Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Meg and Seron I: Summer Break of the Year 3305 - Chapter 8

That's the end of this volume. The arc will end with the next book.

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Chapter 8: Hartnett


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Hartnett quickly strode over, glaring at Seron and Larry.

“I thought I told you to stay away from this building. What are you doing here?”

“It’s an emergency.” Larry replied. Seron took the picture from Jenny and held it out to Hartnett.

“Could you take a look?”

“What is this?”

“A photograph of the barred windows, taken yesterday. There’s something resembling a face in the basement.”

“…What?” Hartnett breathed, exasperated. He took the photograph.

As the students watched in anticipation, Hartnett carefully scrutinized the photograph. Then—

“…”

He frowned.

“We thought that someone might be in the basement and came to see for ourselves. Would you please keep this in mind when you go ahead with the work to cover the windows?” Seron asked.

Hartnett’s answer was simple.

“What a joke.”

He rolled up the photo and slipped it into his pocket.

“Huh?”

Seron and the others watched in confusion.

“I thought secondary schools raised future elites, not bored pranksters. This is ridiculous.”

“Hey! At least give back the the picture!” Larry cried, charging at Hartnett. He reached forward, ready to grab the photograph out of his pocket if necessary.

“Wait, Larry! Don’t—”

Seron tried to stop his friend. But he found himself stopping.

Just as Larry reached Hartnett, Hartnett grabbed his arm and bent it to the left as if trying to break his wrist. At the same time, Hartnett took a big step back with his left foot. Larry was forced to do a half-turn and landed back-first on the ground.

“Huh?” He intoned, finding himself looking at the sky.

Before anyone knew it, Hartnett was twisting and pulling up Larry’s right arm with both hands. Larry was rendered immobile.

Natalia, Meg, Jenny, and Nick froze.

“…”

Seron narrowed his eyes. His gaze was fixed on Larry, who had been so easily thrown to the ground.

“What do you think you’re doing, kid? You scared me back there.” Hartnett said condescendingly.

“Ugh!”

Larry desperately tried to free himself, but he could not get up—all he could do was struggle with his back raised above the ground. Hartnett bent his thumb and pressed down on Larry’s twisted wrist.

“Ow ow ow ow ow!”

“Justified self-defense, kid!” Hartnett cried. He almost sounded like he was enjoying himself.

“Mr. Hartnett, we apologize. For Larry’s actions as well as ours. Will you please let him go?” Seron asked.

“It’s okay, Seron! I can— ow ow ow ow!”

Larry’s efforts were in vain.

Seron repeated himself, and bowed lightly with his hand over his chest.

“Hmph.”

Hartnett let go of Larry almost as though throwing him aside. Larry landed on the stones that paved the ground.

“Ouch!”

Larry turned to the side, moving away from Hartnett, and slowly stood. His sweats were covered with dirt and small pieces of litter.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Larry. Apologize.” Seron said.

“…I’m sorry, sir.” Larry said. He met Hartnett’s gaze as bowed his head.

“Never mind. I’ll be confiscating the picture.”

“But sir! Isn’t that a little much? Don’t you think so, Seron? Jenny?” Larry argued. But—

“There’s nothing we can do, Larry.” Seron said calmly. And to Larry’s shock, even Jenny nodded.

“It’s fine.”

Larry tilted his head.

“All right, I’ll keep the picture. And I suggest you don’t try this prank with any other adults, unless you want to humiliate yourselves again.”

“We won’t. No one would fall for something like this.”

“Your name, kid?”

“Seron Maxwell, sir.”

“Seron. You’re a smart kid. How many people have you tried to prank like this? They must’ve all laughed at you.” Hartnett said, smiling for the first time.

Seron also smiled and replied firmly,

“We haven’t tried with anyone else, sir.”


* * *


“Okay, Seron. I want an explanation.” Larry said. Confusion and bewilderment were clear in his expression. “Make it so everyone can understand.”

“All right.” Seron nodded.

The group was standing in a circle in the middle of the grounds, on the grass.

“I brought everyone here because—”

“Because you don’t want anyone to overhear us.”

“That’s right, Nick.”

After leaving the old building, the group had gone straight to the middle of the empty field at Seron’s suggestion.

“Right. And?”

