NaNoWriMo2021 – School for Scoundrels

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Cast of Characters

Chapter 1

by Marian Exall
2087 words

Westminster Academy sat on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Once the home of a logging baron, the Main School was a handsome Gothic edifice, clothed in ivy, intended to remind prospective parents of prestigious New England prep schools, which in turn imitated the style of ancient Oxford colleges. Behind Main School, stretching eastward in a manicured parklike setting, were the modern additions: the Athletic Complex with its Olympic-sized swimming pool and state-of-the-art weight room; the Performance and Media Hub containing a 250-seat theatre, and studios for video, ceramics, and ballet, amongst other creative pursuits; and the Student Commons where the certified organic menu choices developed by a Chez Panisse-trained chef included vegan and gluten-free options, and the napkins were unbleached linen.

Jack Watson sat across an expanse of polished mahogany from Dr. Peregrine McPherson, the headmaster—they liked the Old World titles at Westminster—and wondered again what he was doing there. His ex-wife Emerald had made the appointment for him. She had already visited the school before leaving for St. Bart’s with her new boyfriend.

“Annabelle deserves better than the local high school, and God knows you can afford it.” She called from the plane to leave a voicemail message about the appointment, then ignored his return calls. Jack had consulted his daughter, who shrugged in the irritating manner of fifteen-year-olds.

“Yeah, whatever,” she said, scrolling through her phone. Since her parents’ divorce, she spent most of her time at Jack’s house, although not with her father: he was a workaholic, spending sixteen hours a day nursing his technology company toward an IPO.

So here he was, aching to check messages and fidgeting with the school’s prospectus on his lap, while Dr. McPherson attempted to justify the astounding school fees.

“Eleven percent goes directly to scholarships, enabling eligible students from impecunious backgrounds to attend. Our motto is ‘Diversity, Inclusion and Kindness’” he explained, displaying brilliant white orthodonture in a sincere smile. McPherson was in his fifties, with the paunch and florid complexion that indicated his enjoyment of good food and wine.

“Hmm,” said Jack, indicating the Latin words scrolling around a crest on the front of the prospectus. “I thought this translated to ‘Only Excellence.’”

“Yes, yes indeed! ‘Excellence, Diversity, Inclusion and Kindness.’ Above all, kindness. We want our young people to feel cherished.” The headmaster consulted his Rolex and pressed a discreet intercom button. “I’m afraid I have another meeting about to start, so if you don’t mind waiting for…Isabelle, is it?… in the entrance hall? I’m sure she’ll complete her tour soon.”

Raised voices could be heard from the outer office. The door burst open and a smartly-dressed middle-aged woman entered, brandishing some papers. McPherson’s secretary followed, trying to halt the other woman’s forward movement.

“Well, Perry, you’ve really done it now! We’re in deep shit—”

“Please, Debra, I’m in a meeting,” the headmaster interrupted, coming to his feet and around the desk in an attempt to herd the intruder toward the exit. She shook off his restraining hand on her arm and noticed Jack for the first time.

“Five minutes,” she growled, and, after giving Dr. McPherson a hard look, stormed out.

“Our Finance Director, Debra Abel. She’s a little high-strung.” The headmaster’s chuckle was unconvincing. “I suppose I must go and see what storm-in-a-teacup is brewing now. Please excuse me. My secretary will show you where you can wait for your daughter.”

Jack nodded, amused. He had caught sight of the document Debra Abel was holding, and had read its large-font, bolded title: SUBPOENA. He wondered whether the headmaster’s teacup—no doubt made of English bone china—would be strong enough to contain this particular storm.

***

Justine, a senior and Annabelle’s guide for a tour of the facilities, gushed friendliness.

“You’re absolutely going to love it here! I do! Everyone’s sooo nice and the teachers are really caring.”

Annabelle made a noncommittal sound. If her mother wanted her to attend Westminster Academy, her father would be against it. She had learned to keep a low profile while the parental wars raged around her. There was no point in getting invested in the place until a victor was declared.

Although the school day had officially ended, students still wandered around the campus on their way to after-school activities or just gathered in chatting groups. Justine called out greetings to several, giving a shrug and sideways glance at Annabelle that made her feel like an awkward burden in spite of the older girl’s enthusiastic babble. She trailed Justine through the Athletic Center, where she was forced to pause for Justine to watch scantily-clad boys lifting weights while tossing her honey-colored hair over her shoulder and pouting. Then on to stand at the back of the theatre where a rehearsal for West Side Story was in progress.

“They wanted me for Maria, but what with fencing and everything, I just didn’t have time. I’m going to be on the fencing team at Pepperdine next year—Daddy knows the Athletic Director,” Justine confided. Annabelle was tempted to ask which sort of fencing did Justine prefer: picket, or post-and-rail? But she restrained herself.

They were on their way across the grass to the Student Commons. Chestnut trees turning gold formed a sinuous avenue, their prickly fruit littering the ground beneath. A tall good-looking man with dark hair drawn into a ponytail, and a tweedy sportscoat and knitted tie that announced him as a member of the faculty, was strolling through the trees ahead of them. Justine gave a little gasp.

“Oh! It’s Mr. Bradley, he teaches English. I have to—there’s something I need…look, why don’t you go get a coffee and I’ll find you in a few minutes, ’kay?” Without waiting for Annabelle’s assent, she hurried to intercept the teacher.

Annabelle continued on to the Commons which was empty at this hour and unstaffed, but offered self-serve espresso beverages through the medium of a high-tech German machine, and had a refrigerated cabinet well-stocked with soft drinks. Before making a choice, she strolled to the plate glass window to watch Justine and Mr. Bradley. They were standing very close together, Justine smiling up through her eyelashes in a way that suggested intimacy rather than a homework question. After a moment, the couple turned and walked back across the grass before disappearing from view between the buildings.

Quite pleased to be on her own, Annabelle worked out how to operate the machine and produced a mocha. She sauntered around the space, looking at the artwork on the walls and sipping her drink. A text came in from her father: See you in the entrance hall when you’re done. She responded K, then sat down to scroll through her Instagram feed.

She was just deciding whether to fix herself another mocha when she heard footsteps behind her.

***

Netta Shah lingered in the staffroom, unwilling to return just yet to her lonely apartment. The teachers’ lounge at her last school had been furnished with cast-offs, and reeked of burnt coffee from the Mr. Coffee that no one remembered to refill or turn off after draining the last cup. Here, there was a sophisticated German espresso machine, the twin of the one in the Student Commons, and squishy leather sofas to relax on. Netta knew she had only been recruited because she was a person of color—the only one on Westminster’s staff—and so to foster the myth of diversity the headmaster wanted to create for the elite establishment. After a decade of struggling in underfunded inner-city schools, she had been close to burning out. Netta loved teaching. Westminster’s higher salary, smaller class sizes and the freedom to develop her own Environmental Science curriculum was what she needed right now.

However, after almost a semester she still felt like an outsider. The teaching staff organized itself into cliques. There were the old-timers, coasting along to retirement, teaching the same classes every year, popular with students because they demanded little. Then there was a group of younger ambitious teachers, whose chief interest lay in cultivating relationships with rich parents who might sponsor their genius screenplay or innovative business start-up. The only younger staff member who didn’t seem to have an agenda was Phil Bradley. He intrigued Netta. He was attractive and unmarried, pleasant in conversation without being pushy. She wished he were more pushy. Although born in New York, Netta’s traditional Indian upbringing made her hesitant to take the lead in starting a relationship with a man. She had never learned how to flirt, and had little experience in romantic affairs.

Phil’s briefcase was still in his cubby; he must be on campus. She would hang around the staffroom a little longer.

***

“Where is she?” Jack Watson never raised his voice in anger, but his tone and narrowed eyes communicated icy displeasure. He’d been waiting for almost an hour in the Main School lobby. He had better things to do with his time.

“She wanted a coffee. I only left her for a few minutes,” wailed Justine. “She must have wandered off and got lost.”

“Nobody’s blaming you, Justine,” soothed Dr. McPherson, eliciting a grunt of dissent from Jack.

“It’s 5:30. When did you leave her in the Commons?” he asked the girl.

“I—I don’t know…” Justine’s lip trembled and she allowed a tear to escape down her peaches-and-cream cheek. Why was this horrible man badgering her?

“Perhaps she’s waiting for you at your car?” offered the headmaster’s secretary. Jane Varner was accustomed to smoothing over difficulties with anxious parents, disgruntled faculty, or hysterical students. She cultivated invisibility, dressing modestly in neutral tones. Having worked at Westminster for twenty years, she knew where all the bodies were buried.

“She texted me at 4:30 agreeing to meet me here,” Jack said through gritted teeth. “Since then she has not responded to any of my texts—six of them—or my two phone calls. So where is she?”

Debra Abel appeared in the door to the offices located off the entrance lobby, tapping her foot, her face grim.

“Not now, Debra,” the headmaster pleaded. He felt like crying himself. A missing teenager on top of a federal subpoena was not what he needed; what he needed was a stiff tot of the Glenfiddich Single Malt hidden in his desk drawer.

Debra shook her head in disgust and withdrew. McPherson spotted Netta Shah making her way around the group and toward the front door. “Ah, Netta! A moment, please.” Turning to Jack he started to introduce the teacher. “Ms. Shah is one of our most promising hires—”

Netta quickly read the situation and interrupted. “How can I help?”

“Could you stay here with Mr. Watson, while Justine and I go and look for his daughter? She…er…wandered off from a school tour.” Without waiting for Netta’s response, Dr. McPherson ushered Justine away. Jane Varner took the opportunity to disappear as well.

“Does she have her phone with her?” Netta asked Jack. A redundant question: what teenager goes anywhere without their phone?

“Yes, I’ve texted and called. No response.”

“Do you have the tracking app? A lot of parents use it to keep an eye on what their teens are up to.” Netta thought Jack seemed calm, considering the circumstances, but she sensed he would want to be doing something active rather than just waiting.

“Yes, I think I do! I’ve never used it because Annabelle’s such a homebody. She’s not the type to go off somewhere without telling me.” He scrolled through the apps on the screen until he found the one he was looking for. “Here,” he said handing the phone to Netta. “Where’s that?”

She looked at the pulsing red spot. “The staff parking lot. Follow me.”

Netta led the way out of the front door of the school and made a left. At the far end of the building, hidden by a line of trees, was the parking area. Only a few cars remained at this hour, including Netta’s six-year-old Subaru and the headmaster’s gleaming Lexus.

“Try calling her phone now. We might be able to pinpoint it from the ringtone.”

Jack tapped his daughter’s name, and they stood still to listen. Faintly, from the far side of the lot came the Batman theme that Annabelle had chosen. They rushed across the tarmac.

Annabelle’s phone, the screen webbed with cracks, lay a few feet into the grass that edged the parking area.

“She’s been taken!” Jack exclaimed, the realization destroying his usual cool demeanor.

Chapter 2 

by Jessica Stone
1677 words

Lisa Nightlie took the call. With her advanced skills in IT and her cutting-edge organizational abilities, she would have served the academy better in a higher-level position but her superior, Sean McGuffin—or Sarge, as he insisted she call him—was adamant that all his trainees start, as he had, at the bottom. Lisa didn’t mind taking on the more mundane jobs in the Westminster Academy Department of Security because her position allowed her time to work on her secret project—an invention she hoped would change law enforcement in ways unimagined by the good-old-boys’ club currently in command.

“Junior Assistant Deputy Nightlie. How may I assist you?”

“There’s been an abduction on campus! A student has been kidnapped! I’ve always said—this is just the sort of thing that would happen with Peregrine in charge.” Debra Abel’s tone went from frantic to disgusted in one breath.

“Whoa. Hold on a minute. I need to get your name and did you say a student has been kidnapped?” Lisa took notes on a yellow sticky pad as Debra went through what she’d heard from outside the headmaster’s door.

“I tried to give him the subpoena that was delivered this morning but McPherson was too busy trying to impress the father of a prospective new student, and so I stood in the hallway, fuming—as you might imagine, I mean really—”

“Mrs. Abel, please just get to the facts. The student? Kidnapped?”

“Oh yes. Well, that silly goose, Justine something-or-other, was supposed to be showing Annabelle, the new girl, around but somehow—probably a boy involved—there’s always a boy involved with that girl—”

“Mrs. Abel, please—” 

“Yes, well, Justine managed to lose track of Annabelle and she told McPherson and then that new teacher, Netta something, took Mr. Watson, the girl’s father, to look for his daughter and then they followed some app thing on the girl’s phone and apparently found the phone—with a broken screen—in the staff parking lot and Annabelle’s father, is not amused.”  Debra paused to gulp a deep breath, then pushed out a final thought. “And now, we—that is, Peregrine McPherson—Dr. Peregrine McPherson, is in more trouble that he can even imagine.” 

Lisa collected a few more details—last known whereabouts, etc., before she hung up and wandered down the hall to McGuffin’s office. It seemed pretty obvious to her that Mrs. Abel, and probably the headmaster, were winding themselves up over nada. Lisa had no idea what the subpoena thing was about, but looking for some lost girl, yeah, that would be easy and she figured that getting out of the office—taking a walk across campus—would be a good head-clearing exercise. A little fresh air in the line of duty would be just the thing she needed to help work out the newest hiccup in her inventing process.

Sean McGuffin sat back in his worn faux-leather chair, his feet crossed on the gray metal surface of his desk, his fingers twined together behind his head, eyes closed. Smiling as he napped, or maybe daydreamed.

Lisa cleared her throat. “Sarge. I need to leave the phones and go help look for a student who’s lost on campus. I should be back pretty soon. Can you take over?”

McGuffin jerked forward, unfolded his considerable weight, and pulled his feet from the desk. “Wait just a darn minute, Junior Assistant Deputy Nightlie. Lost student? Are we talking misplaced? Or abducted—kidnapped?”

Lisa resisted an eye-roll before relaying what she’d heard from Debra Abel. Why did these Boomers insist on so much drama? She waited a beat before answering. “I should get out there, to the staff parking lot, right? Ask around—see if anyone’s seen the girl?”

McGuffin’s face turned a deep strawberry. He huffed as he stood and fumbled at the coat rack for his jacket and hat. “First things, first, Nightlie. As the senior officer, I’ll go and interview the headmaster. You assemble the crime scene equipment. We need to secure the area. And you be sure to keep the press at bay.” 

Lisa scratched her head. “Um, Sarge. What crime scene equipment? What does that even mean? And, keep the press at bay? I mean, it’s just a girl who was checking out the campus and probably got turned around on her way back to the headmaster’s office. Maybe she dropped her phone but didn’t notice it. Maybe it fell out of her backpack. I’m guessing she’s trying on those new varsity sweaters at the bookstore—or maybe she’s grabbing a snack.”

McGuffin wagged one thick finger at her. “Now you listen to me, Deputy. Junior Assistant Deputy. The first rookie mistake is assuming that everything is perfectly fine. That’s the way to waste valuable time. Every second counts—this could be the difference between life and death for that young and helpless girl!” 

His entire body shook as McGuffin worked himself into an agitated state.

Lisa raised her hands, palms forward. “Okay, okay, Sarge. Take it easy. You’re gonna pop something.”

“That’s the problem with you Gen—Gen-enders of the alphabeters. You fail to see the seriousness of a situation. This is—”

A shrill ring tone cut him off.

“I’ll get it.” Lisa grabbed for the phone on McGuffin’s desk. But before she should spit out her standard greeting, the dial tone hummed. Wrong number, or maybe a telemarketer. Still, the call had worked to distract her boss. Lisa stifled a smile as she watched McGuffin strap on his night stick and adjust his walkie-talkie. She and the sarge were the only officers in the school’s security department and they weren’t allowed to carry firearms. Plus, their personal cell phones were faster, clearer, and more reliable, than their antiquated two-way radios. But Lisa’s boss was old-school and obviously, he enjoyed playing with his equipment. Just wait until her invention was released. Walkie-talkies, night-sticks—ha!

“Okay now, I’m heading out.” McGuffin glanced at a mirror by the door and adjusted his hat. “My first stop, the headmaster’s office. Then I might grab a dozen donuts for the department—can’t expect my officers to work on empty stomachs. You get that crime scene equipment together and get over there to the staff parking lot. I wanna see that entire area roped off and secured. And like I said, do what you can to keep the press outta this. Dammed pesky news people.”

With a nod, he slipped out of his office and clomped down the hallway.

Lisa shook her head and grinned. With two phone calls, she could get the equipment she needed and have the parking lot roped off before her boss made it across campus.

***

McGuffin huffed the short walk across the parking lot from his car to the area his deputy—Junior Assistant Deputy—had secured. By now, a small group of lookie-loos gathered behind the pink and purple tape which marked two empty parking spots in the lot. The tape wound through the handles of cars on either side of the spots, was attached to a fence at the front end of the area, and through the spokes of a bicycle parked at the rear end. Sarge puffed out his chest and nodded. Clever girl—she’s learning fast—of course, she has a superior role-model. He continued to congratulate himself on his amazing mentoring skills until he noticed what the crime scene tape read. HAPPY 21ST!  TIME TO PARTY! Over and over again, the pink and purple tape’s bright yellow letters announced, HAPPY 21ST!  TIME TO PARTY!  McGuffin hurried over to stand next to his deputy.

“Nightlie, what the blazes is with that tape?  It’s supposed to say CRIME SCENE—STAY BACK!  Or at least, POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. Not Happy Birthday.”

Lisa shrugged. “Sorry, Sarge. It was the best I could do.”

McGuffin harumphed. “When we get back to the office, I want you to order some official tape. Never know when a major crime scene needs securing.” He lifted his hat and scratched his head. “Though, not sure where you can get official police tape.”

“Amazon, Sarge. You can get anything on Amazon.” Again, Lisa shrugged.

“Dammed Gen-whatevers. Back in the day we used to have stores.”  McGuffin mumbled to himself as he stepped over the birthday tape and entered the crime scene. Glossy evidence makers, each showing a number written in black Sharpie ink, circled a single cell phone. The phone lay face down. McGuffin bent over, grunted, and picked up one of the markers.

“Nightlie!”  His face puffed red, sweat gleamed. “What the bloody-hell are these?”

He held the folded cardboard marker up to Lisa. The black number “3” floated on a photo-cloud of whipped crème which topped a slice of pumpkin pie.

“Look Sarge. We don’t really have any official crime scene securing equipment. My roommate works at the diner downtown—these are the table-tents for their dessert menus. Best I could do.”

McGuffin ground his teeth. What is police work coming to?

“Alright. But buy some official evidence makers. Do you think—”

“Yeah, for sure, Sarge. Amazon.”

Sean McGuffin pushed aside his disgust with the state of modern police work and focused on the crime at hand. Everything he’d learned from the initial call matched what he’d heard from the headmaster. And all of that was repeated by both the school’s Finance Director (who insisted on repeating the story), and by that lovely woman, Jane Varner.

Sean started to daydream about Jane, a woman he’d always admired, and kept meaning to invite out for coffee, maybe even a donut but—

“Excuse me. I’m Jack Watson.” A tall man dressed in pressed khakis, light blue shirt, and navy blazer walked over to McGuffin. He pointed to the cracked phone by table-tent number “7” which featured homemade blue-berry crumble with a scoop of French vanilla ice-crème.  

“My daughter is missing and I think all this is a waste of time. That’s her cell phone. Shouldn’t you be tracking her or something?”

Chapter 3

by Linda Lambert
1705 words

Lisa was pissed. She had wanted to investigate, but Sarge had pulled rank, all that “senior officer” crap, relegating her like a Junior Deputy Janitor to “secure the area,” whatever that meant, and to “keep the press at bay.” What press? The bimonthly Westminster Windbag that the headmaster paid to print laudatory profiles of himself and selected board members?

Still, she’d done her job, cobbling the crime scene together—rather cleverly, she thought, a decorative distraction designed to disarm any curious visitors. A smart P.R. move communicating that everything was cool, a party was going on. But, of course, real police were unlikely to show up anyway—McPherson’s name should have been McFearful; he was afraid of any bad publicity threatening to dislodge him from his mahoganized opulence, though nothing so far had merited a 911 call.  

Lisa tipped back in her orange plastic chair in the Security Office, poised for revenge. The S.O. featured black-and-white checkered linoleum and air that smelled like Seattle’s Gum Wall smeared with slobbery Black Jack and Double Bubble. She leaned in and bore down on the keyboard of her out-of-date Dell computer and entered into the requisition items that would get the puffin McGuffin in trouble and double the blood pressure of Ms. (Un)Abel. From the Halloween section of Amazon, she copied and then printed out:

  • 5,000 feet “official” Crime Scene STAY BACK tape
  • 10,000 feet “official” POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape
  • 25 “official” fluorescent body bags
  • 100 “official” oversized bloody footprint markers
  • 500 custom silicon bracelets, rainbow-colored, with the bold letters: WWJD

With a reasonable facsimile of Sarge’s signature, the flourishing oversized capitals SMcG, Lisa signed and dated the document, totaling $972.87, and looked for an envelope to mark URGENT.

Sarge must have one, but where would it be? His desk was locked, the file cabinet contained dog-eared CASE CLOSED folders from a former, forgotten job, and the bookshelves yielded little more than The Truth About Self Protection, Soft Body Armor, and Fundamentals of Modern Police Impact.

Was she being rash? Vindictive? Stupid? Mean? She heard the voice of Olivia, her mother: “Someone named Nightlie should always act Rightlie.” Neither of them liked their surname, especially the “lie” part, but Angus Nightlie, a charming Scot whose family history contained a coat-of-arms and ancestors related to royalty, beguiled and wooed Olivia. And thus, Olivia begat Lisa.

Lisa paused, remembering the sweet moment two weeks ago when she’d seen a small yellow bracelet, the color of crime scene tape, slip below Sarge’s shirtsleeve, displaying four letters in bold, black typeface. WWJD. What the….?

“Jesus, Sarge, I had no idea…” she said, too stunned to retract her pointing finger.

“Not what you think, Junior Assistant Deputy.” The ‘J ‘ is for “Joe.”

“Biden? “Lisa raised her eyebrows. “Sorry to say this, but I thought you were kind of a redneck.”

“Hell, no!” he said.

She wondered, was he saying “no” to Jesus or to Biden or to being a redneck?

He began to whistle a theme song, “Dumm-da-dum-dum…DUM, the last DUM in a high minor key. Lisa briefly remembered her mother humming something similar when Angus fled in the Nightlie, soon after her birth, and Olivia had dialed the police.

Sarge continued. “Best damn detective ever. Joe Friday. Better than Kojak or Columbo, Matlock or MacGyver, Starsky or Sherlock.”

“Who are those guys?”

“What is the matter with you? You Gen-enders of the Alphabeters have no sense of the great T.V. detectives of eras past! He throat-sang the theme again, trying to simulate a trumpet, followed by a serious, deep-voiced monotone: “The story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” He smiled. “I’m talking about Sargent Joe Friday, Badge 714, played by Jack Webb. A straight shooter, though not many guns. Lots of seedy shots of L.A. Most known for saying, ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’”

She wanted to laugh at him but found she was smiling with him.

“I’m going to get you a subscription to Detective TV, the free version, but you’ll have to sit through all the ads for handcuffs and dandruff shampoo and firearms. It’s worth it. Study those investigators. Joe Friday might even help you with police work.”

The next day she found a three-month PAID subscription to Detective TV in her inbox. Despite Sarge’s brusque manner, I think he really wants me to succeed. And then: Okay, Mom, I’ll do rightlie. She tore up the requisition. Maybe she’d order a full-sized cardboard cutout of Joe Friday. On her own charge card.

Anyway, she needed this job to finance Operation Invention, which she was creating in every spare moment—before work sitting in her fuse-box-gray 2009 Jeep Commander, during work in the Staff Only bathroom, and at home when not absorbed by Detective TV or the dreamy, clever Lupin on Netflix. Recognition and a healthy amount of money would come to her soon enough and faster than a greedy peregrine diving for prey at 200 miles per hour.

***

The high-strung Debra Abel had reason to be concerned. She knew the contents of the subpoena the headmaster refused to look at. He had ignored her colorful expletive. Would a variant description such as dung or defecation, excrement or excretion have been more appropriate for his doctoral-level vocabulary? Most people, she thought, would respond to a subpoena in capital letters and a loudly voiced capital letter SHIT. He did not, consumed as he was in courtship of a new tuition-paying parent. Most people, especially an administrator, would care about accusations of unethical behavior of an employee.

Judson Trompe was the oldest member of the faculty, a math teacher who fancied himself a poet. Along with all employees of Westminster, he attended multiple sessions of Sensitivity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training. The Academy insisted on 100% attendance to continue their accreditation.

He penned a poem of words copied from the training organization’s flyer and circulated the doggerel campus-wide. A joke, a piece of timely creativity; he was certain colleagues would enjoy his clever but innocent offering:

Cultural competence and Inclusivity
Religious sensitivity, disability diversity.
A culture of inclusion,
What a delusion.
Unconscious and implicit bias
This place is getting much too pious.
Gender-bending appreciation?
For which I have no admiration.
I think I’ll participate in mammoth micro-aggression.

Trompe had also slung slurs at employees, variously referring to Sarge as “bulkily obese,” “corpulent,” “very well-fed,” and “sloppy fat.” He called Jane Varner “plain as a pitchfork with dull prongs.” He asked an Asian student in his class to Anglicize her name so that he and her classmates could pronounce it. A girl whose name started with a “J” confided to another student that he’d made “unwanted advances.” The headmaster advised H.R. to reprimand and remind the teacher of his commitment to retire the following June. He received a warning but no discipline.

Debra could do nothing at the moment. She sighed. McPherson was AWOL with a more urgent manner, but if he didn’t pay attention soon, his china teacup was going to return to its basic bone ash.

 ***

Netta stood a few feet away from Jack as he approached Sarge.

She’d been surprised at Jack’s unfamiliarity with his daughter’s phone and, uncharacteristically, asked him why, as she located the app.

“Hey, thanks for helping me. Well, I just don’t pay any attention to the stuff kids are doing with their phones. TikTok, Snapchat. It changes all the time. I work in logic design. You know, designing electronic circuits to carry out the operations of the control unit, the ALU, the I/0 controllers, and other hardware. Bits and wires and gates and circuits. I should stop now, right?”

Her lips turned into a smile. Helping people was how she got through the awkwardness of relationships, and he was making it easy, despite his missing daughter.

“Do you know why she has a Batman theme? That’s pretty unusual for a cool teenager.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she thinks I’m a Bruce Wayne Playboy by day and a secret superhero in the shadows of night, ignoring her all the while. I’d give anything to be her superhero right now. I haven’t been a very good dad. I’m concerned, but…I really think she’s okay, still, I’m going to put a little pressure on that security guy. Thanks again for your help.”

***

Netta walked toward the Subaru, having escaped the purple and pink tape of the secured area. She felt a small pleasure as she glanced at the license plate—Mount Rainier in the background, “EVERGREEN STATE” in all caps, though clearly this applied to only a portion of the state.

Washington promised a different life, the separation from her parents in New York—the so-called Empire State, George Washington’s old term in 1785. New York, he said, was the seat of the empire. She sometimes thought her empire was not so much New York as India, her parents’ homeland; they the rulers, the emperors of her. They had immigrated from India two years before she was born, bringing with them the culture and customs of country and religion. America, an easy place to settle, with 200,000 Indian-Americans, and a Hindu Temple since the 1970s. People celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, gathering together for prayer, food, gifts. Big marriage festivals. Almost like home, they thought.

