Drexton Cage Middle School Private Eye

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The Unsuspecting Suspect

We followed the Principal through the school like dogs that had peed on the carpet, shuffling along, heads down. Class was in session so our shoes squeaked loudly in the deserted halls. I wondered if this was how POWs felt when they walked to the firing squad. Betty Ann shot me a sideways look and I shook my head, warning her to keep quiet.

We walked into the administration office lit by fluorescent lights and a lot of eco friendly skylights. “Kelsey, no interruptions,” Warner barked to the gawky student behind the counter. The state balanced its budget on the back of public schools. That meant lots of layoffs of support staff; running the school fell on the shoulders of students to make copies and answer phones, and all the boring unnoticed but needed work. Plus it was a great way to earn some cash for kids who were still too young to get a work permit to flip burgers or bag groceries.

Warner vanished behind his office door, holding it open so we could enter. Just before I crossed the threshold to the inner sanctum I heard a familiar voice.

“Kelsey, I got the copies done.” I turned to see another student volunteer arrive with a stack of papers.

Sylvia!

Reno’s girlfriend flinched when she saw me then the door slammed shut, sealing us inside. The principal’s office was small and cramped, jammed with metal file cabinets and potted plants.

“Sit,” Principal Warner ordered.

Betty Ann and I sat in the two chairs on the student side of his desk. Betty Ann looked around the room, licking dry lips and rubbing her palms together. I didn’t think she’d ever been in his office before. It had a pretty big intimidation factor.

“What am I supposed to do here Drexton?” Warner asked. He’s a big guy, nearly six three. School rumor said he used to be a prison guard before a riot took the pinkie off his left hand. He wore a suit jacket over a retro T-shirt of Judas Priest.

“About what, sir?” I had a good idea where this was heading but I played dumb.

“About you.” He rubbed a thick hand over his bald pink head.

“What exactly about me requires something to be done—“

Bam! He pounded the desk hard enough to make the ceramic mug full of pencils leap about an inch. Betty Ann gave a startled yelp. It scared me too.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about, smart ass,” Warner said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You are stirring up trouble son.” Warner isn’t a bad guy despite the scars around his eyes and the fact he’s built like a pro wrestler.

“How’s that,” I asked.

He sighed heavily, like he was tired of doing this kind of work. “That’s how we’re going to play it?”

I’d dealt with him a lot after the incident. He treated me pretty square I guess. I figured I owed him a little respect. “I honestly don’t know what you mean, sir,” I said.

“Uh-huh.” He glared at me, his knuckled rapping lightly on his desk. “Reno Vega has been expelled for cheating. Unanimous decision of the PTA. District Superintendent concurred. It’s done.”

“Reno didn’t do it.”

“And you know this.”

“Yes sir.” I sat straighter in my chair trying to look eager and convincing while my stomach took the express elevator to my shoes.

“And you can prove it,” he asked.

“No, sir. Not yet—“

“Damn it, Drexton!” he said and threw himself back in his chair, making it rock so hard I thought he was gonna topple backwards. “Do you have any clue what you’re doing?”

“Sir?” I said.

“When you were caught cheating I went to the mat for you, kid. I argued that you were a smart boy who just made a mistake.”

“You thought I made a mistake?”

Detective Rule number 47C, subparagraph R, when you know answering their questions will screw you up, answer with their question. It was a dangerous game but I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I tucked my hands under my thighs so he couldn’t see them shake.

“I kept you from suspension. I was the one that slapped your wrist. And this is how you pay me back?”

“Pay you back sir?”

“You are opening an old wound. Picking at a scab.”

“I’m trying to help Reno.”

“Reno’s beyond help. School board didn’t like how easy you got off. They now have a zero tolerance for cheaters. And here you are, reminding them of why they need the policy.”

I knew this. But hearing the whole cheater thing aloud still felt like a punch to the gut.

He ticked off my crimes with his fingers. One. “You are sewing mistrust of the school board’s decision among the students.” Two. “You have paid Derf Coleman for classified district information.” Three. “You trespassed on Hammet School property and harassed their Pentathalon team.”

I glanced over at Betty Ann. Head down. She was redrawing the tile patterns with her toes.

“And this morning you and Ms. Kowalski here cut class.”

“She didn’t want to sir. I made her. She didn’t do anything.”

“Uh huh,” he said. He opened a very thin file; the name Betty Ann Kowalski on the manila tab. “A really bad choice.” I leaned forward to see what he wrote on the pages.

Warner blocked my view with a beefy hand and gave me a hard stare that left me cold and concerned. I shrunk back in my seat.

He looked back over at Betty Ann. “I’m disappointed in you, Ms. Kowalski. You’re honor roll. First black mark on a spotless file. And you get the joy of spending your Saturday in detention.”

Righteous indignation bubbled up inside me, forcing me to defend my friend. “That’s not fair,” I told Warner. “And you know it. She didn’t plan this. I did.”

“You cut class you get detention,” he explained simply.

I turned to Betty Ann and said smoothly, “Don’t worry, it’s not so bad. We’ll bring homework or play battleship.” I joked. She smiled. Weak. But still I’d walk a thousand miles for that smile.

“I doubt you’ll be joining her, Drexton,” Warner said.

I spun back to him. In his eyes I saw the same regret my father had when I was first accused of cheating. I hated that look. My heart started to thump. Hard. I sucked in a breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would it be steel-toed army boots or a ballet slipper?

Warner leaned forward like a man who has to get on with a task he doesn’t want to do. “I heard Cloris Lehman cut class with you. You are a bad influence on the student body. School board wants bad apples removed from the barrel. All you had to do was lay low and everything would’ve been fine.”

“Reno didn’t do it,” I squeaked. I didn’t like how small and hollow my voice sounded. “This will ruin his life.”

Warner ran a hand over his bald dome. “Here’s the thing kid. PTA is meeting tomorrow night. They’re hungry for some justice.”

Thump-thump. Thump-thump. My heart was doing a jackhammer imitation inside my chest. “And you’re gonna feed ’em,” I said.

“I don’t want to see you eaten kid,” Warner replied. “So you got about twenty seven hours to prove Reno didn’t do it. You find me the true perp and I can throw them to the wolves. But if you don’t figure this out by then, or if Reno really did do it, then I can’t help you. You’ll be expelled.”

He let the sentence hang like an executioners axe. All I could hear was the clock running.

Twenty seven hours.

Tick-tick-tick.

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