[ A/N: Written for the smallfandomfest over on Livejournal. The prompt was Fletcher/Red, Undercover. ]
"Half Moon, if one word of this gets out," Johnson hissed backing me up against the wall, hands clenched in the front of my blazer, "I'm going to take that badge and – "
Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. You're probably wondering why Gavin Johnson, St. Jerome's hurling ace, is threatening both my property and person. To get the full picture we need to rewind back a few hours, to the start of the busiest day in any private detective's calendar. Valentine's Day.
"Twelve," Hazel said with more than a hint of smugness. "I just don't know where I'm going to put them all." She sifted through the pile of cards again, her breakfast all but forgotten.
I concentrated on my grapefruit. It wasn't that I wanted a Valentine's card – emotional entanglements are the last thing an aspiring private detective needs. It was just that, well, it would be a challenge. Finding out who sent it, I mean. At least, that was my story, and I was sticking to it.
"Never mind, sweetheart," Mum said, ruffling my hair as if I was five instead of fifteen, "It'll be your turn next year."
"You need to put yourself out there," Dad said, "let the girls know you're available."
It was the final straw. "I need to go and knock for Red," I murmured, getting up and grappling with my backpack and kit bag. The girls knew I was available. They never stopped sniggering about it.
"Don't forget to ask a girl to the dance," Dad called, seemingly obsessed with my love life. Or blatant lack thereof. "You don't want to have to go on your own."
I grimaced and shut the door behind me with slightly more force than was necessary.
I could hear loud music blaring before I even turned into the Sharkey's street. This was a bad sign. A sign that Genie Sharkey had been left in charge again. Red's Dad had been given a contract to do odd jobs, sometimes he had to stay away for a night or two with the firm. Genie was as lax as Hazel would be strict given the sudden responsibility.
There was no answer at the door, which didn't overly surprise me. They would never have heard it. Cautiously, mindful of last time I had let myself in uninvited, I pushed it open and stepped inside.
"Red?" Still no answer. I crept down the narrow hallway and into the kitchen. I instantly wished I hadn't. Now, I like dogs. When they're muzzled and on the other side of the street. I don't like them when they're putting their great muddy paws up on the lapels of my blazer and attempting to devour me, just like this one was doing.
"Come on, Ruby," Herod sighed, taking hold of the dog's collar and pulling it away. Even when it was back on all fours it came up to my waist.
"What's it doing in here?" I squeaked out, pulling a face as 'Ruby' began eating the remains of Genie's attempts at making breakfast from the frying pan on the draining board. Piles of dirty dishes teetered around it. The dog belonged to next door, I knew. I always make a point of crossing the street to avoid it barking at me from the gate.
Herod shrugged. "Search me."
Red chose that moment to put in an appearance. His face lit up when he saw me, grinning from ear to ear and I scowled. Paw prints all over my nice clean blazer were not funny. Red seemed oblivious to this and held the door open for me, still beaming like an idiot.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Herod called after us. I thought about asking Red what he was talking about, and then decided against it. I probably didn't want to know.
"I got a Valentine's card this morning," Red told me, smiling widely.
"Yeah?" The only surprise was that he hadn't been buried in an avalanche of cards. Red has this thing about him. A kind of special charm that makes everyone like him. When he smiles all the girls – even April from time to time – are putty in his hands. Even if I were to grow a foot and be capable of more than panting pathetically out on the hurling field, they still wouldn't look in my direction. Like I said, it's something you have either got or you haven't. And Red has it in buckets.
"Yeah," Red said enthusiastically, stopping in the middle of the path. I backtracked three paces to join him. "Fletcher," he started, not quite looking me in the eye, cheeks flushed in the cold morning air, "I –"
Whatever he was about to say was cut off by a yell of, "Oi, Half Moon! I need your help!"
"Slow down," I said calmly, "and start from the beginning."
Danielle sighed dramatically and fixed me with a warning glare. Chantelle, surgically joined to Danielle's hip – or so you would think - gave me a small smile in apology. I smiled back graciously.
"It's Damien Braithwaite," Danielle ground out, "He's asked me on a date."
I tried to give Red an incredulous look but he wasn't looking in my direction. Damien is, give or take, the most popular boy at St. Jerome's High School. Most girls would cut off their left pinky finger for a date with him. At least that's what I've overheard Mercedes Weaver saying.
"I know," Danielle grimaced, clenching one ring encrusted hand around the strap of her backpack, "It's disgusting."
Trying to sound professional, I asked, "What do you want us to do about it?"
She glared at me, "I haven't finished my story yet."
Touché. I pulled my notebook from my pocket and waited.
"So, anyway, as I was saying," she went on, "he comes up to me and is, like, all over me. I mean, urgh. And he says, I got your Valentine's card." She paused here to shake her head, "As if I would send him a Valentine's card!"
She gave Red a significant look at this point, and he shifted uncomfortably. I frowned; if Red was going to get a girlfriend the least he could do was find one who wouldn't pulverise him with her hockey stick the second he said something out of line. Chantelle touched a hand to her arm, and Danielle took a calming breath before continuing, "But then he got it out of his bag and showed me. It even looks like my handwriting!"
"Do you have the card?" It would be useful evidence.
