I sat at my desk, chewing on a toothpick and pretending it was a cigar. The teach didn't really like it when I did that but then, her and I didn't really get along very well anyways, something to do with my discipline or should I say, lack there of. Besides, she was busy with two cry babies in the corner, trying to figure out what the problem was. She was having a difficult time, as neither girl seemed to remember why they were mad at each other in the first place. They kept calling each other big meany heads and I could tell miss Butterton was getting frustrated. I could of helped her out , it was simple really. Before lunch, Cathy, the blond called Brittany, the brunette, spoiled, so Brittany retaliated by throwing a crumpled ball of paper at Cathy's face. It would have escalated from there but they got completely distracted by recess where they spent twenty minutes playing house. It wasn't until recess and lunch was over and they came back to class that they remembered they were mad at each other and started crying. It doesn't matter neither of them remembered why, they simply knew the other had done something mean and that was enough. See, I could have told Butterton the whole story but on principle I don't aid authorities unless I have to, so I let the teacher deal with it herself.
I leaned back, stretching, as I waited for a client. It was free time in 5b, which meant time to work for me. Not school work or home work of course, but something much more important. I'm a private detective for the school, helping kids when the grownups can't or wont. My office is in my classroom at my desk but unfortunately, despite my very sensible arguments, it's only open during free time, about twenty to thirty minutes a day though I will meet prospective clients at recess and lunch as well.
I sighed, kicking back on my chairs back two legs, and resting my feet on top of my desk. I checked to make sure the teacher wasn't looking before putting my hands on the back of my head and closed my eyes. It was shaping up to be another slow free time, no prospective clients today despite the new sign I had fashioned, a white piece of paper with black block letters proclaiming Marlowe, private detective. I made it in art and felt pretty good about it. It wasn't as good as the last one, which had said private dick and caused quite a few giggles in class. Of course the teacher made me get rid of it and called my parents. I argued, correctly, that dick was slang for detective but it didn't do any good. The school system doesn't care about right and wrong, they just want you to follow the rules. It also had my signature in the lower right corner. That was another rule, you had to sign everything you worked on. No joke, everything. If a teacher saw you working on something, it better have your signature or else.
I heard a tapping on my desk and opened my eyes. A short kid with a mop of brown hair and thick glasses stood there, glancing between the teacher and me.
“Need somethin?” I asked.
The kid’s name was Jonathon Enson, with wealthy and overly-careful parents who didn’t even let the kid participate in gym as they were afraid something might happen. He was kind of a geek and a loner with a small group of friends but nice enough from what I knew.
“I need help,” he asked, nervous. He kept looking away from my eyes.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s go somewhere we can talk.” I led him behind a bookshelf where the teacher couldn’t see us. “So, what’s this about?”
“Pokemon cards,” he said.
I whistled. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Pokemon cards were the biggest thing around these days.. Kids swapped and traded all the time, playing with them during lunch, recess and any other free time they had. “And?”
“Someone stole my First Edition Holofoil Charizard.”
My eyes widened. That was an extremely rare card he’d named. Kids spoke of it in whispers. “I’m guessing you’ve gone to the grown-ups.”
He shook his head, looking down. “Can’t...” he whispered. “The card’s not really mine.”
I looked away, checking to make sure the teacher was still preoccupied, meanwhile my mind whirled. “Let me guess,” I said, already realizing what had happened. “You ‘borrowed’ it from a family member, older brother perhaps?” I knew he had a brother in middle school. “You wanted to show it off to your friends for a day and then bring it back before your brother even noticed it was missing.”
Jonathon looked up and made eye contact. “How’d you know?”
I shrugged. “So tell me what happened.”
He looked around and then pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “I brought it yesterday but didn’t have the nerve to actually show it off, I was so afraid something might happen. So I put it in my locker in the morning thinking it’d be safe. Then after school, it was gone, replaced with this.” He handed the paper to me.
I unfolded it, knowing what it would be. Block letters cut and glued onto the paper formed a ransom note. “I have it. Bring 100 dollars to school Friday or you will never see it again. No grownups -m” They were smart, using cut-out letters from construction paper as opposed to just writing it down, leaving no handwriting to show who it might be. My mind raced. M? Who was m?
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, sounding miserable.
“Well you came to me. I can help,” I said, trying to sound sure of myself. There were butterflies in my stomach. This was definitely the biggest case I’d ever taken, way bigger than finding Kenny’s lost action figure or Jenny’s pink scrunchy. “I charge a dollar a day. Can you afford that?” Usually I charged a quarter but I figured this special case deserved a little extra compensation..
He nodded, looking somewhat relieved to have help. “That’s way cheaper than a hundred dollars!” He frowned. “You need to get it by Friday though...”
I nodded, slipping the paper into my pocket. “I know. That’s four days. If I don’t get it, you’ll have to bring it to the grown-ups. Free time’s almost over. We’ll talk later, okay? There’s some questions I need to ask you.”
The lights went off and we all turned to the doorway where Miss Butterton stood. “That’s it for free time 5B, go to your desks and get out your Math books.”
We parted ways and I headed to my desk. I pulled the sign off and grabbed my math book, though I couldn’t focus on the problems. I was too busy thinking about Jonathon and The Case of the Missing Charizard.
I sat on a bench on the playground with Jonathon after school. I had a little journal in my hand and a pencil, taking notes.
