Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Kidnapping by Maria Venegas

The have been watching his moves, keeping tabs on the road that runs in front of his house, and earlier in the day they saw him and Rosario climb into his red truck and drive clear out of town. When he returns in the afternoon, he pulls into the dusty lot where the mercado is held on Sundays. Rosario waits in the passenger seat, while he goes to the cell phone store. He's in the store for a mere ten minutes, but by the time he steps back out into the slanted rays of the afternoon sun, everything has shifted. Blinds have been drawn in the nearby stores, sidewalks have emptied, doors have been locked, and most of the cars that were parked near his truck vacated the scene when the black SUV's rolled up.

He makes his way across the lot, scrolling through his phone when the sound of grave crunching under his boots stops him in his tracks. It's not the rhythm of the gravel that is off but rather the absence of familiar sounds. Missing is the laughter - the shrieking and yelling of kids play a makeshift soccer game in the lot. Gone is the rustling of bags, of people rushing along, running afternoon errands. Even the incessant bell of the paletero has been silenced. Nothing but the echo of a dog barking in the distance fills the space around him. He looks up and notices the SUVs stationed on either side of his vehicle. Though its the sight of the man sitting next to Rosario and grinning at him from behind the steering wheel of his truck that sends the gold caps vibrating against his teeth so that he can practically taste the metal. He's standing still but hears the gravel shifting, footsteps approaching from behind, as if his own shadow had sprung to life.

"Vamos, viejo." There are two men with machine guns standing on either side of him.

They escort him into the backseat of one of the SUV's, where a woman is waiting for him.

"Hola, mi gallinita de oro," she says, her chapped lips parting in a grin and revealing her rust-colored teeth. The sour stench of alcohol exudes from her. He recognizes the rifle she's holding between her knees. It's the same rifle that has hung over his bed for years, the same rifle with which he had blown the head off a rattlesnake when he was ten years old.  The woman snatches his cell from his hand and searches his pockets, pulling out his red handkerchief and his worn leather wallet.  A man climbs into the seat on the other side of him and the convoy starts moving. The SUV he's riding in follows his truck into the main road and by the time they clear the last speed bump on the edge of town, they have already removed his boots and tied his ankles and wrists together.  Who's Norma Venegas? the woman asks as she scrolls through his phone.

"She's my niece," he says.

"She's not your daughter?"

"No, she's a niece." They fly past the slaughterhouse where two other SUV's are sitting in the shade under the mesquite.

"A niece?" She narrows here eyes on him. She's not a bad-looking woman. Early forties, most likely, though a scar across her cheek-bone, circles under her eyes, and her rotting teeth seem to age her beyond her years. " What's the name of your daughter, the one who owns a gas station in Jalisco?"

"I don't have any daughters in Jalisco."

She rams the butt of the rifle into his kneecap with so much force that it sends a shock through his injured hipbone.

"Don't play smart with me, viejo." She tells them they are well aware he has five daughters, and word around town is that one of them lives in Jalisco and owns a gas station, so what is her number?

"I don't know where you're getting your information from," he says, though perhaps they've gotten it from him, because even though businesses have started closing early and everyone goes home before dark, locks their doors, and stays put until morning, the taverns are still open. And though they have lost a few regulars, he has carried on as he always has. He's not one to hide from the SUVs or anyone for that matter, especially not in his own town. He has continued frequenting the taverns, and after having a few drinks, it's inevitable - he will start boasting about his five girls and how successful they are, how each one has made a small fortune, and with no help from a man at that. "I don't have any daughters in Jalisco," he says

"What about your daughter who live in Nuevo York, what is her number?" Again she's scrolling through his phone.

"I don't have any daughters living in Nueva York."

"Who's the girl who was just down here visiting you?"

"She's just a niece," he says, bracing himself to keep the weight of his body from barreling into the woman as they fly around the only curve on the road between town and his home.

"Another niece?" The woman smirks at him before  ramming the butt of the rifle into his other kneecap. "What is her name?"

"Maria de Jesus," he says, and again she's scrolling through his phone , though he knows she will never find that name, or any of their names for that matter. He has all five numbers saved under their nicknames: Chuyita, La Flaca, Chela, La Vickie, Sonita.

