10 July 2020
Anna arrived at seven for sentencing.
The door was closed, the hallway silent. Narrow bulbs buzzed and flickered overhead, the glass in harsh contrast to the dried out husks of moths, and worse. She checked the crumpled piece of paper in her fist again. There was still time to run.
They’d misspelled subpoena. She stood her ground. The door began to swing slowly inwards, creaking on its hinges. Anna squinted into the darkness.
“Leanna March,” called a hollow voice from inside, “step forward.”
She didn’t move. Perhaps they could sentence her in the hallway?
“Hurry up, stupid.”
Anna took a deep breath and stepped into the room. The door shut behind her, and for a moment everything was completely black. She stood very still. Someone snickered.
“Enough with the lights, bailiff,” said the voice again, “this isn’t drama club.”
They flicked on again. The classroom was in disarray. All of the desks had been pushed to the center of the room, flipped and stacked on top of each other. A freckled boy was perched on a chair at the top, frowning down at Anna as hard as he could over wide-rimmed glasses. His lips were puckered from the effort, and it made him look a bit like a spotted duck. He gestured for her to approach.
Something small and plastic bounced off of Anna’s head. Her classmates were sitting cross-legged on the floor amidst uncapped markers and discarded potato chip bags, backs to the wall. Some of them pointed at her as she passed, whispering behind cupped hands. Guilty, they hissed, so guilty!
The freckled boy slammed his textbook against the desk, demanding order. He stood an index card at the edge; it read, Honorable Judge Freddy. The other children wiggled and shushed each other. Anna’s trial had begun.
“You are accused,” said Freddy, “of not letting Judy copy off of you last Wednesday.” He tried to maintain a booming voice several octaves lower than normal, but gave up half way through.
“This is a violation of the Homework Commonwealth, a very serious offense. How do you plead?” Anna took a deep breath. She felt a bit dizzy.
“Not guilty, your honor.”
“Overruled,” said Freddy.
Anna was dumbfounded.
“You can’t overrule a plea,” she argued, “that’s ridiculous.”
Freddy stroked his imaginary beard for a moment. The crowd laughed.
Anna clenched her fists again, crumpling the homemade subpoena. This was it. She was doomed. The bailiff began to crack his tiny knuckles behind her. This was his favorite part.
“The court finds you guilty of homework related treason in the first degree,” Freddy declared, “and sentences you to thirty five punches in the stomach, to be delivered by our bailiff immediately. Unless…”
His voice trailed off, and he became very interested in something on his desk. Anna suspected that she was being set up, but she did very much want to live to see her eleventh birthday. Her parents had promised to get her a new bike. She decided to take the bait.
“Judy says you get good grades. And that you ask a lot of smart questions…-“
“I said she was a nosey teacher’s pet,” said Judy.
“Objection!” huffed Anna.
“Overruled. And shut up, Judy!”
He banged his makeshift gavel until order was restored. He was using a spoon, so it took a while.
“Anyway,” Freddy continued, “it just so happens that the court has a problem that needs investigating. And since you seem the type, we’d be willing to pardon you for your crimes. That is, if you get to the bottom of it.”
Anna crossed her arms. Definitely a set up, then.
“What kind of problem?”
The judge withdrew a pair of Pokémon cards from his pocket, and dropped them at Anna’s feet. She found this to be unnecessarily theatrical. He could have just handed them down to her. They may as well be the drama club, after all.
“Notice anything strange about these?” he asked.
She scooped the cards off of the floor, and turned them over in her hands. They were very colorful, and had identical designs; a flattened, cartoony fish with a gaping mouth and a dopey expression. Anna thought it looked a little like it had suffered a stroke. She couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be swimming in a featureless ocean, or flying through a clear sky.
Well, they’re ugly, she thought, is that it? Somehow she doubted it. She’d never really been a fan of Pokemon, but Anna reasoned that there must have been a reason he had given her two of the same card. She double-checked the text, but it matched exactly. They both weighed the same. The fish had an equal number of body parts…
She thumbed the corner of one of the cards, and a crack formed in the gloss. It creased very easily. She bent the other, and found it was much more flexible. Anna had never been much of a card collector, but she was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to be so rigid.
“They’re made of different material,” she said, “I’m not sure this one’s real.”
Freddy nodded. His glasses slid down his nose a little.
“It’s not,” he said, “it’s totally worthless. But it’s the closest copy we’ve ever seen. Usually they’re pretty obvious. A piece of paper glued to some cardboard, that kind of thing. Nobody ever falls for that.”
He sounded very excited. Anna suspected he didn’t get to talk about this much.
“So what’s the problem, then? Just rip it up, problem solved.”
The glasses were dangling off of Freddy’s ears now.
“It isn’t just that one,” he said. “Bailiff, bring her the lunchbox.”
The bailiff, a husky eighth-grade boy with a lazy eye, shoved a metal lunchbox into her hands. He sulked as he did this, clearly disappointed that he wasn’t currently punching anyone. Anna unfastened the box and flipped open the lid. Phony cards began to spill out of the sides. “There are twelve of these,” said the bailiff, “we’re running out of lunchboxes.”
“We’re being overrun,” Freddy added, “but none of the other middle schools are. It’s always the same kinds of cards, too. Whoever’s making them is doing it here.”
Anna was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the gravity of this crisis.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“You’re going to find out who it is,” said Freddy, “and you’re going to bring them to me for sentencing. I don’t care how you do it.”
“But I don’t even know where to start.”
“Well, you’re in luck, because we do.”
At this point, the reader may notice that they’ve been tricked into reading yet another terrible detective story. Anna was similarly displeased by this.
“Actually, can I just get punched instead?”
“Sure,” said Freddy, “but you should know that there’s a punching fee of two additional punches per punch. He’s pretty much just going to keep going until he gets bored.”
Anna thought about this for a moment, and decided to play detective after all. She heard the bailiff sigh, deprived of all joy in life.
