A Taste of... Storm's peril

Chapter One

What was that?

Javier Flores whipped around, peering into the night while attempting to locate the loud bang that had startled him so badly. The sound came again, much less distinct this time, and he relaxed a little as an ancient truck with a rusted fender backfired once again.

Pull it together.

Javier rubbed the back of his neck and shifted positions on the uncomfortable metal bench he’d been sitting on for what felt like an eternity. Since leaving the farm early that morning, he hadn’t been able to shake the nagging sensation that someone was watching him…following him.

In his youth, he’d been stricken with the same paranoia after watching an R-rated horror film while his parents worked the night shift and his little sister was in bed. But that was four years ago. He wasn’t a twelve-year-old boy anymore. Now, at the ripe old age of sixteen, he could watch a scary movie in the dark by himself without relying on the protection of his security blanket.

The source of Javier’s anxiety tonight wasn’t the thought of ghosts or demons. Those were make-believe. The men he’d left behind at the farm? They were real.

Glancing around the bus station, Javier tightened his grip on the battered backpack holding his meager belongings. Aside from a young man and woman two rows down from him, an older man with a cane across from them, and the clerk behind the ticket booth, the bus station lobby was empty.

He was alone.

Again.

A blessing and a curse.

How had it come to this?

After his father died two years ago, money had been tight for their little family of three. Javier had witnessed his mother’s tears, watched her go hungry so her children could eat. He’d wanted to help, and the plan had been so perfect. He’d get a summer job to make some extra money for his family until the school year started again.

When he and a friend had learned of a company that hired employees with little-to-no prior work experience, he thought he’d found a solution that would keep their household afloat. Well, at least until he graduated high school. He hoped.

According to the human resource person he spoke to, the job was labor-intensive but simple. The work wasn’t glorious, but the pay was decent.

Or so he’d been told.

Maybe the paychecks he’d received each week would have been decent, but the company—whose official title Javier had never learned—tacked on extra taxes, fees, and penalties for expenses over which the workers had no control.

Each week, the company had saddled him and the other workers with more debt. Penalties for broken equipment they’d never even seen, fees for late payments on prior debts owed, interest for loans they’d been forced to take out to pay for those fees. The list went on.

Even when Javier had tried to control the costs, he’d been unsuccessful. He’d felt like he was trying to stem the bleeding for a wound that would never close.

In his eight weeks as a laborer on the farm, Javier had heard stories about men who were beaten for trying to leave before paying their debt to the company. There had been whispers among the workers about others who had disappeared after attempting to skip out on what they owed. Whether they’d been deported or killed, no one knew for sure. Any of those who had been reprimanded by the boss were closemouthed about what they’d experienced after the public beating.

He had no choice but to throw money at the company until the balance listed on his checks was zero.

The venture had taken more than two months, but Javier had finally done it.

For the first time since his arrival, Javier’s debt was paid. He was debt free and intended to make the most of the reprieve. They couldn’t keep him there if he didn’t owe them anything, and they had no reason to reprimand him. He was done with that god-awful place and would never go back.

Still…he was scared.

You shouldn’t be, he told himself in a voice as stern as his father’s had once been. Javier was careful. Meticulous even. He’d been more thorough than those who had come before him. He had paid all his debts to the men who ran the farm. He was sure of it.

But try as he might, Javier couldn’t scratch the incessant itch on the back of his neck. The one that told him he was being watched, that he was in danger.

The shadow of a man moved just at the edge of his field of vision, and Javier snapped out of his downward spiral of paranoid thoughts. Tightening his grip on the backpack, he angled his head to the side to get a better look.

Dread and fear swirled in his stomach.

As the first hint of the man’s pungent cologne assaulted his nostrils, Javier’s pulse rushed in his ears. Though none of the farmworkers were permitted to address that man by his first name, Javier had heard the other managers refer to him as Carlo.

White fluorescence caught a silver ring on Carlo’s index finger as he ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. Under the harsh light, his receding hairline was even more prominent than usual.

Blowing out a long breath, Carlo turned disappointed brown eyes to Javier. “We’ve been looking for you. Are you planning on going somewhere?”

Javier cursed himself.

He should have waited in the bathroom or in the shadows of night outside. Maybe he could have sat next to the couple at the other end of the room, and then the man would have left him alone. Or maybe he could have just walked all the way back to Chicago. He could have hitchhiked, could have hopped on a train like he’d seen characters do in movies.

His throat was like sandpaper as he attempted to swallow. Movement caught his eye, and when he spotted a second man step up to the bench, the edges of Javier’s vision turned dark.

The newcomer was called Matteo, the assistant manager of the place. The big man’s forearms rippled with muscle as he grasped the back of the bench with both hands. Stubble darkened his face, but his clean-shaven head glinted as he tilted his chin to look at his prey. The crooked smile that split his lips sent an involuntary shiver down Javier’s spine.

Nothing about the two men’s presence was right.

Carlo, who called himself the shift manager, heaved another sigh. “I really hope you weren’t planning on leaving tonight. You know, I try to keep my feelings out of work, so I treat everyone the same, but I have to admit,” his eyes bore into Javier, “I was starting to like you. It’d be a shame if you went and mucked that up by trying to leave.”

As much as Javier wanted to believe the placating remark, in his gut, he knew the man was a liar.

Holding up both hands, he forced his voice to work. “I paid all my debts. I’m quitting, and I’m going home. I have school soon.”