Her father Rahil and her mother Pooja would not force an arranged marriage upon Netta, but she was not encouraged to date and teaching in overcrowded classrooms of needy students for minimal pay left little time or energy for developing relationships.

As she drove into the apartment complex, she thought of the brief conversation she’d had with Phil Bradley who came into the staff room just as she was leaving.

“Hi,” he said, picking up his briefcase. “Sometime let’s have coffee—and not out of this fancy expresso machine. I’d like to see how I could integrate some of your environmental curriculum into my class. And by the way, despite the way I, um, advertise myself—he touched his ponytail and well-crafted jacked—I might be different than you think.”

Chapter 4

by Victoria Doerper
1704 words

The Instagram pages that usually riveted Annabelle were yawnworthy at best. Just like this visit to Westminster Academy. She checked her father’s text again. See you in the entrance hall when you’re done. Right. Was she done? Justine had disappeared mid-tour. Not that Annabelle really wanted the fake-friendly Justine to return. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to meet up with her dad. Let him wait for a change. She fished around in her jean pocket for lip-gloss and slicked on the shiny goop. Finger combed her dark wavy shoulder length hair. Took a selfie to check her image. Not bad. She held her phone out at arm’s length, made a kissy face, took another selfie, posted it to her Instagram page. As she pondered the idea of another mocha, she licked her cherry-flavored lips and realized she was starving. Surely they had vending machines somewhere in this hoity-toity place. Then she heard the footsteps. The dreaded Justine must be coming back.

“Hello,” said a voice that was nothing like Justine’s. Every lingering atom of caffeine from the mocha zapped through her nervous system. She turned to find…a boy. Well, more like a man. Older than she was, but only by a few years. If Justine had been here, she’d be tossing her head and batting her lashes. This guy must have spent hours in that state-of-the art weight room to build those biceps that bulged from under his maroon t-shirt. His musky smell of sweat and spruce wafted her way. He dropped his backpack to the floor by the table and sat across from her.

“I saw you with Justine in the gym. Are you a new student? I’m Troy Martin, by the way.” His voice was pure gold poured over gravel.

Annabelle felt tongue-tied and awkward. She fingered the tiny butterfly on her silver bracelet.

“My name’s Annabelle,” she said, “not a new student yet, but maybe. I’m in public school now but my mom thinks this place is better. My dad isn’t convinced. Whatever.” 

“It’s not a bad school,” Troy said. “I’m a senior and I’ve been here the last couple of years. My dad’s an alum. He says the best thing about Westminster is the students who come here and the connections they have. He was an Ivy Leaguer, but it was a former classmate from Westminster who got him a spot in a big investment firm.”

“I think my mom’s more interested in the prestige. My dad spends all his time with his precious tech company so he doesn’t care one way or the other. Me, I just don’t want to have to work too hard. How’re the teachers?”

“I like most of the teachers here. Bradley can be a pain sometimes, but it’s pretty easy to get good grades without working too hard. I spend a lot of time in the gym and still have almost a four point. Headmaster’s a bit of a poser, but that doesn’t matter much. Students hardly ever see him. I never do. The only time I hear about him is from my dad, who has dinner with him a few times a year. They’re both foodies.”

That reminded Annabelle she was still hungry. “Is there any food around here? I thought this was the dining area, but, like, there aren’t even any vending machines.”

Troy smiled. “No junk food allowed in these hallowed halls. Nothing as pedestrian as M&M’s or Skittles. No foodie food either. Only so-called healthful stuff. Vegan. Gluten-free. Paleo. Trend of the moment. Take your pick. As my mom would say, the food here all boils down to prunes and custard.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Food you don’t like. I guess that’s what it means. Anyway, if you want candy bars or chips or cookies, anything like that, as a snack, you have to bring it yourself.” Troy turned away from her and dug around in his backpack. In a few seconds, he turned back, his open hand displaying a cellophane wrapped cookie. “My sister bakes these. Huge batches. Fantastic.”

Annabelle accepted gratefully the proffered treat and immediately liberated the cookie from its wrapping. The smell of chocolate, vanilla, something exotic. She nibbled self-consciously, nodding her head, making little hums of enjoyment. Troy grinned.

“I’d give you another one if I had any left.”

“That’s okay, I probably need to go find my dad anyway. I don’t think Justine is going to be coming back.” She leaned over to pick up her pack and felt a little woozy. Bracing herself against the table, she stood up, pulled the pack onto her back and pocketed her cell phone.

“I think my blood sugar is a little off. I’m feeling just a bit lightheaded. Could you point me in the direction of the entrance hall?”

“Sure thing,” Troy said. “I have a study group to get to, but I’ll walk you partway.” He hoisted his backpack to his shoulder and took her arm. She felt a little better having something to lean on.

***

Marie, the academy cat, looked up from her lair, fashioned from cushiony maple and alder duff under the graceful arms of a soaring Douglas fir. Sometimes Marie deposited treasures here, like bird bones or fermenting rodent guts. But most of the time she hunkered down to groom. Her thick coat had a tendency to snag leaves, bits of paper, seeds, and sometimes odd little trinkets that snarled and matted her fur. If she left it too long, she began to feel like a feline charm bracelet. Marie loved the trees and trails in the arboretum where she could keep an eye on the people walking by. Every so often she startled a new student by her simple presence. She was large of body, bobcat like in appearance, and regal in her manner. Truly descended from Maine coon cat royalty, which could be a tad unnerving in and of itself.

Marie gloried in the stories of her antecedents, handed down from generation to generation. Tales about ancestors who had lived in Versailles as the cherished pets of Marie Antoinette. Feline accounts of the Queen portrayed a woman who was high spirited and kind, and yet, it had to be said, was also somewhat clueless when it came to human affairs. Which is why the Queen’s attempt to escape from France failed. She had made sure to send her cats (and other cherished possessions) to be loaded onto a ship in preparation for whisking them all away to safety. But Queen Marie had left it too late to save herself. Still, her six cats took the sea journey all the way to Maine, where they were set free to pursue their own survival. The cat Marie’s own family, of both regal and rough-and-ready stock, had migrated with their people to this very land in the Pacific Northwest after the logging industry faltered in Maine. Marie’s own grandmother had taught her the forest trails and academy halls. The virtues of kindness, cunning, and caring. That’s why, when Marie came upon a young human who appeared to be sleeping under her favorite Douglas fir, she snuggled up and began to purr. Maybe later something else would need to be done, but for now, this was enough.

***

Peregrine McPherson had had a day. He was not cut out for this kind of drama. Drams. That’s what he was cut out for. Drams of single malt. Pours of Latour and Margaux. Multicourse meals. Exquisite sips of Chateau Y’quem. Postprandial Armagnac. He did his best work hobnobbing with rich patrons who wanted to protect their children from the din and hoi polloi of public schools. Maybe he wasn’t the sharpest sword in the scabbard, but he did have the initials Dr. in front of his name, and that was credibility, by gawd, bought and paid for. He’d gotten the job done. Every time. By hook or by crook. Where would the academy be without him?

Peregrine unlocked his office, slipped inside, and locked the door again, as if that simple act could keep out all his problems. He tried to block the memory of the ridiculous and embarrassing pink and purple party tape bobbing in the wind. And the crime scene markers that might as well have been flashing neon signs advertising public school diner food. He had tried to put the best interpretation on that jerry-rigged parking lot for the sake of Jack Watson, explaining that these sorts of incidents were so alien to the academy experience that the school had never needed to spend money on the official accouterments of crime detection. He spun and soothed, massaged and managed, and finally the angry parent had calmed down enough to be left in the hands of the academy’s two security staff.

Seating himself behind his desk, Peregrine slipped open the capacious bottom drawer and extracted a crystal decanter of single malt Glenfiddich and a shot glass. Poured a dram. Set the bottle on his desk blotter in readiness for the next. Downed the first and poured another. With the second dram warming his wame, he began to relax. He poured a third and began to feel that he could handle anything. His eyes wandered around his beautifully appointed office, the antique side tables, the polished chairs with embroidered cushions, and came to rest upon the wall across from him where his framed clan crest and motto hung. An image of a fierce cat, with the motto “Touch not the cat but a glove.” After a couple of drams, he felt the clan blood rise in his veins. He was as fierce as that Highland cat.

The blinking red light on the office landline caught his eye. Well, he could handle anything, couldn’t he? He pressed the button. Two messages. “Perry, Don Martin here. Call me back as soon as you can. This. Is. Urgent.” He usually discussed business with Don over dinner. This did not sound like a dinner invitation. He advanced to the next message.  “Hello Dr. McPherson. This is Sergeant McGuffin. There’s been a development. Please call me back so I can fill you in.” Peregrine downed his third dram and began to dial.

Chapter 5

by Amory Peck
1686 words

Emerald slid into her first-class seat, slipped out of her Jimmy Choo’s, and into her favorite in-flight footwear, Lissom Flytes. Accepting a glass of champagne from the flight attendant, she reached for boyfriend Zeph’s hand.

“Zeph, sweets. We made it. Two glorious weeks in St. Barts just twelve hours away.”

“Traffic was a bitch, didn’t you think?” he grumbled in response.

“Of course, my love. That’s why being away for two whole weeks will be even more delicious. Here’s to our get-away,” she replied, tipping her glass toward his for a toast.

She and Zeph had been together for five years. Yes, that was a bit before she and Jack divorced, but love loves what love loves and all that. To keep herself in shape, she had arranged for a personal trainer. She opened the door to her home that memorable fall morning, and there he stood—Zeph. The attraction was immediate and mutual. True, he was younger than she. Actually, only ten years older than Annabelle. But they were completely right for each other! Zeph assured her he’d never before been attracted to one of his clients, and, of course, he was completely committed to her now.

Emerald had dreamed of a vacation on St. Barts ever since she discovered the playground of the rich and famous on season eleven of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. That August, the K’s shared the St. Barts’ lifestyle from their rented villa, La Banane. Emerald couldn’t justify spending the $70,000 it would cost to spend two weeks living like Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe. She and Zeph would stay at the Hotel Isle de France instead, hoping to do some celeb spotting while there.

“I’ll just leave one last message for Jack. Then I can put all thoughts of that work-crazed mistake of mine out of my mind.”

“Annabelle deserves better than the local high school, and God knows you can afford it.” Emerald ended the call, slipped her phone into the seat pocket, and turned her attention to Zeph.

She loved chatting with him, and putting all thoughts of Jack aside was no problem. But, the memories of her time at Westminster Academy were irresistible.

 What a gracious man Headmaster McPherson had been. He shared that ordinarily a student would provide the tour, but he would be honored to guide her around himself.

Emerald knew at once that Westminster was the place for her Annabelle, although she couldn’t sound too excited when talking to Jack. If she were for it, he’d automatically go negative. Public high school just didn’t offer all the options of the Academy and she could tell the students at Westminster were the sort Annabelle should get to know. Emerald would make certain that her daughter enrolled in French classes. Annabelle had always refused to learn another language, but once she understood that French was the language of St. Barts, she’d be eager to learn. Emerald planned to include Annabelle on some of the future trips to the island.

Truth be told, the tour of the campus was fairly brief. Dr. McPherson, who encouraged Emerald to call him Peregrine, invited her to lunch in his private dining room. “My dear, I can just tell you appreciate the finer foods and spirits, as do I,” he had said in invitation. There was a chance to peek into the dining hall where Annabelle would eat her lunches. It was empty at the time, but she spotted a marvelous German espresso machine. She vowed to order one for herself and Zeph one as soon as they returned from vacation.

Yes, Emerald thought, as she walked the grounds to her car at the end of lunch, passing by a stately Douglas fir, this is the perfect place for Annabelle, a cocoon for my baby. After all, Peregrine said the Academy cherished each student.

The rest of the first-class flight went quickly—meals, drinks, two movies, more drinks and a lovely nap. It seemed not long at all before they were taxiing into the gate. “You are now free to use your phones.”

As Emerald glanced at her screen, she noticed a text from someone named Jane Varner. “Call me as soon as you can. Urgent.” Jane Varner? Oh yes, that mousey secretary who brought coffee to me and Peregrine. Whatever could she want?

***

Each day, Jane sent up a silent plea that the day be the one when she could leave Westminster Academy at a reasonable, end-of-an-ordinary work day time. The subpoena made that get-away unlikely. Losing track of a potential student squelched all thoughts of an early evening with Sybil. Jane never mentioned Sybil at work. She wasn’t hiding anything; she just didn’t want to tarnish what she had at home by exposing it to the toxic academy.

That stupid, stupid man. How many years did he think Professor Trompe could get away with his vile, inappropriate behavior? Dr. McPherson could have easily avoided the subpoena—he could have fired that troglodyte years ago. And, trusting silly, silly Justine to follow-through on anything. Foolishness! The girl cares only for her appearance and her appeal to the boys on campus.

So, here she was. Doing all the invisible things she always did to clean up Peregrine’s messes. Jane had been at Westminster for twenty-years. Within a few years she figured out what her true job was to be. Yes, of course she did all the ordinary secretarial tasks: answering phones, handling the correspondence, serving countless cups of tea. But, her main task, the one the headmaster counted on the most, but never mentioned let alone showed appreciation for, was to keep the foolish man out of trouble.

Her job description should include covering up, making excuses, soothing ruffled feathers. A particularly tricky subterfuge was deflecting questions about Dr. Mc Pherson’s educational, professional background. A doctorate bought and paid for, indeed!

Heaven help her, the bane of her work life was three troublesome males. The headmaster, of course. Professor Trompe, and that buffoon of a security director. Recently she had become aware that he was going to ask her out, probably for his idea of a perfect date—coffee and a donut. Her usual tactic of ignoring him was going to be impossible unless Annabelle Watson was found quickly.

Her twenty years at the academy had slogged by, her thirty years with her beloved Sybil had passed so quickly. Years of a bond so strong between them, finally recognized by the state when they married on December 9, 2012, the first day same-sex marriage was legal in Washington State. She and Sybil had joined twenty other couples for a joint ceremony in the State Rotunda—the happiest marriage ceremony ever.

After years of financial struggling, Sybil’s career as a glass artist was taking off. Jane’s beginning salary as a secretary had been low, but one positive thing she could say about the old fool was that he now paid her well.

She and Sybil were living their dream. Early on they found an old two-story commercial building in Belltown they could afford. The couple had divided up the first-floor space into two areas, a work space for Sybil, and a gallery for her to show her work and work of her artist friends. The upstairs was their in-city dwelling. On entering each evening, Jane would shed her image that Trompe had described as “plain as a pitch fork with dull prongs” and dress herself in her true, jewel-bright colors. Their home was rich with color, music, classically good food (no trendy whims for them) and wine, without a teenager or an academic in sight.

“Hello sweetheart. It’s not to be. He’s made a mess of it. Again. I’ll be home late.”

Jane ended her call, and placed a second. This time she was trying to get a message to Annabelle’s mother. She hoped Emerald would return her call soon .

***

Sarge McGuffin shuffled out of the AM PM Mini Mart, patting his hip to make certain his night stick was properly in place and checking his belt to ensure his walkie-talkie was clipped as it should be. Reassured he was uniformed in a manner fitting a security director, he lumbered his way back to the academy’s parking lot.

To brace himself for what was certain to be the most challenging case of his life, he’d briefly left campus. The mini mart was the closest place to get a proper cup of joe (none of those fancy coffees for him, that’s for sure). The AM PM also sold great donuts. Donuts weren’t available anywhere at that fancy-smanchy school.

Despite all his self-aggrandizement, McGuffin knew he had a pretty cushy job. Most of the craziness the teens got into happened, he supposed, once they left campus. He handled disputes over parking spaces, occasional scuffles between hormone-driven teen boys, and a small amount of thievery, a case or two of marijuana on campus. Nothing like this, though. A missing student. Well, not a student. Worse, a prospective student. One who would bring in more of the huge fees everyone was charged.

You know, Sarge thought to himself. Junior Assistant Deputy NIghtlie has shown some real promise recently. My expertise in training is paying off.  She’s still a bit rough around the edges— using Happy 21st Birthday streamers to block off the crime scene. Ridiculous! But she did get the job done. Not as I would have, of course, but the job was done. Perhaps the time has come for her to step forward. I’m going to see how she’ll do, flying on her own.

As McGuffin walked closer to the campus, his stomach roiled more and more. Blaming the caffeine and sugar for his distress, yet recognizing much of the tummy turmoil as fear, Sarge affirmed what he’d been thinking. Yes, let’s give the girlie a chance.

With a relieved step, Sarge walked close by the Douglas fir that marked the edge of the campus. “Bloody hell,” he yelped. “What in sweet Jesus’ name are you—a bobcat?” Marie, the academy cat walked sinuously in a figure eight around his legs.

Chapter 6

by Janet Oakley
1652 Words

Justine Fellows sat on her bed in her dorm room with her épée across her knees. Since the discovery that her charge, Annabelle Watson, had left the Student Commons and was now considered missing, she felt particularly down. She had only wanted to show the prospective student all the good qualities of the school.  

“I really do like the school,” she said out loud. Perhaps I was little too enthusiastic. She ran her hand across the sword’s thin blade like she was smoothing it down. “I shouldn’t have left her like that,” she muttered. “I was only gone for five minutes—but then, who could have imagined an abduction?” Justine wondered if they put out amber alerts for fifteen-year-olds visiting a prestigious high school.  

Justine slipped her hand into the sword’s rounded guard and folded her fingers around the grip. She flicked the épée out so the plastic tip quivered on its end.  

Take that, Daddy. And you, whoever you are behind Annabelle’s disappearance.  

Despite the fact her dad had gotten her into a great college with a nationally known competitive fencing program, it was really her mom who had encouraged her to take up fencing in fifth grade after Justine saw a demonstration at their town’s local mall. She had already been curious about the sport after spending Saturdays at her grandmother’s and watching 1940s movies like ZorroThe Black SwanAt Points End or Captain Blood with actors Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Sullivan fighting for freedom or the King or Queen. Tyrone Power! Justine was a huge fan of that man just like her grandmother was, though the actor Basil Rathbone was considered the finest swordsmen on the backlot.  

Justine’s first lessons were with Parks and Rec. Mom had signed her up. “Give it try, and see if you like it,” Mom had said. 

Her dad’s only comment, “Why would you want to do something like that? Martha, our daughter is spending too much time at your mother’s. Dropping ideas in her head.” Beyond that, he showed no interest at all, putting most of his attention on her younger brother, Roger, who had announced in third grade, he was going to be a famous architect. (Good luck there, your Lego towers sucked and you got an F in drafting your first year here at Westminster.) When Justine started to latch onto the important foot work required before even holding a sword, Mom found Justine a real fencing salle, run by two French brothers. She enrolled Justine immediately.  

Justine looked up at the poster on the wall. Wearing her hair in braids, she was dressed in her white fencing jacket and holding her screen-faced helmet in one hand and her épée in the other. Four gold medals hung around her neck.  

Fencing had given her a special freedom to be herself away from the sometimes-contentious homelife. She was grateful for her mother for providing for her escape using the household funds Daddy gave her. It was a joy to go the salle after school, finding camaraderie with the other members in her class level. But she quickly reached a skill level that captured the French brothers, Marceau and Mattieu’s attention. They began to sign her up for local and state tournaments. With Mom was always there to cheer her on, Justine placed well in her level. It was only when Justine earned a silver medal at her first Junior Olympic tournament in eighth grade that Daddy finally took notice and after that insisted, he should be the one to guide her career.  

Justine sighed. It was just like him to take over and control the one thing that was her own. Granny, however, said, “Shrugged it off. You’re not doing it for him, but for you. And if you like, for your mother. I sometimes don’t understand my son-in-law at all.” 

Justine got up and put her sword into its long storage bag, gently nestling it on top of her other swords and equipment. She was still upset that Annabelle was missing, but as yet no one knew why Justine left her.  

It was really an innocent thing. Mr. Bradley was a popular teacher and lot of fun. The only reason she dashed off to see him was because they were planning a surprise for his literature class—they would recite a fight scene from Macbeth while fencing with her swords. She had been showing him how to use the foil she had given him for the past week. Because of her unexpected assignment to give Annabelle a tour, she had to cancel today’s session. She only wanted to let him know.  

Outside her window she searched for any activity on the campus grounds. It looked like everyone had dispersed for the day to study hall or the various clubs sponsored by big name corporations or local organizations. Justine had a French club to go to, but after that security officer grilled her—he reminded her of Barney Fife from another of Granny’s shows, The Andy Griffin Show, only chubby—Justine had gone back to the Commons to ask if anyone had seen the girl she was showing around. Over by the German coffee machine, one of the work study students was cleaning up a mess on the tiled floor.  

“Hey, Ginger, were you here earlier—around three?” 

“Yup, why?” 

“Wondered if you saw that new girl I was showing around.” 

“Oh, her. The one who’s missing?” 

“Yeah, Annabelle Watson.” 

Ginger leaned on her mop. “I saw her make something out of the machine, then take a seat.” 

“Then what?” 

“I don’t know. I got busy back behind the counter. It was so slow that I did some tidying up. Later on, I did see her leave. She was hanging on some guy’s arm.” 

“Why? And who was it?” 

“She did look a bit unsteady, but I never thought I’d see Troy playing the hero for any good reason.” 

“She went off with Troy?”  

Ginger wet her mop and slamming it on the floor, gave the tile an extra swipe. “Yup.” 

“Geesh.” Now Justine felt really bad. This was all her fault. Why did she have to be a jerk as she took Annabelle around? Why did she have to act all superior, just like her father? That’s not really me. 

*** 

The one thing about being a cat was that humans often didn’t take you seriously. They thought all you did was lie around on some cushy pillow watching bird TV or curled up in the laundry just taken out of the dryer; that you never came when they called unless there was a fresh, dollar ten can of Fancy Feast (I like the Medley one with the greens) waving in the air. But when there was a mouse in kitchen or a spider the size of a spice lid on the bathroom wall, you betcha they expected you to show up and do your thing. Personally, I don’t like spiders all that much, but they are a challenge. They tend to go into a ball when you tap them and are hard to pick up, but you gotta keep your kill rating up to date. 

What humans didn’t know about cats and in particular, my esteemed family, was our high powers of deduction that would put Sherlock to shame. (I do read books in the library as long as they are open.) While we sit around with our eyes at half-mast and our paws tucked in under our chins, we are actually taking it all in, mentally noting the comings and goings of things inside and outside our abode, wherever that should be. Our problem is how to communicate what we know. Though I have rational and cultured thoughts, my vocabulary comes out in only short list of tones: meow, yowl, screech, etc. Very unproductive when there is important information to convey.  

So there I was. After finding a young human under my favorite tree, I checked to see if it was responsive by getting on its back and giving it a good kneading, with my claws a tad out, but all I got was a moan. After several tries, I surmised that I needed to find an adult human. (There are quite few here and some of them I like very much, others, meh.) I jumped down and headed out into the green. The place looked empty, but down by the parking lot I noticed some lovely streamers flapping in the wind like the end of a mad cat’s tail. What fun that would be to play with! But I was on a mission.  

I headed down toward them, but when I found no adult nor even any human, I trotted back up to the tree. Suddenly, I spotted what I wanted: an adult human making his way up from the place where humans put their noisy machines. Not my first choice, but I knew he had an official capacity after walking all over his files in his office. So Sarge would have to do. As he got closer, he seemed to be out of breath. I cleared my throat and meowed at him, but he didn’t notice, so I more took a personal approach and began to rub and wind myself around his legs. I must have scared him because he kicked me off. 

“Scram, you blasted critter.”  

Oh, dear. This was not going well. As I said, communicating for even more erudite cat can be difficult, but I had to get him to see what was under the tree, so I bit him. 

“What the hell!” Sarge pulled out a stick and as I hoped, began to chase me. I ran like the Dickens up to the tree, preparing to jump over the young human, but when we both arrived, the place was empty. 

Now I really had to scram. 

Chapter 7

by Brenda Asterino
2004 words

I just can’t shake this feeling that I’m overlooking something. Checking the top of her dresser, touching the hand carved frame of her parents, Netta gently arranged the silver-plated, antique brush and comb her mother gave her when she started her first job. She acknowledged to herself that something was eating at her. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back and quieted her splattering of thoughts and feelings. Flashes of the panic on staff faces started running through her mind, again. Poor Annabelle, she must be very alone and scared or very frightened if there’s been foul play. I pray it isn’t worse than that. “Oh, God, lead us from Darkness to Light.”

Mr. Watson wants to believe she’s fine. Looking up into the mirror, Netta sees the fright in her own face. Is this his denial of reality? “Oh, God, lead us from the unreal to the Real.”

Picking up the brush and running the palm of her other hand over the soft bristles, her thoughts went to her mother. Remembering those maternal encompassing arms so that worry and tension evaporated, comforted her heart. The smell of curry and saffron came back as if her mom was right behind her reaching for another hug. It was hard to think of her mother without also thinking of her father. Children here don’t get that sense of stability and unity. In some ways, her parents were like one person. There was always that solid ground and grounding in her home. They were united in their love for her. Letting go with another sigh, Netta felt more solid herself, more centered.

The pictures flowing through her mind came slower now. Maybe not in the right sequence, though. Mr. McPherson. Jane. Interruptions. Mr. Watson. Phil. Briefcase. Cracked glass on phone. Parking lot.

Phil Bradley’s face came to mind. She reflected on how she softened at his kindness. Her usual shyness seemed to evaporate. The name Annabelle intruded. Everything started jumbling together. Then, ease was replaced by disquiet again. “Staff should be sitting down together and going over all the steps we’ve each been seen or heard and all the possibilities,” she pondered out loud. Who should she approach with this idea?

“Something is just beyond my understanding. But it’s there. I can feel it. Maybe, if we put our heads together. I’m looking over the top of ‘something’.” Saying it out loud brought more energy to do it. Determined, Netta reached for her cell phone.

***

Troy Martin smiled as he got out of the shower and briskly dried off. He loved being at his sister’s place so he could have more solitude. Giving him time for his own thoughts, he could run through scenarios for his own personal plans. Real world: making plans for work and dreams. My dreams. And being with family that loves you.

Checking himself out in front of the full-length mirror, he flexed those biceps and triceps. Swiveling his upper torso, he regarded his quads and latissimus dorsi, stopping for a pose. Rotating again, he made his pecs do a dance, ala Dwayne Johnson from a few of his movies. Chuckling to himself, fantasies of winning Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia filled his daytime dreaming. Soon, he’ll have his own superior muscle stack.

Using some of his money earned from around campus, he now had his American Natural Bodybuilding Federation membership. It cost 95 hard earned ones, but it means he had taken the first steps to his dreams. The money he would win in contests would get him to what else he wants.

Dressing in jeans and a tight T-shirt, Troy remembered his most recent chat with his father. “Dad, I’m a senior this year. It’s time I chose my own path in life.”

“Troy, my son,” with special emphasis on my son, “I haven’t been interacting with that dullard headmaster so that you can throw all this away on a body builders trophy. Don’t throw away our career path. I’ve worked hard to get you into the Academy and keep you in it.”

Nearly shouting, leaning toward his father and pointing to his own chest, “I’ve worked hard to stay in Westminster Academy. I did that, Dad. I’m doing that.”

