Will You Dance,

If I Ask You to Dance?





Tuesday, October 31, 1995


Trixie was silent as she and Honey walked down the long driveway from Manor House to their bus stop.  Everything felt weird.  She had slept over at Honey’s countless times, eaten breakfast with the Wheeler family regularly, and gotten ready to go out together often.  Yet today, getting ready for school had been completely different.

Having a room to herself at Manor House had seemed a refuge for the past few days, but this morning it had seemed lonely.  Donning the new clothes Mrs. Wheeler had picked out for her had made Trixie feel like a stranger to herself.  Sitting down to the elegant breakfast complete with maid service, and having no chores before school, had been odd.  It was like having to go to school while on vacation.

“Mart’s meeting us at the bus stop,” Honey said, trying to ease her friend’s obvious discomfort.

Trixie shrugged off her foul mood and smiled at the golden-haired girl walking beside her.  “Why do you think I have a chocolate croissant in my pocket?”

Honey laughed gaily and hugged her.

When they reached the bottom of the hill, Mart greeted them.  “Good morning, fair maidens bob-white,” he said with a low bow.

Trixie rolled her eyes and said to Honey in a stage whisper, “He must smell the chocolate.”

“Chocolate?” Mart inquired as he stood upright.  “Did someone say chocolate?”

Pulling a wrapped package from her pocket, Trixie waved it under her brother’s nose.  “Here ya go, Homer.”

“Mmmmmm… chocolate,” Mart said, adding a gurgle in his best Homer Simpson imitation.  He was pleased to see his sister laugh at his antics; perhaps the feeling of dread that had settled in his stomach that morning was just needless worry.  Perhaps.

There was a sense of normalcy as the three friends boarded the bus and claimed their usual seats in the back.  Lighthearted banter greeted Dan and Di as they joined their compatriots.  It wasn’t until Tad Webster’s stop that the mood changed.

Honey moved from her seat beside Trixie to sit with Dan, quietly giving Trixie and Tad some privacy.  As he joined her, Tad searched Trixie’s face, seeking some indication as to how she was doing this morning.

Trixie smiled and grabbed his hand.  “Hey.  I’m sorry I was so out of it last night.  By the time I called you, I had talked to so many people I wanted to scream.  Brian was the worst, because it took so long to convince him things were okay.  I found the whole thing exhausting.”

Giving her hand a squeeze, Tad replied, “It’s okay.  You could have just told me that.  You know you can be honest with me.”

“I know,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder.  “But I really wanted to talk to you.”

“That’s good to know,” he said with a grin.  He planted a kiss on the top of her head, and then added, “I’ve missed you.”

“Me too.”  Trixie looked up into a searing aquamarine gaze that made her feel like they were the only two people in the world.  Unfortunately, when Tad kissed her, they were rudely reminded that they were not alone.


“Shut up, Mart!” Trixie growled before kissing Tad again.

Honey and Di giggled.

As that kiss ended, Tad tossed another comment over his shoulder.  “Hey, I’ve gotta get my time in before the bus gets to school.  The King of the Court will be waiting for us at the curb.”

Tad winked at Trixie and kissed her again, while Mart and Dan groaned loudly.  Honey and Di burst out laughing.  Thus it was a silly, playful group that walked off the bus at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High.

As predicted, Chris was standing right at the curb waiting to greet the lovely lady who had captured his fancy.  Tad descended the steps and shook his head sadly.  “It really is a shame we’re after the same girl, because it would be so easy to abuse you for how pathetic you look right now.”

Chris glared at his best friend.  “Kind of like the puppy dog look you get whenever you follow her down the hallway?”

“Now, now boys,” Trixie admonished from the bottom step.  “Play nice.”

“As you wish, milady,” Tad replied with a bow.  “Your gallant knight waits to escort you inside.”

With a chuckle, Chris held out his arm.  “Lady Blue Eyes, might I have the honor of walking you to your locker?”

Trixie smiled approvingly at her suitors.  “That’s much better.”

Mart and Dan made gagging noises in the background as Trixie placed her hand through Chris’ arm and headed for the school building.

“You’re just jealous,” Honey told them.  “Don't all guys fantasize about a threesome?”

Mart looked at her in horror.  “Not with two guys!”

Diana smacked him.  “Pig!” she spat and stormed off.

