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The Ransom of Samantha

The detective who showed up at 5 AM was not much older-looking than Samantha's friends. (Not that Samantha ever hung out with clean-cut guys like this. Why should she when there were still heroin addicts in bands who needed a doormat?)

by Merrill Markoe
Jun 25 2014, 11:00am

This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.

Photos by Levi Mandel

Samantha went to YouTube and clicked Make a Video Response.

"Hi," she said after the countdown, making sure her copy of Masters of Despair: The Big Book of Philosophy was open to the quote by Schopenhauer about how ending your own life "can be compared to waking up after a horrible nightmare."

"It's me... I dissolved 40 Ambien into this bottle of Jack Daniel's. In a few minutes I'm walking into the ocean. Don't bother looking for me. It's high tide. Fourteen-foot waves... Like anyone gives a fuck about me anyway."

Then she clicked Upload.

She was still debating whether to wear her amazing vintage peacoat, because San Francisco nights were freezing cold, when she heard a noise and felt something wet over her nose and mouth.

"What the fuck?" she was saying, as everything went dark. How had she managed to drown without going to the beach?

The detective who showed up at 5 AM was not much older-looking than Samantha's friends. (Not that Samantha ever hung out with clean-cut guys like this. Why should she when there were still heroin addicts in bands who needed a doormat?)

"Policy is to wait 24 hours," Officer Stratton said. "A lot of times a kid'll show up. Did you check her computer history? Her Facebook status?"

"No," said Jen, feeling stupid about how she hadn't wanted to violate her daughter's privacy.

"Mind if I have a look?" said Officer Stratton, opening Samantha's laptop. The first thing he saw was a YouTube announcement that a video had been successfully uploaded.

When Samantha woke up she was lying on her side in the back of a van that smelled like body odor and cigarettes. Was she really tied up and blindfolded? She was!

"Well, Conrad, that went pretty well," a deep, flat male voice said.

"I think I slipped a disk lifting her. My lower back is on fire," replied Conrad, whose voice was more nasal and gravelly. "She's a big load for a short chick."

"Fuck you. I'm only one pound over the right weight for my height," Samantha yelled.

"Let me out of here."

"Relax, Samantha," Conrad said. "You're going home as soon as your mom hands over some cash."

The van made a sharp right turn and then stopped. "Welcome to your new temporary headquarters," Tyson said as he slid open the van's door. Samantha felt herself being lifted clumsily, like an overstuffed bag of wet leaves.

A few steps more and Samantha was being lowered, headfirst. When the scarf slid off her eyes, Samantha stared at her captors for the first time. They were both kind of middle-aged, though younger than her parents. That meant they were... what? Thirty? Thirty-five? Tyson was almost cute, but his eyes were too narrow. He got points for being buff, then lost them for those oily bangs. She hated the way he dressed: a short-sleeved pale-blue polyester shirt and Dockers. He looks like someone who works at Best Buy, she thought, not realizing that Tyson had gotten laid off from there earlier in the week.

Conrad was the same age as Tyson but shorter and heavier. He had a day's growth of beard on his several chins and short, dark hair shaved up the back and longer on the top. He'd recently decided to cut it like that in hopes of increasing his chances of being hired as a school-bus driver. Now he was just one more bus-driver wannabe with an unfortunate haircut.

"It's 2 AM," Conrad said. "Let's go make the call."

"We're going to lock you in here, Samantha," said Tyson, making a gag out of a bandanna the way he'd seen guys do in movies. "We'll be back after we call your mommy. Try not to miss us too much."

"Huck Eu," Samantha said.

"Very nice talk," Tyson said as the two men backed out of the room. Samantha heard a key turn.

The plan was to make the important first contact with Samantha's mom on a cheap phone that they would discard, so Tyson parked the van in an almost empty lot behind an all-night market. Then the two men crawled into the back.

Tyson had written down Jen's cell number the week before, when he'd delivered her new dishwasher.

"Hello, Jen," Conrad said quietly into the phone. "We have Samantha. She's fine. I'm calling to tell you how you can get her back, unharmed."

