The Woods (#3)
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by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
Sunday noon was not the best time of day to play a recording for an informant to listen to and analyze. Customers came in and out of the station and Beryl was careful not to let her presence in the store interfere with the clerk’s work. She placed the old, high-quality CD player on the counter top and, turning away from the clerk, let her listen to the voices.
“That’s it, I think,” the clerk finally said. “Number twenty-nine.”
Beryl checked the list. The recording had been made in George Town, Cayman Islands. “I’m amazed,” she said. “That’s where I thought it came from, but for you to pick it out from all these possibilities? Amazing!” As she thanked the clerk she pressed a hundred dollar bill in her hand. Then she went out into her car and called George. They agreed to meet at Sensei and Sonya’s house, near their office.
Sonya Lee Wong, Sensei’s wife, had been a highly regarded investigator with Hong Kong Customs before she married. She had retired from service and from society in general after she had experienced a serious injury; but Sensei had tracked her down, and earlier in the year they had been married in a ceremony at Tarleton House. Pregnant, she still got morning sickness, but usually, by noon, she was feeling normal enough to eat lunch “as,” she said, “a human being might do it.”
George stopped off at her favorite Italian restaurant and got five orders of meatless spaghetti to go; and Sonya, Sensei, George, Beryl and Akara sat around the kitchen table, eating and talking about the case. Finally it was time to hear Sonya’s analysis and predictions.
Sonya shrugged. “The informant recognized a Caymanian accent. I can use what drag I have left to get the passenger manifests for every flight that went from George Town to Philadelphia in the last two weeks. Obviously, the intent was to coordinate the kidnapping with Eric Haffner’s arrival on the 16th. So someone is likely to have known Eric well enough to know his plans. You can show him the lists and see if he recognizes a name.
“I know it’s tempting to think that Eric’s somehow involved, but I’d discount that idea. From what Lilyanne reported from personal contact and from the mail he’s sent, he’s centered on Baby Eric and won’t risk harming his only son in such a dangerous ploy. But if you think his fatherly love is just a sham, then consider that if Eric wanted to milk his parents, his best bet is to let the boy grow up. Alive, the kid is his meal ticket for life. Besides, kidnapping is a serious felony and the other men involved so far haven’t proven to be too smart. Eric would have to be an idiot to conspire with a fool.
“So, keep a sliver of suspicion on him, but treat him like an innocent. We don’t know how many are involved. He might be aligned with only one of them… one who may be a smart one. We also don’t know if that one is a woman. So Eric may have another connection that we at least have to consider.
“As to the kidnappers, if there are only two of them, the dynamic is different. They’re partners. If there are three, count on them to squabble amongst themselves. Crime is a tense activity and one of them will break under the tension. My guess is that the kidnappers are composed of at least one person from the Caymans – the one who learned Eric’s schedule and bought the ‘nappies’ – and one citizen of the U.S. who could buy weapons or rent a house and truck.
“Eric’s the one to watch. He’s smart and he’s independent, and since George got the woman he wanted, he may not be too anxious to cooperate with George. Watch his face as he looks through the passenger lists. He might lie and say he doesn’t know anybody on the list – because he’ll want to deal with that person himself… in his own way… and for his own objectives.
“The Haffners have done everything they’ve been asked to do. The Smiths have been completely cooperative. There’s no chance at all that they’re involved in any of this.
“This is a crime of personal association. The kidnappers are not strangers to either Lilyanne or Eric. If her old antagonists – with the exception of Eric – are dead, as George surmises, she’s not a target. Eric is the one who’s known. That’s about all I can tell you. Eric is the key.”
Akara interjected, “If he does give us a name from the passenger lists, I can find out if he’s rented that big truck.”
George smiled. “With a Caymanian accent and driver’s license, he’s not likely to be the one who rented the truck… if it was rented. The American would have done that. Let’s go show Eric the lists and see if he recognizes a name.”
Akara had not finished making his point. “Eric, in cooperation with his parents and the Smiths, may deny recognizing a name for no other reason than this would make the case international,” he said. “Or he may deliberately claim to recognize half a dozen other names – just to throw us off the track. I see no substitute for the windshield sticker’s information. Also,” he added, “his involvement may not be a priori but it sure as hell could be a posteriori. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who would pass up 2 mil.”
“Good point,” George nodded. “Throw us off… and he’d let the guy get the 2 mil out of the country where he’d be able to get his hands on it much more easily.”
George studied Eric’s face as he looked through the passenger manifests. Eric saw Thomas and Jackson Fielder’s names, but he did not give the slightest indication of recognizing them. “No,” he said. “I don’t know any of them; but then, I’m not too involved in what passes for local society.”