Troy saw his father’s eyes grow wide with surprise.

“That not what this is about. You’ve dissed everything I love to do. The photography, the body building.”

Recovering his composure, “Don’t interrupt me again,” Don Martin stated harshly.  “You still get to do those things.” This time, his father looked at him more pointedly.

“I do those things so I have the money I need to work on my dreams. And the money earned helps Sis,” hesitating, standing straighter, starting to tremble, “your daughter, by the way.”

“She was stupid enough to get knocked up before she got out of college. That’s her fault. Then, she married a loser who left her after the second kid. And no boys, she couldn’t even get that right.” Don Martin walked in a circle around Troy. “Don’t make a mistake here, Troy. This is a chance to get in favor with the man who gave me this job. He’ll help you get into a good college. A job with him will be a sure thing. Hold the course I’ve outlined for you, son.”

Cringing at the word “son” said twice, Troy felt his face heat to beet red even now, remembering this exchange. He unclenched his fists, lowered the toilet seat and sat down rubbing his forehead.

Pushing away the ugly energy from his grasping father who wanted to live another’s life, what should be his own life. The memory of that last talk wouldn’t stop going through his head.

“You can earn part of your own way. It will make a man of you, not just a hideous muscle to look at.” Troy saw the scowling, obtuse face.

“What, Dad? What are you saying? I’m earning the money for the extra things. I just ask you to help Sis. You’re always bragging about making in the high six figures, but I have to bust my butt for scholarships. And that is okay, too. For God’s sake, Dad. For Sis’ sake, Dad. You should be helping her.”

Troy took deep breaths to calm himself. He felt sickened to his soul. Only after he started high school did he start understanding how his father had played around on his mother. Even when she was dying. And, later, Troy realized that the reasons there wasn’t enough money to get extra care for Mom in her final days was because Dad was spending the money on other women. Shaking those thoughts from himself, he turned his attention to today. He’d gotten better at that over the years. Turning his attention on something else besides his father.

Troy saw his father look at him again, continuing about his sister, “Well, what the hell are you helping her for? It doesn’t hurt you to earn your way. And you know I pay alimony to three ex-wives now. And number four will be happening soon.” Don moved closer to him. Troy watched the man who fathered him, someone he really couldn’t fathom. And he felt his stomach churn. “I have hearty appetites, son.”

Tired of replaying this memory that robbed him of hope, Troy rubbed the back of his neck when he thought about having finally said something to his Dad to shut him up. “You know dad, that free scholarship isn’t free.”

***

Watching his sister chop up vegetables for a near meatless soup, Troy made a mental note to pick up some organic chicken when he went for the other ingredients for the cookies.

“Troy, I just want to remind you that if you want me to make more cookies for you, you are going to need to get the ingredients. You’ve been asking for increasingly more batches almost every month now. Please leave a note on the refrigerator every time you want another batch.”

“Hey, Sis, I know how hard you are working from home and then, also, all the responsibilities with the girls. Is it too much for you to do? Do you need me to pay you more?”

Helping out with basic house repairs and putting up a swing set for the kids just wasn’t cutting it. He would have to find ways he could help her with more things, share more of the money from the cookies with her. Maybe, he could get a part-time job at the commons. Sometimes, they let the students, especially the townies, take some food home.

Troy watched her face as she turned to him from the countertop to get some potatoes. He realized he had never seen her when she wasn’t in motion. In motion for the girls. Hard work to make money. Always doing something to help him. And it was all taking its toll. She looked extremely tired, fatigued was a better word. More like bone weary, as Mom used to say. Dark circles under her eyes were looking almost purple.

“Troy. I appreciate your help around here. And you help with putting the girls to bed is a huge help. But I do need you to go for the ingredients. You’ve been mixing in some of the flavors with the flour for me, that saves me time.” And one more motion for him, she smiled.

“Just make sure you don’t use the flour for anything else. Okay?”

***

Trompe, Trompe, Trompe, my feet were marching
Zoom, zoom, zoom, the picture shows.
Below the fat bird’s bed
If you will use your head
Room measurements revealed
What so long has been concealed.

***

Fort Landers Daily Mail
Fort Landers, WA
by Alex Porter, Staff Editor

Judson Trompe, carrying a book on gothic architecture, was seen running around the park-like grounds at 3 a.m. Outside, by a water fountain, he reportedly cavorted and recited his own poetry. Dancing with the book held up, as if a dance partner, he spun and moved into a slow waltz as he embraced the book to his heart. With a failed attempt at the refinement of earlier ages at Westminster Academy, his ascot was askew, barely tucked into his antique smoking jacket, witnesses claim. His leather, fur-lined slippers were seen sliding off. “It was hard to tell whether it was liquor or a clog in an artery,” reported a source unnamed. His poetry was worse than usual, albeit stated, according to witnesses, in a very calculating manner. One staff member suggested this was a reaction to medication. School officials for staff comments could not be located.

Security was called. It has been reported that it took them thirty minutes to arrive as there was some confusion as to who was on duty and where the crime scene tape was located. No tape was used as Professor Trompe was then found back in bed with one slipper missing. Security could neither confirm nor deny this report to this newspaper as to the event nor the sequence of the event.

Tenured Professor Judson Trompe has been a math instructor since before the present staff had been hired, so no one is quite sure how long he has been with Westminster Academy. While the school is commenting, “No comment,” many students have suggested on promise of anonymity that Professor Trompe gives his grades according to behavior favorable to Professor Trompe. No clarifications were forthcoming. Some students claimed they heard him say, “The mystery is with the feet.”

Board members assured parents and community that this will be investigated with the fullest vigor of Westminster Academy until the veracity of the witnesses and the event are uncovered. They also added that Professor Trompe has been an active member and sometimes a leader in all current trainings for staff. He is considered “a diamond among the staff lineage,” stated another unnamed Westminster Academy Board member.

Many calls were made to this newspaper from approximately 3:10 a.m. through 4:30 a.m. this morning.

Chapter 8

by Randy Dills
2425 words

The Doug-fir on the edge of the campus grounds predated Westminster Academy. Standing at a towering 273 feet, the school’s promotional literature claimed it as the second tallest in Washington state after the Olympic Peninsula’s Lake Quinault fir. Dubious, Dr. Peregrine McPherson thought, like the rest of Westminster. He set out the back door of Olivier Hall toward the Olivier Memorial Grove. His eyes could not help but be drawn to the majestic tree. It was said to be over 400 years old, which meant that only the Coast Salish people could claim to be present for its whole life. It was here before the Spanish came, here before the British, before the settlers and it was only by luck that it didn’t get felled by a timber company and end up in a California bungalow in San Francisco. Now it was in one of the last remaining old growth stands in this part of the state. It was a symbol of the school, printed on T-shirts, stickers, and mugs. Even the school’s athletic teams were named after it [The Fighting Firs!]. The do-gooder science teacher, Dr. Shah, wanted to protect it, to invite the indigenous community to share ownership and management of the tree and the Olivier forest. “You know the Doug Fir is not a real fir,” she would email the headmaster at least once a week. “It’s of the pseudotsuga genus. A false hemlock.” Always italicized. Odd, he thought. That wasn’t the only thing around here that was false, McPherson thought snidely. Ironic that the old tree became celebrated on grounds hallowed by a timber baron. Only recently had Dr. Shah been able to stop teenage lovebirds from carving their initials in the old tree. As he made his way along the trail between the old growth trees and lush green ferns, McPherson thought if he had his way, the whole forest would be cleared. All he could see were dollar signs.

He was in a sour mood. The booze that used to sustain him had failed to dull the headaches of the day. The fool girl had gone off missing, Professor Trompe was showing signs of predation and delusion, even more than usual, and there was the morning email from Debra Abel detailing the schools sorry financial outlook for the next academic year. She’d been badgering him all day! Something would have to be done. It went on and on. There was the panicked phone call from Sarge McGuffin, who had a new theory of the case. A bobcat in these very woods! Really, what next? McGuffin wanted to call in Fish and Wildlife to track the wild animal.

Anyone would need a drink. He had to keep it together. It was the phone call with Don Martin that sent him out on this errand. Circumstances dictated that they move forward their scheme earlier than planned. And so the slightly drunk doctor found himself on the trail through the old growth forest that separated the academy from the estate of the school’s board chair, Albert Beaumont Olivier. McPherson shivered, kept his eyes on the path in front of him, and put one foot in front of the other. You never know what you might bump into in the wild forest. He continued on under the watchful gaze of a pair of golden eyes.

***

Albert Beaumont Olivier III believed that men should have dominion over the earth, it’s biblical, he used to tell anyone within earshot. He was of the French Olivier’s of Maine, a timber family that stretched back to the colonial days and one that was proud to be represented in the Social Register from its first printing in 1887. In other words, he was Old Money. It was the original Albert Beaumont Olivier, or ABO as his grandfather was affectionately known among east coast elite, who provided the land and the seed money for Westminster Academy. His summer home is what is today known as the “Old Main.”

When AB III came of age in the 1970s, his father, AB Jr. commanded him to prove himself before he would give him access to the family largesse.  He entered the forests of the Pacific Northwest in anonymity, becoming a bucker with one of his family’s crews in the North Cascades. He excelled at his work, making lifelong friends, excepting those who crossed him or were mangled in an accident, and rapidly rose through the ranks to become a timber cruiser. He could look at a tree and tell you exactly how many board feet it would be and at what price. There wasn’t a forest in Washington that he could not find his way out of or through. His dead reckoning skills were sharp. He had great clarity of vision. He was never lost.

When he finally got the top job, he got ahead on the principle that when you lose a timber bid you win the road bid because someday you will win them both. Someday, he told himself then, you’ll have a tiny empire, not Weyerhaeuser sized, but enough to have your own fiefdom, with enough clout to cut the timber, transport the timber, own the shake mill, blow up the weigh station when the Dems were in power in Olympia and started talking regulation. And when the spotted owl controversy erupted, he funded anti-spotted owl Astroturf groups. “Just leave a timberline belt along the freeway,” he told his crews, “The Greens will imagine the rest is forest and forget about the bird.”  He made partnerships with the biggest builder in every town. He knew that sometimes people had to disappear, had to walk out of town and into the hills and never be seen again, sometimes even people he loved. He looked out his window and saw a man striding across the lawn. Sometimes maybe even a headmaster, he thought.

Beaumont stood in his third-floor office looking at the Salish Sea. “Salish.” He shook his head. He still had not gotten used to the new name. He still thought of it as Puget Sound. His office had a 360-degree view which allowed him to survey his empire that stretched from Mount Baker in the east (Kulshan, he scoffed), across the Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula. It was even bigger than he could have imagined when he was first starting out.

He was in a bad temper. That morning he had been served legal papers by the local tribal nation who claimed that they were the rightful owners of the land that stretched from the beach below to the town boundary. That meant his estate. That meant Westminster Academy. The old growth forest. Tribal lawyers argued that one set of maps had been agreed upon at the treaty signing in 1855 and a different set of maps had been filed with the federal government in Washington, D.C. That no one had noticed or listened to tribal claims in the intervening time was tough luck, thought Olivier. He turned from the sea to gaze at snow-capped Mount Baker. All this in the shadow of a volcano that could one day blow and render the whole thing moot. Or maybe the big one would hit and wipe them out with a tsunami. Maybe they all deserved it. He had other things to worry about.

When the timber crisis hit, he had been savvy and diversified his holdings, managing to keep his timber empire and grow his fortune. He’d made a killing in land deals and got in early on tech. This allowed him to have homes in the San Juans, Jackson Hole, and the California Bay area and establish connections among the new elite. People who had certain proclivities and questionable ethics. The kind of people who did not know how Old Money worked. He kept tabs on them and knew where all the pressure points were, and how and when to apply them. They might have money, he thought, but they were people he could dominate, people he could control. It was biblical, he thought. They didn’t come from old money. They were new to the game and wanted acceptance, the imprimatur that association with him could provide. It was distasteful, yes, but he liked pushing them around. After fighting corporate competitors and governments, these nouveau riche were like shooting fish in a barrel.

His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of his Russian valet, Vladimir. Valet, of course, was quite limiting as a descriptor for the kind of work he did for AB.

“Sir, Dr. Peregrine McPherson of Westminster Academy,” he announced in his slightly accented English.

***

Dr. Peregrine McPherson stood in the vestibule. He tried not to make eye contact with the big Russian who opened the front door for him. He kept his eyes down. The headmaster noticed that although the man wore a perfectly pressed suit, he wore hiking boots with dirt caked in the soles. Odd, he thought.

Peregrine put on his smarmiest airs, which wasn’t hard, but it was the kind of thing that impressed his donors he discovered, especially when he adopted his Brahmin accent. He followed the big man into Olivier’s large office. Olivier stood at the window, his back to McPherson. The Russian motioned him to sit. The headmaster sat in the uncomfortable, low-slung, chair. He couldn’t help but slouch into it.

“Thank you, Vlad,” Olivier said. “That’ll be all.” The Russian moved to the door.

“Oh, Vlad,” Olivier called after him. “Have the helicopter ready in 15 minutes. I have my table at Canlis reserved for 8:30.”

As soon as the door closed, Olivier wrong footed McPherson straight away. 

“So why am I taking a meeting with you?”

“Because I have a vision for you,” he stammered, “of you.” 

“Don’t we have other things you want to talk about? Hmmm?” Olivier said as he sat down at his desk. His chair sat a good eight inches taller than the one across from him. He glowered down at McPherson.  “Finances, maybe? A missing girl?”

“Yes, yes,” McPherson stammered. “The girl, we’re on top of it. Just wandered off, I’m sure. My best people are on it.”

“Best may be a little strong, don’t you think?” Olivier said, pulling out his pipe. The pipe was carved out of western red cedar, the first tree Olivier felled on his own. He’d made the pipe himself.

“The new girl,” McPherson said, “I’m told she’s exceptional.” He searched for something, anything, to say about the new recruit. “Good with computers, I’m told.”

It was clear McPherson had no idea what the officer’s name was.

“Junior Assistant Deputy Lisa Nightlie,” the timber baron said as he tamped down tobacco into the pipe’s well. A staffer in his grant office had told him that she had filed a patent with the US Patent Office and was seeking funding from the Olivier Foundation. He had a copy of the application in his desk drawer and planned to interview her about the application next week. After all, what was good for law enforcement was good for him.  “Maybe we ought to call in the Eff-Bee-Eye,” he drawled.

“We both know that we do not want the FBI on campus,” McPherson countered. “Not even the local LEOs.”

“Oh?” Olivier wondered what the headmaster thought he knew. Nothing he could coherently explain to any legal authority, Olivier reflected. He struck a match and spoke as he breathed smoke into and out of his mouth.

“Tell me, what vision you have of me? I am eager to hear. You have my attention for the next five minutes.”  

McPherson sat up in his chair, eagerly adopting a boosterish tone, and began to orate:

“Imagine, AB Olivier, Jr., the savior of Salish County! Monuments in the town square, statues even, your name on courthouses! Quite simply, legacy.”

“Why do I need you for that? I have a PR team.” 

“Well, you should fire them. Have you looked around this county? I’ve been here two decades and can see it’s all over, Mr. Olivier. And I’m not the only one either, why Mr. Watson just this morning commented on how shabby the town looked on his way to campus. You are king now, sure, but not for long. What will you have to be king of? Small fish. And the tribal issue? There is no one pulling off I-5 for anything in Salish County. You want to sit out here on the bluff on your estate, be my guest. You think people of your kind will want to send their children to Westminster? Think of your future. Think of your legacy.”

Olivier pointed his pipe at McPherson. The headmaster sunk a little lower in his seat.

“How is it that you can help me exactly?”

“Washington State Act B735, The Establishment of Artistic Zones for the Cultural and Economic Empowerment of Citizens in Rural Areas. A public-private partnership. You get land and tax breaks, and our network of alumni artists put up Art. Sculpture, specifically, the kind that people will drive too and take pictures, put them on Instagram.” He swallowed. “TikTok, even.”

“A west coast Storm King,” Olivier interjected.

“Yes, of course, Storm King.” McPherson made a mental note to have Jane Varner Google it for him tomorrow. “People come, shops open, we raise tuition, we both get paid. You wait a little while and take down all the art except for one or two pieces in an out of the way corner, and bam subdivisions full of people getting out of Seattle. Now, surely, a man such as yourself can see….”

Olivier raised a hand to stop him midsentence. He was suspicious that McPherson could devise such a scheme all on his own. McPherson took a deep breath.

“Interesting, headmaster, interesting. I might have my people investigate this for me. But for now, I have something a little different in mind for you.”

Olivier reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a thick file folder. Peregrine read the label and gulped. “McPherson” was written across the tab. Olivier looked at his watch.

“I am afraid we are out of time.” He was pleased to see the headmaster turn ashen. “Please, feel free to stay and have a look inside. Vlad will fill you in and show you out when you are done.” With that, the timber baron pressed a button on his desk. Vlad entered the room and stood behind the headmaster as the timber baron rose and headed for the helipad leaving the sweating headmaster slack jawed.

Chapter 9

by Susan Chase-Foster
1996 words

Chef de Cuisine Ruffin Remy pedaled up to the back door of the Student Commons kitchen just as dawn began to seep through the fir canopy. He hopped off his BMC Roadmachine, his tangerine frizz orbiting out around his helmet as though he were the solar orb itself, or Bozo the Clown, depending on your perspective or age. Nearly everyone called him Ruff, which sounded like “roof,” a French reference to his flaming mane and wildly freckled face. McPherson called him “Rough.” He preferred Chef, a fitting title considering his mastery of plant and pastry prep in Berkeley with the one and only Alice Waters. On the other hand, a cheffing gig in the student commons of an academy of uncertain integrity was, well, his first opportunity post Chez Panisse to recoup some savings. It was one more rung on his ladder to Michelin fame.

Chef unlocked the door. He wheeled his bike into the storage room among crates of organic quinoa and brown rice, baskets of garlic, onions, aubergine, and tomatoes. He removed his toque blanche from its shelf, yanked it down over his squiggly red forest without so much as a side-glance in the mirror. His helmet nicely hung on its hook, his leather knife roll removed from its pannier on his bike, his silver Patagonia parka folded in quarters and set on perhaps the world’s largest sack of sweet potatoes, Chef de Cuisine Ruffin donned his cloud-white jacket, and gave himself a pat on the back. He unfurled his knives on the multi-purpose, big leaf maple prep station, a.k.a. the butcher’s block, and though there was a damp chill in the air outside, he backtracked to the door and propped it open with a brick in case the enormous cat who wandered the Academy’s grounds and whose name he had never learned might drop by. In the meantime, Ruff called her anything that began with “Chat” or cat in the language of his Madagascan mother and French father. CHATeau, CHATterley, or CHATterbox, and so on, were used interchangeably. He wondered, do cats even give a damn what they’re called? Does this big girl even realize she’s a cat?

* * *

In general, Marie was not well received by students or staff around Westminster Academy’s campus. Sure, her size, somewhere between a bobcat and a lynx, was intimidating, and all that fluff and fur made her look wider and wilder than she actually was. Her long legs and stealthy huntress saunter didn’t help either. But what really terrified folks were her eyes, an unexpected glowing yellow-gold, upturned like an over-carved pumpkin, with a fixed gaze that seemed to humans and other critters as if she were about to attack.

But Ruff Remy, who fancied himself a cat whisperer, having been brought up in a house with eleven felines, accepted Marie on her own terms. To him, she was a gentle giant, a smart and friendly creature with a passion for observing the world around her, including photos of other cats, her own image reflected in glass, and the pages of open books and newspapers. But what Chef Remy especially appreciated was Marie’s surprising love for the healthy food he prepared for her in the Student Commons’ kitchen and put into a special bowl marked “CHAT.” Or, if she didn’t show up for a while, he would bring the bowl outdoors to wherever she was hiding.

Marie tried her best to please Ruff, as she had heard others call him, by extended sniffing, purring in fake ecstasy, taking a few bites of his mushy offerings and then crawling up into his lap or into her lair, feigning sleep. And it worked, mostly. He thought she adored his food, but really she only loved him.

The truth was, she was a cat, and a Maine coon at that. Nothing appealed to her more than fresh caught meat—once she tired of chasing and playing with it—still warm and twitching during that first bloody bite. Several times, Marie had tried to introduce her fondness for meat to Ruff by laying gift morsels in front of his kitchen door so he would find them when he arrived in the morning. A few tree frogs, a black-capped chickadee, a couple of Townsend’s voles, one Eastern gray squirrel, and a large, half-eaten Norway rat that Ruff hurled back at her screaming, “Mauvais chat!” Apparently, Ruff really did not like meat.

One morning, after a long night attempting unsuccessfully to claw her way up the Douglas fir to where a family of newborn raccoons nested, Marie had to settle for tearing two Pacific sideband snails apart. Although their shells were fun to crunch, their meat was minimal, sticky, and far too astringent. Under-sated, Marie returned to her lair, coiled her long tail around her head and fell into a luscious dream of richer fare involving young possums and a garter snake.

“CHATelaine, my love. My best cat ever. I have something for you.”

Marie immediately sat up. It was Ruff with the bowl. She stared at him, and then at the bowl of something that smelled both earthy and possibly even pungent, but sadly not of meat. She yawned.

“Pour toi, mon bon chat, un bon RAT(atouille),” Ruff whispered the last bit, pushing the bowl toward her. Marie wished she knew how to faint. She backed away slightly. Then she got the joke.

If cats can laugh, Marie did then, and it sounded as if she were trying to cough up a hairball while jiggling her head like a wooden bobble-chat on a shelf. She slunk into her lair and brought out the rear-end-with-tail of the same Norwegian rat Ruff had thrown back at her. She dropped it on top of the muck in the bowl, meowing, “For you, my good human, your RAT(a-tat-tat).”

* * *

Ruff tied on his apron and flipped the switch on the water boiler, enough for a full French press of coffee. He hated McPherson’s pretentious piss-exuding German espresso. When his brigade de cuisine arrived, the two sassy Prendergast twins, George and Ginger, loaded and fired up the German monster, relieving Ruff of that horror, while he toasted coconut, chopped walnuts, washed blueberries, and simmered a vat of steel-cut oats in cinnamon flavored almond milk.

Curiously, a few handfuls of ravenous students endured Ruff’s “Chef’s Breakfast” day after day, while most drowned themselves in espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and mochas, as did the twins.

“How can you drink that French press crap, Chef? It tastes like brown chalk!” they asked in unison.

Chef shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was piss off this crew of two work-study students, his only help in the kitchen, thanks to McPherson’s voracious and costly personal appetites. But dang! “What the hell do you newbies know about coffee, huh? I’m friggin’ French, okay. Give me a break.”

“Sorry Chef,” they cooed in unison, looking askance at each other.

A noise near the doors, a cross between a whine and a howl alerted them.

“Hey, Ginger, check the doors, please. I think CHATeaubriand may have arrived. But why isn’t she coming in?”

“Sure thing Chef. I’m on it Chef.”

“George, you carry the oatmeal and accoutrements out to the counter.”

“The what?”

“The stuff that goes on top.”

“Copy that Chef.”

Ginger headed for the door. She removed the brick and opened the door all the way.

Marie had something in her mouth. She stepped inside and dropped whatever it was in front of her. She picked it up and dropped it again.

“What have you got there, cat? What is it girl?” Ginger asked bending down. “Your CATastrophe’s got something, Chef. You better come take a look.”

Ruff walked over to where Marie was standing. “Let me see what you brought, CHAToyance, and it better not be a rat or you’re in deep merde.”

Marie bent forward. She dropped a small tube on the floor. Ruff picked it up. “What is this Ginger? It looks like lipstick.” He handed the tube to Ginger.

“Nah, it’s lip gloss, the stuff a lot of us girls, and some of the boys, use around here to make themselves look more, well, kissable. Cherry, I think. Yep, it says Cherry, right here on the side. That’s George’s fave. Mine’s banana.”

Ginger returned the tube to Ruff and headed back toward the prep station. “I’ll go help George and then hang out in the dining room if that’s okay, Chef. Maybe have a latte while I wait for the crowd to storm in.”

Ruff nodded. “Where’d you find this, sweet girl?” he asked Marie. And with that, the cat ran off with Ruff jogging behind in his cloud-white jacket, holding onto his toque blanche with both hands.

* * *

Justine, puffy-eyed and possibly delirious from a lack of sleep, food, and a sledgehammer of guilt pounding her conscience, couldn’t stand it any longer. Because of her stupidity, a girl, a fifteen-year-old freshman for whom she was supposed to be a mentor and role model for a few minutes, had disappeared.

Oh, jeez, what if she’s been murdered? Or worse? I have to find Annabelle or leave Westminster Academy in disgrace. How would that affect my future?

“O.M.G. I’m such a jerk!” Justine wanted to scream, but at least she had the sense to whisper instead since her parents and brother were asleep down the hall. Their lives were so much simpler than hers.

Justine braided her honey-colored hair, watching herself in the mirror. She looked horrible…just what she deserved. Good thing she knew what she had to do. She zipped a camouflage-patterned parka over her pink flannel poodle pajamas and pulled an army green cap over her head. She packed her fencing bag with her best mask, gloves and jacket, scanned her collection of weapons and decided on a sabre because of its speed and cutting ability.

I’ll need a flashlight. Duh. She found one, tucked it into her parka pocket and tiptoed out the back door into pre-dawn darkness. After slipping on her hiking boots, Justine pushed her scooter down the road until she could start the engine undetected.

Arriving on campus, Justine parked her baby blue scooter at the far end of the parking lot. She hooked on her Bose sport open earbuds and found Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad’s, Proud: My Fight for An Unlikely American Dream, on her iPhone. Listening to Ibtihaj’s memoir always made Justine feel like she wasn’t alone in the world. She turned toward the school’s majestic mascot, the Douglas fir, though at the moment it only looked like a towering black silhouette against the slightly lighter sky.

“Wish me luck, Doug!” she shouted heading toward where she imagined the trail to the beach began. Justine had rarely ambled along any of the trails on campus, and had certainly never been down to the beach. She’d heard that the trek required walking through a dense forest connected to the tidier arboretum, then a zigzag of sometimes washed-out switchbacks down the bluff trail, and at the bottom a climb over outcroppings of rocks, driftwood and other debris before reaching the sand. Maybe Annabelle had tripped on a root, or slid off the trail, or fallen from the bluff onto the rocks below. Or, she might even have been washed out into the cold and churning Salish Sea.

“Oh shit! Stop freaking yourself out, scaredy-cat!” she screamed.

Justine reached down to turn up the volume on Proud. Soon she found an opening at the back of the arboretum that led into the forest. Thank goodness it was now light enough to see the trail stretched out before her. But after a while, she heard a sound like wind, or maybe a wolf- or human-size animal brushing the bush behind her. She turned around, and what she saw made her heart nearly explode out of her chest. “Wh…what are you doing here?”

Chapter 10

by Carol McMillan
1687 words

Netta Shah clenched her teeth with determination as she clamped a wide brass barrette around her dark hair, securing it neatly at the nape of her neck. She needed confidence and courage for what she intended to accomplish today. Her jaw relaxed a bit, allowing her lips to rise into a slight smile.

