|Nine Millimeter Solution By Larry Matthews|
The man was a coyote, a mover of human beings. On this night he was delivering a dozen teenage girls to a trader in Texas who bought and sold women and girls to eager markets in the United States. The girls on the boat were once happy travelers on their way to what they believed were well-paying jobs in the Estados Unidos. Mexico is a dangerous place where cruel men see human flesh as a commodity no different than marijuana, cocaine, or corn. Girls travelling north are prey for such men and the girls in the boat were nothing more than cargo.
The coyote shouted to another man. â€œWe will wait for the squall and go in with it.â€ The rain turned into a torrent of water and wind. The boat rocked and fell into the troughs between the waves. The passengers screamed and held each other. â€œNow,â€ the man said. The other fellow pushed the accelerator forward and the boat cut through the storm to the beach at South Padre Island.
The crying and screaming of the girls could not be heard above the noise from the storm and the coyote looked back to count them. He did not want to lose one or two so close to his pay day. He would be paid twelve-thousand dollars in cash, a thousand for each of them. Not a bad return on his investment. He sneered at the simpering girls and wished he had time to enjoy some of his cargo.
He kept the boat at high speed through the surf and it crashed up onto the sand beyond the waves that pounded the beach. â€œGet out,â€ he shouted, motioning for the girls to jump over the side. One or two followed his orders but the others held back, afraid of what lay ahead. He grabbed a horsewhip and pounded the girls until they jumped onto the sand and sat in a small group.
He pulled a small flashlight from his slicker and flashed two long and two short beams at a spot away from the beach. An answering beam told him he had found the right spot. A four-wheel drive pickup drove to the girls and three men grabbed them and forced them onto the truck. â€œDate prisa!â€ Hurry. Hurry.
An older man wearing a suit and raincoat waved to the coyote. â€œUp here, my friend.â€
The coyote smiled and offered his hand. The older man held out an envelope thick with cash. â€œHere is your payment.â€
The coyote reached for the envelope as the nine millimeter round crashed into the base of his skull. The coyoteâ€™s helper was shot as he tried to run into the sea.
The older man turned and walked off the beach. â€œLeave them.â€
Gabriela Isabel Rios rode in the back of the pickup for twelve hours. She and the other girls were under a tarp that made the bed of the truck dark, which she found comforting. The girls had grown quiet and told each other that the worst was over and that they were on their way to better lives. Gabriela found it easy to imagine another life. She had been creating such fantasy lives since she was small in a mountain village in Guatemala, where First World luxuries were only rumors and photographs in magazines. The coyote was unpleasant, yes, and he made rude threats, but he was only a delivery man and could not be taken seriously. Or so she imagined.
The midday sun bore down on the truck as it travelled through Texas, up Route 77 through Kingsville, past Corpus Christi, picking up Route 59 to Houston and farm-to-market roads that meandered in the direction of Texarkana on the border with Arkansas. The pickup stayed off the Interstates where police were watching for illegals, drug traffickers, and those who moved human beings against their will.
Outside Texarkana the truck pulled onto a gravel road that led to a small, rundown house on what once was a family farm. The place was now derelict and the barn was leaning. The driver pulled to the back of the house and stopped.
â€œGirls, itâ€™s time to use the bathroom and freshen yourselves,â€ he spoke in soft Spanish.
The tarp was removed, allowing the intense sunshine to blind the girls. Two of them had peed themselves in the truck and were embarrassed by the smell on their clothing. â€œAh, you stink like piss,â€ the driver said.
The men in the truck wore handguns on their belts but they smiled at the girls, so Gabriela was not afraid. They must be here to protect us from bad men, she thought. The girls were herded into the house. Most of the furniture was gone. Only an old wooden table and several stained mattresses remained. The place reeked of rotten food and unwashed bodies. The mattresses had blood stains and what appeared to be urine spots, but Gabriela was too tired to give it any thought. She wanted to sleep.
â€œWhere are we going?â€ she asked.
â€œYou are very lucky. You are going to Washington, D.C. where you will service the rich and powerful.â€
Gabriela glared at the man. â€œWhat do you mean service?â€
â€œYou will know soon enough. Now clean yourselves.â€
Dave Haggard was bored. He had been covering the Justice Department for two years and had grown weary of self-serving press releases and news conferences designed to deflect blame for whatever had gone wrong in the past month. According to the Departmentâ€™s press office, the Attorney General was the savior of western civilization and all that we hold dear.
He took a seat in the auditorium and waited for the AG to issue his latest blast of optimism. He allowed himself a moment to go over all the questions he would like to ask. When will the justice system equalize to a point where rich and poor are treated alike? Why do black kids see jail as a stop on the way to manhood? Why do cities with tough gun laws have higher gunshot rates than gun-happy rural areas? He knew he would not ask the questions because the Department had no answers. He would be labeled just another liberal reporter and find himself derided on some right-wingerâ€™s Facebook page. He knew he was burning out. How much longer until he becomes just another drunk at the Press Club spouting about how it used to be?
He wanted a drink. He wanted a bottle. He wanted the bliss of a heavy toot. He had been dry for months and each day had brought an intense desire to tell the world to go to hell. He was in his mid-thirties but his mind was much older and wearing out. He told himself his life was a reflection of his choices, something he had read in a self-help book. It did not comfort him.
His reverie was interrupted by the Attorney General, who walked to the podium and nodded to the reporters and television crews.
â€œThank you for coming,â€ he said. Dave thought it was silly for the AG to thank reporters for coming to a press conference. What else do we have to do?
â€œI am here to announce a major offensive in the war against human trafficking,â€ the AG said. â€œWe have evidence that right here in the Nationâ€™s Capital women and girls, and even boys, are being forced into sexual servitude. This is not confined to this region. It is a problem in all major urban areas of America. These victims are being transported primarily from Latin America but are also being transported to the United States from Asia and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. The numbers are in the thousands. It is a horrendous crime that is turning human beings, against their will, into nothing more than chattel to be bought, sold, and abused.â€
Daveâ€™s smart phone recorded the AGâ€™s words. So far, there was nothing new. Human trafficking had become a kind of evergreen story, something to be taken down from the shelf and used on slow news days. Every week Washington area police were announcing that a girl or a boy had been â€œrescuedâ€ from a motel or apartment. It was a story that provided background noise for the daily news grind.
