“Good, you are awake.”
Headmaster Kraal approached the bars of Eugene’s cage.
“Let me tell you, young man, of the rich tradition of which you are about to partake.”
“No wonder you locked me up,” answered Eugene. “It is only way you could force me to listen to another lecture on school tradition. Look, sir, you had better let me go now. I don’t care what crazy hazing rituals have gone on here for how many years. Let me go now or I’m going to sue you and this school for every cent.”
“I believe you. You should think about that.”
Eugene thought about it.
“Suppose I start screaming?” Eugene asked.
The headmaster leaned in close to Eugene’s face.
“Lean back so I don’t inhale your whiskey-breath.”
Kraal smiled and stepped back.
Eugene took a deep breath and screamed until he was hoarse.
“Are we done?” the headmaster asked.
“I guess,” Eugene rasped. “OK. So, where am I? How did I get here? What do you want?”
“‘Where’ is an old secret root cellar under Wumper Hall,” said Kraal. ‘It predates the founding of the school in 1871. Did you ever wonder why I kept my office here in Wumper Hall rather than move it to the new Administration building with the other offices?”
“I figured you just wanted to set yourself apart,” said Eugene.
No, that is just a side benefit. The real reason is the secret access – the only access – to this private sanctuary from my office.”
“Someone must know about it,” said Eugene. “Someone had to install the electric and plumbing.”
“That was back in the 1950s. The crew thought they were upgrading the cellar into a bomb shelter. The 1950s is a lifetime ago, my boy. I’m quite sure no one at the school today knows about this place – except the two of us. As for ‘how,’ there was Rohypnol in your tea when I called you to my office to discuss your award.”
“Damn. I hate tea. I drank it only to please you.”
“You did please me.”
“Oh, crap, you didn’t…um…”
The headmaster laughed. “No, no, my boy. Nothing so innocent.”
“OK, tell me about this tradition. Let’s get whatever this is over with. You have my attention,” Eugene said.
“Good. If you had devoted more attention to your classes, you might not be here. You’ve been an indifferent student at best during your time with us.”
“I’ve kept a B average,” Eugene objected.
“Yes, by doing the barest minimum to qualify for one, which indicates you could do much better.”
“I don’t like to show off.”
“You mean you prefer to be underestimated. I can’t think of an honorable motive for such a preference.”
“Yet, you awarded me the Thaddeus Cup just last month,” said Eugene.
“Yes, and the Thaddeus Cup is at the heart of why you are here. Tell me what you bothered to learn about your award.”
“Why should I humor you?”
“I have the key to your cell.”
“Good point. OK. According to what it says on the wall next to the case with the cup, Thaddeus Wumper was a Civil War soldier with the 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry under Sherman here in Georgia. Thaddeus was wounded and got separated from his unit. He crawled onto the porch of the Renard farmhouse, which nowadays is Wumper Hall. Victor Renard was just 13 when he opened the front door and found the mortally wounded Thaddeus Wumper, who asked Victor for water. Despite the depredations of General Sherman, Victor showed common humanity to the Yankee by bringing Thaddeus a drink of water in a pewter cup. Thaddeus drank. Thaddeus thanked Victor, shook his hand, and then died. Ever since 1871, the year Victor opened this school on his farm, the Thaddeus Cup Award has been presented annually to the student who ‘represents the values of Renard Preparatory School.’ His or her name is added to a plaque in the glass case with the original cup.”
“Very good. I knew you were capable of higher grades,” said Kraal.
“I never understood what was meant by ‘values of Renard Preparatory School.’ I see no pattern to the award.”
“No, other than the fact that the winners are always Seniors, and I’ve been here since Seventh Grade. I’ve seen it go to two guys and three girls before me; two winners were jocks; another was a nerd; as students they ranged from top of the class to the bottom; a couple were socially popular, but two were total geeks. No pattern.”
“But there is a pattern. All of the award recipients have something in common, Eugene. I was hoping you would notice. Every one of them evidenced a moral elasticity – a disregard for arbitrary rules.”
“All rules are arbitrary,” said Eugene.
“Thank you. That statement perfectly illustrates my point.”
“What are you saying? That ‘the values of Renard Preparatory School’ equate to psychopathy?”
