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—


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.

Well done, MM!

First, I would say Thomas giving it 2-3 reads in short time is an unmitigated success.

Your story thus far reminded me of the mystery books I used to read and love as a kid.

Anyone who tells you, "Don't Quit Your Day Job" is ridiculous because even if your story were bad (which it isn't!) there are hugely successful authors whose writing isn't that good. Several movies have been made from one's books that comes to mind, and the movies make more sense.
P.S. Thanks for sharing! And I hope you and your family had an excellent Thanksgiving!
Yes, please post Chapter 2. I want to know what happens! You're a brave, brave man for putting your baby out on the internet. Thanks so much, MM. And I'm glad Thomas enjoyed his present. Is every child going to get a book?

Also, I am eagerly anticipating usage of the word "crud-bums" in thy narrative.
Have you considered doing a self-publising of the book? Being that you are in the business you are in, I'm certain you probably know a great deal more about it than I do. It seems like if you were to throw it into book form on a website like Amazon's createspace you would be out a minimum of cash, and who knows, maybe you'd even sell a couple. :)
Can I buy it on Amazon?
Thomas loved it! Of course he did, but you just never know what a kid is going to do, especially with those hormones turning them into pod people. I'm so glad he enjoyed it, and I think it's pretty sweet that he's giving input, too.
I enjoyed chapter 1 a lot. Thank you for sharing it with us! I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment. I'm going to share this chapter with my daughters. I have a feeling they'll enjoy it, too.
I like it so far - especially the name choice of the Dean of Discipline. Please, share more! And a happy belated Thanksgiving to you.
more! more!

You got me. I reached the "cliffhanger" and I want more. ASAP would be appreciated, of course :-)

(By the way - just my old proofreader kicking in - in the paragraph beginning "Grandpa always said lockpicking was more art than science", I expect it should be "... allowing you TO turn the tension wrench..." or "... allowing you the turn OF the tension wrench...")
What fun I had reading this! It reminds me of the stories I read when I younger!I spent most of my childhood in libraries and always loved a good mystery. You know if you self published this, many of us would buy it!
Thanks for sharing, I can't wait to read the rest!
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