“Ja, everything is fine here, sir,” Gretchen Kraus said on the phone at the governor’s mansion. “Clayton just sent the girls up to bed. And how is the show? Ah, that’s good. Well, enjoy the rest of it, sir. We’ll see you later.”
Clayton Endicott III entered the kitchen. “The governor’s checking up on us, eh?”
"He was in the lobby during the intermission,” Miss Kraus explained, “so he decided to call home.”
Clayton shook his head as he poured a cup of coffee. “I still can’t believe he gave his extra theater tickets to Benson.”
“Why?” she asked. “I thought you didn’t want to go.”
“Well…I didn’t,” he admitted. “But it would’ve been nice to be asked.”
Miss Kraus rolled her eyes. “It’s probably for the best, Clayton. Now you can tell your buddies that you spent Friday night with three beautiful ladies, instead.” She went to the counter to get a plate of leftover cookies, while Clayton sat at the table.
“I must admit, it is nice having Benson out of our way,” he commented. “Did you hear what he said as they were leaving tonight? He said he’d be surprised if this place was still standing when they got back.”
“He was just kidding, Clayton,” Miss Kraus said. “Why do you let him get to you?”
“Because he spends far too much time with the governor. I don’t want the man to think I’m incompetent.”
Miss Kraus set the plate on the table. “You would not be his chief of staff if you were incompetent,” she pointed out. “And he wouldn’t have left you in charge of his beloved daughter, would he?”
“I suppose not,” Clayton said.
Miss Kraus sat down. “There. Now that that’s settled, have a cookie.”
He took one, smiling. “Thank you.”
“I’m surprised there were any left, the way Katie and her friend were wolfing them down,” she remarked. “Did they go off to bed?”
“Bed, yes. Sleep is highly unlikely, however, judging from all the giggling.”
She smiled. “Ja, sleepover is not an accurate term. I will check on them later.”
Clayton nodded, looking thoughtful. “Miss Kraus, what do you think of this new friend of Katie’s?”
“Alicia? I think she’s a nice girl. Why, don’t you?”
“She seems a little too nice, if you ask me,” he said.
Miss Kraus stared at him. “Too nice? What are you talking about?”
“I got the impression that she was just pretending to be polite to us, to gain our trust,” he explained. “But who knows what she’s been up to behind our backs?”
“So now you are suspicious of an eleven-year-old girl?”
Clayton sipped his coffee. “An eleven-year-old with all the cunning of an elected official.”
“Well, you are an authority on that kind of behavior,” Miss Kraus said, sarcastic.
He ignored her. “I’m not sure that this girl is a good influence on Katie. What were they doing down in the basement earlier?”
He raised his eyebrows. “In the basement?”
“Kids like dark, spooky places,” Miss Kraus pointed out. “Besides, if Katie wanted to be friends with this girl and invite her to spend the night here, then she must not be that bad.”
“I hope you’re right.” Clayton finished his coffee, then sniffed the air around him. “Do you have something else in the oven?”
“It smells like something’s burning,” he said, standing up.
“I could’ve sworn I turned the oven off,” Miss Kraus said. “I’d better go check it.”
Clayton followed the scent, going past the kitchen to the basement doorway. As he opened the door, the smoke detector suddenly went off. “Miss Kraus!”
She came running up behind him, and gasped at the sight of the fire burning down below. “Oh, my God!”
“All right, we mustn’t panic,” Clayton said, as if trying to convince himself, too. “We’re in charge now, and…and we need to do something.”
“Call the fire department!” Miss Kraus exclaimed. “And alert security.”
“Yes, we need to call the fire department, and alert security.”
“So go call them!” she told him. “I’ll get the girls.”
They both hurried off. Miss Kraus went upstairs to Katie’s bedroom, where the girls were still awake, talking.
“Miss Kraus, what’s wrong?” Katie asked. “Is that the smoke alarm?”
“Ja, there’s a fire in the basement! We have to go outside.”
A few minutes later, the three came downstairs. Alicia clutched her tote bag.
“The fire department’s on the way,” Clayton told them, meeting them in the front parlor. “Our gathering site is on the front lawn.”
“Then let’s go,” Miss Kraus said.