“Cool,” said Freddy, “you’ve got ‘til the end of lunch. Or else: punches. I’ve got a big trade during recess today, and my client needs the peace of mind.”
The bailiff prodded her again, this time with the handle of a magnifying glass. She took it from him; it was a lot heavier than it looked. The lens was scratched and dirty.
“What good is this going to do?” she asked.
The bailiff shrugged.
“It just seemed like something detectives were supposed to have.”
Maybe in fiction. Anna couldn’t think of a single situation where she would need a magnifying glass.
“Something with access to Google might have been a bit more helpful.”
“We’re on a budget,” snapped Freddy, “we can’t exactly afford a smartphone.”
It was a fair point.
Room two hundred and fourteen smelled faintly of smoke. The board was still covered in yesterday’s equations, vandalized in patches with dirty words and crudely drawn pictures of cats. Some of the posters, with lurid designs and math related puns, were hanging loose, the adhesives worn away. Anna felt her shoes smear the grime deeper into the linoleum as she peered inside. There was only one grown-up in the whole school that played with this stuff. He incorporated Pokémon into word problems. He gave out cards as homework passes. There was no doubt about it. He was guilty.
Mr. Gardener was hanging out of the corner window, cigarette poking out of his mouth, only half-trying to exhale outside as he mercilessly crushed the shoulder buttons on his handheld game. Judging from the sounds it was making, he was either losing, or breaking it. His dirty shoes were propped up on the desk next to overturned action figures. A stream of profanity escaped his gritted teeth. It was a wonder he still had a job. Anna rapped on the door, and he jumped to his feet. He didn’t put the cigarette out.
“Good morning, Leanna,” he said, “you’re here early.”
On any other day, Anna might have humored him, but good morning felt too colloquial for such a grave circumstance. She was an investigator now, and had only a vague understanding of what that meant. What would a hardened detective say?
She decided she needed an intimidating accent. She’d only ever seen one detective movie, so she worked with what she had, biting down on the end of her pencil.
“I gotta coupl’a questions for you’s, see?”
Mr. Gardener laughed.
“Oh, wow,” he said, “that was great. Are you practicing for the drama club?”
Anna decided just as quickly that she would never, ever do that again.
Something about that word seemed to catch hold of the professional buried deep inside of him. He set his game on the desk and pulled up a chair.
“Sorry, fire away.”
Anna sat down and pulled a faded composition book out of her school bag, because surely detectives took good notes.
“So tell me, Mr. Gardener, if that is your real name-“
“It is,” he cut in.
“Yes, well then, tell me… what is it exactly that you do here?”
“Well, I’m your math teacher.”
A likely story. Anna had him on the run, now.
“And do you have anyone that can verify that?”
“I suppose you could.”
She underlined math teacher: confirmed several times. This wasn’t working. She pulled the pair of unfortunately shaped fish cards out of her pocket and dropped them on his desk. Mr. Gardener’s eyebrows rose.
“Are these for me?” he asked.
“They’re not,” said Anna, “are they from you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
It had been an ambiguous question. Anna was getting frustrated. This was hard.
“Honestly, Leanna, what’s the matter with you?”
Anna must have sounded like she needed to visit the counselor. She decided to admit she was out of her league before she ended up committed.
“Look,” she said, “I’m supposed to be tricking you into a confession, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Mr. Gardener laughed again in spite of himself, and smoke leaked out of his nostrils. Anna coughed.
“Maybe I can help,” he offered, “what am I supposed to be confessing to?”
Anna had never heard of a detective asking a criminal to help incriminate them, but she didn’t see how it could hurt. She liked Mr. Gardener well enough. Maybe being a detective was kind of like math.
“I’m investigating a Pokémon card counterfeiting scam, and I have reason to suspect you’re behind it all.”
Mr. Gardener leaned over and extinguished his cigarette against the windowsill.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Well, about five minutes ago, everyone said you probably did it.”
Mr. Gardener waited patiently for her to finish, but she was already done.
Anna shook her head.
“No, that’s it. I said I had reason, singular. Let’s start with that.”
Once, of her classmates had asked her how to spell the word their. She had spent a long time trying to think of how to answer it; she knew how, of course, but the idea that someone else didn’t seemed to have manually shut down her brain. She must have made a face, because they ended up asking someone else instead, and they didn’t come to her for help anymore after that. Right now, Mr. Gardener’s face looked kind of like that.
“Alright,” he said after a moment, “the first thing you should do is confront me with your evidence. Why does everyone say I probably did it?”
She pointed to the toys on his desk. Most of them were fish shaped, and all of them were ugly. “Because you’re the only grown-up that still likes Pokémon,” she said, “We have a lot of fake cards, and they’re all the ones you bring up in class. Remember that question about the train full of carp?”
Mr. Gardener nodded.
“Well, we’ve got twenty of that one. The counterfeiter is picking favorites. Specifically, yours.”
“And that means I did it?”
“It means you’re heavily invested, at least. Maybe you’re trading fake cards to your students, too. It’d be easy to take advantage of a bunch of kids, and expand your collection.”
Anna remembered too late that she was still talking to her teacher, and clamped her hands over her mouth. She thought she might have gone too far, but Mr. Gardener seemed pleased.
“See, that’s better! Now I have a motive. I feel guiltier already.”
“So you did it, then?”
“Not necessarily,” he said, “but you’re closer than you were before!” Anna wasn’t sure if he was helping her or teasing her anymore.
“How do you explain it, then?”
“I’m being framed,” her teacher insisted, “you said yourself I’m well known for bringing Pokémon into the classroom, so anyone in the class would know which ones to use, wouldn’t they?”
That sounded reasonable enough, but now Anna was back where she started.
“Who would even want to do that?” she asked.