Monday, October 21, 2013
At Tarleton the day was spent messengering money and bonds from one place to another until, finally, it was received and stored on the dining room table. Two million dollars in unmarked bills of various denominations took considerably more packing space than they had imagined. Four duffel bags were filled with currency and bonds and readied for whatever trip the kidnappers directed them to take.
George, meanwhile, used the day mostly to get away from Tarleton House and its inhabitants. He went to his office to get his weapons – a .45 Colt Rail Gun and his old reliable Smith & Wesson .38 revolver.
Cecelia Smith prepared a large diaper bag and filled it with a blanket, clothes, diapers, baby powder, a stuffed animal, a plastic bottle and six cans of prepared baby formula. She gave the bag to Lilyanne who carefully placed it on the back seat of the pickup truck. Lilyanne had decided that when the call came in, she would go with George to retrieve the baby.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
At ten o’clock in the morning, Everett Smith took the call. “We have the money,” he said. “We demand ‘Proof of Life’.” Beryl slumped defeatedly in her chair at the conversational omissions. Half-heartedly she made sure the recording apparatus was functioning properly.
“I can’t bring the baby here to cry for ya’,” Terry said. “And before ya’ try to trace the call, just pay attention. Go northwest on the 422 past Reading, take the 222, and at Van Reid Road turn left and at Switzer Road turn right and just foller the dirt road a couple miles or so ’til ya comes to an oak tree that’s been split by lightnin’. It’s standin’ right where four roads come together. Leave the two million by the tree – and make sure ya wrap it so it don’t get wet in the snow. Just be there by 3 p.m. That’ll give you plenty of time. Leave the money and go back to the 222 and wait one hour. Then come back to the tree and pick up the baby. Don’t lollygag ’cause there’s bars in the woods.” He disconnected the call.
Everett raised his eyebrows. “Bars?” he asked.
“Bears!” Beryl snapped. “I told you he was likely backwoods Appalachian. Bars is Bears!” She, too, was running out of patience with the grandparents. She signaled Akara who was armed for the first time in his life with his new Beretta Tomcat. They had plenty of time to return to Akara’s apartment over the little Zendo to get his iPad and other pieces of electronic equipment she could not identify. They stopped at a gas station to fill her Explorer’s tank; bought six-packs of coke and ten protein bars; and then the two of them went to Tarleton to finish preparing to leave ahead of George for the rendezvous… on Highway 222, west of Reading.
While Sanford placed six-packs of Coke and a bag of sandwiches on the floor of the passenger’s side of the front seat, George loaded the money bags into the pickup’s bed and buttoned down the tarp. Lilyanne approached, dressed as though she were going skiing. “I’m going with you,” she announced. George knew better than to object. A willful and determined girl, she had once spent five years in a Catholic convent where such personality traits had been sharpened by discipline and a mystical self-reliant obedience. No one bothered to argue with her, especially when she spoke in the authoritative voice she was then using. “And I’ll tell you right now that my father and Eric’s father have insisted that he come with us.” She sarcastically added, “It’ll sound so good when they tell everyone how heroic he was in saving the baby.” She sighed. “But let’s keep peace in the family and let him come along.”
Eric Haffner grinned as he approached George’s pickup. “I’m going, too.” He brandished a Luger he had received from Smith’s private collection. “I know how to use it, I assure you,” he said.
“Are you sure,” Everett Smith asked George, “that you don’t want to take a shotgun or a rifle with you?”
“No,” George said pointedly. “We’ve got enough,” he said. “More firepower will endanger the baby.”
“Have it your way,” Everett said. “You know best.”
Especially considering that absolutely no one had found George’s advice worth taking, Smith’s remark struck George as funny. “Then let’s get moving,” he said, smiling. “We’ve got more than 65 tough miles to drive in lousy weather.”
They drove in silence on the 422 as it paralleled the Schuylkill River; but when the road veered north, they exited it and entered Highway 222 until they came to the Van Reid turnoff. As they turned they could see Beryl’s Explorer parked behind a billboard.
Loose stones composed the roadbed. Here and there the surface had a conglomerate look, but mostly the stones seemed to be independent of each other. Occasionally black streaks of oily anthracite coal crossed the dirt road. “What is that black stuff?” Eric asked.
“Coal. Hard anthracite coal. Left over from when they strip mined the area. I guess some of the trucks dumped their loads. All this is reclaimed strip mining land. Sixty years ago it used to be a barren bunch of huge slag rills, like the devil scratched his fingers over the land. Really ugly terrain. Poisonous, too, from the chemicals they used. They’ve reclaimed it and the trees are fully grown, but we’re not on native rock. You won’t find any bedrock around here. A good rainstorm could wash away huge hunks of this narrow road.”
