It's Christmas at Highcrest Academy, Friday Barnes is in trouble with the Headmaster again, although she's not sure why and Ian has been accused of stealing the beautiful antique star from the top of the school's Christmas tree. Can Friday solve the mystery before the parents arrive for awards night and Ian gets expelled?
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I’ve got another holiday tale for you today.
I wanted to write a Friday Barnes Christmas story and here in Australia, in fact everywhere in the Southern Hemisphere – because Summer is at Christmas time – the school year finishes at Christmas time too. So kids graduate and schools have presentation assemblies in December. So for us, Christmas and the end of the school year go together.
I know my cousins in England found this fact mind blowing. But if all the Northern Hemisphere listeners can handle that idea we can get stuck in to the story.
Today’s story is…
Friday Barnes and the Case of the Stolen Star
Here we go…
Friday was sitting outside the headmaster’s office, again. She wasn’t sure why she’d been called in. She hadn’t done anything wrong. At least she didn’t think she had.
Friday was feeling a bit glum anyway. School was about to break up for the Christmas holidays and she wasn’t looking forward to going home. Her parents didn’t really celebrate Christmas.
They didn’t believe in being disproportionally emotional about any one day on the calendar, given that the calendar was based on an arbitrary time measurement system, Christmas was merely an adaptation of the pagan Saturnalia festival, and over eating was bad for your bowels.
Also, they couldn’t cook and they didn’t clean. So Friday spent most of the holidays acting like Cinderella – performing domestic chores for disinterested family members who barely noticed and certainly never expressed gratitude.
Friday would have preferred to be allowed to stay in her dorm room. Mrs Marigold, the school’s cook would no doubt be going home to her own family to cook a spectacular holiday feast. But if she stayed behind, Friday could live off the food from the school’s vending machines. It would probably be more nutritious than the food in her parents house.
Melanie was sitting with Friday outside the headmaster office. Melanie was not meant to be there. But she didn’t want to go to maths class on her own, so she tagged along.
‘The headmaster probably just needs help with something,’ said Friday.
‘Or one of the teachers complained about you knowing more than them,’ suggested Melanie.
‘Maybe,’ said Friday. She glanced at the clock on the wall. They had been waiting now for 17 minutes.
‘If he needed help he wouldn’t leave us sitting out here so long,’ reasoned Friday. And if he was going to tell me off excessive academic excellence he’d probably just want to get it over with.’
‘So what are you suggesting?’ asked Melanie.
‘A third possibility,’ said Friday. ‘Maybe he’s not actually in there.’
Friday leaned towards the door and listened for a moment. ‘The Headmaster is not a skinny man. If he was moving about we’d be able to hear his footsteps on the wooden floor boards.’
‘If he was on the phone she would definitely be able to hear him,’ said Melanie.
As a headmaster, most of his conversations involved him yelling. Even when he spoke at a normal level, decades in education had given him the ability to project so every word so could be heard clearly by everyone in a 50 metre radius.
‘The most likely scenario,’ said Friday as she picked up her backpack and started rifling through it, ‘Is that he’s in there, but asleep.’
‘I know that’s what I would do,’ said Melanie.
‘Fortunately, I brought my stethoscope,’ said Friday.
‘Of course, you did,’ said Melanie.
Friday put the ear pieces in and held the disc to the door.
‘Can you hear snoring?’ asked Melanie. ‘I know it’s cruel to make assumptions based on someone’s physical appearance. But the headmaster does look like a snorer.’
Friday shook her head. ‘No snoring. Not even heavy breathing. I can just hear the tick of the carriage clock on his desk.’ They fell silent as Friday listened for the slightest noise.
When suddenly – BANG - the door at the far end of the corridor suddenly bashed open as Nigel staggered in helping, Parker. Although it took Friday a moment to recognise him because Parker was holding a scrunched up white polo shirt over his eyes.
Sick bay was across the corridor from the headmaster’s office, and Nigel was half leading - half dragging Parker towards it.
‘What happened?’ asked Friday.
‘Parker got hit in the face,’ said Nigel.
‘By who?’ asked Friday.
‘Not by who, by what,’ said Parker. His voice sounding muffled as it came through the polo shirt.
‘I’m sorry?’ said Friday.
‘A chair,’ explained Nigel.
