Tuesday, October 31, 2017
An October Moment
This is not my ghost story. It’s someone else’s.
I was in third grade, a school year I remember with a special if fleeting fondness, because that was the year I got to sit by the window. Our school was an old and venerable building with many fine decorative touches, but not well designed with regard to ventilation. It had no air conditioning, of course, and each classroom had only a couple of windows. The first month of school, when September still carries the hot authority of summer, the classrooms were stifling, so it was quite a perk to be assigned a seat near the window.
And our third grade classroom had the finest windows in the school. For one thing, they were huge--you could have winched a king-size bed through them. For another, they drew in an excellent cross breeze when our classroom door was open. And when September gave way to October, there was no more wonderfully excruciating place in the world to sit, snug in your classroom, surrounded by your playmates, your body firmly planted in a world of order and safety. Your spirit, though, could only pay attention to the wind, bringing you the first hint of cold, the perfume of sweet decay, the faintest taste of wood smoke from a distant burning brush pile. You’d turn your face to that wind and gaze out at the world and want nothing more than to be out in it.
From the third-grade windows, the world that you could see was the rolling field behind the school, a sward of fading green, dotted at intervals by towering maples and a few ancient apple trees. The field, tragically, was largely off-limits. In the spring, when the weather was nice, we were sometimes allowed out there for school picnics or science activities like collecting bugs, but only under the supervision of at least two teachers, and we always confined our activities to within 20 feet of the school.
We all knew why: The field was treacherous. Our teachers told us that there was a boarded-over well out there, somewhere, unmarked. School lore held that once, a long time ago, a little girl had been playing in that field, fell through the rotted boards of the well, and drowned. The seventh and eighth grade kids had a further embellishment to the story. The real reason the field was out of bounds, they told us, was because it was haunted by the ghost of the little girl. Many big kids swore--crossed-their-hearts-and-hoped-to-die swore, so you knew it was true--that they had even seen her, lurching through the field on a foggy morning, or peeking up at the school from behind a tree, her face a puckered, flyblown mask of unholy evil, angry at her own early death, waiting for some unsuspecting little kid to wander out there. Whereupon, we were assured, she would “grab you and suck out your soul and live in your body and then you would be the ghost,” to quote an eighth grade boy I knew only as Crazy Arthur. Crazy or not, Arthur’s words made quite an impression. Four decades later, they still give me a chill.
So we stayed out of the field, but it exerted a powerful hold on our imaginations, the way hazards (especially supernatural hazards) will when you’re a child. At least a couple of times a year, usually on blustery and rainswept days, you’d hear reports from classrooms on the field side of the school: Someone had seen the Drowned Girl, flying across the field or staring with beady eyes from the branches of a maple tree. Never mind that the teachers said it was a page of blowing newspaper or the glittering stare of a bird in the tree. We knew.
Now here I was in third grade, finally on the field side of the school with a good view from my awesome window. And I looked out on that field constantly, hoping that I’d see the Drowned Girl, but worrying that I’d see her too. I imagined that eye contact might set her off. I’d spot her gliding across the field. She’d stop, turn, see me looking at her and come flying straight to my window with unnatural speed. Before I could emit so much as a startled fart, she’d muckle onto me and suck me right out the window, soul and all. The only evidence of my departure would be the fluttering pages of my math workbook on my desk, which the Drowned Girl—now living in my body—would smooth out with her ungodly hand. The one silver lining in that scenario would be that she would have to do my long division assignments and I’d be free from homework forever. But eternal damnation seemed a steep price to pay for that kind of freedom.
So I kept an anxious and fascinated watch. Misty mornings and dark, rainy afternoons seemed like the best time to spot her and then I’d scan the field carefully, warily, ready to avert my eyes if I saw a shape emerge from the fog or from behind a tree, looking to make eye contact and stake a claim on my sweaty corporeal self. It occupied so much of my attention that in parent-teacher meetings that fall, my teacher informed my mother that I was “easily distracted.” Well, you would be distracted too if you thought the school grounds harbored a soul-sucking ghost-child with a grudge. But I never actually saw the Drowned Girl.
Nicole did, though.
Nicole was a tall, quiet girl in my class. I didn’t know her very well then so you shouldn’t be surprised that my mental notecard on her now is pretty spare (taller than me, black hair, yellow sweater). She barely ever spoke in class, at least until this one week in late October when she wouldn’t shut up.
On Monday, she was late for school, late enough that her mother had to walk her in. We could hear her coming—her sobbing echoed down the hallway. I’m sure people looked up, but not me. I registered the noise, but Mr. Sensitive here was looking out the window again. It had rained a lot over the weekend and a scrim of fog hung low over the back field—prime viewing conditions for the Drowned Girl, I felt.
Then Nicole and her mom stepped into the classroom (I wasn’t looking, but based on the commotion, I like to imagine her mother dragging Nicole in by her feet while the girl’s fingers left grooves in the hallway carpet.). Once inside, Nicole really commenced to blubber, but in between sobs, she said, very loudly, very clearly. “I SAW HER!”
I turned then, boy. And I knew exactly whom she must have seen.
It took a while to get Nicole settled at her desk, but after her mom departed and she went through about half a box of Kleenex, Nicole told everyone what I already knew. She had seen the Drowned Girl.
But in a dream, as it turned out. “I was here and she was right out back,” Nicole said, pointing a skinny long arm in the direction of me and my window. “And she was looking right at me. She had flies and boogers on her face. And then she waggled her finger at me like this.” Nicole crooked her hand into a fist, extended a bony index finger and made the universal “come here” gesture. “And then I woke up.” Nicole took a shuddery breath, then looked around the room. “She wants to make me dead,” she said.
For just a moment, I was sitting in the quietest third-grade classroom on the planet.
We decided as a group there and then that we were not going out for recess.
This went on for about three days. I don’t know whether Nicole had the same dream every night or was still haunted by the one dream, but each morning she’d come in crying, she’d tell us about her dream and remained resolute that she was not going out back for recess ever again. And we didn’t go either, none of us. Now, my memory’s not what it used to be, but I have a hard time believing that a room full of children could be so induced to stay indoors voluntarily for three days. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that it rained off and on that week and it’s likely that our teacher just kept us indoors because of bad weather. But the fact remains that we didn’t go out back. And I lost all interest in looking out that window.
Something about Nicole’s dream—the way she told it, over and over again, never varying in detail—unleashed a powerful apprehension in my mind, to the point that I couldn’t bear even to see the window in my peripheral vision. I sat sideways in my chair, almost facing the row next to me, my workbook all but in my lap, so great was my nervousness about that window. Because I believed in the magnetic power of evil. I believed that if I looked in the direction of that window, I’d be compelled to crane my neck and look out. And there she’d be, perhaps hovering just beneath the sill, boogers and all, waiting to jump into my body and make me the ghost.
Wednesday was a sunny day, I remember that. I remember that we were getting ready to go outside for morning recess. Not Nicole—she was firm in her conviction that she was going to stay indoors more or less forever. I think a couple of other girls were going to stay with her, and probably our teacher’s assistant. The rest of us were grabbing jackets and getting ready to go out, but slowly. Getting our class ready to go outside was like herding cats. We were always late. The big kids were already out back—I could hear them through the window I was no longer looking out of.
