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Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy

 

Amanda Lester

and the

Pink Sugar Conspiracy

 

 

 

 

PAULA BERINSTEIN

 

 

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s twisted imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright 2015 by Paula Berinstein.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact the author at [email protected]

 

The Writing Show

P.O. Box 2970

Agoura Hills, CA 91376-2970

 

www.amandalester.net

www.writingshow.com

 

ISBN-13: 978-0-9860304-8-2 (softcover)

ISBN-10: 0-9860304-8-1 (softcover)

ISBN-13: 978-0-9860304-2-0 (ebook)

 

Cover design by Anna Mogileva

Maps by Alan Chaney

Text set in Garamond Premier Pro

 

 

Also by Paula Berinstein

Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis

Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle

Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret

For Alan, and for Anna Banana

Acknowledgements

As with every book, this one would not have been possible without the help, love, and inspiration provided by friends, family, and colleagues, and I would like to thank those without whom Amanda would not exist. If I have inadvertently left anyone out, I apologize.

My friend Steven Short nudged me to actually make something of the ideas I’d been gathering for years. Without him, they would still be filed away gathering virtual dust.

My immensely helpful test readers included first and foremost my husband, Alan Chaney, who repeatedly dropped everything to help me and contributed incredibly incisive comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank my dear friends and friends of friends Kennedy Arsnoe, Greg Bolcer, Jackson Bolcer, Ella Bowen, Barry Chersky, Jim Cornelius, Cole Crouch, Sudie Crouch, Mary Fritsch-Derrick, Alex Hetzler, Barbara Javor, Blythe Kropf, Jerry Manas, Aden Mandel, Ayla Mandel, David Mandel, Ellen Ruderman, Alyssa Spillar, Keenan Spillar, LaShelle VanHouten, and Barbara Wong. In addition, I would like to thank my sister, Jan Berinstein, my stepson Alex Chaney, my stepdaughter Ellie Chaney, and my sister-in-law, Louise Argyle. You all provided invaluable feedback and helped keep me on track. I can’t believe how much time you put into this project!

My book designer, Jill Ronsley, and my cover designer, Anna Mogileva, are too awesome for words. Thank you, ladies, from the bottom of my heart, for your beautiful work.

The writers I’ve met through my podcast, The Writing Show, have been so supportive and inspiring I can’t begin to thank them properly. I appreciate all of you more than I can say.

I wouldn’t have been able to write fiction at all without the wisdom of the late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder. He was and continues to be my muse.

My friend Sudie Crouch was so enthusiastic about my writing that she took time out of many busy days to discuss it with me. She also made imaginative and insightful suggestions, which have greatly enriched the book.

And without the love and inspiration my husband, Alan, gave so freely, there would be no book at all.

Grab a Free Ivy Story!

Amanda’s friend Ivy Halpin may be blind, but she’s the best detective in the school. And now she’s discovered something no one else knows about.

Get the free “The Locked Room Mystery,” featuring Ivy and her friend Simon Binkle.

Visit http://www.amandalester.net

Table of Contents

 

Front Matter

The Legatum Garage Parking Area

Houses and Common Rooms

Legatum Floor Plans

Legatum Continuatum Class Descriptions

The Story

Chapter 1: The End of the Stick Dogs

Chapter 2: The Secret Detective School

Chapter 3: A Detective’s Mystique

Chapter 4: Mysterious Shapes

Chapter 5: The Inimitable Simon Binkle

Chapter 6: Funny Desserts

Chapter 7: The Monster Mash

Chapter 8: The Class Project

Chapter 9: Pink Powder

Chapter 10: Amanda the Spy

Chapter 11: Explosion!

Chapter 12: Cutting Class

Chapter 13: A Ticking Clock

Chapter 14: Holmes Productions

Chapter 15: The Garage

Chapter 16: Gluppy Things

Chapter 17: The Secret Room

Chapter 18: Slime Mold

Chapter 19: Thinking Like a Criminal

Chapter 20: Snow Globe

Chapter 21: Counting Calories

Chapter 22: Secret Room Redux

Chapter 23: Threats

Chapter 24: A Kick in the Nose

Chapter 25: 3D Printing

Chapter 26: Body Snatching

Chapter 27: Putting Two and Two Together

Chapter 28: Bunch of Nut Jobs

Chapter 29: Stowaway

Chapter 30: Monkeyshines

Chapter 31: The Sugar Factory

Chapter 32: Schola Sceleratorum

Chapter 33: Trapped

Chapter 34: Acting

Chapter 35: Confrontation

Chapter 36: The Class Project Explained

Chapter 37: More Questions Than Answers

Back Matter

Some Famous Detectives

Discussion Questions for Your Reading Group

Q and A with Author Paula Berinstein

About the Author

Other Books by Paula Berinstein

Connect with Me!

Sample Chapters from Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis

The Legatum Garage Parking Area

Sharp image available at amandalester.net.

[]Houses and Common Rooms

Holmes House. The Holmes House dorms are located on the second floor of the main building. The common room is on the ground floor in the east wing outside the dining room.

Father Brown House. The Father Brown House dorms are also located on the second floor. The common room is on the ground floor in the north wing past the dining room, toward the chapel.

Van Helden House. The Van Helden House dorms are located on the second floor. The common room is on the ground floor under the boys’ dorm.

Dupin House. The Dupin House dorms are also located on the second floor. The common room is on the ground floor between the Holmes House common room and the Police Procedures classroom.

Legatum Floor Plans

Sharp images available at amandalester.net.

Legatum Continuatum Class Descriptions

Crime Lab. This is a very serious class in which you will learn to analyze substances, fibers, and other physical evidence, including weapon trajectories and blood spatter patterns. Students will be trained to be incredibly picky so as not to ruin evidence and end up with a mistrial. We will meet with Crown Prosecutors who will explain to us just what happens when you mess up. Believe me, it can get pretty ugly.

Criminals and Their Methods. In order to be a great detective you need to think like a criminal, and that’s exactly what you’ll learn in this class. We will cover types of criminals and their characteristics, from petty thieves and kleptomaniacs to terrorists and serial killers. Students will also become familiar with criminal techniques from lock-picking to creating explosions, as well as criminal motivation. Yes, there will be some overlap with the profiling class, but you won’t mind because each teacher takes a different approach and it will be really interesting. Oh, and there’s a special unit on butlers, which you won’t want to miss.

 

Cryptography and Cryptoanalysis. One of the most exciting things about being a detective is that you get to use secret languages as well as decipher other people’s. More than just challenging and fun ways to spend an afternoon, cryptography and cryptoanalysis are important tools for unearthing nefarious and twisted criminals’ plans. Learning the Navajo language encouraged but not required. Note: There is currently no teacher for this class. If you know of anyone good, please tell us so we can set up an interview ASAP.

 

Cyberforensics. In this really, really hard class, students will essentially learn how to hack. Be prepared to program in assembly language, Java, and a whole bunch of others so you can track, trap, and reverse criminal activity on computers and networks. Don’t be intimidated. We are really good at teaching this stuff and you will get it, we promise. You may even like it.

 

Disguise. Yes, this class will be fun, but it will also be a lot more challenging than you think. You will have to fool not only humans, but also facial and gait recognition software, and someday even more clever software than that. We will cover costumes, wigs, appliances like beards and implants, makeup, accessories, gestures, and gaits. Students will learn not only how to create disguises, but also how to select the right disguise for the occasion. We will also cover the care and feeding of disguises so yours will last a long, long time. Don’t even imagine that you will coast in this class.

 

Evidence. Evidence is the workhorse of criminal investigation and in this class you will learn to recognize it and treat it with respect. You may not know this, but in addition to things like fingerprints and fibers, evidence can consist of the contents of someone’s refrigerator or the poetry they read to their child. Even this syllabus could be evidence under the right circumstances. Isn’t that mind-boggling?

 

Fires and Explosions. You might think that fires and explosions are primarily the province of terrorists, but you’d be wrong. Fires and explosives are for everybody—if you’re a criminal. In this action-packed class you will learn techniques for investigating fires and explosions of all types, even really tiny ones. We will also cover fire and explosion prevention and handling as well as the psychological factors affecting criminals who resort to these cowardly methods.

 

History of Detectives. An extremely detailed look at your ancestors and their cases. We will also cover detectives who were not famous because there were a lot of great ones and they bear study too. We will also deal with the critical topic of the detective’s mystique and how to create one.

 

Legal Issues. Our job as detectives is to help prosecutors bring criminals to justice. Therefore it is imperative that we understand their needs and all the loopholes and pitfalls that can mess up their cases. In addition, we need to understand the legal issues that affect police and private detectives. You wouldn’t want to let a criminal get away with something just because you didn’t understand the law. Come prepared to do a ton of reading and participate in a moot court.

Logic. Evidence is great and all that, but if you don’t know how to build a case from it, it will be wasted. In this rigorous class you will learn about the types of logic and do a whole lot of practicing to make sure that the conclusions you draw from various premises are sound. Some math will be involved, so suck it up.

 

Observation and Research. Being able to look at a room or scene and repeat back everything that’s in it is not a parlor trick. It’s a critical skill for detectives. In this slightly OCD class, you will learn to note not only what is there, but everything about it, such as its color, size, shape, and difference from its previous state. Field trips make the class even more fun than it already is. We also cover research techniques because you’ll need them in order to learn about all the stuff you’re looking at, such as the difference between a ruby and a garnet and also how to tell a 1965 Ford Mustang from a 1966 model.

 

Pathology. We’re sorry if you’re a bit queasy, but you’re going to have to get over it because you will be dealing with dead bodies in your career sooner or later. In this fascinating class, you will learn a lot about anatomy and physiology, and you’ll develop the ability to tell what kind of weapon made which wound. You’ll also learn a lot about bones, which is pretty interesting stuff even if you’re not a dog.

 

Forensic Photography. Forensic photographs allow investigators to recreate a crime and document evidence. Students will learn how to use every photographic device on earth, including ancient ones and those for photographing the night sky because you never know. You will also learn how to photograph both cooperative and uncooperative suspects and victims, bring out hidden evidence by clever use of lighting and cool features on Photoshop menus, write amazing captions, and master special techniques like taking pictures of trace evidence that’s pretty hard to see, including through microscopes, and recording how big or small something actually is so no one gets confused.

 

Procedure. Police departments all have procedures they follow to make sure crimes are properly investigated and criminals are brought to justice quickly and cleanly. In this critical class you will learn how to follow police procedure, including how to conduct an interrogation so you get a confession, how to deal with hostage situations, and how to check a book out of the precinct library. You will also learn about recruiting and working with informants, which can be really helpful even if you don’t end up working for a police department.

 

Profiling. In this psychologically oriented class, you will learn how to use evidence to tell a perpetrator’s personality type. That way you’ll know you’re looking for a certain type of person rather than just any old criminal. Come prepared to use a bunch of jargon, but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.

 

Secrets. This is probably the weirdest class we offer here at Legatum. In keeping with the subject matter, we can’t tell you any more about it than the name implies. You’ll just have to show up to find out what it’s about.

 

Self-defense. Criminals can be really, really mean, so you have to learn to defend yourself against them. This is so much more than just a PE class. You’ll learn all kinds of martial arts, and you’ll get to wear cool pajamas and colored belts. We guarantee that by the time you graduate you’ll be breaking bricks with your hands. We’d also say you’ll be able to tear telephone books except they don’t make those much anymore and they’re really hard to find.

 

Sketching. When you can’t take a photograph for whatever reason, you need to be able to draw a person, place, or thing. Let’s say you saw someone a while back but you didn’t take a picture of them. You’ll need to draw them from memory. Or let’s say you forgot your camera, which shouldn’t happen but does. Or maybe it broke. In this class, you’ll learn how to make up for all those problems and you’ll have fun too. In fact you may want to display your work at one of our special school art shows. Fun!

 

Textual Analysis and Language. We don’t teach this class to younger students because you really need the basics first, but once you get this far you will see how useful it can be to be able to identify writers and speakers by the way they use language. You will also be exposed to various languages in this course, including Esperanto and Klingon, which believe it or not, a fair number of people use. Plus we’ll talk about secret languages and codes so you will know how to protect your words and even figure out what others are talking about when they’ve made up words no one else knows.

Toxicology. Because the topic of poisons is so critical to detective work, we offer an entire class on the subject instead of covering it in the crime lab course. There are a lot of poisons out there that few people have heard of, and we want you to know about those as well as the ones everyone knows about, like arsenic. You’ll learn to recognize various poisons by their characteristics and the symptoms they produce. You’ll also learn how to analyze them in the lab and to recognize and gather poisonous plants without killing yourself. This is really useful stuff!

 

Weapons. As a detective, you will not only face criminals’ weapons, but you will sometimes have to use your own. Students will learn about modern, ancient, and futuristic weapons, which they may enjoy drawing during Sketching. You will learn to use all of these, as well as how to care for them so they work when they’re supposed to and don’t injure anyone they shouldn’t. While weapons can seem glamorous, remember that they are not toys, unless they’re water pistols or BB guns, which we do cover in the class.

[]Chapter 1

The End of the Stick Dogs

Amanda Lester was so tired of hearing about the great Sherlock Holmes she could scream. Mr. La-di-da boring detective, whoop-de-doo. Night and day, day and night, he was all her parents talked about. “It’s time to get serious, Amanda. When I was your age, I had already memorized Sherlock Holmes’s complete memoirs.” “Darling, that will never work. You must do it like Sherlock Holmes.” “Did I tell you what Mergatroyd Thumbwhistle said about Sherlock Holmes?” She loved her parents but they were so clueless.

Why couldn’t they see that she wasn’t interested in becoming a detective and never would be? Just because the profession ran in her family, so what? Sure, her dad was descended from Inspector G. Lestrade of Scotland Yard—the police detective who worked with Holmes—but that didn’t mean she had to be like him. Genes weren’t destiny. At least she hoped they weren’t. The man was a disaster, an inconvenient fact that seemed to escape the Lesters, who fervently believed that Holmes and Lestrade were equals.

No, she had more important things to think about. She was a filmmaker. She’d discovered her passion at the age of three, which meant she’d been at it for nine years. That was practically a decade! “Lunchpail,” the film she’d written and directed when she was seven, was her masterpiece, although “Mynah Bird,” which she’d produced at ten, came in at a close second. Of course “A Distant Snail” was good too, but she should have animated it rather than trying to film actual snails, which hadn’t been very cooperative, especially during the racing scenes.

Now, at twelve, all that was behind her. She was practically an adult. It was time to get down to business—if she could just clear a few teensy eensy hurdles, like the fact that no one would work with her anymore because she was too bossy, and that thing about her parents threatening to send her to boarding school if she didn’t drop that “frivolous hobby.” So she had to keep her meetings with the Stick Dog Filmmakers Club and Production Company a secret. If Herb and Lila Lester found out she was still making movies they’d ruin everything.

Of course there was another minor problem. The Stick Dogs weren’t actually producing anything. They’d been meeting for months and had got nowhere. It seemed that even after all this time, Amanda and her friends Laurie Wong and Jill Javor couldn’t agree on a concept. With the deadline for entering the Kangaroo Egg Film Festival rapidly approaching, they were headed for disaster and she was as nervous as could be. If they didn’t make it this time, they’d have to admit defeat and disband. Amanda had already lost everyone else she’d worked with. Without Jill and Laurie she’d have no actors, no crew, and no help, and her career would be over.

She glanced at the time. Three-fifty. Only a few minutes till the meeting so she’d better scoot.

She turned back to the email she couldn’t believe she’d received and had already read seventy-three times. Darius Plover, her favorite director, had actually answered her! It had taken a couple of months, but here the message was, in all its glory—three short but dazzling paragraphs from the man who’d made “Scaffold,” “Night of the Turkey,” and “Dirigible.” She’d never expected him to get back to her. She was in heaven.

 

Dear Miss Lester,

Thank you for your lovely note. I am honored that you’ve enjoyed my films.

Regarding your question about the best way for directors to work with actors, the most important thing is to respect them. They are artists, just like you. Don’t try to micromanage them. That way they will enjoy working with you and your films will shine.

Please keep me posted on your work. I’d love to hear from you anytime.

Sincerely,

Darius Plover.

 

He was so nice! Maybe geniuses weren’t all nasty and weird. And his advice was perfect. Now that she thought about it, it was obvious she’d been doing it wrong. She’d let her ambition get in the way and had driven her actors crazy. No wonder they’d all quit. From now on she’d be more patient.

But what if being patient didn’t fix the problem? Maybe she was just no good, or too weird, and that was why they had all left her. Maybe the culprit was those Lestrade genes. Not that Holmes was any better. In fact in some ways he was worse. Sure, he was smart, but he was creepy and didn’t have any friends. Detectives never did. Actually, she might be well suited to being one after all. She didn’t have any friends either. Jill and Laurie were just colleagues.

Amanda clutched her phone to her chest and held it tight. If she weren’t so afraid of her parents’ reaction, she’d print the email, frame it, and accord it a place of honor over her desk, right between her pictures of Ang Lee and Charlie Kaufman. Unfortunately she’d have to keep it to herself. She could never tell anyone about it for fear that it would get back to them. If that happened she’d never hear the end of it, especially from her mom.

She threw the phone in her bag and walked the two long, shady blocks from Ysidro Middle School to Laurie’s big white colonial house. The formal structure looked out of place among the warm, inviting hacienda-style homes that surrounded it. Not that most people cared. She did, though. It made the street look like the set designer had goofed.

When she arrived the girls were hanging around in Laurie’s lemon yellow room with the emerald green carpet (not good for shooting scenes—the light was awful—but okay for planning them) with cups of cocoa, talking animatedly. That wasn’t new, but the subject was.

“We’ve got it,” said Jill, her braces reflecting the afternoon light and flashing patterns on the wall. With those green eyes and purple-streaked blonde hair she looked like a human color wheel.

“Got what?” said Amanda, slurping a marshmallow.

“The best idea for the film,” said Jill.

Amanda was excited to hear this. Maybe their problems were finally behind them. She leaned forward, which was not such a wise idea when you were trying to manage a hot drink.

Jill beamed at her and Amanda could see bits of cookie between her teeth. Apparently the girls had already been partaking. “Let’s forget all about the psychological thriller. We’ll make a detective story!” She sat back and waited for a response.

Amanda practically choked. No, no, no! They were going to make a serious drama. They’d already agreed, although it had taken them two months to come to the decision. They’d floated the idea of a horror movie (easy because it didn’t cost much, but not really them), then a comedy (a problem because none of them was that funny), and then a quirky movie about a restaurant, but they could never get the script right. Well, she couldn’t get the script right, since Laurie and Jill didn’t actually write. They kind of hovered. But this time she would nail it. She was absolutely sure. What didn’t they like about the idea all of a sudden?

Of course it wasn’t much of an idea yet, and that was a big problem. They’d settled on the type of movie it would be, but that was all. It didn’t help that everyone was teasing them about it—at least the kids who knew what they were up to.

Of course everyone in L.A. was writing a screenplay. The stick dogs were a cliché. As if Delia Toother in Amanda’s history class weren’t one herself, with her retro clothing and sixties hair. Or Lloyd Supper, that smug kid from algebra, with his eleventy billion apps. They were hardly ones to talk. Well, she didn’t care what people thought. They were going to nail it if it was the last thing they did. Then they’d all go on to exciting careers and leave the naysayers in the dust. Life would be perfect and her parents would forget all about Sherlock Holmes.

Amanda turned back to her fellow stick dogs. She’d have to be diplomatic or they’d bail, just like all the actors and crew members who’d ever worked with her. The director’s words “Don’t micromanage” rattled around in her head. She could do this. I will not butt in, I will not butt in, I will not butt in.

“A detective story?” she said. There. That wasn’t so bad. No flame throwing.

“Yeah,” said Laurie, her wide mouth topped with a neat little cocoa mustache. From where Amanda was sitting she could see her friend’s reflection in the dressing table mirror. She watched as two spectacled girls with long black hair gushed with excitement. “It’s perfect! Everyone loves detective stories. It would be easy to write, and we’d have no trouble getting actors.”

“Right,” said Jill. “We think a drama’s too hard. This will finally get us on track. We’re tired of sitting around trying to think of things. Detective stories are all the same. It’s impossible to mess them up.”

Amanda could feel her blood begin to boil, although she didn’t like to think of blood. It reminded her of Sherlock Holmes. They’d discussed the idea of detective stories before and rejected it. Why were her friends bringing it up again? But when she thought about it, maybe Jill had something. Detective stories were all the same. She’d never thought of them like that before, but Jill’s pronouncement did go a long way toward explaining why she hated everything to do with detectives.

“If they’re all the same, why do you think we could win the festival?” Amanda said, trying to keep her voice calm.

“Because no one else will do one,” said Laurie. “Too obvious.”

“Yeah,” said Jill. “And you could totally do this, Amanda. With your family background and all.”

Argh! Jill couldn’t have said anything worse. To remind Amanda of her heritage, to embarrass and shame her like that, was not the way to convince her of anything. More likely it was a way to get her to fire them. Wait, what was she thinking? She wasn’t that person. Not anymore. Patience.

She wanted to be patient. She wanted to be the director everyone was dying to work with. But it was one thing to think something and another to act on it. Try as she might, Amanda didn’t feel patient. She felt frustrated. Before she knew it she had put the cocoa down (it was a good thing, because her hands were shaking), drawn herself up to her full height of five feet, pushed her thick, dark hair off her face,, and uttered a big, fat “NO.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?” the girls said in unison.

“I said, uh, no?” Her voice was weaker now.

“You can’t just veto our ideas like that,” said Laurie. “You didn’t even think about what I said. You know, we used to like you—you were a lot of fun—but you’re getting too bossy. You’re becoming a big dork.”

“I’m not a dork. You’re a dork,” said Amanda with a face as red as a baboon’s butt, a color—and an image—that did not suit her warm brown eyes. This was not Plover-like behavior but she couldn’t help herself. Why didn’t her friends get it?

“No, you are,” said Jill placing her hands on her hips. “You always try to tell us what to do. Who do you think you are?”

“I’m the director!” yelled Amanda at the top of her lungs. Oops.

“Well you can just boss yourself,” said Laurie, “because I quit.”

“Me too,” said Jill.

“You can’t be a one-man band, Amanda,” said Laurie. “Sometimes you need to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Think about what someone else wants for a change. Come on, Jill. Let’s go.”

“Er, this is your house, Laurie,” said Jill.

“Go away, Amanda,” said Laurie. “You’ll never be a real filmmaker. No one will ever work with you. You’re stuck up, dictatorial, closed-minded, fat, and—”

But Amanda was already out the door and on her way down the steps. She’d heard that part about fat, though. It just added insult to injury. So she was a little overweight. So what? Everybody was these days. Maybe not in L.A., but most other places. She was always seeing fat models on Web sites, and some of those actresses in BBC productions were huge. Anyway Laurie was one to talk.

It was over. That much was clear. But now what would she do? No more stick dogs. She’d have to make the serious drama alone, and she didn’t even have a script. How would she get it together by the deadline? Maybe she should go back to the idea of the horror movie, but ugh. Horror movies never won awards. They were so schlocky! She’d never be able to write a comedy. It took forever to think up jokes. The restaurant idea? She’d have to give it some thought.

 

 

Amanda ran and ran. She was so upset she didn’t know where she was going, but her body did. She went where she always did: the ice cream store at the mall, which was located just a few blocks from Laurie’s house. There was almost nothing sweets wouldn’t fix, and ice cream was one of her favorite ways of getting sugar into her system. A cup of chocolate turtle and apple butter chip from Piggetty’s would be just the thing.

Except that there was one problem. She’d left Laurie’s in such a rush that she’d forgotten her bag and she didn’t have any money with her. Darn! Maybe she could talk the counter guy into starting a tab. She knew all about tabs from movies. It seemed a simple enough proposition. She might even add a tab to her script. But she didn’t have anything to write with. Usually she wrote her ideas on her phone or in a little notebook. If she didn’t get this one down fast she might forget it.

She arrived at the store, which was empty except for an old woman in a bright blue suit, and took a number. The woman was buying an ice cream cake that said ‘Congratulations on becoming a vegetarian.” Somehow the idea of celebrating the adoption of a healthy diet with all that sugar seemed a bit of a contradiction, but it wasn’t Amanda’s problem, and anyway the cake looked really cool with carrots, broccoli, and asparagus drawn in thick, colored icing.

“Tab, tab, tab, tab, tab,” she thought. If she repeated the word enough maybe it would stick in her brain until she could write it down. She could ask the ice cream guy for a pen and write on a napkin. Ha! People always wrote down great ideas on napkins. Tab, tab, tab, tab—

“Next!” called out ice cream guy. He had an uneven crew cut and bad skin. Amanda thought he could easily play a prisoner or a thug.

“Hi. Er, do you have a pen?” Tab, tab, tab.

“Nope.” He looked bored.

“Pencil?”

“Nope. What do you want?” He was tapping his foot now, and it wasn’t to music.

Tab, tab, tab, tab, tab. “I’d like a double cup with chocolate turtle and apple butter chip, please.” She looked up at him and tried to read his face. He looked like he couldn’t care less. This might not be so easy. “Um, can I ask you something?”

“Yeah,” he said, scooping.

“Would it be possible to open a tab?”

“A what?” He stopped. The scoop of luscious chocolate turtle ice cream was half full. Just a bit more and . . . heaven.

“A tab. You know—a running bill.”

“Ha ha ha!” laughed the guy. “What do you think this is—‘Ocean’s Eleven’?”

“Of course not. ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ is a clever heist film, one of the best ever made. In fact—”

“Can it, kid. You don’t have any money, do you?” He threw the treasure back in the carton and tossed the cone in the trash.

“I have money.”

“You just don’t have it with you.”

“No, but I can come back later and pay you.”

“You’re not Julia Roberts, girlie. Beat it.”

“Actually, there’s a funny story about Julia Roberts. Apparently during the filming—”

“I said get out of here,” he said. “Next!”

 

 

Now she was facing a dilemma. Should she go back to Laurie’s for her bag or home? She really wanted that ice cream and she knew it wouldn’t spoil her dinner. She had never had an appetite problem. She could consume a piece of chocolate cake with double fudge frosting a half hour before a meal and her parents wouldn’t be able to tell. They never had to urge her to finish her plate. In fact they bragged to all their friends about what a good eater their little girl was—a fact that everyone could deduce just by looking at her.

On the other hand, if she was late for dinner her parents would be angry and she certainly didn’t want that, but she needed her bag. Her phone was in there and she couldn’t afford to be without it. Hm, angry parents or no phone. It was a tough choice. Of course there was the issue of Laurie, who was also angry with her. Oh well. If they were all going to be mad she may as well have her bag. She’d go back and get it.

As soon as Laurie opened the door, the answer hit her.

“OMG, I’ve got it! The film! I know what to do!” She had the best idea ever, and she knew they’d make the festival deadline. No way would actors not want to work on this movie. And now that she knew what the film should be, a slice-of-life story set in a beloved local restaurant that was being edged out by a chain, she would calm down and be more patient and everyone would get along. Hurray!

Thwack. Laurie threw Amanda’s purse at her and slammed the door in her face. It made an angry sound.

“Laurie, open the door,” yelled Amanda. “I have to tell you something. I know what the film should be.”

Silence.

“Laurie?”

A muffled voice. “Go away, Amanda. I don’t ever want to talk to you again.”

“Laurie, please. I’m sorry. I got carried away. I didn’t mean it. Everything will be different now. I know what I’ve been doing wrong. I’m going to change. Please.”

Silence, then footsteps moving away. It was over. The end of the stick dogs, the end of anything resembling friendship that she had. Oh well. What was one more failure? But it was the last, for sure, because now she had this great new idea, and YIKES—it was dinner time!

Again Amanda ran, her bag thwapping with each stride. A half-block from home she heard a crackle-squish and felt something under her foot. Oh no! A snail. She stopped so fast she almost fell over and bent down to look at the scene of the murder. Poor thing. She’d completely smashed it. Tears filled her eyes. She felt like a criminal.

Wondering what the proper punishment for a snail murderer should be, she marched the rest of the way to her Spanish-style house, past the fake lagoon with the egrets and the coots, past the pepper trees that made her sneeze, past the palm trees with ten years’ worth of dead fronds hugging their trunks, up her driveway, and through the squeaky back door. She would definitely not admit to the crime. Instead she headed to her room to write down her idea but was derailed when her mother called from the living room in that sickeningly sweet voice she put on for other people.

“Amanda, dear, come and see Uncle Randy. He’s staying for dinner.”

Not Uncle Randy. First of all, he wasn’t really her uncle. He was a friend of her parents. Second, he was a cop, just like Lestrade. And third, he was blubbery, like a whale. She didn’t know how he got away with being overweight like that. She thought police officers were supposed to be fit.

“Hello, Amanda,” Uncle Randy yelled. How could such a short man make so much noise? She was always surprised he didn’t break the glass in the picture frames—those awful family photos and the ones of Sherlock Holmes and his dopey sidekick, Dr. Watson. Although with the terrible lighting in that dark, heavy room no one could see them anyway. Thank goodness her room was Navajo white, which worked really well for shooting scenes. In secret, of course.

She fought the impulse to cover her ears. “Hello, Uncle Randy.”

“I brought that information about the department I promised you.” He looked extremely proud of himself.

Kill me now. You could find information about careers with the police department on the Web.

“Uh, thank you,” she said.

“The L.A.P.D. would be an excellent place for you to work,” said her father. “They have great career paths. Of course you couldn’t testify in any cases I was prosecuting. But there would be plenty of others. With our help, you’d make detective in no time.”

Kill me again.

“You know, dear,” said her mother for the eleventy-seventh time, “Lestrade is a household name. You’d advance like lightning. Probably be running the place by the time you were thirty.”

“And there are so many clever criminals out there,” said Uncle Randy. “The force could use someone like you who could put them in their place.”

“Like Moriarty,” said her father, waving the pipe he never lit.

Moriarty? The brilliant arch-criminal who was Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis? The only thing that made reading about Holmes’s cases bearable? That Moriarty?

“Dad,” she said. “Moriarty’s been dead for eighty years. Anyway, I don’t want to work for the L.A.P.D. It’s not interesting.”

“You shouldn’t say such things, Amanda,” said her father. “You come from an illustrious family. You don’t know how lucky you are. Uncle Randy has gone to a lot of trouble for you. I want you to apologize to him.” He drew himself up to his full height of five-foot nine and gave her his best district attorney face, which since the election had begun looking a bit forced.

Herb Lester had run for District Attorney of Los Angeles and lost, and it had nearly crushed him, devastated both Amanda’s parents. It was all he had ever wanted. He lived and breathed his job. The only reason he knew anything about film was because occasionally someone in the movie industry got into trouble, like the time Skip Loopsy murdered his wife and went on trial. Her father hadn’t even known who he was until then. And him an A-list actor, too.

But now her dad had changed. He’d been behaving even more peculiarly than usual lately, which was saying something for a man who wanted his daughter to become the next Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes he’d sit staring at the ceiling and brood till all hours of the night. At other times he’d scream in his sleep, mumbling something about “rictus” or “plexus” or “blixus.” He’d also been acting secretive, which had never been his way before. Truth be told Amanda was starting to worry about him, but she didn’t know what to do. He wouldn’t talk about what was bothering him, and she couldn’t talk to him about her life. She was constantly walking on eggshells.

Which for some reason didn’t stop her from speaking up now. She just couldn’t go along with this charade any longer. “I’m sorry, Uncle Randy,” she said, “but policing isn’t for me. I’m going to be the best filmmaker in the world.”

“No, you’re not,” said Amanda’s mother. Here it came again—the speech. “Filmmaking is too risky. Most of those people barely make a living. If you like movies you can always watch them, but there’s no future in making them.”

It was an odd thing to say, as Lila Lester had been writing books for fifteen years—police procedurals partly based on Herb’s cases— and was actually famous. Most writers didn’t do half as well.

“I’m not the same as ‘most of those people,’ Mom,” Amanda said. “You’re always saying how special our family is. If that’s true, then why don’t you think I’m special? And if G. Lestrade is so great, why don’t you change our name back to his?”

Her father winced and the light from the chandelier glinted off his bald head. He’d never had a good answer to that one. Too much paperwork, everyone knows us by Lester, what’s done is done, and all that. She’d always wondered if deep down he doubted his own propaganda. Now he was looking like a deer caught in the headlights. She didn’t know whether to be angry or sad. Without realizing what she was doing she stepped back to put more space between them, overshot her mark, and bumped into the mantel. Her grandmother’s glass-domed clock crashed to the hearth and broke into a million pieces. Her dad jumped as if someone had snuck up on him. She’d never seen him do that before. Whatever was spooking him was turning him into a nervous Nellie.

“How could you?” yelled her mother. “Go to your room—now!”

Lila started to follow her daughter, tripped, and almost fell off those five-inch heels she always wore. A vein on her neck pulsed with anger.

“Wait a minute,” said Uncle Randy. “Don’t you want to tell her about the letter?”

“What letter?” said Amanda. She’d hoped to be home in time to intercept the letter that was supposed to come from the West Coast Young Filmmakers program, but with all the to-do about the stick dogs’ film she had completely forgotten about it. She’d applied during the summer and it was just about due. If they found out about that they’d probably ground her for life.

“Go look on the hall table,” said her mother, rubbing her foot.

Amanda trudged out into the hall, knees as weak as butterfly legs. As she left the room she heard her parents and Uncle Randy whispering. By the front door, on the polished cherry table that smelled faintly like lemon cleaner, she saw a heavy white envelope with red and gold embossing. She approached slowly, knowing that as soon as she opened it her world would fall apart. Maybe she could just run out the door and never come back. Perhaps she could go live with—who? There was no one. She had no friends, and her real aunts and uncles would never go against her parents’ wishes. Maybe Child Services—

Something was wrong. The name didn’t look right. There was no “f” for “film.” She peered at the envelope. Oh no! She’d completely forgotten. “Legatum Continuatum: The Enduring School for Detectives,” it said.

Not this again. For months her parents had harped on the idea of sending her to that secret school for the descendants of famous detectives, which was tucked away in the English Lake District a million miles away. She’d screamed, threatened, and cajoled, and finally they had dropped the idea—she’d thought. So why was this letter here now?

Fingers shaking, she opened the envelope, which was easier said than done. It didn’t want to give. Secret was right. Even the mail was so secret you couldn’t see it. Finally, frustrated beyond belief, she tore the envelope, ripping the letter inside. Then she saw the terrible words.

 

Dear Miss Lester,

We are delighted to inform you that your application has been accepted. You may enter our school immediately. We have reserved a dormitory room for you and expect you to arrive Sunday, 6th January. Orientation will take place at 3:00 in the afternoon. Spring term begins Monday, 7th. Please pack for cold weather, as the temperature in this area often dips below freezing. Do not be concerned about bringing your own microscope. We have everything you need.

The Legatum Continuatum School is the most prestigious detective training institution in the world. Our existence is known only to our select community, so we would appreciate your not mentioning us to anyone. We maintain the strictest standards of secrecy and academic achievement. However, being a Lestrade, you are undoubtedly aware of our traditions, and I’m certain that you will comply completely with our policies.

Have a safe journey! We look forward to seeing you on 6th January.

Yours sincerely,

Drusilla Canoodle, Dean of Admissions.

 

Amanda dropped the letter, ran to her room, and slammed the door. She looked up at the picture of Darius Plover she’d torn out of a magazine, then turned on her computer, opened her email, and hit Reply. Her hands were so unsteady that she had to correct her typing over and over, but finally she managed to write what seemed like a coherent answer.

 

Dear Mr. Plover,

Thank you so much for your prompt and helpful reply. Your message means more to me than I can express.

I hope you will not think me too much of a pest if I take you up on your offer and write back to you. I do have one more question, but please don’t bother answering if you’re too busy. I am looking for some career advice. How do you become a filmmaker if your parents won’t let you?

Sincerely,

Amanda Lester, Filmmaker.

Chapter 2

The Secret Detective School

Amanda was beside herself. There was no way she was going to any boarding school, especially not one for detectives. The deadline for the film festival was fast approaching, she was certain she’d get into the program she’d applied for, and except for the stick dog mutiny everything was on track, and now this. As if she didn’t fight enough with her parents. This was going to be the battle to end all battles and she was going to lose.

After panicking, then sulking for what seemed like an hour but was really five minutes, she returned to the living room where her mother was vacuuming up broken glass.

“Did you read the letter?” her mother said.

Amanda stared at her and nodded ever so slightly.

“You need to start thinking about what you’ll take with you. By the way, we’re going too.”

Was that supposed to be a comfort or a threat? Amanda’s eyes widened but she remained silent.

“We’re moving to the UK. Your father has been offered a position with the Crown Prosecution Service in London. We’ll be just a few hours away.”

“What?” said Amanda, no longer able to contain herself.

“You know your father has always wanted to return to his roots. He’ll be back in the land of his ancestors, working on major cases with the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard. Wonderful new fodder for my books. Isn’t that right, Herb?” Her father nodded.

“You can’t do this to me!” screamed Amanda. This was the worst news ever—far worse than the time Billy Banana had pulled her skirt up at recess in the first grade. “I don’t want to go to that filthy old school. I want to stay here and make movies.”

“You will not stay here and you will not make movies of any sort. You will prepare for your life’s work: being a detective,” said the old witch.

“It’s always about what you want,” Amanda said, oblivious to the fact that Laurie had rightly accused her of the very same thing. “You’ve never cared about what I want. You think just because someone’s genes are the same as someone else’s they have to be just like them.” It was a bit of a wordy sentence but the meaning was clear enough.

“I’m afraid there’s going to be no discussion about this,” said her father. “We’re going, you’re going, and that’s that. You’ll like it, Amanda. You’ll see.”

“I won’t go and you can’t make me!” Amanda screamed, and stomped out.

 

 

But she did go because she had no choice. Since she didn’t have any friends left there hadn’t been anyone to say goodbye to, so she’d packed her clothes and filmmaking gear and that was that. The Lesters had pulled her out of school over the Christmas holiday so she could start the spring term when everyone else did. They would arrive in the UK on Saturday and the term would start two days later, on Monday.

They had left the house in care of a smarmy real estate agent whose spiked heels were so high it was a wonder she hadn’t fallen off them. Amanda had set up a few booby traps in the hope that the woman would trip, and enjoyed imagining her pitching headlong over an errant cushion or strategically placed hamper. Too bad she’d never know if her scheme worked.

When she wasn’t worrying about people asking her who she was descended from, she spent the entire flight to London trying and failing to remember what she’d meant to write down, which didn’t help her mood any. Then when she got off the plane at London Heathrow, she was met by weather so biting that she almost broke into tears. From there they’d proceeded to their hotel, which turned out to be so cold that she thought the heat must be broken, but when she’d called the front desk, a polite but useless man had assured her that everything was working properly and the temperature was the same as always.

They were still tired after a night’s sleep, but Amanda’s parents insisted on driving the few hundred miles to Windermere rather than taking a train. This turned out not to be the best idea as they weren’t used to driving on the left-hand side of the road, and her father almost got them killed taking the wrong exit on a roundabout, which was a huge traffic circle unlike anything Amanda had ever seen. A woman going the other way had come very close to hitting them and had let them know in no uncertain terms how displeased she was. After that Amanda’s mother had insisted on driving.

But miraculously they did arrive in time for the Sunday new student orientation, and now, sitting in the Legatum Continuatum chapel/auditorium (after a harrowing search for a parking place), Amanda thought about what she’d seen of the school so far.

Aesthetically it wasn’t bad. The campus was built entirely of stone and looked ancient. It was situated high on a hill with a lake—not Windermere, but a smaller one—below to the west. When she’d asked the woman seated next to her about the lake, she’d learned that it was real. The woman, who was wearing a sleeveless dress in January—January!—had looked at her as if she were crazy, but obviously she wasn’t from Calabasas where the lakes were all fake, built by developers to increase property values.

The huge grounds included large expanses of lawn, which unfortunately was dead and brown and covered with patches of snow. Someone had taken great pains to design the gardens, utilizing gobs of shrubbery and flowerbeds that appeared to be laid out in an aesthetically pleasing way. Beyond the buildings lay thick woods, also bare due to the season. Fairy tale icicles, varying in size from an inch or two to several feet, sparkled everywhere. If she hadn’t hated the whole idea of the school so much, Amanda might have found the place picturesque—perfect for a filming location—but now all she could think of was how cold and drafty and miserable it was going to be.

She was so embarrassed to be seen with her parents that she tried to hide under her many layers of clothing, and she almost succeeded until the worst thing in the world happened—except for someone mentioning Lestrade. The headmaster, Gaston Thrillkill, a tall and imposing bald man with gray fringe who was giving the orientation, looked straight at her with piercing eyes and held his gaze there for what seemed like a minute.

He had been telling them that only the descendants of famous detectives were admitted to the school and that they should be highly honored to attend. Here they would learn the tools and tricks of their future trade, and when they matriculated they would be able to practice anywhere they chose, as long as they didn’t violate the school’s secrecy oath. However, they should not expect an easy time of it. Why was he looking so hard at her when he said that? Did he expect her to be the stupidest student at the school? Of course. He knew about her ancestry. That must have been it. Lovely.

“You will not be coddled at Legatum,” the headmaster told them. “As detectives you will be working in a brutal world for which you must be prepared. There are nasty criminals out there—worse than you can imagine. They will be aware of you and will be bent on your destruction, so you must learn to outwit them. Your safety—in fact, at times your very lives—will be at risk. Fail at your job and you may die. So listen carefully, do your work meticulously, and be aware, always.”

Amanda shivered. She knew about criminals from her father and she didn’t like them one bit. In fact the whole idea upset her so much that she tried very hard not to think about them at all.

“You may feel restricted at first,” said Professor Thrillkill. “You will not be allowed to post to social networking sites of any sort except our own internal one, although you may read posts on the Web. You are not to leave the school without permission and you may not mention the school to anyone on the phone, via electronic communications, or in any other medium, including in person. I can assure you that as time progresses, however, you will adjust and will not find these rules onerous.”

How could he say that? No social networking? What about her participation in film forums? How was she going to continue her professional development if she couldn’t do that? The rules were outrageous. Her parents were trying to squeeze all the creativity out of her.

“I want to tell you about our four houses,” the headmaster continued. “They are Dupin House, Father Brown House, Van Helden House, and Holmes House. There are approximately fifty students in each house. Your map will show you where your dorms and common areas are. I will hand out house assignments in a moment.”

She didn’t know what a house was, but she was sure she wanted nothing to do with something with the name Holmes in the title. If she ended up there she’d die.

“Please study your class schedule carefully. We do not tolerate tardiness here at Legatum. If you are late to class more than once, you will attend detention for two weeks. Three tardies and you will be suspended for one week.”

Boy, he was strict. Back home it almost took murdering someone to be suspended. If the teachers had suspended people for three tardies, their classrooms would be empty. She could see herself being suspended after the first three days. Then what would her parents do?

“In addition, meal times are strictly observed. If you are late you miss the meal. No exceptions. However, tea, juice, milk, and water are available in the dining room throughout the day.”

Amanda didn’t like this rule one bit. What if you tripped and got to dinner ten seconds late? And what about snacks? How was she going to get her ice cream? It wasn’t like she could sneak extra at meals and stash it for later. This place was going to kill her.

After this horrible speech, Professor Thrillkill called each new student to the stage to take the Legatum oath. It seemed a particularly inefficient way of doing things—why not give it to all of them at once, or not at all, for Amanda wasn’t fond of oaths—and she wasn’t impressed with the so-called “quality” of the school, which was supposed to derive from the stature of its alumni and faculty. She hoped the other students wouldn’t be stuck up. What was so great about being descended from this, that, or the other yoyo anyway? It was what you made of your life that mattered. Like Darius Plover. He probably hadn’t had to go to a stupid boarding school in some hole-in-the-wall place. If he had he wouldn’t be the great director he was today.

When her turn came Amanda said, “I, Amanda Lester, solemnly promise not to reveal the existence of the Legatum Continuatum School to anyone outside the school and my immediate family. If I do so, whether purposely or inadvertently, I may be expelled, imprisoned, or otherwise punished as the board sees fit.”

That was sobering. Imprisoned? Punished as the board sees fit? What did that mean? Tortured on the rack? Ripped apart by wild horses? Made to recite the life of G. Lestrade in front of the whole school? Regardless of how she felt about having to be there and about the other stupid rules, she’d make sure she never breathed a word.

And then it happened. When the students were assigned their houses and given their class schedules, Amanda was horrified to find herself a member of Holmes House. Holmes House! Of all the embarrassing, insulting, soul-destroying happenstances in the world, there couldn’t be anything worse. She was so upset that she blurted out, “I’m not going into any Holmes House!” so loudly that everyone heard her.

“Is there a problem out there?” said Professor Thrillkill, scanning the crowd.

Amanda was so panicked that she couldn’t respond, but her big-mouthed mother called out, “No, sir. Just a slight mishap. We’re fine.” Amanda felt like she wanted to sink into the floor.

“She said she didn’t want to go into Holmes House,” a boy yelled. She could have killed him.

“I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter, miss,” said Thrillkill. “We’ve worked out the house assignments very carefully and have matched each student with the one that best promises to enhance his or her academic life.”

Amanda was mortified. As if she weren’t frazzled enough, being dragged into the spotlight like that so unnerved her that she started to gag. Unfortunately, instead of abating the sensation grew so strong that within a minute she had thrown up all over a dark blue coat on the back of the chair in front of her, which belonged to a goofy-looking dark-haired boy with huge glasses.

“Aaaaah!” he screamed. “Get away!” He turned around, looked at Amanda with a pinched face, and ran into the aisle, stepping on several feet in the process.

“Take the coat to the ladies’ room and clean it up,” said Amanda’s mother, pushing her daughter toward the aisle.

This was not the easiest thing to do when you were nauseous, but at least it would get her out of there. Amanda scooped up the coat, held it at arm’s length, and went in search of what the English call “the ladies.’”

It was freezing in the foyer. And there were so many doors—all shut. Here a door, there a door, everywhere a door. The dorms and classrooms were located in another building, so what could all those doors be for? If she hadn’t been carrying a coatful of vomit and freezing her butt, she’d have opened each one and explored.

At last she found the ladies’ room tucked away in a hallway. Inside were a couple of ancient-looking sinks under a mirror that was too high to see into, but instead of the foamy soap you find in American restrooms, there were tiny bars of something too sweet-smelling wrapped in thin white paper with pink flowers on it. How was she going to use that?

The first thing to do was get rid of the nasty stuff she’d deposited on the coat. Laying the garment over one of the sinks she turned around to get some paper towels. Plop. The coat fell to the icy floor. Reaching down to pick it up she saw that now the sick was on the floor too. Argh.

She turned back to the paper towels, which were so rough that they’d probably remove skin, grabbed a couple, and wet them in the other sink. Then, picking up the coat, she dabbed at it until all the gunk seemed to have come off and laid it on the dry sink while she cleaned the floor. She unwrapped a soap (it was pink inside!) and rubbed it over the wet spot until the area was sudsy. It was so slippery that she dropped it and it bounced into a stall. Cursing, she opened the door to get the soap, when something caught her eye. Or did it? She could have sworn she saw something on the wall, but on closer inspection she couldn’t find anything. Oh well. The jetlag must have been affecting her vision.

After further ministrations, she was satisfied that the coat was clean enough and left the restroom. But when she turned the corner to go back to the auditorium, she ran head on into another boy, and what a boy he was. He was so handsome that Amanda nearly dropped her armful. Tall, dark hair, blue eyes just like the other boy, but obviously from a different planet entirely.

“Pardon,” said the boy in a plummy English accent.

“Uh, uh, uh,” said Amanda. “Don’t worry about it.” Dummy! Uh, uh, uh. That’s really intelligent.

“I was in such a hurry I wasn’t looking where I was going. I’m late to the orientation, you see,” said the boy, reaching out to steady her. “Are you all right?”

“You’re not missing anything,” said Amanda. Ack! Why was she being negative? Well, of course she was negative. She didn’t want to be there, but she didn’t have to take it out on him, did she? “I’m okay, thanks.”

“Oh well. One has to do these tedious things from time to time.” He looked very serious.

“Of course,” she said, folding the coat absent-mindedly, wondering if all English people were so polite.

“Oh dear. Where are my manners? Let me take your coat.” He reached out, but she pulled back and held the garment tightly.

“I don’t think you want to do that. There was an accident.” She tried to smile, but she had the awful feeling that she had spinach between her teeth from that aloo saag they’d had for lunch.

“But I must,” he said, gently taking the coat from her and holding the wet spot away from him. He extended his other hand. “Nicholas Muffet.”

“Pleased to meet you, Nicholas,” she said, shaking his hand and noting that he had no spinach or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be there between his teeth. “I’m Amanda, er, Lester.”

“Hello, Amanda Lester. My friends call me Nick. It seems you’ve come a long way.”

“Yes. Los Angeles.”

“I thought I could hear a California accent.”

“Oh, no. Californians don’t have accents. Not like you do. I mean—” What an idiot. Here was this amazing English Adonis talking to her as if she actually mattered and she’d already managed to insult him.

“No. Not like me,” said Nick with a wry smile. Holding out his free arm, he said, “Shall we go in?”

Amanda looked at the arm, hesitated a moment, and took hold. Maybe Legatum Continuatum wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Chapter 3

A Detective’s Mystique

After the orientation, Amanda studied her class schedule, which was printed on a bright yellow piece of paper the color of some crayon shade she couldn’t remember the name of. It was so different from the usual fare that she couldn’t process what she was looking at.

 

Spring Term First-Year Class Schedule

 

Monday

8:00 – 9:15. History of Detectives, Also

9:30 – 10:45. Evidence, Scribbish

11:15 – 12:30. Observation, Sidebotham

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Logic, Ducey.

 

Tuesday

8:00 – 9:15. Crime Lab, Stegelmeyer

9:30 – 10:45. Observation, Sidebotham

11:15 – 12:30. Self-defense, Peaksribbon

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Logic, Ducey.

 

Wednesday

8:00 – 9:15. Pathology, Hoxby

9:30 – 10:45. Observation, Sidebotham

11:15 – 12:30. Evidence, Scribbish

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Disguise, Tumble.

 

Thursday

8:00 – 9:15. History of Detectives, Also

9:30 – 10:45. Crime Lab, Stegelmeyer

11:15 – 12:30. Self-defense, Peaksribbon

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Observation, Sidebotham.

 

Friday

8:00 – 9:15. Logic, Ducey

9:30 – 10:45. Evidence, Scribbish

11:15 – 12:30. Pathology, Hoxby

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. History of Detectives, Also.

 

What a strange array of topics. Pathology, whatever it was, had to be medical and therefore incomprehensible. Logic sounded dry, as did history of detectives, which she’d heard over and over already from her parents, and evidence, which was just a lot of boring fingerprints and stuff. Self-defense was PE—ugh. When she saw she was going to have to suffer through a lab she felt ill again. She wasn’t good at science and she absolutely wasn’t about to dissect any more frogs. But observation and disguise—those were her things. You couldn’t make movies without observing every detail of behavior, appearance, setting, and lighting, and disguise was just costuming. She felt herself get just a little excited about the prospect of those classes. A little.

She put the schedule in her bag and headed for her room. The girls’ dormitory was in the east section of the north wing. The whole campus comprised a patchwork quilt of buildings, wings, and sections, including a series of basements, towers, outbuildings, and tunnels, all built at different times and in different fashions. It was ever expanding and mutating, she had discovered, which meant that one year there would be a lot of vacant space, and another virtually none, depending on the enrollment and the amount and location of construction. The school was host to a variety of styles and environments: the ancient, simple 18th century manor and chapel, with their zigzaggy joists and beams and fly-eyed mullioned windows; the ornate 19th century classrooms, common rooms, and dining room, with their rich paneled walls and gothic arches; and the late 19th century dorms, which were close and tight and secret, with narrow hallways and tiny rooms not unlike rabbit warrens.

Holmes House was all the way at the top, which in the U.S. would be called the third floor but in England was the second, the first floor being the ground floor. Whatever it was called, it was quite a schlep up the stairs. There was an elevator, but it was a horrible-looking thing with a metal grille around it and Amanda didn’t trust it. It seemed that no one else did either because it never seemed to move. Maybe it was stuck.

Amanda was to share a room with two other girls, a fact that did not amuse her, particularly because said room was so small. As an only child she’d always had her own room, and she quailed at the loss of privacy. Where would she block out her scenes? Where would she keep her costumes, lights, storyboards, wigs, and makeup kit, not to mention her camera? She was sure her parents were paying a lot of money for her to go to Legatum. The least they could do was give you a decent amount of space.

But there didn’t seem to be a solution, so she opened her trunk and started to unpack, throwing everything on the bed first so she could sort her clothes by color and type. That’s what all costumers did. You had to be able to find the right item instantly when you were shooting. Filming delays cost money.

As she dug down to the bottom of the trunk, she started. Without her knowledge or permission, her mother had hidden several of the books she’d written in her luggage. Amanda was so furious that she picked up the top one and threw it across the room, where it hit a wall and fell down behind a dresser. How could she? She had no right, no right to invade her privacy and try to propagandize her with that detective junk. She threw the other two books under the bed and practically ripped the rest of her clothes out of the trunk.

Her roommates had yet to make an appearance. She had visions of mean girls with svelte figures and porcelain complexions. She supposed they’d be blonde too. It would figure. She’d be the dark, fat, short one with the flyaway hair, stubby hands, and baby face, and they’d be the beauty queens. What else was new?

Suddenly a tiny girl wearing sunglasses entered the room with the most beautiful golden retriever Amanda had ever seen. Amanda was so startled she almost said something she would have regretted. Her roommate was blind! Whoever had heard of a blind detective? At least she wasn’t blonde. Her hair was so coppery that it lent a reddish sheen to the entire room, or at least Amanda imagined it that way. The girl would be perfect in a sixties-era film surrounded by psychedelic pinks, reds, and oranges. Or against a verdant outdoor setting in a period piece, perhaps in Ireland or even here in the UK. In fact—

“Hello. I’m Ivy,” said the tiny girl. “Ivy Halpin.”

“Amanda Lester,” said Amanda, rushing to shake her hand.

“And this is Nigel,” said Ivy, presenting her dog.

“Why hello, Nigel,” said Amanda. “He’s beautiful!” The dog’s yellow coat gleamed. It was as if the two of them, girl and dog, had been polished, they were so luminous. Amanda envisioned lighting them from various angles and settled on a backlight that would outline them in gold.

“Yes, he is,” beamed Ivy. “I’m afraid he does shed a bit, but he’s very tame and frightfully intelligent. Do you like dogs?”

“Oh, yes,” said Amanda. “My parents would never let me have one, but I do adore them.” What was this? She’d been in the country for two days and she was starting to sound like an English person already. She’d have to watch that. Sometimes her natural ability to mimic got her into trouble, and she had enough of that on her hands.

“What is that?” came a harsh voice from the doorway. “A dog?”

“Yes, this is Nigel,” said Ivy proudly.

“Get it out of here,” said the tall, plump, dark-skinned girl in the doorway. “You can’t have a dog in here. It’s a school.”

“She’s blind,” said Amanda. “Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“Hey, you’re the one who threw up,” said the nasty girl, eyeing Amanda.

Amanda thought she would just about die. “What’s it to you?” The best defense was a good offense. The girl glared at her.

“Well, of course I’m blind,” grinned Ivy, ignoring the incipient argument. “It’s nothing to be sensitive about. I’m blind, you’re a short brunette with a nice nose and small feet,” she said facing Amanda, “and you,” she said turning to the girl in the doorway, “are tall, wearing earrings, and a bit red-faced at the moment. You also have long black hair. And yes, Amanda threw up. So what? I throw up all the time. Don’t you?”

“Hey,” said the tall girl. “How did you—am I red-faced? Really? And how do you know about my hair?”

“I may be blind but I’m not dumb,” said Ivy, grinning so wide that Amanda thought her face would split in two. “First, you’re embarrassed, and second, I can hear in your voice that you’re of Indian descent.”

“But I’m English,” the girl protested.

“So am I, but our families aren’t from here, are they? Can you tell about me?” She grasped her hair on both sides and pulled it out from her head as if to offer a hint.

“No.”

“Well then,” said Ivy in such a nice way that no one could possibly be offended “you’ve got a project to work on, haven’t you?” She turned to Amanda. “You’re from Southern California. I’d say Los Angeles. Not the Valley, but close to it.”

“You are kidding!” said Amanda. “You’re right. Calabasas.”

“Cala-who?” said the tall girl.

“Calabasas,” said Amanda. “It’s in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s just past the San Fernando Valley. Lots of horses. That was amazing. You’re really talented.” She suddenly wondered what it was about the way she spoke that had given her away. Was there a Calabasas accent? She was sure there wasn’t.

“Thank you,” said Ivy. She turned to the tall girl. “And of course you’re from East Anglia, definitely Cambridge, but with a touch of central London, and I’m from Dorset, although as you will be able to tell once you’ve done your project, my family is from Dublin. Oops, I gave it away.” She clapped her hand over her mouth as if she were divulging the secret of the Holy Grail, then laughed.

“But how did you do that?” said the doorway girl, softening.

“I hear things,” said Ivy.

“You can’t hear what someone is wearing, or how tall they are, or what color their hair is,” said the girl.

“Yes, you can,” said Ivy. “You have to work at it, but you can.”

“I never heard of such a thing,” said the girl. “By the way, I’m Amphora. Amphora Kapoor.”

“Hello, Amphora,” said Ivy and Amanda in unison.

“And I’m sorry about what I said. He’s a lovely dog. Sheds a bit, though, doesn’t he? Is he going to be staying in this room with us?” Amphora seemed to be accepting him but she made no move to pet him and was still eyeing him with suspicion.

“Yes, indeed,” said Ivy.

“Yes, of course he would,” said Amphora. “How silly of me. He’s your guide dog. How else could you get to the loo in the middle of the night?”

“I have my ways,” said Ivy, still beaming.

“Um, I’m Amanda,” said Amanda. “I make movies.”

“We know,” said Ivy.

“Yes,” said Amphora. “It’s obvious.”

What was that supposed to mean? Amanda hoped it was a compliment. Oh well. If she had to be insulted, better that it be for her filmmaking than her genes.

 

 

The first class the next morning was History of Detectives. The classroom was huge and paneled in dark wood. Amanda thought it was beautiful but was thankful she didn’t have to polish it. It would take so long that as soon as she’d finished she’d have to start all over. The room felt old-fashioned but it was a lot nicer than the classrooms at Ysidro Middle School, which were so depressing that she was always mentally redecorating them.

“Bienvenido!” said the teacher, Professor Also, an athletic-looking, curly-haired woman with a kind face and a wavery voice. The students, some of whom appeared bright and eager and others of whom seemed not to have slept the night before, looked around blankly.

“Oh, sorry. Forgive me,” the teacher said. “I just got back from Costa Rica and I haven’t got my land legs yet. That means ‘Welcome.’ May I have a volunteer, please? How about you, Mr. Binkle?”

The goofy-looking boy with the glasses, late of the vomit incident, pointed to himself. “Me, your honor?”

“Yes, you, Mr. Binkle, and I am not your honor. Professor Also will do.”

“Yes, sir, er, your ladyship,” said the boy, every bit as awkward as Amanda thought he was.

Professor Also sighed. “Now would be a good time.”

“Right,” said the boy, and raced to the front, tripping over nothing twice on his way to the spot where Professor Also was pointing. Amanda felt sorry for him.

“Now, Mr. Simon Binkle,” said the teacher. “I want you to select from these items and give yourself a semblance of a detective’s mystique.”

“A what, ma’am?” said the boy.

“A detective’s mystique. Go on. Let’s see what you can put together.”

Mr. Simon Binkle had turned rather red. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand, ma’am.”

“This, class, is exactly the problem for those of us who are new to the detective’s world. In order to be a great sleuth, you must develop a mystique. All the classic detectives have one and we will study them. A mystique sets you apart, and may I say, gives you a certain, I don’t know. Let’s say cachet.”

“Sorry, Professor. What’s cachet?”

“Cachet, Mr. Binkle, is that special something, an almost magical quality, that makes you fascinating.” The idea of the gangly Mr. Binkle being fascinating made Amanda want to laugh.

“Do you mean that we all have to be fascinating?” said Simon Binkle.

“Eventually,” said the teacher, at which the boy’s face went completely white.

“I see I’ve thrown you. Let me reassure you that developing a mystique isn’t nearly as intimidating a procedure as it sounds. This will occur naturally over the course of your time here at Legatum. Let’s talk about it a bit. Yes, Mr. Wiffle.” She pointed toward a pale, redheaded boy who was raising his hand excitedly.

“First, Professor, let me say that I’m very impressed that you already know all of our names. I think I’m going to enjoy your class. Second, can you tell us whether mystiques will be on the tests?”

Amanda looked over at Amphora, who was making a gagging face. When she saw Amanda looking at her she mouthed, “Do you believe this?” Amanda rolled her eyes, then grinned and shook her head. When she caught sight of Nick, who was sitting at the end of her row, she could see that he was laughing silently.

“I’m tempted not to answer that, Mr. Wiffle. A detective should be ready for anything. However, as this is your first day I will make an exception. No. Mystiques will not be on the tests but they will be part of your grade. Let me say right now that I will know if you’re faking a mystique. It’s perfectly acceptable to experiment, and in fact we expect you to do so. However do not try to impress us. A mystique evolves naturally. Trying to be something you’re not will get you nowhere and could actually backfire. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” said Mr. Wiffle. Amanda, Amphora, Nick, and Ivy were all stifling laughs. Simon, who was still standing in front of the class, seemed completely lost.

“Now, let’s talk about mystiques, shall we?” said Professor Also. “A mystique is much more than appearance, although that plays a large part because it’s what we see. It also has to do with the way the detective thinks and what he or she is most interested in. In other words, it’s what makes the detective different from other detectives.

“For example, we’re all familiar with Sherlock Holmes’s recognizable clothing and accoutrements, but what really defined his mystique was his keen ability to observe small details and draw conclusions from them.” Amanda winced. Who cared what Sherlock Holmes did or didn’t do? “But his observational skills didn’t operate in a vacuum. They depended on his arcane knowledge. As you know, he could deduce an astounding amount about a person just by observing his or her clothes, but in order to do that he had to familiarize himself with everything from buttons to types of wool. So his mystique depended on his knowing a great deal about obscure subjects. Yes, Mr. Wiffle.”

Not him again. Amanda was beginning to get the measure of this kid. She decided that staying away from him would be a good idea.

“Professor, will we be expected to study buttons and things like that?”

“Yes, Mr. Wiffle. Professor Sidebotham will be at your side for these six years, and by the time you graduate you will know more about buttons, fountain pens, and motor oil than 99.999% of the people on the planet.”

The kid’s mouth dropped. He obviously wasn’t happy. Amanda didn’t want to learn about buttons either, but she thought she could put up with it if it meant she got to watch him squirm.

“Mr. Wiffle,” said the teacher. “Do I infer correctly that you’re not interested in buttons and motor oil?”

The class laughed and the kid went as red as his hair.

“No, Professor Also,” he said, catching himself. “I’m quite looking forward to learning about motor oil. It sounds fascinating.”

The teacher gave the kid a look and said, “Indeed. Now, let’s continue with our discussion of mystiques. As I was saying, when you matriculate you will have developed a mystique that is unique to you. A unique mystique, if you will.”

There were giggles around the room until Professor Also fixed the class with a stony stare.

“A mystique is no laughing matter. It is your calling card. Your signature. Your, er, excuse me, Miss Lester, for putting it this way, your brand, as they say in America. No detective can practice effectively without one. Your mystique is your power. It throws people off, impresses them, stirs them to action. All these things are needed if you are to stay ahead of your suspects, witnesses, informants, and even at times your colleagues. So today, and during other lessons, we will discuss what a mystique is, why it’s necessary, and how to create one. Mr. Binkle, let’s see if you have good instincts.”

By now the boy was practically in hysterics. He seemed so self-conscious and flummoxed that he looked like he was going to melt into the floor. His eyes darted around the room like a mosquito that had lost its radar. Slowly he turned around to look at the shelves containing all manner of props: hats, coats, cigars, glasses, hairpieces, flowers, umbrellas, bags, shoes, musical instruments, writing implements, perfumes, wax fruit, books, and costume jewelry. He picked up a fedora and stared at it for a moment, then broke into a huge grin and stuck it on his head. It was too big for him and covered his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from turning back to the shelves and rummaging. After examining what must have been forty different items, he held up a red sweater vest and the class responded with an approving chorus of yeses. Emboldened, he turned back and presented a cigarette in a holder. “Uh uh,” said the class.

Getting into it now, the boy selected item after item, sometimes acceding to the class’s wishes and sometimes overriding them, until he had finished. When he was through, he was wearing a tweed jacket and holding a leather notebook. He looked like a cross between Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sam Spade, and he was ecstatic. The formerly shy boy had been transformed into a ham in front of the class’s eyes. Amanda couldn’t believe the change in him. Except she could, because she knew what acting could do to a person. Anyone could become anything. It was magical and she loved it. But there was another side to acting: it allowed you to mislead. She’d remember that later, to her dismay. But for now she was beginning to feel just the teensiest bit at home.

She was still on edge though. Although intensely grateful that no one had asked her who she was descended from, she had studiously avoided asking the same of the others for fear that she’d have to reciprocate. She was quite amazed, actually, because she’d expected the snobbery and the jockeying for status to be intense, and it wasn’t. Not yet anyway. But the other shoe always dropped. It was just a matter of time.

 

 

And then it happened—in Professor Scribbish’s evidence class, which followed History of Detectives. Amanda was sitting next to the kid who had asked whether mystiques would be on the tests. He whispered to her while the teacher was talking.

“Who are you descended from?”

Amanda froze.

“I say, who are you descended from? How did you get into the school?”

“Sssssh,” she said, not looking at him.

“Don’t shush me,” said the boy. He leaned closer. “What are you hiding?”

“What are you hiding,” hissed Amanda, still refusing to look.

“I’m not hiding anything, you cow. I’m descended from Sir Bailiwick Wiffle. You?”

Now she turned and met his gaze, which was smarmy and smug. She wanted to deck him. “What difference does it make?”

“What difference does it make? I’ll tell you what difference it makes. Who you’re descended from is everything. Do you really think the point of going to this school is to recite detective history and analyze fingerprints? Anyone can do that. What matters is who you’re related to, and you’re obviously not related to anyone important.” He crossed his arms and gave her a challenging look.

“I’ll have you know I’m descended from Inspector G. Lestrade,” said Amanda without thinking.

OMG, it was out! Realizing what she’d done, she gasped so hard she almost cut off her wind. Now everyone would know. She’d never measure up to this aristocratic boy, for Sir Bailiwick Wiffle was an aristocrat, even if the kid was rude and a huge twit. Not that she wanted to be here—she still didn’t—but now everyone would know she didn’t belong. Even Ivy, who seemed to be the least judgmental person in the world, would be horrified.

She had to think. She couldn’t leave the school. Her parents would never let her. She couldn’t run away because she was twelve and where would she go? She couldn’t persuade her parents to let her transfer to a regular school where no one would care who her ancestors were. Think, think, Amanda. Act. Yes, that was it. Act.

“I’m sorry, but you’re obviously misinformed,” she said, her heart pounding. The whole class and the teacher were now staring at her. “Inspector Lestrade was a first-rate detective. I’m proud to be part of his family.”

“You’re joking,” said Wiffle’s alleged descendant.

“Certainly not,” said Amanda. “I never joke. Let me tell you some of the things my great ancestor did.”

“That will be enough,” interrupted Professor Scribbish, who along with the rest of the class was listening intently now. He was a bit of a dish, with dark curly hair and an affable manner, which had disappeared in a flash. It occurred to Amanda that he’d make a great actor, he so easily shifted his personality. “We do not disparage other people’s ancestors here at Legatum. If I see you failing to respect your classmates you will do two weeks’ detention. Mr. Wiffle, you will go to detention this afternoon after your classes are finished and you will return every day for the rest of the week. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Professor Scribbish,” said the boy, giving Amanda a piercing look.

Of course that was the answer. Whatever happened, she could act her way through it. She was surprised she hadn’t thought of that before. What kind of a filmmaker was she anyway?

Before her next class she made a little foray to the same ladies’ she’d used the previous evening. This time Ivy and Nigel were with her. She opened the stall she’d looked at before, and again she could swear there was something odd about the back wall. It had a funny color to it in one spot, as if something had bled over from the other side. She couldn’t ask Ivy to take a look, obviously. Maybe she could get Amphora to help later.

Suddenly Ivy said, “Something isn’t right in here.” She walked around and listened in various places.

“What do you mean?” said Amanda, who couldn’t hear anything.

“I mean something is off,” said Ivy.