They turned onto Switzer Road and continued until they came to the oak tree. George parked, letting Eric unload the duffel bags as he took photographs of the tire tracks that led up and down a winding road that was to his right as he faced the tree. On his left was another downhill road that had no tracks in its fresh snow. Behind him was another dirt road that also did not appear to have been recently used. “They must be amateurs,” George said. “How many places can there be around here? I can tell you one thing: they’re in the wrong kind of truck to negotiate these roads.”
“Then let’s follow the tracks up,” Eric said, fingering the Luger. “I can walk in snow without any problem. I’ve got the right kind of boots on. You can wait down here.”
“And you think you’re invisible?” George countered. “I don’t know what they’re armed with and neither do you. If they have a good scope, they can pick you off while you’re standing here. And me, too. They’ve got the baby… what you might call ‘a human shield’.”
Eric groused, “Ok, I’ll stick with the plan,” and climbed into the pickup.
As they drove back to the highway, they repeatedly spoke to Beryl. She had seen no activity at all at the turnoff. Fearing that someone might be watching, George did not park near her; and communicating only by phone, they spent a nervous hour waiting until it was time to return for the baby. No car or truck had exited the turn off. “They must have another route out,” George said as he started his pickup, “at lease I hope they do.” He looked at Lilyanne in the back seat. “Well, it’s 4 p.m. Are you ready to go?”
The F-450, normally difficult to drive in such terrain, had grown even more unmanageable when the snow had added a slickness to the gravely surface. With the lack of forward motion and the momentum that speed provided, the truck skidded sideways on the unmarked roadside, often threatening to roll over.
Terry had driven the truck when he returned to the highway to call Everett Smith. He had barely succeeded in traversing a section that had become particularly unstable due to its oily slag content and the weight of the truck. But he was drunker than usual when the time came for them to pick up the money and place the baby in its stead. Tom insisted that he should drive out. “You’ll get us lost,” Terry sneered. “I’m a better driver when I’m drunk than you are when you’re sober.” Tom decided not to argue at this critical point of the operation.
Terry was nearly half way down to the oak tree when he came to the weakened part of the narrow road that clearly was no longer level. As he tried to cross the area, the truck slid sideways, tilting precariously as its right front and both right rear wheels were off the road, angled into the slope’s loose gravel. Jack had wanted to get out of the car so that he could stand in front of it and guide Terry through a maneuver that would get them back onto a level section of roadway. But Terry had already turned the front wheels into a hard left which only accommodated the truck’s response to the gravitational pull. As Jack opened the passenger door, he paused, feeling the truck resume its sideways skid, going faster downhill in the loose gravel until its passenger door collided with a pine tree that dented the door as it slammed it into the truck’s frame. In fact, the tree had dented the cabin roof above the door as well as reducing the window to a million splinters of webbed shards.
Jack, angry and frustrated that his exit was now blocked, and covered with shattered flakes of window glass, cursed Terry and ordered him out of the car. “Now, look what you’ve done, you idiot!” Jack shouted, pushing Terry who was momentarily confused. The baby had begun to cry when he and Tom were flung against the side of the back seat-bed. “Get the hell out!” Jack shouted again.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Terry shouted. “Why ya’ blamin’ me?”
“”I can’t open the goddamned door on my side, you jackass! Get the hell out of the car!”
“Oh,” Terry finally understood and opened his door. He got out of the truck and surveyed the damage. “I hope Maria got collision insurance,” he said sheepishly.
“Who the hell is Maria?” Jack snarled.
“The gal who rented the truck for me. How the hell did you expect me to rent it? I’m a convicted felon, for Christ’s sake.”
Jack got into the driver’s seat and started the truck. He inched it forward, scraping its side until it was free of the tree, Tom got out and the three of them walked around the truck to gauge the damage and their situation. “There’s no way we’re getting this rig back up on that road,” Jack announced. Terry disagreed and the two men argued until Tom saw another possibility.
“Look!” Tom said. pointing downhill. “We can blaze our own trail through the trees. They’re not that thick and the little ones we can just run over. In four-wheel drive, we can make a controlled descent and come out on the road we saw back at the oak tree… the road that went downhill. Whatdya’ think?”
“We could try it,” Jack said, “but we’ve lost enough time as it is to get down to the money. If we got down to the other road, we’d just have to turn back to the oak tree and we’d risk runnin’ into the others comin’ back to get the baby.”
“Yes. We need to avoid seeing the others,” Tom announced definitively. “I don’t want any eye-witnesses, especially that s.o.b. Claus. If he doesn’t kill us here, he’ll get us back in the Caymans. What we could do is go on foot to get the money right now.”