"No," Danielle hmphed. "He wouldn't give it to me." She got out her purse then and handed me a ten Euro note. "I want you to find out who sent that card. It's totally creeping me out. Why would somebody do that?" Chantelle shrugged timidly. I understood the reaction; Danielle was scary to people of our stature. Any stature really. As Bernstein says, you don't need to like your clients; you just need to like their money.
"It's like someone is just toying with people's emotions."
A bit melodramatic, I thought. It was starting to sound like one of Hazel's unpublished novellas. They were unpublished for good reason.
"Did you send any cards, Half Moon?" She asked after a moment, eyeing me up in a way that suggested it would have been a pointless endeavour if I had. "You want to watch out. There's some total nutter out there sabotaging people's lives."
"I don't believe in Valentine's Day," I told her stiffly, "It's commercialised rubbish." At her raised eyebrow I clarified, "No, I didn't send any cards."
"Either way, I want results Moon!" Danielle gave me one last warning look before striding away, Chantelle scurrying behind her to keep up. I turned to Red, pocketing my notebook,
"This one should be fun." I meant it to drip with sarcasm. Red just stared back at me balefully, his face white as a sheet. I wondered what could be wrong then remembered the look Danielle had given him. I'd be terrified too.
When we reached our form room there was a great crowd of people hanging around. In its centre were Herod Sharkey and Zara Sandhu.
"Like, you have to be kidding me." Zara had one hand splayed out in front of her, expression one of utter disgust. "I wouldn't go out with you if you were the last boy on Earth."
The other Pinks nodded in agreement, April wrinkling her nose in distaste.
"But you said you liked me!"
Zara grimaced, as if in serious pain. "In your dreams, Sharkey!" She shook her head and made for her desk, "Just stay away from me."
It seemed like our mystery Valentine had struck again. I pushed my way through to Herod as the crowd dispersed, looking for a new thrill. "Can I see the card?"
"What card!?" Herod didn't look happy.
"The card from Zara," I explained patiently. Maybe we could get a handwriting analysis from it.
"She didn't give me a card," Herod glowered at me. "And you can stop laughing," he scowled at Red, "Just because you got what you wanted." Herod looked pointedly at both of us. I had no idea what Herod was talking about. As this was a completely normal occurrence I didn't let it worry me.
Red, on the other hand, looked murderous. "You don't know anything about it." His tone was low and dangerous and I glanced at him in concern. He'd only regret it if he fought with Herod. "Just keep your mouth shut."
Herod sneered back, staring at Red intently; he obviously wanted to say something in retaliation.
"Sharkey – both of you! - Moon!" Miss. Simmons called, blustering through the classroom door, "Sit down!"
Herod gave Red one last dirty look before shaking his head and making for his seat. Sparing Red one last worried glance, I followed suit.
By break time I was itching to get started on the case. Red says normal people get excited over Christmas or the latest computer console. 'Normal', I've decided, isn't a label I want to be tarred with.
We found Damien loitering around the basketball court. He looked miserable.
"I understand you received a card from Danielle this morning," I said bluntly, flipping open my new notebook. It's got our logo on the cover; Red gave it to me for my birthday. "Can we see it?" There was no point in dragging it out.
Damien frowned, but got it out of his bag and handed it over. "Keep it," he snapped, "I've gone right off her anyway."
I didn't reply, instead sliding it carefully into my own bag. I could get Mia to help me look it over at lunch. Red and I were about to depart for the tuck shop when a commotion broke out just ahead of us.
"You're such a liar! You sent her a card!" It was Carmen Harris from the year below. Cowering from her righteous anger was long term boyfriend, Jason Granger. Usually the pair of them could be found sharing oxygen supplies on the benches opposite the Millennium Garden.
"I didn't!" Jason protested. "I wouldn't!"
"April showed me it!" Carmen screeched and slapped him soundly across the face. With that she flounced away, her group of friends pausing only to glare at Jason before following.
I inclined my head towards Jason, and Red nodded. This was a potential lead. Especially as April was involved. I find, more often than not, that April is behind whatever problems St. Jerome's happens to be facing.
"I don't understand it," Jason said to us, rubbing at his jaw, "I never sent that card."
"There's a lot of it about," Red shrugged, although he and Jason shared a look that made me feel uneasy. Like there was something going on that I didn't know about. I hate that feeling.
"I know I said I wasn't sure," Jason said, all but ignoring me in favour of Red, "But now I am. I do want to be with her."
Red adjusted the strap of his bag, fidgeting uncharacteristically. "It'll be alright, me and Moon are on the case."
"Yeah," Jason gave me a dubious look and clapped a hand across Red's shoulders. "Thanks a lot, mate."
I watched him walk away with jealousy gnawing at me, like a dog at a fresh juicy bone. It was irrational, I knew. Totally unacceptable. Just because Red was, essentially, my only friend didn't mean he had to feel the same way about me. The bell rang for next lesson and, as we made our way – in silence - to the science labs, I determined it would be best if I just concentrated on the case.
We reached Mia's office just as Chantelle was leaving. She kept her gaze on the floor as she went past, arms held in as if to make herself as small as possible. It was probably a result of hanging round with Danielle all the time. I reasoned that, with Danielle, invisibility is probably a good thing.
"What was she doing here?" Red asked, slumping down into the spare seat and rummaging through the Agony Aunt inbox. Part of me wanted to tell him he shouldn't, that the notes were confidential. The other, larger, part wanted to go and join in. You never knew what you might find in that tray.