“Off like what?” Amanda craned her ears but still didn’t hear anything unusual.

“I hear something. So does Nigel.” Sure enough Nigel’s ears were cocked and he was staring at the stall wall. Amanda hadn’t mentioned anything about the stall, so it was odd that the dog had found the exact same spot she’d thought looked weird.

“What do you hear?” she said.

“It sounds like scraping. From over there.” Ivy gestured toward the stall wall.

Amanda put her head to the wall and listened. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Well, I do, and Nigel does. There has to be something there. No, wait. It stopped.”

Amanda listened again. No difference.

“No, it’s gone,” said Ivy. Nigel obviously thought so too because he was looking at Amanda with his tongue hanging out.

“You know, I thought I saw something there last night but I don’t see anything now.”

“Probably nothing,” said Ivy. “But we can keep an eye on it, so to speak.” She broke into one of her grins.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Probably nothing.”

Even if there had been something, so what? There was something about being around all these detectives that made you paranoid. It wasn’t like her and she wished it would stop.

 

 

Amanda was sitting in her third class, Observation and Research, waiting for the teacher to arrive, when a boy turned to her and said, “What kinds of criminals do you think we’ll meet? I’m hoping for a lot of murderers.”

Criminals! Of course. She knew all about criminals. Her father, her mother, Uncle Randy, and a myriad of her parents’ friends were intimately involved with criminals every day. And yet she’d forgotten all about them, even though Professor Thrillkill had mentioned them just the day before. Not that she knew any personally. Her parents would never let her anywhere near a criminal. But that was why she was there, wasn’t it? How could you be a detective without coming into contact with criminals?

Actually, she didn’t much care for the idea. It wasn’t just her antipathy to detectives. She was actually afraid of criminals. Maybe embezzlers weren’t so bad, or counterfeiters, but violent criminals? They scared her half to death. She felt a chill.

Act! “I don’t really have a favorite kind,” she said. “I was hoping to learn about them.” Learn about them? That was the last thing she wanted to do. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to make films about them. Too close to home.

“Me too,” said the boy. “I can’t wait! I don’t think we get to take Profiling for a while, though. Get inside their minds and all that. I think they want us to have some experience with evidence and observation first.”

Amanda had no idea what classes she’d take when. She was just taking the school as it came. They told her which class to go to and she did. End of story.

But now the boy had got her thinking. Would they really meet criminals? If so, how? Would they be dangerous? Could she be killed? Surely the school wouldn’t allow that. Her father would sue the pants off of them.

And then a sobering thought hit her. Could there be criminals out there targeting the detectives? Targeting the school? Targeting her? Wouldn’t Thrillkill have told them if that were the case?

This was not a discussion she was comfortable having, even while acting. She tuned out and let the boy talk, which he was quite happy to do. But when the teacher arrived, she was still thinking about those criminals, and she couldn’t get them out of her mind all day.

Chapter 4

Mysterious Shapes

When she returned to her room in the evening, Amanda was beat. She was still jetlagged, and the day had been so full that all she wanted to do was fall into bed. Of course there had been no time to consider her brilliant idea, the one she’d lit upon outside the ice cream shop. At this rate there never would be but she was too tired to fret.

The other girls hadn’t returned yet, so tired as she was she decided to check her email. She grabbed her phone and scanned her inbox. There it was, another message from Darius Plover. She’d forgotten all about him! This wasn’t good. She was losing her skills and now she was losing her passion. Sure, Ivy and Amphora were nice, the goofy boy was kind of funny, and Nick was cool, but she still didn’t want to be here. The school was derailing her from her plans and OMG, the festival! She’d forgotten about that too.

She couldn’t let this happen. She had to enter that competition. She absolutely could not wait until next year, and oh no again, the film program she’d applied to! The letter had probably gotten lost in the move and now she’d never be admitted. Competition to get in was fierce, and she’d probably lost her one chance.

But she couldn’t think about that now. She read the email greedily.

 

Dear Miss Lester,

What a pleasure it is to hear from you again.

I sense a note of frustration in your email, and I want to put your mind at rest. Some of the most creative and respected filmmakers come from difficult backgrounds. Do not worry. Keep working on your ideas and your techniques, practice with the most rudimentary equipment and supplies if you must, but persevere. It may not seem like it now, but you will get through whatever bumps you’re having with your parents and you will succeed.

As always, I’m happy to hear from you anytime.

Sincerely,

Darius Plover.

 

Amanda put her phone away and stared out the icy window. Could the director be right? She hadn’t thought of her problem quite that way before. Up to now it had been all or nothing. But maybe she could slip in enough filmmaking to keep her career on track. Tomorrow she’d make a list of priorities. But before she could think about that or anything else, she had fallen asleep on top of her covers.

 

 

When Amanda woke in the morning she found herself warm and toasty under a layer of quilts. Nigel was lying on Ivy’s bed and the other girls were still asleep. She looked at the clock.

“Eeeeeeeek!” she yelled. “It’s 7:45. We’re late!”

The two girls woke with a start and Nigel jumped off the bed. “Eeeeeeeeeee,” they all yelled, running around trying to get dressed and down to breakfast as fast as they could. Classes started at 8:00 so they’d have to inhale their food. But when they got there the dining room was closed, and a stern-looking cook, who was holding a large wooden spoon, was shaking her head.

“Ya missed it,” she said.

“But we’re so hungry,” said Amphora. “Do you think we might get a roll at least?”

“Nope,” said the cook, a tall, angular woman with gray hair. She looked a bit like the wicked witch of the west. Amanda wondered where her winged monkeys were. “Yer too late, and it isn’t permitted. Get off to yer class now, and don’t let this happen again.”

The girls grabbed the dog and started to run to their first class, when Ivy stopped. “I have to take Nigel out.”

“Aaaaah,” said Amphora. “We’re already late. They’ll yell at you.”

“Can’t be helped,” said Ivy, rubbing the dog’s head. “He’s a dog. He has his needs.”

“I’ll take him out,” said Amanda, grabbing hold of Nigel’s lead. “You go on to class.”

“Thank you, Amanda, but he’s my responsibility,” said Ivy, pulling the lead back.

“It’s okay. I love dogs,” Amanda said, reaching for the lead again, but missing. Nigel kept looking from one girl to the other as if to say, “Make up your minds already.” “We’ll be fine. Catch you in a few.”

Ivy reluctantly handed the lead over to Amanda and thanked her profusely. Then she and Amphora ran down the hall, the tall girl guiding her as best she could.

Amanda headed for the closest outside door. Even the interior of the building was freezing. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to the cold, especially because she’d forgotten to bring her heavy jacket with her. But there was nothing for it. Nigel had to be walked and that was that.

She hunched herself up, opened the door, and stepped out. It was co-co-cold and smelled shiny and clear, if colors, or the lack of them, could be said to have smells. She figured she’d better find an unobtrusive place to take the retriever. Even though guide dogs were allowed, she had no idea what the rules were for taking care of them and she didn’t want to risk getting into trouble.

She headed for a stand of trees that bordered the vast lawn. Ice dotted the ground, and despite her lack of experience with cold weather she knew to avoid it. Ice had formed on the sidewalk at home once, and she’d slipped and wrenched her neck. Never again. Thank goodness Nigel was well behaved. He didn’t pull, explore, or cause trouble in any way. He seemed to sense what she wanted and accompanied her docilely.

If she thought about it, which was hard to do when you were shivering, it really was a lovely scene. Maybe she could make something of it. She’d have to sketch out some views and see. There was a sparkle to the air from the ice crystals. The muted burnt red of the brick, the ancient deep green of the firs, even the stark branches that spread out like lace—hey, what was that? There was a flash in the distance, as if someone were signaling with a mirror. She had done that at camp one year and had become quite good at communicating by flash. She peered off into the direction the light had come from but saw nothing more.

When Nigel had finished doing his business she said, “Come on, Nigel. Let’s hurry!” The dog looked at her as if he understood and turned back toward the school. But before they had advanced more than a few paces the flash came again, this time from the north side of the campus. Amanda scanned the view and saw a dark shape off in the distance near the woods, running. It seemed an odd thing to do when there was so much ice. You could fall and hit your head. Or not. Maybe these English people knew how to cope with it. One more thing she’d have to learn. She continued to search but the shape and the light were gone, so she went back to the building and made her way to the crime lab.

 

 

When Amanda and Nigel entered the lab, the teacher, Professor Stegelmeyer, gave her the dirtiest of looks and said, “Miss Lester, I presume?” He had a buzz cut that made him look like a marine and a manner to match.

“Yes, sir.” This was not going to be good.

“Do you realize what time it is?” He motioned toward the clock and tapped his foot, as if keeping time to the second hand.

“Yes, sir. I am so sorry, sir. Nigel needed to go out. It won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t, because the next time it happens you will be dismissed from this class. Do you understand?”

Amanda looked over at Ivy, who for the first time was frowning. “Yes, sir. I’m very sorry, sir.” As if. The dog had needs. What a heartless man Professor Stegelmeyer was.

Having delivered Nigel, Amanda took the only free seat in the class and found herself sitting next to Nick. He gave her a big grin, pointed to her hands, and rubbed his own together. She looked at him quizzically. He motioned for her to give one of them to him. She shook her head. She didn’t care how cold she was. She wasn’t about to hold hands with a boy in front of a teacher. Nick shrugged as if to say, “Suit yourself.” Then he flashed her another grin and turned toward the front.

The lab was all about DNA, fingerprints, and chemical analysis—your typical crime scene stuff. Amanda found it all incredibly boring until Professor Stegelmeyer made Nick her lab partner. Nick was the kind of boy who wouldn’t have said two words to her back in L.A., but for some reason he seemed to have taken a shine to her. Maybe he was like that with everybody. She certainly had nothing to offer him. Yes, that must have been it. He was just a friendly guy.

With almost no preamble they were thrown right into an exercise: dusting and lifting fingerprints. The first step was to create samples. Next to their supplies—fingerprint brushes, black and white powders, goggles, gloves, and tape—were two shiny drinking glasses, two empty soda cans, and two plastic plates. The pair took the materials and made firm prints with various fingers and their thumbs. Fortunately Amanda’s hands had defrosted enough that she could actually wiggle them. Then they slipped on their gloves and proceeded to dust their prints with the black powder. Nick’s came up quickly and beautifully but Amanda’s looked murky and clumped.

“I can’t do this,” she said, surveying the mess.

“Sure you can,” said Nick. “Just use a light twirling motion. I think you’re pressing too hard. Try the plate. And think feathery.”

Amanda carefully dipped the brush into the powder and positioned it over the print. Feathers, feathery, oh so light. She envisioned the scene in her mind’s eye and took a breath. She twirled the brush lightly, just barely touching the print until the ridges came into view clearly. They looked nothing like Nick’s, which were wavy and seemed to undulate. They were actually kind of straight and boring. Figures. He’s got gorgeous fingers and mine are from that moron Lestrade.

“Brilliant,” said Nick, looking at her fingerprints as if they were the Mona Lisa. “I knew you could do it.”

“How did you do that?” she said, trying to tell from his prints what he’d done differently.

“I have my ways.” He winked. “You see, I fancy myself as something of a filmmaker. I watch how things are done and try to use what I see to create art. It helps.” He gave her a mock sheepish look.

Amanda was aghast. “You’re kidding.”

“Mais non.”

She was stunned. If that was the case, what was he doing here? And should she tell him about her own inclinations?

“I see I’ve shocked you,” he said feigning horror.

“Not really. I just didn’t think . . .”

“It doesn’t compute, does it? Here we are at a school for detectives and I’m telling you I want to be a filmmaker. I suppose you wonder what I’m doing here.”

“Wellll . . .” Maybe his parents were as bad as hers. She didn’t want to get into that.

“Of course, my family. Isn’t that why we’re all here? But also, my personal philosophy is that in order to make great films, you need as much experience in as many areas as you can get.”

“That makes sense,” said Amanda, though she’d never thought of it that way before. There was so much in her head already that she didn’t see why she needed any more, especially if it took her out of her comfort zone.

“Do you know what I especially like?” Nick said conspiratorially. He paused a moment for effect. “Acting,” he whispered.

“Acting?” said Amanda. OMG. He would make the best leading man ever.

“Yes, acting. It’s immensely challenging and satisfying. You get to be anyone you want to be. Have you ever tried it?”

“I, uh, I—”

“Didn’t think so. It’s not something most people ever do, although coming from L.A. I thought you might have dabbled.”

Should she say anything? It was so tempting to be able to share her passion with someone who understood.

“I suppose I’m talking your ear off. Let’s do the white powder now.” He reached for the second vial.

“I’m a filmmaker too,” she blurted out.

Nick broke into a wide grin. “I knew it,” he said. “I can just tell.”

Chapter 5

THE INIMITABLE Simon Binkle

After crime lab, Amanda felt like she was walking on air. Nick had given her hope, and she had a new friend who shared her interests. It didn’t hurt that he was so good-looking and nice either.

The observation class, which was taught by the oldest, most wrinkled lady she’d ever seen, Professor Sidebotham, proved to be a lot more interesting than she’d expected, despite Professor Also’s warning about buttons and motor oil. It seemed that the school expected its students to observe constantly, and they provided an ever-changing environment that forced them to practice on a daily basis. To this end the administration kept a fulltime staff of two men whose duties included changing the décor of the school continuously and randomly. That meant that paintings, furniture, decorative objects, carpets and rugs, lamps and chandeliers, and dining room fixtures, most of which were stored in various basements underneath the school, were always appearing, disappearing, and changing position. It was the students’ job to be ever vigilant and note not only the current state of the school’s décor, but also past tableaus, for Professor Sidebotham gave pop quizzes in every class, and if your score fell below seventy-five you were forced to go for special tutoring with the old lady, whose senses and brain power appeared to have diminished not one whit with age. What was worst about failing was that the professor’s sharp tongue hadn’t dulled either, and she worked the poor students half to death when they fell behind. Amanda did not want to find herself in that unfortunate situation.

In addition, Professor Sidebotham informed them that starting next term they would be taking field trips all over the UK. These promised to give the students the opportunity to escape the confines of the school, and everyone looked forward to them, although a couple of the boys remarked that they were afraid the old bat might drop dead from the exertion and then what would they do? Word from the older students was that the trips were virtual parties, although Amanda had a hard time believing that, given Professor Sidebotham’s temperament and the school’s rigid rules. Still, they would provide ample filmmaking fodder and she wished they would start right away.

After the observation class Amanda met up with Ivy, Amphora, and Nigel in the first-floor hall, which overnight had been hung with medieval tapestries featuring lots of unicorns and white birds. Her new friends were abuzz with news.

“A girl has already been expelled,” said Amphora.

Amanda wasn’t sure if her roommate was horrified or titillated. “What? You’re kidding.”

“No,” said Ivy gravely. “She violated the secrecy oath. They caught her texting something about the school to an outsider.”

“Wow, they don’t mess around,” said Amanda. The teachers at home hadn’t been this strict. Then again the teachers back home hadn’t been very competent.

“Apparently they take it very seriously,” said Amphora. “I suppose they would. If criminals ever found out about us . . .”

Criminals again. It was bad enough being at Legatum without that. Amanda wondered what the others thought about them.

“Do you think we’ll have to deal with any actual criminals?” she said.

“Of course,” said Ivy. “That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“I thought it was all just theory, right? I mean, you learn how to follow clues and figure out who the murderer is, but you don’t actually have to meet them, do you? Doesn’t that come later, when you have a job?” As if she was ever going to get a job as a detective.

“I wouldn’t think so,” said Amphora. “We’re supposed to be getting real experience at fighting crime.”

“Fighting crime?” said Amanda. “We’re not a SWAT team. We’re thinkers.” She’d forgotten that her father was both a thinker and a crime fighter, and he had to meet criminals all the time.

“Sure we’re thinkers,” said Ivy, “but you can’t think in a vacuum.”

“No you can’t,” said a voice. “Although I tried once when my mum was cleaning the house. Well, I didn’t try, actually. I had this hamster and this theory, you see.” It was the goofy guy from the orientation: Simon.

What a doofus. First he butts into a conversation, and then he starts talking about how he torments animals. I don’t like this guy, or his coke-bottle glasses.

“I’m kidding. I thought maybe the mood needed lifting. I would never hurt an animal. Would I, Nigel? You’re beautiful, don’t ya know?”

This guy really is a nutball. He’s worse with people than I am.

“Have you ever met any criminals, whoever you are?” said Amphora.

“Moi? No, not me. Although I did shake hands with my MP once. And I’m Simon. Simon Binkle.” He rocked back on his heels and up onto his toes.

“Right. I remember you. The mystique guy. I’m Amphora and this is Ivy . . . and Amanda. Are you worried about them?”

“Nah. What’s the big deal? They’ll train us, and then we’ll be able to handle anything. Easy peasey.” He was maddening. Didn’t he get anything?

“I don’t know about that,” said Amanda. “I’m not sure it’s that . . . easy peasey.”

“No,” said Ivy. “If it were, the good guys would always win. They would have caught Jack the Ripper, found the money from the Great Train Robbery, put Moriarty behind bars.”

Moriarty? Oh no! Why did she have to mention him? Not Holmes and his overrated cast of characters again. She could receive a thousand emails from Darius Plover and bask in a million smiles from Nick Muffet, and even with those to soften the blow she couldn’t bear the thought of Holmes, who was pretty much the same thing as Moriarty to her, except that there was a certain je ne sais quoi about the criminal mastermind that she found just the tiniest bit exciting.

“I get it, I get it,” said Simon. You’re right, I’m wrong. No worries.” He smiled in a lopsided kind of way that made Amanda want to grab his cheeks and straighten his face.

“So what about the criminals then?” said Amphora. “Aren’t you afraid of serial killers?”

Chalk one up for Amphora.

“Look, this is the way I figure it,” said Simon. “Everything in life is a challenge. You work, you prepare, you do the best you can. You win some, you lose some. There’s no point in dwelling on the bad stuff as long as you’ve done your best.” He patted down a cowlick.

“I agree,” said Ivy. She bent down and petted Nigel, who looked like he was in heaven.

This philosophy had never worked for Amanda but she wasn’t about to argue. Maybe it worked for this boy, but right now she didn’t want to think about any of it.

“Say,” said Simon. “Did you hear that they lost a teacher already?”

“What?” said Amanda. “We heard a girl was expelled but nothing about a teacher. What happened?”

“No one is saying,” said Simon. “But it was very sudden. Dead bodies teacher. Er, pathology. Autopsies. You know.”

“Maybe he—he?” said Amanda. Simon nodded. “Maybe he was taken ill.”

“Or fired,” said Amphora happily.

“Yes, for snatching bodies,” giggled Ivy.

“Right. Good one,” said Simon, and broke into giggles as well.

Amanda didn’t like the idea of body snatching. She wasn’t keen on horror films, and anything associated with them seemed cheap. So she was doubly unkeen on taking the pathology class and felt secretly glad that the teacher was gone.

“They’ve brought in a substitute,” said Simon. “Guy named Basil Hoxby. I guess he starts tomorrow.”

“Ugh,” said Amphora. “He sounds like a dead body.”

At this remark Amanda couldn’t help herself. She started to laugh. “Or a spice. No, wait. An herb. Herb Hoxby.” The others looked at her with appreciation. “I’m allowed to say that because my dad’s name is Herb. Get it?”

“We get it,” said Amphora. “Very cute. Except that ‘herb’ starts with an H, so it’s h-e-r-b.” She sounded the H.

“We say erb,” said Amanda.

“Herb, erb, it doesn’t matter. But listen,” said Simon. “I have this theory, and I thought you might like to help me test it.” He looked excited. Amanda thought his cowlick might even have risen a little as he spoke.

“A theory,” said Amphora. “What kind of theory?”

He leaned forward. “I think there’s something weird going on here.”

“At the school?” said Amanda.

“Yes.”

“What kind of weird thing?” said Ivy.

“I’m not sure, but I think something is wrong,” said Simon.

“Something like what?” said Amanda, half dismissing the idea. Who knew if he was credible?

“I don’t like to be melodramatic, but I think I’ve been hearing things,” he said.

“Things?” said Amphora.

“Odd noises behind walls,” said Simon, motioning toward the right-hand hall wall with his head, then circling toward the left-hand one. The motion made him appear slightly spastic.

“You mean like mice?” said Amphora. “I don’t like mice.” She shuddered.

“No, he’s right,” said Ivy. “Not mice. People.”

“Yes, people,” said Simon, doing that heel-toe rocking thing again.

“Is that what it was?” said Amanda.

“What what was?” said Amphora.

“Ivy heard it. In the bathroom.” She jerked her head in the direction of the offending restroom, then caught herself. She hoped she didn’t look as dumb as Simon doing that.

“Like a scraping?” said Simon.

“Yes,” said Ivy. “And some thumping. No, Nigel. Not you.” The dog was wagging his tail excitedly for some reason only he knew.

“I didn’t hear any thumping,” said Amanda.

“Definitely thumping,” said Ivy, rubbing Nigel’s head.

“It’s probably nothing,” said Amphora. “We’re not used to the school. I’m sure there are all kinds of things they have to do that we don’t know anything about. Maintenance and stuff. Maybe those décor guys.”

“I don’t think so,” said Ivy.

“No, I don’t either,” said Simon. “I think it might be something we’re not supposed to know about, and I want to find out what it is.”

“But why do you think that?” said Amphora. “I think you’re overreacting.”

“I don’t think so,” said Simon.

“Why not?” said Amphora.

“Because I saw blood outside the east door.”

Chapter 6

Funny Desserts

Now that Simon had started hanging around, things were getting interesting. Weird noises could mean anything. Blood was a different matter. You couldn’t dismiss that so easily. The words “The plot thickens” came to mind.

“You saw blood?” said Ivy. She stood stock-still as if listening for it. Amanda wasn’t sure if the idea of listening for blood was funny or just plain nuts.

“Yup,” said Simon, looking satisfied with himself.

“What kind of blood?” said Amanda.

“I don’t know,” he said, rather crestfallen. It was obvious he hadn’t thought about this new development carefully. “Drops.”

“How many?”

“I didn’t count them.” He shrugged. “Ten maybe?” His observation skills definitely needed improvement.

“We need to go look,” said Ivy.

“There’s no time,” said Amphora. “We already missed breakfast and now we’re about to miss lunch. I’m going to keel over from hunger.”

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Let’s eat. The blood will wait.”

They hurried to the dining room, where the only choice left seemed to be prawn sandwiches and stewed tomatoes. It really was true what they said about English food, Amanda thought. The dishes were not the most appetizing. But she was starving and so were the other girls. Simon was now onto some other subject—Formula One racing or some such—and failed to notice that no one was listening. They were all too hungry to care, and rushed besides. Their next class was in ten minutes.

“I’ll just take Nigel outside and meet you at logic class,” said Ivy.

“Okay. Sorry we’re so rushed,” said Amanda, stroking Nigel. He really was a sweet dog. She wished her parents had let her have a pet. Even a tiny little dog would have done, but they’d refused, even when she pleaded with them and promised to take care of everything herself.

She looked down and saw hair all over the floor. Oh well. That was the price you paid for love.

 

 

The logic class was taught by an energetic young man, Professor Ducey. He wore large black-rimmed glasses and sported a crew cut, and bore an uncanny resemblance to the rocker Buddy Holly. Amanda knew about Buddy Holly because her grandparents were big fans of fifties music and they were always playing his records. For some reason she thought Professor Ducey looked like a surfer, even though he didn’t have a “bushy bushy blond hairdo” like the Beach Boys, another of her grandparents’ favorites.

“In this class you will learn how to build a case,” said Professor Ducey, looking way more pleasant than either Professor Stegelmeyer or Sidebotham. “Deduction, inference, and abductive reasoning will be our tools. By the time you’ve completed this introductory course, you will be able to call all your suspects together in the drawing room and get the murderer to admit his crime. Ha ha ha!” He rapped the table and enjoyed his own joke. Amanda couldn’t decide if he was a lunatic or endearing. No, she knew. He was both.

“In building a case, you must research all the elements of the crime and keep your mind open. You do not want to jump to conclusions. Gather your evidence first and be as thorough as possible. Of course you will learn to do this in your other classes. Then you begin to put together the puzzle. One thing you must do is distinguish truth from the appearance of truth, so you will need to be skeptical. Doubt everything until you can prove it to your satisfaction.”

“Professor,” said a voice in the back. Amanda turned to look. It was Nick. “Isn’t abduction an invalid form of logic?”

Whoa. Good looking, creative, nice, and brainiac too. Amanda turned back to the teacher, eager to hear his answer, even though she had no idea what abduction was. It sounded like a made-up word.

“Not invalid, Mr. Muffet, but tricky,” said Professor Ducey bounding around the room. He seemed to know Nick’s name already. Amanda wondered if he magically knew hers as well. “With abductive reasoning, you are looking not only for a logical conclusion, but the best logical conclusion. As with inductive reasoning, you make a conclusion based on information you have. However with inductive reasoning, you reach but one conclusion, which may or may not be valid. With abductive reasoning, you are looking at more than one conclusion that may or may not be valid and attempting to select the best one. Phew. That was confusing.” He laughed again.

Amanda liked a person who could poke fun at himself but she had no idea what he’d just said. She stared at him blankly, then turned to look at Ivy, who was sitting there with her mouth hanging open.

“For example,” continued Professor Ducey, smiling, “let’s say you have eight suspects, all of whom have motive and opportunity. However only one of them is in a desperate situation that would have caused him to snap. With abductive reasoning, you would consider him most likely to have committed the crime. You see?”

“But isn’t that a bit simplistic, Professor?” said Nick in a way that wasn’t smug at all.

“Why do you say that, Mr. Muffet?” Professor Ducey looked interested.

“Because a person who engages in careful planning is just as likely to commit a crime as someone who’s impulsive.”

“Ah, that is possible. It depends on the nature of the crime, doesn’t it? I didn’t specify, and Mr. Muffet was correct to call me on that. A murder committed as a result of momentary passion is not the same as a calculated attempt to take possession of a victim’s money, for example. Both types of suspects may be desperate, but one is more organized than the other. I’m glad we had this discussion in our first class because it demonstrates how important it is to look at all the information, not just pick and choose that which supports your thesis. Nicely done, Mr. Muffet.”

Nick sat back with a grin on his face. Amanda couldn’t help thinking that if it had been that Wiffle kid, the grin would have been obnoxious, but on Nick it had a touch of humility about it.

“Now for your first homework assignment, I want you to do the following puzzles in your textbook: Kakuro; Shinro; Fox, goose, and bag of beans; Stained glass; Monkey and banana; Balance puzzle; Sudoku numbers 8, 12, 23, 37, and 246.”

Wow, who knew that logic was going to be fun? Amanda loved doing Sudoku, nonograms, and logic mazes. And Professor Ducey was so cool! This class would be a blast, except all that stuff about adhesives, er, abductive reasoning, was really confusing. Still, she was already looking forward to the next session.

 

 

After class, Amanda, Amphora, Ivy, Nigel, and Simon met up and headed for the east door. Amanda was sure that this so-called blood Simon had seen was either not blood at all or was drippings from some meat in a leaky package. But she figured she may as well tag along.

Simon opened the door for the girls and Nigel, and they all stepped out onto the stone walk outside the east common room, which was Holmes House’s stomping grounds. “There,” he said, pointing to an imaginary spot.

“There’s nothing there,” said Amphora giving a cursory glance.

“No, there isn’t,” said Amanda, looking more closely.

“Of course there is. It was only an hour ago,” said Simon, kneeling down and crawling all over the area.

“Nigel isn’t sniffing anything,” said Ivy. “Although if it was old blood he wouldn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” said Simon. There was a lot of blood.” He looked really let down, as if no one had shown up to his birthday party.

“Now it’s a lot of blood?” said Amphora. “A little while ago it was ten drops.”

“Ten drops, twenty drops, two drops, I don’t know,” said Simon. “It was just blood.”

“Well, it isn’t now,” said Amphora folding her arms in a Stegelmeyer sort of way.

“No, it isn’t,” said Simon, looking to see if he’d missed anything.

“You’re sure you really saw it?” said Amphora.

“Yes, of course I did,” said Simon. “I’m not delusional.”

Amanda didn’t want to mention that he should have taken a picture of the blood, although she was pretty sure she would have. She was starting to get the feeling that Simon didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself, even though he sometimes acted like he did.

“You don’t seem delusional,” she said.

“I’m not,” said Simon.

“We’d better go back in,” said Ivy. “It’s freezing, and there’s no blood.”

“Guess so,” said Simon. “I really did think . . .”

 

 

At dinner that night, everyone was agog with talk of all the new experiences they’d had, and the fact that a girl had already been expelled and a teacher lost. The food was much, much better than it had been at lunch, and everyone at Amanda’s table was in high spirits.

A plain, beaky girl with limp dark hair was sitting on the far side of Ivy. “I think it’s bad luck about that girl and that teacher,” she said to no one in particular. “You just wait. Bad things come in threes.”

“Ha ha ha,” said Simon. “You’ve got to be kidding. There’s no such thing as bad luck. Or good luck, for that matter. Luck is a human construct.”

“Is not,” said the girl. “My mum taught me—”

“Your mum,” said Simon. “You believe everything your mum says?”

“Yes, actually I do. Why shouldn’t I? She’s older than me. More experienced.”

“You’re pretty gullible, aren’t you?” said Simon with a bit too much relish.

“Why are you being so mean to her?” Amanda blurted out. Did I say that?

Everyone stopped eating and looked at her.

“I mean . . .” she said.

“She’s right,” said Ivy, removing her glasses and affecting an icy stare. Despite her blindness, it was most effective. Amanda made a mental note to watch out when Ivy took her glasses off. “Why are you being so mean to her?”

“I’m not being mean,” said Simon. “She has to face the truth. That’s what this school is all about. Fooling yourself isn’t going to get you anywhere.” He speared three string beans.

Suddenly Nick was there. “She does need to learn, but you don’t have to be so confrontational about it,” he said looking straight at Simon.

“Mfglb,” said Simon in mid-bite.

“Now then,” said Nick, flashing that smile of his. “Are we all friends? What’s your name, darling?”

“Editta,” said the girl, going all gooey.

“Well, now, Editta,” said Nick, “if anyone ever gives you any trouble around here, you come to me. I’ll sort them out.”

The girl was speechless. Red-faced, she looked down at her lap. Nick grinned, winked at Amanda, and walked away.

“Pretty full of himself, isn’t he?” said Amphora, watching him leave the room.

“I’ll say,” said Simon, sticking more beans in his mouth and chewing loudly. “Who does he think he is?”

“He’s an actor,” said Amanda without thinking.

“What?” All four faces turned to her.

“I mean, he acts nice to me,” said Amanda.

“I thought you said . . .” said Ivy.

“That he was an actor,” said Simon.

“Oh no, I didn’t say that,” stammered Amanda. “Why would I say that? No, I said he acts nice. That’s all.”

Simon gave her a skeptical look.

“What’s for dessert?” said Amanda, looking over at one of the huge sideboards that lined the dining room. “I’m dying for chocolate.” Maybe the prospect of sweets would distract them from her blunder.

“Me too,” said Ivy.

“And look. Chocolate cake,” said Amphora, who’d already helped herself to the largest piece and dug in before the others had even got theirs.

Amanda had been waiting for this ever since she’d left L.A. and her mouth was watering. She cut a large chunk off her wedge and chomped down. “Mfglb,” she said. “It’s sort of good but it tastes a bit, I don’t know, cardboardy.”

“Tastes fine to me,” said Simon. “You Americans put too much sugar in things.”

“No, she’s right,” said Ivy, chewing. “It’s a little bland. Oh well. You know how school food is.”

“You mean it’s going to be like this all the time?” said Amanda. If this place didn’t have proper sweets she’d die.

“We’re resourceful,” said Amphora. “Let’s go into town and get some real chocolate.” She started to push her chair back.

“You’re not supposed to leave campus,” said Simon.

“Maybe we can bribe someone to get something for us,” said Ivy brightly.

“We can try,” said Amanda. “This will never do.” She put her fork down and pushed her plate away.

“You’ll get over it,” said Simon.

Amanda wanted to hit him.

Chapter 7

The Monster Mash

The next morning, the thing Amanda had been dreading more than anything finally happened. Two older girls cornered her outside the dining room and blocked her path.

“You’re Amanda Lester,” said one of them, a stunning blonde who was obviously used to getting a lot of attention.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Nice to—”

“You’re descended from that idiot, Lestrade.”

“Hey—”

“You’re a loser. You don’t belong here.” The girl lifted her chin high, turned her head, and half closed her eyes. The pose made her look like a goose. The two girls broke into such laughter that a couple of boys came over to see what was going on.

“She’s descended from Inspector Lestrade,” said the mean girl.

Now the boys were laughing and pointing. “Lestrade! Ha ha ha! What’s your IQ, ten?” said the shorter one, who looked about seven. “And you’re American. Knock it down to five.”

“Who died and made you so great?” said Amanda to the four students, who were now in hysterics. “Shut up!” she screamed, attracting the attention of one of the teachers, who strode over to the group.

“What’s going on here?” said a rumpled, rotund professor with jet-black hair. He was so large that the students had to pull aside to make way for him.

“Nothing, Professor Mukherjee,” said the taller boy.

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me,” said the teacher. He had a lilting Indian accent that made him sound poetic, but there wasn’t a shred of sympathy on his face.

The mean kids glared at Amanda, who was caught between wanting to gloat and burst into tears. She chose gloating and smiled ever so slightly. But she wasn’t about to tattle.

Finally the quiet mean girl spoke. “Uh, we were just introducing ourselves, Professor.”

“Oh, you were, were you?” said Professor Mukherjee. “It looks to me like it was more than that.”

The students stared at the floor.

“Very well,” said the teacher. “You’re all going to detention. If I don’t see you there at 3:00 you will be put on probation. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” they said in unison.

“Good. See you then, and whatever you were doing, stop it,” he said, and waddled away.

When the teacher had departed, the four mean kids glared at Amanda as if the whole thing were her fault, then turned and walked away. Amanda was left standing there shaking. Now everyone knew, not just the people in her evidence class, and they’d make her life intolerable. How could her parents have done this to her? She vowed to put an end to this misery. If anyone said one word about Lestrade again she’d get her revenge. Oh, how she’d get it.

“What’s going on?” said Ivy from behind her.

Amanda whirled around and debated for about a second. Ivy obviously knew she was a Lestrade, but Amanda didn’t know if that bothered her. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course I can,” said Ivy. “I’m a detective.”

Her friend was already thinking of herself as a detective. And Amanda had really started to like her. Now she wondered if they could be friends after all.

“You’re a nice person, Ivy,” said Amanda, backpedaling, “but I don’t think I’m ready to talk about this.”

“No problem,” said Ivy. “I’ll be here when you are. Oh dear. We’re going to be late to our first dead bodies class.”

Amanda had to laugh. The real name of the class was Introductory Pathology, but everyone referred to it as “dead bodies.” It was so much more appropriate.

 

 

Thank goodness the pathology class didn’t meet in an autopsy room. It hadn’t occurred to Amanda that she might be subject to such a horror until she looked at her schedule, and then she panicked. Morgues were gross, and even when she learned about the school it hadn’t dawned on her that she’d have to have anything to do with them. So the fact that the class met in a regular classroom was quite a relief, at least until the teacher, Professor Hoxby, a morbid older man with purplish skin who would have been perfect in a horror movie, spoke.

“Students, this week and next we will meet here, but the week after we will convene at the autopsy room. I will give you complete instructions in a few days. For now I want you to get into the spirit of the class by reading chapters one through seven in your text, The Complete Handbook of Autopsy Practice, Featuring 1200 Color Images, Twelfth Edition, by the time we next meet. This should take you through images one through sixty. I must tell you that this is a particularly excellent edition because it now covers tonsils in great detail, as well as amputations.”

Amanda felt like she was going to throw up again, and looked at the seat in front of her to make sure there were no coats there. Professor Hoxby was practically glowing a sort of metallic purple now. He was really into this stuff.

“I also want you to pay special attention to the chapter on little known facts about dissection,” he continued. “This is a particularly insightful addition that will help you greatly in your work.”

Now everyone was gagging, even the boys. Amanda wondered how often people threw up in Professor Hoxby’s classes. He didn’t seem to care that he was making people sick. In fact he seemed to be relishing doing so. The whole idea of going to the detectives’ school made Amanda ill, but she’d never expected the reality of the situation to be so nauseating.

Suddenly the boy next to her heaved all over his desk. The vomit dripped all over his pants and the floor, but fortunately it didn’t travel in her direction.

“Splendid!” said Professor Hoxby. “Now you will get a lesson in specimen acquisition. You there next to the boy who vomited. Come up here and get a sterile plastic bag and scoop. Chop chop. Yes, I mean you.” He was gesturing toward Amanda.

Surely he was kidding. The poor boy had just hurled. The whole class was on the verge of joining him. And the teacher wanted her to collect the barf?

She could feel herself beginning to gag. And then it was too late. She joined the boy, vomiting all over herself in an effort to avoid hitting anyone else. Twice now her sensitive stomach had embarrassed her. She felt like such a baby.

And then, suddenly, the whole class was throwing up. It would have been amazing to have captured the sound effects, even if Amanda wasn’t crazy about horror movies, because they were among the best she’d ever heard. Wait! She could do it. Wiping her hands on the clean portion of her skirt, she reached into her bag and turned on the recorder on her phone. Good. She hadn’t missed it. People were still vomiting and she was capturing authentic noises she could contribute to that open source sound library she liked to use. Now that she thought of it, there might be other opportunities for capturing sound effects at the school.

Amanda looked around the room and beamed. She was getting excited.

 

 

After their observation and evidence classes, no one felt like eating and most of the kids skipped lunch, which gave them a free hour. Amanda took the opportunity to back up her precious recording, Ivy took Nigel out, Amphora washed her hair, and Simon put his fedora away to keep it safe. Not that there was much chance of someone vomiting on his head, but after the incident during orientation and now this, he was getting a bit paranoid.

Next was disguise class, which was taught on the top floor overlooking the beautiful east side of campus. As the students entered, Amanda gasped. The room was full of colorful costumes, props, and makeup, all shining like a movie premiere. This was going to be great!

The other students were oohing and aaahing as well. There seemed to be something there for everyone: sparkling ball gowns, shining armor, fake mustaches and beards, rubber faces, film-grade knives and pistols, Nehru jackets, basketballs, and more. If you could think of it, it was there, and the kids were drooling, even Ivy, who somehow could sense the objects even though she couldn’t see them.

A striking sixtyish woman with short gray hair and oversized glasses entered the classroom and smiled. She oozed fashion. “Please take your seats,” she said. When the students had found chairs she continued.

“I know this is an exciting class, but you must take it very seriously. Disguises are not all fun and games. It is absolutely critical that you get them right and that they be undetectable, not like in the movies where you can always cover up flaws with lens filters and post-production gimmicks.” Amanda felt herself stiffening. She hoped this teacher wouldn’t be anti-film.

“I am Professor Tumble and I should know. I worked in the film industry for many years.” That Glassina Tumble? The fashion genius who had clothed all the stars from Marilyn Monroe to Scarlett Johansson? Amanda had had no idea she was a detective. Why would she leave the industry to come here? Obviously she wasn’t anti-film. She’d won several Oscars for her work. Why would she say such a thing?

Amphora raised her hand. “Yes?” said Professor Tumble.

“I loved the work you did on ‘Scarves.’”

“I’m sorry, dear. You’ll have to speak up. I’m a little deaf.”

“I say I loved the work you did on ‘Scarves,’” yelled Amphora.

“Thank you, dear. But that life is behind me. Let’s move on.” Amanda was stunned. Why would she leave, and why would she act almost as if her contribution to film didn’t exist?

“Now, you must realize that this class isn’t a party. I am going to work you very hard, and by the time we’re finished you will appreciate how difficult disguise is. I’m warning you now, because a lot of students come here with the idea that this class will be easy. It won’t. It will be the most difficult class you have, and I’ll tell you why. You will have to fool not only the enemy, but also facial and gait recognition software, and those programs are becoming more sophisticated all the time. You have to be smarter than they are, and I’m going to show you how.”

As if, thought Amanda. It couldn’t be harder than the dead bodies class. Or logic. She wasn’t that good with logic, despite her interest in puzzles. She was creative, and creative people worked on the other side of the brain. That was why this class would be easy for her, even if it wasn’t for the others, software notwithstanding. She was absolutely sure she knew all the little nuances of faces, clothes, hair, gestures, the whole character thing. She’d ace it.

“The next thing I want you to understand,” said Professor Tumble, “is that you won’t be the only ones using disguises. The criminals you pursue will employ them as well.”

There it was again. Criminals. Amanda wished everyone would stop talking about them.

“Some of them will be poor at the use of disguises, but others will be so adept that unless you learn to recognize a disguise you won’t be able to tell. This will be a great disadvantage to you in your work, so it’s imperative that you become so familiar with the techniques that you can always tell. Again, this isn’t the theater or the film industry. This is real life.”

She could say what she liked, thought Amanda. She wasn’t going to become a detective. She’d never meet a criminal, and it didn’t matter whether their disguises were good or not. All that mattered was fooling an audience. The class would be helpful to her, though, because she would improve her costuming and makeup skills, and she was excited to be working with a great like Miss Tumble.

She looked around and was surprised to find that everyone was nodding. They were falling for this stuff! Of course they were. They all wanted to be detectives. They were probably looking at this teacher as some sort of detectives’ idol rather than the film genius she was. It was sad. As usual, no one could see the truth but her. Even though she had started to make friends, sort of, she was still alone and always would be.

Well, if that was the case, she was going to make the best of it. She would take this opportunity to work on her film stuff. And so, during the workshop part of the class, she went to the makeup cupboard and selected an array of blue, green, purple, red, yellow, orange, brown, and black grease paint, then sat down at one of the lighted mirrors mounted on a long table at the back of the classroom that had phrases like “What is Morse’s first name?” and “Lovely jubbly” carved into it.

She opened the jar of blue makeup and stuck her fingers into the paste. Ah, nice and gushy, but not too much so. She wouldn’t have expected any less from Glassina Tumble. She rolled the paint around on her fingertips, coating them evenly, then reached up to her face and made a stroke right down the middle. The color was electric—perfect. She dipped again and drew lines on her cheeks, down the outside of the bridge of her nose, under the eyes, and then down in a circular motion until each cheek was covered with swirls. Then she extended the inside of each circle toward her chin and made another round motion, similarly covering the lower part of her face.

She sat back and looked in the mirror. Except for her forehead, which she hadn’t done, she looked like Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night,” with its swirly dark blue night sky. All she needed was a few dabs of yellow and she’d be almost indistinguishable from the famous work. But imitating Van Gogh was not her intention.

Simon caught sight of her and said, “What are you doing? Disguising yourself as a clown?”

“Hush,” she said. “You’ll see.”

She wiped her hand with a rag, then dipped into the green jar and added highlights to the blue.

“I get it,” he said. “You’re a dinosaur. Cool!” He reached for one of the jars.

“Be quiet,” she said, slapping his hand away. “I don’t want to draw attention to myself.”

“Then why are you doing that? And that hurt,” he said, sucking his fingers where she’d hit him.

“Because I want to. Leave me alone.”

“Not on your life. I want to see how this turns out. How about—”

Amanda glared at him, causing him to draw back, and returned to her palette. She worked quickly now, using the purple to create further accents, then adding touches of brown, and finally, ringing her eyes and mouth with black. She sat back and admired herself. She’d done a very professional job, but of course, she’d practiced a lot. Theatrical makeup was the one thing the stick dogs were really good at.

“Perfecto,” said Simon. “You’re a monster! Wanna do me?”

“Oh, all right. Come here.”

She pulled Simon’s face into the light and started drawing on it with red and orange. He kept trying to look in the mirror, and she kept pulling his face back toward her so she could see what she was doing.

“Hang on. I need some yellow.”

“Ow. You’re pinching my cheeks,” Simon said.

“Tough. This is show biz. Now hold still.”

She painted, poked, and prodded until Simon was quite a ghoul himself. She opened the wig cupboard and chose a frightful black appliance for herself and a red one for Simon. The hair was dry and tangled, as if it hadn’t been washed or combed for weeks. When she put the black one on, a girl who caught a glimpse of her started screaming. And then things really started to happen.

The next thing she knew the whole class was howling, some of the students in mock fear, others in delight. One student after another ran to the makeup cupboard and slathered fright makeup on his or her face, screaming all the while. Soon a piercing ululation was emanating from the room, causing Professor Kindseth, the diminutive, thirtyish forensic photography teacher, to stop and peek in. He looked like he didn’t know whether to admonish the students or join them. After about ten seconds, he lifted the camera he always carried and started snapping away, although whether in fun or as proof of misbehavior, Amanda couldn’t tell.

Following his lead, many of the students took out their phones and started to shoot video as they danced around and pretended to be zombies, monsters, and all manner of creatures. Professor Tumble, being hard of hearing, didn’t notice anything untoward at first. After thirty seconds of chaos, however, she shouted, “Children, quiet down,” but no one paid any attention. Finally she threw up her hands and joined them, slathering her own face with silver and gold and sticking diamond-like shiny things to it. The whole room looked like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

Suddenly, Professor Mukherjee, the very same teacher who had reprimanded the mean kids, was there booming, “Silence!” whereupon the room fell quiet at once. Even Professor Tumble, who actually seemed to hear him, stopped singing that song from “Sweeney Todd” she’d begun.

“You, there,” said Professor Mukherjee, addressing Amanda. “Vomit girl. Did you start this? Professor Tumble, are you quite all right?”

Amanda looked like a gazelle who’d just run into a hungry lion. Professor Tumble’s hearing suddenly seemed to have got worse, for she just stood there looking at Professor Mukherjee with a silly smile on her face.

“She didn’t do anything, sir,” said Simon. “It was my fault.” Amanda couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Simon Binkle was voluntarily taking the blame. She mentally took back every bad thing she’d thought about the goofy-looking boy.

“Surely not, young man,” said Professor Mukherjee. “This girl is a disease vector. Now look, students. You treat Professor Tumble with respect. I don’t want to hear another sound coming from this room. Work on your disguises quietly and have some dignity. A professional detective works strategically. Never let your emotions get the better of you. Now carry on.”

As she watched the legal issues teacher go, Amanda realized that Professor Kindseth and his camera had disappeared.

Chapter 8

The Class Project

Although she hated to admit it, after the first few weeks Amanda was starting to acclimate to everything at Legatum except the actual climate, which was abysmal. England was colder than her relationship with her parents, which she’d thought was about as frigid as anything could be. Sometimes it snowed and the landscape took on a kind of desolate beauty, which impressed her when her teeth weren’t chattering. Despite her ability to appreciate the cinematic possibilities of this new environment, she was so uncomfortable that she wore her parka much of the time, even in class, which elicited derision from the other students, who, she thought, had probably never even seen a real beach.

And then on Friday the first of February, something happened that shocked her.

She, Amphora, and Simon were talking in the first-floor hall, where the décor guys had installed shelves full of animal skeletons and prehistoric tools, when the dreaded subject of ancestry came up again. Amphora had said that Professor Tumble was descended from a distant relative of an extremely famous detective and Simon had gotten a weird look on his face.

“What? I suppose you’re going to tell me that that doesn’t qualify her,” said Amphora. “Just because the relative is distant?”

“No. I wouldn’t say anything like that,” said Simon miserably.

“What then? Why are you looking like that?”

“Looking like what?”

“Like a sheep that’s lost its cud,” said Amphora making a chewing face.

“You’re not very nice, you know that?” said Simon, straightening up as if trying to dominate her.

I’m not very nice,” she said. “You’re the one who pounced on Editta about the luck thing.” She stretched her body upwards in competition. They were now the same height, although Amphora was teetering on her tiptoes and Simon’s feet were firmly planted.

“Hey, keep your voices down,” said Amanda. Sure enough some kids had stopped to stare at them.

Simon lowered his voice and moved in closer, which caused him to lose an inch or two. “I didn’t pounce. Superstition has no place in detection.”

“You did. You were right mean to her,” said Amphora, flattening her feet and trying to talk quietly, which made her words sound fuzzy and sibilant at the same time.

“Was not.”

“Were so.”

“Was not.”

“Cut that out,” said Amanda. “Now you’re both being mean. I can’t stand it.” She clenched her fists and screwed up her face. “And by the way, you were just mirroring each other with that height thing, which means you’re secretly in love.”

“Am not,” said Simon.

“I’m not either,” said Amphora.

“Shut up!” yelled Amanda. She studied Simon’s face and then it hit her. Something was really bothering him.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” she whispered, herding the little group into a corner.

“Look,” he said. “If I tell you, neither of you can ever say anything. Swear?” He looked at them hard.

“We swear,” said both girls.

He leaned in close. “Okay. Listen, then. I might not be a real detective.”

“What?!” they said in unison, causing several students passing by to turn and look.

“Shhh,” he said. “I might not belong here.”

“What do you mean?” said Amanda.

“You know how you were just talking about Professor Tumble being too distant a relative? My situation is even worse than that.”

“No,” said Amphora, who was once again shorter than Simon, if not by much.

He looked around to see if anyone was within earshot. “Yes. I’m on probation because my relative is a bit of an iffy connection. She’s sort of a relative by marriage. The stepdaughter of a second cousin of my mother’s.”

“You what?” said Amphora, stepping back as if hit by a dart.

“You heard right. Thrillkill let me in on the condition that I prove myself. If I don’t ace this first term, I’m out.” He looked so unhappy that Amanda wanted to pet him.

“Oh, brother,” she said. “That isn’t good. But do you really think they’ll care?” It seemed like a really stupid reason to expel someone. He was obviously qualified and seemed to care deeply about the profession.

“Yes, they will, so please, don’t tell anyone because they’ll try to sabotage me. You know what the competition around here is like.”

“What a stupid school,” said Amanda. She couldn’t believe people could be so petty. “Who cares who you’re related to? Everything should be based on merit. What is it with you Brits anyway?”

“It’s not a British thing,” said Simon. “It’s a detective thing.” He pulled at his cowlick.

“I’m so sorry,” said Amphora, moving back into the little huddle. “I didn’t mean to be mean. I didn’t know.”

“I know,” said Simon. “Just please don’t tell anyone.”

“We won’t,” said Amphora.

“No, of course not,” said Amanda.

“Good. Thank you,” said Simon, turning to go into the gents’.

“Do you believe this?” said Amphora when he’d gone.

“I’m as shocked as you are,” said Amanda. “I had no idea they could do this to people, or that Simon was in this position. Boy, he’s on thin ice, isn’t he?” She balled her fist and leaned her chin on it. She didn’t know him well, or even like him that much, but she wanted to do something to help him. Still, since he wasn’t actually in trouble that seemed rather pointless.

“Ha ha!” said Amphora. “Sure, if he goes outside.” Amanda was glad to see Amphora joking. Sometimes she got so prickly.

“Very droll.” Actually, it was, but she didn’t want to inflate Amphora’s ego. She was already difficult enough.

“Yes, I suppose that wasn’t very sympathetic.”

“He’s so smart,” said Amanda. “He’d be a great detective. How could they throw him out?” Her blood was beginning to boil. “We need to help him.”

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do. And anyway, everything’s fine. What are you worrying about?”

“I don’t know. These detectives are hard-hearted. It’s like they’re not even people.”

“I guess they have to be like that,” said Amphora. “They have a tough life.” She was probably right, but Amanda didn’t like the implications.

 

 

The following Monday, the entire class was called together for an assembly in the same room in which the orientation had been held. The rain was coming down in buckets, creating a racket on the roof. Amanda was nervous about returning to the scene of her crime and the noise didn’t help, but she forgot her qualms when Ivy pulled her aside and whispered, “I know what this is about.”

“You do?” If anyone did, it was Ivy. She seemed to know everything. Amanda hoped she had good news.

“Yes. The class project.”

“What class project?” Why did Ivy always know about things she didn’t?

“You know, the one they give us that takes the whole term. A mystery we have to solve.”

“Do we get to pick the mystery?” said Amanda. “Maybe we can look for more blood on the walk.” She wriggled in her seat trying to get comfortable. Her parka was thick and for some reason it wouldn’t smooth out.

“No. They give you a mystery,” said Ivy. “When my sister was a first-year they had a poisoning.” Ah, her sister. Now there was a good source of information. No wonder Ivy knew so much.

“A real poisoning?” Poisonings, teachers disappearing. This place was really dangerous. Amanda wondered how many people had died at Legatum.

“No. It was a mock poisoning but it was very realistic. She got a good mark on it but it was grueling. They act like you have no other homework, and it takes a lot of work.”

“So your sister went here too?” said Amanda. Imagine having two detectives in the family. Well, more obviously, because most of the parents were detectives too, but still . . .”

“Actually, she still does. She’s in her fifth year. One more to go.”

“What’s her name?”

“Fern. She looks just like me. Except for being blind, of course.”

“Fern, Ivy. What’s your mom’s name? Rose?”

“Ha ha, very funny. No, her name is Zelda, if you must know. If you want to see a picture, take my phone—here—and go to the photo section.” She pulled out her phone and pushed it at Amanda, who thought it was a little strange for a blind girl to have a photo collection.

“Ah, I see,” she said, thumbing and flicking. They were a handsome group, all tiny except for Ivy’s father, who was normal-sized.

“What’s your mum’s name?” said Ivy.

Argh. That was the last thing she wanted to discuss. “Um, Lila.”

“Wait a minute. Lila Lester? Are you kidding me?”

“No.” Here it comes.

“Lila Lester the mystery writer?”

“Yes.” She was used to this. As soon as people found out that her mother was Lila Lester the famous mystery writer, they started gushing. It made her sick.

“I love her stuff!” Ivy sounded like one of those old cartoons where the girl held her hands together between her knees, wriggled her shoulders, and said, “My hero.”

“That makes one of us,” Amanda said without thinking.

“You don’t like your mum’s books?”

“Nope.”

Ivy’s face fell. “Whyever not?”

Amanda hesitated. Anything she said would make her seem like a bad daughter. She opted for evasion.

“It’s a long story.”

“Some other time then.” She looked crushed.

“Some other time.” Amanda touched her hand as if to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to burst your bubble. I really want to apologize for not being able to tell you the truth because I like you, but I still think my mother’s books are stupid, and by the way, so is she.”

“Gosh, I can’t imagine someone not liking Lila Lester,” Ivy said shaking her head.

“Can we just hear the announcement now?”

“Sure. Let’s see what they’re going to say.”

 

 

Amanda insisted on sitting as far away from the scene of her incident as possible, which meant that they ended up in the first row. She didn’t like being so close—it made you conspicuous and people on the stage could spit on you if they got too enthusiastic—but the good thing was that she couldn’t see any of the other students except the ones to either side. Of course if she threw up again for any reason, everyone would see, whereas if she were in the back no one would, unless they turned around.

While she was contemplating the optimum seating arrangement, Headmaster Thrillkill, Professor Stegelmeyer, and Professor Scribbish took the stage.

“Hm ummm,” Thrillkill cleared his throat. The hubbub stopped instantly. “Good morning, class,” he said. “We are here today to tell you about your term project, which will take place under the supervision of Professors Stegelmeyer and Scribbish.” The two teachers looked out at the class sternly. The mood seemed way more serious than the occasion warranted and Amanda was tempted to laugh. She looked over at Ivy, who looked like she too was stifling the giggles.

“The project will count for half of your grade. You may work with others but you must turn in your own report, which will be due the last day of school. The report will comprise at least a hundred pages and is to include images documenting the crime scene, evidence, suspects, and any locations you deem important. You will upload your report to the Legatum intranet. You will also present your findings at a special assembly that day. The four houses—Holmes, Father Brown, Dupin, and Van Helden—will compete against each other. The winning house will enjoy special privileges next term, including a custom tour of London. We encourage teamwork, but if you are found copying someone else’s work you will be summarily expelled. Legatum has a zero tolerance cheating policy.”

Boy, this was something. A hundred pages? The only time Amanda had ever written a hundred pages was when she’d created screenplays, and those had tons of white space. This report sounded way harder, although she did like the idea of having special privileges if her house won, which she was sure it would. With her, Ivy, Amphora, Simon, and Nick working at it, they couldn’t fail. Fortunately the Wiffle kid was in another house—Van Helden, she thought. She wouldn’t want to have to depend on him.

“I want to make it clear that while this is a mock crime, you should take it extremely seriously. Everything has been set up for you just as it would be if it were real. You will be expected to use all the skills you’ve learned in your classes in order to solve the mystery. You will have access to the crime lab between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Under no circumstances are you to be in the lab outside those hours.”

Not a problem. Amanda had no intention of being at the lab at 3:00 in the morning. Why would he think anyone would want to do that?

“You will not hoard evidence. You must make available to the other students anything you find in the state in which you find it. You will also follow standard crime scene investigation procedures so as to protect the evidence. If you accidentally damage evidence, you must log the details on the intranet.

“We will not tell you what the crime is. You will know it when you see it. It will be your job, however, to ascertain its scope, deduce why it was committed, and identify the culprit or culprits. We are here to answer general questions but we will not comment on specifics of the case. If you want to know anything that has to do with school rules and policies, we will help you. If you run out of supplies, we are here to help. We will also direct you to sources that may assist you with topics that are covered in your classes. But we will not answer questions about personnel or evidence, and we will not help you in the lab. You are detectives. You will solve the crime. Are there any questions? Yes, Mr. Muffet.” He looked at Nick, who was holding his hand up.

“Professor, does it matter how you arrive at your conclusions as long as you’re correct?”

“We expect you to show your work. We will decide on the merit of the methods. We heavily discourage guesswork, for example.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Other questions? Miss Halpin, please come see me this afternoon to discuss your special requirements.” He peered over his glasses at Ivy.

“Yes, Professor.” Ivy would have a hard time providing images. Amanda couldn’t imagine how she’d solve the mystery but she didn’t seem to be worrying about it.

Thrillkill turned to leave the stage. “You are dismissed. Good luck, everyone.”

Chapter 9

Pink Powder

After the assembly the first-year students were abuzz. A real mystery so soon? It was exciting but a little scary. What was really frightening was the idea of such a long paper amounting to half their grade. An almost palpable wave of anxiety traveled through the group, with virtually all the students expressing doubt that they could ever produce that much, even if they included lots of pictures.

Simon raised an interesting question at lunch. “Do you think those noises and the blood have anything to do with the project?”

Amanda, Ivy, and Amphora stopped eating and looked at him as if he’d just announced the arrival of space aliens.

“That never occurred to me,” said Ivy. “Do you think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Amphora. “Thrillkill said we’d know for sure, and I don’t. I mean for one thing, I never saw any blood.” She played with the condensation on her glass.

“Yeah,” said Amanda. “None of us did except you, Simon.”

“And I never heard any noises,” said Simon.

“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” said Amanda, stabbing some peas. “I did see something else.”

“Oh?” said Ivy. “What was that?”

Amanda proceeded to tell them about the glinting light and the mysterious shape she’d seen while taking Nigel out that second day.

“I don’t think it’s part of the project,” said Amphora, chewing on a piece of wheat bread, which she’d slathered with butter. “No one else saw it.”

“True,” said Simon, eyeing the peas suspiciously. “But consider this. It might have been a test run. Maybe the teachers were practicing to make sure they got it right.”

“Yes,” said Ivy, “but how could they be sure we’d see that stuff from inside the building? They’d have to do it when they knew we were outside.” She stuck her glass next to Nigel’s face and let him drink from it. Amanda was amazed that she would do such a thing in the dining room, even if Nigel was a guide dog. She got up and went for a fresh glass.

“They could do it during breaks,” said Amphora, when Amanda had returned.

“Yes!” said Simon. “They could. We should be on the lookout. Better yet, let’s go look for clues.” He was testing a pea now.

“I don’t think there will be any yet,” said Amanda. “Anyway they said we’d know. We shouldn’t have to go looking.”

“Come on, where’s your spirit?” said Simon. “We’ve got some time right now.” He dropped the pea and pushed away from the table.

“Nah,” said Amanda. “I want to start working on my disguise ideas.”

“Me too,” said Amphora. “That monster makeup was fun, wasn’t it? Maybe we can come up with something just as cool.”

“Nigel and I will go with you, Simon,” said Ivy, leaning down to give her dog a kiss.

“Brilliant! Come on,” Simon said, taking Ivy’s arm and heading off toward the east door.

When they’d gone, Amanda said, “Let’s go to the kitchen and see if we can sneak something delicious. I’m having sugar withdrawal.”

“Me too,” said Amphora. “You’re on.”

You weren’t supposed to go into the kitchen without a good reason. It was a school rule and the cook was very strict about it. But both girls were craving sugar so badly that they didn’t care, so they snuck off to see if there were any easy pickings.

They didn’t have much time. They’d have to be in class in a few minutes. As they approached they saw the cook in the hall talking to her assistant, a petite, dark-haired woman who obviously wasn’t happy about something. Good. The cook wasn’t paying attention to the other people around her. This would be easy. They opened the door quietly and tiptoed in.

The woman certainly was fastidious. The huge kitchen gleamed like the Taj Mahal on a sunny day. Gigantic iron pots were sitting on the stove, steaming, boiling, and sizzling away, and fresh, colorful vegetables that bore faint resemblance to the peas at lunch were laid out on the massive wooden cutting board in the center of the room. At the far end was a refrigerator the size of a semi-trailer.

“There,” said Amphora, pointing. “Let’s try the fridge.”

“You got it,” said Amanda, tippy-toeing toward the behemoth. “Hey, wait a minute. There’s the pantry. Maybe there are some cookies in there.”

“Cookies?” said Amphora. “Oh, biscuits. Right.”

“Biscuits? I don’t want a biscuit. I want something sweet,” said Amanda.

“Biscuits are sweet,” hissed Amphora.

“No they’re not,” said Amanda. “I want cookies.”

Continuing to argue, the two girls entered the gigantic pantry, which was lined with shelves and cubbies of assorted shapes and sizes. It felt very homey, and Amanda thought that if she were stuck there for a week she wouldn’t mind at all.

“There!” they both said at once, running toward a shelf full of cookies of every variety—chocolate, vanilla, coconut, raisin, jam-in-the-center, marshmallow, sprinkle-topped—smashing into each other in the process.

“I thought you said you wanted biscuits,” said Amanda.

“These are biscuits,” said Amphora, grabbing a box.

“No, they’re cookies,” said Amanda, attempting to wrest it away from her.

“Uh uh,” said Amphora, grabbing back. “Biscuits.”

“Wait a minute,” said Amanda, letting her have the box. “You think these are biscuits?”

“They are biscuits.”

“Oooooh, I get it. That’s what you guys call cookies. To us, biscuits are dinner rolls. Or breakfast rolls.”

“Really? How peculiar.” Amanda wasn’t sure if Amphora meant interesting peculiar or get-it-away-from-me peculiar.

“Okay, what do you call that?” said Amanda pointing at some boxes of spaghetti. She was sure English people had some exotic name for the pasta but she couldn’t imagine what.

“Spaghetti. What do you call it?”

“Spaghetti. How about that?” She pointed to another box that said “Tea” on it.

“Tea.”

“Tea. And that?” A brightly colored can.

“Mushy peas.”

“Mushy peas? Eeeeeeew.” Amanda looked at the picture on the can. It was a huge green splat that looked like the creature from the black lagoon.

“Why, what do you call them?”

“I don’t,” said Amanda, sticking her finger down her throat. How could anyone eat something with the word “mushy” in the name?

“They’re really quite good,” said Amphora, admiring the can. “You should try them sometime.”

“Ugh,” said Amanda. “They look like you-know-what.”

The girls burst into laughter.

“Say, look at that,” said Amanda, bending down to examine some pink powder on the floor.

“Hm, that’s weird,” said Amphora, peering down at the stuff.

“It’s pink. It’s nice.”

“Don’t touch it!” yelled Amphora, grabbing at Amanda’s arm. “It’s probably rat poison!”

“Rat poison in a pantry? I don’t think so.” Amanda shook off Amphora’s hand and reached closer.

“No, really. Don’t touch it. Come on, let’s go. We’re going to get into trouble.”

“Oh, all right,” said Amanda. “But I’m coming back later. I want to see what that is. It’s really pretty.” It was. It looked like cotton candy that had dried and shattered into tiny bits of confetti.

“Okay,” said Amphora. “You go back later. Got the biscuits?”

“They’re in my bag,” said Amanda, gripping the place where she’d stuck the cookies. “Let’s roll. Er, biscuit. No, roll.”

 

 

Sitting next to Nick in the crime lab the next day, Amanda had an idea.

“What would you do if you discovered a substance you wanted to analyze but you thought it might be dangerous?” she said, drawing imaginary shapes on the lab bench with one hand and twirling her long, bushy hair with the other.

“I guess I’d ask Professor Stegelmeyer for help,” he said, following her artistic efforts with his eyes.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said, stopping what she was doing. The twisted hair fell but refused to join the rest.

“You’ve found something? What is it?” He looked eager.

“I’m not sure,” she said, still looking down at the table. “It’s just interesting. Probably nothing, though.” She looked up, saw him watching her, and quickly looked away.

“Tell me,” he said flashing that amazing grin, which she could see out of the corner of her eye.

“Nah, it’s not important.”

“Sure it is. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be talking about it.”

That made sense. She wondered if Professor Ducey would agree. “Maybe you’re right. But if I tell you, you can’t mention this to anyone.”

“Of course not.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” He held up his hand and made himself look very serious.

“Okay.” Amanda bent over and cupped her hand to his ear. “There’s something weird in the cook’s pantry.”

“Weird how?” said Nick, talking to the lab table.

“First of all, it’s on the floor, and the rest of the kitchen is really clean, so I don’t think it’s supposed to be there,” she said, uncupping.

“Oh, well, that’s probably nothing. I’m sure the cook will clean it up. Anyone can spill something.” He ran his hand over the beaker in front of him.

“No. I don’t think so. It doesn’t look like a normal ingredient.”

“Why not? What does a normal ingredient look like?” He looked over at a glass-fronted cabinet filled with various liquids. “Like those?”

“No. It’s this pink powder,” she said.

“Pink?”

She knew it sounded frivolous. She hoped he’d take her seriously. “Pink. Powder.”

“I’m sure there are ingredients like that.” She could see that she was going to have a hard time convincing him.

“Name one.”

“Uh . . .”

She couldn’t think of any either. “Want to go see? I’ll bet you there aren’t any.” She started to get up.

“I suppose it could be some kind of cleaner.”

“I don’t think it is. There’s no cleaner in the pantry. Only food.” She sat back down.

“Maybe the cook’s assistant was cleaning in there and left some residue. I think you’re getting a bit carried away, to be honest.”

Was she? Wasn’t everything at Legatum significant?

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe this is part of the class project. Do you think so?”

“So that’s what you’re thinking. I suppose it could be, but since the kitchen is off limits it isn’t likely. They said it would be obvious, and if you can’t go someplace it isn’t obvious, is it?” He really had a logical mind. She wished she’d thought of that.

“You’re right. What was I thinking?” She slumped in her chair.

“Look, if it would make you feel any better, I’ll go there with you and we can grab a sample.”

“You’d go against the rules like that?”

“Sure. You did. Rules are made to be broken,” he said, grinning.

“You don’t think it’s rat poison and we’ll kill ourselves, do you?” Legatum could make you really paranoid. On the other hand, she’d known of cases back home that were just that weird and didn’t want to take any chances.

“No one would put rat poison in a pantry. At least not here. Can you imagine what the parents would do if someone got sick from rat poison in the kitchen?”

“Good point.”

“We’ll go later.” She knew he was humoring her but she didn’t care. Maybe they’d find something. You never knew.

“Okay. Thank you.”

 

 

But the day got away from them and they didn’t make it to the pantry. However at dinner, Simon and Ivy presented the results of their own investigation.

“Nothing,” said Simon, looking disappointed.

“Nothing?” said Amanda.

“Not a thing,” said Ivy. “No blood, no noises, no mysterious figures. Nothing.”

“We looked pretty thoroughly,” said Simon.

“It can’t be helped,” said Amphora. “Obviously these things come and go. You can’t expect to catch them at exactly the right moment.” It was a sensible approach and Amanda mentally applauded her.

“I do think there’s something to find, though,” said Simon.

“Maybe you’re just imagining that ordinary stuff is clues,” said Amanda. “Now that we know about the project, we’re looking at things differently.”

“Could be,” said Ivy. “It’s confusing, though.” Amanda was surprised to hear her say that. Ivy always seemed so sure about things.

“That’s what we’re supposed to be learning, isn’t it?” said Amanda. “How to evaluate a clue?” Where did that come from? She’d found a little bit of pink powder and now she was all detective-y?

