The Woods (#4)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com
Photo Credit: wikipedia.org

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

 

Part Four

George, knowing that Beryl and Akara were in the vicinity… somewhere… counted on their assistance. “She won’t drive into a trap,” he said, trying not to sound apologetic for foolishly having acceded to Lilyanne’s demands.

“What you mean,” Eric said, “is that she’s not likely to come plunging into the water on top of your Ford.”  He had meant this to sound dismissive.

“That’s precisely what I mean,” George replied.  “Somewhere between us and her is that F 450.  We didn’t pass them anywhere from the point we entered the downhill road and here.  So they’re hidden somewhere around here. But Beryl was on our tracks and what’s more than likely is that she’s blocking their way out.  They don’t know who she is… and if they’re all that afraid of running into Eric and being recognized, we’ve got a kind of Mexican Standoff.”

“What does that mean?” Lilyanne asked.

Eric answered.  “If we try to escape by climbing up the hill to walk out, we encounter the 450 guys and recognize at least one of them… the one with the Cayman accent. They’re armed and can shoot us.  If they try to escape, they encounter Beryl. They could push her off the road, but they don’t know what backup she’s got; and if she’s on the narrow road that led down here, she can’t or won’t go backwards on it; and the only way for her to turn around is to come down to the road’s end and encounter the 450.”

“So Beryl could be on the road waiting and blocking them.  For how long will she wait?” Lilyanne asked.

“I’d like to think for as long as we’re here,” George said.

“Why can’t she go backwards?” The question was strange, and George and Eric exchanged a worried look.

George tried to cheer her. “Beryl’s good at parking, but like most people who haven’t jockeyed cars around for a living, she can’t drive backwards even on a straight street.  On a narrow mountain road, she’d make better time walking.  But hey… maybe Akara can drive in reverse.”

“Let’s make tea!” Lilyanne said.  “Eric can wash the empty cans and George and I can pick some choice pine needle and pine cones for the fire and pine nuts to roast and eat!”

George and Eric again looked at her and then at each other and shook their heads.  “Let’s do what the lady said,” George said with pretended cheer.  Then he looked at Eric. “Think you can get one of my hub caps loose for the lady to use as a roasting pan?”

“Sure,” Eric said.  “No problem.”

George and Lilyanne went out to gather food and fuel.  At the point that the river entered the lake they could see fish in the shallow water.  “They look like trout to me,” said Lilyanne,  “and trout are smart fish.”

George did not know anything about trout intelligence.  “I’ll leave outsmarting them up to you, dear,” he said.

“Eric’s the fisherman,” Lilyanne said.  “Let’s leave the fishing to him.  We can gather nuts and pine needles to sit on, and I can make pine needle tea.  The berries are all gone… even the elderberries and they last longest. I know nothing about roots, except maybe Jersusalem artichokes, but maybe Eric does.”  She was, George feared, beginning to ramble irrationally.

George saw a garter snake and grabbed it by its tail.  “Do you want to use this for stew?” he asked seriously.  He would not have been surprised if she had given him a disgusted look and said an emphatic, “No!”  Instead she said, “Yes… and maybe we’ll get lucky and find something to go with it.  I wouldn’t trust any of the mushrooms; but there may be wild onions that we can use.  God knows how long we’ll be stuck here.”  Suddenly she began to cry and dropped to her knees.  “What are they doing to my little boy?” she sobbed, begging George for an answer.

“You’re very brave,” he said, kneeling beside her.  “I know that since we got started you’ve been wanting to scream and bawl your eyes out.   But you’ve held up like a champion.  Go ahead.  Take a few minutes and cry.” He paused, “I promise I won’t tell Eric.”

He had said this last line in a comical way, and she stifled a few sobs and then playfully hit him.  “Don’t try to make me laugh.”  She wiped her face and got up. “We’re not helping anything by crying about what we can’t control.  We have to think about what we can control.  Let’s go.”  As they began to walk again, she said playfully, “I could always feed you baby formula.  From a bottle.”

