The Woods (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

(If you haven’t read Part I: click here!)

Part Two

 

George Wagner had indeed taken Lilyanne Smith to church. He, himself, regularly attended Zen Buddhist services in the small temple that was conveniently located half a city block away from his office.  One of his business partners, Sensei Percy Wong, officiated and gave the weekly Dharma talk that George found “provocative” – by which he meant that it gave him something to think about when he was not otherwise considering more mundane matters.

But Lilyanne was a devout Catholic and it was as a matter of habit that she turned ritual into routine.  Of course she went to Confession every Saturday afternoon.  Where else would she be?  He enjoyed taking her for several reasons.  As she waited in line for her turn to open the confessional’s door, she had a cherubic expression on her face that he found irresistible. And secondly, he liked the smell of the piñon incense that a small group of Trappist Monks seemed able to supply to every Catholic church on the planet: each church smelled of the same hauntingly wonderful scent that filled a sacred space with a peculiarly spiritual ambiance. Of course, he also liked the smell of sandalwood incense that Sensei burned daily.

While he waited for Lilyanne to confess and to do her penance, he’d notice many familiar faces that looked equally angelic, and he often wondered why it was that people who had nothing to confess did so, so religiously, while others, who already had one foot in hell, wouldn’t drag the other into the box if it meant total and permanent redemption.

He would watch her adoringly as she returned from the altar with her palms pressed together; and then she would nod to him that her penance was complete and that they were free to leave.  She never asked him to convert to Catholicism.  He had already been confirmed a Catholic when he was ten years old, thirty-five years before. He was content to be a Zen Buddhist.

As they walked to his pickup, he turned on his cellphone and found urgent messages from Lilyanne’s father to call the house immediately.  He did and learned of the abduction.  “Notify the police!  Lily and I are on the way.”  Everett Smith disconnected the call and Lilyanne whimpered a string of prayers so quickly that she seemed to be “speaking in tongues.”

Smith had not called the police.  George, assuming for a moment that the families were waiting for him to arrive to make the call, calmly tried to confront the calamity now made worse by Lilyanne’s entrance.  He stood in the middle of the living room and raised his hand and asked for silence so that the facts could be elicited in an orderly way.  No one so much as looked up or gave any indication that his presence had been noticed.  Eric Haffner stood at the entrance of the dining room, interviewing servants one at a time, while the entire staff lined up on the other side of the entrance like the penitents at the confessional.

George Wagner shouted for quiet, even though it was evident that he would not succeed in getting it.  Sanford, the butler, was more effective.  “If you want to locate the baby,” he shrieked, “you’ll have to shut up so that those who know how to find him can think!” That a servant would speak to them in such a manner stunned them into the required silence.

George, holding the note with a new cleaning glove the kitchen maid supplied, told Sanford to call the police, a suggestion that immediately created another round of unanswerable questions and irrational objections. Everyone except George and Sanford regarded calling the police as the worst thing they could do. Sanford stood in the room’s center and dumbly held the phone.  “What should I do?” he asked George, to which Everett Smith replied, “You work for me, not him!  Put the phone away!”

Hans Haffner and his son Eric sputtered in German; Erica and Cecelia Smith wailed in French; Lilyanne whimpered, saying nothing coherent; and George and Sanford argued with Everett Smith about calling the police. “Herr Haffner is adamant on the subject,” Smith shouted, “and I agree with him.”

Hearing his name, Hans Haffner stood up and announced, “Don’t never help dese police! Dey get bribes and stupidity. Haffners haf money.  Vee can pay.”

Everett Smith assured him that the Smiths also had money and could pay.  The two men agreed that their best course of action was no action at all.  The kidnappers had promised that they would call them and they would wait until the kidnappers called.

George sighed, ignoring the slur against police officers of which he was once one. In a harsh accusatory tone he said, “You trust the word of felons but you reject the help of professional law enforcement personnel.  That makes a lot of sense,” he added sarcastically.

Eric Haffner approached Lilyanne and put his arms around her to comfort her. He looked at George dismissively. “It isn’t your son who’s been abducted.”

