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.

It occurs to me that if this thing was in book form I would 1) be able to read it more quickly and 2) be able to read it in its entirety. But I guess that leaves out 3) you do love making us wait.
MM, this is terrific. It is great fun and I would buy it for my 3 boys (9,12,14) to read in a heartbeat.
Excellent. Reminds me of Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I would pay for this book. Especially in E-form.
Ahhhh! I have no self control when it comes to reading a good story. I want more! I just know the rest of the story is going to a fun read. Thanks for sharing it with us. (hoping you will share the rest or publish it so we can buy a copy)

What's this about a new job?
Good stuff, MM. Keep them coming!
Congratulations on the new job! I am absolutely LOVING the new book! Keep the chapters coming, or let us know where we can buy the e-book!
This is wonderful. I can see why Thomas was sucked in so thoroughly. Detective fiction is not really my thing (aside from an affection for Sherlock Holmes, the Complete Holmes being perhaps the only sample of the genre in my library) but I really, truly want to read the rest of this. If it ends up for sale, I will buy. Otherwise, I'm trusting you to give us the whole thing, even if in weekly installments.

And, yes - what about the new job?
MM when will you let us pay you for your work? I'd buy this for my mystery-loving kids, for sure.

(Also: new job? Do tell!)
I am a middle school librarian. I should be retiring in 3 and a half years. I would like to put your book in my library. The clock is ticking Mr. Magazine Man.
Can't you just give us the amazon url and we buy the darn book. Please!!
You are officially NOT allowed to give up on publishing this. And you are officially forbidden from giving away any more than one or two more chapters without a link to a Kickstarter or a Buy page. Cuz an anonymous stranger from the internet said so!

And lordy I hope the job goes well and you won't be forced to look for work again.
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