Mischief (ii) – Cozy Mystery

Ms. Solomon went to bed feeling quite at ease, all things considered. There was a certain gut displeasure to what she had seen, but it would take much more than one desecrated goat to phase her in any meaningful way. That sort of local horror could never hold a candle to the subjects in which she was immersed daily – what was one display of gore in comparison to Kristallnacht, to Nanking, to the decades before Westphalia? Not much. On reflection, it was lucky that the incident had fallen into her lap rather than one of the more sensitive types – she doubted that any of the maths teachers could have survived the ordeal.

The process of interrogation would begin the next day, at a measured pace. There was no particular hurry. One advantage of a boarding school is that there is no need to detain the suspects. All parties, regardless of guilt, were locked up together just the same. If anything, a nice, long inquisition would provide everybody with something to do. She flicked the nightlight off, settled into her pillows, and slept well.

Breakfast consisted, as ever, of a croissant, a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of water, in that order. She drew up her plan of action for the day during the coffee segment. Her initial reaction upon seeing the mess had been that it was so far beyond the usual nonsense that she would have no idea where to start. That feeling had now subsided. Any teacher worth their salt knew where to look first for any given kind of trouble. In the event of an unkind rumour, Heather Clayden was the safest bet. If there had been a fight, the odds were on her brother Martin. If urine had appeared where there is normally no urine, one needed look no further than Justin Mixon. Those same shortcuts would serve her here, even though no current students had form for this sort of thing. It was bizarre, disturbing, and clearly one or more steps beyond the usual fracas of adolescent culture. In short, she would be best off pursuing the weird ones. The students who were the least predictable, and the most frequently presumed to suffer from mental illness of some kind. The outsiders who seemed entirely unconcerned with that status, whose actions and attitudes were in equal measure inscrutable and unsettling. These walls were filled with the children of the very wealthy. The presence of an undiagnosed sociopath was practically a guarantee.

With that in mind, one name sprang readily to mind. Or at least, one nickname. Sal was a consistently mystifying boy – easily charismatic, but with few friends, grades that fluctuated wildly and with no discernible correlation to attendance or classroom performance, frequently truant but just as frequently to be found studying alone…  In short, exactly the kind of aberration she was looking for. On a more intuitive note, she had always found there to be something a little eerie about Sal. He had a sort of mocking, unambitious confidence that was totally unflappable, the air of somebody who was merely observing the world rather than being part of it. Martin Clayden may well have had an assault charge or two in his future, but Sal, if anybody, would be the serial killer. The violent ones at the classroom level rarely escalated along that axis in the same way as the quiet ones, cliché though it may be. As for the terms of address, it seemed that both the boy and his father had such an extreme antipathy for his full name that the latter had demanded that “Sal” and only “Sal” be used whenever possible. The occasional odd demand was another fixture in the business of storing people’s children, and the academy was willing to oblige in this instance.

Once breakfast was done, she dispatched Mr. Randall with instructions to bring Sal to her, and to make a mental note of the location of his friends. Randall had glided naturally and without discussion into the role of sidekick, being apparently glad to put away his mops and brooms for the time being. That suited her fine, as there was nothing particularly appealing about legwork, especially in this weather. If she was going to be playing detective, she would rather be a Wolfe than a Holmes, although she doubted that either man would approve of her assuming the mantle. Randall would likely be out on the hunt for some time. Sal and his companion were rarely to be found in the expected gathering places, as one might expect. She had advised him to start with the emptied-out rooms around where the goat had been found. In the meantime, she wondered whether or not Sal would be any help at all. She was certain (perhaps unjustifiably) that he was involved. The issue was that he could not be relied upon to respond to the time-honoured methods of bribery and intimidation, nor would he offer the bull-headed, petty defiance that defined the garden variety of miscreant. He was just as likely to admit to the deed with a smile as he was to deny the whole process.

There was a knock on the door, and then Sal entered before she could respond. He wore a grin somewhere between smugness and bemusement, sliding down the room and into the chair across from her desk. His uniform was pristine, his hair a mess, and his office-entering decorum clearly non-existent.

“Good morning, Ms. Solomon.”

“Good morning, Sal.”

“I brought Anna and Hugh with me, since I expect you’ll want to talk with them too. They’re in the corridor.”