“Oh Eugene, I doubt you qualify as a psychopath. Psychopaths are impulsive; they focus on short term gains; they inflict pain and degradation just for fun. Not you or the other winners. You rationally weigh consequences; you’re not short-sighted; you aren’t sadistic. Nonetheless, you are extraordinarily self-serving, and you don’t concern yourself with ethics per se when pursuing your interests. You came to my attention your very first year here when you sneaked into your math teacher ’s office and downloaded an advance copy of the mid-term exam.”
“You knew about that?”
“Yes. I have spyware on all the faculty electronics. Yet, you only got a B on the test. Why?”
“I didn’t want to raise suspicion.”
“You weighed the consequences. You see, Eugene, the official story about the Thaddeus Cup is untrue.
“We’re back on the damn cup again? Mr. Kraal, why should I care? What can a Civil War story, true or untrue, have to do with anything today?”
“Judge for yourself when you hear it. This is the real story:
“Thaddeus Wumper wasn’t wounded in combat. He strayed off from the column with a buddy to do some freelance looting. Entirely by accident they came face to face with two civilian criminals who were trying to escape the war zone with their swag. Not all of looters at the time were with Sherman’s army, you see. Sad to say, some Southern criminals took advantage of the chaos to enrich themselves, too. These two had been very successful and were carrying saddlebags full of gold; there is no way of knowing where got them. A short but sharp exchange of gunfire ensued. Wumper was the only survivor out of the four, but he, too, was badly wounded. Dragging one saddlebag of gold, and armed with a cavalry revolver, Thaddeus wandered until he came upon the Renard farmhouse above this very cellar. No one answered Thaddeus’ calls. Bleeding profusely, he entered the house. In the kitchen, he found a jug of corn whisky. He poured some into a pewter cup – the Thaddeus Cup – and swallowed the contents. He heard footsteps behind him. He spun around and saw a red-haired farm boy no more than 13 years old. The boy was Victor Renard.
“Thaddeus raised his handgun to shoot the boy when an incredible thing happened. Suddenly Thaddeus was looking at himself out of the boy’s eyes. I know this sounds crazy, but it is what happened. At that moment the loss of blood and the wounds caught up with Thaddeus. The soldier’s eyes rolled up. The body of Thaddeus Wumper collapsed and died. Yet, the personality of Thaddeus lived on inside the 13-year-old boy, Victor Renard. The personality of Victor, I suppose, died inside the soldier. I don’t pretend to understand it. Thaddeus had discovered some freakish skill to transfer his consciousness with that of someone else. He previously hadn’t been aware of his ability, but his impending doom brought it out.
“It may be that physical differences between the man and boy altered the personality of Thaddeus in some way during the transfer, but he certainly felt himself to be the same person. He kept the same set of memories.
“A young female voice then called out, ‘Victor?’
“Victor-Thaddeus looked back into the parlor and saw a girl of perhaps eleven. A look of horror came over her. The girl ran out the front door and never appeared again. Neither did any member of Victor’s family. I assume they all met with foul play, as so many people did in that time and place. Thaddeus kept the identity of Victor Renard, who was the rightful heir to the farm. Several years later, Victor-Thaddeus founded this school on that farm, using the saddlebag of gold as seed money.”
“Do you expect me to believe any of this?” Eugene asked.
“Yes. You see, I am Thaddeus Wumper. I was the headmaster who preceded Kraal, too. ‘Jonathan Kraal’ was a student at Renard Preparatory School back then. He was a winner of the Thaddeus Cup Award, as are you. He stood exactly where you do now. I became him the same way I became Victor Renard, and in the same way I’ll become you.”
“Sure you will,” said Eugene. “That’s much more likely than you just being nuts.”
“I pick winners of the Thaddeus Cup who have outlooks similar to my own, because their brains might be structured in a similar way to mine, too; I’m hoping thereby to minimize the risk of a personality change when I transfer into them. In this way I get to enjoy life from youth to adulthood over and over. I always set up my new identity financially – in gold to avoid tax issues. My will also leaves my seat on the school’s Board of Trustees to the most recent winner of the Thaddeus Cup – in this case you – at the time of my ‘demise’; he also receives the right to use the office directly above us. I expect you – I – will become headmaster one day.”
