Scorefall (or TestTaker: A Tale of Intrigue, Danger, and Data) (from 7-3-12)

And now for something a little different for this blog: some fiction. A colleague recently mentioned how Florida’s test, the FCAT, is transported from Texas to Florida in a fleet of armored trucks protected by armed guards. I said, “What do they expect, third graders with Uzis to try to steal the test enroute?” And then I smiled– the idea for this story was hatched. The Federal Assessment and Review Test is a guest concept from the novel Portents, which I wrote with my son.


(or TestTaker: A Tale of Intrigue, Danger, and Data)

By David Lee Finkle

Barry looked down in the darkness through his infrared goggles, glancing between his Batman lunchbox and his jet black backpack where they hung on tree limbs. The backpack held his gear; the lunchbox held the snacks he’d been grazing on all evening. It had been a long night, but it wouldn’t be too much longer. Barry glanced at his glow-in-the-dark watch: it was nearly midnight. The truck should be coming through soon.  He focused his goggles and zoomed in on the highway below. At this hour the two lane road was nearly empty of cars.

            He adjusted himself on the thick tree limb, and then looked over to a neighboring tree. Aiming his watch toward it, he tapped out a message in Morse code, using a small red LED light near the analog number twelve.

            Not much longer. Ready?

            The response came back. Ready.

            And then he heard it, the rumble of an armored truck. Lights appeared down to his right, glowing over the crest of a hill. Barry grabbed his backpack, fastened it tight to his back, and prepared to leap…

*  *  *

“Barry James, they’re ready for you,” the secretary said. “And bring your backpack.”

            Barry stood up, shaking out of his reverie even as he shrugged his backpack over his slim shoulders. The pack was lighter now than it had been on that night three months ago.

            He entered the principal’s office, and the secretary, Mrs. Klebb, proffered the  sign-in sheet for him. She was plump, prim, and wore a polka-dot dress. She pursed her slightly wrinkled lips at him and arched one eyebrow at him when he hesitated.

            “Do I really have to?” he asked. “You know who I am.”

            “You need to follow the rules, young man. I think it’s about time you learned that. Fill in the chart.” Her voice was stern, sharp—the kind of voice that made most people jump and obey. Barry jumped a bit himself, but then gave her a long, slow stare before he took the black pen in hand and filled out the required information.

NAME: Barry James

GRADE: 3rd



REASON FOR VISIT: Possible criminal charges.

He put down the pen and followed Mrs. Klebb down the hall. His stomach flipped around inside him, but he kept his face impassive. His stomach had flipped around worse three months earlier, but it hadn’t stopped him then.

*  *  *

Barry leapt from the limb just as the armored truck drove under the tree. He pulled a string on his belt, and a black airbag burst from his torso, its downward side full of suction cups. He hit the roof with a padded, muffled thud, nothing the driver would notice, and the suction cups held him there. He looked across the metal roof top to where another figure had also just landed. Like Barry, this figure was also clad all in black and suctioned cupped to the roof. Over the roar of the engine, Barry spoke into the microphone that hung from his goggles.

            “So far, so good, right, Quentin?”

            “Yeah, Barry. Now comes the hard part.”

            Barry watched as Quentin pulled a cylindrical device out of his backpack, fastened it to the roof of the truck, and pushed a button. A thin beam, intense and molten red, emitted from the bottom of the device and began to carve a circle in the roof. Barry smiled at Quentin. This might just work!

            *  *  *

Barry gave Quentin a weak smile as he entered the principal’s office and found his best friend already sitting in one of the uncomfortable black chairs facing the principal’s desk.

The principal’s office was a large room, windowless, with a bank of TV screens covering one wall and a bank of computer screens covering the other. The TV screens displayed views of various hallways and balconies around campus, a never ending parade of security camera views; the computer screens displayed student test data on graphs, charts, pie charts, and a running tickertape live feed from the electronic clicker quizzes being administered in various classrooms. The wall behind the desk was a blank expanse of white cinderblock broken only by three diplomas. The principal’s desk was dominated by a large, black three ring binder filled with papers that were filled with charts like the ones on the screens. It was a sacred relic of the past: the principal’s data notebook.

