Friday, November 30, 2012

 

Thank God It's (Fiction) Friday!


Well, all I can say is, it's a good thing enough of you liked the first chapter that I feel sufficiently emboldened to post the second. Because in truth I would have been a little busy to write something else: See, I started a new job this week, and things have been a tad hectic. But enough about that! Let's see what Ben Bridge is doing...

Chapter 2
Meeting Mr. Hawksmoor


It was almost 3 in the morning by the time Ben was processed through the system, by the time his parents were called, by the time it was determined that he was going to have to spend the night in jail.

Ben tried not to cry when the police officer slammed that barred door home, locking him into a tiny cell (he had it all to himself, which was a small mercy. For a moment, when they led him into the back, past the large holding cell full of mean-eyed criminals and slurring drunks, he was afraid they were going to put him in there). But he couldn't help it.

When that door closed and he found himself in the little space, all he could think of was the looks on his parents' faces when they came into the interview room at the police station, their pale faces, their watery eyes as the arresting officer told them he'd responded to a silent alarm at the school (where had THAT been? He wondered. He thought he'd cased the place so carefully) and found their son kneeling on the floor of the vice principal's office, holding an envelope stuffed full of cash. He remembered especially his dad's look of blind, uncomprehending pain as he stared at his son and could only form the question, "Why, Benjy? Why would you DO this?"

It turned out breaking-and-entering was a felony, especially if the police thought they had caught you stealing more than 500 dollars. The fat envelope had held close to a thousand. Ben had wondered only briefly where the rest of the money was, but as he would find out later, the money he'd discovered in the coffee maker was not the missing five grand Ben had been after; it was the school's petty cash fund. Ben tried to explain why he was there, how he'd been on the trail of some missing money, but the police just looked at him with a certain amount of pity and disgust. Mostly disgust: In their eyes, he was playing a game that had gone long past being fun.

From their point of view, they had everything they needed: here was a kid from a family that had fallen on hard times—Dad out of work, kicked out of their home when they failed to keep the mortgage up to date, living in some dingy apartment on the north side, no money for anything. And so the kid found out where he could get his hands on a secret stash of cash, thought it would be easy pickings, and broke into the school to get it. Open and shut, for them.

The police could have sent him home with his parents, but they didn't. The officer in charge, a self-important fellow who reminded Ben a lot of Azoline, made a big deal to Ben's parents about their son's actions, claiming that an overnight stay in jail might teach Ben a lesson. And anyway, he pointed out, it would be morning in a few hours, and Ben's parents could take him home after his arraignment. So Ben spent the night—what was left of it—in jail, and it was the worst experience of his life. His hearing was later that afternoon, and on the advice of the public defender they'd given him (no way his family could afford a lawyer), he had pleaded guilty. Since it was his first offense, the judge had set a modest bail, but his parents couldn't even afford to pay that, and so he had waited in his little cell for several more hours until his parents could borrow the money from a friend. Finally, he was released, on orders to return in three days for formal sentencing (why couldn't they just have ended his parents' suffering and sentenced him then?). When Ben was finally in the car with his parents, he waited for them to yell and scream at him, but they said almost nothing, not in the car, not back at their little apartment. They left him alone with his thoughts, and that was even worse.

During those three days, Ben could think about nothing but the trouble he's caused for his parents, and had made up his mind about one thing: he was done with detective work. He doubted he could ever work for the police or the FBI now, anyway, not with a criminal record. But it didn't matter either way. His love of mysteries had led him to this scary little jail cell, and if he ever got out of it, he decided, he would be done with solving mysteries for good.

But meanwhile, other people were making their own decisions where Ben's detective career was concerned. A lot happened in that time as he waited to hear his sentence. After his hearing, the court reporter for the local paper had written up a brief story—a 12-year-old caught burglarizing the school was news in itself, and it was plastered on the front page of the local paper, as well as its website. The first news briefs about it had left Ben anonymous—he was a minor and there were rules about revealing the names of minors in criminal cases.

Then the reporter did some digging—interviewed the Veep himself, who was none too happy to find out his office had been broken into, but not exactly surprised that it had been Ben who'd done it. "That kid, I warned him about his snooping," was what he told the reporter.

