Chapter 1: The Perfect Crime
Jack Rankin had a particularly sensitive nose. As he walked into school in the morning, sometimes he would pause in the entryway and pull in a snootload of air from the flow rushing out the door. Instantly he could tell what the cafeteria lunch would be, right down to whether the Jell-O was strawberry or orange. He could tell if the school secretary was wearing perfume, and whether there was an open box of doughnuts on the table in the teachers room on the second floor.
On this particular Monday morning Jack's nose was on high alert. He was working on a special project — a bubble gum project. Today's activity was the result of about a week's worth of research and planning.
Days ago, Jack had begun the project by secretly examining the bottoms of desks and tables all over the school, trying to decide exactly which kind of discarded gum was the most unpleasant. After he conducted his first few sniff tests, he didn't even have to look underneath a table or a chair to tell if there was gum. The scent of the stuff followed him from class to class. He had gum on the brain. He smelled gum everywhere — on the bus, in the halls, passing a locker, walking into a classroom.
Jack finally chose watermelon Bubblicious. It had to be the smelliest gum in the universe. Even weeks after being stuck under a chair or table, that sickly sweet smell and distinctive crimson color were unmistakable. And Bubblicious, any flavor of it, was definitely the stickiest gum available. By Jack's calculations, it was more than three times stickier than Bazooka.
The final stage of Jack's gum caper began in today's third-period gym class. Mr. Sargent had them outside in the cool October air, running wind sprints to prepare for a timed mile next week. By the end of the period Jack had four pieces of gum in his mouth, chewed to maximum stickiness. The smell of it almost overpowered him.
Carefully steering a wide path around Mr. Sargent, he went to his locker before the next class. He spat the chewed gum into a sandwich bag he had brought from home. The bag had two or three tablespoons of water in it to keep the gum from sticking to the plastic.
Jack sealed the bag, stuffed it into his pocket, and immediately jammed another two pieces of gum into his mouth and started to chew.
He processed those two pieces plus two more during science, managed to chew up another four pieces during lunch period, and even finished one piece during math — quite an accomplishment in Mrs. Lambert's classroom.
By the time he got to music, he had thirteen chewed pieces of gum in a plastic bag in the pocket of his jeans — all warm and soft and sticky.
Monday-afternoon music class was the ideal crime scene. The room had four levels, stair-stepping down toward the front. The seats were never assigned, and Mr. Pike always made kids fill the class from the front of the room backward. By walking in the door just as the echo of the bell was fading, Jack was guaranteed a seat in the back row. He sat directly behind Jed Ellis, also known as Giant Jed. With no effort at all he was completely hidden from Mr. Pike.
The only other person in the back row was Kerry Loomis, sitting six seats away. She was hiding too, hunched over a notebook, trying to finish some homework. Jack had half a crush on Kerry. On a normal day he would have tried to get her attention, make her laugh, show off a little. But today was anything but normal.
Mr. Pike was at the front of the room. Standing behind the upright piano, he pounded out a melody with one hand and flailed the air with his other one, trying to get fidgety fifth graders to sing their hearts out.
Jack Rankin was supposed to be singing along with the rest of the chorus. He was supposed to be learning a new song for the fall concert. The song was something about eagles soaring and being free and happy — not how Jack was feeling at this moment.
Bending down, Jack brought the baggie up to his mouth and stuffed in all thirteen pieces of gum for a last softening chew. The lump was bigger than a golf ball, and he nearly gagged as he worked it into final readiness, keeping one eye on the clock.
With one minute of class left, Mr. Pike was singing along now, his head bobbing like a madman, urging the kids to open their mouths wider. As the class hit a high note singing the word "sky," Jack leaned over and let the huge wad of gum drop from his mouth into his moistened hand. Then he began applying the gum to the underside of the folding desktop, just as he'd planned.
He stuck it first to the front outside edge and then pulled a heavy smear toward the opposite corner. Then he stretched the mass to the other corner and repeated the action, making a big, sticky X. Round and round Jack dragged the gum, working inward toward the center like a spider spinning a gooey, scented web.
As the bell rang Jack stood up and pulled the last gob of gum downward, pasting it onto the middle of the metal seat. A strand of sagging goo led upward, still attached to the underside of the desk.
It was the perfect crime.
The whole back of the music room reeked of artificial watermelon. And that gob on the seat? Sheer genius. Jack allowed himself a grim little smile as he shouldered his way into the hall.
There were two more class periods, so a kid would have to notice the mess today — this very afternoon. Mr. Pike would have to pull the desk aside so no one would get tangled in the gunk. Mr. Pike would need to get someone to clean it up before tomorrow.
So after someone had swept the rooms and emptied the trash cans and washed the chalkboards and dusted the stairs and mopped the halls and cleaned the entryway rugs, someone would also have to find a putty knife and a can of solvent and try to get a very sticky, very smelly desk ready for Tuesday morning. It would be a messy job, but someone would have to do it.
And Jack knew exactly who that someone would be. It would be the man almost everyone called John — John the janitor.
Of all the kids in the school, Jack was the only one who didn't call him John. Jack called him a different name.
Jack called him Dad.
Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Clements