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This is a YA book, but it's fun for the whole family. Trust me. Here's the chapter:
The Girl Who Wanted To Be Sherlock Holmes
Before I tell you about finding the dead man, I have to tell you about a girl I know.
Her name's Shirley Holmes, and her name is very important to her. That's because about a hundred years ago, more or less, there was a famous detective named Sherlock Holmes.
Shirley Holmes. Sherlock Holmes.
You see the connection? Neither do I, since as I tried to explain to Shirley, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, not a real person.
"He's just a person in stories," is the way I put it. "He's not real."
"And just how do you know that, Ralph-o?" she asked, looking down at me. She's about the same height I am, which is five-seven, but somehow she seems taller. I don't know how she does it.
And that's just one of the annoying things about her. Another one is that she never fails to call me The Ralphster, or Ralph-o, or Ralphola, or The Ralphmeister. It’s not very dignified if you ask me.
Of course Ralph's my name; I can't deny that, as much as I wish that I could. If I'd had any say-so in it, I'd have been called Clint, or maybe Thorne, like a guy on the soap opera that my father watches every day. Maybe you've seen it. The Bold and the Beautiful. But of course I didn't have any say-so, and I got named Ralph. It could be worse, I guess. I could have been named Fauntleroy, maybe, or Alphonse.
I can see that I've drifted off the point here, which is something that I'm prone to do, according to Ms. Turkel, my English teacher. She's always writing crabby little notes in red ink in the margin of my papers, saying things like "This is really very interesting, Ralph, but what does it have to do with your thesis?"
She calls me Ralph, naturally. All the teachers do. The name's right there on my Permanent Record, so what can I do about it?
But I was telling you about Shirley. She has red hair and green eyes and freckles, and the truth is I like the way she looks a whole lot, but I'd never come out and tell her that. We're both juniors at Harry Whittington High School, and we take a lot of the same classes.
We've known each other a long time, ever since second grade, but I've only noticed how nice she looks in the last year or so. I never paid much attention to things like that about girls very much before, but I've started noticing it pretty often since about the ninth grade. It has a lot to do with hormones, according to Mr. Wilder. He teaches biology, so he knows what he's talking about.
As I was saying, though, Shirley thinks she's somehow related to this fictional character, which is clearly ridiculous, but just try to convince her of that.
"They've made movies about him, haven't they?" she asked. The orthodontist removed her braces last summer, but she has to wear a retainer, and sometimes it clicks against her teeth a little when she talks if she's excited. It was clicking now.
"They've made movies about Spiderman, too," I said. "But that doesn't mean he's real."
"That shows how much you know," she said.
We were talking in the lunchroom at Whittington High. We both have first-period lunch, which means we have to eat at ten forty-five. I'd rather have a candy bar about then and eat lunch later, around noon, but that's not the way things work at Whittington. Not for me anyhow. I have to go in there at ten forty-five and face the chili pie or the BBQ stew (which really isn't so bad if you put your napkin on top of it and soak off most of the red grease that sits on top of it before you eat it) or the tuna casserole or whatever other new taste thrill the cafeteria cooks have come up with for that day.
At least I can sit with Shirley, though. That makes it almost bearable, unless we're arguing about Sherlock Holmes, her famous detective relative.
Reed Gunter and Franny Furman were at the table with us. They have really small tables in the cafeteria so that you can't have more than four people at them. The administration at Whittington has a theory that groups of more than four people cause undue disruption in the lunchroom.
They could be right. It's pretty loud in there as it is, with everyone talking, trays slapping the tables, silver rattling, chairs scraping. You know how it sounds.
Reed and Franny weren't much help to me. They were on Shirley's side.
"I saw this movie last week on cable," Franny said. "It was about Alexander Graham Bell. He was real."
Franny is a drama person. She's thin and very white, or at least her face and neck are. I think it's some kind of make up. She always wears black pants, a black shirt or sweater, and a long black cloth coat. She wears the coat all year long. Her hair is short and straight, and it's dyed some kind of reddish orange. The roots are black, though, so they match her clothes. Her eyes are black, too.
"Yeah," Reed said. Reed's a Roper. Big black hat, big silver belt buckle in the shape of an armadillo, pressed blue jeans, Western shirt, low-heeled boots like country singers wear. The works. Never takes the hat off, not even in the lunchroom, unless one of the monitors makes him. "I saw part of that one. It came on right after The Plainsman. That's about Buffalo Bill. He's real, too."