George laughed and released the snake.  “You’ll make Eric jealous,” he said.  “Let’s check out those pine trees over there. I’m really in the mood for soggy nuts and pine needle tea.”

 

The three men in the truck continued to drink and to dream aloud about the money that was in their truck bed.  They decided that they were the Three Musketeers and the baby was D’Artagnan.  “I’m starting to like the little guy,” Tom said.  “Maybe he’s not really Claus’s kid. I wonder why he doesn’t cry.  We’re strangers and he still doesn’t cry.”

Terry spoke with quiet omniscience.  “It’s ’cause he’s rich. When they’s rich, they got a stranger tendin’ ’em for ever’ little thing.  Not like a poor kid who’s got one ma.  A poor kid’s ‘fraid of strangers.”  He began to laugh.  “They’s probably bill collectors.”

“Well, Baby Eric,” Tom said to the baby, “you’ve been good company.  And I, for one, am glad you’re rich.”  He picked up the bottle of milk and stuck the nipple into the baby’s mouth.  “Drink up!” he said.

The SUV up on the hill had not moved.  “What’dya think they’re waitin’ for?” Jack asked.

“For hell to freeze over,” Tom answered, and the three men laughed.

In the SUV on the hill, Akara did not care about hell’s temperature.  His Beretta was whispering to him, and they were not words that would lull a man to sleep.

 

*

 

It was 7 p.m. “Look,” Akara pleaded, “the moon is full… we’ve got plenty of light.  I can go down to where the signal’s coming from and at least see what’s going on there.  You wouldn’t let me interfere electronically.  Can I please use my own eyes?  Is that low-tech enough for you?”

“There’s nothing low-tech about eyesight,” Beryl replied.  “Until we know what we’re blundering into, I say that we should stay right where we are.  That GPS signal hasn’t moved and until it does, we’re blocking at least one way out.  And that gives me a small sense of purpose. Besides, everybody is probably waiting for dawn to come.  The bears haven’t started to hibernate yet.  Let’s not walk around aimlessly.  Let’s wait for the men to make the first move.”

“I’m armed,” he insisted.

“So are they,” she countered. “Look, Mr. Mathematician.  Suppose there’s four of them and two of us.  Calculate the odds. Then suppose you kill one of them and one of them kills you.  Now there’s three of them and one of us. The odds have change considerably.  We wait.  If George or Lilyanne or Eric is alive, they will find us a whole lot easier than we can find them.  At the moment, they’re on their own.  Our concern is the baby, and we are not going to do anything stupid that will jeopardize his life!”

 

*

 

Night had fallen.  “Look,” Eric said, “we’re warm and our clothes are mostly dry and with a little luck we’ll be back to normal by morning.  Then at dawn I’m going to sneak up to the ravine edge to see if the road is clear. Either they’ve gone, thinking that we’re dead in the water, or they’re up there figuring out a way to finish us off – although for the life of me, I can’t understand why they’d want to do that.”

“Proof of life,” Lilyanne said, imitating her father.  “Maybe they think they can get more money out of our families if they send one of our ears or something.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Eric said, finding the remark nonsensical. He tried to make a joke of it and lighten the mood.  He slyly looked at George. “But the cold water would shrink the body part they selected. Still, they’d recognize mine.”

George approved of the effort. Lilyanne was exhibiting a peculiar kind of irrationality. Eric grinned and George smiled back at him. “Everett has seen me in the locker room shower,” he said, “and was suitably impressed. Yes, they’d know for certain that any unusual part was yours.”

Lilyanne snarled.  “Is this some kind of pissing contest?  My little boy may be out there fighting for his life and you two act like idiots!”

The two men shrugged, winced, and said they were sorry.  Despite Lilyanne’s years of convent discipline, worry about the baby’s welfare had finally overwhelmed her “constructive” demeanor.

“If you do decide to go up early,” George said, resuming a more serious tone, “take my dark jacket.  It’ll be completely dry by then.  And put mud on your face and hands for camouflage.”

“Good idea,” Eric said.  “Thanks.  I’ll do that.”