Katie stopped suddenly. “Oh, no—Hugo! I left him in the basement!” She darted into the kitchen before anyone could stop her.
“Katie!” Miss Kraus and Clayton exclaimed at the same time.
“I’ll go get her,” he said. “We’ll meet you outside.”
“All right,” Miss Kraus replied with a worried expression, leading Alicia to the front door.
Clayton ran to the basement and down the stairs, coughing and peering through the smoke. “Katie!” He saw her in a corner of the room. “Katie, what are you doing?”
“I have to get Hugo!” she called back. “He’s in his cage.”
“We have to get out of here—now!” The flames were creeping closer to the staircase.
“I’ve got him.” She came over, her sweatshirt pulled up over her nose, carrying a hamster cage.
“Come on, then,” Clayton said. “We must hurry.”
He waited for Katie to go up the stairs, then followed her.
“Can you make it upstairs with that thing?” he asked her.
“Yeah,” she said.
“All right. Be careful!”
When she reached the top of the staircase, she stopped to wait for him.
“Go outside and find Miss Kraus,” he told her.
“Okay.” She headed out the door.
Clayton paused on a step, coughing, before resuming his climb. He was almost to the top when something exploded down below, with a loud bang and flash of sparks. Startled, he lost his balance, falling forward on the staircase. His head struck the railing beside him, and everything went black.
Katie hurried outside toward Miss Kraus and Alicia, who waited anxiously on the front lawn. A fire truck pulled up in the driveway, and the crew jumped off to hook up their hoses.
“Katie!” Miss Kraus exclaimed, grabbing her shoulders. “What were you thinking?”
“I had to get Hugo,” she explained, setting the cage on the grass. “I couldn’t let him get burned.”
“Do you know how dangerous that was? You could’ve been—” Miss Kraus stopped suddenly, looking over Katie’s head. “Where is Clayton?”
Surprised, Katie turned around. “He was right behind me! He was following me up the stairs.”
“Oh, my God….” Miss Kraus didn’t see him anywhere. She went up to the nearest firefighter. “My co-worker is still inside! He didn’t come out.”
“He was right behind me—I swear!” Katie insisted, upset.
“Okay, we’ll find him,” the firefighter said. “You ladies wait right here.”
The crew disappeared around the corner with their hoses.
“I’m sorry, Miss Kraus,” Katie said tearfully. “I didn’t think anything bad would happen.”
Miss Kraus hugged her. “I know, liebchen. But they will find him. Don’t worry.”
Clayton opened his eyes, coughing as smoke swirled around him. The loud beeping of the smoke detector kept time with the pounding in his head. Somehow, he’d ended up sprawled on the landing. He had to get outside.
He tried to get up, but a sharp pain in his left leg stopped him. Instead, he dragged himself across the floor, through the basement doorway. He closed the door behind him, leaning against it for a moment, then headed toward the nearest exit.
A sleek black limousine pulled into the driveway, followed by a beat-up old sedan. Governor Gene Gatling and his budget director, Benson DuBois, got out of the limo, staring at all the commotion around them. TV news vans had joined the fire trucks and police cars. Pete Downey, the press secretary, and his girlfriend, secretary Denise Stevens, came up beside Benson and the governor.
“Holy smoke,” Pete said. Benson glanced at him, but he appeared to be serious.
“Katie!” the governor shouted, spotting her in the crowd.
“Daddy!” She ran over and hugged him.
“Are you all right?” He sniffed her hair. “You smell like smoke!”
“I’m okay,” she told him, “but Clayton’s still inside….”
“What?” Governor Gatling exclaimed.
“Katie went down to the basement to get her class pet,” Miss Kraus explained, “and Clayton went after her. Then she came outside, but he didn’t.”
“You went into the basement?” he asked Katie, shocked.
“I had to. Hugo was in his cage. I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“Oh, Katie….” He hugged her again.
A reporter came up to him. “Governor, is it true? Your chief of staff is still in there?”
“Yes, as far as we know, he hasn’t come out yet.”
“He was following me up the stairs,” Katie added. “He told me to go outside to Miss Kraus.”
Everyone stared at the mansion, concerned. Miss Kraus felt a hand on her shoulder, and noticed Benson standing beside her. Neither of them spoke.
