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Franklin Lieb, a former naval officer and the highly acclaimed author of the bestselling Fire Arrow, has crafted a legal thriller as suspenseful as it is thought-provoking. When a spoiled teen is kidnapped outside her prestigious prep school, her parents are faced with the horror only those who've lost a child can know. In their desperation, afraid to contact the police, they enlist the help of millionaire "Crazy Johnny," a former Vietnam tunnel rat. A sufferer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the ...
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Franklin Lieb, a former naval officer and the highly acclaimed author of the bestselling Fire Arrow, has crafted a legal thriller as suspenseful as it is thought-provoking. When a spoiled teen is kidnapped outside her prestigious prep school, her parents are faced with the horror only those who've lost a child can know. In their desperation, afraid to contact the police, they enlist the help of millionaire "Crazy Johnny," a former Vietnam tunnel rat. A sufferer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the brutality he saw children endure in the war, he agrees to help the girl's father, but is afraid that if they pay up, the girl will be killed anyway. Crazy Johnny tracks down the kidnappers, determined that the only way to save Sally is to free her by force. Blood is spilled, and only in its aftermath does the true nature of the crime emerge. It is then up to the United States legal system to judge Johnny's vigilantism, and up to an old-time attorney and a young woman lawyer to see that justice emerges from the courtroom.
At three-fifteen in the afternoon cars began arriving at Westport Country Day School to collect pupils. Most were Volvos and Mercedes and BMWs; WCDS was exclusive and expensive. In the middle of the line of cars that snaked back from the front of the Norman-style stone mansion to the modern classroom blocks nearer the gate was a tan Chrysler minivan, dented and dirty. Many of the mothers behind the wheels of their European cars would later remark that it seemed out of place, but not one picked up her cell phone to alert the school's considerable security force.
It was sunny and crisp; early fall in New England at its finest. Boys and girls in blue and white uniforms played soccer and field hockey on the spacious lawns. Students with no athletic or other after-school commitments drifted out of the school singly or in small groups, craning their necks around looking for the right ride among so many similar-looking automobiles.
Sally Collins rushed out just at three-thirty. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, very pretty at fifteen years old, Sally wore a uniform of blue pleated skirt, white blouse and a blue blazer with the WCDS arms on the pocket. She pushed her long hair impatiently over her shoulder as the wind lifted it. She walked down the line of cars toward the van that was inching forward with the other vehicles as cars in front took kids aboard and pulled away. Sally saw her mother, Jane, standing beside their gray Volvo wagon and waved.
The van halted as Sally approached. The side door slid open and two men dropped to the ground, grabbed Sally by either arm and boosted her into the vehicle. Her single loud shriek was cut off by the slamming door as the van pulled out and sped away, sideswiping a Mercedes 560 SEL as it went.
Jane Collins ran forward to stand where the van had been. She gripped her long blond hair and keened softly, struck dumb by what she had seen. When the realization finally hit she screamed a single word, her daughter's name, over and over until a large woman she didn't know put her arms around her and made her sit on a bench near the gap in the line left by the van.
The driver of the car behind Jane's Volvo picked up her car phone and called 911.
Edward Collins was in a room full of lawyers at his office in Westport, trying to close a deal to sell an office building. They had been at it for hours but the damn deal wouldn't close. There was a knock on the door and Edward's secretary entered. Edward looked up with annoyance; the last thing he needed was any interruption that might give the increasingly reluctant purchaser an excuse to walk away. "What?" he said sharply.
"Your wife," Shirley whispered.
"I'll call her as soon as we finish in here."
"She seemed very upset," Shirley insisted.
He sighed as he stood up. "Please continue with the agreement, gentlemen. This will only take a moment, I'm sure." He followed Shirley out of the conference room and went into his own office. He snatched up the phone and hit the light. "Jane, I'm in the middle of a very tricky negotiation — "
"Well, fuck your negotiation," Jane screamed. "Your daughter's just been kidnapped."
Edward fell into his chair, nearly upsetting it. "Tell me what happened," he said gently. "I'm sorry, baby."
Edward apologized to the lawyers and his purchaser with a brief explanation and drove straight home to the large house on Long Island Sound he had bought for his family in the middle of the booming eighties. Edward sat with his distraught wife on a couch before the fireplace, holding her hands as she told the story yet again. There was so little to tell. The minivan was tan, or maybe yellow. The two men were white and appeared young. Sally screamed as they pushed her inside, then there was the terrible finality of the door slamming shut and the van speeding away, leaving the damaged Mercedes rocking in its wake.
Edward made himself a drink, a dark scotch, and insisted Jane take a little herself. He placed the drink in her hand as the phone rang. They looked at each other, startled by the commonplace sound. Edward crossed the room and picked up the instrument on the second ring. "Hello."
"Mr. Collins?" The voice was young and scared.
"This is Edward Collins."
"We have your daughter. We want a half million in cash. We'll give you three days to arrange that, then call you with instructions."
"Half a million? What makes you think I have half a million in cash — "
"We know you have it. Fuck with us and the bitch dies."
