Revenge, Caleb reminded himself. That was the purpose of all this. Revenge, twelve years in the planning and only a few months away in its execution.
As a slave trainer, he had trained at least a score of girls. Some were willing, offering themselves as pleasure slaves to escape destitution, sacrificing freedom for security. Others came to him as the coerced daughters of impoverished farmers looking to off load their burden in exchange for a dowry. Some were the fourth or fifth wives of sheikhs and bankers sent by their husbands to learn to satisfy their distinct appetites. But this particular slave, the one he eyed from across the busy street – she was different. She was neither willing, nor coerced, nor sent to him. She was pure conquest.
Caleb had tried to convince Rafiq he could train any one of the other types of girls. That they would best be prepared for such a serious, potentially dangerous task, but Rafiq would not be moved. He too, had waited a long time to achieve his revenge and he refused to leave anything to chance. The girl had to be someone truly special. She had to be a gift so valuable that she and her trainer alike would be talked about by everyone.
After years of being the sole apprentice to Muhammad Rafiq, Caleb’s reputation had slowly built, establishing him as a man both efficient and single-minded in whatever tasks were entrusted to him. He’d never failed. And now, all those years had been for this moment. The time had come to prove his worth to a man he owed everything to as much as himself. There was only one obstacle remaining between him and vengeance. The last true test of his soullessness – willfully stripping someone of their freedom.
He’d trained so many he no longer remembered their names. He could train this one too, for Rafiq.
The plan was a simple one. Caleb would return to America and seek out a candidate for the Flower Sale, what the Arabs called, the Zahra Bay'. The auction would take place in his adopted country of Pakistan in a little over four months. It was sure to be littered with beauties from the typical male-run countries, where acquiring such women was limited only by supply and demand. But a girl from a first world country – that would be considered an accomplishment. Girls from Europe were highly sought after, though American girls were the crown jewels of the pleasure trade. Such a slave would solidify Caleb’s standing as a true player in the pleasure trade and gain him access to the most powerful inner circle in the world.
His goal was to find someone similar to what he was used to, someone exquisitely beautiful, poor, likely inexperienced, and predisposed to submit. Once he made his selection, Rafiq would send four men to assist Caleb in smuggling the girl out of the country and into Mexico.
Rafiq had contacted an ally who would provide safe haven in Madera during the first six weeks Caleb would need to help his captive acclimate. Once she was reasonably compliant, they would make the two-day trip to Tuxtepec and board the private plane. Eventually landing in Pakistan where Rafiq would assist Caleb in the final weeks of training prior to the Zahra Bay'.
Too easy, Caleb thought. Though for a moment, it felt like anything but.
Caleb, from his vantage point diagonally across the street, glanced at the girl he’d been observing for the last thirty minutes. Her hair was pulled away from her face, a heavy frown played across her mouth as she stared intently at the ground before her feet. She fidgeted sometimes, alluding to a sense of restlessness she was unable to hide. He wondered why she seemed so anxious.
Caleb was both close enough to see, but hidden enough away, that all any would see would be a dark vehicle, heavily tinted, but non-descript. He was almost as invisible as the girl tried to be.
Could she sense her life as she knew it hanging precariously in the balance? Could she feel his eyes on her? Did she have a sixth sense for monsters? The thought of it made him smile. Perversely, there was a part of him that hoped the girl did possess a sixth sense for spotting monsters in broad daylight. But he’d been watching her for weeks; she was completely oblivious to his presence. Caleb let out a sigh. He was the monster that no one thought to look for in the light of day. It was a common mistake. People often believed they were safer in the light, thinking monsters only came out at night.
But safety – like light – is a façade. Underneath, the whole world is drenched in darkness. Caleb knew that. He also knew the only way to truly be safer, was to accept the dark, to walk in it with eyes wide open, to be a part of it. To keep your enemies close. And so that’s what Caleb did. He kept his enemies close, very close, so that he could no longer discern where they ended and he began. Because there was no safety: monsters lurked everywhere.
