The end of July is a busy time for me. First comes my wife’s birthday and shortly thereafter my son follows. As such, blogging on the weekends has been more of a challenge. I’m taking an easy route today by sharing with you a new short story mystery! I hope you enjoy it!
This time around, John calls on his friends to help solve a puzzling mystery at his old high school when random objects arrive in the mail. Is it an elaborate prank or something darker?
Do You Ever Grow Up?
Story by J.R. Underdown
“Thanks for spending your spring break helping me solve this case,” John began after a lull in the conversation. He, Bryan, and Laura had finished hypothesizing on the weirdest way to die on the interstate as they zoomed along the highway from Louisville to Northern Kentucky. John mused being crushed by a crashing jet liner, Bryan put forth falling into a suddenly gaping sink hole, and Laura suggested losing control and flying off into a giant trash compactor. After this morose line of thinking was exhausted, John changed the subject.
“I do appreciate it,” he continued. “This one has me thoroughly stumped.”
Bryan nodded. “No problem, any chance for the Grungers to reunite, though it’s a shame Jess couldn’t join us.”
“Yeah,” Laura added, sticking her head between the seats, “I’m going to be lonely on this trip.”
“However,” said Bryan, “we still don’t know what we’re up against.”
“That’s right!” Laura agreed. “You keep being mysterious about the particulars.”
John paused to consider a response. “Well, it’s kinda hard to explain. I think it’s best you see the clues and hear the story all at once.”
“But it has something to do with your high school, right?” Bryan asked.
“Yeah…back in the day me and some friends solved mysteries around the school, kinda like we do at Boyce.”
“And by ‘back in the day’, you mean a little over two years ago?” Bryan joked.
John smiled and glanced at his friend. “Seems like a long time to me. Anyways, so this mystery has flared up and Mr. Sewell, the principal, wanted Garrett, the smart one of that group, to step in and solve it. Well, Garrett is away at college. So then he asked Joseph, who was the second smartest, but he’s also at college. The other two guys he didn’t bother contacting so he’s leaving it up to me since he knew I have a new set of smart friends.”
“Why is he turning to the old guard?” Laura wondered. “I mean, we’ve heard about the wild mysteries you guys solved, but surely he knew you all have moved on. Why bring you back?”
John shrugged. “I guess no one else has taken up the mantle. That or it’s beyond them. It is a pretty tough case, for my money.”
“Which isn’t a lot these days,” Bryan mused.
John snickered. “You’re just full of jokes today!”
“I’m driving through the country with two of my friends and we’re about to take on a mystery. I feel loose!”
“I thought writing about politics made you feel loose.”
Bryan slouched in his seat and gazed out the window. “I guess I’m getting looser,” he paused and looked at John with a smile, “in my old age.”
The blue station wagon careened north and eventually crossed the boundaries into Kenton County. Their first stop was to the center of the mystery, Calvary Christian School. They pulled onto a long drive that dipped a little in a valley and split two ways as the ascent began. The detectives veered right and continued up the hill until they reached the main parking lot. Bryan and Laura took in the large building, which gave the impression of a modern castle upon a hill. The brown brick face gave it a melancholy look with only the yellow lettering and face of a cougar, the school’s mascot, breaking the monotony.
“So this is where you went to high school,” Laura remarked as they stepped from the car and stretched their legs.
“Yep,” John replied simply, gazing upon the structure with a wistful look in his eye.
As they approached the door, John pointed out some locations where they had encountered adventures. He noted where the old sports shed used to stand before it burned down under dubious circumstances. He drew their attention to the exact spot where a mirror version of himself had fallen off the roof and shattered upon the ground. He said that one would take much explaining.
At the door John rang a buzzer and the secretary gave them admittance with the message that Mr. Sewell awaited them. In the small lobby that welcomed them into the building, John paused and referenced more adventures that had intersected with that lobby or the hall to which it connected.
“He’s like an old war veteran revisiting a battlefield,” Laura whispered to Bryan as John excitedly recounted the morning his class gathered in that lobby to travel to Chicago and endured one of the biggest mysteries of their career.
Bryan grinned and nodded. “He’s really proud of what they did.”
“I wonder what he’ll say about us some day?”
“Probably best not to think too deep on that.”
“Yeah…I’ll consider some more bizarre ways we could die on the interstate.”
By now, John was moving away from the hall, halted briefly to point out some doors that led to the gym, and finally led them up the steps.
They came into a high-ceilinged, narrow lobby with the offices on the left and the wall to the right adorned with collages of previous graduating classes. Some cardboard displays of science fair projects were set up before the lower pictures. A couple of students, boys that looked to be about freshman age, were propping up a display when one of them noted the visitors and ribbed his companion. He nodded in their direction and they moved to intercept.