‘See for yourself,’ said Parker, lifting the polo shirt away from his face long enough for Friday to see a gash above his right eye, blood smeared all over his face and soaked into the polo shirt.
Friday’s brain took a moment to register what she was looking at. Usually you only saw that volume of blood in a horror movie. It was so red it seemed unreal. Until the gash started to ooze out a fresh glob of blood and it ran down Parker’s eyelid. Then it was all too real. That’s when Friday’s brain shut down and she hit the floor herself.
When Friday woke up she was lying in sick bay in the next bed over was Parker.
‘What happened?’ muttered Friday.
‘I tripped,’ said Parker. ‘Not sure what you did. Just fainted I think.’
‘Getting a look at Parker’s face can have that effect on a girl,’ chuckled Nigel.
‘Sorry, I know the sight of blood turns your stomach,’ said Parker. ‘Must say, I never realised I had so much in my head. Or that so much could come out and I’d still be alive.’
‘Your brain’s probably used to operating on a low tank,’ said Nigel.
‘True,’ agreed Parker.
‘You know you ought to get up there,’ Nigel said to Friday.
‘Where?’ asked Friday.
‘The hall,’ said Nigel. ‘That’s where he clonked his nog. We were helping set out the seats for presentation night.’
‘Set out one seat too many,’ said Parker.
‘Yes, but the headmaster arrived just as I was bringing Parker over here,’ said Nigel. ‘Absolutely hit the roof.’
‘About the injury?’ asked Friday.
‘Oh no,’ said Nigel. ‘He’s used to seeing Parker get in a scrape. He was furious that the star from the Christmas tree had gone missing.’
‘Gosh no!’ exclaimed Melanie.
‘That’s a big deal?’ asked Friday.
‘Oh yes,’ said Melanie. ‘the Headmaster is very proud of his tree. He gets a special set designer and his team to travel all the way from the city especially to decorate it.
‘He hires a professional tree decorater?’ asked Friday.
‘Presentation night is a big deal at a school like this,’ explained Melanie. ‘The parents don’t often turn up. But they do for to see their kids get awards and the headmaster goes all out to impress them. They pay exhorbitant fees to dump their children here. They want to see how it’s being spent.’
‘And they’re impressed by a tree,’ said Friday.
‘To be fair, it does always look magnificent,’ said Melanie. ‘He gets a tree that’s 10 metres tall, so tall it almost touches the ceiling of the great hall. It’s covered in beautiful hand made decorations. And on top is a genuine Merano glass golden star that lights up.
The star on the tree is made of Merano glass all the way from Venice, Italy?’ asked Friday.
‘Yes,’ said Melanie. ‘It was donated by an Italian tax exile who was very grateful to the school for sheltering his eight children while he and his wife were on the lamb evading the Italian tax authorities.
‘But who would steal something that ostentatious?’ asked Friday.
‘Well, the headmaster seems to think it’s your boyfriend,’ said Nigel.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ said Friday.
‘You two broken-up again, have you?’ asked Parker, perking up.
‘No, we haven’t broken up because he was never my boyfriend,’ said Friday.
‘Jolly good,’ said Parker. ‘Because I’ve been meaning to…’
‘Not now,’ said Nigel. ‘You’re covered in blood. Not very romantic.’
‘Good tip,’ said Parker. ‘Hate to ask her out for her to forget because she fainted again.’
‘So what’s happening with Ian?’ asked Melanie.
‘Such concern,’ said Melanie.
‘I’m just trying to distract Parker from asking me out,’ said Friday.
‘Sure, ahuh,’ said Melanie.
‘The Headmaster was saying, and by “saying” I mean yelling, because we could here every word as we staggered across the quad to sick bay,’ said Nigel. ‘That if Wainscott didn’t hand it over, he was going to be expelled immediately.’
‘Oh yes, he really yelled that bit,’ said Parker. ‘Could hear it clear as a bell even through the throbbing headache and the sticky polo shirt.’
Friday sighed, ‘I suppose we’d better get up there.’ She swung her legs over the side of the bed and toppled head first onto the floor.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Melanie.
‘Fine,’ said Friday. ‘Just give me a moment. The linoleum floor feels good on my face.’
When Friday and Melanie finally arrived at the hall, the first challenge was getting in without directly looking at the pool of blood, presumably Parkers just inside the doorway.