"Is this some kind of a sick joke?" said Jen, sounding drained.

"So judgmental!" he said. "I assure you everything can be solved with a simple transaction."

Conrad is good at this, Tyson thought, pleased he'd agreed to let his partner do the talking. Conrad was better with words. He knew to say "transaction."

"Here. I'll show you judgmental," said Jen, hanging up.

Conrad stared at Tyson.

"Fucker hung up on me!" Conrad said, pushing Redial. This had to work. One stupid night of extreme partying, and now the two men owed money to some psycho with a machete tattooed on his cheek. Conrad could barely remember doing all the coke they were supposed to sell. Now they needed to pay this guy like yesterday.

"I am going to give you one more chance," said Conrad, calling a second time.

"To do what, you fucking douche bag?" Jen said. "My daughter killed herself last night, you piece of shit. Sorry to ruin your hilarious prank."

"What's going on?" said Tyson, talking through his teeth as he chewed on his thumbnail.

"She said Samantha killed herself last night. Then she hung up. What the fuck is that?"

"I don't know. But we better get rid of this goddamn phone," Tyson said, pushing the small Nokia into the center of a jar full of dill-pickle slices before pitching the whole thing into a massive green dumpster.

On the drive back to the house, Conrad turned on the news. Sure enough, audio from Samantha's YouTube video was playing on every newscast.

"Holy shit," Tyson said. "We better take her back and split."

"Take her back?" Conrad said. "She's not a pair of pants. We can't return her. We need to make this work if we want to keep our heads attached to our necks."

"No one's going to pay us ransom. They all think she's dead," said Tyson, his heart beating so fast he was hyperventilating.

"We just have to prove she's still alive," Conrad replied. "We have her make a call... or even better, another YouTube video."

"Which they'll trace to our computer."

"So we smash it up and scatter the pieces on our way out of town."

"What if she won't cooperate?" Tyson said.

"Ever heard of Stockholm syndrome? We make her love us. I bet she's hungry. Let's buy her some doughnuts."

It was 6 AM when Conrad and Tyson pulled into the driveway of the small rented house in Walnut Creek where Samantha was locked in a back bedroom. By then her YouTube video was in heavy rotation. Media platforms only invented that day were already running it.

"Got you some doughnuts, Samantha," said Conrad, trying out a benign smile as he entered carrying a grease-stained pink bakery box. He couldn't help noticing how small and vulnerable she looked, tied up on that faded old couch.

"Because I'm a fat pig?" were Samantha's first words as she sat up. "Get the fat chick some doughnuts, right? No thanks."

"No good deed goes unpunished," Tyson said.

"We figured you were hungry," said Conrad, grabbing an iced plain. "We're nice to you. You be nice to us. We need you to make a sequel to your popular YouTube video because your mother and everyone thinks you're dead."

"When you say 'popular'..." said Samantha. "How many hits has it gotten?"

Conrad checked YouTube on his phone. "You have 200 comments. And 176,000 hits."

As Samantha thought about this, a smile crept over her face. "Decent for only a few hours," Samantha said. "Can you read me the comments?"

Conrad sighed. "Okay. First one says, 'OMG. I cnt blve this. SOB.' I don't know if that's son of a bitch or the word sob. Next one says, 'Sometimes you don't realize how much you care about a person until something like this happens. I wish I would have gotten to know you better, Samantha.'"

"Who's that from?" Samantha asked.

"It just says Raven2004EVER," Conrad said.

"Wow," she said. "Taylor Parkhurst. He never acted like he knew I was alive. Who else wrote?"

"I'm not going to stand here reading 200 comments," Conrad said. "Let's go into the other room."

"No way," she said, stretching her arms out horizontally, crucifixion-style. "Go ahead and kill me. Like I give a fuck, okay?"

"Now what?" Tyson said as he followed Conrad into the kitchen.

"I'll hold the gun on her. You push her in front of the computer, and I'll click on the camera. We just need to show her mother she's alive."