“Hey, you look familiar!” said the lead kid.
John pulled his back straight. “Me? Well, I was one of the heroes who solved mysteries—”
“I thought I knew you!” the kid continued. “I’m Harry Deaton.”
John gave him a quizzical look. “Deaton…”
“Henry Deaton is my brother. You all befriended him for awhile when that ‘Mad Monk’ was running loose.”
“A Mad Monk?” Laura whispered to Bryan.
“I think I need to catch up on some of those stories he’s written,” answered Bryan with a shake of his head.
“How is ol’ Henry doing?” wondered John.
Harry Deaton shrugged. “He still has some therapy sessions but it seems like he’s getting better. Less shoutings about candles and monks and whatnot.”
John nodded. “Right…sorry about that.”
“Are you here to solve a mystery?” Harry pressed.
“Well, erm, maybe,” John stammered.
“Does it have to do with the graffiti they found?”
“It’s not more dragon markings, is it?” John countered, thoroughly worried.
Harry smirked and shook his head. “No. I’m sure Sewell will tell you all about it.”
Then, abruptly, Harry and his friend walked away.
“I have soo many questions at this point,” Laura declared. “Who is the Mad Monk and what happened to that kid’s brother?”
“I’m assuming the Mad Monk is a Rasputin reference?” Bryan added.
“Yeah, a guy dressed up like Rasputin and beat up kids in the Jesus Stairway,” John explained. “We hung out with Henry Deaton because he always found the victims. Well, one night he was attacked and we were too late to intervene.”
“OK,” Laura carried on, “so now explain the Jesus Stairway.”
“Oh, it’s exactly what you think: a stairwell with a giant painting of Jesus on the wall.”
“And what about the dragon markings,” Bryan queried as they resumed their approach to the office.
“A couple of escaped convicts marking up the walls outside the school. They never made it inside that I know of…”
“You know, John,” said Laura, “at this point I’m very glad I was homeschooled. Private schooling sounds dangerous!”
As John swung open the door, he turned to her with a smile. “A sheltered homeschooler would say that.”
In response Laura gave John a sharp punch to the rib and so the three detectives entered the office. The secretary knew John well and they spent several minutes in small talk and introducing her to Bryan and Laura.
At last they were ushered into the office of Mr. Sewell. It was much smaller than what Bryan and Laura had anticipated. One wall was lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves filled with books and trinkets. Another wall with tinted windows looked out onto the parking lot and had a couple of plants sitting in the sill. Across from the window sat Mr. Sewell’s modest desk, neatly ordered and reflecting the overhead light. Behind the desk were diplomas denoting the various levels of education the principal had endured and sitting in a fancy captain’s chair was the man himself.
His appearance also surprised the two homeschoolers. Broad-chested with an imposing demeanor, his face looked blocky with black hair turning gray crowning it. When he stood to shake their hands, they were impressed by his height and firm grip. John didn’t tell them, but he had been a state trooper. He waved them to a couple chairs sitting beneath the window. John made some room for himself on the sill.
“So you are John’s new smart friends,” he opened. “Glad to know he’s still keeping people in the business.”
“We wouldn’t be doing this if he hadn’t goaded us into it,” Bryan admitted.
“Or if he hadn’t shared all his stories about his time here,” Laura put in.
“Well, how does it feel being at the scene of the crime?” Sewell asked with a wry smile.
“Like being in a fantasy land,” Bryan replied with a mirror grin.
“Apparently he and his cohorts went to one,” Sewell noted, shooting a humored look at John who was thoroughly red in the face. “You should have him tell you about that.”
“I feel like I need to catch up on more of his stories now that I’m visiting their place of origin.”
“By the sound of it, you’ve had your own share of whimsical adventures,” Sewell continued.
“We did fight a minotaur once,” said Laura proudly.
The principal raised an eyebrow. “Well, I have a feeling this one isn’t too fantastic, but it is puzzling.”
Bryan glanced back at John. “Can you tell us now what the circumstances are?”
“Oh, he hasn’t told you?” Mr. Sewell cut in. “He always was one to keep things vague until the right time.”
John’s cheeks were burning with the fiery blood in them. “Do you want to tell them what’s happening or shall I?”
The principal chuckled. “I think I can handle that.”
He swiveled his chair around and bent down into the corner. He hoisted a cardboard box onto his desk and stood beside it.
“This,” he began, patting the container on the side, “is our box of clues.”
Laura and Bryan stood to peer inside. Humored confusion took their faces.
