Authors: Nenia Campbell
Michael went as still as a statue. If not for the warmth of his arms around me, and his breathing, he might not have been alive at all. “What do you mean?”
“Her younger sister. That was how he kept her loyal to him. We have Jatinder now, but she's already shown Adrian that she's capable of being led around. He knows her weakness, and if he finds her, he'll come after them both like a shark to blood.”
“He knows your weaknesses, as well,” he pointed out. “And he knows them far better than hers.”
“Not all of them.”
“They might as well be inscribed in your face.”
“Oh yeah? What are they?” I tried to sound brave.
“You wouldn't like the answer to that.”
He let go of me. I didn't think he would answer, but then he closed his eyes and said, as though in recitation, “You're uncomfortable with your sexuality, which means you'd be easy to intimidate with sexual violence — and rape.” I flinched. “You're naturally wary of men, and it would be easy to bend that fear, to make you see the male body as a weapon. With your guilt and your issues with your body, you'd probably internalize the attack anyway, and view it as being at least partly your fault.
“You care about your friends and family, and would go farther than most to keep them safe — but you wouldn't stoop to self-sacrifice. If they were killed, you could be persuaded to feel at fault for their deaths, especially with a rejected quid pro quo bargain — that's why you were so upset about Suraya being chosen and not you. You chose self-preservation, and now you feel guilty about it.
“You believe you're strong, but most of that strength is superficial and psychological. When it's stripped away, all that's left is a sensitive core riddled with insecurities. You often feel vulnerable, and physically you're quite weak. That's why you find being helpless so terrifying. In some ways, feeling trapped is what scares you most, because it leaves you open to anything and you know you won't be able to defend yourself.”
It took me a moment to form words. “Is that all you see when you look at me? Weakness?”
“No. That's what I've observed over months of watching you. When I was your captor, and when I was going to be your killer, it was my job to notice and pay attention. So I did, because that is what I was trained to do.” Michael let out his breath. “And if I did, you can fucking bet that Callaghan did, too. To him, it comes as naturally as breathing, and you're the delusional one if you think he won't take advantage of that.”
“Just like Suraya.”
“He doesn't have a grudge against Suraya.”
“She betrayed him.”
“So did you,” Michael pointed out. “Also, you shot him, crippled him. He wants your blood.”
I repressed a shudder. He'd already gotten that, and more. “What about the cost to our leadership? Everyone thinks that I should go.”
“It's what they think. I can tell. Unlike them, I haven't proved myself yet.”
“Suraya has training you don't. For starters, she's done recon like this before.”
“Prostitution, you mean.” I wouldn't dance around it anymore. “Right?”
“Yes,” he said wearily, “among other things.”
What other things? His voice didn't suggest he was open to explanations and I didn't ask. But I could imagine, and my thoughts whirled around in my head like a blender.
“So, what, we're supposed to just sit here and let her do this because she's done it before? Because she deserves that fate? Because she's more autonomously sexual and that deserves to be punished?”
“She's nothing to him.” His voice stung my ear. “He wants you.”
“That's not true!” I said, even as my brain whispered liar. “He wants all of us.”
“You shot him, sweetheart. You turned him down. You marked him, and that makes this personal, because you're the one who got away. And if he gets you this time, there won't be a next time, because he will never, ever let you go. He will kill you a little each day, have you begging for the death he won't give you.”
By the time he finished, he was breathing hard.
“I wasn't living until I met you, and I sure as fuck can't live without you — and it'll be a cold, cold day in hell before I let that son of a bitch take you away from me.”
I could feel my resolve crumbling like a fortress under siege.
“I didn't realize you felt that way,” I whispered.
Michael stared at me, flushed, and angry, and wild, and brilliant. “You goddamn fool.” He kissed me fiercely then, and I let him, and we fell back against the sheets, his arm around me, holding me so tightly it seemed as if he were afraid I'd disappear.
Sometimes when he opened his mouth it was as if he was breaking my heart with every breath, and pouring myself into him, piece by piece, was the only way to fill the void. Two broken halves don't necessarily make a whole, though. Sometimes the only thing they make is a mess. I was starting to think that Michael and I, we were both messes.
