BRIAN OPENED the newspaper and stared at the lead story, then spilled his morning coffee across the table. He swore loudly. His wife called from the bedroom but he didn’t answer and continued to read, ignoring the mess.
“What the devil is going on out here?” Irene asked, blustering into the kitchen in her rose-colored bathrobe.
Brian still didn’t answer, and sat pulling on his mustache. Coffee dribbled onto the tiles. Irene hurried to wipe it up with a fistful of paper towels and a sponge.
“Shit, this is not good, not good…” he muttered.
“For Christ’s sake, what?” she asked.
“The poor Nolans, they must be—”
Irene snatched the newspaper from his hands and stared at the image of a college-age man and woman grinning back. “Is…is that Jeremy and his fiancé?”
Irene scanned the newsprint. Her face paled. “Oh my God, Joe and Emily must be devastated. I didn’t even know Jeremy had traveled to Turkey.”
“Yeah, Joe told me last week. I tried to warn him. With all the craziness over there, it’s not the place for blond-haired tourists.”
Irene pulled out a chair and sat next to Brian. She started to tear up and dabbed at her eyes with a coffee-stained paper towel. He knew what raced through her mind because the same ugliness surged through his own. The young couple had hired a car to drive them to a village near the Syrian border, to meet with an aide worker friend. Islamic State insurgents had crossed over and taken them hostage.
Brian rose and grabbed his tablet from a sideboard. Videos had already been posted that showed a morose-looking pair dressed in orange jumpsuits, each standing in a steel-barred cage flanked by black-hooded militiamen. Brian thought about his own kids in college and shuddered at what the militants might do, had brazenly promised to do.
“What do they want?” Irene murmured.
“What? That’s ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the girl’s parents aren’t 1%ers… and Joe and Emily could sell everything and not come close.”
“I know… and I’m pretty sure the terrorists know that too.”
“Then why?” Irene buried her face in her hands.
“They’re crazy, that’s why. It’s a religious war that ignores the principles of religion. They want the families to suffer.”
“I’m going to phone Emily. She’s probably going nuts.”
“Good idea. I’ll try Joe—see if we can meet for lunch. There must be something…their son is such a good kid.”
The coffee felt like it was chewing a hole in his stomach. Brian stumbled into their bedroom and dressed for work, his mind spinning. At his downtown Trenton office, he got online and read article after article about hostages taken by ISIS, the outcomes gruesome, leaving family members feeling helpless, furious, and sometimes suicidal. He tapped his smartphone for Joe Nolan’s number and made the connection. His call went to voicemail. He left a message and then repeated it as a text. He stared out the sixth-floor window into the gray morning and thought about their twenty-year friendship, and about windswept deserts with bearded men clutching dull, bloodied knives.
• • •
BRIAN HEARD NOTHING for three days. Then he got a text from Joe to meet after lunch at a tavern not far from the office. He canceled his afternoon appointments (the world of insurance could wait), and hurried to the bar where he found his friend camped at a corner table, laptop opened, cellphone lit up and blinking. Joe himself looked pretty well lit up. He sat swirling a glass of scotch neat. His five-o’clock shadow matched the bags under his eyes. His suit was rumpled, his tie loosened.
“How are you holding up?” Brian asked.
Joe’s gaze slid sideways. “I’m handling it…but just barely. Emily’s a mess.”
“I know. I hope Irene can help there.”
“Thanks. She’s been really…really wonderful.”
“So what do you know?”
“I’ve been in contact with the State Department for three days. They still don’t know shit…don’t know where the kids are being held.”
“Are they all right?”
Joe sighed and shrugged. “They seem to be. ISIS has posted images of them.”
“What have our guys told you?”
“The old party line: ‘America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists.’”
“That’s it? Haven’t other countries agreed to pay ransoms?”
“Yeah, but… it hasn’t always worked. The animals wouldn’t negotiate the ransom terms and the hostages ended up—”
“I remember reading about that. What about sending in the Navy Seals? Don’t those guys do rescue missions?”
“Yes, but even if they knew exactly where the kids are being held, they might have a fifty-fifty chance at succeeding, if they can get there undetected.”
Brian scoffed. “Really? If we can kill Bin Laden we should be able to rescue—”
“Yeah, you would think. But the minute our guys fly a helicopter across the border, the bad guys are tweeting ‘here they come, here they come’ and ISIS moves ’em. Or worse.”
“Huh.” Brian didn’t know what to say and rubbed the back of his neck. Joe motioned to the bartender. The barmaid arrived at their table with two drinks.
“Is there any chance of raising the ransom money? You got any rich uncles? Maybe there’s a group somewhere.”
