Friday, December 28, 2012

 

Final (Fiction) Friday?


So, here's a nice big chapter to wind up on for now. Thanks to everyone who read this far and expressed a kind interest in reading the rest. Maybe I will post it to Amazon, although I've discovered--as some of you have, I'm sure--a few careless errors that need fixing, and perhaps one middling size plot point that might work better in an earlier chapter. Once that's done, well, maybe...

But for now, this will have to suffice:


(Previous chapter)

(Next chapter)


Chapter 6

The Second Mystery


Oz, Ben, and about a hundred other boys poured out a side door and Ben found himself on the quad surrounded by six other buildings, including a few that were closed and barricaded. Directly across from him was a building marked "Belden Hall" on an arch over the door, and from beneath that arch came an equal number of girls all trooping off toward the main building. In moments they were back at the main doors where the shuttle bus had first dropped them off.

Dean Taras was there, directing everyone down a massive corridor on the left ("straight on through. Watch out for the workmen. We're still getting settled over in the business office. No shoving once you're in line for supper! There's plenty for everyone!").

Down at the end of the corridor, they found themselves in vast open room that, to Ben's dismay, looked like every other combination cafeteria/auditorium he'd ever been in. After seeing the old-style craftwork of his dorm and the ornate turrets and roofwork of the main building, he'd been expecting chunky wooden tables with high-backed chairs, walls adorned by murals and metal scrollwork. Instead, it was just an average, cement-floored, whitewalled auditorium with several dozen foldaway tables and chairs set out. At one end, there was a doorway with an arrowed sign pointing toward another corridor (the sign read "Business Office & Computer Labs"). Just inside the doorway, a couple of guys in overalls were bustling about, shoving some unused chairs and folded tables aside to make room for two other men, who were wheeling hand-trucks stacked high with white boxes—printer paper for the office and labs, Ben supposed. To the right, just as they came into the dining hall, a long buffet had been set up, with stacks of trays and silverware set out at a table right in front of the entrance. Ben grabbed a tray and took his place in line.

After he'd loaded his tray with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a huge bowl of green jello on the side, he and Oz made their way to the tables. There were cards at the head of each table, marked "1st", "2nd" and so on through all the years the school accommodated. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Although he didn't realize it til then, he'd almost been expecting a label reading "DCs" and thought he and his fellow disciplinary cases would be segregated from the rest of the student body.

He and Oz picked seats about halfway down one table reserved for first-year students. They saved an empty space between them for Toby, who had not yet arrived. Ben craned his neck to look at the doorway, and though the line had dwindled to just one or two stragglers, there was no sign of his new friend.

Ben found himself seated next to another boy his height an age, but with a round friendly face. He nodded. The boy nervously nodded back.

"H-hi," he said nervously. "G-guess it's your first summer here too."

"Yep," Ben said, sticking out his hand. "I'm Ben," was all he offered. He didn't know how many people had read about the escapade that got him in the school, but if Oz and Toby had, it was a good bet others had, too."

The boy introduced himself as Teddy Jordan and it turned out that he lived directly below Ben and Oz in room 323. Teddy's older sister, Tina, was also at the school. Teddy pointed up to the end of the large room, where a smaller table had been set off and Ben could see about a dozen older kids. A tall girl with long, straight blonde hair looked over, then smiled and waved at Teddy, who shyly waved back. Even though Tina had obviously been looking at her brother, Ben felt his heart race and found himself blushing as he too, hazarded a tiny wave. "She's 16, so she came back as a counselor. She's really good at English and stuff, so they're going to put her in the library," Teddy said.

"Is that what the counselors do, help out with classes?" Ben asked.

"Oh yeah, and other stuff. They work with the teachers to keep an eye out for the kids, to help them, and report on them if they get out of line. You know," he said.

Ben looked up again and saw that Tina Jordan was now talking to a somewhat beefy boy who'd dropped an overloaded dinner tray on the table next to her and was alternating between speaking to her and turning to shovel food into his mouth, then turning back to continue his conversation. When he turned his head back to his tray, Ben's heart sank to see the boy was none other than Greg, the one who had accosted them on the bus. Greg shoveled a heap of mashed potatoes into his mouth, then turned once again to talk to Tina, who by this time had bent her head back slightly. Even from this distance, Ben could see that Greg was spraying food with every word he spoke.

"So who's the guy next to your sister?" he asked.

"Oh," said Teddy, his eyes narrowing. "That's Greg Grindle. He's a counselor too." Teddy lowered his voice. "I hate him," he whispered. "But my sister thinks he's hot you-know-what."

"Well," Ben said, "maybe she just likes having food sprayed on her."

Teddy snorted and almost spit out his own food. After a hacking moment, he laughed aloud and gave Ben a cautious smile. "Be careful what you say. Greg's family has been coming here for years and a lot of people suck up to him. You badmouth him behind his back and it'll get back to him, I guarantee it."

Ben shrugged. "I'll take my chances."

Just then, Toby appeared, slamming a tray down on the table and flopping into the seat Ben and Oz had saved for him. He appeared out of breath and streaked with dust and sweat.

"What happened to you?" Oz asked, looking him over.

"Oh, nothing, just tripped in the dirt running over here. Sorry I'm late," he said, then stabbed at the salad he'd set on his plate and stuffed it into his mouth.

