Monday, November 30, 2020

Fast Times at Spiro Agnew High by James Blakey

High school student Michael Wimmer owes money to a dangerous acquaintance, and must undertake some detective work to make things right; by James Blakey.

7:38am


I'm about to step off the bus and I make like a statue. Frank Samson is standing on the curb, between me and the school, dressed like an undertaker's apprentice: white shirt, dark tie, black slacks.

"Wimmer, you're blocking traffic," a voice says from behind.

Samson flashes a rat-faced smile and punches a fist into his open hand.

"Move!" Someone shoves me.

I tumble to the pavement. Frank takes two steps toward me, then I'm up and running for my life. I head left toward the staff parking lot. Two hundred yards and twenty-five seconds later, I look over my shoulder. No Samson.

I'm sucking wind as I duck between a gray SUV and a fire engine red Mustang. If I can slip inside the school, maybe use the west entrance, I can avoid him till at least lunch. By then I'll come up with a plan. I fig-

"Going somewhere, Wimmer?" Powerful hands grab me, slamming me onto the hood of the Mustang. I'm face-to-face with Chris Unrath. His breath smells of Frosted Flakes and orange juice. A bulging red vein slices through his blond crew cut. Muscles swell under his too tight Orioles t-shirt. Rumor is he was kicked off the wrestling team after testing positive for steroids.

"Yeah, headed to first-period history. Got a quiz on the Hapsburg Empire. Do you have any insights into their demise?"

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Unrath lifts me off the hood and my shirt begins to rip.

"I never joke about European dynasties."

He tosses me to the ground. The sole of his muddy work boot hovers above my head. Before he can stomp me into next week, shined black shoes step next to my face.

"Hold off, Chris."

Samson! No wonder he didn't chase after me. But who wears designer Italian wingtips to school? This isn't Georgetown Prep.

I tilt my head and glance up. Samson's eyes are black as coal, black as his heart. I struggle to my feet.

"Wimmer, Wimmer, Wimmer. You know better than to run." Samson consults his phone. "You owe me two hundred dollars."

Last Friday we were manhandling VoTech. My big chance to get even. Then our All-County place kicker shanks a chip shot field goal so far to the right it might have landed in the bay. First time he's missed all season. Didn't matter. We were up by three touchdowns. As for the spread...

"It can't be that much." I shake my head.

Samson laughs like a supervillain explaining his plans to the helpless hero. "I love the power of compound interest. It's a Goddamn miracle."

"Give me one more chance."

"Nope. Your credit has been cut off." He reaches into my jacket, pulls out my wallet, and rifles it.

"Give it!" I make a fist, but Unrath grabs my arm and twists it behind my back. He slips me into a half nelson. If he pushes my head any farther forward, it might pop off.

"Twelve dollars and a gift card to Buffalo Wild Wings?" Samson stuffs them into his pocket. He holds up a photo and squints. "Who's the blonde? Definitely too nice for you."

"She's from Canada. You wouldn't know her."

Unrath releases my head and delivers a shot to my stomach. Good thing I skipped breakfast, or it'd be all over the parking lot.

Samson rips the photo in halves, quarters, eighths, and tosses the confetti at me. "Here's the deal, Wimmer. Kickoff against Mandel is at six tonight. You get me my money by game time, or I'll have Chris administer a late payment penalty. Got it?"

I nod. "One sixty-three by six o'clock."

He pokes me in the chest. "I just told you it was two hundred."

"The gift card has twenty-five dollars on it. Plus, the twelve in cash you took."

"I'm charging that to the expense of collecting." He flicks his eyes to Unrath, then back to me. "Two hundred. Do I make myself clear?"

"Clear."

"Chris, give him one last reminder."

Unrath steps back and delivers a right cross to my jaw. I collapse on the asphalt.

"Hey you kids! Get away from that car!" a voice shouts.

Samson and Unrath scram, while I curl into the fetal position.

"Are you okay?" the voice asks. It's Mr. Garrity, the school resource officer. Strange for him to be out of his office. He rarely emerges except to ogle the girls during volleyball practice.

"I - I think so."

"I wasn't asking you, Wimmer. I'm talking to my Mustang." Garrity inspects the car's finish. "It's okay, Baby. They're gone now." He glares down at me. "There better not be any scratches or you'll be in detention until next Christmas."

I stagger to my feet and wobble away as Garrity continues pillow talk with his car.

Welcome to life at Spiro T. Agnew Memorial High.



7:51am

I'm outside the west entrance, sitting under an oak tree, my back against the trunk. I grab a water bottle from my backpack to wash the taste of blood from my mouth. When I breathe, it's like someone's poking me with a sword. I worry Unrath cracked a rib.

