The Woods (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

Part Two

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean like a drone?” Sensei asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to “The Woods” Part 3

El espejo de plata

 

20141011_185813
Yao Sheng Shakya

 

Queridos amigos,

¿Vieron lo que pasa cuando están en un cuarto bien iluminado y miran por la ventana hacia la calle? ¡Pueden ver todo! Si se dan vuelta, pueden ver a la gente, las cosas, los colores del cuarto en el que están y también a los que pasan por la calle, los árboles, las casas…

Pero… ¿y si de pronto afuera oscurece? Al estar frente a la ventana ¡sólo podés ver tu reflejo en el vidrio!

La luna, con su luz azulada, argéntea, no tiene luz propia: refleja la luz del Sol. De la misma manera, las personas reflejan las enseñanzas que reciben. Los budistas llamamos a las enseñanzas de Buda “el Dharma” y las consideramos como un Sol que enriquece e ilumina nuestras vidas. Estas enseñanzas nos enseñan a respetar a los otros, a ser amable, a ser felices haciendo lo que es correcto y lo que hace feliz a los demás.

Si las practicamos con sinceridad, entonces, cuando la noche llegue a nuestras vidas, aún podremos ver a la luz de la Luna, el reflejo del Sol del Dharma. Podremos ver las soluciones a nuestros problemas. Podremos ver cómo estas respuestas que encontramos cambian nuestras vidas, las de nuestra familia, nuestros amigos y nuestra comunidad.

Pero cuando abandonamos el Camino, y sólo pensamos en nosotros mismos… mantenemos nuestra luz confinada a un pequeño espacio solitario. Entonces, la luna refulgente se habrá desvanecido y, a través de la ventana, sólo veremos la oscuridad del mundo y nada más que nuestro pálido reflejo en el cristal.

Una vieja historia ilustra lo que quiero decir…

Había una vez en China, un vendedor de frutas y verduras que era muy querido y respetado por su familia, sus amigos, e incluso sus clientes. En tiempos difíciles, rebajaba los precios a los que más lo necesitaban, o si alguien no podía acercarse a su comercio, él les llevaba lo que necesitaban a su hogar. Siempre estaba dispuesto a donar parte de su ganancia a una buena causa y ayudar con los animales que se perdían en el barrio, perros y gatos que anunciaba con pequeños carteles. Su vida de servicio era simple y esforzada, pero lo llenaba de felicidad por completo.

Pero un día, algo cambió. Incluso las personas más buenas pueden perder el Camino alguna vez… y así sucedió que este buen hombre comenzó a resentirse. Al encontrarse con una persona a la que había ayudado, se dio cuenta de que su abrigo ¡era más caro y de mayor calidad que su propio abrigo! Enojado, se decía “¡los pobres a los que ayudo viven mejor que yo!” Así que nunca más ofreció rebajas a nadie. Tiempo después, el dinero que ofrecía todos los meses como gesto de caridad no fue invertido como él había sugerido, así que, contrariado, dejó de hacerlo. En otra oportunidad, cuando su propio gato se perdió, lo buscó y lo buscó, pero los otros comercios no publicaban los anuncios que él solía hacer. Disgustado con la gente de su vecindad, dejó de publicar los avisos de las mascotas perdidas. Aún más, publicó en su negocio un cartel indicando que cualquiera que trajese a su querida mascota sería recompensado. Pero cuando una mujer se acercó con el animal, la acusó a los gritos de haberlo robado para cobrar la recompensa y la echó a la calle. Pronto, todo se volvió una amargura sin límites. A medida que el amor que lo animaba lo fue dejando, contrató a unos matones para que recobraran cada deuda, grande o pequeña que tenía. En un corto tiempo, su buen nombre dejó de existir. Nadie venía ya a su negocio, menos aún con una sonrisa o un gesto de gratitud. Sus problemas empezaron a apilarse, uno arriba de otro… cómo tienen la costumbre de apilarse los problemas en el mundo material, al que los Budistas llamamos “sámsara”.
Y así, su naturaleza cordial y amistosa se convirtió de a poco en una personalidad oscura, sostenida por la ambición, el orgullo y el rencor que rezumaba constantemente bajo la forma de incontrolables ataques de ira. Ya no sabía lo que era ver la amistad en los ojos de los otros. Más aún, la gente se cruzaba de vereda para no tener que estar en su presencia.

Pero un día, en un iluminado momento, un rayo de Sol atravesó su corazón endurecido por el odio y el aislamiento… “¿Qué es lo que me pasa? ¿Dónde está el cariño que mis amigos y mi familia me profesaban?” se preguntaba. Y así, angustiado al ver por un instante la imagen dolorosa de lo que se había convertido fue a ver a un viejo maestro Zen. “Tal vez, este hombre sabio me pueda decir que es lo que me pasa”.

Luego de presentarse, el maestro pidió amablemente al hombre que lo acompañara hasta la ventana:

–     Mire y dígame que ve

–     Veo la calle vacía, y el parque. Pronto empezará a atardecer. Algunas personas vuelven de su trabajo a sus casas…

–     Ahora, mire aquí y dígame que ve

En este punto el sacerdote alcanzó un espejo al hombre

–    Sólo veo mi reflejo… y nada más

Dijo con algo de pesar el hombre. El maestro hizo una pausa y mirando fijamente a su huésped le dijo:

–    La ventana que te permitía ver el mundo y el espejo están hechas del mismo cristal. La diferencia es que una está limpia y pura permitiéndote ver cada cosa como es, en cambio, en el espejo, el cristal está recubierto con una fina capa de plata… y en esa plata sólo puedes ver tu rostro. Y es así cómo en el mundo material nuestras ambiciones y deseos no son algo intrínsecamente malo, salvo cuando, como la plata en el espejo, obstruyen nuestra visión y nos privan de la vista del mundo y de los otros.

 

Photo credit: Wallconvert.com
Photo credit: Wallconvert.com

A commentary on “Words: As images of God”

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

For something to be called art, we were taught in freshman English class, it must have four powers: it must make us feel emotion; it must arouse our imagination; it must inspire us to think.  The fourth is the most indefinable: it must have the power to survive.

In 1987, Photographer Andres Serrano, a native New Yorker, born of Honduran and Afro-Cuban parents, produced an art photo he called, Immersion (Piss Christ).
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Twenty-eight years is probably long enough in today’s nano-second electronic age for the artwork to be considered a survivor.  We’re still talking about it, responding to its emotional impact, and wondering just what it is all about.

It was a piece that was produced in a specific time, a time that we now are inclined to dump into memory’s trash can.  Who remembers the AIDS quilt?

Serrano, a married man, academically trained at the Brooklyn Museum and Art School, and a devout Roman Catholic, cared about Society’s misfits, cast-offs, and all people who were the object of scorn.

