The band played on and no one looked up from their drinks -or dice games- as Theresa slowly slumped over on the bar and begin sliding to the floor. However, Alexei and Anna began berating her seeming drunkenness in loud, demeaning terms as if trying to call attention to her misfortune.
“You, sorry slut!” Alexei shouted. “This is the last time we’re going out with you!” He and Anna each grabbed Theresa under the arms and began dragging her toward the door to the kitchen, the tops of her shoes making a long mark on the dusty floor. The bartender was right behind them as they approached the back door leading to the alley. He opened the door and then the door to a waiting van and watched as they shoved Theresa into the back.
“Mind the merchandise…” he smirked as he closed the van door. Alexei gave him a disgruntled look and started the ignition. As the van headed toward the main feeder road, the bartender turned and walked briskly into the pantry of the dirty kitchen. Retrieving his cell phone, he dialed quickly and spoke softly.
“The Merchandise is on the move. Things right on target. I gave her quite a dose so she’ll be safely out of it for a while – long enough to engage. Tracking is secured and they should be coming into range any moment now. I’m out.” With that, the bartender snapped his phone shut, threw off his dirty apron and disappeared out the same back door.
Gus’s heart was racing. Sitting and waiting in the truck a few blocks away had been nerve wracking – unlike the numerous stakeouts he’d calmly executed so many times before. The stakes were high and he’d stepped out on his faith to take it this far.
Some time ago, Gus had realized this operation required so much more expertise and manpower than just local law enforcement could provide. Reasoning that this was even too much for the FBI, and concerned over the ever-mounting evidence of foreign mob involvement and the safety of those involved, Gus had called in a past ally he’d worked with while on loan from the NYPD- a friend he trusted with his life and a man with years of experience with Interpol. Reaching this conclusion on that fateful day, Gus had called the Lyon office and entered the code, 1-24/7.
After explaining his theory and asking to speak directly with his Friend in High Places, they had all agreed that this was indeed a human trafficking ring. Plans were implemented quickly and this is where Gus now found himself. All the same, this time it was so very personal.
Sitting in the unmarked panel truck, surrounded by tracking equipment, listening devices and 3 officers in SWAT gear, Gus was praying that they were as invincible as they appeared. And he hoped he was as well.
At that moment, the signal grew stronger; the van appeared and drove past their location. The panel truck eased out into the sparse traffic, just far enough back to remain unnoticed; and then they followed….
“This looks textbook” the driver said over his shoulder. “They’re headed for the docks just as we suspected.” He spoke into a tiny headset now, giving directions to those who would be engaging in the mission. Other trucks of varying sizes and descriptions began emerging from different locations, closing the net; the last big piece in their immense undertaking.
Unaware of the silent army encroaching from behind, Alexei drove onto the long row of docks, past cargo ships each headed for far away destinations. Other vehicles were legitimately coming and going- despite the late hour- so nothing seemed amiss.
Alexei had been well briefed for this, his first ‘proving assignment’ and he was cocky that he’d done well up ‘til now. Driving to the last warehouse situated at the end of the dock, stopping the van and turning off the ignition, he cast a glance at Anna who sat tensely in the passenger seat.
Reaching over, Alexei pinched her cheek, smacked on his gum and gave her a lecherous grin. “When this is done tonight, maybe you and I can have some fun, eh? You know: FUN?!?” He smirked as his hand grabbed for her breast. Anna jerked away and subconsciously reached for the door handle to exit the van. Alexei lunged at her and slapped her face.
“Nyet! Bitch- you know drill! STAY PUT!”
Anna reached up instinctively and ran her hand over her burning cheek, tears welling up in her eyes and fear closing her throat. She was trapped -just like Theresa- and there now seemed to be no way out.
Scowling as he threw open the van door, Alexei hesitated and looked startled as a panel truck eased up beside him, catching him halfway in and halfway out.
Like lightning, Gus was on him shoving him back in the driver’s seat. Pointing a Glock 27 gen 4 at Alexei’s head Gus hissed, “Game over, scumbag! Don’t you make a sound!”
Quickly, team members took the terrified Anna and still comatose Theresa to a waiting van, where medics and an armed guard stood watch. They then returned to Gus’s side.
“You’re a dead man either way, but you might be less dead if you give up the signal.” Gus spoke in a low, growly voice as he shoved the gun further into Alexei’s temple.
Alexei winced and nodded, a trickle of urine streaming from under his pant leg pooling on the pavement and making him grimace. Shocked to find himself defeated, so soon into his career, Alexei caved.
Shaking, he looked at Gus. The hatred and loathing he saw made him all too aware that this was, in truth, the possible end, not only of his ‘career’ but of his very life.