After about 20 minutes, when everyone had finished at least one helping of the food up at the buffet, Ben noticed a man walked to the front of the dining hall, carrying a microphone stand. It was evidently already on because he made a great deal of crackling and whoomphing as he walked along. It was this noise more than the presence of the man himself that made everyone gradually quiet down.

The man was short and stocky, built rather like Dean Taras herself, Ben thought. He was balding on top but had a thin grey mustache on his lip. He set the microphone stand down in front of the counselor's table (KA-BONNNG it echoed through the room as it landed), then cleared his throat for quiet. He needn't have bothered. By this time, everyone was stone silent.

"Good evening children," he said in a slightly nasally twang. "My name is Oscar Reston. I am the grandson of the original Oscar Reston, the author of the Reston Twins mysteries, of which I'm sure you have heard. I just flew in a short while ago and it's always a thrill to see my second home, especially from the air."

Reston paused, and in that second, even without looking under tables to check for ankle bracelets, Ben could have picked out everyone in the hall who was a regular Sherrinford student and not a disciplinary case, because they were the only ones clapping. The whole moment had a very staged feel to it, and Oscar Reston beamed for a moment, exposing a thin row of teeth just below his mustache.

"It is also my honor to be the director of the Sherrinford School, and we have a great many exciting things planned for students this year," he went on. "In a few minutes, staff and counselors will pass among you to confirm names and hand out schedules, and I will outline some of the programs and projects we'll be undertaking—both individually and as a school—this term.

"But first, I think I must address the, uh, elephant in the room. As most of you are aware, for the first time ever, Sherrinford School has opened its doors to the wider world. We have undertaken to spearhead a new initiative in reformatory education. This year, we have become a fully accredited rehabilitative facility as part of a new government juvenile justice system. As such, we have welcomed nearly one hundred young men and women into our ranks who have, er, misstepped in some way."

At this there was a minor rumbling among the students. Apparently not everyone had heard about this, Ben thought.

"I have assured your parents as I will now assure you: We have maintained full autonomy in this program and have carefully selected the candidates for the program. No disciplinary student here has been convicted of a violent crime or drug offense. Each case was individually examined in the most minute detail by our school attorney, criminal law instructor, and esteemed alum, David Hawksmoor."

At this, Reston gestured towards the counselors' table and for the first time, Ben saw a small line of older men and women gathered at doorway. The workmen had gone, their stacks of printer paper boxes towering nearby. The men and women stood in front of the boxes and Ben easily picked out the severe, hawk-nosed man he had met all those weeks ago. A small smattering of polite applause went up and Hawksmoor gave the curtest of nods.

"The students we selected for the disciplinary program—I hate to call it that, it's really a rehabilitative program—were chosen because they were, in our estimation, worthy of attending Sherrinford. Mr. Hawksmoor and our selection committee reviewed their cases and selected only those who showed superior analytical skills, powers of observation and deduction, or in some other way showed the abilities that we prize so highly in grooming our students to take their place among the very best in the ranks of jurisprudence, public and private investigation, and general law enforcement."

As Ben looked around, he could see a lot of eyes glazing over and began to wonder if maybe Oscar Reston should have given his speech before everyone had a full stomach. But then he had the sense that someone was watching him. He looked around, and then he saw a pair of eyes glaring in his direction from the counselors' table. Greg Grindle. Except he wasn't looking at Ben. Ben turned slightly and saw that Toby was engaged in a staring match and muttering something. It didn't sound like English, but it sure sounded like swear words.

Oscar Reston cleared his throat into the microphone, bringing Ben back.

"My point is, we welcome these students here," he said, blinking and looking around nervously, as if he didn't quite believe what he was saying. "They will have a few more, um, rules to follow, but aside from that and a few additional classes and duties, they are to be accorded the same privileges and rights as any other Sherrinford student, and I expect all you old boys and girls to make them feel as though they belong." At this, he arched an eyebrow and stood a little on his tiptoes, trying to look both grave and severe, but failing on both counts. "Am I making myself perfectly clear?"

There was a rumble of "Yes, Mr. Reston," at which Oscar beamed again and rocked back on his heels.

He went on to introduce other instructors at the school, reiterate warnings about staying away from buildings that were closed on campus (there were quite a few more than just the dormitories, it seemed to Ben). Then Reston went off on a long digression about being a pilot and how much he loved flying his little airplane in from the city for these summer sessions, and invited students to see his display of aerial photographs of the campus over in the hall by the staff offices. All of the droning began to run together as Ben himself was feeling the effects of his meal now and was starting to zone out. He perked up a little bit when Oscar mentioned that all trails were open to students and they were encouraged to use them during their free time after classes, and all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday—"although, again, some of you new students may have special work duties on those free days," he added, and Ben thought he saw Greg Grindle smirk at him.

"You will have tomorrow to yourselves, although for new students, there will be a tour of the campus and grounds at 10 o'clock. Meet at the front door of the main building here," he said. "Finally, you will note in your materials something about the school mystery. Our returning students will know something of that, our new students will find out in due time. We will have more information about this year's mystery later on in the week. For now, though, the school mystery will be a…er… mystery," he concluded lamely. Then he started, remembering something. "Oh, also, after the counselors have handed out the schedules, I will need all special-program students to remain behind." He seemed about to say something else, rocked on his heels for a moment, and then stepped away from the microphone.