Jack, volunteering to go, scrambled uphill until he was back on the road; and then he jogged down to the oak tree. While he had easily been able to see himself frolicking in a swimming pool filled with hundred dollar bills, he was startled to see four heavy duffel bags waiting to be picked up. He hefted each one, estimating their relative weight. Then hoisting the lightest one onto his shoulder and dragging the next lightest one behind him, he struggled to return to the truck. When he was close enough to be seen, he called to Tom for help, telling him that there were two more bags to carry.
Tom met him on the road and took the two bags to the truck, dumped them into the truck bed, and returned to help his brother carry the rest of the money. He and Jack were exhausted by the time the job was finished and Terry still insisted on driving. “We’ll leave the kid off in a gas station men’s room or a church,” he said. “Everythin’ is goin’ honky-dory.”
Terry saw a way that he could avoid all the trees and drive straight down the slope, intercepting the road that led downhill from the oak tree. All he had to do was make a sharp, ninety degree turn and go down the hill nose first. If he kept the truck in four-wheel drive, his descent would be controlled sufficiently to negotiate the steep incline.
Unfortunately, the envisioned road was not nearly so wide as Terry had estimated, and as they slowly descended, they scraped both sides of the vehicle and the cabin roof, too, against the stubborn pines. Terry recalled that when he first looked for a cabin to rent, he had seen some houses not too far west of them. “The road’ll connect with another road that’ll probably take us to somebody’s house. We can leave the kid anyplace.” He thought more about their location. “By goin’ directly down to the lower road, we’ll be in front of the folks who are comin’ for the kid… far in front of ’em. We’ve still got the kid so they’s gonna foller us. But it’ll be like we disappeared like magic. We didn’t leave no tracks goin’ downhill at the oak tree. So… sure, if they do foller us we’ll be long gone and way ahead of ’em.”
Terry tried to add something encouraging as they proceeded. “I looked inside a couple of them money pokes. There’s real cash in there. A whole big load of cash!”
When they reached the lower road and turned right on it, following it down hill, they celebrated the difficult maneuver by passing around one of Terry’s bottles of whiskey.
After finding no baby but seeing that the duffel bags had been dragged or carried away, George and Eric checked the area. Eric pronounced his opinion. “They could have gone back the way they came and turned at the Switzer road before we got there so we didn’t see them leave, or, this uphill road keeps going and they just continued on it – none of these goddamned dirt pathways is on our maps. Maybe, they’re still up there waiting for us to arrive.”
“Why would they be wanting to meet us?” Lilyanne asked, looking at Eric suspiciously. “Do they have an appointment with someone?”
“If they wanted to meet us,” George said, “they could have done that back in the city.” He examined and photographed the tire tracks and footprints that came down and went back up the hill. “Only the duffel bag drag marks went up hill,” he said. “Why didn’t they just pick them up with the truck? There are no tracks on any of the roads around us except the road we came in on and this uphill road. We have to follow them.” They got into the pickup.
“That’s a good question,” Eric said. “Why did they pick them up on foot? I can run up and sneak a look.” He looked at Lilyanne. “Contrary to your opinion, I have no appointments with anyone.”
George wanted to avoid any arguments. “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he said. “We don’t know anything. So let’s not speculate.” He did, however, consider it a possibility that Eric had a devious intention by wanting to go alone. It did deserve a little thought.
They followed the tracks of footprints and tires up the road. At the road’s ruptured point they could easily determine that a truck had turned off the road and nosed down the slope to connect, presumably, with the other downhill road they had seen at the oak-tree intersection. George stopped the pickup. “I’m not going to risk trying to cross the road here.”
“But the baby could be up there,” Lilyanne pleaded.
“I’ll hike up,” Eric said. “I’ve got the best boots and legs for it.” Without waiting to discuss his intention, he jumped down from the pickup and began to cross the jumbled remains of the road.
“Wait!” George called, but Eric waved-off the command and continued to jog through the broken trail.
George called Beryl to tell her that they had encountered trouble. “If Eric comes back without the baby, we’ll go after them on this downhill pathway they’ve just created. When you get to the oak tree, you can just take the downhill road and avoid what looks to me like a dangerous ride. Somewhere their new pathway must connect with that downhill road. I’ll call you again as soon as Eric gets back.”
In five minutes they could see Eric jogging downhill. Before he reached the disrupted stretch of road, he called, “There’s an empty cabin up there, and the road dead ends at the cabin. I brought a few things that they left behind.” He was carrying an empty plastic jug of milk and some whiskey bottles. “Maybe you can find usable finger prints.”
As soon as George had seen Eric without the baby, he called Beryl again. She was still talking to him when Eric clambered across the jumbled road.