Matteo clucked his tongue, the corners of his lips turning up as if he’d heard a sordid joke. “School? That’s not for another month.”

Javier clenched his jaw until he thought his teeth might break. When he found the will to speak again, he forced himself to lift his chin and meet their dark gazes. “It doesn’t matter. I can still leave. I paid everything I owed.”

Carlo thrust his hands in his front pockets, causing his leather jacket to separate and reveal the dark shadow of a gun. His grin grew wider as Javier paled at the sight of the weapon. “You signed a contract, boy. You can’t just walk away from that. You know that, right? If you want out of your contract, you have to talk to the boss. It’ll cost you, though.”

Straightening his back, Javier ignored the sweat that beaded on his brow. The station was air-conditioned, but in the presence of the two managers, he might as well have been back out in the late July heat.

“Then I’ll pay it when I get home. I’ll send a payment.”

Carlo’s laugh held more malice than Javier had ever heard. “That’s not how this works, kid. You work for us, and that’s a legally binding contract. You can’t leave without paying.”

Javier squared his jaw. His was the internet savvy generation, and he’d done enough research to know that minors couldn’t enter into a legally binding contract. It had been a fail-safe he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to use, but they had given him no other option. “You’re right. I am just a kid. Which means no contract is legally binding.”

As Carlo removed his hands from his pockets, his expression darkened. “Okay, smartass. You want to talk about what is and isn’t legal? Your mom isn’t here legally, is she? It’d be a shame if we had to report your mom to the authorities.”

“I hear deportation happens quickly these days.” Matteo shrugged his broad shoulders. “It would be a true shame if immigration had a reason to look at your mother’s citizenship status.”

He should have known.

His mother and younger sister weren’t legally documented citizens. Neither was he.

So much for his backup plan.

Javier had only been four years old when his parents had taken him and fled their home country of Guatemala. Neither of them had offered much detail about the decision to undertake such a dangerous journey, but Javier’s online searches about the country and the time period had given him an explanation.

A thirty-six-year civil war had left a lasting mark on the populace, and his parents had rightfully feared for their lives.

His parents had worked so hard to build a better life for him and Yanira. He couldn’t cast away their sacrifice just to void a contract so he could quit a job. Even if that job was grueling, and even if the treatment of the workers was akin to slavery.

They had obtained temporary residency in the past, but his mother, Mari, hadn’t been able to afford to renew the documentation after his father’s death. His little family had flown under the radar since then. Javier didn’t understand all the details, but he knew enough to realize the implications of Carlo’s threat.

He couldn’t do that to his mother and sister…or to the memory of his father.

Dragging a hand over his face, Javier slumped down in his seat, defeat a heavy weight on his shoulders.

“Tell you what, kid.” Carlo’s knees popped as he shifted from one foot to the other. “You come back with us, and we’ll talk to the boss about waiving some of those fees.”

Javier dropped his hand back to his lap and met Carlo’s expectant stare. He didn’t know what to say. Or do. He no longer knew anything at all.

Carlo glanced to Matteo before turning back on Javier. “Or we can get ahold of our lawyers and report your breach of contract. The choice is yours.”

But the malevolent glint in Carlo’s eyes told Javier all he needed to know.

There was no choice.

* * *

When they arrived at the expansive farm, Javier had dared to let himself hope he’d be allowed to return to the workers’ apartments so he could sleep. Their shifts started before the sun rose, and they weren’t allowed to rest until the day’s quota had been filled. Fourteen to sixteen-hour workdays were common.

His sliver of hope was dashed as Matteo and Carlo prodded him toward one of four warehouses.

In the dark of night, the white, windowless building seemed to glow beneath the harsh light of the lampposts that dotted the property. Gravel crunched underfoot as he took one agonizing step after another.

The closer they grew to the side entrance, the more jumbled Javier’s thoughts became.

How had his desire for a summer job gotten him here? All he’d wanted to do was make some extra cash to help his mother and his sister.

When the school year started in the fall, he’d been bound and determined to send himself and Yanira back to class with stylish new shoes and clothes. For once, they’d be dressed in jeans and shirts that weren’t hand-me-downs. And for once, his mother wouldn’t have to pick up extra shifts to pay for their school supplies.

Instead, he was here, stuck at this godforsaken farm that had consumed more than just his time and energy. The weariness from his eight weeks in this place ran deeper than what sleep alone could resolve.

Javier was tired all the way down to the core of his being. All he wanted was to see his mother and his sister again, but as their steps toward the warehouse went on, he became more and more certain that his life plans were about to be permanently derailed.

As they neared the metal door with its rusted hinges, Javier wondered if he could outrun the two men. If he could disappear into one of the cornfields, he could lose their tail and find his way to the main road.

He knew the fields better than Carlo or Matteo. There was no way they’d be able to find him in the maze of tall corn stalks.

Desperation causing his legs to shake, Javier glanced over his shoulder to the field. As a night breeze blew past them, the leaves of the corn plants swayed together as if they were a single entity.

“You might be thinking about running right now.” Carlo’s gravelly voice was tinged with a mixture of amusement and malevolence that made Javier’s skin crawl.

Javier jerked from his moment of contemplation and turned to cast a wide-eyed stare at Carlo.

How did he know?

His chuckle was even more sinister this time. “You wouldn’t be the first to try, kid. But…” he dropped a hand down to the lever of the old door, “you might want to wait a second before you do that. The boss doesn’t take kindly to his employees trying to skate on what they owe, you understand?”