“It isn’t your son that the silence is protecting,” George countered.  “It’s your parents’ son – and the jolt everybody’s reputation will take if the police start looking into your history.”  He looked steadily into the faces that had previously ignored him.  “And keeping the reputation of Eric Haffner out of the news is the best thing that could happen to Eric Junior’s reputation.  So let’s not bullshit each other about why you don’t want the police called.”

Nobody responded to his comment and George clamped his teeth together, murmuring to himself, “I have my duty.”  But even though he had been prevented from calling the police, he could at least call the best substitutes available.  He went into Smith’s library and summoned his partners Beryl Tilson, Sensei Percy Wong, and newcomer Akara Chatree to Tarleton.  He returned to the living room, and before his associates arrived from their distant Germantown Avenue addresses, George had ascertained the best guess as to when the baby had last been seen, what the child had been wearing, what and when he had last eaten, whether he had been taking any medications or had any recent vaccinations, and the names of the various contractors – the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and so on – that had been going in and out of the house. He was able to enlist the help of Everett and Cecelia Smith who, using the servants’ telephones, began to account for the whereabouts of all the known workers who had been employed in the guest house renovation.

Asking everyone not to move from the house, George and Sanford hurriedly walked down to the gatehouse, carefully avoiding any tire tracks or footprints.

The old gate keeper, who had been watching television while people freely came and went through the open gates, could offer no help except, he thought, a dark unfamiliar truck with double rear tires was the last to come in and one of the last to leave. He had no record of the license plate.  “If it hadn’t been Pennsylvanian,” he explained, “I’d probably have noticed it. The cameras may have picked it up. They’re new cameras and really expensive… in color, yet.”  He also thought that he recalled that the vehicle turned left, towards the highway that led to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“Let’s get the surveillance videos,” George said, “and maybe we can identify the truck.”

The video did indeed show a black pickup truck that had clumps of mud deliberately placed on its license plates to prevent them from being read.  Two people were in the front seat, but their faces were obscured by parka fur and sun glasses.  There was an indication that someone was in the back seat, but without the digital image enhancement police technicians could supply, there was no hope of identifying the characteristics of anyone in the truck.  George did know the vehicle. “That’s a new Ford F-450 Super Duty.  It’s got dual rear wheels, four doors, back seat sleeping, and probably 4-wheel drive. Jesus,” he whispered, “they must have intended to kidnap an elephant, not a baby.  That’s a working truck. If those are our guys they must be a couple of idiots.”   There were identifying stickers on the windshield, but they could not read them.

Three cars approached the gate: Beryl Tilson in her Ford Explorer, Sensei Wong in his Toyota Camry, and Akara Chatree in his new red Corvette.  George signaled them and they parked outside the gate. “Come in and watch the surveillance tapes,” George said as he waved them to come into the gatehouse.

“Isn’t it odd,” Beryl noted, looking at the truck driver in the surveillance video, “that a man in an orange hunting jacket doesn’t raise an onlooker’s eyebrows at this time of year?”

“It’s huntin’ season,” the gatekeeper said defensively.

“What’s odd is that he’s supposed to be a plumber or electrician, not a hunter,” George said, “and he still doesn’t look out of place… except for those sunglasses.  And it looks like there’s another orange jacket in the back seat.”  Jack Fielder had bent over as the truck approached the gate and it was impossible to tell whether the jacket was worn by someone or, being puffy with down, had just been tossed there.

Akara Chatree, a PhD in Computer Science, had a suggestion which he “dumbed-down” to the level of technical understanding his new associates commanded.  “Look,” he said, “there’s a rental sticker in the windshield.  If we could read it, it would tell us who the renter was and what the truck’s inventory number was.  These are expensive pieces of equipment and the rental agency keeps close tabs on them.  They are filled with electronic devices that, if the truth be known, can cause the truck to be virtually operated by somebody sitting in an office.”

“You mean like a drone?” Sensei asked.