Then he talked to Ben's parents, who had agreed to the interview—and to releasing Ben's name—in the hopes of creating some goodwill for their son in the public eye, or perhaps shaming him publicly, he wasn't sure. Ben refused to talk with the reporter, so Ben's dad was the family spokesman. He told the reporter the usual things you'd expect a respectable parent to say when his 12-year-old son has been found breaking and entering. But to his great credit, Ben's dad had also given the reporter the little case file Ben had kept in his room, detailing all the information on the Veep and the school fundraiser, the copy of the deposit slip that was missing $5,000.

The Veep had a good explanation, of course: he had put that money in a separate account, one Ben never found a deposit slip for—it was earmarked for improvements in the school sports program and so was separated from the rest of the money, he claimed. But now the reporter had a more interesting angle: a kid playing detective breaks into the school to investigate a teacher he thought was crooked. The reporter's story raised questions about what the man was doing with nearly a thousand dollars cash stuffed in a coffee maker in his office.

Boy detective arrested for breaking-and-entering: it was a story that had the kind of ironic twist editors loved, so it went out on the Web and got picked up by hundred of papers and news sites. Cable news did a piece on it. By the day of Ben's sentencing, a lot of people knew about him. Including one very special person, who had seen the story and called Ben's public defender.

So on the morning of Ben's sentencing, Ben and his parents went into the room where they were to meet with Ben's attorney and were surprised to find the lawyer sitting with a man they'd never seen before. He was an older man, very distinguished-looking, with a long, sharp nose and glittering eyes that reminded Ben of some deadly bird of prey. He seemed to stare through Ben as he walked in.

"Well, Benjamin," his lawyer began. "There's, ah, been some developments in your case." He turned and gestured to the man sitting next to their parents. "This here is, uh, he's a—"

"David Hawksmoor," the man cut in smoothly, extending his hand to Ben, who shook it warily and with some surprise. The man was tall and cadaverously thin, but there was amazing strength in that grip.

"Who are you?" Ben asked, somewhat curtly, but he didn't care. He hadn't slept in three days and he just wanted this to be over. But something about the man said that things were far from over; if anything, Hawksmoor carried with him the palpable sense that things were just getting started.

"Have a seat. You look tired," Hawksmoor said, gesturing to the desk.

Hawksmoor sat opposite Ben, who was now flanked on either side by his parents. Those piercing eyes continued to stare a Ben, almost as if he hoped to drill through him. What was he searching for?

Hawkmoor placed an expensive-looking leather valise on the desk and opened it, began ruffling through papers.

"I represent an institution in the east, upstate New York, in fact. Are you familiar with the Sherrinford Academy?"

Ben shook his head, looked at his parents. His dad had raised an eyebrow at the name the newcomer had uttered, but otherwise he stared straight intently at Hawksmoor, with a kind of desperation.

"Not many have, not these days," Hawksmoor said with a somewhat disgusted sigh. "Many years ago, at its founding, Sherrinford was a highly regarded preparatory school. Later, it became even more famous for its summer programs for children." Hawksmoor closed the valise with a snap. "I gather from your father's expression that he's somewhat familiar with the meaning that the Sherrinford name once carried."

Ben looked at his dad, who nodded. "Ben's grandfather talked about it. He said—"

Hawksmoor put up a hand and nodded politely to Ben's dad, but it was clear he was cutting Mr. Bridge off nonetheless. "Before we talk anymore about Sherrinford, I need some information from you, Benjamin." Hawksmoor folded his hands together, steepling them under his chin, his eyes now locked on Ben. "I need you to tell me everything that happened. Why you were in that office in the middle of the night, how you got in, what you did, everything. You've already pleaded guilty so there's no reason to withhold any information."

Ben looked up at his lawyer, who simply nodded. Ben shuddered inwardly at the idea of relaying what he had come to think of as his last case, then took a deep breath and told Hawksmoor everything, his suspicions, the case he'd built ("Yes, I know about that part," Hawksmoor had said, producing Ben's slim case folder, which his dad had obviously handed over). Ben even revealed that he'd got in the office by picking the lock, something he hadn't told the police (they assumed he'd found the door unlocked and he let them. Somehow he had a feeling it would be worse if they'd known he'd picked the lock). His parents gasped at this and his Dad shook his head, but Hawksmoor only let a thin smile play across his lips.

