Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy Excerpt

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Paula Berinstein



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Blood Outside the East Door
He leaned forward. “I think there’s something weird going on here.”

“At the school?” said Amanda.


“What kind of weird thing?” said Ivy.

“I’m not sure, but I think something is wrong,” said Simon.

“Something like what?” said Amanda, half dismissing the idea. Who knew if he was credible?

“I don’t like to be melodramatic, but I think I’ve been hearing things,” he said.

“Things?” said Amphora.

“Odd noises behind walls,” said Simon, motioning toward the right-hand hall wall with his head, then circling toward the left-hand one. The motion made him appear slightly spastic.

“You mean like mice?” said Amphora. “I don’t like mice.” She shuddered.

“No, he’s right,” said Ivy. “Not mice. People.”

“Yes, people,” said Simon, doing that heel-toe rocking thing again.

“Is that what it was?” said Amanda.

“What what was?” said Amphora.

“Ivy heard it. In the bathroom.” She jerked her head in the direction of the offending restroom, then caught herself. She hoped she didn’t look as dumb as Simon doing that.

“Like a scraping?” said Simon.

“Yes,” said Ivy. “And some thumping. No, Nigel. Not you.” The dog was wagging his tail excitedly for some reason only he knew.

“I didn’t hear any thumping,” said Amanda.

“Definitely thumping,” said Ivy, rubbing Nigel’s head.

“It’s probably nothing,” said Amphora. “We’re not used to the school. I’m sure there are all kinds of things they have to do that we don’t know anything about. Maintenance and stuff. Maybe those décor guys.”

“I don’t think so,” said Ivy.

“No, I don’t either,” said Simon. “I think it might be something we’re not supposed to know about, and I want to find out what it is.”

“But why do you think that?” said Amphora. “I think you’re overreacting.”

“I don’t think so,” said Simon.

“Why not?” said Amphora.

“Because I saw blood outside the east door.”



Professor Pickle’s Car

Headmaster Thrillkill and Professors Stegelmeyer, Scribbish, and Ducey were all outside waving their arms and shouting directions at the firemen, who did not look amused. Thrillkill seemed to be holding a hair dryer, which Amanda thought particularly odd. But what really stood out was Professor Bill Pickle, the textual analysis teacher. Amanda had heard the older students describe him as an annoying, Latin-spouting, bow tie-wearing, grammar-correcting ponce, whatever that was. He seemed to be moaning and wailing and wringing his hands. Could he have been injured? She couldn’t see how. He looked perfectly fine. There were no paramedics at the scene and no one was paying any attention to him. Perhaps something important to him had been damaged. Of course. His car.

Everyone knew about Professor Pickle’s car. You couldn’t get within a mile of the school and not hear about Professor Pickle’s car. It was a classic Triumph Roadster that he treated like a Michelangelo sculpture. You’d swear he polished the thing as if it were the Hubble Telescope mirror just so he could admire himself in its reflection and take selfies in its light. It was even said that the man sterilized the engine as if he were administering a high colonic. And he’d given it some sort of silly name. Gorky? Girly? No, Gherkin. It was definitely Gherkin. Well, of course. The man’s name was Pickle.
What was really neat about the car wasn’t all that flash though. It had a way cool rumble seat. Amanda had wanted to ride in a rumble seat ever since she’d read the early Nancy Drew books, in which the girl sleuth had driven a blue rumble-seated roadster. It was said that Professor Pickle took his car out for a long drive every Sunday wearing a jaunty cap and special driving gloves, with his golf clubs ensconced in the rumble seat.

Amanda didn’t know anything else about the man. The students didn’t take Textual Analysis until their third year, so she wouldn’t be in his class for quite some time. He did seem to cut a ridiculous figure, but she didn’t want to jump to any conclusions about him or his car. She should be methodical about this investigation and let the evidence speak for itself, just as Professor Scribbish had instructed.
The first class the next morning was History of Detectives. The classroom was huge and paneled in dark wood. Amanda thought it was beautiful but was thankful she didn’t have to polish it. It would take so long that as soon as she’d finished she’d have to start all over. The room felt old-fashioned but it was a lot nicer than the classrooms at Ysidro Middle School, which were so depressing that she was always mentally redecorating them.

“Bienvenido!” said the teacher, Professor Also, an athletic-looking, curly-haired woman with a kind face and a wavery voice. The students, some of whom appeared bright and eager and others of whom seemed not to have slept the night before, looked around blankly.