And then teachers and counselors were passing among them, calling out names and handing out schedules. Teddy Jordan's pretty sister Tina edged by, calling out the names of first-year girls ("Emily Tancredi? Briana Tanner?"), but stopped briefly to ruffle Teddy's hair affectionately and to give Ben—who was still gawking at her—an unexpected wink. He flinched as though struck and turned his head away, only to find himself facing Toby, whose eyes were fixed on him.

"Good God, Bridge," he said, glowering. "Have some self-respect."

"Bit haphazard," Oz remarked over the top of this, as he watched teachers and counselors calling out names and zigzagging around the hall. "Would have been much easier to sit us all alphabetically, instead of by year. I'd think, uh oh—" he trailed off.

"Bridge! Burglar Ben Bridge!"

Ben looked up in time to catch a wadded piece of paper in his face. Greg Grindle moved quickly past, muttering something about criminals getting too much press, then called out more names. Ben saw that Teddy Jordan was giving him a wary look and had edged himself away ever so slightly. Ben shook his head inwardly and unwrapped the crumpled paper that turned out to be his schedule.

It was simple chart of blocked hours. As the judge had told him, he'd have classes most of the day—it really was just like summer school:


BRIDGE, BENJAMIN  (DC)

SCHED MON-THURS


6-7 Work Assignment (see Dean Taras)


7-8 Breakfast


8-9 Writing/Reporting


9-10 Crime Lab


10-10:30 Break


10:30-11:30 Detectives in Fact and Fiction


11:30-1:30 Lunch/exercise


1:30-2 Observation & Deduction


2-2:30 Law and Ethics


FRI-SATURDAY


8-11 Work Assignment


SUNDAY


Free


Even as Ben felt his heart sink—he was really going to have to get up at 6 o'clock every morning and work before class? Before breakfast even?—his eyes were drawn to a cryptic note at the very bottom of the schedule:


STUDENTS OR STUDENT TEAMS MAY USE LUNCH, FREE TIME, AND EVENINGS UNTIL LIGHTS OUT (10 PM) TO WORK ON THIS YEAR'S SCHOOL MYSTERY


He was about to show this to Toby and Oz, who hadn't yet received their schedules, when Tina Jordan stopped by again, looking a little flustered. "Teddy?" she asked her brother. "Have you met any of the new girls? I've found everyone except Briana Tanner." Teddy shook his head.

"I don't know her either," Ben offered stupidly. Tina gave him a distracted smile and moved on out of the row of tables, walking over to Dean Taras and Mr. Hawksmoor, who were standing near the microphone, conferring.

Now Greg Grindle was back, charging down the table, still barking out names of first-year boys "Alan Gerrity! C'mon, c'mon, raise yer hand! Oswald Goldrick!" he said and stopped a few feet away, dangling Oz's schedule, making Oz stand up and reach for it. As soon as Oz's hand was near the piece of paper, Greg snatched it away smiling. Ben felt Toby tense like a bowstring and saw him put one sneakered foot on his seat, as if ready to launch himself across the table.

"Cool it," Ben hissed, putting a hand on Toby's arm, marveling again at the strength he felt on such a thin limb. "Geez, are you sure you weren't arrested for a violent crime?" Toby shot him a venomous look, but settled—barely—back into his seat.

In a moment, Grindle had tired of torturing Oz and let the schedule flutter to the table, where Oz retrieved it and scanned it, smiling. "Wow, Crime Lab. I bet we're going to learn all sorts of forensic science."

"Yeah, but what about the work detail?" Ben said.

Oz seemed unperturbed. "I have mine during lunch."

"What?" hooted Ben. "I have to be up at 6 every morning for my work assignment!" And he showed Oz, who looked mildly interested, as though Ben had shown him a scabbed elbow.

"Hmm, so you do," he remarked. "I'm working in the computer lab from 12:30 to 1:30." He frowned. "And Dean Taras herself will be my supervisor. I thought it would be someone on the school IT staff."

"What about you?" Ben asked Toby, then realized his friend didn't have a piece of paper yet. Toby sighed. "Guess they didn't have one printed up for me, since I'm a late entry. I'll go up and talk to the Dean," he said, pulling himself upright. He walked right by Tina Jordan, who was now at the microphone calling for her one missing girl, and spoke to Dean Taras, who seemed annoyed—Ben suspected that was her default expression—but gestured for Toby to follow her. She excused herself from Mr. Hawksmoor, who now gazed around the room. His sharp eyes briefly passed by Ben, but then came right back and fixed him with a look. He raised a hand, extended one index finger and curtly gestured it towards himself.

Ben hopped up as thought a rope had been attached to that finger and wrapped around his neck. He walked smartly to the front of the room, where Mr. Hawksmoor extended a hand. Ben took it and they shook briefly. Ben had been right: Hawksmoor's grip was as unexpectedly firm as Toby's had been.

"Benjamin. Settling in, I trust?"

"Ye-yes sir. I'm in Doyle Hall."

Hawksmoor allowed himself a thin smile. "Ah, I was there my second year. And I understand you are rooming with Oswald Goldrick?"

