The Money Lender (#6)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

If you haven’t read the previous issues:

The Money Lender #1

The Money Lender #2

The Money Lender #3

The Money Lender #4

The Money Lender #5

Part 21:   Tim

 

First there are the problems of chaos which must be understood, and then there is the hard work of converting chaos to cosmos… order.

Had the problems that confronted Tim Murphy affected only himself, or had they been able to stand separately and be examined and gauged relative to the others, he might have tried to prioritize them.  But there were so many problems of such complicated natures that he could not get beyond his initial bewilderment. He was cognizant, too, of the effects that his actions had and were continuing to have on his relationship with Charlene Cottone. If she had told her parents about her affections for him and they then learned that he was blamed for a $30,000 theft, they would insist that she sever her relationship with him.  They’d use the incident as proof that they, not she, were better qualified to choose her marriage partner, and she’d be forced to marry within her extended family.

He needed to organize his life but he could find no stating point, that one loop in the knot that when tugged, will free an end point and allow for the unraveling process.  His parents had supported him so faithfully, that he went along with their solutions.  They, of course, in their generosity only made him feel worse.  Now he was indebted to the bank and to them, as well. His mother’s unlicensed sewing business began to show a tiny profit.  His father became a handyman who not only trimmed an occasional tree, but went from store to store with a bucket and squeegees and window cleaning liquid and began to earn even more than his mother did.  During the day Tim made all the pickups and deliveries, and each evening he and his dad collected discarded aluminum cans. They did not venture into the rabbit business.  There was just too much work involved.

Charlene would call and he would arrange to meet her briefly in a place they felt secure… in the park or outside a church neither attended.  The meetings were brief and he could never hold her and kiss her. He’d see her walking towards him and all he wanted to do was cry, first for joy and then for the misery of his life that kept them apart.

Charlene understood how frustrating if was for him to be innocent of a crime and not be able to associate openly with her because he feared that his “guilt” would rub off on her.  She decided to discuss the matter with her parents, to get them to see that he had been wrongly accused. They listened but did not seem to hear what she was trying to tell them.  Both agreed that while they were not averse to having an Irish son-in-law, they certainly did not want a thief in the family.  “We’ve had enough of that,” her mother said with unmistakable finality.

“But he’s not a thief, Momma!” Charlene protested.  “He’s innocent.  He was framed.”

“They’re all innocent,” her father retorted.  “Take a poll of jailbirds.  Nobody’s guilty.  Stay away from him.  That’s final.”

It was not until Tim and his parents made the second monthly payment that their efforts began to organize themselves into a routine.  They no longer had to canvass health clubs for made-to-order yoga clothing.  His mother had taken the measurements of each customer and kept the information in a file.  A weight-loss was celebrated by Mrs. Murphy making a personal visit to the health club to get the new, smaller measurements of the lucky loser. To celebrate the diminishing size, she would go to the market, buy a stalk of celery, trim it, and then pass the tray of clean fresh celery around instead of cake.  A woman who happened to be a commercial artist was so pleased by this that she designed a logo for the yoga brand: a  celery stalk.  Mrs. Murphy’s new sewing machine had an embroidery function and she began to embroider the celery logo onto the breast pocket along with the purchaser’s monogram, if requested… at no charge.  The garments could be worn on the street, and many women purchased half a dozen outfits. Tim steam-ironed and bagged each outfit.

Merchants and professionals who had large windows, knew that on a given day in the week, Mr. Murphy would appear, give a thumb’s up sign and raise his eyebrows, and wait to be given either a thumb’s down “not this week” which he’d acknowledge with a smile and a wave, or receive a thumb’s up that indicated he should proceed with the window washing. He began to acquire clients who would drive him to their homes where he would do the entire house, providing the owner supplied an extension ladder wherever one was needed.

For nearly two months, each day had seen an improvement in Tim’s health and attitude and a concomitant increase in his determination to discover who had framed him. He had done nothing about the problem since, before he could investigate the source of his trouble, he had to deal with treating its symptoms.  Once, however, the second payment was made, he began in earnest to investigate the source of the problem.

He knew that the letter that had been sent to David Lonigan had been written on parchment paper and that there was a blue cross superimposed on a white one in the logo of the sender.   He had searched the internet for Roman Catholic orders and found a “minor” order or “ministry”: the Knights of the Blue Cross who operated a home of some kind called Saint Steven’s Retreat.  They had only one address: just west of Las Vegas, Nevada, close to the California State Line.  Two months into his troubles, he finally had the time and mental strength to visit the Retreat.

People are quick to size up a stranger.  A man who appears to be weak is likely to arouse an aggressive attitude, the opposed ranks of supplicant and benefactor. However wrong that first impression might be, Tim decided to eliminate the possibility of contention.  He would not appear to be weak or needy.  For several weeks, he ate a quart of extremely rich ice cream as he sat with his parents in the living room watching TV. He quickly gained a few pounds and developed  a more substantial look.

Things were running smoothly.  The downstairs of the house became a mini-factory. The dining room table had extensions which, when installed, enabled Mrs. Murphy to use it as a cutting board.  Her business was beginning to pay off.  She also got several athletic uniform contracts.  Mr. Murphy and Tim did the fabric pre-washing, drying, cooking and cleaning and all the driving for supplies and deliveries.  The strain showed on both of his parents, but Tim was now in possession of a plan.  He was going to “dress for success” and visit the Retreat.

He purchased quality casual clothing – slacks, shoes, and shirt – bought new sun glasses and had the barber style his hair differently and shave off his mustache. He dyed his hair light brown. He inspected himself in the mirror and agreed with his image that he did not appear to be the kind of man who could easily be pushed around. There was always the possibility that he’d run into Joshua. He set out for Saint Steven’s Retreat.

As he approached the brick hospital-like building and pulled into one of the visitor’s parking places, he noticed that the wall around the building was extremely high and had buttressing columns every six feet or so.   A gurney, with restraining straps hanging from its sides, had been pushed against the entrance room’s wall.  As Tim went farther into the building and approached the only desk that could serve as a reception desk, he read the name-plaque on it, “Rev. Fr. Joseph Pulaski, M.G.”  Tim could see that along with his computer, the wall behind him held a shelf that contained a scanner, printer, fax machine, and several metal file separators that had color coded labels.  This, Tim told himself, was probably the guy who typed the letter.

As Father Pulaski looked up and smiled and said, “Good Morning.  How can I help you?” An ambulance that did not have its siren on pulled into the space immediately in front of the entrance.  Pulaski’s phone rang.  Someone inside the ambulance was calling him.  Tim could hear distinctly both sides of the brief conversation.  “We’ve got a wild one in here.  We got stuck on the 110 and in the wait his Haldol injection wore off.  Can you send Big Brother Herman out to help us?”

Father Joseph answered, “Sure, I’ll have to go look for him.  He’s in the back garden. Be patient.”  He ended the call.  He stood and lay his iPhone on his desk, “Could you give me a minute,” he said to Tim. “We’ve got a medical emergency.”  He then hurried through a door that apparently led to the building’s rear.  Tim picked up his phone and flipped through his call history.  He read Chuan Yi’s name and number which meant nothing to him except its peculiarity. He then read Jy Shao’s name and number and this also was merely odd.  A little farther down the list he read Rick Dubrovsky and that name meant something to him, but he did not recall what it meant.  Hearing Father Pulaski talking to someone as he approached, Tim returned the phone to the desk.

As Father Pulaski hurried past him with a burly man who was still wiping potting soil from his hands. Tim called, “I can see you’re busy.  I’ll return again tomorrow if that’s all right with you.”  As the psychotic old man was being forced out of the ambulance and onto the gurney, Tim went to his car and drove away.  Who was Rick Dubrovsky?

At home he did a net search on Rick Dubrovsky which netted him no information except his street address.  Finally, he hazarded a call to Charlene.  They did not exchange pleasantries.  He simply asked if the name Dubrovsky meant anything to her.  “Not really,” she said, “All day long we hear people’s names.  Pretty soon they all just become mush,” she said.  “Did you know that after all that bragging about going into a Catholic seminary, Joshua rather quietly went into a Buddhist monastery?”

“Buddhist?  Not Catholic?  That’s weird. Which monastery?”

“I don’t know.  It’s local. Remember how upset he was when that letter came?  Well, he left FNN right after that.  I only just heard about it when the auditors asked about a $2000 payout Lonigan had given him.  I squeezed out a little information and learned that those Knights wanted him to test himself about living like a monk for a few months or year in the Zen Center of Sandyville.  I think the auditors had something to say about it too.  They didn’t want him leaving town.  From what I’m told, he still has to attend Mass every week and take Communion.  Funny arrangement.  He can’t participate in Buddhist rituals, either. Meditation but not services.  He gave them a lot of money so I guess he’s a paying guest not a novice.  Lonigan gave him the few thousand extra that he needed to be admitted.”

“Charlene, I’m gonna prove my innocence.  See what you can learn about Rick Dubrovsky.  I miss you so much.”

“Ditto.  Double ditto. I’ll see what I can find out.  Are you eating better?”

“Yes.  Pretty soon I’ll look like a Sumo wrestler.  Just for you.”

Charlene spoke to him in a soft voice.  “More to love.”  She heard someone coming.  “Gotta go.”

He looked at his phone.  “You are the chink in the wall.  We’re like Pyramus and Thisbe.” Then he thought about the end of Pyramus and Thisbe and shuddered.

This was an important clue: Joshua was living in a Buddhist monastery in the vicinity.  But which one?  Tim had found Rick’s home address but he could never see any activity in the house whenever he drove past it.  Charlene had said that Joshua was a guest and had to go to Mass on Sundays.  So did he, of course.  He had never seen Joshua in or around church on Sundays, but he assumed Joshua attended another church – if he went to church at all.

The Buddhist temple problem was more easily solved. He got a list of temples and monasteries in the area and was shocked to see the number of them.  Buddhists of every nationality seemed to have their own temple.    The Zen Center in Sandyville was the absolute last number in the list.  “Z for Zen,” he said aloud as he called the number.  The receptionist monk regretted that neither guests nor monks could receive telephone calls unless the call constituted an emergency.  “Well,” Tim said softly, “It’s an illness that might become grave.  If if does become an emergency, when is the best time, or conversely, when is a bad time, to call Brother Joshua?”

“His name around here is Fa Hui.  And I guess the mealtimes…  6 to 7 a.m.; noon to 1 p.m.;  and 6 to 7 p.m. would be the best times.  You can’t disturb him in the meditation hall.  The free time that the monks have is staggered so I can’t tell you when he’d otherwise be free.  But try mealtimes.”  He stopped to amend his information. “Oh, he leaves the monastery before dinner on Saturday afternoon and doesn’t get back until Sunday noon. He helps some theologian do research.”

Tim Murphy drove to Sandyville.  “So this is your hideout!” he said aloud, looking at the building.  He could see Joshua’s Toyota which had been moved into the shade of a cottonwood tree.  “Come next Saturday, I’ll be outside,” he growled, “waiting for you to leave for Confession and Mass.  Let’s see where you go then.”

 

Part 22  Joshua

 

During successive Saturday nights Rick assumed the role of the fictional Professor Reynard and taught Joshua some of the background of the old Buddhist scriptures.  “The trick in deciphering this garbled baloney is to learn the glossary and to recognize and then delete repetitions.  The verses are best understood if you take them out of poetic form.  Remember: in order for a thing to be true and real, it must be true here, there, today, yesterday, tomorrow.  No doubt this business about being and non-being was hot shit in its day.  The Law of the Conservation of Matter and/or Energy covers the subject completely.  Relativity to them was mere comparison, a subjective observation – provable no doubt by consensus for their needs, but jejune and sophomoric by any standard today.  This nonsense is kept alive because people who have been stupid and unwise enough to study philosophy, have nothing else to write about except, of course, their own opinions about wisdom and the stupidity of those who disagree with them.  One writes a book that calumniates a few other philosophers, so they naturally write books in rebuttal. That’s what keeps their names in print. They write commentaries on each other’s bullshit.”

“What is the real truth?” Joshu asked, turning on his digital recorder.

“Real truth?  Careful, my boy… next thing you’ll be spouting tautologies.  First recognize that like cuisine, religion depends upon location to a great extent.  If we don’t find a Plato in the jungles of New Guinea, the problem is not with the intelligence of the people of New Guinea, it’s with the jungles of New Guinea.  Geography allows for riparian cities in which ideas are exchanged, arts and crafts are learned, trade is facilitated, and the climate and natural predators can be controlled to some degree. In the jungle, food is so scarce that people live in small groups. Travel is difficult and venomous creatures and predators are daily problems. Surviving is a full time occupation. Yet they have religion, and many beliefs which make us uncomfortable in their sophistication.

“People find ways to record things.  You can dig up a block of caliche – that’s limestone in its thick mud-clay state before the air dries it into stone – and with your thumb nail carve a perfect Mayan glyph. They had ink and a version of paper, too.  They needed to write and record trade and astronomical dada, just as the Egyptians did. But whether literate or illiterate there is always a search for the Real World.  Priests, shamans, medicine men all sought knowledge of mystical truth. They sought the transcendental realm, the ultimate truth, and were not content with navigating this toublesome material world with all its egomaniacal conceits.”

“But what about the societies around these seekers?  They had their rain gods.”

“Sure, rain gods and wind gods were for those who could not see beyond the Material World illusions – notice I did not say delusions. Many people did see the Real World.  Plato certainly did. What’s more, people who have been in the Real World have seen the identical Real World, no matter where they live. Jung discovered that. Nirvana encompasses this world.  It is another world entirely.

“There are those tho insist that the material world is everything.  Obviously there is no room in it for a place called Nirvana.  So they cultivate the asinine idea that Nirvana is the emptiness that remains when the material world is obliterated.  They strive – sometimes for hours a day – to eradicate all thoughts – and when they succeed in this self-hypnosis, they think they are enlightened.  They fail to understand that you cannot desire not to desire.”

“Were you ever in the Real World?”

“You ask too many questions.”

 

Page 23  Aaron & Paul

 

While Harold went to a special physical therapy center to help restore use of his right arm and leg, Paul Oteiza  drove U.S. 80, the northern interstate route, to Philadelphia.  Harold had gotten Paul a new pickup truck with a long bed and a camper shell cover so that he could sleep in it anytime that he wanted.  He drove through Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Des Moines, Cleveland, and finally Philadelphia. He had the keys to the house and called Aaron to report on its condition.

“It needs yardwork like you wouldn’t believe,” Paul said.  “Ain’t nobody mowed this grass since it was sold. I can do some landscaping for ya’ if you want to invest in a mower and some pretty plant life. It could also use exterior paint.”

“Buy whatever you need,” Harold said.  “And hire anyone you need. Surprise me with the results.”

Paul sent him photographs of the “before” state of the property.  “I’ll keep you posted as we progress,” he said, and added, “By the way, someone in the neighborhood must have notified Mr. Blumenthal because I got a pic of him sittin’ in his car across the street watchin’ me.”

“Are you sure it’s him?” Harold asked.

“I saw him in the hospital,” Paul said.  “I know he recognized me.  I waved to him but he didn’t wave back.  Maybe he thinks you’re going to come back here to live.”

“Don’t answer anybody’s questions,” Harold advised. “They may want to burn the place down.”

“Do you have fire insurance on it?” Paul asked.

“Of course,” Harold said.  “Do you think I’d trust them around my property without it?”

Paul engaged a first rate painting company and as expected the painting was done quickly and well.  The garish blue grim had been tamed to a pearl grey, and trim that had not been given a contrasting color, in this case dark grey, was now tastefully restored to what the architect, no doubt, had intended.  The rye grass, fed and watered, returned to a lush thick green; and the numerous chrysanthemum and marigold fully-flowering plants that he placed inside the brick circles he made around each tree, added a degree of beauty that exceeded neighborhood standards. Harold commented that it was almost beautiful enough to make him want to return to Philadelphia.  They understood “almost.”

August can be a miserably rainy month in Philadelphia.  Hurricanes will roar up the eastern seaboard and ruin roofs and vacation plans, and even when the wind is not blowing or the rain not coming down in sheets, the city is humid and hot.  Unlike in the desert, where a sweaty armpit is never seen because the dryness of the air evaporates any moisture it can suck into its vacuum. Coming from the lightness of the desert, the easily breathed air, the unwrinkled collars and sweat-free underwear, Harold deplaned and immediately felt the skin beneath his arm and foot casts began to itch with dripping perspiration.  He had taken the red-eye out of Las Vegas to Philadelphia to accommodate the time-zone differences.  Paul met him at the airport and together they went directly to the escrow office.

Waiting outside the title company’s office stood the Blumenthals, held in check by two uniformed security guards.  Mr. Blumenthal had wanted to get inside the building, but Harold had called ahead, insisting that security be called to prevent him from disturbing the proceedings.

By noon, when all the papers were finally signed, the checks written, and the hands shaken, the negotiation was finished.  As Paul began to push Harold’s wheelchair, the real estate agent stopped him and called him aside  to tell him that the improvements he had made to the house were “nothing short of amazing.”  He wanted to hire Paul on a permanent basis.  Paul gracefully declined and then notified Harold that the deal was “almost” good enough to make him want to accept it.

Harold had actually made twenty-two thousand dollars on the transaction.

“Ready to head home?” Paul asked.

“No… I’ve got a couple of errands to run.”

“Ah, Caroline’s house?”

“I was gonna say, ‘First take me to Saints Peter and Paul’s Cathedral.’  You had to mention Caroline.  Ok.  Let’s drive past her place.”  He gave Paul the directions, but the blinds were still lowered and closed as they had been when she went to Europe.  “Well, we tried,” Harold said, “now we can go to Saints Peter and Paul’s Cathedral.”

Now that the cast had been removed from Harold’s foot, he could walk short distances, providing he supported his foot with tape and used an old fashioned crutch – it was the only kind that would fit comfortably into his right armpit.  He could put no weight on his right hand and had to move the crutch forward by pressing his arm cast against it and swinging his body and arm.  He walked then, in a kind of scalloped manner.

Paul sat in the rear of the church as Harold hobbled his way to the front. The choir was practicing Mozart’s Requiem and Harold, feeling dizzy, tried to lower himself in a pew.  A priest who was crossing the nave, saw him and came quickly to assist him.  The two sat together and listened to the music and when the Requiem had ended and the organist and choir master began to bicker about fine points in the performance, they talked about the peculiar events of the past summer.  The priest introduced himself as Father Pete and then pensively spoke to Harold.  “I personally believe that no baptism is as spiritually effective as one between a loving stranger and a soul that’s looking into the abyss of death. Don’t get me wrong. It’s always nice especially when the baby doesn’t yell its head off or knock the oil cruet over or spit up on your new orarium – its’s a beautiful sacrament. But yours had the hand of Christ in it.  I can just tell.  I don’t know why it was so special. But it seems that you received more than just a Baptism.”

“He’s sitting in the back row…. the man who baptized me.  But the person who really saved my life was an Indian woman named Stella.  She took a big syringe used for cattle and drew a pint of blood from her own arm and injected it into mine.  I think she had to do it eight times.  Her elbow joint looked like a pin cushion”

“And they were really strangers?”

“Yes. I was frying in the desert with a bunch of broken bones. Gave me water and blood and a trip to the ambulance.”

“So our Blessed Mother was with you, too. Are you going to stay with the new faith?

“Oh, yes.  I’m learning the catechism every day.  A priest comes and tutors me. I’m supposed to take my First Holy Communion on September 13th, in Nevada.” He paused to assume the supplicant’s role.  “Father,is it possible to ask you to dedicate a Mass to Stella Buchanan… who stood in for our Virgin Mother and Paul Oteiza who seems to be God’s right hand.”

“Of course.  He took out a tiny tablet and wrote their names. When he finished and was about to put his pen away, Harold asked him for it.  He wrote a check for Twenty-two thousand dollars and gave it to the priest.

“I thank you for your donation, but it costs nothing to offer a Mass in special recognition of saintly people.”  Then the priest noticed the amount.  He raised his eyebrows.  “Very saintly people.”

“Make it a good one,” Harold smiled and asked the priest to help him to stand.  “You know,” Harold said, “this is my first visit to a Catholic Church.”

“It would have cost you less to spend the day at the Four Seasons.”

They were still smiling when they reached the rear of the church.

 

He stopped at his mother’s apartment to pick up a few books and personal items.  His mother was at work and he missed saying goodbye to her.  “Let’s roll past the shoe store she works in.”

Paul agreed.

As he hobbled up to the store front he could see his mother inside, kneeling on the floor trying a white satin pump on a girl.  She happened to look up at the dark shape in the window and cried out, “Aaron!” when she saw him.  She ran to the door, opened it, and tried to hug him without knocking him over.  “You’re on your feet.  Oh, I knew you’d be fine again.”

“I’m going back to Nevada to live, Mom.  You can visit me whenever you want.”  She began to cry, saying how much she’d miss him.  He pressed a check for $250,000 in her hand and said, “Quit your job and sublet the duplex and find a little place in Florida – where all your friends go.  And when you feel like it, come out and visit me in Nevada.  Just don’t let it be known that I gave you any money.  You’ll get more trouble than you bargained for.”

Paul and Harold left Philadelphia that afternoon.

 

Part 24  Tim

 

A few weeks after the second payment was made, Tim’s father had a heart attack while washing a window. The store owner called 9-1-1 and Tim and his mother went to the morgue to identify the body. Mrs. Murphy decided to wait in the hall.

The Medical Examiner spoke to Tim as he showed him the body.  “Your dad kept the business card of his cardiologist, Irwin Baker, M.D., in his wallet. I spoke to Dr. Baker.  He’s already been here.”

The M.E. looked at Mr. Murphy and sighed.  “He died a noble death. You can tell, you know.  His shirt collar is a bit frayed but starched and it’s already been turned.  You don’t see that done any more today.  It takes a woman’s love to do that.  His clothes and his body were immaculate.  Baker said he was livin’ on borrowed time, this good man.  I understand that he’s to be cremated.”

“Cremated?” Tim was shocked. “But we have a family plot!”

“No more you don’t.  He told Dr. Baker that he sold the plot to pay off some family debts.”

Tim’s mother had been listening in the hall just outside the doors. She stepped into the lab.  “God forgive me,” she said.  “Your father feared that he would pass and that funerals were terribly expensive.  I agreed.  We really needed the money, Timmy. When I go you can put our ashes together.” Tim nodded; but it was as if she had said, “You’ve reached the bottom.”

Grief had entered its robotic phase.  Tim moved in all the right directions and said all the right things and soon there was an urn sitting on the mantlepiece.  His mother had not missed a day of sewing.  She had contracts to meet and, as long as she did not have to prepare for a service or a wake, it was a simple matter of choosing a crematorium and then to ask Tim to pick up the ashes.  “God made life hard for him.  People come for the food and drink.  As the Irish say, ‘They took the ice right off the corpse and put it on the beer.’  Your dad was not a drinking man.  I’d have gone crazy with a bunch of maudlin drunks who apparently didn’t know him well enough to offer him a dime when we were in such trouble.”

During this entire period, from death to cremation, Tim had not tried to contact Charlene.  He did not want to talk about his father’s death.  Still in an emotionless state, Tim continued to make the pickups and deliveries.  He continued to collect aluminum cans.  It was a good way to spend the evenings without Charlene.  He did not, however, wash anyone’s windows.  And then two weeks after his father’s death, during one dinner time, his mother reverted to habit and said, “Tell your dad dinner’s ready.”  Tim looked at his mother and began to bang his head against the table and then, finally, he began to sob hysterically as he repeated his father’s name. He called “Daddy…  Daddy…” a few dozen times and then finally he raised his head and looked at his mother’s agonized face.  “Because of me he worked himself to death,” he said.

“No, son,” she whispered, “because of some evil person who was seized by the devil to torment you… to disguise himself to look like you and then bear false witness. You are not to blame. He is the one that God will have to deal with.  Your father died a happy man… happy to help you.  It’s a wonderful thing to help a good person who needs help.”

Tim’s mother stood by his chair and he locked his arms around her and continued to cry.  “I miss him so much,” he said, ending his grieving episode with a several long shuddering gasps. “I’m tryin’ to find Joshua, the guy who framed me, but, Momma, what’s the point?  Suppose he stands there and laughs in my face. The law doesn’t even know it was broken. And if I spilled everything and it went to trial, they still have all the evidence against me.  I lost my father because of Joshua’s greed. I’ve got no life with Charlene because of his greed, and if I object to the frame-up, your life and mine wouldn’t be worth a nickel… not with these people.”  He shed a few more tears of frustration, and then, it was as if the answer to what he must do had been written on his heart but was illegible under a covering of dirty ice. The hot salty tears melted the covering, letting him read the message.  “Joshua must die.” He snuffled and went into the bathroom to wash his face.  When he returned to the table, he ate his meatloaf and mashed potatoes, as thoughts, plans, schemes, came from out of the stratosphere to crash into his mind. Oh, yes.  Oh, yes. He was on the right path, now.  He told his mother what a good meal she had made and then he collected the dishes to wash them in the sink. There were so many ways to dispose of an evil human being!

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, assuming that Joshua would not be there, he called the Zen Center and asked if he could speak to Joshua.  He corrected himself, “to Fa Hui.”  The receptionist replied, “Oh, No. He’s gone on his weekly research assignment.  May I leave him a message?  Is this some kind of emergency?”

“No. Not really. Well, maybe not for him, but for me.  I’m getting ready to go into a hospital in Colorado.  I’ve got multiple sclerosis and can’t surf anymore.  I wondered if he wanted my board and gear.  If you talk to him tell him Brad Brenner from Malibu called.  I’m sorry but I don’t have a phone anymore for him to reach me.”

“He’s in Las Vegas. I don’t know where he does his research.  He gets back at noon tomorrow.  After that, he goes to the meditation hall and you can’t talk to him until his free time and I don’t know when that will be scheduled.  The best I can advise is to just call whenever you can and maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Good idea.  I might have more time than I figure, but when they get a bed for me, I’ve got to be there within forty-eight hours or somebody else will be given my bed. Ok. I’ll keep trying. What about next Saturday?”

“Not tonight, or next Saturday, but the one after that he’ll be here for a big dinner the abbot has… a special dinner about the Dharma. Maybe he could get free to come out and talk to you.”

“Oh… that’s two weeks. Well, maybe I’ll drop by just to see your monastery and maybe I’ll catch him.  I understand the garden is very beautiful. I’d like to see it before I go. But I can only use my sister’s car on weekends.”

The reception monk was moved.  “You come by at any time.  It may do you good to sit out there in the meditation garden.  And I will certainly tell Fa Hui that Brad Brenner from Malibu has called and wants very much to speak to him.”

When Tim disconnected the call he had learned several things. Rick was still picking Joshua up and taking him home.  He also knew that he needed to effect a disguise of some sort. He had not decided on which specific way he’d take his revenge on Joshua, but he could get things started.   He needed to find an abandoned building out in the desert. The old railroad spurs that picked up ore from the silver mines had small well-built station houses that were still standing.  He also knew the location of abandoned mine shafts.

*

During Confession, a gossipy woman admitted her sin of not having told Father Leon sooner that Mr. Murphy had been cremated.  “When I think of all the comfort you could have given his poor widow during these past few days, I am so ashamed for not doing my Christian duty. I should have informed you of this sinful breach right away.”  She continued to confess a variety of sins, none of which surpassed the venial level, at least not that he heard. Father Leon was busy deciding when he could find the time in his busy schedule to call upon the Widow Murphy.