â€œSo today I am announcing a high-level task force to find and destroy the networks that are responsible for this reprehensible crime. It will bring together various law enforcement agencies to work with the F.B.I. and other federal units to identify, interdict, and end this human tragedy.â€ The AG looked up from his notes and presented his most serious face so the cameras could record how serious all of this was.
Task forces were convenient outlets for government officials who want problems to go away. Dave believed that creating a task force is a way to appear to be doing something while allowing the problem in question to fade from the publicâ€™s mind. Dave assumed this issue was being put on ice.
â€œThe task force, called Operation End Slavery, will be headed by F.B.I. Special Agent Patricia Gant, who was instrumental in preventing a terrorist attack on Nationals Park. She will be assisted by Inspector Daniel Oâ€™Neil of the Metropolitan Police Department, who also worked on the terrorist threat. They and others to be named will be responsible for ending this human outrage.â€ The AG turned to Gant, who stepped to the podium.
Dave heard his fellow reporters whisper that Gant was as beautiful as a high-end model. He looked at her and saw chocolate-brown skin, erect posture, and confidence to burn. â€œMy comments will be brief. Inspector Oâ€™Neil and I will do what we do best. That means we will work in secret and we will not issue updates or press releases unless or until we have completed our assignment. We ask that you in the media honor that. Thank you.â€ She stepped away from the podium as the AG looked confused and signaled that he wanted her to say something that could be a soundbite for the evening news. She ignored him.
Dave found Oâ€™Neil at the steps to the stage. â€œWhatâ€™s all that about?â€
Oâ€™Neil offered Dave his serious cop face. â€œDidnâ€™t you hear. No press releases.â€
â€œYou guys will need some press,â€ Dave said.
â€œMeet me at the coffee shop in thirty minutes.â€ Oâ€™Neil waved Dave away. The two men had a long history of sharing information at a hipster place near Dupont Circle.
Half an hour later they were staring at each other over five dollar coffee. â€œSo, whatâ€™s up,â€ Dave asked.
â€œThe AG gave this to Gant because the shit is going to hit the fan and he wants to cover his ass.â€
â€œSome of our leading citizens, and I use the word leading, have a taste for little girls of a Spanish persuasion.â€ Oâ€™Neil sat back and crossed his arms.
â€œLet me ask again. Meaning?â€
â€œThey buy them on the open market. They keep them in apartments convenient to where they work. They do what they want to them and, when theyâ€™re through with them, trade them in for another model.
â€œWhat do you mean trade them in?â€
â€œGive them back to the gangs that sold them. Youâ€™ve heard of Las Bestia, the beast, the Salvadoran gang? Well, they look like boy scouts next to some of the people weâ€™re looking at. They see these girls as trash to be dumped.â€
â€œAny names of these leading citizens?â€
â€œRead the front page of the Post. Pick some.â€
â€œVery dirty hands.â€ Oâ€™Neil got up. â€œThis is under wraps, like the terrorist story. When it breaks, and it will, it will be bigger than Watergate. Stay by your phone.â€ Oâ€™Neil walked out of the coffee shop onto Connecticut Avenue. Daveâ€™s heartbeat made his ears pound. Son of a bitch! Here we go again. Dave felt a wave of dread. The game was losing its appeal.
Antonio Ysais was not a sentimental man. He saw himself as one who rose above his emotions. His father, a mean man who believed that beatings were a cure for softness, left Antonio with scars on his body and bricks on his soul.
A young man, a teenager, was pleading with Ysais, crying and begging. Ysais found it amusing that a man, even one as young as this one, would humble himself in such a way. The young man was mumbling something in Spanish but his words were lost in the tears and snot running down his face.
â€œSpeak English, coÃ±o. Or did you forget that rule as well?â€
â€œPlease, jefe, do not do this.â€
â€œIt is only your hand. You have another. It could be much worse. I could be cutting off your balls, if you have any.â€ Antonio nodded to another man who pinned the youthâ€™s arm to a table and slowly amputated his left hand. He used a hot branding iron to cauterize the bleeding stub while the young man screamed and cried. â€œThere, you have paid your debt. Next time, think before you take money.â€
The young man fainted and Antonio ordered two of his men to carry the youth outside and leave him. â€œHe will tell of this and we will have no more problems with thieves in our own ranks,â€ he said. He picked up the hand that had been left on the table and wrapped it in a small towel. â€œSend this to his mother.â€
AntonioYsais was the leader of a vicious gang that called itself Los Asesinos, the killers. It was a stretch, but not by much, given that their primary enterprise was trafficking girls and women. To maintain their status among rival gangs, they took side jobs as assassins, enforcers, and molders of opinion among certain elements of the Hispanic community in the Washington area, which was overwhelmingly law abiding and concerned primarily with getting ahead in America.
Competition for new members was intense. There were only so many disaffected boys and girls in play. Los Asesinos went after boys who exhibited a disdain for compassion and a lust for girls, who were in ample supply given the gangâ€™s business. Once in, forever in. Young men who decided that life offered more than the gang were dealt with harshly. It was widely known that Antonio admired radical Muslims who were ruthless and barbaric in their treatment of enemies.
â€œWhere is the shipment?â€ Antonio looked out the window. The gang operated out of a fifty-year old house in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb fifteen miles from the District of Columbia. The house was brick, two-story, with a finished basement. It was surrounded by a large yard. The house was hidden from the street by evergreen bushes that had grown tall and thick with neglect.
â€œThe van is on the way,â€ a man said.
â€œWhat does that mean, on the way?â€ Antonio was nervous. He believed that deliveries were dangerous because anything could happen during the transfer.
