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The tide lapped languidly upon the shore, and raucous seagulls filled the sapphire-blue sky. The salty breeze blew gently over shoreline. St. Joseph’s High School was the only school in England (and quite possibly the only school in Europe) to be situated on a beach – but, despite having golden sand for a football field, the pupils of St. Joseph’s wouldn’t have dreamed of secondary education anywhere else. This was because St. Jeremy’s High School was a place of opportunity, mystery…and excitement.
Beads of sweat pouring down his neck, and blazer awry, Charles Redfern ran wildly through the corridors. Sixteen years of age, he was a student at St. Jeremy’s, currently in the tenth grade. Desperately, he pushed past the groups of other teenagers who were making their way out to lunch, some exiting the boarding school to eat on the beach and others who were standing around talking. Eventually, he made it to the main hall, out of breath and dishevelled.
“Thank you, sir. We’ll see that the arrangements for the presentation ceremony are seen to right away,” smiling her trademark smile and flicking her black hair over her shoulder, Janessa followed her friend William to the door. Mr. David Spencer, the thickset, middle-aged school principal, nodded gratefully. “Janessa, William, you two are the best school leaders of all time! I’ve never met more reliable children!”
William glowed with pride as he answered, “You flatter us, Mr. Spencer, but thank you all the same. We’ll see you at the meeting on Saturday.” with this characteristically terse greeting, he was out the door, followed by his co-leader.
Janessa Harrow and William Holmes, the two fourteen year-old school leaders, were St. Joseph’s brightest, and most liked students, popular with everyone from the youngest pupil to the eldest professor. Janessa aspired to be a criminal defence lawyer, had a passion for literature and spent most of her spare time either reading, writing, or out on the beach riding horses. William, on the other hand, dreamed of being a detective (ideally like Sherlock Holmes, whose surname he shared) and was up at all hours of the night practicing his particular talent…fencing. The pair were inseparable, drawn together by their curiosity, burning desire for justice and often insane courage.
“The ceremony’s next week, isn’t it?” Janessa asked, as she and William left the main hall. William was about to reply when Charles rushed up to them. “Janessa! William! Oh, I am in such a fix! Please, I need help – your help!”
“Calm down, Charles! Whatever’s the matter?” William gasped, putting his hand on the older boy’s shoulder. “Oh, William! It’s terrible! We must speak in private, I’m in such a fix!” there was a sense of urgency in his voice which spoke of fear and despair. “Of course,” Janessa answered soothingly, “don’t worry, Charles, we’ll do our best to help you.”
The trio pushed open the glass door and entered the school’s large, busy library. Inside there were dozens of shelves of books, several leather lounges and a row of quiet seminar rooms at the rear – and it was to the first of these that Janessa, William and Charles headed. When they were all seated around the circular, wooden table in the tight room, William began. “Now, Charles, tell us what’s happened, so that we can assist you.”
Clearing his throat, the boy began, “It was this morning, in history class. As you are aware, we are now approaching exams and my history teacher – Mr. Stafford – just announced that our examination on medieval Europe will be held next week – ”
“One moment,” William broke in thoughtfully, “was this announcement made to the whole class?”
“Yes, at the end of the lesson,” Charles replied.
“Okay. Please go on.”
“Anyway, he told us that he’d be busy most of the next few days due to the upcoming exam – so much so that all his classes, including ours, would be taken by a substitute teacher, starting tomorrow. With that, Mr. Stafford dismissed us.
Now I come to the explanation of my predicament. After class, I went to see Mr. Stafford. I’m the only one in my class who takes extra tuition from him, and I decided to ask if my tuition lesson this Friday – that’s tomorrow – was cancelled or not, since he was so busy. Mr. Stafford apologised, saying that he would have squeezed me in, except for the fact that today and all day Friday he’d be planning the exam papers and therefore my tuition session would be postponed until the weekend.”
“Wait a bit, Charles,” Janessa interrupted, “Did anyone else hear this?” she could see the drift of this already.
“Er, I don’t think so…after all, Mr. Stafford and I were the only ones in the room.” he answered frankly.
“Thank you. You may continue.”
“Well, I left the class and went off to recess. Then, last period, while I was in English, a pageboy came to the classroom I was in and informed me that Mr. Stafford needed to see me urgently.
