the school mystery

"The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound."

My employer made this pronouncement, then she leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and sipped her coffee. I knew what had set her mind in this direction. This morning we were going to school.

Jan Sleet started every morning with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Some days, of course, coffee was not available, and on those mornings it was more difficult to get her out of bed. Unless there was a mystery to solve.

This morning there weren't any mysteries in sight, so it was fortunate that coffee was available, because we had an appointment.

"Are you speaking generally," I asked, "or is this a comment on the school we're visiting today?"

"Oh, it's just a general observation," she said with a smile. "I'm curious to see the school today. I don't know that much about it."

I wondered if this was true. It would not have been unusual for her to claim ignorance about a subject, in order to "discover" things about it later. On the other hand, I had never seen her exhibit any interest in children (other than our newly adopted daughter, Ron, of course), so perhaps she hadn't been paying much attention to the U-town School.

It was very much an ongoing experiment. I had heard that it was similar to a one-room schoolhouse in a small town, in that students were not automatically segregated by age. There was also a lot of effort to create a balance between having a mandated curriculum and allowing students, even young ones, to pick what they wanted to learn.

"What did they ask you to talk about?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm not really sure," she said. "About being a reporter, I would imagine, but I think the students should get a choice. There are so many topics I could help with. Reporting, writing, solving mysteries, Bellona, U-town itself, the benefits of tobacco, government administration..."

The original invitation had asked her if she would like to come in the morning. I had a feeling that, before the day was over, they were going to wish they had also specified exactly what time she would be expected to leave.

This morning, I anticipated a quiet and possibly tedious visit to a school. Of course, I was wrong.

As we approached the school, I saw a familiar figure leaning against the fence, smoking a cigarette. "It's Pete!" Jan said (rather unnecessarily), and he waved casually as we approached him.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

He smiled. "I'm preparing to molest some schoolgirls. I've heard that they can often be found in the vicinity of schoolyards." He waved at greeting at me, then he looked around pointedly, in case some molestable schoolgirls might suddenly appear.

Jan laughed and lit a cigarette. "I did not mean to imply that you wouldn't have anything to contribute to education. Are you here teaching music?"

"No," he said, "they haven't added rock and roll to the curriculum yet, though I have suggested it." He dropped his cigarette and stubbed it out with his toe. "No," he said, "I'm here for another reason."

Pete was well-known around U-town. He was a rock and roll musician, a popular local character, an expert on a variety of arcane subjects, a fairly small man with glasses and longish hair, almost always dressed in ripped jeans and a faded T-shirt, but these descriptions don't cover his best known characteristic.

What was best known about Pete was that he lived with starling, the notorious (and apparently reformed, at least for the moment) lunatic murderer. She doesn't appear in this story, but it was difficult to see Pete and not think about her.

We went down the hall together. Pete had dropped the question of why he was there, and I could tell my employer was trying to figure it out. I was amused to imagine what he could be shy about that would have been worse than living with starling.

There were a few students around, of various ages, but not many. Classes were apparently in session. The walls were painted two unpleasant shades of institutional green, darker below and lighter above. Some areas had been defaced with graffiti and posters, and near the corner someone had started a nice painting of a seashore, right on the wall. My employer gestured at this, about to make a comment, when we heard a voice behind us.

"Ah, Miss Sleet," called a woman who was coming down the hall toward us. "I was just looking for you." She looked familiar, but I couldn't place her.

Jan Sleet paused as the teacher reached for the door of the classroom. She tugged at the bottom of her vest, though it already hugged her slender torso without a crease or fold. Then she reached up and quickly touched the knot of her tie, reassuring herself that it was perfect, which it was.

She had affected casual indifference about the U-town School, but I had noticed that she'd dressed very carefully for this event. She was wearing her newest suit (dark blue, single-breasted), freshly cleaned and pressed, with a pale blue shirt. Her shoes and her cane were polished, her shoulder-length, brown hair was brushed, and she smiled as she did when people were about to see her looking her best.

Amusingly, the first thing we saw in the classroom was a full-page newspaper advertisement, taped to the wall. I was quite familiar with it, since it was an advertisement for a top haberdasher and it featured a picture of Jan Sleet. The photograph was striking, and I supposed it was being displayed in honor of her visit.

The advertising campaign had been somewhat controversial. Doc and Ray had been concerned that it would appear that U-town itself was endorsing the clothier in question, and the agreement had been that the ads would not feature her name or any mention of U-town.

So, it was just a photograph of Jan Sleet: very tall, very slender, one hand on her hip, the other holding her cane. Her expression was pensive, as if regarding an unexpected corpse. The only text on the page was the name of the company, in small type, at the bottom.

My employer didn't mind the publicity, or the assumption that a significant number of people would recognize her photograph, or the indirect publicity for U-town, but the main attraction was that the company paid her not only in cash, most of which we donated to the U-town treasury, but also in clothing, all tailored to her exacting specifications, including the suit she was wearing today (though the dark maroon tie she wore, her current favorite, had been a gift from me).

"Class," the teacher began as we sat down, "this is Miss Sleet, as I'm sure you're aware. She has consented to come and speak to us this morning as part of our career program. She–"

She stopped and turned as she became aware that my employer was lighting a cigarette. Before she could speak, one of the students said, "I guess this means we can smoke, too, right?"

The teacher, who I had finally recognized, turned back, but my employer responded first. "If the policy is that you're not allowed to smoke in this class," she said, "then you can't smoke. Ms. Tumolo is your teacher, and it's her decision." She looked at the boy who had spoken. "What is your name?" she asked.

"I'm Willy," he said, tensing a bit. He was slender, with straight, sandy hair, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a denim jacket.

"Willy," she said, drawing on her cigarette and leaning back in her chair, "one of the first things you learn as a reporter is that authority exists in every situation. You may think it's valid authority, or not, but it's there and you have to deal with it. I've interviewed world leaders who had no legitimate claim to authority, who schemed and lied and assassinated to get where they were, and if they said I couldn't smoke, I didn't smoke, because I wanted the interview."

