Chapter 8: Back to School
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters or profit from writing about them. Sadly.
"Sign in, please."
The young woman wearing a monogrammed polo shirt points to a notepad on the desk. As Sherlock picks up a pen and leans down to write, Joan glances around the room. It's the cramped, crowded reception area of Kids Academy, a charter school for children in grades 5 – 8. On one wall is a banner saying Welcome Charter School Educators. On another wall is an even larger banner that says Education Resource Fair.
When Sherlock straightens, the woman points again, this time to the end of the table. Taking up a fat blue felt tip magic marker, Joan pulls off the cap and prints Dr. J. Watson on a small rectangular name tag.
"Your turn," she says, handing the marker to Sherlock.
He holds it at eye level, miming a deliberate whiff while making a point of catching her eye.
"I appreciate this level of trust, Watson."
"You were never a huffer," she says, struggling to keep the corners of her mouth from turning up. How like him to try to get a rise out of her just as she's trying to look serious.
Sherlock prints his name and peels the backing off his name tag.
"There," he says, pressing it to his shirt with a single-handed slap. "Now we are suitably camouflaged."
Turning to the woman behind the desk, he says, "Tell me, is Presano the only company demonstrating their materials at this fair?"
The woman frowns and shrugs, the look on her face suggesting she is more annoyed than anything else. Sherlock can be annoying—but his question is innocent enough, and for once his manner is reasonably sociable.
He heads across the room toward an open door and Joan follows. A short hallway leads to a typical school gym, bleachers pushed back against the wall and the floor covered with tables sporting folding displays and stacks of books, papers, and computer monitors. Overlaying a mental grid on the room the way Sherlock has taught her for estimating crowds, Joan decides that no more than 50 people are present, including the vendors.
"You see the problem," Sherlock says. "For all intents and purposes, this so-called educational fair is really just a slick PR marketing scheme for a single company, Presano. They are the world leader in textbook sales, but they also make most of the high stakes standardized tests, software programs, and test prep materials sold in this country. They set up these fairs and invite educators tasked with purchasing materials for their schools."
"How's that a problem?" Joan says. "Why shouldn't people get a look at what they are buying first?"
"People should," Sherlock says, moving to a table where small computer tablets are set up to demonstrate a math game for young children. "But people at this fair see only Presano's publications."
Glancing around, Joan notes the names of several book companies.
"Not true," she says, nodding toward one of them. "I count at least five others."
With a dismissive shake of his head, Sherlock says, "All Presano imprints. Look inside any textbook and you will see a veritable trail back to them. The same is true for the new national curriculum called the Common Core. Presano wrote it and was paid handsomely with public money. Despite the fact that the Common Core has not been field-tested, the federal government is pushing for its implementation this next school year, worrying educators who say they need time to prepare their students for the new high-stakes standardized tests that accompany it. Guess which company created those standardized tests? And is also selling the vast majority of test prep resources to panicked teachers and students?"
"I would applaud your power of deduction but the conclusion is so obvious than no one should be surprised."
Joan gives Sherlock a pointed frown as he leads the way to a display of bound workbooks. He taps the cover of one, his finger tracing the word PRESANO.
"So they are making a profit," she says. "I still don't see how that's a problem."
"You don't agree that a single company writing the national curriculum is a problem?"
They are standing in front of a large display of computer monitors flashing vocabulary drills. A young man in a suit and tie looks up from behind the table.
"Well," Joan hesitates, "when you put it that way—"
"Or that the same school reformers who have partnered with Presano to write the Common Core and the tests are predicting that large numbers of American children will fail them?"
Joan shifts her bag to her other shoulder and darts a glance at the young man obviously listening in.
"If the new curriculum is harder, then more kids will fail. That's to be expected," she says.
Sherlock's eyes go dark, the way they do when he prepares to press home a point.
"No one knows if the curriculum is harder. It hasn't been field-tested anywhere, remember? Yet its implementation is being rushed through. Mrs. Jefferson was concerned that high stakes standardized tests were being used inappropriately to judge teacher effectiveness. What will happen when more students—and therefore more teachers—are judged as failing?"
With an uneasy glance at the man behind the display, Joan steps away and Sherlock moves with her, his head cocked slightly to the side. When they have moved out of the vendor's earshot, Joan stops and says, "I don't know, but I have a feeling you do."
Sherlock pulls himself upright and angles himself to face her directly.
"When more students perform poorly on the Presano assessments, the media will jump on the story. American public schools a massive failure. And waiting in the wings will be the private schools and charter schools ready to save the children fleeing their failing traditional schools. Private schools, Watson, and for-profit charters run by those same corporate reformers who are pushing Common Core and more testing."
"You're saying that the same people who are making the tests are the ones who stand to profit when students fail them and leave the public schools."
"Rather like a doctor selling the medicine he prescribes for illnesses he diagnoses. A conflict of interest, surely."
"I thought you didn't believe in conspiracy theories."
