"Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots." –Sun Tzu
My school work had begun to take its toll. I had passed the 'settling in' phase and was now in hard-core exam preparation. Despite my recent extra-curricular activities in school, I definitely didn't want to flunk and lose what possible chances I had of getting into a good Uni back in the UK. I believed in my cause, sure but I wasn't willing to sacrifice my whole future for it.
So I took a day out and hauled my textbooks down to the library. Unlike the more communal ambience that my local library in London had had, the library here felt a little cold, impersonal. I found a study table and sighed over my Chemistry reading. I usually worked pretty hard in school, but the sciences weren't my forte. It didn't take me long to get so bored that I stood up and browsed around a little.
Within ten minutes I had a small stack of books on my desk to take home and read for pleasure, rather than academic purposes.
I spun around, my eyes widening. Paul Banks was eyeing my stack. And no, get your mind out of the gutter, that's not a euphemism, he was eying my stack of books. My first thought was one that would have made me scoff a few weeks ago. I was in trackies. Sweats. A haze of embarrassment settled on me at the thought that it wasn't in my game plan for him to see me looking anything but put-together. "Damnit. Bloody hell." And he was dressed as he always was, in a T-shirt that looked like it had been tailored to fit his athletic body and faded denims. Minimal effort and he still looked better than me.
"Hi. Sorry to disturb you."
I forced myself to relax, narrowed my eyes and leaned against the table behind me. "You didn't. You just startled me a little."
"Yeah I gathered. I seem to do that a lot." He paused, raising his eyebrow at the books again. "Self-help book?" It was an effort not to spin around and look at my books self-consciously. I pretended I was in quick sand, thoroughly glued in position while I stared down a mountain lion.
"Sort of. I'm interested in the psychotherapy of it but also the aspects that help you to communicate with other people."
"You don't seem to have any problems communicating."
"Is that your way of saying I talk too much?"
He blinked. "Not at all. I meant it as a compliment."
"Well…There's always room for improvement."
Awkward. I wondered why he'd come over to talk to me. Then he surprised me.
"Look, you're probably wondering why I'm talking to you here."
"Am I that transparent?" If I was, that was slightly worrying.
He actually laughed. It annoyed me how much it softened his features and how much more relatable he was. It was almost like talking to a person. "You're the furthest thing from transparent I've ever come across. It's just I would be wondering if I were you." He took a breath. "I wanted to apologise."
I stared at him. "Apologise?"
"For the way I spoke to you at Russell's party. It was uncalled for and accusatory."
Don't fall for it Felicia. It could be a trick, a powerplay. "Hm…so you don't still think I've got some strange ulterior motive now?"
His eyes took me in sharply. "Oh I'm sure you do. But that doesn't mean you're a bad person or deserve to be treated like a pariah."
He kept surprising me. "What are you talking about?"
"Nothing." He shook his head. "This isn't about anything except for the fact that I was rude to you before and I wanted to make that right." He gaze shifted for a moment. He must have been looking out of the window behind me. "Simone is a good friend of mine. I trust her a lot and she likes you. You made things right with her at the party. So whatever your game is, I know that you're not trying to hurt my friend exactly."
Well not that friend anyway. "You're very direct." I noted.
"Why wouldn't I be?" His eyes slid back to mine, stuck for a moment and then became more unfocused. He looked almost bored.
I shrugged feeling inexplicably annoyed. "Bordering on tactless."
"If you say so."
"It's also kind of odd to see you here…in the library with all these books and none of your friends."
"I could say the same about you, Felicia Gray."
"Just Felicia." I was baffled at his personality. "Why are you even so popular at school?" Damnit I was losing my cool again. Letting my real feelings slip through.
"I have no idea."
I frowned at his tone. "You say that as if it's a huge mystery to you. You do know that the entire school watches what you do and say right?"
"Yeah it's kind of hard to miss" He crosses his arms, "It surprised me when you started doing it too."
"You must have been underestimating the power of peer pressure."
"I don't think that was it. You're not the type to be pressured into doing something you didn't want to. And I'm pretty sure you still don't like me."
He's too observant for his own good. "I don't know what I've done to give you that impression." I said diplomatically.
"I notice you're not denying it though." He smirked. "Anyway like I said, I wanted to apologise".
