamie carried her satchel up the broad, handsome staircase as she followed the Headmistress to the room where she was to sleep.

"Buck up, young 'un," the Head advised her as the stood at the door, which bore a large '6' in black paint. "There's nothing to be afraid of. A week from now you'll wonder why you ever felt nervous." Her large hand knocked smartly on the door, she opened it, and strode inside. Jamie followed her, eager to see the bedroom—no, the dormitory, she must learn to call it—where she would be living from now on.

It was a pleasant room, she saw with relief, not the grim, grey place her imagination had suggested. The beds did have metal frames, but they were painted white instead of iron grey, and bore cheerful blue bedcovers. On her left, two beds were placed with their heads to the wall by the door, and three against the opposite wall, with white painted bedside lockers between them and an array of chests of drawers against the wall to her right. At the end of the room, to the far left, was a large bay window curtained in patterned blue-and-white, and the floorboards were clean and polished.

Four girls leaped to their feet out of respect for the Headmistress, who addressed them at once. "Good afternoon, girls. This is Jamie, who has been lucky enough to join us a little late in the term. I hope you will all be very good friends, and help her to catch up on the work she has missed over the past two weeks. I rely on you all to show Jamie how we go about things here." She smiled benignly at Jamie. "I shall leave you to get along, now," she said. "I hope you will have a very happy time with us. With that, she turned and left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

Jamie smiled tentatively, and was relieved when the other girls smiled back.

"Hi," said the pretty, curly-haired blonde. "I'm Justine, and this is Jacie." She indicated the slender brunette sitting on the bed beside her. It looked as though they were waxing their hockey sticks together. "Welcome to Dorm Six."

"I'm Chris," said a dark-eyed girl with short, dark brown hair and a cynical expression. She was sitting on the farthest bed, near the window, and appeared to be sorting a pile of gramophone records.

"And I'm Joey," said the fourth girl, a big, sturdy person with friendly brown eyes and a smile which at once made Jamie feel at home. "This is your bed, here, next to mine. Sorry about the—" she paused, and began to clear a pile of clothes onto her own bed. "Your trunk was delivered a few minutes ago, best hurry and unpack, Jenkins will be up to collect it in an hour. They keep them in the cellar during term-time," she explained, "otherwise we wouldn't have room to move in here. This is your bedside locker, and your chest of drawers is the corner one, there, and when you've unpacked I'll take you down to the cloakroom and the washroom and show you where you can leave your coats and towels and things."

"Thanks," Jamie said, politely, feeling very much comforted by this flow of information. Joey seemed very nice. She unpacked quickly, laying her school uniform neatly into the chest of drawers with a thrill of pride. How fortunate she was to be here, at the famous Madame Louella Pearlman's Academy for Young Ladies! Her parents had applied for a place for her months ago, but the school had been full. Then, out of the blue, a vacancy! They had all been so excited when the letter arrived. In fact it had been quite a rush to get everything on the school list, but they had managed it. Mummy was a marvel that way.

She wasn't quite sure what to do with the hockey stick. It didn't seem right to put it on the bed, although it had been scrubbed clean, but she must empty the trunk, so she propped it against the bedside locker. She hesitated over the last item in the trunk, too—it had been the first thing packed, because the prospect of boarding school was a little bit scary, but now, she wasn't sure if the other girls would laugh at her, taking a stuffed elephant to school.

Oh, let them laugh, she thought, and put Heffalump tenderly down on her blue coverlet. Glancing furtively sideways she realised that there was a large teddy bear with a scarlet bow tie lying on Joey's bed, and instantly felt much better.

"All done? Good for you," Joey said at that moment. Jamie knelt down to close and fasten her trunk, and when she stood up, the other three girls had come over too and were standing round her. No, Chris was sitting on the end of the bed.

"You play hockey?" said the brunette called Jacie, sounding pleased.

"A bit," Jamie said, cautiously. She was rather good at hockey, but these girls might be much better, the Academy had a very strong reputation for sports. And besides, Mummy had warned her to be modest. "I used to play Left Back in my old school's team, but we weren't awfully good."

"We have some wonderful teachers here," said Justine. "We needed a new defender, with Medea gone. Now we can enter the House Cup again. That's a five-a-side tournament, just for the school."

"Why did Medea leave?" Jamie inquired.

"Nobody knows," said Jacie.

"No, that's not right!" Justine exclaimed. "You know what she was like! She'd been complaining ever since the beginning of term that she didn't like it here."

"Yes, and it was incredibly tedious," said Chris. "Whine, whine, whine, all the time."

"I thought she'd written to her parents and asked them to take her home," said Joey, with a shrug.

