The woman thought I was being kind when I replied, “I can empathize. But it’s not true of you.”
An FBI agent and a uniformed NYPD captain were in the operations suite when Barbara led me in. I had interrupted a briefing. Barbara’s staff was seated around the room, heads down. Phones had been muted but message lights pulsed at random on each desk.
There is a airless quality to a room filled with people in shock, a pheromone tension that depletes oxygen and leaches sweat. Small sounds echo. A cough is an occasional mask of the unchecked sob. Airports have a designated room. This room at the Waldorf was too richly lighted for the dark space it had become.
Hooker stood in the back, his expression attentive, not somber—a man accustomed to conflict. He nodded at me, then used his eyes to steer my attention to a computer.
On the screen was a photo of the teenage boy, Will Chaser. His abductors had used a flash. The black background was a garbage bag, possibly in the trunk of a car. His mouth was taped, cheeks inflated, and his brown eyes bulged as if surprised by the sudden light. They’d just removed his blindfold.
It was a close-up, head and shoulders. The pearl buttons of his western shirt matched the boots and cowboy hat I’d seen earlier. So did the untanned line on his forehead where black hair spilled over, thick as a brush. Because the boy’s chin was thrust forward, I guessed his hands were taped behind his back.
Looking at the photo, the image of Bern Heller sparked behind my eyes, then dissipated due to clinical indifference. In the Darwinian paradigm, a self-culling mechanism is requisite.
The image was replaced by the face of Will Chaser, the country boy newly arrived in the big city, all polished and brushed. I’d been amused by his tough guy posturing. “A goat ever kicked your ass, mister?” He’d said that when I’d hollered, “Kid!” Just off the plane, a teen who’d been miniaturized by skyscrapers, atomized by crowds, reduced to a speck, but he still had enough Oklahoma grit on his boots to fire back at a stranger.
No more tough-guy attitude. Not now. Adults go into shock when taped, gagged and blindfolded. This was a small-town boy. In the photo, he looked helpless as an infant.
As I followed Barbara across the room, the police captain, a woman named Tiffany Denzler, frowned her disapproval, saying, “Another outsider, Senator? This briefing was intended to be confidential.”
Hooker and I, the outsiders. Or maybe she meant staff, too. The captain had a point. Any of us could have ties with the bad guys.
Turning to the FBI agent, Denzler added, “I wouldn’t allow it, normally. I’m not sure I’m going to allow it tonight,” her tone less differential, her body language letting the room know that she was in charge—a bird-sized woman claiming more space, the way she stood, elbows out, hands on her familiar gun belt where there was a 9mm Glock, right side, in a speed holster.
The cop’s attitude changed when Barbara released my arm, saying, “Captain, were you sent to make decisions? You’re here to follow orders, that’s my understanding.”
“If that’s your understanding, Senator, I’m not going to burst your bubble—”
“A wise choice, Captain Denzler. You would disappoint the police commissioner and the head of your NYPD Captains Union—they’ve been very supportive in our phone conferences. The commissioner spoke well of you.”
Denzler cleared her throat. “Senator Hayes-Sorrento, if you expect us to find these people we can’t share information with every out-of-town visitor who happens to be in the neighborhood—”
“Visitors, Captain? How many of the kidnappers do you have in custody?”
Denzler said, “Pardon me, Senator?,” to give herself a second before she answered, “I have one suspect in custody. He hasn’t been charged yet because—”
“He’s not your suspect, you didn’t catch him.” Barbara motioned to me. “This gentleman did . . . and almost died. And the man in the back of the room got me out of one hell of a dangerous spot. You haven’t met Sir James Montbard and Dr. Ford. When you do, take a moment and thank them. If you’re smart, you’ll ask for their input.”
Barbara’s voice softened but not her tone as she added, “I don’t expect miracles. I know the numbers and they’re not encouraging. There are twelve thousand taxis and limos in this city. And, what, forty-some thousand taxi and limo drivers? It’s impossible to search every vehicle. Or to seal off the island. The NYPD is as good as it gets. But you personally, Captain, haven’t done a goddamn thing to impress me. Until you do, don’t presume to give orders. You will treat my staff and associates with respect. Is that understood?”