Even as a small child in New York City, Native American cultures had held a fascination for the first generation American. It wasn’t the beads or feathers or Hollywood images of “noble savages” that had attracted her, but a more genuine sense of connection. Laughing to herself, Netta wondered if the first associations happened simply because she was Indian and they were called “Indians;” that had been confusing to her from an early age. During her adolescence, Netta had begun to rage inside over the injustices she read about. History books seemed to ignore the atrocity of Europeans arriving and claiming rights to a continent already inhabited by hundreds of diverse and interesting cultures. The term “massacre” was only applied to Natives fighting back against the immigrants, never to the lighter-skinned people who burned villages and eventually stole Native children and locked them into the prisons they termed “boarding schools.” Netta had vowed to herself that, as an adult, she would work to help restore rights to people who continued to be neglected and abused.

The financial situation of Netta’s parents, Rahil and Pooja, had managed to insulate her from much of the prejudice experienced by olive-skinned children in the United States. The fact that she’d been a stunningly beautiful child had also helped. Raised around relatives who shared her skin color, the doors of discrimination hadn’t slammed Netta in the face until she’d graduated from a private high school and began making her way in the wider world. After earning a master’s degree, Netta found that the jobs available to her were mostly in under-funded inner-city schools. When she read of the position here at Westminster Academy, she’d applied and been accepted. Even though she realized her acceptance, most likely, had been as a token person-of-color in order to meet new diversity requirements, Netta had set out westward, where the pay would be excellent and where the media had led her to believe she’d find more visible “Indians” than existed in New York City.

Even before she arrived in Washington state, Netta had researched the tribe upon whose aboriginal land the Academy sat. Stillaguamish. Who were the Stillaguamish? John Wayne movies introduced her to feather-bonneted Plains Indians, Arizona Highways magazine showed pictures of sheep-herding, silver jewelry-laden Navajos (now correctly referred to as the Diné), and she’d seen photos of Geronimo with a rolled scarf tied around his forehead in what she assumed to be the manner of Apaches, but the photos she found of the Stillaguamish showed shaggy, bark-dressed people wearing cone-shaped hats, riding in long canoes. Not any kind of Indians she’d heard mention of before.

Further research revealed that the “Stoluck-wa-mish” were part of the treaty of Point Elliot in 1855, but no reservation had been established for them. In 1974, more than one hundred years after signing the treaty, they’d petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to be acknowledged as a tribe and to receive some of the benefits promised in return for stolen land. They were federally recognized in 1976, and finally granted a sixty-four-acre reservation in 2014. Over a hundred and fifty years later, sixty-four acres! To a tribe whose land had traditionally run all along the Stillaguamish river and its tributaries! Unthinkable injustice! Netta had hatched a plan to get the school to offer the tribe joint management of the iconic old growth forest located on the grounds of the “Fighting Firs” campus. A very small gesture amid the history of such injustice, but movement in the right direction just the same.

Netta had shared her plan with Lisa Nightlie from Campus Security, who she knew to be an environmental activist. Lisa was on board immediately, offering full support. Netta had heard that Dr. McPherson recognized Lisa as an up-and-coming, so her assistance in softening the old man to the idea would be a huge asset. Energized by Lisa’s enthusiasm for the scheme, she’d also approached the English teacher, that Bradley guy, who she found kind of attractive. Netta had tried out a bit of flirtation, something new to her, and been more than pleased with the results. Looking up at him with her wide, dark eyes while spelling out the plan had elicited a warm, ear-to-ear grin. Wow! she thought, this is way easier than I’d imagined. I need to remember this. Netta didn’t know how useful he might be for her goal, but it never hurt to have another human on board, and, besides, it had been an excellent first step in what might turn into some sort of relationship.

And so! Today would be the day! She was choosing to go alone to make initial contact with the tribe, hoping that her appearance might be more of an asset than the white faces of her posse. She had an appointment at ten to see Joseph Yanity in the tribe’s administration building. Netta had googled the address: 3404 236th St. NE. It sounded not the least bit rural, seemingly odd for a tribal headquarters, but Google Maps showed an area surrounded by those sixty-four acres of trees, just to the east of I-5. Netta grabbed her embroidered Indian (from the real India) purse and headed out the door.

***

The black façade of the administration building held a large red image of a salmon, stylized in the manner of northwest Indian art. Netta made a mental note to mention Stillaguamish art to Lisa for the grant she’d applied for from the Oliver Foundation. That might be another good connection for her endeavor.

Surreptitiously adjusting a slipped bra strap, she headed into the building and checked out the directory for the office of Joseph Yanity. Netta noticed that the tribal chair was also a “Yanity,” and wondered if it was an important family name. Clicking her way down the hall in her low-heeled pumps, she found the right door and knocked.

The man who bade her enter was a visual surprise. Seated behind a polished wooden desk with carved salmon swimming down its sides, Joseph Yanity appeared very white. His skin was much lighter than her own, and his greying light brown hair was cropped closely. Not at all the dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian with lengthy braids that had been her mind’s image of who she’d meet.

“Hash shlah shlhail.”

Netta heard something like that. It sounded very slurpy.

“Good morning,” he continued. “I’m greeting you in Lushootseed, our ancestral language, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at the pronunciation yet.”

“Sata sri akal,” Netta replied, smiling. “That is Punjabi, my ancestral language, and, even though my parents are fluent, I’m afraid I speak it very poorly.”

Joseph Yanity gestured toward a carved wooden chair, this one showing bears and what she guessed to be an eagle. “How can I help you, Miss Shah? I hope I have pronounced that right.” He smiled back at her.

“Yes, thank you. I’ve come about a plan I have for a grove of old growth firs on the Westminster Academy campus. I haven’t discussed it yet with our administrator, Dr. Peregrine McPherson, but I thought I’d see if your tribe would be interested before approaching him and, eventually, Mr. Oliver, the owner of the land.”

“I’m familiar with that grove. Besides the firs, it also has old growth cedar, which is extremely important to our tribe. Our homes were made of cedar. Our canoes are carved from cedar. The cedar root and bark have been used traditionally to weave clothing and hats, mats for sleeping, baskets for collecting food, and ropes for our hunters. Cedar is also used for medicinal purposes as well as spiritual ceremonies. We have quite an interest in that grove.”

Netta spelled out her proposal for joint management between the tribe and the Academy. “As I mentioned before, I haven’t brought it up yet with Dr. McPherson or Mr. Oliver. Quite frankly, they both tend to be more motivated by money than by vision, and I believe they need to be approached carefully.” Netta noted that, oddly, she was immediately more comfortable with this man than she’d ever been talking with McPherson.

“I am also well acquainted with Mr. McPherson and Mr. Oliver.”

Netta noticed he did not use the title of “Dr.” and wondered if it was intentional.

“Albert Beaumont Oliver III and I share an ancestral history. When Albert Beaumont Oliver the First, or ABO, as he’s often referred to, came out here from Maine in the mid-1800’s, my grandfather, zis-a-ba, was chief of the sp-la-tum village that was located near Warm Beach on the Salish Sea. After ABO gained power and claimed land and timber, he became instrumental in creating the treaty in 1855. We were granted most of our ancestral lands in that treaty, so my grandfather agreed to sign. We later found that what was filed with the federal government differed significantly from what zis-a-ba had signed; our reservation of allotted land had been completely omitted, much of it being the land now claimed by ABO. We have every reason to believe that it was ABO who drafted and filed the altered treaty. I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that legal papers have recently been served, granting us back all the land that was taken from us in that false treaty.”

Netta’s jaw dropped perceptibly. Her scheme was peanuts compared to what the tribe was already doing.

“Incidentally,” Joseph Yanity added, “there’s a girl applying for admission to the Academy—I believe Annabelle Watson is her name?—who is descended from a man who also helped create that treaty.”

Netta’s jaw now hung unabashedly open; she made no attempt to pull it back into a more polite position. Annabelle Watson was the name of the girl who had just disappeared.

Chapter 11

by Kaitlin Richcreek
2500 words

Helen Martin had found a rare moment of silence and was doing something she hadn’t done in a long time: reading the newspaper. In a glorious happenstance, both her girls had decided to fall asleep at the same time, and so far they were sleeping through the night. Even so, she couldn’t be completely still: she paced her kitchen while she read. She could feel grainy flour under her bare feet. She should sweep that up before she tracked it everywhere. It was just normal store-bought flour—she was far more careful with the other kind—but she still liked a clean home.

She normally just scrolled on Instagram at this point when she was childcare-dazed, but she had already read about the failing economy, divisive politics, and a girl named Anabelle who had gone missing earlier that afternoon. Now she wanted the comfort of paper in her hands and stories that were already in the past.

She came upon a story about one of the professors at Troy’s school, Judson Trompe, that made her laugh. She had heard about him from Troy and thought he was a total buffoon, so it was nice to see him making a fool of himself. But when she read what he was quoted as saying – “the mystery is with the feet” —her smile faded. She stopped in the middle of her pacing and re-read the article, searching for more detail. Reading that he had been reciting poetry in a “calculating” way increased her concern.

Just then, a knock came at the door. She jumped a little.

“Sis, let me in! I’ve got more of our mix ready!”

It was Troy. Helen took a breath, and the smell of the bread she had just put in the oven met her nose. It relaxed her. She glanced at the article again and shook herself. She was reading too much into it.

She walked to the door and let Troy in. He had a big goofy grin on his face, the same one he always had for her. She couldn’t help but smile back. When he opened his mouth to say something, she put a finger to her lips. “Quietly,” she murmured. “The girls are both down.”

Troy’s eyebrows went up and he gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up with the hand that wasn’t holding a large paper sack. He came in and set it on the kitchen counter while Helen closed the door behind him. She followed him and frowned at the bag. She set the newspaper down next to it and leaned down to peer into the oven. The bread was close to done.

“Oh, did you read the one about Trompe?” Troy said. He sat on a stool at the island facing into the kitchen and grabbed the newspaper. “He went crazy or something.”

Her frown deepened. She grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the flour that had been bugging her. “I did. Does he usually act that way?”

“Oh no, not at all. It was so weird too—I swear I was talking to him literally right before it all went down yesterday. I was having an actual civil conversation with him too—probably because we were just talking about regular stuff like food instead of politics or whatever, you know—and it was the most normal I’ve ever seen him. Guess something just snapped after that.”

A small knot of dread formed in Helen’s stomach. She set the broom against the counter with a clacking sound and grabbed a dustpan from under the sink. “Food? What kind of food?”

Troy’s cheerful tone faltered at whatever he heard in her voice. “Well—it’s weird you ask, actually—I was about to take a bite of one of our cookies when I ran into him, and he was asking about it, and I just gave him the whole thing at one point. He had customer potential.”

Helen stopped and stared at Troy, dustpan hanging loosely by her side. She felt cold and still. “You what?”

“Look, I know that one was meant for me, but what’s the—sis, what’s wrong?”

Helen still did not move to address the tidy pile of flour on the flour. “Troy, this is very important. I need you to answer me in as much detail as possible. What did you put into the flour mix for our last batch of cookies?”

“I put in all the same stuff we usually do, I promise.” He listed the ingredients one by one. He had memorized them years ago.

Helen wasn’t satisfied. “And was there anything unusual about this time? Did you mix it in a different place, or…?”

Troy’s brow furrowed. “No… well, I guess Ruff was staying late today, and since he was around he was asking questions about the recipe.” Ruff let Troy use the kitchen attached to the Student Commons to mix up the flour with the other ingredients. While he didn’t approve of the amount of sugar involved, Ruff knew about Helen’s situation and wanted to support their side hustle.

“What kind of questions?”

“Well, you know Ruff—super into weird food—he was curious about what your recipe was and he kept making suggestions, like what we could add or whatever.”

“Troy. Tell me you didn’t add anything.” That knot of dread tightened in Helen’s stomach.

Troy held his hands up. “I didn’t, I promise! But… what’s the big deal?”

Helen ignored his question. “Did you step away at any point?”

Troy’s open, innocent face looked so confused. “Well, I had to go to the bathroom once. Sis, seriously, what’s the issue?”

“Has anyone else eaten any cookies from that batch?”

“No, I only grabbed a couple for myself. This batch was just for—oh, wait.” Troy winced. “I gave the second one to this girl. A new girl or something, in the cafeteria. She seemed super hungry.”

“And how was she afterward?”

“She wasn’t feeling too well, so she said she was going to sit under a tree for a while until her dad could come get her. The big tree, old Doug. She started saying some weird things, but I had to get to a study group so I kind of just took off?” His voice turned up at the end while his eyes darted across her face.

“What was her name?”

“I’m not sure—Analisa? No, that’s not right.” Troy frowned.

Helen heard a clattering sound. She looked down. It was the dustpan. She had dropped it.

“Anabelle?” She murmured.

“Yeah, that’s right. how did you know?”

A wail came from upstairs. Samantha, her youngest, was awake. She shouldn’t have dropped the dustpan, she thought absently.

“Troy. You need to stay here and watch the girls tonight.” Helen rushed to the pantry, stuffed some things into a stray grocery bag, and then to the coat closet. Once again, she was all motion.

“What do you mean, sis? I already have plans to—”

“I don’t give a shit, Troy,” Helen interrupted, not bothering to keep her voice down. “I need to fix this. It’s your fault that girl is missing, so you’re on kid duty tonight.” She instantly regretted her words at the look of hurt surprise on her brother’s face. It wasn’t really his fault—it was hers, always had been hers. But she didn’t have time to apologize or explain. Another wail arose from upstairs. That would be her oldest, Gracie.

She shoved her bare feet, gritty flour and all, into tennis shoes. No time to get socks. She grabbed a coat and her bag of supplies before reaching for the handle of her front door. She paused and turned. Troy looked utterly bewildered. “See if you can get them back to sleep, and take the bread out of the oven before it burns,” she said. Her girls’ wails from upstairs pulled at her heartstrings. She opened the door and realized something. “And whatever you do, do not give anyone else the rest of those cookies,” she added over her shoulder before she walked out and closed the door behind her.

Helen shivered in the brisk night air. She grasped a locket around her neck and closed her eyes. “Mom, be with me tonight,” she whispered. Then she began her walk to the big tree at the edge of campus where Troy said he had left Anabelle.

As she walked, she ruminated about the choices she had made that had led to this moment.

When she was in high school, she had been labeled as strange because she kept to herself, didn’t try to be nice, and did not make friends easily. She was really only close to her mother, and from her mother she inherited a secret. But her mother had died under mysterious circumstances, and so Helen was left alone. When a boy showed interest in her, she acted like a fool and ended up pregnant even though she wasn’t even attracted to him. She wasn’t sure she was even attracted to men at all. But she hadn’t realized it was an option to expect someone to stay by her side unless she was giving them something in exchange.

Well, that boy definitely didn’t stay once she told him about the baby. And when she turned to her father for help, he raged and practically threw her out then and there. Eventually, he said that he would support her if the baby was a boy, but if the baby was a girl or even intersex, he wouldn’t give them a single penny. He wasn’t willing to support his late wife’s “legacy,” a word he layered with disgust. “Her line dies with you,” he had emphasized in a special moment of cruelty.

When it became known that she was having a girl, her father really did kick her out. She worked at a bakery practically until she went into labor so she could afford a tiny apartment, but once she had Samantha, she was desperate for the financial support of a spouse. She married someone who left her after they had a baby girl. One night when she was feeling particularly sorry for herself, she made a vow that she would never lie to herself again for a false sense of security. And that’s when she made her first batch of cookies.

She made the recipe herself, and it wasn’t just any recipe. It was a combination of ingredients that lent itself to supernatural properties. Because that was the secret of Helen’s maternal heritage: she came from a long line of witches, dating back centuries. And one night when Helen was feeling especially ashamed of her past, she decided to make comfort food that was not only delicious, but a safeguard from inner falsehood.

Unfortunately, there were some unexpected consequences to her midnight baking. The next day, Samantha, a toddler at the time, was speaking in strange riddles with vocabulary she couldn’t possibly know at her age and Gracie, just a baby, wailed without ceasing. Then Troy visited her—thankfully after her daughters had returned to normal—and before she could stop him he had taken a bite out of one of the cookies. The next day he started going to the gym and working out, and in hindsight she had realized that he had taken the first step to becoming true to himself and his bodybuilding dreams. Her cookies worked better than she had anticipated. Even the residue in the air was enough to affect young children.

Troy kept asking for more, and she felt excited at the opportunity to use her gift to help her baby brother when he had helped her so much. So she had Troy take pre-imbued flour and mix it with other raw ingredients elsewhere, away from her sensitive daughters, with the excuse that the food processor in the Student Commons was better than hers. They made a tradition of it, until eventually she figured out he was selling them under the table to other students in a sort of Westminster Academy black market. She couldn’t tell Troy about the magic, and she couldn’t say no to the extra money he was bringing in, but she did start only giving Troy regular flour.

Every once in a while, though, she made a batch just for them, and then she still used the special flour. What she hadn’t counted on was the one ingredient that her mother warned her to never use, under any circumstances, somehow making its way into the batch: blood.

She didn’t know how or why or by whom, but when Troy went to the bathroom and left the mix unattended, somehow, blood—even just a small amount—had been mixed in. She was sure of it. Perhaps Ruff had a small cut on his hand and snuck in some quinoa or something. Helen snorted when she thought of that. Ruff would never do something so unhygienic.

Nevertheless, only the added ingredient of blood could cause a fully grown adult to attempt to undo a falsehood so far beyond himself that he began to channel long lost secrets in the form of riddles. Blood could enhance any spell to a dangerous degree.

She didn’t know how a teenager would be affected, but she had a bad feeling about it. She needed to find Anabelle.

Once she arrived at the big fir tree at the edge of campus, she looked around her to make sure she was alone. It was after midnight now and the area was deserted.

Helen began a basic tracking ritual using the supplies from her grocery bag. It took her a while to recall all the details—she was pretty rusty, she admitted to herself at one point—but in the end, she was settling into a cross-legged position to wait at the center of a tight circle of sliced almonds sprinkled with cocoa powder, immersed in the sharp smell of cloves and vanilla, and to her relief, she could feel the magic being released. Baking ingredients were her preferred medium.

The spell was reliable, if a little unpredictable in how it carried itself out and how long it took. It always gave her a clear path to follow, one way or another.

***

“Wish me luck, Doug!” The shout rang nearby. Helen’s eyes snapped open. She kept the rest of her body still so that she wouldn’t catch the attention of the girl running past her.

This was it. She could feel it. Helen got to her feet, her knees unbending painfully. She had been sitting for hours, only getting up a few times to stretch. She carefully stepped over her circle of almond slices and jogged after the girl in the pre-dawn light. The girl was traveling toward the old growth forest between the academy and the Olivier estate.

Chapter 12

by Mary Lou Haberman
1051 words

Lisa Nightly pounced from behind a thorn bush, reverently placed a small metal devise behind her and stared at Justine. “I’ve been tracking you! The REAL question is, what are YOU doing here with that sabre?”

Justine was freaked out and blubbered, “Oh Ms. Nightly. It’s that girl, Annabelle, she’s gone and it’s all my fault for leaving her yesterday. I’ve gotta find her. I’m gonna kill whoever took her.” (She later wished she hadn’t gone looking, but rather had volunteered to go back to campus and kept watch.)

Lisa twisted her neck from side to side, alert to the possibility other folks carrying weapons, and stared at Justine, barking, “I’d say it IS your fault. But you know, girlie? You’re in luck because I’M here.” For good measure, she folded her right hand, held the nails to her lips, puffed foggy air onto them. and polished them on her flannel chest before taking charge. “We’ve gotta find that girl before it’s too late.”

Justine shivered, pretending she hadn’t already thought of all the horrible things that could have happened. “Too late?”

“Yeah. Can’t say why right now, but believe me, this thing’s bigger than law enforcement can deal with.” Silently, she thought, “But then, maybe it’s not.” And she bit her tongue to keep from bragging about her invention. Reluctant to tell the sweet young thing about the phenomenal tracking device she’d created.

Lisa was so excited she could hardly keep from showing Justine how the device worked, but there wasn’t enough time, and she doubted the sweet young thing could understand its intricacies, its delicacies, its complexities. Oh, she could go on and, expanding like a pufferfish, stopped to imagine her fame and fortune. After changing the world of police work, she’d finally be appreciated. And then, resting on her laurels, she and Netta would lounge on the beach in the Maldives, drinking Biyadhoo Specials and nibbling Rihaakura.

Justine’s stomach seized and she started to pace, using the sabre to stab and pierce the forest floor. “Oh God, what is going on? Why is this happening?” She ignored the blood seeping from the hang nail she’d just bitten.

Lisa chastised her. “Wy didn’t you come to law enforcement for help?”

Justine’s heart was racing. She didn’t even think to block herself from blurting “I couldn’t. It’s the police chief. He’s weird, gives me the creeps, the way he looks at me, calls me sweetie pie. I can’t take it.”

Lisa slugged a loogie into the ground. “The bastard.” Rather than cuss on the brute and noticing Justine’ pallor, she promised, “We’ll deal with him later.”

Justine nodded when Lisa assured her chirping, “Don’t worry. You’ve got me. Someone named Nightlie will always act rightly.”

Justine sighed. Lisa hugged her and said, “Girl, we can do this.” She pulled herself up to her full five feet ten inches and, heard her mother say, “Lisa, be brave in the face of danger. Use your power. Remember: T.O.”

To Justine she said, “T.O.”

Justine said, “What?”

 “Tits Out, girl. Let’s find Annabelle”. She refrained from saying “…before someone else does.”

***

Annabelle stirred. The grit in her mouth tasted bitter and she sensed something between her teeth. There was another, stranger taste in her mouth—like blood. Annabelle peaked through her caked eyelids. What happened? Where was she? She tried to stretch but found herself tied up like Gulliver at the Lilliputians and didn’t have the energy to fight. So, she let herself drift off. But not before biting her tongue on something sharp. Something shaped like a tiny chin.

In the back of her mind, under a cloud of chemicals, and before sliding back into oblivion, she thought she remembered hearing a conversation. Muffled talking. A man. “I’m not sure this is the right thing to do Netta. We should let the courts handle the situation.”

Then, a woman. “No time for that, Yanity.” Now that we have her, we can use her for ransom. There’s no time to waste.”

***

Light was returning to the forest floor and Marie kept looking. Where was the human? She soothed herself remembering she was a kind, cunning, and caring creature, descended from the great Queen. She sensed there was no coincidence she’d found the human under Doug and remembered she’d given her a bit of mouse cheek for sustenance. She swore she’d never forgive Sarge and Ruff for not following her in time to discover the human.

Marie was relieved to find Annabelle bound in the shadows of a cedar grove at the edge of the forest.  Instinctively, she sheltered her, kept watch, and worried—all the while wondering, “Who is this human, why was she groggy and what is that disgusting smell oozing from her nose?”

Marie laid, splayed and prayed to Grandmother. Please, give me a sign. I don’t know how to help this fragile creature.

Before long, Grandmother answered. “You are her familiar. Helen is on her true path and now and no longer needs you. Now, you must companion with Annabelle. She is unaware that she is descended from an evil man.”

Marie, being true to herself, like Helen was, accepted the reassignment. Helen had been a child when they met and Marie had helped her mature. Now, Helen was on her own path. The magic Pedibus Power working in her life.  

***

Light oozed to the ground. Rolling Earth grumbled, birds screeched, and trees tilted, swayed, moaned. Clouds roiled in thunder and exploded with lightening. Evil was afoot.

Sensing danger in the air and, in her humble way, recognizing that the danger was greater than she could tackle on her own, Marie took action. Her screeching meow shook the branches of the trees and even Doug felt alarmed as he swayed with the intense energy of her Cri de Coeur. Other creatures came forth with bared teeth and blazing eyes and, in a chorused cacophony, “You called, Mistress Marie?”

Marie, wisely tuned into the Universe, was able to hear harmony in the cacophony. “Come closer, friends. Go, find your person and protect them.” A few of the animals turned back not wanting to get involved. The remaining warriors—bears, bats, squirrels, and owls—nodded toward each other and then sang to Marie. “Lead on.”

Chapter 13

by Judith Shantz
2380 words

Vladimir Varyshkin stood just inside the door of Mr. Olivier’s office, arms folded across his chest, looking very much like a stern version of Mr. Clean, but in sharper clothes. Everything about him spoke of power and cunning.

This wasn’t Vlad’s real name but it was close enough that he easily responded to it without any hesitation.

Ten years ago, Vlad had been a rising star in a data center that was housed in the bleak bunker of a Cold War building on Rossiyaskaya, less than a kilometer from the Kremlin. At the time he wasn’t interested in being a rising star in anything. The job provided him with everything he needed – enough money to pay his mother a few rubles for feeding him and doing his laundry, for drinking bad vodka with his old school buddies, cheering on his favorite soccer club, and playing endless Chinese video games. Simply put, he was perfectly happy to be a Russian version of a slacker dude.

But Vlad had talent and he had failed to hide it. When he was at work, he was meticulous and accurate. In high school he had studied foreign languages and had become quite adept in English. He even spoke a little Mandarin. These attributes were not overlooked. He was soon asked to try his hand at data analysis. He proved to be quite skilled, so other tasks, some very complex, were sent his way.

Eventually, just as he was leaving the department one evening, his supervisor approached him and told him to wear a suit and tie the next morning. He had been scheduled for an important meeting. Vlad shrugged. The next morning he arrived in the same worn black slacks but topped by a borrowed brown corduroy jacket and stringy red tie. Still the slacker, but in different clothes. His supervisor cringed but said nothing.

Vlad was startled to learn that the meeting was with the SVR, Russian Intelligence, and at first he thought he had committed some thought crime or failed to pay all his obligatory taxes. But by the end of the meeting, Vlad was offered an “opportunity.” An opportunity, he was led to understand, he could not easily refuse.

That was the beginning, and five years later, Vlad Varyshkin was a new man with a new identity and was embedded in the United States. He had a robust and envious scholastic and work history and the best forged papers that money and power could buy.

***

McPherson sat slumped in the chair and, even in this lower light, Vlad could see the sweat beading along the man’s hairline and across his forehead. Vlad’s nose twitched in silent disgust. Finally Perry hoisted himself from this demeaning position and laid the file on Olivier’s desk. He folded back the cover and was surprised by the unintelligible contents. There were pages and pages of computer printouts of simple spreadsheets. He ran his fingers down the columns looking for clues. The ones with times and dates were fairly simple – date, start-time, end-time. But the others with odd names, initials, and disconnected words and symbols meant nothing to him.

He turned and looked at Vlad. “What does this all mean?” He was feeling a little more confident now that he saw it was all just gibberish.

Vlad stepped forward. “They are print-outs of the day’s logs. Mr. Olivier likes a hard copy to go over at the end of the day. But all the information is digitized and securitized.”

“But what does it mean? Except for some times and dates, it all looks like nonsense.”

“Some are code names for individual people and some are symbols for things, like dollar value, evidence data, conversations, law enforcement contacts, etc. Just because this is a hard copy, don’t get the mistaken belief that it is not sophisticated and that Mr. Olivier doesn’t have a firm understanding of its contents.”

“I still don’t get it. What’s the significance of all this data?”

“Every piece is part of a communication. Some with Mr. Olivier. Some between other individuals. The symbols in the last column represent key words in the conversation.”

Vlad stepped forward and ran his fingers across the headings. “The first three columns are dates and times. Pretty easy to see. Then sender and recipient. The sixth is type of communication. You know, cell phone, text, etc. The last contains key words in the communication. The digital version has the full text.”

