This cannot be happening.
Emma Oakes gripped the steering wheel, her leather gloves creaking and squeaking as she unconsciously tightened and loosened her grip. She stared blankly at the snowbank ahead, idling on the snow-packed driveway.
Inside the house, her family gathered for her parents' twenty-fifth anniversary party. She should be celebrating with them. She should be happy, but the hot tears streaming down her cheeks wouldn't stop.
She moaned pitifully and lowered her forehead onto her hands, unable to get her mind off Devon.
She couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't even apply makeup properly. Twice she tried to put eyeliner on this afternoon as she got ready for the party, but her hands shook so hard she poked her eye and ended up throwing the pencil across the room. She'd broken down, existing in some pathetic numbness of life that wasn't really like life at all.
Devon had warned her many times that his job could come to a devastating end. A Marine sniper's days were always numbered, but she lived each day thinking he was too strong, too good at his job to consider his warnings.
Now she had no choice.
He was supposed to return home on leave five days ago. He was supposed to be celebrating her parents' party with her. More importantly, he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with her.
As the days passed without word from Devon, or from his commanding officer, her hope came crashing down like ice off a tin roof.
After what they had been through she did not think she could handle losing him. They both had been married in the past and went through nasty divorces, and, because Devon was a black man and her being white, people often stared, or even had the nerve to refuse them service.
She would never forget the day they had gone to a restaurant, only to have the waitress ask them to leave. When Emma had asked her why, she simply said they wouldn't serve him and that Emma should be ashamed of herself for dating out of her race. To this day, she was still shocked by what that bitch had said, and more determined than ever to love her husband.
Her cell phone chimed, making her jump. Frantically, she reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her phone. Unknown caller was listed on the display, giving her a tiny spring of hope. Calls from Devon or the base were always unlisted.
She flipped her cell open as if her life depended on speed. "Hello?"
Scratchy static noise met her ear. She bit back a curse, feeling the weight of disappointment and sadness creep over her again.
But just as she was about to end the call she heard a strange voice.
Her heart slammed against her chest and she replaced the phone to her ear. "Yes?"
"If you want to see Oakes alive, you will do what I say, exactly as I say it."
She sucked in a sharp breath, stunned by what she heard. Like something out of a horror movie, the caller's voice was electronically disguised.
Is this some cruel joke?
"Who is this?" she asked furiously. "Where's my husband?"
"Disobey my orders and you'll never see him alive again. Do you understand?"
Emma squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. Stay calm. A million questions chased each other in her mind. Who could the caller be? How did he know her name? How did he know her husband, and where was he?
"How do I know this isn't a prank?"
"You wouldn't want to ruin mommy and daddy's anniversary party, would you? Now be a good girl and do as you're told."
She stared in shock at her parents' house. The silhouette of visiting relatives walked past the living room picture window of their cozy bungalow. They were probably laughing and embracing, reminiscing of Mom and Dad's happy life together. She bit back a sob, imagining her husband's arms wrapped around her, making her feel loved and safe. She knew then what she had to do.
"Okay. I'll do whatever you ask, just don't hurt him."
There was a short pause before the caller continued. "Good girl. Now, you will go home and take all the money you have in your safe and bring it in a duffel bag to an abandoned warehouse. If you contact the police or anybody else, he will die. You have one hour."
Trembling, Emma grabbed a pen from the console and scribbled the address he gave her on her hand. How he knew about the money in their safe terrified her, and proved this wasn't a prank. Only Devon and Emma knew about that money in their safe, as Devon didn't trust banks. That was all the cash each of them had saved since they married five years ago. The money was supposed to be for their retirement.
If the caller knew about that money, then he must have already hurt Devon badly to get that information. Her husband was a strong man, was trained to say nothing even when tortured. For him to give up anything meant he could be sorely in need of a hospital. That alone gave her a sense of strength. She needed to be calm and in control because Devon needed her. She was his only hope.
"What do I do when I get there? How can I trust you won't hurt him anyway?"
"You will knock four times on the side door at the last building. It will be unlocked automatically. You will walk inside with the bag where you will receive your next orders. Keep in mind that you have no choice but to trust me."
Nothing in the world would stop her from fulfilling those orders. She glanced down at her watch--it was two minutes past four.
"Okay. Okay...I'll be there."
She thought of the last time she and Devon made love. He had come home for two weeks after an assignment in Congo. He hadn't even given her a chance to make him dinner, before he hauled her over his shoulder, carried her to their bedroom and threw her down on the bed. What a beautiful evening that was, making love through the night until they fell asleep from exhaustion. But during the night, she'd woken up to find Devon sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, quietly crying in the darkness. She knew his job was hard on him. He'd seen things most people couldn't handle, and it saddened her. She held him in her arms until he fell back asleep and never asked him what his pain was. She knew he'd never tell her.
The following morning she had cooked his favorite breakfast of Finnish pancakes--her family's traditional recipe.
More static from the phone jerked her out of her reverie and back to the nightmare at hand.
"Say hello to cousin Marty for me." The caller abruptly hung up.
Emma stared blankly through the windshield, still holding the phone against her ear. She sat there, seeing nothing, feeling nothing for a long while, until a rap on the driver's side window jolted her.
Cousin Marty's whiskered face loomed only inches away from the window, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. She put the phone back in her pocket, trying to maintain control of her emotions. The caller's last words repeated in her mind, "Say hello to cousin Marty for me."
She darted a quick glance around the vehicle, wondering if the caller was nearby and could see her, or maybe he had some kind of GPS attached to her car. Whichever it was, it scared the shit out of her.
How was she supposed to keep a straight face when she'd just had the worst phone call of her life? She stared back at Marty, unsure if she should even speak to him, but after a long and awkward moment, she realized he wouldn't leave the side of the car until she did.
She pressed the button and the frosty window slowly squeaked down.
"What's the matter, Em? You look freaked out." Marty stared at her, his gaze suspicious. "Was that Dev? Is he coming home?"
"Uh--no." She avoided his probing stare and looked down at her lap. "I don't know. He's still MIA."
She pushed the button to roll the window back up, suddenly afraid she was wasting time idly chatting with her cousin when she should get out of there and get that fucking money!
Marty gripped the top of the window and she let go of the button. "Who were you on the phone with? You look upset, cuz."
"Don't worry, Marty. What time is it?"
He gazed down at his watch. "Nearly four thirty. Why?"
Emma slammed the car in reverse and started backing out of the driveway.
Marty stumbled back. "Hey! What the hell?" He barely got his hand out of the crack in the window.
Any other time, the stunned expression on his face would have made her laugh, but today was not funny. Today could become a tragedy she didn't think she could handle.
As she pulled onto the street, she waved at Marty, mouthing Sorry as she sped away.
She couldn't believe she'd just wasted nearly half an hour staring into space.