Mia didn't look up from the computer screen. "She was dropping off some articles for the paper," she gestured at a neat folder, "She's really good at all that old handwriting." Mia was running a regular feature on imagined letters of students of yesteryear. She kept badgering me to help out so, before she could start again, I swiftly changed the subject.
"I need your help," I extracted Damien's card from my bag, "I need to find out who sent this."
She frowned, still working on editing her next cover, "I thought you were a detective. There can't be that many people who would have sent you a card."
"Very funny," I said dryly, and explained the case to her. "I just can't see what the link is," I sighed when I was finished. Even Bernstein would be struggling with this case. None of them hung round in the same group. I wouldn't have thought any of them really knew each other. Giving in to temptation, I added, "Unless it's April. Again."
"But why would she have sent a card to Damien from Danielle?" Mia asked, giving me her full attention for the first time since I'd stepped through the door. "What has she got to gain from it?"
"Maybe she thought he'd be so upset at the rejection, he'd go out with her?" Red suggested, swivelling half back and fore on the chair. He shrugged, "Maybe she just wanted to upset people. She usually does."
"Hmmm." I wasn't convinced. We really needed to go and speak to her. The handwriting wasn't conclusive either way; all I could tell was that someone had faithfully copied a sample of Damien's handwriting. (I'd taken it upon myself to pocket a note he'd been passing to Charlie Gibbs during biology. It hadn't contained anything important.) There were no fingerprints, nothing to go on.
"I'd come and help," Mia said, "But I've got to get this cover finished."
"What's it on?" I asked curiously, putting the card back into my bag.
"After school clubs," Mia replied, turning her attention back to the screen. "They've seen a surge in popularity the last few weeks."
"Maybe that's it," I suggested slowly, "Maybe they all go to the same club and that's the link." The more I processed the idea, the more likely it seemed. "Question is which one. Do you have a list or anything?"
"No," Mia admitted, "The school doesn't keep records." She gave me a sly look, "You could always just go and ask them."
"I would never have thought of that," I said, rolling my eyes. I like Mia but, sometimes, she can be very trying. "Ready?" I asked Red, standing up straight and getting ready to go. There was no answer, when I turned to look at him he was deathly pale.
"I think I need to see the nurse."
"You won't do anything without me, will you?" Red pleaded, as the school nurse attempted to shut the door. I was, in her opinion, surplus to requirements. "Promise me."
I took Red's pallid complexion into consideration and nodded. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Red calmed down a lot at that and let the nurse lead him inside. Mission accomplished, I made straight for the canteen and the Pinks.
April glared at me as I approached. We'd been through this often enough for her to know what was coming. "Whatever it is," she started, looking disdainfully at the mud I hadn't quite been able to get off my blazer, "I didn't have anything to do with it."
"So you didn't send yourself a Valentine's card from Jason Granger," I said, flicking through my notebook. Red says it makes me look really professional when I do that, so I try to do it a lot. April wasn't impressed.
"Moon, are you, like, totally retarded or something?" She flicked her hair over her shoulder. "I don't need to send cards to myself. I'm popular." She didn't need to say 'unlike you' for us both to hear it. "Now, if you don't mind," she waved one perfectly manicured hand in dismissal, "you're putting me off my lunch."
I hesitated for a moment but it was clear that I wasn't going to get anything else from April. Weighing up my options I decided I should probably go back and wait for Red. I got to the double doors before a hissed "Half Moon" had me hunting for its source.
Zara was hiding behind the tray rack and motioning me over.
"You're going to see Roddy later, aren't you?" She cut over me, expression anxious. I nodded; Herod Sharkey was indeed scheduled to be my athletics partner for the afternoon. I could hardly wait. By which I meant, of course, I'd sooner face Headmistress Quinn's dobermans unarmed and alone.
Glancing furtively back at the Pinks, Zara went on, "Can you tell him I didn't mean what I said? Tell him I just can't. Not in front of April." I looked from Zara to April and back again, the entire time going over and over the fact that Herod Sharkey had actually got a girl. I really didn't know where I was going wrong.
Still, I agreed and she thanked me, leaving me free to return to Red and mope over my single-and-not-likely-to-change-any-time-soon status. In fact, I was so busy moping I didn't notice the figure following me until it was too late.
"Half Moon," Gavin Johnson's deep tones sounded just behind me. My blood ran cold. Without Red around I always fear Johnson is going to exact revenge for that incident in fourth year. I don't want to go into it right now but, suffice to say, it resulted in a dip in the local canal for Johnson and a fortnight of being grounded for me.
"Johnson," I gave him my most winning smile. It always works on Red. Johnson was not Red.
"This little detective thing of yours," he started. I kept quiet with difficulty. "Is it," he glanced around the deserted corridor, "discreet?"
Now that wounded. "Yes," I protested, standing up straight. "I don't go around giving out my clients details!"
Johnson looked unmoved by my passionate speech. "I've got a case for you, Half Moon. But you need to keep it quiet." He punctuated this with a jab to my chest and I nodded frantically, instinctively accepting that I wouldn't be able to run fast enough to get away from him.
Checking once again that there was nobody coming – and where was Quinn when you actually wanted her? – Johnson unclasped his bag and handed me a crumpled card. He glowered at me expectantly and I took in the sappy picture of bears holding hands before opening it.
