The entire trailer rocked as Thomas walked the fifteen feet from his bedroom to the front door. At 250 pounds, he made up a good percentage of the overall weight of his home, #47, deep in the heart of Shadow Grove Trailer Park.
Outside, he heard a string of profanities from the ex-love of his life. Trish had been a real beauty in High School; the two of them had been Prom King and Queen. The happiest he had ever been was the day he married her, up until the next happiest he had ever been the day he left her. Age refused to treat her well, and the junk she shot up didn’t help. At her worst, Tom found track marks in her arms, legs, between toes, under her tongue- even the nether regions weren’t off limits. Her face wrinkled, her blonde hair thinned, and she became so skinny that he was sure their six year old daughter could pick her up.
She blamed him when he lost his job at the department. She called him fat, useless, abusive, and a mess of other garbage that strung the divorce proceedings into a five year custody battle. They almost lost their daughter to the state, but in the end, Trish received custody of their daughter, Jean; he was lucky if he got weekends- they were according to her discretion. Frankly he would have preferred his daughter go into foster care. At least then her chances of being in a safe environment were significantly higher; at least she would be safe from them.
By the time Tom opened the door, Trish was halfway back to her car. His daughter stood at the bottom of his metal pull-out steps, wearing a white dress with printed pink flowers petals, and holding a Dora the Explorer backpack by one arm strap. In her other hand was Beanie, her favorite doll.
She was crying.
“Trish?” He called after her, “Hold on, will ya? What’s this all about?”
She ignored him, getting into her topless Cadillac (his cherry red Cadillac convertible, a wedding gift from his father, that he had to give up in the divorce), and took off down the row of trailers, knocking over a garbage can as she made a sharp curve onto the main road.
Turning back to his daughter, Tom asked her what had happened. Jean just continued to cry, so Tom picked her up and carried her inside. Immediately he noticed her bottom was wet. Whatever happened, it really stressed out her daughter; she hadn’t wet herself since she was three.
“C’mon,” he said, patting her on the back, “let’s take a shower for Daddy.” His shower was a single stall, and he had to help her when she tried reaching the shower head or adjusting the water temp. He didn’t even have shampoo, just a bar of soap. By the time she stepped in the shower, she had stopped crying, but still wasn’t saying anything. While Jean was in the shower, Tom took his daughter’s soiled clothes and checked her backpack for clean ones. Inside, he found a single notebook with “Journal” written on the front in black magic marker, a paper folder with homework sticking out in all directions, a pack of pencils, two pairs of socks and a t-shirt with some cartoon princess character he didn’t recognize.
No pants, no skirts, no underwear. He had seen this before: his child’s silent treatment, the hastily packed night sac, the defensive and angry mannerisms of his ex-wife- she was using again, he just knew it.
Working quickly, he took his daughter’s panties to the kitchen sink, and scrubbed them thoroughly, using a drop of dish soap. He looped them over a hair-dryer (one of his girlfriends had left it there) and ran the device on high.
He took his daughter’s dress, pulled one of his sports jackets off a hanger, and hung the dress on a towel rack in the bathroom. By that time, his daughter had finished with her shower and was drying herself off with his giant Dallas Cowboys towel, one he was sure smelled god-awful.
“Just put the dress back on, honey, we’ll go into town a little later and I’ll buy some new clothes.”
She smiled, glad at the opportunity to get a new outfit, but still didn’t say anything.
Tom pushed everything off his table into a black trash bag: empty beer cans, bottle caps, unfinished crossword puzzles, a few men’s magazines, cigarette butts, pizza crusts, paper plates, and empty candy wrappers. Opening a box of sugary cereal marketed to kids with large cartoon characters, and Disney toy promotions, he poured Jean a bowl and set it on his sticky table. She pulled a bar-stool up to the table, climbed up to the seat, and sat down to start eating, while tracing the maze printed on the back of the cereal box with her finger.
Tom didn’t know where he was going to get the money to buy his daughter some decent clothes. He had twenty-eight dollars cash, and about negative two-hundred in his checking account. There was, of course, no savings account, and he had to wait almost an entire week for his next unemployment check to arrive. He was ten years short of earning his pension with the force.
