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Joan Lowery Nixon (1927–2003) was a renowned author of children’s literature, best known for series like the Orphan Train Adventures and Casebusters. Born in Los Angeles, she began dictating poems to her mother before she could read. At the University of Southern California, Nixon majored in journalism, but took a job teaching the first grade upon graduating. In 1949, she and her husband moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, and in 1964 she published her first novel, The Mystery of Hurricane Castle.
Nixon became a fan of mystery fiction when she was a child, and many of her most popular series incorporate elements of sleuthing. She won four Edgar Awards for best young adult mysteries, including prizes for her novels The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore (1979) and The Name of the Game Was Murder (1993). In addition to writing more than 140 young adult novels, Nixon also co-wrote several geology texts with her scientist husband.
Because Sean and Matt have been playing pranks on the school computers, they are in trouble when someone else creates real mischief with the technology.
Look out! Debbie Jean's coming this way!" Sean Quinn nudged his friend Matt Fischer, who quickly turned the knob that darkened their computer screen.
Sean pretended that he hadn't seen Debbie Jean. But from the corner of his eye he carefully watched her walk through Redoaks Elementary School's media center. Bossy Debbie Jean Parker was a real pain. Sean hated the way she always tried to find out what everybody else in class was doing so she could tell them how to do it. Sean held his breath as she came close. Would she ... would she ...?
As Debbie Jean pulled out a chair and sat in front of her favorite computer, Matt let out a snicker.
Sean poked him. "Don't make her suspicious," Sean whispered, but he wanted to laugh so badly he could hardly stand it.
Matt lightened up the computer screen again and began to type.
Debbie Jean scowled and muttered, "Something's wrong with this computer."
Sean clapped his hands over his mouth, but a small laugh burst out. Quickly, he turned and pretended to be reading the poster on the wall behind him. He was sure that Debbie Jean was looking at him.
As Matt kept typing, Debbie Jean leaned closer to the screen of her computer and stared at the words on it.
She began typing something on her keyboard, then stopped and frowned again. Sean's stomach hurt, he wanted to laugh so much.
Debbie Jean grabbed the mouse and shook it. "This stupid computer is broken!" she cried. Jumping up, she knocked her chair over.
As she picked it up, she glanced at Matt and Sean, who quickly pretended to be reading something on their monitor. They waited until Debbie Jean stomped out of sight, then they broke down laughing.
"That was great," Matt said. "We really fooled her."
"What did you type?" Sean asked.
Matt grinned. "I wrote, I'M A MAGIC COMPUTER. I'M GOING TO TURN YOU INTO A ROBOT, AND YOU'LL HAVE TO DO WHATEVER I SAY. Then she wrote back, THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK."
"She sure looked angry," Sean said. "This is a great trick."
"Yeah," Matt said. "I'm glad that Dennis Taylor told us how to do it."
Sean ran over to the computer Debbie Jean had used, cleared the screen, then hurried back to Matt. "Shhh!" Sean whispered. "Someone's coming."
Charlie, Sam Miyako's little brother, came into the media center and sat at the computer Debbie had just left.
Matt began typing on his computer keyboard, but Sean said, "Let him alone. He's not only our next-door neighbor, he's just a little kid. Besides, Charlie gets spooked real easy.
Sam's always telling him scary stories."
Charlie leaned forward to read the message on his screen and gasped.
"What did you write to him?" Sean asked.
"I wrote him, I'M A MAGIC COMPUTER, AND YOU GET THREE WISHES," Matt whispered.
Charlie began to type with one finger, carefully hitting one letter at a time. The message slowly came up on the screen in front of Sean and Matt.
I WISH FOR A GIANT CANDY BAR, A NEW BIKE, AND A MONSTER UNDER MY BROTHER'S BED.
"Cool," Matt said. "I'd like to see that monster, too."
Sean felt a pang of guilt. "Charlie's going to be disappointed when he doesn't get his wishes."
