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Authors: Jonathon King

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Chapter 18

H
e kicked her awake.

“Pooh,” Diane moaned, only slightly, and shifted on the mattress. She felt the baby move again. It seemed as if he'd been kicking for hours. He wanted out. He wanted freedom.

When had she started thinking of her unborn child as “he”? She wasn't quite sure. Together she and Billy had decided not to be told the sex of the child, a secret the obstetrician had kept even when showing them the sonogram photos. But her mind had taken over. You can't call him it! Billy had already picked out a name, Adam, the firstborn. She'd gone with a girl's name, Victoria, though she wasn't sure about the inevitable shortening to Vicky.

But now she was thinking “he.” She wondered if the physical abduction, the threatening and punishing, was such a macho, warlike, mannish thing that she'd let it drift into her own belly.

Again, she felt a poke from within—maybe a foot or an elbow. It was only speculation, a game she'd played back when she was lying in bed with Billy visualizing the fetus inside her, trying to imagine the soft skull and fifteen inches of height and a suckling response already causing him, perhaps, to suck his forming thumb. Those comforting yet anxious previews were now obscured in the heat and dark and boggling fear surrounding her.

The cloth of the hood was still on her face, the humid odor of her breath forming on the fabric. How many hours had it been? How many days? Each time she came out of a foggy half-sleep, part of her expected to be back in her apartment, wrapped in the cool muslin sheets with Billy lying next to her. It had to be a dream, a horrible nightmare, and a trick on the mind.

But when she opened her eyes, the blackness was still there, the smell and the taste of the cloth and the realization that this was no dream. “Ooh,” she moaned again, and rolled her hips to press her stomach against the bed, trying to ease the ache in her shoulders that had been so unnaturally strained with her hands tied behind her. And then she heard the creak of floorboards, and yes, she believed she could actually feel her captor now whenever he moved to her side. The belief was strengthened when she felt the straw again poking at the bottom of the hood. She let it work its way up to her lips and drew it into her mouth.

The concoction they were now feeding her came warm and smooth into her throat, and she took it greedily this time. If they were poisoning her, so be it. If they'd spiked the supplement with drugs, what were her options? Her obstetrician had warned her against dehydration. She'd even taken to keeping a bottle of water on her courtroom dais while she listened to the presentation of evidence and testimony.

“Can you help me to the toilet again?” she asked when she was done drinking. “I'm sorry. The baby, you know—he pushes on my bladder and I have to go.”

The first time she'd asked to pee, she thought she might be led to a bathroom, behind closed doors where she could remove the damn hood—not to be. Instead, her captor had grabbed up a fistful of fabric from the arm of her dress and half-dragged her to somewhere in the room, maybe a corner, and then forced her to sit down by clipping at the back of her knees and pressing on her shoulders until she felt the roundness of a seat meet her buttocks.

Was it some kind of portable toilet? It felt similar to a “head” she'd used on a sailing yacht she'd taken with her family to Bimini years back. By blind feeling with her cuffed hands, she was able to rise slightly and pull down her own underwear and position herself. It was humiliating, knowing that within reaching distance her captor was watching her. She'd tried as best she could to keep her dress down around her knees, but could not cover the sound of her water hitting something that she assumed was a bowl below her.

You do what you have to do
, Diane thought. Was this part of the captivity? The raw humiliation of the prisoner? She'd read about such things, reports from prisoners of war and details from the diaries of abductees. Some simply wallowed in their own voids. At least there was a modicum of civility here. Was that a good sign? A sign at all?

But if it was a forced humiliation she wasn't going to let it happen.

“It doesn't bother me, you know? I've got brothers. With brothers, you learn to pee in front of men,” she said. No response. Just silence.

Though she knew she was being watched, Diane had seen enough investigative reports as a prosecutor and judge to be thinking ahead.
Not if,
when
the Marshal's Service and FBI find me, they're going to need evidence on the case of my kidnapping. I will
, she swore to herself and her child,
survive to tell my story
. But she knew plenty about forensic evidence.

