My honor is called loyalty

Abbot John
Author: Abbot John

I am not one to complain.  Confess!  Ming, have you ever heard me complain?  No.  I suppose that in a way I’ve been saving it up for the War with our Social Security Dictatorship. I have just endured the longest most drawn-out and somewhat subversive interchange with them. It is a story nearly impossible to tell because, this being The Union Undivided, everyone I’ve talked to has something similar in his memory vaults and none of them wants to revisit those memories and dredge up those feelings of complete and total helplessness. And who can blame them?

 

Let me give you the short version, and suffice it to say that I am still free, though for how long I cannot be sure.

 

I had to make 4, let me spell that for you, four, separate trips to the local SS office…  This is not some coincidentally odd set of initials.  They didn’t come by Schutzstaffel by chance.  Of course we must acknowledge that there is absolutely no similarity between the absolute efficiency and eagerness to serve of one, and the total lack of even indifference of the other.

 

My online application and “profile”  had to be deleted and re-entered – at the request of the SS agent I might add – and then due to the adding and deleting of the activity I was subsequently barred from accessing any information at their website and instructed to go the local office ——four (4) times— — where and when my identity was checked and verified and a print out of ALL online activity was displayed and then the all important and stupefying question of “Why did you delete your profile so many times?” Were they asking me what I was trying to hide?
I giggled, thinking I was letting them know I was aware and in on the joke. What the hell do I have to hide?  But the SS officer wasn’t in the mood to laugh.  He stared back at me and I realized he was actually anticipating an answer. I sat up straight in my chair and as calmly as I could, said, “You, or one just like you, told me to delete it, due to the problem of your site locking me out every time I tried to access my records.”
I could go on and on like this but I’ll just jump to the defining moment. Between the third and fourth visit I had a long and somewhat disturbing conversation with an SS agent on the phone in which my patience was finally exhausted. My Buddhist training was insufficient for the task at hand. Despite being thoroughly drilled in the idea that we are all sentient beings… you know, that Bodhisattva thing…  I was in the midst of absolute evidence to the contrary. I reverted to my Longshoreman training convinced that this language was more appropriate for the remainder of this particular conversation than anything sweetly intoned in a chant. I knew one thing: this SS guy was no Buddha.  After my short but colorful tirade, he had the audacity to say, “Sir, if you don’t stop using that language I’m afraid this conversation is over.”
“Sir, this English is the only fucking language I know.”

 

Click.

So went my days with the SS.
I wish all sentient beings may be saved from this official branch of Maras, but I regret that this is one eschatological task will have to be accomplished without my help.  As we used to say, “Adios, MF, YOYO.  The YOYO stands for You’re on your own.
It’s not entirely surprising that I spend most of my days talking to myself, and only to myself. It has only become worrisome in the last few months when I noticed that I’m beginning to laugh at my own jokes or to remind myself that I already told that one before, as well as question the validity of some of the stories I’m telling myself.
As I mentioned way back in April I’m about half way through the busiest part of my retirement year so far. We have been to Durham, where we visited my brother and took in a Dylan concert. The opening golf tournament has been completed. My sons both came down here for a week’s visit and together we went and have just returned from the first (never to be annual) Puetz reunion in Indiana.

 

In the past we have gotten together on rare occasions, a funeral or wedding or some other emergency, usually to alleviate the pain of one or the other…mostly to remind ourselves we are family or have been shamed into thinking we are. I have been discussing this with myself for weeks now.
I have a couple more short trips to the coast and one more trip to New Jersey coming up and then I can settle down and try and remember who I am. I will try to write something for our website. I have to admit I’m getting that old bug again… that feeling of sharing my wisdom with the world.  The way things are going (especially at the SS office) I think I’ve got to about November or thereabouts to be one of the still breathing wretched refuse crawling up our teeming shore.
I’ve taken my mind off world events lately. I’m sure a weekly read of the NY Times, a few magazines and a quick look at the nightly news will bring it all back home. Some fodder for the mental mill so to speak.  Oh! I forgot to mention. When we were back in Indiana I was surprised to hear that my mother, 87 and counting, has rejoined the Catholic church. There’s a bit of a story there, in an odd sort of way. My mother was raised in a very – and I mean very – lax Southern Baptist family, and when she married my dad she converted to Catholicism.

 

Religion was different back then.  Princess Margaret couldn’t marry a divorced guy.  People tended to regard marriage as some sort of sacrament.  There was no such thing as “My baby’s Mama.”  You get the picture. In order for my mother to marry into my dad’s family she had to convert to his faith;  and that was a more stringent process back then.  Today I believe the main requirement is that you have the payment for the facilities paid a week before the event.
When she divorced him she was excommunicated (at least that’s her story). She remarried and divorced and married again and divorced. The last one died, and then dad died, and I seem to be missing one… but nevertheless there she was, as they say, stranded without love. She felt terribly alone. This is small town America and it can get pretty lonely there. Dad’s brother, a Catholic priest, Father Richard, began communicating with her. I believe he’s 90 this year. One thing led to another and he got her into a small group of women that have lunch on certain days and see each other at Mass on Sunday. According to her, Father Richard “smoothed things over” as far as the powers that be in the Church were concerned; and she is proudly back in the fold. Her life now revolves around those small lunches and Sundays and is extremely grateful and happy for it.

 

In talking to her I began thinking about the purpose those “organized” religions can or could be. I must be mellowing in my own dotage. What people can and do believe has always intrigued me, as you well know, sometimes even to my own sad disadvantage. We were visiting the gravesite where dad is buried (his ashes in any case) and she said the strangest thing to me. “Johnny, promise me that when they bury me they make sure my eyes are pointing to the east.” I asked her why that was necessary and she said, “Because Jesus will come again and he will come from the east. He will come to restore my body with all his angels and I want to make sure I can see it when they come.”
I was taken aback. No matter what you may think of my ironic mindset, I assure you it did not come from my mother. She was dead serious, not an ounce of humor emanated out of her at that moment. Lord, the things we think about when the inevitable is but a short time away. I was very glad to hear that she was finding purpose and pleasure in her lunches and her renewed faith… and then this!   But, all in all, what did this matter? I suppose the atheists would decry this slippery slope and would advise a stern rebuff to set that woman straight!  But I just nodded and muttered something underneath my breath and started to walk away. She tugged my arm so I turned around and she had the hardest look in her eye and said, “Promise me”. So I did. Weird huh?
Your description of cleaning out years of photos and papers caused me to look around. I don’t have any…if you except all those damn IRS folders I’m forced to keep for ten years. It seems a little odd, maybe even strange. There is a lot of largely symbolic things around the house…Buddhas, gongs, paintings etc., but very few overtly personal items. Maybe I’m a serial killer or some weird psychopath. I hear they don’t have too many personal items. I’m also reminded of the old story of the footprints birds don’t leave in the sky.
I just completed a little survey and discovered we do have a few pictures. Besides my family including my grandson you are the only non-relative image in the house. If I were you I would either feel slightly honored or slightly scared. Take care of yourself.
The word “anyway” just popped into my brain so I guess that means I’m nearing the end of this little note.

Anyway, I’ll be in touch. Maybe with something printable, in the only language I know.

 

The Woods (#5)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

 

Part Five

 

George turned to go back to the camp.

The daylight had suddenly darkened.  He felt a few heavy raindrops on his face.  They fell as if saying, “Take shelter!”  And for a moment he envisioned a solitary escape… he’d leave the happy family in a primeval state. He began to walk towards the road imagining Eric with a lance for fish and maybe even a bow and arrows for deer.   The Noble Savage.  Roasting rabbit on a spit. Lilyanne sewing buckskin with a porcupine quill needle. And then the hidden revenge showed itself, surprising him that he would overlook the real misery of such an existence and, out of jealousy, wish it on someone he loved. “What the hell is wrong with me?” he asked. And then he walked past the truck to the base of the road and began to look up at the lowering clouds.  As he studied the jagged horizon he saw what seemed to be a car up on the crest of an incline.  He looked again, studying the shape as if it were an illusion that he had willed into existence.  “Christ!” he said aloud and then winced, hoping no one had heard him.  Beryl was parked on the hill.

He quietly walked back towards the truck’s hiding place and then to the ravine’s edge.  He walked quietly until, when he was out of earshot, he began to descend the slope in bounding slides.  He burst into the camp enclosure.  “Beryl’s here, parked at the top of a rise on that narrow road we came down. The men are all asleep.”