 

*

 

In the Ford F 450, the three men finished another bottle of whiskey. The door and window let the night air in, and to keep warm, they curled up inside their down parkas and in a drunken stupor, they slept.

 

*

 

On beds of pine needles, George slept propped against the wall, while Eric curled himself into a fetal position and slept.  Lilyanne did not even pretend to be asleep.  She lifted Eric’s wrist to read his watch.  It was 9 p.m.  She had shaken her jacket repeatedly, trying to keep the down feathers from clumping together so that they could dry; but the effort had proven to be mostly useless.

A peculiar clarity of purpose often attends motherhood.  Without stating reasons or the outline of a plan, an instinct takes control of the mind and actions that seem mindless naturally occur.   The men worried about vehicles – mechanical things – that could save them. To Lilyanne, the vehicles were irrelevant.  Human beings survived long before Ford manufactured trucks. If she had her baby she would walk or crawl, if necessary, back to civilization.  Trucks might add convenience to the trip, but ultimately they were not necessary.  The “enemy” men were the problem.  And the “friendly” men, with their preoccupation with mechanical things, were delaying or deterring her deliverance. “Yes,” she whispered to herself, “even if it took two days, I could walk back to the highway.  Mothers in the Stone Age also worried about bears and mountain lions… but not about some stupid trucks.  It’s ridiculous!”  There were always killer men and killer beasts. “If I am cold, what must my baby be?” she asked herself.  “He had no jacket at all.”  She thought about this for a few minutes while, without realizing it, she was pulling on her boots.

Quietly, she put on her jacket and making as little noise as possible, she tried to leave the cave without disturbing anyone.  But as she tried to climb over Eric, her foot brushed his arm and he awakened with a start.  Seeing her dressed and crawling to the outside of the cave, he sat up, grabbed her arm, and called her name.

George heard the call and looked around. Seeing Lilyanne dressed, he asked, “Where’s she going?” He watched her scramble out of the campsite.

“Damned if I know,” Eric said, putting his pants and boots on, “but she needs to be stopped.”

George, too, took his heavy denim pants off the branch pole and found his shoes. The others were already half way up the slope before he left the cave.

Lilyanne climbed the hill with an animal’s sure-footed determination. She proceeded without stopping, seeing by moonlight, yet walking directly through patches of poison ivy and stepping over small mounds of rubble as though she had expected them to be in her path.

Eric followed her, hissing her name, begging her to reconsider.  She continued on in her robotized cadence walking to the point that George’s pickup truck had gone over the edge.  She climbed up onto the road and walked back, following men’s footprints in the muddy surface of the road.  Before she could see the truck, she heard the snoring.  Moving directly to the source of the noise, she approached the brush-covered truck while Eric jogged along beside her.

A cloud passed in front of the moon and for a few minutes the eerie light disappeared.  Lilyanne held the dented open door and listened for the sound of baby Eric.  She could detect nothing over the sound of the snoring.  The stench of stale whiskey came from the cab.

The moonlight reappeared and Eric looked at the face of the man in the passenger’s seat and recognized Jack Fielder. Lilyanne gestured that Eric should open a rear door. Rather than argue with her, he quietly opened a rear cabin door, and she whispered that he should lift her so that she could see inside the rear-seat sleeping quarters. Eric picked her up by the waist so that she could view the interior.  She saw the baby curled in a man’s arm and put her foot on the floor, knelt, reached forward, and lifted him from the sleeping man’s arm. Eric set her down and checked the baby’s face.  “He looks fine,” he said.  As she clung to the baby, he whispered, “He’s safe now.  Let’s get him down to the camp.”

‘No,” she said.  “We’re going home.  I’m walking home with Baby Eric.”

George had reached the roadway.  “What’s going on?” he whispered.

Eric led them away from the truck. “The baby’s fine,” he said. “She wants to walk him up that bloody hill. We don’t know that Beryl’s car is anywhere up there.  But Lil thinks she can walk back to the 222 though all that snow… and her jacket is still wet.  We’ve got to get her back to the camp.  Jesus!  Even the diaper bag is back there along with his formula! We have to go back down!”