“Who are the people involved? I don’t recognize any of these initials, if that’s what they are.”

“They are people, many of whom you know. They, too, are in code. For instance, this one is you.” He placed his forefinger on the cell with the initials DW.

McPherson ran his eyes across the line. He could see the date and time but the rest was just a row of symbols. Was this his phone call to Olivier last Tuesday morning? What had they talked about? The plan with Don Martin? Or was it the money? Suddenly, nausea rose up from somewhere deep in his gut. Had he threatened Olivier? He couldn’t remember. Was that recorded?

McPherson stood unsteadily beside the desk, blood draining from his face and sweat starting to soak his crisp white shirt.

His voice practically croaked, “Why does DW stand for me?”

Vlad couldn’t suppress a slight grin. “Dr. Who,” he said. “Perhaps it’s time to reinvent yourself.”

***

Joseph Yanity had a problem. Sitting across from him was a beautiful young Indian woman. Beautiful and earnest. Earnest in the way that you seldom saw in young Americans anymore: intense, sincere, but very naïve.

He actually really liked her – a woman who wanted to make a grand gesture to the tribe and with no thought of anything to gain by it. But she was the wrong person at the wrong time. If it was merely a matter of the Tribal Treaty and the lawsuit, he might have been able to give her a role to play. She might even have been useful. But the Treaty rights were just the visible part of a much more intricate scheme. He couldn’t let that be jeopardized by a do-gooder, no matter how pretty she was.

What he actually said to the non-plussed young woman was gentle and appreciative. “I am really honored that you would go so far out of your way for our tribe. Now, why did you look so startled when I mentioned the student – Annabelle Watson?”

“She was taking a tour of the campus and then she disappeared – now everyone is looking for her.”

Oh shit, thought Yanity. This is getting worse. But what he said out loud was, “Maybe that should be our first concern. As I’m sure you can tell, I’m not a full-blooded native so I don’t do tiptoeing silently through the forest in my moccasins very well. But I do believe that a human life may be at stake so I think we ought to go find her.” Would that be enough to appeal to this lovely creature’s better angels?

Apparently it was and Netta agreed to take him around the school grounds, show him the places Annabelle had last been seen and help him join in the search.

“I imagine the school’s Security Office will already have taken the lead on looking for the girl. Are we likely to meet up with either of them?” Yanity asked, gently fishing for some clue as to what might lie in their path.

“Oh, I certainly hope not,” said Netta emphatically.

“You don’t sound like you approve of them.”

“It’s not that I don’t approve. It’s that I am very uncomfortable around them. The Sergeant is just a buffoon and I don’t believe that he is very effective. But the deputy really makes…makes my skin crawl. She is always touching me. She seems to assume we are great friends. She is very pushy. I always try to avoid her.”

“Well, that paints a pretty clear picture,” said Yanity. “I guess we had better get going.”

It was well after dusk when the two of them met up again in the school parking lot. Yanity had left his own vehicle parked out on the street and walked onto campus, bringing two flashlights with him. They quickly made the tour of the likely places but Joseph was eager to get into the woods. Netta was surprised by how well he seemed to know his way everywhere they went.

“I think we should check the bluff first. It’s a really rocky area and if Annabelle found her way out there and fell, she could really hurt herself,” Yanity said. Netta shuddered. That would be horrible. They followed some of the main trails for a while, and then a few game trails, with Yanity inching them ever closer to the bluff.

Once again Netta had that feeling that there was something she was missing – something just beyond rational thought, something more like intuition. She stopped suddenly. “Wait,” she said. “Mr. Yanity. I think we’re going about this all wrong. Maybe Annabelle didn’t just wander off. Maybe her disappearance is part of a plot to discredit your lawsuit. You yourself said her ancestor had also been responsible for the Treaty terms that were filed. Let’s go back and talk to the police. Tell them about the lawsuit. What you know about the girl’s ancestor.”

“I’m not sure this is the right thing to do, Netta. We should let the courts handle the situation.”

Yanity turned to resume his way toward the bluff but suddenly a huge beam of light lit up the forest around them. They both spun around, shielding their eyes from the light. But the spotlight had dropped and was now shining on the figure on the forest floor – the semi-conscious, and very tightly bound, Annabelle Watson.

“No time for that, Yanity,” said the woman with the spotlight. “Now that we have her, we can use her for ransom. There’s no time to waste.”

Netta dived to the ground to start untying Annabelle but Debra stepped on her hand. “What about your friend here, Yanity? She’ll have to go.”

***

There was no pretension left in Perry. He stumbled toward the door but Vlad got there first. He slowly opened it and made a mock humble bow. “I’ll escort you to the edge of the estate, per Mr. Olivier’s request.”

Perry was past hearing. He was actually lurching toward the forest where he longed to hide and become anonymous. Every plan seemed to be in ruins and he could see no way to resurrect them and no way to escape his fate. Reinvent himself as what? A federal prisoner? As a dead man? He started to cry.

Vlad made sure that McPherson got started on the right path and watched him for a moment. At one point he heard a crack and a thrashing sound, along with a couple of sharp profanities. Vlad snickered. Such fun listening to him snivel!

***

Phil Bradley checked his watch. Only an hour till moonrise, which might prove most unhelpful. Of course, it would be only a fat crescent moon tonight and maybe the sky would cloud over by then. He was dressed all in black, flat black, no leather. Black watch cap pulled low on his forehead. Black buff pulled up to his eyes. Black trail runners with big, sturdy lugs on the soles. 

His kit, as he called it, was all close at hand in his vest pockets – flashlight, binoculars, night vision glasses, phone. He slipped his badge into his pants pocket, just in case. But for these surveillance expeditions he preferred not to go armed.

He laughed to himself when he thought that by late tomorrow morning he would be teaching a class on English romantic poets. “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” indeed! Oh, If they only knew.

Phil Bradley was a good and popular teacher. He genuinely loved English literature and was sincerely interested in teaming up with the new environmental science teacher and looking for ways to integrate their subject matter. But for now, teaching was simply the perfect cover for his other job.

Bradley knew the woods, the rocks, and the bluff like the back of his hand. And he knew every bay and cove around the little dinosaur spine of rock sticking out into the Salish Sea. He skirted along the edge of the trees until he had to crouch down and make a run for the hiding places among the rocks. From there he could watch the “traffic.” He was there to count the kayaks and canoes running the shore line under cover of darkness. How many men? (or people?). How many bundles of contraband? How many shadowy forms hiding from the law? He would record it all – times, GPS coordinates, types of boats, number of paddlers, number of passengers.

That would be his priority tonight, but he also wanted to find that missing girl.

***

Marie skulked silently along the forest paths just as the moon was rising. Normally she loved the moonlight but tonight she sought darkness. There was something afoot, so to speak. At least that’s what she would have said if she could speak.

The forest was full tonight – not only with the little night creatures who lived there, but with humans – some of them very bad humans.

Eventually she came across a human she knew quite well. He has lying face down on a deer trail, damp and chilled. She licked at his face which tasted of salt but his only response was a hiccup of bad breath. But she didn’t want him to die; she was, after all, a kind cat.

And, at least this human hadn’t yelled at her or kicked her out of the way. In fact, if she could sneak into his office while he was there, he would often share morsels of his favorite treats, lush pieces of foie gras (she wished they’d leave the cognac out of the recipe) or fat little sardines from a tin. Once she even had some caviar. Oooh – to die for! She climbed up on his back and spread out her big, hairy body to keep him warm.

Chapter 14

by Kate Austen
1931 words

Albert Beaumont Olivier III smiled with satisfaction. He had not planned for poor little rich girl Annabelle Watson to wander into the forest in a drug-induced haze (he made a mental note to find out more about the drug and its source, a possible market opportunity) but it played perfectly into his grand scheme. Discovering that Annabelle’s mother Emerald was his second cousin and was therefore—genetically at least—implicated in the fraud perpetrated on the tribe by his grandfather, was a delicious irony. ABO3 liked to think he was a self-made man, but he was beginning to see fate’s hand in this: his manifest destiny was to dominate the Pacific Northwest in a way his grandfather had not even dreamt of.

It was not fate but his foresight that had led him to install the camouflaged infra-red cameras throughout the forest. Ostensibly to capture wildlife photographs for the Nature Conservancy, these cameras allowed him to track human activity through his domain as well. His smile broadened as he gazed at the multi-screen display. This was like a horror movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead of star-crossed lovers and fairies, the woods were thronged with, amongst others, an environmentalist, a tribal leader, an ambitious security officer, a high school princess, and an undercover cop. Yes, he knew what Phil Bradley’s real agenda was: to trace the increasing amounts of Fentanyl ending up on school and college campuses throughout the region. Olivier had tricked out some boats to look like Indian racing canoes, knowing the Coastguard, wary of infringing on native water rights, would not interfere. Bradley could play ninja commando all night: ABO3’s contraband was safe. The only figure in the forest that Olivier did not recognize was a rather haggard-looking young woman inadequately dressed for the pre-dawn chill. She glided through the trees like a ghost, followed by two glowing orbs, the eyes of some creature whose form was no more than a dark patch on the screen.

And there was Dr. Peregrine McPherson, bumbling back in what he thought was the direction of Westminster Academy. What an ass! Olivier’s thoughts returned to Shakespeare: Perry filled the role of Bottom to a T. His ridiculous scheme, hatched with that other idiot Don Martin, to turn the estate into some kind of Northwestern Dollywood, was dead on arrival. As if Olivier would trust that fake Ph.D to manage a business venture when he couldn’t even complete an expense request accurately! His face was a picture when Vlad revealed the communication log culled from the school’s computer network. Did he really think he could divert thousands of dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle without Olivier knowing?

***

Debra Abel had finally reached the limit. As a woman whose default emotion was blind rage, she had finally reached her limit many times over the previous months. But this time, it really was the end. The Subpoena called for “all employees, officers, or others with knowledge of financial, ownership, or business matters pertaining to, concerning, or touching on Westminster Academy to present themselves, with all relevant documents, at the U.S. Federal Courthouse (17th floor) on November 30, 2021 to appear before a Grand Jury.” No matter how she read it, this meant her. She knew Perry would do everything to dodge the summons, saying that his realm was purely academic, and it was she, as Chief Financial Officer, who was responsible for any shortcomings in the school’s business records. Well, she was damned if she was going to carry the can for his greed and stupidity.

In the beginning, it had been a fun challenge to engage in a little creative accounting to disguise the odd vacation or vehicle purchase as a necessary business expense. Organized as a non-profit, Westminster Academy did not have to answer to shareholders, and didn’t even need to publish annual financial reports. When she realized that the school was only the benevolent face of a vast and mysterious business empire headed up by the powerful Albert Beaumont Olivier III, the stakes grew higher. She knew exactly what she had to do now: throw herself on Olivier’s mercy. He was the only one who could get her out of this mess. She wondered what she would have to do in exchange. There would definitely be a quid pro quo. It briefly crossed her mind that perhaps Olivier himself had engineered the Grand Jury investigation for some nefarious reason, but she dismissed it. The sooner she crossed the forest and joined the Dark Side the better.

***

For Vladimir, living under deep cover was great in some ways and irksome in others. He disliked his role as a valet, pretending subservience while tending to his employer’s personal needs. On the other hand, he had access to state-of-the-art technology, and the opportunity to hack into and surveil government and business systems, penetrating the supposedly impenetrable. Some of the insider information he gathered he passed on to his FSB handler at their infrequent meetings under the giant Douglas fir, some he shared with Olivier to further that oligarch’s ends, and some he kept for himself to play with. He had learned much from observing Olivier’s capitalist methods. He had built up a nicely diversified stock portfolio and acquired a few real estate holdings through a shell company in Bermuda. Who knew when he might be exposed, recalled to Moscow, or just abandoned?

“This girl’s disappearance plays right into my hands,” Olivier was saying as he paced in front of the monitor screens. “You two need to find her first, and make it look like Yanity and Shah kidnapped her for ransom.”

Vlad shrugged. An easy assignment, if he didn’t have to drag along this woman. Debra Abel had a strident voice and a mean scowl. Vlad like his women soft-spoken and compliant. Abel would probably make too much noise and get in the way.

“The object, in case you’re interested,” Olivier continued, “is to discredit both the environmental lobby that objects to me logging the old growth forest, and the tribe’s ludicrous claim to my land. But you don’t need to worry about that. Just do your job.”

“What I worry about is the Grand Jury Subpoena,” interjected Debra. “How are you going handle that?”

Vlad winced. Debra had not seen Olivier’s eyes turn to ice; he didn’t like to be spoken back to.

“Hey, let’s get on it,” he said, handing Debra the flashlight and steering her toward the door.

And it had been easy. They’d pinpointed the girl’s location from the camera monitors and found her in the hollow under an uprooted tree, still dazed by whatever drug she had consumed so many hours before. Vlad had tied her up and dragged her into the open, disappearing into the undergrowth just as Joseph Yanity and Netta Shah stumbled along. He thought, with some careful splicing of the dialog captured on his phone’s voice recorder, there would be ample evidence of a plot to hold Annabelle for ransom.

Of course, Debra Abel nearly ruined it. Turning on the powerful flashlight too soon and yelling out like that with the forest teeming with other searchers was completely unprofessional. Vlad lunged for the spotlight. Before he could extinguish the beam, he saw another body spreadeagled face-down in the bushes at the side of the path. Crouched on its back, eyes glowing orange, was the largest cat Vlad had ever seen, and it was poised to jump.

 “Run,” hissed Vlad, not stopping to see if Debra was following him. He’d gone thirty yards before pausing to assess his route. He listened for pursuers but heard only his labored breathing, until the unmistakable sound of a gunshot pierced the darkness.

Jack Watson cursed himself for a fool. Why had he succumbed to the headmaster’s insistence that the school security force would find his daughter, and there was no need to alert the police? His desire to avoid publicity was as strong as the school’s. With his company going public in less than a week, he had to avoid any hint of notoriety. Or so he had thought at first, but as the hours passed without any sign of Annabelle, he knew that again he’d put his career interests ahead of his family. He had been a bad husband and he was a terrible father.

School security farce was more like it: the overweight Sergeant McMuffin and the over-eager young female officer who just wanted to bend his ear about the tracking app she had developed for law enforcement use, patent pending. She seemed confident she could find Annabelle with it, and he had promised to look at backing the technology if she was successful. Yet so far, no results.

Although it was still very early in the morning, he grabbed his phone. He listened to the Westminster Academy voicemail greeting with growing impatience: “Diversity, inclusion and kindness—above all, kindness. We’re unable to take your call at this time as we are busy caring for our students. If you know the extension of the person you are calling, please dial it now, or dial 9 for a directory.” Five minutes later, he reached the M’s and punched in McPherson’s number only to reach another voicemail greeting. “…if this is an emergency, please call my secretary Jane Varner on the following number….”

Exasperated, and without much hope of reaching a live person, he called the number, noting the Seattle area code. A sleepy voice answered after three rings.

“Hello? Jane Varner here.”

“Ms. Varner, this is Jack Watson. I’ve heard nothing from the school about my daughter. What’s going on? Dr. McPherson assured me his people would find Annabelle, but it’s been over twelve hours since she disappeared. I’m calling the police.”

Jane sounded more alert now. “You must do what you think best, Mr. Watson, but I can tell you that the campus search is ongoing and thorough. Several members of staff, as well as our security officers are involved. Have you called her friends? Perhaps one of them has heard from her.”

Jack thought guiltily that, not only had he not called her friends, but he didn’t know who her friends were. He was a terrible father. “Alright, I’ll give it a little longer. I’m going back to the school now to check on the search.”

“I’ll meet you there,” Jane responded and disconnected.

Sybil was awake. She looked at Jane with a resigned expression. “You’re going in to work.”

“Yes, I have to. You know the headmaster isn’t capable of coordinating matters, and McGuffin couldn’t investigate his way out of a paper bag—”

“—unless it contained donuts!” finished Sybil, with a wry laugh. “Go on, then. Call and tell me what’s going on, and for heaven’s sake come home early!”

Jane headed out into the cold. That poor girl, she thought, wondering if Annabelle had spent the night outside. Driving north on I-5, Jane reflected on her twenty years of service to Westminster Academy. How many times had she papered over ugly cracks in the administration, and shoved unpleasant facts about the faculty under the rug. Judson Trompe, for example. He should have been fired years ago, but she had been blackmailed into protecting him. That was over now. She was proud of herself for leaking the story of his latest misbehavior to the press. Now there was only one person left who knew the real reason why she stayed on at Westminster. Soon, very soon, she would be free of their hold over her.

Chapter 15

by Laura Rink
1415 Words

While Phil Bradley’s training helped him remain alert even when sleep deprived, the increasing darkness of the fall season could wear on him. This time of year it took the sun forever to finally creep over the Cascades in the morning. Sure, the days were brightened by the autumn colors, especially the golden Chestnut trees marking a golden path across the grass toward the Student Commons. But the encroaching darkness and moisture-laden clouds that often squeezed out the sunlight, that sometimes spit rain for days straight in an atmospheric river, well sometimes that darkness wore him down. Besides he was ready to join in the search for Annabelle, if she was still on campus, and light, even filtered gray light, would be welcome.

Phil unfolded his body from behind the rocks he had been crouching behind and stretched his arms over his head. Indian racing canoes out on the water, again. On a dark night. Or relatively dark—the crescent moon made a brief appearance, a false dawn in the east, and then an occasional faint glow behind the drifting clouds. Would the tribe practice at night? The fall salmon run had started but fishing at night also didn’t make sense and certainly not from a racing canoe, built for speed, not stability. The Stillaguamish were not, so far, implicated in his investigation into the local opioid epidemic but he needed to reach out to someone in the tribe to help pinpoint who was, or was not, in those canoes. Maybe Joseph Yanity, with whom he had a nodding acquaintance from the annual ceremony on campus, the once-a-year acknowledgement of the school existing on the traditional lands of the Stillaguamish.

That hollow ritual was a prime example of Westminster Academy’s inability to live up to its Diversity, Inclusion, and Kindness motto. Though that might change with someone like Netta on the faculty. Phil was intrigued by Netta and admired her plan to take concrete action, an especially bold move for someone new to the school. While he looked forward to collaborating with her on campus, he also wanted to spend time with her off campus to get to know her better. And he wanted to give her a copy of Greenwood, which her plan brought to mind, the novel spanning generations and their relationships with trees, beginning and ending in the future where a small group of people and a corporation, for better or for worse, stood guard over the last stand of old growth forest in the world.

A flash of light came from the trail leading from the bluff to the beach. Phil sank down on his heels and slipped on the night vision glasses. Two people, one of them gesturing with a . . . a sabre? Justine? He’d heard that Annabelle had disappeared when Justine left her to speak with him about their fencing lesson. Poor girl, she must feel partially responsible. The other person was without a single distinguishing feature, except for the jacket—a dark checked flannel—the signature of Nightlie, campus security. Lose that jacket and she could make a career in undercover work. Lisa was mostly competent, someone you could count on but every once in a while she seemed to take on the persona of McGuffin, a buffoon who was utterly unsuited for his position. A school like Westminster Academy could certainly afford a more professional head of security. Why would McPherson have someone like McGuffin in charge?

People were endlessly baffling and complex. Understanding others was what first drew

Phil to books. Charlotte’s Web and Old Yeller. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He made his way through his mother’s childhood set of the Little House in the Big Woods and his father’s Hardy Boys Series. Shakespeare and Austen to Sherlock Holmes and Toni Morrison to Stephen King and Ann Patchett, Phil read everything, and each book added to his understanding and empathy for others. Becoming an English teacher was the natural evolution of his love of books but it wasn’t enough. Phil wanted to help people, especially young people whose drug addictions could end their lives before they even really began.

Voices floated up from the trail below. Phil couldn’t tell if Justine and Nightlie were heading up or down. Had they been out here all night? He could approach them, use the partially true fact of the search for Annabelle as his reason for being out here. Though his all black attire might seem odd.

A voice sang out, Phil swiveled and saw a billow of white bobbing along the bluff trail in his direction. Phil leaned into the rocks.

“Mon CHAT! CHAToyance!”

Phil recognized the accented and cat-besotted voice of Ruff.

“CHATeau! I can’t help you if I can’t see you!”

As Ruff drew nearer, Phil turned his face into the rocks, a patch of flat black among the fading darkness.

“CHATeau, you have deserted me. I must return to my kitchen. The sweet potato souffle won’t make itself. Au revoir.”

Phil watched Ruff, with his meringue of a chef’s hat, stride back in the direction he had come. From the opposite direction came a brief swath of light and then in the distance a gunshot. Phil’s hand went to his hip but he had chosen to be unarmed tonight. Would that prove to be a mistake?

***

Emerald looked over at Zeph, widening her eyes in alarm at him. He shrugged but leaned his head down to hers. Emerald covered the phone with one hand and whispered, “Annabelle is missing!”

Zeph stared at her.

Into the phone Emerald softly shrieked, “How did this happen? No, forget that for now. What is being done to find her? How many people are searching? How do you know if she’s still at the school? Maybe she was kidnapped! Where is her father?”

Zeph moved away from her and slipped his iPad into his Gucci leather messenger bag, a birthday gift from Emerald. She gestured at her matching bag which Zeph slung over his shoulder. Emerald kicked off her Lissom Flytes and fished out the Jimmy Choo’s from under the seat in front of her.

“I’m disembarking. I’ll call you back.” She blinked tears away and followed Zeph off the plane.

The humidity washed over them as they descended the steps onto the tarmac.

“Oh god, it’s hot,” Zeph moaned. “I can’t breathe.”

“Zeph, I have to go back.”

“Does the hotel have air conditioning?”

“Are you listening to me? My daughter is missing!”

“She’s fifteen, she’s run off with some boy.”

“What boy? There is no boy! We don’t know where she is. Someone could’ve kidnapped her.”

Zeph looked at Emerald. “How rich are you?”

Emerald marched ahead into the cool air of the terminal.

“AC—thank god!” Zeph caught up with her.

Emerald turned toward departures. “We need to look into return flights.”

“We? You’re the mom. I’ll wait here.”

“What?”

“Your ex will be there, I guess. It will be weird. Better if I stay here.”

A group of young woman walked by pulling suitcases behind them. Two of them smiled at Zeph. Zeph smiled back, still talking to Emerald. “I understand your need to go. I’m sure she’ll turn up soon. And then you can come back here. I’ll be waiting. In the AC. Or on the beach.”

For a brief moment, Emerald missed the solidarity of marriage, at least the first part of her married life with Jack, when he was present, when they faced life’s challenges together, before she was always alone. She hated being alone. She’d spent a lot of years essentially a single mom, albeit one with a housekeeper, a cook, and a gardener, but still the responsibility of raising Annabelle fell all on her. This trip was one she had been looking forward to for so long, two weeks of St. Barts bliss. Why did Annabelle have to go missing now? Perhaps Annabelle was hiding on purpose, to punish her for leaving, for not taking Annabelle to check out the new school, for leaving Annabelle to her father’s inattentive care.

“Do what you need to do. I support you. I’m going to go get our bags.” Zeph followed the group of young women toward baggage claim.

Emerald caught up to Zeph, slipping her arm through his. “Maybe she’ll turn up soon. Maybe she’s okay. I might need to go, or maybe not. I’m going to call Jack, make sure he’s being the parent this time.”

Chapter 16

by Kate Miller
1607 words

As the misty fog engulfing Annabelle’s mind began to clear she felt the hard cold, wet patch of ground beneath her back and realized she was being trussed up like an early Thanksgiving turkey, a man’s strong hands tying her wrists and feet. She struggled against the ropes, but her body was paralyzed. As she swam up from the chemical depths of unconsciousness, she heard a cacophony of voices above and around her. Her eyes were stuck shut and her mouth was so dry she could not speak but she could hear, very clearly, that a small crowd seemed to be discussing her fate, and rather loudly at that.

Closest to her was a deep, heavily accented, Russian voice, the man who had just finished tying her and was standing above her. Then a light flashed so bright Annabelle could see it through her crusted eyelids. The man muttered under his breath “Gav-no, what a Blyat*” thrashing away from her. Next a female voice thundered over Annabelle, something about “use her for ransom” and “no time to waste.”

Someone else started to shove her body over, scrabbling with the rope around her wrists, trying to untie her. Suddenly the person let out a shrill cry and the hands pulled away. Now partially on her side, Annabelle pulled her knees up to her chest, curling into a tight ball.

There was the sound of more people arriving, pushing through the undergrowth, panting heavily. “Annabelle!” a voice shouted, “Are you alright?” This was the first voice Annabelle thought she recognized. It was Justine, the senior who was supposed to be giving her the campus tour, the girl who loved “fencing,” whatever that was.

Annabelle twisted further around to look at Justine, forcing her eyes open a crack to glimpse the faintly lightening sky. Two things happened at once. The low constant rumbling that was steady background noise up until now rose to a cougar- worthy roar, and a furry dark body hurtled over her head, blocking the sky.

There was a scrabble of limbs, and a chorus of frightened yells of “panther” and “lion” and “Sasquatch” and, most frequently repeated, the command “run!!!” The air around her roiled as people crashed back into the forest on all sides. Annabelle, of course, could not run.

Just as Perry was stumbling to his feet at the edge of the small clearing, a shot rang out. The bullet missed Marie, but she had most of her nine lives left anyway, though it nicked Perry in the shoulder, not a lethal wound. He fainted at once.

Silence descended around Annabelle. In the commotion she managed to sit upright, her legs straight out in front of her and her hands tight behind her back. She sure didn’t have a clue what was going on, except that it seemed to revolve around her. How weird was that!

From behind her she heard that low rumble again. An exceptionally large, loudly purring cat crawled onto her lap, blinking its massive glowing eyes in her face. Ok, so she always considered herself a cat person, and if she was right, this was the largest, furriest, most beautiful Maine Coon cat she had ever seen, or a slightly small Bobcat. “Well, hello there,” Annabelle croaked to Marie, through her dry cracked lips.

Marie put her face up to Annabelle’s and boldly licked the crust out from her eyes and around her mouth. Then she let out a loud meow, calling the forest denizens back from their searching. She needed their help freeing Annabelle from her ropes. A couple of Douglas squirrels scurried down a nearby tree and did the job quickly with their always sharpened teeth.

Annabelle had to admit that she wasn’t quite sure she was awake now or still caught in a drugged dream, but it was a lot more pleasant being freed from bondage and warmed by a fuzzy Coon cat. As her head continued to clear she recalled more of the conversation/fight that had buzzed around her when she was tied on the forest floor.

She had learned recently her family was somehow related to that nasty man her parents called their benefactor, that slimeball Albert Beaumont Olivier 111. Her school had been studying the history of local tribes, the nefarious ways the tribes had been cheated of their sovereignty and how ABO3, had re-written the very treaty that was supposed to protect the lands of the Stillaguamish and their relatives from further logging and development. If she was truly related to this man and his corporations then she was not only indirectly culpable but also possibly in danger, as the, albeit fuzzy, conversation about her being held for ransom implied.

Annabelle knew, in a sharply clearheaded way, what was the right course for her now. She needed to get on her feet and produce a plan to foil ABO3’s scheme to kidnap her. Next, she needed to find a way to restore his land to the tribes that should have say over them, to preserve this land for future generations and for the health of the forest she knew and loved. For though she had known little about the private school her mom wanted her to attend, she knew and loved these woods since she was a child.

