Story By Justin Peterson / Illustration By Cesar Valtierra
Three little words started this whole misadventure. “We have her.” It was written in the cliché cut-out magazine letters from the movies. I stare at a smoldering cigarette on the ground and ponder what exactly she dragged me into.
— ♦♦♦ —
The “her” my mysterious adversaries referred to had strolled into my office one night after school. I was working on a cold case I just couldn’t crack…one of many I had stacked up here at Chuck E. Ryles Elementary School. The school year was coming to a close, and I had promised a particular second grade girl I would find her doll, which she believed was stolen by her devious twin brother. It was a tangled mess of lies and deceit I had yet to unravel, just one of many problems the students of Ryles needed me to fix.
I cleaned up their messes; just some fourth grader looking to make a buck in this crazy thing we call the education system. Students come in and out, but when this particular dame walked in that cool spring night, her baby blues pinned me to my beanbag and never let go.
She was taller than I was by at least four inches (and I was the third tallest boy in my grade). Her black hair curled around a narrow face. Probably a fifth grader. Her big blue orbs flitted around the dingy office I had made out of the back of a janitors closet, lingering on the jar of suckers I always kept handy on my plastic orange desk.
“I’ve heard you help out ‘friends’ in need.” Her voice was soft, careful. She was walking on eggshells.
“Depends on what the ‘friend’ needs.” I needed to be cautious with this one. Girls like this could get a guy like me into big, big trouble. I never trusted a dame as far as I could throw her, and I had never seen this particular dame at school before. Something stunk, and it wasn’t the janitor’s mop bucket that sat five feet away.
She shifted from foot to foot in her light-up sneakers, as if sensing my skepticism, before finding a chair. She then looked at me, or maybe through me, the left side of her mouth slowly turning into a smirk. Then, pulling a carton of cigarettes out of her pocket, she offered me one.
I waved her away, shaking my head. “I quit a couple months back. Nasty habit.”
“Suit yourself.” She leaned forward with the cigarette dangling in her mouth, blue eyes piercing my own. I pulled a Zippo out of my backpack and lit it for her. She inhaled slowly staring at me, smiling mischievously all the while. As I watched the smoke billowing from her mouth layer the closet in a light fog, my heart felt a tug.
I tried to act unconcerned with her presence. “Look doll, are you here for a reason or did you just come here to distract me?”
She pretended to be insulted at the words, and decided to not respond.
I stood to tell her to politely get the hell out of my office, when she suddenly grabbed my arm. Gone was the playfulness in her eyes, replaced only by fear.
She pulled me down close to her, putting her lips to my ear. The dame smelled like mint and nicotine. My heart beat faster as her words tickled my ear, and even this close I barely hear the dame whisper, “They’re listening. Meet me at the playground in half an hour, by the swing set.” And with that she stood up, winked at me, and ducked out of the closet I call an office.
— ♦♦♦ —
The embers of the cigarette finally relinquish as rain begins to fall lightly around the swing set outside Ryles. Looking at the words sloppily glued to the page, I realize I never asked the girl for her name. But I know I have to help her, and the first place to go.
Dusk had just begun to settle, which meant that Randall Garby and his crew were still roaming the halls of the empty school, as they always did. His business needs the discretion.
Normally I would stay away from a scumbag like Garby, but I needed information, which happened to be one of the many necessities Garby sold to kids under the cover of darkness. His turf is in the north quad, a five minute walk from the swing set. I put up my hood and start my trek across the campus.
Before long I begin to see meandering clients of Garby’s, as well as his cronies. One of them spots me walking towards the quad and approaches. “What’re you doin’ here, mister detective? Y’know Garby don’t like you hangin’ around ‘ere.” The boy was small, probably a third grader. He leaned on a wooden bat as he awaited my response, beady eyes shining under the shadow of a gray bowler hat.
“I have business with Garby, and I brought a gift.” I lift up a bag containing an assortment of candies, consisting of a disappointing amount of my own sucker stash. Garby has a notorious sweet tooth.
The crony looks from me to the bag for a long moment, shrugs, and leads me further into his territory. I had gained entry, but I felt the eyes of Garby’s fellows all around me in the dark nooks and crannies of the quad, suspicious shadows topped with bowler hats flashed past corridors, metal and wood weapons ringing as they drag them against the school buildings that made up the square quad. One building lay in the middle, which my guide motions me into with a smirk on his square face.
The building was pitch black except for a single lit doorway which shined at the end of the hallway in a purple neon haze. The faces of the lockers which lined the hallway looked like monsters in the neon, ready to devour me if I stepped too close. The closer we got to the lit room, which upon closer inspection read “Teacher’s Lounge” above the doorframe, a dim saxophone grew louder and louder.
Stepping through the door I’m hit with an overwhelming stench of cigarettes and whiskey. Five huge thugs are lined against the wall to my immediate right, donned in white suits and white bowler hats. Each leans on a wooden baseball bat, doing a terrible job of looking nonchalant. To my left sits a bar, a bored second grade bartender with a fake moustache standing behind it. On the far side of the room, there is a stage upon which sits a saxophonist and singer.