It was like a balloon deflating, the way Denzler looked in her starched uniform, arms at her sides now, while the FBI agent took an imperceptible step, distancing himself. The cop’s eyes moved from me to Hooker as if seeing us for the first time. “I didn’t realize, gentlemen. I apologize. I read the report on the abduction and what happened at the park. Outstanding, the way you responded, especially for civilians.”
Hooker said, “High praise indeed,” sounding sincere but smiling.
Barbara had moved close enough to put her hand on the policewoman’s shoulder but didn’t. The positioning suggested endorsement yet withheld approval. The woman knew how to manipulate people and control a room.
“The important thing, Captain, is that we work together. You’re the expert. We’re the amateurs. We need your help.”
“Senator, I think we got off on the wrong foot—”
“Don’t we all occasionally? I should have discussed protocol with you privately. But let’s get down to business”—Barbara was pouring herself a glass of wine—“so please continue with your briefing. Hold all questions until you’re done?”
Denzler replied, “That works for me,” sounding grateful and eager to please.
Senator Hayes-Sorrento poured a second glass of wine. As she offered it to me, I gave her a look:
The woman shrugged, her eyes looking into mine:
Part of the job.
Nice eyes. Gray-green with flecks of gold.
, my friend Tomlinson calls them.
I hadn’t noticed before.
While Denzler briefed us, the FBI agent’s cell phone buzzed. He went outside to take the call. When he returned, his projected detachment told me it was important. But not too important it couldn’t wait, because he took a seat and listened with the rest of us while the policewoman told us the latest.
At 8:45 p.m., the kidnappers had e-mailed a ransom note to three general Internet addresses used by the NYPD. Nearly an hour later, the photo arrived sent as an attachment.
The note was written in precise English, but the syntax suggested it was composed by someone whose native language was Spanish. Probably male. He had written “interned” instead of “buried.” He had written “the air cylinder in testament produces” rather than “the oxygen tank will produce.” The name William Chaser was used in the subject line of the photo, but the note referred to their captive as “she” or “the politician.” The note had been written in advance of the abduction, anticipating the senator, not a teenage boy.
Denzler said she couldn’t show us the note or the exact wording. Instead, she had created a computer document outlining key points. I understood the purpose but found it irritating.
The kidnapper’s note said the Minnesota teenager would be put into a box, then buried. The box contained an air cylinder with enough oxygen for approximately thirty-six hours. A tube running from a canteen would be taped to the boy’s mouth, so he would have a limited amount of water
If certain demands were met, the kidnappers would post the GPS coordinates of the box on a popular third-party website. It didn’t name the site. If the American government responded before eight a.m. on Sunday, the boy might live. If there was an attempt to negotiate, or to pursue, the boy would die.
The kidnappers had effectively placed the boy’s life in the hands of the people they were extorting. They claimed to be Castro Revivalists and wanted Cuba to return to National Socialism. They called themselves the
In the frozen pond, Choirboy hadn’t mentioned Castro Socialists. Judging from the FBI agent’s physical response—he looked at the floor, nose wrinkled as if sniffing—he didn’t believe it either. Captain Denzler did.
“It explains why they were after you, Senator Hayes-Sorrento. Your committee has authority over the materials they’re demanding—it’s been on the news.”
Denzler touched a remote; the computer screen changed. “Here’s what they want. They refer to them as files. Files C/J-116 through C/Sa-120. We’ve been unable to confirm that these files exist.” The woman gave it a second. “Do they exist, Senator?”
Barbara was sitting between her chief of staff and her attorney. Both were taking notes. I watched the woman nod. “They’re not just files. Our people discovered a . . . a place, where the former dictator’s personal papers were being warehoused. Some personal possessions, too.”
Some personal possessions? The woman was good.
She said, “But because the information has been”—Barbara glanced at her attorney, who was shaking her head—“because the information is classified, my staff will investigate the steps necessary to arrange a private deposition. I want to do everything I can to help this child.”
