"Oh my God! No!" I said getting very angry. "Get in the car, son"
Chris opened the back door of the car and had barely gotten in before I sped down the road. I didn't ask, but assumed that the van with the boys was somewhere along the road. It wasn't but a quarter mile around a curve in the road that I spotted the van. As I slammed on the brakes and the car slid to a stop in the middle of the road, I noticed that the van's two front tires were flat. I was out of the car and to the van's door almost before the engine had stopped.
I ignored the driver, who was slumped over the steering wheel, and went directly back to check on my sons. Joel and John each had one of the twins in their arms comforting them. Joel appeared to have an angry bruise on the left side of his forehead. All four of the boys were crying.
There were three other boys on the van who were huddled in the back looking very scared.
"Are you all right?" I asked everyone.
"They took him. They took TJ," Joel sobbed. "Why did they take him?"
"We tried to stop them, Mr. Johnson," John said. "Honest we did, but they hit us. They had a gun."
By this time I had gathered the four boys into a group hug. When Chris arrived, he too joined in. I gently disentangle myself from the boys' hug and began to examine the bump on Joel's forehead. It was beginning to turn a dark shade of purple and although the skin had not been broken it was scraped.
"Did they hit you too, John?" I asked.
"The big man slapped me and knocked me down. The other one hit Joel with his gun," he sobbed.
I heard a groan from the driver's seat. When I turned to look, I saw the driver struggling to push himself up to a sitting position. It was only then that I could see the blood dripping from his nose and a cut on his left cheek.
"Chris, run get my cell phone for me. It's on the front seat of the car in my briefcase."
"Okay," and off he ran.
He handed me the phone when he returned and I immediately called 911. Thank goodness for the new cell phone tower the phone company had installed this summer or I wouldn't have gotten a signal in this area. I had to tell the emergency operator where we were so that she could send the paramedics and the sheriff.
"Can you describe the men? What they looked like? What kind of car they were driving? Anything you can remember," I asked the boys. The driver still looked to be semi-conscious and unable to give me any information.
"I can draw a picture of them," Chris said. I knew that he liked to draw, but I never knew that he could draw portraits.
"That'd be great son," I told him. "Joel, did you see the car they were driving?"
"It was an old Ford," he said. "It was either dark blue or black. I couldn't tell and it was all dirty. There was lots of mud around the tires like it had drove through some muddy place."
"Did you see the license number?"
"I only saw the first three letters. They were YYY."
"I remember the last number," Larry said. "It was a 7."
"Yeah," Lenny chimed in, "it was 907 or 807. The numbers had mud on them. I couldn't see them too good."
I looked over at Chris. He had retrieved a notepad from his backpack and was furiously sketching. Then it dawned on me that I should call Jack. I called his office hoping that he would still be there. He answered on the second ring.
"Jack, it's Crane. I've got a problem. TJ has been kidnapped from the school van on the way home."
"What the hell!" he exclaimed. "When did this happen?"
"Just a few minutes ago, no more than ten. I want you to devote as many people to helping the police find him as possible. We think we have a fairly good description of the car and a couple possibilities for the license plate. I think it is the same people that have been hanging around our area for the last couple of weeks. They must have been checking on the van's schedule. You remember I was telling you about it Saturday when you were here. I think that Jesse has the names of a couple suspects. Spare no expense. I want my boy, my TJ, back no matter what it costs."
"Have they contacted you for ransom yet?" Jack asked.
"No, we're still sitting in the school van waiting for the paramedics to arrive. The driver's been pistol whipped and is bleeding. Joel was struck with a gun and John was knocked down when they tried to prevent TJ from being taken. I said.
I gave Jack the information that I had learned about the car and possible license number. He said he could probably get the names and a mug shot of the two men from the sheriff's office.
"I hear a siren coming. It should be the paramedics. I'll call you later if I learn anything. Help me, Jack. Please!" I begged.
"Crane, keep it together. The other boys need you. I'll pull everyone off the other cases. This takes priority over everything. It'll be all right," he said and hung up.