And Henry, the boy who sat behind me, said a funny thing for a third grader. He said: “Holy shit!”
Then we heard the screams.
Well, we all looked out the window then, even me.
All of the big kids were running back towards the school. I spotted Crazy Arthur, of all people. He was covered in mud to his knees and one of his shoes was gone. Teachers were hollering, blowing whistles, all pushing and shoving everyone up the steps and back into school.
And just behind them we saw the sinkhole.
I didn’t know that word then. I just remember the field looking different. What I first thought was a great track of mud in the grass was actually a crack in the earth. And we could see it widening, right before our eyes, like a magic trick. By the end of the day, the sinkhole went almost up to the foundations of the school and had widened to the size of a modest pond. Tree roots from some of the old maples were exposed and later they had to be cut down.
It was not a natural sinkhole. As I learned much later, that field was home to an enormous and ancient septic tank, one that was years overdue in being replaced. That’s why we couldn’t play out there. But between the rain of that week and its already overtaxed state, it broke open. Water and sewage went pouring out the side of an embankment on the other side of the school and the ancient tank collapsed in upon itself. But there was plenty of effluent still on site. Crazy Arthur wasn’t covered in mud, let me tell you. The important thing is that no one was hurt, but it was a bit of a close call. It happened so fast that one of the teachers and a couple of kids almost fell in. Things might have been different had there been more kids out there.
We kept the windows shut tight for months afterward, although I overcame my aversion to looking out the window, especially when the giant earthmoving equipment started coming in and doing interesting things to the landscape before winter set in. By spring, the field was more or less back to normal, although missing a few trees. We still weren’t allowed out there, but only because landscapers had reseeded the grass. It grew lusciously thick, as I recall.
So the boarded-up well was a fiction, I guess, the more palatable alternative to telling parents and children that a great vault of sewage sat out in the back of the school and that it probably wasn’t a good idea to play freeze tag or touch football on top of it. I suppose the Drowned Girl was a fiction too, a highly localized fable whose purpose was to keep children safe. Although even after the sinkhole, the older kids were still telling us the ghost was real.
Many, many years later, because it’s my job and my compulsion to want to know things, I did some research on the building that served as our school. It had once been the mansion of a textile magnate back in the 1800s, but at some point he lost his fortune. He lost his young daughter, too: She died of scarlet fever in that house. So I wonder.
I wonder if Nicole remembers the dream about the Drowned Girl. I wonder if she tells her children about the spirit who came to her in a dream and made her to stay indoors. And how that dream saved her and all her friends from injury, maybe death, certainly the need to buy new shoes. I guess I’ll never know.
After all, this is not my ghost story.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Friday, January 11, 2013
Farewell Fiction Friday (for now)
Okay, well I know I went back on my word last time, but this really will be the last chapter for now. By my estimate, I've posted about a quarter of the book, which I think is a pretty good amount. But I've reached a point where I've got some tweaks and changes to make in the narrative before any more of this sees the light of day. Hope you understand.
I'll be back soon, with some nonfiction for a change. I imagine for some of you, that will be refreshing.
Thanks for reading:
A Little Giant Clue
Ben didn't dream about the missing girl that night—or if he did, he didn't remember doing it. Instead, he dreamt that he was in the library's rare book room, holding the metal-bound edition of the Steel Sterling mystery he'd seen the day before. He was trying to put it back on the shelf, but it was too heavy. Finally, he heaved it on the shelf with a bang. Immediately, alarms started buzzing, both from speakers on the walls and from his leg. He looked down: A clock was strapped to his ankle and it was flashing. The heavy door to the main library swung shut, trapping him in the vault. Lights started flashing. A voice boomed over a loudspeaker. It said "
, you've been caught breaking and
entering again. It's Hard Knocks camp for you, buddy. Stay where you are. Greg
Grindle is coming to kick your butt!" Benjamin Bridge
Ben jolted awake at this, but the alarm was still buzzing in his ears. For a second, Ben didn't know where he was. The room was dark, just a very faint light filtering in from the window. Then Ben saw his Gamehound on the desk, its screen flashing the time: .
Ben crawled out of bed and snapped the lid of the Gamehound shut. Instantly the buzzing stopped. An alarm clock was one of the many useful programs Oz had loaded into his game unit, but at this hour of the morning, Ben didn't feel at all like thanking his roommate for it. He looked over with envy at Oz, who was snoring contentedly away on his bed.
Rubbing his eyes, Ben stumbled around the room, pulling on clothes, then shoes, as he found them. In a moment, he was out in the hall, giving the door a satisfying slam as he did. Why should I be the only one awake? He thought.
The sun was coming up through a haze of clouds as Ben stepped out the door and started across the quad. It was cool out and everywhere, thin tendrils of mist floated inches above the ground. Ben strode across the grass and almost immediately wished he hadn't—early morning dew was soaking through the tops of his sneakers. Then he heard it: A slow measured beeping sound, different from the one in his dreams. He looked down and lifted his pant leg: The ankle monitor was showing a yellow light and giving off those measured warning tones. Ben felt his pulse rise and looked guiltily around, as though expecting police to come bursting out of the buildings and surround him.
He shook his head. Zoltan had said something the night before about the bracelets going out of curfew mode at, what? Seven? Obviously, the school's resident security and computer expert had not factored in Ben's job.
Ben didn't know how long he had before the ankle bracelet shifted out of warning mode to full-on send-in-the-SWAT-team mode, but there was only one thing he could think to do: Find the adult he was supposed to report to, then get up to the main building to get them to call in a false alarm, or whatever it was they were supposed to do. He squelched miserably along until he came to the gravel road that led from behind the main building. He followed it down the hill until he saw the building he was looking for: a red brick shed standing bright in the mist.
He went to the battered wooden door on one side and knocked. No answer. He tried to peer through the cracked window, but it had been papered over. He knocked again. Nothing, no sound. Well, except for the steady beeping from the monitor. It was distracting and worrisome.
Sighing hugely, Ben walked around the building. On the other side, he found a metal garage door, raised up just a couple of feet. He crouched down and peered in. "Hello?" he called.
Hearing no response, Ben checked his watch. It was already past 6. Ben scooted under the door and stood up.
The garage was almost pitch black, but the smell of the place made him relax instantly. He had been expecting the smell of garbage (the truck was certainly giving off plenty of that funky odor), but in here he caught only the smell of dust and oil. It reminded him of his Grandpa's workshop.
After a moment, his eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings and Ben realized there was some light in here, off in a corner. He headed that way and immediately wished he hadn't. His foot collided with something low and unyielding on the floor and Ben fell forward, landing on a pile of what sounded—and felt—like old metal and glass, judging from the massive crash and tinkle that followed.
"Hey now! Hey now! Who's sneaking around in here?" a voice shouted.
