Elliot Maddox and Nick Carmichael had been friends since further back than even they remembered. They had gone to high school together, and when Maddox had been a senior, Nick had been but only a freshman. But they’d been friends even then. Their temperaments suited one another’s quite excellently; their life philosophies were two halves of the same coin. Both men were just cynical enough to scoff at society’s conventions, but they were neither quite so cynical enough as to do or say anything that might topple them from their positions as respected pillars of the Middleton community.
Robbie Banks decided to research Principal Carmichael because he was the head of his school, the supreme authority in the admittedly rather limited universe of Middleton Middle School. Dr. Maddox was Robbie’s pediatrician, but Robbie was much more interested in Maddox due to the man’s connection to Gerald Klein’s nephew.
He had, in the back of his mind, some vague idea of his essay serving as an obituary for Nathan Klein. A memorial. But he didn’t tell that to Mr. Klein.
“The problem,” Robbie said, sighing, as he and Stacey ate yet another lunch in Mr. Klein’s classroom, “is how am I going to get near enough to find out what I need to find out?”
Stacey sighed, too. “The problem is you rejecting all of my totally amazing ideas.”
“I don’t even know their cell phone numbers, Stacey!”
Mr. Klein cleared his throat, the very picture of diplomacy. “Well, Robert, tell us—how did you get your interview with Mayor Dell? Perhaps you can do the same for the other people you’d like to talk to.”
“Robert wrote a letter to the mayor, sucking up.” Stacey smirked. “But if he tries that with Principal Carmichael, I don’t think it’ll work. Robert might get a suspension instead of an interview.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“It’s very Truman Capote,” said Mr. Klein, with a pleased little smile. “Very In Cold Blood. Though I don’t recommend giving that one a read until high school.”
Later, in math class, Stacey slipped a note to Robbie. I’ve got an idea, the note read.
Is it about the essay? Robbie wrote back. What is it?
Stacey grinned as she scribbled down a reply.
We go to his office during lunch. We just have to get around the secretary.
Robbie bit his lip, started to reply, erased it, then started again.
Okay, he wrote. Tomorrow. During lunch.
“Excuse me.” Suddenly, Ms. Dempsey’s eyes were fixed upon the two of them. She resembled, in that moment, a bloodhound who’d just spotted the escaped criminal. “Miss McIntire? Mr. Banks? Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?”
Stacey blushed as red as her hair. “No! No, ma’am.”
Robbie, clutching the paper tightly in his hands, simply shook his head. To his enormous relief, Ms. Dempsey did not ask to actually see the note they’d been passing back and forth, contenting herself with simply glaring at her two transgressors for the rest of the class period.
The following day, Gerald Klein ate his microwaved lunch alone in his classroom while puzzling over the absence of his usual dining companions. Robbie and Stacey, meanwhile, were crouched down in the hallway in front of the principal’s office, speaking in low whispers and finalizing their plan of attack. Robbie felt sick and nervous and like he’d pass out from terror at any given moment, while Stacey fairly vibrated with barely suppressed excitement.
“This is going to be amazing,” she told him. “I’ve got it all thought out. It’s perfect.”
“Yeah, okay, but how do we even know he’s in there? Maybe he goes out to a restaurant for lunch or something like that.”
Robbie wasn’t really sure whether principals got lunch breaks, or whether they were allowed to leave school if they did get them, but he didn’t want to admit that he didn’t know. He already felt that it wasn’t quite right that Stacey had come up with the plan for today and not him.
Stacey shook her head and grinned. “Already thought of that. Principal Carmichael brings his lunch to work, everyday, no matter what. My friend Heather—she’s been in trouble a few times, gotten sent to the principal’s office. Every time she’s gotten sent there during lunch, he’s been in there.”
Robbie raised an eyebrow. “Who’s Heather?”
“Heather Malone? You know Heather. She’s in our gym class.”
Robbie thought. “The big girl?” he asked after a moment. “Brown hair? Looks like a biker?”“You don’t even know what a biker looks like, I bet. But yeah, that’s Heather.”
“Okay, so according to Heather Malone,” said Robbie, “Principal Carmichael should be in there. But how do we get rid of his secretary? Because you know, if she sees us, we’re screwed.”
“Got you covered there, too. Heather is going to help us with the old lady.”
“Yes, really. Heather should already be in there.” Stacey rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. Her nostrils flared. “In exchange for me doing her math homework all next week, she’s going to beg the secretary to come look at a broken toilet in the girls’ bathroom.”
“I didn’t know the toilet was broken.”
Stacey grinned. “It isn’t.”
