- Abandoned -
Table of Contents
a religious thriller written by
Ronald E. Boutelle
Table of Contents
a religious thriller written by
Ronald E. Boutelle
Chapter 13: Maria
“There you are! Our plane leaves in 15 minutes.”
Blake nodded as he walked over to the magazine rack, thinking that he’d spotted a new issue of, Climbing.
A few minutes later—“Find something to read?”
“Yeah. I can’t believe it—there’s an article on Kettle Mountain inside.” Blake turned the pages until he came to the first picture.
“Wow, where’s that?”
“Isn’t that incredible? It’s located in the Adirondacks—past Lake George—near a little town named, Minerva.”
“Sounds like you’ve been there.”
“Oh yeah. My rock climbing club has been there a half dozen times. I’m the one who told them about it because Kettle Mountain was where my dad went deer hunting when he was a teenager, back in the early 60s. Then, after Vietnam my mother took us kids up there every summer. She told me that since this had been my father’s favorite place, that the easiest way to remember him was to enjoy the same things that he did—and just like she said, when I’m up there fishing on the Boreas River I can feel my dad inside me.”
Enjoying each others company and plenty of time to just sit back and relax during their flight, Blake promised to take Sutton fishing on the Boreas as soon as they could both get away.
It was 10:30 a.m. when their Northwest flight landed in Minneapolis. Only 15 minutes late. About an hour later a taxi dropped them off at their hotel—the weather was perfect.
“Let’s go to the desk and check-in before we get some lunch. You’ve got your own room.”
Blake followed, somewhat excited with the new surroundings. He had never been to Minneapolis. “Here’s your key—I just have to freshen up my uniform and make a call.”
“Sure, no problem. See you then—I’ll be sitting over there.”
Inside his room Sutton removed his uniform from the suitcase. Now that he was retired he seldom wore it but today he was going to. He just had to let it hang for a while. He got out a spray bottle and filled it with hot water from the tap. An old army trick. A light spray and a few minutes to dry out—all the wrinkles would be gone.
Sutton found Blake sitting in the lounge, thumbing through his magazine. “Come on Blake, let’s go to the cafe and get a bite to eat.”
“Good idea, I’m hungry.”
They each ordered the same thing—a club sandwich with French fries and ice tea.
“Blake, I decided not to call. Cold feet I guess. Look— after we eat, let’s just get a car and go on over there. We can probably give the letter to Nick’s wife and explain the whole thing in about an hour. Maybe later we’ll catch a movie or something.”
“Whatever you think is best, Major. I know this isn’t an easy thing to do.”
“Well, you’re right about that but it has to be done.”
“742 E. Conrad—our directions say it should be around the corner somewhere.” Blake studied the map intensely.
“There it is Blake. The white house with the blue shutters.”
photo by: Gregoryj77
Sutton slowed down and pulled the Ford to the curb. “Well Blake, let’s hope she’s home. Come on, we’ll knock on the door.”
Looking at the fancy railing as he stood at the front steps, Blake could feel his heart begin to race. Repelling down the side of a mountain was easier than this. Now he knew why Sutton had wanted him to come along. This was something that no one should have to do alone.
Sutton opened the screen door. He wasn’t sure if he should knock on the door or tap the small lion’s-head knocker to announce their presence. He reached out and knocked three times.
For a few moments both men stood perfectly still, each listening for someone inside to come to the door. There—the glass on the door began to slightly shimmer. Someone was coming.
Blake’s eyes were glued to the door handle when it suddenly turned. He wondered what Eleni would look like. “Yes, can I help you?”
Sutton seemed to be standing a little straighter. What he said next he must have rehearsed in his mind a hundred times. “Good afternoon. We may have the wrong address but I was wondering if you know Eleni Fotis. I think she used to live here and we have something to give her.”
The lady at the door stepped forward, backing them both up a few steps. “Eleni Fotis is my mother but I’m sorry, she died three weeks ago. Perhaps I can help you. My name is Maria Fotis. Excuse me, I see you’re from the Army base. Please, won’t you come in?”
Once inside, Maria motioned for the two men to sit. “I have some hot coffee on the stove—how do you gentlemen take yours?”
“Oh, that’s OK—please, we don’t want to intrude anymore than we have.” Sutton’s pleading seemed to go unnoticed because Maria was already half way to the kitchen.
Realizing the situation, Sutton turned to Blake and spoke. “Blake, how about you, how do you want your coffee?”
“Just some water, thank you.”
Turning around, “And you, Sir? Cream? Sugar?”
“Just black. Thank you.”