"Hey," Matt said. "It's only a game. Okay?"
Sean was intent on watching what Charlie continued to write: I NEVER MET A MAGIC COMPUTER ... He jumped when a stern voice behind them said, "Sean! Matt! Turn around please."
Mrs. Harrison, the school's media specialist, stared down at them. "We had a complaint about one of the computers, and now I see why. Isn't it amazing how your hands are off the keyboard, yet letters continue to appear on your screen?"
Sean could feel his face burn as Mrs. Harrison asked, "You crossed the wires, didn't you?"
"Uh, yeah. We were kind of playing a trick," Sean tried to explain. "We connected the monitor where Charlie's sitting with this keyboard, and vice versa." He couldn't help smiling a little when he remembered how confused know-it-all Debbie Jean had looked.
Mrs. Harrison didn't smile back. "I certainly don't have to ask where you came up with this idea," she said crossly. "Ever since the students from the junior high computer club began coming here as volunteers, you two have tried every computer trick the older students brag about. Well, this time you both go straight to the principal's office. We'll see what Mr. Burns has to say about this."
"Yes, Mrs. Harrison," Sean answered. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. The trick had been so much fun that he hadn't thought about what might happen if he and Matt were caught. He looked at Matt. Matt looked as if he didn't feel very well either.
What was Mr. Burns going to do?CHAPTER 2
Sean and Matt squirmed in the two large visitors' chairs in the principal's office, while Mr. Burns stared down at them from his height of six feet, two inches. Straining to look up that far made Sean's neck ache. Mr. Burns was usually a smiling, friendly principal, but at the moment he wasn't smiling and he didn't seem very friendly.
"Just because there are pranksters in the junior high's computer club, it doesn't mean you have to copy them," Mr. Burns said. "Mrs. Harrison was quite upset last week when you played—what was it—oh, yes, Color Nuts on the computers."
"That program didn't hurt anybody," Matt said. "It just kept changing the monitors' background colors every few seconds."
Mr. Burns didn't smile. He frowned at Sean and Matt. "How about when you set up a computer to read, 'for more information press control, alt, delete'? What's funny about that?"
"Uh, we thought it was funny when some of the kids from the computer club did it," Matt answered.
"Unfortunately, our Redoaks Elementary students working on the computers didn't think so, since the command turned off their computers and they lost all their work," Mr. Burns said. "I hope you give some thought to the students you tricked today and either apologize or make it up to them by some act of kindness. I'll give you a few days. Then I'll expect you to report that the matter has been taken care of."
As Matt and Sean left the office, Sean made a face. "I can't apologize to Debbie Jean. It will make me barf." He suddenly stopped complaining and began to smile. "'Course, if she happens to get in the way ..."
The bell rang, and a door flew open. Sean and Matt had to jump out of the path of a trampling herd of first graders.
Charlie careened into Sean and tugged at his sleeve. His eyes shining, Charlie said, "Sean! Guess what? I got the magic computer!"
"Charlie, there isn't—" Sean began, but Charlie interrupted.
"Yes, there is, and it gave me three wishes. They're secret, so don't ask what they are because I can't tell you or they won't come true."
As Charlie ran to catch up with his class, he shouted back over his shoulder, "But I can tell everybody I'm going to get my wishes!"
"What are we going to do about making it up to Charlie?" Sean asked.
"What Mr. Burns said. Tell Charlie what we did and apologize."
"We can't do that," Sean said. "Didn't you see how excited he was?" He thought a moment, then said, "Since he lives next door to me, it'll be easy to make his first wish come true. I'll get a big candy bar and hide it on his pillow, under the bedspread."
Matt frowned. "A candy bar's no problem. But where are we going to come up with enough money to get him his second wish—a new bike?"
"Uh, yeah. We'll have to think about it, and about the monster, too." Sean groaned.
"I know where we can get a monster," Matt said. "We could buy a big ugly squid at the fish market and put it under Sam's bed!"
