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Thunderbird
by John H. Jennings

I was taking an evening walk near my hotel in Lima's Mira Flores district, day dreaming of the wife and the kids, but mostly of the moment I could get back behind the wheel of my restored '57 Thunderbird and burn up open road. I had been in Peru for a month, reviewing a new offshore project, and was anxious to get back to the States.

I've had this thing about the Thunderbird ever since I was a kid and my Uncle Horace used to take me for rides on the weekend in his '55 model. So I was totally astonished that just as I was dreaming of the classic T-Bird under a blazing Peruvian sun, a '55 model rolled past me and drifted to the curb. For a few seconds I stared in awe, like a Mexican peasant seeing the face of Jesus on a tortilla. It had rust damage, bent fenders, but the ultimate sacrilege were three crates of live chickens roped over the trunk. Instantly, the restoration of this abused treasure to virginal status captured my imagination.

I walked towards the car, still not believing, but suddenly a plume of blue smoke erupted from the tailpipe and it jack-rabbited away into the street.

"Damn!" I yelled, starting to run, then got lucky. A cruising taxi rolled to the curb. I jumped in, waving a handful of bills "Follow that car!" I screamed in English. The driver looked at me, puzzled. I gestured firmly, then shoved some bills at him. He followed the aim of my finger to the rear end of the T-Bird disappearing around the corner. Suddenly, he nodded, and hit the gas.

We turned the corner and could see the sports car heading for the Mira Flores traffic circle. "Go! Go! Go!" I yelled to the driver.

We rolled around the circle, my driver showing superb skill. In Peruvian traffic there's only one rule; he with the most balls makes the rules. I grabbed the top of the slick duct tape patched front seat as the turns threw me from side to side. We sped about a mile down a long boulevard, almost splattering an old man who meandered in a trace across the road. Ahead, the T-Bird turned on a side street into a warehousing area. Then suddenly we turned into an alley way. There was the convertible, blocking the alley. The driver, a young Peruvian with a shock of black hair, was getting out.

The cab screeched to a halt, brakes squealing, pulling slightly to the right. I looked behind me and a rusty white van came from nowhere and blocked the rear.

Sensing trouble, I grabbed for the door handle, but there wasn't one. Seconds later, the door opened. A bearded man of medium height wearing a bush jacket with long hair pulled back in a pony tail and wrap around sunglasses, put a large revolver in my face. He said in American English,

"Keep your hands in view, Mr. Gillette. You are my prisoner."

I heard the driver chuckle. I glanced at him. He held a small automatic.

In seconds I was in the back of the van with my hands cuffed in front of me. They put a cloth sack over my head, and shoved me to the floor of the van.

We drove for hours. I was numb with fear, surprised that I was still able to think and function, trying to remember what I'd learned from my hitch in the Army, and from the overseas safety seminar my company gives all executives. The Army said, try to break free early, before they get all their controls in place. The consultants said, just play along, we'll negotiate you out. As usual, the experts contradict each other.

For the last third of the journey the vehicle was climbing. We shifted between hard surface and gravel. Finally we slowed, driving over bumpy ground, and came to a halt. They pulled me out from the van, then several yards though a door.

Somebody pulled the cloth sack off my head. I faced three tough looking Peruvians, dressed in peasant clothing, all carrying machetes. They stared at me with cold black eyes, expressionless. I was in a small house that was just one room, with one door and a very small window. There was a table, chairs, and a cot in the corner.

From behind me, Ponytail said,

"Meet your guards, Mr. Gillette."

I stared at them, shocked by their unwavering hostility. The chiseled edges of the machetes shimmered in the light of an bright overhead bulb. The preliminaries were quick. I was stripped to the skin, they took everything, including my watch. They gave me jeans, underwear, and a khaki shirt. No shoes. My hands were recuffed in front. Ponytail waved the guards out the door.

"Please sit at the table, Mr. Gillette. Call me Falcon."

I sat at the table and looked at the man who called himself Falcon. I tried to breath deep and slow, focus on details. He slipped the keys to the handcuffs into his right front jacket pocket. His first question caught me off guard.