While Maria was preparing the drinks, Blake’s mind began to race like mad. It had never crossed his mind that Nick’s wife would be dead. Sutton was thinking the same thing. He had calculated that she would be in her 40s. She had just passed away. No wonder the Army didn’t tell me.
Looking around the room, Blake tried to calm down. The room looked inviting—a Holy Bible was open on a small table. There was also a drawing of a young girl hanging on the wall behind Major Sutton. Impressed, Blake wondered who she was—obviously an expensive piece of art that her mother must have bought. Maybe it was Maria when she was a young girl.
picture by: Iman Maleki
Beyond the edges of the Oriental rug that decorated the living room, Blake could see the hardwood floors extending outward to the flowered walls. By itself the room had a soothing effect on him.
When Maria returned, Sutton was the first to stand, immediately followed by Blake. “Excuse me, I didn’t introduce us. I am Major Sutton and this is Blake—Blake Turner. And of course we’re very sorry to hear about your mother. We didn’t know.”
“Gentleman, thank you. My mother died in her sleep.”
“Miss Fotis, again, we are very very sorry. We just didn’t know.”
Blake wasn’t the only one caught by surprise. He could hear it in Sutton’s voice.
“Please gentlemen, call me Maria. Now please sit down.”
Sutton was charmed. “If I may, Maria, the reason we were looking for your mother is to give her some things that belonged to her husband—I mean, your father. You see, a few weeks ago Blake and I were over in Vietnam. We were trying to locate a missing bomber when we accidentally found some items that belonged to him.” Maria stood motionless. Now there were three people in the room trying to grasp the events unfolding before them.
Sutton stretched out his hand, handing her a brown envelope. Sutton had stopped talking but then continued.
“Actually, Blake is the one who found these things. There are also some photographs.”
Blake finally spoke a few words. “And your father’s dog tag is there.” Maria looked up at Blake—a sad expression on her face—tears filling her eyes. Blake reached in his back pocket and handed her his handkerchief.
After taking a few minutes to examine everything, Maria then gathered herself and spoke. “Well, I don’t know what to say, gentlemen. This is such a surprise and the letter looks like its going to take a couple hours to read.”
Sutton set his cup in the saucer and told her that, yes, the letter would take a while to read. Blake just sat there looking at Maria. His heart went out to her. She had lost her father and now her mother. He even felt some guilt. He didn’t like stirring up painful memories in anyone. Blake started to speak.
“Maria, we are sorry to hear about your mother. I wish we had known so we could have said things differently. Would you like us to come back later this evening after you have had a chance to read the letter?”
“Yes. Please gentlemen—please come back for dinner. I’ll have it ready at six.”
Neither Sutton nor Blake said, no. Neither of them wanted to disappoint her. “Sure Maria. We’ll be here at six.” Maria acknowledged Sutton’s words with a smile and all three seemed to rise at once. Blake and Sutton slowly walked over to the door. Blake took one last look at the picture on the wall.
Inside the car, Sutton let out a loud breath of air. “My God does that woman look like her mother! Just seeing her makes this whole thing unreal. I mean, the last time I saw her mother and Nick together—I just can’t get over how much they look alike.”
“Well, Major Sutton, I don’t know what to say but I do know we did the right thing. I just wish we had known about her mother.”
* * * * * * * *
Dinner was delicious. It was obvious that Maria was an exceptional cook. Later she served them coffee and a delicious layered cake.
They took their deserts to the living room, Blake trying not to spill anything. “What a great dinner! Thank you. You’re a mighty fine cook.” Sutton was just about to say more when Maria quickly said, “You’re more than welcome. I am glad you liked everything.” She then continued.
“Gentlemen, I read the letter after you left and I appreciate you telling me how you both found it. But I want you to explain to me why you think my father is dead? How can you be so sure? How can anybody be sure? You admit that you never found his body—and you can see by reading his letter that he was alive and healthy.”
Since she was looking directly at Sutton when she spoke these words, the Major replied. “But Maria, you can’t possibly believe that after all these years your father is still alive. He would have come here. You know that. He had that lifeboat and was going to float down a river as soon as he could.”
“Yes, I know he said that but still, that doesn’t mean he’s dead. What if, for some unknown reason he was just never able to get out of Laos? That could have happened. None of us know for sure.”
Tormented by what he was hearing, Sutton then said, “But Maria, obviously the river didn’t save him and even if he wanted to turn around, can you imagine how far he would have floated from where he started? Maria—Blake and I were just over there. Those rivers are moving at a pretty fast clip. I just know from experience that after he spent a couple of days in the water—why, a hundred miles could have easily gone by.