“Oh, sorry. Forgive me,” the teacher said. “I just got back from Costa Rica and I haven’t got my land legs yet. That means ‘Welcome.’ May I have a volunteer, please? How about you, Mr. Binkle?”

The goofy-looking boy with the glasses, late of the vomit incident, pointed to himself. “Me, your honor?”

“Yes, you, Mr. Binkle, and I am not your honor. Professor Also will do.”

“Yes, sir, er, your ladyship,” said the boy, every bit as awkward as Amanda thought he was.

Professor Also sighed. “Now would be a good time.”

“Right,” said the boy, and raced to the front, tripping over nothing twice on his way to the spot where Professor Also was pointing. Amanda felt sorry for him.

“Now, Mr. Simon Binkle,” said the teacher. “I want you to select from these items and give yourself a semblance of a detective’s mystique.”

“A what, ma’am?” said the boy.

“A detective’s mystique. Go on. Let’s see what you can put together.”

Mr. Simon Binkle had turned rather red. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand, ma’am.”

“This, class, is exactly the problem for those of us who are new to the detective’s world. In order to be a great sleuth, you must develop a mystique. All the classic detectives have one and we will study them. A mystique sets you apart, and may I say, gives you a certain, I don’t know. Let’s say cachet.”

“Sorry, Professor. What’s cachet?”

“Cachet, Mr. Binkle, is that special something, an almost magical quality, that makes you fascinating.” The idea of the gangly Mr. Binkle being fascinating made Amanda want to laugh.

“Do you mean that we all have to be fascinating?” said Simon Binkle.

“Eventually,” said the teacher, at which the boy’s face went completely white.

“I see I’ve thrown you. Let me reassure you that developing a mystique isn’t nearly as intimidating a procedure as it sounds. This will occur naturally over the course of your time here at Legatum. Let’s talk about it a bit. Yes, Mr. Wiffle.” She pointed toward a pale, redheaded boy who was raising his hand excitedly.

“First, Professor, let me say that I’m very impressed that you already know all of our names. I think I’m going to enjoy your class. Second, can you tell us whether mystiques will be on the tests?”

Amanda looked over at Amphora, who was making a gagging face. When she saw Amanda looking at her she mouthed, “Do you believe this?” Amanda rolled her eyes, then grinned and shook her head. When she caught sight of Nick, who was sitting at the end of her row, she could see that he was laughing silently.

“I’m tempted not to answer that, Mr. Wiffle. A detective should be ready for anything. However, as this is your first day I will make an exception. No. Mystiques will not be on the tests but they will be part of your grade. Let me say right now that I will know if you’re faking a mystique. It’s perfectly acceptable to experiment, and in fact we expect you to do so. However do not try to impress us. A mystique evolves naturally. Trying to be something you’re not will get you nowhere and could actually backfire. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Professor,” said Mr. Wiffle. Amanda, Amphora, Nick, and Ivy were all stifling laughs. Simon, who was still standing in front of the class, seemed completely lost.

“Now, let’s talk about mystiques, shall we?” said Professor Also. “A mystique is much more than appearance, although that plays a large part because it’s what we see. It also has to do with the way the detective thinks and what he or she is most interested in. In other words, it’s what makes the detective different from other detectives.

“For example, we’re all familiar with Sherlock Holmes’s recognizable clothing and accoutrements, but what really defined his mystique was his keen ability to observe small details and draw conclusions from them.” Amanda winced. Who cared what Sherlock Holmes did or didn’t do? “But his observational skills didn’t operate in a vacuum. They depended on his arcane knowledge. As you know, he could deduce an astounding amount about a person just by observing his or her clothes, but in order to do that he had to familiarize himself with everything from buttons to types of wool. So his mystique depended on his knowing a great deal about obscure subjects. Yes, Mr. Wiffle.”

Not him again. Amanda was beginning to get the measure of this kid. She decided that staying away from him would be a good idea.

“Professor, will we be expected to study buttons and things like that?”

“Yes, Mr. Wiffle. Professor Sidebotham will be at your side for these six years, and by the time you graduate you will know more about buttons, fountain pens, and motor oil than 99.999% of the people on the planet.”

The kid’s mouth dropped. He obviously wasn’t happy. Amanda didn’t want to learn about buttons either, but she thought she could put up with it if it meant she got to watch him squirm.

“Mr. Wiffle,” said the teacher. “Do I infer correctly that you’re not interested in buttons and motor oil?”

The class laughed and the kid went as red as his hair.