Nodding gingerly, he raised his finger to push the buzzer on the warehouse door-twice.
In a last-ditch effort to become the Hero, Alexei had chosen to send the code alerting the waiting gang members that all had not gone according to plan, and then he tried to duck away when the warehouse doors slowly rose.
There was an immediate rain of gunfire from both sides and Gus wrestled Alexei to the ground as the battle blazed on. Gus continued to fire while still grasping the writhing Alexei but several minutes into the barrage, a searing pain told him he’d been hit. As Gus’s leg crumpled beneath him, he hung on tightly to the squirming Russian and managed to knock him unconscious with the butt of his gun, while trying to remain conscious himself.
Gus didn’t know how long the clash raged but he was aware that someone pulled him and Alexei away from the doorway.
Before blacking out, he heard someone yell, “Don’t let this man bleed out – this is a thigh wound!” and he remembered from his training just what that dire, diagnosis meant….
Wincing against the light, Gus tried to focus on the blurred figures standing over him. He couldn’t seem to find his voice to answer the questions that were coming at him fast. His opened eyes were the only answer that the waiting faces needed and their sighs of relief were enough to make him realize that he was alive- if not exactly well.
It was Theresa who he first recognized. She was pale and disheveled but grinning and crying at the same time. She squeezed his hand and smoothed a wisp of hair that had stuck to his forehead. He was clammy, tremendously weak and his leg burned like fire. A tear plopped onto his face as Theresa leaned over him, crying.
“I’m ssss…so sorry baby, to have put you through this. Your Mom would never have forgiven me…” Gus’s voice was weak and filled with emotion.
“It’s OK Dad. We survived and I hope we made a difference…” Theresa tried to reassure him as another voice joined in.
“You made a great difference and we owe you both an immense debt– as do the young girls and women we rescued – about to be shipped to God knows where and certainly for no good purpose!”
Gus looked confused and lost for a moment and the voice continued: “There were five half-starved and dehydrated young females in crates waiting for the last victim to be added before shipping out Sir. Theresa here was to be number six. Those guys we captured will be taken back to HQ where we’re confident they will be convinced to give up needed information. We’ve been aware of several of these cells operating around the US and in Europe. They prey on young women who have no one to check on them. In this case the Institute, operating on a shoestring, knew nothing about the extra help they’d hired, but they will be counselled to be much more aware in the future. Other facilities are more on board with these sickos and are paid quite well for complying.”Gus nodded his head to convey he understood and the officer continued with his update:
“It will be up to your Justice Department to decide where Alexei will be placed for sentencing as he was here legally on a visa. The other gang members we captured possessed fake passports but we know them to be a form of the Russian Mafia. Drugs are a powerful bartering tool for them and recruitment isn’t too difficult. By the way, there will be commendations for you and Theresa, Sir, as well as the first young lady who tried to get to the bottom of the disappearances of the other contestants at the Institute. I believe her name is Lindy.”
The man looked closely at Gus and gauged his fatigue. Shooting a glance at Theresa, he gave a curt smile and stated matter-of-factly, “We’ll be in touch.”
With that, he squeezed Gus’s hand, patted Theresa on the shoulder and left.
Pete stepped forward from the corner of the hospital room. Smiling sardonically, he said, “Well buddy, ‘all’s well that ends well’, wouldn’t ya say? You rest now. I’ll take Theresa home – she’s been released by the doc here and Lindy is waiting to make sure she gets plenty of rest too. They say you’ll be outta here in a few short days– but with home care for a while. That was quite a marvelous save they did on you… but then you always were one lucky Bastard!” Pete grinned but it didn’t hide his relief and emotion at finding his friend alive.
Gus wanted to stop him to answer the many questions swimming around in his brain but the pain meds were taking hold again and he slipped into a deep sleep.
The next day, found a more alert Gus waiting impatiently for Pete to arrive and answer the one burning question that hadn’t been answered.
Pete arrived bearing a cactus plant- a typical way of joking between the two friends. Gus made no pretense of getting right to his concern.
Pete pursed his lips, thinking of a good answer, but instead came right to the point. “No one knows, Gus. Jessie has just disappeared from the face of the earth. I’ve checked out every possible lead but all are dead ends.”
Gus’s heart sank. He swallowed hard and turned his head away from his friend.
Pete tried to sound positive. “I’m so sorry, man– and God knows I’ll keep searching. She’s savvy, Gus. I can’t believe this could be the end of such a bright light…”
Gus closed his eyes and the beeping of the heart monitor grew faster. Pete ran to get a nurse.
© copyright 2019 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.