The Prisoner Exchange

Plaza Dorrego - Buenos Aires

by Frank Thomas Smith

Airplanes seldom have to circle the Buenos Aires International airport and descend through complex traffic patterns. They start losing altitude somewhere over Uruguay, cross the mud-colored mouth of the Rio de la Plata, pass to the east of the sprawling city and glide straight onto a waiting runway.

Joe Truman took a taxi from the airport to downtown Buenos Aires and registered at the Sheraton. A month previously two guests were blown out of their rooms by a terrorist bomb and since then the hotel was almost empty. Tourists no longer included Argentina in their itineraries and other visitors took the precaution of staying at less ostentatious hotels. Truman showered and changed into jeans and lay on the bed to smoke a cigarette. He was tired from the long flight and wanted to sleep, but first he had to call Paula Barrentos. He crushed out the cigarette and dialed her number, which he knew by heart. She answered after the first ring. "It's Joe, Paula."

"Joe! Where are you?" He imagined her sitting on the bed hunched over the telephone, a beautiful woman who had difficulty keeping her weight down.

"I just arrived. I'm at the Sheraton, room 606."

"Thank God. Will you be coming here?"

"It would be better if I stayed in the hotel, Paula, so they can contact me."

"The ransom, Joe?"

"Just a minute." He put the phone on the bed and lit a cigarette. It would be better, sure, to stay in the hotel. But Paula wanted to know and had a right to know - even if he didn't want to tell her. "We shouldn't talk about this on the phone. I can be there in an hour. Is that all right?"

He took the train to Martínez, an upper class suburb. The train was almost empty because it was mid-morning and the same cars had been packed going the other way - to the city - a couple of hours previously. Paula was waiting for him with gin tonics. Her hand trembled as she sipped hers. They sat on the verandah while Joe gave her the bad news, that the company had no insurance for locally hired employees and had no intention of paying ransom out of its own pocket for her husband.

"Hijos de puta!" she cried. Paula wasn't the hysterical type, but she was close to it now. "That prick of a boss of yours told me they were sending you and everything would be all right."

"I'm supposed to convince them that there's no money."

"They'll never believe you."

"No," Truman agreed, looking out at the garden instead of at her. "Although it probably depends on who they are."

"Who they are Joe, they're the ERP. Who else could they be?"

The Ejército Revolucionario de Pueblo. Yes, Truman knew as well as she did who they were. An originally idealistic Marxist group which began stealing food from supermarkets and distributing it to the poor, but had become steadily more vicious, kidnapping high ranking military officers and company executives and robbing banks. The officers were usually "executed" for real or imaginary crimes. The businessmen faired better if their companies came up with the required ransom. If not…well, no one knew, it hadn’t happened, yet.

"I'll do the best I can, Paula," was all he could think of to say.

The ERP contacted him that evening when he was having dinner in his room. A bellboy brought up an envelope with his name and room number typed on the front. Inside a brief note in Spanish: Five million U.S. dollars. When you have New York's answer call Sra. Barrentos and discuss the weather. Truman put the note in his pocket and walked out of the hotel and crossed the street to the Plaza San Martin.

It was a warm night, but the Plaza was deserted except for a tramp sleeping on one of the benches. Truman walked under the branches of a rubber-tree and across to the enormous statue of a mounted General San Martin pointing with a bronze finger west to the Andes, which he had somehow managed to cross with an army to Chile in the eighteenth century during the war of independence. After a while he went back to the hotel, had a drink from the minibar, watched an old movie on television and slept the sleep of the decided, except for a disturbing dream which he couldn't remember the next morning.

He phoned Paula Barrentos and commented on the heat. She agreed that it was hot, understanding that it was a message for someone else.

The telephone rang almost immediately: "What is your answer?" a woman, whose voice sounded familiar to Truman, asked.

"There is a complication which I must discuss with you personally."