A moment later, several large fluorescent lights flickered to life and Ben found himself sprawled uncomfortably on a pile of green copper pipes. Nearby, an old mason jar—not broken, thank goodness—rolled on the floor, nuts and bolts cascading out of it and rattling on the cement surface of the garage. A shadow fell over Ben and he looked up.
Reynard looked much taller than he actually was as he stood over Ben. His sun-weathered face was contorted into a grimace of annoyance.
"Sorry, sorry," Ben said, trying to get to his feet. The little giant continued to glare at him, saying nothing. Nervously, Ben extended his hand.
"I'm, uh, I'm Ben.
. I'm supposed to help you, Mr.
Reynard." Ben Bridge
The man looked down at Ben's hand, but didn't move to take it. "What is that? You bring your alarm clock with you?" Ben lifted his pant leg and showed him the blinking bracelet. At that exact moment, the yellow light on the monitor box shifted to red and slow beeping tone sped up.
"It went off as soon as I stepped out of Doyle," he started, then stopped, all his words drying up under the man's harsh gaze.
Reynard glowered at Ben for a moment longer, then said, "You're late."
"Sorry. I did try—"
"Door's locked. Key's long gone. Garage is the only way in. And you're wrong."
Ben stood stupidly, his hand still held out. "Sorry?" he said again.
"It's not 'Mr. Reynard,'" he sneered, turning away. "Just 'Reynard' will do."
"Oh," Ben said. "Is-is that your first name? Or-?"
"I'll tell you when I know you better."
Reynard picked up a wooden crate and heaved it onto a work bench near the door. He began piling things into it—a giant roll of plastic trash bags, a metal brush, other odds and ends. He seemed to be ignoring Ben completely. Ben put his hand down. The incessant beeping was very loud in the enclosed space.
"Well?" Reynard said, still piling things into his crate. "You going to pick up the mess you made of my scrap pile? Don't expect me to clean it up for you."
Ben almost said "sorry" again, but instead decided it was smarter to shut up. He bent down and began pulling the various copper pipes back together, although he had no idea how tidy the pile had been before. In the end, he just stacked them as best he could. As he did this, he had a furtive look around.
The brick shed seemed much bigger on the inside than it did on the outside. The garage bay was cavernous, big enough to accommodate the dump truck. Or it would have been, if it wasn't filled with junk. The copper pipes appeared to be just one of a whole family of scrap piles, some of brass fittings and doorknobs, some of lumber. Several tables stood all around the walls, each one covered with odds and ends: old radios and telephones, broken cameras, rows of cracked cups and china.
The walls were lined with shovels, rakes, and, was that a horse bridle hanging there? Yes, it was, right next to what looked like a bullwhip straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Ben craned his neck behind him and saw that another small wooden door led to a cramped office full of old wooden filing cabinets and a sprung metal chair.
Ben began collecting the nuts and bolts off the floor, when he spotted something dangling from the nearest table: an enormous horseshoe magnet. Ben grabbed it.
"Hey now! Did I say you could touch my lucky magnet?"
Reynard had spoken so sharply, Ben jumped, dropping the magnet. Immediately, several nuts and bolts on the floor attached itself to it.
"Not even here five minutes and he's stealing my stuff!" the man muttered to himself.
"I'm not stealing it. I just thought I'd pick up the—"
"Not without asking, you don't!" Reynard said. He had packed his crate and was now turning to give Ben his full attention.
"Okay," Ben said. "May I please use your magnet?"
Reynard shook his head. "Nope. Get those nuts and bolts off it and hang it back up. Right-side up too. Or all the luck will run out!"
Ben almost laughed at this, but one look at the little giant's face and he stifled the laugh.
"Use the small round magnet, there on the table," Reynard said. Ben hung the horseshoe magnet carefully in its place, then picked up the heavy disc on the tabletop. It was smaller, but just as strong as the horseshoe and Ben made short work of gathering up the nuts and bolts and putting them back in the jar. The magnet's owner watched him.
"How come someone smart enough to use a magnet to pick up screws is dumb enough to get in trouble with the law?" he asked gruffly.
"I dunno," Ben said. "It was a stupid mistake. I'm not a thief."
"Not what the papers said," Reynard answered back. "Yep, I can read. Know all about you. Bad enough they think I need help hauling trash. They gotta saddle me with a juvenile delinquent too. Complete with his own noisemaker, too."
Ben said nothing, but his faced burned. He swallowed his anger, then with an effort of will, looked up and stared Reynard in the eye. The man was only a few inches taller than he was, but to Ben, at this moment, he really did seem to tower over him.
"What would you like me to do next, Mr. Reynard?" he asked. He meant it politely, but for a second he caught a flash in the man's eyes and realized his error. Having already told him he was wrong to call him "Mr. Reynard," the school garbageman must have thought he was mouthing off.
"Just Reynard will do, Mister Man," he said. "Now take this crate out to the truck."
It took Ben a couple of struggling minutes, but he managed to shove the box under the garage door, then pick it up and muscle it up onto the edge of the tailgate. With a final effort, he heaved it into the bed of the dumper, and it landed with a metallic bang, echoing the sound the book had made in his dream.
Reynard followed, yanking the garage door down behind him. "Oh, good. Right in the back of the truck where it'll spill out and get garbage all over it. Now put it in the cab."
In the time it took Ben to cart it around to the passenger side, Reynard was already in the driver's seat and kicked open the door on Ben's side with one foot. Ben gasped and panted, trying to load the crate into the cab, but it was too high for him. Finally, with an exasperated grunt, Reynard reached over and grabbed the edge of the crate, hauling it—and Ben, who was still holding on—effortlessly into the cab.
"Where's your muscle, Mister Man? How much can you lift anyway?"
"I dunno," Ben said, clambering onto the bench seat and pulling the door shut.
"What do you weigh, anyhow? Hundred pounds? Ninety-eight? Bet you can't even lift your own weight. Man should be able to lift his own weight. I weigh close on to 250 pounds, Mister Man, and I can lift that and more, you better believe it."
Reynard turned the key and after an extended grinding and chuffing, the ancient truck coughed to life. Raynard revved it for a good long while, the truck belching clouds of black oily smoke into the fading white mist. Finally, when Reynard was satisfied that the truck was good and warmed up, he shifted into gear and the truck lurched ahead with a groan. They rolled down to a metal gate which Ben understood to be the service entrance to Sherrinford. For a moment Ben thought they were going to plow right through it, but at the last instant, Reynard pulled the wheel hard to one side and they made a U-turn.
"So this is the job," Reynard said. "We haul trash and that's it. The end. We do the head office first. We empty all the trash cans in the business office, the computer room, Mr. Reston's office, the Dean's office, all of 'em. Take out the old bags, put fresh ones in. We do them first while we still smell good. Then we do the cafeteria, and the kitchen and Mister Man, that's smelly. They're supposed to put all the trash from last night's supper out into the Dumpster, but they don't always. And sometimes kids sneak in there for a snack and throw their mess away. They think no one knows about it, but the rubbish man knows all, and don't you forget it. Then we do the Dumpsters. Don't matter what's in the Dumpsters, we take it, throw it in back. I don't care if it's a foofy princess dress or a maggoty raccoon carcass, we muckle onto it, wing it in the back and take it to the landfill. You with me so far?"
