Whispers echo through the auditorium waiting for the program to begin. The overhead lights dim. The crowd grows quiet. A petite woman walks to the center of the stage. She's wearing an off-white silk blouse and maroon slacks. Her long, black hair is pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck highlighting her round olive face, and hazel eyes. She takes the microphone from the stand and says, "300, 000 children are trafficked each year and I was one of them. Through the grace of God and a lot of support, I was one of the lucky few who survived." A picture of her pops up on the screen beside her. "This picture was taken a few weeks before my abduction. I'd just turned twelve." A sorrowful look crosses her face. Gazing off into the distance she begins again."I remember the horrid night like it was only yesterday."
Heavy rain clouds cover the glow of the full moon's light casting a gray haze across the starless skies. The smell of spring flowers drifts through the cool gentle breeze. Night creatures' cries echo around me warning me of the dangers lurking nearby.
I race through the jungle hoping to escape the clutches of the mean man. My legs ache, my chest burns, and my throat is painfully dry. My twelve-year-old heart is beating so hard that it feels like it's going to pound right out of my chest. I know what'll happen if they catch me. What's already happened to so many in our town. It's their grim demise that forces me on.
I reach the clearing to find the streets are completely deserted. A common site since the criminals have moved into our town.
I look to my right and discover the few reaming buildings are nothing more than charred frames held up by a few rusty nails. Charcoaled debris is scattered around the center. The result of a thirty-six-year war Guatemala may never recover from.
The smell of ash and other burnt materials lays heavy in the thick humid air. Gagging on the stench I race through the shadows.
I notice the old Catholic church at the end of the road. It's always been a safe haven for me. The place I go when things get heated at home or when the last scrap of food is gone. With a quick-tempered father drinking up the family funds this is often the case. Thinking that no one would search for me in there I dart towards it.
Stumbling up the crumbled remains that once was a beautiful grand staircase I throw the sliver of a door open. The rusty hinge squeaks in protest. The charred wood topples sideways, causing it to hang by a single bolt.
A light suddenly brightens the dark, barren streets. I discover an unfamiliar car coming up behind me when I turn around. I race inside to find layers of ash on either side of the aisle where the pews had once been. I glance towards the front and see the altar and the podium are mere piles of rubbish. The statue of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus that had stood in the far corner is now melted into a large metal heap. A portion of the roof has fallen overtop.
My last bit of strength drains from my body bringing me to my knees. Help me, Lord, please help me, I sob, hoping he'll give me the strength and courage I need to escape these horrid men.
The memory of how my parents handed me over flashes through my mind. Mommy didn't shed a single tear and Pappy acted like he was happy to see me go. What did I do to make you hate me so much? What Mommy and Pappy, what?
I then recall Pappy saying he might have to pay someone to take me off his hands and that he wished the good Lord had taken me and not my fraternal twin. I was often blamed for her death, even though it was her weak heart that caused her demise. My parent's sorrow is what keeps me living in her shadow, in the thought of what might've been.
So many times, I wanted to fall to my knees and say, please Mommy and Pappy, please love me, your living child. Please find it in your hearts to love me half as much as you do my twin. I didn't dare mutter my thoughts, not with Pappy's quick temper and his heavy hand.
Pappy's last words to me echo in my head. My devastation is so strong that I feel like my heart is being ripped right out of my chest. I'm sorry I'm so ugly, that I'm not the one you want. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I bawl.
A bright light shines through the eerie shadows. Turning I see a fancy car pulling up to the curb. A car door slams. The men shuffle up the walk. I dart down the aisle hoping to find a safe place to hide. A flock of birds takes flight, slipping through the large gap in the ceiling. Frightened little night creatures scurry around my feet.
The two stop at the bottom step. One man says something to another and laughs. Their cackles send shivers down my spine. Realizing there's no place to hide, I race towards the exit. Ash whirls all around me when I run. My eyes begin to water and my nose itches. Pulling my shirt collar around my face, I fight with everything I have to contain a sneeze.
Their heavy footsteps echo through the building.
I glance over my shoulder to find the two men stomping down the aisle. My foot catches on some rubbish sending me to the floor. I look back and see the men running my way. I cough and sneeze as I scamper to my feet. I try to take a step and fall again.
One of the men grabs a handful of my hair and pulls me to my feet.
Help me, please, somebody help me, I scream. I feel my long, chocolate-brown braid being ripped from my scalp when I fight to get away.
The man shoves a cloth against my face as he pulls me against him.
My frail body thuds against his muscular frame. I squirm around hoping to break free. His large hairy fingers clamp tighter across my face.
My head feels woozy, my surroundings spin. I hear the two talking, but their voices seem to be miles away. A terrifying thought pops into my head right before I pass out. What happened to the others is about to happen to me.
Tears slide down my ash-covered face. Why couldn't you ever love me Mommy and Pappy, why? Why did things have to end this way?
The sun is slowly rising in the clear-blue skies, sending a vast array of yellows, oranges, and pinks across the broad horizon. A cool early-morning breeze whips through the cruiser. A welcomed change after the merciless heatwave they'd just had. The two detectives sip their coffee, trying to prepare for what's promising to be a grueling day ahead.
The car thuds off Pebble Brook Lane onto a rugged, dirt path. A row of tall, bushy trees border either side. Slowing their speed to a mere crawl, Jamal pushes on. "The captain would kill me if I tear this one up too." He swerves around a pothole splashing coffee on his pants. "Just great." He's a toothpick of a man who transferred from narcotics a few months ago. He has short, curly black hair, dark complexion, and hazel eyes.
Toni chuckles. "He'd have your head for sure seeing this will be your third one this month." Toni is twenty-four. Her long midnight black hair is pulled tightly at the nape of her neck. She has olive skin, almond eyes, and a thin, athletic build. She moved from Savannah to Atlanta four years ago claiming she wanted to see what the big city has to offer.
"Two of those weren't my fault."
"The captain doesn't see it that way."
Jamal rolls his eyes. "I know, I know."
The detectives pull up to find what used to be a two-story farmhouse engulfed in flames. An exhausted group of firefighters are doing their best to get the massive blaze under control.
Climbing out of their car, Toni and Jamal walk over to the fire chief. "The captain said you found something."
"They're over here." He leads them to a large oak tree in the center of the yard. Stopping at a blanketed heap he turns and explains. "I had my men cover them out of respect." He pulls the canopy back.
The detectives look down to find a dozen battered young girls side by side. Bits of makeup tinted their pale, bronze faces. A bouquet of wildflowers lay across their naked bodies.
Childhood memories come to mind. Horrors Toni thought she'd left behind. She wipes a tear from her cheek as she pushes the grave image aside. "Whoever put them here must've cared a lot."
One of the volunteers runs up beside them. "You need to see this, sir." He leads them to a small lean-to that's nothing more than slivers of pale, rotten wood held up by a rickety frame.
Jamal flashes his light around and finds a naked man secured to a chain dangling from the rafters. Slash marks cover his rounded body. A bloody horsewhip lies a few feet away.
Toni checks for a pulse. "He's dead, but I don't think he's been gone long."
The chief turns towards a first responder. "You, grab a saw and help me get him down."
"I've got it right here, sir." A second man walks towards him. Freeing him from the chain, they lower him to the floor.
Jamal notices a large cardboard box on the otherwise empty shelf. Unlike its holder, the container was dust-free like it was recently placed. He walks over and peeks inside. "Take a look at this, Toni."
She walks towards him. "What'd you find?"
"There's a laptop, cell phone, and these." He hands her a stack of photos.
She skims through the pile to find they're all pictures of underage children dressed in provocative clothes. "We need to get forensics in here to process this and get an ID on this man."
Pulling out his phone, Jamal scans his prints. "According to this, his name is Mark Hensley."
Toni taps a few keys on her cell. "Says here he was the mayor of Stockton, retired ten years ago."
"How did a retired mayor get involved in kiddie porn?"
Toni thinks back to when she was the girls' age. A solemn look crosses her face when she says, "It happens more often than you think."
The bright mid-morning sun blares through the large picture window of the earth-toned painted, moss-carpeted space. There's a whiteboard in the corner with filing cabinets on either side. Small, metal desks sit in the center, four on either side of the aisle. Papers and Styrofoam cups are strewn about. The detectives are darting to and fro busily working their case.
The sergeant runs his fingers through his hair as he steps out of his office. He clears his throat and says, "I just got an ass-chewing from the mayor. He wants to know where we're at in our investigation and why we haven't called the FBI in on this yet. So, what can you tell me about this perp?" The sergeant stands six feet, but his brawny build makes him seem larger. He has a fair complexion and light-green eyes. His coffee-colored hair is graying around the temples.
Jamal glances up from his desk. "Mr. Hensley served two consecutive terms in office. There were rumors circling the city at the end of his last year about him being involved in illegal activities. The DA investigated but didn't have enough to convict."
"What sort of stuff are we talking about, Jamal?"
"Sexual harassment, bribery, fraud. He often assisted single mothers out of financial debt."
Larry scratches the growth on his face. "So, he could've conjured up this child porn ring while he was in office."
"It's possible, sir."
"I think we're talking about more than just kiddie porn, sergeant." Toni pulls a file up on the laptop and then turns it around. This web page was in his browser history. The contact number traces back to the burner we found in the shed. I also found dozens of images of children in an encrypted file on his hard drive. The same images that can be downloaded from the website."
Kevin hands the sergeant a report. His five-foot-five frame seems puny alongside the sergeants. Unlike his coworkers, he has a light, freckled complexion and strawberry blond hair. "The calls made to the cell came from burner phones which have either been turned off or destroyed. Forensics said they'll do what they can to narrow down where the calls originated from. They also said Mr. Hensley never used his phone to make a call and according to the GPS, the cell never left the house."
Larry glances at the laptop again. "He couldn't have been running an operation this big alone. Toni, I want you to dig into Mr. Hensley's past. Jamal, you, and Kevin talk to everyone that served office with him. Talk to the prosecutor and the detectives that worked the case see what he can tell you about the investigation. Have you been able to identify the kids, Kevin?"
"Not yet, sir. Immigration doesn't have any record of these children entering the states. The ME said they've never had any type of medical work done. She said she'll try to identify them through their DNA, but didn't sound hopeful. She also said she found a dollar sign tattooed on the back of the victim's neck, which confirms Toni's suspicion about it being a trafficking ring."
Toni looks up from the computer screen. "I'm running their photos through the FBI's data bank hoping we'll get a hit, but with them being illegal I doubt we will."
Jamal hangs up his phone. "Patrol responded to a domestic disturbance call and found a man tied to a chair with pictures of under-aged children scattered around him."
Larry scratches his stubble again. "It sounds like we have a vigilante exposing these scumbags for who they really are."
Some of the suggestive contents you're about to read may be disturbing.
Sniffles echo through the dark, crowded auditorium. A few stir in their seats. The speaker wipes a tear from her olive-complected face and says. "This is painful for me too, but it will be worth it if we can save a life."
Taking a deep breath, she presses the remote in her hand. A photo of a diesel pops up on the screen.
"Me and two dozen others spent the next forty-five hours handcuffed in the back. A picture of a lifeless body being carried from the truck brightens the stuffy room. "I was one of the few that survived." A young, dark-haired girl in ratty clothes replaces the gruesome image. Turning towards the picture she continues. "I remember waking up to the sounds of metal clanking together. I look around and find that I'm not in the church anymore. I then notice the floor vibrating below me the way it did when I rode in the back of Pappy's truck. The air around me is so hot, so still that I can barely breathe." She places her hand on her stomach. "The god-awful smell hovering over me makes my stomach churn." Her eyes drift to the back as she relives her encounter.
"Where am I? How did I get in here? Was I carried here and if so, by whom?" I'm trying to figure out what happened when I hear crying behind me. I try to sit up, something tugs on my wrists, pulling me back down. I glance over and discover I'm cuffed to a hoop bolted to the frame. I try to free myself from its hold, but quickly realize there's no hope of escape. I hear the sobbing again. Turning over I see a group of women lined up along the wall. Girls around my age are crying in the corner. Their long, dark hair is tangled, their filthy clothes are torn to shreds and their faces are a bloody mess. A million questions come to mind, but I was too scared to ask afraid of what their answers might be. "Why me, why is this happening to me, to us?" Salty tears stream down my cheeks causing my face to sting. I reach up and feel several large cuts in my skin. I look at the girls again. "Did they beat me too?" I feel a warm, sticky liquid between my legs. I see blood has soaked through my panties. My private area is sore. "What did they do to me?"
Fuzzy images come to mind. I first picture a fat man on top of me. He gets up and another man takes his place. His hair is long and greasy. His teeth are black slivers. His breath smells like rotten garbage. I remember breaking free of his hold and then running for the door. A man in a fancy gray suit drags me back inside. I fight to get away. A strong arm wraps around me and then a cloth is pressed against my face. "Why did you do this to me Mammy and Pappy? Why? Why did you let this mean man take me away? Why is God allowing this to happen? Is he punishing me for something I've done?"
I wake up to find a man in a nice suit standing over me, telling me to get dressed. Glancing over I see the other girls are gone. I then noticed my dress and underwear crumpled up beside me. My privates hurt worse than before. "Why does this keep happening to me? Are they giving me something to make me sleep? How will I ever get away if they keep doing this to me?"
The man drags me to his fancy car. On the ride over, he explains how Mammy and Pappy didn't want to let me go but didn't have another choice. He then said they're counting on me to pay off Pappy's debt and that I can go home when their bill is paid.
The picture behind her changes to a woman locked in a metal cage. Her hair is a filthy, tangled mess. She has a sallow complexion, sunken cheeks, and glossy eyes. Her frail, child-sized body is nothing more than a thin layer of skin covering bones. The audience gasps. The speaker turns towards them and continues. "I was taken to a shed where I was beaten, raped, and locked in a cage. Different men would visit me day and night over the course of several weeks. There were times I wanted to give up, put an end to it all. Some did. Others were beaten to death." A horrid picture of a bloody child lying on the floor pops up on the screen. "It's an image I'll never forget." The crowd moans. The picture changes to a little girl holding her teddy.
"I remember one little girl who came in. She couldn't be more than four or five. She'd cry for her mommy every night. After hours of sobbing, she'd pop her thumb in her mouth, grab the teddy someone had given her, and fall asleep. She wasn't the only preschooler." She clicks the remote again. Happy children on a playground replace the last image. "Most of us were between the ages of nine and ten. We were often traded when we reached puberty. A few were let go. Not being able to cope, many committed suicide, OD'd, or died of aids."
The next picture is a frightened child running down the road. I tried to escape the first chance I got, and several times after but being in a foreign country I wasn't sure who I could trust. One girl told me to go to the cops. Said she would if she could, but the men threatened to hurt her family if she runs. The way the other girls talk, I have a feeling that he'd threatened them too. I was scared of what would happen to my family if I did get help, but I didn't want to end up like the others either."
The detectives pull up to a three-story brick building on Luckie Street. It, like the neighboring apartments, is a replica of a southern styled colonial with its fancy ivory awning, shutters, and gable. The shrubbery on either side of the walkway is neatly trimmed and the scant bit of yard is mowed.
Toni and Jamal are met by the responding officers when they climb out of their car.
"What can you tell us?" Toni takes a quick look around. Their presence seems to have stirred every living being on this side of town. Wish they would've been this curious when the whole porn thing was going on.
"We responded to a disturbance call and found the man, blindfolded and naked tied to a kitchen chair. He claims he doesn't know who did it, and the pictures scattered around him aren't his."
Jamal rolls his eyes. "Of course they're not."
We asked the neighbors if they saw anyone besides the residents enter the building and they said a lot of strangers come and go, that Mr. Brock teaches piano from his home."
Hearing a commotion Toni looks over and sees a couple of rookies are trying to hold a persistent onlooker back. The officer says something, the lady settles down. I sure don't miss those days. "Are there any cameras in the area?"
"Forensics is checking them now. They're also dusting for prints."
"Where's the perp, I mean the victim," Toni corrects.
The officer thumbs behind him. "He's in his apartment."
The detectives walk in to find forensics busily processing the tidy place. The small office on their left has a small wooden desk on one side of the window, an electrical keyboard on the other. The living room on the right is furnished with a toffee-colored couch and an oak coffee table. Matching end tables sit on either side. A flat-screen TV is mounted on the eggshell-painted wall. The victim is nervously running his fingers through his short, sable hair at the kitchen table, adjacent to the main room. He's wearing a light-brown pullover vest with an off-white shirt underneath. His brown polyester pants look recently pressed. A brawny officer is beside him, arms crossed in front of his chest.
"Mr. Brock, I'm Detective Moore and this is my partner Detective Robbins. Can you tell us what happened?"
"I was doing laundry in the back when I heard someone talking. I thought it might be one of my students so, I went to check." He raises his hand to the back of his scalp. "I must've been hit in the head because I woke up blindfolded and naked tied to this chair. " He glances up. "He untied me, let me get dressed."
The officer beside him quickly adds, "Forensics took the clothes he was wearing to the lab."
Toni nods. "Thank you, officer. So, you didn't see who did this?"
"I didn't see them, but I remember smelling women's perfume, Chanel I believe."
Toni takes out her notebook. "Them?"
"I heard three voices. All women and two had a Spanish accent."
Picking up a few pictures off the floor, Jamal walks towards him. "What can you tell me about these?"
Archie glances at the photos and then turns away. "I don't know where they came from."
A gravelly voice echoes from the adjoining room. "Detective, there's something on his laptop you need to see."
Toni glares at their suspect. She places her hand on her weapon, leans down, and says, "Move or even attempt to move and I'll shoot, got it?" A stern look crosses her face as she taps her gun.
The man gulps and then nods.
Finding the detectives beside them the forensic technician begins, "The photos on the floor are just the tip of the iceberg." He pulls up file after file of children's pictures. "The way the caption reads I'd say they came from a trafficking site."
Toni walks back to the kitchen. She grabs her handcuffs from their holder and says, "Stand up, hands behind your back."
"But I'm the victim here," Archie whines in a high-pitched nasally tone.
"A victim with a lot of child porn."
"The photos aren't mine."
"I suppose the computer isn't yours either?"
He glances towards his office and then back at her. "My computer is over there." He points to the counter and then explains. "I found a recipe on-line I wanted to try."
Looking over Toni sees a small, jet black laptop surrounded by baking utensils. "We're taking you to the house until we can figure it out."
Tears swell in his hazel eyes. "B... But I'm being framed."
Jamal grabs Archie's arm and pulls him to his feet. "Save it for the judge."
Toni walks into the station to find Keven busy at his desk. He'd posted pictures of their two suspects on the board. A brief summary is written beside it. She starts to walk towards it when she notices a report lying across her laptop. She picks it up and reads.
Kevin glances over. "That came in while you and Jamal were out."
"The perp didn't kill our first guy after all."
"The ME found proteins in his blood indicative of a heart attack. According to his body temperature, lividity, and rigor, she believes he died somewhere between one and four. She also said his wounds, the hanging was all done postmortem."
"So, one of his victims decided to get revenge."
"Then set the fire to let us know he's there," Jamal adds walking to his desk.
Toni turns towards her partner. "You finished your interview already?"
"I put him in holding with a few other guys. Figure a little alone time with them will having him singing like a canary."
"Still denying everything is he?"
Kevin hands her a piece of paper. "I did a background check on your new guy. Archie Brock. He's a retired schoolteacher. He's been giving piano lessons from his home for the past five years."
Jamal shakes his head. "So, he's had access to kids most of his adult life."
"And he only lives a few blocks from the school."
Jamal gazes out the window. " It's hard to say how many victims we'll find out there."
