How Barney came to occupy a room on the wrong side of management in a hostage hotel deep inside Mexico City had to do with his friend Carl Ledbetter and one of those scary phone calls that come not always in the middle of the night, but whenever you are most asleep and foggy.
"This is Carl, goddammit, Carl, are you there? Is that you, man? It’s you, right?" Hiss, crackle. "Look, I don’t have my cards, I don’t have my ID, I don’t have my passport, all I have is one of these shitty phone cards that runs out of time, they took Erica, they got her, man, grabbed her ass right out from under me, I haven’t got a piss to pot, I mean a pot to piss in—"
"Carl, slow down; I’m not even awake..."
The phone pad glowed at Barney while his slowly surfacing brain tried to process information. Anonymous Caller.
Carl Ledbetter worked for a specialty imprint of a New York publishing house that had recently been inspired to cherry-pick non-American talent, in this case, genre novelists—science fiction, detective, horror and romance writers—and provide the best of their work in translation to US paperback audiences. Erica, whom Barney had never met, was thumbnailed by Carl as a swoony bit of red-headed business working as an editorial assistant at Curve magazine. They had met at an American Booksellers Association conference, struck sparks, fell in love, cohabitated, and had recently begun referring to each other as fiancé and fiancée.
That was the last Barney had heard; he was not in the habit of keeping in touch. It was nearly-forgotten news, the kind for which you tender congratulations, then round-file. Bad news lasted longer.
Good for Carl, Barney had thought at the time. The whole marriage deal eliminated the thorny problem of how to refer to your supposedly significant. Boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, partner, sex monkey all seemed inadequate and socially inept for any pair of people who were actual adults. Because of their jobs, Carl and Erica rarely traveled together. The deal Carl’s publisher wanted to cut with several rising stars of the Mexican printed word afforded an opportunity to superficially fake a vacation. From Mexico City they could do Guadalajara or perhaps Acapulco.
Instead, Mexico City had apparently done them.
Barney had been keeping off the societal radar for the last year and a half—personal travails, old stories that don’t need telling right now—and had secured a position at the Los Angeles Gun and Rifle Range downtown in the warehouse district, occasionally working the counter, sometimes pitching in on gun repair if the problem was arcane enough. When you worked at a range with a piece on your hip, every customer was your pal from bangers to cops. It never occured to anyone to question the legitimacy of your identity. Guns were sexy and empowering and lots of women begged instruction. Ample time for practice and all the free ammo your hardware could eat. It wasn’t actual combat with real stakes, but it sufficed to fill the in-betweens, and for a gunman it was as natural a thing as breathing free air.
Meanwhile, people tended to seek Barney’s counsel whenever they fell afoul of some extralegal difficulty, the kind of gray-zone balls-up that consistently befalls people you think of as completely normal and law-abiding. Like Carl Ledbetter, who had known Barney even before they both wound up wearing dusty desert camo in Iraq. First came the reunion (hey, it’s you!), then the wild coincidence of it all (Carl had come as a journalist with a camera; Barney as a soldier with a gun), followed by the effortless bond of de facto brotherhood between men in the same war—the kind of brotherhood that was supposed to permit, years later, the sort of advantage Carl was about to ask of his amigo. Carl and Barney had known each other since their 20s. Carl knew somewhat of Barney’s checkered past and politely never insulted his friend by asking about it. If you ever got a close look, Barney’s body was peppered with old scars, the kind of wounds that never got explained. The conceits of formula storytelling would not suffice to describe him—this height, that hair, this-or-that movie actor with whatever eye color. Barney knew the value of blending; call it instinctual. To the world at large he was a stranger, a background extra quickly moving on, and he liked it that way.
Now, rate your friends, your acquaintances and your intimates. Among that group you already know which person you’d ask for help when shady badstuff rears up in your life. Yeah, that one—the person you always suspected was a bit illicit, a hair violent, two baby steps beyond the law. After-hours help, a less-than-kosher midnight run, some muscle, maybe some payback, and you know the person you’d call when quiet society says you should be calling a cop.
"From the top, Carl," Barney said into his phone in the dark. "Deep breaths. Simple sentences. Subject, object."
"This goddamned phone card," Carl’s voice crackled back at him from one country to another. "You’ve got to get a phone card to use the payphones and half of them don’t work. The time on the cards runs out faster than—"
"You said that already. You said they grabbed Erica. Who-they?"
In Mexico, kidnapping constituted the country’s third biggest industry, after dope and religion.
"They didn’t leave a business card,"Carl said.
"But she was abducted."
"What do they want?"
"They said a million."
Barney wiped down his face. Squeezed the bridge of his nose. He didn’t need to click on the nightstand lamp and become a squinting mole. "Why you?"
"Because they think I’m a rich gringo." Carl started breathing more shallowly and rapidly on the other end of the line. "My god, bro, how can I—"
"Don’t start that," Barney overrode. "You were doing just fine. Calm. Calm." A beat, for sanity. "So...are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Rich. Can you cough up seven figures?"
Another beat. Barney frowned. His long-lost friend was wondering whether to lie.
Finally, Carl said, "Yeah. Don’t ask how."
"And you want what from me, exactly? They’ve got the hostage and you’ve got the ransom. So, trade."
"It stinks, amigo. It stinks like underbrush when you probe by fire." He was playing the war-buddy card again. "Probing by fire" was when you cut loose a few rounds into unknown territory. If return fire erupted, you knew the hide was enemy-occupied. It helped to be fast-footed in such circumstances. The suspense was gut-wrenching, and you could smell your courage leaching out in your sweat.
"You want backup," Barney said, dreading it.
"There’s nobody else I can trust in a shitstorm like this. No good faces. I’ll wind up nose-down in a ditch with my money and Erica gone. I need your help. The kind of help you can’t just buy." Another telltale beat of quiet. "Will you help me?"
Copyright © 2008 by David J. Schow.