            The principal’s large, black, high-backed leather office chair was facing away from them. A low female voice spoke from its depths. “Please sit down, Mr. James. We’ve been awaiting your arrival.”

The door slammed behind him, and Barry turned to find the campus police officer, Deputy Spang, and another dark suited man were standing rather ominously behind him.

            “I believe she requested you to sit,” said Spang, gesturing toward the chair, his pale face unsmiling. The dark suited man said nothing. Barry sat. What else could he do?

            Barry glanced at the name plate on the desk. It read Dr. B. Feld: Principal of the Year. The black chair swiveled around to reveal Dr. Feld. She was pale and round faced, and her close cut, pink dyed hair gave her the appearance of baldness. She wore a simple, pitch black dress with large black buttons down the front and a high collar similar to a priest’s. On her lap sat what appeared to be a fluffy white cat, but Barry knew better. The cat was actually a clever cross between a stuffed animal and a puppet, and Dr. Feld’s hand was really up inside the cat’s guts.

            “Mr. Bubbles is unhappy, Barry,” Dr. Feld cooed, stroking the cat’s fur with her left hand and also moving her right hand so the cat appeared to nuzzle her. “Can you guess why Mr. Bubbles is unhappy, Barry?”

            Barry hated this game. This was how she talked to all the students at the school, by transferring her emotions onto the cat and talking about the cat and to the cat. It was all he could do to not roll his eyes. He glanced at Quentin, who widened his eyes slightly in warning: Answer her!

            Barry turned back to Dr. Feld and shrugged. “I don’t know why he’s unhappy. His kitty litter needs to be changed?”

            A long, slow cruel grin spread across Dr. Feld’s face. “Mr. Bubbles doesn’t believe you are in a position for such facetiousness. That’s a big word. Mr. Bubbles wonders if you know what it means.” She stroked the cat’s fur and then pretended to make it purr.

            “Yes, I know what it means. Would you like to make it into a multiple choice question?”

            Dr. Feld suddenly lurched across the shiny top of her desk, sending Mr. Bubbles ahead of her and making the fluffy cat hiss loudly. Barry jumped back despite himself. “Yes—now we have come to the heart of the matter, Mr. James. Multiple choice questions! You cheated on the Federal Assessment and Review Test!”

            Barry stood, defiant now. “I didn’t cheat. My eyes were on my own paper the whole time! I didn’t look at anyone else’s FART!”

            Dr. Feld leaned back and soothed Mr. Bubbles. “Yes, by the time you sat down with your number 2 pencil, you’d already done the cheating, hadn’t you? You cheated a month earlier—on a highway at midnight ten miles from here!”

            Barry slammed back down into his chair, suddenly feeling defeated.

*  *  *

The armored truck slammed over a pothole and Barry felt as if he was about to slide off the roof. Fortunately, the suction cups on his black airbag held.

            With a sudden hiss, the laser device stopped its buzzing, and Barry saw Quentin remove it from the metal roof and stash it in his backpack. A small hole had been burned into the truck’s armor. Quentin nodded toward him. It was Barry’s turn. Barry disengaged the suction cups and let himself slide across the roof toward the freshly minted hole. The truck sped up, and Barry suddenly found himself sliding too quickly, heading toward the edge of the roof. He saw the line of trucks, the armored convoy of test-mobiles, behind them, and knew that if the fall to the road didn’t kill him, one of those vehicles’ massive tired would.

            His hands grasped for something to hold on to, but the roof was as smooth as a Teflon skillet. As he neared the edge, he suddenly saw Quentin hurling himself across the roof toward him. They were both about to go over the edge. Quentin grabbed his hand, and they suddenly halted with Barry dangling over the edge. How had they stopped?

            He glanced up questioningly at Quentin, who pointed down at his suction cups. He’d reengaged them at the last possible second.