George nodded.  “Lilyanne, you’re not thinking clearly.  At least go back and finish getting our clothes dry before we try to walk out. And we are still vulnerable to wildlife.  Our weapons are at the campsite.”

Eric said, “Yes. And then we can get our guns and come back and finish these guys off.  They’re dead drunk, sleeping in the truck.”

“You want to execute three sleeping men? Are you crazy?” George asked.

“You got a better idea?” Eric asked.

“Well I can try to think of one that won’t get us charged with murder.”

“They’re kidnappers, for Christ’s sake. We’d be killing three kidnappers!”

Lilyanne suddenly realized that her hands were cold when she touched the baby’s warm face.  For a moment she thought he had a fever and then she felt her teeth chatter and she was shivering.  “I’m shivering,” she said.  She felt his bottom and could feel the warm wetness.  “He needs to be changed.” she announced.

“Precisely why we need to return to camp,” Eric harshly whispered. “A clean diaper and some weapons.”

George took a deep breath and tried to speak rationally to Eric. “The baby has already been rescued.  The men would not have been killed as we attempted to free the baby.  We don’t know who the guys are.  They could be well connected and maybe young enough to get sympathy… some teenage prank. One of them has a Cayman accent; maybe he’s getting even with you for some of your misdeeds in the past… you know… the colorful past of Eric Haffner that everybody is so hell-bent on covering up. If you shoot them with Everett’s Luger or even with my two weapons – the rifling marks are recorded.  We can’t say somebody else used our weapons.  Nobody else is here!  Get this through your head.  You just can’t execute three sleeping drunks. We need to wait for Beryl and then we can try to arrest them.” Eric’s plan to execute the sleeping men troubled George.  Was he afraid of being recognized? Did he know the kidnappers?

Eric began to follow Lilyanne back to the camp.  “What do we do now?” he asked as the three of them settled into the cave with the baby.

George sighed.  “Up to now they may have thought we died in the water.  When they see that the baby’s gone, they’ll know that we’re still alive and that we’ve seen them. They may be worried enough about being recognized that they’ll come after us.  We’ve left many footprints in the slope for them to follow. And sooner or later they’ll smell the smoke from our fire.  The wind’s been blowing away from us in our favor, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t change.  We need a new camp. We also need to contact Beryl.  She’s got to be around here someplace. We have to wait until morning.”

Eric concurred.  “It’s 10:30 now.  Beryl’s safe in her car in case nocturnal animals come around.  If she is on that narrow road blocking them, she can’t turn around and she certainly can’t drive backwards to drive out… not at night.  And there’s too goddamned many gnats down here so close to the water,” he complained.  “I’m being eaten alive.  Let’s find a place higher up.”

 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

 

Terry Rourke was the first to awaken in the fog-surrounded dawn.  His legs were so stiff that he could barely stand when he lowered himself from the driver’s seat.  He went to the rear of the truck to urinate, and when he returned, he looked into the sleeping section and discovered that the baby was gone. “Wake up!” he shouted, and Jack and Tom both sat up, awake and confused.

“Those sons-of-bitches got the kid while we were sleeping,” Jack repeated the obvious.  “Let’s go after them now.  I didn’t go through all this for nuthin’.  Let’s go.”  He picked up the Winchester and stuffed some ammunition into his pocket.

“Hold on,” Terry said, trying to calm him.  “Suppose they’re down there and we shoot it out with ’em and we’re lucky enough not to get hit.  And if the state police or some forest rangers are sittin’ up on that hill… and we got three bodies and a dead kid lyin’ down here with slugs in ’em that we gotta account for.  Have you got one reason anybody’ll believe that none of this is our problem?  No.  Because there ain’t one.  We ain’t gonna shoot our way outta’ this.  And I ain’t goin’ back to the joint for you or anybody else. We gotta think.”

