The Calculator Kid: The Case of the Missing Client

by: Christopher Yensan

The Calculator Kid series — mystery stories uniquely inspired by both James Cagney in White Heat and Encyclopedia Brown — returns to Across The Margin, this time with a thrilling ‘whodunit’ entitled: The Case of the Missing Client…

Catch up with the first installment of The Calculator Kid series here!

Last Thursday, about an hour before gym class, I was sitting in my office (which doubles as the boy’s bathroom on the second floor, C Hall, just down from the teacher’s lounge) on a stool I had “borrowed” from the janitor’s closet. I was reading an article in the school paper about an upcoming chess tournament, when the door flew open and a kid I had never set eyes on before appeared in front of me. I only saw him for a moment, as the door swung inward, looking scruffy and out of breath, his shirt untucked and his confused brown hair standing up every which way. He disappeared from my view as quickly as he had appeared, when the bathroom door slammed shut again. I sat in stunned silence for a fraction of a moment, completely motionless, my paper in hand, my stool cocked back on two legs, like some schmuck playing freeze tag, waiting for the door to swing open again and for the kid to reappear. When it didn’t, and he didn’t, I tipped my stool forward, hearing the click of the front legs as they landed on the linoleum. The sound echoed ominously in the empty bathroom. I stood up, folded my newspaper, set it on the stool, walked over to the door, pulled it open slowly, and…was greeted with an empty hallway.

There was no one around. The hall was as empty as a soda bottle after a birthday party. The kid had simply disappeared, and that was that. It wasn’t yet passing period, and I guess no one was in dire need yet for a visit to their local chamber of commerce, if you catch my drift. That was fine with me as I was tired of them stinking up the joint, anyway.

I looked down and saw one end of the tin-can-telephone sitting on the floor, laying against the outer wall of the boy’s room. My secretary, the hall-monitor Melissa Marmot — the one who usually alerts me in advance via the telephone contraption when a client was coming in — was out of the office. She had informed me that she had a science quiz she couldn’t miss, and needed to take the afternoon off. She’d been bugging me nonstop lately with Newton’s First and Second Laws of Motion, and every time Melissa mentioned ‘em all I ever ended up with was a craving for those little fig-filled cookies. I had told her she’d probably ace her science class even if she missed the quiz entirely, but she’s always been a bit of an overachiever, and, more than that, she doesn’t like loose ends. For that matter, neither do I. And this kind of loose end — a vanishing person — was not only bad news, it was bad for business.

“Well, ain’t that a sock in the kisser,” I muttered, my voice echoing a little too loudly in the empty hallway. Where in the world had that bum disappeared to? And what was he doing, anyway? Had he been coming to see me, or was he just a kid who needed to visit the marble palace? Why had I waited so long to hop up and see where he went? If I had jumped right up and run to the door, I might have seen which direction he’d stomped off to. As it now stood, the kid had made a clean break for it, and I didn’t even know where to begin to look. The trail was two minutes old, and already it was as cold as yesterday’s meatloaf.

When the next bell rang I headed over to gym class, which was a total bust. Coach had us hang upside-down by our knees from the chin-up bars, like so many contortionists at a freak show, to see how many reverse sit-ups we could do. When it was finally my turn what should happen but a Baby Ruth bar falls out of my shirt pocket and lands with a thud on the maple wood floor. Coach wasn’t too thrilled about that, and as a consequence he not only confiscated the rich, chocolately candy bar but he also told me to shimmy up and down the length of the rope climb a couple of times as punishment. I was so dizzy from hanging by my knees that I wasn’t even able to get halfway up the rope one time before I had to tap out. I ended up taking a breather for the rest of the class on the tumbling mats as kids somersaulted and flipped over and around me. After gym I made my way over to the cafeteria for a little lunch and to try and get the skinny on the morning’s events.

“Hi-de-ho,” I said as I scooted in next to Juicy Fruit at his table. “What’s the rumble?” There were a couple of other kids sitting there, too, but I didn’t have time for any funny business. “Why don’t you kiddies take a powder?” I asked pointedly, and they grudgingly picked up their trays and trudged off to other tables, muttering under their breath.

“How come you always gotta do that?” asked Juicy Fruit. “I was testing out some new material on them! I’m working on a new routine for the talent show, and I wanted to see how it plays on my target demographic!”

“You still got recess, don’t you?” I asked, and then before Juicy Fruit could answer I followed up with, “You haven’t heard about any kids going missing today, have you?”

“What, are you bonkers or something?” he responded. “You think a kid going missing wouldn’t make the headlines? If a kid went missing we’d be hearing about it on the PA nonstop! There’d be parents here picking up their kids early! The place would be lousy with coppers looking to slap the bracelets on some schmuck for kidnapping! What’s the matter with you?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I sighed. “It’s just …”

“Just what?” asked Juicy Fruit.

“Aw, skip it,” I said. “Say, can you think of anyone who walks around school looking like he just ran a marathon in his school uniform?”