“There he is!” Denise said suddenly, pointing.
A big, burly firefighter, carrying Clayton over his shoulder, came toward them on the lawn.
“Oh, no…,” Katie moaned.
The firefighter set Clayton down, assisted by a paramedic. “Watch his left leg,” he told him.
“What happened?” Katie asked.
“We found him near the basement, apparently overcome by smoke. Don’t know how he got hurt, though.”
The paramedics put an oxygen mask over Clayton’s face, and checked his vital signs. A few seconds later, he started coughing. He removed the mask, looking around.
“Miss Kraus…,” he gasped. “Is everyone all right? Katie…?” He coughed again.
“Everyone is fine, Clayton,” Miss Kraus told him. “Just keep breathing!”
He nodded, putting the mask back on and taking a deep breath. The paramedics began splinting his leg.
“I’m sorry, Clayton,” Katie said, kneeling beside him. He patted her arm reassuringly.
“Can you tell us what happened in there?” a reporter asked, leaning in with his microphone. His cameraman stood beside him.
“Can’t you see the man is trying to breathe?” Benson snapped, annoyed.
A police officer stepped in. “Yes, move back, please. Give them some room.”
While the paramedics took Clayton on a gurney to the waiting ambulance, the fire chief came over to Governor Gatling.
“The fire’s been contained, sir. We’re just mopping up in the basement.”
“Thank you for putting it out so quickly,” the governor said.
“Well, we had a little help,” the chief said. “It seems your employee managed to close the basement door; kept the fire from spreading.”
The chief nodded. “It could’ve been a lot worse.”
“Yes,” the governor agreed. “Thanks again.” He walked over to the ambulance.
As soon as he was out of hearing range, Alicia turned to Katie, smiling. “Isn’t this exciting? I’m so glad you invited me here tonight.”
Katie stared at her in disbelief. “Exciting? My house could’ve burned down!”
“It was just one room. And it’s not my fault. You were the one who—”
“Shh!” Katie interrupted her, looking around nervously.
“Did you see that fireman over there?” Alicia remarked. “Major hunk!”
“Is that all you care about?” Katie demanded.
“Hey, c’mon. It’s not like anybody died. And you’re a hero! You saved Hugo from being barbecued.” She laughed. “Let’s go see if we can get on TV again!”
She ran over to the cameramen. Katie watched her, stunned.
“Are you ready to go, sweetie?” Miss Kraus asked, startling her.
“Go where?” she asked.
“We are going to stay in a hotel tonight. Your father’s going to ride to the hospital with Clayton.”
“What about Alicia?” Katie asked.
“We will have to take her home,” Miss Kraus said. “The police called her parents and explained what happened. I’m sorry about your sleepover, but maybe she can come back another time.”
Katie looked at her so-called friend. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, we’ll see. Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Katie said. “I’m ready.”
(To Be Continued)
Two days later, Governor Gatling went to the kitchen for an afternoon coffee break.
“Hello, sir,” Miss Kraus said. “Would you like a danish?”
“Oh, no, thanks,” he replied. “I’m still full from lunch. And breakfast. You must really be glad to have your kitchen back.”
“Ja, it’s good to have something to do,” she agreed. “Keeps my mind busy.”
The governor sat at the table. “I’ve rescheduled most of my busy work this week. But I’m hoping things’ll get back to normal around here pretty quick. As soon as the fire investigators and the insurance people are done, we can get the damage to the basement repaired.”
“You know,” Miss Kraus said, “I still can’t figure out what could’ve started that fire. Katie was playing with her friend in the basement that evening, but she didn’t notice anything unusual.”
“Oh, so that’s why the hamster was down there?” the governor asked.
She nodded. “It seemed harmless enough at the time. But that furry little rodent sure caused a lot of trouble.”
“Who are you calling a furry little rodent?” Benson asked, coming in with Pete and Denise.
“Hugo,” Miss Kraus said.
“Katie’s hamster?” Pete asked.
“If it weren’t for him, Katie wouldn’t have gone downstairs. And Clayton wouldn’t have gone after her.”
“And my phone wouldn’t be ringing off the hook today,” Pete added. “Are these danishes?” He took a large bite of one.
“Ja, help yourself,” Miss Kraus said sarcastically.
