by Marian Exall
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.