While Mart chased Di, trying to apologize, Dan and Tad burst out laughing.  Honey arched her brow and wondered, “Do you think he’ll be done groveling by lunch time?”

“Not a chance!” Dan exclaimed.

Meanwhile, Chris and Trixie were far ahead in a world all their own.  As they walked, Trixie noticed several people tossing envious looks toward the girl lucky enough to be on the arm of the basketball star.  She took a moment to enjoy the feeling before realizing that a large number of students were wearing strange outfits.  Because Halloween had fallen during Homecoming Week this year, Mr. Stratton had declared that students could wear sports-themed Halloween costumes to school.

“I can’t believe I forgot it was Halloween!” Trixie complained.

Chris, who had decided his team jacket was as close as he would come to dressing up, chuckled.  “Why?  Did you have something cool planned?”

She shrugged.  “I had had a vague thought about wearing something representing a less ordinary sport, like my ice skating costume or a riding habit.  I like to participate in stuff and show my school spirit.”  Then she spotted a costume that made her roll her eyes.  Nodding toward Jerry Vanderhoef’s “blood”-spattered hockey mask, she commented, “Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Principal Stratton had in mind.”

Chris followed her gaze and laughed.  “You have to admit, it combines the sports theme with Halloween pretty well.”

“I suppose so,” Trixie conceded while Chris held the door for her.  The couple continued on towards Trixie’s locker.

“So… did you get permission for me to take you to dinner?” Chris asked.

“Yeah,” she answered with a happy smile.  “Bobby’s really looking forward to it.  Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”  Chris wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close.  “I plan on enjoying every minute.”

Just as he leaned down to kiss Trixie, Chris was interrupted by a loud clearing of the throat.

“Mr. Zack, I expect more propriety from you,” Coach Epperly frowned.  “School hallways are not the appropriate place for kissy-face activities.”

Red-faced, Chris straightened and stepped back.  “Yes, sir.”

Blushing just as hard, Trixie turned to her locker to avoid making eye contact with the coach.  She spun her combination lock with lightning speed, hoping to busy herself with shuffling her books in and out of her arms.  She threw a quick glance in Chris’s direction as she pulled open the locker door…




… and the world went red.





When Trixie opened the door, a blood-like substance exploded out of the locker and splattered all over her, causing her to look like a bad imitation of Carrie.  Another substance, vaguely resembling brain matter, oozed onto the floor.

Chris and Coach Epperly let out startled cries and jumped back.  Trixie stared, transfixed, at the red and grey mess.  She started to tremble from head to toe, and her knees gave out beneath her.  When she began to sink to the ground, Chris reached out and grabbed her, pulling her away and holding her close.

Coach sprang into action.  He yanked the walkie-talkie off his belt and raised it to his mouth.  “This is Epperly.  I have an emergency situation.  I need Stratton and Parkman to the sophomore locker area, security to block off this corridor, and somebody call Molinson!”

By the time he had finished speaking, Principal Stratton was rounding the corner at a dead run, with Nurse Parkman not far behind.  Several students were crowding around, craning to see if the “blood” was real.  Stratton and Epperly began crowd control, pushing students back.  Two security officers arrived to assist.

Mrs. Parkman took one look at Trixie’s glassy-eyed expression and trembling form, and proclaimed that she needed to get her to the Health Office.  Chris picked her up and followed Mrs. Parkman toward the clinic, with one of the security officers clearing their path.  The other remained behind with the coach and the principal to secure the scene.

Just outside the clinic, the troupe encountered Mart and Di.  Mart saw his sister cradled in Chris’ arms, apparently covered in blood, and panicked.  “What the heck happened?!”

“Not here,” Mrs. Parkman snapped.  “Mart, come with me.  Diana, tell the others to meet Molinson by Trixie’s locker.”

Di exchanged a worried look with Mart, then gave his hand a squeeze before heading off to complete her mission.  Once the nurse was safely in the clinic with the three students, the security officer closed the door and stood guard outside to ward off the curious and nosy.

Chris laid Trixie’s now unconscious form on a cot and stepped back so Mrs. Parkman could tend to her.  Mart grabbed him by the arm.  “Tell me what happened!”

Shifting his attention from his girlfriend to her brother, Chris realized for the first time the vision Mart had seen.  Looking down at the red stains all over his own clothing, Chris shuddered.

“It’s not real blood, Mart.”  While Mart digested that fact, Chris continued.  “When she opened her locker, this red stuff exploded out at her, and grey, goopy stuff oozed out the bottom.”