Denise tried one, too. “Mmm, this is delicious, Miss Kraus!”
“Thank you, Denise. I always bake when I’m feeling anxious.”
“You must not get anxious very often,” the governor said.
“Why do you say that, sir?” Miss Kraus asked.
“Because you’re a slim woman.”
“Oh!” She smiled. “Ja, I bake when I’m anxious, but I do not eat. I lose my appetite.” She looked at Benson, who was about to make a wisecrack. “Don’t say it, Benson.”
He shrugged, sticking a piece of pastry in his mouth, instead.
“So, Pete, you’re having a busy day, at least?” the governor asked.
“Oh, it’s been nuts, sir,” Pete said. “When is Clayton coming back to work?”
“I’m not sure. Wednesday or Thursday, maybe. Why?”
“Well, it’d be easier to talk to him in person. I just called him and told him he’s got another stack of phone messages. The media wants to set up a press conference as soon as possible, but there’s a problem.”
“Clayton can’t think of a venue big enough to hold all the reporters he wants to invite?” Benson guessed.
“Beats me,” Pete replied. “So far, he won’t even return their calls.”
“Why not?” the governor asked.
“I don’t know, sir. He just keeps saying he hasn’t gotten around to it yet, and he’ll do it later.”
“Well, maybe he’s not feeling up to it yet,” the governor said. “He did get pretty banged up on Friday.”
“I know, sir. I’ll try to be more patient.”
“Thanks, Pete.” The governor looked at his watch. “Katie should be home soon. I guess I’ll have to be patient with her, too. She didn’t have much to say to me this morning.”
Miss Kraus sighed. “I suppose it will take a while for everyone to get back to normal around here.”
“Especially since some of us weren’t all that normal to begin with,” Benson quipped.
Katie entered the kitchen, and everyone greeted her at once, smiling cheerfully. She looked at them warily.
“Hi,” she replied.
“How was school, sweetheart?” the governor asked.
“Would you like something to eat?” Miss Kraus asked. “Some oatmeal cookies, maybe?”
“No, thanks,” Katie said.
“But lunch was a few hours ago,” her father pointed out.
She shrugged. “I’ll just wait till dinner.”
“Well, it’s kind of slow around here right now,” the governor said. “How would you like to sit down and play a game of checkers with your dear old dad?”
“I can’t. I have a lot of homework.”
“Need any help with your math?” Benson asked as she passed his chair.
“No.” She left the kitchen.
“She has never turned down my oatmeal cookies!” Miss Kraus said. “This is serious.”
“I see what you mean, sir,” Benson remarked. “That wasn’t the real Katie.”
The governor sighed. “I know.”
The next afternoon, the governor stopped by Clayton’s apartment for a lunchtime visit. He rang the doorbell, but had to wait a while before the door was opened.
“Hello, sir,” Clayton said, balancing on his crutches. “Please, come in.”
“Thank you. This was a good time to visit, wasn’t it?” the governor asked.
“Yes, it’s fine. I’m sorry, sir, I was just…well, there was something on television, and I didn’t want to miss the ending.”
Clayton looked startled. “How did you know, sir?”
“Lucky guess,” the governor replied. “Plus, there’s not much else to watch when you’re stuck at home all day.”
“That’s true. Uh…do me a favor, sir?”
“Don’t tell Benson,” Clayton said sheepishly.
The governor smiled. “Gotcha.” He held up a large bag. “I got us lunch from Saul’s Deli.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. That was very kind of you.”
“Call it a little reward for heroism,” the governor said.
He set the bag on the dining room table. Clayton started to go to the kitchen.
“No need for plates.” The governor reached into the bag. “I brought paper plates, plastic utensils and bottled drinks. Bachelor living at its finest.”
“Ah, you’ve thought of everything,” Clayton remarked, impressed.
“Even dessert. Miss Kraus sent you some brownies.”
Clayton smiled, sitting at the table. “And how is everyone?”
“Oh, just trying to settle back in,” the governor said, setting out the food. “We’re a little worried about Katie, though.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure. She just hasn’t been herself since Friday. And she doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Clayton nodded. “Well, I’m sure it must’ve been upsetting for her.”
