by Victoria Doerper
The Instagram pages that usually riveted Annabelle were yawnworthy at best. Just like this visit to Westminster Academy. She checked her father’s text again. See you in the entrance hall when you’re done. Right. Was she done? Justine had disappeared mid-tour. Not that Annabelle really wanted the fake-friendly Justine to return. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to meet up with her dad. Let him wait for a change. She fished around in her jean pocket for lip-gloss and slicked on the shiny goop. Finger combed her dark wavy shoulder length hair. Took a selfie to check her image. Not bad. She held her phone out at arm’s length, made a kissy face, took another selfie, posted it to her Instagram page. As she pondered the idea of another mocha, she licked her cherry-flavored lips and realized she was starving. Surely they had vending machines somewhere in this hoity-toity place. Then she heard the footsteps. The dreaded Justine must be coming back.
“Hello,” said a voice that was nothing like Justine’s. Every lingering atom of caffeine from the mocha zapped through her nervous system. She turned to find…a boy. Well, more like a man. Older than she was, but only by a few years. If Justine had been here, she’d be tossing her head and batting her lashes. This guy must have spent hours in that state-of-the art weight room to build those biceps that bulged from under his maroon t-shirt. His musky smell of sweat and spruce wafted her way. He dropped his backpack to the floor by the table and sat across from her.
“I saw you with Justine in the gym. Are you a new student? I’m Troy Martin, by the way.” His voice was pure gold poured over gravel.
Annabelle felt tongue-tied and awkward. She fingered the tiny butterfly on her silver bracelet.
“My name’s Annabelle,” she said, “not a new student yet, but maybe. I’m in public school now but my mom thinks this place is better. My dad isn’t convinced. Whatever.”
“It’s not a bad school,” Troy said. “I’m a senior and I’ve been here the last couple of years. My dad’s an alum. He says the best thing about Westminster is the students who come here and the connections they have. He was an Ivy Leaguer, but it was a former classmate from Westminster who got him a spot in a big investment firm.”
“I think my mom’s more interested in the prestige. My dad spends all his time with his precious tech company so he doesn’t care one way or the other. Me, I just don’t want to have to work too hard. How’re the teachers?”
“I like most of the teachers here. Bradley can be a pain sometimes, but it’s pretty easy to get good grades without working too hard. I spend a lot of time in the gym and still have almost a four point. Headmaster’s a bit of a poser, but that doesn’t matter much. Students hardly ever see him. I never do. The only time I hear about him is from my dad, who has dinner with him a few times a year. They’re both foodies.”
That reminded Annabelle she was still hungry. “Is there any food around here? I thought this was the dining area, but, like, there aren’t even any vending machines.”
Troy smiled. “No junk food allowed in these hallowed halls. Nothing as pedestrian as M&M’s or Skittles. No foodie food either. Only so-called healthful stuff. Vegan. Gluten-free. Paleo. Trend of the moment. Take your pick. As my mom would say, the food here all boils down to prunes and custard.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Food you don’t like. I guess that’s what it means. Anyway, if you want candy bars or chips or cookies, anything like that, as a snack, you have to bring it yourself.” Troy turned away from her and dug around in his backpack. In a few seconds, he turned back, his open hand displaying a cellophane wrapped cookie. “My sister bakes these. Huge batches. Fantastic.”
Annabelle accepted gratefully the proffered treat and immediately liberated the cookie from its wrapping. The smell of chocolate, vanilla, something exotic. She nibbled self-consciously, nodding her head, making little hums of enjoyment. Troy grinned.
“I’d give you another one if I had any left.”
“That’s okay, I probably need to go find my dad anyway. I don’t think Justine is going to be coming back.” She leaned over to pick up her pack and felt a little woozy. Bracing herself against the table, she stood up, pulled the pack onto her back and pocketed her cell phone.
“I think my blood sugar is a little off. I’m feeling just a bit lightheaded. Could you point me in the direction of the entrance hall?”
“Sure thing,” Troy said. “I have a study group to get to, but I’ll walk you partway.” He hoisted his backpack to his shoulder and took her arm. She felt a little better having something to lean on.