Born in 1950, Serrano came of age during the tumultuous days of the AIDS epidemic.  Nobody knew what AIDS was, of course… What was believed was that it originated in African apes and was sexually transmitted through male anal intercourse and these two partial-facts added up to the ludicrous claims made by many religious leaders that it was a divine punishment by God for the sin of homosexuality and by many racists that it evidenced the brute sexuality of Negro men who obviously had sex with monkeys and who were, therefore, the cause of so much misery in the world.

The 1980s were not good years to be a male homosexual.  The mysterious disease spread quickly.  A man could meet a friend on Monday and both would be feeling fine.  By the following Monday one had dropped twenty pounds, and by the Monday after that, had strange lesions on his skin – Kaposi’s Sarcoma.  Within weeks that man would be buried.  Police and other medical professionals often refused to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for fear of catching the disease. Male homosexuals were virtually unemployable. As dramatized by such films as Philadelphia, even brilliant men with law degrees were reduced to the status of the homeless.  They were not people that anyone wanted to talk to – much less be associated with.   And they died in droves – if anyone remembers the exponential growth of that AIDS quilt. We had a whole class of human beings who were not welcome to sit in a church congregation and who were so jobless that they couldn’t have put money in the collection plate when it was passed. So there they were… completely rejected – and not only by the straight community, but by other homosexual men who, with good reason, feared to be “outed” as homosexual and incur that cruel rejection, or from the also reasonable fear that they could themselves be infected by any physical contact with these potential victims.

My first encounter with uninformed Afro-American men occurred during one of my prison Zen classes.  A few dozen men, who were mostly Black Muslims, came to “set me straight” about a remark I had made the previous week.  I had casually said that AIDS originated with African monkeys; and their leader, who was in agreement with Berkeley Professor Peter Duesberg’s wretched theory that AIDS was not a disease at all but a “harmless passenger virus” that had ridden to notoriety on the backs of conditions which resonated with poor Afro-Americans, i.e., that AIDS was caused by drugs, poor nutrition, and by being used as guinea pigs for all manner of failed medical experimental cures.  Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, firmly believed Duesberg’s explanation; and the excellence of Mandela and of Berkeley rubbed off onto this idiocy.

Until that day, I don’t think I ever felt even a touch of what it means to be black and to have to listen to the crap that passed for scholarship and religious guidance.  The leader of the group demanded to know why I was spreading this filth about Afro-American males.  At first, I was speechless.  Dozens of angry men – murderers, rapists, etc. – had crowded into my classroom. My first objective was in getting them to calm down, but then I had to answer their question and the first thing I thought of was sheep.  I asked, “Do you know how sheep are raised?”  Nobody answered.   I said, “Sheep are raised in green-field pastures where they can eat grass.  In the Congo, where AIDS  first occurred, they don’t have green-field pastures.  They have trees which are like overhead pastures. Instead of sheep, they have monkeys that live in those overhead pastures.  People need protein and monkeys provide protein the way sheep provide protein.  Now, when a person wants to eat a monkey it is best to kill it first… and then to gut it.  If the monkey has AIDS and the person who kills it or prepares it to be cooked has a cut on his or her hands and the monkey’s blood gets on that cut, that human being is likely to get AIDS. He or she can then spread it. So what is your question?”  After some mumbling, they all left.  The following week, one Catholic inmate came to talk to me about Piss Christ.

His front teeth had been knocked out – the usual sexual requirement for “fish” (newcomers) in prison life. Slightly effeminate, he said that he had been bullied at school as a kid; ostracized from his family during the AIDS epidemic; and was completely unemployable. He stole some money and I guess the authorities were glad “to get the fag off the streets.” He asked if I thought Piss Christ was blasphemous.  I answered (a bit off point), “No… urine is sterile.  If you submerged a plastic crucifix of Christ in ordinary drinking water you’d surround him with all manner of nasty creatures. But urine is perfectly clean… sterile.”  He had not known that.  I asked him what the picture meant to him and he said,  “When you love Christ and you’ve nothing left to give, but maybe something that was part of you… your piss… well, then… that’s what you give.”

No, it wasn’t ondinism or urolagnia that he had in mind.  It was deeper, much deeper, a kind of “This is my body,” offering.  Maybe you have to remember the Gay Plague of the 1980s to understand Immersion (Piss Christ).  I remember how I had to stand and be interrogated by very angry men simply because I had said AIDS came out of Africa. They had blamed me for a conclusion they had reached and of which I was innocent.  It was they who were ignorant.  I defused their anger because I thought of sheep…  maybe The Good Shepherd came to me.  Who knows?  I’ve thought a lot about Serrano’s photo since then, and I remember that tiny hint of what it must feel like to be threatened, blamed, and punished by the ignorant.  Most of all I remember a sentence that was as Zen as anything I’ve ever found in the Mahayana Canon. “When you love Christ, and you’ve nothing left to give but maybe something that was part of you…”

Art?  You can bet your ass it’s art.  It arouses your emotion, and your imagination, and it makes you think.  Really think!  And, yes, it survives.

Words: As images of God

Yao Xiang Shakya
Yao Xiang Shakya

 

Liz Drawing
An American Buddha by Yao Xiang Shakya

 

I remember when I was a child holding a soft red leathered book, one of those onion-skin paper small books that even a child would know to handle carefully. I did. I held the book in my hand for moments before I opened it. I knew so deeply from a place that is dark and breathless within me that words were revelations of what I call God.  All words no matter how they were put together or arranged held something so unthinkable I still cannot put words together to explain it. I knew that all words have the power to open the eye that cannot be seen. I knew all words have the potential to cheer up the soul. So there I sat on the floor with my back against the bed and began to read the Travels of Marco Polo.

I looked for the face of the invisible in every sentence and when I found it I stopped because I knew I had met the presence of something more important than anything else I was able to imagine. It was and still is unimaginable. It is only lately that I realize that this realization is shared by others who are far better at making failed but heroic attempts to explain this power. I might now call it, at least temporarily, an eye-opener. And as quickly as I call it an eye-opener I want to append, amend and apologize because I know it is not an evenhanded, nor an acceptable name for what I saw.  To call it an eye-opener is my way of putting my jacket on a vacant seat as a place marker, a way to save the vacant seat from impatient patois.

My suspicions are that there are countless, restless canticles that might want to claim the saved seat except I know that each one despite the beauty and form is a borrowed imposter. All words fail to be other than play-actors. It is not in the sense of a cheat, but in the sense of what is true. In comparison, all words up against what-is-true are cheats.  It may be hard to swallow especially if we cherish words but in the light of the second commandment it is a relief.

“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.”