            There was no time to waste. Barry scrambled to the roof, slid over to the hole, and reengaged his own suction. He then reached to his belt and pulled out another black device, this one a small rectangle of plastic. He took the device, and carefully lowered it down the opening in the armor, careful not to singe himself on the still-steaming metal. Once he felt it settle on top of a cardboard box, he hit another small switch with his finger, as they had rehearsed, and the rectangle opened wider—to approximately eight and a half by eleven inches. He hit another switch and a blinding light shone from the metal aperture.

            The device was doing its work. The blinding light was penetrating the cardboard box, scanning the top page of the top booklet within. And when it finished with that page, the light would increase incrementally to scan the print on the reverse of the same page, and so on down. It would check to see that there were no missing or upside down pages, but it would not stop on the pages with a stop sign symbol as directed. It would keep on scanning until it had the whole booklet converted into digital data.

            And Barry would take that data home.

            A sudden sharp crack sounded behind him, and Barry heard a ping against the metal of the roof. He and Quentin both turned to look at the convoy behind them. Dark figures had appeared outside the cab of the truck behind them. They were aiming their rifles at them. Another sharp crack made Barry wince.

*  *  *

The sharp crack of a book being slammed against the principal’s desk made Barry wince. “PAY ATTENTION!” Dr. Feld barked, sliding the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary back down into a drawer. “We know you cheated. We have you on video from that night. We see everything!” She gestured toward the security camera feeds. “We see everything!” She leaned in close with Mr. Bubbles. “Mr. Bubbles wonders—how did this plot of yours start? Who gave you the idea to cheat on such a grand scale?” Mr. Bubbles was suddenly right in his face, nose to nose, and if Barry didn’t know any better, he’d swear he heard it growl.

*  *  *

It had all started in Mrs. Bruce’s class, actually, on a day just before Winter Break, when she was discussing what they would be doing in class when they returned in the new year after break.

            “When we come back, you all need to buckle down. We will be getting ready for the Federal Assessment and Review Test, which will be in March. You have never taken this test before, but it’s very, very important for third graders. I don’t want to scare you or pressure you, but if you don’t pass the Reading portion of the test, you won’t be able to pass third grade. You’ll be here again, while all your friends leave you behind. But don’t stress out! No pressure! Just don’t fail!”

            Barry glanced across the tables in his group and caught Quentin’s eye. He could tell they were both thinking the same thing. Quentin would pass; Barry would fail, and they would be separated for the rest of their school careers.

            No more working on outrageously complicated history projects, like the detailed Egyptian Pyramid made to scale out of sugar cubes. No more incredible Science fair projects, like the simulated black hole built from an old vacuum cleaner and crepe paper. No more creating math problems more complicated than the ones in the textbook and stumping the teacher. It would all be over. Barry saw their friendship flash before his eyes.

            Because Quentin was a good reader and a good test taker. Barry had trouble reading, so he avoided it. And he wasn’t a good test taker, except maybe at Math. But the Reading FART would doom him. He could see himself sitting in third grade when he turned 18, his arms dangling to the floor as he sat in his tiny little blue plastic chair. Dr. Feld would finally come in and tell him he had to drop out.

            When recess time came around, they had gone out to the swings and pumped their legs until they were flying higher and higher, as if to put themselves above everything. They spoke in short bursts and snatches of words as they passed each other, flying to and fro on their adjacent swings.

            “This stinks! I’ll never…” said Barry.

            “…pass!” finished Quentin as they drew near each other.”We won’t be in the same grade together again! I’ll graduate…”

            “…a whole year earlier than I will.”

            The two boys swept past each other, back and forth, Barry’s pale skin and black hair coming forward, and then receding as Quentin’s red hair and freckles came forward.

“We need to find a way to make you pass!”

            “Maybe we should ask…”

            “…the teacher! Yeah, Mrs. Bruce. She could tell you how…”

            “…to pass the test!”

            But when they asked Mrs. Bruce, all she said was, “Pay attention in class and try harder!” Not helpful at all.