He looked down at his watch, then back up to the girl. The bus was late. Seemingly frustrated, the girl sat on the dirt with her backpack on her knees. Had this been a regular bus stop there would be others, meandering behind her or sitting by a bench, but it wasn’t, so every day Caleb could observe her sitting alone under the same tree near the busy street.
Her family was poor, the next most important factor after being beautiful. It was easier for poor people to disappear, even in America. And especially when the person missing was old enough to have simply run away. It was the typical excuse given by authorities when they couldn’t find someone. They must have run away.
The girl made no move to leave the bus-stop despite the fact that her bus was running forty-five minutes late and Caleb thought it was interesting for some reason. Did she enjoy school so much? Or did she hate home so much? If she hated home, that would make things easier. Perhaps she’d view her kidnapping as a rescue. He almost laughed – right.
He eyed the girl’s shapeless, unflattering attire: loose fitting jeans, gray hoodie, headphones and a backpack. It was her consistent outfit, at least until she got to school. There, she would usually change into something more feminine, flirty even. But at the end of the day, she’d change back. He thought about her hating her home life again. Did she dress that way because her home life was restrictive or unstable? Or to prevent unwanted attention from a dangerous neighborhood to and from school? He didn’t know. But he wanted to.
There was something interesting about her that made Caleb want to jump to the conclusion she was the girl he’d been looking for, someone with the ability to blend-in. Someone with the good sense to do as they’re told when faced with authority, or do as they must when faced with danger. A survivor.
Across the street the girl fidgeted with her headphones. Her eyes stared dispassionately at the ground. She was pretty, very pretty. He didn’t want to do this to her, but what choice did he have? He’d resigned himself to the fact that she was a means to an end. If not her, then someone else, either way his plight would be the same.
He continued to stare at this girl, his potential slave, wondering how she would appeal to the target in mind. It was rumored that among the attendees at the auction this year would be Vladek Rostrovich, one of the wealthiest men in the world, and most assuredly one of the most dangerous. It was to this man the slave would be entrusted for however long it took Caleb to get close and destroy everything the man held dear to him. Then kill him.
Still, Caleb wondered, not for the first time, why he was drawn to her. Possibly it was her eyes. Even from a distance he could see how dark, how mysterious and sad they were. How old they seemed.
He shook his head, clearing his thoughts, when he heard the cough and squealing gears of the school bus approaching from down the street. He watched closely as the girl’s face relaxed in relief. It seemed to include more than just the arrival of the bus, but of escape, maybe even freedom. At last, the bus arrived, in perfect tandem as the sun finally rose to its full strength. The girl glanced up with a frown but she lingered, letting the light touch her face before disappearing inside.
A week later, Caleb sat in his usual spot, waiting for the girl. The bus had come and gone, but the girl wasn’t on board so he’d figured he’d wait and see if she showed up.
He was about to leave when he saw her round the corner at a dead run toward the bus-stop. She arrived out of breath, almost frantic. She was an emotional thing. Again he wondered why she was so desperate to make it to school.
Caleb looked out through his car window at the girl. She was pacing now, perhaps with the realization she had missed her bus. It seemed unjust that just last week the girl had waited for nearly an hour for the bus to arrive, but this week the driver had not waited at all. No girl, no stopping. He wondered if she would wait another hour, just to be sure there was no hope. He shook his head. Such actions would only reveal a desperate nature. He both hoped she would and wouldn’t wait.
His fractured thoughts gave him pause. He shouldn’t have hopes at all. He had orders, his own agendas. Plain. Simple. Clear-cut. Morals had no place when it came to revenge.
Morals were for descent people, and he was as far from descent as a person could get. Caleb didn’t believe in the existence of any higher being or an afterlife, though he knew a lot about religion from growing up in the Middle East. But if there was an afterlife where a person reaped what they’d sown on earth, then he was already damned. He’d go to hell happily – after Vladek was dead.
Besides, if God or gods existed, none of them knew that Caleb did, or otherwise they hadn’t given a shit about him when it mattered. No one had given a shit about him, no one except Rafiq. And in the absence of an all-punishing afterlife, Caleb needed to make sure Vladek Rostrovich paid for his sins right here on earth.
