The Woods (#5)
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Photo Credit: nationalgeographic.org
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
George turned to go back to the camp.
The daylight had suddenly darkened. He felt a few heavy raindrops on his face. They fell as if saying, “Take shelter!” And for a moment he envisioned a solitary escape… he’d leave the happy family in a primeval state. He began to walk towards the road imagining Eric with a lance for fish and maybe even a bow and arrows for deer. The Noble Savage. Roasting rabbit on a spit. Lilyanne sewing buckskin with a porcupine quill needle. And then the hidden revenge showed itself, surprising him that he would overlook the real misery of such an existence and, out of jealousy, wish it on someone he loved. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he asked. And then he walked past the truck to the base of the road and began to look up at the lowering clouds. As he studied the jagged horizon he saw what seemed to be a car up on the crest of an incline. He looked again, studying the shape as if it were an illusion that he had willed into existence. “Christ!” he said aloud and then winced, hoping no one had heard him. Beryl was parked on the hill.
He quietly walked back towards the truck’s hiding place and then to the ravine’s edge. He walked quietly until, when he was out of earshot, he began to descend the slope in bounding slides. He burst into the camp enclosure. “Beryl’s here, parked at the top of a rise on that narrow road we came down. The men are all asleep.”
The atmosphere was not what he had expected. Lilyanne was sitting tight-lipped, her back turned toward Eric.
“Trouble in Paradise?” George asked. “I thought I was the bringer of good news… that nothing could destroy such joy. Seems I was wrong.”
“This climate is not good for the baby!” Lilyanne imperiously announced. “So the two of you better figure out a way to get my son and me home – as quickly as possible. You made fire and caught a couple fish and I suppose you think that’s enough Tarzan masculinity. But I want to go home! And I singed my jacket trying to dry it. Look!” she said in a pitious tone, “there’s a hole in the sleeve.”
Eric was angry. “If you want to go, go. Take my jacket. What’s keeping you?” he asked. “Go ahead. Walk into an ambush. You think you know what’s best, so do it.”
“Excuse me,” George said pointedly, looking at Eric, “but have your domestic quarrels elsewhere and with somebody else. I’ll decide how Lilyanne and I will react to the news that Beryl’s here.” He put on his shoulder holster and gun belt. “We’ve got to get to the Explorer.”
Lilyanne snorted. “Eric’s more interested in the two million in the back of that truck than he is in Beryl’s SUV or anything else!”
George reached out and patted her head. “I don’t give a shit what Eric’s interested in. So let’s forget that he’s even here. I’m losing my patience.”
“So what’s the plan?” she asked.
“I figure we can loop around and avoid the ravine’s edge altogether. I don’t know if it’s possible, but we can try to walk laterally… or at a slight diagonal… it may be for more than a quarter-mile… and just go up the incline until we reach her car. Akara or I can back her out.”
Lilyanne doubted that anyone could walk laterally along the slope, particularly when it was slick with rain. With George following her, she went outside the enclosure and tried to walk, taking a sideways route. Several times she went down on one knee. George guided her back into the camp.
“We’ll never be able to negotiate this slope laterally,” George had to admit. “Maybe after the rain stops and the surface dries…”
This, evidently, was not what Lilyanne was prepared to hear. If she had been willing to walk back to civilization with her baby – no matter how long it took – she saw no reason that she could not walk directly to Beryl’s SUV. The kidnappers had gotten what they wanted. They had no reason to interfere with her. She got up, slung the diaper bag straps over her shoulder, and picked up the baby.
Eric asked, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing that concerns you,” she said and left the campsite to walk directly up the slope following George’s downward sliding footsteps. Eric and George immediately pursued her, pleading with her to return to the camp. She ignored them.
“Look!” George said sternly, reaching for her arm. “Eric or I can climb up to Beryl’s SUV. There’s no need for you to walk right in front of the kidnappers.”
She twisted away from him as he tried to restrain her. As they followed her up to the ravine’s edge, she adamantly moved straight ahead, an approach that led her towards the hidden truck. Again they could hear the snoring men. Lilyanne passed the truck and began to walk along the curve that led to the base of the downhill road. George stayed beside her, but Eric ran to the truck’s rear and began to pull a duffel bag from the truck bed. “Help me!” he called in a muted tone. George looked back to see Eric dragging a duffel bag away from the lake, to an untrodden part of the ravine’s slope to the river. “Help me,” he called to George again.
