by Jean Waight
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.
I loved the Helen/Hannah explanation! 🙂
Good writing Jean! That Debra…I had a bad feeling about her….
Thank you, Victoria! You sure you are not just blinded by the bright light reflecting the bracelet you created?
If Ch 17 came out well enough, hey, I had a lot of excellent examples over the years. And thank YOU for creating Marie–I loved writing about Marie.
Thank you both, Judy and Mary Lou. I looked back at the title and thought the story needed another garden-variety, low-level scoundrel.And went from there.
Jean – love what you did with building Debra’s backstory. That woman needed a motive and you did a great job providing her with one!
Great voice, fast-paced, lots of tension, and awesome critter action. Way to go, Jean!
Thank you, Susan! I thought you might like the critter action, and you did.
Jean-! -characters are wonderfully complex and the plot continues to thicken-! Good job weaving details!!