 

Although I wait and at times make an attempt to scribble and bind together an image of what I experienced as a child and what I experience today I know it will be a dim and partial reflection. There is no word, no one word or even a series of words that might claim ownership to an image of God. I might go as far as to say that no artistic expression may claim ownership to an image of God. I know this experientially and my knowledge is both confirmed and relieved by the second commandment.

My experience tells me again and again that everything comes to show me the image of God but everything fails to deliver a graven one; graven meaning indelibly set. In childhood, as today, I see something unimaginable in art even when the tale is fiction. The Travels of Marco Polo is questionable as being a historical and accurate travelogue. In fact, it’s questioned whether or not Marco Polo even existed. It doesn’t matter. The tale delivered the unimaginable reflection of God to a young girl sitting on the floor leaning against a bed.

The best I can do is to do my best to put together words that when they are put together they transcend the contrivances of a material, unfinished form. I am well aware that I am not in charge of any work. I don’t pretend to understand it. But I am aware that with every turn of a phrase a golem, a dumb invention, may be the result.

It is a cultural trend to write, to create an image of God through the creation of a benighted character of such stupidity that the reader is challenged to search for any likeness of goodness in the work. The use of extremes of depravity seems to have no limit along the x and y axis lines of human behavior. I suspect that this trend which seems pervasive arises because it is too difficult to write about godliness in such a way as to capture the reader. It may also be a more sad state of affairs. Writing which underpins every performance in film industry is cavalier. It considers sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption as the bread and butter of every institution ever put together by man. Someone recently suggested I watch House of Cards, a hit show as they say about sexual assault, violence and bedeviling corruption in the U.S. government.  Why? Why would I spend what precious time I have watching depravity? Where is the redemption in works where everything is seen through a narrow sexual, violent lens with a corrupted fast shutter speed? The characters are the worst sort of golems, those dumb inventions that insult anything and everyone through vulgar behaviors. They are stupid cartoon-like characters caught in the swamp of the material world with little hope of making it to dry land.

They, however, are an attempt at an expression of God, as broken as they may be they give rise to an impression of God nonetheless. It is the nature of creativity to point to an image of God. The problem for me is that depraved, sexually graphic and violent works suggest an impression of God as unknowable except to those who are already awake. These works, when studied carefully with Buddha eyes, reveal that man is looking for God, but looking for God in all the wrong places.

Readers and viewers cheer the incomprehensible prowess of street-smart characters that lack common sense and little virtue. Competence to get-away with naughty behaviors is looked upon as a humorous dexterity to satisfy the ego-impulses. In reality it shows how mankind at this point in time views virtue between one another as wanton and dissolute.

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

In an interview by Bill Moyers with Sister Wendy Beckett, a cloistered Roman Catholic nun, he asks Sister Wendy what she thinks of the photograph of the Piss Christ. It is a photograph of a small, plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s urine. Moyer’s asks Sister Wendy about the freedom in art today, that art now lacks boundaries and is this what has gone wrong with art today? She starts by saying “…one could say that’s what has gone wrong.” But in her awakened mind she reminds Moyer’s of a principle of theology. “An abuse should not take away a use. The fact that someone abuses something does not mean that it wasn’t a good thing to start with.” She goes on to say she likes rules but rules should not constrict. “This freedom is a good thing, but that it has gone to people’s heads and they have become very silly is very sad.” Moyer returns to the question of the Piss Christ and asks her directly if she is offended. “Well no.” she answers. “I thought he was saying in a magazine sort of way what we are doing to Christ. He is not being treated with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. And we live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine, in practice. It is a very admonitory work. Not a great work.”

She goes on to say whether it is blasphemous or not depends on what you make of it. For her, she sees it as the sad state of God, in practice. She hopes it passes. I concur, I hope the use of graphic sex, violence and corruption pass as well.  In my small, somewhat illiterate view of history, it appears to be an age old tendency of mankind to be irreverent, in practice.

The Piss Christ photograph is now over 25 years old. “Hope,” I have been told is what Mexicans say, “is the last thing to go.”

The Woods (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

 

As our second offering to our new Tales from the Sangha section, Ming Zhen Shakya, writing as Anthony Wolff (her father’s name) presents THE WOODS, a detective story that involves characters introduced in her 15 novellas series, Zen and the Art of Investigation. 

http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

Synopsis

A baby is kidnapped and held for ransom.  Is it a ploy by the baby’s biological father to obtain money from his rich parents? The detectives are forbidden to call the police.  How can they outwit the kidnappers without resorting to force when the baby is in the line of fire?  Can they survive in a wilderness without an ability to contact the outside world?  Without matches how can they start a fire?  Without equipment how can they find food? And when their truck is submerged in a lake and the kidnappers keep them submerged by shooting at them, what tricks will enable them to breathe?

Salvation means more than mere survival in the reclaimed strip-mining forests of Pennsylvania.  No one knows that more than their ruthless enemies. 

Photo Credit: National Geographic
Photo Credit: National Geographic

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

Part One

Thieves of a lower order are seldom motivated by justice when committing a crime.  Their victim is likely to be targeted for no other reason but that he is both rich and vulnerable.  His breeding and commercial importance are irrelevant. But other more discerning thieves have a conscientious regard of justice and select their victim not only because he is rich and vulnerable, but because he has committed some sort of social infractiona loan that was denied; less wages than were expected; a haughty disposition or contumelious nature; or even a failure to respond to a charitable request, however dubious.  Numerous causes lend merit to their intentions.

In the Cayman Islands, two brothers, Tommy and Jack Fielder, tipped their kitchen chairs back and, inspired by ganja joints the size of Montecristos, envisioned the ease with which they could obtain justice and money from the owner of the sloop Sesame. The owner, a con woman they knew as Harriet Williams, had hired Tommy to captain the vessel and three passengers from its berth in the Barcadere Marina in George Town, Grand Cayman, to Cayman Brac Island, some hundred miles distant. Tommy, along with everyone else he knew on Grand Cayman, had always liked the mousy woman who deferred constantly to her oversized husband; but the large man had shrunk in the last months from a serious illness; and while a temperate soul might expect to find Harriet even more solicitous of her husband’s welfare, Tommy, at least, had noticed that her attitude towards him diminished in tandem with his shrinking size and she regarded him with what Tommy thought was… well… contempt.