“You’re right,” said Simon, removing his glasses and polishing them with a napkin, then looking through them to make sure they were clean. They weren’t. He huffed on them and repeated the procedure. “We need to know more before we can do this properly. But I’m still going to keep my eyes open. Good things come to the observant.”

“Where did you hear that one?” said Amphora.

“From Simon Binkle,” he said, grinning like a hyena.

 

 

As the girls lay in bed that night, Amanda and Amphora told Ivy about the pink powder. Amanda didn’t say anything about Nick though. For some reason she didn’t like talking about him. She wasn’t sure if it was because she wanted to keep him to herself, which was impossible so why try, or that she was afraid someone might say something bad about him, which she couldn’t bear. She felt like the pink thing was their secret, even though Amphora had been with her when she’d discovered the potential clue, and even though Ivy knew about it now. She’d never felt this way before and it was so illogical it bugged her.

At last everyone fell asleep. Nigel was snoring softly and the girls were warm and toasty under their quilts. And then at precisely 3:12 in the morning, there came the loudest noise Amanda had ever heard.

Chapter 10

Amanda the Spy

The blast that ripped through the school woke everyone even before the windows had stopped rattling. The girls sat bolt upright in bed, and Nigel, who never barked, started howling at the top of his lungs. Within about five seconds, loud sounds echoed in the hall as girls screamed, ran out of their rooms, and slammed doors.

Amanda reached for her light and switched it on. She could see that Amphora and Ivy were shaking, but at first glance it didn’t appear that anything had fallen or broken.

“What was that!” yelled Amphora, clutching her covers.

“I don’t know,” screamed Ivy, holding Nigel, who was shaking as hard as she was.

Amanda couldn’t speak.

“Are you okay?” said Ivy, her voice cracking.

“I don’t know,” said Amanda at last. She was shivering. “Are you?”

“I don’t know. Amphora?”

“I don’t know. What time is it? Was that an earthquake? Are we awake?”

“Is Nigel okay?” said Amanda. “Yes, we’re awake. Earthquakes don’t behave like that, I don’t think. They go on and on. Nothing’s moving now.”

“He seems okay,” said Ivy. “Can you look for me?”

“Sure,” said Amanda, grateful for something to do. Forgetting how cold it was, she threw off her covers. The frigid air hit her like a shock wave and she ran to get her robe, which wasn’t nearly as warm as her parka but would do. Then she wriggled over to Ivy’s bed and put her hands on the dog, who was shaking so hard the whole bed was making clomping sounds. “Hold still,” she said. “Let me take a look.” She felt all over and examined as much as she could. There was no blood and no bumps. “He looks okay to me. I think he’s just scared.”

“What’s going on out there?” said Amphora. “Something’s happening in the hall.”

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “I’ll go look.”

“No, don’t,” said Ivy, burying her head in her dog. “It might be dangerous.”

Suddenly there was a knock on their door. “Ivy, Amphora, Amanda,” came a voice. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Who is it?”

“Editta,” said the voice. “Can I come in?”

“Of course,” said Amphora, running to the door. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Editta, squeezing in through the tiny space Amphora was guarding. “Thank goodness. Nigel!” She ran to hug the dog. Then, “I told you that teacher dying was bad luck.”

“I don’t think he died,” Ivy said.

“Well, whatever it was. And that girl being expelled. It isn’t good,” said Editta.

“I don’t see how that has anything to do with this,” said Amanda, pulling her robe around her as tight as it would go.

“OMG,” said Amphora, slamming the door. “Do you think anyone was killed?”

“I have no idea,” said Amanda. “We’ve got to find out what happened.”

“I don’t want to know,” said Editta, sitting on Ivy’s bed and joining in the group hug with Nigel at the center.

“We have to,” said Amphora. “Otherwise we won’t know what to do.” She got back under her covers and pulled them around her shoulders.

“Look,” said Amanda. “You all stay here and I’ll go see what’s going on.” She fumbled for her shoes.

“No,” said Amphora. “You can’t go alone. I’m coming with you.” She went to the closet to get her own robe, which was way prettier than Amanda’s ratty old thing.

“Okay,” said Amanda. “I’ll get my flashlight just in case.”

“Torch,” said Amphora.

“Flashlight,” said Amanda.

“Whatever,” said Amphora.

 

 

Amanda rummaged in her drawer, looking for her flashlight. Then she grabbed Amphora’s hand and the two girls slowly ventured out into the hall. The lights were on and girls were running around in a panic. The matron, a round, red-haired woman named Mrs. Scarper, was trying to get them to stop, first by clucking to them, then by pleading, and finally by yelling. The yelling seemed to work. The girls stopped their hysterics and looked at her.

“Enough,” she said. “We’re all alive. No one appears to be hurt. The most important thing we can do is keep calm. Please go back into your rooms and stay there. Is that clear?”

The girls were happy to comply. Amanda didn’t know any of them very well but she could tell that most of them would never end up being detectives. Too flighty, too sloppy, too frivolous, too illogical. She felt a wave of pity wash over her. As if now were the time for that.

It was obviously going to be difficult to explore. Mrs. Scarper had a clear view of the hall and she wasn’t letting anyone pass. Amanda wasn’t sure what to do. It seemed that she could either give up and go back to her room, getting whatever news there was when someone brought it, or figure out how to bypass the matron and find out for herself.

She felt antsy. She hadn’t had a chance to work on her film, and she hadn’t been able to go back and see what was happening with the pink powder. It was time to do something of her own volition. She hadn’t realized it but she’d been feeling like a caged animal. She wasn’t used to being so restricted and she didn’t like it. She had to find a way out.

What were her options? She could find another route out of the dorm, create a distraction to get Mrs. Scarper out of the way, or contact one of the boys to see if they’d managed to get away. The last didn’t seem like a great idea. Even if they’d eluded their watchers, the boys probably wouldn’t have their phones with them. She wondered if there was another way out. The only thing she could think of was to climb out the window, but since her room was on the third floor and she hadn’t been bitten by a radioactive spider, that wasn’t practical.

The distraction idea seemed the most likely to work. All that would have to happen would be for the matron to go into someone’s room long enough for Amanda to get by and turn the corner. That didn’t seem too difficult. She could get Editta to call for Mrs. Scarper and make a dash for it while the woman was occupied.

She explained her idea to Amphora, who agreed to help. But when they turned around and looked in the direction of the stairs, Amanda’s hopes sank. The hall was now blocked not just by the matron, but also by Professors Also and Tumble, who had come to check on the girls. Amanda didn’t see how she was going to distract all three of them at once.

And then she had an idea. To say that it was the most ridiculous one she’d ever had would probably be correct, but Amanda was no stranger to ridiculous ideas. She would hide in plain sight. She took Amphora’s hand, ran back into her room, and threw open the closet door, knocking Amphora onto her bed. She grabbed her blue parka, dark woolen scarf, and black galoshes, all of which were exactly the same as everyone else’s, and within twenty seconds was out the door again.

She looked left, then right. Professors Tumble and Also were talking with some girls in the hall near the corner that led to the stairs. Mrs. Scarper must have been in one of the rooms. Bundling herself up so you could barely see her face, Amanda walked past the teachers and turned the corner. As she descended the stairs, she didn’t dare look back to see if they were coming after her. After a minute had passed without incident, she concluded that she’d pulled off the ruse and breathed a sigh of relief.

The hall downstairs was still dark. She crept along it toward the dining room. No one was around. They must have all been in the boys’ dormitory or the teachers’ quarters. Then a horrible thought struck her. What if those living areas had been bombed and people had died? She had to see. She didn’t know what she would do if it were true, but she had to know. Nick and Simon were there. She couldn’t bear it if anything happened to them. She paused for a moment as she realized that she actually cared enough about Simon to worry.

As she turned and tiptoed down the main hall she could hear a commotion coming from the front of the school. Something was going on outside. Carefully, so as to remain hidden, she hugged the walls, snuck into the main foyer, and cautiously peeked out. Someone had turned on the floodlights and she could see a bunch of people milling around the front grounds. But there was something worse. An ambulance! Someone was hurt, maybe dead! And then the obvious occurred to her: the school had been bombed.

Chapter 11

Explosion!

Bombed! Amanda didn’t know if she was more scared or outraged. She was terrified at the thought that someone might be dead, that there might be more bombs set to go off, and that she might be the next victim. On the other hand, how dare someone bomb her school? Who did they think they were anyway? Unless, of course, it was an accident. Maybe some gasoline exploded or something. Yes, that was it. Of course. She was being silly.

Where had the explosion occurred and who had been hurt? She had to know at once. She couldn’t go out the main door to look or she might be seen, so she left the foyer and made her way to the Van Helden House common room, which was located under the boys’ dorm. There she opened the much smaller and less conspicuous exterior door and ventured out.

Now she saw that it wasn’t an ambulance at all, but a fire engine, and there were several firemen with hoses aimed at the school’s garage, which had recently been built and was a rarity for UK public schools (which was what private schools were called over here, for some bizarre reason), but was deemed a necessary security measure at Legatum. Unfortunately the rarity was on fire. The flames were shooting high into the early morning sky, illuminating the school buildings, grounds, and woods beyond. The scene was very dramatic.

If there was no ambulance, chances were that no one was hurt. That was a good thing. And if the damage was confined to the garage and its contents, everyone was safe. That was another good thing. But she was only guessing. If she was wrong she wouldn’t be able to warn people properly, so she had to be thorough. She re-entered the building and snuck into the Legal Issues classroom, which gave her better cover and a clearer view.

Headmaster Thrillkill and Professors Stegelmeyer, Scribbish, and Ducey were all outside waving their arms and shouting directions at the firemen, who did not look amused. Thrillkill seemed to be holding a hair dryer, which Amanda thought particularly odd. But what really stood out was Professor Bill Pickle, the textual analysis teacher. Amanda had heard the older students describe him as an annoying, Latin-spouting, bow tie-wearing, grammar-correcting ponce, whatever that was. He seemed to be moaning and wailing and wringing his hands. Could he have been injured? She couldn’t see how. He looked perfectly fine. There were no paramedics at the scene and no one was paying any attention to him. Perhaps something important to him had been damaged. Of course. His car.

Everyone knew about Professor Pickle’s car. You couldn’t get within a mile of the school and not hear about Professor Pickle’s car. It was a classic Triumph Roadster that he treated like a Michelangelo sculpture. You’d swear he polished the thing as if it were the Hubble Telescope mirror just so he could admire himself in its reflection and take selfies in its light. It was even said that the man sterilized the engine as if he were administering a high colonic. And he’d given it some sort of silly name. Gorky? Girly? No, Gherkin. It was definitely Gherkin. Well, of course. The man’s name was Pickle.

What was really neat about the car wasn’t all that flash though. It had a way cool rumble seat. Amanda had wanted to ride in a rumble seat ever since she’d read the early Nancy Drew books, in which the girl sleuth had driven a blue rumble-seated roadster. It was said that Professor Pickle took his car out for a long drive every Sunday wearing a jaunty cap and special driving gloves, with his golf clubs ensconced in the rumble seat.

Amanda didn’t know anything else about the man. The students didn’t take Textual Analysis until their third year, so she wouldn’t be in his class for quite some time. He did seem to cut a ridiculous figure, but she didn’t want to jump to any conclusions about him or his car. She should be methodical about this investigation and let the evidence speak for itself, just as Professor Scribbish had instructed.

Investigation? Yes, that was what it was now, wasn’t it? She was conducting an investigation. Well, if that was the case, she’d better do it right. Examine all the evidence, document everything carefully, and keep an open mind. Since there were too many people around and because she didn’t have her phone, she wouldn’t be able to do a proper job right now, but she could certainly come back later. Perhaps she could get Ivy and Amphora to accompany her.

Then it hit her. There was no way this could be the class project, was there? No, it couldn’t be. It was way too dangerous. The school would never put the students, teachers, staff, and property in danger like that, would they? The parents would never let them.

But what if it was the class project? They said it would be obvious, and it was certainly that. The explosion or whatever it was was way more likely to be the project than some pink dust. What could she have been thinking? Wow, if this was the kind of project they gave you at Legatum, maybe it was a good school. They didn’t fool around.

Amanda thought she’d better get away before one of the teachers saw her. It was a shame she didn’t have her phone so she could take pictures of the fire, but she wasn’t about to go back to her room to retrieve it. She’d never get out of there again. Anyway, she’d seen enough for now. She made detailed mental notes and started back. It was time to tell the others what was going on so they wouldn’t worry.

As she left the classroom, she heard a noise in the hall and jumped into an alcove, where there was a marble statue of the goddess Athena she hadn’t seen before. She scrunched herself up as much as she could and hugged the wall behind her. She could hear footsteps coming in her direction—slow and quiet, as if whoever it was didn’t want to be seen either. Slowly, slowly they approached until—

“OMG, what are you doing out here?” she said, leaping out of the niche. It was Nick. He was so surprised he almost fell over.

“Amanda! You scared me half to death. You too?”

“Mm hm. I wasn’t about to be left out of whatever’s going on.” She pulled her parka close around her to try to stop the shaking.

“Me either,” he said, rubbing his hands together. It was freezing in the hall. “So you know?”

“About the garage? Yes, I know.”

“The garage, yes, but the other thing too.”

“What other thing?” she said, hopping on one foot, which didn’t warm her at all.

He drew close to her and lowered his voice. “Professor Pickle is missing.”

Chapter 12

CUTTING CLASS

Amanda couldn’t believe her ears. The textual analysis teacher was missing? How could Professor Pickle have disappeared so fast? Surely Nick had misheard or mis-seen something.

“That’s impossible,” she said, stopping her hopping. “I just saw him. He was right there, screaming and carrying on.” She looked toward the garage. It was still bright outside. The yard lights were lit and the firemen had brought their own to supplement them. The glare penetrated the hall and lit up Amanda and Nick’s faces. She was so freaked out that for once she didn’t think about what kind of scene the light would be good for.

“I just heard Thrillkill say he’s missing,” Nick said, following her glance.

“I don’t see how. It’s not easy to prove a negative. Just because no one sees him doesn’t mean he’s missing. He must have gone back to his room or something.”

“Listen to you! You’re really doing well with your logic,” Nick said.

“Shut up. This is serious,” said Amanda, hopping again.

“I’m being serious. You cold?” He seemed completely unconcerned about the temperature, as if it were a balmy day at the beach.

“You see my point, right? And yes, I’m cold. How do you guys stand it?” Her teeth were chattering and her ears felt like they were going to fall off.

“I’m used to it. And yes, I see your point.”

“Are you sure Thrillkill said that Pickle is missing?”

“I’m sure. You want to ask him?” He grinned.

“Nooooooo. I don’t think that would be a good idea at all.” That was all she needed. Discovered AWOL in some dumb disguise. She’d be suspended for sure. So would Nick, for that matter.

He moved to the extreme left of the window and turned his head so he could see as far to the right as possible. “What do you think is happening?”

“I’m not sure. It looks like no one was hurt,” she said, standing on tiptoe for a better view.

“Because there’s no ambulance?”

He was right. She hadn’t noticed.

“Good point.” She sidled up next to him. Now she could see around the fire trucks. The men were still shooting water at the structure. Their hoses looked like boa constrictors. “It looks like there might have been some sort of explosion,” she said. “A fire by itself wouldn’t make such a big noise.”

“No. Not unless there were combustibles inside the garage. Like the gas tanks, for example.”

Combustibles. Now there was a word. It sounded so much fancier than its meaning, which gave her the creeps. “Good point. Maybe the explosion was a by-product.”

“Of course, it could have been a bomb,” said Nick, voicing her fears.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.” She shuddered. Suddenly the hall seemed deathly quiet, despite what was going on outside.

“Sorry. I had to. We have to consider every possibility.”

The orange light from outside seemed ghastly now. It made Nick look ghoulish. She wondered how she looked in it. “I know, but that’s just too awful to think about.”

“It is scary,” he said. “It means that someone is after us.” He looked her straight in the eye.

“What?” said Amanda too loudly.

“Think about it. If it was a bomb, someone had to set it. And why would they do that? To get to the school, or to someone in the school.”

“You mean criminals?”

“Yes, of course. Who else?”

“No one, I guess. I just don’t like the idea of criminals.”

Nick burst out laughing. “You’re a detective and you don’t like the idea of criminals?”

“Stop teasing me,” said Amanda. “This isn’t funny.”

“I’m sorry, but you have no idea how ridiculous that sounds,” he said, shaking his head and trying not to laugh.

“I know, I know. No one ever said we weren’t allowed to sound ridiculous,” she said, trying to get a good look at his expression.

“No,” he laughed openly. “No one ever did.”

 

 

Before Amanda returned to her room she stashed her parka, scarf, and galoshes in a supply cupboard and pretended she’d been in the dorm the whole time. No one but her roommates and Editta were the wiser, but they did press her for news. She told them everything she knew except the part about seeing Nick and what he’d said about Professor Pickle being missing. She didn’t want anyone to find out that Nick had been AWOL, and she didn’t think such a silly rumor as Pickle having disappeared bore repeating. At least that was what she told herself.

Ivy and Amphora were anxious to get out there and see for themselves. Editta wasn’t so sure.

“I still think it’s bad luck,” she said. “The farther we stay away from it the better off we’ll be.”

Amanda decided to put together a little investigation kit before going back to bed for the two hours left before their alarms would go off. She found a zippered bag she’d made in sewing class. In it she put plastic evidence bags, tweezers, cotton balls and swabs, string, rubber gloves, a nail scissors, a couple of ballpoint pens, a felt-tip marker, and a small notebook, as well as her charger. She could use her phone as a magnifier and light. Seeing what a smart idea this was, her roommates copied her, and after they had taken turns calming Nigel down they all went back to sleep.

By the time she awoke at 6:30 the dorm was bustling. Most of the girls hadn’t been able to get back to sleep and apparently had been speculating about what was going on. Owla Snizzle down the hall was saying she was sure half the school had been blown up and they were trying to figure out what to tell the parents. Her roommate, Positiva Flickover, said it was probably negligence and that there would be lots of lawsuits. Across the hall, Prudence Starshine was explaining why it absolutely had to be the work of anti-capitalist anarchists, and her roommate said that it was definitely the IRA.

Amanda didn’t know what to think. She knew that half the school had not been blown up, although she wasn’t sure if there had been damage to anything other than the garage. She had no idea if the explosion was an accident, although considering Professor Pickle’s disappearance, she didn’t see how it could be. If it wasn’t an accident, what was it? Foul play? By whom and for what purpose? The class project? It couldn’t be. What if someone had been killed? The teachers would never cook up a project that would kill people.

When she got to breakfast she learned the Professor Thrillkill had called a special assembly. There, after a hurried meal of a soft-boiled egg and a slurp of tea, she found that all the students, all the teachers, and some of the staff were present, and everyone was jabbering at once. Once again the headmaster cleared his throat and again everyone fell silent.

“You obviously know by now that there has been an explosion at Legatum,” he said. “First of all, let me reassure you that as far as we know there have been no casualties. I repeat: no one has been injured or killed.”

There was an audible sigh of relief. It was as if the whole room had relaxed.

“The explosion occurred in the school’s garage, which has been heavily damaged, along with just about everything in it. This is a terrible loss but we will recover. Yes, quite a few vehicles and their contents have been destroyed, but again, there has been no loss of life. For this we are very thankful.”

Amanda had been right. Professor Pickle’s treasured Roadster had probably been totaled. Did that have anything to do with his disappearance?

“We are most grateful to the Windermere Fire and Rescue Service for extinguishing the blaze in a speedy fashion. The school will be sending the department a generous gift and we encourage you to write notes of thanks. Please address them to Chief Fire Officer Iain Ducat.

“Your parents will be officially notified and reassured that everything is under control. There is no need to contact them. That is all.”

A hundred hands flew up. “Professor, is this the work of terrorists?” “Professor, is it true that one of the teachers is missing?” “Professor, are we still in danger?” “Professor, is this the class project?” Thrillkill peered over his glasses and simply said, “You are dismissed.”

Amphora turned to Amanda and said, “He’s hiding something. I’ll bet it was criminals.”

Ivy said, “No, it’s the class project. Look at how much he left out. He wants us to investigate.” She had a point. Unfortunately so did Amphora. It very well could have been criminals.

“I told you,” said Editta. “Bad things come in threes.”

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “I’m going to have to reserve judgment until we investigate, which we should do as soon as possible. Hey, want to cut class?” Did she actually say that? After she’d already gotten in trouble for being late? The explosion must have affected her brain.

“Definitely not,” said Editta. “Enough bad things have happened. That’s just tempting fate.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Ivy.

“Me too,” said Simon as he walked up to the little conclave.

“Amphora?” said Amanda.

“I can’t decide.”

“Come on. We have to know.”

“I don’t think so. I think I should cover for you.”

“Yes, good idea,” said Simon. “We need a beard.”

“I’ll say,” said Amphora. “Look at that peach fuzz.”

“Ha ha,” said Simon. “You wish. Look at this,” he said, pointing to the spot between his nose and mouth, which was absolutely smooth.

“Come on. We have no time to lose,” said Amanda. “Amphora, if you would cover for us we’d be very grateful. Editta, please don’t worry. It will be all right. Simon, there’s no hair there. Now let’s go.”

As they headed toward the garage, Amanda wondered if she should contact her parents. Maybe if they found out about the explosion they’d take her out of the school. If that happened, she could find out more from Ivy or Amphora, unless their parents took them out of the school too.

With everyone in class there was little chance of being seen, unless some of the staff were about. There were two things to worry about, though: being missed from her observation class—if no one noticed, they really weren’t observant, were they?—and the possibility that Thrillkill and/or the fire department was investigating the explosion at that very moment. She knew that the headmaster would not be happy to see three of his first-years cutting class, and she doubted the fire inspectors would welcome the intrusion.

But the group was in luck. When they got to the south door they could see that no one was hanging around. So much for Editta and her worrying. This was going to be easier than Amanda had expected.

Simon opened the door and followed the others out to the garage. Debris was everywhere: wood, plaster, pieces of metal from the cars, glass, various bits of plastic, and paper, not to mention a huge amount of dun-colored dust. The roof was half gone and the doors had been burned such that the idea of a lock was laughable. The smells of charred wood and gasoline mixed with the dust and assaulted the kids’ nostrils, irritating their sinuses so badly that they had to cover the bottoms of their faces with their scarves. Nigel seemed particularly agitated, but there was no way to protect his nose.

“Do you think it’s safe?” said Amanda.

“Absolutely,” said Simon, charging ahead. He stepped on a piece of wood and it made a clattering sound. “Ouch!” He lifted his foot and rubbed it.

“Really? Based on what?”

“Based on the fact that there’s no yellow tape around the garage and no keep out signs.”

“Ha ha,” said Ivy. “That’s quite an interesting conclusion. Good thing there weren’t any nails in that wood.”

“Oh, right,” said Simon. “You can tell without looking. Good show, Ivy.”

“Actually,” said Amanda, “he’s right. If this were a terrorist attack, they’d put tape around the outside. Thrillkill wants us to investigate. This is the class project!”

“You know, you might be right,” said Ivy. “Let’s think about it.” She started patting her leg, possibly in time to the wheels turning inside her head or the different drum she seemed to hear. In any case the motion seemed to help her think.

“Think about what?” said Nick, coming from nowhere.

“Ha ha,” laughed Amanda. “You too.”

“Me too what?”

“You’re cutting class too.”

“Of course. You didn’t think I was just going to sit there and listen to old Sidebotham ramble, did you?” He looked pleased with himself.

“No, of course not. The more the merrier,” said Amanda, motioning for him to join them. Simon gave her a dirty look. “Come on,” she said, ignoring him. “Let’s go inside.”

This was easier said than done. Nigel did not want to go any closer to the garage despite his guide dog training, and it wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway, given that there were sharp pieces of this and that all over the floor. The smell was overpowering and it was obvious that he was uncomfortable. No one knew quite what to do, so they stood there doing nothing for a couple of minutes.

Finally Ivy said, “You go. I’ll stay here with Nigel and listen.”

“Are you sure?” said Amanda reluctantly. “I can stay with him.” And miss all the fun, but she did like Ivy and was crazy about Nigel.

“I’m sure,” said Ivy.

Relieved but feeling slightly guilty, Amanda made for the largest opening. Smoke was still rising from the wood and she covered her face again. Simon and Nick followed, but once inside each went a different way.

Amanda was most interested in determining the explosion’s point of origin. She wasn’t sure how to do that but she thought she might be able to tell anyway. Maybe she’d find the remains of some device. She was just about to step farther inside when she heard Ivy call out. “Get out of there. Hurry!”

“Why?” yelled Simon, his voice echoing.

“Just do it!”

Amanda and Simon scrambled out of the garage, practically tripping over the rubble. There was a lot of crunching and clanging and the dust rose in a ghostly cloud around them.

“What’s up?” said Simon as they joined Ivy. He was covered with gray particles from head to toe, his glasses included. It was a wonder he could see out of them.

“It isn’t safe. Come on, Nick,” yelled Ivy frantically.

“What do you mean it isn’t safe?” said Amanda, who was as dusty as Simon and sneezing to prove it.

“The roof is going to fall in,” said Ivy. “Nick!”

“It seemed okay to me,” said Simon, who for some unknown reason wasn’t sneezing.

“No, I can hear it,” said Ivy. “It’s going to fall any second.”

“Eeeeeek!” yelled Amanda running back toward the opening. “Nick, get out of there!”

Suddenly there came a loud cracking sound, then a series of even louder cracks in slow motion, and Amanda could see the roof start to collapse on the east side of the garage.

“Niiiiiiiiiick!” she screamed, running inside.

“Amanda, no!” yelled Ivy.

As the roof fell in it kicked up so much dust that Amanda’s throat seized up and she could no longer call Nick’s name. She draped her scarf over her face and pressed on, keeping as far away from the east side as she could.

Suddenly Nigel raced past her like a shot. “Nigel, NO!” she tried to scream, but he had already disappeared into the depths of the garage where junk was still falling in.

Amanda didn’t know what to do. She could barely breathe, but she was so worried about Nick that she didn’t care. And now Nigel was probably dead too. Too. The word devastated her. She had already written Nick off as dead. What kind of a friend was she?

What kind of a detective was she? How could she jump to conclusions like that? Where was the proof? Nick would not be dead until there was no more doubt, and there was plenty of that. Nigel too. She brightened.

But she still couldn’t breathe, so she decided the best thing she could do was get out of the garage and wait. Waiting was the hardest thing. She’d never been good at it and she wasn’t sure she ever would be. No stakeouts for her, thank you very much. But now she had no choice. She’d just have to find a way to bear it.

Ivy was in hysterics. Simon was doing his best to comfort her, but he seemed to be having little effect. He was holding her, towering over her by a foot, and patting her hair. Amanda could hear him say, “It’s okay, it’s okay” over and over. She didn’t know what to do so she joined the group hug, holding on as tightly as she knew how.

It was her fault. She’d insisted on investigating, even though she knew she was breaking the rules. Not that she’d ever cared for rules of course, but maybe she should. If Nick and Nigel were dead . . .

Suddenly she saw Ivy stiffen. “They’re alive!” she screamed. “I can hear them in there!”

“Thank goodness,” said Amanda, letting go of her two friends and running toward the garage again. Then she heard it too—two voices hacking and coughing, one human, one canine, getting louder as they approached her. Suddenly Nigel appeared. He was so dark with soot that he looked like a black lab rather than a golden one, and his feet were bleeding. Following him was a bedraggled, equally sooty Nick, bending over as if in tremendous pain.

“Nick!” Amanda screamed, catching him just in time to stop him from crashing to the ground.

“Hello, luv,” he said. He sounded out of his mind.

“Don’t talk. Just lie still and breathe.”

“Look!” yelled Ivy. “Nigel’s okay. But his feet! He isn’t walking right. His steps don’t sound normal. Help, someone!”

The dog was running around shaking himself and rolling on his back. His natural color was starting to shine through, but he was limping. Simon pulled off his jacket and started tearing it into pieces, holding it under his foot and yanking with his hands.

“Nigel, sit still,” said Ivy. “Simon is going to help you.”

“You hear all that?” said Simon.

“Mais naturalment,” said Ivy. “Thank you, Simon.”

Nigel was very obedient and stood as still as he could considering that his feet were all torn up. Simon carefully lifted each one and wrapped it in a piece of his jacket, causing Nigel to lose his balance repeatedly. Then he stepped back to admire his handiwork.

“I say,” he said. “Maybe I should go into medical detecting. I seem to make a pretty good doctor. I’ll take him inside and wash his feet.”

“Why not?” said Ivy. “You seem to have a knack for it. Thank you, thank you. You really made a sacrifice for him, tearing up your jacket like that.”

She grabbed hold of Simon and planted a big kiss on the top of his dusty head, pulling him down so she could reach. Nigel just stood there with his tongue hanging out. He looked like he was smiling.

Nick must have been made of stern stuff too, because in the time it took Simon to dress Nigel’s feet he had caught his breath and was standing up brushing off his clothes.

“We thought we’d lost you,” said Amanda, tearing up.

“Me? You’ll have to try harder than that if you want to get rid of me,” Nick said smiling through the dust on his face.

“What happened in there?” said Ivy.

Then they heard a familiar voice. “What’s going on here? What are you children doing out of class?”

Thrillkill! This wasn’t good. All four of the scofflaws looked up. The man was carrying that hair dryer again. Amanda made a mental note to ask someone about that. It was downright weird.

“All of you, go to my office and wait for me there. NOW!”

Much the worse for wear, they toddled off to Thrillkill’s office. Suddenly Amanda realized what a risk Simon had taken. He was on probation, and now he might be expelled. What had she been thinking letting him cut class with her?

As they walked down the corridors to Thrillkill’s office, Amanda apologized about twelve times. Simon kept telling her that this wasn’t her fault, he’d wanted to go, but she couldn’t stop. Editta was right. There was bad luck all around this place. How could she spend the next six years of her life here?

When the headmaster entered his office, he ignored them and rummaged around in his file cabinet for a few minutes. At last he turned to glare at them, a thin file in his hand.

“Miss Lester, Miss Halpin, and Mr. Muffet, you are to do two weeks’ detention. If I catch you cutting class again you will be put on probation. Mr. Binkle, you are suspended for two weeks. You may stay here at the school but you will not attend classes. Or, if you prefer, you may go home for those two weeks and return at the end. You’re lucky I’m giving you a choice. You don’t deserve it.”

Although she knew Simon had crossed a line, Amanda thought this punishment was way beyond the seriousness of the crime, and she resented Thrillkill for his cruelty. He could do whatever he needed to without being so mean. This must have been the kind of thing he’d meant when he said there would be no coddling at Legatum.

Well, if he wanted it that way, he’d get it that way. If it was so hard and dangerous being a detective, she’d take on anything that came her way, no matter how difficult or threatening it might be. She’d be the best detective the school had ever seen, way better than Thrillkill. What was so great about him anyway? She’d heard he was a specialist in locked room mysteries, but who cared about those? They were as antiquated as the plots in her mother’s books, not that she’d actually read any of them. She’d be a modern detective, going head to head with criminals who were more clever, savvy, and lethal than any that had come before.

“Miss Lester, are you listening?” Her excursion into her own thoughts had blocked out Thrillkill’s voice. “I’ll thank you to pay attention. I was telling you and your friends that you never, EVER, just barge into a crime scene. You follow procedure so as not to taint the evidence. If this hasn’t been made clear to you in Professor Scribbish’s class, I want to know now. Has it?”

Of course it had, and Amanda had completely forgotten. She should have known even without the class. She had certainly seen enough procedurals on film. In all the excitement her brain had gone floppy. Apparently so had everyone else’s.

“No, sir,” she said. “It’s completely my fault. I forgot.” She looked down at her dusty feet.

“And the rest of you?”

“I take full responsibility,” said Nick. “I’m very sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t, Mr. Muffet,” said Thrillkill. It struck Amanda that his glasses were way cleaner than Simon’s at the best of times.

Amanda glanced at Nick and Ivy. They were both dutifully serious, but she thought she could see a hint of amusement in Nick’s eyes, and Ivy’s mouth showed just a wisp of a grin. Amanda was grateful to Nick for taking the blame, but how could they be so amused when Simon might be thrown out of school?

Then, after she had left Thrillkill’s office, it hit her. The man had never once taken them to task for investigating the explosion. All he seemed to care about was that they’d cut class to do it.

Chapter 13

A TICKING CLOCK

It was obvious now that the explosion was indeed the class project, or they would have been warned away. Amanda wondered at the faculty’s judgment. It seemed that blowing up a building with a bunch of cars in it was a pretty dangerous stunt. What if someone had been inside or nearby? In addition, how could they be sure the debris was safe to explore? In their haste, she, Simon, Ivy, and Nick hadn’t even considered the possibility that what was left of the roof might fall in or some beam dislodge and knock them on their heads. Nor had they followed crime scene investigation procedure. The evidence might be completely worthless by now.

To make matters worse, some of the other students had lodged a complaint against them. The Wiffle boy seemed to be the ringleader. Since that first day he’d harassed Amanda he hadn’t let up, but had seized every opportunity to give her grief, always staying on the right side of the rules so she couldn’t report him. Now he and his nasty little friends were claiming that Amanda and her friends had tainted the evidence and had convinced Thrillkill well enough that he’d sent them to detention.

Of course what they’d done had been beyond foolish. But now that it was over and they were okay, Amanda thought it was well worth the price because she’d discovered something no one else had seen. She hadn’t said anything to the others yet. She was turning her find around in her mind. But on their way out the door to the garage she had seen some pink powder, and on the way back it was gone.

She wondered if she should tell anyone. She wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to mention anything just yet. It might be something so trivial that they’d laugh at her, although no one had done that so far. But her primary reason for keeping the information to herself was that she wanted to be certain. If she was going to be a great detective, she’d better investigate more and sort things out properly before bringing them to others. No need to waste everyone’s time, and besides, that would be part of her job.

Of course the problem was that she didn’t know what she was looking for. The kids wouldn’t take the explosions and fires class until next term, so they had no background from which to work. Did Thrillkill really expect them to figure out where the explosion had come from cold like that? The man was infuriating. Unless . . . of course! The Internet. No, wait. Everyone would be looking there. She needed something better. An expert! She’d interview the firemen who’d come to the school. Or not. If anyone else thought of that, it wouldn’t be special and besides, were the firemen going to talk to all the kids individually?

And then it came to her. At first she was horrified when she realized she’d neglected to write back to Darius Plover and thank him for his help. Then she decided he was so nice he might understand how busy she’d been and not be mad at her. It was worth a shot. She’d do it right away, although she did feel a pang of guilt. If the teachers wouldn’t answer substantive questions about the project, was it fair to ask someone else? Of course it was! She was supposed to be resourceful. That’s what Thrillkill wanted. If she were a real detective she’d find stuff out any way she could. And she just happened to know an expert.

 

Dear Mr. Plover,

Thank you so much for your extremely helpful message. I am so sorry for the delay.

I have another question for you. I hope I’m not taking too much of your time, but your advice has been invaluable, and you are the world’s most respected action film director.

I am trying to find out about explosions. Don’t worry, I don’t want to create one. I would just like to know how to investigate one. Theoretically, of course. Just one teensy hint would be wonderful.

I don’t want to pry, but I would love to hear about what you’re working on if you want someone to talk to.

No, cross that out. What a dumb thing to say. Why would he want to talk to her about his work? Mmmm, how about this?

I would like to reciprocate for your kindness, so if you ever need—

Need what? What could she possibly give him that he didn’t have or couldn’t get from someone better?

Drumming her fingers on the desk, Amanda thought that maybe she should just close the letter and not try to be fancy. Then she got an idea.

I would like to reciprocate for your kindness, so if you ever need a tween’s perspective on your films, please do not hesitate to ask.

 

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Amanda Lester, Filmmaker.

 

It wasn’t Shakespeare but it would do. She hoped he’d answer quickly. On the other hand, what was she thinking? She had no reason to expect him to answer at all. She’d better look on the Internet. Everything was so unreliable there, but at least it would be a start. She’d do that as soon as she got out of detention.

When she got to class she looked over at Nick. What was he thinking about the explosion? He’d gotten the worst of it, getting caught in that smoky garage while the roof was falling down. He was lucky to be thinking at all. She was so glad nothing had happened to him.

Maybe she could help him. He looked like he needed it. Should she tell him about Darius Plover? Despite the fact that Ivy was almost her best friend at this point, she didn’t want to tell her. It was too personal. But Nick would appreciate it. He was a filmmaker just like her, and an actor to boot. Not that she was trying to impress him. That would be stupid. But a helping hand, that would be okay. He’d been so nice to her. Now she could reciprocate.

Suddenly she remembered what Ivy had said, that she could hear the difference between one part of the garage and another. What did she mean? Maybe they could get together and go over their findings, except that Amanda had no findings. Well, she’d better get some. It wasn’t fair to take advantage of Ivy like that. She’d contribute, and it would be something big.

Could there be a connection between the pink powder and the explosion? She didn’t see how, unless the pink powder was the explosive. Maybe there would be more pink powder in the garage. That was certainly something she could look for. Good. She had a plan.

When she saw Nick again later, he pulled her aside. “You look like you’re onto something,” he said.

“I believe I might be. Do you have some time to talk?”

“I’m all yours,” he said, making her blush. “Let’s go to the common room.”

 

 

The Holmes House common room was Amanda’s favorite place to hang out because it had a clear view of the back of the campus, which was beautiful even though some of the trees had no leaves and the lawn was still brown. Now she sank onto a hideous overstuffed green couch with pink flowers on it and curled her legs underneath her. Nick sat opposite in an equally atrocious bright yellow beanbag chair, settling in as if preparing to hear a long story.

A fire was crackling in the fireplace, and the clock, one of those old-fashioned school clocks that ticks every time the second hand moves, seemed louder than usual. Was it a new one? It sure looked like it. The school’s décor gremlins at work again, Amanda supposed. Sometimes she enjoyed the novelty of the constant change, and sometimes, like now, it was disorienting. There was a mood in the room that Amanda couldn’t describe—a creepy kind of silence that made her feel as if something terrible were about to happen.

“So,” Nick said. “You found something.”

“Actually, I didn’t. Not really.”

“Oh. I thought you said—”

“It’s not so much that I found something as that I have an appointment to find something.” She certainly wasn’t going to say “a date.”

“I see,” he said smiling. “An appointment, is it?”

“You laugh,” she said, “but I’ve got a plan. Don’t detectives always need a plan?”

“Indeed they do. Let’s hear it.” He looked eager. She liked the fact that he always seemed interested. It was inspiring to be listened to. Suddenly she felt that if she didn’t tell him her secret she’d die.

“Listen, the plan can wait. I want to tell you something.”

It was a risk opening up to him. She’d never done that before. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.

“Sure.”

She hesitated. “This is actually a secret,” she said, lowering her voice. “I’m only telling you because you’re a filmmaker.” She thought that maybe if she led into the topic slowly, there would be a chance to bail if things went south.

“I’m honored.”

No such luck. If she didn’t tell him now she’d look like a tease. “I’ve been corresponding with Darius Plover.” She waited for his reaction.

“The director.” Of course he knew who Darius Plover was. How could he not?

“Yes.”

“Brilliant! Tell me.”

He didn’t think she was an idiot! Or if he did, he was doing a good job of hiding his true feelings.

“It started when I wrote to ask him about something that had been bothering me for a while. I was worried that my actors would leave.” She felt her face go red. Her moviemaking failures were embarrassing. Maybe she shouldn’t have started this. The ticking of that darn clock was becoming louder.

“Ha ha!” laughed Nick. “I don’t see how that could happen. You’re wonderful with me.”

Oh, brother. Her face was red enough already. He probably thought she was in love with him by now.

“Thank you. Er, just theoretically, of course. I’ve never had a problem like that.” As if. “I just wanted to make contact with someone I admire.” That was sort of true. It was the main reason she’d written to the director in the first place. Asking about actors was just her cover story so she’d have something to say other than, “You’re my hero.”

“Of course. Say, do you have to be somewhere? You keep looking at the clock.”

She didn’t realize she had been. It was rude and she reddened more.

“No, I don’t have to go. It’s just so loud today for some reason. Is it bothering you?”

“No, but I can do something about it. Let me find something to stand on.” He looked around the room.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said. “I’m fine. Really.”

“Not at all,” said Nick, appropriating a wooden chair from the game table and dragging it over to the wall. “I’ll just . . .” He grabbed the clock and placed it down where he could look at it properly. “See?” he said, showing her the back. “There’s this little button. Oops. That didn’t work. It moved the minute hand forward. Hm.”

“You don’t have to do this. Why don’t you just put it back? I’ll be okay.”

“No. It’s bothering you and I’m going to do something about it. I just can’t find the control for the second hand.”

Suddenly he raised the clock above his head, threw it onto the floor, and stomped on it, shattering it into one huge piece and a bunch of smaller ones.

“What are you doing?” cried Amanda. Now they’d get into trouble again. How many infractions were you allowed before you were expelled?

“Fixing it,” said Nick.

“But you’ve broken it! Why did you do that?” She rushed to pick up the pieces.

“Only way,” he said, helping her.

“But it’s school property,” said Amanda.

“I’ll get them a new one,” he said.

“What if they find out?”

“They’ll never know who did it. Don’t worry. I’ll just get something to clean up this glass with. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Amanda couldn’t believe what she’d just seen. Nick didn’t care one iota if someone caught him. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. He was wonderful. If only she could be like that too.

He returned within about a minute with a whiskbroom and tray, and in another had cleaned up the mess entirely.

“Now there’s no clock in here,” Amanda said.

“No worries. I’ll just take one from some room no one ever goes in until I can get a new one.”

He was outrageous. She didn’t think she’d ever admired anyone more.

“So, as we were saying,” Nick said.

“Wha—?”

“Darius Plover. You were telling me about how you wrote to him.”

“Oh, right.” She’d completely forgotten about the director. “Uh, well, anyway, I really didn’t expect an answer, but he wrote back!” Her voice was too loud and she knew it.

“That’s wonderful! And he said . . .”

She hesitated, looking around to make sure no one was listening. “Basically he told me what I already knew.”

“Yes.”

“That a director shouldn’t micromanage.”

“Sounds like good advice,” he said.

“Mmmm. So, of course I wrote back to thank him, and . . .” It was probably best not to mention her question about becoming a filmmaker when your parents are against it. “He wrote back again!”

“Splendid!”

“Anyway, now that I have this correspondence going and he’s so nice, I thought maybe I could ask him some things about explosions.”

“One of the foremost action directors working today. Who better?”

“That’s what I thought. I only wrote to him today, of course. I don’t even know if he’ll answer. But I thought . . .” She didn’t know if this was bragging or exposing herself. “He’d be a completely different source from the ones everyone else would use.”

“Absolutely brilliant, Amanda!”

She felt her face go hot. This amazing boy thought she had done something brilliant. When she got to her room, she’d pinch herself to see if she was really awake. “Thank you. Well, as I said, he may not write back.”

“But you had nothing to lose by trying.”

“No, I guess not.”

“I think you’re an excellent detective. And, I suspect, a genius of a filmmaker.”

She didn’t even want to speculate on what shade of red her face was now. “I don’t think—”

“Now don’t be modest. I can tell about things.”

“You can, can’t you? I get the feeling that you know lots of things no one else here does.” Was she looking all melty? She hoped she wasn’t. Red and gooey. What an image. She wished she were wearing her monster makeup right now. Then he wouldn’t be able to see anything.

“Oh, I don’t think so. I’m no different to the other students.”

Of course he was. He wasn’t even the same species. Suddenly Amanda threw caution to the wind.

“Work with me,” she said, suddenly with no embarrassment whatsoever. She’d be fearless like him. No risk, no gain.

“Sorry?”

He hadn’t understood. She could still back out. Should she? No. He wanted her to do this. He’d just said as much. There might never be another chance like this.

“I’ve got a plan, and I really could use some help.”

“Sure. What do you have in mind?”

He said yes! He said yes! Let’s see what he says now. Here comes the part where I could lose him.

She hesitated. “I want to reenact the crime,” she said quietly.

His eyes lit up and a grin spread across his face. “Brilliant! I love it.”

Gosh, he was positive. Amanda grinned so hard her cheeks hurt. “Nicholas Muffet, you and I are going to make a film.”

Chapter 14

HOLMES PRODUCTIONS

The afternoon light was already beginning to fade. Amanda couldn’t believe how early it got dark in England. When she’d mentioned how surprised she was at dinner one night, Editta had told her that in the summer it didn’t get dark until 10:00. Now that sounded like fun.

“A film, you say?” said Nick without missing a beat. She had stuck her neck out by suggesting that they make a film together, and now he was questioning her? Maybe she wasn’t cut out for this risk-taking business after all. He probably thought she was a complete idiot. She’d done so many stupid things already. How could he think otherwise?

“Ye-e-e-s,” said Amanda tentatively. “I was, er, thinking that we could reenact the crime and document the whole thing. Then we’ll sift through the evidence, conduct interviews, and do some experiments. When we’re done we should have figured out who set off the explosion and why.”

“You are a genius!” he said.

Whoa. She hadn’t been expecting that. “Well, I don’t know about that.” Even if he liked the idea, which she hoped he did, it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. He was either the most enthusiastic boy in the universe or he was putting her on.

“No, you are. We can document everything that way, and when we’re done we can hold a performance. What a smashing project.” His smile was very broad, and he looked sincere.

“I’m glad you like the idea.” She still wasn’t convinced.

“We’ll need a protagonist,” he said, jumping up. “I think it should be you.” He looked down at her with such a fixed gaze that she squirmed.

“Oh no, I don’t think so.” Was this some English custom, being ultra-supportive? That didn’t sound right. She’d heard that English people were reserved. He certainly wasn’t. But then show business people were always different. That was probably it.

“We’ll see the investigation through your eyes. We’ll watch you sift through everything, follow your reasoning. It will be fantastic.”

“I suppose I could do that.” This was not exactly what she’d meant when she’d suggested making a film. She had to admit that the idea of creating a faux detective story was a good one, though. She’d been thinking of a documentary but this was much better, if only she didn’t have to play a detective.

“Yes, perfect. And I’ll be your Watson.” 

Wrong thing to say. Of course he wasn’t to know how she felt about Holmes and Watson. She frowned.

“Is something wrong?” Nick said, sitting next to her.

Nuts. Her face was an open book even when it wasn’t red, which she didn’t think it was now because it didn’t feel hot. She’d have to work on that.

“No, I’m fine.” She tried to smile, but she was sure he could see through her.

“You look upset. Did I say something?”

He searched her eyes and she knew she couldn’t hide anything from him no matter how hard she tried. Then he smiled, and his whole face lit up. Whatever he’d seen had intrigued him. If anyone would understand it was Nick Muffet.

“I need to tell you something,” she said. It’s something I’m very sensitive about.” 

“I won’t tell,” he said gently.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Okay, good.” She took a deep breath. “You know how I’m descended from G. Lestrade.”

“Yes.” 

“I hate him. I hate Sherlock Holmes. I hate Dr. Watson.” She watched for a reaction but she couldn’t read his face.

“Okay,” he said slowly.

“I was going to say that I hate Professor Moriarty too, but I’d be lying. I actually kind of admire him. He’s the only one who sees Holmes for what he really is and does something about it. Is that a terrible thing to say?”

“Why would it be terrible?”

He was still full of surprises. Everyone else would think she’d said something awful. Her parents would disown her.

“Because, everyone thinks Holmes is so wonderful, and they hate Moriarty because he’s the anti-Holmes, and also because they think he’s evil. But I think Moriarty is much more honest than Holmes. He believes in something. Holmes is just an egotistical, maladjusted drug addict. He’s a coward.”

Nick burst into laughter. “You don’t have strong opinions, do you?”

He was laughing when she was dead serious? “What’s so funny?”

“You are.”

“I don’t think I’m funny. How would you like people to know you’re descended from an idiot?”

Nick smiled. “Would it help if I said I agree with you?”

“What, you think I’m inferior because I’m descended from a moron?” She felt herself becoming defensive.

“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean I agree that Holmes is overrated.”

“Oh. Well, good.” She relaxed a bit but kept her guard up.

“Look, Amanda, we all have things we don’t like about ourselves or our families.” He took a rumpled packet of crackers from his coat pocket and offered her one.

“Thank you. Hey, these are good,” she said, munching. “I know, but it’s so humiliating and people won’t give it a rest. You weren’t there when that Wiffle kid was beating up on me, but trust me, he was merciless.”

“He’s a jerk. He’d better stay away from you or he’ll have me to deal with. I know it’s hard but you have to try to ignore it. They do that because they’re in pain.”

Amanda looked at him in amazement. There was no indication that any of the other kids were in pain, except Simon of course. Even Ivy, who couldn’t see, was always cheerful.

“My family bugs me sometimes,” he said. “You’ll meet them someday and see what they’re like. We all do the best we can.”

She pondered this for a moment. He was so extraordinary. He must have some family. Suddenly she was so curious she couldn’t stand it. “What are they like?”

“What are who like?” he said.

“Your family.”

“Nothing special. They don’t really practice the detective thing. They’re show business people. They send me here because they want me to have a better life than theirs.” He took out another packet of crackers and offered it to her.

She refused. “You’re kidding. But this is wonderful.”

“Why? They’re just small-time. Little parts, a bit of directing, crew gigs, some writing. Honestly, you shouldn’t get excited.”

“But I am. This is so cool. I want to meet them.”

“Really, they’re pretty ordinary.”

“But they’re in show business. How can they be ordinary? Film or stage?” She was talking faster now.

“Both. Mostly stage.”

“Royal Shakespeare?”

“No. Just regional work, but yes, some Shakespeare. They’re nice people. Enthusiastic, but they’ve never had much luck. Sometimes they get on my nerves and sometimes things are good. Nothing to write home about.” He bit into a cracker. The crumbs spilled onto his jacket and he brushed them away.

“I don’t believe you. Promise me I can meet them someday,” she said.

“All right, I promise. We’ll all go out for a curry.”

“I can’t wait.”

“I’m glad you’re excited. You look smashing that way,” he said.

“Er, thanks.” She was feeling very close to him right now but the embarrassment was returning. Which was it going to be, good feelings or bad? She felt like a yoyo. Still, she had to bring up the weird clues they’d found or the film wouldn’t work.

“Um, look, there’s something else I want to tell you about.”

He looked into her eyes and smiled. “What’s that?”

“I think I might have found something.”

“You mean a clue?” he said.

“I’m not sure. It might be nothing.”

He balled up the empty cellophane packet and stuck it in his pocket. “I’ll bet it’s not nothing.”

“Don’t be too sure. It’s kind of silly,” she said.

“Tell me. We’ll put it in the film.”

Amanda proceeded to tell Nick about the pink substance she’d found near the garage, the blood Simon had claimed to see, the glinting, and the shadowy figure she’d noticed when she was walking Nigel. She could almost see the wheels turning in his mind as he listened.

“Never doubt yourself,” he said. “These clues have to mean something.”

“I don’t know . . .”

“We gather the evidence—everything. We make no judgments. Everything goes into the mix, no matter how trivial it seems.”

“Yes, but—”

“This is perfect,” he said. “I know. Why don’t we set up a place in the film called Evidence Locker? We’ll put all these clues there. Perhaps we could even make the locker a Greek chorus.”

A Greek chorus! No one she knew had ever heard of a Greek chorus, that group of actors in old plays that commented on the action to give the audience background and perspective. But Nick had. Oh, he was wonderful.

“We’ll need a script,” she said. “Well, a plan, since we won’t know how the story will go yet. I’ll start working on that after I finish my paper on butlers.”

“Good,” he said. “I’ll do a little location scouting and we can meet up after dinner.”

“Great! See you then.”

“You know, Amanda,” he said as they were leaving, “we should come up with a name for our production company. Holmes Productions?” He gave her a wink.

She took a quick step toward him and started to chase him. “I’m going to get you, Nick Muffet,” she screamed, mock attacking him as the two of them collapsed laughing.

 

 

But Amanda wasn’t able to get to her script or her paper on butlers because she found another clue. As she was heading back to her room, she thought she’d try to sneak back into the pantry to see if the pink substance was still there. When she got to the kitchen no one was around, so she carefully opened the door and stepped in as quietly as she could. When she was halfway to the pantry she heard the door open and ducked behind the center island. The cook had entered the room and was punching her phone. Amanda crouched down as low as she could and held her breath.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” the cook whispered hoarsely. “I’ve got it under control. Yes, I know what will happen if—” She listened for a moment and then said, “I don’t know anything about that. That’s up to you.” Another pause. “I don’t bloody know, do I? You figure it out.”

Suddenly the woman threw her phone down and made a beeline for the pantry. Amanda couldn’t see inside, but she could hear a lot of banging and rustling. After about five minutes, during which her entire lower body went all tingly, she heard the cook emerge. She looked up and saw that the woman was pushing a cart piled high with bags of sugar and heading for the utility exit. It seemed odd. Why would she be taking full bags out the door? On the other hand, what was the big deal? She was probably catering a special event or something. Amanda wondered if she was getting carried away with the whole cloak and dagger thing. This detective business was making her paranoid.

But her curiosity was piqued, so she snuck back out of the kitchen and went out a side door to see if she could tell where the cook was going. Sure enough the woman was headed toward the extreme north side of the campus. There wasn’t anything much there though: the backs of the kitchen, dining room, Father Brown House common room, and the chapel/auditorium where the orientation had been held. What could she possibly want there?

Amanda realized she should be documenting this activity for her film, so she grabbed her camera and made to record the cook’s actions. She didn’t get much footage, though, because by the time she’d thought to turn on her camera the cook had disappeared.

With the cook on the move, the next logical step in Amanda’s investigation, because that was what it was now, was to follow her. She had to find out what was going on. Now she was caught though. She couldn’t afford to cut another class, but this might be the only opportunity she’d have to follow the sugar.

Simon! He wasn’t going to class now because of his suspension, and he was still on campus. Maybe he could follow the woman.

Amanda punched her phone and wrote out a text: “Urgent. Meet me outside kitchen utility door. NOW.”

The answer came at once: “OMW.”

Good old Simon. He could be annoying sometimes, but she’d underestimated him. He was smart, motivated, creative, and dependable. If he was thrown out of school, she didn’t know what she’d do.

Was there any possibility that the explosion and the cook’s furtive actions were related? It was likely. The teachers had devised the class project and the cook more or less worked for them. But what was the connection? An exploded garage and some stolen sugar? And what was that pink substance, and the blood Simon had seen? It was all quite puzzling.

When Simon arrived she didn’t have time to explain. “Just follow the cook and see where she takes the sugar,” she said.

“I take it this is part of the class project?” he said, trying to see where the cook had gone.

“Yes. Please. I can’t afford to cut another class.”

“Of course,” he said, and was off like a shot.

If only he would lose that stupid fedora.

Chapter 15

The Garage

“I lost her,” said Simon when Amanda saw him the next day.

“Sorry, what?” said Amanda, thinking she hadn’t heard right. She’d been hoping to find out where the cook was making off to. Knowing what she was up to, or at least where she was going, would have helped solve the mystery of the pink powder, the blood, and the other weird things they’d seen, if there was indeed a real mystery there.

“Lost the cook. So sorry,” he said glumly. “I saw her go down the north side of the building and turn left, but she disappeared before I could see where she went. Dashed weird.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Thanks for trying.”

“No problemo. I can try again.”

“Of course.” If the cook ever did anything suspicious again, but if she was involved in something weird, even nefarious, which was probably going way too far, no doubt she would.

“I’m going to keep an eye out,” he said.

“How are you holding up?” she asked. It had only been a day since Simon’s suspension, but she could see that it was already hard on him, especially since his status was so uncertain.

“I’m okay. It’s not a lot of fun eating in my room, but they didn’t take my computer away. I’ve been playing games. Want to play with me?”

“Sure. I can manage a quick game or two. It will go by fast, though.” The thought of playing social games with Simon quite buoyed her spirits.

“Yes, I’m sure it will. I’ve got about a dozen games going at the same time. Barely notice the time that way.” His face belied his words. He was miserable and he wasn’t fooling anyone.

 

 

When Amanda met up with Nick in the common room, she told him what she’d seen and explained that Simon hadn’t been able to find the cook. The room had been set up to resemble an ocean liner, complete with steamer trunks, wooden deck chairs in a variety of bright colors, and a shuffleboard court. She was starting to wonder about the décor gremlins’ taste, but since the point of the constant change was to help the students hone their powers of observation, she supposed whatever they did served its purpose, even if it could be aesthetically questionable.

“That’s strange,” Nick said. “Do you suppose there’s some kind of surprise planned? Some half-term party or something?” He was sitting on the largest trunk, which sported a huge Bahamas sticker.

“I suppose there could be,” she said, selecting a smaller one with a patch from Singapore. “Ouch! This thing bit me. Wait a minute. I just realized something.”

“What’s that?” he said, crossing his legs and assuming a lotus pose.

“The cook is getting rid of sugar, right? And the desserts have been tasting bland.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“You’re not a sugar freak. I am, and I’ve noticed that they taste pretty awful, so I haven’t been eating them much.”

“I can tell,” he said. “You look thinner.”

She stopped just as she was about to say that he was lucky he didn’t like sweets and blurted out, “I do?”

“Yes. You’re looking quite svelte,” he said, eyeing her up and down.

He was putting her on, but actually, she had noticed that her clothes were a bit looser. OMG!

“Er, thank you. But let’s think about this. No sugar, bland desserts. This third-year student, Olivia—I talked to her at dinner one night—tells me that this isn’t the norm around here. Not that school food is ever exactly gourmet, but she said that the desserts used to be much sweeter.”

“Really?” he said. “Now that’s useful information.”

“Yes. So that means the cook has recently started doing something with the sugar.” Then something dawned on her. “Wait a minute. Do you think this is the class project?”

“I don’t see how,” he said. “Everyone is convinced that the explosion is the project.” He got up and picked up a shuffleboard paddle.

“It does seem obvious, doesn’t it? But what if they’re testing us to see if we can tell the difference between a real and a fake project, or, OMG! What if the sugar is the project and the explosion was real?”

He thought for a few seconds. “I don’t know, Amanda, but we should document this for the film.” He placed a disk in front of the paddle and shoved. It was a perfect shot.

“Yes, of course. I’ll turn on the camera. Do you mind repeating this conversation?” she said.

He put down the racket. “I’m an actor. We can redo scenes forty or fifty times. Hundreds, if necessary.” There was that grin again. Would there ever come a time when it didn’t melt her?

“Silly me. My mind is so muddled I’m forgetting obvious things.”

“It’s happening to all of us. Let’s redo the conversation.” He straightened himself up, swept his hand over his face, and looked like a whole new person.

 

 

When Amanda returned to her room, Ivy and Amphora were agog with news. It seemed that Nigel had found an interesting area of the garage, at least to him, but when Amphora had gone to look there had been nothing there.

“I could have sworn that was the explosion’s point of origin,” said Amphora. “Although he isn’t trained as an explosive-sniffing dog, so I don’t know why I thought that. I guess it’s because he’s so smart.” She petted Nigel’s head. She seemed to be softening toward him at last.

“Nigel is never wrong,” said Ivy, beaming. Amanda would have thought her friend was biased about her dog except that he really was the smartest, sweetest dog she’d ever known.

“He doesn’t have a cold or anything, does he?” said Amanda, feeling the retriever’s nose.

“No, but I guess his sense of smell could still be a bit off,” said Amphora, looking closely at the nose. “That smoke was pretty thick. And the dust. It’s still bothering me.”

“I doubt that’s a problem,” said Ivy. “He’s smelling everything else properly. Although my nose is still bothering me too.” All of their noses were looking a bit red.

“Maybe we just don’t understand how to tell where the point of origin is,” said Amphora.

“What are you looking for?” said Amanda.

“It should be the place with the worst damage,” said Ivy. “Maybe with some holes punched in the floor. Don’t you think that’s what would happen?”

“That sounds right to me,” said Amanda. The Internet had said that, but she wasn’t sure. She wished she’d heard back from Darius Plover, although she knew it often took him a month to reply, and expecting an answer after a day or two was unrealistic.

“Maybe we should forget about the point of origin and try something else,” said Ivy.

She had a point. Amanda had explored the garage but she’d neglected the areas around it. She made a mental note to add peripheral exploration to her plan.

When Amphora had left, Amanda took her phone out and opened her mail. Nothing from Darius Plover. Big duh. What was she expecting anyway? She should be grateful for the messages she’d received. He was a busy man with no time for twelve-year-old fans.

 

 

The next day, the two most important tasks on Amanda’s agenda were to find out where the sugar had gone and explore the wider area around the garage. Once again she enlisted Simon’s help in shadowing the cook, and she and Nick decided to explore the blast area.

The garage was surrounded by gravel in the front and lawn and shrubs on the other sides. Inside, in addition to the parking area, the school had built an auto shop and a storage area. Amanda and Nick started with the outside, then worked their way inward, crunching broken glass and other debris in the process.

“This is why we keep shoes under the bed back home,” said Amanda, eyeing all the junk on the garage floor. “If there’s an earthquake in the middle of the night, you need something to put on your feet.”

“That sounds dreadful! Have you been in an earthquake?” said Nick.

“No. My parents have, though, and they told me about it in excruciating detail.”

She thought about what they’d said about the 1994 Northridge quake. A huge jolt knocking everything off shelves, opening cupboards, and spilling the contents. Jars and bottles had broken all over the kitchen, spewing everything from ketchup to pickles all over the floor and mixing it with shards of glass. They said it had taken them an entire day to clean just that room and they’d cut themselves many times. The situation hadn’t been helped by the fact that the electricity, gas, and water had all been shut off. Amanda shuddered just thinking about it.

“I’m glad you’re away from there,” said Nick, stepping around a piece of wood with nails sticking out. “It sounds unsafe.”

“Right. Like this is so safe.”

“I suppose you’re right. But you have a choice here, don’t you?”

Not really. Not when your parents make you go to the school and the only alternative is . . . what was it, anyway? Being declared incorrigible and sent to reform school? Running away and living on the street? Going into foster care? Amanda had no idea.

She looked down. She didn’t think it was a good idea to destroy evidence this way, but what else were they supposed to do? If they cleaned up the glass they’d be disturbing the scene. Of course by walking on it they were also affecting it. It seemed that there was no satisfactory option. If only there were a way to build a walkway above the ground, but that was a ridiculous idea. Or was it?

“We shouldn’t be walking on this stuff, you know,” she said, eyeing a particularly nasty piece of jagged glass. “We’re disturbing the evidence.”

“I know, but there’s nothing we can do. Just try to step as carefully as possible,” said Nick.

“What if we were to build a walkway above the ground so we could look but not touch?” She motioned as if pointing out an invisible platform.

“Ha ha! Great idea. Exactly how do you propose to do that?”

“I don’t know. But it seems like there should be a way.”

“Fly?”

“Very funny.” She looked down and to the left, reaching into the right side of her brain for an answer, then glancing at Nick. “We could build a scaffold out of chairs.”

“That’s a lot of chairs,” he said.

“Wait. I’ve got an idea. What about placing a bunch of ladders end to end?” She motioned to where the ladders might go.

“Don’t you think the rungs and the frames will crush things?” he said.

“Yes, they will, but some of the evidence will be preserved better than if we walk on it.”

“That seems a bit farfetched. Although I like it better than the chairs. Fewer pieces.”

“Stepping-stones?”

“Again, won’t they destroy more than if we just tiptoe through the debris? And where are we going to get them?”

He had a point. The only stepping-stones on campus were huge and probably as heavy as she was. Heavier, maybe.

“Argh. There has to be a solution to this. How about a clothesline-type thing that will hold our weight? We just roll along it using some kind of pulley.” She acted out what that would look like.

“You’re determined to do this, aren’t you?” he said, smiling at her through the dust.

“Of course. Aren’t you?”

“Not every question has a good answer.”

“I refuse to believe that. How do they do archaeological digs? I know they have to map everything where they find it and make sure they don’t break things.”

“This isn’t an archaeological dig. Do you know how much those things cost?” He whistled.

“I know, but we have an opportunity here. We could revolutionize the way crime scenes are processed.” The right side of her brain was all fired up now.

“Ha ha. You really are something, you know that?”

“As a matter of fact I do. Hang on. I want to look up archaeological investigations.” She took out her phone and did a couple of searches. “Hm, it seems that archaeological sites involve digging way down. This is different.”

“Yes,” said Nick.

“But they do take stuff away from the area they’re interested in. They describe where they found it, then they remove it for further processing. We could do that.” She looked at him. She was sure he’d go for this one. It was the most practical, and archaeology was also romantic, not like chairs and ladders and pulleys.

“With what? Where would we take it?” he said sweeping his eyes over the area.

“I’ll admit there’s a lot of stuff here. But what if we only removed debris where we put our feet? We could create a path and leave everything else as it is.”

“I still don’t see . . .”

“I think it would be pretty easy. We make a couple of footsteps where the debris starts and carry it out in a carton. One of us catalogs it, then scoops, and the other holds the box. We do this little by little until we’ve cleared a path. We put the boxes in an outbuilding.”

“Hm, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Then the evidence is there for the others to examine. It could work. Well done, Amanda. I’m impressed.” He high-fived her.

“Let’s get started,” she said.

 

 

They quickly concluded that the process would go faster if they had help, so they recruited Amphora and Editta, and soon they had cleared a usable path through the garage. They found some boxes behind the kitchen, sans sugar, and wiped them out with damp cloths, then lined them with plastic. They put the debris from each footprint into a different box and labeled it. Then they started the real investigation.

As they moved through the scene Amanda kept an inventory. She assigned each item a number, description, and location and took pictures of it. When she got to the vehicles, she noted the make, model, year, tire and wheel types, chassis type, and the damage to each, asking Nick for help with some of the technical details. Where possible she also noted items inside the cars and damage under the hoods and in the interiors.

They started with Professor Pickle’s car. The golf clubs in the rumble seat of his Triumph Roadster had partially melted and fused to the upholstery, which was now devoid of its leather skin and padding. Amanda peered over the edge into the interior of the car and saw a lot of glass she hadn’t noticed before. The professor must have been carrying jars or bottles or something. Beer? She couldn’t tell. Then something white caught her eye. At least it used to be white, she thought. She didn’t want to touch it for fear of disturbing it, but she did manage to get a picture of it. It was difficult to tell what it was until she enlarged the image on the screen and saw the word “dill.” Dill? Was there a dill beer? Amanda didn’t think so. The only thing she knew about dill was that it was used to flavor pickles. Pickles! Professor Pickle had pickles in his car? She didn’t know him, but she thought maybe what everyone said about him was wrong. Maybe he did have a sense of humor. A Pickle with pickles. Cute.

As punny as that was, it surely didn’t have anything to do with the reason for the explosion. She took some video and stopped to think. Perhaps one of the other cars was the target, or something inside them. Except for Pickle, she didn’t know which teacher drove which car, but she could match them up later. Now would be a good time to examine the others and see what they told her.

Aside from Pickle’s baby, there was an assortment of sedans, a Volkswagen bus, a huge Bentley, an old sports car of some kind, and would you believe it, a surfer’s woody. She was sure it belonged to Professor Ducey. He looked like a surfer. Now she might have proof that he actually was one, although if she really wanted to know, the easiest thing to do was ask.

Professor Pickle’s ruined classic model was flanked by a dark blue sedan on the left and the woody on the right. She decided to start with the woody because it reminded her of home.

It was a mess, just like everything else in the garage. Still, there might be hope. Amanda took a pair of rubber gloves out of her bag, put them on, and took hold of the glove compartment handle. The glove box felt like it was about to disintegrate, but she was able to get it open without much damage. Amazingly, the contents were untouched.

She reached inside and lifted out some maps of various parts of England and Scotland, a topo map of the Lake Windermere area, a receipt for some windsurfing equipment, a pair of glasses, and some melted candy bars. There was also a tube of sunscreen and several packs of gum.

She carefully opened the maps. Three locations were circled in red pencil: Ullswater, Derwentwater, and Bassenthwaite Lake. She took out her phone and snapped pictures. She wasn’t familiar with the locations and would have to research them later. She put the items back in the glove compartment and closed it softly.

The body of the car was empty. Amanda turned on her light and looked under the car and inside the wheel compartments. She didn’t see anything other than a lot of pipes, which she figured was normal, but she tried to get some pictures anyway. Then she made a video survey of the car.

Moving on to the dark blue sedan on the other side of Professor Pickle’s car, she was faced with a new problem: a trunk. How were they going to get in? No one had any hairpins, if anyone even knew how to use them. Maybe there was another way.

What if they were to make a key? They could take an impression of the lock and get one made, although she wasn’t sure how. Students weren’t supposed to leave the campus. Was it possible to make one themselves? She didn’t think so. Unless . . . there were no rules against mailing things. She could take a wax impression, send it to someone, and ask them to get a key made. Maybe Ivy’s family would do it, or Nick’s.

