Authors: Judith Van Gieson
When I got home my place at La Vista was dark. The red message light on the machine blinked on and off. I punched the Play button, and Terrance Lewellen's voice said “Call me.” Before I did I turned on my lights and tried the R line again. I didn't get the same message. I didn't get any message. All I got was a ringing void, the buzzing black hole of the audio world.
“You get that buzz?” Terrance asked me when I reached him on his C phone.
“Damn Wes Brown's hide,” he said. “I went to see Colloquy this afternoon, and she was as sorry as a plucked chicken. Her feathers were all over the floor. She wouldn't even eat the granola I took her. Rick's getting ornery and making more noise about calling the police.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“Wait it out.” The feral yellow at the center of Terrance's eyes was probably gleaming somewhere inside his dark, purring Jaguar. The backbeat I was hearing was the sound of the lonesome highway. Terrance would enjoy talking from his car phone; if he didn't like the way the conversation went he could always say he was going into a tunnel. We don't have tunnels in New Mexico, but that wouldn't be likely to stop him. “Brown's got us by the short hairsâfor now,” he said, “but I'll get mine before this is over.”
I'd like to reserve a hole in the black volcanic rock of the malpais for people who make me wait. To me, waiting compares to lying in the hot sun watching the vultures circle overhead. The longer the wait, the more dangerous for the hostages, the more nerve-racking for me. When the Kid showed up with stuffed sopapaillas from Tomas's on Sunday night, I told him they tasted like monkey chow. When Anna
up with a new hairdo (narrow on the sides, high on the top) on Monday morning, I told her she looked like a clipped poodle. When Brink tried to tell me about his weekend with Nancy, I told him to buzz off. On Tuesday the man from the gas company blasted Rush Limbaugh from his car radio while he read our meter.
“Turn that right-wing asshole off or get out of my yard,” I yelled out the window with the bluster of a pissed-off wind goddess.
“Jeez, what a bitch,” he said, leaving the scene and driving down Lead with Rush Limbaugh still blasting his propaganda. It was a change from the usual booming basses.
The week's divorce was a woman named Roberta Dovalo from Ruidoso, a city whose name always gets mispronounced in New Mexico.
“I hear you do divorces,” she said.
“That's right,” I replied.
“Can't get me a lawyer in Ruidoso.” She had a country girl's twang, but she got Ruidoso down.
“They're all friends with my husband, Jimmie.”
“You got any kids?”
“Twins,” she said. “Jimmie's been cheatin' on me. I want to git him for every penny I can git.” It had the sound of a country and western song. I envisioned Roberta on my mental screen, wearing cowgirl boots and a short red dress with a full skirt and silver tips on the collar.
“New Mexico is a community property state,” I said. “Unless there's a prenuptial agreement, it all gets split right down the middle.” People have been known in the heat of separation anxiety to take an ax and split everything (including the refrigerator) in two.
“Damn,” she said.
“We should be able to get custody of the children and child support.”
“Who's your husband's lawyer, do you know?”
“You ain't gonna tell him what I tell you, are you?” The nervousness in her voice made me wonder if she hadn't been doin' some cheatin' herself.
“Everything you tell me is in confidence,” I said.
“That's good,” she said.
“Can you get up here sometime so we can talk about it?”
She made an appointment for the following week, left her phone number and hung up.
I slept, Deborah and Perigee invaded my dreams. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I made a string of phone calls to the R line but there were no new messages, only the same black buzz. Wednesday night my dreams got tangled up. I dreamed about a red-haired parrot, a blue-feathered woman and a telephone that wouldn't answer. On Thursday morning Anna handed me a manila envelope as I came in the door.
“This was on the floor,” she said. “Someone dropped it through the mail slot last night.”
“Did you open it?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It's from the kidnapper. I have a feeling. Who else drops envelopes through the slot?”
