Drexton Cage Middle School Private Eye

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Know Nothings and Know It Alls

First rule of high school detective-y-ness is someone needs to watch your back, so I hit the halls looking for a friendly face. Chandler Middle School was named after some dead guy, a famous writer that most of the student body had never read. I moved through the corridors like a ghost wearing socks, as invisible as the long dead author. I kept my head down, shoulders hunched to deal with my nonexistence-ness. I nodded or smiled to a few kids I passed, but they either looked away or pretended not to notice me. Across the hall a cheerleader dropped her books and I hunkered down to help scoop ’em up.

“Here ya go.”

“Thanks,” she said automatically. But when she saw my face the light went out of her eyes and her mouth turned into a firm hard line. She snatched her books and hissed, “I know what you did to Skylar.”

She scuttled away like I had hungry cooties or something. So I found out that Skylar hung out with another guy’s girl and somehow I’m the bad guy for exposing that secret. In middle school nobody cares about who’s right or wrong, just who’s popular and who ain’t.

I jammed my hands in my pocket and walked on, hearing hallway conversations drop as I passed. Guess nobody wanted the school snoop to overhear any juicy little secret.

I headed into the lunchroom and found the usual barely-controlled riot. Kids screamed, laughed, and ran around like turkeys two days before Thanksgiving. A few tables were engaged in a good-natured food fight. Fat women in hairnets dished up steaming piles of Chili con carne and mac & cheese onto plastic trays.

The cafetorium - as this one is called because it has a small raised stage complete with curtain at one end - was a little like a zoo; each type of mammal is confined to its own habitat.

The drama geeks lounged on the steps of the raised stage, talking mostly in quotes from obscure movies. The jocks had the center table and talked loudly, punching the air and slapping their chests. Most of them wore cowboy hats for some dumb reason only they knew. Near them were the cheerleaders, ping-ponging between flirting and shaking their heads in disgust whenever one of the apes asked them to pull their finger.

I walked past the Brainiacs. Their discussion faded to a whisper. I didn’t strain to hear what they were saying. I knew. They didn’t like me.

I knew how they felt.

The Skaters sat on the floor, skateboards on their laps as they adjusted trucks and wheels, talking about Ollies, backside feebles and a buncha other stuff that might have been English. More groups were scattered around: the Mean Girls, the Gucci’s, the Skivers, the Gear Heads, and the Artists. Every group kept to themselves, no overlap. An MC-square who played the trombone, had to pick between the chess club and the band. He couldn’t belong to both or he’d be banished into no-man’s land.

Like me.

I spotted Betty Ann Kowolski flitting between groups. Like an Ambassador visiting foreign dignitaries, she was accepted by all groups but belonged to none. Betty Ann is so bubbly she may actually be carbonated. She sees the best in people and is always willing to help.

“Betty Ann,” I said.

She saw me and wove through the mob the way a marble weaves through a pinball machine.

“Drexton.” she bubbled. I mentioned the bubbly thing, right? “Whatcha doin’?”

“Got a case,” I said with a shrug.

Betty Ann smiled wide. Her deepset brown eyes lit up like plasma screens. “Are we detecting again?”

She loved mysteries, played Soduku like a champ, did crosswords, and beaten every Nancy Drew PC game ever made. She’d been with me on every gig since I started this whole detective thing. “Thought you gave that up.”

“Yeah, well, thought maybe I could help.”

“What kind of case, huh? Huh?” She scooted next to me, knocking me with a playful hip bump.

“Frame job,” I said. I knew she wasn’t gonna be too jazzed about this one. When I couldn’t think of a way to ease into it, I jumped with both feet. “Clearing Reno Vega.”

The light went out of her eyes. The bubbles went flat. Her mouth actually dropped as if someone had loosened the hinges on her jaw. “Reno Vega?”

I nodded.

Her voice went sticky and sour as liquid Sweetarts. “Reno Vega of the Pentathlon team?”

“Formerly,” I corrected.

Betty Ann stared at me a moment. “And you went crazy when?”

I shrugged. I didn’t think I was crazy. But hey, I’ve been wrong before.

She grabbed my hand and yanked me down. Side by side we sat on a bench against an open stretch of wall. “You can’t go back there, Drex. You were kicked off the team. Banished. If you start poking around in this the principal’s gonna get pissed. You’ll get in trouble.”

“You don’t understand,” I said to Betty Ann.

“Uh huh,” she said, her tone dripping sarcasm. “I don’t understand?” Betty Ann had been my friend since second grade, and she knew me better than anybody. “I don’t understand.” She shook her head, “Okay, then explain it to me.”

I tried to find the words, but my vocabulary scattered and hid inside my skull.

“What, you think if you clear Reno you can find out who framed you?” she asked.

No, I didn’t think that.

“You think if you do this they’ll let you back on the Pentathlon team?”

No.

“Then what?”

“Reno didn’t do it,” I snapped. “And no one will listen, no one believes him. He got expelled and nobody cares. How is that fair?”

“You still trying to make things right?”

“Who else is gonna?”

Betty Ann chewed on her bottom lip for a while. “Me, I guess.”

I wanted to hug her, but that woulda felt weird. So I smiled instead. But hugging her woulda been nicer.

“Where do we start?” she asked.

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