The Red-Herring League
It was only Day Two at this new school. And this was already my second visit to the principal’s office.
I might have been on my way to setting some sort of record.
My first visit to the principal’s office—yesterday—had been mostly social; just a quick pop-in with the Guidance Counselor. She’d been the person to sign me up for school when my Aunt Alice had brought me in. And the Guidance Counselor had then helped me locate my locker and given me a quick tour of the school.
That tour had included meeting the principal, Mr. Moore, as well as my Home Room teacher.
This special treatment was probably because I was starting at Susan B. Anthony Middle School in mid-October. I doubt they rolled out this red-carpet treatment for every new kid.
That would be insane.
However, I wasn’t the only student waiting to see Principal Moore.
Another kid about my age was seated across from me. He seemed way too relaxed for someone who was waiting to see the principal. I got the sense that he was something of a regular.
He was watching me. To be more specific, he was watching my hands.
“What are you doing?”
He spoke very slowly, like he was choosing each word with great care.
I looked down at my hands. I had forgotten I was doing it.
“It’s called The French Drop,” I said. “It’s a magic move.”
“How do you mean?”
I held out my hands to demonstrate.
“The idea is, I make this coin vanish, right before your eyes.”
I held up a quarter in my left hand between my thumb and first finger. I passed my right hand over it, appearing to grab the coin. I rubbed the fingers of my right hand, finally opening that hand to show it was empty.
“Impressive,” he said slowly.
I continued the short routine, taking the fingers of my left hand and appearing to pull the coin out of the fabric of my pants, right where my leg bent at the knee. I held up the newly revealed coin.
“Very nice,” he added. He didn’t smile and his face didn’t light up. So I took him at his word that he had enjoyed the trick. “Did you get sent up here for doing magic during class?”
I shook my head. “No, I got sent up here because I kept dropping the coin while practicing. Like a lot.”
He nodded. “That’ll do it. You need to get quieter coins.”
Before I could respond, the door to the principal’s office swung open and Mr. Moore stepped out. He looked weary.
He squinted at me, then turned to the kid across from me.
“Nathan, I am surprised to see you back here so soon.”
“You and me both.”
“What brings you up here this morning? Shouldn’t you be in science class?”
“I should be. But the substitute teacher asked me to leave.”
“And the reason for that was?”
Nathan sighed deeply. “She was talking about light. She said mirrors reflect light, which is why we can see ourselves in mirrors.”
“So far so good,” the principal agreed.
“Then she said that mirrors are the only things that reflect light. I raised my hand and pointed out that everything reflects light. Otherwise, we couldn’t see anything at all.”
The principal stared at him for a long moment.
“And that’s why she sent you up here?”
Nathan shrugged. “Officially, she sent me up here for talking out of turn. But I didn’t talk out of turn. I raised my hand.”
The principal sighed. “Okay. Do me a favor, Nathan. Talk less. Raise your hand less.” He turned to me. Something about me must have puzzled him. “Didn’t I just meet you? Yesterday?”
He seemed to be thinking hard about it. I saw him glance over at the woman who ran the front desk.
Then I saw her slowly and deliberately mouth two words: “Dead parents.”
And Mr. Moore’s mood shifted instantly. He didn’t smile, but he came close. “Eli, isn’t it?”
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of this encounter?”
“He keeps dropping his coin,” Nathan offered from his chair.
I nodded as I held up the quarter. “I’ve been trying to learn this magic trick and I keep dropping the coin.” I did a very quick version of the move. And, of course, once again I dropped the coin.
“A magic trick?” Mr. Moore repeated, turning it into a question. “Oh yes. Your guardian, your uncle, he’s a magician, right?”
I nodded as I bent down to pick up the quarter. Mr. Moore thought for several seconds.
“You should get quieter coins,” Mr. Moore finally said.
“I had the same suggestion,” Nathan said.
“Let’s do this,” Mr. Moore said, ignoring Nathan’s comment. “How about you save the magic practice until after school or at lunch?” He glanced up at the oversized clock on the wall. “Which is where you both should be right now. I’ll walk you downstairs to the lunchroom.”
He gestured for us to get up and we followed him out of the office.