More importantly, how am I going to come up with Samson's money by tonight? Asking my dad is pointless. He sure as hell doesn't have it. Sell his tv to a pawnshop and report it stolen? He'd be too drunk to notice. But I don't even know how pawnshops work. Make that Plan Z.

Would Susan Venmo the money to me? But Big Sister would want to know why. I don't like lying to her. But if I tell her the truth... Okay, that's Plan B.

Could I get two hundred for my laptop? By seven tonight? Post it on Craigslist?

"Mike?"

It's Xenia Pendrova in a baggy red-knit turtleneck top and a black skirt flowing down to her ankles. Never much makeup, but cheekbones sharper than a butcher's knife. Glossy brown hair straight to her shoulders. And eyes so purple they'd make the Ravens jealous.

We had Biology last year and dissected a frog together. That's the most we've talked. Her accent is enchanting, like a Cold War honey pot. Hungarian or Romanian. Bet she knows plenty about the Hapsburgs.

"Hi Xenia." I'm in no condition to stand.

"I wanted to ask a favor of you." She kneels beside me.

I almost tell her no, because I've got bigger problems, but stop myself. It never hurts to listen to a pretty girl. "Sure."

"My phone is missing," she says and adds nothing else.

"And?"

"And I need your help finding it."

"Did you check the lost and found?"

She narrows her eyes at me. "Really?"

"Just trying to be thorough." I shrug. "You don't need me. Just turn on tracking."

"I did. It must be off or the battery is dead."

"I'm not sure what you expect me to do."

Xenia leans a little closer. "You are skilled at locating missing objects. Like Shannon Green's charm bracelet and Roland Weinberg's clarinet."

True, I do have a reputation for being able to track down lost items.

She bites her lower lip. "My parents are quite strict. Part of the arrangement when they permitted me to have a phone was that I could not place a lock code on it. They could inspect it whenever they wished." A single tear wanders down her cheek. "After a few weeks they stopped checking, and I got careless. There are some pics on the phone. Pics of me. If anyone were to find them or spread them around, I do not know what would happen. But it would be bad. My parents might even send me back to Bălți to live with my aunt." She's sobbing now.

Nice try, but that's not going to work. I watched for three years as cancer ate my mom from inside out. I have no more time for tears.

As if she's reading my mind, the waterworks stop. She pulls a tissue from her purse to wipe her face and leans closer. The scent of violets engulfs me. She fiddles with my collar. "Maybe we could come to some other arrangement." Her breath is hot on my neck.

I've been pretty regular with Olivia Mitchell all year, and I don't want to throw that all away. But Xenia is here, now. Her lips move closer to mine. She puts her hand on my sid-

"Argh!" I convulse in pain and toss her off me.

"What is wrong?"

"Wrestling injury." I try to catch my breath. It hurts to move, but it hurts to stay still. I'm in no mood for romance.

She sighs. "How about I pay you?"

My ears perk up. She must really want that phone back.

She fishes some bills out of her purse. "One fifty?"

That's a lot of cash she's carrying. Will Xenia's missing phone be my salvation? "Make it two-fifty."

"Two hundred."

"Two forty."

Her voice takes a hard edge. "Back home, when my family had nothing to eat, I would bargain with the vegetable merchants at the bazaar. No suburban schoolboy from America can out-negotiate me. Two hundred is my final offer."

"Deal." I reach for the green.

"No. Nothing until you find my phone."

It couldn't be that easy. "Okay, what am I looking for?"

"It is an iPhone 6s. The shell is the flag of Moldova: red, yellow, and blue with a coat of arms in the center. I lost it somewhere here at school. Last time I remember having it was at lunch on Wednesday."

"And when I find it?"

She pulls out a flip phone. "Text me." She gives me her number.

The bell rings. As she walks to the school, I turn my teenaged x-ray vision on her. The skirt is too thick, too long.

I shake my head to clear my thoughts and focus on the matter at hand. I have ten hours to find a two-by-three-inch phone on a forty-five-acre campus with sixteen hundred students, faculty, and staff.



9:55am

While Ms. Wisor drones on about congruent angles, I slip the textbook into my backpack. I'm half-leaning out of my chair, and when the bell rings, I explode from my seat. Though I'm three rows from the door, I'm first into the hallway. If I'm going to find Xenia's phone, I need Victor Yang.

If you want something at Spiro Agnew High, Victor is the guy to see. Looking for a little pot to take the edge off, Adderall to focus on the big chemistry exam, the answers to Ms. Foulk's French quiz? He's your man. Hell, Victor can even hack the school's computerized grading system and give you a perfect 4.0. All you need is cash.

I'm racing down the hall, knocking freshmen over like bowling pins, when Olivia comes into view. She's wearing a long-sleeved pink top that hugs her in all the right places, ripped jeans with specks of tanned flesh peeking through, and a frown that could ruin Mr. Rogers' day.

