I know within thirty-three seconds of entering the front door that my home is empty and my husband and daughter are missing.
As a US Army captain, assigned to the Military Intelligence Command, I have years of training and battlefield experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in evaluating patterns, scraps of information, and bits of communication.
This experience comes in handy when I enter our nice little suburban home in Kingstowne, Virginia, about eight miles from my current duty station at Fort Belvoir. Our light-blue Honda CR-V is parked in the driveway, school has been out for hours, and when I take my first two steps into our house, there’s no television on, no smell of dinner cooking—which my husband, Tom, said would be ready when I got home, since I am late once again—and, most puzzling, no ambient noise or presence from our ten-year-old, Denise, who is usually singing, chatting on her phone, or tap-dancing in the front hallway. Hard to explain, but the moment after I open the door, I know the place is empty and my loved ones are in trouble.
I gently put my black leather purse and soft leather briefcase on the floor. I don’t bother calling out. Instead I go to the near wall, where there’s a framed photo of a Maine lighthouse, and I tug the photo free, revealing a small metal safe built into the wall and a combination keypad next to a handle. I punch in 9999 (in an emergency like this, trying to remember a complex code is a one-way ticket to disaster), tug the handle free, and reach in and pull out a loaded stainless-steel Ruger .357 hammerless revolver.
It’s always loaded. Always. When we first moved in here three years ago, Tom teased me about my paranoia, but he stopped teasing when one of my fellow intelligence officers died in a home invasion gone bad in California: nothing was stolen during this supposed home invasion, and my colleague was nailed to the wall of his bedroom with eight-inch steel spikes.
I kick off my black shoes, move down the short hallway. Kitchen is empty. Tom’s cluttered office is also empty. Since leaving his reporting job last year, Tom has spent many hours in this office writing a book—about what, I don’t know—and I remember he’s supposed to leave to interview a source for said book in two days.
I move on to the also empty dining room, which has an ovalshaped table, six dining room chairs, and a glass-enclosed hutch holding our best china. A single rose stands in a slim glass vase in the center of the table. A gift from Tom last night.
Living room, with reclining chair, two couches, bookcases, flat-screen television with Denise’s collection of DVDs shelved beneath.
I open the door to the basement, sidle down, and then quickly switch on the lights.
Furnace, stored boxes, Denise’s old bicycle, some odds and ends, broken toys and hand tools, Bowflex machine Tom claims he’ll get to one of these days, next to a dusty treadmill I also promise to get to one of these days.
Now I’m on the stairs leading to the second floor, creeping up, keeping myself close to the wall so my quiet footfalls won’t cause nails or wood to creak.
I’ve been through basic, extended basic, two infantry tours in Iraq, and was one of the first women to make it through US Army Ranger training. In the past few years, I’ve gone face-to-face with some of the most dangerous people in the world, interviewing Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban men (always men!) who looked at me with such hate from their black and brown eyes that it has caused terrible dreams at night and paranoia during the day; I am always looking over my shoulder.
But nothing so far has scared me as much as walking up these fourteen typical steps in a typical American house in a typical Virginia suburb. Among the many skills an intelligence officer needs is an active and extensive imagination, and I’m imagining—
Tom, facedown on our marital bed, the back of his head a bloody mush from being shot.
Denise, in the corner of her bedroom, holding a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy in her dead arms, her throat slit, blood staining her Frozen T-shirt purchased on a Disney vacation last year.
Tom and Denise, their butchered bodies dumped in the bathtub, a mocking message smeared on the bathroom mirror, written in their blood.
My family, my loves, my life, all dead because of where I’ve gone, whom I’ve fought, and the sins I’ve committed over the years in service to my country.
I’ve never been a particularly religious woman, but as I reach the top of the stairs, my prayers to whatever god is “up there” have deteriorated from “Please, God, let my family be safe,” to “Please, God,” and now, as I step onto the second floor, just to whispers of “Please, please, please.”
My mom instinct kicks in, and I go into Denise’s room.