“Oh, I get it, this is a riddle, right? Say, that’s a tough one!” said Juicy Fruit.

“This isn’t a riddle,” I snapped. “At least not in the way you mean. I happen to really want to know. I saw this kid today, looking like he was on his last legs, his hair sticking up all over the place, his shirt untucked, all out-of-breath-like. Does that match the description of anyone you’re familiar with?”

“Only about a hundred of my closest pals,” said Juicy Fruit, stacking the empty plates and milk cartons onto his tray.

“Whaddya, giving me the brush-off?” I asked as he grabbed his notebook and his tray and stood up to leave.

“Well, say, this has been fascinating,” he said, in a bit of a hurry it seemed, “and I hate to skip out on a pal like this, but if I’m gonna get any rehearsal time for the talent show I really need to hang it up here and head over to the playground. I think I can still squeeze in a few minutes of hilarity before the next bell.” I watched him walk over to the trash can, toss in his empty lunch items and then set his tray on the conveyor belt to the kitchen. As he stomped out of the room I noticed Melissa Marmot sitting at a nearby table. I caught her eye and motioned her over.

“How’s tricks, Pip?” I asked as she sat down across from me. “Did you ace the quiz, or what?”

“I did alright,” she said with a shrug.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning an A is not as good as an A-plus,” she said, “but it’s still better than an A-minus.” “Atta-girl!” I said, reaching over and patting her on the shoulder. “I knew you’d ace it! Haven’t I always said you’ve got your boots on?”

“I guess,” Melissa said, turning slightly red. She regained her composure and asked, “Did I miss anything this morning?” She simultaneously opened up what I figured was probably her second carton of chocolate milk. I didn’t mention it though, she was just giving herself a little reward for having done well on her quiz.

“You might say that,” I answered. “Then again, you might say we both missed something.”

“Huh?” she asked, looking confused.

“I don’t know how to break it to you, kiddo, but someone disappeared this morning.”

“Whaddya mean, disappeared?” she asked, setting down her drink and giving me a hard stare.

“Just what it sounds like,” I came back with. “This kid appeared, and then he disappeared. End of story. Except, it isn’t.”

“Isn’t what?”

“Isn’t the end of the story,” I said. “At least not in my book. I’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”

“Well, that may be the case, but can we back up a moment and start at the top? You’re telling me that a kid disappeared, and I’m sitting here like a wet noodle trying to figure out what that’s supposed to mean. Can you give me any more details, or is that asking too much?”

“Sorry, kid,” I said apologetically. “It’s been a rough morning, but I don’t mean to take it out on you. Let me bring you up to speed.”

I gave Melissa a recap of the morning’s events, leaving out the rope-climb fiasco, since I didn’t feeling like losing any remaining respect she may have for me, and then I sat back and waited for her reaction. She looked at me for a minute or two before she answered.

“Listen, Kid,” she said, “maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me you might be making a federal case out of a parking ticket.”

“How’s that?” I asked, a little taken aback.

“Well, you don’t have any idea what that kid was coming in there for in the first place. Sure, he may have been coming to see you, that’s a possibility. Or he may have just been coming in the use the facilities. Maybe when he saw you sitting there he got nervous and decided to head downstairs to a more…er, private setting. There are some kids, you know, who get a little put out by seeing someone sitting in the bathroom reading a paper when what they really want is a moment to themselves.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, waving a hand in the air defensively. “I’ve heard it all before. Listen, that’s not my first choice for an office, you know. If I could get that cubicle in the ESL classroom I’d move out of the boy’s room in a heartbeat.”

“Duly noted,” continued Melissa. “But there are other possibilities, as well, regarding your missing client.”

Such as…?”

“Such as, maybe he just changed his mind. Or maybe he suddenly remembered he needed to be somewhere else. Or maybe he’s a budding magician, and he was trying out a new disappearing act. Maybe he’s the school’s designated door tester, and your office door was the last one on his route, or something. There are all sorts of reasons why a kid would open a door and then not enter a room.”

“I don’t know,” I said, skeptically. “I hear your sales pitch, but I don’t buy it. In my experience, when a kid opens a door to a bathroom, or an office, for that matter, he goes in. He means business, either way. I don’t see anyone changing his mind at that point. On the other hand…”

“Yeah? What?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know…that magician thing-a-ma-bob sorta grabs me,” I said, jotting it down in my notebook. “I hadn’t considered it from that angle…but…nah, it’s gotta be more than that. Although, it’d be interesting if it was just that simple.”

“I guess it never is.”

“Never is what?”

“That simple. At least, not with you.”

“You know me too well, kiddo,” I said with a grin.

“Listen, lunch is almost over,” said Melissa, tidying up her tray and getting ready to leave. “I have to head over to Reading in a minute, so do me a favor and jot down the details for me, and I’ll see what I can dig up later this afternoon.”