“Any number of disgruntled students, I imagine. It’s no secret that you kids hate math, and even I’m not the biggest fan sometimes. Around tax time, especially. That’s part of why I tie all of this into class. Not because of taxes,” he added quickly, “but because it keeps everyone interested. Though, now that you mention it, I think I might remember something…”
He stared up at the ceiling, clearly content to let the moment hang over their heads in silence. The clock seemed very loud all of the sudden. Anna tried not to listen to it, but it was like remembering that she had to breathe, or that she was wearing a shirt; still just as much true as it was before she’d noticed, but considerably more difficult to ignore now that she had. She really wished he’d be more straightforward about things. Did detectives have to deal with this kind of thing often?
“Well, what is it, then?” she asked, her patience exhausted.
“You said I was the only adult in the school that liked Pokémon, but I’m not sure that’s true. Principal Wolcott comes in here for lunch sometimes, you know, and she always asks about them. She’s terrible with the names, can never keep them straight, but she tries hard enough. I can never tell if she approves, though I doubt it. I guess that depends on your grades.”
Anna didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with that. Mr. Gardener stood up again, and straightened his tie. He pulled a Ziploc bag out of his pocket, dropped his old cigarette inside, and sealed it tightly. Anna hadn’t noticed that he’d still been holding onto it.
“Incidentally,” he said, “that was called a lead, and you should follow up on those. See you in class.”
He stood his goofy action figures upright again, and made for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Smoke break,” he said simply.
“But you just had one.”
“I know,” said Mr. Gardener, “but that was a secret smoke break. If I don’t make sure to be seen taking a public one now and again, Principal Wolcott will suspect that I’m taking them in secret, too.”
She listened as his loafers echoed down the hall. Class was going to begin in a few minutes; she wouldn’t get many opportunities to sleuth during the school day, but thanks to Mr. Gardener, she at least knew where to look next. Anna decided to show how much she appreciated his kindness by snooping through his desk as soon as he was gone. After all, she couldn’t tell if he was being genuinely helpful, or especially deceptive. Wouldn’t a proper criminal try to mix her up with false clues, anyway? That sounded right.
She slid open the nearest drawer, and was immediately disappointed by the lack of sinister diaries conveniently labeled Pokémon Counterfeiting Schemes. She found a protractor, several pencils without erasers, some scissors, the tiniest calculator she had ever seen, and a stapler; all arguably things that math teachers were supposed to have. This irritated Anna, for some reason. She didn’t want anyone to be guilty, but since someone had to be it might as well have been this guy.
A colorful scrap at the bottom of the drawer caught her eye, pinned underneath the scissors. It was very smooth. She folded it in half. It cracked. Anna wondered why he had this, or, more specifically, why he only had a piece of it. Where had the rest gone? She peered into the trash can under his desk. Slashed and snipped, the base was covered in fragments of cards.
The bell began to ring, and a set of doors flew open in the hallway. Anna slid the drawer shut again.
Anna did not enjoy visiting the principal’s office. Nobody did. It was a primal fear, innate to all grade school students. It was a place to be dragged, or thrown. To seek it out was madness.
She stopped in front of the door. The blinds were on the wrong side of the window. The letters on her name plate were peeling from years of neglect; words lost their power if nobody read them. Now it just said ‘Wolco’. She had planned on knocking, but the door was already slightly ajar. If she did it now it’d look like she had opened it first, and that would just be awkward. The receptionist craned her neck around the corner. Anna decided to risk it.
There was just enough gray on Principal Wolcott. It was clear she worked in a public school, but she still looked like she could spring through the window to escape if she felt so inclined. Anna got the feeling that, today, she did feel so inclined. Her back was arched over a lap-sized notebook, hand in face, with her eyes squeezed together as if she were sitting on something very sharp. Anna pushed the door a little too vigorously into a filing cabinet.
Wolcott did not raise her head, but her eyes opened and flicked wearily to Anna’s. She took in far more air than was strictly necessary.
“Good morning, Linda.”
“Leanna,” said Anna. Maybe she was Linda. This office, it does things to you. Makes you crazy.
“Right, too right,” said Wolcott, “how are you today?”
She did not sound like she really wanted to know, nor did she wait for Anna to tell her.
“I’m fine, I guess,” said Anna, “but-“
“That’s lovely, dear. Who sent you?”
“You’re not in trouble? Bleeding? In the process of vandalizing something expensive?”
Given more time to think about it, Anna might have checked the box for in trouble, but she found she was rather thrown off by the last option.
“No ma’am, I was just wondering-“
“Splendid,” said Wolcott, clapping her hands together, “A pleasant change of pace, in fact. I’m kind of busy at the moment, though, so you’ll have to come back another time.” She tapped the tip of her pen against her notebook to emphasize how busy someone with both a pen and a notebook could be. But Anna didn’t have ‘til an indeterminate other time, either. She was going to get punched today.
A hooked and powdered nose slipped around the doorframe. Naturally, it was connected to a face, specifically the receptionist’s. Some words came out of the face’s mouth.
“Mr. Davidson, senior is here,” said the face, “he wanted me to tell you that his son is allowed to read whatever he wants to in the comfort of a restroom, and that you should be pleased a child was using a book of his own accord. Also, he’d like it back. Should I send him in?”
Wolcott looked from the receptionist, to Anna, and then back. She sucked some air through her teeth in a show of mock disappointment.
“Oh, you know dear, I’d love to talk to him,” she said, “but I’m actually in a meeting with Laura here.”
“Of course you are. In any case, do tell him to have a seat, and hopefully he’ll leave if I take too long.”
The receptionist nodded, clearly accustomed to this line of thinking. She shut the door behind her, and the blinds rattled outside. Anna suspected that Wolcott had never felt inclined to open them.
“Well then,” said Wolcott, “what is it that you wanted?”
The investigation was back on. Anna had learned her lesson; no more theatrical questioning, and definitely no more accents. She even had a plan. It felt kind of nice.
“Let’s talk about forgery, Mrs. Wolcott.”
“Yeah, forgery,” said Anna. “You must deal with it a lot in your line of work. Parent signatures on report cards, that kind of thing.”
Principal Wolcott started scribbling in her notebook again.
“I suppose I do.”
“Well, I’m investigating a type of forgery right now, maybe you can help me.”