“No, Professor Also,” he said, catching himself. “I’m quite looking forward to learning about motor oil. It sounds fascinating.”

The teacher gave the kid a look and said, “Indeed. Now, let’s continue with our discussion of mystiques. As I was saying, when you matriculate you will have developed a mystique that is unique to you. A unique mystique, if you will.”

There were giggles around the room until Professor Also fixed the class with a stony stare.
American English vs British English 
When they’d gone, Amanda said, “Let’s go to the kitchen and see if we can sneak something delicious. I’m having sugar withdrawal.”

“Me too,” said Amphora. “You’re on.”

You weren’t supposed to go into the kitchen without a good reason. It was a school rule and the cook was very strict about it. But both girls were craving sugar so badly that they didn’t care, so they snuck off to see if there were any easy pickings.

They didn’t have much time. They’d have to be in class in a few minutes. As they approached they saw the cook in the hall talking to her assistant, a petite, dark-haired woman who obviously wasn’t happy about something. Good. The cook wasn’t paying attention to the other people around her. This would be easy. They opened the door quietly and tiptoed in.

The woman certainly was fastidious. The huge kitchen gleamed like the Taj Mahal on a sunny day. Gigantic iron pots were sitting on the stove, steaming, boiling, and sizzling away, and fresh, colorful vegetables that bore faint resemblance to the peas at lunch were laid out on the massive wooden cutting board in the center of the room. At the far end was a refrigerator the size of a semi-trailer.

“There,” said Amphora, pointing. “Let’s try the fridge.”

“You got it,” said Amanda, tippy-toeing toward the behemoth. “Hey, wait a minute. There’s the pantry. Maybe there are some cookies in there.”

“Cookies?” said Amphora. “Oh, biscuits. Right.”

“Biscuits?” I don’t want a biscuit. I want something sweet,” said Amanda.

“Biscuits are sweet,” hissed Amphora.

“No they’re not,” said Amanda. “I want cookies.”

Continuing to argue, the two girls entered the gigantic pantry, which was lined with shelves and cubbies of assorted shapes and sizes. It felt very homey, and Amanda thought that if she were stuck there for a week she wouldn’t mind at all.

“There!” they both said at once, running toward a shelf full of cookies of every variety—chocolate, vanilla, coconut, raisin, jam-in-the-center, marshmallow, sprinkle-topped—smashing into each other in the process.

“I thought you said you wanted biscuits,” said Amanda.

“These are biscuits,” said Amphora, grabbing a box.

“No, they’re cookies,” said Amanda, attempting to wrest it away from her.

“Uh uh,” said Amphora, grabbing back. “Biscuits.”

“Wait a minute,” said Amanda, letting her have the box. “You think these are biscuits?”

“They are biscuits.”

“Oooooh, I get it. That’s what you guys call cookies. To us, biscuits are dinner rolls. Or breakfast rolls.”

“Really? How peculiar.”

Amanda wasn’t sure if Amphora meant interesting peculiar or get-it-away-from-me peculiar.

“Okay, what do you call that?” said Amanda pointing at some boxes of spaghetti. She was sure English people had some exotic name for the pasta but she couldn’t imagine what.

“Spaghetti. What do you call it?”

“Spaghetti. How about that?” She pointed to another box that said “Tea” on it.


“Tea. And that?” A brightly colored can.

“Mushy peas.”

“Mushy peas? Eeeeeeew.” Amanda looked at the picture on the can. It was a huge green splat that looked like the creature from the black lagoon.

“Why, what do you call them?”

“I don’t,” said Amanda, sticking her finger down her throat. How could anyone eat something with the word “mushy” in the name?

“They’re really quite good,” said Amphora, admiring the can. “You should try them sometime.”

“Ugh,” said Amanda. “They look like you-know-what.”

The girls burst into laughter.

“Say, look at that,” said Amanda, bending down to examine some pink powder on the floor.

“Hm, that’s weird,” said Amphora, peering down at the stuff. “It’s pink. It’s nice.”

“Don’t touch it!” yelled Amphora, grabbing at Amanda’s arm. “It’s probably rat poison!”

“Rat poison in a pantry? I don’t think so.” Amanda shook off Amphora’s hand and reached closer.

“No, really. Don’t touch it. Come on, let’s go. We’re going to get into trouble.”

“Oh, all right,” said Amanda. “But I’m coming back later. I want to see what that is. It’s really pretty.” It was. It looked like cotton candy that had dried and shattered into tiny bits of confetti.