“How considerate. I suppose that means that you’ve not got anything to tell me?”

“Of course. I don’t know anything, especially not about goats. I’ve never even heard of them. Is that a kind of insect?”

She sighed internally (and externally). The chance that Sal would commit to anything beyond mockery was clearly spent. She considered throwing the proverbial book at him, but decided swiftly against it. Minor disciplinary action would mean nothing to the boy, and severe disciplinary action was more of a threat than a serious proposition, a threat which would be transparent in the present company. The headmaster was decidedly against any actual book-throwing, physical or figurative. Expulsions didn’t look good.

Sal had offered her Anna and Hugh as substitutes. That was Anna Germanus and Hugh Melrose. The Germanus family were indeed German, although they had not been Germanuses for very long – the name had been changed as a somewhat uncomfortable show of devotion to their Germanness. This was germane to the issue at hand insofar as Anna, their youngest, maintained that she could not speak English, rendering conversation impossible. Whether this was a matter of Teutonic pride, filial piety, or pure, opportunistic deception was unclear. It was almost certainly not a question of linguistic proficiency, as her essays were always flowing, elegant and entirely comprehensible to even the most monolingual of anglophones (content notwithstanding). Unless, of course, Sal was writing them for her. It was speculated that they were an item. In any case, the faculty had decided that the whole Germanus situation was a mess best ignored. Her grades were fine, she would graduate, and her space beneath the rug would be freed up for whatever came next.

Hugh Melrose was clearly the odd one out in this triumvirate. He was a meek boy possessed of an academic prowess that was moderately below average and a response to authority that was massively above it. It was unclear to her what use Satan’s own power couple could have for him, save for as a pet.

“Come on, Sal.”

“I don’t see why I would.”

“Are you going to make me bully poor Hugh into snitching?”

“Yes, actually. I am.”

“I didn’t know you were so unkind.”

“Oh, my heart bleeds for the terror you will most likely inflict on my poor friend. But your own prejudice has forced my hand in the matter, I’m afraid. Shame.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’d be willing to offer you an account of the goat incident. It would be honest and complete to the best of my knowledge. But you wouldn’t believe me. You’ll believe him. So why bother? Your blatant mistrust for me, and for Anna, demands that the most innocent among us suffer before you will be satisfied with a functionally identical expression of the truth. We might as well skip the intervening steps.”

This was the sort of thing that had fostered the mistrust.

“Sal, may I remind you that you are addressing a member of staff. Even if you feel that way, you need to watch how you say it.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because…”

“It was rhetorical.”

She scowled.

“Suppose I listen to your story, making every effort to be more credulous than history would indicate is sensible?”

“Not going to work. You only think that it would. I promise that your attempts at credulity would fail.”

“Well, I think you should take some time to consider that promise in relation to your comment on prejudice. But, for now, I take it your mind is made up?”

“That would be a correct taking of it. Am I excused?”

“That might be a stretch. But you can go. Send Hugh in.”

“Yes, Ms. Solomon.”

Insufferable.

Hugh Melrose inched feebly into the room, shoulders tensed, one hand nibbling anxiously at the other. Ms. Solomon caught herself feeling relieved to have regained her place of power. If pressed on the matter, she would express some general reservations about formal hierarchy. In this moment, however, she was finding it rather comfortable.

“Good morning, Hugh.”

“Good morning, Ms. Solomon.” He stared intently into his lap.

“Hugh, what have we discussed?”

He turned his gaze upwards to meet hers, slowly, as though a tremendously heavy and precarious weight rested on his crown.

“That I should look at people when I talk.”

“Correct. Now, what do you have to say about this incident with the goat?”

“… what did Sal say?”

“That’s not important.”

Feeling impatient, and perhaps a little vindictive following Sal’s performance, she deployed one of the heavier weapons in her artillery – a stern expression. This was an armament that could readily and immediately break the will of the weak-willed, and nobody else. It was a gun designed exclusively for shooting fish in barrels, a searchlight needed only to stun deer, rabbits, and other creatures of similarly profound  timidity. For Hugh, whose spirit animal was certainly one such entity, this was the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. Excessive force, inhumanely deployed. No need to negotiate a surrender.

“I don’t…” He stammered.

