"Anyone could have done it. But only James had a crisp amp;#163;5 note, a stepladder, a key to the chemistry cupboard marked 'Flammable' and a misdirected sense of curiosity ... "
Mr Pennington-Smith, headmaster of the Hubert Rigg Grammar School, rested his elbows on the impressively large and highly-polished mahogany desk and steepled his long fingers beneath his chin. "Of course anyone could have done it, Sergeant," he said irritably, repeating the words of the visitor who sat before him in his study.
He did not need this shabbily-dressed policeman with the rampant dandruff and the grubby fingernails to tell him the blindingly obvious. "It's just that the evidence, albeit circumstantial, seems to point in the direction of Mr James. One of the stolen notes was found on his person, a pair of step ladders, which would have been needed to reach the chemistry cupboard, was conveniently kept in his storeroom and he was in possession of the key to the chemistry cupboard where the acids and dangerous materials were stored. He would know all about acids, of course, being a chemistry teacher. Further to this, from what I have heard, he seems to have been free with his money lately."
"You don't like Mr James very much do you?" observed the Sergeant. "It is not a question of liking or disliking Mr James," replied Mr Pennington-Smith tartly. "He is a member of my teaching staff and as such I deal with him in the same way as I deal with all the teachers in this school - in a purely professional manner."
He would not admit it, of course, but Mr Pennington-Smith did dislike James, he disliked the man intensely. Had Major Throckmorton been the chair of governors, this brash, know-it-all, jumped up young man would never have been appointed. When the galloping major fell from his horse riding with the hounds and suffered a heart attack, his resignation from the board of governors had followed and this had led to something of an exodus. Lady Farringdon, Mrs Pole-Haggard and the Rural Dean had all departed and been replaced by a group of sharp-suited city businessmen and pushy parents. It was they who had overruled him at the interview for the assistant master of chemistry and appointed James.
And it hadn't taken that young man long to make himself a damned nuisance with his misdirected sense of curiosity, his flouting of the school traditions, his easy familiarity with the students and his insufferable interference in everything that went on in the school. It had all been too much for Mr Jefferson-Mort, head of the science department. He was absent from school, poor man, with stress.
"Well, I shall be interviewing Mr James in due course," replied the Sergeant, "along with other members of the staff."
"This is an extremely distressing, disconcerting and not to say extremely disruptive situation." Mr Pennington-Smith never used one word when several would suffice. "A large amount of money has been stolen and the sooner you get to the bottom of it, the better. It could do incalculable damage to the reputation of HRGS if this gets out."
There was a knock at the door. "Come," shouted the headmaster. A diminutive woman in pleated tweed skirt and heavy brown brogues, her hair scraped back savagely on her scalp into a tight bun, entered with an armful of papers. She wore a pair of unfashionable horn-rimmed spectacles.
"I've brought," she began.
"Can't this wait, Miss Bracegirdle?" snapped Mr Pennington-Smith tetchily. "You can see that I am engaged."
"It's the mail, headmaster," she said. "I thought you might wish to see it."
"Leave it here," he told her, waving at the top of his desk.
"You must be the secretary," said the Sergeant of police.
"Yes, this is Miss Bracegirdle," the headmaster told him before the woman could answer. "She was here when I discovered the money was missing."
"So I gather," said the policeman, giving the woman a small smile. "I will need to speak to you in due course." "Speak to me?" said the secretary, looking alarmed. "Just routine," said the policeman. "That will be all Miss Bracegirdle, and no more interruptions." The headmaster turned his attention back to the policeman. "The medical room is available for you to interview the staff as you requested. I have made them fully aware of the situation this morning at an extraordinary staff meeting. The pupils don't know of the situation yet. I will address the school tomorrow. As I have said to you at our meeting yesterday, I think there is no possibility that a boy in this school stole the money. No pupil has access to the staff corridor, my room, the chemistry cupboard key or Mr James's storeroom and no pupil has the expertise with the acid which was used to get into the school safe."
"Do you usually keep such large sums of money on the school premises, sir?" asked the policeman. "I would have thought the bank is a more appropriate place to store several thousand pounds."
"It is usually banked straight away," retorted the headmaster defensively, "but Miss Bracegirdle was unhappy taking such a large amount to the bank on her own. I intended to take it myself but ... ".