“This is what began it all,” the principal continued, pulling a ratty, old boot from the parcel. “It was mailed to us in this very box! When the secretary opened it she thought it was a poor prank and tossed the whole thing into the trash. The next day it reappeared at the office door in the morning. She nearly tossed it again but another package came in the mail from the same address. It contained this…” Here he pulled out a rubber snake head that had been roughly severed from its toy body. The forehead bore a dent.
“Grotesque as it was, she fancied some significance and her curiosity stayed her hand from chucking these into the dumpster. Sure enough, the next day—this was Wednesday, by the way—another parcel from the same address. This was inside…” Now he pulled out a Greek tragedy mask that was snapped in two.
“As you can guess, the mail from Thursday and Friday also produced odd items. This was Thursday’s offering…” He showed them a piece of rotting wood. “And this came in an envelope on Friday…” He held out a sheet of paper with a giant black mark on it.
“A black spot?” Laura cut in. “Are we dealing with pirates?”
“It’s torn from a page in the Bible,” Bryan noted, examining the piece more closely.
Mr. Sewell nodded and grunted. “That’s correct. The last part of Matthew 25 and the beginning of 26.”
“Fascinating,” said Bryan. “And when did this happen?”
“Three weeks ago today. Nothing new came on the following Monday or Tuesday, so the secretary brought it to my attention. I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it aside from being an elaborate prank, but there’s something mysterious about it all and I figured why not employ one of our old detectives to help their alma mater one more time.”
Bryan nodded and remained silent, but Laura spoke out, “What does it all mean? What connection do they have?”
“Obviously they’re symbolic of something,” Bryan suggested.
“One thing or multiple things?”
“The two options could be the same in certain circumstances.”
Bryan cocked his head. “Well, the sum of many parts create a unified whole. These pieces could be like a long equation that seem random and disjointed until they are properly strung together to reveal a single result.”
“Ah, but what if they don’t add up and the different parts are representative of a nihilistic ploy to unhinge human society? Or, maybe more specifically, the education system?”
“Certainly multiple quadrants don’t necessitate that they will form a complete plane, but…”
Soon Laura and Bryan were engaged in an increasingly spiral debate that involved mathematics beyond John’s wits. Mr. Sewell watched them argue in bemusement for awhile and slowly grew concerned when he realized they showed no signs of stopping.
“Do they always do this?” he whispered to John, who had stood up and come over to the desk.
“Yes,” he said, “they were homeschooled.”
“Right,” then aloud, “Okay, why don’t you two finish that conversation later? I’m not entirely finished with the clues.”
“You’re not?” John asked in surprise.
Mr. Sewell winked. “You’re not the only one who holds certain cards close to the chest until the end. This prank has transcended the postal service and turned into vandalism.”
“Ah, the markings that kid mentioned,” Bryan concluded.
“Correct again,” said Sewell. “Come with me.”
The principal led them down a side hallway and out a door into the lobby. John withheld stopping them to recount the mystery they unraveled in the nurse’s office. Mr. Sewell took them down the stairs, through the first lobby, and into the hallway John pointed out earlier. John barely contained himself from marking the very locker from which sprang the first mystery that drew him and his friends together and set them off on the fateful path that he followed to that day.
At the end of this hall was the famous “Jesus Stairway”. Bryan and Laura gaped at the artwork that towered above them. Up a flight of steps was a great wall and hanging on the cross and overlooking the passage was a painting of Jesus. Despite their personal thoughts on the existence of such art, they nevertheless admired the hand that had painted it there. As they ascended the steps, however, a blotch came into view. Over the Christ’s feet was a crudely spray-painted brown boot.
“Like the one delivered to the school,” Bryan remarked.
“When did this happen?” John asked.
“Sometime during the night,” Mr. Sewell replied. “There was a prayer rally at the school and someone probably snuck off and hid until everyone was gone. We found a window open in one of the classrooms.”
“Are there no security cameras?” wondered Laura.
The principal bobbed his head back and forth. “We have a few in place, but whoever was sneaking around knew how to avoid them.”
“So it’s an inside job,” John concluded.
“Seems that way.”
“But why?” Laura asked, baffled. “What’s the point?”
They stood in silence for a moment and stared at the wall. Finally, Bryan stepped forward close to the painted boot.
“I think the answer to the riddle lies in solving the symbolism of the items sent to the school,” said he. “The person or persons sent five items and stopped. Now, a couple weeks later, they’ve taken it to the next step and turned to vandalism. Following the patterns, I think we can expect a wounded snake head to appear next…perhaps under this very boot.”
Mr. Sewell let out an “Ahh,” while Laura looked at Bryan excitedly. “You solved the meaning of the items?”
