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Before the kidnapping and the threats, before the murders, before everything went to shit, Larry Walder had a fabulous evening trouncing his wife and son at cards. Whether the game was Go Fish or Uno or Hearts, they usually beat him, surreptitiously sneaking each other valuable cards underneath the kitchen table, and sure, he would pretend not to notice—he had long ago recognized and accepted his role as their mark—but tonight . . . tonight not even their mother–son con game was enough to keep him from drawing three-of-a-kind and then four-of-a-kind, one hand after another after another.
“Daddy,” said Sean, pouting his little lower lip, “have you been practicing?” Except “practicing” came out as “practithing” due to the canyon in the upper row of the boy’s teeth from where an incisor had, only an hour earlier, loosened its way to freedom. The milk tooth currently resided in the dark of his bedroom, in the deeper dark underneath his pillow, wrapped in a blood-crusted Kleenex.
Marie tousled the boy’s hair and replied, “One more hand, little man, and then it’s time for bed.”
Sean picked up the deck of cards and spread them out facedown on the Formica surface of the table and then pulled them all back into one pile. And then did it again. And then again. This was how he shuffled, and Larry wouldn’t have had it any other way. He had done the very same thing when he was seven years old. My God, there was so much of himself he saw in his son, the same soft brown skin and short spirals of black hair, the same absent lick of the lips when deep in thought as he was now, shuffling one fourth and final time before squealing: “High–low jack!” and dealing out the cards to his mother first, then his father, then himself.
Larry could have won five minutes later, but he purposely misplayed a hand so the game would last just a tiny bit longer. Marie shot him a sideways smirk but said nothing. Larry smirked back. Oh yes, he had learned long ago that there was no getting anything past her. Those Nordic blue eyes saw all.
Well past 9 p.m., the game finally ended, and Larry escorted Sean down the carpet-cozy corridor to his bedroom, its door and walls strewn with posters and decals of the many mighty X-Men. There was a time when Sean had wanted—needed—both parents to tuck him in, but apparently that epoch had ended and now he was content to say good night to one or the other—no preference—and he didn’t even ask for a story. As he often insisted, he could read his own, and did.
Larry kissed his son good night on the forehead and left the boy’s door ajar as he softly strolled back to the kitchen, where Marie was hefting two bottles of Guinness from the top shelf of the fridge. On the table, the cards had already been dealt out, five each, facedown.
“Don’t know when to quit, huh?” he teased her.
“Sit,” she replied, and handed him his beer.
Thirty minutes later, he was glancing down at the tally he’d scribbled on the back of a junk mail envelope. “All right . . . let’s see . . . darling, you owe me two hundred twenty-six dollars, the keys to your car, and the right to name our next child Aragorn.”
She finished off her bottle and sulked toward the recycle bin.
“Oh, don’t be like that, darling,” he said. “One more game? How about strip poker?”
“Strip poker, eh? And what exactly do you plan on doing after you win my panties and socks?”
Larry tracked the trajectory of her moon-smooth legs from her orange socks to the frayed cuffs of her jeans shorts—but why stop there? His gaze defied gravity some more and traveled upward past his wife’s curve-clingy Polo shirt and her bare arms to her face, that face, dawn-pink skin framed by blond hair and sculpted by God, that face . . . Marie . . . in the parting petals of her lips, Larry could forget his own damn name . . .
Later, in bed, Larry reminded her that although he had agreed to fly the Cozumel route tomorrow, he would be home in time for dinner and then the Fourth of July fireworks at Piedmont Park. Marie leaned across their king-size toward him until her blond bangs were curtaining his forehead and her pursed lips were half an inch away from his infant-smooth cheeks. He smiled. She smiled. Then she pecked him on his smooth, shaven cheek and rolled back to her continent of the bed. Ah well. Larry’s luck had to expire eventually.
He set the alarm clock on his nightstand for 4 a.m., settled back on his side of the mattress, and promptly fell asleep. In his room down the hall, Sean was dreaming of superheroes.
Marie fell asleep last, as always, and for a solid hour the only sounds circulating through their small house were the intermingling rhythms of their breaths. But then the hour ended, as all hours, streaks, and lives do, and a foreign sound joined the mix: the muted rattling of iron on iron, followed by a click, and then followed by a creak as the back door slowly opened.
There were three men in all, dressed in loafers and sweats. Their feet whispered across the kitchen linoleum. The deck of cards and the envelope tally were still on the table.
“Get the boy first,” the oldest of the three men said. He, like his junior associates, had a barcode tattooed along the thin flesh above his jugular vein. That thin flesh crinkled with advanced age and afforded the barcode a texture like roots.