She gestured at the advertisement on the wall. I noticed that Willy seemed to be relaxing again. "One time I had to wear a dress, because a particular general would not even speak to a woman who was wearing pants." She shrugged. "I hadn't worn a dress or a skirt in over ten years, but I did then, because I wanted the interview. Then I wrote an article which nearly got me killed, but that's a different story.

"On the other hand, there have been situations where the subject, for whatever reason, needed the interview more than I did. In those cases, I smoked, and I dressed normally." She turned to the teacher. "I'm sorry, Ms. Tumolo, I'm taking over your class as well as flouting your rules. Please continue."

As I said, I had finally recognized the teacher. Her name was Susan Tumolo. Before the founding of U-town, she had been the secretary of the mayor, Mike Sheldon, known as "Uncle Mike." Immediately after the founding, Uncle Mike had vanished. The common assumption, hers and ours, had been that he had been removed, since he had (from the government's point of view) bungled things so badly that one area of his city had been able to secede and become U-town.

She had been upset and angry about what had happened to her employer, so much so that she had come to us and told us of a plot against Doc's life, even though she had thought the whole idea of U-town was a big joke.

When we'd first met her, she had disapproved of cigarettes, and that opinion (and the facial expression which went with it) hadn't changed. Some things had changed, though. When we'd met her, she'd been wearing a blouse, a skirt, nylons, and pumps. Now, she'd gone native enough that she wore jeans and flat shoes, but she was also wearing a nice blouse, a touch of makeup, nail polish, and some unobtrusive jewelry. Of course, sitting next to Jan Sleet, she still looked rather casual.

Ms. Tumolo made the mistake of hesitating for a split second before responding, so my employer continued, "Why don't we all get introduced to start off? I'll be able to help a lot more if I know you all better. That way, we can make the best use of our time here." She glanced at Ms. Tumolo, which I thought was a nice gesture, but apparently the teacher didn't have any objections.

In fact, as my employer turned back to face the class, I noticed a smile quirk Ms. Tumolo's full lips. She knew where the authority was in this situation (authority which I knew from past experience she considered to be at least somewhat questionable), but she had figured out what I had seen earlier that morning, that this was going to be much more than a brief presentation on career choices. I had the idea that she was curious to see where this was going to go.

"So, why don't we start this way," my employer began. "Let's go around the room, and each of you can tell me your name, and ask me one question, whatever you want. You'll have plenty of time for more questions later; this is just so I can get an idea of what's on your minds." She gestured at the boy seated closest to the window. "Why don't you start, if you don't mind, and then we can go around the room."

He nodded. If he was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. He was a bit taller than Willy, also with fair hair, though his hair was shorter.

"My name is Roger," he said, "and I'm glad you've come to visit us, but I am confused. Ms. Tumolo said yesterday that you were a reporter, and she gave us a couple of your articles to read. But, when I mentioned you to my parents last night, my father said you were running the government, and my mother said you were a detective, that you caught criminals." He smiled. "So, I guess I'm wondering how many careers you have, and how many we're going to be expected to have."

That got a bit of a laugh, and my employer said, "That's a good question, Roger. I'm a reporter. If you've read my articles, then you know what I do. Solving mysteries is my hobby, and, like many people, there are times when I'd rather be doing my hobby than my job." He nodded. "After all," she continued, "Ellery Queen was a novelist, Dr. Fell was a lexicographer, Sir Henry Merrivale was . . ." She noticed their expressions. "Fictional characters. Before your time, I realize. I'm sure you get the idea.

"As for the government, I'm certainly not running it; Doc Morse is. I'm in a position to help her, so I do, as I hope any of you would also. Does that answer your question?"

He nodded. "Yes, thank you."

She turned to the next student, who was a pretty girl with long, straight, blonde hair.

"I'm Carol," she said, "and here's my question. Who's the cute guy?"

That got a laugh, and their reaction told me that this was not an unexpected question from Carol. My employer glanced at me, as if to make sure I wasn't going to let this go to my head.

"Marshall is my assistant," she said. "He travels everywhere with me, and I couldn't get very much done without him. He produces the things I need, when I need them, no matter how impossible they seem, and he's saved my life more than once." She smiled. "If you really want to be successful in life, get a good assistant. That's going to be the single most important thing you can do."

She pulled her glasses down her nose and peered over them at the students. "And he's also my husband," she continued, "so don't get any ideas, girls."

That got a laugh, and she turned her attention to the next student. He was a young man, a bit smaller than the others. He had straight, brown hair, and he looked fairly serious.

"My name is Jimmy," he said, then he corrected himself. "James. I wanted to ask what you think about college, ma'am. My teachers say I'm ready to go, but there aren't any colleges around here. Did you go to college?"

She smiled. "Before I answer that, James, let me ask you a question. Do you not want to go to college? Do you not want to travel?"

He shrugged. "Well, my parents are always saying how much better it is here in U-town. What if I go somewhere else and I don't like it?"

She laughed. "Well, I think it is a pretty great place to live, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't travel. U-town is very small, and the world is very large. I like it here, but I've been to a lot of places, so I have a basis for comparison. Are you going to marry the first person who asks you out on a date?

"Besides, U-town can't survive on what people can learn here. For example, we need doctors, obviously, and it will be years before we can even think about starting a medical school here. I read an article recently – not written by me – which said that if your ailment is fairly common, you'll receive better care in U-town than anywhere else in the world. However, if your ailment is uncommon, or complex, or difficult to diagnose, you'll get sent somewhere else. We can be proud of the former, but we have to be working on the latter. There are doctors in the city who come to our hospital one day a week, and some of them refer certain patients to us, but we need more full-time staff, doctors who are always here, and who are doing research, not just treating patients. As Ray said to me recently, we can send you to some great therapists, but that doesn't help if you need back surgery."

