The four of them exchanged glances across the table. Finny gave Casper a nod of encouragement and what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
Casper very slowly, and under the wide silent stares of the others, got to his feet and lifted the open book with both hands.
His thumbs pressed side by side against the spine and at the very bottom of the spread pages as if praying to the author. Maybe he was.
He swallowed, licked his lips and stared hard at the words on the page.
It had been like this for three days now. Joe had come into work one morning and seemed like he had something on his mind.
By lunchtime on that first day, his face had set into a grump and suppliers were seen to flee white-faced down the wooden stairs and out the front door.
After lunch, the reading group, oblivious to the gathering storm, had tumbled into his office all noise and elbows and ready for another hot afternoon of learning.
And it had just gone downhill from there. The factory floor didn't escape either.
It is impossible to produce ammunition without noise, but after the third door slamming tirade from the balcony, they were giving it a damned good try.
By mid-afternoon on the third day, the reading group knew the story of what was probably behind Joe's unprecedented lousy mood.
the version of the story that had reached them after going through the filters of grown up's Chinese whispers before being further distorted by the furtive imaginations of an orphanage full
of kids and teenagers. What had reached the four nervous reading group members now trapped in the office with Joe was this:
The Mrs Doctor Lady (who everyone knew was Joe's secret daughter) had been kidnapped by flying people who had been magicked by Aunt Lucy (who everyone also knew was really a witch).
Joe, along with Kirsten, Annie and Silja, the teenage mutant killer nanny,
were on the run from more of the flying people and had holed up in Joe's secret underground fortress on top of a mountain.
Meanwhile, the Mrs Doctor Lady was being tortured in the lair of Aunt Lucy to get Joe to give her all his treasure.
the mayor of Hope Springs had invaded Flagg with an army and attacked the witches' lair with nothing but swords and bows and arrows (because everyone knew that the mayor was allergic to guns
and would die if she touched one). The witch had escaped but Mrs Doctor Lady was so horribly tortured that she had to wear a mask and had a hump and warts.
That's why Joe was so was mad, because he had to figure out how to break the curse... which apparently had something to do with digging up dead bodies at midnight.
Finny wasn't too sure about that last bit, but Worms swears down that it was true.
So, here was Casper, legs like jelly.
On his third attempt at reading the passage from the book Joe had assigned them, while Joe himself glared from behind his desk, his fingers drumming like a doom-laden metronome.
Casper swallowed like mad to coax some spit into his dry mouth. He took a breath.
"You... You're a... wizard, Harry."
It had not gone well. So not well in fact that Joe and Finny were now locked head-to-head in an emotionally charged glaring contest.
Casper's reading had been stilted and wooden. He had got stuck over the simplest of words and lost his place, again and again, each time having to go back over the text with his finger.
Onetooth and Worms had both sunk down lower and lower in their seats in quiet dread of what was sure to come.
Finny had watched Joe's face slowly turning purple while rising rage crackled in his eyes like bloodshot lightening.
She had known that Joe was going to blow at any second and poor, nervous Casper was going to catch the full fury of the anger that had been building in Joe all through the session.
Casper knew the words. He loved the story. But Joe was scaring the heck out of him... And it just wasn't fair.
Finny's ears had buzzed, and the office walls closed in on her but, much to her own amazement, she had found herself not only standing up but climbing up onto the table,
sending pencils and bits of paper flying.
"Leave him alone!" Finny's fists clenched so hard by her sides that later she would wonder at the deep marks her nails had left on her palms. "You... You're being not fair and... And mean!"
Casper, who hadn't noticed anything up to this point, looked up.
He had been so concentrated on getting the words in the book to come out of his mouth that seeing Finny standing on the table came as a complete surprise.
He followed her glare to Joe's livid, tight-lipped face and the very sight of so much held back rage, made Casper sit slowly and silently back down onto his seat.
On either side of him, Onetooth and Worms stared in open-mouthed awe from Finny to Joe and back again.
In keeping with the explosive tension in the office and not taking his eyes off the grimly defiant eight-year-old standing on the low table, Joe got to his feet.