I grabbed a clean napkin off the table and wrote down some of the key points (hair color: brown; eye color: dark; height: average; school uniform: in disarray; expression: frantic) and then even drew a little sketch of the poor sap to help her out. I handed the napkin across the table and Melissa glanced at it for a moment before stuffing it in her pocket.

“Not only is your handwriting completely illegible, your drawing skills leave a little something to be desired. According to this napkin, I’m looking for a scarecrow with a pumpkin head, no hands, and a couple of loaves of baked bread for feet. Should be easy to spot in the halls.”

We both laughed at that, and she stood to leave, but stopped short. “I know you hate to lose anything…

“Yeah?” I asked. “What of it?” She was right, I don’t like to lose things — and I mean anything — including personal belongings, cases, people, you name it. Okay, so I’ve lost the occasional punch-up, and I’m still working on the rope climb, but just because I do lose sometimes doesn’t mean I gotta like it.

“Nothing,” said Melissa, brushing away a thought. “Just don’t let this one eat at you. I know when you’re starting to obsess over something, and right now, I can see you’re starting to obsess.”

“I hear what you’re saying, sister, but I got a missing kid that I am now responsible for,” I said, evenly. “Whaddya want me to do, go find a pal to play Tiddlywinks with for the rest of the day?”

“You could always report this one,” she said, a little hesitantly.

“With what evidence? You want I should go to the office and say that a kid almost went into the bathroom and then didn’t? You said it yourself, there’s a million reasons why he never made it in the door.”

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “Just don’t overwork yourself. See you at the office later?”

“Does a duck take to water?” I answered, and Melissa smiled, quacked at me twice, picked up her tray and was gone. I finished up my lunch and then sat for a moment, deciding what to do next. This case wasn’t going to be easy, that was for sure, but I’ve solved hinky cases before, it just takes a little more gumption. There was one detail that was beginning to eat at me, though: somewhere along the way I’d have to find someone to bill for my time. With no butter-and-eggs-man to dole out my standard fee of thirty-five cents a day plus expenses, I was that much more motivated to wrap it all up as quickly as possible. I finally decided to head over to the office to see if I could get the lowdown on any missing kids before Math. I’d have to do some snappy snooping though — one more late arrival and Mrs. Whitehead was going to have my hide. I gathered up my trash, dropped the tray on the belt, and headed out.

I made a quick pit stop at the office, and found out that there were several students who had been marked absent from morning classes. I knew most of the names on the list, but there were three that I wasn’t familiar with: Eleanore Bigsby, Mark Reed, and Zoltan Sponsz. I could check Bigsby off the list right away, since I was looking for a palooka, not a Jane, so I did that and took the other names over to the playground, where I found Juicy Fruit sitting on a bench, surrounded by a group of kids.

“Aw, geez,” he whined, when he saw me walking up. “All right, everyone, beat it! Scram out, the lot of you!”

“Not bad,” I said, watching the kids wander off to various parts of the playground. “You beat me to the punch, that time.”

“Well, it was inevitable that you were going to break it up anyway, so why not get a leg up on it? Whaddya want, anyways? I really need to get my material polished for the talent show …”

“All right, cut the gas and I’ll tell ya. This will actually only take a second, you know. You probably didn’t need to dismiss your admirers. I just need you to give me a couple of quick descriptions of some mugs.”

“Lay it on me, then,” said Juicy Fruit, waving at a couple of nearby kids to come back over.

“Do you know a kid that goes by the name of Mark Reed?”

“Yeah, I know him,” said Juicy Fruit. “He’s a real whiz at the guitar, you oughta hear him play…”

“Description, please,” I cut him off, and then added, “ I don’t mean of his musical abilities. Stick to the essentials: hair color, eyes, height, weight, et cetera.”

“Um, let’s see…yeah, he’s got brown hair, dark eyes, he’s a real snappy dresser, and a bit on the tallish side…the dames go crazy over this dreamboat, let me tell you. And I hear he’s a great dancer, to boot!”

“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled in response as I crossed the name off my list. “How about Zoltan Sponsz. You know him?”

“Yeah, yeah, Zoltan,” said Juicy Fruit, rubbing his chin. There was a small group of kids starting to gather back around, and I looked at them a little menacingly, making sure they knew to keep their distance. “He’s also got brown hair, not sure of eye color, average height, and a crazy hairdo…”

“Whaddya mean, crazy hairdo?” I asked, interested. “Fill it in for me, and make it quick, I got places to be.”

“You know, his hair is usually sticking up all over the place. He’s a real case, that one. He’s on the chess team, and I hear he’s a savant, or something. In fact, there’s a tournament coming up that he’s supposed to be playing in. I have a hunch that he may take the whole matzo ball.”

The description fit the bill perfectly. Zoltan had to be the plug I was looking for.

“When did you say the tournament was, again?”