I expected more but he stopped there. It was an unqualified, outright apology. The guilt monster stood behind me and chewed on my shoulder blades until my posture slumped slightly. I blew out a frustrated breath. "And I'm sorry if I was a bit…" underhanded? Manipulative? Vindictive? I still am all of those things. "…abrupt."
"No problem." He nodded. "Truce?"
No way in hell. "Sure." He left me, casting one last glance at my books.
Damn. I really didn't get him. He was just…a lot more quiet and thoughtful then I'd thought. But then that was also going to be his downfall because if he was so considerate and intelligent then why the hell didn't he do something about the injustices being perpetrated for his sake? Why didn't he just tell Heather and Brittany it was never going to happen, rather than lead them on? That was even more unforgivable. Pity…if all this hadn't happened, he would have been an interesting person to have as a friend.
I turned around, allowing myself to glance at my stack of non- school related books hurriedly. Thankfully, the one that I hadn't wanted him to see had the spine facing the window. So there was little chance that he would have been able to read it. The Secrets of Lock picking.
I spent a few days practising the technique. I learned that there were different methods to this skill. A skill I never in a million years thought that I'd be taking pains to learn. We had basic key padlocks on our lockers at school so this is the area that I focused my research in. I stopped at a local hardware store afterschool one day and purchased the closest match that I could find but was laughed out when I started to enquire about a lock-picking set. I had felt a little betrayed at the fact that TV seemed to have misled me in thinking that an amateur could pick a lock with just a paperclip. Lock picking was actually done as a sport (called locksport pragmatically enough) and the most efficient form involved owning a professional set of lockpicks. My guide told me that if I wanted to open a padlock without a drill or bolt cutters I would need plenty of practice.
On my return from the store I ordered a 9-piece set of lock picks online for a next-day arrival, wincing at the price and thankful that I had a healthy bank balance before coming to Seattle thanks to my part-time job back home. The set came with a torsion wrench, a hook pick, a half diamond, something called a snake rake, a half diamond, An S-rake pick, a double round pick and a long double ended pick. Through trial and error I learned which two of the picks were the best fit then set about practicing getting the cylinder of the padlock to turn. It was tricky at first, I wasn't a particularly dexterous person and couldn't quite grasp how to get the tumblers to turn, and at one point threw it across the room in frustration. But if I wasn't dexterous I was determined as hell. I picked it up again and by the time I fell asleep I could pick the lock in about four minutes.
I was working on the assumption that Brittany had stashed Kim's watch in her locker at school. It was ostensibly a flimsy lead, but I was willing to bet that she wouldn't have been malicious enough to throw it away straight away, or careless enough to take it home where her family, who seemed to be on a more modest living than some in Ballard might notice a new foreign men's watch tucked away somewhere. Plus if she was as smart as I was giving her credit for, she would probably dump the watch on Margaret at the earliest opportunity, enhancing the whole drama.
I stood at Margaret's locker waiting for her on game day.
The school was generally abuzz with predictions for the evening's basketball game. There was a communal air to the place that I hadn't noticed since entering this school for the first time. Everyone seemed slightly more perky, and the athletes were getting royal treatment. I leant against the row of lockers as the cheerleaders passed me, seeming to have smacked on extra lipgloss and removed at least an inch of skirt. It was Heather's bunch. They had baked goods proudly in tow and marched them up to Paul, Jae and the other jocks.
Heather made a beeline for Paul, passing him a blueberry muffin. "Good luck today, Paul. Knock 'em dead." She was leaning forwards slightly, trying to emphasise her wonderbra assisted boobs.
I rolled my eyes. "Thanks," Paul actually looked appreciative.
"No problem babe." She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a quick hug, looking for a moment like she might squeeze him and never let him go.
I snorted, muffling it with a fist. When she pulled away she stared up at him for a moment and he bizarrely looked a little sad. "Heather…"
She grinned and then threw herself at Jae who was laughing and hugging her back enthusiastically. I watched, frowning and not understanding, as Paul's saddened eyes drifted over the crowd and passed over me. Then he glanced back and stared at me. I was actually dressed better than our last encounter, thankfully wearing a knee-length denim skirt and blue blouse but it was my expression he watched closely. I dropped the severe look I must be sporting and raised an eyebrow, a half grin on my face.
He shook his head, and tilted it to one side as if to say, I know you're watching me, what have you got planned?