“Not all of them, but at least two. Spray-painting the boot onto Christ’s feet seems to connect the dots for us.”
“How so?” asked John.
Bryan took up his best teaching pose (feet spread, both hands gesticulating before him). “So, the boot came first, then the snake head. I believe the two go together. They represent the prophecy from Genesis 3 of the seed of the woman—that is, the Christ—that will bruise the serpent’s head.”
“I’m following you,” John cut in, “but what does it mean mean?”
Bryan turned and looked at the boot. “I don’t know yet. But it’s a start. We may be able to unravel the other clues with that beginning.”
“And it seems like a likely next step for the culprit to paint a snake head here,” said Mr. Sewell. “Well, if they try, I’ll have someone waiting for them. I suppose you three don’t want to do a stake-out tonight?”
“Sure!” answered Laura immediately. “That sounds fun!” She noticed John and Bryan’s surprised looks. “Well, if it’s fine with you two.”
John shrugged. “Eh, won’t be my first time.”
Bryan also agreed and they quitted the stairwell. They arranged to return that night on pretense of watching a basketball game, but sneaking off before it was over. Mr. Sewell gave John free rein to tour the school with his friends and he gladly used the opportunity. Bryan and Laura heard more stories than they could properly process, and by the end Laura was confusing them all. John noted secret passages, locations of great battles, scenes of baffling mysteries, and much more. When his stories were all completed, they moved to leave though not before Bryan acquired the box of clues from Mr. Sewell.
Back in the station wagon, Bryan held the box in his lap and minutely looked it over. “Have you checked out this return address?”
“Yep, that was easy,” said John. “It’s an old, abandoned warehouse just north of Cincinnati. The owner has no connection to the school.”
This seemed to dry up Bryan’s question and they drove on to get lunch at John’s place of work—Wendy’s.
The dining room of this particular establishment was lost somewhere in the ‘90s, complete with horrid wallpaper, fake plants, and faded pictures of Dave Thomas. John proudly presented his friends to the staff, who showed great curiosity in meeting them. A wizened little old lady at the cash register showed particular interest and, after taking their order, pulled John to the side to ask if he was interested in the redhead. He told her they were just friends and she grinned, nodded knowingly, winked, and walked away (she was in the habit of trying to find John a girlfriend, much to his chagrin). John rolled his eyes and collected his food.
While sitting at lunch and discussing the merits of fresh vs. frozen beef, a young man approached their table. He was of Indian descent, dressed in business casual clothes, and wore glasses that told how smart he was. John’s face lit up on seeing him.
“Franklin! What are you doing here?”
“Company I work for is taking a client out to lunch,” he answered. “Still waiting on the client but I happened to look up and see you here!”
“This is an odd place to take a client for lunch.”
Franklin shrugged. “The client isn’t that important. So who are your friends?”
“Franklin, meet Bryan and Laura. Bryan and Laura, meet Franklin Rahluka. We graduated together.”
“Were you involved in any of John’s adventures?” Laura asked innocently.
Franklin’s smiling face immediately darkened. “Well…there was one unfortunate incident…”
“Which we don’t need to revisit!” John cut in.
“Well, speaking of old times,” said Franklin, with an effort to resume his smile, “how is the rest of your band getting on? Do you all keep in touch?”
John hemmed and hawed. “Occasionally. It’s hard keeping up when we’re all living separate lives.”
“True. Much has changed since then. Well, I’ll let you get back to your meal. Good to meet you two!”
“Do all of your classmates view two years as a long time?” Bryan asked as Franklin walked away.
“When you’ve enjoyed a certain period of life, it seems to feel far away when you leave it.”
“He didn’t seem to have fond memories,” Laura noted. “What happened?”
They spent the rest of their lunch listening to John tell the dark story where mystery and politics collided and Franklin didn’t come out much the better for it.
When they were done, the afternoon found them relaxing in the way that college students usually relax: taking naps in the library, visiting graveyards, and finding creative ways for three people to play a two-person board game. After supper at John’s home, they returned to the school and Bryan and Laura were treated to a high school basketball game.
The gym was about as nice as they expected it to be. The top half contained hard, wooden bleachers with the pep band occupying one corner. The bottom half contained more modern plastic bleachers that could retract if needed. The floor was shiny under fresh polish and a large cartoon cougar head stood out at center court. Opposite the bleachers sat the opposing teams in front of a large stage. The walls were white save for a corner by the stage where a painted cougar broke through the thick wall.
John placed them at half court on the plastic bleachers and immediately launched into a story about how people used to think those seats were haunted. Bryan and Laura actually enjoyed this storytelling time since they weren’t fond of basketball and it helped distract them from the slightly out-of-tune band. It was also convenient for John that he had stories to tell as the home team was in the midst of a rout.