"Thanks," he said, "That makes sense. But did you go to college?"

"Yes, I did," she said, "but I didn't graduate. When I got to college, I just went through the catalog and marked all the classes I thought would help me solve mysteries. And I took all the journalism classes, too, of course."

"What was your major?"

She shrugged. "I didn't have one. I had no interest in getting a degree, I just wanted an education. When I'd taken all the courses I needed, I left."

"You dropped out?"

"Oh, I don't think of it as dropping out. Dropping out implies quitting in the middle of something. I just followed through on the plan I'd laid out when I was in high school. So, I left college, I found Marshall and hired him, and I was ready to go."

She held up a hand.

"I don't recommend doing that, by the way, though it has worked quite well for me. But now, when I've taken on some responsibilities in the government, I do wish I'd taken some other courses. Economics, for example. I did take languages, since all of the classic detectives were polylingual, and that's been helpful in diplomatic work, but I wish I'd taken a much wider range of courses when I was there."

The next question came from a girl with dark hair and glasses, and she seemed rather shy and apologetic. I had the impression that she would have been just as happy if she had been skipped over.

"I have a question," she said. "It's really from my mother, when she heard you were going to be here." She hesitated.

"First off," my employer said in her friendliest voice, "what is your name?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm Amy, Amy Brewster."

Jan leaned forward and said conspiratorially, "Well, Amy, you don't have to ask your mother's question, if you'd rather ask one of your own. We won't tell. Or, if you want, you can ask me two questions, hers and one of your own."

"No, that's okay," she said very seriously. "It's about... There's this woman. She lives across the street from us, and my mother says that she's crazy and she's killed hundreds of people. My mother wants to know why you don't arrest her and put her away."

Jan nodded slowly. "I could say that that's not my job, but that would be an evasion." She smiled. "And I don't want to teach you to evade the difficult questions.

"The woman you're talking about is starling, of course. She is a murderer, many times over, but she has not murdered anybody here, at least not anybody who was not threatening her or someone she cared about.

"So, should we prosecute her for crimes committed elsewhere? Would the United States prosecute anybody for a crime committed here? We know they wouldn't.

"Many people come here to live in some way they couldn't live anywhere else." She smiled. "There's probably never been a country in human history where so many people are living under new names, names they weren't born with. A lot of that is just in fun, but perhaps she's come here to reinvent herself in a more important way. If so, we should give her that chance."

"My dad says she should be put down," Willy said. "Like a mad dog."

Jan shook her head. "I disagree with that, since she is neither of those things. In any case, I don't think that's the solution. Does she deserve death, for what she's done? Perhaps. Many who live deserve death. Do her victims, or at least some of them, deserve life? Probably, but we can't give it to them, no matter how much we might think they got a raw deal. So, if you can't restore life to the dead, don't be too eager to deal out death in judgment to the living."

Amy asked, "Is that from the Bible?"

Jan smiled. "I'm an atheist, so no, it's not."

"My name is David," said the next student, a plump young man with frizzy hair and glasses. "I'm sorry if my question isn't career-oriented, but I have to ask why you dress so funny." He smiled at his own impudence. "And you were talking about people with phony names. Is Jan Sleet your real name?"

My employer laughed, nearly dropping her cigarette case and her lighter. "I can tell already that a couple of you may end up being reporters," she said. "First James pins me down on my education, and now this. That was very sharp, so I'm going to let you get away with asking two questions instead of one.

"You're right, Jan Sleet is not the name I was born with. I was born Janice Stiglianese, but people usually mispronounce it, so I decided it would be good to have a shorter name, for professional use. So, that was a good question. Another thing you learn as a reporter is to be thorough, including asking questions that might seem very obvious.

"As for my attire," she gestured with a certain pride at the newspaper ad on the wall, "let me ask a question of my own. Do you mean funny as in peculiar, or do you mean really funny?"

"Well, both, I guess," he said slowly, as if realizing belatedly that his questions might not have been entirely appropriate.

"I want to try, as much as possible, to keep people from jumping to conclusions about me. I want them to look at me and realize that there isn't an easy box or category they can put me into.

"Also, we go to some dangerous places, Marshall and I, and dressing well can give people the impression that there might be a price to pay for torturing or killing you."

"When did you decide you wanted to be a detective?" he asked.

She smiled. "I'm sorry, you've used up your questions for now. I'm sure we'll get back to this subject."

Ms. Tumolo, apparently sensing that this morning was going to be only the first act (if not, in fact, merely the prologue) of a very long play, said, "Now that we're all introduced, this might be a good time for us to take a short break. I'm sure somebody's put up a fresh pot of coffee by now, and I'm probably not the only person who could use some."

There was general assent on this point, so we stood and stretched, and she started to lead us to the cafeteria.

Our progress through the halls of the school was slow, and Ms. Tumolo's patience with all the distractions told us that this was not unusual. Our speed seemed to vary between "slow" and "stopped" as people saw friends, popped into offices, looked at bulletin boards, paused to neck with random strangers (or at least that's what appeared to be happening, and Ms. Tumolo did move to break up a couple of clinches which seemed likely to occupy one or another of her students for the rest of the day), and generally meandered around.

We caused a comparatively minor delay ourselves when we passed one door just as it opened and Pete came out. He was looking back over his shoulder, evidently in conversation with somebody behind him, and he walked right into my employer. She lost her balance (which wasn't that secure at the best of times), and I grabbed her elbow to steady her.

David came up to greet Pete, and I noticed that Ms. Tumolo was finally starting to look impatient. She was also, if I was reading her expression correctly, thinking that Pete didn't really belong in a school in the first place.

Apparently Jan noticed this as well, because she said, "We're just on our way for coffee, Pete. Would you like to join us?"