Toni turns towards Kevin. "Is there a connection between the two perps?"
"I haven't found anything so far. The calls made to our first suspect's phone came from downtown Atlanta. Forensics is trying to narrow it down more."
"What about his investigation?"
"The DA said there were lots of rumors but nothing to support the allegations."
"Did you talk to his coworkers, the women he helped?"
Kevin pushes away from his desk. "I'm going to do that now."
"Jamal and I will interview them. You talk to Mr. Brook's students. Check his finances, see if anything fishy turns up. Check our first guy's finances too."
"I already did." He hands her another printout. "Mark Hensley has one account and it's with a local bank here in town. The only deposits made are his social security check and his withdraws seem to be for normal living expenses. The website is funded by a company called Love Unlimited. I was checking into it when you came in."
"I imagine you'll find it's a shell company which is funded by another shell company. That's usually how these guys work."
Shivering, Anna fastens her jacket around her hoping it'll curb the cold, empty darkness coursing through her veins. It's a familiar childhood feeling. An iciness that took years of unconditional love, and countless therapy sessions to thaw.
Everyone warned her about what rehashing these horrid memories might do. Her therapist even said, giving the speech would set her progress back, but Anna knew she had to do this despite the personal cost. Years ago she realized her mission in life was to be the voice for all the helpless kids and to make sure the fallen victims' deaths aren't in vain. Anna quivers as she presses the remote in her hand. A picture of children varying in age and nationality brightens the dark auditorium. A collective sigh echoes through the audience. They were relieved it wasn't another horrid photo. Anna knows several of the images are disturbing, but they're needed if she wants to make her message hit home.
"300,000 children are considered to be at risk. They include runaways, kids in foster care, juvenile delinquents, and children in an unstable home. Those who've been abused, neglected. The ones who crave attention, acceptance is in danger too. Many parents choose to shelter their children from the cruelties of the world, instead of warning them about the dangers, but their not knowing makes them an easy target for sexual predators."
She clicks the remote again. Images of renowned men pop up on the screen. "Many of these perps are family, friends, people with authority, clergymen, teachers, or coaches. People you know and respect, who'd you'd least expect." The photo changes to mug shots of the same men. The audience gasps. Anna changes it to another group they'd recognize. This is followed by their booking photos. "Hollywood has painted a fictitious image of sexual predators. If we teach our kids the truth, that the child molesters come in all shapes and sizes, not just what they see on TV they'll be better equipped to handle whatever comes their way."
Anna lets the information sink in and then changes the picture to a group of children. "Some of the girls were from different countries with similar stories like mine. They were sold to get their family out of financial debt or were forced to work to support them. A few were sold for drugs. The high-risk kids are from the United States and are a mix of boys and girls. A portion of them is lured into the life with promises of a successful career in the arts. A few offer modeling careers for a few favors. The victims are then told they have to sleep with different men if they want higher-paying gigs.
"Others are approached by what's known as Romeo Pimps. They're the ones who give their victims expensive gifts or woo them with money, making them believe they are a couple. They're often taken to exquisite parties, fancy restaurants and are treated like royalty. The targeted victims are more than happy to do a few favors to continue this lavish lifestyle. Before long, they are in too deep. They want out, but their daddy, their pimp threatens to show their family and friends incriminating footage of them if they leave.
"Some sexual predators will get their workers addicted to drugs and then order them to entertain a certain amount of men for their next fix.
"My handler was a gorilla pimp. They cut right to the chase by beating their workers down both mentally and physically. They then threaten to kill them if they act out. Sometimes the pimp threatens to hurt their family, beat, and rape their younger siblings if they don't fulfill his demands." The next photo is of a beaten child. The audience stirs.
"Seeing how broken these girls are, what's on the line for them, I knew any hope of being rescued was up to me. This is why I kept trying despite the anguish."
The picture changes to a girl running. "My next opportunity came a few months later. Finding the owner preoccupied with the delivery driver, I slipped on the nearest piece of clothes, a pink-lace nighty, and quietly eased out the back. My plan was to run to the hospital. It was closer than the police station, and I was told by the girls that they were obligated to notify the authorities if they suspected anything." Anna glances at the image and then says, "I remember it being a chilly mid-December day. The sun was bright, the sky was a beautiful clear baby blue. The traffic is moving at a steady pace on the road beside me the way it normally does, but unlike the normal polluted breeze, the morning air is so crisp, so clean that I feel like I'm in a dream. The birds are singing above me like they're cheering me on.
"It wasn't long before I caught up to the morning commuters. I zip back and forth trying to get through. Some yell to slow down while other onlookers gasp, but no one bothered to ask if I needed help. This confirmed what I already knew that I was alone in my quest." Anna wipes a tear from her cheek and then continues. "I was determined to make it this time, despite the odds."
"I'm halfway to my destination when every muscle in my body begins to ache. It starts in my legs and then moves up to my sides and my stomach. My chest begins to burn and my mouth, my throat is painfully dry.
Memories of the night I was caught suddenly comes to mind. Being locked in a cage for weeks and the agonizing abuse I endured quickly follows. I then picture a few of the revolting men I'd recently serviced. The horrid thought makes me shiver, but it also gives me the strength I need to push on. I have to make it this time I just have, I think. I glance over to find the towering, earth-toned brick hospital is just a few blocks away. Realizing I'm almost there. I quicken my pace. Images of me, finally being free flash through my mind as I race towards freedom."
|Author Notes||Child trafficking happens every day, but there's a huge increase in child abductions, kidnappings during special events.|
A vigilante is exposing sexual predators for who they are. The detectives are investigating the alleged allegations.
Toni and Jamal pull up to a residential area on the outskirts of Atlanta. Cresswind Peachtree City is one of the nicer retirement areas with its exquisite houses and appealing amenities. Mr. Hensley's secretary, Agnes Barns, lives in a brown brick and wood, English- structure. It's one of several styles in the gated community.
Climbing out of the car, the detectives walk across the lawn. Toni first smells the aroma of freshly cut grass lingering in the warm afternoon air. She then notices a worker taking a break a few houses down. He pulls off his shirt showcasing his brawny, bronze body. He can do my lawn anytime. She sighs, enjoying the sensual eye candy. He looks over and winks. Toni's face flushes, her heart skips a beat. Embarrassed she was caught gawking, she turns away.
Stepping onto the porch, Jamal rings the bell. Beethoven's Fur Elise sounds through the house. He turns towards his partner and says, "Even the doorbell is fancy."
"What do you expect in a place like this." Everything is so elegantly done that it looks more like a resort than a housing development. She glances at the worker again. I bet you've melted many girls' hearts.
A clean, floral scent wafts through the air when the door opens. They turn to find a lady in the entryway. She's wearing an elegant light-pink evening gown. The dress accentuates her attractive body in all the right places. Her gray hair is done in a pixie with the bangs feathered to the left. Her makeup is minimal, but appears to be professionally done. She sure left her meager life and everything with it behind, Toni thinks. Ms. Barnes was living in a low-income housing complex a few short years ago.
"May I help you?"
"My name is Detective Moore, and this is my partner, Detective Robbins." They flash their badges. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about a former employer, Mr. Hensley."
"I do hope this won't take long. I have a dinner date I need to get back to." She glances into the adjacent room. A scorned look crosses her face when she turns towards them.
Jamal takes a handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose. "Do you mind if we come in? My allergies are really acting up." He wipes his snout again.
"Yes, I mind, now what is this about?" Stepping out on the porch, she closes the door behind her. She then scans the area for any busybodies lurking nearby.
"We're investigating the allegations your boss had against him."
"Oh, for heaven's sake that was years ago. Besides, he was acquitted of all charges."
Jamal clears his throat. "Yes, ma'am, but something pertaining to this matter has come up and we need to investigate again. Did you see anything suspicious?"
"I'll tell you what I told the detectives back then. Young boys visited his office quite frequently because he was a soccer and football coach. The boys were always in pairs and they never stayed long. Certainly not long enough for a sexual encounter. Now if you don't mind, I need to get back before everything gets cold." Turning she opens the door and steps inside.
Toni glances at her partner a perplexed expression crosses her face.
"How can she afford such a fancy place? And did you notice all her jewelry? Her pinkie ring probably cost her more than what we make in a year."
"Maybe she married into money."
"Or she was paid off."
Kevin pulls up to a three-story apartment building on McAfee street. The complex is shaded by so many trees that it's hard to spot it from the road. After a couple of tours around the block, he finds the one he's searching for. It, like the neighboring structures is a red brick colonial with bleach-white trim, a common style for this side of Atlanta.
He sees several school-aged children playing in the yard when he climbs out of his car. They watch intently as he continues towards them. A younger child runs inside in tears. Kevin shakes his head. That poor kid must be having one hell of a life. Stopping in front of the group he asks, "One of you wouldn't happen to be David Phillips, would you?"
A chubby, freckled-faced boy steps in front of the others. You could tell he was the resident bully by the way he carried himself and by the way he stood. "Who wants to know?"
My name is Kevin Burke, and I'm with the local PD." He shows them his badge.
The tyrant shoves his clinched fits against his hips. He stomps his foot in the dirt and growls, "What did the pipsqueak do now?"
Kevin tries to contain a chuckle. I imagine your dad has said the same about you. "He hasn't done anything wrong. I just want to ask him about one of his teachers."
A short scrawny kid makes his way through the group. "I... I'm David." He pushes his glasses up on his pale, baby face. Unlike the others, he appears to be rather frail, sickly.
"Why don't we go over to the bench where we can talk."
David turns towards his friends.
The leader says, "Don't worry, short-shit, I've got your back." He then gives Kevin a warning glare.
Gulping back his fear, the young lad heads across the yard. Reaching their destination, David asks, "Who... Who's this about?"
"Your piano teacher, Mr. Brock."
Lowering his head the boy mumbles, "He's not my teacher anymore."
Kevin takes out his notebook. "What happened?"
Shrugging he solemnly says, "I decided piano isn't for me." He glances towards the group and then the ground.
Kevin waits a few minutes hoping he'd elaborate when he doesn't the detective asks, "It wouldn't have anything to do with what he did, would it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did he do something to make you feel uncomfortable like putting his hands where they don't belong?"
A shocked look crosses his face. "Mr. Brock would never do that."
"Did he ever take naked pictures of you?"
"No, never. Mr. Brock isn't gay."
"Then why did you quit?"
Tears swell in his sad hazel eyes. He points to the kids and says. "I didn't want to, alright, but they were calling me sissy and a lot of other names." Tears spill from his eyes. Wiping them away he runs inside.
That didn't go the way I'd hoped. Kevin is heading across the lawn when he feels a tug on his jacket. He turns to find a short, thin child beside him. She couldn't be more than five or six. Her dishwater blonde hair is done up in pigtails. Her nineties styled faded denim dress highlights the numerous freckles scattered across her face. "Can I help you?"
"Mr. Brock is my piano teacher too. He's never touched me, but my cousin claims he did her. No one believes her though because she lies so much."
"Do you think she's telling the truth?"
She shrugs. "I don't know, maybe. All I know for sure is that he's never done anything to me or my friends."
"Do you mind if I talk to her?"
"You can if you want, her name is Penny." The girl points down the road. "She lives two houses down."
Kevin sees apartment complexes on either side of the street. "Can you be more specific?"
Getting on her bike she says, "I'll show you."
Kevin's cell phone rings as he climbs into the car. Putting it on speaker, he tosses it beside him. "Detective Burke."
"Kevin, it's Toni, you need to get over to Druid Hills right away."
"Why, what's going on?"
"Mr. Washington, our former judge has found himself in a sticky situation."
Jamal Robbins, Detective with Atlanta PD.
Toni Moore, Detective with Atlanta PD.
Agnas Barns, former employee of Mr. Hensley.
Mr. Hensley, suspected of child trafficking, child porn.
Maybe my friends are right about me not being strong enough to go through this. Wiping a tear from her cheek, Anna gazes towards her audience. She quickly discovers all eyes are on her. The looks they're giving her tells her that her message is hitting home. Anna then pictures all the innocent children whose lives were taken the day she escaped. I have to do this for them. Sniffling, her mind drifts back to that horrid time.
The sun shines brightly from the cloudless sky. Birds chirp all around, encouraging me to continue. A heavy stream of afternoon traffic zooms down the road beside me while pedestrians dodge to and fro trying to get out of my way. My heart is pounding in my chest. My mouth and throat are painfully dry. I glance up and see the towering hospital, my ticket to freedom is less than a block away. I then picture myself being home again back to the land I love. I feel Mommy and Pappy's loving arms wrap around me. They tell me how sorry they are for what they did, and how happy they are to have me home. Please let it be, oh, please let it be, I beg, sprinting the last little bit.
I'm running so fast that my feet get tangled, sending me face-first to the ground. I start to get up when I notice two shadows on the sidewalk, his and mine. My dream of freedom shatters. Tears fill my hazel eyes as I stare at the darkened image. I almost made it this time. Gulping back the tears, I turn over to find an officer standing over me. Relieved it wasn't my pimp, I quickly blurt out my story. "Please help us, officer, please, before it's too late," I finish.
He looks over at his partner and chuckles. The older of the two steps up beside me. "We know all about you, and the trouble you've caused." They each grab an arm and carry me to their car.
"Help me, please someone help me," I beg, flailing around. The pedestrians turn the other way.
"Your antics aren't going to work this time, little girl." The older cop laughs.
The men toss me in the car. My hopes and dreams disintegrate into mere ash when the door slams too. Scooting to the window, I look around. I figure I'll never see this side of the world again so I try to take in everything I can. Tanto tiempo hermoso mundo, "So long beautiful world." I cry as my hope for freedom fades out of sight.
My pimp is waiting for me at the service door. His arms are crossed his foot impatiently taps on the concrete. A terrifying scowl is pasted on his evil face. The car door opens, I jump. "P... Please don't do this to me." I slide to the far side of the seat. An officer grabs my arm and pulls me towards him. I jerk away. "Please stop and listen to me."
A stern look crosses his face. He huffs and says, "What is it now?"
I glance at my pimp and shiver. Taking a deep breath of courage. I look up at the officer and quickly blurt out, He'll... He'll kill me when you leave."
The older cop rolls his eyes. "Stop being so dramatic."
"I'm telling you the truth, honest." Turning my head sideways, I point to the dollar sign on the side of my neck. "Look." I was told by several of the girls it's a branding mark a lot of pimps use.
The officer rubs my tattoo, chuckles, and says, "It's fake."
My handler drags me inside and beats me. He then cuffs me to a bed where dozens of vile men have their way with me. This continues for the better part of a month.
A few weeks in, a client tells me the man in the fancy suit is a preacher who claims that he and his wife run a home for wayward children. With a lot of higher-ups in his back pocket, using extortion and other means to keep them there no one dares cross him.
Hearing this, I start praying to be rescued day and night. When that didn't work, I turn to alcohol and drugs.
Present-day January 2020
The picture changes to a young girl strung out on heroin. Her ash-brown hair is a tangled mess. Her face is ghost-white, her cheeks are sunken in. There are dark, red circles under her dull, hazel eyes.
"Substance abuse dulled the emotional pain, the emptiness plaguing my soul. My johns were more than happy to supply me with what I needed for a few extras. I drank so much took so many pills that it's a miracle I didn't OD. This continued for the better part of a year.
"At the ripe old age of fourteen, my handler decided he needed some fresh meat. I, along with several others were traded for prepubescent kids. I got to see a different side of human trafficking, modern-day slavery."
She presses the remote. An image of a crowded compound comes up on the screen. "Some were homeless, while the majority were trying to escape deportation."
The picture changes to migrant workers in the tobacco field. "The ones who weren't harvesting the crops were either sent to brothels, massage parlors, serviced clients in varying hotels across the city or work in some type of sweatshop. Once they were established, he'd offer to bring their families over if they agreed to pay their transportation cost and if their family member was willing to work for him when they arrived."
A snapshot of a young Guatemalan boy follows. Anna tearfully glances at the handsome lad and says, Descansa en paz, mi amor. "Rest in peace, my love." Wiping a tear from her cheek, she turns towards the audience. "I first met Alejandro and his family in the tobacco fields. Seeing we were from neighboring villages, having empathy for all the hell I'd been through they took me under their wing, treated me like I was their own. It was through them that I found my inner strength, my voice again. Their ultimate sacrifice afforded me the opportunity to speak to you today." She turns towards the picture and says, Por favor envualveme con tus amorosos brazos y dame la fuerza, el coraje que necesito para continuar. "Please wrap your loving arms around me and give me the strength, the courage I need to continue." Closing her eyes she pictures Alejandro smiling at her. She then feels a calming warmth surge through every fiber of her being. His sweet voice whispers Siempre estoy a tu lado, mi amor. "I'm always by your side my love."
The bright afternoon sun is peeking through a fluffy layer of clouds slowly drifting across the baby-blue skies. A cool, gentle breeze whips through the cruiser as Kevin continues down interstate 78. The traffic seems heavier than normal, but moving at a decent speed.
The detective replays he and Penny's conversation in his mind as he continues toward Drurid Hills. She went into great detail about her and Mr. Hensley's encounter often spouting off things a young child shouldn't know. This leads me to believe that she has been molested. Now I need to prove who, where, and when.
He recalls the child's reaction when a half-naked man strolled into the room. I didn't care for the way her mom's boyfriend looked at her, or the way Penny acted when she was around him. She was so nervous, jittery always pulling up her shirt or straightening out her skirt then she'd glance over at him like she'd done something wrong.
Kevin asked Penny if he'd touched her and she said he hadn't, but she looked away when she replied. He questioned the mom and she claimed he doesn't live there that he only comes over a few hours at a time and he and Penny are never alone. The way she said it sounded rehearsed like she'd been through the song and dance before. I hated to leave Penny in the home, but until I have solid proof there's not a lot more I can do. He sighs.
Figuring they'd be more comfortable with a woman than with him, Kevin had a female officer take Penny to the hospital to get checked out. He then notified Family Services of his suspicions.
Turning onto Pons De Leon, he glances around. Druid Hills is a well-established, ritzy community. Their exquisite mansion-sized houses are spaced miles apart which gives the owner a country-like feel while still being near the city. This is too rich for my blood, Kevin thinks, gazing around at the breathtaking structures. The market value on the simpler, one-story homes starts at half a million. I wonder what Mr. Washington got himself into. Toni didn't go into details, but she did say their vigilante is getting very creative with her work.
He sees Toni walking out of the house shaking her head when he pulls up to the two-story colonel on Oakdale Drive. I'm sure Mr. Washington is feeding her a big load of crap about how the evidence was planted the way it supposedly was the time before. The sergeant and her crew didn't believe his story, but without anything to prove otherwise, they had to let him go.
Toni stomps towards him. She taps on her watch and says, "What took you so long?"
"I was interviewing Mr. Brock's students when you called."
"Did you find out anything?"
"I believe Penny is telling the truth about him touching her. I'll know for sure once I see his Tiger."
"That's what Penny called his penis. She said he has a mole across the top resembling a cat. She said his tiger wanted to play hide and seek in her cave then went into specific detail about their game."
"Do you have any proof?"
"Not yet, but I might soon. She's being checked out by the doctor and the clothes she wore when she last saw him are being processed at the lab." He waves his hand through the air. "What's going on here?"
"You have to see it to believe it." Toni hands him a tablet.
The first photo is of Mr. Washington naked in the yard. He's laying lengthwise, on his right side, giving the passerby a clear, unobstructed view. There appears to be a child-sized cardboard figure on its side in front of him. His hands are on either breast and his manhood is pressed against where the privates should be. "His hands and pecker were superglued to it."She swipes the screen. A closeup of the cutout replaces the previous image. "This is what we found on the doll."
