by Syl Francis
"Why's that loser, Ricky Noone, interested with a low-end dumpy neighborhood like Arlington Heights?" The speaker hadn't been introduced, yet. He wore a completely tasteless loud suit that should've gotten him arrested as soon as he'd stepped outside.
"Hey!" Tony protested. "Nobody disses my home turf, man!"
"Take it easy, Tony," Loud Suit said soothingly. "You and I can appreciate A.H. It has just the right clients for our 'business.' But why does Noone want to strong arm his way in? He and Rolly already own half of Blüdhaven."
Al laughed his signature, sardonic laugh.
"You just answered your own question, Frankie. They own half the town they're looking to owning the rest now. And if you know what's good for you, you'll roll over real quiet and let 'em take over the neighborhood. Noone and Desmond want it real bad. And when they want something bad bad things happen to those who stand in their way." Al gave them his usual smirk.
"But then, you know about that already, don't you, Frankie? I hear your old man, 'Lunchmeat,' is hiding out under the Feds' witness protection program Too bad for you that he didn't take you with him."
"So you're telling me that Rolly wants to come in and take over my territory, and I'm supposed to just let 'im? Either you or Noone or Rolly are out of your collective minds, kid. You want me out of the picture, we cut a deal, see? Los Muchachos here are pretty good not just at moving my merchandise on the street, they're also real good at running protection. This is their turf Rolly and Noone's boys wouldn't last a week here. So, let's talk deals, kid. What's in it for me?"
"For you? Why, Frankie, you know Noone and Desmond they always deal fair with their business rivals. You let them move in without raising a fuss, and you--don't--get--killed! How's that for a deal?"
"Why, you little punk! Nobody messes with Frankie Deever! You hear me? My father didn't get his nickname, 'Lunchmeat,' just for running a meatpacking business. Half of his enemies ended up in some school kid's lunchbag with mustard or mayo on rye!"
Images of Grandfather Aaron's corner delicatessen with its gleaming counters and rows of freshly cut deli meats flashed through Sydney's mind. She gagged suddenly, the desire to throw up almost overwhelming her.
Sydney signaled her guard that she was about to be sick. He hastily released his hold on her. Sydney hurriedly fell on her knees and fought to keep her breakfast in place. Quickly taking off her suit jacket, Sydney held it to her face and tried breathing through it, ineffectually blocking out the myriad smells from the landfill.
With apologies to her late grandfather's memory, Sydney didn't think she'd ever be able to look at another deli sandwich.
"If there's one thing I learned from my old man," Frankie continued, "it's how to get rid of a body without leaving a trace. Believe me, kid, you're shark bait now. Ice him!" he ordered.
Los Muchachos moved in like wolves on their prey. Sydney's babysitter was engrossed by the new development.
Looking around quickly, Sydney spotted a baseball-sized rock. Palming it without being seen, Sydney stood up slowly. She gave her guard a reassuring wave of the hand that she was all right. He nodded and turned back to the drama unfolding before him.
Remembering her fast-pitch softball days, Sydney wound up and threw with all the heat she could muster. It struck Frankie on the temple.
"Hey, you!" Frankie shouted, pointing in anger with one hand, while holding his bleeding head with the other. "Get her!" he yelled.
Panicking, Sydney ran at a stumbling gait, ducking behind one of the myriad canyons of piled garbage. "Funny," she muttered. "My career advisor never mentioned the part about being chased by teenaged gunmen across smelly garbage dumps. What are you doing, Sydney? This just isn't in the job description !"
Suddenly, she heard them!
Sirens! The BPD had arrived.
Watching Al being handcuffed, Sydney thought her heart would break. She'd so wanted to save one just one of the lost kids that seemingly streamed through her office door. Apparently, she'd failed again.
Al met her eye, and to her surprise, winked. He said something to Officer Rohrback, who nodded and led him to Sydney.
"You've got one minute, Richardson," she said. Al nodded.
"Ms. Greene, I couldn't leave like this without saying something. I'm really sorry. You care about your students, and, well, I just want to say that I'm not worth you feeling guilty or anything. There's a lot of kids left at A.H. who need you. Kids like that boy with the gun in the cafeteria Don't let them fall through the cracks don't give up on them "
Sydney was about to reply when Rohrback interrupted them.
"Sorry, Richardson, but you've got a date with a certain police captain. Ms. Greene, you have your school's vice principal, Mister Jackson to thank. He phoned in the emergency when he saw you two being dragged off campus. His quick action probably saved both your lives today."
Sydney nodded, feeling too dazed to assimilate what she was hearing.
Officer Rohrback continued, "As for Frankie Deever we've been looking for Escobar's connection for a long time now. This bust might just put the brakes on the Arlington Heights illicit drug and weapons trade for the time being." She shrugged fatalistically. "Unfortunately, Deever will soon be replaced by someone else."
The police officer jerked her head in Al's direction. "Forget about this one, Ms. Greene. He's not worth crying any tears over. He made his choice long before you met him."
Sydney nodded mutely, unable to look at Al. His words had touched her deeply and only made her failure all the more poignant.
Rohrback pulled Al along with her. As they were about to disappear into the waiting squad car, Al paused and called back, "Take care, Ms. Greene. Stay safe."
Al's words would prove prophetic.
Sydney rushed into her office and carelessly dropped student files, her briefcase, and purse on the desktop. She'd had car trouble that morning. Worse, she had an 8:00 o'clock appointment with Melbourne, and she was fifteen minutes late already.
"Mrs. Pettit!" Sydney called breathlessly. She practically skidded to a stop in front of Dr. Melbourne's executive secretary. "My car ! It wouldn't start this morning. My neighbor was nice enough to give me a jump, but--"
The uninitiated novice who reported to A.H. might actually believe that the head principal ran the school, but this myth was quickly dispelled as soon as he or she met Mrs. Pettit.