The paramedics arrived and began looking at the driver. He seemed to be conscious now, but not fully functioning yet. Mike, the younger paramedic, worked on the driver while Gary checked out Joel and then John. He applied some antibiotic cream to the scrape on Joel's forehead. He told Joel that he would probably have a headache for the next couple of days and suggested to me that I give Joel some non-aspirin pain reliever and keep a cold compress on the bump to help the swelling go down.
The driver was going to need some stitches in his cheek. Mike thought that his nose was broken. He had another bump on his head and might have a concussion. I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get all my boys home as well as the three other boys when the sheriff's car arrived cutting off my train of thought. Jesse and another deputy got out and approached the van.
Mike led the still groggy driver out of the van and into the back of the ambulance. Then before driving off they checked to make sure that no one else needed any assistance. Jesse entered the van and began questioning the boys about what had happened. I helped fill out the boys' story as they told it.
"Here," Chris said proudly holding up his sketches. "These are the two guys that did it."
"Yeah, that's them," Joel said nodding his head in agreement.
What Chris held up were two professional looking pencil sketches. For the maybe fifteen minutes that he had to draw them, they were extremely well done and very lifelike.
"I know those two. They're the two I told you about Crane. They're the ones that had been in prison. This one is Peter Kelly and this one is Cameron Smith," Jesse said pointing to each sketch as he identified them. "I'd better call in the FBI. Kidnapping is a federal offense. I'll get these sketches copied and see that they are distributed to the news media. They are better than the old mug shots that we have of them."
Jesse went to his car to radio back to the sheriff's office and I suddenly remembered that Hildy would probably be worried to death that the boys weren't home yet. I called her on the cell phone and told her we were delayed and that I would explain everything when we got home. I didn't want her to worry anymore than she would when she found out about TJ.
When Jesse came back to the van I suggested that either he or his partner drive the three still frightened boys in the back of the van to their homes or at least call their parents so they could come and pick them up. I told him I would take my five and stuff them in my car. I didn't want to leave them alone. They needed the comfort of each other and I didn't want to let them out of my sight.
I got everyone into the BMW even if it was a tight fit and we drove to the house. Hildy was on the front porch pacing back and forth when we arrived. All five of the boys hopped out of the car, ran to Hildy and surrounded her in a group hug.
"Where's TJ?" she asked after a few seconds when she didn't see him.
"They took him," Joel said and began crying again.
"What do you mean they took him? Who took him?" she asked looking directly at me.
"Hildy," I said walking up to her and placing my arm around her shoulder. "TJ has been kidnapped."
"No! No! No!" she wailed falling to her knees. "Not my TJ. It can't be." Then with tears streaming down her cheeks, "I'll kill them. So help me, I'll kill them. Who did it?"
"You'll have to wait 'till I'm through with them," I said helping her up from the ground. "Let's go inside, they may try contacting us. They'll probably want ransom."
"That must be why Bandit has been going wild. I've never seen him act like this," Hildy said.
It was a very sad household for the better part of the evening. The boys were quiet all evening. They sat holding their dogs, all except Bandit. He lay on the floor just inside the front door and moaned. At straight up eight o'clock, the phone rang. I let it ring three times making sure that the recording device I had hooked up to the phone was turned on. It also allowed time for the caller ID device to pick up the caller's number. I was disappointed when it showed Dr. Sam's number.
"Sam, I don't want to be rude, but we have a situation that I need to keep the phone open for an important call. Could I call you back later?"
"Sure, Crane, I'll wait for your call," Sam said and hung up.
I reset the recording device and waited. At 8:30 the phone rang again. This time I did not recognize the displayed number on the caller ID. Once the recorder was running, I picked up the phone.
"Hello," I said.
"We have your kid," a husky voice said. It sounded like the person was trying to disguise his voice.
"Is he all right?"
"For now he is. As long as you do what we say he will remain that way."
"What do you want?"
"Two million dollars in used twenty dollar bills. You'll find directions in a plastic bag under a rock outside your gate. You have twenty-four hours to get the money."
"That's impossible. Even if I could borrow the money from the bank, I doubt that they could get that much money in used bills let alone twenties. I need at least forty-eight hours. Let me speak to my son. I want to know that he's okay."
I heard the voice say to someone in a muffled tone, "Bring the brat here."
"Daddy, I want to come home," TJ sobbed.
"Daddy wants you to come home, too. As soon as possible, I love you, son. Be brave."