"What are you drinking, Mr. Gillette? There's bourbon, gin, and vodka, plus the local beer. We've even got ice."

I hesitated, trying to project more poise than I felt,

"Bourbon, straight. This is an odd kidnapping, with an open bar."

"Within the limits of practicality, there's no need for you to be uncomfortable. My Third World friends are disappointed. They wanted to toss you into our rat-infested shit hole out back. They feel that you would gain new spiritual insights and global awareness from a little Third World consciousness raising session. I think not. I want you in the best possible condition. You're an important man. I'm sure your company can afford the ransom."

"Drill-Tex is a very healthy company," I said.

"I know, I've been reading the annual report."

For some reason I asked, " I'd have thought that my guards would have guns?"

"A good jail never has guns where a prisoner can grab one. These men are tough and highly motivated. Their families are hungry. They are good with their blades. Don't test them."

"As for the good treatment I offer, be assured it is conditional. Abuse my trust and we go to Plan B."

"Plan B being Third World consciousness raising, otherwise known as the rat-infested shit hole?" I asked.

"Correct."

He stared at me a moment.

"If you are troublesome under Plan B, then we revert to Plan C."

I was silent, glad that my hands were below the table top, They were shaking.

"Plan C is where we cut our losses and terminate the project."

Falcon finished pouring and walked over and paused in front of me, holding my glass. "I hope you see the wisdom of playing the game."

"I do," I said, and took the drink.

A half hour later, I was alone in the room, lying in the dark on the cot. A guard watched from the window. Falcon was gone, I thought to negotiate the exchange. I tried to remember details of my training. The main message was, play along, don't try to be a hero, we'll pay up. I pulled the blanket over me, the handcuffs made it hard to find a comfortable sleeping position. I rolled over quietly in bed, sneaking a glance at the window. The guard was motionless, back-lit by moonlight, eyes lost in shadow.

Somehow I drifted off to sleep and, towards morning, into a dream. I'm cruising the dusty country roads with Uncle Horace in his Thunderbird, light up a forbidden Camel cigarette, but it's not fun like it's supposed to be, it's scary. A black tornado roars over the horizon, farm buildings explode into spinning machetes of twisted metal, chickens rain from heaven. Only the familiar dashboard of the Thunderbird promises safety, but we can't turn away from the pillar cloud, the road runs right to it. We slid around, spinning in the mud. Why am I handcuffed to the car? With the rattle of a thousand freight trains just yards behind, the wheels bite the pavement and we lurch forward. Ropy funnels skip forward to the left and right, flailing our sanity as they rape the corn, denuded cobs thump the hood like hail. The engine redlines yet the tornado is gaining when I wake up in the early morning, wet with sweat, and reach for Helen but her place is empty, and open my eyes to a motionless figure still at the window, back-lit by the morning sun.

The T-Bird driver came in about noon of the first day. He was a good looking young guy with one silver front tooth, and short like most Peruvians. He spoke little English and I decided to hide what little Spanish I have. We established that his name was Pepe, and we both liked sports cars. I think what he was really after was free access to the booze. Falcon had not defined all the rules of the game for his staff. The machete men were well disciplined and silent, but Pepe just seemed to be hanging out. He made free with the whiskey, making the local tipple, the pesco sour. After thirty minutes of meaningless grinning and toasting each other, Pepe left. It got me thinking. In a crunch, he might, even if not on my side, be a little slower to pull the trigger.

About sundown the second day I heard a car engine approaching. Falcon and Pepe came in, jubilant.

"Break out a bottle, Mr. Gillette." said Falcon "The arrangements are complete. The exchange is on for tomorrow night. We leave here at eleven, hand you over at midnight."

We sat at the table and had a drink, which led to two or five. I knew I was stupid to relax, but things were going smoothly. I was sure my company would play their end straight.

I poured my self another drink. A tiny voice told me to cool it, but I now freedom seemed certain.

"Hey, Mr. Falcon, I do have one regret."

"What's that ?"

"I never did get a look at the car."

Falcon studied his drink, then shrugged. "Well, why not, it's out back. Let's go."