The lab! Maybe there was a way they could make their own key there. There were all kinds of tools on hand. There had to be a way to make a mold and fill it with something hard enough to function as a key.

“Hey, you guys, we need to make a key for this trunk,” she called out.

“Let me see,” said Amphora, navigating through the debris until she was standing next to Amanda. She fiddled with the lock, which seemed to be loose. “Wait a minute. I think I can pop the lock out.”

“Isn’t that disturbing the evidence?” said Amanda. Breaking the lock seemed too easy. Anyway she was quite warming to the idea of making a key. You never knew when a skill like that would come in handy.

“No,” said Amphora. “Here, I’ll just . . .” She pushed the lock and it fell into the trunk. “Voila!” A cloud of dust flew up.

“What is all that?” said Nick, looking inside.

“Looks like some manuscripts,” said Amanda. “What is this?” She leafed through them, then read aloud, giggling more and more with each line. “The Ghost in the Pit Stop. The Haunted Curry House. A Wailing at Crowtooth Manor. He’s writing horror novels.”

The four of them howled with laughter.

“They sound dreadful,” said Nick.

“I’ll say,” said Amphora. “Listen to this. ‘The ghost was angry now, screaming like a mynah bird and rattling the Wedgewood.’ Is he kidding?” She was doubled over.

“Here’s one,” said Amanda. “‘She had dreamed of this night all her life. The ghost enfolded her in its arms and caressed her ears.’ Eeeeeeeew!” She too bent over and held her stomach.

“He’s terrible,” said Editta. “How embarrassing for him.”

“Is this evidence?” said Amphora. “I guess it is.”

“If the police impounded it the world would never miss it,” said Nick. Amanda thought snot was going to come out of his nose he was laughing so hard.

“What is he going to do with these?” said Editta. “Does he really think anyone will publish them?”

“He’s probably going to self-publish,” said Amphora. “My dad did that. He sold twenty-two copies of his magnum opus, Closing Arguments Citing Bird Behavior in American Criminal Trials, 1946 to 2007.”

There was a lot more giggling that seemed to go on and on until at last Nick spoke up.

“Changing the subject entirely, if this is the class project, they’ve spent a lot of money on it.”

Amanda stopped laughing. It was an interesting point, something that wouldn’t have occurred to her. How did he know all this stuff? “You mean because of all the damage? I hadn’t thought of that. That is something to consider. Do you think knowing that will help us solve the mystery?”

“I’m not sure,” said Nick. “Let’s think about that for a moment. What would a reasonable budget for the class project be?”

“I have no idea,” said Amanda. “‘I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ babies and all that.’”

“What are you talking about?” said Amphora, looking at her as if she were crazy.

“Nothing,” said Amanda. “It’s from a movie.”

“We can estimate how much this blast has cost,” said Editta.

“Great idea,” said Amanda. “Let’s do that.”

Amphora gave her a sidelong look. “What movie?” she demanded.

“It’s from ‘Gone with the Wind,’ if you must know.”

“You shouldn’t make obscure references,” said Amphora. “It isn’t polite.” Amanda rolled her eyes.

“We’re documenting what was destroyed,” said Editta. “We can research how much replacements will cost and come up with a total.”

“What do you think about this damage?” said Nick, making a quick survey with his eyes.

“It’s quite a mess, but we can at least value the cars and the building,” said Editta. “I reckon I can calculate something pretty quickly.” She started muttering to herself and punching information into her phone. “Let’s see, thirty thousand, twenty-five, times sixteen.” She went on like that for a couple of minutes and then blurted out, “Three hundred-sixty-five thousand eight-hundred quid and change for the project. That’s a lot of dosh. Can you believe they spent all that money on us? They must really want us to be good detectives.”

“That’s impossible,” said Amphora. She looked like a bird had just dropped something yucky on her head.

“I say,” said Nick. “That was brilliant, Editta.” Editta blushed. This wasn’t the first time Amanda had seen signs of a secret crush on Nick. Who cared, though? She didn’t have one. She and Nick were friends, that was all. “You’re right. That’s quite a bit of money. I guess there are a lot of rich alumni. Not my family.” He grinned.

“Or me,” said Amanda.

“Me either,” said Editta.

Amphora looked down at the ground. It seemed she had nothing to say.

 

 

Amanda was sorely impressed with Editta’s abilities. She hadn’t realized how smart her friend was. She guessed it was possible to be smart and superstitious at the same time, although she wasn’t sure what would happen if a situation required that Editta pick one or the other.

“That was amazing,” she said. “Just out of curiosity, how did you do that?”

“It’s simpler than it looks,” said Editta. “Sixteen cars at an average value of 18,200 pounds apiece. This is just a guess, of course. Fifteen thousand two hundred or so for the building, plus extra for the contents. I could be off.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said Amanda, who still had trouble converting between U.S. and UK currencies. Still, Editta’s assumptions made sense when you thought about them.

“Brava!” said Nick. “I think we should all take you out for chocolate.” Editta blushed again. She was starting to look good all red. The color went nicely with her brown eyes.

“If they ever let us out of this place,” said Amphora. “But I’m in. Excellent, Editta.”

“Thank you,” squeaked the honoree.

“What’s next then?” said Amanda. “I know. Why don’t we try profiling the perpetrator?”

“We haven’t had Profiling yet,” said Amphora.

“That’s okay. I have an idea,” said Amanda, winking at Nick. “We know how to look for a character’s motivation.”

“So we do,” said Nick, winking back.

Editta and Amphora looked at each other with a what-are-they-talking-about look.

“We can’t do it here, obviously,” said Amanda. “Let’s go to the common room. Don’t you just love those picture windows? I wonder how it’s decorated today. Do you think they ever let students suggest a theme?”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Nick. “Let’s do it.”

“You can talk to Thrillkill,” said Amanda.

“I will,” said Nick. “It’s not an unreasonable request.”

Amanda gave him a look that said “Good luck with that.”

“Let’s go,” said Nick, stepping rhythmically, as if he were about to travel down the yellow brick road.

“Watch out for glass,” said Amanda.

Chapter 16

Gluppy Things

About a week later, Amanda and Nick were walking down the first-floor hall, which was now decorated with massive crystal chandeliers that splashed bits of light all over the walls. Amanda stopped so suddenly that Nick was thrown off his stride.

“Wait a minute,” she said.

“What?” said Nick.

“I see something out there.” She was looking out the Police Procedures classroom window, which faced the back of the school.

“What?” he said again.

“I think I see the cook.”

“What’s she doing?” he said, trying to get a good look, which Amanda’s hair seemed to be blocking. He bobbed this way and that, jockeying for position.

She moved out of the way. “Look, she’s walking. She’s not carrying or pushing anything. See her?” She pointed.

“I don’t see anything. Where’s she going?”

“I don’t know. Toward the north wing,” she said, making a visor out of her hand and standing on tiptoe.

“Do you see Simon?” he said.

“No. Let’s follow her.”

“Okay. Come on.”

They slipped out the nearest door, where icicles were hanging from the frame, and keeping back far enough to avoid the cook noticing them, followed her as she walked northward and turned the corner to the west. But when they rounded the corner she had vanished.

Amanda shrugged. Nick shrugged back. There were several places she could have gone: into one of the three doors on that side of the school or the gardening annex.

“You try the first door,” whispered Amanda. “I’ll look at the far one.”

“What about the outbuilding?” said Nick, jerking his head toward it.

“Too dangerous. She could come out and see us.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “I’ll make up an excuse for being there.” There was the grin again. It was magical and he knew it, and she knew he knew it but didn’t care.

“You’re good at that, aren’t you?” She smiled at him in a way she figured wasn’t at all magical, but oh well.

“I’m an actor,” he smiled back.

“Okay, Mr. Cumberbatch, you take the outbuilding,” she said, glancing over at the crumbling building. It definitely needed repair. “Let’s meet back here.”

“Yup,” he said, moving cautiously toward the outbuilding.

Amanda crept toward the far door. Suddenly she saw something so repulsive she thought she might hurl again. A large, gelatinous, vomity-looking blob was practically blocking the door. What is that? Ugh.

Whatever it was, it didn’t have anything to do with the class project, the cook, or any pink substances. Of that Amanda was certain. Could she brave it to look for the cook, though? Not that it could do anything to her, probably, but it gave her the creeps. The cook was undoubtedly long gone anyway. Better to try one of the other doors.

Amanda approached the second door and turned the handle. It was locked. The cook couldn’t have gone there. That left the outbuilding, the first door, and the yucky door.

Nick came back shaking his head. “She’s not there.”

“Well, one of the doors is locked, which leaves either the first one down there or—”

“What is that?” he said pointing toward the last door to the west.

“Down there?” said Amanda, looking in the direction of the blob.

“Yes. I see a patch of yellow over there. It’s too early in the year for flowers. Let’s go look.” He started toward the thing.

“I already did,” said Amanda. “It’s some awful-looking gluppy thing.”

“Gluppy thing?” said Nick, turning around to look at her. “Is that the scientific name for it?”

“Stop teasing me,” said Amanda. “You know what I mean.”

“I don’t, actually,” he said. “Come on.” He grinned and pointed to the yellow spot with one hand while making a sweeping motion with the other, as if to introduce her formally.

“You go.” She turned away.

“Now, Amanda, a detective must go wherever the case takes her.” He kept ushering her toward whatever it was.

“All right. I’ll look for a second,” she said, hoping she wasn’t going to repeat past indignities.

“Good girl.”

He crept toward the thing, moving so stealthily that Amanda said, “Would you cut it out? You’re still teasing me.”

“All right. I’m being mean. You’re just so much fun to play with, but I’ll try to be good.” He giggled.

“Stop laughing,” she said. “What if the cook hears us?”

“What if she does?” said Nick. “We’re allowed to be here.”

“Right. Of course. I’m being paranoid.”

“Say, would you look at that thing?” he said. “It’s gigantic.” They were nearly on top of it now and it was huge.

“That’s a lotta vomit,” she said, trying to stifle her gag reflex.

“Now who’s teasing?”

“Sorry,” she said, swallowing a chuckle. Bad idea. It made her feel as sick as looking at the nauseating creature, plant, whatever it was.

“I wonder what it is,” he said.

“Some space alien, I’d say.”

“From the planet Detecto.”

Amanda started laughing again. “Stop. We’re supposed to be stealthy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Stealthy we are. Hold on.” He peered down at the spot. “Yuck. It stinks.”

It definitely was smelly. Smelly and ugly. What a combination. “Told you,” she said in a stage whisper.

“There’s a pink substance next to the gluppy thing.” He squatted and stared at it.

“No,” said Amanda. “You’re making that up.” She got as close as she dared. She wished she had some 7 Up or something to settle her stomach.

“Nope,” said Nick. “Take a look.” Sure enough there were traces of pink between the door and the blob.

“This has to mean something,” said Amanda. “It looks like the stuff that was in the pantry.”

“Yes. Let’s go in that door the thing is heading for and see what we can see.”

“Step over it?” She hesitated. What if she tripped and fell right into it?

“Sure. You’re not going to tell me you’re afraid of a little gluppy thing, are you?”

Amanda was laughing so hard her stomach hurt. “When you put it that way…”

“I do. Come on.”

She very carefully and tentatively got as close as she could to the blob, then took a large step, planting her left foot on the other side. For a moment she thought she would lose her balance and fall right into it, but luck was on her side. She leaned forward, moved the other foot over, and turned around with a ta-da gesture.

“Now you,” she said.

Nick stepped over the blob as if it weren’t there and joined her on the other side, annoying her no end. Fortunately, this door wasn’t locked. They pushed it open and saw a darkish corridor with a set of stone stairs leading downward on the right.

“Hoo hoo,” said Amanda, looking into the dark. “This is creepy.”

“It sure is,” said Nick. “This looks nothing like the rest of the school.” It didn’t. It looked more like an ancient Roman fortress, or maybe something out of one of Professor Stegelmeyer’s horror stories. It was even colder and danker than the part of the school they were familiar with and Amanda thought that was pretty bad.

“Do you suppose it was added on?” she said.

“I don’t think so. It looks older than the other parts. I’d say it’s original.”

“Maybe the school was built over a ruin and this is what’s left of that.”

“Could be. Got your phone?”

“Always.” She pulled out her phone. “I wonder if I can use my light at the same time I’m recording.” She pressed the icon for the light. It worked.

“You’ll have to. You won’t be able to record anything without a light in here, and it’s way too dark to go down those stairs without one.”

“Do you have your phone with you?” Maybe with two lights it would be less scary and they could see more.

“No. I forgot it.”

“Some detective you are.”

“Right. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle.”

Amanda laughed. “I guess I’ll see if I can record with the light on.”

She pressed the camera icon. Her screen displayed the message “Uploading camera firmware.” She pressed the back button so she could go to her main screen and turn the light off while she waited, but it wouldn’t work. She got a message that told her to wait.

“My phone is stuck. It’s uploading some firmware and I can’t go back and turn the light off,” she said.

“At least you know that you can run the light and the camera at the same time.”

“Yes, and look, the upload has finished. We can record. Let’s go.”

Chapter 17

The Secret Room

Amanda and Nick stood at the top of the steps that led who knew where and looked down. Amanda panned her camera all around the tight space, which was lined with stone. The place really did look like something out of a horror movie. Once you entered you might never return. She felt a shiver ripple through her. What a great opening this would make if she were the type to make horror movies.

“It’s a very live room, isn’t it?” she said. Her voice echoed round and round.

Nick’s did too. It sounded spooky. “Yes. Not the best place to be recording audio, but we can improve that in the editing.”

They crept down the stairs, illuminating more and more of the area as they went. The steps turned and became a coil, so there wasn’t much to see ahead of or behind them. The construction was obviously ancient. Amanda wasn’t sure what kind of stone it was. In L.A. nothing was made out of stone because there were too many earthquake faults in the area. Stone was a dangerous material when the ground wasn’t stable. Nick said it was probably flint.

The air was surprisingly dry for an underground tunnel in a damp country. She expected to see moss on the walls and water dripping from the ceiling. It wasn’t anything like that. She thought maybe there was a source of dry air somewhere but couldn’t tell for sure.

Suddenly she stopped, almost tripping Nick, who was close behind her. “Eeeeek!”

“What do you mean—oh. Look at that.” Ahead of them on the stairs was another gluppy thing, this one much smaller than the first.

“I don’t like this,” said Amanda. It may have been smaller but it was just as ugly.

“You’re afraid it’s the planet of the gluppians?” teased Nick.

She turned around and shone the light and the camera right in his face. “Very funny.”

“Sorry, but this is extraordinary, isn’t it? Do you suppose they live down here?” He stooped down to examine the blob closely.

“It’s starting to look like it,” she said. “Wait a minute. There’s more pink stuff here.” A little rosy patch lay next to the small gluppian.

“So there is. Do you suppose there’s a connection?”

“Yes, I do. Okay, now I’m really curious.” She stooped down to get a good look too, shining her light right on the thing. It didn’t like the glare and contracted its muscles.

“Like you weren’t before. Oh, look at that. It doesn’t like your light.”

“I’m more curious, and that gluppy thing tensing might be significant. Into the evidence locker it goes.”

“Yes,” he said. “We’ll have the Greek chorus recite an entire verse about the gluppy thing’s light sensitivity. Let’s keep going.”

But there wasn’t much more staircase to go. Within a few steps they were at the bottom, staring at a heavy wooden door that looked like something out of a gothic romance, or Professor Stegelmeyer’s twisted imagination.

“Doo doo doo doo,” she said. “What do you suppose is on the other side?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a gluppy thing colony.”

“Or a witch’s hideout.” She was really getting into this now. “Let’s see if the door is unlocked.”

Oddly enough, it was. They pushed it open, but it would only move about a foot.

“Something’s in the way,” said Amanda, exerting as much force on it as she could. It wouldn’t give.

“Let me have a look,” said Nick. He took the light from her, held it up, and wedged his head into the opening. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said breathlessly.

“What, what? Let me see,” she said, trying to stick her head in too.

“Prepare yourself.” He backed out to make way for her.

“Is it icky? Are there dead bodies in there?” she said, stopping short. Maybe she shouldn’t look after all.

“No. No dead bodies.”

“Here, give it to me,” she said taking the light from him and putting her face to the opening. There before her was indeed a scene out of a horror movie, but not the kind she expected. Behind the door was a large stone room containing bag after bag of the pink substance. And everywhere as far as she could see were icky gluppy things draped over them.

“They’re eating the pink stuff,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“For one thing, I think they’re blocking the door,” said Nick, testing it again.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why we can’t open it.”

“If I had to guess I’d say those are some kind of slugs. Whoever left that stuff there wasn’t very careful. They must have gotten in under the door.” Sure enough, there was about an inch and a half of space under the door, more than enough room for a small gluppy thing to get through. “Those things are coming from the garden. I suspect their normal food source has dried up.”

“Yes,” she said. “Perhaps they live near the garage and the explosion disrupted them. So now the question is, what are they?”

“Yes. Gluppy things probably isn’t the right term to google them with. We should get a sample.”

“Ha ha! Not me. And you’re not going to touch those things, are you?”

“Of course I am.” He reached into his coat pocket.

“No, they might be poisonous.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, rummaging around. “England doesn’t have a lot of poisonous animals. No snakes, for example, and no spiders.”

“Are you kidding me?” she said. No spiders? She couldn’t imagine that. Back home they had tons of them. She was always trying to save them, which her parents didn’t appreciate. If they saw any they’d just step on them. She wondered what Nick would do.

“Nope. We’re pretty clean here.”

“All right, but please be careful.”

“I’ve got my evidence bags,” he said, pulling one out of his pocket. “I’ll just scoop up a little one.” He opened the bag.

“I don’t think there are any little ones.” There were, actually. They looked like oysters or something, but even uglier.

Nick produced a handkerchief and reached inside the door. “I’ll just get this . . . there!”

“Oh yuck.”

He held it up. “Not at all. It’s really quite beautiful. Into the bag with you.” He popped the thing into the clear plastic bag. “Uh, do you have a pen?”

“No camera, no pen. And you tease me about my detective skills.”

“Sorry. I should be more prepared.”

She found a bright green felt-tip pen and handed it to him. After he had labeled the bag and she had taken a number of stills, they headed back up the stairs, through the door, and back into the garden. The light hurt her eyes and it felt weird for their voices not to echo.

“You do realize something,” she said, jiggling her ear.

“What’s that?”

“This is where those noises we heard came from. It’s on the other side of the wall and down a level from the ladies’ in the chapel. And I suspect this has something to do with that spot on the wall I saw.”

“Ah,” said Nick. “A piece of the puzzle filled in.”

“It couldn’t have been the gluppy things making that noise, though. It must have been the cook putting the bags in there. Which reminds me, we still don’t know what the pink stuff is.”

“No, but I think it’s time we found out. This thing in the bag has got some on it. We should go to the lab.”

Chapter 18

Slime Mold

Amanda was excited at the thought of trying to analyze the pink stuff. But before she and Nick could get to the lab, the Wiffle boy and another kid, a pleasant-faced, freckled boy named Gordon Bramble, who seemed smart and should have known better than to hang around with that troublemaker, accosted them.

“You’re ruining the project for everyone,” said the Wiffle boy looking straight at Amanda.

“What do you mean? I haven’t done anything,” she said.

“You did. You contaminated the garage and now the evidence is tainted.” He stood back, folded his arms, and gave her a smug look.

“Yeah,” said Gordon. “We saw you.”

“Look here,” said Nick. “We followed procedure. We carefully removed the debris where we stepped. You can check it yourself. It’s in cartons in the outbuilding next to the garage. Everything is labeled. We did that to make sure the evidence was clean and organized and everyone could use it.”

“I’m talking about the first time,” said the boy. “The first time you went in there you contaminated the evidence.”

“No, we didn’t,” said Amanda, although she wasn’t at all sure that they hadn’t. “Look, Thrillkill isn’t worried about it, so why are you?”

“You and your hotsy-totsy friends think you can just waltz in and take over. There are other people at this school, you know—three other teams trying to solve this mystery. If you’ve ruined the project for us there’s going to be a lot of trouble. We take our training seriously. We’re going to be important detectives one day. You’re a bunch of amateurs.”

Amanda wanted to pop him. She had never known anyone so self-righteous. He really needed taking down a peg.

“You know, you’ve got quite a reputation, Lester. You vomit all over people, you get everyone all lathered up pretending to be zombies or monsters or something, you make your own rules, and you think you can get away with anything you want to. Well, you can’t. You’re nothing but a laughingstock and you’ll never be a real detective. I don’t care, except when you mess things up for the rest of us. You’d better wise up and stay out of our way. And you too, Muffet, her little dog.” What a pretentious, nasty little prig he was.

Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Watch it, Wiffle, or you’ll get more than you bargained for.” He raised his fist as if to threaten the kid. Amanda was afraid they’d get into a fight and Nick would be expelled. “Now get out of here, and take your candy-ass friend with you.”

“This isn’t over,” said Wiffle snidely. “Not by a long chalk.” He nodded at his friend and the two boys walked away, avoiding disaster for the moment.

“That was unpleasant,” said Amanda.

“We can handle them,” said Nick. “Bunch of chicken hawks.”

“Let’s hope so.” At least the kid hadn’t said anything about Lestrade this time.

 

 

In the lab Amanda realized she hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the sample.

“What do we do now? Do you have any idea?” she said. They were sitting at the usual gray metal bench, but they hadn’t gotten further than the basics there—fingerprints, hair, footprints, that sort of thing.

“No, but how hard can it be?” said Nick. “We’ll research how to do it. We’ve got manuals.” He walked over to a bookshelf and started scanning titles.

“The pink stuff might be dangerous,” she said.

“I doubt it,” he said with his back to her. “This one looks good.” He pulled out a book and carried it over to the bench.

“Why’s that?” she said. “I mean why don’t you think it’s dangerous, not why does that book look good.”

“Because the gluppy things are eating it,” he said, skimming through the pages.

“But it might be dangerous to humans.” She got up and peered over his shoulder. He had wonderful hair but it was almost going up her nose. She pulled back before it made her sneeze.

“I don’t think so. Look, you said you saw some in the pantry,” he said, looking up.

“Yes.”

“And now we’ve discovered some kind of organism eating it.” He flipped a few pages. There were lots of pictures and diagrams.

“Yes.”

“Do you really think something found in a pantry that some biological entity is eating would be poisonous?”

“Probably not, but—”

“You’re too used to watching movies. This is real life. Trust me. It’s fine.” He went back to the book. “This isn’t the right one. I’ll find something else.” He walked back to the shelf, stuck the book where it came from, and resumed his search.

“At least let’s find out what those things are first,” she said.

“All right. That seems sensible,” he said, pulling out another volume.

 

 

“It’s slime mold,” Nick announced after he’d picked up his phone and met Amanda in the common room.

“Slime mold?” she said.

“Yes. It’s kind of like a fungus, but it isn’t one. We’re seeing the myxogastria, which is a macroscopic slime mold.” He held out his phone to show her the picture. There the gluppy thing was, in living color. Gosh it was ugly.

“Say that fast three times,” she said.

“I’m trying to tell you something important. Normally this slime mold exists as a one-celled organism, like an amoeba, but when its food is in short supply, the cells start coming together and moving as a single animal. They become sensitive to airborne chemicals and can tell when there’s food around. See?” He flicked to some more pictures.

“You’re joking.” She looked at the images. They were ugly, but not nearly as bad as looking at the things in person, or in thing.

“I’m not. See for yourself.” He handed her the phone. She examined a couple more shots and looked up.

“So the one-celled organisms have bonded together and gone in search of food, which is the pink stuff,” she said.

“Correct.”

“And the pink stuff is . . .”

“Powdered sugar.”

“Really?”

“Yes, ma’am. They love it. Apparently researchers use it as bait. Do you know that some scientists have got slime mold to solve a maze by putting sugar at the end of the correct path? Here, I’ll show you.” He grabbed for the phone.

“You lie,” she said, pulling it away from him.

“No, really. There’s this picture,” he said, trying again.

“Ha ha! Can’t get the phone. Hey—” He was successful this time and held his mobile away from her. She laughed. “That explains a lot. The stuff in the pantry was sugar, which makes sense. Where else would sugar be? The cook has been throwing sugar out, so maybe some leaked while she was moving it and we’ve seen traces of that in various places. The slime mold goes after the sugar because its regular source of food has been disrupted. So if we see slime mold around the school, chances are there’s sugar nearby. Oh yuck. What if there was slime mold in the pantry or the kitchen?” Maybe they’d all been poisoned.

“There’s no sign that that’s happened. I’m sure the cook would have noticed.”

“There’s something weird about that cook. First she steals a bunch of sugar, then she makes a weird phone call, and then—”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “What weird phone call?” Amanda explained what she’d heard in the kitchen. As she spoke he shook his head. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

“Not on its own, but it does if you put two and two together, and the cook has obviously been using less sugar. We know that because the desserts are yucky and no one is eating them,” she said trying to get his phone again just to show him she could.

“But why would the cook steal sugar?” he said, using his height advantage to keep the phone from her.

“Maybe she’s fencing it,” she said, stabbing at him with an imaginary sword.

“Oh, come on,” he said grinning. “Again, too many movies.” He was now holding the phone out of reach with one hand and air fencing with the other.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a black, er, pink market for sugar,” she huffed.

“Why would there be something like that?” he said, pretend-stabbing her on the shoulder.

“Hey, you nicked me, Nick!” She lunged at him with even more determination. “Think about it. If you can create a scarcity, the price of something will rise.”

“That’s pretty fancy footwork, there.” He got her on the other shoulder. “I don’t see how one cook is going to be able to create a scarcity.”

“You think you’re so good, do you?” she said dancing around trying to get behind him. “She’s working with someone. That’s what the phone call is about.”

“Right. Now there’s a sugar mafia.” He was keeping the front of his body to her at all times, despite her efforts. He was obviously loving teasing her.

“Come on. Work with me here.”

“Not a chance. You’ll get me.” He was huffing now too.

“I’ll tell you what I think. I think there’s a sugar-stealing ring, and someone blew up the garage by mistake when they thought they were going to destroy a lot of sugar. En garde!”

“You wish,” he said, sidestepping her imaginary sword again. “And Professor Pickle is in on it?”

“What a thought. Pickles and sugar.” She let the sword fall to her side. “Well, there is such a thing as sweet pickles. But actually, I’d forgotten about him. I suppose that could be true.”

“I don’t know, but I will say that I think we should continue with our movie. Let’s keep documenting and then we’ll see what we’ve got.” He took one last half-hearted stab, then gave up too.

“Good point. We should do those profiles. And actually, I’ve got an idea. We need to start thinking like criminals. We should plan our own crime so we can get inside their heads.”

Chapter 19

Thinking Like a Criminal

Nick looked at Amanda as if she were crazy. “Wait a minute. Did I just hear you say you wanted to plan a crime?” He seemed surprised for the first time since Amanda had known him, which surprised her, since she’d come to believe that he was unflappable. Not that he was exactly flapping.

“Yup,” said Amanda, trying not to gloat.

“You really do have a thing for Moriarty, don’t you?” he said.

“Not like that. I wouldn’t really do it.”

He made a moue. He looked ridiculous. “Oh, I see. A theoretical Moriarty then,” he said, grinning and tousling her already unruly hair.

“Cut that out,” she said trying to tousle him back. He was too tall and nimble. “If you want to think of it like that.”

“All right, then, Professor. Let’s do it,” he said rapping twice on the table in front of the sofa.

“Excellent. What should we do?” She took out her phone and opened her notes.

“Hey, this is your project. I’m just a simple sidekick.”

“There’s nothing simple about you, Nick. Now help me think.” She poised a finger over the phone.

“We could plan how to steal back the sugar,” he said.

“Interesting idea. That would involve a lot of equipment. Do you want to include getting the sugar back into our desserts?”

“It would just be theoretical equipment. I hadn’t thought about what we’d do with it. Write it down and we’ll figure that out later.” He pointed to the phone.

She thumbed the screen. “Right. Very cheap, theoretical equipment. Well within our budget.” She grinned. “We could plan our own explosion.”

“Now that seems a bit over the top. Although who doesn’t like explosions? Say, did you ever play that videogame Explosions!?” He punched his hand in the air and mouthed “Pow!”

“Never heard of it, and again, theoretical. I mean actually doing an explosion, not the game.”

“Yes, but it’s an awesome game. I’ll show you,” he said, alternately pressing and flicking his phone, which he’d retrieved before they’d gone to the lab. He held it up for her to see. The screen was full of oranges and yellows moving up and outward, getting larger and noisier and swirlier until he stopped the action.

“Cool.” As if. She didn’t like first-person shooters, although she couldn’t tell if the game actually fell into that category. There were plenty of other ways to make something explode than a gun, of course. This was something they’d have to study if they were going to get to the bottom of the mystery. Then another idea popped into her head. “We could kidnap the cook.”

“I like it! Write it down.” He motioned to her phone.

“Ah, I get it now. You like tormenting people. This is the only idea that involves a human.” She made no move to write anything.

“Not so, Professor. Stealing the sugar means that someone is a victim, and a bomb is a crime against someone’s property. Write it down.”

“Don’t split hairs. You love it and you know it.” She got in a surprise tousle but dropped her phone. Luckily the carpet was thick and it didn’t break.

“Hey, no fair,” he said trying to tousle back. “You found me out.”

“Actually, this is important. It takes a different kind of criminal to commit a crime against a person from one who commits a property crime.”

“Yes, good point.” He got up and started pacing. She followed him around the room with her eyes.

“Let’s think about the type of person who would create an explosion,” she said. “There’s a good chance someone will be injured or killed as a result.”

“That’s true, but when you steal sugar there’s close to no chance.”

“Exactly,” she said. “So the bomber is a ruthless fanatic and the thief is more interested in money.”

“That makes sense.” He leaned against the windowsill and absently played his game.

“To kidnap someone you’re really both, aren’t you?” She held her hand over her eyes to shut out the glare from the window. “It’s hard to see you against the light like that.”

“Pretty much, yes. Oh, sorry,” he said moving away.

“So if we plan a kidnapping, we’ll be able to understand both types of criminals.”

“I don’t know. A thief is one thing. A kidnapper is something else.” He thumbed furiously, then stabbed one last time. “Success!”

“Let’s just try it and see where it takes us,” said Amanda. “I’m writing all this down.”

“All right, since it’s only theoretical. Can I see the list?” he said, craning his neck.

“Here,” she said, handing him her notes. “Now, let’s say we’re going to kidnap the cook. We’ll hold her for ransom, which means we have to target someone who has a lot of money. And someone who cares enough about her to pay that money to get her back.”

“Yes, which in the case of the cook hardly seems likely,” he said, looking out the window again.

“I wouldn’t say that,” she said.

“Really?”

“Whoever is in on this sugar-stealing plot with her obviously has connections. She needs equipment, places to store the sugar, and fences. There’s no way she planned this all herself. She’s working with someone who has brains. What are you looking at out there?” She got up and joined him at the window.

“Nothing. Just moving around,” he said, returning to his chair and falling into it with a thud. “I get restless just sitting sometimes. Good thinking. But we’d need to find out who that is. You don’t suppose it’s one of the teachers, do you? A mole?”

“Now there’s an interesting thought,” she said. “Do you think that’s possible? I’ll bet it’s Thrillkill.”

“Thrillkill? Not a chance. If it’s any of them, I’d say Kindseth or Ducey.” He drew a happy face in the condensation on the window.

“Really? They seem the least likely of anyone. They’re so nice.” She moved forward as if anticipating some juicy gossip.

“Exactly. That’s why it’s probably one of them. Assuming there’s actually a mole, of course.” He added a mustache to the happy face.

“But Thrillkill is so mean,” said Amanda. “He seems like the perfect criminal. And his position as headmaster not only gives him access to everything, but also makes a great cover. I think it’s him.” She flashed a huge “Isn’t making up stories fun?” grin.

“Care to make it interesting?” said Nick, rubbing his thumb against his fingers in a money gesture.

“You’re on! What should we bet?”

“I know,” he said. “If it’s Kindseth or Ducey, you have to get a picture of that weird Professor Feeney who teaches the criminals and their methods class without her Goth makeup. If it’s Thrillkill, I’ll steal his hair dryer.”

Amanda thought Nick was getting the better deal out of that one, but she didn’t believe she’d lose so it didn’t matter. “What if there is no mole?” she said.

“Then we’ll both cut class and go into town and get some real chocolate. Sound fair?” He erased the happy face and wrote “Clean me” on the window.

“Perfect,” she said. “So now we’ve got a theoretical crime to investigate, except it isn’t theoretical because we’re already investigating the cook.”

“Excellent.” He gave her a thumb-finger circle.

“And we know that our first task is to find out who she’s working with. Next we need to figure out a way to grab her and a place to hold her.” She looked at him expectantly.

“We have a place.”

“We do?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t mean that awful slime-moldy secret room, do you?” she said.

“The very same.” He was obviously enjoying this.

“Well, you can clean it out. I’m not going in there.” She folded her arms in so-there fashion.

“Just theoretical, remember?” he said.

“Okay. You can theoretically clean it out.”

“No problem. Where’s my theoretical broom?” He looked around as if searching for the phantom implement.

“So how do we grab her?” she said, pretending to get the broom for him.

“We need to do it in a way that no one sees us,” he said, air-accepting it and sweeping.

“How about this? If we follow her and find her in a place where no one is about, we can take her without anyone being the wiser.”

“Huzzah!” He held up the imaginary broom like a trophy.

“Well, look who’s here. We thought you’d gone back to America,” said Amphora, entering the room with Ivy and Nigel on her heels and looking none too pleased.

“Yes,” said Ivy. “Where have you been?” Her tone was far less accusing than Amphora’s. More hurt.

“Investigating,” said Amanda putting her phone down. “You?”

“Investigating,” said Amphora eyeing the phone suspiciously.

“Find anything?” said Amanda, following Amphora’s gaze and noting her expression. Why was she being so nosy all of a sudden?

“Not really. No one can seem to identify the point of origin,” said Amphora coldly.

“Doesn’t that seem weird to you?” said Amanda.

“It sure does,” said Ivy. “The explosion had to come from somewhere.”

“So what have you found?” said Amphora.

Nick looked at Amanda. Her face was blank.

“Not much,” he said. “You?”

Amphora looked skeptical. “Nothing really.” Her tone implied that they’d actually found quite a lot. “Have you heard anything about Professor Pickle?”

“No,” said Amphora. “No one seems to know what happened to him. Boy, this school is harder than I thought it would be. Nobody knows anything.”

“We’ll get there,” said Nick.

“I’m sure we will,” said Amphora narrowing her eyes.

When the girls had left, Nick turned to Amanda. “Why didn’t you tell them anything?”

“Why didn’t you?”

 

 

When Amanda read her mail later, she was surprised to see a message from Darius Plover. She’d been so busy she’d forgotten about him again. She couldn’t believe how lax she was becoming about her filmmaking. It was unsettling. But when she saw what the director had written, she got very excited.

 

Dear Miss Lester,

I was most gratified to receive your last message. I will be sure to take you up on your gracious offer to weigh in with a tween’s perspective on my work.

Regarding explosions, I recommend that you write to Alwishus Gabtalk at the UCLA Department of Engineering. He’s consulted for me many times. I’m sure he’ll be happy to talk to you. Just mention my name.

That’s the technical part. As far as identifying the perpetrator is concerned, you know how to do that. Figure out the motive and work backwards. If you know why, everything else will follow. Always trust the story, in whatever you do.

Please keep me informed of your progress. It sounds like you’re doing very well.

Sincerely,

Darius Plover.

 

Whoopee! He was a wonderful man. She hadn’t even asked, and he’d given her a great answer. And she’d been right! Motivation was everything. Her work planning a crime with Nick would pay off. They’d find the reason for the explosion and the sugar theft, and then they’d be able to work backwards and identify the culprit. She was so proud to be a filmmaker. It was a skill that applied to everything.

She dashed off a quick note to Darius Plover’s friend, then grabbed her phone and began to look at the video she’d captured. It was pretty good stuff. Next she’d start interviewing, but first she thought she would upload the video to her computer and annotate it, then back it up in her cloud service.

She was so absorbed in what she was doing that she didn’t see the text until a half hour after it had arrived. It was from Thrillkill. “Come to my office at once.”

She was in for it now. They weren’t supposed to be in that old area of the school and someone had told on them. Or someone had seen her hiding in the kitchen. Or she’d been identified as Nick’s accomplice when he’d gone into the outbuilding. She’d be joining Simon on suspension and her parents would be furious.

When she reached the headmaster’s office, he was on the phone and that stupid hair dryer was sitting on his desk.

“You know the school can’t be involved in this,” he said. Then, “I’ll tell her.”

He looked up, and his face was even more serious than usual. “Miss Lester,” he said. “I’m afraid I have bad news. Your father has been kidnapped.”

Chapter 20

Snow Globe

The walls of Headmaster Thrillkill’s office seemed to close in. Amanda was so stunned at the news about her father that she had to grab a chair to keep from falling over. Her heart started to pound and she couldn’t breathe. Thrillkill just stood there looking at her with that blank expression he always wore.

Then he softened for the first time. “I know this is a shock. Let me assure you that the authorities are doing everything they can to find your father and bring him home safely. Don’t you worry.” He came over and patted her hand.

“I don’t understand,” said Amanda. “Are you sure he’s been kidnapped?”

“Unfortunately yes. He was taken on the street a half block from his office. Two men tripped him with a banana peel and shoved him into a van.” His look was solicitous.

Amanda moved in front of the chair she was holding and sat down. “Criminals. They finally got him.” Maybe her father had known this was coming. Perhaps that was why he’d been acting so strange. Now that she thought about it, he’d seemed almost fearful at home. Was that possible? If so, why hadn’t he hired a bodyguard? Or was the acting weird about something else entirely?

“Yes,” said Thrillkill softly.

“What do they want?” she said.

“They haven’t said.”

“No ransom demand?”

“No, dear,” he said gently. “But the Met are on the case—”

“You mean the kidnappers didn’t say not to involve the police?” She jerked her hand away and knocked the headmaster’s hair dryer onto the floor. It made a loud clattering noise. “Oh, sorry.”

“Yes, they did,” he said, picking it up. It looked a bit battered. “But the Yard is highly experienced in these matters. They’ll bring your father back safe and sound.”

Amanda thought about the Great Train Robbery. They hadn’t found the loot from that one yet. Or figured out who Jack the Ripper was.

“With all due respect, Professor,” she said, “I don’t think so. They’re going to take the money and kill him anyway. He has a lot of enemies.” Enemies she’d never wanted to think about. Enemies he’d only hinted at, but every time he’d done so, she’d felt chills. She didn’t even like the word “enemy.” It sounded scary.

“We all have enemies,” he said. “Many of these criminals aren’t as tough as they seem. They talk and act like big shots, but inside they’re just as scared as you and I. They don’t want to go to jail.”

As scared as you and I? Surely Thrillkill wasn’t afraid of anything.

“Now I know this is difficult, but I want you to go about your business normally. I will keep you informed, but you must try to stay calm. If you need someone to talk to, I suggest you consult Professor Also. She is a very reassuring voice and she knows a lot about these things.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep your phone on and I will text you as soon as I receive news. Now go back to your classes.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

Amanda was shaking so hard she could barely walk. She didn’t always get along with her father, but now she felt a surge of affection for him. They may have had their problems but he didn’t deserve this.

At the same time she was outraged. This was his own fault, and her mother’s. They were always shooting off their mouths about how important they were. If her mother hadn’t pushed her father so hard, he wouldn’t have run for district attorney back in L.A., he wouldn’t have made so many enemies, and he’d be safe. And maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t be stuck here in this miserable school in a freezing cold country where they didn’t know how to cook.

Anger aside, she was genuinely worried. Her father might be killed! She wondered where he was and whether he was being beaten or worse. Fury and worry overcame her and she started to run.

The good thing about barreling along the hall was that it emptied her mind. The bad thing was that she ran smack into Professor Stegelmeyer, who was holding a brand new microscope, which slipped out of his hands and shattered on the floor. But before he could say anything, Amanda was running again. She ran out the south door toward the garage, then to the right and all the way around the school, past the gluppy things, past the secret room, past the kitchen and the girls’ dorm. She was so distraught that she didn’t notice whether she was tired.

At last she went back inside. She entered the east door, sat down in the common room, and stared at the fire. She rarely got to see lit fireplaces back home. The weather was always too hot, except for maybe a week in December. The sight mesmerized and calmed her, and she watched for a very long time.

Then Ivy and Amphora came in. She didn’t want to talk to them, or anyone. She got up and walked right past them without a word. Amphora called after her, “Amanda, what’s wrong?” and she heard Ivy say, “What’s happening?” She ignored them and continued on toward Administration.

As soon as she reached Thrillkill’s office she realized she was being irrational. The headmaster had said he would let her know. He wouldn’t be pleased if she started bugging him. Despite his sensitivity to her situation, he was a buttoned up sort of person, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to push him. Maybe she could figure out this thing with her father herself.

Where should she start? She thought of Darius Plover’s words: if you know why, everything else will follow. But it was obvious why. Her father had lots of enemies—people he’d put in prison, their families, attorneys he’d gone up against, judges—the list was endless. How could she possibly work with that?

Think! How long had they been in this country? A few weeks. Was it possible he’d already made enemies here? Unlikely. There hadn’t been time. Had someone from the U.S. followed him here? They’d have to hate him very much to go to all that trouble. Had he prosecuted anyone in Los Angeles who had UK ties? She didn’t think so.

There was too much going on: her father, the explosion, the secret room with all that pink sugar and those awful slimy things, Simon’s suspension, the cook and her weird movements, drops of blood (what were those anyway?), her classes, her movie, Darius Plover, Nick, her neglected friends. She stopped. Aside from Nick and Simon, Amphora, Ivy, and Editta were the first real friends she’d ever had and she was pushing them away. Why was she sabotaging herself like that?

Maybe Professor Thrillkill was right. Maybe she should go talk to Professor Also. If she didn’t let some of this out she’d explode, just like the garage.

She walked next door, to Professor Also’s office. Fortunately the teacher was in. When she saw Amanda, she welcomed her warmly and motioned for her to sit in the rolling chair opposite her desk, upon which sat one of those silly-looking troll pens. The teacher’s hair was frizzier than usual, even more so than the troll’s. Amanda thought Thrillkill’s hair dryer might help straighten it out but wasn’t about to make the suggestion.

“Miss Lester, I am so sorry to hear about your father,” said the professor. Thrillkill must have told her about the kidnapping. How many other people knew?

“Thank you, Professor.”

“How can I help?” said the teacher, picking up the pen and finger-brushing the troll’s green hair.

“I’m not sure. I just thought it might help to talk to someone. I don’t really want to tell my friends because they’ll just hover, but I suppose they already know.”

Professor Also put the pen down. “Headmaster Thrillkill made it absolutely clear that the faculty is not to discuss this matter with the other students.”

“They’ll know. We’re talking about detectives.”

“So we are,” said the teacher. “I’m afraid the cat is probably out of the bag, but I would still like to talk with you.” Amanda noticed a snow globe on the shelf behind the teacher. There was a hobbit house in the middle. Professor Also turned around and grabbed it. “I see you like my globe. It was a gift. Would you like to shake it?” She held out the globe.

Amanda took the globe and shook. Snow drifted down onto the Shire. “You write detective stories, don’t you?” she blurted out. Where did that come from?

“Yes,” said Professor Also, pointing to a row of books on her shelf. There must have been at least twenty of them, all with her name on the spine. Amanda hoped they weren’t like Professor Stegelmeyer’s horror novels. “Cozies.”

“Why?” said Amanda.

“Why?”

“Why do you do it?” She shook the globe again, this time turning it upside down.

“Your mother writes detective stories. Haven’t you discussed this topic with her?”

“We don’t get along too well.”

“Ah,” said the teacher. “I see.”

“That’s part of what’s bothering me,” said Amanda watching the flakes. “I feel guilty because I don’t actually like my parents.” She shook the globe violently. The snowflakes flew around at blizzard speed.

“And you’re worried that because of that, you’re somehow responsible for what happened to your father,” said Professor Also, eyeing the roiling globe.

“Yes.”

“I know exactly what you’re going through.” The teacher placed her elbows on her desk and steepled her fingers.

“You do?” Amanda set the globe down. The water was still eddying.

“Yes. You see, I was in somewhat the same boat when I was young.”

“You were?” said Amanda.

“Yes.” Professor Also leaned forward conspiratorially. “I didn’t get along with my parents either.”

“That’s not so unusual. A lot of kids don’t.”

“No, but what is rather unusual is that when my mother died, I thought it was my fault.”

“You did?” Amanda wasn’t sure what to say to that. Should she express condolences? It was probably a long time ago. When do you stop saying you’re sorry someone died?

“Yes. And in a way it was.”

“No! I don’t believe that.” She really didn’t. Professor Also was way too nice to have done something so awful.

“It’s true. You see, I told someone something I shouldn’t have, and someone else found out about it, and that indirectly led to my mother’s death.” The teacher picked up the globe and held it upside down, then turned it right side up. The snow came down as a gentle dusting.

“That’s terrible! Didn’t you feel awful? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“That’s all right, Amanda. No offense taken. I did feel awful, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The thing is, though, that there’s always more to any story than you think. For a long time I believed I was the reason my mother died, but eventually I discovered that what I’d said had nothing to do with it. And the same is true in your case. How could you have possibly done anything that would have led to your father’s kidnapping?”

“When you put it like that—”

“Exactly. It’s not helping the situation to blame yourself. What’s important now is finding your father and getting him home safely.”

“All right,” said Amanda, twirling her hair around her finger. “Say I accept what you’re telling me and stop blaming myself. How can I find my father?”

“You don’t trust the police?” The teacher put the globe back on the shelf and turned it around so the hobbit house was facing them.

“No.”

“Well, maybe there are things you can do. I would say the first thing is to rack your brain and see if you can think of someone who might have done this.”

Amanda looked down at her hands. “I’ve done that already. I can’t think of anyone.”

“Fair enough. In that case I’d say it’s time to investigate.” She smiled as if imparting a wonderful secret.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Why aren’t you telling me to leave this to the police?”

“Because I’m a detective,” said the professor. “And so are you.”

Amanda broke into a huge grin. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.”

 

 

A minute after Amanda left Professor Also’s office her phone rang. It was her mother. This took the wind out of her newly inflated sails. She was worried about her father but she wasn’t ready to talk to her mother. One thing was certain, though. There was no way Lila could blame her for the kidnapping. Realizing that, and knowing that there was no possible punishment coming, she answered. As much bitterness as there was between the two, at this moment she felt a bond with her parents. She didn’t recall feeling that way since she was little and it unnerved her. But as soon as her mother spoke, she felt the bond go limp. Despite the situation, the woman was still a migraine waiting to happen.

“Hello, darling,” her mother said. “Your father will be fine. The police will get him back. As you know, we’re acquainted with many of them personally. I’ve given them very specific instructions about how to handle these criminals. Did you know that I’ve compiled a handbook for solving crimes? I’ve been working on it for years. You didn’t know that, did you? It will all be yours someday. Anyway, I’ve taken a couple of pages out of the book and sent them to the Yard, explaining exactly why and how my techniques work. They’re to follow them to the letter.”

Of course the police weren’t going to listen to her. Where did Lila Lester get these delusions of grandeur? This was a question Amanda had often pondered. Lila was one of five children, with two sisters and two brothers, all older than she was. That made her the baby of her family, which explained why she was spoiled and felt a deep sense of entitlement. Her parents had raised the children to believe that they could do anything, and do it better than anyone else, simply because of who they were, not how smart or talented they were, or because they worked at it. This didn’t mean that the kids sloughed off because they didn’t. In their own way, they were all hard workers, each one dedicated to the life he or she had chosen. And they did excel, but along with that excellence, most of them were insufferable.

The one exception was Aunt Delilah, a lovely, humble person who had devoted her life to helping others. As a young woman, she had gone into the Peace Corps, serving in Azerbaijan, and after her two-year stint had founded an organization called Scribble and Nibble, which helped poor people learn to read and write so they could get better jobs and feed their families. The group had done a lot of work in Asia and was well thought of. Amanda admired her Aunt Delilah a lot, and she was hoping to raise enough money to make a film about her someday.

Amanda realized that she was daydreaming and snapped back to attention. Her mother was still rattling on about how everything would be all right because she knew best, and the police knew she knew best, and her father would know that she knew best, and he’d feel confident knowing that the police were following his wife’s methods, and he wouldn’t be panicking and she shouldn’t panic either. Amanda casually wondered how many words her mother had spoken in just this one conversation, then thought of Editta and the way she loved to count things, and thought maybe she should put her on the phone so she could count the words and her mother would never even know that she was no longer there.

But somehow in all that dense verbiage, Amanda realized that she cared about her father a lot, and despite his tendency to lecture, and his obsession with his work, and his inability to understand her, he was a good person and she missed him. For Herb Lester was a good person. In fact, he was a very good person. In a way, he was like his sister-in-law Delilah, working himself into the ground to make the world a better place for people he didn’t even know. Amanda was surprised to discover that she felt proud of him.

“Are you all right, darling? Need something? I can send you anything you like. Warm clothes? More of my books to read? Perhaps your friends would enjoy them. You could pass them around. Amanda?”

Amanda sighed. Her mother would never change, but she couldn’t think about that now. Her father had been kidnapped, strange things were going on at school, and there was a class project to do. Suddenly she felt exhausted. “No, Mom. I’m fine. You take care of yourself, all right?” Then, as a concession to the situation, she added, “Keep in touch.”

“I will, darling,” said her mother. “I will.”

Chapter 21

Counting Calories

Investigating her father’s disappearance was a great idea, but Amanda wasn’t sure where to start. She couldn’t ask her mother. She’d known that as soon as she heard her voice. So she’d have to do it on her own, but so far, trying to figure out the why hadn’t led her anywhere. She already knew. Someone her father had put in prison was out now, or had a confederate, and they had taken him. That was the most likely explanation anyway.

It also explained why there had been no ransom demand. Whoever it was wasn’t interested in money. They just wanted revenge. Which meant they were going to kill him! Maybe they already had.

But no matter how panicky she felt, there was only one thing she could do: push forward with her investigation. There was no other option. If she just sat and wallowed, she wouldn’t help her father and she’d probably lose her mind.

So, back to the drawing board. She had to reason this thing out. What sorts of criminals might have taken him? She did know that they had used a banana peel to capture him. That almost implied a sense of humor. Did she know if any of the criminals her dad had locked up had a sense of humor?

Maybe she was wrong. Maybe he had been in the UK long enough to anger someone. How would she find out what cases he had worked on since he’d been here? The only thing she could think of was to ask her mother, but that was a terrible idea. She didn’t want to talk to her, and she might not know anyway. She couldn’t go to London and look at his files. She couldn’t even ask anyone else to do that. Was there any other way?

Oh, great. Now she had an idea but no way to pursue it. Maybe she should try something else, but what? She suddenly wished she’d kept in closer touch with her father. Then she might have something she could use.

She decided to go to her room and lie down. Her head was hurting and she was suddenly exhausted. Classes were in session, but Thrillkill had implied that she was allowed to take some time for herself as long as it wasn’t too much. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

When she got to her room, she threw herself down on her bed and started to sob. Her thoughts bombarded her, and with each new one she cried louder and harder until she was all cried out. She lifted her head and turned over onto her side. Suddenly she noticed the book she’d thrown across the room that first day, one of her mother’s novels, lying under Ivy’s dresser. She got up, snaked her arm underneath, and retrieved the book, which was splayed and lying open to page 243. She took it back to her bed and read:

 

Jessie counted the empty parking spots, which would tell her how many people were missing. Numbers were significant. They held clues that most people missed. But in her experience they were key for cracking a case.

 

There was that counting idea again. Editta had showed them that counting could be useful, even if she was sometimes superstitious about it. Amanda hadn’t realized that before, but maybe Editta and her mother were onto something. It wouldn’t hurt to try. But what should she count?

Then she remembered that the previous night at dinner Editta had said something important: “When we arrived, there were approximately 1800 calories in our meals in any given twenty-four-hour period. I’ve been watching carefully, and I’d estimate that now there are only 1450. That’s a daily difference of 350 calories, which would come out to a lost pound every ten days, 3600 calories making up a pound.” Amanda had lost her patience and had told her to cut it out, but Amphora saw something the others didn’t.

“No, wait a minute. She’s got something,” she’d said. “We’re all so busy that we hardly notice what we eat anymore. But think about it. The food has changed. We’re now eating a tiny piece of fruit for dessert, and the breakfast cereal has no sugar in it. And has anyone noticed that our afternoon tea has gotten really skimpy?”

At the time Amanda hadn’t given the girls’ observations any credence. She’d been too busy thinking about the pink sugar, the gluppy things, and Nick, but now she wondered. Why the change? She hadn’t heard anything about new nutritional guidelines, and she was sure Thrillkill would have made a big deal if there were any. Perhaps the school was trying to save money. He probably wouldn’t tell the students about that.

Amanda wondered how many bags of sugar the cook had taken. They hadn’t counted them but she knew the woman had stolen a lot of them. She wasn’t sure if she could document the number, but if she could get to the cook’s account records she might be able to. Then again, she had taken pictures of the cook acting suspicious. She might be able to extrapolate from those. By quantifying the sugar, she should be able to ascertain the scale of whatever it was that was going on. Of course it had nothing to do with her father, but at least she could be productive about something.

Maybe she could get a rough idea of the quantity by using Editta’s methods. If the number of calories per student per day had declined by 350 and there were 200 students, then the kids were consuming 70,000 fewer calories per day. She could throw in the staff as well. There were twenty teachers and twenty staff, which, added to the number of students made 240 mouths to feed, although some of the teachers and staff came and went, but she wouldn’t worry about that for now. That was a total of 84,000 fewer calories per day for everyone. Now, how many calories in a bag of sugar?

A five-pound bag of sugar held 11.35 cups. Each cup of sugar contained 773 calories, which meant that there were a whopping 8773.55 calories in a bag. Divide 84,000 calories per day by 8773.55 calories and you came up with ten bags a day, or seventy bags per week. That was three hundred fifty pounds of sugar per week, more than a ton every six weeks! That was a lot for one middle-aged woman to shift, even using trolleys.

What could such huge quantities of sugar be used for? The idea of fencing them had been something of a joke. She’d thought of that only because she’d heard of fences. She didn’t really think the cook was meeting some gold-chain-wearing sleazebag who was selling sugar on the black market. It was silly, and especially so because all the sugar she had seen was pink. It was too easy to spot and trace.

But there must be a reason. Editta and Amphora had been correct that the school was using less sugar. Amanda’s clothes were so loose on her now that there could be no doubt of that. Come to think of it, Amphora was looking sleeker these days too. So it was undeniable that the cook was diverting sugar and trying to cover up her theft by skimping on sweet foods. Didn’t she think anyone would notice?

What if she were selling it to someone? Who would need so much sugar? A company that manufactured baked goods or soft drinks or something like that? Why couldn’t they buy their sugar the regular way? Perhaps there was some use for sugar she wasn’t aware of and someone was buying up mass quantities for that, but again, why not buy it the usual way? Of course they had tossed around the idea of shortages driving prices up and she wondered if that could be the reason. When gas was in short supply, prices increased and oil companies made huge profits. When there had been a bad coffee season the price of coffee had risen. Her mother had complained about that. Why not the same with sugar?

Was there a sugar supplier who was trying to manipulate the market? Where did sugar come from? Sugar beets? Sugar cane? Didn’t those come from the Caribbean? What could that have to do with Lake Windermere? Why would anyone transport sugar all that way just to get rid of it?

The whole thing was ridiculous. But just the same, Amanda thought that revisiting the pantry and the secret room might yield some clues. As long as she couldn’t figure out what to do about her father, why not?

She threw the book on her nightstand and walked down to the kitchen. There was no one around, so she carefully pushed open the door. The place was empty, but there was a big pot bubbling on the stove. Did the cook always leave open flames unattended? Amanda wasn’t sure what to do so she went to the stove and turned off the burner, just to be on the safe side. She’d be in trouble if anyone saw her, but since no one was there she wasn’t worried.

She sneaked over to the pantry and opened the door. As with the door to the secret room, something was in the way and she could only open it a little. She reached inside, flipped on the light switch, looked in, and gasped. There was the cook, lying in a pool of blood with her head in a bag of sugar.

Chapter 22

Secret Room Redux

The kitchen was as silent as a tomb and now as deadly too. Amanda froze for a split second, then in a very undetective-like manner ran screaming from the room. “There’s been a murder!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. All the kids who were walking to and from classes started screaming too. “What do you mean, a murder?” “Who’s dead?” “Who did it?” “Thrillkill is dead?” “Stegelmeyer is dead?” “The school is being closed?”

At that moment Professor Buck, the Profiling teacher, a dark-skinned older man with a smooth pate and rimless glasses, was walking by and said loudly, “What’s going on?” He was such a commanding presence that everyone stopped talking at once.

“Professor, the cook has been murdered,” Amanda gasped. She was finding it hard to catch her breath.

“Well, where is she?” he said, more calmly than Amanda could have.

“I’ll show you.”

“Nobody move,” said Professor Buck. “We need to preserve the evidence.”

Amanda led the teacher to the kitchen and then to the pantry. He leaned in as far as he could and felt the cook’s forehead, then her pulse. “Yep, dead as a doornail,” he said. “Young lady, have you got your phone?”

“Yes, sir.” She dug into her pocket and pulled the phone out.

“I want you to text the school doctor at once,” said Professor Buck. “You know him?”

“No, sir.”

“Mr. Tunnel. And Headmaster Thrillkill. Tell them to come immediately.” Professor Buck’s bald head gleamed in the stark light from the pantry bulb.

“Yes, sir.”

Amanda sent the texts and removed herself from the crime scene, leaving Professor Buck to guard the corpse. Soon the doctor came running in, followed by the headmaster. The crowd whispered and murmured. Having found the body, Amanda was something of a star.

“Yes, in a pool of blood,” she said to one student. “With her head in a bag of sugar, I think. It might have been salt,” she said to another. “I couldn’t get into the pantry. She was blocking the door,” she said to yet another.

The students buzzed like a hive of bumblebees. Then she saw Nick.

“Nick,” said Amanda. “Have you heard?”

“Yes.” He lowered his voice. “We should go look at that room before anyone finds out about it.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, matching his volume. “We have to tell them. We can’t keep this sugar thing a secret any longer.”

“We will,” he said. “But let’s just take a peek before they declare the room off limits.”

“What if we disturb something important?”

“We won’t. We’ll be extra careful. Come on,” he said, grabbing her hand and leading her away.

Instead of going out through the east common room as they usually did, he cut through to the north common room, which was closer. It belonged to Father Brown House. There were black and white photographs of 19th century New York on the walls and the room had been set up to mimic a museum, with red Danish-style couches, bare wood floors, and empty glass display cases. Amanda wondered what the gremlins were planning to put inside them.

“I don’t feel good about this,” she said.

“It will be fine. You want to be a great detective, don’t you? You told me you did.” He stopped and looked into her eyes.

“Yes, but what if—”

“No buts. Just a tiny peek. We won’t even go in.”

“No, we won’t because we can’t. That door barely opens.”

“See? There’s no way we can disturb anything. What’s the harm?”

“You’re right as usual.” She smiled at him. He grinned back.

They started off again, came to the third door, and entered. Amanda had thought it was weird that this door wasn’t locked the first time they saw it, and now she thought so again. But if it had been locked they never would have been able to see the sugar and the gluppy things, so it was probably a good thing it wasn’t. Maybe the custodians figured there was nothing valuable there so why secure it.

 

Once more she turned on her light, and once more she started the video recorder. The stairs were now clear, the gluppy thing from before probably having found its way to a new food source. When they got to the bottom, Amanda was surprised to find that the door was no longer obstructed.

“I can open it,” she said, pushing. The door moved easily now.

“Come on,” said Nick. “Let’s have a look.”

But when she opened the door she got a shock. All the sugar and all the gluppy things were gone! Barely a trace remained. What was there, though, lying in a corner, was a glinty thing that looked like a gold watch.

“What’s going on?” said Amanda.

“I have no idea. What is that over there?” Nick said pointing toward the corner.

“It looks like a watch.” She moved closer. Her shoes stuck to the floor and made a glicking sound.

“Let’s see what it is,” he said moving to pick it up.

“We can’t,” she said. “Evidence.”

“Sure we can. Have you got your gloves?”

“Yes, but—”

“You won’t disturb anything. Not with your gloves on. Please, Amanda. Let’s just find out what it is.” He gave her a puppy dog look.

“Okay. Let me get them.” He knew she couldn’t resist. Unfair tactics. “Would you hold this, please?”

She gave him the phone and put on her gloves, then tiptoed to the watch and picked it up, glicking with each step. It too was sticky from the sugar.

“Oh no!” she said, looking carefully and turning it around in her hand. Her heart started beating very fast and she got a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“What’s wrong?” He craned his neck to see whatever it was that she was seeing.

She turned the watch over and back again. There was no denying it. “This watch.”

“Yes?”

“It’s my father’s!”

Chapter 23

Threats

As Amanda focused on the gold object in her hand, the light it reflected seemed to intensify and she blinked.

“What do you mean it’s your father’s?” said Nick, grabbing the watch from Amanda. “It can’t be.” He held it up in what little light there was.

“It is,” said Amanda. “Look. It’s got my mother’s inscription on it. ‘To my darling Herb. All my love, Lila.’” She pointed to the tiny cursive letters.

Nick turned the watch over and looked at the back. “There must be some mistake.”

“No. It’s his. I recognize that scratch. See?” She pointed to a hairline fracture on the face.

“There could be other watches with the same inscription.”

“‘To my darling Herb. All my love, Lila’? I don’t think so.”

“Well, what is it doing here?” he said.

Amanda hung her head. She wasn’t looking forward to discussing her father’s disappearance, and she was afraid Nick might be upset that she hadn’t confided in him. She wasn’t sure she could even get the words out.

“I have to tell you something.”

“What’s that?” He was watching her with such concern that she almost couldn’t stand it. No one had ever looked at her like that before.

She hesitated. If she told him it would seem all the more real, no longer contained in the protective shell provided by the teachers and the headmaster. But maybe Nick could help somehow, and he was so concerned that she felt she had to. Otherwise she’d be letting him down.

“My father’s been kidnapped.”

“What?!” He practically dropped the watch. “Oops, sorry.”

“I found out about it earlier. Thrillkill told me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he said, moving to take her hand.

“I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I hope you understand.” She looked at him but his face didn’t register. Everything seemed to be closing in on her again.

“Of course I understand. But Amanda, this is terrible.” He held her hand tight.

“I know.” She was so upset she didn’t even notice that he’d touched her. It was all too much. The room started to spin and she felt a wave of dizziness wash over her.

“Did they ask for a ransom? Whoa, are you all right?” He reached out to steady her.

“No. I think they did it for revenge.” The waves were still coming. “I feel so dizzy.”

“Here, lean against the wall. Hold onto me. That’s right.” She rested her back against the sticky wall and held onto his forearms. “What do you mean?”

“My father used to be a prosecutor in Los Angeles. He has a lot of enemies. Ugh, I’m all sticky.”

“Me too. We’re a right pair.” He smiled. “But surely they wouldn’t follow him here.”

“Probably not,” she said. “But maybe he’s made some new ones.”

“In this short amount of time? I don’t think that’s very likely. Feeling better?” He was looking completely doe-eyed now.

“I don’t either, but who then? A bit better, yes. Thanks.” She let go of his arms and felt her head. “Now my hair’s all sticky.”

He reached for a lock of her hair and took it between his fingers. “Hm, so it is. Well, that’s easy to fix. Look, I don’t know what’s going on but we’ll figure this out together. It does seem that your father has been here, though.” He looked around the room as if to validate his statement.

“I know this is his watch, but why would he have been here? He has nothing to do with the school.”

“He is descended from a famous detective, and his daughter goes to the school.”

“Sure, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“I don’t either, but obviously it does.”

“Maybe. But what happened to the sugar? And the gluppy things?”

“I don’t know,” said Nick. “Let’s go upstairs and sort through the evidence.”

He circled his arm around her and they made their way back up the stairs. He didn’t seem to care who saw them. He supported her until they got back inside, onlookers be damned. It seemed that there was such a to-do that no one noticed anyway, or cared, if they did.

When they returned to the hallway outside the kitchen, Professor Buck took them aside.

“I said no one was to leave,” he said roughly.

“We were just outside,” said Nick politely.

“That’s leaving,” said the teacher. “Where were you?”

Amanda looked at Nick. They weren’t going to get out of this one. “There’s something we have to tell you,” she said. Nick motioned to her not to say anything but she spoke anyway. “We need to show you something, Professor.”

“Oh, and what’s that?” said Professor Buck.

“There’s a secret room that had a bunch of sugar in it, and some slimy things came and ate it, and now it’s empty.” If she hadn’t been so out of it she’d have been embarrassed to tell such a tale, but now she was quite matter of fact.

“You what?” said Professor Buck.

“Yes, Professor,” said Nick, giving in. “Please let us show you.”

“This had better be good,” said the teacher, following them to the room and carefully stepping around gluppy thing residue.

But when they opened the door for him, he was unimpressed. “This room is empty.”

“I know, but it wasn’t,” said Amanda.

He glared down at her from his more than six feet. “First of all, you are not supposed to be in this area. And second, if there was something here where has it gone?”

“We don’t know, Professor, but I have proof,” said Amanda.

“What proof?”

“I took a video,” she said. “See?” She took out her phone and played the video from their first investigation.

The teacher showed no reaction whatsoever. “I’ll need a copy of that,” he said, turning to go.

“Yes, sir. I’ll put it on the intranet and send you a link.”

“See that you do.”

“There’s something else,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“See there in the corner? It’s my father’s watch.” They’d put it back so as not to disturb the evidence, even though they’d done just that. At least she’d worn gloves.

“What do you mean your father’s watch?”

“It’s inscribed, sir. There’s no mistake.” She took out the gloves and offered them to the teacher.

“Your father who’s been kidnapped? That father?” he said, ignoring the gloves.

“I only have one, sir.” She tried again.

“What is your father’s watch doing here?” Professor Buck looked at the gloves with disdain and shook his head. Amanda put them back in her bag.

“I don’t know, but we can only guess that he’s been here. We don’t know when.”

“Was the watch here when you took the video?”

“We don’t know,” she said looking at Nick. “There was too much junk in the room and the door wouldn’t open very far. We couldn’t go in.”

“Very well,” said Professor Buck. “Send me the link and return to the hall outside the kitchen for questioning. Do not come back here, do you hear me? This area is now off limits.” He produced a Post-It from his pocket, scribbled “Do not enter” on it, and slapped it on the door.

“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.

 

 

When Amanda and Nick returned to the hallway, Headmaster Thrillkill pounced on them like a gluppy thing on sugar.

“What were you doing in the kitchen, Miss Lester?” he said, frowning. Amanda was tempted to count the ridges on his forehead there were so many of them. “Students are not allowed there.”

“I, uh, I thought I heard something,” she lied.

“Something like what?” Oh great. Now she had to make up a story, and not a fun one like when she wrote for film.

“I don’t know. A noise.”

“Miss Lester. You are a detective. You do not hear ‘a noise.’ You hear a scream or a scraping or a snare drum or an elephant honking or a lorry door being slammed or a deep-voiced dog barking. Now what was it?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying that much attention.” Better not to be specific. That way it would be easier not to disprove her statement.

“You weren’t paying that much attention. Miss Lester, I will excuse you because of the situation with you-know-what, but in future, I expect you to be acutely observant. I will brook no sloppiness here at Legatum. We will brook no sloppiness.”

“Yes, sir.” She looked at her feet.

“Mr. Muffet, were you in the kitchen as well?” His eyes bored into Nick’s but the boy didn’t flinch.

“No, sir.”

“He wasn’t,” said Amanda. “Just me.”

“Very well. Please sit over there.” He motioned to a couple of chairs someone had appropriated from one of the classrooms. “I want you to wait until we can question you thoroughly. Mr. Muffet, you may go.”

“If it’s all the same to you, Professor, I’d like to stay,” said Nick.

“Stay then,” said Thrillkill. Perhaps you’ll learn something.”

 

 

Thrillkill interrogated them for hours. Amanda couldn’t help thinking that if he took this long with everyone he’d never finish his investigation. She wanted to ask how he handled that many witnesses, but it obviously wasn’t the right time so she let it go for now. But it was one of those practical questions she had to know the answer to. It was all well and good to explain the types of questions to ask, but what about how long to ask them, how many times to repeat them, what to do if you had to pee in the middle of an interrogation?

