Joe breathed a little sigh of relief when the ancient kitchen timer rattled across his desktop at noon; which was perhaps unfair because the kids were coming along fine.
Even Onetooth, the youngest at only just eight, could add and subtract fractions like a pro. As to multiplying them, well, maybe next week.
Then Joe sensed that the footsteps running away down the wooden balcony outside the office door were perhaps light by one pair of felt-booted feet.
Without moving his head, he glanced up towards the door.
Casper stood in the doorway, holding the door open and doing that little foot to foot dance that kids do that meant either they need to pee, aren't sure where to go, or are just plain nervous.
In Casper's case, Joe would lay sizeable odds on the latter.
The foot-to-foot wobble became more pronounced, and Joe knew from experience that the forever fearful youngster was close to turning tail and running after his classmates.
So, using the 'friendly' tone of voice Kirsten had gotten him working on improving, Joe tried again.
"Is there something...
" He let the question trail off because conversations with Annie had taught him that being more specific often led to a long series of "nuhuh" until you luckily managed to land on the
right question before your patience ran out.
Casper, clutching the doorknob on both sides of the door like it was a security blanket, managed to take a breath.
"It's about Finny."
Joe froze. He, as well as every female in his house, was well aware of the awkwardly growing relationship between his star pupil and her timid admirer.
It was something Kirsten and Silja found 'sweet' and 'cute', but which Joe found just led to inattention when he was trying to drill something into their little heads.
If Casper was about to ask him anything about that, then the boy would get very short shrift. Joe was the last person to give interpersonal advice, and he knew it.
So, there was a note of caution in his voice when he asked.
"What about Finny?"
What Joe saw as caution. Casper picked up on as threat. Instinct fought to overcome stubborn protectiveness, and, for the first time ever, instinct lost.
"He... There's these four boys. They've bin follerin' us around for ages and watchin' Finny."
Was it relief that washed through Joe? Or rancour that his 'eyes' had been rumbled. The four he had chosen were good at their job, very good in fact. But Casper had spotted all four of them.
Joe lifted his head, sat up straight and interlaced his fingers on the desktop. He wanted to try a smile, but Kirsten had told him that his smiles tended to make things worse.
So, he fought the urge and was rewarded by Casper not running away.
"That's er... That's very clever to have spotted those boys, Casper. Very clever."
"Did you send them? I know them. They work for you."
Joe nodded to the chair on the other side of the desk.
"Come and sit down."
The look on Casper's face immediately told Joe he had made a mistake.
"Never mind, no, just stay there. It doesn't matter."
If this had been any other kid, then Joe would have simply reverted to threats about what would happen if he didn't keep his mouth shut.
But that wasn't going to work with Casper because Joe, actually everyone, knew that, to this little weirdo, everything was a threat and likely to kill him any second anyway.
Instead, Joe focused on Casper's fondness for Finny.
"You see, Casper. It's like this." As he spoke, Joe watched the boy's face intently for any sign of him being about to run.
"You know that Finny, well, she's been doing little jobs for me and things like that right?"
Casper frowned. Joe's interest in Finny and the little 'jobs' she did, and that she wouldn't talk about wasn't something he particularly liked. And he had told her, more than once.
But Finny had found his concern funny, so he had stopped talking to her about it. He still didn't like it though.
"Yeah, I know."
Joe tried to inject some casual humour into his voice.
"Well, because she does that and plays with Annie, and comes round my gaff sometimes, well..." Here we go, Joe thought. "...Well, some people might try and 'get' me by going after Finny."
Joe had deliberately used the kid-friendly definition of 'get' so that Casper would understand better. The look on Casper's face told him that the boy had understood perfectly. Joe hurried on.
"So, those boys are just there to keep an eye on her. To keep Finny safe, see?"
Casper had reluctantly kind of figured that out for himself early on, it made sense. It was also one of the other reasons he hadn't told Finny. But then, the older boy had come.
Casper told Joe what he had seen and what Finny had told him about what happened two years ago.
Then, sticking his chin out, he told Joe about his worry for Finny's safety if this boy was involved.
Joe could see the change creep over the nine-year-old as Casper told him all this. He had stopped shuffling his feet.
He had turned to face Joe's desk full-on, rather than half turned towards the exit. His head was held high. Joe smiled.
He had his plans for Finny, sure. But he also had ideas for the boy standing untypically defiant before him.
In fact, the whole reading group was involved in Joe's strategy in one way or another. What he hadn't counted on, was Casper finding some balls quite this early on.
"So, what do you want me to do about it? I'm sure as hell not calling those boys off."
Casper's face tightened into a screwed-up ball of loathing.
"No. Just him."
"The one that hurt Finny?"
Casper nodded once, slowly.
This was better than Joe had expected, or even hoped for. He'd found what he needed from this usually shy little street urchin.
"Okay, Casper. Here's the deal. I can't always be around to take care of Finny, but those guys watching her can, and they'll be there if something happens.
But they can't go into the orphanage, see. So, I need you to make sure they know about it if Finny gets into trouble in there. You do that for me, and I'll take Jeremy out of the setup for you."
That more than hit Casper's expectations. Not only would... 'Jeremy'? Seriously? Be gone, but now he could actually really protect Finny.
Joe sat back.
"Okay, good man. Now, off you fuck. Oh, and let's keep this our little secret, okay?"
Casper nodded once again and then was gone.
Joe sat back and finally let the smile come.