“Well… yes,” Akara agreed, “like a drone.  But only the FBI has the kind of photographic equipment that can employ fractal algorithms–”

“–I’ll  leave the truck images to the three of you,” Sensei quickly interrupted the discussion. “I’ll get busy with my end.  I’ve got to get back to my wife.”  Immediately he began to photograph tire tracks, stopping only to take molds of the double-tire imprints that George was particularly interested in.

Beryl Tilson, familiar with the property, rigged recording devices to both the main house and the guest house phone lines.  Everyone agreed to stay off the house’s lines and the principals’ – Lilyanne and her parents – cellphones, too.  Beryl gave Cecelia a half dozen “burner” prepaid limited use phones to use in place of the house’s landlines.  Assembling everyone in the living room, she instructed them how to speak to the kidnappers when the call came in.  “We have some equipment,” she said, “but nothing like the equipment the police have.  The kidnappers are not likely to pick up a hotel phone and call you, or to use their own phones.  They will likely find a public phone to use and so you must be extremely quiet when you take the call so that we can get a clear recording. Listen intently to noises in the environment.  Can you hear traffic? Heavy highway truck traffic or just ordinary car traffic?  Can you hear a ship’s bells or fog horn? Church bells or sirens?  Are they in a market or a train station?  Airport noises… such as planes or loud speakers making announcements?  Anything you can hear you must remember–”

Eric Haffner interrupted Beryl by shouting, “Please!”  He hugged Lilyanne closer and stared at Beryl. “Do you take us for imbeciles?” he sneered. “People who have the means to be targets of  kidnappers discuss these instructions of yours over lunch and dinner.  The greatest threat to us now is our own emotional state; and you are merely aggravating the tension we all feel with your inane advice!”

Beryl remained calm.  She looked at Eric and said, “Of course your intimate knowledge of the criminal mind is superior to mine… and probably to everyone else here as well.  Perhaps you could tell us where, in your experience, the most likely location is for the kidnappers to have taken the child.  You’d save us an awful lot of trouble.”

Eric lowered his voice and spoke into Lilyanne’s ear, “She’s an officious creature, isn’t she?  She must have gone to a neighborhood detective school.  Summa cum laude material, no doubt.”   Lilyanne whimpered throughout his comments and Beryl could not tell whether she heard them or not.

She resumed her instructions to the group she had just embarrassed by referring to Eric Haffner’s past.  “Keep a pencil and notepad beside the phone.  Even though the call is being recorded, your immediate impression is the most significant one available.  The recording is, in a sense, a document made out of context. To one who’s taking notes, it attains complete significance. Being spoken to in an accent… the thoughts that are made in response… the  figures of speech… the degree of education of the speaker.  Is the person foreign, or someone whose voice you may have heard before. Because knowledge of American speech is so significant, only the Smiths or Sanford, perhaps, ought to answer the phone.  But no matter who answers, there is a need to keep the conversation going, so talk as long as possible so that more speech and background details can be picked up.  If they ask you if you have called the police, emphatically say that you have not called.  But assure them that without ‘Proof of life’ – that is, actually communicating with the baby yourself – you will not pay them a dime. Be firm in your voice and say that it would be counter-productive to harm the child in any way, as, for example, many barbarians will remove a finger or ear.  Explain that it would be necessary to submit the part for DNA proof and that would take additional time before they could be paid the money… the money which you have ready to give – once you get proof of life.”  She nodded at Eric and left to rejoin George, Akara, and Sensei Wong.

 

*

 

Sensei called Beryl and George aside and whispered, “I found no usable prints dusting the playpen. The sides of the playpen are net and there’s nothing but smudges and slobber around the railing; and the kidnappers were careful enough to wipe the door knobs.  I took DNA samples of the slobber, but don’t tell the family that.  It’ll only upset them.”

Beryl agreed. “It’s more than just the baby’s DNA, we’re all too emotionally close to this case.  Do us a favor and go home and tell everything you know to Sonya. She’s an experienced pro.  I want to hear what she’s got to say by way of advice. We need outside commentary.”