“My guess is she’s probably blaming herself for what happened to you,” the governor said.
“But that wasn’t her fault,” Clayton said. “It was just an accident.”
“I know, but that’s the way kids think.”
“Hmm. Perhaps I could talk to her about it. I was thinking about returning to work tomorrow.”
“Had enough daytime TV?” the governor teased him.
“More than enough,” he replied.
“Well, we’d be glad to have you back, as long as you’re up to it. How are you feeling?”
“Much better, sir.”
“That’s good,” the governor said. “I was a little concerned about you, too.”
“Me?” Clayton sounded surprised.
“Pete tells me you haven’t returned any phone calls from the media. I thought maybe you weren’t feeling well.”
“Oh.” He looked at the table. “No…I’m afraid I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“Too busy?” the governor asked.
Clayton saw that he was just kidding. “I guess that excuse is out, too,” he said, embarrassed.
“Why would you need an excuse?” the governor wanted to know. “I mean, it’s not like you to avoid the media.”
“Yes, I’m sure everyone must think I’m insane, not grabbing all that free publicity.”
The governor shrugged. “I don’t really care what everyone else thinks. But if something’s wrong, I’d like to know what it is.”
Clayton shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It’s really no big deal, sir. It’s just…well, to be honest, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
“You don’t?” the governor asked, surprised.
“When you put me and Miss Kraus in charge that night, I took that responsibility very seriously,” he said. “I wanted to make a good impression. But Benson was right—you couldn’t even go away for one evening without disaster striking.”
“Clayton, that fire could’ve happened if I’d been there. Or if anyone else had been in charge.”
“I know, sir, but it didn’t. It was my job to keep an eye on things. And it’s not like I did anything that heroic. Katie would’ve made it out of the basement just fine without me. I was the one who needed to be rescued. Quite frankly, it was embarrassing.”
“How so?” the governor asked.
“I saw the news footage from that night,” Clayton explained. “Me being carried out of there and dumped on the lawn, in front of everyone. Hardly a heroic image.”
“Wow. I had no idea you felt like this. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. You want to know how I see it?”
Clayton nodded, curious.
“You ran into a burning room to make sure my child got out safely,” the governor said. “Then, even though you were injured—even with a concussion and a broken leg—you had the presence of mind to close the basement door, to keep the fire from spreading.”
“And as for needing to be rescued, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We were all very relieved when they brought you outside. You must’ve seen how worried we looked.”
“Well, now that you mention it, yes,” Clayton admitted.
“So the way I see it,” the governor concluded, “you did everything you could to protect my daughter and my home. That’s what all the fuss is about.”
Clayton smiled. “Thank you, sir. I suppose I have been acting foolish.”
“Well, Pete probably shouldn’t have been pushing you so soon,” the governor said. “But I think a press conference at the mansion is definitely in order.”
“I’ll make a few calls this afternoon.”
“Okay.” The governor took a bite of his sandwich. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you, then.”
“No, sir,” Clayton agreed, “I’m fine. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so spoiled.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” the governor said, smiling. “I think Benson is jealous.”
“You’re not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?” Clayton asked, surprised.
“No, really. I don’t think he quite knows how to deal with all this attention you’re getting."
Clayton smirked. “Well, I’m sure it won’t last very long. I’d better enjoy it while I can.”
A few hours later, the governor waited in the kitchen for Katie again.
“Maybe I’ll have better luck today,” he said. “I already got one confession. Now it’s Katie’s turn.”
“Good luck, sir,” Benson told him. He shook his head. “I still can’t believe Clayton didn’t want his picture plastered on every newspaper in the state. If we’re lucky, maybe that bump on the head changed his personality.”
“Why are you always insulting him?” Katie demanded, walking into the room. “He’s not even here.”
“What?” Benson looked at her, startled by her tone.
“You’re always saying mean things about Clayton. He could’ve died, Benson! Don’t you even care?”
Benson stood up. “Of course I do, sweetheart. I was just joking. That’s what Clayton and I do, we kid around with each other. You know we don’t really mean what we say, don’t you?”
Katie said nothing, leaving the room.
“Katie, honey….” The governor followed her.
“Nice going, Benson,” Miss Kraus said sarcastically.
