Drexton Cage Middle School Private Eye

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The Lion's Den

Second rule of middle school detectiv-i-cation is never talk to the adults. They’re only here to teach us and never tell us anything we need to know. They mean well, but they just don’t get what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s like they never were one, or forgot or something. Besides, they’re on the outs when it comes to the five w’s: who, why, where, when and wtf?

Truth is there’s a student out there somewhere who knows the answer. You just gotta know the question. I had a few and a good place to start.

Betty Ann and I headed to the back of the school. There was a ramp sunk into the ground so eighteen wheelers could back up to the doors and deliver fish sticks and tater tots. The down-slope kept the elevated door of the truck even with ground level. A metal canopy overhang provided shelter from the rain, and the drain in the deep end of the ramp sluiced off any excess. But the concrete was still dank and stained dark by the rain water. The smell from the nearby dumpsters gave off a harsh cabbage smell. At the bottom of this depressed wedge of concrete a bunch of kids were shooting dice. These were the ’Jects; kids rejected from every other group in school. The down trodden, the gimps, geeks, gawks, and terminally tepid had been on the outs with so many other sects, they created their own to be on the ins. Only in middle school can the misfits find a place to belong. I envied them.

“C-come on baby,” a kid bellowed as he shook the dice.

“Who’s that?” I whispered to Betty Ann.

“Goes by Trident. He stutters. Not a lot. When he’s relaxed you barely notice.”

But making friends was stressful and hardly relaxing. I guessed that’s when Trident’s tongue tripped over his own teeth and tended to make people snigger. Snigger, it means to laugh in a half-suppressed and disrespectful manner. I looked it up. And for the single crime of having a less than agile tongue, Trident was banished to the back of the school, kneeling on wet pavement where the air reeked of garbage. Yeah, that seemed fair.

“Daddy needs a new b-bluetooth with hands f-free dialing,” Trident crowed.

Two kids on either side of him screamed, cheering him on.

I recognized the little one who called himself Snake. His real name was Morris Finklestein, but he liked Snake. Who wouldn’t? He was only eleven and already in eighth grade. Probably smartest kid of his age and he’s bumped to the ’Jects because of it. The truly popular are the proudly ignorant. Our education system could use a make-over. After college Morris/Snake would run a fortune 500 company or become world class surgeon or something. That’s if he didn’t put a bullet in his skull before graduation day. Bullies like to pick on the weak and lonely.

Sitting on the wall above the dice game, like a king over his kingdom, was Derf. “Alright ya mugs, place yer bets,” Derf said like a carnival barker. “Place yer bets. We got a winner, or is he gonna shoot craps? Only da dice know fer sure.”

Derf was kind of the unofficial leader of the ’Jects and he tried to teach them what he knew. Which was a lot. You wanted to know anything in this school you went to Derf. The guy had a four figure I.Q.

He had his arm around a skinny little Sheila with a mouthful of braces that made her look like she was eating the grill off her dad’s Toyota.

“F-free hall pass,” Trident said, emptying his pockets on the wet concrete.

“Hall pass,” Derf echoed. “House is taking a hall pass on the shooter.”

Snake took an Itunes card out of his shirt pocket and slapped it on the pile. “Itunes card,” he said in a high squeaky tone. His voice hadn’t changed yet.

“Itunes,” Derf confirmed. “Shelia could use ’dat,” he smiled at the girl with the braces and she grinned back, flashing steel. “What about you?” Derf said to a girl I didn’t know. She had a nervous tick that made her cheek jitter and her pupils didn’t line up. It was as if she were looking at two different things at once

“Twenty bucks on red!” she screamed.

Derf sighed. “Scatters, for da last time. Dis is craps. Now he rolled a nine. He’s gotta roll a nine again before he rolls a seven or he loses. So what’s yer bet?”

“Um, okay, okay. Twenty bucks on the queen of diamonds.”

Shelia giggled as Derf leaned forward to talk down to Scatters. “It’s craps, it’s dice. It ain’t cards. Now are ya bettin’ on de shooter or wid de house?”

“Twenty bucks on blackjack!” Scatters tweeted.

“You don’t get to bet no mores,” Derf exploded. “Okay, let’s roll.”

“Come on b-baby,” Trident whispered and threw the dice.

I couldn’t see the numbers, but Trident and Snake’s groans told me it hadn’t gone too swell for them.

“Oh, too bad fer youse,” Derf said. “Dat’s craps. You lose.”

“You guys should know to never bet against the house,” I told the group. Nine eyes locked onto me, Scatters rebel eye looking at a cloud or something. The group froze for a sec, then vanished around the corner without a word.

“Something I said,” I asked when they’d gone.

Derf shrugged as he jumped into the pit to retrieve his winnings. “’Dey think yer gonna rat ‘em out for gamblin’.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“’Dey don’t trust ya,” Derf said. There it was again. I shook my head to lessen the sting.

“How you doin’, Backwards?”

Derf’s father’s name was Fred and he named both his son’s Fred. But to avoid confusion he named one Junior and this one Derf. But nobody ever called him Derf. He was always just Fred Backwards.

“I dunno,” Backwards said.

“You don’t know how you’re doing?”

“I don’t know nuffin’,” he said, sliding the hall pass and Itunes card into his shirt pocket.

“Still fleecin’ the plebs out of their lunch money I see.”

“I ain’t fleecin’ nobody outta nuffin.”

Nobody knew why Backwards talked with a bad Brooklyn accent. The guy was born in Pasadena. I thought it was because he liked to sound dumber than he was. But he coulda sounded like the computer voice on the Starship Enterprise and still sounded dumber than he was.

“Dey just don’t know de odds is all.”

“And you do?” Betty Ann said.

“I don’t know nuffin,” he grumbled.

“Sure Backwards.” I knew the game we were going to play and came prepared. I took a dollar bill out of my pocket and showed it to him. “Coupla things I gotta know.”

“Can’t help ya, Drex,” Derf said stuffing his hands in his pockets and glancing idly at the rain pouring down, looking as innocent as Lindsay Lohan in a mosh pit.

“Somebody stole the answers to the Pentathalon tourney. Know anything about that?”

“I don’t know nuffin’.”

“Does this refresh your memory?” I added a couple more George Washingtons.

“It’s hazy,” Derf said, scratching his head. I pulled another bill from my pocket and he snatched it with the skilled hands of a magician. “Oh yeah, now I remembers. I heard Reno Vega did it.”

“What else did you hear?”

“Nuffin’.”

I was getting good at this game. I had another bill ready and Derf scarfed it up. “Heard he got expelled over it.”

“He did,” I confirmed.

“’Dere ya go,” Derf said.

“Why would Reno cheat?” Betty Ann asked.

“Ask him,” Derf said, jerking his head toward me. “He’s de expert.”

“Reno didn’t cheat,” I said. “But somebody did and I wanna know how. How could they steal the answers?”

“I dunno,” Derf said. I offered up another bill but Derf waved me off. “No man, seriously, I don’t know.”

“Can you find out?” Derf glared at me with an expression that was a weird mashup of insulted and pissed. “Of course you can find out,” I amended. “How much?”

We haggled like my grandmother at a garage sale. Eventually we settled on a price. Hey man, everything’s eventual. I knew Derf would dig up something for me. In the mean time I had somewhere to go. I’d rather have root canal or watch a teen drama on the CW.

Betty Ann and I watched as Derf sauntered around the corner, counting his cash.

“Where to?” she asked.

“Into the lion’s den.”

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