“Nestled in the Berkshires just west of Mount Greylock is the tiny town of New Ashford, where you will find one of the most exclusive boys’ schools in the world, Wharton Academy. Established in 1875, it is named after Silas James Wharton of pioneer fame … You will find that the courses at Wharton will challenge your youngster to fulfill his academic potential, while providing an environment to stimulate his thirst for learning and help him develop a keen sense of fair play … yeah, right.”
Alan Tracy tossed the brochure he’d picked up at the admissions office into the nearest trash can. He was on his way back out of the main office building after checking in for another year of school at Wharton. It looked to be a boring one, especially when compared to the most soul-satisfying summer he had ever known. His father, billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, had allowed him to begin training for the most elite and secret rescue organization on the face of the planet, International Rescue. He was a Thunderbird now. A Thunderbird in training, that much was true, but a Thunderbird nonetheless.
“H-H-Hey, Alan!” Fermat Hackenbacker, Alan’s best friend and fellow trainee, waved his arms frantically over his head. Alan redirected his footsteps in Fermat’s direction. Standing by the limousine were Alan’s father, Jeff, and his next-oldest brother, Gordon. They were looking over the campus map with Fermat’s father, Hiram, otherwise known as “Brains”.
Jeff smiled as Alan approached them. “So, what dorm are you in this year?”
“Chetwood.” Sighing, Alan handed over the paperwork the office had given him.
Hiram and Jeff exchanged frowns. “Ch-Ch-Chetwood?” Hiram’s stutter made it difficult for him to pronounce the word. “F-F-F, my son is in M-Maplewood.”
“I thought we specified that you two were to room together.” Jeff’s initial frown quickly became a scowl. “I’d better look into this. C’mon, Alan, Fermat.” With that, the rangy multi-billionaire strode off, Alan and Fermat hurrying to catch up.
“I sh-sh-sh.. ought to go, t-too,” Hiram told Gordon as he set off in the wake of the threesome.
Gordon shrugged and climbed back into the limo. Pulling out his personal music player, he slipped on his earphones. Within minutes he was playing air drums with his favorite band.
“I’m Jeff Tracy and I’d like to see the person in charge of housing,” Jeff said politely. The secretary offered the men a seat before paging the director on the phone and telling him that Mr. Tracy wanted to see him. Now, usually the Tracy name carried a lot of weight and people stumbled all over themselves to be of service to the decorated astronaut. But someone, it seemed, had forgotten to tell the director of student housing just who he was. For a good twenty minutes, the group cooled their heels, reading the wholesome boys’ magazines–several of them defaced with interesting graffiti inside–scattered throughout the waiting room.
Finally, the director came out. A tall thin woman, she wore her graying hair pulled back severely from her face and gathered into a bun at the nape of her neck. Dressed in a conservative navy skirt and school blazer, she looked down her thin nose through a pair of slightly tinted glasses at the men and boys gathered outside. Jeff, always polite, rose to his feet. Hiram followed suit.
The director gave them both a tight-lipped smile before extending a cool, thin hand. “Mr. Tracy, I am Mrs. Belvedere, director of student affairs, including housing. Please come into my office.”
“This is my associate, Professor Hiram Hackenbacker,” Jeff said, indicating the rumpled scientist. “His son is involved in this situation as well.”
“Indeed.” Mrs. Belvedere extended a hand to Hiram who, looking rather flustered, took it. “Please, gentlemen. This way.”
“Boys,” Jeff said, packing a load of warning into the word. “We’ll be right back.” He and Hiram disappeared into the office as the director closed the door behind them.
Alan sighed and nudged Fermat. “Whattaya wanna bet that my dad has us rooming together within ten minutes?”
Fermat raised an eyebrow behind his blue-rimmed glasses. “I’d say it would take him … f-f-fifteen.”
“Fifteen? Are you out of your gourd?” Alan exclaimed, incredulous. “No way!”
“Are you g-g-going to put your money where your m-m-mouth is?” Fermat said slyly, nudging Alan back.
“Only t-t-ten? You don’t have m-m-much faith in your f-f-f … dad, do you?”
“Okay. Ten bucks … and the loser cleans the bathroom for the next month.”
Fermat stuck out a pudgy hand. “Done.”
The boys didn’t notice the time as they flipped through the magazine with the most interesting graffiti, their heads bent together as they chuckled over it. Suddenly, the door to Mrs. Belvedere’s office opened. Jeff walked out, still scowling, a frowning Hiram following in his wake. The two boys looked up. Alan gave a quick glance to his watch. Twenty-five minutes! Shocked at how long it had taken his father to deal with the problem, he didn’t hear his father speak.
Jeff turned to Mrs. Belvedere, who stood at the door. “The board of directors will be hearing from me.”
“A-a-and from m-m-me,” echoed Hiram. He turned to the boys, “C’mon, F-F-F … s-s-s … c’mon, boys.” He put a hand on the shoulder of a puzzled Fermat to guide him out of the waiting area.
“Alan,” Jeff called sharply.
Alan nodded, falling into line behind his father, before edging over to walk next to Jeff.
“So? Did you get it straightened out?”
“No,” Jeff huffed as they left the building, heading to the limo.