Shaking his head, Javier opened his mouth to speak, to remind the men that he owed no debts. Before the words could form on his tongue, a flicker of movement at his side was followed by a sickening crack. White light exploded in his left eye as pain seared its way through his cheekbone like the venom of a snake. His head snapped to the side as the taste of iron filled his mouth.

In the split-second that followed, Javier wasn’t sure what had just happened.

The blow reverberated all the way to the bridge of his nose, and he squeezed his eyes closed against the tears that burned like acid.

Throughout his time in school, he’d always been polite and kind to his classmates. He’d been caught in a couple disagreements between friends, but he wasn’t the type to get into a fistfight.

He was the good kid, the kind who broke up the fights, not one to start them.

Pressing one hand against his wounded cheek, Javier forced himself to turn to face the source of the blow.

Matteo loomed like a malevolent shadow as his broad-shouldered frame blocked the glow of the nearest lamppost. He was only a few inches taller than Javier, but the hulking man was easily double his weight. From snippets of conversations he’d overheard, Matteo’s free time was often spent in a boxing ring.

Javier didn’t have a chance to ask what he’d done to deserve the unexpected blow before Matteo rammed his fist straight into Javier’s stomach. Before he could scream or say a word, the air was forced from his lungs. Javier hunched over, wheezing for a breath of air he desperately needed. With fingers that were mostly numb, he groped at the sight of the blow, sure he’d feel his intestines hanging out.

Matteo was relentless. The brute landed another punch to his chest, and then another, and another, until Javier finally gave in.

Dropping to his knees on the sidewalk, Javier threw his arms up to shield his face before crumpling to the ground.

Between his choked gasps, he thought he heard Carlo speak, but he couldn’t make out the words. Any time he tried to take in a deep breath, he was greeted with a sharp pain in his ribs. His vision blurred as he tried to open his eyes, and bile clawed its way up the back of his throat.

The pain had become a living thing. It pinned him to the ground with the force of a professional wrestler, and its searing grasp on his ribs made each breath a near impossibility.

He’d never experienced pain like this.

As much as he wanted to tuck his knees into his chest, to curl into a little ball and meld into the concrete, his stomach lurched, and the bitter sting of bile filled his mouth.

He barely managed to pull himself out of the fetal position before the first involuntary heave overtook him. Each time he wretched, the pain from Matteo’s heavy punches reignited. Despite that, Javier continued to vomit, emptying what little had been in his stomach into the strip of grass next to the sidewalk.

“Give him a second.” Carlo’s voice was tinny and distant through the ringing in Javier’s ears, almost like the man had spoken through an old CV radio.

“This pissant’s a waste of our time.” Matteo nudged Javier’s leg with the toe of his boot. “Get up, you little shit. The boss is waiting for you.”

Had Javier not been so preoccupied by the waves of pain that alternated with nausea, he might have felt an impending sense of dread at the spite-filled announcement. But in those moments, there was only pain.

Sharp pebbles from the sidewalk dug through his jeans, biting into his knees. He felt a tickle on the back of his hand as an ant or a beetle crawled over his skin.

Spitting out as much of the foul taste as he could manage, Javier finally took in a breath of the humid night air. A skunk had sprayed somewhere around the warehouse, but he was grateful to fill his lungs all the same.

He’d only just caught his breath when a rough hand clamped down on the back of his t-shirt. Though Javier tried to push himself upright before the man could pull too much, the collar dug into his throat like a rope.

“Get up. The boss is waiting.” Matteo’s order was more a growl than a series of spoken words.

This time, despite the trickle of blood from the cut on his cheek or the persistent sting of his damaged ribs, a cold rush of dread prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.

If the boss was waiting, then his night was far from over.

Carlo pulled open the rusty door, his scrutinizing eyes fixed on Javier as Matteo gave him an unceremonious shove through the doorway.

Though the overhead lights had been dimmed, Javier still had to blink to adjust his vision. His left eye was blurry with the tears that continued to well up from the pervasive sting in his cheek, and when he glanced down to his plain gray t-shirt, the front was dotted with dark splotches of crimson.

Javier did his best to wipe the blood from his face as they headed to a concrete hall. He’d never stepped foot into this part of the warehouse. He’d always assumed that the side entrance led to a set of stairs to the overhead catwalk, as well as a couple management offices, but assuming was as far as he’d ever gotten.

The area was reserved for Matteo, Carlo, and whichever other managers might have been present that day. The only workers he’d ever seen escorted through the side entrance were the ones who rarely spoke.

Maybe Carlo and Matteo brought the workers in here to kill them so they could be replaced with robots. Maybe Javier was at the start of a dystopian science fiction nightmare.

Halfway down the hall, another corridor branched off to two rooms. Though one door was closed, white light streamed onto the dingy floor from the other doorway across the hall.

Goose bumps rose on Javier’s arms as he made out the voices of at least two more people, but before panic could rise in his chest, he was shoved into the doorway. His attention landed on the wall-mounted television beside a vending machine. To his relief, the screen was the source of the unknown voices.

That sense of relief was short-lived.

As soon as Javier’s eyes settled on the boss, he wished he was still curled up in a ball on the concrete outside. Flickering light from the television caught the man’s shiny black dress shoes from where he’d propped his feet atop a wooden table.

On a workday, the boss’s attire matched the jeans, boots, and button-down shirts of Matteo and Carlo. The sight of a man in a dress shirt, slacks, and polished shoes was unusual in a place like the farm.

