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JOSEPH’S KIDNAPPING

Extortion in Canton

PROLOGUE

The battered pickup stopped outside the fence. The two men who exited were an unlikely pair–one short and thin, the other tall and stocky–not exactly a Laurel and Hardy, but close.

"All right, Peanut, from here on in we walk and you gotta be quiet," the bigger man whispered as he opened the gate and slipped through. "Go check that line-shack. I’ll keep watch. Maybe I kin spot Joseph."

"Me? Alone? Wha’chu gonna do?"

"I done told you. Now, git on down there. And quit making so much noise."

"Shit," Peanut mumbled as he walked toward the building. "Damn truck makes enough racket to wake the dead."

His partner shook his head, his eyes following Peanut until the night swallowed him. The bigger man squatted, staring at the horizon. He slowly searched 180 degrees across the area, squinting into the darkness. He looked back toward the line-shack, then into the darkness again. Seeing nothing in either direction, he pulled a toothpick from his shirt pocket, inserted it in his mouth as he once again searched the skyline. That damn Joseph’s gonna git his tonight.

Moments passed. The big man chewed the toothpick, plotted and searched. Suddenly, there was a noise from behind him.

He sprang to his feet, his fists at the ready. "Shit, Peanut! Don’chu know better than to sneak up on a feller. I coulda hur’chu bad. Git in here and close that gate." He took a deep breath. "Did you see anything?"

"Nah, ain’t no light inside. It’s blacker’n a whore’s heart. If they’s anybody in there, they’s sound asleep."

The big man stared at Peanut, sighing loudly, then looked across the enclosed area. "I believe Joseph’s over that a way. Let’s go, but walk soft." He took a few steps, stopped, listened then took a few more steps. Shifting from one shadow to the next, he continued the pattern. He lay down behind a mesquite bush and stared upward, his eyes searching the skyline.

Peanut carefully followed him. When the bigger man dropped onto his belly, Peanut whispered, "You tired already? Maybe we ought to come back later." He cupped his ear. "Joseph might not even be here."

"I told you he wuz, didn’t I? Why the hell you think I’m out here in the middle of the night? Shore ain’t ‘cause I’d rather be with you than that piece-a-ass I got waitin’ in Canton." The bigger man stood and took a few steps before stopping again.

Peanut bumped into him.

"You clumsy som’bitch. Can’t you do nothing right? Be careful."

"Quit stoppin’ so damn much. Feels like I’m driving on First Monday."

"Jist shut up, I can’t hear nothing. Here, you take the bag and give me the rope."

He jerked the rope from Peanut’s grasp as the bag fell through Peanut’s hands onto his boots. When Peanut stooped to retrieve it, he stumbled forward bumping the big man again.

"Now what?"

"I tripped on the bag."

The big man cocked his arm. "If I didn’t need you, I’d knock you on your skinny little ass. You ‘bout the worst I ever worked with." He looked into the darkness. "You see anything?"

Peanut fumbled around his feet picking up the sack. "Nah, it’s so dark I can’t hardly find the bag." He shook out the sack. "Are you nervous? I’m shore nervous."

"Nah, I ain’t nervous. Only thing makes me nervous is working with a dumb little...ooh...damn you, Peanut."

"What’s the matter? I didn’t do nothing."

"I wuz watchin’ you and bumped into a sticker bush. Hold up. I gotta untangle the rope." A moment of silent tussling passed. "Okay, I’m ready. Don’t jist stand there, look around. I know he’s here somewhere."

"I done told you, I can’t see nothing."

"Damn clouds. Wish they’d move on. Ain’t ‘spose to rain, is it? Lemme check the wind." The big man licked his finger and held it up. "Good, we’s upwind. What time’s it gitting to be?"

"Thought we’s supposed to be quiet," Peanut replied as he stepped forward. The snap of a broken twig echoed through the night. "Oh, shit."

"Dammit, watch where you’re puttin’ them clodhoppers. You know Joseph’s got ears like a mama with a new baby."