This would have tickled my employer's sense of humor, to give the appearance of moving us along, because Ms. Tumolo was getting impatient, and in reality to annoy her for a bit longer with the scruffy presence of Pete.

The cafeteria was familiar. We had been to some sort of event there, or perhaps more than one, but I couldn't recall the details.

Roger said, "I'll check on the coffee," and he went off to the kitchen.

The large room was full of long tables, some with attached benches (like picnic tables) and others with chairs. If there was a system to how the tables were arranged, it was based on mathematical formulae which were beyond me.

"So," David said, "Miss Sleet, you're a big fan of detective fiction?"

She smiled. "Of course. I assume you have a reason for asking?"

"He hates mystery stories," Carol said. "That's what one of his courses is about."

David laughed. "She's not one of my students," he said. "That's purely hearsay."

"But with, perhaps, an element of truth," Jan commented. "What is your premise?"

"In brief," he said, "science fiction encourages us to imagine other worlds. In most cases, the imagination applied is pretty paltry, but the potential is there, and occasionally it is realized. Mystery stories, on the other hand, are, in a basic sense, about repairing what exists now, about maintaining order."

Jan sighed and stretched. I could feel how much she wanted a cigarette, but apparently she had decided that smoking in the cafeteria would be a bit much, even for her.

"It is no coincidence, I think," David continued, "that the person who thought up the idea of U-town was a science fiction fan."

Roger came out of the kitchen with a tray which, instead of coffee, seemed to contain cups of soda.

"Dr. Alexander's blown up the coffee pot again," he announced. "Somebody's gone for a new one, but I thought this was better than nothing."

He brought the tray around to us first, since we were the guests, and handed each of us a cup, balancing the tray with his other hand. Jan and I were not soda drinkers, but we each took a cup to be polite.

"Doctor Alexander was performing chemical experiments in the kitchen?" Jan asked as Roger held out a cup for Pete, who took it and immediately put it on the table.

Roger laughed as Ms. Tumolo replied, "No, she teaches literature. She knows even less about chemistry than I do, and she tends to forget that a glass pot on a hot stove will eventually shatter, once its contents have boiled away."

Roger was moving to the far side of the table, to serve Ms. Tumolo, so Pete leaned toward us and whispered, "I'm not really much of a soda drinker."

"When in Rome," my employer murmured, sipping from her cup.

"Just put it on the table," Ms. Tumolo said to Roger, and he put the tray down. A couple of the other students took cups.

David was patiently waiting for Jan Sleet to comment on the apparent fact that, in addition to being a student, he was also teaching some classes. If he had known her better, he would have realized that he was going to have a very long wait indeed.

"David," she said, "that's an interesting premise. There's almost certainly some truth to it, at least as far as Ray is concerned." She smiled, throwing her arms wide. "Sorry to disappoint you, if you thought I was going to start brandishing verbal cudgels in defense of the mystery story."

"You think he's right?" Roger demanded as two students marched through in a very short (but solemn) procession, one of them carrying a glass coffee pot in front of her reverently.

"Not at all," she replied, "but I think there's little point in arguing about things which can never be proven. I am not, after all, a writer of fiction. I'm a reporter, and what really entrances me is facts, not fictions. Science fiction may expand your mind in some ways, and mystery stories may teach you that human intelligence can solve even apparently impossible conundrums, but what counts is what you do with that information."

"I'll go help make the coffee," Roger said.

As he got up and walked toward the kitchen, David said, "That's pretty general."

"Fair enough," she said, leaning forward. "Here's something a bit more specific. I imagine there are millions of science fiction enthusiasts in the world. Would you say that's accurate?"

He nodded. "Absolutely."

"And, of all those millions, only one has done what Ray Stone did. So, science fiction was, I agree, a factor, but there were apparently other factors as well."

"Miss Sleet," Ms. Tumolo put in, "what would you say those other factors might have been?"

"That is a very interesting question," Jan replied. She looked around at the students. "I'd like to find out how all of you would answer it."

Ms. Tumolo's expression indicated that she was surprised my employer was finally doing something which might actually be educational.

David said, "I would think that having the idea was half the battle, and figuring out how to make it happen was the other half."

Jan allowed a grin to flick on and off. "That's pretty general, I must say." He laughed as she went on. "I'd like to hear what everybody else thinks, though."

There was a moment of silence, then Ms. Tumolo pointed at James, who gulped.

"Well," he said, "um, I guess one thing is that Ray didn't do it alone."

Jan nodded. "James, that's very true, and it's true in two different ways. Were you talking about Doc and Vicki and the others, or about people in general?"

"I was thinking about Doc, mostly," he said.

"It certainly wouldn't have happened without Doc and Ray and the rest of us. But, most importantly, it couldn't have happened without your parents and your neighbors and maybe even some of you."

"I was there," Amy said suddenly, raising her hand.

"So was I," said Willy.

Jan turned and peered at him more closely. "I remember you," she said slowly. "You were right in front. You threw a rock, and then Doc told you to cool it."

Willy grinned. "That was me."

There was a piercing whistle from the kitchen. Pete stood up and said, "Apparently the coffee is nearly ready."

"Let's go help out," Jan said, levering herself erect with her cane. "There's no reason Roger has to serve us."

Ms. Tumolo stood also, and she and one or two of the other students followed us into the kitchen.

There was a big coffee urn behind the counter, but it appeared to be broken. A couple of the glass tubes on the front were twisted out of position, and one was cracked.

On the side of the small, L-shaped room, there was a stove, and water had obviously been boiled in the new coffee pot. Roger was pouring it over the grounds in the basket in the battered aluminum coffeemaker. I decided not to ask the next question, which was whether any of this machinery had been washed recently.

"Make a note," my employer said to me, gesturing at the broken urn. "It must be possible to fix that."

With Roger and the other students behind the counter, and the rest of us on the other side, I had the urge to get a tray and put it on the tracks so I could slide it along and load it up with food. There was no food, of course, but the surroundings were making me realize how hungry I was getting. I hoped that lunch was going to be on the schedule at some point.

