The conference room had always felt somewhat intimidating to Phillip; there was something distinctly unnerving about the wide oak meeting table dominating the room, with its high-backed executive chairs surrounding it. The presence of an unfamiliar man, sitting in the seat usually occupied by Daniel, did nothing to alleviate his concern.
The stranger looked to be of average height, but marginally above-average weight; he looked heavyset without looking as fat as the euphemism usually implied. His brown suit jacket clashed horrendously with the bright yellow tie he wore, though if he was aware of this fact his middle-aged face didn’t display it. He glanced up from the papers in front of him as Phillip walked in.
“Sorry I’m late,” Phillip said, taking the long way around the table; the stranger didn’t seem to notice. “Bus was held up.”
“I understand,” Chloe said. Her eyes were puffy and red; she had obviously only recently stopped crying. “I think we’re ready to go over the situation now, Detective.”
“Of course,” the man said, nodding. To his left, Katherine glared daggers at Phillip; apparently, nothing could excuse his absence. “I’ll introduce myself again, then. I’m Detective Frank Sabretti, with the Metro Police.” He extended his hand across the table to Phillip, who shook it cautiously.
“Phillip Brookfield,” he said, “manager of the Funds Discovery and Acquisition division of the Indigo Foundation. A pleasure to meet you.”
“I wish it were, Mister Brookfield,” Sabretti said, nodding slowly. “I assume you’ve been briefed on what’s happened in the last twenty-four hours?”
“Phillip hasn’t been in contact with anyone since last night,” Chloe said. “As I said, I called him for personal reasons.”
“Be that as it may, Miss Reed,” Sabretti said, “I still would like to hear it from him.”
Phillip eyed the detective carefully. He wanted nothing more than to say that he’d rather a lawyer be present, but without an accurate picture of what was going on, what would that accomplish but making him look more guilty of… whatever it was? “I know only what Chloe’s told me,” Phillip said. “Apparently, the Foundation has been implicated in the disappearance of a child.”
“Mm, that’s right,” Sabretti said, “but it’s really only half the story.”
“The highlights of the rest,” Katherine spat, “being that Alex MacKenzie could barely wait to accuse us.”
“I don’t think that was ever actually said,” Sabretti said, calmly, “but given that Mr. MacKenzie did list the Foundation’s office as Rob’s last known whereabouts, it stands to reason he thinks you folks had something to do with it.”
“Have you spoken to Mrs. MacKenzie?” Phillip asked.
“She’s listed on the Missing Persons report as well,” Chloe said. “Occam’s Razor dictates that she took off with Rob, wouldn’t you say, Detective?”
“I’d love to believe that, Miss Reed,” Sabretti said, “but at this point it’s just conjecture. We’d need proof.”
“How can I help?” Phillip asked. The glare he got from Katherine told him she thought his first step should be ‘shut up’; in response, he just closed his eyes for a hair longer than a blink.
“Let’s start with the basics, then, Mister Brookfield,” Sabretti said. “Where were you between six am and ten am yesterday morning?”
“I got my children off to school, then at eight thirty I caught the bus in to work,” Phillip said.
“Got a transfer stub?”
“My TransiTicket was scanned when I got on, and at the Forbes Street T Station,” Phillip said. “Also, surveillance cameras there should have me stopping at a vending machine for a Coke. I lost a quarter in that machine, Detective, and if you could contact whoever’s in charge of those…?”
Sabretti laughed. “All right, so you’re in the clear,” he said. “At least, in my book, you are. We’ll have the Port Authority look through those tapes, though. You have kids, you say?”
“Yes,” Phillip said. He caught the detective’s gaze dropping to his hands, to check for a wedding band. “They’re adopted,” he added.
“Was just gonna ask,” Sabretti mumbled. “Must be tough being a single dad.”
“It has its moments,” Phillip said.
“Got a daughter, myself,” Sabretti said, wistfully. “About Rob’s age, in fact. She’s out at Fairywood Montessori, though.”
“We’ve been trying to get a pilot group for Blue Streak out there for months,” Katherine said. “The school just won’t have any of it.”
“Yeah, they’re awfully picky out there,” Sabretti said. “Why don’t you tell me about this Blue Streak thing of yours. It sounds like a roller coaster or something.”
“It’s funny you mention it,” Chloe said, smiling. “As it turns out, we did name it after a roller coaster.” She went on to explain the basics of the program to the detective; Phillip tuned most of this out.
