If you are looking for a heart-warming Thanksgiving story, I apologize, but this is not that kind of tale.
The story I am sharing ends in gratitude, but it comes after panic and horror.
A little more than two years ago, I was sitting in a meeting at my day job, which involves communications for a large healthcare organization, when my cell phone rang. I wouldn’t usually answer a personal call in the middle of a meeting, but I was not essential to the business at hand and from the caller ID I could see it was my older son, Ben, calling me.
Ben lives in New York, where he writes for a television show. He went away to college on the East Coast in 2010 and has lived there for most of the years since. He is not a big caller. If my wife and I talk to him, it’s usually when we call him. If he calls us, it’s usually good news, bad news or just the need for some bit of mundane information available only from the people who raised you.
I stepped into the hallway and said, “Hey Ben. What’s up.”
A deep, menacing voice responded. “This ain’t Ben,” he said. “This his dad?”
A cold fear shot through my nervous system. “Yes,” I said.
“Whatever you are doing right now, you gotta stop and only pay attention to me,” the man growled. “We got a big problem.”
In the background I heard a cry of pain and fear wrapped horrifically together. When your children get older, you forget what they sound like crying. To me, it sounded like my son. “Is that Ben?” I asked the man.
“Your boy has a problem that he hasn’t told you about,” the man said. “He hasn’t told you that he’s got a problem with pain pills. He’s got a problem that he owes me money.”
I quickly assessed what I knew and didn’t know. This guy had Ben’s phone. He could have stolen it or just found it. He knew I was Ben’s father, I was guessing, because I was probably listed in his contacts as “Dad.” But did he have Ben?
Another cry in the background. Again, it sounded like Ben. “If that’s Ben, let me talk to him,” I demanded.
“Not right now,” the man said. His voice carried a malevolence that I had only heard in movies and nightmares. This was neither. This was actually happening.
“Here is what you are going to do,” the man said. His instructions were filled with expletives that can’t be printed here, but the message was clear: If I wanted my son to live, I would keep answering his questions and following his directions. I was not to put the phone down. I was not to talk to anyone else. I was not to text anyone or call for help in any way. If I did, he would torture Ben to death.
“Where are you right now?” he demanded. I told him I was at my office in Downey. He told me to walk to my car and stay on the phone. He never stopped talking and kept demanding to know everything I was doing.
It was hard to think with the slither of his voice curling into my ear. Could Ben really have developed an addiction to pain pills without me knowing? He had lived away from home for many years. When we talked, he seemed fine. But then again, would it be something he told me?
Ironically, the meeting I had stepped out of had been focused partly on discussing ways to combat the opioid epidemic. The staggering addiction rates and the anecdotal stories of people just like me, or my son, falling victim to the epidemic were still swimming in my head.
“Get in your car and go exactly where I tell you,” the man said. I could no longer hear the cries in the background.
“Let me talk to Ben,” I demanded again. He cursed at me and told me to just follow instructions. He asked me where I lived. I told him Manhattan Beach. He asked me where my office building was. I told him and he told me the location of a nearby grocery store. “Drive there now, and don’t talk to anyone or hang up. If you do, he’s dead.”
As I drove, I weighed my options and the odds that this guy – if he had Ben – would let him go alive after I did what he asked. There seemed to be only two likely scenarios: This guy had Ben’s phone but not Ben. Or he had Ben and his phone. The sound of that first cry in the background echoed in my brain.
I figured he would find a way to get money from me. If I paid, I would either be giving this monster money for a phone I would never see again, or I would be giving him money for a chance to see my son again. The safe thing to do, the only power I had to influence the outcome, was to pay him.
When I arrived at the grocery store, he ordered me to go inside and find the gift cards section. When I made it there, he told me two pick out Visa gift cards totaling $1,600. Suddenly it made sense. I would buy these cards, read him off the numbers and then he would somehow cash them out. All I could do was pray that if he had Ben, he would let him go.
“Get in line,” he barked. “What’s taking so long?” I told him I was looking for the shortest line. As I waited, I demanded again to talk to Ben. “You’re gonna talk to him soon,” he told me.
“So what happens with the gift cards?” I asked when it was almost my turn at the cashier.
“We are going to come get them,” he told me. “We are going to pick up those cards and we are going to drop off your boy to you.”
Suddenly, I felt a small spark of relief.
“You’re going to bring Ben here? To Downey?”
“That’s right,” he said. “You just buy those cards and we will be there.”
“I don’t know how you are going to bring Ben to Downey because he is in New York.”
For the first time, the monster was at a loss for words.
“You said you lived in Manhattan Beach,” he stammered.
“I do,” I said, feeling the tables turn. “But he lives in New York.”
The man let out his final barrage of cursing. “Then we are just going to have to kill him!” he declared and hung up.
I stepped out of line, still holding the unbought gift cards in my shaking hand. I took a deep breath and called Ben’s phone. He answered.
“Dad, I am at work,” he said, sounding for all the world like a guy who was just indeed, blessedly, at work. “Can I call you back?”
This time I was the one insisting on staying on the line. “No, can we talk a second? I have to tell you what just happened.”
Ben felt terrible. No, he did not owe money to drug dealers. No, he had not lost his phone. He had it with him all morning.
Maybe you have heard of caller ID spoofing, but until that day I had not. When someone spoofs a phone, they can essentially steal the phone number and contacts and make it appear calls are coming from the spoofed phone.
My phone showed a call from Ben’s phone, but the guy who called me never had Ben’s phone. He had just somehow grabbed a ghost of it out of the technological ether to get money from me.
This happens every day, so much so that cashiers are told to be on the lookout for people who look fearful while speaking into their cell phone and buying gift cards. It may seem foolish that I fell for the con, but I can’t emphasize enough how expert the caller – and his accomplice making the crying noise in the background – were at creating such quick and close terror.
It all happened in about 20 minutes, from the time my phone rang in that meeting to the time the guy cursed and hung up on me. They were the worst minutes of my life. It has been more than two years, and I am just now able to write about it.
For weeks, the man’s evil voice and that cry that I thought was from my son rose up in my brain whenever I had a moment of quiet. If I could have found the man who called me, I would have killed him. I had never been victimized like that. It made me think of the retail workers who have been held up at gunpoint, about people who have been mugged, and the millions of women who have been raped or brutalized by men. And most painfully of all, it made me think of the people who have been separated from their children, of parents whose children have been kidnapped, tortured or murdered.
This guy never laid a hand on me and still he left a scar.
I told you at the start that this would be a story that ends in gratitude, and two years later, that’s what I have. I still have anger but it is leavened with gratitude. For all of us, this year has been filled with fear, anger and dislocation. Our lives have been fractured by the pandemic, unrest from systemic racism, and a brand of political hucksterism that at times has threatened the foundations of our democracy.
In such bad times, finding blessings often requires consideration of terrible things that didn’t happen. Loved ones who didn’t get sick. The house that didn’t burn down. The near-miss on a busy highway.
For me, one of those blessings is the son who wasn’t addicted to drugs, kidnapped and tortured. I am grateful that, despite what it looked like on my screen, that call was from a wrong number. Wrong in monstrous ways, but that brief, dark connection ultimately reminded me of all that is right in my world. And for that, I am thankful.