Pettit gave Sydney a no nonsense stare from above her glasses, which stopped the young counselor in mid-excuse. Turning her back on Sydney, Pettit rummaged through her files of myriad forms until she found the one she was looking for.
"Um " Sydney stalled. "I, uh, have an appointment with Doctor Melbourne this morning. I'm, um late. Could I, uh, do the, uh, paperwork, uh, later?" She looked hopefully at Pettit.
Pettit glared up over her glasses.
"Doctor Melbourne phoned in this morning. He's been called unexpectedly to the Superintendent's office and therefore has canceled your meeting."
As she said this, Pettit handed Sydney a
tardy form, which she took meekly. Not saying a word, Sydney turned
and walked the form to the office counter. Taking a pen out, she
began drafting a valid-sounding excuse. Late arrivals were required
to give complete details for their failure to report to work on
time. Sydney could already see the day's wages go down the drain.
"I should've just called in sick," Sydney murmured. "I'm
gonna be working for free, anyway."
"I should've just called in sick," Sydney murmured. "I'm gonna be working for free, anyway."
The sound of gunfire suddenly rocked the building!
"OHMYGOD!" a student aide screamed.
"Everybody down!!" Sydney yelled. "That sounded like gunshots! Mrs. Pettit! Call Nine-One-One! Hurry!"
Sydney looked over to where the executive secretary was crouched behind her desk. Pettit nodded curtly; she was already on it. Sydney shook her head in admiration. It would take more than a little gunfire to disturb the Iron Lady's iron will!
Sydney could hear the student aide, Jeannie, sobbing in terror. Gunfire echoed from all over.
The main office doors! They were unlocked! Sydney started towards the huge double doors, recalling the school board financial meeting when security upgrades were voted down as being too cost-ineffective.
The doors burst open!
Sydney dove for cover.
Three masked gunmen ran in and sprayed the office with semi-automatic gunfire. Screaming obscenities, they made their way erratically through the series of inter-connecting offices that made up the school's administrative section.
Sydney curled where she'd just managed to roll under the front counter. She held her head covered between her arms.
Jeannie screamed in panic, a high-pitched, terrified shriek. More shots were fired. Jeannie's screams stopped.
Sydney felt hot tears streaming uncontrollably down her cheeks. She stifled her sobs with great effort, closing her eyes tightly against the horror around her. But she couldn't stop the rapid staccato of gunfire and the frightened screams echoing from the adjoining offices.
At last, the room rang in an eerie hush. The acrid smell of hot, expended ammo lay heavily in the stillness.
Sydney slowly opened her eyes. Listening carefully, she lay unmoving for a longer moment. Finally, taking a chance, she risked poking her head out from her hiding place.
The normally neat and well-scrubbed front office was demolished. Desks and chairs were turned over. Papers were strewn haphazardly across the floor. Spent cartridges and shattered glass lay scattered everywhere. The walls, desks, and countertops were splintered with numerous bullet holes.
Sydney crawled out, keeping a low profile. She looked around for the others.
"Mrs. Pettit," she whispered hoarsely. She felt her throat catch in rising panic. "Mrs. Pettit!"
"Here I'm over here " Pettit's weak voice came from under an overturned desk. With a cry, Sydney ran to her. Pettit was pinned underneath the heavy executive desk. She was bleeding from several cuts on her face.
"I'll get this off you in a jiff," Sydney reassured her. Pettit grimaced in pain, as Sydney heaved and pushed the desk off her. With the desk removed, Sydney got a good look at the older woman's injuries.
She gasped involuntarily. Pettit had a gaping bullet hole in her chest. From the way the blood bubbled as it seeped out, Sydney could see that one of Pettit's lungs had been punctured.
"Don't worry," Sydney said with warm reassurance, "you're going to be all right." Unbidden tears began falling of their own accord. Sydney wiped at them in vain.
Pettit sniffed in obvious disbelief. "You're a poor liar, Ms. Greene," she murmured weakly, reaching for Sydney's hand. "Don't give up on them," she whispered. Sydney knew that by 'them', Pettit meant the students. It was almost what Al had said to her.
"They need you you understand them." Pettit smiled. "You're one of the good ones, Ms. Greene I should know I've seen them come and go "
Pettit's eyes glazed over. Sydney's soul was wracked by deep despair. She held Pettit's hand up to her wet cheek and knelt there, next to her lifeless body for an eternity. The prayer that Grandmother Sarah taught her so long ago, echoed comfortingly from the past
"He is my banner and
Remembering the daily recitation of the "Adon Olam," during Shacharis, or the morning prayers, a deep, abiding sense of calm seemed to fill her.
"HaShem is with me, and I am not afraid."
Finally, Sydney took a deep breath. She gathered her inner strength and released the dead woman's hand. She reached up and closed Pettit's eyes, granting the proud woman a small bit of dignity.
Sydney looked around the office, searching for any of others, despairing that she might be the lone survivor. In the distance she heard more shouts, screams and gunfire, but here in the front office, she felt strangely insulated from the reality of the violence around her.
She found two more bodies, Sally the school receptionist, and Laura Davis, a parent volunteer. Believing that no one else could possibly be alive, Sydney was gratified to hear the sounds of muffled sobbing coming from underneath Melbourne's desk.
Sydney ran at a crouch. She slid under the desk and found Jeannie, the student aide. Sydney's heart leaped! She'd thought the girl had been killed.
Jeannie was crouched in a tight ball under Melbourne's large desk. At the Sydney's sudden appearance, she let out a muffled shriek. Sydney instantly clapped her hand over the terrified girl's mouth, while making soothing sounds.
"Sssshhhh " Sydney whispered. "They've left the office, but they're still in the building. How did you--?" She inspected the executive desk a bit more closely. It was riddled with bullet-holes. Jeannie's survival was nothing short of a miracle.