She shifted in her seat, but didn’t look up.
“I need to find a Pokémon card counterfeiter,” Anna continued, “can you tell me anything about that?”
Wolcott filled in a few more boxes in her notebook.
“Nope, sorry.” She didn’t sound it.
“That’s what I said. I’m not interested in children’s toys; I’m a very busy adult.”
“Mr. Gardener says you seem very interested in them sometimes.”
Now she looked up. Anna felt her heart beat faster. Did she actually have the upper hand? It felt weird, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. It was kind of stressful.
“Mr. Gardener has some odd classroom habits,” said Wolcott, “I don’t think it’s strange to maintain a passing familiarity with his teaching aids. Especially if they work. I think its rubbish, personally, but nothing short of fireworks will keep you kids awake during class otherwise.”
“So you’re not copying the cards you see in his classroom?”
“No,” she said flatly, “Let me show you something.”
Wolcott scooted over to another cabinet, and pulled open the lowest drawer. She gestured to it, and Anna looked inside.
“What do you see?”
“A Frisbee,” said Anna, “a yo-yo, some army men, a lighter; why is that there? And uh, a woman in a bikini, on the magazine.”
Wolcott snapped the drawer shut.
“Whoops, I forgot that was in there. In any case, what do those things have in common?”
“They’re all in your drawer.”
“Don’t get fresh. They’re all things you students aren’t supposed to have,” Wolcott rolled her chair back over to her desk. “Part of my job is removing distractions, so that you focus on your work instead of trying to make campfires behind the gym.”
“But I didn’t see any Pokémon cards in there,” pressed Anna, “and since you don’t like them, doesn’t that give you a reason to have framed Mr. Gardener?”
“Just the opposite, actually. I’d be fine with them if they just stayed in Mr. Gardener’s classroom, and I hoped that’s what would happen. I don’t bother confiscating them anymore because they’re everywhere. Everyone has some. Fifty of them, a hundred of them, swapping and arguing about them in the hallways. When I take a handful, they just pull out two more. So no, I’m not making more Pokémon cards for you. I want there to be less of them, not more. Why would I even do that?”
Just like that, her motive was shattered. Anna was back to having nothing.
“I guess you wouldn’t,” she said, defeated.
“Very good. Was there anything else?”
As a matter of fact, there was. It wouldn’t do much good now, but since she had prepared it…
“Actually,” said Anna, “since I’m here, and class is starting again in a minute, I was wondering if you could print my report for me. I won’t have time to do it if I run to the library.”
“Unbelievable. Is this what my job has turned into? Printing book reports for students?”
She held her hand out, anyway. Anna dropped a flash drive into her palm.
“Wait, what’s this?”
“My report,” stressed Anna, because she had just said this. Maybe the office was making Wolcott crazy, too. “It’s about pollution, and, uh, fish. Fish getting polluted, really.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Wolcott, still looking at the little piece of plastic with wonder, “Never mind.”
She disappeared under her desk for a long time. Anna heard something scraping against metal, and several loud bangs.
Anna peeked around edge of the desk. Principal Wolcott was trying to shove the end of the flash drive into an ethernet jack.
“That doesn’t go there.”
“I know that,” Wolcott snapped, “hold on a second. It’s this one.”
That wasn’t it, either. Anna rolled her eyes. She looked at the notebook on Wolcott’s desk, expecting grades or budgets or a list of student crimes and transgressions. Sudoku, half finished. Did anyone in this school actually do any work?
Wolcott sat up again. She looked a little too pleased with herself. She shook her desktop awake, and began to navigate to the proper drive. Her wallpaper was exactly half of two schnauzers.
“Those are cute dogs,” said Anna.
“What are you talking about? I only have one dog.”
Then she realized it was a photo of the same one, tiled twice. Oh no, this was going to take forever.
Click. Push. Click. Push.
Wolcott didn’t even know how to double-click, instead sliding her hand over the enter key for every selection, then back again. How was this woman even alive? Anna suddenly had the overwhelming urge to just take the mouse from her and do it herself.
The printer was still holding into the last sheet when Wolcott snatched them out of the tray.
“Here you go.” Her irritation had been momentarily replaced with satisfaction following her victory over all of technology.
“Thanks,” said Anna, flipping through them. She stopped on the last page, where she’d added a picture of a certain lopsided fish. It was black and white. There was no way the cards were being printed here.
“Is there a problem?”
“No ma’am,” she said, “I just thought the end would be in color. It really helps to emphasize how, um, terribly disfigured these fish become after being exposed to pollution.”
“Are you kidding me?” Wolcott threw her hands in the air. “After all that? Color ink is expensive, you know. We can’t afford to put it in every printer. If you need it in color, you’re going to have to run to the art room. That’s the only one that has it.”
“Yes ma’am,” she said, “thank you.”
Wolcott returned to her Sudoku.
“If you really want to thank me, then do me a favor and take the staff door out. With any luck the Davidsons won’t see you, and I can stay in my meeting forever.”
Anna was dizzy again; she found that standing in Wolcott’s office was startlingly similar to being railroaded in a sham trial. She stumbled to the door and out into the hallway.
Office bad, Anna thought, want leave.
The Honorable Judge Freddy had several unflattering habits, one of which was putting his lips directly on the faucets of water fountains. Another was slurping. Suddenly Anna wasn’t very thirsty.
She had forgotten for a while that Freddy existed outside of the courtroom. Somehow, he had managed to track her down just moments after class. She did like to wear loud colors, which probably helped. Anna wondered why he wasn’t just investigating all of this himself, if he could find people so quickly. He’d wasted no time in harassing her for the culprit.
“Well, I hope you’re making progress, at least,” he said, turning back to her and wiping his chin, “It’s almost lunch; you don’t have time to be procrastinating.”
“I’m not procrastinating. I was on trial for doing homework, you know,” She couldn’t believe her work ethic was in question, at this point. “Why does it have to be done today, anyway? It’s not like all of the fake cards are going to disappear at once when we catch them.”