I've wanted to tell you this for years; I love you.
I looked up at Johnson in shock. I wasn't entirely sure he was capable of any emotion other than anger. And if he was, I would never have expected that it would be directed at Michael McGregor. They were a pair to be reckoned with on the hurling field but they rarely so much as spoke to each other off of it. Not to mention the fact that Johnson liked to yell obscenities about the amount of time I spent with Red at every given opportunity.
"I didn't send it!" Johnson growled after a long moment of my speechless silence.
That made more sense. "Do you have any idea who did?" I asked; it was always worth a go. Sometimes people can solve their own cases if they just think carefully about it. Obviously, it's not something I encourage too much.
"Yes," he said to my surprise. "It's got to be someone from the club. Nobody else knows how I feel about him." I swallowed and tried to look like I wasn't shocked. It didn't really work. Based on the look Johnson gave me I imagined I was gaping like my Uncle Eoghan's prize carp.
"So, er," I cleared my throat, realising I was expected to say something, "which club is this?"
Johnson grimaced but dug in his pocket and handed me a folded piece of A2 paper. It was a badly photocopied flyer.
Locke youth services provides an LGBTQ youth group that offers activities and support for young people age 13-19years. We meet once a week in St. Jerome's adult learning centre. Thursdays, 7pm.'
I nodded, not really knowing what else to do. I wondered what Bernstein would do. Bernstein wouldn't just stand there gaping like an idiot I decided, and got out my notebook.
"I can't have this sort of thing going round about me!" Johnson gestured agitatedly at the card still clenched in my other hand. I didn't dare contradict him. He makes Red look short. "You're going to be there tonight, and you're going to find out who did it."
"And," he crowded close into my personal space – all the better to intimidate me - eyes glinting dangerously, "Half Moon, if one word of this gets out," Johnson hissed backing me up against the wall, hands clenched in the front of my blazer, "I'm going to take that badge and – "
(I told you it would make more sense if we started from the beginning!)
"Get your hands off him!" We both turned our heads to see Red stood there, shoulders squared, ready to fight if he had to. I could have kissed him I was so happy to see him. Metaphorically, anyway.
Johnson hesitated, grip tightening for a moment before finally releasing me. I heaved a sigh of relief. Red wasn't finished however,
"Lay one finger on Half Moon again and I'll-"
"You'll what, Sharkey?" Johnson sneered. Before Red met me, before his Mum died, he and Johnson were good friends. Always getting into trouble together. Unlike Red, Johnson hadn't changed his ways. "It won't make any difference."
Red clenched his hands into fists at his side, colour rising in his cheeks with temper. I was glad I was his friend, and not his enemy. "Just stay away from him." They stared each other down for one beat, two, before Johnson looked away, hauling his bag to his shoulder.
"Be there, Moon," he jabbed a finger in my face and then departed.
I let my head rest against the wall for a minute, relief flooding through me. "Are you alright?" Red asked quietly, straightening out the lapels of my blazer for me, "I thought you were going to wait for me."
I winced, "Sorry about that. But," I smiled at him, "I have got a lead." I shoved the flyer into his hands. "We're going. Tonight."
For someone who hadn't been sent home by the school nurse, Red looked like he was only inches away from collapse.
"I can't go," Red said not meeting my eye, making the fitness circuit look easy in spite of his purported ill health, "I've got hurling practice."
"It'll be finished by seven," I told him with a scowl. Jenkins, the games teacher, had partnered us when Red told him he wasn't feeling very well. This, along with Zara's message, had restored Herod's spirits and he was bouncing about the hall with his usual hyperactivity. I, on one hand, was happy to spend time with Red. On the other hand it wasn't exactly comforting to know I was considered the most useless sportsman of the entire class.
"I'm not well," he went on, powering through a series of sit-ups which seemed to contradict the fact. He was probably immune to Genie's cooking by now anyway, I thought with a hint of bitterness. "You know I'm always too tired to go out after hurling."
This was the real source of my bad attitude, I admitted reluctantly to myself. Red always went to hurling practice on Thursdays, then, so he said, went home to bed. But, last week, I had knocked for him at eight and Papa Sharkey had told me he never gets back before nine-thirty after hurling. I might or might not have been planning to follow him this week. You know, just in case there was something going down I ought to know about.
Bernstein warns against letting your emotions get the better of you. I took a deep breath and tried not to focus on the jealousy. Red was entitled to have other friends.
"But we're partners," I said, frustration seeping into my voice in spite of my best intentions. "Holmes and Watson; Starkey and Hutch; Moon and Sharkey. Without you there I'll just be," I hooked my fingers in the air, "weird little Fletcher Moon, sticking my nose in other people's business."
Red stopped what he was doing and looked up at me seriously. "You're not weird. Nobody thinks that."
I stared at him incredulously, "Everybody thinks that."
"Alright," Red shifted awkwardly, "I don't think that." His gaze was oddly intense and I surmised that he was about to agree to go with me. I knew he wouldn't let me down. He looked down at his hands, wringing them together, "I just can't go."
"Fine," I replied brusquely, trying to hide how the words hurt. I could see it all clearly now. Red was too ashamed to go to this group with me. Too afraid it might get out and everyone would think there was something more to our friendship than there was. Weird or not, the prospect of being accused of being with me was obviously too much for him.
"I'll go on my own," I finished, refusing to meet his gaze. And I meant it to sting.