Sabretti’s questions to that point had given Phillip a significant amount of information, while not revealing too much. He was aware that Alex MacKenzie had put out a Missing Persons report for his wife and son, and that for some reason, the police did not suspect domestic foul play in the slightest. That was unsurprising, Phillip scoffed; if Mirielle and Rob truly had run off, Alex was free to spin any length of yarn he wanted, and the police would likely buy it without blinking.
And if they have walked out on him? Phillip thought. What concern is it of ours? Granted, he added, it would be distastefully opportunistic to re-present the Twilight Wings opportunity to her. But then again, the Foundation needs Rob as much as she needs safety, he thought. This of course disregards finding her– probably trivially easy, given the resources Chloe had been known to draw upon.
Still, the question nagged at him. The police would obviously not ask for the Foundation to actively seek out Rob MacKenzie– much to the contrary, Sabretti would probably ask the Foundation to sit on its hands and wait patiently. Alex MacKenzie asking the Foundation for favors was about as likely as the Pirates winning the division next year, he thought. And obviously, Mirielle or Rob were either unwilling or unable to ask for his help. By his own code, he should stand by and wait to see how things develop.
But then again, he thought, “unwilling” is completely different from “unable”. An objective view of everything that had passed told him that Mirielle did not disagree with her husband to a significant degree. The cameras were clear; she had made only token resistance to Alex’s arguments. They were also merely cameras. They could not delve into the motivation behind her complicity. Phillip had seen the desperation in her eyes, had known that Alex was willing to lie to strangers. Or, he thought, maybe I’m just overlaying that onto what I see, to give myself the chance to be a hero.
“Mister Brookfield, I’m just curious,” Sabretti said, snapping him out of his thoughts. “What exactly do you do for the Indigo Foundation?”
“I manage the grant-writing and fund-raising activities of the Foundation,” Phillip said, reciting the job description just as he had countless times before. “We’re a purely research-driven non-profit organization, so getting money can be a real challenge at times.”
“Imagine how tough it is getting funding from the City,” Sabretti chuckled. “You’d beg for this job back in a day.”
“I can only assume,” Phillip said, shrugging.
“Look, it doesn’t take a mind-reader to know that you guys don’t trust me,” Sabretti said. “Truth be told, I’m surprised you haven’t lawyered up yet.”
Phillip and Chloe exchanged a glance. “The Indigo Foundation is an open book,” she said, quietly. “We reserve secrecy for our specific processes and our findings until they’ve been verified, but in all other regards we have a strict policy of cooperation with all authorities.”
“We’ve been audited twice because the IRS thought we were too clean,” Katherine added. “We have nothing to hide.”
“I’m glad, but you’ll forgive my cynical side for thinking you have to be getting away with murder somewhere,” Sabretti said.
“You’re certainly entitled,” Chloe said, “but you’re wasting your time. Anything you wish to know, simply ask.”
Sabretti considered this for a moment, studying Chloe’s face carefully. “You’re sure you know nothing about Rob MacKenzie’s current whereabouts, or his mother’s?”
“The Indigo Foundation, and all of its active employees, know absolutely nothing,” Chloe said.
“The inactive ones?”
“We can hardly be held accountable for the actions of individuals we’ve released from service,” Katherine said.
“Fair enough,” Sabretti said. “I think I’m done here, but I do want to leave you my card and number.”
“If we hear anything,” Phillip said, “you’ll be the first to know. Sorry for wasting your time.”
“Not at all,” Sabretti said. “Hey, about Nancie’s school. A buddy of mine happens to be on the parental advisory board. If I could take some of the brochures on that Blue Streak…?”
“If you’ll come with me,” Katherine said, “I’ll get you copies of all of our programs. For your friend, and for the police to study.”
“Didn’t think I was that transparent,” Sabretti said.
“We’re used to being misunderstood,” Chloe said, smiling calmly. “Think nothing of it. If there is anything we can do, you need only ask.” Katherine led him out of the conference room.
After the door closed, and he was reasonably sure that Sabretti was out of earshot, Phillip turned and looked Chloe in the eye. “Was any of that the truth?” he asked.
“Of course it was,” Chloe grinned. “Everything we said was the truth… but the truth wasn’t necessarily everything we said, either.”