Sean chuckled, but he said, "It won't work. Think how the squid would stink. Mrs. Miyako would be mad at us for the next hundred years, and she'd call our mothers, and—"
"Okay. No squid," Matt agreed.
During the last hour of school and all the way home, Sean tried to think of some way to fill Charlie's order for a bicycle, but he couldn't come up with a single good idea. However, as Sean entered the kitchen and flopped into a seat at the table, he saw that a package had arrived. It was from Grandma, who was on a spring cruise in Alaska. And the package had his and his brother's names on the label.
Immediately feeling better, Sean tore open the box and ripped the paper off his package. He laughed as he pulled out a pair of bedroom slippers that were designed to look like huge, fuzzy bear paws, complete with yellow, curved claws.
"Cool!" Sean said.
Sean's brother, Brian, didn't get home from school until just a few minutes before Mrs.
Quinn arrived home from her job at the advertising agency. Brian laughed at Sean's slippers and admired the hand-carved totem-pole key chain Grandma had sent him. But his mind was on something more important.
"I've got some really great news," Brian said. "I won the Top Student of the Month award at school." Out of his backpack he pulled a certificate signed by the Redoaks Junior High principal and a fistful of coupons, which he tossed on the table.
Mrs. Quinn hugged Brian, saying, "Oh, Brian, I'm so proud of you! What a wonderful award!"
But Sean took one look at the coupons and yelled, "Bri, free ice cream and a free hamburger! And look! You've got free coupons for Monstermadness!"
"Two of them," Brian said. "How about coming with me?"
"Wow!" Sean said. "When?"
"How about Friday?"
"Sure. That's great." With a rush of gratitude toward his big brother, Sean added, "It's real cool of you to share them with me."
Brian turned to Mrs. Quinn. "I wish Dad wasn't away on a business trip so I could tell him my news," he said.
Mrs. Quinn smiled and hugged Brian again. "Why don't you telephone him tonight?" she asked.
She reached out another arm for Sean and drew him close. "How about you, Sean? Do you have any good news for your dad?"
Sean's stomach felt weird again. He took a deep breath and answered, "Well ... um ... nothing special. I'll just say hello to Dad. That's all."
While Brian tackled homework and Mrs. Quinn cooked dinner, Sean decided to use his dad's computer to play one of the games. To his surprise he found an E-mail message addressed to Sean Quinn: YOU GOT YOURSELF IN TROUBLE TODAY. YOU HAD TO GO TO THE PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE. YOU AND MATT WON'T BE THE ONLY ONES IN TROUBLE FOR LONG. TOMORROW MR. BURNS IS GOING TO HAVE PROBLEMS OF HIS OWN.
"Uh-oh," Sean whispered. He looked to both sides, as if whoever wrote the E-mail was staring at him. How did this person know that I went to Mr. Burns's office? Sean wondered. What does it mean about the principal having problems? And what does that have to do with me?
Sean ran up to Brian's bedroom and said, "C'mon, quick! There's something on the computer you have to see!"
Brian trotted down the stairs after Sean and followed him to the computer. Brian took one look and said, "E-mail? To you?"
"Read it," Sean said.
Brian did, then turned to Sean. "What kind of trouble did you get into?"
"Not so loud," Sean said nervously. "Mom might hear."
Brian lowered his voice, but he said, "How can I help you, if I don't know what's going on?"
"Okay," Sean said. "Remember when Dennis Taylor told us how he switched the hookup on two computers, so what people wrote ended up on each other's screens? Well, that's what Matt and I did, only some people don't have a very good sense of humor and we got sent to Mr. Burns's office. Someone who knows about it wrote this E-mail letter, but I don't know who it's from."
"It's easy to find out," Brian said. "We'll check the sender's E-mail return address." He leaned toward the screen and then stopped. "Hey!" he said. "That's weird. The log-in name and address are missing. This is an anonymous mailer, so there's no record of who sent the message."
Sean peered at the screen. "Maybe it's from Matt. He loves to play tricks with his computer."