That night, Barry slept over at Quentin’s house. Together they discussed the situation far into the night in a tent set up in Quentin’s bedroom.  It would take a miracle to get Barry to pass the test, they decided.

“Actually, I think there might be a few miracles in my dad’s basement,” said Quentin. “I think he’d let me borrow them…”

Barry’s dad sold vacuum cleaners at Sears, a less than thrilling profession. But everyone thought that Quentin’s dad was even duller: he sold toilet flappers. But what everyone thought was wrong, it turned out.

It was a quarter past two in the morning when Barry and Quentin reached the bottom of the basement stairs. Barry realized he had never been into Quentin’s basement. As he watched his friend punch a complicated password into a keypad by a metal door, he realized why.

The door hissed open, not wide like a regular door, but to the side like a door on Star Trek, and they entered a dark room full of metal cabinets, metal tables, large screen computers, and blinking colored console lights.

“Lights up,” said Quentin. The lights came up to reveal a room that Thomas Edison would have envied.

“I thought your dad sold toilet flappers!”

            “Well, he invented the world’s best toilet flapper, and that patent drew the attention of the government. Now he invents… other things for them.” Quentin pointed to a plaque on the main desk that read Quinn Cue, Inventor of Non-Lethal Weapons and Surveillance Hardware.

            “Are you really supposed to be in here? Am really supposed to be in here?” asked Barry, backing towards the door.

            “I’m in here all the time, just usually with Dad. Hey, look at this—it’s an underwater Taser.”

            “But how can this stuff help me pass the FART?” asked Barry.

            “And look at this thing—it can turn individually packed snack packs of pudding into mini stink bombs.”

            “Would you focus?” Barry pleaded.

            “Okay fine. Here’s how this stuff will help you pass. We use it to get our hands on a copy of the test.”

*  *  *

Barry told Dr. Feld about his fear of being separated from his best friend, but not about his best friend’s father’s inventions. That aspect of the tale needed to remain a secret. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dr. Feld. I didn’t cheat. I’ll admit I didn’t want to fail—and that I didn’t want to get separated from Quentin for the rest of my school years…”

            Dr. Feld raised an eyebrow at him from across the desk. “A very touching story. But you should have thought about the possibility of being held back before you decided to be lazy and stupid.” She scratched Mr. Bubbles behind the ears. “Shouldn’t he, my little fuzzy-wuzzy?” She looked back at Barry and flipped through her data notebook. “I mean look at this, pages and pages of data, numbers that practically spell out the words, ‘Barry James is stupid and lazy!”

            Quentin finally spoke up, his indignation overcoming his timidity. “He isn’t lazy, or stupid! Do you realize the research we had to do?” He stood up, nearly leaning across the desk at his principal. Then his skin went pale, throwing his freckles into stark relief, as he realized that he had just spilled the beans.

            “Ah, ha!” shouted Dr. Feld triumphantly. “You admit your guilt! You are now officially implicated as well, Mr. Cue. You are no longer merely a person of interest.” She realized she’d held her arms aloft in a gesture of victory for a moment, thus ruining the illusion that Mr. Bubbles was a real cat. She sat back down, adjusting the puppet into its feline-like pose again. “Mr. Bubbles is very happy that we’re getting to the truth! Aren’t you Mr. Bubbles?”

            And she was indeed getting closer to the truth, Barry realized.

*  *  *

It had been a ton of research. Using Mr. Cue’s research lab, they had tapped into secret databases and hidden records of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the Department of Education. They read document after official document. There were too many for Quentin to cover on his own, so Barry had, of necessity, waded into the ocean of digital text, layers and layers of densely worded education-ese and government double speak. They discovered the location in Texas where the FART was produced, and then, bit by bit, they had learned how the tests were transported by armored and armed-guarded transport from Texas to the other states where it was administered. Millions were being spent to transport hundreds of thousands of pounds of test booklets across state lines. Eventually, they discovered the specific type of armored vehicle and the route it would take to get to their state—a route that would send it right past their town.