The FBI agent said, “You can confirm, though, these designations match materials that have been cataloged?”
“Not cataloged—not yet. Grouped under very general terms. Subgrouped, really. C for
, then subgrouped, A for
, B for
. Like that. The number refers to the carton. C/J-116, for instance, means
, letter j, carton 116. You might find something related to Japan inside. Or jewelry. I’m not saying there is jewelry, understand. It’s just an example.”
Denzler asked, “What about this one. C/Sa? Carton 120.”
Becoming impatient, Barbara replied, “As I said, everything’s alphabetized. I assume fewer items begin with the letter j, so there’s only one carton. More items are in subgroup S, so there are two or three cartons. Sometimes dates were also added. A sort of sub-subgrouping. The work had to be done”—Barbara hesitated—“in a limited amount of time.”
“How many people know about the labeling system?”
“Too many, obviously.”
The policewoman started to ask another question but decided to let it go. “Then it fits. A pro-Castro organization demanding Fidel Castro’s files. Certain items, I’m saying, that’s what they’re demanding.”
Barbara was looking at the screen, way ahead of Denzler, maybe thinking what I had already concluded: The kidnappers had insider information. They knew how the items had been organized and at least an idea of what the cartons contained.
After a long silence, the FBI agent said, “That’s very helpful, Senator Hayes-Sorrento, thank you,” then looked at Denzler, who got the hint, and stepped back so he could talk.
The FBI agent said, “There was a kidnapping that has interesting similarities. A college student named Barbara Mackle was abducted and buried in a specially constructed box. She was targeted because her father was a wealthy Florida developer. Her abductor was an escaped convict, Gary Krist. Krist spent a month at the Miami Public Library searching for the perfect victim for what he considered the perfect crime . . .”
I tuned out the agent, less interested. Harrington had made the connection with the Mackle case. As an intelligence consultant, he would’ve had no trouble piping information to the FBI.
I was thinking about the third question I had asked Choirboy when we were in the water:
Who is your contact in America?
His organization had known the senator’s schedule. There had to be an informer.
Choirboy gave me a name. A code name, really. If I hadn’t been freezing, I might have experienced my first emotional chill. The name was linked to my own personal history. If I believed in evil, the name might have once defined it.
“Tenth Man,” Choirboy told me, although it was difficult to hear because of his chattering teeth and the congealing fluid in my inner ears. Salt water and blood both crystallize at thirty degrees Fahrenheit.
Tenth Man made no sense. An alternative translation had come to me later while under a hot shower at the station house.
Tenth Man . . . ? Ten Man . . . ?
No, Choirboy had said
Maybe the same person, maybe not. I had my suspicions, nothing confirmed.
Tomlinson, my friend and neighbor on Sanibel Island, sometimes worked as a roadie for the classic rock band America. His favorite song: “Tinman.” It didn’t prove a connection, but the song wasn’t his only linkage. Like me, he’d traveled the world. Like me, his past life was a gray region, an old map with unexplored territories. Because returning to Florida was now a priority—there was equipment I needed—I would also have my chance to discuss the significance.
I was eager to talk with Tomlinson.
My eyes moved around the room, seeing James Montbard at the back of it. He’d lost interest, too. Was it because he’d already heard the story from Harrington?
Barbara listened while going through a stack of faxes. Her face, seen in profile, showed the patrician nose, the strong chin. The starched collar of her blouse framed a glossy sweep of hair, and my eye moved naturally downward, the curvature of buttons incongruous with the detached expression on her face.
I pictured Barbara, not the Mackle girl, when the agent said, “...if it’s not a hoax, we expect a second photo before they bury him. A photo of the box with the boy inside. Showing off. Like a trophy. Probably taken just before they close the lid.”
By the time I had forced the image out of my head, the agent was saying, “Krist told Ms. Mackle the batteries would last a week if she was careful, but the fan would quit in two days if she wasted power. Understandably, she became hysterical when Krist sealed the box and she heard dirt being shoveled onto the lid.