Finally, Ben finished, "Anyway, there was nowhere else he could have hidden anything in that office, so I just looked in the coffee maker and there the money was. That's when the police found me. That's it."

Hawksmoor scowled at this and leaned forward. "Are you sure that's it, Benjamin?"

Ben thought a minute. What else was there? What did this guy want from him? "I don't understand."

"A coffee maker is not an obvious place to look for money, which is what made it such an ingenious hiding place. So, what made you think to look there?"

Ben looked down at the table, his mind racing. He was so tired; he just wanted this to be over. "I dunno. I guess I just...I had this picture in my mind of the Veep—of Mr. Azoline laughing at me when I couldn't find the money. I could see his teeth. His white teeth. And well, no one with teeth that white would be a coffee drinker. So what was he doing with a coffee maker? That's all. It just struck me as out of place. So I looked. And there was the money."

He looked up. Hawksmoor was smiling now, showing his teeth, which were also very white.

"Interesting," was all he said.

"Now, what's this about Sherringford? I thought it no longer existed," his dad said.

"Sherrinford, Mr. Bridge," he said. "No G. And while I will admit the academy has slipped somewhat into obscurity, it still exists. Indeed, thanks to some recent developments, it is our hope to rehabilitate the Sherrinford name—and in some measure rehabilitate the new students we will be accepting this summer as part of a somewhat unconventional educational program."

"I don't understand. Is it some kind of reform school?" Ben's mom asked.

Hawksmoor shook his head. "Oh no. Sherrinford seeks to inspire and educate children with very special talents. It is, as some of our attendees quaintly call it, a school for sleuths."

Ben felt his heart race, forgetting for a moment that he had promised to give up mysteries and detective work forever. Had he heard right?

"For what?" his mother asked.

"For sleuths, for those who have a calling in the field of observation and deduction—detectives. When it failed as a preparatory school, the buildings and grounds were purchased by the Restons—surely you've heard that name? Heard of the Reston Twins mystery books, possibly seen the old Disney movie? Very popular back in your grandfather's day, Benjamin—"

Ben nodded. Even he had heard of the Reston Twins.

"And young men and women flocked to spend summers at the school, where they were instructed by detectives and investigators of every stripe, and solved mysteries constructed for them by the school staff."

"Right," Ben's dad said, nodding. "It was a summer camp for kids who liked to play detective."

"Seriously?" Ben asked, his astonishment now total. How had he never heard of such a place?

"Is the idea so unusual?" Hawksmoor asked. "We live in an age of highly specialized summer programs. Parents send their children to computer camp, chess camp, cheerleading camp. And of course there are those fashionable fantasy camps now. The mythology camp where children learn about Greek gods and embark on 'quests' created by the counselors, for example. Across the valley from us is a so-called magic camp," he said sourly, the corners of his mouth curling downward in obvious disdain. "The children there learn card tricks and practice sawing one another in half, I suppose. For all I know, they may also run around in robes and pointed hats, waving wands and shouting garbled Latin 'spells' at one another."

Hawksmoor sighed. "But to answer your question, yes, Sherrinford does operate its own summer program. Has done for nearly 50 years, and was indeed the forerunner of so many of these theme camps you see nowadays, although I like to think we offer students something rather more exciting and worthwhile than waving pom-poms or concocting ersatz magic spells. To date, our clientele has been somewhat exclusive, and, to be completely honest, shrinking. Boy and girl detectives are not as popular in books and film as they once were, alas, and so fewer families send their children to us." Hawksmoor said this with a certain note of sadness in his voice. Ben thought of all those books in the library, all those children's mystery stories that only he seemed to enjoy reading now, and knew exactly how Hawksmoor felt.

"But starting this year," Hawksmoor went on, "the directors deemed it appropriate to enter into a special…partnership with the federal government that allows us to offer a new kind of enrichment program to a wider range of students. And so alumni like myself—I attended the school when I was a boy—have been called into service to seek out certain candidates for the program. I saw young Benjamin's story in the news and thought he might be a possible candidate. But the authorities may feel differently."

"What do you mean?" Ben asked. But before Hawksmoor could answer, there was a knock on the door and the bailiff poked his head in.

"Very well," Hawksmoor said suddenly, opening his valise again, and rummaging through it. He extracted a couple of pieces of paper, then snapped the valise shut. "I think I have everything here that I need." He stood up, looked at his watch, then at Ben and his parents. "Thank you for your time."