He spotted a shelf next to his television (which was enormous, took up an entire wall, and cost about half as much as the trailer itself) that held his modest collection of video games. He grabbed a grocery bag, and pushed every game into it.
The Xbox had been a gift about five years back, and he played it quite a bit right after he was fired, but hardly at all anymore. Most days he spent wasting away in front of the television, or chipping away at a crime novel he had been writing for about twenty years.
Tom grabbed a stack of DVDs as well; anything he hadn’t watched in a year or more went into a grocery bag. He wandered back into his kitchen, which wasn’t really separated at all from the living room, and sat down next to his daughter to watch her eat.
Finishing her afternoon breakfast, Jean joined her dad in his pick-up truck and rode into town.
“Is Mommy sick?” she asked, as he was merging onto the highway. It was the first thing she said since being dropped off.
“Why do you ask, sweetheart?”
“I saw her taking medicine.”
“What kinda medicine?”
“Shots, like I got at Dr. Ray’s.”
“Did a doctor give ’em to her?”
“Naw, she gave ’em to ‘erself. She had to heat it up first. Doesn’t that hurt daddy?”
Tom was shocked, not because his wife was using again, but because she was shooting up right in front of their daughter. “Jeanie, honey, that’s not medicine. She is sick, but those shots are making her worse. You ever see her taking those shots again, I want you to leave, ya hear? Go over to Krissey’s house next door, you use her phone, an’ you call me. Remember my number?”
She nodded earnestly, ready to impress her father.
As he expected, Tom received about three cents to the dollar on his games for what he spent on them; about forty dollars for twenty-five games. He had better luck with the movies, though, because Ray the pawn shop owner was an old drinking buddy of his.
“C’mon Ray,” Tom pleaded, “I need this money for Jean. I wouldn’t lie to ya.”
“Y’got Jean with ya?”
“Yeah, she’s in the truck.”
“Dropped ‘er on my front steps, an took off.”
Ray nodded. He knew what that meant, and didn’t feel like it needed to be put into words. “Aw’right, I’ll give ya fi’ty for tha whole bunch. How’s ‘at?”
Tom climbed up into the truck, and considered where he might take his daughter. He wanted to spend all the money on the prettiest dress his daughter ever saw, but he wasn’t sure how long Jean would be staying with him. Forever, if he had any say in it. Tom decided on thrift, to make sure she got as many things as she might need. He knew a few that had pretty girls’ clothes, in decent condition.
He looked over at his daughter, sitting next to him. She was staring out the window, idly twirling a golden strand of hair with her delicate finger.
“Ya know, you remind me of your mother when we first met. ‘Cept yer much prettier.”
She blushed, and smiled (finally!), and clenched her doll to her chest. The doll, red haired with a plastic face and cotton dress, was named Beatrice on her tag, but Jean just called her “Beanie.”
He decided her would head toward-
Tom blinked. He had the sensation that he was lying on his back. The sun and sky were above him. He had blacked out. Why had he blacked out? Tom felt nothing but pain as he tried to move.
There was a ringing in his ears. At first he thought it was his daughter screaming- Jean! He jerked his head to the side, ignoring the sharp intense stabbing that ran down his spine. His daughter was still in the cab of his truck (he realized he was thrown from it during the accident). She was hanging upside-down, still strapped in by the seat belt; she wasn’t moving. His entire truck had rolled, supported on its top by the cab’s roll bar and the bed topper.
Glass was everywhere, glinting in the light like a bath of razors.
What had happened?
Tom heard car doors on the other side of where he was, and turned his head to investigate. Four Hispanics all carrying automatic pistols and sub machine guns were getting out of a new Hummer; Tom noticed some of his white paint, probably from his truck, scratched onto the Hummer’s push-bar.
One of the Latinos put a boot into Tom’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The other three started searching the toppled truck.
“Hello, Mr. Wheeler,” the man standing over Tom said with a sneer. The man had a thick Hispanic accent, but had the articulation of someone educated in the States. “How are you feeling? You’re bleeding pretty bad.”
“What do you want?” Tom whispered, hoarsely.
“Right to the point, I like it. Money, Mr. Wheeler. Your wife owes me fifteen, but you’re going to pay me twenty.”
“Grand? What makes you think I have that kind of money? Go talk to Trish.”