While recounting an epic dodgeball battle that occurred in that very place, John’s words were cut off mid-sentence. Bryan and Laura followed his glance to see an attractive young woman walking up the steps toward them. Her short brown hair hung loose and bobbed about her face and brilliant blue eyes blazed like fairy fires. Her small form was well-dressed, most notably in the colors of the visiting team. She smiled slightly as she addressed John.
“I heard you were haunting the school again,” she began with a silky but matter-of-fact voice.
John blinked once or twice, then answered. “Yes, well, I’m showing my friends from college around. Bryan, Laura, meet Jasmine Johansson. We also graduated together.”
The three cordially shook hands.
“You didn’t seem to stay loyal to your school,” Bryan noted.
Jasmine blushed a little. “My brother transferred so he could be in a better basketball program. I’m loyal to family.”
“Wait, you said you heard I was back,” said John. “Who told you?”
“When we did that little/big sister thing our senior year,” she answered, “my little sister and I actually became good friends and stayed in touch.” She sat down, cross-legged, on the bleacher in front of them. “She told me she saw you running around with some new people.” She glanced at Bryan and Laura. “Has he sucked you in to the mystery game?”
“That might be a harsh way of putting it,” said Laura, “but yes, we do solve mysteries together.”
Jasmine shook her head and looked at John. “You got bit by a bug. I’d think after what we went through our senior year would scare you away.”
John gave her the look of a man slowly processing words he understood but tone that he did not. “Well, if people need the help, I might as well.”
“But you’re not the smart one,” Jasmine countered, and now she turned to the other two. “You the smart one?” she asked of Bryan. “You the pretty one?” she asked of Laura.
Laura’s face momentarily matched her hair and Bryan and John leaned away for fear of the explosion. “Why on earth would I just be hanging around to look pretty?” she exclaimed. “I have brains, too, you know! If either of you,” she pointed at her friends menacingly, “If either of you think I have nothing to contribute besides my looks, you will get a big surprise!”
She didn’t specify what the surprise was (she didn’t really know herself), but it had the effect of disrupting Jasmine’s cool demeanor. Her eyebrows rose in genuine surprise and after a moment she began recapturing her composure.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Well, I better get back to cheering on my brother. Good to meet you two.”
Jasmine slipped away, Laura wrestled down her emotions, John looked on in wonder, and Bryan nodded his head toward the former classmate.
“So what’s her story?”
“Were you in a relationship?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. At least not for me. One of my friends had a thing for her, though.”
John assured them that recounting every intersection between Jasmine and one of their adventures would make for a tedious task and instead opted for the highlights.
Shortly before the game came to a merciful conclusion (the opposing team was using their third-string players at this point and were still widening their margin of victory), the three detectives slipped out and snuck around to the upper hallway. They camped out at the stairwell door in the shadow of the computer lab entrance. John had more stories to tell, but he remained quiet and they passed the night restlessly.
Throughout that long darkness there was no sound or sign of anyone. They frequently peered into the stairwell but never saw a thing. When the morning dawned with her rosy fingers, the three detectives stood before Jesus with sagging eyes and deflated spirits.
“Maybe we scared them off,” Laura suggested.
Bryan shook his head. “Unlikely. They probably went somewhere else.”
They reported to Mr. Sewell, who told them to go home and get some rest; he’d let them know of any developments. As if the Fates wanted to save him some time, the Bible teacher suddenly burst into the office.
“The vandals, they struck in my room!”
Sure enough, there in the Bible classroom, hastily spray-painted on the white board, was a green snake head with a dark spot between its eyes. Mr. Sewell reasoned the person could have done the deed during the game. Bryan conceded that the best thing for them would be to go home and rest up their brain cells. John joked he didn’t have any left and they exited the school.
They spent the majority of their Tuesday resting and lounging. Bryan occasionally considered the box of clues, pondered over it, shook his head, and turned away. Mr. Sewell didn’t ask them to conduct another stake-out, but he did wonder if they could assume where the next spray-painted figure would appear. Bryan ventured the stage in the gym since it would be connected to drama. John suggested somewhere in the drama room. Apparently Sewell found a couple different volunteers to watch both spots and these watchers reported back nothing. Instead, the spray-painted tragedy mask was found on several random classroom doors.
By now, this prank was turning into something of a crisis. Some seniors were emboldened by this and plotted their own elaborate hijinks though not to the same level of success. The principal applied some pressure to the detectives, but Bryan could not make sense of the items and his compatriots had no better ideas. John wondered if the targets were random. Laura confessed they seemed that way. Bryan was apt to agree with them but had a gut-feeling there was more to the locations of the paintings than met the eye. The answer was elusive to him. He didn’t even have a suggestion of a place to watch that night.