* * *
The three of us didn’t say much as we walked down the hall together. I mean, what was there to say? I didn’t know this Nathan kid. And Mr. Moore didn’t have a whole lot in common with a couple of thirteen-year-olds.
The hall was empty. Everyone was at lunch.
The awkward silence was broken by a shrill voice coming from a classroom as we passed it.
“Mr. Moore. Mr. Moore, I was just coming to see you.”
I recognized the older woman as my new history teacher. I’d only been in the class once so far and couldn’t remember her name. Mr. Moore, obviously, didn’t have that problem.
“Mrs. Sorenson, what can I do for you?”
“I think someone stole the questions for my Friday history test.”
This statement was serious enough to cause Mr. Moore to come to a complete stop. Nathan and I stopped as well.
“What do you mean?”
Mrs. Sorenson seemed a little breathless. But she had seemed breathless in class, so maybe that was just her normal state.
“I was upstairs, on the third floor, in the Teacher’s Lounge. I had all the materials for Friday’s test laid out, including the two essay questions. You see, I’ve given the kids fifteen possible topics for that essay, but no one knows what the actual two questions will be.”
“I see,” Mr. Moore said, nodding patiently. I think he wanted Mrs. Sorenson to get to the point. I sure did.
“I went into the Teacher’s bathroom for a minute, and when I came out, I saw a boy rushing out of the room. He had been looking at the two essay questions, I’m sure of it. I raced to the door, but by the time I got there, he was way ahead of me, far down the hall. He turned the corner and disappeared.”
I had trouble imagining Mrs. Sorenson racing anywhere. I think a quick stroll might have winded her.
“And he took the questions?” Mr. Moore asked.
Mrs. Sorenson shook her head. “He didn’t need to take them. Just knowing what the two essay questions are will be a huge advantage for anyone taking the test. That would give them two days to really read up on those two topics.”
“Can you describe the kid?”
Mrs. Sorenson considered this seriously for a long moment. “Not really. It all happened so quickly. But I know this much for sure: He was wearing a light shirt. And our culprit had red hair. Bright red hair.”
“That certainly narrows down the suspects,” Mr. Moore said.
* * *
Armed with this information, we followed Mr. Moore down one flight of stairs to the school’s lower level. We made a sharp left, which took us into the lunchroom. The room was swarming with kids. Some were going through the lunch line, putting their selected food items on the trays. But most were seated at the many long tables, eating, and laughing and joking.
I didn’t recognize even one face.
For the first time, it really hit me just how new to this school I was.
The only kid whose name I knew was standing right next to me. There are many reasons why Nathan went on to become my best friend, but that was certainly the first.
Mr. Moore had signaled the Room Monitor the moment he came in, and she had scurried over to him. He said a few words to her, drowned out by the din in the room. He pointed at three parts of the lunchroom, and she had raced away.
Less than a minute later, she escorted the only three red-headed boys in light shirts in the room over to Mr. Moore. He gestured them to follow him into the hallway. Since he hadn’t officially released Nathan or me, we naturally tagged along as well.
As the three kids lined up in front of Mr. Moore, I got my first real look at them.
They all had red hair and wore light colored shirts, but the similarities stopped right there.
One kid was skinny and looked damp. He had clearly recently been sweating.
The second one wasn’t sweating. Just the opposite. Even though he had just been called in front of the principal, he didn’t show any sign of nervousness. He was what my Aunt Alice would have called a cool cucumber.
The third kid was both a little taller and a little wider than the other two. To my eyes, he looked too big to still be in middle school. I don’t know which team he was on, but he clearly played sports of some kind. He may have constituted a whole team all by himself.
Looking at these three students, it occurred to me I was looking at the school’s social structure, broken down into just three people: The nerd, the cool guy and the jock.
For his part, Mr. Moore didn’t waste any time.
“We’ve just come from Mrs. Sorenson’s classroom. Someone with red hair and a light-colored shirt was spotted stealing a look at the essay questions for her Friday history test. Where have you each been for the last fifteen minutes?”
The question was addressed to all three boys, but Mr. Moore turned to the sweating kid first. Probably because he was sweating.
