Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 23

     The news of the three new break-ins flowed through the school like a verbal tsunami. How it arrived is unknown—and considering it was bound to show up sooner or later, is also unimportant—but the speed with which it traveled was unprecedented. It was so quick and pervasive that had you asked anyone in the school who they'd heard it from they would have cocked their head to one side in puzzled thought and not been able to answer. The Word was just there; it was an immaculate conception in a collective scholastic unconscious.

     "Okay, class," Miss Hellstrom said, "since this seems to be the only thing anyone in school is interested in these days, why don't we take a few minutes to talk about the robberies so we can get it out of our systems and get on with the business at hand. Like, say, discussing last night's reading assignment. Who wants to start?" She scanned the class, and was deluged by a barrage of blank looks. "Jamie?"

     Jamie Garrett, whose mother always dressed her in blue because she was once told it was a warm color and she didn't want her only daughter to catch a cold which she knew would metamorphose into pneumonia causing her premature death, looked up at the teacher with her eyes open wide. "Yes, Miss Hellstrom?"

     "Would you like to start the class discussion about the robberies?"

     "No, Miss Hellstrom."

     "Have you been following the news stories about them?"

     "Yes, Miss Hellstrom."

     "Then certainly you must have an opinion."

     "No, Miss Hellstrom."

     Jet turned to Neckless and mouthed the words along with Jamie, but his friend had his chocolate brown turtleneck pulled above his head where it was fastened with a bow made of red satin ribbon he'd found in the hall between classes.

     "Have you been talking to your friends about it?"

     "Yes, Miss Hellstrom," Jamie said. Jet turned to his left and mimed the words along with her, but Hanner couldn't see through her densely brushed bangs to appreciate what he was doing, which was quite a shame as she would have enjoyed it.

     "Would you like to tell the class what you and your friends have been saying about the robberies?"

     "No, Miss Hellstrom," Jet said aloud in perfect synch with Jamie.

     The teacher's head snapped around towards Jet's voice. Her eyes landed behind him at Johnny's empty seat, a logical place since he had so often been the cause of class disturbances in the past, not to mention that she was sure the second voice had come from that direction. "Oh please!" she thought as she gazed at the empty chair. "Don’t let him be haunting me from jail."

     The discussion with Jamie obviously headed down a one way street the wrong way, the teacher called on the first person her eyes landed upon.

     "Mr. Rosenbloom?" she asked.

     "You rang?"

     "Would you like to share your feelings about the robberies with the class?"

     "Do I have to?"

     "No, you don't have to," she said sympathetically. "I just thought you might like to."

     "Why would I want to do that?"

     "Because very often an event that becomes larger than life—as this one most certainly has—starts to take on a significance greater than it actually deserves," she began. "First you're hearing about it all the time, then it starts to occupy your mind, next it becomes the dominant topic of your own conversations, and then before you know it, it's taken over an extravagant part of your life. Add to that the personal involvement you can feel if someone you know is intimately involved and it paves the way to becoming a psychologically trying experience."

     "Oh," Jose said.

     "And very often the best therapy in a situation like that is to bring it out in the open and rid yourself of your inner feelings."

     "If I do that will I get more inner feelings to take their place?"

     "You'll always develop new inner feelings," she told him wishfully. "Just tell us what you're feeling at this very moment."

     "Well," Jose said uncertainly, "I guess I'm kinda confused."

     "Very good," she said, turning to the blackboard.. "Mr. Rosenbloom says he feels confused." She reached for a piece of chalk so she could write the word on the blackboard in large cursive script, forgetting that there wasn't any in the school. She kept repeating "Confused, yes that's an excellent start" and other time-wasting redundancies as she tore a sheet of paper from the legal pad, taped the yellow page to the chalkboard, and wrote the word "confusion" on it with her ballpoint pen. Although she wrote in large script, it was so much smaller than it would have been in chalk—and the pen lines so much thinner—that it couldn't even be seen by the students sitting in the front row.

     "And exactly what are you confused about, Mr. Rosenbloom?"

     "You really want to know?"

     "Yes."

     "You're sure?" he said hesitantly.

     "Of course we do, that's why we're having this class discussion."

     "Well," he said slowly, "I'm confused about why you think it's so important that we talk about the robberies."

     The class erupted in stifled laughter. Miss Hellstrom scanned the class, the laughter quieting in waves as her eyes passed over each row.

     "Would anyone like to answer Mr. Rosenbloom's question?" she asked.

     Everyone looked down, some staring at their desktops, others at their notebooks, and still others pretending to be reading their English textbook, an activity that had absolutely no hope of fooling anyone in the room, least of all Miss Hellstrom. Only three students weren't joining in an avoidance activity, but were, in fact, looking straight ahead. Hanner's chin rested on her balled up fists, though as always her bangs made it impossible to tell where her eyes were looking; Neckless might have been staring right at Miss Hellstrom but no one—not even him—could tell as long as he remained in his turtleneck sanctuary; and then there was Jet, who was staring directly into the familiar whorl Jose's hair made on the back of his huge head, assurance that he was well out of the teacher's line of sight.

