Drexton Cage Middle School Private Eye

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The Alpha Clue

I stood in the hall that smelled of Pinesol and Clearasil, looking through a little glass panel in the door to the room inside where the I.Q. Pentathalon team was prepping for Saturday’s event.

I waited and listened. And listened and waited. Then waited some and listened--

“We going in or what?” Betty Ann asked, poking me in the ribs.

I told myself it wasn’t fear that kept me outside I was just getting the lay of the land before I stepped into the vipers pit. This room, these people, held a lot of memories for me. The last ones sucked big time and were more painful than getting my braces put on.

“You don’t have to do this,” Betty Ann said.

She was wrong. So I clenched my back teeth, sucked a breath of courage, and opened the door.

The MPR or mutli-purpose room was pretty much what it sounded like. A large empty classroom used for whatever needed using. Add some desks and it’s a classroom or detention hall. Throw in some long tables and take-out Chinese and it’s a PTA meeting room. You get the idea.

The smell and sound of the room hit me hard, freeing locked memories from their cage. I’d spent a lot of time in this room training for Pentathlons and the recollections made me happy. The fact that they were memories and not current events made me feel like a wrung out dish rag, used up and dirty.

I’d been part of this team. They were my friends Once-Upon-A. Three girls sat in molded plastic chairs as Reginald Wellington III, Pentathlon team Captain, read a series of questions from index cards he held in his hand.

“Okay,” Reginald said, “What substance was named after the Greek word meaning, ‘able to be shaped’?”

A tiny girl I didn’t recognize rocketed to her feet, “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-oooh-oooooooh. Putty.”

A groan went up from the other two girls. “No,” Reg said, unable to hide the frustration in his voice.

The little girl hung her head, sinking into her seat. Waif-like, it looked as if a good sneeze could send her blowing down the hall like a plastic grocery bag. She had big boingy pig-tails and narrow square glasses in thick black frames.

“Plastic,” I said.

All eyes turned to me. The room held its breath for a few heartbeats, then a few more. Time became taffy and grew sticky. You could serve the tension with a spatula. “Hey guys,” I said lamely.

Reg shook off the surprise first and said, “Drexton.” He crossed to me, offering his fist for a bump just as I stuck out my hand to shake. I felt stupid so switched to the bump while he adjusted for the shake. We both shrugged uncomfortably and stuck our hands in our pockets.

“What is HE doing here?” Cloris snarled. She was tall and gangly with mouse colored hair in tight curls around a skull that made her look like a lint-covered tootsie-pop. She had large hands, big feet, and a chip on her shoulder the size of a minivan.

I ignored her question and said, “Good to see you guys.”

“You too,” Reg said. But the words sounded as fake as pro wrestling. “Um, where you been, man?”

“Hiding,” Cloris meowed. “Go back to it.”

“Cloris,” Reg chided.

“What? We got a competition coming up. We should be training, not hanging with pathetic losers.”

“Oh, we don’t mind hanging with you Cloris,” Betty Ann said with a wicked smile.

“Oooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s this?” the tiny girl said, shoving her big black glasses back on her nose.

“This,” Reg said, “Is Drexton Cage. He used to be one of us.”

“Until he got kicked out,” Cloris harrumphed. I’d never actually seen anyone harrumph before, I thought it was just in comic books and stuff, but she managed it, folding her arms over her chest and turning her back on us.

“This is Patience,” Reg said, gesturing to the little pint sized girl.

I nodded hello, then turned to the third girl sitting in the chair, holding Reg’s hand. “Hey Electra.”

She nodded once and I felt the temp drop a few degrees. So much for any fantasy of a warm reception.

I looked at Betty Ann. She shook her head, I told ya so, blazing neon in her eyes.

I tried to warm things up and turned back to Electra. “You and Reg still an item?”

“Always and forever,” Electra said, in a voice that sounded like vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. She stared at Reg with dreamy eyes. Electra was a babe and half with raven black hair and features with the color and delicacy of my mom’s good china. She appeared more mature than other girls our age and seemed to have her head screwed on straight, which made her one-of-a-kind on campus. From the stuff written on the boys bathroom wall a lot of guys wished they were an item with Electra.

I looked at Reg in his torn jeans that probably cost more than my cell phone, sporting a hundred and fifty dollar haircut and a diamond stud in his left ear. Reginald Wellington III led a charmed life. Athletic. Smart. His family has money in the way Disney has princesses. His father owns three car dealerships, two banks, and four sets of divorce papers.

I’d known him almost as long as Betty Ann. But after the incident he just faded away like everybody else. Bailed on me. I didn’t hold it against him. In fact it was kinda nice to know he wasn’t perfect.

“Still dress like a million bucks I see.”

“Gotta look like what you’re worth,” Reg said, pulling on a lapel.

“Which is probably why you look like crap, Drex,” Cloris cackled.

Betty Ann spun on the fuzzy headed girl. “So Cloris, how’s that Miss Congeniality thing working out for ya?”

“Is that a joke?” Cloris neighed.

“Why, do you need them explained?”

Harumph.

“So what are you doing here, man?” Reg asked, the brightness in his voice sounding cheap as Chinese plastic.

“Screwing us up again,” Cloris gibbered.”

“Oooh-ooooh-ooooooooh,” Patience said, jumping up on a chair. “Wait, what now?”

Cloris turned to her with a nasty smirk. “Didn’t you know? Drexton used to be one of us.”

“You were on the team?” Patience asked.

“Oh yeah. Until he cheated on last year’s mid-term.”

“Allegedly,” Betty Ann said in a deep freeze voice.

“He got kicked off the team for being a cheater.”

“Alleged cheater,” Betty corrected.

“We needed him and he bailed on us. Do not believe a word this guy says. You can’t trust him.”