Up ahead his truck slows and turns left onto the dirt road that leads up to La Pena. He watches the woman go through his wallet as the SUV he's riding in also turns left, and then they are bouncing along the dirt road, over the river, up the incline, and through the entrance where the dilapidated limestone pillars still stand. She pulls out a piece of paper and a few loose bills. There's a name and a phone number scribbled on the paper.

"Sonia salon." she reads out loud, as she places the bills in her breast pocket. "Who's Sonia?"

"That's my daughter," he says.

"Your daughter?" she says, grinning so big he catches a glimpse of the gold caps on her upper molars. "What does she do?"

"She works in a beauty salon in Chicago."

"Isn't she the owner?"

"No, she just works there, he says, though he can tell she's not buying it.

Even before they pull up in front of his house, he notices that the minivan he picked up two weeks before is gone, and that his house has been broken into. His bedroom is scraped, bent , and slightly ajar. Two men help Rosario out of the truck and into her wheelchair. The woman gets out of the SUV, lights a cigarette, and walks a full circle around Rosario before stopping in front of her and asking what is the name of the viejo's daughter, the one who owns a gas station in Jalisco?

"I don't really know anything about his daughters," Rosario says.

The woman takes a long drag, narrowing her gaze on Rosario before slapping her clear across the face.

"Call his daughters," she says, throwing his phone on Rosario's lap. "Tell them we have their father and if they ever want to see him again, they can reach us at this number." She scribbles the digits down on a scrap of paper and hands it to Rosario.  .  .  . 

It's Monday night, and I'm out having dinner with a friend in my neighborhood.

"I'm running to the bathroom," my friend says, pushing her chair away from the table. The waiter comes by and drops off the check. I reach for my bag and notice my cell is vibrating. I have missed two calls from Sonia and a text from her: Call me 911. This can't be good, I think as I stare at the flame in the votive, watch how it sways each time someone opens the door. What happened now? What if he's dead? What if he killed someone? What if he shot Rosario? It had been only two days since I told him where his gun is hidden. The reflection of the flame makes the smooth groves in the wooden table look dark and warm, and there's a part of me that wants to crawl; into one of those small nooks and stay there for a very long time.

"What's the damage? There's a bounce in her platinum blonde hair, and she's wearing a fresh coat of pink lipstick" my friend asks when she returns.

"I just got a text from my sister," I say, clearing my throat. "And she wants me to call her 911.

"That can't be good," she says.

"I know."  I  tap my phone twice on the table The bartender pours wine for a couple  sitting at the bar. All the polished glass bottles are gleaming on the wall behind him.

"Well, you should probably call her back," my friend says.

"Right."  I reach for my glass of red wine and down what's left before calling  Sonia. When she picks up, she informs me that she just got off the phone with Mary, who received a call from Rosario, saying that my father has been kidnapped.

"Kidnapped?" I say. "How? By who?"

She doesn't know all the details, but according to Rosario, they had ransacked the whole house. The wardrobes and storage trunks had all been rifled, and they had left shattered dishes, pillows, and clothing strewn in their wake. They had given Rosario a number where they could be reached

"And?" I say. "Did Mary call them?"

"She thinks we should stay out of it," Sonia says. When Rosario had called Mary and told her what happened, Mary had taken a few moments to let the news sink in before responding with a single knee-jerk reaction. "You know what, Rosario? For all I know, he did something to provoke this, and I'm not getting involved, " she said. "You can call them and tell them they're not going to get a penny out of me, or any of his kids, because he abandoned us when we were young." Mary had refused to even take down the number. "Did you notice anything suspicious while you were down there? Sonia asks.

I tell her how stories of people being kidnapped were surfacing all over town and about the SUV I had seen while jogging, but other than that, I hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary.

"How much money are they asking for? I ask, aware of how my fried is stating at me from across the table. She's British, a fashion designer, and probably can't comprehend the words coming out of my mouth.

"They want five hundred thousand pesos, or dollars, or something like that." She's not really certain of the amount, as Mary wouldn't even hear of it.

"Did he have his gun on him?" I ask, already feeling guilty for hiding it.

