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Spring-Heeled Jack: Chapter 4

Atticus and Brock quickly changed out of their school uniforms and into more casual wear. With the cool weather, Atticus put on his favorite jacket: a red plaid cotton windbreaker his grandmother had given him on his twelfth birthday. Brock slipped on a green and black sweater with a large singe mark around the neck.

During their sophomore year, the two were working on an extra-credit science project in the steam labs. They didn’t know what they were thinking, tinkering with steam, but they thought the concept would be simple enough. They were very wrong. Instead of creating a small steam engine like they’d planned, they created a small weapon of steamy destruction. It doesn’t sound threatening, but when it blasts a highly concentrated beam of super-heated water vapor at your neck it becomes very threatening. Luckily, the only one to get hurt was Brock’s sweater.

They quickly packed up their things and without a moment’s hesitation, they bolted out the door. Atticus wanted to tell Brock about his dream. He figured Brock would know something about psychoanalysis, being a psychology student and all, but whenever he tried to say something, he got shivers.

As the two walked across the courtyard, they heard the loud purr of the plasma labs all the way across campus. The clinks and clanks from the clockwork labs were just as loud, as were the revving engines and the whistles of steam. The school was just as bustling and busy as ever.

Fortuna Prep’s science department was definitely its pride and joy. It was the most highly publicized department as well as the most sought after. Students from across the country with any desire to go into the sciences at all were sent to Fortuna Prep for even the slightest chance to work for the Zebulon Corporation. At Zebulon, everybody could be a somebody. They were always in need of workers.

When Atticus and Brock reached the main gate, they unfortunately bumped into their favorite history professor: Varnum. He was wearing is standard tan suit and his dark tinted glasses.

“Well hello, Mr. Whaelord,” he said. “Your insults just don’t stop: first you cheat on my exam and now I find you skipping class? I should report you to Principal Shepard and have you expelled!”

“H-Hey, I didn’t cheat,” Atticus mumbled. “You just need to make tougher exams.”

Atticus instantly reared back. He didn’t mean to snap, but people assuming he was a cheat was a huge peeve.

He couldn’t see it, but Atticus felt the professor’s hateful gaze. “You think my exams are easy, do you?”

Atticus felt his heart pound against his chest. He wanted to butt in and argue, but he couldn’t find the words. Luckily, Brock was there to bail him out once again.

“Well, he’s not wrong professor. Not even I broke a sweat. Maybe you should raise the difficulty on your tests after all. This is a private academy after all.”

“I wouldn’t sound so high and mighty, Mr. Mackenzie,” said the professor. “You might change your mind once you see your grade.” Varnum turned back to Atticus. “So, where were you today, Mr. Whaelord? Any reason you didn’t send your friend here with a note explaining your absence?”

Atticus didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t have to tell the whole truth. He bit his lip and said, “I’m sorry sir, but I wasn’t feeling very good today. I’m still kinda torn up about Mike.”

“Mike?” Varnum asked, “Who are you talking about?”

“Mike Nelson. He was in-”

“Oh, the boy who hung himself? Right, very sad.”

The two students knew the professor didn’t care. He was probably more upset that Mike skipped class rather than his death.

“Yeah, him,” Atticus said glumly. “I felt sick this morning so I didn’t go to class all day.”

“And now you’re up and about feeling just fine? All howdy-doody-doo? I see where your priorities lie, Mr. Whaelord.”

“Actually,” Brock chimed in, “it was my idea that Atticus get some air. I thought it would help clear his head.”

Slowly, the weight was lifting from Atticus’ shoulders. He wasn’t a good liar under pressure and in the presence of the professor he was even worse. If not for Brock, he didn’t know what he’d do.

Varnum shifted his gaze from one boy to the other. “Where are you two off then?”

“The police station,” Atticus blurted.

“What? Why?”

Both Varnum and Brock looked at Atticus with shock.

“I-I need to speak with detective McCloud,” Atticus said. “It’s for a summer internship.”

At the mention of McCloud, Atticus noticed a slight twitch on Varnum’s face.

“Really? McCloud you say?” The professor looked all around him as if saying something would get him in trouble. “Well, then go ahead. I won’t stop you. I need to get back to business anyway.”

Varnum shouted one final threat of expulsion at Atticus, but it didn’t matter. Both students knew it was just a hollow threat. As far as they cared, Varnum was just a snooty professor with a severe case of bighead syndrome.

As he walked into the distance, Brock turned to Atticus and said, “I don’t trust him. He left class not to long before Mike’s body was found.”

Gears began to turn in Atticus’ head. “He just left?”

Brock nodded. “He looked up at the clock, I remember, and then declared he had to go ‘take care of something.’ Then he came back about fifteen minutes later. Class was totally confused.”

“If that’s the case,” he said, “then we have a suspect. You saw how he acted when I brought up McCloud. Maybe he’s the killer?”

Brock shrugged. “I don’t know. We don’t’ have anything solid to go on.”

“But it’s a start,” Atticus said. “Maybe he’s not the killer, but he’s involvedin some way. I can feel it.”