“We have. She doesn’t have it. She says you have it. Your wife can be-”
“She’s not my wife,” Tom interrupted, spitting blood off to the side. “We’ve been divorced for years.”
“Sounds like a personal problem. Here’s my card.” He fished a white business card out of his pocket, and placed it gently in Tom’s shirt pocket. “If you want your family to live, you will find me my money. You have five days.”
He walked back to the vehicle, shouting at the other members of his crew, “Vaminos, bring the girl.”
“No,” Tom shouted, trying to get to his feet. He never felt the blow of the pistol butt into the back of his skull.
One of Tom’s old police contacts, Clint, was slouched in a dark booth, pushed to the rear corner of the town’s dirtiest dive bar. Tom slid into the seat across from him, wincing as the rough leather pushed up against his fresh bruises. He flicked the card across the table, and Clint picked it up, squinting in the dim light.
It was blue, embossed with blue lettering:
H&R Welding Ȼo
There was something that looked like a scribble underneath the phone number. Tome knew it was a gang tag, but couldn’t read it.
Clint scribbled a name on the blank side of the card, and passed it back to Tom, who picked it up and studied it.
Clint shook his head. “More likely L.A. Chingasos. Or maybe Chingos, but Chingaso means to fight. The area code is in the tag, 213, which is common for turf gangs. Also, you see how the C’s have a line through them, even in the business name? Means they’re Blood affiliates, because Crips are their all time rivals, so they cross out all the C’s to show they have no relation.”
Tom thought this made sense. Trish was born in L.A. and took trips out there frequently to visit “family.” He couldn’t get a hold of Trish since the previous morning, when all of this started. He didn’t feel like going to the police; he made a lot of enemies at the station, and was sure a few would shoot him in the back, if given the chance.
“Tom,” Clint said, “I’ve heard about these guys. Don’t hate me for saying this, but if they’re coming to you for Trish’s money, then she’s already dead. And if what I heard is true, what they do to children, you may wish Jean was dead too.”
Tom’s fist lashed out, quick as lightning, and struck Clint square in the jaw. Clint swore, and fell to the bar floor. Tom stormed out, leaving his old contact rolling and moaning. Tom knew he didn’t deserve it, that Clint was just trying to warn him, but at that point he didn’t care.
Tom pulled up next to his cherry-red Cadillac that was still parked in his ex-wife’s driveway. He didn’t visit the old house often, and it was eerie knowing that he would never live there again. It’s possible no one would.
He went around to the back, and swiftly kicked open the door. Searching quickly, he found the car keys hanging on a peg by the front entrance.
Tom drove the Cadillac to Dave, an old friend of his that also happened to collect classic cars. Dave had been hassling him to sell the convertible for years before his divorce.
He knew the car could, and should have, sold for twenty-seven thousand, but since he needed payment in cash, and payment immediately, Tom had to settle for twenty-one.
It was good enough.
Though Trish held on the car, she was never actually legally entitled to it, so the license, registration, and title were all still in his name. The sale was processed smoothly.
“I have the money. Where do you want me to take it?”
That was fast, well done. I will send somebody to pick it up.
“I’ll hand over the money only if he brings my daughter.”
He will tell you where she is being held.
“That’s not good enough.”
Listen, Tom, I am a fair man. Twenty thousand is not a lot of money, especially for me. I am only collecting what is owed to me. It took five grand to track your ass down, so you get to pay me a little bit more. I don’t really know you Tom, or what you are capable of. If your daughter is brought to the exchange, I will have to send an army to make sure you cooperate…
“Whatever it takes.”
…but that is too much of an inconvenience. No, he will come with instructions. If you give us the money, you will see your daughter again.
Tom waited impatiently for the Chingaso to arrive. Tom bundled and stacked the cash neatly into a manilla envelope. It had been three days since his daughter was taken from him, and he hadn’t slept during any of those three days.
But he was fading fast. His head pounded, his temples flared, and his bruises ached. He just needed to sit, and close his eyes for a little-
The pounding on the thin aluminum door sent Tom’s heart into a pounding of its own. He was awake, alert, and vividly aware of his surroundings. Appearing calm, he stepped outside, and stood facing the lone gang member.