I was conscious of the evidence-destroying nature of fingerprints, but I also had to read the message, so I took a letter opener and lifted the flap. I picked the envelope up gingerly by the corners and shook. A lock of hair and a feather fell onto the clean piece of computer paper I'd laid on Anna's desk. The feather was a match for my indigo plume. The hair was dyed red. Proof that the kidnapper had the hostages except that the feather could have come from Colloquy and the hair could belong to anybody who used Clairol. The message, which was on an unfolded piece of Xerox paper, read: “Offer accepted. Indigo dying without mate. No police. Put two hundred thousand in Deborah's BankWest account. Will pick up at ATM on Tramway or at Midnight Cowboy or Page One between eight and nine
. Friday. Thousand-dollar bills. Will deposit black-light instructions for rest of ransom and mates' return.” The words had been clipped from a newspaper (most likely the
taped to a piece of paper (I could see the corners of the tape) and xeroxed.
“Why'd he send a copy?” Anna asked.
“With all that cutting and pasting, the original had to be full of fingerprints. Also, a xeroxed copy would pick up less hair or anything else that could identify the perp.” The Xerox, in fact, was antiseptically clean. The perp wasn't as dumb as Terrance had indicated.
I sent Anna out to buy some clear plastic folders. We put the letter in one, the hair and feather in another and taped them shut.
“If I have to put the ransom in all three of those machines, it'll cost me six hundred thousand,” said Terrance when I reached him on his C phone. He had to be at home; I didn't hear the telltale whoosh of traffic or wind. He could be plopped in a leather armchair in his den with his legs on an ottoman, smoking a cigar and admiring his art collection. “I can't get that kind of money unless I sell the Lochovers.”
“You'll only need four hundred of it for an hour. Don't you know a banker who'll stake you for that length of time?”
“I don't know anybody who'll do it without bleeding me dry. Of all the bankers in Albuquerque,
have to deal with Charlie Register at BankWest. Deborah
have to have her account with him.”
“What's wrong with Charlie Register?”
“He's got a hankering for my Lochovers and a crush on my wife.”
“Can the ATMs be programmed to make the transaction?” I asked him, since he knew more about the computer highway than I did.
“Sure. To arrange the ransom transfer, the bank could substitute thousand-dollar bills for the twenties in those three ATMs. Register's programmers can set it up so that no card but Deborah's can access the ATMs for that hour. As soon as the money comes out of one machine, the others can be programmed to shut down until the four hundred thousand goes back to the bank. Brown's only going to nail me once. Besides, my security men will be watching those machines and following Brown like hawks. If I don't get Perigee back alive and well, Brown'll be dead meat.”
“And what happens if Deborah doesn't come back? Will you agree to call in the FBI then?” I asked.
“Only if I have to,” he said.
“What's a black light?”
“A way of reading invisible ink.”
“Do you think Brown has accomplices?”
“Naah. Brown's a loner. He's too screwed up to work with anyone else.”
“Then why involve three machines? They're too far apart for Brown to get to all of them in one hour.”
“He's so stupid he thinks that'll make it harder for me to track him.”
Then we got to what I thought was the deep wrinkle in the fabric of this plan. “Why would Brown set up such an obvious way to make a money transfer?” I asked, thinking even as I said it that the most obvious is often the hardest to see.
“Because when it comes to brains, he's down a quart,” Terrance said.
Terrance, who was by no means a loner, asked me to go to Charlie Register's office with him. The office was in BankWest's Tramway branch in the high Heights and had a view that went into the last century. I had the feeling that a pair of high-powered binoculars would show Apaches galloping across the horizon with the cavalry hot on their tail. There was a thick gray carpet on Charlie Register's floor.
desk and credenza were made of teak and devoid of clutter. There wasn't a single sheet of paper or Post-it to mar the surface of his furniture. The only object in view was a polished petal-shaped bowl of Nambe ware on top of the credenza. It was a change from the usual collection of Indian rugs, pottery, snakes and coyotes that straddle the border between good taste and bad. The room was lit by ceiling fixtures and a long-necked halogen lamp that balanced as gracefully as a crane on its skinny leg. There was only one painting, and it took up half a wall. It was a painting I'd hang on my own wall if I had a hundred times more house and a thousand times more money. Close up it was an Impressionist's abstraction of feathery brush strokes and dabs of paint. From a few feet back, the brush strokes became ripples, twigs, branches, grass. Across the room the painting evolved into winter marsh colors and the reflecting ponds of the Bosque del Apache. It was subtle and exquisite. Not all New Mexico scenery is grandiose. There's a delicate, hidden side. As far as I was concerned, there was only one flaw in the paintingâthe artist, Albert Lochover, had scrawled his name in large letters and large ego across the corner.