It didn’t surprise Jeanne that Rob was not at school Tuesday morning. She and Gene had made an effort to get out the door early enough to head Deacon off, in case he wanted to hassle them one last time before the election, but it had turned out to be unnecessary. Deacon was running late for some reason, and Rob never showed up; Tegan and Nick greeted them as they came off the bus.
The morning seemed to drag on forever; Rob’s absence was felt more sharply than the day before. Jeanne and Gene often exchanged glances, trying to determine if it was wise to clue their friends into why Rob was absent, but the conclusion they reached every time was the same: they didn’t know, so there was no need to worry them unnecessarily. Still, it was starting to grate on them– and to become more obvious.
“What’s wrong?” Tegan asked, as the class settled into Mrs. Baum’s classroom. She sat facing Jeanne directly, and every passing emotion on her friend’s face was instantly readable.
“It’s nothing,” Jeanne sighed.
“Gene being a little twerp?” Tegan asked, smirking.
“No, it’s not that,” Jeanne said, waving her hand slightly. “I mean, yeah, he can be a dork, but…”
“But something else is bugging you,” Tegan said, frowning. “You and he have been all weird all day.”
“Maybe,” Jeanne said. “Look, Tegan, what if we told you…”
“Told me what?” Tegan said eagerly, leaning forward. Gossip was one of her favorite extracurricular activities. “What is it?”
“It’s kind of a secret,” Jeanne said, rolling her eyes. “Never mind.”
“What, about the election?” Tegan said, sighing. “You guys worry too much about that. Nobody likes Deacon, and nobody’s going to vote for him. Especially if he’s been telling people to vote for Fran.”
“He’s been what?” Jeanne said. “Fran? Really?”
“Yeah,” Tegan said. “He hasn’t told anyone to vote for him. It’s weird.”
Jeanne paused to consider this. Deacon’s behavior was inconsistent, but because of this, it made her even more worried. What could he hope to gain by setting himself up to lose the election? It stood to reason that he would persuade people to vote for Fran in much the same way he would convince others to vote for himself. But it made no sense.
“Class,” Mrs. Baum said, “we are beginning. I believe we left off at Chapter Five, yes?” And with that melodious declaration, thoughts of the election were replaced with prepositions and participles. Baby stuff, Jeanne thought; wake me when we start doing it in Russian.
As the class dragged on, the reading order came around to Gene. He stood and began reciting the paragraph, for purposes known only to Mrs. Baum; it certainly did not seem to make any sense to Jeanne or Gene, and Tegan rolled her eyes more than once as he spoke. “Those who fight with monsters,” Gene said, “should be careful not to become monsters themselves. And, when looking into the abyss, know that the abyss also looks into you.”
The turn of phrase piqued Jeanne’s interest. Obviously its meaning was not the focus of the lesson; Mrs. Baum seemed uninterested in actually going too far into what the words meant. But Jeanne mulled the concepts over in her mind. Fighting monsters, she thought. Is Deacon a monster? There was no hesitation in her answer. But does that make us monsters, too? She glanced at Gene, surreptitiously checking him for tusks and scales; finding none, she considered the phrase again.
What made Deacon a monster? The answer was again obvious and quick. His methods, his manipulative nature. By using threats and force, as well as his not-undeserved reputation for ruthlessness, he was easily able to persuade his fellow students and to deceive the faculty and adults. Even so, this manipulation could only go so far, and it was there that he was able to show his true colors– his deplorable actions did more damage than his dark words could ever endeavor to accomplish.
We use words, Jeanne thought. That can’t make us monsters. Maybe it’s not what we use, but how we use it. She thought back to the night before; Gene had said that Deacon was not so far off from them as she had wanted to admit. It was not unimaginable that his skill at manipulation was borne of the same source as their own gifts. At the same time, though, it was just something they could collectively do. It was like a cartwheel, or knowing dirty words. They didn’t have an effect in and of themselves; it was what they were used to accomplish that made them good or bad. That lesson was one Chloe had made a significant effort to impress upon them. Our motives separate us from Deacon, she thought. As long as they’re different, we won’t become monsters.
A wave of relief washed over her, and she slumped slightly in her chair. Mrs. Baum’s quiet tut-tut from behind quickly straightened her, though.
