Caught Between Worlds
James - No Problem At All
Tim looked around the classroom casually, trying to not appear nervous. MacDonald Hall was one of the older buildings on campus, so the classrooms were Spartan and in need of updating. No computer, no screen, just rows of chairs with those terrible fold-around desks that never worked all facing a wall of blackboards. Since it was after school hours by quite a bit, the lighting had automatically cut to 50% to save power, making the whole building seem gloomy and a bit ominous. Or maybe that was just his nerves.
From his position in the back row he snuck another glance and the other people in the room: two pudgy guys with thick glasses and complexions that screamed “AV Club” and a rail of a girl with stringy blond hair and baggy sweats. The guys were sitting together in the middle of the room, muttering to each other. The girl sat front and center, probably because that was her default position in any classroom.
Tim checked his cheap Cricket phone again. It didn’t do much, but it did get texts. This one was from someone who almost never directly communicated with him. But this was pretty clear:
James:> Tonight at 10pm. MD Hall-404.
He had been surprised to see the two guys already sitting in the room when he had got here. He had nodded at them, but they had just starred. The girl slunk in a couple minutes after him and seemed too nervous to talk at all, so Tim ran a hand through his greasy black hair, scrunched down in his tattered black hoodie, and looked at the desk. But his mind was spinning. What did James want to talk about? Tim really needed the extra income he got from their “arrangement.” Was this the end of it?
If it was, well, then he did have a plan.
At a couple minutes after 10, the classroom door swung open forcefully, making everyone jump. James strode into the room in business slacks and a dress shirt, his expensive overcoat draped casually over his arm.
“Hello everyone,” he smiled warmly. The girl in the front row’s rigid tension seemed to melt out of her as he spoke, and her eyes could see nothing but him. Tim scowled and dug his hands deeper into his front pocket.
“I appreciate everyone taking time from their schedules to meet with me here. I felt the message that I have is important enough that I wanted to deliver it in person. I want to respect your time, so let’s get down to it.
“We have been in a partnership where I have been subcontracting out my non-critical academic tasks to you. Some of you,” he nodded at Tim “for just a semester. Others,” and here he gave the girl a brief smile which flushed her cheeks “for somewhat longer. I must say that under my direct supervision you’ve turned out extremely adequate work.
“However,” and suddenly his voice turned from jovial to stern “there have been some recently lapses. I realize that this semester I have been focused on another project. But different handwriting in the same class?” He pursed his lips and looked disapprovingly at the two guys in the middle, who seemed to wilt like chubby tulips. “I thought I was clear, all assignments done digitally ‘for my own records’ regardless of what the instructor requests!
“But these failings of yours are influenced in a small part by me,” James continued, his voiced pained and apologetic. “I haven’t been able to provide the management that you need due to the…distractions of my other project. Without my firm hand, I understood that achieving your goals would be more difficult. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left you with just your own abilities.”
The girl started to protest, but James said “Shh” and reached down, his index finger just hovering over her lips. Her ears burned as she stared up at him in near rapture.
“So I’m ending our arrangement. Effective immediately.” He smiled at the shocked looks. “Please understand that this has more to do with my opportunities than any of your failings. I have felt that we’ve had a good arrangement to date. As such,” and here he reached into his overcoat and pulled out four unmarked, sealed envelopes “I wanted to make sure you each had this extra bonus, as a token of my esteem, to solidify that we’ve ended on a positive note.”
Tim’s mind raced. So that was it. Everything over. He’d never afford it now. He took the envelope numbly as James handed them around. So it was time for The Plan. He went over the details in his head one last time as the two guys said a few words to James before leaving. He psyched himself up as the girl, teary-eyed, was talking to James. Finally, the others were gone. It was just him and James, who was looking at him quizzically.
“So, uh, that’s it then?” said Tim, as he struggled out of the desk and walked up to the front of the room.
“Yes Timothy, that’s it,” replied James. He stuck out a hand.
“Ok, well, here’s the thing,” replied Tim, shaking his hand. Wait, was he wearing a glove? No, focus Tim! Focus! He’s just a junior! Why is this so scary? Just SPIT IT OUT!
It went out of him in a frantic rush: “Ok look, you know that cheating is really looked down on by the University. I mean, there’s a whole academic code and everything! You seem to be pretty concerned about your grades or you wouldn’t be paying us to get good ones. So what do you think will happen if someone finds out that you’ve been using other people’s work? I think that would be really bad for you, so if you are serious about having good grades and not getting kicked out then I would think you’d be ready to pay more.” Tim licked his lips. This was it! He did it!
“A lot more.” He had him!!
James burst out laughing. This was not the response that Tim had expected.
“Oh, Timmy, Timmy,” laughed James, wiping an eye. “This is like watching ‘Baby’s First Extortion!’ I mean seriously!” he reached toward Tim, who flinched, but it was only to wrap an arm around his shoulders.
“Tell you what, let’s have a consult. Right here. This is all about power. It only works when one person has noticeably more of it than the other. You understand? So you think you have the power because you can tell the University that I paid you to do my coursework. Right?”
“Uh, right,” stuttered Tim. “I mean, you could totally get expel-“
“Shh, the grown-up is talking,” interrupted James in a good-natured voice. “Now, have you bothered to read the entirety of the Academic Handbook? I know it’s 219 pages, but it’s full of useful information! Did you perhaps see, in the rather extensive section dealing with academic dishonesty, that in situations where one student has used the work of another, the University considers both to be equally culpable and subject to the same procedures and punishments?”
Freezing water started to slide down Tim’s spine.
“So there would be an investigation, and it could get ugly. The University doesn’t take things like suspension or expulsion lightly, so those take time and are very involved. But did you know that the commissions that review academic scholarships move much quicker? They really take a dim view of anyone who receives money from the University based on their academic achievements being at all involved in any sort of scholarly impropriety. And they tend to jump to conclusions. Luckily, I’M not on any academic scholarships. Are you?”
Tim’s lips opened but his mouth had gone dry.
“Finally, in these instances it often comes down to the classic ‘He said, She said’ situation. Cash doesn’t trace well, anyone can by a phone for 30 bucks to text from, and campus network backups can be spotty. There tends to be character witnesses, etc. And I’m sure UM doesn’t like to mention it, but money does talk, especially donations.
James leaned in close, and his voice hummed with menace. “Your parents don’t really have much to offer UM, do they? They barely agreed to let you attend. Whereas my father, well, let’s just use the phrase “Top 10 Alumni Donors” and leave it at that. So, Timmy. Who has the power here?”
“Y….You do,” squeaked Tim.
“Good, you can be taught!” suddenly, the threat was gone and James was jovial again. “Now, before I’m off, there is a matter of my consulting fee,” he reached over and pulled the envelope he had given Tim earlier out of Tim’s hoodie pocket. Tim looked down at the envelope, and then up into James’ eyes. They were jagged spires of ice, ready to pierce him to the core. “Any problems with that?”
“No, sir. N..no problem at all.”