Jeannie's wide, frightened eyes were red with crying.
"Mrs. Pettit--?" Jeannie whispered.
Sydney shook her head sadly. Jeannie's eyes began streaming tears. She'd been especially close to the outwardly gruff executive secretary.
"The others?" she asked.
Sydney's eyes pain-filled eyes answered for her. She hugged the young girl closer to her.
"Why? Ms. Greene why?"
"I don't know, sweetheart I just don't know." Sydney held Jeannie tightly for a moment longer, but then released her gently.
"Jeannie, listen to me. We've got to get out of here." Jeannie immediately stiffened in fear and shook her head a vigorous 'no.' Sydney was insistent, however. "We can't remain here. It's too dangerous they could come back any second. We have to get out. Do you understand me?"
Jeannie's face scrunched and she began crying again. She held onto Sydney, her nails digging into Sydney's arms.
"I'm so scared I don't want to die !"
Sydney felt her own tears begin. "I know, sweetheart I'm scared, too, but we can't let our fear paralyze us. Do you have Mrs. Paret for Social Studies?"
Jeannie looked slightly taken aback at the change of topic. She nodded uncertainly.
"Have you studied the Great Depression, yet?" At Jeannie's nod, Sydney continued, "What did Franklin Roosevelt say about 'fear'?"
Jeannie thought for a moment, then whispered, "'The only thing we have to fear, is fear, itself.'"
Sydney nodded. "That's right do you remember what he meant by that?"
"That as long as we can control our fear, we can " She paused, understanding dawning in her young face. " We can do anything "
Sydney smiled proudly at Jeannie. "That's right Jeannie, I know you're afraid I am, too. But we can't let our fear control us Now I'm going to crawl out of here, and I'm going to somehow make my way outside. Are you with me?"
Jeannie nodded slowly, a tentative smile breaking through her tears.
As they started wending their way on all fours through the administrative offices, Jeannie whispered, "Thank you, Ms. Greene."
Sydney led them straight into the arms of the enemy.
"Well, well, well What do we have here?" The ugly, laugh-filled, too-young voice was followed by the sound of a bolt being locked back. Jeannie knelt in place and screamed hysterically.
Sydney grabbed the girl and covered her with her own body. However, instead of the expected burst of deadly gunfire, Sydney heard the sounds of soft flesh being struck with blunt force. These were accompanied by loud grunts, a low groan, and finally silence.
Turning cautiously, Sydney was met by a dark, grim form in a bulletproof vest, bent over the unconscious gunman. Because he had his back to her, she didn't recognize him. The hapless terrorist was lying facedown, gagged and bound. On closer inspection, Sydney recognized the unconscious form. He was one of the countless underclassmen whom Minnig and his friends had mercilessly picked on throughout the school year.
Sydney noted the plastic tie-wraps around his wrists and ankles. Her unknown rescuer roughly dragged the boy into a broom closet, took out what looked like a penlight, and zapped the lock. He turned to face her.
Sydney blinked in surprise.
"Al--!" she began, but he gestured for quiet. He listened intently for a few minutes into a headset he was wearing, spoke a few words, and then crouched next to Sydney and Jeannie.
Not taking time to talk, he took out a small instrument, used it to scan the hallway ahead and turned to the two young women. He held his finger to his lips. Both Sydney and Jeannie nodded in understanding.
Rather than leading them in the direction of the front entrances, Al cut diagonally across the front corridor into an empty classroom. He closed the door behind them, and still not saying a word, pointed up at the ceiling tiles.
Not bothering for a boost, Al leaped straight up and grabbed one of the metal beams that criss-crossed the faux ceiling. Pushing one of the tiles carefully out of the way, he easily pulled himself up and into the opening.
Within seconds, his face appeared. As if by magic, he pulled out a thin line from the hidden recesses of his flak-jacket. The line ended in a small clasp.
"Around your waist," he instructed succinctly. He spoke in low tones. Sydney nodded and immediately turned to Jeannie. She wrapped the line around the frightened girl's waist, and then turned and looked up. She nodded at Al, and without a word, he pulled the girl up.
Sydney was next.
As soon as all three were crouched low in the small crawlspace between the building insulation and the classroom ceiling tiles, Al indicated that they should follow him. He pointed at the single metal beam on which they each crouched.
"Watch your step carefully," he instructed softly. "The tiles won't sustain your weight, so stay on the beam." Sydney and Jeannie nodded, their eyes solemn. Before he turned again, he added, quite unnecessarily in Sydney's opinion, "And no talking!"
With that the trio began picking their way cautiously through the small, dark crawlspace. At times they could hear the sounds of single gunshots throughout the building. Sydney couldn't tell from which direction they were coming. After several minutes of making their way through the hot, dusty, and spider web-filled passageway, Sydney began to wonder when they were going to get out.
She was about to break her vow of silence, when Al held up his hand. Sydney and Jeannie stopped in place. Al again held out his small instrument and spoke softly into his headset's mouthpiece. After a few moments, he reached down and carefully lifted a corner of the tile. Lying on his stomach, he scanned the room below.
Apparently satisfied, he removed the tile, and with a dancer's grace, dropped to the floor. Sydney watched from above as he thoroughly searched the room. He momentarily walked out of her line of sight, and she felt an instant of panic; however, he was soon back.
He looked up and gave her a thumbs up. All clear! She smiled, but then wondered how on earth she and Jeannie were supposed to get down. As if in answer to her question, Al signaled for her to move out of the way. He again leaped and, moving as easily as a gymnast, he swung his body into the opening.
Paying out his thin safety line, he tied it around Sydney's waist and quickly lowered her to the floor. Before long, all three were standing in the middle of the empty classroom.