Blake could see that Maria’s words were having an impact on Sutton and could sense his frustration growing. But Blake could also see the same glimmer of hope flickering upon Maria’s words that he had once felt for Jill, as his girlfriend lay dying in the hospital after being hit. Yes—Blake knew what hope was and could see that same kind of hope still alive in Maria. It was something that he could never discourage, no matter what the odds.
Maria continued to speak. But now as she spoke—perceiving Blake’s faith in her—she looked straight at him. “Please, in my father’s letter. I believe that he still might be alive.”
Sutton couldn’t keep quite any longer. “No Maria, it is not possible. How can your father still be alive? Where would he be? Think how long it has been. You’re just working yourself up for nothing.”
“I know you must think I’m a fool but I simply refuse to give up just because you found this letter and his dog tag. My father could still be alive.” Maria reached out and grabbed Nick’s letter off the end table. “Look, right here I see clues. This friend of his, Rama, and what’s the name of that temple where everyone’s from? Yes, right here: Angkor Wat.
photo by: John Campbell
“Gentlemen, I know this sound impossible, but what if nothing else—what if Rama is still alive? Isn’t that possible? He wasn’t a soldier. He could have gone home to this place after the war. He could still be there and if we could talk to him, he could tell us what happened to my father. What’s so wrong with that?” Again she looked straight into Blake’s eyes as she asked the question.
The flight back to Washington was a lot different from the flight they had just taken to Minneapolis. “I’m going to take her, Major. I know you don’t agree with her, but I do. I mean—at least I see a slight possibility. OK, chances are overwhelming that we’re not going to find her father but you have to admit—Rama—he might be alive. So I think there’s a possibility that we could either find him or find someone who knows him. When you consider that we just went all the way to Laos—believing that we might find that bomber—and we did all of that on a heck of a lot less evidence than we have now—I just feel that we need to pursue this to the end.” Not angry at Sutton, Blake looked at him for a sign that would tell him what to do next.
“Blake, you’re right. In some strange way there’s a chance. And Blake, there’s another thing. Something I never told you and the rest of the guys after I read Nick’s letter. Son, I think I should tell you now. There’s a dimension to this whole affair that I need to tell you. I would have told you all back there in the jungle but until now I just didn’t see how it would help.”
“What is it, Major?” Over the intercom the Captain announced they would be landing in 20 minutes—more than enough time for Sutton to tell Blake about Shining Brass and the American soldiers that had been abandoned in Vietnam—in other words: the dirty little secret.
“Blake, before I tell you, there’s one more thing. You know that General Samm isn’t going to pay for this one. If we’re going to Cambodia then it’s up to us to get there.”
“Yes Sir, I’ve been thinking about that. I’m going to talk to my father.”
“No, don’t worry. You’ve heard about all the money us old bachelors have tucked away for rainy days. Well, the rain has started to fall.” He then began to tell his young friend the saddest story of his life.
Sutton dropped Blake off at his house. It was just about time to call Maria. Blake had promised to call. She wanted to know what he and Sutton had talked about on their way back to Washington. In his mind’s eye Blake could see her dark hair and beautiful smile.
She was a brave woman and he liked that about her. She wasn’t afraid to hope for the impossible. Plus she had expressed her concerns well. There was some logic there. She was also able to see clues that he and Sutton had totally missed. In fact, one right after the other there seemed to be a whole string of clues that they had missed. The more he thought about her, the more he wanted to help her.
Hello, Maria? Yes, we made it back safely. Yeah, it’s raining pretty hard. Well, thank you, it was a real pleasure meeting you. No, I don’t think that. In fact, the more I think about what you said the more I agree with you. And Major Sutton has come around, too. Yes, he is a good person. I agree. That’s right, he wants to come with us. Believe me, Maria, Major Sutton wants to help you with all his heart. He was the one who sent your father to Vietnam in the first place and he doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned. It just took him a little longer to shake off the belief that your dad is no longer alive. Yes, I do believe you. You’re 100% right. There’s still a chance.
By the way, that drawing in your living room. Yes, the girl. Oh, you drew it! I see. No, I had no idea. I thought maybe your mother had bought it. Well, in that case you are a very talented artist. I really like it. Yes, someday I would like to see more.
OK, I’ll call you tomorrow night. Good bye.
* * * * * * * *
A few months later Sutton held the three tickets in his hand. But just for a moment. Satisfied that everything was in order he returned them to his vest pocket. Who doesn’t double check at least once to see that their airline tickets are indeed where they’re suppose to be? Leaning back in his seat he looked across the terminal toward the food court. Inside the coffee shop he could see Blake and Maria putting the final touches on the three cups of hot coffee they had offered to fetch.