"Yes. We met on the way up here."

Hawksmoor nodded at this. "Hmm, hmm. Interesting combination, but not a bad one. I understand why Dean Taras had to room you together. Which reminds me: you know we have an excellent library here. You'll have free access to the computers there, since you couldn't have one in your room."

Ben nodded dumbly.

Hawksmoor went on. "I usually teach Law and Ethics, but this year I'm afraid I’ll have to engage a substitute for class—although this summer I do hope to be able to deliver one or two lectures. I suggest you pay close attention. I seem to remember in your specific instance, you have a strong sense of what's right, but less of a grasp on what's legal."

Ben bowed his head. "Yes sir."

Hawksmoor nodded, indicating their conversation was over.

As Ben walked back to his table, Toby came trotting over, holding his schedule. "Got it from Dean Taras," he squeaked. Ben looked. Toby's schedule was handwritten, apparently by the Dean herself. "I'll be helping the school librarian," he added, making Ben wonder when he'd find out about his assignment—and his schedule was the same as Ben's.

By now, all the students, except for the DCs, were heading out through the door they'd come in. The workmen were back and now they were stacking more boxes by this door. Tina Jordan was standing there, too, looking ever more upset and stopping each girl and occasionally calling out the name of that last girl she couldn't find. It was all creating quite the bottleneck.

Shouldering through the throng came a harassed-looking man holding a laptop computer and a handheld scanner just like the one used by the technician Ben had met earlier (had that really been this morning?). The DCs all had a similar look of recognition on their faces. They knew what was coming.

The man set his laptop on the buffet table and barked at the students to line up. Ben stared at the man—he was sporting the most stupendous, ridiculous mustache Ben had ever seen on anyone outside the pages of a Civil War history book. It covered his mouth entirely so that when he spoke, Ben wasn't sure if it was the man himself, or just the mustache that was issuing instructions.

"Line up!" he barked. "My name is Zoltan Zalud, and in addition to being chief of the school Crime Lab, I am also in charge of all school computers, security and associated technology!" He glowered at them. "This year, that includes setting up the monitoring system for all of the Variable Area Personal Monitoring Devices!"

As Zoltan launched into an explanation of how the bracelets worked—it was almost word for word what the technician and Ben's parole officer had told him this morning—students around Ben were already snickering and making comments about both the man's name and his outrageous facial hair. Ben looked around, sure that Toby would have some acid remark to make, but Ben couldn't see him anywhere in the crowd.

"Listen up!" Zoltan shouted, his every sentence punctuated in exclamation points. "During the day, starting at precisely 7 AM, the VAPMDs will be in Daytime Mode—programmed to allow you access to the school buildings and grounds! You'll get a map on your tour tomorrow that clearly delineates the boundaries of the school! At night, precisely at lights out, the VAPMDs will automatically go into Curfew Mode! That means the boundaries of the VAPMDs will be configured such that you can only move about within the precise GPS coordinates of your dormitory! Step more than a few feet out of the door while the VAPMD is in Curfew Mode, and your device will go into Alert Mode, sending an infraction signal to the monitoring system! Only a security admin like myself, the staff at the school infirmary, or certain other teachers, will have an access code to override the system, so if it's in an emergency, you will need to go to one of the approved admins to have the code overridden!" He paused, letting his mustache catch its breath. "Failure to do so will cause the infraction signal to stand, and the police will be called out immediately to pursue and arrest you! Any questions?"

Ben looked at Oz, who raised an eyebrow. "Forget what I said earlier about learning anything in Crime Lab," he sighed. "I could have explained the system better than that. All of a sudden, I'm really glad Dean Taras is my work supervisor."

Zoltan barked again at the DCs to line up—then realized they already were—and impatiently gestured at the first one to come forward so he could scan the ankle bracelet and log the student into the system. As Ben edged forward, he was uncomfortably aware that many of the regular students had remained in the entryway of the cafeteria, gawking. Several were laughing and jeering, and Ben was sure he could hear Greg Grindle's grating, guffawing voice over everyone's. After several humiliating minutes, it was finally his turn. Zoltan roughly grabbed his leg, and after several swipes, he finally got the beeping noise he wanted from the laptop and Ben was logged in.

Face red, Ben pushed through the other students to get out of the cafeteria. Oz was right behind him, smiling.

"I got a good look at the laptop screen while he was trying to scan you. It's a really cheap monitoring system—not a true security system, but a modified inventory database program used by Chinese cargo container ships. I think it would be fairly easy to override, if I could just get my hands on—"

"Hey!" Toby cried, pushing his way through the other students.

"Where were you?" Ben asked.

"Right behind you, duh. Was that walrus dude a dope or what?"

This made Ben laugh, and helped dispel some of the humiliation he'd been feeling. Cheered, he was about to suggest they get out of here and head back to Doyle, when Dean Taras appeared at their side with such suddenness that even Toby jumped ("That woman's everywhere!" he remarked later.)

"Benjamin Bridge!" she snapped, pointing a bony finger at him.

Ben froze. "Yes, ma'am?" he said.