“Come to think of it, it’s today, right after school, in the main gym. It’s gonna be a great turnout. They’re playing the cross-town champions, but with Zoltan and Pavel on our team, we can’t lose! Want me to put a couple of clams on it for you? It’s a sure thing!”

“Tonight after school…” I mused, lost in thought for a moment. Then, with a quick glance at the gathering group of kids I added, a tad sternly, “You realize gambling on school grounds is strictly taboo, right? That sort of thing is completely against the rules, and there’s probably a few state laws banning that sort of activity as well. So keep your dough in your wallet, if you get my drift. I better not find out that you’re operating some sort of cabbage stand on the side, or you’ll have to answer to me.”

“Well, geez, what’s a little scratch between friends?” Juicy Fruit protested, popping a stick of gum into his mouth.

“You’ve had the news bulletin, don’t make me deliver the mail, too,” I said by way of a threat, and then made my way towards the school. I could hear Juicy Fruit warming the kids up with his imitation of Mrs. Whitehead, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. He was a good kid, but he needed some firm guidance, and boundaries, neither of which I was prepared or able to administer. Not curently, anyway. I stopped thinking about him and re-focused on the case, making my way over to the office again.

I rapped a knuckle on the receptionist’s desk to get her attention.

“Good afternoon, Miss Blanchard!” I said when she looked up, as cheerily as I could muster.

“The name is Croft,” she replied blandly. “Can I help you, young man?”

“Right,” I said, making a mental note. “Croft. Blanchard is the one with the glasses.”

She raised an eyebrow, and I continued.

“Say, I got a teensy problem, maybe you can help me out. My pals and me, we’re lousy with nerves about one of our friends, goes by the name of Zoltan Sponsz. He didn’t show up at lunch today and we’re just all sorts of worried.” I flashed a big smile to let her know I was on the up-and-up, but she was already poking through papers on her desk and missed the display.

“Sponsz?” she said. “Yes, here it is. Zoltan Sponsz. It looks like he was here this morning, but he left school just before lunchtime.” Miss Croft dropped her notebook with a thud onto a pile of papers and looked at me with a blank stare, like she couldn’t wait for me to dust out of there so she could get back to her work.

“Aw, geez, that’s a real shame,” I said, putting as much sugar into my response as I could. “Any idea why he ran out so suddenly?”

“I don’t know, usually it’s because they’re sick,” she said flatly, not looking back at the book.

“Could you take a quick gander and find out for sure?” I asked, trying not to grit my teeth. I wasn’t looking forward to having to swipe the notebook, if it came to that. She gave me the same dull stare, and I had a sudden flash of inspiration. “You know, I think I might be coming down with something, too,” I added with a cough, “and I wonder if I got it from my good pal Zoltan? I’d hate to keep spreading it around, if I am sick.” I coughed a couple of more times, failing to cover my mouth, and she reached over and picked up the book again, still giving me the same dull look. She eventually directed her gaze away from me and towards the pages in front of her, mumbled something under her breath, and then said, “sick.”

Miss Croft plopped the book down again, and looked like she might be about to ask me something else, but I was already on my way out the door.

“Thank you, Miss Croft,” I hollered over my shoulder. She hollered something back that sounded like, “It’s Mrs., not Miss,” but I couldn’t be sure. I was deep in thought, and almost ran into a couple of kids in the hall as I headed back over to the office. Keep running into kids all absent-minded like that and you might as well sign yourself up for the chess club, I thought. That gave me an idea, so I headed over to the gymnasium, where they were setting up tables for the tournament later that afternoon. I poked around there for a bit and was about to give up when I saw someone I knew walk in. Actually, two people I knew.

“Edwin!” I said, walking over and offering him my hand. “Edwin Gallster! How’s biz?”

Edwin shook my hand, nervously it seemed. “Hi-ya kid. Are you here for the tournament? I didn’t know you followed chess.”

“Of course, of course! It’s the game of kings! And this is Pavel, correct?” I said, indicating his pal with a wink and a nod.

Pavel had his nose buried in a book, and didn’t seem to hear me mention his name.

“Do you know Pavel?” asked Edwin. “I didn’t know that. He’s never mentioned you before.”

“Sure, we go way back! We used to attend the same book club,” I came back with. “But it’s no real shock that he’s never mentioned me before. I’d be surprised if he’s ever mentioned his own name.” Pavel seemed completely unfazed by my presence. “I’ll bet he has a great mental game, eh? Probably really throws his opponents for a loop with that whole concentration thing he’s got going on.”

“I guess,” said Edwin hesitantly. “I’m not sure I know what you mean…”

“Say, Edwin, this is a real hoot catching up like this,” I interrupted, “but before I forget — let me ask you something. Do you know a kid who calls himself Zoltan Sponsz?”