I went to see him, and he greeted me with a cold expression. When I asked why he wanted to see me, Mr. Stafford flew into a rage, saying I knew very well why and that I was to give him the stolen draft papers for the exam immediately. I was shocked. I told him I knew nothing of the stolen papers, but he insisted that I was the only soul who knew he’d be working on the papers today. Mr. Stafford claimed I must have stolen them during recess, and when I told him I was in the library studying then he didn’t believe me!” Charles’ eyes clouded over and he burst into tears. “It’s alright.” Janessa murmured, touching the weeping boy’s shoulder, “It’ll be just fine.”
Charles nodded and wiped away his tears. “William, Janessa, I promise you I didn’t do it! I don’t know how those papers went missing, I really don’t! I never entered that classroom during recess! Oh, if only I’d been with my friends instead of alone in the library – they’d vouch for me! Mr. Stafford said I have until tomorrow morning to return the draft papers, or he’ll go to Mr. Spencer! Will you help me?”
William and Janessa nodded. “We’ll try our best.” they smiled in unison.
“Hmm.” Mr. Spencer frowned and leaned back in his chair. He had a soft spot for his school leaders, whom he trusted, but right now they were asking a lot. “Please, sir. The matter is very delicate, but we shall lay all before you first thing tomorrow morning. All we’re asking for is the freedom to access all the school rooms and the afternoon off from lessons.” William pleaded. “It is of vital importance!” Janessa added, as persuasively as possible. “Alright,” the principal sighed finally, “do as you will, but I’ll expect to see the pair of you first thing tomorrow, is that clear?”
A smile broke out upon the two leaders’ eager faces. “Thank you so much, Mr. Spencer!” Janessa rose and shook his hand warmly. “Come on, William! Let’s get started. We have approximately nineteen hours!” she and William raced out of the principal’s office, leaving Mr. Spencer shaking his head with a smile.
“Mr. Stafford must be out for lunch, which gives us about ten minutes to check the classroom before he returns.” Janessa said, hurrying down the corridors. William sighed, “I wish we had more to go on. I mean, we don’t even know what the draft papers look like…or how many pages there are. Still, I suppose we don’t really have to know what we’re looking for – we know that they’re draft exam question papers, which went missing during recess from Mr. Stafford’s classroom. That means the papers were alone for about half an hour.”
“William, must you always voice your thoughts like that?” Janessa groaned, finding her own chain of thought interrupted. William grinned. “No, Janessa, not always – I only feel compelled to voice my thoughts when I know I’ll interrupt yours by doing so!”
‘Mr. Stafford’s History Class’ was painted in gold lettering on the windowless door of the first classroom in the centre wing. The classroom, however, opened off the main hall, making it easy for anyone to have slipped in and taken the papers among the hustle and bustle of the lunchtime crowd.
William turned the doorknob of the classroom tentatively, fearing the worst. Thankfully, the classroom was empty, Mr. Stafford having gone to lunch. “Mr. Stafford shouldn’t have left the papers on his desk in the first place!”
“Keep it down, Janessa! There are teachers in the other rooms! We’ll be in a real soup if we’re caught.” he hissed back.
The classroom was bright and sunny, with golden shafts of sunlight streaming in through the rear glass window. The blind, however, was drawn halfway across – cutting off the view of Mr. Stafford’s desk from the outside. Several rows of wooden desks lined the room, with a dusty blackboard at the front and a stained, crumbling oaken cabinet of heavy, leather-bound books against the left wall.
“I know why it’s a history classroom,” Janessa chuckled, crinkling her nose at the damp smell in the room (which was strong despite the amount of sun the classroom received and the large air vent beside the book cabinet), “this place is ancient!”
William looked up from where he was stooped, examining a stain on the teacher’s desk. “Janessa! I shouldn’t have brought you! You can be trying at times! Be quiet!” he retorted bad-temperedly. Janessa had been close friends with William for a long time, and couldn’t remember him ever being so touchy. Hurt, she turned and left the room.
“Janessa?” hot, flustered, and only too aware that they were running out of time, William raced down the corridor calling his friend’s name – but she was nowhere to be found inside the school. While in the classroom, he’d been concentrating on finding clues, but now it finally dawned on him just how horrid he’d been with Janessa. Feeling guilty, he cut across the lawn to the place where she always went when she was upset – the stables.