Sonia doesn't know whether or not he had his gun. We decide that until we figure out what we are going to do, it's best not to answer any calls from Rosario or any unknown numbers. She says that a woman keeps calling one of her salons and asking for her, but she's already told employees to say she no longer works there.

My friend and I settled the tab and I go home, spend the next hour pacing around my apartment and feeling utterly useless. The first thing we do is erase our voices. We change all our greetings so that if anyone alls, they hear the automated response repeating the number they just dialed back to them. If the kidnappers call, they can't be sure who they've reached, , and if they can't get hold of us, they can't threaten us.

Rosario calls me that evening and leaves several messages pleading with me to call her back, and though she sounds genuinely upset, I don't return her call. There are too many unknowns: What if we send the money and they ask for more money? What if we send the money and then they go after our mother? What if we send the money and they kill him anyway? What if Rosario is in cahoots with the kidnappers? Why had they left her as the middleman? Or worse, what if he had something to do with it?  What if he somehow provoked this - messed with the wrong herd or owed someone money? Why had he practically insisted on knowing when Mary would be returning to Mexico?

Later that night I lay in bed, tossing and turning and wondering where he may be at that very moment. Imagining they probably have him blindfolded and tied to a wooden chair somewhere in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, and that they must be taunting him. Walking circles around the chair and asking, where arte your daughters now? Pues, no que te procuraban tanto? By then, the only message Mary had sent the kidnappers must have already reached them: They're not going to get a penny out of me, or any of his kids, because he abandoned us when we were young.

If he was in earshot of that conversation, it must have been then that he realized his past might be catching up with him- even though we had all gone back and reestablished a relationship with him - our past was still a dark line drawn between us. I assume that wherever he may be, he must already be calculating, plotting - coming up with a plan to save his hide - because by the time the sun went down that day and none of us had called the kidnappers back, the one thing that must have crystallized for him was that he may have to fend for himself.

Kidnapped. That word tumbles endlessly in my thoughts as the fan whirs in the window, providing little relief from the oppressive August humidity. What a strange word. What a vast gray space - what a relief. Dead is an infinite black hole from which nothing is retrievable. Kidnapped is good. There is hope.

First thing Tuesday morning, I e-mail my friend in Mexico City, the journalist. He puts me in contact with a friend of his, another journalist who has a direct connection to the head of the kidnapping division in the Mexican federal government.

"So your friend tells me your father isn't exactly and up-standing citizern," the fed says when I all him.

"That's true," I say, "but he's still my father."

The fed tells me that the thing with kidnappers is that they are usually after a monetary reward, and as long as we cooperate, they probably won't hurt my father.

"Have you talked to the kidnappers yet?"


"Have you talked to your father?"


"How do you know he is still alive?" he asks. This is something that has already occurred to me, but I tried not to dwell on it. He explained that the first thing I need to do is call the kidnappers, tell them we will cooperate, but can I please speak with my father first and make sure he's okay. Once we now he is alive and well, we can begin negotiating. "I'll walk you through all the steps," he says. "And if at any point the situation escalates or the kidnappers become threatening, say, then you need to let me know and we'll proceed accordingly."

"Can't you send federal troops to rescue him? I ask, imagining that the feds could somehow locate him and the soldiers would descend on the warehouse in the middle f the night. The place would be surrounded with armored vehicles and helicopters in no time, and the kidnappers wouldn't even know what hit them.

"One step at a time," he says. "You need to call them first, talk to your father, then call me back and we'll go from there."

After getting off the phone I call Mary. Since she lives in Mexico, I think she should be our point person, be the one to speak to the kidnappers.

"You should have never called the feds," she says, and asks if I had given them my name.

"Of course I gave them my name," I say, explaining that I trust my friend, that he would never put me in contact with a crooked fed'

"You can't trust anyone down here, especially not the feds," she says, expressing a sentiment shared by most people n Valparaiso, and probably all Mexico. By then, it seemed pretty obvious  that the feds had been behind the jailbreak - had known about it and allowed it to happen. How else was it possible that fifty-three inmates had escaped within five minutes, and there had been no resistance? Not a single bullet had been fired.