I felt a prickly heat crawl up my face under my skin. I knew I couldn’t change what Cloris thought of me anymore than I could change every mind in school, so I plunged in to the task at hand. “I wanted to ask you some questions about Reno Vega.”

“Like what?” Reg asked.

“Whatever you can tell me. That may lead to something, which could lead to something else. Reno was part of your team.”

“Yeah man, replaced you.”

“Heard he got busted for cheating,” I said.

“Does that sound familiar?” Cloris sniped.

“Does this?” Betty Ann said, “SHUT UP CLORIS.”

“Yeah man,” Reg said. “Got himself expelled. Left us in a bad situation.”

“Hey,” Patience blurted, looking like a cheesed off little pigeon - with pigtails. And glasses.

Reg tried to soothe her ruffled feathers. “I didn’t mean…. It’s just…. We had a team rhythm.” He looked at me. “Reno replaced you and Patience replaced Reno.”

“I’ve been waiting for a spot on this team for like two years,” Patience said. “My parents even moved from another district just so I could be eligible to be on this team.”

“And now it’s finally happened,” I said.

“I know, lucky for me.”

“Lucky?” I said.

The color drained from her face like juice from a Capri-sun foil packet when the bag gets a tear in it. “I didn’t mean lucky,” she squeaked, diddling her fingers in her lap. “I mean it’s horrible what happened to Reno.”

“He was cheating. He deserved what he got.” Cloris snapped.

“He wasn’t cheating man,” Reg corrected.

“You don’t think?” I said.

“Nah, I think he was set up.”

“Why?”

“Doesn’t make sense, man,” Reg said. “Reno was smart. Really smart. He had like a five point oh. He worked nights. Did his homework. He didn’t need to cheat.”

Cloris crossed over to me and stared down her long pointed nose. She punctuated each word, “Some smart people do dumb things.”

“Like you. Talking,” said Betty Ann.

Cloris harrumphed again and snatched the index cards from Reg’s hand, organizing them with ferocious concentration.

“Who do you think set him up?” I asked Reg.

“I dunno.”

“Guess.”

“Aw man, I don’t want to point any fingers.”

I switched gears. “What about the Marlowe scholarship?”

“Yeah, that’s a big thing, man. Marlowe scouts are coming to the meet this Saturday.”

Everyone straightened a little and Patience let out a low whistle between her teeth. Marlowe as a big prize and everybody wanted it.

“Marlowe made it clear that whoever does well this Saturday will be going with me next year,” Reg said.

“Going with you?” Betty Ann asked.

“Reg has already been accepted,” Electra said squeezing Reg’s arm. He leaned down and the two kissed.

“Ew. Get a room,” Cloris mewled.

“Marlowe, huh?” I said when Reg came back up for air.

He shrugged humbly. “I’m a legacy. All the way back to my great grandpa.”

“Best education money can buy,” Betty Ann said.

Reg jammed his hands in his pockets and hunched a little. “Silver spoon, I know. But hey, if I can afford it I’d be stupid not to take it, right?”

I had no argument for that. Marlowe High was a very expensive school. And by very I mean, holy crap that’s a lot of money. Only the very rich or scholarship winners get to go. Reno wasn’t rich. My mind went spinning another direction. “So Reno could’ve stolen the answers to do well at the meet. Get the scholarship.”

“Why would he do that? He already had the best chance of winning,” Reg said.

“Hey,” Cloris mooed. “I’m not exactly stupid.”

Reg patted the air with his hands. “Nobody is saying you are. And not being stupid, you know that Reno had the best chance of winning.”

“I don’t know that,” Cloris honked.

“We’ll add it to your list,” said Betty Ann.

“You know what I think?” Cloris said.

“Few people do,” Betty Ann quipped.

“Maybe Reno’s just like you,” Cloris spat. “Maybe he got scared. Couldn’t take the pressure. Doubted himself. Doubted he could win so he stole the answers cause the big bad school was just a widdle too tuff for poor widdle him.”

“I’ll never believe that,” Reg told her.

Cloris spun away with a look on her face that is usually seen at a K-mart or someplace where two kids are fighting and mom takes one kid’s side. The other always has that it’s not fair expression. Cloris now had that face clearly tattooed on her mug.

“Anything else you can tell me?”

Reg thought a moment then shrugged. “Not really? You guys?” He looked to his crew.

“Oooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh.” Patience stood. Then she thought a moment. “No, sorry, got nothin’.” She sat.

Cloris turned and barked, “I got something. Reno messed up and now we’re going to lose on Saturday.”

“We are not going to lose,” Reg barked. “We’re going to thrash Sincere Thatcher and his guys from Hammet Middle School. We’ve beat Hammet seven years in a row. And we won’t lose that streak this year.”

“You think I want to lose?” Cloris spat. “Bad for my college application when it says we lost to an entire school of dweebs and spudnuts.”

“Hey, they’re not all bad,” Reg said.

“Oh please,” Cloris said.

“I know some of the Hammet guys. The football team, the drama club, the marching band. There’s a guy that plays the tuba over there that’s pretty cool.”

“If you love him so much, why don’t you move to Massachusetts and marry him?”

“Don’t have to go to Massachusetts to find love,” Reg said and kissed Electra again.

Cloris made a kind of hissing noise. “Ew. Public.”

There was nothing else for me here. So I thanked them and turned to leave.

“Hey Drex,” Cloris said. “You won’t clear Reno. Haven’t you heard you’ll never prosper?”

“Sure,” I said and walked out of the MPR, leaving the Pentathalon team to their training. Once we were in the hallways and out of earshot Betty Ann said, “They beat you up pretty good in there.”

“I’ve had worse.”

“And probably will again.”

I got beat up again about an hour later.

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