"Jeez I hope so, because this isn't rocket science. We do the classrooms next—they're real good about putting stuff in the Dumpsters at night so we don't need to go in so much, unless we get called on a special job. We do the dorms last—there's a big trash can on every floor and a Dumpster out back for each. Whatever's in there—this side of a human body—we haul it away. That's the job, and it's simple, so there shouldn't be any questions." He paused a beat. "Any questions?"
Ben didn't have any.
They roared up to the back of the main building, where the back door was already propped open. Reynard handed Ben the roll of trash bags and led the way inside.
"I should probably talk to someone about this," Ben said, waggling his leg and the endlessly beeping monitor.
Reynard shrugged. "Worried that the bloodhounds are coming for you?" he snorted. "Needs to be rest, that's all. Old Zoltan forgot you were working for me, not sleeping in." And without another word, he strode down the hall.
The business office area was cramped, mostly cubicles and open desks with computer terminals on top. With a grimace of someone about to undertake an unpleasant task, Reynard went over to one of the terminals and began stabbing at the keyboard with two calloused fingers, swearing quietly as he did. Ben stood on tip-toes and peered over his shoulder. Reynard was in the school network and clicking his way clumsily through a series of windows until he opened an application that pulled up a screen with a list of names. Ben realized he was looking at the monitoring system, for next to almost every name was a green light. The one exception was a name near the top of the list. The light next to it was flashing red and a pop-up window kept flashing next to that, showing the word "INFRACTION" in bright red, with a date and time listed beneath it.
Alternately sighing and swearing, Reynard clicked on Ben's name, then stabbed some more at the keyboard. Then he reached into his pocket—as he did he turned and favored Ben with another glare—and turned back to the computer, hunched over so Ben couldn't see what he was doing. "Mind your business, Mister Man, while I enter this password and shut that almighty thing off," he growled.
Ben turned and backed up a couple of steps. As he did, the beeping stopped. Ben looked down and noticed that the ankle bracelet light was once again a soothing green.
"There!" Reynard huffed, glad to have his unpleasant task over with. As he turned away from the screen, Ben caught one last glimpse of his name. Next to it, there was no red or green light, just a single word: DISABLED. Did that mean what he thought it meant?
"Thought I told you to mind your business!" Reynard spat at him.
Ben pointed. "You-you forgot to shut the program off," he said. "Anyone could get in and mess with it."
Reynard glared at him some more, his nostrils flaring. "Well, well, a thief and a computer expert!" he grumbled. He gestured for Ben to start emptying trash baskets while the man himself turned back to the computer and fiddled with the keyboard some more, evidently closing the program. Then Reynard disappeared through an archway that led to a carpeted hall lined with shining wooden doors. It looked much fancier in there and Ben guessed that was where Dean Taras and Mr. Reston and a few others had their offices.
By the time Reynard returned, Ben had all of the trash collected from the cubicles. The little giant hurled a bag at Ben, which he caught just before it hit him full in the face.
"You discipline cases must be worrying Hawksmoor some. His ulcer's bothering him again," Reynard said.
Ben glanced at his watch. It wasn't even 7 yet. "He's here already? What time do the teachers come in, anyway?"
Reynard gave him another glare. "Here? Hawksmoor isn't here. Man's got an important job in the city. He just flies in with Oscar on certain days."
"I guess you didn't hear me when I said there shouldn't be a need for questions," Reynard said curtly, and without another word, he led Ben out of the business office and into the computer lab.
The lab reminded Ben of his school—he supposed computer labs everywhere looked a bit like this—a row of desktops of varying size and age, with blue plastic chairs in front of every one. It was harder to get to the trash cans here. Several more boxes of printer paper were stacked along the walls and between the desks.
"Get back there and empty those buckets," Reynard said, pointing. Ben did as he was told, threading his way around chairs and boxes. He emptied the buckets, but on the last one, by a computer terminal in the farthest corner, he found several crumpled sheets of paper stuck between the trash can and a heavy color printer. He glanced absently at them—a few smeary emails that hadn't printed correctly, a list of cheat codes for a popular online game. He smiled a little when he grabbed the last errant piece of paper. It was a partially printed list of late entrants to the school and Toby's name was there. He was probably still sleeping up in the secret room, he realized. Why couldn't I get the library as my job, Ben wondered.
And so it went, with Reynard barking at Ben and Ben hauling trash, next from the cafeteria (gross) and then from the kitchen (super gross). But the worst was the Dumpster behind the kitchen. A bag was stuck at the bottom and Reynard made him climb inside to retrieve it, something he did only after slopping most of its contents (sour milk and mac and cheese) down his front.
Reynard kept up a regular string of chatter, alternating between gruff instruction and muttering comments of one kind or another to no one in particular, certainly not to Ben, who he barely looked at.
"Oho, I guess Grindle was sneaking around here last night," he said once when they were in the kitchen, or "Well, well, that explains a considerable lot," he said another time, as they emptied the bathroom trash (also super gross). Ben thought Reynard must have a lonely job, milling around the school before everyone was up, and so had fallen into the habit of talking to himself. You'd think he'd like a little company, Ben thought. But Reynard seemed to take no notice of Ben, except to make him the target of various insults and orders.
Finally, as the long hand on Ben's watch slowly crept toward 7, and the moment when he could make his escape (and take a shower, he thought gratefully), they made their way from the classroom building and the library over to the dorms. Ben was anxious to finish up and was leading the way to the girls' dorm when Reynard put a massive hand on his collar and pulled him back.
"You hold up there, Mister Man, where you think you're heading? Into the girls' dorm? I don't think much of that. You go empty the buckets on the floors over in Doyle. You thought the kitchen Dumpsters were bad. You try emptying the muck in a boys' dormitory. You meet me down by the Dumpster in back and I guess that'll wrap you up for today."
Ben ripped several bags off the dwindling roll and stomped over to Doyle Hall. His neck felt burned where the collar of his shirt had bitten into it. He hated when people grabbed him by his shirt collar. It was what bullies did. It was what Grindle did when he grabbed Oz on the bus. And I have to work for this guy for the whole summer? Ben thought.
And it was in this dark frame of mind that Ben made his way from the top of Doyle all the way down, floor by floor. By the time he reached the basement, he was lugging several overstuffed bags of trash. And Reynard had been right about them being mucky. More sour milk, this time mixed with flat soda, sloshed around in more than one bag. Ben caught a break in the basement—that trash bucket was already empty, so he hauled everything else out to the back, then reached into the Dumpster. He was almost all the way in, legs dangling out, to get one last bag, when he heard the roar of the dump truck and Reynard was there.
"You sure you got every bucket emptied?" he asked critically.
"Yes," Ben grunted, his voice echoing dully from the interior of the Dumpster. He was trying to grab one last bag, at the very bottom, but it was snagged on a bolt poking out from the bottom of the container.
"I don't know," Reynard said. "That seemed a little quick to me. I'm counting these here bags."