Taking her time on the makeshift toilet, she used her hands, bound behind her, to feel the surface of what she was sitting on. She needed to find smooth spots where she could roll her fingertips like they do in booking to leave her prints behind. Would it help? Would her captors know to wipe everything clean? Obviously, she couldn't know, but just the act, the clandestine act of doing something, anything, lit a spark of defiance in her brain.
Think, Diane. Outsmart them if you can. It's all you've got.

When she was finished, she tried to stand on her own. There was no cleanup. She reached down and pulled up her underwear. She felt slightly dizzy. Was there spotting on her underwear? Was the anxiety and the fear and this wretched nightmare having an effect on her child? She wobbled on her feet. This time, her captor actually took her by the arm, clamping it and guiding her instead of pulling her by the sleeve. The tips of the guard's fingers seemed small to Diane. She tried to analyze the touch, to gauge the angle, maybe judge the height of her captor. This trip to the toilet had also surprised her with a new sensation of tingling in her feet and legs upon standing.

Her doctor had warned about the swelling that might occur in her legs and feet during the pregnancy, but she'd stayed active, had even gone down to the beachfront pool in her and Billy's building to swim in the evenings after work. But in this captive state, lying on a mattress for hours on end, her circulation was next to nil. This time, she resisted, just slightly, from being led back to the bed.

“Can I just stand for a minute?” she asked, showing deference with her tone of voice. “I just need to stand and move my legs, you know? I'm getting so stiff and the blood needs to move to get down to my feet and organs and the placenta for my baby.”

She was working the angles, making herself more human to him: not just a thing being bargained for a price. If her captor had even a sliver of compassion for children or motherhood or humanity, she wanted, needed, to touch it.

She took a shuffle to her right, put pressure on her foot, and then took a full step back to her left. She bent her knees. She took a full step to the left and again flexed her knees, waiting to be grabbed or pulled.

“Do you remember when your wife was pregnant?” she said, taking a chance. Silence.

She took another step to the right, and then back again. She arched her back and let out a groan at the effort, feeling muscles that were cramped, maybe even bruised, from the rough handling she'd received as they shoved her in the van and sat on her.

“Maybe your mother? With a brother or sister?” Silence.

“You know I'm already in my eighth month and I can feel the baby kicking?” she tried again. “If you put your hand right there on my belly, you can actually feel him.”

Silence.

“Do you think you could at least free my hands so I could feel my stomach? You certainly can't think that I could overpower you or escape. I'm a fat, pregnant woman. I just want to use my hands to rub my stomach, feel my child, and calm him.”

More silence.

Then she felt the hand grab her arm above the elbow, not the comfortable, leading hand but a fingers-digging-into-muscle, pissed-off hand. She knew she'd gambled with the attempt at personalization. He dragged her across space, the seven steps she'd counted to the toilet, this time stumbling steps, and then spun her and backed her up again until her knees were clipped by the edge of the mattress. She sat down hard on the bed, her back stiffening this time so as not to bang her head on the wall.

Not a word was uttered—not even a
humph
from the effort the captor had used to issue the silent message: shut the hell up.

Diane sat, huffing into the cloth of the hood, smelling her own deteriorating breath coming back at her.
I went too far
, she said to herself.
Christ, maybe this guy was a toss-away kid and has no memory of mother or family. Hell, maybe he was abused by his parents as a kid, and all I've done is goad memories that just pissed him off more.

She stayed silent and listened, with a newly acute sense of hearing. Hadn't she read somewhere that when one sense is removed or lost the others try to compensate? She couldn't see, but she could hear.

And there it was, that muted clicking sound: not teeth chattering in a closed mouth, or nervous foot-tapping. Not careful knuckle-cracking. This was tapping, not rhythmic, but fast. After a pause there was more tapping—definitely texting. And then nothing.

She lay back.
How long will this go on? How long?
She felt the baby move again deep in her abdomen, that surreal, tiny push from the inside out that only one living thing in all of existence can feel. Then she heard the creak of a chair or floorboards. Again, she thought she could feel the air move.