With his attire and neatly styled ebony hair, the boss looked like he might have just walked out of a men’s fashion advertisement.

The boss popped a chip in his mouth, crumpled up the bag, and then tossed it to a nearby trash can. Swinging his legs away from the table, the man brushed off the front of his pressed white shirt and settled his dark brown eyes on Javier.

Where Javier had expected to see the same flicker of hatred Matteo had shown him, the boss’s lips curved into a slight smile. Scratching at the stubble on his cheek, he leaned back in his office chair. “So, I hear you went for a little late-night adventure, is that right?”

Carlo clapped a hand on Javier’s shoulder, and it was all he could do to keep from crumpling as the dull pain once again overtook his upper body.

As Carlo looked from Javier to the boss, a matching smirk made its way to his face. “Sure did. We found him at the bus station. Had a ticket and everything.”

The boss lifted his eyebrows. “A ticket? Wow. That’s farther than most of you people make it before we catch you.”

Though Javier wanted to plead his case and assure the boss that he’d paid his debts before leaving, one glance at Matteo reminded him what would happen.

Instead, he clenched his jaw and lowered his eyes.

Clapping his hands, the boss rose to his feet. “You know, I was a little pissed off that I had to leave my sister’s wedding reception early to come here, but honestly…” he shrugged, “they didn’t even have an open bar, so no harm done. Especially with what I’ve got waiting downstairs.”

Javier fought against his furrowing brow, attempting to hide the look of confusion and keep his expression neutral as he watched the boss. Until now, he hadn’t even known that the warehouse had a downstairs.

As the boss rested his hands on his hips, he looked ready to speak again. But at the last second, he waved a hand and grinned.

“You know, I was going to go on about what the consequences are if you decide to leave your work here before we give you the okay, but I think we ought to just head downstairs so you can see those consequences firsthand. What do you think, gentlemen?”

Carlo’s chuckle was filled with all the malice of hell. “I think we ought to head downstairs.”

The boss clapped his hands again, the devious smile still on his lips. “Good. Come on, kid. I’ve got something to show you.”

As the heart-pounding rush of adrenaline spread through Javier’s battered body, the pain from his injuries was all but forgotten.

He didn’t have the first clue what the boss meant when he said that he had something to show him. But with each step he forced himself to take back toward the landing, he felt certain he was walking to his death.

Once they got to the square landing, the boss shoved open a door that led up to the catwalk. The hinges gave the same rusty creak of protest as the side entrance, but the door swung closed quietly behind them.

Motion sensor lights flickered to life as they descended to the basement floor, and the boss’s shoes clicked against the concrete. Matteo and Carlo flanked Javier as they strode down a wide hall with closed doors on either side.

As they reached the second door on the right, the boss stopped and retrieved a set of keys from his pocket. He flashed one more of those wicked smiles at Javier before he unlocked the latch and pushed the door inward.

With an outstretched hand, he beckoned Javier forward.

Javier half-expected to come face-to-face with a medieval torture device—some relic leftover from the Spanish Inquisition or another brutal event that he’d learned about on the History Channel. An iron maiden, maybe, or a rack. Or maybe just a hitman with a good old-fashioned handgun and a silencer.

What he saw instead sucked any last semblance of defiance from his tired bones.

The cramped room might have once been a storage unit, but its purpose had clearly been altered to function as a prison cell.

A dingy mattress had been pushed against a wall at the far end of the space, and the stained surface had been mostly covered with a set of pink and blue sheets. On each corner of the bed sat a neatly arranged pile of stuffed teddy bears and rabbits.

Seated at the edge of the mattress, her cheeks wet with tears, was Javier’s little sister.

“Yanira?” He croaked the word. His throat dried with the air it had taken to say her name. Javier swallowed hard, feeling as if a million shards of broken glass lined his esophagus. “Yanira, are you okay? How did you get here? Did they hurt—”

Matteo’s fist rammed into his ribs, cutting short his series of questions. The blow reignited the fire from the beating outside.

Yanira let out a cry of surprise.

Javier took in a sharp breath and hunched over. It was all he could do to remain on his feet. He couldn’t let Yanira see him crumple.

“Enough of that.” Matteo clamped a hand down around Javier’s upper arm and jerked him upright. “Shut your damn mouth, or I’ll do worse than just punch you.”

Gritting his teeth against the newest onslaught of pain, Javier lifted his chin to meet Yanira’s frightened eyes. The harsh glow of a battery-powered work light glinted off the tears streaking down her cheeks.

They used the same lights around the farm when their work continued after dark, but the lamp’s presence in this cramped room was all wrong.

There was electricity in the basement, and Javier had no idea why they’d set up such a bright light in a single room. In addition to the work light, he couldn’t figure out why they’d surrounded his sister with stuffed animals.

Yanira had just turned sixteen, only ten months younger than Javier. Even when she was very little, she’d never been keen on teddy bears or rabbits. She’d always preferred model cars and someday dreamed of becoming a mechanic.

She hated wearing dresses too, but for some reason, she was wearing a pastel blue sundress, one that Javier had never seen.

His thoughts spiraled in a desperate effort to puzzle together the pieces of the scene before him as the boss strode across the room, took a seat next to Yanira, and draped an arm around her trembling shoulders.

Carlo strode to a metal folding chair halfway between the closed door and the mattress, and that’s when Javier noticed the video camera and tripod.

The pieces suddenly fit into place.

Yanira’s outfit, the stupid stuffed animals, the cutesy sheets, the work light.