I stop, but only for a moment. I have to catch Victor before next class. "Hey Liv, what's happ-"

Whap! She slaps my cheek. Guess it's 'Beat on Mike' Day.

Her face is flushed red. She raises her hand again, but before she can connect, I snag her by the wrist.

"How dare you, Mike! Behind my back with the Russian girl?"

Gossip in this school moves at the speed of light.

I fake a smile. "She's Moldovan. And it's not what you think."

She raises her other hand and I grab that too.

Spittle on her lips. "You want to know what I think? I think you're a fu-"

"Sorry, Liv. Got to run. We'll chat about this later." In one swift move, I release her arms and duck the expected blow. I race away, and Liv launches into R-rated mode. I turn the corner, avoid plowing into the custodian, and screech to a halt outside the boys' room.

Inside, I find Victor in the far corner conducting business. He exchanges a baggie full of colored pills for a wad of bills from some blond-haired senior who smiles, stuffs his purchase into his backpack, and leaves.

Victor nods at me. "Wimmer? Don't usually see you in here. What can I get you? Molly? Term paper? Condoms?" He's wearing dark wrap-around shades like he's sitting at the final table of the World Series of Poker. His spiked black hair defies gravity. On his t-shirt is the image of the school's anthropomorphic mascot, Billy the Crab.

"Information," I say.

A gap-toothed smile spreads across his face. "Sure? What do you want to know?"

"I'm looking for a missing phone. It's got a red, yellow, and blue shell."

"A tricolor? If it has a coat of arms, then it sounds like the flag of Moldova. Which would mean the phone in question belongs to Xenia Pendrova or her brother."

"It's hers. You are unusually well-informed."

"Yes, I am," he says smugly.

"So, what about the phone?"

"I may know something about it."

"And?"

"And now we talk price."

"I'm a little short right now. Can I owe it to you?"

Victor's laugh echoes throughout the bathroom. "I have expanded my entrepreneurial activities past cash-and-carry, but not for you, Wimmer. Word is you're a credit risk."

"But if you give me the info, that will allow me to square up with Samson."

"Maybe. Not my problem."

"Hey, can we speed things up?" some kid standing behind me says.

I say to Victor, "Instead of cash maybe we can work out a trade."

"What did you have in mind?"

All I'm holding is a busted flush, time to bluff. "Christina Park." Christina is a senior, a knockout, and Assistant Captain of the girls' golf team. Clemson and Arizona State are heavily recruiting her. And of course, the Terps.

Andrew licks his lips. "What about Christina?"

Hooked him like a twelve-pound bass. "Liv's friends with her," I lie. "I could have her put in a good word for you. We could even double."

"Tonight?" His voice is filled with expectation, like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.

"I'd have to see if she's busy. But sure, why not?"

"It's a deal, Wimmer."

"Great, what do you know about the phone?"

Victor shakes his head. "After the date."

"This information is time-sensitive, Victor. I need it now."

"Not happening, Wimmer. Talk is cheap. You say you can get me a date with Christina. You're desperate and could be promising more than you can deliver."

"Come on," the kid from behind says. "I'm going to be late for English."

I turn, raise my hand, and make a fist. "Mr. Joslin's class, right? He's teaching Poe? How about I deliver the CliffsNotes version of The Murders in the Rue Morgue?"

The kid goes wide-eyed and scampers out the door.

Victor sighs. "I'm done with you, Wimmer. And don't come back, you're bad for business."

"Can't do that, Victor." I lunge forward and put him in a head lock. My ribs are screaming, but I can't let up. His sunglasses fall to the floor and in the scramble one of us steps on them and they shatter. I wrestle Victor toward the handicapped stall, kick open the door, and drag him in.

"Don't do this, Wimmer."

"Like you said: I'm desperate. You can stop it anytime, Victor. Just tell me what you know about Xenia's phone."

I force his head toward the bowl. With my foot, I depress the plunger. "You're getting flushed next."

His head is inches away from the water. "Okay! Okay! Alicia Duncan!"

I pull him up and slam him against the wall. "Who's Alicia Duncan?"

"Yesterday, she came to me with the phone. Asked if I wanted to buy it. Phones aren't my thing, so I told her no."

"But who is she? I don't recognize the name."

Victor shrugs. "Some tenth grader."

We have three hundred and fifty sophomores in this school. I need something more. I wrap my hands around his neck and squeeze. "What does she look like? Who are her friends? What's her schedule?"

"Spacer," he croaks.

"What?" I relax my grip.

He coughs and clears his throat. "She's a Spacer."



12:07pm

My empty stomach rumbles like the engines of a 707 at takeoff as I enter the cafeteria. But there will be no relief, I have no money for food.

I work my way past the various self-segregated lunch tables: Jocks, Mean Girls, Preps, Skaters, Rockers, Drainers. The farther I progress, the less popular the cliques become. At the most distant table sit the Spacers.