“There’s at least three of them,” Eric said, “as I got from studying the different footprints in the snow. At the far end of the parking area, I found three dirty diapers. The door to the cabin was unlocked and I found a trash receptacle that contained empty baby-food jars, fast food wrappers, beer cans, and the empty milk jug and whiskey bottles. So Baby Eric’s still alive, thank God!”
“The prints!” George said angrily. “If you hadn’t jumped out and started running, I could have given you my iPhone’s photos of the prints down at the oak tree and you could have compared them. Now we don’t know if the three you saw contain the two that were back there or whether they’re five different prints. Jesus, Eric! Will you stop trying to run this investigation!” He resumed talking to Beryl. “I’ll let you know how we make out on the downhill route.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Eric said. “I was eager to get my boy back.”
“If the baby’s not up there,” Lilyanne bit her lip and whimpered, “we’ll have to follow the route they took.”
“Yes,” George said, “but I have to approach the down hill slope head on.” He calmed himself. “It’s like an ocean wave. If it hits you sideways, you capsize. So you have to meet the wave with the prow… the front of the boat.” He rocked back and forth until he got his pickup as perpendicular to the road as he could get it, and then he began the hazardous trip down the slope.
In low gear and four-wheel drive, the truck proceeded slowly. George tried to imitate Bette Davis. “Fasten your seat belts, kids… we’re in for a bumpy ride.”
“Stop trying to make me laugh,” Lilyanne said seriously. “I can’t think straight when someone is trying to amuse me.” George remained quiet, concentrating on following the tracks of the F 450. As he reached the bottom of the slope and turned right onto the lower road, a shot rang out.
“That’s a rifle,” George said. “We’re not in a defensible position, and the engine is the only protection we’ve got.” He reached back to push Lily’s head down. “They’re worried,” he said. “Maybe the one with the Cayman accent fears being recognized.”
They stopped and waited, listening to the heavier truck move ahead in the distance. “Don’t let them get away with my baby!” Lilyanne pleaded. “Follow them!”
George calculated that they were far enough away – a quarter mile he guessed – and began to pursue the F 450. There were sharp turns in the dirt road and patches of fog and it soon became impossible to gauge just how far behind the bigger truck they actually were. George and Eric lowered their windows to listen for engine sounds. At the top of an incline, George stopped his truck. “I’ll call Beryl,” he said, letting his pickup roll forward a few feet. The road ahead was straight downhill for as far as he could see.
“No!” Eric snapped. “Stop! Listen! I hear water… rushing water. Look around you! The terrain is changing. There’s no snow laying.” George stopped the pickup and rolled down his window.
“So what?” Lilyanne hissed. “Who cares why the snow isn’t sticking? Wherever the road goes, they took it. They found a way out and we can too. Follow them!”
George looked at Eric and did not move.
“They’ve got my baby!” Lilyanne shouted. “Follow them!” She began to thump George’s shoulders with her fists. “Follow them!”
George moved slowly down the hill. He heard the big truck’s motor stop. “Why would they have stopped?” he asked quietly. He stopped his truck and turned off the engine. “Can you hear them?” he asked Eric.
Eric stuck his head out the window and listened intently. “No,” he said. “I can’t hear their truck, but I hear the water.”
“We need to think about this,” George said.
Terry Rourke knew enough about mountain roads to realize that a dirt road and the sound of rushing water was not exactly a good indication of an escape route. “Those bastards are still behind us,” he announced. “There’s a big lake around here and for all we know this road takes us right into it. In that case, they’ve got us trapped! I don’t want to keep goin’.”
“Maybe they’re waiting to see what we’ll do,” Tom suggested. “So, either we go farther, or, since we can’t go back without runnin’ into them, why don’t we hide the truck and let them drive past us. Either way, they keep going and then we just retrace our steps and we get out the way we came in. We’ll just drop the kid off in some gas station.”
“That’s a good idea,” Terry announced. “Let’s pull over into some thick brush, cover the truck with more brush, start the engine so they’ll think we’re movin’, and then let them drive past us and take their chances with whatever ravine this road is leadin’ into.”
Jack, who was tired of holding the damaged door closed, immediately agreed that it was a good plan. He got out and searched for an advantageous hiding place. Thirty yards ahead, around a curve, he found a natural alcove, a small area amid the trees and shrubs. He signaled Terry who drove forward, turned off the road and parked. All three men helped to cover the tracks and the truck with shrubbery. Then he started the engine, gunning it so that it would be easily heard.
Hearing their engine, George started the pickup and continued to drive down the hill. He followed the curve around and drove past the hidden truck. His attention was riveted on a barren area ahead that appeared to be the road’s end. There were no detectable double-tire tracks, but bushes had been run over and crushed, and they lay, half-dead, along the sides of the area. “Keep going!” Lilyanne insisted. “There’s got to be a connecting road. They found it and so can we!” Fog had again obscured the way ahead, but George was able to see that two parallel tire lanes did indicate that a vehicle had passed beyond the apparent end. “Go!” Lilyanne again insisted.