"But, I don't like it here..."
"That's enough. The kid's fine. We'll call you tomorrow, same time," he said and rang off.
I turned the recorder off and wrote down the number on the caller ID. A few minutes later I received a call on my cell phone. It was Jesse.
"Crane, I'm sorry we didn't get the call traced. We were delayed in getting the judge to sign the warrant for the wire tap and only got the last 20 seconds of the call."
"What do you mean? I gave you permission to tap my phone."
"The phone company wouldn't allow a tap unless it was ordered by the court."
"Well, you should be able to trace the location of the phone if you have the number," I said before I read off the number to him.
"I wonder if those guys know about caller ID?"
"I doubt it Jesse. It's only been available for a few months in this area."
"Thanks, Crane, this will help. I'll get the address of this number from the phone company. I'm here at their complex right now. If the FBI ever arrives on the scene, they'll get involved also."
I asked Hildy and Manfred to stay with the boys while I went to retrieve the instructions that the kidnappers told me about. Going into the back hallway, I turned on the flood lights at the gate, grabbed a flashlight and jogged down to the end of the lane.
The kidnapper had not said which side of the gate the rock was on that I was looking for, so I began my search closest to the side where the gate opens. I must have turned over a half a dozen rocks with no luck. I went to the other side and after turning over two rocks, I found what I was looking for. I carefully picked up the plastic bag by one corner not wanting to disturb any fingerprints if there were any.
Manfred was on the phone talking to someone, when I got back to the house. He handed me the phone as soon as he saw me. It was an FBI agent.
After I had identified myself he said, "This is Dick Manson, I'm the agent in charge of the FBI's effort to recover your son. We have been able to locate the home where the phone call from the kidnappers was made. I have two FBI agents, several Texas Rangers and the local sheriff deputies in route to the location right now."
"Where is the place?" I asked.
"I can't divulge that information," he said.
"And why not? That's my son they've got! I want to be there for him."
"To be honest Mr. Johnson, we really don't want you to get in the way."
"Very well, you do it your way and I'll do it mine."
"Don't do anything stupid," he said. There was a pause as I heard him talking to someone in the background. "I just received word that the team is in place. This should be resolved in no time."
"If that's the case, there should be no reason why I can't know where the house is. My son will need me."
"Very well, by the time you get there it should be over. The address is 3217 Beloit Ranch Road," Manson said. "Just don't get in the way."
I grabbed my map of the area and found Beloit Ranch Road. It wasn't all that far from here but I had never been in that particular area of the county. Hugging the boys, I told them I would be back as soon as I could. Throwing the map on the front seat of the car I pealed out down the lane. The gate seemed to take forever to open after I pressed the control.
It took me less than fifteen minutes to reach the address. There were at least ten official looking cars and half again as many law officers standing around when I arrive.
"What's going on?" I asked the nearest officer.
"Nothing," he said. "The place is empty. Who are you?"
I explained who I was and he directed me to an Agent McCain.
"Where's my son?" I asked.
"I don't know. It looks like someone broke in the back window and made themselves at home for a while, but your son is not here now. It looks like they were here not too long ago, maybe a couple of hours or so ago. This place is a vacation home for some people out of Houston. We've contacted them and they haven't used the place for several weeks," McCain said. "Sorry."
"Look, I was talking to Agent Manson just before I drove over here. In the excitement of the possibility that my son was about to be rescued, I neglected to tell him that I have retrieved the ransom note. I haven't opened it yet," I said. "I figured that you would want to test it for fingerprints or whatever you do."
"Yeah," McCain said, "I'll follow you to your place and pick it up."
I got into the car and started for home. My heart felt like it was breaking. I had thought that my prayers were answered when the authorities had surrounded the house where the phone call had been made, but my hopes were dashed when the place turned up empty. It was all I could do to keep the car on the road with tears clouding my vision.
When we got to the house and I showed Agent McCain into the kitchen, he took a pair of thin rubber gloves from his pocket and put them on. He carefully opened the plastic bag containing the ransom note and slowly removed it from the bag. Just as carefully he unfolded the note so that we could read it.
The note said that the two million dollars were to be placed in a garbage bag and placed in a rubber raft. The raft was to be placed in the Guadalupe River below the dam. The exact time for the raft's release would be given to me in a phone call at 8:30 PM tomorrow.
