Title: The Narc Author: Syl Francis Email: efrancis@earthlink.net Part: 1/1 Rating: PG13 Word count: 22,230

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Dedication: This story is for my colleagues in the education field. They're all heroes in my eyes. :)

Summary: A new student with a record of disciplinary problems reports to Bludhaven's notorious Arlington Heights High School, a school overrun with gangs, guns, and drugs. However, the real danger has yet to show its face.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Lazer's Talmud Torah for their educational website. I borrowed the brief passages of the beautiful poem, "Adon Olam" (Master of the World), from the translation posted on their site.

Special Thanks: to Hazel and Terri for taking the time to read and comment on too many drafts to count. And to Dannell for encouraging me to write the thing in the first place.

Disclaimer: All the characters (except the students and faculty of Arlington Heights High School) are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright.

Constructive feedback is welcome!

Copyright 2000

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The Narc by Syl Francis

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." (W.B.Yeats)

****

Sydney glared coldly at the new student. He slouched in the chair, his legs kicked out, skin peeking out scandalously from frayed jeans. Mr. Jackson, the vice principal in charge of discipline, would no doubt give the new boy a good "Welcome Aboard" butt-chewing as soon as Sydney finished discussing his class schedule with him.

The student wore a "Gotham Knights" black leather jacket, which had seen better days. It was opened carelessly in the front, exposing a tight, black T-shirt that revealed rippling chest muscles underneath. Sydney felt herself staring and looked away quickly.

"So, tell me, Al," Sydney began, then paused perusing his academic and disciplinary records. Jeez, this kid did everything except blow up his last school, she mused. Wouldn't doubt it if he did that, too.

"Hmmmm...is 'Al' short for something else? Albert? Allan? Alfred? Your records don't say."

"Alfred," Al admitted reluctantly, "but don't call me that." He scowled darkly. "Last guy who called me Alfred ended up in the hospital with missing teeth and a coupla broken ribs."

Sydney's dark brown eyes widened, taken aback by Al's open admission of violence. She felt her insides go cold and had to sit still momentarily. She swallowed a couple of times, cleared her throat, then continued in a reasonably detached and professional manner.

"Very well, Al," Sydney managed. "Your records indicate that you have to take extra courses this semester in order to graduate. Otherwise, you'll have to do a summer session."

Al snorted derisively. "Listen..." Al picked up her nameplate and made a show of reading it: Sydney Greene. Al's smirk broadened and he continued, "...Sydney..." His dark blue eyes locked with hers. He was mocking her, Sydney realized. "I'm here because some judge ordered me to be here. When the last bell rings in this f--" He stopped, then smirked apologetically. "Sorry, *Ms.* Greene. Please excuse my 'French'. I meant to say, that when the Spring semester ends, I'm out of here. If not before."

Al leaned forward. He boldly placed his hand over hers. "You know, my birthday's March twenty-first. I'll be eighteen." Before Sydney realized what he was doing, Al's face was about two inches from hers. His dark blue eyes were piercing into hers, holding Sydney mesmerized. "Whadaya say, Sydney? Just you'n me...?"

Sydney blinked and jumped back. What was she *doing*? This was a *student*! Upset with herself, Sydney lashed out at Al.

"What are you doing? Young man, if you're doing what I think you're doing," Sydney blustered, "I-I'll have Mister Jackson in here so fast, your head will spin!" Sydney couldn't believe what she'd almost allowed him to do. This was completely unforgivable, not to mention unprofessional!

Al's face still held a sneer, but he sat back a safe distance from the Senior Class Counselor. To Sydney's amazement, Al's whole demeanor instantly transformed itself into the epitome of innocence. His bright blue eyes stared with wide-eyed guilelessness at Sydney.

"Whatever do you mean, Ms. Greene? I'm new here and do so wish to make a good impression."

Sydney's heart was beating a mile a minute. This *boy* had come *this* close to kissing her...and she'd almost allowed it! What was the matter with her? Sydney turned away from Al, trying to hide her jumbled emotions by filling out forms and giving him his class assignments. Through the interminable ordeal, she could feel his dark blue eyes searing into her.

Finally, the horrible session came to an end. Sydney assigned Al to some of the tougher Senior-level courses. Although his academic record was nothing short of dismal, his tests showed an incredibly superior and gifted potential. Perhaps, if Al were given the opportunity, he'd excel at the challenge. Wouldn't hurt to try, Sydney sighed.

When she finally dismissed Al to his homeroom teacher, Sydney sat in her office staring into space. She felt ready to burst into tears. She'd almost kissed a student! Al Richardson was an incorrigible kid, who'd been in and out of trouble since the second grade. But he was bright...all of his teachers agreed on that. So much untapped potential.

So much waste.

And he was probably one of the most stunningly handsome young men that Sydney had ever come across. Finely chiseled, pretty boy looks...yes. But there was more to it...a hidden vulnerability that tore at her heartstrings. In addition to everything else, Al Richardson was an orphan, in and out of foster homes since the age of nine.

In and out of juvenile detention since he was ten.

Al was no longer in the Foster Care program. He was instead on probation and currently lived in a halfway house. Al's probation stipulated that he must attend school until the end of the school year and acquire his diploma or high school equivalency. In order to do this, Al had to maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Unfortunately, Al obviously showed little interest in his academics. He would therefore fail and be in violation of his probation.

"They might as well ask him to graduate as Valedictorian," Sydney said sarcastically.

Inexplicably, Sydney felt a single tear spill. She quickly took out a tissue and hurried to bring herself under control. She had a nine o'clock conference with Dr. Melbourne, the school principal. The planned topic of discussion was 'Seniors who were in danger of not graduating.' It was her responsibility to come up with a viable plan to help each student succeed.

Sydney lay her head on the palm of her hand. Disgusted, she spoke out loud. "Ignore the problem for twelve years, then suddenly wake up and wonder why your kid isn't walking across the stage with his peers?" She shook her head at the utter hopelessness of the situation.

By the time Sydney reported to Dr. Melbourne's office, she'd already put aside any thoughts of Al Richardson.

****

The loud voices coming from next door interrupted Sydney's meeting with Dr. Melbourne. She and the school principal exchanged startled looks. Melbourne jumped up and headed towards the adjoining office. Sydney followed at his heels.

The voices coming from Mr. Jackson's office became louder and even more virulent. Three students who'd been sullenly waiting outside for their individual turns with the school's vice principal for discipline were sitting up listening intently. Melbourne didn't bother to knock. He stormed into Jackson's office.

To Sydney's shock, Al was standing, apparently poised to spring at Jackson. Jackson, meanwhile, was holding an old-fashioned paddle like a baseball bat. Sydney's eyes widened further when she saw the monstrous object. Jackson kept it on his desk as a souvenir from the "Good Old Days" as he'd say, when school administrators were allowed to use corporal punishment on students.

Sydney hated the sight of the ugly thing, and often wished that Melbourne would order Jackson to get rid of it.

"Mister Jackson!" Melbourne said, his voice dripping ice. "Put that...*thing*...down! *Now*!" Jackson glared at the head principal, but did as ordered.

"Mister Jackson...explain." Melbourne's quiet tone carried heavily threatening undertones.

"Doctor Melbourne...sir," began Jackson resentfully. "This student is in clear violation of the school dress code. His trousers, as you can see, are torn and exposing naked flesh. I told him that he had to go home and change, and then report back to me before he'd be allowed to return to class. That's when the little punk threatened me!"

"Mister Jackson," Melbourne stated quietly, "we do not refer to members of the student body as 'punks' in this school. This student, I take it, has a name?" Melbourne turned to face Al. "I'm sorry, son. We have over two thousand students here at Arlington Heights. I'm afraid that I don't recognize you."

"That's because he's new here," Sydney interrupted. "Al Richardson's been a student at A.H. for all of..." she checked her watch dramatically, "...two and a half hours! Perhaps, if Mister Jackson had asked Al if he were aware of the school dress code, this misunderstanding might have been avoided!"

"The punk threatened me!" Jackson protested.

"Aw, stuff yourself, Mister Lard Butt!" Al yelled. "I didn't threaten you!" Al walked up to Jackson's desk and leaned forward. "I don't bother with threats. They're such a waste of time."

In a move that was faster than anyone in the room could follow, Al grabbed and twisted the paddle from Jackson's hands. He then spun it expertly in a blur in his hands. Passing it from one hand to the other in lightning fast moves that were almost beautiful to watch. If it weren't all so frightening. Sydney gasped in shock!

In a flourish, Al threw the paddle in the air, caught it backhanded, and returned it to Jackson's desk before anyone could react.

"Why you, little--" Jackson began rushing towards Al. The vice-principal placed his hand on Al's forearm, but it was the last thing he did. Al grabbed Jackson's wrist and tossed him bodily across the desk to land upside down on his own desk chair.

"Nobody touches me! *Nobody*! You *hear*?! *Nobody*!!" Al looked ready to lose control.

"Al!" Melbourne called softly, his voice reasonable. Al froze in place, listening. "Son, it doesn't have to be this way. Please, I'd like to talk to you in my office. Will you walk into my office with me?"

Al looked at him suspiciously. Jackson straightened up by then.

"I'll say we'll have a talk, punk! I'm calling the District police. By the time they get done with you--"

"You'll do no such thing, Mister Jackson!" Melbourne said. "Ms. Greene and I both witnessed you threatening this boy with a weapon. Furthermore, you laid your hands on this student when he was obviously no longer a threat to any of us. And I'll swear to that in court."

"Not a threat--?" Jackson couldn't believe his ears. "That punk *threw* me over the desk!"

"Yes...and you're not hurt are you?" Melbourne returned. "Ms. Greene, do you concur with my assessment?"

Sydney stared at her boss mutely. Since her first day here at Arlington Heights High School, Melbourne and Jackson's joint animosity for each other was only too obvious. But she was nevertheless happy to side with the head principal on this one.

"Yes, sir," Sydney agreed. "It appeared to me that Mister Jackson did indeed threaten this student with that highly illegal weapon. Al was perfectly within his rights of self-defense when he disarmed Mister Jackson." While she said this to Melbourne, Sydney was actually looking at Al and smiling.

Al's normal sneer softened somewhat for an instant. This was quickly replaced by a more neutral demeanor.

"Thank you, Ms. Greene," Melbourne said with a nod. "Mister Richardson, if you would please follow me to my office?" Al nodded in mute agreement.

As Sydney stepped out into the small hallway immediately outside of Jackson's office, she noted that the three students who'd been waiting earlier were all talking animatedly amongst themselves in low whispers.

Sydney recognized them all. Each was constantly in trouble, having spent more time in detention and in-school suspension, than in the classroom. Their names had been prominently displayed on the list of students she'd discussed earlier with Melbourne as being in danger of not graduating. Sydney sighed. Apparently, Al had just gained some fans.

Every few seconds the teenagers would break into low-level laughter, then they'd talk some more. Sydney couldn't hear what they were discussing, but she was fairly certain that it involved the school vice principal in charge of discipline and his most embarrassing comeuppance.

Within the next hour, news of Al's altercation with Jackson spread throughout the school. Al Richardson had been a student at Arlington Heights for a single morning, and he was already the most popular, most sought after student on campus!

****

Later in the cafeteria, while she was having her lunch, Sydney heard some loud (and quite obnoxious) voices coming from the "Senior Table." It was another tradition at A.H. that Sydney hated. The Seniors had a special table where only they were allowed to sit. From there, the Seniors basically held court, hazing their junior classmates.

The class "leaders" would call forth some poor luckless underclassman and torment him or her. Usually, they'd unmercifully tease the less attractive girls or more awkward boys. Either way, Sydney hated it and had protested its continued existence in a supposedly "inclusive" school.

"Madame Vice President!" Sydney looked up. The speaker was the most obnoxious of them all, Craig Minnig, Senior Class President. "I call forth to our most worthy presence, the hero of the hour...Al Richardson!"

A tall, slender blonde beauty stood up. Mindy Talbot, Senior Class Vice President, and Craig Minnig's girlfriend. She bowed deferentially towards Craig first, then turned to face the cafeteria. She nodded at a huge, stocky student sitting at the far end of the table, Jim Gaskill, Sergeant-at-Arms. Jim took out a small wooden mallet and struck a small gong set directly in front of him.

"Attention in the cafeteria! Attention in the cafeteria!" Jim called. Mindy nodded her thanks.

"Thank you, Sergeant-at-Arms!" Mindy stood still for an instant, took a deep breath, and began her recitation. "Hear ye! Hear ye! The Senior Council calls forth Al Richardson. Al Richardson, your presence is required before his most high esteemed President of the Senior Class, Craig Minnig. Report immediately."

The cafeteria went instantly silent. All eyes turned curiously, searching for the mysterious Al Richardson. Mindy smiled brightly, apparently happy with her role. She too looked around eagerly for the new student.

Sydney glanced around curiously. Where *was* Al? Everyone's attention was suddenly caught by loud girlish laughter coming from a corner table. There! Several female students were standing around a table, laughing and having a good time.

Mindy appeared momentarily put out at being ignored. She looked at Craig and pouted. Craig, in turn, caught Jim's eyes and jerked his head towards the corner table. Jim nodded curtly. He stood up to his full height of six feet, three inches and slowly lumbered over to the table.

Sydney felt a cold, visceral reaction inside her. Jim Gaskill was the school's star halfback. He was a bruiser by any sense of the word. Someone should *do* something! Sydney looked around. Where was Jackson? *This* was what he was being paid to prevent! One of the vice-principal's primary duties was keeping his eye out in the cafeteria, ensuring that the students didn't get out of control. Where the hell was he?

Jim reached the corner table and broke through the wall of giggling, teenaged girls. Sydney wasn't surprised to see Al Richardson sitting there at the table, surrounded by the gaggle of beauties, having a grand old time of it.

Sydney got up and moved in closer. If Jackson wasn't around to prevent trouble, then she'd give it a try. Don't be stupid, Sydney, she berated herself. First rule of discipline: Never attempt to break up a fight by yourself! She shook her head. *Someone* had to do something.

As she approached, Sydney could hear Jim talking. "Look, Richardson, you're new here and don't know how we do business, but when a student is summoned to the Senior Table, he reports A.S.A.P.! Understand?"