He started for the door, leaving Ben and his parents to stare at one another. His father opened his mouth to speak.

But at the door, Hawksmoor turned back, focusing on Ben. "It may interest you to know, Mr. Bridge, that I was once an inveterate coffee drinker. Bad for the teeth, as you observed, and bad for the stomach too, I might add. But there are dental treatments which can whiten coffee-stained teeth," and then he smiled again, showing those whitened teeth. "A good detective should follow his hunches, but he should also think before he acts, prove his theories before committing himself. Good day." And then he was gone.

Their attorney went out the door after Hawksmoor, while Ben and his parents followed the bailiff down the hall to the courtroom, which was really just a small conference room. When they walked in, his attorney was there, talking with the county prosecutor, and Hawksmoor, who hadn't left after all, Ben noted with some relief, but was conferring with them. Finally, the prosecutor gave a curt nod, and went back to his desk. Ben's lawyer came back to Ben's side and began to explain when the judge spoke.

"When I was a boy, my father caught me smoking a cigar from a box in his office," the judge said. "He decided to teach me a lesson: Since I liked cigars so much, I would have to smoke an entire box. About five cigars in, I was so sick, my face turned green and I was in bed for about a week. But I never touched a cigar again. Today, we might look on his punishment as cruel, but his goal was sound: he cured me of my desire by giving me the very thing I wanted, to such a degree that I was sick of it forever."

Ben nodded. He thought of the promise he'd made to himself in his jail cell, and knew where the judge was going with this.

"Well," he continued. "It was my intention to recommend a 90-day term in a juvenile behavioral modification program—a boot camp program for first offenders."

Ben swallowed hard. The public defender had mentioned this, the chance that the judge would send Ben to some kind of juvie hall or else commit him to Hard Knocks, a camp about 500 miles to the west, on the edge of the desert. He'd be living in tents and peeing in the bushes with about 100 other kids who'd been arrested for theft or gang-related stuff or drug charges. The very idea horrified Ben, not just because he was a slight, skinny kid, barely weighing over 100 pounds, and not likely to hold his own against the kinds of bullies that would end up in a camp like that. Actually, what horrified him the most was the idea that he would be lumped in with common criminals.

The judge went on. "But Mr. Hawksmoor here has provided a more, um, appropriate option." He looked at Ben. "I've read your story in the news. You've become quite the little sensation—a boy detective straight out of a Hardy Boys or Reston Twins adventure. Well, son, you need to learn that even private eyes have to follow the law. I understand you thought you were doing a good thing, but the end doesn't justify the means.

"You are hereby sentenced to spend 90 days at the Sherrinford School for, ah, Wayward Sleuths," he smiled at his own joke. "It's the same term than I would have given you in a juvenile boot camp program, but you can come home every 30 days, and I daresay you'll find the accommodations more agreeable than at Hard Knocks."

He leaned forward in his chair and stared hard at Ben. "Understand me, young man. This will not be a summer vacation. You will be under house arrest at this school, and required to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times. You will be attending classes on the law and ethics, on forensics. You will be conducting daily exercises on investigative procedures and tested on your performance. You will be under the supervision of government and law enforcement officials who are better detectives than you could ever hope to be. If you fail to satisfactorily complete the program, if you are caught backsliding—and most especially, if you are caught breaking into anyone's room or office while you're there, no matter what the reason, you will be found out, son. And if you do step out of line, you will be summarily sentenced to six months at the juvenile boot camp. Do you understand?"

Ben nodded.

"Also, from what I gather of this program, it has until this year been a very closed, exclusive community, offering programs only to a certain clientele and their children. The fees for attending this summer program are fairly steep. But because the Sherrinford school has partnered with a special federal program, the cost of your enrollment will be defrayed by the U.S. government. However, as part of your rehabilitation and to cover your room and board, you will also be expected to work at the school. You will be assigned a work supervisor and your work detail will be explained to you when you get there." The judge looked over some papers in front of him. "You will finish out your school year at Rockaway, and then you will report to Sherrinford the first week of June, when their summer programs commence."

He paused and looked again at Ben. "From everything Mr. Hawksmoor tells me, this is going to be a hard summer for you, and you will attend to your studies. By the end of the summer you will gain a higher appreciation for the field of investigation and perhaps become so sick of it that you will never pick up a magnifying glass again. From everything I understand about your background young man, it sounds like that would be a good thing, for your own sake and your parents."

