El hombre que consiguió un trabajo

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Yao Sheng Shakya

 

Queridos amigos,

Todos sabemos que tiene algunas dificultades entrar a un grupo nuevo. No importa si nos mudamos a un nuevo barrio, o cambiamos de trabajo o nos casamos y en el proceso adquirimos toda una familia nueva! Nos sentimos un poco extraños y nos preocupamos acerca de lo que otra gente podría pensar sobre nosotros. Además, suele haber demasiadas cosas que aprender y procesar sobre la convivencia con los nuevos vecinos, las costumbres de nuestra nueva “familia” o el ambiente de trabajo. Tenemos que aprender los nombres de la gente, que hacer en que lugar y, muchas veces, balancear nuestras opiniones para que no desentonen demasiado. Queremos ser aceptados, tememos que nos critiquen por nuestros errores. Así, nunca nos detenemos a pensar que es precisamente este temor el que nos vuelve torpes o extraños a los ojos de los demás. Esto ocurre también cuando una persona entra en un nuevo grupo religioso: siente que todos lo van a juzgar porque no sabe como rezar o prosternarse o porque no conoce como cantar un determinado himno o porque no puede afrontar hacer una donación adecuada a las expectativas del grupo. Muchas veces ocurre, que así se hiere el orgullo de las personas y estas abandonan un grupo en búsqueda de otro donde probablemente encajen.

Déjenme contarles una vieja historia. Había una vez en China un hombre que quería unirse desesperadamente a una sangha (comunidad religiosa) , aprender las enseñanzas budistas y vivir de acuerdo a ellas.

Sin embargo, cada vez que iba a una reunión por primera vez, se sentía muy avergonzado como para quedarse. Un día, cuando estaba huyendo del templo, se encontró con un viejo monje Zen:

-¿Por qué abandonas el servicio tan temprano?

Le preguntó el monje. El buen hombre le explicó su problema con los temores que lo inundaban, el sentimiento de sentirse continuamente inadecuado. El “miedo al fracaso” era lo que lo impulsaba de esta manera.

El viejo monje lo invitó a sentarse y continuó:

-Dejame contarte esta historia. Una vez, conocí a un hombre que nunca podía mantener un trabajo porque siempre tenía miedo de hacer o decir algo que podría perjudicarlo, y así, este miedo era la causa de que cometiera innumerables errores. Esto es lo que el miedo hace a una persona: lo entorpece. Este hombre perdía un trabajo atrás del otro. Otro día ocurrió que fue con un amigo a una tienda donde vendían costosísimos jarrones de porcelana. Su miedo despertó de nuevo, temiendo que pudiera romper algo… así sucedió que en ese estado de ansiedad, su amigó lo llamó y al darse la vuelta ¡tiró un esbelto jarrón y lo rompió! Peor todavía, no tenía dinero para pagar por el daño. El propietario del negocio estaba sumamente enojado, le dijo “Si no tenés plata para pagar el jarrón, vas a tener que empezar a devolverme lo que me quitaste. En el cuarto de atrás podés cambiarte y tomar los utensilios para barrer los pisos, limpiar las ventanas y mantener todo limpio y ordenado. ¡Vamos no tengo todo el día!”. En un estado de ira incontenible, le ordenó que debería quedarse ayudando en la tienda los días suficientes como para pagar por el jarrón roto. Si incluso cometía más errores o rompía algo debería quedarse más días y así indefinidamente. Nuestro torpe hombre, encontró un consuelo momentáneo a su situación pensando que al menos tenía un trabajo estable. Con esta confianza, pudo sobreponerse a su temor y volverse un excelente empleado.ía un trabajo estable. Con esta confianza, pudo sobreponerse a su temor y volverse un excelente empleado.

Y tú, cuando te portas de esta manera porque tu orgullo te hace temer que cometerás un error… eres cómo aquel hombre. ¿No sería mejor si primero conquistaras tu temor y luego volvieras y aprendieras los cantos de la misma manera fácil o difícil en que los aprendemos todos? ¿O que a través de muchos errores aprendieras cuando arrodillarte o cuando ponerte de pie durante el servicio? Así que vuelve al templo, tragate tu orgullo y tu temor se disipará.

Fue así como ese hombre se convirtió en un miembro permanente de la sangha y con el tiempo fue uno de los miembros más destacados.

The silver mirror

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Yao Sheng Shakya

 

Dear Friends:

Have you ever looked through the window from a well lit room? You can see everything out onto the street. You can see people, things, the colors in the room and the trees and houses outside. But what if suddenly it gets dark outside?  You see only your image on the glass when you stand in front of the window and look out.

The beautiful moon, even with her ardent, blue light has no light of her own; she reflects the light of the sun. In the same way, we reflect the teachings we cultivate. Buddhist’s call the Buddha’s teachings “Dharma” and we consider them as a bright sun that enriches and gives warmth to our lives. The Dharma teaches us to respect others, to be humble, to be happy doing what is right and good for the community.

If we practice the Dharma with sincerity, when night comes to our lives we are able to see the beauty of Dharma’s light. We are able to see commonsense solutions to our problems. We see how our responses change our lives and the lives of those around us. We reflect what we cultivate.