Ben sighed in disgust. He meant it to be quiet, but the echo of the Dumpster made it sound like a groan.
"Don't gripe at me, Mister Man," Reynard said. "I didn't ask to have a helper, specially not a man who can't even lift his own weight. What's keeping you in there? You planning to move in or what?"
"It's stuck!" Ben grunted. And it was. That last bag wasn't coming loose for anything.
"Oh for the luvva Mike, get out and I'll grab it. I swear—"
Ben felt the hand on the back of his shirt again, and decided that was it. With a mighty heave, he pushed himself back out of the Dumpster and whirled on the little giant.
"Don't touch me!" he shouted, surprising himself. But what surprised him even more was that the man took a step back. They stared at each other for a moment.
"I just—I don't like being grabbed. I was trying to get the last bag out and—I don't like being grabbed," Ben said again.
Reynard stared at him a moment longer, but his face didn't seem so stern now. Then he gave a small nod. "Well, that's fair enough, I guess," he said, then he walked over to the Dumpster and scrambled over the side.
"Yep," he said to no one in particular, "it's good and stuck. But I'll get er—" And with a mild grunt, Reynard pulled up, tossing the bag out onto the ground.
The bag had ripped as it came loose. Garbage spilled onto the dirt in front of Ben: old soda cans, crumpled paper airplanes, a sodden pizza box. As Reynard clambered back out of the Dumpster, Ben was already tearing a fresh bag off the roll to collect the scattered refuse. Then he stopped and stared.
There on the ground, Ben saw something he didn't expect to see falling out of a trash bag from a boys' dormitory: a flash of pink. The balled-up object looked a little like a giant wad of bubble gum. Ben nudged it experimentally with his foot and it unfurled.
It was a pink tie-dye t-shirt. With a peace symbol on it.
It was Briana Tanner's shirt.
And it was covered with dark red bloodstains.
Friday, January 04, 2013
Fiction Friday Fakeout!
Ah, what the hell:
The Lay of the Land
Back at Doyle Hall, the boys were buzzing about Briana Tanner. Several boys—new and returning students alike—had questioned both Ben and Oz and other new kids who had ridden on one of the shuttles.
"Her parents didn't drop her off?" Teddy asked one of the older boys, who was roaming around the halls, a clipboard in his hand. Teddy had explained that most returning students were driven here by their parents, who themselves had often been former students, and enjoyed the chance to come up and see their old summer stomping grounds.
The older boy shook his head. "Nope," he said, consulting his clipboard, which contained a fresh memo from the Dean. "Her mom put her on a train this morning. Dean Taras says she should have been on one of the afternoon shuttles."
Ben nodded. "We were on the second one." He wracked his brain. There had been some girls on the shuttle, but he had taken no notice of them. "I guess she could have been on there, but I don't know. What's she look like?"
The older boy scowled again at his clipboard. "Girl, 12 years old. Strawberry-blonde hair in pigtails. Wearing blue jeans, white sneakers, and—" he squinted, then read aloud, "—and a pink tie-dye t-shirt with a peace symbol on it." Sound like anyone you saw?" he asked, looking from Ben to Oz.
Oz looked nonplussed. "I wasn't really looking at the girls," he muttered. "We were the last ones on the shuttle anyway, and there was—" he looked over at Ben. "—there were some distractions."
"You ought to ask Toby," Ben suggested, thinking back to how observant their new friend had been, how quickly he had spotted that Ben and Oz had opened that locked door in their room. "He was on the bus before we were." Ben looked around quickly, but couldn't see Toby anywhere in the crowd.
"How do we know she's even here anyway?" Oz asked. "Maybe something happened to her on the train."
"Or-or in the station. You know, like maybe someone jumped her in the bathroom or—" Teddy said.
"Or maybe she made it here but went exploring, maybe in one of the condemned buildings and got hurt—" Ben added.
The older boy scowled at them. "What do I look like, I care? You know, the detective thing everyone does around here gets lame after a couple years. You'll see."
Teddy frowned. "Tina says—"
"Yeah, well Tina might like the mystery crap, but the rest of us just come here to get away from our parents, see our friends. You'll see. Mean time, the Dean says I gotta ask around about this missing kid, so I'm gonna do it, get her off my back." He glowered at them a moment more, as though it was their fault he had to search for a missing girl, then went off down the hall. Teddy followed Ben and Oz up to their room.
"That's not true you know, what that doof said," Teddy insisted. "A lot of kids come here because of the stuff they learn. It's a big deal. People who went here as kids went on to be, like, FBI agents and famous crime writers. And TV reporters that catch Internet stalkers and stuff. He's just a loser."
"Like Grindle?" Oz asked.
"One of his buddies, yeah,"
They stepped into the room. Teddy looked around appraisingly. "My room's wider, but not by much. And we don't have an extra door. Wh-where's that go?"
Without thinking about it, Ben kicked his duffel into the corner, covering the scuff marks Toby had noticed earlier. He hunched down and began unzipping his bag. "No idea," he lied.
"It's locked," Oz added quickly.
If Teddy caught the tension in their voices, he didn't let on. "Yeah," he said, "there's a lot of locked doors around here. Maintenance closets and service hallways and stuff. When this was an academy in the olden days, they had maids and everything." He flopped on one of the beds as Ben and Oz finished unpacking, then sat up straight. "Hey, about that girl! I— I wonder if this is it!"
"If this is what?" Ben asked, pulling clothes out of his duffel.
"The school mystery!"
Ben and Oz stopped and looked at him.
"Tina told me all about them. They can be pretty lame some years—mostly like a scavenger hunt or-or something. But usually they're pretty awesome. The teachers take turns planning them and they do something different every summer. One year, the writing guy, Mr. Nolte, hid out for the whole summer," Teddy went on. "No one could find him. You came into his class and there would be a stack of assignments and an old tape recorder with a message from him. Or he'd have a computer set up with a Web cam and teach classes that way. Kids went nuts trying to figure out clues from the recording, taking screen shots of the Web cam video, trying to zoom in on details in the background of the images, thinking they could figure out where he was. He left clues in the library when kids went to research their assignments. It-it was pretty cool."
"Where was he?" Oz asked.
"Well, everyone thought he was hiding out in one of the closed-up dorms, but that's against the rules. Safety reasons. Tina and Greg, they thought they tracked him down to
, the magic camp across the valley.
They found out Mr. Nolte does card tricks and stuff and they thought he'd be
over there." Camp Kadabra
"Was he?" Ben asked.
Teddy laughed. "No way! You-you're not supposed to leave Sherrinford and the school mystery only takes place on the grounds here—it's one of the rules." (Especially for me and the rest of the DCs, Ben thought, suddenly aware of the weight of the ankle bracelet on his leg.) "But Greg was sure he was over there," Teddy sighed. "He's kind of a-a dummy. He and Tina got in a lot of trouble that time. Anyway, some other kids found the teacher. The page numbers on his assignment sheets made up a code that contained GPS coordinates that led to a cabin in the woods—there are a bunch of them on this side of the mountain, old tourist cabins and places like that. Anyway, that's where he was."