“I need you to take me through it. Tell me everything you can. Tell me every little detail you can think of, even if you don’t think it matters.”
He nodded. “Alright,” he said. “I took it yesterday morning. I just wanted to show...my friends.”
I noted the hesitation.
“Jake kept it in a deck with his other cards. He barely even uses them anymore so I knew he wouldn’t miss it if I got it back. I brought it to school-”
“Where?” I asked.
“Where?” He asked, confused.
“How did you bring it to school?” I elaborated. “In your pocket? Your backpack?”
“Oh, backpack. Put it in a plastic bag, in the case with my other cards. When I got to school I went straight to my locker. The whole time I felt nervous, like what if the card wasn’t in my bag when I looked, ya know? But it was there. I took it out and put it on the top shelf in my locker.”
“Was anything else in the locker?”
He nodded. “Books and stuff but that was all on the bottom. The card was the only thing on the top.”
“Could anyone have seen you put it there in the morning? Was there anyone around you?”
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I get to school earlier than most kids.”
“There could have been some one though, who saw you put the card there.”
I made a note. “And?”
He shrugged. “After school I went to my locker, opened it and the card was gone. I saw the paper and...”
“Let’s go back,” I said. “Did you tell anyone you were bringing the card?”
“Yeah, a couple of my friends...Andrew and Teddy.”
I wrote their names down. “Anyone else?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. “No, but they might have told others.”
I declined to tell him that I was pretty much certain they had told others. It was in the nature of children to gossip and say anything that might make them look better in others’ eyes. Every kid wanted to brag any way they could, just to look cool if only for five minutes.
“That’s it, those are the only two who knew you were bringing the card?”
Another hesitation. “Yeah,” he replied.
“Any idea who M is?” I asked, referring to the single letter note on the letter.
He shook his head. “I gotta go, my mom’s here.”
I nodded and flipped my notebook closed. “I think I’ve gotten what I need so far. I’ll let you know when I have the card.”
“Thanks,” he said.
We looked at each other awkwardly until I put my hand forward. We shook like adults, nodding at each other. “Seeya later.”
I watched him walk away, thoughts spinning in my head. I walked around the playground, idly watching the others play. I spotted Jackson and his two thick-headed buddies who followed him everywhere. I guess you could call him the king of recess. He ran the place. Candy and soda had been banned in our school but he always had what you needed. Dealt with pokemon cards too, even renting them out to desperate kids. He pretty much did whatever he wanted and the teachers couldn’t touch him because he was the principal’s son. I idly wondered if he’d taken the card but rejected that idea. The way he was running things, he had no need to risk theft, it just didn’t make sense.
I also spotted Sandy Kutritch, resident tease, manipulator and queen of 5th grade. She and her cronies sat on the bleachers, gossiping and laughing. She teased the boys and bullied the girls and somehow she was the most popular girl in school.
“Hey Marlowe,” a soft feminine voice spoke up from behind me.
I turned to see Jennifer, a girl from my class with brown eyes and black hair tied back in a ponytail. I’d helped her find a scrunchy she’d lost on the playground one day. She always seemed to be looking at me after that and I couldn’t figure out why. She had her hands behind her back and was looking at the ground.
I gulped. I was not good at talking to girls. I could never seem to understand their motives. They just seemed confusing. “Uh, hi.”
“Do you want to go on the swings with me?” she asked. She looked up, hopefully.
I stepped back from that stare, confused. I had heard the words but I somehow could not grasp the meaning behind them. Why would she want to go on the swings with me? “Actually I-uh-I gotta go actually, bye,” I mumbled.
She looked back down at the ground. “Oh that’s okay. Bye.”
I walked away but kept glancing back at her. She watched me go. I shook my head, trying to focus. I had a case to solve. I couldn’t do much more that day as I was soon picked up and headed home. Still, I came up with a plan for Tuesday. I had three days to figure everything out. I hoped it would be enough time but it didn’t feel like it.
The next day I put notes in Andrew and Teddy’s lockers specifying a time and place. Andrew was first, corner circle table in the cafeteria during lunchtime. It was a table that was normally empty. When I got there, Andrew was already sitting there, looking nervous.
I walked over and sat across from him. “Hello, Andrew.”
“Marlowe?” He asked. “You put a note in my locker?”
I didn’t answer. I tried to play it cool. I knew from the movies you had to have a ‘good’ cop and a ‘bad’ cop. Unfortunately I didn’t have a partner so I’d have to be both parts. “Why’d you take it, Andrew?”
His eyes widened. “Take what?” He asked, too slow.
“You know what. How could you do that to your friend?” I asked, pulling a plastic-wrapped pb+j from my lunchbag.
“I didn’t take it!” He blurted out. “I swear! I would never! Jon’s my friend!”
I calmly unwrapped my sandwich and took a bite, taking my time while Andrew sweat.
I nodded. “Only a couple kids knew about the card, Andy and you were one of them. What are the grown-ups going to think? Theft? That would go right to the cops. How long do you think you’d be grounded this time? Might even be jail time...” I’d done some research in the morning, asking around, finding out anything I could about the few suspects I had. Andrew had apparently caught hell from his mother after being involved in a food fight at lunchtime and had been grounded for three weeks. He’d complained about it for months afterwards.
“You can’t!” He squeaked, sweat dribbling down his nose. He shook his head. “You can’t! I didn’t take it! I promise! I’ll tell you anything! Please don’t go to the grown-ups! I didn’t do anything!”