She continued the barrage. His face seemed to lose solidity at an alarming rate, become a rapidly shifting mass of trembling, sweat beads, and the beginnings of tears.

“The… the man in the cellar told us to do it.”

“Who?”

Hugh’s skin grew some number of shades paler. His eyes widened, and panicked energy seemed to flow from every pore before subsiding just as quickly as it came. It was, in her opinion, the expression of somebody who had realised a terrible mistake, then swiftly thereafter realised the full certainty of the doom it entailed.

“Hugh? Tell me about this man.”

That remark seemed to set him off again. Flailing wordlessly, looking like he was probably about to expel something unsavoury, Hugh sprinted out of the room.

End (ii)

Mischief (i) – Cold Open

It was the middle of winter term, and the weather was out to prove it. Snow besieged the Hermann Academy, smothering the grounds, bombarding the walls, and lashing into anybody unfortunate enough to be outside. Even in the summer, the Academy was a model of faux-gothic isolation. Now, it all but disappeared into the blizzard and the valley. At this time of year, it became a world unto itself. Of course, that was largely the point of a boarding school. The headmaster (and all his predecessors) felt that a contained environment, far from the homes of the students, was necessary for a proper education. ‘Home’ was a byword for chaos, a state of pandemonium into which a teacher’s hands could scarcely reach. Better to eliminate it. He would gladly have relocated to an island in the sky, or the city of Atlantis. Given the failure of those options, a snowbound valley in the highlands was as good as it got. Staff and students alike were now imprisoned by the elements, sentenced to a long winter of study, community, and personal growth. At least, that was the idea. And since it had been the idea for a couple of centuries at this point, things were going to stay that way.

Another advantage of all that distance from society was that it made any unsavoury business much, much easier to contain. Adolescence tended to invoke trouble, and even the teachers were only human. Over the Academy’s history, it had become quite clear that concepts such as ‘crime’, ‘reckless endangerment’ and ‘horror’ existed only in the eye of the beholder. Right now, any beholders would have a hard time even seeing the building, let alone anything that was going on inside. In other words, the wilderness was also an impenetrable defence against scandal. It was an advantage that the institution had leveraged generously over its metropolitan rivals. In education, as in all things, some measure of disaster is inevitable. A shrewd leader ensured that such things were resolved in private rather than in public.

The shrewd leader of the age, their Headmaster, had just stormed in and out of Ms. Solomon’s office like some kind of fusty berserker. ‘There’s been an incident’, he had said. ‘Get on it.’ It was a parsimonious sort of leadership. She rubbed her temples, having been interrupted from her reading. It seemed the task of resolution had fallen to her on this occasion. Some practical joke or act of petty vandalism, presumably. The students never seemed to get bored of those. She would just have to locate and slap the relevant wrists. Not the most elucidating use of her evening, but not too difficult.

She heard the headmaster barking in the corridor. This was swiftly followed by a rather flustered member of the custodial staff stumbling through the door – one Mr. Randall. This meant that the incident probably occurred in the boys’ dormitories (Ms. Solomon happened to have memorised the janitors’ schedule). He was in a cold sweat, looking like he’d seen one or more ghosts, with a small vomit-stain on his jacket. Either he’d already caught his death of the cold, or it was a particularly lurid one this time. Teenage boys did have a peculiar fondness for excreta. Randall ushered her to the scene, remaining silent as they barrelled down the halls. It was past curfew, and so the students were all neatly sequestered away with their assigned peers. Still, there was always a certain static in the air whenever something like this happened. Even from behind locked doors, they had an unnatural sense for trouble.

Randall stopped in front of one of the empty rooms, on the extremities of the building. He gestured mildly at the door, and insisted that she do the honours of opening it.

The first thing she noticed was the blood, which was everywhere except the ceiling. Then, the carcass of what looked to be a feral goat, minus the head and hooves, split open down the middle. Then, the smell of those two things – fresh and disgusting, like raw steak, tripe, and hair. She turned to Randall, whose face conveyed some unique combination of solidarity and residual panic. There was a timely shriek from the wind outside.

“Jesus.” She said.

“Yup.”

She looked back at the room. It was still there.

“So… what do you think?” Asked Randall.

“I don’t know.” She replied. “I’m just a history teacher.”

End (i)