“Are you crazy?” George whispered hoarsely, as he went back to try to stop Eric. “They won’t mind the loss of the baby, but they’ll sure as hell come after the money.”
Eric tossed the bag down the slope. George could hear it tumble, but he did not hear it splash into the water. Eric returned to the truck and pulled another duffel bag from the truck bed. “Suit yourself,” he said to George as he dragged it to the ravine’s edge and tossed it down.
Lilyanne turned onto the narrow road, and holding the baby and the diaper bag, began to scurry up the steep hill. George began to jog, trying to reach her so that he could help carry the baby or the diaper bag. She shook off his help. “I can manage!” she insisted, twisting away from the arm he had extended.
Eric was able to reach the third bag, hoist it up and out of the truck, and toss it down the slope; but to reach the fourth bag, he had to climb over the truck bed’s side. The noise of his boots awakened Tom; but the shrubbery that was intended to conceal the truck covered the rear window and Tom could not see what had caused the noise. It could have been a bear or a mountain lion or, more likely, a thief. He hit Jack’s shoulder. “Wake up!” he shouted. “There’s something in the truck!” He pulled on his shoes and grabbed his rifle, opened the rear side door and dropped to the ground. But Eric had already tossed the bag down the ravine and had slid down himself a few feet to hide behind an elderberry bush. Tom saw the empty truck bed. Incensed, he walked back and forth furiously looking for something… for anything… He began to talk to himself, alternately cursing himself and his enemies.
Jack, holding the other rifle, stared into the empty truck bed and shouted to Terry, “The money’s gone! They took our money!” He ran to the driver’s door and opened it, shouting again at Terry who was getting ready to stumble out of the truck, “Everything’s gone!” Jack shouted. “While we was sleepin’ they came and stole our money!”
Tom stared into the empty truck bed and seemed to enter a trance. “The money for my ship is gone!” he whispered. “It’s all been for nothing! I lost everything.” He paced back forth, looking around to see friend or foe who would at least understand the enormity of what had occurred. He saw shoe slide-tracks going down to a bush near the roadside. The bush moved and Tom demanded that whoever was there show himself.
Eric emerged, using his hands to crawl up to the edge of the road, and then immediately raised his arms. The Luger was stuck into his belt in the hollow of his back. “Hey, Tom!” Eric greeted him. “Take it easy. It’s me… Claus.”
“Claus! Old Buddy!” Tom said, venomously, and he called to his friends, “Look who’s here. Claus from the Brac. Wha’cha want, Claus? Come to sign the Sesame over to us?”
“I’m just looking for my son,” Eric said. “What have you done with him?”
Terry came to the edge of the ravine. “Ya’ brought the cops with ya’,” he said. “Somebody else got the kid last night. Wha’cha’ do with our money?”
“I’m not the one who took your goddamned money. I’m the one who gave it to you,” Eric shouted. “I want my boy!”
“Oh?” Tom said, “And I want my ship. Right now it looks to me like you got your boy, your money, and my ship. And like I said, I want my ship. I just paid for it and what remains is for you to sign the title over to me… or give me a bill of sale.”
“And how the hell am I supposed to do that?” Eric moved away from the slope to draw their attention away from it. “I can’t sell what I don’t own!”
“You’ll figure it out,” Tom said, momentarily seeing the beautiful sloop plowing the seas with her spinnaker puffed out like a pouter pigeon’s chest. “You’re a clever guy. You’ll figure out a way to get me the Sesame. We can go now to see a lawyer.”
“Harriet Williams owns the Sesame. Tell her your troubles!”
“Forge Harriet’s signature! Your girlfriend can pretend to be Harriet. Do whatever you have to do.”
“You’re crazy!” Eric snarled. “And who’s gonna believe that title to a million dollar ship was conveyed deep in the Pennsylvania woods by a foreigner who wasn’t even on record as being in the U.S. at the time.”
Jack looked at Eric. “I thought you said Harriet told people she was movin’ to Atlanta?” His voice took a smarmy tone.