Looking at them, he didn’t have any proof except for the obvious. It was the way they stood close to each other. Yeah, that was it. Maria and Blake were getting close. Sutton couldn’t help but notice that they seemed to be made for each other. It was an observation that Sutton not only noticed, but enjoyed watching.
So far it had taken a good two months of planning to bring the three of them this far. Together they had agreed to give themselves three weeks in Cambodia. If they were going to find Rama then they were going to have to do it within the allotted time that their tourist visas allowed. And if events dictated that they had to stay longer, Sutton had secured assets for that scenario, too. Visa extensions were possible through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Back in Minneapolis, Maria had made arrangements with her doctor for all the shots she needed. Blake and Sutton had already been immunized as part of their original trip to Vietnam. Together, both Sutton and Blake made a list of items they should each bring—now securely packed in their luggage.
Maria had also placed in her notebook a 4×6 photograph of her father, taken of a large painting she had made of him. For a couple of reasons she wanted to bring it, also remembering that Blake had mentioned that he’d like to see more of her art.
One of her best friends lived in Sedona, Arizona, who was also a talented artist.
The Ranch Where Maria Stayed
photo by: Aaron Reed
They had met in college. On a painting vacation at her friend’s ranch, Maria had drawn a picture of her father. It had taken her weeks to finish, using several old snapshots that her mom had taken years ago. Something about Sedona brought magic to her hands and she was very pleased with herself. She just loved looking at it—feeling that it portrayed her father far better than any of the photographs by themselves.
painting by: Iman Maleki
* * * * * * * *
Two days of constant traveling passed slowly, mostly spent at 35,000 feet—more than enough time for both Maria and Blake to finish the paperbacks they had brought with them. It was a pleasant surprise to discover how much they both enjoyed to read. Maria was reading, The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon.
At last the final leg for Thai Airway International arrived—only a few minutes left before setting down on the runway at Pochentong International Airport. Maria tugged on Blake’s arm to share the view from her window seat. Sutton sat across the center aisle and was finishing his conversation with the guy who sat next to him. It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when Maria took this photo.
photo by: KY Geologist
Once on the ground and their luggage safe, Major Sutton immediately exchanged a substantial sum of U.S. dollars into riels while Blake and Maria stood outside the main terminal holding a cab. Soon the three of them were on their way through the streets of Phnom Penh, none of them exactly sure what the future held.
Pulling her camera out, Maria was obviously thrilled by what she was seeing and tried to capture everything right out of the taxi’s open window. Before she knew it she had managed to shoot nearly a dozen photos before the driver pulled up to their hotel—pictures that would one day go into a very special photo album.
photo by: Christopher Cotton
Roughly forty minutes from the airport, the Sofitel Cambodiana is one of the best hotels in all of Cambodia and offers comfort comparable to 5-star hotels in other Southeast Asian countries.
Besides that, within Phnom Penh it has the best location, offering outstanding views of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. It’s also a short walk to the Royal Palace. At least for their first night’s stay in Cambodia, Sutton had arranged for the best—reflecting his deep desire that their adventure start off on a good note.
“No, you two go by yourselves. I’m going to visit the bar and check out all the beautiful ladies I’ve been seeing.”
“Are you sure Major Sutton,” Blake asked, almost sounding like his son?
“Positive, you two get going. I’m just teasing. A couple of beers and it’s bed time for me.”
Maria held on to Blake’s arm, turning to wave back at Major Sutton just as Blake reached to open the door. The two of them felt like newly arrived tourist at Disneyland—except this was for real. Walking down Sisowath Quay, they took one of the local streets to the left so that Maria could take some candid shots of a typical afternoon in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
photos by: Christopher Cotton
With all the intrigue and planning that had consumed them over the past few months, the opportunity to just get out and see the sights was more than welcome. For the rest of the day they could put the Vietnam War, her father, Rama and Angkor Wat out of their minds and just have fun. It was obvious that they were falling in love. As evening approached, a lovely Cambodian sunset greeted them.
photo by: Christopher Cotton
Back at their hotel, Blake and Maria sat down in a romantic restaurant. A sign announced that later there would be live music. Maria asked Blake if he could dance. Over diner they talked about all the things they had just seen and the way the people lived. Blake said that he especially liked the sunset.