Afterwards, she and Nick were walking toward the sideboard in the dining room where they left beverages for the kids during the day, when suddenly her phone vibrated, signifying that a text had arrived. “Hang on,” she said. “I want to see if this is anything important.”

She looked at the phone. The text was from someone she didn’t recognize. It read, “ur next lestrade better watch out.”

She dropped the phone. She’d never received a threat like this before. Was this a message from whoever had taken her father?

“Look,” she said, picking up the phone and shoving it in Nick’s face. He was quiet for what seemed like so long that Amanda felt the panic rise. “Say something!”

“I don’t know what to say,” he said. He was obviously shaken. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but I have to tell you, this is bad, Amanda. Very bad.”

Chapter 24

A Kick in the Nose

Amanda didn’t want to jump to conclusions about the text she’d just received, but she had to agree with Nick. Whatever it meant it wasn’t good. Knowing that someone was watching her gave her the creeps. That they had also threatened her was more than unsettling. And the fact that they knew she was a Lestrade and were calling her by that name, a name she’d never used, just about sent her over the top.

“What should I do?” she asked Nick.

“I don’t know. We need to think,” he said, taking her phone and staring at it, as if that would tell him everything they needed to know.

“I should tell Thrillkill, shouldn’t I?” she said.

“This is pretty serious, Amanda. You probably should.” She’d never seen him look so grave.

“I know, but I don’t want to.” All she could see along that road was more grief. Every time Thrillkill got involved in something it deteriorated. She couldn’t afford for that to happen now. And realizing that, something else happened: she got angry, so angry that she felt like she was going to pop. All the teasing, all the needling, being forced to go where she didn’t want to be, worrying about Simon, explosions, blood, gluppy things, her mother talking at rather than to her, the cook’s murder, and of course her father’s kidnapping. And suddenly she knew what she had to do. It was better to get even than to get mad. She would get them all, all her enemies. She’d get everyone here in the UK, and someday she’d go back to L.A. and get the ones she had there too. Enough was enough. She turned to Nick and said, “No. Forget Thrillkill. I can solve this myself.”

“This is no time to fool around. You saw what happened to your father,” he said, leading her to a chair.

They sat down at one of the long tables in the dining room. Amanda rested her hands in her lap. Nick turned toward her and looked at her hands, which had started to fidget.

“I know, but I can do this,” she said. “He didn’t know anything was coming. I do. I can prepare. And look at all the resources I have.”

“The police have better ones. You should let them take care of everything. We’re very new at this.”

“I know, but we’ve got something they don’t have.”

“What’s that?”

She stopped fidgeting and looked at him. “Me!”

Nick started for a second, as if he hadn’t been expecting that, then broke out in a grin. “So we do. The foremost character expert in all the land. I stand corrected.”

“I can do this. We can do this—if you want to help, of course.”

“Are you kidding? Of course I do. But what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to figure out who that message came from, for starters. And I’m going to do it by deduction. You’ll see.”

He took her hands and looked into her eyes. “Amanda Lester, I think you can do anything you put your mind to.”

 

 

After that Amanda calmed down and went to her room to think. She suspected the text had come from that awful Wiffle boy. He was so tightly wound and so hostile to anyone who didn’t live up to his impossible standards that she wouldn’t have put it past him. He’d been baiting her all term and she’d had just about enough, so she set out to test her theory, brushing aside the more serious possibilities, like the criminals who had taken her father, or killed the cook.

She knew the Wiffle kid had both motive and opportunity. He was obviously harboring some kind of grudge against her. He wanted her out of the school. And everyone had cell phones, so he could have sent the message any time. Her task now was to link the message to him.

It was ironic. If Professor Pickle had been around she could have asked for his help identifying the writer. After all, his specialty was just that: analyzing a person’s writing style to figure out whose work a letter, article, or other communication was. But Amanda figured that she could make some observations herself, even if they might not be as expert as the teacher’s.

The text had said “ur next lestrade better watch out” without any punctuation. Well, of course. No one used punctuation in texts. That wasn’t significant. The whole text was in lowercase letters, which also didn’t say much. It was common practice to avoid capitals. Easier to type. Then there was “ur” with no space. You’d think people would put the space between the two letters, which stood for “you are,” but again, it was easier and faster to type if you left it out. Most people would have written a text that way. She was nowhere.

Was there anything about the message that pointed to the Wiffle kid? The fact that whoever had sent it had called her Lestrade. No one else called her that. But was it enough? Maybe if she could get a look at his phone she could see how he usually formatted his texts.

This, of course, would be easier said than done. First of all, she hardly ever came into contact with him. Second, who lets their phone out of their sight? Maybe there was a way, though. And for that she could get assistance from Nick.

If the kid put his phone in his locker or somewhere else during self-defense class, Nick might be able to take a look at it, maybe even take pictures of the kid’s texts. Of course that would be a huge invasion of the boy’s privacy, but this was a life or death situation so Amanda let the thought stop her for about a tenth of a tenth of a second.

She texted Nick and asked him to meet her after dinner. He answered immediately, saying, “Yes!” He used capitals in texts. And punctuation. But did Wiffle? And by the way, what was that kid’s first name anyway? She could never remember.

But by the time she saw Nick she was wondering if her idea was so great after all. Maybe it was too far over the top. She certainly wouldn’t like it if someone snooped through her things. But if it was for a good cause, maybe it would be justifiable.

“I had this idea, but I’m not sure about it,” she said to Nick in the common room, where cubist paintings in ghastly colors were now hanging on the walls.

“Let’s hear it,” he said. “It’s probably better than you think.”

She told him what it was and he laughed so hard he had to bend over and hold his stomach. She liked seeing him laugh, and she was especially happy this time because she was the cause. Watching him like that buoyed her spirits so much that she forgot her fears and said, “I’m sold if you are. And it looks like you are.”

He winked at her and said, “I can’t wait.”

Now the only thing left to do was to pull off the caper, as Amanda had started to think of it. The next self-defense class was right before lunch the following Tuesday, so they wouldn’t be able to try it for a few days. Obviously Amanda couldn’t go into the boys’ locker room, so it would be up to Nick to sneak in and get the phone.

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to find it?” she asked him before class.

“Yep. Piece of cake,” he said as if he’d done this kind of thing millions of times.

“Do you want me to distract him?”

“It won’t be necessary because he’ll be doing the exercises. It’s better not to call attention to yourself.”

“Good point. Do you think he’ll notice that you’re gone?”

“Not a chance. He’s completely wrapped up in himself.”

“Okay. I trust you.” She gave him a big smile, then said, “Break a leg.”

After changing into her uniform Amanda joined the rest of the class in the gym. Professor Peaksribbon, a wiry middle-aged man with thick jet black hair and a winter tan, had them all line up while he showed them some new karate moves. Amanda looked around nervously. The Wiffle kid was watching as if his life depended on it. Nick was nowhere to be seen.

What was the worst that could happen, she thought as she eyed the teacher without really seeing him. First, the kid could catch Nick. Second and worse, the teacher could catch him. Third and very unlikely, Thrillkill could catch him in the middle of his snooping. But none of that would amount to anything once Nick explained his reasons. It was all to help Amanda make sure her life wasn’t being threatened. Surely they’d understand that and not suspend either of them, wouldn’t they?

Nick was a good talker. There was no way any of this could backfire on him or her, although the Wiffle kid would make a big stink. Still, it would amount to nothing. He could scream and yell all he wanted and—splat. The Wiffle kid had kicked her right in the butt. She lost her balance and fell forward, landing on her nose. The kid was so involved in what he was doing that he didn’t even notice what he’d done, and he wheeled around and kicked her again, this time in the feet.

“Hey!” she yelled. “Ooooooow!” Her nose hurt so badly that she had to hold it, and even then it was throbbing. She rolled over onto her back and brought her knees up in a reflex action.

The kid, suddenly realizing that something was wrong, spun around and stopped in the middle of another kick. This move promised to be another accident in the making, although this time he was heading right for his friend Gordon. At the same time Professor Peaksribbon was bending over Amanda barking out, “Ice! Now,” which caused three different kids to scurry off in search of what Amanda hoped was ice for her face. Editta, Ivy, and Amphora fussed over her until the teacher told them to move away. Simon was conspicuous by his absence.

The pain was intense and Amanda’s face was sure to be black and blue for days. The Wiffle kid was so shocked that he didn’t say anything at first. Then after about two minutes he cried, “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Miss Lester, I want you to go to the nurse,” said the teacher. “Can you walk?”

“I think so,” said Amanda, whose nose was now bleeding. The teacher pressed a rag with ice wrapped inside to it and told her to hold it there.

“I’m going to want to see you in my office, Mr. Wiffle,” said the teacher. “Please go there and wait for me. You can change first.”

“Oh, great,” Wiffle said under his breath. He gave Amanda a dirty look and stomped off ungraciously.

But before he’d got very far, Nick had returned. When he saw what was going on he yelled, “Hey!” and ran over to Amanda, who was sitting up on a mat. “What happened?” He looked from Amanda to the teacher to the Wiffle kid, who was shooting daggers from his eyes. “You little ponce!” yelled Nick, and lunged for him.

“Nick, no!” yelled Amanda, who had just enough brain power left to visualize him being expelled if he got into a fight. “It was an accident.” She had to remove the cloth in order to call out. Her nose was so stopped up that her words came out sounding more like, “Bick, do. Id wuz ad ackidun.”

“Mr. Muffet,” boomed Professor Peaksribbon. “Don’t even think it.” His loud voice seemed to startle Nick, who stopped so abruptly that he stumbled and fell, twisting his ankle before he could make contact with the kid.

Nick shrieked with pain and grabbed his leg. “More ice!” yelled the teacher. “And more rags.” The same three kids ran off for more first aid items, which Professor Peaksribbon kept on hand for just such occasions. “Call the nurse,” he yelled out. “You, there, Mr. Ng. Quickly!”

The other students didn’t seem to know whether to laugh or panic. Some of them were afraid of the teacher, who could be quite intimidating when he wanted to be. Others found the whole idea of Wiffle kicking Amanda and Nick trying to avenge her hilarious. All in all, their reactions created quite a din until finally Professor Peaksribbon had had enough and shouted, “Class, shut up!” whereupon the din cut off so abruptly that everyone just stood and stared at each other as if to say, “What happened?”

The nurse must have been a track star at one time because she was on the scene in about thirty seconds flat, even though she was carrying a pair of crutches. She was so agile that she seemed to be everywhere at once, attending to Amanda’s nose, then Nick’s ankle, then Amanda’s foot, then the three kids who’d given themselves frostbite carrying the ice in their hands, then the teacher, who’d strained his voice yelling for help. She took pictures of the injuries, tapped notes into her tablet, and told all the parties involved to come in for a checkup. Nick was given the crutches and the historic class was over.

Instead of going to lunch, Amanda and Nick sat in the common room and nursed their wounds before logic class. Amanda’s nose was so swollen she could hardly talk (and turning purple, too, but that didn’t affect her ability to speak), so she used a combination of gestures and grunts to talk to him. Nick, for his part, was pretty stoic about the whole thing and was acting as if nothing had happened.

Amanda took out her phone and pointed to it as if to say, “So? Did you get it?” Nick said, “Yes,” and looking around to make sure no one could see what he was doing, handed her his phone, which had pictures of the Wiffle kid’s texts on it. As Amanda read through the texts, her eyes got wider and wider, which considering how swollen she was, wasn’t very wide. The kid’s texts were not only a lot like the one she’d received, but they showed how deeply his hatred for her ran. There must have been a hundred texts between him and Gordon Bramble absolutely skewering her, using words that were so harsh and crude they made her blood boil. After reading, she looked up at Nick and grunted, “Dat liddle weedl.”

“What’s that?” he said. “That little what?” He stretched his neck toward her, as if that would help him untangle the garbled sounds.

“Wee-dle,” she said.

“Wheedle? Yes, he’s a wheedler, all right.”

“Do. Dot wheedlur. Weedl.” She was getting frustrated.

“Weevil?” Nick said. “He’s an insect. A spider. A cockroach.”

“Do,” she said, even more emphatically. “Wee-zl.”

“Oh! A weasel. Ha ha,” Nick said. “Wiffle is a little weasel.”

“Yed.”

“I’ll say. I’m afraid he really hates you. So does his friend Gordon.”

“Yed.” She handed Nick his phone. “Wed, I’b used to beeble nod likig be. I dode care about dat. Bud I do care dat he’s makig trets.”

“You’re used to people not liking you, you don’t care about that, but you do care that he’s making threats. Did I get that right?”

“Yed.”

“Hey, I’m getting good at Amanda-speak.” He smiled.

“I cad smile. Id hurts,” she said.

“I know. I’ll try not to say anything funny. But this is pretty solid proof that he’s the one who sent the text.”

“Yed.”

“So now what?”

“I dode know. Wud do you thig?”

“I’d like to beat him senseless,” said Nick.

“Beside dat.”

“I don’t think you’re in any danger. That’s good. He’s a nuisance but he can’t really do anything to you. The best thing you can do is ignore him.”

“Dere’s do ebidence dat he’s drying do hurd be phydically, id der?”

“No, I can’t see that he’s trying to do anything physical to you. I truly think that kicking thing was an accident. I wasn’t there, but you did tell me that he almost kicked Gordon too. That sounds like he just wasn’t paying attention.”

“I dig so. I’b dot worried aboud hib hurtig be.”

“No. I’m not either. Really, I think you can ignore the text now. If he sends you any more, then you can see what you want to do. You’re within your rights to report him.”

“I dode want do.”

“I know. That’ll get Thrillkill involved and kick up who knows what dust. I dode blabe you. Ooops. Sorry. I mean, I don’t blame you.” He winked.

“I cad tank you enub, do,” she said. “You reedy hebbed be.”

“You don’t have to thank me. I’m always happy to help you. You know that.”

“I’b zo zorry you god hurt.”

“Don’t worry about it. I mend quickly. I consider these crutches a badge of honor, anyway. Want to take my picture?”

“Zhur.” She took Nick’s camera and snapped a couple of shots of him leaning on his crutches. “Youd zend me dose, right?”

“You betcha.”

Suddenly Wiffle barged into the common room shaking his fist. “You!” he said to Amanda. “And you!” he said to Nick. “This is all your fault. They’re putting a note in my file. It was an accident. Why’d you have to make such a big deal out of it?”

“We didn’t,” said Nick. “We didn’t say anything. Amanda can’t even talk.”

“She’s faking it,” said the kid. “You’ll be sorry. Both of you. I’ve got ways of dealing with people like you.” He gave them a dirty look, turned around, and stomped out.

“That was interesting,” said Nick.

“Yed,” said Amanda. “Are you burried?”

“No, I’m not worried. He’s a paper tiger. Are you?”

“I dode no.”

“Don’t be,” he said. “I’ll take care of him if he tries anything.”

 

 

After what seemed like forever, Simon was back with them. Obviously he wasn’t going to follow the cook anymore, so in order to solve that mystery they would have to change tack. But the more urgent problem was Amanda’s father, and she thought it was time to ask for help.

Simon was devastated to hear the news. He had all kinds of questions, most of which Amanda had no answers for, although she did tell him about the secret room and the watch. Of course by now he knew about the cook as well.

“There’s obviously a connection,” he said waiting for Logic to start.

“You mean between the cook and my father?” said Amanda, who was finally able to talk properly again. She didn’t mind going into it now because all the kids were making noise. The din made it easier for them to keep their conversation private.

“Yes. She steals sugar and stashes it in the secret room. The sugar disappears and your father’s watch is found. Then the cook dies with her head in a sugar bag. Ipso facto.”

“It does seem connected,” said Amanda, looking around to make sure Professor Ducey hadn’t arrived. “But how? You’re not implying that my father was stealing sugar too?”

“No, of course not,” said Simon, playing an imaginary piano on the desk. “But maybe the people who were working with the cook took your father. You know—”

“What?”

“What if there’s a sugar cartel that’s manipulating the supply and price of sugar?” He sat up straight and looked at her as if he’d just had the best idea in the world.

“I actually thought of that but it seems so weird,” she said.

Undeterred by the fact that she’d got there first, Simon persisted. “Not necessarily. Your father is known for prosecuting criminals. Has he ever tried someone from organized crime?”

“I don’t think so. No, wait. There was one summer where they sent me to camp, and I wasn’t around when he talked about his cases. Maybe something happened then.” She didn’t want to admit that there were lots of times he said stuff she didn’t listen to. What if he had revealed something significant and she’d missed it?

“Yes, and if that’s the case maybe those guys have some connections here.”

“I see where you’re going with this. And the connections have grabbed my father to get revenge.” If only she could remember a name.

“Or to send him a message to stay away,” said Simon.

“Yes. That makes a lot of sense,” she said, filing away her guilt for later. “Let’s go with this theory for the moment. How does that explain pink sugar?”

“Good point. That’s a weird one. Maybe the school uses some kind of party sugar.”

“Is that something you guys use over here?” she said.

“No. Never seen it before.” Just because he hadn’t seen it didn’t mean there wasn’t any such thing. Poor Simon. Had he ever been to a birthday party? It was hard to picture him with a lot of friends, although she was coming to the conclusion that he definitely deserved them.

“Well then, maybe not. Unless it’s some kind of institutional sugar that we wouldn’t have seen at home.”

“I don’t see how. Why would they make sugar pink for schools and hospitals and places like that?”

“I don’t think they even use sugar in hospitals.” She’d never been in one, at least not since the day she was born, but with all the hoopla about how bad sugar was for you, which she didn’t subscribe to but knew that other people did, it didn’t seem logical that they would. “It doesn’t add up. Let’s check it out on the Internet.”

“Okay, hang on a sec.” Simon pressed a few keys on his phone and looked through the search results. “I don’t see anything about pink sugar being used for institutions. There’s something about special party sugar.”

“Party sugar? Why would the school be using party sugar? And anyway, have you ever seen any food here with pink sugar in it?”

“I’m not sure how we’d know.” He flicked through a few more results.

“Well, for one thing, yellow cake would end up more of a puce.”

“Good point. All right then, forget the idea of party sugar. Maybe a different kind of sugar beet?” He pressed a few more keys and flicked.

“The Web doesn’t say anything about that.” She was now searching too.

“Maybe she just threw some food coloring in there then,” he said.

“What did you say?” She looked up.

“I said maybe she just threw some pink food coloring in the sugar.”

“That’s it! The chemistry of the sugar is different,” she said.

“Hm, good point. Maybe it’s been treated in some way. Hey, we can run some tests in the lab.”

“Great idea! Simon, I could kiss you!”

Simon went as red as a sugar beet, or at least a regular beet, and stopped talking.

Chapter 25

3D Printing

Amanda was getting pretty good at lab work. It also didn’t hurt that Simon had a natural talent for it. They had a bit of trouble getting a sample of the pink sugar, but they found a spoonful that had spilled between the kitchen and the secret room and scooped it into an evidence bag.

The first thing they did when they got it to the lab was deposit some of the substance on a slide and put it under the microscope. But when they looked they saw nothing unusual.

“I’m surprised,” said Simon, fiddling with the slide as if he thought it wasn’t properly seated.

“Me too. I really thought—”

“Wait. We can try a more powerful microscope. Come on.”

He took the slide to the farthest corner of the lab, where an expensive electron microscope sat, and inserted it into the slot. Amanda thought it was weird that the teachers didn’t lock it up, but she speculated that they might have left it out to show the students they trusted them.

The electron microscope had much more power, but they still weren’t able to tell anything. “Hang on,” said Simon. “There’s got to be more to this.” He went to one of the many bookcases in the lab, skimmed the titles, and pulled a book off the shelf. Flip, flip, flip, “Nope,” then flip, flip, “Nope,” until finally he stopped at a page and read for a minute. “Ah,” he said. “We need to process the sample first.”

“Process how?” said Amanda.

“We need to do something called negative staining,” he said. “But that’s a long process involving a centrifuge. I wonder if there’s an easier way.”

“Let me try a search,” she said. Thumb, thumb, flick, flick. “Hey, this is amazing! Simon, you’ve got to see this.”

Sure enough, Amanda had found an article describing a smartphone microscope that let you see viruses. A professor at UCLA had invented a portable attachment that could be used in the field. “Look here. It says you can make one of these using a 3D printer.”

“That’s great, but how are we supposed to get the instructions?” said Simon. “We’ve got a few 3D printers around here, but wouldn’t we have to pay for the program?”

At that moment Professor Kindseth stuck his head in the lab, and seeing the pair said, “Cheers, Miss Lester. Mr. Binkle.”

This wasn’t good. They’d been found out. Surely the teacher would kick them out of the lab and report them for using the electron microscope unsupervised and Simon would be expelled. Amanda was speechless for a moment, then after a few seconds said as calmly as she could, “Oh, hello, Professor. How are you?” Her voice was all wavy and she was sure he’d notice.

“Hullo, Professor,” said Simon nonchalantly. Amanda thought it was odd that he wasn’t upset. Maybe he was a good actor.

“What are you two up to?” said Professor Kindseth, bounding into the lab. “Say, Miss Lester, bang up job on the makeup.”

This was surprising. He was complimenting her on her monster makeup from weeks ago rather than reprimanding them. “Th-thank you, Professor,” she stammered, confused as all get-out.

“I got some great pictures,” he said. “Want to see?”

“Uh, sure,” said Amanda.

“Yes, let’s,” said Simon enthusiastically.

The professor pulled out his tablet and tapped a couple of times, then stuck it in their faces, first Amanda’s and then Simon’s. “Aren’t they great?”

She had to hand it to the teacher. The pictures were good. Somehow he’d taken a chaotic scene and turned it into art. The compositions, the lighting, the poses were all expertly done. Amanda looked forward to taking Professor Kindseth’s forensic photography class. But wait a minute. What was that?

“Can I see that one again?” Amanda asked, pointing.

“Yes. I particularly like that one,” said Professor Kindseth. “You look quite festive, Miss Lester.”

“What is that in the background? There, outside the window.”

“Whoa,” said Simon. “I see that. It looks like the cook out there. Or at least someone dressed in white with gray hair like the cook.”

“Let me see that,” said Professor Kindseth. He examined the photo carefully. “I think you’re right. But what’s that pink thing she’s got? It looks smashing against the winter landscape. You’ve got all this brown and white and gray and then this dab of pink. Very artistic.”

“What do you know?” said Amanda. “You caught her red-handed on film, Professor. By accident. Please may I have a copy of this picture?”

“Of course you may,” said the teacher. “I’ll text it over. I must send a copy to Professor Thrillkill as well. This could be significant to our investigation into the cook’s death.”

Amanda looked at Simon. He nodded. More fuel for the fire. And they had the date: the third day of school, January 9th. That was way before Mr. Lester’s kidnapping. The gang, if that was what it was, had been busy with the sugar for some time before that happened. The cook did seem a bit careless, though. Anyone could have seen her during the day like that.

“By the way,” said the teacher after he’d fiddled with the picture. “If you weren’t a detective, Miss Lester, I’d say you had quite a future in films. Your makeup was brilliant.”

Amanda burst out laughing. Professor Kindseth had lifted her spirits about twelve stories high.

“Say, I was sorry to hear about your father,” he said. “But they’ll solve the case. Don’t you worry. The Yard has their best people on it.” He smiled a big, silly smile. “So, what are you two doing? Mixing up potions?” He laughed at his own joke. Amanda was beginning to think he was as goofy as Simon.

“Just doing some analyses,” said Amanda.

“Yes, we’re trying to see what’s in this sample,” Simon blurted out, shoving the sugar into Professor Kindseth’s face.

“Simon!” yelled Amanda.

“Lovely,” said the professor. “What’s this then?” He took the bag and examined it. “Looks like powdered sugar. But why is it pink?”

“Why indeed?” said Simon. By this time Amanda had returned to her previous mood and was worried sick. They weren’t supposed to be there, she was sure of that, although now that she thought about it, maybe she was overreacting. They did have a class project to do and all the teachers knew it. She really was becoming paranoid. Or was she? She was so confused she didn’t know which way was up.

“Why do you want to analyze this?” said Professor Kindseth.

“We have a theory,” said Simon brightly.

“Oh? Tell me.”

“You tell him, Amanda,” said Simon, apparently thinking he was being generous in letting her explain. She thought nothing of the kind.

“Simon,” she said, nudging him.

“Amanda,” he said, nudging back.

Well, if Simon wasn’t worried, what did it matter? It was his neck on the line. She’d tried to protect him but he was having none of it, so she told Professor Kindseth the whole story about the sugar, the blood, the glinting, and the other things she and her friends had seen. “We don’t think this has anything to do with the class project,” she said finally.

“I see,” said Professor Kindseth, rubbing his chin. “So then, how are you going to do this? You could do negative staining. Wait, I know. I was recently reading about this device some UCLA bloke invented. You attach it to your phone and—”

“That’s it,” yelled Simon. “That’s exactly what we want to do. We just don’t know how to get the program for the 3D printer so we can make it.”

“Oh, that,” said Professor Kindseth. “I can get that for you in two seconds.”

Amanda and Simon looked at each other in astonishment. How could he—

“We detectives have our tricks,” said the teacher. “Meet me in my classroom in half an hour. We’ll make the device together.”

You could have knocked Amanda over with a feather, although Simon took this announcement the same way he did practically everything else, as if it were obvious. The professor turned and scurried out of the lab.

“Wow,” said Amanda. “He’s pretty cool.”

“Yes,” said Simon. “He really liked your makeup.”

“I know! I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was going to report us. What a nice man.”

“He’s a pretty cool guy,” said Simon. “And—”

“Ssssh,” said Amanda, putting her finger to her lips. She pointed to the doorway. Someone was in the hall, speaking. It sounded like they were on the phone. Amanda crept closer to the door, being careful to stay out of sight. Simon followed.

“I don’t know where it is,” said the voice. “Yes, I know how critical it is. If it falls into the wrong hands everything will change. Where have you looked?” The voice was quiet for a few seconds. “That doesn’t seem right. Something is definitely wrong.” Quiet. “Yes, I’ll be on the lookout.”

The voice went silent and Amanda could hear footsteps receding. She crept closer to the door and peeked out. She could see Professor Feeney, the Goth teacher who taught the criminals and their methods class, walking away.

“It’s Professor Feeney,” she whispered to Simon.

“Let me see,” he said, moving to the doorway and sticking his entire head out.

“Simon, get back. She’ll see you.”

“We’re allowed to be here, Amanda.”

“Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. But that’s not the point. Did you hear what she said? Something is terribly wrong. The teachers wouldn’t get upset over nothing. They’re too hard and experienced. This doesn’t sound good.”

“Just another mystery to solve,” said Simon in that maddeningly calm way of his. He glanced at the clock. “It’s time to meet Professor Kindseth. Come on.”

 

 

When they arrived at Professor Kindseth’s top-floor classroom, the photography teacher was grinning and pointing to his workstation. Sure enough, he had the program to make the virus detection device with a 3D printer.

“See?” he said. “Nothing to it.”

“But how did you get that so fast?” said Amanda. “We thought it was proprietary.”

“It is,” said Professor Kindseth. “I have a friend at UCLA who owes me a favor. Anyway, we’ve got it. Let’s make it.”

There just happened to be a 3D printer in the photography classroom to turn photographs of things into the things themselves, and the teacher downloaded the program into it.

“Won’t this take hours?” said Amanda. The apparatus looked intimidating.

“Nope,” said the teacher. “About half an hour.”

“How is that possible?” said Amanda.

“See this printer?” said the teacher. “It isn’t an ordinary 3D printer. This is a model we had specially designed. It’s incredibly fast and extremely accurate.”

“Wow,” said Simon. “Let me take a look at that.”

“You can see while it’s printing, Mr. Binkle,” said Professor Kindseth. “Let’s turn it on.”

He flipped the switch and the machine started humming and jerking. It was fast. Amanda could see the layers of the 3D object build up in no time. Simon kept oohing and aaahing as he looked at various parts of the machine. “Can you imagine what you could do with this?” he said.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Look at what it’s doing now.” Jerk. Wiggle. Grind.

“Bullet-proof windows,” said Simon. “Devices that would make everything in the lab obsolete. A new garage!” Thump. Squeak.

“You’re very creative, Simon,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“You know,” said Professor Kindseth, “you kids don’t have to wait here while this prints. I’ll look after it if you want to do something else for a few minutes.” Thud. Rattle.

“Okay, thanks,” said Simon, who seemed to have lost interest awfully quickly.

“Simon,” Amanda said, nudging him. “He’s doing us a favor.” Grate.

“Oh, right. Er, what I meant to say was ‘Thanks for doing this, but we’ll wait.’”

“Suit yourself,” said the professor cheerily as the machine chugged away.

“So, Professor,” said Simon. “How did you get into photography?”

“Oh, that,” said Professor Kindseth. “The thing is . . .” Wiggle.

“Yes?” said Amanda. “Go on.”

“I don’t usually talk about this. No one takes me seriously when I do. But what the hey. I’m in a good mood.” Rumble.

“Please tell us, Professor,” said Amanda. “Unless you think we’re prying.”

“No, not at all,” he said drawing close and leaning in. “I wanted to be a cinematographer.” Bump.

“You’re kidding,” said Amanda.

“Not at all. I love movies. I love watching how the camera frames shots, how it pans, dollies, creates the story for the audience. That was what I really wanted to do. My parents hated the idea. They wanted me to follow in their footsteps. I couldn’t bear to make them unhappy so I came here. I actually like it here now, a lot. But my heart is still in film. I can’t help it.” He looked a bit sad. “You won’t tell anyone.” Grind.

“No, but Professor,” said Amanda, “I want to make films too! You don’t know how much. I—”

She broke off. It wouldn’t do to tell one of the teachers at the detectives’ school, where they took their mission incredibly seriously, that she didn’t want to be there, even a teacher who didn’t want to be there either, or at least at one time didn’t want to be there. Rattle.

“I knew it!” said Professor Kindseth, pulling back and dancing a little jig. Well, probably not a jig. Maybe he was tripping over his own feet but Amanda felt like being generous. “You have talent, Miss Lester. You should be in pictures. Oops, listen to me. I sound like a cliché. That will never do.” He was grinning. This was a person who didn’t take himself too seriously. Amanda was starting to like him very much. Squeak.

“That’s awesome,” said Simon. “You two should collaborate. Put something together. I mean after all this kidnapping stuff is over.”

“I’d love to!” said Professor Kindseth. “Is it a date, Miss Lester?” Chug.

“Uh, sure, Professor.” She didn’t want to appear too eager. “Why not?” She smiled.

“Why, would you look at this. The printing is done. Let’s take a look, shall we?”

Professor Kindseth practically skipped over to the printer and carefully removed the device. He looked at the plans, then back at the object. “Seems okay, but we need a couple of parts: a laser diode, a filter, and a lens. Back to the lab!” He raised his arm as if gathering his troops and made for the door. “Come on. Don’t dilly-dally. We have work to do,” he said, and was off.

 

 

Back in the lab, Professor Kindseth was a whirlwind of activity. Then suddenly he stopped.

“I can’t find the right size lens,” he said. “Is there any other place they keep them?”

“I don’t think so,” said Simon. “Maybe in one of the other labs.”

“It seems we have two choices then.” He held out his right hand, palm up, and pressed down his little finger as if counting. “One,” he said, “we can go looking in the other labs, where we may or may not find the right lens. Or two,” he released the little finger and pulled down his ring finger, which didn’t have a ring on it, “we can make do. Mr. Binkle, let me see your glasses, please.”

Simon handed the teacher his thick-lensed glasses. “I don’t think this is going to work.”

“Au contraire,” said the teacher. “Look here.” He popped out one of the lenses, causing Amanda to wince. What if he couldn’t get it back in again? She hoped Simon had another pair. Then he took the lens and attached it to the device. “This seems to work.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Simon. “My lenses are so thick.”

“Oh, ye of little faith,” said Professor Kindseth. “There’s an option in the 3D printing program for using spectacle lenses. I picked that. Forgot all about it in the excitement. See?” He showed them the device, which was now fully assembled. Amanda wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it, but Simon was grinning from ear to ear.

“Have you got the sample, Mr. Binkle?” said Professor Kindseth, winking at Simon, who couldn’t see a thing now.

“Yes, sir,” said Simon, tossing him the little bag with the sugar.

The teacher raised a hand above his head and caught it, then prepared the sample and stuck it into the contraption. “Oh my,” he said. “Would you look at this?” He stepped aside and motioned to the kids to come look.

“Wow,” said Amanda, looking at the image on the screen. “That’s beautiful.” She could see a series of rod-like structures arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way.

“Lemme see,” said Simon.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to see this,” said Amanda.

“Now who’s of little faith?” Simon said. “I’m very good at squinting. I’ll just take a look.” He resituated his now one-lensed glasses onto his nose, peered into the viewer, and squinted so much that the top half of his face seemed to shrink. “Awesome! But pretty weird.”

“What do you mean ‘weird’?” she said.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was looking at a virus.”

“What kind of virus? And how do you know? Are you sure you’re seeing it right?”

“See this journal?” he said pointing at a volume that lay open on the lab bench. “It’s all about viruses. Look at these pictures.” He found a page and jabbed at it so hard that Amanda could hear his finger hit the paper. He was still squinting and looked like he was in pain.

“Yes, I see,” she said, looking at the pictures. They were quite beautiful, beguiling abstract compositions so expertly composed that they should have been hanging on walls rather than collecting dust in some old textbook. One in particular looked just like the sample.

“I do believe you’re correct,” said Professor Kindseth, examining the images. “Look there. It’s the glusoheptaminecytorazzmatazz virus. That’s quite a name, isn’t it? It infects sugar. It says here that there’s no way to kill it. Ooooh, bad news. Hang on, Simon. Let me give you your sight back.” He removed the glasses from Simon’s face, slipped the lens out of the device, and popped it back into the frame with a ta-da. Simon put the glasses on and his face returned to normal.

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Amanda. “That means if the virus gets out, which it seems that it has, it’s unstoppable. But wouldn’t it kill all the sugar in the world? Who’d want to do that?”

“Let’s back up,” said Simon. “We should start local. The sugar has a very bad virus in it. So maybe the cook was doing the school a favor by getting rid of contaminated food.”

“I don’t think so,” said Amanda. That isn’t how you do it. First of all you report it. Next you get the health department to look at it. And third, you don’t die with your head in a bag of it.”

“You said that bag had white sugar in it,” said the teacher. “I saw it. You’re correct.”

“Yes, it did,” said Simon.

“It isn’t the same,” said Amanda.

“It doesn’t look the same,” said Simon.

“If it doesn’t look the same, it can’t be the same,” Amanda said.

“Probably not,” said Simon. “So the two sugars are different. I wonder what that means.”

“One of them has a virus in it,” said Amanda. “Say, do you think the cook caught something from the virus and that’s what killed her?”

“Not unless it makes you bleed an awful lot. If it were Ebola or something, a lot of people would have died way before this happened,” Simon said cheerily.

“Good point,” said Amanda. “Okay, the pink sugar has a virus in it. We don’t know if it’s dangerous or how it got in there. The white sugar we don’t know. We should analyze that too.”

“Good thing you mentioned that. I just happen to have some.” He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out an evidence bag containing a small sample of white sugar.

“Where’d you get that, Simon?” said Amanda.

“I found some outside the kitchen door,” he said. “It’s very convenient carrying evidence bags and little brushes around. I’m building a sophisticated kit that will have everything you could ever need. Wanna see my list?” He went for his phone.

“Very much, but later if you don’t mind.” Actually she did want to see it, a lot. It might help her investigate her father’s disappearance. Maybe Simon had come up with a tool she’d forgotten, or never known about to begin with. He really was a smart guy once you got past the weirdness.

 

 

Professor Kindseth helped them repeat the process they’d used to examine the pink sugar. As expected there was no virus in the white sugar.

“Well, then,” said Amanda, carefully rebagging the samples, “maybe the white sugar is the before sugar and the pink is the after sugar.”

“Or vice versa,” said Simon. “Sugar senior and sugar junior. Sugar the elder and sugar the younger. Do you think there’s a sugar the third?”

“I don’t know, and this isn’t making any sense,” she cried, stomping her foot and burying her face in her hands.

“Hang on. Maybe it is.”

“What do you mean?” she said, removing her hands from her face and pushing her hair out of her eyes.

“Maybe it’s making sense,” said Simon. “We were just talking about cartels and organized crime, right?”

Professor Kindseth seemed to take quite an interest in this idea. Amanda could tell he was listening even more carefully, but he didn’t say a word.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “Don’t tell me you’re going to name these two sugar capo and sugar made man or something.”

“Ha! That’s a good one. Wish I’d thought of it. No. But what if,” he started pacing like a detective with a hunch, “this hypothetical sugar cartel is contaminating the sugar on purpose?”

“You mean to kill people?” said Amanda, horrified.

“Not necessarily,” he said waving a finger. “Mass murder wouldn’t get the cartel anywhere. They’d target specific people if they wanted to kill someone.”

“Okay, then—oh! I see what you mean. They’re contaminating the sugar in order to control the supply. They taint a lot of sugar and buy up the rest. Then they sell it at high prices.”

“Exactly. Ipso facto.” He was really getting into that logic class.

“Boy, that seems like a lot of work,” she said.

“Yes, but look at how much money they could make. Say they can double the price of sugar, maybe even triple it. Hang on. Let me look up how much the sugar industry is worth. Oh, look here. This site says that 160 million metric tonnes of sugar are produced every year. That’s for the whole world. So if the price of sugar is $.18 per pound, as it has been at some times, and it doubles, then the price will be $.36 per pound. A metric tonne is 2204 pounds, mmm mmm, then the price of a tonne goes from $396.72 to $793.44, times 160 million means . . .”

“More than a hundred and twenty billion dollars!” said Amanda. “That’s a profit of sixty billion smackeroos. Give or take a little.”

“Wow! That’s a lotta moolah,” said Simon. “Of course, we’re assuming the cartel will control the whole world’s sugar supply, which is impossible.” He took off his glasses and wiped them with his fingers, then replaced them. They were still dirty, maybe more so.

“Even so, that’s a lot of incentive,” she said.

“I’ll say.”

“So let’s say they introduce this virus into the white sugar and manage to double the price. And let’s say they then control just one percent of the world’s supply. That’s still 1.2 billion dollars,” she said.

“Yes. Plenty of incentive. Want to go with this theory?” said Simon.

“Sounds good to me. Now what do we do?”

“Test it.”

“How do we do that?” she said.

“We have to find your father.”

Professor Kindseth grinned at the two students. “You two get an A plus!”

Chapter 26

Body Snatching

So Professor Kindseth wanted to be in film. Amanda was overjoyed, and surprised. She’d never expected to find one fellow enthusiast at the school, let alone two. Legatum was turning out to be something rather different than she’d expected. The way she’d felt when she saw that letter from Drusilla Canoodle could only be described as despairing. Now she was despairing about her father, but funnily enough no longer about the school. In fact she was quite liking being there, in an odd sort of way. She looked forward to discussing film with Professor Kindseth when all this died down, if it ever did. Maybe that was a poor choice of words. When all of this was resolved. That was better.

She was over the moon about the way things had gone in the lab. She didn’t know what she and Simon would have done if Professor Kindseth hadn’t turned up. He’d been so eager to help and had been incredibly useful. She could see that the faculty was pretty good at their jobs, even if some of them were a bit strange.

She thought about the conversation she’d heard outside the lab. Professor Feeney had seemed upset and secretive. There wasn’t anything particularly new about the secretive part. That was de rigeur for Legatum. But the things she’d said and the tone in which she’d said them, those were disturbing. If something else, something Amanda didn’t already know about, was wrong at Legatum, things might deteriorate even more. What had the Criminals and Their Methods teacher said? Everything would change unless something or other happened. What everything, and what something or other? That sounded serious. At least as serious as a kidnapping. Maybe as serious as murder. What was going on around here anyway?

Amanda wanted to tell Nick about their findings in the lab but she was worried about Simon. The two boys didn’t get along, or at least Simon didn’t like Nick. Nick had never indicated any particular feelings about Simon.

To be honest she was feeling rather queasy about all her important relationships. It was her own fault that she’d drifted away from Ivy, Amphora, and Editta lately, but she’d had things on her mind and it couldn’t be helped. Then Simon had been on suspension for two weeks and she’d turned to Nick. Of course the whole thing with her father hadn’t helped.

Her father. She hadn’t heard anything from Thrillkill. Maybe she should go talk to him and find out what was happening. He’d told her he’d let her know, though, so maybe she shouldn’t bug him.

Simon was right. Whatever the Met was or wasn’t doing, nothing seemed to be happening with the case. She needed to find her father herself, and the best way to do that was to follow Darius Plover’s advice: figure out the why and everything else will follow. That meant she needed to understand why the cook was involved in all of this and why her father had been in the secret room. She knew about the virus-tainted sugar, and she was pretty sure they’d figured out the reason for that, but how had the school become involved?

The way to solve that mystery was to find out who had killed the cook, and why. She decided to go back to the kitchen to look for more clues, which wouldn’t be easy considering that it was still a crime scene. She’d just have to sneak in at some odd hour. That was the only way.

She decided to case the joint to see what state it was in. As she was heading down the hall, Amphora came running up to her. She looked frantic.

“Amanda! Stop. You can’t go in there.” Amphora barred the door with her arm.

“I know. I’m just checking out the outside.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Amphora said, practically spasming with excitement. “Something’s happened.”

“Something else has happened?” Amanda wasn’t sure she could take one more thing.

“Yes. The cook’s body has gone missing!”

Amanda could see terror in her eyes. “What do you mean ‘missing’?”

“I mean she disappeared. They took her to the autopsy room. The doctor left her there for an hour or so, and when he came back she was gone.” Amphora wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed as if to keep herself from exploding.

“And no one saw anything?” said Amanda. It was possible. It was a big school and things could happen when everyone was in class or asleep.

“Apparently not,” said Amphora.

“Wow.” One weird thing after another. Was this normal?

Amphora bit her lip. “You know what this means, of course.”

“What?”

“They’ve put the school on lockdown.”

This wasn’t good. In fact it was a disaster. How could Amanda investigate her father’s disappearance if she couldn’t leave? How could the police investigate?

Then she had a chilling thought. What if whoever had taken the cook’s body did it for exactly that reason—to disrupt the investigation? Suddenly the hall seemed darker, more threatening. What had been quaint and interesting in a filmic sort of way was no longer endearing. Amanda felt like she was going to jump out of her skin. Now she truly was confined, with no escape.

“Yes,” said Amphora. “No one can go out, and no one is allowed in except the police.”

“This is just amazing. Who do you think did it?” Now both girls were hugging themselves and fidgeting like they had to pee.

“I have no idea. Probably whoever killed her.”

“Yes,” said Amanda. “You must be right. I wonder. Maybe we can figure out who that was.”

“I’d say that’s a jolly good idea. What if one of us is next?”

“I don’t think that will happen. That cook was involved with some very bad people. We’re not.” She didn’t want to alarm Amphora, but the truth was that you couldn’t tell about anyone. For all she knew, Amphora herself had killed the cook and made off with the body, although that sounded pretty far-fetched.

“I suppose you’re right. But how did they get in without anyone seeing them?”

“It has to be someone here at the school.” Now she’d said it. Let the hysterics fall where they may.

“Oh no!” said Amphora. “I think you’re right.”

“It has to be. Someone would have noticed a stranger.” Unless they were well disguised. She didn’t even want to go there.

“Yes. Of course. So who, then?”

“Good question. Let’s think this through.”

“Fine, but I’ll tell you one thing. At this point, we can’t trust anyone.”

 

 

Amanda knew she had to tell Amphora about their analysis of the pink sugar. She couldn’t hold back this information, or the stuff about the room and the gluppy things, so she sat down with her and explained everything she’d found. Amphora listened with wide eyes, then said, “We have to tell Ivy.”

“Yes, of course,” said Amanda.

“No, I mean we really have to tell Ivy.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t understand. Ivy is a genius. She hears things you and I don’t notice. You wouldn’t believe the things she’s figured out.”

“Do you want to tell me?” said Amanda. Maybe this was a chance to patch things up with her two roommates.

Amphora was absolutely breathless now. “There isn’t time. We can talk about that later, but we have to get her in on this.”

“Then let’s get Nick and Simon here too.”

Amphora started. She looked at her friend as if trying to decide whether to say what she was thinking. When she did she seemed pained. “Simon yes, Nick no.”

“What do you mean? Why not Nick?” Maybe he was busy and Amphora knew it.

Amphora hesitated. “We don’t, uh, like him.”

“You don’t?” Amanda couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Who wouldn’t like Nick? Well, Simon obviously didn’t, although she wasn’t sure why. Nick was amazing. They were both amazing, actually. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe like was repelling like.

“No,” said Amphora.

“Why not? He’s so nice, and smart.”

“He’s completely full of himself and he ignores me and Ivy.”

“No he doesn’t,” said Amanda. “He talks to you all the time.” Her hopes for a détente with Amphora were diminishing. The girl was being difficult over nothing. Maybe Amanda should transfer to another dorm room, Editta’s perhaps.

Amphora looked her straight in the eye. “You’re so besotted with him you can’t see it. He’s completely wrapped up in himself. Didn’t you say he was an actor?”

“Yes, but—”

“He’s insecure. He has to be the center of attention.”

“No he’s not, Amphora. I think you must be jealous or something.”

“Uh uh. You should watch him sometime.”

“All right, fine. I disagree with you, but we won’t ask him. Ivy and Simon it is. How about if we meet back here in half an hour?” She was starting to fume but she’d deal with the Nick issue later. Right now they had to figure out who had removed the cook’s body.

Chapter 27

Putting Two and Two Together

When they all met back at the common room, Amanda brought everyone up to date on the facts. “Let’s summarize what we know so far,” she said. “Maybe we can make sense of all of this.

“The cook was sneaking around with bags of sugar she took from the pantry. These ended up disappearing. We assume she stole them, but we don’t know why or what she did with them. I wish there were a blackboard in here.”

“Hang on,” said Simon, racing for the door. “I’ll get us one.”

“He’s nice,” said Ivy, when he’d disappeared.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “He’s a good guy.”

Amphora looked at her feet. Amanda suspected that she and Simon still weren’t getting along.

Clack, clack, clack. Simon came back through the door with a portable blackboard in tow. The chalk on its ledge rattled as he navigated over rug edges and floor seams.

“Here ya go,” he said, brushing some dust off his hands and getting it all over the group.

“Simon,” whined Amphora. “We’re sitting right here.”

“Oh, sorry.” He sat down with his hands underneath his butt as if he were trying to contain the dust on them.

“Thanks, Simon,” said Amanda, standing and picking up a stubby piece of chalk. “Nothing longer than this, huh?” Simon started to get up. “Never mind. This will do.” She began to write on the board, which still had bits of letters left over from its previous use. It looked like someone had been discussing prisons and jails, but she couldn’t be sure.

Squeak. Everyone covered their ears as Amanda wrote. “We found spots of pink powdered sugar around the school. This sugar was different from the white sugar in the bags, not only in appearance and texture, but also because it had been treated with some kind of a virus by person or persons unknown for unknown reasons.”

“The glusoheptaminecytorazzmatazz virus,” said Simon.

“Easy for you to say,” said Ivy, grinning.

Squeak. “There is also the secret room Nick and I found with bags of the pink sugar in it, and the slime mold that was eating the pink sugar,” said Amanda, drawing a really dumb-looking picture of the gluppy things. They looked like lava lamp lumps or some half-formed jello bits. “So probably all this pink sugar was stored there and the spots we saw were just leakage. That pink sugar has also disappeared, except for the samples we collected. We do know that my father was kept in that room because we found his watch there, but we’re not sure exactly when. We don’t know how he got there or who took him.”

“What is that you’re drawing anyway?” said Amphora.

“It’s slime mold,” said Amanda. “Never mind. I’m in a hurry.” She suddenly had visions of Jill and Laurie and the stick dogs. Sometimes Amphora reminded her of them. “Anyway, we also know that the cook made some kind of weird phone call. And now she’s been murdered and her body has disappeared. It’s probably safe to say that the cook was killed because of whatever has been going on with the sugar, and probably with my father’s kidnapping as well. I mean her head was in a bag of sugar. That’s a message if I ever saw one.”

“Yes,” said Amphora. “And that blood Simon saw, I’m afraid to say, was probably your father’s, Amanda. I’m so sorry.” Now she was being nice. You could never tell with her.

“Thanks,” said Amanda, deciding that Amphora meant well but was just gauche sometimes. “Unfortunately, you’re probably right. Unless it was the cook’s or whoever she might have been working with. Although that doesn’t make sense. Simon saw the blood weeks ago and she’s only been killed just now. I suppose it’s possible it was just an injured animal or something and has nothing to do with any of this.” She cringed thinking about the poor squirrel or bird it might have been.

“Probably true,” said Ivy. “There’s no reason to think it was your father’s. That was quite a while ago.”

Squeak. “Of course there’s also the explosion and Professor Pickle’s disappearance,” said Amanda, illustrating her point with a drawing of a pickle that looked like something she didn’t want to name. “Don’t say it, Amphora.”

“Who, me? I’m not saying a word,” said Amphora eyeing the shape and grimacing.

“We suspect the slime mold used to live over by the garage and the explosion destroyed their habitat,” said Amanda. “That’s why they ended up near the pink sugar and the secret room.”

“Do we think the explosion and the pink sugar are connected?” asked Simon. “If the explosion was the class project, it doesn’t seem likely. The teachers wouldn’t murder someone for a class project.”

“No,” said Amanda. “I don’t think they are. And my father—” She started to choke up. “That’s not part of the class project. No way.”

“No,” said Ivy. “Of course not. But it does seem that the sugar, the cook, and your father are connected somehow. The explosion is separate. It has to be.”

“And Professor Pickle?” said Amanda, erasing the shape so as to forestall any more adverse reactions from the group.

“Tricky,” said Simon. “We don’t have a clue about what’s going on with him. It’s possible he’s connected to the sugar thing, but his car was also at the center of the explosion. That would be some coincidence.”

“He may have nothing to do with either of these things,” said Amanda.

“That doesn’t seem likely,” said Ivy. “His car . . .”

Squeak. Amanda attempted to draw a picture of Professor Pickle’s car. “If that’s the case, he’s connected with the class project somehow. But it does seem weird. His classes have been suspended because they couldn’t get anyone else to teach them. Would the teachers go that far? Making a teacher disappear while he’s needed at the school?”

“Who can tell about these teachers?” said Simon. “You wouldn’t think they’d blow up a building and everything in it just as an exercise either, would you?”

“No,” said Amphora. “That’s pretty loony.”

“Do you suppose Professor Pickle is your father’s kidnapper?” said Simon.

“Oh boy,” said Amanda. “That’s a mind-boggling idea. I don’t see how. Why would one of the teachers do something so terrible?”

“I don’t believe it,” said Ivy.

“Me either,” said Amphora. “The man is weird, but that doesn’t make him a criminal.”

“But someone around here is,” said Amanda. “Someone killed that cook and took her body. That sounds like a criminal to me.” She shuddered.

“Back to the project,” said Simon. “We haven’t begun to solve that. Who blew up the garage and why?”

“Good question,” said Amanda. “We seem to have gotten stuck on it. We haven’t been able to find any trace of a bomb. We’re not sure if Professor Pickle was the target, although he seems to have had a lot of enemies. We have no other likely targets, motives, or suspects. But let’s see if we can figure out this sugar thing and the cook’s murder. Maybe that will lead us to all the answers. I think we should start by profiling the cook.”

“Yes,” said Simon. “Who was she, and why was she involved in whatever this is?”

“I can tell you something,” said Ivy.

“What’s that?” said the others all at once.

“She isn’t really a cook.”

“You can say that again,” said Simon sticking his finger into his throat. Everyone laughed. Not all that appetizing to begin with, the food had definitely deteriorated since the beginning of the term. Sometimes Amanda was so frustrated she wanted to invade the kitchen and do the cooking herself, although she wasn’t that good. She’d never cooked for more than about four people anyway and couldn’t imagine what it would be like preparing meals for more than two hundred. The thought made her shiver. Maybe they did have something to thank the cook for.

“No, I mean she really isn’t a cook,” said Ivy, who herself looked thinner. Apparently no one liked the food these days.

“How do you know?” said Amphora.

“I heard her talking.”

“What did she say?” said Amanda.

“She said, ‘I had to fake that reference. As you know I’m no cook.’”

“Well, she must have known something about cooking,” said Amphora, “or how else could she feed all these people?”

“Her assistant,” said Ivy. “She was doing all the cooking.”

This was new. Why hadn’t Ivy spoken up before? “Why would she go along with that and not tell?” said Amanda, suddenly noticing that today’s decoration was 1950s sitcom, complete with a starburst clock over the fireplace.

“Because the cook had something over her,” said Ivy.

“Blackmail?” said Simon. “This place is really messed up, isn’t it?”

He had a point. Every two minutes some other weird thing happened or was revealed. Amanda felt dizzy just thinking about everything she was having to keep track of. She pulled out her phone and made more notes. She certainly couldn’t keep these gazillion facts and theories in her head. “You heard her say this?”

“I heard enough,” said Ivy.

“What did she have on the cook?” said Simon, standing up and pacing.

“I don’t know. What’s wrong with your foot, Simon?”

“Nothing,” said Simon. “I just tripped a little. You heard that, did you?”

“You know what this means?” said Amphora.

“What?” said Simon, putting one foot carefully in front of the other as if to measure them.

“She was the one who killed the cook,” said Amphora. “She had a very strong motive.” She looked pleased with herself. Amanda hadn’t seen her look like that before. Suddenly she realized that she’d been unfair to her friend. She seemed to be hurting and Amanda hadn’t even noticed. She was glad Amphora had found something to feel good about, even if it was on such a miserable subject as this one.

“She did,” said Ivy, “but she wasn’t the one.”

“How do you know?” said Amanda.

“Because I know who did,” said Ivy.

“You know?” said Amanda. “Who was it?”

“The doctor.”

“How do you know?” said Simon.

“I heard his footsteps,” said Ivy. “Just like I can hear yours right now, Simon.”

Simon stopped pacing and turned toward Ivy with a “Cut it out” look. Amanda stifled a laugh.

“Where? When?” said Amphora.

“In the secret room. I heard them through the bathroom wall.”

“Okaaaaaay,” said Amanda. “And how did you know it was the doctor?”

“You can see me doing it right now. I can tell people’s gaits, weights, and shoes,” said Ivy. It was amazing enough that Ivy could identify footsteps at all, but to tell whose was whose through a wall and on another floor was mind-boggling.

“Wow, you are a genius,” said Amanda. “But how do you know that just because the doctor was there he was the one?”

“I heard him say so,” said Ivy.

“Of course you did,” said Amanda. “Silly me. When was this?”

“At the time I wasn’t sure, but when I went to see him about my cold, I heard him talking really softly on the phone. He said, ‘It’s all been taken care of. We won’t have to worry about her anymore. Just a little blunt force trauma.’”

“That’s not really admitting it,” said Simon. “It’s pretty circumstantial.” He plopped down in front of an antiquated-looking vacuum-tube TV and played with the knobs.

“It’s good enough for the moment,” said Ivy. “Please don’t do that, Simon. It’s distracting.”

Simon looked embarrassed and stopped what he was doing.

“For our working theory,” said Amanda. “We’ll need more proof than that, of course.”

“Of course,” said Ivy. “And we’ll get it.”

“I have no doubt of that, Ivy,” said Amanda. “You’re our secret weapon.” She grinned. “So the doctor did it. He was obviously in on the whole sugar thing, although we don’t know why. The cook wasn’t really a cook. Is he really a doctor?”

“I’m pretty sure he is,” said Ivy.

“He is,” said Amphora. “My parents know him.”

“Your parents know him?” said Simon. “I guess they were fooled too then.”

“Yes,” said Amphora. “They’re going to be pretty unhappy when they find out.” Amanda was feeling bad for her again. Things hadn’t been going so well for her roommate lately. She’d have to try to cheer her up.

“They were probably doing it for the money, then, right?” said Amanda.

“That’s a good working hypothesis,” said Simon, attempting to look into the heart of the TV’s vacuum tube.

“One thing I don’t understand,” said Amphora, “is how they hired her. If she isn’t a cook . . .”

“I was wondering that,” said Amanda. “But you did hear her talking about a reference, Ivy.”

“Yes, that must be it,” said Amphora. “You know, we’ve got to tell Thrillkill about the doctor. I must say I’m not looking forward to my parents hearing about this.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Amanda. “This just shows us how easy it is to be fooled. We’re going to have to be extra careful from now on.”

 

 

But when they went to tell the headmaster what they’d discovered, Nick intercepted them. “You can’t go in there,” he said, motioning toward the hospital.

“Why not?” said Amanda.

“It’s a crime scene,” said Nick. “The doctor’s been murdered.”

Chapter 28

Bunch of Nut Jobs

Amanda couldn’t believe there had been another death at Legatum. She looked toward the hospital, which was just down the hall from the administrative offices. She could see only a little of the reception room through the open door. Nothing looked different but she knew Nick wouldn’t make up some crazy story. Whatever was going on was way more nefarious than she had imagined. Amanda had heard that sugar wasn’t good for you but she’d never dreamed it would be this bad. The cook must have been involved in something truly evil.

“That’s it. I’m leaving,” said Amphora, taking one look and turning back around. “It’s getting way too dangerous around here.”

“You can’t,” said Simon. He tried to block her but she shook her head and kept going.

“Please come back,” said Nick, flashing his smile to Amphora’s back.

“No, wait,” said Amanda. “I don’t think we’re in danger. I think this is between the criminals.”

“Why do you say that?” said Amphora, stopping mid-stride.

“Because everyone who’s been hurt or killed has had something to do with the conspiracy,” said Amanda.

“Conspiracy? Wow,” said Amphora. “Did you have to say that? Now I feel even more paranoid.”

“You know that’s what it is,” said Amanda. “We’re dealing with a criminal syndicate, and the cook and the doctor were part of it.”

Simon nodded.

“You’re right,” said Ivy. “They’re killing each other. There’s no reason for them to come after us.” She patted Nigel on the head.

“Unless they find out that we’re able to expose them,” said Simon, absently petting Nigel’s back. The dog wagged his tail and brushed Simon’s leg.

“Aaaaaaagh!” yelled Amphora, shaking her head wildly. “I can’t take this.”

“Yes, you can,” said Ivy. “We’re just kids. They won’t come after us. And anyway even if we did tell how would they know?”

Amphora wasn’t convinced. “Don’t you see? They’re all over the school. We have no way of knowing who’s involved. It could even be one of us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Amanda, looking over at Nick to see what he was thinking of the conversation. He was listening intently and appeared to be on the verge of doing something, but she had no idea what.

Suddenly everyone was talking at once. Ivy held up her hand and they all went quiet.

“Simon, why don’t you start on that idea of profiling everyone in the school?” she said. “Amphora, I’ll show you some relaxation techniques I know. They help me when I can’t turn my brain off. Nick, if you want to check out the cook’s assistant, that would be very helpful. And Amanda, we’ve got to tell Thrillkill what we know.”

“I agree with that,” said Amanda. “Let’s go.”

“You go,” said Amphora. “I’m going to go shut myself in my room.”

“Our room. We should stick together,” said Amanda. “But not there. Come on, Amphora.”

“But what if—”

“Please,” said Amanda. “I’ll feel better if you’re with us.”

“Oh, all right. But I reserve the right to pull an Amanda.”

“What do you mean?” said Nick.

“You know,” said Amanda, sticking her finger in her throat.

“Ohhhhh,” said Nick. He turned and grinned at Amanda. “That kind of an Amanda.”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

 

 

Funnily enough Thrillkill was actually glad to see them. He listened carefully to their story and then said simply, “Yes. That tallies with what we know.”

“You knew about this?” said Amanda.

“Of course. You don’t think we’re unaware of what’s going on around here, do you?”

Amanda wanted to scream. If they were so aware, how had they let this happen? Unless they were all in on it. Now she started to think Amphora might be right. Maybe they should find a way to leave.

Surely the alumni wouldn’t let a bunch of criminals take over the school. Amanda’s mind was running away with her. She’d been through so much in the last few weeks she was becoming completely paranoid. She didn’t trust anyone anymore, even herself. Well, maybe Nigel. That was about it, although if Ivy had been turned, you couldn’t even trust him.

Who could have killed the doctor? Maybe it was the same person who had killed the cook. Whoever it was, they were ruthless. Who around here qualified?

Truth be told, just about everyone. You had to be pretty hard-edged to teach here in the first place. The same was true for the staff. For the first time, Amanda realized that being a detective was an extremely dangerous occupation and only the strongest made it. Perhaps the explosion had been a way of winnowing out the weak students, the ones who wouldn’t succeed. It sure was a weird way of doing that, though.

If everyone was ruthless, how could she tell who had killed the doctor? Assuming that the person’s motivation was money, as it seemed to be or why be part of a crime syndicate—serial killers would work alone or in pairs, and they wouldn’t steal sugar—then how could you tell one suspect from another? Who needed money more than the rest? Maybe that was the direction her investigation should take.

As she was thinking about that, it hit her again that Thrillkill had said nothing about her father. It had been two days since he’d been taken and there had been no news whatsoever. Was it possible that the culprit was Thrillkill himself? That would explain a lot. First of all, it would account for his silence on the matter of the kidnapping. Second, he had better access to everything at the school than anyone else and was taken completely for granted. He could be seen anywhere and no one would question him.

Of course, the same could be said for the teachers. With the exception of male teachers in the girls’ dorm and vice versa, none of them would look out of place anywhere on the campus. So she had to look deeper.

What did she know about the teachers? Some of what she knew was from her own experience and some of it was hearsay. A small portion came from the school’s catalogue, which was not accessible on the Internet for security reasons. She’d go back to her room and compile a dossier on each teacher and then see what she could tell. It might be a good idea to do the same with the staff and the rest of the students. That was a huge task, though. The school hosted two hundred detectives in training!

Thrillkill thanked them and sent them away. He told them once again that if there was any news, he would text everyone. As if, thought Amanda. He had yet to keep that promise.

 

 

Back in her room, it didn’t take Amanda long to come up with a rudimentary profile of all the teachers. She knew more about them than she thought she did.

 

Richard Stegelmeyer, Crime Lab. Chemist. Abrupt and ill tempered. Writes bad horror novels. Argues with the other teachers. Seems to be obsessed with blood. Has put many criminals in prison, including Graham “Maps” Glappsy, a very scary serial killer. Conclusion: Seems dedicated but could be a loose cannon. His creative streak is a plus. Loner, not likely to work with others. Financial situation unknown. Probably writes only for ego because he isn’t going to make any money with those awful books. Does have enemies, though. Possible motive to be a criminal: None. More likely to take out his frustrations on a publisher than Dad.

 

Basil Hoxby, Pathology. Purplish skin. People fear him. Reads ancient Greek and Roman literature. Afraid of squirrels. Not directly responsible for putting criminals in prison. Former coroner in Swansea. Conclusion: Inner-directed. No enemies. Unlikely to work with others. Too weird. Financial situation unknown, but it doesn’t seem that he needs much money. Possible motive: None. No guts either.

Follifoot Buck, Profiling. Dry sense of humor. Can be snide. Has put many criminals away, including Reiko Flamp, a notorious cybercriminal. Used to be a psychotherapist. Conclusion: Egotistical, smart, knows how to manipulate people. Seems practical, so probably no money problems. He wouldn’t let himself get into a bad situation. Possible motive: None. No connection with Dad.

 

Christopher Scribbish, Evidence. Affable, good sense of humor. Very public school. A bit scatterbrained. Specializes in cold cases. Testifies in court often. Conclusion: Seems really nice, but those are probably the ones you have to watch out for the most. Does have enemies from all those court appearances. Rather mysterious. Financial situation unknown, but he does wear nice sweaters. Maybe he gets a deal on them or something. Possible motive: Unknown. He’s so shadowy there might be one, though.

 

Bill Pickle, Textual Analysis and Language. Petty and snobby. Obsessed with his car (a Triumph Roadster) and golf. Skinflint. Knows nine languages. Occasionally testifies in court. Conclusion: Lots of enemies just because he’s so annoying. Financial situation: he could be living beyond his means with that car and all that golf. Motive: Hard to imagine one.

 

Barry Pole, Fires and Explosions. Burned in a house fire when he was a child. Cheerful. Consults to fire and police departments. Hunts fossils. No contact with criminals. Conclusion: Nice guy, no enemies. Financial situation looks stable, but then you never can tell. Motive: None that I can see.

 

Trixie Sidebotham, Observation and Research. Reserved and reticent, meticulous. Not well liked. Talks to herself. No direct contact with criminals. Consults to police departments. Conclusion: May have enemies. Financial situation probably fine. What does someone that old need with money? Motive: None I can think of.

 

Ken Kindseth, Forensic Photography. Boyish, cool, awesome. Has hidden talents. Smells like vinegar. Thought to use Rogaine. Testifies in court occasionally. Conclusion: Nice guy, no enemies, no financial problems, no possible motive.

 

Julia Browning, Sketching. Flamboyant, dramatic. Transplant from Texas. Paints pictures of caves. No direct contact with criminals. Conclusion: Don’t know her very well. Don’t think she has enemies. No reason to suspect financial difficulties. I think she has a couple of kids, though. They could be expensive. Motive: None, I don’t think.

Ducky Ducey, Logic. Energetic and enthusiastic. Plays guitar. Popular. Always late. Has put criminals in prison, including Biffy Throckmorton, the notorious cat burglar. Conclusion: Lots of enemies. He does have that windsurfing hobby, but how expensive is that? Very nice guy. Motive: None.

Winifred Also, History of Detectives. Athletic, very good at rope climbing. History buff. Writes detective fiction (cozies). Students love her. No contact with criminals. Conclusion. No enemies. Great person, but has that darkness inside. Does travel, so maybe needs money, but she makes extra from her books, so maybe not. Motive: None.

 

Honoria Pargeter, Toxicology. Lives and breathes poisons. Extensive knowledge of plants. Takes frequent trips to South America. Testifies often. Conclusion: Lots of enemies. Shady character. Needs money to finance those trips. Motive: Don’t know what it is, but there definitely could be one.

 

Ajay Mukherjee, Legal Issues. Interested in the differences between American, UK, and Indian law. Used to be a crown prosecutor. Pretentious and bombastic. Has put away more criminals than any of the other teachers. Got very close to cracking the Great Train Robbery loot mystery. Conclusion: OMG, is he bad tempered! Very wealthy, though, so no financial needs. Lots of enemies. Motive: Don’t know what, but I wouldn’t put it past him. OTOH, he doesn’t need money, so he probably didn’t do it. Also, he’s a fellow prosecutor, so why would he have it in for Dad?

 

Bertram McTavish, Procedure. Goes by the book. Likes sports. Testifies in court. Keeps a parakeet named Angela. Conclusion: Don’t know very much about him. Keep possibilities open.

 

Glassina Tumble, Disguise. Won awards for fashion work in the movie industry. Hard of hearing. Well liked. Demanding. Spent a lot of time in Hollywood and is good with American slang and idioms. No contact with criminals. Conclusion: No way.

 

Samuel Snool, Weapons. Intimidating. Testifies often. Has pointy handwriting. Conclusion: Very possible. Everything about him is hostile.

 

Particle Peaksribbon, Self-defense. Skilled in martial arts. Idolizes Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Cool. Makes frequent trips to China. Consults to police departments. No direct responsibility for putting criminals in prison. Conclusion: Nice guy. Needs money to travel, but makes extra doing consulting so probably okay. No enemies unless he’s beat someone up we don’t know about. Motive: None.

 

Seashell Feeney, Criminals and Their Methods. Goth. A little crazy from trying to think like a criminal. Occasionally goes undercover. Does not testify. Conclusion: The most likely of all. She knows everything about criminals. Motive: She’s too secretive to know what it might be, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

 

Saliva Snaffle, Secrets. Very little known about her. Everything seems to be a secret! All we know is that she can tell whether someone is lying. Conclusion: A definite possibility.

 

Okimma Redleaf, Cyberforensics. Brilliant white hat hacker. No contact with the public or criminals. Believed to have come from somewhere in the heart of Africa or the Amazon jungle, but no one knows for sure. Rumored to have breached computer systems of every major developed nation. Conclusion: Very shady. But if she needed money she could just hack some, so I don’t think it’s her.

 

Gaston Thrillkill, Headmaster. Specializes in locked room mysteries. Carries a hair dryer. Has put away many criminals, including “Jumbo” Pinchuk, a prominent figure in the Belarus Mafia. Conclusion: A definite possibility.

 

Some faculty, thought Amanda. A bunch of nut jobs. Almost any one of them might be in on the scheme, except Professors Ducey and Kindseth. She was pretty sure they weren’t involved. They just didn’t seem like the type. Which of course probably meant that they were.

