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No. 6

Vadner’s office smelled like mothballs and paint thinner. I put the key in my pocket and walked in.

I’d been here before, though, not like this. It was a sparse room. No filing cabinets. Just a few bookshelves, a few uncomfortable chairs, and his desk.

I went straight for the desk. 

Behind it now, I pushed his chair out of the way and pulled open the drawers. 

Empty. Junk. Locked.

I pulled on that one again. Nothing. 

He probably didn’t keep the key in here. I leaned my arms down on the top of his desk and in a single motion, swooshed the papers and that stupid leatherette desk calendar off onto the floor.

I looked around. I needed something to get into that drawer… I grabbed a chrome letter opener out of his pencil holder. I jabbed the drawer’s lock with it then I jammed it inside the drawer, prying it hard. I put my weight on it. It broke. I almost fell. I swore and tossed it onto the ground. I looked around again.

There was a closet door across the room. I went to it, pulling the doors open. Just more of that identical suit jacket that he wore every day. More mothballs. More paint thinner. What is this guy doing in here…

And, then I saw it. A small rusty box on the floor. I picked it up by the handle and then, promptly, everything inside of it clanked loudly onto the floor. Random greasy tools. I seriously doubted these were his.

I grabbed a screwdriver and a hammer and walked back to the desk. I lined it up and put my back into it. The whole desk shook when I hit it. I did it again. And again. Until I saw the lock disappear inside the drawer, leaving a little dark hole. I dropped the tools and pulled open the drawer.

There were a few papers and extra pens. I moved them aside. And then, reaching my hand deep in the drawer, up to my elbow, I felt it. It must have been taped. I pulled and it ripped. It was an envelope. I opened it up and looked inside.

Golden.

“Vadner, Vadner.” I had what I needed now. 

I was just about to bolt when I heard voices. Vadner and his secretary. Moving fast, by the sound of it.

I moved quickly to the door. Too late. I could already see them walking into the outer office…

No. 5

“Assistant Principal Vadner needs you,” I said to the woman sitting between me and where I needed to be.

She looked down at me, over those glasses, the ones she’d apparently been holding on to for the last twenty years.

“What are you doing out of class?” she said, squinting her eyes at me.

“Did you hear about the fire?” I said.

“Of course I—“

“Well then you must have heard about the sprinkler leak, too.”

She pulled her chin back without moving her neck. Like she really hadn’t heard, but wanted to pretend that she had.

“It’s down that way,” I said, pointing behind me and not taking my eyes off of hers.

She blew air out of her nose. Like a bull. “Assistant Principal Vadner would have called if he needed me.”

“He would have called if he didn’t have his hands full with the flooding.” I raised my voice for the last three words. She looked to the side quickly before looking back at me.

“He said, find —“ I stopped as I looked for her desk name plate. Didn’t everybody have those… Why didn’t she have one. 

“Martha?” she said. She was on the hook now.

“Martha,” I said, with a nod. “And he said, tell Martha to get the spare key, go into my office, and bring me the master key ring. It has the plumbing shut off key on it.”

I was pushing that one, but it must have made sense to her. Her eyes darted to a corner of her desk. She looked back at me.

“He sounded mad,” I said. 

I could tell she wanted to say something else. Her eyes kept moving back between me and where the spare key was apparently hiding. 

“I’d be mad, too,” I continued, “if all that water was going everywhere I didn’t have the shut off key.” Extra emphasis. “Anyway,” I said, turning around, “I’ve got to get back to class. Unless…,” I stopped. “Unless, you want me to bring him the master keys?”

“You?” she said, not bothering to hide her disgust at the idea. “No, no.” She was moving stuff around in a drawer behind her now, no longer looking at me. “That would be most inappropriate.”

She found the key, holding it up. And then disappeared into Vadner’s office behind hers.

After a few seconds, I called into the room. “Need help?”

I heard something I couldn’t understand. A moment later, she was back with an oversized key ring and smug smile.

“He’s lucky to have you.” I told her.

The smile was gone. 

“Is there something else I can help you with?” She said. Nope. I turned around and started walking. As I did, I heard her dropping the spare key back in her drawer. She passed me up in the hall, on a mission. 

Once she’d made the corner, I immediately turned around. I could still hear her shoes clicking down the hallway. I went back to her office, slipped behind her desk, and pulled open her desk drawers until I found it.

The spare key. 

“Okay, Vadner,” I said to myself, turning to the dark wooden door. “You’re mine now.”

No. 4

An eighth-grader was frozen, looking up at me. The water she’d previously intended for her mouth was now flowing out of the fountain and down onto the floor.

I slowly removed my hand from the fire alarm.

The water fountain was broken and drained slowly. Everybody knew that. The water was now pooling at her feet.

“You going to get that?” I said pointing at her now wet shoes.

She opened her mouth to talk. It looked like it might have been to sound her own alarm.

I stepped in close and fast.

In the monotone I was born with and, probably, destined to die with, I gave her my best Bogart. I grabbed her by the collar. Her neck retracted and her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head. It was kind of funny.

