A. Noh Bahdi — Finding It: Chapter 10
Basketball and wrestling were the winter sports at my school. Wrestling practice started on Monday after school. I was both excited to begin and apprehensive because even though I had two years of wrestling experience, it had been a while since I’d wrestled anyone. In my previous two seasons, I had wrestled on the reserve team in lower weight classes, never facing anyone significantly heavier than me.
On Tuesday I had an appointment with Dr. Clements to review the latest set of x-rays taken during my last visit and decide whether I would need to continue wearing the knee brace. I already knew it was much, much better, and probably as good as new. After Dawn touched my knee, it had accelerated the healing, after all. I hadn’t been wearing the brace at school for the past few weeks. But back in October, when I was dressing up for Renée’s Homecoming dance, I noticed my suit pants were a little snug around the waist. A check of the scales revealed I was pushing two hundred pounds. So, I committed to exercising at home and running a considerable distance each morning to regain my conditioning. Although I wore the brace while doing that, just in case, my knee felt strong. So, I was sure the brace was unnecessary.
Not that I ever looked forward to school on Monday, when I woke, I had good reason for pulling the covers up over my head and staying in bed. I dreaded the idea of facing Mr. Hackman. Plus, it was cold outside — cold enough that I could feel it in my bones even through the blanket and comforter on my bed. But trying to sell myself on the idea that a morning run wasn’t necessary anymore because that evening, I’d be at wrestling practice wasn’t working. From experience with previous years, I knew what the coach would expect, and continuing my daily routine was the best approach to reducing the time for me to get back into top shape.
I rolled out of bed, threw on my sweatsuit, stretched out, and did some calisthenics before slipping on my brace and lacing up my running shoes. Outside, where it seemed that no matter which direction I went, I was always heading into a stiff, icy wind, was eye-opening. But I didn’t waver in my resolve to complete what I set out to do.
Upon returning home, I showered, dressed, ate some cereal, and downed a glass of orange juice. I packed my gym bag with fresh exercise clothes, said goodbye to Mom and headed out to the garage. While letting my car warm up a bit before shifting into reverse to back down the driveway, I listened to the radio while mentally preparing for what I would say when Mr. Hackman confronted me.
I fully expected to be called into the athletic director’s office to discuss what happened on Friday night. My story could not change. But I was certain he would want to go over everything in detail looking for any flaw, hint, or clue. Still, I held out some small but diminishing hope that he didn’t think I was involved.
The knot I’d had in my stomach for nearly a week tightened as Mr. Hackman was not only waiting for me to arrive, but also standing outside the parking lot entrance to the school. When he saw my car pulling into the parking lot, he began walking out to my usual parking spot close to the fieldhouse to meet me. He halted to wait for me to exit my car.
“Any word on the bell?” I asked as stepped out into the chill breeze.
“Of course not. You didn’t expect any, did you?”
“I was hopeful.”
“I suppose you believe in Santa and the tooth faerie.”
“Santa is a maybe. The tooth faerie is a definite yes.”
He glared at me, perturbed that I was trying to be funny, but I was serious.
Leaving my gym bag in the car for wrestling practice later, I grabbed my books and locked up. “I’ve been thinking that maybe it was some kind of prank.”
“What kind of prank is theft of school property? Why would anyone do that?”
“I don’t know. It was just a thought.”
“Look, I wanted to talk to you first thing. I know it’ll take some time to put together a special edition of the school paper but, I want you to get with Mrs. Hines and Mrs. Hinder this morning and work one up. How soon do you think you could get that out?”
“With editing, typing and printing, even a short edition would take until Wednesday.”
“That will have to do,” he said.
“I can take off from study hall to start working on it, I guess. There is always some submitted material waiting on Monday. We could throw something together. Fred and I can do some of the typing, maybe we can enlist Thom and some of the other columnists.”
“What time is your study hall?”
“Third period, right before choir.”
“Great, I’ll have a slip written up for you to pick up when you walk by my office. I’ll see you’re excused.”
Before my first-period class I mentioned it to Mrs. Hines and stopped Mrs. Hinder in the hall to tell her of Mr. Hackman’s request. By the time the third-period bell rang, I was sitting in Mr. Hackman’s office, waiting. When he entered, he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a legal pad on which he’d written what he wanted to say, and handed it to me. When I finished reading it, I looked up.
“What do you think?”
“It’s kind of terse and threatening, don’t you think?”
“This is very serious,” he replied.
“I understand that.”
“Yessir, I do.” My eyes met his. “School property was stolen. But you’re jumping to the conclusion that a student…”
“You assume students were involved. What makes you so sure of that?”
“Let’s look at it. You say you brought the bell over to where you usually leave it.”
“Behind the concession stand.”
“Immediately after the game ended. Is that right?”
“Well, after I came out of the fieldhouse.”
“And you were alone. There was no one with you. Was anyone hanging around?”
“No sir, not that I noticed.”
