Mason stopped writing and put down his pencil. He had finished the math assignment just in time for lunch. And he was hungry. He looked up at his teacher, Miss Bott, hoping that she knew what time it was.
Miss Bott stood up in front of the room and said, “Class, before we go to lunch I need to tell you something. There has been a problem in the cafeteria. Somebody took the money out of the cafeteria cash register yesterday. We’re looking for the person or persons who did it. You can help by keeping your eyes and ears open. But be careful. If you hear anybody talk about it in a suspicious way, immediately tell Mrs. Gates or me.”
Mrs. Gates was the school principal.
A girl raised her hand and asked, “How much money was taken?”
“Several hundred dollars,” Miss Bott said.
“That’s a lot of money,” a boy said. “You can buy a really good bicycle for that.”
Some of the students laughed.
Miss Bott said, “But the money doesn’t belong to the thief. It belongs to the school. It’s wrong to take someone else’s money. And if we want to be able to buy lunches, we have to protect the money.”
Mason raised his hand. When Miss Bott called on him, he asked, “Do you know whether it was an adult or a student who did it?”
“That’s a good question, Mason,” Miss Bott said. “No, we don’t know. It happened during the afternoon yesterday, and nobody saw who did it.”
Miss Bott dismissed the class for lunch. Mason took his lunchbox and went to the cafeteria. Sometimes he bought his lunch, but today he had brought it from home. Sometimes he ate with his classmates, but today he felt like doing something different. Sometimes he even ate with his older brother, Matthew, but Matthew was on a field trip.
Mason liked to meet new people. He went to a table where a couple of older boys were sitting. He smiled at them and sat down. They were probably in the same grade as Matthew.
“So what’s your name, kid?” one of the boys asked Mason. He had yellow hair that stuck out in different directions.
“I’m Mason,” Mason said. “What’s your name?”
“You’re a smart aleck, aren’t you?” the other boy said. His hair was darker and shorter. He also had freckles on his nose. “I’m Thad and this is Steve. And you better treat us with the proper respect.”
“Sure,” Mason said. “No problem.” He opened his lunchbox and pulled out a sandwich. Thad and Steve turned away from him and started talking to each other. Mason made a face at them when he was sure they weren’t looking.
“We’ve got a lot of Washingtons and Lincolns,” Steve said.
“We’ve got some Hamiltons and even some Jacksons,” Thad said.
“Five Washingtons will get you a Lincoln. Two Lincolns will get you a Hamilton.”
“And two Hamiltons will get you a Jackson.”
“Two and one half Jacksons will get you a Grant. Too bad we don’t have a Grant.”
“Are you talking about trading cards?” Mason asked, interested. “My dad trades baseball cards.”
“Trading cards?” Steve asked. He snickered. “Yeah, we’re talking about trading cards. Trading cards with presidents on them.”
“Hamilton wasn’t a president,” Mason said, “but the others were.”
“You’re pretty smart for a kid,” Thad said. “They’re trading cards of the founders of our country.”
“Can I see them?” Mason asked.
“Uh, not right now,” Steve said. “We don’t have any of them with us.”
“Do you have a lot of them?”
“Yeah, we got a lot,” Thad said, smiling. “We struck it rich—in trading cards.”
“That sounds like fun, collecting cards of our country’s founders.”
“It is fun,” Steve said. “You can’t imagine how much fun it is.”
“Will you show some of them to me, sometime?”
“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t.”
“Where did you get them?”
“That’s for us to know and for you to find out.”
* * *
After school, Mason and Matthew were shooting baskets in the driveway. Mason wanted to tell Matthew about the trading cards. He said, “Matthew, guess what I learned today. There are trading cards for the founders of our country.”
Matthew sank a shot and said, “I’ve never heard of trading cards like that. Where did you find out about them?”
“At lunch, I was sitting with two older boys—Thad and Steve—and they told me.”
“Thad and Steve are in my grade,” Matthew said. “Exactly what did they tell you?”