Edward heard the phone on the other end rattle as if it had been dropped on a table. "Listen, you — "
"Daddy?" Sally's tiny voice, sounding like she had at five years old. "Daddy, I'm scared."
Edward felt his wind knocked out as if he'd been kicked in the chest. "Sweetheart, we'll do whatever we have to. We'll get you home."
The male voice returned, but it was no longer tinged with fear. "Three days, asshole. No cops, no bullshit, just half a million in cash, old bills. We'll call again."
Edward put the phone back into its cradle, gently as if it was the daughter he had once placed in her crib. He walked slowly back to sit next to his wife, who stared at him wide-eyed, her pretty face twisted in terror. Edward sat and dropped his big head in his hands. "They want half a million dollars," he said, his voice breaking, "in three days, or they say they'll kill her."
"My God, what can we do? Can you raise the money?"
Edward Collins thought back over the last few years, the go-go eighties — when any damn fool with more balls than brains could make millions buying and selling real estate as Fairfield County and much of Connecticut boomed. But the bubble had burst years ago; the stock market collapse of 1987 had cost bankers and brokers their bonuses and often their jobs. Few residents of comfortable southern Connecticut realized how many jobs very near to their elegant homes were dependent on the defense industry until those jobs began to disappear and the local economies declined. GE and rival Pratt and Whitney had fewer jet engines to build, Avco-Lycoming fewer tanks, Electric Boat fewer submarines. Edward Collins had been a wealthy man but had watched the money slip away as office buildings and shopping centers he owned emptied out. He raised his head as his wife hugged him. "Ten years ago I could have written the bastards a check," he said angrily.
"But not now?" she asked. Jane took little interest in his business as long as money was always available. "Not now?"
"Now I'm having trouble servicing my debt."
"What'll we do?" Jane said, her voice breaking at last and the tears starting.
"I'll have to find someone to lend it to me. Someone I don't already owe; someone I didn't wipe out in my partnerships while I was wiping out myself."
"I didn't know it was that bad."
"It is. We've been getting by and the economy is making a comeback. But we don't have five hundred thousand in cash or anything like it."
"Can you get it from the bank?"
Edward chuckled despite himself. "They're in worse shape than I am." The bank was a small Fairfield institution Edward had helped set up, and given a lot of business. Unfortunately the business was no longer good as one of Edward's properties after another stopped paying.
"What about your sailing buddies?"
Edward had two boats, a J-24 he raced and a Swan 57 he cruised. He sailed both out of the Black Rock Yacht Club in nearby Bridgeport. There were many nice boats in the fleet, but Black Rock was not a rich man's club. Edward doubted he could raise more than a few tens of thousands if he put the arm on everybody. He saw his friends in his mind's eye, and then he saw a man who had sailed with him for years, usually on deliveries because he mostly sailed his own boat alone. He was a member of the yacht club but took no interest in its affairs or facilities, rarely even taking a post-race drink in the bar. Every year he ended up writing a check for his two-hundred-dollar minimum restaurant charge; he never took a meal. Edward had known him for years without knowing him at all, and if the truth were told, he was a little afraid of the man people called, if only behind his back, Crazy Johnny.
John Dietrich lived in a small house, actually once a guest house, on a large estate in Greenfield Hill, one of Fairfield's prettiest neighborhoods. He considered himself retired from a life that had never been easy. He had grown up in Fairfield, become a promising wide receiver if an indifferent student. In 1966 he received his draft notice to the army and decided to join the marines instead. In less than six months he was in Vietnam. Since he was small and wiry, the platoon sergeant made him be the tunnel rat, the first marine to enter a bunker when one was discovered, the one with the pistol and grenades and a flashlight in his teeth, the one to spot the booby traps or announce their presence by being blown up. Johnny never admitted it but he was terribly claustrophobic and he hated the tunnels.
Johnny grew up in Vietnam. He hated the fighting, especially the tunnels, especially at night, but he loved the flower-choked jungle and the gentle, suffering people. He was especially drawn to the children, so pretty, so doll-like, so silent. Johnny knew that everything in Vietnam was dangerous; any object seen on the ground could be wired to a land mine, any pretty "boom-boom" girl could have a razor in the hem of her floating ao-dai, even the children might have a grenade or offer him a poisoned Coke. Nonetheless he loved them, wished he could help them, wished he could make the war that would only hurt him a little while longer go away before it scarred their lives forever.
Johnny was within two months of going home when the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive, penetrating American and South Vietnamese positions all over the country. Johnny was in Da Nang at the time, in the hospital recovering from burns suffered in a helicopter crash that had killed three of his squad mates. He was swept up, still in burn dressings, along with any other marine, soldier, sailor, or airman not seriously wounded, and rushed north to support the assault to recapture the old imperial capital of Hue, a battle known to all who fought in it, but none who claimed to report it, as the Battle of the Twenty-six Days.