I nodded. “Maybe we can avoid going to the authorities but I need your full cooperation. Understand?”
“Yeah, yeah of course! Jon’s my friend!”
“You knew he was bringing the card to school.”
Andrew shrugged. “Yeah sure, he told me and Teddy.”
“Who did you tell?”
He looked down at his food. “I already told Jon, I didn’t tell anybody.”
“Then I guess you can tell that to the cops when they investigate,” I said standing up.
He reached out. “No! Wait!”
I stopped, halfway between standing and sitting.
He sighed, looking away. “I told Rachel and Maggie,” he said in a low voice. “They both like pokemon cards and I just...It just came out, ya know?”
I scratched my chin. I’d seen Rachel and Maggie talking with the boys who played Pokemon cards but I knew Andrew was wrong. Neither of those girls was interested in the cards, they just loved the attention they got from the boys by pretending to be intrigued by their hobby. Both were dead ends in regards to the case most likely, though I’d still check up on them. It wasn’t like I had anything better. The name Maggie made me immediately think of the “-m” signature on the ransom note but there probably wasn’t a connection. In fact, I figured the “-m” was just made up to throw someone off the trail. “That it?”
I stood up.
“Wait, you’re not going to tell, are you?”
“We’ll see,” I said and walked away, leaving him sweating.
I waited for Teddy at the big oak tree in the corner of the field but he didn’t show. I asked a few kids in his class about him. I found out he’d come to school but had gone to the nurse feeling sick after lunch. I had not signed the notes I’d left so Teddy had no idea who had left him a note. A curious thing, this sudden sickness.
Not wanting to waste the whole recess, I went over to where Maggie and Rachel were sitting on the swings. They gave me coy looks and giggled at each other.
“What do you want, Marlowe?” Rachel asked sweetly. Too sweetly. Here I was with two girls and no cootie shot. I shivered. Risky territory.
“Either of you know what a Charizard is?” I asked.
They looked confused. “A what?” They asked together.
“Never mind,” I said and walked off before they could say anything else. Before I could get dragged into a conversation I couldn’t understand. Thankfully, the teacher’s blew their whistles to signal the end of recess.
I kicked a stone as I lined up with my class. Half the day was gone and I had nothing.
I opened my locker and saw a note. “Meet in the back parking lot after school.” The words had been cut out and glued on, no signature this time. Maybe I did have something or would soon.
For the rest of the school day I tried to figure out who could have left the message. Teddy, if he had somehow known it was me and wanted to talk? Andrew, who had thought of more to say? The one who stole the card, if he had somehow found out I was asking around about it? The truth was I hadn’t a clue. There was nothing for it but to go, regardless.
After school let out I meandered around the school to the back parking lot. Faculty vehicles stood in parking spots and an old shed filled with sports equipment sat, yellow paint peeling. The sports fields sat beyond the parking lot, a few kids playing football in the crisp autumn air. I heard sneakers crunching gravel behind me and turned.
He was a gorilla of a kid and unfamiliar. Obviously older, he was probably in middle school. He had beady eyes that were currently glaring at me and his hands were clenched into fists.
“You Marlowe?” He grunted.
“Me?” I asked. “No. Why?”
He glowered. “I’m lookin’ for him.”
“A friend of his?” I asked innocently.
He snorted. “No, I gotta give him a message...”
I shrugged, looking at the ground carefully as if looking for something. “I could give it to him, he’s in my class.”
The thug smiled. “Nah, I gotta give it to him..personally.” He cracked his knuckles. Maybe he’d seen too many bad movies. He suddenly looked suspicious. “What you doin’ out here anyways?”
I waved a hand, still looking at the ground. “Ron the redhead said he dropped a whole twenty dollar bill out here,” I lied, crouching down to look underneath a car.
“Twenty bucks?” He stepped forward and grabbed my shirt, hauling me to stand. “It’s mine. Get the hell out of here.”
I raised my hands, palms outward. “Fine, fine. All yours.”
He was about to let me go when another voice shouted. “Hey, ya found him!” It was an equally large boy with blond hair, grinning. Another middle schooler. “And I didn’t think he’d have the balls to show up.”
The first goon looked at me, glaring.
“Hey guys, can’t we just talk-”
His fist slammed into my stomach like a bad case of food poisoning.
I doubled over with the breath knocked out of me.
“Think you’re funny?” Goon number one asked.
I shook my head, unable to speak.
He hit me in the stomach again.
I felt the rubbery hamburger from the school’s lunch threatening to come back up.
Goon number two grabbed me. He slammed me against a car.
“I heard there was a message for me,” I gasped.
“Yeah,” he replied, throwing me to the pavement. “Keep your nose out of where it don’t belong...Understand?” The blond one had definitely seen too many bad movies.
Problem was, so had I. “No, could you repeat it for me?” I replied as best I could.
He responded with his foot into my side which is about what I expected. My teacher’s had always said my wisecracking would get me in trouble and I had known they were right. I don’t think they had expected this, though.
“Don’t make us come back,” goon number one said and the two shuffled off.
I rolled onto my back, groaning in pain. But I smiled. Apparently, I was getting somewhere.
That night I told my parents I’d fallen in gym. I didn’t want to lie to my parents but they were grown-ups and grown-ups don’t seem to realize that sometimes kids have to deal with things themselves. If I told them, they would just get involved and Jonathon would never get his card back. They would say things like “I’m going to call his mother,” or “I’m going to see the principal about this,” etc. Some things you just didn’t tell grown-ups, because kids and grown-ups live in different worlds though grown-ups pretend differently.