Sherlock squares his shoulders and says, "Just because large numbers of people are pursuing the same strategy to a certain end doesn't mean they are conspirators. There's money to be made here, Watson, and money is a powerful driver of human behavior."
"And the guy we're here to see? Steve Colby?"
"A former sales rep for Presano, now working as the VP of marketing. His secretary said he'd be here. Look around and tell me if you see him."
"I have no idea what he looks like!"
As soon as she says it, Joan knows she's taken a misstep. Sherlock narrows his eyes at her.
"Okay, okay, I'll try to pick him out. What about that guy in the suit—"
She swivels around to consider the man she spotted earlier behind the display.
"Too young to be a vice-president in a major international company," Sherlock intones like a disappointed professor. Joan turns back around and starts walking, Sherlock staying at her elbow.
"Him," she says, gesturing toward a tall, paunchy man handing out keychains and other trinkets at one of the tables. From the corner of her eye she sees Sherlock opening his mouth to respond and she hurries on. "No, wait. A VP of a company wouldn't think it worth his time to hand out knickknacks. He'd be busy chatting up potential buyers or helping his vendors set up."
Sherlock's mouth closes again, like a fish—a good sign that she's on the right track.
Continuing down the line of tables along one side of the gym, she prepares to start up the next aisle when she sees a sandy-haired man about her age talking with a uniformed deliveryman pushing a handcart.
"There he is," she says, looking quickly at Sherlock for confirmation. He nods so slightly that she almost misses it.
"Very good, Watson," he says, "though it took you longer than it should have done."
Crossing her arms, she says, "One more in a series of backhanded compliments."
But Sherlock is already out of her orbit, zeroing in on Steve Colby like a hunting dog.
"Mr. Colby," he calls. The sandy-haired man looks up and smiles expectantly. "Sherlock Holmes. This is my associate, Joan Watson. We're working with the NYPD. We want to talk to you about Ethel Jefferson."
Steve Colby's smile fades immediately.
"The teacher who died? I heard about that. Who did you say you are?"
Even without all the practice in spotting deception Sherlock has insisted on lately, Joan would recognize Colby's discomfort.
"You didn't just hear about it," she says. "You were there when she died."
"No," Colby says. He turns his attention to her. "I left about 9:00. She died almost half an hour later. Why are you asking?"
"Odd that you remember the exact time." Joan doesn't bother keeping the skepticism from her voice.
"I left early because I had to catch a plane the next morning. I remember telling my wife later when I read about it in the paper that I just missed being there when it happened. If you don't believe me, you can ask her."
Something about Colby's insistence doesn't ring true—or if it is true, is hiding something else. Joan flicks her eyes from Colby's face to Sherlock's and back again.
"Now," Colby says, "as you can see, I'm very busy, so unless you have anything else—"
With an abrupt snap of his head, Sherlock says, "Mr. Colby, did you know that Ethel Jefferson's death was a murder? Her autopsy revealed traces of two types of poison. One was fast-acting, most likely ingested shortly before she collapsed. According to witnesses, you handed her a bottle of water before you left for the evening."
Colby's face first blanches and then flushes red, a typical vasodilation stress response.
"What witnesses? What are you saying? That I killed her? You can't prove anything."
"I did mention that Ms. Watson and I are consulting with the NYPD. Even now they are looking through the surveillance tapes made in the gym the night Mrs. Jefferson was murdered. Perhaps you were unaware that public school properties are highly monitored, with multiple overlapping recording devices. A good thing the committee selected the school as the site for the reunion, wouldn't you say?"
"So I gave her a bottle of water," Colby says. "That doesn't prove I put anything in it."
"I also mentioned that Ethel Jefferson's autopsy showed evidence two types of poison. On my recommendation, the police are now at your home with a search warrant, looking for traces of the slow-acting poison they found on the rim of Ethel Jefferson's coffee mug at school—a mug with PRESANO's logo featured on the side."
"This is ridiculous!" Colby says, starting to push past Sherlock. "I don't have to listen to this."
"Perhaps not to me," Sherlock calls after him. "But Captain Gregson is more insistent than I am. There he is, waiting to take you to the precinct for questioning."
To Joan's surprise, Captain Gregson and Detective Bell are indeed standing in the doorway leading out of the gym.
"How did you—" she says, turning to Sherlock, but she can tell from the absent look on his face that he's already bored with the case, that mentally he's raced on ahead to something else. Maybe later, after the perfunctory trip to the precinct to hear Steve Colby stumble and stutter through denials until the weight of evidence against him forces him to admit what he's done—maybe tonight over a cup of tea back in the brownstone, Sherlock will trace for her the last leg of the journey he took to uncover Steve Colby's guilt.
Or he'll insist that he doesn't need to, that she's fully capable of sorting out the truth on her own.
It's the highest compliment he ever gives her, really, refusing to show his hand before she's had time to puzzle out the cards for herself. Like all of his compliments, it frustrates her as much as it makes her feel valued.
But if it's the price of working with Sherlock, she's willing to pay it.
