Rob was on his way to the cafeteria the next day when he noticed Jamal, Lenni, and Alex surrounding Calvin Ferguson near the lockers. While the three of them were glaring furiously, Calvin was smiling back like the cat that had gotten the cream. He listened from around the corner to hear what was going on.
"You'd better confess Calvin," Lenni warned him. "Tell the principal."
He tossed his head back with a gleeful laugh. "In your dreams. And besides, you Care Bears are way too nice to do anything about it." With a wave of his fingers and a nasty smirk, Calvin walked off.
Alex punched a fist into his hand. "Oooh! I'm gonna smear him all over the wall," he growled.
"What are we going to do? We've got to stop him before that last flyer about the clown suit comes out."
"Yeah. I wish he knew how it felt to be humiliated like that."
Jamal slapped his hands together. "That's it! I know how we can get Calvin to confess and know what it's like to be smeared."
It was only when school ended when Jamal approached him with the answers.
"Yo, Rob! Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked. Rob put down his skateboard long enough for Jamal catch up with him.
"Remember what I told you about the Ghostwriter team and all that stuff?"
Jamal clasped his hands together in front of his face. "Can you do something for us right after school?"
"What is it?"
Jamal glanced over his shoulder to make sure that nobody else was eavesdropping on them. "We need you to go to the Party Animal and talk to Calvin's mom. She's usually behind the counter bragging about how great Calvin is."
As friendly as Jamal was, Rob didn't want to get dragged into any schemes. "I usually go to work in the computer lab," he started to excuse himself.
"It'll only take a few minutes," Jamal said. "Just get Mrs. Ferguson to talk about how great her son is. She adores him. We need to find out as much dirt as we can about him."
So, the Ghostwriter team wanted to get back at Calvin? And they wanted Rob in on their great plan? It sounded like a job for a talented writer. They must trust him enough for an important mission. But how far did Rob want to stick his face in anyway?
"I don't know," he said slowly.
"Look, Calvin's the one who's been smearing Alex. I know what you're thinking so don't worry. We're not going to put up posters about Calvin all over the school. We just want him to come clean and tell Ms. Kelly what he did. That's all."
Rob looked down at his shoes.
"Please, Rob," Jamal pleaded. "You're the only one who can go there without being noticed. Calvin and his mother would recognize us in a flash. And Calvin already hates us."
"It's the Ghostwriter team, man. We busted some backpack thieves on our first case and Calvin got really jealous. He told me that he'd be watching us all the time."
"I'll think about it." He started to head into the computer lab.
"Please try! If you do, meet me here after school!"
He mulled it over while he sat in his chair. It sounded risky, but oddly kind of fun at the same time. Here was a chance to write something new, something daring and exciting. And besides, Jamal was right. Rob was the only one who could get the information needed.
He had the impression of a thrilling story spinning in his head. Deep in enemy territory, world famous reporter Robert Baker hones in on the best scandal of the century. With his pen at hand, he creates page-turning articles and stories of great suspense. Millions are stunned to discover that the charismatic Calvin Ferguson is really a first class fool.
Well, it wouldn't hurt to try. Besides, it wasn't fair for Calvin to get away with smearing Alex.
Rob picked up his skateboard and headed out the door. Fifteen minutes later, he was at the Party Animal store-or the Twilight Zone. Classical music drifted through the air but even the sophisticated touch couldn't tone down the cheesy grinning logos of animals that were decorated on the store balloons. He noticed a line of ugly green two-headed masks mounted on styrofoam heads. A bright red parrot kept blinking at him hysterically from the cash register.
He approached a chipper looking lady who was standing at the front counter.
"Excuse me, but is Calvin Ferguson here?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "No, my son is still in school. But he should be here at four o'clock if you need him. Calvin's always punctual, that's a given. I never have to worry about my son being late for anything. In fact, he's usually ten or twenty minutes early."
She said this all in a single breath and very fast. Jamal certainly wasn't exaggerating.
"He's handsome! He's punctual!" the parrot squawked abruptly. Rob almost jumped back ten feet.
"Oh, and this is Attila, Calvin's best friend. Attila, say hello to…"
"Rob Baker. I go to school with Calvin," he said, trying to be polite as possible. "Then you must be Calvin's mother?"
"Yes I am!"
Rob put on his best smile. "Wow. Now I know where he gets his good looks from."
"Calvin's good looking! Calvin's good looking!" the parrott shrieked.