Meanwhile, Sutton had found a comfortable seat at the bar. He found the local beer very refreshing. Instead of pulling out one of his own cigars, Sutton opted for something more exotic which turned out to be good choice. Turning in early, Sutton fell asleep in his room, exhausted from the day’s events. Two hours later, Blake stood outside Maria’s door. He held both her hands. Her touch and her eyes said, yes. Their first kiss said forever.
Earlier the next morning, just like they had agreed, everyone was packed and ready for their short flight to Siem Reap—a small town 125 miles north of Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap International Airport
photo by: Chikumaya
What makes Siem Reap such an attractive tourist destination are the many ancient temples that are found there, all part of the massive Angkor Wat complex.
Located on Wat Bo street, Sutton had made reservations at the Mekong Angkor Hotel—more than sufficient, even though some renovations were underway. Outside, monkeys were making a loud racket hoping to entice someone into giving them a piece of fruit.
Mekong Angkor Hotel
photo by: Wilfried Maehlmann
Just after eleven, the three of them walked into the Banyan Tree Restaurant, ready to plan out the day’s first adventure into the ruins of Angkor Wat. The waiter placed a pot of hot tea on the table, handing each of them a menu, written in both French and English. As they sat waiting for their lunch, Sutton began to speak.
“Last night I had an interesting discussion with the bartender.
He’s retired U.S. Army and has been living in Cambodia with his wife for six years. And by the way, one thing he cautioned me about was to avoid wandering around the countryside by ourselves. He said there’s still some unrest.”
“All right, do you see what I mean, Major? If still—after all this time it is too dangerous for us to travel about freely then perhaps there are good reasons why my father never came home.”
Sutton and Blake both nodded in agreement. Neither of them wanted to discourage her. Yes, her argument was sound. They couldn’t deny that and if there was any way, they were going to do their best to find him.
Sutton looked at Maria and began to speak, “You’re absolutely right, Maria—to imagine your father just walking out of Vietnam, or wherever he ended up, would have been darn near impossible. I promise you, we’re going to give the next three weeks our best shot at finding someone who can answer our questions.”
Blake then turned to Major Sutton. “You know, Major, the more I think about it, we really don’t know what happened to Maria’s father. Sure, more than 20 years have gone by but what if he had gone back to the monastery? I know that he didn’t mention that in his letter, but how do we really know what happened?”
As Blake and the Major talked, Maria’s eyes grew moist with tears. “All I know is that my father is over here, somewhere. He probably died a long time ago but if there’s any chance that he’s alive, then let’s try to find him—or a least find out what happened to him.”
Sutton’s nod of encouragement was heartfelt and again the Major began to speak. “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do. Blake, you have the maps and Maria, you have volunteered to keep track of everywhere we go—and take lots of pictures. Film is not a problem. So right after we eat, we begin.”
Looking at his watch, Sutton saw that they had plenty of time. “I’ve rented a guide for as long as we need him. He is going to drive us around to the various temples. I told him to meet us outside in about an hour but remember, this place covers almost eighty square miles. So we’ve got a lot of exploring to do. He speaks several languages and will do most of the talking for us. He told me that some of the ruins are seldom visited, except by the local monks, while others are highly visited. OK, so we can’t ignore anything. When we spot a monk we’ll have our guide ask him if he knows Rama or has heard of anything that might lead us to him.”
“What about the guide, has he heard anything about my father?”
“I’m sorry, Maria, that’s the first thing I asked. He doesn’t know anything. But he did say that Rama is a fairly common name in these parts. Something about a King and a famous monkey. I’m afraid this is going to complicate things a bit.” Sutton reached for the menu. “I don’t know about you guys but I’m famished.”
“Well, don’t forget to have him mention, Suryavarman when he asks. We have to try everything.” Maria then said, “Major Sutton, when I was buying some film I heard one of the tourist say they saw some monks at Ta Prohm. He told me the place was a photographer’s dream come true.”
Even as Maria was speaking, Blake had opened a map and spread it on the table. Sutton leaned over to look. As Maria sat smiling at the two men, Blake noticed the waitress approaching and three plates were placed on the table. “Um, looks good.”
photo by: Matthew Boyer
A few hours later the mysterious ruins of Ta Prohm seemed to mirror the exact mystery of what had happened to Maria’s father; both unfathomable. Having barely even heard of Angkor Wat and its temples strewn across the jungle floor, what they saw before them left everyone almost speechless. How could they have been so naive to ever think they could explore such an immense place in three weeks? And this was just one of the hundreds of temples that Angkor Wat was waiting to reveal. Understanding her foolishness, Maria began to quietly pray, asking God to help them find the impossible.
photos by: Christopher Cotton