“I would usually agree Caleb,” Rafiq said softly. “But you’re also not in the habit of making mistakes, let alone of this magnitude. Have you forgotten so easily what I’ve done for you? I found you. I took you in. I helped you become the man your enemies fear. Do you need to be reminded of where you would be without my interference?” Caleb’s jaw clenched hard.
“No, of course not.” It was also impossible for Caleb to forget that Rafiq was so fond of reminding him. “May I also remind you that it is me who kills for you?” He had meant it to sound like a threat, but it came off as a strange plea. As if from a child to a parent. There was a long silence on the other end of the line and the longer it stretched on, the more uneasy Caleb became. “I’ve failed you Rafiq. I’ll make it right.” Somehow he’d find a way.
“I’m sorry I doubted you khoya,” Rafiq replied, voice softening, “I know how much you have sacrificed. It is only…”
“I understand Rafiq.” He paused, briefly. “I’ll let you know the moment I find her.” Caleb hung up before anything else could be said. He needed to think and the longer he spoke to Rafiq, the more he thought about the wrong things though he had no clue what the right things would be. He’d never been one to grapple with slight differences.
Caleb pressed his fingers to his forehead and tried to alleviate some of the pressure there. Was he betraying the one person he trusted? The heavy reality was finally settling in. Who was he all of a sudden? Certainly not a man of his word.
Anger rose like bile within his chest. It was her. Ever since he had laid eyes on her she had caused him nothing but confusion and conflict. He had allowed himself to feel…something. And she had repaid him by pointing his own gun at his face. His fingers touched upon the left side of his face. It still stung, in more ways than one. He pushed at his cheek, wanting to feel the tight, itchy burn just beneath the surface. He should find her. Bring her back. Take control of her and in the process him. Is that the only reason you want her back? He thought of her soft supple body pressed against his, her arm wrapped around his midsection.
He’d let her go, he’d done it through his own stupidity, but he’d let her go. And all he could think about was that she hadn’t even looked back. She'd just run away…from him.
He almost didn’t want to find her, but he couldn’t stop until he did. He wasn’t going to fail again.
Focus and objectivity replaced the unease and confusion. It was time to pay a visit to the bartender.
After Caleb had left the bar I had refused to move from my hiding space beneath the counter for over an hour. At least I thought it had been that long, my sense of time was probably way off. What had to amount to weeks of being held hostage in a dark room would do that. Finally, the behemoth of a man who called himself Tiny had hoisted me up by my arm and shook me until I stopped my hysterics.
When I’d calmed down, I’d asked, “Why are you helping me?”
He just frowned at me. “Because you look like you could use a lot of help. And you’re American.”
He’d led me outside where the bartender, Javier, was waiting in an old, rusted, baby blue pickup of indeterminate origin. I was scared to get in the truck. I didn’t know where they planned on taking me, or what they planned to do with me once they had me where they wanted me. I only knew Tiny had told me I’d be safe and he’d help me. If there’d been more options I would’ve gotten as far away from the dirty biker as possible. The fact was this: I didn’t have better options, and he knew that. So I got in the truck
We only drove for about fifteen minutes before we pulled up to a small concrete shack. Shit. My fear never subsided, it even went up a few notches but as I looked around, I forced myself to keep looking, watching. Ready to run. Chicken wire surrounded the structure and indeed a few chickens were walking about, pecking at random feed strewn across the dirt. The air was thick with the smell of heat and animal excrement. Still, there was a ‘homey’ feeling to old run-down building. There was a child’s tricycle lying on its side next to the house, one of the chickens was pecking at the torn seat.
“What are we doing here?” I asked. I felt stupid, but hopeful. Hopeful we’d be leaving for the border soon. For a miracle or an intervention by God. I’d settle for a phone. I was hoping on a lot, and on a stranger. I was tired of meeting new people.
“We need to get you a change of clothes. Plus Javier has a phone we can use to make our arrangements.”
I felt triumphant over the existence of a phone, but then the rest of his words had set in, “What arrangements?” The sense of unease I felt—doubled. Dread quickly sunk in.
Tiny snorted, “Like they say darlin’: ass, grass, or cash, no one rides for free. And since you ain’t got no grass and I prefer cash to ass…I think you know where I’m going with this.”
My heart jumped into overdrive, thumping loud staccato beats in my ear: boom-boom-boom. “How much cash are we talking about?” I didn’t want to confess how fucking broke my family was. I certainly didn’t want to have to pay in ass.
“Pretty little thing like you? I’d say you’re worth at least a hundred grand to somebody.” I almost threw up from the sharp twist in my stomach at his words. My family didn’t have anywhere near that kind of money. The only person I knew who could possibly have that kind of cash was Nicole, but it wasn’t hers to give was it? It belonged to her parents and I hardly knew them. Nicole was always alone in that big house. Despair, cut through me. To escape, only for this. I stared at Tiny. I felt things snapping loose, snapping in. Fight or flight. I was going to do both.
“And if I’m not?” I whispered under my breath, not really wanting to know the answer but having to ask the question because it was a likely outcome. “Worth that much to anybody?”