It was on Sunday evening that he rang the Murphy’s doorbell.  Tim answered the door, invited him in, and with a clenched jaw, made tea for him.  The priest knew a hostile attitude when he encountered one, and Tim’s was definitely hostile.

“Why didn’t you notify the Church when your father died?” Father Leon asked.

“Did you think we didn’t have enough debt?” Tim replied.  “Did you want us to pay for a funeral service, and the organist, and the tip for the altar boys, and to buy the flowers and the casket and the Mass cards?   My father died because he worked so hard to pay a debt that we did not owe.  And you want to know why we didn’t increase the debt.”

“Timothy–”

Tim did not allow the priest to interrupt his narrative.  “Maybe you’re angling for my mother’s body. Look around you. The whole downstairs has been converted into her factory.  You can hear her sewing machine going from dawn to dusk back in the kitchen where the light is best. At the rate she’s going, ‘carrying the burden of her faith’ as you put it, she’ll soon drop over dead like my father.  Do you want me to get her now and take her away from her work.  It’s piece work.  She’ll have to work harder to make up the time she’ll lose entertaining you with your guilt trip about my father’s cremation and your sleazy attempt to get her to make preparations now for her own funeral service. Yes, hurry… get the contract signed before she collapses from over-work.”

“Timothy! Don’t talk like that!  You’re angry.  You want revenge.  You told me about the way you were blamed for something you didn’t do.  I know the experience was cruel and unjust.  You have my sympathy.”

“And what am I to do with your sympathy?  Can I spend it like the food stamps that people put in donation plates?  What I need is revenge.”

“God says that vengeance is his alone to take.”

“No. Not in every case.  When the injured party is innocent and has no legal redress; and the evil one remains free to harm again and again, then the doctrine of Nemo me impune lacessit applies. A man is permitted to say, ‘No man cuts me with impunity’ and then to take whatever revenge is necessary.'”

“Only God knows the evil or the good that is in a man’s soul!  Right off the bat Genesis enjoins us from making such judgments. We may not touch the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The judgment of what is in a man’s soul and the reward or punishment that follows upon that judgment, are God’s alone to make.” Father Leon grew angry. “You, my boy, may not usurp God’s prerogatives. Vengeance is God’s exclusive right!”

Tim grinned. “Ah, Father Leon, God has permitted revenge to be taken many times.  Not only may a man touch that Tree, but he can take a small branch from it and make a wreath for his head.  If his cause is just and his record is clean and no legal recourse is available, God will allow him to take vengeance.”

“And you consider yourself to be without sin? To be clean enough to usurp God’s authority? And you haven’t been to church in weeks.”

Timothy laughed. “Only a priest would equate goodness with church attendance.” Then his attitude softened.   “Father, when I say, ‘Nobody cuts me and gets away with it,’ it isn’t a bully’s swashbuckling boast. While my dad was fighting for his country, he got a heart virus.  And he couldn’t even get help from the V.A. hospital.  So I went to work and helped to pay the family bills and lived a righteous life until clever people used my innocence against me.  Now, I who have never stolen, am considered a thief.  And my father, instead of being able to take it easy in retirement had to work himself to death trying to pay off a fraudulent debt. He needed your help but you were too busy helping those who won’t – or say they can’t – help themselves.” Tim stopped talking because one of the rules in taking vengeance was stealth.  He certainly could not let the priest know or suspect the plan he had in mind.

Father Leon put down his unfinished cup of tea and left the house.

Tim still needed to think through his revenge.  It would have to be one in which he did not get caught.  No innocent person could suffer as a result of the revenge he took. “Either I strike him down or else I have to share the guilt the next time he victimizes another innocent person. The judgment is clear.  If I’m wrong about this let God damn me to hell as he lifts him to heaven.”

Each night he lay upon his bed and considered and then rejected a hundred different ways to take revenge on Joshua and still not get caught.

It occurred to him that if Joshua could masquerade as Tim, why couldn’t Tim masquerade as someone else?  The idea that had first inspired him to pretend to be a buddy of Joshua’s from Malibu was like a string that led out of a maze.  He was going backwards, filling the plan in after he had initiated it.  By taking the first step, the second would occur and then the third and soon he would be led back to a starting point. When Joshua was dead, then there would be a new beginning.  He went to a tanning salon.   He got his ears pierced and acquired a tattoo that said “Pe’ahi.”  He bought several Hawaiian shirts and a puka bead necklace.

On Saturday afternoon, he parked outside the Zen Center and recognized Rick’s Jaguar enter the driveway and pull up to the administration office. He had seen Rick before, but now, standing amidst the blooming oleander bushes, he got a good look at him. Joshua soon exited the building and got into the car. The little dog he had seen Rick take for walks through the neighborhood was in the car. About twenty minutes after they had driven away, he entered the building and spoke to the reception monk.

When Tim introduced himself as Brad Brenner, the reception monk treated him as an old friend. “From Malibu!”  And he lamented that Fa Hui had just gone out and wouldn’t be back until noon the following day.  “Is there a emergency of some kind, Brad?” he asked.

He feigned reluctance, and let the plan unfold.  “Like I said, I got some bad medical news.   Can’t surf anymore.  But here’s the thing.  I had just bought a new board not two weeks before I got my diagnosis.  It’s a $1500 board.  I’m not trying to sell it. My sister wanted to give my board and some other gear to her brother-in-law, but –  I don’t want to sound petty so please forgive me if I do – the guy’s an alcoholic and he’d just sell the stuff and spend the money on booze.   I remembered that Joshua lived in Las Vegas, so on the spur of the moment I told her I had promised to give it to Josh – Fa Hui – in return for a big favor he had done me in Malibu. I’ve been out of the country – endless summer stuff.  I’m staying with her until my bed’s ready.  I called Josh’s office and they told me where he was. He’s a righteous dude… a fine surfer. So if he wants to sell it, fine.  Would you just tell him that it’s a Donald Takayama Model T longboard.  I can try to get the car again next Saturday.  Maybe next Saturday night?”

“Oh, dear.  Next Saturday night is that big dinner celebration here I mentioned.  I asked our assistant abbot about letting Joshua leave the table and he said, ‘No way!'” He lowered his voice, “Dinner for eight. It’s a special affair  – the winner of a theological debate is announced.”

“Wow. So Josh is not only a fine surfer, he’s an intellectual, too. I never knew that about the guy!”

“Team would be more like it.  It’s to announce the winning team.  He’s just on a team.”

“Oh, I see.  Still…  ”

“Yes, on one team is our abbot, vice-abbot, and one scholar – that’s Fa Hui; and on the other team is the Monseigneur of Saint Steven’s Retreat and his assistant and a scholar, and then two Philosophy professors who judge the winner of the written commentary. Twice a year they have a good natured debate and the winner is chosen after the dinner.”  He lowered his voice, “It’s always held here because our food is superior to the food at Saint Steven’s – the other place.”

Tim smiled coyly.  “What does the winner get?”

The reception monk laughed. “The winner gets to keep a cheap little bust of Beethoven.  It was the only figure they could both display without anyone asking questions.”

Tim pretended to be a little dizzy.  “Say, I’m a little tired right now.  I get tired quick.  Would you mind if I sat in your back yard?  I sure would like to see that famous garden.”

“Sure,” the monk said as he opened a french door that led onto the veranda.  “Enjoy.”

Tim noticed a string of “dream catchers” strung along the eaves of the building.  “What are these for?” he asked.

The monk smiled.  “It’s our little defense against ghosts.  They’re authentic Navajo or Hopi – I can never remember which – dream catchers. The place is supposed to be haunted.  A lot of us get nightmares and see strange and mysterious things.”

“Do the ‘dream catchers’ work?” Tim asked.

“Who can tell?  Without them things could get worse.  Nobody wants to take the chance,” he added, laughing.

“If you feel up to it, take a slow walk through the meditation garden. At sundown it begins to cool off around here.”

Tim walked to the side of the courtyard and climbed a couple of steps that perhaps had been made to buttress the wall.  A stool had been placed on the top step that was nearly enclosed by a jasmine bower, and so many vine shoots and tendrils curled around the legs of the stool that Tim wondered if he was doing something wrong by sitting there.  Apparently, he reasoned, nobody takes advantage of the view or the coolness of the little jasmine grotto. The cloying scent of jasmine was strong and despite the coolness of the bower, he didn’t think he’d stay seated there much longer.  But he was about four feet above ground level and he had a nice view of the court yard.  He saw several monks doing the slow walking meditation through the garden sculpted with stela type rocks, portulaca, ice plants, and sweet william that grew along the pathway edges.  A weeping willow tree of some sort stood in the middle of the rock garden. Tim imagined that its drooping branches would sway in the wind.  It seemed so serene.  How, Tim wondered, could a snake like Joshua reside in such a place.

Most of the courtyard was planted with herbs and vegetables for the chef.  Tim noticed rows of parsley and dill and other rows of spinach, carrots, tomatoes, scallions, and other plants he could not identify.   He studied the 500 gallon sausage-shaped propane tank and saw two shoddy wooden doors in the cinderblock wall opposite him.  Ruts in the dirt path ran from the doors to the tank and left no doubt that this was the refilling truck’s route.  He noticed that two hose lines led from the tank – one went directly to the kitchen, the other to the dormitory.  The desert gets cold at night and Tim rightly reasoned that the dormitory used a propane heating system.  He guessed that the abbot’s bedroom probably had its own small electric heater.

As he continued to survey Joshua’s refuge, he noticed that something seemed wrong with the tall chimney that rose from kitchen at the point that it connected to the exhaust pipe from the dormitory. The junction was surrounded by aluminum foil in a sloppy way.  It was therefore difficult for Tim to determine whether the angle of connection it formed was 90 or 100 degrees, but in either case was far too horizontal.  The guide wires that held the kitchen chimney upright were slack.  Quite possibly the main exhaust pipe had slipped down and this affected the angle of the other pipe’s insertion.  This, he reasoned, was probably the cause of the nightmares and hallucinations.  The system didn’t have to be clogged – though it might be – for enough of the exhaust to back up into the dormitory. The monks were suffering from chronic low-grade carbon monoxide poisoning.  Killing by CO poisoning at the monastery!  Now that was an idea.  But he rejected it because of the high collateral damage. Then he thought about Rick Dubrovsky.

As he sat there, useless information he had acquired, became relevant.  He thought about something Joshua had told him on a coffee break: a surfing friend in Malibu had once worked in a tuna packaging plant in Hawaii. The company would put a cut of tuna in a package, vacuum out the air, and then give the tuna package a jolt of carbon monoxide and then seal it.  The gas kept the tuna bright in color.  In fact, long after the tuna’s normal “shelf life” had expired and the fish was unfit to eat, it would still look appetizing.  Joshua said a person was a fool for eating packaged meat and fish, and that his friend had confided that after a few months on the job a worker would have nightmares and would have to be moved to another department.

It had been a vague intention of Tim’s to lure Joshua outside the monastery with the irresistible gift of a Donald Takayama surfboard.  He’d spend time at the monastery so that Joshua would believe that Brad Brenner really existed and was truly sick, and then he’d leave word for Joshua to meet him at a place in the desert…  he had several in mind… deserted places where he could say he kept his board hidden so that his brother-in-law couldn’t find it. He could the kill him and dump his body down a mine shaft. It would have been a stupid idea to anyone, but when it came to surfing, Joshua couldn’t think rationally. Carbon monoxide. Hmmm. Alternatively, he could find a way to pump CO into Rick’s bedroom when the two of them were together.  Rick would not exactly be collateral damage.   Joshua, on the other hand, absolutely needed killing – and by Tim’s hand, too.

Was the gas available?  He would check the internet. The gas had a commercial use in the meat and fish packaging business. Surely he could buy a canister of CO gas, but how could he get it to do its lethal work?

Why not Rick’s bedroom” Telephone and cable lines had no doubt been drilled into the stucco wall. A rubber tube could easily be inserted.  An easy death for such a treacherous pair.  He could set things up while they were at the big dinner.  But suppose Joshua didn’t return to Rick’s house after the dinner?  There was that dog to worry about.   And the gas tank would have to be collected afterwards.  What about an appliance that malfunctioned?  Something would have to account for the presence of the gas. But wait a minute! With Rick and Joshua dead, how would he clear himself of the $40,000 debt?

Tim needed to think.  Killing someone was easy.  Getting away with it was not.

 

Go to Issue #7

The Money Lender (#5)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

If you haven’t read the previous issues:

The Money Lender #1

The Money Lender #2

The Money Lender #3

The Money Lender #4

Part 17  Tim

 

Tim Murphy’s parents secured a $40,000 loan from the bank, using the title to their home as collateral.  His father optimistically said, “We’ve got ten years to pay it off at a little more than $400 a month.  Hell, with my new chainsaw, I can make that much on weekends!”  When Tim reminded him that he needed a license to do that, he said, “Well, it’s about time we got one. ‘Murphy and Son.'”  He laughed.  He did not know the hoops he would have to jump through in order to obtain such a license.  Mr. Murphy was born in Iowa and was a Marine Corps veteran.

He put his faith in God and the Corps.  His medals, badges, and assorted “fruit salad” combat ribbons were neatly mounted on silk and suitably framed and hung in the living room where he could look to them for inspiration.  As he considered the display, he’d joke, “It adds a touch of class to our old furniture!” And as he prepared to meet this newest challenge, he looked up at the frame, saluted it, and said, “Semper Fi!

One of the overlooked benefits in conducting financial matters with mobsters is that the government is kept unaware of the transaction and therefore cannot interfere with it.   Of the two antagonists, the mob is often the lesser of two evils. The bank issued the Murphys a check which they were willing to cash without a fee. Mr. Murphy accepted the cash which had been put in a large manila envelope. The fingerprint man showed up at the Murphy home on the date and at the time he said he would be there.  He took the envelope, counted the money, shook hands with Mr. Murphy, and pointed a finger at Tim.  “Keep your nose clean, young man. Get another job.  You’ll get a decent reference.” He turned to Mrs. Murphy and explained with gentle sincerity, “It doesn’t hurt our business to plant a thief in a competitor’s office.” And then he left and it was all over.

“Did you hear that?” his mother said cheerfully. “Mr. Lonigan will give you a good reference.” She picked up the pad of payment coupons the bank had given them and put it the china cabinet.  “You can help your dad on your days off.”

Tim Murphy forced himself to smile at their good fortune and went to his bedroom and pushed his face into his pillow and sobbed.

Nature has ways of helping those who are suffering psychologically.  The sobbing allowed Tim to keep his lungs functioning.  Gradually, however, the muscles that accommodated the gasps and gulps became exhausted by the exertion and a benevolent Providence would then allow him to sink into a slumberous exile, far from the scene of his grief.  Tim had just gone beneath the surface when his mother interrupted nature’s plan and called him to come to the table for an early dinner, an invitation he could not keep.  He sat up, feeling that his head was as heavy as a bowling ball and that his chest had been compressed between the teeth of a giant bear trap.  He could not fill his lungs with breath. His hands were cold and stiff.

His father came into his room and sat on his bedside.  “Son, you’ll upset your mother if you don’t come down.”  Then he put his glasses on and got a good luck at Tim’s swollen eyes.  “Maybe I’ll just bring up a plate for you.  She made pork chops just for you.”

“I can’t eat, Dad.  I’m innocent.  I never did what I was accused of doing.”

“All the more reason you need to keep your strength up.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.  We’ve wasted enough time spinnin’ our wheels. Gotta get you a job. Gotta get me a tree trimming license.  Maybe even hire a private detective to find out who framed you.”  He patted Tim’s shoulder.  “I’ll bring you a plate, or you can throw some cold water on your face and come down.”  This seemed to be an order and Tim dragged himself to the bathroom to shower and let the cold water pummel his face.

He ate dinner, complimented his mother on the excellence of the meal and, sufficiently refreshed, returned to his bed to resume sobbing into his wet pillow.

Mr. Murphy noticed that the time, being only 3 p.m. gave him the opportunity to call the Business License Division.  He spent twenty minutes listening to recordings telling him which button on his phone to push and finally reached a woman who, he surmised, was preparing to leave for the day. She tried to be brief, and he tried to scribble down each instruction she gave.

“Not just anybody can get a chain saw and start trimming trees,” she chirped officiously. “You might want to operate on your wife’s head but unless you’re licensed by the state, you’d be smart to leave her head to licensed medical professionals.  So I’m telling you that you need a variety of things. Just to start the process you need to form some kind of limited liability company – call the Secretary of State’s office to get details for that – get good references, and apply for a City business license, get an Employer’s Identification Number issued by the IRS, have completed State registration forms with the Federal Bureau of Land Management, which will require additionally that you pass an arboreal examination.  Tree trimmers are not the uneducated types who cut down Christmas trees. You have to be able to identify the tree you’re trying to cut down.  Some are protected. You need liability insurance provided by an accredited agency. Suppose a branch you cut damages somebody’s property?  Or you cut yourself or one of the occupants of the home? Or cut into a high-power electric line? There are requirements for Workman’s Compensation Insurance you must meet.  You need to be able to dispose of the debris…  a chipping machine, a hauler to remove said chips, a permit to dispose of said debris at an approved site, and approved equipment and storage facility for keeping said equipment, office space that can contain your business records, and annual reports filed by a certified public accountant. As I said, call the Secretary of State’s office in Carson City.  They’ll give you more details. Thank you for calling and have a nice day.”

Mr. Murphy had not cried since his days in Operation Desert Storm when his best friend was killed.  He hung up the telephone, went into the bathroom, buried his face in a bath towel to muffle the sound, and began to sob. As far as Murphy & Son was concerned, the filial relationship had undergone spontaneous abortion.  He knew that there were illegal aliens who barely spoke English who went around trimming trees.  They had met none of these requirements and law enforcement officers would drive past their jury-rigged pick-up trucks and trailer hitches and say or do absolutely nothing. He recalled those years of R.O.T.C. enlistments on campuses across the country.  The guys in service said that the letters stood for Run Off To Canada.  When he stopped crying, he welcomed the feel of cold water on his face and he wondered how he’d like the climate up there.  “I can drive trucks.  I could re-train for an 18-wheeler license.  I could be an ice-road trucker.”  Then he felt the heart pains and took a pill.

His wife looked at him as he swallowed the pill.  “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”

“Yes,” he said.  “We’ll have to cut back on everything.  I can still do some trimming… under the table of course… if the illegals don’t turn me in.  I can collect aluminum cans.  We only have to stretch until I can get through to the V.A. and get an appointment to see a heart doctor and then maybe I can collect disability payments. We’ll be ok then. We can raise rabbits. I’ve got friends in the produce departments of two different markets who’ll let me have some good garbage to feed them.  It won’t be much except meat on the table and some spending moneyfor necessities.  We’ve still got Tim’s old rabbit hutches that we keep hoses and stuff in.  I’ll go clean them out now.”

Mrs. Murphy, as usual, tended to be more pragmatic.  “I heard the gals talking in line at the supermarket.  There’s a market for yoga clothes for oversized women.  I’ll get Tim to print me up some business cards and I’ll make the rounds of the yoga places and health clubs.  Who knows?  It might turn into something.  You could be a big help picking up stuff and delivering the finished products.  I’ll go to the fabric store first thing tomorrow and see what all’s involved… patterns and fabric.”

Some good deeds have an effect that is opposite to the one intended.  While the rational person might suppose that such enthusiastic support of his family members during a time of crisis might lessen the burden that so oppresses him, the person who is suffering observes their effort and his burden increases proportionately.  Tim did try to apply for other cashier positions, but the scandal surrounding his dismissal had sizzled through the business community’s grapevine as though it were a lit fuse.  He might as well have shouted, “Fire in the hole!” when he asked for an employment application.  People smiled, backed-off, and tossed his application in the trash.

Nothing that involved money could even be considered; and in a gambling town, everything involved money.  There were other positions, of course.  But a man would have to look at least competent; and in the days and weeks that followed, Tim lost weight, had insomnia, and began to shake uncontrollably.  His father watched him open an electric bill and thought that someone with Parkinson’s Disease could not possibly have trembled more.  His mother’s sewing machine hummed for many hours each day, and by the end of the month, she began to receive income from the sales of the garments.  Tim showed her how to record income and expenditures in journals and to post the data into individual ledgers as accounts receivable and/or payable. She had new business cards printed:  Her particular sales attractant was emblazoned on the new cards.  “We pre-wash the fabric before sewing.  These garments WILL NOT SHRINK!” Fat girls needed to know that.

Tim would hear her sewing long into the night.  He and his father collected aluminum cans and earned $102. which they applied to the first repayment coupon.  There were only 119 more payments to go.  His father feared, not without reason, that neither he nor Tim would live to see that number decline to 118.  Overcoming his humiliation sufficiently to consult his parish priest, Father Raul Leon, Tim made an appointment to seek guidance.

The priest looked at Tim’s emaciated condition and was gentle.  “I cannot help you to repay your debt,” he said, “but I can tell you that if you allow your health to deteriorate, you are, in effect, committing a kind of suicide.  This demonstrates more clearly your lack of faith than if you shouted your contempt for Our Lord from a street corner. When Our Lord begged for wine and they gave him vinegar, he did not spit it in their faces.  So you must regain your strength by eating the food that is served to you.  And instead of lying awake nights worrying about you and what happened to you and who did what to you, you should use that time to thank God for giving you a burden to carry that tests you, so that you can prove yourself, and you should pledge to do all that you can to carry that burden proudly.  It is by carrying burdens that we learn the weight of our faith.”

At first, Tim thought that the advice was nonsensical; but then he decided to try it.  He forced himself to eat and lulled himself to sleep with prayer; and he began to think more clearly.

 

 

Part 18  Joshua

 

A newcomer who brings no skill or talent to his admission has few opportunities to harm his enemies or to gain the goodwill of those who hadn’t particularly cared, one way or the other, how happy or unhappy he was.  It was by extraordinary luck that Joshua accomplished both of these objectives at one and the same time.

Two days after he was admitted to ZCS, a strong wind blew up the dust that gave Sandyville its name.  Abbot Jy Shao wore a gauze face mask and tried to limit the amount of dust that he breathed; but the old wooden structure and the evaporative cooler that blew water-cooled air into the rooms, also delivered intolerable quantities of dust.  Joshua, still in possession of his $2000 good-will parting gift plus the $2000 he salvaged from the blank-check theft, called a landscape supply business and ordered two truckloads of cedar chips that he and a few monks spread around the Zen Center’s barren acreage.

Jy Shao watched the spreading of wood chips and called Chuan Yi into his office to ask why the new man was doing this.  Chuan Yi did not know and offered to go out and put a stop to it.  “No,” Jy Shao said, “it may help to keep the dust down.”  He had already noticed a lessening of blowing dust in the Center’s immediate vicinity.  The men continued to work, and then, miraculously, Jy Shao suddenly stopped coughing.  The wind was still blowing, but it didn’t contain the troublesome dust. He summoned Joshua to thank him for his ingenious solution.  “The wood chips could not have come cheaply,” he said, “so you must tell me what we owe you.”

“Master,” Joshua said humbly, “the improvement in your health has already repaid me.” Joshua spoke with a sincerity that bore the attractiveness of relief.  He knew that he should never have tried to cheat Rick out of his ten percent of the final five money-orders, and certainly he should have told him about the additional two-thousand dollars he wangled out of Lonigan, but Rick did, after all, ultimately receive the ten percent due him, and that the Lonigan money had been spent so wisely – for after all, Rick did respect Jy Shao and Rick respected so few people on the planet – that any portion of it that he might have claimed, he would have willingly donated to the cause.  In performing one good deed for one good man, he thought, he had absolved himself of cheating a clever but a not necessarily good man.

When they left the Abbot’s office, Chuan Yi summoned his assistant, and the two of them approached Joshua to remind him to prepare a commentary on Nagarjuna’s twenty-four verse Nirvana poem.  Fa Tian gave Joshua photocopies of the philosophic verses. Joshua looked at the papers and raised his eyebrows.  “Really?” he asked as he folded them and put the pages into his tunic pocket. Then he proceeded to recite from memory the twenty-four verses, although he deliberately gave the 14th verse as the 15th and vice versa.  “Did I make any mistakes?” he asked.

“No,” Chuan Yi said.  “Your recitation was splendid… just splendid.”

“Oh, my!” Joshua said.  “You must not have been listening.  I twisted the fourteenth and fifteenth verses around.”

“I hope you won’t twist them when you write a comprehensive commentary this weekend,” Chuan Yi retorted.

Joshua immediately went to the library to ask Fa Dao to call Rick. Since Joshua understood that he would not be permitted to speak on the phone, when Fa Dao exchanged greetings with Rick, Joshua shouted, “Tell him they took my car keys.”  Rick asked him to relay the information that he’d be there at 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon and would have him back at noon on Sunday.

Joshua waited for the master to come to the dining room and respectfully reminded him of the agreement.  “Yes, yes,” Jy Shao said, “and be sure to let the cook know that there will be one less for Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast.  We have blueberry pancakes on Sunday mornings… with real whipped cream.”

“Next week” Joshua said sternly, “with your permission, I’d like to measure your window and the vent that comes into your room.  I know you don’t like special treatment, but you have so much insight to give and I’m just selfish enough to want to learn all I can from you. I’ve got a vested interest in your health, so to speak.” He winked.  “What I’m saying in a roundabout way is that I want to install a very small, just for one room 110 volt… nothing grand… air conditioner so that you could change the filter regularly.  And also keep that outside air from blowing in.”

“Is Monseigneur Garcia behind this?” the abbot whispered cautiously.

“No, Master.  This is just from one humble monk to a great illuminated one.  Homage, it’s called.” He snickered as he passed Chuan Yi on his way out.

Joshua never had any difficulty in leaving the Zen Center on Saturday afternoon and driving away with

Rick.

 

Part 19  Aaron

 

Harold Aaron Weitzman’s psychological distress proceeded in indirect proportion to his physical recovery. He had been receiving no less than half a dozen calls a day from various individuals who either informed him that he now qualified to receive his wife’s two million dollar life insurance policy with its doubling “double indemnity,” or who demanded that he give thatmoney to her parents along with the down-payment on the house, the title of which was now in his name only, and at least half of the money he had received as wedding gifts. Rebecca’s father had constructed a conspiracy theory in which Stella, Paul, and Aaron had arranged the entire scenario from Rebecca’s pregnancy to her profitable death.  Friends with whom he tried to talk, to relate the horrible near-death experience he had had, counseled him, “Look, it’s not so bad.  You two were headed for a divorce that wasn’t exactly amicable.  This way you’re not stuck with alimony and you’re a helluva lot richer than you were a few weeks ago.”  Such insensitive and insulting remarks were the nicest comments he had gotten.  The rest were hateful slurs and threats to take the matter up with Civil and Rabbinical courts.

Father Salazar asked Harold (the name Aaron insisted upon using), “Does it bother you that Stella and Paul visit you so frequently?”

“No,” Harold protested.  “Why should it?   They’re the only people I know and trust.”

“I ought to tell you that Stella threw up in the ladies’ room and Mrs. Blumenthal deduced that she was pregnant.  Your in-laws are promising to make life difficult for her by way of putting pressure on you.”