“It was a mistake to show the photo to the adults individually. I’m sorry. Once they played the ‘unconvinced authority figure’ card, it was over.”

“Huh? So that’s why you lied and said you didn’t show it to anyone else?” Asked Larry.

Seron shook his head.

“Not quite. I can’t say why just yet, so ask me later.”

“Seriously? Fine.”

“Wait, we’re just glossing over this? I want answers, Seron.” Natalia demanded.

“Don’t worry, Lia.” Said Larry. “Seron will explain later.”

“…I’m almost jealous of how trusting you are.”

“I was quite surprised, Seron. Jenny.” Said Nick. “Why did you not put up any resistance to the photograph being confiscated?”

“It’s fine. I can just print it again.” Jenny said nonchalantly, her arms crossed.

“Ah, of course. You still have the film.”

“We’ll print as many as we can and show them to the orchestra and the drama club this evening. In fact, we’ll hand out the photos en masse.” Said Seron.

“Sounds like an interesting idea, but you think they’ll believe us? The picture’s from the tab-I mean, the newspaper club.” Natalia said.

“I can tell them that I took the picture this morning and had it developed over lunch.” Seron suggested.

“That works.”

“Yeah. They’ll believe Seron.”

“Excellent idea. It’s a wonderful plan.”

Natalia, Larry, and Nick said in succession.

“Hmph.” Jenny pouted. But she did not argue. Seron continued.

“As we hand out the photos, we’ll tell them, ‘is the school really safe with someone hiding out in the basement like this?’. The girls, if no one else, will get scared. They might even tell their parents. And tomorrow, we can all go to the security office and demand that the guards check out the place. They won’t be able to refuse.”

“In that case, the poor man in the basement will be rescued? He will not die? Will the security guards become able to save him, Seron?” Meg fretted.

“We’ll all make it happen.” Seron replied firmly.

When Seron saw relief flooding Meg’s face, many thoughts rose to his mind. But he did not let it show.

He turned to Jenny.

“Could you let us into the newspaper club office, Jenny?”

“Yeah. Follow me.”


The six students headed for the building that housed the newspaper club office.

They crossed the vast grounds and entered a building separate from the one where the faculty office was located. Eventually, they arrived at a door on the first floor with a sign labeled, ‘Newspaper Club’.

Jenny unlocked the door and entered. She was the only one who used this room.

“Crazy. You have this place all to yourself?” Larry gasped, stepping inside.

The office was about half the size of a regular classroom.

It was furnished with work desks, an area for hanging up photographs to dry, rows of large shelves, a kitchenette with a hot plate, and a parlor-esque area with matching sofas and a coffee table.

There was also a door leading into another room. On it was a sign labeled, ‘Darkroom. KNOCK before entering!”. The darkroom had originally been a large room that was later renovated into its current function.

On the cabinet by the wall was, of all things, a personal telephone. Telephones were expensive in Roxche still, and most houses could only afford one. But here sat one such piece of machinery in all its exorbitant glory.

“Hey… this is supposed to be a school.”

“And? Look, I brought in the telephone and renovated the place with my own funds. And my family’s annual donations to the school include usage fees for this space. Or is donating what amounts to ten teachers’ worth of annual salaries not enough?” Jenny said plainly.

“Okay. I’m sorry, all right?”

Larry and the others did not question the matter of the office any further.

“So now what?”

“Let’s print as many copies of the photo as we can. Do you still have paper left?”

“Mountains. In grosses.”

“Great. Do you need our help?”

“You know how to print? If not, you’re just gonna get in my way.”

“I know how it works in theory, but I’ve never done it before. Let me watch the process, then.”

“Look, I don’t need—”

At that moment, Jenny understood Seron’s intention. She paused for a moment, then looked up at Seron.

“I see. You still don’t trust me completely. You still think I could have forged that picture. You don’t have a lot of friends, do you?”

Seron did not let Jenny provoke him.

“I’m just trying to eliminate that possibility for good. Where’s the film?”

“I put it in storage in a file in the darkroom. Can’t lose it now, can I? I’ll show it to you if you’re still suspicious.”

“All right. Maybe we should have it developed at a store, just in case?”

“It’s not like any of you could gonna figure anything out just by watching me, you know. The store’s a waste of time and money.” Jenny said, throwing open the darkroom door. There was, naturally, no need to knock.