Sybil, her private art teacher, had taken her into the Old Growth Forest many times over the years. Much of Sybil’s glass artwork used the natural world as inspiration. Annabelle loved the time spent exploring the lush woods as much as Sybil did. Sybil’s friend Hannah would often go with them, bringing lovely baked treats to share when they needed a snack, too.

Annabelle knew people thought she was just a self-absorbed bubblehead, only concerned about her looks and cute boys, constantly taking, and posting numerous selfies, but that persona was a great façade to hide behind, protecting her intuitive inner self. Her phone was useful camouflage, she looked preoccupied but behind the ever-present screen, she was observing closely everything that happened around her. Even her parents underestimated Annabelle, seeing only her cherry lips pouting and her flip manner of talking, totally missing the undercover activist and the “wiser than her years” girl behind the phone.

Marie could sense the real Annabelle beneath her kneading paws and was thinking hard about what their next move might be. Things had gotten mighty complicated in the old Douglas fir’s forest. There were far too many clueless human players for her regal taste. She made up a list as she rested in Annabelle’s comfy lap, letting herself be petted now that the human was untied.

On the dark side:

ABO3, Vlad, Debra, Perry, Don Martin, the silly sheriff (only because of his incompetence)

On the bright side:

Justine, Annabelle, Jane, Sybil the artist, Hannah the witch’s daughter, Troy, Ruff (mainly because he loved cats so he couldn’t be all bad!)

On the “who knows” side:

Phil, Lisa Nightly, Netta, Joseph Yanity, Jack Watson

But Marie wondered, what exactly was going on? For all her feline wisdom, all Marie knows was that her forest home and her forest friends are in danger.

Speaking of the witches, the ghostly shape of Hannah Martin appeared at the edge of the clearing like a wan aromatic apparition (maybe because she was covered in white flour, smelling of cocoa and cloves).

“Oh Annabelle,” Hannah breathed, “Here you are. Are you all right? I’ve been looking for you most of the night.” She bent down and hugged Annabelle closely, forgetting that her new Owl familiar perched on her shoulder might be a bit off-putting.

Annabelle drew back, momentarily startled by the ruffle of the small Saw-whet owl on Hannah’s shoulder, but soon returned the hug, and to her embarrassment, began to sniffle.

“Hannah, I don’t know what happened to me, one minute I’m walking with a nice young man, eating a cookie he gave me and the next I’m tied up in the forest with all sorts of people I can’t even see shouting about holding me for ransom!”

“I think the boy that gave you the cookie was my brother, Troy. You don’t remember him, but he didn’t mean you any harm. He has attention deficit disorder, so I make him special cookies with his medicine in them. He probably gave you one of his own accidentally.”  Hannah sat down beside Annabelle and reached out to rub Marie’s belly. “I’m not sure I know anything about any “kidnapping” plot though. Fill me in on what was happening before I got here.

When Annabelle got to the end of her spiel she looked up at Hannah, wiped her eyes and said, “I don’t know who plans to ransom me and why they think that horrible man ABO3 would trade his lumber fortune for me. He may have helped my parents, but I’ve never even met him! All I know is I must do my part to protect this forest and help return it to the indigenous people whose land we live on. But what can we do?”

Hannah stood up, pacing around the small clearing. Marie stood too, slinking after Hannah. Annabelle struggled to her feet, stretching painfully, moaning a bit, working the kinks out of her wrists and ankles.

Just then all three heard rustling in the woods toward the bluff, where the path came up from the beach. They could see someone’s flashlight bobbing in the still dark forest. Annabelle, Hannah and Marie dove into the underbrush on the other side of the clearing, not knowing who might be arriving now, friend or foe.

Chapter 17

by Jean Waight
2012 words

Only one day before Annabelle’s disappearance, just one stupid day before the subpoena arrived, life was blissfully simple for Debra Abel. From her Manolo Blahnik pumps to her sleek and simple bob, she was as confident as her image portrayed. A divorcee unencumbered by kids or real estate, her plan was water-tight. She sat before her double-encrypted screen, her face bathed in its blue light, brighter than the light from her large office window. Outside it still rained. Hard. Day and night. It was frickin’ Blade Runner out there. This time the periodic Pineapple Express was strangely unrelenting. Close to being a two day monsoon. And like the movie, perhaps a glimpse of the future. But she wasn’t going to be here to grow webbed feet. She was completing her arrangements at this very moment.

Marie scratched at her office door. Debra got up and let her in. Marie was the only one who dared bother her this early. The Westminster Academy finance director’s bitchy facade and her carefully cultivated reputation for needing a vat of coffee in the morning before she could be civil, these were enough to keep visitors away from her office before 10:00 a.m. But Marie she’d be happy to see. If students in dorms and classrooms made Marie unwelcome, it could only be the lumbering cat with secretive ways was as misunderstood there as Boo Radley was in Maycomb. Debra, especially since she really had no friends, liked Marie a lot.

She sat back down, and Marie leapt up easily to the almost empty and dust-free desktop, which was the same polished mahogany as McPherson’s, as befitting her rank. Marie sat as well and waited to be petted. Debra snaked a gold braceleted wrist outward and rubbed Marie’s face, feeling the cat pressing an impressive head into her practiced hand. She massaged right over pleasure-closed eyes and around the base of the ears and down to the jaw with the canines poking from closed thin black lips. Then Debra turned back to her laptop, shut down the password-protected spreadsheet, and opened the Alaska Airlines site. She confirmed the flight she’d booked yesterday to Oaxaca. She had several things to do in the time remaining until her “vacation,” but her plan was coming together nicely.

She told herself she was only a small-time crook. Perry’s fine wine and caviar graft made it seem only fair that she be on the take in minor ways as well. She had slid a bit further, so easy with a buffoon as headmaster. She was old-school—didn’t know thing one about bitcoins. But she knew accounting. She’d prepared the faculty and staff W-2s showing the federal tax withholding amounts and Medicare withholding as well. The carefully protected spreadsheet she’d just consulted had shown her the account total she had amassed from diverting these trust funds. More than a year and a half now of quarterlies.

Yes, a tidy enough sum to augment her savings for a good life in Mexico. She knew she was running out of time before the IRS caught up with her—before they actually matched up the W-2s and her employer statements to their own records and found the huge discrepancy. But she was confident with reason. The Westminster board member who was a tax attorney inadvertently gave her the outline of her plan sometime ago when he mentioned, over drinks, a tax case he knew about. Rattling the ice around in her glass and laughing with flirtatious charm she had asked him, “But how does a person get away with not sending in trust funds? What happens to the employees’ social security accounts?”

“That’s the thing, Debra, the IRS credits the accounts—they take the W-2s at face value. It is only more than a year later when they . . .” Debra soaked up in the rest of the detail while feigning detached amusement. This would be tailor-made for Debra. A sort of victimless crime. If you squint. And she had always wanted to travel. She could hop from one dry, sunny clime to another, scot-free. Maybe even find romance.

But yesterday was gone, and so was Debra’s confidence.

***

When Marie was the first to find Annabelle, she burrowed under an arm, trying to wake her, but carefully. She kneaded her paws deep into Annabelle’s armpit, and saw her stir, but she was still out. Marie next touched her nose to an eyelid, which fluttered open, and closed again. But the girl also stirred again. She was coming to. But now came the sounds of approaching humans, clumsily breaking downed twigs like Marie never would. She bounded off to hide and watch.

The flashlight briefly blinded Marie. Then she watched it tip lower, the light showing Annabelle to Vlad and Debra.

The girl’s silver bracelet with the filigree butterfly flashed in the light. Seeing this delicate jewelry, so well matched to the girl’s youth, Debra felt a twinge that increased her doubts—she was once as young an Annabelle, after all. She started to tremble and put both hands on the industrial-sized flashlight to steady its beam. Vlad went to work binding and dragging Annabelle, still limp, into a clearing on the path. He looked up the trunk of a nearby tree and then dragged his victim another couple of feet.

Marie looked up that tree, too. And saw what Vlad was looking for. She also could see, a few trees away, a large feathered friend, motionless and camouflaged. Rustling footsteps, a muffled word—another pair was coming. Vlad stage-whispered “Run!” and bounded off some thirty yards. But Debra didn’t run. Marie registered the confusion on Debra’s face. And she knew Debra was used to working solo. If this was a team effort, that would be a stretch for her. And she was likely to flub it. In Glengarry Glen Ross, one of Marie’s favorite movies because it was full of crooked nastiness to enjoy vicariously, a bit of the script popped to mind as she regarded Debra. Roma (Al Pacino) rants at Williamson, the company man who has just ruined a deal. The delicious rant ends with, “You want to learn the first rule you’d know if you ever spent a day in your life. . .you never open your mouth till you know what the shot is. You f***ing child.”

Debra was indeed confused, childishly so. Her mind raced ineffectively and she wondered if she actually would be able (or Abel) to help Vlad create an ugly incriminating scene, even at Olivier III’s demand? But she knew when they left the mansion, Vlad’s hand on her elbow wasn’t that of a benign escort. She was stuck.

Annabelle, now semi-conscious, though slowed by the chill she felt all over her body, opened her dry mouth to speak. First she turned her head, O’d her mouth and blew, clearing what she had no spit to spit out. She wanted to speak, but could only manage a murmur. From deep beneath the Jobian calamities she’d suffered came this, a verse she’d never heard before, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. . .” She fell silent.  Debra was riveted, astonished. She spoke again. “It’s Biblical.” Annabelle astonished herself, too. She wasn’t familiar with the Bible. This utterance was like she’d pulled something from an ancestral memory. If she didn’t know better, it was positively witchy.

But now Netta and Joseph arrived. Debra knew they were exactly the ones “III” wanted to frame for kidnapping, representing as they did the tribe and the anti-logging enviros. Panicked in the moment, she’d numbly channeled Patty Hearst. She came on like a minion of Olivier III. Coming back to herself, she gulped. Had she actually stepped on Netta’s hand to prevent the camera seeing that nice woman’s attempt to release Annabelle? Yes she had, and she’d really said, “Now that we have her, we can use her for ransom.” She’d played for the camera she knew was there somewhere. Unsure how Vlad could fix the video later to implicate Yanity and Shah. Maybe it was better that she’d messed up.

Debra had a flash of clarity. Olivier III was NOT going to do anything for her about the subpoena no matter what she did for him. He simply didn’t have to! She was ready to vomit, repulsed by helping Vlad and Olivier III. Inexplicably, she suddenly missed her ex, the husband she fought with but never feeling this alone. She’d had a chance to make friends at Westminster, but petty avarice and secrecy had got in the way. Now she truly was alone, and in deeper doo-doo than she’d ever thought possible.

For her part Marie, watching the unfolding evil, wanted to signal to Joseph and Netta and let them know they were on camera. She would slink into the clearing so as not to frighten anyone and put her large front paws up on the tree that hid the camera, and hiss and turn her eyes to the little circle of humans. It was the best she could think of to draw attention upwards, to the camera. The gentle giant was beginning to age and couldn’t climb trees very well. But she was smart enough she had always known to stay away from the mansion; she knew III was a bad, bad man. But Debra? Are the humans losing their minds? Reluctantly, she had to place Debra on the bad side of her list. She sure gives a good face massage, though.

An aside: What is it that makes a defenseless human bring home a predator with canine teeth that jut through closed mouth, and eyes that glow, and who will watch them sleep? Creepy, when you think about it.

But Marie, whose reverie only took an instant (cat speed) didn’t get the chance for subtle communication about the camera. Events were moving too fast and getting physical.

In addition to the human scuffle, a huge barn owl summoned by Marie’s earlier unearthly yowl now swooped to where Vlad hid, and dug her talons into Vlad’s hair, drawing blood on his scalp. He ducked, fumbled and dropped his phone that he wanted to record with. Marie smiled to herself, because how else can a cat smile?

It was at this point that Annabelle, who’d been left on her side in the scuffle, pulled her knees up to her chest, making a tight ball of her body. And it was at this moment that Justine with her fencing blades and Helen Hannah Martin, (Helen to her family, Hannah to the other world she belonged to), floured to ghostly whiteness and carrying her bag, burst into view from around the bend in the path.

It was also at this point that the overwhelmed Debra fled. She didn’t stay for the chaos that followed. She ran, kicking leaves still wet from the recent deluge. But the mud and muck was beginning drain and dry, so her footing was sure and she ran like she hadn’t since high school track. A shot rang out. Not Justine’s powder blue scooter backfiring. It was a gun. She ran even faster. And not “like a girl.”

***

Arriving back at Old Main, she let herself into her office, her muddy footprints tracking to her desk. Her stomach in knots, frantic with fear, she knew the camera had captured her confronting Netta Shah and Joseph Yanity. Had Vlad had time to capture her words, too? Either way, Olivier III had her. It was all over. “Throw herself on Olivier’s mercy” about the subpoena—yeah, right. It was so clear now, there was no mercy in that ogre.

She had to think fast. The next flight out was tomorrow. She hastily rebooked to grab it, and picking up only her laptop, she dashed home to pack. She’d drive somewhere to hole up until her flight.

Chapter 18

by Sky Hedman
1665 words

Netta heard Annabelle’s verses from her hiding place in the bushes behind the big cedar tree. “Ask the animals, they will teach you.” Netta wondered how those words made any sense. What animals? How do you speak to them even if some were around?

Netta was glad for the excuse to be quiet and hidden once the gunshot rang out. Whatever was happening was way out of her league. Netta wasn’t alone. She could see Joseph Yannity’s legs through the glossy leaves of the salal bushes that separated them. She knew that the other people, Vlad and Debra, and Justine and Lisa Nightlie were probably close by. Yet she felt alone. The life of an innocent teenage girl was at stake. And now that she knew someone was shooting a gun, she realized that her life was also in danger.

A spider was navigating the leaf mold on the ground around her legs. Netta wanted to squash it at once, but she was afraid any movement would call attention to herself. She glared at the spider, willing it to go away, but instead it inched closer to the gap between her leggings and her ankle sock. She was in the spider’s trajectory.

***

The birds of the air, they will tell you…” Joseph Yannity’s mind was stuck on that phrase. All those irritating gulls flying around the beach? They make a constant plaintive ruckus, squalling loudly as if every sound reported an injustice. He did enjoy hearing the random piercing sound when eagles cry above. Just yesterday, he had paused in the parking lot and watched a lone bald eagle calling, circling a tree and then settling down on an upper branch, which sagged slightly under the eagle’s weight. “But what do they tell you?”

***

Justine was irritated by Annabelle’s babble. “The fish of the sea will declare to you.”

“Humpff,” she retorted in her mind, careful not to divulge her position to whoever was stalking the area with a gun. She lay behind a large boulder. Raising her head slightly, Justine had a clear view of the spot where Annabelle had been found, but it was empty of human activity now. Justine’s sword was hard to camouflage. Noiselessly, she picked up some dirt and dropped it over the blade to dull its shiny surface. “The only thing the fish are declaring these days is extinction,” she thought. “And nobody is listening to them anyway.” 

***

Lisa Nightlie had heard Debra Abel running away. Her cunning detective intelligence told her that there was more to Debra’s identity than just that of a notoriously irritable, solitary, bean counter. Debra was known to inhabit her office chair with her face hidden behind the huge computer screen for hours every day. Lisa wondered now if perhaps a few beans had gone missing from the school’s pot. Lisa listened to the quiet that had fallen over the woods. She was half standing behind a fallen cedar log, trying to decide her next move, when Phil Bradley walked noiselessly close to her and disappeared into the woods.

***

Hannah put her arm around Annabelle’s delicate shoulders. Annabelle and Hannah were frozen in place, unsure of where they would find safety. The ropes that had bound Annabelle…the gunshot…the strange words that Annabelle had spoken rendered them both speechless. Yet her words had profoundly charged their energy. The magic that Hannah had learned from her mother had always been a secret that only Troy knew about. Now Troy’s mistake in giving a magic cookie to Annabelle had stirred a powerful force in Annabelle’s soul. Under her gentle touch, Hannah could feel Annabelle shaking.

***

“Someone tied up me up,” Annabelle thought. “Someone fired a shot in the woods.” Annabelle started trembling. That mean man with the rope and that lady dressed for the office had meant to hurt her. Where was her father? Checking the stock market, as always? Her mother was vacationing halfway around the world with Zeph. Annabelle couldn’t even remember where they had gone. Hannah’s soothing presence was all that kept her from sobbing out loud. A few tears spilled from her eyes as she tried to piece it all together. “Who was that cat who showed up to comfort me anyway?” Annabelle was soothed by the memory of that warm, purring presence.

Around her, the sun was beginning to reach the forest floor. Annabelle had never woken up in a forest before. Muted lines and blurry forms morphed into furrowed tree trunks and leaf shrouded rocks. Annabelle was hungry, and she wanted to go home, but now, she wasn’t sure where home was.

***

Just as the sun illuminated the pavement and the street lights went off, Jane Varner arrived at Westminster Academy. Although she was earlier than usual, she could see lights on already inside the Main School building. The parking lot, usually empty at this hour, told a story. Perry McPherson’s silver Buick was in its usual spot, Lisa Nightlie’s lightly green van was parked rightly. Jane didn’t know who owned the beat up Subaru plastered with bumper stickers. That blue Prius belonged to Netta. Next to it was a Ford Explorer with a Stillaguamish insignia on the driver door. The English teacher’s electric bike was under the overhang and even Ruff’s $2000 BMC Roadmachine was leaning on the Student Commons wall.

“I must not have gotten the memo,” she muttered to herself as she unlocked the School building. Her office, to the left of the entrance, was dark, but McPhersons’ light was on and Debra’s door was ajar.

Jane peeled off her reversible rain jacket (a Costco special), and nudged her computer awake. “I’d guess the search for Annabelle involves a lot of people,” she thought. Going straight to the top, she stepped out and rapped lightly on McPherson’s door.

“Come in,” said a weakened version of her boss’ voice as she entered the office. Her eyes went immediately to the bloody towel that he was holding over his shoulder. His puffy face was pale, his eyes half opened, and his comb-over was hanging down on the wrong side of his head. He leaned back in his brass studded brown leather chair. Altogether, he demeanor was a sharp contrast to his normal formal and stuffy manner. He made no effort to hide his state of distress.

“Dr. McPherson? Whatever happened to you?” she said, rushing forward.

He moaned. His eyes fluttered.

“Sir, sir!”

Jane Varner made a split second decision, fueled by long term wisdom. She reached for her phone and called 911.

***

Jane had the next few hours to try to unravel all these clues. Debra’s office door was ajar; the file cabinet drawers were open but empty. An austere office during normal times, it now had the aura of having been abandoned. Her framed diploma was gone, but the mug she sipped coffee from was in the waste basket. “Victim or criminal?” Jane mused. She’d let the police sort it out this time. She was done with playing house mother to this bunch of bad actors. So what if everyone found out her secret? It wasn’t nearly as bad as spending school money to buy fancy cars or funding your retirement by stealing from the school. The statute of limitations was up; only her reputation could be stained. She couldn’t be charged for the bank robbery.

The bank robbery wasn’t to get money for her. It was money to help the revolution. “A revolution that never happened,” she reflected. She lived with a group of young hippies who seemed to like her. They lived frugally and shared expenses. One man in particular inspired them to go further. Soon, they planned to buy land and start their own egalitarian community. It would be ideal: everybody equal, everyone the same, rich or poor, male or female. They’d raise chickens and grow vegetables. They’d build their own school. They’d live simply. All that stood between this communal dream and reality was the money to buy the land.

For her, it seemed like the best sacrifice she could make. No one would suspect her if she dressed as an old lady. Her pale skin gave her privilege in shops and on the street. She was easily overlooked. She planned the robbery meticulously, proud to stop being the “good girl” she had been brought up to be. At Goodwill, she found a gray wig, a blue cotton shirtwaist dress, some sturdy women’s shoes and a cane. She just had to walk into the bank and slide the note across the counter.

Jane could still remember the slight stir on the bank teller’s face. The note she had passed to the teller said Jane had a gun, but she didn’t.

It all worked, she remembered, as she walked out of the bank with a bag of money, feeling ecstatic. What a hero she would be! They could buy the land and start living free. In her haste, she bumped into a customer coming through the door—why did it have to be him? Her wig fell off and she dropped the cane and as she ran away, she dropped the bag of money. Of all the people on earth, why did she let that man get a full look at her face? Disappearing down the alley and shedding her old lady shoes, she emerged back on the sidewalk as a bystander, and melted into the crowd.

She was never caught. The revolution didn’t happen. She dropped her bank robbing dreams. She found a girlfriend and accepted that it was time to find a steady job. She applied  at Westminster Academy. They didn’t ask why she wasn’t married, and she stayed in the closet. It seemed safe enough to work there. As safe as anyplace for a lesbian. Only one challenge remained. The math teacher. His name was Judson Trompe.  He recognized her from that encounter at the bank, and used it to his advantage.

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

by Heidi Beierle
1374 words

Two police officers collected evidence in Debra’s office.

Jane looked out the window of Dr. McPherson’s office, relieved the first thing she’d done after calling 911 was cancel school for the day. The rain had begun again. A heavy mist. Precursor to round three of the atmospheric river. Medics rolled Peregrine on a stretcher to the ambulance. He was shocky, sure, and Jane wasn’t surprised they thought he might also be having a heart attack. He didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Jane was less sure about Annabelle and the rain. She hoped the girl was sleeping peacefully at a friend’s house and not lost somewhere in the woods where she would be cold and wet, or worse, tied up and—

“Did you find my daughter?”

The voice startled Jane. She turned. “Jack Watson?”

“Yes. You told me not to call the police, but the police are here. And an ambulance.” He sucked in his breath. “Oh my god, what happened to my daughter?”

“Your daughter isn’t in the ambulance. Dr. McPherson is. You had no luck with Annabelle’s friends?”

A tear dripped from the corner of Jack’s eye. “I don’t know who they are or if she even has any. This is so messed up. I mean, I’m so messed up.” He shudder-sighed. “I haven’t been the best dad to Annabelle with the stress of my divorce and getting my company stable. I didn’t even want to bring Annabelle here, but her mother wanted me to and that seemed like something I could do for Annabelle. I don’t know. To show up somehow. To be with her in her life.” He looked imploringly at Jane. “It kills me how alone she must be, that she might be hurt or worse.” Jack scrunched his face as if seeing The Horror, then whispered, “I abandoned her.”

Jane put a hand on his arm. “You did not abandon her.”

Jack yanked his arm away. “I did!” he cried out. “Maybe not when I brought her here for the tour, but before that.” He covered his face with his hands and wept. “I’m a terrible father.”

“You’re not a terrible father. You’re here now. It’s clear you care for Annabelle.”

“She doesn’t know that.”

“Maybe. I don’t envy you being the parent of a teenager, but you didn’t bring Annabelle here with the intention of abandoning her. You had every reason to expect she would return after the tour. I apologize that that didn’t happen, and I sincerely apologize that we didn’t report her disappearance earlier. I take full responsibility for the slack follow up.”

Jack dropped his hands and looked at Jane with a heart-breaking lost puppy face.

Jane swallowed the tartness of her own concern. “I reported Annabelle’s absence when I arrived this morning. I’m worried about her, too. Some officers are searching campus for her right now, but there isn’t much to support their efforts.”

“What do we do?”

“Do you think Annabelle’s mother has a better sense who her friends might be?”

“Probably. She called me last night once she landed in St. Barts and ripped into me about Annabelle missing. I have no idea how she found out since she was in flight while all that happened. Anyway, I called and texted Emerald after you and I spoke earlier this morning, but she hasn’t responded.”

“Well, that’s a start.” Jane took a slow breath. “Full disclosure, I called Emerald to let her know Annabelle was missing.”

“Oh?” Jack blinked a few times. “Well, thank you. I could have done without being chewed out, but I deserved it.”

“Ma’am?” It was one of the officers from Debra’s office.

“Yes?”

“We’re all done in there.”

“Thank you. Could you tell me the status of the other officers searching for the missing girl?”

“Sure thing.” The officer turned to the side and spoke into his radio. He turned back to Jane. “They just finished their sweep and are heading back to the Old Main parking lot.”

“Ok. Will you please ask them to wait? This is Jack Watson, the girl’s father. I’m going to lock up, and we’ll be right down.”

***

The rain intensified. The wind picked up.

Judson Trompe carried his tea into the sitting room where he had an expansive view of the water beyond Westminster Academy. He liked his hillside perch, which he named Your Highness. A bust of Sir Isaac Newton sat on a shelf above Judson’s Everyday Armchair where he settled with his tea. Judson hoped Newton’s genius would rub off on him by virtue of proximity.

He picked up his notepad and pencil and wrote ‘Feet’ at the top of the page. ‘Ungulate quadruped. Spondee, trochee, dactyl.’

Your Highness shuddered. Judson looked up from his poem. A gale shook the house. Sir Isaac Newton fell from the shelf and hit Judson on the head as a massive mudslide pushed through the back of the house and avalanched the unconscious man in tons of pudding soil, rocks, boulders, and broken trees, destroying Your Highness and suffocating its sole inhabitant.

***

“Who are you?” Jane asked the slight, dark-haired man in a sopping jacket whose water-streaked glasses didn’t hide the dark circles under his eyes.

“Alex Porter. Fort Landers Daily Mail. Funny coincidence. I’ve been calling the Academy here to follow up on a story I wrote a few days ago about Judson Trompe, but that’s not why I’m here. I saw the school’s closure notice this morning on social media. It seemed out of order.” He scanned the group. “So…what’s going on?”

“Lovely day for a ride,” Ruff said coming around the corner of the building kitted out in full rain gear. “Oh hello.” He looked at Alex. “I didn’t know you were here. Doesn’t matter. Here.” He handed parchment-wrapped packets to Alex, Jane, Jack, and the four officers. “I cooked these beauties while I closed the kitchen down this morning after Jane sent out the school cancellation notice. I’ve been experimenting with a new recipe.”

He turned to his bike when Marie came tearing across the grass. “CHATtahoochee! Where the heck you been?”

Marie wailed.

“You want one, too, CHAT-a-CHAT-a-bang-bang?”

Marie wailed again, turned and ran back the way she’d come. Just before she disappeared, she leapt straight up in the air. As if on cue, the sky filled with birds – small ones, medium ones, large ones. The sound of their collective voices crackled like the planet’s version of a noise band.

All the people gathered outside Old Main watched the sky.

“What on earth?” Alex said.

“No way, look!” an officer pointed to the woods at the edge of the field.

Animals ran from their cover. Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons. A beaver.

Netta.

Netta was screaming and brushed herself off as she ran toward her Prius. “Are they on my face? Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!”

A man ran after Netta pointing at the sky, “Netta! The birds! The birds are telling me!” He stopped abruptly, turned his face to the soaking sky, and lifted his arms to the wind. “Tell me!”

Marie dashed into the field.

“CHATastrophe!” Ruff hollered.

The earth shuddered. The birds dispersed. The man in the field fell to the ground. Everyone standing outside Old Main looked at one another. No one had the words to ask if anyone else felt the ground shake.

Marie stood on the chest of the man in the field and wailed.

The wind kicked and brayed.

A splintering crack sounded from the woods.

A woman in a dark checked flannel jacket and a woman in pink pajama pants and a camo parka ran from the woods.

Marie faced the wind, dug her claws into the man underneath her, and yowled.

