Neil was the one to notice it: Stacy Richards cheating on an examination! He nudged his friend Gary and pointed towards the front of the class.
"Check it out," he whispered.
Gary saw, but couldn't believe what he was seeing. Stacy Richards - the ice-queen cock tease of the senior class at Greenwood High - was staring intently at a slip of paper hidden on her desk under the exam. Just then, Mr.Edgar, the teacher, coughed quietly and shifted position in his seat at the front of the class. Stacy quickly pushed the cheat-sheet back under the exam paper and looked up guiltily, her face flushing a pretty shade of red. If Mr.Edgar had glanced over at her at that moment he would certainly have known that something was wrong with her. But why would he be checking out Stacy Richards, who had been getting straight A grades ever since she had begun attending Greenwood High four years ago? Instead, he turned his attention to Neil French and Gary Syms, who were the class trouble-makers: Neil with his long, greasy hair and semi-stylish ripped clothes and Gary with his cynical, cutting sense of geek humour. Sure enough, they were grinning and whispering together at the back of the classroom rather than writing the exam.
"French... Syms," he called out, drawing himself laboriously out of his chair and up to his rather unimpressive full hight, "Front of the class."
No longer smiling, the two boys got up and walked slowly forward, the centre of attention, with everyone in the class looking up at them from their exams. Neil noticed Stacy smirking at him with her typical, haughty sneer.
Bitch, he thought, we'll see who's laughing in a second.
"Mr.Edgar," he blurted as he reached the front of the room, "We saw..."
He was cut off by Gary elbowing him subtly, but stiffly, in the side. He drew in a breath to continue speaking, but he was interrupted by the angry teacher.
"You two have been nothing but trouble since you started this class in September," Mr.Edgar announced, his full white moustache quivering with indignation. "I can no longer allow you to disrupt this class with your infantile jokes and games, particularly during exams."
Neil started to protest, but was again cut off by Mr.Edgar, who had worked up a full head of steam.
"You have both failed this examination. You will apologise to the class for the disruption, and then you will leave." He glared at the two boys. "Do you understand?"
Both boys nodded a sullen 'yes'.
"Any further problems," the teacher finished his pronouncement of sentence, "And you will be removed from this class permanently. Perhaps you will be able to make up the course in summer school."
Gary didn't react, but Neil looked up in alarm. That was about the most serious threat a teacher could make, short of outright expulsion. Bakersville was a beach town in southern California, and summer was by far the best time of the year, particularly for the teenagers. Being forced to waste the summer months inside the stuffy high school while everyone else partied on the beach was about the worst fate a teenager could suffer.
Apparently cowed, Neil and Gary turned around and stammered out an embarrassed apology to the class. A few kids giggled - Neil noted that Stacy was one of them - but most looked away, uncomfortable at the humiliation of their fellow students. The two boys then filed out of classroom and into the hallway.
Stacy shrugged her blonde hair off her shoulder and looked back down at the examination as the class returned to normal. Thank god those two geeks were gone, she thought, and tried to put Neil and Gary from her mind. In her world, there were "people" and there were "geeks", and Neil and Gary definitely fell into the latter category. She wouldn't even have known their names except that Neil had spent the better part of the first term of the previous year following her about, and had even asked her out on a date. As if! She had refused in as cruel a manner as she knew how (which was pretty cruel), and had later asked Pete, her then boyfriend and captain of the football team, to beat Neil up, just to warn him off. Pete had dutifully administered the beating, and Neil had backed off. She had soon afterward broken up with Pete - he had lost his place on the football team that spring - and had put the entire episode from her mind.
Reluctantly, she turned her attention back to the exam. She frowned down at the test, as if she could intimidate the answers off the written page. Questions which had been easy for her a year ago now seemed impossibly hard. Stacy was quite intelligent, and had always gotten almost perfect marks at school, but lately the constant burden of socializing - cheerleading, beachparties, student council etc. - had left her little time for schoolwork. As a result, she had found herself approaching the first set of school exams of her senior year completely unprepared. And if she did poorly or - unthinkable - failed, she would loose her record of straight As, and would probably fail to be elected Homecoming Queen, the goal toward which she had been working for the last few years. Hence, she had decided to make a few crib notes to get her through the first round of exams. After that, she told herself, she would get back on track with the schoolwork.