But walking away was no longer an option.
You can spend your entire life making reparation for a single mistake. My hands were red with blood and if walls could talk, thousands of rooms across the world would be screaming my name.
I never claimed to be a good man — and I'd never wanted to be one. I'd met plenty of so-called 'good men,' and I'd seen them get taken to the cleaners again and again. In our world, nice guys always finish last. Or they're fucking hypocrites. Or both.
But lately, I found myself wondering if I was even capable of goodness. Time and again the answer seemed to be a resounding “no.” I'd succeeded at most things so easily that it was a wonder to find something that seemed so beyond my grasp. What was the point when I seemed doomed to failure? It seemed fucking useless to try.
And yet, she made me want to try. Every time she woke up from another nightmare, and I saw that same look on her face that I'd resolved never to put there again if I could help it, put there by me, once more, where I was helpless to stop it — in her dreams — it was like taking a knife to the gut, and having it twisted, hard.
It made me want to try harder than I had ever wanted to try at anything in my life.
What kind of man sells a woman into slavery?
The man Cliff Cordova had chosen looked like a drug runner. He was wearing a ratty sweatshirt and secondhand jeans. His skin was the pallid gray color that only occurs when spending too much time awash in artificial light — I doubted he'd seen the sun in weeks. Beneath his greasy bangs, his eyes darted like a stray dog's as it tried to decide whether snatching a fallen roast is worth the punishment of its master.
I was wearing a short red dress crafted from a material that, chemically speaking, was probably more closely related to polyurethane than any actual fabric. There was not much of it, and every so often I caught him studying my legs.
I ignored this, just as I ignored the kick he aimed at the scrawny cat that came mewling up to us for food. He was exactly what he was supposed to be: a bad man, and a coward. It was distasteful, but he was what the job required. At least I didn't have to carry on conversation with him. I was not sure what he had been told about me, so I didn't speak to him at all.
A cold breeze, damp with moisture, zigzagged through the alley, scented faintly by the dumpsters. It was not too bad, though. I had grown up in the poor part of India. On hot days, the entire town could reek of shit, and burnt plastic from the nearby factories. The mere act of stepping outside could be suffocating.
This is what happens when a civilization is caught between the old ways and the new. The moral and ecological responsibilities that should accompany new advancements are slower to develop than the advancements themselves. The end result? Factories made of shiny steel that run in the absence of any clean air laws, powered by the blood of a thousand innocents who work their interiors like slaves at the bellows of an ancient forge.
My country was full of contradictions — but then, most are. This one was no exception. For a country that often considers itself the pinnacle of cultural enlightenment, the U.S. is remarkably quick to scapegoat its ethnic and religious minorities.
Similarly, there is a heavy tension in India between the Hindu and the Muslim people. I grew up with one foot in both worlds. My father was Muslim, my mother Hindu. Later, someone suggested to me that my father might have raped my mother in order to get her dowry. She had come from a wealthy family, and while my maternal grandparents disowned their child after the marriage, she certainly hadn't come empty-handed. As damaged goods, my grandparents may have felt that they had no choice.
Such a terrible thing, to suggest to a child. I can't even remember who said it to me now. So many people have told me so many terrible things. I'd have gone insane a long time ago if I remembered all of them.
, I thought to myself,
I already am
In my young adulthood, I ran drugs and did a few other odd-jobs for the criminal underworld, including, but not limited to, selling sex for money. And why? Because I had seen what happened to those who had made their honest livings. Girls forced into marriages where “no” either meant “yes” or a beating. Girls with missing fingers, stolen from them by the very factories that were powered by their lifeblood. That Sikh girl I had described to Michael, the one whose head was crushed by heavy machinery when her beautiful long hair got caught in a turbine. They said her brains exploded like overripe fruit.
That is the price of an honest living. How cruel. How
. I wanted no part in it, then or now.