"Look, pal, you're bothering me! Why don't you just skip back to your little 'Gong Show' and bother someone else? Me and my lady friends have some serious catching up to do." Al turned to a pretty redhead. "Now, I believe that I haven't had a chance to get acquainted with you...what was your name, now? Cherry?"

Cherry nodded eagerly and quickly climbed on Al's lap. Sydney felt a momentary stab of jealousy, which she quickly suppressed. It was quite obvious how Al was becoming "acquainted" with almost the entire female student body. Sydney was about to step forward and break it up (Public displays of affection were strictly forbidden on campus), when Jim beat her to the punch.

Jim grabbed Cherry and yanked her off of Al's lap. He waved the rest of the girls off with threatening look. Meanwhile, Al sat there quietly, his hands on the table, not reacting to the intrusion. When Jim finished chasing off the girls, he turned to Al. "Now, punk, I asked you nicely to come with me. The next time, I won't ask, and I won't be so nice."

"You know that's the second time today someone's called me a 'punk'," Al said thoughtfully. "I don't think I like it." Al looked up at Jim with a deceptively pleasant smile. "Now, you want to take it back, dill-weed, or do I have to stuff it down your throat?"

Jim smiled in response. "Come on, punk...make my day. I'm gonna love this!"

"Oh, I see we have a 'Dirty Harry' wannabe," derided Al as he stood up. "Would you care to quote any other movie lines?"

"Just come on, smart mouth! Put your dukes where your mouth is!"

Sydney walked up at that moment and came between them. She had to stop this before it escalated into a fight. "All right! Break it up, you two!" She called out in an annoyingly shrill voice. Not the most authoritative voice in the world, she chided herself. "Al! This is just your first day here! Don't be a fool! You know what'll happen to you if you're suspended. Jim! You're one of the class leaders! Is this how you set the example? By beating up on people who don't jump to your whim?"

Neither student looked at her. Their eyes were locked on each other's.

"Al...please!" Sydney pleaded.

"Ms. Greene," Al said without taking his eyes off Jim. "I'd recommend that you step aside before you're hurt, ma'am."

"No! I won't step aside. If you care enough not to see me hurt, then you need to walk away from this. Please...don't throw your future away over some silly macho display."

"Ms. Greene, please--" Al was interrupted by the timely arrival of Melbourne, Jackson and several male teachers...

****

"What were you *thinking*?" Melbourne shouted. "How often must I emphasize that no one...*no one*!...tries to break up a fight by themselves. It's too dangerous! Either of those boys could've been packing!"

Sydney sat looking shamefaced. She clasped and unclasped her hands nervously. Melbourne was well within his rights as head principal to write a letter of censure and place it in her personnel file. Of course, Sydney knew better than to try to break up a fight between two huge teenaged boys. With the current serious problems that the school was facing--guns, gangs, drugs--it was tantamount to suicide to attempt such an infantile, 'Dirty Harriet', action.

"Sydney, you're a caring, wonderful person. You really want to make a difference in our students' lives. That's one of the primary reasons I voted to hire you this year. But you're becoming too emotionally involved with these kids and their problems." Melbourne came around his desk and sat on the other guest chair next to her.

"Sydney, you're in danger of losing your professional detachment. These kids are all extremely needy...they all want a piece of you. Furthermore, they're greedy. They'll take and take and still want to take some more, but you'll wake up one morning and have nothing left to give. You'll burn out before your first year is up...and Sydney, this school can't afford to lose such a valuable asset as yourself."

Melbourne's serious eyes studied her closely. A strange feeling began to suffuse through Sydney. She felt her cheeks flush. An answering light seemed to suddenly ignite in Melbourne's eyes. Sydney looked away abruptly in confusion.

"I know I was wrong, Doctor Melbourne," Sydney whispered by way of apology. "But the new boy, Al Richardson...sir, he's on probation. If he's suspended he'll be in violation of his probation and he'll be put in jail. He's almost eighteen...too old for the juvenile authorities. He'll be sent to Lockhaven Prison! I-I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't try to step in and stop him from ruining his life."

Melbourne sighed. "Sydney, trust me. Al Richardson doesn't need your help to stay out of trouble. Al Richardson will do whatever Al Richardson wants to do." Melbourne paused. "That's just the way it is." Sydney looked up at Melbourne's words. There was something in his eyes, something he was holding back. Melbourne quickly glanced away.

"Forgive me, but I just can't accept that, Doctor Melbourne. I believe that all students can be reached somehow...all I need is the right approach. I know that that's an extremely naive attitude in light of the violence in our schools, but I can't help myself. If I ever stopped caring, or started believing that a student was a hopeless case, then it would be time for me to resign."

Melbourne studied Sydney for a long moment, then slowly nodded in agreement and smiled painfully. "I can't argue with that, Sydney. I just hope that these kids don't end up breaking your heart."

****

Sydney rubbed her eyes tiredly. She stared blearily at her desk clock. Six- fifty-two. Time for all good school administrators to call it a day. Sydney looked at the offending (A thru M) student files stacked on her desk. She still had twenty more to go through. Unfortunately, the N thru Z files waited in the wings.

Sydney sighed in dismay. During her student training there had been so much discussion about how to talk to students, how to make yourself approachable, how to successfully get reluctant students to open up. Her advisors sort of left out the part about the endless stream of paperwork.

The tons of paperwork, Sydney amended. She glared at the files still stacked on her desk. Enough paperwork to wipe out the Amazon rain forest, not to mention all of the trees in the City of Bludhaven.

"Yeah, all three of them," Sydney said sarcastically. "Toto, we're not in Metropolis anymore."

Sydney missed her hometown more each day. She missed the _Daily Planet_ and the award-winning husband and wife writing team of Lane and Kent. She missed the smiling professionalism of Lana Lang on the WGBS evening news. She missed the overall sparkling cleanliness of the tree-lined city streets. But most of all, Sydney missed the feeling of safety that always filled her whenever she heard, "Look! Up in the sky...!"

A person just didn't feel that sense of warmth here in Bludhaven, Sydney admitted ruefully. All one saw was the dinginess, coupled with the smells, the poverty, and the sense of overwhelming hopelessness. The worst part was seeing the empty, glazed-over stares in the eyes of her students who lived with daily despair and were too numbed by it to be affected anymore.

Most of the A.H. student population lived in Bludhaven's infamous Zee Moores housing project. It was a place riddled by gangs, drugs, and guns. The dedicated faculty fought relentlessly to make A.H. a safe haven for its student body, to put some light of hope back into their students' eyes. But despite everyone's best efforts, Sydney knew they were losing the battle.

It all just seemed so impossible.

Slamming her hand in pent up frustration, Sydney stood. It was time to go home. She looked at the paperwork on her desk and deemed it a waste of time to take it with her. Once home, she'd simply ignore the files; therefore, Sydney opted to leave them where they were.

Grabbing her coat and purse, Sydney locked her office and made her way though the labyrinthine hallways in the main office. Although it was after hours there were still many activities going on in the building.

She could hear the sounds of basketball practice coming from the main gym. Further down, Sydney could make out girls' shrill voices as the varsity drill team practiced its dance routine. Faint, tinny piano chords told her that the varsity choir was rehearsing for its upcoming regional competition.

The usual sounds of after school extracurricular activities.

Sydney smiled. This type of student involvement in school always brought back memories of her own high school activities: first flute in marching band and star pitcher on the varsity fast-pitch softball team. Furthermore, it reminded Sydney of how much she'd enjoyed being a part of her Alma Mater, Metropolis High School.

Sydney exited through the faculty entrance. Her car was on the far side of the darkened faculty parking lot. The outside security lights were still not in sync with the recent time change. Veteran teachers complained that it was the same problem each year. When the school went into Daylight Savings Time, the bells, hallway clocks, and the outside security lights were never changed accordingly.

Sydney hurried down the unlit pathway from the faculty entrance to the parking lot. The path was lined on one side with high decorative hedges, adding to the deep gloom. As she was about to clear the hedges, she saw dark figures further up. Her heart racing, she hesitated, unsure whether or not to continue. Sydney moved closer to the hedge, hiding within its shadows.

After a few seconds she began to feel ridiculous. "Come on, Sydney," she muttered. "It's been a long day." About to start on her way again, she suddenly heard them talking in low, insistent voices.

"I can make things cool for you here at A.H. Old man Jackson's practically my lapdog."

"Why would you want to help me?" Sydney recognized Al's sardonic voice.

"I heard you're in tight with Ricky Noone. Me and the guys are interested in getting in on some of his action."

Ricky Noone? Sydney thought she'd heard that name before in association with Roland "Blockbuster" Desmond, a local Bludhaven businessman. She'd heard that Desmond's business dealings were rather questionable, but nothing had ever been proven against him. Her musings were interrupted. "Hey--!? What are you--?!" The speaker's voice was summarily muffled.

"Minnig, I'm gonna tell you this just once," Al warned in a voice that sent chills down Sydney's back. "If you value your health, you won't mention any names again. Do I make myself clear?"

Sydney heard a muffled squeak.

"That's good," Al said quietly, "'cause I wouldn't want to be responsible for your untimely demise...So, you want to play a real man's game? Is *that* it? You sure you're up to it?"

Sydney didn't hear a reply.

"Good," Al said, approvingly. "I'll make some calls...contact my connection."

"Hey, man, you won't regret this. You'n me we'll rule this place--!"

"No! There *is* no 'you and me'...You *got* that? *You* keep your distance from me. You don't talk to me...You don't look at me...You don't know me. Get it?"

There was a pause.

"Good...'cause like they say in showbiz, kid...Don't call us. We'll call you. Now run along and go play with the other kiddies. But remember...Keep your mouth shut. 'Cause my connection has associates that can shut it permanently."

Sydney waited in the shadows, her knees shaking. What had she just overheard? Al Richardson and Craig Minnig talking about...? What? Someone named Ricky Noone, a local racketeer, and associate of Roland Desmond.

Sydney was still relatively new to Bludhaven, but in the short time she'd lived there, she'd heard both names mentioned on the evening news for various questionable business practices. However, there never seemed to be sufficient evidence to bring any sort of indictment against either.

After a few moments of silence from the other end, Sydney began walking cautiously towards her car. The more she thought of the conversation she'd over heard, the more worried she became.

What was Al involved in? Should she confront him? What about Craig Minnig? Should she talk to Dr. Melbourne? Sydney felt indecisive as she passed several parked cars. What if Al turned out to be involved in something illegal and dangerous, and she failed to report him? What if something happened? Sydney wasn't exactly sure what the two boys might be discussing, but the implication pointed to something that was probably illegal and possibly dangerous.

****

The next day passed with excruciating slowness. Sydney wanted to talk to someone about what she'd overheard, but was unsure of how to proceed. She'd overheard a conversation in the dark. Although she hadn't seen who they were, she was certain that the speakers were Al and Craig.

In the lunchroom, she didn't even taste her sandwich; her colleagues' conversation was lost to her. In the background, she could hear Craig and his crowd holding court. She glanced over to the Seniors table in annoyance. When would the school put an end to their nonsense?

She threw her sandwich back into its brownbag in disgust. With the violence pervading so many schools across the nation, Sydney knew that the worst she could do was nothing. Arriving at a decision, she stood, determined to speak with Melbourne.

About to toss out her leftovers in the garbage bin, Sydney was startled by voices raised in sudden anger. In a blink, the cafeteria erupted in violence. Several tables of students joined in the melee.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sydney thought she saw Craig and his friends going against some of the underclassmen they'd just been hazing. Looking around, Sydney found the intercom buzzer.

"Code Red! Code Red! Cafeteria!" She didn't wait for a response. A flying chair narrowly missed her head. Sydney ducked just inside kitchen, watching, horrified. The din was suddenly shattered by a gunshot!

"He's got a *gun*! He's got a *gun!"

Instantaneously, the students who'd stood watching from the sidelines, and those who'd been in the fight, began screaming and scrambling over each other to get to the exits. Others were diving for cover behind overturned tables. Discarded food trays, their contents upended, were scattered everywhere.

"Don't panic!" Sydney yelled. "Don't panic!!" Her voice was lost in the bedlam...Suddenly the cafeteria rang in an eerie stillness. A lone boy, frightened, tears streaming down his angry face held a handgun straight out with both hands. He was screaming obscenities, but his words were somehow lost to Sydney.

She could see his mouth moving, words forming, ugly, hate-filled words. Sydney concentrated. What was he *saying*? Finally, as if someone turned up the volume on a television set, the boy's angry cries and shouts, aimed at everyone and no one in particular, came in full force.

Sounds of frightened sobbing could be heard from all around the cafeteria.

"You *want* some of this? Come on, Minnig! You and your friends've been riding me since my first day here! Well, no more! Face me, you gutless coward! Come on! Face me!"

"Sorry, kid, but Craig's taken a hike...will *I* do?" All eyes in the cafeteria turned to the sound of the new voice. Al! What was he doing?

The boy instantly aimed the weapon at Al. "Wh-who're you?" he asked, his voice cracking under the strain. "M-Minnig send you?"

Al stood quietly, his hands at his sides. He gave the boy a slow grin. "Between you'n me, kid, I think Craig's halfway to Gotham City...Now why don't you do us all a favor and put that thing down. You don't *really* want to hurt anyone do you?"

"What do you know? Minnig and his pals've pushed me too far. Everyday...*every* *day* they've beaten me up and stolen my lunch money...and nobody cares! Nobody! Well, I'm not takin' it anymore, man! I'm gonna blow 'im away, man, and no one's gonna stop me."

"Look, kid...I'm sorry about whatever Minnig and his pals've done to you. Believe me, they deserve to get some of it back...but not like this. Now come on...put that thing away. You don't really want to hurt anyone, do you?"

The boy stood uncertainly, his resolve wavering.

Al walked slowly, carefully up to him, never taking his eyes off him. He continued talking in low, soothing tones, until finally he reached him, and in a lightning move, disarmed him.

There was a collective sigh of relief from the cafeteria. Melbourne, Jackson, and two of the campus police officers ran in. The two officers cautiously approached Al, who still held the gun, with their own weapons drawn. Al carefully placed the gun on the floor, and held his own hands up and away from his body.

The men efficiently padded both boys down to ensure that neither had any more weapons on him. Satisfied that Al was clean, they released him, but handcuffed the boy. The boy looked like he was in a daze. He went with the police officers completely subdued.