Another round of nausea rushed up to greet him with the force of a charging bull. His vision swam as he swallowed repeatedly against the bile rising in the back of his throat. If he threw up again, Matteo would beat him.

Or worse, they would hurt Yanira.

Wrapping both arms around himself, Javier reined in his expression as he fixed his gaze on his sister. As well as he could, he tried to convey some semblance of strength, but despite his efforts to control his emotions, his eyes had already begun to burn with tears.

He wanted to tell her that everything would be okay, that he’d find a way out of here for both of them, or that he’d find a way to get the men to leave her alone.

He wanted to assure her that he could help her, but part of him already knew their fates were sealed.

Their fates were sealed the second he’d accepted this job, then once again when he’d stepped foot outside the property. He shouldn’t have tried to leave. Whatever happened in this dingy room, it would be his fault.

“Here’s how this is going to go.” The boss tightened his arm around Yanira’s shoulders to pull her closer.

“Please don’t hurt her.” The words slipped from Javier’s lips before he could stop himself. Tears streamed down his cheeks, but he didn’t care if the three men saw him cry. “Please, just take me instead. Do whatever you want to me, but please don’t hurt my sister.”

Matteo took a step closer to him, his right hand closed into a fist.

The boss lifted a finger. “No, Matteo. It’s fine.”

Though Javier should have been grateful for the intervention, his blood turned to ice when the boss’s gaze settled on him. A knowing smile flitted across his predatory expression.

One thing had become crystal clear to Javier. The man was evil.

“He’s taken enough of a beating. He still has work to do, and he won’t be able to do it if he’s in a coma, will he?”

Matteo grunted out a few words under his breath and lowered his fist.

Javier barely heard the bald man. His attention was fixed on his little sister.

The boss must have sensed Javier’s sudden disconnect. With the same hand he’d used to call off Matteo, he snapped his fingers until Javier turned to face him.

“You’re going to listen to me very carefully.” His voice barely registered above a whisper. Each word was delivered with a slow precision and clarity that allowed no misunderstanding of his meaning. “Do you understand me, Javier?”

Javier’s limbs felt weighted down with lead. As he nodded, even lifting his head was a monumental task.

“Good.” The unnerving smile returned to the boss’s lips. “You tried to break your contract with me tonight, Javier. You tried to leave here without my blessing. Do you mind telling me why that is? Are you unhappy here?” Rubbing one hand along Yanira’s upper arm, he brushed a few strands of ebony hair from her face with the other.

As Yanira’s lower lip trembled, Javier fought off another round of tears and slowly shook his head. “No. I-I h-have school, in a…in a f-few weeks.”

One of the man’s dark eyebrows arched. “School? Did you not think I’d let you go back home to go to school?”

Javier opened and closed his mouth, but no sound escaped.

The boss’s hand settled on Yanira’s thigh, just below the hem of her dress. “I don’t know what would have given you that impression, but it’s too late to go back now. There’s a reason we keep tabs on your family members when you start working here. After everything I do.” The boss clucked his tongue. “After all the food I provide, the housing, not to mention the job itself, this is how I’m repaid. And believe me, you’re not the first.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Javier took in a half-breath as he was struck by a sudden thought.

The quiet workers. The men and women who had been escorted to the side door, the same side entrance Javier had been shoved through that night.

They’d all come back different. Quiet.

Broken.

Now, Javier knew why.

The boss pressed his nose into Yanira’s hair and inhaled deeply. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You tried to fuck me over. And I don’t like to be fucked, unless it’s by a pretty girl.”

When the man turned his eyes back to Javier, he froze, no longer able to control his body.

Maybe he was dead. Maybe he’d drifted outside himself and was now merely a spectator to his own life.

The boss extended a free hand, and Carlo leaned forward to pass him an item Javier couldn’t quite make out.

Panic welled up in Javier’s chest. Was it a gun?

He blinked to clear his vision and focused on the boss’s hands.

No, it wasn’t a gun. It was made of fabric. A blindfold, maybe, or a towel. Javier blinked again, but he still couldn’t be sure. Once the item rested in the boss’s lap, the man returned his grip to Yanira’s leg.

“You said something about switching spots with your sister, but I’m afraid that’s not the way this works. You see,” he squeezed Yanira’s thigh, “your sister here is worth much more than you could ever dream of being worth. Sure, there’s a niche for teenaged boys out there, but that’s not my area of expertise. No offense, but you don’t do anything for me.”

On a normal day, Javier would have been grateful that the man found him unattractive.

Today, he desperately wished the opposite were true. If given the opportunity, he’d take his sister’s place. Without hesitation, he’d put himself in front of that pervert and his camera if it meant they’d let Yanira go.

But as the boss had said, that wasn’t the way this worked.

As the boss slid his hand up another inch, the sickening smile returned.

“Now, you can’t take her spot. That just won’t work, logistically speaking. But…” Another inch. Another squeeze. “Her fate is in your hands. We’ve got demand for all sorts of different things. Some violent, some gentle. Loving, even. How you perform your job determines her job. That seems fair, doesn’t it?”

Javier swallowed more bile and tightened his grip on his damaged ribs. Nothing here was fair, but he knew that wasn’t the answer his boss wanted.

The boss wanted a nod, and that’s what Javier gave him.

“Good. I’m glad you understand. You work for me, Javier, and only me. And you’ll work for me until you die, or until I tell you that you can leave. Whichever happens first. If you try to fuck me over again, you know who’ll pay for it?” With his eyes fixed on Javier, the boss leaned in and brushed his lips along Yanira’s ear. “I bet you know, don’t you, sweetheart?”