A woman with a mess of white dust all over her stumbled out of the woods and stopped to help a young dark-haired woman to her feet.

“Annabelle!” Jack called across the field and ran toward his daughter.

The earth heaved.

The ground crashed into Jack, buckling his legs and slamming his body.

The earth rumbled and ripped apart. Rock exploded. Trees snapped with echoing reports. Buildings collapsed.

***

The rain sheeted, dampening dust the earth kicked up and the wind whipped. Car alarms blared and honked. High tension wires sizzled and popped.

Chapter 21

by Mary Louise Van Dyke
1094 words

Jack Watson screamed with pain, the tortured sounds carrying across the raw vastness of the new chasm that separating the school grounds from the woods. He struggled against a fallen tree covering his shoulders and back, the deep scent of cedar filling his nostrils. How could a tree fall on him – wasn’t he in a field?

“Annabelle!” he moaned. “Oh Annabelle!

“Dad!” Tears poured down Annabelle Watson’s pale face and she broke free of Helen’s supporting arm. “Dad!” She sprinted toward him, seemingly unaware of the newly opened ravine.

“Stop,” Helen Hannah Martin shrieked and rushed after her. “You can’t go that way. Don’t you see?”

“But he’s hurt,” the 15-year-old screamed. “Dad, I’m coming!”

Helen reached Annabelle and yanked her back just in time. Across the gap the two women saw the shocked faces of Ruff in his rain gear and others crowding behind him, sandwich parcels in hand.

“CHAT-oyancy,” he wailed.

What did a word describing different kinds of changes of color have to do with anything, Jane wondered irritated? She wished Sybil, her partner, was there. Too much was happening – even if she felt great over knowing the headmaster wouldn’t be around for at least a few days if not longer. Now if the same could be said for Justin Trompe. Maybe the reporter could take him out for coffee and get the both of them out of the way.

Westminster Academy would run more smoothly if . . . .

She shook herself free from the dire thoughts. “Someone needs to call 9-11 to get back here and help him,” she pointed towards Jack.

Phil Bradley pulled out his cell phone and tapped a number. “I can’t get a signal!”

Could things get any worse, Jane groaned. “Go inside and use the landline. Hurry up!”

Phil started inside as one of the other staff shouted. “OMG. Look at the sky!”

Eyes popped upwards as the heavy clouds of the atmospheric river began shimmering, taking on the colors of the rainbow.

But a rainbow was supposed to be a bow, Jane thought dazedly. Not a color in the sky. No, that was an Aurora Borealis, which could only be seen at night. Well on clear skies.

Stiffen up Jane, she admonished herself. There was still so much more to do.

Especially with the man lying imprisoned on the field. Ruff had dropped the remaining food packets on the ground and was cautiously wading through the muck towards Jack Watson. At least the chef was keeping his head to do something practical.

Jane’s eyes fixed on Annabelle and Helen, standing shadowed by the trees bordering the woods. The wind gusts blasted the sounds of Annabelle’s sobs towards the school. 

How would they ever bridge the gap between here and the woods? Jane’s knees wobbled as the smells of pine smacked her nose. She wasn’t paid enough to run this school of – of scoundrels! Serving as an unofficial housemother was more than enough for her in addition to all her usual duties.

And she’d paid for her sins of her naïve youth. She had!

Uneasily she turned and stared at reporter Alex Porter who had taken out a camera and was snapping pictures of Ruff trying to heave the tree off Jack. Why had he really come here in the first place. How was a school closure for a day, just one day, worth his time? Didn’t the newspaper have more exciting things to cover – such as this weird weather. Had the reporter travelled here to speak with the math teacher about her?

She shuddered as the wind picked up, yanking her rain jacket’s hood off. She didn’t need any public exposure. She just needed to – to leave.

Turning her feet slopped across the pathway around Old Main toward the parking lot where she hoped her old Toyota was still intact. She fished out her keys to lock up the ornate doors that led into Old Main and dropped them in her pocket.

She was going home.

“I think that’s enough now,” Helen Hannah murmured to Annabelle.

“But my dad!” Annabelle looked at her companion through dazed eyes. “And that weird light. What is happening.”

Helen laughed, a strange guttural sound that grated Annabelle’s ear. “There’s nothing to fear,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

“Are you crazy?” Annabelle thought Helen must be. The expression of the other woman’s face shifted, the kindness in her eyes draining, becoming distant.

“No! Look, there are reasons for everything that is happening right now – and you are where you must be for.” Helen paused, her eyes partially closing. “As was revealed to you before I found you.”

Revealed? What revealed? The rope burns on Annabelle’s still ached from her confinement – thanks to the medication Helen had put in the cookie that caused all this problem in the first place.

“You’re crazy!” she sobbed.

“Remember – before you awoke. You dreamed of being powerful of. Of your destiny to keep these woods intact, safe.”

Annabelle shook her head wildly. “No! No!”

“Forces are coming together,” Helen touched Annabelle’s face and the 15-year-old backed away. “The woods are . . . . .”

Her words were lost as Annabelle rushed off into the woods, branches snapping underneath her flying feet, trying to get somewhere, anywhere away from Helen. She had to find a way across the gap between the school and the woods. She must.

The next morning Albert Beaumont Oliver III sat in his ornate office overlooking the school and woods and smiled as he briefly conversed with on the phone.

Last night’s weather of bringing down trees and creating havoc throughout the woods was the greatest gift Mother Nature could have given him.

Old growth timber, bah!

He smirked as he imagined Joseph Yanity’s face when his heavy machinery arrived later in the day. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the tribe’s usage of old growth cedar for their ceremonial buildings and canoes and way of life.

It was in his view a worthless way of life that must cease. His will would prevail in progress, with hundreds of feet of boards milled, used to make decks and fences, particularly fences.

He chortled. Fences made good neighbors, indeed. All the green dollars to be made, that would soon enhance his coffers from the sales of the timber, the golf course to be, sketched out on paper, that would attract the greats of the golfing world to come here and play on immaculately groomed grounds.

He rubbed his hands together in glee. Soon!

Chapter 22

Noelle Davenport

1390 Words

“There is nothing to fear, child.”  Hannah said to the back of the young woman running away from her and into the forest. “Everything is as it should be,” she said in a soft, knowing voice that was not her own. The cacophony of noise crowding the air around Hannah suddenly died and she heard only the whoomp, whoomp of the large owl’s wings as it came down gingerly to rest on her left shoulder, Vlad’s blood and matted hair still on its sharp talons. She is ready, they wordlessly communicated to each other.

                                                            ***

Annabelle had stumbled backward, confused by Hannah’s crazy talk. Without realizing she was doing it, or understanding why, Annabelle had turned and was running back into the woods. Running so fast, she was acutely aware of the sting of the cold air on the dampness left behind on her stylishly-ripped jeans and lightweight hoodie by the mud and wet leaves of the forest floor. Thoughts were flying into her head like race cars zooming around corners, noisy and so fast they were gone before she really understood them. Kidnapping? Russians? Zzzoom! Giant cats? Witches? ZZZoom! What the fu- “Annabelle! Annabelle, where are you?” The desperation in her father’s terrified cries grabbed Annabelle from behind and snapped her back to the moment. “Daddy!” the word barely more than a moan, muddled by the tears, dirt and snot caking her face. I’ve got to help him! She kept running further into the forest away from her father, following a path she’d become familiar with during her time with Sybil and Hannah exploring the beauty and wonder of nature.

Out of nowhere, the giant cat was once again by her side, matching her stride for stride as if she knew Annabelle’s plan. “Sorry, cat, I have no plan!” she called out breathlessly, making eye contact with this oddly familiar animal. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she sobbed, “but I’ve got to help Daddy!”

Oh, but you do know what you’re doing. You’ve always known. Annabelle stopped abruptly. Her eyes darted quickly from tree to bush to tree, followed closely by her head causing her dark hair to swing around and momentarily stick to her dirty face, looking for the source of the words. She felt two eyes trained on her and she somehow knew, even before she turned back around again and resumed eye contact, that the voice had come from the cat. Seeing the nearly imperceptible nod of the cat’s head, Annabelle also just knew that this majestic animal’s name was Marie and they now belonged to each other. Calm settled over her like a mother’s embrace.

                                                                        ***

Jack wouldn’t realize until days later, safe in his private hospital room after hours of touch and go surgery, that it was none other than Doug the Fir, Westminster Academy’s mascot, that had fallen on him. In an out-of-character act of kindness, Emerald had stopped by Jack’s house and picked up a few things for him to have at the hospital: the electric toothbrush he couldn’t live without, dental floss, and his non-mercury deodorant. She suspected the cute, red-headed surgeon may have influenced the request. The one thing she wouldn’t bring for him, in an even bigger act of kindness, was his laptop. “Thanks?” he said jokingly, knowing that it was probably the most thoughtful gesture she’d made toward him in five years.

Before leaving his room, Emerald rummaged around in her oversized leather handbag, pulled out a thin, crumpled-up newspaper and tossed it on his bed. “You’re famous,” she said as she slid on her entirely unnecessary Gucci sunglasses and walked out the door. There she is, Jack thought to himself with a smirk.

The smell of newsprint overpowered the smell of hand sanitizer and it made Jack bit nauseous. He hadn’t been entirely convinced that he was emotionally ready to revisit the events of that day at Westminster Academy, but his curiosity won out. He reached for the Fort Landers Daily News and read the headline, “Biblical Wrath brought down upon the School of Scoundrels” by Alex Porter. The prominent photo was a shot of Doug the Fir, all 273 feet of him, on his side, enormous roots ripped from the Earth. He couldn’t make out himself in the grainy photo, but he didn’t have to. He dropped the paper and reached for the puke bucket.

                                                                        ***

Annabelle closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and said, “Ask the animals, they will teach you.” From that point on, she and Marie spoke to each other without words.

Yes! Yes! Marie said with a sense of urgency that Annabelle felt. They both looked up at the dark, roiling sky and knew time was running out. Mother Nature had more in store for them all. Together, Annabelle and Marie called out, Large animals of the forest, we need your help! In less time than a breath, the ground rumbled as seven awesome beasts emerged from the shadows of the forest and knelt before the pair.

Katahdin, the largest of the group of three black bears and four full-grown bucks, spoke as he rose to his full height of nearly six feet. We are sorry. Even with all our mighty strength, we cannot move the tall tree from the man. We must call on our small friends to help us. They can help in ways we cannot.

                                                                        ***

Hannah and her owl walked together in quiet contemplation along the jagged chasm of destruction that now separated the forest from the school grounds, an oddly serene sight for those panicking on the other side. Behind Hannah, an other-worldly bolt of lightning crackled across the sky above Annabelle and Marie as they appeared at the edge of the forest flanked by a powerful enclave of bears and bucks. Hannah turned to watch the procession and noticed movement along the ground, surrounding the group’s feet as they strode quickly toward the spot where the life of Annabelle’s father was slowly being crushed out of him by the fallen tree. In an instant, Hannah understood the plan. Her lips lifted just slightly at the corners of her mouth as she closed her eyes again to visualize it in her head.

The large animals were strong, but they would not be able to move the tree without completely crushing the man. As Katahdin had instructed, Annabelle and Marie called upon the smaller animals next, and were now surrounded by thousands of tiny voles. Annabelle had listened and learned from the animals. She understood that while these little creatures may barely be an ounce in size, together they could burrow and tunnel and remove enough earth from beneath her trapped father to create space for the first responders to save him. Such a beautiful plan Hannah thought as she sat cross-legged on the ground to watch, her owl ever-present on her left shoulder.

                                                                        ***

Netta was out of breath and still shaking as she reached her old Subaru, fumbling with the keys to unlock the door. Violently slapping at the back of her neck, she swore she could still feel spiders skittering over her skin. “Get me outta here!” she yelled as she shoved the key into the ignition. Revving the engine, she looked up and paused. From her vantage point in the parking lot, Netta could see Annabelle and her group of animals making their way toward Annabelle’s trapped father, Jack Watson. At this point in the day, she was non-plussed by the fact that this rescue crew was a group of bears, deer, a giant cat, and thousands of creatures too small and far away to identify, all presumably being led by Annabelle, a fifteen-year-old rich kid who had been kidnapped only hours ago. None of it made any sense. The only thing Netta knew for sure was that they better pick up the pace of this rescue. She was out of her environmental sciences league when it came to heliophysics, but she knew enough to know that she shouldn’t be able to see the Aurora Borealis in the daytime. And those green and yellow clouds should not be so low that the tops of the fir trees are disappearing into them! Something bad was about to happen and Netta had no intention of sticking around to be a part of it!

Chapter 23

By Shayla Marie

1448 words

“Dude.” The voice crashed through the sounds of the waves lapping the shoreline.

“What happened, man?!” Zeph asked, squishing his toes in the warmth of the sand as the vibrant sounds of the beach, cloaked his conversation.

“I don’t know. I thought, I gave her enough of the cookie. That batch of Xanax must be bad,” Troy answered, switching over to a video call, the small screen blooming to life with his bewildered face, his blond hair ruffled, one hand scratching his head in disbelief. “She woke up halfway through. They weren’t even able to get her to the transit van.”

“This is all fucked up now, man,” Zeph sighed. “Do you still plan on flying out?”

“What is the point?” Troy asked, his handsome face crunching in thought. “If I leave now, it will look suspect. My sister covered for me. Made up some bogus story about me having ADHD or something, and “special” cookies for it. They completely fell for it.”

“Ok, that’s good but when am I going to see you?” Zeph missed that face, the feel of his velveteen skin against his own, those tight muscles.

“Babe, why don’t you just come back? The money isn’t going to come through like we thought. What else can you do? And your doting love is all wrapped up with her ex in the hospital and her newly found daughter. We can actually have some time together for once.”

Zeph was numb, he gazed at the sun, listening to Troy’s words. He still remembered the day Troy came bounding into his gym, it was a late afternoon, after his Rugby practice was over, he said he came to get a little pump, yea, he was young, but it was love at first sight and the rest was history, now Zeph was stranded in Mexico, trying to decide the future for him and his teenage lover. The plan had seemed so simple, snatch up Annabelle while she went to visit that pretentious godforsaken school, and collect a hefty ransom of $10 million that he and Troy had agreed upon, not too greedy, but just enough for them to make a new life somewhere else, after he dumped Emerald for “differences”. It seemed easy enough, but then complications always had to happen.

“Ok, I’ll make arrangements to come back. Emerald will be thrilled.”

                                                      ***

Annabelle walked down the street, enjoying the brisk cold air on her cheek, the scents of fall shifting past her, refreshing rain and the pungent smell of earth, the colors of the trees around her, life rainbow dappled. Everything felt different to her, since a couple nights before. Everything so alive, everything so bright. She felt a joy, so thick in her chest.

What happened to her? It was like something cracked open inside her. Helen called it “Spirit”, this feeling grabbing her by the hoodie strings. She felt amazing, empowered, in control for the first time in her fifteen years. Not worried about her divorced parents or being shipped off to some stuffy school. The moment in the woods changed something for her. Something big.

The house stood before her, a rotted gingerbread house of blue with white curlicued frosting dripping down. Annabelle stepped up on to the porch, knocking on the bright red door, apprehension sizzling through her body, lightning unleashed.

“Hi,” Helen said, poking her head out. She looked around. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk to you…About the other night.”

“Oh.” Helen nodded, before opening the door to allow Annabelle in.

The house was a lived-in mess, piles of mail here, stacks of books there, dust, stains, a busy life tossed about, every surface covered and smothered with items, the scent of fresh bread mingled with cinnamon tainting the air. Annabelle’s own home was pristine, the scent of lemon furniture polish, bleach and sandalwood wax melts overwhelming as you entered the house. This felt comfortable to her, cozy. This home felt like family.

Helen motioned for Annabelle to take a seat. “Do you want some tea?”

“No, I’m fine. I came because I want to know what happened the other night.”

“I’m going to make some tea,” Helen said, turning towards the stove. She stood before the stove, watching the blue gas flames flicker against the butt of the teapot. “This may be a lot for you.”

“It’s ok. I just want to know,” Annabelle started, “I just feel so different now. A little sore from being tied up but also transformed. Like I’m on a whole ‘nother realm.”

Probably the mushrooms, Helen thought.

                                                            ***

Oaxaca was sublime this time of year, the air a warm breath on your skin, the water gleaming like diamonds, Debra licked the whipped cream from her frothy pina colada. This was the life. She slipped the cherry dancing on the top of the foamy drink to her lips, making a perfect knot with the stem. Her plan was working just as planned. A tall, fit young man strolled in front of her striped towel. A life of paradise, pina coladas and pretty men was going to suit her just fine.

Looking at Debra, you would never imagine where she came from, her bob perfectly coiffed, the layers cut weekly at the trendiest salon in town, light auburn highlights drizzled like caramel in her mahogany locks, her body sculpted from hours with her trainer, the chicest clothes a salary working as a finance director at a snooty institution could afford you. But Debra was used to the gutter, living from car to shelter, bouncing from school to school, sometimes missing school for weeks while her mother tried to escape her abusive stepdad Rocky, yes, his name was Rocky of all things, like that dumb boxer. He left her alone for the most part, besides when he crept into her room on the Sunday nights, her mom would go to Bingo on Jimmy Jo’s Bingo Hall. All this to say, Debra deserved this. This life, this joy, just laying on this amazing beach, drinking in this scent of brine and sea, sipping this foamy fantasy with just enough alcohol to throw a loop in any plans besides laying on this warm fuzzy sun-drenched knitted blanket and working on her tan. Another delectable specimen of a man began walking towards her, all silky tanned skin and chiseled abs, his face sculpted teak, designer sunglasses perched on his regal nose. He caught her staring and nodded in her direction. She crooked a lazy finger at him, coaxing him forth.

“Hey,” He said, coming close, “You by yourself.”

“Sad to say, but yes I am.”

“Sad for who? Sounds like music to my ears,” He winked.

“Oh, really? Then why don’t you sit down and have a drink with me. I have a whole jug of pre-made pina coladas that are melting as we speak.”

“You don’t need to tell me twice.”

He kneeled on the blanket as she poured him a brimming cup of pina colada, complete with whipped cream and double cherries at his request. “So, what’s your name, beautiful?”

“Debra,” She flirted, peeling her glasses down to meet his eyes.

“I’m Zeph, short for Zephyr, and it’s my pleasure to meet you, Debra.”

                                                        ***

This time, they got him. He knew they wouldn’t stop. Not after that attack, a couple days ago, he could still the gun gleaming in her hand, shoved towards his chest, the heat when the bullet pierced his flesh, bone and gristle splintering, shredding the sinew of his shoulder. He should have known that bitch would never stop.

Now he lay in a cocoon of starched white sheets and stiff pillows, the scent of disinfectant and bodily fluids staining the air, as she slipped through the hospital room door, a coy smile on her face.

“So, we meet again,” She laughed, running a hand through her neatly coiffed hair. The meds were making it hard for him to lift his eyes to meet hers. “Aww, baby is tired.”

His eyes blinked rapidly as he punched against the exhaustion wrapping him in a tidy package for her. His eyes grew heavy, heavier, thick and slow like molasses to lift. Through slitted eyes, he watched as she slid a syringe from her purse, an orange cap pressed on the top. She yanked the top free with her teeth, before jamming the syringe into his I.V. He tried to speak but his mouth was filled with cotton balls, ash and unspoken lies, where were the goddamn nurses when you needed them. Glee colored her cheeks as she stroked his arm, “Night, night baby.”

Chapter 24

Lula Flan

Peering into her crystal ball, Sybil sighed. Her double life wore on her. Jane wasn’t the only one in the partnership driven to pretense half her life. At least Jane was free to shed her shadow persona when she walked through the doors of their home. Not so, Sybil. It had begun innocently enough, back before they’d scraped together funds for their Belltown digs. Jane would motor up the freeway to her tortuous-but-rent-paying School for Scoundrels and Sybil was left at home, so unrecognized people had even forgotten she had her own last name. She wondered if she didn’t exist just as a drain on their meagre finances.
This was the dark scenario of her life until the fateful day she’d mused to herself, for the zillionth time, “If only I knew what the future held in store for us!” She couldn’t believe now how long it had taken to realize that, with her name (bestowed in honor of her great-aunt, a well-known Celtic conjuror) and her skill with glass, the answer to her questions lay as close as her studio. 
First she made a simple mirror, silvered at the edge and watery as a pond when looked into by folk not gifted with the Sight. She pondered. Ruminated. Meditated. Believed she heard the answer. Then she set to crafting her first orb. 
O! The orbs had all been things of beauty! She’d consult them, then sell them for whatever price they suggested to her. The sky was virtually the limit. It wasn’t long before she’d set up her busker’s booth at Harbor Steps, right across from the Seattle Art Museum and just a block from Pike’s Market. She found she couldn’t stay away from her new passion project. Sybil discovered she was a cross-marketing genius.
Sybil brought her well-worn Pamela Coleman Smith deck (an invaluable bequest from her great-aunt) as a prop, turbaned her hair, honed her fortune-telling trade with the well-heeled who passed by and thought nothing of dropping $100 to know when they’d be able to afford that special something to make life complete. She worked long hours, between the gallery, glass-blowing and busking, but she devised a schedule that put her in the booth starting at. In winter, of course, this meant setting up in the early afternoon, which did cut into gallery hours seasonally. She sighed again. The life of an entrepreneur was not for the meek or lazy.
Jane never knew the details of how Sybil spent her days. If anything, Jane had become more consumed with the school as the years went on. Oh, Sybil would still ask her to come home from work early whenever possible, would still joke with her about the incompetence of Jane’s peers, but – ultimately – it had led to this. Separate lives. Jane thought they were living a dream, which was right enough in its way. Mostly because Jane would not wake up.
While Sybil developed her divining craft with paying customers, she had grown to realize she truly had the ability to discover what the future held for them. She had a gift with the crystal ball and cards, a reality that became more clear to her every time she put out her placard. Sybil came to know not only the secrets of strangers but also the undisclosed sins of her wife’s naive youth. And the far more salacious sins of her present moment. That Sybil held interest and access to the photo albums, diaries, computer files stored at home enhanced her prescience. 
Sybil’s moonlighting had led to a fast friendship with that wicked, wicked witch to the north, Helen Hannah Martin. Their friendship had blossomed so that Helen was the only person who knew of Sybil’s double life. This confidence inspired Helen to refer more than one “student” her way. Apprentices, they could be called. Spending time near the Scoundrel campus, in turn, gave Sybil more time to stalk her wife. All Jane’s hours away from home did not bode well for a relationship – she didn’t need a crystal ball to tell her that. 
Small wonder that Alex Porter, Ace reporter for the Fort Landers Daily Mail, was on the scene, even now investigating the case of little miss Annabelle the Tree-Hugging Anarchist. True, now Annabelle been found, but there was still unraveling to be done regarding the who, what and where of Annabelle’s mislaid hours. Troy could still cover the aftermath of the cantankerous Cascadia subduction zone, a story that was not new but seemed to be seldom read. Over the years, Alex had become one of Sybil’s steadiest clients in the fortune-telling booth. 
Some said the Daily Mail was a dying, ill-edited rag and that those who still received their paltry paychecks courtesy of the Daily’s dastardly parent company GateKeeper Media, had sold their souls. Alex had considered selling his soul for any scoop that might land him a gig sufficiently lucrative to pay the bills. Alex had found a better, a more stellar story-telling source in Sybil. Much of Sybil’s insider information stemmed from time spent listening intently as an eccentrically garbed but invisible woman of a certain age. Alex didn’t care, and so he didn’t ask, how she knew what she knew. 
A word from Sybil into Alex’s ear at the opportune moment gave him the advantage of proximity to many a strong lead. Some wondered at his “nose” for a story, the more generous attributing it to a newsman’s ability to scent and unearth, much like woodland creatures. Alex himself attributed it to Sybil’s predictions. In the current confusion at her beloved’s workplace, Sybil’s source had been a breathy phone call, received just a few days earlier. 
“Oh, my God, I mean, Goddess, I don’t want to offend you, Sybil. I can’t be bothered to be PC right now. My baby has been kidnapped! I need you to check your orb, or your oracle, or whatever. There should still be plenty left on your retainer, but if not, I’ll get Jack to pony up. What do you see? What do you see?”
Ever the accomplished soothsayer, Sybil sought to convey her own centeredness through the ether. Emerald was a hot mess under the best of circumstances. She was a typical client, showing up for readings whenever crises loomed. The last time Sybil gave Emerald a reading was the very afternoon she and her beau-du-jour had been driving to SEATAC for a flight to St. Bart’s. Emerald had spent the better part of her 50 minute reading spilling the tea about some wild scheme to have her own daughter kidnapped. 
“Not really kidnapped, you know sweetie. Just to have her show up missing long enough we’ll force the school to waive her tuition fees, making me the financial hero for once and not the one Annabelle accuses of unfairly exploiting her father. Not that he can’t afford it. Not that she hasn’t always been a daddy’s girl who gives him every benefit of the doubt. He’s weak, Sybil, you know that. Jack is weak and weak men cannot be trusted.”
Oh Goddess. Emerald was off an a rant about the ex and her daughter was missing. 
“Emerald….” Sybil’s voice held warning. It had taken years to cultivate the timbre required to telegraph notes of the ominous to the unhinged.
Emerald had the grace to blush a satisfying crimson. She had begun again.
“Of course, we’ll make certain Annabelle comes to no harm, but it’s sure to be teach her a little lesson. More importantly, once she’s in that school, her college admission essays will pop to the top, what with the media attention she’s sure to get. The Seven Sisters will be elbowing each other out of the way to get her on their rolls!”
Sybil didn’t like to judge, indeed, Sybil was the first to admit she was professionally unqualified to make a medical diagnosis, but she was pretty sure Emerald had a personality disorder. The woman was up one second and down the next with plans more half-baked than the cookies coming out of the Martin kitchen.
But that confession of Emerald’s had been in person and she’d left Sybil’s table seeming to have abandoned the kidnapping of her own daughter. 
Now Emerald had phoned Sybil from an ocean away telling her that the daughter had disappeared. Sybil struggled to make sense of that conversation with Emerald, but the call kept dropping and Annabelle’s mother had skittered from one convoluted sentence to another when they’d reconnect. 
“Slow down, slow down Emerald. So, Annabelle has gone missing and – this isn’t part of the faux kidnapping plan you were telling me about?”
“No! No! Someone else got to her first!”
“So, I assume you’ll be coming right home. It will be easier for me to get a read once you’re here.”
“Maybe.” Emerald paused. Or had the call dropped again? “I just went through all this with Zeph. Now I’m worried about her, but maybe I don’t have to be. She’s a clever little thing. She got my brains, thank God. I mean Goddess. I am so sorry Sybil, I really don’t mean to offend. That’s why I want you to look in your ball. Tell me if she’s okay. Did she just disappear herself? I wouldn’t put it past her, I don’t know where she gets her unpredictable nature, Just….”
“Look Emerald, you have to come home. It’s the right thing to do.”
“So you can see the spirits want me to come home? You’re sure?”
This was Sybil’s least favorite part of her job as a clairvoyant. People were always trying to get you to let them off the hook in the name of what the Cosmos wanted. The Cosmos didn’t want you to cut down trees, steal land, indulge in insider trading or shaft your neighbor. Although she had clients who wanted her to assure them that, in fact, the Cosmos was in favor of these very things. 
Sybil cleared her throat, summoning her most authoritative voice. 
“Emerald. This is very upsetting news about Annabelle. I’ll do a reading to find her, In fact, I’ll personally go up to the school today. I’ll see if I can find an article of clothing to help guide the spirits to her whereabouts. I’ll move heaven and earth to get it. But jump on the next plane out, Emerald. Buck up. The spirits and I are pulling for you.” 
Now, the earth had moved, Emerald had returned home, and Sybil sat in her car at the edge of the woods. She might have second sight, but she couldn’t believe what was in front of her eyes.