Sydney finally recognized the boy. She'd seen him before, but couldn't place a name to the face. She thought that he was a sophomore, a quiet boy, almost a nonentity in the hallways. Because he wasn't one of her charges, she'd never bothered to talk to him before. She felt an instant pang of guilt.

****

The atmosphere in the school was charged that afternoon. The students were all talking about the shooting. Al was an instant hero. As for Craig Minnig, there was no sign of him anywhere. Sydney heard his name mentioned that afternoon with derisive laughter, and the words 'coward,' 'chicken,' and 'yellow' came up more than once.

Melbourne and Jackson were tied up with the police for the rest of the afternoon, and the phones rang off the hook with concerned parents and news agencies. Sydney didn't have time to reflect on the previous evening's overheard conversation, until later that evening when she finally locked her office and began making her way to her car.

She hurried across the parking lot, easily taking her keys out of her purse. She pressed the automatic door unlock button and saw the answering interior dome light come on. She opened the driver's side door, threw her briefcase and handbag in the back, and began climbing in.

Sydney was suddenly grabbed from behind in a chokehold, a gloved hand clasped over her mouth. She fought back uselessly, her screams muffled. She tried scratching her attacker, but he was wearing a heavy leather jacket and gloves.

He was choking her, cutting off her oxygen supply. Sydney could feel herself blacking out.

"Don't scream, Miss Greene," he whispered in a raspy voice. "I don't want to hurt you...I like you Miss Greene. You're very beautiful. We're going for a ride together."

As the darkened lot around her went into a black tailspin, Sydney's numbed senses somehow relayed that the hold on her had been loosened. She collapsed on the tarmac, the world a crazy kaleidoscope whirling about her. Nearby, two shadows seemed to skirmish in a strange sort of dance. Grunts of pain, the sound of flesh being pounded, assaulted her ears. Sydney tried to cry out, but could barely choke out a whisper.

"Help," Sydney mouthed. "Please, help me." She couldn't get the words out. Tears of frustration began falling. Sydney strove to regain her feet, but couldn't make it past her knees. Feeling helpless and frightened, knowing that the unknown assailant might soon grab her again, Sydney began crawling. "Oh, God, please--"

She was on the verge of a nervous collapse.

Suddenly, Sydney felt strong arms around her. She struggled feebly to get away, but these arms were different somehow. They were gentle, tender. And the voice was different, too. Soothing, reassuring.

"Don't worry, Ms. Greene," the new voice said. "I'll get you home." Near panic, Sydney resisted, weakly struggling to escape. She closed her fist and ineffectually pounded the new figure on the chest.

Worn out by the unrelenting terror, unable to keep fighting, Sydney succumbed to the blackness that had been threatening to overwhelm her.

****

The piercing whistle worked its way through her subconscious. Sydney woke with a scream!

"Hey! None of that...the neighbors will talk." Sydney sat up in a panic. She was lying on her living room sofa, her grandmother's afghan tossed over her. Sydney turned towards the sound of the voice. Her eyes widened in shock.

"That was just the teapot." Al Richardson was standing in the doorway leading to her small kitchen, holding a tray laden with the makings for tea. He gave her his signature smirk. Somehow his eyes didn't match the mocking sneer. Instead, they seemed to register concern.

"Thought you could use this once you woke up," Al explained. He placed the tray down on her coffee table, and sat on the easy chair. He leaned over and poured Sydney a cup of tea. Al looked at her, a question in his eyes.

"Lemon twist, no sugar," Sydney said, realizing that Al was asking her how she took her tea. She watched him prepare her tea with great care. As he worked, she wondered if she should confront him over what she'd overheard.

Al handed Sydney her cup and grimacing, shook his head.

"Uncivilized philistine," he said smiling, and then proceeded to fix his own. He poured a small amount of half-and-half and then measured out a teaspoon of sugar. He took a careful sip and satisfied, leaned back on his chair.

"How--?" Sydney began. She swallowed, and then tried again. "How did you--?"

"--Know where you lived?" Al asked. "Easy...I've been stalking you for the past two weeks." As Sydney's eyes widened in terror, Al grinned in amusement. "Come on, Ms. Greene. That was a joke. I mean, I just met you yesterday."

Sydney couldn't breathe. *Was* he joking? She'd heard about students who stalked teachers and killed them! And she'd heard him practically threatening Minnig! Sydney felt her heart rate increase. Her palms grew clammy. She felt her chest tightening.

She was alone in her home with a student she barely knew. A student who was currently on probation for several serious offenses, including assault. And she'd just been attacked by an unknown assailant who'd been wearing a leather jacket!

She remembered the worn Gotham Knights leather jacket Al had the previous morning. Sydney's fingers went numb, and she suddenly dropped her teacup, spilling its hot contents all over herself. She cried out in surprise.

Al immediately rushed to her aid. Sydney panicked, scrunching up in her sofa...wet, frightened, growing hysterical.

"Stay away from me," Sydney whispered, terrified. "Please, stay away..."

Al's eyes changed, again registering concern. Very slowly, he sat down next to Sydney on the sofa, his hands open and out at his sides. Sydney tried pushing away, but felt her strength failing her. The same sense of panic that overcame her in the parking lot threatened to return in full force.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Greene. It was a bad joke. Seriously, I got your address from your car registration papers. I found them in the glove compartment."

Sydney turned her head away. She didn't believe him. He was going to--! Sydney couldn't finish the thought. Instead, she began crying. First silently, then hysterically.

"Please don't hurt me," she pleaded between sobs. "Please!"

"Ms. Greene, believe me," Al's quiet voice said reassuringly, "I have no intention of hurting you. I happened to see you get attacked in the parking lot. I stopped the creep, but by then you'd fainted. I didn't think you'd want me to carry you back into the school building, so I brought you home. Honest...that's what happened."

Sydney heard the sincerity in Al's voice. She swallowed her sobs, and determinedly brought herself under control. Sydney slowly turned to face Al. Not knowing what to expect...mocking eyes...irreverence...his usual smirk...Sydney was surprised to see compassion.

Al handed her a tissue. Reaching out slowly, Sydney gingerly took it. Still scrunched up at the very end of her sofa, Sydney sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. She noticed black smudges on the snow-white tissue. Her mascara must be running, Sydney suddenly realized. I must look a mess, she thought in dismay!

Catching a glimpse of Al's gaze on her, Sydney lost all sense of time.

Al had the most incredibly blue eyes, Sydney thought. Blushing furiously, she quickly suppressed the unbidden feelings that seemed to come to the fore when she looked into his eyes for longer than a split second. Looking away, Sydney worked to somehow dampen her physical responses to this one unruly, undisciplined, delinquent student. Who could quite possibly also be dangerous.

Nodding, Sydney took a deep breath, and somehow managed a tremulous smile.

"Thank you, Al," she said simply. "You just possibly saved my life...and here I am acting like an hysterical old biddy!"

Al's eyes lit up in amusement. "Believe me, Ms. Greene...you are definitely *not* an 'old biddy'! I'm sorry about the stupid joke. You're a nice lady, and you obviously care about your students...The kids at Arlington Heights are lucky to have you." Al stood up reluctantly.

"I'd best be going...Wouldn't want to miss my curfew. I'm required to be back at the halfway house by ten-thirty." He shrugged, and gave her his usual smirk. "It's not much, but it's home." He paused at the door. "Take care, Ms. Greene...and don't walk alone at night. This isn't Metropolis."

Hours later, Sydney woke up from a troubled sleep. As she lay awake in the predawn darkness, she suddenly wondered how Al knew that she was from Metropolis...

****

In the clear light of day, Sydney decided not to report the conversation she'd overheard to Melbourne. She felt silly about jumping to any conclusions. After all, she couldn't be sure that she'd heard anything illegal being discussed, nor did she ever actually see the speakers. Furthermore, Al had been a hero twice in a single day.

There was more to him than met the eye, and she was determined to find out what it was. Going through his records, she found the phone number to his probation officer. Thinking long and hard, Sydney placed the call.

The probation officer, Officer Amy Rohrback assured Sydney that Al was making all of his requisite meetings and that he actually seemed to be making progress.

"Yeah, that boy is a pain, Ms. Greene, but I think that deep down he wants to do the right thing. The fact that he disarmed that boy and saved you later that same night speaks for itself."

"Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Officer Rohrback. I'm happy to hear that Al's making some progress. Most of his teachers say that he seems resentful to being in their classes, but that he's actually turned in some of his homework...Just enough not to get expelled." Sydney sighed. "Maybe, now that he's a hero, he'll *want* to succeed."

"Ms. Greene, anytime you want to talk about Al, feel free to call me," Rohrback said. "You have my number, and I'm available twenty-four hours a day."

****

As the days progressed, Sydney firmly put the conversation between Al and Craig behind her.

The days passed uneventfully. The school was going through its usual late Fall activities schedule, and before she knew it, Sydney found herself chaperoning the Homecoming Dance.

As she stood behind the punch bowl carefully dispensing an ocean's quantity of the too-sweet concoction, Sydney felt a quiet hand at her elbow.

"May I have this dance, Ms. Greene?" Sydney almost dropped the cup she'd been filling. Taking a split second to calm her suddenly quickened breathing, Sydney turned to face Al. Her eyes widened in shocked surprise. Instead of his usual worn denim and leather, Al was decked out in probably the best looking tuxedo she'd seen all evening.

Rather than one of those tacky and totally tasteless jobs that matched the color of the date's dress, Al wore what could only be a very expensively cut designer tux.

"Al! You look absolutely stunning," Sydney said. "I almost didn't recognize you without your leather jacket."

Al smiled and gave her a self-mocking pose. "I shoplifted it for the occasion," he explained straight-faced.

Sydney's eyes widened in obvious shock.

He grinned. "Gotcha...I was *kidding*, Ms. Greene."

Sydney smiled uncertainly. *Was* he kidding?

"Actually," he said seriously, "I got it from a rich uncle."

Sydney crossed her arms and shook her head in utter disbelief. "Okay, now I *know* you're just kidding," she said. Al gave her his most angelic look. She rolled her eyes. "Never mind, Al...I don't think I *want* to know!"

"You look beautiful, Ms. Greene," Al said. "But then, you usually do. May I--?" He held out his arm to her. Sydney smiled and nodded. It was all right to dance with the students, she reassured herself.

To her pleasant surprise, Sydney discovered that Al could actually dance, and quite gracefully, too. She hadn't felt this light on her feet in ages. Mentally, she thanked her mother for all those years of dancing lessons. Funny, she'd hated them at the time, but now? All too soon, the music stopped, and it was time to return to her station behind the punch bowl.

"Thank you, Al," Sydney said sincerely. "I can't remember the last time I danced with someone who knew what he was doing."

Before Al could reply, another voice broke in. "If that's the case, Sydney, then perhaps you'd be willing to give me a stab at it?"

Sydney and Al turned towards the newcomer. "Doctor Melbourne!" Sydney gasped. Flustered, she added, "I-I'd be...honored...sir!"

"'Honored'? 'Sir'? Sydney, please! You're making me feel a hundred years old," Melbourne protested, his eyes smiling. "Come on now...the rest of the faculty addresses me by my first name. Don't you think it's about time that you started to?"

Sydney's eyes widened. "But Doctor Melbourne, you're my boss...sir."

Melbourne sighed exasperatedly, and passing a secretive look at Al shook his head. "What I am gonna do with her? I guess I'll just have to make it an order. Sydney Greene, I hereby order you to call me by my first name...Tom! You think you can do that?"

At Sydney's mute nod, Melbourne smiled. "Good! Now, how about a dance...Sydney?"

Sydney smiled brightly.

"I'd be delighted...Tom." Sydney felt like she was absolutely glowing. Dr. Melbourne was a few years older than she, but quite handsome and distinguished- looking. And quite unattached...or so the rumor went. Smiling at Melbourne, Sydney caught sight of Al watching them, a half-smile suddenly quirking his mouth.

Several girls rushed Al suddenly, completely surrounding him in a sea of taffeta and lace and succeeding in distracting his attention. Blinking and looking away determinedly, Sydney felt her cheeks flush inexplicably.

Jealousy? I can't be feeling like this, Sydney denied. You're being ridiculous, Sydney Greene! You're a school counselor...an adult in a responsible position! You can't be having these feelings about a student. And even if you are, you'll just have to be adult enough to stomp these adolescent yearnings each time they rear their ugly head!

"A penny for your thoughts," Melbourne said smiling.

Sydney looked up at him and caught her breath. All thoughts of Al Richardson vanished in an instant. Funny, I never noticed Dr. Melbourne, I mean, Tom, had green eyes...no, they're brown...no, green. Wait! His eyes seem to change color. How fascinating!

Melbourne's smile broadened, and he suddenly pulled Sydney in closer.

****

The evening was going well. Sydney felt like she was walking on clouds. Tom had asked her for a date. A real date. Dinner at a nice restaurant and dancing afterwards. How could she not have noticed his eyes before, Sydney wondered? And Tom was also exceptionally handsome. Oh, not the drop-dead, killer good looks that someone like Al possessed.

But still, Tom Melbourne was a very handsome, articulate, and intelligent man. He was a loyal colleague, fair disciplinarian, and a deeply caring school principal to whom the students' needs always came first.

And he had asked her out.

Sydney caught some of the knowing looks and smiles from her envious female colleagues. One winked slyly and gave Sydney a thumbs up as she passed by Sydney's station near the punch bowl.

"Way to go, girl!" Another giggled in passing.

"Sydney and Melbourne...talk about a match made Down Under!"

This last bit was provided by one of the Social Studies teachers, Mrs. Paret, a veteran of thirty years on the Arlington Heights faculty. At Sydney's obvious look of incomprehension, Paret rolled her eyes and explained with exaggerated dismay.

"As in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. I swear...no wonder Bludhaven students are consistently ranked in last place in the USA in their knowledge of geography."

Sydney smiled uncertainly. "Funny, I never noticed the coincidence in the names."

Paret smiled kindly. "Don't worry, dear. I don't believe anyone else has either. But Social Studies is my life...I tend to notice little things like this. Oh, and by the way. I heartily approve. Tommy Melbourne is much too handsome for his own good, and it's about time that boy settled down." At Sydney's questioning look, Paret added, "Oh, I've known Tommy since he was this high!" She held her hand out.