Al spoke finally. "We're at the far end of the Science corridor, in the last classroom on the south side. The outer doors are approximately fifty feet to our immediate right. I've checked the corridor it's clear. I'm getting you both out of here to safety."
"Al, what's going on?" Sydney asked. "Who are these people? Are you involved with them?" Al gave her an intense stare and held her eyes for a long moment.
Instead of answering her question, he said, "I've spotted several SWAT officers outside in the tree-line, so the BPD is already aware of the situation. Are you with me?"
Sydney grabbed him by the arm. "No! I want you to answer me! Please! Are you involved with these gunmen? How did you get out of jail? Were you released on bail? You didn't escape, did you?"
Al looked down at her hand on his arm, and hesitating, covered it with his own. He gazed steadily into her eyes, holding her suddenly mesmerized. Finally, Al reached a hand out and gently ran it up her cheek. He shook his head.
"No, Ms. Greene. I'm not involved with the gunmen. I don't have time to explain I need to get you both out of harm's way. I'll lead the way. You two do as I say. I promise I won't leave you, until I'm certain that you're safe ready?"
Jeannie nodded eagerly. Sydney followed suit, if a bit reluctantly. He rewarded them with a dazzling smile.
"Okay, then, let's go!"
Al stood at the open door, and urgently waved them out. Keeping a careful watch to their rear, he hurried the two women to the outer doors. As they were almost on them, a masked figure rounded the corner.
"Hey!" he shouted, taking aim.
"Go!!" Al screamed, turning and facing the gunman.
"Al!" Sydney cried out, pausing at the door. The gunman was about to open fire! Sydney shoved Jeannie out the door. "Run, Jeannie! Run! She screamed.
Not waiting for a second invitation, Jeannie took off towards the tree line at a full sprint. Holding the door partly open, Sydney waited long enough to see that a policeman met the young girl halfway to the trees. The officer waved frantically at Sydney to follow. She ignored him and turned back.
She couldn't leave Al alone with that gunman. She had to help him!
She heard shots from inside. Crouching low at the door, she gathered her strength, took a deep breath, and pulled it open the rest of the way. She slid in, rolling over as close to the wall as she could. As she rolled, she caught sight of what looked like a dark wraith pulling some kind of complicated ballet move.
Up against the wall, her vision cleared sufficiently for her to see Al, once again, leaping impossibly high and kicking with a the force of a moving train. The gunman fired several times, but Al incredibly, leaped, dove, and somersaulted, successfully dodging the automatic fire.
Sydney covered her face as wood splinters and glass fragments came flying at her. When she looked up again, she saw Al dive headfirst in front of the gunman, and spring straight up, feet first, knocking the weapon out of his hand. Al twisted his body, kicked out and connected with his opponent's jaw.
From where she cowered on the floor, Sydney heard the loud ~crunch~ of bone breaking! The gunman went down as if shot. Without pause, Al quickly and efficiently trussed him up and threw him bodily into the boy's restroom.
Sydney got up and ran to him.
"Al," she called in a hoarse whisper. Al turned to look at her, his eyes dark with anger.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed, grabbing her by the wrist and dragging her back to the exit.
"I'm staying here," Sydney protested, tugging at his vice-like grip. "You need help! You can't do it alone!"
"Don't be ridiculous, Ms. Greene," Al said. "You're a civilian I'm not letting you risk your life!"
"Civilian? What do you mean?" she demanded.
Exasperated, Al led her by the arm into a nearby, empty classroom.
"Ms. Greene, I promise you I'm one of the good guys. I'm a cop." At her look of utter disbelief, Al sighed and took out his badge. He held it out for her. Sydney took it and read his name: Officer Richard J. Grayson, Blüdhaven Police Department, Special Investigations and Violent Crimes.
Her reaction went from shock, to disbelief, to anger.
"See? I'm here to 'serve and protect'." He shrugged, chagrinned.
"A cop--? Y-You mean, what the kids call a-a narc? One of those cops who goes undercover in a school?" At his nod, she continued, her anger escalating, "How could you deceive me like that? I cared for you wanted to help you! Do you know how many real students' needs that I've put aside, because I thought that Al Richardson really needed my help?"
"I'm sorry, Ms. Greene, but I had to make my cover as realistic as possible. I didn't lie to you about the danger involved. But I couldn't let you know who I really was."
He took his badge back and started heading towards the door. He paused and addressed her in a low, gravelly voice that sent a chill of apprehension through her.
"Now, I didn't take almost a half-hour off my timetable to get you to safety, just to have you back in harm's way. You're going, if I have to throw you out!"
His words gave her pause.
"What--what do you mean by 'timetable'?" she asked. "This attack you didn't know about it, did you? You didn't just let Mrs. Pettit die, did you?" Her voice began rising, reaching a hysterical pitch. "And the others? You didn't just let them all die, did you? Did you!?"
By now they'd reached the outer doors, and Al firmly pushed her outside.
"You don't really believe that, do you, Ms. Greene?" he asked quietly. Not waiting for a reply, he shut the door in her face. It was a safety door that locked automatically from the outside when closed.
Sydney moved over and banged futilely at the safety glass on the side of the door, watching Al Richardson, or Officer Grayson, or whatever he called himself, run down the hallway, and disappear around the corner.
A movement from the trees caught the corner of her eye. A heavily armed policeman in full battle gear appeared from behind cover and waved furiously at her. Realizing that she was in the open and unprotected, Sydney was about to run towards the wood line, when perversely, she changed her mind.
"Who does he think he is, talking to me like I'm a child," she muttered. Without thinking about the recklessness of her decision, Sydney ran along the side of the school building and made her way back to the faculty entrance. Taking out her ID, she swiped it on the magnetic lock.
She heard the answering the click inside. Sydney cautiously pulled the door open and peered in. The hallway was eerily darkened because several of the lights had been obviously shot out; however, the coast was clear. Her heart pounding, Sydney entered and ran down the empty corridors.
