Just The Facts
It was way after school. Any other suspects had scattered to the wind for the night. Tracking them down at this hour would have a bad effort-to-results ratio. I rode Betty Ann to her house, said an awkward goodbye, and headed home.
I did homework, shoveled down some Spaghetti O’s, showered and climbed into bed. I closed my eyes, but sleep was out of the question.
My mind was on overdrive, thinking about cheaters, a fair and just world, bumblebees and the girl who saved them. Betty Ann.
The way she handled that security guard blew my mind. She’d slipped into a character as easily as putting on a jacket. She really was a good actress. Maybe she should try out for drama club.
But if she did it would eat up a lot of her time. Time she couldn’t spend with me. Was I being selfish? Not wanting her to have a world outside of mine? But she liked sleuthing. We both did. Trying to make things fair and right. It’s what we dreamed about. At least it’s what I dreamed about. Did she have different dreams and I couldn’t see ’em?
I looked at the clock face. Was it laughing at me? 2:35am.
My mind skittered and danced like water on a hot skillet. The moment we left Hammet Middle the Ford Escort started following us. That meant we were on the right trail. Evidently somebody at Hammet didn’t want us probing into them. Anybody on the team coulda been the baddie. Sincere wanted to win at all costs. Giggles was a texting whiz and coulda hired Pensicola. Parker Roberts looked dog tired and didn’t like the hard work when cheating was so much easier. I couldn’t get a read on Smilin’ Bob, that slab of granite shaped like a kid.
And who drove the Escort? Sincere was old enough to have a learner’s permit, but he couldn’t drive without an adult in the car. Had somebody else been in the passenger seat? I couldn’t see through the windows. Maybe it wasn’t actually a Hammet teamer, it coulda been an older brother or sister or cousin or something. Or the perp just hired somebody. If they could pay Pensicola two hundred hiring a driver would be chump change. But who? My thoughts sizzled and steamed.
Tick. Tick. Tick. 3:15.
I wondered if I could get some of that conditioner Betty Ann used.
Tick. Tick. 4:00. Time crept by as if slogging through a Slurpee.
Finally, mercifully, the sun dawned, bright and cruel as a cheerleader’s smile - full of hope and promise for a great day that would end in pain, humiliation and giggles. I rose, slathered some Colgate on my toothbrush and tried to scrub the taste of dead cat out of my mouth when my cell phone chirped. I had a message.
Got your info. Bring the $50.
Fred Backwards had come through. But I didn’t have $50. I couldn’t ask my parents for it. Times were tough in the Cage house and we were down to Spaghetti-Os and Poptarts until Friday. I checked my wallet and found eight bucks left from lawn mowing money. I pulled off the sofa cushions and raided the laundry hamper for any loose change. I dug through my backpack and the saddlebags on my bike, but I knew it was stupid. No way I was gonna get forty plus bucks in coins. I counted up the empty bottles in the recycling and figured I could get another $3.75. Not much help there. I thought about selling some old Wii games on Ebay but that would take days. I needed the drachmas now.
Betty Ann didn’t have that kind of cash, and even if she did, I wouldn’t ask. I needed somebody with disposable income. I knew just where to look.
I scarfed the last poptart while I pedaled to a neighborhood just past the gold course. I stopped on the street outside the manse of Reginald Wellington, both II and III. A high stone wall covered in vines and flowers surrounded the place. I couldn’t see the house beyond the wrought iron gates, but I remembered it from years ago. Reg and I had spent a lotta summers playing Marco-Polo in the pool, or a whacked-out game that was a combo of dodge ball and tennis on the clay court. It’d been a stupid made up kiddie game, but I both smiled and ached at the memory.
About a half hour before the first school bell, the big gates to the Wellington mansion opened and a red Mustang pulled out.
I dropped the kickstand on my bike and flagged down the car. It stopped and Reginald Wellington got out of the backseat saying, “Just a sec, Dad,” to the driver. He crossed to me, offering a fist. I bumped it easily this time.
“Drex,” he said, surprise frosting his voice.
“Reg,” I said.
I didn’t know how to ease into this one, so I didn’t. “I need a favor,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said, his eyes narrowing a little.
“I need fifty bucks,” I said.
His eyes turned to mistrusting slits.
“I need to buy some info that may help clear Reno.”
His eyes opened wide again and a light went on behind them. “You think you can get Reno back on the team?”
I held up a slow down hand. “Baby steps,” I said.
“You know who did it, don’t ya,” he said, sounding excited and optimistic.
“No,” I said honestly. “Just have suspicion.” I told him about going to Hammet and growing the tail. The light went out behind his eyes and his voice turned to quiet stone.
“Jerkwads,” he breathed and dug for his wallet. He twisted his body so the driver couldn’t see what he was doing. “I don’t know what I got in cash here. I can give you plastic. Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover.”
“Not a credit sitch exactly.”
A white Jag pulled up behind Reg’s mustang. Honk! He waved the car to go around. The driver, Reg’s latest mom with a lot of brassy blond hair, tossed us a haughty glare as she drove by. I would’ve said stuck up but once you pass thirty, stuck up becomes haughty.
“Yeah,” Reg agreed. “Check probably won’t help either.”
“I got thirty eight bucks,” Reg said. “I can stop by an ATM,” he looked at his watch, “But I can’t get there until after school. Can you wait?”
“Rather not. Can I take the thirty eight?”
Reg handed me the cash. “You’ll figure this out, right Drex? We’re hurtin’ without Reno.”
“You’ll be fine,” I assured him.
“Nah man. Patience is good at science and geology, but that’s it. She’s throwin’ off the team. She’s so anxious, jumps in so fast when she’s not sure.”
“So let her,” I said.
Reg looked at me, his expression a screwy question mark thing. I explained. “She’s just trying to prove that she’s part of the team. That she matters. She wants to be important. So give her free rein to pounce on any geology and science question. That’ll make her feel like she’s contributing. But have her hold back on everything else.”
Reg nodded slightly.
“You gotta change your game. Specialize. You can’t play ‘everybody knows a little of everything’ against Hammet. Let Electra take the history and literature questions. You take math and politics. You know?”
Reg smiled at me. “You miss it,” he said simply.
“Not often,” I said. “Sometimes I go between meals without even thinking about it.” I waggled the cash, slapped it lightly on Reg’s shoulder as a thanks.
I headed back to my bike when Reg called, “Hey. When this is done, maybe we could go swimming or something. You know?”
He climbed back into the Mustang and drove away. I felt something ease in my guts, like a fist I didn’t know was clenched. It’d been a long time since anyone invited me to do anything.
I dug out my cell, called Betty Ann and told her to meet me behind the school.