Samantha was curled up on the threadbare sofa when the two men returned.

"Get up," Conrad said. And when she didn't budge, Tyson grabbed her under her arms and yanked her to her feet. "Listen when we talk to you," he told her.

"You sound like my mother," said Samantha, who was starting to find this funny. "Aren't you going to tell me to get the hair out of my eyes?"

"Walk!" said Tyson, pushing her toward the door.

The room with the computer was identical to the other room except for a plastic desk.

"Oh my God," said Samantha, signing in to her YouTube account. "I got 25 more comments since you last checked. Turner Leventhal wrote me a poem. Unreal."

"Samantha, all we need you to say is, 'Mom. Give them what they want so I can come home,'" said Conrad, watching her scroll through the comments.

"No way," she said. "You think I want to go back there?"

"Then sit and look miserable," said Conrad, reaching over to click Record. At that same moment Samantha slumped forward, her head on the desk.

Conrad quickly turned off the computer.

"Sit up!" shouted Tyson, nudging the gun into Samantha's back.

"Shoot me," she said.

"Come on! Don't be like that!" Conrad said. "You don't even have to talk. I'll do a voice-over, and after we get the money, Tyson will shoot you."

"Me? No way," Tyson said. "There was never any discussion of killing someone! What's the deal with you, Samantha? Why do you want to die? Don't you know God put each of us here to make a special contribution?"

"You try reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer while you're living with your mother," Samantha said. "Give me one good reason why I want to live."

Tyson looked at Conrad.

"I got this," Conrad said, with a wink. "Watch me work."

"I don't know if you can see how pretty this place is. There's a sweet little creek behind those trees. And when the club hits the ball just so... it's the greatest feeling," Conrad said. He was showing Samantha the video he'd posted of his golf swing. So eager was he to showcase his skills, he'd hired a guy with an HD camera and a tripod.

"You're seriously offering me golf as a reason to live?" Samantha said.

"It can be if you give it a chance. My favorite green is ten minutes from here. Tell you what... Let's go over there. I'll unlock your handcuffs, and..."

"Save your energy," she said.

"Okay, I agree with you about golf, but come on! NASCAR?" Tyson said. "Look at those damn cars!"

Tyson was excited that he'd found a clip of the race he'd attended last weekend.

"Seriously," he said. "I'm buying us tickets to Daytona!"

"To watch cars drive in a circle?" Samantha said. "You know, it's actually you guys who should be thinking about committing suicide."

"Your turn," Tyson said to Conrad.

"You've never heard of Ultra Miami?" Conrad asked as he typed those words into YouTube and began scrolling through the dozens of videos people had posted. "Check out what a blast they're all having—dancing, waving their arms! Look at those sexy costumes! Diplo's playing and Afrojack!"

"You take a molly and you totally feel those bass notes right in your spine!" Tyson said.

"Do I look like someone who wants to hang with guys who have topless girls boogying on their shoulders?" Samantha said.

Conrad bit his lip as Tyson quickly pulled up a page of local listings.

"You a Star Wars fan? There's a marathon," he said, scrolling. "Big laser show at the planetarium. Bon Jovi is playing. Ever go to the Renaissance Faire? This year they got miniature trains."

"They're taping an episode of Wheel of Fortune at five o'clock in San Jose," Conrad said.

"Hey! I googled 'reasons to live,'" said Tyson, reading from his phone. "One and two kinda suck, but... reason number four... Old people get discounts!"

Samantha stared at him.

"Got it!" Tyson said, typing furiously into a search engine.

"What is that?" Samantha said, showing interest.

"A baby ocelot with a baby goat. You ever see the baby slow loris with the tiny parasol?" Tyson asked.

"Oh my God!" she said.

"Check out baby sugar gliders! Look at those eyes. Check out 'Little Cow.' He follows this lady everywhere."

"That baby porcupine might be my favorite thing ever!" Samantha said. "Those noises he makes! I love them!"

"Wait'll you hear the baby fox."

"I want all of them!"