Once inside, she was wracked with indecision. What was she doing? She asked herself. Officer Grayson was a professional. He didn't need her help. She looked around the efficiency kitchen and absentmindedly began opening the supply cabinets. But now that she was here
Sydney began rummaging through the kitchen cabinets, looking for anything that could be useful. As she searched, she suddenly had the feeling that she wasn't alone. She stood absolutely still, not breathing, her heart hammering.
About convinced that she was imagining things, Sydney was startled by something being knocked over inside the small pantry. In a state of panic, Sydney frantically searched for a weapon. Grabbing the closest thing at hand, Sydney crept slowly to the pantry.
Reaching for the doorknob, Sydney paused, whispered a short prayer, and yanked the door open. Simultaneously, she held out her weapon in an en garde position, and yelled, "Don't move!"
While the intruder hiding inside cried, "Don't hurt me!"
Wide brown eyes met frightened gray ones that were magnified from behind owl-like glasses.
"Mrs. Paret!" Sydney squeaked. The older woman's mouth worked, but no sound came out. She held her right hand over her heart as if fending off a heart attack.
"Sydney--!" she gasped after several tries. Taking a deep breath, Paret closed her eyes in relief. "Put that thing away, dear," she said. "You look ridiculous."
Sydney took a look at the 'weapon' that she'd been brandishing like a medieval knight's sword--a spatula! Sydney's numb fingers released it, and she felt her knees give way. As she collapsed on the floor next to Paret, Sydney felt laughter bubbling forth from her throat.
Unable to contain herself, she began snickering uncontrollably. Soon Paret joined her. Both women laughed until their sides hurt and tears streamed down their faces. Seeing Sydney's mascara run, Paret burst into a second round of laughter.
"What were you planning to do with that thing," Paret asked. "Flip me over?" Both women broke into helpless laughter again. Paret hugged Sydney to her. "I'm so happy to see you, dear I was so afraid that--" she stopped. "Well, I'm happy that you're all right."
This brought the women up short. Sydney dropped her eyes, then told the older woman about Pettit and the other women in the front office. Paret nodded sadly.
"I saw three of my students gunned down before me," she said. "He burst into the classroom, shooting wildly no warning of any kind. It was a madhouse most of the children panicked some ran others froze It didn't matter. If they weren't under some kind of cover, they were shot It all happened so fast." Paret paused, her voice breaking, tears starting.
"I hid under my desk I'm so ashamed of myself. Instead of helping my students, I hid like a coward. Then then--" she stopped, as if awed. "Sydney, you wouldn't believe it. Of all people, Al Richardson was suddenly there seemingly everywhere. He single-handedly brought that monster down. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen." She stared at Sydney with wide eyes. "He then evacuated that entire wing."
She dropped her eyes again.
"I couldn't move. I saw what was going on, but I couldn't move. I stayed under my desk long after the wing was emptied. I don't know why or how I ended up here, but I guess I finally realized that it was too dangerous to stay in the classroom. Anyway, here you found me in the pantry, with the other frightened mice."
Sydney hugged Paret to her. "You're not a coward! Do you hear me?" she whispered fiercely. "You're a wonderful teacher and a good person. No one could expect you to go head to head with a crazed gunman! You were afraid I was, too! We all are! That doesn't make us cowards It makes us human."
Paret nodded in Sydney's arms. She swallowed and wiped her face. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she finally turned curious eyes to Sydney. "Al Richardson is more than just a student, isn't he?"
Sydney nodded. "He's an undercover cop investigating the guns and drugs in the school. I just found out myself." She sighed. "I guess he was too late."
"I don't think so," Paret said quietly. "Before I finally left the classroom, I unmasked one of the unconscious gunmen. It wasn't any of the usual suspects not one of our known gang members not one of dozens who make a living out of causing trouble here at the school, who have a permanent seat in Jackson's outer office It was one of the quiet ones the youngest of the Andersen boys. Billy, I think Shy, timid he's never been in any trouble, but--"
"--but he's been picked on by some of the older, bigger kids," Sydney finished. Remembering the boy in the cafeteria whom Al had disarmed, she shook her head helplessly. "I don't understand. Why is this happening? It's all so senseless."
"When is murder ever sensible?" Paret asked. Seeing Sydney's look, Paret shook her head. "No, dear, you're right these masked gunmen are terrorizing the school for a reason. We may not know what their reasons are at this moment, but I intend to find out."
She slowly stood. "They hurt my students they've destroyed my school. And they disrupted my class. Nobody does that and gets away with it. It's time I stop cowering in fear and do something about it."
Sydney crept along the narrow crawlspace. Paret followed close behind. Neither woman spoke as she crawled. It was either could do to breathe without gasping. Finally, Paret called a halt.
Sydney turned her head back, her eyebrows raised in question.
"Rest please ?"
Sydney nodded. Both women precariously arranged themselves in a semi-sitting position along the narrow beam.
"Do you have any idea where we are?" Paret asked in low tones. Sydney shook her head, 'no,' but then recalling how Al had peeked through a crack in the ceiling tiles, she reached down and slowly lifted the corner on the nearest one. Leaning closer, she held her eye to the small opening.
Her felt her throat catch. She covered her mouth to keep from crying out. The room below was full of kids being held prisoner by a lone gunman. That's when she spotted Jackson. He was the only one who was bound and gagged. Every now and then, the gunman would check his bonds.
Jackson's sullen attitude showed a lack of cooperation, and the threat of retaliation if his hands were ever freed. Sydney swallowed. She wanted to do something, but what?
Neither she nor Paret were capable of taking out the gunman on her own. She studied the situation. Perhaps it were best if she and Paret moved on. The prisoners didn't seem to be in any immediate danger--
The classroom phone rang. The gunman answered it immediately.