Dean Taras consulted her ubiquitous clipboard and removed from it a small slip of paper. "Your work assignment. Report to the Building and Grounds Office—it's the small brick building near the south gate—at 6 sharp, Monday morning. Missing ANY work assignment could be grounds for immediate expulsion," she said, looking warningly him. Then she walked off, calling other students out of the crowd that was now finally beginning to break up and filter out of the doorway.

"What'd you get?" Toby asked, as Ben unfolded the paper. "Maybe you're in the library too?"

"Uhh, not quite," Ben said, his heart falling into his shoes as he read the two words on the note:


Garbage Duty


But before he could say anything, Tina Jordan burst into the entryway, angry and frantic.

"BRIANA TANNER?!?" she boomed, louder even than Zoltan Zalud. "HAS ANYONE SEEN BRIANA TANNER?"

Dean Taras was by her side in a second to pull the anxious girl down the corridor. But as they left, Ben heard her say, in an upset and worried voice. "You don't understand, Dean Taras! I think we have a student missing!"



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.


Friday, December 14, 2012

 

(Fiction) Friday I'm in Love

Well, I had intended to post the first six chapters and it looks like we're past the halfway point. I have a soft spot for this chapter, since it introduces one of my favorite characters. And I'm not patting myself on the back in saying that either: This character took on a life of his own far beyond what I originally envisioned. I don't know quite how it happened, but I do remember feeling that strange thrill at the idea that maybe I wasn't entirely writing this story. Maybe this story was writing me.

If that makes any sense.

Either way, I give you:



(Previous chapter)
(Next chapter)


Chapter 4

Toby Speaks Up

It was more than two hours before the first of two shuttle buses blew by them there on the dusty track next to the road. Oz had seen the first and stood up. He was much taller than Ben and waved his arms. The shuttle driver stared impassively ahead as he roared past.

They stood there for a moment, before Oz announced he was going to call a cab to take them the rest of the way. He began fiddling with his Gamehound until a telephone keypad popped up on-screen and Oz began pushing numbers. Then the call dropped and Oz cursed, muttering something about poor signal coverage in the boonies. "it's okay," he assured Ben (who hadn't said anything), "I can make the call over the Web."

Oz began fiddling with buttons again while Ben swallowed inwardly. He had less than 20 dollars on him, and that was supposed to last him most of the summer. He couldn't afford a cab for the drive up to the school. He was about to say so when he spotted another bus—also bearing the words "Sherrinford" across the top—coming up the hill from below where the gas station sat. He waved wildly, but he needn't have worried. The bus was already throttling down and slowly pulled into the service station. Oz quickly stuffed his Gamehound in a pocket of his pack.

Detective Bridge and his newfound friend breathed a sigh of relief as the driver opened the door and welcomed our intrepid heroes on their last leg of the journey.

"Thought you were gonna have to hoof it, I bet?" the driver cackled as he stepped off the bus. "The other shuttle was full up. We got quite a crowd this year with all them DCs, so they sent two." He opened the storage compartment under the bus, grabbed Ben's duffel and tossed it in.

"DC?" Oz asked as he began grappling with his massive suitcase.

"Discipline cases. Brand new thing for us. Didn't know quite how many we'd get the first year, the little reprobates," he said, apparently not even considering that he might be talking to two such reprobates. "Dang, son, what in the heck you bring with you? A body?" he asked, as he helped Oz wheel his luggage over.

"Camera equipment, and other odds and ends," Oz said, then changed the subject as curtly as he had with Ben earlier. "So how far is it to the school?"

"Only another 20 miles as the crow flies, but it's mostly uphill and the road is a bit curvy. Probably take us a good half-hour, 45 minutes to get there. But don't worry, we'll be there in time for the dinner bell. Hooof!" he grunted, shoving Oz's suitcase into the storage compartment, which it very nearly filled.

The driver leaned back into the bus and grabbed a clipboard. "Names?" he asked. When they gave them, the driver scanned his list, frowned, looked meaningfully at them from beneath his eyebrows, then flipped the page to a second list—no doubt the list of students in the special program—harrumphing as he did. He nodded and clucked to himself as he found their names. The driver looked at both of them a little apprehensively, and Ben thought he might be about to apologize for his earlier remarks, seeing as he was now addressing a couple of the reprobates he'd been complaining about earlier. But Ben was wrong.

"Show me those house-arrest gadgets, boys," he said sternly. Then he made quite a deal of inspecting the monitors closely—at one point his face was so close to Ben's that he could have licked his leg. Ben was uncomfortably aware of faces pressed up against the windows of the shuttle. Even the gas station attendant had stepped out to have a gawk at them. Finally, satisfied that they hadn't tampered with their monitors, the driver let them climb aboard. He watched them carefully as they made their way down the aisle (what, does he think we're gonna steal one of the seats? Ben wondered, irritated). Finally, he took his place behind the wheel and lurched the shuttle forward before the pair of them had quite found a place to sit.

The bus had about a dozen other kids aboard, several of them older, and those kids were sitting in the very back. The rest of the kids were sitting alone, several of them looking as nervous as Ben had felt earlier when he boarded the first bus on his way here. You didn't need to be a detective to figure out which kids were coming here for the first time, he thought, although he did wonder how many of them were, like himself, DCs, as the driver had called them. He couldn't see their ankles.