Jan and I poured mugs of coffee for ourselves, Pete poured one, then Ms. Tumolo poured her own, and by then the pot was nearly empty.

"I'll make more," Roger said, "and then I'll be right out."

I looked around as we went back to our table. Except for our group and a class of younger students on the other side of the room, the cafeteria was empty.

As we sat down, Roger came out of the kitchen and said, "We'll hear the whistle when the water boils, then I'll go make another pot."

"You should have taken a cup for yourself, from the first batch," I said.

He shook his head. "I don't drink coffee."

"How do you end up making the coffee if you don't drink it?"

"I make it right," he said with a shrug. "Some of the students who drink the most are hopeless at making it."

He picked up the soda that Pete had left behind, and drank some as I turned to my employer.

A second later, I heard Roger groan behind me, and when I turned back he was doubled over, clutching his stomach. He tried to say something, his face pale and sweaty, but his throat was obviously so dry he couldn't speak. He reached for the cup, which was still half full of soda, but my employer's long, bony hand shot out and moved it away from him.

He looked at her, startled, as she got up and limped quickly around me to stand next to him. She leaned over to peer at his face as he bent over again, moaning. Then she grabbed his hair, yanked his head up, and shoved her fingers down his throat.

As he threw up, she said, "Poison, runner, hospital, nurse, kit, go!"

I heard Willy say, "I'm a runner," as I ran for the door. I was gone before I heard her reply, but I knew what it would have been: "You're also a suspect, please sit down."

I pulled the whistle from my pocket as I ran down the hall and out the front door.

There was a runner at the corner, and she heard the whistle. She held up an envelope as she turned, indicating that she was on a job, but then she recognized me, and biked over quickly as I trotted down the wide steps.

"Hospital emergency," I said. "Bring back a nurse with a kit. Tell them it's most likely poisoning. Give the nurse a ride back on your bike. We're in the cafeteria. Fast as you can. Go."

She went.

Going back down the hall, I saw Willy. He saw me, too, and he tried to get to the staircase, but I caught up with him and grabbed his arm. "Did you get permission to leave the cafeteria?" I asked, knowing the answer.

He stammered out the beginnings of a few possible replies, squirming in my grip as I hauled him back to the scene of the crime.

Roger was lying on his side on one of the long tables, clutching at his stomach. His skin was pale and his eyes were closed. Jan was standing next to him, and I could tell from her posture that he was out of danger, at least for the moment. Amy and Carol were cleaning up the table where he'd thrown up.

My employer smiled when she saw that I had Willy. She gestured at the table where some of the others were sitting, and I pulled him over there and sat him down. I did a quick check and confirmed that the rest were all there: Ms. Tumolo, James, David, and Pete. Other than the nine of us, the large cafeteria was empty.

"Here is the situation," Jan said, addressing them all, her hands folded on top of her cane. "This is almost certainly an attempted murder, one of you is probably the culprit, and I am in charge now.

"My first priority is Roger's life, but he seems to be out of danger and medical help is on the way, so now I can concentrate on identifying who did this.

"Also, don't even try to get away. Marshall can outrun any of you, and he could beat any two of you in a fight. I let the other students leave the room because they were all very young. I doubt if any of them were responsible for this, and some of them were getting upset. That doesn't apply to you, however. You can be upset or not, as you prefer, but you're not leaving."

She addressed me without turning her head. "Marshall," she said, "please stand by the door. Nobody gets in until the nurse gets here."

I complied, standing with my back against the door, watching the suspects. They had, for the moment, lost any desire to ask questions or talk back.

"Let's start with this," she said to them. "Your classmate, Roger, has been poisoned. Until we figure this out, nobody should eat or drink anything. Now, do any of you know of a reason for anybody to want to hurt or kill Roger?"

"But it wasn't his cup of soda," Pete said. "It was mine, but I hadn't touched it. How could anybody have–"

"But it was Roger who–" Carol began, but my employer held up her hand.

"Wait, please," she said. "With any investigation, we start with motive, means, or opportunity. With this one, I'm starting with motive."

"Why?" Ms. Tumolo asked. "I would think–"

"Please excuse my interruption," my employer said, "but I will tell you my reason." I saw her shift her weight, and I knew this meant that her leg was getting tired. I abandoned my post for a moment and brought a chair over to her. I placed it behind her, and she extended her arm slightly, so I took it and helped her to sit down. She thanked me, but she did not take her eyes off the suspects.

Returning quickly to the door, I noticed that Roger had rolled onto his back. He had one hand on his stomach, and the other arm across his eyes.

"My reason is this," my employer continued. "The question of means is easy to answer, at least for now. I don't know how many of you saw the box of rat poison in the kitchen, but I did. Opportunity is very difficult. There are several contradictory indications, as I'm sure you've all noticed. We will work our way through them in due time, but systematically and logically, not by interrupting each other willy-nilly. And I have some ideas about the question of opportunity, as well as means, but most of you are strangers to me, so I have no idea about motive. So, we'll start there, because that's where there's the most to learn.

"Motive, means, and opportunity, any one of the three can ruin a perfectly good theory that's based on the other two. So, who likes him, dislikes him, loves him, hates him–"

I felt the door move behind me, and then there was an impatient knock on the frosted glass.

I stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind me. It took some conversation to convince the three teachers waiting that there had been an accident, that they were not going to be allowed into the cafeteria, that I was not going to tell them anything about the nature of the accident, and that I was not going to bring them their lunch.

Finally, when they had gone away, I went back in and heard David say, "She has a crush on him."

"I do not!" Carol insisted.

Jan held up her hand. "It really doesn't matter. People don't murder each other because of a crush. After all, a crush is based on hope. It's if and when that hope is dashed, when we've been rejected, either in reality or in our imaginations, that murder can happen."