"But she didn't say she was going," Jacie began.

"Maybe she did say, who knows? I mean, I for one stopped listening to her after the first couple of days," said Chris. "Did she have any actual friends?"

"Don't think so," said Joey.

"Not even you?" asked Jamie, surprised. Joey seemed so nice.

"Well, I tried, we all did, at first, but..." Joey shrugged. "Chris is right, she did whine all the time. And she never came to extra practice, even though we arranged it mostly for her benefit."

"And then, one day, we came back from hockey practice to find her stuff all cleared out."

"Oh," said Jamie, not knowing what to make of this but vowing then and there to attend every practice and never to complain, no matter how hard it was or how homesick she might feel. "Well, I suppose that's good news for me, anyway. We didn't think I'd get a place here at all."

"Did you bring any sweets?" Chris asked abruptly. Jamie was to discover that Chris went off at odd tangents all the time.

"Yes, Mummy made me a batch of toffee, and there's some cake and some flapjacks, too, it's all in my tuck box," Jamie said.

"Excellent! I think a toffee for everyone now, and get some of the flapjacks out for tonight," Chris decided.

"But-it said on the list that all treats had to be kept in the tuck box, in the larder?" Jamie didn't want to break the Rules, not on her very first day.

"True. But we're having a midnight feast tonight, you'll have to bring something along. Ooh, these look like excellent flapjacks!"

"Mummy makes the best flapjacks ever." She gave in to the inevitable, and broke off five pieces of toffee. "Here. She makes really good toffee, too."

Everyone agreed—after several minutes of determined chewing—that Jamie's mother really did make splendid toffee. Pink with pleasure, Jamie allowed Chris to take about half the flapjacks and squirrel them away in her bedside locker, then she put the lid back on her tuck box, and Joey took her downstairs to stow it away in the larder, and put her books into the spare locker in the common room, a cosy place with bookshelves, a few comfy chairs, and two long tables where, Joey explained, they would sit every evening to do Prep after tea, until evening snack time, after which they mostly stayed in the common room to play games and chat or read books until the bell rang for bedtime.

The tea bell rang and made Jamie jump.

"We have bells for everything here," Joey said with a smile. "Don't worry, you'll soon get used to it." The Dorm Six-ers sat together: normally, you just lined up and sat next to whomever was before you, but Joey explained that they thought it would be more comfortable for Jamie not to have to make too many new friends at once, and Jamie was grateful. There was so much to learn, here. The meal—shepherd's pie with peas and carrots—was... not bad, though not nearly as good as the food at home.

Afterwards they trooped into the common room, and the other girls got out their books and settled down to do their prep. Jamie, with no prep to do, selected a battered novel from the shelf and read quietly until another bell rang an hour and a half later, and everyone abandoned their books and thundered down the corridor to the scullery where trays of fresh-baked biscuits and glasses of milk were waiting.

"Don't eat them now," Chris hissed, "we can save them for the You Know What." So Jamie put her biscuits into her pocket, and they were added to the secret stash when she went upstairs to get ready for bed.

"Don't forget your torch," Joey reminded her before Lights Out. "You'll need it later for the You Know What."

How marvellous, Jamie thought, to have a midnight feast on her very first night at boarding school!

It was very difficult to sleep. Her first night away from home, all the excitement of meeting new friends, and a midnight feast to come. Although Chris had said they would actually do the feast at one o'clock, so as to make certain all the staff were asleep.

Someone was patting her on the nose. Jamie swiped sleepily, and then remembered, and sat up with a start.

There was a squeak from Chris as she reared backwards just in time. "Wake Joey!" she ordered in an imperious whisper, so Jamie slid out of bed and... well, it seemed to be effective, so she patted Joey's nose until Joey woke up.

Dressing gowns and slippers, and Justine opened the door carefully and made a great production of checking the landing and stairs to make sure nobody was about. She waved an all clear, and the others followed her out, and down the main staircase to the common room, silent as mice.

There wouldn't be mice here, Jamie hoped.

There were a few people in the common room already, laying out food on one of the big tables. Sausage rolls, cheese, a whole pork pie, half a ginger cake and a packet of jelly babies.

"What did you bring?" whispered a big blonde girl.

Chris was already laying out their offerings, including Jamie's flapjacks. Everybody froze as the door opened, but it was all right, just more girls, and soon the table was covered in tasty goodies. Several girls set their lit torches down on the table—they didn't dare turn on the light in case any of the teachers was up and about—and they began to eat. Everything tasted good, though Jamie had a feeling that it was the illicitness of the midnight feast that made it so delicious. Except for Mummy's flapjacks, which were always good.