“Okay,” said Amphora. “You go back later. Got the biscuits?”

“They’re in my bag,” said Amanda, gripping the place where she’d stuck the cookies. “Let’s roll. Er, biscuit. No, roll.”


Dead Bodies Class

Thank goodness the pathology class didn’t meet in an autopsy room. It hadn’t occurred to Amanda that she might be subject to such a horror until she looked at her schedule, and then she panicked. Morgues were gross, and even when she learned about the school it hadn’t dawned on her that she’d have to have anything to do with them. So the fact that the class met in a regular classroom was quite a relief, at least until the teacher, Professor Hoxby, a morbid older man with purplish skin who would have been perfect in a horror movie, spoke.

“Students, this week and next we will meet here, but the week after we will convene at the autopsy room. I will give you complete instructions in a few days. For now I want you to get into the spirit of the class by reading chapters one through seven in your text, The Complete Handbook of Autopsy Practice, Featuring 1200 Color Images, Twelfth Edition, by the time we next meet. This should take you through images one through sixty. I must tell you that this is a particularly excellent edition because it now covers tonsils in great detail, as well as amputations.”

Amanda felt like she was going to throw up again, and looked at the seat in front of her to make sure there were no coats there.

Professor Hoxby was practically glowing a sort of metallic purple now. He was really into this stuff.

“I also want you to pay special attention to the chapter on little known facts about dissection,” he continued. “This is a particularly insightful addition that will help you greatly in your work.”
Now everyone was gagging, even the boys. Amanda wondered how often people threw up in Professor Hoxby’s classes. He didn’t seem to care that he was making people sick. In fact he seemed to be relishing doing so. The whole idea of going to the detectives’ school made Amanda ill, but she’d never expected the reality of the situation to be so nauseating.

Suddenly the boy next to her heaved all over his desk. The vomit dripped all over his pants and the floor, but fortunately it didn’t travel in her direction.

“Splendid!” said Professor Hoxby. “Now you will get a lesson in specimen acquisition. You there next to the boy who vomited. Come up here and get a sterile plastic bag and scoop. Chop chop. Yes, I mean you.” He was gesturing toward Amanda.

Surely he was kidding. The poor boy had just hurled. The whole class was on the verge of joining him. And the teacher wanted her to collect the barf?

She could feel herself beginning to gag. And then it was too late. She joined the boy, vomiting all over herself in an effort to avoid hitting anyone else. Twice now her sensitive stomach had embarrassed her. She felt like such a baby.

And then, suddenly, the whole class was throwing up. It would have been amazing to have captured the sound effects, even if Amanda wasn’t crazy about horror movies, because they were among the best she’d ever heard. Wait! She could do it. Wiping her hands on the clean portion of her skirt, she reached into her bag and turned on the recorder on her phone. Good. She hadn’t missed it. People were still vomiting and she was capturing authentic noises she could contribute to that open source sound library she liked to use. Now that she thought of it, there might be other opportunities for capturing sound effects at the school. It was brilliant!

Amanda looked around the room and beamed. She was getting excited.
Gluppy Things
About a week later, Amanda and Nick were walking down the first-floor hall, which was now decorated with massive crystal chandeliers that splashed bits of light all over the walls. Amanda stopped so suddenly that Nick was thrown off his stride.

“Wait a minute,” she said.

“What?” said Nick.

“I see something out there.” She was looking out the Police Procedures classroom window, which faced the back of the school.

“What?” he said again.

“I think I see the cook.”

“What’s she doing?” he said, trying to get a good look, which Amanda’s hair seemed to be blocking. He bobbed this way and that, jockeying for position.

She moved out of the way. “Look, she’s walking. She’s not carrying or pushing anything. See her?” She pointed.

“I don’t see anything. Where’s she going?”

“I don’t know. Toward the north wing,” she said, making a visor out of her hand and standing on tiptoe.

“Do you see Simon?” he said.

“No. Let’s follow her.”

“Okay. Come on.”

They slipped out the nearest door, where icicles were hanging from the frame, and keeping back far enough to avoid the cook noticing them, followed her as she walked northward and turned the corner to the west. But when they rounded the corner she had vanished.
Amanda shrugged. Nick shrugged back. There were several places she could have gone: into one of the three doors on that side of the school or the gardening annex.

“You try the first door,” whispered Amanda. “I’ll look at the far one.”

“What about the outbuilding?” said Nick, jerking his head toward it.