Looking around to make certain she was unobserved, she pushed the exam paper upwards to expose the notes she had written on the cheat-sheet...
Neil smouldered with anger as walked down the hall with Gary. That had been the perfect chance to get back at that bitch Stacy, and Gary had blown it for him! Neil's thoughts lingered on Stacy as he grumbled to himself.
Stacy was one of those unattainable high school princesses who enjoyed showing herself off, but didn't put out. With her shoulder-length blonde hair, perfect face (large green eyes, pert nose and thick,pouty lips), and athlete's body (she was a member of both the swim team and the track team), she was easily the most beautiful girl in Greenwood, and every male student's dream.
But dream she remained for most. She moved exclusively in the highest high school social circles, and only went out with sports stars and the like. Neil had developed a crush on her earlier the previous year, and it wasn't until she had sent that football jerk to beat him up that he got over her. The fact was, she only noticed guys like Neil (and Gary, for that matter) when they bothered her, and she had to put them off (or "...out of their misery..." as Neil had once heard her laughingly remark to one of her friends).
The two boys left the school by the side entrance and began to walk across the south parking lot. Finally, Neil could contain himself no longer.
"Why'd you shut me up in there?" he complained, "I had that bitch right where I wanted her. I owe her."
Gary just smiled at this, making Neil uncomfortable. Where Neil was loud and obnoxious, Gary was quiet and strange. Despite the fact that the two had been friends for a number of years, Gary was still capable of unnerving his larger friend with his strange smile and even stranger ideas.
"What's so funny?" Neil asked nervously.
"You're right," Gary answered quietly, "We do have her where we want her, but not in the way you mean."
Neil was puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
"If you had told on her back in the classroom just now, Edgar might or might not have believed you. Probably not; you know he doesn't like us. And if not - if Stacy had managed to hide her cheating - we would have been kicked out of the class for good, and been stuck in summer school. And even if he had caught her, at most she would have failed the exam, if that. The teachers love her. Then she would set her friends on us."
"But..." Neil began.
"You remember Pete."
Neil could only nod glumly in agreement, recalling the beating he had suffered last year. Stacy had no shortage of friends on the football team. "So," he said finally, "You said we had her where we wanted her."
"Yes, I did," Gary agreed.
By now, the two boys had reached Gary's car, a large, black Pontiac. Gary unlocked the doors before answering.
"If she's cheating now on a math test," he explained, "she must be in trouble with her schoowork. She's always gotten top marks in math."
"Yeah?" Neil was still confused. "So?"
"So," Gary continued patiently, "It's a pretty safe bet she'll cheat again. There's an English test coming up next week, and I don't think a little cheat-sheet will be of much use to her. You have to have read the material." He started up the car and began to pull out of the parking space. Neil thought this over as Gary manouvered the vehicle out of the school parking lot and onto the road.
"So," he asked finally, "What do we do about it?"
"I'll tell you when we get to Sharon's place," Gary answered, "We'll need her for what I have in mind."
Sharon was Gary's friend and sometime girlfriend. Neil was never really sure about their relationship - he knew that they went out and that they occasionally had sex, but he also knew that Sharon did the same with at least a couple of other guys. Gary, however, didn't seem to mind, so Neil had decided to take things at face value. He had even made something of a pass at Sharon at a beach party last summer, but had been rebuffed. He was philosophical about it; Sharon wasn't really his type anyway.
The girl in question appeared in the doorway, answering their knock. A year younger than the two boys, Sharon was short and heavy, with large breasts and curly, brown hair. Any suggestion of cuteness, however, was quickly dispelled by her hard face and small, piggy (Neil thought) eyes. If there was any beauty there, it was definitely in the eye of the beholder. She was smoking a cigarette as she answered the door.