Buffalo Bill is one of Reed's heroes, and he's seen The Plainsman about a hundred times. He told me once that he'd like to change his name to Bill. Every now and then we talk about going down to the courthouse together; he'd become Bill and I'd become Clint. Or Thorne. We never do it, though.
"What about Batman?" I said. "They made a movie about Batman. Do you think he's real?"
"Don't you?" Franny said. She sounded as if she meant it, but I never quite know how to take Franny. She has this way of talking in a flat kind of voice all the time, and her face never changes expressions unless she wants it to.
"Besides," Shirley said. "I've read about Sherlock Holmes a lot. People still send him letters at his address on Baker Street."
"But do they get any answers?" I said.
"That's just the kind of question I'd expect from the person who blew up the chemistry lab," she said.
That's another thing she does. She brings up stuff about my being accident prone and blowing up the chemistry lab, which doesn't have anything to do with what we're talking about, and which I didn't do.
And even if I did, it wasn't on purpose. I might have done it on purpose if I'd thought about it, but that's not what happened.
What happened was this. Somebody had been using ether as a solvent in the lab and when he was finished, he just poured it down one of the sinks.
Now one of the first rules of chemistry lab is "Never pour ether down the sink." So naturally no one would ever suspect that the guilty party was Mr. Vinson, the chemistry teacher, the very person who taught us all the rules on the very first day of class. But who else could it have been? I have chemistry the first period in the day, so who else would have been in the lab before my class?
Nobody except Mr. Vinson, that's who, not that he'd ever admit it. After all, they had good old Ralph, the scapegoat, handy, and how would it look if the chemistry teacher was the one responsible for blowing up the lab? The school would probably never be able to buy insurance again.
So it was just too bad for me that I was the one assigned to that particular sink on that particular day. The good news was that Mr. Vinson (or whoever it was; my money's on Vinson) hadn't used very much ether, so most of it had evaporated or gone on down the drain. There were still enough fumes coming up to cause a little explosion, though, if someone were to light a Bunsen burner nearby, which is what I did.
Hey, I was supposed to. We were going to use the flame in the experiment that day. I was only following orders.
Fortunately, I escaped with just a few minor injuries. My hair was a little singed, and I couldn't hear well for the rest of the day, but that was all. Nobody got cut by flying glass, though there was some of it flying around, all right. We all had our goggles and aprons on, which is probably what saved us.
My lab partner that day was Terri DuBose, and she's never forgiven me, no matter how many times I've told her that it wasn't my fault. She hadn't quite gotten her goggles adjusted, and I really should have waited to light the flame, but her eyebrows grew back in after a while, and I didn't think the ones she drew on until then looked so bad. But it was no use to try telling her that.
The truth is that here are just some people that things happen to for no good reason, and I'm one of them, and if that seems to be a digression, it really isn't, as you'll see. Ms. Turkel would knock off a letter grade for it, though, if she ever got her hands on this, since she'd say I'd gotten away from the subject.
What was the subject, anyhow? I guess that's why Ms. Turkel doesn't like digressions. You might get so far off the subject that you don't remember what it was.
But I remember. Finding the dead man.
What I'm doing here is avoiding the main subject, to tell the truth. I'm pretty good at that. When I go into my room to study at night, you can bet that I have the sharpest pencils in town and that all my notebook paper is squared away on the desk and that the desk lamp is adjusted just right so that there's no glare on my notebook paper. If you do it right, you can kill a good thirty minutes or so before you ever have to open a book.
But some of this avoidance is legitimate. If I hadn't told you about Shirley and how she feels about her supposed relative, or about how I'm the kind of person things happen to, you wouldn't understand how things got so complicated after I found the body.
You see, once there was a genuine mystery to be solved, nothing would do but for Shirley to get involved, no matter how crazy I told her that was, or how dangerous. She couldn't let her fictional relative down.
She wouldn't let me down, either, because as it turned out, I was a lot more involved than I ever wanted to be. Purely by accident, of course.
OK. That's enough avoidance. I'll get to it now. I can't keep putting it off forever.
The way it happened was this.
Whittington High is huge. All the town's schools used to be on one campus, but as the town grew, new schools were built and the high school took over the vacated buildings when the elementary schools and middle schools moved away and closer to the neighborhoods. So you might have to pass by a lot of buildings on your way to the parking lot when school is out, depending on where your car is parked.
That's why I was passing by the boiler room. That's what they call it, anyway, though there's a lot more in there than just a boiler. There are all kinds of pipes, some of them wrapped with heavy insulation, and they're all painted in bright colors. Some of them are red, some of them are bright blue, and some are a sort of turquoise. There are valves and gauges sticking out all over the place, and a lot of big gray metal cabinets higher than your head, with locked doors on the front. I don't know what all that stuff is. There's also a big wooden cooling tower outside with water running through it, because the air-conditioning for some of the buildings comes from the boiler room, too.
