by Margaret S. Hamilton
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story in celebration of International Pi Day, March 14, 2016.
Lizzie Christopher carried a huge tray of steaming individual chicken pot pies into the high school Commons, an open space for dining and social events, and set it at the end of a serving table. Her husband, Nick Cameron, followed with another tray. She slipped off her oven mitts and brushed the hair out of her face.
“I think we’ve made enough pies for everyone who bought a ticket.”
“How many varieties do we have?” Nick asked.
Lizzie pointed to each section of the buffet table. “Steak and kidney, spinach with ricotta cheese, broccoli or ham quiches and my favorite, chicken pot pies. Something for everyone.” She smiled. “Followed by every kind of dessert pie, apple to strawberry rhubarb.”
Lizzie’s daughter, Claire, and Nick’s son, Phillip, joined them. Their official “Pi Day Celebration” tee shirts were printed with the Greek letter “Pi” and the date, March 14, 2016, abbreviated as 3.1416, the numerical value of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.
“We cut the dessert pies and put pieces on paper plates,” Claire said.
“And we have baskets of warm rolls and big bowls of salad all ready,” Phillip said.
“Good job.” Lizzie put her arms around them. “Pi Day is one of my favorite holidays.”
“Why is that?” Phillip asked. “No offense, but you’re not a math geek.”
“I take great comfort in the fact that Pi is a constant in our turbulent lives.”
“You do realize Pi is also irrational and transcendental?” Claire asked. “Just saying….”
“No, I didn’t.” Lizzie smiled. “You can explain it to me later. I think of it as the day we eat pie for dinner and dessert.”
She turned to Phillip. “How did ticket sales end up?”
“We sold out last week. We made enough to pay for the Math Club trip to the State competition.”
“The pie-throwing auction is a huge success,” Claire said. “Everybody bid on a chance to cream their favorite teacher. The teachers picked what flavor they wanted, banana, chocolate or lemon meringue. Something soft and delicious hitting their faces tonight.”
“Everyone picked a flavor except ‘The Rottweiler,’” Phillip said.
“Otherwise known as Mr. Rockweller, the assistant principal,” Claire said.
“Every kid in school bid for the chance to cream him with a pie, so we awarded the privilege to Sally, the student with the most detentions,” Phillip said.
“Sally’s not a bad kid,” Claire said, “She’s always late because The Rottweiler locks the doors five minutes before first bell. He slaps her with a detention every time.”
“What about Kurt Swofford?” Lizzie asked. “The kid who trashed the art room?”
“He’s suspended,” Phillip said. “Category Three offense, even though his mother tried to get it reduced.”
“Kurt and Sally are detention buddies,” Claire said. “Sally’s a flake, who can’t get it together, but Kurt’s a bully. We stay away from him. He needs to take out his rage on the punching bag in the gym instead of the students. We haven’t had art class all week,” she said, “Not to mention the fact that we had to clean up the art room. What a mess.”
The outside doors opened and a surge of guests headed for the pie buffet. The tables were covered with plastic table cloths in Jericho green and blue, decorated with gold Styrofoam Pi symbols. Phillip joined the band on stage to play a New Orleans-style jazz program during dinner, starting with the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World.”
Lizzie and Nick circulated with pots of tea and coffee, while Claire’s crew cleared the tables and served dessert pie. After the meal, the Math Club faculty sponsor led the singing of “Happy Birthday” to commemorate Albert Einstein’s birthday, shared, by coincidence, with Pi Day.
The teachers chosen to take a pie in the face wore Pi Day tee shirts. They led cheers and applause as the amount of money raised was announced. One by one, the teachers stood on the stage to be creamed, wiping off whipped and meringue topping with towels afterwards. Claire’s art teacher, Ms. Fisher, wearing a distinctive tee shirt screened with fish, was the last to join the group. A senior art student smashed a chocolate cream pie in Ms. Fisher’s face and gave her a hug. They waved to the crowd and laughed.
“I wonder where she’s been,” Lizzie said. “She’s one of the most popular teachers.”
The band played a drum roll as The Rottweiler was announced. The stage remained empty. Sally, the student designated as the official pie thrower, hefted a huge banana cream pie and flexed her arms as the students cheered.
Lizzie turned to Nick. “Where’s Mr. Rockweller? Do you think he chickened out? Let’s check his office.”
They slipped up the stairs and down the hall to the main office complex. All the doors were locked, the office windows black. “Where could he be?” Lizzie asked.
Claire caught up with them. “He might be in the art room. That’s where the teachers changed before the pie throwing.” She pointed down an interior hall. “This way’s faster.”
They raced down the empty hall and bounded down a set of concrete stairs. “Out here,” Claire said, pressing the exit bar on the door at the bottom. She led them down a narrow hallway decorated with student artwork, past the shop room and computer graphics lab.
The lights were on in the art room, the blinds drawn and the door ajar. Nick pushed the door open. “Mr. Rockweller?” He walked past large tables with stools tucked underneath, to a cluster of tall wooden easels. “Nobody’s here.” He motioned them inside.
