by Kate Austen
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.