X X X X
Joan hands Sherlock a mug of tea and settles herself on the other end of the tatty sofa in the brownstone living room.
"Lemon verbena," he says, dipping his nose almost into the hot liquid. "You're asking about the lemonade served at the reunion."
Joan isn't sure whether to feel pleased that Sherlock has picked up on her hint or disappointed that he figured her out so quickly.
"Steve Colby made sure Mrs. Jefferson wouldn't drink it," she says. "You knew he was guilty as soon as the caterer said he paid for extra sweetener for the lemonade."
"I suspected," Sherlock says, "but suspicions are not proof. Until I pieced together the connection between Presano and education reform, I wasn't positive."
"Now you've lost me," Joan says, sipping her tea.
"Mrs. Jefferson was a vocal opponent of a key element of education reform—using standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. In her piece that she wrote for the Times, she warned that those scores were an invalid measure of student achievement. She also warned that those results were being used to judge teachers and schools as failing, calling down draconian responses from their districts."
"Firing the staff. Closing schools. I remember."
Sherlock lifts his hand and ticks up one finger after another as he speaks.
"Point: in her Times piece, Mrs. Jefferson highlights what research shows—that wealthier children, for a variety of reasons, outscore poorer children on standardized tests. Point: in exchange for federal dollars, school districts put into motion federally mandated responses to schools with large numbers of students scoring below proficient on standardized tests. As you said, those responses include firing the staff and even closing schools. Point: charter schools and private schools stand to gain when traditional public schools are closed. Those charter schools and private schools are, by and large, run by the same people who make the tests that seem to indicate that the traditional schools are failing. Once I had all those facts together, it was a simple matter to decide that Steve Colby was our murderer."
Joan sets her cooling tea mug carefully on the arm of the sofa and shifts her position so that she is facing Sherlock directly.
"Wait a minute," she says. "Steve Colby is a VP at Presano. I see how he stands to gain if Presano sells more curriculum materials and tests. He probably gets a nice raise and other perks. But that's not the same as being someone who benefits when public schools are privatized. That seems like an impossible leap of logic to me."
"Well spotted, Watson. Indeed it would be. My deduction about Steve Colby is also based on his extra-curricular activities, so to speak. If you look closely at his curriculum vitae which he lists on the Presano website, you will note that he serves as a founding board member for two for-profit charter schools in Michigan and Ohio, and he is a part owner of a company that runs charters in both states. Unlike Michigan and Ohio, however, New York does not allow for-profit companies to operate charter schools. A bill is before the legislature to change that law. Mrs. Jefferson was part of the local group opposing its passage, something she mentions in her Times piece. If this market was ever to open up to charter entrepreneurs, she had to be silenced. Steve Colby did so."
The facts Sherlock states aren't surprising, but hearing them laid out this way makes Joan's stomach clench in anger.
"I still can't believe she's gone," she says, picking up her mug and cupping it in her palms, trying to find a measure of comfort in its lingering warmth. Suddenly she is very tired, the strain of the day catching up to her. Yawning, she stands and says, "I'm heading on to bed. See you in the morning."
"I'll be up earlier than usual tomorrow," Sherlock says, pointedly not making eye contact. "A job."
A wave of hurt washes over her—and embarrassment, too. Sherlock has said nothing until now about an impending case—was clearly not intending to share it with her. And just as she thought he was starting to view her as an actual partner, someone he relied on as more than a mere sounding board. So much for that. She feels her cheeks grow hot.
Sherlock blinks and looks up at her.
"I would ask you to join me," he says, "but it would likely be a waste of your time."
He looks away again, like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"Since when have I ever thought an investigation a waste of my time!"
Her voice is so aggrieved that she flushes again, this time embarrassed at how petty she sounds, how entitled. If Sherlock doesn't want her assistance on a case, he certainly has the right to go it alone. She takes a breath and lets it out slowly, trying to settle herself.
Sherlock snaps his gaze up at her.
"Oh, not an investigation, Watson. I wouldn't take a case without you. This is something quite different. Substitute teaching. The science teacher at Midwood called and asked me to teach his physics class tomorrow while he has some emergency dental work done. His students have been regaling him stories about phlürb since the last time he was absent. They were curious about a follow-up lesson. Couldn't really turn that down now, could I?"
He waits a beat and then adds, "Your choice, Watson, whether you join me or not. I'm certainly happier with your company than without it."
Like most of Sherlock's rare grace notes of affection, this one is lobbed so quickly and detonates so softly that Joan doesn't quite hear it until after he's already pulled his attention away. She stands beside the sofa a moment longer, her finger tracing the handle of her mug.
"Okay, then," she says. "I guess tomorrow we're going to school."
A/N: Please excuse this very tardy last chapter—real life got super busy and crazy this past month, but things have finally slowed long enough to write the conclusion to this story. What a pleasure it has been to dabble in the Elementary fandom. You are terrifically supportive readers and reviewers, and it has been my privilege to bring this story to you.