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.

Waited all week for this chapter and was not disappointed... Now to wait till NEXT Friday : ) It is a wonderful book MM~ I am throughly enjoying it.

Just read all the chapters so far. I like it very much.
Read it on Friday, MM, but didn't have an opportunity to comment until now. This story moves right along, carries me with it. Toby is an intriguing character. Personally, I like the idea of a red-headed heroic type, too ;-)
Really enjoying this. I hope we get a way to read more than the six chapters you post here. :)
I look forward to learning more about Toby.
MM we are gonna need way more than six chapters ...
Love it MM!! Would love more than 6 chapters though.... very good book so far! My son would love it!!! - Learn how to turn $500 into $5,000 in a month!

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