~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He watched them through the window, his presence masked by the darkness outside the small coffee shop. He saw the way the man touched her hand—tentatively, gently—and the way she smiled at him with affection. They had chatted for hours, long past the point where the watcher grew cold and annoyed, wishing he too were inside the warm building having a cup of coffee and chatting with a pretty girl.
But his plan was to watch and see what happened between the man who was so important to their plans, and the woman he met for coffee every other Saturday night. Perhaps he could use the information to his advantage someday soon to move up in the organization. He already knew the woman’s name and where she lived, that they’d known each other for years, and that she wasn’t any kind of law enforcement. But they never went anywhere together to have sex, which the watcher found pretty strange, and he wondered what kind of frigid bitch she must be.
If he were inside in the warmth, he would also have a pretty girl to chat with. He’d find out all about her boring job, and her lonely apartment, and her parents back in someplace like Omaha. Unlike the man he was watching, though, he would convince the girl to come back to his place for the night. He’d watch as she hesitated, unsure of the idea. He’d smile and encourage her to look at his driver’s license, and text her best friend with the information. Maybe he’d even recommend that her friend call the police if she didn’t check in by phone in an hour or two. All these suggestions would reassure the girl, and after she duly made arrangements for her safety, they would leave the cafe arm in arm, still chatting and smiling at each other like two young lovers, and disappear into the dark night.
Of course, the driver’s license would be fake, and the phone call would go unanswered, and the police would look in vain for a girl who would never be seen again…
“In the elevator? Really?” Dan’s eyes went wide as the coffee cup that was halfway to his lips hung in midair.
“Yeah! She just gave a weird look and a loud groan, and all of a sudden, there was a baby between her legs on the stretcher. The old man in the corner looked like he’d just seen a horror movie.” Laura grinned at the memory.
“What did you do?”
She shrugged. “Put the baby on her chest, covered it with a blanket, and exited on the third floor. The doc met us in the hall, and we got her into a room. We looked for the dad but he was so stunned he hadn’t gotten out of the elevator before the doors closed and didn’t even know what floor his wife was on. The doc had to finally go ahead and cut the umbilical cord himself. The dad was pretty disappointed.” She chuckled and took a sip of coffee, the fatigue from the last twelve hours of work showing in the lines and dark circles underneath her eyes.
She put the cup down. “How are you doing?” she asked. He, too, looked tired—more tired than usual.
“I’m okay.” He stared into his coffee for a minute. “Laura, in another month or two, will you go away with me somewhere? Just for a few weeks?”
She digested the unexpected offer for a moment while her heart did a flip-flop. They’d been friends for a very long time, and closer than friends for the last few years. But he’d always maintained a distance between them that she’d never understood, though she’d come to respect it. She accepted whatever he could give and didn’t nag for more, and tried to fill her loneliness with a string of boyfriends who never seemed to last too long. That’s why this question came as a complete surprise.
“Um, yes, Dan. I’d, um, love to. You sure?”
“I need some… I don’t know. I need something normal.”
She squeezed his hand in sympathy. The occasional hand-holding, and a short hug in greeting and goodbye, was all the physical connection they’d ever shared. But he soaked up her stories of babies, laughing at the funny ones and commiserating over her frustrations, and never judging or criticizing. She gave him a quiet acceptance of his purpose, without knowing what it was.
Too soon her yawns threatened to split her face open. It was almost 2am and her shift had been over for three hours. She needed to get to bed so she could get up in the morning and do it all over again. They left a nice tip for the server who kept their coffee cups full and hot, and made their way out into the darkness. She got into her car, he got into his, and as always, he followed her the short distance back to her apartment building and watched until she was safely through the locked door before driving off, because ‘there’s a lot of really awful scum in this world.’
In less than twenty minutes, she was snuggled in her soft bed, her last thoughts of the staff meeting she had in the morning.
Dan drove back through the darkness, the memory of Laura’s face the only thing he was really paying attention to. Every other week he would treasure the first glimpse of her bright, open face with a ready smile. He relished staring into the mahogany-colored eyes that exactly matched her curly waist-length hair, always held back in a practical braid, and the smattering of freckles across her face. The women he saw every day usually stared at the floor. It suddenly struck him that he had no idea the color of their eyes, because they never looked up.
He wished he could talk to her, to relieve a little of the guilt that weighed so heavily on him. Perhaps then he’d be able to sleep for just one night. But tonight, even troubled sleep would be a while for him. There was a problem when he arrived back.
“What the fuck happened?” he shouted, looking at the naked and lifeless woman on the concrete floor in front of him.
“Dunno, boss. The girls say she wasn’t feeling good all day, and then she passed out just before you got back. I checked her pulse and—nothing.”
Dan looked at the other naked women cowering against the back wall. He strode over to one of them and tried not to hate himself for the way she flinched as he towered over her small form.
“You! Do you know anything about this?”
“No, sir, I’m not sure, oh God, is she dead?” At this last question, she dared to look up at him, into his eyes, as if hoping there was some way this nightmare had not just gotten worse. With a start, he realized she had blue eyes and he stared into them for a long moment before shaking himself and getting back to the present problem.
“Did you see any of the masters touch her?” he demanded.
She shook her head, her courage abandoning her, and her eyes dropped back down to the floor.
“Did she say anything to you after she arrived?”