I chuckled and jerked my head upwards slightly, You'll see, King of Ballard.
I was starting to sound like a black-and-white movie villain even in my own head so I broke our silent communication and trained my gaze on the door again. Eventually the sea of people thinned a little and I was less obliged to say hello to every other person that passed. Margaret stepped through the doors, wispy auburn hair tied into a pony and her skin looking slightly flushed. I was immediately glad my skin never really blushed- it would have given too much away. I observed the stark difference between her walking down the hallway and me or the trinity doing so. No one said hello, there were a few 'up down' looks from girls that seemed to have taken her alleged theft personally and a few snickers. It was worth observing because while she was with me no one really bothered her. But I couldn't stay by her side all the time.
I had been monitoring twitter and facebook closely. I had noticed that her facebook friend list had dwindled to a meager ninety or so acquaintances and there were some pretty nasty comments about her being circulated on other people's threads. It had been hard to read. Cyber bullying seemed to be the weapon of choice for the fickle masses.
Jesus, if that's what life had been like for Dani it was no wonder I was going postal.
She met me at her locker with a rushed, "Hey."
I nodded. "Here's what I need you to do." I handed her a note I had written up earlier, figuring it would have been too risky to talk about these things outright.
"Okay." She opened it right there in front of me and her eyes widened while she read. "You really thought this through." She was grudgingly impressed. I could already tell she was the type to hate having to rely on people.
"Don't tell anyone."
She barked a laugh, gesturing to her invisible friends beside her. "Who would I tell?"
The day passed in a blur. I remained calm on the outside, going through my daily routine. I even sat with Yassir at lunch and after some cajoling managed to get Russell and Jae to move over to their table to sit with me. I could feel Heather and Brittany burning holes in my back but it didn't really matter. They were having to get used to me doing whatever I wanted beyond their petty cliques. Yassir had been surprisingly knowledgeable about basketball, explaining some finer points to me while Jae and Russell nodded along, inserting comments around their carb loading. While my stomach became slightly nervous I inwardly marvelled at how lucky I was to have the cool friends that I did here. I wouldn't have been able to stay sane if it weren't for those lot.
School broke up for the day and people loitered around campus, waiting for the evening's basketball game to start. I knew from Jae that the players were warming up and having a pre-team huddle with their coach to discuss strategy. I sat on the steps of the quad, an open and marked up copy of The Duchess of Malfiin my lap so that people would assume I was practicing lines and wouldn't bother me. In reality, I was watching Laura Banks and Damon Long flirt and kiss on the other side of the space. I glowered, wondering if going after her would be worth incurring her brother's wrath.
"Who earned that look?" Jake ignored my silence and sat next to me without invitation. Lucky for him he was one of the few people that wouldn't annoy me despite the mood I was in. I was PMSing. Badly.
"Hi." I muttered, not turning to look at him.
"So, Margaret Spencer's your project hey?"
"You've kind of been parading her around school as if you're trying to upset people. But at the same time you're now best friends with everyone. What's that about?"
I shrugged, "Nothing really."
"Okay." He tapped my arm so I would look at him and grinned at me. "Let's try again. Does she and your rebellious seating arrangement have something to do with your cousin being in hospital?"
I dropped the play book and grabbed his forearm. "How did you…?"
He shook his head. "Not as dumb as you think we are, hey?" When I didn't reply he explained, "I volunteer sometimes at the hospital. I recognized Dani from school so got to talking to her. She asked about you almost straight away- you haven't been returning her calls? Anyway she was worrying you'd be doing something crazy like bitch-slapping Brittany. So I got to thinking…that's pretty much what you've been doing. Except more figuratively than literally,"
"You can't tell anyone. The element of surprise is half of my advantage right now."
"You're serious about this aren't you?"
"How could I not be? This has affected someone I love. And it's working. People don't seem as scared of them anymore." I gestured to a group on the quad where one of Peter's bespeckled friends was actually holding up a conversation with some cheerleaders.
"You're even more interesting than I realized." Jake said appreciatively. "Anyway it's nice to know that you're downright bipolar behavior is originating from a place of love."
"You're not going to try and stop me, or talk me out of it?"
"No way. Brittany is not a nice person and I'm a romantic on the inside. I kind of like the idea of the beautiful Brit coming in and fighting for the little people."
