"Dammit," Joe muttered under his breath,
at the same time glancing towards the corner where his students were supposedly hard at work calculating how fast you would have to drive to reach some turnoff before both,
the NFPD car which left the police station at 2:45 doing 55 mph, and the Hope Springs Constabulary car which left Hope Springs at 2:40 doing 60 mph.
His eyes locked with Finny's for a split second before Finny dropped her head onto her arm, lazily scratching away with her pencil at a problem she had solved ten minutes ago.
Joe looked away to find the pencil sharpener for the fifth time in an hour.
He was regretting his decision to help the orphanage matron rush through the adoption papers for Worms.
It would probably have been easier and much cheaper to spring the boy from the New Flagstaff Medical Centre.
Now, though, he was the property of Tuki's gorilla-like nurse and, even worse, under the influence of Hope Springs and that bloody woman.
Joe withdrew the pencil from the sharpener, held it up to the light and blew the graphite particles from its needle-like point.
He twirled the pencil in his large fingers, making sure the tip was even all the way around. Joe sighed. Oh, how he would love to stick this right up...
Still holding the pencil erect like it was the spear of some ancient warrior, Joe once more turned his eyes to the ink and booger-stained table where his students spent half their day.
It was Finny, of course, with her hand up, wiggling fingers anxious for his attention. Joe had been sighing a lot over the last two days. He sighed again.
"I need to go."
Finny nodded sideways towards the door of the office-cum-classroom.
"You know... GO."
Joe checked the clock above the door.
"You only went half an hour ago."
Finny glared at him. The two boys on either side of her looked up from their smudged crossings-out, or in Onetooth's case, a really bad drawing of a police car.
They were glad for the distraction. Joe seemed to have been in a mood all day, no fun at all.
"Well, I need to go again."
"No. Just get on with your..." Joe stopped mid-sentence, and his eyes took on that typical male look of panic that accompanied the cold sweat suddenly breaking out down his whole spine.
"Wait. You don't mean... You're not... You know. No, hang on. You're too young... aren't you?"
Finny stared at him with the lop-sided, lip-curled expression of What-The-Heck-Are-You-Talking-About?
"Huh? I drank too much." She added a note of increasing desperation. "I need to go."
Joe back-peddled faster than a cyclist heading for a cliff.
"Nothing. Fine, go then. Go on, quick before I change my mind."
Finny bolted from the room, leaving the door open and letting the factory noises below invade the relative quiet of the office.
As he got up to close it, Joe's thoughts of what the already normally moody Finny would be like once IT did become a thing were interrupted again, this time thankfully,
when Onetooth raised his hand.
"When's Worms coming back?"
Casper looked at his friend across the table.
"He isn't. He got stole by that nurse."
Joe closed the door and returned to his desk.
He was inclined to agree with Casper's summation of events but knew that to say so would only invite an open argument that he was already having with himself,
and had already cost him over an inch of pencil. Using his best 'explaining-things-to-undeveloped-brains' voice, Joe looked at Casper with just a hint of a smile.
"He wasn't 'stolen'. Nurse Maisie adopted Worms so that he wouldn't have to go and live in the Union medical centre."
"He's still not here, though, is he?" Casper realised from Joe's sudden lack of any kind of smile that maybe that came out more accusingly than he had intended.
He quickly returned his attention to the sum on the paper, crossing out the 500 mph as being unlikely and starting again.
A long sniff filled the room.
"I want Worms to come back."
There was something in the inflexion of the words that put Joe on his guard. As he resumed his desk, Joe's eyes narrowed towards Onetooth.
Aaaaand there it was, the wobbly bottom lip, the slow intake of breath... Joe half rose in his seat.
"Do not cry!"
Onetooth turned to look at Joe, making a sterling effort to hold back the tears. His eyes scrunched closed and his lips mashed together as if somehow this would stop it from happening.
Joe was pointing at him now.
"No! Don't. Don't do it. You are not to start crying!"
This tactic had never worked with his own daughter, so it didn't really surprise Joe when Onetooth let go with the keening, sobbing wail typical of small children.
But it was all Joe had and Onetooth was the youngest of the four, now three, members of the reading group at only just turned eight...
And that's if you believed the orphanage records, who tended to assign you an age on arrival and treat that day as your birthday ever after.
Casper went and sat next to his friend, putting an arm around him and whispering in his ear. Joe sat back again and watched. He had a guilty feeling that he should be doing something to help.
But aside from patting the child on the head, Joe was way out of his depth in this situation. Anyway, Casper seemed to have the 'there-there, it's all right' thing under control.
Instead, Joe turned to tapping on the desk with a pencil and waited for normal service to be resumed.
Which was the point when Finny returned.
The door opened, and four feet and not very much of Momma-bear in the making stood in the gap. She looked at Onetooth, still sobbing his heart out.
Then she looked at Joe, who was still looking guilty but not for the reason she was thinking.
"What did you do?!"