Freddy shook his head, as if she had just said the stupidest thing in the world.
“People are scared, Anna,” he said, “everybody’s hoarding their cards. They’re too afraid to trade. The economy’s in shambles. It’s a nightmare. People are starving. For cards, I mean. I’ve got a deal this afternoon, myself, but at this rate even I’m worried about it. I need this behind me.
“I thought you said your client needed the peace of mind?”
Freddy was quiet for a moment. Apparently he had already forgotten that. His mouth seemed to run a great deal faster than his brain did, as a rule.
“Oh, well, he does. And so do I. We’ll both feel much better about it if the counterfeits disappear, won’t we? Anyway, you’re time’s almost up, don’t change the subject.”
Anna felt sufficiently rushed already. He wasn’t helping anything.
“I’ll figure it out, okay? Don’t you have some court business to take care of or something?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” said Freddy. “Judy thinks she saw where Peter Davidson buried the rest of his magazines. But don’t think I’m going to forget about you, or your heinous crimes. You’ve got ‘til the end of lunch.”
He tried to point menacingly back at Anna as he jogged down the hallway, but clipped the side of a locker. What a loser. Anna shook her head and walked to the art room, to follow up on her last lead.
Art was one of the more popular clubs in the sixth grade. Anna’s peers were just getting to the age where they could make things out of something other than macaroni, or crayons, or both. Best of all, they could run with scissors, and it was considered academic!
Much like the courtroom, the art club was a mess, the difference being that chaos was this room’s natural state. Every flat surface had some kind of scribble on it, justified in the pursuit of artistic science, or because the teacher just wasn’t looking. There was a thin layer of glitter on the floor, gold and silver and green, from back before the staff had realized glitter was a terrible thing to give to children. Anna suspected that the janitors had just given up trying to clean this place, and she couldn’t really blame them.
Today the walls were covered in crooked, taped-up drawings of trees and dinosaurs. You could tell a lot about the artist by how much blue they used. Anna liked to color in the whole sky. Stupid kids, like Freddy, just made a strip at the top, and insisted that’s what the sky looked like to them. It’s up. Duh.
Each one was dated in the corner. It looked like they hadn’t been moved for several weeks now. And yet, the art club was busy gluing the ends of this thing to that thing, coloring here and snipping there. They looked up at Anna as she entered, then quickly back down at their work. She had heard a lot of scuffling as she approached, and was fairly sure she saw a head poke out from the doorway, but since the room was always a disaster, she couldn’t tell if they had moved anything.
She placed a strokefish on the table, and waited.
They looked at the card, then away again. Nobody said anything.
“I want to know,” said Anna very slowly, “which one of you is making these.”
It was a bluff; there were legitimate classes in here, too, so technically it was possible that none of them had done it. But somehow, even in light of how incredibly lazy the administration of this school seemed, she doubted anyone could pull off such a massive scam during class time.
“We don’t manufacture Pokémon cards here,” said one of the kids. He had a squashed nose, and puffy cheeks that made him look like he was scowling all the time. “Have you considered mailing Wizards of the Coast directly?”
Everyone else laughed. Anna did not.
“You’re lying,” she said, “they’re coming from this room.”
“Oh yeah?” said squash-face, “Prove it!”
Anna decided she liked being asked questions she knew the answer to.
“According to principal Wolcott, this is the only room in the whole school with a color printer. These fake cards are in color. I’ll bet this is also the only room they’d bother to buy cardstock for, because we certainly aren’t using it in Social Studies. The tools that the counterfeiter had to use link straight back here. Therefore, this is the only place they could have been made. One of you, or maybe all of you, is guilty. And I intend to find out who.”
She thought it was a fine speech. The other kids looked to squashface for guidance. For a moment, even he seemed at a loss for words. And then…
“Oh yeah?” he said again, “Prove it!”
Her brain turned off again. Spell their.
“What?” said Anna. “I just did.”
“Yeah, but prove that you proved it.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.” Squashface’s sneer was so smug and ugly, he could have been a Pokémon card himself.
“You said that this is the only room with a color printer, but that doesn’t mean that this color printer did it. Maybe the counterfeiter prints them at home. Did you think of that?” Nope.
The other kids began to nod in agreement, as if they weren’t sure whether they were innocent or not until he said so. Squashface pointed to a stack of fliers at the edge of the table, inviting parents to a dreadfully boring PTA meeting.
“That’s what we use the printer for,” he said, “I think you’ll notice a distinct lack of Pokémon, though come to think of it, that might have made them better.”
Anna’s eyes began to sting. She looked down at the card again, for some clue that proved beyond doubt that it had been made in this room, but there was nothing. She was so confident she had them cornered. Now she was going to get punched. It wasn’t fair!
“If that’s all you have, I guess we’re done,” said Squashface.
I guess I am done, thought Anna. Totally done for. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d thought that today. At least a million. She turned and crammed her hands into her sweater pockets. She had forgotten there was something in them.
Something cold, and very solid. The perfect cliché.
That stupid magnifying glass. Freddy probably stole it from his grandmother. She picked up the card, too. This was ridiculous. She was grateful that none of them were there to see it. She began to examine it again.
“What are you even doing?” Squashface was clearly disappointed that she hadn’t left yet. Honestly, Anna had no idea, but none of her other clues had panned out. This was her last chance. She was even willing to admit that the bailiff was right about something. She was that desperate.
“Just ignore her,” said someone else, “and she’ll go away.”
After five straight minutes of focused staring, Anna was able to definitively assert that the card that she was holding was, in fact, a card-shaped card. She’d checked the instructions, the illustration, even the copyright notice. It was, in every way but the materials used, identical to the real thing.
Except that one of those materials, she decided, was a commercial printer. She squinted at the solid, sea-or-sky background. And then she saw them; tiny flecks, breaks in the color. Just a few here and there, mostly in the blue spaces. Which proved exactly nothing.
“Actually, can I have one of your fliers?” she asked.