I elbowed him, almost relieved that the first genuinely nice person I'd met here knew what I was up to and didn't think I was crazy or wasting my time. "You hippie."
He laughed easily. "So what's your plan, Joan of Arc?"
"Can you do me a favour?"
"Tell Kimberly something that will get her to the lockers outside the Chem lab at about six-thirty today?"
"You're not going to tell me why?"
"Element of surprise, my friend. If you want to know, then you should come with her."
Ashley sat down next to me as the cheerleaders, united for the first time since I'd been here, began their opening prelude to the game. "It's locker 274". She told me.
She laughed. "You're just lucky I find you funny as hell otherwise I'd charge you for that kind of information."
She apparently had a friend that worked in the school office. I hadn't questioned her about it. A cheer went through the audience as the home team ran into the gym, their trainers squeaking against the newly polished wood flooring. The opposing team, from Nova had a lot more tall people on it, but from what I heard Paul and his cohorts were speedy and had great three-pointers, whatever that meant.
I watched with half my attention. I'd never really been into sports, not being very athletic myself and therefore couldn't muster the same excitement as my classmates, but in the habit of women everywhere who wished to please, I faked it pretty well. I watched Paul open the game by scoring twice in the first twenty minutes. His eyes hardly strayed from the ball and Jae often passed to him in deference. They began to get sweaty and the purely female side of me began to enjoy watching a lot more as sinewy muscles strained under the exertion. I shook myself ten minutes before half time. Showtime.
Outside the gym I met with someone I'd befriended recently and contacted through twitter. He gave me a spliff, for twenty dollars. My parents would be so proud. Worst case scenario: this would at least get Brittany expelled and in trouble with her parents, maybe affect her permanent record. Best case: the entire school would discover she was a thief and a manipulator and she would be a social outcast
The price was steep but I'd approached this guy in particular because I'd needed it to be given to me before the game was over. "Thanks dude."
"Right on," the stoner shoved the twenty in his pocket and then left me to get up to my nefarious deed.
I legged it down the corridor, out of the building and into the science building. It took me a few minutes to locate the locker 274 and a record-breaking three minutes to pick the lock. I searched the locker hurriedly but the watch wasn't there. "Damnit." Expelled and in trouble it was. Drat.
I lit the spliff and put it on a piece of foil I'd prepared- hoping that I wasn't about to commit an act of arson as well as entrapment. Then I shut her locker and snapped the padlock back into place.
I slipped back into the gym and took a seat just as the whistle for half time blew. My eyes were drawn to Paul as he dropped his palms to his knees and drew in a few deep breaths. For the first time I saw him grin widely, in a way that did not look like it had been forced out of him. He was enjoying himself. I checked the scoreboard, we were winning, which was probably why. But something about his expression, the sheer exhilaration, made me wonder whether it was the victory or the game itself that amounted to the rarity.
"It was living your life without purpose".
People started to get up and move around as the players jogged off the court into their locker rooms for a break. I found Simone and said as casually as possible, "Hey, where's Jake?"
She offered me the Milk Dudds that were sitting on her lap, "I saw him take Kim Wang somewhere." She narrowed her eyes at me. "What's going on?"
I shrugged and tried not to avoid her gaze. "What do you mean?"
"Hm…I don't know. You don't think he's making a move on her do you?"
"Nah, she has a boyfriend, doesn't she?"
"What's that about?"
I glanced where she was pointing and witnessed a faculty member whisper something in Mr Koontz's ear. His eyebrows snapped down and he was up and out of the gym before the woman finished speaking. Game on.I thought.
"Let's go see." I stood up immediately and dodged around people in the bleachers.
"Hey, English, where are you going?" Jae was calling out to me, as the athletes were making there way back onto the court.
I shot him a grin over my shoulder, "Something serious is going down, I saw Koontz run out of here."
Ashley came up beside me and added in a voice that was a bit louder than we'd discussed, "I heard a locker is on fire."
"What?!" Screeched a cheerleader.
I didn't stop at the questions at my back. I strode out after Koontz, Simone at my side. I hadn't realized just how many people had followed me until I got to the hallway outside the chem lab. Kimberley Wang, her boyfriend and Jake were standing with Koontz, who was in the process of unlocking locker 274 with a set of master keys. I glanced over my shoulder and realised that a few of the basketball players, including Paul and Jae had followed and more people were joining the crowd.