The following morning, John received the call that a rotting board was spray-painted on the office windows that looked out into the lobby. Sewell was desperate now. Could they think of no solution at all? When the call was ended, Bryan pushed his brows together to form a bushy caterpillar, grabbed the box, and went up to John’s room. The three detectives locked themselves into the tiny space and mulled over the clues.
“The boot and the snake are connected,” Bryan reviewed. “We know what they’re in reference to. But the others aren’t so easy and where their painted counterparts show up shines even less light on the matter.”
He began minutely studying each item, searching for the slightest sign through a magnifying glass. While he did this, John played solitaire on his laptop, claiming he needed a mental break. Laura picked up the black spotted page from the Bible.
“I wonder if the words that were covered by the spot mean anything,” she said.
Bryan shrugged. “Can’t hurt looking.”
“So this is from a King James Version,” she continued. “John, you don’t happen to have a KJV Bible handy?”
John pointed to his small bookshelf. “I have a Ryrie study Bible and the small black one is KJV, too.”
Laura picked the more non-descript book, reasoning she didn’t want notes and commentary to distract her, and opened to the passage in question. As she studied the corresponding pages, she suddenly became rigid.
“John!” she exclaimed, “These pages are identical!”
The heads of the two young men snapped in her direction.
“Well that’s kinda weird and creepy,” John remarked. “Kinda makes me feel complicit in heresy.”
By now Bryan was examining the pages for himself. “John, where did you get this Bible?”
“Oh…the high school book store, I believe. It was the required version for a while at the school and that was the one they sold.”
Bryan sat down on the bed and was lost in thought for a long time.
“I think you broke him,” John said to Laura.
“Me? It was probably you keeping him up with that checkers game.”
“Well, Laura, when you can’t battle with sharp things and bullets, you duel with wits.”
Laura rolled her eyes and shook her head.
When Bryan didn’t immediately move or otherwise acknowledge their presence, they thought it fit to break out the old classic board game, Uncle Figgily. They were half across the board when Bryan sprang back to life.
“I think I’ve got it!” he declared. “But to be sure, John, I need to read your stories.”
“All of them?”
“All of them!”
John pulled the folder up on his laptop and let Bryan sit down with it at his desk. Meanwhile, Laura and John finished their game and then sat for a moment pondering their next move. It was suddenly awkward without a third presence. Thankfully it was lunch time and they went downstairs to eat, eventually coming back up to feed Bryan. They then decided to spend some time studying for their respective classes. John lounged on his bed, cracked open a systematic theology textbook, and was quickly asleep. Laura made herself comfortable on a couch in the living room, was more productive in her labors, and also eventually napped.
A couple hours later, Bryan woke John from a dream involving a can of beans, bottle rockets, and an iguana.
“I have finished the Herculean task of reading all your stories,” he informed him.
“Yeah? Did you like them?”
“They were…interesting. I don’t think I’d waste the time in trying to publish them, though.”
“Oh. Well, what’d ya find?”
“The connective tissue I need. Call up Mr. Sewell and tell him we’ll be at the school tonight to catch our criminals.”
“But there’s no home game tonight! How will they get in?”
“I have a few ideas, but what matters is knowing where they’ll strike.”
“And you know?”
The two tramped downstairs and woke Laura. She pressed Bryan to elucidate the case for them, but he refused, saying he needed to think through the facts.
“He’s becoming more like Sherlock Holmes every case,” said Laura.
John nodded. “Such is the path of all great detectives.”
That night a full moon shone clear and bright over the school. Though the air was cool with spring and the trees budding with life, the white beams gave everything a spectral appearance so that Calvary Christian School looked like a castle besieged by ghosts. Down the halls and in the classrooms, all was deathly silent. In the gym, you could have heard the echoing pitter patter of little feet (that would be mice, not Mickey Rooney). A solitary light shone over the center court. The plastic bleachers were extended out, ready for another game the following night. A spotlight stood on the stage before the closed curtains, leftover from the drama class practicing for the school play.
Suddenly a sound rang out through the gym; only momentary, but enough to startle any mouse lounging in the area. It was a sharp click followed by a low grinding noise. Soon a small figure could be seen squirming out from underneath the bleachers and was shortly followed by a companion. They walked slowly over to the cougar at half court. From a door at the top of the wooden bleachers came a couple more individuals who joined silently with the first two. Finally, from the side, under the watchful eyes of the cougar busting through the wall, three more people entered. Without a word they stood in a circle at half court and each brandished a can that they raised above their heads.
