“He told her, ‘Shut up and stop acting like a baby.’ That’s an exact quote from the report.” The agent’s expression read
See the kind of people we’re dealing with?
He continued, “Two important points: If they bury Mr. Chaser, there’s a chance we will get him back alive. Ms. Mackle was found—almost accidentally, by the way—eighty-six hours later, weak and dehydrated but still alive. Almost four full days. It proves a person can endure what these people are threatening to do. The key is giving the kidnappers what they want. That’s hard for the FBI to say, but there it is.
“The second point isn’t pleasant. The note mentions an air cylinder and a water tube. Nothing else. Ms. Mackle’s abductor was a megalomaniac, a loser by every definition of the word, but he at least exhibited some empathy. He provided a little food, a few personal items and enough room for Ms. Mackle to bend her legs and arms.”
The agent was referring to the tube that would be taped to Will Chaser’s mouth. Either the coffin was too cramped to lift a canteen or the kidnappers planned to bury Will with his hands bound. Why else make him drink through a tube?
When the agent described the tube and how Will’s hands were taped, Barbara’s attorney stood, made a coughing sound, then rushed from the room. Two staffers followed, maybe to help but more likely not.
“He’s better off dead,” I heard one of them say.
hen Hump leaned over the rental car and pressed the button, the trunk shot open as if on springs. The Chrysler emblem whacked the man hard on the chin, and his knees buckled as he backpedaled.
Hump let himself fall, expecting to land in weeds and trash, like in the ditches in Havana. But Farfel had stopped at the edge of a ravine on an off-ramp where there was no traffic, only the window lights of a distant home—a ranch or farmhouse—the world starry-skied and silent at ten p.m.
Dazed, the huge man braced for impact. But instead of a ditch, he dropped fifteen feet off the hill’s sheer lip and landed hard, shoulders first. Hump made a high-pitched whine of surprise, then a wheezing
when he hit.
Out of control, he tumbled down the hill through bushes and nettles, his arms covering his head because of the rocks—and also because of his bloody ear, which the sonuvabitching kid had bitten almost off, after promising to cooperate when they’d stopped to kill the limo driver.
Hump kept his head covered several seconds after banging against what might have been a fence, unconvinced he had reached the bottom, or that this wasn’t another of the kid’s vicious tricks.
Then Hump raised his head to look because he heard something. No, someone . . . Yes, cowboy boots on rock.
Instead of trying to escape, the insane boy was chasing him down the hill. Scrambling to his feet, Hump called in Spanish to his partner, “Farfel, I have captured him. He is here—,” then made the wheezing
noise again when the boy tackled him, shoulder down, swinging wildly at Hump’s head with a lug wrench.
“Farfel! Come quickly. I have the little goat turd!”
Will Chaser spoke Tex-Mex Spanish and understood enough Cuban to yell in reply, “You’re the turd! I’ll use your horn as a damn gun rack!,” referring to what he’d said before biting Hump’s ear in the limo: “A head like yours needs glass eyes and a plaque on the wall.”
Will was on the huge Cuban’s back, trying to fight the man’s hands away so he could get a clean shot with the lug wrench. When Hump tried to elbow him, Will countered with his own elbow, hammering at Hump’s neck. When Hump tried to buck free, Will locked his legs around Hump’s waist, the toes of his boots cinched tight.
“Get off me, you little
! Get off me and I won’t hurt you, I swear.”
Will yelled, “Stop moving—I’ll surrender,” hoping to knock the Cuban unconscious with the wrench, but Hump continued to buck and roll.
No way could the huge man buck him free. It was because the boy was experienced in riding animals that bucked. Before Will was expelled from school and sent north, to Minnesota, he was on the Seminole Oklahoma Rodeo Team, top steer wrestler and bull rider, Junior Division. He would have won a third All-Around Cowboy title if the cops hadn’t discovered that his horse, Blue Jacket, was actually Paddy’s Painted Darling, a famous roping pony and quarter horse stud that had disappeared six months earlier from Lexington Farms, Texas.