Kevin finds pictures of naked children covering the manikin.
"The pictures were printed from his laptop. He claims they put them there to frame him, but our computer technician says they were downloaded months ago."
"Could he tell you who did this or how he ended up on the lawn?"
"He said he laid down after breakfast because he wasn't feeling well and woke up in the yard. The ME thinks he might've been drugged. Said she'll run a full tox screen, see what she can find."
"Did you check his security cameras?"
"I'm having forensics look into it now."
The sun glares through the second-story window. Horns blare from the street below him. Jamal is checking Agnes Barns' finances at his desk. She did come into a substantial amount of money and the detective is trying to trace the source.
Walking over to the detective, a forensic technician clears his throat.
Jamal glances up from his screen. "Did you find something, Brian?"
"We've traced the calls from Mark Hensley's phone and found they triangulate to a Starbucks on Peachtree Street. By the looks of it, I'd say that's their meeting place." He hands the detective a tablet and then continues. "This is security footage from the shop's cameras taken a week ago."
Jamal watches Mark Hensley walk in, a little girl in tow. He and another man exchange pleasantries, Mark leaves alone.
"We've found nearly a dozen of these meet and greets so far. They usually occur within an hour of the call being made. I ran the photos of the different perps through our facial recognition and this is what I came up with." He hands Jamal a list.
"What about the girls?"
"I'm running them through the FBI's missing children data bank."
"That's what I'd do."
Jamal turns to find a tall, slender lady walking towards him. She has honey-blond hair tightly twisted up into a ponytail at the top of her head. Her pale, freckled complexion adds a hint of mystery to her hazel eyes. She's wearing an egg-white, button-up shirt and navy-blue slacks.
"Can I help you with something?"
"My name is Erin Reynolds and I'm with the FBI." She shows him her credentials. "Your captain called me, said you are working on a child trafficking case."
Larry walks out of his office. "It's nice to see you again, Agent Reynolds. Come into my office, and I'll fill you in on the case."
Jamal springs to his feet."This just came in, captain." He hands Larry a piece of paper and then continues. "According to Brian, these are the men who made the calls to Mark Hensley's phone. We also have footage of their exchange." He hands the captain the tablet. "Brian said he's running the children through the FBI data bank."
"I found over a dozen of these so far, sir," Brian adds.
Larry discovers the names of a few prestigious men on the list when he scans the page. He glances up at the detectives, a look of horror on his face.
"Are you alright, sir?"
"An earthquake is about to hit Atlanta and I'm afraid this one is going to break the Richter scale." Larry knows all the higher-ups going to prison will shake his beloved city to its core.
A heavy stillness falls over the crowded auditorium as the teary-eyed patrons wait for the speaker to continue.
Anna glances at the picture of her lost love one last time. She wipes her tears away and replies, Siempre te amare te amere desde ahora hasta el fin de los tiempos. "I will always love and cherish you from now until the end of time." Sniffling, she changes the picture to migrant workers in the field. Regaining her composure, she turns towards her audience and says, "I was thrown into the tobacco field the moment I arrived. Picturing the life-altering day in her mind, she sniffles and then continues.
"I'll be good from now on if you take me back, I promise." I anxiously gaze across the endless acres of tobacco fields in front of me. I've heard horror stories about what goes on out here.
"You're our property now not his, so get your scrawny ass to work." The man shoves me half-dressed out of the pickup bed.
"Yeah, our property, and I'll take you whenever and however I want," the second man adds, zipping up his pants.
The first man grabs his crotch, smiles, and says, "We'll be seeing you real soon, doll." Laughing, they drive away.
After four years at the parlor, their actions, crude remarks seemed commonplace to me. Getting to my feet I look around. I didn't have a clue as to what I was supposed to do, so I just stood there and watched.
The hot afternoon sun pelts on my back. Nasty bugs swarm all around me. I shoo them away and then wipe away the river of sweat rolling down my face. I wanted to go back to the massage parlor and the luxury it affords. With its pastel lights, floral-scented rooms, and soft oversized beds. I didn't know how good I had it. I then recall the sleazy men I'd serviced and the vile things that they've done. I glance around the horrid field again. Will my nightmare ever end? I sob.
The foreman finds me dallying and heads my way. Realizing I was in grave danger, Zarita, a short, rounded Hispanic woman runs to my side. Her thick midnight-black, gray-streaked hair is pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She's wearing a thick, long-sleeved shirt. Her faded jeans are tucked inside her boots. Her hands are covered with tobacco-stained gloves.
"Why aren't you working?" the boss growls. His large bronzed body shields me from the merciless sun. "Well, answer me." He tucks his long, sun-bleached sandy brown hair behind his ears.
"I... I don't know what to do."
"I'll show her." Zarita nervously looks up at the man. The fear in her eyes tells me all I need to know. So did the other worker's reaction when they realized he was heading their way.
"Make it quick." He storms away.
She reaches over and pulls a pair of jeans and a shirt from a bag. "They're my son's, but I'm sure he won't mind." Noticing the look on my face she quickly adds, "I know it's too hot for these, but you're going to want the extra protection in the field." She then hands me a hat and a pair of gloves. I glance around to find the others are dressed the same. Modesty being a virtue I long since possessed, I begin to strip.
The woman notices my small, developing breasts. "Oh my, you are a young one."
Something about her stare makes me feel self-conscious, I pull the shirt around myself. "I... I just turned fourteen."
The woman shakes her head. "I don't know what they're thinking sending such a delicate thing like you out here." She sweeps her hand around. Seeing the look of horror on my face, she puts her arm around me and says, "Don't you worry, child, I'll take good care of you." She hands me a bottle of water. "Here, drink up, you're going to need the extra fluids."
Present, January 2020
She and her family watched over me from that day on. They even made sure I had enough medicine to make it through the horrid withdrawals, covering for me when I was too sick to work. Their love and understanding helped me adjust to this new way of life.
Alejandro helped his family care for me. He'd bring me basic essentials and deliver fresh linen on Sunday and he'd often tell me stories about their adventures before they came to the farm. The long, cold nights they spent searching for a warm place to sleep. The terrifying times they've had dodging the law. How they were forced to steal or do other despicable things just to survive. He then told me about the horrific night they lost his little brother. Anna pictures his grief-stricken face.
Past July 1993
Tears stream down John's cheek when he says, "He only wanted a few bucks so he could get something to eat. Oh, why couldn't the guy just have said no instead of using his gun? I should've never sent him over alone. I failed him as a brother, I failed him. It's my fault he's dead. It's all my fault that he's gone." Alejando sobs, pulling me in close.
His body pressing against mine sparks something inside of me. A feeling I'd never experienced before. My heart races in my chest. My stomach flutters. My head begins to swim. The palm of my hands begins to sweat. I feel like I'm in a dream. I then remember Mommy telling me how Pappy use to make her feel this way. My heart quivers. He must've felt it too because he raises his head, and then gazes into my eyes. My legs turn to Jello.
He strums his finger down the side of my face and says, "We were meant to be." He brushes his soft manly lips against mine. The kiss is slow, and gentle, unlike anything I've ever experienced before. He pulls me in closer. His hardness against me causes a heated passion stirs between my legs. The lust in his eyes, the hunger in his kiss tells me he feels it too. Stripping out of my nightclothes I fall across the bed.
"Take me, Alejandro, please take me I beg."
His mouth falls open. The color drains from his face. He turns away. "No, I won't do it, I won't. I refuse to be like them." He spat out his last words like they're poison on his tongue. He bolts towards the door.
Confused by his reaction, I spring to my feet. "No, please don't leave me, please, I'm sorry I acted this way. I'm sorry. I... I only did what I thought you wanted me to do."
He spins around. The look of disdain plaguing his face makes me feel like a helpless little ten-year-old again. He opens his mouth and then closes it. Shaking his head, he steps outside.
"Please, don' leave me, please," I cry. My pimps' last words echo in my head as I watch Alejandro fade out of sight. His harsh dose of reality tears through what little hope I've gained.
"I am a washed-up drug-addicted, a two-bit whore I am, I am. I was a fool to believe that he could care for someone like me." I sob, falling to the floor.
The squad room is packed full of anxious officers waiting to carry out their assigned tasks. This is going to be the biggest bust in Atlanta history and everyone wants to be a part of it.
A nervous tension blankets the room. The officers have had extensive training for situations like this, but understand a lot can go wrong when you're taking down a crime ring. Especially one where high-ranking officials play a big part in it.
"Is there anyone who doesn't have an assignment?" the captain asks. When no one answers he continues. "Everyone has their vests, correct?" The team nods. Remember to follow proper police procedure to the letter. I don't want them to get off on a technicality. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," they say in unison.
"You need to find your assigned sergeant for further instructions." Wanting to hit them hard and fast to avoid possible tip offs, the FBI agreed to use his men instead of waiting for more of their own to arrive.
There's a lot of whispering as everyone heads for the door. "Stay safe out there, and remember to follow your training." the captain adds.
With an arrest warrant in hand, Toni and Jamal, head towards their assigned house. Forest Park is a quiet suburb ten minutes south of Atlanta. It affords the residents access to the city while still giving them a peaceful, community feel.
They turn onto Ash Street to find the FBI vehicles encompassing the house.
Toni shakes her head. "There goes that idea." The DA specifically asked for no-knock warrants on the dozen suspects. Their plan was to serve them quietly, within the hour to lessen the chance of a tip-off.
"You know how the feds are. They send twenty men in to do a one-man job."
"I just hope he didn't see them and warn the others or hurt the girls."
Climbing out of the car, Toni heads towards the captain. "I thought we were going to go in quick and light, sir?"
A puzzled expression crosses his face. He looks around and says, "We are." Pointing to a few of his agents he continues, "You guys, Jamal I want you to cover the outside. The rest of you follow me."
With their guns drawn, the team shuffles to the house. Two agents and the detective line up on either side of the entryway. The fourth makes his way to the center of the porch, battering ram in hand. He glances at his superior, the captain nods. The cop slams the heavy object against the fire-red barrier. The door crashes against the wall. One officer races across the foyer, the other dashes to the right, leaving Toni with the upstairs.
Reaching the first room off the hall, Agent Donaldson, opens the door and takes a quick look around. There are cereal boxes on the table, dirty bowls scattered across the top, various plates and dishes are strung out across the counter top, but not a soul in sight. Guess they're too busy with the girls to clean up. He hears voices in the adjoining room. He cautiously works his way towards the door. With his back against the wall separating the two living quarters, he listens for the different voices. There's three, maybe four in there, he thinks. Holding his gun in front of him, he swings around. "Freeze, police." He finds the room empty. He then sees the TV is on. There are a few clothes tossed here and there, but like the other room, it too is unoccupied. Hearing footsteps on the far side of the room, he pivots towards the noise. Realizing it's his partner, he lowers his weapon. He reaches for his radio and says, "The downstairs is clear, sir."
With her gun drawn, Toni slowly walks up the grand staircase, keeping her back against the wall as she goes.
A young girl starts to step onto the stairs when she sees the strange lady with a gun. Her eyes widen, she opens her mouth to scream.
Lowering her weapon, Toni sprints to the landing. She lifts her fingers up to the young girl's lips leans over and says, "I'm with the police." She points at her badge and then whispers, "Where is he?" The frightened youngster glances at a room farthest down the hall. Toni looks at the minor and then the room behind them. "I want you to stay in there until I tell you to come out, got it?" The girl shakes her head. She starts to leave, Toni grabs her arm and whispers, "Tell the others to stay in there too."
Nodding, she scampers off.
Once the child is out of harms way Toni continues across the beige carpet. The balcony is to the left of her, a large picture window to her right. A long corridor with several doorways straight ahead. She's halfway across the spacious area when the door squeaks open. Toni darts to the safety of the bare, bleach-white wall. She then eases around to where she's behind the corner that protrudes into the hall. The door closes, footsteps shuffle towards her. The detective readjusts the grip on her revolver and waits. The noise gets closer. That's it you sorry sack of crap, keep walking my way. When the person is a few steps away, Toni raises her gun.
Hearing a click, the youngster turns to find an officer beside her. She clenches her fists and screams.
Toni pulls her to the side. She covers her mouth and says "I'm with the police." The child gulps. Toni peeks around the corner and discovers the door is still closed. "Stay here."
She grabs Toni's arm. "He... He has my baby sister in there."
Toni turns to find two officers bolting up the stairs.
"The perp is down there with one of the girls. I have another victim in there." She points to the door on her left. A series of gunshots erupt from the room.
"Take cover," the captain yells. There's one final blast. The door flies open, a man tumbles onto the floor.
Toni looks up to find the young girl she just sent in has a gun pointed at the fallen man.
The child glances up, tears fill her sad hazel eye when she says, "He... He tried to kill us."
Lowering her weapon Toni cautiously walks towards her. "It's alright, honey, he can't hurt you any more."
"I didn't want to do it, I didn't, I didn't but I didn't want to die either." She falls into Toni's arms. A second officer reaches over and takes her gun away. He looks over to find several naked children huddled in the corner.
"If he's here then who's down there?" the captain asks.
"His brother." The young girl sniffles.
The officers race down the hall to find the elegant yellow-laced curtains blowing in the breeze. Looking out of the window, he sees a half-naked man running down the block.
The captain reaches for his radio. "Suspect on foot heading South on Ash Street. I repeat he's heading South on Ash Street. He's wearing jeans, white sneakers and no shirt."
"Copy that," Jamal replies.
The detective darts from the back of the house and tackles the suspect to the ground.
"That's my partner." Toni laughs. She sits on the bed beside the sobbing child. Putting her arm around her, she draws her in close. "It's going to be alright now, honey, I promise."
"I wanna go home," the young girl cries, falling against the detective.
Toni glances up at the captain, he nods. "I'll see what we can do."
Anna gazes across her audience to find them teary-eyed. She wipes the moisture from her face, sniffles, and then continues. "Alejandro and I barely spoke more than a few words for months after our big fight, and then it was usually in passing.
"His mama and pappy still watched over me, but they're so cold, distant like they were put off by my being there. I often ate my meals in my room, so I wouldn't have to see their disdain or feel the frost that seemed to blanket the room. I knew I had to set it right with Alejandro, but I wasn't sure how."
Anna wipes a tear from her cheek and then changes the photo behind her to migrant workers in the field. Picturing the horrid incident in her mind, she gazes across the auditorium and says, "A near-death experience brought us together."
It's a miserably, hot, mid-September day. The temperature is in the triple digits; the humidity is nearly as high. I'm heading to my cabin with a tray of food when a strong hand yanks me into the shadows. I then hear a gruff voice say.
"You need to start taking care of your own the way you do the men in the truck, Anna."
I look around to find several field workers surrounding me. I start to scream; a large hand covers my mouth. A sweet, clean smell quickly follows. My head becomes fuzzy; my eyes grow heavy. I shake my head, hoping to clear the fog, but it only makes things worse.
"Nighty night, princess." I hear as I nod off to sleep.
I open my eyes to see a dark, starry sky above me. I turn my head and discover I'm in the middle of the field. Where exactly, I wasn't sure. I wasn't too certain about what'd happened to me or why they'd dump me out here. I try to raise up and quickly realize I'm too weak to move. What's wrong with me? I try lifting my extremities one at a time. They barely budge.
I then feel something warm and sticky, gushing between my legs. I can only assume by the feel, the metallic smell that its blood.
The stream of liquid pools around my butt and upper thighs. A horrifying thought suddenly crosses my mind. I'm going to die if I don't get help soon.
With every bit of determination I can muster, I try to get up, growing weaker with every attempt. Succumbing to sheer exhaustion, I gaze up at the stars and say, I hope someone finds me soon.
I must've passed out again because I wake up to find myself floating around the makeshift hospital. I glance down and see the sunlight cascading across my frail, naked body sprawled out across the gurney. The camp's doctor and his chubby assistant are doing their best to revive me.
The screen door creaks open, Alejandro rushes to my side. He takes my hand in his and says, "I'm sorry I got mad at you, that I treated you the way I did. I'm sorry, Anna, so, so sorry. Please, come back to me, baby, please come back. I love you, Anna. I love you with all my heart. Please don't leave me, please don't go away." He collapses on the floor beside me.
I feel a strong jolt when my body and soul connect. The nurse must've sensed the change because she presses her finger against my neck.
"I have a pulse, doctor." She watches my chest rise and fall. "She's breathing on her own too."
Alejandro springs to his feet. "Anna?"
I slowly open my eyes and look around. "Alejandro?" I weakly mutter.
He bends down and says, "I'm right here, baby."
I lick my parched lips and say, "I love you too..." There's a sharp pain in my chest. I gasp for air but can't draw in a breath. A single tear trickles down my face. My arm falls flaccid on the bed.
"No, Anna, no. Please don't go, please don't go," Alejandro cries.
"I'm not getting anything, doctor."
"Please come back, Anna, please come back." Alejandro sobs burying his head in my chest.
I wake up to find tubes running from what seems to be every orifice of my body. A small machine beeps rhythmically by my head. What happened to me? Why am I here, and why am I like this? I glance around, hoping something will trigger my memory. Small fragments of the horrid night replay in my mind as I scan my surroundings. Turning my head, I see Alejandro asleep in the chair. It wasn't a dream. I'd often hear his sweet voice talking to me, reciting my favorite poems.
The doctor walks towards me. "How are you feeling, dear?"
I lick my parched lips and say, "Thirsty." I grimace with every syllable.
The doctor's belly jiggles when he laughs. "That's a very good sign."
Alejandro runs to my side. "You're awake. You're finally awake."
"He's been by your side the entire time." The doctor smiles at Alejandro and says, "I'll give you two a few minutes alone."
"Please, Anna, let me speak." He clears his throat and continues. "I understand now why you did what you did. It's what you've been groomed to do since you were a small child. It's how you survived. But I don't want to be like them, doing you just because I can." He strums his finger down the side of my face and says, "I want our relationship, our lovemaking to be special, memorable. Something we'll both cherish for years to come."
Tears stream down my cheek when I say, "You deserve someone better. Someone worthy of your love, not a washed-up whore like me."
"You're not a whore, Anna, you're not, you're not. You were forced to do those horrible things, but it doesn't define who you are." He points to my chest. "What's in your heart is all that matters. I understand that now and together, we can work through this."
I turn away. He runs to the other side. He takes his hand in mine and says, "I wish you could see what I do. What a beautiful young woman you truly are, in here." He points to my chest again.
"I'm not beautiful, Alejandro, I'm not. I'm ugly, and I'm broken." I sob, turning away.
"You're neither of those things and if I have to, I'll spend the rest of my life proving it to you."
The sun shines through the large picture window brightening the drab earth-toned space. Horns blare in the busy street below it. The traffic zooms by. There's a light rhythmic tapping in the center of the room. Toni is investigating a tip she received about various men being held captive in their homes.
There has to be a dozen of these, she thinks, clicking through the links. The men's lips are moving, but there's no sound. The horror on their face tells her they're begging for their lives. She zooms in and finds the messages on the wall behind them, calling them out for the sexual predators they supposedly are.
The silhouette of their vigilante comes to mind. They were able to catch a quick flash of her leaving the second man's house. The shot is so distorted that the only thing they could get from it with any certainty is an approximate height. Could she be doing this? Toni compares the videos to other crime scenes. The staging is the same. Think I'll message her see if she replies.
She goes to the channel's main page and types, We don't know who you are or why you're doing this, but we appreciate all of your help. Together, we can make the city a safer place to live. Sincerely, Detective Moore. The team believes she's personally connected to the trafficking ring, but they're not sure how.