“Let them try.  I can also circulate copies of Rebecca’s autopsy that proved she was pregnant before we got married.”

“You wouldn’t do such a thing!” the priest was startled by the harshness of the retaliation.

“Normally, no, I wouldn’t. But I’m here, broken and in pain, and all they want to talk about ismoney. I’m really trying not to get hooked on the pain killing pills the doctors prescribe; but suddenly I hear that I’m a needle using heroin junkie.  I know I’m lucky to be alive.  I know that Rebecca died instantly.  Yes, I was driving. And yes, she wanted me to go even faster.  I should have said no, but we were having fun for the first time in months.  We crashed and that ended the final Act of our lives.  Stella Buchanan saved my life.  She gave me her blood and she and Paul Oteiza got me to a hospital.  I never saw either one of them before the accident; but now, they’re going to be dragged into court as accomplices to murder and extortion and God knows what else.  What do you expect from me?  Sweetness and love?  I’m trying to do the Christian thing and forgive; but some people won’t let you forgive them.”

“I’m sorry,” Father Salazar said. “We all ought to be more concerned with the living.  Have the doctors told you anything about your recovery?

Harold scoffed   “I’m never going to walk right again and what I thought was the least of my bone breaks – my wrist –  the doctor tells me is a Colles’s fracture that is going to require specialized surgery. There were also broken bones in my right hand. I’m not complaining about my problems.  It’s what they’re going to do to Stella and Paul that has me half-crazy.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to have the phone removed?” the priest asked?

Half an hour later the room had no telephone service and Harold’s cellphone was shut off.

 

*

 

The next day, Paul and Stella drove down again from White Pine County.

Harold asked Stella to sit on the left side of his bed.  “Promise me you’ll come to me immediately when you have any problems whatsoever.  Promise me. Come right away.”  He tried to sound less serious. “You gals tease a guy and just when he’s interested, you start living a secret life.”

She giggled.  “I’m playing hard-to-get.”

“How can I repay you for what you’ve already done?” he asked earnestly. “How will I ever be able to repay you for the trouble you may have on my account in the days ahead. I owe you my life.  I seem to be owing my life to lots of people these days.  They’re charging a fortune for just making a few repairs.  You saved the whole enchilada, and you haven’t asked for anything.  So, what do I owe you.”

“Nothing but a quick and complete recovery.  I didn’t do what I did for money.  I did it because a human being helps a helpless creature.  Please don’t insult me by offering me money.”

Harold responded by raising her hand to his lips and kissing it.  “Thank you,” he whispered, “for being an angel.  No human being I know would have done a fraction of what you did.”

As he held Stella’s hand to his lips, Arnold Goldman made a long-overdue appearance.  Stella got up from the only chair beside Harold’s bed to let Arnold sit down. Paul, who always sat with one haunch on the bedside, got up too.  Together he and Stella indicated that they’d go to the cafeteria and would be back in an hour or so.  Arnold sat down and sighed, “You… you crazy guy… I ought to be mad atcha’.”  He explained that after waiting a few hours in the heat, he and Michelle assumed that the newlyweds wanted time alone or else had found the Gatlingsburg Track and were having a good time.  There certainly had been no distress signal given. “I’ll be honest.  I was a little pissed that you two ran off without us.  But Michelle calmed me down.”  They had seen no smoke such as might be seen from a crashed ATV. “We did look over the area, but finding nothing, we figured that you’d call me… somebody around there had to have a satellite phone.  Look, we knew that no matter where you were, you were an intelligent and resourceful guy.”

When he finished speaking, Harold said, “If one good thing came out of that near death experience, it was that a veil was lifted from my eyes and I could see people clearly… their goodness and their evil.  I thank God I was spared what might have been years of anguish working for a piece of shit like you.”

Arnold, disgusted at what he regarded as a slur against his good name, left the hospital without saying another word.

Father Salazar found the atmosphere in Harold’s room much improved when the phone no longer intruded into their study of the Catechism.  Harold had agreed to take his first Holy Communion as soon as he was able and, of course, when the big congregational event occurred.  He was hoping to make the September ceremony.

The days passed as Paul and Stella regularly visited him, cheering him by talking about what he began to call the “Three Cs” – cattle, cholla, and Catholicism.  Harold was convinced he still had a few barbs in his hand and Stella would probe with a magnifying glass and tweezers and iodine that darkened the pieces.  She did find a few pieces that had irritated him, vindicating his complaints to the nurses who said that there were no remaining pieces there. Paul’s cattle no longer had access to the circular watering trough and he decided to sell them rather than drive the small herd north.  And after learning from the priest about the threat to Stella’s reputation that the Blumenthals were formulating, he apologized for having done his Christian Duty to someone who did not require it, but, he quietly added, “As long as there was a chance you needed the extra push through the Pearly Gates, I had to act.  I’m sorry if I upset your family.”

Harold answered, “I’m not.”

For several weeks he had listened to his mother relate his father’s complain that he was entitled to some of the insurance money.  After all, he lost a week’s work coming to Las Vegas to see him, plus hotel and plane fare.  She, too, thought that she should be reimbursed for the hike in health insurance premiums she was certain she’d sustain because of the expense of his injury.   Rebecca’s body had been shipped immediately to Philadelphia where it could be buried in her family’s plot and it cost money to have this done.  Blood Tests had indicated that she was not intoxicated when the accident occurred and a sonogram showed the first trimester form a fetus. The coroner released her body as quickly as possible. “Aaron,” his mother insisted, “you surely are responsible for the air fare… for all of us.”

Harold agreed.  “But I cannot pay until I receive some money,” he responded logically.

On the day that the doctors told him that he was fit to become an outpatient and the accounting department advised him that his insurance company had notified them that he’d soon reach the limit of his coverage, he had a long talk with Paul and Stella.  “I’m fit to go home,” he said.   “But as luck would have it, I don’t have a home.”

“How much longer will you be confined to a wheelchair?” Paul asked.

“At least another month. I can’t use crutches or a walker.”

“That’s a long time to wheel yourself down and back the Strip,” Stella joked.

When Harold smiled, Paul added, “I wish I could take you to my place, but I live in a trailer… a small one… as small as the one Stella was livin’ in when she rescued you.  You couldn’t get a wheelchair through the door much less turn it around when you did get it inside. And Stella’s in a motel room.”

“Where will you be living later on?” Harold asked Stella.

“I’ll find a room and a job in Ely or maybe up in Winnemucca.  I’ll be ok.”

“I don’t want you to be just ok,” Harold said.  “I’ve got all that Shoshone blood in me now and I owe it to the tribe to take care of you.”

“You owe me nothing,” Stella said.  “And you’ll insult me if you try.”

“Noble sentiments.  But I hear you’re preggers.  Is that true?”  He happened to look at Paul.

“Hey!  I’m not the daddy… I wouldn’t mind being the daddy, but that honor belongs to a younger man, I’m afraid.”

“Stel,” Harold said softly, “did Brant tell you he’s gonna marry you?  I’ve heard the nurses talk.”

“Up to now he’s been a man of his word,” Stella said.

“But the nurses say he’s giving his word and more to a gal who works at the Blue Bison in Ely.  That’s none of my business, but taking care of you is.  I have to appear in person back in Philadelphia to gain access to some of the money that’s due me, but the insurance money is going to be transferred directly into a bank account. I knew there was two million on each of our lives, but I swear I don’t remember anything about a double indemnity clause.  That’s four-million plus in my checking account.  I called a bank and they’re sending over a vice-president with the papers that will open an account for me.

“What I’m hoping is that there is a house available somewhere in an area you two would like to live and that you’ll agree to buy it with my money and take me there to finish my recuperation.  And maybe have Paul agree to go back to Philadelphia with me in case I have to be there for the sale of the house.  The least I can do for you both is to get you a nice place. Paul, you’re getting up in years. Stel, you need a nursery room.  I need space to clear my head so I can figure out what I’ll do with the rest of my life.”

Paul Oteiza shrugged.  “I’d be a fool to say no.  I do happen to know of a house that’s for sale.  It could use some work, but I can handle it.  It’s country style…  No electricity and no indoor plumbing.  No neighbors but a bunch of mustangs – if the BLM hasn’t killed them yet. We can put a commode inside for you so you won’t freeze your ass off.  There’s a couple of acres of pine and mesquite on the property, so we won’t lack fuel.  It has a pump handled well, but the water’s fine and we can install pipes and a gasoline generator to pump it into the house… or maybe a wind turbine. And it could use a lady’s touch.  This here gal could spruce it right up.”

Harold nodded and whispered, “It sounds perfect.  Stick around.  The bank guy will be here and I’ll give you power to sign checks on the account.”

As they spoke, the bank executive entered the room. He overheard Harold’s last remark.  He asked Paul and Stella if they would mind stepping outside the room for a moment.  When they left, the bank executive said, “You’re not really serious about giving Mr. Oteiza free access to your money…”

 

Part 20  Aaron

 

A Rabbinical council had convened and in the presence of both the Blumenthals and the Weitzmans asked the hospital administrator’s if they could videoconference with Aaron Weitzman in his office.

Aaron, who was sufficiently recovered to be wheeled into an elevator and pushed into the office had asked Paul and a sheriff’s deputy to be present and also a technician from the Coroner’s office who was acting as an official spokesman regarding the medical conclusions reached upon examining the body of Rebecca Blumenthal Weitzman.

The administrator began, “I’ve been asked to call Mr. Weitzman by his chosen name, Harold.  I’d appreciate it if you would honor his request.”  He had moved Harold as close as possible to his desktop screen.

“What is it that you want to know that you haven’t already been informed of by state officials?” Harold asked.

The Rabbi who officiated at the wedding spoke first.  He greeted Harold and said he hoped he was recovering nicely and wanted to convey his sincere condolences regarding Rebecca’s death.  Harold saw Mrs. Blumenthal nudge him with her elbow. The Rabbi continued, “However we are all dismayed that you had an ongoing relationship, an most unsavory connection, to a woman in Nevada and contrived with Benjamin Weitzman to lure Rebecca out there.  This wedding was a sham and the gifts and properties that resulted from such a fraud should be returned or equitably re-distributed.”

Mr. Weitzman interrupted the charges. “We understand that this woman is also pregnant.  Aaron, my boy!  What kind of double life were you leading?”

“About your double life!” Mr. Blumenthal shouted, “You’re not pulling the wool over my eyes any longer.  I can see what you were up to.  We want to know more about this woman you were two-timing my daughter with.  Was she in on the so-called accidental death scheme?  You’re not gonna get away with this.”

Harold held up his rosary.  “Inasmuch as I now consider myself a Roman Catholic I can’t imagine why I’d be a party to any Rabbinical consultation.  I haven’t asked for one and I can only tell you that Mr. Oteiza here, and the dear lady who gave me her blood and who is pregnant, but not with my child, unfortunately, do not have to be subjected to your insults.  Mr. Oteiza has agreed to accompany me to Philadelphia when I am able to travel.  As you know, the insurance company has paid the claim on Rebecca’s policy.  The money is here in Nevada.  As soon as I’m well enough, I’ll come east to complete the sale of the house and to gather some of my personal objects from home. I do not care to live there among any of you and am therefore establishing residency in Nevada.  I deeply regret Rebecca’s death.  I can tell you only that by the grace of God it was instantaneous.  Also, I’ll let you know that when the Sheriff went back to the accident scene to recover her body, he gathered four pieces of her teeth.  I have them and will keep them safe in memory of her.  She was a good kid and no doubt deserved a better man than I. I think that’s all I have to say. We truly hoped to start a new life here in Nevada. That is the truth and either you learn to accept it or you will meet with a few attorneys at law.  We have them here, too.”  As he wheeled himself away from the administrator’s desk, he asked that anyone who had something to say was certainly free to say it.

Mrs. Blumenthal pushed him aside to ask, “What about reimbursing us for the funeral expenses?  Flying out there was expensive for all of us.  Flying Rebecca’s body back didn’t come cheap, either.  We already had the plot but you should pay for the stone.”

Paul Oteiza responded.  “If you will submit invoices with receipts to me in care of General Delivery in Ely, Nevada, we’ll consider paying the claims.”  He spelled his name carefully and stood up to end the discussion.

Later that evening, a local Rabbi named Emmanuel Cohen visited Harold.  “Before you ask, yes, they – your in-laws – called me.  We discussed the accident and I told them that there were many accidents with ATVs.   Incidentally, a safer – and I mean only relatively safer – machine is the four-wheel off-road vehicle. I’ve read copies of the reports of your injuries that were sent to your mother. I don’t know why somebody in authority didn’t explain to them how Ms. Buchanan gave her blood to you and that the extraordinary way that this was done accounted for the puncture marks in both your arms. And as to the father of Stella Buchanan’s baby, she had an amniocentesis test weeks ago and Brant Chastain was proven to be the father.  So she was pregnant before you and Rebecca even got to Las Vegas.   I think it eased your mother’s mind to know the truth about that. I doubt that Mr. Blumenthal will accept such proof. Also,  I’ve talked to the Sheriff’s men who went to the site.  All I can say is that you were in the hands of God that afternoon.  There isn’t a reason in the world why you should have survived.  Divine Providence.  That’s what it was.  You were in the hands of the angels.”  Then he looked at Harold and said, “You had what we call ‘a battlefield conversion.’  It happens more often than you think.”

“Why is that?” Harold asked.

“Because there are more Roman Catholic priests in the military than there are Jewish Rabbis.  When a man is lying wounded with his life ebbing out of him and his dogtags blown off him, the Catholic Priest or even a Catholic medic will automatically baptize him.  It’s what they’ve always done.”

“Ah,” Harold-Aaron said.  “I wondered about it.  I understand now.”

“Tell me where Mr. Blumenthal first got the idea you had another woman.”

“Damned if I know. Probably from Arnold Goldman, although Stella told Paul that while she had a little bout of morning sickness, Mrs. Blumenthal came into the bathroom.”

“For God’s sake, she saved your life an even took measures to protect Rebecca’s diamond rings.  She gave you a pint of her blood.  That’s not much but it probably did the trick, or so the M.E. told me.  I tried to explain this to Joel Blumenthal and got an earful back.  He’s not gonna let this rest.”

“You may find this hard to believe, but if they had been the least bit civil or sympathetic, I’d have let them have the whole goddamned thing.  But they all turned out to be hyenas… all of them.” He sighed. “Especially the Blumenthals.”

“At first I thought you were being unreasonable, but after talking to him for two minutes, I was wondering if you had overlooked anything else of Rebecca’s that belonged to you.  So where are you going after you leave the hospital?”

Harold smiled and thanked him.  “I’ll be moving upstate to someplace in Lincoln or White Pine county by the end of the week. I’ll let you know my specific address.  But if you’re ever up there or I’m ever down here, I’d like us to meet for lunch or something.”

“The climate in Nevada is salubrious. You’ll enjoy living upstate.  There are four seasons up there.  In Vegas you don’t need an overcoat.  Up there you’ll need a parka or shearling jacket.  As a matter of fact I do take the wife and kids north to Winnemucca for the summer.  Down here we get so many people who have lung problems and need the dry air.  But my wife’s parents died of tuberculosis and she’s terrified that I’ll contract the disease and bring it home to her and the kids.  So when I go to visit a patient, I have to sneak there.” He smiled. “She’ll be delighted to hear that you’ve only got broken bones, torn ligaments, a concussion, cholla punctures, and by the time they take that cast off your foot, athlete’s feet.”

“Tell her I’m happy that she’s happy, and that it only hurts when I laugh.”

Harold had the distinct feeling that he’d meet Rabbi Cohen again.

 

Go to Issue #6

The Money Lender (#4)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

If you haven’t read the previous issues:

The Money Lender #1

The Money Lender #2

The Money Lender #3

Part 13:  Tim

 

Tim had been disappointed when he and Charlene were unable to get together on Tuesday.  He had wanted to take her to the Lodge in Death Valley for lunch.  But her parents had returned early and she was needed at home.

And then, on Wednesday, Charlene seemed worried and told him that she suspected something was wrong… very wrong.  But she didn’t know any more than that.  And then he was accused of stealing money from the office.  He knew nothing about any theft.  The documents he saw were forgeries… he and the forger may have been the only people in the world who knew that to be a fact, but he and the forger also knew that the truth might never be known by anyone else.

Charlene called him Wednesday night.  “I’m at a pay phone,” she said. “I’ve got to be quick.  I’m just telling you that I know you’re innocent; but I don’t think that anyone of importance is in the mood to hear that.  Try to understand that my family has me practically engaged to a second cousin and that they know you’re the good looking kid with the map of Ireland all over his face with whom I took the boat out on Sunday.  I’m trying to defend myself against a suspicion of collusion or conspiracy or some damned thing. It hasn’t been easy for me. My parents are furious and that you’ve been blamed makes me hope and pray they had nothing to do with this mess.  Tim, be patient with me. We will prevail.” She began to cry.  “With God’s help, we will prevail.” She hung up the phone, leaving him with no idea how close to hell this scam would take them.

When Tim Murphy came to work on Thursday, he feared that at any moment he would be fired officially.  But no one seemed to notice him. He did not know that when Dave Lonigan had talked to whoever it was who owned FNN CCC on Wednesday night, he was told to get rid of the “rat” but not before the auditors could complete an immediate examination. Also, if the other religious cashier left, he was to make sure he knew where he was at all times – in case they needed him.

And still, no one paid any attention to him. Tim looked around quizzically.  He opened his station, counted his “starting” money from the box labeled for his station, and took away the “closed” sign from his window.  In hopes of protecting her, he purposely avoided looking at Charlene.

Joshua Mays came to work, too.  His eyes were swollen and he maintained the most defeated expression he could manage as he opened his station.

Charlene ignored Tim until she passed his station and put a note on it that said, “You steal hearts, not money. When love is pure, God will help. We will survive this together.”  She opened her station and conducted her business without a single change in her demeanor. But Tim was elated. He blushed and tried to sneak looks at her. He smiled broadly at his customer.

The auditors came and brought with them a man who took fingerprints but who was not with any official police department. He took everyone’s fingerprints and then left.

By lunchtime it was clear that the accountants had discovered $30,000 worth of missing money-order blanks.  They were, by no means, finished their audit, but they told Dave Lonigan that his office has sustained at least this much theft.  No corresponding cash receipts were made to cover the disbursements made to the various check cashing offices that had paid out the money-orders.   The cancelled orders were examined and the payor’s noted, as well as the endorsements of Keith Martin.  The auditors noted immediately the similarity between the M in Martin and the M in Murphy.  Both Joshua and Tim were photographed.  The man who had taken the fingerprints took the photographs to the places the money orders had been cashed.  Timothy J. Murphy was unequivocally named as the man who had cashed them.

The police were not called.  Instead the man who had taken the fingerprints took Tim away in a car.  Joshua wept.  “Why did he do such a thing?” he asked Charlene who did not seem as concerned as Joshua expected her to be.  She did not answer him at all.  He repeated the question in the doorway to Dave Lonigan’s office.

“Come in and sit down,” Lonigan said.  “And close the door.”

Joshua sat in front of his boss’s desk and looked as though he would soon collapse from the shock of it all.

“I talked to Father Joseph at Saint Steven’s,” Lonigan said.  “He thanked me for expressing my confidence in you.  I never suspected you for one moment.  But I want to tell you… and I’m really sorry about this… that letter did its nasty work.  I don’t think they’ll take you there while you’re still under such a cloud.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

Joshua saw an opportunity to make some money from the situation.  “I spoke to him, too, last night.  He never told me that he talked to you… that’s how they are… discreet.  He did say that he wanted me to prove myself… prove that I was capable of living a monk’s life… you know… no wine, women, and song… well, maybe the song is ok… if it’s a chant.”  He liked the way he said that.  It made him sound innocent and naive.  “But,” he continued, “he recommended a place nearby… where he could sort of keep an eye on me… I guess.  There’s a Zen Buddhist monastery in Sandyville.  It’s small but strict.  He wanted me to spend a year there in contemplation as a guest, not a postulant.  Of course, I’m required to make my confession and then take Holy Communion once a week.  There are a few other exceptions like exemption from certain Buddhist prayers; but the Monseigneur of Saint Steven’s knows the Abbot of the Zen monastery. The only thing is that I have to come up with $5000 for my room and board.  It’s a donation a guest or maybe a person trying out monastic life makes when he’s accepted.  I expected to give Saint Steven’s an initial donation… which was only three-thousand.  The Zen place is $5000. So if you could let me work a little while longer…”

“I’d love to have you stay on, Josh.  But I don’t think your heart’s in it.  We’ll be happy to make up the difference.  Two-thousand dollars after what Murphy put you through is not asking for much.  I’m gonna take your place at your window.  And Charlene’s brother who used to work here can come back to take Tim’s place.  We’ll get replacements for you both and let the evening shift double up.  We’ll manage.”  He got up and went to the safe, happy to know that the delicate matter of Joshua’s not leaving the area in case he was needed had been solved. When he returned with a cash box, he said, “Here,” handing Joshua two-thousand dollars, “go with God.  And don’t forget to say prayers for all of us, including Tim.”

Joshua Mays took the money and wiped his eyes.  “You are too good,” he said.  “Should I leave now?”

Lonigan ushered him to the door.  “Sure.  Why not?  You’re too upset to work especially with him around.  You just give those Zen people something to think about.  Maybe you’ll convert them!”  He grinned and Joshua tried hard to return the smile.

As Joshua left the office one thought occupied his mind.  “I am not going to tell Rick about this money.  If I do, he’ll demand it from me.  And I’m no fool.”

The man who had taken fingerprints drove Tim to his home and went inside to talk to his parents. He sat on the couch. “Your son stole at least Thirty-thousand dollars from our company.  He’s got to make restitution plus a little interest on the sum.  So he owes $40,000.  Nothing’s going to happen to him.  Ain’t nobody threatening to take him out into the desert and blow his kneecaps off… or to break one of your legs, Mr. Murphy.  But you understand that the money has to be repaid within two weeks. I’ve checked and I see you own your home.   Banks are giving mortgages at pretty low rates these days.  I wouldn’t delay if I were you.”  After saying this, he stood up and said, “Thank you for your kind attention.” He went to the door and left.

Tim Murphy looked at his parents.  “Mom… Dad… I don’t know anything about this.  I’ve been framed for the theft.  But nobody’s called the police.  I don’t understand what’s going on.  But I’m innocent.  I want you to know that.”

“Of course you’re innocent,” his father said.  “It’s not necessary to try to reassure us of that.  But these people play rough.  There’s no police, so there’s no law.  We certainly can’t call the police.”  He turned to his wife.  “Call the bank… maybe we can get one of those reverse mortgages they advertise.”

Tim dropped to his knees and began to sob.  He had to be helped to his bed.

 

 

Part 14:    Rick and Joshua

 

“Are you ready to discuss the Lankavatara, Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and the Gospel of Thomas?”  Rick asked. “For a man who has claimed to be knowledgeable about theology, and has gotten very slick on the subject of money,” he looked at Joshua; and whether it was Joshua’s guilt, Rick’s good guess, or just his natural prescience, Joshua wondered if he knew, and if he did know, how he knew that he had gotten two-thousand extra dollars.  He stared blankly at Rick as his mentor continued sarcastically, “your responses are certain to delight me. What then, have you learned about these scriptures?”

Joshua stammered a few things he had been prepared to say. “Thomas gets… well… weird… about a male and female combination. As to the Lanka… nothing.  I didn’t understand it.”

“I talked to Joe Pulaski.  He still doesn’t know what the topic will be.  He said that he heard that the Monseigneur preferred just the Lanka’s Nirvana section, which may mean the idiots at the Zen Center will stick with Nagarjuna’s poem. So read the Nirvana Section of the Lanka to refute anything he says and continue to mess with Nagarjuna.   Ultimate Reality. Hah.

“My pal Joe, and the Monseigneur, and the Abbot know the circumstances under which you were admitted to the Zen Center; but nobody else does.  You’re going to be given special leave to accommodate your Catholic requirements, but only Abbot Jy Shao will know why you’ve been allowed out.”  He smiled.  “I’ll be happy to hear your confession and to let you communicate with the Almighty.  So while I shower, you can read Nagarjuna’s poem about Nirvana.  It’s an idiotic argument.  Even you should be able to grasp it.” He handed him a book.  “Here a text that contains his 24 verse poem on Nirvana. There’s a bookmark at the page. Don’t worry about Vasubandhu. That’s the other argument.”

“Whose side are you on?” Joshua asked.

“Neither.  It’s a stone age argument.  Look.  They picked the side they wanted.  Chuan Yi is stupid and the abbot is always sick.”

“Who will win?”

“The Monseigneur will regardless of the topic.  I never lose.”

Joshu sat at the kitchen table and read the first verse:

 

If everything is relative,

No origination, no annihilation,

How would Nirvana then be reached?

Through what deliverance, through what annihilation?

 

He read the verse half a dozen times.  Rick entered the kitchen naked.  “Are you lost already?”

“The language is bizarre.”

“Yes… that’s because people who are qualified to translate it are not the same people who understand it. And nobody allows for the natural alteration in a word’s meaning.  Years ago to be called ‘gay’ was to be called ‘happy and light-hearted.’  Now it exclusively defines sexual orientation.

“When you argue ancient philosophy, always keep in mind that you are arguing with idiots.  Do not become one yourself.  These would-be lovers-of-wisdom, that is to say, the philosophers, will tell you that nothing exists… everything is empty… and then they will waste your time arguing about what emptiness means when what they’re full of is pure shit.  Nirvana has two dozen meanings at least.  How can you discuss anything when you don’t agree on basic terms?  Hmm?  You can’t.  So when you read the verses convert the jargon into ordinary terms.”  He pointed to the first verse. “Everything means all things.  Yes?  No?”

“Yes.”

“Relative is mere measurement of quality or quantity.  A is long relative to B.  C is fat relative to D. So things may appear different but they’re made of the same stuff.  So what law is the first verse stating?”

“The conservation of matter?”

“Bravo!  So what does the first stanza mean?”

“If nothing can be created or destroyed, how can you add or subtract Nirvana as an entity?

“Exactly.  Read the second verse.”

 

Should everything be real in substance,

No new creation, no new destruction,

How would Nirvana then be reached?

Through what deliverance, through what annihilation?

 

“This says the same thing as the first stanza,” Joshua said, surprised.

“Precisely.  Now read the rest… but to yourself, please.”

Joshua, asking only for a few definitions of the odd terms, read the twenty-four verses.  “He says that if you blank your mind you achieve what you’re supposed to achieve.  The material world and the spiritual world are identical.  You can’t think your way into Nirvana because it doesn’t exist.”

“Precisely.  But, dear boy, it does exist.  There are two distinct worlds, the material and the spiritual.  This is the so-called Transcendentalist view.  Some knowledgeable forms of Zen hold that you reach Nirvana when you enter the egoless state. Of course!  But your material world ego must then be replaced by your Buddha Consciousness.   Now, we consider the material world illusory because everything in it is constantly changing.  Heraclitis figured that out a few thousand years ago.  ‘All things are in flux’  You can’t step into the same river twice.  The water keeps flowing.

