by John S
A reporter's story takes him from the big city to small town America.
It was getting harder and harder to find anything worth investigating that wasn’t already all over the goddamn internet. Faithful readers, who used to buy newspapers, had only to flip a switch to turn on one of their many electronic devices to get instant news and gratification. He glanced around the newsroom and saw more empty desks than occupied ones. It was in the air, he could feel it, he would be next to get the axe. He was in his mid-fifties while the rest of the remaining staff looked like teenyboppers to him. The New York World had turned into a real piece of crap. There was no real journalism, only stories lifted from the internet. Damn, these so-called reporters very rarely left the office. He didn’t want to get fired, but it wouldn’t be a big financial hardship for him. He’d written two best sellers and put away most of his royalties and a good part of his salary. His ex-wife remarried almost right after the divorce, so alimony was never an issue. He had enough for a comfortable retirement. He could finally do what he wanted, whatever the hell that was. He had no family, no hobbies, until five years ago cigarettes had been his best friend. His best friend had almost killed him, a heart attack at fifty was reason enough to give up the Marlboros.
His cell phone buzzing woke him from his thoughts. He hesitated answering it. Lately, he’d been deluged with calls from insurance agents promising him lower rates on his car, home, and life insurance. What kind of research did these idiots do? He had no family, no car, and he lived in a rent controlled apartment. He answered the call with the intention of cursing out the party at the other end. Cliff waited for the pitch, instead the voice told him that he had a story for him. The voice had a definite accent, the guy was trying to sound like a thug. Cliff thought it sounded more like that poser DeNiro trying to sound like a tough guy.
“Meet me at the diner across the street, I won’t talk on the phone. If you ain’t here in twenty minutes me and the best story you ever heard will be gone,” he hung up.
Cliff wondered if it was a setup. He’d made plenty of enemies over the years. Several mobsters, politicians, or cops would love to kill him. He would rather deal with the cops or the mob guys, they were more honest than the politicians. Hell, he might as well go, he was bored and the diner was always crowded, he couldn’t see anyone attacking him there. The caller turned out to be a shriveled up old man. As he rose to shake Cliff’s hand he saw that the old man’s suit was two sizes too large. As they sat Cliff could see the old guy’s hands shook and he spoke without his lips moving. The lips were a definite tell, the old guy had done some serious time in one of the many upstate prisons.
“So here I am, what’s the big story you wanted to tell me about?”
“Do you remember the Harris kidnapping.?”
“Sure, who doesn’t it was about twenty years ago, right?”
“Yea, that’s the one.”
“So, what about it. All I can remember is that the kid was never found. The Harris family paid a ransom of a million bucks and all they got was the wrong kid.”
“What if I told you I know where to find the right kid?”
“I’d say you were probably full of shit.”
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”
“Ok, enough dicking around, do you know something or not?”
“I do. As you probably noticed I’ve been a guest of the state for twenty years. I got out about a month ago, I’m not doing so great on the outside. I’m too old and sick to work, my family dumped me years ago, I need some cash. I have a buddy in Florida who’ll take me in, but I need cash to get there and a few bucks for walking around money.”
“So, you’re looking for money. Sorry I don’t pay for information. Why not go to the cops, there might be a reward.”
“I checked there’s no reward. Besides I don’t like talking to cops.”
Cliff got up to leave, “Nice to meet you, I have to get back to work.”
“What if you write a book about it? You could pay me as a technical advisor or some other crap. I read a couple of your books, they were pretty good.”
“You’d have to wait for a while for any money. These things take time.”
“Ok, could you just front me the money for a bus ticket to Florida?”
“Let me hear your story. If it sounds good to me I’ll buy you a ticket.”
The story was that good. The old guy, his name was Sal Oliva, spoke for a half-hour telling him what had really happened to the Harris kid. Cliff sat there transfixed not saying a word. Sal didn’t need prodding it sounded like he’d wanted to tell this story for a long time. Cliff bought the ticket for Orlando Florida and gave Sal an extra hundred dollars. He couldn’t wait to get started. He went back to the office and told his asshole editor that he was on to something big. All he needed was a rental car and a few days and he might have the story of the year. The editor asked him if he’s verified the information on the internet. Cliff lied and said he had. The rental car was his and he was off to the great state of Pennsylvania.
Cliff had been in the city too long. Once he crossed over the Tappen Zee Bridge he remembered how beautiful and vast his country was. The cars GPS took him off the main highways once he was in Pennsylvania. The back roads were far more interesting. He was enjoying the ride, he’d forgotten how friendly and generous people were in the real America. The nuns of St. Theresa School had beat out any religious feelings he’d ever had, but the sign still offended him. There it was, on one of those neon lit variable message boards on the manicured lawn of a small church, Good Friday Bingo. Damn the sign was almost yelling at him, “come and enjoy a game of Bingo on the very day that Christians believe Jesus was executed.”
Maybe he’d misread something, so he made a U-turn to make sure he hadn’t missed a comma or something. No, he’d read the sign correctly. Below the call to Bingo, in much smaller lettering, was an invitation for worshipers to attend Easter Sunday Services in the church. The insincerity amazed him. He’d observed other surprising things on his travels through the hinterland. He’d seen statues of Jesus on unkept laws right beside a gigantic satellite dishes. Would the inhabitants have any problem moving Jesus out of the way to get better reception? The contradictions were what made America and Americans interesting.