"That is pretty cool," Ben agreed. "So you think Briana Tanner's made up?"
Teddy grinned shyly. "Well, th-think about it. I mean, our first night, and there's a student missing? They watch us pretty closely around here. Tina and I weren't out of the back seat of the car before Dean Taras swooped in and checked our names off her list. And what kind of parents put a kid on a train all by herself?"
"I don't know," Ben said quietly. All of a sudden, he felt an uncomfortable pang of homesickness.
Oz nodded, thinking. "But the bus driver took attendance, checked us off a list before we got on the bus. Wouldn't the driver have known if he was a name short?"
Ben grimaced. He hadn't thought of that until Oz mentioned it. I am one sucky detective, he thought, not for the last time.
Teddy shrugged. "Well, I-I don't know. But it all seems kind of funny to me."
Just then there was a knock at the door. Ben got up to answer it, expecting another counselor, but it was Toby, who looked furtively up and down the hall before jumping inside. He looked even grubbier and dust-covered than he had at supper.
"Man, this place is jumping. Lotta guys with clipboards asking questions about that Brenna chick," he warbled, throwing himself into a chair by the desk.
"Briana," Ben corrected automatically. Toby scowled at him and hooked his nostril-grabbing fingers at him threateningly.
"Teddy thinks this missing girl is part of the school mystery," Oz offered, as he rooted through various cables and junk in his massive suitcase.
Teddy started to protest but Toby's face lit up with excitement. "Yeahhh," he shrilled, his voice going up an octave. "I betcha you're right. Makes total sense. She sure wasn't on the bus with us." Teddy relaxed instantly, his shy smile returning. Ben had the idea that maybe he wasn't used to people thinking his ideas had any merit. "Maybe she's hiding out over in the girls' dorms. I bet there's a hidden room up there too—" Toby said, then stopped himself as Oz and Ben simultaneously gave him a warning look. None of them wanted to own up to their little adventure behind the mysterious door. They liked Teddy, but his family obviously had a history here and they weren't sure yet if they could trust him with their secret.
Teddy seemed to take no notice of this, in any case. "Well, I'm gonna go unpack. You newbies have that tour tomorrow morning. I don't need to go—my sister and parents showed me around plenty of times. See you at breakfast?"
They all grunted in the affirmative as Teddy left.
"All moved in?" Ben asked as he went back to unloading his duffel.
Toby shrugged. "My roommates are weirdos. I think I'm gonna camp out up in the secret room."
Oz looked at him owlishly. "Really? What, are you going to come and go through there?" he said, pointing to the door.
"Yeah," Toby said blandly. "Who would know?"
Ben stared at him. "You're in a school for detectives. Teddy noticed the door right away, just like you. Probably would have seen the scuff marks on the floor if I hadn't covered them. Someone would know. And it would be our butts!"
Toby waved this off. "Okay, dude, don't get 'em in a bunch. It just so happens I was up there a few minutes ago. And you didn't even know, did you?"
"You do look a little dusty," Oz offered. He was now dumping items from his suitcase onto the desk and was sorting them into some kind of order. "Let me guess, you found a back stairway or something."
"Close. I actually found a cool mini-elevator in the bathroom wall. It was behind the door. You climb in and there's a pulley. It takes you down to the furnace room."
"Dumbwaiter," Ben said.
Toby rounded him. "Dumb who, Bridge?" he shrilled.
"The elevator. It's called a dumbwaiter. We had one in our old house, but it didn't work. Dad said they had to use the shaft for the central air ducts that they added later. It's for laundry and stuff and—" Ben trailed off. The feeling of homesickness was stronger, and now suffused with guilt. His parents had loved that house—he had too. And they'd had to sell it and move into a crappy apartment, and to make matters worse, he had gone and gotten into trouble…
Toby was talking again. "Well, it's pretty handy. And I can come and go through the basement so you fraidy-cats won't have to worry about getting in trouble," he sneered. "Anyway, I meant what I said earlier: someone ought to check the girls' dorm. They probably have the same set-up and if I were a missing girl or doing a school mystery or whatever, that's where I'd hide," he said.
Oz nodded. "Makes sense. We should ask some of the new girls on the tour tomorrow."
"What?" Toby said. "And let them get credit for finding her?"
Oz held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "No, you're right," he said dryly. "You go ahead and sneak into the girls' dorm. Maybe Ben could break into their rooms until you find a door like ours, then he can pick the lock and go look for her—"
Ben looked up sharply. Given where his mind had been, this felt like a slap in the face. Oz understood his error immediately.
Toby looked up too. "Who can pick locks? You, Bridge?" he asked, sounding eager and impressed.
"Thanks, Oz," Ben said. Then he looked at Toby and nodded. "I used to, but not anymore."
"Hey," Oz said falteringly, his dry demeanor broken again. "I'm sorry. I know—"
could get sent to juvie prison or
Hard Knocks boot camp if I do anything like that again? Yeah, you're
right," he said. Ben suddenly felt very tired. Burglar Ben Bridge
Toby bounded out of the chair. "Well, this is getting lame," he said. "I'm going to go unpack. Don't worry—" he said as Oz started to open his mouth. "I'll take my private elevator. See you losers in the morning," he said brightly, and headed out.
"Hey," Oz said again, "I'm really—"
"It's okay," Ben interrupted. "I don't mind that Toby knows, I guess. I just don't want everyone to know. Don't worry about it." He stepped over his duffel and collapsed on his bed. For a while he watched Oz set up what was starting to remind him of his grandpa's old work bench—all sorts of tools and mysterious metal objects and other junk. The feeling of homesickness all but made his stomach ache. Ben felt in his pocket. His PerfaPick was still there. And clutching it, he fell asleep.
In his dreams, he was running down a dusty hallway, chasing a girl with strawberry-blonde pigtails. "I'm the school mystery!" she cried, her voice sounding like Tina Jordan's. Then she ducked through a little door in the wall. But when Ben got to the door, there was no dumbwaiter, just a rigid stack of air-conditioning ductwork, like the dumbwaiter shaft in his old house, the house he missed almost as much as he missed his parents.
When Ben opened his eyes, he saw another shaft, a shaft of sunlight that was in his face. He heard the clatter of feet out in the hall. He looked at his watch and saw it was . Oz was gone and Ben realized that the campus tour started soon. He leapt off the bed, threw on a fresh shirt, grabbed his toothbrush and bolted down the hall to the bathroom.
A few minutes before 10, Ben dashed across the quad to the main building, where a group of new students were milling. As he slowed to a stop, Oz stepped out of the crowd, a sheepish look on his face. He handed something to Ben, wrapped in a napkin.
"You missed breakfast," he said. "So I grabbed something for you. Hope you like bagels."
Ben looked at the bagel, a hastily assembled affair with cream cheese dripping out through the middle. In fact, he wasn't a big fan of bagels at all, but he was hungry. More importantly, he realized that this was Oz's way of trying to make up for his thoughtless remark of the night before. He took a huge bite and nodded gratefully at Oz.
"Awefum," he said around a mouthful of food. "Fanks."
