Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon.
If I had any reaction to this unexpected disruption, it was only mild disappointment. Wednesday was Swim With Dad, a weekly ritual revered enough in our family to deserve capitalization. The twins and I had been partaking in it regularly for the past three years or so. While it had started as a predictable disaster—more the avoidance of drowning than actual swimming—it had since evolved into something far more pleasurable. Now age six, Sam and Emma had become ardent water rats.
For the forty-five minutes we usually lasted, until one of them got that chatter in the teeth that told me they were done, all we did was enjoy one another. We splashed around. We raced from one end of the pool to the other. We played water games of our own invention, like the much-beloved Baby Hippo. There’s something about having genuine fun with your kids that’s good for the soul in away nothing else is, even if you’re forever stuck in the role of Momma Hippo.
I looked forward to it in the same way I cherished all the weekly rites that had come to define our family’s little universe. Friday, for example, was Board Game–apalooza. Sunday was Pancake Day. Monday was Hats and Dancing, which involved, well ,dancing. With hats on.
And maybe none ofthis sounds terribly sexy. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to slap it across a Cosmo cover—HOW TO GIVE YOUR MAN THE BEST PANCAKE DAY OF HIS LIFE! But I have come to believe a good routine is the bedrock of a happy family, and therefore a happy marriage, and therefore a happy life.
So I was miffed, that Wednesday afternoon, when the enjoyment of our little routine was taken away from me. One of the benefits of being a judge is having a certain amount of say-so over my own schedule. My staff knows that, no matter what crisis of justice may be visiting us on a Wednesday afternoon, the Honorable Scott A. Sampson will be leaving his chambers at four o’clock to pick up his kids from after-school care so he can take them to the YMCA pool.
I thought about going anyway and swimming some laps. Doughy forty-four-year-old white men with sedentary jobs ought not pass up opportunities for exercise. But the more I thought about it, being there without Sam and Emma felt wrong. I went home instead.
For the past four years, we’ve lived in an old farmhouse alongside the York River we call “the farm,” because we’re creative that way. It’s in a rural part of the Virginia tidewater known as the Middle Peninsula, in an unincorporated section of Gloucester County, about three hours south of D.C. and many steps off the beaten path.
How we ended up there is a story that starts in Washington, where I was the go-to policy guy for an influential US senator. It continues with an incident—might as well refer to it as The Incident, also capitalized—that landed me in a hospital bed, which tends to encourage the rethinking of one’s priorities. It ends with my appointment as a federal judge, sitting in Norfolk, in the Eastern District ofVirginia.
It was not, necessarily, what I had envisioned for myself when I first picked up Congressional Quarterly as a sixth grader. Nor was it your conventionalput-out-to-political-pasture assignment. From a workload standpoint, federal judges tend to be like ducks: There’s more going on under the surface than anyone quite realizes.
But it was certainly better than where The Incident might have ended for me, which was the morgue.
So I would have told you, all things considered, I had it pretty damn good, with my two healthy kids, my loving wife, my challenging-but-rewarding job, my happy routine.
Or at least that’s what I would have said until 5:52 P.M. that Wednesday.
That’s when Alison arrived home.
I had been in the kitchen, cutting fruit for the twins’ next-day lunches.
Alison was emitting her usual coming-home sounds: opening the door, putting down her bag, shuffling through the mail. Every day, from nine to five thirty, she works with children who have intellectual disabilities that are so severe, their local school systems lacked the ability to accommodate their needs. It is, from my perspective, grueling work that would absolutely wipe me out. Yet she almost always comes home in a good mood. Alison is a veritable force of nurture.
We’ve been together since our sophomore year of college. I fell in love with her because she was beautiful and yet also found it endearing that I could name all 435 members of Congress, along with the states they represented and their party affiliations. If you’re a guy like me and you find a woman like that? You hang on to her for all you’re worth.
“Hey, love,” I called out.
“Hey, hon,” she answered.
What I didn’t hear, I immediately realized, were the twins. A six-year-old human is a noisy animal; two six-year-olds, even more so. Sam and Emma typically enter stomping and banging, chattering and humming, creating their own little unselfconscious cacophony.
The only thing more conspicuous than the racket they make is the absence of it. I dried my apple-damp hands on a towel and walked down the hallway to the foyer so I could investigate.
Alison was there, her head bent toward a bill she had opened.
“Where are the kids?” I asked.
She looked up from the bill, perplexed. “What do you mean? It’s Wednesday.”
“I know. But you sent me a text.”
“About the doctor,” I said, digging into my pocket so she could read it. “It’s right here.”
Without bothering to look, she said, “I didn’t send you any texts about any doctors.”
I suddenly knew what it must be like to sit on a beach when all the water mysteriously rushes away, as happens just before a tsunami. You simply can’t imagine the size of the thing that’s about to hit you.
“So, wait, you’re saying you didn’t pick up the twins?” Alison asked.
“Does Justina have them?”
Justina Kemal is the Turkish college student who lives rent-free in our cottage in exchange for a certain amount of childcare each month.
“I doubt it,” I said. “It’s Wednesday. She—”
My phone rang.
“That’s probably the school,” Alison said. “Tell them I’ll be right there. Jesus, Scott.”
Alison was already grabbing her keys from the bowl. The number was coming up as RESTRICTED. I hit the answer button.
“Scott Sampson,” I said.
“Hello, Judge Sampson,” came a voice that sounded thick, deep, and indistinct, like it was being put through a filter. “It must be nice to have your wife home.”
“Who is this?” I asked stupidly.
“You’re probably wondering where Sam and Emma are,” the voice said.
There was a surge of primal juices in my body. My heart began slamming against my rib cage. Blood raced to my face, roared in my ears.
“Where are they?” I asked. Again, stupid.
Alison had paused, halfway out the door. I was braced like I was about to start throwing punches.
“Skavron,” the voice said.
“Skavron,” I repeated. “What about it?”
United States vs. Skavron was a drug sentencing scheduled for my courtroom the next day. I had spent the early part of the week preparing for it.
“You will receive your instructions about the verdict we want in a text message tomorrow,” the voice said. “If you want to see your children again, you will follow those instructions exactly.”
“What instructions? What do—”
“You will not go to the police,” the voice continued. “You will not approach the FBI. You will not notify the authorities in any way. Your children remaining alive and unharmed depends on you going about your business as if nothing is wrong. You will do nothing. You will say nothing. Do you understand?”
“No, wait, I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything.”
“Then let me make it clear to you: If we even suspect you’ve spoken to the authorities, we’ll start chopping off fingers. If we know for a fact you have, we’ll do ears andnoses.”
“I got it. I got it. Please don’t hurt them. I’ll do whatever you want. Please don—”
“Say nothing,”the voice warned.
Then the line went dead.