Friday, December 21, 2012


A Feverish (Fiction) Friday

It's Quarantine Week here at the Magazine Mansion: Her Lovely Self got strep last weekend. Then I woke up with it Tuesday. And now, today, Thomas went down for the count. And just to make an event of it, the Eclair starting vomiting, too, which may be strep, or may just be the next bug starting to make the rounds.

So instead of regaling you with vivid descriptions of the above, I thought you'd prefer this:

(Previous chapter)
(Next chapter)

Chapter 5

The First Mystery

The rooms in Doyle Hall were very basic: square rooms with two or three beds, a couple of battered desks, and a pair of rickety chairs. Two small closets with sliding doors were affixed to opposite walls. It was an old dorm and its rooms smelled it, containing the weight of age and mildew and the faint sweat of generations of students who'd lived and studied here.

Having never been in a dorm room of any kind, Ben thought the place was coolness itself. At 12, he had never been away from home, except for brief trips to his Grandpa's, although that hardly counted. Now, he had a place of his own. And a roommate too.

"You care which bed?" Ben asked. Oz grunted what Ben took to be a no and so he selected for himself the bed closest to the big window. It overlooked the yard and commanded a view of the road they'd come in on. To the left, Ben could just see a corner of the main building entrance. As he looked, Dean Taras was walking into his field of vision, Toby trailing behind her. Taras turned and said a few words to Toby, then pointed in Ben's direction. As Toby ambled across the lawn, he seemed to be skipping a little. He's sure happy about something, Ben thought. But at that same moment, Toby seemed to catch himself and hunched forward, walking toward the hall with more purpose. As he got closer, Ben noticed a netbook computer under Toby's arm.

Ben struggled with the window latch for a moment, then pulled hard. The window was apparently recent painted, because it fought him for a while before the paint holding it in place suddenly stripped away and the window flew up with a bang.

Toby heard it from below and looked up. Seeing Ben, he waved.

"Any trouble?" Ben called. Toby simply shook his head "no" and Ben realized that with his changing voice, he probably didn't want to risk raising his voice. So Ben didn't bother to ask him where he was living. "We're in 423!" he yelled. "Come up and see us when you get settled." Toby gave a silent "OK" sign with his thumb and forefinger and disappeared from view.

"What do you think of him?" Oz asked, in a tone that suggested he didn't think very much at all of their scrappy classmate. Oz was busy in his corner of the room. Already he'd moved one of the desks so that it was behind his bed. He had opened his suitcase and was rummaging through it.

"He's all right. He saved you from that jerk on the bus," Ben replied.

Oz grunted. "Maybe. Still, there's something about that kid. I mean, really: 'My uncle is in the KGB' or whatever. It's like those posers and trolls online that make up anything they want about themselves. Gets old after a while." Oz rummaged for a bit more, then pulled what appeared to be a massive armload of junk out of his suitcase and plopped it on the desk.

"What the heck is all of that?" Ben asked, stepping forward to get a better look. Oz seemed to be holding a jumble of various types of electronic and photographic equipment. Here was a large lens to a 35mm camera. There, he thought he recognized a battered old smoke alarm. Next to that was a boxy old video camera with a cracked case. Old-fashioned flashbulbs and hundreds of batteries of every size scattered across the desk.

"It's my, um, lab, I guess," Oz said. "I like to tinker. All this stuff has useful parts that can be turned into things we can use. Look at this." He handed Ben a giant plastic gunlike object which, in the shadows of the room, made Ben take a step back, but he almost instantly relaxed.

"Looks like a hair dryer," Ben said.

"That's because it is," Oz replied. "If you can reverse the polarity on the motor, instead of blowing air out, it'll suck it in and act as a cooler for, well, other stuff."

"Like what?" Ben asked, tossing the hair dryer on the bed.