George nodded.  “After dealing with those idiots I can’t think straight. Tell Sonya to lay out a plan of action that she’d take.  We’ll be by to pick her brain tomorrow if that’s ok with you. Meanwhile, we need to tape off the guest house. If worse comes to worst the technicians will have to look for trace evidence.”

“I’ve got a roll in the Explorer,” Beryl said, nodding at Akara who immediately went to her car to get it.

“We’d better get their permission first,” George said.  “They could put their heads together and not form one conscious brain.”

 

*

 

George again stood in the middle of the living room and felt like a creature on display.  People looked and seemed to acknowledge that he was making noises, but no one gave the slightest indication of understanding what he was saying.  “We’ll be putting some yellow tape around the guest house,” he began to explain. “It won’t be official police tape, but it will warn people not to cross it.  The guest house must be kept off-limits.”

Mr. and Mrs. Haffner were already staying in the main house; but Eric had intended to sleep in the guest house.  “I certainly don’t mind spending time in the house here,” he said, “but I don’t see the necessity for it.  My luggage is already down at the guest building.”

Cecelia Smith also could find no compelling reason to seal off the guest house.  “What’s done is done,” she cried.  “Do you think a few fibers or hairs are going to save that child?  There were no gunshots or weapons used.  There’s no blood to analyze.  So what is the point?” Erica Haffner reached around her to comfort her.

Everett Smith agreed that sealing off the house for an indefinite period of time served no useful purpose.  He spoke directly to George.  “The house is being renovated to suit the Haffners and they have limits on their time with us.  We’re due to have a wedding here.  You of all people should not want workmen traipsing in and out of the estate grounds hammering and sawing while we celebrate!”

George rubbed his face and eyes, as if he were trying to awaken to another world’s reality. Cecelia asked, “What harm would come from allowing workmen to continue to enter and leave the guest house? Nobody pays any attention to workmen, anyway.”

George gently protested that valuable trace evidence could be destroyed.  As the others scoffed, Eric pronounced his opinion: “The most important evidence,” he said, “is a missing baby and the money we have to accumulate.  Since we don’t intend to call in the police, of what possible significance is trace evidence?  Besides, the interior decorator is not due to return until Monday afternoon, and we may have Eric back by then.  Aside from getting my luggage, there’s no need for any of us to be present in the guest house. Yellow tape?” he scoffed. “Why not take out ads in a few newspapers or call the TV stations?”

George suppressed a desire to throttle Eric.  He stared at him and said nothing.  And then Eric spoke again. “Closing off the guest house? Isn’t that rather like locking the barn after the horses are stolen?” Everyone regarded the remark as “damned appropriate.”

Sighing, George said simply, “With a truck like that, they don’t intend to hide out on some nearby residential street.  We need to check the gas stations, convenience stores, and toll booths between Tarleton and the Turnpike.”

Beryl directed the next move.  “I think that I’ll stay here to oversee the phones.  Meanwhile, I’m sure you ladies will want to help.  A lady,” she explained, “can enter a ladies’ room to look for clues without causing unnecessary attraction.  One lady can go with George to the various gas stations and convenience stores; and the other lady can accompany Mr. Chatree and check the motels.  We have recent detailed maps of the area on our computers.  Are the ladies agreed?”

Erica Haffner and Cecelia Smith readily agreed, but Akara called George aside.  “Look,” he whispered, “if I can get that video enhanced to where we could read the stickers in the truck window, I could at least get the GPS signal. If we could see the faces more clearly, maybe someone would recognize one of the kidnappers and we could get his phone’s GPS.”

“Normally, I’d agree.  But we don’t know if Eric Haffner is in on the kidnapping.  He wouldn’t be the first child of rich parents to fake a kidnapping to get money out of them.  If all that’s at risk is money, fine.  Let them pay.  In a sense it is a victimless crime. They don’t care what Lilyanne is going through.  To them it will be a fairy tale that has a happy ending. But if we interfere with their plan and cause panic… it may not be victimless anymore.”

Akara frowned.  “I understand. The human element always screws things up.”

