A DOG’S BARK dragged Kylie out of a deep slumber, and she fought the dense fog that had settled in her brain. A woman’s voice echoed somewhere far away and brought her to the surface. Scrunching her eyes against the pile driver banging inside her head, she tried to swallow but only succeeded in running a thick, cottony tongue over her desiccated bottom lip.
Where am I? The smell of cooked rice, seared meat, and human excrement rolled her like a tsunami and she doubled over, retching.
When the nausea passed, Kylie pushed up to a sitting position and opened her eyes. Metal bars surrounded her on three sides of a small enclosure, with a pitted, mildew-stained block wall at the back.
A dozen young women of varying races and ages either crouched on the rough concrete floor or leaned against the block. Most wore blank expressions. One woman, a hijab covering her head, squatted in the corner crying softly.
Outside the cell, a combination of crumbling concrete and mortar told of years of neglect. Paint still dotted the surface, but age, wear, and humidity had faded and chipped the walls so only small sections of blue remained. Above her, a rusty metal roof, more rust than roof, covered the space.
Kylie pulled at the sodden material of her shirt, attempting to peel it away from her body. It didn’t do any good. She stood up, swaying slightly at the rush of blood from her head. The thick humidity was like breathing through water. Lifting the hair off her neck, she headed toward the bars at the front of the cage, her bare feet cool on the rough concrete floor.
Think, Kylie. How did you wind up here?
Images floated through her mind of sitting at the bar with Angie, Beatrice, and Charlie. She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to tease a strand of memory from the gaping hole in her consciousness.
A small, dark-haired woman wearing a colorful skirt stood next to her, staring through the bars. Kylie touched her arm to get her attention. The woman looked at her hand, and her gaze skated to Kylie’s.
“Where are we? I—” Kylie fumbled for the words to make sense of what was happening, grasping at something solid to tether herself to. “I can’t remember how I got here.”
The woman shook her head. She said something in Thai, but Kylie hadn’t learned enough of the language to understand her. She glanced at the other women sharing the cell with her.
“Does anyone here speak English?” she asked the group, feeling foolish for traveling through a foreign country and not learning the language. A few of the women shrugged or shook their heads. The rest ignored her.
In the distance, a door banged open and voices filtered through the dark hallway. Heart in her throat, Kylie backed away from the bars and took a spot next to the wall between two of the women, hoping she blended.
A slight man with a face marred by an old case of acne stopped in front of the cell. In his hand was a large key ring. Behind him, a man with a face like a ferret and carrying a rifle dragged a young boy by the arm.
“Jaidee!” Kylie’s initial caution was forgotten at seeing the kid she’d met at the bar the night before. Her shock was matched only by her dismay at his filthy face and split, bleeding lip. The boy’s eyes lit in recognition, but any happiness at seeing someone he knew was short-lived. The man with the keys opened the cell door, while the other one shoved Jaidee inside. The door slammed shut behind him.
Kylie waited until the men left before she knelt in front of Jaidee and brushed his hair back from his face. By the looks of his trembling bottom lip he was trying to be brave, but his eyes were brimming with tears.
“Shh, you’re going to be fine, Jaidee.” Kylie gently rubbed the dirt from his cheek with her thumb and used part of her sleeve to wipe away the blood on his lip and chin. That small gesture of kindness was all he needed—the dam broke and Jaidee collapsed into Kylie’s arms, sobbing his fear and frustration into her neck. Kylie let him cry and watched as a few of the other women drew closer, murmuring soothing sounds, concern evident on their faces. Soon, Jaidee was surrounded by all but one of the women in the cell as they took turns comforting the young boy.
Curious, Kylie left the group and walked over to the holdout—a Thai woman about Kylie’s age wearing an expression that said she’d been through worse than being locked up in a dark, putrid cell. The micro-mini-skirt, stiletto sandals, and tight, midriff-baring top gave the impression she earned her living in the sex trade. An angry scowl on her face, she stood with her back to the wall, arms crossed, glaring at Kylie with obvious suspicion.
“What you want?” she asked.
“You speak English?”
“No,” she sneered, looking away.