â€œThey called two hours ago. Someplace on Interstate 81.â€
The van bore the name of an electrical contractor. A ladder was attached to the roof. Police officers watching for traffickers would pay little attention to another white work van. The vans were everywhere and commonly driven by Hispanic men.
This van backed into the driveway and around to the back stairs that led to the basement door. A dozen women and girls were blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. They were led into the basement in less than a minute. The door was closed and locked. The van drove away.
â€œWelcome, ladies,â€ Antonio said. He ordered his men to remove the blindfolds and untie the womenâ€™s hands.
Gabriela Isabel Rios looked into the face of a man who had no life in his eyes. He grabbed her hair and pulled her head from side to side, examining her like a man considering the purchase of a dog. He forced open her mouth and checked her teeth. He looked into her eyes, seeing fear and anger. He laughed. He pressed his hands against her breasts.
â€œYou are young and pretty,â€ he said. â€œYou fetch a fine price.â€
â€œQuÃ© estÃ¡s diciendo ?â€ she asked. What are you saying?
â€œWe speak English here. I said you are going to make me some money.â€
â€œNo hablo InglÃ©s,â€ she said.
â€œYou will speak enough to do your job,â€ Antonio said, moving on to another girl who was crying and urinating in her pants. He slapped the girl and ordered her to remove all of her clothing. She shook as she slowly undressed, embarrassed to be naked in front of strangers.
â€œGet her something to clean herself,â€ he said.
The girl used a wet towel to wipe away the urine that had saturated her thighs and private area. Her shoulders shook as she stood in shame as the men watched her. Antonio slapped her face again.
â€œGet on the floor,â€ he said. Two of his men pushed the girl down and opened her legs. Antonio looked at the other girls, dropped his pants, and raped the girl on the floor. When he was finished he motioned for the other men to take the girl. The new arrivals from the van stared in shock as the men went to their passion taking no note of the girlâ€™s screaming. The girl was bleeding when the last man stood up.
â€œYou are property. Nothing more. You belong to me. You will do as I say.â€ Another man translated his words into Spanish as the women and girls stood weeping. â€œIf you attempt to escape you will be killed in a cruel manner. Do you understand?â€ The women nodded. The girls stared.
â€œLeave her,â€ Antonio said. The bleeding girl was left on the basement floor as the others were led to rooms upstairs.
Gabriela could not get the image of the rape out of her mind. She tried replacing it with images of happy days in sunshine and love but the only other image that came to her was of Ysais dead with a knife in his head.
Patricia Gant was having daydreams of her own. She was an Ivy League lawyer-turned-F.B.I. agent. Her dreams were about her father, an Air Force Colonel who was killed at the Pentagon in 9/11. He had been her guide, her protector, her champion. Her love for the law was transformed into hatred after she lost him to evil and she walked away from a white-shoe Manhattan law firm without looking back. Her enthusiasm and lust for revenge had been tempered by Bureau politics and the realities of government employment. She had spent most of her F.B.I. years in dead-end jobs that were the payoff for running afoul of one supervisor or another, all of whom she believed were tainted by petty office politics.
She dreamed of a life of luxury in New York, working as a well-paid partner in a white stocking law firm, eating at the best restaurants, owning the best art, and enjoying the company of wealthy men who knew how to make love.
Instead, she was heading a task force investigating human trafficking, an assignment that had led more than one up-and-comer to a life of running down petty criminals in backwater Bureau offices. Task forces were dumping grounds for law enforcement officers whose bosses wanted them buried alive.
Her previous task force assignment had ended well with the death of a terrorist who wanted to blow up Nationals Park, but an official investigation into the case found â€œsystemic flawsâ€ in the execution of the operation. Read here: leadership failure.
Her fantasy of the high life in New York was interrupted by the phone on her desk. â€œGant,â€ she said by way of greeting.
â€œItâ€™s your ever loyal servant,â€ Inspector Oâ€™Neil said. He was another of the law enforcement renegades who populated Washingtonâ€™s various task forces. He was Gantâ€™s designated number two.
â€œI hope youâ€™re going to tell me the D.C. police have solved all crimes and we can all go home,â€ she said.
â€œI hear theyâ€™re working on it. In the meantime, do you have plans for lunch?â€
â€œIâ€™m looking at it,â€ she said. She picked up a container of yogurt and dropped it on her desk.
â€œMaybe it can wait. Iâ€™ve invited Dave Haggard to a little meeting. Join us.â€
â€œHim again? Whatâ€™s with you two?â€
â€œHe can be useful. He did some stories that made us look good on the terrorist thing. He knows how to keep his mouth shut. What do you say?â€ Oâ€™Neilâ€™s tone did not match his words. He sounded like a Marine drill sergeant ordering a recruit to drop for pushups.
â€œWhy not,â€ Gant said. She scooped the yogurt into a trash can.
The task force was working out of temporary office space on Third Street Northeast, on a block that was undergoing gentrification. Nineteenth Century buildings were being torn down and replaced by glass and steel structures that offered views of the Capitol. The building in which the task force was housed was built in the sixties and its owner was weighing the pros and cons of tearing it down. Most of it was empty and temporary leases were cheap by D.C. standards and so Operation End Slavery was on the fourth floor, where paint was peeling and surplus government desks were against the walls. This was Gantâ€™s domain to rule.
Food trucks were curbside along North Capitol Street at lunch hour. The millennials who worked in the new office buildings lined up for gourmet tacos and Thai food. Most of them paid no attention to anyone else. They were occupied by their phones, texting, sexting and uploading photos of what they were eating.
Gant and Oâ€™Neil were ordering Thai when Dave walked up cradling a hot dog and a Coke. Oâ€™Neil raised his eyebrows. â€œWe donâ€™t eat that shit anymore, Dave. We pay fifteen bucks for fancy stuff these days.â€
â€œI like to sit at a table when I pay that much,â€ Dave said.