The third passenger on board the Sesame was a young business associate whom Tommy knew as Willem van Aken. Harriet had seemed inordinately fond of Willem, yet never would Tommy have suspected that anything untoward existed between them – except that when the three passengers went ashore to visit Willem’s brother who lived at one of the highest points on Brac’s mile-wide island, she had drastically changed her appearance.  She mysteriously looked to be twenty years younger and rather glamorous.  She wore lipstick and face powder and combed out the braid that always lay like a sausage at the nape of her neck and she also did not seem to be wearing underwear since her breasts jiggled insouciantly beneath a blouse that mousy Harriet would have regarded as sinful.  There being no port or harbor at the Brac, it was necessary that they drop anchor in an indentation in the shoreline that was near the island’s small hotel; and as they climbed down the ladder into the rowboat that would be taking them ashore, Harriet winked a mascaraed eye at Tommy and said, “You’re a good man, Tom, and there’s nobody I’d rather see take permanent command of this good ship.  So do yourself a favor… do all of us a favor… and say absolutely nothing to the police if you’re asked what you witnessed here at the Brac.  Do we have a deal?” The improbable change in the woman’s appearance lent credulity to the improbable suggestion that she might give him the ship; and Tommy, startled and immediately cooperative, managed to say, “Aye, Madam.  I will know nothing at all.”

It has always been a quirk in the maritime personality that the man who captains a vessel takes a proprietary interest in its welfare.  From royals to rudder, she is his to command; and like a marriage consummated daily, she is his faithful and obedient wife. “Till death us do part,” is a landlubber’s conceit that is never uttered at a funeral service.  A true captain anticipates no elegy more eloquent than the whisper of love that he hears as he goes down with his ship.  Tommy Fielder had learned his skills in the world’s most dangerous profession: he had been for twenty years a fisherman; and now, at the age of thirty-five, having survived hurricanes and rogue waves, he could afford to be a romantic in such matters.  He was sufficiently infatuated with the million-dollar sloop Sesame to suppose that fate had cast them together in some kind of nuptial arrangement.  This, of course, was nonsense.  But the woman he knew as Harriet Williams was a consummate trickster; and she could read him as a wily gypsy reads the mind of an eager ingenue.  Her intimation that he might acquire rights to the vessel in exchange for his supportive silence was an obvious ruse by which she played him.   But time and THC have a way of converting a ludicrous suggestion into a legally binding contract. And Tommy’s hopes grew.

For the few days that he was alone on the sloop, he caressed the cedar rails as he waited, expecting Harriet to return with the Sesame’s title in her hands. He smiled as he whispered to the bridled sails the wonderful adventures they would have when they were properly wed in the Maritime Registry Office. He apologized for being a humble man who would have to live with her as business partners – but it would be as partners of the classiest kind: they would jointly host persons of importance for upscale private parties – a honeymoon perhaps, or for two couples who liked to play bridge, or for academic types who yearned to linger in strange waters as they inspected cenotes and caves, or the adventurous souls who wanted to search old wrecks for Spanish gold.

Curiously, these vagaries became more substantive when Harriet, her husband, and her young business associate, Willem – who in real life was actually her son – failed to return to the ship. And then, quite mysteriously, Willem’s “brother” Claus rowed out to the ship to give Tommy a thousand dollars with the instruction that he hire a few hands and sail the Sesame back to the main island, adding that he did “not care what the hell happened to the ship and did not want to be bothered about it again.”

Tommy summoned his brother Jack who quickly flew to the Brac.  Under ganja’s nutrient rich atmosphere, Harriet’s offer and the thousand-dollar payment grew into the unmistakable evidence of pledged ownership.  Tommy and his brother sailed the vessel back to Grand Cayman, labored to maintain its trim condition, paid various fees, began to live aboard the vessel, and convincingly answered the maritime investigator’s questions about the missing registered owner of the Sesame and also about the events that occurred when the ship had dropped anchor at the Brac.

Tommy responded with crisp authority. “I heard that Harriet, her husband, and Willem van Aken were all picked up by a ship on the other side of the island. Her husband, as everybody knows, was pretty sick and they were going to get him some new treatment.  They weren’t sure they’d have a use for the Sesame again; but,” he added with jingoistic enthusiasm, “she couldn’t bring herself to break her relationship with the good folks here in the Islands; so she thought we could use the ship for private parties until she knew more about her husband’s condition. I thought it was a great idea, and so her and me and Jack agreed to start leasing the Sesame for private pleasure cruises.  Naturally, Jack and me will be aboard for every trip – we won’t let anybody else take the helm.   Harriet has agreed to give us 60% of the profits.”

“That’s gross income,” Jack interjected.  “She’ll pay for the insurance and maintenance out of her end. If all goes well we’ve got an option to buy the Sesame outright.”

“That’s a good deal for you,” the investigator said.  “But let us know as soon as you hear from Harriet.  And if you talk to her, tell her we all wish Martin a quick recovery. But you do realize,” he added, “that without a recorded contract, this ship stays put. It might be wise for you to consider living back on land.  Without authorized permission, you really don’t have the right to live aboard the vessel.”  He said this in such a firm but harmonious tone that no room was left for the dissonance of discussion. Effectively, they had been ordered off the ship.

It was unfortunate that the maritime authorities were so fussy about executed contracts since the brothers did not know how to obtain one. They had not imagined that such legalities were rigidly honored in the tropic’s laid-back environment.  Yet, in his next visit to their on-land apartment, the investigator found it necessary to remind them of international maritime laws. “Seizing the ship of another and using that property for personal gain is a bit more than theft.  Different jurisdictions have their own interpretations of Piracy.”

Chilled by hearing the word “Piracy,” the brothers assured the investigator that they would contact Claus immediately at the Brac.  “He’d be likely to have the necessary documents,” Tom said. “After all, Claus, Willem, Harriet, and Martin had been in business a long time, and after Martin suddenly got so sick and Harriet ended all their business and charitable affairs, she probably dumped all the paperwork on Claus when she took Martin away for treatment.”

Jack added, “Claus, no doubt, is still trying to organize things.” The reason seemed plausible enough.  “We’ll take our Daysailer up there within the week and get things straightened out.”

“That’s a lot of ocean for a 14 footer,” said the investigator. “The weather’s been ‘iffy’ and if I were you, I’d fly. But maybe you can catch Claus down here.  He’s been spending a lot of money on clothes and on furniture for that house of his.”

Before he ended the interview, the marine investigator renewed his request for more information about the events that had occurred when the Sesame had anchored at the Brac. “What do you know about that?”

“Know?” Tommy responded quizzically, “I know nothing.  But yes, I’ve heard a lot of improbable gossip that as a responsible man I didn’t want to repeat.  But if you insist, I can tell you that I’ve heard that a young American woman had been dropped off by a Cuban vessel.  That, in itself, is laughable.  Nevertheless,” he added, “I didn’t see her myself.  I also heard that she had stayed at the old mining house Claus occupies high on the island.  And then an American private investigator named Wagner had come to the Brac supposedly ‘to rescue her’ – that was how people put it – and then the American had taken her back to the U.S. so quickly that the police had no chance to question them about anything.  All this,” Tommy averred, “was crazy compared to the reasonable truth that Harriet was trying to get some new treatment for her sick husband and that young Willem van Aken – who had had a profitable business relationship with them for years, had volunteered to accompany them.”  He shrugged.  “Harriet is so fragile, that if Willem hadn’t offered to help her, I’d have done so myself.”