The other half of the proverb was of interest to her, as well. Looking into the abyss, and the abyss looking into her. It seemed nonsensical; an abyss was, by definition, nothingness, and wasn’t anything that could even do any looking into anything else. She was about to dismiss it as a useless frivolity of language when she seized upon the relevance. Her eyes had just happened to land on Fran Ballathy at that moment. She hadn’t meant to, but when she did, she saw… nothing. Where she expected to find what she saw in Gene, or Tegan, or even Deacon, she saw instead its absence. She glanced at Gene, and saw in him as well an absence– a different absence from Fran, but an absence all the same.
It happened this way for each person she shifted her gaze to. One classmate held what the pervious one lacked, but instead was missing something different. Describing the absences was useless; the lost items were not fungible thoughts, to be encapsulated by mere words. She only felt that each student was incomplete somehow. Each student was an abyss, and she was peering into each abyss without regard. It drove her crazy, suddenly sensing that her class was full of half-minded zombies.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head slowly and gently, so as not to arouse Mrs. Baum’s attention again. When she opened them, Tegan’s eyes were locked on her own. This time, however, instead of appearing incomplete, Tegan appeared whole in Jeanne’s sight. There was still something missing, but only when she sought it out specifically. Then, and only then, did Tegan give an impression of being unfinished. When she then denied the absence, Jeanne could see Tegan as complete once more. It was remarkable, to say the least.
She found that, with one exception, the rest of her class responded in this way to her gaze. Gene’s missing piece was harder to find, and easier to ignore. He was not the exception.
Deacon Flay always appeared to have an absence, and no matter how much effort she put into ignoring it, it nagged at her. She tore her eyes away from him once his head lazily turned towards her end of the classroom. When you look into an abyss, she thought– the phrasing sending chills up and down her spine at breakneck pace– the abyss also looks into you.
The bell rang, and Gene walked up to Jeanne and Tegan. He was puzzled at his sisters expression for a moment. Jeanne looked him in the eye without blinking. “He knows,” she said.
Gene frowned. “Not good.”
The chair creaked as Phillip leaned back in it. His computer displayed his e-mail inbox; at the top of it was a message from Chloe to all employees of the Indigo Foundation:
“As you may be aware, this morning, Det. Frank Sabretti of the Pittsburgh Police Department came to the Foundation offices to discuss a missing persons report recently filed. The Indigo Foundation is the last known whereabouts of the individual in question, one Rob MacKenzie. We have assured Det. Sabretti that we will cooperate to the fullest extent of our abilities with the search for Rob.
“However, the police may be asking sensitive questions of many employees of the Indigo Foundation. As a result, we have decided to dismiss, effective immediately, all employees of the Foundation for the day except members of the Executive Board and Section Managers. You will be paid in full for the day, and you will not be docked any vacation time. Contracted employees should report this as time worked, to a maximum of your normally scheduled hours.
“If you are contacted by the police in connection to the search for Rob or Mirielle MacKenzie, tell the officer that you will be happy to cooperate once a lawyer from the Foundation is present. Call our legal services provider, Cambert, Clay, and Saunders, at (412) 555-0226 immediately and give the receptionist the account number 140327. You can call at any time.
“Please plan on reporting to work as normal tomorrow morning. If there are any further developments in this situation, you will be notified by e-mail through this system or through your alternate contact address.
“As always, your hard work and efforts are eternally appreciated. The future thanks you.
He’d stared at the message for a good ten minutes already, and no matter how many times he convinced himself that it was simply not in Chloe’s character, it still persisted in its existence on his screen. He briefly considered deleting it, before realizing that it was flagged so as to prevent its removal under any circumstances. Phillip scoffed, sighed, and performed every other nonverbal vocalization that he could think of that could be done in public. It did not change anything.
There’s nothing I can do here, he thought, standing up. He stomped down the hallway towards a conspicuously closed door; there was nobody left in the building to wonder at his minor tantrum.
“Come in,” Chloe’s voice called absently from the other side of the door. Phillip hesitated. He hadn’t even had the chance to bang menacingly, for whatever catharsis could be gleaned from it. Thus deflated, he simply nudged it open.
Chloe was draped across her desk; styrofoam cups and crumpled tissues littered the floor near her wastebasket. She had changed from the dress she’d been wearing at the interrogation into a crumpled gray tracksuit. Her cheeks were even puffier than at that meeting, and she only gave a half-hearted attempt to raise her head to see who entered.