After a brief silence she said she would call him back. Ten minutes later she was back on the line. "Take a taxi at midnight from the hotel to Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo -- alone. Dismiss the taxi and sit on one of the benches in the open, not near the trees."

San Telmo is the ciudad vieja, all that’s left of bohemian Buenos Aires where, in normal times, the restaurants would still be full and old men would be playing chess under the trees and the guitars of young musicians in the plaza would be competing with melancholy tango music drifting like cigarette smoke from the bars. But these were not normal times. Century-old streetlamps threw feeble arcs of gray light onto the plaza.

"Sr. Truman?" The voice comes from behind him. He stands up and turns around. A tiny Fiat 600 had stopped on the street with its lights out. A young woman gets out of the front seat and motions for him to approach. She gets into the back leaving the front door open. Truman sits next to the driver, a thin young man needng a shave, who tells him to shut the door. They drive for a few minutes with the lights out. It seems to Truman that they are more conspicuous that way than if they had been turned on. Suddenly they swerve sharply to the right and Truman is thrown against the driver, who jams the brakes on hard. They are in a narrow, night-cloaked alley.

"What is the complication you wanted to discuss, Sr. Truman?" the woman asks. Her politeness strikes him as incongruous. What should he call her -- señorita? señora? He settles for nothing and turns to look at her, but can barely define her silhouette. Then he realizes why her voice sounded familiar on the phone -- it is Mireya's voice.

"My employers are not able to pay for Barrentos's release," he says, avoiding the word ransom.

"Not willing, you mean," the woman says.

"Not able. You see, the company's liquidity is low at the moment and the insurance doesn't cover local employees." He turns back to the front. "They don't want to establish a precedent."

"We give you ten days to change your mind and if you don't we will be forced to execute Mr. Barrentos," the woman says matter-of-factly. "You and your company will be responsible, not us. We don't want to establish a precedent either"

"They won't change their minds."

"How can you be so sure?"

"I know them. They didn't send Barrentos here so they feel they're not responsible for him. That's why he's not covered by the insurance."

"So we picked the wrong man. Too bad for him".

His cue. If he had been thinking of backing down, of getting out of that Mickey Mouse car and going back to the hotel with nothing accomplished, her last words would have stopped him. Who is this woman with Mireya's voice? A relative perhaps? It's possible, Mireya had a big family. Does she have authority or is she only a messenger like himself carrying bad news?

"Yes, you did," he says, making an effort to keep his voice steady. You should have acted earlier and taken me. It would have been easier to collect." His mouth is dry and his knees are shaking. He takes a deep breath. "If you release Barrentos and keep me...Well, I'm American, the insurance covers me."

"Why would you want to do that?"

"It would be the solution for everybody, that's all."

"Except you."

Truman shrugs to himself in the dark. "Barrentos has a family, I don't. And he's a good friend. If I hadn't been transferred you'd have kidnapped me anyway."

She says nothing.

"They'll pay for me and they won't for him. It's that simple."

"Do they know about this idea in New York?"

"Of course not. And they mustn't know that it's was my idea. When you heard that they won't pay for Barrentos you decided to keep me, that's all."

The driver, who has been silent till now, says, "We'll have to discuss it with the others," perhaps to head off the woman's refusal. "All right," she says. "Go back to the hotel and wait for my call."

"When do you think that might be?"

"Just wait there."

Cacho, as Oscar Barrentos' friends called him, had introduced Joe Truman to Mireya. She was killed in an automobile accident on the road to Mar del Plata where they were going on vacation. It was the other driver's fault, but Truman blamed himself for even attempting the trip in summer when that particular road was overrun by reckless maniacs -- especially when Mireya was pregnant. If it hadn't been for Cacho, a true friend who stuck by him through the aftermath of deep depression, he might have killed himself. Finally he was transferred to head office in New York because he was too likely a candidate for kidnapping by the leftwing terrorists. The company said that Barrentos, his assistant, now manager, offered a smaller target because he was an Argentine national. Joe Truman was not displeased. New York might provide respite from painful memories.