Which brought me here, ironically. To a club that wasn't supposed to exist, owned by a man who I was fairly sure wouldn't be a legal resident of the U.S. A gateway were women were bought and sold like gold.
, I thought.
Maybe I already am insane
Revenge can do that to a person: blind them to all reason, blind them to anything that doesn't further their goals. For many, it's a death sentence. For others, it's a curse. For me — it was an excuse to live.
Where the alley deadended there was a small enclosure of buildings, with roll-down metal doors. Behind one, I could hear music, the thud of the baseline, and loud, raucous laughter. The druggie pressed the button beside the door and a few minutes later the metal door rolled up with a loud grating sound and a large tattooed man appeared in its frame.
Stammering, the druggie said, “Uh — I'm here to see — ” I didn't catch the name he rattled off. It was clearly foreign, and I had the feeling he wasn't pronouncing it correctly. “ — I had an appointment.”
, I thought.
As if he agreed, the tattooed man did not answer, turning back to the darkness from which he had come. But he did not close the door, and it took the druggie an addled moment to realize this indicated that he should follow. Which he did, yanking me roughly along with more force than required.
Without being too obvious, I studied my surroundings as we passed them — very young women
(younger than Jatinder, some of them)
, dancing with men old enough to be their fathers. Music that was popular five years ago. The lighting was low, promising anonymity, but the security cameras tucked away in the corner of the room threatened blackmail later. I noticed a number of doors along the far side of the wall and wondered if the club owner dealt in some underhanded prostitution of his own within this grungy, heroin-fueled discotheque.
The tattooed man caught the eye of a shorter, rounded man in tight slacks and a paisley shirt in a slimy-looking satin material unbuttoned to show off a gold chain and a substantial amount of chest hair. He was in the company of a large breasted blonde woman who looked as though she were still in need of several drinks to get her through what would inevitably transpire between them later that evening.
We went into a room separate from the dance floor. It was colder in here, and the floors were bare concrete, the walls unfinished. There was a grate in the center of the floor. It looked very clean.
“This is the girl?” The man, who I presumed was the club owner, smoothed down his paisley shirt. His accent — an abrasive, offshoot of Eastern European that was not readily identifiable —was very thick.
He looked me over with black eyes that were at odds with the fish-belly white of his skin. His fat lips turned down, and he toyed with his chain.
“She is dark. Much too dark.”
“Less likely to make the evening news,” the druggie pointed out in a rare example of lucid wisdom. I kept my face impassive, not revealing the anger this observation incited within me. The foreign man studied me, chewing on his cigarette, scattering smoldering ash to the barren concrete floor.
“This is true.” He paused, as though a thought had just occurred to him. “She is very pretty also. Some customers prefer dark meat. They say it tastes sweeter.”
He laughed, and I realized that it had been his raucous laugh that I had heard on the other side of the wavy metal door.
The druggie, damn his cowardice, laughed, too. Then, just as abruptly, the club owner cut off and that look of hawkish appraisal crossed his face once more.
“Does she speak English?”
The druggie fidgeted with the pockets of his sweatshirt. I suspected he was wishing for a hit, but his behavior had caused the tattooed guard by the door to tense. The guard thought he was fingering a concealed weapon, but the druggie was too foolish to realize that. “Only a little,” he said. “I don't know.”
The club owner muttered something in his own native language, then said a phrase in what I knew was Spanish. I blinked slowly. His accent was terrible, his syntax convoluted and unpolished, but grammar wasn't the point here. No, his words were designed to provoke a reaction. He had asked me if I was a gutter whore, if I had ever fucked my father.
Et tu, Brute?
This club owner seemed soft, but appearances could be deceiving. I could see him growing fat off his allegiances to the government in his native land as those beneath him were crushed slowly by an iron fist. Eastern Europeans were hard because they had to be. There was no other way to survive. If you were giving, people would take and take until nothing was left. But being hard was a very different thing from being
. I remembered that frightened blonde he had been with. This man clearly enjoyed his work.
Just like Adrian Callaghan
“Maybe she is good after all.” The club owner's ugly voice jarred me from my ugly thoughts. I looked at him, keeping my face passive. His eyes gleamed with predatory consideration. “We will take her.”