Lizzie opened the supply room door and fumbled for the light switch. Nick flipped it on. The Rottweiler lay on the floor, a pie plate filled with a white substance like solid whipped cream plastered against his nose and mouth.
“Claire, we’ve found him,” Lizzie shrieked. “Go get help, now.” She leaned against the wall, dizzy and nauseous.
Nick crouched down and felt The Rottweiler’s pulse. “He’s still alive. Grab a pair of rubber gloves from the sink. I’ll try to get this stuff out of his mouth and nose.”
Lizzie handed him the gloves and a wad of paper towels, her hands shaking.
“What…what happened to him?”
Nick gently slid the pie plate off Mr. Rockweller’s face. “He could have been smothered by whatever substance blocked his airways. It hasn’t set yet. I’ve heard of people suffocating face down in mud.” He pulled gobs of the white substance out of the victim’s mouth. “He may have been knocked out before he was hit by the killer pie.”
Claire appeared with Ms. Fisher. The Principal was a few steps behind them. Lizzie joined them in the hall. “We’ve called the police,” she said. “No one has entered or left the art room since our arrival.”
“Dr. Cameron, do you think he’ll make it?” the Principal called out.
Nick poked his head around the supply room door. “He’s regaining consciousness now.”
“Easy,” they heard Nick say. “Stay calm, focus on your breathing. The EMTs will be here soon.”
“I’ll make an announcement that there’s been an accident and that everyone is to stay in the building,” the Principal said. “Claire, would you help serve whatever food is left?” They headed back up the hall.
“I’ll stay down here,” Ms. Fisher said. “It’s my classroom. I can’t imagine who attacked Mr. Rockweller.”
Lizzie gazed at Ms. Fisher, who still wore her signature graphic fish tee shirt, her frizzy graying hair pulled into a messy bun secured with two paint brushes. Her matching pendant fish earrings were dotted with bits of chocolate cream.
“Other than Mr. Rockweller’s assault, is everything going all right tonight?”
Ms. Fisher sighed. “I was detained tonight by Kurt Swofford’s mother. Here, in my classroom. She was determined to get the vandalism charges against her son withdrawn.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“Kurt did several thousand dollars worth of damage, including slashing student canvases. He threw globs of wet plaster of Paris on the floors and tables, all of which had to be scraped off. The students will have to replace their own oil and acrylic paints and other supplies.”
“Did you catch him in the act?” Lizzie asked.
“I sure did. I took photos of him doing the damage and called the police. Nobody vandalizes my art room.”
“Why did he do it?”
“I’d caught him bullying one of my students. He backed her into a corner and smashed her pottery. He received an in-school suspension as punishment.”
“Did Mrs. Swofford blame Mr. Rockweller for Kurt’s two suspensions?”
“And she made no offer of restitution?” Lizzie asked.
“None at all. It’s all about wonderful Kurt.” Ms. Fisher looked at Lizzie.“If Claire were caught vandalizing the school, what would you do?”
“Insist that she clean up every inch of it, make financial restitution and a public apology to the affected students. And have her future driving privileges revoked.”
Ms. Fisher nodded. “Good, I like the driving privileges part.”
“It’s one of the few holds we have on the kids,” Lizzie said. “With every infraction, the length of time until they get their learner’s permits lengthens. All the parents we know are doing it.” She thought for a minute. “Does Kurt have a father?”
“Absent, with no discipline by his mother.”
Officer Bethany Schmidt strode down the hall accompanied by her partner and two EMTs pushing a gurney. “Lizzie, we’ll take it from here. I’ve got another officer upstairs reviewing video footage of the hallway this evening.”
Lizzie and Nick returned to the Commons and organized their thoughts before making their police statements. The chorus director led an audience sing-along to “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” and other classic pie-themed songs, the lyrics displayed on a big screen over the stage. There was an undercurrent of bewildered conversation. Claire helped serve and clean up the rest of the food, and joined her parents.
The police asked students to have a parent present before they were interviewed. They talked to the attendees, table by table, taking statements and viewing cell phone footage of the pie throwing. The last tables were dismissed along with the band members. Lizzie, Nick, and Claire were summoned to the Principal’s office, where Phillip joined them. Officer Schmidt listened to their statements. She nodded, and sat back in her chair. “Thanks, folks. It looks like somebody attempted to smother Mr. Rockweller with soft plaster of Paris, which blocked his airways. He’s been transported to the emergency room to be checked out.”
“Did he identify his assailant?” Lizzie asked.
“Not yet. An officer will interview him at the ER,” Officer Schmidt said. “We’ve reviewed the surveillance footage of the hallway outside the art room.”
“So you know Ms. Fisher had a discussion with Kurt Swofford’s mother,” Lizzie said.
“Yes, and we know what time both women left the area. Mrs. Swofford showed us the back door she propped open earlier today, so she could gain access to the school tonight and confront Ms. Fisher.”
“Do you have footage of Mr. Rockweller entering the art room?” Lizzie asked.