"You three. Out!"
Seats were knocked over in the rush to escape. The door slammed behind the three boys, and felt-booted feet ran into silence along the balcony.
Joe walked around his desk and stood in front of Finny. Their eyes were more or less on the same level now, something neither of them had experienced before.
In Joe's eyes, Finny could see the potential for sudden angry death staring back at her. Self-preservation and common sense demanded that she step backwards, that she lowers her gaze.
Stubbornness, however, was having none of it.
For his part, Joe saw the rapid, shallow breathing, saw Finny's whole body trembling and the blaze of freckles on her face standing out starkly against the pallor of fear.
But it was in Finny's eyes that he saw the utter determination that was not only forcing away her tears but holding her rooted to the spot.
Joe stopped, pulled up by Finny's boldness. And whatever it was that had been growing inside him over the last three days left Joe with the breath in his next words.
"Look at you. Standing there all piss and vinegar."
Distracted by the horrible thought of 'oh no, not again', Finny quickly looked down, at the same time pulling up the baggy felt smock so that she could see.
Joe sighed and rolled his eyes.
"No. I mean... I don't mean... Look, never mind."
Confused, Finny looked back up and remembered why she was standing on the table.
"You're just being mean."
Finny was in full flow.
"An' not nice. An' not fair."
Finny stopped, then scowled at Joe.
"It's not their fault. You were making us scared."
Joe folded his arms.
"And so you jumped on the table."
Finny's eyes darted around the room.
Joe cocked his head to one side.
"Why did you jump on the table?"
"Well..." She watched Joe's caterpillar eyebrows curl up into a pair of horizontal question marks. "... I thought you were going to... hit him... Or something."
"And if I was going to hit Casper, how exactly was Miss Ophelia jumping on the table going to stop me?"
It was Finny's turn to fold her arms. She stuck her chin out.
"Well. He's not here... Is he?"
That made Joe smile. Watching Finny's little act of defiance on behalf of her friend was maybe not solving his problem, but it was going a long way to restoring his good humour.
"No. No, he's not." Joe paused, a wicked glint in his eye. "But you are."
Finny's eyes widened a little, but she stood her ground. If anything, the implied threat of a whipping for her actions only increased her resolve.
Really, she had known the moment she climbed up onto the table what could happen.
She might not have thought about it, because if she had, she might have stayed firmly in her seat, but deep down, she had known. And more importantly, she had done it anyway.
So. Finny's fists remained clenched, her chin still stuck out and her legs still felt like jelly. But she held Joe's gaze.
They stood like that for several seconds, until Joe relented.
"Relax. I already said I was being unfair to you kids so I can't very well kick your arse for standing up for them."
Finny's eyes narrowed. Was this a trick? The look on Joe's face suggested it was not. She didn't know what to do.
In fact, she was starting to feel just a little bit embarrassed to be still standing on the table. She looked for a way down and Joe obligingly held out a hand.
Finny took it and dropped to the floor. Joe turned to her.
"I'm not going to be in tomorrow." He paused as an idea bloomed. "So you and the group can do some real work for a change." Finny's face dropped into a frown, which he had expected.
"Or," he went on. "You can take the class. Get them to read to you. Tell 'em when they get it wrong and make 'em do it again until they get it right.
" Joe then went to the door and opened it for her. "Up to you."
Finny stepped passed him and out onto the balcony to a sea of upturned faces and a breeze of whispers. Joe's office door closed, and she sensed Joe behind her.
She scooted along the balcony and down the stairs to join the assembled throng.
Joe was looking down at his workforce.
"Everyone, get cleared up and go home. I won't be in tomorrow. Taiyoko will be in charge..." That produced a good many grins and nudges below the balcony.
Joe spread his hands along the balcony rail and leaned down.
"...So I expect production will go up. Or else." Desperate attempts were made to hide the grins. Joe gave up. "Bugger off, the lot of you."
He disappeared back into his office, closing the door behind him. On the factory floor, a hubbub of curious excitement surrounded Finny.