They looked confused. Someone actually cared about their PTA fliers? If there had been any doubt before that Anna was a weirdo, it was gone now. She held the magnifying glass over that, too.
“Maybe she just has trouble reading,” someone suggested.
“Then why wouldn’t she just wear glasses?” said another.
Satisfied, Anna set the magnifying glass down again. She decided she was going to be a bit theatrical, after all. She’d earned it this time.
“Funny,” she said, “there’s an odd pattern in the ink work of the fake cards. Little spots are missing here and there, particularly in the blues.”
They began to crowd around her magnifying glass, snatching it away from each other to get a better look.
“Whoever’s making them”, she continued, “has a printer with a defective cyan cartridge. Like the one you used to print these fliers.”
Everyone stopped. They turned to Squashface for guidance.
His eyes were closed.
“She knows,” he said finally. “Get her.”
All at once, the art club armed themselves with the nearest school supplies. Anna dove under a table as they began to fly, and crawled into the corner. A chalkboard eraser hit the wall above her, and exploded into a cloud of dust. She was showered with shrapnel, which really just meant she got bits of chalk on her and it looked silly. Crayons relentlessly pelted her homemade cover; a ruler clattered across the floor. For some reason, nobody thought the throw the scissors. Honor code, maybe.
“Get lost,” they shouted, “leave us alone!”
Anna seized a paintbrush as it rolled past her feet, and hurled it back.
It caught Squashface in the chest, and he collapsed to the floor, defeated. A highlighter cap bounced off the wall beside Anna; she returned fire with a roll of tape. She dropped another member of the art club, then two. Her table was overturned now; she threw back all of their ammunition but it just kept coming. Something knocked the poster board above her loose, and it toppled off of the wall. A sunset was added to Freddy’s unfinished sky as a tube of orange paint burst against it; it still looked better than it had before.
She knew she wasn’t going to make it out alive. There were too many of them.
The last easel came to rest on the floor. An eerie silence followed the aftermath of the gunfight. Anna poked her head out. The remaining members of the art club were panting, exhausted, but still holding fistfuls of oil pastels. Shockingly, the room wasn’t even all that much messier than it was when they started, given its resting condition.
“Just confess,” she said, prepared to dive again, “It doesn’t have to end this way.”
They looked to their leader. Squashface clawed his way to his feet, clutching an imaginary wound. Anna raised her next projectile, but he put up his hands in surrender.
“Forget it, you win,” he said, “This isn’t worth some cheap candy.”
The rest of the art club set down their weapons. A truce.
“Wait,” said Anna, “there’s candy?”
“Well yeah, isn’t that why you’re here? You didn’t think we’d do all of this for free, did you?”
“I don’t understand.”
Squashface stood on the tips of his toes, and wrenched open a cabinet. Inside were a plastic bowl and a folded piece of paper.
“Every day, someone puts a bowl in that cabinet,” he said, “full of candy. There’s always a list, too.”
The bowl was almost empty already. They must burn through it quickly, Anna thought.
“A list of what?” she asked.
“Pokémon cards, obviously. There were directions, too, the first time, on how to make them.”
“Give it to me.”
Squashface shrugged and handed it over.
It was the most bizarre note she had ever seen, partly because Pokémon had really dumb names, but also because of the fonts. Each name had a number next to it, presumably how many they were supposed to make, and each entry was a slightly different size than the last. They were all written in a different font type, too, and in slightly different shades of gray. It reminded Anna a bit of the kind of letters that kidnappers left on TV, arranged from newspaper clippings. There was no signature, but there was a string of misaligned gibberish at the bottom, cut off on the left side;
“What’s this part for?” she asked. He shrugged again.
“No idea. It’s only there sometimes, and it’s always different. We just ignore it.”
Anna only had one question left, and she was already sure she didn’t want to know the answer. “Please tell me you know who’s leaving them.”
“No clue. We just leave the cards in the bowl, and the next day there’s candy. We’ll share some with you, if you want. It’s almost lunchtime anyway.”
Anna accepted his offer. She’d found the guilty printer, but technically speaking, not the guilty person. The mastermind was still out there.
Somehow, she doubted even Freddy would sentence a printer.
Lunch was bitter that day.
Not that it was ever particularly good. The pizza was no colder than usual, and her fries were just as limp as they ever were, but something about being resigned to infinity-punches-to-the-stomach made her lose her appetite.
After all that work, all she had to go on were some shredded cards, a bribe letter, and some spotted ink. She didn’t know what any of it was supposed to mean. Had Mr. Gardener been trying to destroy the evidence? Maybe the art club just made a fake list, to save themselves; if they were okay with counterfeiting cards, a text file would have been even easier. The ink was a dead end, too; she knew what printer was responsible, and even who used it, but not necessarily who was guilty. It was all very frustrating.
Who even benefitted from this nonsense, anyway? Really, any of them could have. They got cards, or candy. That would be reason enough, and it didn’t rule anybody out. Except, now that Anna thought about it, there was one more thing. She had assumed it to be an accident, too, something tangential, but what if that’s what it was supposed to do all along?
She must have been smiling. Judy, who’d had nowhere else to sit, waved her hand in front of Anna’s eyes. Anna didn’t seem to notice. How long had she been sitting like that? She was probably drooling, too.
“You’ve got something in your braces,” Judy said, “Is it broccoli?”
“No,” said Anna as she rose suddenly from her stool, “It’s justice.”
She dropped her empty milk carton on the table, and dashed out of the cafeteria. Everyone at the table laughed. What a loser. Bet she was in the drama club.
“I’m pretty sure it was broccoli, though,” said Judy.
The smell of smoke was masked now by an air freshener; vanilla lavender mixed with cigarettes somehow made a scent more vile than either of the components alone. Anna was disappointed to find the door already open; she’d wanted to make an impressive entrance.