When something touched her elbow, she flinched and felt fingers take hold of her, firmly but not with malice. Then the grip pulled her and rolled her more to her side and she followed the unspoken instruction. And then she felt and heard, instantaneously, a quick pull and snick at her wrists and her hands fell free. The grip at her elbow disappeared.

Chapter 19

M
idafternoon: I looked down at the next address on Billy's list and shook my head. I'd driven more than an hour south on the Florida Turnpike toward Homestead, and then another half hour southwest past Florida City, the last civilized place on the southern peninsula of the state before the long jaunt on the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys.

I was now on Ingraham Highway—good luck with street signs. The eight-mile-long roadway is named after James Edmundson Ingraham, one of those “visionary” industrialists who was convinced in the late 1800s that the Florida Everglades could be drained and channeled and turned into a utopia of profitable farmland. Nature, of course, had her say, and now the road that bears Ingraham's name runs from the entrance of Everglades National Park at its western terminus to the largest state prison in South Florida, the Dade County Correctional Institution, to the east. In a historical sense, both beginning and end seem apropos.

On either side of the two-lane road were open fields of farmland as flat as a pool table and lined with knee-high tomato plants. At variable intervals, the plots would inexplicably end and butt up next to forestlike acres of mature avocado trees, lush and green and generations old. The next carefully zoned field would be lined with rows and rows of towering royal palm trees, standing like soldiers before the march. This was a part of Florida you never see on postcards, more akin to Midwest plains than the subtropics. With few signs and no discernible addresses, I was left to slow down at each turnoff or gate entrance to search for a mailbox or mile marker or number or clue.

After a few aborted turns down tractor-rutted service roads and a stop at a corrugated steel warehouse shell, I finally came upon a walled and ornamented entryway that appeared residential—residential, considering its location, but palatial considering the six-foot-tall bronzed sculptures of rearing horses that flanked an iron gate. A family crest read
ARENAS
. Through the gate, I could see a long, palm-lined driveway and a terra-cotta-colored barrel-tiled roof in the distance.

I was in search of Manuel Arenas, age forty-one, convicted sixteen years ago in federal court for unlawful distribution, possession with intent to distribute, and importation of cocaine. Diane had prosecuted the case against Manuel and his older brother, Eduardo. The eldest brother was ruled not guilty for lack of direct evidence. When Manuel was convicted, Diane had asked for the maximum penalty, fifteen to life.

Billy had explained to me that the younger brother had refused to implicate his sibling and took the weight himself, testifying that he alone had used his family's agricultural business in southern Dade County as a cloak for his own illegal activities. In court on the day his sentence was announced, Manuel Arenas, then twenty-three years old, had raised his hands with fingers pointed as if forming duel handguns, aimed at Diane's face, and spit four times while jerking his wrist in mock-firing before bailiffs could wrestle him out of the room to his echoing cries of “You will die, bitch! You will die!”

Billy's depiction of Diane's own recollection of the moment, and the fact that it still resonated with her years later, included the look of total rage on the young man's face and the complete conviction that a deep wrong was being done to him—and that she was responsible. The undisputed fact that Arenas had imported tons of cocaine into the United States using a variety of means and through his own family's legitimate business ties and operations seemed to roll off his back.

In fact, he'd been recorded in phone taps bragging about how he used hollowed-out railroad ties into which he stuffed coke. He'd brought tons into the country as framing material for outside gardens. When the DEA got onto that scheme, he'd claimed that he himself had discovered how to blend the coke into a paste that could be molded into decorative flowerpots and imported into Florida, and then crushed and refiltered into high-grade cocaine. At trial, his only defense had been that it all was simply business.

Now, I stood at the electronically locked gate of the Arenas family­ compound, waiting to ask if he'd carried out his long-ago threat to a federal prosecutor. With no badge, no authority, and no expectations, I pushed the intercom button on the gate.

“May I help you?” a man's voice asked.