Terrance, who could no more stop negotiating than an Amazon could stop imitating, walked up to the wall, sank his boots into the carpet and inspected the painting. “The later work is better,” he pronounced.
Charlie Register looked at me and chuckled. Maybe the joke was that he too saw through Terrance, but that didn't necessarily mean that he saw what I saw. “Eat your heart out, Lewellen,” Charlie said. “I wouldn't trade three
late Lochovers for
early Bosque.” He extended his hand to shake mine. Terrance hadn't been any better at man to woman introductions than he'd been at woman to woman. “I'm Charlie Register,” he said.
“Neil Hamel,” I replied, shaking the banker's smooth hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, ma'am.”
Charlie Register's appearance was as subdued and elegant as the painting. His suit, shirt and tie were a careful blend of neutrals, very quiet, very expensive. His boots were a plain and polished brown. He was about fifty. His hair was silvery blond, his face friendly and ruddy. He was only a few inches taller than Terrance, but they were a critical few. He didn't need to compensate by any other type of expansion. Charlie Register didn't need to compensate for much. His manner was relaxed, western and jovial enough to make him a third- or fourth-generation New Mexican, but it was a manner, possibly even as big a front as Terrance's oil driller's bull.
“She's my lawyer.” Terrance pulled out a cigar and lit up.
“No more Buddy Baxter?” Charlie asked.
“Not on this one,” Terrance said.
winked at me. “Lewellen always did like doing business with women. How's your mother?” he asked Terrance.
“Pretty good,” he said.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Charlie asked.
“Some So-Cal cowboy is trying to take advantage of me,” Terrance said.
“Take advantage of
Lewellen? I don't believe it.” Charlie's eyes twinkled.
“He's holding my indigo macaw captive.” Terrance told Charlie Register the story of the kidnapping and the negotiations, most of it anyway, and Charlie was quiet enough to listen. Terrance didn't tell Charlie how he came by the tape. Charlie didn't ask.
“Deborah's been kidnapped?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah,” Terrance replied.
“Damn.” Charlie leaned forward and placed the palms of his hands on the surface of his desk. “Don't you think you ought to be worrying about getting
Terrance shrugged. “The marriage was over.”
“So what? Deborah's life is in danger. Why aren't you calling in the FBI?”
“That was my advice,” I said.
“They'll screw it up,” said Terrance. “Can you get your programmers to reprogram those three machines so Brown can take the money out?” He showed Charlie the feather and the lock of hair, and handed him the note with the addresses of the ATMs.
“Hell, Lewellen, two of those are our most active machines. I'd have to shut them down to my other customers, and that's not gonna make them happy.”
“It's only for an hour,” Terrance said.
“It's a prime hour. Everybody's getting their money for the weekend. In order for the kidnapper to take it out, you're gonna have to put it in. Where are you going to get that kind of money
I agree to do it?”
“I'm involved in a little company that's manufacturing a testosterone patch. If I have to, I'll sell some stock.” If there was anything neither of these guys needed it was testosterone, even though they were into middle age and beyond. They exuded a buzz that was as old as mankind, maybe older, making me feel like a spectator at a mating contest or an athletic event. Like a couple of kids practicing slap shots, they were trying to beat each other and raise their own level at the same time, loving every minute of the competition. The one advantage big boys have over big girls in navigating the business worldâtheir worldâis that little boys learn how to win at sports, learn how to lose, learn how to compete. My big brother taught me those rules on the ice-covered Irish pond in Ithaca, New York, where we skated when we were growing up.