Tom thought a minute.  “Look, we thought they were dead and we were wrong.  At least one of them is alive.  Maybe all of them.  Why should we try to shoot them at all.  Why not just try to drive out of here.  Maybe the SUV has gone and it never had anything to do with this. They can be hunters. If they’re still there we can ask them nice if they’ll come down here to the clearing and give us the chance to drive out.  They’ll need to turn around too, unless they like drivin’ backwards. So I say two of us should take rifles and act like a couple of nice hunters who need a little help.  If it turns out they’re cops just waitin’ to arrest us, we can shoot them.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Jack retorted. “Like… they’s waitin’ for us, but when they see two armed guys approach them, they don’t reach for their guns… no… they just let us shoot ’em.”

“Then at least one of us can go look to see of the car’s still there.  And Terry is the best choice to go.  He sounds local.”

“And if they grab me and check me out? I’m the one with the record and it’s my gal who rented the truck and if they sweat her, they’ll find out all they need to know about the rest of us.”

“You’re the one who picked this goddamned tank,” Jack shouted. “You’re the reason we went off the road. Take responsibility for yourself.  You go up and talk to the SUV.”

“And you remember that,” Terry shouted back.  “This truck rental will come back to me and when it does – one way or the other – the shit will get sent on to you!”

“Look!” Jack said calmly.  “Let’s just wait for the SUV to make a move. We’ve got a pizza pie we didn’t even open yet and four hamburgers.  We can heat them up on the engine.  So let’s all stay cool.  The sun will burn-off the fog in an hour or two.  Then we’ll see if they’re still there.”

“It’s cold,” Terry announced.  “The least ya’ can do is get me a bottle from the back.”

 

*

 

George and Eric searched the area until they found a more habitable place.  It wasn’t a stone cave but rather a large lean-to formed by three fallen trees.  Earth had accumulated around the bases of the tree trunks making a protected enclosure.  They returned to the original camp and helped Lilyanne and the baby to climb to the site and get situated in their new location. They rebuilt the fire from embers they had carried to the new site and filled the cans with water that they got from a nearby spring. She placed the cans beside the firestones, and then they began to look for food.  They did not realize that Beryl and Akara were a quarter-mile away on the crest of a small hill, but they did suddenly hear the sound of a truck’s engine come to life.  Both men stood still and listened.  They could hear no voices but they did recognize the 450’s engine and they could determine that the sound had come from the same area in which they had retrieved the baby.  George looked at his watch to get a time check.  “It’s oh-six hundred hours,” he whispered.  Eric checked his own watch and nodded.  They waited to hear the change in engine noises that would accompany movement; but they heard no change at all.  The truck seemed to be idling.

 

*

 

Beryl and Akara heard the truck, too.  “It’s not George’s truck,” she said. “We may soon hear that ‘ram’ drumbeat.”

“What a ‘ram’ drumbeat?”

“Ramming ships used to be one way of sinking them.  The oarsmen would increase the speed of their rowing as the captain aimed the vessel’s pronged front at another ship.  They wanted to hit it broadside with all the momentum they could generate.”

“Oh,” Akara said.  “They may be intending to come up the hill as fast as they can to knock us off the road. What do we do then?”

“Jump the hell out and take cover – and at that point, call 9-1-1.”

“Why can’t we call 9-1-1 now?” Akara sensibly asked.

“Because our client has refused us permission to summon the police.  If the child’s parents and grandparents don’t want to summon the cops, we’re stuck. Having no police involved is why they hired us in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Akara said.  “And we’d sound pretty stupid asking the cops to help get us out of jam we got into by not reporting a kidnapping.”  He yawned.  “The sun will evaporate the morning mist.  We’ve got another hour at least.”

The truck motor suddenly cut off and no noises came from the woods except the normal sounds of birds and insects.   They continued to listen intently until the strain lured them back to sleep.

 

*

 

It was sunrise. Lilyanne felt her down jacket and tried again to break up the clumps of down feathers so that they would dry.  She shook the jacket and rotated it.  The fire had become mere embers. She put the last of the pine cones on the fire and placed three cans that were filled with water beside the embers.