"Maybe you should pack up the kids and get out of there," I say. "Go stay in Chicago until this whole thing blows over."

"I'm not going anywhere," she says, and tells me to stop calling her because the kidnappers are probably listening in on our conversations. She's not being paranoid - everyone knew the cartels had set up surveillance towers and had been tapping into cell phone calls.

On Wednesday morning, we hear the latest threat. Either we send the money by the end of the day or they are going to toss his head over the courtyard wall. News of this threat sparks a frenzy of phone calls, crisscrossing over the border. Roselia calls several contacts she has in Mexico to see if anyone can help. Not only can they not help. they're hesitant to discuss anything over the phone. She calls a few private detective agencies in Chicago, all to no avail. She contacts the FBI, but since my father is not a U.S. citizen, there is nothing they can do. Sonia tells me to call the fed and have him send in troops.

When I talk to Yesenia, who's in Oakland, she says not to have the fed send in the troops because every time the soldiers get involved in these situations, it ends in a massive shoot-out, and what if he gets caught in the crossfire?

"For all we know, Dad is already on the other side, I say, and the minute I say it, I wish I hadn't.

We both fall silent for a long time.

"You really think they may have killed him?" Her voice is barely audible.

"Think about it," I say. "With a reputation Dad has, there's no way they're going to let him walk - even if we send the money. You don't mess with someone like him and then let him go free as if nothing ever happened. I think Mary is right. We need to stay out of it. With the type of life he has lived, he's got to be okay with this. If anyone can negotiate his way out of something like this, it would be him."

Later, as I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to my neighbors carrying on in their backyard, I wish there were way to send him a message -smoke signals, Morse code - or find him in a dream  and tell him that even though we are not calling the kidnappers, it doesn't mean we aren't trying. Because what if they do kill him? What if he leaves the world thinking we all turned our backs on him - that we don't love him?  The air hangs hot and dense in my bedroom and when I finally doze off, sunlight floods my window. My father steps out of the light and stands before me. He's about the same age he was when he left Chicago - forty-five. He looks tall and strong and is wearing a black cowboy hat, jeans and a black leather vest over a plaid cowboy shirt. He smiles at me, gives me a nod, and then turns an vanishes into the white light. I wake with an immense pressure on my chest, gasping and thinking they must have killed him. That he had come to say goodbye.

In the morning, I check n with my sisters: Noting has come flying over the wall-yet. By noon, sill nothing - not his head nor his hand, not even a finger - nothing. The only message that reaches us later that day is that his bond been lowered to $50,000. Cartels are not ones to negotiate-either you send the mount they ask for or you never see your relative again - it's that simple. Not only has his head not come flying over the courtyard wall, his ransom has been lowered by $450,000, and I can't help but wonder what had been that $450,000 moment. What charm had he mustered? What landscape had he painted for them -what type of deal had he struck -in order to keep his head attached?. That night Mary wakes to loud banging, to what sounds like someone trying to break through the front gate. She makes her two teenage daughters climb the spiral staircase to the roof, telling them to go hide a the neighbors. The noise grows louder and when it stops, there's nothing but the sound of sirens approaching and a woman shrieking. She's yelling a someone to please look after her children. A car door slams shut, swallowing the woman's voice, the care tires are screeching past Mary's front door practically as machine-gun fire rings out. Mary is certain that at any moment they're going to come barreling into her house. But instead the blasts and sirens pass and soon they're diminishing in the distance.

"It was the fright of my life," Mary says, when I talk to her the next day. By then she's heard that a convoy of SUVs had gone to pick up a woman from her neighborhood, but with all the banging someone had called the police and just as the SUVs were driving off with their hostage, the police descended on them and opened fired. They had chased  the SUV for several miles, forcing them to abandon two of their shattered vehicles on the main road - five people had been killed.

"Do you think it was the same guys that have Dad?" I ask.

"I wouldn't doubt it.

"Why don't you go stay in Chicago until things settle down over there?" I say, but she refuses to leave.

 Later that day, we receive another message. His bond has been lowered again. The kidnappers want us to send $10,000 or whatever we can afford. Roselia's partner jokes that if we hold out long enough they might just ask us to send enough money to cover his food expenses so they at least break even.