The atmosphere was not what he had expected.  Lilyanne was sitting tight-lipped, her back turned toward Eric.

“Trouble in Paradise?” George asked.  “I thought I was the bringer of good news… that nothing could destroy such joy.  Seems I was wrong.”

“This climate is not good for the baby!” Lilyanne imperiously announced.  “So the two of you better figure out a way to get my son and me home – as quickly as possible.  You made fire and caught a couple fish and I suppose you think that’s enough Tarzan masculinity.  But I want to go home! And I singed my jacket trying to dry it.  Look!” she said in a pitious tone, “there’s a hole in the sleeve.”

Eric was angry.  “If you want to go, go.  Take my jacket. What’s keeping you?” he asked.  “Go ahead.  Walk into an ambush.  You think you know what’s best, so do it.”

“Excuse me,” George said pointedly, looking at Eric, “but have your domestic quarrels elsewhere and with somebody else.  I’ll decide how Lilyanne and I will react to the news that Beryl’s here.” He put on his shoulder holster and gun belt. “We’ve got to get to the Explorer.”

Lilyanne snorted. “Eric’s more interested in the two million in the back of that truck than he is in Beryl’s SUV or anything else!”

George reached out and patted her head.  “I don’t give a shit what Eric’s interested in.  So let’s forget that he’s even here.  I’m losing my patience.”

“So what’s the plan?” she asked.

“I figure we can loop around and avoid the ravine’s edge altogether.  I don’t know if it’s possible, but we can try to walk laterally… or at a slight diagonal… it may be for more than a quarter-mile… and just go up the incline until we reach her car. Akara or I can back her out.”

Lilyanne doubted that anyone could walk laterally along the slope, particularly when it was slick with rain.  With George following her, she went outside the enclosure and tried to walk, taking a sideways route.  Several times she went down on one knee. George guided her back into the camp.

“We’ll never be able to negotiate this slope laterally,” George had to admit.  “Maybe after the rain stops and the surface dries…”

This, evidently, was not what Lilyanne was prepared to hear.  If she had been willing to walk back to civilization with her baby – no matter how long it took – she saw no reason that she could not walk directly to Beryl’s SUV.  The kidnappers had gotten what they wanted.  They had no reason to interfere with her.  She got up, slung the diaper bag straps over her shoulder, and picked up the baby.

Eric asked, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” she said and left the campsite to walk directly up the slope following George’s downward sliding footsteps.  Eric and George immediately pursued her, pleading with her to return to the camp.  She ignored them.

“Look!” George said sternly, reaching for her arm.  “Eric or I can climb up to Beryl’s SUV.  There’s no need for you to walk right in front of the kidnappers.”

She twisted away from him as he tried to restrain her. As they followed her up to the ravine’s edge, she adamantly moved straight ahead, an approach that led her towards the hidden truck.  Again they could hear the snoring men. Lilyanne passed the truck and began to walk along the curve that led to the base of the downhill road. George stayed beside her, but Eric ran to the truck’s rear and began to pull a duffel bag from the truck bed. “Help me!” he called in a muted tone.  George looked back to see Eric dragging a duffel bag away from the lake, to an untrodden part of the ravine’s slope to the river.  “Help me,” he called to George again.

“Are you crazy?” George whispered hoarsely, as he went back to try to stop Eric.  “They won’t mind the loss of the baby, but they’ll sure as hell come after the money.”

Eric tossed the bag down the slope.  George could hear it tumble, but he did not hear it splash into the water. Eric returned to the truck and pulled another duffel bag from the truck bed.  “Suit yourself,” he said to George as he dragged it to the ravine’s edge and tossed it down.

Lilyanne turned onto the narrow road, and holding the baby and the diaper bag, began to scurry up the steep hill.  George began to jog, trying to reach her so that he could help carry the baby or the diaper bag. She shook off his help. “I can manage!” she insisted, twisting away from the arm he had extended.

Eric was able to reach the third bag, hoist it up and out of the truck, and toss it down the slope; but to reach the fourth bag, he had to climb over the truck bed’s side. The noise of his boots awakened Tom; but the shrubbery that was intended to conceal the truck covered the rear window and Tom could not see what had caused the noise. It could have been a bear or a mountain lion or, more likely, a thief.  He hit Jack’s shoulder.  “Wake up!” he shouted. “There’s something in the truck!”  He pulled on his shoes and grabbed his rifle, opened the rear side door and dropped to the ground. But Eric had already tossed the bag down the ravine and had slid down himself a few feet to hide behind an elderberry bush.  Tom saw the empty truck bed.  Incensed, he walked back and forth furiously looking for something… for anything… He began to talk to himself, alternately cursing himself and his enemies.

Jack, holding the other rifle, stared into the empty truck bed and shouted to Terry, “The money’s gone! They took our money!”  He ran to the driver’s door and opened it, shouting again at Terry who was getting ready to stumble out of the truck, “Everything’s gone!” Jack shouted.  “While we was sleepin’ they came and stole our money!”

Tom stared into the empty truck bed and seemed to enter a trance.  “The money for my ship is gone!” he whispered.  “It’s all been for nothing!  I lost everything.” He paced back forth, looking around to see friend or foe who would at least understand the enormity of what had occurred.  He saw shoe slide-tracks going down to a bush near the roadside.  The bush moved and Tom demanded that whoever was there show himself.

Eric emerged, using his hands to crawl up to the edge of the road, and then immediately raised his arms. The Luger was stuck into his belt in the hollow of his back. “Hey, Tom!” Eric greeted him.  “Take it easy. It’s me… Claus.”

“Claus! Old Buddy!” Tom said, venomously, and he called to his friends, “Look who’s here.  Claus from the Brac.  Wha’cha want, Claus? Come to sign the Sesame over to us?”

“I’m just looking for my son,” Eric said.  “What have you done with him?”

Terry came to the edge of the ravine.  “Ya’ brought the cops with ya’,” he said. “Somebody else got the kid last night.  Wha’cha’ do with our money?”

“I’m not the one who took your goddamned money.  I’m the one who gave it to you,”  Eric shouted.  “I want my boy!”

“Oh?” Tom said, “And I want my ship.  Right now it looks to me like you got your boy, your money, and my ship. And like I said, I want my ship. I just paid for it and what remains is for you to sign the title over to me… or give me a bill of sale.”

“And how the hell am I supposed to do that?” Eric moved away from the slope to draw their attention away from it. “I can’t sell what I don’t own!”

“You’ll figure it out,” Tom said, momentarily seeing the beautiful sloop plowing the seas with her spinnaker puffed out like a pouter pigeon’s chest. “You’re a clever guy.  You’ll figure out a way to get me the Sesame. We can go now to see a lawyer.”

“Harriet Williams owns the Sesame. Tell her your troubles!”

“Forge Harriet’s signature!  Your girlfriend can pretend to be Harriet.  Do whatever you have to do.”

“You’re crazy!” Eric snarled.  “And who’s gonna believe that title to a million dollar ship was conveyed deep in the Pennsylvania woods by a foreigner who wasn’t even on record as being in the U.S. at the time.”

Jack looked at Eric. “I thought you said Harriet told people she was movin’ to Atlanta?” His voice took a smarmy tone.

“Maybe that’s what she said, but I never said it was true,” Eric countered. “And you’re the one who said she was picked up at the Brac to get Martin some new medical treatment. Are you living in some dream world?  And how could you convince a lawyer that Lilyanne is Harriet?  There’s thirty years between them. And she’s got no identification papers!”

“You’ve got my money!” Tom yelled.  “Pay somebody to forge ’em.”

Eric’s toleration had expired. “Get it through your head, you imbecile.  You’re never going to own the Sesame – especially when you’re behind bars in the U.S.”

To Jack, the words were only a notice of loss, like an entry in a “shipping news” daily… a ship by some name and home port, captained by some officer, and bound for some port, had gone down in a some sea with so much cargo and a number of crew and passengers.  Jack would have read the notice and then his eye would have moved on to the next entry.

But to Tom Fielder the remark contained the essence of tragedy.  He stood there, looking straight ahead, but seeing nothing except a vacuum of loss. A thought occurred to him.  It was as if he had been blindfolded and ordered to “walk the plank” – to walk away from the side of his beautiful ship.  He could not proceed in a surefooted way, but had to take mincing steps… inching forward while the vessel continued to pitch and roll and yawl in a chaotic sea because he was no longer able to master it.