"Where are you going, sweetheart?" Mum asked, peering around my door frame. She beamed widely, "On a date?"
"No!" I protested, turning back to my reflection and sighing. The figure that stared back at me looked like a loser. My hair wasn't cool like Red's. My clothes weren't trendy like Damien's. I wasn't sporty like Johnson. This was why I hated undercover work. Some people stand out because they look good. I stood out because I never looked as if I could fit in anywhere in the first place.
Mum, as usual, wasn't about to take 'no' for an answer. She stepped into the room and started rifling through my wardrobe. "You should add a splash of colour," she smiled at me, holding out the dreaded Hawaiian shirt. "Everyone will notice you in this."
I had no doubt they would.
Aloud I said, "It might be a bit much, Mum."
"Really?" She asked, tone laced with obvious disbelief. Before she had chance to sing its virtues any further the doorbell rang, and she gave me an apologetic smile as she went to answer it.
Staring into the mirror once again I ran a hand through my hair, dishevelled was cool. Or so Hazel said when she was reading her endless supply of glossy magazines.
"It doesn't suit you."
I spun around, "Red?"
He shrugged slightly, looking embarrassed. "You were right. We're partners. We should do this together."
I couldn't help the grin that spread across my face. Red smiled back, reaching out to smooth my hair back down with careful fingers. I tried not to think about the way it sent tingles through me. Now that Red was here I didn't want him to be freaked out and change his mind.
Once that was done Red stepped away to admire his handiwork. "You'll pass."
I rolled my eyes and grabbed my coat from the bed. "Obviously."
The closer we got to school, the quieter Red became. He was fidgeting and biting at his fingernails, both things he never does.
"You don't have to do this," I said quietly as we passed St. Mary's church, the sound of Vespers ringing out in the cold night air.
"I want to," Red replied, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "It's just that-" He met my gaze then shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
We didn't really say anything else until we reached our destination. Red was lost in thought, and I was trying desperately to think about the case and not Red. There was something up; I just couldn't work out what. I wish Bernstein would release a manual on friendship.
Once inside Red went straight to the oldest looking person there, a man I recognised as the new assistant P.E. teacher. Red had told me he had started taking charge of hurling practice. My own hurling talents being non-existent, our paths had never crossed. Red spoke to him hurriedly, hands flying as he explained something. They both looked in my direction and I grimaced. It seemed my hurling ability had just become common knowledge.
Still, he didn't seem to hold it against me and came over to shake my hand. "Nice to meet you, Fletcher. I'm Martin." I nodded and scanned the room surreptitiously. Johnson was standing over by the pool table and glared at me when our gazes met. I quickly looked away.
I winced; Danielle.
"What are you doing here?"
"It seems you already know some of us," Martin said, as if this were a good thing. "I'll leave you to it for a bit."
I plastered a false smile on my face for him, then turned to face her. Chantelle was pressed silently to her side. At least I'd worked out why she stuck around. "I'm undercover," I hissed at them both, "with Red."
"Really?" Danielle raised an eyebrow and smirked at Chantelle. She giggled nervously. I couldn't see anything funny about the situation.
"Have you found out who did it yet? Or am I going to get my ten Euro back?"
We didn't do refunds but, I figured, now probably wouldn't be a good time to remind her of the fact. Instead I said, "We're working on it. Shouldn't be long now." Bernstein says you should always give the client hope, even when you haven't got the slightest clue. Bernstein is a genius.
"You better be right, Moon," she warned. "Red," she smiled and nodded at him before walking away, Chantelle clinging to her hand. I frowned; if she had a girlfriend, why was she flirting with Red? That's what it was, all this smiling and being nice. I'd read a book on it.
This information ratcheted Danielle a few places up my suspects list. Inconsistent behaviour is a big giveaway according to Bernstein. Red looked uncomfortable, even as club member after club member came up to speak to him. That must be the curse of being popular, I thought, you had a reputation you could damage. Most people at St. Jerome's were already of the opinion I was a freak. It didn't really matter what I did.
Whilst Red was busy with some girl I didn't recognise – and a minute of listening to had ruled out - I took the opportunity to scope out the others. I could feel Johnson's eyes burning into the back of my neck and wanted it to look like I was making headway.
"So, Fletcher, is it?"
I looked up startled into the face of a boy I vaguely recognised from the year above. He'd once been in a fight with Herod Sharkey, I remembered. Much as I didn't like to draw attention to the fact for Red's sake, there weren't that many people Herod Sharkey hadn't been in a fight with.
"Yeah," I managed, trying to look innocent and not like I had been about to rifle through Chantelle's handbag. I wasn't going to take anything but, sometimes, people don't believe that. It's why I never let Red do it; he has enough to deal with without people jumping to more wrong conclusions about him.
"Tom," he said but didn't offer his hand. "I've heard a lot about you."
I nodded nervously, uncertain why he was talking to me. Red was a few feet away. Of the two of us I would have thought it would be Red who would attract attention. Like I said earlier, he's got this thing about him. Maybe it had something to do with the way Red was scowling over at the pair of us. I could tell he was really uncomfortable with the whole situation.
In fact, he was making his way over, putting a hand on my shoulder.
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Sharkey," Tom smirked, "I wasn't about to tell him your dirty little secret."