A moment later, a tall girl, another counselor, appeared at the doorway and ushered the new students inside. "Come on!" she said officiously. "Sherrinford is a big place and I have a lot to show you new kids so you don't get lost." As she led them towards the corridor to the cafeteria/auditorium, she rattled off a brief history of the school and its buildings, most of it information Ben had already read online.
The girl walked them through the door Ben had seen yesterday. "Business offices are back here," the girl said crisply. "If you need to see any of the teachers or speak with the Dean, their offices are all along this corridor." It was a narrow corridor, made even narrower by an assortment of obstacles—several rolling office chairs, a cart with a couple of old computer monitors on it, and yet more white boxes of brand new printer paper, their yellow strapping still cinched tightly around each. The kids sidestepped around each impediment, but then their way was completely blocked, this time by Dean Taras herself, who was coming out of an office, talking heatedly to a man in overalls.
This man didn't look like the men Ben had seen last night. For one thing this guy was short, shorter than the Dean and most of the students. Short but wide. Muscles stood out on his shoulders and he had Popeye-like forearms that made him appear almost as wide as he was tall.
He's a little giant, Ben thought, absurdly. But it fit. Despite his diminutive stature, the man seemed to fill up the space in a most imposing way. Part of that may have been because the little giant gave off a pungent aroma that all but filled the corridor, an aroma of spoiled food and dirt. He glared at the students for a moment as if they were the ones giving off a foul odor.
"—I have to call the missing girl's mother and then speak to the police this morning, so I'll leave this in your hands. I know this isn't part of your job, Reynard, but the office-supply people gave us three times the printer paper we ordered and they're being annoyingly noncommittal about when they'll be able to return to collect the overstock. As you can see, there are hundreds of boxes, and they need to be put out of the way, I—oh, hello everyone," she said, finally noticing the throng of students clogging the hallway. Dean Taras now turned to the counselor. "Amelia, perhaps it's best if you show them the computer lab another time. As you can see, we're much too cluttered here just now."
Amelia nodded curtly, but it was clear she didn't like being derailed by any change of plan. "It's nothing special," she said as she pushed her way back through the new students and led them out the way they came. "Just a bunch of old computers from, like, the Dark Ages. The newest ones are about four or five years old."
As Ben turned to go back, he thought he heard his name and craned his neck around. None of the kids were looking at him, then he saw Dean Taras conferring with the little giant she called Reynard. And Reynard was casting a sour glance his way. Then the Dean and the man both turned and went back into the office from which they'd come.
Outside, Amelia led them on a brisk walk across the quad, where they were met by Toby, who was dashing across from Doyle Hall. "You're late," Amelia snapped. Toby favored her with a scowl, then shouldered his way into the crowd until he was standing next to Ben and Oz.
"Get stuck in the dumbwaiter?" Ben asked.
"Oh, shut it," Toby said.
Amelia led them past the girls' dorm to a row of buildings that backed up to a towering forest. Along the way, the girl noted which buildings were closed for safety reasons (although this was unnecessary—these all either had concrete barricades on the steps leading up to the doors, or the doors themselves were chained and padlocked). "Here's where you'll have your classes," Amelia said, pointing to one of the buildings directly across from them, a three-story structure festooned with fussily carved stones. Next to it was a more stately building of deep-red brick and green tendrils of climbing ivy. It was also a three-story affair, but at the top was a tall spire that Ben took for a bell tower. It reminded him of nothing so much as a church, but over the doorway, he saw a name carved on the lintel: SACKER LIBRARY.
"Awesome," Toby whispered. "This is where I'm going to work! Where are you again, Bridge?"
"Garbage duty," Ben muttered, then elbowed Toby when he started shaking with silent laughter.
Inside the library seemed like a church as well: cool and unnaturally quiet. The air was heavy with the smell of old paper and leather and Ben felt his heart slow a beat. He loved libraries, had spent quite a lot of time at the one in school. Why couldn't I have had this job, he wondered, also not for the last time.
The students filed in to a single massive room, high-ceilinged, with bright windows up in the eaves, letting in the summer light. Just below these windows, but out of the sunlight, were shelves and shelves of books. A row of desks and tables filled the center of the room, and at the end was a circular desk where a woman was hunched over a computer. She looked up at the students murmuring at the far end. The woman squinted at them over the top of a pair of bifocals, tapping a pencil thoughtfully against her teeth. Ben waited for her to drop the pencil and put a finger to her mouth, shushing the newcomers. But instead she broke into a huge grin, stuck the pencil absently into the dark hair piled on top of her head, and gave them a long, languorous wave.
"Hello everyone!" she boomed, her voice startlingly loud in the space. She leapt to her feet. She was amazingly tall and thin. In fact, she reminded Ben instantly of a female version of Mr. Hawksmoor, except that she had a slightly rounded face and a short nose. Her bright eyes sparkled as she bustled over to the students, arms outstretched.
"Welcome, fellow detectives!" she cried. "This is Sacker Library, the very best place in Sherrinford, and the finest library of mystery in the world."
"Library of mystery," Toby repeated, a big grin on his face. "Oh, I am going to like it here!"
"Shut up," Ben muttered.
"Thanks, Amelia," the lady said, then tuned to face the students. "My name is Miss Seaver, I'm the librarian here. Now, I bet some of you read about Sherrinford online before coming here. Can anyone tell me about Sacker Library?"
Ben frowned. He had read something about the library, but couldn't remember what? An eager girl in front of him raised her hand.
"Well, it's like you said, isn't it? It's a library about crimes and mysteries?" she asked.
Miss Seaver nodded excitedly. "Yes, yes! We have many, many reference books and resources on all the topics you'd expect to find at a regular library, but we do have a special focus on crime, criminal law, forensic medicine," she was gesturing now to appropriate shelves on either side of the great room.
Then she pointed to an alcove Ben hadn't noticed before, this one a clubby little room with old, overstuffed armchairs and, incongruously, a giant blue beanbag. "We also have a reading room packed with mystery and crime fiction. Including, of course, a complete set of the original Reston Twin mysteries."
Miss Seaver walked them around, showing them the reference desk computers and library catalogs, and explaining what rules existed here. "Really, the only rule I have is no food or drinks. You can come and go as you like, pretty much every book here is available to check out for as long as you like. And yes, you can talk here. This isn't a church, although it once was, back in the academy days. And just like a church, we have our sacred and priceless relics," she said, winking at them.
Before any of them could ask what she meant by this, she led them behind the circular desk to a heavy, ornately carved door hanging on massive metal hinges. It looked very old to Ben, but had one distractingly modern detail: set into the wall next to it was a small metal keypad. Miss Seaver stood in front of it, quickly tapped in a few numbers. There was a faint buzzing sound from somewhere and then the door popped open. Miss Seaver grunted and wrestled with the heavy door. Slowly, it began to open.
She led them into a very different room now: it was smaller, or at least seemed smaller, since it was filled with metal racks of books. The racks were on rails mounted on the ceiling that let them slide forward or backward. But all of the racks were at various positions on the rails so that none of them lined up in a uniform row. It reminded Ben of a maze. The air was cooler, the room felt heavy and quiet. Even the lights were different. There were no windows and Ben noticed immediately that all available light was coming from strangely humming fixtures overhead. The light made his eyes feel funny.
