It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I answered my cellphone from an unknown caller and heard a woman’s scream. It sent an electric jolt through me. “Mom! Help me! Oh, my God, they have me!” and then another scream. It was the voice of my daughter, Katie. Or so I thought.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know!” she gasped. “On the freeway!” Another scream.
“Was there an accident?”
In a panic, I paced the floor of my home office. I have two daughters, but the screams had sounded like the elder, who is a middle school teacher. It was 11 o’clock. She should have been in class. Had she gone out for an appointment or an errand at lunch time?
Before I could speculate more, a voice came on. “We have your daughter and she’s OK.” I didn’t recognize the deep, male voice. Was he a police officer? A helpful bystander? My heartbeat slowed. I flipped the call to speaker and rushed downstairs to the family room where my husband was doing his weight routine in front of MSNBC.
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the caller said.
Now I saw a school shooting or a drug altercation in the neighborhood. Out of nowhere, dreamlike, my mind concocted a grassy playground, a chain link fence separating the school campus from brushy overgrowth, my daughter monitoring kids. The scene had no resemblance to her school, but became the anchor setting for the narrative I heard next as I demanded to know what had happened.
The voice turned sharp, telling me to calm down and listen. “She saw something she shouldn’t have—”
The grassy playground returned to view, and I heard my daughter yell “hey!” and angrily confront several sketchy-looking men.
“—so my guys grabbed her.”
Then the caller got to the point: “How much money can you get?”
David muted the TV and gave me a quizzical look. I turned to him and whispered, “Call the police.”
The eruption from my cellphone, immediate and palatable, sent me reeling. “You stupid fucking bitch! Do you want your daughter with a bullet in her head? You wanna call the police—you’ll never see your daughter again!”
Through the sheer curtains, I saw David standing on the patio and talking on his phone. As the caller continued to scream, I fled out the front door. The street was empty, the neighborhood quiet. All logical thought was halted, seized in red-hot panic. If someone could hear what I was hearing, maybe they could take charge. But no neighbor was out for a walk, no one was coming home from an errand.
The man cursed and threatened, then gave me another chance to cooperate and pay the ransom. With the caller still on the line, I grabbed my purse and car keys and took off without a word to David.
Now the caller was asking how much money I could get, the name of my bank, the cross streets, the time I needed to get there, and instructing me to report my location at each intersection I passed. Instantly, I saw someone plotting my route on GPS, a white van with Katie bound and gagged in the back, making its way from her school to a rendezvous at the bank.
I stopped at the light next to the police substation, and considered an escape. I could rush into the station, throw my phone at the duty officer. As if a mind reader, the caller warned me against looking for a hero to intervene—just stay on the call and follow the instructions. I saw the van; my daughter. The risk was too great. I reported my location and drove on.
My phone rang. It was David. My hands shook. Will the caller know if I put him on hold and take David’s call? How do I even put a call on hold? There was traffic; I had to watch the road. Disconnecting would lose Katie. David’s call went to voice mail. Again David called, and again. Maybe the police were coming. Maybe he wanted to tell me they would meet me at the bank.
Halfway along the route, the caller turned conversational, calling me “Mom” and asking what I did for work, did I read books? What kind? What movies did I like? How do I spend my free time?
Why was he asking? How dare he try to be friendly, as if we were on equal terms, two people getting acquainted, exploring similar interests. As if we could have a calm little chat while he held a gun to my daughter’s head! This flash of anger somehow restored a sliver of cerebral function, and I refused to share personal information.
“Nothing.” I answered robotically. “No, I don’t like anything. I don’t do anything.”
“You probably don’t even care about your daughter,” he taunted.
“I love my daughter. I’m doing what you say.”
As I parked outside the bank, the caller instructed me to keep the phone on speaker and at my side, but not to speak to him once inside the bank. He wanted to hear what was going on. He told me to get as much cash as the bank would allow immediately.
I found a pen and notepad in my purse and wrote in near illegible scrawl, “Call my husband,” but then I could not remember his cell number. The caller asked what I was doing, so I pushed the notebook into my purse and went inside, forgetting my keys.
I took my place behind two others in line for the tellers. “There’s a long line,” I breathed into the phone, disobeying orders and buying time. I did not know what I was to do with the cash once I had it. I envisioned myself standing outside the bank, cash in hand, as the white van careens into the parking lot. Someone opens the van door, grabs the money, throws my weeping daughter onto the pavement, and speeds away.
More likely there would be a drop-off place. Then how would I know my daughter was OK?
It was my turn to step up to the teller. I needed to stall, try to think. I stepped back and motioned for the man behind me to go ahead. I paced in a tight circle, allowed another customer to pass, bumped into another, and looped again to the end of the line.
Then, my husband who never texted, who refused to text, texted:
GIRLS OK. NO MONEY.
I disconnected the call.
My kids were OK. I could go home. But in an instant my phone rang, the screen displaying “unknown caller,” and panic resurged. The caller and his cronies knew where I was. They were waiting in the parking lot. They may have been watching when I first drove up. Trembling, I rushed across the lobby to a cubicle where a woman was working. I crouched down beside her desk, below the plate glass windows with view of the parking lot, and begged her: “Call the police; someone is outside waiting to attack me!”
Again my phone buzzed in my hand, and as I raised it to see “unknown caller,” the woman asked “Is that him?” I nodded.
Calmly, she told me not to answer the call, as she summoned the bank manager.
The manager arrived and called me by name. She assured me that no one was outside; I was a random victim of a virtual kidnapping. Often the perpetrators are far away, even another country. It was the latest scam; it had happened before. Alerted by my husband when he discovered I had fled the house, the police had called the bank. The tellers had been prepared for me. The manager ushered me into a conference room, offered me water, and called my husband.
As my heart rate slowed, I felt foolish. How was it possible for the logical mind to slip away in an instant, like water through a sieve? Despite all that bolstered my efficacy—college degrees, career accomplishments, problem-solving skills—my reptilian brain had taken charge, inventing scenarios that became reality, sending me practically crawling under a stranger’s desk. The simplest solution—to text my daughters and confirm their safety while keeping the caller on the line, even to wait for my husband to call them—was impossible to manage. Now that was terrifying.
We hear it all the time: In case of an emergency, first don’t panic. Yeah, right.