“Then what’s wrong with her?”

“She just fainted from the shock,” Mrs. Parkman said without turning her attention away from her patient.  “Picture the aftermath of Luke’s shooting.”

Finally comprehending the picture as it had been painted for his sister, Mart paled.  He stepped to her side and grabbed her hand, his face a mask of concern.  Mrs. Parkman gently washed the mess off Trixie’s face with a cool, damp cloth, which served the dual purpose of bringing her around.  As her eyelids fluttered open, Mart crooned, “I’m right here, Trix.  Everything’s okay.  Just look at me, princess.  Focus on me.”

The confusion in Trixie’s awakening blue orbs was swiftly replaced with wide-eyed horror.  She gasped and clenched her brother’s hand as her gaze met his.

“Look at me,” Mart commanded, cradling her cheek with his free hand.  “Don’t think about it, just focus on me.  Everything’s okay; you’re fine.”

She took a deep, shaky breath, trying to calm down.  Instead, she felt another fit of tears building.  She sat up and threw herself into her brother’s arms.  Mart held her close and rocked her like a small child, continuing to whisper that everything was okay, and that he’d take care of her and keep her safe.

Chris watched the pair.  In the deep recesses of his mind there was a millisecond of jealousy over the obvious love and caring between the siblings, something he’d never known.  He was barely aware of that feeling, however.  Instead, he rode the building wave of rage as he thought about the likely culprit behind the ugly prank.

“Beth has gone too far, this time,” he muttered through clenched teeth as he turned and stormed out of the clinic.

Nurse Parkman had been stepping back to give Trixie and Mart a moment of privacy when she heard Chris’ comment.  Turning and seeing him rush out the door, she felt more trouble brewing.  “Oh, crap.”

Dashing after the tall young man, Faith flung open her door just in time to glimpse Chris rounding the corner.  “Follow him!” she ordered the security officer.  Once she was sure he was doing her bidding, she pulled the door closed and locked it, wondering how many more patients she would have related to this incident.






Diana raced out of the side door and around toward the front of the school.  Spotting Honey and Dan walking up the front steps with Tad, she careened toward them.  She grabbed Honey’s hand and, never breaking stride, began pulling her friend toward the building.  “Come on!”

“What’s up, Di?” Dan asked, increasing his pace to catch up to Honey’s inelegant gait as she was tugged along.

“Mrs. Parkman said for us to meet Molinson by Trixie’s locker,” Di gasped, completely out of breath yet never slowing down.  “Mart’s in the clinic with Trixie.”

“Why?” Honey shrieked.

By this time, they were in the building and nearing the sophomore lockers.  Diana ran headlong into Principal Stratton as he was manning the blockade, and screamed.  The others screeched to a halt, aghast.

“I’m guessing that’s why,” Dan said.

“Stay back until Molinson gets here,” Mr. Stratton ordered the group.  “I’m not going to try to keep you out of the loop, but I want things done properly.  This is beyond a school matter; I’m turning it over to the police.  The Sergeant will be in charge.”

“Like that means anything to this bunch,” Molinson snorted as he turned the corner and heard the comment.  Then he spotted the mess in front of Trixie’s locker.  His shoulders slumped and he sighed heavily before radioing for a crime scene kit.

The sergeant turned to the Bob-Whites.  “Where’s your fearless leader?”

“In the clinic,” Tad growled fiercely.

Attention caught by the belligerent tone of the boy’s voice, Molinson studied the group.  Shock and horror were giving way to anger and fury, but fear and concern were noticeably absent.  He turned to the principal.

“Where’d that come from?” he nodded to the red and grey spooge.

Coach Epperly stepped forward.  “When Trixie opened her locker this morning, that mess exploded out of it.  She was a mess, and seemed a bit… traumatized by it, so she’s in the clinic.  No one has touched anything since.”

Molinson nodded, acknowledging that he’d heard the coach, as he studied the scene and then the faces of the teenagers beside him.  Then he positioned himself between them and the lockers, so that they’d look at him.  “How about if you all let me figure out what happened, before you assume you know and go after high school-style revenge?”

After a few shared glances, the group reluctantly agreed.  Molinson asked Stratton to put those students someplace out of the way and keep them there while he processed the scene.  Then he set to work.