Toni takes a screenshot of the first man and then runs it through the system. Not having any luck, she tries the next. She's waiting for the computer to come up with a match when she notices a forensic technician step into the room. "Please tell me you have something, John."
"Not on the videos, but I did find something on the house you rated this morning." He hands her the laptop. "Over two dozen children have been through there. It seems to have started as far back as 2010. I also found this." He pulls up a document. "I'm guessing it's a list of his clientele."
Toni scans the page. It's a spreadsheet of names, dates, and preferences. "This was on his laptop?"
"The file was heavily encrypted, and it was hidden under a picture on his home screen alongside the photos of the girls. His computer was locked with a fingerprint and was stored underneath the fake bottom of a drawer in a locked desk."
"I'm surprised it wasn't rigged to explode."
"I took precautions, just in case."
She recalls a horrid incident he'd had a few years back. "I bet so." Toni quickly scans the document again. "I guess we're going to be serving another dozen or so warrants soon."
"I'll print you off the list."
The detective and Agent Donaldson step off the elevator. Jamal walks over to Toni and says, "The desk sergeant said she'd received over a dozen anonymous calls about YouTube videos of naked men being held captive in what they assume to be their homes. The way the callers are describing the footage, I believe it's our vigilante again." He hands his partner a piece of paper.
She quickly scans the page. "I already know about them. My friend sent me the link a little while ago. I'm running their faces through the system. I have our computer techs trying to figure out who set up the account and where the videos are streaming from." She pulls up the link on her computer. "Here, take a look for yourself."
The agent and her partner step up beside her.
"There's close to a dozen of these." She clicks through the videos.
"Wait, sergeant, go back," Detective Donaldson instructs. Toni does as she's told. "Now, zoom in." He leans in and says, "I thought so."
Jamal turns towards him. A perplexed expression on his face. "Do you know this man?"
"He was a commanding officer for the FBI a few years back. He took an early retirement out of the blue. One day he was there, and the next, he was gone." He shakes his head and says, "I'll see if I can get his address."
"Mike and I will try to get a location on the rest of these men."
Larry, Kevin, and Agent Reynolds are headed over to a suspect's house at Lakewood Heights. According to the coffee shops' security footage, Mike Clarke and Mark Hensley delivered the girls to their clients. Seeing four FBI agents on the corner of Harper and Rhinehill road, they pull up beside them.
Climbing out of the cruiser, Larry walks over. He points to the officers off to the side and says. "I want you to secure the perimeter. The rest of us will take the house."
The officers shuffle in a single file to the home. When the agents are in place, Larry turns towards his detective and nods.
Discovering the door is unlocked, Kevin eases it open then ducks out of the way. With her gun drawn, Agent Reynolds takes a quick look around. Not seeing anyone, she slips inside. Kevin covers her.
Realizing the coast is clear, Kevin takes the room to the left, Larry to the right. The agent continues down the hall.
"He's in here." The agent calls out.
The men walk in to find a man naked, handcuffed to the bed. The words Baby raper is scribbled in red lipstick on the wall behind him with an arrow pointing towards the bed. Larry scratches the stubble on his face and says, "Our vigilante strikes again."
Hanging up his phone, Kevin walks towards the captain. Jamal said our bust has gone viral, sir."
"Viral?" the captain repeats.
"That's what he claims." Kevin discovers a phone on the dresser behind them when he glances around. He sees the video is on when he picks it up. He then notices the offensive comments being posted by the viewers. The phone dings a message in bold, red letters appears on the side. Castrate the sick SOB. The words are repeated over and over until it's the only one on the screen. "You'll love this suggestion, captain." It's a comment they sometimes make out of frustration. When the perp gets off on a technicality or is released only to rape again.
"It's illegal, pal." The phone dings again. The message reads, we won't tell. "Sorry, no can do." Crying emojis fill the screen. "He'll get what's coming to him in prison. I promise you that." The word maybe replaces the face. "We'll do our best to get him there." The phone sounds again. The text reads: Your best isn't good enough, captain. "I'm sorry you feel that way." We all do follows Larry's reply.
"Kevin scoops up the construction paper on the dresser. It's a collage of naked men secured to a piece of furniture in what he assumes to be their homes. There's a handwritten note below it that reads, four down, dozens to go. The second piece of paper is naked photos of the man on the bed. The children in the pictures are performing various sex acts on him. He then notices the bottom drawer is ajar. He opens it to find a collection of homemade tapes. "Take a look at this, captain." He hands him the two pieces of paper. "I have a feeling the photos were taken from his personal library." He points to the drawer."
Agent Reynolds, I want you to run the photos through facial recognition, see if we can figure out who they are, and tell forensics to get in here."
"I'm on it, sir."
Kevin answers his phone again. "I'll let the captain know." He turns towards Larry and says, "That was Toni, sir. She says they've received dozens of calls about videos of naked men. Said there's one, in particular, Agent Reynolds needs to see." His phone dings. He opens the message and then clicks on the link.
They find a man handcuffed and naked to a kitchen chair when they glance at the screen. He has an FBI hat on his head. A lifeless child by his feet. The caption behind him says. "I begged for help, and you turned away."
"Do you know this man, Agent Reynolds?" the captain asks. She steps up beside them.
She glances at the picture and gasps.
"What is it, agent?"
"He... He was my sergeant when I first started on the force."
A young man's photo pops up on the screen. He has midnight black hair and olive skin. His boyish features and dark hazel eyes will melt any girl's heart.
Love fills her heart, her soul when she glances at him. Anna can feel his presence; his warmth all around her. She closes her eyes and imagines his strong embrace. "I want to share our beautiful love story with the world; show others how you saved me from myself," she coos.
His soft voice replies, "Estoy orgulloso de ti mi amor," I'm proud of you, my love.
Smiling, Anna turns towards her audience. "Alejandro and I spent every moment we could together. We'd gaze into the stars well into the night, holding each other tight. I felt so safe, so secure in his arms. It was a feeling I'd never had before. His unconditional love and understanding made me feel worthy of being loved. Something I hadn't felt in a very long time.
"One cool fall night, Alejandro was reading me poems by the fireplace. The flame's soft glow, the crackle of the wood enhanced our passion, our untamed desires that seemed to lay thick in the air." Anna picture the life-changing night in her mind. She sighs and continues.
"Like a cluster of stars in the night, our love will forever shine bright." He gazes into my eyes and says, "I love you, Anna."
I stare into his and say, "And I love you."
Alejandro leans over and kisses me. This is followed by another and another. Each more passionate than the first. He strums his hand down the side of my face and says, "I want to show you how wonderful lovemaking can truly be."
He lifts my nightgown over my head and then eases me onto the bearskin rug. The excitement fills my belly. A heated passion stirs between my legs as his warm hands caress my body.
"I've been dreaming of this moment forever. "
"Me too," I whisper.
His soft lips slide to my neck and then brush down the full length of my body. I moan in delight. His warm mouth, roaming hands make me feel like I'm floating on a cloud. I close my eyes, wanting to savor every sensual moment.
Horrid memories flash through my mind. I open my eyes, hoping they'll go away, but the men's evil faces continue to plague my thoughts. I try to yell out but can't find the voice to scream. The way it's done to me so many times before. Helplessness overwhelms me. Their god-awful memories, their horrid acts threaten to suffocate me. Oh, please, God. Please, not again. I beg.
Shoving what I assume to be my attacker away, I spring to my feet. I glance around and discover that I'm not in the field anymore. I then see the heartbreak on my lover's face and realize what I just did. "I'm sorry, Alejandro, so sorry for acting this way. I wanted this so badly for us, and then I go and mess it up. And after all the nice things you've done for me too. I wouldn't blame you if you walked out the door and never looked back." I sob, collapsing to the floor.
Racing to my side, he says, "I'll never leave you, Anna, never. I promise."
Sniffling, I sit up and gaze into his soft brown eyes.
"I promise," he whispers. Alejandro puts his arm around me and holds me tight.
He presses his finger against my lips. "It's alright, honey. It's alright. I understand. You're not ready for this yet."
Self-hate rises to the surface. My inner voice says, "You're not good enough for him. You'll never be good enough, no matter how hard you try." I am good enough; I am. I fight back. "No, Anna, you're not. He deserves better, someone worthy of his love, not a washed-up sex worker like you." Some of the great things Alejandro said to me comes to mind. It's not true. It's not; it's not. I recant. "It is. You need to stop this before you hurt him more." Some of the horrid comments men have said to me come to mind. Reality overwhelms me. I fall to the floor again."It is true. It is." I sob.
Alejandro touches my shoulder and says, "Anna?"
His sweet voice, his gentle touch brings me out of the self-destructive state. Sitting up, I turn to face him. All the problems I've caused suddenly comes to mind. A devastating thought quickly follows. I'm not worthy of his love. "You deserve someone who can truly love you who isn't a mental case like me."
He places my hand on his chest. He gazes into my eyes and says, "My heart only has feelings for you."
My inner voice says, "You have to stop this, Anna." I jump to my feet. "I'm no good for you, Alejandro. I'm no good for you at all."
A shocked look crosses his face. He then remembers what the doctor said and what he should do. "You know that isn't true."
"Isn't it? Look at all the problems I've created for you since I've been here. I've caused hard feelings between you and your family. And all the workers hate you because you stuck up for me."
"The men got what they deserved for doing what they did; raping you and then leaving you to die." Disdain drips off each syllable as it leaves his mouth.
"It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't dressed provocatively. Now thanks to me, wives don't have husbands, and babies have to grow up without their dads."
"It wasn't your fault, Anna. None of it was your fault. The men knew what they were doing was wrong."
I shake my head. "Why can't you see that I'm nothing but trouble for you, Alejandro? Why? I have been since we first met." I turn away.
He runs to me. Taking his hands in mine, he says, "You're not trouble, you're not. You're my saving grace. I didn't have a life until I met you. I was just going through the motions waiting to die. Then you came along, brought out the good in me, gave me hope again. I want to do the same for you." Getting down on his knees, he says. "Please, baby, please let me do the same for you."
I hear my inner voice say, "He's only saying these things because he wants some, but when he's done, he'll toss you aside, like the piece of garbage you are."
I turn to find tears streaming down his cheeks. I then remember what he said at the hospital, all the beautiful poems he's been reading to me. How he claims this is what comes to his mind when he thinks of me. Dropping to my knees, I look him in the eyes and ask, "What do you see in me, what?"
"I see a strong, determined, beautiful young woman who I know is going to make the world a better place to live." He wipes the tears from my cheek and says, "One day, you will too."
We made love all through the night and the better part of the next day. That magical time changed the course of our lives forever.
The sun is rising high in the clear morning skies welcoming the early commuters. The cool, damp streets are starting to fill. A few pedestrians hustle down the sidewalk; a beloved cup of brew in hand. There's a faint rumble around them as the city comes to life.
Toni is finishing up a report at her desk. With the FBI's help, she and her crew were able to get nearly a dozen sexual predators off the street. Kicking back in her chair, Toni glances at the whiteboard. There's a vague picture of the vigilante in the center with men they'd just taken down pinned around her. Who are you, and why are you doing this? she questions for the umpteenth time. She figures there has to be a personal motive behind it. She's just not sure what. Once we figure out why she's doing this, maybe then we can figure out who.
Toni is going through the different scenarios in her head when her phone rings. She sees a message from an unknown number on her screen. She picks it up and reads: You need to get some rest, sergeant, because round two will be starting soon. A perplexed look crosses her face as Toni reads it a second time.
"What's wrong, Sergeant?" Jamal asks.
"I just received a text from our vigilante claiming there's going to be another round soon." Her device sounds again. "She says she wants to make sure no child has to go through what she did."
"So, she's a victim like you thought."
"I'm going to see if forensics can trace this cell." She picks up the phone and dials their extension. "Hey Jeff, it's Toni. Could you run a trace on this call? 404 342-1119." .... "Thanks." Toni starts to dial the vigilante's number. Thinking better of it, she texts instead. I'm sorry this happened to you, and no one was there to help. Her phone sounds again.
"What did she say this time?"
"She claims she did have help, just not from the police." Toni recalls the former FBI captain. Could she be referring to herself in the video? Toni writes back, Did he turn his back on you? She includes the agent's photos in the message. The vigilant immediately responds. "She claims she's the one who asked the FBI agent for help."Toni types, When did he do this to you?
The victim answers, Twenty-five years ago. You guys didn't find me then and you're not going to now, so stop trying.
The vigilante has managed to avoid the cameras and the public's eye, except for one brief flash. The image was so distorted that it wasn't any help. The evidence was planted, and the materials she used came from their homes.
The sergeant hoped the video's hosting website would give them a clue, but the site was created from her victim's tablet. The account was under his name. The videos were all live-streamed from the victim's phones.
Their suspect then adds you need to take a good hard look at the people around you.
Toni asks, what is that supposed to mean?
The vigilant answers, Someone in your department is corrupt.
The sergeant texts, who? Toni's heart plummets to her stomach. The color drains from her face as she stares at the answer in disbelief. Air catches in her throat. She glances at her partner, her phone, and then Jamal again. That can't be true.
"What's wrong, sergeant?"
"I was trying to picture what it must've been like for her, being abducted at such a young age." She writes, prove it.
The vigilante responds with, do your job for once.
The landline rings. Toni scoops it up. "Atlanta Pd, Sergeant Moore speaking."... "Her call is coming from Africa?" She does a quick search. "You're right. It's borders are still closed." ... "Let me know if you find anything." Hanging up, she turns towards Jamal. "I'm going to show the messages to the captain, see what he wants to do."
Walking to the door, she knocks and steps inside. "Sir, I thought you should know our vigilante claims Brad Beck was not only a part of the trafficking ring, he used his power to cover it up." She scrolls midway down the page and then hands him her phone. She points to the screen and continues, "Forensics says the text is being sent from Africa, which is impossible since their borders are closed."
He skims through the conversation. "I think it's time he and I have a long chat." He slides his thumb up to the officer's name. He glances at the detective and says, "I'll look into it."
"Thanks, captain."Toni is heading towards the elevator when Jamal calls her name.
"Dispatch just got a disturbance call at this house." He hands her a piece of paper and then continues. "The responding officers said it's identical to our other crime scenes."
"Let me tell the desk sergeant that the captain wants to talk to Brad Beck, and then we'll go."
They pull up to find yellow tape encompassing the yard. A couple of beat cops are doing their best to keep the crowd back. They then see what they assume to be the victim wrapped in a blanket on the porch; a rookie beside him.
An officer walks towards them as they cross the yard. "This is what we found when we arrived. He hands the sergeant a tablet and then explains. "We had to untie him for the sake of the community." He gestures towards the growing crowd.
Toni sees a naked man straddled across a sawhorse. His hands are secured to its front legs and his ankles to the back.
"The victim claims he last remembers having sexual relations with someone he met online. He wakes up to find himself in his yard."
Walking over, Toni discovers children's photos pasted to the trestle with more pictures scattered around it.
"Forensics said the photos were printed from his computer and that the originals were downloaded nearly a year ago."
Toni looks up to find Jeff heading towards her. "Speaking of forensics."
"This was on the kitchen table. I checked his messages and found this." He hands her the phone.
She sees her and the vigilant's conversation. She shakes her head and says, "She was right under my nose the entire time." She then remembers the last part of the text. She anxiously glances at Jamal and then at Jeff.
Jeff must've read her mind because he says, "I was the only one who saw it." Toni nods. Jeff points towards the victim. "The dating site where he met the assailant has been taken down, but I still should be able to trace it." He hands her an envelope. "We found this letter addressed to you by his computer. It's from the victim's personal stationery, and the only fingerprints on it are his."
Removing the letter from its enclosure, she reads through it.
"What does it say, sergeant?"
She clears her throat then begins. "Sergeant, I know you're trying to figure out who I am. I won't tell you my name, but I will tell you this, I'm a forty-one-year-old Latino woman. I'm five feet tall with long, black hair, olive skin, and almond eyes. I was abducted from my village in 1989.
"At least now we have something to go on."
Toni sighs. "Do we, or are they all worthless leads?" She glances through the crowd again.
Anna glances towards the teary crowd. She wipes the moisture from her face and continues. "Alejandro and I had our share of ups and downs. I often became violent in our heated debates; a release of years of pent-up rage. When I felt like he was getting too close, I'd say or do something to push him away. I built a wall around me to keep him and everyone else at arm's length away.
"Fighting the negative voices in my head was a daily challenge. I had to keep reminding myself I'm not what they claim, that I'm worthy, I'm enough. I even posted reminders on the wall." She sniffles and says, "I still have them up today.
"Alejandro asked for advice on ways he could help. The doctor suggested a support group, ideally with people who's had similar experiences. With a lot of convincing, the two were able to find a few volunteers. I didn't want any part of it at first. I was afraid they'd shame me like they had in the past; blame me for what happened to those men. With a lot of encouragement, I agreed to go. I soon realized I wasn't alone."
A picture of a group of women pops up on the screen. Anna looks at the photo, smiles, turns towards her audience, and says, "Although their stories were different than mine, the horrors they faced were just as traumatic."
A long, awkward pause fills the room. Some ladies stir in their chairs, while others fiddle with their hands. each wishing they were anywhere but here.
Isabella, a fiftyish Latino woman, finishes braiding her long, jet-black hair. She flips the thick braid over her shoulder, glances around, exhales, and then stands. Her long, slate-blue dress is a simple, old-fashioned design. Its high neckline and free-flowing pattern hide her body well. When asked about it, she'll say, "The men can't want what they don't see." She smooths out the worn material and begins. "My nightmare started when my stepfather moved in with us. I was six at the time. Everything was great in the beginning. Then he started sneaking into my room. His nightly visits became more frequent and longer each time. He'd teach me things a young child shouldn't know." Images pop up in her head. Shivering, she pushes them aside. "He started pimping me out a few months later." A disheartened look crosses her face when she gazes across the crowd. She shakes her head and solemnly says, "I've been traded like a commodity ever since."
She sits down. Luna, a haggard-looking thirty-three-year-old, takes her place. Her shoulder-length brown hair is fastened at the nape of her neck. The woman's pale color and the deep-seated wrinkles make her appear a lot older than she is. "My horror began the day I was released from prison. I know that might sound odd to some. You probably think my nightmare should've begun the day the bars slammed to, but prison life was nothing compared to the living hell I called a life." She glances at the floor. Tears filled her hazel eyes. She looks up and says. "I fell into the wrong crowd at an early age. Mom did what she could to straighten me up, but nothing worked. Having enough, she kicked me out. This led to numerous dealings with the law. At the end of my last stint, I started receiving letters from someone who claims he was a family friend. He said he knew about my situation and wanted to help. I was skeptical at first, but he mentioned things I thought only someone close would know. I later found out the information came from my arrest record. He started putting money into my account to buy a few things, and he sent me letters twice a week. This went on for over a year.
"When it was getting close to my release date, he offered me a place to live; a beautiful mansion in the burbs. I thought I was living a dream, but that quickly changed. At the end of my second week, he said I needed to pay off my debt. The money he'd given me in prison and what it took to pay off my fines. He threatened to kill my family if I didn't comply."
Lucinda, a sixteen-year-old, freckled-faced redhead, clears her throat as she stands. "I was twelve when my nightmare started. My pimp was a kid from down the street, pretending to be my boyfriend. Being rather plain and a little on the heavy side, this was a new experience for me. I was willing to do whatever it took to make him happy, even if it meant sleeping with random men. He'd often say things like, if you love me, you'll do this for me, or this is a way to prove your loyalty to me if I was hesitant.
"The men started getting violent, and the occasional John ended up being four or more a day. I tried to break it off. He threatened to show my family lewd pictures of me and then post them on the web. I knew their public image would be shattered if they got out." A heart-wrenching expression crosses her face as she relives the painful memory. She pushes the horrid images aside.