Straight-faced: “Listen,” I told her. “You ever heard of a shank?”

She did nothing.

“Hey,” I said, not raising my voice. “Can you hear me right now?”

She opened her mouth and closed it again.

I took that as a sign that she meant to say something.

I let her go. And now, looking down at her, I wondered if water wasn’t the only thing wetting her feet.

“Okay,” I said. “What’s your name? Doesn’t matter. You tell anyone what you just saw — anyone — and I’m coming back for you.”

She didn’t respond.

“Stand there and don’t say anything if you understand.”

Nothing.

Good.

Threats notwithstanding, I didn’t think that one would hold up to much of anyone’s scrutiny. So I decided for a different tactic. 

But… it would require me to do something new. Even for me.

No. 3

Assistant principal Vadner was still questioning Gil about the lunch sack.

I was still under the bleacher, watching, and hoping Gil didn’t spill the beans.

Gil spotted me, and I gave him the cut-throat sign. He looked back at Vadner. 

Gil was strong, but Vadner was stronger. And if my plan was going to work, then I needed to get out in front of this.

“How did you get in here?” Vadner asked him.

Gil tried to say something, but he choked.

“That door,” Vadner said, pointing behind Gil, “it was locked. Did someone let you in?”

Gil was doing his best not to look over at me.

“I…,” he started.

“Okay,” Vadner said, patting the air. “Where is she?”

“I…,” Gil said again.

I knew this wouldn’t last much longer. So I decided to do the only normal thing left. 

Escape.

After all, the whole fire-in-the-gym was just a diversion. Most importantly, I needed Vadner to be anywhere but in his office.

I moved quickly under the bleachers, using the other door. The one everyone — the teachers, the big yellow-clad fireman, and Vadner had all come through. It was propped open, so it made no sound. I slipped under the yellow tape and back into the empty halls.

The bell must have rung, because the halls were empty. 

So far so good.

I started walking and then stopped.

I was going to need more time. I figure Gil could give me two minutes. Three tops. And that wasn’t enough.

So, I did the only other normal thing.

At the next little red box on the wall, I reached up, flipped open the cover, and grabbed the handle — putting my other hand over my ear, braced for the screech.

What I didn’t count on was who had just seen me do every bit of that.

No. 2

Getting into the gym was easy. I’d pulled an extra set of keys out of the custodians office yesterday.

Navigating the back door was a little bit trickier. It was old and loud. I let it touch silently, without actually closing it. It was an exposed entrance, but it was right next to the bleachers. I slipped under them.

On the far end, I saw two teachers, a custodian and a fireman, all hunched in the middle, like that was the normal place to assess the situation.

The fire was a trash can that charred the paint, black on the wall in little swooshes. The scale, I’m guessing, left the fireman feeling a little deflated.

I moved for a closer view. And then, the big yellow fireman moved, and I saw him.

Mr. Vadner.

The assistant principal.

The overhead gym lights cast shadows on his face like a devil.

I was too far away to hear what they were saying. I was about to move closer when I heard a loud click echo behind me. The kind of click that comes from a gym door shutting and then echoing through an empty gym.

I didn’t look at the noise. But I knew who it was. All five other heads snapped in Gil’s direction.

“Mr Former,” Vadner called out, his voice echoing. He walked quickly to Gil. Under the bleachers, I could see him, just standing there, frozen next to the door.

Vadner marched over to him, covering the distance in a surprisingly short amount of time. He was now standing directly over Gil.

“We found this,” he said holding up a brown sack lunch. 

My brown sack lunch. 

I knew I’d left that somewhere…

No. 1

I pulled the door open.

Gil pushed it back shut, careful not to disturb the yellow caution tape as he did. He was always doing stuff like this.

“You can’t go in there,” he said — putting himself between me and the door. I could tell his attention was still divided between me and that caution tape.

We were standing next to the lockers. We’d been friends for a long time. I wondered if that was why he didn’t have any other friends. It was Thursday. I made a mental note to ask my therapist about that.

“It’s just the gym,” I told him.

“It’s not just the gym,” he said, lowing his voice. “It’s a crime scene.” He glanced over my shoulder before looking back at me. “Someone set a fire during first period. They announced it over the speaker… wait—” he stopped, his voice getting progressively slower, like a toy running out of its battery.

“Jessica,” he said in that tone.

“Gil,” I said in that tone.

“Where were you during first period?”

“You think I set the fire?”

“No…no…” he said slowly, not quite taking his eyes off of me.

“I’m working on a case, Gil.”

“Uh huh,” he said, still watching me. “But, ya know, between us… anything I should know about?”

I leaned in close to him. “Just between us?”

He closed his eyes. “Jessica…,” he said.

I smiled.

“Yes, I did it,” I said. “But I had to. To solve a bigger case.” And with that, while his eyes were still shut, I slipped under his arm and pushed the door open, pulling a little bit of caution tape as I slipped inside.

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