So at dinner I made conversation as usual. I joked, they laughed and all was normal. Still, I felt a flutter of nervousness in my stomach. I wanted to tell them. I wanted to tell them everything and then say “But I don’t want your help, I want to do this on my own or at least try.”
There was a risk, of course, I thought to myself lying in bed before sleep came. If I did go to the grown-ups I would be protected, coddled, safe. Continuing on my own could lead to danger and though I pretended otherwise, I was a little scared. My body still ached from my beating and I knew worse could come. Some one had been annoyed enough to send a couple thugs with a warning. He’d been smart, sending a couple of kids I wouldn’t recognize, no easy way to find out who sent them. If I kept going, what would he do next? Kids could be incredibly vicious and entirely stupid. They could act without thinking of the consequences. It took me a long time to fall asleep.
I stopped by a gas station on the way to school to purchase something I figured I would need that day. Afterwards, I sat in homeroom before school, thinking. I chewed on a hard bagel bought from the cafeteria. It was Wednesday and the deadline was fast approaching. I eyed Jonathon who sat at his desk, head in his hands, perhaps thinking he was really going to have to find a way to come up with a hundred dollars or tell the truth to the grown-ups and his brother. I knew he hadn’t told me everything on Monday. He’d held something back. If he hadn’t told me yet it was likely he wasn’t going to. Perhaps he’d even rather pay up than give up the secret. Well, there were other ways of getting information.
The terrible thing about working cases during school was the lack of freedom. 75% of the day I’m cooped up in classes, leaving only lunch and recess time to do much of anything. So in the morning I suffered through English and Social Studies. I kept my eye on my fellow classmates, mentally analyzing each one and weighing the odds of whether or not they may have been involved in the theft.
I doubted any of them had actually done the deed. It’s not that there weren’t kids who might have done it. There were plenty of brats who cared only for themselves, a few bad boys who acted out, class clowns and others. These were fifth graders though, and kids rarely took risks on their own. No, none of these kids took the card, unless they were working with someone else.
That was the real problem with the case. Too may suspects. Too many possibilities. Anyone could have done anything. I needed to narrow my search somehow. I’m ashamed to say it took me until lunchtime to realize how. I went to my locker to grab my lunch from home and that’s when it hit me. The lockers were locked and only knowledge of the combination or a janitor’s key could unlock it. Kids weren’t supposed to give out their combinations but that didn’t mean they didn’t, either purposefully or accidentally. If I assumed Jonathon hadn’t given it out, that meant there were only a few kids who could have actually had access to his locker. Janitor’s children.
I didn’t have long to ponder because I had to get to lunch but I started thinking of who had a parent was a janitor here. I put that thought in the back of my mind. I had another lead to attend to.
I found him at recess, sitting on a swing but not swinging. His name was Nathan. He was scrawny and short and wore thick glasses. You wouldn’t expect him to know the local gossip but he always did and more. He saw and listened wihen nobody even noticed he was there. He watched the whole playground carefully as I walked up but didn’t give me as much as a second glance.
I gestured to the swing next to him. “This swing taken?”
“You see anyone sitting there?”
I sat. We had a strange relationship. A business relationship, I guess I would call it. When I needed info I went to him. I’d once stopped an older bully from harassing him and though he’d never said anything about, I knew he was thankful. Maybe we were friends who only talked to each other when we needed something. Does that make sense? I didn’t know. I could investigate the depths of the boy’s bathrooms for a lost watch but the complicated inter-relationships of elementary school escaped me.
He didn’t say anything.
“Jonathon Enson wants me to find a pokemon card that was taken from him. Thing is, he’s hiding something from me.”
“He’s hiding it from everyone,” Nathan replied and finally turned to look at me. His eyes, small and gray behind his glasses, stared at me. A moment went and he turned away. “Not sure if I can remember what it is...What do ya have for me?”
I looked out over at the kids running around, playing their silly games. “Let’s say I got two friends and they’re both named M.” I looked at him as he looked back at me.
I handed over a package of M n M’s.
He quickly slipped it into his pants pocket and looked away. Candy and soda were banned from our uptight school. “Jonathon’s got a girlfriend or at least he thinks so.”
“Really?” I asked, shocked. “Him?” It didn’t make sense. “I would have known-”
Nathan shook his head. “She really doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s threatened to break up with him if he tells anyone. He pretty much does whatever she says.”
I whistled and shook my head. Jonathon’s hesitations, his silences, his lies to my questions, of course it had to do with a girl, what else? “I should have guessed. Who is it?”
“Got another bag?”
I handed over another package of M n M’s, one I’d been hoping to keep for myself. Oh well, sometimes you had to make sacrifices.
“Sandy. Sandy Kutritch.”
My stomach plummeted. Sandy was known as one of the prettiest girls in school and she knew it. She wrapped boys around her fingers easier than string. I remembered seeing her after school yesterday. “This case gets better and better.”
Nathan shrugged. “I don’t know much about the card, only that any kid who even thinks of asking around about it shuts up pretty quickly.”
My thoughts went to Teddy. Had he asked around for his friend? Had something happened to him? I realized I hadn’t seen him in school that day. “Thanks, Nathan.” I stood up.