Ben looked over at his parents and felt a pang of guilt. He felt vaguely sick to his stomach, as he imagined the judge had when his father had forced him to smoke those cigars. Right now, he never wanted to do anything like detective work ever again, but the judge had just sentenced him to a whole summer of it.

The judge rapped his gavel on the table. It echoed loudly in the small conference room.

"Good luck to you, son. Next case," he said.


Friday, November 23, 2012

 

The Thanks You Get



Since you asked, the release of The Book went about as expected, which is to say it was well-received. Thomas read the whole thing, from beginning to end in about 48 hours and spent much of that time exclaiming in surprise and satisfaction in all the right places. Then he went back and read it a second time, taking a full three days, and this time he allowed that he enjoyed the first half better than the second half. Understandable: He got the first half for his 13th birthday, and waiting a year for the rest of the book is a good way to build your expectations a little high. Then he read it a third time, I think, because now he's in workshop mode, pointing out problems in the narrative, places where the pace gets a little too frenetic, and generally reminding me why I chose a career in nonfiction.

But that's okay. I'm pleased to have finished it. I even went the extra step of converting the manuscript to the mobi format for Amazon and shared it with a few people. I'm bracing for the inevitable notes, or emails with subject lines like "Huh?" and "Don't Quit Your Day Job."

But I haven't forgotten you, my friends and closest strangers, who have sent much mojo and encouragement over the years I have toiled at this labor of love.

Thus it is, in this season of thankfulness, I offer you the opening pages of the book. I gave it a suitably chewy working title, and it will have to suffice until someone offers me a better one.

Here, then, is Sherrinford's School for Wayward Sleuths.





Chapter 1
Breaking and Entering


As the moon rose above the treeline outside the darkened school, Detective Bridge stealthily snuck through the back door, his heart beating in double-time as he realized the case was finally drawing to a close.

With a clatter and a bang, Ben Bridge barked his shin on a bucket of sand the custodian had set by the back door of the school. He'd left a shovel there, too. It fell over with a clatter that made Ben cringe and silenced his inner Narrator.

Okay, not so stealthy with the sneaking, he thought.

His heart was definitely beating fast, though. Even with the moon, Ben hadn't expected it to be quite so dark, nor for the school to seem so creepy at night.

He'd been going to this school for years, knew its every nook and cranny, but his knowledge was suffused with sunlight. Like most students, he never stayed here longer than he really needed to, and that included after dark. It especially included after midnight, he realized, as he looked at the glowing dial on his wristwatch. It was 12:37, A.M., and he yawned, more out of reflex than anything else. He certainly wasn't tired. He was way too excited to think about sleep. After all, he was close to cracking the case.

That brought the Narrator back to life.

Detective Bridge played his flashlight around the entryway, looking for any cameras, motion detectors, or silent alarms he'd overlooked when he first cased this doorway earlier that week. Of course, he'd done his job only too well—he had overlooked nothing—but in this business, he knew, it paid to be careful.

Ben often narrated his life to himself, especially when he was doing anything that felt remotely like detective work. Not like a voiceover in a movie or on TV, though. At times like this, his thoughts were more like the narrator in a Steel Sterling crime novel. Ben loved Steel Sterling.

He kept his flashlight pointed down at the scuffed linoleum floor of the hallway and walked, his footsteps echoing dully in the corridor. Lockers flickered by in the light, the combination locks on the front glittering at him, an honor guard of metallic cyclopses watching him.

He had come in through the back door, by the Dumpsters, the door that the custodians always left opened. He remembered one of them saying that it was just easier to leave the door open than to lock and unlock the darn thing every time he wanted to step outside and have a cigarette (Rockaway Junior High was, after all, a Smoke-Free Environment). Getting into the school after hours had never been the challenge. The challenge would be breaking into the vice principal's office.

Ben was convinced the Veep (as everyone knew Alan Azoline, Rockaway's dean of discipline and second in command) had taken the money from the school's annual carnival fundraiser; had at least skimmed the collection. Ben had the tally sheets from the individual carnival booths and when you added them up, they didn't match the total that the Veep had deposited. Getting a copy of the deposit slip had taken some doing—nothing like the doing he was about to take, but still—and it had been the proof. The school had cleared close to $20,000 in the carnival, but the Veep had deposited a little less than $15,000. So where was the other five grand?