Mason shot and missed. He wasn’t as good as Matthew yet. But someday he would be. “They were telling how many of one card it takes to get another card.”
“Did they show you any cards?”
“No. They didn’t have any with them.”
“Whose pictures are on the cards?”
“Well, there’s Washington. And Lincoln. And Jackson. And Grant. And Hamilton.”
Matthew grabbed a rebound and passed the ball to Mason. “Hmmm. They’re all presidents, except Hamilton.”
“That’s what I told them.”
“Good. I’ve taught you well. You said they were talking about the exchange values of the cards?”
“Can you remember what they said?”
“Of course.” Mason prided himself on his good memory. “It takes five Washingtons to get a Lincoln, two Lincolns to get a Hamilton, two Hamiltons to get a Jackson . . .”
Matthew interrupted, saying, “Mason, those aren’t trading cards.”
“No. They’re talking about money. George Washington’s picture is on the one-dollar bill. Five ones make a five. Abraham Lincoln’s picture is on the five. Two fives make a ten. Alexander Hamilton’s picture is on the ten. Andrew Jackson’s picture is on the twenty. Two tens make a twenty. Ulysses S. Grant’s picture is on the fifty. So two and one half Jacksons make a Grant.”
“You must be right,” Mason conceded. “That means they’ve got a lot of money. I wonder where they got it.” He remembered what Miss Bott had said. “Do you think they stole the money from the cafeteria?”
“It’s possible,” Matthew said. “I’ve seen Steve and Thad do some shady stuff. But stealing money is a major crime. We can’t accuse them just because they’re talking about bills. If I start asking them questions, they’re liable to get suspicious. But they seem to be willing to talk to you. We need to make a plan.”
* * *
The next day, when Mason walked into the cafeteria, he was a little nervous. He looked around the room and spotted Steve and Thad, sitting at a table by themselves in the corner. He looked around some more until he saw Matthew, sitting at another table where he could keep an eye on Steve and Thad. That made Mason feel better. He worked his way among the tables full of chattering children over to the corner table.
He sat down at the table, smiled, and said “Hi, guys.” Then he opened his lunchbox to see what kind of a sandwich his mom had made for him.
“Well, if it isn’t little Mason,” Thad said.
Mason didn’t like to be called little anything, but he wasn’t as big as they were. But wait a few years. He asked, “Did you bring any of your trading cards today?”
“Trading cards?” Steve looked puzzled, but then he laughed. “Oh, the cards with the pictures of the founders of our country. No, sorry, we didn’t.”
“How big is your collection?”
“It’s big,” Thad said. “And it’s going to get bigger. You can’t have too big a collection.”
“Oh.” Mason tried to think of the right question to ask. “So you’re going to collect some more? When are you going to do it?”
Steve and Thad looked at each other. Steve said, “Nosy little guy, aren’t you?”
“I’m just interested in trading cards.”
“I’ll bet you are.” They laughed.
Mason figured he’d better stop asking questions, so he made a big deal out of eating his sandwich and drinking the iced tea that was in his thermos. Steve and Thad chatted about inconsequential things. Mason was getting bored and wondered if he was going to learn anything.
The boys were finishing their lunches. Steve said to Thad, “You’ve got your excuse to get out of class, right?”
“Right. Two o’clock. And you?”
“The same. I’m getting good at imitating my mom’s handwriting.”
They laughed and stood up. They picked up their trays and started walking away. The last thing Mason heard as they walked away was, “See you here at two.”
Mason couldn’t wait to tell Matthew what he had found out. He raced over to Matthew’s table and said, “I need to talk to you.”
There were other students sitting at the table. Matthew got up and motioned Mason to follow him. They went over to the corner where Mason had been sitting, away from everyone else.
“What’s the news?” Matthew asked.
“They’re going to meet here at two. I think they’re going to take the cafeteria money again.”