That's our name for them. They call themselves the Valor Armada after the TV show of the same name. It streamed on some second-rate site I never heard of for half-a-season before getting cancelled.

To call them dedicated fans isn't right, more like committed. They cosplay characters from the show, dressing in uniform, mimicking the hairstyles, wearing prosthetics, and making their own 23rd century tech accessories. From a few phrases of alien dialogue spoken on the show, they developed their own full-blown language.

I walk up to a table where seven guys and three girls chat away in what sounds like Pig Latin at three times normal speed.

They either ignore or don't see me. I clear my throat, make the Vulcan Salute, and announce in my most solemn voice, "Klaatu barada nikto."

All eyes lock on me, including a guy who's wearing mirror contacts and what looks like novelty-gag rubber vomit on his head.

The leader, I'm guessing based on the number of orange triangles on the sleeve of his tunic, says, "It appears the Terran Amalgamation wish to initiate First Contact."

I sigh. "Sure. First Contact. Whatever." I glance to and from each of the girls. "Which one of you is Alicia Duncan?"

The leader asks, "Do you wish to enter into trade negotiations?"

These guys need to know that I'm not fooling around. "Look Jar Jar, I don't have time for your silly role play. Point out Alicia or things are going to Red Alert at warp nine."

Spacer Leader swallows hard, fear in his eyes, lips quivering. "In episode five, The Dimensional Stabilizer, production code 1x04, Fleet Admiral Chindlr is faced with a similar dilemma. But in the end, he upholds the princi-"

I grab Spacer Leader and lift. "I said point her out."

"Stop your assault!" A girl in a red-and-green tunic stands. On her head she wears a pair of bug-like antennas, skinny Slinkys with gold spheres at the end, that bob as she talks. "I am Sub-Adjutant Jeggex, but my human designation is Alicia Duncan."

I let Spacer Leader go, and he plops into his chair. "Nice to meet you, Sub-Adjutant. Yesterday, you tried to sell Victor Wang a ph -"

"Let us converse in private." She marches toward the empty corner of the lunchroom.

"Fine." I follow her.

In the corner, she faces me, standing at attention. Her lips are pressed thin. Silvery make-up on her eyelids and cheeks. Guess that's what they wear in the future. "What is your interest in this communications device?"

"Do you always talk like this?"

"Affirmative."

"I am trying to return the phone to its rightful owner. Do you still have it?"

"Negative." She shakes her head and the antennas make slow circles in the air.

"Where is it?"

"Negative."

I'm desperate, but I'm not going to beat the info out of a girl, no matter how annoying she is. "Sub-Adjutant, that's not an affirmative-or-negative type question."

She sucks in her breath, pauses, and blows it out. "In exchange for the location of the device, I seek compensation."

I spread my arms wide. "What do you want? Let me tell you up front, I don't have any money."

"I do not seek remuneration. I desire a kiss."

"A what?"

"A kiss. It is the process by which two Terrans show affection for each other. I am sure you are familiar with the concept."

This is like talking to a computer. "Yeah, I get that. Why?"

"I have observed that the primates of your planet are social creatures and sort themselves by hierarchies. The more elevated your position, the more status you acquire."

"Are we talking people or chimpanzees?"

"This is particularly important in learning annexes such as the one we attend." She relaxes for a moment and flashes the hint of a smile. "I rank you in the top quintile of attractiveness for male upperclassmen: tall in stature, blond hair, unblemished skin. A kiss delivered by you would increase my status, perhaps even the status of my crewmates in the Valor Armada."

I shake my head. "I don't think it works that way."

She shrugs. "That is my offer. And not some peck on the cheek." She taps her lips with her index finger. "Right here."

I look her over and the Sub-Adjutant's actually kind of cute: lively green eyes, button nose, slim. Plus, I'm already on the outs with Liv. What the hell. I wrap my hands around her waist, pull her close, and plant one on her. Her lips part and our tongues press against each other. She had grilled cheese and unsweetened iced tea for lunch. I lift her up to spin her around, but pain shoots up my side, so I set her down and concentrate on the kiss. Eventually, the need for oxygen requires us to break the embrace.

For the first time I realize the lunchroom has gone silent. No murmur of voices or the rattling of trays and silverware. I look around and the entire student body is staring at us.

The room breaks out into applause. Half the cafeteria chant: "Wimmer! Wimmer!" The other half cry out: "Spacer Girl! Spacer Girl!"

At their table the Spacers laugh and tap each other with their elbows. Is that the interstellar equivalent of the high-five?

With a smug look on her face, Sub-Adjutant Jeggex says, "Told you."

"Actually, you were pretty good. That wasn't your first kiss, was it?"

She blushes, but doesn't answer.

"Now what about the phone?"

"I offered the device to the trader Yang because I believed he would tender a premium price, but he had no interest."