He and Oz sat together on a bench about midway down the length of the bus. Right behind them, another kid looked up from a magazine. Their eyes met.

"Hey," the kid nodded, in a warbly voice. He had a round face that looked at odds with a very recent and very stubbly short haircut that made his light auburn hair look like faintly reddish turf. He seemed to want to say more, but he shut up right away and went back to reading. Ben felt instant pity for him. His own voice had started to change just after his birthday and the experience had been deeply embarrassing. Although his vocal cords had settled down recently, for months Ben was afraid to open his mouth because every time he did, he sounded just like a girl. Well, a girl with laryngitis.

Now the boy looked up at Ben and seemed to be reading his thoughts. "What are you staring at?" he warbled truculently.

"Nothing. Sorry," Ben said, sticking out his hand. "Ben Bridge."

The kid with the short red hair looked at that hand a long beat before deciding to take it. "Toby. Toby Tanalov," he said finally, grabbing Ben's hand and pumping it briefly. Toby was skinnier than Oz, but he had a wiry strength in his grip.

Oz was seated cross-legged, examining his own ankle bracelet, so he only looked up briefly. "Oz Goldrick," he said, sketching a little salute before turning his eyes back to his monitoring device.

"Where you from?" Ben asked.

"Vermont," Toby replied in his unsteady voice. "I was staying up there with my uncle. My parents kicked me out," he added, smiling, then sat up straighter, as though proud of the fact.

Ben nodded in sympathy. "So I guess you're a DC like us?" he asked.

Toby frowned at him.

"That's what I heard the driver calling us. All the discipline cases that the school is letting in," Ben explained. He craned his neck over the seat, making to look at Toby's legs to confirm the presence of the telltale ankle bracelet, but Toby's legs were shoved forward under the seat.

"What did you do, then?" Toby asked.

Ben frowned. Unlike Toby, he wasn't proud of what he'd done and this was the first time he'd had to explain to anyone—Oz had saved him the trouble by reading about him online. So he briefly told Toby, whose eyes widened.

"Oh my God!" he squeaked, losing control of his voice again. He quickly closed his mouth. When he opened it again, he had dropped his voice to a more controllable whisper. "I saw that story about you on the cable news. You broke into the school to find missing money or something."

"Yeah, well, it wasn't missing, just hidden. And it was the wrong money. I was...wrong all the way around," he said, shrugging. "That's why I'm here."

"What about him?" Toby asked, jerking a thumb at Oz, who was so engrossed in his examination of the ankle monitor now that he scarcely seemed to be breathing, let alone aware of their existence.

"Hacker," Ben said.

"I prefer the term 'hacktivist,'" Oz said, still not looking at them.

"Like that guy that was on the news?" Toby asked, intrigued.

Oz snorted, looked up briefly. "Yeah, just like. Except for the part where I got caught."

"They caught the Whiz," Ben pointed out. "I saw a report about it."

Oz snorted again. "Don't believe everything you see on the news."

Ben turned back to Toby. "So what about you?"

But before Toby could answer, a shadow fell over them and they looked up.

One of the big kids had risen from his seat in the back and had obviously overheard most or all of their conversation. He looked to be about 16, a tall boy with long, ropy arms that ended in a pair of clenched fists that hung directly in front of Ben and Toby. Like Toby, he had short haircut, but where it seemed out-of-place on Toby's softer, round face, it fit perfectly with this guy's bricklike head and square jaw.

"I hear right?" he said. "You all a bunch of miserable DCs?"

Ben frowned. And to think he'd been worried about bullies at the boot camp.

"I'm Ben Bridge—" he began falteringly.

"I KNOW who you are, nose-wipe," he hissed, leaning his face down in front of Ben's, so close now Ben could almost count the hairs in his nostrils. He stared murderously at Ben for a second, then shifted his gaze toward Toby. "So what did you do? Mug an old lady? Sell drugs?"

Oz spoke up. "Sherrinford only recruited kids who fell within a specific personality profile," he said, as he tugged gently on the ankle monitor strap. "They didn't choose from among anyone with drug records or violent offenses."

The bigger boy looked over at Oz, his face, curling into a sneer. "Yeah? Well, I still think they got no business sending a bunch of convicts to our school." As he said this, a general thuggish rumble of approval came up from the back.

"Greg, don't start this again. That's why they moved you off the other bus. You settle down back there," the bus driver called back, looking at them all through his mirror.

The boy named Greg looked briefly in the direction of the driver, then turned back, his attention still focused on Oz, who was now quite obviously ignoring him. This of course enraged Greg. He leaned over, put one hand on Oz's bony shoulder and shoved him back in his seat. Then he grabbed a fistful of the back of Oz's shirt. Startled, Oz turned.

"You LOOK at me when—" Greg started, then stopped.

After that, things happened so fast that Ben didn't really realize what was going on until it was all over. Greg's head suddenly snapped back. In the next instant, his shadow was no longer on them and he was falling backwards. It was then that Ben realized that Toby was gone from his seat and was now standing behind Greg.

Impossibly, grotesquely, Toby had two fingers hooked up Greg's nose. The moment he laid hands on Oz, Toby had reached behind him, caught him by his nostrils and pulled as hard as he could.