Terry and Jack waited expectantly to hear his next order, but Tom, feeling dizzy, only sighed deeply and leaned against the truck to steady himself.  It puzzled him that though he could read a swell, or a breeze, or a cloud formation and decipher its forecast of good or bad weather, he had not been able to see that there was even a possibility that he would fail in his mission.  Yes, it was like interfering people were forcing a loving couple to divorce. People didn’t care! Terry’s choice of the big stupid truck!  His own brother thinkin’ he had a right to live on his ship! Claus screwin’ him out of money that was rightfully his.  Suddenly, as if he had torn the blindfold from his eyes, he shouted at Eric, “Harriet gave me the sloop, you kept it.  I got the money to buy it, you stole it. You’re the reason I’m not sailin’ her right now!”

Eric took a few steps towards him.  He tried to sound reasonable.  “The ship’s back in George Town and that’s the only place you can get it. Maybe you can get it cheap at auction.  So save your stupid ass and tell me where my son is!”

To Tom, the words conveyed truth and despite the insult, did contain some possibly good advice. “If you won’t keep the deal Harriet and I made, I will have to buy her at auction.  But I need money to do that. And you, you son of a bitch, stole my money!”  He raised the rifle as though it were a hand gun and fired it, hitting Eric in the thigh.  Eric yelled in pain, cursing in several languages.  Tom roared at him, “Now where’s my money?” 

Beryl and Akara heard the shot.  “Listen!” Beryl said.

Terry, looking around for answers, had walked to the road. He saw Lilyanne and George struggling to climb it.  “Look at this” he shouted. “The assholes who were in that SUV are gettin’ away with one of the duffel bags.”  He had no weapon.  “Get over here,” he shouted.  “Stop ’em!” The shot that Tom had fired was behind him. “They ain’t that way,” he shouted, “they’re gettin’ away this way! Get the truck started,” he yelled, running towards the F 450.  “They’re gonna get away.  They ain’t cops.”

Jack did not know which directive he was supposed to follow: join Terry at the foot of the hill or join Tom in the truck. He stumbled forward and bumped into Terry. “Show me!” he said.  Terry retreated a few feet and pointed at the figures climbing the road.  Jack fired two shots.

Beryl was frantic.  “Can you see what they’re shooting at?  Is somebody on the road?  Is it George?”

Akara got out of the SUV and stepped up onto the bumper and then the bonnet. He stood high enough to get a clearer view of the road ahead. Finally he saw heads emerge from the fog. “It’s Lilyanne! And George is behind her.”  Another shot was fired but Akara could not tell where it hit.  Beryl had already jumped from the Explorer and had started running towards Lilyanne to assist her.

Akara continued to watch for a moment more to be able to assess the source of the rifle fire. As he watched he could see that George had slowed down… perhaps he had even stopped running. Thinking that George might have been wounded, Akara prepared to jump down from the Explorer when he suddenly saw the F 450 begin to climb up the steep hill. More shots were fired at them from the cab of the  F 450.  Akara ran down the hill to help George, passing Lilyanne and Beryl.  “Something’s wrong with George!” he shouted. “I’ll help him.”

Beryl continued to help Lilyanne and the baby to climb the last fifty yards to reach the Explorer.  They slipped and stumbled on the slippery road. Finally they reached the Explorer and Beryl pushed Lilyanne and the baby into the back seat.  “I’m going to help George and Akara,” she said, slamming the door shut.

Akara reached George.  “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No! Go back and drive them out of here.  That 450 is gonna push Beryl’s car right off the road!”

“What the hell are you waiting for?” Akara asked frantically.  “Come on!”

“Go without me!” George ordered. “Eric was hit! Go help the women!” Then he turned and faced the truck that was moving inexorably towards him.  He drew his Colt and took a Weaver firing stance and fired three bullets into the F 450’s radiator.  Without saying another word, Akara imitated his stance, and fired the Baretta at the truck’s grill.

“Go back to the women!” George ordered.

Akara jogged up the hill as George took refuge behind a tree.  He imagined, but could not see, green fluid spurting from the radiator. He could hear the truck continue to climb the hill but it quickly slowed and finally crawled to a stop.

George needed a hiding place.  He looked around and found the hollowed trunk of an old pine tree that stood a few feet back from the road.  It was a good place to hide… one that could be circled and still keep him hidden.  He hoisted himself up onto the edge of the dead tree, climbed over it, and then, hoping that he wouldn’t be trying to share the home of a raccoon or skunk family, he lowered himself inside the hollowed tree trunk.  He could hear the Explorer drive in reverse. The motor hummed steadily. He smiled. Akara must be driving. He could also hear the three men arguing and cursing.  He could understand only a few words but one of them was “cabin.”  George surmised that they had decided to climb the slope and return to the cabin for the night.  All in all, George thought, that wasn’t a bad idea.  He wondered why he hadn’t thought of it.

When he heard the men cursing and stumbling as they slid down to the creek, crossed it, and clawed their way up the slope to the upper road, he finally went back to see what had happened to Eric. As he passed the truck he counted the holes he and Akara had made.  “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.  “All six shots hit the radiator.  That’s fucking amazing!”

Eric sat beside the road furiously pressing his wound. “Did Beryl and Akara just leave us here?” he demanded to know, “as if we were so much garbage?”

“It’s your pain talking,” George said.  “Let me see the wound.”

The bullet had gone through the outer side of Eric’s thigh.  His femoral artery had not been touched.  “You’ll live,” George said.  “Let’s bind it up.”  He took off his own belt and using a handkerchief that he kept folded in his jacket, he pressed the squared piece of linen against the wound and tightened his belt around it.

“Are we married now?” Eric asked.

“No,” George answered.  “Maybe in some parts of the world… but not here.” He laughed.  “Let’s wait in their truck.”

“Will Beryl come back for us?”

“My guess is that she will drop Akara and Lilyanne off at a motel and then, when they’re safe, she’ll come back. Or maybe she’ll take them home first.  Don’t look for her before dawn.”

“Listen,” Eric said softly, “There’s no point in leaving the money to rot there on the slope.  When she gets back will she be alone?”

“Are you looking for laborers to drag the bags up the slope and then to this road and then up this road to where she parks the Explorer?”

“That’s about it.  I’ll see to it that the money is all returned.  And, naturally, I’ll replace your truck. All will be set in order before I return to the Caymans.”

“Naturally,” George said. “And when will that be?”

 

*

 

Beryl and Akara had driven Lilyanne and the baby all the way back to Tarleton. Beryl called ahead and the grandparents arranged a welcome home party.  Lilyanne groaned as she saw the Mylar balloons attached to the portico’s columns.

Everett and Hans wanted more information about the kidnappers, but Beryl assured them that as far as she knew, with the exception of Lilyanne’s brief encounter with the sleeping men – a moment in time in which her attention was focussed on the baby – no one had any close contact with them.  When she conveyed the news that Eric had been shot and that George had stayed behind to help him, the Haffners seemed strangely relieved.  The information tended to support their contention that Eric could not possibly have been an ally of the kidnappers.

Treating Lilyanne as an unnecessary appendage, the grandmothers undressed the baby, searching for marks of abuse and, though he had been gone only a few days, signs of malnutrition. He had not had his diaper changed frequently enough and, they discovered to their horror, his bottom was red.

Lilyanne refused to allow them to take him to the hospital to be “professionally checked.” “Just give him oatmeal and plums,” she said.  And, since they had considered the possibility that the kidnapping was an “inside job,” they stared at each other for a long moment and in French simultaneously voiced their doubt that the kitchen staff should be trusted.  Prudence demanded that they prepare the child’s meals, themselves.

Cecelia dismissed the kitchen staff and she and Erica proceeded to bathe the baby in the kitchen sink. They then tried to interpret the directions for making oatmeal – given in clear American avoirdupois measurements into their metric equivalents – sufficient for six portions – and succeeded in making a large lump of something that they could not even force down the drain.  They compromised with prudence and allowed the cook to prepare oatmeal for the baby who had to be awakened in order to eat it.

As Beryl took her car keys from her pocket and prepared to return to the oak-tree site, Sanford told her that she looked as though she had not slept in two years.  “Yes,” she responded, “it feels that way.”