Sensei had to leave. “I’ll talk over the details with Sonya,” he said.  “If she’s got an angle, I’ll call you.  Meanwhile, stop by tomorrow for lunch to talk it over with her.”   He gave George a look of sympathy and hurried out of the house.

 

*

 

At his fourth convenience store, George found the one in which the diapers had been purchased.  Had the police been notified and an Amber alert been issued, the clerk would have been able to give valuable and timely information to the authorities.  As it was, when she left at seven o’clock at her shift’s end, she did not even mention to anyone the curious man who called diapers “nappies.” It had not seemed worthy of comment.

George did talk to the relief clerk who checked the register tapes and noted that diapers and a couple of plastic baby bottles had been sold that afternoon, “but,” she added, “such a purchase is hardly unusual.”  George wanted to review the surveillance tapes from the approximate time of the diaper purchase, but without a specific request from a law enforcement agency, the clerk would not allow the tapes to be reviewed.  He was also able to ascertain that at that approximate time, gas for an unusually large tank had been purchased with cash.  “I’ll try to get police authority to view the surveillance recordings,” George said, and asked if it were possible to speak to the original clerk.  A quick phone call was made and George learned that indeed, a new black pickup truck – the kind with four rear tires – had gotten gas and one of the men who was in the truck had come into the store asking for “nappies” instead of diapers and that he spoke with a funny accent when he got excited… “a little like Bob Marley… you know.”

“Caribbean,” George said, and he nodded knowledgeably.

At the Turnpike’s toll booths, the attendants had also changed for the night.  No one specifically remembered a dark colored dual-tire pick-up truck and certainly no one had seen a baby.  Again, without a specific request from a law enforcement agency, the surveillance tapes could not be seen.

George called Akara who had had no better luck stopping at motels.  As he headed back to Tarleton, Beryl called to tell him that at ten o’clock a ransom call had been received.  The two million dollars in unmarked bills had to be assembled before Tuesday morning when they would receive another call with further instructions.  The baby could be heard crying in the background.

George was not inclined to be kind as he reviewed the results of their search.  His congenial personality had been worn away by the irritating rub of ignorant people.  He listened without comment to Beryl’s recording of the ransom demand.

“The voice is American,” Beryl said.  “It’s likely a semi-southern backwoods accent… not educated… maybe the mountains around coal country. I can take the tape to a friend at the University who’s a linguist and get his opinion. He’ll see me Sunday morning at his home. Also, you said that the clerk at the gas station recalled a Caribbean kind of accent from the man who purchased diapers. This bolsters the suspicion that the kidnappers are probably from the Caymans. But if the linguist’s got a sampling of Caribbean accents on a record, maybe we can play it for the clerk and she can be specific about the accent she heard.”

“There’s a lot of Caribbean people in the world,” George said, “and without police authority we can’t see the convenience store or the gas station surveillance tapes to put a face to one of those Caribbean voices.  Toll booths, either.”

Sanford announced that a buffet supper was being served in the dining room.  Wearily, George, Beryl, and Akara went to the sideboard and picked at a few dishes.  No one was particularly hungry.  As George sat at the large table, Everett Smith called down, “Isn’t there a way to locate them with GPS technology?  I’ve been wondering about that.”

Eric Haffner entered the room and responded to the question.  “That depends on whether they’ve turned the device on,” he said, filling his plate with sliced meats and lobster, brie, deep fried sweet potato chips, and caviar on toast points.

George had had enough of the Smiths and Haffners.  He got up to leave the room.  Sanford, the butler who had long maintained a friendly association with the detectives, followed him. “Considering that his little son has been kidnapped,” Sanford remarked quietly, “Eric has a robust appetite.”

George did not overlook Haffner’s years of earning an excellent living by swindling people.  “If the man has any human feelings,” he replied, “he has mastered the art of concealing them.”

“Let’s hope that’s all it is,” Sanford whispered. “It seems powerfully strange that the baby would be kidnapped within hours of his father’s arrival at Tarleton.”