Brock didn’t like assumptions, but if that’s all they had then he couldn’t argue. What mattered to Atticus, though, was that he finally something to go on.

*****

The city of Las Vegas was breathtaking. When you live there you used to its majesty, but to new eyes it was the greatest. It wasn’t a concrete jungle like New York City or Chicago, but a beautiful landscape filled to the brim with bright and flashing lights. Now, there were a few colossal casinos, hotels, and skyscrapers; but the one that stood out above the rest was the Zebulon World Headquarters. It was a mighty building, standing over eight stories tall at the heart of the city.

The Las Vegas night life was nothing short of breathtaking either. Casinos lined the streets, filling the city with lights and music. Students from Fortuna Prep, and several other high schools, would always try and sneak out at night to see the famous Las Vegas Strip. They were almost never successful and most students didn’t want to risk getting caught so late after curfew, but there were still the daredevils amongst the schools.

To help get across the city in a timely fashion, a company called the Las Vegas Skyway created the skyrail network. To explain the skyrail one would imagine a large subway system, but instead moving above the city’s skyline. The skyrail covered the whole city and had dozens of shuttles moving around at all times of the day. Far more effective than busses.

The Police Station was a beautiful work of Las Vegas architecture. It towered nearly three stories tall, was made of smooth orange and gray concrete bricks, and was riddled with windows placed in elegantly carved grooves. A large staircase lead up to the station’s front entrance, and a bronze plaque was posted next to the door that read:

LAS VEGAS METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT

IN MEMORIAM TO ALL THE CIVILIANS OF THE BEAUTIFUL

CITY OF LIGHTS

HOME TO THE ZEBULON CORPORATION

Atticus and Brock made their way into the station and into the main reception area. At the back wall, there was a small window with a young receptionist woman sitting behind, filling out mounds of paperwork. To the left of the window was a doorway leading to the heart of the station. The floor was a glossy hardwood floor that gleamed in the light. Above them, lighting the room, were patented Zebulon Corp Plasma Tubes. Said to be cleaner and longer lasting than the traditional light bulb. Atticus made his way up to the wooden counter and signaled the receptionist for assistance.

“How may I help you, young man,” the woman asked.

“Hello ma’am, I was curious if anybody had turned in a brass locket recently? I lost mine yesterday.”

The woman took out a small notepad and pen and began to jot down notes. “Where do you think you might have lost it?”

“Fortuna Prep, near the west park.” The woman looked up from her notepad. “I-I lost it during the investigation around Mike Nelson. I think someone might have picked it up on accident thinking it was evidence.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry young man, bit if it does happen to be in evidence I can’t give it back at this moment.”

“Well, could you check that it’s there at least? It was a gift, and if I know where it is I’ll at least feel a little better.”

The woman sighed and looked back down to her notepad. “Can you describe it to me?”

“It’s a small round brass locket with two gears entwined around one another.”

When Atticus brought up the gears, the woman stopped writing. Her eyes widened up and she looked at the boy. Atticus was afraid he may have done something wrong, but the woman just shook her head and went back to writing down the description.

“E-Everything alright,” he asked. The woman didn’t say anything. She just went on writing.

She tore the note out of her little booklet, pinned it into a small tube, and then sent it through a small chute in the wall.

“It’ll be just a moment,” she said. Atticus smiled, thanked the woman and went back to join Brock who was still standing near the door. The two then sat down a small bench and awaited the news.

“Nice fib,” Brock said. “How’d you think of that?”

Atticus shrugged and said, “I just thought to myself, ‘what would Brock do.’”

Brock laughed. “Wow, what an honor.”

It was quiet. The only sound was the hum of the plasma tubes above, and the tapping of the receptionist’s pen as she filled out more paperwork. Atticus began to feel nervous. He couldn’t stop thinking about how the receptionist acted when he described the locket. Why? What was so alarming?

He leaned over to Brock and whispered, “Do you think we’ll get in too much trouble if we get caught?”

“What would they do,” Brock teased.

“I don’t know,” Atticus said frantically. “We’re tampering with evidence. Do you know the punishment for that?”

Brock shrugged. “Death, I assume.”

Atticus rolled his eyes. He wasn’t in a joking mood. He was starting to think his idea wasn’t a very good one. He should’ve just stayed on campus instead of wanting to get involved with professional affairs. He could really mess something up.

Suddenly, the door next to the reception window opened and out walked an officer followed by the couple from Atticus’ dream: The man in the green suit, orange tie, and goggles; and the woman with the golden dress. Atticus couldn’t believe it.

Brock gestured over to them. “Who do you think those schmucks are?”

“I-I’m not sure.”

“Why do you think they’re here?”

Atticus shrugged and said, “They probably want to sue someone for being poor.”

The officer began talking to the couple, and the two students tried to listen in. “We’re very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Nelson. We really are.”

Atticus shot a glance a Brock. “The Nelsons!”

Brock clasped his hand over Atticus’ gaping maw and shushed him. They then resumed their eavesdropping.