“Then,” he said in an authoritative voice as he took the keys from her hand, “since Mr. Chatree knows the way, there seems to be no reason for you to return to that woodland area. He and I can return to help Messrs Wagner and Haffner.”  Knowing that he was familiar with her Colt Mustang, she took the weapon from her purse’s gun slot and pushed it into his jacket pocket.

Akara patted his Beretta in its shoulder holster and stood up.  “I’m ok with it.”

Everett and Hans, not knowing the correct form to use when asking a servant for permission to come along, mumbled that they would be of immeasurable help if either George or Eric needed blood… or something.  “Furthermore,” Everett added, “we’ll both be armed in the event we encounter the kidnappers. I have my trusty Glock 9 and both of us are known to be excellent shots – though Herr Haffner is more at home with shotguns.  He shoots grouse regularly. He’ll be carrying my Purdey Over-And-Under.”

“Then Sir,” Sanford replied, “we will not have enough room in the Explorer.  I would suggest that we take the family Escalade.”

“Excellent idea,” Everett Smith said.

Akara groaned.  “If driving the Explorer backwards up that hill was difficult, driving the Escalade backwards is going to be close to impossible.”

“We’ll manage,” Everett said, and as Akara rolled his eyes, the men got into the big Cadillac and headed for Highway #422.

*

Eric and George had already retrieved the money bags from the slope by the time the Escalade rolled down the hill. They had carried them, however, only to the base of the road. Leaving the bags standing upright, leaning against each other, the two men walked up to the F 450 to wait for Beryl to return. They were not entirely surprised to see the Escalade snake down the narrow roadway.

As Everett and Hans rushed to greet them, George said simply, “He needs stitches and a tetanus shot.”  He walked to the Escalade where Sanford, as promised, had just called Beryl.

“I’ll let George bring you up to date,” Sanford said as he handed George his phone. George waited until everyone was in the car before he proceeded to reveal his expurgated version of the ordeal.  He had omitted the part about Eric’s wanting to execute the sleeping men and that he had lingered behind, as Lilyanne tried to flee with the baby, to instead rescue the duffel bags.

Hans and Everett, having been the principal ransom raisers, were delighted to do the hard work of dragging the duffel bags up the hill to the Escalade.

When everyone was finally seated in the car, Akara asked George, “What is going to happen to the kidnappers?”

George looked pitifully at the dead truck. Every part of it, except the tail gate, had been scratched and dented and also, since it had been forcefully driven without the necessary coolant, its motor had probably seized and its gaskets burned to uselessness.  “For what they did to this beautiful F 450 in less than a week, they ought to be shot,” George said.

“Ve’ll pay for all damages,” Hans said plaintively. “Please don’t call police.”

“I am police,” George said abruptly.  “There are three desperate men up there in that cabin. They’re killers and can’t be allowed to walk free.”

Sanford acquitted himself well driving in reverse.  In his youth, he explained, he had worked in a Manhattan parking lot. He made slow but careful progress and by the time they reached the oak tree, he was much relieved to be able to drive forward. He had not gone ten feet in Drive when Beryl called Everett’s phone.  She wanted him to tell George that Lilyanne had called the State Police.

As they exited onto Highway 222,  they heard a helicopter and looked back to see two Highway Patrol cars turn onto Van Reid.

Eric leaned forward to whisper in George’s ear, “Are you gonna stick with the sanitized version?”

“Probably. But I will have to discuss that with my wife,” George said, pleased with himself for the first time in days.

The End

The Woods (#4)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

 

Part Four

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” Lilyanne asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Eric said.  “No problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

“I’m armed,” he insisted.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a better idea?” Eric asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

*

 

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

“What a ‘ram’ drumbeat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (Go to Part V…)

The Woods (#3)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

Part Three

 

Sunday noon was not the best time of day to play a recording for an informant to listen to and analyze. Customers came in and out of the station and Beryl was careful not to let her presence in the store interfere with the clerk’s work.  She placed the old, high-quality CD player on the counter top and, turning away from the clerk, let her listen to the voices.

“That’s it, I think,” the clerk finally said.  “Number twenty-nine.”

Beryl checked the list.  The recording had been made in George Town, Cayman Islands. “I’m amazed,” she said.  “That’s where I thought it came from, but for you to pick it out from all these possibilities?  Amazing!”  As she thanked the clerk she pressed a hundred dollar bill in her hand.  Then she went out into her car and called George.  They agreed to meet at Sensei and Sonya’s house, near their office.

*

Sonya Lee Wong, Sensei’s wife, had been a highly regarded investigator with Hong Kong Customs before she married.  She had retired from service and from society in general after she had experienced a serious injury; but Sensei had tracked her down, and earlier in the year they had been married in a ceremony at Tarleton House.  Pregnant, she still got morning sickness, but usually, by noon, she was feeling normal enough to eat lunch “as,” she said, “a human being might do it.”

George stopped off at her favorite Italian restaurant and got five orders of meatless spaghetti to go; and Sonya, Sensei, George, Beryl and Akara sat around the kitchen table, eating and talking about the case.  Finally it was time to hear Sonya’s analysis and predictions.

Sonya shrugged.  “The informant recognized a Caymanian accent.  I can use what drag I have left to get the passenger manifests for every flight that went from George Town to Philadelphia in the last two weeks.  Obviously, the intent was to coordinate the kidnapping with Eric Haffner’s arrival on the 16th.  So someone is likely to have known Eric well enough to know his plans.  You can show him the lists and see if he recognizes a name.

“I know it’s tempting to think that Eric’s somehow involved, but I’d discount that idea. From what Lilyanne reported from personal contact and from the mail he’s sent, he’s centered on Baby Eric and won’t risk harming his only son in such a dangerous ploy. But if you think his fatherly love is just a sham, then consider that if Eric wanted to milk his parents, his best bet is to let the boy grow up.  Alive, the kid is his meal ticket for life.  Besides, kidnapping is a serious felony and the other men involved so far haven’t proven to be too smart.  Eric would have to be an idiot to conspire with a fool.

“So, keep a sliver of suspicion on him, but treat him like an innocent.  We don’t know how many are involved.  He might be aligned with only one of them… one who may be a smart one.  We also don’t know if that one is a woman.  So Eric may have another connection that we at least have to consider.

“As to the kidnappers, if there are only two of them, the dynamic is different. They’re partners. If there are three, count on them to squabble amongst themselves. Crime is a tense activity and one of them will break under the tension.  My guess is that the kidnappers are composed of at least one person from the Caymans – the one who learned Eric’s schedule and bought the ‘nappies’ – and one citizen of the U.S. who could buy weapons or rent a house and truck.

“Eric’s the one to watch.  He’s smart and he’s independent, and since George got the woman he wanted, he may not be too anxious to cooperate with George.  Watch his face as he looks through the passenger lists.  He might lie and say he doesn’t know anybody on the list – because he’ll want to deal with that person himself… in his own way… and for his own objectives.

“The Haffners have done everything they’ve been asked to do.  The Smiths have been completely cooperative.  There’s no chance at all that they’re involved in any of this.

“This is a crime of personal association.  The kidnappers are not strangers to either Lilyanne or Eric.  If her old antagonists – with the exception of Eric – are dead, as George surmises, she’s not a target.  Eric is the one who’s known.  That’s about all I can tell you.  Eric is the key.”

Akara interjected, “If he does give us a name from the passenger lists, I can find out if he’s rented that big truck.”

George smiled.  “With a Caymanian accent and driver’s license, he’s not likely to be the one who rented the truck… if it was rented.  The American would have done that.  Let’s go show Eric the lists and see if he recognizes a name.”

Akara had not finished making his point.  “Eric, in cooperation with his parents and the Smiths, may deny recognizing a name for no other reason than this would make the case international,” he said. “Or he may deliberately claim to recognize half a dozen other names – just to throw us off the track.  I see no substitute for the windshield sticker’s information.  Also,” he added, “his involvement may not be a priori but it sure as hell could be a posteriori. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who would pass up 2 mil.”

“Good point,” George nodded.  “Throw us off…  and he’d let the guy get the 2 mil out of the country where he’d be able to get his hands on it much more easily.”

*

George studied Eric’s face as he looked through the passenger manifests.  Eric saw Thomas and Jackson Fielder’s names, but he did not give the slightest indication of recognizing them.  “No,” he said.  “I don’t know any of them; but then, I’m not too involved in what passes for local society.”

