1st Place – June 2020

They Took My Daughter

by Gary Christenson

My nineteen-year-old daughter had been missing for twenty-six hours, too long even for her erratic lifestyle.
Samantha, my grey and white tabby, heard a car door and jumped onto the kitchen counter to stare out the window. Moments later, the doorbell rang. Looking through the peephole I saw a tall, distinguished man in a three-piece suit standing between large marble columns on my front entrance. He held a brown cardboard box.
I asked through the door. “What do you want?”
“Mrs. Kowalski, my name is Harold Smith. I’m here to discuss the return of Sarah, your missing daughter. May I come in?” He spoke precisely, enunciating each syllable.
I hesitated and then unlocked the deadbolt. “Where is Sarah?”
He stepped into my spacious sitting room. “I’ll need only a few minutes of your time.”
I gestured toward a couch. He shook his head. “I suggest you take a seat before I show you what I brought in this box.” He placed it on the floor and pulled the flaps back.
His phony smile worried me. I sat and locked my hands together.
“Consider this.” He removed a severed head that looked like my daughter.
I screamed and covered my mouth while my eyes locked wide open. My throat closed and I couldn’t speak.
Mr. Smith held the head, suspended by long dark hair. It swung back and forth. After I recovered from the shock, I realized it was artificial. I smelled plastic and noxious chemicals.
“Yes, Mrs. Kowalski, this shows what could happen if you refuse to cooperate. Sarah is safe but confined. I don’t think of her room as a prison cell, but she might.”
 I glared at him. “How much do you want?”
“We need you to create a professional video supporting Johnathan Hertz for President, not ransom money. You have tremendous talent and experience. Help us promote Mr. Hertz.” He smiled and replaced the plastic head into the cardboard box.
I told him, “I dislike Mr. Hertz. He has the ethics of a street hooker and a cash register instead of a heart.”
“Mrs. Kowalski, he’s a national politician who sold out long ago. We want to elect him, not condone his character or morals. You create a five-minute propaganda video and we’ll release Sarah. Otherwise…” He pointed toward the cardboard box.
I had planned to vote for Mr. Hertz, even though he disgusted me, but only because his opponent was worse. “How do I know you haven’t already killed her?”
He removed a burner phone from his jacket pocket. “Call Sarah. I’ve programmed the number.”
I punched buttons and waited. Her voice cracked as she said, “Hello.”
“Sarah, darling. Are you okay?”
“Hi, Mom. I’m so glad you called. Yes, I’m fine. I have food, books, television, and a bathroom. They locked me inside this room, and I can’t escape.” She sobbed and said, “It’s good to hear your voice. I hope they aren’t asking for an outrageous ransom.”
“It’s okay. Stay strong. Remember, I miss you and love you. We’ll get this resolved so you can come home.” I disconnected and handed the phone back to Mr. Smith.
He said, “It’s simple. Don’t call the police or discuss Sarah with anyone. Create the video and we’ll return your daughter.”
His forced smile irritated me. “Give me the details describing what you expect. I want to speak to Sarah every day to confirm she’s well.”
Mr. Smith removed papers from his jacket and handed them to me. “This explains what we need. With your skills, you’ll have no trouble. I’ll return in two days so you can speak with her. We’ll watch you, monitor phone calls, and scan your emails. Otherwise, behave normally as you create the video.”
I nodded and told him, “Please leave.”
He carried the box to his car. I thought good riddance. Samantha purred in my lap while I sat on the couch and reviewed the documents. Half an hour afterward I frowned as I began work on the Hertz video, knowing I would do whatever was necessary to bring my daughter home.
***
Two days later Mr. Smith returned, and I called Sarah. “Hi, Mom. I miss you. Otherwise, I’m fine, but bored. Please tell me you’ll get me out of lockdown. I’m really sick of being stuck in this room watching daytime television.”
I said, “Things are proceeding. They’ll release you as soon as I can make it happen.” I wanted her home with me.
A week later I uploaded the video to Mr. Smith. He emailed and said he would return Sarah that evening. I baked her favorite chocolate cake and filled the house with “home-sweet-home” smells.
A minute before eight p.m. the doorbell rang. I opened the door and hugged my dear Sarah.
She burst into tears. “Mom, I’m so happy to be home.”
I embraced her again and pulled her into the house. “I made your special cake and have an excellent wine ready. Tell me about your experience.”
Sarah sat on the couch and poured out her story. “I walked to my car in the Mall of America parking lot. Two masked men grabbed me, covered my nose and mouth, and shoved me into a van. I passed out. When I woke, I was inside a locked room laying on a bed, fully clothed.” She wiped away tears and said, “I was scared but nothing bad happened. They brought me microwaved food, ignored me, and spoke through an intercom.”
Sarah clenched her hands. “I was so bored. They took my phone. I felt like they had locked me in solitary confinement. Can we have cake and wine now? I’m shaky and need to chill.”
I returned from the kitchen with glasses of a Special Reserve Merlot and chocolate cake on dessert plates. We clinked glasses and gobbled scrumptious cake for several minutes.
She smiled and exclaimed, “Ohhh, so wonderful. I’ve missed good desserts and superb wines.”
After half a glass of wine, I asked, “You look like you survived the abduction pretty well. Did they hurt you?” I already knew the answer.
“They were fine. I saw only a few people, and they wore masks. They didn’t touch me, except in the parking lot.” She drank the rest of her wine. “How much ransom did they want?”
I went to the kitchen, returned with the bottle, and refilled her glass. I looked into her eyes and said, “I think you know.”
Sarah squirmed on the couch. “Mom, what do you mean?”
“The not-so-delightful Mr. Smith demanded I make a short video supporting Johnathan Hertz for President. He didn’t ask for money.” I watched her carefully.
She frowned and clasped her hands. “That’s what you do, and you’re good at making propaganda videos. But why do you think I knew?”
“Sarah, I’m almost fifty, but I’m not stupid. And you’re a talented actress, but you’re no Meryl Streep. I suspect you were a willing participant, not abducted. I think they approached you and proposed this abduction scheme. You naively agreed to participate to pressure me into making a video to support your candidate. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Sarah sipped wine, looked at the carpet, and squeaked out, “How did you know?”
“It was too easy. They didn’t want money, just a video. I could have contacted the police and I doubt they’d have known. You’ve campaigned for Mr. Hertz for over a year while acting superior. I saw through the scheme and played along with Mr. Smith so they would return you.” I sipped wine and waited for my accusations to sink into her arrogant little skull.
She frowned and said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have tried to manipulate you.”
“Sarah, you’re my daughter, and I love you. But right now, I don’t like you. I almost had a heart attack when Mr. Smith showed me a plastic reproduction of your head. You and your gang of fake abductors used me.”
She remained silent. Tears flowed down her cheeks and streaked her makeup. I sighed and said, “We’ll never speak of this again, but I’m happy you’re home.”
Sarah trudged upstairs to her bedroom. I hoped she’d be wiser tomorrow. I did not want to alienate my only daughter. She was young and naïve, and as I had suspected, she allowed herself to be used against me. I trusted she would not make that mistake again.
For my propaganda video, the Hertz Campaign bank-wired a large payment. It was about half what I sent to Alfred Johnson, the CEO of Criminal Simulations, Inc., an old friend. He had employed Mr. Smith and directed the other actors on their performances. They were unaware of my arrangement with Alfred.
I thanked him for organizing Sarah’s abduction as I had requested.
Samantha purred in my lap.

Writers’ workshop and writing group