She was reading the list over for the third time when she realized something. Detecting was just like making a movie. You had your characters, each with their motivations. You had a story, which adhered to a certain structure. You had props, costumes, and settings. All this she understood. She could figure this out!

She had to go beyond the obvious character motivation: money. Chances were that quite a few of the teachers had modest bank accounts, with the possible exception of Glassina Tumble, who’d gotten rich in Hollywood. Professor Mukherjee was well to do too—he certainly dressed like he was and he drove that Bentley—but that didn’t prove anything. So money might have been a factor if any of them had spent beyond their means or had some financial emergency, like a sick relative.

There had to be something more, though. In a film the protagonist always has some kind of internal problem. This was something that was making his or her situation difficult. In the course of the story, they’d have to face down that problem in order to get out of the difficult situation. So what she needed to do was figure out each person’s internal problem.

Some of these people seemed to have unhappy personal lives. A number of them were unattached, and several of those seemed to be particularly unsuccessful in love. Could their criminal activity have come about out of that frustration? Perhaps some of them were having family problems. Difficult children? Or parents?

Why didn’t she know more about Christopher Scribbish? He seemed pleasant enough, but nobody seemed to gossip about him and his bio was very skimpy. Maybe he was the one, a man without a past because it was too horrible to mention. And Professor Snaffle. Now there was a weird one. She was stranger than Professor Feeney. Six foot one. Probably from somewhere in Eastern Europe, at least if you judged by her accent, which could be a fake. Probably was, when it came to that. For that matter, how could she be sure that any of the teachers—or the students, or staff—were what they seemed?

Snool, Stegelmeyer, Buck, and Sidebotham were downright unpleasant, a fact that caused Amanda to think that they were too obvious. They had to have issues. No one liked them, for a start. But if they were all like that, what was different about any one of them, really different?

What about Pickle? The man still hadn’t returned and no one knew what had happened to him. The whole thing was very mysterious. But maybe he was a little too obvious as well.

What about the dean of admissions, that Drusilla Canoodle? What did Amanda know about her? Nothing, really. She was an efficient, ordinary-looking middle-aged woman who spent all day behind her desk. No one ever saw or noticed her because she was always tucked away. But if she were the culprit, wouldn’t someone have seen her skulking around? Out of her element she’d be very noticeable.

It had to be somebody with an axe to grind. That was the only thing that made sense. And as far as she knew, there was only one person who fit that bill: the cook’s assistant. There was something in her past that was so bad she’d been blackmailed over it, or extorted, or something. Surely she didn’t have much money or she wouldn’t be working at a job like that, so being involved in a lucrative enterprise like a crooked sugar cartel would improve her financial situation. Amanda wasn’t sure what the threat was about, but the cook’s assistant’s problem had to be related to it. She was sure of it.

Now that she thought she knew why and who, or at least part of the why, Amanda needed to find out what the assistant was up to. Amazingly she hadn’t been fired and was still cooking all the meals. If the woman left the school, Amanda didn’t know what she’d be able to find out. But under the circumstances she might be able to pick up a clue.

Investigators were swarming all over the campus, so the assistant probably couldn’t conduct much illegal business now. The school was still on lockdown, so she couldn’t leave, but she might be able to get messages out. This probably meant her phone. How would Amanda get hold of that? It would mean sneaking into the kitchen again, or picking her pocket.

Then she got an idea. It was brilliant—so brilliant that she stood up and did a little dance. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Props! No one ever noticed them but they were absolutely essential. The vase on the table, the wallet, the coffee cup. And good old mobile phones, the prop everyone possessed and took so much for granted that no one even noticed them anymore.

“What are you doing?” said Ivy from her desk chair.

“Oh, nothing,” said Amanda. If Ivy could have seen her, she’d have been looking at a big, fat smile.

“Yes you are. I can hear you grinning. What’s going on?”

“Just a little idea,” Amanda said cagily.

“Tell me.”

“Better yet, I should tell him,” she said gesturing at Nigel.

“You’re nuts, you know that?”

“Good thing, too. Ivy, Nigel is about to become a detective.”

Chapter 29

Stowaway

“I knew you had something up your sleeve,” said Ivy. She wasn’t the least bit surprised by Amanda’s suggestion that Nigel pick the assistant’s pocket. In fact she heartily approved and told Amanda it would be a cinch.

They plotted out exactly what they would do. Amanda would create a distraction that would cause the assistant to run out into the hall during a busy time of day, and Ivy and Nigel would “accidentally” run into her. Of course this approach assumed that the woman would have her phone on her, but both Amanda and Amphora had watched her and she never seemed to let the device leave her person. In the confusion the assistant would probably bend down to pet Nigel, who would nuzzle her, relieve her of her phone, and pass it to Ivy.

However when they launched their plan, things went slightly differently from the scenario they’d envisioned. First of all, Amanda caught sight of the Wiffle kid peering at them from behind a corner. She couldn’t tell if he was spying on them or waiting to pounce, and it made her nervous. Then it seemed that the assistant did not, in fact, like dogs, and did not bend down to pet Nigel. Instead, she shrank from him and pushed him away, saying “Ew!” and “Get away!” Amanda was shocked and started to panic. They had to get that phone.

Then out of the corner of her eye she could see Ivy make a subtle gesture, to which Nigel responded by jumping up on the assistant and putting his paws on her shoulders. Needless to say, the woman didn’t like that at all and started flailing in all directions. Nigel slathered her with dog affection until she was protecting herself by holding her arms over her face and he could nuzzle her pocket. When he passed the phone to Ivy, the assistant was still cringing, oblivious to the theft, and with the prize in their possession, Ivy, Amanda, and Nigel ran to the common room (the theme of the day was coffee shop) and sat in the farthest corner to examine it.

“What’s that?” came a voice. Uh oh. It was the Wiffle kid and that nebbish friend of his, Gordon Bramble.

“What’s what?” said Ivy.

“You took something from the cook’s assistant. That dog helped you. I saw it.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Gordon.

“We didn’t take anything. Nigel’s just friendly,” said Ivy. “What is wrong with you, anyway?”

“You stole something and I’m going to tell,” said Wiffle. He was way more annoying than Simon. Simon had wonderful qualities to balance out—dwarf, actually—his bad ones. This kid didn’t seem to have any assets other than his name, and who cared about that?

“Why don’t you use that wild imagination of yours for solving the class project?” said Amanda.

“You don’t understand,” said the boy. “This school has rules. If you break them, you’re cheating.”

“Yeah,” said Gordon.

“We’re not breaking any rules. Go away,” said Ivy.

The boy took out his phone and snapped a picture of the two girls with Nigel. Ivy was holding the cook’s assistant’s phone, which looked exactly like a lot of other people’s.

“I’ve got proof,” said Wiffle. “I’m going to show this to Thrillkill.” He stuck the picture in front of them and waved it around.

“Fine,” said Amanda, ignoring it. “You do that.”

“I will,” he said, and the two boys walked out.

“Boy, is he stupid,” said Ivy. “If he really wanted to get us in trouble, he’d tell the cook’s assistant, not Thrillkill.”

“Yeah, but he might think of that,” said Amanda. “We’d better hurry. Now let me see.” She tapped and flicked, then stopped when she saw something that looked promising. “There’s a text here with a map on it.”

“Good. What is it?” said Ivy.

“The text is blank, but there’s a map showing someplace in London.”

“London? That’s bad. Are you sure there isn’t anything else?”

Amanda looked carefully, enlarging and reducing the size of the picture. “Positive. I’ve got to get there, Ivy.”

“You can’t leave. We’re still on lockdown.”

“I have to go. It’s the only way.” Amanda didn’t like the situation any better than Ivy did. She hadn’t spent any time in London and had no idea where anything was, but there were online maps and they were very good. She was sure she could do it, whatever “it” was.

“What are you going to do?” said Ivy.

“Train,” said Amanda confidently. “I just need to figure out how to get to the station.”

“By the way,” said Ivy, “what’s the assistant’s name?”

“Let me look . . . hm . . . oh here it is.” She scanned the screen. “Mavis Moriarty.”

Ivy was aghast. “Moriarty? As in Professor Moriarty? You’re kidding.”

“Seems to be,” said Amanda. “Wow. I guess they didn’t know when they hired her.”

“No. They couldn’t have. That explains a lot. This is huge, Amanda. You should tell Thrillkill.”

“No. I have to do this myself. He’ll rush in with guns blazing and ruin the whole thing. He’ll get my father killed.”

“This is very dangerous. At least get Simon or Nick to go with you.”

“I don’t want to get them in trouble. Simon is in enough hot water as it is, and I don’t want to put Nick in a bad situation. I’ll be okay. Really I will. Please don’t tell anyone. I’ll be expelled.” Suddenly it occurred to her that it actually mattered if she couldn’t attend Legatum anymore. When had she crossed over to the dark side?

“I’m going to worry about you,” said Ivy.

“I’ve got a backup plan,” said Amanda. “Things will be fine. Just keep your phone charged up. I’ll text you. Can you get the phone back into the assistant’s pocket as soon as possible? If she finds out it’s missing we’ll be in big trouble. Bigger than that stupid Wiffle kid even knows.”

“Yes. No problem. But please be careful.”

“I will. I’m going to leave first thing tomorrow.” She kissed Ivy on the cheek and gave Nigel a pat.

 

 

Early the next morning with everyone in class, Amanda reconnoitered. It wasn’t going to be easy to get out of a locked-down school. Plainclothes constables were guarding all the gates, and everything was secured and double-bolted.

There might be a way, though. Although no one was to enter or leave the grounds, that didn’t include delivery people. The school still needed food, and trucks were still coming and going. There would be a lot of security at the gates to make sure whoever was coming in was authorized, but she hoped there would be less checking of those who left the campus.

She ran up to the disguise classroom. Just a few minutes remained until the next class began, so she had to work fast. She went to the hair cupboard and grabbed a brown wig. Then she ran to one of the wardrobes and chose a maid’s uniform, first in her usual size, then realizing she’d lost so much weight that it would be too big, a smaller one. Finally she selected a pair of glasses. It was a gamble, but since most people didn’t pay much attention to the maids, she figured she’d be as good as invisible. The approach had certainly worked for her the night of the explosion. She put the disguise on, hid her bag and street clothes inside some linens, and made her way down both flights of stairs without anyone noticing. However when she got to the main hall, a lot of people were milling around and the going looked treacherous.

The best thing to do was to play her part with absolute confidence. If people saw what they expected to see, they wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She ducked into a utility closet and grabbed a trolley full of cleaning and bathroom supplies, and keeping her head down, rolled it toward the Holmes House common room and the restroom outside it. At one point a sixth-year boy gave her a good ogle (yuck) and a few of her classmates stared right at her, causing her heart to flutter, but miraculously they didn’t seem to recognize her. It was a perfect disguise and Amanda resolved to use it again—if she survived the trip to London.

She was just about to ditch the trolley in another supply closet when she heard Thrillkill’s voice.

“Miss, would you come here a moment, please?”

Oh no! The jig was up. She’d be expelled for sure and her father would die. She absolutely could not let that happen.

Then she had an idea. Actors could make themselves appear different just by changing their facial expressions. If she did that, maybe the headmaster wouldn’t recognize her. Put on an accent and it was worth a try.

“Yes, sir,” she said, affecting a Cockney accent and screwing up her face as subtly as she could.

“I say, may I have a packet of those towels, please? I seem to have spilled tea in my office.”

“Oh yes, sir.” She handed the headmaster a packet of paper towels.

“Thank you,” said Thrillkill. “Carry on.” He gave her a wink, turned, and left.

Amanda couldn’t believe it. She’d pulled it off. She wondered what Thrillkill would think if he knew. Now to ditch the cart and get to the delivery area. She pushed the trolley into a nearby closet and slowly walked to the south common room, then out the door.

Spotting a large truck pulling up, Amanda watched while the driver parked in front of the gym and opened the back. Then while he was rolling the delivery into the building, she ducked inside the belly of the truck and secreted herself behind an empty carton. When the driver came back a few minutes later, he slammed the doors shut, started the engine, and drove toward the front gate.

When the truck reached the checkpoint Amanda heard a guard ask the driver for his ID. They sat there a moment and then she heard the gate open and felt the truck surge forward. They were out of the school! She took off the disguise, changed into her own clothes, and settled in for the short drive.

Now she’d have to figure out how to get out of the truck and to the train station. She figured the station was fifteen minutes from the school, so she was hoping the driver would stop for a cup of tea or a snack near there, but he didn’t. After thirty minutes he still hadn’t stopped, and when he was still going after forty, she started to panic. What a dumb idea. What had she been thinking?

A million things started to race through her mind, starting with her parents and how this whole thing was their fault, although she wasn’t sure that if she’d been nearby she could have prevented her father’s kidnapping. Of course if they hadn’t moved to the UK in the first place it never would have happened. Or would it? The kidnappers could still have gotten him in L.A. A prosecutor was never really safe anywhere.

She thought about the new friends she’d made: Ivy, Amphora, Editta, Simon, Nick. They were way better friends than the stick dogs had ever been and she felt grateful to have them, even if they could be weird sometimes. And now she really did have her own authentic stick dog, Nigel, who was the best dog ever.

Then for some reason she thought about the whole idea of a detective’s mystique and how Simon had looked so ridiculous with that fedora. What was her mystique? Was it possible even to have a mystique when you were a Lestrade? Maybe as a filmmaker she’d develop one, but as a detective? The thought was ludicrous. What was Professor Also thinking anyway? Surely you could do a great job without having a mystique. Why did it matter?

When you really thought about it, some of the things they were teaching were downright bizarre. Sure, you needed to understand how to process evidence, build a case, and profile suspects, but drawing rooms? Stakeout recipes? Roof walking? Either there was a lot more to being a detective than she realized or these people were nuts. She didn’t see a practical application for sending messages via cat, or using nose grease to develop photographic images. Who used film in still cameras anymore anyway?

But she could see the utility of learning to sketch and make a record of what you saw if no camera was available. Or being able to tell how a person was feeling from the way they crossed their legs. Or processing over-large evidence. She’d never thought about these things before and suddenly she wondered why. Every one of them could be useful in making films. There was so much to know no matter what you did for a living. How would she ever know all of it? It was too much.

After an hour, first on curvy roads and then on what felt like a freeway, Amanda felt the truck slow and pull off the road. She heard the driver get out and slam the cab door. She couldn’t open the back doors from the inside and there were no windows, so she couldn’t tell where they were or what was going on. She heard the driver say, “Edinburgh” to someone, although he pronounced it “ed-in-bo-row.” OMG! The truck was going north to Scotland, not south toward London—completely the wrong direction. She had to get out now!

“When should we expect you?” she heard a man’s voice say.

“I should be rolling in at about two o’clock,” said the driver, who had returned and was starting the engine again.

What had she been thinking getting into that truck? Whatever gave her the idea that the driver would go toward Windermere? Instead, he must have gotten onto the A591 and headed for the M6. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Well, there was nothing for it now but to wait until the truck stopped again and get out.

The driver must have been schizoid, because he alternately sped up and drove in a fashion that seemed reckless, only to change his mind and slow down. This kind of driving, plus the road itself, did not do wonders for Amanda’s sensitive stomach. However she was in luck on that front at least. After the two vomiting incidents, Simon had discovered that gingersnaps helped settle the stomach, and from then on she was never without a handful, which she now consumed. They made her thirsty, though, and there was no relief for that.

She realized she should have told someone exactly what she was doing. She’d been arrogant and short-sighted running off secretly like that. It was that old one-man band thing of hers rearing its ugly head. She thought she’d learned to get along with people, to cooperate and share, but it seemed she hadn’t. She was just like Sherlock Holmes, and the realization made her ill despite the gingersnaps. And she was dumb just like Lestrade, which was even worse.

The truck rolled on for an eternity. Amanda could hear rain on the roof and wished she could open it and let the drops fall into her mouth. Then a text arrived. It read “midnight.” There was an image attached, a picture of her father bloodied and beaten against a cement background. The lighting was terrible and there was a green tint to the picture. The text was anonymous, again. One thing was for sure though. It wasn’t the Wiffle boy this time.

Amanda checked the time: one-thirty. If she was interpreting the text correctly, she had less than twelve hours to save her father. And here she was going the wrong way!

Chapter 30

Monkeyshines

Amanda’s arrival in Edinburgh was pretty much the exact opposite of what had happened at the school. There was no place to hide and the chance of being discovered was high.

The truck stopped abruptly and threw Amanda across the compartment. The rain was coming down so hard that she couldn’t hear anything else. Would the driver open the back and find her? What would he do? Call the police and report a stowaway? The police. Now there was a thought she could do without. Those bunglers would throw her in jail and call the school. Her father would die and she’d be expelled and probably sent to reform school.

The door opened slowly. She glanced around one more time but there was no way to conceal herself. As soon as he saw her the driver stared at her, dumbstruck. “Who are you?”

“I’m so sorry, sir,” said Amanda. “Please don’t tell anyone. I promise I’ll never do it again. It’s really important that I get to London.”

“London?” he said. “Yer going in the wrong direction, kid.” Then, before he could say another word, someone called out to him, “Thornton, come quick! Dick’s been injured!” whereupon the driver said, “Stay there” and ran off.

They were parked behind an industrial building and the driver had jumped onto the loading dock and rushed inside, leaving Amanda alone. Having seen a million movies, it hit her at once what to do. She ran around the side of the truck, climbed into the cab, grabbed the keys, and started the engine. Her feet could barely reach the pedals. Fortunately the truck had an automatic transmission so she didn’t have to worry about clutching.

It was a box truck, not one of those eighteen-wheelers, or she wouldn’t have been able to drive it. Since she’d never driven before, she didn’t have to overcome the right-left thing most Americans in the UK did. She just took off out of the parking lot and turned onto the road, running over the curb in the process and stalling in the street. She kept turning the key but nothing would happen. She was stuck and the driver was coming back!

She turned the key again and pressed the brake, which of course did nothing. She didn’t actually know the accelerator from the brake, but she figured since the pedal she’d touched had had no effect she should try the other one. She turned the key once more, this time stomping on the accelerator. The truck leapt into life and surged forward with a jolt. She pressed down as hard as she could and started speeding down the street, leaving the driver behind shaking his fist.

Amanda had no idea where to go so she just drove ahead. At first there were no cars around, parked or otherwise, so her weaving didn’t matter. But soon she was in different territory. The town, city, whatever it was, became denser, and she was driving like a drunk. She was sure she’d be caught or collide with another car or hit a pedestrian, and she started to panic. If she’d had all her wits about her she would also have realized that someone, maybe even the police, would be pursuing her, but she was too focused on steering to think such a thing. All she knew was that she had to get somewhere where no one could find her.

Fortunately she did manage to stop at red lights, although the mass of the truck was so great that she had to press really hard on the brake to keep from sliding into the intersections. She was still thirsty but there wasn’t time to think about that. It was just go, go, go, like what happens in a dream when someone is chasing you.

Then almost the worst thing that could happen did. She sideswiped a parked car, a fancy-looking coupe of some kind. She knew you were supposed to stop and exchange information—her mother had been rear-ended once—but she was in enough trouble already and couldn’t afford to be identified. She straightened out the truck and hit the accelerator as hard as she could, creating such a strong g-force that she hit her head against the headrest and twisted her back. She could see a woman come out of a shop and yell at her—the owner of the car, surely—but she kept going. Now she was a real criminal, not a simulated one as she and Nick had created when they were trying to plan the cook’s kidnapping. The cook. Boy, she had started one long domino chain.

As the car careened forward, Amanda was alarmed to see a woman and a child crossing the street ahead of her. The child was holding a stuffed animal that was nearly as big as he was. Amanda wasn’t used to calculating how long it took to stop a car, let alone a truck, and had no idea if she could stop before she hit them. She pressed the brake as hard as she could, pretty much standing on it, but it wasn’t looking good. She could see fear on the woman’s face as she realized the truck was heading right for her and her little boy. Suddenly the pedestrian grabbed the child, who dropped the stuffed animal, and ran as fast as she could back to the curb, just in time for Amanda to barrel through the intersection and crush the toy, which appeared to be a blue elephant. The woman was shouting and raising her fist and trying to get a picture of the truck’s license plate, and the child was bawling, but the light was green and Amanda stepped on the gas again.

It was only a matter of time before some disaster occurred. She couldn’t keep going like this, but there was no place to park the truck and get out so she had to press on. The streets were becoming narrower and narrower and turning into even more of an obstacle course, and she was sure that within thirty seconds her world would come to an end one way or another.

Then another extraordinary thing happened. She had just stopped at a red light when she heard a clunk to the right of her. Someone had flung the door open and was pointing a gun at her!

“Get out,” hissed a man dressed in a dark raincoat and a hat that covered his eyes.

Amanda jumped out of the truck, almost twisting her ankle in the process. The man pushed her aside, got into the truck, and peeled out, leaving her standing there in the downpour. Fortunately she had grabbed her bag and now she and the bag ran to the nearest shelter, which happened to be a pub called The Rooster’s Beak. She pushed the door open with her shoulder, dripped water all over the polished wooden floor, and dragged herself to the fire, which was happily blazing away as if it hadn’t a care in the world. Amanda didn’t know whether to be grateful or envious.

She cringed when the publican came over to her. She was sure he was going to yell at her about his floor, but instead he said, “Hey, little lady. You’re pretty wet there. Why don’t you hang up that coat and let it dry a tad? How about if I get you a cuppa?” He had a very heavy brogue, but she was used to listening to Scottish people in BBC productions and was miraculously able to understand him.

Should she? She was in an awful hurry and growing more anxious by the second, but he didn’t look too busy. How much of an imposition could it be? “Yes, thank you. That would be lovely,” she said in a voice that was much brighter than she felt. The man went off to get the tea, and after hanging up her coat Amanda sat down at the table nearest the fire and held her hair out to dry.

Now that she was out of the truck and the rain, she realized that things had turned out better than she could have hoped, given the circumstances. She may have ended up in Edinburgh instead of London, and she may have sideswiped an expensive car and almost killed two pedestrians, and she may have been thirsty and soaked, but she’d escaped the truck driver and the carjacker and no one was pursuing her—that she knew of. She was sorry about the dent in the parked car, but she knew the woman would recover. If she’d continued to drive, who knows what else would have happened? Of course she was stranded and alone, but she’d proved she could handle those things. All she had to do now was think her way out of this, quickly.

The publican brought her tea and she offered to pay with the little bit of money she had, but he turned her down with a wink and a smile. “It’s on the house,” he said. The steam rose from the cup in graceful swirls.

“Thank you,” said Amanda. “You’re nice.” She held out her hands over the tea and warmed them, turning them over and back again. The heat was heavenly.

“So, what brings you out on this foul day?” he said. He held out his hand. “The name is Kirkwood. Angus Kirkwood.”

“Amanda Lester,” she said, shaking his hand, which was as big as a bear’s paw. Now that she had a chance to look at him, she could see that he was a giant. He must have been six foot six, maybe taller. Editta would probably have wanted to know his height down to the millimeter and then would have calculated his weight to the gram. “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe it,” she said, picking up the cup and bringing it to her lips. The tea was scalding hot, so she blew on it.

“Try me.”

This was a tricky one. She couldn’t reveal the existence of the school or the nature of her mission, and she couldn’t admit to her sins on the road. But she was a good storyteller, and now that she had some liquid in her her mind was working again.

“I’m looking for my father,” she said truthfully.

“Your birth father?” he said.

“No, my real father. We got separated at a rest stop on the M6 and now I can’t find him. I hitchhiked here.” It wasn’t great literature but it was pretty innocuous. “We were on our way to a wedding in London and now we’re going to be late.”

“What time is the wedding?” said the publican.

“Six,” said Amanda. It was close to two now.

“Yes, I think you will be late. Can’t you text him?”

“He lost his phone,” she lied.

“That’s too bad. What do you think he’s doing now? Maybe he’s found a phone he can borrow.”

“Obviously not,” she said, embellishing the lie. “If he had I’d have heard from him.”

“This is a sad state of affairs,” said the man. “Have you at least let the bride and groom know where you are?”

“I tried but they haven’t answered,” she said. “I guess they’re kind of busy.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said the man, missing the holes in her story. “How about if I help you? You can take a train to London. I’ll give you cab fare to the station. You won’t arrive in time for the ceremony but at least you can put in an appearance.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” she said. Actually, the train would be the answer to her prayers but she didn’t want to seem too eager.

“But you haven’t. You can pay me back some other time.”

“I don’t know . . .”

“What’s the harm? You look honest. I know you’re good for it.” He smiled at her and the bridge of his long nose crinkled.

“If you’re sure.”

“I am. Now look, I can’t leave the pub, but here is some money. I’ll call a taxi. You go to the station and buy a ticket. Text me when you get there.” He handed her a card with his contact details.

“I can’t thank you enough,” said Amanda, feeling slightly guilty about all the lies, but not enough to refuse. She would pay him back, of course, so what was the harm?

“Just go and have a good time. Okay?”

“Okay.”

 

 

As she boarded the train she calculated that she would arrive at King’s Cross Station at about seven-thirty. Her timing was going to be extremely close. The tube ride to the factory would take another half hour or so, and then she’d have to walk, in the dark, to the place on the map. Under no other circumstances would she have engaged in such risky behavior. She hadn’t progressed far enough in her self-defense class to be confident that she could ward off attackers, if (shudder) there were any, and she didn’t carry a weapon. Too bad she hadn’t at least bought a can of pepper spray, but she’d been too rushed even to think of it. At any rate, when she got there, if she got there, it would be eight o’clock or later and then what? Maybe the place would be deserted except for her father and a guard. That would probably be a good situation. Fewer criminals to deal with. But even if it was, she had no idea what she was going to do and even less confidence that she could do it.

She checked Google Maps again. The London address was a big warehouse in the Silvertown district, ironically a place known for sugar, treacle, and jam refining once referred to as the sugar mile, which she learned about from Wikipedia. From King’s Cross she would have to take the Northern Line to the Bank DLR Station, then take the DLR to get to the West Silvertown Station, which was the nearest to her destination. She’d never taken a train or a subway before, but she figured as long as she’d familiarized herself with the route she shouldn’t have a repeat of the incident with the wayward truck, which had already set her back some five—five!—hours.

But the delay was just about to lengthen. After more than four hours of uneventful travel, the train stopped, between the towns of Grantham and Peterborough, about a hundred miles from King’s Cross. The passengers all looked around to see what was happening and there was a great hubbub. “What’s going on?” “Are we being robbed?” “Has the train broken down?” “Did someone have a heart attack?” The longer the train sat, the more agitated the passengers became. Amanda felt her own panic rise. The problem was undoubtedly mechanical, probably something simple, but she wished they’d hurry up and fix it. It was seven-thirty. There were only a few hours left in which to find her father!

After a couple of extremely long minutes, the loudspeaker came on and the engineer spoke.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “It seems that we’re having mechanical difficulties. We’re going to be here for a while. We apologize for any inconvenience this delay may cause.”

This was terrible news! If they didn’t get going soon it would be too late. Amanda toyed with the idea of calling the police, but she knew that would be the wrong thing to do, or would it? Maybe the time had come to give in. She considered the idea for about five minutes. If she were stuck here for more than a little while her father would die. But if she called the police they’d just mess everything up. Saving her father was up to her and her alone. Still, what if the train were delayed even longer? She wished she knew something about engines. Maybe she could help them fix whatever was wrong. As if. She wondered if Nick or Simon knew anything about that stuff. She was pretty sure Amphora and Editta didn’t, and of course Ivy. Ha! Ivy probably did. She’d hear how to fix the stupid thing. Amanda smiled. What a wonder that girl was.

And then something else happened. It would have been funny under normal circumstances, but now it was horrific. A monkey in a pet carrier escaped and started running around the train screeching. This disaster triggered a whole new round of hysteria among the passengers. “Get it away from me!” “It’s infected!” “It bit me!” “It’s got rabies!” Amanda could see the monkey fly by a few times while people threw up their hands and screamed, as if the poor thing were a tiger or a rampaging bull rather than someone’s pet. She felt sympathy for it. What animal wouldn’t be terrified under such circumstances? Still, it was nothing but a pain in the neck at the moment and she wished it would shut up and go back to its cage and the train would move again.

The monkey’s person, who turned out to be a bearded young man in an indigo T-shirt, was finally able to make his way through the crowd and track down his charge, which had climbed up onto a luggage rack above the seats and was nattering at the people below. The guy motioned to the monkey to hop onto his shoulder and said, “Come on, Pesto, it’s all right” and “Let’s go back to our seat, shall we?” Unfortunately, these pleas didn’t impress the monkey one bit. It just made faces and grabbed things from the rack to throw down onto the passengers, all of whom fortunately managed to jump out of the way. Still, they weren’t amused. “You’d better control that monkey,” said a short, fat man to the kid. “If he hurts someone, you’ll be charged with assault.” Amanda thought this an ungenerous thing to say, especially since the monkey couldn’t throw that far and no one was in any real danger. Still, she was highly displeased with T-shirt boy, who should have taken greater care with his decidedly unfunny pet, and was becoming so irrational that she was starting to feel that the delay was his fault.

The crowd having withdrawn, the monkey jumped down from the rack, circumvented its owner, and raced toward where Amanda was sitting. This was the wrong way. He, for she could now tell that it was indeed a male, should have been moving away from her, back toward his seat. Instead he stood right in front of her and gave her a huge simian grin with his lips pulled back and his teeth sticking out as far as they would go. She was in no mood for this. She gave him a deadly look and stuck out her tongue.

The monkey eyed her for a moment, then, coming to some realization or decision, scratched his head, stuck out his own tongue, and let go with a huge, great pee all over Amanda’s leg. Then he skittered back to T-shirt boy, climbed onto his shoulder, and gloated.

“That’s not funny,” yelled Amanda, looking down at her jeans and shoe and shaking her hands, as if that would magically fix everything.

The car exploded with laughter. The people behind Amanda snapped pictures. The family on the other side of the aisle was just about rolling in it. Even the passengers at the opposite end clamored to get a good look. It was a Marx Brothers moment, but one Amanda did not appreciate. Instead she burst into tears.

“Oh dear, miss,” said Pesto’s owner, making his way back toward Amanda with the offender clinging to his shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Let me make this up to you. I’ll pay for the cleaning.” He leaned forward and tried vaguely to help her. Despite the fact that his monkey had undoubtedly done this before, he had no idea how to clean up pee.

“Just get him away from me! GET AWAY!!! Now what am I going to do?” cried Amanda. She was beginning to feel hysterical. Her leg, shoe, and sock were soaking wet and starting to smell bad, and she didn’t feel that she could cope with one more thing.

“Here, let me,” said the kid, producing some paper towels from nowhere and dabbing at Amanda’s leg.

“No!” she screamed. “Get away! You have no idea!”

“At least let me pay for the cleaning.” He handed her a twenty-pound note and said, “Let me buy you something to eat. Do you like scones?”

“Leave me alone!” she yelled, flinging down the boy’s money. “Who takes a monkey on a train anyway? First it breaks down, then you let a monkey run loose, then it pees on me, and then you try to buy me off.” Completely out of control now, she grabbed someone’s umbrella and pointed it at the kid. “Don’t come near me.”

The other passengers were starting to become alarmed. The fat man stepped forward and said, “It’s all right. Give me the umbrella,” whereupon Amanda pointed the thing at him, then back at monkey boy, then back at the fat man again.

“See here,” said a dark-haired man with a thin mustache. “What’s this about?”

“That monkey peed on me!” Amanda screamed.

“Young man, get that animal out of here,” said the man. “What’s your name, young lady?”

“My name is get out of here. Just leave me alone,” said Amanda, still brandishing the umbrella.

“Let me help you, dear,” said a woman in a brown coat. “Are your parents here?” Amanda shook her head. “Well then, put down the umbrella and I’ll take you to the ladies’. Come on now.” She held her hand out and nodded at Amanda.

Suddenly the wind went out of Amanda’s sails. She gave the umbrella to the woman and let herself be led to the restroom, where the two of them cleaned her up as best they could. This disaster recovery in restrooms thing was beginning to be a habit, and she didn’t like it at all. She thanked the woman and went back to her seat in soggy jeans, shoe, and sock, shivering. She could still smell the monkey’s urine on her, which made her gag. It was a good thing she had one gingersnap left and it was dry and sanitary.

She was now so drained and upset that all she could do was sit there. The train had been stopped for forty-five minutes. Eight-fifteen. She’d never make it in time. She felt her body give up, and the tears came in a flood.

And then there was a jolt and a grinding, and the train started moving again. She was now six hours behind schedule. Less than four hours remained in which to save her father.

Chapter 31

The Sugar Factory

Despite King’s Cross Station having been a complete zoo and despite the fact that she’d almost boarded the wrong train to get to Bank Station, Amanda made it to her destination in what seemed to be one piece at slightly after nine. The walk from West Silvertown Station had been harrowing though. The sugar mile was industrial, and sparsely populated at night. Amanda had seen a couple of drunks who had called out, “Hey, girlie. Wanna have some fun?” and “I want to show you something,” and stuff like that. She’d quickened her already frantic pace and given them a wide berth. They’d made her more than a little nervous and she’d imagined herself in a movie to distance herself from the fear and keep it from overwhelming her. After that she’d heard odd noises, like someone screaming, and metal grinding, and had broken into a run, visualizing herself on a huge screen with monsters pursuing her. When she arrived at the plant she was panting.

The factory was near the London City Airport, and the noise of the jets was so loud that she could barely hear herself think. The warehouse, which was unmarked, was one of many along Factory Road, which paralleled the River Thames. It was dark now, but there was enough artificial light that she could see pretty well.

She was astonished to discover how much larger the plant was than it appeared in the satellite photo. It wasn’t just a factory, but rather a constellation of separate industrial buildings of different sizes, materials, and heights, including some gigantic round things that were probably silos. She saw a conveyor belt that would have resembled a roller coaster if it hadn’t been so straight—it was extremely tall and obviously meant to move sugar from here to there—and an enormous silver something or other with a U-shaped tube coming out of it that looked like a demented space shuttle engine. Some of the buildings were as tall as Legatum or taller, and some were shorter and squatter. Embellishing the surface of the buildings were a number of grid-like scaffoldy constructions composed of diamond, rectangle, and square shapes. The plant looked as old as the city of London itself. It would process and store an enormous amount of sugar, and it might just be where they were holding her father!

Suddenly she wished Nick were there. The whole time she’d been gone she’d been glad to be alone with no one watching her gaffes and offering advice. But now she felt like she needed a friend. Nick had been so supportive. Simon too, of course, and Ivy and the rest, but Nick was really dreamy on top of everything else, and she could have used a bit of sugar of her own at the moment. She’d been so lucky that they’d started school at the same time. Now they’d spend the next six years learning to be detectives together and she was actually looking forward to them.

She thought going round to the back of the plant might be the best approach so that people on the street wouldn’t see her, not that there was a lot of traffic to see her. On the other hand, if anything happened to her it might be better if someone did see her go in so they could tell the police. Oh well. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. She made her way to the back.

When she got there she was confronted with a large loading dock. It was late in the day, after business hours, so she wasn’t surprised to see that it was deserted. She climbed the stairs and looked through the windows of the double doors leading inside. It was too dark to see much and she didn’t want to call attention to herself by using her light. What she could see was a security lock and keypad attached to the door. You needed a code to get in!

This was not good. How could she know what the code was? She might press randomly until the end of time and still not come up with the combination. But maybe she could guess it.

She tried spelling out words with the numbers that corresponded to the letters in sugar, Moriarty, pink, beet, sweet, and so on. Nothing worked. She took out her phone and found a thesaurus, then tried synonyms. Still nothing. If she couldn’t get in all would be lost and she’d have to make her way back to the school and sneak in, mission unaccomplished. What would happen to her father then? She began to cry.

Suddenly for no reason at all she got an idea. It was way over the top, but she was desperate. She pulled out her phone, called Ivy, and told her about the problem. As she’d hoped, Ivy said, “I know how to do it.

“Each of the keys on the entry pad has its own tone. When you press them in sequence, they make sort of a melody, if beeping can be considered a note. Can you press them for me and tell me which one is which?”

Amanda pressed number after number until Ivy was familiar with the sounds.

“Okay, do this. Press 1, 3, and 4 all at the same time.”

“Really?”

“Really. You want a C augmented fourth chord. Try it.”

“Why C augmented fourth?”

“Just do it.”

Amanda did as she was told, and lo and behold there was a click.

“I heard that. Quick, push the door. Hang up and don’t talk anymore,” said Ivy.

Amanda didn’t have time to wonder. She nosed her way inside and looked around where there was more light. She could see more vats and conveyor belts and fans and catwalks and ribbed drums lying on their sides between yellow supports, and ramps, and a huge round thing that looked like the water tanks you see on L.A. hillsides, and forklifts. The whole place looked like a cross between an M.C. Escher drawing and something out of the movie “Brazil” with a dash of “Metropolis” thrown in. It seemed to be deserted. She heard crunching under her feet and looked down. Sugar! Lots and lots of it all over the floor. Yup. This was the right place.

All around her was so much white sugar she was afraid she might go snowblind—vat after vat of the sparkling stuff, glittering like the Pacific Ocean on a summer day. It was breathtaking, or it would have been at any other time. Now its aesthetic qualities didn’t register.

It was confirmed. There was something going on with sugar, something big. Maybe the kids’ analysis had been correct. If you were a cartel wanting to get control of the sugar market, you’d be knee-deep, er, head-deep in sugar too. So what was their strategy?

Let’s say you wanted to take over the sugar market in the UK. What would you do? For starters you’d put your competition out of business. One way of doing that would be to charge a lot less than they do and squeeze their profits until they folded. They’d discussed that. Another way would be to cut off their supply so they didn’t have anything to sell. They’d talked about that too. And another way—it was too terrible to think of. Another way was to do away with them, period. In other words, murder!

There had been murders. The cook and the doctor were dead, but they were the wrong people to kill. They weren’t the competition. They were working with the cartel, if that was what it was. Of course Amanda didn’t know if the criminals—for that’s what they were—had killed anyone else. Professor Pickle and that other teacher had disappeared, but Amanda didn’t see how they could be the competition either, and they might not be dead. Probably what had happened was that the cook and the doctor had double-crossed their employers, or leaked something. Anyway, how many people would they have to kill in order to eliminate the competition? That approach didn’t seem feasible. There were too many. So murdering the competition probably wasn’t in the plan.

Charging less than their competitors seemed the most likely possibility. If they were a cartel they had plenty of money, and lowering their own profits wouldn’t hurt that much, especially since the lower price would be temporary. Once they’d eliminated their rivals, they could make up the losses by charging more than ever. But if that was the plan, why involve the cook, the doctor, and the school? Why make virus-tainted sugar?

It had to be the cutting off the supply thing. If the virus that contaminated the sugar spread through everyone’s supply, the cartel’s rivals would have nothing to sell and that would be the end of them. Of course. That was it. The only thing Amanda didn’t understand was how they would protect their own supply and keep it from being infected.

And then she saw something curious. In the Rube Goldberg jumble of machinery she noticed a glass globe containing light blue powder. It was being added to the white sugar bit by bit. Another virus perhaps?

She got as close as she could but she couldn’t tell what the purpose was. The sugar remained white. Did that mean it wasn’t a virus? No, of course it wasn’t. The virus turned the sugar pink. This blue stuff wasn’t doing anything. That meant there was only one thing it could be: an antidote. It wasn’t changing the sugar. It was keeping it the way it was supposed to be. That was how they protected their supply. It didn’t matter if the virus ran rampant over the entire city of London because their sugar was immune!

It was brilliant, as long as the sugar they were producing wasn’t toxic. Amanda supposed they’d tested it. Their plan certainly wouldn’t work if they killed off all their customers. At this very moment the competition’s sugar was undoubtedly being invaded by the virus and going all pink, much to their surprise. They’d figure out why eventually, just as she had, but without an antidote it wouldn’t matter. She wondered how far the virus would spread. Would it taint sugar all over the world? If that were the case the cartel would be the only sugar supplier on the planet! How much would a package of cookies, er, biscuits, cost then?

Regardless of this discovery, she still had to find her father, and fast. She wandered around looking at everything and keeping her ears open, but with jets flying so close to the roof she couldn’t hear anything inside the building. As she reached the far side of the gigantic room, though, she saw that there was a large door in front of her with light peeking out from underneath. Maybe someone was there!

She put her ear to the door and tried to listen. When she had no luck, either because there was nothing to hear or because the sound of whatever was inside was being drowned out by the planes, she thought there might be a way to magnify sound and looked around for something to use as a hearing aid. She caught sight of a drinking glass someone had left on a table in a far corner and grabbed it.

When she placed the glass to the door and her ear next to it, nothing changed. She still couldn’t hear anything. Now she had to guess. Should she chance going in where some hostile person or persons might be waiting or should she look elsewhere? She’d come all this way and managed to evade a million obstacles. If she chickened out now there would be no ending to the story, and no one likes a story that just peters out. She thought of Darius Plover, turned the handle, and stepped into an airlock. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door beyond it and looked in.

The room, which was a smaller version of the huge factory floor outside it, was a mass of pink. There was so much sugar dust that she could barely breathe and she had to cover her mouth with her sleeve. The sticky, gritty stuff stuck to her hair, covered her clothes, and insinuated its way into her purse. She couldn’t see or hear any people, though, so she took the opportunity to explore, despite her discomfort.

As she made her way through the dust, she saw a series of metal contraptions in the middle of the room. There was something vaguely evil about them, like those giant towers in “The War of the Worlds,” but they were much, much smaller and looked like photographic tripods. They were lined up in a row, very even and precise, like soldiers. Behind each one was a bag of pink pellets.

Amanda couldn’t make head or tail of this. She wasn’t good with machinery, unless it was cameras. She walked around the room and examined the devices from all angles. They were just a bunch of metal and a lot of dust. When she stood in front of the towery things, however, she started to get a really bad feeling. Each one of them had a nose that looked like the bell of a trumpet or a trombone or . . . a musket! These were weapons!

It didn’t make any sense. Were these weapons used to guard the factory? Were the pink pellets the ammunition? Did the security guards use them?

At the thought of security guards Amanda began to panic. She’d forgotten there might be some. What if they found her? She’d better get out of there and think. Better yet, hide. That was it. She needed to find someplace out of sight. There was certainly nowhere in this room.

She made her way back through the airlock and looked around. She could see several doors, including one labeled “Office.” That would be a good place to stay out of view, plus there might be something inside that would help her. She opened the door and pushed, relieved to escape the cloud of sugar dust in what she was now thinking of as the pink room.

The office was stark, containing only a desk with a computer, a filing cabinet, some chairs, and a closet. Amanda thought she’d better check out the closet first in case she had to run in and hide. She went to the door cautiously and opened it. It was empty except for a couple of jackets and an umbrella.

She tried the computer next. She turned it on and was presented with a login screen. Great. How was she supposed to know the user ID and password? She couldn’t even begin to imagine what they might be and she didn’t see how Ivy could help, although she was pretty sure Simon would have some ideas. Unfortunately she didn’t want him to know what she was doing. The computer looked like a dead end. If she ever got out of this alive she’d be sure to pay close attention to her cyberforensics class next term. The list of skills she needed to acquire was getting longer and longer.

Her last hope was the file cabinet. She pulled open the top drawer and stood on her tiptoes so she could reach in. She grabbed the biggest folder, pulled it up and out, and set it on the desk. It bulged like an overstuffed suitcase. Papers spilled out all over the desk and threatened to fall to the floor. She spent a few seconds trying to subdue them, then started to flick through. Sure enough she’d been right. It was all there: the complete plan for sugar dominance in the UK—the virus, the antidote, price points, you name it. Simon was a genius for having realized what the criminals were doing.

In the second drawer she found a series of schematics. Perhaps these would show what those metal weapon-looking things were. She grabbed a folder and carried it to the desk, then sat down and opened it.

When she looked inside, she was astounded. There were drawings of the towers she had seen, with all the parts labeled. She’d been right. They were weapons. They were weapons that used compressed sugar dust as ammunition. Inside their chambers the dust, loaded in the form of pellets, was ignited and produced an explosion as powerful as that of hand-held missiles, and the criminals were manufacturing thousands and thousands of them! It didn’t make sense but there it was. Exploding sugar dust? It was crazy.

Then she remembered something she’d seen on the news back in L.A. A Mexican sugar refinery had exploded a couple of months before she’d left the U.S., killing a bunch of people. Somehow the dust had ignited and produced an explosion as powerful as if it were a gas leak.

It seemed that the criminals had arrived at the idea of sugar as a fuel through a complex analysis of various alternatives, including a number of designer fuels. But sugar had won hands down. It was extremely powerful. Unlike conventional explosives it was virtually untraceable. It was readily available. And who would suspect? It was just a food. Amanda had to admit that their idea was brilliant. Weird and lethal, but brilliant.

But it was diabolical too. The criminals were selling the weapons and the fuel to other syndicates around the world by the thousands and making gobs of money. The devices could be smuggled into buildings and trucks, onto ships and trains, and assembled on city streets. They came broken down in small, unobtrusive cases that looked like cardboard boxes or briefcase-like satchels. They could be assembled and detonated by an expert in sixty seconds, blowing their targets to bits before anyone realized they were there. And since they could be detonated remotely, the shooter would be completely safe.

Amanda reached for her phone. She had to tell Thrillkill immediately. But when she pulled it out of her bag it was all sticky and wouldn’t work. And to make matters worse, someone was opening the office door!

Chapter 32

Schola Sceleratorum

Amanda grabbed the folder and raced for the closet. She managed to get the door closed behind her just as two men entered the office.

“The shipment goes out at 4:00 a.m.,” said one of them. “If it isn’t loaded by 3:30, it will be too late. Everyone gets here at midnight. No exceptions. Say, do you smell something?”

“Like what?” said the other.

“I don’t know,” said the first man, sniffing the room. “Cat piss.”

Amanda tensed. If that monkey were to give her away she’d personally find it and throttle it.

The second man sniffed. “It does smell kinda weird in here. Oh, wait. The wastebasket. Our rubbish from lunch. That must be it.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Ugh, that’s rank.”

Amanda breathed a sigh of relief. Which didn’t mean that the monkey was off the hook. She was still fuming about its outrageous behavior.

“Everything is ready,” said the second man. “Fifty pallets go out the door by 1:00. It’ll take a couple of hours to load them.”

“You paid off the inspectors?”

“All taken care of.”

“And the captain?”

“I’m telling you, Jackie, everything is ready. Moriarty’s going to be real happy.”

Moriarty! The cook’s assistant? She was the mastermind behind all of this? But she was back at the school. Maybe she directed these crooks remotely. But why would the school be involved? This was a huge operation. Why not do everything right here?

Unless . . . the school was where the detectives were. She hadn’t thought of it quite that way before, but the detectives were the criminals’ worst enemies. If the criminals could infiltrate their home turf they’d weaken them significantly. Not to mention that they would completely humiliate them. Pretty smart. Eliminate your competition and your enemies at the same time. This was something the original Moriarty would have cooked up before breakfast. But Mavis Moriarty? She seemed a real lightweight.

Whatever the situation, those weapons were going out before dawn and Amanda couldn’t let that happen. She didn’t know where they were headed but it didn’t matter. Weird as they were, they were beyond lethal and had to be destroyed. Not only that, but she still didn’t know where her father was or whether he was even alive. She had to get away from these men and see if she could find him. What she’d do if and when she did she still didn’t know.

But whenever it was it wouldn’t be soon because the two men decided to eat their “lunches” and have a couple of beers, a project that took more than an hour. After they had left and Amanda finally emerged from the closet, she could see why. It wasn’t just a couple of beers. Nine or ten bottles littered the desk, along with greasy wrappers, condiment containers, and dirty plastic silverware. She’d thought she was hearing a lot of burping. Now she could see why. Yuck.

She thought maybe if she could find the men they’d lead her to her father, so she tried to pick up their trail. This wasn’t difficult to do, as their footprints were fresh on the sugar-strewn floor. The problem was that there were a million footprints and she’d have to distinguish the new ones from the rest.

As it turned out, this was less of a problem than she feared. The two men were wearing work boots with distinctive soles. One was an oddball swirly kind of thing and the other was a criss-cross pattern that almost looked like a plaid. If she were a criminal she’d camouflage herself as much as possible, but then these guys obviously weren’t the brains of the place. She wasn’t sure they even knew they were criminals. They seemed very far down in the pecking order.

She followed the footprints and the smell of onions across the factory floor and out another door into a corridor. It was very dark there and Amanda had trouble picking out the prints. Unfortunately with her phone all gunked up she couldn’t use her light, so she had to squint and do the best she could.

It was slow going. She still couldn’t hear anything and the smell had disappeared. The corridor angled around and around. There were doors on either side, all closed and unmarked. A couple of times she thought the prints led inside one of them, but after bending down and checking carefully, she concluded that the men had proceeded straight ahead. But the sugar was sparser here and the prints were disappearing so she couldn’t be sure.

Just as the prints were becoming so faint that she couldn’t see them at all, Amanda found herself at the end of the corridor facing another door. There were two words written on it in shiny gold letters: Schola Sceleratorum. She had no idea what that meant. Schola. Scholar? School? Yes, that must have been it. This was some kind of school. In a factory? Maybe this was where the criminals trained their workers. What did sceleratorum mean? It sounded like some place where they burned dead bodies. Skeleton? A school to teach people how to cremate? That made no sense, unless these people really were Murder, Incorporated. Amanda shuddered. This whole experience was starting to resemble a horror story. That didn’t sound like Moriarty at all. He was much cleverer and more subtle than these people seemed to be, although that didn’t mean his descendants were.

She extended her hand and turned the knob. The door was unlocked. She pushed it slowly until she could see through the crack. What she saw on the other side was baffling.

There, walking through an archway at the far end of what looked like a foyer, was Nick Muffet! But that was impossible. How could he be here? Why would he be here? Had he learned something about the criminals and set off to find her? Was he in trouble? It didn’t look like he was. He was looking nonchalant, as if he belonged in the place.

Should she call out to him? What if one of the bad guys heard her and captured both of them? Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. It would be better to follow him and take him aside discreetly. Then the two of them could look for her father together. When she told him what was going on, assuming he hadn’t figured it out already, he was not going to believe it.

She looked around to see if anyone else was there. No one was, so she pushed the door open and tiptoed into the foyer. It was gorgeous, nothing like the factory behind her. Polished wood paneling, stone columns and floor, sparkling chandeliers. Actually, it looked a lot like Legatum.

She crossed the room as quietly as she could and followed Nick’s path. Then, when she’d stepped through the archway, she got another shock. There, straight ahead, was a hallway lined with lockers, and it was full of kids just like her. What in the world would a school be doing inside a factory, and why would kids be there at night? Was the cartel renting out space to make money? She ducked behind a huge urn and listened. All she heard was the sound of kids talking, laughing, and carrying on, just the way she did with her friends. And then one voice rose above the rest.

“Hey, get your mitts off me, Moriarty. You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you?”

Amanda peeked out. A pasty-looking blond kid was staring into Nick’s face with a look that could kill. Why did he call him Moriarty?

Suddenly Nick saw her and froze. His face went all red and he looked angry in a way she’d never seen before. He stared for a moment, then marched over to her, pulled her out from behind the urn, and said, “What are you doing here, Amanda?”

She nudged him and said quietly, “You know. Looking for my father. Tracking criminals.” Then louder, “What are you doing here, Nick?”

The pasty boy broke into raucous laughter. “Who’s your girlfriend, Moriarty?”

There it was again. What was wrong with that kid? Didn’t he know who he was talking to? Was this some kind of nickname he’d given Nick?

“You shouldn’t have come here,” said Nick, pulling her away rudely. “You’ve made a lot of trouble for yourself.” He took out his phone and punched in a number, then said, “We have a problem.”

“I don’t understand. Who are these people?” said Amanda.

“I thought you were so smart, Amanda,” he said, sliding the phone back into his pocket. “You figure it out.”

“Why are you talking to me like that?” she said, searching his face, which was looking decidedly un-Nickish.

“You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?” she said. She wasn’t used to feeling dense and didn’t like it. Maybe the stress of the day was dulling her mind.

“Don’t you know where you are?” he said in a particularly nasty way.

“Yes. I’m in some factory run by criminals who are trying to take over the UK sugar trade and are making weapons out of pink powdered sugar. What I don’t know is what you’re doing here and who these kids are.”

“Do you know what Schola Sceleratorum means?” he said. He pronounced the words in a peculiar way. Maybe he knew Latin and that was the ancient Roman way of doing it.

“Haven’t the faintest idea. What does it mean?”

“School for Criminals, Amanda. This is our secret school.”

“What do you mean ‘our’?”

“Do I have to shake you, stupid girl? You really are Lestrade’s descendant. This school is our Legatum. It’s where we’re trained to be the most cunning, successful criminals on earth. Say, you smell awful. Where have you been?”

“None of your business. That boy called you Moriarty. Why did he do that?”

“Because it’s my name!” His face twisted into a rictus of contempt.

“But the cook’s assistant—”

“My mother, Mavis Moriarty.”

“Wait. Are you telling me that you’re descended from Professor Moriarty?”

“Bingo.”

“But you’re Nick Muffet.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to think.”

And then it hit her. He wasn’t kidding. He really was a Moriarty. But if he was, why would he have been going to Legatum? OMG, he’s a spy! He was only nice to me so he could find out what we were all up to. He never liked me at all.

Of course. She’d been so stupid. Why hadn’t she seen it? From the moment he’d walked her into the orientation he’d never really shared anything with her. She’d been so blinded by all the attention he’d lavished on her she hadn’t noticed that he never volunteered anything about himself. Under duress he’d made up that story about his family, told her exactly what she wanted to hear, but that was it. If anything he’d engaged in massive misdirection, feeding her bits and pieces of misinformation, giving her the idea that he was noble, altruistic, and true. And she had fallen for it like a cocker spaniel for a chew stick. He was an actor. It had been easy for him. Slap to head.

This also meant, of course, that he was in on the whole sugar conspiracy. He’d known what the pink stuff was all the time. Known that the cook had hidden her stash in the secret room, known . . . that they’d hidden her father there!

It also meant that he knew about the weapons and was okay with them. There was nothing sweet about him. He was a cold-blooded killer. In fact he’d probably killed the cook himself. And the doctor. And Professor Pickle and the other teacher, for all she knew. And now she was trapped with him!

But instead of being afraid she was furious. “How could you do this to me?” she screamed.

“I only gave you what you wanted,” he taunted. “You seemed to like it just fine. You’re so easy, Lestrade.”

“What did you call me?”

“You heard me.”

Amanda stared at him as the awful truth hit her. “It wasn’t that Wiffle kid at all. You sent me that text. But you were with me when I got it. How could you—”

“Do you really think you can’t schedule a text to be sent later, Amanda?”

He was enjoying this. She was so angry she wanted to sic that monkey on him.

“You’re a monster!” she cried.

“I certainly hope so,” he said. “It’s my aim in life to be as badass as my ancestor. You know, Professor Moriarty. The genius.”

“I hate you!” she screamed. “And I’ll get you. You just wait, Nick, if that’s even your name. I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do.”

But Nick just laughed. Suddenly the whole hall was laughing at her. She was so mortified that she thought her knees would give way, but that didn’t stop the anger. She’d never been so furious, not even with her parents.

Suddenly she felt a pain in her arm. A tall, elegant man with salt and pepper hair and ice blue eyes had snuck up and grabbed her. She’d never seen eyes so mesmerizing. “You’re coming with me,” he said, pulling her away.

“Thanks, Dad,” said Nick.

“Dad?!” said Amanda. “You mean there are more of you?”

“Of course,” said Nick. “More than you know.”

“But—”

“Shut up,” said the elder Moriarty, “or I’ll shut you up myself.” He turned to Nick. “How did she know where we are? Did you give us away?”

A guilty look passed over Nick’s face. She’d never seen him like that before. It was unsettling. “No, of course not. I have no idea—”

“If I find out that you’ve been lax you know what will happen,” said the man.

Nick went red. “I didn’t. You know I wouldn’t.”

“I know nothing of the kind. Now get out of my sight.”

Chapter 33

Trapped

The older criminal pulled Amanda into a classroom and shoved her onto a hard wooden chair. He grabbed some duct tape from a drawer—wasn’t it convenient that it just happened to be there—and secured her mouth, wrists, and ankles. Then he threw her bag across the room so hard that it hit a wall.

“Idiot Lestrades,” he said. “If we were able to defeat Sherlock Holmes, what chance do you people think you have? Your father thought he was so smart. What a fool. I should take you to him and show you how smart you really are, but there isn’t time. It doesn’t matter anyway. Soon this will all be over. Say, do you know that you stink? You should wash once in a while.” He eyed her with an expression so smug that it made her want to hit him, than and left the room.

She was so furious with Nick that she wanted to scream, but all she could do was make a sort of gurgling sound. On the other hand she kind of admired him, or she would have if she hadn’t been his victim. His ancestors were dashing. Of course he would follow in their footsteps. He must lead such a glamorous life. She wondered how her own might have been different if she’d been a Moriarty. It was obvious, wasn’t it? A life filled with intrigue and challenge, with limitless opportunity for creativity.

Except he was on the wrong side. No matter how exciting his life was he was still a bad guy. As much as she hated what her parents had done to her, hated the school, hated Lestrade and Holmes, she hated evil even more.

But that was all moot at the moment. Right now she had to get out of these restraints and away from these people, find her father, and get back home. Home. Surely the school wasn’t that. It never would be, and yet she’d just thought of it that way. How was that possible?

She had no idea how she was going to get out of this mess. Up to now she’d been lucky, but she couldn’t count on her luck holding. At this point in a movie, now would be the worst time, and then there would be a huge battle and the villain would be defeated and things would get better. But how could she make that happen?

At this point in a movie. Of course. That was it. Darius Plover had told her to trust the story. What had he said? The way to get to the cause is to determine the perpetrator’s motive and work backward. If you know why, everything else will follow. It was time for the everything else. Now that she knew the truth about Nick, she’d have to figure out his motivation all over again. But if she could do that, she might be able to find a chink in his armor, or the criminals’.

To say that the criminals’ motive was to make money was to be simplistic. You could make money by getting a job. Amanda couldn’t believe that they were all unqualified to work—Mrs. Moriarty certainly wasn’t—so there had to be another explanation. Of course in Nick’s case he was too young, so unless his family was experiencing financial problems, money probably wasn’t his motivation, or at least his primary one. Of course he might simply have been raised to be greedy. Some people were. But the original Moriarty wasn’t about that. Perhaps his descendants weren’t either.

No, Professor Moriarty had been prideful, arrogant, and contemptuous of anyone whose intellect wasn’t as well developed as his, which meant most people. Holmes had been an exception, of course. He was every bit as clever and intelligent as Moriarty, which had made them peers, and rivals. If these Moriartys were equally brainy, they might be similarly motivated to show how smart they were at every turn.

But what if they weren’t that smart? Or more to the point, what if Nick wasn’t . . . and knew it? What if he was insecure? She’d seen flashes of doubt once or twice when he’d stumbled in an academic exercise, but he’d been so quick to cover his gaffes that she wondered if she’d imagined it. But maybe he wasn’t so clever after all. Maybe he was just good at seeming clever.

She thought back to a day in logic class when he had messed up. He’d fallen into the most basic trap there was, and he’d been mighty embarrassed. He’d come up with a syllogism he swore was valid: “The person who committed the crime wasn’t in the national database. The national database lists people who have committed crimes. Therefore, this was the suspect’s first crime.” His reasoning was obviously fallacious. The suspect could have committed all sorts of crimes and not been caught, not been entered into the database. Nick should have been able to see that.

Yes! She was onto something, she was sure of it. Good old Nick Muffet might well be insecure about his place in the world and try to compensate for what he feared was a lower than Moriarty IQ. She’d seen it before, in some of the kids back in L.A. It hadn’t been about brains there. At home it was more about athletic prowess and attractiveness and how rich their parents were. But it had to be the same thing. If a kid felt inferior, he’d try to act as superior as possible.

But there was more to it than brains. Look at the conversation Nick had just had with his father. He hadn’t been such a big man then. Here was someone he couldn’t charm, who had power over him. Maybe he resented his father, a man who questioned his intelligence, abilities, and even his loyalty. That would have to make him hopping mad.

I’ll bet that’s it. And if that’s the case, I can use his weak points against him. Let’s say this is his internal problem. He’s running from his own inadequacy, so I’ll make him face it. I’ll turn him into such a bundle of neuroses that he’ll be paralyzed. Amanda was so pleased with herself that if she hadn’t had duct tape on her mouth, she’d have let out with a huge bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Of course she couldn’t do anything until she got free. She had seen a gazillion movies in which people had been tied up and managed to escape, and she mentally went through the possibilities. The fact that her mouth was covered made it more difficult because she couldn’t call out and trick one of the criminals into freeing her. But surely there were other options.

For some bizarre reason, her first inclination was to pull her thumb out of its socket and make her hand smaller so she could extract it from the restraint. This was a most unappealing alternative and she decided to make it a last resort. Maybe there was another way to shrink her hands or feet so she could pull them out.

One possibility was to make them colder. She couldn’t see a way to do that, though. There was no refrigerator or freezer in the room, not even an electric fan, and certainly no chemicals that would produce a cold effect, so that didn’t seem like the most viable idea.

The next alternative was to find something to cut the duct tape with. That seemed a much easier approach. The fact that her hands were stuck behind her back was going to complicate any moves she might come up with, but there might be something in the room she could use. If she could just slip her arms around whatever it was and saw through the tape, she might free her hands.

She looked around. It was a run of the mill classroom, with desks and chairs and a lectern for the teacher, a large flat screen on the front wall, a radiator, and blinds over the windows, which she could swear were underground anyway. There might be something in the back of the lectern, but other than that Amanda couldn’t see anything that looked promising. You can’t saw through duct tape with a chair leg.

What else could she think of? If all else failed, she’d find a way to get to that lectern and look around the back, but there might be something better. She didn’t have any hairpins or barrettes and she wasn’t wearing any jewelry, not that that would have helped. If only there were a scissors or a knife . . . wait a minute. Her bag! There was a scissors in her evidence kit. If only she could get to where Nick’s father had thrown it.

Fortunately the man had been in too much of a hurry to bind her to the chair, so she could stand up and kind of shuffle. That strategy didn’t prove very effective, though. Each move took her only half an inch forward and made her unsteady. As she edged forward she lost her balance and started to fall. Fortunately at the last second she was able to twist toward a desk and fall against it with her side rather than splatting on the floor.

There had to be a better way. Maybe she could lower herself to the floor slowly and roll herself to her bag. Or she could jump. She thought jumping would be easier, so she bent her knees and pushed off. That seemed to work nicely so she continued jumping around the room, almost losing her balance again twice, until she was next to her bag.

Now the task was to grasp the bag and bring it up onto a desk, or alternatively she would have to mess with it on the floor. In either case she’d have to bend down, so she went for the first option to ensure that she wouldn’t have to sit on the floor, which wasn’t that clean. Once again she bent her knees, but this time she did a deep plie and grabbed the bag from behind, then hopped over to a desk and placed it on top.

Her muscles were starting to ache, and she hoped it wouldn’t take too long to cut the duct tape and stretch them. She rummaged around in the bag until she caught hold of the evidence kit and tugged on the zipper once, twice, three times. It wouldn’t budge. “This is not a great time to stick, zipper,” she said. After about five tries, she started to panic. “Look, zipper, stop playing games. I’ve got to get inside. Please let me in.” Nothing. The zipper would not oblige. “Stupid, stupid zipper. Move, will you?” This kind of talk apparently did not endear her to the zipper and it held firm. “You idiotic thing! Don’t you know how important this is? You’re fired!” She flashed back to all her difficulties with actors and had to smile in spite of herself. “Okay, zipper, if that’s how you want to play it, fine. I’ll hire someone else.”

What else did she have in her bag? Money, tissues, gum, sunglasses, and a sticky phone. Not much good there, except wait a minute: the glass on her phone was broken. She could feel it. The elder Moriarty must have thrown her bag so hard that the phone hit the wall and smashed. She could use this.

She carefully extracted the phone from the bag. The broken glass was as sharp as she’d hoped and a piece had fallen off. If she could find that bit she could use it as a cutting edge. She stuck her hands back in the bag and felt around. There it was, a piece of glass about an inch at the longest part. It was awfully small for the job but it would have to do.

She grasped the piece of glass and twisted her wrist upward so it would touch the tape. This didn’t work well at all until she realized that if she twisted both wrists and pressed them to the small of her back, she could actually get the glass into the right position. Gradually she was able to make a small cut, then another, and soon her wrists were free. She tore the tape from her mouth (ouch) and then released her feet. Boy, was she stiff. She looked at the clock on the wall. Ten-thirty. She would have to find Nick fast.

She opened the door and edged out. There he was, still in the hall, or perhaps again, talking to a beautiful dark-skinned girl who was obviously impressed with whatever he was saying, and him. Amanda could barely stand to look.

Suddenly the girl looked at her and said, “Who’s that?” Nick whirled around and saw her. For about a second he looked surprised, and then his face hardened.

“What are you doing here, Amanda? Come with me,” he said, grabbing her and pulling her back into the classroom.

“I have to talk to you,” she said. His grip was as strong as his father’s.

“There’s nothing to say. This doesn’t concern you. How did you get away anyhow?”

“Nick, listen to me. Please.”

“I have no interest in anything you have to say, Lestrade. I’m calling my father right now.” He reached into his pocket.

“Wait, please. I have something important to say.” She tried not to plead. Don’t show weakness.

For just an instant, she saw a flicker of the old Nick, the Nick she knew, a tiny spark of interest, and then it was gone. “Shut up,” he said, squeezing harder.

“What if I said I want to join you?” she said, trying not to wince. “Join your group.”

“That’s rich, Amanda. How stupid do you think I am?” His handsome face wasn’t looking so handsome now.

“I don’t think you’re stupid. I’ve always thought you were brilliant.” This she meant. She’d always been impressed with his brain. Now she knew why.

“Good luck with that one, Amanda. You’re as transparent as the glass on your phone.”

“That’s not so transparent anymore. And I’m not. I mean, yes, I am. What you see is what you get.”

“Shut your trap. Too much talking.” He let go of her arm and went to stab something into his phone. She stopped him with a gentle touch. He recoiled.

“Do you remember what I said about Professor Moriarty? I think he’s awesome. I wasn’t making that up. Remember?” This was the truth as well and Nick knew it. The hand holding the phone relaxed almost imperceptibly.

“You know how I feel about my parents and Lestrade. I never wanted to be a detective. I told you that from the beginning.”

“So what?”

“So this. You and I are alike. Think about it. We believe in the same things. We don’t want to be like everyone else. We’re creative, we’re rebellious, we take pride in what we do. I belong here, with people like that. With you.”

There was that spark again. Just a nanosecond. “Go on.”

“You and I have skills your people need. We’re wasted on the detectives. They don’t understand us. They’re locked into old ways of doing things. They’re not going to change. But here we can have influence. Whoever would have thought of making weapons out of sugar? It’s brilliant. Think of all the cool new ideas we can make happen here, with people who will appreciate us. You know I’m right.”

Nick was quiet for a very long time. Then he put his phone in his pocket and said, “Prove it.”

“Prove it?”

“Yes. If this is what you really want, you won’t mind showing us.”

“Sure. Anything.” It was working.

“I want you to kill someone.”

Amanda started but caught herself. Of course there was no way she was going to kill anyone, but she had to play along.

“I want you to kill your father,” said Nick.

Chapter 34

Acting

The room started to spin. Amanda had to fight to keep from falling. If she gave herself away all would be lost. Her father would die and so would she. “What did you say?” she said, looking at Nick’s blurry face.

“I want you to kill your father. If you won’t do that you’re of no use to us.”

Kill her father? This Moriarty was as heartless as the original one. Maybe some people truly were born bad. Of course there was no way she was going to do it. She wasn’t sure how she’d get out of it, but if she had to choose between killing her father or dying she’d just have to die, although that wouldn’t save her father, would it?

Maybe there was a third way, a way that would save both of them. She’d use her newfound knowledge to trip Nick up. It was a huge gamble, but maybe she could pull it off, if she was any good at what she thought she was, or used to think she was before she’d discovered the truth about him.

“Okay, I’ll do it, but I want you to do something for me,” she said.

“You’re not in a position to ask for favors, Amanda.” His face was still fuzzy.

“No, of course not. But this is something that will benefit both of us.” It was hard to talk when you were dizzy. She wondered if she was slurring her words.

“What then?”

“Introduce me to your family. Properly.”

“My family? You want to meet my family?” He laughed like Snidely Whiplash.

“Of course. How could I not want to meet the legendary Moriartys?”