Red paled worse than he had that morning, freckles stark against his pallid skin. In a moment my mind constructed an entire chain of events. Red knew everyone here; I'd seen it with my own eyes. Red had been acting strangely all day, trying to obstruct my investigation. For a second of sickening clarity I was sure the person I was looking for, in Danielle's words the 'total nutter out there sabotaging people's lives' was Red.
And, then, Tom was speaking and I could hardly hear for the crushing guilt pressing down on my chest. Red was my best friend.
"You still owe me a rematch from last week though," he grinned and walked away, even as the words sunk in slowly through the haze of guilt and confusion in my head. Rematch, as in a match played again.
I couldn't believe it had taken me this long. Red was never home until late on Thursdays. Red knew everyone here. I gaped at him – something that seemed to be fast becoming a habit.
"You've been here before."
I didn't wait for Red's response, pushing blindly towards the door, uncaring of Johnson's menacing glowering. My throat was aching, my eyes stinging pathetically and I was glad when I was finally outside and could blame it on the ice cold air.
Red had lied to me. Had been lying to me for weeks. Maybe even months. I blinked rapidly and headed in the direction of home, fighting and fighting against the urge to cry. They had all known, had all been laughing at me behind my back with Red. Weirdo Fletcher Moon and his play-detective notebook.
I swiped at my eyes viciously, purposely not thinking about the fact Red had given me that notebook – it would take me down a road of self-pity and maudlin depression that even Hazel couldn't compete with.
Instead I tried to be angry, justifying my earlier suspicions; if Red had lied about this then who knew what else he had lied about.
"Fletcher, wait! Please!" Regardless of my last, spiteful, thoughts, part of me was inordinately glad to hear Red's voice. To know he cared enough to follow me. I stopped and waited, glad evening service was over as I stood in the shadow of St. Mary's.
"I'm sorry, Fletcher," Red said, biting at his lip and running a nervous hand through his hair. He has to be really upset to do that because he spends so long on it; it takes a lot to make him forget about the inevitable amount of gel in it. "I'm so sorry."
"Why didn't you just tell me?" I asked, unable to summon much anger. Not when Red looked so helpless.
"I-," Red's expression was pained, "I didn't know how. You're my best friend." He looked away, "I didn't want you to hate me."
I couldn't believe that he'd think so badly of me. I'd never hate him. I shook my head, "So you just let me make a complete fool of myself all day." I was definitely in Hazel territory now, and I seemed to have lost my way back. "Thanks a lot Red, what a great friend you are."
Red looked down at the floor, expression utterly miserable, and my resolve nearly crumbled. Then I saw Danielle barrelling down the road towards us, Chantelle following, bundled up in enough coat, hat, and scarf to keep even my mum happy. I did not want to face them again.
"I'll-" I faltered, then said it anyway, "I'll see you tomorrow."
I didn't wait for an answer and, when I got home, even Hazel said nothing when I went straight to bed.
The next morning I went and knocked for Red as usual. There was no answer, just as there hadn't been the day before, although there was no music blaring. I knocked again and this time it was drawn back, revealing Papa Sharkey.
"Fletcher!" He said jovially, although I could see a thick cloud of black smoke pouring from the kitchen. I could see where Genie got her culinary expertise from. "He's not going this morning," he inclined his head in the direction of the stairs, "he's not well."
'The criminal's own body will betray him,' that's what Bernstein always says. 'Guilt is a powerful force and will find a way out.' That could be why Red didn't want to go to school. He knew that I would be able to see he was guilty. In an instant I discarded this idea; nodded my thanks to Papa Sharkey and walked numbly back down the garden path.
Red wasn't staying home from school because he had done anything wrong. He was staying home because he was upset.
And it was my fault.
School without Red was horrible. I'd forgotten how just how bad. Most people treated me as if I was invisible. Those who didn't I wished would. As soon as the bell rang for lunch I went straight to Mia's office. I did not want Johnson to find me.
"Where's Red?" She asked the instant I was through the door. "He was supposed to be helping out with my feature." She motioned at the stack of freshly printed newspapers. "I've had to go ahead without him."
"He's not well," I said quietly, taking the proffered copy of the newspaper and flicking through it dutifully.
"Yes, well, that's different. I suppose," Mia sighed. She soon perked up, "Have you heard the latest? Pinker than pink Zara is going to the dance with Herod. Even though April vetoed it."
I didn't know what she wanted me to say about it, so I 'hmmmed' non-committally.
Mia shook her head and gave me the look that said, 'why do I bother?' She gives me that one a lot. "Are you going tonight?" She asked eventually, obviously curious. I grimaced,
"No." I pretended to be very interested in an article on the school's recycling targets. "It's not really my sort of thing." I kept my head down so I wouldn't have to say anything else, turning the page and scanning over the life of Victorian school children letters. Mia was right; the careful copperplate script looked just like the stuff in the history textbooks. It would be a useful skill for a private detective, I thought. I wondered absently if Danielle would let Chantelle loose long enough to teach me how to do it.
"It's probably for the best," Mia said distractedly, glancing at her own mobile phone with thoughts of Davy Perkins from our rival school. I'm not a mind-reader but I could just tell. It was the same dreamy eyed look Hazel gets all the time. "For a genius," she fixed me with a close look this time, "You really do struggle with people."
"Hey," I protested, newspaper forgotten, "What's that supposed to mean?"