The excited whispers gradually got louder, until suddenly the lookout said, "Hush!" It was Chris, stationed by the door that looked out into the hall. She gestured frantically, and the torches were seized and switched off.

"Here. Kneel down." It was Joey, at least, Jamie thought it was. Her heart pounded. Was she going to be in terrible trouble, caught out of bed in the middle of the night on her very first day? What would happen? Would they all be expelled?

A thin beam of light came in through the cracked-open door from the entrance hall, and they could hear a heavy tread descending the stairs. Jamie held her breath. It seemed endless. Then there was the sound of keys in a lock, the light went out, and a door opened... and closed.

"All clear," murmured Chris. "Let's get everything cleaned up before she comes back."

There was nothing left but crumbs on the table, which several of the bigger girls swept into their hands and emptied into the waste paper baskets. Girls from the dorms on the back staircase were sent out in mute batches through the corridor door, and the big blonde girl and four others slipped silently into the hall. They must be from Dorm 5, next along the landing from her own, Jamie thought. At last, Chris signalled to the four of them that they could go, and they hurried up the stairs as quietly as possible, and back to their dorm without mishap.

"Where's Chris?" said Justine, and Jamie realised that Chris had not followed them up the stairs.

"Everyone, look asleep!" Jacie commanded in a fierce whisper. "If she's caught on her own she can make some excuse, but if they find we're all awake..."

Jamie was out of her slippers and dressing gown and in between the chilly sheets in a flash. There was a tense silence for several minutes, then the click of the door, and someone slid into the dorm without turning on the lights.

"It's me," Chris announced.

"What happened? Did you get caught?" demanded Justine.

"Shhh! No. I went outside. Wanted to see where Madame P was going."

"Chris! That was frightfully risky! What if she'd seen you?"

"She wasn't there. Her car was gone. I went down to the stables, and it's not there."

"Seriously?" That was Joey.

"But... where would she go, in the middle of the night?" asked Justine.

"Don't know," said Chris, climbing into bed and extinguishing her torch. "But she was dressed and had her coat on when she came downstairs."

"How strange," said Jacie. "Perhaps she had an emergency? A message from her family?"

"Hmm. Maybe." Chris didn't seem to be convinced. Jamie didn't think it was a very adequate explanation either. "I suppose we'll find out in the morning, if she isn't back. Someone will tell us."

In the morning, with the excitement of donning her Academy uniform for the very first time—white blouse, navy skirt, striped blue and silver tie, V-necked navy jumper, much nicer than the brown gymslips at her last school—Jamie almost forgot the Headmistress's odd behaviour of the night before. And as it turned out, the Headmistress was there at breakfast, looking perfectly normal. There were quite a few yawns among the girls, and rather less breakfast eaten than was perhaps usual, but soon enough, the bell for Assembly rang, and Jamie lined up with the others to go over to the School, eager for her first proper day.

By the end of the day her head seemed so full it would be impossible to absorb everything. Not just the lessons, but where her form room was, and the labs, and the gym... She had quite a bit of catching up to do in French and Latin, but she had managed the Maths and Science classes all right, and Jacie had offered to help her with French.

Tomorrow would be more fun, for the timetable said Sport for the entire afternoon. Jamie hoped she wouldn't be too much of a duffer at hockey.

Hockey practice was hard, harder than she had expected—everyone ran so fast! The forwards moved like lightning, and hit the balls harder than she was used to. But she hadn't done too badly, she thought hopefully. It was just a question of getting used to playing at a much higher level.

"Well done," Joey said as they trooped off the field at the end of the afternoon. "I like it when my defenders leave me with nothing to do." Joey played goal keeper, and it wasn't really true that she had had nothing to do. Jamie hadn't managed to intercept everything on her side of the field, and the other team had soon learned to concentrate their efforts on Jamie's side, as Chris at Right Back was a much better defender.

"You were really good," she said honestly.

"Nice work, Jamie." That was Chris. "I think we'll make a hockey player of you."

"I was a bit slow, I'm afraid."

"We need to get you up to speed," Chris agreed, and poked Jamie in the side. "Lose some of the puppy fat."

"Chris!" said Jacie, reprovingly. "Don't be mean."

"I wasn't!" Chris replied with indignation.

"You mustn't poke people. Anyway, I thought Jamie did well. We should book the field for extra practice, tomorrow, if everyone's free?"

"Yes, definitely," said Justine. She and Jacie were incredible forwards, so quick, and exceptionally accurate, too. Jamie was surprised they felt they needed extra practice, but of course, that was probably what made them so good. And, she realised, the extra practice was really for her benefit, not theirs. She readily agreed to spend more time on the hockey field tomorrow. It was fun, and besides, she needed to improve if she was not to disgrace her dorm.