Such heartfelt affection seemed to satisfy the investigator and he left saying that he’d return in another week or so to visit them again at their home address, and then he used again the “P” word… saying that pirates often met with terrible ends.  The brothers nodded their agreement.

*

Tom and Jack Fielder suspected, but did not know to a certainty, that Harriet, her husband Martin, and Willem van Aken were safely dead.  They also suspected that Claus van Aken had killed them.  But even without murder in the mix, they had an intuitive fear of Claus.  He was different from most islanders… aloof… cold… independent to the point of singly sailing his own ship, The Remittman, a Bermuda sloop that was best handled by at least three crewmen.

There was much that was mysterious about Claus.  As Tommy thought about it, he doubted that Claus could have killed three people alone. With the American’s help, however, it could be accomplished. Given the rocky terrain up at his house, the disposal of the bodies would be a problem. “They’d have to be ‘deep-sixed’,” he told his brother, “since the stench of decaying flesh, not even if it came from the bottom of a mine shaft, would be noticed.”

Jack Fielder concurred. “Yes, the American had to help him.” Both brothers – who were now equal partners in their planned “party-boat” business – agreed that ultimately the suspicions about Claus and Wagner were cause for comfort and encouragement since the dead could not speak and the killers were not likely to be talkative on the subject.

But they had run out of time waiting for Harriet to contact them or for Claus to make them an offer. If he were willing to pay for more silence, they would have enough money to pay for phony documents. But, for all they knew, he might already have legitimate title to the Sesame and a little old-fashioned pressure might get things moving in their direction.  They had already told too many people about their intended business plans – people who were now beginning to smirk at the mention of the Sesame.

The news that Claus was buying clothing and furniture needed explanation.  Tom expressed his concerns at a local pub, and a patron who worked at the post office confided that Claus used another name when he wrote to people in the U.S. Further, when Claus sent little baby cards and gifts to “Master Eric Haffner”  he sent them to the very same address in the suburbs of Philadelphia that he used when corresponding with Miss Lilyanne Smith – who, as everyone at the Brac knew, was the American girl who had spent a few weeks with Claus around the time the Sesame had anchored there.  “That business about her having been dropped off by a Cuban vessel,” his informant confided, “gave Customs the right to open photograph-carrying envelopes; and sure enough there were baby pictures and the Smith girl’s notes in which she called Claus ‘Eric’. There ain’t no doubt about it,” he said, “Claus and Eric are the same man.” To the brothers, this information was surely worth the price of at least part of the Sesame.

Through his connections, Jack learned that Claus van Aken had made reservations for a flight to Philadelphia ten days hence, on October 16th.  All those new clothes, he surmised, were for this flight.  “And if he doesn’t come back for months?” Jack asked his brother. “Then what?”

“I think it’s time we got tough,” Tommy Fielder said.  “Let’s make a quick visit to Claus and if we don’t get satisfaction, we can put a call into cousin Terry… and talk to him about possibilities. And if that bastard Claus doesn’t come through willingly with enough dough to keep us quiet,  then we can really get tough.  These people have money and a big hunk of it ought to come to us.”

Jack agreed. “The guy’s using a goddamned false name.  He must have connections who can phony-up documents.  So let’s just fly to the Brac and confront the s.o.b.   Maybe he wangled title to the Sesame out of Harriet before he killed her.  As he got it from her, we can get it from him.  If he’s not home, who knows what evidence we’ll find if we look around. Ain’t nothin’ stopping us from flying to Philadelphia.  I don’t like blackmail any more than you do, but as a way of making money it seems to work. So does kidnapping.”

“Right,” Tom nodded. “All over Europe people are taken for ransom and nothin’ ever happens to them or the kidnappers. We’ll need cousin Terry’s help, but it’s doable.  Who the hell do these people think they are?  They get us to cover up their sins… or maybe they’re even setting us up to take the rap for them.”  He called the airport and reserved two seats on the next flight to Cayman Brac.

It was not until the following week that the maritime agent returned to inquire about the disposition of the Sesame contract.  “We talked to Claus,” Tom explained, “and he’s going to look into it.  He’s pretty sure that he can help us.”

“Good,” the investigator replied.  “I’ll check back with you next week,” he said, turning to leave. “The annual rental fees on the slip will be due again.”

A moment later, Tom and Jack Fielder called Kentucky to talk to their cousin Terry Rourke, a man of considerable experience.  “Blackmail,” said Terry Rourke, “has a kind of backfire danger.  I knew blackmailers who lost their gig when the person they was tryin’ to squeeze turned around and shot ’em.  A better bet as far as I know would be to kidnap the kid and let Claus be your… like… cheerleader for payin’ up and keepin’ things quiet.  The guy’s got two names, right?  He’s not gonna call the FBI in to help unmask himself.  I’ll think on this and work out a plan.  Nobody will get hurt and we ought to get a couple million at least for borrowin’ the kid for a couple days.  Make some reservations to meet me at an airport motel in Philly.”

*

Eric Haffner, a.k.a. Claus van Aken, had plans for more luxurious accommodations.  He would be meeting his parents whom he had not seen in twenty years.  The Haffners were an old and respected Austrian family of financiers; and Eric, as a young man, had become enamored with members of a small group of sexually perverted confidence men.  Reputation being the indispensable asset of  financiers, the family found it necessary to put distance between themselves and their son. They sent him monthly checks in exchange for his never setting foot in or near the continent of Europe.

But Baby Eric and the absence of other male heirs had softened their resolve; and Eric was finally going to be reunited with his parents at the home of Lilyanne Smith, the mother of his baby son who was going to be a year old in another month.

Wednesday,  October 16,  2013

Tom and Jack Fielder not only looked like brothers, they had the same taciturn disposition.  On land, they drank too much, but at sea, both responded with alacrity when given a command; and when they gave commands, they did so with confidence.  They knew and loved the sea and their only regret was that after years of serving her, they had so little to show for their devotion. The Sesame would reward them for their fidelity if she were allowed to do so.  They proceeded calmly in their determination to help her with the grand reunion.

Their cousin Terry Rourke was of an opposite disposition.  Just having been released after serving eighteen years in a Georgia prison, Terry was an irredeemable alcoholic.  Local farmers donated large quantities of slightly old fruit which they said were intended for dessert menus, but an accommodating kitchen staff either used the fruit to make pruno as a finished product or distributed it as ingredients which the prisoners could ferment themselves. During the winter and spring months, farmers would supply members of the various work details with jugs of ethanol that the men could divvy up as they choose.  Annually, Terry pruned trees and raked orchards and became an alcoholic.  His mind was not yet addled, but his hands moved about uncontrollably, sometimes even looking like they belonged at the wrists of a man who was playing a Liszt concerto. When he was beyond earshot, Jack advised his brother not to put a rifle in the man’s hands.  But Terry already had two rifles which he had stolen from the cleaning room of a sportsmen’s club.  “I got them in Kentucky,” he said, “so they can’t be traced back to me.