“Let’s indulge your fantasy for the moment,” said Eugene. “If you do this transfer, won’t you be locked in this cell while I’m out there?”
“I think we can assume I know how to get out of there. I’ll take a poison before I make the transfer. The poison’s effects will look like a simple cardiac arrest. I’m afraid this body won’t be alive long enough for you to do anything with it when you find yourself inside it.”
“Thank you for explaining things, Mr. Kraal.”
“The least I could do. So, the time has come young man.”
“I’m curious about one thing before you start. Did you ever transfer into a female body? Half the winners of the Thaddeus Cup are young women, after all.”
“It would look odd if they weren’t, but, no, I transfer only to boys. You must remember I was born in 1842. I try to keep up with the times, but I’m a little old-fashioned in some ways. Changing gender is still a bit too radical for me.”
“I suspected you’d feel that way.”
“Any other questions, young man?”
“Just one. I see the jug on the table. Why do you think corn whiskey has anything to do with your ability?” asked Eugene.
“I’m not sure it does, but then again I’m not sure it doesn’t. I drank it the first time I transferred, so I do again whenever the time comes. Anything else?”
“Good. Will you look into my eyes? I don’t actually need you to co-operate, but it will be easier on both of us if you do.”
“I’ll look at you.”
“Excellent. You surprise me, but excellent. First, to your health,” said Headmaster Kraal as he poured himself, a cup of corn whiskey. He swigged.
“I’m afraid this one is not to your health,” Kraal said as he removed one of two carafes from a shelf and poured the contents into a glass. He drank.
“Poison?” Eugene asked.
“I know what you’re thinking, young man. You’re hoping to resist me until I die. No one ever has succeeded in resisting me, but, just in case, I have an antidote. Now look into my eyes.”
They stared at each other. The headmaster’s grin turned to a frown. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He broke away and grabbed the second carafe. He poured a glassful and drank from a shaky hand.
“I can’t imagine what went wrong,” Kraal said. “It’s always worked before. I’m glad I took precautions.”
Eugene pulled a loose brick from the wall and removed a key from the space. He unlocked his cell door and exited into the larger room. “I was 99% sure it was you, Thaddeus,” Eugene said, “but it was at least possible you were just some old pervert, so I want to thank you for eliminating any doubt. I’ve always known the cellar was here. You installed a secret entrance to it when you remodeled the farmhouse, of course, but that didn’t take long to find. It didn’t take long to find the key to this cell behind that loose brick over there, either.”
“Who are you?”
“Francine Renard, Victor’s sister. I was the little girl you saw. Because I’m younger and more modern than you, I’m not as stuffily old-fashioned about sticking with the same sex: I was born in 1853 not 1842. The talent for transferring consciousness belonged to Victor, not to you, Thaddeus. It runs in our family, and it has nothing to do with corn whiskey. Victor switched bodies when he saw you were about to kill him. He didn’t expect your old body to collapse and die before he could throw away the gun and switch back. It seems you acquired his talent when you found yourself in Victor’s body, and it has stayed with you through later transfers the same way it does with us – with my family. I couldn’t bring myself to kill you while you were in Victor’s body, and I didn’t know if you could transfer again, but the possibility has nagged at me, so I finally came back to check. I can block your ability, as you see.”
“I do see, said Kraal. “Well, what is it you want?”
“I already have what I want. I took samples from those carafes the same time I found the key. I had them tested. I came back and left the poison as it was, but I spilled the antidote and replaced it with cheap wine. Oh, I found the gold, too. It’s buried in the corner.”
The headmaster leapt for the circular stairway leading to his office, but his legs failed him. He dropped to his knees and began to crawl up the treads.
“You won’t make it, Thaddeus.”
At the top of the stairs, the headmaster pushed open the oak panel behind his office desk. He crawled out onto the floor. He heard Eugene climbing the steps behind him.
“If you are trying to get to the extra antidote in your desk, I replaced that, too,” said Eugene. “But thanks for crawling up here by yourself and saving me the trouble of dragging you up afterward.”
The headmaster rolled on his back and his breaths came hard. Eugene stood over him.
“Thank you for the seat on the Board of Trustees, by the way, Thaddeus. I think I’ll be headmaster here one day as you suggest – or probably headmistress by then. It’s time this estate reverted to the Renard family.”