“Anytime.” He looked at me suddenly. “Careful Marlowe, this whole thing stinks.”
“Like bull crap,” I replied, smiling. We laughed at my swearing and I turned away before my fake grin went away. Two thugs from middle school, maybe a janitor’s kid and Sandy all involved in this? Who could have orchestrated this whole thing? I walked away, feeling way out of my league.
The rest of the day I spent asking around about janitor’s children and found there were only two who could be involved. One, Meredith was a grade below me. The other, Sampson was in middle school. Perhaps Sampson knew those two goons? Very possible, but unlikely. The truth was Sandy probably knew Jonathon’s locker combination. The janitor children lead was a wild goose chase in the wrong direction.
I knew what I was really doing. Putting off seeing Sandy Kutritch. I knew I would have to eventually. There was no doubt in my mind she had everything to do with this.
School ended and I walked to the sports fields knowing Sandy would be here as usual. To think she was Jonathon’s girlfriend...She was playing him, had to be.
I waited behind a dugout, watching, trying to figure out how to approach her. I saw a girl named Betty heading over to the bleachers and intercepted her.
“Hey Betty, your friends with Sandy, right?” I asked.
Her eyes widened. “Uh, yeah def, of course!” She stammered.
It was likely Sandy barely knew her name but I knew she’d jump at the chance to be thought of as a close friend.
“Can you tell her Ms. Richards wants to see her? She told me to tell her but I gotta go...”
“Uh, yeah sure.”
“Thanks,” I said and turned away. I slipped back behind the dugout and watched.
There was a chance Sandy wouldn’t listen or if she did, ignore the teacher since school was already out. She could simply say she hadn’t heard the message. I knew she’d been struggling with Ms. Richard’s science class though, so I figured she’d want to hear whatever the teacher had to say.
It worked. I watched Sandy, muttering under her breath and walking without any of her lackeys. I quickly followed her through the back door of the school. Kids and parents were still streaming outside and I hurried so as not to lose her.
I caught her as she headed up the stairs to the level that held the fifth and sixth grade classes.
“Sandy,” I said.
She turned, scowling. “Yeah?” She tossed her hair as she turned, straight and brown whirling in the air and falling onto her shoulders. Her eyes, light blue pools so deep I felt myself falling into them.
My mouth went dry.
“What do you want? I have to see a teacher.” She snapped.
“No you don’t. I sent that message.” I bit my lip. I hadn’t needed to tell her that.
Her eyes narrowed. “Explain.”
“I know about you and Jonathon.”
Her eyes blazed. “I’ll kill that sniveling little-”
“He didn’t tell me,” I blurted. I tried to salvage what I could. “You know he’s so devoted to you, he’d cut off his own hand before I gave up the secret.”
She bit her lip, thinking. “Oh, and how did you find out?”
I tried to control myself, to remember the story I’d thought up. “I hacked his computer and found your messages.” The story would only work if their relationship had started as every relationship starts in middle school, by instant messaging. I knew Sandy was a frequent user, using it to manipulate her cronies long distance. If her and Jonathon had a relationship, there had to be some revealing chat messages. Or so I hoped. I was also screwed if she had any idea what hacking was, because I didn’t. I was pretty sure no middle school kid did. But we had all seen the movies, hackers taking information out of thin air, jacking into computers with ease.
She looked away. “if you tell anyone-”
I’d guessed right. I tried not to sigh in relief. “Look, I could care less. He’s obviously so into you he doesn’t think you had anything to do with taking his Charizard card, but I’m not fooled. I know you’re involved. Just give it to me and nobody has to know anything.”
When she turned back, her eyes were wet with tears. “It’s all my fault,” she said and took off running up the stairs, crying.
I hesitated, shocked for a moment and then took off after her. I had no idea what was going on.
“Why are girls so confusing?” I asked myself as I ran up the stairs.
She exited on the top floor.
I followed right behind her, calling her name.
She didn’t stop, going right into the girl’s bathroom.
I stopped right as the door closed, the female stick figure staring right at me, as if accusing me. I could hear Sandy in there, crying. I looked around. there were no classrooms nearby, only a janitor’s closet and a computer lab. Nobody was in the lab.
I turned back to the door. I took a deep breath, purposefully ignoring the female stick figure and pushed open the door.
I don’t know what I expected. The girl’s bathroom was a mystery, full of possibility by it’s forbidden nature. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed by what I found. It was almost exactly like the boy’s bathroom, only with more stalls and no urinals. I tried to ignore the fact of where I was standing and how much trouble I could be in if someone walked in, and walked over to where Sandy sat with her back against the wall. I knelt down next to her.
She looked up. her face was puffy and her eyes red from crying.
I immediately felt terrible. I had obviously done something wrong, though I had no idea what. “I-I’m sorry...” I stammered. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “You don’t get it. You just think I’m some stuck-up bitch.” her crying intensified.
I looked away, my cheeks burning, feeling like the worst person in existence. “I don’t,” I said. I looked at her and grabbed her hands. “I don’t think that.”
She looked at me and sniffed.
“Just...Just tell me what’s going on.”
She nodded, then smiled. “I can’t believe you came in the girl’s bathroom.”
Her smile broke my heart. I wanted to see that smile again and again, forever unto infinity. Part of me wondered what the hell I was thinking. “I couldn’t just let you go off crying, could I?”
“Most boys would,” she muttered.
“Come on,” I said. “Tell me about the card.”