"Stuff that needs cooling," Oz said simply, giving Ben a look that said Duh. Then he held up two objects: a tiny bulb on a wire—Ben realized it was a flash that had been pulled from a digital camera—and a 9-volt battery. "Here's a perfectly simple burglar alarm," he said, walking to the door. "My dad showed me this when I was a kid. You tape the battery to the door and the flash to the doorframe. Position the flash so the bottom of the wire is facing the battery—see?" Ben looked, nodded as Oz fiddled with the objects in his hands. "Then you unbraid the wires so you have two contact points for the battery. When someone opens the door in the middle of the night, the battery swings with the door, contacts the wires from the flash and—" Just then, Oz touched the battery to the bare end of the wire and there was a minor "pop" followed instantly by a blinding flash that filled the room with light and left Ben rubbing spots out of his eyes for the next 10 minutes.

"Ow!" he said, hands over his eyes. "You could have warned me."

"Sorry," Oz said, not sounding very. He was already back to rummaging through his suitcase.

Oz continued talking on and on about the various applications of the electronic junk he'd brought—the uses of an old camera flash gun, various automotive parts, and so on. But Ben gradually tuned him out as he noticed an odd feature to the room.

"Where does this other door go?" he wondered aloud.

"What other door?" Oz asked, suddenly looking up.

Ben pointed to a door set into the wall adjacent to the window near his bed. At this time of day it was completely obscured in shadow. It looked like a proper door, doorknob and all, but was just a little bit smaller than the door they had come in through.

"Maybe it adjoins the next room, like they sometimes have in hotels," Oz suggested.

"Maybe," Ben said. "But it seems like it's oriented wrong." He jiggled the handle. The door was locked. Ben bent down to example the keyhole. It looked like a basic cheap lock, one that had been put on the door in the past 20 or so years. An old keyhole sat beneath the new lock.

Ben frowned in thought for a moment, then went back to his backpack and rummaged until he found the pen light he kept in one pocket and, turning it on, poked it through the old keyhole. He'd tried to peer over the top of the light, into the narrow hole, but all the light showed was a dark, open area. Definitely no windows or any other kind of light.

"I wonder if it's some kind of service entrance," Ben said. "This is an old place, maybe they had people come and change the beds or grab up the laundry. It did cater to rich kids, you know,"

"Still does," Oz grunted, now standing behind him. "I wonder what's in there."

Ben was silent. Then he made a decision and went back to his bag and pulled out his PerfaPick.

Oz, who seemed to have a sixth sense for any kind of interesting gadget, perked up immediately. "What's that?" he asked. "Some kind of pen?"

"Not quite," Ben said, as he fiddled with it. First he removed the clip from the side of the pen—away from the pick it formed a slim metal "L."

"This," Ben said, holding it up to Oz, "is a tension wrench." Then Ben knelt and inserted it into the top of the lock. Oz understood immediately and his voice raised an octave, his laconic reserve cracking for the first time. "No way! You can seriously pick locks?"

"Technically, I'm not supposed to do this. The judge said I couldn't break into anyone else's room or office."

Oz nodded, understanding again. "But since the door is in our room, you're not really breaking the rules, are you?"

Ben nodded and pressed a button at the top of the pick, which caused a specific, narrow pick, one with several bumps along the end, to pop out. Slowly, Ben approached the lock, then stopped.

"What is it?" Oz asked.

Ben didn't answer. In the excitement of being here, in his eagerness to show his new friend that he had some special skills of his own, Ben had forgotten, but now it came back. That awful night in jail. The equally awful way he felt when he looked into his parents' eyes after his release. He pushed the pick back into its housing, took the tension wrench out of the lock and slid the PerfaPick back into his pocket.

"I…I better not."

Oz simply nodded. He stepped over to his massive suitcase and rooted around in it until he found a small plastic card.

"Credit card?" Ben asked.

Oz nodded again. "Cancelled. I keep a couple handy—the magnetic stripe in the card can be useful. But so can the card itself." And saying this, he slid the card into the space between the door and the frame, wiggling it until it hit the bolt holding the door shut. With a deft swipe, the plastic card slid the bolt back and the door popped open, the hinges screeching loudly as it did.

"Shh!" Ben said, suddenly looking around.