“It’s quite alright,” she said. Her face began to swell as tears formed in her eyes. “I just wish we could have done something to help him.”

Mr. Nelson scoffed and turned to the officer. “Where are my tax dollars going? Las Vegas’ finest? I beg to differ.”

“I’m sorry sir, but there is nothing we can-”

“Nothing? You idiots aren’t even trying!”

“Now, Clayton,” Mrs. Nelson said, “you heard the detective. He said he’s looking into it.”

The man scoffed. “I don’t trust that McCloud for a minute, Pearl! I trust the police, not some Zebulon lap dog!”

Atticus jumped to his feet, startling Brock, and made his way to the Nelsons. “Excuse me, you’re the Nelsons, correct?”

The two looked down at the young man. They had no idea who this boy was, nor did the really care. But, Mrs. Nelson’s lady-like behavior shown through.

“Yes, we are.”

Atticus nodded, and in his head he wore a smile of delight. If these really were Mike’s parents, he knew he could get some information out of them.

Mike didn’t talk about his parents much. He said they were all business and no play. They owned a private machinarium in Las Angeles. According to Mike, their business was going through some tough times. This was not a good time for the family.

“I would just like to say that I’m very sorry about what happened to Mike. He was my friend.” Atticus extended his hand. “My name’s Atticus.”

The man sneered. “Thank you very much for your concerns young man, but we don’t need a reminder of what happened to our son.”

“Clayton, please!” Mrs. Nelson gave Atticus a weak smile and shook his hand. “Please excuse my husband, he’s just very upset. We all are. My name is Pearl.”

“It’s an honor, ma’am.”

Atticus then felt his stomach leap into his throat. He wanted to ask them all sorts of questions about the locket and if they happened to know his parents, but he couldn’t. It was as if his mouth went dry in just a second. Atticus swallowed hard and then looked up at Mike’s father, extending his hand once more.

Clayton had such a presence about him. He was intimidating and Atticus knew that this man meant business. He felt like this man was what Professor Varnum wanted to be, but instead he was just a weasel-y old history professor.

“Atticus, huh?” Through his goggles, Atticus could feel the man’s glare. “My name is Dr. Clayton Nelson.” He reached out and shook Atticus’ hand.

“P-Pleased to meet you, sir.” Atticus and Dr. Nelson lowered their arms, and before Atticus could regain his composure, the two began to leave. He knew that this could be the last time he’d get to ask them any questions. He had to make it count. Quickly, Atticus ran up to them and cut them off. “Please, really quick, can I ask you some questions?”

Mrs. Nelson gave Atticus a somber look. “Please, not now. We would really like some time alone.”

“It’ll only take a moment.”

Dr. Nelson turned back and ripped his goggles off; allowing him to look Atticus dead in the eyes. “Didn’t you hear the lady? She said not now you dreadful little ankle-biter!”

The man’s eyes were a powerful green. The same color as his suit. Atticus felt his heart beat violently in his chest. His hand trembled and he felt sweat trickle down his neck. He had such a hard time imagining this loud and boisterous man as quiet and introverted Mike’s father.

“I-I’m sorry,” Atticus said quietly.

Dr. Nelson scoffed and quickly turned away. “They say all publicity is good publicity, but all my son’s death has gotten me is this harassment.”

“Clayton, please! Let’s go.” Dr. Nelson stormed out of the station, his wife not far behind.

Atticus was frozen. He’d never frozen up like that. The feeling in his chest when he talked to the Nelsons wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. However, one thing rand in the back of his head. “All my son’s death has gotten me?”

Brock leapt up off the bench and ran to Atticus. “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

Atticus nodded and said, “I’m fine, but a little confused.”

Just then, the receptionist tapped on the glass. “Young man, I just got the message on your locket.”

That snapped him out of it. Atticus quickly darted back to the receptionist’s window. “Did you find it?”

The receptionist shook her head. “We’re sorry, but they couldn’t find it in evidence and as far as the records show, no one has turned one in.”

Atticus’ face fell and he said, “That’s okay. I’m sure I’ll find it somewhere on campus.” He thanked the woman for her time and then turned back to Brock.

He had a look of defeat plastered on his face. He couldn’t find Mike’s locket and he botched his attempts to get any information out of the Nelsons. The only thing he got was some exercise.

However, Atticus couldn’t shake the feeling Dr. Nelson gave him. The way he talked about his son’s death didn’t seem like the way a grieving father would behave. Relating to publicity and acting as if he was supposed to get something in return; How he treated the police staff and what he said about Detective McCloud. It didn’t sit well with him.

Brock smiled and patted Atticus on the back. “Hey now, don’t go beating yourself up.”

Atticus sighed. He knew Brock was right, but he just felt so miserable. He wanted to put on his big boy detective pants, but he was just too cowardly.

He got a glimpse of the clock at the far end of the room: 4:42. He had eighteen minutes before he was to meet Camila at the Turtle Dragon.

“Say, would you like to grab some food,” he asked.

Brock was a bit taken back by Atticus’ sudden shift, but he nodded. “Sure. Why not.”

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