Phillip was again frozen. This was… “Uh, Chloe? Should I call you a cab or something?”
“It’s… it’s over, Phillip,” she sobbed, dropping her forehead to the desk again. She impacted with a hollow, faintly audible thunk. “We’ve failed. We’re finished.”
“It looks that way,” he said, weakly. “But I don’t see why–”
“I wanted to give them something good,” she said, rolling her head to the side; she could at least now look at him. “One last moment of glory and joy, before it all ends.”
“What are you talking about, before it all ends?” Phillip snapped. “We’re fine. We didn’t do anything to Rob, and now the police are handling Alex.”
“That’s just it, Phillip,” she sobbed. “We didn’t do anything. We had him, we had the proof, and we just…” She waved with her hand, letting it too flop uselessly to the desk. “We let him go, Phillip.”
“What did you want to do?” he shouted. “Rip him from his parents’ arms?”
“That was not his father!” she fired back, sitting upright. He almost wished that she was back face-down, given the glare on her face. “No decent human being could ever treat their child that way!”
“We have no proof!” Phillip said. “All we have is our own conjecture, our own hypothesis, and our own motives for wanting it to be that way!”
“Isn’t that enough?” Chloe slumped back into her high-backed executive chair, her features softening. “If caring and compassion aren’t enough, then what is?”
Phillip stepped closer. “We know, that’s certain enough,” he said. “But we can’t prove it to anyone without introducing our own bias into it. So we should just step back and let the police see it for themselves. That’s not the end of the world.”
“It might as well be,” Chloe said. “Phillip, we were already trading on our reputation before this. We had nothing but a spotless record to this point, and it was because of this that we were able to get the loans and grants we did. Once word gets out that the police are seriously investigating us in connection to a child abduction– a child we were actively pursuing– we can kiss our spotless reputation goodbye.”
“There’s a reasonable explanation,” he said. “We can’t be faulted.”
“We most certainly can,” Chloe said. “I made every effort to ensure that the Indigo Foundation was beyond reproach. This was my baby, Phillip. I took better care of this than I did my car, for Christ’s sake. And now it’s all gone because of a psychopath we didn’t take down when we had the chance.”
“We couldn’t know–” Phillip said, regretting the words as soon as they escaped his lips.
“Of course we knew!” she screamed. “How the hell could we not know? Every sign was there, everything was a great big neon sign saying ‘CHILD ABUSE HERE! COME AND GET IT!’ And we just sat on our hands and let him go!”
“Because we had to,” Phillip said, sternly. Chloe’s glare precipitated another outburst, but he held up his hand. “Okay, so it’s bad now. We’re being investigated. But the important thing is that we will be found not responsible in the slightest, and not even connected.”
“But we are,” she sighed.
“We know we are,” Phillip said, “because of our unique perspective. Any outside observer will be unable to see the connection or the responsibility. Now, imagine what would have happened if we had gone to the police with what we knew… and we were wrong.”
Chloe blinked. “What are you saying? We were right.”
“I know that,” he said, “and pretty soon everyone will know that. But what if we were wrong? What if what we called child abuse was just ordinary discipline in the MacKenzie household?”
“You are not seriously defending Alex MacKenzie here, are you?” Chloe asked.
“Of course I’m not,” he said, “but bear in mind that a hundred years ago, spanking was the default discipline tactic. These days it’s borderline barbaric.”
“It is barbaric,” Chloe said. “I think I see your point, though.” She sat up a bit straighter. “If we had cried wolf, we would really have a blemish on our soul.”
“Yes,” he said, “far worse than just being a little under the microscope today.”
“Phillip, you know as well as I do that accusations these days are as good as convictions.” She scowled. “Misinformation and disinformation are interchangeable, and sadly hard to kill. If word of this gets out and in the hands of someone shady…”
“I know,” he said. “We just have to take that chance right now. Being ultimately in the right is the best defense against disinformation. Especially when the kinds of people who’d buy into that kind of bullshit are the kinds of people we can’t even be bothered with,” he added, smirking.
“You’re right,” she said, her face visibly relaxing. “But investors–”
“We’re not public,” he said, “and up until this morning, my team had some good leads on new funding. I hate to admit it, but Daniel’s been right all along. We need to diversify our work, and there’s been a few corporate training projects we could pursue to make ends meet.”
“It’s not the same,” she sighed, “but you’re right. It’s what we should do, until we can do what we need to do.”