Principal Stratton asked the coach to escort them to his office and stay with them.  He felt he personally needed to stay with Molinson, and deal with the crime that had been committed in his school.  The coach managed, somehow, to get Honey, Di, Dan and Tad to the principal’s office without incident.

As Molinson stepped over to Trixie’s locker, he spoke quietly to Stratton.  “Do you have a cell phone on you?  If not, you’d better step to the nearest outside line.  The Beldens need to be told.”

“You mean the Wheelers,” Stratton said with a deep sigh.

“That’s what I meant,” Molinson said with a shake of his head.  “Should we call the Beldens, too?”

Raising an eyebrow, Stratton regarded the police officer.  “I don’t think so.  Matt Wheeler was rather specific about being called if there were any more incidents of harassment involving Trixie.”

“You know, I liked it better when I was yelling at her to keep her nose out of things,” Molinson griped.  “Having her be the victim really sucks.”

“Are you going to tell her that?”

“Not a chance.”








The security officer caught up with Chris as he was rounding a corner.  Shoving the student up against the wall and twisting his arms behind his back barely restrained the furious young man, but it certainly drew a lot of attention from the other students in the hallway.  In an effort to contain the situation, the guard forcefully shoved Chris toward the nearest room, which happened to be the main office.

When the outer door was flung open it attracted the attention of the crowd in the principal’s office.  Upon seeing his star basketball player being wrestled by the burly security guard, Coach Epperley became upset.

Once Chris had been wrestled into a chair, Epperley grabbed the arms of the chair and got right into his team captain’s face.  “Are you going to throw college away over this?  Because if you do anything to deserve disciplinary action, you’ll be kicked off the team.  Bye-bye, scholarship.  What will Trixie think of that?”

Fortunately, his words had the desired effect on Chris.  He hung his head and slumped in the chair, all fight leaving his body.  The coach nodded to the security officer.  “I can handle him.  Just keep people out of here.”

After the guard had gone, Epperley got Chris to join the others in Stratton’s office.  “All right, people, everyone have a seat.  I know you all feel like Beth is responsible for this, but without proof we can’t do anything.”

“Who else would even have a reason to do this?” Dan asked.

Epperley shrugged.  “As unlikely as it sounds, it could have been a random Halloween prank that just happened to hit Trixie’s locker.”

Tad snorted.  “Can I sell you some Florida swampland?”

“I said it was unlikely,” the coach defended.

“Beth Fleming is a bitch.  She’s been a bitch since the first day of kindergarten, and she’s only gotten worse over the years,” Chris ranted.

Although he had no love for Beth Fleming, Coach Epperley felt the need, as a faculty member, to defend the young woman.  “Oh, come on, Chris.  The first day of kindergarten?  Really?”

“Yes, really!” Chris exclaimed.  “She was hogging all the crayons and got all pissy when Brian Belden told her she should share.  She informed us that she didn’t have to share because they were her crayons.  Honest to God, that was the very first day of kindergarten.”

Tad stared at Chris.  “Wow.  You remember it that vividly?”

Chris nodded.  “Yeah, because that was the first time I ever encountered someone that completely selfish.  It was a rude awakening.”

“O-kaaay,” Coach Epperly said skeptically.  “Anyway… the point is, we have to follow the rule that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.  The authorities – in this case both Stratton and Molinson – are aware of your suspicions.  There will be an investigation and the suspect will be questioned.  But anything you do on your own would be irresponsible and wrong.”

The coach looked around at his charges, hoping for some indication that they agreed with him.  All he could see was reluctant acknowledgement of his position, and a strong dose of righteous indignation.  He was grateful that they seemed willing, for the moment, to merely sit and stew.  He only hoped Stratton returned before they lost their patience.






Maddie walked up behind Matt and massaged his neck just as he was disconnecting from a conference call.  “Why did you decide to take that call here, instead of at the office?”

Matt shrugged.  “I’m tired.  I’d have had to leave too early to get into the office in time.  I’d have missed breakfast with you and the girls.  I’d have gotten dragged into twenty crises before this meeting even started.”

“And?” his wife asked with an arch of a brow.

“Since when do I have to explain my business decisions to you?” Matt growled irritably, rising from his chair and stomping across the room.

Folding her arms across her chest Maddie answered curtly, “Since you’re cranky enough to speak to me like that.”

Flashing an apology with his eyes, Matt sighed.  “I just couldn’t make myself go into the city.”