It was an odd procession that went out the door and around to the back. Pepe, Falcon carrying the bottle and glasses, me in handcuffs. The car was under an overhang, lit by a single bulb from the roof.

The Thunderbird was topless. The upholstery inside clean and new, belying the rusted and dented body and the now absent chicken crates. Falcon told Pepe to pop the hood. The '55 T-Bird had inside hood release, a real innovation at the time. Pepe gestured grandly and pointed at the engine, and burst into sudden fluency in automotive English.

"292 cubic inch overhead valve V-8, one hundred and ninety-three horse-power. Four barrel carb, three speed on the floor, with overdrive."

An image machine, I thought, the ultimate totem of Americana. Made me think of drive-in movies, popcorn, first kiss with Mary Lou under the rag top, cruising Route 66 into the blazing sun, rolling through the Vegas neon, stopping at sleepy trailer courts with lazy ice machines where nothing is denied after the sun goes down, following the hot-tarred asphalt forever west across the desert to the promised land.

The engine was dirty, but not as much as I'd have thought. The electrical gear was patched and repatched, a morass of new and ancient tape. One gob of tape included a twist of rusted coat hanger wire.

Pepe started the engine. It ran smooth and strong. The mixture was a little rich, the scent of leaded gasoline that brought back the old days, back when a man tuned his car to go as fast as it could go, before the catalytic converter sapped something indefinable from man and machine. I had enough booze in me for one last request.

"Can I sit in the driver's seat?"

An hour later I was still behind the wheel, Falcon sitting to my right. The bottle was sat empty on the dash. The key was on and the radio blared mariachi.

Over the music I yelled loudly at Falcon.

"How the hell did you know I'd follow this car?"

He smiled behind his wrap-around shades and turned down the radio. I knew from your profile that you're a car buff, that you rebuild them."

I nodded, Falcon knew too damn much about me. "You couldn't have known for sure I'd follow."

He was silent a moment. "I had a back-up plan. The usual is to run a honey trap. Or some guys like to come down here and score coke, or buy illegal Incan relics. Absolute morons."

Suddenly I remembered the girl in the elevator on Monday, who was also there on Tuesday when she dropped her purse at my feet. A petite dark girl who smiled and brushed her breasts against my arm when she bent to pick up her purse. Even after I passed on the option and went back to my room alone and felt guilty enough to call my wife, I still wondered if I'd see the her again.

I asked Falcon, "The girl in the elevator?"

He shrugged.

I let it go and took a sip. I told him about Uncle Horace. "My Uncle Horace used to have a '55 T-Bird. Kept it up meticulously. I used to help him wax it on weekends. He'd take me for drives in the country, even let me drive. There was something Uncle Horace always said."

"What's that?"

"He always said, 'Women just love cars. If you can't get pussy in a '55 T-Bird, son, then you just can't get pussy.'"

Falcon chuckled. I decided to push for more information.

"But how did you know I was even coming to Lima? You had to do a hell of a lot of research."

He hesitated, then spoke. "I've been working up profiles on a number of top executives who come to Peru. Unlucky for you, the plan came together for you first. I know that you have wife Helen, sons Chad and Ronnie, dog Roscoe. I know you prefer single malt whiskey, sorry I cannot be the perfect host, that you've been a past president of the North Texas Thunderbird Collectors Association, and have written three articles in sports car magazines. I was even able to access your company's computers."

I killed my drink, shaking my head. If I made it back, there would be some serious butt-kicking back at the company.

"You're a clever guy," I said to Falcon. Then I twisted the wheel back and forth, yelling, "Varoom! Varoom!" just like I was eight years old again.

"Hey," I said, really far gone, "Maybe somehow after all this is over I can make you an deal on the car, ship it back to the States."

"The car is Pepe's," Falcon said. He shouted something to Pepe in Spanish. Pepe shook his head vigorously. No way he'd sell.

I won't pretend that the next day sped by rapidly. It was a long wait for midnight, but it came, finally. I was blindfolded and led to the van. I sat on the metal floorboard. I tried to mentally keep track of the turns and distances , but finally gave up. I think they ran me in a few circles. No way could I trace the house from the release point.