“I wonder if they’re stupid enough to try the same thing twice,” Matthew said. “Well, if they are, that will be their downfall. Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Straight to Mrs. Gates’s office.”
Matthew and Mason marched out of the cafeteria and across the atrium to the principal’s office. A secretary was busily typing on a computer.
“We need to talk to Mrs. Gates,” Matthew said when the secretary looked up. “It’s about the money stolen from the cafeteria.”
“Do you know something about it?” the young woman asked.
Matthew nodded and said, “My brother thinks he knows who did it.”
“In that case, you certainly must talk to her.” She looked at a phone in front of her. “Mrs. Gates just got off the phone. Go on into her office.”
Matthew led the way into the spacious office. Mrs. Gates looked up and smiled.
“Why Matthew and Mason. It’s good to see you both. How are you doing?”
“We’re doing fine, Mrs. Gates,” Matthew said. “And we have some information for you. Mason thinks he knows who took the money from the cafeteria.”
“You do?” Mrs. Gates asked, looking at Mason. “That’s good. We don’t have any clues. Sit down and tell me what you know.”
The boys sat on chairs in front of Mrs. Gates’s desk. Mason told his story with a little help from Matthew. Mrs. Gates asked some good questions.
When he was through, Mrs. Gates said, “Well, that certainly sounds suspicious. But what puzzles me is how they got into the cash register. It locks when it is shut and you have to punch in the correct code to open it. For that reason, we thought that the thief might be somebody who works in the cafeteria.”
“I have an idea,” Matthew said. “Do cash registers made by the same company use the same code?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Steve’s mother owns a shop in the mall. I’ve been in that shop. It has a cash register just like the one in the cafeteria. And I think Steve sometimes helps his mom there on weekends. So it makes sense that he would know the cash register code.”
“It does, doesn’t it? We should have changed the code. We certainly will now. But first, maybe we can catch a couple of thieves in action.”
* * *
It was dark and crowded in the pantry. The cafeteria staff had moved out some rolls and other food supplies so that the four of them could fit inside. It was almost two o’clock. After moving the food, the cafeteria staff had left for the day. In addition to Matthew and Mason and Mrs. Gates, a security guard who worked for the school system was with them. His name was Mr. Waterman.
“Move over, Matthew, you’re crowding me,” Mason said from his spot in the back corner of the pantry.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Matthew said. “You’re just going to have to stand it. It’s only for a few more minutes.”
“Quiet, boys,” Mrs. Gates said. “If they’re coming, they should be here any time.
Matthew and Mason made themselves as comfortable as possible in the cramped conditions. Mrs. Gates had allowed Mason to be present in order to identify the thieves. And Matthew had talked his way into being here, because he had watched the boys and Mason when they were sitting together in the cafeteria, so he could also identify them.
“I hear somebody,” Mr. Waterman whispered. He was peeking out through the pantry door, which was open a crack. He could see the cash register.
The four of them held their breaths. Footsteps were coming from the cafeteria, which was usually empty at this time of day. The footsteps grew louder. They were coming toward the food line. The cash register was at the end of the line.
“Let’s work fast and get out of here,” a voice said, softly.
“Relax. There’s nobody around,” another voice said.
There was a noise of buttons being pressed and the drawer of the cash register opening. Mr. Waterman threw open the doors of the pantry and stepped out.
“Caught in the act,” he said.
He grabbed each of the boys by an arm. They had been scooping bills out of the cash register. The bills flew all over the place.
“You boys should be ashamed of yourselves,” Mrs. Gates said, stepping out of the pantry.
Matthew and Mason came out behind her. Thad and Steve looked at Mason.
“So it was you who gave us away,” Thad said. “Sweet and innocent little Mason. I oughtta . . .” He tried to take a step toward Mason.
“Take it easy,” Mr. Waterman said, gripping him harder.
“Don’t worry, Mason,” Mrs. Gates said. “They won’t be going to this school anymore.”
Matthew gave Mason a high five and said, “Good job, bro.”