A week later, Jamie felt as though she'd been at the Academy for ever. She was nearly caught up in French, now, thanks to Jacie's help, she knew her way round the School buildings and recognised most of the mistresses, and she'd made several friends from the other dorms, too. Although her own dorm was the best, and Joey was definitely her best friend. Joey was so friendly and warm.

Jamie was in the library, catching up on the Tudors, when the big blonde girl she'd noticed at the You Know What came in, looking worried. Nicky, that was her name.

"Is everything all right?" Jamie whispered, and Nicky slid into the chair next to her.

"Have you seen Briana?"

Jamie thought for a moment. Oh yes, the short one with the smile. "No," she said, shaking her head regretfully. "I've been in here since the end of last lesson, and she hasn't been in at all."

"I didn't really think she would," said Nicky, her brow creased with distress. "But I can't find her anywhere. We're best friends, and she was going to help me with—but she's gone."

"Look, I've finished here. Would you like me to help you search?"

Nicky smiled gratefully. "Please!"

So Jamie packed her books back into her satchel and put the reference volumes back in place, and the two of them went out into the garden. "So," Jamie said decisively, for she thought it would give Nicky more confidence if she sounded confident herself, "where have you looked?"

Nicky had looked in the dorm, in the common room, in the garden and finally, in the library.

"Hmm. Does Briana, er, who else might Briana spend time with? Perhaps she's forgotten you were going to do something together after school, and gone somewhere with another friend?"

"There's Alex..." Nicky sounded unhappy at the thought. "But Briana wouldn't forget."

"Well, where would Alex be? We could ask her if she's seen Briana."

"I suppose... the music rooms? She does a lot of practising." So they checked all the practice rooms until they found Alex frowning over Für Elise at the piano in the cloakroom, and explained the situation.

"Briana's gone? Where?"

"We don't know," said Jamie, refraining with some effort from rolling her eyes.

"Where were you supposed to meet?"

"In the dorm," said Nicky, piteously.

"Then let's start there. She was probably delayed and by the time she got there, you'd left," said Alex.

Briana wasn't in the dorm.

Nor were any of her things. Nothing on her bed, in her locker, in her chest of drawers, or in the wardrobe. Nothing to tell she had ever been at the Academy.

"The trouble is," said Chris as the five of them gathered in the dorm just before tea, "that when it was Medea we didn't really care."

"That's true," said Jacie, seriously. "None of us like her very much, so we were quite ready to believe she'd... just left. Been expelled, perhaps, since it happened so suddenly."

"But Briana," said Joey, "it's really hard to imagine Briana doing something so awful that she'd be expelled."

They fell silent.

"Might she have... been caught meeting a Boy?" Justine asked hesitantly. "I mean. She's. Really pretty and everything."

"I suppose she might," said Joey. She sounded relieved, as though some kind of explanation, even a bad one, were better than nothing, but Jamie wasn't satisfied. Only she couldn't think of the right questions to ask.

The bell for tea came as a welcome relief, and to everyone's surprise, Madame Pearlman did not sit down after saying grace. She looked round the dining room with an air of great sorrow. "I have sad news for you all. One of our students, Briana Littrell, was taken ill very suddenly this afternoon, and has had to be removed from the Academy. If any of you wish to send a message to Briana, I will arrange to have them delivered. Please put your messages in the tray outside my office before Lights Out tonight."

She sat down, and there was a buzz of horrified chatter.

The five of them duly wrote notes—Jamie felt a bit silly, as she'd barely even met Briana, but it seemed wrong not to send her best wishes—and took them round to the Headmistress's office. The mood in the dorm was quite sombre as they got themselves ready for bed, but, overall, everyone seemed to be glad of the explanation. Although, Jamie thought privately, it would have been nice to be told what kind of illness had come on so suddenly and so virulently.

A new girl arrived to take Briana's place, and life at the Academy went on much as normal. After a month, Jamie had managed to catch up with all the schoolwork (although she suspected she would never be very good at Latin), and her hockey skills had improved considerably. At least, as a defender, she did not have to cover quite as much of the field as Jacie and Justine and the other forwards, who still amazed her with their speed. The Dorm Sixers were already practising for the House Cup, and had an excellent chance of carrying it off this year. Particularly with Briana out of the Dorm Five team.

Then, Alex was expelled.