“There's still the matter of payment,” said the druggie, folding his scrawny arms. Where the sleeves rolled up I could see track marks, thick and purple.
“Ah, yes.” The club owner snorted. “Your finder fee.” His voice was laced with amusement that swirled like the clouds of smoke from his cheap clove cigarettes. He snapped his fingers, turning to speak to the man still standing silently in the corner. His lip curled as he said, “Pay him what he deserves.”
That was when I knew—but knowing came a heartbeat too late. Something sharp jabbed into my arm. Despite his not inconsiderable bulk, the club owner moved fast. Too fast, like he'd been trained.
I looked down just in time to see a dirty needle receding from me, disappearing into that shiny paisley shirtsleeve. He was smiling.
Just like Adrian Callaghan
, I thought again.
The last thing I saw before I hit the ground were the red holes blossoming on the front of the druggie's sweatshirt like gory fireworks. The tattooed guard had a gun fitted with a silencer, and his face, as he fired, was just as expressionless as it had been when he'd first greeted us at the door. The druggie's body crumpled, as wasted in death as he had been in life, and I remember thinking,
this is unexpected
I woke up the next morning alone. The space next to me was warm, though, so I knew he hadn't been gone long. I sighed and rolled out of bed, wincing a little as I opened the blinds to let the light shine in.
It was our turn to buy supplies — his and mine. Two people buying supplies enough for six would have looked suspicious, so we went out in singles or pairs several times a week. Not only did this help to rule out any odd patterns, it ensured that everyone managed to get at least some of the food they liked.
Ordinarily I welcomed the opportunity for a bit of fresh air, but after last night's grim conversation I was apprehensive. Michael's mood was unpredictable, and sometimes an incident that had seemed resolved the night before could rekindle into a fresh grievance the following morning. Even I knew this wasn't healthy, but I wasn't sure what I could do about it: Michael was more set in his ways than an old man.
I grabbed a sweater from the floor and a pair of jeans that were finally starting to feel worn-in. My watch was on the desk and as I was buckling it around my wrist I heard a loud knock on my door.
“Come in.” I gave the wristband a tug to make sure it wasn't too tight, and then sat down in the chair so I could pull on my shoes. Michael slipped in like smoke. Under a black leather jacket he was wearing a wife beater that hugged his powerful body so tightly that not much was left to the imagination. He'd covered the scar on his face with some foundation, but even without it he would still draw stares. He saw my expression and scowled, pulling his baseball cap low over his head, to cover his eyes.
Looking at him like this was almost painful. He looked like what he was: a killer. The other night, he had reeled off my weaknesses as casually as a shopping list. He was still dangerous. The imbalance of power was still very real, and not at all in my favor.
Who else saw what Michael did?
Who else knew my secrets?
If I did, you can fucking bet that Callaghan did, too.
(“Torture covers a broad spectrum. The two main subgroups are physiological and psychological, but these can be divided into the subcategories of spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual. Everyone has at least one weakness in at least one of these areas that can be exploited. Finding it only requires patience, and a suspension of societal norms.”)
Maybe he already had.
Adrian was the one who had trained Michael to see weakness, the one who had taught him how to intimidate — and it showed. In fact, sometimes, when Michael got really focused, it was like it was Adrian looking out of his eyes instead of him.
That spooked me more than anything.
“You about ready?” Michael asked gruffly.
I let my sneakered foot fall to the floor. “Yeah,” I said, more certain than I felt. “Yeah, I'm ready.”
He nodded at the door.
Clouds hung heavy over the city. I knew the Golden Gate Bridge would be all but invisible from the bay, sheathed in blankets of fog so thick you could almost cut through them with a knife.
The moment we left our office suite in the Financial District, my hair begin to frizz and tangle in the moisture-laden wind. Water vapor from the air beaded on my skin, dampening my clothes, warming to my skin until it began to feel unpleasantly like sweat. Frowning, I tugged at the hem of my sweater.