The kid looked not only damp but also terrified. “I just got here a couple minutes ago. Coach made me swim some extra laps after swim class. He said I was horsing around too much. I got my lunch and sat down over there.” He pointed across the room. “They were out of pizza by the time I got here. So instead, I got stuck with yesterday’s mystery meat.”
He didn’t appear to be lying. There was an empty chair where he pointed. A plate of something resembling a brownish substance was awaiting the return of its owner.
“Extra laps?” Mr. Moore repeated. “So, you’re not sweating from running?”
“I am sweating from running,” Ronald agreed. “But I’m also still wet from the pool and the quick shower. I wanted to get here before they ran out of pizza.”
“How are you doing in Mrs. Sorenson’s history class?”
Ronald shrugged. “About the same as every other class. Getting by.”
“I see.” Mr. Moore turned to the kid in the middle, who was smirking at Ronald’s lament about the pizza.
“Been here the whole lunch hour,” Simon said with a confident grin. “You can ask the guys at my table.” He gestured toward a nearby table, which was filled with boys who all appeared to be variations on Simon. They were all smirking back at us. “I went to the bathroom for like two minutes, but I didn’t go anywhere near the third floor. The guys will back me up on that.”
“And how are you doing in history class?”
“I get good grades in all my classes. I don’t need to cheat.”
Mr. Moore thought about this and then turned to the third kid.
“What about you Bob?”
“I was eating lunch,” the big kid said. “I had finished my first round and went back for seconds.” He turned and gave a wicked smile at the skinny kid. “And I got the last couple pieces of pizza. The lunch ladies saw me. They can back me up.”
“But you’ve had some trouble in that class before, haven’t you?”
Bob shrugged. “I’m behind on my reading. But I’ll pass the test, no problem.”
“I see,” Mr. Moore said slowly as he stared at the red-headed trio. He pursed his lips. Finally, he made a decision.
“Well, despite Mrs. Sorenson seeing a student with red hair running away, I don’t think I’m in a position to pin this particular offense on any one of you three.”
“Actually, Mr. Moore,” I said. “I think it’s pretty clear which one of these kids stole a peek at the essay questions.”
The principal stared down at me, a look of surprise on his face. I think he may have even forgotten I was still there.
“Really? How do you figure, Eli?”
HOW DID ELI KNOW WHICH ONE OF THE BOYS HAD PEEKED AT THE QUESTIONS?
* * *
“Mrs. Sorenson’s history classroom is one floor up, on the second floor,” I said. “Which is where anyone would naturally assume the test questions would be: In her classroom. But Mrs. Sorenson told us that the mystery kid saw the questions while she was in the Teachers’ Lounge, which is one floor higher. The third floor.”
I turned to Simon. I could tell he was beginning to seethe but doing his best to hide it.
“He said he hasn’t been on the third floor all day,” I continued. “But you’d only mention the third floor if you’d been there and seen the questions. Otherwise, you’d say you hadn’t been on the second floor, near Mrs. Sorenson’s classroom. Which is where you’d naturally assume the questions were.”
The principal considered this for a long moment. “You make a good point, Eli. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to prove it, one way or the other.”
“That’s right,” Simon said quickly. “There’s no way to prove it.”
“It’s a bit of a conundrum,” Mr. Moore said.
“Not really,” I said. “The simplest solution is for Mrs. Sorenson to pick two different topics for the essay questions. Then it doesn’t matter if anyone—including this guy—saw the questions ahead of time.”
“Good thought,” Mr. Moore agreed. “Thank you, Eli. You can all return to your lunches.”
With that he turned and left the lunchroom, probably on his way to deal with yet another crisis.
Simon sneered at me as he returned to his lunch table. He shifted his sneer to a self-confident smile as he sat down with his laughing friends.
For his part, Nathan seemed delighted at the outcome of the encounter. I mean, as delighted as he ever seemed to get about anything.
“That was some slick thinking, Eli,” he said.
“So, you want to show me how you do that French Drop thing again? Spend lunch dropping a few coins together?”
“Sure thing,” I said as we headed toward the other side of the bustling room. I was hoping there was still something edible in the lunch line.
To be honest, I was still a little stunned.
In the course of about twenty minutes, I had solved a mystery and found a brand-new friend.
Not bad for Day Two at a new school.