George gingerly crept forward, aligning his wheels to the path lines of the previous vehicle when suddenly the pickup nosed down and though he tried to brake the movement, the truck began to slide uncontrollably in mud. The slide became a plunge and the truck bounced down into water where it soon found itself sinking in the river’s delta with a huge lake. The two front windows were down and George shouted, “Close the windows!” He succeeded in closing the driver’s door window, but the impact had apparently damaged the window on the passenger’s side. Water poured into the cab as the truck slowly descended into the cold water. The truck settled at an angle, the left front wheel having been caught on a tree stump or rock; and the rear of the truck seeming to settle on the bottom. There was an airspace at the roof of the cabin. “We’ve got to get out and call for help!” Eric shouted. They knew that their cellphones and the truck’s CB radio, too, had been drowned into uselessness. Wherever they were, they were without any contact with the outside world.
George looked behind him. “Where’s Lilyanne?” he shouted.
Sometimes it is not enough to injure an enemy. The comforting thought of his experiencing months or years of pain cannot provide the satisfaction of killing him outright and visualizing his gravestone. Such was the thought that Tom Fielder had when he and his two conspirators heard George’s pickup truck plunge into the water.
Tom was first out of the truck. He grabbed his rifle. “Let’s finish them off,” he said.
Terry’s mind, though somewhat inebriated, formed clearer thoughts. “No!” he said, running after him. “Let the cold water do the job. Just keep ’em pinned down. You don’t want any slugs in ’em when the bodies are found.” He caught up with Tom. “It’ll just look like an accident. Bad driver. Wrong turn. Foggy conditions. Who will argue? Remember: dead, they can’t complain about us. We’ve got the money and we can just leave the kid at a church door or gas station down in Harrisburg – some place far away from here. We ain’t heartless.”
Self-preservation trumped the issue of an enemy’s brief or lingering death. Tom agreed to limit his shooting to the simple prevention of any swimmer’s escape.
Jack had agreed with Terry and preferred an innocent assumption of death to the comforts of execution. He did, however, carry the baby to the edge of the ravine to watch Tom shoot around the pickup truck. Perhaps, if Claus surfaced, he’d call to him and let him wave “bye-bye” to his son. But the gunfire bothered the baby, and Jack retreated to the big truck and, celebrating alone, took a swig of Terry’s whiskey. “It’s chilly out here,” he said to the baby. “Salud!”
When the pickup truck struck the water, George knew that the ignition would be on long enough for him to raise his window. He had expected to see three heads struggling to breathe the same air; but he saw only Eric’s head. Lilyanne had apparently struck her head and had not surfaced, and Eric was frantically trying to pull her over the seat-back. George succeeded in grabbing her hair and together the two men dragged her into the front seat’s airspace. “She’s not breathing,” Eric said as he prepared to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Between breaths, he asked, “How far are we down?”
“We’re caught on something; and if it gives way, who knows how far we’ll sink. It feels like the back of the truck has hit bottom, but with all this goddamned mud we’ve kicked up, who can tell.”
It was just as they struggled to get Lilyanne to breathe again, that the first gunshot rang out. George took over the resuscitation attempts as Eric slipped through his open window and surfaced. He could not see where the bullet had entered the water, but when he looked at the top edge of the ravine he could see a man standing there pointing a rifle at them. Another shot was fired.
The resuscitation attempts were successful and Lilyanne quickly regained consciousness. She began to cough and whimper. Eric lowered himself into the cab. “There’s somebody shooting at us,” Eric shouted. “We’ve got to get out of the water,” he continued to shout, the pitch in his voice rising, “or we’ll die from hypothermia. We’re gonna run out of air in here!”
“I know that!” George returned the shout. “But the guy with the rifle has other ideas.” Just as he said that another shot was fired and this, too, entered the water nearby. Eric opened the passenger’s side door and slid into the water. He held onto the pickup, following it down, then he returned to the cab and reported, “We’re not in deep water. The truck’s rear wheels do seem to have hit bottom. I’d guess that we’ve got two meters of water above us.”
“We’re tipped to the right,” George said. “Get Lilyanne under the right front fender or in the engine area,” he ordered. “Try the wheel hole nearest the engine or the headlight. It’ll be warmer there.” Eric wanted to know what George hoped to accomplish with this maneuver, but the authoritative voice George had used did not lend itself to argument. As Eric pulled Lilyanne out of the cab and down under the fender, George reached for his ignition switch and grabbed his key ring, gulped some air and swam through the open passenger side door.