“Yeah, well, there’s another problem,” Joe said and sighed heavily. “The militants want the money by Monday.”
“Christ, that’s four days. There’s no way you can—”
Joe glared at Brian. “Don’t you think I don’t know that? But there is a way you can help.”
“How? Just tell me.” A chill ran down Brian’s back, his breath came fast and shallow.
“We need to buy some time…time so that our intelligence guys can locate the hostages.”
“Ah, how would you do that?” Brian asked, cautiously.
“I figure that if I can raise maybe three to five million…tell them it’s a good-faith down payment until I can get the rest.”
“Has that ever worked?”
“I don’t know. But the feds tell me they’re trying hard to locate the kids and are putting together an extraction team. That’ll take time—longer than we’ve got.”
“Don’t you think the militants will know it’s a stalling tactic?”
“I don’t know. But, dammit, I’ve gotta try something.”
“I understand.” Of course I did.
“Look, the girl’s family and us—we can drain all our accounts for maybe three-hundred thousand. I figure if I can get our relatives and friends to contribute a hundred-and-fifty thousand each… I’d have enough for the good-faith money. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I don’t know how we’d every repay anybody. But I’m desperate, Brian. You can understand, can’t you?”
“Yes, sure, Joe. I understand. When…when do you need to know?”
“Yesterday. I’m not even sure how to get a hold of these guys. But I have a Syrian friend who said he’d help me set it up.”
Brian tilted his glass back and drained its contents. The booze burned his stomach and he reached into his pocket for an antacid. He’d chewed them like candy ever since he read about the kidnapping. He bowed his head and rubbed his temples. We’d be wiped out, he thought. Our kids’ college money, gone; our retirement nest egg, gone; the money for the new furnace, gone. We’d probably have to take a second on the house. And those assholes have never freed anybody after accepting good-faith money. They’ll just kill the kids and buy more rockets.
Joe fidgeted in his seat. “So what do you think, Brian? I know it’s a fucking big request, but I’d do the same if it were your kids.”
Brian shuddered, felt cornered by guilt. Every rational cell in his brain screamed NO! The terrorists will have won. They’d kill the kids anyway and financially destroy some American families in the process. Even if they could raise the entire ransom, the probability of success was slim. Others had paid and failed. The government knew it—that’s why they wouldn’t deal. He stared into Joe’s bloodshot eyes and shook his head slowly.
Joe struggled up from his chair. “I can’t believe it. I thought I could count on you.”
“The money wouldn’t free them,” Brian said in almost a whisper. “And giving it to a bunch of wacked-out Jihadists will cause more problems, cost other lives.”
“Fuck other lives,” Joe shouted. The bartender glared at them. “It’s my son, Brian. My fucking SON.”
“I know. It makes me sick to think about it.”
Joe glared at him. “You make me sick. It’s only money, man. Didn’t ya ever learn to share? Go on, get the hell out of here.”
Joe slumped back into his chair, crossed his arms and rocked back and forth. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Brian pushed himself up. He gazed at his broken ex-friend in the shadows for a long moment before venturing out into the blinding sunlight.
• • •
IRENE HATED her husband’s decision, especially since he’d made it without talking with her first. She wouldn’t speak with him, not even a grunted “good morning.” Then she left with the car, saying she’d stay with her sister in Philadelphia until she figured out if she could stand living with him. Brian stayed home from work; the thought of talking about insurance turned his stomach, having learned that probability and actuarial science had little to do with human relationships.
He drafted a long e-mail to Joe, explaining, re-explaining, and refining his arguments. After a while it all sounded like total whining bullshit. He deleted the draft. From mutual friends he learned that Joe had raised two million, made contact with ISIS through an intermediary, and would transfer the funds to an offshore account on Monday afternoon. On Sunday night, after eating a home-baked pizza and polishing off a bottle of Cabernet, he texted Joe and wished him good luck. He got no response.
On Monday morning, Brian turned on his tablet and went to his favorite news site. He felt his face go cold and his mouth drop open. A colored image of Joe’s son and his fiancée filled the screen. They stood on an airport’s tarmac apron with military planes and helicopters in the background. They still wore orange jumpsuits. The caption read: “Couple Rescued by Kurds.”
Brian hurriedly scanned the article. Kurdish commandos, including two American volunteers, had attacked a Syrian village less than five kilometers from the Turkish border. They had found the couple in the rubble of a destroyed house. Neither of the hostages appeared to be injured. They were on their way to Germany for a med check and debriefing.
Brian poured scotch into a glass and downed it. He grinned to himself and dashed off e-mails to his wife and to Joe and Emily. He received no responses.