Yanira whimpered, tears falling from her eyes in thick streams. But she didn’t move. In fact, she looked frozen to the spot.

“I won’t.” Javier shook his head for emphasis. “I won’t. I’ll do my work. I’ll do whatever you need.”

The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in a self-satisfied smirk. “Good. Now, just so you don’t think I’m a liar.” He reached for the item in his lap—a mask.

He waved the material, letting it flap in the air before pulling the black fabric over his head. Once it was fixed in place, he chuckled.

“Start the camera.”


Chapter Two

Special Agent Amelia Storm resisted the urge to rub her tired eyes. If she did that this early in the morning, she’d have to reapply her eyeliner or look like a raccoon for the rest of the day. She didn’t have the time or the patience for either, so she willed herself to focus on consuming more coffee instead.

After draining her second cup, she went back to the mindless paperwork that took up the majority of her time. She’d been putting it off to do a little research after a call she’d received the night before. She hadn’t slept well following the disturbing conversation, and her mind kept drifting back to Vivian Kell. Now, she just wished her partner would get to the office so she could talk through everything with him.

As she tossed the paper cup into the trash, she forced her eyes away from the twin monitors on her desk, giving them a rest. As her eye doctor had recommended, she focused on a point in the distance for a full twenty seconds. That’s when she noticed how dark it was inside the office.

Scanning past the cluster of cubicles to the wall-spanning windows on the other side of the room, she frowned. A dark tint was meant to keep out excess light and prevent outsiders from looking in—never mind that the Organized Crime Division was on the sixth floor of the FBI’s Chicago field office.

Today, all it did was darken the lazy gray clouds that preceded the morning’s predicted rain. Once she looked away from the windows, Amelia could have tricked herself into believing she’d come into work at nine at night instead of seven in the morning.

Not long ago, Amelia and her fellow agent, Zane Palmer, had worked a bizarre combination of their normal shift and the night shift while one of their colleagues recovered from a brutal beating she’d sustained in an undercover operation.

Now, even though they were a month and a half removed from the swing shifts, Amelia continued to struggle to readjust her internal clock. The long summer days didn’t even help.

Stifling a yawn, she glanced down at the porcelain cat figurine that held sentry between her monitors. One paw was raised, always prepared to wave at onlookers, while the other held a gold coin painted to resemble currency in Feudal Japan. Maneki-Nekos, or Lucky Cats in English, were common staples in businesses and homes throughout Japan, and she was seeing more and more of the fake ones here in the States.

More than two decades ago, Amelia’s father had brought the cat home from where he’d spent six months stationed on a naval base in Japan. Though he’d brought wooden Maneki-Nekos for Amelia and her older brother, Trevor, this porcelain creation had been a gift to Amelia’s mother. Before she succumbed to lung cancer, Bonnie passed the cat on to Amelia.

As she picked up her tote to grab a piece of gum, Amelia noticed a familiar figure approaching. His gray eyes settled on hers, and a tired smile crept to his unshaven face.

Zane Palmer’s light, sandy brown hair was fashionably slicked back, somehow managing to remain that way without an abundance of shiny gel too many men seemed to choose. His black suit was tailored to fit his lean, muscular frame, and his white dress shirt was as neatly pressed as always. The man was fastidious about almost every aspect of his appearance—except when it came to shaving.

In truth, Amelia was grateful for the little imperfection. Otherwise, on most days, she’d be convinced that she was working with a man who had just walked off a movie set. She was far from slovenly, but lately, she felt like she’d been forced to step up her fashion game lest she feel like a slob.

Then again, fashion and anything remotely expensive came more easily to him. Zane Palmer came from money, and Amelia didn’t.

She glanced down and smoothed the front of her pastel blue blouse. Amelia usually didn’t care about her appearance, which had been a good thing since she’d spent so many years in camo fatigues. Fortunately, her fashion-forward hair stylist sister-in-law had taken her underwing when she’d left the military.

If nothing else, Amelia’s hair and makeup always looked neat and tidy. Maybe not exactly the height of fashion, or on point, as her twelve-year-old niece would say, but good enough that she didn’t embarrass herself on most days.

The chilly breath of the building’s air-conditioner brought a series of goose bumps to her exposed forearms. Even at the end of July, she always tucked a cardigan or a zip-up hoodie into her handbag.

Though the temperatures outside—not to mention the persistent humidity—approached blistering, the FBI building always felt like a walk-in cooler. Before another chill could waft over her, Amelia pulled a gray knit sweater from her handbag.

Shrugging on the cardigan, she forced some semblance of organization back to her thoughts as she stifled a yawn.

“Still getting used to the morning life again, huh?” Along with a touch of his native Jersey accent, amusement tinged Zane’s tired voice. He held up a paper coffee cup. “Thought you could use this.”

Amelia grabbed for the cup with greedy fingers and nearly burned her upper lip on the first sip. “Thank you. I’ve only gotten two cups in me so far. I might live after this one.”

He held up his own thermos, and they tapped them together. “Rough morning?”

She wrapped both hands around the warm cup. “Yeah, you could say that. It was a late night too.”

Even though Amelia was glad that her partner had finally arrived, she found herself blinking a few times as a yawn she couldn’t control took over. The coffee needed to kick in and quick.

He arched an eyebrow. “I thought you had yesterday off? Did something happen?”