“Here’s the problem: Some fools think that the word “illusory” means “empty” and the material world does not exist. There is a difference between illusion and delusion.  But they don’t appreciate differences. The world exists but only as, say, the aurora borealis exists.  Constant change.  When we say ’empty’ we mean empty of ego.  The kind of ’emptiness’ these fools talk about is attained by self-hypnosis. Unfortunately, the state that’s entered is not Nirvana. Yet they strive for hours each day to attain the state of nothing.  And they see the impervious numbness of those who have attained it, and they stand there and tell you anybody who experiences something different… something blissfully ecstatic… is wrong.  Only in philosophy can an idiot stand there and tell you that what he thinks is more significant than what you experience.

“Nothing in the material world is standing still.  If we reach the point in which nothing moves, we reach entrophy. No heat is being exchanged.  No changes are taking place.  But we’re a long way from reaching the Heat Death of the Universe.

“Nagarjuna put thought above experience. Perhaps he never progressed passed meditation or samadhi. Who knows?  Who cares?  Are there no better uses a man can put his life to than arguing about what Nagarjuna thought?”

The discussion began to bore Joshua.  “Ok.  I’ve got it.  I’ll memorize the poem.  And get familiar with the Gospel.  Then, so that you can win, should I bullshit my way through the meaning by mis-interpreting it?”

“Are you offering me your help by cheating?  My boy… I do not require your help in defeating those assholes. I admire and pity Jy Shao.  He has seen truth.  But the others?  Huh!  They’ve never even known true meditation.  The World of the Spirit is alien territory to them.”

“But they do believe in ghosts.”

“Precisely.”

 

Part 15   Aaron & Family in hospital.

 

It was time for the mid-day Angelus. Paul Oteiza and Stella Buchanan automatically knelt down on the floor near Aaron’s bed.  Father Salazar knelt beside Aaron’s bed but kept his elbows up on the mattress.  Aaron mumbled that he did not know what to say to him. He had begun to realize that his life had been saved by some religious act, and he did not want to disrupt the process by insisting that he was not a goy, that they had misinterpreted something… he did not know what it was, but it was keeping him alive.

“That’s all right, son,” Father Salazar said softly.  “We’ll limit our session to the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  How’s that?  And if you feel strong enough, we’ll toss in a Hail Mary.  Mr. Oteiza, here, one of the two anngels who saved your life, is devoted to our Holy Mother.  It was in her service that he helped to rescue you.  Shall we begin?”

Aaron nodded and managed to say, “Fine.”

Standing in the doorway, hushed into silence by the floor’s supervising nurse, Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal, grim-faced as they restrained their anger, and Mr. and Mrs. Weitzman, out together for the first time in years and treating each other as strangers, watched as Aaron began to mouth the words, following the priest’s lead, “The Lord is my shepherd…”  Aaron saw them but did not let on that he had.

The visitors stared at the man and woman kneeling beside the priest.  The man looked like an old cowboy. And the woman, brazenly wearing a sleeveless dress despite the needle marks in her arm, who was she?  One of those Mexican cantina girls?

Mrs. Weitzman had signed the insurance forms when she and her husband arrived at the reception area of the hospital.  At that time, they were grateful to God for having spared their only son. They did not know why the computerized form had given his name as Aaron Harold Weitzman, but there would be plenty of time to correct errors made in the confusion of medical emergencies.

The Psalm’s recitation was finished.  Aaron could hear his visitors shuffling nervously in the doorway.  So far, so good, he thought.  And then he could hear the four of them gasp as Father Salazar began, and Aaron repeated each phrase, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Aaron’s face had been bandaged where cholla barbs had been excised from his face and the desert sun had burned the skin badly enough to warrant burn medication and a special gauze covering.  His face was also bruised and his lips were swollen from having removed the cholla spines from his hand. The four visitors began to wonder if they had come to the right room.

Father Salazar was pleased with the prayers. He hazarded a final prayer. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you,” he said, and to the visitors’ complete confusion, at the conclusion of the prayer, the priest picked up the bandaged left hand from which hung tubes and rosary beads and he lifted and guided the hand through making he Sign of the Cross on the patient’s forehead and chest.

The four visitors marched to the nurses’ station. Mrs. Weitzman asked, “Are you sure our son is in Room 410?”

“Weitzman, Aaron Harold? Yes, your son is in Room 410.”

“Harold?” Mr. Weitzman whispered.  “What is going on?”  They waited until they saw the priest, Paul Oteiza, and Stella Buchanan walk down the corridor and get into the elevator, and then they went to Room 410 and closed the door behind them.

Mrs. Blumenthal elbowed Mrs. Weitzman away from the patient’s side.  “What happened to Rebecca?” she hissed.

 

Aaron whispered.  “We had an accident on an ATV.  Her neck got broken. I’m so sorry.”

Now Mrs. Blumenthal began to shout. “Not as sorry as you’re gonna be, you murdering thief!  Not married even two days and your wife has a fatal accident.  You take us for fools?  You killed our baby.  You milked us for all you could get!  All along you took advantage of her and laid your little trap.  Didn’t even have the decency to use protection.  Oh, you’ll be sorry, all right.  Maybe you think you’ll get the house and the bank account and the insurance policy.  You won’t.  We’ll see to that!  We already spoke to our Rabbi about taking the matter before a Bet Din, a rabbinical court of justice. This marriage was fraudulent.”

Mr. Blumenthal sneered. “And this show of Catholic devotion?  You think you can escape justice by calling yourself a Catholic? Less than a week ago you took solemn Jewish vows! And while we’re on the subject, where are my girl’s rings?  In the morgue they said they were given to you.  I’d like them back! That farce of a wedding will be annulled! You will get nothing!”

“Just a minute…” Mr. Weitzman finally spoke.  “You don’t know what happened.  Look at this boy! He got put in the ICU because he was hurt so bad.  He’d have to be a stupid killer to almost get himself killed while killing somebody!”  It was not a ringing endorsement of Aaron’s efficiency or innocence.

“You defend him?  You adulterous bastard!” Mr. Blumenthal countered. “You’re here to make a show… maybe suck up to him to get some of the money he weasled from us!  It’s in his blood! Like father, like son!”

“Please!” Mrs. Weitzman shouted.  “Can we not remember that Aaron is in critical condition? When he’s able I’m sure he’ll tell us what happened!”

Mrs. Blumenthal snarled at her.  “You who live a lie, who raised this boy to be a liar… you want us to wait for him to think up a good lie.  We know what the truth is!  We identified the truth in the morgue!  You think we didn’t see that junkie woman in here with him?  A fine son you raised. Look at his arm too.  You think the hospital put that many holes in his arm!  Aii!  Aii!   My baby was sacrificed to a couple of heroin junkies.  My God! My God! What did he do to my baby…” She began to wail so loudly that two nurses came running to the room.

The visitors continued to argue so violently that the hospital manager was summoned from his office.  His advice was to call security and have the disruptive persons escorted to their cars or whatever conveyance had delivered them there.  Aaron could hear them arguing all the way down to the elevator and continue to call each other names until the elevator doors mercifully closed.

His ankle and his arm were broken and surgically repaired and in a cast.  His wrist, too, had a broken bone in it.  His collar bone had been fractured.  He didn’t know if the extensive casting of his right shoulder and arm included a repair of that bone.  His left hand hurt from the cholla spines, a few of which were, he believed, still stuck between his fingers. Tubes hung from something behind him which he could not turn to see.  Needles entered a vein on the back of his left hand and were taped in place.  There was enough slack in the tubes for him to move his hand that had been only lightly bandaged.  He lifted his hand and looked at the rosary.

A nurse entered his room.  “I hope everything has calmed down by now,” she said, reading the monitor of a screen he could not see.  “Is there anything I can get you, Harold?”

“No,” he whispered.  “I’m ok.”  But Harold Aaron Weitzman was not ok with anything.  He cursed Arnold Goldman for abandoning him.  He cursed Rebecca for trapping him.  He cursed Aunt Esther for giving him such a cheap wedding present.  He cursed Uncle Benny for vouching for a low-life piece of shit like Arnold.  He cursed his father for having the kind of character that would be charged to him as an inherited trait.  He thought of the little baby that lay inside Rebecca in the morgue. The string of contemptuous charges ended.  He began to cry.  He had really wanted the baby.  Maybe the Coroner would tell him if it was a boy or a girl.

Another nurse came in and saw the tears running into the bandages and wiped his face and made him blow his nose on a tissue from a little box that would appear on his hospital bill as a “sanitary mucus removal agent” that cost $35.00.

 

Part 16    Joshua

 

Joshua Mays parked his Toyota Camry in a dirt area just beyond the parking lot of the Zen Center of Sandyville. While jasmine vines draped the monastery’s courtyard wall and even the awning that covered its tiny official parking area, and there was a variety of trees – cottonwoods, elms, mesquites – that grew in a kind of park area in front of the monastery and could provide shade for half a dozen cars. There was no shade whatsoever for the barren area that surrounded the rest of the parking area.  He parked on sand and in sun.

He counted twelve cars parked outside the Zen Center of Sandyville.  “For a cloistered monastery,” he said aloud to himself, “these guys get around.”  The Center, itself, he thought, had that eclectic look that renovated places always had.  Their original layout had been specific to a function; and a new owner could only apply cosmetic decorations in an attempt to convert the function.

Originally the site contained a placer mining operation which failed when the initial estimate of marketable surface minerals proved to be over-inflated; and then in one particularly rainy season, someone bought the area and tried to raise cattle on the acres of blooming sage that seemed to materialize from nowhere. The building that contained offices, kitchen, and dining room, became the cattleman’s family residence, although the kitchen and dining room were still used communally. The assay office was converted to a room for tools and equipment; the big shed became a barn for horses and as an emergency shelter for the cattle. Two of the dozen rooms of the miners’ dormitory continued to be used by cow hands while the other ten rooms became storage rooms for hay and miscellaneous supplies.

When the climate returned to normal and the “open range” vegetation dried up, the place was sold to the Zen group.  The barn became a temple and meditation hall; the office was the administration office and the Abbot’s residence; and the communal kitchen and dining room stayed the same.  The tool room became the library; and the dormitory once again housed men – although each 9 x 12 room was partitioned in two, and a monk’s cell measured 9 x 6 feet.   Twelve new doorways had to be carved into the central corridor’s walls, but at least each monk had his own room.

Joshua looked around.  Nobody, he thought with some disparagement, could turn a barn into a cathedral.  But, as he often told himself when he entered Rick’s bedroom, “Any port in a storm.”

Still, he wondered, what would cloistered monks want with cars?  He placed his accordion pleated aluminum foil sun-screen across the inside of his windshield and rolled down his windows.  People who left their windows up often returned to their cars to find that the sun had heated the interior of the car to such a high temperature that the windows had “blown-out” which made them look like webbed and sagging glass mats.

He brought his bag of toiletries – shaving equipment, athletes’ feet powder, and deodorant into the reception area.  A “swamp” evaporative cooler supplied the only relief from the heat, but the unit was effective.  A monk looked up from the receptionist’s desk.  He did not smile. He merely asked, “Are you Joshua Mays?”  Joshua answered, “Yes,” and the monk said, “Have a seat.  Shi Chuan Yi will be with you shortly.”

Joshua looked around and wondered how long he would be stuck in such a place.  There was an ongoing audit at the FNN CCC and because of the theft, there would likely be several more in rapid succession.  At most it should take six months for everything to cool down and for him to be regarded as a sincerely religious man.

Chuan Yi came out of the Abbot’s office and, walking briskly past Joshua said over his shoulder, “Follow me.”  Joshua got up and walked behind the man into a side office. “The envelope please,” Chuan Yi said, holding out his hand.  “And your car keys and cellphone if you have one.”

Joshua parted with his car keys, his new iPhone, and the envelope that contained $5000. Had he been asked for his wallet, he would have declined.   Knowing that he was expected to do something in the future, and actually doing it, were, he decided, two entirely different things.  He truly was cutting himself off from the outside world and he wondered why Rick couldn’t have picked a nicer “inside” world for him to inhabit.

Chuan Yi did not indicate that Joshua should sit down, and despite the five chairs that were lined up against his office wall, Joshua remained standing as the priest counted the money, took it to the Abbot’s office, and then returned with a large barber’s bib and a battery powered razor.  “Follow me,” he said.

They went out onto the rear veranda and Joshua was ordered to kneel.  “To you know the Five Fundamental Precepts?”

“Yes,” Joshua answered.  “No harming, no lying, no cheating, no intoxicants, and no sex.”

“Do you accept these Precepts?”

“Yes/”

Chuan Yi removed a small red plastic booklet from a pocket inside his robe.  He wrote the name Fa Hui on the flyleaf.  “Your name is Fa Hui.  Please kowtow and then find a stool to sit on.”

Joshua touched his forehead to the veranda floor and got up to sit on the only stool that was on the veranda.  He looked at the enclosed courtyard and its jasmine covered walls.  There were numerous clothes’ lines for hanging out garments that the priests had washed in a tub and washboard beside the veranda.  Another tub that was also empty probably contained rinse water, Joshua thought.  He saw their propane tank – it was larger than a family size but smaller than the average industrial or commercial tanks he had seen in the outside world. Chuan Yi noticed him studying the courtyard and as he tied the bib around Joshua’s neck and began to shave his head, he said, “The garden in the rear is lovely and loving maintained by us.  You may do kin hin, walking meditation, in our flower garden after meals. Do not use our garden to fart in or to relieve yourself in any way. Your garments must be laundered on Mondays.  A line will form to use the washtub.  You will be last in line. You will do as every senior monk directs you. You will not indulge in any frivolous conversations with other monks.” As he finished shaving he untied the bib and shook the shorn hair from it.  “The wind will blow the rest away,” he said.  “Are you familiar with the Lankavatara Sutra?”

“Not as much as I’d like to be, but I have read the Nirvana chapter recently,” Joshua said.

“Have you now?” Chuan Yi said snidely. “A Mahayana scholar!  Think of it!  Well, we shall see.  Do you favor Vasubhandu’s version of the famous argument?”

“No, Sir.”

“No Reverend Brother,” Chuan Yi corrected him.

“No, Reverend Brother,” Joshua dutifully repeated.

“Let’s get you settled in a room and also get you some proper garments.”

The dormitory had a morning eastern side and an afternoon western side.  The morning side was the desirable side and the monk who was evicted from his room to accommodate the newcomer was not at all pleased to move his things into the hot side of the building. He gave Joshua a dirty look that suggested that Joshua would pay dearly for having caused his eviction.

Chuan Yi told the departing monk to bring a set of “in-house whites” – tunic and knickers and stocking socks and garters as well as a “”street wear” grey uniform of tunic and knickers and grey stocking socks and a grey street robe. “I’ll have Fa Hui stop by the library and get his own shoes to wear.”   He turned to Joshua.  “You won’t get a black robe and kesa to wear until you’re ordained.”  With that final bit of information, he left the room.

Joshua sat on the hard bed and began to rethink the necessity of spending time in a Zen Center.  He rubbed his hairless head as his opinion of Rick’s intuitive genius plummeted.  Who the hell was Chuan Yi?  Rick’s pal?  No.  Rick’s pal was at Saint Stevens. Joe somebody.  Rick doesn’t have a pal here.  Shit.  For five grand the pompous asshole could have been at least civil.

The evicted monk returned with two tunics, two knickers, two stocking socks, and one grey robe.  “Go in the building next door… the one with the red door… and you’ll be given shoes.”  Joshua held up the tunics.  They were different sizes and both were much too large.  He left his room and walked down the corridor to the exit and then went out into the scorching heat and headed for the building with the red door – the building that had once been an assay office and then a tool room and was now a library and shoe supply area.  He opened the door and looked inside.

“Come on in,” the only monk in evidence said.  “You’re the new guy.  Have a seat and give me one of your shoes.”  Joshua was wearing sneakers.  He removed one and handed it to the monk.  “Nice kicks!” the monk said.  “I bet these set you back a hundred or more.”

He went into a closet.  “My name’s Fa Dao,” he called..  “Fa Dao Shakya.  I’m ordained.  And you are?”

“Fa Hui. I see we both have the same first name.”

“No. We both have the first last name.  Fa is a lineage name in the Lin Ji or Rinzai lineage sequence.  The Chinese put the last name first.  You know, like the tennis player Li Na.  Her first name is Na.  Sometimes you’ll see Shakya written as Shi – the Mandarin spelling.  And then that’s the really last name.  So technically I’m Shi Fa Dao.  But Abbot Jy Shao prefers us to use Shakya at the end.  I don’t know why. ”

“Who is Chuan Yi?” Joshua asked.

“An asshole, but don’t quote me.  We’re not supposed to bad-mouth other monks.”

“He asked me about the Lankavatara Sutra.  Does he solicit information about it… I mean is it some kind of test of a monk’s knowledge of Buddhism?”

“Word has already gotten out that the next commentary Abbot Jy Shao is gonna write is about the Nirvana section of Lanka.  Jy Shao is a nice guy but he’s fragile and allergic to dust which is a tough allergy to have here in Sandyville.  He can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I’m serious.  He’s skeletal.  Always coughing from the dust. There’s something in it that he can’t tolerate. Personally, I think Chuan Yi is hoping he croaks so that he can become Abbot.  But don’t quote me.”

“I’m incommunicado.  Who the hell am I gonna quote you to?”

Fa Dao put a pair of cotton top and rubber sole shoes on the floor at his feet.  “Try these.  I matched them as best I could.”  He handed Joshua a plastic bag.  “Put those kicks in this bag and keep the bag under your bed… as far back to the wall as you can get them.”

“Jesus!” Joshua exclaimed.  “Are there thieving monks in here?”

“Let’s just say that they’re the borrowing kind.  And what they borrow you can kiss goodbye. But don’t quote me.”

Joshua bagged his sneakers and slipped his feet into the shoes that fit perfectly.  He shrugged.  “Thanks, I guess.”

“We have a friendly meal time here.  We’re not like the Japanese orders… all stiff and silent.  So look for me in the line outside the dining hall. Today is Thursday.  We’ll have French Toast for lunch.  And a big bowl of fruit for dessert. We have to go in shifts because French Toast has to be immediately served.  Cold French Toast sucks.  The food’s pretty good here.”

“Can I quote you about that?” Joshua grinned.

“Wouldn’t hurt, my brother.  Wouldn’t hurt at all.”

The dining room seated nine people at a time.  When Joshu arrived, the administration staff was having lunch while two groups of nine monks each waited in line.  Joshua and Fa Dao were in the last group.

As the administration staff left the dining room and passed Joshua, Chuan Yi stopped and asked, “I trust you availed yourself of the library-copy of the Lanka.”

Joshua stared at him.  “No, Reverend Brother,” he said weakly, “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”

“Are you telling me that I am mistaken when I say that we discussed the Lanka?”

“No, Reverend Brother,” said Joshua.  “We did talk about it.”

“Then you are a disobedient oaf.  And an impudent one since you seem to be calling me a liar.  You were given an assignment and you chose to ignore it. This deserves punishment.”

Everyone turned to stare at Joshua who did not know how to respond.

Chuan Yi continued.  “You distinctly told me you favored one of the two arguments. You gave me a name. What was that name?”

Abbot Jy Shao and another priest came out of the dining room and were approaching Joshua and Chuan Yi just as Joshua answered, “Nagarjuna'” – which Joshua pronounced as Nag-uh-jun-ahr – as Rick had pronounced it.

“You’re a rare scholar of Nagarjuna,” Chuan Yi sneered. “Can’t even pronounce his name.”

Joshua was facing the abbot and Chuan Yi’s back was to him.  The abbot had not heard Chuan Yi’s comment. “Wonderful!” he said to Joshua. “That’s exactly how my old master pronounced the name. The British and New Englanders just hate to say “r” when it’s written but they will say it when it’s not.”  He patted Joshua’s shoulder and continued to walk to his office.  “Welcome aboard, my son,” he called, “and don’t forget the Gospel of Thomas!”  He turned to the man he had been walking beside.  “I hear the new man’s quite a deep thinker.”

When all the administrative staff had left the dining room and the next nine monks had entered, Fa Dao whispered to Joshua, “Your life just got harder.  The abbot made a fool of Chuan Yi.  And he was just getting started with his technique. What he does is work your ass off researching and writing commentary that he gets published as sole writer, or sometimes submits to a contest they have… something that he’ll take all the credit for. Unless, of course, the work is bad.  Then you’ll really get shit on.  But the opening gambit is the same: Chuan Yi chastises a person so that to get back into his good graces, the person becomes his slave.”

 

Go to Issue #5

The Money Lender (#3)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

If you haven’t read the previous issues:

The Money Lender #1

The Money Lender #2

Part 9   Joshua, Rick, and the Dharma contest

 

Like Sunday, Tuesday was a “shift day.”  Joshua, Tim, and Charlene did hot have to come into the office. The same cashiers who worked on Sundays, two Muslims and a Jew, filled in on those days and also worked as part of the evening, 5 to 9 crew.

Joshua and Rick, spade and pick in hand, dug a new channel for a sprinkler pipe in Rick’s back yard.  The heat and the exertion affected Joshua more than it affected his host, and the pitcher of vodka, tonic and lime that sat on a table between two deck chairs, began to speak to him, telling him that if he called for a break, Rick would sit down and launch one of his boring soliloquies until sleep overtook his reveries. Of the two irritants, listening to Rick would normally be the least tolerable; but the day was particularly hot and the ground filled with unyielding hardened caliche.  He would simply ask Rick how he became the well-read and insightful philosopher he obviously was. But he would have to be subtle.

Joshua said, “I’m sweating too much.  I need a break.”  He walked towards the deck chairs. “You said that you didn’t publish under your own name.   Are you some sort of ghost writer?”

Rick settled into a chair and drained the drink Joshua handed him.  Then he prepared himself for making a revelation by shaking the ice cubes in the glass as though they were dice in a dice cup.  He paused, ready now, and rattled the cubes as though they were a drum roll.  “Once upon a time I studied philosophy which qualifies a man for nothing.  I found a woman who fell in love with me… that’s what she said.  She was trying to prove to her family that she wasn’t a lesbian so I was her beard, so to speak.  All she wanted was a wedding album and a baby.  Proof.  She divorced me and richly rewarded me for the privilege of signing away my custodial rights to her.  And with my money, no responsibility, and a philosophical background, I got interested in epistemology and especially in nomenclature.  The names people give race horses is a fascinating subject.  I began to read racing forms. Think about it. Swaps.  Seattle Slew?  What the hell kind of names are those?  I went to Belmont a few times and tried to determine if there was a relationship between the way people picked horses and the horses’ names. I mean, I knew there was a relationship, but I wanted to see how great the influence was.  I began to bet.  Big mistake.  As a habit, I concede that it’s better than drugs, and if you can afford a box, you definitely meet a nicer class of people.

“I met a bishop at the track and he liked me and when he heard about my divorce he assured me I had never really been married.  You can’t sanction a fraud. It’s a ‘clean hands’ kind of thing.  You can’t lie to a church and then expect them to fix the mess. So as soon as I found myself out of funds, I entered a seminary with his recommendation, of course.

“Anyway, since I already knew philosophy and some latin and a lot of other useless shit, I advanced.  I prepared to take holy orders – they were trying to transfer me to a Dominican seminary – and then a few months later, I found myself in a nasty situation.  First of all, I didn’t want to be a Dominican. Really! They are just too strict. Rottweilers with robes.

“I really wanted to enter the Order of the Knights of the Blue Cross because that’s where Joe Pulaski went.  He was a year ahead of me, but I did his assignments and taught him all the theology he knows or, let’s say, he could absorb.  But the thing is… when you join a religious order you pledge your life and fortune to the order. I didn’t have anything, so what did I care?  They had these neat robes that one guy sewed – appliqued actually – a blue cross superimposed on a white cross on the front. Snazzy.  Joe had been sent to them because, among other things, he had been naughty with the ladies. That, I fear, is an intolerable offense.  “I had to help Joe out of a few jams and wrote a few papers in his name which made his Monseigneur quite happy with him.  He wrote to the archdiocese, applauding their perspicacious choice.  Joe had told me about this stupid little theological contest the Monseigneur was having with his friend, the Zen Abbot and I was happy to help.

“Then, a week or so before I took my final vows, my uncle in Brazil – a man I never even knew existed – died and left me almost three million dollars. I learned about it when the lawyer called me. I thought it was a joke someone was playing.  If it were true, however, it presented a problem. What was I supposed to do?  Give it to the seminary, the Knights, the Dominicans?  I didn’t tell them anything.  I just took my vows; but among the many congratulatory cards and letters they received, came the formal notification from my lawyer.  Oh, how they rejoiced over my good news!  They read my goddamned mail in the front office!  So there I was newly ordained and telling them they weren’t getting a cent.  Yes, I had signed a contract.  No, Brazil wasn’t going to enforce it. So, right after I was ordained, I took my inheritance and blew it on a few luxury items. A trip to Manaus.  Beautiful town!  And to Rio, naturally.  And I bought this house in the desert, a small sailboat for the lake, and spent money on crap tables and more than a few lovers.  Ah, craps.  You have no idea how many times you can throw snake eyes.”

“And you stayed friends with… what?… Father Pulaski?”

“Joe is a quick study when he’s not concentrating on sin.  He knew that the Knights got money from the families of the whacky priests whose families didn’t want them back.  These guys are so senile or alcoholic or schizophrenic – they come all ages – they denounce Christ and the Church and, if they were sound of mind, could legitimately be excommunicated and sent home – but who in his right mind would want then home?  They’ve already blown their own money.  And putting them in a private nuthouse is not the Church’s idea of good press when they start ranting and doing naughty things. The Knights have a doctor on the payroll who says they’re sane and just nasty and disgruntled types. The Knights warehouse them in a “Retreat” for whatever they can get from the families to keep them there, in this honorable conclusion to a Christian life of service.

“Joe made it clear to Monseigneur Garcia that he ‘farmed out’ many of those erudite papers and that his sub-contractor needed to be paid.  Garcia was happy to pay.  In the old days he had lost face writing laughable comments that his previous assistant had helped him to write.  He lost in those days.  Nobody laughs anymore. I was worth it.  I don’t come cheap.”

“And who helps the Zen Abbot?”

“I told you.  His Vice-Abbot, a churlish fellow named Chuan Yi.  Stupid, naturally.  You know how they say a camel is a horse put together by a committee?  Well, he has a clique of morons who think they know something about the Mahayana Scriptures, so they put their pitiable brains together and come up with truly amusing commentary on Zen Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the only entertainment I get.  You’ll like the Abbot.  He’s sickly but basically intelligent and honest. And he’s as oriental as Abe Lincoln.”

“I’m glad you told me.  It’ll help me get through tomorrow’s big day… when Assistant Father Joe calls my boss.”

“Don’t forget to load your hanki with that strong hand lotion I have. It will really irritate your eyes when you rub them.  Ah, how the tears will flow.”  He chewed the ice that had been in the bottom of the glass.  “The mood is on me.  Let’s go in and take a nap, darlin’.”

“Any port in a storm,” Joshua said.

 

Part 10   Josha, Tim, Charlene

 

The joy that Joshua radiated on Monday vanished on Wednesday when a special messenger delivered a parchment envelope and letter, both of which were impressively embossed with the Knights of the Blue Cross logo.  Dave Lonigan tipped the messenger and went into his office and shut the door.

