Drexton Cage Middle School Private Eye

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The Tail

The Hammet Pentathlon team had a lot to gain if Reno got kicked off the Chandler team. Betty Ann and I snuck through the Hammet halls, quiet as smoke, keeping an eye out for the mucho-grande security guard.

I didn’t know if the Hammet Pentathlon team would be practicing at this hour, but with Saturday’s big meet tick-ticking toward us I figured it was a good bet. We pulled at a bunch of knobs and felt a lot of locked doors.

As we moved through the halls Betty Ann said, “So that girl’s kinda pretty, huh?”

“Who?”

“Who? Yeah, like you’re that dumb. Pensicola or Carmen or whatever.”

“Shhh,” I whispered, looking around for Gigantor. We turned down another hallway.

“She sure likes her hair, she combed it enough,” Betty Ann whispered.

“I guess.”

“That’s natural blonde, didja notice?”

No.

“She could be a model.” When I didn’t answer she said, “Doncha think she could be a model. Girl like that.”

She was driving at something but I didn’t know what so I stopped at a doorway and looked at her. She looked away, hiding her face. Betty Ann had always been self conscious about her looks. So she wasn’t built like an anorexic pipe cleaner. She wasn’t fat or anything, she just had curves. Nice, kinda soft curves. She also had kinky black hair and a strong Jewish nose. Betty Ann hated her nose. What a dope, her nose is what made her pretty, but try telling her that.

So instead I said, “She could maybe model I guess. But if you put your ear up next to hers you hear the ocean.”

Betty Ann smiled and we kept pulling on doors. It took twenty minutes of sneaking and creeping before we found the open library door. We scooted inside. The room smelled brown. Dusty and forgotten books from long dead writers waited in towering shelves of dark varnished wood. The walls held fake oil paintings of past school principals and one of a sleek grey man in a fedora from the nineteen thirties. He had a trim mustache and sly grin. He was the guy the school was named after and he looked like he’d raised his share of hell.

There were also a few dozen of those study carol desks, some with computers on them, and some empty for laptop users. I led Betty Ann to a cul-de-sac of shelves and pushed some books aside so I could peek through the hole. The Hammet Pentathalon team was practicing.

“Why are we hiding?” Betty Ann asked.

I jammed a silencing finger to my lips.

Betty Ann scowled and shrugged violently.

I whispered very quietly in her ear, “We’re on a stakeout.”

“Why?” she murmured back into mine. That’s how we spoke, taking turns whispering in each other’s ears like kids in kindergarten.

“Detective rule ninety seven, sub paragraph two. Observe your quarry.”

“That’s not a real rule. You get to make up rules as you go? I can make up rules—“

“Hey,” I whispered a little louder. “These guys are gonna clam up if I start pokin’. So lets just see what we can learn by watching first.”

“Then what?”

I shrugged. “Ask questions I guess.”

“To whom?”

“Whom?

“Is it whom? Or who? Can never keep those straight. And I can never spell restaurant.”

“I have trouble with guaranteed,” I said.

“Can you imagine life before spell checker?”

“Dark ages,” I agreed.

“What questions?”

“Whatever I can think of.”

“So you don’t really have a master plan as such,” Betty Ann said.

“Not by the standard definition, no,” I conceded. “But something will lead me somewhere else, which will lead to another place and a new thing.”

“A delicate operation,” she sarcassed. I nodded. “Like watching a surgeon wearing boxing gloves and a blindfold.”

“Been saving that one?” I asked.

“No, just made it up. Swear to god,” she said.

For ten minutes I watched the Hammet team answer a buncha questions. They nailed every single one. I only got about two thirds of them. These guys were on fire. They’d been prepped and drilled. I felt kinda sorry for our team going up against these guys on Saturday.

I peered back through my peep-hole of books while they changed from geography to political science.

The only player on the team I recognized was the Captain. Sincere Thatcher and I had faced each other in a few tourneys.

Sincere was built like a football player, short and stocky with a thick chest and hairy knuckles. He’d hit puberty early and sprouted chest hair at eleven. By fourteen he had to shave twice a day. He wore brown corduroy pants, a brown tweed jacket over a Toronto Maple Leafs T-shirt. His baseball hat was on backwards over his buzzed-cut hair.

They answered the next question right, but only after a long yawning pause.

“Oh come on you guys, now ’dere,” Sincere said, dropping the question cards. He had a Canadian accent like the guys in the movie “Fargo.” “Our reaction time is down by almost two point four seconds.”

“That’s cause we’re tired Sincere,” a tall thin guy said. The name on the back of his basketball jersey read Roberts.

“Me too, Parker,” Sincere said.

I deduced jersey-guy’s full name was Parker Roberts. I’m a detective. I do those things.

Roberts looked like a wad of frayed string. His shoes were untied, one side of his shirt tucked into his pants, the other hanging out, half his collar sticking up and poking him in the cheek. He had dark circles under his eyes as if he hadn’t slept for months. “I haven’t slept in like a week.”