They found seating on a high curb near a fountain in front of an office building. â€œWell, this is elegant,â€ Gant said, frowning at Oâ€™Neil. â€œWhy donâ€™t you start the meeting.â€
Oâ€™Neil smiled a wide Irish grin and took a large bite out of his Thai wrap. He chewed with enthusiasm, swallowed hard, and held up his hands. â€œI just love this shit,â€ he said.
â€œWhat shit?â€ Gant asked.
â€œAll this bullshit we go through, the three of us. Dave is here because we think he can be useful. And heâ€™s here because he thinks we can be useful. Ainâ€™t that right, Dave.â€
â€œIf you say so.â€ Dave shoved half a hot dog into his mouth.
â€œWeâ€™ve been here before on the terrorist case. Weâ€™re a little worried that weâ€™ve been pushed into some kind of pony show,â€ Oâ€™Neil said. â€œThe human trafficking problem has been around a long time and itâ€™s getting worse. The F.B.I. and Homeland Security have evidence that some of our leading citizens are joining the party. Theyâ€™re afraid that if or when this comes out theyâ€™ll look foolish and suffer the usual prop blast of why-didnâ€™t-you-prevent this heat from the media and Congress. Thatâ€™s why they created the task force. The question is whether weâ€™ll get what we need to do the job. Does that about sum it up, Patricia?â€
Gant looked disgusted. â€œI donâ€™t know that we need to air our laundry like that.â€
Dave took out his phone and pressed record. â€œOkay, so you think this is just window dressing and youâ€™re being offered as a sacrifice?â€
â€œPut that thing away, Dave. Weâ€™ve been through this before, you and me. Donâ€™t record anything I say unless and until I say so and, frankly, thereâ€™s no chance I will say so.â€
â€œI want to get it right,â€ Dave said.
â€œThen just listen,â€ Oâ€™Neil said.
â€œWhatâ€™s my role?â€ Dave made a show of putting his phone in his pocket.
â€œWe give you access to the story from our perspective. You do some independent snooping or whatever you do. We share like last time.â€ Oâ€™Neil looked at Gant.
â€œThis is a tough story to enterprise,â€ Dave said, using the reporterâ€™s term for investigative journalism.
â€œWhyâ€™s that?â€ Gant asked. â€œWhatâ€™s different about this?â€
â€œItâ€™s not new. It comes up several times a year. Thereâ€™s nothing new in reporting that young girls are being trafficked. Thereâ€™s really nothing new in reporting some new task force to combat it.â€
â€œHow about this? What if you got a story that very high level people in Washington were customers of these traffickers? Would that be a story?â€
â€œYouâ€™ve mentioned that but whereâ€™s the evidence and who are these people?â€
â€œWork with us and youâ€™ll find out,â€ Oâ€™Neil said.
â€œIf you were me, where would you begin?â€ Dave stared at Oâ€™Neil and Gant.
â€œCall your old friend Congressman Taylor. He had some inside information on the terrorist case, maybe he can help you out. Itâ€™s a start.â€ Oâ€™Neil was not smiling.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you call him?â€ Dave said.
â€œThe F.B.I. has certain constitutional issues regarding members of Congress,â€ Gant said.
â€œYouâ€™ve worked around them before.â€
â€œAnd got whacked for it,â€ Gant said.
â€œCall him,â€ Oâ€™Neil said. â€œWith any luck we can save some girls from our leaders.â€
The Honorable Peter Z. Taylor was looking at his phone, hoping he had a message that would call him away from the constituents who were taking his afternoon. They were small business owners from his district who were wide-eyed as he led them across Independence Avenue to the Capitol, pointing out the Library of Congress and the United States Supreme Court building. Taylor had grown immune to the lure of the capital city and its landmarks but he knew that visiting voters were awed by the sites. He paused on the grounds of the Capitol and stood patiently as each constituent sidled up to him for a selfie. He smiled his most political smile and appeared to be the happy Representative from East Tennessee.
Taylor was a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, whose website describes its role as oversight of the United States Intelligence Community, which includes the intelligence and intelligence related activities of 17 elements of the US Government, and the Military Intelligence Program. â€œIntelâ€ as the committee was known, was partnered with a similar committee in the Senate and had been accused of being too cozy with the intelligence community on many occasions. It was created to be the panel that ensured that the nationâ€™s secrets were on the up and up. Its history was a bit spotty in that regard.
Taylor was not seen as a team player. He had been an Army Ranger and intelligence officer in Afghanistan and had better contacts in the intelligence field community than did the Chairman, who viewed Taylor with suspicion after a dustup over the terrorists who tried to blow up Nationals Park. Taylor had withheld information from other Members because he didnâ€™t think they knew how to keep secrets.
The constituents lined up dutifully for security checks to get into the Capitol, remarking how safe such checks made them feel. Taylor smiled and assured them that no terrorist could possibly gain entrance to the shrine of American democracy. He did not point out that the Capitol has a long history of violent incidents, some recent.
His phone rang, interrupting desperation he felt at performing constituent tours. He answered on the first ring. â€œThis is Congressman Taylor,â€ he said by way of greeting. He had not bothered to see who was calling.
â€œHi Congressman. Itâ€™s Dave Haggard at Now News.â€
Taylor would normally have brushed him off or told him he was busy and to call later. At that moment he was anxious for the anything that would get him away from where he was.
â€œI understand,â€ he said, not waiting for Dave to say anything. â€œIâ€™ll be in my office in five minutes. Five minutes. Iâ€™ll meet you there.â€ He hung up. â€œIâ€™m sorry, folks, Iâ€™ve been called away on an important national security matter. Iâ€™m sure you understand that I canâ€™t go into detail.â€
The constituents looked concerned and turned to each other with frowns of worry. â€œItâ€™s not a matter that concerns your safety,â€ Taylor said. â€œItâ€™s something that requires my immediate attention. Thank you for understanding. My aide, Ms. Anderson, will continue your tour.â€ Ms. Anderson, an attractive staffer, smiled and led the group away.