“Enough flattery. That stuff doesn’t work on me.” He paused, then looked as if a lightbulb had gone on. “Actually, though, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea. It will give them a chance to size you up.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.”

“Come on, then. You can meet my father. My mum isn’t here.”

He led her out of the school and back down the long corridor, but instead of making a right at the end, he turned left and climbed a flight of rusty stairs. This part of the plant was old and seemed disused.

At the top they came to a suite of offices and went inside. The look of the reception area was so different from anything else in the factory that Amanda gasped. The place was done up entirely in steampunk design. A replica of a 19th century submarine hung from the ceiling, as did wheel- and gear-looking thingies that may or may not have actually worked. A toy train ran around one half of the room on a track of dark brushed copper. The engine and the cars were antique, vintage circa 1870, Amanda thought. The engine was clad in dull black paint that seemed to swallow light, and comprised so many parts that if it were a hobby kit it would take a year to build. Zigzagged copper pipes ran through a collection of test tubes and glass receptacles with blue liquid visible through the clear areas. The back wall was composed entirely of stamped copper, and the couch in front of it was upholstered in deep cherry-brown leather.

“I see you’re surprised,” said Nick. “Just a little tribute to our forefather. Do you like it?”

“Of course I do . . . silly.” She thought if she treated him with affection she might be able to break through that hard exterior once again. “This is amazing. Look at that submarine.”

“All authentic,” said Nick. “Maybe if you get through this we can film something here.”

We. He obviously hadn’t realized what he’d said, but Amanda picked up on it immediately. He was starting to think of their future together. Her plan was working!

“Dad,” he yelled into the interior of the suite. “Can you come here a second?”

“What is it?” came the voice of the man who had manhandled Amanda. “I’m busy.”

“Can we come in?” There it was again: “we.”

“You have sixty seconds,” said the voice.

Nick grabbed Amanda by the hand and practically yanked her arm off as he pulled her into his father’s office. This room was even more fabulous than the outer one, all shiny and gleaming with brass and copper. There were even more trains, miniature ships, and this time flying machines, pistols, and astronomical devices. It was dazzling, although Amanda did worry about those pistols.

“What’s she doing here?” said Mr. Moriarty, looking up from his desk.

“I’ve given her a test,” said Nick. “Or I’m about to, anyway. She wanted to meet you first though.”

“What do you mean ‘a test’? She’s supposed to be tied up and out of the way. So you got out, did you, miss? Cleverer than your ancestor, are you?”

Amanda fumed but kept her face blank.

“Here’s the thing, Dad. She wants to join us.”

Mr. Moriarty looked at his son, then at Amanda, and burst into laughter. “Are you daft?”

“I know. It seems like a ploy. But I know things about her and she could be on the level.” Something in his voice told Amanda he wasn’t as sure of himself as he was trying to make out.

“Oh you do, do you?” said Nick’s father. “What things?”

“She’s hates being a Lestrade and doesn’t want to be a detective.” It sounded lame. Amanda didn’t think Mr. Moriarty was going to fall for it even though it was the truth.

“So?”

“She admires us.”

“Nick, if you’re going to be this gullible you’re never going to succeed in this business. Look at her. She’s got you wrapped around her little finger. You’re going to have to toughen up, and soon, or I’ll have to cut you loose. Your brother would never let sentiment get in his way. You need to learn from his example.”

What did that mean? Amanda wondered. Loose as in out of the business or loose as in dead? She wouldn’t put anything past a Moriarty. And what brother?

“With all due respect, Dad—”

“Enough. Don’t bring her back here. You know what to do with her. Be a man and do it. Now out. Out!”

Beet red, Nick grabbed Amanda even harder, if that was possible, and spirited her out of the room. “I’ll show him,” he muttered. “You’re going to kill your father now, and then he’ll see.”

Her plan had worked, in a way. There was now a split between the two Moriartys, and for all she knew the rest of the family would side with the older man. Divide and conquer. Except that now she was supposed to kill her father and it sounded like Nick’s father had directed him to kill her. How was she going to get out of that?

Just then Nick’s phone sounded. He read the text that had arrived and said, “Blast,” then punched in a reply.

“What’s wrong?” Amanda said.

“Shut up. This is all your fault.”

“What’s my fault?”

“Be quiet.” He thought for a moment. Then his face softened and his whole demeanor changed. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

“Ye-e-e-s.” This was weird. Why so nice all of a sudden?

“You know how much I care for you, don’t you?”

This was getting really peculiar. “Well . . .”

“Because I do, Amanda. I always have.”

“Nick—”

“You’re right. We are meant to be together. Outlaws in arms.”

She couldn’t tell if he was serious or playing with her. “I—”

“And we’re going to prove this to my father. He’ll never doubt me again. Come on. We’re going to kill your father together.”

A fresh panic hit her. She’d thought she might be able to distract them. She had achieved that, but in the wrong way. Maybe there was still hope though.

“Nick,” she cooed. “Tell me about your father.”

“Why?” he said abruptly.

“Because he’s obviously an amazing man. Was Moriarty his grandfather?”

“Great-great uncle, actually. Look, we don’t have time for this.” He had regressed back to his previous self.

“I think he’s proud of you.”

He looked at her sharply. “You’re kidding. You saw how he acted in there.”

“Well, sure. There are little blips in all relationships. But he wouldn’t have you here working with him, and he wouldn’t have had you infiltrate the detectives if he didn’t have absolute confidence in you.”

Nick chewed on that for a moment. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Of course,” she said softly. “You don’t have to prove anything to him.” She wondered what a gentle touch would do. No, he’d probably just get angrier.

“You don’t understand. I do.”

“No, you don’t. He knows what you can do. It’s obvious. Look, he’s leaving the task of killing my father to you.”

“I suppose he is at that,” said Nick, brightening.

“So we can do it however we want. It’s up to you, and I’m your instrument.” Oh, brother. This was laying it on thick.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “How shall we do it?”

Now she was getting somewhere. Starting to get some control.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Want to hear it?”

“Go on.”

“We use the sugar weapons.”

“Brilliant!”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, curtseying. “Of course I’ll need training.”

“Right. Training. Let me see.” He thought for a moment. “There’s a blastproof room we use for testing. Let’s go there and I’ll show you a few things.” He seemed excited.

He led her down the stairs and to the opposite side of the factory. The testing room was just as much of a mess as the plant floor, but smaller and pinker. Two of the gun-like things stood at the ready.

“Now look, this is what you do,” Nick said, pointing as he spoke. “We load these concentrated sugar pellets into the device and they explode in a two-step process. You put those in there like this.” He stuffed a couple of handfuls of pellets into one of the muskets. “See? Push them in as hard as you can. Now you try.” He motioned to the other musket.

Amanda picked up some of the pellets, opened the compartment, and shoved them inside.

“Good,” he said. “Now fill it up.”

She pushed as many of the pellets into the device as she could. When she’d finished her hands were all sticky.

“Never mind about that,” he said. “Occupational hazard. Now, the spark. Where is that starter anyway?” He looked around but couldn’t find whatever it was he was looking for. “Blast it. We’re going to have to improvise.” He pulled out a cigarette lighter from his pocket.

“We’re not going to be blown up, are we?” said Amanda.

“Of course not. We stand behind that,” he said, pointing to a door in the back. “It’s completely blastproof in there.”

“But I don’t see how we’re going to get there in time,” said Amanda.

“Don’t worry. There’s a time delay on the weapon. Are you ready?” He moved the lighter close.

“Er, ready.”

He flicked the lighter on and touched the flame to something inside a cavity, then grabbed her and ran to the safety area. In about twenty seconds a powerful explosion shook the walls of the small room, which he explained was lined with lead.

“Now we wait for two minutes,” said Nick.

“Why?”

“Let the dust settle a bit. You’ll see.”

He watched the time on his phone and after a couple of minutes he opened the door and peered out. “All clear,” he said. “Come on.”

He may have thought the air was clear, but there was still so much dust that Amanda started to sneeze. The room was indeed blastproof, but Nick had miscalculated and the two weapons had been blown to bits, the first one igniting the second and strengthening the explosion.

“That didn’t go so well,” Nick said.

“Never mind,” said Amanda. “You showed me and that’s all that matters.”

“You don’t know how much those weapons cost,” he said. “My dad is going to be furious.”

“No, he won’t. When he finds out that we’ve done away with my father, he’ll forget all about it. Now, what’s the next step?”

“We go get another weapon, stick it in here, and bring your father in and smoke him.”

It sounded terrible. However she felt about her father, joking about killing him was over the top. But she couldn’t let Nick see how she felt, so she put on her best face and acted. All this time she’d wondered where they were keeping her father and now she was about to find out.

Chapter 35

Confrontation

As it turned out, there was a large underground component to the factory, which included three more floors of processing, storage, and school space, and there, at the lowest level, was where the criminals were keeping Mr. Lester. They’d locked him in a small, dank room with a hard floor and bare pukey-yellow walls and a pail for a toilet. When Amanda saw him she was shocked.

He looked like he had in the picture she’d received a few hours before, except about a billion times worse. She wondered whether the elder Moriarty or Nick had sent it—not that it mattered. Herb Lester wasn’t a handsome man at the best of times with that bald head and big nose of his, but now he looked ghoulish. His skin was all purple and yellow, with cuts all over. The little hair he had was matted and stringy. He was asleep, or unconscious, lying on the cold floor with his eyes closed. He wasn’t dead though. Amanda could see his chest rise and fall.

“How are we going to move him?” she said, wondering if doing so would kill him.

“We’ll put him in the elevator,” said Nick.

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Freight elevator. At the end of the hall.” He motioned toward it with his head.

“I don’t know if the two of us can carry him. What do you think?”

“I doubt it, but there’s a trolley somewhere. Hang on. I’ll go find it.”

He must have trusted her by this time or he wouldn’t have left her alone with her father. On the other hand, what could she do in just a few seconds? She couldn’t drag her father out of there. There was no way to call for help and she’d never escape now that they knew she was there, so maybe it wasn’t a question of trust after all.

She touched her father’s arm. “Dad,” she said. “Can you hear me?” Nothing. “Dad,” she said, shaking him. Nothing. She hated to do it, but the next thing she did was slap his face. Still nothing. One more try. She pinched him. Still nothing. This wasn’t good.

Just then Nick came back with a large trolley with platforms on the top and bottom. “We’ll hoist him onto the bottom,” he said. “Come on.”

They stood at each end of Mr. Lester and Nick grabbed his shoulders. Amanda took his feet. “On the count of three,” said Nick. “One, two, three.”

They lifted Amanda’s father onto the trolley in one motion. Then she held the door open while Nick pushed him into the hall toward the elevator. He pressed the button and the lift creaked to life. She could hear all kinds of whirring, grunting, and clunking that seemed to go on forever. Finally the doors opened to reveal a depressing-looking darkish chamber that itself could use a cleaning. They pushed the trolley in and Nick hit the button for the ground floor.

The poor old contraption heaved, started, shuddered, stalled for about a tenth of a second, and gradually lifted itself up, stopping with a jolt. The doors opened and Nick pushed the trolley out and into the testing room.

“We’ve got to get a weapon,” he said. “You watch him. I’ll go.”

Perfect. This was exactly the chance Amanda had been waiting for. She threw her arms around Nick and hugged him, rubbing his arms, shoulders, and back all over.

“Oh, Nick, thank you so much for this opportunity,” she said.

Taken aback, he just stood there for a moment, then hesitantly put his arms around her and patted. “It’s okay, Amanda.” She pushed back from him and smiled. This seemed to throw him. He said, “I’ll just, er, go get the uh…” and left. What he didn’t realize was that she had picked his pocket. She had learned something from Nigel and now she had the lighter in her hand.

Leaving her father in the room, she exited quietly and stole out onto the factory floor. She was going to have to get all the way up to the ceiling and hadn’t a clue how. The room was as tall as a dozen elephants.

She noticed that some of the vats had ladders attached so you could climb on top of them. She ran over to one and without thinking about how high she’d be, climbed up and measured her progress. The ceiling was still way above her. However there was a catwalk not far from the vats. If she could get onto that and then maybe climb up something from there, she might just be able to get to the very top.

She caught sight of the roller coaster thing. It was perfect! She climbed down the ladder, and checking to make sure Nick hadn’t returned, moved to the bottom end of the conveyor belt, which was located in front of the big vat she’d just climbed. How did you turn the stupid thing on, though? There were so many contraptions in the place she couldn’t tell one from another.

There was only one course of action, and that was to experiment. She spotted a lever that seemed like it might be the control for the belt and pulled it. It was really stiff and barely budged. Then she saw another lever nearby and tried pulling it. Same thing. Time was getting short and she’d made no progress. Then she saw a large button on a big stick. She rushed to it and pressed as hard as she could. With a huge groan the conveyor belt inched forward. She ran back and hopped on.

The device was narrow and the belt was mushy. There was no way to stand or even sit on it, so Amanda lay on her stomach and grasped the sides as it ascended. It was very slow and moved unevenly, as if it were coughing and to be honest, gave her the creeps, but at last she reached the top.

Getting off was another challenge. She still couldn’t stand up so she was going to have to wriggle. She edged forward but the belt shuddered, pushing her to the side instead of straight ahead, and she could feel herself losing her balance. Heart pounding like a heavy metal concert, she struggled to right herself and get off the belt before it threw her off. After several squirming motions, she was finally able to heave most of her body onto the platform at the top, but her legs didn’t make it and she found herself hanging off the edge.

She saw a vertical metal pipe in front of her and reached for it. It was rusty and she had no idea whether it would crumble if she exerted any force on it. She wrapped both hands around it and pulled as hard as she could. The pipe held but she felt cricks in her arms. Almost hysterical now, she pulled harder, ignoring the pain as much as she could until she had got herself into a stable position. She lay breathless for what seemed like several minutes, then made one final pull, got to her feet, and stood on the platform. The view downward was dizzying, so she looked up. She’d made it to the top level but she still had to get to the ceiling.

Luck was with her now though. She spotted a ladder resting against a wall and climbed to the top rung. Then, hands shaking, she held the lighter next to a sprinkler and flicked it on.

Within a second or two the flame had tripped the sprinkler system and the factory was deluged. Heavy drops of water rained down, soaking sugar, machinery, everything, including Amanda. The place flooded, and all the sugar was melting and forming a slurry.

Just then Nick came running in, screaming, “I knew it! I knew I couldn’t trust you. Once a Lestrade always a Lestrade. You think you’re so clever but you’ll never amount to anything.” He punched a text into his phone, then cried, “This is war!”

“I don’t believe you’re really descended from Moriarty, Nick,” she called down. “You’re not nearly smart enough.”

Then she heard a splash, splash, splash, and the elder Moriarty arrived with a couple of thugs. “Get them,” he yelled. “You’re going to pay for this, Lestrade.”

“You can call me Lestrade if you want,” said Amanda. “I don’t care. The truth of the matter is that you Moriartys aren’t as smart as you think you are. Look at your son.”

Nick’s father started the conveyor belt and climbed on. If he got to the top before she figured out how to get down, he’d kill her. Up, up, up, the belt ground. As she looked below, she could see Nick wheeling her father away somewhere and Mr. Moriarty creeping toward her. She was stuck and there was nothing she could do! Then the criminal reached the top and squirmed off the belt, just as she had. She ran to the far end of the platform and searched for another way down. There was none.

Suddenly there came a huge swishing and banging from the door to the loading dock. Amanda couldn’t believe her eyes. There, sloshing toward her, were Professor Thrillkill, Amphora, Simon, Ivy, and Nigel. They were followed by several of the teachers and a bunch of policemen, all of whom were brandishing guns. Amanda took one look at the group and let out with a huge “Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

But the elder Moriarty was still coming toward her and was now at the top. Clomp, clomp, clomp. His footsteps made the fragile platform shake and clang. Amanda was a sitting duck. All she could do was watch him approach. Think, think! Her brain wouldn’t work. She was going to die with her mind empty. Maybe that was best. That way she wouldn’t feel anything.

Then she saw that one of the policemen was riding the conveyor belt up toward her location. Faster, faster! Hurry up, you old rattletrap! But the belt was moving too slowly. He wasn’t going to make it.

Before she knew it Moriarty had her by the neck. He was so strong, and as much as she struggled she couldn’t make any headway against him, even when she tried using some of the moves she’d learned in Professor Peaksribbon’s self-defense class.

“I’ll kill her,” he yelled to the would-be rescuers.

“Let her go, Blixus,” yelled Thrillkill. His voice echoed around the factory. When no planes were in the air it could be very quiet.

“You always were a fool, Gaston,” taunted Moriarty. “High and mighty and completely unrealistic in your ivory tower. You haven’t changed, I see.”

“Let the hostage go or we’ll shoot,” yelled one of the policemen.

“You people are so sad,” said Moriarty. “If you shoot me, you’ll kill her.”

He had a point. There wasn’t a clear shot at him.

The policeman riding the conveyor belt had reached the top but there wasn’t anything he could do. If he rushed Moriarty, Amanda would get hurt, maybe fall. The criminal had them over a barrel.

Then Amanda remembered. She still had the lighter! She fumbled around, trying to reach her pocket. The criminal was still gripping her, but somehow she managed to move one arm down far enough, and—

“Ouch!” yelled Moriarty, releasing her as the flame licked at him. He held his hands to his burned flesh and hopped on one foot in agony. With him thus distracted, the policeman on the platform rushed and subdued him, then slapped on a pair of handcuffs.

Amanda was shaking so hard she was pretty sure she was in shock.

“Jump!” yelled a policeman from below. Several of his buddies were holding a net.

“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t move.”

“You can,” said the cop. “We’ve got you. Promise.”

It was awfully far down. She was terrified.

“No, I really can’t.”

Then somehow her father was there. He was still on the trolley and Thrillkill was wheeling him toward the net.

“Do it, Amanda,” croaked her father. “It will be all right.”

“What if I miss?”

“You won’t. I’ve done this. It works. I promise.” When had her father jumped into a net? There was so much she didn’t know about him.

For all his faults, one thing she couldn’t complain about was her father’s integrity. She’d never known him to lie. He must be telling the truth. She moved to the edge of the platform and launched herself off.

Before she knew it she was lying in the net and everyone was cheering. She was still shaking but she knew she was okay. She’d jumped into a net and hadn’t died. It was going to be all right.

Simon grabbed the trolley and wheeled Mr. Lester out of the building, while Professors Ducey, Kindseth, and Buck held the thugs at bay.

“Where’s Nick?” said Amanda, suddenly realizing he wasn’t there.

“I haven’t seen him,” said Thrillkill. “Is he here?”

“He’s Moriarty’s son,” said Amanda. “He was just here.”

Then an amplified voice came through loudspeakers that Amanda hadn’t noticed. It was Nick.

“You all think you’re so smart,” he said. “You’re pathetic. You go around preaching about disguises and mystiques and all kinds of stupid things you think are so important. You know nothing about how to actually make things happen.”

Where was he and what was he talking about? And how had he gotten away?

“Amanda, you think activating those sprinklers was such a great move. What you don’t know is that the main part of the factory is underground and there’s more pink sugar dust down here than you can imagine. I’m going to set it off.”

Now Amanda was getting worried. She knew what the sugar dust could do. He’d kill all of them, even his own father and potentially himself, all to make a stupid point about how great he was. She’d rattled him, all right—too much. He had to be stopped. But how?

“Nick, if you blow up this place, you’ll kill the students,” she said.

“What students?” said Amphora.

“Tell you later,” said Amanda.

“They left ages ago. School only goes till 10:30. It’s midnight,” Nick said.

“You don’t want to kill your father and his friends. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know. About me, my family, everything. Don’t bet on it.”

What was that about? Even if there was family stuff she wasn’t aware of, there had to be a way.

“Too late, Amanda,” his voice echoed.

“Run!” screamed Amanda, grabbing Ivy and pulling her toward the door. Everyone took off as fast as they could, leaping off the loading dock into the parking lot, when BOOOOOOM! The entire factory exploded, creating a shock wave that knocked them over the back fence, practically into the Thames. Another few feet and they would have ended up in the freezing water.

The shock of the pulse knocked Amanda out. She drifted in and out of consciousness for who knew how long until finally she felt something push against her, and then everything went black again.

 

 

When she came to, she found herself onboard a police boat, wrapped in a blanket. She was so cold that the shivering practically made her bite her tongue. She tried to look around but everything was blurry.

“Mmbmbf,” she said.

“You’re fine,” said a policeman, who was leaning over her. “Luckily we got here at just the right moment.”

“Ftr,” she said.

“What’s that?” He cupped his ear.

“My father. Did you get him?”

“Is he the purple and yellow chap?”

“Yes. Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. Or he will be, anyway. We got the dog too. And the blind girl.”

Ivy and Nigel! Thank goodness they were okay. Was it Nigel who had nudged her?

As she lay there, the last few hours flashed before her. The truck ride, the child she’d almost killed, the carjacking, the factory, the weapons, the school, Nick. Nick! He had to be dead now. He’d been too far underground to get out in time. Whatever kind of person he’d turned out to be, she couldn’t bear the thought. She started to sob uncontrollably. Stupid, stupid boy. In the end he hadn’t shown anyone anything. All he’d done was destroy himself. What a waste.

She looked up. The sky was filled with smoke. Maybe he hadn’t accomplished nothing after all. Nick had put an end to the criminals’ sugar conspiracy and the terrible weapons they’d been building. Perhaps that was what he’d meant to do all along. Probably not, but why not give him the benefit of the doubt? Whatever or whoever he was, she’d never forget him.

Chapter 36

The Class Project Explained

The sky was still dark and light drops of rain were beginning to fall when the boat pulled into the river patrol’s dock. The police who had rescued Amanda and her friends made ready to unload their injured passengers.

“Wait a minute,” said Amanda. “My bag. My film is in there.”

“Where is it?” said the dandruffy policeman who had been watching over her.

“In the factory.”

“Oh, no. No one goes in there. It’s too dangerous. Give me a description and we’ll see if the crime scene guys find it.” He whipped out a tablet and prepared to make notes.

Amanda had her doubts. She’d seen the garage after it had exploded. It was extremely unlikely that her phone had survived. All her evidence gone. It was the most important film of her life and she’d blown it.

“Amanda, are you okay?” It was Ivy, all wrapped up in a blanket nearby. Nigel was at her side.

“Yes, Ivy. Are you all right?”

“We’re fine. Your dad is going to be okay too.” Ivy sneezed a couple of times. That seemed to set Nigel off.

“Gesundheit,” said Amanda. “Thank goodness. But how did you know where I was?”

“Surely you underestimate our sleuthing skills,” said Ivy. “As you will remember, I knew you were in London and I knew you had got into the factory. I helped you, remember? I tracked your GPS. I wasn’t going to take any chances. I told Thrillkill. He didn’t want us to come but we insisted.”

“Oh, Ivy,” said Amanda. She attempted to get up and hug her friend but fell back down. “I was so stupid not to tell you all what I was doing. I’ll never do that again. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course, silly. I understand. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.” Amanda could hear the smile in her voice. Hear it! She was beginning to use her ears to deduce things, just like her friend. Hurray!

“You sound very American when you say that.”

“Horrors,” said Ivy, giggling.

“But beyond that,” said Amanda, “I’ve been a complete idiot. Nick. I thought he was wonderful. Do you know that he was a Moriarty? He was spying on us.”

“No!” said Ivy. “I don’t understand. How did he even get into the school? Simon is going to have fits.”

“That,” said Amanda, “is a good question. We are going to have to look into that one. And yeah, Simon will never let this one go.”

“I don’t know about that. Simon is pretty cool. I think he’ll give you a hard time for a while and then forget about it completely. Anyway, I’m adding your question to my list. First order of business after we’re all back in one piece: ‘How did Nick get into Legatum?’” She paused and sniffed. “By the way, you smell awful. What kinds of chemicals did they use in that factory anyway?”

 

 

The first thing Amanda discovered when she returned to the school was that they had arrested Mrs. Moriarty. She wouldn’t admit anything of course, but there was enough evidence to prosecute without a confession. It was she who had killed the doctor, who himself had killed the cook because she’d been careless wheeling that sugar around in the daylight, potentially giving them away and derailing the entire operation. After the doctor had hidden the cook’s body, Mrs. Moriarty had killed him for the same reason. At least that’s what Amanda’s father pieced together later, with her help.

There was the issue of the criminals’ school to contend with. Thrillkill was adamant that its existence not be leaked, and he had to do a huge amount of bargaining with the police to keep it quiet. Fortunately Amanda’s father intervened and got the investigation and all relevant documents sealed. But those bad kids were out there and so were their parents, and something would have to be done about them. At the very least, they’d have to be put under surveillance so the detectives would know if they were starting another school to replace the one that had been destroyed.

Amanda’s parents came to visit her. Her father had spent a few nights in the hospital, after which he had been sent home with a clean bill of health and a lot of gauze. He was lucky to be alive. The criminals had kidnapped him to stop him investigating their sugar enterprise. He’d told no one, not even his wife, about the leads he had, although he didn’t know about the weapons, and he’d been trying to build a case. Moriarty had found out and grabbed him as a warning.

Of course the old Lestrade-Holmes-Moriarty history was at work too. First they’d thrown Herb in the secret room at Legatum. Then, once the criminals had moved him to London, Blixus Moriarty had threatened to kill him by secreting him at New Scotland Yard, then blowing up the place. Now that was nerve—breaking into the Met’s inner sanctum. It seemed that like his son, the elder Moriarty had a taste for the dramatic. Fortunately he hadn’t gotten the chance to indulge it.

Amanda’s rancor toward both parents had vanished. She’d seen that her mother’s books weren’t all that vapid after all. In fact they were quite helpful. Since returning to the school, she’d read the ones she’d thrown under the bed and seen them in a new light: smart, crisp, and intelligent. Watching her father at his most vulnerable had caused her to see him differently too. Instead of feeling anger toward the two of them, she could begin to see why they were so proud of Lestrade. Her father’s ancestor might have been a twit, but he was their twit. Why not do the best they could with what they’d been given?

Amanda’s parents had softened toward her as well. They were so proud of her that they forgot to yell. Thrillkill had had something to do with that, having sung her praises for actions she’d taken that seemed like no big deal to her. A lot less seemed to get by him than she’d realized. The whole time he’d been aware of her documentary, her investigation, and her relationship with Nick, whom he’d always had doubts about. Not that he knew about the Moriarty connection. Nick and his mother had fooled everyone on that count. Amanda swore that that would never happen again.

Funnily enough, Amanda’s parents weren’t at all surprised by her accomplishments. They’d always known she could do anything she wanted to and told her so. Still, she had transformed so quickly. She had been so brave facing a whole new environment and adapting so well, learning her new craft, taking the initiative to go after the criminals—and flouting the rules in the process, which her parents respected more than she knew—and besting them in the end. In fact they were so pleased with how their daughter was turning out that they gave her the choice of leaving the school if she wanted to.

This threw Amanda for a huge loop. She had never expected to feel any doubt about leaving Legatum, but now she wasn’t sure. Should she go or stay? Suddenly she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Ivy, Amphora, Simon, Editta, and Nigel. If she left she’d even miss Thrillkill, although she had no idea how that was possible. Her parents told her that she could go back to L.A. and live with her Aunt Ethel and Uncle Bartholomew. How could she not jump at that?

The truth was that she’d changed. In a few short weeks she’d left behind Amanda Lester the chubby outcast and become Amanda Lester the detective. Now that she thought about it, she’d loved every minute: the lab work, the evidence handling, the history class, even the autopsies. She was a detective by blood and it was starting to show. Of course she was still a filmmaker. That would never change. But now she was a detective too. Perhaps she’d start to make mystery films. You could never tell.

 

 

On the last day of the term, the first-year class gathered in the auditorium for the project presentations. Over the past few days Amanda, Simon, Amphora, Ivy, and Editta had worked hard to figure out who had set off the explosion and why. Amanda had heard back from Darius Plover’s friend at UCLA and he had been incredibly helpful. They had done a lot of digging about Professor Pickle, who it seemed couldn’t keep his mouth shut on the golf course, as well as about the other teachers, who revealed more about themselves than they realized by their words, deeds, and possessions. The older students had been particularly helpful in the countless interviews the Holmes House team had conducted, including Ivy’s sister, who seemed to know everyone and everything within a thirty-mile radius. And finally, they had relied on the well-known dictum articulated by Sherlock Holmes, even though it made Amanda gag: that once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Simon began the presentation in a clear, steady voice. “After the project was first announced, we weren’t sure what it actually was. For a while we thought the teachers might have planted the sugar and blood we found around the school and that they were related to it. Now there’s no doubt, of course. The real project began with the explosion. As we all know, those other things were related to the Moriartys’ pink sugar conspiracy.

“We investigated the garage several times after the explosion. We were able to determine the point of origin by examining the damage, which was most acute around the vehicle belonging to Professor Bill Pickle. Therefore we have concluded that the explosive device was centered in, on, or under his car. It was a plastic explosive containing C4. We were unable to determine the exact time it was placed there, but we were able to guess at how the perpetrator or perpetrators gained access.

“As you know, the campus is protected by heavy security fencing, and the walls are booby-trapped. Much of this is disguised so as to throw off the locals and make them think that this is an ordinary school. However the fences are electrified and fitted with devices to injure anyone who tries to climb them. In addition, all vehicles must pass through the guard gate down the hill, and even the regular delivery drivers and the faculty and staff must stop and show ID and submit to inspection. The guards also have CCTV cameras, which they monitor all the time. So it’s quite difficult to breach Legatum’s security, although not impossible. We have identified some ways that the perpetrator might have got in. However, he or she didn’t have to.

“The bomb was placed in, on, or under Professor Pickle’s car when he drove it off campus. We’re not sure where this occurred, but we suspect it was at the golf course, since that is where the professor goes regularly and it would be easy to predict when he’d be there. Obviously there was a timer on the bomb, which set it off without the perpetrator having to be on or even near campus.”

Then Ivy spoke. “As for the target, we didn’t want to conclude that Professor Pickle’s car was the object of the bomb without considering other possibilities. We started with the adjacent vehicles. These were a dark blue sedan belonging to Professor Stegelmeyer and a woody belonging to Professor Ducey.

“We examined the contents of the glove compartment in the woody and found the following: maps of various parts of England and Scotland, a topo map of the Lake Windermere area, a receipt for some windsurfing equipment, a pair of glasses, and something that might have been Galaxy chocolate bars. There was also a tube of sunscreen and several packs of gum. On the Lake Windermere map several areas were circled in red pencil. We discovered that these locations were popular windsurfing sites.

“The body of the car was empty. We looked inside the wheel compartments and found nothing unusual. And no, I didn’t look. Simon did.” Ivy smiled. She sure wasn’t self-conscious about being blind.

“We also inspected Professor Stegelmeyer’s sedan. Unlike the vehicles owned by Professors Pickle and Ducey, this one had a trunk, which was locked. We thought we might make a wax impression of the lock and fashion a key in the lab, but we didn’t need to. The lock fell in by itself.” That was stretching the truth, but they had agreed that what they’d done was within the rules and they weren’t going to worry about the fine points. “Inside we found the remains of a number of manuscripts allegedly written by Professor Stegelmeyer. They appeared to be horror novels. Aside from those, a spare tire, a jack, and a pump, we found nothing else in the trunk. We did, however, find some items in the glove box. These included a pair of scissors, an evidence kit, and a newspaper, which was opened to an article about an escaped criminal.”

Amphora glanced over at Ivy, and when she was certain she’d finished, continued. At first her voice was shaky, but she soon gained confidence. “The article caused us to wonder whether this criminal was someone with a grudge against Professor Stegelmeyer. Indeed it was, one Absil Thurvy, a murderer our professor helped catch. We thought perhaps Mr. Thurvy might have tried to exact retribution by killing the professor. So we dug deeper and discovered that upon his escape, Mr. Thurvy fled to Africa, where he was being held on another charge and could not have been in the UK around the date of the explosion. He might, however, have had an accomplice, and we kept this possibility in mind as we developed the case.

“We also searched the areas adjacent to the garage. These included a small outbuilding and some shrubs and trees that were destroyed by shrapnel and fire. The outbuilding contained tools, gardening equipment and supplies, and a couple of ladders. There was no fertilizer, which as we all know can be made into an explosive, and no evidence that there had been any there recently. Since it was winter, it would have been most strange if there had been any, and we would have questioned its presence.”

Amphora stopped speaking, suddenly became self-conscious, and glanced at Editta, who gave her a questioning look. Amphora nodded. “As you know, after the blast, Professor Pickle disappeared and hasn’t been seen or heard from since,” said Editta, picking up the thread. She was a good speaker, if rather melodramatic. “However, there was no evidence in or around the garage to show that he had been injured or killed. He simply vanished. At first I thought this was bad luck, but—”

Amanda coughed and shook her head.

“Sorry,” said Editta. “Sometimes I get a little carried away. Anyway, after that happened there were two other deaths on the campus and a number of other suspicious sightings, including blood on the path outside the Holmes House common room, various pink sugar patches, and a secret room full of the sugar, which was being eaten by what is known as slime mold. Apparently the slime mold’s normal source of food was destroyed in the blast and it had gone looking for a substitute, which it found in the sugar.”

“So here was all this damage and some odd things out of place, and we needed to figure out which clues were part of the class project and which weren’t,” said Amanda. She looked out into the crowd. Everyone was paying close attention, even the Wiffle kid. Then, for a moment, she thought she saw Nick in the back and started. The shock caused her vision to go dark. She stood there half-blind for a second or two, panicked. Then she realized her mind was playing tricks on her and her eyes cleared, but her hands were still shaking.

“We concluded that the explosion was the project and that the sugar, blood, and secret room were not. Here’s how we came to that conclusion.” She nodded to Simon.

“It was tempting to think that Professor Pickle was the target of the bomb,” he said. “After all, the point of origin was his car and it sustained the most damage. It also seemed to contain items that might point to a motive: a label from a pickle jar, some golf clubs, a book of accounts. Why would these things make Professor Pickle a target? We did some investigating.”

“It seems that Professor Pickle, who was known for his fixation on his Triumph Roadster, had another obsession as well,” said Ivy. “You see, Pickle isn’t his real name. He changed it when he became involved in his family’s pickle manufacturing business. Some of you may know that he was a descendant of Father Brown, but he was also a scion of the Crigglestone pickle family, and he took this role very seriously. Other than his golf and his detective work, Professor Pickle was focused solely on pickles. And Professor Pickle has a rival, one Reginald Ribchester, a pickle manufacturer he considers his mortal enemy. When we discovered that, we thought perhaps this competitor had blown up the professor’s car to send a message.”

“But he wasn’t trying to kill the professor,” said Amphora. “If he had been he wouldn’t have set the bomb to go off in the middle of the night, when he knew the professor wouldn’t be in his car. However he might have set the explosion as a message to the Pickle family. One way or another he wanted them out of the business. If he had to harass them to make it happen, so be it. Or so we thought.

“That was only one theory. We also looked at the possibility that Professor Ducey might have been the target, despite the innocuous-looking objects we found in his vehicle. This is certainly a logical assumption since he has put many criminals in prison. Both Professor Ducey and Professor Stegelmeyer also have personal enemies, which I won’t describe in order to protect their privacy. Suffice to say that we dug very deeply and discovered a lot about the teachers.” She looked out at the audience, where the teachers were sitting. They were all poker-faced.

“So it was plausible,” said Ivy, “that any of the three teachers could have been the intended target, although it did seem that Professor Pickle—because his car was the point of origin, because of his rival’s animosity, and because he disappeared—was the most logical choice.”

“But that wasn’t the answer,” said Amanda, her heart beating normal speed again. “In fact, none of these teachers was the object of the blast.” She paused dramatically. “Nor was any other.”

The audience gasped.

“The target of the explosion wasn’t a person,” she said.

There was a general hubbub throughout the room.

Amanda nodded to Simon. “There was more in the garage than just vehicles,” he said. “As you know, the faculty has a series of storage compartments there. We found a huge amount of stuff in them, everything from family photos to old letters to eyeglasses. In addition the garage housed an automotive repair area that contained everything from tools to engine parts. Fortunately no gasoline was stored there or the explosion would have been even stronger. However, none of these items was the target either.

“No, it wasn’t the teachers or their personal items or the auto shop or even the building that was the intended object of the explosion. We contend that the real target was something in Professor Mukherjee’s storage area. Professor Pickle’s car was just the means of access.”

More gasps from the audience.

“Inside an airtight container in Professor Mukherjee’s cubby was a book, The Legatum Continuatum Detective’s Bible, dating back to the school’s founding in 1887. The perpetrator knew this.”

There was so much noise in the room that Professor Thrillkill had to stand up and shush everyone.

“This volume is so old and valuable that its location is constantly changed, with only a handful of people knowing where it is at any given time. It is wrapped in acid-free paper and kept in a moisture-proof box.”

“How do you know about this?” asked a student in the front row. “Why haven’t we heard of this before?”

“It came out in our investigation,” said Simon. “There was enough text left for us to piece together its name and purpose, but we had to use special techniques. The book is written in code. We also—”

“We don’t require that level of detail, Mr. Binkle,” said Thrillkill.

“But we want to know why we’ve been kept in the dark,” said the student.

“There are many things you don’t know about Legatum,” said the headmaster. “If we told you everything, you wouldn’t get much practice at learning for yourself, would you? You should know by now that everything we do here at Legatum we do for a good reason. If you have a trust problem with us, Mr. Wiffle, I suggest you make other arrangements.” Of course it was the Wiffle kid. Who else?

Wiffle sat down and folded his arms in a way that cried out “Harumph.”

Editta spoke next. “You are aware that no one was hurt in this blast. That’s because it occurred in the middle of the night when everyone was in their dorms, far away from the point of origin. The time was chosen so as to protect lives. However, if the explosion had occurred during the day, we have no doubt that people would have been injured and possibly killed.”

“But Professor Pickle disappeared,” yelled a student. “What happened to him?”

“I’m glad you asked that,” said Amanda. “Professor Pickle went off to hunt down his pickle-making rival. He ended up assaulting the man and is now cooling his heels in jail.”

“No,” yelled out another student.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “You can check.”

“But if all this is true, who did it? I mean, in the simulation. Obviously the teachers set this up.”

“Who indeed?” said Amanda. “Who do you think did it?”

“It was our old friend Moriarty,” interrupted a student in the back row. “Right?”

“Right. Or it would have been if it had been real. Moriarty is the only one who could have done this. Do you know why?”

“Why?” yelled the students.

“Tell them, Miss Lester,” said Thrillkill.

“Because Nick Muffet, aka Nick Moriarty, infiltrated our school and knew about the Bible. And he passed along this information to his mother, the cook’s assistant, who was working here under false pretenses. And she passed the information along to her husband, who is a descendant of the original Professor Moriarty.”

The room exploded. All the kids were talking at once. Someone yelled out, “Do you mean to tell me that Nick Muffet is a Moriarty and infiltrated our school? And the teachers knew?”

“Yes,” said Simon. “Nick was a Moriarty and did infiltrate the school. But no, the teachers didn’t know. They set up the project as an exercise. It just turned out to be much more realistic than they expected.”

“I’ll kill him,” yelled the student. “Just let me at him.”

“I’m afraid you won’t,” said Professor Thrillkill.

“I will. You can’t stop me.”

“I don’t have to,” said Thrillkill. “Mr. Muffet, nee Moriarty, is dead.”

The room fell silent so quickly that it seemed like all the air had gone out of it.

It was a good thing that Amanda had bawled all the way home from London, or else she would have burst into tears upon hearing this now. But she didn’t. She just stood there calmly and waited.

“What happened, Professor?” said the student. “How did he get in? How did he die?”

“That is a story for another time,” said Thrillkill.

No one said anything for a long time and then another student raised her hand and said, “Why did they blow up the entire garage? Why not just steal the book?”

Amanda stepped forward and spoke with as much gravitas as she could muster. “To show us that it can be done.”

“You mean it was a warning?” said the student.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “It showed us that we must always be vigilant.” She turned to Thrillkill. “Isn’t that right, Professor?”

“Yes, Miss Lester,” said the headmaster. “That is exactly why it was done.”

Chapter 37

More Questions Than Answers

Holmes House ended up winning the competition, which delighted Amanda, Simon, Ivy, Amphora, and Editta. Headmaster Thrillkill was so impressed with their performance that he removed Simon’s provisional status and upgraded him to “permanent,” which was a huge relief to just about everyone. Unfortunately, the verdict angered the Wiffle boy and his friend, Gordon Bramble. Their group, Van Helden House, had come in last. They seemed to feel that they had been cheated, despite the fact that they had identified Professor Pickle as the target of the bomb and missed the existence of the Detective’s Bible altogether. Some people couldn’t see the truth when it was staring them in the face.

After the presentation, the Holmes House team was sitting in the common room, which the gremlins had filled with exotic plants and an aquarium full of tetras. Amanda’s parents had given her some imported chocolate—“imported” being from the U.S.—and the kids were munching it. It was sweet and delicious but Amanda didn’t care anymore.

“How could they blow up all those cars?” said Amphora, tearing the wrapping slowly so as to savor the treat.

“They didn’t. Not really,” said Amanda, who had stopped eating halfway through. “Nigel, that isn’t for you.” She grabbed the bar and held it out of the dog’s reach.

“I don’t follow you,” said Amphora, licking her fingers.

“They made replicas of everything. You don’t think they’d really blow up all that valuable stuff, do you? Get away, Nigel. Chocolate isn’t good for dogs.”

“They ruined the garage,” said Ivy. “Nigel, get over here.”

“Yes, and that’s a pity. But it can be rebuilt. It wasn’t exactly a historical building,” said Amanda. “And of course, the Bible wasn’t the real one.”

“Wow. Imagine all the time and trouble it took to do that,” said Ivy, ruffling Nigel’s fur.

“Yes,” said Simon. “There seems to be a lot more to this school than I thought.” He tilted his fedora and put his feet up on a battered table.

“You got that right,” said Amanda.

“Of course we all know why Nick stayed in the garage all that time that day when the roof collapsed,” said Ivy.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “He was looking for the Detective’s Bible.”

“But how did he know about it?” said Ivy.

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “The cook, Mrs. Moriarty, and the doctor weren’t supposed to know anything about it, but obviously either they or someone else found out and told the criminals. The idea of the class project was to simulate a perpetrator who knew. The irony of the situation is that Nick really did know.”

“What’s in this Bible, anyway?” said Simon.

“Good question,” said Amanda. “Anyone know anything?”

“No,” said Editta, “but it’s obviously important. What would happen if it really were destroyed?”

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “And we also don’t know where the real book is. But now that the cat’s out of the bag—sorry, Nigel—obviously something is going to come up about it. They can’t just sweep this under the rug, and anyway if they made it part of the project they wanted us to know, right?”

“Obviously,” said Simon. “But what and why? Or could this just be them feeding us misinformation again? They’re really good at that.”

“Yeah,” said Amanda. “Thrillkill makes a big deal out of how we need to trust him, but I don’t. Not any of them, even Professor Kindseth.”

“Professor K seems like a nice man,” said Ivy.

“That’s the most dangerous kind,” said Simon.

“So what happened to the detonator?” said Amphora. “Why couldn’t we find it?”

“Nick removed it,” said Amanda. “He went out the back door. Simon and I found it hidden in the bushes behind the garage.”

“Why would he do that?” said Ivy.

“To trip us up,” said Amanda. “They teach them that at that school of theirs. Or they did. Did you know that?”

“Teach what?” said Simon.

“They give classes in undermining their enemies. Tampering with evidence is just one of their methods. They’ll do anything to further themselves, even the tiniest things. It’s how they think.”

“Wow,” said Ivy. “That’s scary.”

“Yes,” said Amanda. “You can’t take anything for granted around those people. They’re way more insidious than I’d ever imagined. It makes you suspicious of everyone and everything.”

“I’m so sorry, Amanda,” said Ivy. “I know how much you liked him.”

“Thanks, Ivy. You want the rest of this? I’ve sort of lost my taste for sweets. I keep seeing Nick’s face every time I look at a piece of cake.” She handed the rest of her chocolate to Ivy, who took a good sniff and popped it in her mouth. “You want to know the most ironic part of all of this? He and I joked about there being a mole on campus. We thought it might be one of the teachers. We even made a bet.”

“That’s tough,” said Ivy. “What you went through was so traumatic. But you were quick-witted. How did you manage?”

“As you know, conflict is key to a story. Without it the story doesn’t move forward. Which is why sometimes it’s not so bad getting sent to detention or being yelled at. You never know what can come out of it. Anyway, I decided to create conflict. I got the Moriartys fighting with each other and I got Nick struggling with himself.”

“That was brilliant,” said Editta reaching for her third chocolate. “This is it. Three is my limit. It’s bad luck to eat more.”

“I’m going to have five,” said Amphora. “Yes, excellent, Amanda. We’re all really impressed.”

“Thank you,” said Amanda. “I do have a bit of news.”

“What’s that?” said Simon.

“Thrillkill has asked me to teach a storytelling seminar next term. He thinks some of the concepts could be useful to us. I’m really excited about it.”

“Wow!” said Amphora. “That sounds amazing. I can’t wait. Can we study J.K. Rowling?”

Amanda thought back to her brief time in Edinburgh, where the famous author lived. Maybe sometime she’d go back and see if she could find her house. “You betcha. Someday I’m going to meet her, too.”

“By the way,” said Simon, “remember that first day we saw the cook wheeling sugar around? What was that about? That was the good sugar, not the pink stuff, right?”

“Yes,” said Amanda. “She was taking it around to the driveway the long way so no one would see her. As you know, there aren’t many windows on that side. After she turned south, she’d be going around the front of the school where almost no one hangs out. There was a van parked on the far side of the garage waiting to pick up the stash. That was where she was headed.”

“But that was a lot of sugar for her to handle,” said Amphora.

“Yes,” said Amanda. “That was why Nick and his mother helped her. With the three of them carrying both the white and the pink sugar there was enough muscle to move large quantities, even up and down those stone stairs going to the secret room. When they got the white sugar to the factory, it was repackaged and smuggled into competitors’ facilities with just enough of the pink stuff in it to ruin it. That destroyed the competitors’ supplies, and then the criminals could sell the uncontaminated sugar at high prices.

“Of course the rest of the pink sugar went into making ammunition for those weapons. They processed all three kinds at the factory: the good white stuff, the infected white stuff, and the pink stuff. They had a real problem when that slime mold started eating the pink sugar, though. It almost ruined their plans. It didn’t take a lot of it to make everything work, so they never produced that much. Of course the doctor and the cook were the ones who made it in our very own lab. And by the way, that blood you saw? That belonged to the original dead bodies teacher. He was in on it. They killed him too.”

“What a racket,” said Simon. “That guy Nick turned out to be even more of a jerk then I thought he was.”

“Not as big a one as I’ve been,” said Amanda under her breath.

 

 

When Amanda returned to her room that evening, she finally got a chance to ask Ivy about something that had been bugging her since her trip to London. “Why did you tell me to punch those numbers on the keypad at the sugar factory?”

“Oh, you mean 1, 3, and 4? They make up an augmented fourth chord. The devil’s interval.” Ivy sounded out the notes one at a time.

“Devil’s interval?”

“Diabolus in musica: the devil in music. It was banned in Renaissance church music because it was considered ugly and you couldn’t use anything ugly to praise God. Hear how discordant that sounds?”

“Kind of. So you’re saying that the criminals chose it because they see themselves as working with the devil?”

“Something like that.”

“How in the world did you figure that out?”

“I told you before. I hear things.”

“I think I should start paying more attention to my ears, Ivy. I’m really impressed. You’re an amazing detective. By the way, speaking of amazing detectives, do you have any idea why Professor Thrillkill is always carrying that hair dryer around?”

“I’m surprised you don’t know. He has a morbid fear of icicles. He carries it around so he can melt them.”

Amanda burst into laughter and the two girls got so hysterical that they rolled on the floor. This got Nigel’s attention and he started licking them, which made them laugh even harder.

Suddenly Amanda’s phone rang. It was one of the investigators who had processed the remains of the sugar factory. She told Amanda that they had found her phone but all the data was gone, video clips and everything.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “You will get the phone back though. By the way, I wanted to tell you what great thinking it was to set off those sprinklers. You’re going to make a great detective someday.”

“Thanks,” said Amanda. “I appreciate your taking the time to call.”

“I wouldn’t have necessarily,” said the woman. “It’s just that I thought you might find something funny.”

“What’s that?”

“It seems that the scene of the explosion is completely covered with ants. All that sugar water attracted them by the millions. The other factories in the area are beside themselves. They’ve had to call the exterminator.”

 

 

After she had ended the call, Amanda decided to write to Darius Plover to tell him how much she appreciated his help. But as she looked at the screen on her new phone, she spied a text she hadn’t seen before. It was weeks old. She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was because her phone had been out of commission.

Astonishingly, the text was from Nick. He’d obviously sent it before the whole London thing. She didn’t want to read it. Thinking about him was too painful. But then she saw that he’d sent her a link to some sort of app. If this is a virus . . .

What would it matter? All the data was gone. A virus couldn’t hurt her. Why not look?

She read the message. It said, “4 U Amanda. Thought it might help.”

What could Nick possibly have given her that would help now? He really was slick. Now he was trying to hurt her from the grave.

Whatever, she thought, and tapped the icon. There on the screen was some kind of cloud storage app, and on her user dashboard was the name of every video clip she’d made for their investigation. She hadn’t lost the film after all! Nick had installed an app on her phone that had automatically archived everything she’d shot.

She threw the phone onto the bed. He had done this nice thing for her, a girl who by all rights was his archenemy. There was no need to. He could have just as easily planted some kind of malware on her phone, and yet he hadn’t. Who was this Nick Muffet, aka Moriarty?

She wanted to scream at him. How could he do this to her? She had resolved all her feelings about him, or at least she’d thought so. Now she’d have to start all over, without ever being able to talk to him again. Why, why, why?

There was one thing she could do. It would take some time, but somehow, some way, she’d go see his father, Blixus Moriarty. Not tomorrow, but someday. And then, one way or another, she’d learn the truth.

She opened up her mail program and started a new message.

 

Dear Mr. Plover,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I want to tell you how invaluable your advice has been. You told me not to micromanage. You told me to persevere. And you told me to trust the story.

I have just begun to learn these things. It will take a lifetime to get there, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the process and giving myself over to it. How right you were.

I will soon be thirteen and will no longer be able to offer you a tween’s perspective on your films, but I hope that won’t keep you from calling on me. I would be delighted to offer a teen’s perspective if you’ll have me.

Sincerely, your friend

Amanda Lester, Filmmaker.

 

As soon as she had sent the note, she received a text from Professor Thrillkill asking her to come to his office. This was going to be it: her expulsion. She’d broken the rules by leaving campus, and despite the positive results she’d achieved he was going to go by the book and kick her out. It was probably for the best. She’d go back to L.A. and resume her old life, minus the stick dogs. That’s what she’d wanted anyway.

When she arrived at the headmaster’s office, Thrillkill motioned for her to sit in front of that huge antique desk of his. He looked particularly stern and Amanda braced herself. Then suddenly he broke into a grin.

“Miss Lester, I want to talk to you about next term.”

Here it comes. I’m out. He must think this is funny to be smiling like that.

“Yes, sir.”

“I have a little assignment for you when you come back from your holiday.”

I’m coming back?

“You thought we were going to expel you, didn’t you?” he said, his grin widening. She’d never seen this expression on him before. It looked weird. “On the contrary, despite the fact that you broke the rules by leaving campus, we see a lot of promise in you.”

Promise? Me?

“There’s going to be a new student at Legatum next term, and I’d like you to take him under your wing.” He moved some papers around on his desk until he found the one he wanted.

“Yes, sir. Of course. No problem.”

He held up a page for her to see. She couldn’t read a thing with him moving it around like that.

“Good. I’m glad you feel that way. He’s a very special young man and I think he would benefit from some personal attention. You’ll like him. His name is Scapulus Holmes.”

[]Some Famous Detectives

Roderick Alleyn. A gentleman police detective who appears in thirty-two novels by New Zealand author and theater director Ngaio Marsh (a woman) starting in 1934. He attended Oxford University and served in the army during World War I. He also worked briefly for the British Foreign Service. His older brother is a baronet. In his younger days he was attracted to actresses, but eventually he married a painter, Agatha Troy.

 

Sir John Appleby. Originally a detective inspector at Scotland Yard, then a police commissioner, Sir John Appleby appears in the works of Michael Innes beginning in 1936. Even after retiring, Sir John continued to solve crimes. He had one of the longest careers of any of the great detectives.

 

Martin Beck. A Swedish police detective who appears in ten novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö starting in 1965. He tends to get sick a lot, perhaps because he smokes so much.

 

Father Brown. A Catholic priest who appears in fifty-one short stories by G.K. Chesterton beginning in 1910. His methods for solving crime are intuitive rather than deductive. Because of his position as a priest and confessor, he is acutely aware of human evil and its possibilities and is able to use that knowledge and experience in his cases.

 

Albert Campion. A gentleman detective featured in the works of Margery Allingham beginning in 1929. He was originally created as a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey but became a complex character in his own right.

 

Nancy Drew. An amateur teenage detective featured in works created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who hired a series of writers to work collectively under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Nancy Drew first appeared in 1930.

 

C. Auguste Dupin. An amateur detective created by Edgar Allan Poe. He made his first appearance in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is widely considered the first detective story, even before the word “detective” was coined. In Dupin, Poe laid the foundation for the detective fiction genre.

 

Dr. Gideon Fell. An amateur sleuth created by John Dickson Carr, making his first appearance in 1933. He is a portly man with a mustache, who wears a cape and walks with two canes. He began as a lexicographer but was later described as working on a monumental history of the beer-drinking habits of the English people.

 

Sherlock Holmes. A private consulting detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes first appeared in “A Study in Scarlet,” which was published in 1887. He is the seminal detective who solves cases by using his exceptional powers of observation and deduction, not to mention disguise. He was an early practitioner of forensic science. He is popularly recognized by his cape, deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, pipe, and violin. Holmes’s archenemy, the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty, originally appeared in only two short stories so that Doyle could kill off Holmes. However, Moriarty features prominently in derivative works. Moriarty is a mathematical genius and heads a crime ring, though he often functions alone.

 

Monsieur Lecoq. A detective with the French Sûreté created by 19th century writer and journalist Émile Gaboriau. Lecoq preceded the creation of Sherlock Holmes and influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his characterization. Still, Holmes dismissed Lecoq in “A Study in Scarlet” as a “miserable bungler.” Lecoq was the first fictional detective to assiduously analyze crime scenes and evidence by inspecting them visually. He was also a master of disguise. “Lecoq” means “the rooster.”

 

G. Lestrade. A Scotland Yard detective who appears in many of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starting in 1887. Nowhere does Doyle mention his first name, only the initial G. Although Lestrade ascended to the upper ranks of the Yard, he did so by being unimaginative and conventional rather than brilliant, and to a certain extent by taking credit for cases that Holmes actually solved, with Holmes’s approval and complicity. He sometimes clashes with Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson, although as the stories progress, Lestrade seems to appreciate Holmes’s unconventional methods more.

 

Jane Marple. Usually referred to as “Miss Marple,” amateur sleuth Jane Marple appears in many of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories starting in 1926. She is an intelligent and astute elderly woman who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead.

 

Pradosh C. Mitter. Pradosh C. Mitter is the anglicized name of Prodosh Chandra Mitra, or Feluda, as he is known in Bengali. He is a private investigator appearing in works by film director and writer Satyajit Ray. He made his first appearance in a Bengali children’s magazine called Sandesh in 1965. Satyajit Ray was a devotee of the Sherlock Holmes stories and his character resembles Holmes.

 

Allan Pinkerton. A Scottish-American detective and spy who founded the Pinkerton National Detective agency. Pinkerton was a real person who lived from 1819 to 1884.

 

Hercule Poirot. A Belgian private detective living in England, created by Agatha Christie. He made his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. Poirot is famous for solving cases by using his “little gray cells” and is known for being fussy, bombastic, and egotistical.

 

Lucy Pym. A psychologist who solves a crime in a physical training college for girls. Lucy Pym was created by Josephine Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. She appeared in Lucy Pym Disposes in 1946.

 

Parker Pyne. A consulting detective in several works by Agatha Christie. He first appeared in 1932. He is a retired government employee turned philanthropist who is more concerned with making his clients happy than investigating crimes. He believes that there are five types of unhappiness, all of which can be cured logically.

 

Joseph Rouletabille. A teenage journalist created by Gaston Leroux. Joseph Rouletabille is a nickname for Joseph Josephin. The character first appeared in 1907 in The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune), in which he solved a locked room puzzle.

 

The Secret Seven. A group of child detectives created by Enid Blyton, first appearing in 1949. They are Peter—the leader—Peter’s sister Janet, Jack, Barbara, George, Pam, and Colin.

 

Gerard Van Helden. A detective superintendent in the Birmingham City Police Force. He was a real person who was born in the Netherlands in 1848. Rapidly promoted, he found success as a result of his uncanny ability to remember faces and because he spoke three languages: Dutch, German, and English. He was so successful and effective that he became known as “The Famous Detective.”

 

Harriet Vane. A mystery writer turned sleuth invented by Dorothy L. Sayers. Vane eventually marries Lord Peter Wimsey, despite the fact that she initially finds him to be overbearing and superficial. Early on she is arrested for the murder of her lover, Philip Boyes, but is acquitted with Wimsey’s help. After the trial she remains notorious, a fact that helps her sell a lot of books.

 

Dr. John Watson. A character in the Sherlock Holmes stories created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson makes his first appearance in “A Study in Scarlet,” which was published in 1887. While not all that bright, Watson often helps Holmes reach important conclusions by acting as a sounding board and foil.

 

Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey is a gentleman detective who solves murders for his own amusement in works by Dorothy L. Sayers. He is descended from the 12th century knight Gerald de Wimsey, who accompanied King Richard the Lionheart on the Third Crusade. Peter Wimsey eventually marries another of Sayers’s detectives, Harriet Vane. He collects rare books, is an expert on food and wine, and is an accomplished pianist.

Discussion Questions for Your Reading Group

Who is your favorite character in the book? Why?

When we meet her, Amanda has a strained relationship with her parents. How do you think it could be improved?

How does Amanda change over the course of the story? What causes those changes? 

If Legatum Continuatum were a real place, would you want to attend? Why?

Who is Amanda’s worst antagonist: her parents, the Wiffle kid, Nick, Blixus, Mavis, or someone else? Why do you think so?

Have you had any teachers who were like the Legatum ones? Who is your favorite Legatum teacher? Would you like to teach at Legatum? Why?

Were you surprised that Nick turned out the way he did? How do you feel about his death?

Does being a criminal make a person evil? Is it possible for a criminal to have good in them? Do any of the criminals in the book have good in them?

Have you ever solved a mystery? What was it, and how did you solve it? If you haven’t solved a mystery, would you like to?

Would you like to make films? If so, what kind would they be?

Do you think Amanda has good judgment? Why?

Are you interested in creating disguises? If you were to make one, what would it be? Why that one?

How observant are you? If you had to take a pop quiz every time your environment changed, how do you think you’d do?

In the story, Professor Also tells the Wiffle kid that he’s going to learn more than he ever wanted to know about buttons and motor oil. If you had to learn about obscure things to become a better detective, what would you choose?

If you were going to draw a scene from the book, which one would you pick? Why?

Which Legatum class is your favorite? What new classes would you add? There’s a complete list in the book for reference.

What do your fingerprints look like? Are they very swirly, or more straight? How do they compare with those of your friends and family?

If you were a detective, what would be your mystique? What would you select as your area of specialty?

If you were one of the décor gremlins, how would you decorate the Holmes House common room? Why?

Do you know any martial arts? Would you like to?

Why do you suppose Headmaster Thrillkill is so afraid of icicles?

What would you like to make with a 3D printer?

Q and A with Author Paula Berinstein

Where did you get the idea for this story?

I love mysteries, and I’ve always wondered if I could write them. But before I could start, I had to invent a detective. I wanted it to be a woman because I thought I could get inside a woman’s head better than a man’s, and I wanted her to be unusual. I came up with the idea of a young woman who would rebel against her upbringing. Her family would be intellectual and college-educated, but she wouldn’t want to be anything like them, so she’d become a plumber. And so I made her a plumber’s apprentice. In the first story, she’d find a dead body under a house when she crawled underneath to fix a pipe.

I got the idea of her being descended from the fictional character Inspector Lestrade because unlike Amanda, I love Sherlock Holmes and I wanted to use him in the story, but only indirectly. Trying to follow Conan Doyle’s amazing act was just too intimidating, so I didn’t want to write about Holmes himself. Since I like the idea of finding out more about minor characters, Lestrade was the perfect choice.

I also thought that being American, I would naturally be able to write about an American character, so I made Amanda American. At first the entire setting for the story was going to be Los Angeles—specifically Woodland Hills—which I know really well. But I couldn’t make that setting interesting enough, so I moved the story to England, which is where my husband, Alan, comes from.

But I still had difficulty—until I came up with the idea of making Amanda a kid. Once I did that, I was able to invent a school for her to attend, and everything fell into place. Writing for kids allowed me to come up with some crazy ideas, such as a sugar conspiracy, which adults might have trouble taking seriously.

How do you come up with names for your characters?

A combination of ways.

Some of the names in the story come from people in my life. For example, some of the teachers’ names come from my own teachers. Miss Sidebotham, for example, was my junior high sewing teacher. Miss Also was my gym teacher.

Amanda’s stick dog friends are based on real friends, although the personalities are completely different. When I was about seven, I really was in a stick dog club with two friends named Laurie and Jill. The last names I gave the girls, Wong and Javor, come from two other friends I met in junior high and am still friends with.

Some of the names come from other people I know. Halpin, for example, is the name of a writer friend. Simon is the name of my son-in-law. Mukherjee, the legal issues teacher, is another writer friend. Of course none of the real people are anything like these characters either.

Many of the names are made up. I invented many of them myself, either by tweaking real words, or using them verbatim. These names include Owla, from owl; Binkle, which is totally made up using funny English-sounding letter combinations; Amphora, which is a Greek jar; and Peaksribbon, which is completely made up. I can’t remember where I got Thrillkill. It probably just popped into my head, as so many names do. Some of the names are taken from places as well, like Ribchester, the name of Bill Pickle’s pickle-making rival. By the way, the name Bill Pickle just popped into my head too.

There was a reason for using the name Amanda, but I don’t remember what it was now. Nick is my favorite male name, so I had to use that.

Why aren’t more characters specifically named as descendants of famous detectives, such as Lord Peter Wimsey, Nancy Drew, and Hercule Poirot?

Intellectual property restrictions. Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and Moriarty are in the public domain, but most other famous fictional detectives aren’t. Getting permission to use them is possible but not easy, so I decided to avoid the problem for now and leave those sorts of names out.

How did you come up with the sugar idea?

Originally the story was going to be about candy. In fact, the original title was Amanda Lester and the Great Candy Conspiracy. However, I couldn’t figure out an original way to make candy dangerous. I researched ways of making it lethal, but they were all humdrum, like spiking it with poison. So I tried to think of something similar to candy, and when I discovered that a sugar factory had exploded in Mexico, I decided to use sugar instead.

Why isn’t Amanda’s name Amanda Lestrade?

I wanted her to be able to hide who she was and fear that she’d be discovered.

Did Amanda ever repay the publican for the train fare?

She certainly did. As soon as she got back from the factory explosion.

Are you Amanda?

Not at all. She’s much gutsier than I am. Actually, the only thing we have in common is that we’re both from L.A. Of course she gets to live in Calabasas, which I’d love to do, but it’s pretty pricey.

Are any of the other characters in the story based on people you know?

Only Simon, and he’s only vaguely based on a friend of mine.

Who are your influences?

Well, obviously J.K. Rowling. I’m in awe of her. Her world-building is amazing. I’d also say just about every detective story I’ve ever read, including many I read as a kid, such as those featuring Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and the Bobbsey Twins. I was also influenced by the Edward Eager books, like Half Magic, the Oz books, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, as well as fairy tales. My favorite writers of adult fiction include Elizabeth George, who writes the Inspector Lynley mysteries, Val McDermid, especially the Tony Hill stories, C.J. Box, who writes the Joe Pickett books, and of course, Conan Doyle. I am also a huge fan of Charles Dickens.

Do you do a lot of research for your stories?

A lot more than you’d think. For this first Amanda book, I researched everything from the sugar mile in London to viruses. I also gathered lots of images, such as those of UK boarding schools, factories, the roads between Windermere and Edinburgh, and even English trains and train stations. I’ve already written the next two books in the series, and I did at least as much research for those, if not more.

How did you hone your writing skills?

I’ve been writing for a long time. I studied literature in college and have written fiction as a hobby. I also write nonfiction and do technical writing as part of my living. But I really began to understand how to write fiction when I started my podcast, The Writing Show. I spoke to so many people about how they write, and read so many books, both about writing and the stories themselves. However, without the late Blake Snyder and his Save the Cat! screenwriting books, I doubt I’d ever have understood story structure as well as I do. What a great loss it is that he’s no longer with us.

How did you change the story after you completed the first draft?

The biggest change I made was in softening Amanda and her relationship with her parents. I made her much more combative at first. Many of my test readers didn’t like that, so I ended up making her less angry and her parents less overbearing. I thought the way I wrote her originally was fine, and so did my husband, but some people didn’t get Amanda that way, so I tried to make her more likeable. She can still be prickly, of course, but she’s not quite as difficult as she was.

How can you kill off so many characters?

Easily. Their deaths serve the story, and anyway, they’re fictional. You can’t really hurt them.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

You would not believe some of the things that are going to happen to these characters! For example, in the next book, Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis, Amanda meets a descendant of Sherlock Holmes, who becomes a thorn in her side and a central figure in her life. In Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle, she and her friends tangle with one of the most dastardly enemies you can imagine, and it isn’t who you think. I’ve got lots of juicy surprises in store. You’ll see.

About the Author

Paula Berinstein is the former producer and host of the popular podcast, The Writing Show (www.writingshow.com). She lives in Los Angeles.

 

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Other Books by Paula Berinstein

 

Thank you for reading my book! If you enjoyed it, you may want to check out the other books in the Amanda Lester, Detective series.

Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis (Amanda Lester, Detective #2).

 

Amanda Lester and the Purple Rainbow Puzzle (Amanda Lester, Detective #3)

 

Amanda Lester and the Blue Peacocks’ Secret (Amanda Lester, Detective #4)

 

 

Connect with Me!

 

Amanda Lester, Detective Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AmandaLesterDetective/

Paula’s blog on Goodreads: [+ https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/969582.Paula_Berinstein/blog+]

Paula’s Goodreads profile: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/969582.Paula_Berinstein

 

Paula’s Twitter account: http://www.twitter.com/pberinstein

 

Favorite me at Shakespir: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/writingshow

[]Read on for sample chapters from Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis!

LESTRADE, MEET HOLMES

Amanda Lester wasn’t ready for what she’d just heard. Life was already weird enough at Legatum Continuatum, the secret school for descendants of famous detectives, in England’s Lake District. After the events of the last few months, including her father’s kidnapping, two murders, a teacher’s disappearance, an explosion, and a criminal plot to corner the world’s sugar market, she was battered, fed up, and downright depressed, especially since one of the kidnappers had turned out to be the boy she thought was her best friend. So when she arrived at Headmaster Thrillkill’s office on the first day of the new term and overheard one of the teachers say that the school was facing the worst crisis in its history, her first impulse was to run. But when she caught the word “Moriarty,” she couldn’t help listening, even though she knew eavesdropping was wrong. And that was when all the trouble started, or at least this round of trouble.

Moriarty, of course, was the master criminal Blixus Moriarty, whom Amanda had helped catch just a few weeks before. Elegant, brilliant, and cruel, he was at least as dangerous as his infamous ancestor Professor James Moriarty, archenemy of the renowned detective Sherlock Holmes. Even though Blixus was locked away in Her Majesty’s Prison at Manchester, nicknamed Strangeways, and his wife, Mavis, in Holloway Castle in London, the detectives who ran Legatum kept him under constant surveillance. And now, it appeared, there was news.

Amanda moved as close to the door as she could without being seen and closed her eyes so she could hear every word.

“I’m starting to think we’re out of luck,” said one of the teachers. “This is a catastrophe.”

“You’re overreacting,” said another. “There are still places to search. It will turn up.”

“Hogwash,” said a third. “The Moriartys have it.”

“If that’s the case,” said yet another, “it’s gone. It wasn’t in their possession when they were captured, or in their rooms here at the school. It must have been destroyed in the fire.”