At least, everybody assumed that was what had happened. There had been no announcement at tea, but Jamie talked to Nicky about it after Prep that evening. Nicky was still very upset, but admitted through her sniffles that Alex had become rather wild lately. She had taken up smoking; Nicky didn't know where Alex went to smoke, but sometimes when she got ready for bed, her clothes smelled nasty. And once, Kaye had seen Alex climbing back into the dorm through the window late at night, having taken herself down to the White Lion in the village just half a mile away. They had had a terrible row, which had woken the rest of them up.

And, Nicky thought, it was possible the new girl in the dorm had gone to the Headmistress about it. At least, she had no proof, but she knew Kaye and Hallie would never sneak, and how else would Madame Pearlman have known?

There didn't seem to be anything much to be done about it, and after a while, things settled back into this new normality again. And then, half the term was gone and they were packing their small suitcases for the holiday.

It was wonderful to be back at home for the four days of half-term. Jamie talked herself hoarse, telling Mummy and Daddy all about life at the Academy. Of course, she had told them in letters, every week, but it wasn't the same. Now, she could talk about her four dorm-mates-Jacie and Justine, who had been at preparatory school together and known each other for ever, and Chris, who had a scholarship and was terribly clever, although sometimes a little bit outrageous, and Joey, her best friend, always ready to talk and listen and so full of fun, and the other friends she had made, too. About hockey and the matches they'd won against other schools and the preparations for the House Cup, about her success in Maths and the struggles she had with Latin. About the daily routine, ruled by bells from the Rising Bell until Lights Out, about the food and the midnight feast and the cookery lesson where they'd made pies and Jacie had dropped her pie and had to scrape up the hot, jammy shards of pastry, and the time someone had put a fake spider into Mademoiselle's desk. Oh, there was so much to tell, and so little time. And of course Mummy must make more flapjacks, and toffee, and cake, for Jamie to take back for the second half of term.

On their first night back, the Dorm Sixers pooled treats before taking their replenished tuck boxes back down to the larder, and had an illicit feast after Lights Out, all sitting together on Chris's bed. Jacie and Justine shared a blanket from Jacie's bed, and Jamie snuggled up against Joey's warmth inside a blanket from her own bed, and they talked about what they'd done during the brief holiday. It was wonderful to be back at the Academy.

At breakfast the next morning, they learned that Hallie had not returned after half-term. Madame Pearlman announced it, saying that there were family difficulties and Hallie had remained at home to help. Once again everyone was offered the chance to send a message.

"I think Dorm Five must be under a curse, or something," said Justine, wide-eyed, as they crossed to the main building for Assembly. "Three gone!"

"I feel sorry for Nicky," Joey said. "She really misses them."

"It must be awful," said Jamie. She would hate it if any of her dorm-mates were to leave. "Perhaps Hallie will come back, if the family problems get better. And-did anybody hear from Briana? Is she all right?"

"I don't think anyone's heard." Chris frowned. "Weird, that she wouldn't write back. To Nicky, at least. They were best friends."

"I don't think we have any serious competition for the House Cup now, though," said Justine, and blushed at Jacie's look of deep reproach.

It was almost Bonfire Night, and Jamie was delighted to discover that the Academy had a tradition of celebrating with a bonfire in the garden. Even though the afternoons were short now and time for hockey practice was curtailed, she was more than happy to spend an afternoon gathering up twigs and sticks from the wood at the bottom of the garden to contribute to the bonfire.

"There are sometimes old crates and things by the stables," Joey said. "Let's check. These twigs aren't going to make much of a fire." The stables were where Madame Pearlman and the other members of staff kept their cars. But Joey proved to be quite right, there were some broken crates, and Jenkins the caretaker said they were welcome to add these to the increasing pyre. There were quite a few old papers, too, and it would save his legs if they were to take those as well. So they did, staggering a little under the weight of the newspapers, and rejoiced at the magnificence of the bonfire.

Bonfire Night was cold but dry, and what a treat it was to bundle up warmly and nibble hot sausages and sticky Parkin cake and scalding roast chestnuts, and drink Bovril or hot milk with cinnamon as they watched the flames crackle and consume the guy. To Jamie's great delight, there were fireworks—magnificent rockets and Catherine wheels and some really loud bangers. They were allowed to stay up an extra half an hour, and went to bed very happy that night.

Next day, after school, the Dorm Sixers were asked to collect the debris from the garden. They had been hoping to do some more work on the hockey field, but had to agree with the Sports mistress when she said that of all the teams, they were the best prepared for the Cup already, and it was only fair to the others not to take away the chance of much-needed practice. So they gathered up the dead rocket-sticks and scraps from the other fireworks, and put them on the still-smouldering ashes of the bonfire.

Something caught Jamie's eye, and she reached into the embers to pluck it out. Yes, she was quite right, she did recognise it. It was a burnt fragment of a letter on pale blue paper with a heffalump in the corner. The letter, in fact, that she had written to be forwarded to Hallie.