"You never got around to it," said the policeman.
"No, I was busy. The reason there was so much money in the safe was because that week we had collected it from the boys going on the rugby tour of Germany."
"It's a pity the cheque books and credit cards were in the safe as well," commented the policeman casually. "You say that the entire school fund had been withdrawn when you discovered the missing money and reported it to the police."
"Yes indeed. You do not need to remind me. I don't know what I shall say to the chair of governors, Mr Crisp, when he calls this morning."
"And you are of the opinion that the amp;#163;5 that Mr James used to pay into the staff tea fund is from the stolen money?"
"Sergeant Moody, I have already told you this. When Miss Bracegirdle was acquainted of the situation by myself yesterday morning when I discovered the theft, she was convinced the amp;#163;5 James gave her last Friday to pay for his weekly tea was from the safe. When she was counting the money for the school trip she recalls distinctly that on the reverse of one of the amp;#163;5 notes some pupil had drawn a bubble coming from the portrait of Elizabeth Fry with some very offensive words written in. She thought at the time it was curious that James paid with this note." "You don't think the young artist could have drawn the same words on other amp;#163;5 notes?" asked the policeman. "It's a possibility," agreed the headmaster begrudgingly.
"And you say Mr James is a clever young man?"
"Too clever by half. Just because he has a double first from Cambridge, he thinks he knows everything."
"You would have thought," said the policeman, "that someone so clever would have been rather more inventive in covering his tracks, if indeed he is the guilty party."
"In my experience, Sergeant," said the headmaster pompously, "clever people are often bereft of common sense."
There was another knock at the door.
"Come," shouted the headmaster.
The secretary entered again.
"Miss Bracegirdle, I did say ..." started the headmaster.
"I thought you ought to know, headmaster, Mr Crisp, the chairman of governors, has arrived and is waiting outside."
"Very well," he sighed, "you had better show him in."
"Yes, Miss Bracegirdle, what is it now?"
"May I go home? I can feel one of my migraines coming on. It's all this worry."
"It is inconvenient," said Mr Pennington-Smith. "Can't you take an aspirin?"
"It gets very bad, headmaster. I have been known to have blackouts," she said.
"Oh, very well," he sighed.
"But be in early tomorrow and you will have to stay late to catch up."
"I'll speak to you on your return, madam," said the Sergeant.
"Yes Sergeant," said the secretary, "when I return."
Mr Pennington-Smith stared out from his study window.
"Do you think you will find them?" he asked morosely.
It was the following week and Sergeant Moody was back in the headmaster's study.
"Doubtful, sir," replied the policeman. "They will have covered their tracks pretty well by now."
"But the postcard. Can't you trace them from the postcard?"
"They'll have moved on. Probably to South America. They are a pretty clever couple."
"I just cannot believe it," said the headmaster. "Mr Jefferson-Mort and Miss Bracegirdle having a clandestine affair for years, being in cahoots, meticulously planning the robbery for weeks under our very noses and having the impudence now to send me a postcard from their hideaway."
"And containing some pretty unpleasant things about you, sir," said the sergeant. "By the way, what is a 'poltroon'?"
"I don't think I am familiar with the word," lied Mr Pennington-Smith.
"It's a good thing that Mr James had, what was it you said: that 'misdirected sense of curiosity'?" continued the policeman with a wry smile, "he showed initiative calling round to see Mr Jefferson-Mort at his home when he failed to answer his phone and finding that he had departed and then putting two and two together when Miss Bracegirdle didn't turn in for work and calling round at her house and finding she had flown the nest, too. You're lucky to have such a bright young man on your staff, sir, if I may say so."
"Yes, indeed," said Mr Pennington-Smith, grimacing.
Gervase Phinn is an ex-teacher and schools inspector turned award-winning writer. He has published four volumes of autobiography and collections of poetry and books about education.
Congratulations to our winners
The two unpublished winners of The TES Magazine short story competition 2008 are Richard McIntosh, a teacher from Welbeck Primary School in Newcastle upon Tyne, and Forbes Smith, a teacher at St Flannan's Primary School in East Dunbartonshire.
Their winning stories are being published over the next six weeks, alongside four entertaining tales from authors Gervase Phinn, Celia Rees, Ian McMillan and Julia Golding.