You could attend Emerson Hicky Elementary for a long time without knowing its substitute teachers. And you could know its subs for a long time without meeting Barbara Dwyer.
And that would be just swell.
Barb Dwyer was a sourpuss porcupine with a face like a bucket of mud. From the tips of her many quills to the shapeless hat on her head, she was a surly sub, and she didn't care who knew it.
I could have gone my whole life without meeting her. But because Mr. Ratnose called in sick one gray Wednesday, we were stuck with the dame.
Through math and English classes she had ridden us hard, like a rhino going piggyback on a house cat. We were taking a breather, doing some silent reading. Most of the kids favored Winnie the Poobah, our assignment.
I had slipped the latest Amazing Mantis-Man comic book inside old Winnie.
Private eyes like to live dangerously.
A gentle whisper broke my concentration.
"Chet?" It was Shirley Chameleon, leaning across the aisle.
I gave her a look. She was worth looking at. Shirley had big green peepers, a curly tail, and a laugh like the pitter-pat of raindrops on daisies.
Not that I cared about any of that. She was also a major cootie factory.
"Mm?" I said, glancing back at my comic book.
"Do you, um . . . are you going to the fair on Friday?" Shirley toyed with her scarf, one eye on me, one eye on the substitute teacher. (Literally. Chameleons have some gross habits.)
I leaned over. "Depends. Will they have clowns?"
"Why?" she said.
"Because I hate clowns."
"Who's whispering?" a voice snapped. Ms. Dwyer scanned the room.
We clammed up. A minute later, Shirley bent back across the aisle.
She batted her eyelashes. "I don't know about clowns," she whispered, "but I do know that they're having a dance."
I knew it, too--the Hen's Choice Hoedown, where girls ask boys.
"I was trying to forget about that," I said.
Ms. Dwyer thundered, "No more whispering. Eyes on your books!"
Shirley gave it a rest for another minute. Then she murmured, "If you're, um, going to the fair, maybe you'd come to the dance with me? As my date?"
"Your date?!" I spluttered, shattering the quiet.
"That's it!" cried Ms. Dwyer. She waddled up the aisle toward me, quills bristling. "You! What's your name?"
Although I wanted to say Seymour Butts, I stuck with the truth. "Chet Gecko."
"You've disrupted my class enough for one morning."
I let my book drop. "But she--"
Ms. Dwyer noticed my Amazing Mantis-Man. "And you're reading this . . . this trash? A comic book?"
"It's research," I said. "For my science report."
"I don't care if it's War and frikkety Peace," she growled. The porcupine held her hand out for the comic. I gave it to her. "You, mister, will sit outside until you learn some manners."
Bo Newt chuckled. "Guess I'll see ya next year, Chet."
The substitute wheeled on my friend. "Would you like to join him?"
"Uh, no sir," said Bo.
"No sir, ma'am," said the newt.
Ms. Dwyer gritted her teeth, then glared at me. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go and reflect on your bad behavior."
It's no use arguing with a walking pincushion. Followed by Shirley's mournful gaze, I rose and ambled out the door.
Five minutes of sitting on the hard cement was enough reflection for any gecko. My tuckus was going to sleep. But the sub let me stew.
On the far-off playground, little kids squealed with joy and freedom.
I sighed. Idly, I twirled the tip of my tail. No case to solve, no comic to read. It would be a long, boring timeout.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Footsteps slapped down the hall. "Chet! Chet!"
The last thing I expected was my little sister. And yet, there she stood, big as life--Pinky Gecko, first grader and first-rate pain in the tushie.
"Little blister," I said. "What brings you here?"
She frowned. "My feet. But, but . . . how come you're sitting in the hall?"
"I'm on guard duty--watching out for cockapoos."
"Cocka-whose?" she said.
Pinky turned her woeful eyes on me. "Help me, big brother."
I pointed. "Okay, the loony bin is that way."
"Not funny," she said, pouting. "Mom's pearls, they're missing!"
I scratched my head. "Run that by me again?"
"The pearls." Pinky shuffled her feet. "I, um, borrowed 'em for show-and-tell."
"Smooth move, moth-brain," I said. "And what, you accidentally flushed them down the john?"
"I'm not a moth-brain," she said. "I showed 'em before recess. An', an' when I came back from recess, they . . . disdappeared from my desk!"
I stood. "Have you told your teacher, Miss uh . . ."
"Miss Flemm? I can't."
"Why not?" I asked.
Pinky's lip quivered. "She'll tell Mom."
"Mom doesn't know I borrowed 'em."
My eyebrows rose. "Ah."
"An', an', an' . . ." Her eyes misted up like dawn over Mosquito Lake.
Before the waterworks began, I gently placed my hands on her shoulders.
"And you want me to find the pearls, is that it?"
She nodded. "Mm-hmm."
I chewed my lip. We'd had plenty of crime at Emerson Hicky Elementary--cheating, blackmail, vandalism, kids trying to take over the world. But no crook had made it this personal. No crook had ever picked on my family before.
My fists clenched. This punk was going down hard, like a skydiving brontosaurus. Why, I'd even tackle the case for free.
But I'd never let Pinky know that.
"You realize if I do this, you're gonna owe me big-time?" I said. "We're talking breakfast in bed, sharing desserts, no hassling me for two--no, three weeks . . ."
"A-anything you say." Pinky sniffed. "Just find the pearls."
I hate to see a reptile cry--even if she's my own flesh and blood.
"Stop your sobbing, sister," I said. "I'm on the case."