Twenty minutes later the girl started to cry, right there on the sidewalk, right in front of him. Caleb couldn’t look away. Tears had always been mystifying to him. He liked looking at them, tasting them. Truth be told, they made him hard. He once abhorred this conditioned response, but he was long over self-loathing. These responses, these reactions, were a part of him now, for better or worse. Mostly worse he admitted with a smile and adjusted his erection.
What was it about such displays of emotion that just dug into his gut without letting go? Pure lust rolled through him like a heavy ache bringing with it a strong desire to possess her, to have power over her tears. Each day, he thought of her more as a slave than a riddle. Though she maintained an alluring type of mystery locked away in downcast eyes.
His mind flashed with images of her sweetly innocent face awash with tears as he held her over his knee. He could almost feel the softness of her naked bottom under his hand, the surety of her weight pressed against his erection while he spanked her.
The fantasy was short-lived.
Abruptly, a car pulled up in front of the girl. Shit. He groaned as he willed the images away. He almost couldn’t believe this was happening. Some asshole was trying to move in on his prey.
He watched as the girl shook her head, declining the driver’s invitation to get into his car. It didn’t seem like the guy was listening. She was walking away from the bus-stop, but he was following in his car.
There was only one thing to do.
Caleb stepped out onto the corner, fairly certain the girl hadn’t taken notice of how long his car had been parked. For the moment, she seemed too terrified to notice anything but the pavement in front of her downcast eyes. She was walking very fast, backpack in front of her, like a shield. He crossed the street and slowly walked in her direction. He casually scanned the scene, while moving directly in front of her, their paths set for a head-on collision.
It all happened so quickly, unexpectedly. Before he had the chance to execute a simple strategy to remove the external threat, she suddenly flung herself into his arms, the backpack making a loud thud on the concrete. He looked at the car, the shadow and incongruent shape of a man. Another predator.
“Oh my god,” she whispered into the cotton of his t-shirt. “Just play along okay?” Her arms were steel around his ribcage, her voice, a frantic plea.
Caleb was stunned for a moment. What an interesting turn of events. Was he the hero of this scenario? He nearly smiled.
“I see him,” He said, catching the other hunter’s gaze. Stupid ass, he was still sitting there, looking confused. Caleb placed his arms around the girl as if he knew her. He supposed in a way he did. On a playful impulse he ran his hands down the sides of her body. She tensed, breath caught in her throat.
The car and competition finally sped away in a cloud of smog and squealing tires. No longer requiring his protection, the girl’s arms released him quickly.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a rush, “but that guy would not leave me alone.” She sounded relieved but still shaken by the incident.
Caleb looked into her eyes, up close this time. They were just as dark, beguiling, and cheerless as he had imagined they would be. He found himself wanting to take her then, to bring her to some secret place where he could explore the depths of those eyes, unlock the mystery they held. But not now, this was not the time or place.
“This is L.A.; danger, intrigue and movie stars. Isn’t that what it says under the Hollywood sign?” He said, trying to lighten the mood.
Confused, the girl shook her head. She was apparently not ready for humor yet. But as she stooped to pick up her backpack she said, “Um…actually, I think it’s – ‘That’s so L.A.’ But it’s not under the Hollywood sign. Nothing’s under the Hollywood sign.”
Caleb suppressed a wide grin. She wasn’t trying to be funny. It was more like she was searching for comfortable ground. “Should I call the police?” he communicated with feigned concern.
Now that the girl felt safer, she appeared to take real notice of him, an unfortunate, yet completely unavoidable moment. “Um...” Her eyes darted back and forth from his eyes, lingering on his mouth a bit too long before they darted to her sneakered feet. “I don’t think that’s necessary. They won’t do anything anyway, creeps like that are all over the place here. Plus,” she added sheepishly, “I didn’t even get his plate.”
She looked at him again, eyes roving his face before biting her lower lip and looking down at the ground. Caleb tried to keep the look of concern on his face when all he really wanted was to smile. So, he thought, the girl found him attractive.