Having never been grabbed by the nostrils himself, Ben didn't know how easy it would be to be controlled from that vantage, but if Greg's reaction to this novel hold was any indication, it wouldn't be hard at all. Greg howled in a horrible, nasally kind of way and fell backwards, arms swinging for balance. Then Toby put a foot on the back of Greg's knee and pushed. The bigger boy went down then, sprawling in the floor as Toby let him go. He looked up at Ben and winked, then grimaced as he looked down at his fingers, but just then the bus screeched to a halt.

Greg's friends were out of their seats and coming down the aisle from the back of the bus, while the driver was charging at them from the front. Toby crouched into a fighting stance, the two fingers that had been up Greg's nose were now hooked out towards his friends. Ben looked around wildly, not sure what to do next.

Our heroes were surrounded and not for the first time, Detective Bridge wondered how he'd got himself into these kinds of messes. The sudden appearance of the Narrator surprised Ben and made him laugh nervously. A mistake.

"This isn't one bit funny!" the driver bellowed, spraying spit on all of them. Oz sat up, his face red.

"This guy assaulted—" he began.

"Don't want to hear it!" the driver shouted, then looked up at the bigger boys staring back at him. "You all sit down. And you—" he pointed down at Greg. "Get your butt up and back in that seat! And wipe your nose! You're lucky I don't turn you over to the Dean when we get to campus."

Greg's face was flushed and confused, as if he was still trying to figure out how a skinny little 12-year-old boy had gotten the better of him, but when the driver mentioned "the Dean," whoever he was, Greg blanched.

"No, Mr. Hayward, you don't need to do that. I just—these DCs—you said yourself they're gonna wreck the school." Greg bowed his head in such an overacted display of shame that Ben half-expected the driver to hand him an Oscar.

But the driver bought it hook, line and sinker. He stood there for a beat, his mouth hanging open. Then he seemed to recover himself. "Well, plenty of blame to go around. You, get back in your seat and stop picking on kids who are younger than you. You—" now he pointed to Toby, "—you don't ever want to try that kind of dirty fighting at the school. Dean Taras will set you straight about fighting in a half a second!"

Toby nodded, but didn't bow his head like the bigger boy. He just stared straight into the driver's eyes.

The driver blinked first. "All right. It's all over with. Everyone sit back down," he said, although everyone was sitting by then, including Greg, who had limped back to his friends, one of whom was snorting with barely concealed laughter and mimicking the recent tussle by putting two fingers up his own nose.

A moment later, the driver was back in his seat, too, and with a lurch, pulled the bus back onto the winding mountain road.

"That was amazing!" Ben hissed and Oz, who was evidently finished with his study of the ankle monitor, could only nod his head in agreement. "Where did you learn that? Is that some kind of ultimate fighting?"

Toby smiled and now he did look down. "My uncle taught me how to fight. There's no name for the style of fighting he does, not in English anyway. He learned it when he was...well, when he was in the secret service."

Oz looked even more alert at this. "Seriously? Like the people who bodyguard the President?"

Toby laughed. "No, not that secret service. Uncle Dimitri is from Russia. Their secret service."

Oz seemed goggle-eyed at this, but Ben began to wonder if their new friend was telling tall tales.

On the other hand, the Narrator spoke back, as he sometimes did, Toby sure did make short work of that thug. Not a bad ally for Detective Bridge to have on his side.

Maybe, Ben thought. Maybe. But an uncle with the Russian secret service? Come on! Why couldn't he just tell them the truth? What was Toby hiding? And then he wasn't thinking anymore, because the bus lurched around a final bend in the road and what Ben saw out the window made him and the Narrator both stop.

"Sherrinford," Toby whispered.

Even the big boys sat up at the sight before them. The bus came up a rise to a vast plateau that was bounded on one side by a high stone face. The sheer stone, which stretched hundreds of feet towards the sky, ending at the summit of Mount Sherrinford, acted as a natural retainer for the lake that sat just behind and to the left of what Ben supposed was the school's main building. It certainly was the biggest structure on campus.

It looked like a cross between an old-fashioned luxury hotel and a castle of some kind. It was a very square building, with turrets on all four corners. The building itself looked to be about four stories tall (although Ben found out later that it was really only two), with dozens of windows, all tall, narrow and bright with red trim. While most of the building seemed to be made of stone, the rooftop itself was enormous and seemed to go on and on, one massive field of scrolled copperwork, made green by age and acid rain. Here and there along the rooftop, Ben could make out small balconies.

As the bus began driving down a narrow, single-lane track to the main gates of the school, Ben noticed that there was a small square nearby, almost like a town square or a campus quad, where several smaller stonework buildings sat, each about four stories high. In front of these, Ben could see several groups of kids, some gathered around what were obviously parents' cars, others simply by themselves, talking or playing catch on the lawn. Beyond the quad, Ben could see buildings—some a little taller than the main building, but none anywhere near as massive—and what appeared to be a service road leading down the other side of the campus.

"Those all must be the dorms," Oz said, pointing to the buildings around the quad.

"Not all," Toby corrected and Ben peered closely. Two of the buildings on the quad had concrete barriers blocking the doors, and as they got closer, Ben saw that the roof on one of the buildings was partially collapsed, no doubt from some fallen tree or the weight of the winter snow. While the main building looked neat as a pin, it was clear that many other buildings had fallen into disuse and neglect, a sign of the hard financial times that had befallen the once famous school.

