Zeb hung up his phone in frustration. Every time he tried to call Rob, it went to his voicemail. He dialed one more time, flicking his gaze back and forth between the cell phone in his hand and the road before him. This time, when the voicemail picked up, Zeb left a message. “Rob, it’s Zeb- listen, don’t do anything with those photos just yet, okay? They’ve got Zoe,” his voice broke a little and tears blurred his vision. He blinked them free and continued, sniffling, “They- they’re gonna hurt her if I don’t give them the memory card. I promised them you wouldn’t do anything with the pictures, so I really, really need that to be true. I’m on my way to your house.”
He hung up and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. It was then that he thought of his parents. It could very well turn out that Uno and Dos would end up killing either Zeb or Zoe before this whole thing was finished, and they didn’t have any idea what was happening.
Part of him wanted to call them, to tell them everything and admit to them how scared he was. But he knew talking to anyone about all this could put their lives in danger, so he just kept driving. Rob’s house was on the inland side of town, whereas the University and Zeb’s house were both near the beach, so it took a while to get there.
When he did, it was full dark, and Rob’s neighborhood was quiet. Zeb pulled up behind Rob’s navy blue pickup and got out of the car almost before it had stopped running. He ran up to the door and pounded on it.
A moment passed and Rob appeared at the window set into the wooden door. He opened it with a surprised and worried expression. “Zeb, what-”
Zeb pushed past him into the house. “Close the door,” he warned.
Rob did as he was bid and walked carefully to where Zeb was pacing frantically, approaching with his hands out before him as if he worried Zeb might attack. “Talk to me, buddy. What happened?”
Zeb bit his lip and fought back tears. They came anyway and he began to weep. “They’ve got Zoe, Rob,” he said miserably. “They’ve got her and I don’t know where she is or if she’s-” his voice cut off in a sob.
Rob grabbed him in a hug. “I’m so sorry, man,” he said. He released Zeb and steered him to the couch before which his laptop and printouts of the photo were scattered across the oak coffee table. “Sit down, I’ll get you some water.”
Zeb wiped at his tears and sniffed loudly. “No, I don’t have time. I need you to sit on these pictures until I get Zoe back, okay? Can you do that? They’ll kill her if these pictures get out.”
Rob paled. “It’s too late,” he said in a stunned whisper.
Zeb stopped moving. “What do you mean?”
Rob wiped a hand over his mouth. “Uh, I already sent the pictures and the story I wrote to go with them in to Harriet.”
“Who’s Harriet-” he started to ask, but stopped when he processed the rest of Rob’s sentence.
“Harriett Lourdes. She’s my boss. Well, my editor’s boss, but she pretty much runs the whole paper. I already turned it in to her.”
“Uh, okay,” Zeb said, “then we just go to the paper and we get the package out of her mail before she comes in tomorrow morning and sees it.”
Rob was shaking his head. “No, I mean, I already emailed it to her. It’s done, she’s already got it. I even left her a long voicemail explaining everything.”
For almost the first time in his life, Zeb wanted to curse and hurt someone very badly. “No, no, NO!” He swiped his hands across the coffee table, scattering the printouts all over the floor. He rounded on Rob. “Tell me you at least got the pictures to someone like the FBI or Interpol. Please.”
“No, I don’t have those kinds of contacts yet. That’s why I gave everything to Harriett: she knows exactly who to give this stuff to. I mean, I looked up some generic contact info, but she has the real contacts.”
“I need to buy some time.” He held out his hand. “Give me the memory card, maybe I can bluff my way through getting Zoe back alive before the story breaks.”
“Yeah, sure,” Rob said, retrieving the memory card from his laptop and handing it over. “Listen, I’ll call Harriett back and tell her what’s happening. I can try to get her to delay running the story.”
Zeb shook his head, shoving the memory card into his pocket. “No, there is no try, Rob.”
“Okay, Yoda,” he said, crossing his arms. “I’ll make sure she knows what’s at stake and sits on the story until your sister is safe. I promise.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Zeb said, running a hand through his hair. “I’m just scared, man; these guys aren’t playing around. They’ll kill her if I screw this up.” He pulled a revolver out from under his shirt. “Which is why I have this.”
Rob threw his hands up in front of himself and backed away. “Whoa! Zeb, what are you doing with that? Put that thing away.”
“I guess you could say that it fell off a truck,” he replied. At his friend’s incredulous and somewhat judging look, he stopped and replied,” Oh, come on, Rob. We both know you and I didn’t always live in the nice parts of town. I bet you can think of at least a dozen people you could go to if you needed to get something you didn’t want tied back to you.”
Rob nodded. “Be that as it may, it doesn’t explain this. What are you going to do, huh? If you go in there waving a gun around, you’ll only end up getting yourself and Zoe killed.”
“Not if I shoot first,” Zeb said, resuming pacing.
“If you shoot- Zeb, this is insane! Give me the gun,” he held out his hand. “You’re a man of God. You can’t kill these men.”
Zeb looked at his friend as if seeing a stranger. “Kill? What are you talking about? I’m not going to kill anyone. I just need to give him a little incentive to talk.”
“Even still,” Rob countered, “this is not the way to get your sister back alive, man. Why don’t we just go to the police? You and me, right now.”
Zeb shook his head, a deep roaring starting up in his right ear. He pressed the fingers of his right hand to the base of his ear, just behind his earlobe, but the fullness and tinnitus remained. “No, I can’t do that. If I go to cops, they’ll know. They’re always watching. I don’t have any other choice.”
“Stop, Zeb. Just stop for a minute and think about this,” Rob insisted. “I think you should start praying. I will talk to Harriett and we’ll get the pictures to Interpol or wherever and -” he suddenly stopped and looked at Zeb sharply. “Wait – what did you say?”
“You said they’re watching you.” He put his hands on his temples. “They’ll know who I am. You brought them straight to my house!”
“What? No,” Zeb said. “The guy got a call from his partner and left. He told me to get the card and meet back up with him at the University.”
“And you believed that?” He gathered up the printouts of the photographs and walked out of the room. Zeb followed him down the short hallway to his bedroom. Rob went to his closet and pulled out a duffel bag.
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like, Zeb? I’m getting out of here until these guys are behind bars.” He pulled some shirts off their hangers and stuffed them into the bag, then grabbed some jeans and khakis out of a drawer and added them to the pile as well. “I know you really didn’t do this on purpose, but you just painted a bull’s eye on my forehead. I can’t believe this is happening,” he said, staring vacantly ahead.
“I’m sorry, Rob. I really am. I didn’t know who else to go to.” Zeb stood there, feeling helpless. “You’re the only person I know I can trust.”
Rob looked at him, his expression softening. “I know, brother, and I would do anything to help you, but right now, all I can do is make sure I stay alive long enough to do it.” He put the photos on top of the clothes in the bag and headed back out of the room past Zeb.
Once back in the living room, Rob laid a hand on the door handle and turned back to Zeb. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Pray. God will show you the way out of this, okay?” He looked Zeb firmly in the eye until he nodded. He shouldered the bag and walked out the door, Zeb just behind.
Rob locked his door and then turned to put a hand on Zeb’s shoulder. “Be safe, my friend.”
Zeb nodded. “You, too. And hey – thank you for helping me.”
Rob hitched the side of his mouth up in a half-smile and nodded once. Then they both walked away, each to his own vehicle. Zeb got into his car, pressing his fingers behind his ear, and just sat there a minute, watching Rob drive away. His friend was right, he wasn’t giving this situation to God to handle for him. He put the gun under his seat and started the car.
He knew where he needed to be.