by Randy Dills
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.