It was hard for Friday to navigate with her hands over her eyes, because the huge hall had been transformed. It was full of foldout seating and ever surface had been covered in old-fashioned Christmas decorations. It had been decked with holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine bough. There were also sound and power cables were strewn across the floor going in all different directions. Professional sound and lighting technicians were bustling about setting up equipment. Friday could see how easy it would have been for Parker to trip.
But the most eye-catching thing in the room was the massive Christmas tree had been placed at the front of the hall near the stage. And that is where a gaggle of half a dozen boys were standing as the headmaster berated them.
The headmaster had clearly been ranting for some time and settled into a rhythm. He wasn’t yelling everything, just punching out key words.
‘DISGRACE… OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED… and IMMEDIATE EXPULSION.’
Before going over to intervene, Friday took a moment to inspect the tree. Melanie had not exhagerated. It was spectacular. There were bright coloured baubles, hand sewn nativity figures, gold painted pine cones and silver bells (no doubt made of real solid silver) covering the tree. But at the top, the pride of place of any festive display there was – nothing. Just a naked pine branch pointing at the ceiling.
That is when the second most spectacular thing in the room caught Friday’s attention. She noticed that Ian was not wearing a shirt.
Friday’s brain stalled. Ian had a disconcerting effect on Friday’s hormones when he was fully dressed. Investigating a case while he was standing there shirtless was going to be a challenge. Friday instinctively put her hand over her eyes again.
‘Too much?’ asked Melanie.
‘Why isn’t he wearing a shirt?’ asked Friday.
‘Does it matter why?’ asked Melanie.
The headmaster turned and saw the two girls standing there. ‘Oh fantastic! Just when I thought my day could not get any worse, you two turn up.’
‘You sent for me, I was waiting outside your office,’ said Friday.
‘Which is where you should still be,’ snapped the Headmaster. ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’
‘She can’t see anything,’ said Melanie. ‘She’s covering her eyes because she can’t cope with the sight of Ian’s chest.’
‘Would it kill you to put some clothes on?’ asked Friday.
‘I did have a shirt on,’ said Ian. ‘But there was so much blood coming out of Parker’s head I felt his need was greater.’
‘The white polo shirt?’ said Friday.
‘No longer white,’ said Melanie.
‘I won’t be asking for it back,’ said Ian.
‘So what’s the problem with the star?’ asked Friday.
‘It’s been stolen!’ said the Headmaster. ‘And your boyfriend denies doing it.’
‘Innocence until proven guilty is a fundamental principle of all legal systems,’ said Friday. ‘Well all legal systems in democracies. They’re not so big on it in authoritarian dictatorships.’
‘Schools are authoritarian dictatorships,’ agreed Ian.
‘But in theory they’re not meant to be,’ said Friday. ‘You can’t expel Ian without proof.’
‘I do have proof,’ said Headmaster. ‘Because no one else could possibly have done it. The only way to steal the star off the tree, ten metres off the ground would be to climb up the gymnastic bars at the back of the hall, monkey along the roof beam to the air-conditioning column that runs along the middle of the ceiling, crawl the length of that until you’re directly above the tree, then reach down and take the tree from above.
Friday watched the proposed path as the headmaster narrated this and she could see what he was saying was possible.
‘And of these six nincompoops,’ said the Headmaster. ‘The only one fit and agile enough to do that is Wainscott.’
Friday looked at the boys. There was Melanie’s older brother Binky. He was fit but too heavy to be able to do something so gymnasticy. Patel wouldn’t have the upper body strength. Harvey had such bad eye sight he was borderline legally blind. And Tristan was too lazy. So the headmaster had a point.
‘But what would Ian’s motive be?’ asked Friday. ‘He could hardly sell such an well-known unique object.’
‘His motive was revenge!’ declared the headmaster.
‘Revenge on who? The tree decorater?’ asked Friday.
‘No on me,’ said the headmaster. ‘Because I’m not giving him the prize for best sportsman.’
‘You’re not?’ said Binky. ‘But that’s totally unfair. Wainscott is the best at every sport.’
‘Being the best sportsman isn’t just about being good at sport,’ snapped the headmaster.
‘It should be,’ said Ian.
‘It’s also about sportsmanship!’ declared the headmaster. ‘You shoved an umpire.’