He descended to the right front tire, listening to the strange sound of Eric’s complaining voice as it traveled through the water.
George groped the tire until he located the valve stem. He unscrewed the stem’s cap and then rotated the tire until the valve was under the fender. Using a key from his key ring, he pushed the stem’s interior pin sideways, letting the air escape from the tire. The air bubbled up and filled the entire fender’s airspace and seeped into the engine compartment. George swam up to join Lilyanne and Eric. The air had displaced enough water for them to get their noses into air-spaces. “I’ll release more air as we need it,” he said. They could hear another shot fired at them from the ravine.
Akara had been tracking multiple GPS signals. Suddenly all the signals but one vanished.
Beryl tried to reach George’s cell, but the call went right to voicemail. “This is crazy,” she said. “He wouldn’t have turned his phone off.” She had reached the split oak tree. The only tracks in the ground led up the one road. “We don’t have to go up,” she said. “George and the big truck both went down to the lower road. How far ahead? I can’t say. As per instructions, we’ll take the downward road.” She started to make fresh tracks down the lower road.
They finally passed the point where the two trucks had descended the slope and had turned onto the downhill road. They kept going until the road dipped and came up to the top of a small hill. A patch of fog lay ahead of them, obscuring the road. “This isn’t a bad vantage point,” she said. “Let’s give it a minute and maybe it will clear.” Suddenly she heard a gun shot. She put her hand on Akara’s arm, indicating that he should not speak. She listened and waited. She counted five shots. “I hear running water and if I’m not mistaken those are rifle shots we just heard.”
Terry Rourke was anxious to get back to civilization. “If someone hears the shots they might come to see what’s goin’ on.” He tapped Tom’s shoulder. “They’s dead,” he said in a mournful tone. “Come on.” They began to walk back to the truck. “Let’s get rid of all this brush,” he said, and the two of them began to clear the area.
When they were finally ready to drive, Terry asked, “What time is it?”
“Four thirty,” Tom answered. “What time will it get dark around here?”
“Six thirty.” Terry opened a bottle of whiskey and took a swig. “From here on in, it’s milk and honey.” As he tilted his head back to take another mouthful of the whiskey, he heard the not too distant sound of Beryl’s Explorer. She was still waiting on the top of the incline, hoping to get a better view of the area.
“Jesus,” Terry said, coughing up his drink, “there’s a car ’round here. They’s in the water so it ain’t them. Could be Park Rangers. Maybe State Police!”
Tom took charge. “Jack an’ me’ll put the brush back and hide the truck! Terry, you go down around the curve and see if ya’ can identify the vehicle.” The three men left the truck and as Tom and Jack re-positioned the shrubbery, Terry walked to the road and could see the Explorer up on the incline’s ridge.
Terry returned to help the men conceal the truck. “It looks official, ta me,” he said. “One of them S.U.V.’s. Let’s just wait ’em out.” Having finished concealing the truck, the men returned to the cab and waited, passing the whiskey bottle from hand to hand.
“Yeah,” Tom said, trying to sound casual, “we’ll just sit here and wait.” He picked up his rifle and replaced the five rounds he had fired.
Under the pickup, George, Eric, and Lilyanne had used up the air in the right front tire. All of them were shivering and getting stiff from the cold. “There haven’t been more shots,” George said. “Let’s swim to shore.”
Eric emerged from the water to gauge the distance and, seeing no one standing on the ridge, dropped back down to signal the others to surface. “Jesus!” he exclaimed, “it can’t be more than ten meters!” Then he added, “But distances can be deceiving. Stay here with Lil and I’ll see if I can find a beach head.”
He left the pickup truck and began swimming to shore. When he tried to stand, the mud sucked his legs down. He flopped over into a horizontal position and back-stroked until his feet were free and then he turned and swam forward until he touched some rocks. When he finally could stand on land, he signaled George. Both Lilyanne and George began to swim towards him. “Did you remember to bring something to start a fire with?” she asked, her teeth chattering, as they swam.
George laughed at the absurd sound of an intelligent question. “No, dear,” he admitted. “I forgot.”
Eric stepped forward to help pull Lilyanne from the water. “We’ve got to get my baby,” she wailed, and began punching Eric’s chest. Surprised by her action, Eric tried to reassure her while George hoisted himself onto the rocks.
“We need to make a fire,” George ordered, then he grimaced. “Jesus! She asked me and I forgot. Everything we could have used is back in the truck.”
“Where? In the trash?” Eric asked.
“In the trash bag that hangs from the dashboard. We have Coke cans in the trash that we can use to make a sun reflector.”
Eric had heard about the technique, but he had never tried it. “I’ll bring the whole bag.” Without saying another word, he dove into the water and swam back to the truck. A few minutes later he returned with the trash bag, the truck’s interior rear view mirror, and the diaper bag that Cecelia Smith had prepared for the baby.