            They researched Mr. Cue’s devices, discovering which ones might be useful and which ones to reject. When it came time to plan the actual heist, Quentin felt that Barry wasn’t quite “getting” how a mission was supposed to run, so he handed him spy novels: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum. At first, Barry found them too hard, but with a little coaching from Quentin, he began to pore through them. Once he got the idea, he proved to be an expert planner, and soon their mission plans had begun to coalesce.

*  *  *

            “It’s all coming together, now, isn’t it Mr. Bubbles?” Dr. Feld gloated. “Quentin Cue has as much as admitted the deed!” She looked from Quentin over to Barry. “Would you like to confess as well?” She paused, but Barry remained silent. “No matter. You are in trouble now, no matter what. You are in the biggest trouble of your life!”

            Not on your life!  thought Barry. We were in more trouble that night!

*  *  *

As the bullets flew around them, they tried to crawl further up the roof of the truck to get away from the gunmen. But they couldn’t move fast enough; there was nothing to grip on the smooth surface, and it was too risky to deactivate their suction cups anyway.

            “Execute Manuever PD-5!” Quentin’s voice yelled through the speaker in Barry’s ear.

            Barry thought for just a moment, then remembered what the code meant. He reached back into his backpack and pulled out a gun of his own—a modified Super-Soaker squirt gun. He managed to swing around and faced the truck behind them. He aimed carefully, using the digital targeting on his goggles, and fired. A glob of green slime flew from his weapon, flew downwards and hit the muzzle of one of the guard’s rifles. The guard seemed not to notice, but when he tried to fire again, nothing happened. Barry watched him as pulled the rifle up and looked at the muzzle. He tried to pull the gunk off, but only succeeded in getting his hand stuck to it. The guard behind him raised his rifle, only to receive his own dose of gunk from Quentin’s squirt gun.

            Within minutes the guards were nearly all neutralized. The two boys high fived each other, and stashed their nearly spent non-lethal weapons back in their packs. At that moment, a beeping sounded in Barry’s ear. The scanner device was done. He swiveled around, reached down the hole in the roof, and retrieved the device which now held his scanned version of the FART.

            He felt elated, sure of their victory—until he saw a black gloved hand rise over the edge of the truck roof and slam down on the metal surface with a magnetically charged glove. The guards had come to them.

*  *  *

“So let’s bring this all home, shall we?” Dr. Feld said, leaning back in her chair. “We caught your face on security video, on the roof of the armored test-mobile, Mr. James. Your collaborator, here, Mr. Cue, was fortunate enough to evade our cameras, but confessed to the crime. And your test scores speak for themselves. What do you have to say for yourself?”

            “What do you mean, my test scores speak for themselves? My test scores stink because I’m stupid—and I didn’t cheat!” Barry knew he wasn’t lying. He really hadn’t cheated.

*  *  *

“Extraction point!” Quentin yelled as two more guards managed to climb onto the roof.

            Barry turned and looked. Ahead of them, a pedestrian footbridge spanned the road. “On my count!” he yelled. “One!” They disengaged suction and flipped onto their backs. “Two!” They pulled grappling hooks with tethers off their belts and aimed them at the top of the cyclone safety fencing. “Three!” They fired the hooks, which latched onto the top of the fence. A guard reached out with his magnetic glove and gripped Barry’s backpack. Barry felt himself being pulled backward. He saw Quentin make a motion,  shining a flashlight in the guard’s night vision goggles, blinding him. He screamed and let go of the pack. Barry and Quentin hit buttons on their belts and flew upwards toward the bridge. Once they were on the fence, they quickly climbed over the top and only glanced down briefly at the rest of the armored convoy rumbling past. 

            A quick jaunt down the pedestrian trail, a brief stop to grab their lunch boxes out of the trees, and they were back to Quentin’s house. They snuck in the back door, careful not to wake Mr. Cue and Mrs. Cue, and went up to their tent, in Quentin’s room, where an MP3 file of their endless chatter was playing on a loop to make the room sound occupied.

            They uploaded the file to Barry’s laptop and opened it.

            It was blank.