“And stranger still,” said George, “that they all know what kind of man he is and still they fawn all over him.”

Everett Smith called out to him again.  “Are you going to do anything about the GPS?”

George yelled back, “And if we could locate a signal in, say, downtown Pittsburgh, could we call the police and tell them that we’ve located the GPS of someone who possibly has kidnapped a child whose abduction we haven’t bothered to report?  Would they summon the FBI?  And as far as the LUDS are concerned, in about a week maybe you can find out who called you – but as far as any immediate information is concerned, forget it.  You need a fortune teller to tell you which public telephone was used. Call a gypsy.  You can afford it.”  He pointed to Lilyanne.  “You need your rest.   I’m going to bed.”

 

*

 

It was understandable that Terry Rourke would get lost on the way to the cabin. Not only was he seeing the area at night for the first time, but it had begun to snow even before he got onto Highway #422.  He passed Reading, and took the #222 road west, but he had missed the Van Reid turnoff, which was the first leg of the off-road trip to the cabin.  For several hours he searched for the correct road until, finding nothing but his beginning point, he grew tired of listening to the complaints of his partners and stopped at a McDonald’s and a pizza shop.  Everyone ordered an excessive amount of food to go; and then Terry pulled into an old gas station and they all ate in the parking area. It was then that Terry checked his watch and saw that it was 10 p.m. and time to call the Smith residence to convey the ransom demand.  Nervously, the three men took the baby and went to the pay phone as Terry called Everett Smith.  The call had lasted only a matter of seconds, but in accomplishing it, it was as if half the work had been done.  All apprehension seemed to leech out of them, and under the sheltering remains of the station’s old canopy, they settled in to feed and change the baby and to rest their eyes from the strain of hours spent staring into the foggy glare of falling snow. Terry finished off a bottle of whiskey.  Then, he, too, slept.

 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

 

George Wagner had gone to bed Saturday night knowing that he would never be able to sleep naturally and that without sleep he could not conduct an insightful investigation.  Years before, he had suffered gunshot wounds to his left knee and right shoulder, and even after many surgeries, he still lacked full mobility in his leg and arm, and often had searing pain which he relieved with opiates.  Not wanting a hangover from narcotics, he chose instead to take a mild sleeping pill and drifted into a fitful sleep from which he awakened with a start at dawn. When he dressed and came down to breakfast, he noticed that the Smiths and Haffners, despite being in a state of terror, had managed to be fashionably dressed.

“We’ve got the money lined up,” Everett Smith announced.  “Some of it will have to be in bearer bonds, but unless something unforeseen happens, it’ll all be there.”

“Good,” George grunted.  “You still need to call the police.”

“That’s been settled,” Everett said brusquely.  “We’ll do what needs to be done.  That is the boy’s best chance.”

George chose to ignore him and turned his attention to Lilyanne who suddenly appeared in the doorway.  “Did you manage to get any sleep at all?” he asked.

She sighed. “Yes, my mother gave me a sleeping pill, and I lay down on the couch in the library and got a few hours of sleep… but I don’t feel rested at all.” She walked with a zombie-like shuffle.

“Maybe you’ll feel better if you go to Communion,” George said.  “We can still make the 9 a.m. Mass.”

She gasped.  “I had completely forgotten about Church.  I’ll go take a fast shower and change my clothes,” she said, whimpering.  George was relieved to see that her cadence had quickened.

When he returned to the living room he found the Haffners and the Smiths waiting for Lilyanne to accompany them to church.  Eric had changed his clothes and looked both rested and elegant as he entered the room.  “Too bad you’re not a Catholic,” he said to George, “Or you could join us.  I presume Lilyanne is getting dressed even as we speak.”

“She is, indeed,” George replied, “but we’ll be attending services at the church near my house.”

Lilyanne came rushing down the stairs and was immediately intercepted by George. “We’ll be going to Saint Luke’s up in my neighborhood,” he announced. Then in a lower voice he whispered, “There’s no way I’m taking you anywhere with this gang.”