“Good thinking!” Lilyanne said. “There’s nothing better than a mirror when it comes to signaling people.” She looked into the diaper bag and saw that the diapers had remained dry since they were contained in their original plastic packaging. She looked at the various items and did not allow herself to cry.
The three of them scrambled up the steep incline until they found what appeared to be an indentation or shallow cave in the rocky slope. It was not so deep as a cave that might be used for hibernation, but it did afford protection against the rain or snow and even could prevent onlookers from seeing the fire they hoped they could get started. The troublesome part of the little grotto was that tiny black gnats swarmed all over them and left marks that resembled a teenager’s blackheads in their faces and arms. There was also no overhead break in the rock ceiling that would allow smoke to vent.
“Hurry!” George said, looking at the descending sun. “Do we have a lipstick or a Chapstick?” he asked. “Maybe a piece of chocolate? We need a polishing medium and a little grit… like a rouge cloth.”
Eric had a Chapstick in his pocket. He began to rub the concave bottom of a Coke can, mixing in some powdered dirt to act as an abrasive. Steadily he polished the base with his shirt tail, determined to have a reflector made while they still had sunshine. George scoured the area for tinder he could use to start the fire and found a bird’s deserted nest that seemed to be completely dry. Shivering in their cold wet clothing, he and Lilyanne gathered twigs, pine cones, resin soaked bark, and then increasingly larger pieces of the driest wood they could find. Soon, the bottom of the can shown brilliantly and Eric focussed its beam onto the nest and within moments, the nest smoldered and finally ignited. He carried the burning nest inside the cave and when more trigs and resin soaked bark were added, the fire began to burn brightly.
They stripped off their clothes, wrung them out as best they could and, using a branch as a makeshift clothes’ line, hung the garments up to dry. Lilyanne was still shivering and George, conscious of the thirty pounds more weight he carried than Eric, thought for a fleeting moment that he presented the logical choice for her to come into his arms and let him wrap his bulk around her for warmth, but she stayed near the fire, between the two men and interrupted her shivering only long enough to ask, “Does anybody have the time?”
Eric looked at his watch. “Not yet five o’clock.”
“It’ll be dinner time soon,” she said. “Have you figured out a way for us to get something to eat?”
Under the circumstances, the question seemed bizarre. Eric smiled and caught George’s eye as George returned the smile.
“The lady looks ahead,” Eric said.
“Not always,” she replied.
Beryl did not know what to think. Maps did indicate that some ten miles away there was a large marshy area; but there was no indication that a marsh or lake had extended to the immediate area. She could not reach George, Eric, or Lilyanne on their cellphones. All three instruments went to voice-mail. Yes, there was a vehicle ahead. GPS indicated it. She assumed that it was the kidnappers’ truck, but she did not know why it was a static signal or what the absence of George’s cell signal had to do with the situation.
“Why are we stopping?” Akara asked. “It makes no sense to stop now when we’re so close. George may need us!”
“Our mission is to rescue the baby. George may be dead for all we know. Those were rifle shots. George doesn’t have a rifle with him. So it’s not likely that he fired the shots, is it?”
Angry, Beryl cut him off. “And if he didn’t fire the shots at them, they – the three or more guys who are in that truck – have the only rifles. And unless you think they shot each other, then maybe you’ll consider that they shot at George!”
“It’s just that he could be hurt down there,” Akara said apologetically.
“Don’t you think I know that? Are you supposing that they ran out of ammo after they fired those shots? No… nobody brings only five bullets for a rifle. We’ve gone downhill. We hear rushing water. We hope the baby’s still alive but we don’t know who has him. If George were in that F450, he would have driven out! Eric would have driven out! Even Lilyanne could have driven it out! So only the kidnappers can be in that truck, and you want to drive down with your Beretta and my Colt and take on a bunch of desperate men… shooting it out with a baby in one of their laps! George knows I’m following him. And since I can’t fly this Explorer, he knows approximately where I am. I am on a nearby mountain road, the only road around. It’s much easier for him to find me than it is for me to find him. He could be anyplace within a ten-mile radius. Think about it!”
“Ok,” Akara relented. “That we suddenly lost cellphone contact can’t mean merely a shoot out. What would the men have done? Killed George, Lily, and Eric and then took their cellphones and turned them off. No. That’s stupid. But they might have captured them and taken their phones and shut them off, or, since that running water near us leads someplace, George might have dropped off a cliff or something and all three phones were rendered useless at the same time.”
“Yes. George, Lily, and Eric could be dead in the water or taken prisoner. Something made their phones shut off. And we don’t know what that something is. I need to think.”