He sat at his desk, read the letter from the Reverend Joseph Pulaski, Assistant to Monseigneur Jaime Garcia and the enclosed photocopy of a letter that he had received from Timothy Murphy.  The letter’s body was brief:

 

I am in receipt of the attached letter sent by a Mr. Timothy Murphy who, I believe, is your employee.  Mr. Joshua Mays who is also your employee and one with whom I have enjoyed many conversations regarding his admission to our order, is apparently the subject of suspicion regarding financial matters.  I readily admit that we had looked favorably upon his admission but that now, in light of Mr. Murphy’s disturbing communication, we have no alternative but to delay his admission at least until this accusation or insinuation is clarified.  

Perhaps it would be to our mutual advantage if you contacted me at my office.  If you know any more about the matter, and you care to share that information with me, I would be deeply appreciative.  

 

David Lonigan called Tim Murphy into his office and asked him if he had sent the enclosed letter.  Murphy denied it.

“Is this your signature?” Lonigan asked.

Murphy stared at the photocopy.  “It certainly looks like it, but I never sent this letter.”

“Well, let’s think about this.  You knew Joshua was applying to Saint Steven’s Retreat to join the Order of priests that runs the place.”

“We all did.”

“Tim, we learned about this on Saturday.  Until then we thought he was dreaming about surfing in Hawaii.  This letter was written this morning. What choice do I have but to believe the evidence right in front of my eyes. You don’t have the right to slander another person’s character. This is sleazy, Tim, sleazy.  I don’t want to fire you, but I’ll talk to my superiors.  Why did you have to mention FNN in your letter?  Well, who knows why people do stupid things.  Sorry… but the best I can do right now is to tell you to be prepared to accept dismissal. Send Joshua in here on your way out.”

Joshua, prepared with his lotion-infused handkerchief, smiled broadly as he entered Lonigan’s office.  After hearing what his boss had to say, he affected a look of consternation and then horror.  “My priesthood is over,” he cried.  “After this, no one will accept me.”

 

“I’m going to talk to Father Pulaski right now.  I’m going to tell him that I think it’s the work of a prankster.  I’ll also suggest that you call him.  Meanwhile, take the rest of the day off.  I’m really sorry that this has happened.  Don’t worry.  I’ll get to the bottom of  it.  Ask Charlene to come in here.”

Charlene Cottone had been wondering whether something was wrong.  Her parents were supposed to return on Wednesday, but instead had come back Monday night.  Someone had let them know that she had taken the sloop out with a blonde haired guy her age and had looked very chummy with him.  But she did not know this and so she sat in the chair in front of Lonigan’s desk with an imperial air… flaunting her unspoken name,  Cottone…  which Lonigan respected.  He knew that her family was well-connected.  There was also a story about her great-grandfather being convicted of Income Tax Invasion but had never given a fact or a name to the Feds not even in exchange for sentence leniency. He belonged to a sacred fraternity and in another time and in another place he would have been canonized.  Her grandfather was equally venerated.

He seemed to be almost fawning when he asked, “What do you know about stealing or any financial shenanigans going on in this office?”

“If I knew that something funny was going on, I’d have gone directly to my father or my uncles.  Since I didn’t go to anyone, the answer is obvious.  I know nothing.”

He thanked her for coming in and said that that was all he wanted to know.

Charlene boldly stopped at Tim’s counter.  “Something’s going on.  Maybe that’s why my folks came home a day early.  I don’t know what it is.  I’ll find out and let you know.”

*

Joshua went directly to Rick’s house.  “How much of my money am I going to get to keep?” he asked.

“Since you need to get out of sight while simultaneously maintaining the reputation for being religious, the price tag is still 5K for Abbot Jy Shao; two for Father Joe Pulaski, one for me.  That leaves you two thousand.  And you’re not out of the woods yet, you greedy boy.  If anyone of those cashiers doesn’t identify Tim, you can be considered a suspect. Someone may have reason to suspect you.  If you’re in a cloistered order, they’ll be less inclined to consider you. Too much trouble over a mere 30K. Right now I’d suggest that you study as much Zen Buddhism as you possibly can. Joe has heard that the topic of the next commentary chess game is going to be either the Gospel of Thomas, or Nagarjuna’s poem about Nirvana and the Nirvana section of the Lankavatara, or the nature of Absolute Reality. Does any of this ring a bell?”

“I’ve never even heard of the Buddhist stuff. Or the Thomas Gospel, either.  Matthew, Mark, John and Luke, that’s all I’ve ever heard about.”

“There are controversies about all the selections.  I don’t know which one or which side the Zen abbot will take – but you can rest assured that the idiots out there will question you about it.  There’s a copy of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi collection on the kitchen table; and the Lankavatara is there, too.  Start reading it and then after lunch, call Joe. Maybe he’ll know by then whether the Monseigneur is going to do Thomas, Nagarjuna, or the Lanka.”

“Jesus…”  Joshua went into the kitchen, sat down, and began to try to understand what the words meant.

 

Part 11 Aaron and Stella

 

If judging the relationship between two people in public depends largely upon their mutual civility and respectfulness, then the comity exhibited between Aaron and Rebecca Weitzman could serve as a model for the American traveler.  He placed her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment; he gave her the window seat that she wanted but had been assigned to him; he stood up and moved out into the aisle when she got up to go to the bathroom.  She did not have to squeeze by him to get into the aisle or even ask him to guard the pillow she had rented for two dollars until she returned.  He automatically put his hand upon the pillow lest someone from the seat before or behind should reach around and grab it, an unfortunate act of theft common among today’s flying public.  She said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” whenever such acknowledgements were appropriate and he grunted the obligatory, “My pleasure.”  They did not disturb each other for the twenty-five hundred miles they flew west.  And their decorous behavior would indeed have been held up as a model of well-bred young Americans were it not for the fact that they were honeymooners who seemed never to have met before.

Their civil silence continued on after they checked into the Mandalay Bay Hotel and were conducted to their rooms.  Aaron had brought only one suitcase, but Rebecca had brought three.  A bride did have to appear fashionable, even down to poolside fashions that featured shawls and such to hide her burned breasts.  Needless to say, she had no intention of going into the water.

Aaron called Arnold Goldman who had thought they’d meet the following day, but when Aaron said that they had nothing planned but brunch and were free for the rest of the day, Arnold agreed to bring Michelle and meet them for brunch at Mandalay Bay.

Michelle proved to be the most solicitous of their health. “You’re doing the smart thing, avoiding the pool on your first day.  A bad sunburn can ruin your entire honeymoon.”

Rebecca agreed. “We’d just as soon see your wonderful used car lot,” she said. “Aaron and I are both excited about the prospect.  First things first!” She suspected that Aaron would prefer to be with them than be stuck with her alone, and in this suspicion she was not incorrect.

“That’s what I like to hear!” Arnold said as he nodded to the waiter to present the bill to Aaron.  “Enthusiasm! That’s what counts!” He stood up, “I’ll tell you what.  We’re all the way back in non-valet parking, so why don’t we go get the Lincoln and meet you guys out front?”

“Wonderful,” Rebecca said.  “It’ll give me a chance to go to the little girl’s room.”

Arnold drove the Lincoln all the way north on the Strip until they turned off to stop at his house, a split level that had a kidney shaped swimming pool.  The furniture was modern and completely lacked a woman’s touch. Rebecca, though having appreciated Michelle’s concern about the ruining effects of sunburn on a honeymooning agenda, immediately made a mental list of her girlfriends who would be interested since obviously Arnold would never marry a shiksa like Michelle. No, he’d want a quality Jewish girl, and Rebecca knew dozens of them.

After viewing the house, they went to see Arnold’s used car lot.  His secretary made hazelnut coffee for them, but after praising it, they ran out of things to say.  The lack of affection between Aaron and Rebecca contributed to the awkward silences.  Finally, Arnold had an idea. “There’s a guy next door that rents off-road vehicles. I’ve got a pickup truck that’ll hold two three-wheelers in the truck bed.  We could rent a couple of them and go out to see real desert.  I never get past the parts of the city they’re developing.”

The girls would have preferred to go to the Mall, but Rebecca wanted to make amends with Aaron.  She also did not want to explain the red mark on her chest that might be noticed if she tried on garments while shopping. “I’d love to learn more about the desert,” she said brightly.  “I’ve heard they have a polygamy city not far from here.  I’d like to see that, but I understand that they don’t let you get close to it.”

“We could always try our luck at the tables,” Michelle said.

But Aaron had projected the cost of the hotel bills and quickly declined.  Arnold Goldman said, “Me, too.  I’m game for anything besides those of chance.”  He did not add that he had lost a year’s salary at the tables the previous month – a fact not appreciated by his father who was technically his employer.  “Why don’t we try those All-Terrain-Vehicles,” he said.  “We’ve all got driver’s licenses, haven’t we?”  He looked around and everyone nodded affirmatively. “The seat’s for one, but I won’t tell if you won’t tell.  Yep. Two explorers on a cycle,” he said, “like a snowmobile without the discomforts of snow.” He looked at Rebecca. “If your bride is comfortable with it?”  Rebecca was.  She had noticed a subtle change in her husband’s demeanor when they looked at Arnold’s house and the used car lot.  She correctly supposed that Aaron would not be particularly inclined to invite her parents to their home, and putting twenty-five hundred miles between households, would certainly offer a natural limit to such unpleasant visits.   Yes, distance was written into her formula for happiness.  Then, too, shotgun weddings have different names but they all mean the same thing: the groom had to be forced to marry the bride.  She didn’t want to face her relatives when the baby was born “early.”

The desert.  Cholla cactus has yellow flowers. Prickly pear has red.  Diamondback rattlesnakes bite to kill. Scorpions are the big ones that make you wish you were someone else for an hour or two but are not considered poisonous.  Blackwidow spiders are notorious for biting people on the bare behind in outhouses.  The spiders for some reason favor the underside of the seat.  They too, will make a person regret that one particular bowel movement for years to come, but they are not considered life threatening.

Aaron and Rebecca Blumenthal Weitzman had approximately the same degree of knowledge of the desert as Arnold and Michelle had, which is to say none. No sane person would go into the desert in July unless he absolutely had to. There was no GPS indicator in the old pickup and they had to receive directions from an old map.  Evidently there was a secret race track, the Gatlingsburg Track, that Nellis airmen used for sport… a family track which ATVs – the three-wheeled off-road vehicles – shared days of the week with their four-wheeled counterparts.  Tuesday was a 3-wheeler day.  Going n orth would take them towards Utah on one side and Area 51 on the other.  This was particularly tempting.  They headed North and got lost in Lincoln County.

They parked the pickup on one of the dirt roads they had taken on whims, as if trying to follow half-eaten Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs.  They did not realize that the desert, for all its seemingly unique features, was as confusingly same as an islandless ocean.   Arnold was driving. “We turned left and then at the first left we turned on it,” he said defensively, “and then at the next intersection we turned right and then every time we came to a road of any kind we turned left and we should have gotten to the Gatlingsburg Track.”  He checked the gas gauge.  “This is crazy.  Desert is desert.  We’re probably right around the corner from it and we’ll find it as we drive. Sorry, guys.  But we need to conserve gas. Let’s get the ATVs out now and ride around to see what we can find.”

They parked and the two men lowered the tarp-covered 3-wheeled all-terrain vehicles from the truck bed.  It had taken longer to get to where they thought they were than they had figured, and they had only brought (despite the pointed suggestion of the rental agent that they take a few gallons of water each) a single 2 liter jug of water that they could hook onto a belt-loop.  They did have extra fluids… orangeade and two six packs of beer.  Michelle drank beer with them. Rebecca drank orange juice. She put her wallet into her shoulder bag; but because of the tightness of his jeans  and the awkward position of the water jug, Aaron left his wallet in the truck’s locked glove compartment.

“Desert is desert” they all agreed, without knowing any desert upon which they could form such an observation.  They drove in different directions looking for the Gatlingsburg Track – which was no where near them.  Arnold wanted more beer and Michelle, bored and uncomfortable on the seat behind him, wanted more beer, too.  Aaron began to laugh at some of the mistakes he made, and Rebecca, truly happy with the sudden detente, joined him in the good fun of bumps and ups and downs and arounds, stalling out and the relief of starting again. The thought occurred to her that it no longer really mattered if the bumpy ride caused a miscarriage.  It might, in fact, save her considerable embarrassment.  She acted as a cheerleader at a pep rally and urged Aaron to go even faster.

Arnold and Michelle sat in the truck and each drank two beers.  Time was passing. For the first thirty minutes they ran the air conditioning on and off; but then as they drank more and got sexually involved, they started the engine and let the air conditioning run full blast.  Now, in their second hour of waiting they lowered the air but left the motor running.  With the windows up and the air on, they put a Stones’ CD in the player and sang along with Mick.

*

An Indian woman stood statuesquely on a bluff, looking like the subject of a romanticized artwork that people would admiringly observe in a gallery; but out there in the real sun, wind, and dust, nobody was looking at her. She had crossed the top of the bluff from the side her trailer was on to the noisy side of the truck and the buzzing ATVs.  Intently, she watched Aaron and Rebecca recklessly ride through the desert.  She had also watched Arnold and Michelle when they, too, rode similarly through the brush; but they had driven back to a pickup truck parked on the road and had loaded their ATV in the truck bed. They were sitting in the cab with the windows up.  When they lowered a window to toss a cigarette butt out onto the dirt road she could faintly hear the music they were listening to.

She watched and heard Aaron and Rebecca buzzing and bouncing, and then turn out of sight. She neither saw them again nor heard the buzzing of their ATV.  All was quiet for about forty-five minutes, and then the pickup truck drove away.  It probably meant that the young man and woman on the ATV had deliberately gone out of sight for personal reasons and that the two in the pickup and gone for food or drink and would be back.  The nearest town, Kiddally, was a small cluster of houses, a gas station, a general store, and one restaurant cantina.  Most people drove farther into populated Ely; but no matter where the pickup truck had driven, she should have been able to see its returning dust trail; and after another half hour there was no indication at all that they were returning.

The Indian woman knew the area, and she knew that wherever the two on the ATV were, they were alone.  An hour was just too long to be left alone in the desert especially if they had encountered trouble.  She had seen all four of them at the start and it was evident that they were friends.  It made no sense at all to suppose that the pickup truck had abandoned the two on the ATV.  And yet, the truck’s absence made her uncomfortable.  She decided to descend the hill and take a look around the curve that the ATV had taken.  She knew that there was a dry wash around that curve and they might have had an accident driving into it.

Her name was Stella Buchanan, a Shoshone woman, and she had been asked to “step outside” the house trailer she lived in while the trailer’s owner and a friend of his – and an old admirer of Stella’s – discussed business. She then had climbed the bluff from the western side.  At the top she had only to walk a few meters to see the ATV’s riding around the eastern side.  Back at the trailer there was a large covered water trough that previously had been filled every two weeks by a water tanker.  The trough and seven new and clean galvanized trash cans Stella used for water storage would also be filled.  But the last delivery had not been made and Brant Chastain, the man she lived with, had brought her some water from town. She had learned a few months’ before that she was pregnant and the irritation he showed when being forced to deliver water to her, was writ large across the page of her expectations.  With premeditated gentleness he had advised her to get an abortion since they could no longer live in the Airstream parked outside of town.  He promised her that he’d be coming into money and that after they had the fresh start – which meant minus the baby – they could find a regular house in Ely.

At twenty-eight she thought she could see through any lie or any man’s manipulation to get her to do what he wanted; but this time, she felt anxious. Yes, the baby was his. She had had an amniocentesis test.  Surely he wouldn’t trick her into destroying his own baby boy.  When she was asked to leave the trailer so that he could talk with his friend and occasional business partner Paul Oteiza, she hoped that at least part of the business they were discussing had to do with real estate – any available homes that Paul knew about.  And then she heard the sound of racing motorcycles and had climbed the bluff to see who was foolish enough to be riding around the desert in the middle of a July day.

She watched Aaron and Rebecca scurry around on the ATV and she saw Arnold and Michelle return to the pickup.  “Greenhorns,” she said aloud, expecting that the truck’s engine would overheat and that the two on the ATV would have an accident. She repeatedly looked down at the one-room house trailer she lived in, looking for a sign that the business talk had concluded so that she could return.  It was getting too hot to remain up on the bluff, even if it was cooler there than it was down in the canyons. But the talk inside the trailer continued.

Stella, at twenty-eight, had not lived a quiet Indian maiden’s life.  At fourteen, she had given birth to twin boys, both of whom died within days of their delivery.  From that point on, the Indian curse of “twoness” followed her and she was considered a bad omen by the members of her Indian community.   The clinic nurse gave her shots every three months that kept her infertile, but did not protect her from the attempted sexual molestations of local men and boys. She gained a reputation for being nasty.  She had wanted to become an educated woman, and since she scored well in an IQ test, she was taken into the home of one of the tribal council elders to keep house, babysit, and take a rudimentary nursing course.  When she finished the course, the chief’s children had started school, and she parted amicably from the family.  But the nursing job she got required her to visit elderly patients at their homes, and all too often, randy male relatives of the patients would be waiting to let her into the house.  She refused to go into the homes of half a dozen clients. The council investigated her allegations and found them baseless.  Life in her community had suddenly become intolerable, and she moved on.

Without nursing references, she was able only to obtain work as a bartender at a cowboy’s saloon in Ely, and after a few uneventful years behind the bar, she met Brant Chastain and fell in love with him.  He said he loved her and let her live outside town in a small Airstream trailer he owned in Lincoln County. She had to quit her job and for a few months he stayed with her regularly, but then his visits became less frequent and now he was discussing a new life – minus the baby – a new and better place to live. When she climbed the bluff to let the men talk in private, she was also whispering prayers to old Indian gods to help her to choose the right path and to walk beside her when she took it. She learned the breathing techniques of a medieval Jewish mystic, and every few feet up the hill, she paused to inhale and slowly recite the proper prayers. The few months she had lived in Brant Chastain’s little house trailer were the happiest she had ever known in her life.  She was used to adversity.

Coming down the steep hill required total concentration and she did not pray.  She considered that she might be walking in on two people who were making love.  Maybe they had packed an awning of some kind.  Well, then, she’d apologize and return to the trailer.  It was much too hot to continue to stay outside.

Aaron had been driving fast, too fast for conditions, conditions that he did not know.  He turned a corner without knowing that a dry wash had disfigured the land, scarring it by a meter’s deep gouge.  On foot, they could have jumped down onto the narrow sandy bed.  But they were not on foot, and to people speeding on an off-road vehicle, the plunge had the force of ten storeys.  Down they were flung… momentum… gravity…  centrifugal force…  The front wheel of the vehicle hit the sandy flat of the dry wash and dug in, but the vehicle’s rear kept going… making an arc fron which Rebecca was flung over Aaron’s head. She landed face-first on a rock on the other side of the narrow wash.  Her broken teeth scattered like so much confetti over a group of barrel cactuses.  Her death was as instantaneous as a broken neck’s could be.  Aaron was flung too. And as he tried to brace himself as he landed, he broke his right arm and wrist as they twisted in the vehicle’s handle bar, and had a left hand and the left side of his face punctured with cholla spines. His sunglasses had fortunately protected his eyes.

He tried to get up, but something – he did not know what – had also been broken in his ankle. He also could not lean on his left hand to push himself up.  He therefore put his left hand up to his mouth and tried to remove the cholla barbs from his hand.  Six bloody marks remained as though he had removed six fishing hooks from his hand.  But he could use his hand.  Unfortunately, the broken ankle was on the same side as the broken arm and if he had been able to use a crutch… well, that was wishful thinking.

He tried to crawl to Rebecca, pushing his way across the sand towards her.  He had never seen a dead person before… not up close with her teeth and lips smashed and her jaw distorted by the fracture.  He reached up and grabbed her sleeve and pulled on it, and her head fell back and then rolled around to the side, facing him, upside down.  Her bloody, mangled lower face was grotesque; yet, under the confusing influence of his own head injury, he thought it odd that her head was like a hoola hoop… or something that was attached to her body by a rubber band.   He got out his cellphone, but there was no signal.  He unzipped her little shoulder bag purse and tried her cell.  Nothing.  He was sure she was dead but maybe he was wrong. “I’ve got to get her to a doctor,” he thought.  A doctor would know.  In the noon day sun she did not turn cold since the ambient temperature was higher than normal body temperature.  With his good or at least usable hand he was able to grab a piece of the rear-view mirror that had broken off.  He held it under her nose and could see no sign of life.  Oddly, he did not feel pain in his right arm and for a long moment did not notice that his arm was broken and that under the mangled muscle, skin, and torn shirt, white bone showed.   He thought he could use the mirror to signal someone. He flashed the mirror a few times in the sunlight, but there was no one to signal.  Where were Arnold and Michelle?  Were they looking for them?

There was a beeping horn on his cycle.  He’d try to use it.  He tried to get to the left hand controls of the vehicle to find the horn button.  It was useless. The horn did not work. He could barely touch the handle bar.  The sun, in just a few minutes, had already heated the metal.  He looked around for shade of any kind.  But there was no shade.  He drank the water that remained in his jug and he drank Rebecca’s water too. He did not realize the extent of his right arm’s injury until he felt the wetness of blood.  Suddenly he saw that he was losing blood and he had no way to stop it. He needed to make a tourniquet.  He didn’t wear a belt… maybe Rebecca’s shoulder bag’s strap.  He pulled the bag away from her and then to pull the bag’s looping strap around his arm and raise it to his upper arm.  Then he began to turn the bag over and over, effecting the strap’s twisting.  It finally became tight at a point in his upper arm just above the break to squeeze off the blood flow. He lay his body on the bag to maintain the twist’s tension.  Satisfied that he had made a suitable tourniquet, he studiously looked at the protruding white bone and was, for a reason he did not understand, fascinated by it.  His fascination continued.  He spoke to himself and felt cold.  “You are getting light-headed… probably from loss of blood. Maybe this is what they call ‘going into shock.’   Aaron, will you lose your arm?  God knows what you did to your insides.  Where is Arnold?”  He had not taken notice of the time that they got on the three-wheeler.  He looked at his smashed watch and licked blood from its cracked glass face so that he could read it.  The hands were twisted into uselessness.  Where was Arnold?  Was it possible that he had just left them there?

Aaron listened but could hear no motorcycle motor or the pickup truck’s engine, either. He looked up at the glare that was the sky.  Little by little his eyes closed.  He remembered his mother saying that Rebecca had deliberately gotten pregnant to entrap him. He had responded simply, “We’re all in God’s hands.”  It surprised him that he had so quickly gotten used to the baby.  Yes, he’d like having a baby.  Rebecca would have been different away from her family. She was a good kid, he thought.  A person can’t blame another person for loving him.  He suddenly realized that he couldn’t remember what she had looked like in her white bridal gown.  And she was dead. And then an ugly thought occurred to him.  I’m dying and nobody gives a shit. A bitter realism suffused his thoughts.  All they were interested in was using me.  Can I speak Spanish?  Sure… so I could work my ass off outdoors in 112 degree heat. They’ll never get a dealership. Who are they kidding?  If it had been such a great job Arnold wouldn’t have flown all the way east to offer a job to an inexperienced idiot like me.  There’d have been a line of applicants.  Rebecca wanted to move there because she was pregnant and she wanted to see the shows and have her own swimming pool.  Arnold had one.  He lived in a nice house. Uncle Benny said that Armold’s father actually owned the house.  Arnold hadn’t told them that.  Where was Arnold?   Where was he?  Where was…  Where… He thought he heard someone coming and tried to raise himself to look.  As he did, he released the tension on the twisted tourniquet strap. He groaned. He could see nothing but glare. Nobody was there. His last coherent thought was, “I’m dying… and it’s all my fault.  God help me.  God help…  God…”

As Stella descended the bluff, Paul Oteiza had concluded the meeting and had gone outside the trailer.  Seeing Paul, she waved to him, signaling him to come over.  He walked nearly a quarter mile through the sage and yucca and met her just as she approached the accident scene.  “She’s a goner,” Stella Buchanan called, pointing at Rebecca. “I can see from here her neck’s broken.”

She approached Aaron.  “He looks dead, too.  Hey Buddy!”  She tapped Aaron’s face.  “You still in there?  Jesus, look at this blood.” She touched Aaron’s throat. “I don’t think he’s got a pulse.”  She held up her hand to indicate that Paul shouldn’t move.  “No. I think I feel a weak pulse.”  She carefully lifted his head so that he could drink some water from the canteen she had carried on her hip. His lips seemed to be glued shut with dried saliva. “Come on,” she coaxed Aaron, using the canteen’s lip to pry his lips apart.  “Come on.  Drink a little.”  She poured some water against his teeth.   He opened his mouth enough to take several sips.  She lay his head down and removed her scarf and rolled it tightly and then tied it around his upper right arm to make a tourniquet.

Paul Oteiza got out his cell phone and got no signal.  “Hold his head up so he don’t choke,” he unnecessarily warned Stella. “and give him more water. Can’t pour water in the mouth of a prostrate man.  You’ll choke him.” He pulled her aside and lowered his voice, “Make sure you keep him alive… you know how they hate it when you ask them to save a dead man.”  He stood up and held the cellphone above his head.  “No signal. I’ll go back to the trailer and use my CB radio or Brant’s satellite phone. Keep workin’ on him.  I’ll drive the truck here as far back as I can.” He could see Brant’s truck leave a dust trail on the road.  “Brant’s gone,” he said, “and he’d have taken his sat phone with him.”  He turned to jog back to his truck. She called after him, “It wouldn’t hurt to bring that cattle syringe Brant keeps in the cabinet. I’m O positive.”

Paul Oteiza shouted back, “I’m B.  See if you can find out what type he is.”

Stella cradled Aaron’s head in her arm and gently held the water to his lips.  “Come on,” she said, “You can do it.  Open your mouth and drink a little more.”  She kept looking towards the trailer hoping to see Paul Oteiza’s truck wind its way through the brush.

The largest population of Basques outside of Spain live in Nevada, and Paul Oteiza was a descendant of one of the first families who had settled there. At seventy, he was no longer as strong or as quick as he once had been, but he did no less work than he had always done.  And he felt no less attracted to Stella than he had when he first met her when he was sixty.

Paul got through to the sheriff’s department in Las Vegas.

“You’re in Lincoln County,” the voice slowly responded.

“I think I know where I am,” Paul said, irritated by the lack of urgency.  “Get an ambulance up to the county line.  We’ll meet you there.”

“That’s a big county line and a distance of… sat… 150 miles,” the voice replied. “It’s gonna take a few hours.”

“At 93, Goddamit, at 93 and the county line!  It’s gonna take us some time to get him there. He’s got some major injuries. Major! If he’s taken into Ely he’ll only have to be transported down to you.  So let’s skip the middleman. You come and send your best paramedics.  There’s another one, a woman, who’s dead.  But the living one is gonna need specialized care. Send a helicopter if you can. We’re about ten miles north of the line, at Brant Chastain’s Airstream. Just be quick!”

He went into the trailer, picked up the syringe, a bottle of alcohol, a dog’s leather leash to use as a tourniquet, and a couple of towels and tossed them into his truck and drove back to the accident scene. Stella was still giving Aaron sips of water.  She held her left arm out to Paul and continued to try to give Aaron water.

Paul looked at Aaron. “Ain’t nothin’ but a miracle gonna save this boy.”  He spoke gently to Aaron as he tightened the dog leash around her upper arm and then, finding a likely vein to use, inserted the 16 gauge needle into her elbow pit and slowly began to fill the 60cc syringe.  “Now son, I don’t know who you are and I’m not even sure you’re alive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”  He looked at Stella. “It’s been years since I did this in Nam, but I think I remember enough.”  Turning again to Aaron, he asked, “Do you renounce Satan and his minions?  Do you repent all your sins?  Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God?  If you repent your sins give me a sign.”