She calls at dawn.

"Take the subway, Palermo line, to the last stop. You will be met when you go up to the street," Mireya's voice says.



Truman packs his carry-on bag and checks out of the hotel. He walks through the soft morning mist that covers the Plaza San Martin. Twenty minutes later he's standing in front of the Palermo subway exit. The Fiat turns the corner and stops. The woman is already in the back seat, so Truman opens the front door and gets in next to the driver, who hands him a pair of opaque sunglasses. "Don't try to look over the top of the glasses," he says. "It will be better for you if you don't see where we're going. What's in the bag?" He searches it and hands it back.

The drive in silence against the city-bound traffic. After a half-hour they stop and the driver tells him to get out. The woman takes his arm like a wife or lover and leads him to the entrance of a suburban house. He feels the sun's warmth on his face and wonders when will be the next time he has that pleasure. He hears her open two locks. They walk through an empty room and she knocks on another door. When it's opened from the inside she tells Truman to take off his glasses and leads the way down a steep flight of stone stairs into a damp basement room. A ray of sunlight carrying specks of dust enters through a small barred window near the ceiling. A young man with a rifle over his knees is sitting on one of the two chairs which constitute the only furniture.

Oscar Barrentos is lying on a mattress on the floor reading a battered copy of Marx's Capital. It occurs to Truman that he forgot to bring reading material.

When Barrentos sees Truman, he yells "Joe!", drops the book and jumps to his feet. The two men are about the same height, but Barrentos is dark with receding hair and sharp features that give a bird-like effect. Truman carries considerably more mass and is fair.

"Tell him your proposal, please," the woman says with that irritating courtesy. He has his first good look at her. Except for her voice, there is no resemblance to Mireya. She is a boyishly attractive young woman dressed in jeans, running shoes and a man's shirt. She could have been one of the Company's secretaries on her day off with nothing on her mind except her next tennis lesson.

"The insurance doesn't cover locally hired employees, Cacho...,"
"Speak Spanish", the woman interrupts.
"...And the Company isn't about to pay what our friends here. want," Truman says in Spanish. Barrentos, unshaven and gaunter than usual, looks as though he's been punched in the stomach. His first thought when he saw his friend was that he had come with the money for his release. "So," Truman goes on, "I think the best solution would be an exchange."

"What do you mean?"

"You for me. I'm not locally employed so the insurance company will have to pay up. You go to New York and say that when I told them you weren't covered, they decided to keep me instead." He grins. "We gringos have all the luck, as you are so fond of saying."

"You will leave Argentina immediately together with your family," the woman tells Barrentos. "In New York you will arrange for five million dollars to be paid according to instructions we will give you there. Once we have the money we will release Mr. Truman. If the money is not paid we will be forced to execute him."

Barrentos looks dazed. "I don't know what to say, Joe."

"I do. Go on up there and get back here with the money as soon as you can." He glances at the book on the floor. "I don't feel like reading that thing more than twice."

Barrentos embraces him with tears in his eyes. A few minutes later he leaves the house wearing the opaque glasses and with the woman on his arm. Joe Truman takes off his jacket, folds it neatly, places it on the mattress as a pillow and lays down. He picks up Capital and opens it to the first chapter.

* * * *

The Chairman sat facing his L-shaped window without seeing the skyscrapers outside. His hands were pressed together as though in prayer, with the fingertips touching his chin. He swiveled toward Barrentos. "I see a problem here, Oscar."

"A problem, sir?"

The Chairman liked being called sir, but only the foreign employees called him that. "We've had people kidnapped before, in Brazil, Guatemala and Colombia. We know they don't kidnap intermediaries. If ransom is refused they start to threaten, may even kill the hostage, but they always need intermediaries for negotiations and don't want to establish a precedent. Do you know what I suspect?"