"I don't know why I cared since they obviously didn't care about me. My parents didn't once question where the money or the fancy clothes came from. They didn't say anything when I went out at odd hours or when I came back drunk or high. I doubt if they even noticed." Tears stream down her face. She wipes them away, looks at the others, and says, "I can't tell you how many times I wanted to scream. "Open your damn eyes and look around. Realize your baby girl is drowning. That her soul, her will to survive, is being ripped to shreds right before your eyes. I knew what'd happen if I said anything." She dries her face and continues. "I can't tell you how often I wished they'd put their arms around me and tell me they loved me, that it'll be alright."
Heart-wrenching sobs echo across the room. The three youngest in the group glance at each other. Juliana, the fourteen-year-old, squeezes her friend's hand. She and Victoria stand. Juliana begins. "I was heading to school like I do every day." She tugs her friend's hand.
The blond head, blue-eyed ten-year-old says, "I was on vacation with my family in Florida." She glances at her friend for reassurance and then continues. "I went to get a soda and never saw my family again." Victoria relives the horrid day in her mind. She then recalls how she nagged her mom until she gave in. She tearfully adds, "This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't wanted a pop." She sits back down.
Juliana addresses the group. "Someone grabbed me and pulled me into a van. I was taken to a massage parlor and was told I either do what I'm told, or they'd kill me and use my baby sister instead. "Like Isabella, I've been moved from place to place. Each worse than the last." She sobs. Drying her face, she says, "I want to see my family again, but I don't know what they'll think about me or if they could love me, knowing what I've done."
Juliana glances over at her friend. The eight-year-old shakes her head. "Come on, Gabby, you can do it."
Tears fill her young, sad eyes. She glares at the girl and cries, "I don't wanna." She leans towards Isabella.
She pulls the child close and says, "Gabby lost her parents a few weeks ago, so she needs all the love and support she can get."
Drying her eyes, Gabby sniffles, sits up, and says, "My family was shot trying to cross the border. Family Services sent me here." Throwing her arms around Isabella, the young girl bursts into tears.
The woman says, "Gabby relives their deaths several times a night."
The mid-afternoon sun glares through the second-story window, adding additional heat to the sweltering room. The dated air conditioner noisily hums in the corner, trying to keep up. The sergeant and her crew are busy at their desks. The two FBI agents have a work area set up on the far side of the room. It wasn't far enough away for Toni's liking. She's worked hard to get where she is and doesn't appreciate them coming in and taking over her case.
"I knew those clues wouldn't get us anywhere," Toni says, aggravated at herself for wasting so much time on worthless leads.
"You didn't find anything; I take it?"
"I found plenty. A sober look crosses the sergeant's face. She eyes the extensive list on her screen, shakes her head, glances at Jamal, and says, "Too much, actually. The vigilant was one of a hundred and seventy-five thousand children in her age range abducted in 1989; assuming her disappearance was reported, of course."
"Coming from a village, I'd say her parents probably gave her up to help them out, pay off a debt. Agent Reynolds rolls her eyes and adds. "They might've thought they were giving her a chance at a better life. That's what the other victim's families claim anyway."
"It's sad to think that a mother would sell her kid."
The agent shakes her head. "Yet it happens every second of every day."
A solemn stillness falls over the room as the officer becomes lost in their heart-wrenching thoughts. They give the job their all, but oftentimes it's doesn't seem to be enough.
Kevin glances up from his desk."I just found a connection between the last set of perps." The team gathers around. The detective continues, "They all seem to have used this website." He clicks through the page.
Agent Reynolds pulls out her phone. "I'll send the link to my guy, see what he can do." Seeing the looks she's getting, she quickly adds. He specializes in cybercrimes."
"Our team does too."
The agent gives the officer an inquisitive look and asks, "Do you have a problem with that, detective?"
Toni straightens up and says, " It's Sergeant. I don't have a problem; just making a statement is all. Letting you know we're not as incompetent as you think."
A shocked look crosses the agent's face. "I never said you were."
"Your actions do." She turns towards Kevin."You keep working on the site. Jamal and I will recanvass the neighborhoods see if anyone saw anything."
Zoe watches their next target walking towards his car from the safety of the van. Her teammates are positioned in the alley around back, waiting for her call. "You're going to get a hell of a surprise when you get home." She chuckles, watching him pull out of the drive. She scoops up her phone and texts All clear.
Taking a quick look around, the Vigilante and her crew slip through the gate. Thanks to their friend at the cable company, his security system is down, but there's not much you can do about the neighbors. We'll be safe once we get inside, she thinks, eyeing the privacy fence.
A dog barks in the adjacent yard. A man asks, "What's wrong, boy?" Footsteps shuffle towards them.
"Go, go," the team leader whispers, pushing the ladies on. Unlocking the sliding glass door, they slip inside.
"That was close," Sofia says.
"Too close." Mariana agrees.
The leader glances towards the yard. "The important thing is we weren't seen." She glances towards the front and adds, "We need to get this set up before he gets back."
The group knows from their surveillance that they have a little over an hour. It usually takes a fraction of that time, but the vigilante wants this one to be bigger than the others; Have more flair, pizzazz.
She plans to leave a few clues for the sergeant. Nothing too revealing, but enough to string them along. Let her know she's running the show."
They're getting everything in place when they hear a young child's muffled cries for help.
"Stop what you're doing." The leader scans the room.
"I heard it too," Sofia says.
"Shh."Their boss continues to look around. The child cries again. "Why don't we split up, see if we can find her that away." The group darts off in different directions.
The child yells again. Sofia puts her ear against the panel. "It's coming from behind this wall."
Dashing to her side, Mariana inspects the barrier. "How do we get back there?"
Sofia pushes a tapestry aside. "From over here." Using her phone as a flashlight, she steps inside. "Oh, my god." She jumps back, running into the others.
Seeing the horror in the young woman's eyes, Mariana asks. "What's wrong?"
"There are girls everywhere."
Sidestepping around her, the group looks around.
The leader's face turns ghostly-white. Her knees buckle, her body shakes. Horrid memories race through her mind. She first recalls being taken to a dungeon where she spent the better part of a month chained to its cold, concrete walls, freed only to be beaten, raped, or fed. She then remembers the numerous times she was taken back to the horrid place as a reminder of who's in charge; how the frequent trips broke her spirit. Images of the girls she tried to save suddenly come to mind. She could hear the victim's heart-wrenching cries for help as the fire engulfed the two-story home. She frantically raced around the dilapidated structure but couldn't find a way in.
Mariana dashes to her side. She throws her arm around their leader and pulls her in close. "We're here for you, boss."
Sniffling, she glances at her. She then sees Sofia and Abril by her side. She wipes a tear from her cheek, squeezes their hands, and replies, "I know."
"Please, help us." A little voice calls out.
Running over, Sofia checks her restraints. "We'll have to saw them off."
"I have a better idea." The leader pulls a hairpin from her do, bends it, as she explains, "I learned this as a child." She smiles and adds. "It's how I escaped." She maneuvers the pick around; the restraint releases.
The filthy child wraps her bony arms around the leader's leg. "Thank you, thank you so much."
She gently pats the girl's back. The child is so thin, so frail she's afraid she might hurt her. "You're welcome, hon. Now, go with her so I can help the rest."
She glances at the door and then at her. "Please hurry; he'll be coming home soon."
"I will, honey."
Mariana takes the child's hand and guides her out of the room.
Freeing the last one chained to the wall, the leader asks, "Are there any more?"
Abril glances up from a corpse. She wipes a tear away and says, "She's been gone a while."
"Mariana, I want you and the others to take the kids back to our house. Get them cleaned up and something to eat."
"What are you going to do, boss?"
She scans the room, smiles, and says, "I'm going to give the perp a taste of his own medicine."
The sun is shining brightly in the clear mid-afternoon sky. The air is so thick, so still, that it's difficult to breathe. We were hoping the rain would cool things down, but the morning shower made the humidity worse. Isabella and I are tending to the garden while others pick peaches or work in the cotton fields. A typical hot July day, so I thought.
I was pulling weeds one minute and in the makeshift hospital the next. I'd passed out; Isabella insisted I see the doc. I told them I was alright, but the physician decided to run a few tests to be sure.
I look at the door for the umpteenth time. Why is this taking so long, I think. The longer I wait, the more nervous I become. The rhythmic ticking of the clock, and my imagination didn't help my anxiety a bit.
After what seems like an eternity, the doctor steps into the room, his faithful nurse is by his side. I try to judge the seriousness of my situation by the expression on their faces. This only makes things worse. I gulp back the tears threatening to escape and blurt out, "What... What's wrong with me, doc?"
Shuffling across the hardwood floor, he takes my hand in his. I notice a sadness in his eyes, something I hadn't seen before. A lump forms in my throat. My stomach twists into a hard knot. I'm going to die, I think. Moisture streams down my dirt-streaked cheeks as I wait for his reply.
A heavy stillness falls over the room like it's preparing for the heartbreaking news. He pats my hand, smiles, and says, "Congratulations, Anna."
I glance between the doc and the nurse, gulp back my emotions, and ask, "Congratulations, for what, I... I don't understand."
"You're going to have a baby."
I pull away from his hold. "No, it can't be. It just can't." I picture Alejandro and me making love how careful we always are. I look over at the doc and ask, "How... How did this happen?"
He chuckles and says, "It's a little late for the talk, don't you think?"
Frustrated, I toss my hands by my side. "That's not what I mean. Alejandro and I've been taking precautions. We use double protection most of the time." He said he wanted to have kids someday, just not here, in this situation. He believes it wouldn't be right to bring a baby into this modern-day slavery we call life. I agree.
He gazes up at the ceiling, smiles, and says, "I guess the Lord has other plans."
It amazes me to find so many have held onto their faith, despite their life. Most claim it's the only thing that keeps them going, gives them hope. I strayed from my religious upbringing long ago; after I begged for help, and none came. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"
"Your secret is safe with me for a few months anyway."
I must've had a perplexed look on my face because he laughs, pats my stomach, and says, "You'll be showing soon."
My thoughts are going a mile a minute as I race through the compound. I run to my cabin and toss myself down on the bed. "Why now? Why did this have to happen now?" I cry.
The doctor says I should be happy about the blessed event, that the child is a gift from God. He went on to say the Lord will provide for us somehow. How can I possibly believe him? Believe that it'll work out when I know the horrid fate the poor child will be forced to endure. Rolling onto my back, I lay my hand on my belly and say, "I'm so sorry I did this to you. And I'm sorry for what you'll be forced to face. If there were any way to change it, I would. I promise to protect you from the horrid men the best I can, even if it means sacrificing my own life for yours."
I must've cried myself to sleep because I wake up to find Alejandro asleep beside me. I then remember the situation I'm in. "Oh, what am I going to do?" I sob.
The weeks drag by, my morning sickness subsides, but I still haven't told anyone. I'm still trying to digest the news myself; all the while, guilt eats away at my soul. I didn't want to destroy this precious being growing inside of me, a creature conceived in love, but I didn't want it to live the life I had either.
I often daydream about the precious moments the three of us will share when I'm in the field, how I'll cherish every second, every coo, every smile, every sigh. The way the baby and I will gaze into each other's eyes as it suckles at my breast.
I then remember what kind of life the baby is bound to have. How can I possibly justify sacrificing the life of an innocent child for my own happiness? I argue with myself. This stirs up a lot of old emotions, the worthlessness, the self-hate, the blame. My inner voices telling me what a horrible mother I'll be.
Wiping the tears streaming down her cheek, Anna glances at the picture of her on the big screen. She faces the audience and says,
"Night-terrors became a frequent occurrence. Dreams manifested from personal experiences. I'd sometimes imagine a man ripping the baby out of my arms, claiming I'll never see my child again. Other times I pictured my little girl being sold for sex the way I'd been. The worst nightmare was the one of me chained to the damp basement wall. My little girl was on her hands and knees in front of me, being beaten by a cold, heartless man. Alejandro's battered corpse is a few feet away. I kept telling myself they're only dreams, but deep in my heart, I knew my nightmares could come true. As much as my conclusion killed me, I finally decided that I couldn't ask a child to live the life I had."
The sun shines brightly in the clear afternoon sky. The temperatures are unseasonably high for the second day in a row. Toni and Jamal are busily canvassing the neighborhoods to no avail.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Jamal shakes his head and says, "Pursuing this is a waste of time."
Toni glances around the busy neighborhood. Some families are enjoying the day while others are tending to their lawn. "I'll ask one more, and then we'll go." She walks towards a tall, rounded woman yelling at her unruly kids. The lady's faded pink top and matching sweats fit tightly around her frame. Her coarse, shoulder-length hair puffing out around her head looks like it hasn't seen a brush in weeks. The poor thing is so busy with the kids she doesn't have time for herself.
"You give it back to her," the lady scolds, waggling her finger at her eldest son.
The defiant child stomps his foot in the dirt, adding to the layers of grime covering his worn clothes. "But mom."
Placing her hand on her rounded hips, she scowls at him and says, "Don't you but mom, me, young man."
He glares at his sibling. "The crybaby always gets her way." The boy tosses the ball. It bounces off the sidewalk, smacking the little girl in the face.
"That's it, Andres, go to the house."
"It's not my fault she can't catch."
"One more word out of you, and you'll be grounded for a week."
Stomping onto the porch, the child slams the door behind him.
"You just wait until your father gets home," the mother warns.
"Toni taps the lady on the shoulder. "Ma'am."
The woman spins around. "What do you want?"
"I'm detective Moore, with the Atlanta PD. I'd like to ask you a few questions if you don't mind."
"Make it quick; I ain't got all day." She glances at the remaining four in the yard.
Toni takes her notebook from her pocket. Clears her throat and begins, "Did you see anything unusual in your neighborhood a week ago today?"
"That was the day the cable was out; third time this month. It'd been down since the day before, and the company kept promising to fix it. I told them I was going to switch to Dish if they didn't get out here soon. I made a few other threats too."
Toni chuckles to herself. I imagine you did. "Did anything unusual happen?"
They didn't show up until late evening, which I thought was a little odd since you usually don't see the company trucks out past six. I asked the tech, the man apologized and said they were having unexplained outages all across the city."
"Did anything else happen?"
"I can't remember anything."
"Thank you for your time."
The mother turns towards her kid and yells, "Didn't I tell you to get your butt in the house?"
He lifts his sneakers and says, "I had to get my shoes."
Toni shakes her head. "She makes me not want to have kids."
Jamal recalls his own family, smiles and says, "The good outweighs the bad."
She turns to find the mother chasing the child towards the house. "If you say so."
He chuckles and says, "Well, most of the time." Noticing the perplexed look on his partner's face, Jamal asks, "What are you thinking, sergeant?"
"What if someone caused the outages, knowing it'll disable the cameras?"
"That'd give them a way inside without being seen." His eyebrows arch, his head tilts to the side. He glances over at Toni and says, "You'd think our guys would've caught it by now."
"Not if the vigilante looped the footage to cover the lapse. Let's go see what the company has to say about their issues."
They're climbing into their car when Toni's phone rings. "You're on speaker, Captain," she says, placing her cell on the dash.
"The vigilante is at it again, and this one is more creative than the last."
She recalls the naked man straddling a sawhorse on his lawn. She then remembers how the vigilante has publicly humiliated the other victims. "How is that possible, captain?"
"Have Jamal check his phone."
He pulls his cell from his pocket and clicks on the message. They see a naked man strapped to a basement wall. They then notice a wire running from his privates to a small black device.
"The machine he's hooked to, sends an electrical current through his body at random times. It isn't enough to kill him, but it gives him a heck of a jolt."
"We're on our way, captain."
The two pull up to the one-story brick house a few minutes later. Turning off the car, Jamal looks over and says, "This is one victim I wish we didn't have to save."
"We can't let personal feelings get in the way of doing our job." She wasn't sure if the reminder was more for her or him.
A disheartened look crosses his face. He sighs and says, "Yeah, I know."
Jamal starts to climb out of the car, Toni grabs his arm to stop him. He turns to face her. "If it makes you feel any better, I was secretly hoping we wouldn't find the place, at least not so fast."
Reaching for the ignition, the detective smiles and says, "We still can claim we're lost."
Toni sees neighbors gathering around. "As tempting as it is, we better not."
Opening the front door, they step inside. "Atlanta PD, call out," the sergeant shouts.
"I'm back here." A shaken voice says.
With their guns drawn, they cautiously walk through the house.
"I'm over here," he repeats.
They turn to find a naked man strapped to a cold concrete wall in the adjacent room.
"I'm so glad you're here," he says.
Hearing voices beside her, Toni turns to find porn playing on his big screen. Looking closer, she realizes it's him with underage kids. The vigilante always makes sure we have enough to put them away yet somehow manages not to leave any evidence behind. Another thought crosses her mind. Could she be a lawyer or an ex-cop?
The victim glances down at his privates. "Please get me down from here before the thing zaps me again."
Jamal fights to corral his amusement. "It shocks you?"
"Every time I start to get hard, it goes off."
So that's why she set the TV where she did, Toni thinks.
Looking at his appendage, the naked man says, "Please hurry. I don't know how much more of this I can take."
Toni turns towards him. "Guess you should've thought about that before you touched the girls."
"I won't look at another child if you get me down."
They hear a zap. The man's body jolts.
Toni shakes her head. "Just the thought of a little girl turns you on." Electricity surges through him again. "See."
"Please just get me down from here."
"Since you said please." She turns off the machine while Jamal shuts off the TV.
Taking out her notebook, Toni asks, "Did you see who did this to you?"
A confused expression crosses the victim's face. "Wait, aren't you going to get me down first?"
"We don't have anything to cut through the metal, but don't worry, the fireman will be here soon."
"The keys are in my pants pocket."
Toni glances around, "I don't see them?"
"Look for a pair of tan slacks."
"I'll go, sergeant."
"You might as well answer a few questions while we wait."
The man rolls his eyes. "I suppose."
"Start at the beginning and tell me what happened."
"I remember stepping into the house. The next thing I know I'm here." Wincing, the man continues. "He must've hit me in the head because it hurts like hell."
"Do you have a security camera?"
"I have one facing the front yard and a second in the back. I have an alarm too."
"You need to see this, Sergeant." Jamal calls from the other room.
"Don't go anywhere." Toni chuckles.
Repositioning his sore arms, the man glares at her and says, "Not funny, sergeant."
"I find myself quite amusing." Chuckling, she steps out of the garage. Walking over to her partner, she asks, "What is it, Jamal?"
"Look." He points across the room.
Toni glances over to find two young girls in his bed.
"They're both deceased and by the looks of it, I'd say they've been that way for a while."
Toni gets closer, shakes her head and says, "They can't be no older than seven or eight."
The weeks dragged by. I was in constant turmoil about the choice I was forced to make. I stopped going to our support group; stayed to myself. I only talked to people in passing with a quick hello or goodbye. Alejandro did all he could, but I kept pushing him away.
One balmy August day I'm heading towards the garden when Isabelle pulls me aside and says, "I know what's going on. Why you're acting the way you are."
Tears fill my eyes. Spinning around, I blurt out, "The doctor promised not to tell."
"He didn't say a word." She smiles, pats my stomach and says. I figured something was up when you fainted. Seeing you get sick in the field and your response just now confirmed my suspicions."
I recall what I've been through these past few weeks. How I desperately needed her advice. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"
"I figured you'd tell me when you're ready, but seeing how glum you're getting, I decided to speak up; let you know you're not alone."
"I don't know what to do." I sob, throwing myself into her arms. She's been more of a mom to me than my birth mother ever was.
