It was Friday, 2:52 p.m., and the palm trees of L. A. were generously wreathed with Christmas lights. The wreathes of L. A. were lighted, and the lights of L. A. were bright as ever. I was working the day watch out of Mathnet. The boss is Thad Green. My partner is George Frankly. My name is Monday. I'm a mathematician.
We'd spent the week searching for a missing story. A girl named Graciela Hernandez had been writing for a seasonal fic exchange when the floppy disk containing her fic had been stolen. We decided to take a look at earlier episodes to remind ourselves where we stood.
Graciela had been writing for an exchange called Yuletide. Her story was Glitch/Mathman slash.
"Slash, Kate," said George. "That's a story that romantically pairs two characters."
"Like a story where Kirk and Spock are in love with each other."
"Got it, George."
"Or Sam and Frodo kiss."
"Or two calculators get together and multiply, heh heh heh heh heh."
Graciela was in study hall at the school library when the fic went missing. She'd gone to the bathroom, leaving the disk on her desk. When she'd come back, the disk was gone. No one in the study hall had seen anyone take the disk. Graciela's younger sister Nina, who had been sitting in the desk to Graciela's left, told us she hadn't noticed anything suspicious.
With the Yuletide deadline rapidly approaching, Graciela was afraid she'd have to write a whole new story.
"If we don't find the disk," Kate said, "couldn't you just reconstruct what you already wrote?"
Graciela sighed. "It's not that simple."
Nina rolled her eyes. "She has this whole thing where she can't write the same piece twice. One time she lost her English notebook, and instead of redoing her essay, she wrote a new essay on a whole different topic. She takes writing so seriously. Even when it's just fanfiction."
"You don't think much of fanfiction," Kate observed.
"It's okay," Nina said. "It's just not that big a deal to me."
"But it is a big deal to you," George said to Graciela. "If you can't find your fic…"
Graciela sighed loudly. "I'll have to start over from scratch."
Why would somebody steal a fic, we wondered. Maybe for revenge. A few weeks earlier, Graciela had won a first place in a short story contest, netting her a blue ribbon and one hundred dollars. The second place winner, Jessica White, was pretty sore about it.
Jessica had been at track practice the day Graciela's fic went missing. Ms. Flores, the track coach, had seen her leave at 2:57 p. m. Graciela remembered returning to her desk at exactly 3:00.
"Jessica would have had three minutes to get to the library from track practice," said Kate.
"The track is one kilometer away from the library," said George, pressing the tip of a piece of chalk against the blackboard. "One kilometer equals one thousand meters." He wrote 1 km = 1,000 m on the board.
"Jessica can run the hundred meter dash in thirteen seconds even," Kate pointed out. "She's pretty fast."
"Hmm," said George. "One thousand meters divided by one hundred meters equals ten." He wrote his calculations on the board as he spoke. "It would take Jessica ten times as long to run one kilometer."
Kate picked up a piece of chalk herself. "Ten times thirteen seconds equals one hundred thirty seconds. That's two minutes and ten seconds."
"But that's only if she keeps the same speed throughout," George pointed out. "As a sprinter, she'll be running her fastest in the hundred meter dash. Most runners couldn't keep that up for a whole kilometer."
"Plus, a kilometer is only the distance from the track to the library door. Jessica would have had to run to the library, go inside, find Graciela's desk, take the disk, and leave again, all in three minutes."
"And someone in study hall would have noticed a sprinter dashing in and out."
We concluded that Jessica wasn't our thief. If revenge wasn't the motive, maybe the fic had been stolen for personal gain. Graciela hadn't spent her prize money yet, and maybe whoever had taken the disk knew it and wanted to be paid off. We decided to offer a reward for the disk and see who came to claim it.
A kid named Dante Williams showed up at Mathnet HQ the next day. Dante was Graciela's beta-reader. He claimed he'd found the floppy disk stashed behind the library's computer. Sure enough, the disk contained a file called Mathman. We told Dante his reward was on its way. Then we called Graciela to tell her the fic had been found.
"There's just one problem," Graciela said, squinting at the computer screen. Nina stood next to her, reading over her shoulder.
"What's that?" asked George.
"That's not my fic."
The fic was a fake. In Graciela's fic, Mathman was supposed to eat prime numbers. In the fic on the disk, he ate multiples of eight.
"Do you know what this means?" George asked.
Graciela's face lit up. "It means someone else ships Glitch and Mathman!"
"Besides that," said Kate.
Nina spoke up. "It means whoever took the fic didn't do it for profit."
"Or if they did," said George. "They weren't willing to come in for the reward."
We called Dante about the phony fic, and he 'fessed up pretty quick. He'd had some last-minute Christmas shopping to do, and he'd wanted the reward money to buy gifts for his family. Graciela suggested he write them stories instead. He was pretty good at it.
We said goodbye to Graciela and Nina and puzzled over the clues we had. We were pretty stumped, and the Yuletide deadline was coming up fast. We decided to play What If.
"If the thief wasn't motivated by profit or revenge," said Kate, "then they must have been motivated by something else."