This Chingaso was thin, but muscular, and had a pencil-thin mustache above his lip. All his arms, exposed by the wife-beater he was wearing, were covered in Catholic-themed tattoos. Even though it was night, he was still wearing dark sunglasses.
They wordlessly exchanged envelopes. Tom opened his, and inside found a picture of Jean, his beautiful daughter, bound and gagged. She sat against a dark background, staring into the harsh flash of the camera. She was crying, but appeared unharmed. Inside the envelope, he also found a lock of his daughter’s golden hair, pinned together by a bobby, and his daughter’s doll “Beanie.” At the bottom was a folded internet print-out: a map with directions to a motel off the highway about fifteen miles away.
The kidnapper thumbed through the cash, flipped open his phone, and started talking in a rapid, rough Spanish. Tom picked up enough body language to tell he was talking to the boss. Or at least the leader of their small crew, so far from home.
The man continued talking, turning toward his black Lincoln SUV and staring off down the road. He kept a watchful eye on the windows of the trailers all around him. His conversation consisted of a lots of Sí‘s and head nods. When he was finished, the gangster flipped his cell shut with a snap.
“Well, amigo,” he said, turning slowly, “I think our business is-”
It was hard for him to process what came next. A sound like raw meat sliding across a steel table. The crunch of bones. A sharp twist in his spine. His legs giving way beneath him. Taste of blood. Darkness.
The Chingaso’s hand never made it to the pistol tucked in his belt before he collapsed face first; a hunting knife was stuck in his spine, through to the hilt.
Tom removed the knife, and watched the man’s body convulse in agony. He thrust the knife one more time into the man’s lower back, slicing open the kidney. Then Tom dragged the body, still twitching, albeit silently, underneath his trailer. He collected the gang member’s wallet, gun, cell phone, and key-chain.
There was an old Army-green canvas bag, one that belonged to Tom’s father, resting just inside the trailer door. Tom grabbed it, and placed it inside the SUV on the passenger seat. On top of the bag, he set both envelopes, one with cash, the other with directions.
Tom pulled the lock of his daughter’s golden hair out of his shirt pocket. He clipped the bobby pin to the back of his belt, tied the hair into a knot, and kissed it tenderly before returning it to his pocket.
Jean woke from the accident while being carried by a large stranger past the motionless body of her father. She was scared that he might be dead, but as she got closer, she could hear him breathing in a half snore, half wheeze.
She screamed and pounded her fists into the stranger’s back, but it did no good. He didn’t even seem to notice.
The little girl was thrown roughly into the back of a large black vehicle. She squished up against someone that was in the back with her. Turning in the cramped space between the seat and the doors, Jean saw her mom, dressed in the exact same clothes she had seen her in this morning.
Jean put a hand to her mother’s chest, but couldn’t feel the familiar rise and fall. Her mom’s face was dull blue, and her eyes stared open wide.
The six-year-old girl, now very scared and very alone, pulled her knees up to her chin, and squeezed herself in the corner as tight as she could.
“Daddy will save me,” she whispered. “Daddy will save me. Daddy will save me. Daddy will save me.”
Tom studied the two gangsters standing in front of the motel room, smoking and laughing, through a night scope that he used for hunting. The cigarette cherries lit up in the green lens like lighthouses. The window behind them was flashing, most likely a television being watched in a dark room.
Two presented a problem. The only silent weapon he brought was a compact bow, and he wouldn’t be able to use the night-vision while aiming. Even if he had some sort of a head harness to strap it to his face, his depth perception would be off enough to where he wouldn’t feel confident hitting one target, let alone two. The same problem existed if he tried shooting them by aiming into silhouettes; one could easily slip away into the darkness as he tried to notch the second arrow. If he used his 30.06 hunting rifle, with the scope mounted, he could kill them both easily, but would risk the chances of a third gang member inside with his daughter. He wouldn’t be able to reach her in time.
Sneaking up on them, especially in the darkness of the far side of the motel, and taking them out silently seemed the easiest solution. Tom was confident he could do this; despite his heavy-set frame, he had plenty of experience creeping up on deer in the forest. Hunting was almost second nature to him anymore.