"I didn’t do it on purpose." Peanut took another step then fell again, the bag flying out in front of him. "Ouch, damn cactus. Hold on, I qot quills in my leg."

"Jist shut up, will you. Pull’em out later."

"But there’s a mess of’em."

"Like I give a shit." The big man stopped in mid-step. "Hold still. I think I see’em."

"How ‘bout th’ ones by my ankle?"

"I ain’t talking ‘bout your leg. Look over there. See. There. By that tree. Don’t that look like Joseph?"

Peanut squinted. "I don’t see—"

"Shhh. He’ll hear you. That’s gotta be him. Stand still while I git a loop in this rope." The big man cursed quietly as he wrestled with the rope. "Okay, let’s move easy."

"But, my leg—"

"I don’t give a shit ‘bout yo’ leg."

Joseph’s head turned toward them.

"Freeze, Peanut, we still got the wind and we’re hid by this tree. Jist look’t that bastard. Acts like he’s some big shit."

Peanut sniffled. "Them damn quills is hurtin’. I need some light."

"Shut up, damn it. I ain’t gonna let you mess this up. Jist be cool."

Slowly, the big man played out the rope, giving it plenty of slack. "Okay, I’m gonna lasso him. You ready?"

The lariat sailed through the air. In the dim light, Joseph ducked, the loop falling harmlessly across his back. He charged the two men.

"Let’s git ‘em," the big man yelled and they rushed to the attack; screaming, clawing and punching at Joseph.

The bigger man spun backwards, landing hard in a bush. "Watch out, he’s meaner ‘n hell," he wheezed.

"I gotta piece a him. Git off your ass and help," Peanut yelled, breathing hard as he wrestled with Joseph. "Damn, oh shit...the bastard bit me." He danced around, shaking his left arm.

The bigger man grabbed Joseph. "There, I got the rope on him. Peanut, you ain’t hurt. Git that sack over his head. Grab’em, dammit."

Peanut quit flapping his arm and quickly wrapped the burlap bag around Joseph’s head. "Hold him while I plant my foot in his worthless ass. I’ll teach th’ bastard ta bite me." He lashed out with a vicious kick. Joseph shifted and, off balance, Peanut spun himself to the ground landing on a rock. "Shit, that som’bitch’s killin’ me."

"There." The big man finished off a knot, jerking it tight, tying down the bag. He reached into his back pocket, took out a thin metal container and opened it. "Hold’em while I jab this needle in his ass. That’ll quiet him down."

Joseph struggled but the big man slammed the needle into him and the drug quickly took effect.

The big man mopped his face. "Look’it that. He mighta bloodied me but he’s mine now. Let’s put him on the truck. I wanna git outta here before somebody shows up. You made enough racket to wake ev’rybody in the county."

"Me? When he knocked you on yo’ ass, they prob’ly heard you squeelin’ in Terrell." Peanut grinned, then grimaced. "Reckon we can lift him? He looks awful heavy."

"I figger a little shit like you can’t lift much but we gonna git ‘em there. I ain’t come this far to quit now."

Slowly they worked their way across the area, reaching the truck with only two more falls by Peanut.

After three tries, they had Joseph in the rear of the pickup. "I’m glad that’s over," Peanut said. "Think he’ll sleep ‘til we get there?"

"I give him enough to make him sleep for a week. We ain’t gotta worry. Git that tarp over him."

Peanut threw the tarpaulin over Joseph and slammed the tailgate. With a weary sigh, he climbed into the cab. "Ouch." He jumped out, rubbing his rear end. "That damn spring done got me agin. I ain’t gonna ride with you no more ‘less you git it fixed."

"Oh, quit bitchin’ and hand me a beer."

Peanut reached behind the seat and brought out a brown plastic bag. "Here, they’s warm but they’s wet." He sat on the edge of the seat and looked toward the rear of the truck. "You shore that som’bitch’ll pay?"

The big man smiled. "Money in the bank, little buddy. Money in the bank."

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CHAPTER ONE

So began the case I named Joseph's Kidnapping. Of course, at that time I knew nothing about what had happened.