“Sir, oh, God, she kept saying she was diabetic and needed insulin…”
He swung around to look at his second-in-command, who held up his hands. “News to me, boss. This was one of Master 3’s takes. She’d only been here since this morning.”
“God fucking dammit! All right, let’s get her body out of here. I want to see Master 3 in my office in thirty seconds. Understood?” He reached down to grab the limp arms as the other man grabbed limp legs and together they dragged the body out of the cell, ignoring the quiet crying coming from the huddled forms that they locked in behind them.
As soon as they reached Dan’s office, they eased the woman to the floor. Dan bent over her body and felt briefly at her carotid artery, then nodded.
“Call Garcia. We need him to take care of this quietly.” He left the office briefly and came back with a black bag. Together they lifted the body and placed it into the bag, zipping it up with care. Once more, they lifted their still burden and then made their way out a back door. A patrolling guard raised his eyebrows but said nothing as they placed it into the large trunk of a dark car.
“Let me know how it goes, Josh. I’ve got to deal with Marco.” Dan walked back into his office and shut the door.
Josh started to close the trunk, then leaned over the bag, pulling the zipper down just a bit more to make sure it didn’t cover her face. He said a prayer, shut the trunk, and made a call as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
~ ~ ~
Twenty minutes later, Josh pulled off the road into a small rest area that had no lights. He climbed out and unlocked the trunk and another man emerged from a dark van to join him.
“Goddammit. This isn’t supposed to happen!” Garcia bitched as he felt for a pulse in her neck. It was there—slow, but reassuringly regular. The two of them lifted her carefully out of the bag and the trunk and carried her over to the van. Together they climbed inside and laid her on a stretcher. Garcia began issuing instructions to his assistant, a woman in scrubs. The two of them quickly hooked up an IV and a heart monitor.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Garcia muttered. He slipped into the driver’s seat as the woman seated herself next to the stretcher. Josh slipped out of the van, and the makeshift ambulance spun its tires on the gravel as it sped off towards the lights of the city.
“You goddamn idiot! How could you not know she was diabetic and needed insulin?”
Marco’s mouth gaped open, and he almost lost the wad of gum he was chewing. “I swear, boss, she never said anything about that when we were at the restaurant! I had no idea!”
“What the fuck did you think this was?” Dan waved a small device in front of Marco’s face. When the man looked confused, Dan threw it at him. It bounced off his chest and skittered across the floor. “It’s an insulin pump, you dumbass! You ripped it off of her when she came in. Didn’t she say anything?”
“Sure she did, but they all say something to make us feel sorry for them!”
“And you didn’t think this pump told you she was telling the truth?”
The man’s silence gave Dan his answer.
“She couldn’t survive without it. How the fuck did you think we’d be able to train her and sell her if she could eat only certain foods and had to take insulin through a pump? Goddamn idiot! This is why I’m supposed to be present when you process them, but you think you’re above the rules every fucking time!”
“What the fuck does it matter? We’ll just get another bitch!”
Dan’s stomach twisted just a little. One more woman who would have to go through hell on earth before this was over. “That’s not the problem.” He made his voice as cold as he could manage. “Now we have a body to deal with. Any time there’s a body, there’s a chance of it being discovered and a chance of this whole thing coming down around our ears. Any time we take a woman, there’s a chance of being caught, so we take only exactly what we need. We have to break these women, not kill them. If you don’t get that, you’re useless to me. You’re off collections.”
Marcos’ face turned from green to purple. “You can’t do that! My uncle–”
“–is a businessman. He knows how to take care of his merchandise,” Dan finished for him. “Don’t worry. I’ll be updating him on this little debacle. And Marco, if I find out that you’re taking out your anger on the girls, I’ll make sure your body is never found. Do you understand?” He didn’t wait for an answer before waving at the guards holding Marco who promptly escorted him out the door.
Once Dan was alone, he steeled himself for the phone call he had to make. Quickly calculating that it was around lunchtime at the place he was about to call, he muttered a prayer—one of many lately—and picked up the phone. The number he dialed was quickly picked up.
“Some unfortunate news, sir.” He gave an update of the night’s events. “I have a disposal specialist who will make sure her body is never found. I’m very sorry about this.”
The laugh on the other end surprised him. “Dan, my boy, these things happen. Marco’s young and stupid, but he’ll learn.”
“I’m taking him off collections, sir.”
“No, you’re not.” The hardness in Victor DeLeo’s voice surprised Dan.
“Dan, I like you, and you’ve moved up quickly in this organization. Don’t make me regret my decision to put you in charge. He’s my nephew and just needs to learn the business a bit better. You’ll keep him right where he is.”
Dan felt the knot in his stomach grow even tighter. “Yes, sir.”
“He can make up for his mistake by getting a replacement.” It was not a suggestion.
“Dan, how long since you’ve had one of the girls? You’re awfully tense.”
“I don’t sample the goods, sir.” Because that’s called rape. “It keeps me focused.” He thought of Laura. As ridiculous as it sounded, he also wanted to keep himself untainted for her. She was untouched by any of this, and maybe when he was done, she could save him from the blackness he was going to carry with himself for the rest of his life.
“Your decision. But it might help you relax. Think about it.” DeLeo clicked off.
Dan put the phone down. He was not looking forward to the smirk on Marcos’ face when he found out his assignment.
Dan has a huge secret –
And it’s about to engulf the one person he wanted to keep safe.