"I taught all of the Melbourne boys...First their father, Thomas, Senior, then each of Tommy's older brothers...Greg, Michael, Geoffrey, James, and, finally, Tommy. Typical boys, in and out of the principal's office...Except Tommy! He was always a quiet one...a skinny little kid, although you wouldn't know it now." Paret paused, unsure whether to continue.

"I'm afraid that he had a hard time here. He was constantly picked on by some of the jocks. I know of at least once that he was locked in one of the lockers in the boys' gym, and another time when--" Paret stopped and looked away. She grimaced, shaking her head.

"Kids can be vicious sometimes. That's why it's so important that we try to make all of our students feel special." She paused and laughed at herself. "Listen to me...I sound like one of those know-it-all educational consultants. I'm sorry, Sydney, I didn't mean to run off at the mouth. You run along and have some fun."

That was a half-hour ago. Sydney's tour of duty dispensing punch was now officially over, and some other unfortunate teacher, Mr. Martin, the head of the physics department, was the new 'stuckee'.

Sydney promised Tom another dance, but first she excused herself to the Ladies Room. As Sydney turned the corner into the main hallway, she stopped short.

Al stood in the middle of the hall surrounded, not by a bevy of teenaged beauties, but rather by a gang of teenaged thugs. Sydney recognized them. They were the all members of the local Arlington Heights neighborhood gang, Los Muchachos. Real hardcases. Some of them were actually second-generation gang members.

Yeah, just carrying on the family tradition of murder and mayhem, Sydney thought sardonically. As a counselor, she'd had several nonproductive sessions with Tony Escobar, the gang leader, and his parents. More of a face-to-face confrontation, she amended ruefully. Tony didn't have enough academic credits to qualify as a Senior and would therefore not graduate with his peers.

Tony's father was the founder and first leader of Los Muchachos. Mr. Escobar was not happy with A.H.'s Senior Class Counselor. Sydney admitted privately to being more than a little bit frightened of the Escobars and their "family business."

"You been snooping around...asking too many questions about me and my business. Nobody does that--!" A long, slender switchblade appeared in Tony's right hand as if by magic. The young thug's fellow gang members all seemed to close ranks suddenly.

Joey Bonilla and Matteo Mendoza, two gang members who'd dropped out of school the previous term, held him between them. Al was trapped.

Sydney had to do something! But what? She looked around desperately. She had to go for help! But she couldn't leave Al to face these young toughs alone.

"I don't know what you mean, Tony. Why should I ask questions about you?" Al's voice was deadly calm. He might as well have been discussing the Bludhaven weather report.

"I hear you've been talking to that punk, Minnig, about me and my homies. Minnig is a weasel, man. He acts like he's really something, like he's in charge of the school...but he's nothing, man! Los Muchachos...we *own* this school! It's on our turf, and nobody takes that away from us!"

"You're joking, right? Minnig's a *girl*, man...a real whuss. He's too gutless to do his own dirty work, so he gets his gorilla, Gaskill, to do it for him," Al jeered. "Why would I talk to *him*? *You're* the headman around here, aren't you?"

Sydney could almost hear Al's signature mocking tones.

"Yeah...that's right. But what's it *you*, punk?"

"I could be useful. I have...certain *connections* that could--"

An angry voice interrupted Al.

"What's going *on* here?" It was Jackson.

Sydney felt a momentary pang of relief, tempered by annoyance. Now she wouldn't be able to see what Al was *up* to! First Minnig, now Escobar? What exactly was Al Richardson into?

Livid, Jackson stomped up to the crowd of potential troublemakers.

"*You*! *Escobar*! What're you and your thugs doing here? You've been barred from all school functions. I warned you that if I caught any of you punks at the dance, I'd call the cops."

"Chavo! Luis!" Tony jerked his head. Two young thugs grabbed Jackson by the arms.

"Hey!" Jackson yelled, struggling. "That's it...! You're *history*, Escobar! *All* of you! Expulsion's gonna be the least of your problems...Jail's where you're ending up."

Chavo clapped his hand over the vice-principal's mouth, stifling his threats, and began dragging him away.

"Excuse our bad manners, Mister Jackson, sir," Tony taunted. "But we all come from 'dysfunctional' homes. The social worker said that we have...'anger control issues'." The other members of Los Muchachos laughed.

Al made a move as if to stop them, but Joey and Mateo held him in place.

"What'cha planning on doin' with him?" Al asked.

"What do *you* care?" Tony sneered.

"Who me?" Al laughed. "Creep's been riding me since my first day here. I'd like to kick his teeth in, myself...But I don't need any trouble with the cops right now."

"That's too bad, man, 'cause you *got* trouble! With me." Tony walked up to Al. "I don't like people to ask questions about me. Makes me *real* nervous."

Al faced him down without flinching. "You're making a mistake, Tony. I hear you have certain 'needs'...and I'm just the man to supply them."

"I don't know what you're talking about, man. I don't need you or your help. The only thing I *need* is to see you *bleed*!" Tony grinned savagely. "You better make your peace, man, 'cause you're about to meet your Maker!"

Tony's cold, matter of fact tones galvanized Sydney into action. Spying the fire alarm on the wall, she ran toward it and pulled. The answering clanging was music to her ears...

****

The fire alarm caused a series of actions to take place one right after the other.

Over the din, Sydney could hear Melbourne's cool and calm voice, "Everybody! Stay calm and proceed to the nearest exit! Please! Don't run...walk!"

****

Sydney saw Al kick straight out and knock Tony's switchblade out of the young thug's hand. Without missing a beat, he slipped out of Joey's and Matteo's grip, leaped, spun in mid-air, and kicked out with both feet, the power of the spin adding to the force behind his kick. Connecting with Joey and Mateo, Al flipped over the others' heads, and landed behind them...

****

Sydney heard voices everywhere that sounded panicky, derisive, or simply curious...

"Oh, God! What happened? Is there a fire?"

"Was it a bomb threat?"

"He *did* it! I can't believe that bum, Minnig, did it! He said he was gonna disrupt the dance, but he didn't say how! I can't believe he had the guts to do it!"

"I heard it was a bomb! Oh, God! Mom didn't want me to come...said A.H. was becoming too dangerous!"

****

Sydney felt herself being swept away by the sheer momentum of the mass of bodies emptying out from the school gym. Where were Al and Los Muchachos?

Sydney spotted Al and Tony. They were circling each other cautiously. Tony expertly held out his switchblade, a veteran of numerous knife fights. But where were the others?

There! The gang members were piled on the floor like discarded clothing!

"But that's impossible," Sydney said to herself.

"Sydney! Come on! We've got to get everybody out of the building!" Melbourne grabbed her by the upper arms and pulled her along with him.

As she felt herself being dragged out of the building, Sydney caught sight of Al and Tony also being carried along by the student tidal wave...

****

The lights of the emergency vehicles flashed eerily in the moonless night. Police held back the crowd of frightened students and worried parents. The crowd was bathed in a blue, red and yellow strobe-like effect. The Bludhaven Fire Department was currently canvassing the building for signs of fire.

The outside security lights were still not in sync with the time change. Beyond the range of the emergency vehicles, the grounds lay shrouded in shadow. A fine mist had rolled in from the Atlantic, adding to the overall sense of impending doom.

Sydney felt a bit guilty over the false alarm, but what choice had she? She spotted Jackson arguing bitterly with Melbourne.

"They *locked* me up in the *janitor's* closet! I want them arrested! D'you hear? Arrested!"

Sydney couldn't catch Melbourne's response. As always, while the vice-principal might lose control, Melbourne remained cool. She sighed, relieved that Jackson wasn't hurt. But what about Al? she wondered.

"And that *punk*, Richardson...he was in the thick of things! I knew he was trouble...I could *smell* it!"

"No, Mister Jackson!" Sydney cried, running towards the two men. "You don't understand. Al Richardson had nothing to do with it. Tony Escobar and his gang were threatening him when *you* showed up...I saw! I was there! When they dragged you away, I was afraid that they might--" She swallowed. "I had to do something--! I'm sorry, Doctor Melbourne...it was the only thing I could think of."

"What? What are you talking about, Sydney?"

"It was me...*I* pulled the fire alarm."

"You set off the alarm?" Melbourne asked quietly.

Feeling ashamed, Sydney nodded. "I was afraid that Tony's gang might hurt or kill Al and Mister Jackson."

"Hey, you did the right thing. No one was hurt, thankfully. Andy," Melbourne addressed Jackson, "I think Sydney might have just saved your life."

Sydney looked up a bit uncertainly. Melbourne smiled warmly.

"Look, Andy, why don't you go home?" Melbourne asked. "I'll handle it from here." Jackson glared at Sydney. He nodded reluctantly and started for his car. Melbourne and Sydney watched him climb in and drive away.

"I'd best go inform the fire department that it's a false alarm," Melbourne said. "And Sydney, it was quick thinking on your part." He gently placed his hand on her cheek. "And also very brave. Wait here and I'll walk you to your car."

Smiling, Sydney nodded. He left her to go talk with the fire inspectors, and she quickly lost sight of him in the confusion of crowds, loud noises, and shadows.

Sydney glanced around the parking lot, noting with dismay the dozens of fire trucks and police cars. She'd never be able to get out of here. Exasperated, she was about to turn back to wait for Melbourne when she spotted two figures ducking behind the row of dumpsters near the school cafeteria loading docks.

Her interest instantly piqued, she began moving casually in the direction that she'd seen them go. It could be a coincidence, of course. Sydney shook her head.

"In your dreams, Sydney..."

As she approached the row of dumpsters, Sydney heard low voices in heated argument. She stopped and hastily hid in the shadows between the containers.

"You don't know who you're messing with, man!" She instantly recognized the speaker as Tony Escobar.

"No, Tony...it's *you* who doesn't know who you're up against."

Sydney had to strain to hear the second speaker. He was obviously male, but spoke in low tones, which muffled his voice. Try as she might Sydney couldn't place him.

"I took you and your boys out without breaking a sweat. In my book, that makes me the kind of guy who's dangerous to have around...unless we're on the same team."

Sydney felt a cold hand clutch her insides. That was Al! She was almost sure of it, but she had to make certain. She slowly made her way around the dumpster until she reached the far end...

"I told you I had 'connections' that could prove useful. My boss is growing real impatient with you, Tony. He says to give you and your boss a message. You either jump on our bandwagon, or watch your hold on your A.H. turf go up in smoke."

"What'chu mean, man?" Tony asked, furiously.

"I mean, we're moving in, Tony...and soon. If you and your boss don't play along with us, then we'll have to surgically remove you...like a tumor, if you know what I mean."

"You don't threaten Los Muchachos' turf, man!"

"Tony, I don't make threats...they're a waste of time."

Al! That was Al. Sydney was certain she'd heard him use that phrase before. She *had* to talk to him. Stop him from whatever he was involved in.

"Sydney Greene, are you out of your mind? What am you *doing*?" She asked herself. Closing her eyes against her fear and probable stupidity, she answered her own question, "I can't let him throw his life away. Come on, Sydney...It's now or never...!"

Steadying her shaking nerves, Sydney risked a look around the other side.

They were gone.

****

"Mrs. Paret!" Sydney called. She waved over the heads of the endless stream of students hurrying between classes. Paret waved back.

"Sydney!" Paret smiled in greeting. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" Paret turned momentarily and greeted a couple of her female students who'd suddenly rushed up to her.

"Mrs. Paret!" They both gasped together. One of the students, Mindy Talbot, stepped forward. "Did you grade our essay exams, yet? How did I do?"

"Hmmm..." Paret replied. "Let me see, Mindy. At last count, I had one hundred and fifty-eight students. Out of those, eight-three took the essay exam. Now, sweetie, I know that this is a Social Studies class, but do the math for yourself. Do you really believe for one instant that an old lady like myself...practically a poster child for Alzheimer's...could possibly remember the individual grades of *each* of her students?"

Paret's sweet voice remained level during her response, but to Sydney it carried a certain edge not normally heard from the popular teacher.

Mindy blinked. "No, but surely you remember *my* grade?" Mindy's arrogant tone spoke volumes. Sometimes Sydney just wanted to shake her. Sydney looked at Paret. The veteran teacher's smile never slipped; however, a hard glint suddenly crossed her eyes.

"I'm not certain, Mindy, dear, but I believe that I'm going to start remembering it at least a good ten points lower if you don't go inside right now and take your seat."

Mindy's eyes widened. She and her friend whirled and hurried to take their seats.

"Boy, she's such a witch! I hope she gets hers some day," Mindy said darkly.

"Shush!" her friend warned. "She'll hear you and drop your grade for sure!"

Shaking her head and rolling her eyes, Paret turned to Sydney. "Ah, the rewards of teaching! As my advisor warned me all those many years ago, 'Don't worry, Dorothy! It'll get worse!'" Paret smiled in amusement.

Sydney shook her head in shared commiseration. "I don't how you or the other teachers do it, Mrs. Paret. Day in, day out. Overcrowded classrooms. Six classes a day. Then all of those ridiculous duties that are continuously dumped on you. How do you manage?"

"Pshaw, my dear. It's not quite that bad. Besides, with the wonderful staff support that you and Tommy Melbourne provide, why it makes my job that much easier. And despite what you may hear, the students *do* make it rewarding." Paret smiled again. "Now, what can I do for you, Sydney? What student are you going to steal from me this period?"

"Al Richardson. I need to see him."

"Al Richardson?" Paret mused. "You know, that young man isn't all that he seems. Beneath that smirking smile lies a hidden intelligence. He was the only one who 'aced' my African Studies essay exam. He answered each of the questions in both an articulate and thoughtful manner." Paret paused, and then smiling mischievously, added, "Who'da thunk it?"

Sydney nodded knowingly. "Yeah, who'da thunk it? Could you have him report to me, please? I'd really appreciate it."

"Consider it done!"

Sydney thanked Paret, and returned to her office. The sea of students had slowed to a trickle. The tardy bell for the next class would be ringing soon.

****

The knock snapped Sydney back to the present. She felt a momentary twinge of nervousness. Swallowing, she called out, "Come in."

Al poked his head in. He quirked an eyebrow at Sydney.

"You wanted to see me, Ms. Greene?"