“Zoltan? Sure, I know Zoltan! He’s one of our best players! I mean, he and Pavel, of course,” he added quickly, glancing apologetically over at Pavel, who looked about as perturbed as a cat on a window sill on a sunny day. This guy was something else! If he wasn’t such a knucklehead, I might start thinking he had something to do with Zoltan’s disappearance. Just to be on the safe side, I leaned over to Edwin and asked, in a confidential tone, “Just between you, me, and the ferns, who’s the better player — Zoltan or Pavel?”

“Hmm,” answered Edwin, a little too judiciously for my taste. “Well, Pavel has an excellent opening game, and he keeps his opponents guessing, but Zoltan really knows how to control the center of the board…”

“Mm-hmm,” I interrupted, glancing at my watch. “That’s swell, but who wins the most games?”

“That would be Pavel. He’s got the best record in our league. But Zoltan is poised to win the tournament, if he can keep up the streak he’s been having lately. Or, I should say, would have been poised to win, if he hadn’t gone home sick today.”

“You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” I asked, giving him the up-and-down.

“No! I don’t know what you mean…” he stammered. “I saw him earlier today and he seemed fine, and then all of a sudden he disappeared. I hear he went home sick.”

“And you’re none the wiser, eh?” I pressed. “You don’t know anything, is that it? A bright boy like you? You sure you didn’t slip a mickey into his morning glass of OJ? Maybe to get him out of the way, so you could take the trophy home today instead of him?”

“What are you saying? That’s preposterous!” squealed Edwin in a girlishly thin voice, looking as though he might cry. “I would never do that! Besides, I’m not even in the tournament! I missed qualifying for it by three points! I lost my last game to Pavel here, and he ended up getting the draw!”

“Okay, I see,” I said, easing up. “That sounds legit. Listen, why not loosen up a bit? Maybe go get yourself a ginger ale, or something? I was just asking a simple question! No one thinks you had anything to do with anything.”

This wasn’t making any sense. I was more confused now than I had been earlier in th morning. I had to get out of the gym for a bit, the smell of the lacquer on the floor was starting to turn my stomach, and I was beginning to have flashbacks of hanging upside down on the chin-up bar from earlier that morning. I felt a little dizzy all of a sudden.

“Great seeing you,” I said and patted Edwin roughly on the shoulder before shoving past him towards the door. As I was about to leave the room, I thought I heard him saying something about Joey Fatoni, and almost missed it, but I turned back and looked at him, hard.

“What did you just say?” I asked pointedly.

“I said, if you see Joey Fatoni, can you thank him for me? He’s the one who told me about Zoltan going home sick.”

“Joey Fatoni?” I asked. “Why was that fat-head telling you about Zoltan?”

“I don’t know,” answered Edwin, a little taken aback by my tone. “I guess they’re neighbors, or something, and he stopped by earlier to make sure I knew Zoltan wouldn’t be at the tournament.”

My head felt foggy. I was starting to wish I still had that Baby Ruth, as I could use a little sugar about now. I pushed past a line of people who were bringing tables into the gym and heard them, as if from a distance, making loud comments about people not watching where they were going nowadays, but I couldn’t really focus on what they were talking about. I headed out to the playground to collect my thoughts and catch my breath. After a few minutes in the fresh air I headed back into the school and roused Melissa from her English class.

“What’s the rumpus?” she asked, none too pleased with being pulled from class.

“I need you to get word to Tony Cannoli,” I said. “I’m going to see him. Right now!”

“You need me to get word right now, or you’re going to see him right now?” she asked, confused.

“Both!” I hollered as I took off down the hall. I hoped there weren’t any hall monitors lurking around as I sprinted over to the A/V class to get Juicy Fruit. If I was right, I thought, I might still be able to get Zoltan to that chess match in time.

“Come on come on! Hurry up!” I said, practically dragging Juicy Fruit down the hall. “We’ve got a meeting to get to!”

“Say, what’s the idea! Where are we going?” he asked, nervous-like. He didn’t seem to want to follow me.

“We’re going to pay Tony Cannoli and his boys a little visit, that’s where,” I came back with. “Savvy?”

“Tony Cannoli’s gang? You don’t want to pay them a visit. Tony Cannoli is gunning for you! He’s still juiced about your last interaction! He wants your head on a stick! He wants all kinds of things for you, none of them good. I heard he’s given the green light for anyone to give you a flat tire or a wedgie, anywhere in the school, no holds barred! Whaddya want to go and see him for?”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,” I retorted. “I just need you for backup.”

“Backup?” gasped Juicy Fruit. “Backup? I’m no good at backup! You don’t want me! I’m lily-livered! I’m no good in a fight! I’m macaroni! I’ve got spaghetti sauce in my veins! You don’t want me! You want someone like Stephan Abruzzi for backup! I bruise easily!”

I stopped and looked at Juicy Fruit.

“We’re going to see Stephan Abruzzi!” I practically hollered. “He’s the ape I need backup against! That’s what I’m bringing you for!”

I turned and kept walking down the hallway. I could hear Juicy Fruit whimpering and moaning behind me. “We’re gonna get rubbed out, I just know it,” he was saying. “They’re gonna splatter us like a homemade ragu all over the place! I’m a bleeder! Do you hear me? I don’t even have insurance!”