Ben thought he knew. Azoline was smart; he wouldn't start spending the money. Nor was he likely even to have it in an account of his own yet. No, he would have it squirreled away in his office, on school grounds. That way, if he got caught, he could always lie and say he'd overlooked it. Why, here it was still in his office. Oh my gosh! What a blunder! And of course it would be embarrassing. But nothing compared to the embarrassment that would come with losing his job. Or going to jail.

So Ben was going to find the money, stashed away somewhere in the office. He was going to find it, and take pictures of it and establish his chain of evidence. And then? He wasn't sure. Call the cops? Call the principal? No, he decided he would call the cops. He liked the school principal, but he had no idea whether or not he and the Veep were in cahoots. Besides, this was grand larceny. A big deal.

Might finally make it onto the front page of the news sites, he thought, as he walked around a corner and into a pitch-black corridor. He could make out streetlights through the windows on either side of the hallway and decided to wait a moment until his eyesight adjusted. As he did, he imagined the camera flashes, the photos and videos, the headlines: Young Detective Solves Fundraiser Felony (that's what he called it in his mind: The Fundraiser Felony).

His eyes adjusted to the light, or lack of it. He shut off his flashlight; this corridor joined the old school with the annex where the school offices were located, and it was lined with windows on both sides. Anyone walking through—especially in the middle of the night, with a flashlight in his hand—would be easily spotted from the street. He ducked down, eyes barely level with the window sills, and walked in a crouch all the way along the hallway.

As he did, the Narrator remained silent, but that's only because he was playing his personal soundtrack in his head. But not Ben's Theme, the usual tune his memory played back (for it was a conglomeration of great bits of movie music from all his favorite films). This was something new, something suited to the mood—a little jazzy number, a single cymbal tishing rapidly, in time to his heart.

He stared out at the sodium lights illuminating the street, expecting a police car to come rolling along any minute. But in the few seconds it took him to traverse the hallway, not one car passed by the school. With a long and scarily audible sigh of relief, he felt his feet step from linoleum to carpet and he knew he was in the administrative wing of the school. His heart slowed, the cymbals died, giving way to a single stringed instrument, plunking a series of tip-toey notes.

He switched his flashlight back on and, keeping it pointed at the bottoms of doorways, Ben walked down the hallways, counting doors. Just after the fourth door, he crossed another corridor and turned right. He stopped at the next door he came to. He didn't have to look at the nametag velcroed to the front. He knew it read "Alan Azoline, Dean of Discipline."

Ben tucked the flashlight under his left arm and fished around in his pocket. His gloved hand fell on a slim metal cylinder. He ran a finger thoughtfully over the burnished metal edge, feeling the timeworn pits and dents of age and use. At the age of 12, Ben Bridge didn't have many practical skills as a private detective, but, thanks to his grandfather, he did have one: He could pick a lock.

Grandpa Bridge had been a locksmith and made good money too. But his knowledge had been of old-fashioned locks and tumblers. When the digital revolution came, when the electronic locks, with their access cards and their wireless readers, made their debut, Grandpa bowed out, retiring to Florida with his meager savings and one or two handmade models of the only thing he ever invented: the PerfaPick.

Ben took the device out of his pocket and depressed the stem at the top. The PerfaPick looked exactly like an old fat fountain pen, but with the stem and the clicking noise it made, it sounded like a ballpoint. It was neither, of course. The PerfaPick was meant to overcome one of the great inconveniences of locksmithing life: carrying a whole purse of picks and tension wrenches around. Instead, the PerfaPick contained six different picks with a variety of configurations that covered most any key-operated lock. Even today, those locks pretty much came in two flavors—5-pin locks and 3-pin locks. Three-pin locks were a breeze to pick—Ben mastered those easily. Five-pin locks were a little more complicated, but the PerfaPick was equal to them. Ben had seen Grandpa pick hundreds of them and he was pretty sure he could do it himself.

He knelt down and shone the light into the keyhole. Right away, he could see it was a 5-pin lock. He held the PerfaPick up to the light and began fiddling with a control knob on the side, wheeling the 5-pin pick into the channel. He clicked the stem and the pick poked forward, into the lock.