Only twice in his life had Will Chaser ever cried, not counting when he was an infant, which he couldn’t remember. First time was when the cops trailered Blue Jacket and drove away. He had cried in private, of course, where no one could hear.
The second time was just a few hours before Hump opened the trunk. Stuffed in a garbage bag, his hands, feet and mouth duct-taped, Will had listened to the limo driver begging for his life and then to his screams as the Cuban assholes stabbed him.
In the abrupt, rattling silence that followed, Will had wept, convinced he would be the next to die, regretting only then that he had insulted the Cuban, telling him his head would make a nice trophy.
Now, though, Will was filled with rage, not regret.
The thing growing from the side of Hump’s head was spiked, like a tooth. It made a good target for Will. He had the man on the ground now and he swung the lug wrench with intent.
The big Cuban was quick, though, deflecting the boy’s arms when he swung the wrench, metal sparking off rocks with each miss. That ancient sound, steel striking stone—
—was scary so close to Hump’s bloody ear. The Cuban had been surprised, but now he was getting mad.
“Get off me!”
“I’m warning you.”
“Quit bouncing, you candy-ass!”
. Sparks showed Hump’s black eyes.
“You little queer, I’ll kill you!”
The huge man stood, Will’s legs still cinched around his waist. Using the butt of the lug wrench, Will pounded Hump’s neck as Hump staggered to a fence, turned and slammed hard against it, crushing Will against the boards.
Will lost the wrench in the first collision. Hump rammed the fence again and Will fell to the ground. Hump leaned over the boy—
—and began kicking.
“Don’t kill him. Not yet!” Farfel was yelling as he zigzagged down the hill, careful not to fall. He had a pistol in his left hand. The pistol had a laser sight that painted a narrow band of light over the tree canopy as it sought the boy.
Hump kicked again and Will felt a rib snap. He screamed and rolled away in a fetal position.
Now Farfel was yelling, “You idiot! Not until we get another photograph!”
Will remained balled up, expecting to be kicked again. A moment passed. He looked up. A couple of yards separated him from the huge man, who was looking at the older Cuban.
It was time to let the men know he spoke Spanish. Will said, “I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me no more,” as he got to his feet. Because Hump was coming at him again, Will added quickly, “Promise, I’ll do what you tell me. God damn, you busted up my ribs! I’ll do anything you say.”
Hump stopped and touched the back of his head, then squinted at his fingers: blood. His head was ringing from the blows and his ear was throbbing. “You crazy brat, you hurt me with that tire tool. I will have a knife next time. I will cut you like a frog!”
Will had his hands on his knees, groaning like he was going to be sick—and he
feel sick—but he was also examining the nearby fence: four boards high, on the back side of a pasture, with strands of electric wire strung tight on insulators. There were probably horses or bulls grazing inside or maybe buffalo. Will had noticed the lights of the ranch, which had sparked a homesick-like feeling inside him.
The older Cuban called, “Come back to the car. We won’t tie you this time.” He was motioning for Will to follow. The man had nasty metallic eyes. He was lying, of course.
Will yelled, “I will. I promise. But first I have to do something.”
As the two Cubans looked at each other wondering if maybe Will had to piss, Will threw the rock he’d been palming. The rock was baseball smooth, oval shaped and heavy. It bounced off Hump’s forehead, making a melon sound.
Will scrambled over the fence, jumped clear of the insulators and ran. Seconds later, he heard the huge man bellow again. Will made a chortling-crying sound, a mix of laughter and pain from the broken rib, but he continued running.
The dumbass grabbed the electric fence.
Across a hundred yards of pasture, Will could see the elegant silhouettes of dozing horses and the yellow windows of a ranch house. A larger house, mansion-sized, lay beyond. The boy ran, one hand holding his ribs, legs taking long strides, his boots familiar with the cobble work of hoofprints in a frozen meadow.
Every few seconds, Will glanced over his shoulder. No sign of the Cubans. As he ran, the nickname old Otto Guttersen had invented came into his brain:
For the first time, the name fit, like in the TV westerns. The tough kid running from the bad guys . . . only, on TV, the bad guys were usually Skins, not Cubans, men who really would kill him if they caught him.
Will no longer felt tough.