It's not the kind of place I usually hang around, with good reason, considering some of the stuff that supposedly goes on around there, and I don't really know why I stopped there that day. It just seemed to me that something was wrong.
It wasn't anything I could put my finger on. The cooling tower was making its usual roaring noise, and there was no one around as far as I could see.
There was just this feeling that things weren't right. If you've ever had it, you know what I mean.
So I looked inside the boiler room. It wasn't dark, exactly, but there weren't any lights on, either. The building is really just one big room full of machinery with a very high roof and some windows way up near the top of the wall.
And that's when I saw Oscar Mullin.
Oscar was lying on the floor by something that looked like one of those panels you see in an old black-and-white science- fiction movie on TV. The panel had a lot of dials and gauges on it, and it probably had something to do with the heating or the air-conditioning control, but I wouldn't really know.
Anyway, there he was. I didn't know then that it was Oscar. His feet and part of his legs were all I could really see. The rest of him was hidden by the panel.
I don't know what I should've done then. If I'd gone out to my car and kept my mouth shut, I'd probably have been a lot better off, but I knew that Shirley would never forgive me for passing up a chance to investigate.
Of course I could have gone right to Campus Security, but nobody really likes those guys.
So I went in.
I knew as soon as I walked over and looked around the panel that he was dead. I mean, there wasn't much doubt about that, even if he didn't look like the dead people you see in the movies.
He was lying there on the concrete floor, his face sort of turned to the side. A thin stream of blood had run out of his mouth, and his forehead was mashed in. I could see the white of bone, and some red and gray stuff. I thought for a minute there was going to be major hurling, but I swallowed hard and nothing happened. Then I made myself look again.
I knew who he was, all right, even if I couldn't see his whole face. Everybody knew Oscar. He was part of the maintenance crew, but that's not all he was, at least according to the campus gossip.
"Hey, Oscar," I said. Naturally he didn't say anything back, since he was dead. I don't even know why I bothered talking to him. Maybe I was a little scared, because I did it again. "Hey, Oscar."
That was when I noticed the dark stain on the concrete under his head, like something had leaked out of it.
Seeing the stain made me feel a little sick all over again, and I was just about to turn to leave when I thought I saw someone moving around in among all the machinery and pipes and valves. Maybe it was just a shadow, but it was scary.
I decided I'd better get out of there fast.
That was a mistake. I've known ever since the time I broke my left arm in the second grade that it's always a mistake for me to try to do anything fast. Other people can, but not me. Something always happens.
What happened this time was that I stepped on something that rolled under my foot and threw me down.
I'm sure I would've looked funny if anyone had seen me. I had one foot up in the air practically as high as my head, and I was waving my arms around while I danced around on one foot trying to keep my balance. I couldn't, though, and I went down on the floor. Hard.
What I'd stepped on was a piece of pipe about a foot long, and it clanged off the bottom of the control panel and rattled across the concrete floor as it rolled back over by my leg.
I sat up to see how much damage I'd done to myself. It wasn't too bad. I'd scraped a little skin off my right hand when I caught myself on the concrete floor, so my palm was burning, and I'd torn a hole in the right knee of my jeans, but aside from that I was OK. I was carrying my math book in my backpack, and I'd fallen on that instead of my arm.
I picked up the piece of pipe because I thought I'd better put it somewhere out of the way. I didn't want anyone else to step on it and fall the way I had.
It was just an ordinary piece of pipe. It was painted silver, and it was about two inches around. I wondered where it had come from, and while I was looking at it, I noticed that one end of it--not the end I was holding, thank goodness--had a stain on it that looked a lot like the stain under Oscar's head.
I started feeling sick again, and I was about to throw down the pipe and get out of there. I didn't much care whether anybody else stepped on it or not.
Unfortunately for me, it was too late to leave. I heard a lot of loud talking and the crackling of radios, and the boiler room started to fill up with people.
Most of them were from Campus Security.
You can imagine how it looked to them.
There's a dead man on the floor with his head bashed in, and there's good old Ralph, the traditional scapegoat, sitting around with a piece of pipe in his hand.
I dropped the pipe, which clonged on the floor, and put up my hands.
"Don't shoot!" I said, and they didn't, mainly because they're not allowed to carry guns. Otherwise, the way they were looking at me, I think they would've blown me away.