Summer fiction: Perfect cover


This is part one and two of a six-part fiction by Christchurch author Mark McGinn. Instalments will run daily until next Monday.

When the rumble came it was like a train in the backyard. Except this train nearly shook the white summerhill stone house off its foundations.

Adrenalin was still coursing at 6am when Henry Peters stood in his blue dressing gown and pyjamas at his open front door. The beam from his torch caught the anxiety in his visitor's face and he quickly dismissed the man's apology for the disturbance of an early call.

"Who wouldn't be disturbed after that lot?" said Henry. "Bloody power's still off." Dismay in his voice, he added, "But my teenage son's slept through it."

"Jim Maxwell. Constable Jim Maxwell." The cop's large hands locked with Henry's fine-boned fingers. "Your CEO, Donna Bosco, has asked us to bring you into the city. I understand you're the HOD science at the college - also responsible for health and safety?"

Henry nodded and felt a different jolt this time. "Strictly speaking, the chemistry tutor." He rubbed the grey stubble of his chin and pulled the black velvet belt of his gown tighter. "Is our building still standing?"

Maxwell nodded. "The problem's with the one you moved out of last year."

"Hanlon House?"

"That's the one."

Eva Peters appeared at the door, her face alarmed when she saw Maxwell. Her robe matched Henry's and she wore white fluffy slippers. "We haven't been able to get hold of her," she said. "Has something happened to her?"

Henry said, "Eva, this is Jim Maxwell." Maxwell forced a smile. "Jim - Eva." Maxwell forced a smile. "Look, you'd better come inside while I get dressed."

Henry saw Maxwell note the two bedrooms, one bed made, one not, as they walked down the hall.

Henry said, "Eva's referring to my elderly mother. She lives on her own - the quacks say mild dementia. Gets by pretty well but it's as Eva says."

"No," said Maxwell, his face grim in the pale light of candles Eva had already lit. "I'm afraid the phones are out as well as the power. The authorities are encouraging text messages only."

In the kitchen, Eva lit two more candles while Henry focused on the silver transistor radio standing on the kitchen table like a beacon of hope. Something soothing was playing as Eva asked Maxwell about the roads. She added hopefully, "She's on the east side of the city."

"Heard on my way here," said Maxwell, frowning, "that there's quite a bit of liquefaction that side of town."

Henry slipped his arm around Eva's shoulder and the three of them stared at the radio as the announcer interrupted the music, repeated an exhortation for text messaging only and urged people to check on their neighbours.

Henry said, "She'll be fine. They're a good lot around her." He looked at Maxwell as if seeking reassurance before moving on. "So, a problem with Hanlon House?"

"From what we can tell the building's partially collapsed into the basement and what's above ground is on quite a lean. But we understand a university student may be trapped in there somewhere - someone who was taking a shortcut home after leaving Sol Square.

Eva brought her hands to her face. "No."

"Do you know if she's OK?" Henry asked.

"Someone reckons they heard muffled groans and mumbling." The policeman looked doubtful. "It's a bit hard to understand how they could've, really."

Henry's thoughts went to their daughter. First year away from home, studying law at Victoria University in Wellington.

Leaving the nest was hard enough, not made easier by Eva's geologist brother who, with little tact, reminded them that Wellington would be a death trap "in a big one". Now Jackie would be worried about them.

Maxwell said, "There's some hope this person might be one of our three missing persons inquiries. If we're right, it'll be Abby Sissons, the most recent."

On the way into the city they passed the disused Barbadoes St cemetery. The lack of street lights made it more forbidding than usual. Henry could see the shape of the headstones nearest the street. Those whose lean he was familiar with had now toppled. Maxwell swerved to avoid what Henry took to be a road fissure. He rocked with the movement as he looked into the black gloom of the trees, cold plots lying in their near vicinity.

"Eva thought God had called us to his door - you know, all over for us. I take her to church from time to time." He glanced at Maxwell, saw a face lost in thought. "Can't see what she sees in it, mind."

In the weak light of the dawning day, a handful of rescue workers and police were trying to move glass and other debris to a safe distance. Maxwell explained there'd be more people along but he'd had reports of a couple of other buildings badly damaged. Resources were spread thin.

As they arrived at Hanlon, two tall women, late 40s, stood at the scene, arms entwined. One, who was talking to a short, dumpy female reporter, wore an ankle-length green woollen coat and was wiping away tears. Maxwell tried to interrupt but the woman refused to abandon the microphone.

"Rachael Sissons," Maxwell whispered to Henry. "Missing girl's foster mother."

"I want no effort spared to save her. I blame myself for this." Her voice started to wobble and she pulled away, muttering, "She's old enough to have left home but if I'd been a bit more understanding, it might not have come to this."

"You must be hopeful of getting her out though," asked the reporter, her tone offhand as her eyes darted around, looking for others to interview.

Rachael Sissons' jaw and bottom lip started to quiver.

"Look at this." She waved her arm, voice now breaking. "I feel helpless. People are just standing around. It's nearly two hours after the quake and they've barely made a start."