Lilyanne whispered, “Thank you, Lord. My prayer is answered.”  She kissed George’s cheek. “I don’t wish anybody any ill will, but at the same time, I’m glad to get some time away from the whole lot of them. Let’s go.”

George took her elbow and guided her out of the house.

 

*

 

Beryl had promised her friend, Professor Barry Gorman, the linguist, that she would come to his little research lab in his home before the Sunday games began.  She sat in a chair, surrounded by recording devices, and models of the human mouth and throat.  Barry’s wife had ushered her into his office, saying that he was still looking in the garage for the CD that she was interested it.

Finally, after waiting twenty minutes she heard Gorman shout, “I’ve got it!” and then she heard the garage door close.

Breathless, and holding the CD up in a gesture of victory, Gorman came into his office and flipped on a CD player.  “Let’s check the quality of the recording,” he said, “And how the hell are you?”

As he turned on the CD player, she reminded him that she was not the one who heard the speaker in the convenience store.  “We were told the accent was Caribbean and some of the principals involved are from the Cayman Islands.  I do have a brief recording that one of the kidnappers made with the baby’s grandfather, but his accent is definitely American. I’ve also got a photocopy of the note that was left when the baby was taken.”  She handed him the note.

“Jesus!” he said. “A ransom demand? The wording’s awkward but too straightforward to identify it.  The only error that stands out is the use for ‘change’ instead of ‘exchange.’  But that’s minor.  The lettering suggests an uneducated hand. Both upper and lower case forms are mixed together.” He listened to the digital recording made with Everett Smith.  “Yes… backwoods… rural… Kentucky, I’d guess.  Could be the same guy who wrote the note.  Ok,” he said, “let’s try to pinpoint the foreigner.”  He gave Beryl a numbered list of Caribbean accents and played the CD. Each accent on the disk corresponded to a number and location on the list.  “Make sure that when your convenience store informant hears the recording that you keep your face turned away the whole time the recording is playing, especially when you listen to the Cayman speech samples.  You’d be surprised at the number of subtle signals you can give that indicate the accent she’s hearing is the one you want her to identify.”

“We’re supposed to receive another call telling us specifically where to leave the money. I’ll have that recording.  Will you be available to hear it?”

“Day or night,” Gorman said.  “This is the first time in my life I’ve been involved in an actual kidnapping.  When it’s all over and done with maybe you’ll allow me to write it up.” He handed her the CD player.  “Use this.  It’s better than making a recording of a recording.  Incidentally, the police have some great consultants that can confirm or contradict my opinion,” he offered, “if you should want a second opinion.”

“I’m afraid not,” she said.  “The parents are adamant.  They will not allow us to call the police.  But I’ll do what I can to get and keep details for you,” she smiled, “for your scholarly contribution to the world of linguistic forensics.”  She thanked him as he walked her to her car.

“I’ll say a prayer for the kid,” he said, waving goodbye.

“He could use all the help he can get,” she called, starting the engine.

She drove directly to the convenience store.  The clerk, she had already determined, was on duty until mid-afternoon.

 

 

*

 

To the men in the truck, dawn came as so much cotton candy.  It was brighter than night, but just as opaque.  No snow was falling but that, they decided, was of little consequence. The engine had cooled during the night and an inch of snow lay on the bonnet.

The gas station attendant had awakened them when he pulled his pickup into a nearby parking space. When they left the truck to go into the men’s room, the attendant yelled that he had not yet unlocked the door.  They stamped their feet and slapped their hands together as they stepped through at least six inches of new fallen snow.

“Stick around,” the attendant said, “if you want some coffee.  I’m puttin’ it on now.”

“Snows early this time of year around here,” Tom said, trying to sound more or less familiar with the area.”

“It’s just bein’ on top of the hill.  Down in the valleys it’ll probably lay a bit, but by noon, the sun’ll burn it off.”

Since the baby was sleeping soundly, Jack left him alone in the back seat and secretively carried a dirty diaper that had plagued them for most of the night into the station’s men’s room.  He drank a cup of coffee, ate a few packaged cake snacks, and, as he returned to the truck to drink the few remaining beers, he called to Tom, “Get us a few more six packs and some hooch while you’re at it.”