“Your folks have you fully covered, I’m sure,” I muttered as we arrived at the other end of the school. “Here we are.”

Stephan Abruzzi stood outside the classroom door, all ginned up in a tight suit that looked like it belonged to his younger brother. For all I knew, it did. He looked like he could bench press a Buick.

“We’re here to see Tony Cannoli,” I said. My voice wasn’t as steady as I had hoped it’d be, but it didn’t quaver as much as it could have. “My secretary phoned ahead. I’m sure Tony Cannoli mentioned what’s it’s all about?” I added.

“That’s above my pay grade,” responded Stephan Abruzzi flatly. He looked like a shaved gorilla, but he didn’t bother giving us any guff, he just stepped aside and opened the door.

“Right to our graves,” muttered Juicy Fruit. “We go in there, and it’s straight to the cemetery. Next stop — the coffin shop! No one’s ever gonna see us again, I just know it!”

“Switch it off,” I said irritably. I was starting to think that maybe I shouldn’t have brought him along after all.

But it was too late, we were already entering the room. Tony Cannoli sat in the center of the room, a tray of antipasto spread out on the desk in front of him. On either side sat his henchmen — Timmy Two-Tone on the left, in a yellow polo and gold trousers, and Anthony Spumoni on his right. Joey Fatoni was lurking off to the side a bit, behind Tony Cannoli, eating pork and beans out of the can with a spoon and glaring at me as if he wanted to pierce me with his eyes. I was a little surprised to see Timmy Two-Tone there, but it gave me some leverage, and helped me regain my composure.

“What’s buzzin’, cousin?” I said to Anthony Spumoni first, to sort of warm up the room a bit. “How’s the extortion racket treating you these days?”

“I got no kick,” he replied with an icy stare that I figured I could interpret as meaning he’d like to kick me, right in the mouth. I turned to Timmy Two-Tone next, where I knew I’d have an advantage.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” I said to him by way of a greeting. “Are the boys here still letting you play gangster with them, Swinson?” I put some emphasis on his real last name. “I thought they might have found a spot for you under the swing set by now, after that whole Santy Claus fiasco.”

“Very funny,” smirked Timmy Two-Tone. “Extremely hilarious. Laugh it up. Wait till you see what they’re gonna do to you, bright boy.” I had to hand it to him, his Brooklyn accent really sounded legit.

“Boys, boys, let’s not blow a fuse here!” intervened Tony Cannoli in his characteristically hoarse whisper. “Are we animals, behaving like this?” He looked around, and his gang stared at their wingtips contritely. “That’s better,” he continued. “Now,” he said, looking directly at me, “to address your question. Timmy here is a real asset to us, and we would never think of hurting him, or of letting anyone else hurt him.” He looked at me pointedly, and I got the drift.

“Hey, he’s your problem, not mine,” I came back with. “My credo is: live and let live. I don’t mete out the punishment, I leave all that up to the guidance counselor and the principal. I just arrange the meeting.”

Tony Cannoli laughed. “Timmy’s a good boy,” he said, reaching over and tousling Timmy Two-Tone’s hair. “He’s not going to end up in the guidance counselor’s office. He’s loyal to the group, and like I said, he’s a real asset. Much like your friend there.” He nodded at Juicy Fruit.

I turned and looked at Juicy Fruit, who was looking around the room, whistling Dixie, appearing not to have heard what Tony Cannoli had just said.

“You’re in cahoots with this creep?” I asked him, flabbergasted.

“No, it’s…” started Juicy Fruit.

“Oh, yes, oh, yes,” interrupted Tony Cannoli. “Technically speaking, he’s a free agent, but we do take advantage of his specialties from time to time. No one can forge a sick note like Juicy Fruit here.”

I stared hard at Juicy Fruit, who looked like he was maybe hoping the Russians would drop an A-bomb on the school at any moment so he could duck and cover and get out of this mess.

“A kid’s gotta earn a buck, right?” he finally said with a nervous laugh. “Am I right? Anyway, it’s not like I’m one of these wise guys! Like the man said, I just do freelance work from time to time!” Then, looking over at Tony Cannoli, he added, almost apologetically, “I’m almost through with that vacation note for your boy Joey here. Did you say they were supposedly going to Naples or to Venice?”

“Naples!” chimed in Joey Fatoni from the backdrop, his mouth full of pinto beans. “What would I wanna go to Venice for? They ain’t got nuttin’ but gondolas and boring museums!”

“Oh, for the love of Pete!” I said to Juicy Fruit through clenched teeth. “You’re completely cock-eyed, you know that? You’re about as much use as a sack of oatmeal!”

“I told you!” said Juicy Fruit defensively. “Didn’t I tell you not to bring me? I practically begged you! But no, you know better than everyone else! No one can tell you what to do!”