The two younger men proceeded down the hallway. Sean’s door had his name on it in cut-out construction paper; below that was a large photograph of mutant hero Wolverine. One of the men pushed open the door while the other readied a hypodermic needle.
In the kitchen, the old man laid out two duffel bags on the floor. They were already unzipped. His associates returned with Sean’s body and placed it on one of the duffel bags. Several minutes after that, they returned with Marie’s body. Together, the two men zipped up the two bags, careful not to make too much of a racket, and carried them one by one out the back door.
All the while, under the meager moonlight, the old man sat at the table and played several rounds of solitaire using only his right hand. His left hand dangled from its arm like an afterthought. Its phalanges and metacarpals had been shattered, set, and shattered again so many times that the hand itself had warped into a burnt curl surrounded by a glove of flesh paper-thin and dark blue.
With his right hand, his good hand, the old man paused from his card playing and scratched at the barcode on his neck. Even after all these years, it still itched like a surprise . . .
Only the burlier of his two associates returned. The old man checked his wristwatch, finished his current game, and then led the lumbering thug back to the main bedroom. One of Larry’s feet was poking out the edge of the green blanket. The thug untucked a large pistol from the waistband of his sweatpants and pointed it at Larry’s right eye. The old man reached forward and ran the toothy tip of an index finger along the bottom of Larry’s exposed foot until reaching the big toe, at which point he stabbed his gnarled yellow fingernail into the toe’s soft, round flesh.
“Ow—Jesus,” mumbled Larry, and his eyelids fluttered open as his lower body recoiled. He was dreaming that he had stepped on a nail—that much he remembered—and in the darkness of his bedroom he reached for his foot. Only then did he discern from the shadows the shapes of the intruders—and then the shape of the gun.
“Good morning, Captain Walder!” said the old man. His accent was crisp and vaguely European.
Larry sat up on his knees like an animal and cried out, “Marie! Sean! Marie!”
“They’re not here right now, Captain Walder, but if you would like me to give them a message, I’ll be more than happy to do so.”
Fearless in desperation, Larry lunged at the old man and would have tackled him to the floor and worse had the hulking thug not stepped forward and swatted Larry back with a swift swing of the gun. The impact of the gun barrel bit a morsel out of Larry’s forehead and left an ellipsis of blood along the sheets and up to the pillows, where the wounded man had retreated.
“Captain Walder, let’s remain civil.”
Larry pressed one of the pillows to his gash and glared at both men. “Go to hell.”
“What happened so far today—and what’s going to happen, what I’m going to make you do—isn’t personal. I want to make that clear, Captain Walder. I hold no grudge against you or your family. We are both victims of circumstance. I can’t expect you to understand that now, but hopefully, when all this is over, you will. You may even thank me.”
“Please . . .” said Larry. “Take what you want. We don’t have much. Just give me back my wife. Give me back my son. Please.”
To which the old man replied:
“I love America. Let the rest of the world define civilization in terms of geography or religion. You define it in terms of mathematics. Everything can be reduced to a transaction. It’s all about determining value. So tell me, Captain, how much are Marie and Sean worth to you? Who is worth more?”
Larry squirmed but said nothing.
“Your wife is a blonde. Blondes go for a pretty penny. It’s their rarity, you see. I could sell her for the cash value of your car. Now, your son is a mixed-race child and that makes him exotic. His innocence alone will go for a premium. What some people will spend just so they can be the one to take away that innocence . . . well . . . and there are so many, many ways innocence can be taken, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I’ll kill you . . .” Larry growled. The blood on his pillow had begun to brown.
“Civility, Captain. Please. We’re negotiating. What would you give me to have Marie and Sean returned safe? I’m afraid an airline pilot’s salary isn’t what it used to be, so there’s no way you’ll be able to compete financially. Fortunately, money is only one form of payment. In three hours, you’re scheduled to captain Pegasus Airlines Flight Eight Sixteen with service to Cozumel, Mexico. Once you clear Atlanta airspace, you will change course and land at the coordinates I’ll provide. That is the price I’m asking you to pay for your wife and son.”
The old man perambulated to the closet and picked out one of Larry’s dark-blue uniforms, still in its plastic dry-cleaning bag. With his capable right hand, he held the uniform aloft in the moonlight. How admirable the uniform was in its sleekness, buttons, and insignia! He set it down on Marie’s half of the bed.
“Don’t feel as if you’re obligated, Captain. One hallmark of free-market capitalism is free choice. You can alert the authorities or follow your scheduled flight path to Cozumel or not go into work at all. You can do any of these things. Just know that if you do, you will never see your Marie or Sean again. In the meantime, though, you should really put some iodine on that cut so it doesn’t get infected. Head wounds can be very, very tricky.”