“Maybe that’s what she said, but I never said it was true,” Eric countered. “And you’re the one who said she was picked up at the Brac to get Martin some new medical treatment. Are you living in some dream world? And how could you convince a lawyer that Lilyanne is Harriet? There’s thirty years between them. And she’s got no identification papers!”
“You’ve got my money!” Tom yelled. “Pay somebody to forge ’em.”
Eric’s toleration had expired. “Get it through your head, you imbecile. You’re never going to own the Sesame – especially when you’re behind bars in the U.S.”
To Jack, the words were only a notice of loss, like an entry in a “shipping news” daily… a ship by some name and home port, captained by some officer, and bound for some port, had gone down in a some sea with so much cargo and a number of crew and passengers. Jack would have read the notice and then his eye would have moved on to the next entry.
But to Tom Fielder the remark contained the essence of tragedy. He stood there, looking straight ahead, but seeing nothing except a vacuum of loss. A thought occurred to him. It was as if he had been blindfolded and ordered to “walk the plank” – to walk away from the side of his beautiful ship. He could not proceed in a surefooted way, but had to take mincing steps… inching forward while the vessel continued to pitch and roll and yawl in a chaotic sea because he was no longer able to master it.
Terry and Jack waited expectantly to hear his next order, but Tom, feeling dizzy, only sighed deeply and leaned against the truck to steady himself. It puzzled him that though he could read a swell, or a breeze, or a cloud formation and decipher its forecast of good or bad weather, he had not been able to see that there was even a possibility that he would fail in his mission. Yes, it was like interfering people were forcing a loving couple to divorce. People didn’t care! Terry’s choice of the big stupid truck! His own brother thinkin’ he had a right to live on his ship! Claus screwin’ him out of money that was rightfully his. Suddenly, as if he had torn the blindfold from his eyes, he shouted at Eric, “Harriet gave me the sloop, you kept it. I got the money to buy it, you stole it. You’re the reason I’m not sailin’ her right now!”
Eric took a few steps towards him. He tried to sound reasonable. “The ship’s back in George Town and that’s the only place you can get it. Maybe you can get it cheap at auction. So save your stupid ass and tell me where my son is!”
To Tom, the words conveyed truth and despite the insult, did contain some possibly good advice. “If you won’t keep the deal Harriet and I made, I will have to buy her at auction. But I need money to do that. And you, you son of a bitch, stole my money!” He raised the rifle as though it were a hand gun and fired it, hitting Eric in the thigh. Eric yelled in pain, cursing in several languages. Tom roared at him, “Now where’s my money?”
Beryl and Akara heard the shot. “Listen!” Beryl said.
Terry, looking around for answers, had walked to the road. He saw Lilyanne and George struggling to climb it. “Look at this” he shouted. “The assholes who were in that SUV are gettin’ away with one of the duffel bags.” He had no weapon. “Get over here,” he shouted. “Stop ’em!” The shot that Tom had fired was behind him. “They ain’t that way,” he shouted, “they’re gettin’ away this way! Get the truck started,” he yelled, running towards the F 450. “They’re gonna get away. They ain’t cops.”
Jack did not know which directive he was supposed to follow: join Terry at the foot of the hill or join Tom in the truck. He stumbled forward and bumped into Terry. “Show me!” he said. Terry retreated a few feet and pointed at the figures climbing the road. Jack fired two shots.
Beryl was frantic. “Can you see what they’re shooting at? Is somebody on the road? Is it George?”
Akara got out of the SUV and stepped up onto the bumper and then the bonnet. He stood high enough to get a clearer view of the road ahead. Finally he saw heads emerge from the fog. “It’s Lilyanne! And George is behind her.” Another shot was fired but Akara could not tell where it hit. Beryl had already jumped from the Explorer and had started running towards Lilyanne to assist her.
Akara continued to watch for a moment more to be able to assess the source of the rifle fire. As he watched he could see that George had slowed down… perhaps he had even stopped running. Thinking that George might have been wounded, Akara prepared to jump down from the Explorer when he suddenly saw the F 450 begin to climb up the steep hill. More shots were fired at them from the cab of the F 450. Akara ran down the hill to help George, passing Lilyanne and Beryl. “Something’s wrong with George!” he shouted. “I’ll help him.”