After a quick greeting (and an obligatory "hello" to Sharon's mother - propped up, as usual, in front of the television), Sharon led the two boys down to her basement bedroom, locking the door behind her (Sharon's parents were "progressive", and felt that she needed her privacy). Neil accepted a cigarette and flopped down into a chair while pulling a lighter from his jacket pocket. Gary, who didn't smoke, just leaned up against the dresser. Sharon lay down on the bed and propped herself up with a pillow.
"So," she asked, flicking some ash onto the dirty shag carpet, "What are you guys doing here? I thought you had math with Edgar until 3:00."
Neil grimaced. "We did," he answered, "Until he kicked us out."
Gary took over the explanation and outlined the sequence of events that had led to their expulsion from the math class. Typically, Sharon immediately blamed Stacy.
"That cunt!" she swore angrily, "Cheating on the test and getting you guys kicked out. She's really asking for it."
"Yes, she is," Gary agreed quietly, "And I think I know how we can give it to her."
"What do you mean?"
"We know she's cheating on her exams, right?"
Neil and Sharon nodded in agreement.
"I think that it's pretty likely she'll cheat again. I don't think that she's had to do it before, so she's probably way behind in her work. The fact that she's cheating - and that we know she's cheating - gives us a hold on her; a way of blackmailing her, but we need more."
Neil thought this over for a few moments. "Like what?" he asked.
"First, we need concrete evidence of the cheating. No one is going to take our word over Stacy's. That's where you come in, Sharon. Your dad lets you use his video camera and radio - microphone. We'll use that to trap her."
"And then what?" Neil was starting to become excited at the prospect of blackmailing Stacy.
Gary fell silent for a moment, looking at his two friends.
"How much," he asked finally, his voice strained and odd, "How much do you hate her? I mean really. How much do you want to see her suffer?"
"Hey man," Neil answered uneasily, "I just want to get back at her for putting me down last year. I don't want to, like, beat her up or anything."
"Well, I would," Sharon spat out. "I hate the bitch. Always flaunting herself, and prancing about like she owns the whole fucking school. She deserves whatever she gets. I'll do whatever you want to help get her."
Gary looked over a Neil, his eyebrows raised as if to ask 'are you in?'.
"Aw, fuck it," Neil said finally, "I hate the bitch as much as anybody. I'm in all the way."
"Good," Gary nodded, "Cause when we're through with her, she'll be the biggest slut in the history of Greenwood High."
The English exam was being held the following Monday, only five days away, so they had to move quickly. The first step was to get ahold of the exam questions beforehand, a proposition which might have proved difficult but for the advances in electronics technology which had culminated in the computer. Exam papers were commonly written out on school computers and stored in the school network, which allowed for "maximum flexibility within the school bureaucracy regarding application of secretarial assets". Incidentally, it also allowed someone with the appropriate equipment and skills to break into the system and download the required information without leaving any traces of his actions.
Gary, something of a hacker, had broken into the system a number of times in the past with his home computer and modem and was quite familiar with both the security measures and the layout of information within the network. In the end, it took him all of about twenty minutes to download the appropriate exam paper. Neil and Sharon were impressed.
"Jesus," she muttered, "I wish you'd told me about this before I failed my fucking history test last year."
Gary just shook his head. "I don't think this is the kind of thing you want to do too often. If I go in often enough, they'll figure out what's going on. I was saving if for a special occasion." He looked up at his two friends and grinned maliciously. "And I think this is it."
Frustrated, Stacy slammed the book shut. The exam was coming up in just a few days, and there was no way she was going to be ready. She had done her best to catch up on the first two months' work in a couple of days, but it was almost impossible for her even to get through the material in time for the test, much less actually understand it. And there was impossible for her to cheat on this exam the way she had in math. In that class, she had gotten away with writing out a number of formulas and applications on crib notes, but that just wouldn't work for an English test. There was too much material to read and assimilate, and without knowing exactly what material the test was going to focus on, she was forced to try to learn it all in just a few days: a daunting task at best, and almost certainly doomed to failure. She was going to blow the test for sure!