"I think we're okay," Oz replied, stepping back. Ben played his flashlight around the gloomy interior of the room.

The room was actually just a very wide hallway, interrupted every 20 feet or so by another doorway, which must lead to other rooms on the floor. Stepping carefully, Oz right behind him, the pair crept in a few steps.

Then a knock came on the door to their room and, startled, they jumped back out.

Oz closed the door as quietly as he could (although it still seemed to squeak very loudly in the room. Ben opened the door, and there stood Toby. He was still holding his bag.

"Couldn't find your room?" Ben asked.

"Um, it was locked. I tried knocking, but nobody answered." He paused to look around the room, and the first thing he said was, "So what's up with that door you just opened and didn't want me to know about?"

Ben and Oz gave each other what would come to be the first of many dumbfounded looks. "How did—?" Oz began.

"Oh, man it's easy, look!" And Toby pointed to the floor in front of the mystery door. A great wide scuff of dust made an arc from the doorjamb all the way to the wall, an obvious sign that someone had opened a door that hadn't been opened in a while. "And you guys are acting all weird and jumpy, so clearly I'm not supposed to know what you were up to."

Detective Bridge soon realized he had better get used to this kind of thing, if he was going to spend time at a summer camp for detectives, the Narrator lamented.

Toby threw his bag and a couple of pieces of paper on the bed nearest the door—Oz's—went over to the door to examine it. While he did that, Ben glanced at the paperwork. It gave Toby's room assignment—247, on the second floor, he supposed—and his roommates: Ray Cloutier and James Carr. He wondered if they were discipline cases like themselves, but then Toby wrenched the door open and Ben was forced to look up.

"So what's in here?" he asked.

"We were about to find out," Oz said, reaching into his suitcase and grabbing a flashlight of his own. He led the way as the trio stepped into the darkened corridor.

The floor creaked terribly, but the three quickly realized no one was likely to hear them. From the left side—the side containing all the entry doors into the other dorm rooms—they could hear muffled music and general hubbub of other kids talking and horsing around. Each door sported a number painted on—425, 427, and so on, corresponding to each room they passed as they made their way down the darkened passage, which seemed to run the entire length of Doyle Hall.

Midway along the passage, though, they stopped as they saw a bigger door to their left and a small metal set of stairs to their right. On the bigger door was painted the initials JC.

"Someone's initials?" Toby said.

Ben turned the latch. The door opened easily enough and the three found themselves standing amid a stack of damp-smelling mops lying against an old porcelain sink. It was a very small room—no more than four feet square—and directly opposite them was another door. From behind that door they could hear the unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing.

"Janitor's Closet," all three said at once.

Oz stepped over the mops and put his ear to the other door. When he was confident no one was on the other side, he eased the door open and poked his head into what turned out to be the bathroom for the floor. A long line of stalls stood in front of him. To his right, a matching line of old sinks were fixed to the wall underneath a length of mirrors. Oz craned his neck out a little farther and saw a passageway leading to what he guessed were shower stalls. He poked his head back in and closed the door.

"Yep, bathroom," he said.

Now they turned their attention to the metal stairs, which went both down and up, no doubt to other similar corridors.

"Let's go down," Toby said.

"Nah," said Oz, pointing his powerful flashlight up the spiraled metal stairwell. "We know it's more hallways. But what's above us? The fourth floor is supposed to be the top floor in Doyle Hall."

Ben kicked himself for not spotting this sooner—he was definitely going to have to pick up his game if he was to keep pace with his friends in the observation-and-deduction department. He looked at Toby, who eagerly nodded assent, and the three went slowly up.

In a moment, they found themselves on a small, cramped landing—Oz, the tallest of them, had to duck to step into it, brushing away thick cobwebs as he went. They appeared to be under a gable of some kind. It was a little stuffy in this close space, but not as stuffy as Ben had been expecting. As they stood their silently for a moment, watching as Oz played his flashlight around, Ben heard a low whistling sound and poked his head around a corner of the gable. Down at one end of the building he could see slats of daylight and realized he was looking at a vent set into the outside eaves of the building. When he turned to look toward the other end, he saw a similar vent, and also a small window, which was shut.