"Didn't you tell me once that Matt had an account at your school?"
"Yeah, he does."
"Okay then. It can't be from Matt or from any other kids at Redoaks," Brian explained. "Because on the school accounts no one would be able to write a mailer without identification."
"I don't get it," Sean said. "The computer always shows an Internet I.D. for anyone writing an E-mail letter. I don't understand how someone can send an anonymous mailer."
"It's easy enough, if you know the right connections," Brian told him. "On the Internet there are a series of computers known as anonymous remailers. You send mail to a remailer computer. It strips your name off your message, then forwards it to the person you want it to go to. You couldn't do it from school, though; you'd get caught."
"Does everybody know about these remailers?" Sean asked.
"No, but they're not hard to find," Brian answered. "The kids who are really into computers know about them."
Brian shrugged. "Sure. He's the one who told me about remailers." Sean thought a moment and said, "I think whoever wrote to me is somebody from my school. Who else would know about Mr. Burns and about my getting into trouble and having to go to the office?"
Sean glanced over his shoulder, as if someone were standing in the shadows of the den, spying on him. But no one was there.CHAPTER 4
The next morning, as Sean plopped his books on top of his classroom desk, Debbie Jean faced him with a smirk. "Your computer mix-up was a dumb joke," she said. "When you pull anything that stupid, you deserve to get caught."
"It was worth it," Sean said, "to see you arguing with your computer and yelling that it was broken."
Some of the kids giggled, and Sean smiled. Debbie Jean's face turned red, but she said, "You didn't fool me for a minute. Besides, I—"
The bell rang, and Mrs. Jackson said, "Settle down, class. Let's all stop talking and sit down quietly."
Sean sighed with relief that he didn't have to hear any more of Debbie Jean's complaints, but his relief didn't last long. The intercom crackled, and a stern voice boomed into the room: "Sean Quinn and Matt Fischer, please report to the principal's office."
Matt was at the dentist, so Sean realized that he'd have to face this problem alone. He climbed out of his desk and started toward the nearest door.
Larry Grier leaned out of his desk and snickered as Sean passed him. "Sean's in trouble again," Larry said loudly. "What did you do this time, Sean?"
No one had to tell Sean that he must be in some kind of trouble. But what? Sean wondered if being ordered to go to the principal's office had something to do with the anonymous E-mail he'd received the day before.
He got the answer the moment he entered Mr. Burns's office. Mr. Burns was less understanding than he'd been before. He looked even taller than last time, too.
Mr. Burns stared down at Sean as he asked, "Someone has infected the computers in our media center with a virus. The computers shut down exactly three minutes after they're turned on. What do you know about this?"
"Nothing," Sean said. He squirmed. "Well, that is, I mean almost nothing. Maybe nothing."
Mr. Burns kept staring, so Sean tried to explain. "Yesterday, at home, I got an anonymous E-mail message. It said that I'd been in trouble but that today, you were going to have problems."
"Did I just hear you say that the E-mail message was anonymous?"
"I'm sure that's impossible," Mr. Burns said. "Everyone who accesses the Internet has some kind of identifying name. In America Online it's a screen name. In Prodigy it's an I.D. code. I know that E-mail can't be sent anonymously."
"But it can," Sean said. "Brian said that—"
Mr. Burns interrupted. "Your brother, Brian, is a member of the junior high's computer club. No doubt he's aware of many computer tricks that can be played. He might very well be playing a trick on you with all this talk about anonymous E-mail. Maybe I should have a talk with him, too."
"No!" Sean said. "None of this is Brian's fault."
"We'll see about that," Mr. Burns said. "Even though no one claims to have put the virus into the computers, I hold the computer club members either directly or indirectly responsible. Their sponsor has agreed that during their weekly visit to our school—which happens to be tomorrow—they'll try to find the virus in the computers and remove it. We might get some answers then."
Excerpted from The Internet Escapade by Casebusters #11, Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 1997 Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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