“All right, all right,” I snapped. “Cut the engine for a moment and let me think. I didn’t come here to talk about your note-forging abilities, I came to talk to Tony Cannoli about Zoltan.”

Tony Cannoli gave me a blank stare, and I knew this exercise was going to be no walk through the daisies.

“Does that name ring any bells? Zoltan Sponsz? Chess player? You ever hear of him before?”

“You writin’ a book, or something?” he asked with a wry smile, and his crew chuckled. “You sound like a Hollywood reporter.”

“I hadn’t realized Hollywood reporters wrote a lot of books,” I came back with. “I thought they primarily worked in the news industry.”

That wiped the smile off Tony Cannoli’s face right quick. He was all business.

“Listen, Kid, you got something to ask me, why not come out and ask me? The boys and I were just about to enjoy a little late-afternoon snack. May I offer you an anchovy?”

I skipped the chance to make a jab about his snack being as fishy as his whole operation, and instead went right for the kill.

“Did you kidnap Zoltan this morning, or not?” I asked, point blank.

Tony Cannoli sat still for a moment, holding an anchovy in mid air, and then burst into uproarious laughter.

“Did I kidnap who?” he asked when he could catch his breath. “Zoltan, the chess wonder? Is that what you came to ask me?” He wiped a tear from his eye. “Did you hear that, fellas? Bright boy here wants to know if I kidnapped somebody!”

The boys yucked it up for a bit, so much so that Joey Fatoni almost choked on his pork and beans, and Anthony Spumoni had to jump up and administer the Heimlich maneuver. After everyone calmed down, Tony Cannoli fixed me with a deadpan stare.

“Any more questions, kid?” he asked. “Or can me and the boys go back to our snack before the chess tournament.”

“I didn’t realize you were that interested in the game,” I said. “When do you find time to cultivate such diverse passions?”

“I’m interested in anything that yields a healthy return,” answered Tony Cannoli.

“Geez,” I said, “I must be the only one not putting any lettuce down on this tournament. Whaddya, got it fixed or something?”

“Let’s just say I have a good feeling. Now, if there’s nothing else…?” He gave me the fish-eye, and I caught his drift.

“Nah, that should about cover it,” I answered. “It’s been nice smellin’ youse.”

“Say, why don’t you drop dead, twice,” piped up Anthony Spumoni.

“What, and look like you?” I came back with.

He jumped up from his chair, along with Joey Fatoni and the rest of the gang, and Juicy Fruit made a dash to squeeze in between me and the wall, but Tony Cannoli stopped the whole thing with a cough. When everyone had regained their seats, Tony Cannoli looked over at Timmy Two-Tone.

“Would you please show our guests the gate?” he asked, in a not-too friendly tone of voice. “I think they’ve overstayed their welcome. Besides, we have a chess match to get to. Joey, why don’t you escort our friends to the playground. The rest of you mugs, get yourselves together and get over to the gym. School will be over in a few minutes, and I don’t want to miss the start of the tournament.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Joey Fatoni, tossing his empty can into the trash. “It’d be my pleasure.”

Out in the hallway, I grabbed Juicy Fruit’s arm and led him down the hallway, a little ahead of Joey Fatoni.

“Start bumping your gums, and make it snappy!” I whispered, twisting his arm a little, and taking some skin. “Did you write that sick note for Zoltan, the one that got him pulled from class today?”

“Yeah, it was me!” he whined, trying to get his arm back. “But I didn’t know what they were up to! I swear! I was just trying to make a buck! I didn’t even know who it was for, just some funny name they gave me!”

“But you didn’t think to mention it later, when I was asking you about him,” I growled, letting his arm go.

“I got scared! I thought you were going to bust me! I can’t afford to miss the talent show next week, it could be my big break!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you a big break,” I muttered. “You and your stupid routine. What we gotta figure out now is where they’re keeping him.”

“Keeping who?” he asked, looking scared.

“Hey, pipe down, you two!” hollered Joey Fatoni, catching up to us. “The boss didn’t say nuttin’ about you two chit-chattin’ on the way to the playground.”

“Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?” I asked.

He’s twice our size!” warned Juicy Fruit. “I’m a bleeder, remember?”

“Oh, I could do plenty,” chuckled Joey Fatoni. “Believe you me! You don’t want to end up in the janitor’s closet, too, do you?”

I froze. “That’s it!” I hollered. “To the janitor’s closet!”

I dusted down the hall, the other way, hollering for Juicy Fruit to go and get Edwin Gallster from the gym and meet me at the janitor’s closet. Joey Fatoni took off after me, and was right on my heels in no time. He moved surprisingly fast for a portly gent.

“Oh, no you don’t!” he hollered as he drew up alongside me.

I hate to say it, but I had to slow down. I was about to keel over. I hadn’t had that much exercise since…well, since ever. I leaned against a row of lockers, huffing and puffing, and just then a hall monitor stepped around the corner and grabbed Joey Fatoni by the wrist.