“I don’t know what your problem is. We’re all in the same boat here.” Kylie’s voice trailed off as she gazed at the other women fawning over Jaidee. Part of her wanted to curl up in a corner and cry, hoping the other women would comfort her, too. But the pragmatic part, the part she’d been relying on while traveling alone through Southeast Asia, told her whatever came next wouldn’t be good and that she’d better suck it up sooner rather than later.
Unwilling to be on the receiving end of more bitchiness, Kylie gave up trying to talk to the woman next to her and moved to the other side of the cell. She sat on the grungy floor and closed her eyes, trying to think positive thoughts, but dark images crowded her mind. She didn’t remember doing anything illegal, and doubted she was in an official jail, although she wasn’t sure. Maybe she’d gotten uncharacteristically shit-faced the night before and did something stupid that she couldn’t remember. But a far more terrifying reason began to wiggle its way into her mind.
They didn’t call Bangkok the sex capital of the world for nothing.
Did Alak use Jaidee to distract her so he could put drugs in her beer? A shiver tracked up her spine at the thought of what would come next. But why is Jaidee here? Was he a plant to get information from somebody in the cell? Or was he going to the same place she and the others were headed? She drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her head against her knees, pushing away the image of someone so young being used for sex.
How stupid was I not to keep an eye on my drink at a bar in Bangkok? She’d heard stories about girls being drugged, raped, and left somewhere. It happened lots of places, even back home, but she’d thought she was with friends.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
And why weren’t Angie and Beatrice here? The New Zealand twins had been at the bar and were much drunker than Kylie remembered being. Were they working with the tour guide, Charlie? Maybe they were all working together with Alak. Try as she might, she couldn’t believe the two sisters had any part in what happened.
Her parents were right. They didn’t want her to go by herself, said it was too dangerous, especially in Kylie’s delicate emotional state. Kylie had argued each point her parents had made as though her life depended on it, and in a way it had. Sure, she was over eighteen, barely, and could do what she wanted, but Kylie grew up wanting to please her parents. Still did. Even so, she had to go on this journey alone.
Back home, she was going through the motions, not happy, not sad, just numb. Afraid to allow herself to feel anything, she refused to listen when her mother and father spoke about Brandon. Talking was their way of grieving, of releasing the pain and anger they both felt at his death, but that wasn’t the way Kylie was built. Her friends had noticed and tried to shake her out of the funk she was in, but nothing worked.
The claustrophobia had increased as the months wore on, to the point where she was going to suffocate if she didn’t get out of Phoenix.
And now, a month and a half into her solo journey, here she was, a prisoner in a shitty cell in Bangkok, staring at a bleak future.
Jaidee had calmed down and was playing a game of tic-tac-toe on the dirty floor with one of the other women while the rest looked on, enclosing the two in a protective circle. Kylie glanced at the bitchy girl, who was watching Jaidee and the women. When she caught Kylie studying her, she rolled her eyes and looked away.
Kylie stood up and walked over next to her. The woman stayed put but didn’t acknowledge her. Kylie leaned against the sweaty cinder block wall and watched Jaidee and the women.
“Looks like he’s having fun,” Kylie offered. Her voice shook as she spoke. The other woman didn’t respond.
Kylie really wanted to ask her what was going to happen to them, but didn’t dare, didn’t want to screw up the chance to connect with someone. She took a deep breath and clamped down on the fear rising in her chest. Chill, Kylie. You’re going to get out of here.
“What do you think they want with him?” she asked, nodding at the group gathered around Jaidee.
Again, she received no response. “He’s so young. I don’t understand why he’s locked in here with us.”
The woman scoffed and yanked out a pack of clove cigarettes and a lighter. Her hand trembled as she lit up. She sucked in a lungful and propelled the smoke into the air, turning it temporarily blue. “That because you stupid cow from America.”
“Whoa. What did I ever do to you?”
The woman frowned and blinked back tears. Kylie softened and leaned closer so the other women couldn’t hear their conversation.
“Are you all right?” she asked, regretting the question as soon as it came out of her mouth. She expected the woman to shut her down with an icy look. When she didn’t, she added, “I don’t mean to pry. I’m just really scared.”
The other woman sighed, and she turned to Kylie. The depth of emotion gazing back at her radiated anguish so deep Kylie was certain it would never heal.