Before they could besmirch the hardwood with their black paint, however, the spotlight switched on and blinded the intruders. Simultaneously, the rest of the overhead lights flickered on and slowly grew in brightness, like stars conquering the sky. The circle largely remained immobile, except for those who were blinded by the unexpected flash of the spotlight. Emerging from behind the stage curtain were our three detectives. They jumped down from the stage and confronted the group.
“Was the spotlight necessary?” asked one, who removed a face mask to reveal herself as Jasmine.
Bryan shrugged. “My friends here think I’m becoming more like Sherlock Holmes, so I figured I’d lean into the theatrics a bit.”
The other members withdrew their masks as well. John, who was already shocked at Jasmine’s involvement in the matter, had a hard time keeping his jaw closed as he also saw Franklin, Harry and his friend, and a couple others he knew well or at least recognized.
“So…what’s going on here?” asked John. “A prank?”
“A message,” answered Bryan.
“The school. But in part to you.”
“Shall I explain now?”
“Please do,” said Laura.
Bryan put on his teaching air again, but this time paced back and forth.
“The initial question, of course, was whether or not this was a prank or something more. When the spray-painted boot was added to the mix, on the Jesus mural no less, I felt like there was a message being sent. Next, the question was what the 5 clues symbolized. I guessed the boot and snake head were connected. But were they simply Bible references or bespoke more? When Laura discovered the black spot was torn from a Bible sold in the school bookstore, I started running with the idea that a message was being sent to the school. But what message? Now I considered the other clues. The broken mask. Tragedy, correct? And yet, we get our word ‘hypocrite’ from those ancient Greek actors who wore the masks of tragedy and comedy. So, it was an accusation of hypocrisy mixed with tragedy.”
“The hypocrisy is tragedy,” Jasmine murmured.
Bryan nodded. “Indeed. Connected with this was the black spot. It was over the passage dealing with the goats and sheep. Sheep go to heaven because they were kind and loving and faithful to Christ. Goats were not and go to hell. Given the black spot as a pronouncement of death, I’d say this party here views the school as a goat.”
“Doing good so far,” said Jasmine, raising her head.
“The rotting wood, now. Wood is a common construction material, but if it’s rotted it’s no good except to be used for a fire. It symbolized the rottenness they saw in the school.”
“What about the boot and snake head?” Laura wondered.
“The snake head represents the school. The boot, Christ’s judgment, though perhaps the Jesus they acknowledge with so lowly a shoe as that reflects their personal view of the Messiah.”
“So the spray-painted boot makes sense,” Laura cut in, “but what about the placement of the other pictures?”
“The snake head was in the Bible classroom perhaps because they view the school’s religion as its problem. The hypocrite masks were on the doors of teachers they felt didn’t practice what they preach. The rotted wood on the office window because they view the rottenness is in the administration.”
“You are the smart one!” Jasmine exclaimed. “I don’t think Garrett could have done better, though we did give you plenty of clues. Now tell me, how did you know we’d put the black spot on the gym floor?”
Bryan cocked his head and looked up at a banner on the wall. “An educated guess. You have a perfect circle already outlined here on the floor. I did figure you would infiltrate the building through the secret passages John was kind enough to point out in his stories.”
Jasmine laughed, a cold laugh that even chilled her cohorts.
“Bravo! Bryan, was it? Bravo, Bryan! Now be honest, did you know who was a party to this scheme?”
Bryan smiled slightly. “Wasn’t it obvious? Harry was a little too eager to talk to John. Franklin seemed like too much of a coincidence and, as John noted, his alibi was weak. You were harder to pin to this. What gave you away in my mind, though, was your animosity toward John. And!” He was very excited now and feeling confident. “I would wager that if you have a younger brother, he probably doesn’t play basketball at a competing school. You were here that night to spray paint the snake head in the classroom.”
Jasmine smiled somewhat sweetly at Bryan. “You are correct. Wonderful.”
But John, who barely kept his composure through the explanation, finally burst out, “But why? Why would you do this to the school that you graduated or otherwise benefitted from?”
A nasty smile curled Jasmine’s lips. “Now we get to it!”
“The answer, John,” said Bryan quietly, “is in your stories.”
John stood flabbergasted, and Jasmine jumped in. “Yes, it’s all about you five ‘heroes’ that were always running around solving mysteries. I admit, when I first interacted with you all, I didn’t see anything wrong. But by the end of our senior year, as I learned more about the atrocities this school had perpetrated, I couldn’t stand the thought of being in the same room with some of you guys.”
John held up a finger. “Wait, what atrocities did the school commit? Did it have a hand in some genocide or the Transformers movies?”
