Based on the timeless story by O Henry, The Ransom of Red Chief
by A.G. Wallace
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were fishing up in Minnesota – Doug and myself – when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was a crazy idea – as Doug said afterwards, “born from an afternoon of righteous partying” – but we didn’t find that out till later.
There was a town up there, Thief River Falls, whose government was honest as the day is long, of course. Folks who live where the two rivers meet are as taciturn and self-satisfied as any who ever threw a silver dollar across the Mississippi.
Doug and me had a stake of a hundred grand, but we needed a million to pull off a green energy scam in the Twin Cities. We talked it over in the parking lot of Falls Liquor, the city’s full-service, for-profit package store that yields a sizeable source of city revenue. Belief in Global Warming was at least as strong as Seasonal Affective Disorder in this neck of the woods, and we judged that a kidnapping project, with the right victim, might be better here than back home. The Falls is just north of Bemidji, a fisherman’s paradise where plenty of highfalutin Greens fly in on private jets for the weekend. The media market is big enough that we could monitor the news, and the police spend most of their time issuing ATV permits and impounding rusted-out pickups. The plan looked good.
Just then, KTRF radio interrupted a report about the Northern Pride turkey processing plant to say that Al Gore was vacationing in the area. Doug and me did a double-take, and the reporter went over the facts a second time because it must have been huge news.
“Mr. Gore is reported to be in Itasca State Park for the weekend, and will host a fundraiser in Grand Forks on May 24 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of his film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ And now, we’ll rejoin our important report about Northern Pride, one of Thief River’s biggest employers.”
“It’s like a gift from God,” says I.
“Or from Allah,” says Doug. “We could take him to ISIS and join the Jihad.”
“I guess I forgot to tell you,” Doug says, flashing a sign I don’t recognize. “I’m a Muslim now. Jihad Cool!”
“When did that happen?”
“Just before we left St. Paul.”
“I should have noticed,” says I, “what with all the praying to Mecca you haven’t been doing since we got here.”
Doug pulled out a black and yellow book called Islam for Dummies. “Gimme a break. I haven’t read it yet.”
“You’ll have plenty of time after we snatch Al,” says I.
We finished off the bottle of Canadian Mist and spent the rest of the morning getting supplies and setting up the cabin on the river, just past the golf course on Highway 32 north. Then we hightailed it for Itasca to track down Mr. Gore.
It didn’t take long. The Rock Creek General Store had a big welcome sign out front, and the proprietor said Al’s entourage had taken over the Mississippi Headwaters International Hostel. Sure enough, a fleet of white SUV’s crammed the compound. We retreated to Itasca Sports, where I grabbed a brochure and we planned the kidnapping over a six-pack, our feet dangling in water that was headed two thousand three hundred and fifty miles downriver to New Orleans.
The next morning, we parked Doug’s truck by the service road at the head of the lake and hoofed it back to the park. I paid cash for an all-day pontoon boat rental, and we waited on the dock for Al.
Al’s dad had been a tobacco and cattle baron in the Deep South, respectable enough to be elected to Congress where he recommended ending the Korean War by nuking the peninsula in two. After that he was vice president of a big oil company. Al Jr’s sister had died of lung cancer, so Doug and I figured the family would pay ransom of a cool mil down to the penny. But wait till I tell you.
He sauntered across the road, wearing distressed Diesel jeans and a green cotton shirt, sunglasses hiding those intense eyes that everyone knows from TV, his expensive Daiwa rig over his shoulder like he was Tom, Huck, the Duke and the Dauphin rolled into one. His hair had that color and composition you find on late-night hucksters selling follicular transplants.
A 22-foot Bass Cat with a 350-horse Merc hanging off the back burbled to life.
“Shit,” says Doug. “There’s no way we’ll ever catch her.”
“Insha’Allah,” says I, just to see if I was cut from Jihadi cloth.
“Infidel,” says Doug, and just then the Mercury cuts out.
“Looks like trouble with the bass boat, Mr. Gore,” says I in my best Minnesota accent. “My buddy and me we’re just heading out. You’re welcome to come along!”
“We have beer,” says Doug.
Al didn’t even look, so I went for broke. “And a trio of Alec Bradley Prensado Robustos!”
The hitch in Al’s step told me I’d scored, but he got aboard the Bass Cat. The pilot was bent over the engine, and by the sound of things Al was not happy.
“Who’s Alec Bradley?” says Doug.