She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in close. "There, there, child, it'll be alright."
"How can it possibly be alright to bring a baby into this?" I blubber.
"Baby, who's having a baby?" Cassie asks, running up beside us.
Isabella pulls her towards us and whispers, "Anna dear, but keep your voice down, she doesn't want everyone to know." She anxiously looks around. The other workers grumble as they step around.
"I don't know how I can go through with this," I repeat.
"I don't see that you have a choice." With no access to the world outside of the compound, their only source of medical interventions is the resident doctor whose practice comes second to his faith. "Besides, killing an innocent child is a moral sin and I'm sure you don't want fire and brimstone to be your final resting place."
"I'd be willing to burn in hell just so a child won't have to go through what I did."
Isabella gasps. She pushes me arm's length away and says, "Surely you don't mean that."
"I'd give up my life for this child," I cry.
Recomposing herself, Isabella asks, "How does Aljendro feel about this?"
I glance at him and glumly say, "I haven't told him yet."
"He has the right to know."
The boss steps up beside us. He's a colossus of a man. His demeanor and deep, gravelly voice could intimidate the largest of men. He glares at us and grumbles. "Chat on your own time, we have work to do."
Not wanting his wrath, we go our separate ways.
"You should tell him, Anna; the sooner the better," Isabella yells over her shoulder.
"I know, I know."
Cassie runs up beside me. "She's right, you should."
I glance over at Isabella roll my eyes and say, "If I don't I'm sure she will."
"How do you think he'll react?"
"He'll be happy for sure."
The young girl steps in front of me with a confused expression on her face, she asks, "So what's the problem?"
"He'll want me to keep the baby and I don't want to bring a child into this." I swing my arm around.
Cassie recalls some of the horrid things she's been forced to do and shivers. "I understand."
"I'm glad somebody does."
Cassie looks at the ground. With a solemn expression on her face, she reluctantly says, "If you're really not wanting to go through with it, I know someone who might be willing to help."
"That'd be great, Cassie."
She gazes across the field. "I really think you should talk to Alejandro first."
I look over to find him hard at work. "You talk to your guy I'll talk to Alejandro and we'll go from there."
I see Cassie in the field the following day. I go up to her and say, "Alejando agreed it'd be best if I don't go through with the pregnancy." I lied. I'd spoken to him about other things, but not about this. I glance over at him, he smiles and waves.
"The guy is willing to do it said you should meet him in the barn after dark." She suddenly recalls the horror her aunt went through. Tears fill her eyes. She gulps back her emotions and says, "I hope you won't regret this, the way Aunt Thelma did."
"Do you want another child to go through what we have?"
"Of course not, but..."
I look over at Alejando again. He smiles and then nods. "We don't either."
I kept thinking about what Isabelle said all day long. As much as I knew it was wrong, I decided it's what I had to do.
Isabella would glare at me like she knew. Sometimes she'd shake her head, other times she'd have tears in her eyes. This made my inner turmoil a thousand times worse.
Later that evening, I open the barn door to find a man lining up devices alongside a long silver table. The same one they used to slaughter pigs. The realization hits me. I'm butchering my baby like they do the poor beasts. A sudden weakness comes over me. I grab the frame for support.
He looks up and says, close the door. Gulping, I do what I'm told.
The word, murderer echoes in my head as I walk towards him. I'm doing it for the sake of the baby, I think, trying to push the horrid word out of my mind.
"You need to be naked from the waist down."
Images of a baby flash through my mind. I then picture holding the infant in my arms. I could feel its tiny hands on my breast, its precious lips tugging my nipple. How the baby would gaze into my eyes with such love, compassion as it nursed. I then pictured some of the fun times, the laughter we'd share. An image of a giggling infant suddenly comes to mind.
"I haven't got all day," the man grumbles.
Sniffling, I wipe the tears away. Please forgive me. I silently beg. I start to unfasten my pants when the door flies open.
"No Anna, please don't do this." Aljendro cries running towards me. He falls to his knees and says, "I love you Anna, and our baby too." He places his hand on my stomach glances up and me and continues, "We'll figure out a way to keep him safe."
That night and every night after, I'd fall asleep to Aljendro talking to our son.
The vigilante paces back and forth across the hardwood floor with a wadded up newspaper in her hands. Violent storms erupt all across town, but they fail in comparison to the one brewing inside her. Evil thoughts zip through her head as she tromps back and forth across the freshly polished wood. The more she thinks about the article, the madder she becomes. "I helped put him away, and it ends up like this? How could it happen?" She crumbles up the paper and tosses it in the trash. Fury surges through her. She draws back her foot and kicks the metal can. The object falls sideways. Garbage spews everywhere. Throwing her fists down by her side, she kicks the can again. The container flies across the room, crashing against the paneled wall. The damn judicial system can't get anything right," she growls through clenched teeth. She picks up the metal container and slams it into an upright position. "How can I accomplish my goal when they keep letting them go?"
She's picking up the litter when Zoe races into the room.
The young woman looks at the mess and then at her, "What's going on?"
She scoops up the newspaper, tosses it at Zoe, and says, "Read this."
The woman skims through the article. She glances up. With a perplexed expression on her face, she asks, "How is this possible?"
She growls through clenched teeth. "I don't know, but I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Rain pounds relentlessly against the windowpane. Large drops of water slide down the cold, double pained glass. Street lights shine through the window. Headlights zip past her below. Gray, cloudy skies hover overhead. Toni decided to come in early, hoping to catch up on her paperwork. I wouldn't have taken the promotion if I knew I'd be stuck doing this, she thinks, glancing at the stack beside her.
Shaking the moisture off his coat, Jamal walks towards his boss. With a spring in his step and a smile on his face, he says, "Morning, sergeant."
Toni looks up. "You must be feeling better today."
He grabs his stomach. "Much better, thanks." It's not a hundred percent, but at least it doesn't hurt to move. "I'm going to be more selective about where I eat from now on."
"I tried to warn you about the place." She said he'd probably catch a disease walking through the door. Jamal thought she was exaggerating until he became deathly ill.
"Guess I should've listened."
Toni rolls her eyes, laughs, and says, "That'd be a first."
He throws his coat across his chair, turns, and asks, "Did you see the morning paper?"
She eyes the files scattered around her and sighs, "I haven't had a chance. Why, is there something good in it?"
"Read it for yourself." Jamal tosses a soggy, folded up newspaper on her desk. The headline reads Sexual Predator Back for More. The man's mug shot takes up a large section of the page. "He was arrested late last night for doing a tender aged girl in the park," Jamal explains.
Toni skims through the article. A perplexed look crosses her face when she asks, "Why does the name sound familiar?"
"He was the vigilante's second victim." He points to the center of the page. "His trial ended in a split verdict. The judge had no choice but to let him go."
She recalls the tapes, the pictures, his recorded confession. "I don't know how the jury couldn't find him guilty with all the evidence we had."
"I don't understand it either."
Toni pictures the last guy in her mind. "Maybe we should follow the vigilante's example. That way, if they do get out, they'll be less likely to victimize." She knows it's more about power and control than the act itself but figures a little intervention couldn't hurt.
"I imagine James won't forget his lesson any time soon."
Toni laughs and says, "Probably not."
"Speaking of vigilantes, have you heard from her lately?"
"Not since our last guy." She often left messages on Toni's phone. Some were clues to her identity others were information on her next target. The last one said the girls she rescued are safe and will be returned to their families soon.
"That was over two weeks ago."
"I figure she's been busy with her reunions."
"I haven't heard anything about it either, have you?"
"No." She was hoping to interview one of the girls, figure out who the vigilante is.
He taps the paper. "Well, if this doesn't stir the vigilante up, nothing will."
Larry walks out to their desk. "Did you see the news?"
"We were just talking about it, captain."
He glances at the paper, shakes his head, and says, "You better get ready because I have a feeling shit is about to hit the fan."
The perp is tied to a worn, brown-vinyl, Easy boy recliner. It's one of the two pieces in his tiny front room. The vigilante, Zoe, and Mariana are beside him, watching him sleep.
"I think you did too good of a job knocking him out, Zoe."
"When I do something, I do it right." She chuckles.
"Maybe this will help." Mariana pulls smelling salts from her pocket and holds them under his nose. The victim comes too, seconds later.
The frightened man looks around. Seeing the strange woman, he jumps out of his chair. The restraints pull him back down. "Who are you, and how did you get in here?"
The vigilante steps towards him. "We're the pervert police, and we come to settle a score." She gazes towards the adjoining room and adds, "With a little help, of course."
A young woman steps out of the shadows. "Hi, daddy."
"Elaina?" Tears fill his eyes. He glances between the ladies and his daughters. "I don't understand."
"It's time you pay for your sins," Elaina replies, walking towards him.
"My... My sins?"
"What you did to my friends and me." Six more women enter the room. "I know what you did at my slumber parties. Mama does too."
His face turns ghostly white. "Judith knows?"
His ex-wife pushes through the crowd. She's tapping a sharpened butcher knife against the palm of her hand as she crosses the room. Fire shoots from her eyes. She glares at him and says, "I warned you what would happen if the allegations against you were true."
Alejandro and I decided, hiding the pregnancy from our handler was the best way to keep the baby safe. I wore loose-fitting clothes to conceal my weight and was careful about what I ate. The workers surrounded me when I entered or left the field. If the boss approached me during the day, I'd turn away.
One late fall evening, we were snuggling in bed when the baby decided to kick.
Alejandro sits up. With a look of surprise on his face, he glances at my stomach and then at me. "Was that him?"
I smile and say, "The baby has been kicking most of the day."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"I wanted Julianna to surprise you."
Alejandro chuckles. "Alexander sure did."
"Yeah, we'll see." I laugh.
He lays his hand on my stomach and says, "Hi, little fellow." The baby kicks again. "This is great." He snuggles in closer. "I'm your daddy." The baby thumps my insides harder than before. Chuckling, he asks, "How are you doing in there?" My stomach moves in response. "I think he's going to be an athlete."
"She might be a gymnast or maybe an Olympic star. Oh, darn."
He jumps back. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, it wasn't you. The baby kicked my bladder, and now I have to pee. I was just getting comfortable too." I sigh. Seeing the heartbreak on his face, I rub my belly, and I say. "Don't worry, daddy, we won't be gone long." The late evening has always been a special time for them.
"Good, I was enjoying talking to our son."
A grave thought comes to mind as I swing my legs over the bed. I turn around and solemnly say, "Alejandro?"
I glance at my stomach, gulp, and hesitantly ask, "What if I'm right, and the baby is a girl?"
"I'll love her too."
"You won't be disappointed?"
"Of course not, honey." He kisses my forehead and adds, "As long as she likes fishing and other outdoorsy things." Seeing the look on my face, he chuckles and says, "I'm just teasing. I won't be disappointed either way."
He leans over my stomach and whispers. "We both know you're a boy." The baby kicks. "See, even he's telling me I'm right."
"What if she's saying your wrong?"
Alejandro smiles, shakes his head, and says, "Not a chance."
The banter about the baby's gender continued throughout my pregnancy. Of course, the other's opinions only added fuel to the fire. Predictions formed from old wives' tales; how I'm carrying the baby, its heart rate, and which foot I start with. One held a pendant over my wrist. Another said she saw it in a dream. Before long, the menfolk were in on the debate. Bets on the gender and the date of birth followed soon after. Despite the disagreement, I knew, whatever its sex, the baby would be loved, accepted by all.
Excited about the new arrival, my support group decided to make baby clothes. Soon, the child had a wardrobe bigger than Alejandro and mine combined.
"Jenny made the cutest baby dress," I told Alejandro one night.
He laughs and says, "He won't be needing it."
I try to contain a smile when I say, "Well, I'm certainly not putting our daughter in these." I hold up an adorable pair of denim overalls. An outfit I planned on using either way.
He scoops up the outfit beside it. "I better not see my son in these." Jenny decided to make a pink pair identical to it. She then offered to add bows to Isabella's outfit to irritate.
I pat my stomach and say, "You won't have to worry about that."
Alejandro and I were cuddling in bed one cold December day when I felt a warm sticky liquid gush between my legs. I throw back the covers to find bright red blood pooling all around me. "No," I cry, glancing at the mess in disbelief.
Alejandro springs up in bed. "What's wrong?"
"Look." I point between my legs.
The color drains from his face. He glances at the saturated sheets and then at me. With fear in his eyes, he jumps to his feet. Throwing on his clothes, he runs to the door, turns, and says, "Don't move."
Heart-wrenching images come to mind as I lay motionless in the soggy bed, afraid to do anything but breathe. "It's not supposed to happen like this. It's not; it's not," I cry.
Alejandro and the doctor returned a few minutes later. I'm sobbing uncontrollably by this point.
The doctor takes a quick look at the blood and says, "I was afraid this might happen."
"What's wrong with her, doc?"
"Anna's condition has worsened."
"I'm going to lose the baby after all," I bawl. He discovered a condition known as Placenta Previa on my only ultrasound. The machine quit working soon after, and he was afraid the boss would catch on if he asked to have it repaired. Unable to monitor it, he gave us strict rules to follow, hoping the placenta would move away from the cervix as my uterus grows.
"We haven't done anything for months," Alejandro cries.
"I'm sure it delayed the inevitable." The doctor glances at the mess and adds, "At least until now."
"She'll be alright, though, right?"
"I have to deliver the baby tonight the way we discussed." He said cesarean birth was the safest route. "I'll need to get emergency equipment set up for the baby and plasma ready for Anna first."
The color drains from Alejandro's face. "You can't deliver now, not at twenty-four weeks."
"If we don't, both she and the baby will die."
Overwhelmed with emotions, I grab Alejandro's hand, hiccup, and say, "I love you, Alejandro, now and forever, you know that." I place my hand on my stomach and continue, "I love our baby too. If you have to choose, please save our son."
Gulping back the tears, he turns towards the doc and asks, "What do you want me to do?"
"Take Anna to the hospital; I'll meet you there."
A heavy tension blankets the small, sparsely furnished room. A group of young women continues towards the bound man. Judith, the man's ex-wife, is leading the way, knife in hand.
Terrified, Todd jerks on the restraints only to discover the ties won't budge. The man glances at his wife and then the shiny blade. He gulps and says, "I... I can explain."
Judith glares at him, a look of disdain plastered across her face. Fire shoots from her toffee-colored eyes when she growls, "Nothing you can say will ever justify what you've done."
"Please, honey, please, don't do this," he begs.
Unfastening his pants, she reaches in and jerks his manhood out. The small, limp appendage plops against his jeans. Crinkling her nose, she jabs it with her knife. I'll be putting it out of its misery.
Tears stream down his bronze face. He gulps back his emotions and says, "Please, Judith, I beg you, don't do this."
"You shouldn't have screwed the girls." Pulling it taut, she pushes the blade into his wrinkled skin. A large drop of blood plops onto his pants.
Putting a death grip on the chair's arms, Todd screams in pain.
Judith laughs. "That was for all the times you hurt me, and this is for all your lies." She pushes the blade in more.
"Please, stop. I'm sorry. I promise it'll never happen again."
She smiles and says, "You're right; it won't."
"I'll... I'll find a way to make it up to you, make it right somehow."
His last plea for help triggers a childhood memory. Judith first recalls the horrid nights her father snuck into her room. She then remembers the promise he made when she threatened to tell; how she found him in her baby sister's room a few nights later. I made sure he didn't touch either of us again. She glares at the sniveling man. "Nothing you can do will ever make this right."
The Vigilante grabs her arm and says, "Maybe there is something he can do."
Judith glances over at him and then at her. "He needs to pay for what he's done."
You're right, he does, but I have a better way for him to do it." Pulling Judith aside, she explains her plan.
"I can still take care of him when this is over, right?"
The Vigilante smiles and says, "A promise is a promise."
Judith, Todd, and the Vigilante are heading to a small cafe across town. Todd called two of his colleagues and asked them to meet him there, claiming he has some important news.
"Pulling up to the curb, the Vigilante shuts off the car, turns, and says, "We'll be listening to your every word, so if you even drop a hint as to what's going on, I'll make sure it'll be the last thing you'll ever say."
"I... I won't tip them off, I promise."
"When I tell you to leave, you need to say you have to go to the restroom and slip out the back. If you even think about escaping before then, know that my girls will be waiting for you, guns in hand."
He nervously shakes his head, gulps, and says, "I... I won't forget."
"Good. Do you remember what I told you to say?"
"I... I think so."
"Get them talking about the business and leave."
Judith pulls a knife out of her purse, leans forward, and says, "Screw up, and you get more of this."
He reaches for his aching crotch, "I...I won't mess up."
Finding his friends at a corner table, Todd starts towards them. My life depends on this, he thinks. He takes a breath of courage, smiles, and says, "I'm glad you could make it."
Troy glances at his watch. "Yeah, well, make it quick, I haven't got all day."
Pulling out his chair, he sits down. He leans in and whispers, "My inside guy just warned me about the sting the cops are planning to do on the parlor tonight." He eyes the car and then adds, "He claims they were able to link it to our website."
"How is it possible with everything coded and all?"
"He didn't go into a lot of detail, but he did say they were able to retrieve a user list, and they're going to hit everyone at once. I think it might be wise if we split with the girls before it all goes down."
"I say we leave the girls, start fresh somewhere else."
David rubs his hands together. His eyes sparkle when he says, "I'll wine and dine them the way I did before." He'd charm them then lure them into a trap.
"That'll take too much time with the grooming and all."
"Saying we did pack up, where would we go?"
"My friend has a resort in Florida" He pulls up a website on his phone. "He said it's in a prime location. Being on the coast, it'll make our importing business a lot easier." He hands them the phone and says, "That's where I'm going anyway. You two talk it over while I use the restroom."
Toni is finishing the last of her paperwork when her phone rings. She discovers it's an odd number when she grabs it off her desk. She turns to Jamal and says. I think it's the Vigilante again."
"I'll try to trace it, but you know how that'll probably go."
"Sergeant Moore." She puts the phone on speaker.
A deep robotic voice replies, "It's been a long time, Detective."
She glances over at Jamal, a perplexed look on her face, "Who is this?"
"Your friendly helper, of course."
She glances over at Jamal. He nods. "It has been a while. How did your reunion go?"
"It went well, thanks for asking."
"I'm sure they were as happy to see their families as you was yours."
"I never went back, don't care to either, seeing that they're the ones who sold me to the heartless man."
"I can't imagine what you've been through, all the horrors you've seen, being trafficked at such a young age."
"I didn't call to talk about me."
Toni glances over at Jamal. He motions her to continue. "Why are you calling?"
"I wanted to let you know that I have more deviants lined up for you."
Toni sighs, "What did you do now?"
"You act like my helping you is a bad thing."
"I can't condone you taking the law into your own hands."
"Someone has to since you idiots can't seem to get them off the streets on your own."
Toni rubs her throbbing head. "Please, just tell me where they're at."
There's an ongoing discussion on my web page. Their video conference should be enough to convict. Since we're recording it in a public place, there's no expectation of privacy. Knowing how screwy the judicial system is, I sent a few things to your email just in case."
Toni pulls up the link on her computer. She listens for a few minutes, then checks her email.
"You better act fast because they plan on skipping town soon," the Vigilante warns.
Grabbing her coat from the back of the chair, Toni asks, "Where is this taking place?"
"Tiny Bistro over on Marinette. Oh, and sergeant, Mark Hensley, the one you set free, won't be victimizing little girls anymore. Not in this life anyway."
"What did you do to him?"
"He did it to himself."The phone disconnects.
Jamal hangs up the landline, turns, and says, "Dispatch said they'd send someone to check on Mark Hensley and have someone sit on the cafe until we get there."