“What did I do?” he asked, still stunned. “All of a sudden, Clayton’s a hero and I’m the bad guy? It’s like we’re in some kind of parallel universe.”
“No,” Miss Kraus said, “you are just not the center of this one right now. And you can’t stand it.” With that, she left the kitchen.
Benson looked at Pete, the only other person left in the room.
“I still like you, Benson,” he said, smiling.
“Thanks, Pete. That makes me feel much better.”
The governor was following Katie through the front parlor when the fire investigator called his name.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?” he asked.
The governor turned to him. “Yes, of course. Did you find something?”
“A couple of things, actually.”
Katie heard them talking. Instead of going upstairs to her room, she hid nearby to listen.
“We believe we’ve located the cause of the fire,” the investigator said.
“Really? Was it the wiring?” the governor asked.
“No, the wiring looks fine, sir. I’m afraid it’s something much simpler.” He held up a small plastic bag.
“A cigarette? Wait, that’s not a regular cigarette, is it?” The governor took a closer look. “Is that—?”
“Marijuana,” the investigator said.
“A joint? You found a joint in the basement?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“But…how can that be? I mean, nobody on my staff smokes marijuana.”
“Are you sure?” the investigator asked.
“Yes!” the governor said. “Well, as sure as I can be. Besides, we have a strict no-smoking policy here at the mansion.”
“Well, apparently, someone decided to go downstairs and sneak one. We found another piece of evidence by the staircase.” The investigator held up a larger plastic bag.
“What is that?”
“The remnants of an aerosol can. Our guess is it was a can of air freshener, used by the smoker to mask the smell. The can was highly flammable; we believe it caused the explosion that injured Mr. Endicott.”
“I can’t believe someone would be so careless,” the governor said, angry.
“Did anyone else go into the basement last Friday? Repairman, service person?”
“No. Just my daughter and her friend—two little girls. I’m going to talk to my staff and see if anyone knows anything about this. Can I borrow the cigarette? I’d like to show it to them.”
“All right, Governor,” the investigator said, “but I will need it back. It’s evidence.”
“I understand. I’ll return it to you tomorrow morning, if that’s all right.”
“That’s fine. And if you find out anything, let me know.”
“I will,” the governor said. “Thank you.”
Katie watched them go, looking worried. When the coast was clear, she headed for her father’s office.
“Marijuana?” Benson exclaimed, looking at the evidence on his desk. “I can’t believe it.”
“I know,” the governor agreed, “I can’t, either. I don’t have a clue how it got down there.”
“Neither do I, sir.”
Pete and Denise came into Benson’s office.
“You wanted to see us, sir?” Pete asked. “Hey, where’d you get the joint?”
The governor held up the bag. “You know what this is?”
Pete smiled. “Oh, sure. I saw lots of them in college. Where’d it come from?”
Pete’s smile faded. “Wait a minute—is that what started the fire?”
“Yes,” the governor said. “Do you know anything about that?”
“No, sir. Of course not! Sure, I saw other guys smoking them in college, but I never…I mean, I wouldn’t….”
“All right, Pete,” the governor cut in, “I’m not accusing anyone. I’m just trying to figure out what happened.”
“I wish I knew, sir,” Pete said.
“Me, too,” Denise agreed.
Miss Kraus came in. “Oh, here you are, sir. I was looking for you.”
“Is something wrong?” the governor asked.
“No, sir. I just remembered something that happened on Friday, and I—” She saw the bag. “Is that a cigarette?”
“Also known as the cause of the fire,” Benson added.
“That filthy little thing?” Miss Kraus said, disgusted.
“I’m afraid so,” the governor replied. “We’re trying to figure out who could’ve been smoking in the basement. Do you have any idea?”
She looked stunned. “I think maybe I do….”
The others stared at her in surprise.
“You do?” the governor asked.
“It’s all starting to make sense now. Like a puzzle…the pieces finally fit together.”
“Are you going to fill the rest of us in?” Benson asked, impatient.
Miss Kraus sank into a chair. “That night, before we knew about the fire, Clayton and I were talking about Katie’s friend. I said I thought she was a nice girl, but he was suspicious.”
“Why?” the governor asked.