"Yes, Al," Sydney said neutrally. She indicated the visitor's chair. "Please, close the door and take a seat." Al nodded and did as requested. Sydney covered her attack of nerves by making a pretense of studying the papers in front of her. As the wall clock ticked off the seconds, she became aware of Al's growing restlessness.

Let him sweat, she thought.

Finally, Sydney heard Al clear his throat. Rather tentatively, she thought triumphantly. Putting her pen down, Sydney looked up suddenly.

"So tell me, Al, just what are you trying to pull?"

Al sat completely still. Instantly, Sydney saw him transform himself back to the young teenaged tough who'd first walked in her door a few weeks ago.

"Pull? Why, whatever do you mean, Ms. Greene?" Al gave her his most innocent look.

Jeez, this guy is one helluvan actor, Sydney thought in disgust. She held his eyes calmly, waiting. Neither said anything further for several moments.

"I overheard you and Minnig a few weeks ago," Sydney snapped. "The night before I was attacked. I didn't understand what you two were talking about, but I remember that you mentioned 'Ricky Noone', who according to the papers is suspected of racketeering, but has never been indicted."

She paused to gage his reaction. Al didn't bat an eyelash.

"Last night at the dance...I saw you attacked by Tony Escobar and his gang, Los Muchachos. You mentioned something about being able to 'supply' him with what he needed."

She again paused for some kind of reaction from him, but again, Al didn't respond.

"Okay, how about this? I overheard you and Tony talking later that night... Something about your 'connections' and how you could be 'useful'!" A look of surprise passed quickly through his eyes.

"What are you involved in, Al? Don't you know that you're throwing away your life? You're only seventeen...You have so much to live for. Do you want to rot away in Lockhaven Prison for the next twenty years?"

Sydney felt her anger and despair at the young man intensify.

"Did you know that you're the only student in Mrs. Paret's Advanced African Studies class who 'aced' the essay exam? Can you explain *that*? Al, you're incredibly gifted...You're intelligent...you've been given a second chance by the juvenile judge. Why are you throwing it away?" She glared at him. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

Al shook his head and looked away, refusing to meet her eye. "Don't get involved in this, Ms. Greene. You don't realize what you're playing with." He stood and turned his back to her. "You have other students who need your help. Don't waste your time on me. Believe me...I neither need nor *want* your help."

He stood still for a few more moments, and then turned and faced her, a slight abashed grin on his face.

"As for Mrs. Paret's class...She's a great teacher...I couldn't help paying attention there." He shrugged and then gave her his signature smirk. "Hey, I may be a disciplinary problem, but you said it yourself...I'm incredibly gifted!"

Sydney looked at him with sudden hurt in her eyes. "How can you joke about this? About your *life*? I want to help you! Do you know how many other students' needs I've put aside, because I thought that *you* needed me more? You have so much potential, Al. Please...don't toss it all away."

"I *am* truly sorry, Ms. Greene," Al said, regretfully. His eyes growing cold, he added, "But I didn't ask for your help...and I didn't ask the judge to make me enroll here. It's best if you forget about me, Ms. Greene, and about the conversations you overheard or *thought* you overheard. Believe me, you don't want to become involved in this."

Sydney stared wide-eyed. "You *are* involved in something illegal, aren't you? Something dangerous!" She covered her mouth, ready to burst into tears. Closing her eyes tightly, Sydney willed herself not to cry.

"Al, I'm sorry, but I can't let you get away with this." She sadly studied him. "I'll have to call your probation officer. Maybe you don't care about your own life, but I can't stand by and watch you corrupt the lives of my other students."

"You *do* that, Ms. Greene. Call her...I'm sure Officer Rohrback will drop everything she's doing and come running to slap my wrist."

"Al, I've talked to her on the phone. She's really interested in your case. She cares about--" Sydney stopped. Al's expression was one of pure disbelief. She grimaced, surrendering to the inevitable.

"Okay, Al. You win. Lord knows I have enough on my plate without trying to reason with a student bent on self-destruction. I'm calling Officer Rohrback. Whatever happens, happens."

Al shook his head.

"Ms. Greene, you don't know the type of people you're dealing with. They'd just as soon cut your throat as look at you. Make no mistake. They've killed before and they'll kill again."

Sydney clutched her throat. "Are you threatening me?" Somehow the question didn't come out as she'd intended. It reflected the sudden, cold fear that swept through her.

Al crossed his arms and gave her a sardonic grin. "Like I told Jackson, Ms. Greene...I don't make threats. They're a waste of time."

She gasped. Al walked to the door and paused before stepping through.

"Stay out of it, Ms. Greene. And stay safe."

****

Sydney worried all that day about the implications of her conversation with Al. Much to her annoyance, she felt racked with indecision. Sydney had always prided herself in her no-nonsense, "Just the facts, ma'am," approach in both her private and professional life. Of course, she tempered this with a deep compassion for her students. But this? She'd never been faced with the possibility of having to report a student's activities to the police, but that's where she was at the moment.

Unable to sit still for another minute, Sydney jumped out of her seat and decided to 'take a walk.' Grabbing an empty file folder to appear as if she were on official business, Sydney started down the main hallway. Every now and then, she'd glance in on an open classroom door and briefly observe the lessons being taught.

She vaguely remembered reading a security article, or watching a 60 Minutes episode, which frowned on classroom doors being left open, ostensibly because of the possibility of a terrorist attack. Sydney sighed. Nothing was safe anymore.

As she rounded the corner, movement caught the corner of her eye. She sighed in resignation. Al was lying down, feet up in the Student Lounge. He was the picture of total relaxation, watching cartoons on the Kids WB.

Of course, the Student Lounge was off limits during morning classes.

She shook her head in exasperation. What was she going to *do* with him? Taking a breath, Sydney straightened her shoulders and marched towards him.

"I give up! I really do!" she said sharply. "You're supposed to be in Mr. Martin's physics class right now. Just what do you think you're doing?"

"He's waiting for *us*, lady." Tony Escobar's threatening voice came from immediately behind her. Sydney stopped cold. She was instantly assailed with spine-chilling fear.

"Wh-wha--?" she gasped. She was surrounded.

"Tony, it's me your boss wants to talk to," Al said. "Leave the lady out of it."

Tony grinned. He snapped his fingers, and in an instant, Sydney's arms were pinned behind her. She looked around in panic. Chavo and Luis held her with a vice-like grip.

"Al, I don't understand...what's going on?" Sydney's voice was barely above a whisper.

"We're going for a ride, Ms. Greene," Tony said. He stood so close to her that Sydney felt his hot breath on her cheek. She jumped, startled, her fright escalating.

"The lady stays behind, Tony," Al said, "or the deal's off!"

Tony gave a short laugh. In the next moment Sydney felt something hard and cold along her face. Her knees almost gave way. She thought she was going to faint. The only thing keeping her on her feet was the gang members' hold on her.

Tony was caressing her cheek with what looked to her like the largest handgun she'd ever seen in her life.

"Hey, man, what if I forget our 'deal,' eh? I think our pretty counselor here would be more interesting."

Sydney tried to keep a brave front, but despite her best efforts, the tears of fear and shame came nevertheless.

"Please," she whispered. "Don't--"

Al looked ready to spring into action, but Tony calmly pulled back the weapon's bolt.

"Ah-ah-ah...!" he said derisively. "One step and the lady gets it."

Al glared daggers at the gang leader. Glancing over at Sydney, his eyes softened momentarily and he reluctantly nodded.

"Let's take a ride," Tony said.

Tony and his gang herded Al and Sydney out of one the side entrances. It was an emergency exit that automatically sounded an alarm if opened.

Expecting a loud clang, Sydney was surprised by the absolute silence that greeted their exit. A quick glance showed her that the alarm had been disabled. A shout behind them gave her sudden hope.

"Hey, you! Stop!"

Sydney craned her neck to look back. She saw Jackson running after them. She tried crying out for help, but Chavo clapped his hand over her mouth.

Los Muchachos dragged Sydney and Al out into the parking lot and shoved them unceremoniously into the back seat of a dark car with tinted windows. Doors slamming, the fully packed car took off, tires screeching.

****

Sydney was pinned between two of the gang members. She caught sight of Al, hunched down on floor, Matteo sitting on top of him.

"You'll suffocate him," she protested. Luis gave her a leer that cut off any further protests. Flushing at what she saw in his eyes, Sydney looked quickly away. Joey maneuvered the sedan around the maddeningly slow traffic, taking heart-stopping chances that Sydney would have never dared.

They impatiently passed cars going the speed limit, receiving raised fists and obscene gestures from angry motorists as they did so. Sydney saw that they were approaching the major intersection of Arlington Blvd and Melville Ave. As they came up to it, the light went from yellow to red.

Joey floored the accelerator. The car jumped at the suddenly increased rpms, and they flew across the intersection. At the same time, opposing traffic that had been stopped at the light started crossing. Joey was forced to swerve first right then left to avoid a collision.

Once safely on the other side, Sydney released a long, drawn-out breath. Taking her bearings, she scanned the road ahead and spotted the entrance to Highway 61, the major artery that ran North-South through the center of town.

Joey flashed a signal for a lane change, and again ignoring the angry hand gestures from irritated motorists, got on the highway. Sydney soon noticed several Bludhaven landmarks: Rabe Memorial Hospital, Zee Moores Housing Project, and Melville Park.

"We're gonna cross the Little Narrows Bridge into Mealtide," she thought. If only she could *do* something. But what? She couldn't call the police even if she had her cell phone, which she didn't! And if she *did* by some miracle manage to contact the Bludhaven Police Department, what then? Didn't the BPD have a reputation for being in deep with Desmond and possibly Noone?

All sense of hope seemed to be seeping out of her. Feeling a momentary panic, Sydney saw that the car was exiting the bridge and heading towards what she thought were the Municipal Train Yards.

No, wait! They weren't headed for the train yards; they were headed for the Municipal Landfill. Sydney felt a sudden cold hand clutch her stomach. The landfill was one of the favorite dumping grounds for murdered victims. In the short time she'd lived in Bludhaven, at least six bodies had been found there.

And, of course, the BPD had never solved any of the murders.

Joey slowed down and stopped outside the landfill's locked gates. Chavo jumped out and ran towards the gate. Soon, he was swinging open one of the gates. He waved the car into the grounds and closed the gate behind them.

Sydney presumed that he'd locked it behind them. Closing her eyes, Sydney formed the words that brought her comfort since she was a child, "Hashem is with me, and I am not afraid." ****

"Another fine mess you got yourself into, Sydney," she muttered.

She looked down in dismay at her suit, a dark royal blue jacket with black trim over a straight, knee high, black skirt. She wasn't exactly dressed for exploring landfills, she grumbled. And as if to add fuel to her dark mood, she stepped in something wet and smelly, which splattered her legs and skirt.

This was her favorite suit! Sydney felt an inexplicable anger begin to well up inside her.

Her anger increased with each additional indignity. She was held awkwardly between Chavo and Luis, causing her to lose her balance as she tried walking on the uneven ground. Finally, she broke a heel on one of her patent leather pumps. The shoes, an expensive Italian brand, had cost her almost half a month's salary. Now, she was really mad!

****

Sydney stood in the background, guarded by only one of her babysitters, watching the proceedings with a mixture of disgust, fright, and fascination.

"Why's that loser, Ricky Noone, interested with a low-end dumpy neighborhood like Arlington Heights?" The speaker hadn't been introduced, yet. He wore a completely tasteless loud suit that should've gotten him arrested as soon as he'd stepped outside.

"Hey!" Tony protested. "Nobody disses my home turf, man!"

"Take it easy, Tony," Loud Suit said soothingly. "You and I can appreciate A.H. It has just the right clients for our 'business.' But why does Noone want to strong arm his way in? He and Rolly already own half of Bludhaven."

Al laughed his signature, sardonic laugh.

"You just answered your own question, Frankie. They own half the town...they're looking to owning the rest now. And if you know what's good for you, you'll roll over real quiet and let 'em take over the neighborhood. Noone and Desmond want it real bad. And when they want something bad...bad things happen to those who stand in their way." Al gave them his usual smirk.

"But then, you know about that already, don't you, Frankie? I hear your old man, 'Lunchmeat,' is hiding out under the Feds' witness protection program...Too bad for you that he didn't take you with him."

"So you're telling me that Rolly wants to come in and take over my territory, and I'm supposed to just let 'im? Either you or Noone or Rolly are out of your collective minds, kid. You want me out of the picture, we cut a deal, see? Los Muchachos here are pretty good not just at moving my merchandise on the street, they're also real good at running protection. This is *their* turf...Rolly and Noone's boys wouldn't last a week here. So, let's talk deals, kid. What's in it for me?"

"For you? Why, Frankie, you know Noone and Desmond...they always deal fair with their business rivals. You let them move in without raising a fuss, and you-- don't--get--killed! How's *that* for a deal?"

"Why, you little punk! Nobody messes with Frankie Deever! You hear me? My father didn't get his nickname, 'Lunchmeat,' just for running a meatpacking business. Half of his enemies ended up in some school kid's lunchbag with mustard or mayo on rye!"

Images of Grandfather Aaron's corner delicatessen with its gleaming counters and rows of freshly cut deli meats flashed through Sydney's mind. She gagged suddenly, the desire to throw up almost overwhelming her.

Sydney signaled her guard that she was about to be sick. He hastily released his hold on her. Sydney hurriedly fell on her knees and fought to keep her breakfast in place. Quickly taking off her suit jacket, Sydney held it to her face and tried breathing through it, ineffectually blocking out the myriad smells from the landfill.

With apologies to her late grandfather's memory, Sydney didn't think she'd ever be able to look at another deli sandwich.

"If there's one thing I learned from my old man," Frankie continued, "it's how to get rid of a body without leaving a trace. Believe me, kid, you're shark bait now. Ice him!" he ordered.

Los Muchachos moved in like wolves on their prey. Sydney's babysitter was engrossed by the new development.

Looking around quickly, Sydney spotted a baseball-sized rock. Palming it without being seen, Sydney stood up slowly. She gave her guard a reassuring wave of the hand that she was all right. He nodded and turned back to the drama unfolding before him.

Remembering her fast-pitch softball days, Sydney wound up and threw with all the heat she could muster. It struck Frankie on the temple.

"Hey, you!" Frankie shouted, pointing in anger with one hand, while holding his bleeding head with the other. "Get her!" he yelled.