Aaron heard the voice but he did not understand the words. Do you something…  And can you tell…  Aaron’s eyes fluttered.

“What’s your name, son?” he asked.

Aaron tried to speak. “Ar… o…”  He closed his eyes and turned his head.

“He’s likely to say something crazy,” she said.

Paul tied the leather leash around Aaron’s upper left arm and tapped for a vein.  Finding one he inserted the needle and loosened the leash. “Son,” he said, “this lovely lady has O positive blood and that’s the universal doner.  I’ve got B and if you’ve got B and can give me a sign, you can have some of my blood, too.”  As Stella continued to give Aaron water, Paul injected the blood into his arm.

Stella spoke with the medical authority of her old nursing training. “You’ll need seven more to make a pint.  My antecubital area is going to look like a pin cushion.”  She rolled a rock under Aaron’s head to act as a pillow and again held out her arm so that Paul could repeat the blood withdrawal while she continued to give Aaron water. She found it necessary to coax him. “Take a sip!  Please… try to take a drink! Thirst isn’t like it is in the movies.  Thirst makes a man crazy.  Stay with us. Drink!”

Aaron felt the water run over his swollen tongue.  Vaguely he wondered why his tongue should swell when it was dehydrating.  He took another swallow and then another.

“You say your name is Aro like in Harold?”  Paul withdrew the syringe from Stella’s arm and while she tightened the leash on Aaron’s upper arm, Paul tapped for a vein and finding one, he inserted the second 60 cc’s of blood into the crook of his arm and released the tourniquet. “All right, Harold,.” he said,. “We’re using a veterinary syringe we use for shooting steers with hormones.”  He tried to humor him as he finished injecting the blood and turned to apply the dog-leash tourniquet to Stella’s arm.  “But don’t worry. We won’t inject you with ’em.”

Aaron had a momentary flash of consciousness. Arnold had probably gotten help.

Paul again asked as he cleaned a place on Aaron’s left arm, “Do you repent your sins and reject Satan and all his minions?”

“Ye… yea,” Aaron said, slipping in and out of consciousness.

Paul Oteiza poured a little water from his canteen on Aaron’s head.  “I baptize thee, Harold, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”   He spoke nervously to Stella. “Name’s Harold.  Hold him up.”

He turned again to Aaron and repeated, “Now Harold, if you can still hear me, Stella here’s got O positive blood and that’s the universal donor.  So I’m trying to help you with her blood.”  He repeated, “I know I got B blood and if you got B blood, you can get some from me too. So if you can, please, please try to tell me what type you have.”

Nothing.  Stella lifted Aaron’s head again and held out her arm.

“Ain’t much for sterile technique around here,” Paul said, slowly emptying the syringe into  Aaron’s left arm.  “Hope our cows ain’t got the anthrax.”  This was said as a joke but Aaron did not understand what was being said to him.

Paul loosened the tourniquet Stella had applied to his right arm. “I gotta let some blood get down to your right hand. I’ll tighten it in another minute.”  He waited, and then he completed the total of eight 60cc syringes of blood taken from Stella and injected into Aaron.

Stella held his head and gave him more water. “Stay with us, Harold.  I know you’re hurtin’ but we’re a very long way from help. Keep trying to drink.”

The water felt strange in his mouth.  He swallowed.   He opened his eyes and saw nothing but white glare.  He heard Paul say, “We gave you blood the hard way.” He did not know what that meant.

“That pint ain’t enough blood,” Paul said to Stella, “but it’ll have to do.  Let’s get him to the county line.” He took off his shirt and tossed it to her.  “See of you can made a sling for his arm.”

Aaron’s eyes opened but he said nothing. Stella spoke softly to him, “Don’t worry about your lady friend. We’ll send the state police out here to get her.”  She wanted to keep him conscious. “You’re lucky we found you.  Lucky, too, that you’re not one of them BLM thugs.  Damned if any of us would give you a single cc of our blood then.”  As she put the sling around his neck and arm she noticed Rebecca’s jewelry.  She lowered Aaron and turned to pull the rings off Rebecca’s finger and put them inside the bloody purse, zipping it closed. “Her rings are in her bag. I’ll bring them along.”

“Let’s get him into the truck.  She tied the corners of the towels together to make a long hammock-like sling, and they slowly picked up Aaron and lay him on the towels.  Then they carried him to the truck and Paul got into the truck and lifted him into the passenger’s seat which he had reclined as far as it would go.  Stella got into the truck and squatted on the floor between the dashboard and Aaron’s feet.  They proceeded over the bumpy desert until they came to the road and then continued on to the county line.

Aaron again opened eyes and looked around but saw nothing.  Stella tried again to say something funny about the BLM. to keep him awake.   Aaron still did not know what BLM meant; but he smiled a little in acknowledgement.  “Michelle and Arnold?” he whispered.

“I think they’re safe, Harold,” Stella said. “You and your lady Rebecca were out there alone… and I for one don’t know why you were there alone.  Save your strength.” She continued to talk, trying to keep Aaron conscious since the paramedics would have questions that needed to be answered. When Aaron didn’t respond, Paul tried.

“I’m an old Viet Nam vet.  But that was before your time.  I was lookin for strays and dropped in to talk to an old friend, and God and this beautiful Gal led me to you… like you was on a battlefield… and we were the medics trying to get you into heaven instead of the hell we was all headin’ for in that god-awful place.  I’m a desert rat.  I won’t even go to Florida.  The sight of palm trees sickens me,” he rambled on.  “I like the ones at Furnace Creek and Scotty’s Castle… but the rest of them can fall off the face of the earth.”  He could hear the ambulance’s siren in the distance.  Aaron heard it, too; and he sighed, relieved to slip into unconsciousness.

Stella told the medic what they had done and that she’d notify the state police about where the dead woman was. “What’s his religion?” the medic asked. “He looks bad.  Any I.D.?”

“No… nothin.” Stella answered.  ‘The woman’s name is Rebecca Blumenthal. Sorry we couldn’t bring her body back.  I’ll show the coroner where it is… or the buzzards will.” She handed the medic the purse.  “Her wallet’s in it and so are her diamond rings so be careful with the stuff.”

The medic quickly looked to verify the presence of the wallet and rings.

Paul Oteiza helped to transfer Aaron onto the ambulance’s collapsible gurney. “Maybe you can find out who he is through her family.  He’s Roman Catholic.  Harold something. No I.D. or jewelry on hin.  A smashed watch that we left at the scene.  But I saw that the ATV was rented in North Las Vegas.”

“He’s gonna need an orthopod,” the medic said, closing the doors.  Aaron was listening, but he understood nothing.  He wondered what an orthopod was.  He opened his eyes for a moment.  He had been loaded into an ambulance and people were sticking needles in him. Nothing else registered.

 

 

Part 12:   Aaron

 

“Paul Oteiza brought you in,” said the nurse.  “He’s one of those renegade Basque shepherds who raise cattle.”  She was trying to be light hearted in a gossipy way. He did not understand what she was saying. “You’ve been through a lot.  Father Salazar was in to see you.  He prayed over you for a couple of hours last night.  Night before was Sister Mary Isabel.  We didn’t know who you were until your wife’s body was recovered yesterday afternoon and we notified her parents in Philadelphia. The delay was due to being in another county and the need to match her with the description in the purse.  Paper work.   Her driver’s license listed her maiden name.  I can tell you that she died instantly.  We are so sorry for your loss.”

Aaron tried to put the words together, but the drugs he had been given refused to let him think.  The syllables he heard did not form words much less intelligible sentences.  “Rebecca. Yes, my wife.”  Where is she? he wondered.

The nurse continued. “Your parents are on their way… well, they’ll be here tomorrow.  Philadelphia time is three hours ahead of us and it was pretty late yesterday for them when we finally got to talk to them.  Her parents too will be here to identify her body.  It’s in the morgue.  I’m sorry for your loss.”

Aaron looked at his left hand and saw a rosary dangling over white bandages.  He saw that at the end of the string of beads there was a Crucifix.  The nurse saw him looking at it. As if to answer his unspoken question, she said, “Sister Mary Isabel left it for you when you were brought in on Tuesday;  She sat up with you all Tuesday night in the ICU.  Praying.  I can tell you, it didn’t hurt.  We had to move you out of the ICU this morning. We needed the room and you needed more surgery anyway.  There was a real bad accident on I15.”  She finished her examination. “So Harold, you did well in surgery and your vital signs are provin’ it.” She checked the bandages that held the needles in the veins on top of his left hand. “You were one busted up guy! We thought we’d surely lose you.” She assumed a conspiratorial air and said jokingly. “I think the Devil himself wanted to take you with him Tuesday night, but Sister Mary Isabel’s prayers drove him away.  Whew!  That woman can pray up a tornado!”

Aaron slid in and out of thought.  What day is it?  Wednesday? Thursday?  I had the accident on Tuesday.  Aaron picked us up at the Mandalay right after we got here.  Rebecca is dead.  How did I get in here?  What day is it?  Monday?

Go to Issue #4

The Money Lender (#2)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

If you haven’t read the previous issues click here

Part 5:   Joshua

 

Joshua Mays struggled with having to look hopeful.  He remembered to smile as he waited on the customers he detested, which accounted for most of them.

Tim Murphy, while socially shy, was sincerely friendly with the customers.  Many would even let someome get ahead of them so that they could have Tim for a cashier. Providentially, as if to verify this – and make Joshua’a attempt to seem friendly even more difficult – a client named Stanley Tinker declined to go to Joshua’s window and to wait instead for Tim to be available.  Stanley Timker suspected all humanity of mocking his name. He had a leg deformity and knew nothing about sports; and he grew up in Brooklyn where the Dodgers played. He become known as “Stinker Tinker” pronounced as “Stinka Tinka.”   But he later heard about Tinker to Evers to Chance which meant nothing to him because he didn’t know a ground ball from a pop fly. Yet when he came into the FNN CCC office Tim would say, “Wait a minute! You’re not Evers and you’re not Chance! You must be the good one…  Tinker!  Best shortstop the world has ever known!”  And Tinker would laugh and say, “Sorry No relation.”  And then Tim would counter, “Well, I can see the way you sign your name, you’re good with your hands and you’d have made a great shortstop.”  Mr. Tinker always felt as though he had been elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame when he left the office.  The FNN CCC had no clients named Jeter, Ripkin, or Banks.

Charlene would smile, much too openly, or even eaves-drop a laugh, when Tim’s customers said something that was particularly nice or clever to him; but each nice remark made Joshua despise him more for “playing up” to them, for “being so hard-up for friends” that he’d stoop “to get buddy-buddy with losers.”  But now that religion was upon him, Joshua was forced to chime in, “And Tinker was a great hitter, too!”   He quietly photocopied a document Tim Murphy had signed, folded it and put it in his coffee-table book about the Early Popes which he prominently displayed. He left a white paper pad upside down on Tim Murphy’s desk and Murphy obliged by picking up the pad and putting it on Josh’s desk.  At lunch, Josh drove to Ex-Father Rick’s house to give him the pad and the photocopy.

The good ex-priest turned the signature upside down and practiced copying it until it was impossible to tell the real signature from his copy.  He put on latex gloves and typed the following letter on an old Royal typewriter into which he had inserted a new ribbon:

 

To Whom It May Concern At Saint Steven’s Retreat:

 

It has come to my attention that a person named Joshua Mays intends to apply to your seminary to be admitted as a novice.   I will not name at this time any particular criminal act that I have reason to suspect Mr. Mays of committing; but I am offering my sincere opinion that the Roman Catholic faith would not be served by having someone who is presently under suspicion for financial irregularities at the Friend-N-Need Check Cashing Company which is located near Nellis Air Force Base. I attend Mass regularly at Saint Gregory’s and you may contact any priest there to vouch for my integrity.

(signed)  Timothy Murphy

 

Then he selected an envelope from a new batch he had just purchased. He burned the rest of the envelopes and the white pad.  Then he burned the new typewriter ribbon, replaced the old, looked through the type to see any peculiariities, and with an emery board he accentuated the irregularities and made a few new ones and with a tapping hammer readjusted several letters that appeared to be a millimeter below the others. Still not satisfied, he rubbed some black stamp pad refill ink over the keys and swiped a cloth over them, leaving the “o” and the closed loops of the “b” and “e” filled with what appeared to be old residual ribbon ink.  He turned on a vacuum cleaner and opened the dust bag so that a cloud of dust settled on the old machine.  “Semper Paratus,” he said by way of offering an explanation as he shoved the typewriter into a closet.

When Joshua arrived after work, Rick let him see the letter.  Then, using a wet cotton ball Rick sealed the stamp and the envelope, and still wearing his latex gloves, dropped the envelope into a plastic bag.  He then put the leash on his dog Bruno, and he, Josh, and Bruno walked to the farthest post office he could comfortably find… some ten blocks… and mailed the letter.

“Let us return to my domicile,” he said, “and I will teach you some ecclesiastical techniques I acquired in seminary school.”

 

*

 

“Do you like to sail?” Charlene whispered as she passed Tim’s counter.

“Never been” he wrote on a pad and let her read it as she returned to her counter.

“Sunday, after Mass.  Lake Mead Marina.  11 a.m.”

Tim giggled.  “Date,” he wrote back.

He bought new jeans and a horizontally striped navy blue and white long-sleeved T shirt. “Ahoy” he said as he entered the Marina and saw her sitting on a barstool, waiting for him.

“Aye, Captain,” she smiled, dropping her feet to the floor.  “I sure hope you know how to sail.”

“The only knot I know how to make I tie my shoes with.  Am I qualified?”

“Over-qualified for this rig,” she said, slipping her arm through his.  “Do me a favor and don’t let us get drowned.  My parents are away until Wednesday.  They’re supposed to be having the time of their lives at some big reunion.  The news that I am dead will not amuse them.”

“I do know how to swim,” Tim said.  “In fact, I was on my College swim team.”

“Michael Phelps!  I’m dating Michael Phelps!”

Tim grabbed her waist playfully and pulled her to him for just a moment as they walked to the slip that berthed the 31 foot sloop, The Cozy Nostril.  The name embarrassed Charlene.

“I’m gonna lay it right out for ya’, Tim.  I come from what the nicer papers call “a colorful family.’  If you don’t want to associate with me, I understand.  You can say that it doesn’t matter, but if your family has lived in this valley for more than ten minutes they will have heard of my great-grandfather and my grandfather and though we’re all legitimate now… surgeons, dentists, real estate agents, restauranteurs… they’ll remember the Cottone name and they won’t be happy about you hanging out with one of “that bunch.”

“When I put my arm around you,” Tim said quietly, “do I have to squeeze them into the loop?”

“No,” Charlene said, and inexplicably she burst into tears and put her face against his blue and white striped shirt.  He held her tightly and kissed her hair while she sobbed for a few minutes.  “You can’t imagine how relieved I am.”  She looked up at him and he laughed.

“You look like a raccoon,” he said.  “That black stuff you put on your eyelashes has made black circles under your eyes.”  He took out his pocket handkerchief and leaned over the side of the dock to dip it in the water that was at the moment filled with the gaping mouths of carp that lived around the marina.

“No!” Charlene squealed.  “That water is filthy.  Use the bottled water we have in the fridge on board.”

“Our first fight,” said Tim.  “How am I ever going to confess this?”

Charlene giggled. “This kind of fight is no sin.” And then she added in an odd voice, “Not if you really understand sin.”  With her foot, she tapped a metal object on the deck to which the ship was tied, “This is a cleat.  Watch how I untie the line.”

There was only one sail to raise and once it was up and they moved according to the outboard motor and then to the wind’s will, they settled together at the wheel.  “I also think you should be aware that the trouble ahead may not come only from your side.  My people do not like outsiders.  And someone named Murphy is definitely an outsider.”

“Then let’s not bother with people named Cottone or Murphy.  You can be Elizabeth I and I can be Napoleon. Though separated by time, we are also free of close relatives.”

“And language,” she added, turning up her face hoping, but failing, to get the shy Napoleon Murphy to kiss her.  She smiled inwardly.  Charlene Cottone did not lack confidence.

 

Part 6  Aaron

 

At the Sunday afternoon wedding ceremony and reception, Uncle Benny introduced Aaron to Arnold Goldman, the son of his friend.  “Arnold’s got a big used car lot in Las Vegas and is making money hand over fist,” he explained to the small gathering of people that stood near Aaron and Rebecca.  “He’s in the market for a Ford dealership and needs a good salesman, somebody he can trust, to take over the used car lot when he gets that dealership.”  Aaron and Arnold shook hands and then left the group so that they could speak privately.

Uncle Benny had vouched for Aaron, a recommendation that freed Aaron from feeling that he was abandoning his uncle. He vouched for Arnold, too.  Selling used cars was not exactly a step up from selling new junk appliances, and Aaron knew that he’d still get complaints.  Poor didn’t mean stupid, Aaron had learned, but it did usually mean ignorant. He wondered if customers interpreted the pity in his eyes as an assurance of his concern for them.  Whatever it was, he was a good salesman.  He liked people.  And when he talked to Arnold Goldman, the two of them got on well.  He’d learn the used car business while he went to school at night, and then he’d either take over the lot or move on to the dealership. He liked Arnold’s girlfriend Michelle Morgan, too. Nobody else did.  “She really does live in a trailer-house,” Rebecca confided.

“When are you going back to Vegas? Aaron asked Arnold.

“We’re taking the red eye out tonight.  And you?”

“We’re leaving on Tuesday. Vegas for our honeymoon!  I’ll be glad to talk to you more about the position when we get there.  We’ve got a few appointments here in town tomorrow that we can’t break. The Blumenthals are taking us to see a real estate agent – I think they want us to look at houses – they’re trying to keep us here – and we need to open a joint bank account for the money gifts; and get life insurance policies. So we’ll get there on Tuesday around brunch, Vegas time.”

“Call me when you get in town and I’ll show you around and we can both give the move some thought.  I think it’ll work out… but you never can tell.  You or your bride may not like living in the desert.”

“How do you take the heat? We see the temperature on the morning news and it seems oppressive.”

“To be honest, I’m a New York City boy, myself.  And out in Nevada… and I caution you now not to pronounce Nevada as ne-vah-dah.  You are not permitted to say that  “a” as anyting but the “a” in “at” – the locals really get chapped if you do.  Anyway, in Nuh-va-duh I go from an air conditioned home to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned space in a garage parking area to an air conditioned office.  I’ve even stopped seeing customers outside in the afternoon in the summer.  One of my men has to sweat it out… the cars really heat up when they’re sitting in the sun. Do you speak Spanish?”

“High school Spanish.  Two years of it.”

“No college?”

“Started at Temple but never got past my first semester.  I got a really bad case of flu.   I took six months off to help my uncle and get some money together – and then I took a course in… well, life.”

“By ‘Life’ do you mean ‘pregnancy?’ I thought Rebecca looked a little thick around the waist and Michelle caught her throwing up in the ladies’ room.  I guess that’s why they want to see you completely settled in a house with a life insurance policy to protect the kid.  Your father-in-law is afraid some disgruntled customer may take a shot at you.”

Aaron smiled weakly and did not reply except to say, “Rebecca’s a good kid.”

 

Part 7: Joshua

 

Dave Lonigan never could escape a feeling of dread whenever an employee asked to speak to him privately and then would shut the door to his office and timidly sit down in front of his desk.  And this is what was happening just before lunch on Saturday morning.  He took his glasses off and put them in their case.  “And just what did you want to speak to me about?” he asked Joshua.

“I’ve been… well… sort of lying.  I concealed the truth because I was afraid that I’d be rejected.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Hawaii and surfing.  I’ve been telling everyone that I wanted to go to Maui to live.  But I don’t have any desire to go to Hawaii.”  He removed a rosary from his pants pocket.  He held the beads so that Lonigan could see the dangling Crucifix.  “For luck,” he explained. He continued, “I applied for admittance to a Roman Catholic Order… it’s been my life’s dream… I never thought they’d take someone like me… sometimes loving God just isn’t enough, if you know what I mean.  But I heard last night that I was seriously being considered… so I’m in the pipeline.”

“And does this mean you’ll be going to live in a monastery?”

“Yes.  If they’ll have me! But that’s not likely to be for weeks or months.””

“Well, I guess all I can say is, ‘Congratulations!’ If that’s where your heart is leading you, you need to follow it.”  Lonigan was much relieved by the subject of the private discussion.  “When will you be leaving?”

“Whenever they tell me I need to show up.  But if you hire someone to replace me in the meantime, I’ll understand and go home quietly…  to wait.”

“Then I guess I can’t order a cake just yet,” Lonigan said, standing up to shake his hand.

Joshua did not have to explain anything to anyone.  David Lonigan regarded it as a kind of proof of the integrity of FNN CCC that one of its cashiers was going to enter a monastery. He made the formal announcement in the office and even called a few friends to tell them.

 

Part 8:   Aaron

 

Aaron Weitzman flinched inwardly at the congratulatory proofs offered him.  He and his wife became owners, in Joint Tenancy, of a home on which Rebecca’s parents had supplied a $65,000 down payment and had even co-signed the mortgage which Aaron, of course, would be obliged to pay monthly. Aaron was still naive enough to believe the real estate agent when he assured them that the house would appreciate in value overnight.  It did not matter to him how much money the Blumenthals put down on the house.  If he accepted the job in Las Vegas, they would surely not lose a cent in the re-sale of the house.  He did not exactly know how a husband and father-in-law should get along, but he could understand that they did not want their daughter to move to Nevada.  He even found it “normal” that the moment they heard the rumor of his job offer, they sprang into action and found a suitable house in a nearly upscale neighborhood.

Many people who attended the wedding reception gave money as gifts which had to be put into a new checking account in both Aaron and Rebecca’s names.  A cousin who had an insurance agency had already had a doctor examine and attest to the health of the about-to-be married couple and the insurance papers were signed.  The Blumenthals wanted two million on each especially since they feared that one of Uncle Benny’s disgruntled customers might get understandably violent.  They paid the initial premiums.

Uncle Benny had said that he’d buy bedroom and kitchen furniture for the new house as a wedding gift, and then he whispered in Aaron’s ear, “Whether the house is here or in Vegas.”  He also let it be known that he would soon be retiring to Florida.  “I’m gonna cook in a wok, wash my dishes in a sink, and get one of those old washboards and tubs and regardless of what my neighbors think, hang my clothes out to dry.  If I could think of a way to live without a refrigerator, I’d do away with that appliance, too.”  Aaron supposed that he had also given his parents the $6000  they were to spend on a week’s honeymoon in Las Vegas and also paid for their “open-ended” round-trip air fare.  He could not imagine that either of his parents had an extra hundred dollars to give him, much less 6K.  But, true to form, his father whispered that as a special bonus, he was escorting his mother to the ceremony and reception, “For the sake of the album photos,” he said.

On Monday evening, Aaron went to the “cousins’ house” for what he hoped would be the last time.

And then a strange and ominous accident occurred.  Rebecca had brought all the wedding presents to the “cousins’ house.”  She opened a gift from Aaron’s Aunt Esther whose cheapness was legendary.  “Look,” she said brightly, “Aunt Esther has given us this beautiful Blue Willow tea set.”  The tea set was not particularly beautiful and if one looked closely at the cups and pot, it was easy to see that they did not match.  “I’ll make us some jasmine tea!”  She put the kettle on and washed the new tea pot and cups.

The kitchen table was strewn with artfully potted orchid flowers which had been table centerpieces at the reception.  She put several tea bags in the pot and set the blue willow cups and saucers on the table.  While the tea steeped, she sat down and since the pot was closer to Aaron, he picked it up to pour the tea.  Aaron did not stand up to do this, but reached awkwardly around an orchid plant, and Rebecca accommodated him by raising her cup to meet the pot’s spout.  He filled her cup and then, as she brought it to her mouth to cool it by gently blowing on it, the handle of the cup separated from the cup and the scalding water splashed down on her bare chest.

Rebecca screamed and Aaron immediately got ice from the refrigerator to put on the bright red area.  “She’s such a cheap bitch,” Rebecca sobbed.  “I guess she got that junk at some discount shop. A family trait, no doubt.  So fucking cheap!”

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked, although he realized that nobody would do anything but recommend ice and some burn medication that could be gotten from any drug store.  He was unprepared for her answer.

“What? Tell them that my husband tried to scald me with a defective wedding present his cheap-assed relatives gave us.  Give me my phone!  My mother will know what to do.”

Aaron began to reach for her cellphone and then he stopped, and standing motionless, he looked at her with an unmistakable expression of loathing.  “If you call your mother, then I will call my mother and ask if I can come home tonight.  Instead of having a honeymoon, we will have a divorce.  Go ahead,” he handed her the phone.  “Make the call.” He took out his phone.  “Quid pro quo,” he said.

Rebecca looked at the hatred that streamed from his beautiful blue eyes, the eyes she used to rhapsodize about.  Stunned, she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.  Really… the ice has helped.”

Go to Issue #3

The Money Lender (#1)

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

The Money Lender

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

Part 1

 

It is one of human nature’s peculiar quirks that those who make their living by stealing and swindling should apply the most exacting standards of honesty to those who handle their money.

The modern Strip area of the City of Las Vegas was founded by Jewish and Italian mobsters who developed the pleasure palaces that enriched them so enormously. Just as ancient wisdom tells us that while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan – and, in consideration of the founders of the Strip, should consider themselves lucky to be that – it would be only natural to find that those fathers who had succeeded so well would be asked to provide jobs for an assortment of relatives who might otherwise have encountered difficulty in finding employment.  Many were hired to do what casinos do most, that is to say, handle money.  Such familial largesse, however, often proved to be unwise: blood was not only thicker than water, it was also more difficult to remove.

That the learning curve should be too high for one’s relatives constituted a problem that anyone who has vouched for a family member’s honesty, reliability, and intelligence can appreciate.  The founders naturally agreed that only honest persons should be allowed to count whatever money the owners delivered to counting rooms; and slowly the suspicion grew that religious persons were those who were most likely to meet their imperious demands of honesty.

Although there were numerous Catholics who were in all probability trustworthy, the fear that a sinning Catholic who had “borrowed” currency might confess the method and extent of his offenses to a priest, who might be tempted to pass along such valuable information, remained an unwarranted extension of the problem. Ordination merely conferred authority, it did not guarantee integrity.  Mormons who already were well represented in the population of the old downtown Las Vegas constituted, then, a vital resource.  Mormons were religious and didn’t have to confide sins to third parties, mortal ones, at any rate.  And since they couldn’t comfortably be absolved of the burdens of sin and were perfectly able to count, they made ideal counters and cashiers.  Whole crime families who had never heard of Mormons clamored to employ them simply because they were the most trustable people around.  And when most Mafia properties were purchased by Howard Hughes, the positions in those counting rooms remained safely in Mormon hands.

And so it was with the Friend-N-Need Check Cashing Company (FNN-CCC) of North Las Vegas.  Persons with obscure identities owned the business, but they hired only those individuals whose claims of dedication to religious principles were thoroughly vetted.  Possibly because their knowledge of ethical deportment was so limited, the owners did not allow for the possibility of change.  And this, as even Mormons will tell you, can be a big mistake.