“It’s a cigar. I picked up a few at the store yesterday, just in case. Only one is a Robusto, but don’t tell that to Al.”
The big Merc was done for, and I knew the Bradley was too good to resist, so I started up the pontoon and made like we were casting off. “Doug,” says I, just loud enough for Al to hear, “the fish are hitting up at the headwaters. Let’s go.”
Al scrambled out of the Bass Cat and waved us down. “Wait, boys!” says he.
The Daiwa catches Doug in the eye and I hear him mutter something about an extra hundred grand.
Throttle to the max, we made the north shore in a quarter hour, me talking about the twenty-five best cigars I’d read about but not saying the Robusto was last on the list and only worth a ten-spot, Al nodding his head, and Doug nervously pounding down one Miller Lite after another.
About fifty yards from shore, I says in a panicked sort of way, “The throttle is stuck!”
Al put up a fight like a tea-bagger at a town hall meeting, but I kept control and took that pontoon boat right past the Mississippi Headwaters and put her hard on the bank within field goal range of Doug’s truck.
“Damn!” says I, after making sure Al was down for the count.
“Damn straight!” says Doug, sprawled out near the bow of the crumpled pontoons.
I went back for the cigars after Al’s unconscious body was stowed in the back seat, hands and feet tied with 20-pound test, eyes blindfolded with Doug’s keffiyeh, and a few minutes later we were on Highway 59 headed for Thief River.
Doug was looking in the mirror at his injured eye, saying it was almost poked out, when Al came to.
“You are immoral, unethical, and despicable,” says he. “Not necessarily in that order. You drive a V8 pickup that gets 15 miles a gallon, if that, and you’ve tied me up with plastic monofilament fishing line that present serious environmental problems, is extremely difficult to spot when submerged in water, and fish, birds, and other marine life can easily become entangled, causing starvation, amputation, and death. Not to mention the stuff breaks down into microplastic which causes starvation or poisoning of organisms in soil or water, and is partially responsible for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
“Oh, yeah?” says Doug. “Well, Green Chief lives in a ten thousand square foot house, flies around the world in his private carbon-spewing jet, and speaks with forked tongue.”
“Don’t rile him up,” says I.
“Rile me up?” Al says. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
He launched into a furious speech, full of southern slang I’d never heard before and can’t remember now. As it progressed, he sounded more and more like an ignorant Tennessee boy too big for his britches and too rich for folks to tell him. It went something like this, only he used bigger words and more of them:
“Future has knocked on your door, and it’s goin’ be painful. When the Secret Service finds me you’ll wish that waterboarding is something they do at Six Flags. I have a lot of money, and I pay people like you. Do you think the planet is ignoring you? I whipped boys like you at St. Albans before I went to Harvard, but I forgive you because I went to Vanderbilt Divinity on a Rockefeller scholarship. Which doesn’t mean you’ll get off easy. I used to catch toads like you on a string. I started campaigning for the presidency of Harvard’s freshman class on my second day, and I won; you think I can’t wear you down?”
Every few minutes he’d remember winning the Nobel Peace Prize, his mission from God, how his failure to beat George Bush opened new doors to global ambition, and how we, too, could receive a precious and painful gift if only we’d open our hearts to the new world order.
He sounded like he was having fun.
“Help him up and give him the Alec Bradley,” I says to Doug, hoping Gore would shut up long enough to finish the smoke.
It worked, and my sanity was restored by the time we pulled up to the cabin.
My hope proved too audacious, because Green Chief wasn’t even warmed up yet. It was good Doug and me had stocked up. I went through a half-bottle of Canadian Mist myself before thankfully passing out.
The drunken stupor didn’t help. I don’t know how, but Al spewed seventy million tons of toxic dreams into my head that night. His Harvard ambition to write novels melted into government studies and marijuana, Vietnam and journalism, lost elections and Nixon coming, finally on his own at Vanderbilt, more muck-raking journalism, and victory as one of the Atari Democrats. My mind reeled with delirious tremors that Green Chief really had invented the Internet. Plunged into the abyss of his loss to Michael Dukakis. Swooned to orgasmic heights under the sex-crazed tutelage of Bill Clinton. I woke to terrible screaming, my head in the jaws of a 37-ton Northstar wood splitter, just as Peter Jennings announced on World News Tonight the results of Bush v. Gore.
Green Chief was sitting on Doug’s chest. The screams weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or bellows, as you always hear from men when the Vikings play the Cowboys – they were indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit at the beginning of the NFL season. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cabin at daybreak.
“Page three hundred thirty six,” says Al. “Caliph. Title of a Sunni Islamic ruler; literally means ‘successor.’ Dar al Harb. Territory not yet ruled by Muslims (abode of war). Dar al Islam. Territory ruled by Muslims in contrast to. Dhimmi. ‘Protected people.’ Initially Christians and Jews – later also Zoroastrians and some other faiths – living in an Islamic state.”
I got the book away from Al and pushed him back into the corner again, but from that moment on Doug’s spirit was broken. He went to the bathroom to shave his nascent beard. I tagged along until I was sure he wouldn’t off himself with his Gillette Fusion ProGlide, but Doug never slept again while that man was with us. I dozed off, until I remembered that Green Chief Nobel Peace Man had told me his Secret Service goons would waterboard me like a common Islamic terrorist. I peeked outside, saw Doug’s Dodge Ram Quad Cab sitting alone in the still air, lit one of the remaining cigars, and took a deep swig of the Mist.
“Why are you up so soon, John?” says Doug.
“Me?” says I. “I have a headache after drinking myself to sleep.”
“You’re a liar!” says Doug. “I think you know we made a mistake. That he’s so annoying no one will pay to get him back!”
“Don’t fret,” says I. “You make breakfast while I go think this out. We’ll get the million.”
“Are we taking him to ISIS?” Doug asks. “I don’t think I can take him to ISIS.”
Doug’s eyes filled with tears. “He read me over three hundred pages of Islam for Dummies! In one sitting! Can you imagine living in a cave with men who actually believe that?”
“And you thought waterboarding was bad,” says Al from the corner.
“Shut up,” says I. “I’ll be back.”
I took Doug’s truck to the outskirts of town, expecting KTRF to be wall-to-wall coverage of Al’s kidnapping. Instead, they were airing a repeat of the Northern Pride story. The Petro Pumper was doing brisk business, and around the corner at the Ralph Engelstad Arena the cops were towing away a rusted out F-150. The Secret Service hadn’t taken over the town; no drones circled overhead. There was a cold front coming down from the north, so I turned on the heater and drove back to the cabin.
I could hear Al before I switched the engine off. Doug was crouched outside, peering in through the screen door, a red scorched welt rising like the sun from his forehead.
“He dumped the hash browns down my back and hit me with the skillet,” says Doug. “I punched him in the nose and escaped out here. Have you got a gun about you, John?”
I took the skillet from Al. “Did you have to ruin breakfast?”
Al was having none of it. “I’ll fix the both of you. No one kidnaps Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., and gets away with it. I came out swinging after the National Enquirer smeared me about that masseuse. I doubled down when my melting ice cap prediction didn’t pan out. And I sued Al Jazeera after they bought my worthless cable TV station for $500 million.”
Green Chief lunged at me, throwing an iron poker out of nowhere, but I ducked and the monofilament ankle chain pulled him up short. Behind me, Doug caught the poker with his knee and fell backward out the screen door screaming like Joe Theismann.
I went and had a look. “It’s not broken,” says I, “but the bone is bruised pretty bad.” I stopped the bleeding, squeezed on some Neosporin, and bandaged it up good.
While Doug pulled up his pants, I went in and shook that poker in Al’s face. “If you don’t start behaving,” says I, “I’ll hand you over to the Muslim Brotherhood. I hear they have a terrorist training camp west of Slayton, just a few hours from here.” That was a lie as far as I knew, but I needed leverage.
“Go ahead,” says Al. “The Brotherhood loves me! I strong-armed Rupert Murdoch to close the Al Jazeera deal. I say I hate oil, but took a hundred million from Qatar, a Muslim country that gets sixty percent of its GDP from petroleum. You know the imam who hosts that show ‘Sharia and Life’? He said those who wage war against Allah and his apostle should be murdered or crucified, and I said that Al Jazeera has established itself as a really distinguished and effective news gathering organization. Hell, if I asked for a pork rib dinner, the Brotherhood would slaughter a pig and give me seventy two virgins for dessert.”
Al was slipping into his southern drawl again, a sure sign that he was fixing to eject enough carbon dioxide to asphyxiate the three of us before lunchtime. I took Doug out to the front porch and left Al to rant about his sixty million cable viewers and something he called “carriage fees” – whatever the hell that means.