This was very strange. Her letter had been burned. And it looked from the ashes as though not all the other papers on the bonfire had been newspaper-there were odd little corners of brightly-coloured stationery, postcards... Something was badly wrong.

Jamie was about to call out the news of her discovery to the others when she saw Nicky rushing into the garden. "It's Kaye," Nicky said, wild-eyed. "All her things are gone! She stayed downstairs to help tidy in the kitchens after the bonfire, and I fell asleep, and in the morning I thought she'd got up early to have a bath, but she isn't here any more, she isn't anywhere!"

Rumours started to surface almost at once. Kaye had been seen with a Boy. Kaye had sneaked away from the bonfire celebrations to meet him. Kaye had been secretly meeting him for weeks. Kaye was—

"She was not!" Justine said with strong indignation when someone in the common room threw out the suggestion. "You don't know what you are talking about!"

"And she never sneaked out!" Nicky added furiously. "She wouldn't."

"We thought she was going to be Head Girl next year," Jacie said. "She wasn't the sort to break the rules like that."

There was quite a row about it, and tea was a very stiff, silent affair that evening. The Dorm Sixers and Nicky sat together at one table for Prep, and most of the others squeezed round the other, and at evening snack time the two groups resegregated themselves to opposite sides of the scullery, and whispered angrily.

"Listen, everyone," Jamie said as her dormmates settled into bed that evening. "I think something bad is happening."

"You mean, with Kaye leaving like that?" said Jacie. "All that talk about her meeting someone illicitly?"

"It's just not credible, is it?" Jamie asked.

"I think you're right," Chris said, slowly. "With the others, there was a good reason—"

"At least, we were told there was a good reason," said Jamie, very significantly, and brought out the scrap of letter she had retrieved from the ashes of the bonfire. "I found this." She explained what it was, and saw with satisfaction that horror was dawning on the faces of her friends as they began to understand. "I think," she continued, "that something else happened to those girls. We're all certain that Kaye wasn't meeting any Boys, aren't we? Well, is it possible that Hallie's family didn't have any problems, and Briana wasn't really ill at all?"

"Alex was definitely breaking the rules," Jacie said, reluctantly.

"Yes, but Alex was pretty clever about not being caught," Chris noted. "And, really, just because people think she was expelled, it doesn't mean that's really what happened."

"But what did happen?" asked Joey. "I mean... if what we were told isn't the truth, then what is?"

"I don't know," said Jamie. "But I think we should do our best to keep watch over Nicky."

There was instant agreement. Everyone could see that Nicky was at risk, so they decided to take turns keeping her company. Jacie instantly got out her timetable, and they checked who was with Nicky for which lessons, and divided up the rest of the time so as not to leave her alone. "We can't do anything about dorm time," Jacie said, sadly, "but the others don't seem to have disappeared during the night."

"Madame Pearlman went out in the middle of the night, though," Chris said with a start. "Remember when we had the midnight feast, the day Jamie arrived, Madame came downstairs and we all thought we were for it, but she went out through the front door, and when I checked, her car was gone."

"But nobody disappeared that day," Joey pointed out.

"No, but... Well. No." Chris was deflated.

"I think that's pretty suspicious," said Jamie. "Going out in the middle of the night. Perhaps she was plotting with her nefarious friends."

"Madame Pearlman? No! It can't be her fault!" objected Justine. "Not the Headmistress!"

"No?" Jamie looked at her meaningfully. "Madame Pearlman was the person who told us why Briana and Hallie weren't coming back."

"But," said Justine, worried, "perhaps it was true. Perhaps they really were ill, or staying at home to help out, and it was just Alex and Kaye—"

"Then why were our messages burnt? Why weren't they sent on to Hallie? I bet," said Jamie, warming to her theme, "that Briana didn't get our messages either. If I were ill, and my friends wrote to me, Mummy would write back if I couldn't, and I bet Briana's mother would do the same. I don't believe they went home to their parents."

"What can we do? We have to help them!" Joey said, aghast.

Chris looked troubled. "I don't see how we can help the others, but we definitely have to save Nicky."

It happened two weeks later.

Jamie was on Nicky-watch during French, a lesson they shared, together with Justine and Joey. Part-way through, the door opened and one of the juniors came in bearing a note, which she gave to Mademoiselle.

"T'ank you, petite," said Mademoiselle, and the youngster left. "Alors, let me see... Nicky, be so good as to take zis to the 'eadmistress for me, right away. She is at 'er office in ze 'ouse today, not ze School. Mademoiselle fished a large blue folder out of her desk and handed it to Nicky. "Off you go!"