"I already know that."

"I was not the one who discovered the apparatus. I was enlisted as an intermediary, but when trader Yang declined to bid, I returned the device."

"Who is it? Who has the phone?"

"Gilbert Bourne."

"Who?" The name is vaguely familiar.

"He is only the finest DM in the entire learning annex."

"DM?"

"Dungeon Master. He runs all the Dungeons & Dragons games."



3:32pm

At center court, Billy the Crab, six-foot tall and fluorescent orange, stomps on a helpless muskrat doll. The auditorium fills with shrieks of "Beat Mandel!" It's time for the school's weekly thirty minutes of hate, aka, the pep rally.

The Marvin Mandel Muskrats are our archrivals, so most of the student body has turned out and they crave blood. But as I scan the crowd, I don't see Gilbert or any of his nerdy friends. My eyes drift to the cheerleaders, lingering on the exquisitely identical Maxwell twins. With their unnaturally red hair and impossibly high leg kicks, they are way hotter than freshmen have any business being.

I wish I could stay and puzzle out which twin is which, but I need to find Gilbert. I slip out of the gymnasium, and cheers erupt as Coach Sullivan shoves the muskrat doll into a portable shredder.

I wander down the deserted hallways of the school, peering into empty classrooms. I'm sunk if Gilbert's left campus. I pause at the bronze bust of our school's namesake and run my fingers across the inscription: Nolo contendere. But that's not an option for me. Could I run away? Would Susan take me in? How much is bus fare to Seattle? Probably more than I owe Samson.

As I contemplate life on the road, a flyer on the bulletin board catches my eye.

"Dungeon Master Gilbert Bourne invites all with adventure in their hearts to join him on a quest filled with glory and excitement. Campaigns begin every Friday at 3:30 in the library."

I dash down the hallway and burst into the library. At the front desk sits the librarian reading a romance paperback. Four kids are gathered around a table covered with maps, figurines, and dice. Gilbert, in a cape and conical hat, sits behind a partition. The other three I don't know. One wears thick glasses, the second has an unfortunate haircut, the third sucks on his retainer.

In a movie trailer narrator's voice Gilbert says, "As you travel down the passage, you observe on your left a set of stone steps rising in a spiral. On your right is a locked door, painted bright red. Words have been scrawled on the door, but they are written in an unknown language."

"Let's climb the steps," Nerd #1 says.

"No, I'm a thief. Let me pick the lock," Nerd #2 says.

"First, we should try and decipher what's written on the door. That will inform our decision," Nerd #3 says.

Gilbert continues in his DM voice, "A chilled wind blows down the passageway. An eerie voice demands, 'Who w -'"

"Who wants to brave the wrath of the Unreasonable Junior?" I step to the table and tower over the four.

Gilbert sighs. In a squeaky voice he says, "Dude, we're playing a game here."

I cross my arms. "Me too, Gil. I call it 'The Search for the Missing iPhone', and with you being the best crypt keeper around I figure you could be a sport and help me out."

"It's dungeon master."

"Whatever."

Nerd #1 says, "We seek the Crimson Conjurer's crystal chalice which allows him to communicate over great distances. That's sort of like a phone."

I make a fist. "Do you want to see how many hit points you can take?"

Nerd #1 slumps in his seat.

"About the phone?" I say to Gilbert.

"Don't tell him anything, Gilbert," Nerd #2 says. "Upperclassmen need to learn that they can't come barging in and interrupt our game."

I lean over Nerd #2. "I'm contemplating casting the Spell of Traction on you. The effect includes a paralysis lasting six-to-eight weeks. Do you wish to attempt a saving roll?" I pick up the twenty-sided die and bounce it off his chest.

Nerd #2 frowns and slowly shakes his head.

Nerd #3 says, "My flying steed requires an enchanted saddle in order for me to ride it. Would you be willing to consider such a trade for the phone you seek?"

I say, "I'm the living embodiment of chaotic neutral. Got anything in your Wizards & Warlocks lunchbox to counter that?"

Nerd #3 closes his eyes and rests his head on the table.

"Okay," Gilbert says. "Obviously the game's not moving forward, until we resolve this. But what makes you think you can come in here and demand that I just hand over my phone?"

"I don't want your phone. I want the phone that Sub-Adjutant Jeggex returned to you."

A look of surprise on his face. "Oh, that phone. That's completely different."

"Glad I was able to clear that up. Now hand it over."

"I can't."

I pick up the screen and rip it in half. "I think I can supply the proper motivation to change your mind."

Gilbert shakes his head. "I didn't say I won't. I said I can't. I no longer have the phone."

I sigh. The hunt never ends. "Who has it?"

"Samantha Brahms."

"Samantha Brahms?" My breath catches in my throat like tar.

"Samantha Brahms?" the three nerds say in unison.