 

Monday, October 21, 2013

At Tarleton the day was spent messengering money and bonds from one place to another until, finally, it was received and stored on the dining room table.  Two million dollars in unmarked bills of various denominations took considerably more packing space than they had imagined.  Four duffel bags were filled with currency and bonds and readied for whatever trip the kidnappers directed them to take.

George, meanwhile, used the day mostly to get away from Tarleton House and its inhabitants.  He went to his office to get his weapons – a .45 Colt Rail Gun and his old reliable Smith & Wesson .38 revolver.

Cecelia Smith prepared a large diaper bag and filled it with a blanket, clothes, diapers, baby powder, a stuffed animal, a plastic bottle and six cans of prepared baby formula. She gave the bag to Lilyanne who carefully placed it on the back seat of the pickup truck.  Lilyanne had decided that when the call came in, she would go with George to retrieve the baby.

 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 

At ten o’clock in the morning, Everett Smith took the call.  “We have the money,” he said. “We demand ‘Proof of Life’.”  Beryl slumped defeatedly in her chair at the conversational omissions. Half-heartedly she made sure the recording apparatus was functioning properly.

“I can’t bring the baby here to cry for ya’,” Terry said.  “And before ya’ try to trace the call, just pay attention. Go northwest on the 422 past Reading, take the 222,  and at Van Reid Road turn left and at Switzer Road turn right and just foller the dirt road a couple miles or so ’til ya comes to an oak tree that’s been split by lightnin’. It’s standin’ right where four roads come together. Leave the two million by the tree – and make sure ya wrap it so it don’t get wet in the snow.  Just be there by 3 p.m.  That’ll give you plenty of time.  Leave the money and go back to the 222 and wait one hour.  Then come back to the tree and pick up the baby.  Don’t lollygag  ’cause there’s bars in the woods.”    He disconnected the call.

Everett raised his eyebrows.  “Bars?” he asked.

“Bears!” Beryl snapped.  “I told you he was likely backwoods Appalachian.  Bars is Bears!”  She, too, was running out of patience with the grandparents.  She signaled Akara who was armed for the first time in his life with his new Beretta Tomcat.   They had plenty of time to return to Akara’s apartment over the little Zendo to get his iPad and other pieces of electronic equipment she could not identify.  They stopped at a gas station to fill her Explorer’s tank; bought six-packs of coke and ten protein bars; and then the two of them went to Tarleton to finish preparing to leave ahead of George for the rendezvous… on Highway 222, west of Reading.

*

While Sanford placed six-packs of Coke and a bag of sandwiches on the floor of the passenger’s side of the front seat, George loaded the money bags into the pickup’s bed and buttoned down the tarp.  Lilyanne approached, dressed as though she were going skiing. “I’m going with you,” she announced. George knew better than to object.  A willful and determined girl, she had once spent five years in a Catholic convent where such personality traits had been sharpened by discipline and a mystical self-reliant obedience.  No one bothered to argue with her, especially when she spoke in the authoritative voice she was then using.  “And I’ll tell you right now that my father and Eric’s father have insisted that he come with us.”  She sarcastically added, “It’ll sound so good when they tell everyone how heroic he was in saving the baby.”  She sighed. “But let’s keep peace in the family and let him come along.”

Eric Haffner grinned as he approached George’s pickup.  “I’m going, too.”  He brandished a Luger he had received from Smith’s private collection.  “I know how to use it, I assure you,” he said.

“Are you sure,” Everett Smith asked George, “that you don’t want to take a shotgun or a rifle with you?”

“No,” George said pointedly. “We’ve got enough,” he said.  “More firepower will endanger the baby.”

“Have it your way,” Everett said.  “You know best.”

Especially considering that absolutely no one had found George’s advice worth taking, Smith’s remark struck George as funny.  “Then let’s get moving,” he said, smiling.  “We’ve got more than 65 tough miles to drive in lousy weather.”

*

They drove in silence on the 422 as it paralleled the Schuylkill River; but when the road veered north, they exited it and entered Highway 222 until they came to the Van Reid turnoff.  As they turned they could see Beryl’s Explorer parked behind a billboard.

Loose stones composed the roadbed.  Here and there the surface had a conglomerate look, but mostly the stones seemed to be independent of each other. Occasionally black streaks of oily anthracite coal crossed the dirt road.  “What is that black stuff?” Eric asked.

“Coal.  Hard anthracite coal.  Left over from when they strip mined the area.  I guess some of the trucks dumped their loads.  All this is reclaimed strip mining land.   Sixty years ago it used to be a barren bunch of huge slag rills, like the devil scratched his fingers over the land.  Really ugly terrain. Poisonous, too, from the chemicals they used.   They’ve reclaimed it and the trees are fully grown, but we’re not on native rock.  You won’t find any bedrock around here.  A good rainstorm could wash away huge hunks of this narrow road.”

They turned onto Switzer Road and continued until they came to the oak tree.  George parked, letting Eric unload the duffel bags as he took photographs of the tire tracks that led up and down a winding road that was to his right as he faced the tree.  On his left was another downhill road that had no tracks in its fresh snow.  Behind him was another dirt road that also did not appear to have been recently used.  “They must be amateurs,” George said.  “How many places can there be around here?  I can tell you one thing: they’re in the wrong kind of truck to negotiate these roads.”

“Then let’s follow the tracks up,” Eric said, fingering the Luger.  “I can walk in snow without any problem.  I’ve got the right kind of boots on. You can wait down here.”

“And you think you’re invisible?” George countered.  “I don’t know what they’re armed with and neither do you.  If they have a good scope, they can pick you off while you’re standing here.   And me, too.  They’ve got the baby… what you might call ‘a human shield’.”

Eric groused, “Ok, I’ll stick with the plan,” and climbed into the pickup.

As they drove back to the highway, they repeatedly spoke to Beryl.  She had seen no activity at all at the turnoff.  Fearing that someone might be watching, George did not park near her; and communicating only by phone, they spent a nervous hour waiting until it was time to return for the baby.  No car or truck had exited the turn off. “They must have another route out,” George said as he started his pickup, “at lease I hope they do.”  He looked at Lilyanne in the back seat.  “Well, it’s 4 p.m.  Are you ready to go?”

*

The F-450, normally difficult to drive in such terrain, had grown even more unmanageable when the snow had added a slickness to the gravely surface.  With the lack of forward motion and the momentum that speed provided, the truck skidded sideways on the unmarked roadside, often threatening to roll over.

Terry had driven the truck when he returned to the highway to call Everett Smith. He had barely succeeded in traversing a section that had become particularly unstable due to its oily slag content and the weight of the truck.  But he was drunker than usual when the time came for them to pick up the money and place the baby in its stead.  Tom insisted that he should drive out.  “You’ll get us lost,” Terry sneered.  “I’m a better driver when I’m drunk than you are when you’re sober.”  Tom decided not to argue at this critical point of the operation.

Terry was nearly half way down to the oak tree when he came to the weakened part of the narrow road that clearly was no longer level.  As he tried to cross the area, the truck slid sideways, tilting precariously as its right front and both right rear wheels were off the road, angled into the slope’s loose gravel.  Jack had wanted to get out of the car so that he could stand in front of it and guide Terry through a maneuver that would get them back onto a level section of roadway.  But Terry had already turned the front wheels into a hard left which only accommodated the truck’s response to the gravitational pull.  As Jack opened the passenger door, he paused, feeling the truck resume its sideways skid, going faster downhill in the loose gravel until its passenger door collided with a pine tree that dented the door as it slammed it into the truck’s frame. In fact, the tree had dented the cabin roof above the door as well as reducing the window to a million splinters of webbed shards.

Jack, angry and frustrated that his exit was now blocked, and covered with shattered flakes of window glass, cursed Terry and ordered him out of the car.  “Now, look what you’ve done, you idiot!” Jack shouted, pushing Terry who was momentarily confused.  The baby had begun to cry when he and Tom were flung against the side of the back seat-bed.   “Get the hell out!” Jack shouted again.

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Terry shouted. “Why ya’ blamin’ me?”

“”I can’t open the goddamned door on my side, you jackass!  Get the hell out of the car!”

“Oh,” Terry finally understood and opened his door.  He got out of the truck and surveyed the damage.  “I hope Maria got collision insurance,” he said sheepishly.

“Who the hell is Maria?” Jack snarled.

“The gal who rented the truck for me.  How the hell did you expect me to rent it?  I’m a convicted felon, for Christ’s sake.”