     "I think it's important that we discuss this because it's therapeutic to openly evaluate one's inner feelings," she declared. "But if you don't want to do it, then I most certainly won’t force you to." She looked at the tops of her students' bowed heads, then picked up a book from her desk. "That being the case, let's begin by going over last night's reading assignment. Now who would like to give the class a brief synopsis of the selection from Oliver Twist?"

     From Miss Hellstrom's vantage point, Hanner was the only one in the class who seemed to be looking at her attentively. While many teachers would ignore that fact and deliberately call on a pupil who was desperately trying to camouflage himself as part of his desk, Miss Hellstrom decided that, the discussion of the robberies turning out as it did, perhaps it was time to take the safe approach.

     "H. Jandolyn?" she asked, causing Hanner to jump at the shock of suddenly hearing her name pronounced out loud. "Why don't you begin?"

     Hanner shook her head from side to side, her hair swinging back and forth across her face.

     "Did you read the assignment?"

     Hanner shook her head up and down.

     "Then please tell the class briefly what it was about."

     Hanner took a deep breath. And held it in. She didn't say a word, but rather sat in her seat with her cheeks puffed out, her skin turning first red, then quickly darkening into a rather violent shade of purple.

     "What was the point Dickens was trying to make?"

     Jet watched Hanner, his eyes scrunched up, ready to flinch the very moment she exploded, which he was certain would be any second. Shielding his mouth with his hand, he whispered, "You've got to face life's frustrations."

     Hanner's head started shaking and bobbing like a spring-loaded China doll on the package shelf of a car as she giggled to herself. Holding your breath and laughing at the same time is an art that's beyond the capability of mere mortals, and being the budding human she was, Hanner lost control, the laughter erupting at the same time she sucked in a huge breath of air, almost causing her to choke on her own laughter, a potential cause of death which has yet to be taught in any forensic science class in the free world.

     "And what, may I ask, is so humorous?" Miss Hellstrom inquired. "Why don't you share it with the whole class?"

     "I.......Dickens.......frustrations..." Hanner squeezed out between giggles.

     "Just take a deep breath."

     "That's what started this whole thing," Jet said.

     "Relax," Miss Hellstrom suggested. "Take a moment to gain your composure and we'll..."

     SLAM!! The classroom door swung open hard, banging loudly against the wall. The class turned their heads in unrehearsed synchronization. Standing in the doorway was a silhouetted figure, posed in a backlit tableau like a young James Dean playing Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral. The students looked at the figure, then at their teacher, then at each other, then back to the doorway. Miss Hellstrom's mouth formed a small "O" as she stared hard; it was as if she was seeing a ghost.

     "Holy shit," a voice said quietly from the back of the room.

     "Watch your fucking language," someone else said.

     "What's going on?" Neckless asked Jet.

     "Why's everyone so quiet?" Hanner asked.

     Jet leaned forward and looked over at Rubber Boots, whose eyes were wider than Jet thought physically possible.

     "Johnny's back," Jet said to no one in particular. "And I think he's pissed."

     * * * * * *

     "What are you doing here?" Miss Hellstrom asked Johnny.

     "Aren't I still a member in good standing of this class?" he asked as he sauntered into the room. He strolled to the teacher's desk and stopped in front of Miss Hellstrom, folding his arms across his chest.

     "Well of course you are," she stammered, "but aren't you supposed to be...I mean, do the police...uh, what are you doing here?"

     "I'm here to be educated in English. This is second period English, ain’t it?"

     "But..."

     "We live in a free country, right?" he said, as he turned and walked to his seat. "And as of now yours truly is a free man."

     "Wait just a minute, Mr. Kasouska," she said, gaining her composure. Johnny stopped but didn't turn around. "You're late for class, do you have a note?"

     "A note? You mean like 'Dear Miss Hellstrom. Johnny will be late for class today because we kept him in jail overnight for suspicion of lots of stupid robberies he didn't do. We're sorry we didn't have any evidence so we could charge him, but at least it got him out of first period gym.'?"

     The class started laughing, the snorting kind of laughter you only hear in a schoolroom that results from clamping your hand over your mouth, forcing the laugh to erupt from your nose.

     Johnny looked down at Jet. "Hey, slick. Did ya miss me?" he said as he slithered into his seat.

     "Yeah, like a wart that's been removed."

     "Well I'm back," Johnny said proudly. "Like a big fat hairy wart smack in the middle of your pimply little ass."

     "Don't get too comfortable," Miss Hellstrom told Johnny. "You're not staying."

     "Where to now?"

     "The principal's office."

     "The principal's office?" he echoed. "What for?"

     "Being late for class without a written excuse."

     "How about the morning paper?" Rubber Boots said, holding up the front page with the banner headline trumpeting: Serial robber suspect arrested. "Is this a written excuse?"

     "Hey, that's me," Johnny said proudly. "Gimme here."

     "Would you like to join him?" the teacher asked Boots.