Messy, but clear.
Our bedroom, across the way.
Much neater, but also clear.
The door is closed.
I take a deep breath, bat my eyelids to blink out the tears. I spin the doorknob and fling the door open.
The floor mat is tumbled, like it’s been disturbed.
Clothes from Denise—her practice soccer uniform—are in a pile on the floor.
My girl’s room may be messy, but she knows enough to pop her soiled clothes in the nearby hamper.
Wrong, it’s all wrong.
With a hard, deep breath, I rip the shower curtain open.
But still oh so wrong.
And now I’m on the ground floor, revolver still in both hands, still looking, hunting, evaluating, and there’s a smell I hadn’t noted before.
A scent of fear, of sweat, of terror.
I pass by the dining room and there’s something there I missed earlier, partially hidden by the vase holding the single rose.
I go into the room, pushing back the happy memories made at this very table—of family dinners, helping Denise with her math homework, Christmas mornings and Thanksgiving afternoons, meals with my fellow officers and civvies from Fort Belvoir—all sorts of pleasant thoughts that are now gone.
There’s a sheet of paper on the table.
Next to the paper is a cell phone I don’t recognize. Mine is in my purse, and both Tom and Denise have iPhones.
This cell phone is square, with a small screen and a keypad underneath.
I step closer to the paper.
Standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of white paper, with the words centered, the black letters looking like they came off an inkjet printer.
Typical and usual, except the words underneath are neither typical nor usual.
WE HAVE YOUR HUSBAND AND DAUGHTER. NO FBI, STATE POLICE, CID, MILITARY POLICE. YOU AND YOU ALONE. FOLLOW OUR INSTRUCTIONS TO THE LETTER AND COMPLETE YOUR TASK IN 48 HOURS, OR THEY BOTH DIE.
I read and re-read the message, clear and to the point, and I’m in the middle of reading it for the third time when the strange phone rings, jolting me so hard that I nearly drop my weapon.
I keep the revolver in my right hand and pick up the unfamiliar phone with my left, push the Answer button, and say, “Cornwall.”
There’s a male voice on the other end. No hint of static, or crackling, or anything else. This is a burner phone, but it’s a highend burner phone.
“We have your husband and your daughter,” he starts, in a low but straightforward voice with just a hint of an accent that I can’t place. “They are perfectly fine for now. Within the next forty-eight hours, you are to proceed to Three Rivers, Texas, to a secure location under the control of your intelligence services and free a man very important to us. Forty-eight hours. Once this man is free, we will perform the exchange for the safe return of your husband and daughter.”
I close my eyes, forcing myself to memorize the man’s voice, the inflections, the slight accent, and I do my best to tamp down the emotions roaring through me, from fear to terror to pure hate.
“All right,” I say.
He says, “I know there are instructions for you, left on your dining room table. Those instructions are not a joke. If we get any indication that you have contacted any law enforcement agency, either civilian or military, then you will never hear back from us, and you will never see your husband or daughter again.”
“Who is the prisoner?” I ask.
The man says, “Let’s just say one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and leave it at that.”
“Where is this man?” I go on, eyes still closed, still working the problem. “Where in Three Rivers?”
“Do you agree to this task?”
The black hate in me that’s been stirred up by this man wants me to scream, What choice do you think I have, asshole?
But I keep it professional.
Trying to keep my voice calmer than my mind, I say, “I need assurances that my husband and daughter are safe.”
The man says, “That sounds reasonable. Hold on.”
I put the Ruger on the table, push a finger into my other ear, try to see if I can hear anything going on, anything that will help me later.
Another male voice comes on the phone, and this voice nearly buckles my knees. It’s clear but filled with emotion.
“Amy,” my husband says, his voice strained but tired. “Denise and I are just fine.”
I dig my finger deeper into my ear, focusing hard on listening for any sounds in the background that might provide a clue to where Tom is calling from.
But I don’t hear anything useful.
I ask, “Tom, what’s the day today?”