Jack got into the driver’s seat and started the truck.  He inched it forward, scraping its side until it was free of the tree, Tom got out and the three of them walked around the truck to gauge the damage and their situation.   “There’s no way we’re getting this rig back up on that road,” Jack announced.   Terry disagreed and the two men argued until Tom saw another possibility.

“Look!” Tom said. pointing downhill.  “We can blaze our own trail through the trees.  They’re not that thick and the little ones we can just run over.  In four-wheel drive, we can make a controlled descent and come out on the road we saw back at the oak tree… the road that went downhill.  Whatdya’ think?”

“We could try it,” Jack said, “but we’ve lost enough time as it is to get down to the money.  If we got down to the other road, we’d just have to turn back to the oak tree and we’d risk runnin’ into the others comin’ back to get the baby.”

“Yes. We need to avoid seeing the others,” Tom announced definitively.  “I don’t want any eye-witnesses, especially that s.o.b. Claus.  If he doesn’t kill us here, he’ll get us back in the Caymans.  What we could do is go on foot to get the money right now.”

Jack, volunteering to go, scrambled uphill until he was back on the road; and then he jogged down to the oak tree.  While he had easily been able to see himself frolicking in a swimming pool filled with hundred dollar bills, he was startled to see four heavy duffel bags waiting to be picked up.  He hefted each one, estimating their relative weight.  Then hoisting the lightest one onto his shoulder and dragging the next lightest one behind him, he struggled to return to the truck. When he was close enough to be seen, he called to Tom for help, telling him that there were two more bags to carry.

Tom met him on the road and took the two bags to the truck, dumped them into the truck bed, and returned to help his brother carry the rest of the money.  He and Jack were exhausted by the time the job was finished and Terry still insisted on driving.  “We’ll leave the kid off in a gas station men’s room or a church,” he said.  “Everythin’ is goin’ honky-dory.”

Terry saw a way that he could avoid all the trees and drive straight down the slope, intercepting the road that led downhill from the oak tree. All he had to do was make a sharp, ninety degree turn and go down the hill nose first.  If he kept the truck in four-wheel drive, his descent would be controlled sufficiently to negotiate the steep incline.

Unfortunately, the envisioned road was not nearly so wide as Terry had estimated, and as they slowly descended, they scraped both sides of the vehicle and the cabin roof, too, against the stubborn pines. Terry recalled that when he first looked for a cabin to rent, he had seen some houses not too far west of them.  “The road’ll connect with another road that’ll probably take us to somebody’s house.  We can leave the kid anyplace.”  He thought more about their location.  “By goin’ directly down to the lower road, we’ll be in front of the folks who are comin’ for the kid… far in front of ’em.  We’ve still got the kid so they’s gonna foller us.  But it’ll be like we disappeared like magic.  We didn’t leave no tracks goin’ downhill at the oak tree.  So… sure, if they do foller us we’ll be long gone and way ahead of ’em.”

Terry tried to add something encouraging as they proceeded.  “I looked inside a couple of them money pokes.  There’s real cash in there.  A whole big load of cash!”

When they reached the lower road and turned right on it, following it down hill, they celebrated the difficult maneuver by passing around one of Terry’s bottles of whiskey.

*

After finding no baby but seeing that the duffel bags had been dragged or carried away, George and Eric checked the area.  Eric pronounced his opinion. “They could have gone back the way they came and turned at the Switzer road before we got there so we didn’t see them leave, or, this uphill road keeps going and they just continued on it – none of these goddamned dirt pathways is on our maps.  Maybe, they’re still up there waiting for us to arrive.”

“Why would they be wanting to meet us?” Lilyanne asked, looking at Eric suspiciously.  “Do they have an appointment with someone?”

“If they wanted to meet us,” George said, “they could have done that back in the city.” He examined and photographed the tire tracks and footprints that came down and went back up the hill. “Only the duffel bag drag marks went up hill,” he said. “Why didn’t they just pick them up with the truck? There are no tracks on any of the roads around us except the road we came in on and this uphill road.  We have to follow them.”  They got into the pickup.

“That’s a good question,” Eric said.  “Why did they pick them up on foot?  I can run up and sneak a look.”  He looked at Lilyanne.  “Contrary to your opinion, I have no appointments with anyone.”

George wanted to avoid any arguments.  “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he said.  “We don’t know anything.  So let’s not speculate.” He did, however, consider it a possibility that Eric had a devious intention by wanting to go alone.  It did deserve a little thought.

They followed the tracks of footprints and tires up the road.  At the road’s ruptured point they could easily determine that a truck had turned off the road and nosed down the slope to connect, presumably, with the other downhill road they had seen at the oak-tree intersection.   George stopped the pickup.  “I’m not going to risk trying to cross the road here.”

“But the baby could be up there,” Lilyanne pleaded.

“I’ll hike up,” Eric said.  “I’ve got the best boots and legs for it.”  Without waiting to discuss his intention, he jumped down from the pickup and began to cross the jumbled remains of the road.

“Wait!” George called, but Eric waved-off the command and continued to jog through the broken trail.

George called Beryl to tell her that they had encountered trouble.  “If Eric comes back without the baby, we’ll go after them on this downhill pathway they’ve just created. When you get to the oak tree, you can just take the downhill road and avoid what looks to me like a dangerous ride.  Somewhere their new pathway must connect with that downhill road. I’ll call you again as soon as Eric gets back.”

In five minutes they could see Eric jogging downhill.  Before he reached the disrupted stretch of road, he called, “There’s an empty cabin up there, and the road dead ends at the cabin.  I brought a few things that they left behind.”  He was carrying an empty plastic jug of milk and some whiskey bottles. “Maybe you can find usable finger prints.”

As soon as George had seen Eric without the baby, he called Beryl again.  She was still talking to him when Eric clambered across the jumbled road.

“There’s at least three of them,” Eric said, “as I got from studying the different footprints in the snow.  At the far end of the parking area, I found three dirty diapers.  The door to the cabin was unlocked and I found a trash receptacle that contained empty baby-food jars, fast food wrappers, beer cans, and the empty milk jug and whiskey bottles.  So Baby Eric’s still alive, thank God!”

“The prints!” George said angrily.  “If you hadn’t jumped out and started running, I could have given you my iPhone’s photos of the prints down at the oak tree and you could have compared them. Now we don’t know if the three you saw contain the two that were back there or whether they’re five different prints.  Jesus, Eric!  Will you stop trying to run this investigation!” He resumed talking to Beryl.  “I’ll let you know how we make out on the downhill route.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Eric said.  “I was eager to get my boy back.”

“If the baby’s not up there,” Lilyanne bit her lip and whimpered, “we’ll have to follow the route they took.”

“Yes,” George said, “but I have to approach the down hill slope head on.”  He calmed himself. “It’s like an ocean wave.  If it hits you sideways, you capsize.  So you have to meet the wave with the prow… the front of the boat.”  He rocked back and forth until he got his pickup as perpendicular to the road as he could get it, and then he began the hazardous trip down the slope.

In low gear and four-wheel drive, the truck proceeded slowly.  George tried to imitate Bette Davis. “Fasten your seat belts, kids… we’re in for a bumpy ride.”

“Stop trying to make me laugh,” Lilyanne said seriously.  “I can’t think straight when someone is trying to amuse me.”  George remained quiet, concentrating on following the tracks of the F 450.  As he reached the bottom of the slope and turned right onto the lower road, a shot rang out.

“That’s a rifle,” George said.  “We’re not in a defensible position, and the engine is the only protection we’ve got.” He reached back to push Lily’s head down. “They’re worried,” he said.  “Maybe the one with the Cayman accent fears being recognized.”

They stopped and waited, listening to the heavier truck move ahead in the distance.  “Don’t let them get away with my baby!” Lilyanne pleaded.  “Follow them!”

George calculated that they were far enough away – a quarter mile he guessed – and began to pursue the F 450.  There were sharp turns in the dirt road and patches of fog and it soon became impossible to gauge just how far behind the bigger truck they actually were. George and Eric lowered their windows to listen for engine sounds. At the top of an incline, George stopped his truck.  “I’ll call Beryl,” he said, letting his pickup roll forward a few feet.  The road ahead was straight downhill for as far as he could see.

“No!” Eric snapped. “Stop!  Listen! I hear water… rushing water.   Look around you!  The terrain is changing.  There’s no snow laying.”  George stopped the pickup and rolled down his window.

