Excerpts

Marc, “Butch,” April 5, 2001, 1:56 p.m.

It is said that when a person is faced with imminent death, his whole life flashes before him, and he relives it in a split second. As I wait for the bullets to tear through my body, this is partly true. But it isn’t just my own life that tumbles in fast-forward mode across the screen of my mind. I also think of my dad.

My father was Horace Dade Ashton—renowned photographer, lecturer, filmmaker, explorer, scientist, student of religion, diplomat, and artist. In my moment of peril, I see his life flashing before me, inextricably entwined with mine as it had been for most of our lives.

In this world there are leaders and there are followers. My father was a born leader. He exuded confidence and always gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about. Horace Ashton commanded respect just by being who he was. As a boy, I observed how my father influenced others, how he persuaded them to think his way or do things his way, and how he entertained the ever-present audience parading through our house with tales of his adventurous life.

Horace Dade Ashton, July 29, 1883

Thanks to my guardian angel I lived a charmed life. I survived plane crashes that took the lives of others, malaria in the desert, poisonous snakes, Vodou ceremonies, and most dangerous of all, two divorces. I was led to an oasis when I was about to die of thirst and mysteriously guided out of the dark depths of underground caves when I lost my way. This angel introduced me to life’s mysteries, brought me opportunities, and watched over me whenever I was in peril—even at the hour of my birth in an open sailboat in the middle of the Potomac.

Of course I don’t remember my birth, but as a child I heard my mother tell this story many times. In 1883, my parents lived near my father’s family in King George County, Virginia, where his father was a prominent physician and surgeon. Feeling uncomfortable in anticipation of my birth, my mother wanted to see her mother. She persuaded my father, John Burdette Ashton, to take her to visit her parents in Charles County, Maryland, where her father was an Episcopal minister.

They stayed a few days at my mother’s childhood home until, unexpectedly early, her labor began. She wanted her doctor in Virginia to deliver her child, so she and my father decided to return home as quickly as possible. The only transportation available was an open sailboat, and the Potomac River was twelve miles wide at that point.

A stiff breeze filled the sails as my parents began their voyage. Halfway across the river the wind suddenly died. There they sat, becalmed in the middle of the Potomac while my mother’s labor pains grew more and more pronounced.

With no medical help available, my father had to take charge. Although he was not a physician as his father and brothers were, he was a farmer who’d assisted with animal births. Trusting his instincts, he helped my mother deliver me right there in the boat. The date was July 29, 1883.

I have always credited my enduring love for the sea and my sense of calm to the circumstances of my birth. No matter what happened, I have always held the belief that everything would turn out all right, and it always has, even though my life has been full of adventures and surprises.

Marc, “Butch,” April 5, 2001, 2:04 p.m.

My kidnappers ignore me and keep driving, talking rapidly among themselves in Creole, a language they assume a blanc like me would not understand. Having lived in Haiti most of my life, I speak Creole as well as I speak English. I even think and dream in Creole. They have no idea how well I understand their language, which gives me an advantage.

I listen carefully, trying to figure out their next move. Reluctant to believe I don’t have the one-and-a-half million, they aren’t sure what to do next. It seems they might have been secretly tipped off about the sale of Villarosa but are reluctant to say too much. They don’t seem to be aware that the sale hasn’t happened yet. Again, I wonder about their connections.

I study them as they begin to argue in Creole. The speed-demon driver has the look of a hardened criminal, but as he’d found it difficult to put my car into reverse, I figure he is either extremely nervous or inexperienced behind the wheel. In the backseat, the fourth man is quiet and appears to be as frightened as I am. From what is being said, I surmise that he’s embarking on his first such criminal venture.

My earlier assessment of the leader is correct. Despite their current discussion, it is obvious that the “intelligent” one who’d demanded the outrageous sum of money is in charge. I need to concentrate on him because he will make the decisions and conduct the negotiations.

However, it’s clear to me that the sinister one sitting behind me with the Uzi is the one who will kill me. Earlier, I noticed his eyes looked wild, and now he is talking more rapidly and louder than the others. He seems high-strung and unpredictable, like he’s high on crack cocaine—a very real problem in Haiti today.

The shocking realization hits me between the eyes. Not only have I been kidnapped, but I’m dealing with a crazy man with an itchy trigger finger who is holding a loaded automatic weapon against the back of my head. There’s probably just as great a chance of his pulling the trigger on purpose as having it go off accidentally. I wonder if I’ll feel the bullet.