William poked his head round the stable door. Amongst the hay and muzzles of the horses, he saw her slim frame outlined against the far wall. He could hear her sobbing bitterly. “Hey, Janessa! Don’t cry, please!” he sat down on a hay bale beside her, but she turned away. “Oh, Janessa, look…I truly am sorry! My conduct before was inexcusable – but I didn’t mean a thing I said!” he put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug. “Please forgive me.” he whispered. Janessa found she couldn’t be angry with him for long. “That’s alright, William. I forgive you.” she hugged him back, a smile spreading across her face. William smiled back, relieved, “Come on, I think we have a case to solve.”
“Alright, so what do we know already?” William said thoughtfully, as the pair walked back into the school. Everyone was in class, and their footsteps echoed on the tiled floor. “Well, the papers disappeared within half an hour, and the only way anybody could have known Mr. Stafford would have them on his desk today is if they overheard the conversation. But how could they have heard? Nobody else was in the room, it was noisy and crowded – so how?!” Janessa groaned. William suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Janessa!” he cried, “I think I’ve hit it! Come on, follow me!”
Janessa, wishing she knew where they were going, ran through the school with William. On the way, they passed a dark-haired, pompous tenth-grade student. Her arm was covered in bracelets and bangles, even though it was strictly against school regulations. “Mira,” Janessa called to the younger girl, “you do realise that jewellery isn’t allowed at school, don’t you?”
“School rules don’t apply to me!” Mira snapped back, adding, “My father’s the school janitor!”
William smiled amiably, “Mira, that doesn’t mean you are in any way excluded from the school regulations. At St. Jeremy’s we are all treated equally.” leaving her with a flea in her ear, the pair continued their journey to the other end of the school.
William took Janessa’s hand and led her carefully down the stairs. It was pitch black, and the whole place stank of chemicals, bleach and cleaning products. Janessa’s blind faith in William was the only thing stopping her from turning back and leaving the steep, dark stairwell as soon as possible. Reading her mind, William tightened his grip on her hand and continued resolutely down the stairs. The smell got worse as they reached the bottom, and the eerie silence of the dimly-lit room they now entered hit them like a slap in the face. “William, where are we?” Janessa whispered, a cold shiver running down her spine. “The janitor’s room.” he answered, almost inaudibly. Suddenly, the sound of tapping footsteps approached out of the dark.
In the dim light, a thickset figure was outlined before them. “Mr. Finley.” William said coldly. “What do you want?” the janitor seethed, his expression malevolent. “The draft papers, Mr. Finley, and don’t you dare say you don’t know what I’m talking about! No one could have seen those papers on Mr. Stafford’s desk, because the classroom blind was drawn and the door had no window – which means the only way anyone could have known Mr. Stafford had been working on the exam papers is if they’d heard his conversation with Charles Redfern. But there was no one else in the room, so how could anyone have heard? Then it occurred to me…the air vent! Despite the air vent, the classroom still smelt horrid – that would only be the case if the air vent communicated closely with the janitor’s room.
That’s when it all made sense. The stain on Mr. Stafford’s desk was a bleach stain from your fingers! You heard Mr. Stafford’s conversation with Charles through the vent, came in at lunch and took the papers, leaving behind a stain from your fingers. But what I didn’t understand was why…you had no motive! That was until I met your daughter, Mira. She’s in Mr. Stafford’s history class with Charles, am I correct?” taking a deep breath, William studied Mr. Finley’s enraged face.
The janitor looked murderous as he produced three sheets of paper from his back pocket. “If you tell anyone - ” he began, but Janessa cut him off. “I’m sorry, Mr. Finley, but you were going to let an innocent boy take the punishment which is rightfully yours. That’s the sort of conduct I can’t forgive. Expect to hear from Mr. Spencer tomorrow.” she turned on her heel and, grabbing her friend’s arm, disappeared up the stairwell.
“Nicely said,” William grinned. Janessa shrugged modestly, “You were the one who worked it out. Congratulations, William – it’s case closed!” hi-fiving, they sprinted off to the principal’s office, satisfied that justice was served once more.