Out of habit, Tom pulled some grass at his feet and released it in the wind. He was disappointed that it blew away from his legs, which meant he was upwind. Then he almost laughed, realizing that humans didn’t exactly smell like other animals.
Humans were a different kind of prey.
Two Latinos, covered in tattoos and smoking cigarettes, were talking and laughing in front of a motel room. One shushed the other suddenly, telling him that he heard the crunch of gravel. They became silent, staring into the darkness.
Instantly they were bathed in the harsh brightness of headlights. They blinked, and tried covering their eyes to get a good look at the driver. A large figure stepped in front of the car, but still they couldn’t see who it was.
One of the gang members took a step forward, but heard a soft twang and the rushing of wind near his ear. He turned back to his partner, with a questioning expression on his face, and saw the shaft of an arrow that had pierced clean through his partner’s throat. The Chingaso whipped around to face his assailant, only to catch an arrow right above his cheekbone.
A third man wandered out into the night, curiously but lazily investigating the source of the commotion. When he saw the two dead men on the ground, he shouted, and pulled a pistol out from the back of his belt. Even before the man stepped out of the room, Tom had been in motion, and he slammed full force into the other kidnapper, putting his shoulder into the man’s lungs. His pistol fired, the bullet driving harmlessly into the parking lot asphalt.
With the wind knocked out of him, the gang member was little match for Tom, who kicked the gun away and stuck his own magnum down the Chingaso’s throat. He didn’t feel unlike Dirty Harry as he painted the doorstep with the man’s brain.
Tom ran into the room, lit only by a television and the headlights through the slits of the window blinds. The room seemingly empty, he quickly checked the corners, but not quick enough to see a swift motion out of the corner of his-
Tom sat in an old padded steel chair, not unlike the stackable chairs he sat in at Church, when he was younger. The room was an old warehouse, with cardboard boxes everywhere, and the fragrant smell of mold.
Tom was handcuffed from behind. His fly was open, with his genitals pulled away from his pants. Off to the side was a tool cart, with hammers and saws. Pliers. Screwdrivers. Razor blade box-cutters. Cables with large alligator clips, looped around a car battery.
Standing in front of him were three armed 213 Chingasos. In the middle was Miguel, the leader of this group of dogs he had been hunting all night. He assumed that what stood before him was all that was left, at least of their crew. Three collectors left.
He recognized the other two. One large and bulky Latino dressed in oversized white Ecko jeans, he remembered as the one that hit him over the head. This past time, not the one before. It was a habit he was hoping he could break.
“Thomas Wheeler,” sneered Miguel. He was grinning because his assailant had been caught, but was clearly pissed and shaken that this fat man handcuffed to the chair had killed over half his crew. “I told you I was a fair man. You were so close to getting your daughter back.”
“She wasn’t in the room. You were planning on killing me once I got there.”
“Not true. If I wanted you dead, I would have had Stephen do it. Remember him? Stabbed in the back, and dragged under your own home. And I thought I was scary. You know he was only seventeen-”
“And already a killer. I know about your initiations.”
“Do you? Then you must also know about our prostitution rings? Even in this country, six-year-olds are a hard sell, but give it a couple years…”
Tom roared and stood up with his chair, slamming it back down to the ground. The steel on concrete reverberated harshly around the walls, and the startled gangsters raised their weapons at him. His breathing was loud and harsh, his stare that of a predator’s. Even Miguel looked uncertain for a moment, but soon started laughing.
As the alpha dog laughed, Tom smiled thin and cruelly. Miguel paused. “You seem pretty happy for a man who is about to die.”
“When my thumbs are knuckle deep in your eye sockets, and you’re begging me for death, I will remember that laugh.”
Miguel turned away, pretending to shrug it off. “You know what to do. When you are finished with him, take a picture, so I can show the world that I keep my promises.”
He left the room, and the other two walked slowly toward Tom, who was still seated calmly, and smiling.
Tom knew that these two were foolish enough to torture him before they killed him, which meant he had plenty of time. Already Tom’s hands found his daughter’s bobby pin and using it to fish around inside the lock on his cuffs.
Tom had been a cop for God’s sake; he knew all the tricks. All he needed, before they smashed his kneecaps, shocked his testicles, and pulled out his toenails, was to give the bobby pin a little twist…