He supposed most women did, even if they realized later, or too late, what the attraction really meant. Still, these sorts of naïve, almost innocent reactions, always amused him. He watched her, this girl, opting to look at the ground while she shuffled from side to side.
As she stood there, looking blissfully unaware that her coy, submissive behavior was sealing her fate, Caleb wanted to kiss her.
He had to remove himself from this situation.
“You’re probably right,” he sighed, flashing an empathizing smile, “the police wouldn’t be worth a damn.”
She nodded slightly, still shifting from foot to foot nervously, even shyly now. “Hey, could you—”
“I guess I should be—” This time he allowed his smile to take over his face.
“Sorry, you first,” she whispered as her face flushed beautifully. Her performance as the cute, shy girl was intoxicating. It was as if there were a sign hanging from her neck that read, ‘I promise, I’ll do whatever you say’.
He should really be going. Right now. Oh, but this was too much fun. He looked up and down the street. People would be coming soon, but not yet.
“No, please, you were saying?” He regarded her jet black hair as she incessantly fiddled with it between her fingers. It was long, wavy and framed her face. The ends curled over the mound of her breasts. Breasts that would fill his palms quite nicely. He put an end to his line of thinking before his body rendered a response.
She looked up at him. The sun in her face, she squinted when she met his eyes. “Oh…um…I know this is weird, considering what just happened…but, I missed my bus and,” flustered she tried to get the words out in a rush, “You seem like a nice guy. I mean, I have projects due today, and I guess I was wondering…Could you give me a ride to school?”
His smile was nothing short of nefarious. And hers so big he could see all of her pretty white teeth. “School? How old are you?” She blushed a deeper shade of pink.
“Eighteen! I’m a senior, you know, graduating this summer.” She smiled up at him. The sun was still in her face and she squinted whenever she made eye contact. “Why?”
“Nothing,” he lied and played upon the naivety of her youth, “you just seem older is all.” Another big smile – even more pretty white teeth.
It was time to put an end to this.
“Listen, I’d love to give you a ride, but I’m meeting a friend of mine just up the street. We usually carpool, and it’s her turn to brave traffic on the 405.” He checked his watch. “And, I’m already running late.” Inside, he felt a wave of satisfaction as her face crumpled. At the word no, at the word her. Not getting what you wanted was always the first lesson.
“Yeah, no, sure—I get it.” She recovered coolly, but still blushed. She gave an unaffected shrug and her gaze moved away from him. “I’ll just ask my mom to take me. No biggie.” Before he had a chance to offer any further condolences, she stepped around him and put her earphones in. “Thanks for helping me out with that guy. See you around.”
As she hurried away, he could faintly hear the music blaring in her ear. He wondered if it was loud enough to drown out her embarrassment.
“See you around,” he whispered.
He waited until she rounded the corner before he walked back to his car, and then he slid behind the wheel while opening his cell phone. Arrangements for his new arrival would have to be made.
I woke with a really bad headache and noticed two things simultaneously: it was dark and I wasn’t alone. Were we moving? Vision hazy, my eyes rolled around, almost out of instinct, to gain a semblance of balance, recognition of something familiar. I was in a van, my body strewn haphazardly across the floor.
Startled, I attempted to move all at once, only to find my movements sluggish and ineffectual. My hands had been tied behind my back, my legs free but decidedly heavy.
Again, I tried to focus my eyes in the dark. Both back windows were heavily tinted, but even in the gloomy darkness I could make out four distinct shapes. Their voices told me they were men. They spoke to each other in a language I didn’t understand. Listening, it was a torrent of fast-speech, clipped tones. Something rich, very foreign…Middle Eastern maybe. Did it matter? My brain said yes, it was information. Then that small comfort slipped away. Seeing the iceberg hadn’t stopped the Titanic from sinking.
My first instinct was to scream. That’s what you do when you find out your worst nightmare is playing out in front of you. But I clenched my jaw on the impulse. Did I really want them to know I was awake? No.