"Special lamps," Miss Seaver said. "So the light doesn't damage the books."
"Feels like a vault," one student remarked.
Miss Seaver smiled, her voice lowering from its enthusiastic tone to one of special reverence. "That's because it is. This is our rare book room. In it is our most special collection. The room is climate-controlled and nearly all of the books—we have over 2,000 in here—are preserved in Mylar sleeves."
Carefully, she took down the book nearest here, a small, thick tome bound in green leather. Ben caught a glimpse of the name embossed in gold leaf on the front: Edgar Allan Poe. "First edition," Miss Seaver said in the hushed tone Ben usually associated with librarians. "Over the years, students here have donated their collections of mystery and crime books. For a while, it was the fashion among mystery writers to send signed first editions to the library."
She carefully put the Poe book back. "You name it, they're here. We have a set of signed Agatha Christie books," she said, then smiled. "Well, except for the last one or two, since they were published after her death. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle donated a portion of his private library to us. Not too many mysteries, though: Sir Arthur never thought much of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. We do have one or two of his bound editions of The Strand, the magazine that published most of the Holmes short stories. So most of his endowment consisted of books on spiritualism, a particular interest of his later in life."
Ben and the other students followed her single-file among the rows as she pointed to a stack of old pulp magazine devoted to the Shadow on one shelf, a bound volume of vintage Super Sleuth comics on another. Then she called out the names of books by mystery writers old and new—"McBain here, Dobyns here"—then Ben saw a very odd book at the end of one row. Unlike the rest of the volumes here, this one appeared to be encased in metal.
Toby noticed it too. "What's that one?"
Miss Seaver smiled, then grabbed the book. With a grunt of effort she lifted it from the shelves. "Anyone here ever read Steel Sterling?"
Ben raised his hand at the mention of his favorite hard-bitten, two-fisted private eye.
"Well, the author of the
Sterling books, Simon Petrie, taught here for
a year at the very end of his life. He was good friends with Oscar Reston, the
first Oscar Reston, I mean. This was the last Sterling novel he ever wrote, and he had it
bound in a steel cover, with silver plates embedded on the front." She
huffed again and with some effort held out the book so they could see it.
"Thank goodness he didn't give us a full set like this," she said
smiling. She set it back on the shelf, arms trembling. Then she smiled
apologetically at the group.
"Unfortunately, none of these books can be checked out. Most, like Steel here, are one of a kind. Priceless, really. That's why we keep them in this vault. Sometimes we'll get university types—doctoral students or biographers—coming here to do research. But they have to write months in advance to make an appointment."
"Has anyone ever tried to break in and steal them?" Oz asked. Most of the students nodded in agreement; it was clearly on a lot of people's minds.
Miss Seaver laughed. "I wondered how long it would be before someone would ask. It's just about the first question I get every year. And my answer is always: Who on earth would be foolish enough to try to steal books from a library in a school packed with smart young detectives?"
Then her smile faltered. "You know, one year, when I was a student here—yes, back in the Dark Ages—one of the teachers took Mr. Poe there at the end of the row and hid it for the school mystery. Unfortunately, he neglected to inform the librarian at the time. She was in quite a state that summer. In fact, she spent as much time as the students trying to solve the mystery. But one lucky girl beat her to it, and found it."
"Where was it?" a girl asked.
"In Mr. Reston's private study, right there on the shelf with all his other books. Right there for everyone to see, just like in Poe's story 'The Purloined Letter.'"
Amelia looked at the librarian and asked a question in a tone that suggested she'd asked this same question every year.
"And who was that lucky girl, Miss Seaver?"
The librarian blushed, then smiled sweetly. "You're looking at her."
As they filed out of the library back into the warm summer day, Toby hung back. "I'll catch up with you at lunch," he said. "I'm going to talk to Miss Seaver about my job. Starts tomorrow!" And with a short wave, he disappeared back into the library.
Amelia led them behind the buildings, to a low, long shed that stood beside a dirt track leading into the forest.
"This is the bike shed. We have enough bicycles for everyone in the school and you can sign them out any time from 8 til 7. We'll sound warning chimes about 30 minutes before the bike shed closes. When you hear them, come on back. Actually, anytime you hear the chimes—especially if they sound for a long time, that means the Dean wants you back here in the quad on the double. The Sherrinford grounds cover the whole north side of the mountain, and there are, I'm not kidding, about a hundred miles of walking and biking trails, but you'll hear the chimes wherever you are. And if you don't come when they sound, you'll lose bike and trail privileges." Then she cleared her throat, aiming a glare at the crowd. "And you DCs, don't even think about leaving the mountain. Those house-arrest monitors of yours will—"
"—alert the police and it's game over for us," Oz muttered. Other DCs around him grumbled. They had heard this enough already in the past 24 hours.
Amelia fiddled with her clipboard and removed a small sheaf of paper that she began handing out. Ben saw it was a map of the buildings and grounds, with some of the larger trails marked by names like Tenderfoot, Rocky Reach, Pathfinder, and True North. "There are many old sheds and cabins throughout the forest," Amelia went on. "But you won't find them on your maps, because we don't want you to go there. Most of these buildings are very old and structurally unsafe. Stay out of them. The last thing we need is somebody poking around in an old cabin and crashing through a floor or having a roof cave in on them."
Amelia let this sobering thought sink in, then noticed something new on her clipboard that she had apparently overlooked. "Also, I'm supposed to warn you this year to stay off the Pathfinder Trail. There's a ledge above it and this spring some of the rocks have been coming loose and landing on the trail. Don't be idiots—stay out of there. Bike shed will be open starting tomorrow. Which DC is doing that job?" A boy behind Ben, someone he actually remembered as being on his shuttle, raised his handing tentatively and in a moment Ben saw clearly who of the new kids were DCs like him and who were regular students: all the regular students were smirking or glowering at the boy. Including Amelia, who simply said, "Well, you better not have been a bike thief, kid."
There were some murmurs of resentment at this from Ben and the other DCs, but before anything could come of it, they heard a loud rumbling noise. Ben looked up the service road they were standing on. Coming down from behind the main building, a massive, ancient dump truck came clattering along, gravel pinging off its grille and flying in every direction. Ben and the other students jumped off the road as the truck passed in a cloud of dust and pebbles. Ben caught a brief look into the cab and saw the sun-weathered face of the little giant, the man who had been talking to Dean Taras earlier. He took no notice of the kids he'd almost run over and roared on down the road.
"Who was that?" one kid asked.
Amelia, coughing and wiping dust off her clipboard, said sourly, "There goes the meanest man in Sherrinford. That's Reynard, the garbage man." Then she brightened. "Who's the DC assigned to help him haul trash? I wouldn't want to be in his shoes!" All the students, even some of the DCs, laughed at this. "Come on!" Amelia brayed. "Which one of you is it?"
Ben kept his hands straight at his side and stared at the gravel road. Great…just great, he thought.