Fifteen minutes later Dave was in Taylorâ€™s office. â€œFirst, I want to thank you for getting me out of a very boring situation,â€ Taylor said. â€œSecond, whatâ€™s on your mind?â€
â€œHuman trafficking,â€ Dave said. â€œAnything new?â€
â€œYouâ€™re here about the AGâ€™s task force,â€ Taylor said. â€œLet me guess. You want to know if your friends are being set up.â€
Dave was quiet. He felt the game was already out of his hands. â€œSomething like that,â€ he said in a voice that was soaked in doubt.
â€œI figured,â€ Taylor said. â€œYou need to be less obvious. Gant and Oâ€™Neil are always observed. You know that, Dave. Those cameras around town arenâ€™t there to keep an eye on tourists. Your friends carry very high clearances and there are those who think they might be targets of the people theyâ€™re supposed to be going after. Everybody in this town knows you three had lunch. I hear thereâ€™s even a recording.â€ Taylor sat back and stared at Dave with the look of a father who had caught his son being stupid.
â€œGant know this?â€
â€œSheâ€™s not stupid.â€
â€œSo whatâ€™s the point?â€
â€œWell, for one, youâ€™re here. That creates a link to me.â€
Dave was confused. â€œAnd?â€
â€œAnd Oâ€™Neil tells you to come here and you do. Youâ€™re in play, Iâ€™d say.â€
â€œEverybody in this city is in play. Whatâ€™s happening here?â€
â€œDid anyone mention that some very high level people may be involved in this thing theyâ€™re looking at?â€
â€œThatâ€™s why I wanted to talk to you.â€
Taylor grabbed a legal pad from a drawer and wrote something as he hummed a classic country song called Home in Heaven, a decades old heart breaker written by Hank Williams. He pushed the paper across his desk. Dave looked at the note he had written. â€œChurch of Our Redeemer. Aldie. 4 oâ€™clock,â€ it read.
â€œSorry, I canâ€™t help you,â€ Taylor said. He waved to the door. â€œMaybe this isnâ€™t something you should be looking into.â€
Aldie is a village in Virginiaâ€™s hunt country, a region of estates and horse farms and, in recent decades, suburban developments populated by the ever-swelling ranks of professionals feeding off the funds, federal and private, flowing from technology. Remnants of the regionâ€™s past linger as ghosts of another era when wealth meant elegance and taste. Small churches where the Lord was given His due remain. The parish dates to 1850.The current building housing Church of Our Redeemer was built in the late nineteenth century. Itâ€™s a small white clapboard structure whose website states that it is a place where people find the peace that passes all understanding.
Dave was raised in the Episcopal Church and found a measure of peace as he sat in the old pew and read the Book of Common Prayer. The moment allowed him to leave his current life and close his eyes as he inhaled the scent of old wood and books. He opened the book and glanced at the words. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
He read the line again. He felt stained by his life. He had longed to leave Tennessee for the big city and to see and do the things that big cities offered. He had wandered from his core. He was no longer pure of heart and spirit. He prayed for the first time in many years. Dear God, help me. He left it at that, assuming that God knew better than he what kind of help he needed.
He was lost in this moment when he heard footsteps on the wooden floor and the found of someone sitting down behind him. â€œDo you believe in God?â€ Taylor said, whispering into Dave ear.
â€œYes,â€ Dave said. â€œI do.â€
â€œSo do I, although youâ€™d never know it from the way I behave.â€ Taylor allowed his East Tennessee accent to honey his words. â€œI am a slave to my weaknesses. And I have seen too much of Satan.â€
Dave â€˜s spiritual moment was broken. He turned to Taylor. â€œSo, here we are.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a picnic table outside. Letâ€™s get some air.â€
The picnic table was shielded from Route 50 by a grove of trees. The day was warm and the autumn leaves crunched as the two men walked to the table and brushed leaves away. Dave sat across from Taylor and saw sadness in the handsome face that had power groupies in D.C. aswoon and hopeful.
â€œYou know they call lawyers sharks,â€ Taylor said. â€œThey think we donâ€™t have any scruples. When I was lawyering in Knoxville Iâ€™d hear snide remarks now and then but I didnâ€™t care. The work was not of the heavy lifting variety and the money was good. It was a very good life. I never wanted to be in Congress. I thought, hoped, I would lose the election and be forgotten. I won. It was almost the worst thing that ever happened to me, second only to war.â€
Dave listened and wondered if Taylor was going off the deep end. â€œWhy donâ€™t you quit and go home?â€
Taylor chuckled. â€œCanâ€™t happen. The big boys will chew me up. There are some things you canâ€™t change.â€ He looked around at the trees and allowed the sun to fall upon his face. â€œYour friends are in a shit bucket, Dave. Two things you canâ€™t take away from them that has the means to get what they want. Do you know what they are?â€
â€œI can guess.â€
â€œMoney and pussy. Money and pussy. Sic semper tyrannis. Thus always to tyrants. Itâ€™s a phrase attributed to Brutus during the assassination of Julius Caesar. Who knows whether he really said it or some Roman PR guy dreamed it up to spin the killing. Itâ€™s true, though. Them that have hold on to it until somebody takes it away. Your friends are seen as those who would take it away.â€
â€œSo itâ€™s true. Very high level people are buying girls for their own pleasure.â€ Dave was trying to find his reporter attitude and shake off the soft feeling that had come over him in the church.
â€œJesus, Dave. That statement has been true for ten thousand years.â€
â€œBut weâ€™re talking about right now. Is it true or not that high level government types, very high, are part of this trafficking thing?â€
â€œYou have no idea,â€ Taylor said. He had tears in his eyes and looked embarrassed.
â€œMy God, Congressman. Are you alright.â€
â€œI will help you all I can but you have to understand that this a very dangerous situation.â€
â€œNames. Give me names.â€
Taylor talked for five minutes, stood, and ran to his car. Dave sat in silence. He returned to the church and prayed until dark. He drove to his apartment in D.C. and crawled into bed, unable to sleep. He imagined that he was in the pew of the church and he prayed that what Taylor had told him was just a nightmare.