"Bingo! There's your reason to live!" Tyson said. "To rescue orphaned baby everythings! You need to start an animal sanctuary!"

"Exactly!" Conrad said. "You can help save baby animals. Just like we're going to do when we get your mother's money."

"You're giving the ransom money to a fund for baby animals?" Samantha asked.

"You didn't know that about us?" Conrad said.

"You can't possibly think I'm buying that."

"You can't possibly think we're dumb enough to commit a federal offense without a good reason," Conrad said. "We're ecoterrorists. You're helping us save the planet."

"Whoa," she said. "Say that on the video, and I'm in."

"Mom, please pay these guys so I can come home," said Samantha, staring into the camera. "The money is going to rescue baby animals. I'll always be grateful. This experience has opened my eyes."

"Aw, you didn't have to say that," Tyson said as Samantha clicked Upload.

"It's probably Stockholm syndrome," Samantha said, "but those baby animal videos... I honestly felt something. Like I never do when my mom rattles on about facial fillers and 'Who Wore It Best.'"

"Wow. This might be the first nice thing I've ever done for anyone," Conrad said.

"You sold me all that pot for half price," Tyson replied.

"It was super weak. And don't forget—that's how we got mixed up with Mr. Machete Face."

"Since we're all being honest here, I have a confession," Tyson added. "Samantha, Conrad is lying about donating the ransom. But I can see how deeply this is affecting you, so I want you to know I'll personally make sure we do donate money in your name to any animal charity you want."

"You never know when to stop talking," said Conrad, rolling his eyes. "Let's go make that call."

"Should we tie her up?" Tyson said.

"So not necessary," Samantha said as the two men locked her in the bedroom again.

While Conrad and Tyson were driving back to the parking lot to make their follow-up call, Samantha broke the bedroom window with her boot. It was too high for her to crawl through but not so high that her screams for help went unheard. Three different neighbors called 911.

At midnight, as Samantha's second video went viral, Officer Stratton was sitting beside Jen, listening to Conrad detail his ransom demands on a headset.

At the same moment Tyson submerged the phone they'd used into the center of a jar of sauerkraut, a seven-man SWAT team arrived at the rented house in Walnut Creek where Samantha was being held captive.

Twenty minutes later, Conrad and Tyson were arrested as they parked their van in the driveway. Tyson was carrying the bottle of Skinnygirl Sangria he'd bought for Samantha to celebrate.

Back home after her ordeal, Samantha found herself in the midst of a high-saturation publicity storm. Everyone wanted to know about her readjustment to life after this trauma. Kids at school were in awe of her, impressed as they had never been before.

Best of all, she'd lost six pounds during the ordeal.

"Being kidnapped sucks," Samantha said to Oprah, "but in a way it was a gift. It changed me from a selfish kid to someone with perspective and priorities."

By the time the show aired, Samantha was shopping a book proposal called The Gift of Kidnapping about becoming a life-embracing special person. It quickly launched a bidding war that netted her a $1.7 million advance.

A few weeks later she bought the abandoned farm she intended to transform into an animal sanctuary.

Conrad and Tyson were convicted of kidnapping, despite their lawyer's attempts to reframe their behavior as a suicide intervention. But because of the favorable comments made by Samantha, they began to attract followers.

This gave Conrad the idea to create an online course about abduction as a form of therapy. By the time he was paroled, the audio books for "Kind-napping" were available on Amazon.

Sick of being manipulated by Conrad and determined to understand his own frightening descent into crime, Tyson spent his time in prison reading philosophy, especially Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Unsure of what to do when he was paroled, he moved in with his mother. The following day he went into town and came home with "To gain anything we have longed for is only to discover how vain and empty it is. —A. Schopenhauer" tattooed on his back. A week later, he dissolved the 40 Ambien he'd found on his mother's dresser into a bottle of Jack Daniel's. And as he drifted off to unconsciousness, the last thing that occurred to him was, Damn, I forgot to make my YouTube video.

Merrill Markoe was the first head writer for The David Letterman Show.