“You feel it too, huh?”

“What?  That any second the next disaster will strike?”

His wife nodded.  “Yes, that.”

The phone chose that moment to ring.  The couple stared at the offending intrusion with dread for a moment before Matt moved to check the caller ID.  “Great.  The school.”

Scooping the receiver up, he answered in his most intimidating voice, “Matthew Wheeler.”

Maddie watched anxiously as his face when from dread and worry to outright fury.  He said, “I’m on my way,” before slamming the phone down.  Matt barely glanced at his wife as he stormed out of the room, snarling, “Let’s go!”

A cold shiver ran through her as she hurried to catch up with him.  Despite his reputation, it took something major to set off Matt’s temper that fiercely so instantly.  Not knowing what terrified her, because she didn’t know whether she should let him rip someone to pieces or try to calm him down.  Maddie could only hope her husband could manage to communicate something to her before they reached their destination.








When the Wheelers arrived at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Matt stormed in the front door, demanding to see Stratton and Molinson.  Maddie walked right past her husband and headed directly for the clinic.  The few individuals brave enough to linger in her path took one look at her irate and determined face, and quickly fled.  Someone radioed ahead to Mrs. Parkman, and Faith stood ready to open the door the instant Mrs. Wheeler arrived.

Maddie entered the Health Office just as Trixie made a mad dash for the toilet.  Mart had calmed her down a great deal in the meantime, but the upset had caused her stomach to revolt and the pain in her head to reach epic proportions.  Finding her charge hanging over the toilet bowl and retching violently did nothing to improve Maddie’s mood.

She fixed Mrs. Parkman with a stern glare.  “Has Trixie been physically injured in any way this morning?”

Faith shook her head and replied with calm assurance.  “None at all.  She received a bad psychological upset today, but nothing physical.”

The nurse’s demeanor served to calm Mrs. Wheeler more than her words.  She was confident in her assessment of the situation, and unphased by Maddie’s forceful presence.  If she had cowered or groveled, Maddie would have lost all respect for her.  Instead, she felt a confidence in Trixie’s care.

“All right.  If someone could locate the gym bag Trixie brought to school, she had a clean change of clothes with her.”  Maddie then turned to Mart, assuming Mrs. Parkman would take care of the clothing.

Faith nearly bristled, feeling for a moment as though she’d been relegated to a servant.  She changed her mind, however, as she watched Maddie speak to Mart.  The woman treated him like a mother would a son, giving him a hug and speaking gently with him before turning her attention back to Trixie.

Maddie bustled into the bathroom while Faith arranged for the gym bag in question to be brought to the clinic.  Mart cleaned himself up the best he could while waiting for Maddie to help his sister do the same.  Throughout it all, Trixie remained in a haze of pain, of both body and soul.






Meanwhile, Matt Wheeler had taken over Principal Stratton’s office.  He had personally interrogated each of Trixie’s friends who had been waiting there, as well as Coach Epperly and Principal Stratton.  Sergeant Molinson was just glad to have arrived in time to listen and take notes during the questioning.  No one seemed to find it at all strange for Matt to have taken total control of the situation.

Principal Stratton put his foot down, however, when Wheeler demanded to speak with Beth Fleming.  Instead, the two men went to a separate room for a private argument about the ethics of such interrogation.  Finally, Matt agreed to allow Principal Stratton or Sergeant Molinson to take charge of any questioning, as long as he could be present for it.

During this entire fiasco, the rest of the staff had attempted to corral the student body into their homerooms, and then their normal classes.  The police had cordoned off the section of corridor involved in a way that allowed as much traffic flow as possible.  Only about ten lockers were affected, and three of them were the Bob-White girls’.  They were not anticipating major problems with the other girls, and everyone was being as accommodating as possible where needed in order to keep the academic atmosphere of the school intact while handling a decidedly un-academic crisis.

Despite all appearances, however, the staff was unable to contain the problem.  The Rumor Mill was grinding at lightning speed, and with surprisingly little misinformation.  The details of what had happened to Trixie were spread quickly and accurately.  The only other tidbit flying around was fairly simple: several people suspected that Beth Fleming was behind the attack.

Given the way the cheerleaders had recruited the majority of the student body into attacking Beth’s expectations of becoming Homecoming Queen, nearly everyone knew something was up with Beth.  The results of the vote for the homecoming court were a pretty clear indication that a huge group of the students were most unhappy with Beth.  In addition, through the spread of the anti-Beth rumblings many students had heard about her attacks on Trixie.