“My name is Max Freeman. I'm here to speak to Manuel Arenas.”

“And what is your business with Mr. Arenas?”

“I'd like to ask him about Judge Diane Manchester.”

There was a pause, but not one that seemed inordinately long.

“Please come in, Mr. Freeman,” the voice said. The gate, triggered from within, began to open.

The entry drive was grand: sixty-foot palms, multicolored bougainvillea adorning either side, a covered porte-cochère under which I pulled the Fury. When I parked and stepped out onto the shaded tile drive, a man was already standing next to a set of double oak doors. They were massive and appeared to have been hand-carved.

“Mr. Freeman,” the man said with a tick of Spanish accent as I approached. He extended his hand and I took it.

“Eduardo Arenas,” he said in introduction, and waved his hand into the entryway of his home. “Please, sir.”

I nodded and stepped through the doorway into the coolness of air-conditioning turned a bit too cold and the fragrance of fresh-cut flowers a bit too cloying. The interior was as grand as the outside: polished marble, glittering chandeliers, pale leather seating, a variety of artwork on textured walls, all awash with sunlight pouring through two-story glass windows that formed the back wall of an expansive great room. As I stepped down from the foyer into the room, a woman dressed in a maid's uniform approached with a tray.

“Coffee, Mr. Freeman?” Eduardo Arenas said. “Or something else?”

“Uh, no. No, thank you,” I managed. I admit I was slightly put off by the welcoming tone and deference considering I had shown up unannounced. But I was not here to be clever or unassuming.

“I would like to speak to your brother, Mr. Arenas,” I said. “Is he available?”

Eduardo was a man small in stature, maybe five-eight and 140 pounds. He had dark, perfectly coifed hair, black eyes, and some age lines in his face, but fewer than one would expect for a man nearing sixty. He was dressed in dark linen slacks and an intricately patterned white guayabera shirt.

“I have sent for Manuel, Mr. Freeman. He is out working in the groves,” Eduardo Arenas said, motioning me to sit as the maid placed the coffee service on a glass-topped table before leaving. “May I ask what your visit is in reference to?” The man's English was perfect.

“I assume you recognize the name of Judge Manchester,” I said. “Are you aware of the recent news of the judge?” Arenas sat and poured us both a small china cup of dark coffee.

“Her maiden name is McIntyre. She was the prosecutor in my brother's federal trial,” Arenas said matter-of-factly. “Many years ago … and yes, I keep up with the news, Mr. Freeman. The kidnapping of a judge in the United States is very big news.”

Arenas sipped his coffee and sat silent, waiting for another question.

“I work for Mr. Billy Manchester, the judge's husband. And as you might guess, we are looking at all possibilities involving her disappearance. Mr. Manchester said that his wife was very afraid of your brother, Mr. Arenas,” I said, matching the man's direct tone. “Even after many years.”

Arenas put down his cup, looked down between his knees, folded his hands in front of him, and sighed.

“Manuel was very young then, Mr. Freeman,” he said, still looking down. “He was young and foolish and caught up with himself and the times.”

I said nothing. I'd heard too many stories begin the same way. I knew Arenas would go on and I let him.

“Manny made his mistakes, no doubt. He was a young man too proud, too boisterous, and perhaps through the fault of his own family, too arrogant about the things he had and the things he thought he deserved.”

Arenas finally looked up, his forehead and the corners of his dark eyes now holding the age lines that seemed absent only minutes before. His expression didn't hold sadness as much as a look of a recognized guilt.

“I was the older one, supposedly the more mature. I was the one who should have looked out for him, taught him lessons. I did not then, Mr. Freeman. I want to believe we have both learned a great deal over the years.”

I held my silence.

“During my brother's incarceration, our family continued to build,” he said, raising his palms to indicate the opulence surrounding him. “We now have contracts with the state and supply most of the decorative palm trees for nearly every roadside off-ramp and rest area and government facility in South Florida. We are a serious and legitimate business, Mr. Freeman. We hold no grudges, nor do we harbor ill feelings for the dues we had to pay for past transgressions.