Gilbert nods. "Yeah, she asked me to try and sell it, but what do I know about that stuff, so I tasked Jeggex."

"Samantha Brahms asked you?" Nerd #2 says.

Gilbert nods. "I thought I was going to pass out when she started talking to me. She had on this green shirt and these tight jeans..."

Samantha Brahms: Head Cheerleader, hottest girl in school, and once upon a time, my best friend.



4:11pm

My footsteps echo as I walk across the gymnasium floor. Pep rally is over. Pompom residue, bits of sparkly green and gold, litter the court. On the bleachers the cheerleaders are arranged into yet another hierarchy. Freshman occupy the lowest rows and all the way at the top sits Samantha.

Before I can climb the first step, the Maxwell twins rise and block my path. The hems of their skirts ride dangerously high on their thighs. Green ribbons secure their shiny red hair. I suck in my breath and try not to get too distracted.

On the left Tori, I think it's Tori, has her hands on her hips, and stares at me like I escaped from the zoo.

On the right, Toni has her phone in one hand and raises her other as a command to halt. "Where do you think you're going?"

Perhaps I need to raise my status.

I nod in the direction of the top row. "I need to talk to Samantha."

"About what?" Tori sneers.

"I want to ask her to the Homecoming Dance."

Tori rolls her eyes, but Toni can't help but crack a smile as she taps on her phone. The phone buzzes a reply, and her eyes widen. She shows the screen to her sister who shakes her head in disbelief. They part, opening a path to the top.

"Okay," Tori says.

"Go on up," Toni says.

"Thanks. See you later, Tori, Toni."

"I'm Toni."

"And I'm Tori."

I climb the steps while the rest of the squad applies make-up, gossips, scrolls through phones, and generally ignores me. A couple of rows from the top, Sam's peach blossom scent fills the air. My knees wobble, and I can't catch my breath.

Sam and I go way back. She used to live next door. Biggest tomboy in the neighborhood, perpetually covered in mud. We did everything together. Digging up nightcrawlers. A killer double-play combo: me at short, her at second base. In the fall, Sunday afternoons watching the Ravens in her room.

Then her dad got a big promotion and moved the family into a seven-bedroom McMansion in some gated community on the opposite side of town. Too far to ride my bike and that was about the time my mom got sick. We ended up in different junior highs. The next time I saw Sam was when she walked into Spiro Agnew with curves and legs and her brown hair was now blond and bright as a supernova.

I sit a few feet away. She's got her head down, filing her nails, and checking the phone lying beside her.

Sam looks up at me with eyes as blue as the summer sky over Ocean City. She flashes her dazzling white smile. "Homecoming?"

I shrug. "No one's asked yet, have they?"

She laughs. And not the silly giggle like when we watched reruns of Pinky & The Brain. This laugh is mature, sexy, aloof.

"I'm going with George Thoman."

George's a tool, but his dad is loaded. Bought George a Tesla Model S for his birthday. In my head canon, his dad is a bagman for the governor.

"It was worth a shot, Sam."

Her smile disappears. "Samantha. My name is Samantha now."

I nod. "Okay, Samantha it is."

"You should have no problem getting a date. You're pretty popular these days: Liv, Xenia Pendrova, the Spacer Girl."

"You're really plugged in."

She grabs her phone and holds it up. "Head Cheerleader. It's a requirement of the position." She sighs. "Why are you here, Michael? What do you really want?"

"I'm trying to track down Xenia's iPhone."

Samantha shakes her head. "You should steer clear of her. I mean think about it, Michael. The Russians tried to hack the election."

"I don't think she was involved in that; she's from Moldova. But this isn't about Xenia, it's about keeping me out of the hospital."

Samantha ignores that. Maybe she thinks I'm joking. Maybe she realizes I'm not. "Sometimes I think about us. We had some good times, didn't we?"

"Yeah, we did."

"I miss them."

"No reason we can't have more."

Samantha sighs. "Yes, there is. I'm Head Cheerleader, I have obligations, responsibilities, expectations to meet. And you, Michael? I don't know what you're trying to do. Slow-motion suicide?"

"Samantha, we don't have to let others define us. We can do and be whatever we want. Susan says that high school is the biggest joke in the world, but the punchline is no one realizes this until they get out."

She sighs. "I always liked your sister. Where is she now?"

"Seattle. Working for Amazon."

"That's easy for her to say three thousand miles away with a solid job." She looks off into space. "You think because I'm up here I have any real power. If I tried to do anything different, I'd lose it all." She glances at the lower bleachers. "They're all waiting to pounce as soon I screw up."

"All I want is Xenia's phone."

"And I don't want to see you hurt, Michael."

"Then help me. Because I'm going to be hurting real bad if I don't find that phone."