Sleepyside-on-Hudson was a fairly small town, with a fairly stable population.  Thus, the vast majority of the students at Sleepyside Junior-Senior High had gone to school together since kindergarten.  While there was a lot of the normal teenage disputes and bickering, they were mostly friends.  While there was some segregation between several groups, they also had many common bonds.  And while there was a great deal of jealousy of the Bob-Whites, there was also a lot of respect.  Even the people who regarded them as “aloof rich kids” secretly admired the way they helped the entire town.

There are some levels of fighting that are expected and accepted among such a community.  The rivalries between the various athletic teams were normal, even cool.  The teasing and mockery between the nerds and the jocks, or between the punks and the preps, were a proper and allowable method of expressing opinions and character development.

Torturing an innocent girl beyond her ability to endure, and making her feel guilty for a heroic act, went far, far beyond the realm of acceptable.

In other words, the whole student body was pissed.

Beth Fleming sat through first period pretending to be unaware of the currents of anger flowing around her, in shades from righteous indignation all the way to violent hatred.  Even someone so completely self-centered was not that completely oblivious, however.  The longer she sat there, seemingly serene and unconcerned, the stronger the anger around her became.  And the angrier she got, in return.

How dare they! she thought.  It was bad enough that the cheerleaders had dared to try and embarrass her the day before.  It was ridiculous that anyone had voted against her for homecoming, let alone pitting Merrissa Parkman against her.  But for the peons around her to dare to side with Trixie Belden against her in an unproven rumor was beyond her ability to comprehend or to tolerate.  She would find a way to make them pay, every last one of them.

Such went the train of Beth’s thoughts by the end of first period, when the crackle of the loudspeaker paged her to the main office.  She marched down the hallway with her head held high and her nose in the air, despite the menacing attitude of the students milling in the corridor during the change of classes.  She chose to see the crowd lining the hall and observing her journey as an honor guard, instead of a threat.  She enjoyed her own image so much that she convinced herself that it was real.  By the time she reached the principal’s office, she had decided that her schoolmates were in awe of her ingenuity and daring in putting down the menace of Trixie Belden.

Thus it was with supreme self-confidence that Beth Fleming stepped into Principal Stratton’s inner office.  When she realized that Sergeant Molinson and Matthew Wheeler were also there, she gave them a particularly cat-like smile.

“Have a seat, Miss Fleming,” Mr. Stratton said grimly.

Lowering herself into the indicated chair with royal dignity, Beth asked, “What is this about, Mr. Stratton?”

Suppressing his irritation at her attitude, Stratton said simply, “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Beth quirked a brow in the direction of Molinson.  “You wish to have the police question me without my parents present?  I don’t believe that’s quite legal, Mr. Stratton.  I am still a minor, after all.”

The triumphant gleam in her eyes raised the hair on the back of his neck.  With his teeth clenched, Stratton replied, “Sergeant Molinson is merely an observer in these proceedings.  I am asking you a few questions regarding a school matter.  This is perfectly legal, Miss Fleming.”

Narrowing her eyes, Beth regarded him coolly.  “With another student’s parent present?  I don’t feel comfortable with that.  I don’t think my Daddy would be okay with you making me uncomfortable.”

Damn, she’s good, Molinson thought as he watched Stratton work to control his temper.  Beth’s next statement nearly blew the lid off his own temper, however.

“A young girl alone in a room with three men could be considered… inappropriate, don’t you think, Mr. Stratton?”

When Mr. Wheeler jumped to his feet, Molinson’s hand automatically moved toward his gun.  Although he stopped himself, his instinct told him he’d have to get between the little bitch and the irate redhead.  Then he realized that he’d underestimated Matt Wheeler.

The tall gentleman didn’t even spare the annoying child a glance as he threw open the office door and called to Stratton’s secretary.  “Carol, would you join us, please?”

When Carol was in the room, Mr. Stratton said, “There, Beth.  Now you’re not alone with all these men.  Nothing improper will happen.  Back to my questions.  What is your relationship with Trixie Belden?”

Beth blinked in surprise, the picture of innocence.  “Relationship?  What do you mean?  I barely know the girl, other than that she attends the same school.”