‘He accused me of racism,’ said Ian.
‘You made a racist slur!’ accused the Headmaster.
‘What did you say?’ asked Friday.
‘Don’t repeat it!’ cried the headmaster.
‘I just asked Patel if he knew any good curry recipes,’ said Ian.
‘That is racist,’ said the headmaster.
‘No, it’s not,’ said Ian. ‘I’m going home for Christmas and my mother is a vegetarian. It gets really boring eating only vegetables all the time. I was just after some cooking tips. I know Patel’s family runs an Indian restaurant. I though he might know a good recipe.’
‘I do,’ said Patel. ‘I’ll write out Mum’s veggie korma for you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ian.
‘It still shows you were angry with me,’ said the headmaster.
‘Ian’s always angry with everyone,’ said Melanie. ‘He’s a brooding troubled youth. It’s part of his image.’
‘And he loves his flashy pranks,’ said the Headmaster. ‘It is just the type of silly juvenile petty utterly aggravating thing he would do.’
Friday nodded. Ian had once taken all her clothes and carefully balanced them on top of a channel marker in the swamp. ‘Yes. That is true. But in this instance you’re wrong. The facts don’t fit.’
‘What facts?’ asked the Headmaster.
‘Where would Ian have hidden the star?’ asked Friday. ‘I assume it is quite large to go with this over sized tree.’
‘About half a metres across,’ agreed Melanie.
‘He can’t have shoved it up his shirt because he’s not wearing one,’ said Friday.
‘Then who did steal it?’ demanded the Headmaster.
‘I’ll show you,’ said Friday. She walked back to the doorway where the control box was located, and reached in to flick a switch.
‘Stop!’ cried the Headmaster. ‘You can’t turn the tree lights on. They don’t come on until the official tree lighting ceremony at the end of the evening. It is the honour of the top student in the whole school to do that.
‘Well that’s me. I’m the top student,’ said Friday. ‘So I may as well do that now.’
‘No!’ cried the Headmaster.
Friday flicked the switch.
Everyone turned to look at the tree as a rainbow of lights flickered on, glistening off the glass, gold and silver decorations. It was truly beautiful. It almost made, even Friday’s cold scientific hard feel festive. It was the cliché of an idyllic traditional Christmas tree in every respect – except that right in the middle of tree a glowing gold shape shone through the branches. And that shape was a star.
‘What is that?’ asked the headmaster
‘Your star,’ said Friday.
‘Why did he hide it there?’ asked the Headmaster.
‘He didn’t,’ said Friday. ‘No one stole it. No one hid it. We all know Parker smashed his head open when he tripped. But in the chaos of all the blood spewing out of his head – no one noticed what he tripped on. It was the wire to the star. His foot got caught under the wire and tugged it sharply. The star fell into the tree, but didn’t fall all the way to the ground because it was caught halfway by the thick branches. No one is to blame.
‘Except Parker,’ growled the Headmaster.
‘Yes, Parker,’ agreed Friday. ‘And he will have an excellent case if he chooses to sue the school for forcing him to do manual labour in an unsafe environment. Any OHS manuel would tell you, you should always tape down power cables because they’re a tripping hazard.’
The headmaster glowered.
‘You’ve got to forgive him,’ said Melanie. ‘It’s Christmas.’
‘Only one mystery remains,’ said Friday.
‘What now?’ grumbled the Headmaster.
‘Why did you want to see me in your office?’ asked Friday.
‘Oh,’ said the Headmaster, looking a touch sheepish. ‘At the presentation ceremony tonight you’re going to win all the academic awards for your year group.’
Friday nodded. She expected as much.
‘The parents aren’t going to like it,’ said the headmaster. ‘They like seeing their children get certificates. I don’t suppose you’d stand aside and let some other students win some?’
‘No,’ said Friday.
‘Please,’ said the Headmaster. ‘I’ll make it worth your while.’
‘How?’ asked Friday.
‘I’ll have Mrs Marigold pack you a massive hamper of all her best foods so you don’t have to eat your family’s home cooking once during the entire Christmas break!’
Friday was astonished. She lunged forward and grabbed the Headmaster in a big hug. ‘Thank you, thank you so much – that would be the greatest Christmas present ever’.
And so the case was solved.
Thank you for listening. Until next time. Goodbye.