            “The magnetic gloves,” said Quentin, crestfallen. “They erased the data.”

*  *  *

“We have all the data we need to expel you, to bring you up on criminal charges, to sue your family for everything they’re worth!” said Dr. Feld, sitting back in her black leather chair with a self-satisfied leer. “Your face on the video. Your friend’s confession. Your test score.”

            Barry found himself shaking his head in bafflement. “What about my test score? It must have been a ‘1’ or ‘2’ because I didn’t cheat!”

            “No, Mr. James. It was not a ‘1’ or ‘2’ or even a ‘3.’ It was a ‘5,’ very nearly a perfect score. Very nearly as perfect as your friend’s.” She nodded at Quentin.

            Barry sat back in his chair, his head spinning. How can this be? I didn’t cheat! I just sat and took the test. How did I suddenly get smart?

            Dr. Feld gestured to the door, and the man in the black suit stepped forward. “This is Mr. Goldfinger, a representative of the testing company, SPECTRE. He will be serving your parents with legal papers that will hold you accountable for the loss of test reliability and damage to the armored truck and to the weapons you ruined in your elaborate scheme to cheat the test.”

            Barry slumped downward in his seat, and he saw Quentin do the same. It was all over for them.

            “You will both be sent to Underage Delinquent Charter School to be reformed. You, Mr. James, will of course be kept in 3rd grade because you cheated on the test.”

            Barry leaned forward, put his hands over his face. He wasn’t going to let this woman see him cry.

            “Mr. Bubbles thinks this is all too delicious, don’t you Mr. Bubbles?”

            Barry wanted to strangle Mr. Bubbles, even though he was just a puppet.

            At that moment, the door swung open, and they heard the secretary saying, “You’re not allowed to go in there, sir, this is a private meeting!”

            “And one my son is in! I’m attending this meeting, thank you very much!” came a British-accented voice. Barry turned and saw a tall, red-haired, mustached figure in a pin-striped suit towering in the doorway. “Hello, son,” he said to Quentin. “Hello, Barry. Sorry I’m late.”

            Dr. Feld stood in her seat. “Mr. Bubbles is very unhappy at this intrusion!”

            “Stop telling everyone on this campus about the feelings of a ridiculous stuffed animal. It’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever seen! Mr. Cue, who happens to be me,” he said, speaking in third person, “is very unhappy about not being invited to this meeting.”

            Dr. Felt sat down, glaring at Mr. Cue venomously.

            “I understand you have a confession from my son and a video of Barry from the night the armored test mobile was assaulted?”

            Now Dr. Feld smiled. “Yes, indeed, Mr. Cue. We do.”

            Mr. Cue stood behind his son. “Could you tell me exactly what my son said?”

            “Why, I believe I have it recorded, right here!” said Dr. Feld, pressing a button on a console in her top desk drawer.

           All the video screens turned to one image: an image of the office they were in some ten minutes earlier. From the perspective of a camera up in the corner of the room, Quentin could be seen saying, “He isn’t lazy, or stupid! Do you realize the research we had to do?”

            “You see?” Dr. Feld asked triumphantly.

            “I see that my son defended his best friend from being called lazy and stupid by his principal, and then admitting to doing research. Is research illegal at this school, Dr. Feld?”

            “Well, no… but…”

            “Then I see no admission of guilt. As to the video, you say that it shows the face of the person involved in the theft of the test booklet?”

            “It does!”

            “But it wasn’t an unretouched photo, was it? You had to sharpen it, to optimize it, to make it look like Barry, didn’t you?”

            “Well, yes… But it’s a very valid investigative technique. I’ll show you!” Dr. Feld hit another button, and the video screens all went to an image of the top of an armored vehicle. It was in extremely grainy black and white.

