After leaving The Iron Horse, Jonathan jogged along the railroad tracks, trying to get home before dark, and to reach the crossing before the approaching freight did. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed he wasn’t going to make it. A break in the fence loomed to his right, he darted through kicking up gravel behind him until reaching a narrow-paved side street. The long train rumble past, now blocking the most direct path home. Still, by the time he could detour to another crossing, the freight should have cleared the tracks. But first he had to navigate wherever he was. He slowed to a walk. Surrounded by ramshackle homes, many squatting mournfully behind overgrown lawns, he tried to orient himself. In the past two months he’d lived in Jamesville, he hadn’t seen this part of town. But somewhere ahead was Academy Street, which would carry him back toward the North Street crossing and past the backside of the trailer park.

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How it rolls in the boys’ club

Paul stared out his living room window at sunset. “How beautiful.” Anne always enjoyed the pastel colors of the clouds at this time of day. He glanced at her framed picture on the table, and once again, a twinge of pain and longing pulled at him. Had it really been a year since she’d passed away? Yes, I suppose so.

His chest tightened at the recollection of it. Totally unexpected. Went to bed and never woke up. Cerebral hemorrhage. Probably a peaceful way to go, but still . . .

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Paul Boniface studied the computer screen. The statewide statistics were sobering to say the least. While Jamesville High did not rank as the worst school in the district, the district as a whole didn’t have much standing statewide. Rather sad, but indicative of problems beyond his pay grade.

After two quick knocks, the door opened. Kenneth Franklin Herold, director of Human Resources, stepped through the doorway. He smoothed his Brooks Brothers suit while scanning the walls of the office. “Hello, Paul.”

Paul tried not to shiver. “Mephistopheles” Herold never showed up for any good reason. “Mr. Herold, to what do I owe this visit?” he asked.

Herold walked over and stood in front of the wall where Boniface’s college degrees hung. “Krepner sent me,” he said without looking his direction.

Paul bristled at the name of the District Superintendent. It was one thing to have Herold show up, quite another for Krepner to have instigated it. On his own, Herold was a feckless gadfly who took up more space on a golf course than a chair in an office. In tandem with Krepner, however, he played his role as professional bootlicker and minion with finesse. The two were connected, if not by anus, certainly by having graduated from Harvard Business School together. That said, their combined impact on the school system had little to show for it, other than accelerating Jamesville’s declining academic standards, as well as chasing away the kind of teachers needed to reverse that trend. Still, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t stop trying to blame everyone else for their shortcomings.

Paul swallowed hard. “What does that have to do with me?”

“How many years have you worked for the district?” Herold straightened his tie in the reflection cast by Paul’s framed doctorate degree.

Bastard. Herold knew the number but was clearly trying to goad him. “This year will be my twenty-ninth in the system.”

“Too bad.”

A chill ran down his spine. “How so?”

“Dr. Krepner and I have looked over the performance of Jamesville High and found it wanting. It was his recommendation that we terminate your contract.”

Paul’s face grew hot, and his hands started to shake. “What?”

Herold smiled, though it was crooked and thin. “Relax, I recommended an alternative.”

His heart thumping wildly, Paul swallowed again. “Which is . . .”

“I convinced Dr. Krepner to keep you on, but to reassign your vice-principal. In Dr. Clark’s place, we’ll bring in some new leadership to see if we can turn this school around.”

A dull burn seethed through him. Dr. Duncan Clark was a supremely gifted administrator, and a close friend. It made no sense to remove the man. “Who is replacing Dr. Clark?”

“The assistant principal at Harrison Middle.”

Boniface felt sick. The assistant at Harrison Middle was Gregory Herold, Mephistopheles son. “How is that going to help me?”

“You? Well, I don’t know about that, but if the school doesn’t make its AYP goals this year, then we have to go with a management style capable of providing the needed leadership.”

Paul knew that code and the result. Making AYP under the current constraints on resources was not possible in the next couple years, let alone by the end of the current one. So, his contract would be terminated short of full retirement, and Greg Herold would become principal. It took all his strength to not leap out of his desk and strangle the man.

Herold tapped Paul’s desk. “Well, I’ve got an appointment to keep. Clark has already been informed.” He turned and started to leave the office but stopped in front of Boniface’s degrees again. With a thumb and forefinger, he adjusted the frame slightly off-center. After casting a smile over his shoulder, he vanished out the door.

Boniface felt the walls closing in and rubbed his temples. They set him up for failure. How was he going to get out of this? Then the answer erupted in his mind. What’s he got to lose?