Panicking, Sydney ran at a stumbling gait, ducking behind one of the myriad canyons of piled garbage. "Funny," she muttered. "My career advisor never mentioned the part about being chased by teenaged gunmen across smelly garbage dumps. What are you doing, Sydney? This just isn't in the job description...!"

Suddenly, she heard them!

Sirens! The BPD had arrived.

****

Watching Al being handcuffed, Sydney thought her heart would break. She'd so wanted to save one...just *one* of the lost kids that seemingly streamed through her office door. Apparently, she'd failed...again.

Al met her eye, and to her surprise, winked. He said something to Officer Rohrback, who nodded and led him to Sydney.

"You've got one minute, Richardson," she said. Al nodded.

"Ms. Greene, I couldn't leave like this without saying something. I'm really sorry. You care about your students, and, well, I just want to say that I'm not worth you feeling guilty or anything. There's a lot of kids left at A.H. who need you. Kids like that boy with the gun in the cafeteria...Don't let *them* fall through the cracks...don't give up on *them*..."

Sydney was about to reply when Rohrback interrupted them.

"Sorry, Richardson, but you've got a date with a certain police captain. Ms. Greene, you have your school's vice principal, Mister Jackson to thank. He phoned in the emergency when he saw you two being dragged off campus. His quick action probably saved both your lives today."

Sydney nodded, feeling too dazed to assimilate what she was hearing.

Officer Rohrback continued, "As for Frankie Deever...we've been looking for Escobar's connection for a long time now. This bust might just put the brakes on the Arlington Heights illicit drug and weapons trade for the time being." She shrugged fatalistically. "Unfortunately, Deever will soon be replaced by someone else."

The police officer jerked her head in Al's direction. "Forget about *this* one, Ms. Greene. He's not worth crying any tears over. He made his choice long before you met him."

Sydney nodded mutely, unable to look at Al. His words had touched her deeply and only made her failure all the more poignant.

Rohrback pulled Al along with her. As they were about to disappear into the waiting squad car, Al paused and called back, "Take care, Ms. Greene. Stay safe."

Al's words would prove prophetic.

****

Sydney rushed into her office and carelessly dropped student files, her briefcase, and purse on the desktop. She'd had car trouble that morning. Worse, she had an 8:00 o'clock appointment with Melbourne, and she was fifteen minutes late already.

"Mrs. Pettit!" Sydney called breathlessly. She practically skidded to a stop in front of Dr. Melbourne's executive secretary. "My car...! It wouldn't start this morning. My neighbor was nice enough to give me a jump, but--"

The uninitiated novice who reported to A.H. might actually believe that the head principal ran the school, but this myth was quickly dispelled as soon as he or she met Mrs. Pettit.

Pettit gave Sydney a no nonsense stare from above her glasses, which stopped the young counselor in mid-excuse. Turning her back on Sydney, Pettit rummaged through her files of myriad forms until she found the one she was looking for.

"Um..." Sydney stalled. "I, uh, have an appointment with Doctor Melbourne this morning. I'm, um...late. Could I, uh, do the, uh, paperwork, uh, later?" She looked hopefully at Pettit.

Pettit glared up over her glasses.

"Doctor Melbourne phoned in this morning. He's been called unexpectedly to the Superintendent's office and therefore has cancelled your meeting."

As she said this, Pettit handed Sydney a tardy form, which she took meekly. Not saying a word, Sydney turned and walked the form to the office counter. Taking a pen out, she began drafting a valid-sounding excuse. Late arrivals were required to give complete details for their failure to report to work on time. Sydney could already see the day's wages go down the drain. "I should've just called in sick," Sydney murmured. "I'm gonna be working for free, anyway."

The sound of gunfire suddenly rocked the building!

"OHMYGOD!" a student aide screamed.

"Everybody *down*!!" Sydney yelled. "That sounded like gunshots! Mrs. Pettit! Call Nine-One-One! Hurry!"

Sydney looked over to where the executive secretary was crouched behind her desk. Pettit nodded curtly; she was already on it. Sydney shook her head in admiration. It would take more than a little gunfire to disturb the Iron Lady's iron will!

Sydney could hear the student aide, Jeannie, sobbing in terror. Gunfire echoed from all over.

The main office doors! They were unlocked! Sydney started towards the huge double doors, recalling the school board financial meeting when security upgrades were voted down as being too cost-ineffective.

The doors burst open!

Sydney dove for cover.

Three masked gunmen ran in and sprayed the office with semi-automatic gunfire. Screaming obscenities, they made their way erratically through the series of inter-connecting offices that made up the school's administrative section.

Sydney curled where she'd just managed to roll under the front counter. She held her head covered between her arms.

Jeannie screamed in panic, a high-pitched, terrified shriek. More shots were fired. Jeannie's screams stopped.

Sydney felt hot tears streaming uncontrollably down her cheeks. She stifled her sobs with great effort, closing her eyes tightly against the horror around her. But she couldn't stop the rapid staccato of gunfire and the frightened screams echoing from the adjoining offices.

At last, the room rang in an eerie hush. The acrid smell of hot, expended ammo lay heavily in the stillness.

Sydney slowly opened her eyes. Listening carefully, she lay unmoving for a longer moment. Finally, taking a chance, she risked poking her head out from her hiding place.

The normally neat and well-scrubbed front office was demolished. Desks and chairs were turned over. Papers were strewn haphazardly across the floor. Spent cartridges and shattered glass lay scattered everywhere. The walls, desks, and countertops were splintered with numerous bullet holes.

Sydney crawled out, keeping a low profile. She looked around for the others.

"Mrs. Pettit," she whispered hoarsely. She felt her throat catch in rising panic. "Mrs. Pettit!"

"Here...I'm over here..." Pettit's weak voice came from under an overturned desk. With a cry, Sydney ran to her. Pettit was pinned underneath the heavy executive desk. She was bleeding from several cuts on her face.

"I'll get this off you in a jiff," Sydney reassured her. Pettit grimaced in pain, as Sydney heaved and pushed the desk off her. With the desk removed, Sydney got a good look at the older woman's injuries.

She gasped involuntarily. Pettit had a gaping bullet hole in her chest. From the way the blood bubbled as it seeped out, Sydney could see that one of Pettit's lungs had been punctured.

"Don't worry," Sydney said with warm reassurance, "you're going to be all right." Unbidden tears began falling of their own accord. Sydney wiped at them in vain.

Pettit sniffed in obvious disbelief. "You're a poor liar, Ms. Greene," she murmured weakly, reaching for Sydney's hand. "Don't give up...on them," she whispered. Sydney knew that by 'them', Pettit meant the students. It was almost what Al had said to her.

"They need you...you understand them." Pettit smiled. "You're one of the good ones, Ms. Greene...I should know...I've seen them come...and go..."

Pettit's eyes glazed over. Sydney's soul was wracked by deep despair. She held Pettit's hand up to her wet cheek and knelt there, next to her lifeless body for an eternity. The prayer that Grandmother Sarah taught her so long ago, echoed comfortingly from the past...

"He is my banner and He is a refuge for me... In His hand I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake..."

Remembering the daily recitation of the "Adon Olam," during Shacharis, or the morning prayers, a deep, abiding sense of calm seemed to fill her.

"HaShem is with me, and I am not afraid."

Finally, Sydney took a deep breath. She gathered her inner strength and released the dead woman's hand. She reached up and closed Pettit's eyes, granting the proud woman a small bit of dignity.

Sydney looked around the office, searching for any of others, despairing that she might be the lone survivor. In the distance she heard more shouts, screams and gunfire, but here in the front office, she felt strangely insulated from the reality of the violence around her.

She found two more bodies, Sally the school receptionist, and Laura Davis, a parent volunteer. Believing that no one else could possibly be alive, Sydney was gratified to hear the sounds of muffled sobbing coming from underneath Melbourne's desk.

Sydney ran at a crouch. She slid under the desk and found Jeannie, the student aide. Sydney's heart leaped! She'd thought the girl had been killed.

Jeannie was crouched in a tight ball under Melbourne's large desk. At the Sydney's sudden appearance, she let out a muffled shriek. Sydney instantly clapped her hand over the terrified girl's mouth, while making soothing sounds.

"Sssshhhh..." Sydney whispered. "They've left the office, but they're still in the building. How did you--?" She inspected the executive desk a bit more closely. It was riddled with bullet-holes. Jeannie's survival was nothing short of a miracle.

Jeannie's wide, frightened eyes were red with crying.

"Mrs. Pettit--?" Jeannie whispered.

Sydney shook her head sadly. Jeannie's eyes began streaming tears. She'd been especially close to the outwardly gruff executive secretary.

"The others?" she asked.

Sydney's eyes pain-filled eyes answered for her. She hugged the young girl closer to her.

"Why? Ms. Greene...why?"

"I don't know, sweetheart...I just don't know." Sydney held Jeannie tightly for a moment longer, but then released her gently.

"Jeannie, listen to me. We've got to get out of here." Jeannie immediately stiffened in fear and shook her head a vigorous 'no.' Sydney was insistent, however. "We can't remain here. It's too dangerous...they could come back any second. We *have* to get out. Do you understand me?"

Jeannie's face scrunched and she began crying again. She held onto Sydney, her nails digging into Sydney's arms.

"I'm so scared...I don't want to die...!"

Sydney felt her own tears begin. "I know, sweetheart...I'm scared, too, but we can't let our fear paralyze us. Do you have Mrs. Paret for Social Studies?"

Jeannie looked slightly taken aback at the change of topic. She nodded uncertainly.

"Have you studied the Great Depression, yet?" At Jeannie's nod, Sydney continued, "What did Franklin Roosevelt say about 'fear'?"

Jeannie thought for a moment, then whispered, "'The only thing we have to fear, is fear, itself.'"

Sydney nodded. "That's right...do you remember what he meant by that?"

"That as long as we can control our fear, we can..." She paused, understanding dawning in her young face. "...We can do anything..."

Sydney smiled proudly at Jeannie. "That's right...Jeannie, I *know* you're afraid...I am, too. But we can't let our fear control us...Now I'm going to crawl out of here, and I'm going to somehow make my way outside. Are you with me?"

Jeannie nodded slowly, a tentative smile breaking through her tears.

As they started wending their way on all fours through the administrative offices, Jeannie whispered, "Thank you, Ms. Greene."

****

Sydney led them straight into the arms of the enemy.

"Well, well, well...What do we have here?" The ugly, laugh-filled, too-young voice was followed by the sound of a bolt being locked back. Jeannie knelt in place and screamed hysterically.

Sydney grabbed the girl and covered her with her own body. However, instead of the expected burst of deadly gunfire, Sydney heard the sounds of soft flesh being struck with blunt force. These were accompanied by loud grunts, a low groan, and finally silence.

Turning cautiously, Sydney was met by a dark, grim form in a bulletproof vest, bent over the unconscious gunman. Because he had his back to her, she didn't recognize him. The hapless terrorist was lying facedown, gagged and bound. On closer inspection, Sydney recognized the unconscious form. He was one of the countless underclassmen whom Minnig and his friends had mercilessly picked on throughout the school year.

Sydney noted the plastic tie-wraps around his wrists and ankles. Her unknown rescuer roughly dragged the boy into a broom closet, took out what looked like a penlight, and zapped the lock. He turned to face her.

Sydney blinked in surprise.

"Al--!" she began, but he gestured for quiet. He listened intently for a few minutes into a headset he was wearing, spoke a few words, and then crouched next to Sydney and Jeannie.

Not taking time to talk, he took out a small instrument, used it to scan the hallway ahead and turned to the two young women. He held his finger to his lips. Both Sydney and Jeannie nodded in understanding.

Rather than leading them in the direction of the front entrances, Al cut diagonally across the front corridor into an empty classroom. He closed the door behind them, and still not saying a word, pointed up at the ceiling tiles.

Not bothering for a boost, Al leaped straight up and grabbed one of the metal beams that criss-crossed the faux ceiling. Pushing one of the tiles carefully out of the way, he easily pulled himself up and into the opening.

Within seconds, his face appeared. As if by magic, he pulled out a thin line from the hidden recesses of his flak-jacket. The line ended in a small clasp.

"Around your waist," he instructed succinctly. He spoke in low tones. Sydney nodded and immediately turned to Jeannie. She wrapped the line around the frightened girl's waist, and then turned and looked up. She nodded at Al, and without a word, he pulled the girl up.

Sydney was next.

As soon as all three were crouched low in the small crawlspace between the building insulation and the classroom ceiling tiles, Al indicated that they should follow him. He pointed at the single metal beam on which they each crouched.

"Watch your step carefully," he instructed softly. "The tiles won't sustain your weight, so stay on the beam." Sydney and Jeannie nodded, their eyes solemn. Before he turned again, he added, quite unnecessarily in Sydney's opinion, "And *no* talking!"

With that the trio began picking their way cautiously through the small, dark crawlspace. At times they could hear the sounds of single gunshots throughout the building. Sydney couldn't tell from which direction they were coming. After several minutes of making their way through the hot, dusty, and spider web- filled passageway, Sydney began to wonder when they were going to get out.

She was about to break her vow of silence, when Al held up his hand. Sydney and Jeannie stopped in place. Al again held out his small instrument and spoke softly into his headset's mouthpiece. After a few moments, he reached down and carefully lifted a corner of the tile. Lying on his stomach, he scanned the room below.

Apparently satisfied, he removed the tile, and with a dancer's grace, dropped to the floor. Sydney watched from above as he thoroughly searched the room. He momentarily walked out of her line of sight, and she felt an instant of panic; however, he was soon back.

He looked up and gave her a thumbs up. All clear! She smiled, but then wondered how on earth she and Jeannie were supposed to get down. As if in answer to her question, Al signaled for her to move out of the way. He again leaped and, moving as easily as a gymnast, he swung his body into the opening.

Paying out his thin safety line, he tied it around Sydney's waist and quickly lowered her to the floor. Before long, all three were standing in the middle of the empty classroom.

Al spoke finally. "We're at the far end of the Science corridor, in the last classroom on the south side. The outer doors are approximately fifty feet to our immediate right. I've checked the corridor...it's clear. I'm getting you both out of here to safety."

"Al, what's going on?" Sydney asked. "Who are these people? Are you involved with them?" Al gave her an intense stare and held her eyes for a long moment.