"What about the number?"
He glances at his computer screen. "It shows it's pinging off towers in Africa again."
"I should've known."
Scooping me into his arms, Alejandro bolts into the cold, starless night. Thousands of thoughts race through my mind as we dart through the unsettling darkness towards our harrowing fate.
I first remember mommy carrying me like this when I was a child. I then recall some of the sweet things she said to me. Telling me how much she loved me and how I was a blessing sent from above. I then picture myself being dragged away by the vile man, how my parents didn't lift a finger to help me. All the horrors I've faced floods my thoughts soon after.
The mental image changes to the day Alejandro and I met; how happy I've been ever since. With tears streaming down my cold, wet cheeks, I place my hand on my stomach, glance at the starry sky, and silently pray, pleases dear Lord, please save our son. Alejandro must have sensed my anguish because he stops and says:
"Everything is going to be alright, Anna, I promise. I can feel it in my soul."
I tearfully gaze into his eyes, hoping to find the strength, the courage I need to face the unknown, the way I have in the past. "I wish I could be sure."
He kisses me, smiles, and says, "Have faith, mi amor." Hearing a loud commotion, he pivots towards the noise. Look."
I turn to see a crowd of workers around the hospital, each with a candle in hand.
"Oh, Alejandro, they do love me. They do," I cry.
He smiles. "Of course, they do, my love."
One lady steps up beside us, grabs my arm, and says, "We'll pray for you and the baby."
I squeeze her small, boney hand. "Thank you." I tearfully gaze across the growing crowd. "Thank you all."
Alejandro feels something warm seeping through the blanket. He looks down to find blood puddling by his feet. "I need to get you inside." We step through the door to find the doctor busy preparing for the task. His assistant is working steadily beside him.
The nurse rushes to my side. She takes me into an adjacent room, where she preps me for the delivery. Alejandro and the doc come in a few minutes later. They're both wearing a blue surgical gown and gloves. Alejandro takes my hand in his, smiles, and says, "Everything will be just fine."
A grave feeling continues to hover me despite his comforting words. An apprehension I haven't been able to shake. Sniffling, I reply, "I love you, Alejandro, now and forever with all my heart."
He gazes into my eyes. "And I love you."
I gulp back my tears and continue, "You are the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I've enjoyed every second we've spent together."
He gently brushes the side of my face. "I've treasured every moment I've spent with you, and I look forward to spending the rest of my life with you."
"Alejandro, please, stop, let me finish."
A perplexed look crosses his face. "Let you finish what? What are you trying to say?"
"If something does happen, I want you and Alexander to move on, find happiness again."
"Don't talk like that, Anna. Please, we'll get through this. You'll see."
I take a breath of courage and say, "Just promise me you will."
Alejandro gulps back his tears. "No one can or will ever take your place in my heart."
"Please, Alejandro, don't let the memory of us, what we've had together, hold you back."
"I don't want..."
I put my fingers against his masked lips. "Please, baby, please promise me you'll find someone who'll love and cherish you as much as me."
Alejandro chokes on his emotions. "Don't say that, Anna. Please, stop talking this way."
The doc glances up, sniffles, and says, Congratulations, Alejandro and Anna, it's a boy." He carefully hands the baby to the nurse.
Placing the frail infant in an incubator, she gets to work.
Alejandro jumps for joy. "We have a boy. We have a boy," He looks over and sees the tiny newborn completely still. Terrified, he rushes to the nurses' side. "What's wrong with him? Why isn't he crying or moving around?"
The baby wails.
The nurse smiles. "It just took him a little longer, is all. He weighs nearly two pounds and is nine inches long. What we'd expect for someone his age." She glances at the machines and then continues. His brain function and heart rate are normal, but he's going to need oxygen to help him breathe. Which isn't unusual for a preemie." She starts to wheel him away, turns, and says, "Don't worry, mom and dad, we won't be gone long."
Alejandro darts across the room. "Did you hear that, Anna? Alexander is going to be alright."
Finished with his work, the doctor walks over to the couple. A disheartened look crosses his face. He shakes his head and says. "He's fine for now, but he isn't out of the woods yet."
Alejandro's jaw drops. The color drains from his face. "What do you mean, doc?"
Pulling up a stool, the doctor sits down. "The next few weeks are going to be critical, with a lot of ups and downs. All we can do is take each day, each problem as it comes."
Alejandro gulps and asks, "What kind of problems are you talking about?"
"His lungs aren't fully developed, so he's going to need to be put on a ventilator. He'll need a feeding tube to help him eat."
"How long will he need these things?"
"It'll depend on how well he does, Anna."
Alejandro squeezes my hand. "We'll do all we can for him."
"I know you will. Since moving him will be taxing on his body, you'll only be able to hold him for an hour, a few times a day. You can talk to him all you want. In fact, I strongly encourage it." He turns towards Anna and continues, "You will need to take it easy for a while, no heavy lifting, and I wouldn't advise going back to the field for a few weeks."
"That shouldn't be a problem since it's winter and all."
"If the boss does question your absence, tell him you had an emergency appendectomy, I'll tell him the same."
"How long will it be before we can see the baby?"
"The nurse will bring him out soon. I have to warn you he'll have a lot of tubes hooked to his body, all of which are vital for his care."
Alejandro glances down to find me crying worse than before. He lays his head beside me and says, "It'll all work out, Anna. Our boy will be just fine, you'll see."
"I hope you're..."
Anna's arms fall flaccid by her side, the monitors' wail.
The color drains from Alejandro's face. He turns towards the doc and says, "Save her, doc, please save my love."
The bright mid-morning sun shines high from the cloudless skies promising a warm day ahead. Toni and Jamal weave through the traffic, hoping they can make their way across town before the perpetrators have a chance to escape. According to their recorded conversation, they were planning on leaving town soon.
Jamal pulls up to find the undercover a few feet from the restaurant. He then realizes there aren't any vacant spots nearby. He turns towards the sergeant and says, "Why don't I drop you off, then circle back around."
Toni nods. "See you in a few." She walks over to the undercover and taps on the glass.
Discovering it's his boss, the rookie rolls the window down. "Morning, Sergeant." He glances at the table and says, "They're still trying to come up with a plan."
She looks over to find two distinguished gentlemen engrossed in a conversation on the far side of the deck. A mix of anger and fear is plastered across their forty-ish faces.
One suspect is wearing an expensive navy suit and baby-blue tie. His black dress shoes appear to have been recently polished, and his coffee-colored hair recently trimmed.
His partner is casually dressed in a striped button-up shirt and toffee slacks. His salt and pepper hair is a military styled crew-cut.
Toni shakes her head. You never know who's doing what to whom these days. Thanks to the vigilante's assistance, she and her crew now realize child traffickers come from all walks of life. This will be fifteen the vigilante has helped us get off the street, she thinks. "Thank you for keeping an eye on them."
"No problem, Sergeant. Do you need me to help with anything else?"
"Can you get an idea on these men?"
He smiles and says, "I knew you'd ask." He scoops up a piece of paper and continues. "Your guy on the left's name is Brian Bennet. He's had one arrest for domestic assault back in 93. He served three years. His record has been clean ever since."
"And the other?"
"His photo didn't show up in the system, but I ran his ID through the hospital directory and found Dr. Marcus Rolland is a family practitioner. He's been working in the clinic since 2010. According to his reviews, everyone believes he's a saint.
"That's what makes these men so dangerous, coming across as one of the good guys. The fictitious images Hollywood paints don't help."
"Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"I want you to help me run a tail."
His face lights up. It's not every day a rookie runs detail with his boss. He shuffles in his seat. "I'd be happy to, Sergeant."
"Jamal walks up beside her. He glances at the table and asks, "So what's the plan?"
"I think we should follow them, see if either will lead us to the girls. I'll take the doc, and you two take the guy." Her phone rings. Pulling it from her pocket, she answers it. "Sergeant Moore." Realizing it's her boss, she puts it on speaker.
"Toni, it's the Captain. I just spoke to the District Attorney, and he believes the tape and the evidence will be enough for a warrant. Said he'll take it to the judge."
"Could you ask him to hold off for an hour or so?"
"Why, what's going on?"
She glances at her partners. "Jamal, Officer Bennet, and I are going to follow the men, see if they can lead us to the girls."
"I'll let him know. Did you hear any more about Mark Hensley?"
"Patrol claims that he ate his gun. Kevin is checking on it now."
"Stay safe out there."
Toni glances over at Jamal, then the rookie, and says, "You know we will."
Kevin discovers forensics and the Medical Examiner are already on scene when he pulls up to the small brick structure. He glances around and discovers the house is taped off, and a few beat cops are doing their best to keep the area contained. Climbing out of his car, he walks over to the closest officer and asks, "Were you first on the scene?"
Kevin pulls a small notebook from his pocket. He flips to a clean page and continues, "What can you tell me?"
"I walked in to find the victim in his office. The back of his head is gone; a gun and a suicide note beside him."
"He's the only victim, correct?"
"Yes, sir, and the alarm was on when I responded to the call. The company claims it was set at 6:15 the night before. They said that someone used a key to enter the house, then reset the system a minute after. They went on to say that according to their records, 6:15 is Mr. Hensley's usual arrival time."
Mark recalls what the vigilante said. A puzzled look crosses the detective's face. How would the vigilante know Mark took his life if she wasn't here? She could have the access code. Wouldn't the records show the reset when she came in and slipped away?
"Is something the matter, sir?"
"I'm just trying to piece it together."
"There's nothing to figure out; he felt remorseful for trafficking and took his life."
He ponders his rationalization, tilts his head, and says, "Yeah, maybe, but sometimes things aren't always the way they seem." He suddenly recalls their latest collar and how the perp took all of them by surprise. Especially not in this case. "It's best you keep that in mind if you want to make detective someday."
Kevin sees the Medical Examiner in the hall. "Excuse me."Crossing the porch, he steps through the door. He walks up beside her, and asks, "Were you able to determine a time of death?"
"Well, good morning to you too, Mr. Grumpy."
"Sorry, Mary, I didn't mean to be so short with you. It's just been a bad morning with the court and all."
"It didn't go well; I take it?"
Kevin runs his fingers through his ginger hair. "The guy scaped on a technicality the same way Mark did."
She raises her brows. "Now I understand. According to the victim's body temp, rigor, I'd say his death was sometime between six and ten last night, and the cause of death was a bullet wound to the head. I'll let you know if I find anything more."
"Thank you, Mary."
She starts to leave, turns, and says, "Kevin?"
The detective rubs his throbbing head. "Yeah?"
"You'll get him the next time."
He sighs. "I hope you're right."
Kevin sees forensics busy processing the room when he steps through the doors. He walks over to the deceased and takes a quick look around. The body is slumped sideways in the chair. His right arm is dangling off the side with a .22 on the floor below it. Kevin notices an odd-shaped object on his lap when he steps closer. Picking it up, he discovers it's an older photo of Mark and a beautiful young woman, each with a toddler in their arms. He glances at the man and then the picture again. Did the vigilante threaten to harm them if you didn't take your life? How would she know you went through with it if she wasn't here?
The forensic tech walks towards him. He points to the blood-splatter on the frame and then the impression in his chest. "He must have been clenching onto it when he took his final breath."
"You're sure he's the one who pulled the trigger?"
"He has gun powder residue on his hand and this note beside him." He hands him a piece of paper and continues. "I compared the handwriting with another sample and believe the writing is the same. I'll take it to the lab to confirm."
Kevin scans the page. So you did do this for them. "Did you find any signs of forced entry?"
"No, sir, and there isn't anything to indicate anyone but the victim has ever been in the house. The only fingerprints and DNA in here is his."
"I want you to check the security camera just to be sure."
The lad nods. "Right away, sir."
Remembering this morning's experience, he says, "And Brian?"
"Make sure you do everything by the book."
The lad nods. "Always, sir."
Alejandro and I are lying side by side in the freshly made hospital bed, trying to recuperate from the night's horrific events. The doctor and his assistant are attending to our newborn in the adjoining room.
Alejandro and I are almost asleep when the nurse peeks her head through the door.
"I have someone who wants to meet you." We glance over to find her wheeling the baby across the hardwood floor.
Alexander looks so tiny, so fragile in his bassinet. His delicate skin is almost iridescent, like a thin cover stretched over a bony frame. He has all the normal features; only they're all a fraction of a full-term baby's size. His dark eyebrows and eyelashes are sparse.
"Would you like to hold him?"
I realize that our son is no bigger than her hand when she scoops him up. Anxiety overwhelms me. How could I possibly care for someone this small? I must've had a horror-stricken expression on my face. The nurse smiles reassuringly and says.
"Relax, honey, you'll do fine."
I eye the frail infant again, gulp, and say, "I...I hope you're right."
The nurse lowers my gown to my shoulders and then explains. "Studies show skin to skin regulates his heart rate and his breathing. It also helps him adjust to his new surroundings."
"I... I'll do whatever you think is best," I say, still unsure about the situation.
Alex cries the moment his body touches my chest. Helplessness overwhelms me. Glancing at the nurse, I tearfully blurt out, "I... I don't' know what to do."
"Take a deep breath... Again... Much better. Now I want you to talk to Alex in a calm, relaxed voice."
I look at the fretting infant and then the nurse again.
"You can do this, Anna."
Taking a deep breath, I gaze over at the baby and shakily say, "Hi, little guy, I'm your mommy. The one you've been kicking for the past few months." Chuckling, I wipe my tears away. "Your daddy and I are happy to finally meet you."
Opening his big brown eyes, Alex gazes up at me.
The nurse smiles. "He recognizes your voice."
My hands shake as I strum my finger down his tiny face. "You're the spitting image of your daddy." He puckers his lip. I laugh. "That's a good thing, you'll see."
"Why don't we give you three some alone time." Nudging the nurse, the doctor steps out of the room.
The nurse is about to close the door when a baritone voice echoes through the cold, blizzard night. The worker's prayers have ceased.
Realizing who it is, I gasp. My body trembles. I glance over at Alejandro and say, "He's here, Alejandro, our handler is here."
The doctor rushes to my side. "We'll tell him you had an appendectomy to keep the baby safe."
Taking the baby from me, the nurse hurries him into the adjoining room.
Heavy footsteps stomp across the old wooden porch. The screen door flies open. Frigid night air blasts into the room.
I turn my head to find our handler blocking the entryway.
Our boss scans his surroundings. He stomps across the floor, waves his arm around, and asks, "What's the meaning of all of this?"
The doc suddenly recalls what happened to the last man who crossed him. He then remembers what happened to the others born within the compound walls. Their baby isn't going to face the same fate. Taking a big gulp of courage, the doctor crosses the floor. "I... I had to do an emergency operation. Otherwise, she would've died."
"This won't stop her from working, will it?"
"She'll need at least a week to...
Alex cries in the other room.
"A baby, she had a baby?" He steps to where he and the doc are toes to toe. Glaring at him, he snarls, "Why did you lie?"
"I...I didn't." The physician points to my stomach and says, "I had to do an emergency cesarean. Otherwise, I would've lost her and the boy."
"Why wasn't I told about the baby, about the birth?"
The doctor motions towards the blood. "There wasn't enough time."
"I expect you to notify me from here on out, exigent circumstances or not. Do I make myself clear?"
The doctor nods. "Yes, sir."
"I want health records on all my workers and regular updates on any change in condition."
The doctor nervously gulps and says, "I'll get the records to you right away."
"See to it that you do." The boss turns towards me. "I expect you to report to me bright and early Monday morning."
The doctor steps in between us."She can't go back to work so soon."
"I'm not running a home for wayward mothers."
"Of course not, sir, but..."
She'll either work for her keep or be traded for someone who will." Stepping around the doc, He leans down and asks, "You remember what your life was like before this, don't you, Anna?"
Memories of different Johns and their despicable acts race through my mind. Tears fill my eyes. I look up at him and nod. "Yes... Yes."
"You don't want to go back to them again, do you?"
The helplessness I felt when I was a child overwhelms me. I glance at Alejandro then at him and say, "I'll do whatever you say, just please don't send me back to those men."
A sinister smile crosses his face. "That's what I want to hear." He waves his hand around the room and says, I expect you to work twice as hard-to reimburse me for the supplies." Glaring at Alejandro, he continues, "And I expect double from you for creating this mess." He makes it to the door, pivots, and says, "I'll give you until daybreak to say goodbye to your son."
"No, don't take our baby away, please don't take him away. I'll do whatever you want. Please don't take him away," I sob.
"One more word out of you, and you'll be out of here too." Shoving the screen door open, he stomps across the porch.
The color drains from my face. I turn towards Alejandro and ask, "What are we going to do, Alejandro? What are we going to do?".
The traffic is unusually heavy for this time of day, making tailing a suspect more difficult. Toni didn't want to get too close to where she'd be noticed, but she wanted to be within a certain range so he couldn't get away. This would be a lot easier if I'd put a tracker on the doc's car, she thinks, weaving around the morning commuters.
She follows him from Martin Luther King Blvd. to a small house over on Larchwood Rd. The towering shrubbery surrounding it and the sizable yard make the dwelling difficult to see. Picking up the binoculars, Toni studies the meager home.
The white single-story wasn't fancy, but it was far from being a shack. Its old-style framework, towering pillars, spacious porch, fancy awning, and trim make a spectator believe it was built around the turn of the century.
Toni scans at the houses that surround it. There's one on either side and two across the way. They, too, are early 19th Century Homes. You'd think the neighbors would get suspicious, seeing young girls coming in and out all the time.
Getting out of his car, the doc unlocks the door.
Toni snaps a picture of him crossing the yard and then a few of him entering the house. She zooms in, hoping to look inside only to discover the blinds are closed. I wonder who owns this place.
Exchanging the eyepiece for a tablet, she types the address into the system. So this is the doc's family home, and it's been handed down since it was first built. Is this his only place or does he own property somewhere else?
Toni is typing his name into the system when she hears a knock on her window. She turns to find a tall, burly gentleman beside her. She rolls her window down.
The man takes a firm stance and asks, "Can I help you with something?"
"My realtor said this house might be up for sale, so I wanted to take a look, you know, get a jump on it before someone else does."
"I don't see the doc and his wife putting their home up for sale, not with them running their charity from it and all."
An inquisitive expression crosses her face. She tilts her head to the side and asks, "His charity?"
"That's right. He takes runaways, kids who fell through the cracks, aged out of the system off the streets. He gives them a place to stay, helps them get an education so they can make a life for themselves."
Toni rolls her eyes. He educates them alright, but it's nothing like what you think. "His wife helps him with this?"
"His second wife. His first wife passed years back." He lowers his head and continues. "Cancer took the poor dear quick."
Toni glances towards the house and then the man. Maybe he got rid of her and used the diagnosis as a way to explain her disappearance.
"His current wife is how this charity came to be. She stumbled into the ER one day, all broken, bruised. The doc asked what happened, and she told him her story, how she managed to escape. She went on to say there were over two dozen in the home waiting to be saved, how a majority of them are from the neighboring Indian villages. The doc decided to set up a place they could go to for help, get their lives back on track."
He'd have to have a license for that if his story is legit. "Maybe he decided to move to somewhere bigger, so he can get more troubled kids off the street."
"It's possible, I suppose, since they seem to be getting new girls in all the time." The neighbor chuckles and says, "I was telling my wife just this morning that they're going to need to trade their van in for a bus before long. My wife laughed and said watching them pile in and out reminds her of the clown cars she used to see at the circus when she was a girl. Despite the crowding, the doc and his wife manage to take the kids to school and pick them up every day. You can almost set your watch by them."
"You'd think it would be easier to homeschool."