"I'm calling the kidnappers," Roselia says. "This is ridiculous we're not going to let them kill Dad over $10,000."

She calls Rosario to get the number for the kidnappers, but before she has a chance to say anything, Rosario informs her that she has already come up with the $10,000. She borrowed the money from Raul, Alma's boyfriend, and says that they should be releasing my father as soon as the wire clears their account. Within the next day or two, most likely.

By Friday afternoon, the latest wave of rumors is already sweeping all over town and drifting across the border. People are saying that they saw my father riding around with the kidnappers, hanging out at a gas station in Valparaiso with them - that perhaps he was not kidnapped at all, but rather had joined them. . .

When they dropped him off, he was dehydrated, had lost weight and his knees were swollen and bruised. . .

"You know, when you were kidnapped? I say weeks later, turning to face him. "We were trying. . . what did you think when you heard we weren't calling back? Did you think we had abandoned you?"

"No, I knew it was a tough situation," he says, glancing away. "It's a good thing you guys stayed out of it. Those people are ruthless."

"We didn't call Rosario back because we thought she might have something to do with it, found it peculiar they had left her as the middleman," I say.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she did have something to do with it," he says. " A lot of those men are from la sierra, from the same area she's from up in the mountains. That's where they grow their crops, la mota, la amapola, all of it. They grow it up there and then bring it down in truckloads." He explains how they have their lookouts stationed on either end of town. Two SUVs sit at the gas station on the north and another two in front of the slaughter house in the south, and all day long they are monitoring the road that runs in front of La Pena as it stretches from the mountains on one end and all the way to the border, practically, on the other.,

He looks across the sun-drenched grass and begins to recount the events of that afternoon. When they pick him up in the lot, they escorted him in one of the SUVs, where there was a woman sitting in the backseat holding his father's rifle between her knees. She went by the nickname of La Mona, they all went by nicknames, but she was the main one, the one giving orders. She blindfolded him with duct t ape and toilet paper and kept calling him her "little golden chicken." "I don't know, I guess she assumed she was going to collect a fortune from you guys," he says.

"There's a campground in the desert where they train their recruits, young boys mostly, some as young as eight or nine," he says. "A lot of those kids are homeless and they pick them up off the streets and offer them jobs, offer them food and money, and then they get them hooked on white powder, until eventually the kids are willing to work for the powder alone.

"Poor kids." I say.

"No, imagine a life like that? Those kids grow up and they don't give a damn about anything," he says. "On the same campground. they have these large cylinders  filled with acid, and that's where they dispose of the bodies. There's a man who goes by the nickname of the Soupmaker, and all day long hers poking and prodding inside the cylinders with a long stick, constantly stirring, and .  .  ."

"You saw that?" I turned to look at him.


"I thought that you were blindfolded."

"They did," he says, his eyes locking with mine. "They kept me in the backseat of a Suburban the whole time and sometimes they'd stop at the camp to drop someone off,  and a lot of the time they left me alone in the truck or sitting under a tree and if I leaned my head  back and lifted the duct tape a bit, I could see what they were doing." He wrinkles his nose as if he can still smell the stench of the acid, as if he can still see the butchered human parts flying through the air like logs. "It's horrible the things that they do. Horrible."

"You know, people in town were saying that they saw you driving around with them," I say. "That you must have joined them."

"People will say whatever they want to believe. Look how many times they've said I was dead, but here we are, right?" He cocks his eyebrow. "In the end, I befriended them, but that's only because I helped them one night." He lifts his hat off his knee and contemplates the inside of it as if he can see that night unfolding right there before him. He speaks in a steady voice recounting the details. How the SUVs had crossed  the state line, gone into Jalisco to pick up a man, and they had made such a racket trying to break through the gate that by the time they got in, the man had escaped or hidden, and because of all the noise, the neighbors had called the police and the sirens were already  approaching.