"No, sir." Barrentos hands were trembling, so he kept them tightly clasped on his lap.

"That you and Joe Truman cooked this up. Don't get me wrong, I believe they've got him, but it was his idea, because he's covered and you're not. The insurance people will think the same, they might even suspect..." He broke off and gazed at his manicured fingernails. "They don't even want us to tell our people in the field that we have kidnap insurance. They're afraid of collusion with so much money involved." He sighed. "It just goes to show the danger of letting expatriate people stay in one place too long. They go native. Well, it's too late now, you'll just have to stick to your story."

"There was no collusion, sir," Barrentos lied.

"Of course not, I'm not saying there was. It's just what the insurance company will think. They won't like it but we'll raise hell and they'll have to pay. They'll ask a lot of questions, so it may take a while. Look, write a memorandum, complete, fool-proof, have my secretary type it, no one else."

"I already have." Barrentos fumbled at his attaché-case latch, opened it and handed the Chairman a three-page memorandum. "I typed it myself."

"Good. I'll pass it on to our legal department and let you know."

A few weeks later a young man, a boy really, who was being tortured in the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, broke. Among other things, he told his inquisitors where Joe Truman was being held. This was more than they expected, for they hadn't even known he'd been kidnapped. They checked with the company's acting manager, Oscar Barrentos's assistant, who only knew that Barrentos was in New York. He assumed the company had paid the ransom for him.

The Military Police decide to find out for themselves. They go to the house where Joe Truman is being held. It is shuttered and looks unoccupied. They announce through a loud-speaker that the terrorists have fifteen minutes to come out with their hands up. Not even the tortured boy knew that they had built a tunnel to the house behind them which exited onto the next street. Four of them, including the woman and the driver, are about to enter the tunnel from the basement room, when the driver, now clean-shaven, says, "It was a double-cross. Do I let him have it?"

The woman looks at Joe Truman standing in the corner. To him her brief hesitation seems an eternity. "No, save your bullets, you may need them. Go on ahead." She nods to Truman and says, "Let's go, Mr. Truman. I still like your proposition." He goes willingly, almost gratefully into the tunnel and she follows and closes the trapdoor behind her. The Military Police, however, have surrounded the whole block and when the group emerges from the other house, which is closed and shuttered as well, they are met by twenty police rifles aimed at them. Knowing the slow death that awaits them if they are captured, they open fire at the police and are cut down by a hail of bullets.

Lying in the street bleeding to death, Joe Truman remembers the dream he had in the hotel the first night, the one he hadn't been able to recall. He was under water, held down by an invisible weight. A child swam toward him. He recognized him as the son he and Mireya would have had if she had lived. The child held out his hand to Joe and led him to a spot where the sun had spread a blanket of orange light over the water.

Now, as he dies, the child comes again.

A year later the Armed Forces overthrew the defunct government of Isabel Perón. They made short work of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, as well as thousands of innocent people. It may never be known how many were killed in the so-called "dirty war". In any event, order was restored and Oscar Barrentos was appointed General Manager of the company's operations in South America. He eventually bought a week-end house in the mountains of the south, near Bariloche, where he and Joe Truman had often fished and hiked together. His wife Paula gave birth to their first son (they already had a daughter) whom they wanted to name Joseph, but as Argentine civil law only allows Spanish Christian names, they had to settle for José. Nevertheless, the boy's family and friends always called him Joe.

When Joe was a teen-ager, Carlos Barrentos decided it was time to tell him why he had been named after an American. The boy listened to the story in silence, then asked, "What did you say his last name was?"


"That means hombre de verdad, doesn't it?"

"Yes, it does," his father answered.

"How do you feel about him -- I mean what happened to him?"

Barrentos leaned back, breathed deeply, then said, "Well, sad...and grateful, very grateful."

"Me too," Joe said. He thrust his hands into his pockets as the Americans do and walked down to the lake over which the setting sun was spreading a blanket of orange light.