     Rubber Boots looked at Jet, who was shaking his head "no", then looked at Johnny, who was nodding "yes" while grinning like a hungry lion inviting a rabbit home for dinner.

     "No, thanks," Rubber Boots said.

     "Wise choice," she replied, turning back to Johnny. "The principal's office, Mr. Kasouska?"

     Johnny stood up and sashayed to the door. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob and turned back to the teacher. "Ya know," he said matter-of-factly, "there's just no justice in life."

     Then he looked at Jet and winked.

     * * * * * *

     "He wants to see you," Winston Baumgardner's secretary informed him as she stood in the doorway of his office. "Right away."

     Nobody, but nobody, at the Weekly World Scene used the Managing Editor's real name. In fact, most of the employees didn't even know what it was. He, while always pronounced in italics, was uttered with a heavy dose of sarcasm and not the slightest trace of deism.

     "Tell Him I'll be there in a few minutes," Winston grunted, irritated that she consistently refused to use the intercom, preferring instead to stand in the doorway between their offices with her stomach sucked in, her hips thrust to one side, and her head gently cocked to the other. Winston, for all his education and experience, had trouble picking up on anything more subtle than a dentist using a jackhammer to drill out a cavity.

     "He said ‘now’."

     "Okay, okay," Winston said, knowing he could put off the inevitable but not evade it. Sooner or later he was going to have to face Him like a man and accept whatever sentence was to be meted out for having killed 3,425,689 copies of the Weekly World Scene; he strongly suspected life at hard labor but wouldn't be at all surprised if the death penalty was imposed.

     He stood up as his secretary turned and left the doorway, tossing her hair provocatively, her hips swaying rhythmically from side to side. Winston took a deep breath, not because his secretary's movements stirred his long dormant libido, but rather to send oxygen and adrenaline flowing to his muscles in preparation for the confrontation with Him.

     "Everything will work out," she said. "I know it will."

     Winston smiled at her. Ah, to be young, beautiful, and optimistic, a combination Winston had never been fortunate enough to possess. As he stepped into the hallway, his secretary's phone rang.

     "Mr. Baumgardner’s office," she said. "I'm sorry, but he's stepped out for a few minutes. Can I take a message?" She began scribbling on a pink message pad as Winston stepped back into the office and read the name she'd written down.

     "Don't you dare hang up," he told her as he rushed into his office and closed the door behind him.

     He picked up the phone. "Let me guess Holmby, they've already tried and executed the kid and you want a copy of the recalled paper so you can frame it to remember me by," he said. "'Good old Winston Churchill Anderton Baumgardner,’ you’ll tell people. ‘He was a newspaperman through and through. Why he even gave his life for this story'."

     "Jesus, is that really your name?"

     "Yeah."

     "Sorry."

     "Don't be," Winston said as he sat down. "Now, aside from wanting to gloat about my recent misfortune, what other possible motive could you have for calling?"

     "I've got an item for you."

     "I think I've had enough of your items for one week."

     "Then you haven’t heard yet?" Holmby said, a little surprised.

     "Heard what?"

     "They let the kid go."

     "So?"

     "So?!?" Holmby said incredulously. "Didn't you hear me?"

     "You said they let the kid....Did you say they let the kid go?!"

     "Sure as shit."

     Winston sat bolt upright, his mind going in twelve directions at once. "What happened?"

     "They arrested the kid just like I told you and held him overnight pending arraignment this morning," Holmby explained. "But before they could even hit the courtroom they discovered three more robberies that all reek of the same M.O. so they cut him loose."

     "How do they know the same guy did these that did the other ones?"

     "They don't," Holmby said, "but apparently they don’t have a lot of proof that the kid did any of the earlier robberies either, and he obviously didn’t do these."

     "Well I'll be one of Hearst's aching hemorrhoids," Winston said, "are you sure about this?"

     "That depends. You want to believe both AP and UPI?"

     "I knew there was a catch," Winston said to Holmby's laughter. "I don't know if this means I owe you another one or whether this cancels last night's."

     "You owe me," Holmby said as he hung up the phone.

     Winston put the receiver down and raised his clenched fists in a show of victory. His secretary was standing in the doorway.

     "His Highness' concubine—I mean, his executive secretary—just called and said He's getting impatient."

     "Let him wait," Winston said, "get Flash on the phone." She arched one eyebrow questioningly. "Just...get...Flash."

     Winston reclined in his high-back chair and smiled. He was about to bet double or nothing with the odds so stacked against him there was virtually no chance of scoring double, but what the hell, he'd long ago decided that life is nothing but one great big sucker bet anyway.

     "You want what?" Flash screamed into the phone.

     "I want them sent back out."

     "But they're not even here yet. I mean, I don't even know where most of them are right now. They could be anywhere."

     "A lot of them are probably still where they were last night," Winston bluffed, "so if you hurry up and call the distributors they can just not bother sending them back and deliver them as scheduled."

     "But what about the new editions that are being printed?"

     "Let me worry about them," Winston said, knowing he had an hour before the presses would start printing the revised tabloids. "The reward’s back on."

            

Chapter 24 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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