Yet, when we abandon the Way and get into the trap of thinking only about ourselves, we keep our light confined to a tiny, lonely space. The refulgent moon vanishes and when we look through the window we see only the darkness of this world through our pale image on the glass.

An old story illustrates what I want to say to you dear friends.

Once upon a time, in China, there lived a grocer who was a most beloved amongst his family, his friends and even by his customers! When times got hard, he lowered the prices of his fruits and vegetables and sold them for less to those who needed it most. When someone was unable to get to his shop, he would make a special effort to go to their home after a long day of working and deliver food to them. He was always ready to donate some of his hard-earned profit to a good cause. His heart was sensitive to those who lost a pet.  He willingly posted announcements in his shop to help find the lost dog or cat. His life of service was simple and hard yet full of happiness and gratitude.

But things began to change. Even good people can lose the Way sometimes. It happened that this man began to resent his own generosity. When he noticed that those he helped had a more expensive coat than his he became angry.  In anger, he thought, “The poor I helped live better than me!” So he never lowered his prices again. He discovered that the money he gave to charity wasn’t spent as he wanted so he stopped contributing. And when he lost his cat, he looked for it all over the neighborhood and asked the other shop owners to display announcements about his cat. But in their apathy they didn’t. So he stopped helping other people with their pets too. And finally when he offered a reward to anyone who might find his lost cat he was outraged when the cat was returned.  He blamed the old woman who found the cat as the person who stole the cat in order to get the reward.

 

The grocer’s life became just bitterness and pain. He lost the love for life. He no longer cherished life, but instead hired some thugs to collect his debts, big or small from anyone that owed him money. His shop was empty much of the time, and those customers that did come in never smiled as they did.

His problems began to pile up as problems customarily do in the material world, the world Buddhists call samsara, the world of wandering. His once congenial, friendly nature became little by little a dark personality. He became ambitious, prideful and angry. Others stayed away from him. He lost favor in the eyes of others. Things got worse and worse. But one day, in an enlightened moment, a ray of sun pierced his heart and broke through his hardened heart.

“What happened to me?” he asked himself. In profound anguish, seeing what he had become, our man went to see an old Zen Master. “Maybe this wise man can tell what happens to me?”

After paying tribute to the Master, the old Master kindly asked the grocer to join him in front of the window. The Master asked him a question.
“Look through the window and tell me what you see.”

“I see the empty street, the park. It’s getting dark. Soon, dusk will come. Some people are returning from work to their homes.”

The Master handed the man a mirror and asked him to bring it up to his face and asked again.

“Now, look and tell me what you see?”

The man said with some regret, “I see my image on the mirror… nothing more.” The Master paused a while and then looked directly at the man and said,

“The glass that allowed you to see the world and the glass you hold in your hand are made of the same material. The difference lies in that, one is clear and pure, allowing you to see each thing as it is. The glass mirror is covered with a thin layer of silver coating and in that silver coating you see only your reflection.  And this is as it is in the material world we live in. Our ambitions and desires are not inherently bad, except when we see only our reflection through the glass. Seeing only our reflection deprives us of the vision of the world and our fellow brothers and sisters.”

 

Photo credit: Wallconvert.comPhoto credit: Wallconvert.com

My honor is called loyalty

Abbot John
Author: Abbot John

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Click.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The Woods (#5)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

 

Part Five

 

George turned to go back to the camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s the plan?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

Eric asked, “What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go back to the women!” George ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we married now?” Eric asked.

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

“Will Beryl come back for us?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent idea,” Everett Smith said.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

The Woods (#4)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

 

Part Four

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” Lilyanne asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Eric said.  “No problem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

“I’m armed,” he insisted.

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a better idea?” Eric asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

 

*

 

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

“What a ‘ram’ drumbeat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (Go to Part V…)

The Woods (#3)

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

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

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

Part Three

 

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

Monday, October 21, 2013

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

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

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

 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who the hell is Maria?” Jack snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George looked at Eric and did not move.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where? In the trash?” Eric asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The lady looks ahead,” Eric said.

“Not always,” she replied.

*

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

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

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

“No, but–”

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

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

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

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

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

(Go to “The Woods” Part Four)

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

El espejo de plata

 

20141011_185813
Yao Sheng Shakya

 

Queridos amigos,

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

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

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

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

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

Una vieja historia ilustra lo que quiero decir…

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

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

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

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

–     Mire y dígame que ve

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

–     Ahora, mire aquí y dígame que ve

En este punto el sacerdote alcanzó un espejo al hombre

–    Sólo veo mi reflejo… y nada más

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

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

 

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

A commentary on “Words: As images of God”

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words: As images of God

Yao Xiang Shakya
Yao Xiang Shakya

 

Liz Drawing
An American Buddha by Yao Xiang Shakya

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Wikipedia
Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

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

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

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

The Woods (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya

 

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

http://www.zenanthonywolff.com

Synopsis

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

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

Photo Credit: National Geographic
Photo Credit: National Geographic

The Woods

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Wednesday,  October 16,  2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Go to “The Woods” Part Two)

“Tales from the Sangha” section is here!

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

 

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

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

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

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

Ming Zhen Shakya