The singer is pretty, in a red sequined dress which casts her dirty blonde hair in a ruby sparkle. To her left, the saxophonist’s face is cast in shadow, so he just looks like a tuxedo with a saxophone for a head. Her husky voice is just beginning the first verse of “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” as I walk inside. Although several tables litter the room, a sole occupant sits watching the jazz rendition, the leader of these ragtag scoundrels.
Randall Garby is short but stout, with broad shoulders and thick hands. He wears a trench coat, bowler hat and ripped jeans, all dirty unlike his pristine white golems haunting the walls. Greasy red hair spouted out of the back of the hat in patches. Freckles dot his fair skin across the bridge of his nose. Minutes passed before he opened his green eyes and motions me over with a wave of his hand.
Garby is in only the third grade, but he wasn’t an individual to mess with. Rumor had it that he blackmailed the principal with pictures of things us kids aren’t supposed to find out about until we’re older. So he was “given” the quad and free reign on this part of campus. This club was his castle and I his intruder. He took his time before speaking, waiting for the singer to finish the first verse.
“What do you want, detective?” His voice is cold but articulate, opting to not speak the strange slang of his cronies. He was still a goon, but a goon with brains, which made him dangerous. I needed to tread lightly.
“Look Garby, I know we aren’t on the best of terms, but I need a favor from you.” We sit next to each other, both facing the stage. He sips his cheap whiskey neat out of a glass tumbler before answering.
“Best of terms? You snoop around my turf whenever some sniveling first grader comes to you looking for their stolen lunch money!” He looks like he is about to say more, but tightens his jaw, sighs, and then continues, the hot anger now a cool disinterest. “Tell me what you want.”
“I need information.”
“What kind of information.”
I hand him the letter that I found by the swing set. “A girl came to me for help, didn’t get the name. Tall, curly black hair, blue eyes. Asked me to meet her at the swing set—this was all that was there.”
Garby laughs and hands back the letter, shaking his head. “You always try and save the cute ones, don’t you? Yeah, say I know the lady you’re talking about. But what makes you think I’d tell you anything?” He snaps his fingers, and I hear five sets of footsteps come to attention directly behind Garby and me.
Clicking his tongue, the gang leader says, “You can’t help everybody in this school, detective…” One of the thugs reaches a wooden bat forward and caresses my cheek as Garby speaks. “That girl is a part of something bigger than you, so I would suggest staying away from her and whoever took her, before you get even more tangled up in something you know nothing about.”
Neither of us looks away from the duo on stage, who, despite the shadow of violence which now loomed over the room, had just begun the second verse. Three of the five goons behind me move between us and the stage, surrounding me. It was starting to look like I wasn’t getting out of this one without a couple bruises.
I look over at Garby, crossing my arms over my tan windbreaker. “Tell me what you know.” I say it with a flat voice, toned with bravery he probably mistakes as bravado.
He chuckled. “Or what, I’ve got you surr—”
I grab two sharpened pencils (Dixon Ticonderoga) out of my pockets as he’s talking, jamming the one in my left hand backwards, deep into the rear thug’s thigh. He lets out a squeal and goes down to the ground holding his wound as I jump up and grab Garby by his greasy hair, putting the second pencil to his neck. “Don’t move or your boss gets it, boys.” I warn the remaining thugs, who look at each other in confusion. The duo on stage doesn’t stop playing on our account.
Leading Garby backwards towards the door, I leave the thugs with a quick wink and back into the stark hallway. Garby struggles in the hallway, but I kick his knees in and continue. As we leave the building in the center of the quad, I catch the jazz signer warble from the neon club: “And it might not be such a bad idea, if I never went home again.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Back at my office, I kick Garby into the wall and tie him to the chair the dame had sat in not long ago. I needed answers from the pudgy kid, and this time he wasn’t getting candy. He started to cry as I tighten the knots, looking up at me like a dog begging for scraps. I slap him across the face. “I know you aren’t a baby, so don’t even try it.”
The facade melts off the goon’s face, and I look down at a smile I can only describe as sadistic. “You don’t know what you’re getting into…she’s gonna eat you up and spit you out for dinner.”
“What do you mean?”
But he just laughs a snicker that is more wheeze than anything, like a caged hyena about to gnaw off his own leg. “She came to me before she came to you, saying someone was after her.” He shrugged, and aimed his green eyes towards me. He looked bored. “But I guess he got her first.”
I grab the neck of his trench coat and lean close to Garby’s pudgy face. “And who is ‘he’?”
Garby’s yellowed teeth form a grin as he tells me who took the dame who came to me for help. “Her father came to get her. The Principal.”
— ♦♦♦ —
To most students of Chuck E. Ryles, the Principal is a decrepit creature. There is no morality to the man, and therefore no morality to the school. He wasn’t an individual I wanted to have any sort of relationship with, yet somehow that night I found myself sitting across from this same crooked man in his very own office, which was not, in fact, a janitor’s closet.
The Principal is a large man who never really seems to cease sweating, his black button-down shirt haphazardly tucked into black slacks, the buttons of which strained against his weight. He is mostly bald save for a few gray strands combed over his slick scalp. There is a single lamp lit in the office, directly behind him, likely an intimidation factor. It really just makes him look like a big black eclipse.