"Yeah Any one in particular? Cheerleader, huh? There's a coupla real babes here. Seems a shame, but orders are orders."
He looked around the room until his eyes spotted his target. He pointed his weapon at a pretty strawberry blonde. Sydney recognized her instantly: Cherry, Al's faux girlfriend.
"I guess it's you, babe," he told her.
"What are you gonna do with her?" one of the boys asked, standing up along with her. Sydney recognized him as one of the school's star safeties.
"If I were you, I'd keep my mouth shut."
The boy stood defiantly in front of Cherry, protectively. "No, she's not going anywhere with you."
"Bobby, no!" Cherry urged. "It'll be all right you'll see. You owe me a prom date, remember? I'm not letting you out of it so easy."
"She's trying to save your hide, Bobby. Unfortunately, was I you, I'd start thinking about taking someone else to the prom."
"Noooo!" Bobby screamed, leaping towards the gunman in a flying tackle. Startled, the gunman squeezed the trigger on automatic and emptied a full clip into the boy's chest. The room erupted in pandemonium.
Several of the students sprang to their feet and rushed the lone, armed boy.
"He's out of ammo!"
"He killed Bobby!"
The gunman's training helped him beat them to the punch, however. Faster than the eye could follow, he discarded the spent clip, slapped in a full one, pulled the bolt back, and fired a short burst above their heads.
The shots narrowly missed Sydney and Paret, who just managed to evade being killed. Unfortunately, they also slipped off the narrow beam, and fell, screaming, through the ceiling tiles into the room below
As the ceiling above burst open, the gunman looked up in time to see two screaming women fall on top of him.
The students took advantage of the opportunity and together disarmed and subdued him. Sydney and Paret were helped slowly to their feet, and Jackson's bindings and gag were removed.
Jackson studied the two women with a dark, thunderous glare. Sydney swallowed. Taking a chance, she smiled brightly, shrugged her shoulders, and waved at him.
"Hi, Andy!" Mrs. Paret said brightly. "Sydney and I decided to 'drop in'."
Sobs coming from below caused them all to turn around. In the middle of floor, in a pool of blood, held in the arms of the girl he would have taken to the Senior Prom, lay Bobby Macalister, who was not yet eighteen.
"We've got to get them out, Mister Jackson!" Sydney insisted. "The building's surrounded by cops pretty soon, they're going to lose patience and storm the school. When that happens, A.H. is going to become a war zone!"
Jackson nodded reluctantly.
"It's too late, you know." They all turned to the now disarmed and bound former gunman. "They're expecting me to bring the girl. If I don't show up or check in within the next few minutes, they'll send someone here. I wouldn't doubt it if someone's already on the way."
"Hey, why should we believe you, geek?" one of the former prisoners jeered. Sydney recognized him as one of the school's running backs.
The boy looked at the football player with a mixture of contempt and hatred. "Because I've got nothing to lose, pinhead! And my name's Keith! It's time you knew who's gonna be responsible for ending your miserable lives. My partners and I've been planning this mission since last spring to the death!"
"Maybe but you're dead! All of you! You hear me? You're dead!"
"Oh, the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," a welcome voice said from behind them.
"Al!" Sydney cried, her joy at seeing him apparent in her voice.
"Please, Ms. Greene ! The school will talk." He gave the other students a knowing smirk. "She wants me."
Several of the boys burst into shaky, relieved laughter. Grinning, Al asked, "So, you wanna hang around and find out what surprises these bozos have in store for you ? Or, would you prefer to get out, while the getting's good?"
He looked around at the frightened, but eager faces. He nodded. "All right then. Someone grab Junior there--"
"--What about Bobby?" Cherry sobbed, her voice rising in hysteria. "We can't just leave him here!" Paret took the girl in her arms.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart but there's nothing we can do for Bobby anymore."
"His birthday's next week," Cherry cried brokenheartedly. "What will I tell his Mom and Dad? It should've been me "
"Don't talk like that, Cheryl Robbins," Paret said sternly. "It is most certainly not your fault! Do you hear me?"
"Say it all you want, Mrs. Paret," Keith jeered. "You may believe it eventually, but Cherry you and I know better, don't we? You and that whole Senior Class 'A' crowd the cheerleaders, the jocks, the class leaders! My buddies and I are gonna--"
Al walked up to the boy, and without hesitating, punched him. Keith collapsed, unconscious.
Al looked around at the disbelieving faces and shrugged. "Let's go."
He moved them out, five at a time. The three faculty members insisted on remaining with the students in the room until the end. Much to Sydney's surprise, Jackson was the one who first refused to leave until the last students were safe.
At last, the only ones left were Sydney,
Jackson, Paret, and two students.
"Go!" Al ordered. Al spun on his heel and began running back into the building. As he disappeared around the corner, Sydney waved Paret and Jackson on without her.
"But--!" Paret began to protest, but Sydney took off after Al.
She found him crouched at a major crossroads in the building, where four hallways intersected. He was listening intently into his headset and nodding vigorously.
"Are you sure, Babs?" he hissed. "Okay, I'm on it. But this looks more like a job for Nightwi--!" Glancing behind him, he saw Sydney moving up quietly behind him.
Al looked at Sydney and shook his head, obviously put out with her. He spoke into the headset. "I've got another problem yeah, a snoopy school counselor who doesn't know when to keep her nose out of things. Reminds me of someone I know, got any guesses who?"
Surprisingly, his face softened perceptibly and he smiled warmly. "Gotta go but stand by." About to turn away, he paused and listened again. His features hardened. "No! Absolutely not! This is my case! Tell 'im I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks!'"
He paused to listen, his dark features softening somewhat. "Well, okay Tell 'im I'll call him afterwards. Maybe he and I can do dinner next Friday sort of a belated celebration Yeah, I know he was busy it's cool, really."