Shoulders stooped, she sobbed as her companion embraced her.

Henry eyeballed Maxwell. "Any rescue attempt of that woman from the surface of the rubble would be far too dangerous. Any concrete breaking here could trigger more destruction. It looks perilous to me and with these bloody aftershocks . . ." He shook his head.

"What do you suggest, Henry?"

"Donna's got me involved because I know this place better than anyone. When Hanlon was first built they had problems with flooding in the basement when it rained." He frowned, "I remember them putting in a series of drains to control the problem. They might be our best and quickest chance of getting in there but I'll need to go to our new place and get the plans."

Maxwell nodded. As Henry left the site he passed Arnold de Vito, deputy chief executive of the training college, who was arriving. The two men looked at each other but didn't speak.


As he jogged to his office, Henry realised his moment had come. Abby Sissons, one of the three missing woman, trapped in the basement. The others had been all over the news, TV, radio, The Press, with no subsequent clues on their whereabouts. He remembered Detective Sergeant Black on TV, eyes dark, a bit of his ear missing, pleading for information. And now, a massive bloody earthquake had put Henry Peters in the spotlight.

How would Donna Bosco see him after this? He held degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering, yet with successive restructurings his teaching job had grown smaller and, with that, his pay. Once the head of the science department, he was now only the chemistry teacher. He'd applied for the deputy CEO job that Arnold de Vito won.

Until then they'd been colleagues on the same pay grade. He'd prepared carefully, brushed up his CV, built a portfolio of academic achievements and even invested in some coaching about interview technique. He'd always thought of de Vito as superficial. There was something smarmy about him; he was more of a corporate suit than someone who had the students at heart.

He hadn't been wrong. De Vito, better at self-promotion and glad-handing, ended Henry's dreams of being part of Bosco's think tank. And Bosco hadn't even fronted face to face - a phone message was all he was good for. Some garbled explanation about him being a good teacher but not yet ready for management. Some sales pitch about personal benefits of the shift: a bigger office, a new computer and mobile phone - all weasel words. Bosco had the stench of embarrassment about her but there was no point complaining.

Then came palaver about a more upmarket building to attract overseas students. "The OS are all the rage in education these days, Henry," she'd said, salivating at the prospect of extra fees lining her pockets. There'd been fallout at home over the promotion failure. He'd been told he was too reclusive, had failed to network, blow his own trumpet. That he'd let de Vito walk all over him.

The cold shoulder, the pin-point pupils, the looks of disappointment, the tone ripe with contempt. And the negativity lingered, an atmosphere not helped by Eva's social climbing mother, his own: a down-to earth self-made woman who ran an effective cleaning business that she developed into an enterprise preparing houses for sale.

In an unguarded moment he'd tried to rationalise the changes at Bosco College with Eva. "Look, I don't need the management stress, and the status quo gives me more opportunities to write." He should've stopped there but he'd added, "And you're earning good money now."

By the time he'd located the plans and returned to the scene of destruction, temporary fencing held back a crowd of onlookers and there were more than a dozen men in hard hats and hi-viz vests. As he scuttled past, he noticed a group of young women in coats and woolly hats, friends perhaps, of the missing girl. The Hanlon building, a sad sight in the red and blue flashing lights revealed smashed windows and crumpled doors. Internal offices were visible through deep and wide cracks. Henry felt his throat constrict. He swallowed hard and knuckled blinking eyes. Maxwell was threatening to arrest a small group of early morning drunks when he saw Henry return.

Together, they approached another man in an orange jump suit.

"Wilbur," Maxwell called. The head of the urban search and rescue team turned to face them. Blue eyes bulged behind thick-framed glasses. His helmet, which suppressed wild ginger curls, carried a set of earmuffs on top.

Wilbur offered Henry his right hand, fingers like sausages, and Maxwell did the introductions. Wilbur Dalton gripped Henry's his hand for too long, then glanced at the building. "I don't like the look of this, Henry, but Jim tells me you've got an idea on how to get into that basement."

They walked to a makeshift trestle table and Henry, feeling the ache in his lower back and shoulders that always came from tension, laid out the wrinkled plan of the area.

Someone had brought flasks of hot water, little blue pottles of long-life milk, jars of instant coffee and tea bags. He used some of these to anchor the corners of the paper. He'd just made himself an instant coffee when everyone's attention was diverted by another aftershock.

The roaring sound was like others before it, a harbinger of trouble only an instant away. Half of the east face of the Hanlon building crumbled inside the fence perimeter. The destruction came with a thick cloud of dust and the whiff of something obnoxious rising from the rubble.

People close to them gasped, brought hands to faces and screamed, "Oh, my God." The group of young women joined the chorus of horror and some unknown idiot caused a panicked retreat from the fence with shouts about asbestos.

Wilbur barked some commands into his radio telephone and the three men returned their focus to the plan. Rachael Sissons ran up to them, eyes wide. "What the hell's going on here? Who's rescuing my daughter? Is anyone doing anything apart from waiting for more of this building to collapse?"

Read part three and four here.

The Press