George awakened.  “Another day,” he said glumly.  He watched Lilyanne empty the diaper bag, put the baby in it, and loop the straps around her neck so that she could secure the baby on her back like an Indian papoose.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

“We need more fuel for the fire and some nuts for breakfast… unless you two feel like getting us something more substantial. And after breakfast… whatever it is… we’re leaving.”  She left the campsite.

When she returned, the water in the cans was hot enough to make pine needle tea.  George and Eric were not in the camp.

In half an hour, they returned.  Eric triumphantly waved two trout he had succeeded in killing with a spear he had made from an ash tree branch.  “Daddy’s brought home some fish for buhweckfas,” he cooed to the baby, “and we’ll find a way to roast the fisheez.”  George cringed.

At Lilyanne’s insistence, George had taken her pantyhose to trap crayfish that she had seen feeding in the marsh.  With some major maneuvering he had managed to capture six of them.  “And here are some crayfish Mommy wanted!” he announced as he pulled the crayfish free from their nylon trap.

George got up. The feeling of being ignored returned to him.  “I thought I saw a place where some Jerusalem artichokes were growing.  I’ll go look again.”  He found them and carried the potato-like tubers to the lake to wash them. The mist was lifting off the lake and fish were jumping in little breeches to catch insects that had come too close to the water’s surface.  For the first time he took a serious look at the dead tree stumps that protruded from the water.  “We’re lucky we didn’t get impaled on one of those dead pines,” he said aloud. He wanted to watch the fish and the insects and a few birds that had dived down to skim the water. “Quite a show!” he softly announced.  Grudgingly he returned to the cave to take his place in the audience of two adoring parents.

Lilyanne served the breakfast, pretending that it was haute cuisine for special potentates.  Eric went along with the pretense, speaking to her in French and making funny sounds of delight at the extraordinary meal the chef had prepared.  He tasted the pine needle tea and used the expressions a sommelier might reserve for a rare chardonnay wine.  Lilyanne laughed; and George forced himself to smile.

As Lilyanne and Eric played with the baby, George resigned himself to accepting their joy.  After all, he told himself, Lilyanne was deliriously happy to have her son back again… and Eric… of course Eric would be happy, too.  Wouldn’t he, George, be just as attentive to his own kid who had just been rescued?  But his attempts to be magnanimous fell short.  He looked at Eric who seemed to be so much handsomer lately… and stronger, too… or else it was just the comparison that was telling the tale.  George was getting older and his injuries were like debts he couldn’t pay… they collected interest… compounded daily. And new injuries not only increased the debt, they seemed always to create a chain-reaction kind of pain.  The knee pain would throb and give him a headache which would aggravate his old shoulder injury and then his…  Ah! what was the use?  Everything was wrong. George didn’t fit into the picture of two people who were young and strong and rich.  These two shared a beautiful baby.  Yes… they also shared social position… an extended family of successful people. Idiots maybe… but important idiots. Whenever he was around that “important” little group, he felt lower than a servant… the clever mongrel that performed tricks outside the entrance to a pedigree dog show.

He grew more agitated as he watched and listened to them play with the baby.

Instead of clearing, a light rain had begun to fall. The pale glow of dawn turned into a cold haze.  He wished that he knew where Beryl was.  Did they get her in a trap? Was she waiting, frustrated that she couldn’t communicate with him?  He didn’t know what he should worry about specifically and felt only a general, all-encompassing fear.

Often he’d look at the clouded sky, hoping for a helicopter to appear.  He’d hear the snarling scream of a cougar and wonder if it were checking them out.  He’d try to gauge the distance of a bear’s roaring growl.  Well… both he and Eric were armed.  Foxes, raccoons, squirrels… the woods were full of creatures that belonged there.  They all made noises… diving hawks and croaking frogs.  What he wanted to hear was the SUV’s horn.  And, he wondered, just why was that F 450 still there?  Could it possibly have gone without them hearing it?  No, he decided.  But by now they missed the baby.  By now they would have known that somebody on the other side of the law was “on the case.”  They had the money, so why didn’t they leave?  Was the road blocked?  Or, were they waiting for Eric?  What was going on?   He forced himself to think about things he did know.  They could use more pine cones for the fire.  He wanted to get out of the enclosure, and searching for pine cones seemed to be a good excuse.