"That was his original intentions, but with the extra licensing and the department of education's strict guidelines, they quickly discovered it was more of a hassle than what it was worth."
Or he's taking them to massage parlors, different motels using the school as an excuse. Toni's phone rings. Realizing it's the captain, she turns to the man and says, "Excuse me a second." Scooping up, she answers, "Se...Sarah, hi, you're right, the house at 22 Larchwood road is perfect, just what hubby and I are looking for...That's right; I'm here now." She glances at the man and smiles. "His neighbor was telling me about the doc's charitable efforts, getting runaways off the street.....He and his wife decided not to sell? Oh, what a shame.....Sounds like a plan. I'll meet you at your office in a few." She turns towards the man. "My realtor just told me the doc decided not to sell after all." She eyes the house, sighs, and says, "It would've been perfect too. Well, it's been nice talking to you." Rolling up her window, Toni drives away.
Doc notices the sergeant's unmarked vehicle drive by when he steps onto the spacious porch. He then notices his friend walking towards his house. "The cops are questioning my neighbors. That's not good, not good at all." Pulling the cell from his pocket, he darts inside.
The undercover officer and Jamal follow their suspect from the restaurant to his office. It was one of the large tan buildings off of Peachtree drive. The business district of midtown Atlanta.
Jamal turns to Jarrad and says, "I'd love to get ears in the office and a bug on his computer to find out what's going on."
"I can help with that, sir." The officer smiles. "All I have to do is send a link to his cell. Once he opens it, we'll have full access to his phone." Noticing the surprise on Jamal's face, he explains. "We use this in our undercover work when their provider is giving us grief or taking too long to respond."
"How do you propose we get him to click the link?"
"Easy, I'll disguise it as a picture of a young girl. Make it look like it came from his partner's cell. As long as his phone is on, we'll have the ability to listen to his conversations both on the device and what's going on around him."
Jamal laughs. "The criminals don't stand a chance when you're on the job, do they?"
Jarrad smiles. "I just even the odds, make it harder for the criminals to get away."
Jamal remembers the captain's warning about taking shortcuts. "Your techniques are all well and good, but let's get a wiretap order just to be safe."
The young cop smiles and says, "I know a judge who owes me a few favors." Picking up his phone, he scans his list of contacts.
"Where did you learn this stuff anyway?"
"I was the guy you guys nicknamed the Midnight Hacker."
Jamal recalls a fifteen-year-old juvenile being arrested for committing over three million dollars worth of cyber crimes. With a surprised look on his face, he asks, "That was you?"
The officer chuckles. "I'm afraid so. When I served my time in Juvie an officer asked me to help him stop a cyber attack. He was so impressed with my work that he offered me a full-time job. I do undercover work as a favor to the boss."
"I'm glad you're on our side."
Jarrad smiles. "Me too, sir, me too."
Alejandro and I have been trying all night to come up with a way to save our son, but despite it all, we couldn't figure out a way to keep him out of our trafficker's hands.
"There has to be a way out of this. There has to be," Alejandro says, pacing back and forth across the squeaky hardwood floor. He stops mid-step, pivot, and says, "I got it. We can tell him the baby has passed."
"He'll want to see for himself." I glance at the baby. "Besides, if we say something like that, it just might come true." Being a twenty-six-week preemie, his survival is shaky as it is.
I turn towards the window to find the sun peeking over the horizon. I look over at baby Alex again. My time with you is coming to an end. My heart plummets to my stomach. My breath catches in my throat. I don't want to say goodbye. Wiping my tears away, I turn towards the guys and say, "I know, "Alex and I could hide somewhere, to give us more time to come up with a better plan."
The doc shakes his head, points to my stomach, and says, "You'll rip your incisions if you try. Besides, Alex can't survive without his equipment."
Alejandro takes his hand in mine. "Have you forgotten how cold it is out there? I doubt if either of you will last long."
The weary physician jumps to his feet. "Why don't I talk to him, explain Alex's condition, try to buy us a little more time."
Alejandro glances at the baby and tearfully replies, "You're our only hope, doc."
The physician returns an hour later, a sullen expression on his pale, wrinkled face. It was like he'd aged ten years in a matter of hours.
Seeing him at the door, Alejandro springs to his feet. "Well, what did he say?"
"He said he'd give me a month."
It's not what I hoped for, but it's better than what we had.
The weeks quickly pass. Alex's condition continues to improve. He's able to digest breast milk through a feeding tube. His endotracheal line has been replaced with a CPAP, which is one step closer to breathing on his own. Everyone is pleased with his progress but knows he has a long way to go.
It was a warm March day. I'm pulling double duty in the field, hoping to keep our handler happy. Hearing my name being called, I look up and discover the nurse running towards me. My first thought is that something has happened to the baby. He's been breathing on his own for nearly a week, and he's able to drink a small amount of formula from a bottle, but we know he isn't out of the woods yet despite his great strides. Springing to my feet, I dart across the yard. "What's wrong? Is the baby alright?"
"It's not your son; it's Alejandro. He got into a fight with the boss."
"He did what?" I ask, following her across the yard.
"The man tried to take Alex, and Alejandro stopped him and two of his men."
I run into the makeshift hospital to find Alejandro lying on a gurney. His family is grieving by his side. The boss and his two goons are lifeless on the floor below him, each swimming in a puddle of blood. Gasping, I take a wobbly step back.
The tearful doc walks towards me. His eyes are puffy; his nose is red. Blood covers the majority of his scrubs. Sniffling, he shakes his head and says, "I did everything I could, but it wasn't enough."
Darting across the room, I throw myself across Alejandro's lifeless body. "Don't leave me, Alejandro, please don't leave me," I sob, feeling like my heart has been ripped right out of my chest. I feel a warm, gentle hand rubbing my back; another is stroking my hair. I look up to find his parents doing their best to console me.
"He's in the lord's hands now, Miha," his mother says. She glances towards the ceiling and makes the sign of the cross.
I wipe the tears from my eyes, sniffle, and ask, "Where... Where's the baby?"
The mother smiles and says, "Don't worry, my love. He's safely tucked away in the back."
Walking over, the nurse wraps her arm around my shoulder. Clearing her throat, she wipes a tear from her cheek and says, "Alejandro wanted me to tell you that he loves you and Alex with all his heart and that he'll be watching over you from above."
Happy memories of the times we shared together suddenly comes to mind. All the blissful days we spent walking hand in hand down at the lake. The romantic evenings we had together. The way we'd fall asleep cuddled in each other's arms. How his love, acceptance took me off a destructive path, changed me into the strong, determined woman I am today. He's been my rock, my salvation since the day we first met. I then picture my life without him, how empty it'll be. "I can't live without you, Alejandro. I can't; I can't," I bawl, falling across his battered corpse.
"You have to, Anna, for little Alex's sake." His mother soothingly replies.
I glance up at her. Through teary eyes, I squeeze her hand and say, "You're right. The baby needs us now more than ever."
Seeing someone moving around outside, the doc rushes to my side. "You need to take the baby and go. Before his goons come looking for him."
"How am I going to escape?"
The doctor hands Anna a passport. "I've been working on this since the baby was born." He opens the book to the page marked visa and continues. "You're a legal resident." He then gives her the boss's truck keys and a wad of cash. "It'll be enough to get you far away from here."
"What about you and the others?" Like me, they were brought over illegally.
He eyes the window nervously shifts his weight and says. "Don't worry about us, just take your son and go."
The nurse hands me the baby and a diaper bag. "Continue to give him supplements through the feeding tube the way I showed you until he's strong enough to finish a bottle on his own."
A mix of emotions surges through me as I tearfully glance around the room. I knew I should go for the sake of my son, but I didn't want to leave the only family I've ever known behind. "I'll come back for you, I promise." I cry, racing towards the door.
Remembering how young, naive Anna is, Alejandro's father grabs the second passport, turns to his eldest son, and says, "Your brother would want you to take his place."
The young man eyes his grieving parents. "You and mommy need me."
The man glances towards the door. He wipes a tear from his cheek and says, "She needs you more."
A heavy flow of traffic zips past the two detectives as they listen to their suspect's conversation from the safety of their unmarked car. The white stone office buildings that surround them do little to block the glare of the bright mid-afternoon sun. Even the tall leafy shade trees do little to suppress the heat.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Jamal flips on the air, then dries his face again.
"Thanks, Harry says, adjusting his sweat-drenched clothes. He sees a few passersby stare as they stroll by while the majority of the pedestrians scurry away.
"You're sure it was the cops doc?" Their first suspect asks.
"It was the same one who busted my brother a few years back." The phone shuffles around, the quivering voice continues. "They're closing in, Bill, and I don't know what to do."
"Ok, ok, calm down, let me think a sec." There's a long pause in the conversation, then Brian says, "You said she drove away, right?"
There's a swish on the phone like the drapes are being pulled back. A door squeaks open a few seconds later. There's a faint sound of traffic in the background. The phone shuffles around. "I don't see her."
"Her leaving is a good sign."
"How do you figure?"
"It means you're under suspicion, but they don't have enough for a warrant."
"Why are they watching me? Why? I've been so careful about everything I've done." The door slams too.
"Something must've tipped them off."
"What, Brian, what?"
"Maybe one of your neighbors called it in."
"No, not possible; I have all of them all believing I'm a saint."
"None of that matters now. You need to load up the girls and go while you still can."
"Now, in broad daylight?" He's moved five or six girls at a time, but never the entire bunch.
"You'll take a bigger risk if you wait."
"I suppose you're right. Where do you suggest I go?"
"Take the girls over to the camp. I'll call the others, have them meet you there." The call clicks when it disconnects.
With his mouth agape, Jamal turns towards Harry and says, "I think we need to tell the captain their plan, find out what he wants us to do."
Toni gazes at the historic houses one last time as she pulls away from the curb. They sure don't make them like that anymore, she thinks, admiring the framework, colorful awnings, the handcrafted molding, and fancy Victorian-styled trim.
Toni glances in her rearview mirror to see the doctor darting back inside, his cell phone in hand. I've been made. Making the first right, she scoops up her phone and dials the captain's number. She puts the call on speaker, then continues down the road. These homes are newer replicas of what she just saw. "Captain, Toni here. The doc knows he's been followed. He spotted my car outside his house."
"Hold on. I have Jamal on the other line."
Toni glances around as she waits for her boss to return. You would never guess that child trafficking would happen on this side of town, she thinks, admiring the million dollar plus homes.
Larry returns a few minutes later. "Jamal said that the doc called his partner all panicked, asking what he should do."
"What did Brian say?"
"The partner told him that he needs to pack up and go. Said he and the others would meet them at a camp."
"So, what's the plan, sir?"
"I want you to sit on the house until backup arrives. Jamal and Jarrad are going to follow Brian to the site."
Toni pulls onto a rugged dirt path and takes a quick look around. "Tell them to meet me in the alley behind the house. We'll have less of a chance of being noticed, that away."
Parking her car in an empty lot, she makes her way towards his home. She hears dogs barking a few houses down, but there isn't a soul in sight. She first notices two trampled areas in the overgrowth they call a yard. Both worn walkways lead from the house to the two small storage sheds in the middle of the lot. He's not keeping the girls in there, is he? She then recalls how the traffickers work. It could be part of his conditioning process, I suppose. She makes her way to the first building, a tall, tan, lean-to of a shed, and discovers it's locked. The second, sturdier unit is the same. Maybe I should call the captain and see if we can get the warrant to include them too.
A god-awful stench wafts through the cool breeze. The horrific smell brings back a painful memory from her rookie days.
She and her training officer pull up to the scene to find three decomposed bodies baking in the hot, midsummer sun. Flies swarm all around them. Rats are feasting on the victim's remains. It was the one, and only time she got sick on the job. Her only reprimand too.
She shakes the gruesome image from her head. Someone could still be alive. Toni pounds on the door. "Is anyone in there?"
A young voice cries out, "Please get me out of here before the man comes back."
Toni eyes the lock again. Shooting it would make too much noise. Besides, I'd have to fill out paperwork explaining why I did what I did. "I'll be right back."
"Please hurry, a weak voice replies.
She's scavenging through the overgrowth, trying to find something that'll break the lock when she hears screaming inside the house. She looks up to see the doc beating a young child with a whip. Glancing down the alley, she discovers there isn't a cruiser in sight. Toni turns towards the house again. She might be dead by the time backup arrives.
Using the large Oak trees as cover, Toni darts across the lawn, stopping just outside the door. With her gun drawn, She kicks the barrier open.
The heavy wood slams against the wall. A picture crashes against the floor.
The startled perp jumps from the noise.
Spinning towards the attacker, Toni yells, "Freeze, police."
The batterer turns towards her. Evil shoots from dark, olive eyes when he says, "We've been expecting you, detective."
Toni hears footsteps. She turns to find two more men walk into the room. Take one more step, and I'll shoot," she warns.
"Will you now," a deep voice says.
Toni hears a metallic click. She turns to find a large burly man beside her.
"Drop your weapon, or I'll shoot," Toni orders. Her hands shake as she nervously eyes each of the men.
The giant of a man glances at the others, smiles, and says, "I'd say you're outnumbered, detective, wouldn't you?" He takes a step closer.
Toni eyes the men, not sure what to do.
The front door flies open, cops storm into the room. Toni then sees more officers coming in from the back.
"Drop your weapons, do it now, a deep, gritty voice yells.
"It's about time you showed up," The sergeant says, shakily lowering her weapon.
Darting over to the battered girl, Toni discovers the child can't be more than seven or eight. "Hold on, honey; help is on the way."
The frail child glances up. With tears streaming down her bloody face, she lifts her head and weakly replies, "Thanks."
Hearing footsteps coming towards her, Toni looks up and sees two more men in handcuffs being escorted through the house.
"This is all of them, sergeant."
"Take them to the house and get forensics in here to process this place." She points to a rookie and continues, "I want you to find something that'll cut through a lock." She sees the shape the others are in and adds, "And make it quick."
Picking up her phone, she dials the captain's number. "The doc and five of his accomplices have been arrested, and the girls are being transported to the hospital... There are ten girls in the house and at least one in the shed. I have reason to believe there are a few dead bodies in there too... I will, sir." Hanging up, she turns to find the rookie beside her.
He holds up a tool. "I have the bolt cutters you asked for, sergeant."
"Good, follow me." She turns to another officer, points, and says, "Make sure she gets taken care of."
The detectives discover three terrified young girls handcuffed to the cement floor in the larger of the two buildings. Deep slash marks cover a majority of their thin, naked bodies. Toni turns towards the officer. "Get these cuffs off them and make sure the paramedics see them too."
"Copy that, sergeant."
She walks over to the second shed to find several decomposing corpses scattered across the cold, cement floor. Like the battered girl, they couldn't be more than seven or eight. Her heart sinks into her stomach. Tears swell in her eyes. Shaking her head, she says, "I'm sorry we couldn't have saved you too."
A whirlwind of emotions surges through me as Armando and I bump along the rugged dirt path on our way to freedom. It's a mix of excitement, fear, sorrow, and regret. I have no idea what the future holds, but I know it has to be better than the life I've had.
I gaze across the horizon and then at the cloudless blue sky. I wish you could've taken this journey with me, Alejandro, that you could've lived out your dreams too. I glance back at the makeshift hospital, the baby he sacrificed his life to save, and then towards the heavens again. I'll never forget you, my love, never. I cry, wiping the tears from my swollen eyes.
I glance down at the infant sleeping peacefully in my arms. I promise to protect you even if it means sacrificing my life to keep you safe. Sniffling, I wipe my face again.
The countless hours Alejandro and I spent dreaming about our freedom suddenly comes to mind. The way he and I sketched out every little detail down to our fancy decor, the marble floors, and the three-tiered red-velvet drapes.
I then recall how we decided that our family should consist of eight kids, four boys, four girls, two dogs, and a Persian cat. We even agreed on a few names. I remember how excited Alejandro would get as he sketched out his elaborate plans. The way he'd explain each of his ideas as he drew.
"We'll have a white, two-story home on the lake. It'll have a big backyard with lots of trees so the kids will have plenty of room to run and play. The front yard will be large and shady too. And we'll have a line of trees on either side of the gravel road leading to the house." He pushes his paper aside, turns towards me, takes his hand in mine, and says, "First, I want to take you on an elaborate honeymoon. One you'll never forget."
I gaze up at him. With a gleam in my eye, I smile and ask, "Where will we go?"
"Wherever your heart desires. We'll stay in the fanciest motels. Eat only the best foods, dress in the finest clothes."
"It sounds wonderful, Alejandro, absolutely marvelous."
Kissing the top of my head, Alejandro smiles and says, "I'll make it happen for us someday. I will. Just you wait and see."
Pulling the baby in tight, I glance up at the clear blue sky. We're free now, Alejandro. Thanks to you, Alex and I are finally free.
Armando looks over to find me sobbing. "Are you alright?"
"I'm just thinking about how your brother sacrificed his life for us."
"He loves you, Anna. You and the baby. He'd do anything in the world for you two."
I dry my face, turn towards him and say, "I love him too."
He rubs my arm, smiles, and says, "I know you do."
I look behind us again. "I miss him so much, Armando. I miss every little thing about him. His smile, his laugh, his voice, his gentle touch." I sob.
Armando wipes a tear from his cheek, sniffles, and says, "I miss him too."
I see the pain, the agony in his eyes. I then remember the sacrifices he had to make. "How selfish of me walling in my grief when you've given up so much trying to keep us safe."
"You're hurting. I get that. I am too. I just show it differently than you." He gulps back his tears and then continues. "What you and Aljendro had was special, something you don't find every day."
"We had this connection, a real strong bond like we're two old friends reuniting again. And our love-making, It was so magical; like nothing, I'd ever experienced before."
Armando clears his throat, shifts in his seat, and says, "I'd rather not hear about my baby brother's sex life if you don't mind."
I feel my face turn red. "Sorry." I look towards the floor and add, "I got carried away."
There's a long pause, then he says, "All he ever talked about was you. Anna did this. Anna said that. I don't know how many times I told him enough about this chick already. The guy would drive us nuts the way he'd go on and on about you." He smiles and says. "Now I've gotten to know you; I can understand why he feels the way he does. You're special, one of a kind that's for sure."
Eyeing the man beside me I realize I didn't know much about him other than Alejandro did his best to keep us apart. He must've had his reasons for doing what he did. Some of the horrid men from my past suddenly come to mind. Giving him a suspicious look, I scoot closer to the door. "Thanks, I think."
Seeing my reaction, Armando laughs. "I didn't mean for that to sound like a come on. You're cute, have a great personality but your not my type."
Still feeling uneasy, I pull the blanket around me. "That's good to know."
I glance up to find two goons standing on either side of the gate, machine guns pointing our way. "What are we going to do, Armando?"
"Only one thing we can do, keep going and hope they'll move out of the way."
I anxiously turn towards him. "What if they don't?"
He laughs and says, "We'll have fewer thugs to worry about now, won't we?" He pushes the pedal down more. The rickety truck picks up speed.
I grab Armando's arm, "We could be seriously injured or killed."
He glances at me and then the road again. "I want you and the baby to get down on the floorboard and cover up with this." He tosses me a blanket.
"Just do what I say." He snaps.
Holding Alex against me, I ease to the floor.
Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Armando pushes the pedal down more.
I hear men barking out orders. I then hear splitting wood. I peek out from under the blanket to find boards and other debris flying through the air. "Is it over?"
A spray of bullets pings off the side of the truck. "They're shooting at us?"
"Just be glad they can't aim." His jaw drops, his tan face turns pasty white. "Oh, no, not that."
"What is it, Armando?"
He glances down at me, a look of horror on his face. "You better pray we make it out of here alive."
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