He sounds puzzled. “It’s Tuesday.”
A murmur and the other man comes back on the line. “What was that all about?”
I open my eyes, and the safe and happy dining room seems to mock me.
“I needed to know that my husband’s voice wasn’t a recording,”
I say. “I have the assurance. I’ll perform your task. What’s the address?”
“Linden Street, Three Rivers, Texas. Number forty-six.”
“What’s the prisoner’s name?”
The caller pauses, just for the briefest of seconds.
He goes on. “His name can change from month to month. It makes no difference to you successfully doing your job. You’ll know him when you see him. He’ll be the one without a weapon.”
“Why is he being held? What has he done?”
The man says, “Captain, please. Will that make any difference to you? If he made car bombs in Afghanistan, or shot up a school in Pakistan, or dropped an airliner over the Sudan, will you still not free him to retrieve your family?”
I keep my mouth shut. I’m ashamed that he knows exactly what I’m thinking.
He clears his throat. “There’s a pre-programmed number in the phone. That will be your only means of contacting me, but I only expect two more phone calls from you via that number: one telling me that you’ve retrieved the prisoner, and one when you have arrived at the exchange site. Phone calls begging for more time, for more flexibility, for another chance to speak to your husband or daughter—those will be ignored. Is that clear?”
“Quite clear,” I say.
Another quick pause, and then he chuckles, again with the slight accent I can’t place. “Isn’t this the point where you warn me that you’ll kill me if anything happens to your husband and daughter?”
“No,” I say.
I say sharply, “Yeah. Really. You want to know why?”
“Of course,” he says.
“Because I don’t have the goddamn time to waste.”
And I hang up on him.
After disconnecting the call, I check the burner’s screen and memorize the ten-digit phone number.
I look away to the far wall, jam-packed with photos of me in full battle rattle in Afghanistan and Iraq, Tom in his reporter’s gear somewhere in Venezuela, our wedding photo from Bar Harbor, photos of the two of us with an increasingly taller and older Denise, and I repeat the number under my breath three times, look back at the burner phone.
I’ll never forget that number—not now, not ever.
I pick up the Ruger, drop the burner phone in my jacket pocket, and get to work.
Upstairs first, to our bedroom, where I fling open the closet door and retrieve a black zippered duffel bag with two carrying straps from a locked trunk. My go bag, filled with spare clothes, water, rations, cash, a SIG Sauer P320, and other items. Tom’s go bag is in there as well, and when we first moved in three years back, I was surprised he didn’t give me any pushback about having a go bag prepared.
“Amy,” he said, while we were washing dishes together, “I’ve been grabbing an airplane, boat, or train to get to a story for years. Don’t worry about me. I know the drill.”
But one of us didn’t know the drill, and I often hoped she would never learn it. Nestled behind Tom’s duffel bag is a pink-and-white Minnie Mouse knapsack, which I’ve never told Denise about and which I’ve always maintained. My ten-year-old daughter’s go bag, to quickly go with Mom and Dad in case of disaster, natural or man-made. Denise’s mom, determined to protect her daughter, no matter what.
And Denise’s mom, a failure.
For a moment I grab one of Tom’s shirts, bring it to my face.
Tom doesn’t smoke and doesn’t wear cologne, but his scent is here, and I rub a sleeve against my face—so many memories rushing in, from first kisses to the birth of Denise and our many moves across the country.
Then I slam the closet door shut before I break down and lose my focus. I can’t lose my focus.
I just can’t.
I race downstairs and damn it all to hell, a phone rings and it’s mine, stashed in my soft leather briefcase, and I’m tempted to ignore it while I prep to get the hell going, but suppose—just suppose—it’s good news?
Tom was a tough reporter and is now a tough writer, working on a nonfiction book. I know he wouldn’t sit back and be a nice, cooperative prisoner. He would fight back. He would look for means and ways of escape. He would—I drop my iPhone on the floor, think, Tom, Tom, Tom, as I grab it and pick it up.