She shrugged, "I don't know what you two were doing last night, but word on the yard is Red's skiving because you've upset him."
"I haven't." This was a lie, and we both knew it.
Mia just raised an eyebrow and turned back to her laptop. I stared at the wall unseeingly. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was rubbish with people. Red usually managed that side of things on cases. The thought of Red made me feel worse. Emotion messed with your head, made you do stupid things. Red had lied to me because he didn't want me to break friends with him. If he'd been thinking clearly he would have realised that I wouldn't have anyway.
I looked back down at the newspaper, really seeing the letters for the first time, Chantelle's careful handwriting might as well have been spelling out 'CLUE' in big red letters.
Emotion messed with your head, made you do stupid things.
That was the answer.
"I think we need to have a word," I said, looking Chantelle in the eye, "don't you?"
"What do you want, Half Moon?" Danielle complained. "If you haven't found out who did it, then go away."
"I know exactly who's responsible," I said calmly. "I can tell you here," I looked pointedly around the table at their group of friends, "Or I can tell you outside."
"Outside," Chantelle managed to whisper, getting up timidly. Danielle followed, but not before fixing me with a glare that made me think of hockey sticks and smashed kneecaps.
"Do you want to tell her, or shall I?" I asked once we were away from prying eyes. I was a bit harsher than I would normally have been, but this case had had me falling out with Red. My patience was wearing thin.
"Tell me what, Half Moon!?" Danielle demanded. I wondered if she and Johnson might be related. They both went the same shade of red when angry.
Chantelle was silent so I spoke for her. "I've found who sent that card from you to Damien." I paused for a moment; I know it's petty, but I really like to draw out the suspense. It makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes or something. "She's standing right in front of you."
"Moon," Danielle jabbed a finger at me, "You want to watch what you're saying!" I resisted the urge to shrink back against the wall, standing my ground. It helped that I didn't have a wall on hand to shrink back against.
"It's true," Chantelle whispered, just when I was sure Danielle was about to do me permanent injury. "It's true." She started to cry then and all my plans of cross-examination went out of the window. I never know what to do when girls cry.
"I was jealous," she sobbed as Danielle put an arm around her, pushing her mousey hair away from her face, "I thought that if he asked you, and you said no then I would know for certain whether you really liked me or not."
This was girl logic at its worst. I was glad Hazel wasn't around or she'd have been taking notes for her next play. Danielle held her close and shushed her. There seemed to be an awful lot of make-up being transferred from Chantelle's face to the shoulder of Danielle's blouse.
"What about the others?" I cut in, feeling uncomfortable.
"I wanted to divert attention away from us. I wasn't sure if anybody would ask you, but I thought, it would take you longer to work it out." She sobbed again, "I thought you might not work it out."
"It's okay," Danielle soothed. "Leave her alone, Moon," was what I got in a tone that promised pain.
"I thought I was helping," Chantelle went on, thankfully without further prompting from me. I quite liked my face in the arrangement it was in. "Gavin likes Michael, I thought if he just told him…"
I fought the urge to cough at this. The only thing Michael was likely to do in the face of such a confession was punch someone. Probably Johnson. Then again, it didn't seem like such a bad idea when you thought about it that way.
"And Jason said that he didn't want to be with her anymore. I didn't know he had changed his mind."
She was crying thick and fast now and I was trying to think of a way I could get away without making it obvious I couldn't cope with this outpouring of emotion. I was just about to try my luck and hope they wouldn't notice I was leaving when Chantelle said something that left me frozen in shock.
"As soon as I saw Red's face, I knew I shouldn't have done it. I'd made him get his hopes up for nothing."
"You sent one to Red?" I asked, remembering for the first time the way Red had been grinning fit to split his face as he tried to tell me about it. "From who?"
"Moon," Danielle shook her head, giving me a pitying look. "You're supposed to be a detective."
I thought about it, memories surfacing in quick succession. Herod smirking at us as he told Red he'd got what he wanted. Red smoothing down my hair with careful strokes of his fingers. Red's fingers curled tightly around my shoulder at the meeting, Tom's barbed comment about not telling me Red's secret.
I had the horrible feeling I was gaping. Again.
"Don't be too hard on him, Moon," Danielle said bluntly, leading Chantelle away. "I don't know why," she paused momentarily to sweep me up and down with a critical eye, "but you mean everything to him."
I just stood there, in a daze, until the bell sounded for afternoon registration.
"Oi, Moon!" Jason accosted me on the way towards the school gate, Carmen hanging from his arm. Love conquered all it seemed. "Did you find out who sent that card?"
Bernstein says the truth is reward in itself. He also says that you need to know when to bend the rules. This was one of those times.
"It was just somebody messing about," I said. It was true, in a way. "They didn't mean to cause any trouble."
"Well, it's lucky for them that we trust each other," Carmen said, apparently having forgotten the way she had smacked Jason across the face the day before.
I nodded and made to leave. "Moon," Jason said, Carmen speaking to her friend, "thanks. Say thanks to Red too." I nodded and watched their group walk ahead. There were a lot of things I needed to say to Red.
As I trailed down the street towards the Sharkey's, already feeling sick with nerves, I heard somebody else yelling my name. Never have I been so glad for the fence separating the hurling field from innocent pedestrians.