Tom asked for directions to the Van Reid turnoff; and after learning that Terry had driven them twenty miles out of their way, he checked the gas gauge and filled the tank.  “I’ll do the drivin’ this time.”  No one argued with him.

They retraced their drive down the #222. Visibility was enough for them to see the outline of the incorrect turnoff tracks they had made the evening before.  At least, Tom thought, they had eliminated one possibility.

Under the weight of the snow, the roadside shrubbery bowed, obscuring the signs that Terry had depended on seeing.  Finally, Terry saw a turnoff that he thought he recognized.  Tom slowed and turned onto it, but as they proceeded along it for a few miles, Terry became unsure of himself in the unfamiliar snow covering.  He grew more nervous especially since Tom was having difficulty trying to maneuver the wide, cumbersome truck through a nebulous road’s series of switchbacks.  They turned right at a dirt road intersection that bore the name Switzer on a wooden plank and finally came to a four-points group of dirt roads in the center of which was an oak tree that had been cleaved by lightning.  “This is it,” Terry shouted.  “I knew we could find it!”

Tom casually turned onto the road that went uphill.  After five minutes on the exceptionally narrow gravelly road that the snow had made even more difficult to drive, his self-confidence vanished and his knuckles were white as he held the wheel.  The road continually narrowed until, by the time they reached the clearing around the cabin, the road was merely two ruts in a ledge.

Fortunately, the cabin, a picturesque log construction, had a storybook charm.  Blooming chrysanthemums that grew at the base of every wall seemed to make a welcoming gesture.  Firewood was neatly stacked in a protected shed and a stream of fresh water ran nearby.  Tom made a fire in the Franklin stove and within minutes the one-room building was warm enough to unwrap the baby’s Eagles shirt-blanket.  Terry had provisioned the cabin with cans of spaghetti and ravioli and dozens of pastries kept safe in a tin canister.  He placed on the table jars of baby food, diapers, large cans of prepared formula, and pretzel sticks.  Baby Eric ate oatmeal and plums, drank his bottle, and slept peacefully in the pulled-out drawer of an old dresser.

Tommy and Jack Fielder could not resist reveling in the snow.  They threw snowballs and made a snowman, and then, risking frostbitten toes, hiked through the woods before they returned to the cabin to talk about the exhilarating air.  They had already decided that when they received their payoff they would buy a chalet near some famous ski lodge. They’d learn to ski and maybe even to ice skate.

Tom picked up one of the rifles.  “Can we kill a deer?” he asked.

“Sure… if you feel like waiting until sundown,” Terry replied knowledgeably.  “They mostly stay hidden all day.”

“It don’t seem worth it,” Jack added, ending the talk about hunting a deer.  “Let’s go over our plan for making the exchange.”.

“The plan’s good,” Terry nodded as he took a long drink.  “I’ll call them again on Tuesday morning and tell them to bring the money to the oak tree and then to return to the 222 and wait exactly one hour.  Meanwhile, we’ll get the money and leave the kid in its place.  We won’t go back to the cabin, we’ll just keep on goin’ and head south to Harrisburg.”  He took another drink.

Tom contributed his thoughts. “They haven’t talked to the cops, so it won’t matter where we go.  Those families won’t be givin’ us any trouble… not if Claus has had to use an alias.  I’ve heard rumors that he’s done stuff that ain’t exactly legit.  And he still can’t shake off the cops’ suspicion that he had something to do with Harriet and Martin’s last trip to the Brac. He’s probably got a record and they don’t want it advertised. We can travel safe.”

“We’ll buy a sailboat in Florida,” Jack said aloud, “something small… maybe two masts. We can’t bring the money into the Cayman’s without arousing interest.  But Terry can.  He’ll open the account.  Nobody knows him.”  It would have seemed like a very workable plan had he not already decided that Terry would be lost at sea on their way to the Islands.

Go to “The Woods” Part 3