“Look,” said Terry, as they ate breakfast in a motel cafeteria, “I got the rifles buried outside town; but what’s more to the point, I got my gal to rent a new pick-up truck for us, and I stocked a cabin in the woods that I rented.  I’m out twenty-six hundred that I borrowed from her folks. You better not be blowin’ smoke up my ass about these people being good for the ransom.”

“Relax,” Jack said. “The Smith girl’s loaded.  Her old man not only sent a P.I. to the Brac to find her but he had them picked up in a private jet. That’s another way to spell m-o-n-e-y.  Claus or Eric or whatever his name is booked a flight to Philadelphia for this weekend. We’re not stupid.  We booked an earlier flight ’cause we couldn’t risk being on the one he came in on… and we needed to be in place before he arrived.  He’ll have to help get all the ransom money together. His people are supposed to have dough, too. So let’s not screw any of this up.”

Not having fully prepared for the Pennsylvania autumn, the brothers had purchased hunting jackets with imitation fur-lined parka hoods at an airport mall sporting goods shop.  The long strands of fake fur plus their tropical sunglasses functioned as masks they thought, and their fear that the bright orange jackets might attract attention were allayed by the shop owner who assured them that since these were the normal garb of hunters, they’d attract more attention without them.  To be on the safe side, they purchased a third jacket for their cousin.

All of the equipment they needed had been obtained by Terry.  Aside from the two rifles he had stolen, he went to a gun fare and obtained ammunition; a grappling hook and rope to scale the estate walls; a powerful stun gun to use on anyone who guarded the baby; several pairs of handcuffs; and from a grocery market, enough baby food and supplies to stock the cabin for a week. Additionally, he purchased a case of cheap whiskey which he referred to as bourbon.  His new girlfriend, who believed he intended to do honest work, had used her good credit to rent the truck, a new Ford F 450.

A possible source of trouble in the relationship occurred when Tom Fielder offered a twenty percent interest in the private-shipboard party business to Terry who also sought a new identity. Tom, tending to spend money he did not already have, had guaranteed him citizenship in the Caymans, one that included a new and virginally innocent identity… an expensive passport, driver’s license, birth certificate… the works.  All things considered, Jack Fielder regarded the offer of twenty percent of their business as overly magnanimous.  Prudently, he decided to wait until the ransom money was paid before he voiced an objection to the division of spoils.

This, then, was their plan.  Terry, who was completely unknown to anyone who lived in the Cayman Islands or at Tarleton House, the Smith’s estate, would watch the house from the rear of the property.  The weather was good so it was a certainty that somebody would bring the baby outside. They’d subdue the person with a stun gun, take the baby into the truck, leave a ransom note… demand a few million dollars for the return of the kid, and use as their hideout a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains.  Terry, despite having been confined to a concrete cell for eighteen years, considered himself a woodsman, and the brothers, as helpless on land as they were useful at sea, deferred to his proclaimed abilities.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

George Roberts Wagner arrived early at the airport gate and sat restlessly trying to think.  When it came to wives, he decided, he was not the overbearing type.  He regarded it as a form of slavery to treat a woman as chattel and in any way to force her to do as he wished. Worse, some men used their incomes as intimidating leverage that would make wives yield to their desires.  “A woman has to do what she wants to do,” he’d announce, “or a man is just financing or otherwise enabling his own betrayal.”  This, especially in the case of his bride-to-be, was a prudent approach since her net worth was easily a million times greater than his.

Lilyanne Smith was an only-child-heiress to a candy fortune and George Wagner was a somewhat disabled police detective who retired to head his own private investigative agency, Wagner & Tilson. George tended to overlook financial matters whenever he offered his pro-feminist points of view.  There were limits, of course, to such liberality, but as of 2 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon, he had not yet reached them.  The plane that carried Eric Haffner to Philadelphia was due to arrive at 2:20 p.m., and the boundaries of George’s cosmopolitan savoir faire would then be tested.

George further tended to regard as only a slight inconvenience that Eric Haffner was the father of Lilyanne’s young son.  On one hand, George regretted not killing Haffner back on Cayman Brac when he had the chance; but on the other, his bride-to-be had begged him to spare the fetal father’s life and it pleased her to know that the crook was still alive. George curtailed the hours he had spent figuring out ways to off the guy and get away with it.  He did not, however, forego the pleasure of such reveries entirely.  But now as he waited for Haffner to arrive, he wondered how he would greet him.  Several years of hating someone cannot easily be removed from memory. George, who took inordinate pride in his own full and naturally wavy hair was startled to see Eric emerge into the waiting area with much more hair than George had remembered.  “Christ,” he whispered to himself, “did he get a rug or are they plugs… or what?”  As Eric came closer George could see that he had not gotten plugs.  To himself he said, “Those chemicals that you rub-in twice a day must work,” and he then proceeded to smile a greeting.

Haffner extended his hand.  “I was expecting my parents,” he said warmly, “but frankly I’m glad it’s you.  You’re easier to talk to.”

“Your German getting rusty?” George asked, forcing his gaze away from Haffner’s hairline. “Don’t worry. Ma and Pa Haffner are starting to pick up our lingo. How was your flight?”

Eric grinned, hearing his high-born parents referred to in such homely terms.  “Boring which means good.  How’s Lilyanne and the baby?”

“Fine.  The baby’s getting ready to walk and talk, and Lily’s been busy with your parents redecorating the guest house so that they… and you… can visit any time of year.”

“What does he call you?” Eric asked pointedly.

“Jeh Jeh,” George replied.  “He calls Everett ‘Pa Pa’ and your father ‘Poppy.’ If properly encouraged, he’ll call you, ‘Da Da’ – if that’s what you wanted to know.”

“It was… and you have my sincere thanks.”

It was not until they were driving back to Tarleton House that George and Lilyanne’s wedding plans were discussed.  “You know,” Eric confided, “that we won’t be there for the ceremony.  Lily invited us, but the Smiths have been too gracious as it is. It would be excruciatingly awkward to have us there for the nuptials.”

“You won’t get any argument from me,” George said.  “Where will you all be?”

“I know you’d like me to say, ‘Mars’; but as it happens they’ve arranged a full social schedule for the Christmas holidays.  They want to show the baby off.  Your in-laws will be staying with us in Vienna, so your honeymoon can be free of worry. Is the wedding still on for November 23nd?”