He listened a bit impatiently, finally stopping the other end. "Look I've got to go! 'Bomb' remember? Set to go off? Yeah stand by."
Sighing, Al glared at Sydney. "We've got a problem our hostage negotiator has just been informed that the school's wired to go up like a Roman candle in about twenty minutes. There're still several pockets of students left that haven't been evacuated to safety."
Al looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, Ms. Greene, but my priorities have changed. I've got to find the explosives and try to defuse the bomb before it goes off. I'm afraid that I don't have the time to get you to the nearest exit again. Besides, I have a suspicion that it would be a waste of time time I simply don't have anymore."
He stood up, resigned to the inevitable. "Like or not, I'm taking you with me, Ms. Greene."
Sydney followed timidly. He led her on a journey that was a fast-moving, heart-stopping thrill ride. Along the way, he disarmed and incapacitated three more gunmen. At least one was able to acquire a bead on him and fire.
Al's bullet-proof vest proved effective against the high-powered rifle, and although he was thrown back initially, Al managed to right himself, gain his feet and in a dazzling display of acrobatics, somersaulted and ricocheted himself off the corridor walls until he reached the gunman and easily took him down.
Sydney, meanwhile, cowered, flattened against the wall, trying to present as small a target as possible. Al's athletic movements stunned her. She'd never witnessed anything so beautifully executed in her life.
Finally, they found it.
The homemade bomb instantly drew her attention. It was sitting in center court looking like a student's poorly cobbled-together science project. Sydney's untrained eye could make out several metal cans attached by wires to several pipe-like devices. These, in turn, had a digital timer that was obviously counting down.
Armed teens dressed in quasi-military camouflage stood, weapons at ready, guarding the two or three-dozen students they were holding hostage.
Craig Minnig was amongst the students huddled on the floor. And he was whining the loudest.
"You can't leave us like this! Please! I shouldn't even be here I've always had nothing but the utmost respect for--!"
One of the gunmen struck him across the face with a rifle butt.
"Craig!" Mindy screamed. "You've hurt him! Who do you think you are? What do you want with us?"
"Shut your face!" the gunman shouted, suddenly aiming his weapon pointblank at Mindy. "You hear me?! Shut up!" He turned to Craig, who was lying in Mindy's arms, holding his face.
"I'm going kill you, you gutless wonder! Do you understand? Get it through your head! You're dead, man! Dead!" He addressed the group. "All of you! You're carrion meat! This place is gonna blow! You're all history--!"
"Son, you don't really mean that, do you?"
They all turned to the new voice. Sydney's eyes widened. It was Melbourne!
"Tom!" she whispered. Sydney clapped Al insistently on the shoulder and pointed. Al looked at her annoyed as if to say, I see him, already!
"Doctor Melbourne! What are you doing here, sir?" the boy asked nervously. "I thought--"
"You thought that the phony call this morning would divert me?" Melbourne asked. "I appreciate the effort," he said. "You were trying to save my life weren't you?"
The boy nodded. "You're not like the others, sir. You understand my friends and I never meant to hurt you."
Another of the boys spoke up. "Yes, sir Your little talks about how you were picked on when you were at A.H., and how you iced the star quarterback with no one ever being the wiser, kind of gave us the idea."
"Yeah," still another said. "It was cool how you hid the body in the concrete foundation of the gym." The boy looked at his feet in admiration. "Just think, Minnig, underneath us lies the first of what's sure to be the greatest revenge scheme in history."
Sydney and Al exchanged shocked looks at this.
"We figured that if morons like Minnig and his jockstrap friends here have been harassing kids that long, then it's high time something was done about them. So, we decided to blow up the school."
"Boys, I appreciate the sentiment, and I admit to a certain admiration for your plan's sheer audacity, but A.H. is too important to me to allow you to destroy it. I'm here to help boys like you who've been picked on by their peers. To help you restore your self-esteem so that you can grow up to be self-confident men, leaders in your community, examples for others to follow. I'm afraid that my work here has just started."
"Doctor Melbourne," the first boy interjected. "We're sorry, but our minds are made up. We'd sure appreciate it if you left the building, sir."
"I'm sorry, boys but I can't do that." Melbourne walked up to one of the armed boys and laid his hand paternally on his shoulder. "Son, I understand how you feel, really, I do, but--"
Unexpectedly, Melbourne chopped down on the boy's exposed neck, grabbed his rifle, and sprayed the room with semi-automatic fire over the heads of the other gunmen!
Al took off as soon as Melbourne made his move. Sydney watched him leap over the heads of the group of students on the floor and fly straight towards Melbourne. Faster than Sydney's eyes could follow, Al disarmed and knocked the head principal unconscious.
Within seconds, he'd incapacitated the remaining gunmen. Trussing them efficiently with plastic tie wraps. Al grabbed one by the lapels, and demanded to know how to disarm the bomb.
" Or we all go up, including your miserable little, picked-on whiny butt!" he yelled.
The boy sneered. "You don't understand. None of you do. We always intended to die! We don't care anymore!"
Sydney listened with half an ear to what the boy was saying. Could it be possible? Could the youngsters be so far gone, so filled with hate and self-loathing, that they were willing to exact personal revenge at the cost of their own lives?
Al threw the boy on the floor in disgust and ran towards the homemade bomb.
"Ms. Greene!" he called over his shoulder. "Get the kids out of here! Now!"
Sydney nodded, even though he couldn't see her response and quickly began to release the kids. "Run!" she screamed at them all. "Minnig, you and your friends, take them with you!" She pointed at several of the unconscious gunmen.
"Why should we help them?" Minnig asked. "This is their fault!"
"No, Craig," Sydney replied. "It's our fault! Yours and mine we're responsible. Now help me get them out of here, or I swear I'll tie you up again, and leave you here!"