“So what?” Lilyanne hissed.  “Who cares why the snow isn’t sticking?  Wherever the road goes, they took it.  They found a way out and we can too.  Follow them!”

George looked at Eric and did not move.

“They’ve got my baby!” Lilyanne shouted.  “Follow them!”  She began to thump George’s shoulders with her fists.  “Follow them!”

George moved slowly down the hill.  He heard the big truck’s motor stop.  “Why would they have stopped?” he asked quietly. He stopped his truck and turned off the engine.  “Can you hear them?” he asked Eric.

Eric stuck his head out the window and listened intently. “No,” he said.  “I can’t hear their truck, but I hear the water.”

“We need to think about this,” George said.

*

Terry Rourke knew enough about mountain roads to realize that a dirt road and the sound of rushing water was not exactly a good indication of an escape route. “Those bastards are still behind us,” he announced.  “There’s a big lake around here and for all we know this road takes us right into it.  In that case, they’ve got us trapped!  I don’t want to keep goin’.”

“Maybe they’re waiting to see what we’ll do,” Tom suggested.  “So, either we go farther, or, since we can’t go back without runnin’ into them, why don’t we hide the truck and let them drive past us.  Either way, they keep going and then we just retrace our steps and we get out the way we came in.  We’ll just drop the kid off in some gas station.”

“That’s a good idea,” Terry announced.  “Let’s pull over into some thick brush, cover the truck with more brush, start the engine so they’ll think we’re movin’, and then let them drive past us and take their chances with whatever ravine this road is leadin’ into.”

Jack, who was tired of holding the damaged door closed, immediately agreed that it was a good plan.  He got out and searched for an advantageous hiding place.  Thirty yards ahead, around a curve, he found a natural alcove, a small area amid the trees and shrubs. He signaled Terry who drove forward, turned off the road and parked. All three men helped to cover the tracks and the truck with shrubbery.  Then he started the engine, gunning it so that it would be easily heard.

Hearing their engine, George started the pickup and continued to drive down the hill.  He followed the curve around and drove past the hidden truck.  His attention was riveted on a barren area ahead that appeared to be the road’s end.  There were no detectable double-tire tracks, but bushes had been run over and crushed, and they lay, half-dead, along the sides of the area.  “Keep going!” Lilyanne insisted.  “There’s got to be a connecting road. They found it and so can we!”  Fog had again obscured the way ahead, but George was able to see that two parallel tire lanes did indicate that a vehicle had passed beyond the apparent end. “Go!” Lilyanne again insisted.

George gingerly crept forward, aligning his wheels to the path lines of the previous vehicle when suddenly the pickup nosed down and though he tried to brake the movement, the truck began to slide uncontrollably in mud.  The slide became a plunge and the truck bounced down into water where it soon found itself sinking in the river’s delta with a huge lake.  The two front windows were down and George shouted, “Close the windows!” He succeeded in closing the driver’s door window, but the impact had apparently damaged the window on the passenger’s side. Water poured into the cab as the truck slowly descended into the cold water. The truck settled at an angle, the left front wheel having been caught on a tree stump or rock; and the rear of the truck seeming to settle on the bottom.  There was an airspace at the roof of the cabin.  “We’ve got to get out and call for help!” Eric shouted.  They knew that their cellphones and the truck’s CB radio, too, had been drowned into uselessness.  Wherever they were, they were without any contact with the outside world.

George looked behind him. “Where’s Lilyanne?” he shouted.

*

Sometimes it is not enough to injure an enemy.  The comforting thought of his experiencing months or years of pain cannot provide the satisfaction of killing him outright and visualizing his gravestone.  Such was the thought that Tom Fielder had when he and his two conspirators heard George’s pickup truck plunge into the water.

Tom was first out of the truck.  He grabbed his rifle.  “Let’s finish them off,” he said.

Terry’s mind, though somewhat inebriated, formed clearer thoughts.  “No!” he said, running after him. “Let the cold water do the job.  Just keep ’em pinned down. You don’t want any slugs in ’em when the bodies are found.”  He caught up with Tom. “It’ll just look like an accident. Bad driver. Wrong turn. Foggy conditions.  Who will argue?  Remember: dead, they can’t complain about us. We’ve got the money and we can just leave the kid at a church door or gas station down in Harrisburg – some place far away from here.  We ain’t heartless.”

Self-preservation trumped the issue of an enemy’s brief or lingering death.  Tom agreed to limit his shooting to the simple prevention of any swimmer’s escape.

Jack had agreed with Terry and preferred an innocent assumption of death to the comforts of execution.  He did, however, carry the baby to the edge of the ravine to watch Tom shoot around the pickup truck.  Perhaps, if Claus surfaced, he’d call to him and let him wave “bye-bye” to his son.  But the gunfire bothered the baby, and Jack retreated to the big truck and, celebrating alone, took a swig of Terry’s whiskey.  “It’s chilly out here,” he said to the baby.  “Salud!” 

*

When the pickup truck struck the water,  George knew that the ignition would be on long enough for him to raise his window. He had expected to see three heads struggling to breathe the same air; but he saw only Eric’s head.  Lilyanne had apparently struck her head and had not surfaced, and Eric was frantically trying to pull her over the seat-back. George succeeded in grabbing her hair and together the two men dragged her into the front seat’s airspace. “She’s not breathing,” Eric said as he prepared to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Between breaths, he asked, “How far are we down?”

“We’re caught on something; and if it gives way, who knows how far we’ll sink.  It feels like the back of the truck has hit bottom, but with all this goddamned mud we’ve kicked up, who can tell.”

It was just as they struggled to get Lilyanne to breathe again, that the first gunshot rang out.  George took over the resuscitation attempts as Eric slipped through his open window and surfaced. He could not see where the bullet had entered the water, but when he looked at the top edge of the ravine he could see a man standing there pointing a rifle at them. Another shot was fired.

The resuscitation attempts were successful and Lilyanne quickly regained consciousness.  She began to cough and whimper. Eric lowered himself into the cab.  “There’s somebody shooting at us,” Eric shouted. “We’ve got to get out of the water,” he continued to shout, the pitch in his voice rising, “or we’ll die from hypothermia.  We’re gonna run out of air in here!”

“I know that!” George returned the shout. “But the guy with the rifle has other ideas.”  Just as he said that another shot was fired and this, too, entered the water nearby.  Eric opened the passenger’s side door and slid into the water.  He held onto the pickup, following it down, then he returned to the cab and reported, “We’re not in deep water. The truck’s rear wheels do seem to have hit bottom. I’d guess that we’ve got two meters of water above us.”

“We’re tipped to the right,” George said. “Get Lilyanne under the right front fender or in the engine area,” he ordered. “Try the wheel hole nearest the engine or the headlight.  It’ll be warmer there.” Eric wanted to know what George hoped to accomplish with this maneuver, but the authoritative voice George had used did not lend itself to argument.  As Eric pulled Lilyanne out of the cab and down under the fender,  George reached for his ignition switch and grabbed his key ring, gulped some air and swam through the open passenger side door.

He descended to the right front tire, listening to the strange sound of Eric’s complaining voice as it traveled through the water.

George groped the tire until he located the valve stem.  He unscrewed the stem’s cap and then rotated the tire until the valve was under the fender. Using a key from his key ring, he pushed the stem’s interior pin sideways, letting the air escape from the tire.  The air bubbled up and filled the entire fender’s airspace and seeped into the engine compartment. George swam up to join Lilyanne and Eric. The air had displaced enough water for them to get their noses into air-spaces.  “I’ll release more air as we need it,” he said.  They could hear another shot fired at them from the ravine.

*

Akara had been tracking multiple GPS signals.  Suddenly all the signals but one vanished.

Beryl tried to reach George’s cell, but the call went right to voicemail.  “This is crazy,” she said. “He wouldn’t have turned his phone off.”  She had reached the split oak tree.  The only tracks in the ground led up the one road.   “We don’t have to go up,” she said.  “George and the big truck both went down to the lower road.  How far ahead?  I can’t say.  As per instructions, we’ll take the downward road.” She started to make fresh tracks down the lower road.