Gabriela Isabel Rios looked at the ceiling and imagined herself in a big American city, wearing elegant clothing and expensive shoes with high heels. She was beautiful and drew smiles from handsome men in well-cut suits. The weather was warm but not too hot and the scent of flowers was in the air. Spring. Thatâ€™s what she imagined. Spring in America.
The fantasy was interrupted by a large man banging on the bunk bed where she was chained. â€œWake up!â€ he shouted. â€œAll of you, wake up.â€
It was daylight but she had no way of knowing whether it was morning or afternoon. The blackout shades were down most of the time and were raised only when the men came for them. â€œUp! Up! Donâ€™t be stupid.â€ The man went from bunk to bunk, shaking the women and girls. Some of them cried and tried to hide under their blankets but such resistance drew smacks from the man and threats. â€œDo you want me to hurt you? Wake up.â€
They were not sleeping, most of them. They were in a state of panic and denial, much the way Gabriela spent her time, daydreaming of another place. The man had a ring of keys that unlocked the chains that kept the women on their backs in the bunks that were stacked and lined up in the basement of the house. Some of them had relieved themselves, unable to wait until the chains were removed, and the man beat them. â€œYou think you can piss all over the bed? Damn you! You are pigs, all of you, pigs. I donâ€™t know why any man would want you. I should kill you all right now and save us all bother.â€
The girls cried and moaned. One of the women, the oldest at twenty-eight, shook off her chains and stood up. â€œYou should be ashamed of yourself. Your mother would not want you to treat women and girls like this. You should pray for forgiveness.â€
The man laughed. â€œMy mother was a whore just like you.â€
The women and girls were led to an area where hoses were connected to a wash tub. The females were ordered to strip while two of Antonio Ysaisâ€™ men sprayed them with cold water. The women and girls were given small bars of soap and told to clean themselves. The men then hosed off the soap while the naked females were left to dry off without towels. â€œYou are drip dry,â€ the big man joked, drawing snickers from the men with the hoses.
Ysais walked into the basement and watched the females try to cover themselves with their hands. â€œWe are all friends here,â€ he said. â€œYou do not need to hide your treasures from us.â€ He issued a small laugh and walked up to Gabriela. â€œYou, come with me.â€
She looked around to see who would follow Ysais. He pointed at her. â€œYou. Now.â€
â€œNaked. I naked.â€ She used English words she had learned in the basement.
â€œAnd you come with me,â€ Ysais said.
He led her up the stairs to a living room where three men were sitting in overstuffed chairs, drinking coffee and laughing at a joke one of them had shared. They stopped laughing and stared at Gabriela, who was wet and shivering.
â€œMake her take her hands away from her pussy,â€ one of the men said. His voice was thick and Southern.
Ysais grabbed Gabrielaâ€™s hands and pulled them behind her so the men could see her naked body. â€œSheâ€™s virgin,â€ he said. â€œNo man has had her.â€
â€œShe looks like a wet rat,â€ the Southern voice said. â€œWhatâ€™s she look like when sheâ€™s dolled up?â€
â€œSheâ€™s a beauty,â€ Ysais said.
â€œWell, you got her hosed down but now you need to put some lipstick on that pig.â€ The Southern voice issued a thin laugh and turned to his companions, who chuckled at the joke and ogled Gabriela. â€œHow about a sample?â€
â€œNo samples,â€ Ysais said. â€œThen the merchandise is damaged.â€
â€œHow much for this one?â€
â€œFive thousand cash right now. Bring her back in one month with all her teeth and no broken bones and Iâ€™ll give you two thousand back.â€
â€œSo itâ€™s three thousand for the month,â€ the Southern voice was serious.
â€œA bargain,â€ Ysais said.
â€œWhy so cheap?â€
â€œI am looking for repeat customers. This one is young and pretty. She is not experienced and may need some training. Like a wild horse. If she learns and becomes a thoroughbred, it will be ten thousand for the month. You get to be first.â€
The Southern voice walked to Gabriela and examined her like a man deciding whether to buy a mare. â€œOpen your mouth,â€ he said.
Gabriela looked at Ysais, not understanding the order. He forced her mouth open so the customer could look inside.
â€œTeeth are good,â€ he said. He ran his hands over her breasts. â€œThese are good if a bit small. Nice and firm.â€ He inserted his finger between her legs and smiled. â€œThere it is. Still intact.â€ He smelled his finger and looked at Ysais. â€œThree thousand for the month with a thousand on return.â€
â€œFive thousand. No discounts.â€ Ysais could see in the manâ€™s eyes that he wanted Gabriela and would probably have agreed to ten thousand to have her.
â€œGet her dressed.â€ The deal had been made.
Gabriela sat in the back of a black Chevy Suburban on the drive into D.C. Traffic was heavy and it took nearly an hour to reach a new condo building on North Capitol Street a few blocks from the Capitol. No one spoke during the ride. The vehicle pulled into an underground garage where it parked near an elevator. She and the man and a fellow who appeared to be a bodyguard rode the elevator to a floor where the door opened into an apartment that offered views of the Capitol dome.
The Southern voice turned to his bodyguard. â€œYou can leave. Iâ€™ll buzz you if I need you.â€ The man left without speaking.
â€œNow, little girl, itâ€™s time to get to know each other. Iâ€™m Ed. You can call me Mister Speaker.â€
Agent Gant and Inspector Oâ€™Neil watched as the young man was interrogated. It was a one-sided interrogation, with an experienced detective asking questions and the young man staring straight ahead. The suspect being questioned appeared to be in his late teens. His head was shaved and revealed tattoos that marked him as a member of Los Asesinos. The gangâ€™s emblem was a dagger through a skull with a handgun in its mouth. The young manâ€™s tattoo covered his entire head, with the tip of the dagger down over his nose. He bore scars on his cheeks and arms.
â€œWe donâ€™t have to make this hard,â€ the detective said. â€œAll we need is your name so we can notify your family that youâ€™re here.â€
â€œDo you have a green card?â€
The detective glanced at the mirror behind which Gant and Oâ€™Neil were sitting, shaking his head.