It was three a.m. and I nestled in the arms of my love, Terri Hart. She was the beautiful woman I’d fallen for during the case in Cisco, the one I called JAKE’S BURN. We were both exhausted from a night of lovemaking, with the emphasis on love. I smelled the perfume of her clean hair and the sexiness of her body. She was the missing link in my life and my heart reminded me daily. Her head rested on my chest and I stroked her lovely red hair. I’d just said I loved her when she looked at me and said, "What’s that awful noise?"

I wanted to answer her, but the sound repeated itself. I knew it was a phone, not the kind I grew up with that had a nice resonant ring, but a modern one that made an irritating electronic racket. I struggled to shut it out, caressing Terri’s head and rubbing my fingers over her whiskers.

Finally my eyes fluttered open and my brain began to register the situation. I realized it had been a dream and it was my cat Striker on my chest, not Terri. That explained the whiskers. Before I could grab the telephone, it rang again and the answering machine kicked in.

"Hello, you’ve got Ace Edwards, Private Investigator, solver of the Cisco arson and murder case. No case is too big or too small—"

Even though I knew the cuteness of the recording would place it in the Top 10, I mumbled into the handset. "Hello, this is Ace. I’m live, not a recording." Even I could hear the sleep in my voice.

"Arty, this is Chip. Hope I didn’t wake you."

"Chip who?" I asked, indignation flashing its ugly tendrils. I looked at the clock radio. "It’s three in the morning. Of course, you woke me."

Now that’s another thing I’ve never understood. What do people think you’re doing in the middle of the night, other than sleeping? I must lead a boring life.

"I’m sorry Arty but Jake said this was the best time to call. He said you’re always home and wide awake, working on your cases–you know, compiling leads and sorting evidence."

Jake, my poor little rich buddy. He considered it great sport to wake me from deep sleep in the middle of the night. I assumed it was because he was bored with buying everything in sight and used me as a non-monetary form of entertainment. He must have cut this guy in on the joke. I wanted to hang up but if I didn’t get a case soon, I’d be flipping burgers in a fast food joint–and I don’t like burgers.

"If this is a bad time, Arty—"

"Hold it right there, Chip or Skip or whoever the hell you are. My name is Ace, not Arty. The only person who’s ever gotten away with calling me Arty is Jake Adams, who probably put you up to this prank. And he pays dearly every time I take a case for him."

That was true up to a point. I’d only done two cases for Jake, but he had paid well.

"Uh, sorry Ace. Jake said I should call you Arty. When we were in college, he always called you Arty."

Striker and his brother Sweeper, my two cats, sat on the bed, washing the sleepy out of their eyes, appearing to listen intently to the conversation. The looks on their faces clearly said I should conduct my business in an office, not their bedroom.

"Okay, what do you want?" I asked. "You must have some reason for calling and who are you? You said college. The only Chip I knew in college was Chip Jamison, and I haven’t seen him in years."

"That’s right, Arty, uh, Ace. It’s Chip Jamison. Jake said you never forget anything, that you’d remember me."

I remembered him all right. He was a lineman on the football team, big as a tree and mean as a snake. The dirty tricks he pulled on the football field and the pranks he pulled on underclassmen were legendary. The Chip Jamison I knew was drafted by the pros but got hurt during training camp and didn’t make it. That was twenty years ago.

"Fine, Chip, I remember. Now what can I do for you?" I resigned myself to listening. I had to–my financial status, remember?

"I need your help," Chip replied. "Jake says you’re the best. He told me how you found the guy who torched his house. He said you not only found him but took him out without even flinching. That’s the kind of help I need, somebody who’ll strike like a cobra and not worry about the results."

I should have told him Jake has a tendency to exaggerate. I solved the case in Cisco but I didn’t kill anyone. In fact, I’ve never killed anybody, not even during my ten years on the Dallas police force except that one time when I’d had no other choice. I decided to withhold that information until Chip told me what he wanted and how much he’d pay.