The six students walked in a line into the darkroom.

Jenny turned on the light. Everyone but her cringed at the acrid smell coming from the developing trays as they walked over to the printer.

On the glass plate where the paper was supposed to be placed were a light and lenses, the heights of which could be adjusted. Photos were printed on the paper by projecting light on the film fixed between the light and the lenses.

Beside the printer was a large file with pockets where film could be inserted. Jenny opened it.

“…”

And she froze.

Several seconds of acrid silence passed in the darkroom.

“What’s wrong?” Seron asked.

“It’s gone…”

“What?”

Jenny had spoken so softly that Seron did not hear her. So this time, she raised her voice—she exploded so everyone could hear.

“The film’s gone! That one picture is missing!”


* * *


Seron and the others sat in the dormitory cafeteria.

They sat in the same place and in the same positions as they had earlier that morning. Boys sat across from girls with the table between them.

There was still quite a bit of time before lunch. So no one else was in the cafeteria.

They could vaguely hear the cafeteria ladies preparing lunch in the kitchen.

“I don’t believe this…”

Jenny was cradling her head in her hands. Her tiny head, covered in short red hair, lay atop the table.

The others watched in silence.


Earlier, in the darkroom.

“The film’s gone! That one picture is missing!”

The others stood in stunned silence, but Jenny looked hard enough for all six of them.

“Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?”

She swept through the darkroom, rummaged through the desks, and searched inside the printer.

“It’s gone…”

She could not find it.

“…”

Jenny fell into a chair, exhausted from her search.

“I see how it is. Once you showed us the film, we’d know it was a fake. So now you pretend  you’ve lost the film. You had us going for a while there.” Seron said, suddenly sounding icy.

Everyone stared, shocked.

“This is ridiculous. Let’s go back to the cafeteria. You’re coming too, Jenny. There’s no point in looking for a film that doesn’t exist to begin with.”

Seron took Jenny’s limp arm and forced her to her feet, and left the darkroom. He silently dragged her by the arm to the cafeteria and sat down at a table.

“Damn it… I don’t believe this… I’m gonna kill whoever stole that film… I swear… I’ll make sure even his parents don’t recognize him when I’m through with him…” Jenny seethed, her hands clenched tightly enough to pull out her hair. She stared a hole through the cafeteria table.

“Can we get an explanation now?” Natalia demanded, pushing up her glasses and glaring at Seron across the table.

“Indeed, Why the sudden change in attitude? Why the sudden move here?” Nick asked, turning his gaze from Jenny in front of him to Seron on his left.

“I want to hear an explanation, too.” Larry said, turning to his right.

Finally, Meg—sitting across from Larry—looked at Seron with her large dark eyes.

“Seron…”

Seron looked the girl he loved in the eye and replied,

“All right.” He said. Then he turned. “Jenny?”

“Whaddaya want, ugly? Sorry for being a liar. Forget it. Just leave me alone and take a long walk off a short cliff.” Jenny spat, hanging her head.

“No, Jenny. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I’m sorry for saying such harsh things.”

“Oh, now you feel sorry for me? What changed your mind?”

“You were telling the truth all along, Jenny. The film was definitely stolen.”

The others raised their eyebrows. Jenny looked up, her eyes wide.

“What’d you say, pretty boy? Say that one more time—I won’t get angry at you.”

“The film was definitely stolen. I’m sure of it.”

“…”

“I acted that way back in the darkroom in case someone was listening in with a microphone or something. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ve read too many mystery novels.”

“Interesting. I forgive you, Seron.” Jenny said, smiling.

“I get it.” Larry nodded. Nick agreed.

“Seron, why not join me in assisting the drama club? We could always petition Ms. Krantz to add a new character.”

“I’m going to have to decline.”

“Not bad.” Natalia said.

Finally, Meg smiled.

“I was very surprised. But now I am happy. I am happy that you are not a horrible person, Seron.”

Seron looked at her, his expression unchanging. Larry quickly cut in.

“So who do you think stole the film, Seron?”

It was the question on everyone’s minds. Five sets of eyes were on Seron.

“Who but the six of us knows about the photograph? Only two people.”

“No way…”

“My goodness…”

Natalia and Meg gasped simultaneously.

“Mr. Murdoch, and this man called Hartnett.” Nick said, smiling. Larry jumped to his feet.