 

Part 2:  Joshua

 

Young, bright, former altar boy Joshua Mays stood beneath a sign that read, “We’re a friend when you’re in need” and, looking around to see if anyone was watching, opened a cabinet drawer in which a stack of money-order blanks was kept.  He removed five from the bottom of the stack and sliped them into a magazine he had carried for such concealment purpose.  Then he glanced around again to see if anyone had noticed what he had done, and this time he saw his coworker Timothy J. Murphy looking at him.  Tim wanted only to know if Joshua would return from lunch fifteen minutes early since he had an errand to run. But guilt plays tricks on rationality, and Joshua, seeing Tim looking at him, made an exaggerated attempt to appear normal and then formed an expression that challenged Tim’s right to look at him. Tim who had seen Joshua a thousand times a day – there were, after all, only three cashiers in the office – was not quite sure how he should respond to that “Wadda you lookin’ at?” stare and quickly stated his request, “It’s my parents’ 30th anniversary and I’m giving them a cruise.  I’m supposed to see the travel agent and pick up a few brochures so they can choose where they want to go. Can you come back from lunch fifteen minutes early?”

Joshua could not hide his suspicion.  “That’s a pretty big anniversary gift,” he grinned slyly. “How come you never mentioned it before?”  When Tim stood silent in confusion, Joshua added, “Yo, Tim… nobody uses travel agents anymore. You’ve got a computer.  There’s plenty of pictures to look at.”

“Jesus, Josh, who the hell cares about my parents’ anniversary?  They don’t trust computer advertisements.  People don’t keep them current.  So I’m pickin’ up a bunch of brochures.  The agent has to be someplace at one o’clock. I said I’d try to pick them up before he left.  Ain’t no more to it than that.”

Joshua suspected that he had been told a very clever lie – some quick-witted Freudian counter-slip for “agent.”  The tension of debt and theft had combined to make him suspicious of almost everything.  “Aware” he called his state of mind.  “Alert.  On Guard.” It was closer to paranoia, and he had reason to be afraid.  He had already stolen twenty-thousand dollars of blank money-orders and cashed them wearing a wig that resembled Tim’s Irish strawberry blonde hair and mustache and big thick-rimmed glasses that were identical to Tim’s. And most of all, he had a sheer plastic replica of Tim’s right thumbprint that his friend and mentor, Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky – a defrocked Roman Catholic priest – had made for him in Germany.  Rick had also provided fake proof of identity for him – a driver’s license, credit card, and gym membership card issued to a fictional Keith Marion. Joshua would claim that he was a full-time care-giver for a retired cleric who had lost both his legs, and, therefore, he lived and worked at the same fictional condominium address, the telephone number of which was a burner phone used exclusively by Ex-Father Rick to verify and recommend Keith Marion. Timothy J. Murphy had scripted the M in his last name in a peculiar manner, and Joshua could precisely reproduce that M when he endorsed the check as “Marion.”  He also reproduced Tim’s loops, slants, jots, and tittles.

The real crisis of discovery and the formal shifting of blame onto Tim Murphy were only four weeks away when the auditors arrived to do their routine examination of FNN CCC’s books.  There was no doubt that they would discover the missing money-order blanks. Joshua hadn’t thought he’d steal more than the twenty-thousand he desperately needed to pay off his gambling and credit card debts; but the sense of being free of debt, instead of curing him of his impulsive habits, gave him the freedom to indulge them.

Joshua had a dream that arched over his otherwise drab existence like a rainbow; and, just as the rainbows that are so rarely seen in the desert always make the sordid and the sham seem uninteresting, his proved to be equally transforming. As a kid he had been a much admired “street” skateboarder.  He had gone through half a dozen skateboards in his pre-teen years, and then his parents moved into a Home Owner’s Association development in which skateboards were forbidden.

Joshua broke the rules, and the HOA warned and then fined his family and insisted that they dispose of the board immediately.   Each day that the Mays kept Joshua’s board on the premises, they would incur an additional fine.  Mr. Mays thought that such tactics were reminiscent of the Gestapo, an opinion not shared by HOA Board Chairman August Von Hoff, who, on behalf of his relatives who had not, of course, shared the Third Reich’s views of governance, cautioned him against making prejudicial ethnic hate speech, an offense that was also listed in the HOA agreements Mays had signed.  Obediently, Joshua’s skate board was given to a thrift shop, an act by which the HOA manufactured a vandal.  Often, at night, Joshua would sneak out to feed the family of store-bought white rats he had installed in the HOA’s famous rock garden.  Mr. Mays learning of his son’s investment in rats, and in terror of the HOA’s response should they discover it, immediately put his house up for sale.  It was a seller’s market and the HOA was delighted to see them quickly go. The white rats proved to be prolific breeders, particularly with the black Norway rats who visited them from the sewers.  The Mays did not remain long enough to witness the interesting mendelian results. Some white, some black, but mostly pale grey rats soon overran the community.

Joshua began to watch surfing movies and a palpable sense of being carried on a wave, holding his balance while salt water sprayed on his face, and using terms like “gnarly” and “hanging ten” became a new addiction to him.  He was a good swimmer and easily got a job at a water-park where he spent every available minute practicing balancing tricks on a fiberglass boogie board.  It was as much as he could do until he finally got his own car and surfboard. When, at seventeen, he received both, he would drive down to Malibu every weekend where he informally joined a group of intermediate surfers.

“All my life,” he’d say with more than a glint of determination in his eyes, “I have been preparing for “Pe’ahi” Maui.  Jaws.”  Sure, living so far from the waves prevented him from ever being among the best.  But he could be a respectable amateur: a man whose soul was in the surf, a man who didn’t grub out a living, stealing or pretending to have gone native by eating fallen coconuts and beach-fried fish to survive. He didn’t want to dress in rags and have skin pocked with sand flea infestations.  He had seen too many guys who had come out of the tropics with scabies or skin parasites and he knew how people avoided them.  Such bums couldn’t afford treatment and were the lepers of the surfing world.  No, he’d need a respectable job to be given respect as an amateur. He therefore went to community college and got an “associate’s degree” which didn’t seem to mean much in academic circles, but he did take basic physics and ecology studies. He got a job with the check cashing company and began to save his money for his move to Maui; and then, while he was buying fish-tacos for lunch in Malibu, a gang of thugs stole his new board, clothes, car keys, car, and wallet which was in the locked glove compartment. Half naked and humiliated, he reported the theft, and when offered a ride back to Vegas, took it. He later learned that his car had been totaled and so had the parked car that it hit, but since he had both liability and collision insurance on the car, he escaped financial disaster. He often heard the sad tales the clients who borrowed from the Friend-N-Need Check Cashing Company would tell.  He blamed their problems on the disease of stupidity, a malady to which he considered himself immune.

One day at lunch he met a bookie who ate at the fast-food joint he frequented, and the bookie gave him tips that were sure things.  Joshua would bet ten dollars and discover that he made thirty-four.  Then he’d bet fifty and discover that he made a hundred fifty.  Of course, he never saw the horses race and the places were names he only vaguely knew… Hialeah, Aquaduct, Churchill Downs.  After he made about five hundred dollars, he began to lose.  He didn’t lose all the time, but just enough to reinforce his conclusion that he “knew how to pick ’em.”  His bookie would allow him just so much credit, but he vouched for a friend who lent him money.  The “vig” did not seem all that much higher than the interest the clients of FNN CCC were paying.  Within a year Joshua found himself in twenty-thousand dollars worth of debt.  He began to suspect that he was going to be asked to be the inside man in a robbery of the office; and in this distress, he consulted a man he knew from his old, pre-HOA neighborhood, Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky.

Ex-Father Dubrovsky was a knowledgeable man and, as such, strove to avoid saying anything that could be directly quoted, especially when he was advising someone to do something illegal.  Whenever possible, he spoke in hypotheticals, and with only casual sexual events required in exchange for his hypotheticals, and perhaps a nominal sum, he was the logical choice for advice to solve Joshua’s problems.

Dubrovsky lived in a walled-in ranch-style corner house that he maintained without any hired help. It was not true, as some supposed, that he simply did not want strangers to have access to his private files or his kinky sex toys. He had no private files or toys, and although he was a virile forty-year old male, he had no notable sexual perversions.  It was true that he did entertain friends who brought pornographic DVDs with them when they came to visit; but he always insisted that they take them when they left. That there were no hired servants who had access to his property was simply due to Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky’s enjoyment in cleaning his house, doing his laundry, mowing his lawn.  He had developed exercise programs that employed muscles used in performing routine household chores. His physique was much admired, and it pleased his neighbors to see him jog each morning with his small, mixed breed dog that he rescued from the city animal shelter jogging beside him.  Bruno, the dog, constituted the only family he tolerated.

When Joshua Mays came to him not merely to renew an old friendship but to ask him to help find a way out of his predicament, Ex-Father Rick received him warmly because Bruno for some unknown reason did not bark at him.  Facts were gathered and conclusions reached.  Though it was dangerous to steal from the FNN CCC, it was, in his opinion, more dangerous not to pay the loan shark. “If I knew someone who was in this sort of trouble, I’d expect that he’d do all he could to obtain the money while carefully setting up someone who had equal access to the funds to take the blame. That would mean getting a good wig, colored contact lenses perhaps, a similar watch and jewelry… that sort of thing. I’ve heard that for a reasonable sum of money it is possible to send a photograph of a thumb print to Germany and get a thin plastic film that reproduces it, a film that adheres to a thumb and will leave the spurious, but virtually undetectable, print.”

“Heavy!” Joshua exclaimed. “I’ve got just the loser in my office I can copy and blame: Tim Murphy, the perfect patsy.  But how much, hypothetically speaking,” he asked, “would someone who assisted in this enterprise expect to receive in return?”

“Ten percent, I’d imagine, plus any incidental expenses, such as a burner phone, the thumb print, and the false I.D. papers.”

Joshua acquired all the necessary items of disguise and started stealing blank money-orders and cashing them at competitors’ offices on the other side of town. When the $20,000 debt was finally paid, Rick assumed that their hypothetical arrangement was finished, and Joshua saw no reason to disabuse him of this notion.  Since Joshua doubted that the places that had previously cashed his checks and verified their validity, would do so again, he could, by not telling Rick, save that 10% for a new life in Maui.  He therefore stole another ten-thousand dollars worth of blanks.

He knew that it was dangerous not only to steal from his employers but also to cheat the resourceful Rick; and these fears, along with being observed that morning by Tim Murphy, allowed Joshua to become emotionally primed for being discovered and arrested.  Nevertheless, he took the five blank money-orders and ran each through the perforating check protector machine for $2000.00 each.

When Tim returned from lunch he said that his parents had changed their minds about going on a cruise.  They had seen on TV the problems incurred when a norovirus had stricken one of the major cruise ships. Joshua gave him that “likely story” look; and Tim felt obliged to explain that his father had a serious heart condition and earned extra money mowing lawns and trimming trees and shrubs; and his mother earned money from appliqueing numbers on athletic uniforms.  Since both of them needed new equipment, he’d spend the money on a new chain saw and sewing machine.  Joshua grinned malignantly, as if he could see through the lie.  Despite this, the roar of Maui’s surf overrode his suspicions.

When Joshua went for his coffee break at 3:30 p.m., Tim signaled the third cashier, a girl named Charlene Cattone with whom he was secretly in love, and said, “Is it me or does Josh seem strange today?”

“It’s not you,” was the only answer Charlene could hazard.  The cashiers were forbidden to form alliances and although she was romantically inclined towards Tim, she had her own reasons for keeping her feelings secret.  Charlene Cottone was “well-connected” in the old Italian community, and he was an Irish outsider. No matter how guilty she was of breaking the alliance rule, he’d be the one who’d lose his job.

At 5 p.m. Joshua left work and went to the men’s room of a gas station, put on the wig, mustache and glasses, and imitated Tim’s shy demeanor as he studied the cracked mirror over the sink. Then he carefully removed the thin plastic fingerprint disk from its case and laid its thin adhesive film against his thumb. He was approximately the same size as Tim, he wore the exact copy of a denim shirt Tim wore, and he had the hair – mustache and all – that matched Tim’s.  “Sometimes I worry,” he whispered to the mirror, “that one of Tim’s friends will run into me.  Good Golly, Miss Molly,” he grinned, “what’ll I do then?” He left the men’s room and hurried to make the rounds of a few check cashing offices that knew him and knew that his “paper” was good.

He made it a point never to drive to these places – security cameras could record the vehicle – and when he returned to the FNN CCC parking lot in which he kept his car to pick it up for the evening, he noticed a “suit” – a reference to the business garments worn by non-uniformed law enforcement agents – entering FNN-CCC’s office. He knew to a certainty that this was the agent Tim had contacted. In fact, the man was a golfing buddy of Joshua’s boss, Dave Lonigan. Lonigan had misplaced his application to enter the weekend’s tournament and his friend was just dropping off a new form to him.  But such things did not occur to Joshua who had begun alternately to perspire and to feel cold.   He drove directly to Rick’s house.

Rick let his reading glasses slide down his nose half an inch or so and bent his head down so that he could see over the top of the glasses. “I can tell you’ve done something naughty.  I don’t want the details… not yet.  What I’d like to know is why did you not discuss this with someone before you did it?”

Joshua lied.  “A guy who occasionally does business with us told me about an opportunity to invest in a condo in Maui.  But I had to be able to give him the money this weekend.  I just didn’t have time to discuss it.”

“Has it not occurred to you that anyone who has to resort to banking at a check cashing auto-title loan office at rates that abut the state’s usury limit is hardly in a position to offer anyone a good business opportunity, legal or otherwise?”  It was a rhetorical question.  “As long as you’re here and I have not as yet dined, make us some spaghetti.”  Rick pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose and resumed reading.

After dinner, it was time to discuss the problem.  “Joshua,” Rick began solemnly, “you are a sorcerer’s apprentice. You know how to start the magic, but you don’t know how to stop it. Please don’t tell me you stole more blank money-orders.”

“I’m giving you your ten percent for covering me,” he said, withdrawing ten one-hundred dollar bills from an envelope, “and this I promise will be the end.”  He related the day’s suspicious events. “By the end of the month you can get rid of that burner phone. You’ll never have to verify my employment or my good character again.”

Rick put the cash into his wallet. “Words cannot express my relief,” he said using his cynical tone of voice.  “I have fresh limes.  Mix us a couple of vodka tonics.”

As Joshua left the room, Rick called, “Joshua, you have no protection at all.  With those goddamned digital cameras they can count your blackheads.  So if you do come under suspicion, you’re burned.  If I were in such a predicament, I’d absolutely solidify someone else’s guilt. Make it so obvious that there’s no need to look elsewhere.  When is your office due to be audited again?”

“In another month.”

“If they suspect trouble, they’ll come earlier just to trap someone.  Anyone who’s under suspicion won’t have much time.”

“I’ve got enough dough to get to Hawaii,” Joshua said with a child’s enthusiasm as he returned with the drinks.

“You think that maybe Hawaii is a foreign country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty?  What is wrong with you?  Where is your brain?” He grew angry. “You know, you’ve dragged me into this, so don’t take it so goddamned lightly.  Put Mahler’s 9th on.  I need to think.”

Joshua reluctantly went to the CD player and rolled his eyes. He imitated Rick, “Mahler’s 9th.  I need to think.”

Rick looked up.  “And by the way, what did you do with the wig and glasses?”

“I had them in a paper bag that I threw in a dumpster.”

“I thought I told you that a wise person burns evidence… he doesn’t leave it like a trail behind him.”

Joshua pushed the play button. “I smashed the glasses and tore the wig into shreds.  Nobody will take them out to use them.”

While Rick listened and Joshua squirmed, the symphony played.  When it ended, Rick said quietly, “I heard of a plan. This is what a smart man would do.  He’d go home, pack work and dress clothes and put them in a cooler or some shopping bags.  He wouldn’t use a suitcase.  And he wouldn’t forget shoes, socks, and tie.   I’m stimulated. It would ‘t hurt if you’d spend the night… maybe a few nights.  If you’re going home now, I’ll make a few calls. Don’t dawdle.”

 

Part 3:   Aaron

 

Nineteen year old Aaron Weitzman woke up Friday morning with a hangover, a grudge against Fate, and a strange uncertainty about where he was.  On Thursday evening his friends had given him a bachelor’s party as if being coerced into marriage was something that should be celebrated. He had tried to smile at their smutty remarks and to laugh at their improbable stories, but they were playing to an empty room.  He appreciated nothing, and they could tell. At midnight. they deposited him on the doorstep of his bride-to-be, Rebecca Blumenthal.  She, waiting up for him, sat alone in the living room of her “cousins’ house,” and was greatly relieved to have him safely home and also to gather from his friends’ comments, that he had not complained about having to marry her. She did call his best friend aside to ask if Aaron had mentioned Caroline.  He looked at her and feigned ignorance. “No,” he said.  “Never mentioned her.”  In fact most of what Aaron had said when he was good and drunk was about Caroline. No one had ever seen Aaron drunk before; and to see him as a maudlin drunk, blubbering words of love between gasps of regret, cast a pall, one might say, over the festive occasion.  After they brought him to her house, they went out to do some serious celebrating.

Now, in the morning, Aaron Weitzman looked at the unfamiliar blankets and smelled the coffee that Rebecca was making in the coffee maker her parents kept at the house.  She called to him as if she had used the words a thousand times before. “Your coffee’s ready, Hon.  How do you want your eggs?”

Aaron put his feet on the floor.  He had no slippers.  He looked under the bed thinking that along with all the other improbabilities, he might find slippers there.  There were none.  He suddenly yearned for orange juice… fresh cold orange juice.  “OJ,” he answered.  “All I want is orange juice.”

“I think we have a can of it in the cabinet,” Rebecca called from the stairway. “I’m sure it’s still good. Is that all right?”

He groaned. “No!  I’ll take the coffee… no, make that tea.” The coffee was likely to be stale, too. He began to descend the carpeted stairs.

Rebecca’s family actually lived in the back room of the dress shop her mother owned and operated, but nobody was allowed to know that. Mr. Blumenthal was a jewelry salesman who worked in his father’s store that was located only a few blocks from the dress shop.  Mere convenience, however, could not offset the requirement of appearing to live in a more prosperous environment.

The Blumenthals bought a house in the suburbs and when it was their night to entertain their relatives, who were mostly cousins who met monthly, or when there was a special occasion that required the presence of other family members, they packed up the silverware and ornaments that had value… everything from candlesticks to pictures on the wall… and carted the stuff up to the “cousins’ house.”  A local landscaping service kept the lawn and hedges trimmed.  The nearly empty clothes’ closets all had locked doors and it was never convenient to find the key in those rare events that a cousin asked to examine a particular article of clothing. The house did have a TV satellite installation which included internet service and Rebecca, while writing various school papers often worked in the seclusion of the “cousin’s house.” The house had no listed landline; and all the phone calls came to individual cellphones.  Aaron had originally wondered why Rebecca’s parents were so often away from home, but Rebecca always had a credible excuse.  She would sometimes say that they were lounging at the beach in Florida, when they were actually a few miles away, eating and sleeping in the cramped rear of the dress shop.

Aaron did not like Rebecca.  He did not like her family.  But she liked him and when he met her he was on the rebound and needed somebody… anybody… to make him feel as though not everyone in the world was against him.  A girl named Caroline Wechsler had sat in front of him in nearly all of his junior high and high school classes.  She was beautiful and popular and when she asked him to come to her house to help her learn science or math, he felt like a god sitting beside her while she looked up at him with her dark eyes. She had auburn hair and he marked the seasons by her changes in hair style.  He loved them all. His top dresser drawer was filled with photos of her… alone or with him.  He had never known another girl.  She was his first sexual experience, and he was hers. Her parents were not separated but they did live apart. Her mother was a public library administrator and her father was a professor at Penn State who came home on weekends. Both of her parents were rightly regarded as intellectuals, but Caroline, unfortunately, was merely beautiful.   In her last year of high school, owing to her father’s faculty position, she was accepted at Penn State.  She pressed the acceptance letter to her chest.  “Oh, Aaron,” she said, “I guess it’s Nittany Lion time! I wish you were going with me.  I’ll miss you so much.  But we can still talk every day.”  Caroline Started at Penn but Aaron could not afford to attend any school that he couldn’t walk to.  He enrolled at Temple University and hurried home from school each day so that he could lie on his bed and call his beloved and help her to understand quadratic functions and to compose a clever opening line in an essay.  They talked less of love and more of need and even then, as pop quizzes and spontaneously written accounts left no doubt about Caroline’s academic inadequacies, they talked about misery and all the far flung dreams of worldly conquest came down only to the tenuous fact that they still had each other.

Having a vague inclination to become an astrophysicist, Aaron wanted to enter the college of Science and Mathematics.  He had done well in high school mathematics and first year college math should not have even challenged him; but something happened to his mind in late in October.  He couldn’t concentrate or remember things that he previously knew. It wasn’t Caroline. Yes, he felt emotionally lost without her, but this was different.  It was something physical. One day, while reviewing the laws of exponents – the m’s and the n’s – he saw them blur into something that resembled cuneiform writing. He had to go home and go to bed.  He felt feverish and his throat hurt.  His mother worked, and his father lived elsewhere, so he struggled through his illness alone, using his TV as a clock.  His throat finally returned to normal but he felt a kind of frozen fatigue.  Weeks passed. He missed his mid-terms.  He did not realize that he had caught the Epstein-Barr virus, commonly called “infectious mononucleosis.”

When he did feel stronger – but was not well enough to concentrate on current classwork while also trying to catch up on all that he had missed – he returned to school; and despite his efforts to comprehend and to recall the facts taught in his various classes, he failed his make-up tests so badly that his advisor suggested that he take some time off to regain his health and then to go to summer school and repeat the classes he had failed. Of course it was too late to get any of his tuition back, but on the plus side, the grade of a re-taken class would replace the original failing grade.  It made sense, and Aaron regained his hope of being a scientist.  He could even enroll in on-line accredited courses – when he had enough money to pay the tuition, of course.

Financially, his parents could not help him.  His father kept a woman with whom he had two children that Aaron had never seen.  His mother, with whom he shared a duplex apartment, had a job working as a saleswoman in a shoe store.  If she felt bitter towards her husband, she concealed her feelings, preferring to speak about him as though he had recently died.  She’d say, “Sol, God rest his soul, always loved argyle socks. He liked to play golf and bought his first pair when he played Saint Andrew’s in Scotland. From then on, nothing but argyle was good enough for him… dear man that he was.”  Aaron would see him walk through their apartment door as though he were a ghost… a ghost that did, indeed, wear argyle socks. Their conversations were pleasant.  Sometimes the three of them had Mac and Cheese dinners together.  The familial situation was weird and he could never quite understand it, but it gave him no cause for psychological distress.  Aaron discussed his dad with his school mates just as casually as they discussed theirs. His father worked for the government, and Aaron entertained the fantasy that he was a CIA agent, but he never told anyone that. Sol Weitzman was a clerk in the Agriculture Department.

He had not considered the cost of telephoning Caroline so frequently or for such long periods of time per call.  At first their conversations were the truncated stuff of tidbits of gossip and pooh-bear love, but then she mailed him an identical mathematics book she used at Penn, and their talks became more substantive.  She would call and say, “I can’t do numbers 29, 31, 35, and 40 on Page 39” and then he would work the problems out and call her back taking her through the problems step by step.  Even while he was not fully recovered and seemed apathetic to everything else around him, there were loose leaf pages of calculations in the trash can beside his bed. This encouraged his mother.  The phone bills had increased, but his mother was not distressed by this.  The bill that arrived in December, however, shocked her, and as she looked at each call made to Caroline her hands trembled and she sat at the foot of his bed and began to cry.  “I just lent your father all the money I had in my savings.  Twelve hundred dollars.  Aaron… Aaron… what is wrong with you that you created a phone bill of $349.52?  For one month, Aaron..  Your father’s children needed Hanuka presents and winter clothing.  I need a new coat, too, Aaron.” Then she went into the kitchen and sat with her forehead against the Formica table-top, a tissue in one hand and the crumpled phone bill in the other. Each of her stifled sobs stabbed him with shame. Occasionally, she’d compose herself long enough to lament, “All that money for tuition went for nothing…  and now this.”

 

Aaron tried to say something that would comfort her, but he didn’t know the words.  “I’ve finally shaken off this flu off, Mom.  I can get a job now.”

His mother went into her bedroom and rummaged through her jewelry box.  Then she went into a cabinet and took out two two sterling silver candlesticks.   “Do you feel strong enough to take these to the pawn shop? Or must I humiliate myself even more?”

Aaron showered, dressed, and drove to his Uncle Benny’s appliance store.  He explained the $349.52 phone bill and the loan his mother had given to his brother Sol.  “I’m not looking for a handout, Uncle Benny.  Mom gave me some jewelry and some silver to pawn.  But I need a job…. not just to pay this phone bill but to pay my tuition.  I’ll take some on-line courses if I can afford them.”

“You’ve lost weight, Aaron.  How long have you been sick?”

“I was really bad for about six weeks, but I’m finally feeling stronger.”

Uncle Benny motioned to him to follow him to his office in the rear of the store.

He unlocked a petty cash box, took out $350 and jokingly said, “Keep the change.”

“Will you give me a job?”

“I can’t pay much.”

“Whatever you think I’m worth is fine.”

Aaron Weitzman returned his mother’s jewelry and sterling pieces to her and immediately began to feel like a normal human being – one that had a good excuse for not making those late afternoon and early evening long distance calls to a bewildered girl who was obviously below average when it came to academic work. For several weeks he did not dare call Caroline and then she called to tell him that she was home and that she had withdrawn from Penn.  She had injured a knee, she said, trying out for track; and the doctor told her to do leg exercises to improve her muscle strength. Her knee was presently wrapped in Ace bandages.  She asked if he could borrow a car and drive to her house from the appliance store.  He did not want to impose any further on his uncle.  He said he could get off the bus a few blocks ahead of his stop and walk to her house… but that would not be until the store closed for the evening.  “I must see you now,” she whined; and so her brother drove her to the run-down appliance store with its gaudy Christmas red and green “Sale” signs.  “I needed to ask you, in person,” she said, “if you would like to come with me to Europe. The doctor said that the beginners’ and intermediate ski runs were the perfect way to rehabilitate my weakened legs.  We’ll have such fun together.”

She looked so beautiful with her face surrounded by a fake-fur parka hood, that all he wanted to do was kiss her.  He said that he regretted that it was the store’s busy season and there was no way that he could get time off to go on vacation.  And so with a dutiful kiss of regret, she said goodbye and assured him that she would send him at least a post card every single day.

 

And it quickly disturbed him. He knew that she knew that he could not afford a car let alone a trip to Europe, and that he weighed twenty pounds less than he weighed when she saw him last and she had made no comment about his gaunt appearance.  She knew all this, and it hurt him deeply that she had so casually asked him to come along on what for him was a fantasy voyage.

 

He wanted to voice his concern, and called her; but she was not at home and did not return his call.  She had left for Europe exactly thirty-six hours after she had spoken to him in her brother’s car.  He did not realize that during that tiny, opened window of time, the breeze of an excuse for her academic failure had blown in.  Benny Weitzman mentioned to a friend who mentioned to a friend that Aaron had run up a fantastic phone bill calling Caroline while she was at Penn State; and this information, naturally, became a treasure that Professor and Mrs. Wechsler put into the family vault.  How could a girl get her college assignments done when this nineteen year old selfish immature out-of-control fool kept calling her?  But for the time being, keeping her distance from Aaron and “getting her leg muscles rebuilt” were reason enough to account for her not returning to the university.