Beryl continued to help Lilyanne and the baby to climb the last fifty yards to reach the Explorer. They slipped and stumbled on the slippery road. Finally they reached the Explorer and Beryl pushed Lilyanne and the baby into the back seat. “I’m going to help George and Akara,” she said, slamming the door shut.
Akara reached George. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
“No! Go back and drive them out of here. That 450 is gonna push Beryl’s car right off the road!”
“What the hell are you waiting for?” Akara asked frantically. “Come on!”
“Go without me!” George ordered. “Eric was hit! Go help the women!” Then he turned and faced the truck that was moving inexorably towards him. He drew his Colt and took a Weaver firing stance and fired three bullets into the F 450’s radiator. Without saying another word, Akara imitated his stance, and fired the Baretta at the truck’s grill.
“Go back to the women!” George ordered.
Akara jogged up the hill as George took refuge behind a tree. He imagined, but could not see, green fluid spurting from the radiator. He could hear the truck continue to climb the hill but it quickly slowed and finally crawled to a stop.
George needed a hiding place. He looked around and found the hollowed trunk of an old pine tree that stood a few feet back from the road. It was a good place to hide… one that could be circled and still keep him hidden. He hoisted himself up onto the edge of the dead tree, climbed over it, and then, hoping that he wouldn’t be trying to share the home of a raccoon or skunk family, he lowered himself inside the hollowed tree trunk. He could hear the Explorer drive in reverse. The motor hummed steadily. He smiled. Akara must be driving. He could also hear the three men arguing and cursing. He could understand only a few words but one of them was “cabin.” George surmised that they had decided to climb the slope and return to the cabin for the night. All in all, George thought, that wasn’t a bad idea. He wondered why he hadn’t thought of it.
When he heard the men cursing and stumbling as they slid down to the creek, crossed it, and clawed their way up the slope to the upper road, he finally went back to see what had happened to Eric. As he passed the truck he counted the holes he and Akara had made. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “All six shots hit the radiator. That’s fucking amazing!”
Eric sat beside the road furiously pressing his wound. “Did Beryl and Akara just leave us here?” he demanded to know, “as if we were so much garbage?”
“It’s your pain talking,” George said. “Let me see the wound.”
The bullet had gone through the outer side of Eric’s thigh. His femoral artery had not been touched. “You’ll live,” George said. “Let’s bind it up.” He took off his own belt and using a handkerchief that he kept folded in his jacket, he pressed the squared piece of linen against the wound and tightened his belt around it.
“Are we married now?” Eric asked.
“No,” George answered. “Maybe in some parts of the world… but not here.” He laughed. “Let’s wait in their truck.”
“Will Beryl come back for us?”
“My guess is that she will drop Akara and Lilyanne off at a motel and then, when they’re safe, she’ll come back. Or maybe she’ll take them home first. Don’t look for her before dawn.”
“Listen,” Eric said softly, “There’s no point in leaving the money to rot there on the slope. When she gets back will she be alone?”
“Are you looking for laborers to drag the bags up the slope and then to this road and then up this road to where she parks the Explorer?”
“That’s about it. I’ll see to it that the money is all returned. And, naturally, I’ll replace your truck. All will be set in order before I return to the Caymans.”
“Naturally,” George said. “And when will that be?”
Beryl and Akara had driven Lilyanne and the baby all the way back to Tarleton. Beryl called ahead and the grandparents arranged a welcome home party. Lilyanne groaned as she saw the Mylar balloons attached to the portico’s columns.
Everett and Hans wanted more information about the kidnappers, but Beryl assured them that as far as she knew, with the exception of Lilyanne’s brief encounter with the sleeping men – a moment in time in which her attention was focussed on the baby – no one had any close contact with them. When she conveyed the news that Eric had been shot and that George had stayed behind to help him, the Haffners seemed strangely relieved. The information tended to support their contention that Eric could not possibly have been an ally of the kidnappers.
Treating Lilyanne as an unnecessary appendage, the grandmothers undressed the baby, searching for marks of abuse and, though he had been gone only a few days, signs of malnutrition. He had not had his diaper changed frequently enough and, they discovered to their horror, his bottom was red.