“Worse,” spoke Franklin. “This school suspended a group of students for a week simply for smoking cigars in a hot tub.”
Laura almost laughed, but Bryan shot her a look.
“It expelled a girl for getting pregnant,” another joined. “Shouldn’t a Christian school try and help someone like that rather than kick her to the curb?”
“Furthermore,” Franklin continued, “I have a whole list of questionable decisions the school’s leadership made during our senior year alone! I used my time as student body president wisely and constructed a spreadsheet of every wrong thing this organization has done, from giving kids detention for slightly long hair to expelling a student simply for questioning Christian beliefs.”
“But what does this have to do with me and my friends?” John asked.
“Your friends were the poster boys for all this!” Jasmine shouted. “All five of you had neatly trimmed hair, wore your uniforms immaculately, were always on time, never had a detention, never went south of the teachers! You heroes represented all the filth of this place.”
“Plus, you did use my brother as bait on a dangerous case,” piped Harry.
“And almost made me lose my sanity!” Franklin yelled a little louder than he needed to.
John still looked confused.
“You see John,” entered Bryan, “the anger they feel toward this school was honed in on you and your friends, partially for trauma associated with your adventures but mostly for the school’s operations. This whole plan of theirs was meant to strike two birds with one stone. First, they would send the five symbols through the mail and make sure the staff catches some significance in their appearance. Then they would begin the vandalism with the spray paint. These mysterious clues coupled with the shadowy arrival of their painted counterparts would force Mr. Sewell to call in help and who else could help but you and your friends. They knew the case would be solved, but that’s what they wanted. They wanted to have this moment to vent. The only hiccup was that the main detective wasn’t available and you were called in with an impersonal party in tow.”
“So you guys blame me and my friends for decisions the school made?” John asked in a bewildered voice. The group stared silently back at him. John put his hand on his hips and shook his head. “This is like blaming the NRA every time someone uses a gun the wrong way.”
Jasmine was about to burst out, but Laura interrupted. “He’s right, you know. If the school’s rules involve no smoking or have a dress code or something, then they’re in the right to act the way they did.”
“Part of your problem,” Bryan joined, “is that you take the ‘Christian’ part of the title perhaps a bit too literally. Certainly there are Christian principles weaved into the fabric of this place but at the end of the day it’s just another school. It’s a soulless force that has established rules and penalties that must be followed. What happens on a personal, individual level is one thing, but to blame the whole school is slightly hyperbolic.”
Again Jasmine wanted to roar, but they all jumped at the voice of Mr. Sewell.
“A perfect speech, Mr. Bryan,” he said, stepping from the shadows of a corner of the gym. “And I think that’s a good place to call it a night.”
“You’re just going to let us go?” wondered Harry.
“I’ll meet with you who are current students tomorrow,” said the principal. “The rules have something to say about vandalism. For the rest of you, if this tomfoolery continues I will call in the authorities.”
The disgruntled youth filtered out the way they came while Mr. Sewell shook hands with the detectives.
“Were you hiding in the shadows the whole time?” asked Laura.
“You bet,” said the principal. “Bryan sounded confident about his case so I wanted to be around to see him crack it. A bang up job, I might say.”
“It was simple once I figured out a little more of John’s past,” Bryan demurred. “I think Laura and I were at a disadvantage for most of the time.”
Mr. Sewell looked to John, who had grown freakishly contemplative. “How are you processing this? I know this was probably something of a shock to you.”
John slowly nodded. “It was. I guess I assumed everyone had a great experience here.”
“Everyone gets scarred by something,” the principal shrugged. “In my state trooper days I once saw a fat man riding a lawn mower down the freeway naked. That image still haunts me to this day.”
Laura visibly shuddered. “I hope I’m spared such trauma.”
“Maybe that’s the worst way to die on the interstate,” Bryan laughed.
“You two are goofs,” said John with a shake of his head. “Now who’s up for a Frosty?”
The three friends finished out their week of Spring break in a mostly normal way that involved long walks in the woods, unhealthy foods, and watching a creek flood. Sunday afternoon found John returning his friends to Boyce’s campus and giving them a tearful goodbye. It was so tearful he nearly crashed into a tree.
The current students behind the vandalism faced a full week suspension during mid-terms, which meant they failed their tests. Those who were free from the immediate discipline of the school were at least banned from entering the building ever again. This punishment further ruffled their feathers, but this time they channeled their anger into a Facebook group. The secret passages were sealed up by the school’s custodians, or so they said. It is entirely possible they used these places to hide stashes of tools that often went missing or to disappear for a while to fish at the creek behind the premises.
And so, the moral of our story is: drive safely on the interstate.
*college-time mysteries 2018. All rights reserved.