I had obviously missed some things, but I didn't mind, since I could tell that she was just marking time. She was waiting for something, and this discussion of adolescent infatuation was not occupying much of her attention.

I wondered what she was waiting for. Probably for the arrival of the nurse, but it was difficult to be sure.

There was another knock at the door. This time it was four students, and they were easier to convince than the teachers had been. I asked one of them to go and make a sign for the door, saying that the cafeteria was closed because of a possible contamination. Which was true, in a way.

When I stepped back into the room, my employer was saying, "I'd like to focus now on two big questions. Either this was an attempt to poison a specific person, or it was a random act of malice, directed against whoever happened to drink from that cup. And, either the cup was poisoned before it was handed to Pete, or after he put it down. I was looking at Pete during the moment it was in his hand, and I can say with confidence that he did not have the opportunity to poison it himself."

James raised his hand, as if he was in class, and Jan smiled and nodded.

"Would somebody really poison a cup of soda that was just sitting on a table?" he asked. "What if nobody came along and drank it?"

"Those things do happen, but I agree that they don't usually happen in this way. If it was a random act of malice, why was it so focused? Several of us drank soda, and none of us suffered any ill effects. Except by accident, we might never have even found out that the soda in that particular cup had been poisoned. If it was motiveless malignancy, I think it would have been broader, with more of the cups poisoned.

"So, let's take that as a hypothesis, and see where it takes us. Let's say it was an attempt to poison Pete, thwarted only by the fact that he doesn't drink soda. Did anybody here know Pete before today?"

Nobody said anything, then Willy said, "I've seen him around, here and there, in different bars. I don't think I ever said anything to him."

"Pete, did you know anybody here before today?"

He gestured at Amy. "She lives across the street. I've never met any of the others."

I heard another knock, and a voice called, "Nurse!"

I opened the door and a familiar-looking young man held up a medical bag. "Where's the patient?" he asked cheerfully.

I let him in and pointed at the table where Roger was lying. As he crossed the room, through the sudden silence, he waved at the group at the table, and I realized that he looked a lot like James, the young man who had just spoken. I thought they were probably related, but I never did find out for sure.

Living in U-town had forced me to give up a lot of my prejudices, but even so I was a bit alarmed that Roger was being treated by someone who seemed to be even younger than he was.

The young man's T-shirt, ripped jeans, and sandals may have looked unprofessional to my eyes, but he went to work quickly and efficiently. My employer picked up the poisoned cup and brought it over to him as the examination progressed.

After a few moments, Jan and the nurse moved a bit away from Roger and conferred. She was still holding the cup of poisoned soda. Then the nurse picked up his medical bag and they crossed the room and went into the kitchen together.

I examined the group around the table. They weren't talking very much and they all looked pretty tense, or at least the students did. I could tell that they were listening to the noises from the kitchen and trying to figure out what was going on in there, but they were trying not to be obvious about it. Ms. Tumolo was looking thoughtful, and Pete seemed completely relaxed, smoking a cigarette.

After a moment, I heard a noise from out in the hall, and I opened the door to see that the sign I'd requested was in place. There were a couple of spelling mistakes, but it conveyed the message.

My employer stepped out of the kitchen and motioned me over. She wasn't in a mood to preen, but she couldn't completely suppress her excitement as I approached and she said quietly, "Gather the suspects."

Of course, the suspects were all gathered already, but I knew how much she enjoyed saying that.

As she limped back across the room, she said, "Marshall, I may need your help."

I knew what that meant. "One of the students put a sign on the door," I said, following her. "We won't be disturbed."

She nodded as I stood beside her and helped her to sit down again.

"Are we going to get to watch you try to solve the case?" David asked.

She smiled and lit a cigarette. "No, I've already solved it. You're going to get to listen to me explain how.

"To summarize," she began, addressing them all, "either someone tried to kill Pete, which seems unlikely since it appears that the only person who had the opportunity was Roger and he ended up getting poisoned himself. Or else someone poisoned the cup later, when it was sitting on the table, and why would anybody do that when there was a very good chance that nobody would ever touch it?

"So, it's a bit of a conundrum, but here are two more facts which are very suggestive. One is that the drinks were served in a very particular way. Roger came out and, rather than holding out the tray for each of us to take a cup of soda, he balanced the tray with one hand, which was obviously not easy, and handed a cup to me, and then one to Marshall. We both drank from those cups, and we know the soda in those cups was not poisoned. Then, still balancing the tray in his other hand, he handed the third cup to Pete, who put it down on the table. From then on, people just took cups, there was no further attempt to–"


"Wait," she said, silencing Carol. She stood up slowly, her face stern. She was not only a detective about to reveal an attempted murderer but also also an official of the government, and she was not going to be interrupted again. She started to walk slowly around the table as she spoke.

"As I said, that was suggestive, but certainly not definitive. But this, the second fact, is incontrovertible. Based on an analysis of the remaining soda, and considering the amount that Roger drank, it would seem he exaggerated his symptoms, and the speed with which they came on. In fact, he began to exhibit symptoms before he would even have felt any effects from the poison, and how would he have known–"

This was, as my employer would have called it, flummery, since the nurse had arrived with a lifesaving kit, not a chemical testing lab. But, as she is fond of pointing out, people expect things to happen as they do in movies and books. So, if you give them that, they tend to believe you. And Roger apparently did believe her, because he jumped up and ran for the door.

I was there before him. He aimed a kick at my shin, but I managed to dodge it (mostly) and it left him off-balance so I knocked his other foot out from under him, grabbing his wrists. I was about to drop him to the floor and fall on him when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone else was moving at me, quickly, so I twisted Roger's right arm around behind his back, yanked it up between his shoulder blades, hard, and swung him around so he bore the brunt of the attack.

"Ms. Tumolo," my employer said, "this question is up to you. Would you prefer to hear the explanation yourself, and then share it with your class, or would you like for them to hear it with you?"