Jamie thought desperately. This was exactly the moment when she needed to make sure Nicky had a friend with her. She thrust her hand into the air. "Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle," she said, awkwardly, "j'ai mal à l'estomach. Est-ce que je peux aller à, uh, à la—" Oh, what on earth was the French word for lavatories?

Lucky Mademoiselle was already grimacing. "Oui, oui, tout de suite," she said, gesturing towards the door.

Jamie put her hand to her mouth and ran for it. In the distance, she could just see Nicky entering the front door of the House, and she sprinted across the garden like a thing possessed, grateful for all those hours of hockey training. Up the steps, into the hall—and she froze, and listened, and heard shrieks and thumps and a sudden silence that frightened her very much. She leapt for the dining room doorway, and hid as heavy footsteps thumped down the stairs. She risked a peek. The Headmistress was coming down, with an inanimate, uniformed shape flung over her broad shoulder. Nicky!

Madame Pearlman swung round at the foot of the stairs, heading for the garden door. Where was she going? Jamie waited for the door to close then ran up the stairs to the lower landing, and stared out of the window. Madame Pearlman and the unconscious Nicky were heading towards the playing fields. Right. Jamie hurtled into the dorm, scrawled a hasty note and left it on her bed, then she was out and down the stairs and following as best she could.

"Jamie! Jamie Bass, what are you doing here?" It was the Games Mistress. "Why are you not in your lesson?"

"I, I was feeling sick," Jamie stammered. "Mademoiselle excused me."

"In that case," said the Games Mistress, reprovingly. "I think you had better go and see Matron, don't you? Off you go!"

And she stood there, arms crossed, until Jamie turned and plodded slowly back to the House, trying desperately to think what to do next. She turned, at the door, and peered back. The Games Mistress was still watching, and in the distance she thought she could see a figure by the hockey pavilion. She went inside and up to the dorm. She was not going to Matron, she'd be stuck with a thermometer in her mouth and interminable questions.

"Jamie! What happened? Where's Nicky? Did you see?" It was Justine, with Joey on her heels, crashing through the dormitory door in breathless haste. Lessons must be over.

"It was Madame Pearlman! She took Nicky, I think Nicky was knocked out, or drugged, or something."

"Where did they go?"

"Across the games field. I think—"

"What's happening? Are you all right?" It was Chris and Jacie. "Someone said you weren't well."

"It's Nicky," Jamie said, and swiftly explained.

"Come on, then," said Chris. "Practice time!" They scrambled for their hockey boots and sticks and raced across the field. Miraculously the Games Mistress was nowhere to be seen, or she might have objected to Jamie's presence. But there was nobody else to be seen either, not a soul.

"Where did they go?"

"What's that?" Justine pointed. At the far side of the field, several distant figures were emerging from a car and... heading purposefully towards them.

"Quick! Inside the pavilion!" gasped Jamie, and in they went.

Chris took up a position at the window. "They're definitely coming this way," she announced. "Four men. And—" she turned, round-eyed. "I think two of them have guns!"

"We need to drive them off," Jamie said. "My father says most people can't aim for toffee, so the further away they are, the better. He taught me to shoot with his Service revolver."

"But we don't have any guns!"

"Don't worry, Jacie," said Jamie. "We have these." She picked up a hockey ball from the crate. "How hard can you hit?"

The others got the idea at once. Joey dragged the crate of balls to the doorway, and they began driving them like giant bullets towards the approaching figures. There were cries of rage and pain as several balls found their targets. A couple of the men tried throwing the balls back, but they didn't have the power of the well-trained girls with their sticks, and Joey—who had drawn on her keeper's gloves—fielded anything that came near them. After a few minutes, the intruders gave up, retreated to their car, and drove off.

"Hurrah!" shrieked Justine. "Victory!" She and Chris held hands and danced for a moment with the excitement of it all.

Jacie was the first to realise. "But this doesn't get us any nearer to finding Nicky!" she moaned.

"Hey, what's this?" It was Joey, staring at an outline in the floor of the pavilion. The crate of balls had been hiding the tell-tale crack, and there were some rolled-up tennis nets and a few loose netballs... quickly, the girls cleared these aside.

It was a trapdoor.

If there was anything more alluring than a mysterious trapdoor, Jamie thought, she didn't know what it was. "I... don't suppose anybody brought a torch," she said.

Nobody had. But they went down anyway. Wooden steps, and then a tunnel tall enough for Joey to stand upright, and someone, probably Chris, discovered a light switch so that they weren't groping in the dark. Hockey stick braced in front of her, Jamie led the way until she reached a closed door. She looked round at the others, and shrugged. No point stopping now. She pulled it open and stepped through.