Agent McCain replaced the note in the plastic bag and then left saying that he would keep me advised of the agency's progress.
During all this time, the boys had been conspicuously absent. I began looking around for them. After checking their bedrooms, I was beginning to panic. The horrible thought went through my mind that they, too, had been kidnapped. But then I knew that it would be over Hildy's dead body and I didn't see her body anywhere. The only place that I hadn't checked was her apartment.
I took the stairs two at a time to her apartment and knocked on her door. When she opened the door, I could hear the boys talking. I released the breath that I had unknowingly been holding. I gave Hildy a hug and shook my head indicating that TJ had not been rescued yet.
When the boys saw me they ran to me and started asking about TJ. I did the best that I could to explain that TJ was still missing, but that the police and Jack's people were all looking for him. I tried to be optimistic with them but I didn't feel it myself.
"Yes, Joel," I answered.
"Can we sleep in your bed tonight?"
"Son, I don't think that all six of us could get in the bed."
"But..." Joel said with such a sad look on his face that I had to come up with something.
"How about if we push Larry, Lenny and Chris' beds together and make a really big bed? Would that work?" I asked.
I could tell by the smile on his face and the nodding heads of the other boys that it would.
"Okay, it's time to get your showers taken and get your pajamas on. I'll get the bed set up," I said.
"I'll help," Manfred said as the boys took off for the showers.
"Thanks," I said turning and heading for the upstairs bedroom of the twins and Chris.
"Is there anything that I can do to help? I feel helpless just sitting around doing nothing."
"Take care of Hildy. I know she is taking this hard. TJ stole her heart from the day he arrived. Thanks for the offer. I feel helpless as well. I can't let myself think that anything will happen to him," I said barely able to hold back the tears.
Manfred and I had finished getting the beds pushed together and the bed clothes arranged when the phone rang. I jumped as if I had been shot. I ran to the phone in the game room.
"Hello," I answered tentatively.
"Crane, it's Jack. I've got some news."
"I hope it's good news," I said sitting down on the arm of the couch.
"Yes, it's good news. We believe that we have located where TJ is being held."
"Oh my God, that is good news. Where is he?"
"The house that we have under surveillance is in the Horseshoe Falls area. The car that Joel described is parked in back of the house and we have seen one of the men in the sketches. We have not seen TJ or the other man, but we are fairly certain that they are inside.
"How do you want us to proceed? Shall I call the sheriff's office and let them take over or do you want us to effectuate the rescue?"
"Jack, I want to be there. Where can I meet you or your men?"
"I'm on my way there now. I should be there in about five minutes. How soon can you make it to the base of the dam?"
"I can get there in about ten minutes, fifteen at the most."
"I'll meet you at the parking lot of the bar on South Access Road at the base of the dam and we can go from there. Do you know where that is?"
"Yeah, I know where it is. I'll see you in about ten minutes."
"I guess that you want us to take care of it, then."
"Yes!" I said hanging up the phone. Turning to Manfred, "Will you and Hildy take care of the boys? I'm going to get TJ."
"Of course," Manfred said. "Go, I'll explain things to the boys."
"Thanks," I yelled as I sprinted down the stairs to the back door. My car was still sitting out. I hadn't put it in the garage when I came home with Agent McCain.
I hoped that all the cops were out looking for TJ and not on traffic patrol because I think I broke every speed limit by at least 30 mph. Thankfully I wasn't stopped and I made it to our meeting spot in eleven minutes. Jack's SUV was parked just off the road when I got there.
I rolled down the window to speak with Jack as he walked up to the side of my car.
"Where's the house?" I asked.
"It's off on a side road around the bend there," he said. "Are you sure you want us to go through with this?"
"Yes, I don't want to have to wait any longer to get my son back."
"There could be some danger. We know that the men are armed."
"Well, be careful. Just make sure that TJ's not hurt. Let's go."
"All right Crane, leave your car here and ride with me. We want to be as quiet as possible. If we can catch them with their guard down, it will go a lot smoother."