“He thought she was ‘too nice.’ You know, polite to our faces, but up to something behind our backs. I don’t know how he knew that. I didn’t believe him, but now…I think maybe he was right.”
“Scary thought,” Benson murmured.
“Anything else, Gretchen?” the governor prompted her.
“Ja. Earlier, I went into the basement to ask Katie and Alicia if they wanted a snack. When they ran past me on the stairs, I caught a whiff of something strange.”
“Pot?” Pete suggested. Denise elbowed him in the ribs, and he shrugged.
“No,” Miss Kraus said, “it smelled like…pine trees.”
“Pine trees?” Benson repeated, confused. “Was there a forest down there?”
“Not pine trees, exactly. It smelled like….” She searched for the right words. “What are those little paper trees people hang in their cars, from the mirror?”
“Air freshener,” the governor said.
“Ja, that’s it!” Miss Kraus exclaimed. “It smelled like pine-scented air freshener.” She saw a stricken look on the governor’s face. “What’s wrong, sir?”
“The investigator also found the remnants of an aerosol can by the staircase,” he told them. “He thinks it was a can of air freshener, and that it caused the explosion.”
“Oh, no….” Benson said.
“You mean…the girls?” Pete asked in disbelief.
“It does explain a lot,” the governor admitted. “Why Katie’s been acting so strangely. Why she hasn’t mentioned her friend since last Friday….”
“That stuff makes you hungry, too, doesn’t it?” Miss Kraus recalled.
“Yeah,” Pete said, “it gives you the munchies.” He noticed the others looking at him curiously. “So I’ve heard.”
“Why do you ask, Miss Kraus?” the governor wanted to know.
“Well, I had a big plate of cookies for the girls’ snack, and they devoured them. I was surprised that there were a few left.”
“I can’t believe it,” the governor said. “The answer was right in front of me all along, but I didn’t even notice.”
“None of us did, sir,” Benson admitted.
“Because it is not the answer any of us wanted,” Miss Kraus explained. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of all this sooner, sir.”
“That’s all right, Gretchen,” the governor said. “Thank you for helping me solve the mystery.” He sighed. “I’d better go have a talk with my daughter. Does anyone know where she is?”
No one did.
The doorbell rang at Clayton’s apartment. He put down the book he was reading and grabbed his crutches.
“Just a moment!” he called out, getting up. He swung over to the door and opened it. “Katie, what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you,” she said. “It’s really important.”
He looked past her. “How did you get here?”
“I took a taxi.”
“A taxi?” Clayton was still confused. “But how did you know my address?”
“I found it in Dad’s Rolodex,” Katie explained.
“Ah. And does he know you’re here?”
“Not yet. Can I come in?”
“Yes, of course.” Clayton moved away from the doorway, and Katie walked in. “Uh, Katie, why didn’t you tell your father where you were going?”
“I had to talk to you privately,” she said. “So I didn’t want him to come with me, or ask me a million questions.”
“I see.” He was doing enough asking for them both, he realized. “Well, please, sit down. Would you like something to drink? Or a brownie? Miss Kraus made them.”
“No, thanks,” Katie said, sitting on the couch. “I probably shouldn’t spoil my dinner.”
Clayton looked at his watch. “Oh, yes, it is almost dinnertime, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“No, I had a big lunch with your father today, so I’m fine. Katie, can I call him and tell him you’re here? He must be frantic.”
“I guess you’d better,” she replied. “Then I can tell you what I need to before he gets here.”
“All right.” He called the governor and spoke to him for a few minutes, then came back and sat in a chair across from Katie. “He’ll be here in a little while. He didn’t seem very surprised that you wanted to talk to me.”
“He must’ve figured it out,” Katie said. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“What do you mean?” Clayton asked.
“I wanted to tell you sooner, but I was afraid you’d be mad at me. I haven’t told anybody else, either….” She stared at the cast on his leg. “I’m really sorry you got hurt.”
“Well, thank you, Katie. But it wasn’t your fault. You were just trying to rescue your pet. I can understand that.”
To his surprise, tears started rolling down her face.
“You don’t understand, Clayton,” she said. “I did something really bad.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m the one who started the fire.”
He leaned back in his chair, startled. “What?”