Stacy slumped back in her chair and stared at her pouting reflection in the desk mirror. It wasn't fair. How could she be expected to keep up with all of this classwork while at the same time attend all the student council meetings as well as the swim club practices each morning. It was impossible. They just expected too much of her! She felt her large, green eyes brimming with tears; she wanted to be Homecoming Queen so badly, and now...
She was interrupted from her self-pity by the ring of the phone at her bedside. Sniffling, she got up and crossed the room to answer it.
"Hello?" It was Ashley, her friend from school. Careful to disguise her inner turmoil (Ashley, like all of the other girls in their particular clique, could smell weakness the way a shark smells blood; any hint of a problem and it would be all over the group by the end of the next school day, threatening Stacy's position), Stacy fell easily into the standard school banter of gossip, innuendo and casual put-downs of other students. Stacy was good at this, and Ashley sensed nothing out of place.
After a while, Neil's name came up, and Stacy happily recounted the events of yesterday's math test. Ashley had almost certainly heard about it by now, but the combination of a first-hand account together with Stacy's particular style of sarcastic humour made the story well worth hearing for a second time. The two girls were soon laughing together at what had happened.
"Well," Ashley laughed at the end of the story, "It does sound as if they made absolute assholes of themselves, alright. And that threat of summer school must have scared the shit out of them from what I heard."
"What do you mean?"
"I heard that Neil has got ahold of some of some of the exam papers coming up. I guess he wants to bring up his overall marks so Edgar can't fail him or something like that."
Stacy felt her heart jump a beat as her breath caught in her chest. Neil had copies of future exams? "Where did you hear that?" she asked, trying to keep her voice casual. Evidently she had succeeded, as Ashley failed to detect the change of mood.
"Laura told me," she answered, "I think she heard it from Sharon, although why she was talking to that cow, I don't know. You remember Sharon? She was the one..." Ashley started to drone on about Sharon, who was definitely not a part of their exclusive clique, but Stacy wasn't listening. Neil had copies of some upcoming tests.
AND HE WAS IN HER ENGLISH CLASS!
After a while, Ashley wound down, and Stacy let the conversation die a natural death. While she was careful not to mention Neil and the exam papers again, it was never far from her mind. Finally, the two girls said goodbye and Stacy hung up the phone.
Thoughtful, she walked back to her desk and looked the pile of unread English books. Cheating was a serious matter at Greenwood (it had taken her a long time to screw up her courage enough to do it during the math test), but stealing exam papers was something else altogether. She remembered a guy who had been caught with a stolen paper about four years ago, when she was in her first year at the high school. He had not only been expelled, but the school had prosecuted him for breaking and entering and theft (they succeeded on the first count, but failed on the second). It had been all over the papers in Bakersville. She shuddered at the thought of that happening to her, but what was the alternative?
Besides, she thought, making up her mind, she wasn't going to get caught; she was too smart for that.
It was all too easy!
Stacy had approached him the next day - just as Gary had predicted - and, in the guise of sympathizing with him over his humiliation in Edgar's math class a couple of days ago, she had sounded him out about the papers for the upcoming exams. As Gary had instructed him, Neil pretended to be suffering from a bad cold and sore throat, and lowered his voice to a rasp. Stacy didn't seem notice; either she didn't care, or couldn't remember what he normally sounded like. Probably both.
Enjoying the experience of Stacy being friendly to him (although aware that Stacy had skilfully manipulated the circumstances of their "accidental" meeting in such a way as to locate it in the Study Hall, which was usually deserted), Neil drew the encounter out, repeatedly side-stepping her indirect attempts to get him to admit to having the papers.
