He watched them through the coffee shop window long past the point where he'd grown cold and annoyed. The man touched the hand of the woman with affection, and she smiled back. The watcher wanted to be inside, too, drinking coffee and chatting with a pretty girl. But tonight, his plan was to observe 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 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 cop. But they never went anywhere together to have sex, and he wondered what kind of frigid bitch she must be.
If he was inside with a pretty girl, he’d find out all about her boring job, and her lonely apartment, and her parents back in Omaha. Then he would convince her to come back to his place for the night. She would hesitate, unsure. He’d 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 young woman, and after she duly made arrangements for her safety, they would leave the café arm in arm, still chatting and smiling at each other like lovers.
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 woman who had disappeared into the darkness…
“In the elevator? Really?” Dan’s eyes went wide and 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.
“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.” She chuckled and took a sip of coffee, though the caffeine couldn’t touch the fatigue from her last twelve hours of work.
She put the cup down. “How are you doing?” He looked even more tired than usual.
“I’m okay.” He stared into his coffee for a minute. “Laura, in two or three months, 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 close friends since childhood, and maybe even closer since they’d become adults. But for the last few years, he’d maintained a distance between them she didn’t understand. She’d tried to respect it, and didn’t nag for more, but it was hard.
“Um, yes, Dan. I’d love to.”
“I need some… I don’t know. I need something normal.”
She reached for his hand. The occasional hand-holding, and a brief hug in greeting and goodbye, were all the physical connection they’d ever shared. But he soaked up her stories of babies, laughing at the funny ones, commiserating over her frustrations, and never judging or criticizing. In return, she gave him a quiet acceptance of his need for secrets.
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, and he got into his, and as always, he followed her the short distance back to her apartment building. He 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, and her last thoughts were of the staff meeting 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 her mahogany-colored eyes that matched her curly shoulder-length hair and the smattering of freckles across her face. The women he saw every day usually stared at the floor. He didn’t know 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 delayed. There was a problem waiting for him.
“What the fuck happened?” he shouted, looking at the naked and motionless woman on the concrete floor in front of him.
“The girls say she wasn’t feeling good all day, and then she passed out just a few minutes ago. I checked her pulse and…” Josh shrugged.
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 slight form.
“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, as if hoping there was some way this nightmare had not just gotten worse. She had blue eyes. 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?”
She shook her head. Her courage fled, and she bent over to stare at the floor again.
He swung around to address the rest of the women.
“Did she say anything to any of you after she arrived?”
“Sir, she kept saying she was diabetic and needed insulin,” one woman volunteered.
He looked up at his second-in-command, who held up his hands. “News to me, boss. Master 3 brought her in this morning.”
“God fucking dammit! All right, let’s get her body out of here.” He motioned to one guard hanging around outside the cage. “I want Master 3 in my office in one minute!” The guard nodded and left. Dan reached down to grab the woman’s limp arms, and Josh grabbed her legs, and together they dragged the body out of the cell, ignoring the quiet crying coming from the huddled forms 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 probed for 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 inside, zipping it up with care, and then lifted their still burden and then made their way out the 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. I’ve got to deal with Marco.” Dan walked back into the building.
Josh started to close the trunk, but then leaned over the bag, pulling the zipper down just enough that 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, he pulled off the road into a small, unlit rest area. 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 felt for a pulse in her neck and nodded. “She’s still alive.”
The two of them lifted her carefully out of the bag and carried her over to the van. Together, they climbed inside and laid her on a stretcher. Garcia began issuing instructions to 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 dropped open, and the wad of gum he was chewing threatened to tumble out. “I swear, boss, she never said nothing 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 might have backed up her story? 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! 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. We weren’t going to take any more women! It’s getting too close and too dangerous. We had a dozen to sell, which is plenty, but you think you’re above the rules every fucking time!”
“We have plenty of time to break 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? He made his voice as cold as he could manage. “We’re supposed to train these women, not kill them. If you don’t get that, you’re useless to me. You’re on guard duty and off training.”
Marcos’ face turned 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 women, 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, muttered a prayer—one of many, lately,—and dialed a number. DeLeo answered right away.
“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 training, sir.”
“No, you’re not.” The hardness in DeLeo’s voice was a surprise.
“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 better. You’ll keep him right where he is.”
The knot in Dan’s stomach grew even tighter. “Yes, sir.”
“He can make up for his mistake by getting a replacement.”
“Sir, it’s too close—”
“That wasn’t a suggestion. Do I need to find someone who doesn’t have cold feet?”
“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.”
As ridiculous as it sounded, he wanted to keep himself untainted for Laura. 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 cut the connection. He was not looking forward to the smirk on Marcos’ face.