I heard Striker grumble deep in his throat as he gave me a look that said he disagreed with my lack of candor. Beside him, Sweeper busily cleaned his right front paw, showing no interest whatsoever. I took that to mean he didn’t share Striker’s concern about my reticence. But then, integrity has never been Sweeper’s strong suit.

I turned back to the conversation. "Exactly what’s your problem and what can I do for you? Give me some details."

"I need you to find Joseph. He’s been kidnapped and I’ve got to have him back."

"Kidnapped? Have you called the police?"

"No, I’m afraid to. You know how kidnappers always say if you call the cops, something awful will happen. I want you to find him." Chip’s voice seemed to waver with concern. "I’ll pay whatever they ask. I don’t care about the money, but we gotta save Joseph."

I pondered what he’d said for a moment, measuring my need for a paying case against my conscience. This time my conscience won. "The best advice I can give you is call the authorities. After you’ve done that, if you still want my help, I’ll do what I can." I waited, hoping he’d appreciate my lack of greed and say he wanted to hire me.

"No, Arty, I won’t call the sheriff. I can’t take a chance that those kidnapping bastards kill Joseph if they find out. This is a small community. Everybody knows everybody’s business so the word will get around too fast anyway. Jake said you can get Joseph back without involving the cops. He says you’re the best."

I’d have to remember to send Jake a thank-you card. He apparently did great public relations work for me. However, it did bother me a bit that he didn’t follow the truth-in-advertising law. Striker grumbled again.

"Have you heard from the kidnappers?" I figured I’d better concentrate on getting myself hired, even if it meant putting up with a few Artys.

"No, I haven’t heard from them yet. But I’m sure they’ll call or send a note, or an email soon. Joseph only disappeared last night." Chip hesitated, then continued with a hopeful tone in his voice. "Can you come out today, so you’ll be here when they contact me?"

"Slow down, Chip. I don’t even know where you are and Texas is a big state–if you’re still in Texas. Besides, you don’t know my fees."

"Yes I do. Jake said you get a thou a day plus expenses for a minimum commitment of two weeks. That’s fourteen thousand, plus expenses. That’ll be a bargain if you get Joseph back."

My right-brain kicked in and reminded me to speak with Jake about setting my fees so low. After all, he’d paid fifteen hundred a day when I did the job in Cisco. Guess he wanted to stay top dog; that’d be just like him. But since my usual fee for chasing errant husbands and wives was only one to two hundred a day, I figured I could swallow my pride and accept a thousand from Chip. My financial condition, remember? That didn’t mean I had to play easy to get though. After all, I did have some pride. An old saying, allegedly Biblical, popped into my mind: Pride goeth before the fall. I pushed it away and continued playing my game.

"I don’t know about today, Chip, but I can try. Now, are you going to tell me where you are, or do you expect me to call information in every town in Texas?"

"Oh, sorry. I’m just so torn up about Joseph. You don’t know how much he means to me. I live outside Canton. Ask anybody in town and they can direct you to my spread. Can you come in the morning?"

Come in the morning–hell, I’d have started right then, but I decided I’d better not appear too eager. "I’ll check to see if I can clear some time. Then I’ll find someone to take over my lesser cases. Give me your number and I’ll call about mid-morning." I kept my fingers crossed even as I said this.

"Great, Arty, great. Jake said you’d play hard to get but I could depend on you."

I quietly let out a sigh of relief while silently cursing Jake. He knew me too well and shared the information too often.

Chip gave me his phone number and directions to Canton and I placed the handset back in its cradle. Sweeper came over and licked me with his sandpaper tongue, his motor running full speed. Striker acted a little less happy but finally caved in and curled up on my chest. Striker has always been the one with the most integrity in the family.

I lay back down and stroked the cats along their backs and their silky fur rippled under my fingers. Even though they were shorthairs, they felt especially soft–conditioner from their baths, I assumed. Life was good. I had a well-paying case, two loving cats and memories of Terri.

I drifted back to sleep and my luck held; my dream picked up where it had been interrupted. But when I started to tell Terri how much I loved her, she lifted her head from my chest and said, "Who’s Joseph?"

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