“Oh.” Kylie exhaled and looked away, embarrassed to have witnessed such a private response in a stranger that she’d thought was just a cold bitch.
“My name Sapphire,” she said, offering her cigarette to Kylie.
“Kylie,” she replied. “Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
Sapphire shrugged and took another drag, streaming the smoke through her nose. She smoked it down to the filter, dropped the butt on the floor, and stubbed it out with the toe of her stiletto.
“The last I remember, I was at a bar in the Cowboy district,” Kylie said, hoping to draw her out. “I woke up here.”
Sapphire studied her for a moment, paying particular attention to her eyes. She nodded. “You were drugged.”
“I thought so. Is that how you got here?”
Sapphire smiled ruefully and shook her head. Her glossy black hair cascaded forward, giving her a sultry look. “I made boyfriend angry. He say I too much trouble.” Her lips twisted like she was going to cry, but she didn’t. “He sell me.”
“He sold you?” Kylie stared at her in disbelief. “Your boyfriend can’t just sell you. That’s illegal.”
Sapphire cocked her head. “You understand what I mean boyfriend?” She paused for a moment, thinking. “Okay, okay. Not boyfriend. Wrong word. He Maeng Daa…how you say…pemp?”
“You mean pimp?”
“Yes. Yes, pimp.”
Even though Kylie had assumed she was a prostitute, she’d never met one before. Anger sparked inside of her at the thought of anyone believing they could own another person.
“It okay, you know.” Sapphire nudged Kylie with her elbow. “Not lot of jobs in Bangkok, but I make good money.” She shrugged. “Maybe I do again.”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
Sapphire exhaled another blue cloud and gazed at the far wall. Then she looked Kylie up and down and shook her head. “You no want to know.”
Kylie’s breath caught and the blood drained from her face. Sapphire’s words reverberated in her mind. Her heart fluttered and she had to force herself to breathe, like she was being squeezed from all sides. Leaning forward, she gripped her knees.
What if they were going to use them in snuff films? Kylie had heard of movies where people were tortured and murdered in real time, the live action streamed over the Internet to online customers. Or, maybe they wanted to cut out her organs and sell them.
A moment later the door at the end of the hall crashed open. Everyone inside the cell turned as a squat Asian woman dressed in a shimmery silk suit strode down the corridor toward them, followed by the man with the acne scars and two rough-looking men carrying guns. The woman, who appeared to be middle-aged, stopped in front of the cell and barked something at the guards. It didn’t sound like Thai to Kylie—the words had a harder edge. The man with the scars produced a key and opened the door. One of the armed men walked into the cell and growled something to Jaidee. He grabbed him by the arm and yanked him away from the other women.
“No!” Kylie shouted. Her stomach twisted at Jaidee’s cries as the man dragged him away. She fought the urge to follow him. The boy’s eyes went wide, and he stretched out his arms, terror plain on his face.
Heart in her throat, Kylie spun around. “What did that guy say?” she whispered to Sapphire.
“He say he must be man and stop crying to women,” she replied.
The woman in the silk suit scanned the remaining prisoners in the cell with a calculating eye, lingering on Kylie longer than the others. Her hair had been heavily shellacked, resembling a black helmet. Kylie was surprised the woman’s heavy makeup hadn’t melted from the thick humidity.
The woman said something to the gunman who pointed his weapon at Kylie and her cellmates and shouted orders in Thai. Not sure what he’d said, Kylie didn’t move as the women began filing out of the cell. Sapphire turned back and nodded her head toward the others.
“Mama-san say we go.”
“Go where?” Kylie asked, nausea rising in her throat. She didn’t like the mama-san or whoever this woman was and didn’t want to go anywhere near her.
“Wherever she want.” Sapphire shrugged and joined the rest of the women.
Kylie hung back, her natural obstinacy rearing its head. Terror fueled her anger, and she decided she wasn’t going anywhere, with anyone, ever.
After the last woman had exited the cell, the remaining gunman, obviously upset that she didn’t follow orders, waved the barrel of his gun at Kylie and yelled. Kylie crossed her arms and flattened her back against the wall. Her knees shook, but she stood her ground. The words “fuck off” caught in her throat.
