Anne stepped out of the office, breathing in the cool air coming down from the mountains of Kashmir on the other side of the Jhelum River.
She loved Murree; had done so since first arriving to teach at the missionary children’s school eight years earlier. The place exuded history and pageantry, both of which fascinated the young woman. Wherever she went in Pakistan, the dusty remnants of the long, lost British Empire could still be seen. She had wandered through the excavation site at Mohenjo-daro* in the Indus Valley, entered the humble dwellings of Marwari tribesmen, been blessed by their older women and touched her hands to the foreheads of the younger women as she blessed them. Anne had traveled through the streets of Shikapur, head covered as Muslim law demanded of even non-Muslims, “protected” by the company of whichever male, however young, was willing to explore with her.
Murree outshone them all. Here, in the streets of the bazaar, walking the forest trails, or passing though Jhika Gali just beyond the gates of the school, she could walk freely, alone, with her head uncovered. This was a world within a world tucked away among these magnificent Himalayan foothills.
However, peaceful Murree lay surrounded by a world of conflict, making the 150 children of missionaries, diplomats and foreign executives in boarding here, a mighty big temptation. The school took every precaution. Anne chuckled out loud, remembering the first time she had seen the fierce-looking mustached men walking the streets of Murree, rifles slung over one shoulder, double bandoliers full of cartridges crisscrossing their chests. They were not, she had been told, people she needed to fear.
Anne, caught up in her revere, almost missed the sharp retort of rapid gunfire coming from the gate just beyond the drafty old British Garrison Church that now housed the high school.
The yard was empty.
Recess is over. They’re back in class.
Anne sucked in air, suddenly conscious that the yard was empty—except for her. She could hear the thudding coming from the church, semi-automatic fire, yelling, screams suddenly silenced. Feet came pounding toward her. She pulled back and pressed herself into the rough stone corner jutting out into the yard from the administration building. It was poor shelter, but too late for anything else.
A figure in western clothing raced past her. Anne almost called out but bit her tongue when she realized that the man was carrying an assault rifle. He dashed toward the door to the office, kicked it open, strafed the room, and ran on without looking.
Oh Lord, please not Faridah.
That room belonged to the school’s secretary.
Horrified, the young teacher stepped out of her hiding place. She needed to get to Faridah. The sound of more pounding feet drove her back into the skinny shadows. This time the steps slowed and stopped.
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Lord…
She couldn’t see, and didn’t dare expose herself in case it was another of the attackers. She sensed movement, and the figure came into view. The man’s head moved back and forth, rapidly scanning everything around him, his back toward Anne. With his peripheral vision, he had to be able to see her, sense her. The hunter and the hunted both saw the movement to their left at the same time. The gunman spun in that direction, leveling his weapon as he turned.
Anne cringed, stifling a cry as Mukhtar’s familiar figure flopped backward, unable to resist the impact from the spray of bullets. He was, had been, one of the kitchen boys.
The killer surveyed the yard again. He took a step back as though seeking shelter in the same shadowed corner where Anne huddled. She had the sudden, almost irresistible urge to reach out and touch him. How could he not feel her breath on his neck, sense her presence?
Lord, remind mom I’ll see her…
The man moved on, heading toward the back of the property and the safety of the woods beyond. He never looked back, never saw the girl, never felt her presence, or heard her gasps for breath.
Nor did he feel the brush of the angel’s wings as they covered her.
*The Mound of the Dead, one of the earliest city-settlements in the world.
Author’s Note: this story is based on actual events. Six Pakistanis died in the attack on Murree Christian School in August 2002. The quick action of the staff prevented the four terrorists from entering the classroom areas.
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