As he bent over to exit the enclosure, he felt a stabbing pain in his knee and knew from experience that he required pain medication.  His prescription, fortunately, had been in his jacket pocket and had not been damaged by water.  He took a couple of pills and sat down, waiting for them to take effect.

In the flickering light of the fire, George studied the serene expressions on the three faces. They were napping after the breakfast meal. His knee continued to throb and he was tempted to take another pain pill, but he resisted the impulse, knowing that the pain had been aggravated by his ill humor. This, he thought, was the reason people got hooked on drugs.  Like him, they had unrealistic expectations.

Finally, George felt compelled to get out of the camp.  He was a little groggy but still aware enough to be quietly disgruntled.  He stepped out into the cold rainy mist.  He was still stiff from sleeping on a hard bed of pine needles and from the muscular exertion of wading through mud to catch crawfish; and he was agitated about losing his truck and probably his bride all to the benefit of a bum like Eric Haffner. He walked down to the lake again, this time to throw cold water on his face.  As he approached the water, he startled a group of deer that was drinking at the water’s edge.  A sudden sense of guilt came over him and he felt like apologizing to the deer.  He wanted company and would have said, “Don’t leave on my account.  Look!  I’m not going to hurt you!” but he suppressed the urge to communicate with the animals that had already disappeared into the fog.  “Go on! You bastards!” he grumbled, and then he secured himself on a rock and dipped his hands into the water.

The cold water had a reviving effect, and he wiped his face against his left upper arm.  His right shoulder had never fully recovered from the gunshot wound and he treated it gingerly.  He stood on the rock and listened to birds chirping to themselves about whatever it was that birds chirped about. “Now what?” he asked himself, realizing that he had nowhere to go, except to return to the camp and watch “the holy family” peacefully snooze. “Bullshit!” he said aloud, and despite the nagging pain in his knee, he decided to climb the hill and see what was happening at the truck.  Depressed, he didn’t particularly care what he’d find there or even if they’d discover him snooping and unarmed.  The only fact that mattered was reaching the end of the ordeal, but, he thought, that would never come.  He could not foresee a time that Eric would be out of their lives.  The Haffners, too, would always be there to remind him that it was he who was the odd man out… he, the husband, Lilyanne’s protector, he who had risked his own life for her many times… yes… he was the odd man out.  And who was the “in” man?  The son of a bitch who now sat around a campfire with Lilyanne.  No, he thought, even if we go through with the marriage, it’ll never last.  I can’t take it.  I’m not gonna be an unwanted guest in my own goddamn house!

As he climbed, he doubted that the wedding would take place at all.  The kidnapping would naturally cause some half-assed delay.  “Oh, Lilyanne needs time to recover from the ordeal!” he mimicked in his mind Cecelia’s excuse for postponing the ceremony.  He’d have to retreat from Tarleton to his own tract house in the suburbs.

He reached the top of the hill and looked at the lake and the woodland slope that went down to it.  The rain created even more mist; and the smoke that seeped out of their new camp was completely obscured.  The air was heavy but clean and redolent with the smell of pine.  For a moment he felt the comforting beauty of the surrounding woods; but this moment quickly passed and he again felt used and discarded.  “When,” he asked himself, “are you going to learn?”

George rubbed the greying stubble that was forming on his face. “Bullshit!” he said aloud, bucking himself up for the endless misery of getting through another day thinking about his “lost” Lilyanne. “It will fade in time,” he told himself, suppressing a gulp-like whine. “Everybody uses everybody else.  That’s life.”  He looked around and discovered that he had disrupted the morning conversations of a flock of starlings.  A few started to dive at him and he retreated towards the place that he had seen the truck.

The F 450 was still hidden behind shrubs that had already begun to wilt, losing their effectiveness.  George could hear the men snoring with the same force and loudness he had earlier witnessed.  “What,” he wondered, “are they waiting for?

 (Go to Part V…)