            As the image came into focus, Mr. Cue casually commented, “Yes, but depending on who’s using this investigative technique, you get very different results… This is the image, taken the night of the heist, from a camera mounted on a guard’s helmet. I took the liberty of visiting your server, accessing your database, and sharpening and optimizing the image myself, and I got a very different result. Now, if you’ll zoom in, Dr. Feld.”  The picture on the screens narrowed in on the frozen image of a black suited figure firing a large squirt gun toward the camera. “In my enhanced version, we see…”

            Dr. Feld grinned as she clicked on the remote. “… and we see that the culprit was Mr. Ja…What? It can’t be!!”

            The face in the photo was round, pale… and female. It was Dr. Feld’s face.

“I see how you’ve been getting your high scores at this school, Dr. Feld. It isn’t difficult when you’ve pilfered the test.”Dr. Cue smiled pleasantly.

            “No—that can’t be! I wasn’t there!” Dr. Feld drew Mr. Bubbles closer to her, her eyes darting in every direction.

            “Well, my photo was no more optimized than yours, Dr. Feld. Once you start manipulating data, you find you’re on a very slippery slope.” Mr. Cue pulled out his smartphone. “Shall I send my version to the local and national media outlets to see if they’d be interested in adding it to the 24 hour news-cycle, along with the security camera clip of you calling one of your students stupid and lazy?”

            “NO!” she screamed, picking up her huge data notebook and hurling it toward the largest of the TV screens, which exploded in a shower of sparks.

            Mr. Cue pulled Barry and Quentin from their chairs and toward the door, away from the sparking monitor. “My, my! We must learn to watch our temper, Dr. Feld. By the way,  you have no evidence that Barry cheated on the test—your in-class security cameras prove that his eyes were on his own test the entire time. He passed fair and square, and will be moving on to fourth grade.”

            Dr. Feld turned pale—or, rather, paler—with rage. She flung Mr. Bubbles across the room and picked up her black leather chair and hurled it toward the data screens. The chair crashed into the screens, which cracked and crashed to the floor in a shower of sparks. One of the monitors crashed down on the stuffed puppet cat, crushing it and catching its fur on fire. “NO!” Dr. Feld crawled across the floor to try to rescue the faux cat.

            “Shocking, positively shocking!” said Mr. Cue.

            Mr. Cue turned to leave, to find Mr. Goldfinger blocking his way.

            “We know your son and his friend were the culprits. We will find a way to prove it. We will have damages!”

Mr. Cue never flinched. “You move one finger in that direction, and I’ll have footage of your men shooting at eight year old boys all over the news so fast it’ll make your heads spin.” He flung the door open and led Barry and Quentin out through the office, past the evil glare of Mrs. Klebb. Behind them they heard the sound of all the remaining monitors in the principal’s office shattering, and Dr. Feld shrieking her defeat.

Mr. Cue led them out into the sunlight again.

“Thanks, Dad!” said Quentin. “You were awesome!”

Mr. Cue pulled them both in front of him, and looked at them intensely, his lips pale. “If I was awesome, my son wouldn’t have gone behind my back to help his friend cheat! If I was awesome, my very intelligent son would have had the common sense to know he was putting my job, not to mention two lives, at risk. I am appalled!”

Quentin’s lip trembled; tears built up around the edges of his eyes. “I’m really sorry, Dad.”

A long moment passed. Barry wanted to melt into the sidewalk.

But then Mr. Cue said, “But my inventions all worked, didn’t they?” A crooked smile spread across his face.

Quentin sniffled and grinned, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “They worked great, Dad!”

Barry heaved a sigh of relief. The tension past, he voiced the question that had been bothering him since they were in Dr. Feld’s office. “How did I pass that test—I mean I got an almost perfect score. I’m terrible at test taking!”

            “Tell me how you pulled off that mission of yours, boys.”

            “Well, we did a lot of research,” said Quentin, “and a ton of reading.”

            “And I read loads of spy novels,” said Barry. “They were great! And then we had to write out plans out, and create drawings and diagrams, and… and… Oh. I think I figured out how I got smarter.”

            “Clever boy. If only the schools would realize what makes for a first rate brain,” said Mr. Cue.

            “Well,” replied Barry, “if they want first rate brains, maybe they should stop settling for number two pencils!”