I am not inherently stupid. I’d seen enough movies, read enough books, and lived in a shitty neighborhood long enough to know that drawing attention to myself was the worst thing I could do – in almost any situation. A voice inside my head yelled sarcastically, “Then why the hell are you here?” I winced.
This was the worst of all my fears, being dragged off by some sick fuck in a van, raped, left for dead. From the first day I realized my body was changing, there had been no shortage of perverts on the streets, telling me exactly what they’d like to do to me, all of me. I’d been careful. I followed all the rules in becoming invisible. I kept my head down, I walked fast, and I dressed sensibly. And still, my nightmare had found me. Again. I could almost hear my mother’s voice in my head asking me what I’d done.
There were four of them. Tears flooded my eyes and a whimper escaped my chest. I couldn’t help it.
Abruptly, conversation around me halted. Though I struggled to not make a single sound or movement, my lungs heaved for breath, rising and falling in the rhythm of my panic. They knew I was awake. My tongue laid heavy and thick inside my mouth. Impulsively, I screamed, “Let me go,” as loud as I could, as though I were dying, because for all I knew I was. I screamed as though someone out there would listen, hear me, and do something. My head throbbed. “Help! Somebody help!”
I thrashed wildly, my legs careening in every direction as one of the men tried to capture them with his hands. As the van rocked, my captors’ Arabic voices grew louder and angrier. Finally, my foot connected solidly with the man’s face. He fell back against the side of the van.
“Help!” I screamed again.
Incensed, the same man came at me again and this time struck me very hard across my left cheek. My consciousness faded away, but not before I acknowledged my body, now inert and at the mercy of four men I didn’t know. Men I never wanted to know.
The next time I came around, rough hands dug into my underarms while another man held my legs. I was being dragged out of the van, into the night air. I must have been out for hours. My head throbbed so hard I couldn’t speak. The left side of my face felt like a soccer ball had smacked it and I could hardly see out of my left eye. Dizzy and with practically no warning, I vomited. They dropped me and I simply rolled onto my side. As I lay there dry heaving, my captors yelled amongst them, meaningless voices, in and out, broken and jarring. My vision flashed, clear then hazy. This continued, one action triggering another. Too weak to resist, I lay my head next to my vomit and passed out again.
Sometime later I regained consciousness, or some state of being, similar to consciousness. I jerked. I felt pain everywhere. My head throbbed, my neck was stiff to the point of searing pain, and worse, when I tried to open my eyes I discovered I couldn’t. There was a blindfold over them.
It came to me in flashes. Screeching tires. Grinding metal. Footsteps. Running. Musk. Dirt. Dark. Vomit. Hostage.
Summoning every ounce of strength and resolve I attempted to lift myself. Why couldn’t I move? My limbs wouldn’t budge. My mind was telling my body to move, but my body wasn’t responding. A new wave of panic rushed through me.
Tears burned behind my closed lids. Fearing the worst, I attempted to remove the blindfold by moving my head. Pain shot down my neck, but my head barely moved. What did they do to me? I stopped trying to move. Just think, I told myself, feel.
I took a mental assessment of my person. My head rest on a pillow, and my entire body lay on something soft, so I was probably on a bed. A shiver ran through me. I still felt clothes against my skin – that was good. Fabric around my wrists, fabric around my ankles, it wasn’t difficult to figure out I was tied to the bed. Oh god! I bit at my lip, holding in my sobs as I acknowledged the fabric of my ankle-length skirt lay high up on my thighs. My legs were open. Had they touched me? Keep it together! Exhaling a deep breath, I stopped the thought before it could grow.
I felt intact, no missing fingers. Mechanically, I focused on here, now. Knowing my faculties were in order, I expelled a small sigh of relief that sounded more like a sob.
That’s when I heard his voice.
“Good. You’re finally awake. I was beginning to think you’d been seriously injured.” My body froze at the sound of a male voice. Suddenly, I had to instruct myself to breathe. The voice was eerily gentle, concerned…familiar? The accent, what I could comprehend over the sound of the ringing in my head was American and yet, there was something off about it.
I should have screamed, afraid as I was, but I just froze. He had been sitting in the room; he had been watching me panic.