Chapter 25

Cami Ostman

1891 Words

Annabelle took the teacup from Helen Hannah. “Is it…?” she ventured.

“It’s nothing but chamomile, I promise,” Helen said. “No potions and no magic spells.” She sat across from the girl and warmed her palms against her own mug. “Mine, on the other hand, has a shot of whiskey in it. Quite a time we’ve had, haven’t we?”

Annabelle nodded.

“What can I do for you, sweetheart?” Helen asked, ignoring the bickering coming from the playroom.

“You know, besides the magic, I heard a lot of things from a lot of different voices while I was out there being dragged around in the woods blindfolded,” Annabelle took a sip from her cup and felt comforted.

Helen nodded. “I have no doubt of that.”

“A couple of things are bothering me so much my stomach is aching.”

Helen’s brows crinkled. “Can I get you something for nausea?” she asked the girl.

Almost too abruptly, Annabelle answered, “No! Please. Nothing.”

Helen nodded. Mea culpa, she thought. “Go on.”

“Well…” the girl paused to check in with herself. She’d had to ask herself who to trust absolutely with what she had to say. She’d chosen Helen because Helen had been with her out there. Helen would believe her. She’d thought of going to Sybil—a mentor and known factor—but for some reason, she believed Helen was the right person to start with. Sister to a student, a person with knowledge of realms unseen, Helen was close to the school, but not IN the school, not the wife of an employee IN the school. But that wasn’t the reason Annabelle had come to her. Helen was a mother to two young children. She would have a reason to care about the future of this county, this town, of the old growth trees that produced the oxygen they all breathed—a reason to want justice. “I heard,” Annabelle started, but tears sprang to her eyes before she could continue.

“Take your time,” Helen urged.

“As I said, I feel so different now. Like I don’t know what’s real. But I’ve got to get this out,” she said. “So here goes.” Another sip of her tea. “Chainsaws. And at least one, maybe two, trees falling.”

Helen held her breath and waited for more, as if this wasn’t enough.

Now Annabelle spoke quickly. “They’re taking down the forest. Our forest, Helen. Old Doug didn’t fall just because of the earthquake. He fell and almost killed my dad because he’s heartbroken. They are taking down his family out there… Like deep in the forest where only a few of us know to go for ceremony and peace of mind.” Now she was weeping.

Of course, Annabelle didn’t know all the pieces of the puzzle. Didn’t know about the subpoena or the allegations toward the stupid math teacher and how keeping him on the staff was just a smokescreen to divert attention from the embezzlement done by the headmaster and Debra. Didn’t know about the lawsuit of the tribe to get the land back before Oliver could log the land. Didn’t know that her own blood was tainted, that her mother’s grandmother, her great-grandmother Annabelle (after whom she’d been named), had been the sister of the original ABO. Shit, she didn’t know who ABO III even was and why he would have been involved in kidnapping her or how he’d been inadvertently helped along by a cookie with a smidgeon of blood in its batter.

But she did know she loved the forest. The forest was the one place she could always go to get away from her parents’ idiocy. And in spite of her father’s neglect, she loved her father, too, and knew that he had contributed money to environmental organizations. She knew in his own way, if he could pause and get more grounded, he would find grace and peace in that forest too. She’d read issues of Mother Jones that were lying around the house, after all. She, like so many of her peers, were terrified of the effects of the ongoing rape of the earth.

Helen waited, sensing there was more. As if logging the forest weren’t enough.

“And…” Annabelle took a breath so she could continue. “I think someone is bringing drugs in over the water. Helen, I don’t know the kids at that school, but I don’t want…” she trailed off.

Before Helen could ask her why she thought there were drugs coming in, there was a knock at the door.

***

Sybil’s car, parked off-road on the edge of the forest could have easily been seen. She may have the second sight, but she didn’t have an invisibility cloak. She’d done her best to tuck herself behind a cluster of trees, but she needed to be able to see what was going on on the service road, so she wouldn’t go in too deep, even if she could have gotten her little Kia Soul much further in. She had a strong intuition who had kidnapped the child, but she didn’t know why, and she wasn’t getting much good intel from her crystal ball.

She sat in her car, rain pounding on its roof, for an hour. And then she heard a motor.

Before she could hunker down behind her wheel so she wouldn’t be visible, a large truck with huge metal prongs coming up from its bed, rounded the corner. “What the hell?” she said audibly. She maneuvered herself to the center of her windshield so she could see better. There was no mistaking it! It was a logging truck.

As soon as it passed, she started her engine.

Secrets and differences aside, there was one thing she and Jane agreed on: The sanctity of the forest. Ancient peoples knew that the properties for healing were in the mushrooms at the forest floor. The carcasses of sacred animals were part of the decomposition that allowed those mushrooms to grow. The trees themselves had properties that, when harvested respectfully, could be used in everything from magic potions to western medicine. She could NOT let this forest be logged. And she knew that part of Jane’s willingness to work at that school for so long was that she could get reprieves from the campus stupidity by taking quiet walks on the trails adjacent to the school.

As she drove, she grabbed her phone and dialed her wife’s number. “Jane, wherever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I beg you…” her voice broke here, but she continued, “meet me at Helen’s house. It’s an emergency and you’re the only one who can serve as the center of the healing wheel.”

***

Helen let Sybil in. “Jane will be not far behind me,” she said as she took off her coat and slung it across a chair before flopping down, kicking off her shoes and tucking her feet under her like she was a child curling into a ball for safety. “She’ll get here as soon as she can. And she’s calling that teacher to join us.”

Helen was alarmed to have so many visitors, and with her house looking like a playground. She scurried to put on more tea, throw unfolded clothes off the sofa and into one of the bedrooms, and turn on a cartoon in the playroom for the kids. Another knock on the door and there was Jane with Netta, who had called Joseph Yanity to join them.

When everyone had finally arrived, found a place to perch, and had been given cups of warm tea, Helen looked to Sybil. “What the hell is everyone doing at my house?”

Sybil took a breath. “I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. “The clearcutting is already happening!”

***

A white light closed in on Perry. He could swear he could see a doorway open, a soft yellow glow surrounding it. Was that… his mother? But she’d been gone for years. But it was her for certain. She was standing at the door, wearing the beautiful dress they’d buried her in. She was moving her mouth to speak to him, but he couldn’t hear her. As he moved closer to her doorway and the bright light behind her, he began to make out a whisper. A repetitive phrase, but what was she saying?

“Not yet… not yet… not yeeeeet.” The closer he got, the louder he heard it. “NOT YET! NOT YET! NOT YEEEEEETTTTT.”

BEEEEEEEP….

And suddenly there were sounds of other voices all around him as nurses and doctors came toward him and hovered above, switching switches and checking vitals. Paddles on his chest. “Three, two, one, CLEAR!”

Bam.

BEEEEEEEP….

“Three, two, one, CLEAR!”

Bam.

And then. Ba bump. Ba bump.

“We’ve got him back,” someone said. His mother stepped behind the door. The bright light faded.

***

Perry didn’t know how much time had passed but he’d been wheeled into a recovery room. A shared room, which, he had the presence of mind to think he did not deserve, being as important a man as he thought he was. Shouldn’t he have his own recovery room?

Next to him lay a man in traction. Casts and pins seemed to be holding him together. Poor bastard, Perry thought. Wonder what happened to him? But it was only a passing sentiment. He didn’t really care.

“McPhereson?” the man said. He could turn his head only the slightest bit, that poor guy, but his head was turned toward him, there could be no question.

Perry turned to look at him and studied the figure, looked carefully at his eyes. “Jack Watson?” he ventured.

There was a pause. A long pause. And then, “You. That’s you right there?” A beat. And then. “Why was my daughter kidnapped, you motherfucker?”

McPhereson looked away. A swirl of emotions washed through him. Guilt, defensiveness, anger at having to answer this man when he should be recovering in a single room being attended to by his own dedicated nurse. He had his ideas to answer the man’s question, though. “I don’t know for sure, Jack,” he said. “But I know who does know. Debra Abel. She knows everything for sure.”

Phil Bradley sat in the forest again the whole next week after the earthquake. He could have taken some time off, given the trauma of mid-day aurora borealis appearances, large gashes hewn into the earth, and the felling of Old Doug, but his intuition told him that now, more than ever, he should be on surveillance. “Something” that had been set in motion was on the verge of culminating. He was not a superstitious man or a magical thinker, but he was an English teacher, after all. And he could smell the climax of a narrative arc. He could feel they were in act three of Aristotle’s Incline.

So, tonight, dressed in his camouflage and armed with his infrared eyewear and binoculars, he settled himself against a tree. He had a warm thermos of coffee beside him. And he waited. Nerves and patience of steel, he waited… and watched the water.

But nerves of steel notwithstanding, he nearly shit himself when he heard, quietly but distinctly, from behind him, “Mr. Bradley?”

He turned abruptly to see a flashlight shining in his face. He knew exactly who it was though, from her voice. “Justine. What are you doing out here?”

Chapter 26

Seán Dwyer

1516 words

Netta sorted out the issue that bothered her most about the disaster at the school. How could an earthquake blow through campus like a tornado and leave no trace of damage elsewhere on the mainland? When the earthquake struck Fukoshima, the subsequent tsunami was strong enough to kill a man on the California coast. But there was no word of a tsunami down the coast or across the Pacific. Maybe the quake was too small to generate waves.

But further research showed that the US Geological Survey had no record of seismic activity strong enough to fell trees.

Fell trees? What, or who, around here could fell trees? The crook who wanted all the trees, that’s who. ABO III. She thought someone else knew what was going on as well: Phil Bradley. If he was the one driving the machinery, Netta was going to rip his head off.

She used the school directory to find his office number and dialed it. No answer, but he had kindly told whoever called to try his cell number: 818-473-9937. That was an L.A., number, not a Washington number, but these days, everything was mixed up.

He answered on the second ring. “Phil here.”

“Phil, it’s Netta. We need to talk.”

“I’m fine with that. Are we talking about school stuff?”

“School grounds. Trees. Not on the phone, though.”

“I agree. Meet me at the Gummy Grounds, in maybe ten?”

Netta didn’t quite fit in with the cannabis-plus-espresso crowd, but Phil did, thanks to his ponytail. A couple of the customers had a rough time, because they were former students of his who hadn’t managed exit velocity from town after graduation. They averted their faces and pretended they didn’t see him. Netta knew he saw them, because he told her so.

Now, she wished she had told someone to watch over her, because an English teacher who felled old-growth timber for an honest-to-goodness villain might not have any qualms about taking her for a ride and depositing her next to James Hoffa.

“I have to tell you the truth, regardless of what it means for me,” she said. “I think I know what you’re up to here, aside from teaching English to distractable young ladies.”

She thought the teasing tone might loosen him up, but his eyes grew wide and yet wary.

“What, pray tell, do you think I do? I’m no Trompe, rest his soul.” Phil leaned back and tented his fingers. Netta saw that, after she startled him, he was ready for the chess game to commence.

Out with it, girl, she told herself. “I want to know if you’re in cahoots with ABO III. Did you do the bulldozing and the shooting? And don’t get any ideas, because I have people ready to chase down whoever takes me out of this place.” She looked around and wished she could leave right now.

Phil grinned, and soon he started to laugh. But was it a villainous laugh or one of amusement at the stupidity of an amateur sleuth?

“Oh, what the heck,” he said. “My run here is about over anyway.” He crooked a finger at her, and she leaned forward as he did the same. He pulled a wallet from his back pocket and flashed a badge at her. FBI. She gasped. He made a frantic motion for her to settle down.

“Boy did I get you wrong,” she said when she got her voice back.

“Indeed. I’m here to keep an eye on ABO III, as well as Vlad, who is no choirboy. Can’t say much more. But if you’re noticing what I am, like there was no earthquake, just weird happenings in the sky and trees getting help falling over, then we can maybe sort out this mess. I’d call in a few of my friends, but we don’t need those characters stumbling all over the place. You and I are good enough. Deal?” She shook his proffered hand, a ritual that felt good after so much time without human contact.

“Vlad’s the one trying to kill people, then? She wasn’t surprised.

“Almost certainly. He has an obvious desire to off Perry and Jack Watson, since he shot one and dropped a tree on the other. But Vlad isn’t doing such a great job. I suppose the next tactic will be to put a Novichok agent in their tea.”

They both started and jumped to their feet, Phil knocking over his chair. He ran for the door, Netta stepping on his shadow. Ten minutes later, he flashed his badge and entered the room shared by McPherson and Watson.

***

Zeph didn’t like Oaxaca as much as he did the beaches of St. Barts. Oaxaca was great in its way, but hello, beaches? All he saw here were painted skulls. He wondered if among the thousands of papier-mâché skulls there might be one or two made of human bone. Hiding in plain sight. As things stood, there might be one by the time he was done.

When his Troy-Boy told him the money wasn’t coming in as hoped, he knew why. Debra was buying Troy’s silence, then Troy and Zeph would take their cut and head a bit farther south from St. Barts to Barbados. But Debra had scooted out amid the chaos of the past couple of weeks, leaving Troy with nowhere near enough cash to leave the country.

Debra had left Zeph with a quandary. They had a dinner date for tonight, and he didn’t know if he should suggest a hike in the mountains, where he might bump into her and give her a tumble, or simply call the States and tell them where to find their little thief.

The first option would probably damage her skull, and he was becoming more enamored of the idea of painting her skull and dropping it off at a Day of the Dead store in town. Too bad his travel from St. Barts to Mexico was a matter of record, because it wouldn’t take much to tie him to her murder.

But simply turning her in would not get him any of her stash, and it simply would not be fun.

***

Marie sat in the kitchen, swishing her glorious tail, observing le chef as he concocted for her another appreciated but non-nutritious plate of Veganworld’s best. He looked downhearted, so she promised herself she would down at least half the plate. She could run out and gag it up, as she did the bag of bones left over each time she ate a mouse.

She did care for this ginger tom, the only one here who spoke her language, though he, in typical French-snob fashion, refused to indulge her with some Parisian syllables. She thought he also had a brain, unlike that cop. McGuffin? Yes, McGuffin. Thinking his name made her wonder what the real McGuffin of this recent drama was. Was it the forest that served as the centerpiece of a game of Steal the Bacon? Was it the mysticism Helen was trying to bring to campus in order to lead everyone to a higher state of consciousness?

Marie didn’t know. She was a cat, which meant she chose not to devote her time and intellect to such trivialities.

***

Agent Bradley strode through the halls of the hospital, so agitated he couldn’t even remember the name of the medical facility. Dragging Netta by her hand, he held his wallet in the other hand in case he met a roadblock.

They found the room shared by the headmaster and his latest donor, and they slowed their pace one door down and sauntered into the room. There, they found an odd sight. Emerald and Annabelle were sitting and talking to Jack, while a nun was fiddling with Perry’s IV.

Funny, Phil thought, I know this is a Catholic hospital, but the nuns aren’t nurses here. He started to maneuver around to bed to get a look at the nun, whose head was bowed over the IV line. She pulled a syringe from her pocket.

Perry started awake. “No! Not you again! Help! She’s going to kill me!”

Phil grabbed the wrist of the nun. It was a thick wrist, a hairy wrist. He spun the nun and pulled off her headgear. And there was Phil, staring into the face of Vladimir Varyshkin.

Vlad grabbed the syringe with his other hand and plunged it into Phil’s forearm. With Vlad off-balance, Phil yanked his arm high up his back and threw Vlad face-down onto Perry. Perry yipped with pain, but Netta, Emerald, and Annabelle leapt forward and helped pin Vlad.

They bound him with tape until hospital security could bring cuffs. Netta turned to Phil.

“What did he stick you with?”

Phil shrugged his shoulders. Either a nerve agent or an overdose of Perry’s meds to stop his heart again. I’m hoping for the latter.”

Netta helped Phil to a chair. “How will you know which it is?”

“The narcotic will act faster. I’m getting sleepy, so I think that’s the stuff. Don’t let me fall asleep.”

Chapter 27

Carmella Bauman

2099 Words

Leaning against the worn stone façade, Zeph watched Debra sit down at an outdoor café table. He was certain she wouldn’t notice him amongst all the hustle and bustle of Plaza Major. There were plenty of other tourists around. Plus, he had donned a Panama hat and mirrored aviator sunglasses. Sunglasses that he, more often than occasional, removed to polish. It was an excuse for him to admire his own reflection rather than a nervous habit. Tourist police stood a mere twenty yards away but they seemed more preoccupied with catching up than watching for pick-pockets.

Zeph was surprised at how difficult it was for him to remain casual, despite the easy plan. He pulled out his mobile phone to check the time and fingered the two little bags in his pocket.

Party boys always know how to find party toys. No matter the country. Thinking this two days prior, the plan emerged like a gift. Like he didn’t even have to think about it. He canceled his dinner date with Debra claiming to have food poisoning. He didn’t want to be seen with her moments before she died.

Surrounded by symbolism in Oaxaca, a part of him would have really liked to bash Debra’s head in, grab the money and run. But that was a fantasy. And far too messy. How would he get rid of a body here?

Beaches, he reflected again. Another reason why beaches are superior. Ob-v. Especially shark-infested ones.

He fiddled with the second button of his short-sleeved shirt. Open or closed? He used the reflective coating of his sunglasses to gaze at himself.

As he released the button to expose the glistening dip of his chest between his tan and well-formed pecs, the waiter brought Debra her drink. It was a tall, frilly concoction with ice, an umbrella, and a long straw. It didn’t seem like something Debra would usually order but “when in Rome” and all that, Zeph supposed. It suited her upgraded, middle-aged, rich woman look: a freshly dyed auburn bob with long bangs, oversized black sunglasses, Gucci silk pantsuit replete with a flowered neck scarf tied in a big bow, very high heels, and a trio of gold bangle bracelets on her left arm. She still looked like Debra, but far more luxurious.

To steady his excitement, he ran through his plan again: Once he drugged her drink, he’d help her back to her room, help himself to her funds and then help her to her next “adventure.” Hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on her hotel door, he figured he had at least a day, maybe two, before housekeeping got suspicious. Plenty of time to get down to Saint Barts on a fake passport. And, if he did get nicked and questioned, he’d tell the cops that she picked him up for a bit of fun and then kicked him out before turning to the lines of cocaine he would delicately stage for her overdose death.

He practiced under his breath, adding the phrase “greedy bitch” for color. The effect it had on him was intoxicating. Like taking a shot of mescal.

Zeph glanced sidelong at the tourist cops standing near the edge of the plaza. They appeared to be talking about personal matters, one officer gesticulating while the other laughed. The gesticulating officer gave a little thrust of his hips as a punch line.

Such an easy plan, thought Zeph, ready to take the next step. And all the better to do it right under two dumb tourist cop noses.

He wove between an adult family of Canadian tourists taking photos down the line of shops bordering the plaza. Their bulky frames would provide excellent cover for his little operation. Debra was making this too easy for him, choosing to sit at a table in the plaza. Now he just needed her to be distracted.

Pick up your phone, he thought furiously, not realizing he was muttering the phrase under his breath. Like a miracle, she did, setting her drink down on the table and scrolling through who knows what.

Wending his way through the crowd, he glanced over his shoulder at the cops, still bullshitting about their personal lives. Fiddling in his pocket, he grasped the smaller of the two packets, flicked the seam open with his finger and withdrew a little pill. In his hotel room last night, he’d practiced concealing techniques, nestling it in the web of his ring finger and palm. All he needed to do was walk by, pretend to trip or bump into someone and drop the Mexican version of a roofie into her cocktail. As he took the final steps toward the café table, a small line of sweat began to bead on his upper lip.

This was the most difficult part of the plan. Once the drop was accomplished, he’d be on Easy Street.

*  * *

Yanity stood at the base of the totem pole and stared at the raven at the top. The breeze from the Salish Sea caressed his worried face. He could scarcely believe the events of the past few days. So much had happened. So little within his control. Between the trees coming down, the rupture in the earth, and that mudslide that killed a man… What was his name? It had been in the papers. Trump? And Yanity knew those trees didn’t come down by accident. Oh, no.

He had helped carve this totem when he was just a boy, his uncles and great uncles teaching him the tradition, showing him how to turn cedar into meaning. Talking about his grandfather’s passing as they created his memorial pole, they swapped sweat and stories one-by-one until the pole took its final shape.

Yanity had said that he would leave the fate of the land up to the courts, but was that really the best course of action? Was that the only way to pursue justice? He had other ideas, too but would they even work? Had he waited too long? Could this be enough? Would it ever be enough? What wasn’t he considering?

He stood there, stolid, his feet rooted to the ground like the cedar pole once was, gazing at it and wondering if he was doing the right thing.

*  * *

As Zeph neared Debra’s table, his heart trembled with excitement. He thumbed the tiny pill nestled between his ring and middle finger in his right hand and looked for someone to bump into.

Why, in God’s name, was there suddenly no one on this side of the plaza?

He was grateful that Debra, her back to him, was still scrolling through her phone. He could hear the Canadian family behind him, cajoling as they took group photos.

The only people walking toward him were a small Oaxacan girl and her mother. The tiny girl, in pigtails, licked an ice cream cone as she walked hand in hand with her mother, the melting strawberry pink running down her wrist and forearm. This wasn’t ideal, it could bring a little too much attention, but he had already come this far and didn’t want to turn back now.

Just three more steps.

His timing was impeccable. Bumping into the little girl, he knocked her ice cream cone out of her hand and jutted into the café table. The little girl began to wail and as heads turned to look at her, out shot Zeph’s hand over Debra’s drink.

Plunk.

Even though the pill was far too small to make a sound, Zeph, stealthy operative that he was, imagined it did. He grabbed the table for good measure, and proud of his improv, kept his face away from Debra as he pretended to steady himself. Startled, she clutched her phone close to her chest and picked up her beverage as if she was afraid this clumsy man would topple the entire ensemble. After a shake of her head, as if to relieve herself of this annoying interruption, she returned to her mobile and cocktail.

So far, so good. He exhaled in relief. She hadn’t recognized him.

The mother tried to console her crying daughter. Zeph, careful to keep his face turned away from Debra, straitened up to give an apologetic mea culpa. Since he ruined the little girl’s treat, he could buy her a new one at the helado stand on the other side of the plaza. Now he had an excuse to stay in visual contact, monitoring Debra, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and escort her back to her hotel room. As long as she didn’t recognize his voice, this could all still work.

He opened his mouth, nervous to speak.

But when he turned to the mother and little girl, he was surprised to find that one of the Canadians had already approached them. A young woman, tall and strong like the two brothers flanking her, had knelt and was talking softly to the little girl in Spanish. The little girl’s tear-stained face was nodding, already agreeing to join the young woman for a new ice cream at the stand across the plaza, her mother patting the back of her pigtailed head in comfort.

Zeph was stunned. So much for that plan. Now what?

The adult brothers, identical twins in matching Team Canada hockey jerseys, set Zeph with steely gazes.

Shit. Definitely more attention than I wanted.

Zeph held his hands up in plea and swallowed hard, unsure of what to say. He had watched his fair share of spy movies in his life. He tried to recall one, any one, that might give him guidance here.

He drew a blank. The two men maintained steady eye contact.

“Whad’ja drop in her drink?” asked one, thrusting his chin out in a reverse nod and crossing his enormous arms.

Debra, who had been taking a long sip through the straw, whipped her head around and looked up at the three men. She froze, holding her drink in front of her and then, very slowly, moved it away from her to set it back on the table. From his periphery, Zeph could tell that she was shaken.

“What?” asked Zeph, failing to disguise his voice. The beads of sweat formed on his upper lip again. “Nothing, man. I just stumbled, bumped into the little girl on accident.” He held his hands up in a plea as he took a step back.

 “Zeph?” Debra asked. Her tone was careful yet incredulous, indicating she was very, very angry.

“That was no accident,” continued the other brother, taking a step toward Zeph. “You ran into that little girl on purpose. My brother saw you drop something in that nice lady’s drink. What was it?” He matched his brother in tone and posture.

The beads of sweat coalesced on Zeph’s upper lip. He thought frantically. He was strong, very strong, but no match for two hockey playing brothers who had more than double his weight between the two of them.

Play it cool. Play it cool. No problemo. You can talk yourself out of this. Somehow. Even if Debra is angry.

He could feel her fuming beside him like a volcano ready to blow. Taking a quick, deep breath, he tried to soothe himself.

“Listen, guys,” said Zeph, “I don’t know what you think you saw, but…” his voice trailed off as he noticed the tourist cops turn their attention toward the scene unfolding and start to saunter over.

Fuck.

It was too much. He was going to have to bail. Panicked, he took two steps backward and turned on his heel to run, but before he could take his first step, one of the brothers tackled him, pinning him to the ground right under Debra’s table. She yelped and jumped to her feet.

As Zeph squirmed and wriggled under the weight of the Canadian, he realized all might not be lost. Debra’s designer handbag was lying open, just inches from him. He had a clear view inside. Grunting and struggling against the weight of the brother on top of him, Zeph heard the other brother address Debra.

“Are you okay?” he asked, “You seem a bit unsteady.”

“Don’t touch me. I’m fine.” Zeph heard Debra’s terse voice and glimpsed her jerking her arm away from the kind gesture.

“It’s okay. My brother is on the Junior National Hockey team. He’ll keep ‘em there. Look, the tourist cops are almost here. They can take over and you can make a statement.”

“I don’t want to make a statement. I want to leave,” said Debra, reaching down to grab her handbag. Rising, she lost her balance. The brother caught her arm.

“Woah, there,” he said, steadying her and nodding toward her stiletto heels. “Those things are awfully dangerous on these cobble stones.”

“I said ‘DON’T TOUCH ME!’” In one swift motion, Debra shoved him and executed an expert right hook. Her fist collided with his nose, an immediate spray of blood covering the red and white emblem of the maple leaf on his jersey like a Jackson Pollack painting.

Her handbag fell to the ground and the contents spilled out just as the tourist cops, running and pushing looky-loos out of the way, arrived. Splayed for everyone to see, Zeph’s bag of cocaine sat amongst a large roll of cash, two passports, and a tube of Chanel Rouge Allure lipstick.

Debra’s face went white. “That’s not mine,” she stammered, her oversized sunglasses askance as an officer twisted her left arm behind her back, the delicate gold bangles tinkling in weak protest.

“THAT’S NOT MINE!” she screamed as the officer slammed her face into the café table, knocking her sunglasses and cocktail onto the cobblestone below. Seconds later, the two tourist cops slapped handcuffs on Zeph and Debra, continuing to press their faces hard onto the surfaces below them. Sirens sang in the distance as everyone breathed heavy with exertion under the watchful, growing crowd.

“You fucking bastard,” hissed Debra, spitting on Zeph’s dirty and battered face.

The tourist cops gave each other a knowing look.

“Americanos,” they muttered in unison.

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30