The mama-san laid her hand on the gunman’s arm and he backed off. She walked back into the cell, stopping just short of where Kylie stood. Kylie was at least a head taller, but the woman’s bulk and gravitas told her she had all the power in the situation. A cloud of sickly sweet perfume engulfed Kylie and her eyes watered.
“You go now,” the woman said in English, her eyes narrowing. “He kill you if you no do what I say,” she said, nodding toward the man with the gun. “You my property, now.” With that, the mama-san stepped away from Kylie and motioned to the gunman.
Kylie darted to the side as he approached, intending to run past him, but he stopped her short, blocking her escape with his gun.
In panic mode, Kylie turned away, but he seized her around the waist and wrestled her to the floor. The mama-san grabbed her legs, surprising Kylie with her strength when she secured her ankles with a plastic zip tie. Kylie screamed at them to stop and kicked with both feet. The mama-san drew her hand back and struck her hard across the face. Stunned by the pain, Kylie went mute as hot tears skidded down her cheeks. The gunman flipped her over and the woman lassoed her hands behind her back.
Her wrists and ankles burning from the forced restraints, Kylie bit her tongue until she tasted blood, now afraid to anger either one of them. The mama-san said something to the gunman, and he dragged Kylie from the cell, taking her down the hall and into a rabbit warren of alleys.
They continued along a passage to where another gunman stood near an open doorway. The man had a fierce expression with a deep scar running from the corner of his mouth to his ear, reminding Kylie of the bad guys in the late-night kung fu movies she’d watched with her brother before he died.
As they drew near, she realized he was culling the women—the man with the scar would nod at specific girls as they passed and another man would pull them out of line and hand them off to someone else.
When she and the gunman dragging her made it to the front of the line, the man with the scar directed them through an open doorway toward an idling van.
Blaring horns and countless cars and scooters filled the crowded, narrow street with dozens of people racing by on their way to somewhere. No one paid any attention to them. Exhaust saturated the air, and Kylie held her breath so she wouldn’t choke. Advertising signs written in Thai cluttered the street, assuring her she was still in Thailand.
The man carrying her shoved her head first into the open cargo area of the van. Kylie tucked her head and rolled to keep her face from skidding across the floor. She rocked to a sitting position, scuttling out of the way when another woman was pushed in after her.
Kylie scooted back against the bare metal side of the cargo van and pulled her knees up. The door slammed closed. She raised her head and found herself staring into Sapphire’s almond-shaped eyes.
“You should not fight,” Sapphire said, nodding at Kylie’s bound hands and feet. Sapphire’s hands and legs were free.
Another captive, a woman in her early twenties with light brown hair, sat across from them, her back to the rear doors. Her face was bruised and swollen. Kylie wondered what she’d done to deserve the beating. She caught Kylie looking at her and turned her head.
The cargo area smelled of diesel fuel and rotting fish and was cut off from the front of the van by metal bars. There were no windows, and no interior handles visible for either the back doors or the side. The man with the scar climbed into the driver’s seat and slammed his door closed. He maneuvered into traffic, horns blaring from every direction.
Soon the driver broke free of the gridlock and the van began to move at a more determined clip. Kylie was grateful for the slight breeze coming through the driver’s open window, but the air was still thick.
“What’s your name?” Kylie whispered to the battered woman. She needed a diversion or she’d scream.
The woman shook her head and began to cry. The driver yelled what must have been a command to be quiet, for she immediately fell silent. Kylie did the same, not knowing how to speak to her in her own language. Sapphire settled in, stretching her legs in front of her, and lit a cigarette. The driver glanced in the rear view mirror, but didn’t stop her.
Kylie sighed and wiped at her own tears. A group of missionaries visiting her church who’d been held at gunpoint in the Sudan had said that when in a dangerous situation in another country you shouldn’t react—no crying, or anger, and especially no demands. The more docile you are the better chance you have of survival.
She hadn’t passed the first test. It was hard not to fight back. She’d just screwed herself.
Kylie stared down at the welts and bruises on the sobbing woman’s face and neck and, although it went against everything Kylie believed in, steeled herself to be as accommodating to her captors as possible.
But would it be enough?