Before Robbie could offer any further protest, the door to the main office swung open, and the Mrs. Sanders, a woman who resembled nothing so much as a turkey buzzard, strode out into the hall. Heather Malone, tall and broad-shouldered, lurched along behind her. The secretary grumbled about not being “a janitor or plumber,” and Heather nodded placidly. Neither of them noticed Stacey or Robbie as they headed down the hall in the opposite direction.
The two spies waited a few moments more before standing up. Then, just as Stacey placed her hand on the main office door, they heard someone behind them gently clearing his throat. Both students whirled around to find Mr. Jacobson, the lanky art teacher, standing just a few feet away.
“So,” said Mr. Jacobson, smiling in a vaguely unpleasant way, “you two aren’t getting into any trouble, are you? I’d hate to see good kids like you get in trouble.”
“Oh, no. We’re just, um ...”
“We’re waiting for Mrs. Sanders to get back,” said Stacey without missing a beat. “There’s problems in the bathrooms—something with the plumbing and back-ups, I think—and we could smell the—”
Jacobson wrinkled his nose and rapidly shook his head, as though doing so might knock Stacey’s words right out of his brain. “Right, he said, continuing on his way to the teachers’ lounge. “Forget I asked.”
The two let out their breath in sighs of relief. Robbie turned to Stacey with wondering eyes. “You’re really good at lying. How’d you get so good?”
Stacey shrugged noncommittally. “It’s useful, sometimes,” was all she said.
They slipped into the main office and past the secretary’s empty desk. As they crept closer to the door that led to Principal Carmichael’s inner office, Robbie listened to the loud beating of his own heart. They approached the door and found it already opened a crack. Together they peered inside. Principal Carmichael was indeed sitting at his desk, eating a banana. But, to both Robbie’s and Stacey’s surprise, Principal Carmichael was not alone. Dr. Elliot Maddox was also in the room, sitting across from Carmichael, his feet propped up on the desk.
“Well, sure am glad you could get away from the office today,” Carmichael was saying.
“You and me both.” Dr. Maddox held up the bag of chips he was eating. “Sad to say, but this is a hell of a lot better than what I usually have for lunch.”
Both men laughed.
After a short silence, Carmichael said, “Been meaning to ask—how’s that whole mess with the Klein boy’s father coming along?”
Maddox groaned. “Oh God, I hate malpractice cases. They’re such a pain. But at least this one’s over.” He put his hands behind his head. “Brown won, of course. The boy’s father had no case, and the judge knew it. Ruled in favor of the hospital.”
“Hey, Duke, that’s great. I’m real glad for you.”
“Well, it’s no nevermind to me. If it’d gone the other way, we could’ve gotten rid of Brown easy enough. Of course, now the father’s talking about an appeal, nonsense like that. Which means Brown taking off enough more time from work and me taking over even more of his damn appointments.” The doctor pointed a finger at the principal. “You know, the man’s brother is one of your teachers. Can’t you just tell him to call off his brother?”
“Wish I could, but it’s not that easy. Teachers’ union would eat me alive.” He smiled and added, “Listen, though. What I can do—and will do—is have a little chat with Gerald. Something low-key, one-on-one. It’s worth a shot, anyway.”
“Good. I’d really appreciate it, Nick.”
In the relative safety outer office, Robbie and Stacey turned and looked at each other. Stacey frowned slightly, obviously confused by what they’d just heard, but Robbie understood. Feeling that they’d heard enough, he jerked his head toward the hallway. to indicate that they should go. Quietly they tiptoed back out the way they had entered.
Once safely in the hall, Stacey let out a whoop and broke into hysterical, gleeful laughter. Robbie closed his eyes and tried to ignore the tickle of a cold drop of sweat trickling slowly down his back. But his eyes popped back open a second later when he heard a loud, irritated voice shout out:
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Mrs. Sanders stood just a few yards away from them, her eyes narrowed dangerously, Heather still at her side. She didn’t look happy, probably because she’d just dealt with a false alarm of toilet malfunction.
Heather met Stacey’s eyes, blinked once, and then turned and ran. The tall girl thundered down the hallway at a speed her detractors would not thought her capable of.
Stacey, in turn, knew a good idea when she saw one. She grabbed Robbie’s hand and sprinted in the opposite direction, dragging Robbie along with her. Behind them, the secretary grumbled some more but made no efforts to pursue them. The two amateur spies didn’t stop running until they’d reached Mr. Klein’s room and slammed shut the door behind them.
Klein stared at his two students, startled by their disheveled state but afraid to ask just what they’d been up to.
“Oh, my God!” Stacey laughed again, a high, cackling laugh. “That was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done!”
“Stacey! We almost got caught!”
“I know! It was great!”