â€œHeâ€™s been at it for a day and a half,â€ Gant said. â€œThese are hard cases, these guys.â€
â€œHe knows he has a lot more to fear from his boys than he does from us,â€ Oâ€™Neil said.
Gant pressed an intercom button. â€œAsk him about the girls. Ask him if he knows where they are.â€
The young man heard the question and offered a slow smile to the mirror. â€œPuta!â€ He used the Spanish word for whore.
The detective smacked the young man across the face. â€œShut your damn mouth.â€
â€œI thought you wanted me to talk,â€ the young man said. He was still smiling at the mirror.
â€œWhatâ€™s your name?â€
â€œYou ask the wrong questions, man. Nobody cares about my name. Call me Carlos. Call me Ferdinand. Call me anything you like. And I donâ€™t have a family to notify.â€
â€œWhat are the right questions?â€ The detective asked.
â€œOur customers, man. Who are our customers? You guys ainâ€™t shit. Our customers can make every one of you motherfuckers dance like crazy people whenever they want. I got a word of advice. Let me go before they find out you got me and you might save your jobs.â€
â€œWho are your customers?â€ The detective sat down across the table and looked at the young man.
â€œNaw, man. But you just wait. Youâ€™re in some shit here. If you donâ€™t back off, life will get real hard for you.â€
â€œAre you threatening me?â€
â€œI donâ€™t have to.â€ The young man closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Gant turned to Oâ€™Neil. â€œI think heâ€™s told us more than he wanted to.â€
â€œLet him go and see where he takes us,â€ Oâ€™Neil said.
â€œHeâ€™s got a big fancy watch. Weâ€™ve put a bug in it.â€ Gant smiled. She pressed the intercom button. â€œDetective, we canâ€™t hold him any longer. Process him out.â€
The detective made a show of disgust and led the young man to an outer office where his belongings were returned. He put the watch on his wrist in a show. â€œSee this? You motherfuckers couldnâ€™t buy one of these if you saved your salary for ten years.â€
A white van was parked near the police station and two F.B.I. agents were in the back, monitoring signals coming from the watch. They saw a small red blip blinking and moving. One of the agents pressed a key on the laptop and the sound of a conversation came through his headphones. The young man was talking to another man who had picked him up.
â€œNo problem, man. These guys ainâ€™t got nothinâ€™.â€
â€œYou sure you didnâ€™t say something to get you out?â€ Ysaisâ€™ voice was hard.
â€œNo, man. They said they couldnâ€™t hold me no more and let me go. Nothinâ€™.â€
â€œWeâ€™ll talk when we get back to the house. Then, maybe you can sample some merchandise.â€ Ysais sounded relaxed and happy.
â€œYou still got that girl, whatâ€™s her name? Gabriela?â€
â€œSheâ€™s working. If she makes it, sheâ€™ll be back. You can have her then until somebody else picks her up. We got lots of stuff to play with. Youâ€™ll have a good time.â€
The van pulled into the driveway and around to the back of the house. Two of Ysaisâ€™ men greeted them and opened the doors. The basement door opened and two more men stood waiting. Ysaisâ€™ smiled and motioned for the young man to follow him. â€œWe got something for you,â€ he said.
The young man, whose name was Puloz, swaggered down the steps. He felt big, strong, invincible. He had beaten the gringo cops at their own game. Los Asesinos never talked. It was a point of pride.
Ysais closed the door to the basement and two men pushed Puloz against a wall. â€œTwo days. You been there for two days. What did you tell them?â€ Ysaisâ€™ friendly demeanor was gone.
â€œNothinâ€™. I told them nothinâ€™. You know I would never talk.â€ Puloz was no longer feeling strong.
â€œWeâ€™re gonna find out,â€ Ysais said. â€œIf you talked, Iâ€™ll know.â€ He nodded to the other men. Two hours later Puloz was bleeding on both arms as he looked at the men holding up the skin that had been on his biceps. He stared straight ahead and made no sound. His nose was smashed. He tattoo was partially removed with a razor blade. Ysais was satisfied. â€œClean him up.â€
Sid Slackey was in one of his moods. His staff at Now News ignored him when he began to brood and pound his desk and launch into monologues about how the news business used to be about news, not scandal and rumor. His latest mood was the result of a conversation he was wrapping up with his ace reporter, Dave Haggard, who was sitting across his desk.
â€œI once worked with a guy, an old lion like I am now, who had been in Spain with Hemingway,â€ Sid said. â€œThose guys didnâ€™t have to cover crap like this. They got drunk every night and got shot at every day. Thatâ€™s the way to live as a newsman. Notice I didnâ€™t say journalist. Journalists are pretentious assholes who went to college to study crap like the role of media in society. Who cares about that? We go out, we get the story, and we write it up. Fuck the role.â€
Dave sat silent, waiting for the storm to blow over. Sid was old school and thought reporters who wore suits were being pretentious, unless the suits were baggy and seersucker with the pockets stuffed with notebooks and a flask. Sid was processing what Dave had told him about his conversation with Congressman Taylor and the information he had been given by Oâ€™Neil and Gant.
â€œSo, if I get this right, the highest levels of our democracy are buying little girls for their own amusement and the law enforcement types who are supposed to be making this go away are afraid theyâ€™ll be squashed. Does that about sum it up?â€ Sid made a pyramid with his fingers and stared at Dave.
â€œPretty much,â€ Dave said.