They didn't bother looking for the man. They took his wife instead, and from the backseat he could hear her screaming. Car doors slammed, the screaming was gone, and soon Mona was back on one side of him and a man on the other, and then they were moving, bouncing along a dirt road. La Mona was shouting to the driver to go faster and all the while the sirens were drawing near. There were a few, scattered blasts in the distance and then they were overtaken by machine-gun fire. He hunched over as  glass shattered all around and he felt the weight of the man who had been sitting on his right slump over him. He thought for sure he would be next, could almost feel the bullet that would crack his skull, and so he did the one thing he had always done in these life-and-death situations. He began to pray. Asking Diosito to have mercy on his soul. And then they must have made it onto a paved road, because suddenly they were moving faster and the blasts and sirens were fading in the distance.

Even through the static of their walkie-talkies he could hear the panic in their voices. Two of the SUVs behind theirs has also been hit. They rolled to a stop, car doors slammed, the door next to him flew open, and then the weight of the man was gone. "Vamos, viejo." Someone gripped his arm and pulled him across the slick seat. Over the wailing of the approaching sirens, he could hear La Mona saying something about just leaving the woman because she had been hit and what good was she going to do them dead, anyway.

They ushered him into a different SUV and again they were moving, flying around curves on an open road, the sirens growing louder and La Mona yelling that they needed to get off that road or they were never going to lose the feds. The driver snapped, what was he to do? This was the only road that led back to Zacatecas. They were in such a state that for a minute he thought they might turn their guns on each other, and that's when he saw his opportunity. He knew that if they were on one of the only roads that ran from Jalisco back to Zacatecas, he could help them, and he told them so.

"If we need your help, viejo, we will ask for it," La Mona said.

"Si, viejo," the driver said, we're near Huejucar. Why? Is there some secret road you know of?" He told them there was no other road, only terrain.

"They all fell silent," he says, describing how no one spoke , though their glances mut have been dancing between them, and all the while the sirens were getting closer, and then he felt the sting of the duct tape practically ripping the flesh off his face. It was pitch-dark out, just before dawn. They killed the lights and he led them off the main road and through the streets of Huejucar, turning left and right while the sirens continued to wail out on the road. Once they had crossed through town, they came to a dirt trail that wound up the mountainside. The path gave way to terrain, they shifted to four-wheel drive, and as they swerved around nopales and magueys, he tried to get his bearings. It had been years since he had ridden through these parts on horseback, and he wasn't exactly sure where he was going, but he trusted his instincts, and by the time the stars had begun to fade, the landscape was already looking familiar.

Once they reached La Laguna, he knew exactly where he was, and by the time the first light of day was illuminating the horizon, they were practically crossing right in front of the gate to is ranch. He even had the urge to say, hey, why don't you let me out here, I've done my part, but he didn't say anything, thought it best to keep his mouth shut. And besides, he didn't want them knowing where is ranch was. He watched the entrance come and go and then they were making their way down and around the boulders near Santana. "How is it you know this terrain so well, viejo? La Mona asked, and he told her that in his younger years, he had crossed that terrain on horseback numerous times, had ridden as far as Monte Escobedo and back.

By early morning, they were clearing the speed bumps on the south end of town. They pulled into the gas station and even let him use the bathroom-unescorted.

"After that day, they were a lot nicer to me," he ays. "Even La Mona was nicer. She was such a harsh woman. But you should have heard her tone change whenever one of her kids called. She sounded like the pure truth, saying she missed them too and asking how they were doing in school, and were they obeying their grandmother, and had they gotten the gifts she had sent, and hee hee hee and ha ha ha. But other than that she was heartless."

He tells me that after they let him go, La Mona and some of the others kept coming around the house, wanting him to go have a beer with them, but he really didn't like hanging around with them and would usually have Rosario say he wasn't home. He says La Mona showed up one day, practically demanding to know who was watching over him, what saint was it that he prayed to? And was it true that he had a pact with the Other One?

" I don't know, I guess she heard stories around town," he says. This is a rumor that has followed him all his whole life - that he has a act with the devil, though I am not certain where it started. "But I told her it was just Diosito that watched over me. She didn't seem convinced. Pero bueno, not long after that day, her corrido ended. I heard that her convoy had gotten into a shootout with the soldiers and she had been killed in the crossfire."

"Poor woman," I say, and can't help but to feel for her kids.

"Poor nothing," he says. "With the way those people live, most of them don't last long."


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