“And the bell was there until it was stolen, which was sometime after you came up to the press box for the light pole and when I got there to discover the missing bell. So, what was that, maybe ten minutes?”
“Probably more like fifteen.”
“So, at some point during those fifteen minutes, someone dismounted the bell from its stand and removed it.”
“That’s obviously what happened.”
“How did they do that?”
“That’s the question, considering how rusty that sucker was.”
“That’s not even it. They had to have access. No one seems to have seen anything unusual. So, my assumption is that whoever did it was no stranger. I know it was no one in the press box. And I know it wasn’t me. Everyone else left the stadium. The concession stand folks left early because of the weather and no business. The opposing team and their fans all left immediately after the game. Our few spectators, the marching band, the cheering block, and the cheerleaders all left around the same time. It wasn’t like it is after a normal game. Nobody was hanging around. It was cold, wet, and just generally nasty. All the football players were in the fieldhouse. Bart, Jason, and Kenny were collecting their pads, helmets, and uniforms. You were turning off the lights. The only other people who were around had to be the ones who stole the bell, but no one noticed anyone or anything suspicious. So, it had to be someone who would not be suspected. And you say it wasn’t you. So, unless you believe in ghosts, you tell me? It had to be someone from our school, so it had to be students.”
“For the record, besides Santa and faeries, you also know about ghosts.”
“Not now, Carlos.”
“I guess that all makes some sense, but still — ”
“I have some other sources as well.”
“And those sources told you it was a student theft?”
“Look, I didn’t just fall off the potato truck here.”
“Is that even an expression?”
“I haven’t figured out why it was stolen,” Mr. Hackman continued. “But I’m damned sure it was students who did it. They knew exactly when the strike. So, they were watching and planning it for a while. Or they had inside help.”
“Here it comes. He’s targeting you as a suspect.”
“Someone like yourself or Bart, perhaps.”
“Bart and I were far too busy with other things to steal the bell.”
“I’m not saying you or he did the stealing, but I think you knew about it — you and Bart. You see, you always go with the people who have the access, the ones you trust. For example, Bart has a set of keys for the fieldhouse, gates, and the other storage areas for the football field. You know all the procedures. Why, I’ll bet you got everyone’s schedule down-pat. The two of you would be perfect insiders. All I need to do is connect the dots, match the opportunity and the motive…”
“I think you’ve read one too many detective novels.”
“Of course, you’d deny any knowledge or involvement. What else are you going to do? I’m pretty sure you know something, though.”
“I know I didn’t do it. And that’s the truth,” I didn’t flinch or look away as he stared directly into my eyes.
“There’s no other alternative, Brent. It had to be someone we know. I’ve spoken with the Superintendent of Schools already this morning. He’s fully aware and supportive. Once we have all the pieces together, we are going to prosecute everyone involved.”
“So, this is exactly what you want me to print in the paper.”
“Yes. Fix up the spelling and grammar, of course.”
“Of course. I’ll get to work on it right away.” I stood up.
“When you’re ready to tell me how it was done, let me know. Maybe we can work out some sort of deal if you give me the names.”
“When you figure out who did it, maybe you can ask him or her. And you’ll owe Bart and me apologies.”
“Wow,” Carlos said as we were walking out into the hallway and heading for the stairs. “Just, Wow!”
“He’s grasping for straws.”
“He honed in on you and Bart.”
“As we knew he would.”
“As I predicted.”
“So, you were right. That will comfort us in our old age as we serve our prison sentence.”
“You’re still minors,” Carlos said. “They’ll go easier on you.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.”
Other than pointless conversations with Carlos, there was no one I could talk to. No one from the conspiracy would dare meet with anyone else who was involved. Bart didn’t want to talk to me either and I didn’t blame him. Mr. Hackman had already talked to him, I was sure. He was a suspect, too. Hackman had already done a good job giving everyone an unhealthy case of paranoia.
The crazy part of it all was no one ever intended to keep the damned victory bell. In fact, the original plan was to have the bronzing done right away and promptly return the bell to the school, but with as much stealth as it had been taken. For some reason, that last part was important. The purpose was never explained to me beyond saying it made ‘a statement’. What statement that was, I was unclear. Bart didn’t know either. I guess it was something along the lines of ‘it was impossible, but we did it anyway’.
No one expected such an extreme response. Other unanticipated reactions rippled throughout the administration and faculty and shocked anyone involved in the conspiracy.
Once the administration’s official response was published in the school paper, it would confirm rumors everyone had already heard. The reason for the secrecy, even beyond the bell’s eventual return, was clear. Mr. Hackman’s statement was specific. Therefore, the possibility of returning the bell anytime soon was highly unlikely. Had it not been for the gross overreaction of the administration, especially Mr. Hackman, the remaining story of Phil, the kidnapped victory bell, would be short indeed. The bell would have been returned fully bronzed and that fact might not be known until sometime in the summer, or whenever the concession stand was opened again.