â€œAnd where do you think we go with this?â€
â€œFollow the leads like always.â€
â€œYou always fall into these big stories, Dave, and you always end up nearly dead. Do you ever think about that?â€
â€œIâ€™m not dead, Sid.â€
â€œNot yet. We need to tag team you on this. I donâ€™t want you out there alone. Right now, if what you say is true, the very best that can happen to you is jail. The worst is, well, the worst. You canâ€™t go looking into the highest levels on your own. They can squash you with one phone call.â€
â€œWhat do you mean tag team?â€
â€œIâ€™m going to assign someone to work with you.â€
â€œNot a choice. Pick somebody.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want a teammate.â€
â€œAgain, not your choice. Give me a name.â€
â€œWhat will this person actually do? My sources wonâ€™t work with someone they donâ€™t know. Hell, they barely trust me.â€
â€œFor good reason, as I recall in the case of Inspector Oâ€™Neil. Okay, this person will work on the inside. You do the legwork and this guy or gal will back you up here in the office and make some calls. I need someone here who knows what you know at all times. I do not, I repeat not, want to have to face questions about who and what you knew if you disappear.â€
â€œOkay, Iâ€™ll take Gabe at the desk.â€
â€œHeâ€™s the assignment manager. He doesnâ€™t have time for anything else.â€
â€œHim or nobody. I trust him.â€
â€œIâ€™ll work it out. Now, get to work and play nice.â€
Dave grabbed Gabe off the desk and briefed him, leaving the man with his mouth open and a shocked look on his face. He then called Congressman Taylor. â€œFeel like church?â€
â€œSix oâ€™clock,â€ Taylor said and hung up.
The thin sunshine was at the top of the trees when the two of them sat down at the picnic table. Taylor was dressed in his Congressional uniform; blue suit, white shirt, red tie. His shoes were muddy. He gazed at them. â€œDo you know much these shoes cost?â€
â€œNo idea,â€ Dave said. â€œI get mine on sale.â€
â€œThese shoes cost nearly a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars. In some places these shoes alone would get me laid.â€
â€œWow, thatâ€™s really interesting,â€ Dave said in a voice soaked in boredom. Washington was home to many men who wore expensive shoes and believed they conferred some kind of status that others should honor. Taylor didnâ€™t seem to be the type but the shoes spoke for themselves.
â€œWhat would you do for a thousand dollars?â€ Taylor looked up.
â€œNothing involving heavy lifting,â€ Dave said.
â€œYou can buy a human being for the price of these shoes. Girl or boy. You can do anything you want to them for as long as you like. When youâ€™re finished with them you can throw them away or trade them in for another human being. Did you know that?â€
â€œRight here in our nationâ€™s capital.â€ Taylor stared at Dave. â€œUnderstand?â€
â€œHow long as this been going on?â€
â€œToo long. Listen, this is not for the faint of heart, Dave. This one involves the big boys. Youâ€™ll need some backup.â€
â€œI have it.â€
Taylor pushed an envelope across the table. â€œThereâ€™s a guy up in the prison camp in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania who may be able to help you out. Heâ€™s there because heâ€™s a rat, an informer. Heâ€™s not there under his real name and you donâ€™t need it anyway. Get your name on the visitors list and go see him. Use my name when you talk to him. You wonâ€™t be able to record any conversations and do not write anything sensitive in letters to him. They read the mail up there.â€
â€œWhatâ€™d he do?â€
â€œItâ€™s not what he did. Itâ€™s what he knows and who he knows. He may be the only guy up there whoâ€™s locked up for his own protection.â€
Taylor used a linen handkerchief to wipe the mud off his shoes. â€œRemember this, the people youâ€™re going after wonâ€™t think anything of making you disappear and they can do it.â€
â€œWhy are you talking to me?â€
Taylor didnâ€™t answer. He walked away. Dave watched him walk to his car and vomit.
Gabriela Isabel Rios believed that she had been captured by the devil himself. The man Ed was a beast who used her the way a dog abused a squirrel it had caught. He slapped her, bit her, inserted himself into any part of her body that was capable of being forced open. She ached in her mind, spirit and body and she prayed day and night for intervention from the Virgin, silently begging that She would offer death to Gabriela as an avenue to Heaven or even oblivion. She had not yet learned to shut down her mind or to find another world in which to hide during the manâ€™s assaults.
Ed kept her locked in the apartment on North Capitol Street. He always arrived in a suit and tie, sometimes carrying a briefcase. He was always accompanied by other men who walked him to the apartment door but not inside. He instructed the men to wait for him next to the large black SUV in which he rode. The men were unsmiling in the manner of security men and women everywhere. They never spoke.
On this day Ed was unsmiling too as he placed his briefcase on the floor. He went to the window and looked south. â€œI run that fucking place. Did you know that? Nothing gets done without my say so. Goddam idiots donâ€™t get it.â€ He turned to her. â€œYou donâ€™t have a brain in your head do you. All you know is what you can eat or shit. People like you donâ€™t make a difference in the world. Itâ€™s people like me who get things done. People like me.â€ He removed his belt. â€œWell, youâ€™re not totally worthless, not yet.â€
Gabriela opened her mouth to scream but the belt caught her lower lip and she fell to the floor. The manâ€™s face grew red with effort and he began to snort like an animal as he raised the belt. He removed his shirt and pants and went after her in his striped boxers, black sox, and wingtips. He looked like a crazy man in a 1940s porn film. He pressed himself down on her, writhing and biting, twisting her body in the manner that suited him. She cried out to the Virgin to save her but there was no answer. She fell limp and waited for it to end.
He was not a young man and his passion was limited, if not his brutality. He fell over to catch his breath, staring at his limp manhood. â€œGoddam it. If you were prettier I could get it up. Itâ€™s your fault.â€ He rolled onto his knees. â€œIâ€™d beat the shit out of you if I had the energy.â€
She looked up at the ceiling hoping to find the image of the Virgin. All she saw was flat white paint. Her lip was bleeding and swelling. Her private area was aching where he had inserted his hand. She had bite marks on her labia. What have I done to deserve this?
She closed her eyes and remembered her fiesta de quince aÃ±os, the Quinceanera, the festival to honor her fifteenth birthday, her passage to womanhood. Her family was poor but the Quince is a tradition in Latin America that brings pride to the girl and her relatives. Her mother and aunts had made her a beautiful white dress. She wore a garland of flowers in her hair as she began her special day with a mass at the church where she had been baptized. She thanked the Virgin for the day and she felt a special connection to Her, one that offered protection and solace.
* * *