The teacher was referring to the fire that that had killed the Moriartys’ son Nick, aka Nick Muffet, and destroyed the sugar factory where their cartel had manufactured deadly sugar-powered weapons—the factory where they had created a virus that tainted their competitors’ products. The same factory that had housed Schola Sceleratorum, the secret school for criminals, where Amanda had discovered that Nick wasn’t the person he’d claimed to be. The factory where they’d held her father and beat him till he nearly died. That factory, which Nick had deliberately destroyed by igniting the highly flammable sugar dust inside.

“Look,” said the evidence teacher. “Whatever happens, we can’t alarm the students or the parents. We have to keep this quiet.”

“I think we can all agree on that,” said Headmaster Thrillkill.

“It wasn’t our fault,” said the dead bodies teacher.

“No, of course not,” said the self-defense teacher. “We did everything in our power to protect it.”

“I don’t think we did,” said the poisons teacher. “If we had, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t see how you can say that,” said the police procedures teacher. “I’ve got the checklist right here. See? Every requirement followed to the letter up until the 22nd of February. Then boom, gone. What else could we have done?”

“Fault is not the issue,” said Thrillkill. “The point is that the situation is dire. We need to correct it immediately. Suggestions?”

This was freaky. Amanda had never heard the teachers talk this way before. She’d never seen them panic, and that scared the wits out of her. These were hardened detectives with years of experience. They’d faced down the world’s most evil criminals without blinking. Or had they? What was that crack in Professor Also’s armor she’d seen the time someone had mentioned the Khyber Pass? Or when Professor Ducey had slipped and accidentally revealed that someone in his family had been a dirty cop? Even if they’d occasionally made mistakes, she was certain that these people were the toughest in the world—the Navy Seals of detecting—and they were close to unflappable. Except that now they were flapping like a pair of your grandfather’s BVDs in a hurricane. The situation was more than unsettling. It was downright weird.

“Hey, you’re eavesdropping!”

Amanda whirled around to see that prissy little Wiffle kid standing before her, the one who was always getting on her case about not following the rules. What a Goody Two-shoes he was, always complaining that her behavior didn’t measure up to some mythical standard. And here he was doing it again, except this time she was eavesdropping, and if he tattled the teachers would be furious.

“Shut up,” she said in a stage whisper. “Thrillkill asked me to come to his office.”

“Not like this,” said the kid, who seemed to have gotten a really bad haircut over the break. His pale red hair looked as if someone had taken a machete to it. “You’re not supposed to listen to other people’s conversations.”

“I’m not listening,” she protested. “I’m waiting for a lull.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Are—”

“What’s going on out there?” Headmaster Thrillkill poked his head out. His beard was covered with crumbs. “Oh, Miss Lester, I’m glad to see you. I have a task for you. Will you please stop by my office after your classes? Now off you go.” He shooed the two first-years off, then turned back to the teachers and closed the door behind him.

“He’s going to give it to you,” said the kid. “Wish I were a fly on the wall. Probably something about how you helped that crook Nick Muffet infiltrate the school and—”

“You are a fly,” said Amanda. “You’re nothing but a bug, David Wiffle. I feel sorry for you. Go back to your dog poop.”

“Ha ha! You wish. You just can’t deal with the fact that I’m descended from an aristocrat. I’ll have you know that my ancestor, Sir Bailiwick Wiffle, was the most popular and successful detective of the 1930s, way beyond . . .”

But Amanda wasn’t listening. What was up with Thrillkill? He hadn’t taken them to task for their arguing, and he’d given no indication that he thought they’d been eavesdropping. The omission only added to Amanda’s worry, especially because he didn’t seem to remember that he’d asked her to come to his office in the first place.

What could the headmaster want from her? Did it have anything to do with the argument the teachers were having? She didn’t want to know. The man had thawed a bit by the end of last term, but he was still demanding, gruff, and awkward. And yet if she didn’t know what he wanted she would be caught unaware by whatever it was, and that might be even more unpleasant.

“And by the way, it wasn’t cool what you and that criminal did to me. You got me in a lot of trouble over that kicking thing. I’m not done with you, Lester.”

Wiffle was referring to the time he’d accidentally injured Amanda with an errant kick in self-defense class. Despite her antagonism toward him, she had taken the high road and insisted that it was an accident, but Nick, who always came to the rescue, had tried to punch him and ended up twisting his ankle. The teacher had punished the kid anyway, and now he’d never let her forget that there was a permanent note in his file.

“You don’t scare me, chicken hawk,” she said. She glanced at the clock. “OMG, you’re going to be late to class. Can’t afford another detention, can you?”

Wiffle took one look and started running toward their observation class. He was so predictable.

Amanda knew she should go too, but suddenly she heard the name “Holmes” from behind the door. Oh brother. It was probably the new kid—Sherlock Holmes’s descendant, Scapulus Holmes, whom Thrillkill had mentioned at the end of last term. What was he going to be like? And what could he possibly have to do with the missing item? Did they think he had taken it?

It was true that a few short months ago Amanda would have done anything to avoid Sherlock Holmes. And it was true that now she was somewhat less sensitive, although not entirely sanguine, about the man who’d made her own ancestor, Inspector G. Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and by extension her, a laughingstock. She had finally decided that she was no longer embarrassed to be the descendant of a police detective known by all to be a dodo. She was pretty sure she had resolved all that. Lestrade wasn’t her and she wasn’t him. She was going to be the greatest detective ever, as well as the greatest filmmaker, her life’s desire, despite her duddy genes. But theory was one thing and practice another. The new kid was probably here, right now, doing his worst. This was getting juicy as well as nerve-racking. She had to find out more.

“Chop, chop,” Miss Lester, said Professor Mukherjee, the legal issues teacher, who had suddenly emerged from Thrillkill’s office to look for something in the anteroom. “We don’t want to be late on the first day of class, do we?”

Nuts. There was no way she’d hear anything now. “Er, no, Professor. I was just . . . I’m on my way.”

Oh well. If whatever it was was that important, there would be other opportunities to find out about it. Truth be told, Amanda was looking forward to seeing this legendary Holmes. Thrillkill had said that he wanted her to show him the ropes. Her! Little did he know that she was the last person who should be doing that. All she’d have to do was take one look at the boy and she’d throw up—a stunt she’d become well known for ever since that first day of spring term when she’d hurled all over poor Simon Binkle’s jacket. Fortunately Simon was now a friend, although he could still be irritating in a nerdish sort of way.

But between that incident and the one in the dead bodies, aka pathology, class, where she’d made the entire class puke, she had quite a reputation and didn’t want to enhance it. She just knew, though, that this Holmes kid was going to be trouble, although what sort of trouble she wasn’t sure. She was pretty sure he’d be arrogant. These sorts of things ran in families: the Wiffle family was arrogant, the Moriarty family was arrogant, Sherlock Holmes was arrogant, ergo their descendants would be the same. She wondered if Professor Ducey, the logic teacher, would buy that argument. It seemed airtight to her.

 

 

Suddenly she realized she hadn’t had breakfast. In her haste to get to the headmaster’s office before class, she’d completely forgotten to eat and she was hungry. Breakfast was officially over as of one minute ago, but she took a chance and snuck into the dining room, making sure to keep an eye out for the new cook, whoever she might be. The previous one had been strict about mealtimes, and if you missed them you were out of luck. Of course the previous cook had also been a mole working on behalf of the Moriarty cartel, so you couldn’t go by anything she’d done. Perhaps the new one would be nicer and a bit more lenient, not to mention less crooked.

Amanda hustled as quietly as she could to the dining room, which was next to the stairs leading to the girls’ dorm. She looked around, first behind her, then to either side, then whirled around to get a 360-degree view and almost lost her balance. She heard some clunking coming from the kitchen, but there was no sign of the new cook. Was someone coming? Should she chance it?

She tiptoed up to the kitchen door and looked through the round window. No one. The new cook and her assistant must be in the pantry or outside accepting deliveries. She twirled around again, then felt both dizzy and silly. Enough of that. She tiptoed over to the sideboard and grabbed the last roll, sticking it in her bag for a surreptitious getaway. Yay! She’d done it! She stepped out of the dining room as quietly as she could and power walked down the hall toward her first class.

Unfortunately, as soon as she started moving she realized there was no way to consume the loot without anyone seeing, and if they did she’d probably get into trouble. As great a school as Legatum had turned out to be, sometimes it still felt like a prison. Should she duck into a closet and eat the roll? Why not? She opened the door to a supply area, stepped in, tore the thing in two, and stuffed it in her mouth, almost choking in the process. When she’d swallowed the last lump she was so thirsty she knew she’d never make it to class, so she stopped at a water fountain and managed to get water all over her face, hair, and sweater. Great.

Normally she would have noticed the décor and committed it to memory but she was too rushed. With Professor Sidebotham’s daily observation quizzes constantly requiring fresh material, Legatum’s décor gremlins were always changing the look of the school, and the kids were supposed to note both its present and past states in great detail. Some of the quizzes had been downright unfair though. Like the time when they had to gauge the thickness of dust on a clock. And then there was the time when the old woman had wanted to know how many heel marks there were on the Van Helden House common room floor. Amanda knew that detectives had to hone their powers of observation, but sometimes Professor Sidebotham got carried away.

She opened her new class schedule and checked it to make sure she was headed to the right place, barely noticing the camel standing in the main hall. The décor did not normally feature live animals, but the gremlins seemed to have been particularly active over spring break and had gone a bit crazy. They must have been in some kind of “Lawrence of Arabia” mood, which under normal circumstances Amanda would have very much appreciated, “Lawrence of Arabia” being one of her all-time favorite films. Now, however, nothing registered.

 

Summer Term First-Year Class Schedule

 

Monday

8:00 – 9:15. Observation, Sidebotham

9:30 – 10:45. Fires and Explosions, Pole

11:15 – 12:30. Cyberforensics, Redleaf

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Crime Lab, Stegelmeyer.

 

Tuesday

8:00 – 9:15. History of Detectives, Also

9:30 – 10:45. Observation, Sidebotham

11:15 – 12:30. Self-defense, Peaksribbon

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Sketching, Browning.

 

Wednesday

8:00 – 9:15. Crime Lab, Stegelmeyer

9:30 – 10:45. Cyberforensics, Redleaf

11:15 – 12:30. Logic, Ducey

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Disguise, Tumble.

 

Thursday

8:00 – 9:15. Fires and Explosions, Pole

9:30 – 10:45. Crime Lab, Stegelmeyer

11:15 – 12:30. Self-defense, Peaksribbon

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Observation, Sidebotham.

 

Friday

8:00 – 9:15. Logic, Ducey

9:30 – 10:45. Cyberforensics, Redleaf

11:15 – 12:30. History of Detectives, Also

12:30 – 1:30. Lunch

1:30 – 2:45. Sketching, Browning.

 

She checked the first box. Yup. She was going the right way. But as she rushed down the hall, she couldn’t stop thinking about not only what the teachers had said, but how they’d said it.

The school was full of tough people. None of the teachers was the least bit shy about expressing him- or herself, and they could be harsh with the students. But she’d never heard them argue like this. Maybe they’d hidden their internal disagreements up to now, but she didn’t think so. She was pretty sure they’d always been united in their mission—to produce the best detectives in the world—and their approach to it. Or maybe Thrillkill had always quashed dissent. Whatever it was, she’d never heard a peep before today, not even when she’d overheard Professor Feeney talking about some missing item on the phone last term. At the time, the criminals and their methods teacher had obviously been concerned, but she wasn’t arguing with whoever was on the other end. No, this situation was different.

Wait a minute: last term! Whatever it was had been missing for quite a while. Amanda was sure that at least a month had passed since Professor Feeney’s phone call, if not longer. If that were the case, why were the teachers talking about it only now? Something must have happened recently. Could it have anything to do with Blixus Moriarty? He’d been in prison for a month. Might he have pulled something off from there?

As she turned to enter her observation class she almost collided with the door. Everyone was already seated, including David Wiffle, who had obviously eaten breakfast when he was supposed to. She made her way to an empty seat next to her roommate, petite, blind, copper-haired Ivy Halpin, whose golden retriever guide dog, Nigel, wagged his tail at the sight of her. At first she ignored him, but when he looked at her with those soulful eyes she realized she’d been completely distracted and gave him a big hug. This gesture was not lost on David Wiffle, who rolled his eyes. Amanda stuck out her tongue. He mouthed, “Real mature.” She turned away.

“Ivy,” whispered Amanda. “I have to tell you something important.”

“What—is something wrong?” Ivy said so quickly that Amanda started. Ivy was normally the calmest and most together of Amanda’s friends. Even when she was concerned about something you could barely tell, but not now.

“Yes, but I don’t know what,” said Amanda.

“Is it serious?” Ivy reached out and petted Nigel so hard that hair flew off in all directions.

“Yes.” Amanda looked around to make sure no one was listening. That Wiffle kid was so nosy.

“Super serious?”

“It could be really bad. I’ll tell you after class.”

“Is it about Editta?” said Ivy. “She didn’t make it to the dorm last night.” She looked like she was about to cry.

“She’s not here? No, that isn’t it.”

Amanda looked around. No Editta. Since the whole first-year class took the same courses, their friend from down the hall should have been there. She was probably just late though. Most people had returned from the holiday over the weekend but there were always a few stragglers. Maybe there was a traffic jam on the M1.

“I tried to phone her but all I got was her voicemail,” said Ivy. “Five times. I’m getting worried. I don’t know why. It’s not that late. Are you sure your thing doesn’t have anything to do with this?”

“I’m sure. Still, it isn’t like her not to show up. You know how superstitious she is. Everything has to be just so or she freaks out.”

“Yes. That’s what I thought.” Ivy twitched in her seat and resettled her butt in her chair. It was a small butt and there was plenty of space to work with.

“I wonder if there’s a way to smoke her out.” Amanda didn’t realize it, but she was mirroring Ivy, wriggling her slightly larger but no longer pudgy butt into her own seat.

“What do you mean?”

“You know how she’s always counting things and looking for magic numbers and stuff?”

“Uh huh.” That she was. Editta Sweetgum was one of the most superstitious, OCD people Amanda had ever met. The trait seemed to run in her family. From the way Editta described all the odd things her mother believed, she sounded like she practiced voodoo or something.

“How about if we send her three messages one right after the other? When she counts them she’ll see how important they are and she’ll answer.” Ivy tapped the arm of her chair three times to demonstrate. She had a great sense of rhythm.

“I see. A code. Like a light that blinks so many times for yes and so many times for no.”

“Exactly.”

“Let’s do it. Here I—”

Ivy’s other roommate, Amphora Kapoor, a tall, chestnut-skinned girl with long dark hair who had just entered and was sitting on the other side of Ivy, turned to them and interrupted with, “Hey, I hate to bring up the topic of Nick . . .”

Simon Binkle, who was sitting behind the girls, leaned forward and said, “Then don’t.”

“Butt out, Simon,” said Amphora.

“You butt out,” said Simon.

“I see you’re still irritating. Apparently the break did nothing to change that.” Unfortunately she was right. Simon could be extremely annoying.

“Apparently it did nothing to change your bad temper.” He was right too. Amphora could be tetchy, especially with him. The two were like chalk and cheese.

“Oh, stop it, you two,” said Ivy. “What’s wrong with you?”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Amphora. “Ask him.” Simon glared at her. “Anyway, I heard they’re moving Nick’s mother from one prison to another. She’s going to be in the same one as his father. I wonder if she’ll try to escape. Do you think she could?”

“I would,” said Simon. Amphora turned around and gave him a long dirty look. “She has nothing to lose. Lots of prisoners escape. Look at Bosul Fopy and Cowboy Quash. They got away from the two toughest maximum-security prisons in the country. Fopy tunneled under his cell for a mile. A mile! And Quash got away while they were moving him. Of course he had help from his mates, but the Moriartys have lots of friends who aren’t locked up. Yeah, she’ll give it a go.”

“Thanks a lot, Simon,” said Amphora. “That was really helpful. What if she comes after Thrillkill, or Amanda?”

This was a thought that hadn’t occurred to Amanda. When she’d helped capture the Moriartys she’d thought that was that. It had never occurred to her that either of them might escape. If she’d been thinking from a filmmaker’s point of view, she’d have got it at once because the prospect of escape would have added suspense and danger to the story and she would have milked it. But thinking like a detective she’d missed it. Boy, she still had a lot to learn. And BTW, ouch. The thought of either of those two coming after her was terrifying.

“Good morning, class,” said Professor Sidebotham. Amanda started. She had been so wrapped up in picturing Mavis Moriarty coming after her with an axe that she hadn’t seen the teacher enter the room. Ivy jabbed Amanda with her elbow and mouthed the word “Editta,” but because the teacher was watching them Amanda put her phone away without having sent the texts. She’d have to do it later.

Suddenly Simon poked her in the back. “Hey,” he whispered. “Did you see that camel?”

“Mr. Binkle,” said Professor Sidebotham loudly. “I’m so glad you have volunteered to start the class. Come up here, please. And remove your fedora in the classroom.”

Simon was always wearing his fedora now, ever since the first day of school when he’d begun to create his detective’s mystique in Professor Also’s history of detectives class. The look included said hat and sometimes a red sweater vest. The hat suited him better than Amanda had thought it would, but she still wasn’t convinced about the vest, which she felt was too old a look for a twelve-year-old. Maybe not in the UK though. At home in L.A. people would have thought he looked ridiculous. Everyone was more formal here. Everyone but her, that is.

Every time Simon took the hat off you could see that crazy cowlick of his, and then he’d smack his head constantly trying to get it to lie flat. Now he removed the hat and immediately felt for the disobedient hairs. Slap, slap. His efforts did no good. He grumbled under his breath and slunk up to the front of the class.

“Stand up straight,” said Professor Sidebotham. Simon complied. “That’s better. Now, let’s do a little exercise. Class, has Mr. Binkle gained in height since last term?”

Last term was about ten days ago. If Simon had grown since then it would be a miracle. Ivy raised her hand. Amanda noticed that the floor around her chair was covered with dog hair.

“Miss Halpin?” said the teacher.

“Simon has grown about a quarter of an inch in the last two weeks,” said Ivy. “His voice is coming from a slightly different place now.”

Ivy was already an amazing detective. She may have been sightless, but her ears were incredible. She could detect better than any of the other kids just by listening. If she said Simon had grown a quarter of an inch, he had.

“I don’t think so,” blurted out David Wiffle.

Oh no. Here we go. Amanda sat back in anticipation of the argument to come.

“Mr. Wiffle, from now on wait until I call on you,” said Professor Sidebotham. “Now, why don’t you think Mr. Binkle has grown?”

“Sorry, Professor. But no one grows a quarter of an inch in ten days.”

The class laughed.

“This is a class in observation, Mr. Wiffle,” said the teacher. “Not common wisdom.”

More laughter. Amanda was particularly gratified to see the thorn in her side taken down a peg, especially by an old lady.

“But aren’t we supposed to use everything we know to solve crimes?” said the thorn.

“In general, yes,” said Professor Sidebotham, “but this is a class in observation. You must perceive what’s around you, not project onto it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The Wiffle kid looked more annoyed than usual. He didn’t like being wrong, and he really didn’t like being laughed at.

“What is the answer, Mr. Binkle? You have been keeping track of your height and weight as I instructed, have you not?”

Simon looked like he wanted to sink into the floor. “Yes, Professor.”

Amanda leaned over to Ivy and said, “I don’t know what his problem is. He looks good.” She was right. Simon was tall and trim, albeit a bit geeky-looking.

Ivy whispered back, “Too personal.” Amanda nodded, then realized Ivy couldn’t see her, so she said, “Yeah. We are talking about Simon, aren’t we?”

“We’re waiting, Mr. Binkle,” said the teacher.

“I, um, er . . .”

“Out with it. Have you grown or haven’t you?”

“I, uh, yes. I’ve grown a quarter of an inch since the end of last term.”

The students let out a yell—that is, all the students except Mr. Wiffle.

“Gold star, Miss Halpin,” said Professor Sidebotham. “Better luck next time, Mr. Wiffle.”

This humiliation did not go over well with the Wiffle kid. He groused under his breath and made faces at his freckled friend Gordon Bramble, who was sitting next to him as usual.

“Now then, class,” said Professor Sidebotham. “I know you’ve all seen the camel in the hall. I want you all to text me the answer to this question within ten seconds: one hump or two? Miss Halpin, you may skip this exercise if you desire. Go.”

“That’s all right, Professor,” said Ivy. “I have an answer.” She started texting into her specially adapted phone.

Ack! Amanda had no idea. She’d run right past the animal and had barely noticed it. She didn’t want to blow another of Professor Sidebotham’s pop quizzes. At least she had a fifty-fifty chance, though. She took a chance and texted “1.”

“Time,” said the teacher. “Let’s see what we have. Ten ones, nineteen twos, and what’s this? None? Who said none?” She peered out over the class. “I don’t like wiseacres.”

“But it didn’t have any,” called out David Wiffle. “It’s a flatback highland humpless from Tanzania.”

“Actually, he’s right,” said Simon, thumbing his phone. “And ironically, it was discovered by a biologist named Humphrey something. Pretty good, eh? Hump, Humphrey?” He started to crack up, then stopped abruptly. “I knew that. Why did I say one hump?” He reddened again.

“Well done, Mr. Wiffle. It was a trick question. You passed with flying colors. The rest of you, this is what happens when you let your expectations color your observations. Empty your mind of preconceived notions. Do not see what you expect to see. See what is.”

Amphora raised her hand.

“Yes, Miss Kapoor,” said the teacher.

“Professor, if there really were no humps, why did you say we’re wiseacres.”

Oh great, thought Amanda. Now she’d stepped in it.

“Part of my strategy to trick you, Miss Kapoor. Be ever vigilant. Don’t let your senses fool you. And on that note, I’d like to announce that we will be using our senses in a very concentrated fashion in one week. We will be going on a field trip to Blackpool.”

“Yay!” “Hurrah!” “Cool!” “Radical!” “Sweet!” said the class.

Amanda leaned over to Ivy. “What’s Blackpool?”

“It’s a huge amusement park-y place. Kind of like Disney World except way bigger and with lots more stuff to do.”

“Oh, cool! I love Space Mountain.”

“Now, while I expect that you will enjoy yourselves, the purpose of the trip is to practice observing,” said the professor, ambling around the room. “You will need to be ready for anything, and I do mean anything. I will be presenting observing exercises on the spot. These will count toward your grade, so it will behoove you to pay attention. Mr. Bramble, please put your phone away.”

“Yes, Professor. Sorry, Professor,” said Gordon Bramble, stuffing his phone in his pocket. Amanda just knew he’d been playing games instead of listening.

“For example, I might ask you to pick out a certain number of items and make a story out of them. Miss Lester, you should be good at that. I’m looking forward to sitting in on your storytelling seminar.”

“Thank you, Professor.” Amanda beamed. Thrillkill had asked her to present a special storytelling workshop to the class, and she was so excited she couldn’t wait.

“Or, I might ask you to give me the backgrounds or attributes of a number of items that have something in common. For example, I want to know where all the blue items within ten feet might have come from. How many of this or that are there? Move your point of view n degrees and tell me how the scene has changed. If you had to testify in court about this or that, what would you say? These are only some of the questions I’ll be asking. Others will come as a complete surprise and I expect you to rise to the challenge.” She stopped at Prudence Starshine’s seat and stared directly at the slender golden-haired girl, who quailed under her gaze.

“You will also describe your methods. I will ask you to write a paper on this topic later. Hearing about how each student works will allow you to try out new techniques and expand on what you see, and later you will look at a given scene the way one or another of your classmates does. So shared experiences will be critical.” She glanced from Owla Snizzle to Clive Ng. “Perhaps you, Miss Snizzle, and you, Mr. Ng, will team up.” Both kids looked terrified.

“And don’t forget to use all of your senses. Miss Halpin, obviously I don’t expect you to use your eyes, but I want you to help the other students develop their auditory, olfactory, and tactile senses. In fact I would like you to prepare some lectures on these topics. Please see me at the end of the day to discuss this project.”

Ivy grinned for the first time. “Yes, ma’am.” Then she turned to Amanda and said, “You’re better at this stuff than I am. She should ask you. You notice stuff because of your film training.”

“I’m not better,” whispered Amanda. “It’s just that when you’re responsible for every detail of look and feel, you notice everything. But you’re naturally better.”

“No, I’m not,” said Ivy, looking like she’d lost her best friend.

What was up with her? Amanda was starting to worry. She looked around the classroom. “Still no Editta, I see.”

“I know,” said Ivy. “I don’t like this. You don’t think her parents pulled her out of school, do you?”

“I don’t see why. And even if they did she’d say goodbye.”

“Yes, she would. This isn’t good.”

Suddenly the door opened and Headmaster Thrillkill stuck his head in. He gave a sign to Professor Sidebotham, then entered followed by a nice-looking dark-skinned boy wearing a bow tie and a serious expression. The kid seemed to gleam. The buttons on his blazer glinted like diamonds, the creases in his trousers were impossibly perfect, and he was wearing freshly buffed tasseled loafers. Even his short afro sparkled. He looked like he’d just arrived from the 1950s.

“Sorry to interrupt, Professor,” said Thrillkill, “but I have a new student for you. Class, this is Scapulus Holmes.”

The room went silent. The boy stood by the door and smiled ever so slightly.

Amanda took in the sight before her. This was Holmes? This vision of smugness? Ugh. He was going to be awful—worse than she’d expected. Who dressed like that? He was obviously so self-involved that he couldn’t recognize how real people looked and behaved. She wanted to run up and pull that prissy little bow tie off his neck, rub dirt on those too-shiny buttons, and scuff up his look-at-me shoes.

Before she knew it she had blurted out, “OMG, what a dork!” Then, realizing what she’d done, she turned as red as Simon’s sweater and bolted from the room, leaving behind a roomful of gaping would-be detectives.

 

GORDON BRAMBLE EXPLODES

Amanda had pulled some stupid stunts in her life, but reacting to Sherlock Holmes’s descendant that way was the worst ever. How gauche could she be? She could hear Nick’s voice in her head saying, “Good one, Lestrade.” He had called her by her ancestor’s name when he turned mean, and it had stung like a thousand wasps. She was so ashamed she wanted to die. How could she ever go back into that room? Maybe she should just stow away on another delivery truck, the way she’d done last term when she was trying to find her father, and go home, or anywhere that wasn’t Legatum. Her parents had offered her the chance to go back to L.A. and live with relatives. Maybe she should take it and leave this craziness behind.

Actually that might not be such a bad idea. Maybe she didn’t belong at Legatum at all. For a girl who prided herself on her observational skills, she had really messed up. How could she have failed to see what Nick really was? Now that she looked back, it was obvious he’d been playing her. Was she that stupid?

Obviously she was. He’d known she was gullible. Out of a class of thirty students he’d singled her out as the one most likely to believe his lies. By spending so much time with her, he’d limited his exposure to others who might have been more skeptical. He must have had highly developed turkey radar. What was it that had made her such an obvious choice? Of course—what else? It was those awful Lestrade genes again.

She heard the door to the observation classroom open and saw Professor Thrillkill come out. Fortunately she was out of his line of sight and was able to duck around a corner without being seen. She tried to make like Ivy and prick up her ears, but her heart was pounding so hard it was difficult to hear footsteps. Still there was the headmaster’s voice, joined by another she didn’t recognize. She caught the words “Blixus” and “Feeney,” but she couldn’t make out anything else. She was sure the two of them were discussing the missing item, but she was unable to glean anything beyond that. Nevertheless, the conversation seemed to add proof to her fear that something weird was happening.

She knew she was going to have to face the music so she tiptoed back toward the classroom. Thankfully, Professor Thrillkill and whoever he was talking to had disappeared, but she was still supposed to see him later. Ugh. He’d definitely say something about her outburst. Just when he’d seemed to thaw a little she’d had to go and ruin everything. Typical.

She opened the door slowly to minimize the creaking and stepped back inside. The room was dead still except for Professor Sidebotham’s voice. The new student had found a seat. Everyone turned to look at her, obviously embarrassed on her behalf, except for Wiffle and his friend Gordon Bramble, who giggled. She sat back down and drew her body inward, as if to hide in plain sight. Should she say something to Holmes? He was sitting way across the room, paying rapt attention to the teacher. He seemed to be acting like nothing had happened but she couldn’t tell for sure. He certainly didn’t seem to be brooding, or laughing. He was a complete cipher. Well, wasn’t that just like a Holmes—completely wrapped up in himself. Still, she’d done a terrible thing and there would be a price to pay.

“Miss Lester? I asked you a question,” said Professor Sidebotham.

The whole class, Holmes included, turned to look at her.

“I’m sorry, Professor. Would you mind repeating it?” Amanda’s face felt so hot she thought she could fry an egg on it.

“I said would you please elaborate on my point.” The professor looked at her sternly.

“Uh, sure. Er, you were talking about using all the senses instead of just sight.” It sounded good anyway.

“That was ten minutes ago, Miss Lester. Please join us in the twenty-first century.”

“Sorry, Professor. I was, uh, I didn’t hear what you said.”

“No, you did not, Miss Lester. You committed a faux pas, which is entirely human, but a detective stands up and accepts the consequences of her actions. She doesn’t run away. Being out of the room is no excuse. I’m deducting fifty points from your next test. Is that clear?”

The Wiffle kid was gloating so hard he looked like a mask of himself. Amanda felt that she’d gotten off easy, however, and said, “Yes, Professor. It won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t. Now, class . . .”

Professor Sidebotham’s voice faded out of Amanda’s consciousness. Maybe she had been too cocky thinking she was over the whole Holmes thing. She’d just demonstrated that Holmes and his family could still get to her. This was not good.

Except that it wasn’t her, it was him. She was the victim. She decided she hated Holmes more than ever. She even convinced herself that it was his fault that Nick had betrayed her and the school. Holmes and his family must have provoked the Moriartys into that whole sugar scheme and made them so angry that they’d had to use their twelve-year-old son to infiltrate the detectives’ school. Moriarty was only Moriarty because he had Holmes to play off of. If there were no Holmes, he’d just be an ordinary, run-of-the-mill loser. She seethed so hard she could barely keep it together.

When the class ended Holmes was nowhere to be seen. Amphora ran to Amanda and said, “I can’t believe you said that.” Although she knew what she’d done was horrific, Amphora’s accusing comment got her dander up and she huffed off.

Then Simon came up to her and said, “Way to go, Amanda.”

“Don’t be mean,” said Ivy, who had joined them. “It wasn’t the greatest thing to say, but it’s not the end of the world.”

“It was incredibly embarrassing,” said Amanda. “Who’s the dork here—him or me?”

“Live and learn,” said Simon in his maddening way.

“I think he’s cute,” said Amphora, rejoining the group.

“You would,” said Simon.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Here we go again. Amanda wondered if those two would ever get along. Probably not.

“Nothing much. You’re just a bit moony,” Simon said.

“What do you mean moony?” Amphora crossed her arms the way she often did with him.

“You’re always mooning over guys, that’s all,” he said.

“I don’t moon. Ivy, do I moon?” Amphora uncrossed her arms and turned to her roommate.

“No, I don’t think you moon,” said Ivy.

“What do you mean you don’t think I moon?”

“You don’t moon, okay?” said Ivy with uncharacteristic pique. What was up with her? Maybe this thing with Editta was really getting to her.

“What am I going to do?” said Amanda. “I hate that guy. I mean, I don’t hate that guy because I don’t know him, but I hate Sherlock Holmes and everything about him, and—well, I do hate that guy because did you see how he looks? He’s going to be terrible. And now he knows I hate him and Thrillkill is forcing me to be his big sister and that kid is going to cause me so much grief and what about all the other kids who heard me say that, and Sidebotham too?”

“You’re making too much of this,” Amphora said.

“Agreed,” said Simon, astonishing everyone. He never agreed with her.

“I don’t think so,” said Amanda. She was pacing now.

“They’ll get over it,” said Simon. “Anyway, he looked fine to me.”

“I don’t think he looks bad at all,” said Amphora. “It’s refreshing when someone pays attention to their appearance.”

“Yeah, I saw you noticing him,” said Simon. “You looked like a dog discovering a steak.” Amphora glared at him.

“He has a lovely voice,” said Ivy.

“When did you hear his voice?” said Amphora. She looked startled for some reason Amanda couldn’t fathom.

“He said something under his breath,” said Ivy. “You didn’t hear?”

“No,” said Amphora.

“Well, he does,” said Ivy.

“You girls are nuts,” said Simon, shaking his head and walking off.

“Did you do what we talked about?” Ivy said to Amanda.

“What? Oh, you mean the texts?” She rummaged in her bag. “Got it.” She held her phone at the ready. The light hit it at just the right angle and it glinted.

“Yes.”

“What texts?” said Amphora, who seemed annoyed at having been left out.

“Have you heard anything from Editta?” said Amanda.

“What? No. Where is she? Why isn’t she here?” Amphora seemed to be reading disaster into the question. She did that a lot.

“Exactly,” said Ivy.

“We’re going to text her three messages in quick succession and see if she answers,” said Amanda.

“Oh, I see,” said Amphora. “Like a pattern. She’ll answer that.”

“We hope so,” said Ivy. “Amanda, please do it now.”

“Okay.” Amanda quickly thumbed until she had sent three identical texts in rapid fashion. The girls stood there for a second and stared at the tiny screen. Nothing. “We have to give it some time. Maybe she’s busy.”

“Yes,” said Ivy. “I’m sure that’s it.”

“Definitely,” said Amphora, who didn’t look at all convinced.

 

 

“I need to tell you something,” Amanda said to Ivy when Amphora had left. “It’s important.”

“Something bad?”

“It is bad, I’m afraid,” said Amanda. “Maybe very bad.”

“Oh no,” said Ivy. “You’d better tell me quick.”

Amanda explained what she’d overheard before class. As she revealed more and more of the detail, Ivy’s expression grew increasingly serious until her brow was deeply creased with worry.

“This isn’t good,” she said. “We need to do something.”

“Do what?” said Amanda. “We don’t even know what’s missing.”

“We have to figure it out fast,” said Ivy. “You’re right. We’ve never heard the teachers act like this before. Something terrible is about to happen. Anything to do with the Moriartys can’t be good. I need to know more. I’ll bet I can pick up something if I nose around.”

“Okay. Let’s talk about this at lunch. Maybe Simon and Amphora can help.”

“If they ever stop fighting. What is it with those two?”

“I don’t know. They sure don’t like each other.”

“No. They don’t.”

 

 

Amanda, Ivy, and Nigel scooted off to their fires and explosions class. They wished they’d taken it last term, when the school’s garage had exploded as part of the class project. As they investigated the explosion and the fire it had started, the kids were unsure what to look for and how to preserve the evidence, but the teachers had structured the exercise to be difficult on purpose. They’d wanted to test the new class’s skill at handling an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. In the end, only Holmes House, which was where Amanda, Ivy, Amphora, Simon, Editta, and Nick had been assigned, had cracked the mystery. The other houses, especially Van Helden House, which included David Wiffle and Gordon Bramble, had resented them, going so far as to complain that Holmes House had cheated, which had not gone over well with the powers that be. Holmes House’s victory had helped melt Thrillkill’s icy exterior and led to him asking Amanda to teach the storytelling class.

The first thing Amanda noticed when she arrived at Professor Pole’s classroom was Scapulus Holmes sitting in the first row. Suddenly she remembered that she was supposed to take him under her wing and show him around. There was no way she could do that now. She’d rather be pulled apart by wild camels. Then she had a thought: maybe Thrillkill had forgotten. The kid looked like he could take care of himself just fine. He’d found his way around so far. What did he need her for? She’d done all right without a guide. What was the guy, five years old? He was a Holmes. She’d carry on normally and see what happened.

Professor Pole was an affable man in his forties. As a child he had been burned in a house fire, and half his face was scarred and some of his hair missing as a result. If you didn’t know him, you might be afraid of him because he looked kind of scary, but once he spoke he was so funny and nice that you quickly forgot.

Not only was Professor Pole fun to be around, he was also brilliant. A physicist by trade, he solved astrophysics problems in his spare time, a pursuit he found relaxing. He also hunted for fossils and had even discovered some dinosaur bones on a dig in Montana. The class promised to be challenging, useful, and fun, and Amanda was looking forward to it, despite the fact that she’d heard it could be dangerous. She was getting used to risk now and wasn’t nearly as worried as she’d been a few months before.

“Boo!” yelled Professor Pole while the students were still jabbering among themselves. A couple of the kids dropped things on the floor and one or two clutched their chests as if they’d had a heart attack. “Explosions. That’s exactly how they occur. They’re strong, sharp, loud, sudden, and almost always unexpected. But you can prepare yourselves for them, and that’s one of the things we’re going to learn how to do in this dynamite class. Ha ha!” He beamed, obviously proud of his little joke. A couple of the kids groaned, but quite a few of them broke into nervous laughter. Amanda felt her body tense up. She was just sure he was going to try to scare them again.

“You there, Mr. Bramble.” Professor Pole motioned to Gordon. “Come up here, please. That’s right. Don’t be shy.”

Gordon Bramble, a me-too sort of boy who normally relied on his friend David Wiffle to take the lead, looked embarrassed and confused, but he managed to get himself to the front of the class.

“Now, I want you to add this liquid to this beaker. Before you do, please put these goggles on.” Professor Pole pointed to a clear vessel that contained glittering blue powder. It was sitting in a pan. The liquid he was referring to resided in a smaller beaker that looked like the larger beaker’s child. Amanda had visions of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. What a great film that was with Boris Karloff. She should watch it again.

Gordon took the goggles and nervously fitted them over his eyes. They made him look like a deep-sea diver. He eyed Professor Pole tentatively, as if to say, “Please don’t make me do this.”

“All right, go,” said the professor. Gordon stood stock-still. “It’s okay. I promise.”

Shaking visibly, Gordon held his arm out as far as it would go and gingerly picked up the beaker with the clear liquid. Then, standing as far away from the large beaker as he could, he poured about a drop into it.

“More,” said Professor Pole. “Do the whole thing at once. Upsy daisy.”

This baby talk seemed to embarrass Gordon so much that he stood closer to the large beaker and dumped the clear liquid in, whereupon a sparkly blue explosion blasted out of it and overflowed into the pan. It made a snapping sound, like a whip being cracked. It was more show than danger, though. The stuff didn’t even get on Gordon’s clothes. He winced and turned away, then slowly pivoted around and, seeing what had happened, smiled from ear to ear.

“Awesome,” he said. “Can I do it again?”

“Yes, you may,” said the professor. “How about a different color? But first, let me explain what just happened. The large beaker contained baking soda with blue dye and glitter. The smaller beaker contained white vinegar. Perhaps you can smell it.” Gordon wrinkled his nose and nodded. “The baking soda and the vinegar reacted and caused the mixture to explode. So for you cooks out there, never mix those two ingredients together or you’ll have a birthday cake to remember. Now, Mr. Bramble, would you like to do the honors?”

“Professor, Professor,” yelled out David Wiffle. “Can I try?”

“You’ll get your turn, Mr. Wiffle. Let’s see what Mr. Bramble can cook up.”

Now that he knew he wasn’t going to die, Gordon really got into the experiment. He mixed several different colors of dye and glitter and put them all into the same container. The explosion they created looked like the Fourth of July. He got so excited that he managed to trip. As he started to fall, Scapulus Holmes raced to the front of the room and caught him before he crashed to the floor. Now Gordon was embarrassed again. He murmured a word of thanks and asked if it was okay to return to his seat. Professor Pole nodded.

“Thank you, Mr. Holmes,” said the professor. “That was quick thinking.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Holmes. Ivy was right. He did have a nice voice. He was probably a good singer. As if Amanda cared.

As he turned to go back to his seat, Holmes caught her eye. Oh no. He was probably out to get her after that awful thing she’d said. He stared for a second, then slowly began to smile in a way that seemed to say, “Thanks for the joke.” In spite of herself, Amanda felt her lips widen, and before she knew it she was grinning too. The boy gave her a wink. Wait a minute. Was he serious or making fun of her? Whatever he was up to, she would not be made a fool of again. She felt herself stiffen. Holmes and Moriarty, Moriarty and Holmes. They were two sides of the same coin. She couldn’t believe she’d ever thought the ancestral Moriarty was cool. Well, she was over that bad girl stage. From now on she would give these guys the disrespect they deserved. She frowned. Seeing the change in her, Holmes’s face fell and he turned away.

 

 

Despite Holmes’s odd behavior, and despite the fact that Professor Pole’s program that simulated fires and explosions reminded Amanda of the Explosions! game Nick was so crazy about, she enjoyed the rest of the class and looked forward to the exercises the teacher had assigned. The students were not to try any more real-life experiments for the first few weeks of the class. Rather, they would simulate various types of disasters digitally, starting with the garage explosion and fire that had kicked off the class project last term. After that they would tackle electrical fires and gas explosions before moving on to dynamite and lightning fires. Professor Pole’s graphics were incredibly cool, but the real power of his program was in the physics and chemistry, which he’d worked on in consultation with experts around the world. Later on the kids would do lab experiments, but only if they achieved certain scores on the simulations and with strict safety protocols in place. Everyone was super excited, especially Simon, who started planning all sorts of weird conflagrations. He had some nutty idea about seeing if he could change Earth’s tilt so he could fix global warming. Amanda and Ivy were looking forward to seeing that.

“You can tease me all you want,” he said. “Glitter explosions in a beaker are nothing. The point of all this training is to solve big, important problems. If you must know, I wrote to that professor at UCLA over the break, the one who invented the microscope/cell phone apparatus we used to detect the sugar virus last term. I told him we used the lens from my glasses and it worked great. I asked him if he thinks that’s worth an academic paper, and I’m sure he’ll say yes.”

Simon and Professor Kindseth had discovered a way to turn a cell phone into a powerful microscope using an attachment manufactured on a 3D printer. The only catch had been that they didn’t have the proper lens for it, that is until they hit on the idea of using one from Simon’s coke bottle glasses. The microscope had worked beautifully, and they had discovered that the cook’s pink sugar was actually tainted with a destructive virus.

“That’s admirable,” said Amanda.

“I’ll say,” said Ivy. “I’m impressed.”

“I think it’s nuts,” said Amphora, invading their little circle. “You’re twelve. There’s no way you could publish a scientific paper. Fugeddaboutit.” She sounded silly trying to affect a Brooklyn accent with her posh London/Cambridge way of talking.

“I don’t care about your opinion, dodo,” said Simon. “You know, one day your frivolous behavior is going to come back to bite you. You should get a clue and grow up.”

“You’re a prat,” said Amphora. “I’m going to blow you up in my simulations. It will make the class so much more fun.”

“You know what, you two?” said Ivy. “You’re getting so predictable you’re boring me. I’ve had enough. Come on, Amanda.”

Ivy grabbed Amanda’s arm, pulled Nigel’s lead, and headed off toward the Holmes House common room. Amanda glanced behind her. Simon and Amphora were still arguing.

 

PROFESSOR REDLEAF’S SURPRISE

Amanda had never seen Ivy so edgy. She was normally the calmest person in the world, but something had rattled her. It couldn’t be Editta’s disappearance, which wasn’t even a disappearance yet. And it couldn’t be Simon and Amphora’s constant bickering because Ivy was used to that. What was up?

The two girls ducked into the Holmes House common room, which this day had been decorated to look like an airplane hangar. Amanda found it baffling. She didn’t know anything about planes, other than what she’d seen on the trip over from L.A., and she couldn’t figure out what she was looking at. Ivy dragged her over to a couch and practically threw her down. Nigel sat next to Amanda and let his tongue loll out.

“What’s going on?” Ivy demanded. She seemed more impatient than Amanda had ever seen her. Somehow her dark glasses made her look menacing when she was like that, which was weird considering that Ivy was less than five feet tall.

“Are you okay?” said Amanda, staring at her from this angle and that, trying to read her.

“No, I’m not okay. Something bad is going on around here and we have to find out what it is.” The reflection from her sunglasses flashed as she moved her head.

“You mean what I told you earlier? How do you know about that?” She leaned in and kept her voice low so their conversation would be private.

“How do I know about anything?” said Ivy too loudly. Amanda jumped back as if she’d been hit. “I’ve heard stuff. You know how good my hearing is.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Amanda tried lowering her voice again.

“There wasn’t time,” said Ivy softly, getting the message. “I know something is up with the teachers. They’re talking about catastrophe. We need to figure out what this is and fix it. They sound like they haven’t any idea what to do, and that worries me half to death.”

Amanda delivered the nutshell version of what she’d heard outside Thrillkill’s office. Ivy kept shaking her head. Nigel wagged his tail against her, whomp, whomp, whomp, and she scratched her leg. Between Ivy’s red hair and Nigel’s golden coat, they looked like life itself against the backdrop of the hangar. Amanda wondered what it would be like to have colored hair. Brown was okay, but it wasn’t very interesting.

“Yes, that confirms what I’ve been hearing,” said Ivy when Amanda had finished. “What worries me the most is that the teachers seem so disorganized. I’ve never seen them like this. Do you think Mavis is really going to escape? If she does, maybe she’ll break Blixus out of Strangeways too.”

“I don’t know,” said Amanda. “They’ve gone up against the Moriartys before. Why should this time be any different?” A thought struck her. Maybe losing Nick had made the criminals more desperate and dangerous. It probably wasn’t a good idea to raise the possibility, though. Everyone was sick to death of Nick, and every time she mentioned his name she felt like she was imposing.

“That’s what I can’t figure out,” said Ivy. “Unless they have whatever it is the teachers lost. Do you have any idea what it could be?”

“Not a clue.”

Amanda got up and started pacing, then remembered that she had to stay close to Ivy to keep anyone who walked in from hearing their conversation. She caught sight of the new clock Nick had hung up after breaking the old one, which had bothered Amanda with its loud ticking. Nick again. Why did everything have to remind her of him? If this kept up she’d do poorly in her classes. She had to exorcise him. Maybe she should learn to meditate. Or throw darts at his picture. Editta would probably have stuck pins in his effigy. Where was that girl anyway?

“Me either,” said Ivy. “We’re going to have to do it soon, though.”

“Yes. Maybe we should talk tonight.”

“Definitely. I’m a little worried about discussing all this in front of Amphora, though. She seems so distracted with all that fighting.”

“I know what you mean,” said Amanda. “She and Simon have gotten worse. Maybe they stored it all up over the break. Let’s meet somewhere we don’t usually go and she won’t look for us.”

“One of the labs?”

“How about the disguise room up on the top floor?” Amanda felt the most at home there. It was a theatrical place, full of costumes, wigs, makeup, and props. A filmmaker’s dream.

“Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Eight o’clock?”

“You’re on.”

 

 

Amanda was really looking forward to cyberforensics class. The previous term when she’d needed to get into the Moriartys’ computer she’d had no idea how to get past the logon screen. After that she’d promised herself she’d become an expert so that would never happen again.

The class was taught by Professor Redleaf, a white hat hacker of mysterious origin who was rumored to have broken into some of the most sensitive computer networks on the planet. A number of the older students said she came from the Amazon jungle. Others said she had been born in the heart of Africa. She always wore a white hat of one sort or another, Amanda guessed for symbolic reasons, and appeared to be completely emotionless, speaking in a voice that resembled a dial tone. She also seemed to be full of secrets, which wasn’t unusual at Legatum, but her manner implied that her secrets were rather more sinister than those of the other teachers. There was an air of magic about her, which was saying something considering that detectives are among the least magical people in the world. What really floored Amanda, however, was that as soon as Scapulus Holmes walked into the class, Professor Redleaf seemed to know him and even smiled at him, whereupon he smiled back and said, “Good morning, Professor. How’s that Silver Fern project coming along?”

Showoff! How did they know each other? Did this mean that Holmes was some hacking genius? Was he going to be the teacher’s pet? Amanda could feel herself fuming. She realized she was being irrational but she didn’t care. Sometimes irrationality was called for, and this seemed like one of those times. Who did he think he was, anyway? Here not half a day and already acting like the great Sherlock.

Professor Redleaf didn’t answer Holmes’s question out loud, but somehow Amanda got the feeling she had conveyed the answer anyway. Holmes seemed satisfied with whatever invisible message she had delivered and settled in his chair. Professor Redleaf started the class immediately after that, and told them that their project for the term was to divide into teams that would simultaneously try to hack into each other’s computers.

Instead of going by the school’s houses—Holmes, Van Helden, Dupin, and Father Brown—the students would be assigned randomly using an algorithm Professor Redleaf had written. Amanda was disappointed to find that she wasn’t on the same team as her friends, who had been split up as well, but when she learned that she would be working with the Wiffle kid, she just about had a fit, and so did he. Whiny brat that he was, he asked the teacher if he could be transferred, a question Professor Redleaf wouldn’t dignify with an answer. Normally Amanda and the kid found themselves competing, and the idea of working together not only didn’t sit well with either of them, but seemed to make them hate each other even more. Amanda had no idea how she was going to manage this. The only consolation was that she wasn’t on the same team as Holmes and wouldn’t have to listen to his bragging. Not that she knew for sure that he would brag. She just figured it was in his genes. That and winking, apparently.

Amanda knew the class was going to be hard, but when Professor Redleaf offered an overview full of unfamiliar jargon (she’d heard of SSL and IP addresses, but that was about it), she realized that it was going to be way more difficult than she’d imagined. She was conversant with a variety of media capture and editing programs, but the technical details that made them all work were another thing. Apparently Amphora was feeling the same way because when Amanda glanced at her, her mouth was hanging open. Ivy seemed unperturbed, thank goodness, and Simon, well Simon was eating the whole thing up with a relish Amanda had seen only when he’d made the smartphone microscope last term. Needless to say, Holmes was smiling as if he knew something the others didn’t, which no doubt he did. Oh great. Another freakish Holmes.

Suddenly it occurred to her that perhaps they would all emerge from the school as freaks. Look at the kind of observational skills they were developing. They were so attentive and detail-oriented that they might never be able to turn off all that analyzing and would be beset by runaway trivia racing through their heads day and night. And what about the self-defense training? Could they ever walk down a street again without imagining that everyone they saw posed a physical threat? No wonder all the teachers were so weird. This stuff warped a person. It had certainly warped Sherlock Holmes, but funnily enough not her ancestor, G. Lestrade. He was too dumb to get it, and yet his stupidity had saved him and let him live a normal life. Maybe she should get out now, before she turned into a freakazoid.

Suddenly she realized that something was going on up front and she was so lost in her own morbid thoughts that she was missing it. Professor Redleaf was standing there staring at her screen with a horrified look on her face. She looked at Scapulus Holmes and said sharply, “Mr. Holmes, please see me after class.”

During the rest of the session Professor Redleaf seemed distracted. Everyone was jumpy as a result—except Holmes, who remained stolid. Just watching him convinced Amanda that Simon wasn’t the world’s most irritating nerd anymore. Holmes had just bumped him out of first place.

 

 

The first thing Amanda thought as she headed for lunch was that Professor Redleaf’s alarming surprise must have had something to do with the missing item. The second thing was, what was wrong with Ivy? And the third thing was that Editta was still AWOL. What was going on?

When she arrived at the dining room she could see that everything looked different from the way it had earlier. The tables, which had been arranged lengthwise at 8:00 a.m., were now pushed together to form geometric shapes. The sideboards with beverages and condiments now stood smack in the middle of the room and sported bright-colored cloths decorated with abstract designs. The normal silverware had been replaced with clunky implements that were so heavy and awkwardly designed that it was hard to eat with them. And each plate featured a great big hole in the middle. How you were supposed to eat off those was anyone’s guess. It seemed that the décor gremlins had lost their minds along with everyone else. Or was this supposed to be a test? Maybe the students were supposed to rig up something before they put food on the plates so it wouldn’t drip through. You never knew around here.

Whatever the intent, Simon had solved the problem by placing a glass over the hole in his plate, which seemed to do the trick. The other kids did likewise, except for Holmes, whom Amanda caught sticking a dessert plate under his. Typical. He had to do everything better than everyone else.

After placing a small portion of spinach lasagna around her glass, Amanda said to Ivy, Simon, and Amphora, “Something big is happening.”

“Something big is always happening around here,” said Simon. “That’s what it means to be a detective.” The sauce from his lasagna was starting to separate from the solid parts and roll toward the glass. Amanda wondered if it would make it through the hole.

“No, I mean something big and very bad,” said Amanda.

“Ah, this must have something to do with Nick, then,” said Simon, whereupon Amphora glared at him so hard that he stuck his tongue out.

“Actually, I don’t know,” said Amanda. “Maybe it does.” She didn’t like the idea that Nick had wreaked even more havoc than they knew about, but she couldn’t discount the possibility.

“Well, what is it?” said Amphora. She hadn’t quite managed to get her glass in the right place, and her food was definitely seeking the hole in the plate.

“Something really important to the school is missing and the teachers are going nuts. Thrillkill has completely lost it. When I showed up at his office this morning, he’d completely forgotten that he asked me to be there. He was all, ‘Oh, hello, Miss Lester. Fancy meeting you here.’”

“Did he have his hair dryer?” Simon said. He was referring to the hair dryer the headmaster always carried in order to melt icicles. He had a morbid fear of them and destroyed them when they crossed his path. This late in the year (mid-April) there weren’t any, so Simon’s question was obviously designed to provoke rather than elucidate. Was something wrong with him too? Come to think of it, he was being more obnoxious than usual.

“Simon, cut it out,” said Amanda. “This is serious.”

“Sorry,” said Simon, looking down at his plate. The food had pooled around the sides of the glass, which were red with marinara sauce. It was getting to be a huge mess.

“Whatever it is, the teachers are fighting because of it.” Amanda’s food was pooling too. Simon was usually so good with engineering problems. Apparently his solution to this one needed some tweaking, however.

“Which teachers?” said Amphora, looking toward the kitchen.

“Scribbish, Hoxby, Peaksribbon, Mukherjee, I think Pargeter, and some others whose voices I didn’t recognize.”

“Were they yelling?” said Simon.

“Pretty much, yes,” said Amanda, trying to eat faster than the sauce could run. She wasn’t winning the battle.

“She’s right,” said Ivy. “I’ve been hearing things too.” Her plate was nice and neat. How did she do it?

“Oh?” said Amphora. “What things?” She looked at the kitchen again.

“Something important is missing and the teachers are blaming each other,” said Ivy. “I don’t know what it is or why it matters, but every time I hear them discussing it they act as if it’s a disaster.”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve gathered too,” said Amanda.

“Does this have anything to do with that phone call we heard Professor Feeney make last term?” said Simon, who now had a marinara mustache.

“What phone call?” said Ivy, who didn’t.

“When Amanda and I were analyzing the sugar virus in the lab, we overheard Professor Feeney out in the hall talking to someone about something that was missing,” said Simon. “She seemed upset.”

“That was quite a while ago,” said Ivy. “I didn’t hear anything last term. I got the impression this was all new.”

“It doesn’t seem so,” said Amanda. “What I can’t figure out is why things have exploded now, though.”

“We have to investigate,” said Simon, who was definitely looking clownish. All he needed was a red nose. “You don’t suppose this is another class project, do you?”

“Agreed, and no,” said Ivy. “The teachers can be diabolical but this feels like a real crisis. And I’ve never heard of a second class project for first-years. Fern would have told me.” Fern was Ivy’s sister, and a fifth-year student. She knew everything about the school and Ivy often relied on her for critical information. “But when we do investigate, we can’t let anyone know what we’re doing. We don’t want the teachers to know that we’re aware of whatever it is that’s going on, and we don’t want to alarm the other students.”

“We’re going to have to search the school,” said Simon. Amanda did not want to see what was under his plate. For that matter, she was afraid to lift her own. She hoped the teachers weren’t expecting them to clean the dining room after this little adventure.

“But we don’t know what we’re looking for,” said Amphora. She looked down at her plate. “Don’t you think this lasagna is amazing?” Everyone stopped eating and stared at her.

“I think we’re going to have to go on the assumption that we’ll know it when we see it, like what happened with the class project last term,” said Ivy, ignoring Amphora’s question. She was referring to the fact that when Headmaster Thrillkill and the teachers had presented the instructions for the class project, they had refused to tell them what the mystery was—only that they’d know it when they saw it. And they had. The garage had exploded in the middle of the night. You couldn’t miss that.

“But how big is it?” said Amphora. “What if it’s really, really tiny, like a piece of jewelry? How could we possibly find that?”

“It’s a problem,” said Amanda. “The teachers know what it is, and they can’t find it. I don’t think our chances are very good.”

“Do you think we should ask Scapulus to help us?” said Simon.

“I knew it,” said Amanda. “You like him, don’t you?”

“Sure. Why not? He seems like a smart guy.”

“That’s your standard for whether you like people?” said Amphora.

“Not completely,” said Simon. “But mostly.” The implication was clear: he didn’t think Amphora was smart and that was why the two didn’t get along. Amphora sighed so loud you could have heard her in the kitchen with dishes clattering and the refrigerator cycling.

“So do you?” said Simon.

“What?” said Amanda.

“Think we should ask him.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I knew it. You’re afraid he’s smarter than you are, aren’t you?”

“SIMON!” said all three girls together, so loudly that everyone in the room, including Holmes, looked at them.

“Keep your voice down,” Amanda said. “That isn’t true and you know it. And by the way, you’ve got a red mustache.” She indicated where it would be on her own face if she had one.

“I know what I saw and what I’m seeing now,” said Simon. “And so what? I mean about the mustache.” He felt his upper lip.

“Simon Binkle, you are the most exasperating person at Legatum,” said Ivy. Amanda’s mouth fell open. Ivy never talked like this. “Shut up. Now look, Amanda doesn’t like Scapulus because she doesn’t know him yet. In fact I’m not even sure she doesn’t like him. What do you say, Amanda?”

“I don’t know him,” said Amanda, trying to wriggle out gracefully.

“I think he’s cute,” said Amphora dreamily.

“You think everyone is cute,” said Simon.

“Not you,” said Amphora.

“STOP IT, all of you!” yelled Ivy. Amanda had never heard her yell. “You’re all acting like children. This is serious. Stop being petty and let’s figure out what to do.” She pushed her plate away. She’d barely touched her food.

By this time the entire dining room was staring at them. David Wiffle looked like he was going to say something but instead broke into a huge grin. Probably planning some revenge or other, Amanda thought. Why couldn’t the guy chill out?

“We’re all going to have to spy on the teachers,” said Ivy. “I don’t like invading anyone’s privacy, but detectives aren’t called snoops for nothing.” She grinned. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?”

“Very cool,” said Amanda. She was glad to see Ivy making jokes. Things had been getting way too serious. “But how are we going to do that? Follow them around until they get together and listen outside their doors?”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Simon. “I can make sound magnifiers. We’ll all be able to hear like Ivy.”

“Really?” said Amphora. “Aren’t you worried they’ll catch us?” She pushed her plate away as well, exposing a big red spot.

“Nah,” said Simon. “How are they going to tell from so far away?” He lifted up his own plate, took one look underneath, and lowered it again. Amanda was sure the spot underneath was worse than Amphora’s, but no more so than her own.

“I don’t think it’s exactly criminal to listen to people who aren’t behind closed doors,” said Ivy. “I’m sure they talk in public too.” She lowered her glass to Nigel’s mouth. The dog lapped loudly. This little ritual always astonished Amanda, who never would have been able to get away with something like that at home.

“I don’t even mind listening at doors,” she said, “if it’s that serious. And I’m pretty sure they won’t be watching us to see what we’re doing. They seem completely preoccupied.”

“I agree,” said Ivy. “I’m not worried about being caught. How long do you think it will take to make these things, Simon?”

“Dunno, but I’ll start researching right after class. Say, what did you think of Redleaf today?” He popped a marinara-drenched grape into his mouth.

“Very weird,” said Amanda. “She looked like someone had just told her World War III had started.”

“Agreed,” said Amphora. “And she and Scapulus seemed to know each other from somewhere else. Think all of this weirdness is connected?”

“It might be,” said Ivy. “We should listen super carefully. But I’m also worried about Editta and I can’t see how she could be involved in any of this.” She felt under the table. “I’ll get you some more water in a minute, Nigel.”

“I’ll get it,” said Amanda, not for the first time. She was always glad to help with Nigel. He was such a sweet dog, and she’d never been allowed to have one of her own.

“Nope,” said Simon. “Too flighty.”

“She’s not flighty,” said Amphora. “She’s really talented at math.”

“Doesn’t mean she isn’t flighty,” said Simon. “All that mumbo jumbo she believes in.” He made a gesture. Rather than mumbo jumbo, it looked like he was in pain.

“Okay, that’s it,” said Ivy. “From now on, any time one of us makes a negative remark, we put 20p in a jar. If you get five nasty remarks, it goes up to 50p.”

“That’s not fair,” said Amphora, eyeing the kitchen door again.

“Why do you keep looking over there?” said Simon, popping another grape into his mouth and chomping for emphasis.

“I’m not looking anywhere,” said Amphora, making a face.

“Yes you are. You keep looking at the kitchen.”

“I’m just wondering if they’re going to bring out anything more interesting. I don’t like grapes.”

“You don’t need anything more interesting,” said Simon. “You look good with all that weight off.”

“Simon!” yelled Ivy. “Twenty p.”

His face fell. “But I complimented her.”

“Backhanded compliment. Twenty p. Here, give it to me. I’ll set up a jar.” She held out her hand.

Simon dug into his pocket and practically slapped the change into Ivy’s palm. “Madoff,” he said.

“And another twenty p,” said Ivy, who was beginning to lose her temper again.

“I think you should go charge David Wiffle 20p,” said Simon, crossing his arms.

“He isn’t part of this,” said Ivy, crossing hers in exactly the same way. How did she know he’d done that?

“He’s always insulting people,” said Simon petulantly.

“Yes, but he’s not our responsibility. Anyway, back to Editta. She hasn’t answered your texts, has she, Amanda?”

“No.”

“This isn’t like her. She doesn’t like being left out of things,” said Ivy, uncrossing.

“She’ll turn up,” said Simon, mirroring her. “Probably just has the Monday blues.”

“I don’t think so,” said Ivy. “You don’t suppose the Moriarty gang has got hold of her, do you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Simon. “What would they want with her? You’re starting to sound like her.”

“Fifty p!” yelled Ivy. Simon passed the money to her through Amanda this time. She could tell he was getting exasperated as well.

“I don’t trust anyone,” said Amanda. “Those Moriartys have a lot of connections. Any one of them could have kidnapped her. And by the way, speaking of the Moriartys, how do we know Holmes is who he says he is? Maybe he’s another mole.” Nick, his mother, the cook, and the doctor had infiltrated the school last term and everyone was paranoid about the possibility of that happening again.

“Yes, how did Nick get into Legatum in the first place?” said Amphora.

“Forgery,” said Simon. “And you’re not going to charge me 20p for saying that.”

“No,” said Ivy. “That’s perfectly all right to say. I imagine forgery is part of it. That and planting witnesses. It’s weird, though. How could the teachers fall for all that?”

“People see what they want to see,” said Simon. “Like Amanda wanting Nick to be Prince Charming.”

“Fifty p!” said Ivy.

“Hey, no fair. I only had four 20 ps. I’ve got one more to go,” said Simon, folding his arms again.

“We need Editta to keep track of this stuff,” said Amphora.

“Will you forgot all those pence and listen?” said Amanda. “How do we know Holmes is who he says he is?”

“Okay, fine,” said Simon. “We’ll check him out.”

“Thank you,” said Amanda. “I’ll feel better being sure.”

“Dahlinks,” came a loud voice from the door to the hall. It was one of the décor gremlins. He was wearing a bright red tux. While the two gremlins always wore amazing clothes, Amanda thought this was a bit over the top. “You’re all looking mahvelous today,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Dropoff,” said Amphora, beaming. “And you. Nifty threads.”

“Thank you, my dear. What’s over there, dahlink? Something going on in the kitchen?” He glanced at the door.

“No, sir. Not a thing. Hello, Mr. Updown.” She smiled warmly at the second gremlin, who was wearing a torn rainbow-striped T-shirt and ripped jeans.

“Hello, dears,” said the second gremlin. “Do you have a moment?”

“Uh . . .” said Simon.

“Yes, of course,” said Ivy, motioning to the seat next to her.

“Good,” said Alexei Dropoff, dropping into it. “We’d like you to settle a dispute for us, dears. Hello, Nigel, dahlink.” He gave the dog a warm look. Nigel wagged his tail.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Amanda, who didn’t like getting in the middle of people’s arguments.

“We’d be delighted,” said Ivy. “What’s the issue?”

“Well,” said Noel Updown, slinking into a chair next to Simon, “you see, one of us thinks you students are more likely to notice our little details on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other thinks Tuesdays and Thursdays. I won’t tell you which of us thinks which so as not to prejudice you.”

“You don’t have to,” said Alexei. “It’s obvious which one of us is correct.” He gave Noel a smug look.

“Twenty p,” yelled Simon. Amphora kicked him under the table. “Ouch.”

Ivy elbowed Amphora. “Well, uh, I don’t know,” said Amphora.

“That’s an invalid question,” said Simon. “Your assumptions are wrong.” There were no grapes left to underscore his statement, so he just bored into the gremlins’ eyes with his own.

“Of course they’re not wrong,” said Noel, sticking his nose in the air.

“Outrageous,” said Alexei, turning his head away snootily.

“You’re assuming that it’s one or the other and nothing else,” said Simon. “Or that there’s a difference at all. Professor Ducey would fail you.” The logic teacher definitely would have taken points off for the gremlins’ flawed assumptions.

Ivy was looking like she wasn’t sure whether to charge Simon another 50 p. Amanda whispered “Uh uh” into her ear to forestall any punitive action.

“I beg your pardon,” said Noel. “That isn’t true at all. It’s a scientific fact that people do one thing on Mondays and Wednesdays and another on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Save us,” said Simon. “Another Editta.”

“Fifty p,” said Ivy, holding out her hand.

“Uh uh,” said Simon.

“Uh huh,” said Amphora, holding out her own hand.

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Simon. “I’ve got work to do.” He stood up and left the room noisily without looking back.

“Terrible posture, that one,” said Alexei. “But now we can address the question properly.” He looked disapprovingly at Simon’s plate, which he had not bussed.

“Indeed,” said Noel. “So what is your answer?” He looked at the three girls.

“Well, sirs,” said Ivy kindly, “I would say Mondays and Wednesdays.”

“Told you so,” said Alexei looking smugly at Noel.

“Not correct,” said Noel, giving Alexei a snide look.

“Why do you say that, Ivy?” said Amphora.

“Because we’re more keyed up and therefore more alert on Mondays, and we’ve mellowed out a little by Tuesday, so we’re less observant then. Then on Wednesdays, once we’ve had a chance to adjust to the rhythm of the week, our minds are sharp again.”

“Not so,” said Noel looking crestfallen. “It’s the exact opposite.”

“How so?” said Amanda.

“On Mondays you’re too traumatized by the change of routine to think straight. By Tuesday you have relaxed. On Wednesday, you congratulate yourself for having such a productive Tuesday, and you let your guard down. Then on Thursday you feel guilty so you buck up again.”

“That’s quite an interesting analysis,” said Ivy.

“And correct,” said Noel, folding his arms.

“And incorrect,” said Alexei, folding his. Amanda thought they might come to blows.

“Correct.”

“Incorrect.”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said Ivy. “I think both hypotheses have merit. Would you like to conduct a scientific experiment to see which is correct?”

“Absolutely not,” said Alexei huffily.

“Rubbish,” said Noel abruptly.

“Well, then,” said Ivy, “I’m not sure there’s another way to be certain.”

“I am certain already,” said Alexei.

“As am I,” said Noel. “Thank you for your time. Have a pleasant day.” And with that, the gremlins got up and walked out, continuing to argue.

“That was interesting,” said Amphora, watching them leave.

“Yes,” said Amanda, thinking that if Alexei got marinara sauce on his tux it wouldn’t show. “I wonder who’s right.”

“Simon,” said Ivy, barely squelching a giggle. “I just didn’t want to say so in front of them.

 


Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy

A reluctant detective, a criminal mastermind, and . . . sugar? Amanda Lester wouldn’t be caught dead going into the family business. Her ancestor, Sherlock Holmes’s colleague Inspector G. Lestrade, is a twit. Nevertheless her parents refuse to see his flaws, and she’s going to a secret English school for the descendants of famous detectives whether she likes it or not. When Amanda arrives at the dreaded school, she considers running away—until she and her new friends discover blood and weird pink substances in odd places. At first they’re not sure whether these oddities mean anything, but when Amanda’s father disappears and the cook is found dead with her head in a bag of sugar, they’re certain that crimes are taking place. Now Amanda must embrace her destiny and uncover the truth. The only snag is that arch-villain Blixus Moriarty, a descendant of Holmes’s nemesis Professor James Moriarty, might be involved, and he doesn’t like nosy little girls interfering in his business.

  • ISBN: 9781942361060
  • Author: Paula Berinstein
  • Published: 2016-03-30 22:40:25
  • Words: 117035
Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy