The next time my youngest brother greets me with, “Hunter!” I’m going to toss my phone out the window. Then again, it’d mean he was still alive.
Three months ago he called me, saying only, “I got four photos heading your way. Call me after.”
I was expecting pics of a beautiful woman or maybe a baby. He was the kind of guy—I mean he is, he is the kind of guy who’d announce his fatherhood that way. But these were of an old organ in an even older stucco-walled church. “Where the hell are you?”
“Is that a Hook and Hastings?”
His laughter sounded thin. “I don’t know, man. You’re the organ expert.”
I put my phone on speaker so I could flip through the photos while we talked. “Gotta be. Two manuals, nine stops. Tallest pipes probably eight feet. Case looks ten or twelve feet. I’d say nineteenth century. What’s it doing in a church in Peru? And what are you doing in a church? In Peru?”
“Neither of us are going to be here for much longer,” he said. “That’s where you come in.”
“You better start from the beginning.”
Steve spun a grand tale of too many Pisco Sours and new friends and overheard conversations, but it came down to this: his new friend was donating this old pipe organ to a chapel in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and, after Steve’s boasting, decided that I was the one to do it. “I’d need to free up a month and get visas—”
“How about this week! You don’t need a visa for Peru, and Brazil is waiving them for the whole summer because of the Olympics.”
“I can’t drop my clients and run away to South America.”
“We need to get this organ out of here before the rainy season makes the roads impassable.”
“The rainy season is in December. This is July.”
He gave a long, hearty, and totally false laugh. “Nothing like that! It’ll be an adventure. Trust me.”
My internal air pressure dropped. “Are you on speaker?”
“Are you nuts?”
Although there was nobody with me to overhear, I cupped the phone and spoke quietly. “Are you in trouble?”
“Of course!” He was back to the fake cheer. “He’ll pay double your usual fee once you get down here.”
“Is your new friend standing right there?”
“Make up an invoice on your company letterhead and bring it with you. Do you have a pen?”
I was furious and terrified and, damn him, curious, so I got a pen and wrote down the information he gave me before he pretended that our call got cut off in the middle of my next question. My next move was to call our four other brothers, but none of them had any more intel than I had. Steve had been off all our radar for months, but he did that all that time. It didn’t always mean he was in trouble.
If moving an antique beauty by one of America’s best organ manufacturers would somehow help him, I wouldn’t want him to go to anyone else. Once I presented my dilemma in the proper light, the clients I had to reschedule were kind of excited for me, so two days later, I was in Lima, hugging my brother while what I can only describe as his “minders” looked on.
They whisked us straight to a car and sped us through the city to a gated mansion. It had been sweltering when I’d left Austin, so the thirty-degree drop in temperature would have been a relief if I’d had any idea where we were or what was really going on. The room I was brought to was nice enough, but they made a big show of taking Steve down a different wing. And they took our phones.
When I finally met the big guy, Joaquin Rojas, if that was his real name, it was like I’d stepped into a parody of a South American movie: he was slick and shiny, wearing a wrinkled white linen suit, holding a fat cigar, opening his arms in a welcome that wasn’t quite friendly. There wasn’t much chit-chat before he said, “So, Mark, tell me. Why did Steven call you ‘Hunter’?”
I took a swig of my beer. “There are six boys in our family, and our dad and grandpa took us out shooting all the time. Out of the eight of us, no matter what we were hunting, I’d always be the first one to spot the prey, first one to bag it.” In what my ex-wife would call a ridiculous macho display, I didn’t smile.
He didn’t smile right back. “I’m always glad to meet a fellow hunter. Come. See my trophy room.”
His wasn’t my kind of hunting. I killed what I ate, what I could use, or what was a nuisance on the family ranch. Not gazelles and lions. But this was his house and I was entirely in his power, so I nodded. “Impressive.”
After regaling us with the story of each stuffed head, he brought forward one of the minders. “Tomorrow morning, Luis will go with you to the church outside Junin. There will be men there to help you. It must be done by nightfall. The next day, you load the truck, drive straight to the airport, load the plane, and stay with the cargo through customs in Sao Paulo. Then you will,” he paused, “be paid.”
There was no conversation after that, no discussion of security arrangements, or of who was in charge of bribes for local road checkpoints, all things Google had led me to believe would be necessary. Nobody had ever asked me what kind of packing supplies we’d need. After I was brought back to my room, I checked the door: locked. What had my brother gotten us into?
We left early the next morning, Steve driving, and Juan between us. The truck was beat-up but it was big enough, and the back was full of packing blankets and tarps. Luis was a little more forthcoming than Joaquin: Steve and I were in charge of bribes, and there were some guns and ammo in the back of the cab, if we needed them.
The scenery was dramatic—mountains, valleys, lush vegetation, even a road blockade of slow-moving sheep—and we passed through two checkpoints of local militias with serious weaponry, but I barely registered any of it. There was no way this was about an organ, but did I really want to figure out what it was about? Even if I’d wanted to try, I couldn’t get the chance. Luis never left my side, not even when I was taking a piss on the side of the road.
Five hours later, we got to the town and the church, a nice, textbook painted stucco building, a little run-down but solid, which was how I’d describe the Hook and Hastings. The church wasn’t on the jungle side of Peru, so she hadn’t had to deal with that level of humidity. There was very little mildew on the wood or rusting on the pipes. The decorative paint on the exterior pipes was flaking. Some mice had gotten into the leather back in the racks, but not too badly. I might have giggled a little when I discovered that the bellows were still hand-operated. Steve and Luis let themselves be pressed into service, and we cranked her up. She was out of tune, to be sure, but she could still make an impressive sound.
But orders were that she be dismantled by that night, so I couldn’t play for long. They went to fetch the men we were promised while I laid out blankets on the floor to stage the wrapping of the pipes. I’d dismantled one rank by the time help arrived. It wasn’t long before all four hundred and seventy-nine pipes stretched around the sanctuary. I picked up one end of an eight-foot viola and blew, startling everyone with that lovely, rich low note. Soon, all the men were picking up pipes and blowing.
In the commotion, I sidled up to Steve, but he shook his head before I could ask anything. As Luis led me away to where I’d be staying that night, I caught Steve’s eye and scratched my ear, throwing a little “phone” sign, but he shook his head again. The next day, when I picked up a fully wrapped four-foot pipe, I had to replant my feet and strain to lift it.
It was a lot heavier than it’d been yesterday. I glared at Steve, but he did the same thing as yesterday: shook his head.
I’d put off my loyal, paying customers and flown thousands of miles to rescue my brother and provide a gloss of respectability to some kind of pipe organ drug mule operation. It was almost funny, but I clenched my jaw to keep from laughing, since that would likely end in crying. This was bad.
There was no choice but to see it through. I supervised the loading of the truck and we were off by noon—me with one of those rifles by my side. Luis didn’t bat an eye when I insisted on it, which told me everything I needed to know.
We were pulled over by the first militia, who accepted both bribes Steve gave them, but they still wanted to look in the back. I gave them the work order and photos of the organ I’d printed back in Austin, as well as the hand-written inventory I’d made over the last two days. They kept asking questions, which I’d answer in increasingly technical language that nobody could translate, until I finally crawled into the back of the truck, pulled out one of the tiny pipes and played it. That seemed to do the trick—that and one more bribe.
It was the same story at the second checkpoint, but they held us longer, not even letting us get out of the truck for at least an hour. By the time we got free, it was dusk. I held on to the rifle and kept my gaze glued to the side view mirror. Soon enough, two sets of headlights came at us from the rear, while a slowpoke pick-up held us up in the front. What a lovely trap they were planning.
“Hunter,” was all Steve said.
Once we had a brief straightaway, I lowered the window and pushed myself halfway out. It was two seconds’ work to sight the front passenger tire of one of the vehicles behind us and pull the trigger. One car disabled.
I swung around and shattered the back window of the pick-up. Two men popped up in the bed and before they could get their weapons high enough to shoot, my sniper training took over and got both of them. Without pausing to breath, I tagged the driver in the shoulder. He lost control. Steve slammed into him and pushed him into the wall of the mountain. We edged past his wreck and the third vehicle didn’t follow us.
Luis was whooping and carrying on, but I got the shakes so bad. I had to show him my fist to get him to shut up.
It took everything I had to act like a regular person doing a regular job at the airports in Lima and in Sao Paulo, but I must’ve been convincing because we got the organ through customs—the organ that would probably be destroyed after they got the drugs out. Our “payment” from Joaquin was the return of a lovely young woman who Steve introduced to me as his fiancé. He was finally ready to talk, but I could no longer listen.
They took off, and I returned to Austin. The shakes haven’t gone away. And all I want to hear is Steve’s voice on the phone, saying, “Hunter!”
[This is a short story I wrote for the NYC Midnight competition. I had to write an action/adventure story about an organ donation and including a hunter. I thought I was being all clever writing about a pipe organ, but at least 3 other people in my heat did the same thing. Oh well. It’s not a great story, but hopefully it’s okay. The thing I like most is the title. Mostly, I’m putting it here so three weeks won’t have gone by without a new blog post. My divorce hearing was today, and my brain has been in a fog.]