“It’s my fault,” she repeated, sounding miserable. “I kind of like Jonathon, as a friend, ya know? He wanted to be my ‘boyfriend’...” She shrugged. “I said okay because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
I felt a stab of jealousy. I tried to ignore it. Jonathon was my employer and besides, I was working a case. This wasn’t...anything. I wasn’t a hero trying to help her. I was trying to find a card. But I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to save her and stop her crying. I thought maybe I could.
“It was my idea to bring the card. I just wanted to look at it and I knew he would feel proud to show it off. I’m SO stupid,” she wailed.
“No you’re not,” I said, wringing her hands. “Tell me what happened.”
“Okay,” she sniffled. “Someone found out about the card, about me and Jonathon too. He...he made me do it!” She started sobbing.
I watched, dumbfounded. “Who did this, Sandy? Who made you?” I felt anger in my gut. Whoever had manipulated this poor girl was going to pay.
“Jackson,” she said.
I fell on my butt. Jackson, king of recess, of course. “Oh,” I said. It didn’t sound very heroic.
She reached out, touched my arm.
“I’ll get it,” I said.
“No, you can’t,” she pleaded. “Just make Jonathon pay. It’s the only way.”
I shook my head. “I can’t,” I replied, standing up. I felt like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade though I doubted either felt as nervous as I did. I was just a scared little kid, not a tough guy. “Can’t let him get away with it.” I left the bathroom with her arm still reaching out for me.
That night I sat with my dad watching television. My mom was reading in the bedroom. Some cop show was on. It was towards the end, when everything’s revealed. The woman had killed her husband for his money.
“Dad,” I said. “Are all girls weird?”
He laughed though I wasn’t sure what was so funny. “What do you mean by weird?”
“I mean...” I struggled. I thought of Jennifer asking me to swing and of Sandy, her eyes, her hair and her lips. “I mean...”
“They’re not much different than you, Marlowe.”
My dad shrugged. “They’re not secretly complicated or crazy or anything like that. They have all the same thoughts and feelings as you do.”
“Okay dad,” I said, dropping the subject. He obviously didn’t have a clue. I thought grown-ups were supposed to be smarter.
Thursday morning rolled around and I lay in my bed staring at the ceiling. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to go to school and face Jackson. But I had to. Jonathon was counting on me. More importantly, Sandy was counting on me. I couldn’t her face out of my mind. Her smile, her eyes, her crying in the bathroom.
I shook my head and threw myself out of bed. I downed a small glass of milk for breakfast and headed out the door. I don’t think my stomach could have handled anything solid, nervous as I was.
The morning flew by and before I knew it, recess had arrived. I stood in the grass, watching Jackson and his two buddies sitting at the picnic table in the corner of the playground. I watched a few kids walk up and hand him money while he slipped them candy or pokemon cards. I saw his goons catch up to a kid who apparently hadn’t paid what he owed. They took him around a couple trees where the teachers couldn’t see. The thugs emerged, grinning. The kid came out a few minutes later, clothes rumpled and dirty. He looked near the edge of tears.
I’d checked on Teddy earlier. Still home sick from school. If he was scared of Jackson, it made sense. Maybe Jackson had sent his upper grade goons. It didn’t matter anymore, anyways. I had found who took the card and who had it. Now, I had to somehow get it back.
Ten minutes before the end of recess, I walked up to Jackson.
His two friends stepped up in front of me. “What do you want?” One asked.
“I need to talk to Jackson.”
“What’s this about?” The other one asked.
“A pokemon card,” I replied.
“Let ‘im through,” Jackson said. His voice was high-pitched though he tried to sound tough. It was almost laughable, if laughing wouldn’t get you a beating or worse.
The two stepped aside and I stepped up to Jackson. He sat on the top of the table, his feet on the bench. He flipped a quarter in the air and caught it. “What do you want?”
“I want the card you stole from Jonathon.”
The two immediately grabbed my arms, immobilizing me.
“What’s that?” Jackson asked, his voice soft and dangerous. His eyes narrowed, glaring at me. “That’s quite an accusation.”
“I know everything. You made Sandy take it. You’re holding it ransom.” Now that I’d started talking, I couldn’t stop myself. “I can go to the grown-ups and then you’ll be in big trouble. If you just hand it over now, nobody has to know.”
He flicked the quarter at me.
He laughed. “You don’t know anything. Me? In trouble? I don’t think you know who I am, Marlowe. Pick up that quarter.”
I looked down at the glinting silver in the grass. “Why?”
One of his buddies was looking around the playground. He nodded at the other who socked me in the stomach.
I gasped for breath.
“Don’t ask, just do it,” Jackson said, grinning.
I picked up the quarter.
“You really think I’d get involved in petty theft?” he asked, shaking his head. “When I have a perfectly good business running? You think I’d risk that for what? One measly little card? Stupid stupid Marlowe. You think you’re some detective or something, like in the movies. You’re just a stupid little kid. Maybe a couple days suspension will teach you something.” He took off running for the teachers.
The two goons followed, making sure I went with them.
My stomach hurt and I had no idea what Jackson was doing but my mind was on other matters. Had Jackson really nothing to do with it? Then that meant...Realization struck me like a truck, one of the big ones, the eighteen-wheelers.
The teachers were listening to Jackson, whose eyes were red. He was very good at fake-crying. He pointed at me and I realized he was setting me up.