George nodded. "What if the thief took the fic because they wanted to read it?"
"That's possible," said Kate. "But why go to the trouble of stealing it? Why not just wait until Yuletide and read it then?"
"Maybe they were impatient," said George.
"Or," said Kate. "Maybe they wanted to read more than one fic."
"What do you mean?"
"What if," said Kate, "the thief knew that Graciela never wrote the same story twice? What if they knew that taking the fic would force Graciela to write a second story?"
George gave a low whistle. "Kate," he said. "There just might be someone out there who loves Glitch/Mathman fic that much."
We decided to try our reward plan again, but this time, instead of offering money, we promised a new Glitch/Mathman fic in exchange for Graciela's disk. Graciela still didn't want to write a second fic, and Dante wouldn't answer our phone call, so George volunteered to write one himself. Graciela and Nina covered the school with fliers advertising the reward. The trap was set. Now we just needed to wait and see who'd spring it.
When Kate came in the next morning, George was already typing on his computer. "I'm working on the fic," he said. "Check this out. Mathman stared at the number on the grid, hoping against hope it was a square. He was running out of time. He—"
"Sounds good, George," Kate said, interrupting him. "You think our ficnapper will take the bait?"
"I sure hope so," said George. "The Yuletide deadline is tomorrow."
"Any progress, Mathnetters?" Debbie asked, letting herself into the office.
"Three thousand words so far," said George. "Mathman took a bite. Too late, he realized his mistake."
"I meant on the case," Debbie said.
"Oh," said George. "Right."
"Nothing yet," Kate said. "But we're hoping for a breakthrough."
Debbie nodded. "Well, it's Friday. Almost every case you've had, you've solved on a Friday."
"That's true," said Kate. "I just hope the pattern holds."
George finished the fic just before school let out. The phone rang a few minutes later.
"Graciela and Nina," Debbie announced. "Shall I send them your way?"
"Please do," said George.
"Well," said Graciela. "Did anyone bring in my disk?"
"Not yet," said George, "but I've got the reward fic all ready. Want to read it?"
Graciela sat at George's computer. Nina stood behind her, leaning on her chair.
"Glitch's fierce winds buffeted the doomed hero. The taste of the wrong number was bitter in his mouth." Graciela looked up. "This is pretty good, Mr. Frankly."
"It's almost as good as Graciela's," Nina added.
Kate looked quizzically at Nina. "I thought you weren't interested in Graciela's fic."
"I am," Nina said, glancing at her sister. "But I don't like to tell her so. She got enough of a swelled head from winning that story contest."
Kate and George looked at each other. Then Kate picked up the phone. "Debbie," she said. "Do you still have that thing in the evidence room to show Graciela? Great. See you soon."
Debbie opened the door a moment later. "Graciela," she said. "Will you come with me?"
Graciela stood up, and Nina walked after her.
"Wait," called George. "Just Graciela. Nina, why don't you stay with us?"
Nina stepped back into the room, and Kate shut the door behind Debbie and Graciela.
"Nina," said George. "We think you might have something to show us."
Nina hung her head. Then she unzipped her backpack, rooted through it, and pulled out a single black disk. She handed the disk to George. "How did you know?" she asked.
"We knew the thief had to have been in the school library when the disk was taken," said Kate.
"We eliminated the only suspect who might have been motivated by revenge," added George. And when we offered a financial reward, only someone with a fake fic came forward."
"We started to suspect the thief was motivated simply by wanting Glitch/Mathman fic," said Kate.
"Only someone close to Graciela knew that taking the fic now would mean she'd have to write another one," George continued.
"We should have realized you loved fanfiction when we saw you reading Dante's fic," said Kate.
"Or when you read mine," said George.
"But it wasn't until you admitted to liking Graciela's fic," said Kate, "that we finally put it together."
"Are you going to tell Graciela?" Nina asked.
"Do you think we should?" Kate asked.
"I'd rather tell her myself," said Nina.
The door clicked open, and Debbie and Graciela returned.
"Good news," said George. He held up the floppy disk. "Look!"
"My fic!" Graciela cried. "Where did you find it?"
Kate and George looked at each other. "Maybe Nina can fill you in," Kate said.
"Okay." Graciela bounced on her toes with excitement. "Tell me on the way home," she told Nina. "I've got to go to post this right away. Thank you so much, Mathnet!"
"We're glad to help," said Kate. Debbie and George nodded agreement.
"Oh, and Mr. Frankly?" said Graciela, almost out the door.
"Yes?" said George.
"You should post your fic as a treat. I'm sure someone would love to read it."
"Thanks, Graciela," said George. "I think I will."
Graciela and Nina left, then Debbie, and then the Mathnetters were alone.
"Well, pard," said George. "That's a wrap. There's just one thing left to do."
"What's that, George?" asked Kate.
"Wait for Yuletide," said George. "Heh heh heh heh heh."
"Ha ha ha ha ha," Kate echoed. She lifted her hand, and they high-fived in the air. Another mystery was over, thanks to logic, problem-solving, and good old-fashioned mathematics. Maybe they'd be able to enjoy a seasonal fic exchange after all.