Finally the van stopped. The rear door opened and Falcon said.

"Watch your step, Mr. Gillette."

A hand grabbed me to steady me.

"Just keep silent and follow my lead. In five minutes you'll be free."

I hung on his every word. This was it. I didn't doubt that Drill-Tex had paid up, but now Falcon had the cash, and I was just a liability who might know enough to help the hunters find him. We went about fifty yards uphill, and about a hundred yards downhill. Finally, we stopped. Falcon's voice came one more time, soft and low.

"I'm taking off the blindfold. Look straight ahead. You are facing a trail. Just follow it. Your friends are about fifty yards away. Move slowly and follow their instructions. Good-bye, Mr. Gillette."

The blindfold was removed. The moon was not yet up, but there was a fair amount of light. I faced a trail, dark and murky.

"Good bye Mr. Falcon," I said, and started forward. My footing was mostly firm, though the ground was sometimes soft. I worried about snakes.

"Stop!" came a short challenge.

I stopped.

"Right. Thirty yards ahead of you is a Volkswagen Beetle. Walk forward and get in the passenger seat."

I moved forward and saw the shape of the car. I went to the right, opened the door, and got in. A few seconds later, a ghostlike figure slipped in the door, handing me a folding stock military rifle with some strange scope attached.

"Keep the muzzle away from us and your finger off the trigger. There's a round in the chamber," came a calm instruction.

He tuned the ignition, the engine caught, and we moved out slowly.

About fifty yards down the road he cut on the lights. I could see a wiry young man who glanced at me intensely.

"I'm Carson. Are you OK?"

"Yes."

He continued. "OK, here's the plan. I'm taking you to the beach. A speedboat will take you out to Platform 17. Then a chopper will take you from the drilling rig to a private strip where the Lear is waiting. You'll refuel in Bogota, should be in Miami in eleven hours."

"Why not back to Lima? Hasn't this been reported to the authorities?"

"No, sir. Believe me, you don't want to spend the next three weeks talking to a bunch of Peruvian cops. We cleaned out your hotel room this morning. The story is that you're the busy executive called away on an inspection tour up north."

I was stunned. It didn't seem right.

"What about my passport? Won't it show I didn't leave the country?"

Carson smiled. "We have people with rubber stamps, sir. I've got water and sodas in the back, if you're thirsty, and we've got a secure cellular phone."

I looked to my right, there was only moonlight, but a huge drop off loomed.

I tried to relax, put a little humor in the situation.

"This is kind of a wimpy little car. Don't I rate anything better?"

"Well, sir", he answered, "They specified the type of car, as well as the routes in and out. But now we've got you in hand, I'm taking my own road home."

He drove the VW hard, with little regard for the engine. His driving was expert, but there was a bottomless drop off just beyond my window, I felt the most danger I had been in so far was from his driving. The moon finally broke the rim of the mountains, a tiny ribbon of water glimmered on the valley floor below.

"OK , sir, look sharp, to the left, look for a small green light."

Carson flicked his brights on and off, slowing. Suddenly I saw it.

"There it is!" I yelled.

He hit the pedal and we lunged forward. A quarter mile later he let out a deep breath.

"What was that all about?" I asked.

"Demolitions ambush. Two of our guys with enough Simtex to bounce this little dune buggy across the canyon, plus claymores on the wings in case they detonate too slow or fast on a moving car. They'll take out anybody trailing us for the next three minutes. The green light was our signal for safe passage."

"Jesus Christ Almighty! For the record, if this ever happens again, leave that part out!"

He chuckled.

"It makes me a little nervous, too. It's kind of complicated. This guy Falcon is a foreigner, and kidnapped you just for cash. There's a lot of political terrorist groups in Peru, and Falcon is stepping all over their turf. We picked up reports somebody was on his trail, want a piece of the action. That's why we're moving fast, if this had turned political it would have been a lot harder to get you out. That's why we need all the hardware, there may be other players."