They finally passed the point where the two trucks had descended the slope and had turned onto the downhill road.  They kept going until the road dipped and came up to the top of a small hill. A patch of fog lay ahead of them, obscuring the road. “This isn’t a bad vantage point,” she said.  “Let’s give it a minute and maybe it will clear.” Suddenly she heard a gun shot.  She put her hand on Akara’s arm, indicating that he should not speak.  She listened and waited.  She counted five shots.  “I hear running water and if I’m not mistaken those are rifle shots we just heard.”

*

Terry Rourke was anxious to get back to civilization.  “If someone hears the shots they might come to see what’s goin’ on.”  He tapped Tom’s shoulder.  “They’s dead,” he said in a mournful tone. “Come on.” They began to walk back to the truck.  “Let’s get rid of all this brush,” he said, and the two of them began to clear the area.

When they were finally ready to drive, Terry asked, “What time is it?”

“Four thirty,” Tom answered.  “What time will it get dark around here?”

“Six thirty.” Terry opened a bottle of whiskey and took a swig.  “From here on in, it’s milk and honey.” As he tilted his head back to take another mouthful of the whiskey, he heard the not too distant sound of Beryl’s Explorer.  She was still waiting on the top of the incline, hoping to get a better view of the area.

“Jesus,” Terry said, coughing up his drink, “there’s a car ’round here.  They’s in the water so it ain’t them.  Could be Park Rangers.  Maybe State Police!”

Tom took charge.  “Jack an’ me’ll put the brush back and hide the truck! Terry, you go down around the curve and see if ya’ can identify the vehicle.”  The three men left the truck and as Tom and Jack re-positioned the shrubbery, Terry walked to the road and could see the Explorer up on the incline’s ridge.

Terry returned to help the men conceal the truck.  “It looks official, ta me,” he said.  “One of them S.U.V.’s.  Let’s just wait ’em out.”  Having finished concealing the truck, the men returned to the cab and waited, passing the whiskey bottle from hand to hand.

“Yeah,” Tom said, trying to sound casual, “we’ll just sit here and wait.”  He picked up his rifle and replaced the five rounds he had fired.

*

Under the pickup, George, Eric, and Lilyanne had used up the air in the right front tire.   All of them were shivering and getting stiff from the cold.  “There haven’t been more shots,” George said. “Let’s swim to shore.”

Eric emerged from the water to gauge the distance and, seeing no one standing on the ridge, dropped back down to signal the others to surface.  “Jesus!” he exclaimed, “it can’t be more than ten meters!” Then he added, “But distances can be deceiving.  Stay here with Lil and I’ll see if I can find a beach head.”

He left the pickup truck and began swimming to shore.  When he tried to stand, the mud sucked his legs down.  He flopped over into a horizontal position and back-stroked until his feet were free and then he turned and swam forward until he touched some rocks.  When he finally could stand on land, he signaled George.  Both Lilyanne and George began to swim towards him.   “Did you remember to bring something to start a fire with?” she asked, her teeth chattering, as they swam.

George laughed at the absurd sound of an intelligent question.  “No, dear,” he admitted.  “I forgot.”

Eric stepped forward to help pull Lilyanne from the water.  “We’ve got to get my baby,” she wailed, and began punching Eric’s chest.  Surprised by her action, Eric tried to reassure her while George hoisted himself onto the rocks.

“We need to make a fire,” George ordered, then he grimaced.  “Jesus! She asked me and I forgot.  Everything we could have used is back in the truck.”

“Where? In the trash?” Eric asked.

“In the trash bag that hangs from the dashboard. We have Coke cans in the trash that we can use to make a sun reflector.”

Eric had heard about the technique, but he had never tried it.  “I’ll bring the whole bag.”  Without saying another word, he dove into the water and swam back to the truck.  A few minutes later he returned with the trash bag, the truck’s interior rear view mirror, and the diaper bag that Cecelia Smith had prepared for the baby.

“Good thinking!” Lilyanne said.  “There’s nothing better than a mirror when it comes to signaling people.”  She looked into the diaper bag and saw that the diapers had remained dry since they were contained in their original plastic packaging.  She looked at the various items and did not allow herself to cry.

The three of them scrambled up the steep incline until they found what appeared to be an indentation or shallow cave in the rocky slope.  It was not so deep as a cave that might be used for hibernation, but it did afford protection against the rain or snow and even could prevent onlookers from seeing the fire they hoped they could get started.  The troublesome part of the little grotto was that tiny black gnats swarmed all over them and left marks that resembled a teenager’s blackheads in their faces and arms. There was also no overhead break in the rock ceiling that would allow smoke to vent.

“Hurry!” George said, looking at the descending sun. “Do we have a lipstick or a Chapstick?” he asked. “Maybe a piece of chocolate?  We need a polishing medium and a little grit… like a rouge cloth.”

Eric had a Chapstick in his pocket.  He began to rub the concave bottom of a Coke can, mixing in some powdered dirt to act as an abrasive.   Steadily he polished the base with his shirt tail, determined to have a reflector made while they still had sunshine.  George scoured the area for tinder he could use to start the fire and found a bird’s deserted nest that seemed to be completely dry.  Shivering in their cold wet clothing, he and Lilyanne gathered twigs, pine cones, resin soaked bark, and then increasingly larger pieces of the driest wood they could find. Soon, the bottom of the can shown brilliantly and Eric focussed its beam onto the nest and within moments, the nest smoldered and finally ignited.  He carried the burning nest inside the cave and when more trigs and resin soaked bark were added, the fire began to burn brightly.

They stripped off their clothes, wrung them out as best they could and, using a branch as a makeshift clothes’ line, hung the garments up to dry.  Lilyanne was still shivering and George, conscious of the thirty pounds more weight he carried than Eric, thought for a fleeting moment that he presented the logical choice for her to come into his arms and let him wrap his bulk around her for warmth, but she stayed near the fire, between the two men and interrupted her shivering only long enough to ask, “Does anybody have the time?”

Eric looked at his watch.  “Not yet five o’clock.”

“It’ll be dinner time soon,” she said.  “Have you figured out a way for us to get something to eat?”

Under the circumstances, the question seemed bizarre.  Eric smiled and caught George’s eye as George returned the smile.

“The lady looks ahead,” Eric said.

“Not always,” she replied.

*

Beryl did not know what to think.  Maps did indicate that some ten miles away there was a large marshy area; but there was no indication that a marsh or lake had extended to the immediate area.  She could not reach George, Eric, or Lilyanne on their cellphones.  All three instruments went to voice-mail.  Yes, there was a vehicle ahead.  GPS indicated it.  She assumed that it was the kidnappers’ truck, but she did not know why it was a static signal or what the absence of George’s cell signal had to do with the situation.

“Why are we stopping?” Akara asked.  “It makes no sense to stop now when we’re so close. George may need us!”

“Our mission is to rescue the baby.  George may be dead for all we know.  Those were rifle shots.  George doesn’t have a rifle with him.  So it’s not likely that he fired the shots, is it?”

“No, but–”

Angry, Beryl cut him off.  “And if he didn’t fire the shots at them, they – the three or more guys who are in that truck – have the only rifles.  And unless you think they shot each other, then maybe you’ll consider that they shot at George!”

“It’s just that he could be hurt down there,” Akara said apologetically.

“Don’t you think I know that?  Are you supposing that they ran out of ammo after they fired those shots?  No… nobody brings only five bullets for a rifle.  We’ve gone downhill.  We hear rushing water.  We hope the baby’s still alive but we don’t know who has him.  If George were in that F450, he would have driven out!  Eric would have driven out!  Even Lilyanne could have driven it out!  So only the kidnappers can be in that truck, and you want to drive down with your Beretta and my Colt and take on a bunch of desperate men… shooting it out with a baby in one of their laps!  George knows I’m following him.  And since I can’t fly this Explorer, he knows approximately where I am.  I am on a nearby mountain road, the only road around.  It’s much easier for him to find me than it is for me to find him.  He could be anyplace within a ten-mile radius. Think about it!”

“Ok,” Akara relented.  “That we suddenly lost cellphone contact can’t mean merely a shoot out.  What would the men have done?  Killed George, Lily, and Eric and then took their cellphones and turned them off. No. That’s stupid. But they might have captured them and taken their phones and shut them off, or, since that running water near us leads someplace, George might have dropped off a cliff or something and all three phones were rendered useless at the same time.”

“Yes. George, Lily, and Eric could be dead in the water or taken prisoner.  Something made their phones shut off.  And we don’t know what that something is.  I need to think.”

(Go to “The Woods” Part Four)