“What we want to do,” Phillip corrected.
“If it was what I wanted to do,” she said, “we wouldn’t have this problem.”
The moments between classes were already short enough, but Mr. Walsh’s classroom was on the far side of the building from Mrs. Baum’s. The school’s administration was proud of the university-style division of its wings, but while it was an accurate emulation of the higher education experience, it was massively inconvenient for fourth-graders with legs that were not growing nearly quickly enough. On good days, the halls were open enough for Gene and Jeanne to reach their Social Studies class with full seconds to spare. This was not a good day; a second-grader had thrown up, and the janitor had put cones around the slick area where he had just cleaned.
Gene was strangely silent as he squirmed his way through the crowd; Jeanne did not speak either, but that was because she didn’t have anything to say at the moment. When they arrived, as the bell was starting to ring, Tegan and Nick were already seated. Half of the seats were empty, though Jeanne noted with interest that Fran was at the ready. She also noted with contempt that all of Deacon’s group were present.
“Okay,” Mr. Walsh said, leaving the door open, “let’s wait a few more moments for the rest of the class to arrive.” The respite eased some of the tension in the classroom, as the children began to chatter lowly amongst each other.
“What are we gonna do?” Nick asked, leaning forward. “Are we going to write extra stuff in the ballots?”
Gene shook his head. “I never got around to telling anyone but us. I don’t think it’s going to do any good.”
“Besides, we don’t know what we should say,” Jeanne said. “And Rob’s gone, too… four of us are not going to be enough to get Mr. Walsh’s attention.”
“I don’t know,” Gene said, quietly. “I think he would listen to us.”
“But he won’t know it’s us,” Tegan said. “The ballots don’t have our names on them. Well, it has yours, but…”
“I know,” Gene said, “and that’s why I’m wondering what we should do. We can try, but what should we say?”
“I think we should peek,” Jeanne said.
“Peek at what?” Tegan asked. “Deacon’s notebook?”
Jeanne paused. “Sure,” she said; it was a plausible enough excuse. “I’ll go take a look.”
“Jeanne, wait!” Gene said, but she was already gone.
Jeanne walked nonchalantly over to the Asia cluster; Deacon’s stare weighed on her as she approached, but she made no effort to acknowledge it. The abyss looking into me, she thought. “Deacon,” she said, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
The look on the boy’s face was priceless. “What?”
“I wasn’t paying attention in Mrs. Baum’s class,” Jeanne said, “and I just was wondering if I could take a look at your notes. Just for a second.”
Deacon paused to process the request, but a smile crept across his face. He never noticed that Jeanne’s eyes never looked away from him. “Sure,” he said. She reached down to the notebook, but he slapped his hand over it. “But you gotta do something for me.”
“Name it,” Jeanne said, swallowing hard.
“You have to vote for me today,” he said, grinning. The grin faded as the look of shock and horror on Jeanne’s face failed to appear.
Instead, she simply smiled warmly. “Oh, is that all?” she said, sweetly. “I was gonna put your name on the ballot anyway.” She reached again for the notebook, which came away easily under his hand. Flipping through it was a cursory gesture; it just needed to look convincing. After a moment, she handed it back to Deacon. “Thanks,” she said, smiling. “I got what I needed.” She walked back to her seat.
“So?” Tegan said. “What did you see?”
“I think,” Jeanne said, “Deacon did something to Rob.”
“What?” Nick said. “He put that in his notebook?”
“Deacon doodles in the margins,” Gene said. “I sit next to him in Science. When he’s bored he starts writing little stories on the backs of the handouts.” Silently he hoped his friends would buy the slight prevarication.
“He must have picked that up from you,” Tegan said. Gene sighed; close enough. “Anyway, so he wrote that down?”
“Something like that,” Jeanne said. “In pencil. By the time the teachers look at it, it’ll be erased.”
“So how do we bust him?” Nick said. “We still have to do something.”
Gene thought for a moment. “Okay, I’ve got it,” he said. “We can’t accuse Deacon directly, ’cause we don’t know for sure and we won’t have proof anyway.”
“So we’re screwed,” Tegan scoffed.
“No, we’re not,” Jeanne said. “I think I get it. We can just tell Mr. Walsh that Deacon knows something about Rob.”