Marie, the academy cat, looked up from her lair, fashioned from cushiony maple and alder duff under the graceful arms of a soaring Douglas fir. Sometimes Marie deposited treasures here, like bird bones or fermenting rodent guts. But most of the time she hunkered down to groom. Her thick coat had a tendency to snag leaves, bits of paper, seeds, and sometimes odd little trinkets that snarled and matted her fur. If she left it too long, she began to feel like a feline charm bracelet. Marie loved the trees and trails in the arboretum where she could keep an eye on the people walking by. Every so often she startled a new student by her simple presence. She was large of body, bobcat like in appearance, and regal in her manner. Truly descended from Maine coon cat royalty, which could be a tad unnerving in and of itself.
Marie gloried in the stories of her antecedents, handed down from generation to generation. Tales about ancestors who had lived in Versailles as the cherished pets of Marie Antoinette. Feline accounts of the Queen portrayed a woman who was high spirited and kind, and yet, it had to be said, was also somewhat clueless when it came to human affairs. Which is why the Queen’s attempt to escape from France failed. She had made sure to send her cats (and other cherished possessions) to be loaded onto a ship in preparation for whisking them all away to safety. But Queen Marie had left it too late to save herself. Still, her six cats took the sea journey all the way to Maine, where they were set free to pursue their own survival. The cat Marie’s own family, of both regal and rough-and-ready stock, had migrated with their people to this very land in the Pacific Northwest after the logging industry faltered in Maine. Marie’s own grandmother had taught her the forest trails and academy halls. The virtues of kindness, cunning, and caring. That’s why, when Marie came upon a young human who appeared to be sleeping under her favorite Douglas fir, she snuggled up and began to purr. Maybe later something else would need to be done, but for now, this was enough.
Peregrine McPherson had had a day. He was not cut out for this kind of drama. Drams. That’s what he was cut out for. Drams of single malt. Pours of Latour and Margaux. Multicourse meals. Exquisite sips of Chateau Y’quem. Postprandial Armagnac. He did his best work hobnobbing with rich patrons who wanted to protect their children from the din and hoi polloi of public schools. Maybe he wasn’t the sharpest sword in the scabbard, but he did have the initials Dr. in front of his name, and that was credibility, by gawd, bought and paid for. He’d gotten the job done. Every time. By hook or by crook. Where would the academy be without him?
Peregrine unlocked his office, slipped inside, and locked the door again, as if that simple act could keep out all his problems. He tried to block the memory of the ridiculous and embarrassing pink and purple party tape bobbing in the wind. And the crime scene markers that might as well have been flashing neon signs advertising public school diner food. He had tried to put the best interpretation on that jerry-rigged parking lot for the sake of Jack Watson, explaining that these sorts of incidents were so alien to the academy experience that the school had never needed to spend money on the official accouterments of crime detection. He spun and soothed, massaged and managed, and finally the angry parent had calmed down enough to be left in the hands of the academy’s two security staff.
Seating himself behind his desk, Peregrine slipped open the capacious bottom drawer and extracted a crystal decanter of single malt Glenfiddich and a shot glass. Poured a dram. Set the bottle on his desk blotter in readiness for the next. Downed the first and poured another. With the second dram warming his wame, he began to relax. He poured a third and began to feel that he could handle anything. His eyes wandered around his beautifully appointed office, the antique side tables, the polished chairs with embroidered cushions, and came to rest upon the wall across from him where his framed clan crest and motto hung. An image of a fierce cat, with the motto “Touch not the cat but a glove.” After a couple of drams, he felt the clan blood rise in his veins. He was as fierce as that Highland cat.
The blinking red light on the office landline caught his eye. Well, he could handle anything, couldn’t he? He pressed the button. Two messages. “Perry, Don Martin here. Call me back as soon as you can. This. Is. Urgent.” He usually discussed business with Don over dinner. This did not sound like a dinner invitation. He advanced to the next message. “Hello Dr. McPherson. This is Sergeant McGuffin. There’s been a development. Please call me back so I can fill you in.” Peregrine downed his third dram and began to dial.