The driver seemed to be taking the scenic route, following a spur road that led them away from the quad now. They dipped briefly to the left, following the edge of the lake. Here, Ben got a glimpse of the back of the main building and noticed a large glass structure—like an oversized, ornate greenhouse, sticking out the back. Out on the lake, Ben could see an assortment of scuffed canoes, a half-sunken paddleboat and a seriously listing dock out in the middle. At the opposite end of the lake, near the base of the cliff, he saw that the plateau rose to a small, grassy hill with a single large tree and some kind of stone marker adorning the top.

"There's some kind of path up that little hill," he said, pointing.

"There's walkways everywhere. Miles and miles of pathways, all around the grounds and up and down the mountain. You can sign out bikes or go on hikes," Oz said. Ben's eyes tried to follow the trail as it wound its way down the hill, then disappeared near where the glass structure came into view. He wondered if the path ended there or extended into the woods.

But he would have plenty of time to explore later, he hoped. Now, the bus pulled in behind the first shuttle, which had such a headstart it had already disgorged its load of students. It was sitting, empty on the tarred drive just in front of a massive set of double oak doors leading into the main building. Nearby, a severe looking woman stood, holding a clipboard and looking expectantly at them.

"You're late," she said, glaring at them as the students stumbled off the bus. The older boys all nodded solemnly to her, and she back to them as they gathered their things and moved away—quickly, Ben thought. Ben met her gaze for a second and felt the powerful urge to offer an apology, but of course she was speaking to the driver, who never mentioned the tussle that had caused him to pull over, but instead said they were delayed because he'd had to stop and pick up new students at the gas station in town. Then he pointed at Ben and Oz, and handed her the clipboard.

"Names?" she barked at them.

Stammering, Ben gave her his name, and the woman smartly made a check on her list. She did the same with Oz. Like the driver, she also asked to see their ankle bracelets, but made far less a show of examining them. "You'll need to remain in the auditorium after supper for special instructions," was all she had to say to them on the matter.

When Toby gave his name, however, the woman began turning several pages on her clipboard, before looking up at Toby. "Why aren't you on my list?" she demanded.

"I'm—I'm a late addition," he squeaked.

"Hmph," the severe woman said, glaring at Toby. "That's unusual. I was assured that I had all names for students in the special program. I'll check the late roster in a moment. Meanwhile, you should know that I am Agnes Taras. I am the Dean of Students for the Sherrinford School. As new students, and more importantly, as students joined as a result of our new program, you should know that I will be keeping BOTH eyes on you. We do not tolerate misbehavior of any kind at the school. Our students behave as perfect gentlemen and ladies at all times. Failure to do so results in punishment. Repeated failure results in expulsion. In your specific cases, expulsion will result in you being remanded to the custody of the Albany Juvenile Detention Center until the authorities can dispatch you to serve out whatever sentence was suspended so that you could come here. Do I make myself clear?"

They all nodded.

"Very well," she sniffed, then looked back at her clipboard. She nodded at them. "You will be roomed together in the boys' dormitory, Doyle Hall at—wait a moment—" she squinted at her clipboard, her eyes scanning what appeared to be an important note. Then she looked up, first at Oz, then at Ben.

"Young man," she said, her eyes boring into him. "Did you bring any kind of computer with you?"

Given his family's current financial situation, Ben would have laughed at the idea if it had been anyone else asking. "No," he said, "don't have one."

Taras turned to Toby. "And you?"

Toby nodded. "I have a netbook in my pack. And a smartphone."

Taras nodded, scanning her almighty clipboard again. "Well, the phone won't do you much good up here." She gestured behind her in the general direction of the mountain. "There are no cellular towers on the mountain, so mobile phones of any kind have no reception here. On your tour of the campus, you will be shown landline phones available for student use, and the times during which they may be used. You may also use your computer to access our local network, although I must tell you that our wireless capabilities are extremely limited and do not function more than a few feet beyond the walls of the main building or the library."

She consulted her clipboard again, and made a couple of notes. "You will be roomed with other students," she said to Toby. "But we will arrange your accommodations as soon as I've found your name on the list. Follow me to my office. You two," she said, pointing again at Ben and Oz. "Doyle Hall. Just over there." She pointed to the quadrangle of buildings where Ben had seen students earlier, and began fishing in her pocket. "Look for the name on the building. Room 423. Do NOT indulge the temptation to explore the buildings whose front doors are barricaded. They are closed for your safety. Supper will be served promptly at 5:30. Listen for the chime and come to the main building, where you'll be directed to the dining hall." She found two room keys and handed them to Ben and Oz. "Good day, and welcome to the school." She snapped at Toby and with a single forlorn glance, Toby gave a brief wave, then followed after the Dean.

"Wow, they really don't want you messing with computers, do they?" Ben asked as he grabbed his duffel and slung it on his shoulder.

Oz nodded, but he wouldn't look at Ben. He appeared to be too busy trying to balance his massive suitcase on its wheels and tug it behind them. "Just remember, don't tell anyone about the Gamehound, okay?"

Ben nodded, though by that point Oz was already rolling his suitcase across the yard to the dorms.

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