Mr. Gardener waved as she stepped into the room, his mouth stuffed with microwave lasagna. Principal Wolcott was sitting at the other end of the table. She had a plate in front of her, as well, but it didn’t look like she had eaten any; further support to the theory that the school was run by some sort of vampire. Anna had just made that theory up, of course, but it was starting to sound somewhat plausible. She made a mental note for her composition book. A mystery for another day, perhaps.
Wolcott glanced at her and sighed again, scribbling over a row of misplaced numbers in her puzzle. “What do you want this time, Leon?”
That one didn’t even make sense.
“It’s Leanna,” she corrected, “and I want the same thing as before.”
“Well,” said her principal, “you can print it yourself this time.”
For a minute, Anna wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
“I meant the cards, not the report.”
Wolcott rolled her eyes and continued writing.
“Thank goodness,” she said, “For a minute I thought you were here to see me.”
Mr. Gardener tried to wash his lunch down with a box of apple juice. Even Anna thought that was a gross combination, and she liked broccoli. He coughed a few times. He must not have swallowed it properly.
“That’s right,” he said after a minute, “You’re supposed to be forcing me into a confession. Did you prove that I’m guilty yet?”
Anna drew herself up straighter, but didn’t answer right away. She stared directly into his eyes. Neither of them blinked. The grand reveal was supposed to be dramatic, wasn’t it? She had sort of expected a scare chord, or at least a drum roll. Wolcott looked up from her Sudoku again, to make sure she hadn’t gone deaf. They sat like this for a while, until Mr. Gardener started chewing again and broke the silence.
“No,” said Anna when she was satisfied with her pause, “I haven’t.”
Mr. Gardener looked a bit put out.
“Really?” he said, “That’s a letdown, I really thought I’d done it.”
“So does most of the school, I think, but that’s mainly because you were framed…”
Anna pointed. She could swear she heard a symphony, somewhere just out of sight.
“…by none other than Principal Wolcott.”
Gardener gasped, and grabbed the sides of his face, eyes wide. Wolcott stopped scribbling. The point of her pencil had snapped.
“That’s ridiculous,” she barked, “We’ve already been through this. Why would I want to make my job harder than it already is? I don’t even know anything about this Pokémon nonsense, anyway.”
“True,” Anna admitted, “And that’s how I know it could only have been you.”
Another of the posters came loose, and slid to the floor beside them. Always show your work, it read.
“I thought you were innocent for a while,” she continued, “especially after you showed me your confiscation cabinet. After all, why would you be giving banned items to students? Then everyone would have them. But something Freddy said made me realize, that’s exactly what you wanted; kids are so scared of ending up with counterfeit cards that they’ve started hoarding them. You tried snatching them all up yourself, but that didn’t work, because there were too many. So now you’re doing the opposite, flooding the school with fakes to make us so paranoid that we drop the whole thing.”
“Wow,” said Mr. Gardener, “You have a motive, too, that’s so cool!”
“That’s absurd,” said Wolcott.
“I thought it was ridiculous?”
“It’s ridiculously absurd, yes. I don’t have the means to produce hundreds of imitation toys. That takes time, and my time is valuable.”
“Also true,” said Anna, “but you’re not making them, yourself. You’ve contracted the art club to do your dirty work, for candy.”
She produced the bribe letter from her pocket, and waved it a bit for effect.
“Your only contact with Pokemon is through Mr. Gardener,” she said, “that’s why the only Pokémon that were being counterfeited were the ones he used in his class; they’re the only ones you know. As an added bonus, it casts suspicion on him instead of you.”
Anna was bouncing a bit now; this was it.
“Except, you’re also terrible with names. You couldn’t remember any of them when you left, and you couldn’t write them down as you heard them without giving yourself away. So you looked them up when you got back to your office, and copied the text onto this list. You left it in a cabinet in the art room every day. It was the only room in the school with a color printer, which, as it happens, was also defective and easily traced.”
Wolcott set her Sudoku book on the table.
“That’s a lovely theory, really dear, but so far I haven’t heard a shred of proof.”
“Well, I have some. You gave it to me yourself. I submit your horribly aligned desktop wallpaper.”
The adults stared at her.
“I mean, not really,” She said, “I didn’t bring your computer with me, but I submit it in spirit.”
“I don’t follow.”
Anna spread the letter out flat on the table. The adults craned their necks to read it. Now it was Anna’s turn to ask a question she’d had thrown at her several times today.
“Notice anything unusual?” It was difficult not to sound patronizing.
“No,” said Ms. Wolcott.
Mr. Gardener’s nose scrunched a bit, as if he had just noticed that the room had an odor. Which it did, incidentally.
“What’s with the fonts?” he asked.
Anna clapped her hands together.
“They clash, that’s what’s up with them! Copied from various websites. They don’t match at all, because the person who made it doesn’t know enough about computers to have noticed.”
She pulled her rubbish book report out of her bag, along with her flash drive. The end was bent upwards a bit; it’d probably still work, but had seen better days.
“Principal Wolcott basically shut this in the CD tray trying to find a place to shove it when I asked her to print my report. She doesn’t use the mouse and keyboard at the same time, either, so it took ages. Which brings us to her wallpaper; it’s tiled off-center, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it’s because she doesn’t know how to fix it.”
Anna had forgotten again who she was talking to. Curiously, Wolcott seemed more interested than anything.
“You mean you can change it?”
“Yeah,” said Anna, “most people want to display the whole dog.”
“That makes sense.”
“In her defense,” said Mr. Gardener, “I think everyone has to turn flash drives at least three times to orient them. I’m convinced their geometry is non-Euclidean.”
“In any case,” Anna continued, “you copied bits from different places on the internet to create Frankenstein’s bribe letter, as evidenced by the widely varying font types. They’re different colors, too, even in grayscale; I’ll bet some of those sites used navy or something, and your black and white printer just picked the nearest match. Since you don’t know much about computers, it didn’t occur to you to standardize the type. You may be good at catching report card forgeries, but you’re terrible at making them yourself. Nobody else would make a mistake like that.”