Instead of answering her question, he said, "I've spotted several SWAT officers outside in the tree-line, so the BPD is already aware of the situation. Are you with me?"

Sydney grabbed him by the arm. "No! I want you to answer me! Please! Are you involved with these gunmen? How did you get out of jail? Were you released on bail? You didn't escape, did you?"

Al looked down at her hand on his arm, and hesitating, covered it with his own. He gazed steadily into her eyes, holding her suddenly mesmerized. Finally, Al reached a hand out and gently ran it up her cheek. He shook his head.

"No, Ms. Greene. I'm not involved with the gunmen. I don't have time to explain...I need to get you both out of harm's way. I'll lead the way. You two do as I say. I promise I won't leave you, until I'm certain that you're safe...ready?"

Jeannie nodded eagerly. Sydney followed suit, if a bit reluctantly. He rewarded them with a dazzling smile.

"Okay, then, let's go!"

****

Al stood at the open door, and urgently waved them out. Keeping a careful watch to their rear, he hurried the two women to the outer doors. As they were almost on them, a masked figure rounded the corner.

"*Hey*!" he shouted, taking aim.

"*Go*!!" Al screamed, turning and facing the gunman.

"*Al*!" Sydney cried out, pausing at the door. The gunman was about to open fire! Sydney shoved Jeannie out the door. "*Run, Jeannie! Run*! She screamed.

Not waiting for a second invitation, Jeannie took off towards the tree line at a full sprint. Holding the door partly open, Sydney waited long enough to see that a policeman met the young girl halfway to the trees. The officer waved frantically at Sydney to follow. She ignored him and turned back.

She couldn't leave Al alone with that gunman. She had to help him!

She heard shots from inside. Crouching low at the door, she gathered her strength, took a deep breath, and pulled it open the rest of the way. She slid in, rolling over as close to the wall as she could. As she rolled, she caught sight of what looked like a dark wraith pulling some kind of complicated ballet move.

Up against the wall, her vision cleared sufficiently for her to see Al, once again, leaping impossibly high and kicking with a the force of a moving train. The gunman fired several times, but Al incredibly, leaped, dove, and somersaulted, successfully dodging the automatic fire.

Sydney covered her face as wood splinters and glass fragments came flying at her. When she looked up again, she saw Al dive headfirst in front of the gunman, and spring straight up, feet first, knocking the weapon out of his hand. Al twisted his body, kicked out and connected with his opponent's jaw.

From where she cowered on the floor, Sydney heard the loud ~crunch~ of bone breaking! The gunman went down as if shot. Without pause, Al quickly and efficiently trussed him up and threw him bodily into the boy's restroom.

Sydney got up and ran to him.

"Al," she called in a hoarse whisper. Al turned to look at her, his eyes dark with anger.

"What are *you* doing here?" he hissed, grabbing her by the wrist and dragging her back to the exit.

"I'm staying here," Sydney protested, tugging at his vice-like grip. "You need help! You can't do it alone!"

"Don't be ridiculous, Ms. Greene," Al said. "You're a civilian...I'm *not* letting you risk your life!"

"Civilian? What do you mean?" she demanded.

Exasperated, Al led her by the arm into a nearby, empty classroom.

"Ms. Greene, I promise you...I'm one of the good guys. I'm a cop." At her look of utter disbelief, Al sighed and took out his badge. He held it out for her. Sydney took it and read his name: Officer Richard J. Grayson, Bludhaven Police Department, Special Investigations and Violent Crimes.

Her reaction went from shock, to disbelief, to anger.

"See? I'm here to 'serve and protect'." He shrugged, chagrinned.

"A cop--? Y-You mean, what the kids call a-a narc? One of those cops who goes undercover in a school?" At his nod, she continued, her anger escalating, "How could you deceive me like that? I *cared* for you...wanted to *help* you! Do you know how many real students' needs that I've put aside, because I thought that Al Richardson really needed my help?"

"I'm sorry, Ms. Greene, but I had to make my cover as realistic as possible. I didn't lie to you about the danger involved. But I couldn't let you know who I really was."

He took his badge back and started heading towards the door. He paused and addressed her in a low, gravelly voice that sent a chill of apprehension through her.

"Now, I didn't take almost a half-hour off my timetable to get you to safety, just to have you back in harm's way. You're going, if I have to throw you out!"

His words gave her pause.

"What--what do you mean by 'timetable'?" she asked. "This attack...you didn't know about it, did you? You didn't just let Mrs. Pettit die, did you?" Her voice began rising, reaching a hysterical pitch. "And the *others*? You didn't just let them all die, did you? *Did* you!?"

By now they'd reached the outer doors, and Al firmly pushed her outside.

"You don't really believe that, do you, Ms. Greene?" he asked quietly. Not waiting for a reply, he shut the door in her face. It was a safety door that locked automatically from the outside when closed.

Sydney moved over and banged futilely at the safety glass on the side of the door, watching Al Richardson, or Officer Grayson, or whatever he called himself, run down the hallway, and disappear around the corner.

****

A movement from the trees caught the corner of her eye. A heavily armed policeman in full battle gear appeared from behind cover and waved furiously at her. Realizing that she was in the open and unprotected, Sydney was about to run towards the wood line, when perversely, she changed her mind.

"Who does he think he is, talking to me like I'm a child," she muttered. Without thinking about the recklessness of her decision, Sydney ran along the side of the school building and made her way back to the faculty entrance. Taking out her ID, she swiped it on the magnetic lock.

She heard the answering the click inside. Sydney cautiously pulled the door open and peered in. The hallway was eerily darkened because several of the lights had been obviously shot out; however, the coast was clear. Her heart pounding, Sydney entered and ran down the empty corridors.

Once inside, she was wracked with indecision. What was she *doing*? She asked herself. Officer Grayson was a professional. He didn't need her help. She looked around the efficiency kitchen and absentmindedly began opening the supply cabinets. But now that she was here...

Sydney began rummaging through the kitchen cabinets, looking for anything that could be useful. As she searched, she suddenly had the feeling that she wasn't alone. She stood absolutely still, not breathing, her heart hammering.

About convinced that she was imagining things, Sydney was startled by something being knocked over inside the small pantry. In a state of panic, Sydney frantically searched for a weapon. Grabbing the closest thing at hand, Sydney crept slowly to the pantry.

Reaching for the doorknob, Sydney paused, whispered a short prayer, and *yanked* the door open. Simultaneously, she held out her weapon in an en garde position, and yelled, "Don't move!"

While the intruder hiding inside cried, "Don't hurt me!"

Wide brown eyes met frightened gray ones that were magnified from behind owl- like glasses.

"Mrs. Paret!" Sydney squeaked. The older woman's mouth worked, but no sound came out. She held her right hand over her heart as if fending off a heart attack.

"Sydney--!" she gasped after several tries. Taking a deep breath, Paret closed her eyes in relief. "Put that thing away, dear," she said. "You look ridiculous."

Sydney took a look at the 'weapon' that she'd been brandishing like a medieval knight's sword--a spatula! Sydney's numb fingers released it, and she felt her knees give way. As she collapsed on the floor next to Paret, Sydney felt laughter bubbling forth from her throat.

Unable to contain herself, she began snickering uncontrollably. Soon Paret joined her. Both women laughed until their sides hurt and tears streamed down their faces. Seeing Sydney's mascara run, Paret burst into a second round of laughter.

"What were you planning to *do* with that thing," Paret asked. "Flip me over?" Both women broke into helpless laughter again. Paret hugged Sydney to her. "I'm so happy to see you, dear...I was so afraid that--" she stopped. "Well, I'm happy that you're all right."

This brought the women up short. Sydney dropped her eyes, then told the older woman about Pettit and the other women in the front office. Paret nodded sadly.

"I saw three of my students gunned down before me," she said. "He burst into the classroom, shooting wildly...no warning of any kind. It was a madhouse...most of the children panicked...some ran...others froze...It didn't matter. If they weren't under some kind of cover, they were shot...It all happened so fast." Paret paused, her voice breaking, tears starting.

"I hid under my desk...I'm so ashamed of myself. Instead of helping my students, I hid...like a coward. Then...then--" she stopped, as if awed. "Sydney, you wouldn't believe it. Of all people, Al Richardson was suddenly there...seemingly everywhere. He single-handedly brought that monster down. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen." She stared at Sydney with wide eyes. "He then evacuated that entire wing."

She dropped her eyes again.

"I couldn't move. I saw what was going on, but I couldn't move. I stayed under my desk long after the wing was emptied. I don't know why or how I ended up here, but I guess I finally realized that it was too dangerous to stay in the classroom. Anyway, here you found me in the pantry, with the other frightened mice."

Sydney hugged Paret to her. "You're *not* a coward! Do you hear me?" she whispered fiercely. "You're a wonderful teacher and a good person. No one could expect you to go head to head with a crazed gunman! You were afraid...I was, too! We *all* are! That doesn't make us cowards...It makes us human."

Paret nodded in Sydney's arms. She swallowed and wiped her face. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she finally turned curious eyes to Sydney. "Al Richardson is more than just a student, isn't he?"

Sydney nodded. "He's an undercover cop investigating the guns and drugs in the school. I just found out myself." She sighed. "I guess he was too late."

"I don't think so," Paret said quietly. "Before I finally left the classroom, I unmasked one of the unconscious gunmen. It wasn't any of the usual suspects...not one of our known gang members...not one of dozens who make a living out of causing trouble here at the school, who have a permanent seat in Jackson's outer office...It was one of the quiet ones...the youngest of the Andersen boys. Billy, I think...Shy, timid...he's never been in any trouble, but--"

"--but he's been picked on by some of the older, bigger kids," Sydney finished. Remembering the boy in the cafeteria whom Al had disarmed, she shook her head helplessly. "I don't understand. Why is this happening? It's all so senseless."

"When is murder ever sensible?" Paret asked. Seeing Sydney's look, Paret shook her head. "No, dear, you're right...these masked gunmen are terrorizing the school for a reason. We may not know what their reasons are at this moment, but I intend to find out."

She slowly stood. "They hurt my students...they've destroyed my school. And they disrupted my class. Nobody does *that* and gets away with it. It's time I stop cowering in fear and do something about it."

****

Sydney crept along the narrow crawlspace. Paret followed close behind. Neither woman spoke as she crawled. It was either could do to breathe without gasping. Finally, Paret called a halt.

"Sydney!"

Sydney turned her head back, her eyebrows raised in question.

"Rest...please...?"

Sydney nodded. Both women precariously arranged themselves in a semi-sitting position along the narrow beam.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" Paret asked in low tones. Sydney shook her head, 'no,' but then recalling how Al had peeked through a crack in the ceiling tiles, she reached down and slowly lifted the corner on the nearest one. Leaning closer, she held her eye to the small opening.

Her felt her throat catch. She covered her mouth to keep from crying out. The room below was full of kids being held prisoner by a lone gunman. That's when she spotted Jackson. He was the only one who was bound and gagged. Every now and then, the gunman would check his bonds.

Jackson's sullen attitude showed a lack of cooperation, and the threat of retaliation if his hands were ever freed. Sydney swallowed. She wanted to do something, but what?

Neither she nor Paret were capable of taking out the gunman on her own. She studied the situation. Perhaps it were best if she and Paret moved on. The prisoners didn't seem to be in any immediate danger--

The classroom phone rang. The gunman answered it immediately.

"Yeah...Any one in particular? Cheerleader, huh? There's a coupla real babes here. Seems a shame, but orders are orders."

He looked around the room until his eyes spotted his target. He pointed his weapon at a pretty strawberry blonde. Sydney recognized her instantly: Cherry, Al's faux girlfriend.

"I guess it's you, babe," he told her.

"What are you gonna do with her?" one of the boys asked, standing up along with her. Sydney recognized him as one of the school's star safeties.

"If I were you, I'd keep my mouth shut."

The boy stood defiantly in front of Cherry, protectively. "No, she's not going anywhere with you."

"Bobby, no!" Cherry urged. "It'll be all right...you'll see. You owe me a prom date, remember? I'm not letting you out of it so easy."

"She's trying to save your hide, Bobby. Unfortunately, was I you, I'd start thinking about taking someone else to the prom."

"*Noooo!*" Bobby screamed, leaping towards the gunman in a flying tackle. Startled, the gunman squeezed the trigger on automatic and emptied a full clip into the boy's chest. The room erupted in pandemonium.

Several of the students sprang to their feet and rushed the lone, armed boy.

"He's out of ammo!"

"Get him!"

"He *killed* Bobby!"

The gunman's training helped him beat them to the punch, however. Faster than the eye could follow, he discarded the spent clip, slapped in a full one, pulled the bolt back, and fired a short burst above their heads.

The shots narrowly missed Sydney and Paret, who just managed to evade being killed. Unfortunately, they also slipped off the narrow beam, and fell, screaming, through the ceiling tiles into the room below...

****

As the ceiling above burst open, the gunman looked up in time to see two screaming women fall on top of him.

The students took advantage of the opportunity and together disarmed and subdued him. Sydney and Paret were helped slowly to their feet, and Jackson's bindings and gag were removed.

Jackson studied the two women with a dark, thunderous glare. Sydney swallowed. Taking a chance, she smiled brightly, shrugged her shoulders, and waved at him.

"Hi, Andy!" Mrs. Paret said brightly. "Sydney and I decided to 'drop in'."

Sobs coming from below caused them all to turn around. In the middle of floor, in a pool of blood, held in the arms of the girl he would have taken to the Senior Prom, lay Bobby Macalister, who was not yet eighteen.

****

"We've got to get them out, Mister Jackson!" Sydney insisted. "The building's surrounded by cops...pretty soon, they're going to lose patience and storm the school. When that happens, A.H. is going to become a war zone!"

Jackson nodded reluctantly.

"It's too late, you know." They all turned to the now disarmed and bound former gunman. "They're expecting me to bring the girl. If I don't show up or check in within the next few minutes, they'll send someone here. I wouldn't doubt it if someone's already on the way."

"Hey, why should we believe you, geek?" one of the former prisoners jeered. Sydney recognized him as one of the school's running backs.

The boy looked at the football player with a mixture of contempt and hatred. "Because I've got nothing to lose, pinhead! And my name's Keith! It's time you knew who's gonna be responsible for ending your miserable lives. My partners and I've been planning this mission since last spring...to the death!"