"Nicky!" exclaimed Justine, right behind her. There indeed was Nicky, awake but bound and gagged in the corner of the room.

There also, unfortunately, was Madame Pearlman. With a very large revolver. Which was pointed at them. And which, at this distance, she was going to have no problem aiming.

"Come in, girls," said Madame Pearlman. "Close the door behind you. And put the hockey sticks down."

Reluctantly, but seeing no other course, they laid their sticks on the floor.

"What are you doing here? Why have you kidnapped Nicky?" Chris demanded.

Madame Pearlman's eyes narrowed. "Is this where you silly girls think I'm going to tell you all my plans? You really need to read better novels," she said.

"Well," said Jamie, reasonably, "it isn't as though we can do anything about it."

"True," said Madame Pearlman. "In fact, this might work out rather well. You're a little ahead of schedule, but I think I can find somewhere to dispose of you all."

"Dispose of us?" quavered Justine.

"Yes, five splendid specimens like you, I'm sure you'll bring a good price. On the Continent."

They gasped, horror-struck.

"On the Continent?" said Chris.

"With... Foreigners?" said Justine.

"There's a great deal of demand for girls like you in the clubs," Madame Pearlman said, sounding entirely too satisfied. "This one's already spoken for, of course." Nicky looked up helplessly. "It'll be a strain on the operation, sending six at once, but I'm sure we can manage. Now—"

"Now, you put the gun down!" came a voice from behind them. Madame Pearlman looked past them, horrified, and Jamie bent and picked up her hockey stick and in one smooth motion swung it round and down, bearing Madame Pearlman's hands and gun towards the floor and, as it later transpired, fracturing both her wrists. She howled with pain.

The girls shuffled sideways to allow the newcomer—newcomers, for there were four of them—to enter. Looked at one another in horror, for these, surely, were the strangers with guns whom they had fended off with their hockey attack.

"Detective Inspector Hannasyde at your service," the first man introduced himself. "Don't worry, ladies, we'll take care of this from now on. You'll be wanted as witnesses, of course, but for now, just give your names to my Sergeant." The two other men, presumably mere constables, came forward to take Madame Pearlman into custody, and Chris led the cheers as she was escorted back along the tunnel. "We've had our eye on your Headmistress ever since we received word of a young lady trying to escape from a nightclub in Germany, a Miss Briana Littrell."

"Briana's all right!" That was Nicky, released by the careful Sergeant.

"Yes, miss. Quite all right. Now, then, let's get you all back to school, shall we? And, if you wouldn't mind keeping those hockey sticks to yourselves..?"

"We're frightfully sorry," said Jacie. "We thought you were the villains."

"We'd never have attacked you if we'd known you were the police," added Jamie.

"Attacked us? Ah, your heroics with the hockey balls. No, those were the villains all right, coming to fetch Miss Carter. My men were hiding in the woods, we saw you drive them off and we had the car followed. They won't get far. I must say, you make a formidable team."

"We're the best," said Justine, confidently.

* * *

There was quite an upheaval in the school, with the Headmistress disappearing under extremely peculiar circumstances, but the Trustees intervened, installed a new Headmistress with the encouraging name of Wright, and communicated with all the parents, most of whom decided to keep their girls at the Academy. Which did, after all, have a very strong reputation.

As the end of term loomed, everything was back to normal again. The Dorm Fivers were all back together (and a new dorm had been established for Jackie, Erika, Ashley, Dana and the other new girl who had turned up the day after Nicky's kidnap had been foiled). Best of all, the House Cup gleamed on the windowsill of Dorm Six. They took turns to polish it.

Jamie looked round contentedly as she and her friends loafed in their pyjamas. But there was... something... that had been niggling at her for some time now.

"Don't you think," she whispered to Joey, "there's something a little... odd about this school?"

"Odd?" Joeylooked at her, brown eyes filled with worry. "What do you mean?"

Jamie waved her arm vaguely. On Jacie's bed, Jacie sat patiently while Justine, kneeling behind her with a tiny pink tongue-tip protruding from between her lips, brushed her hair and adorned it with pretty diamante clips. In the far corner, Chris peered into a small mirror, frowning with concentration as she trimmed her beard into a neat goatee.

Joey's skirt had ridden up rather high, revealing a great deal of large, extremely hairy thigh. Joey's beard was as kempt as Chris's. And Joey's brown eyes were looking at her, troubled and trusting.

Jamie patted Joey's knee comfortingly. "Never mind," she said. "Everything's fine." Although, possibly, next term, she'd ask them to call her Lance.


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