“Too dangerous. She could come out and see us.”

“Not a problem,” he said. “I’ll make up an excuse for being there.” There was the grin again. It was magical and he knew it, and she knew he knew it but didn’t care.

“You’re good at that, aren’t you?” She smiled at him in a way she figured wasn’t at all magical, but oh well.

“I’m an actor,” he smiled back.

“Okay, Mr. Cumberbatch, you take the outbuilding,” she said, glancing over at the crumbling building. It definitely needed repair. “Let’s meet back here.”

“Yup,” he said, moving cautiously toward the outbuilding.

Amanda crept toward the far door. Suddenly she saw something so repulsive she thought she might hurl again. A large, gelatinous, vomity-looking blob was practically blocking the door. What is that? Ugh.

Whatever it was, it didn’t have anything to do with the class project, the cook, or any pink substances. Of that Amanda was certain. Could she brave it to look for the cook, though? Not that it could do anything to her, probably, but it gave her the creeps. The cook was undoubtedly long gone anyway. Better to try one of the other doors.
Amanda approached the second door and turned the handle. It was locked. The cook couldn’t have gone there. That left the outbuilding, the first door, and the yucky door.

Nick came back shaking his head. “She’s not there.”

“Well, one of the doors is locked, which leaves either the first one down there or—”

“What is that?” he said pointing toward the last door to the west.

“Down there?” said Amanda, looking in the direction of the blob.

“Yes. I see a patch of yellow over there. It’s too early in the year for flowers. Let’s go look.” He started toward the thing.

“I already did,” said Amanda. “It’s some awful-looking gluppy thing.”

“Gluppy thing?” said Nick, turning around to look at her. “Is that the scientific name for it?”

“Stop teasing me,” said Amanda. “You know what I mean.”

“I don’t, actually,” he said. “Come on.” He grinned and pointed to the yellow spot with one hand while making a sweeping motion with the other, as if to introduce her formally.

“You go.” She turned away.

“Now, Amanda, a detective must go wherever the case takes her.” He kept ushering her toward whatever it was.

“All right. I’ll look for a second,” she said, hoping she wasn’t going to repeat past indignities.

“Good girl.”

He crept toward the thing, moving so stealthily that Amanda said, “Would you cut it out? You’re still teasing me.”

“All right. I’m being mean. You’re just so much fun to play with, but I’ll try to be good.” He giggled.

“Stop laughing,” she said. “What if the cook hears us?”

“What if she does?” said Nick. “We’re allowed to be here.”

“Right. Of course. I’m being paranoid.”

“Say, would you look at that thing?” he said. “It’s gigantic.” They were nearly on top of it now and it was huge.

“That’s a lotta vomit,” she said, trying to stifle her gag reflex.

“Now who’s teasing?”

“Sorry,” she said, swallowing a chuckle. Bad idea. It made her feel as sick as looking at the nauseating creature, plant, whatever it was.

“I wonder what it is,” he said.

“Some space alien, I’d say.”

“From the planet Detecto.”

Amanda started laughing again. “Stop. We’re supposed to be stealthy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Stealthy we are. Hold on.” He peered down at the spot. “Yuck. It stinks.”

It definitely was smelly. Smelly and ugly. What a combination. “Told you,” she said in a stage whisper.

“There’s a pink substance next to the gluppy thing.” He squatted and stared at it.

“No,” said Amanda. “You’re making that up.” She got as close as she dared. She wished she had some 7 Up or something to settle her stomach.

“Nope,” said Nick. “Take a look.” Sure enough there were traces of pink between the door and the blob.

“This has to mean something,” said Amanda. “It looks like the stuff that was in the pantry.”

“Yes. Let’s go in that door the thing is heading for and see what we can see.”

“Step over it?” She hesitated. What if she tripped and fell right into it?

“Sure. You’re not going to tell me you’re afraid of a little gluppy thing, are you?”

Amanda was laughing so hard her stomach hurt. “When you put it that way…”

“I do. Come on.”

She very carefully and tentatively got as close as she could to the blob, then took a large step, planting her left foot on the other side. For a moment she thought she would lose her balance and fall right into it, but luck was on her side. She leaned forward, moved the other foot over, and turned around with a ta-da gesture.

“Now you,” she said.

Nick stepped over the blob as if it weren’t there and joined her on the other side, annoying her no end. Fortunately, this door wasn’t locked. They pushed it open and saw a darkish corridor on the right with a set of stone stairs leading downward.

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