Lilyanne refused to allow them to take him to the hospital to be “professionally checked.” “Just give him oatmeal and plums,” she said. And, since they had considered the possibility that the kidnapping was an “inside job,” they stared at each other for a long moment and in French simultaneously voiced their doubt that the kitchen staff should be trusted. Prudence demanded that they prepare the child’s meals, themselves.
Cecelia dismissed the kitchen staff and she and Erica proceeded to bathe the baby in the kitchen sink. They then tried to interpret the directions for making oatmeal – given in clear American avoirdupois measurements into their metric equivalents – sufficient for six portions – and succeeded in making a large lump of something that they could not even force down the drain. They compromised with prudence and allowed the cook to prepare oatmeal for the baby who had to be awakened in order to eat it.
As Beryl took her car keys from her pocket and prepared to return to the oak-tree site, Sanford told her that she looked as though she had not slept in two years. “Yes,” she responded, “it feels that way.”
“Then,” he said in an authoritative voice as he took the keys from her hand, “since Mr. Chatree knows the way, there seems to be no reason for you to return to that woodland area. He and I can return to help Messrs Wagner and Haffner.” Knowing that he was familiar with her Colt Mustang, she took the weapon from her purse’s gun slot and pushed it into his jacket pocket.
Akara patted his Beretta in its shoulder holster and stood up. “I’m ok with it.”
Everett and Hans, not knowing the correct form to use when asking a servant for permission to come along, mumbled that they would be of immeasurable help if either George or Eric needed blood… or something. “Furthermore,” Everett added, “we’ll both be armed in the event we encounter the kidnappers. I have my trusty Glock 9 and both of us are known to be excellent shots – though Herr Haffner is more at home with shotguns. He shoots grouse regularly. He’ll be carrying my Purdey Over-And-Under.”
“Then Sir,” Sanford replied, “we will not have enough room in the Explorer. I would suggest that we take the family Escalade.”
“Excellent idea,” Everett Smith said.
Akara groaned. “If driving the Explorer backwards up that hill was difficult, driving the Escalade backwards is going to be close to impossible.”
“We’ll manage,” Everett said, and as Akara rolled his eyes, the men got into the big Cadillac and headed for Highway #422.
Eric and George had already retrieved the money bags from the slope by the time the Escalade rolled down the hill. They had carried them, however, only to the base of the road. Leaving the bags standing upright, leaning against each other, the two men walked up to the F 450 to wait for Beryl to return. They were not entirely surprised to see the Escalade snake down the narrow roadway.
As Everett and Hans rushed to greet them, George said simply, “He needs stitches and a tetanus shot.” He walked to the Escalade where Sanford, as promised, had just called Beryl.
“I’ll let George bring you up to date,” Sanford said as he handed George his phone. George waited until everyone was in the car before he proceeded to reveal his expurgated version of the ordeal. He had omitted the part about Eric’s wanting to execute the sleeping men and that he had lingered behind, as Lilyanne tried to flee with the baby, to instead rescue the duffel bags.
Hans and Everett, having been the principal ransom raisers, were delighted to do the hard work of dragging the duffel bags up the hill to the Escalade.
When everyone was finally seated in the car, Akara asked George, “What is going to happen to the kidnappers?”
George looked pitifully at the dead truck. Every part of it, except the tail gate, had been scratched and dented and also, since it had been forcefully driven without the necessary coolant, its motor had probably seized and its gaskets burned to uselessness. “For what they did to this beautiful F 450 in less than a week, they ought to be shot,” George said.
“Ve’ll pay for all damages,” Hans said plaintively. “Please don’t call police.”
“I am police,” George said abruptly. “There are three desperate men up there in that cabin. They’re killers and can’t be allowed to walk free.”
Sanford acquitted himself well driving in reverse. In his youth, he explained, he had worked in a Manhattan parking lot. He made slow but careful progress and by the time they reached the oak tree, he was much relieved to be able to drive forward. He had not gone ten feet in Drive when Beryl called Everett’s phone. She wanted him to tell George that Lilyanne had called the State Police.
As they exited onto Highway 222, they heard a helicopter and looked back to see two Highway Patrol cars turn onto Van Reid.
Eric leaned forward to whisper in George’s ear, “Are you gonna stick with the sanitized version?”
“Probably. But I will have to discuss that with my wife,” George said, pleased with himself for the first time in days.