The thought of a blade puncturing his body until he quit breathing? The limo driver’s screams displaced everything in his head. He could hear the man begging, then screaming in rhythm with Will’s boots as he ran across the field of rank grass and horse pies.
That’s when he noticed the headlights: a car beyond the ridge, invisible until it crested the hill, its lights now teetering downhill, illuminating poles and gravel road, dust boiling behind as it accelerated toward the ranch house—a black Chrysler.
Will ran harder, still favoring his rib, not sure if he could get to the house and bang on the door before the Cubans turned in to the driveway
Should he keep running or hide?
Will was thinking,
It’s going to be close.
t midnight, I heard Barbara Hayes-Sorrento’s fingernails on my door. I checked the peephole, then flipped the bolt.
The woman said, “What a night,” as she slipped into the room, nodding over her shoulder to someone in the hall. I got a glimpse of her chief of staff, his face illustrating patient disapproval. Maybe because he recognized me, he rolled his eyes:
I can’t control her.
I knew better than to try, not just because Barbara was a political star. Women perfect the subtleties of control—how to deflect, when to pressure—long before the small percentage of males who finally understand that control is acquired through skillful restraint, not won through confrontation.
“Were you asleep?” Barbara’s shoulder brushed my ribs as she passed me, and I felt her tremble as I turned the dead bolt.
I said, “I was on the computer.” I didn’t add that a car was picking me up in five hours. Harrington had arranged a direct flight to the municipal airport in Fort Myers.
“If I’m interrupting, I can—”
“No,” I told her, “I was researching the kid’s background. I found the place where he grew up. It was in Oklahoma. The reservation’s not as bad as some. And the little town, Wewoka?—I’m not sure how to pronounce it—it looks like a nice place. A good high school rodeo team.”
We were in the room where I’d used the phone earlier. I had spoken with Harrington again, twice. It was a room, not a suite. I slipped my arm into Barbara’s and led her to the desk where my laptop was open, the lights of neighboring offices showing through the window, snow crested on the windowsill.
I wore Navy-issue swim shorts, khaki with brass rings for a buckle, no shirt and wire-rimmed glasses tied around my neck on fishing line as always. She was in the same business suit she’d worn at the briefing, the charcoal jacket on but not buttoned. It gave the impression she wasn’t going to stay. Or that she had stopped, hoping I would invite her to come back after she had showered and changed.
Gesturing to my computer, I said, “The boy’s foster parents, Otto and Ruth Guttersen, right?”
“They’re not adopting, it’s temporary. He’s been in Minnesota for eighteen months.”
“Otto Guttersen—there can’t be many guys with that name—he was a pro wrestler. Not real wrestling, the soap opera stuff. Ten years on the Great Lakes circuit, shows in Minneapolis, Keokuk, Cleveland, Davenport. Small-time. Take a look.”
Barbara was sitting at the desk. I leaned over her to retrieve a fifteen-year-old photo from the
St. Paul Pioneer
. A wide-bodied man, overstuffed in his hairless body, biceps and big belly flexed, showing the camera a crazed grin. He wore chaps, boots with spurs and a black cowboy hat. The caption read
“Outlaw Bull Gutter vs. Bobo Godzilla Tonight, Civic Auditorium.” I said, “Minnesota has cowboys, too.”
Sounding weary, Barbara laughed. “An Indian kid living with a make-believe cowboy . . . I don’t know if it’s sad or funny.”
“Or maybe it’s worked out. Half an hour it took us, from the airport to Midtown, and Will hardly said a word. But he took off his hat when we met. Shy but polite, you know? ‘Very nice to meet you, ma’am.’ That type. And he loved riding in a limo. But I could tell he was . . . different, somehow.”
“I expected a scholar, I guess. A nerd with glasses . . . No offense.”
I said, “None taken,” thinking about the kid’s vocabulary.
“Maybe I understand now, one foster home after another. Tonight, he was reserved because he was overwhelmed—flying in at night, his first look at New York City, skyscrapers and all those lights. But he loosened up by the time we got to the Explorers Club. In fact, he asked if I wanted to get together later for a drink.”