The eclipse called the Principal crosses his fingers and appraises me behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “I don’t usually get visitors so late after school-hours, little buddy. What can I help you with tonight?” He talks to me like an adult would normally speak to an eleven year old boy. I was through with the games tonight.
“Cut the bullshit, you know why I’m here.”
His surprise at my response is unexpected, but after a moment his poor acting morphs slowly into a grim frown. He pulls a folder out of a drawer in his big wooden desk, and opens it theatrically. “I’ve read all about you, Mr. Detective.” He pets the folder and papers with satisfaction. “This is quite the file you have here. Sent here for assaulting a boy in your old school, suspended three different times for stalking different students, the list goes on.” He accentuates his spiel by slamming the folder shut.
It didn’t surprise me that the Principal would jump to these dirty tactics. “You’ve gotta do what you gotta do to help the students in twisted places like this. It’s not like people like you will help.”
The Principal shakes his head. “But do you really help? You can’t even stop a miscreant like Garby. There is always going to be a Garby. There is always going to be a principal. This school twists us into monsters, and eventually it will come for you too.” He looks sad as he says this, even though he puts on a mean front. A strange feeling comes across my mind that maybe, this crooked man might have been in my seat at one point, that maybe he once wanted to help before Ryles or something similarly corrupt contorted him to this sad sack of sweat.
Was he right? Would I eventually drown, like he did, in the labyrinth of this institution, waves of corruption changing my core until the boy I was becomes something else? Maybe. But now that didn’t matter; the dame needed my help.
“You and Garby can wait; I’m here to help your daughter. She asked me for help earlier tonight, and I have a sneaking suspicion your sweaty palms are the big reason why.”
The Principal looks at me, perplexed, and scoffs. “Some detective you are. I don’t have any children.”
“Then who is—”
“That’s enough.” A foreign voice comes from the entrance to the office, directly behind me, followed by that familiar, awful wheezing laugh. Garby. I had left him tied up in my office after he told me what I needed to know. I turn to see him backed the five white golems, three holding familiar wooden bats, two carrying stilettos.
“What are you all doing in here?” The Principal’s voice boomed in the small office. “You know that my office is off-limits, Garby. I let you have the quad. How did you get past the secretary”?
Garby clicked his tongue at the Principal. “Everyone has a price, even your secretary. And quite frankly, the quad isn’t enough, sir. See, I figure if a cockroach like you can run this desolate place, you and I might have a little chat about…” He put a finger in the air, waving it around until he can finish his thought, “A change in management! Yeah, that’s what we’ll call it. A change in management!” His grin gives me chills. I question the young boy’s sanity.
He snaps his fingers, and his thugs surround the thick man. He doesn’t put up much of a fight as the golems tie and gag him in the chair.
“What are you doing Garby?” My voice cracks like it always does when I get nervous. “You can’t get away with this, people will find out.”
The red-headed boy looks up at me and winks. “Maybe I want people to know.”
There was no reasoning with him. “What about the girl—he said he didn’t have any children.”
Garby’s wheeze at my question is accentuated by the plodding squeaking of light-up sneakers in the dark portal behind him, as the dame I had been looking so hard for saunters into the dim light, baby blues fixed on me just like before. She twists a lit cigarette playfully in her fingers as she plants her lips on Garby’s cheek, looking at me all the while. “You always were a sucker for a pretty girl, detective. You played the big guy right into my hands—gave us the time to fill the halls with my boys while you two had your…fulfilling conversation.”
I stand there, fists clenched, looking from Garby to the back-stabbing dame, an unfamiliar confusion washing over me. He played me; and all it took was a pretty girl fluttering her blue eyes at me.
They were all liars, every single one. There had to be someone that is good. But as I look around the scene that I am a part of, that I helped create, I know that there is no good in this sick place, maybe not even in me. What was I if not a part of these games that we’ve all been playing?
Now Garby is serious, anxious in my silence. “What’s going through that head of yours detective? The Principal is getting his due, whether you’re here or not.” He motions to one of his lackeys, who had decided to stand very close to me, bat in hand. Locking eyes with me, he taps his digital Hot Wheels wristwatch. “Make your decision post haste.”
I look Garby in his beady eyes for a moment before hanging my head, defeated. The muffled screams from the Principal reach my ears as they close the office door behind me, followed by the wheezing snicker of Randall Garby.
— ♦♦♦ —
Back in my tiny office in the janitor’s closet, I light a cigarette from the emergency stash taped to the bottom of my plastic desk, and sit down in the chair that Garby cut his way out of. Inhaling deeply, I sigh and stand up, pulling the string that connects to the naked bulb on the ceiling, and leave my office doused in darkness.
As I walk through the twilit hallways and the smoke drifts in twisting clouds above me, I think about the dame who asked me for help and everybody else that I will fail to save from the clutches of Chuck E. Ryles Elementary School.
“Sadon and The One Armed Constable.” By Jason Lairamore
Illustration by John Waltrip