The teacher looked around. "I think that should be up to them."

A few minutes before, Roger had become sullen and unresponsive when it had become apparent that he couldn't escape. The nurse had taken him into another room to examine him. There was a possibility that I had dislocated his shoulder, plus he had a couple of deep scratches on his face from when I had used him as a shield against Carol.

She had been the attacker I had seen out of the corner of my eye, coming to Roger's defense. She had burst into tears when she had realized that the only tangible result of her move to assist Roger had been that she herself had injured him. But then she had rallied, with some encouragement from Ms. Tumolo, and she had helped the nurse get Roger out of the room.

So, we were sitting around the table again. Jan, Ms. Tumolo, David, Willy, James, Amy, Pete, and me. When Ms. Tumolo asked her question, David made a motion of checking his (nonexistent) wristwatch and said, "I think I have a class to teach in a few minutes. If you'll excuse me."

He got up and left, followed by Willy who made a muttered, but heartfelt, declaration that he needed a cigarette.

"My assumption from the beginning was that Roger was responsible," my employer began, "but I couldn't figure out why. Of course, I still don't know why for sure, but his attempt at flight convinces me that I was probably–"

"I'm confused," Amy said. "Was the soda poisoned or not?"

"That's a good question. Yes, it was, and it was a sincere attempt to poison Pete. It failed, as we discussed, and Roger would almost certainly have tried again with the coffee if he'd been alone in the kitchen when it was being served. But we each came in and poured our own, so there was no opportunity."

"But why? What did he have against me?" Pete asked. "And how did he think he'd get away with it?"

"That was where I was stumped for a while, I admit. I was trying to think what the connection was. An attempt on Pete's life, and a later attempt on Roger's life. What was the link? There was no indication that they knew each other, apparently no common...

"Then I saw it. Both scenarios, Pete's death and Roger's death, would have had the same final result. Roger would have died."

Ms. Tumolo shook her head. "No it wouldn't. U-town has no death penalty..." Her voice trailed off as she got it.

"Pete," Jan said, turning to face him, "I must speak frankly."

He nodded. "I understand." It was clear that he had some idea what she was going to say.

"Pete has a roommate, " she said carefully, "named starling. starling clearly cares very deeply about Pete, and in the past she has killed to protect his life. If Pete was murdered, the logical assumption would be that she would get her revenge on whoever was responsible. How did Roger expect to get away with it, when he was the only person who could have poisoned the cup of soda? I don't think he did. I think he was counting on not getting away with it. I think he wanted to die."

Pete sighed and ran his fingers through his long hair. "It would not, I admit, be the first time somebody has tried to commit suicide using Katherine." He shook his head.

"So," my employer continued after a moment, "I had a theory which accounted for all the available facts. Roger wanted to commit suicide, but didn't have the nerve to do it himself. He poisoned the soda, which only he was in a position to do, but Pete doesn't drink soda. He couldn't poison the coffee, because we all came into the kitchen to pour our own. Then he decided to drink the poisoned soda himself, to end his life that way, but he lost his nerve and only drank half, then he displayed exaggerated symptoms so that he'd get help. It all fit, but I had no evidence."

"So, you goaded him into panic," Ms. Tumolo said.

She nodded. "Exactly. That was why I had Marshall move away from the door. To give him a clear field."

There was a moment of uneasy silence, before James asked the inevitable next question.

"What happens now?"

"To some extent, that's going to be up to you, all of you, including Roger and Carol. Nobody is going to come and arrest him, at least not now." She leaned back in her chair. "Ms. Tumolo, with your permission, I'd like to assign your class some homework." The teacher nodded. "This is going to be due the day after tomorrow at nine a.m. You know Roger, all of you, and I'm sure at least some of you will have an idea about why this happened. My assignment to all of you, including Roger and Carol, is to think about this, and talk about it, and make a recommendation, a real one, about what should be done, both about this specific situation and in order to alleviate the condition or conditions which might have led to it, whatever you think they might have been.

"So, we will be back, the day after tomorrow, first thing in the morning. I look forward to hearing what you will come up with. If I think it's wrong or inadequate, I'll say so, but you will get a chance to argue for your position. I'm also going to see if Ray Stone can come with me. I'm sure he'll have something to contribute."

As the students trailed out, Jan said, "Ms. Tumolo, could you stay for a moment?"

She paused and turned, and then she said to James, "I'll meet you all back in the classroom."

He nodded and left, following the others, and she came back and sat with us. She regarded us in silence, waiting, her face expressionless.

"Ms. Tumolo, since this will apparently be an ongoing process, I wanted to ask what you thought about how this was resolved, so far."

"Do you want the truth?"

Jan nodded. "Always," she said quietly.

Ms. Tumolo nodded. "I must admit that I think you handled Roger in the right way. He's not a criminal, he's just troubled. I knew that already, though I had no idea how bad it was." She turned to Pete. "In my opinion, though, it should be up to you. You were the victim, or you were supposed to be, and, if you think he should be punished, then he should be punished. It's a shame that he wanted to end his life, but there's no excuse for trying to do it by killing you."

Pete smiled and lit a cigarette. "Jan knows me. I don't see any reason to lock him up."

Ms. Tumolo watched him for a minute, waiting to see if he'd say more, then she said, "No, I don't suppose you would, would you? This is what does bother me. Quite a bit. Do you want to hear the truth?"

He smiled as he exhaled smoke. "Under the circumstances, it would be awkward for me to say no. Please go ahead."

She turned back to face my employer. "It does bother me that his girlfriend or whatever the hell she is–"

"Assuming you're talking about Katherine – starling – then she is my girlfriend," Pete said quietly.

She nodded, not looking at him. "It bothers me that she's walking around free as a bird. Roger isn't a criminal, but she is, and a lunatic, too. Is he going to tell her about this? Is she going to come down and shoot my students?"

