(This is the beginning of Chapter 4, so follows on directly from the previous entry).
Like a class of robots, we got up and started filing out the door, too shocked to even talk to each other. The silence was deafening. I got to my locker on autopilot and pulled out my lunchbox, extracting a blueberry muffin and an apple.
“Good to see you’re watching that waistline, Frank,” said Troy, but I could tell it was just out of habit; his heart wasn’t in it, so I didn’t even bother to reply. I just swung out of the door, looking for Jen and Egg, and, naturally, completely forgetting that I needed to find Penny.
Jen and Egg were waiting on the broad wooden seat built around the tall eucalypt by the fence. Egg was eating a huge slice of bacon frittata and talking nonstop, small bits of food flying out of the corners of his mouth as he did so. One, I saw, had landed on his collar, which made him look like a bird with a very bad stomach-ache had pooped on him. Egg is the world’s messiest eater; actually, he might be the world’s messiest human.
Jen wasn’t eating anything edible, but she was clearly very worried because she had worked a corner of one of her long blonde braids free and was chewing on it, listening to Egg’s stream of chatter but never taking her eyes off the doorway. As soon as she saw me, she shot to her feet and called, “FRANK-EE...” As if I was going to miss them!
Jamming my apple into my mouth, I hustled over to them, flopping down on the seat beside Egg.
“So, you worked it out, then,” I said, crunching the apple morosely.
Jen ejected the wet hair from her mouth and said, “Frankie, what in hell in going on?” By which it was clear exactly how thrown Jen was by all this. Jen does not swear. At all, ever, even mild words like crap and hell that most of us let fly pretty casually. Her family’s pretty strict on it, and Jen, also, is a word nerd of truly epic proportions; she considers it lazy language, and can always think of a far more inventive way to say something fails to please her than my usual, “Oh crap!”
I took the final bite from my apple and pitched it effortlessly into the bin behind me. I am a very good shot with projectiles of any kind; just ask my brother Seb, he’ll tell you.
“Jen, you heard it,” I said. “According to Mr O, our class produced 18 identical test papers, and 5 different ones. The presumption is obvious, that at least some of not all of the 18 identical ones resulted from cheating.” I paused, flicking my gaze around the yard, noticing similar huddles of grade 5 students dotting the various seats, play equipment and trees. Of course, the news was already on the move beyond our own grade, too; in fact, I thought, it won’t be long until...
“Frankie!” My brother Seb stood in front of me, face flushed, out of breath. His black-framed glasses, too big for his thin face, slid down his nose and he pushed them back irritably. He needs a haircut again, I noticed irrelevantly, as a lock of thick red hair fell into his eyes. (Seb’s fantastic ability to grow hair at the rate other people digest food was legendary in our family. My Dad often said he must wash it in Maxicrop or something).
“Seb, take your Ventolin,” I advised, hearing the slight wheeze in his voice. “Nothing to be gained by having a big asthma attack, is there?”
Seb glared at me but did what I said, pulling his puffer from his pocket and delivering two quick doses. “Now,” he said, arms folded, “is it true? Has your whole class been accused of cheating? Including you?”
“Well, that’s half right,” noted Egg drily. “Not bad odds for the rumour mill.”
“What?” Seb snarled. My little brother is a stresshead, and he and talkative, socially inept Egg do not get along at the best of times. (This wasn’t the best of times).
Jen intervened. “Most of the class has been accused of cheating on the inter-school maths test, Seb. 18 of the test papers were identical. Five of us were singled out as having different papers and so weren’t accused of cheating.”
Seb looked at me. “So, you haven’t been, then?”
I sighed. “No, that’s the half-right part, I’m afraid,” I told him. “Jen and Egg are OK, but my paper was one of the 18 duplicates. I’m in it up to my neck.”
Seb narrowed his eyes. “Well, obviously it’s BS,” he said flatly. “What’re you gonna do about it?”
Unexpectedly, I was moved. Until that very instant, it hasn’t occurred to me there was anything to be done, or more particularly, anything to be done by me. This was, now that I thought about it, pretty silly. I mean, I started from the position of knowing – KNOWING – that I hadn’t cheated, and that therefore, there must be some kind of scam involved. Plus, I am a detective. I detect things. Uncovering the whys and hows of a cheating scandal should be right up my alley. And to think it had taken a stubborn 9 year old with instinctive faith in me, whose hair was about to invade his glasses (again), to remind me of these two facts.
I took a big bite of my blueberry muffin, and chewed it thoughtfully. “Something, for sure,” I said. “Probably starting with working out how the switcheroo – if that’s how it was done – happened.”
Seb nodded. Egg and Jen looked interested too. Jen said, “A first step would be to look at the papers.”
“If you can,” said Seb. “They might not let you.”
Egg laughed, decorating Seb with frittata crumbs, which made Seb look as mad as thunder. “MIGHT not?” he said. “Come on. Those papers are with the department now, and given what’s happened, you are never going to get them back. Ever.”
“Probably true,” I conceded calmly. “However, that’s not the end of the game, people. Not by a long shot.”
“I think,” said Jen slowly, “that Mr O might help you. I’m not sure he believed in it as a result. I mean, that so many cheated.”
I thought she was probably right about that. “Well, I will talk to him,” I said, “stay back at lunch dismissal. In the meantime, let’s pool our memories of the test itself. See if anything strikes us as odd in the way we sat it, how the papers were collected, or anything.” I pulled out my case notebook, which always travelled with me, and opened it.