Thanks to Mr. Hackman, before Monday was even half over, the Clapper Nappers had already slipped into full, deep stealth mode.
As it was, the bell remained in the original garbage bag since that first night. I doubt anyone who subsequently took possession of it opened the original bag to have a peek. Whoever possessed it was kept a mystery. Certainly, I did not know and that was exactly how it needed to be.
Suspicions were another thing. The bell had to move around from conspirator to conspirator, each one of the others taking a share of the risk. At any time, only the person who took possession and possibly the one who just yielded it knew where it was.
Neither Bart nor I was ever in possession. We didn’t want it because of our association with the team on the night it disappeared. And the conspirators didn’t require our further participation. We wanted as little as possible to do with the others and since we rarely associated with any of them anyway, that wasn’t hard. Still, that is not to say we did nothing for the cause.
As coeditors of the newspaper and at Mr. Hackman’s behest, Fred and I hastily put together the special, abbreviated mid-week edition and circulated it on Wednesday. The full account of what Mr. Hackman believed happened and his official response spread throughout the school. And, in the front-page editorial, besides Mr. Hackman’s letter, I appealed to whoever was involved to return the victory bell promptly.
The helpless feeling was something I could live without. Doing something, anything else, was necessary, so I did what I thought was best. Two days after the special edition, in the regular issue of the paper, an anonymously submitted story under the pseudonym, A. Noh Bahdi (pronounced like ‘a no body’) appeared. It was about the abduction and apparent kidnapping of a transfer student named Phillip Randolph Rutabaga who had been missing since the first day of the school year. It was a piece with which the administration was probably not at all happy, but for the moment they were willing to at least allow everyone else the chance to have a chuckle or two. Me, I didn’t dare laugh.
Intentionally, the story hearkened back to the previous senior prank. The unknown author’s satire purposely associated the two school pranks for what they were. The reason Phil didn’t show up for school on the first day of class was that he was confined in an undisclosed place. My hope was the administration would see the connection. The problem was, except for the conspirators, no one seemed to get the punchline.
Weekly, there were further installments from A. Noh Bahdi. The special code the Clapper Nappers devised prior to the theft was utilized to keep the conspirators informed of the administration’s response and anything they suspected or uncovered.
By the third week after the ‘abduction’, the newspaper began receiving unsolicited submissions from several persons claiming to be A. Noh Bahdi. Because of the use of the code, I was certain the submissions came from other members of the conspiracy.
One of the many rumors that circulated in those early weeks was that Mr. Hackman hired a private detective agency. For that reason, conspirators made a point of not meeting and certainly did not hang out with other members with whom they had not previously associated. Short of having an ill-advised meeting, it would have been almost impossible to communicate to the entire group without the stories in the newspaper. The now weekly installments had also become a source of some interest and amusement amongst other students who otherwise were not involved.
Early on, Mrs. Hines and Mrs. Hinder had a meeting with the newspaper staff, on behalf of the school administration. They felt certain I had written at least the first one of the anonymous submissions. Despite Thom and Mick saying that it was far too well-composed to be anything that I could have produced — for example, there were no typos — our advisors persisted with their assumption. Fred said she thought it was something I may have written. I countered with the suggestion that since everyone thought the person wrote so well, maybe we needed to find him or her and get them on the newspaper staff.
Although, in truth, I wrote the first and some of the subsequent installments, the majority were submitted to the newspaper’s dropbox where any student was permitted to deposit letters to the editors. All other submissions fit into the overall evolving narrative. I only needed to perform minor tweaks before publishing them. I figured Mick or Thom penned a few, perhaps in collaboration. A couple probably came from Jill as those were in a style that was quite different, though. I was glad that someone else — perhaps several other ‘somebodies’ — adopted the moniker A. Noh Bahdi, giving me something of a reserve for future material.
Whether anyone in the administration understood or cared, the fictional material caused a stir. Some questioned why we were printing a fictional account of the kidnapping as if it were news. Much to my surprise, Mrs. Hinder defended the inclusion of the pieces as acute satire. She cited historical examples of newspapers publishing fiction from such greats as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
Certainly, A. Noh Bahdi’s stories were unusual fare and something that drew attention in a way that nothing, not even humorous cartoons, ever had. As the story unfolded, the circulation of the addictive serial increased dramatically. It was becoming a soap opera that students openly discussed amongst themselves. The phenomenon was unexpected and unintended but interesting, nevertheless.
On some weeks we printed extra copies to supply the demand. To my knowledge, that was something that had never happened before. We sold more copies of the paper than we had students, faculty, and staff in school as multiple copies were being distributed beyond the school campus.
Outsiders sought insider knowledge. They wanted to know what was going on, predict the final punchline of what most students suspected was a huge joke. They needed to know everything about this strange individual, Phillip Randolph Rutabaga, that A. Noh Bahdi was writing about. They settled for conjecture and speculation while some made bold, though uninformed predictions of how it might end.