“Hey,” Nick said. “Mr. Lorentz asked me about Rob yesterday…”
“Exactly,” Gene said. “I bet Mr. Lorentz didn’t bother asking Deacon, since Rob and him aren’t friends. So we just have to lead the grown-ups to look at Deacon. It’s called putting pressure on him,” he added, confidently. “Maybe when he’s talking to Mr. Walsh or Mr. Lorentz, he’ll mess up and blab about anything else he’s done.”
“Deacon never messes up,” Nick said darkly.
“But there’s a chance,” Gene said. “Okay. On your ballot, just write this: ‘Deacon knows where Rob is.’”
“That’s it?” Jeanne said.
“Well, and vote for me, too,” Gene said sheepishly, “but yeah. Just that.”
Tegan eyed Gene closely. “Is this really going to work?” She didn’t get a response; the classroom had filled up, with only Rob absent, and Mr. Walsh was closing the door.
“This is really simple,” Mr. Walsh said, picking up a small stack of papers from his desk. “You get one ballot, and one ballot only. Mark whoever you want to vote for on it, fold it up once, and put your pen on it when you’re done. When everyone’s voted, I’ll come and collect them.”
“Who’s going to count them?” Fran asked.
“I will, during your quiz,” Mr. Walsh said, grinning. The entire class groaned. “Oh, you knew this was coming. Anyway, once the quiz is over, we’ll find out who won.” He handed a ballot to each of the Antarcticans, in turn; the small paper had three names and blank boxes on it. It was also oversized; almost as if he had been expecting Gene’s plan. Each of the Antarcticans grinned at each other, and began writing.
The words hung in the air for a moment. “What do you mean, if it was what you wanted?” Phillip asked.
Chloe straightened herself, sitting upright at last; her eyes flashed between her desk and his face. “People like you and me,” she began, “are blessed with something quite extraordinary. Haven’t you ever wondered how someone like me was able to have so much money so young?”
“I figured you inherited it,” Phillip shrugged, “or made some good investments.”
“That’s exactly it,” she said, glaring. “I made some investments that any economist of the time would have put me away for.”
“They paid off.”
“Yes, they did,” Chloe said. “I got rich while thousands– millions– of other people lost nearly everything. And all because I wanted it.”
He scowled. “You didn’t want people to go bankrupt.”
“No,” Chloe said, “I just wanted to get money. I didn’t think things through. All I desired was money… and that’s exactly what I got. It was a desire, Phillip. Not just a goal, not just a dream– a need. Everything I did was centered exactly on that.”
“Imagine what I could have done if I had that kind of drive to make everyone rich,” she said. “Or if I had known that to earn myself, I would harm so many other people.”
“I did!” she screamed. “I did! I am personally responsible–”
“How can you say that?” Phillip shouted. “You couldn’t know! Nobody could have known!”
Chloe fixated him with a stare that made him unspeakably uncomfortable. If there’s a chance for even a second that her delusions of grandeur are, God forbid, actually correct, he thought, then the dramatic music will start swelling right about now before I go into the peri-mortem montage of my life. His internal sarcasm was met with silence for just long enough to reassure him of his continued existence. “You have no idea, Phillip,” she said, finally, her voice barely above a whisper. “You’ve never felt the drive.”
“Bullshit,” Phillip said. “How else do you explain a single guy in a contracting gig being able to adopt two very unstable children?”
“Faith,” she said, “which as I recall is how you answered that question when I asked it. ‘The grace of God,’ I think you said.”
“Who’s to say they aren’t the same thing?” Phillip said calmly. “And don’t give me that ‘God wouldn’t bankrupt half the world’ nonsense. Emptying a few bank accounts is getting off easy.”
“So why is it that I can’t make this work?” she said, her voice cracking again. “This is something I want. This–” She swept her arm around her “– isn’t supposed to fail, if I want it to live!”
Phillip started to speak, but paused. She raises an excellent point, if you buy into the whole will-to-power thing; he shook his head, clearing the thought away. That’s crazy talk. People can’t just will themselves rich. But, on the other hand, she did come from almost nothing; it wasn’t improbable to believe that there was a greater force at work, from her perspective. She might be wildly off on exactly what that force was, or why it wanted her to be wealthy, but given her experience, it made some sort of sense.