She fished her phone out of the tote and swallowed another yawn. “Kind of. Yes. More or less.”

Eyes narrowed, Zane tapped his temple. “Is it just me, or did that not make any sense?”

The corner of Amelia’s mouth twitched. “No, it didn’t make any sense. At least, I don’t think it did. Hold on.”

Sitting her coffee down, she unlocked her phone and navigated to a news article. As she searched, she made her way around the end of the row of cubicles to stand at his side.

He leaned against the edge of his desk and accepted the phone she held out to him. “What’s this?”

“A news article written by Vivian Kell. It’s an investigative piece she did on sex workers in Chicago.” She reached out to scroll to the woman’s picture at the bottom of the article. “Look familiar?”

Zane’s eyes went wide. “Holy shit.” He zoomed in on the image. “Yeah, she does. That’s the Viv woman from that nightclub.” He snapped his fingers, like the clicking noise would make his brain bring up the name. It seemed to have worked because he smiled. “Evoked, right? We went there to follow up on a lead in the Leila Jackson case.”

“Exactly.” Amelia accepted the phone as Zane held it out to her. “Vivian Kell was indeed Viv, but instead of being there to hook couples up, she was there doing some semi-undercover thing for a story. She was looking into prostitution rings in the city.”

Scratching his chin, Zane blew out a long breath. “So, she wasn’t just some other creep hanging around the place? Is that why you had a late night last night?”

“More or less.” Amelia tried and failed to pocket her phone. Fashion designers for women’s apparel seemed to think pockets were merely a decoration, not meant for actual use, and were almost always a farce. Clutching the device in one hand, she crossed her arms instead. “She called me last night. She’d been following the Leóne case, and she picked my number up somewhere along the way. She wasn’t all that specific on the phone, but she asked if she could meet with me today. Naturally, she wanted to meet up at eight in the morning, so here I am.”

He peered out of the window as the pattering of raindrops grew heavier. “She wants to meet you? Where?”

Amelia tapped a foot on the carpeted floor. “Here.”

Reaching for his coffee thermos, Zane flashed her a curious glance. “Well, we’ve got about thirty minutes before she’ll be here. Assuming you didn’t call Larson in bright and early?”

She didn’t miss the hint of derision in his question.

Even after all the time she’d spent working with both Joseph Larson and Zane, Amelia was no closer to understanding the reason the two men disliked one another.

No time like the present to find out.

“No, I didn’t call him into work. I figured you’d be here since you usually show up before eight. I rarely see Larson in here before nine.” She scanned the vacant cluster of desks for good measure before lowering her voice. “What exactly do you guys have against one another, anyway? I keep waiting for this shit to level out, but it just keeps going. Did Larson steal your car or something? Sleep with your ex-wife? What’s the deal, Palmer?”

Amelia had never cared much for exploring personal office dynamics before, but since learning a rat—one who was loyal to the Leóne family—lurked somewhere in the Chicago field office, she’d made a point to pay more attention to how her fellow agents interacted with one another.

Otherwise, the Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago field office, Jasmine Keaton, had taken on the task of locating their rat. Amelia hadn’t heard much from the SAC in terms of investigative developments, but she hadn’t let her guard down.

As much as her instincts told her she could trust Agent Palmer, not to mention the work he’d put into capturing Emilio Leóne and Brian Kolthoff, Amelia remained vigilant.

Blowing out a sigh, Zane returned his coffee to the desk and looked around the room before he spoke. “This seems like it might not be the best office conversation, you know?”

Amelia held her hands out at her sides. “Then where are we supposed to have it? At a bowling alley?”

“No, we’ve been over this. I don’t bowl.” Zane picked his thermos up to take a quick drink. “When I was in seventh grade, we went bowling for a couple weeks for gym class. I thought I was starting to get pretty good, but then my thumb got stuck in one of the bowling balls as I was throwing it down the lane.” His gray eyes were fixed on her as he wiggled his thumb for emphasis.

Clamping her teeth together, Amelia fought against the laughter she knew was inevitable.

Zane had no shortage of embarrassing stories from his preteen years, and for reasons that eluded Amelia, he was more than willing to share them if he thought the tale would elicit a laugh.

“When I threw it, instead of going down my lane, it bounced two lanes over and almost took out some little kid who was going to get his ball after it had gotten stuck. And I mean a little kid.” He held a hand out at waist height. “That bowling ball probably weighed as much as that kid, but it barely missed him. Then it bounced off the bumper, rolled down the lane, and knocked all the kid’s pins down. I haven’t been bowling since.”

Even as she started to snicker, Amelia made a show of rubbing the bridge of her nose. “My god. I can’t take you anywhere. Come on, let’s just go wait in the lobby downstairs in case she gets here early.”

He shot her one of his patented charming smiles and tilted the thermos in a silent cheers.

Before heading to the elevator, Amelia grabbed her coffee and stuffed her handbag under her desk. The FBI office was undoubtedly among the safest places to leave a purse or wallet unattended, but old habits and paranoia died hard.

With a sip of the still hot latte, Amelia leaned against the handrail as Zane tapped the button to take them downstairs. The doors slid closed with a soft ding, and Zane assumed the standard elevator stance…facing the front, eyes on the digital display counting down each level.

Amelia stood taller than the average woman at five-eight, but she always felt as if she’d shrunk when she was next to Zane’s six-three. She’d learned in the past few weeks that Zane’s mother was almost six-foot, so the source of his height was no mystery.