Alan halted in his tracks. “No? What do you mean ‘no’? I mean, wasn’t it some kind of mistake?”
“N-n-n-no, Alan.” Hiram turned to face him. Fermat stopped climbing into the limo, shooting a puzzled frown at his father. “Mrs. B-B-B … that woman had arguments for s-s-se … splitting you up.”
Alan folded his arms over his chest. “Like what?”.
Jeff glanced at his son standing there, noting how his folded arms and planted feet screamed anger and defiance. He sighed heavily. “Get into the car, son. We can talk about it there.”
Alan hesitated for a second before dropping his arms and following Fermat into the limo. Hiram and Jeff ducked in behind them.
Gordon looked up at the solemn group. “So, what happened, Dad?”
“I wasn’t able to accomplish much.” Jeff scowled, shaking his head. The older Tracy instructed the driver to take them to the dormitory square. He sat on the edge of the smooth leather seat and leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, hands dropping loosely between his legs. He took a short breath before continuing. “Mrs. Belvedere thinks that splitting you up would be good for both of you…”
Both boys started to protest, but Jeff stopped them with a motion of his hand. “Let me finish. Alan, she thinks that without Fermat for you to ‘lean on’ academically, you’d have to put forth a better effort of your own. She also feels that Fermat would be better off without your … ‘dubious influence’ is the phrase she used.”
“Sh-Sh-She thinks that Alan is a bad influence on you, s-s-son.” Hiram put a hand on Fermat’s shoulder, his tone soft. “She th-thinks you’d do better with someone of your own a-a-a … scholastic level.”
“What? Alan a ‘dubious influence’?” Gordon grinned, ruffling his brother’s blond hair. “She doesn’t know the half of it, does she, Sprout?”
Alan batted him away irritably. “Get off, Gordon! And don’t call me ‘Sprout’!” He turned to his father. “She just doesn’t see it, does she?” Alan’s scowl matched his father’s though his tone indicating his disgust. “There’s more involved than just influence and academics.”
“Y-Y-Yeah!” Fermat glanced from his friend to his father. “We’re friends and we sh-share a common s-s-secret. There’s no one else I can t-t-t … converse with about you and your work, Dad.”
“Same here, Dad. Sometimes I’m so excited about what you are doing I’ve got to talk to someone about it or just bust!” Alan explained, his scowl morphing into an earnest frown.
Jeff smiled a little. “I guess I can understand that.”
Fermat nodded as he glanced over at Jeff Tracy. “Plus there’s the protection …”
“Protection? From what?” Jeff asked, suddenly concerned and puzzled. “Why do you need protection?”
Alan nudged Fermat. “You weren’t supposed to tell them, sport.” He faced his father, sighing. “When Fermat first came here, he was the target of a lot of teasing and abuse. Being so young and so smart, y’know.”
“Don’t forget the s-s-stutter,” Fermat piped up. “Alan stuck up f-for me. K-K-Kept the bullies away.”
Gordon smirked. “Yup. Sounds like our Alan. Always spoiling for a fight.” Alan swatted his brother; Gordon put up both hands in a protective gesture, grinning.
Hiram frowned. “Why didn’t you s-s-s… speak up, son?”
“I was a-a-af … scared you’d take me away from here. Send me to a school where I would kn-kn-kn … have no friends at all.”
“Hmm. You’re p-p-pr … most likely right, son,” Hiram admitted, nodding.
“Why couldn’t you change this, Dad?” Alan pleaded.
“Because the woman thinks she has power, that’s why.” Jeff put a fatherly hand on Alan’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, son. I’m going over her head on this one.”
“Heh. She’s gonna know not to mess with Jeff Tracy, isn’t she, Dad?” Gordon said smugly.
“If I have anything to say about it, yes.”
Alan clenched his fists. “Why can’t you just pull us from Wharton? I’m sure at another school …”
Jeff shook his head firmly. “It’s too late in the year to think about another school. It would be a tremendous hassle to find one with an opening at this point, and you and Fermat would end up being behind in your classes. Besides, I think I can sway the board of directors at their meeting next month.”
“Next month?” Fermat’s eyes widened, while Alan’s jaw dropped.
The limo stopped; Jeff looked out the tinted window, noting they had parked in front of Maplewood dormitory. “Listen, boys. You’re going to have to make the best of it for now. I’ll get it straightened out as soon as I can. Trust me on this.” He smiled at the two boys. “Can you tough it out for a month?”
Alan sighed, a sullen pout on his face. “I guess we can … for a month.”
“Fermat?” Hiram prompted softly.
“Yes, Mr. Tracy. I’ll m-m-make the best of it. For now.” The younger boy looked glum.
“Well, here’s Maplewood. We’d better get you unpacked and settled, Fermat.” Jeff tried to sound positive.
Alan climbed out after his friend. “C’mon, sport.” He laid a hand on Fermat’s shoulder. “It won’t be that bad. We’ll still meet for lunch and dinner and stuff. Plus we can still study together.”
“And it’s o-o-only for a month, right?” Fermat turned to Alan and held out his fist.
“Right!” Alan grinned, touching his own fist to his friend’s.