I got out of my car, locked it and climbed into Jack's SUV. Jack pulled the vehicle back on the road and we headed for what I hoped would be a successful rescue of my son. When we turned onto a side road, Jack turned off his headlights. We drove in the dark for another two hundred yards before he stopped behind another car. When we got out of the car, I noticed that the dome light did not come on. Jack must have removed the bulb so that it wouldn't give away our position.
Jack walked up to the car ahead of us and spoke briefly with the person inside. Then he came back to me. "We have confirmed that both men are in the house. They haven't seen TJ, but then we didn't really expect to see him."
"What are we waiting for?" I asked.
"My people are moving into place right now. It will only be a couple of minutes. The house is quite small so we can cover all windows and doors. Now, I want you to stay behind us. All of us are armed but I don't want you to get hurt. It's possible that there will be gunfire."
I said a silent prayer as we moved quietly toward the house a good hundred yards from where Jack had parked. We were almost to the front of the house, approaching it from the side, when the front door opened and one of the men stepped out. We stopped walking and watched the man light up a cigarette. He sat down on the wooden step. It was difficult to see him clearly from where we were hiding. He was really only visible when he took a drag on his cigarette.
As we watched, I saw the faintest movement off to the man's right. At that moment the moon barely peeked through the overcast sky giving just enough light to see what was happening. One of Jack's men grabbed the seated man, placing one hand firmly over his mouth and the other arm around his neck and throwing him to the ground. All of this had happened with hardly a sound being made.
Another of Jack's men immediately was there assisting the first in restraining the bad guy and keeping him from sounding an alarm. The man was quickly carried off in the direction of Jack's car.
"One down and one to go," Jack whispered.
"Let's get the other bastard," I whispered back through clenched teeth.
We waited, impatiently on my part, until Jack's two men returned. The four of us crept toward the door of the house. Jack motioned for me to stay where I was when we reached the steps. Then the three of them gingerly stepped to the door and I saw Jack reach for the doorknob. Jack held up his hand and raised first one finger, then a second and finally a third. On the last finger, he threw the door open and the three of them rushed into the room.
Even though Jack told me to wait, I couldn't resist following them into the house. The cluttered little room that we entered was deserted. As we looked around, a door leading to what appeared to be the only other room opened and a man started to emerge.
"What's all the racket?" the man said. I recognized him from Chris' sketch to be Peter Kelly.
When he saw that it wasn't his partner, he immediately retreated into the other room and slammed the door shut. One of Jack's men ran to the door and threw himself against it shattering the flimsy door. With their guns drawn, Jack and his other man were at the door before the man who had broken down the door was able to recover.
Once they were inside the room, I could see that Kelly was holding TJ in front of him with a gun at TJ's head.
"Dad!" TJ cried when he saw me.
"Get away from me," Kelly ordered Jack and his men.
"You can't get out of this, Kelly. There're too many of us," Jack said pushing me aside.
"Get away or I'll kill the kid," he threatened.
"You hurt my son and I'll rip your balls off and feed them to you and then I'll really hurt you," I said with as much vehemence as I could muster.
"Yeah, right," he said dragging TJ further away from us in the small room.
Jack and his two men had moved further to the left of Kelly. I stayed where I was, more on his right side. There was a gap of about six feet between Jack and me. Kelly and a frightened TJ were at the other vertex of the triangle also about six feet away. As Jack moved farther to his left, Kelly turned more toward them and moved slightly closer to me. I guess he didn't consider me a threat since I was the only one not holding a gun.
"Put your gun down," Jack said in an authoritative voice. "There's no way you're going to get out of here."
"Watch me, asshole," Kelly said taking his gun away from TJ's head and pointing it at Jack.
I had been standing there with my hands in the air while all this was going on. When he pointed the gun away from TJ, I lunged at him swinging my right arm around like a softball pitcher delivering a pitch to home plate. I struck him on the side of his ribcage with my left shoulder and my swinging right arm hit his arm with the gun in it causing it to fly upwards. I heard the sound of a shot being fired as my momentum carried Kelly, TJ and me over onto the bed that was positioned along the wall.
Before we had stopped bouncing on the mattress, Jack and his two men were there ripping the gun from Kelly's hand.
"Crane, let go of him. We've got him," Jack said.
I did so gladly. All I wanted to do was to hold my TJ, which I did.