“Yes.  At Saint Joseph’s Church with a reception at Tarleton to follow.  We’ll be sure to save you a piece of the cake.”

“Hmm!” Eric acknowledged the less than sincere offer of cake.

*

Since  the woodland cabin was less than a hundred miles away, Terry saw no reason to bring anything special for Baby Eric for the time that he would be a passenger in the pickup.  Tom disagreed.  He not only knew more about babies, he thought, but he was counting on his continued good luck and being able to take the child sooner rather than later.  Of the three, he was the most anxious to get each stage of the project completed.

Terry had also honed his literary skills while in prison and would take charge of the communications’ end of the ransom demand. The fear that some recognizable Caymanian accent or figure of speech might inadvertently creep into the negotiations made him the logical choice to do the talking and the writing for the group.

The three men got into the pick-up truck Terry had rented, went to a deserted forested area where they could practice shooting the two rifles Terry had stolen, and then stopped at a gas station’s convenience store to acquire beer, gas, and a baby’s temporary necessities.

While Terry, who was now driving, stayed with the truck, Tom went into the store and asked the clerk to sell him some nappies.  “Nappies?” said the clerk. “Do you mean napkins?”  “No, for a baby.”  “Oh, you mean a bib.”  “No, God damn it, nappies for ‘im ta poop in.”  “Oh,” said the clerk, “Sorry… you want diapers.”  She naturally remembered the man in the sun glasses, orange jacket and fake fur hood that hardly needed to be worn indoors.  Tom also bought a gallon of milk, a couple of baby bottles, and two six-packs of beer.  He saw Philadelphia Eagles’ hooded sweat shirts for sale and bought one for Baby Eric.  He did not intend that it should fit the child, but when it was wrapped around him several times it would certainly keep him warm.  He paid cash for his purchases and left the store.  The clerk was curious enough to look out the window and see the man climb into the dark pick-up truck that was parked at pump-aisle #2.  Another man got out of the truck from the driver’s side, entered the station office and presented a hundred dollar bill to the clerk, telling her he intended to top off the tank.  She said fine, and she turned on Aisle #2’s pumps.  When he went to fill the tank, the first man got into the driver’s seat. She did not see the license number of the vehicle but she did know that the surveillance cameras were fully operative.

From the station they drove to Tarleton House, the address of which the postal clerk had given them.  They were prepared simply to “case the joint” from the property’s rear, but when they drove past the front gates of the Smith estate, they had to laugh at the unnecessary equipment they had brought: grappling hooks for scaling walls, handcuffs and a stun gun.  It all was unnecessary.  A guest house on the property was being renovated and the estate gates stood open to accommodate the constant passage of workmen’s vehicles.  “Even on a Saturday,” Terry remarked. “Time an’a half.”

It was four o’clock Saturday afternoon as they parked in roadside shadows, giggling to themselves as they swilled their beer and, in Terry’s case, “bourbon.” Finally they watched George Wagner and the American Lilyanne proceed down the driveway in a navy-blue pickup truck, exit the gate area unimpeded, and turn towards the highway that led to downtown Philadelphia.  “They’re probably going to Confession,” Tom quipped; and the three men laughed at what they regarded as a definite sign of good luck.

The men did not know who else was inside the various buildings, but at least two of the most serious obstacles to a successful kidnapping were out of the way.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, just as the sun was going down, the various workmen gathered their tools and headed for their vehicles. “Let’s go over this one more time,” Tom insisted. “We gotta make sure we’re on the right chapter ‘n verse with this thing.  Pay attention. If they have motion detectors they won’t have turned them on as yet; and until the last truck is out of the guesthouse parking lot, they won’t close the gates. So get ready.  My guess is zero hour is comin’ up.”

Jack agreed.  “Haffner bragged about his private rooms in the guesthouse and that’s probably where he’ll be at least until dinner time at the big house.  He’ll be sleeping-off his booze-filled flight and since he came to see the baby, the kid’ll probably be nearby with a nanny.”

“Bring the stun gun and act natural,” Tom added. “Let’s just drive up to the parking area outside the guest house and stop there before the last truck or van leaves. Terry can carry in the tool box and put the kid in it.  We tried it out with a radio inside.  Closed right,” he looked instructively at Terry, “nobody will be able to hear him if he shouts his head off. I’ll be in the truck and Jack will be your back-up with the stun gun.  And remember: if it doesn’t work out for some reason, act dumb and say we just came to the wrong address.  Be sure to say, ‘Sorry ’bout that,’ and walk – don’t run – to the truck and we’ll just drive on out.”

Inside the guest house, upstairs, Eric Haffner discussed window treatment for his rooms with the interior decorator his mother had hired.   Baby Eric sat in a playpen downstairs in the living room, watching the colorful shapes of cartoon figures moving on the TV screen, while his two grandmothers were holding drapery swatches up to the windows in the dining room.

Cecelia Smith had intended the guest house to have a rustic atmosphere; but the Haffners were intent on making it a miniature version of Versailles. There would be no hand-dipped candles or braided rugs.  Crystal drops tinkled from the newly installed chandeliers and the cozy wallpaper had already been replaced by heavy crimson silk paneling. Gold leaf accentuated the curvatures of leaves and blossoms that had been carved into wainscoting, ceiling trim, and mantlepiece. The two women lugged the swatch-book around, hoping to find the precise shade of cream that would compliment the crimson panels and not clash with the woodwork or the floors which fortunately were oak parquet that were now mostly covered by silk rugs – imported into Austria from Iran.  The two women actually liked each other and were able to by-pass any nationalistic prejudices by chatting in natural French which both had learned as children.  Cecelia wished that she could just as easily import silk Persian rugs, but what could a person do when politics preempted beauty?  “When you’ve finished re-doing this place, perhaps you’d give me a hand with the main house,” Cecelia conceded.  “I’ve completely overlooked how drab it has become.”

“Of course.  I’d be delighted,” said Erica Haffner as they walked back to the living room. “It will be fun.”  It was then they noticed that Baby Eric was not in his playpen. Just as Cecelia Smith began to remark that perhaps Eric or her daughter had taken the baby up to the main house, Erica found a note in the corner of the playpen.   She read, “Do not call police if you want to see baby alive again.  Get 2 million unmarked bills ready and we will call later about where we will make the change. No police and he stays healthy.”

No one noticed that the big black pick-up truck that had parked at the end of the driveway was no longer there.

(Go to “The Woods” Part Two)

“Tales from the Sangha” section is here!