“Marlowe, what is that in your hand?” a teacher, Mr. Menden asked.
I tightened my grip but realized it was useless, all of it. I deserved to be punished. I opened my hand to reveal the quarter.
“Marlowe! You know that stealing is wrong!”
Jackson grinned and I lowered my head.
The rest of the day went by in a daze. I moved and responded like a robot, uncaring. I’d be suspended for two days for stealing. That seemed steep but I’d stolen from the principal’s son and apparently he ‘wanted to make an example of me.’
I didn’t care, not really. The true pain came from knowing I’d failed. I’d been fooled. I was a stupid little kid all along, not some hot-shot detective in the movies.
School ended and I walked outside. The school would be calling my parents when they got home from work. I wouldn’t be back at school until Tuesday.
I saw Sandy on the bleachers with her friends, chatting and giggling. Jackson walked around with his thugs in tow, shoving other kids and laughing at them.
He’d get away with it, like he always did. The principal’s son does not get in trouble. He’d made a little girl cry and steal and there’d be no consequences.
I looked down. Nothing I could do. I had to worry about what my parents were going to say when they heard I’d been suspended. I couldn’t make myself care, though. I kept thinking about Jonathon, Sandy and of course, Jackson. I clenched my fists. I wanted punch him in the face. Maybe I should, I thought. I was already in trouble, what would a little more be? And so what if I got a beating, I deserved it for being a useless little kid.
Just when I’d made up my mind, I heard a noise behind me. I turned and Jennifer stood, staring.
She looked away. “I wondered if you wanted to go on the swings with me?” She asked.
I opened my mouth and hesitated. I was going to say no, I didn’t have time, and why would I want to go on the swings anyways, but all those replies stuck in my throat. I remembered what my dad said, about how maybe girls weren’t so crazy. Maybe I was the one being crazy. Just maybe, Jennifer wanted to be friends. I realized I could really use a friend. “Sure,” I said, swallowing a lump of nervousness.
She smiled, which made me smile, though I didn’t understand why. I wasn’t happy, was I? How can you be happy when a thousand butterflies are fluttering in your stomach? When you feel dumb because you have no idea what to say?
We walked over slowly. She took a seat and so did I. We pushed off and swung our legs. She kept looking at me and I kept looking at her. I noticed weird things, like the way her hair flew as she kicked forward.
She giggled and I laughed. I forgot about worrying what to say, about Jonathon and Sandy and the Pokemon card. For a few minutes, the only two kids on the playground were Jenny and I, in my mind. I kicked and pulled and swung as high as I could.
“Higher!” She called out.
I tried. “Okay, on three we jump!”
She suddenly looked scared. “Jump? But-”
“Yeah! We gotta jump!” I yelled, laughing at her expression.
She laughed back. “Okay!”
Back and forth, the swings creaked as we swung higher and higher in the air. “On three!” I called out. “1...2....3!” We swung forward and hurled ourselves off into the air. We hit the ground hard and fell in a heap. For a moment, I was worried she’d been hurt, but then I heard her giggling and soon we were both laughing, unable to stop.
I sat up and looked at her. She looked at me. Suddenly those nerves and butterflies were back, but I grinned. “That was fun.”
“Yeah,” she said, looking away. She seemed shy.
Wait, she was shy? No, I was the one who was shy around girls. Girls were crazy and complicated and...They couldn’t be shy...Or could they? Had my dad been right? Did girls feel the same as boys sometimes?
She got up and sat back in her swing. She didn’t kick off but just sat there. I went over and sat next to her. Without looking, she reached out her hand. For a moment, I didn’t know what she was doing. Then it hit me and I realized I was an idiot. I gulped and took a hold of her hand. We glanced at each other once, both wide eyed but smiling, then looked away. I wondered if I’d need a cootie shot afterwards.
We sat there for a few moments, not saying anything. Just holding hands. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. Maybe I didn’t need to do or say anything. Maybe I could just sit.
Her hand felt warm.
It hit me then. What I needed to do. I jumped off the swing, nearly yanking Jennifer off of hers.
“Sorry!” I said. I let go of her hand. “I have to go do something.” I hesitated. “This was...fun,” I said, then cursed myself. What a lame and uncool thing to say.
She smiled. “Yeah,” she said.
I smiled. Then I remembered my task and took off for the school. I should have realized it before, so easy, so simple. A way to solve the case and prove Jackson’s guilt. It took me a half hour before I found what I needed.
I went home with the evidence, mind whirling with the truth. I dealt with my parents over the theft of Jackson’s quarter. The next day I slipped off to school while they were at work.
There was only one thing to do. Confront the thief.
I caught her as she was headed to lunch. “Sandy, I need to talk to you.”
She turned, surprised. “I thought you were suspended?”
“Come on,” I replied, entering an empty classroom. The teacher, Mr. Alden was on lunch duty.
She followed. “What are you doing here, Marlowe? You should go home, you could get in trouble. I told you not to go after Jackson, ya know-”
“Cut the crap,” I said.
She gasped at my sudden vulgar words.
“I know it was you, Sandy. You played with Jonathon like you do with all the boys and when you heard about his brother’s Pokemon card you couldn’t help yourself. You convinced him to bring it to school, you took it from his locker and you wrote and planted the note. You played him like a guitar.”
She smirked. “So, you figured it out, didn’t you? Good for you. Too bad it doesn’t change anything.”