“Yes. But the camera doesn’t show anyone entering or leaving the art room after that, not until you guys arrived.”
“I guess someone could have hidden in the art room before Ms. Fisher closed up after school or unlocked a window for later access. There’s no other way in or out,” Claire said. “Was there a glitch on the video? Could someone have entered the art room without being recorded?”
“No glitches. The crime scene unit is checking the ground outside the windows for footprints, and taking lots of fingerprints,” Officer Schmidt said. “Claire, we’re going to need your help. I’m going to meet with the art students and their parents tomorrow morning. I need to know who held a particular grudge against Mr. Rockweller. And who would have known how to mix plaster of Paris.”
“Your last question is easy,” Claire said. “All the art students. We just completed a whole unit. Kurt smashed our plaster molded masks before we had a chance to paint them.” She took a deep breath.“Everybody hated Mr. Rockweller. He was mean and accused kids of doing stuff they didn’t do. And there’s the whole early door-locking issue.”
“Lots of students complained about that when we talked to them,” Officer Schmidt said.
“Yup, that’s The Rottweiler for you,” Claire said. “Fridays were his worst days. We crept around the school with our eyes on the floor. If he didn’t make his weekly quota of disciplinary infractions, he’d slap kids with a detention for making eye contact with him.”
“Claire, I’m shocked,” Lizzie said. “This is the first I’ve heard about the situation.”
“Don’t be, it’s part of life.” Claire shrugged. “He considered students the enemy.”
Lizzie joined the art students and their parents in the auditorium the next morning, Lizzie texting updates to Nick. Officer Schmidt explained that Mr. Rockweller had been assaulted in the art room and was going to make a full recovery, but couldn’t identify his assailants. She asked for the students’ help. A buzz of nervous conversation filled the room. The Rottweiler had been universally disliked, the students powerless to protest his disciplinary methods.
Lizzie surveyed the room. The art students were the obvious suspects. They were familiar with the layout and supplies in the art room. She wondered if the police had found fingerprints on the killer pie plate. She spotted Ms. Fisher. “How did Kurt gain access to the art room when he trashed it?”
“I left the room open while I assisted a student bringing a large canvas in from the parking lot,” Ms. Fisher said.
“Kurt must have waited for an opportunity to gain access to the room.”
“Or perhaps someone told him,” Lizzie said. “Maybe he wasn’t working alone.”
“I don’t know who that would be,” Ms. Fisher said. “Kurt had his football teammates, but I don’t think he had any friends.”
Lizzie slumped back in her seat. Who had been in the school after hours? She stood up, walked down to the front of the auditorium, and scanned the rows of students. “Anybody seen Sally?”
The students looked at each other.
“Claire, where’s Sally?”
“Probably late, as usual. She’s an art student. She should be here.”
“Would you give her a call?” Lizzie asked. “Nobody locked her out today.”
“She’s not picking up.”
Officer Schmidt took Lizzie and Ms. Fisher aside. “Tell me about Sally.”
“Sally’s always in trouble for being late, so she’s usually in detention, in the building after hours,” Ms. Fisher said.
Lizzie looked at the students. “Were Sally and Kurt friends?”
“Yes,” someone called out. “The Rottweiler had it out for both of them. Sally joked that she and Kurt had each other’s backs.”
Lizzie spoke to Officer Schmidt in a low tone. “I think Sally and Kurt wanted to discredit Mr. Rockweller. When Sally was given the dubious honor of creaming him, they might have decided to play a cruel practical joke using a plaster of Paris pie. Kurt’s on house arrest during his suspension. His mother was here last night, so he has no alibi.” She turned back to the students. “Did anyone see Sally last night before she came on stage? Or Kurt Swofford?”
The students shook their heads.
Officer Schmidt made a call on her cell phone as she headed for the exit. “Thanks, all of you. We’re checking Sally’s and Kurt’s homes right now.”
That afternoon, the nearby city police spotted Sally and Kurt boarding a bus for Chicago. Their fingerprints matched those on the killer pie plate and window frame in the art room. When confronted with the physical evidence, they confessed to playing a practical joke on the Rottweiler, knocking him to the floor before creaming him with a plaster of Paris pie. They had fled through the art room window, not realizing that the Rottweiler couldn’t breathe. Sally and Kurt were charged and transported to the county juvenile facility.
Lizzie relayed the news from Officer Schmidt when Claire and Phillip arrived home after school.
“Nobody liked Kurt,” Claire said. “The football players tolerated him when they were playing, but not post-season.
He was an abusive bully and nobody knew how to stop him. The Rottweiler was no help.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about Sally. We should have helped her fight The Rottweiler. We could have opened a back door for her in the morning.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t a big joke to Sally. The Rottweiler bullied her and that’s not right. We need to look out for each other.”
Phillip agreed. “You’re right. No more bullying. It’s time to speak up.”
They sat in silence.
“So, Mom, what’s for dinner on St. Patrick’s day?” Claire asked.
“I’m done with pies for a while,” Lizzie said. “How about green eggs and ham?”
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