"Good cross-breeze up here, considering," Toby said thoughtfully.

They stepped around the corner of the gable and into an unexpectedly larger room set between the gables. Right below the closed window Ben had noticed earlier, they saw a narrow and rusty iron bedstead, an old wooden cabinet sitting next to it. Toby impulsively jumped on the bed and the box springs made an ungodly screeching that made Ben cringe and Oz jump.

"Shh! We're probably right above someone's room," Oz said.

"I dunno," Ben said. "I used to live in a big old house, when my dad—when we lived in a different neighborhood. It had a room in the attic for a maid and my dad said the rooms were always built kind of secret like, in a little corner or nook at the edge of the house so the maid wouldn't disturb anyone walking around at night. I bet if we went around to the back of the building and looked up at the gables, all we'd see would be a slight bump-out in the wall by the roofline. Maybe not even that. Those old builders were really good at hiding stuff like this."

Toby was off the bed now and examining another small door hidden in shadow at the end of the room. Inside was a small bathroom, complete with an old-fashioned tub standing on metal claw feet. Toby pushed the handle on the commode next to the tub. There was a brief shuddering sound from the floor, then the familiar sound of a toilet flushing. "Water runs just fine up here," he noted, checking the faucets in the tub, too. "It's sooo perfect," Toby said, beaming as he looked around the space.

Oz was less impressed. "Just a dusty old attic, really," he said.

"Still, I wonder how many other people have ever come up here. I mean, look at the dust on the floor. No footprints but ours," Toby went on.

"And we walked through plenty of cobwebs," Ben added. He'd read more than a few mystery stories where the hero had been able to track the criminal through an abandoned house or building simply by checking the cobwebs across the doorways and looking for the broken ones—a sure sign the villain had passed that way. Toby and Oz both nodded as he said this—clearly they had read some of the same books.

Just then, they heard a distant noise, a kind of bells chiming.

Oz shone his light on his watch. "Hey, it's 5:30, that must be the dinner chime."

As if on cue, all three of their stomachs rumbled and they quickly—but quietly—made their way back down the stairs and down the passageway to Ben and Oz's room. They closed the service door behind them, and started for the door out to the main hall, where they could hear the thundering of footsteps headed for the stairs. Ben bumped Toby's bag as he went, and a thought occurred to him.

"Hey, that Dean lady didn't give you a key to get into your own room?" he asked.

Toby stood stock still, his mouth open as though the question had been something offensive, or caught him off-guard. "Well, sure," he said, his cracking voice rising an octave. "But they had the chain up from the inside," he pointed to a similar chain on the inside of Ben and Oz's door. "I kept knocking but I couldn't see anyone or get them to open up. I figured they maybe were listening to iPods or something and had their headsets on. Anyway, you guys go on ahead and save me a seat. I should be able to go down now and stow my stuff in my room."

Ben's stomach growled like a living thing, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. So he shrugged and followed Oz out into the hall. He heard the room door close behind him, and turned to say something else to Toby, but he had already disappeared into the crowd of boys rushing forward to supper.

Sorry to hear ya'll are not feeling well : ( My kids used to throw up right about the time they got strep so maybe its just the same with the Eclair.

On a happier note, it's Friday and I'm happy to read another installment of your book : )

Hoping you all feel better by the time Santa comes and wishing you all a very Merry Christmas : )
Printing it out now for reading during my first smoke break of this rainy windy day. Hope you all feel much better for Christmas!
I hope everybody feels much better soon.

Secondly, I'm loving the book. I hope you'll tell us how to get the whole thing.
You do realize that, if you only post the first six chapters, a few of us will be coming to your place and kicking down the doors for the remainder, right?
More please. As is, whatever, I can't wait for next Friday. Hope you had a Merry Christmas and the Strep plague of '12 passed without too much trouble. Be healthy and hope you are enjoying your new job, whatever it may be
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