If there was sarcasm in Rob's voice, Mrs. Ferguson didn't hear it. She gave a perky laugh and fluffed up her hair.
"Why, thank you! Calvin's always been a handsome boy. Why, I remember when he dressed up for Halloween at the age of eight. Oooooh, he was the cutest dalmatian ever!"
"I'll be he was," Rob said, ever so slightly leaning over the counter while he slid out his notebook and uncapped a pen. "And Calvin's also a very talented student in class."
"I know! And a fine athlete too. Calvin's so good at basketball and swimming. Oh, he's a wonderful swimmer. He never gives up, not even when things don't turn out so well for him. Why, I'll never forget the time we took Calvin to Coney Island one weekend and just as he dove into the water for a swim, a wave blew off his swimming trunks!"
Rob stifled his laughter with a cough. "That's terrible," he said as he added this down. Mrs. Ferguson was so caught up with her prattling that she hardly noticed Rob's pen quietly and quickly moving across the paper.
"I know. The poor dear had to wait until dark to get them back on. But he kept treading water like a diligent boy always does, never complaining even once. Why, I'll bet Calvin could swim the English channel if he tried!"
"Attila must be a good friend. I don't know many smart guys who own parents."
"Awk! You're brilliant, Calvin!" Attila squawked again.
Rob cleared his throat. "Does he have any other pets?"
"No, but Calvin does sleep with his booger bat. He looks so cute all cuddled up with that little widdle fluffy green monsters in his bed. And did you know that Calvin was even reading bedtime stories to me instead of the other way around! He always enjoyed singing along with the Purple Peachtree Gang and all of their tapes before brushing his teeth…"
By now, Rob was biting hard on his cheeks to contain himself. This was too good of an opportunity to pass up. He kept hunched over the counter listening to Mrs. Ferguson rant and rave about her "wonderful" son, only to have Attila interrupt with an occasional flattering comment for Calvin as well. He nodded and hummed and said "really?" and "fascinating" for as long as he could.
After nearly forty minutes, he had compiled seven pages full of humiliating facts about Calvin Ferguson. That should be enough for Jamal and his friends. It had been a surprising but very satisfying venture after all.
"Well, it's been really nice talking to you Mrs. Ferguson," he said, sliding his notebook back into his bag. "But I really have to get going. Thanks for a great chat."
"Oh, please come again!" she sang merrily, waving her fingers at him as he started to leave the store. "It's always nice to see one of Calvin's many friends."
"Come again! See Calvin the Amazing!" Attila chirped.
Rob waited until he had left the Party Animal to collapse against a wall and laugh as hard as he could. He laughed long and hard for nearly ten minutes until his stomach shook. Jamal deserved a proper thank you for giving him this mission. Rob hadn't had this much fun in a long time.
When he got back to school, Rob noticed two of them standing near the lab. Jamal kept twisting his hands together nervously and Lenni was glancing up and down the hallway.
"I'm back!" Rob shouted. He ran up to them and showed them his folder.
"What's this?" Lenni asked.
"Your information. I just came from the Party Animal," he said. There was a hint of pride in Rob's voice that he couldn't resist letting out.
Jamal's eyes lit up. "You did? That's great! Did you get her to talk?"
"Man, she wouldn't shut up!" Rob exclaimed. "Neither would that parrot."
"Attila," Jamal laughed. "We've seen her before."
"Awk! You're brilliant, Calvin!" Lenni mimicked in a squeaky voice. "So did you get any dirt?"
"I got a whole mudslide", he announced. The sheer look of delight on their faces was refreshing. Jamal took the envelope and shook Rob's hand.
"Thanks, man. You're a real pal."
"Hey, no problem," he shrugged it off.
"No, really. This is going to help put Calvin in his place for good."
Jamal showed him the fruits of their labors the next day right before school elections. For the second time in two days, Rob started cracking up uncontrollably. Jamal had drawn a caricature of Calvin in the ocean, his arms crossed across his chest and a pouting frown on his face. The caption read CALVIN CAUGHT WITH PANTS DOWN.
"You're a really good artist," he said in between laughs.
"Thanks. Check out the other one," Jamal offered. It showed a squealing baby-faced Calvin whining and clutching a stuffed animal. CALVIN'S BATTY ABOUT HIS BOOGER BAT read the flyer.
"So what happens now?"
"It already happened this morning. We put a layer of papers on top of a box and told Calvin that it was chock full of dirt about him. And that we'd smear all of them across the school hallways unless he confessed to the principal."