Grandpa always said lockpicking was more art than science. While it was true you had to manipulate the lock so that the pins lined up, allowing you the turn the tension wrench (which Ben placed at the top of the keyhole now), you still had to feel the pins line up, had to sense the lock as it teetered on the cusp of opening. This was something Ben strove to learn, but he hadn't yet succeeded. At the time of his grandfather's death last fall, Ben had not yet picked a 5-pin lock. Tonight he would though.

As he fiddled with the pick, he let his mind drift, go silent. This was no time for a Narrator, nor any personal soundtrack. Instead, he tried not to concentrate on anything, not the creepiness of the school, nor the performance of the pick, nor what he would do once he found the money. But then he thought about the news stories that would celebrate his genius once he cracked the case. Would he tell the reporter that he had picked a lock to get into the Veep's office? That was breaking-and-entering, after all, a crime (was it a felony or a misdemeanor? He wasn't sure).

Stop, he thought. Let it go.

This time, he stared at the ceiling panels, at the dots in each panel above him, and let his hand guide itself. He angled the pick this way, then that, feeling the slight, almost imperceptible shift of each pin as it lined up in the lock. As it did, he applied a little extra pressure to hold each pin in place, yet still he moved the pick. When he felt the fourth pin line up, he turned the tension wrench slightly and let his hand tremble. If the fifth pin was close to lining up, the vibrations might be enough to nudge—


snick


He felt it more than heard it, but there was no doubt that it was the last pin. With a jerk to the left, the lock gave and suddenly the doorknob turned.

It took all he had to suppress a whoop of triumph. Instead, the detective simply allowed himself a silent grin. The Narrator was back.

Ben remained kneeling on the floor and pushed the office door open. He played the light around before stepping in. It was pretty basic: a metal desk at the far end, under a set of double windows, set high into the wall. On one side, the wall was filled with black metal filing cabinets. On the other was a small refrigerator with a coffee maker on top, and a couple of chairs. Ben had sat in one of those chairs a few times in his career at Rockaway Junior High. Sometimes a case put you at odds with the authorities. There was the time he'd tried to stow away on the late bus so he could sneak into the school motor pool and see who was painting graffiti on the sides of all the buses.

Another time, he'd been caught on the roof, which was totally out of bounds, but he wanted to see if that's where Skids Farris and his crew had hidden the file of exam answers they supposedly stole (he was escorted off the roof before he could find it). Rather than praising him for his grit and determination to right wrongs and discover the truth, Azoline had always come down hard on Ben.

"I don't like snoops," he said, just about every time he saw Ben. "Neither does anyone else. Maybe you'd have more friends in this school if you figured that out. You need to learn to mind your own business in this life, young man, or you're going to wind up in lots bigger trouble than you are right now." And then he'd give Ben a week's worth of detention.

Most kids said Azoline wasn't all that strict, but he sure seemed that way with Ben. Maybe he just didn't want a detective operating on school grounds because he figured that sooner or later that detective would get wise to him, he thought.

Ben had been a detective of one kind or another since he was 8 or 9 years old. He had always loved the children's mysteries section of the school library, had read every selection—most of them twice—in the shelves there. He seemed to be the only one who liked those books anymore, something he'd observed when he examined the checkout card and realized that many of the books had not been checked out in months or even years. Seemed like, when kids read at all, they wanted fantasy. Magic, ghost stories, fairy tales. When his dad was a boy, he remembered being told, mysteries were all the rage. Every boy wanted to solve crimes like the Reston Twins or Steel Sterling. Or help neighborhood kids with their everyday mysteries, like the McGinty Organization did in their series of books. But these days, no one read mysteries, so that Ben felt like that section of the library was his own private wing. Wasn't there anyone else out there like him, he'd often wondered? Not just someone who loved a good mystery, but who was inspired by them, wanted to be like those heroes? Not at this school. More than a thousand kids, and so far as Ben Bridge knew, he was the only one who ran a detective agency, even if it was just a detective agency of one.

He finished playing his flashlight around the room and stepped in, crouching low to avoid the windows, although they were plenty high. He looked briefly at the cabinets. All had alphabetic labels on them and he guessed they were all student files. He went around to the desk and sat in the Veep's chair.