“It must have been—”

Seron shook his head.

“We don’t know yet. We can’t say which one of them stole the photo, or if they were in on it together. They both had the time to do it.”

“What? Seron, Mr. Murdoch’s a teacher.”

“We’re just discussing possibilities here. We can’t exclude Mr. Murdoch. Take a seat.”

“Right… all right.” Larry replied, sitting back down. Jenny leaned forward.

“So now what? Do we nab ‘em and torture the answers out of them?”

“Feel free, but I’m not getting involved. Dunno about Mr. Murdoch, but Hartnett’s gonna give you one heck of a fight.” Larry said quickly.

“What’s your plan, Seron? Any ideas?” Asked Natalia. Meg desperately looked at Seron.

Seron slowly spoke.

“I still have no idea which one of them did it, or if they’re both behind this. And I have no idea why an adult—who really should know better—would steal the film. It’d be best to go and ask in person.”

“Oh? And who might we ask?”

“Good question, Nick. We ask the man we have to rescue.”

Larry looked up. “You mean…”

“The man in the basement. We’ve got no other options at this point. We’ll go down there and look for him, and tell him in person that he’s in trouble. And—”

“We will rescue him, yes? We will, Seron?”

“Well…”

Seron trailed off for a moment. Then—

“…Even if he says he doesn’t want to come out, and even if we can’t convince him, we’ll have to get him out of there. His life is in danger.”

“I agree! I agree no matter what!” Meg cried, clapping her hands.

“Great! I’m gonna interview him! I’ll print a special edition with his photo. ‘Mystery Man Hiding in School Basement’! If only this was during the school term!” Jenny said, for once sounding like an ordinary newspaper club member.

“Not like anyone’s gonna believe you…” Larry muttered.

“What’d you say, blondie?” Jenny glared.

“Nothing.” Larry replied, looking away.

“But how do we get in there?”

“Indeed. The doors were chained shut.”

Natalia and Nick pointed out the obvious. Seron pointed with his thumb at his best friend.

“Larry will take care of it.”

“What?”

“Really?”

An awkward expression rose to Larry’s face.

“…All right. I got it. I’ll take care of the lock. I can probably get us in there.”

Natalia furrowed her brow.

“How? I’m gonna get angry if you tell me you’ll kick the lock open. Props if you actually manage it, though.”

“All right… but you’d better keep this a secret, okay?” Larry pleaded before he disclosed any more information. “I can probably pick open the lock with a hairpin.”

“How do you know how to pick locks?” Natalia quickly asked.

“I learned it…”

“What? From who?”

“From a CO… in the Confederation Army.”

“What?”

Please don’t tell anyone, okay? Until about 20 years ago, back when the war was still going on, the Confederation military used to teach soldiers how to break into buildings and hotwire vehicles in case of an emergency. Not all soldiers, though. Only people who were going to the front lines, like special forces, scouts, and pilots in the Air Force.”

“…Wow.”

“When the war ended, the military’s budget was slashed and a lot of career soldiers lost their jobs. And some of them used the techniques they learned in the military to steal cars or break into houses. So the military officially stopped teaching skills like that. But you’re always going to find at least one old soldier who wants to pass down his skills to the young’uns…”

“Crazy…”

“Don’t get the wrong idea, Lia. I’m not gonna do anything bad with these skills.”

“Anyway, we’re counting on you.” Said Seron.

“I got it. Just leave it to me. I’d like to check out this basement, too. Lend me a hairpin later, Lia?”

“Gotcha.” Natalia nodded.

“We’re counting on you.” Said Jenny.

“Now we have a way inside.” Said Nick. “But what if Hartnett and his crew are working inside? They’ll naturally try to chase us out.”

“I don’t think they’ll be working on the building anymore today.”

“And why do you suppose so, Seron?”

“Because they did nothing yesterday or earlier today, even after announcing their work yesterday morning. And they didn’t bring any tools or equipment, either.”

“That’s definitely strange. Was there a mistake, you think?” Larry wondered. Seron nodded.

“It’s likely, since they’re working for the ministry of education. We’ll take a look at the building from a distance, and if we don’t see anyone, we’ll move in.”

“Right. So do we get ready now?”

“We can make preparations, but we should wait until after lunch. Let’s wait until the food is served and make our move after we eat.”