A large girl erupted with a maniacal giggle. She was round, solidly built and my Aunt Ruth would’ve said ‘big boned.’ She ate a Milky Way bar and chugged a can of Red Bull while she thumbed a non-stop stream of text on her cellphone, the way some kids do. Those who can’t live without tweeting and facebooking every waking moment or thought.

I nudged Betty Ann and nodded to the cellphone in Giggles hands. “Sure can text,” I whispered.

“Think she sent the message to Pensicola?”

I didn’t know. But it was a clue so I dug out my cell phone, clicked it to camera mode and started video-ing through my spy-hole. Giggles answered a slew of questions and her thumbs never stopped typing. The girl could mulit-task, I gave her that.

When Sincere switched to chemistry Parker let out a defiant moan. “We need a break.”

A stoic faced kid said, “I feel like two separate piles of crap,” in the deadest voice I’d ever heard. Maybe he’d had his vocal chords embalmed and he looked about as much fun to hang with as one of those fiberglass statues outside a Chuckie Cheese.

“But you won’t feel like crap when we beat those losers over at Chandler Middle School, eh’ Smilin’ Bob?”

“We’re ready for Saturday,” Parker said. “We got this in the bag.”

“No, we keep working until we’re perfect,” Sincere said.

Smilin’ Bob looked at his captain and his expression never changed. The kid was carved from marble.

Peels of hysterical laughter spilled from Giggles.

“Kill the cell, okay?” Sincere said. Giggles glared at him and kept on texting.

Sincere looked from one member of his team of I.Q. champs to the next. “Hey, it’s hard on me too, okay. I go right from here to my job at the school office. Then I take my little brother to hockey practice, get home, make dinner, before three hours of homework. But I know, I just know we’re gonna win this time.”

The team nodded at Sincere’s super confidence. My super-sleuth powers wondered if it was because they were hyper-prepared, or perhaps the biggest competition on the other team had been expelled.

My cellphone beeped to let me know I’d run out of video space. I tried to cover it up, but too late.

“Who’s there?” Sincere said.

With our secret hideout blown I decided it was time to confront the team. “Sincere Thatcher,” I said, pocketing my phone again and stepping into the open space where the team could see me.

“Hey, this is like a closed meeting,” Sincere said.

I gestured at my surroundings. “School library. Kinda open.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to ask you about some stolen answers for this week’s tourney.”

Sincere flushed. Parker Roberts popped his head from his arm-pillow. “Why you asking about that?”

Giggles went into a raving peal of laughter that creeped me out.

The stone sculpture that was Smilin’ Bob said flatly, “Heard some guy over at Chandler got busted for it.”

“Yeah, Reno Vega,” Roberts said.

“You know Reno?” I asked him.

“No,” Roberts said too quickly. “I’ve never been to your school. Why would I know him?”

“No reason,” I said. “But you mentioned him.”

“Heard his name is all,” Roberts said and slammed his head back into the crook of his elbows, hiding his face.

“Too bad,” Smilin’ Bob said. “Reno was their best man. Too bad.”

“Too bad he was framed,” Betty Ann said.

“Framed? You know that?” Sincere said with a worried glance at his group.

“Sure,” I said.

“You can prove it, eh?”

“Soon,” I promised.

Sincere squinted at me. Recognition dawned in his eyes. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Used to be on the Chandler Pentathalon team back in the day. Got kicked off doncha know.”

That got a reaction from his crew.

“I heard about you,” Roberts said, nodding smugly. “You cheated.”

“Ancient history,” Betty Ann interjected. “We’re interested in current events.

“If Reno was their best man, framing him and getting him expelled just made it a lot easier for you guys to win on Saturday,” I said. “What with the scouts coming and all.”

“Hey,” Sincere said, “You can’t hang that on us.”

“Where were you guys last Friday about five in the afternoon?”

Parker Roberts looked around the room, his head jerkin’ and twitchin’ like a chicken. “I uh… I sorta…”

“Don’t tell him nothin’,” Sincere interjected.

“But—“ Roberts continued.

“No. Just shut up.”

You have an alibi for the time the answers were stolen?” I asked Sincere directly.

“Yeah,” Sincere said.

“Wanna spill?”

“None of your business, eh?” He glared at me. If I wasn’t so courageous I might’ve been intimidated by his thick shoulders and stony knuckles.

“What about you guys?” I asked the rest of his team.

“Nobody say anything,” Sincere told them.

Roberts looked from me to Sincere then dropped his head back into his elbow. Giggles opened another can of Red Bull and chugged. Smilin’ Bob’s expression never changed.

We stood like that for a few moments. The library clock ticked. Somewhere in the distance pages ruffled.

“I’ll find out if you did it,” I said, hoping I sounded more certain than I felt.

“No you won’t,” Sincere said.

“Easier to tell me your alibi.”

Sincere sneered at me then looked to his troops. “That’s it for today. Same time tomorrow guys.” I knew I’d gotten everything I was going to get. The troops gathered their things and marched past me without saying a word. Sincere shoulder bumped me as passed.

Betty Ann and I stood alone in the ancient library.

“So which one you think coulda done it?”

I sighed heavily. “All of ’em.”

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