Finally, she was forced to ask him directly: did he have copies of the upcoming exam papers? Seemingly reluctant, Neil eventually admitted that "yes" he happened to have some copies of future exam papers, and "yes", in particular, he did have copy of next week's English exam.
"Why do you want to know?"
Stacy looked down and flushed. When she looked like that, Neil was almost willing to feel sorry for her. Almost. All he had to do to push back any feelings of affection was remember the bitchy way in she had rejected him last year and then gotten him beaten up. He knew what she was like.
"I want a copy of that exam," she admitted finally, "I need it for this weekend."
Neil pretended to be shocked. "Stacy, you mean you want a copy of a stolen exam paper so you can cheat on next Monday's English test?"
Stacy swallowed back an angry retort. Couldn't he be a little more subtle? Idiot! Still, there wasn't much she could do about it. "Yes," she admitted, "I need it to pass the exam."
Neil just stared at her, not saying anything.
"I'll pay money," she added, "How about $100?"
Still nothing. She was almost frantic.
"Alright," Neil relented, as if making up his mind, "I'll sell you the stolen exam paper for $100." Stacy almost collapsed with relief. Everything was going to work out!
"Will that be all, Stacy, or do you want any more exams? I can probably get whatever you want."
Stacy looked up, excited. This would solve all of her problems with the schoolwork. "That sounds great," she told him enthusiastically, "I'll buy whatever you can get for the classes I'm in. $100 a paper."
"It's a deal." Neil could barely repress a grin of triumph. They had her! Now, only one more thing... "Meet me tomorrow after school in the woodworking shop. It should be deserted on Friday afternoon."
"Fine," Stacy agreed, "I'll be there." She turned to go.
"Don't forget the money," he reminded her, but by then she was gone.
"Remember," Gary repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time, "keep your back to the wall and face slightly away from the closet. Make sure that Stacy is always facing you so that we get a good angle from where Sharon will be filming." Gary and Sharon had cleared out one of the storage closets in the workshop, and Sharon was set up inside with her video camera filming through a knot-hole. Gary was set up with a still camera in the upper storage area across the room. In order to cover the noise of the camera, he had turned on the rotation fans which were fastened from the ceiling; the resulting hum was more than sufficient to mask any noise he might make.
Satisfied at last that everything was in order and Neil knew what to do, Gary climbed the short ladder to the storage area and concealed himself behind a stack of wood. Neil watched him disappear from view. After a quick glance to make certain the closet door was properly closed, he sat back in a chair and waited for Stacy.
Stacy arrived ten minutes late, looking a little uncertain, but determined to carry through. She crossed the room as Neil watched in appreciation. She was wearing tight jeans and a white blouse which left her tanned arms bear past the shoulder. Bakersville was having an unusually long Indian Summer, and her clothing reflected the fact of this unseasonable warmth. Neil got hard imagining what lay beneath the blouse. Soon, he told himself as Stacy approached him, soon he wouldn't have to imagine. He stood up as she approached.
"Well," she asked as she got to where he was standing, "Do you have it?" She was more her usual bitchy self today, now that she was getting what she wanted.
Perfect, Neil noted silently. She's standing exactly where Gary wanted her to stand. "I've got it," he told her in the same gruff voice he had used the day before, "One stolen English exam paper for Stacy Richards." He held up the computer printout. "And my money?"
Stacy reached into her pocket and pulled out the cash. Silently, she handed it over to him. Just to make her angry, he slowly and noisily counted the money, making a production of it. "It's all there," she said angrily, "You don't have to worry about that; now or in the future."
"Fine," he answered, handing over the exam questions, "It's all yours."
In a hurry to leave, Stacy snatched the paper and quickly scanned the contents. As promised, the paper contained the four questions which would form the basis of next Monday's English class examination.
"Thanks," she said shortly, all business, and turned to walk away.
"Good luck with the test," he called after her, but she ignored him and left the room.