Hold on, he thought. What reason would there be for her to amass money, but for the creation of the Indigo Foundation? She had been a sociology student prior to her short career as a day-trader; her diploma, a bachelor’s degree, hung on the wall behind her, almost obscured by a massive potted plant. The Foundation’s mission statement, she had said, was copied word-for-word from one of her later assignments on the role of children’s education. From his perspective, the money was just a means to an end; the end being the nebulously-defined goal of the Foundation. When she was committed to the gathering of her fortune, she was unstoppable, because she had a cause.
It was all so simple; he smiled gently. “Chloe,” he said, “why do you want the Foundation to succeed?”
Chloe paused. “Because it’s what I’m meant to do,” she replied.
“That’s dodging the question,” he shot back, but containing the edge from his voice. “We know it’s what you’re meant to do, but why are you meant to do it? What’s the underlying reason?”
“To help children,” she said.
“So why is it collapsing?” he asked. “Is it possible that this goal– this very altruistic goal– isn’t in fact what you’re acting from?”
“How dare you,” she hissed.
“Hear me out,” he said, raising his hands defensively. “It’s possible. You can do all the right things, for all the wrong reasons, and still wind up doing far more harm than good.”
“But that is why I’m doing this!” she said. “I have nothing in my heart but that desire!”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Phillip said. “How long ago did you discover that Rob was in trouble?”
The words cut her. Chloe sat back in her chair, and stared at him. “This isn’t about Rob,” she said, “it’s about Twilight Wings, and–”
She sighed. “About two months,” she admitted.
“And that’s about when things started going sour,” Phillip said. “Rescuing Rob won’t guarantee that we’ll get him into the program, you know.”
“But we have to try!” Chloe said.
“Do we?” Phillip asked. “We haven’t been asked to. We are effectively carrying a candle into a room full of dynamite. If we make one false move, the whole thing goes up, taking us with it.”
Chloe scowled. “Sometimes you have to take those kinds of risks.”
“And sometimes you have to know when not to,” Phillip said. “We can’t help Rob– can’t help all those children– if we collapse now. We have options, Chloe. We can contact those corporate people, get the ball rolling there. As long as we cooperate with the cops, this thing with the MacKenzies will blow over.”
“He’ll go to the media,” she said.
“As long as Alex is Alex,” Phillip said, “I doubt the media will believe him. Not after we show the interview.”
Chloe considered this. “All right,” she said. “I don’t agree with a single word of what you’re saying, but it’s what we have to do.”
“Just because we weren’t asked,” Chloe growled, “that does not absolve us from not acting when we had the ability to act. This is going to stain us for a very long time to come,” she added, “even if no one outside the Foundation ever finds out. I still think it’s wrong for us not to go right to the police with the interview.”
“The interview in and of itself isn’t conclusive,” Phillip said. “It’s just enough to cast doubt onto Alex. We should save that for a point when that’s all we need to deflect attention. That’s not even the point,” he added hastily. “The point is, we need to focus on helping ourselves right now. And for that, we need everyone at the top of their game.”
“Everyone…” she said, trailing off. “You’re right. We need to discuss this properly. All of us.”
“Daniel’s away,” Phillip pointed out.
“He’s still in town,” Chloe said. “He gave me an itinerary before he left. He’s leaving for Phoenix on Friday. We can call him back for tomorrow.”
“Better get him situated now,” Phillip said. “I’ll go double-check the–”
“Stay here for a moment,” Chloe said, stabbing her phone with a finger; the dial tone sounded, followed by the rapid melody of the speed-dialer. “This won’t take long.”
“Even I don’t know his home number,” Phillip mused.
“I rely on Daniel quite a bit– or I used to,” she said, smiling. “Now, things are different.”
The remote ringing tone sounded twice, before a voice answered, “Hello?” Phillip froze. The voice wasn’t Daniel’s; rather, it was a woman’s voice, calm and pleasant. He swore that he recognized the voice from somewhere, but was unable to immediately recall.
“Yes, this is Chloe Reed,” she said, the same puzzled expression crossing her face. “I’m trying to reach Daniel… I suppose I may have dialed the wrong number.”
“Oh, no,” the woman said, laughing slightly, “you have the right number, but Daniel’s unavailable for the moment. May I take a message?”
“To whom are we speaking?” Phillip asked. “I mean, we don’t want to reveal sensitive information to an unrelated party, so we’d need to verify your identity first, ma’am.”
There was a pause before the response came. “I’m Mirielle MacKenzie. Who are you?”