Stratton leveled his gaze at her.  “Come now, Beth.  Every student in this building has a relationship with every other student.  It could be best friend, worst enemy, casual acquaintance, hated rival, or virtual stranger.  So how would you categorize your relationship with Trixie Belden?”

The cheerleader pretended to think.  “Well, in that case… I guess I’d have to go with virtual stranger.”

The principal leaned back in his chair, elbows on the armrests, and steepled his fingers in front of his mouth.  He stared thoughtfully at her for a few moments, occasionally tapping his fingers against his lips.  When the silence had stretched on long enough to make her uncomfortable, he said, “I’ve been the principal here for a number of years.  Before that I was assistant principal, and before that a teacher.  All told, I’ve worked in this building for twenty-seven years.  In all that time, I only remember about three years where the captain of the basketball team didn’t date the head cheerleader.”

Beth’s jaw set, and she was not able to hide the spark of fury in her eyes from the adults watching her before she focused her gaze intently on her perfectly manicured nails.

“So, Beth, how exactly do you feel about Chris Zack dating Trixie Belden instead of you?”

Attempting a casual shrug, Beth replied without looking up from her study of her silver-gray polish.  “It’s a free country.”

Stratton sat up and leaned on his desk, chin propped on one hand while the fingers of the other drummed upon the desktop.  “True, it is.  But doesn’t that anomaly at least change her rank to that of a rival?”

Beth’s head shot up and fire blazed in her eyes.  “That twit is not my rival.  She has no respect for protocol or tradition, but that doesn't mean I shall deign to waste my time gracing her with my attention.”

Nodding, as if in agreement, Stratton remarked, “Yeah.  So how come I have dozens of students who’ve witnessed you speaking with her every day?”

Matt Wheeler barely contained his smirk.  He had to hand it to the man; Principal Stratton certainly had a way about him.  A glance across the room showed similar thoughts crossing Molinson’s face.

Beth was not nearly so amused as her audience.  “I’m sure her little friends will say anything she wants you to hear,” she spat.

The principal shrugged.  “Maybe.  I don’t think every single person at the athletic department meeting would, though.  Every last one of them saw you talking to her before she ran from the room.”

The angrier Beth got, the less attractive she became.  Her picture-perfect features were distorted in fury, and her mouth was twisted in an angry snarl.  “So what?” she practically shouted.  “I talk to people all the time!  It’s part of my job as head cheerleader, for God’s sake!”

Calm and unphased, Stratton nodded.  “So it is.”  When he leaned back in his chair this time, he placed his hands behind his head and tilted the chair back.  Swiveling slightly back and forth, he stared at the ceiling as if deep in thought.  “So, she’s not a rival, and she’s basically beneath your notice.”

“Exactly,” Beth replied more quietly, attempting to recover her mask of cool indifference.

“Refresh my memory… why did you suspect her when you had that unfortunate incident with blue dye in your hairbrush?”

“Because she hates me!”  Beth’s composure slipped again, and the snarl returned.

Returning to an upright posture, Stratton frowned.  “See, I just don’t get that.  She’s best friends with the two richest, most beautiful girls in the school; she’s dating the captains of both the basketball team and the baseball team; and everyone loves her.  What possible reason could she have to hate you?  I would think you would be beneath her notice.”

As that remark hit home, it shredded the last of Beth’s dignity and control.  She reared up out of her seat and reached a hand across the desk, ripping across the principal’s face with her fingernails.

Molinson stood, calmly reaching for his handcuffs.  “That, young lady, would be classified as assault.”  He yanked the offending hand behind her back and adorned it with his inelegant bracelets.

Beth started screaming, “How dare you!  I want my father!”

Principal Stratton calmly reached for his handkerchief.  “Okay.  Carol, why don’t you go call her parents?”

“Tell them to meet us as the station,” the sergeant added as he manhandled the struggling teenager out the door and toward his police car.

Matt Wheeler sat back and grinned at the principal.  “You might want to get a rabies shot.”

Wiping gingerly at the bloody marks on his face, Stratton glared at him.  “Just go collect your charge from the clinic and tell the nurse to bring her first aid kit here.”

Still grinning, Matt stood.  “I can do that.”  Then he sobered.  “Seriously… thank you.”

Stratton nodded.  “Just testify on my behalf when her parents send me up before the school board.”

“You got it.”  Matt then turned and headed for the school’s health office.










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