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.”