"I will tell her," Pete said firmly, before Jan could reply (though I think she would have deferred to him in any case), "and she will not come here, not to shoot people or for any other reason."

Ms. Tumolo stood up and said to Jan, "Well, if anything does happen, you'll be responsible."

She walked out, and Pete puffed on his cigarette. "She won't do anything, you know," he said quietly.

Jan nodded. "I know. I've been reading the reports on her therapy sessions with Ray."

Pete chuckled. "So much for doctor-patient confidentiality."

She smiled. "Ray's not a doctor."

"That's true. Not that it matters anyway. He seems to be effective, even though he claims he has no idea what he's doing. I gather he hasn't had any training or anything."

Jan laughed. "If you're trying to be a surgeon, that would be a problem. With therapy . . . well, I studied psychology in college, and it is, to say the least, not an exact science." She shook her head. "I do have to apologize, though, Pete. If I hadn't invited you to join us for coffee, none of this would have happened."

He chuckled. "And if you hadn't decided that all of us should go and get our own coffee from the kitchen, I'd probably be dead. So, I'd say we're square."

She nodded. "That sounds fair."

She hesitated then, and Pete chuckled. "I've seen that look before," he said. "What's your question?"

She laughed. "Nothing criminal. I'm just wondering why you're here in the school in the first place. You seemed reluctant to talk about it when we got here, but I'm assuming, or at least hoping, that it doesn't actually involve schoolgirls."

He shook his head, smiling. "No schoolgirls, except as students. No, I'm teaching a class." He noted her expression. "Not music. Nineteenth century English novels." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I try to keep it quiet, but I do have a Master's degree in English literature."

"Ah," she said, absorbing this. "But if you are trying to conceal this... blot on your character, then why are you teaching in the first place?"

"Well, to be honest, it is my own fault. I was drinking in Duffy's one night, and I'm afraid I was being pretty opinionated, and, well, a bet was proposed, that I was okay in an informal situation like that, but that I wouldn't be able to teach a college-level class." He looked sheepish. "Katherine wasn't there to dissuade me, so I accepted.

"When I got home she pointed out that there was no way I'd ever get paid no matter what, given the deadbeats in question, but I can't back out on that basis. I was hoping that the school administration would reject me for some reason, but they seemed very glad to have my services. So, here I am."

Jan hesitated for a moment, then she said, "I do have one more question though, Pete. What if you had been hurt or killed? What would starling have done then?" This was overstepping, and we all knew it, but sometimes her reporter's instincts get the better of her.

Pete stood up, dropping his cigarette to the floor and stubbing it out with his toe. "I have my opinion," he said carefully, "but that's all it is, and I think I will reserve it." He stood and stretched.

Jan nodded. "Fair enough. Have a good day, Pete."

He smiled. "It'll be a better day once I have a drink or two."

A few moments later, standing on the steps of the school, my employer stopped to light a cigarette. "We should–" she began.

"Eat," I said.

"Well, we do have to–"

"Eat," I insisted.

She looked miffed, but she knew I was right. With the mystery solved, and with no food since breakfast, she was due for a collapse. She glanced at me, considering whether she should argue one more time.

I shrugged, "It's no problem," I said. "You're easy to carry."

She sighed. "But it is so undignified." She gestured with her cane. "There's a good restaurant down that block."

As we crossed the street, she said, "You have questions."

"I had a comment and a couple of questions, actually," I said.

She frowned thoughtfully. "I can guess at the questions," she said, "but what is the comment?"

"I noticed something in the school today, something that's missing."

"Missing? In the school? That could be a lot of things. Which one specifically?"

"Our daughter."

"Ron?" She frowned. "Doesn't she go to school?" I shook my head. "Why not?"

"Because we don't make her go."

"Ah." She absorbed this, then she smiled. "So, what were your questions?"

"Well, one was that I noticed a flaw in your reasoning."

She looked at me sharply, as if I'd accused her of spitting on the French ambassador. "In my reconstruction?" she demanded, frowning.

"No, later. You implied that starling is allowed to walk around freely because of what you've seen in the reports from Ray. But then a minute later you were talking about your low opinion of psychology. There must be more to it, isn't there? You wouldn't base a life-and-death decision on such an inexact science."

We were stepping into the restaurant by then, so she didn't reply immediately. A waiter bustled up and escorted us to a table, gave us menus, and hovered around until I indicated that we didn't want drinks.

"That's Doc's answer," she said, ignoring the menus, "so that's the policy. Vicki has argued for a tougher approach, but I had to tell them that I think we need to keep starling on our side. We need her to be free and armed and comfortable."

"Are you afraid of what she'd do otherwise?"

She shook her head. "No, that's not it," she said. "Things are going to happen in the future, I don't know what, and we will need her help. And, if we push her away now, we won't be able to get her back when we need her." She smiled. "Even starling may have a part to play, before the end."

The waiter came back, and I indicated that she should order, or I'd order for her.

When we had ordered and the waiter had gone away again, she asked, "What's your other question?"

I started to reply, but her expression was entirely too smug. "What?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm just assuming you're going to ask about the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

"I don't think so," I said slowly, wondering what I was missing.

She laughed. "I'm referring to the teapot that never whistled. You remember, Roger said he'd put up the second pot of water, but it never did whistle." She shrugged. "Just another indication in Roger's direction. But if that wasn't your question, what was?"

"Pete remarked that he'd have been killed if Roger had been able to serve the coffee as he did the soda. But he couldn't, because we all went into the kitchen and served our own."

"We talked about that already."

"True, but here's what we didn't talk about. You were the one who suggested we go into the kitchen, instead of waiting for him to bring it to the table. Was that deliberate, did you know you were saving Pete's life, or was that just luck?"

She smiled. "Well, I know the answer to that, of course, but I think I'll reserve it."

Sometimes I wonder why I even ask these questions.

Print Friendly

Comments are closed.