The room fell silent for a few second, and then Gary popped up from behind the wood. "Looked good from here," he announced, "I think I got some good shots." He began climbing down the ladder as Neil walked over to the cupboard where Sharon was hiding. He opened the door and helped her out from behind the camera tripod.
"That was great," she chortled, "I got everything."
Neil reached into his jacket and pulled out the small radio-microphone. He handed it over to Sharon who clipped it back onto the video camera.
"Well guys," Gary stated, "A little bit of editing, and I think we have her."
Neil began to get hard again, just thinking about what that meant...
They waited almost two weeks before lowering the boom. By that time, the English exam had come and gone, and Miss Frankel had read out the marks in class. Stacy had received the highest mark ever given out in Miss Frankel's English class, a fact commented upon several times by the impressed teacher. Neil, on the other hand, had barely passed. When his mark was announced, Stacy gave him a startled glance, but then quickly looked away. If he was so stupid that he could barely pass with advance notice of the questions, that was his problem.
By that time, Gary and Sharon had suitably edited the video and audio evidence, and Gary had developed a large number of prints from his still pictures of the event. Gary still hoped that the audio tape would be enough on its own (he didn't want Stacy to realise the extent of the plot against her), but if not, the additional evidence was very convincing. Everything had turned out perfect: Stacy's actions and words were crystal clear, while Neil was unrecognizable. Between his disguised voice and positioning during the filming, there was no way to prove the identity of the person from whom Stacy bought the stolen exam paper. Gary thought that this, along with the fact that Stacy had done so well and Neil so poorly on the test, should serve to protect Neil from expulsion if they were forced to use the evidence. As well, Gary and Sharon were willing to give Neil an alibi. At best, it would be Stacy's word against their's, and, if it came to that, Stacy's word would not be worth much by then.
So, it seemed that everything was in order. All that remained was to determine the method of delivery...
The small package arrived in the mail at the Richard household on the Friday almost two weeks after the English exam. It was addressed to Stacy. When it was opened, a cassette tape fell out along with a small piece of note paper. She picked it up and read it: 'SAT. MORNING: 10:00 AM STEWART PARK FOUNTAIN. It was written in clumsy block letters.
Puzzled, she took the tape up to her room, slipped it into her walkman, put on the head-phones and hit the play button. Almost at once, her head was filled with the sound of her own voice:
"I heard you have a copy of next week's English exam. Is that true?"
"Why do you want to know?" That was Neil! What was going on here? There was a brief hissing, then the tape continued, relentlessly. Stacy listened in panicked disbelief.
"I want a copy of that exam. I need it for this weekend."
"Stacy, you mean you want a copy of a stolen exam paper so you can cheat on next Monday's English test."
"Yes. I need it to pass the exam... I'll pay money. How about $100? Please?"
"Alright, I'll sell you the stolen exam paper for $100. Will that be all, Stacy, or do you want any more exams? I can probably get whatever you want."
"That sounds great. I'll buy whatever you can get for the classes I'm in. $100 a paper."
"It's a deal. Meet me tomorrow after school in the woodworking shop. It should be deserted on Friday afternoon... Don't forget the money."
The hissing stopped for a second as the tape fell silent, but before Stacy hit the stop button, it started up again, this time with a small humming sound in the background. The fans, Stacy realised, fighting down panic, the fans in the woodworking shop. Trembling, she listened as the voices began once again:
"Well," her voice again, "Do you have it?"
"I've got it. One stolen English exam paper for Stacy Richards. And my money?"
There was a brief moment of silence, and they the sound of paper being crinkled.
"It's all there; you don't have to worry about that... now or in the future."
"Fine, It's all yours."
The voices fell silent, and she heard a door slam: the shop door slamming when she left the room. The hiss slowly faded as the recording came to halt.
Hands trembling, she pulled the ear-phones off her head and sat still in stunned disbelief. This couldn't be happening to her! Her eyes brimmed over with tears as she picked up the note and re-read it. The writing blurred through the tears as she realised that she had no choice: she would have to go to the meeting tomorrow and see what he wanted.