Johnny found his own unit — Echo Company of the Second Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines — south of the Perfume River. Many marines from the hospital never did find their own people and had to be put together in pickup units to support the assault. Johnny was back with the squad, and back doing tunnels, except the tunnels were houses with basements that had to be fought over one at a time. At first the marines tried to use artillery and naval gunfire sparingly, to avoid inflicting casualties on civilians, but as they forced more and more houses they found most of the occupants had been slaughtered by the retreating Vietcong.
Even the children. Johnny wept for their tiny broken bodies, beaten to death, not even shot; the VC were short on ammunition. The marines began to use more heavy weapons and air strikes, hoping to save some of the civilians before the VC killed them all.
Johnny led the squad through the houses, especially at night. He carried a short-barreled Swedish K submachine gun, easier to push through confined spaces than the standard M16. He shot his way through the VC — any armed adult was assumed to be VC — and he saved some terrified abandoned children. His platoon sergeant told the company commander that nobody shot out a house better, took more risks to save kids, than Corporal Johnny Dietrich. The weary captain said there would be a medal after the battle was won.
The unit took casualties, every day, and every day new meat was brought up from Da Nang, green kids new in the country or house marines who had always been in the rear. Johnny felt the stink of death that lay on him, and the new men seemed to shy away from the tunnel rat. He kept going. He couldn't sleep even when the unit was pulled back for rest, and he cried a lot. But he kept going until he picked his way through the rubble of an abandoned and destroyed Catholic church and found a basement full of children.
Johnny thought at first they might be sleeping, all laid out in rows on straw mats, but as he knelt and touched one, then another, he knew they were dead. He touched every one; there were hundreds. Each had been bayoneted in the stomach; many were no more than babies. Some of the girls — they could have been teenagers or younger; Vietnamese women were all tiny — had been stripped of their clothing and had blood on their legs and bellies, bite marks on their tiny breasts, fear and horror in their staring eyes.
Johnny broke down, lost all the courage he'd used to hold himself together. He picked up one tiny girl and rocked her in his arms.
The lieutenant came up, then the captain. "We have to keep going, Corporal," the captain said. "This building, this street, are still dangerous."
"We have to help these kids," Johnny said, trying to pull himself together. "We have to help these kids."
"Son," the captain said. "You can see they're past help. They're all dead."
"No, no," Johnny crooned, still holding the lifeless baby girl. "I'll stay here. I'll wait for the medics."
The captain drew the lieutenant and the sergeant aside. "How long has this man been walking point?"
The sergeant shrugged. "Days. Weeks, I guess. He's the best we have."
"Get him back to the rear. He's done more than enough."
Johnny was flown back to the hospital in Da Nang the next day, after waiting in a tent with the non-emergency medevacs as the serious ones were put in the helos first. He was cleaned up, his filthy burn dressings replaced, and given a strong injection of tranquilizers.
The nightmares began the same night.
After thirteen months in Vietnam, Johnny flew home on the Freedom Bird, a chartered Braniff airliner from Saigon's Tan Sanh Hut airport to San Francisco via Guam and Honolulu. He wore his tropical khaki uniform with his ribbons: a Silver Star, a "hard bronze" — a Bronze Star with Combat V — and a Purple Heart with two gold stars indicating he had been wounded three times, plus the usual show-up shit everybody got. In San Francisco a woman, well-dressed and attractive, ran up to him and kissed him, saying welcome home. A hundred yards farther into the terminal another woman, similarly attractive and dressed, cursed him for a baby killer and spat at him.
Baby killer, Johnny thought. I tried to save them.
A day later Johnny got home to Fairfield. His mother embraced him, his father praised him. His old girlfriend, Linda, came over and cried over him, then dragged him outside and fucked him in the backseat of her father's Cadillac.
I'll be fine, Johnny thought, though he hurt terribly inside. The doctors in Da Nang told him he should report to a navy hospital for counseling; that he had seen too much and needed to get it out, but Johnny told them he was fine. He was after all a marine and marines don't whine.
Within days of reaching home, Johnny received his discharge from the marines in the mail. With thanks from a grateful nation.
So it goes, Johnny thought. The Marine Corps good-bye: thank you, and fuck you from The Crotch.
Linda stayed around a week, then went back to Boston and college. She wrote that she no longer knew him and that he frightened her. She begged him not to call, or write, or try to see her. Johnny felt strangely relieved; he wasn't the same man who had left her behind, and the idea of a marriage, kids of his own and a normal life no longer made any sense to him.
Because of the kids. How could he bring kids into the world he now knew?
Johnny had money saved up from his back pay as well as forty-five days of leave he had been entitled to but had never taken. He decided to relax; work on forgetting. His parents wanted him to stay at home, but he could see in their eyes and hear in their silences that they wished he'd go. There was a friend of his, an army vet, who had a house with a couple of other guys. His friend, Jim Holiday, was a bartender at Breakaway Restaurant, and the other guys, who Johnny never bothered to put names to, worked in the restaurant business throughout the area. Jim offered to get Johnny on at Breakaway; Johnny said no.
But he began to go there at night, hoping to meet a girl to replace Linda, to fill up the hurt inside him.
And he began to drink.