“On our mother's grave, my brother had nothing to do with whatever has befallen Judge Manchester.”

The speech came off as heartfelt. Yet I'd heard such orations before, from political speeches to confessional soliloquies to parole board pleadings. I was about to ask a question when noise from an adjoining hall drew both our attentions. Manuel Arenas entered the room pulling a broad-brimmed hat from his head and held it in his hands as his brother stood.

“Manuel, this is Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman, this is my brother, Manuel, the foreman of our family's work crews, planters, and harvesters. He has been in the fields since five a.m., as he always is.”

The younger Arenas was wider at the shoulders, thicker in the forearms, and grayer at the temples than his older brother. He was dressed in dusty jeans, workman's boots, and a denim shirt sweat-soaked at the neck and under the arms. He wiped a strand of hair from his forehead with a sleeve and wiped his hand on his pants before taking my hand. I could feel the hardened calluses on his palms and fingers.

He looked me in the eye when he said “Sir,” and then turned his gaze back to his brother.

“Mr. Freeman is a friend of Mr. Billy Manchester, the husband of Diane McIntyre.”

No recognition came to Manuel Arenas's eyes. In fact, he looked quizzically at his brother, awaiting further information.

“Ms. McIntyre was the prosecutor at your court trial and is now a federal judge,” Eduardo said.

“OK,” the younger brother nodded but continued to look down.

“The judge has gone missing, and Mr. Freeman is here to ask if you might know anything that might help them find her.”

Again, Manuel looked perplexed by the explanation, looking first at his brother and then at me.

“How?” he said in incomprehension.

“How was she kidnapped?” I asked, a little too loud and in a tone that might be taken as questioning his statement or actions.

“How may I help, sir?” he asked. “I don't know this person. I only work in the fields. I work with my men and with the other foremen of other crews and the truck drivers making deliveries. Eduardo deals with all the business people, the lawyers and such.”

“You don't have any contact with the old drug runners?” I said as plainly and upfront as I could. Again, Manuel looked to his brother.

“Do you know a Colombian named Escalante?” I said with a sharpness in my voice that I was hoping might jar him. But he did not lose his composure.

“Those times are gone, Mr. Freeman—and so are those people,” he said quietly, looking me straight in the eye without a hint of brashness or anger or contempt. “That was another life for me.”

He shifted his weight from boot to boot, trying to find something to do with his hands.

“Eduardo,” he said to his brother. “May I get back to work, please? We've got that shipment to make to the farm in Ocala. It's going to take until after dark to load.”

The older brother looked to me, the question on his face.

“Anything else, Mr. Freeman?”

I shook my head. If these guys were bullshitting me, they were better actors than they'd been drug runners.

Manuel bowed his head. “I wish I could be more helpful,” he said, and left the room. His brother waited until his sibling was gone before stepping toward the front door.

“Manny works very hard, Mr. Freeman. His family takes care of him. He sacrificed a lot and we owe him that.”

“You mean sacrificed a lot by taking the punishment alone?” I said. “Is that some kind of confession, Mr. Arenas?”

The man looked directly into my face, unblinking.

“My confessions are only to my God, Mr. Freeman. Is there anything else, sir?”

“The authorities may be right behind me, Mr. Arenas,” I said, accepting my dismissal.

“They will have my complete cooperation. If they want my phone records, my business contracts, access to my properties, they are theirs to have.

“I repeat my brother's words; I don't really know Mrs. Manchester. I wish we could be more helpful. I hope the best for her.”

Forty-five minutes later, I was northbound on the Florida Turnpike. All I'd done was run down false leads, no better than the guys working the reward tips. I was fuming in my own brand of anger when the
chirp
of a phone snapped me out of my funk. I had three phones and pulled out the one that connected me to CQ the basketball star.

“Got something,” was all the young man on the other end said.

“Face-to-face?” I said.

“Only way.”

“I'll be there in ninety minutes.”

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