I started to relax, but in the seminar they warned us to never relax too early. It's not over till you're all the way home. But still I found myself nodding off, wondering, who had won, who had lost? Well, I was alive. Falcon had got his investment capital. Three guys with machetes could feed their families for a year or so. Drill-Tex had a blip on their cash flow. But the real winner was Pepe. He still held the grand prize, the 55 T-Bird. I thought about him, racing along in the moonlight in the chariot of power, pushing the limits of adhesion-- just like Uncle Horace used to say, having it all.

We were about a mile from the asphalt, when it came, a rolling clap of thunder on a cloudless night. I missed its meaning, but Carson swore and grabbed the telephone from the dash.

"Road Kill, Road Kill, this is Carson. Gimmie a sitrep! Over."

It took him almost a minute to get an answer. Then he listened a moment.

"Okay, see anything else?"

"OK. Extract by your primary route. At the safe house, I'll contact you as planned."

Carson drove along in silence, nervousness chipping at his cool. Finally he said,

"Goddamn adrenaline junkies, so excited they can hardly talk. They blew a car with one guy clean off the mountain. They say it looked like an old sports car, a convertible."

I slammed my fist against the dash.

"GOD DAMN IT!"

Carson looked at me, and asked,

"A friend of yours, sir?"

Suddenly I wanted to hit Carson hard , shatter his cool. Pepe hadn't been following us, he was just a guy with big money in his jeans, out running the roads, opening it up wide on his way back to town to celebrate. Carson had picked his own road out, just bad luck Pepe picked the same one. I took a deep breath. I was still on the wrong side of the equator. Carson was still my team, had risked his life for me, even if he did it for cash. I owed him the truth, without a hint of sympathy for Pepe.

"It sounds like it was a guy named Pepe, one of the kidnapers. He drove a classic sports car, a Thunderbird. But hey, Peruvian women can pop out Pepes like flat-rolled tortillas, but they only made 16,155 Thunderbirds in the 1955 manufacturing year. Every year a few more are lost forever."

I was punchy, fatigued, but still needed to control Carson, to shape his perceptions. The difference between the guy at the end of the table at a board meeting and the guy who comes in later and empties the trash is mainly a matter of perceptions.

"Your guys hit a late target, didn't they? They were supposed to give us three minutes of cover. It was more like ten."

Carson was shaken, a little defensive. He knew damn well we might have killed just anybody.

"That's right sir, but they were the men on the spot. It was their call. Not that I'm happy about it."

I was silent a half minute, let him sweat, then said,

"Forget it, you're doing a great job, Carson. Scratch one beaner terrorist. We were lucky to nail one of them without even having to look."

We didn't say another word till we reached the beach.

On the Lear to Bogata I quit playing tough guy and finally collapsed in sleep. The dream returns. I'm Pepe, screaming in the night down the mountain road, big bucks in my pocket, heading for an endless party. I slip in the curves in the dark, drifting towards the edge, yet know just how far I go, accelerating into the straight-away, down shifting to slow, the engine back-firing just the right sound I want to hear, and then; BLAM!!

I ascend in a blinding flash, why am I soaring above the road? The car radio is still blaring mariachi, (though logic says the old tubes are shattered by the sub-orbital bounce), I mount the night sky like the thunderbird of legend, a thunderclap breaks from my rising wings, lightning flashes from my eyes, I fly high in the void, turning lazily, my headlights pan to splay the universe of stars from Leo to Capricorn, the lighted dashboard a familiar comfort in the alien void, my engine redlining as the wheels spin ever faster, tach and speedo needles pegging the stops, free of the friction of earth, I clutch the wheel, disdaining the very angels of God, don't need no near-death cop-out cause I'm the T-Bird Man, my butt's in the bucket and my pedal's to the metal all the way to the end of the ride, now rotating downward, horizon tilting one eighty, I float then fall effortlessly down the gorge, screaming varoom varoom as I play the wheel left and right, hitting the wipers to clear unimportant insects and the odd parrot that thumps the windshield, in the last milli-seconds I whiff the fetid moisture of jungle death and rebirth, and flick my beams on high, probing mother earth's crevasse as she draws me home.
END

© Copyright 1997, John H. Jennings, All Rights Reserved.




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