“We have to do a ransom video,” I says. “I’ll post it to YouTube from the Thief River Library and get back here this afternoon.”
“You know,” says Doug, “I’ve stood by you without batting an eye in earthquakes, fire and flood – in poker games, dynamite plots, police raids, train robberies and cyclones. I never lost my nerve till we kidnapped that homicidal fabulist. You won’t leave me long with him, will you, John?”
I opened up Islam for Dummies and started on the script. Doug begged me to make the ransom half a million instead of one.
“I’m not trying,” says he, “to belittle the affection Al’s family might have for him, but they’re human after all, and it wouldn’t be human to ask a million dollars for that POS in there. I’m willing to take a chance at a half mil. What do you say?”
Doug’s eyes were smarting real good, so I took pity and we wrote the script like we were American fighters of the Islamic State:
We have kidnapped Al Gore because he is the greatest spokesman for your imperialist policies, and you must pay for his lies. He laughs at our imams. He hates oil, but oil is our blood and we will spill yours with the knife if you do not ransom your “green chief.” We demand five hundred thousand dollars or he will never make another video again.
That was all we got after thirty minutes.
“We need Al’s help,” says I. “He’s the Paul Bunyan of perjurers. If anyone can get us that ransom, it’s him.”
I told Doug to bring the chainsaw, went inside and turned on my smartphone videocam. Al was at the end of his monofilament tether, prophesying that our wood stove was the Pale Horse of the apocalypse. When he noticed me, he sneered that he’d rather soil himself than use the cabin’s toilet paper that didn’t meet EPA standards for minimum post-consumer waste content. I aimed the camera at him and just let it run.
An hour later, the battery was at eight percent so I interrupted Al’s dissertation on the subprime carbon asset bubble. “You got that chainsaw?” I says to Doug, careful not to mention his name.
“Right here, John,” says Doug.
I sighed in resignation. “Get ready to start her up,” I says. And then I says to Al, “This is how you’ll die if your kin don’t pay us a half-million dollars.” I signaled to Doug and the chainsaw roared to life. Blue two-stroke smoke filled the cabin as Doug revved that tree-killer up and down. Al frantically motioned for Doug to shut it off. To this day, I swear that Al was crying.
Al looked straight into the camera. Crescents of sweat darkened the armpits of his green cotton shirt. His hair looked about to come unplugged, and his steely eyes weren’t so stainless anymore.
“Please don’t listen to these planet-killing faux Jihadi wannabes,” he says. “I would rather die with a chainsaw in my mouth than pay them a plugged nickel.”
I heard a heavy thud and a kind of a sigh from Doug, like a politician gives out when he’s sentenced to twenty years in prison. He was stretched out over the chainsaw, so I laid him flat on the floor, sat down, and lit the last cigar.
When the stogie was half gone and Doug was finally showing signs of life, I says to Al. “Are you ready?”
He nodded, so I pulled Doug off the floor we loaded our supplies into the bed of the truck. Al was out of gas by the time we were done, and got into the back seat mostly by himself.
Nobody said a word even after we saw the sign in the headlights: Frostbite Falls, Icebox of the Nation, population 6,424. The temperature gauge on the dash said 47 degrees when we cut Al loose and escaped across border into Canada.
I aimed the truck west and sixty seven hours later the road ended at Inuvik. “One room for the week,” I says to the swing shift clerk at the Eskimo Inn.
We settled into room 18 and Doug turned on the TV. I cracked a bottle of Mist and was filling two plastic glasses in the bathroom when I heard his voice.
“Two men recently gave me a precious and painful gift,” says Al.
I choked on my whiskey and bolted for the living room to gawp at the television. Al had grown a beard and was wrapped in a bronze ankle-length robe. Behind him, almost out of camera view, Doug’s copy of Islam for Dummies sat face down on a table.
“They helped me understand that abuse of the environment is abuse of Allah,” Al says. “Justice must be the watchword: social justice, legal and penal justice, political justice; and yes, climate justice. Justice brings peace which is the very essence of Islam. Paradise is the home of peace and Allah is peace.”
“Thank you, Imam Gore,” says the man with the microphone. “This is CBC North reporter Ahmad Akbar Ali, with the latest news on Islam and Global Warming from the Double Dome Institute of Advanced Islamic Thinking in Frostbite Falls. Back to you in the studio.”