“Good call. Don’t want to get hungry while we’re exploring the basement.”

“That too, but I had another reason in mind.”

“Like what?” Larry wondered.

Meg spoke up ecstatically.

“You wish to give delicious lunch to the man hiding in the basement!”

Seron’s eyes met Meg’s, for a moment. But he quickly looked away and nodded.

“Excellent idea. He must be starved.” Nick agreed.

“I get it.” Larry clapped his hands together.


At that moment—

“I don’t understand, sir!”

Hartnett was in a faculty lounge somewhere in the school, shouting into a receiver. There was no one else in the room, and there were no other telephones there.

<What is so hard to understand? You cannot proceed today. Return for now.>

Coming from the speaker was the voice of a calm, older man.

Hartnett was livid.

“I don’t see why we can’t move in today, sir!”

<…Look. We’ve received complaints from some of the parents saying that you were too intimidating.>

“Wh-what? But it’s summer break, sir. There aren’t any students around.”

<The drama club is there, is it not?>

“I—yes. But do I really look so suspicious?”

<Whatever the case, try to be more sensitive. We can’t push the issue to the point that the ministry of education decides to stop cooperating with us. Remember, you can’t get inside unless they open the lock for you.>

“We can easily cut the chains with our tools.”

<Hartnett. You are at a school.>

“We won’t get anything done at this rate, sir. And—”

<There’s no point to arguing, Hartnett. The plan to send in our men and equipment has been canceled. Come back for now and we’ll think of another way.>

“…I understand, sir.”

When the man hung up, Hartnett slammed the receiver down. He clenched his teeth in rage.

“Damn this school!” He swore, storming out into the lobby.


* * *


The sun was shining from the center of the sky. It was noon.

Seron, Larry, Nick, Meg, Natalia, and Jenny were behind the old building at the edge of the campus, beside the north door.

“All right. No one’s around, and no one’s watching. It’s going well so far.” Larry grinned. There was a pack of gear on his back.


Before lunch, after they had decided on their plan—

“I’m counting on you, Larry. First, gather up any tools we might need.” Seron said. He asked Larry to collect things like work gloves and flashlights, along with some rope, a first-aid kit, and water bottles just in case.

Larry went to their dorm room to gather the items. And he quickly returned. He fit them into his waterproof backpack, which he had until not long ago been using at the military sciences training camp, and slung the backpack on his back.

The cafeteria ladies began preparing to serve lunch. The six students helped them out, going out of their way to clean tables and set out plates and silverware.

“Such hardworking children. Roxche’s future is bright if students like them are going to become the movers and shakers of society.” The cafeteria ladies mused, moved by the students’ actions. Unfortunately for them, the six were helping out for the sole purpose of getting lunch to start earlier.

“It’s no trouble at all, ma’am. We’re just doing our duty as upstanding students.” Larry said with a smile. No one said a word about their true intentions.

The dormitory cafeteria finally opened. Students had a choice between meatballs with vegetable soup and bread, and roast beef sandwiches with a side of salad.

The six students grabbed the menus of their choosing and ate to their hearts’ content. Natalia and Larry, as usual, demonstrated their prodigious appetites by taking both options.

Seron, however, did not touch his sandwich. Larry asked him if he was satiated with just the salad.

“Yeah. But you know…”

Seron had ordered two servings of sandwiches.

“…I feel kind of bad. It’s like I’m trying to bait him with food.”

Seron stuffed the two sandwiches into a wisteria lunchbox.

“Don’t think like that, buddy. Just tell yourself you’re treating him to a nice meal. In fact, let’s make it a combo.” Larry said, bringing over a serving of soup.

He poured the soup into his canteen and tied the lid down so it would not leak. He also filled a large water bottle with tea.

Meg finished eating faster than usual.

“Let’s go! We six people are the only people who can rescue the man from the basement underground.” She said, spurring on everyone but Seron, who had already finished eating.

Once everyone was done, around the time the drama club entered the cafeteria, the six students left the building.


A pair of eyes watched the six students walking across the deserted campus.

The man realized that the students were headed for the old building.

“Argh! What are they planning to do over there…? Damn it!”

The man swore, turning away from the window.


A pair of eyes watched the man turning away from the window.

“Damn it…”



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