The story Oliva had told Cliff was also full of contradictions. The Harris kidnapping had been national news only long after the actual events. The Harris’s were one of the most prominent families in New York society. Their wealth and power were well established. No-one remembered that when the first Harris arrived in New York in the late 1890’s he was no more than an escaped convict from London. He continued his evil ways in his new homeland. Deke Harris was a thief, a liar, and a remorseless killer. All these were good traits to possess in the cut-throat underworld of New York’s criminal element. Deke had one thing that most of his rivals in the underworld didn’t, he possessed intelligence, a rare commodity among criminals. Soon he was the leader of the pack. He ordered others to commit crimes, but didn’t participate. He grew fat and rich and died in his own bed, not a jail cell.
Each following Harris generation became a little cleaner and richer. All these years later the Harris name was gold. Old Deke and his reputation were forgotten.
Details of the kidnapping came out later in dribs and drabs. The Harris family didn’t report it to the police and the media was left in the dark. Even after the ransom was paid and the wrong five-year-old boy was given in exchange for a money transfer of one million dollars many of the details remained sketchy.
Three thugs took Joseph Harris as he and his nanny exited a local Starbucks. The nanny was pistol whipped and tossed aside. Joseph was grabbed and thrown into the back seat of a SUV. The nanny was rushed to the hospital. After a visit from her employer, she shut down. She told the cops that their witnesses were wrong there was no child involved. The detectives could see the woman was lying, but they also knew that Mr. Harris was a friend of the mayor so they left things alone.
Arrangements were made for the boy’s release. No police were to be involved. The million dollars were to be wired to an untraceable account as the boy and one of the kidnappers waited in the middle of a wooden footbridge in Central Park. On the first sign of any trouble the man on the bridge would put a bullet in young Harris’s head. When the money transfer was verified the boy would be released and walk over to the waiting Harris security team. The exchange took place as expected. The money transfer was confirmed, the boy walked over to the Harris people and safety.
None of the security people found it strange that the rescued boy fell asleep immediately in the back of the company van. The hour was late and the boy had been through a lot. The Harris family waited anxiously for the arrival of their son. They had been informed that all had gone well. It hadn’t though. The security team had returned with the wrong child.
Sal explained that the kidnapper on the bridge was his cellmate for five years. Over that time the cellmate, named Benny, told him the whole sordid story. The kidnappers had planned to stash the kid in the house of the girlfriend of one of the kidnappers in rural Pennsylvania. Problems arose immediately. Joseph Harris would not stop screaming and kicking. Jimmy, who was sitting in the back with the kid had enough and backhanded him across the face with an angry blow. The kid’s nose was broken and blood was pouring from it. Will, the brains of the outfit, pulled over on one of the backroads. They tried to stop the bleeding, but couldn’t, the poor kid chocked on his own blood. The Harris kid died in Benny’s arms. Panicked and stupid the three decided to continue to Will’s girlfriend’s house with the body in the SUV. Lucky for the three kidnappers they weren’t pulled over by the police and reached their destination. Marie, Will’s girlfriend, was smarter than the three thugs combined. She had them bury the boy’s body in the woods behind the house. The house was so remote there was no chance that anyone would see what they were up to. Next, Marie came up with a plan to collect the Harris ransom money. She and Will spent time scouting the local grammar school for a kid about the same size and hair color as Joseph Harris. They found almost a perfect match. Marie walked up to the boy as he exited the school and told him that his mother had sent Marie to pick him up. The five-year-old kid shrugged his shoulders and followed her into the SUV. If the child was ever reported missing none of the kidnappers ever heard about it.
Benny, Sal’s cellmate, felt terrible. He hadn’t signed on to kill a kid. They had buried the boy like he was a bag of garbage. On the night before leaving for the city Benny snuck out to the grave, said a prayer and placed a cross he’d fashioned out of two bed slats and a shoestring on the grave.
They got their money and ended up splitting it four ways. Marie insisted on getting a full share and no-one was going to argue with her.
The Harris family was heartbroken. They called the police and explained the whole situation to a very understanding NYPD Captain. All the five-year old kid knew was that his name was Jeremy and that his mother’s friend had picked him up at school. No central missing child database existed twenty years ago so Jeremy ended up in foster care.
Cliff managed to find the address Sal had given him with the help of the car’s GPS. The house looked long abandoned. Cliff walked to the woods behind the house and searched for the cross Sal had told him about. After an hour or so of searching he began to curse Sal Oliva under his breath for sending him on this wild goose chance. He stepped on something that sounded like a fallen branch. He looked down and found the crude cross that Benny had left. He’d been so sure that Sal’s story would turn out to be bullshit he had no clue on what to do next. He sat in his car trying to come up with a way to prove that Joseph Harris was buried below the cross. Sheriff Bill Brady solved all of Cliff’s problems. The sheriff pulled in behind Cliff, someone had reported suspicious activity at the house. Cliff showed the sheriff his press credentials and explained why he was there. The sheriff made a few calls and before long the Pennsylvania crime techs were on the scene. They found the bones of a small child in the grave and after weeks of DNA testing found that the were those of Joseph Harris.
Cliff handed his story to his editor and told him, “I quit jackass.” It took him six months to finish the book about the Harris case and get it to his agent. The book wasn’t a best-seller, after all it wasn’t about the Kardashians. It did well enough to allow Cliff and Sal to retire comfortably in God’s waiting room.