"Are you kidding me? Calvin sang like a bird. He blabbered about everything and how he got the information from Alex through a pen pal of his and printed out hundreds of flyers in the school basement to put up. Ms. Kelly had him suspended for a week. And Calvin looked pretty made when he found out we tricked him with a fake box of flyers."
"Yeah, I'm glad you didn't put them up. It'd be just like fighting fire with fire."
"No sweat," Jamal assured him. "He just got a taste of his own medicine."
After the election, Alex thanked him in person as well. "You saved my face Rob, I owe you for that."
"It's nothing," he assured him. "I'm sorry you still lost the election to Janet."
Alex shrugged. "It's ok. Janet had a good plan for everyone. She was working hard on saving the school teams while I was just worried about saving my reputation. Now Hurston's got a good class president and I'm off the hook."
Rob was about to head home when Alex stopped him.
"Do you want to come hang out at my place? We're all celebrating another victory for the Ghostwriter team."
"No thanks. I don't do teams," he said. Rob kept his head down while he walked away, much to their curious surprise. It was one thing to lend a hand but another thing to join up for good.
He had only walked a few steps when Rob noticed the bulletin board next to him was glowing. Bright red letters had been rearranged with a new message from Ghostwriter. It said Take a chance on friends
He glanced back at Lenni, Jamal, and Alex wistfully. Boy, did they look like they were having fun laughing and talking among themselves. He almost wished he was standing with them and cracking jokes together. But not this time. He wasn't sure about making friends right now.
But maybe next time?
Rob's arm was almost cramping from the many pages he had written but he was very satisfied with his work. The lamp on his desk gave off a safe warm glow against the dimming darkness of Brooklyn. He enjoyed working at his desk after dinner. He put down his pen and re-read part of his letter.
I still miss you more than you can ever imagine, Jason. I even pile all my old laundry on the top bunk to keep it full but it's still not the same without you.
I'm starting to kind of like it here in Brooklyn. I've met a few kids who are really smart and funny. They asked me to go on a secret mission and I helped them to catch a creep at school. It was really cool getting to do spy work and writing at the same time. They seemed to like my stories too. One of them read part of my story and actually believed I had written a confession! I guess that's a good sign when they take your work so seriously.
I think they want me to hang out with them but I'm still a little scared in case it's too good to be true. Somebody said I should give friends a chance. Do you think it's ok to go running after a dream even if you might wake up from it?
He put down his pen long enough to rest his head in his hand and gaze out of the window. Night was descending upon New York. Some people would be turning off their lights and falling into deep sleep. But for others, the lights would continue to burn. With candles from restaurants and the flashing glamour of Times Square, there would be shows, parties, clubs, and adventures blazing long and full into the night.
That's what made New York so interesting. There were so many fascinating things to find: butterflies, jokes, creeps, dragons, memories, mysteries, and of course, ghosts. And special friends. Rob wondered if Jamal and the others were working on another mystery right now. If they did, maybe next time they'd ask him to join them again. Maybe he'd accept their offer.
Rob turned over to the last chapter of his story.
The red dragon raised a clawed hand into the dazzling star-lit sky and shook it hard. Golden scales began to fall off his skin and fall to the ground like floating leaves. Josh watched one of them land upon the shining shards of dust. In a brilliant flash of light, he saw the tiny pieces fusing back together. The magical cup had been restored!
He gathered up the talisman in his cupped hands and looked at his new friend with awe. Josh bowed in deep reverence to the dragon. "Thank you, Spirit of the Sun. I can't thank you enough for this!"
Twin trails of smoke drifted out of the dragon's mouth as he nodded slowly. "You have proven yourself to be most worthy by sparing my life and fighting off the Storm of Darkness," he said to the boy. "In return, I have restored what is precious to you. But you must be more careful next time."
"I promise. Oh, I promise I will," Josh nodded eagerly. "I won't ever misuse this magic again." He watched the long scaly crimson dragon rise up into the air and fly off into the night.
From behind him, the head of the council clapped his hands together in approval. "I see you are wise for one so young, Josh. Your courage and determination has made me reconsider your future. You will be granted the full rights of an apprentice in the art of wizardry and magic."
The familiar bright bubble of light flickered over Rob's page. He watched the letters spin around in spirals before a new message appeared on his paper in a shower of gold dust and sparkling letters. Rob grinned as he read what Ghostwriter had written.