Minnig's eyes widened and he nodded. He looked at his friends. "Come on, you heard, Ms. Greene let's get these geeks out of here!"
"Find the nearest exit," Sydney called to the retreating students. "Don't wait for anybody!"
She was about to follow, when she noticed Melbourne still crumpled where he'd fallen. Bending down, she grabbed him from underneath his arms, and began dragging him
She wasn't going to make it. He was too heavy. Why did she run back into the building? She could've been outside, safe.
"I give up, Ms. Greene," Al said from above her. He bent down, and easily lifted Melbourne onto a fireman's carry. "You're one lady who just doesn't know what's good for her. Come on it's safe now. The bomb's disarmed."
As he spoke, several armed police officers began storming the building.
"He'll need a friend when he wakes up," Paret explained. She hugged Sydney and followed the stretcher bearing the still unconscious Melbourne.
Sydney watched sadly as Melbourne was taken away by ambulance, Paret and a policeman in attendance.
"He called the nine-one-one this morning. Did you know that?" Officer Rohrback asked. Sydney shook her head, 'no.'
"Apparently when he arrived at the Superintendent's office he realized he'd been led on a wild-goose chase and immediately suspected the worst. Melbourne's quick action saved a lot of kids' lives today."
"What'll happen to him?" Sydney asked.
Rohrback shrugged. "He had no direct knowledge of what his little esteem-boosting revenge tales were generating with the students. Still, there's the matter of the possible murder of the Arlington Heights star quarterback from about fifteen years ago."
"I ran a check," Officer Grayson added. "Fifteen years ago, Timothy Hodges, twelfth grader, and star quarterback disappeared without a trace following the A.H. Homecoming Game. Coincidentally, the current gym's foundation was just being laid back then."
"So, it could be true?" Sydney asked. "Tom could've murdered that boy and disposed of the body?"
Grayson nodded. "Yes, Ms. Greene. Our boss, Captain Addad has already requested a search warrant to dig up the gym floor."
Sydney nodded. There was so much to assimilate: Melbourne--a possible murderer; Al--a police officer named Grayson; Rohrback--his supposed probation officer--actually his partner.
Jackson walked up to them.
"Officer Grayson, I want to thank you. With your help, I hope that we've managed to make a difference."
Sydney looked up startled. Jackson explained.
"I called Captain Addad's office in the BPD. I met him a few years ago at a conference on gang activities. I knew he ran the local anti-gang task force. I asked for his help but he didn't inform me on what type of help he was sending." He grinned ruefully. "I almost had you expelled a couple of times, you know."
Grayson looked grim. "I'm glad I could be of help, but you know that you have to make some changes here. Unlike Escobar's gang, these kids had no previous criminal record and had never been in trouble in school. There was no way that the BPD could've predicted their actions today."
He held Jackson's eyes intensely.
"Bullies like Minnig might have gotten away with hazing kids a generation ago, but today, it's too easy for their victims to obtain guns. This is not an isolated incident. It could happen again all too easily."
"Oh, please, Officer Grayson!" Jackson blustered. "These kids must've had some kind of a criminal mastermind behind them I mean, look at the weapons and explosives they had. It's impossible for kids to get that kind of material, isn't it? And even if they could get it on their own, how could they ever figure out how to build a bomb?"
"Jackson, listen carefully to what I have to say," Grayson replied. "The 'homemade' bomb I defused in there had enough power to take out half the school and the ingredients are all easily and legally available. Furthermore, the 'how-to' instructions can be obtained from underground books and even the Internet.
"These kids had personal beefs, whether real or imagined, against the school's so-called elitist 'A-crowd'. They weren't what you would term 'bad' kids just kids on the outside kids who felt disenfranchised who felt nobody cared about them or their problems. So, they decided to make a 'statement'."
Grayson paused for a moment, gauging the effect his words were having on Jackson. "And you, Mister Jackson, have been primarily responsible for some of this. Minnig informed me that you were practically, and I quote, his 'lapdog'--"
"That's right!" Sydney interjected. "I overheard Craig say that!"
Jackson looked at them with a stunned expression. "I-I had no idea I mean, Craig's a leader. I just wanted what was best for the school That's all I've ever wanted. What can I do?"
"In my professional opinion, Mister Jackson," Sydney opined, "getting rid of the 'Senior Table' is the place to start. Maybe hold an assembly to allow the survivors to talk out their feelings. We need to make all our students feel welcome, like they belong."
Jackson nodded. "Ms. Greene, when you're finished here, I'd like to see you in my office. If we're going to succeed, we need to come up with a viable game plan." He shook hands with Grayson and Rohrback. "Excuse me, officers, I have a school to run. "
Sydney watched Jackson go back into the building.
"Funny, he always wanted the job of head principal," she said resentfully. Recalling the scene of carnage and destruction within the school building, she looked away. "It's all so useless. It's too late."
"That's where you're wrong, Ms. Greene." Grayson pointed at the crowds of students milling about, waiting for parents and school buses to take them home. "See them? They're what it's all about. Like I said before don't give up on them. They need you." He gave her a heart-stopping smile and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Good-bye, Ms. Greene and stay safe." Turning to Rohrback, he asked, "Ready to go, partner?"
"Any time, rookie," she replied.
Sydney stood without moving long after they'd climbed into their squad car and driven away. Taking a deep breath, she started towards the faculty entrance. She had her work cut out for her.
"Might as well get started," she muttered.
Dedication: This story is for my colleagues in the education field. They're all heroes in my eyes. :)
Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Lazer's Talmud Torah for their educational website. I borrowed the brief passages of the beautiful poem, "Adon Olam" (Master of the World), from the translation posted on their site.
Special Thanks: to Hazel and Terri for taking the time to read and comment on too many drafts to count. And to Dannell for encouraging me to write the thing in the first place.
All characters are DC Comics
This story is © 2000 by Syl Francis.
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