She leans forward, runs her hands over my chest, and her lips brush my ear. My heart races and my blood boils. I flash on the life I should have. A life where Sam didn't move away and my mom didn't get sick. Where my dad's not a drunk, I don't owe money to Frank Samson, and I'm dating my best friend who's also the hottest girl in school.

"Leave it alone, Michael," she whispers. "You have no idea how dangerous she is. Just walk away."

I slip my arms around her. "Believe me, when I say I can't. If our friendship means anything, ever meant anything, please just tell me where the phone is."

She breaks the embrace and pushes me away. "Can't help you, Michael." She taps on her phone.

I breathe deep. I don't want it to come to this, but I literally have no choice. "Eleven Pole Creek."

Her eyes are a mix of rage and fear. "You promised never to tell. You swore."

"I'm in serious trouble here. I have to do anything and everything I can to get that phone back."

"Fine." Her voice is ice cold. She pulls a phone with a red, blue, and yellow shell from her gym bag and throws it at me.

The impact of the phone stings my palm. "Sam, I'm sorry."

She pulls out a mirror and applies mascara. A silent signal that this conversation and our friendship are over.



4:42pm

I have less than ninety minutes to return the phone, get the money, and pay off Samson.

I'm ready to get Xenia when my curiosity gets the better of me. She always wears baggy clothing. She's not on any sports teams. We've never been in the same gym class. I'm dying to see what Xenia looks like under all those layers. A body to match her supermodel face? I must see those pics she's so worried about.

I take a notebook from my backpack. Use my pen knife slice off a bit of the spiral ring. I straighten it out like an unbent paperclip and use the end to pop-out the iPhone's simcard. Now that it's off the network, I can power it up and not worry about it being wiped or tracked.

I scroll through the photos with great anticipation, but get nothing but disappointment. A black-and-white cat. Xenia's bedroom. Ducks on a pond. Some clothing store at the mall. This is what she's paying me for? Did someone who had the phone delete the good stuff?

What about video? My heart beats faster at the prospect of Xenia in motion, her hips under those thick skirts. First video is of someone, her mother(?), cooking a stew. Next, a golden retriever playing fetch with a Nerf basketball. The third video looks to be from a football game. I almost skip on, but let it run. And then I see why she's so desperate to recover the phone. And I pray I have a solution to my problem.



5:19pm

I'm outside the west entrance. In the distance our band is warming up. The lights over the football field flick on. From my right Samson approaches with Unrath in tow.

"Got my money, Wimmer?" Samson asks.

"Not yet, I have until six," I say.

"Unless your plan involves an angel descending from the heavens with my money in the next forty minutes, you're through. And I don't feel like waiting. Chris, take care of him."

Unrath cracks his knuckles.

I raise my hand. "Here they come."

On my left Xenia and her big brother Efim approach. He's sporting a mullet like he stepped out of a nineties action movie.

"This is your angel?" Samson asks. "More like the devil."

Xenia says, "Nice to see you too, Frank." To me: "You have my iPhone?"

I pull it from my pocket and hold it high. "Xenia's paying me to recover her phone. You can give the money straight to Samson."

Xenia laughs. "You are one naïve schoolboy. I have no intention of rewarding you. Efim, get my phone."

Xenia's brother is even bigger than Unrath. He grabs my arms and twists until the phone drops from my hand. Efim picks it up and hands the phone to Xenia.

"Tough luck, Wimmer," Samson says. "Chris, your turn."

"Wait! Don't you want to know why Xenia pretended to offer me two hundred bucks to find her phone?"

"Not particularly," Samson says.

"Let us go," Xenia says to her brother.

"No, you'll really want to watch this." From my other pocket I pull my phone and launch a video.

Xenia and Samson step forward and squint at the screen.

The time stamp is from last Friday. In the video, Enrique Donoso, our football team's placekicker, is shaking, tears streaming down his face.

Off camera Xenia, says, "You are going to do this."

"I can't," Enrique says.

"You can and you will," Xenia says. "Or I will inform ICE and your whole family will be sent back to Ecuador."

"Please don't," Enrique says.

"It is easy," Xenia says. "All you have to do is miss when I tell you. It will not affect who wins the game. No one will ever know, and your family can stay in America."

Enrique nods. "Si, I will do as you say."

I stop the video. "Not the risqué pics of Xenia in a bikini I was hoping to enjoy, but still quite interesting."

"Efim, grab it," Xenia says.

Efim steps forward and squeezes my hand until the phone falls to the ground.

Xenia picks it up. "And now you have no proof."

"Do you really think I'm stupid enough for that to be the only copy? I've got the video stored online and off," I bluff. "If anything happens to me, it will be automatically delivered to the school, the local authorities, and ICE. Someone's family will be getting deported, but it won't be Enrique's."