“Remember, that night, Alicia and I were playing in the basement?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, while we were down there, she pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket,” Katie explained. “Only, they weren’t real cigarettes. They were…joints.”
Clayton’s eyes widened. “So that’s what she was up to….”
“Oh, nothing. Please, go on.”
“She said all the really cool kids in junior high smoke pot, so we should practice.”
“And you believed her?” he asked, surprised.
“I don’t know,” Katie said. “I’m not one of the cool kids. But she is, so that’s why I wanted to be friends with her. Except she…she wasn’t very nice. She just wanted to ride in a limo, and see the mansion and stuff.”
“So she was just using you.”
“Yeah. Then she pulled a lighter out of her pocket, and started smoking—right in front of me. I didn’t know what to do. I just grabbed this can of air freshener and sprayed it around, to cover up the smoke, and she laughed at me.” She wiped her eyes. “Then she said it was my turn. I didn’t want to do it…I knew it was wrong. But when I didn’t take it from her, she called me a baby, so I…I did it. I took a couple of puffs. It was awful; it just made me cough and choke. And then Miss Kraus opened the door and came in, to see if we wanted a snack.”
Clayton nodded, remembering.
“I panicked, and I dropped it on the floor,” Katie continued. “On the rug. I thought I put it out—I stepped on it. But I guess it didn’t go out.” She grabbed a tissue from a box on the end table, and wiped her eyes again. “So, you see, the whole thing was my fault. The fire investigator just told my dad it was the air freshener can that exploded.”
Clayton rubbed his forehead. “You overheard them?” he guessed, realizing why she’d stopped by.
“Yeah, they didn’t know I was listening. My dad sounded mad, and now you probably hate me. I know I—”
“Katie,” he interrupted her. She looked up. “Katie, come here.”
She looked at him uncertainly, sniffling.
“Please?” He leaned forward and extended his hand. “Come here.”
She got up and approached him, taking his hand. He covered it with his own.
“I want to thank you for coming over here and telling me all this. I know it wasn’t easy for you.”
“But, you know, Katie, everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is that you learn from them, so you don’t repeat them, and I think you have. Am I right?”
“Yes. I’ll never do it again. I promise.”
“Then that’s all that really matters,” he told her, releasing her hand.
“You mean…you don’t hate me?” she asked.
“Of course not. You didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m just thankful that you weren’t hurt.”
She hugged him. “Thank you, Clayton. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right, Katie,” he said.
“But I still have to talk to—” The doorbell rang before she could finish. She looked at Clayton. “Want me to get it?”
“Yes, please. I don’t think your father wants to wait for me again.”
Katie opened the door and looked at her father. He regarded her silently for a moment, then stepped forward and put his arms around her.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said. “I was afraid to tell you.”
“I know, sweetheart. I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough week.”
“I had to tell Clayton first, because it’s my fault he got hurt.”
“Well, not entirely your fault,” the governor said. “This other girl, Alicia—she started the whole thing, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Katie replied. “Are you going to tell her parents?”
He nodded. “They need to know what their daughter did. It’s not fair for her to let you take the rap for this alone.”
“I’m in big trouble, aren’t I?” she asked.
“Well, I am going to have to punish you.” He smiled slightly. “We have a strict no-smoking policy at the mansion, you know.”
“But I’ll need some time to think about what would be a fair punishment. So we’ll sit down tomorrow and discuss it, okay?”
“Okay,” Katie said.
“Now, I think we’ve imposed on Clayton long enough,” the governor told her. “We’d better be getting home.”
Clayton came over to them. “It was no trouble, sir. Katie and I had a nice talk.”
“Well, I appreciate it.” The governor shook his hand. “So I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there.”
“Good.” He started to go outside, then turned. “Oh, by the way—how did you know we couldn’t trust Alicia?”
“Well….” Clayton looked embarrassed. “I hate to admit it, but she kind of reminded me of myself at that age.”
The governor and Katie smiled.
“You didn’t smoke pot, did you?” Katie wanted to know.
“No, of course not. I just…well, it’s a long story. And you two have dinner waiting.”
“Well, if you ever want to talk about it,” the governor said, “you know my door is always open.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind,” Clayton replied.
Laughing, the governor and Katie waved goodbye, and walked together to the car.