The letters did not come…. or the post cards.  He tried to excuse her failure to keep her promise by fearing that she was having an operation on her knee or else she was trying so desperately to alleviate her disappointment at having to withdraw from Penn State that she was over-indulging in Ski resort celebrations.  And then he learned that Caroline had married her ski instructor, a marriage his friends assured him that had lasted less time than it took Bodi Miller to do a downhill run. There was a laughable aspect to the dissolution of the marriage.  The blue-eyed Adonis whose last name was actually Goebbels – which meant nothing to Caroline – never knew that the Wechsler family was willing to pay to have him quietly killed. The “Skiing Fox,” or so he was called, had gone out of his way to demonstrate his liberal views by taking a nice Jewish girl as his bride. It never occurred to him that the two thugs who beat him and Caroline on their honeymoon were demonstrating their objection to his being the groom.  A lawyer’s business card was left at the scene.  Before the thugs left, one said, “Call this guy and get an annulment. And do it quick.”  Aaron refused to believe that the Wechslers would have their daughter slapped around by thugs because she had married somebody named Hans Goebbels.  “He probably was lousy in bed,” he said.  “Ski instructors often get groin injuries.” But still, Caroline did not return to the U.S.

To Aaron, one set of problems had simply been replaced by another set.  He was alone and an old paternal specter became vivified and rose from its coffin in the back of his mind.  The “abandonment ghost” had never bothered him before.  It sort of passed him in the hallway, wearing argyle socks, as it went to his mother’s room to torment her. He could hear her crying in the peculiar way of beggars, and he knew that she was reaching out to put her arms around a perfidious vacuum. Aaron, helpless in the next room, grew old, decades before such knowledge is usually grasped, despising the act of abandonment.  It was a firing squad instructed to aim for the feet and never get a coup de grace... just a lifetime ahead of abject crawling.

Still, coming home from work, he’d get off the bus three blocks before his stop so that he could pass Caroline’s house. He’d look up at her bedroom window, hoping to see a change in the venetian blinds or some indication that the room was now occupied. Finally, he got a postcard from Gstaad.  “Aaron, quit stalking me.  My mother says if you don’t stop, she’ll call the police.  The skiing is fine here.  Hope you’re well. Miss you. C.”

Stunned to think that looking for a loved-one could be categorized as stalking, a criminal offense, Aaron sank further into his quandary, and his Uncle Benny insisted, “Get out and meet people!”

Uncle Benny tended to regard employment as a social activity. He was a good but worn-down man who took all kinds of mysterious medications.  He owned an appliance store that was in an area of town which had gone from prosperous to welfare. In tandem with this decline, the brands he carried went from top of the line to cheap imports that broke down long before anybody could finish paying for them.  He could never get the parts to repair them and it cost far more to re-possess them than they were worth.  The customers complained and Benny knew that he had been guilty of selling them junk, of puffing up the quality of the strange brands to induce them to buy.  Benny’s nerves began to show the strain of daily torment, of offering spurious arguments, of suggesting that the customer perhaps put too large a load into the washing machine, or put a fan into the open freezer compartment of a refrigerator to use it as an air-conditioning unit on hot nights – burning the unit out, or any number of bizarre excuses for mechanical failure, and finally of reminding people who were poorly educated to read the installment payment contract and the bill of sale that were written in indecipherable legalese.  Aaron knew nothing of this when he asked his Uncle Benny for a job.

At a New Year’s Eve party he met Rebecca Blumenthal.

Someone asked him in a derogatory tone why he had not gone to see a doctor when he was so sick, and Aaron was startled to hear Rebecca retort, “You ask a sick man why he doesn’t go to the doctor? It’s because he’s sick in bed – which is where he belongs. You prefer that he go out and spread his disease?  A better question is why don’t doctors make house calls any more!”

Aaron grinned.  “My mother works or else she’d have taken me – if I had asked her to.” He admired Rebeccca for the way she parried the question.  They talked about a Woody Allen movie.  “I’ve got the DVD,” she said.  “Want to come up to my house and watch it… say… Saturday night?”  He said yes, not knowing that she would immediately run out and purchase the DVD.

Aaron was handsome, slim, and tall, and Rebecca was short and slightly overweight and not particularly pretty.  She fell in love with him when she saw him enter the room that New Year’s Eve.  “There is the man I’m going to marry,” she said to a friend.  And Rebecca was the only child of comfortably middle-class parents who naturally spoiled her.  When she declared that she would get something she wanted, she usually succeeded.  Aaron did not meet their requirement of wealth, but he had valid excuses for not having money: he was saving for his summer school tuition; he didn’t earn much working for his uncle at the appliance store; and, courtesy of his Uncle Benny who responded to the “stalking” insinuation by putting a down payment on a Honda for him, he had to pay monthly car and car insurance payments.

Rebecca found ways to be a cost-free date. A friend would always “lend” her a DVD that they could watch at her home whenever her parents were away – which was inexplicably frequent. They could sleep together there and even order Pizza that was charged to the family’s credit card.  When she wanted to show him off to her friends, she’d ask him to get dressed for a specific Saturday night so that they could make an appearance at a crowded restaurant. They’d get a drink at the bar and say “hello” to a few dozen people; and then she’d whisper, “Thank God!  Oh, Aaron, you helped me out of such a tight spot! I don’t want dinner. Let’s get out of here before anybody else sees me!” Aaron’s eyes would search the room, looking for Caroline, as Rebecca pretended that people had missed seeing her and suspected that she must be pregnant. Now they had seen her.  It was safe to go. At first, to accommodate her, he smiled and let her “show him off” to her friends.  But he began to suspect that people regarded their relationship as a solid compound.  To him, it was just the opposite.  More and more the occasional mixture that he had wanted was becoming immisible. He tried to extricate himself gracefully from the arrangement.

The lies to customers exceeded puffery, and he knew it, and each lie bore its way into his conscience.  Unfortunately, Rebecca’s way of life was also having a negative effect on his conscience. He disliked her constant lying, her meretricious attitudes, and her routine way of resorting to trickery.  He was particularly disturbed to find in a trash can the cellophane wrapping and security tape of a newly purchased DVD that Rebecca insisted a friend had lent her.

Rebecca wanted to see him every night. He tried to tell her the truth: that he needed to study to get ready for summer school.  He urged her to see other men. She’d refuse saying that he’d have all the free time he needed if they were married.  He wouldn’t even have to work for his uncle anymore.  But Aaron did not want to marry her.  He disapproved of her lies, of her spoiled nature, and he strongly suspected that from the beginning she had laid some kind of trap for him, that all the cheap-date manipulations were part of a plan.

He did not hear from Caroline, and he did not dare walk past her house.  Perhaps, he thought in a childish way, she’ll want me if she thinks somebody else is competing with her.  All of their friends knew that he was seeing Rebecca. They would surely let Caroline know; and Caroline would not give him up so easily – especially now that she was free from her ski instructor.  Rebecca had begun to insist that they get married.

“We’re too young,” he’d say, reminding her that he was not yet twenty; and although he had yet to complete a year of college, she already had her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She had majored in History, specifically medieval European history, and she had decided that she’d take a few years off to travel through the countries she had studied, visit all the landmarks and famous places, and then return to get her master’s degree.  And then she saw Aaron, and Prague and Athens were simply fascinating names. “What I want to study,” she’d whisper in his ear, “are the secret places of your body.”

Aaron did not want his body to be studied secretly or openly, except perhaps by the beautiful Caroline. He imagined that the root of Caroline’s marital problem was her affinity for brainy men.  Wasn’t that the basis for their long relationship?  A ski bum was obviously not good enough for her, and he became fanatical in his determination to be an astrophysicist. He dreamed of discovering a comet and naming it after her.  The Comet Caroline.

Although he had regained his physical strength, psychologically he was riven between wanting to earn more money to pay his tuition, to extricate himself from an increasingly problematic relationship with Rebecca, and to study for summer school.  He particularly wanted to score high marks on his repeated classes. He needed to find a higher paying job, but he detested the thought of telling his uncle that he was leaving his job.  Abandonment was such an odious thing to do.  Rebecca’s father wanted him to learn the jewelry business but how, he would ask, could he abandon a sick uncle who had been so good to him. He found himself saying ponderous things such as, “Everyman has his own definition of the best and the worst of human actions. To me, abandonment is worse than murder, just as loyalty is the greatest of all virtues.”  No one ever cared to argue with such sentiments.

He wanted to end or at least to limit his relationship with Rebecca, but she would pout or cry at the mere mention of “cutting back” their time together.  He also knew that regardless of why she claimed to love him, she had been there for him when he needed her. She was loyal and he could not simply abandon her.  He did, however, never fail to ask her whenever they entered the “cousins’ house” if she had taken her birth control pills.  She always emphatically said, “Yes, dear!” But her desire easily trumped his refusal.  She stopped taking her pills.

One morning in May her father called him at the appliance store. “My daughter is pregnant,” he said.  “What are you going to do about it?” Aaron immediately drove to the dress shop. He looked at Rebecca and could tell that she was thrilled to be able to vomit.  Yes… he looked at her and saw that she delighted in gagging and retching and kneeling on the floor in front of the toilet. She’d swirl mouthwash around her mouth and spit it out and look at him in a way that was supposed to suggest pity, but the look of triumph was unmistakable.

Between retchings she managed to explain, “Sometimes you get a batch of pills that weren’t stored properly and just went bad… or maybe weren’t properly mixed in the first place.  Oh, I don’t know how it happened.  I just know that I don’t want to murder my child! So please don’t suggest that I get an abortion!” Then she would cry real tears and look up at him with piteous expression of a starving caged dog.

Mr. Blumenthal reminded Aaron that he was in the jewelry business. “I know things aren’t going well in Benny’s store, so as an engagement present Rebecca’s grandfather and her mother and I are giving you this wedding set.  The rings are already sized.”   He opened the box and took out the diamond solitaire.

As he reached for his daughter’s hand, she said, “Daddy, I think Aaron is supposed to do that,”  Everybody except Aaron laughed.

Aaron pushed the ring on her finger and because a couple of iPhones were at the ready to take photos of the big event, he got down on one knee and said, “Rebecca will you marry me?”  And so it was memorialized.   As he stood up a phone rang.  The caterer was calling back.

In the following few weeks, his uncle noticed a change in his demeanor.  “What’s by you?” he asked.  “Are your feet getting cold? One minute you look like you’re thinking and the next minute you look fish-eyed.”

“Yes,” Aaron said.  “I was supposed to apply for summer school, but I just couldn’t do it.  I feel like I’m reading Ulysses.  I read a sentence and then get lost trying to figure out what I just read.  It took me eight months to read the book and I still don’t understand it. They keep asking me about wedding stuff… the flowers… the country club… the photographer… and I don’t know what I have to do with any of it.”

“You had everything to do with it.  You just didn’t know that you were.  I know how the Blumenthals operate. They’re a slick bunch.  The girl stopped taking those pills, eh?  And she didn’t tell you.  Trust me, it runs in the family.” He paused and became serious. “Tell me, if you had an opportunity to get a good job out west, would you take it… with Rebecca, of course?”

“In a heartbeat,” Aaron answered.

Uncle Benny did not understand the reference to James Joyce’s novel, but he knew the Book of Life’s text.  “You’ll get over it,” he said.  Then he went into his back-room office and made a phone call to a friend. When he hung up, he came onto the “floor” and told Aaron that there was a chance that a well-to-do friend of his owned a used car lot in Las Vegas. “His son runs it.  But my friend is in the market for a Ford dealership and wants his boy to manage the new place.  He said he could use an honest man to sell used cars and then take over the lot and maybe even move up to the dealership; and I told him he need look no farther than Aaron Weitzman. You’ll make three times more than you make here. They have a university there, too, with night classes, yet.”

Aaron Weitzman was speechless.  He stuttered for a moment and then said, “Uncle Benny, I feel like I had been drowning and some guy saved my life and I need to say thanks… but how do you thank someone for something as big as that?”

The Blumenthals were not pleased to hear of the job opportunity.  They did not want their daughter to move away from Philadelphia.

 

Part 4:    Joshua

 

Joshua Mays returned to Rick’s house at 8:30 p.m.  “I brought my clothes,” he said. “Where should I hang them?”

“Forget them.  Let’s take your car.  We have to return some books to the library.  They close at nine. The books are two days overdue so you’ll have to get a receipt for paying the late charges.  Then take out a few more books so that they’re on your library card.”

“What subject am I interested in?”

Rick did not answer until they began to drive to the library. “Oh… try… The Eschatological Importunities of Pope Steven VI.  He had the previous pope exhumed and his cadaver tried for several crimes.”

“Suppose someone asks me and I don’t even know what eschatological means.”

“Well, then, you could try Pope Honorius I.  He reigned from 625 to 638.  Call your paper,  Doctrinaire Excesses of Honorius I.  I rather like that one.  He couldn’t make up his mind about things Popes are supposed to understand.  Was Jesus a divine human being or a creature that was fully divine and fully human?  It’s a big thing in dogmatic circles.”

“I can tell that you’re mocking Popes.  I’m not that great a Catholic, but I’m not entirely comfortable with ridiculing Catholicism.  Can’t you choose something else?”

“Look,” said Ex-Father Rick, “I could have picked the ones who fucked their way to stardom… nepotism… corruption out the wazoo… thieves, really.  But I’m a good Catholic and just because I was defrocked doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of my seminary training. I want to give you a topic that the librarian will remember.  I am published… perhaps not under my own name but I do receive an income from my work.  If someone suddenly showed up with money, he could claim that he earned it by assisting me, Philosophy Professor Reynard, with my research.”

“Ok.  But can you please lay out this plan you’ve got for me?”

Rick sighed.  “Years ago in New York State there was a judge who gave convicted drug offenders – if their offenses were more or less minor – the option of going to jail or being confined in a Buddhist monastery.  Naturally they all took the Buddhist monastery. They weren’t exactly opening a new market.  Those places are worse than Catholic seminaries.”  He stopped talking to recall a few adventures.

“And?” Josh said expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

“Have you ever mentioned your desire to go to Hawaii to anybody at work?”

“Sure, but just in casual conversation. They can’t help seeing my surfing magazines.”

“Good.  I have a friend who is the assistant to the Monseigneur of a Roman Catholic dumping ground for troublesome priests who are suffering from drug or alcohol addiction or dementia… nasty senility… unmanageable types. Their Order is another not quite officially recognized institution that cluster around the Church. It used to be Equitibus Crux Albi – or something like that – the Knights of the White Cross – but then it got changed. It became Milites de Glauca or something. Soldiers instead of Knights. Bluish grey instead of white.  The retreat they run is called Saint Steven’s Retreat.  Have you ever heard of it?”

“The name’s not unfamiliar, but I can’t say I know anything about them.”

“You can forget everything I just said since it doesn’t concern you.  I mention it en passant simply because I’m revealing my connection to the place.  I went to seminary school with a guy named Joe Pulaski who is the assistant to the Monseigneur who runs the Retreat.  The Monseigneur is a close friend of the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sandyville, about 25 miles from here.  So, for the sum of $5000 a person who needs a bit of refuge can be admitted as a postulant or as a ‘try-out guest’ in the Zen Buddhist monastery, which is a broken down collection of wooden buildings that once served as a mining office and then as a small cattleman’s residence.  The money is presented to the Vice-Abbot, a jerk named Chuan Yi, who is not kept in the loop.  He’s both venal and stupid, and that, my friend, is a dangerous combination.  So be careful of him.  My friend Father Joe Pulaski has already set it up with the Monseigneur who set it up with his friend, the Abbot.  You are to be between a postulant and a try-out guest.  The place is rumored to be the abode of numerous ghosts.  You should be at home there… gullible as you are.”

“What?” Jashua neither liked nor understood the plan.  Ignoring the insult, he asked, “And that’s all a person has to pay?”

“Of course… for now.  Who knows what they’ll want in the future.  So right now you’re establishing the source of your funds. Take the library books back and get a few more and don’t forget the receipts.”

“This is beginning to sound crazy.”

“Let’s stick with the plan.  Think of someone in your predicament.  He has been blabbing to his coworkers that he intends to go to Hawaii sometime soon. His blabbing makes him an automatic suspect. You do not want to be the first person the cops suspect.   They are like bulldogs when it comes to having announced their Number One suspect.  You said, ‘Hawaii’ but you could have meant any one of a number of foreign countries with which we have no extradition treaties.  Getting back to our hypothetical thief, surfing is his big, blabbed ambition.  To offset this notion, he would have to tell his friends that he has been lying… prevaricating for a very good reason…  his expressed desire was merely a cover for his real desire – which is that he has been hoping to be accepted by a Roman Catholic Seminary, and he’s just gotten the first call that was definitely encouraging about being accepted… from Saint Steven’s Retreat, a local but little-known institution run by the ersatz Knights of the Blue Cross. He didn’t want to go farther away because of family considerations.  So he’s letting them know as quickly as possible of his imminent departure from work.  He is so thrilled to become a cleric.  He’s loved Christ and served him all his life and now he’s going to make his devotion official. He can hardly wait.  Naturally, the people at work will not object.  People never dare object to religious goals.   Just don’t use the word ‘ersatz’ when referring to the Knights… or Soldiers… whatever they are.”  Rick observed Joshua’s blank look of ignorance.  “Ersatz means phony.  In their case, they’re not exactly phony, but they’re only nominally recognized by the Church because they’re a dumping ground for old troublesome priests.”

“Then what?” Joshua did not understand the plan.  “Stop saying ‘he’ and say ‘you’ if that’s what you mean. And why does it have to be religion?”

Ex-Father Rick sighed.  “It has to be something significant.  Could you say you lied about surfing because you really wanted to take piano lessons?”  He sighed again.  “After you take the books back, you’ll use your own phone and call my friend Father Joe Pulaski at Saint Steven’s and bullshit with him about being admitted.  He knows the game and he’ll ask your name, rank and serial number. He’s going to say that it looks good… that all your previous conversations – nothing was ever recorded, of course – had led him to believe you’d be an excellent Knight.  Do you understand so far?”

“No. But continue.”

“I will draft a letter tonight.  Tomorrow you will be so happy about your sure-thing acceptance to the Knights that you will blab about it.  You will also take a blank letter pad to work and make sure that you leave it on Tim’s desk or counter… someplace where he will pick it up and get his prints on the front page… more than just his thumb. Leave it upside down on his desk so that you’ll get more prints when he picks it up. Get me a good photocopy of his full signature, too.  I will type a letter from Tim Murphy to Joe Pulaski, the assistant to the Monseigneur.  In that letter Tim Murphy is going to warn him about accepting you into a Catholic institution because of your questionable morals,  especially about money.  Joe will then do his civic and religious duty and notify your employer about a letter he just received from Tim Murphy.”

Joshua was open-mouthed and speechless. “And how does that help me?” he finally managed to say.

“Because it makes Murphy look like a rat.  Because it makes Murphy look like he’s taking measures to protect himself, that is to say, making a preemptive strike against you to make you look guilty.  It’s not the kind of thing a decent man would do.”

“And then what?”

“Then a few days later you will be depressed and weepy by all the misfortune that has befallen you.  You were certain that the Catholic Order would accept you and now… they’ve suddenly rejected you and you don’t know why and, what’s more, you might be barred from joining any Catholic order. By then your boss will have a copy of the letter sent to Joe. When he says something consoling, you say that the priest who rejected you said that maybe if you spent a year in a Zen institution as a guest and could demonstrate how well you took to the austere and celibate life of a monk, and if you still wanted to come back and re-apply, they’d reconsider you. As your boss – and ultimately the one who will be held accountable – Dave Lonigan will not want you to leave town, so saying that you’ll live nearby in a Zen Center will suit him fine.  The Knights would impose conditions, naturally. You could have no moral demerits at the Zen place, you’d have to be a hard worker, and you must learn the governing rules of the Knights of the Blue Cross.  Bullshit stuff, but explain it if you get the chance.  Obviously, you’d have to find a way to receive the Sacrament of Communion every week.  It’s more bullshit, of course, but you need to say something so that you can get away from the Zen joint from Saturday afternoon through to Sunday noon.  Confession and Communion and helping a Catholic theologian with his research. So you are going to try to join a Zen Buddhist Center with the aim of proving yourself and your dedication to the principles of Saint Steven’s Catholic Retreat.  Again, only the Zen abbot will know you are marking time there, being good so that you can go to Saint Steven’s.  The others will think you’re a postulant or a guest who’s trying out the monastic life to see if he likes it well enough to apply more seriously.”

“But why does it have to be a Buddhist center?  As long as you’re bribing him, why not get me into the Catholic Order?”

“It’s not that you’re straight, my boy. It’s that the Monseigneur will talk to you, and frankly, you don’t know shit about The Faith. They don’t just take anybody who walks in off the street.  What recommendations do you have?  Who will attest to your piety?  Are you trying to make me laugh? Joe Pulaski will be held accountable if he lets you get past the front door.  You’ll blow my contact.”

“But why do I have to leave my job at all?”

Ex-Father Rick was losing patience. “Because no matter what you do, the auditors are coming and the $30,000 theft will be discovered. Because it is better for you to act sooner than later. Because if they suspect Tim immediately they are not likely to take a good look at those surveillance photos in which your disguise, no matter how clever you think it is, will reveal differences in skin or facial shapes or teeth.  So the sooner you can make him look guilty and you look innocent, the more likely it will be that you’ll avoid that photographic scrutiny.  Because somebody may have seen you going into a men’s room as Joshua and coming out as Tim.  Because many of the same customers at your check-cashing blood-pit will also be customers at the other check-cashing places.  Because Tim is likable and has friends who will support him when he denies any involvement in the theft.  The gossip will continue and people are willing to sell misinformation.  Do you harbor the idea that only you are capable of lying?  Tim may have unassailable alibis. You stupidly bought the wig locally and those eyeglasses too.  You think you’re invulnerable.  But Tim has yet to start to defend himself against this frame-up.  You can’t give him the chance to defend himself.  His guilt must be fait accompli. You have look religious and respectable and to get out of sight, and you also have to cast immediate suspicion on Tim.”

“But I don’t know anything about Zen Buddhism, either.”

“Nobody does.  That gives you a substantial advantage.  Fortunately the twits at the Zen Center of Sandyville are stupid enough to not notice your ignorance. Lucky for you Joe’s boss, Monseigneur Garcia and the Abbot of the ZCS – Zen Center of Sandyville – are pals. Five-Thousand will get you in, but your life won’t be easy… as I said, they’re a little weird.  Ghost stories and hallucinations… Manju pacing the halls.  Guan Yin trying to whip their asses with a willow branch.  I promised Joe two thousand for himself and the Zen abbot will still get five for your room and board.  I’ll teach you how to look pious… and I”ll get a glossary of Zen terms that you can study.  This ought to teach you that crime doesn’t pay.”

“Let me get this straight.  When the auditors discover that $30,000 was never received for the money-orders that were cashed, Tim Murphy – because of those letters – is going to look like the most logical suspect.  He’ll be escorted around to the various places that cashed the checks and the cashiers there will identify him. Even his thumbprint is on record.  He’ll be fired.  They must be insured against such losses, and the insurance company will pay up.  So, I get it now… by sending the letter you make him an immediate suspect.  By making me look religious, you help to eliminate me as a suspect.  And your friend Joe is gonna talk personally to my boss Dave Lonigan to cement my story?”

“Of course.  He’ll have the letter which we will write tonight. But we can’t mail it until you make your announcement at work that your interest in Hawaii was just a ruse… to cover your embarrassment about applying to become a Knight.  You wanted to be sure they wanted you.”  Joshua pulled into the library parking lot.  “When you get back with the books and the receipt for the overdue charges,” Rick said firmly, “you’ll call Joe and talk to him so that there’s a record of the reason you’re acting so happy about your probable acceptance.”

“And why would Joe be so willing to assist me… or you, for that matter?”

“Joe, for money.  $2000 of your hard-earned cash.  Me, because I have enough dirt on him to see him hanged in at least five states.  He pretends to enjoy being my pal.  Secretly he despises me… at least I hope he does.  If he didn’t he’d be a fool, and I detest having to deal with fools.”

Joshua Mays entered the library moments before closing time.  He quickly paid the late fees, and asked the reference librarian if they had any books on the early popes.  She plucked two from the shelf, took his library card, scanned out the books, and wished him good luck.  As the door closed behind him it was exactly 9 p.m.

Rick looked at the books.  “Jesus,” he said disapprovingly, “this is all propaganda for lay people.”

“It was late.  I was lucky to get any help at all.”  He wanted to change the subject.  “How have you managed to stay such good friends with the Monseigneur’s assistant?  Is he a fully ordained Catholic priest?  I mean… associating with a defrocked priest has to be like associating with a known felon.”

“Delicately put!” Rick laughed.  “I’m not exactly a known felon.  But I was known to be knowledgeable on the subjects of philosophy and theology.  The Monseigneur knows that, and I know that he realizes that Brother Joseph consults me for the stupid chess game he plays with his old pal, the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sandyville.  They call each other – now get this – Monseigneur Jaime Garcia is called “Jimmy” by Abbot Jy Shao who is called “Spike” by the Monseigneur. They grew up together in Chicago… since they were toddlers, evidently.”

“And they play a chess game?  And you help? You don’t even have a board.”

“It’s theological chess!  The two of them take turns picking a topic; and then they have a debate, in writing of course, about the topic.  Neither the Monseigneur nor the Abbot knows shit about the topic – well, in all fairness, I should say the Monseigneur is incredibly busy because of his incompetent staff, and the Abbot’s got some kind of lung problem, a serious dust allergy. He’s always sick.  So the writing of the actual commentary is left to their underlings… the Vice-Abbot of the Zen Center who, as I’ve said, is a real prick, that’s Chuan Yi, who consults his underlings, and my friend Father Joe, who assists the Monseigneur, who consults me.  They have a kind of review board – phonies who teach philosophy at an advanced level at the university,” he laughed malignantly, “and then these idiots vote and pronounce the winner at a dinner given at the Zen Center because the food is better there.”

“What does the winner get?” Josh asked.

“Absolutely nothing of any intrinsic value. Bragging rights, I suppose, is the best answer. Although there is a worthless little bust of Beethoven that the winner keeps.  They treat it as though it were the America’s Cup.

“At the dinner there are the two contestants, their two main assistants and usually their sub-assistants, and at least two of the little group of judges.  I go to the dinners as a sub-assistant, but never under my own name.  I enjoy the game.  It exercises the old grey matter.  And as I’ve said, I, writing as the Monseigneur, always win.

 

Go to Issue #2

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)

The Woods (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
http://www.zenanthonywolff.com
sshot4fa109078c420Photo Credit: howtogeek.com

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

Part Two

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean like a drone?” Sensei asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to “The Woods” Part 3

The Woods (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

 

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

http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

Synopsis

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

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

Photo Credit: National Geographic
Photo Credit: National Geographic

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Wednesday,  October 16,  2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Go to “The Woods” Part Two)

“Tales from the Sangha” section is here!

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

 

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

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

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

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

Ming Zhen Shakya