“Where’s the fire?” he asked with a snicker.

“Hey! Lemme go! I got somewhere to be!” protested Joey.

“Where’s your hall pass?” asked the hall monitor. “And anyway, you know the rules — no running in the halls. You and me, we’re gonna take a little trip down to the main office, I’ll get you all set up in your own little suite over there, you’re gonna love it.”

“What about him?” asked Joey Fatoni, pointing at me. “He was running, too! And where’s his hall pass? And anyway, school is over in five minutes!”

The hall monitor squinted over at me.

“Ain’t you a friend of Melissa Marmot’s?” he asked.

I nodded and waved, still puffing and gasping for air. I could barely breathe, let alone talk, but that seemed to satisfy him.

“I’ll come back for him in a bit,” the hall monitor informed Joey. “Hopefully he won’t have wandered off by then. Wouldn’t that just be a kick in the pants if he was gone when I get back?” He winked at me and then he and Joey Fatoni headed off in the direction of the office.

When I caught my breath I headed over to the janitor’s closet, where I found Juicy Fruit, Edwin, and Zoltan. Zoltan was in the closet seated on a stool, holding a chessboard on his lap in front of him, staring at it intently.

“What’s the rumpus?” I managed to wheeze.

“This is not good,” said Juicy Fruit. “Apparently, Tony Cannoli sidetracked Zoltan here with an impossible chess puzzle. He’s been sitting here all day trying to figure it out!”

“Yes, this is bad,” chimed in Edwin. “I know Zoltan, and the only thing that will snap him out of it is solving the puzzle.”

“Well, then you’d better get to solving,” I said to Edwin. “You’ve only got a few minutes to get him to the tournament.”

“Oh, dear!” muttered Edwin. “If he can’t solve it, I certainly won’t be any help. Unless…” He trailed off, staring at the board.

“Unless what?” I intoned, getting serious.

“Yes, I think this may be…” He trailed off again, and got closer to the board. Zoltan had hardly moved a muscle, he was staring intently at the board. “I think this is a puzzle I’ve seen before!” exclaimed Edwin excitedly. “If I am correct, it’s the Krebbian Back-Home Task!”

“The do-what-now?” I asked.

“The Back-Home Task!” he cried. “It’s sort of a joke puzzle, which is probably why Zoltan hasn’t solved it yet. He has no sense of humor!”

“Well, let’s get this puppy rolling,” I said. “Help this poor sap out, so we can call it a day!”

“What you have to do,” instructed Edwin, shouting into Zotan’s ear, “is get all your white pieces back to their original positions! You see? Black only has forced moves! There’s absolutely no strategy to it at all!”

A slight change came over Zoltan’s face, and after a moment of moving pieces around he looked up at Edwin. “Solved it,” he said. “What time is it?”

“It’s time to start cooking with gas and get over to the gym!” said Juicy Fruit.

I watched as the three of them hustled down the hall, just as the final bell rang.

“I’ve got to get into shape if I’m gonna keep this up for long,” I mumbled to myself, and headed over to the gym close on the heels of the others. I figured I may as well catch a little chess. At least I’d be able to sit down for an hour.

The next morning Melissa greeted me when I got to the office.

“How’s tricks, Pip?” I asked her.

“Not bad at all!” she said. “How was the chess tournament?”

“Say, it was aces!” I said. “Zoltan swept the whole thing, and Pavel came in second. The cross-town champs didn’t stand a chance! I’m sure Tony Cannoli and his crew lost a pretty penny on that one.”

“That’ll teach them to bet against the home team.”

“Yeah, I guess they put all their lettuce on the game last week, before Zoltan got on his hot streak. And to top it off, I sent them a bill for my time yesterday. That ought to really crown it for them.”

“You think you’ll ever recoup your expenses from that crowd?”

“It’s worth a shot. The way I figure it, they’re the ones who lit the stove, so they oughta be prepared to cut the butter also.”

“Well, I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Melissa. And then, after a pause she added, “I hate to rain on your parade, but we do still have a bit of a situation here.”

“Does it have to do with me missing so many classes yesterday?” I asked, handing her an envelope.

“What’s this?” she asked, and opened it up. Inside were two tickets.

“I scored you a couple of tickets to next week’s talent show,” I said. “The headliner is a friend of mine who owed me a favor. And you’ll never believe it — there’s gonna be a magician there. I looked him up, and apparently, he does a terrific disappearing act!”

“Haven’t we had enough of those for one week already?” she asked with a smile.

“Yeah, but it’s more fun when you know it’s only a trick,” I came back with. “Now, what are we gonna do about all those absences from yesterday?” I mused.

“I could always tell them you had to make an emergency trip to Naples,” she offered. “Or should I say Venice?”

“Who wants to go to Venice?” I asked. “I hear they’ve only got gondolas and boring museums over there. And anyway, sweetheart,” I added, “I feel like I just got back into town!”

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