He looked down at me and smiled, “Oh, I’m sure you’re worth at least that much to your boy Caleb.” He looked me up and down, slow, leering, then smiled widely at me. “Aren’t you darlin’?” I swallowed the bile that time. Where was the bartender? Where had he gone? Did it matter?
He grabbed me, my arm engulfed by one meaty, sweaty hand and he dragged me behind him as I struggled out of his grasp. I was going to make this difficult. He laughed at me the whole way and I knew I’d done more harm to myself, than him.
The house was better kept on the inside than it was on the outside. There were even pictures secured to the concrete walls, mostly religious paintings. Right in front of me, over the small, plastic covered sofa was a picture of Christ on the cross, his expression pained, blood tears running down his face as he stared toward heaven asking why God had forsaken him. I could ask the same question. I’d left the Devil I knew for one I didn’t and it was going to cost me – hopefully a hundred grand, but potentially so much more.
“Where’s the phone?” My voice was hoarse, on the verge of tears. I sucked in desperation and hot air. I prayed Nicole’s family would help me. I wasn’t sure how huge of a long shot it was, if they’d believe me, let alone help me. Would they call the police? Hang up on me?
Tiny pointed to the end of the sofa where an old rotary phone, my lifeline, waited for me to make the most important call of my life.
It hadn’t been too difficult to find out where the bartender lived, a simple matter of waiting for the regulars to arrive at the bar and then waiving large American bills. All citizens of dusty countries understood the value of the dollar. American money represented an American life, a chance to pursue a future deserved rather than destined. It was a future worthy of stealing, killing, and selling one’s soul. Caleb couldn’t help but scoff at how easy it had been to find her. He had told her not to be found and he had meant it. Once again she had not listened.
Instead, Caleb had successfully honed in on his target. There was within him a sense of victory. But there was something else too. Conflict. Always conflict when it came to her. What would he do when he saw her? Beat her? Scream at her? Spank her until she wept and begged for mercy or cover her in kisses that would cause the same? He never knew with her, not until the moment took over him, controlled him.
He walked back to the plantation, in no rush to collect his prize. Victory and anger aside, he did not relish any of the things he might have to do next. He hoped the bartender didn’t have a family. He hoped his kitten would come without added agitation. He hoped there would be no one to kill. Still, he doubted each of these scenarios. So he walked. No rush.
As he listened to the warm dirt crunching under his boots he stared out at the landscape of the village. Not far beyond, lay the city. She was out there, beneath one of those many homes made of sand, clay and lime, sweating under a rusted tin roof. There were hundreds of them, sprawling out before him on into the horizon, but it didn’t matter. The city could appear large, but it was very small in every way that mattered. Poverty bred despair and despair bred corruption and corruption would guarantee him safe haven. No matter what happened this night, Caleb would return and not empty-handed.
The heel of his boot hit the ground with a hard crack. She never turned back. Not once. She’d just run away from him. His ire rose. “Do I feel lucky? Yes Kitten, I feel very lucky.” He picked up his pace. It was best to strike while his anger was hot and his passion ice cold.
The sun beat down on my shoulders, though it was early evening. Dust covered my body from head to toe and filled my mouth as we tore up the road on Tiny’s motorcycle. Javier had provided me with one of his wife’s dresses to wear. Unfortunately, she was a somewhat larger woman and the dress did little better than the nightgown. But it was black and that was good. I put it on over the nightgown and put on Caleb’s jacket. It was cold comfort compared to what could now happen to me.
Nicole had come through. Or at least she’d promised she would. The moment I heard her voice I had burst into tears of relief and pure joy. She’d cried too. Through the grainy connection I listened to her strained voice explain how she’d never thought I’d run away, not without her. She also made it clear my mother had no such faith in me.
In fact, she held Nicole completely responsible for my disappearance, demanding that the police pull her in for questioning and force her to give up my whereabouts. When that didn’t work, because there was no indication of foul play (my books were never discovered) and I was eighteen, she had gathered up all my stuff and dumped it on Nicole’s front lawn. My mother had yelled at Nicole, called her a whore and self-serving rich girl. She had called me worse. My heart sunk into my stomach, extinguishing some of my joy. Maybe Caleb had been right. Still, Nicole reassured me she would make everything right, call my mother and explain. I told her not to bother. She hadn’t given a damn about me. In some ways, right now, I fucking didn’t care. I wanted to live. I wanted out of this hell.
What I needed was cash, lots of it. A hundred grand to be exact. “Holy shit Livvie! How am I supposed to get that kind of money? My parents are on a cruise right now.” Not what I needed to hear. I had looked up at Tiny and Javier, one of them looked expectant, the other worried his eye on the door. I wish it had been only Javier at the bar, he seemed more malleable, but then again, he also left me there to be captured.
“I need that money Nick. Please,” I said, my voice high and almost screeching. “I don’t know what he’ll do to me.” That quieted her and she was in the middle of telling me something when Tiny took the receiver and made it very clear what would happen to me if she didn’t come through. Everywhere I turned these days I was someone’s property.
He looked down at me. I should have called the cops I thought, staring back at him. But I knew since my own mother had failed to help me, it was all too likely the cops would care even less. Especially in a poor, drug-run country like Mexico. I had a choice between bad, worse and excruciating. It was no choice at all.