"Half Moon!" Johnson called, fingers curling in the mesh of the fence. "Where did you get to last night? I want to know who set me up." Michael joined him, the pair of them towering over me in their hurling gear.
Emboldened by the barrier between us, I shrugged. "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know!?" Johnson growled dangerously.
"I just don't know." I held my hands out in apology, "I can't work it out." I seriously hoped Red was going to forgive me. I was going to be sticking to his side like glue for the next few days.
Johnson slammed his palm against the fence in frustration, sending a clattering motion down the length of it. "You're useless, Moon. You know that?"
I smiled, "So I'm told."
I watched the pair of them storm away with a sense of satisfaction. Red would be proud of me. The reality of what I was about to go and do crashed down around me then.
He would be, if he was still speaking to me.
I shifted from foot to foot, waiting for someone to come and answer the door. I couldn't remember ever being this nervous in my entire life. Not even back at the school pool when I was investigating the sabotaging of the swimming trials.
Herod opened the door, hair slicked down and grinning from ear to ear. His face fell when he saw me, "Oh, it's you. I thought it might be Zara." He peered around me, just in case she was hiding in the Sharkey's wild hedgerows.
"He doesn't want to see you," Genie called from the hallway, coming to stand behind Herod.
"What's going on?" Papa Sharkey cried, emerging from the kitchen in an apron. I was proud of the fact I didn't gape. "Let the boy in," he told Herod and Genie. Herod shook his head and disappeared back into the living room. Genie stayed where she was for a long moment before rolling her eyes and moving out of the way.
Papa Sharkey gave me an encouraging smile, "He'll be happy to see you."
I tried to smile. "I hope so." I started up the stairs with a heavy tread, murmuring under my breath, "I really hope so."
Knocking tentatively on Red's bedroom door, I pushed it open before I could lose my nerve. Red looked up when I walked in, trying to hide the book he had been reading by dropping it to the floor.
"It's a really good book," I said as conversationally as I could, given the circumstances. I'd read it once in primary school, had even got a gold star for my review of it. I wasn't entirely sure what Red found so fascinating about 'Black Beauty', but I got the impression it reminded him of his mum.
"It's alright," Red said dismissively, colour staining his cheeks. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and had done his hair which meant he couldn't be too upset. Even if his eyes were rimmed red and slightly puffy. I shut the door behind me quietly and hesitated for a moment before sitting down on the edge of his bed.
"Why didn't you tell me about the card?" I asked when the silence got too much.
Red swallowed, looking anywhere but at me. "As soon as I realised it wasn't from you," he paused, wringing his hands together, "I couldn't believe I'd been such an idiot." He finally met my gaze then, "I'm really sorry, Fletcher."
"Do you know who sent it?"
To my surprise he nodded glumly. "Chantelle. It's the sort of thing she'd do." His lips quirked in a bitter smile, "She can't understand that sometimes people just can't like you back."
I concentrated on keeping my voice steady, "Can I see it?" Red grimaced but reached a hand to the edge of his mattress, pulling it up and taking the card out from underneath it. Our fingers brushed when he handed it to me and he jerked his hand back as quickly as he could. It made me feel worse than before.
Instead of Red I focussed on the card, on the red love hearts and the 'I love you too' printed carefully in black ink. I traced it with a finger. I really needed to learn how to make forgeries like that. I didn't know what to do next. My chest was aching, my heart beating double time, although whether in fear or anticipation I wasn't sure.
Both, I decided.
All around me was the scent of Red. Of his aftershave and soap and the washing powder Papa Sharkey always bought because it reminded them of Mrs. Sharkey. It reminded me of stakeouts and sleepovers and long Saturday afternoons just sat together talking. Of being happy, I thought suddenly. Red made me happy.
I realised I was staring at him intently, the tension coiling around us tighter and tighter. I put the card down carefully, shifting forward as I did so. Red was watching me silently, his eyes wide and startled when I nervously touched a hand to one of his.
"You should have told me," I whispered, forcing myself to meet his gaze. "About everything."
"Fletcher," Red breathed. My name had never sounded like that before, dark and full of promise. He touched reverent fingers to my cheek, leaning closer until our lips were almost touching. This, I thought desperately, would be my first kiss. And, then, it was happening, Red's lips moving softly against my own.
When he pulled away I tried to follow, blinking hazily. Red smiled then – the smile – and my stomach flipped, the way it always did. How had I not noticed that before, I thought absently, realising for the first time that he was still holding my hand.
"You're a detective," he said softly, still smiling widely, "I thought you would work it out."
I didn't get to go the Valentine's dance with a girl that year. In fact, I didn't go to the dance at all. Instead I rang my mum and stayed at Red's all night. The two of us sat close on his messy bed eating popcorn and drinking fizzy pop in front of the television.
Red wrapped his arm around me and kissed my cheek, pressing soft barely-there kisses along my jawbone and, finally, pulling me closer and kissing me properly. I kissed back, curling my fingers into the fine hair at the nape of his neck.
"I can't believe this is really happening," Red whispered when we came up for air. He looked away then, blushing, as if embarrassed at his own sappiness.
"You know what Bernstein always says," I whispered back quietly, heart racing and the skin of my arm tingling where Red had been stroking it, "You should collect as much evidence as you can to support your case."
"Have I told you lately," Red grinned, leaning back into kiss me again, "that Bernstein is a genius?"
I couldn't reply but, you know what, he really really is.