"You're crazy!"

"Maybe...but you're dead! All of you! You hear me? You're dead!"

"Oh, the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," a welcome voice said from behind them.

"Al!" Sydney cried, her joy at seeing him apparent in her voice.

"Please, Ms. Greene...! The school will talk." He gave the other students a knowing smirk. "She wants me."

Several of the boys burst into shaky, relieved laughter. Grinning, Al asked, "So, you wanna hang around and find out what surprises these bozos have in store for you...? Or, would you prefer to get out, while the getting's good?"

He looked around at the frightened, but eager faces. He nodded. "All right then. Someone grab Junior there--"

"--What about *Bobby*?" Cherry sobbed, her voice rising in hysteria. "We can't just *leave* him here!" Paret took the girl in her arms.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart...but there's nothing we can do for Bobby anymore."

"His birthday's next week," Cherry cried brokenheartedly. "What will I tell his Mom and Dad? It should've been me..."

"Don't talk like that, Cheryl Robbins," Paret said sternly. "It is most certainly *not* your fault! Do you hear me?"

"Say it all you want, Mrs. Paret," Keith jeered. "You may believe it eventually, but Cherry...you and I know better, don't we? You and that whole Senior Class 'A' crowd...the cheerleaders, the jocks, the class leaders! My buddies and I are gonna--"

Al walked up to the boy, and without hesitating, punched him. Keith collapsed, unconscious.

Al looked around at the disbelieving faces and shrugged. "Let's go."

****

He moved them out, five at a time. The three faculty members insisted on remaining with the students in the room until the end. Much to Sydney's surprise, Jackson was the one who first refused to leave until the last students were safe.

At last, the only ones left were Sydney, Jackson, Paret, and two students. Al quickly led them out to the nearest exit, when he halted abruptly. He listened intently into his headset, his face darkening. Realizing that the others were still standing there, he waved them urgently on.

"*Go*!" Al ordered. Al spun on his heel and began running back into the building. As he disappeared around the corner, Sydney waved Paret and Jackson on without her.

"But--!" Paret began to protest, but Sydney took off after Al.

She found him crouched at a major crossroads in the building, where four hallways intersected. He was listening intently into his headset and nodding vigorously.

"Are you sure, Babs?" he hissed. "Okay, I'm on it. But this looks more like a job for Nightwi--!" Glancing behind him, he saw Sydney moving up quietly behind him.

Al looked at Sydney and shook his head, obviously put out with her. He spoke into the headset. "I've got another problem...yeah, a snoopy school counselor who doesn't know when to keep her nose out of things. Reminds me of someone I know, got any guesses who?"

Surprisingly, his face softened perceptibly and he smiled warmly. "Gotta go...but stand by." About to turn away, he paused and listened again. His features hardened. "*No*! Absolutely not! This is *my* case! Tell 'im I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks!'"

He paused to listen, his dark features softening somewhat. "Well, okay...Tell 'im I'll call him afterwards. Maybe he and I can do dinner next Friday...sort of a belated celebration...Yeah, I know he was busy...it's cool, really."

He listened a bit impatiently, finally stopping the other end. "Look...I've *got* to go! 'Bomb' remember? Set to go off? Yeah...stand by."

Sighing, Al glared at Sydney. "We've got a problem...our hostage negotiator has just been informed that the school's wired to go up like a Roman candle in about twenty minutes. There're still several pockets of students left that haven't been evacuated to safety."

Al looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, Ms. Greene, but my priorities have changed. I've got to find the explosives and try to defuse the bomb before it goes off. I'm afraid that I don't have the time to get you to the nearest exit again. Besides, I have a suspicion that it would be a waste of time...time I simply don't have anymore."

He stood up, resigned to the inevitable. "Like or not, I'm taking you with me, Ms. Greene."

****

Sydney followed timidly. He led her on a journey that was a fast-moving, heart- stopping thrill ride. Along the way, he disarmed and incapacitated three more gunmen. At least one was able to acquire a bead on him and fire.

Al's bullet-proof vest proved effective against the high-powered rifle, and although he was thrown back initially, Al managed to right himself, gain his feet and in a dazzling display of acrobatics, somersaulted and ricocheted himself off the corridor walls until he reached the gunman and easily took him down.

Sydney, meanwhile, cowered, flattened against the wall, trying to present as small a target as possible. Al's athletic movements stunned her. She'd never witnessed anything so beautifully executed in her life.

Finally, they found it.

****

The homemade bomb instantly drew her attention. It was sitting in center court looking like a student's poorly cobbled-together science project. Sydney's untrained eye could make out several metal cans attached by wires to several pipe-like devices. These, in turn, had a digital timer that was obviously counting down.

Armed teens dressed in quasi-military camouflage stood, weapons at ready, guarding the two or three-dozen students they were holding hostage.

Craig Minnig was amongst the students huddled on the floor. And he was whining the loudest.

"You can't leave us like this! Please! I shouldn't even be here...I've always had nothing but the utmost respect for--!"

One of the gunmen struck him across the face with a rifle butt.

"Craig!" Mindy screamed. "You've hurt him! Who do you think you are? What do you want with us?"

"Shut your face!" the gunman shouted, suddenly aiming his weapon pointblank at Mindy. "You *hear* me?! Shut up!" He turned to Craig, who was lying in Mindy's arms, holding his face.

"I'm going kill you, you gutless wonder! Do you understand? Get it through your head! You're dead, man! Dead!" He addressed the group. "All of you! You're carrion meat! This place is gonna blow! You're all history--!"

"Son, you don't really mean that, do you?"

They all turned to the new voice. Sydney's eyes widened. It was Melbourne!

"Tom!" she whispered. Sydney clapped Al insistently on the shoulder and pointed. Al looked at her annoyed as if to say, I see him, already!

"Doctor Melbourne! What are *you* doing here, sir?" the boy asked nervously. "I thought--"

"You thought that the phony call this morning would divert me?" Melbourne asked. "I appreciate the effort," he said. "You *were* trying to save my life weren't you?"

The boy nodded. "You're not like the others, sir. You understand...my friends and I never meant to hurt *you*."

Another of the boys spoke up. "Yes, sir...Your little talks about how *you* were picked on when *you* were at A.H., and how *you* iced the star quarterback with no one ever being the wiser, kind of gave us the idea."

"Yeah," still another said. "It was cool how you hid the body in the concrete foundation of the gym." The boy looked at his feet in admiration. "Just think, Minnig, underneath us lies the *first* of what's sure to be the greatest revenge scheme in history."

Sydney and Al exchanged shocked looks at this.

"We figured that if morons like Minnig and his jockstrap friends here have been harassing kids *that* long, then it's high time something was done about them. So, we decided to blow up the school."

"Boys, I appreciate the sentiment, and I admit to a certain admiration for your plan's sheer audacity, but A.H. is too important to me to allow you to destroy it. I'm here to help boys like you who've been picked on by their peers. To help you restore your self-esteem so that you can grow up to be self-confident men, leaders in your community, examples for others to follow. I'm afraid that my work here has just started."

"Doctor Melbourne," the first boy interjected. "We're sorry, but our minds are made up. We'd sure appreciate it if you left the building, sir."

"I'm sorry, boys but I can't do that." Melbourne walked up to one of the armed boys and laid his hand paternally on his shoulder. "Son, I understand how you feel, really, I do, but--"

Unexpectedly, Melbourne chopped down on the boy's exposed neck, grabbed his rifle, and sprayed the room with semi-automatic fire over the heads of the other gunmen!

****

Al took off as soon as Melbourne made his move. Sydney watched him leap over the heads of the group of students on the floor and fly straight towards Melbourne. Faster than Sydney's eyes could follow, Al disarmed and knocked the head principal unconscious.

Within seconds, he'd incapacitated the remaining gunmen. Trussing them efficiently with plastic tie wraps. Al grabbed one by the lapels, and demanded to know how to disarm the bomb.

"...Or we *all* go up, including your miserable little, picked-on whiny butt!" he yelled.

The boy sneered. "You don't understand. None of you do. We always intended to die! We don't *care* anymore!"

Sydney listened with half an ear to what the boy was saying. Could it be possible? Could the youngsters be so far gone, so filled with hate and self- loathing, that they were willing to exact personal revenge at the cost of their own lives?

Al threw the boy on the floor in disgust and ran towards the homemade bomb.

"Ms. Greene!" he called over his shoulder. "Get the kids out of here! Now!"

Sydney nodded, even though he couldn't see her response and quickly began to release the kids. "Run!" she screamed at them all. "Minnig, you and your friends, take *them* with you!" She pointed at several of the unconscious gunmen.

"Why should we help them?" Minnig asked. "This is *their* fault!"

"No, Craig," Sydney replied. "It's *our* fault! Yours and mine...we're responsible. Now help me get them out of here, or I swear I'll tie you up again, and leave you here!"

Minnig's eyes widened and he nodded. He looked at his friends. "Come on, you heard, Ms. Greene...let's get these geeks out of here!"

"Find the nearest exit," Sydney called to the retreating students. "Don't wait for anybody!"

She was about to follow, when she noticed Melbourne still crumpled where he'd fallen. Bending down, she grabbed him from underneath his arms, and began dragging him...

****

She wasn't going to make it. He was too heavy. Why did she run back into the building? She could've been outside, safe.

"I give up, Ms. Greene," Al said from above her. He bent down, and easily lifted Melbourne onto a fireman's carry. "You're one lady who just doesn't know what's good for her. Come on...it's safe now. The bomb's disarmed."

As he spoke, several armed police officers began storming the building.

****

"He'll *need* a friend when he wakes up," Paret explained. She hugged Sydney and followed the stretcher bearing the still unconscious Melbourne.

Sydney watched sadly as Melbourne was taken away by ambulance, Paret and a policeman in attendance.

"He called the nine-one-one this morning. Did you know that?" Officer Rohrback asked. Sydney shook her head, 'no.'

"Apparently when he arrived at the Superintendent's office he realized he'd been led on a wild-goose chase and immediately suspected the worst. Melbourne's quick action saved a lot of kids' lives today."

"What'll happen to him?" Sydney asked.

Rohrback shrugged. "He had no direct knowledge of what his little esteem- boosting revenge tales were generating with the students. Still, there's the matter of the possible murder of the Arlington Heights star quarterback from about fifteen years ago."

"I ran a check," Officer Grayson added. "Fifteen years ago, Timothy Hodges, twelfth grader, and star quarterback disappeared without a trace following the A.H. Homecoming Game. Coincidentally, the current gym's foundation was just being laid back then."

"So, it *could* be true?" Sydney asked. "Tom *could've* murdered that boy and disposed of the body?"

Grayson nodded. "Yes, Ms. Greene. Our boss, Captain Addad has already requested a search warrant...to dig up the gym floor."

Sydney nodded. There was so much to assimilate: Melbourne--a possible murderer; Al--a police officer named Grayson; Rohrback--his supposed probation officer-- actually his partner.

Jackson walked up to them.

"Officer Grayson, I want to thank you. With your help, I hope that we've managed to make a difference."

Sydney looked up startled. Jackson explained.

"I called Captain Addad's office in the BPD. I met him a few years ago at a conference on gang activities. I knew he ran the local anti-gang task force. I asked for his help...but he didn't inform me on what type of help he was sending." He grinned ruefully. "I almost had you expelled a couple of times, you know."

Grayson looked grim. "I'm glad I could be of help, but you know that you have to make some changes here. Unlike Escobar's gang, these kids had no previous criminal record and had never been in trouble in school. There was no way that the BPD could've predicted their actions today."

He held Jackson's eyes intensely.

"Bullies like Minnig might have gotten away with hazing kids a generation ago, but today, it's too easy for their victims to obtain guns. This is not an isolated incident. It could happen again...all too easily."

"Oh, please, Officer Grayson!" Jackson blustered. "These kids *must've* had some kind of a criminal mastermind behind them...I mean, look at the weapons and explosives they had. It's impossible for kids to get that kind of material, isn't it? And even if they *could* get it on their own, how could they ever figure out how to build a bomb?"

"Jackson, listen carefully to what I have to say," Grayson replied. "The 'homemade' bomb I defused in there had enough power to take out half the school...and the ingredients are all easily and legally available. Furthermore, the 'how-to' instructions can be obtained from underground books and even the Internet.

"These kids had personal beefs, whether real or imagined, against the school's so-called elitist 'A-crowd'. They weren't what *you* would term 'bad' kids...just kids on the outside...kids who felt disenfranchised...who felt nobody cared about them or their problems. So, they decided to make a 'statement'."

Grayson paused for a moment, gauging the effect his words were having on Jackson. "And *you*, Mister Jackson, have been primarily responsible for some of this. Minnig informed me that you were practically, and I quote, his 'lapdog'--"

"That's right!" Sydney interjected. "I overheard Craig say that!"

Jackson looked at them with a stunned expression. "I-I had no idea...I mean, Craig's a leader. I just wanted what was best for the school...That's all I've ever wanted. What can I do?"

"In my professional opinion, Mister Jackson," Sydney opined, "getting rid of the 'Senior Table' is the place to start. Maybe hold an assembly to allow the survivors to talk out their feelings. We need to make *all* our students feel welcome, like they belong."

Jackson nodded. "Ms. Greene, when you're finished here, I'd like to see you in my office. If we're going to succeed, we need to come up with a viable game plan." He shook hands with Grayson and Rohrback. "Excuse me, officers, I have a school to run. "

Sydney watched Jackson go back into the building.

"Funny, he always wanted the job of head principal," she said resentfully. Recalling the scene of carnage and destruction within the school building, she looked away. "It's all so useless. It's too late."

"That's where you're wrong, Ms. Greene." Grayson pointed at the crowds of students milling about, waiting for parents and school buses to take them home. "See them? They're what it's all about. Like I said before...don't give up on them. They need you." He gave her a heart-stopping smile and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

"Good-bye, Ms. Greene...and stay safe." Turning to Rohrback, he asked, "Ready to go, partner?"

"Any time, rookie," she replied.

Sydney stood without moving long after they'd climbed into their squad car and driven away. Taking a deep breath, she started towards the faculty entrance. She had her work cut out for her.

"Might as well get started," she muttered.

The End ####