Wolcott’s gaze was still fixed on the letter. Anna decided she’d be nice and give her twenty whole seconds to think about surrendering. She made it to twelve before she got bored.
“So? Do you admit it?”
“Oh, I admit it alright,” she said, “I admit that I’m bad with computers. But that doesn’t mean I wrote this.”
Anna was halfway through her celebratory fist pump when the second part of that statement hit her. “Wait, what?”
“You’re assuming that the fonts don’t match because the culprit didn’t understand how to change them,” Wolcott said, “and maybe that’s even true. But couldn’t they also have just thought it looked cool this way? Maybe I’m being framed, too, did you think of that?”
Anna was suddenly reminded of Squashface. Oh yeah? Prove that you proved it.
But this time, she was ready. Didn’t even need a magnifying glass.
“Not possible,” she said, “look at all of that gibberish text at the bottom of the list. Even with the first half cut off, there’s only one thing that could be: the back half of a URL. It’s a relic from a copy-paste job that went horribly, horribly wrong.”
“Or, again, it’s decorative.”
“I thought you might say that. So I googled this Pokemon, just to be sure. It matches the file path of an image in the very first result. I’m guessing you copied an entire page at one point, and just deleted the bits you didn’t need. But you missed a spot. That’s why it appears in some of the letters, and not others. That’s why it could only be done by someone who has trouble with technology, and needs help keeping their Pokemon straight. It’s definitely no student.”
For the first time in this debate, Wolcott had nothing to say. She was squinting very hard at Anna, appraising something. Or waiting.
“That’s everything, anyway,” said Anna, “You definitely did it, and I’ve proved it. It’d be better if you’d just confess.”
Her principal folded her arms. She was out of excuses. The game was over.
“Fine,” she said, “I did it. I typed up the letters, and I left all of the candy, too. I paid for the cardstock myself, actually. Thought of it as an investment. And it worked, didn’t it? Exactly the way I thought it would. All those cards, the real ones, disappeared just like that. Apparently that’s some sort of tragedy, that you had to focus on your school work for once? Oh, I did it all right, but I’m not guilty of anything, not really.”
“So why do you let Mr. Gardener hand them out in the classroom?”
Wolcott chuckled. Who does that, chuckling? It’s creepy. She’d clearly spent too much time under the influence of her own terrifying office.
“Honestly, I kind of like that part. It keeps kids interested, and at any rate it gives them a way to get around the homework that, frankly, they weren’t going to do anyway. But you all enjoy them way too much outside of his classroom. It’s a delicate balance. I’m just trying to keep it in check.”
Mr. Gardener looked kind of sad.
“That’s it then? You’re sure I didn’t do it? Even a little?”
“Yeah, sorry,” said Anna, “If it makes you feel any better, I thought it was you at first, when I found those cards that you had-”
She caught herself before she said something dumb.
“-had on your desk,” she finished simply. She stressed the on, rather than in, but that wasn’t really what she was worried about. There was a good chance he knew who had done it all along, but even so, she wasn’t sure whether Principal Wolcott knew that he was cutting up her cards. If he was doing it to destroy the fakes instead of evidence, the least she could do was not get him into trouble. Mr. Gardener seemed satisfied, and he didn’t push it any further.
There was only one stray bit left, though Anna was pretty sure she knew the answer already.
“By the way,” she said, “I don’t suppose you have a trade scheduled for this afternoon?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I’m supposed to make one at recess. Strictly homework related, by the way. With-“
“Freddy,” Anna finished for him. That scamp. He’d sent her after the math teacher to double check on his fishy client. She wondered if he really cared about the counterfeiting ring or the greater good at all. Homework related treason. Funny how that worked out.
They sat in silence for a while, as Mr. Gardener poked at his remaining lasagna.
“So,” said Wolcott after a moment.
Anna waited, but she didn’t say anything else.
“So,” Wolcott said again, “now what?”
“What do you mean?”
Her expression was hard to read.
“Well, this is usually the part where the detective has the criminal arrested,” she said, “except, you’re not a cop, I didn’t break the law, and I’m still kind of the boss of you. So. Where does that leave us?”
Anna had to admit that she wasn’t quite sure.
“This is awkward, but… I guess I’m going to have to bring you to trial.”
The principal raised her eyebrows a bit.
Wolcott picked up her Sudoku book, stacked her plate on top, and took what may have been her very first bite of solid food.
“At the very least,” she said, “this will be interesting.”
Anna had a feeling that the least it could be was something closer to stupid, or maybe absurdly ridiculous, but she didn’t say so.
Metal legs screeched against dirty tiles. Tables flipped and stacked and fell again. The chatter of children carried down the empty hall; a few of the thin light bulbs had finally given out, leaving charred moths to rest in peace.
Anna had arrived again for sentencing.
She found that the court room wasn’t quite ready for her. The bailiff was directing some of their classmates in the construction of the Honorable Judge’s stand. There were new posters, too; Freddy’s Infinity Punching Event, 5 cents admission, for the motherland! Some of the kids were holding little orange tickets. No one seemed to have noticed that Anna had entered the room. She flipped the light switch on and off a few times, and cleared her throat. Wolcott stared around the room in disbelief.
“What is this?”
“Your trial,” said Anna, more to the room than to the principal, “I found the culprit, by the way.”
Freddy’s mouth opened and closed. He looked like a strokefish.
“You brought her here?” he hissed, “Why?”
“I thought I had just said that. It’s a good thing you asked me to investigate it instead of you, I don’t think you’d have made it. Anyway, if I get infinity punches, how many does she get?”
Wolcott was examining the commonwealth’s promotional material, her brow furrowed. She seemed unusually focused on it. Anna considered that a form of permission. She handed the magnifying glass back to Freddy, and when it was in his hands, she punched him hard in the gut. He fell to his knees, the wind knocked out of him.
Wolcott did not look away from the poster.
“By the way,” said Anna as she turned to leave, “I meant to tell you: subpoena’s are for witnesses.”
She practically skipped down the hallway, and she did not give one shit.