"Is that smoke?!" Someone exclaimed.
"That's Brittany's locker."
Koontz finally pried the locker open and coughed through the smoke, a fire extinguisher clutched in his other hand. Then his shoulders tightened noticeably and he pulled out the piece of foil with the charred remains of the weed on it. He spun around, dropped it on the floor and stepped on it hurriedly. Luckily, nothing in the locker seemed damaged.
He pinched the slickly black and trampled resin between his thumb and forefinger, and his eyes became very grave. The aroma was unmistakable. His eyes bored into the offending substance before regarding another teacher. "Nora, clear this hallway please, and have the owner of locker 274 sent to my office."
"Oh no need, sir, it's mine." Brittany shoved past me, her mouth set in a thin line.
I frowned. She didn't look nearly as shocked or scared as I had expected her to.
He blinked up at her with his squinty eyes. "Brittany Howard, is this marijuana?"
"I imagine it is. But it's not mine. I don't know how it got in there." Her eyes scanned the crowd and for a moment they settled on me and narrowed a little, before she pulled her gaze to the left and nodded.
Immediately a red-headed cheerleader that I hadn't bothered to learn the name of stepped forward. "It's mine, sir. I'm sorry, I had Brittany's key and I left it in there."
Brittany shook her head, folding her arms. "Shit Laurie. What a stupid thing to do, you clearly have a problem if you've actually been smoking this shit in school."
"Language!" Koontz admonished. He rubbed his head, looking from one girl to the other. "Laurie, are you aware of the severity of what you're admitting to?"
She barely hesitated. And if I hadn't been watching her closely I wouldn't have noticed the trepidation in her seemingly resigned expression. "Yes Sir. It was mine. I'm very sorry."
I couldn't believe it. My fists clenched. This Laurie girl was so ready to take the fall for Brittany. Brittany would get a slap on the wrists and nothing else while Laurie's parents would probably take her out of school and send her to rehab when she didn't need it. I glanced at Brittany's pack and the protective semi-circle they had formed at her back. Jake stood slightly off to their left, along with Kim Wang. Like Hell. There is no way she's getting off scot-free after all the work I put in.
I had to salvage something out of this. If this Laurie girl was so loyal that she would take the fall for Brittany, then there may have been something else Brittany had entrusted her with…
"If I may, sir." Everyone looked at me, I tossed my hair, feigning casualness. "If Laurie has a problem with illicit drugs, it might be prudent to empty out her locker now too."
The cheerleaders glared at me. I hadn't meant to get directly involved at this crucial moment but I had no choice. My first hunch hadn't paid off.
Koontz seemed to consider this for a moment. "Laurie, Brittany, go to my office right now. Everyone else, clear this hallway."
Of course this was like trying to clear out Disneyworld on a Friday evening when it was full of sugar addled kids. Everyone was way too interested in the drama to do so in a timely manner and Koontz really was too much of a teddy bear, too reluctant to appear threatening. Another faculty member gave him a list of student's names and corresponding lockers and he opened Laurie's with aplomb.
He stuck his hand in and rifled through, and then turned around with a sigh. "Nothing in here."
"Wait!" Kim gasped. "That's- that's my watch! Oh my God," She brushed past Koontz and retrieved a fancy leather watch with a buckle clasp. "She stole it! This is my father's watch."
I shut my eyes in relief. So the plan went awry, but at least I've done some kind of good. Even though the cheerleaders have closed ranks and none of them are going to sell Brittany out.
"Laurie stole her watch!?"
"Bitch," The crowd muttered.
Koontz looked astonished. "This was the watch that you accused Margaret Spencer of stealing?"
"Yes!" She gasped, tears in her eyes and threw her arms around her boyfriend.
I weaved around a few people until I reached her. I spoke softly, "Mistakes happened, but I'm sure Maggie would appreciate an apology." She lifted her head off the guy's shoulder and looked at me. And then I couldn't resist acknowledging her boyfriend with a smirk, "And Sherlock Holmes? He lived at Baker Street."
Then I disappeared into the sea of onlookers and headed towards the exit, knowing that Brittany would weasel her way out of responsibility but at least I knew where her true power lay. Loyalty.I had to come between her and her followers.
A/N: My sincere apologies for the huge delay since the last update. Real life intrudes like the drama queen it is!