The chair squeaked loudly, like a stool pigeon being leaned on. Ben froze for a moment, cringing at the noise, then inched it slowly back.

He trained the flashlight on the drawers. None of them was locked, which he found surprising, and a little disappointing. A locked drawer would have been a dead giveaway of something valuable hidden within, and with the PerfaPick, he'd have made short work of it. But instead, all he could do was very quickly rule out the desk as the location of any hidden money, just school stationery, a complement of basic office supplies, and a small but interesting collection of adult novels and trashy magazines—the Veep's disciplinary duties included confiscating inappropriate reading material from the student body.

Ben sat back and looked around the room. It really was very sparsely decorated—no pictures or posters. Just one wall-hanging, a framed certificate which, upon closer inspection, revealed itself to be the Veep's state teaching certification. Ben lifted the frame from the wall, but knew already that he'd find nothing, no hidden safe or recess. The walls were solid, whitewashed cinderblock.

With a sigh, Ben got up and started to the check the file cabinets. They were locked, as it turned out, but file cabinet locks were easy—the first ones Ben ever learned to pick, all those years ago, first on the battered ones in Grandpa's basement, later on the rather nicer oak ones in his Dad's den, back when they had the big house on Fernhill Drive in the Heights, before Dad lost his job.

There were six cabinets in all, each of them containing five long drawers packed full of student files. Ben gave a quick look through each drawer, his heart sinking as he did. Had he been wrong after all?

In his mind's eye, the Detective could almost imagine his foe laughing at him, his bright white teeth flashing in the darkness. He—

"Wait a second!" Ben hissed, cutting the Narrator off. In his mind, he had seen the Veep's face, imagined his harsh, cutting laugh, seen his gleaming white, sharp, shark's teeth, guffawing in the hall as he and the principal shared a joke.

Ben's eyes fell on the coffee maker.

He went over and looked at it, still thinking oddly of the Veep's teeth. The flashlight beamed refracted through the round glass carafe, sending strange glints of lights this way and that across the cinderblock walls. Ben knew how these things worked—he'd made coffee once for his parents, that time they'd been up all night in the big house on Fernhill, sitting in Dad's office, hunched over the calculator, their faces grim. He's found some kind of special coffee in the fridge—it came from Hawaii and it was expensive. When his parents heard the machine hissing and sputtering, they came into the kitchen then. His Dad smiled at Ben, ruffled his hair. "Thanks for making the Kona, buddy," he said. "With your old man out of a job, we won't be drinking that again for a good while."

Ben looked behind the small fridge on which the coffee maker was resting—and noted it wasn't plugged in. He saw a lid on the top—the water reservoir—and flipped it open. Nothing—not even a drop of water. He lifted the machine off the top of the fridge and looked under it, thinking maybe there was another opening or it was hollowed out in some way, but no luck. Then he noticed the little handle on the front. He knew that had to be the filter compartment, where you placed a new paper filter and poured in the coffee grounds. He grabbed the handle—it was barely more than a plastic nub—between his thumb and forefinger and tugged, but it was stuck. Something was jammed in there.

He set his flashlight on the desk behind him and grasped a little more firmly. Slowly, the lid gave, and then it opened all in a rush and he lost his grip. The coffee maker fell to the floor, the glass carafe shattering loudly in the dark. But there was another noise too, a muffled yet heavy thump of something solid hitting the floor.

Ben reached behind, scrabbling for the flashlight. He got it and played it across the floor. Glass shards twinkled in the torchlight, beautiful and sharp.

And there, amid the shards, was a small zippered case, slowly unfolding itself. It had obviously been stuffed into the filter compartment. And as it opened, slowly, like a flower in the dawn, he saw the words Monopolis State Bank emblazoned on the front.

Ben squatted, not wanting to kneel in the glass. He reached out and snatched the envelope from the floor. It was heavy for its size. He unzipped it and immediately saw the corner of a stack of twenties.

In Ben's mind, music swelled to a triumphant crescendo.

Bingo! the Narrator said.

"Gotcha," Ben whispered.

"Police! Don't move, son!" yelled another voice by the door.

As it turned out, Ben had been right about one thing that night: he did finally make it onto the news sites—front page, too. But at the time, he was way too busy being under arrest to enjoy it.


Here's Chapter 2, if you can stand it. Thanks to those of you who made it this far.

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