Xenia's eyes are wide. "And now what? You want money? Not for finding my phone, but for extortion?" Xenia shakes her head. "Once I pay, what is to stop you from demanding more? I would rather take my chances and have Efim attempt to beat the locations of the file out of you."

I hold up my hands. "Relax, I don't want your money. Your secret is safe. Leave Enrique alone, return my phone, and no one ever needs to see the video."

She and Efim converse in whispers. He nods his head.

Xenia says to me, "That is an acceptable arrangement."

Samson checks his watch. "This is all very irrelevant, Wimmer. You need to pay, and time is up."

I hold up my hand. "Wait just one more time! This video is of interest to you too, Samson."

He crosses his arms. "How?"

"Evidence of fixing games wouldn't be good for business."

"But I have nothing to do with it. It's the Russians."

"We are from Moldova," Xenia says.

"Whatever, Ms. Onatopp," Samson says.

I say, "Right, you've got nothing to do with it. But a lot of angry bettors wouldn't know that. They'd want their money back and wonder what other games were fixed. Probably more folks than Chris could fight off."

"I suppose." Samson sighs. "What do you propose?"

"Wipe my debts clean, and no one outside this conversation ever sees the video."

Samson thinks it over for five seconds, nods at Unrath, who uncorks a haymaker, dropping me to the ground.

"You got your deal," Samson says as he towers over me.

I scramble to my feet. "You could have just said yes."

Samson pokes me in the chest. "Just a little reminder that if the video ever surfaces, Chris is going to drop you off the Bay Bridge."

"No, if that video is ever released, Efim is going to cut you into fish bait," Xenia says.

"I'm glad we've all come to a mutual understanding," I say.

"Thanks for screwing up a good thing, Xenia," says Frank.

"I am utterly unconcerned with your shabby bookmaking operations," says Xenia.

I step back as the two get in each other's face. Frank makes like he's going to poke Xenia. Efim moves in front of her and grabs his hand. Unrath lunges at Efim. Efim releases Samson, wrestles Unrath the ground, and pounds him in the head.

I rub my jaw and walk away amazed that my plan actually worked.



6:23pm

Eight minutes into the game and we're down seventeen-zip to Mandel. With no money on the line, I can't fake any interest. Instead I'm focusing on the Maxwell twins. I plant myself in the first row in front of them.

My tête-à-tête with Samantha seems to have increased my status. They wink and smile and flip their hair. Still can't tell who is Tori and who is Toni. I look forward to continuing my investigation under more intimate conditions.

"This spot taken?" Jeggex asks. She's lost the antennas and the silver make-up. She's in a gray Johns Hopkins sweatshirt, navy blue shorts, and bright white sneakers with pink laces. She's got a set of legs that don't deserve to be hidden beneath her Spacer uniform. Before I can answer, she sits, closer to me than necessary.

"Good evening, Sub-Adjutant."

"I'm off duty now. You can call me Alicia." She nudges her shoulder against mine. "Everything work out with the phone?"

"All settled, Alicia. No trips to the ER. And it appears my ribs are only bruised, not broken."

"Where, here?" She pokes me in the side.

"Argh-ha!" My body convulses in pain while my tickle reflex kicks in.

"Oops!" Alicia's lips curl into a smile and my mind drifts back to our kiss.

"Hey!" yells one of the twins. Their arms are crossed and they give Alicia the evil eye.

"Someone's not happy you're here." I nod at the Maxwells.

Alicia glances at the girls and rolls her eyes. "Freshmen. Let's give them something to be really pissed about." She loops her arms around me, pulls close, and kisses me. She tastes like grape bubblegum.

When I come up for air, the crowd is chanting, "Wimmer! Spacer Girl!" We're more interesting than the game.

Alicia says, "Perhaps we should continue this in a less public venue."

"I know a place."

We stand, I slip my arm around her, and we head for a spot behind the bleachers.

5 comments:

  1. Very entertaining. Could be made into a fun TV screenplay. Maybe the school should have been called Tony Soprano high he he.

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  2. Good new application of the classic detective motif. The only thing I would say is that Wimmer seemed to have dual, and contradicting, natures. In front of Samson he was afraid, and kind of wimpy. But confronting other students he was the tough guy. Couldn't figure out which was which. Otherwise, very entertaining.

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  3. Agreed - classic Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe dialogue and narration. As a Brit, with precious little understanding of US High School Culture and even less understanding of American Football (though I did discover what 'bleachers' are recently), I should've zoned out. But I was hooked - thank you.

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  4. Some enjoyable sleuthing in this one. Left me with a couple of questions, though...wondering why the damning video evidence existed on Xenia's phone in the first place...also wondering exactly what dirt Wimmer was threatening to reveal about Sam. Very mysterious...

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  5. Wow, James. Your writing makes me feel like I'm back in high school. Even though it was from a guy's point of view, it really held my interest. It's like you have a direct connection into the teenage world.

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