“It changes everything.” I couldn’t understand why she was grinning. I’d figured out her plan.
“You think anyone’s going to believe you? You? The loner creeper kid who has no friends?” She suddenly pouted and started fake-crying. “Yew tink they’ll bweeve yew over a cute crying widdle girl like me?” The put went away and she laughed. “You should have left well enough alone, Marlowe.”
I faltered, feeling my certainty fading. “I have proof.”
Her eyes flashed. “Is that so? What proof?”
I told her the specifics of what I had, feeling stronger. “Give me the card and promise to stop seeing Jonathon and everything goes away.”
She wasn’t smiling anymore. “You have the proof with you?”
I nodded, feeling very smart.
“Why are you doing this? Why not just bring the proof to the principal?”
“Jonathon wanted me to keep the grown-ups out of it and there’s no need to show him the truth of who you are. Just give me the card.”
“Fine, I know when I’ve been beaten. Stay here, I’ll go get it.” She left.
I breathed out a sigh of relief and sat on a desk. I’d done it. As I thought it over, I realized she’d given in rather easily. I remembered her crying and tricking me in the bathroom. She was very smart, controlling, manipulative. She had to have control of the situation but I had taken that away from her. My certainty in myself once again began to fade as I thought more about our recent conversation. I thought about the questions she’d asked and the answers I’d given.
I realized I was a fool just as the door was opening. I’d made the same mistake and expected different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, as said by some famous dude? I’d trusted the girl.
The two upper grade goonies stepped in and locked the door. I stood up off the desk.
One of them, call him number one, cracked his knuckles.
“So, pickin’ on a little girl, huh?” one said.
“Think that’s funny, do ya?” the other, number two, spoke up.
I looked around. This was bad, very bad.
Number one gestured. “Give us what you took from her and maybe we’ll let you off easy.”
“She’s lying,” I said, backing away.
“Let’s just beat ‘em up and take it,” number two said. They advanced menacingly.
I dodged around chairs and desks as they charged.
One grabbed the back of my shirt. I swung my fist wildly behind me, catching him on the bridge of his nose and he let go with a grunt.
I darted around the teacher’s desk as the two reached the front of it. We were all breathing heavily. The one I’d hit, goonie number two, was wrinkling his nose and looked angry.
“Mr. Alden will be back any minute,” I said, gasping for breath.
“Ha!” Number one laughed. “Sandy will be keeping him busy in the lunch room, don’t you worry. We got plenty of time.”
“And you’ve got nowhere left to run,” number two said. They charged.
I jumped onto the desk, spraying pencils and pens everywhere. From the desk I leaped to the top of a student’s desk. I had a plan. I would hop desk to desk to the door, quicker than my associates. Unfortunately, the first desk I jumped to wobbled and fell, tossing me into a chair and onto the floor.
The two grabbed me before I could run and hit me in the stomach. Once, twice, three times, I lost count. They finally shoved me onto the floor and knelt down on top of me, pressing my temple into the wooden floor.
“Ow,” I said. “That hurts.”
“Good. Now give it up or it’s just going to get worse.”
My hands stretched, searching the floor. I was near the toppled desk which meant...My hand found what it was looking for, a pencil. I jabbed it above my head.
“Ouch! Damn!” One yelled standing up and grabbing his leg.
The other still knelt on my legs but was watching his friend.
I hurled the pencil at his face.
It hit him in the forehead and he flinched, closing his eyes and standing up. I dove underneath a desk, crawling forward until I could stand.
We stood, looking at each other. We both glanced at the door and both took off for it.
They got there first but I grabbed up a chair and held it up in the air. They raised their hands defensively.
I knew this frightened them. Kids didn’t pick up heavy chairs and hit each other with them. That would be Very Bad and lead to Big Trouble. It simply wasn’t something a kid would do. But I was desperate.
“You wouldn’t,” number one said, sounding nervous.
“You know how much trouble you’d be in?” the one said.
I threw it at them.
They darted away with surprised yelps.
I grabbed another chair and tossed it as I made it to the door. They jumped back. I unlocked the door, opened it and ran.
Sandy found me before I found Jonathon. She grabbed my arm. “Please, Marlowe, don’t do it. I really did like you, you know. It wasn’t just for show....” She sounded genuine, heartfelt.
I think it actually was. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter. I gently pried her hand off. “You manipulated others for your own benefit, Sandy. It’s too late. I gave you a chance and you sent thugs after me.”
“You don’t know what it’s like! I have to wear the best! Have the best! I wanted...I needed...”
“New clothes? Or else what?” I snapped. “Or else you won’t be the most popular girl? Here’s some advice, Sandy, stop trying so hard to be popular.” I walked away, leaving her crying.
After that it was all over except the crying. Sandy did alot of that in the principal’s office with her parents. I revealed my evidence, construction paper that had letters cut out of it with Sandy’s signature. The cutouts fit the ransom note perfectly. She got off with a firm talking to and a couple days suspension. For my assistance my suspension was repealed. Jonathon got his card back and looked conflicted. Happy to get the card back, sad to realize his girlfriend had been playing him.
I walked outside. School was just getting out and kids were laughing and running. It was the start of the weekend, a time of fun and play. I saw Jennifer sitting on the swings and went to join her.
“Hey, Jennifer, want to get an icecream cone?”
“Sure!” She said, eyes lighting up.
I smiled, feeling the crisp ten dollar bill in my pocket.