An introduction to our new section: “Tales from the Sangha”

 

We here at ZBOHY are happy to initiate a new feature – “Tales from the Sangha” one in which our sangha members who have a fondness for writing fiction or, at least, are tempted to try it, can tell stories that amuse or instruct. We all know stories that can make others laugh or can help them to solve a problem or just to pass the time while they’re waiting at the bus stop. We’ll serialize longer stories and hope that the reader’s interest will be piqued enough to return to read the next episode.

We’re all grown-ups at the site – and kids don’t find Zen too interesting; so no one needs to worry about letting junior learn things he ought to wait another decade to learn.  On the other hand, we don’t want to print slanderous stuff.  So keep it fictional…. no real names, please.

We know that most of our sangha members are scientifically oriented and, as such, are trained to use the passive voice.  We have a small instruction letter that we can send anyone who needs to convert from passive thinking, in which he deliberately eliminates himself, to the “omniscient narrator” active voice.  Sometimes just getting started is the problem.

So send those original stories in.  Who knows? Maybe the tales are worth the attention of serious publishers.

Ming Zhen Shakya

Recovering from a Vacation

Abbot John
Abbot John

 

I am still convalescing from my recent pleasure cruise. Everything outside my window is frostbitten.  I refuse to add my person to the scene, and since I cannot muster the will or the strength to crawl under the house to see if any pipes burst during the recent cold wave, I will wait and either get a whopping bill from the water company or my house may start to float away – with more ease than the cruise ship did.

As I sit here cogitating in my usual manner, I am stricken – if that is not too strong a word – by the lies we travelers tell ourselves.. We toss off such fabrications as, “I flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles,” and think that we have encapsulated the modern era’s efficiency.  Nobody confesses to the medieval problems experienced by getting to the Atlanta airport or what happens to the human soul after it touches down at LAX.

To give you a better idea of the route, let’s just say that as a North Carolinian starting a journey at Asheville, North Carolina did not seem a stretch. A straight line flight of 130 miles would take us to Charlotte, North Carolina, whence we would take another 1500 mile flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then transfer to a cruise ship.  With uncommon confidence  I prepared my shipboard togs… bathing suits and dinner jackets… the usual raiment for  a Zen Buddhist ex-abbot who is traveling in mufti. The good wife had already conjured up “outfits” that Mythbusters lacks the guts to challenge.

As to the sea cruise, the less I have to say about it the more I can protect my illusion of being a social being.  Let me simply confine myself to a few irresistible things about the easy lie of flying from one airport to another as if that had anything whatsoever to do with traveling.

The first little flight from Asheville to Charlotte was canceled due to bad weather, a fact about which we were notified during the night which meant that at 4 a.m. to make our Charlotte connection we had to drive a rented car over terrain that was too dangerous to fly over.  Think about it. Mountains, black ice, and other disconcerting things that go bump in the night.  A benign providence interceded, and the flight from Charlotte was delayed two hours so our struggle with the roads was not in vain.

Until I am more rested, I will not divulge details of the cruise.  Sticking to my topic – a difficult thing these days – I must reveal that the trip back was even more harrowing. Our flight from San Juan to Charlotte was delayed for so long that we were certain to miss our connection to the flight in Charlotte that would bring us back to Asheville.  By the grace of God (or the incompetence of airlines – however you want to look at it) the Charlotte flight had also been delayed which gave us an outside chance of making that connection.

When we finally arrived in Charlotte, we bolted off the plane to find that the plane to Asheville was on the exact other side of the airport (A to E to be exact) and if we ran we could possibly make it. Running has never been my most cherished activity and running with a 60 plus year old woman with Parkinson’s hardly even counts as a running activity. Nonetheless, there we were and off we went. About half way through our slow motion race, my good wife Nanci looked at me and said, “Go!  You can stop the plane for me. Just be yourself when you get there and they won’t leave me behind.” That was all the imprimatur I needed and off I went.

I reached terminal E gate 6 as they were just ending their calls and beginning to add stand-by passengers. I went to the little pulpit where they all stand and give out the orders about when you can get on board the plane to heaven and handed Saint Peter my ticket and began my slow explanation that we would have to wait another 5 minutes or so for my wife who would be right there as soon as the EMT’s got the oxygen mask off her.  This was the easy part.

Then another officious assistant to the keeper of the  Gates, hinted strongly that I was not entirely sane – not because of what I was saying but because his little goddam computer showed that my reservation was for the next day – not the present one. My boarding pass and my ticket itinerary showed otherwise, but he was resolute and told me to stand aside. Since Nanci had not yet arrived I did so pleasantly enough. She soon joined me off to the side of the bimah (switched nouns in deference to Nanci’s faith – for soon faith would be needed).

Nanci looked at me and noticed that something was not right: I wasn’t my usual jovial self. When she asked I shook my head and said “This attendant seems to think our tickets are for tomorrow’s flight.  We are asked to wait.” You can try to imagine what kind of thoughts were going through her head at that moment. She had just pushed and shoved and dragged her right leg through an entire airport only to arrive 24 hours early (according to the demon gate keeper). She started crying. That action, of course, aroused in me my latent Knight Lancelot – my chivalrous persona, my mission as a protector of innocents, and also a few of those rather well honed instincts developed from living on the streets for a certain period in my life. That last part took over.

I justify what happened next as simply a result of the cowardice of the chivalrous parts of my personality. Chivalry ran for cover when all hell broke loose. The entire frustrating week, from that first flight cancelation, to spending a week on water in what amounts to a huge shopping mall with a casino attached to it, to this final insult of technological insanity of having tickets and boarding passes printed from the same airline for a date that the same airline misprinted on the manifest.   After trying to speak rationally to the attendant who was barring us from boarding our flight, I decided on another tactic and challenged him to a duel. Risking airport security I put my dukes up.  Naturally I knew that it was obvious that I was a gentleman of social security age and that behind me, backing me up like Patton’s 3rd Army was a crippled Jewish-American Princess weeping piteously.  Contest?  There was no contest.  Ask Rommel.   The enemy threw down his paper weapon and handed us new boarding passes as we ran over him.  We chugged down the jetway, triumphant.  My peacock demeanor would have lasted all the way to Asheville had it not been for the strange sight that awaited me when I entered the plane.  Only half the seats were taken.  Sure… Nanci’s seat was fourteen rows behind mine… after all we were together.  But when the plane’s doors were shut, I was the only one sitting in my row.  And she was the only one sitting in hers.  This puzzled me. What was the point of that whole encounter with the Gate Keeper when there were plenty of seats available. What was the goddam point of all this?  What had I missed?   And then my victory over Satan’s minion soured during that short flight.  I had not won at all.  Our luggage was not on the plane.

There is a lesson in this, but as yet I have not discerned it.  When I do, I’ll let you know.  As it is I am immobilized by a subtle existential sadness that hovers over such situations.  My nerves are jangled and tightly strung.  No music is coming from the strings of my lute.

Maybe later..