“To answer your question about Larson,” he leaned his shoulders against the wood-paneled wall, his eyes fixed straight ahead, “I don’t have anything against the guy. He’s just…he’s obstinate. It seems like there’s only about four people in this building he’ll listen to, and I mean actually listen to when they disagree with him.” Glancing at Amelia, he tapped himself on the chest. “And I’m not one of them. You know how they say you have to give respect to earn it, right?”

He had Amelia’s undivided attention. This was more than she’d heard either Zane or Joseph share regarding their obvious contention.

He cracked the knuckles of one hand with his thumb. “Well, I’ve been in this office as long as you have. What are we at, four, almost five months?”

Though she felt like a robot, Amelia nodded.

“I have yet to see that guy be respectful when he and I disagree on something. He’s always right, and no matter what I say, he’s still going to be right. So, I’d say my problem with him is that he doesn’t respect me. And if I had to guess, you’ve never seen that side of him because, by all appearances, he seems to respect you. Maybe it’s a military thing, or something he’s got against me because I was a civilian before joining the Bureau. I don’t know.”

Amelia was surprised by his disheartened tone. Then again, if she’d spent four months butting heads with a coworker who didn’t respect her, she might feel that way too.

As Amelia pressed her finger against the edge of her cup’s plastic lid, two floors ticked away in silence. She turned to meet his curious eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Zane looked surprised. “Sorry? Why?”

She sighed. “I always thought you two were in some kind of territorial pissing match, something where this office wasn’t big enough for the both of you. I guess I don’t pay very much attention when you’re arguing with each other, or maybe I’d have picked up on it by now.”

“It’s not your fault. What is it the kids say? ‘Sometimes it be like that.’” He tipped his cup at her and took a sip of his coffee.

“Yeah, makes sense. You’re totally justified in not liking him. And you’re right. I’ve never noticed him acting that way to me. I’ll try to back you up more often around him, then maybe he’ll start to break out of whatever stubborn ass shell he’s been hiding in.” Amelia pushed the paper sleeve around her cup. “You know, provided you actually are right.”

He huffed in feigned indignation, but his lips had already curved into a smile. “There’s always a caveat, isn’t there?”

By the time the elevator dinged, and they arrived at the horseshoe-shaped reception desk, Amelia felt lighter. Now that she knew the source of the bad blood between Zane and Joseph, she could finally take steps to put an end to it.

During her ten years in the military, she’d been in Zane’s situation more times than she cared to count. Though she’d busted her ass to get through sniper and airborne training, earning respect amongst male peers was an uphill battle.

Since Amelia rarely had anyone to back her up in the early days of her military career, she’d come up with her own method to combat the constant doubt and second-guessing that had been hurled her way. Before she’d turned twenty-one, Amelia had developed a level of assertiveness that bordered on abrasive.

In layman’s terms, she’d been an asshole.

But she’d been an effective asshole. And when she left the Armed Forces, she’d been a Lieutenant Asshole. She’d toned down the attitude after she became a civilian, but in her work at the FBI, there were still some instances where she had to let a little of her old self shine through.

Though the tactic had worked for her, she didn’t want to encourage Zane to be a jerk to Joseph. But if she backed Zane up a few times, maybe Joseph would get the point.

She was lost in contemplation as they took a seat on a bench with a view of the main entrance. Though the room felt massive with its two-story-high ceiling, Amelia had only ever seen a handful of people in the lobby at the same time. In-person visitors to the FBI office weren’t as common now that online communication had become more prevalent.

They’d been sitting for less than five minutes when the double doors at the far end of the room swung open.

Shaking out a blue umbrella, the familiar woman offered a few words of greeting to the security personnel before emptying her pockets and setting her handbag in a basket beside a conveyer belt. The FBI’s security wasn’t quite as stringent as what Amelia was used to in airports, but the metal detector and x-ray scanner were still thorough.

Once the woman had retrieved and shouldered her handbag, Amelia and Zane rose to stand. Vivian’s hair had grown out of the asymmetric bob she’d sported when Amelia and Zane had gone undercover at the seedy nightclub Evoked, but her blue-green eyes were just as sharp as Amelia remembered.

Vivian’s high heels clicked on the tile floor as she strode over to where Amelia and Zane waited beside the reception desk. With her smart gray pencil skirt and off-white blouse, she looked every bit the part of a competent reporter.

Her vivid blue eyes flitted from Amelia to Zane and back as she stuck out a hand. “Agent Storm, it’s nice to meet you again.”

Amelia clasped Vivian’s hand in a businesslike shake. “Good morning, Ms. Kell. I’m glad you could make it.”

“Of course.” Vivian smiled as she peered up at Zane. “And this is…your husband?”

“Partner.” Zane accepted Vivian’s handshake, and Amelia could tell he was suppressing his amusement. “Case partner, Special Agent Zane Palmer. Shall I call you Viv?”

“Vivian is fine.” Vivian pressed her lips together, but her eyes held a smile she couldn’t conceal. “I guess that makes you the very definition of a work husband, doesn’t it?”

Amelia liked Vivian right away.

Vivian turned somber. “But I’m right, aren’t I? You both worked on the Leila Jackson slash Emilio Leóne case?”

Amelia wasn’t surprised that Brian Kolthoff’s name hadn’t made Vivian’s list, though the omission was like a punch. “That’s right.”

Until a couple months ago, Brian Kolthoff had been known simply as The Shark. Amelia still hadn’t figured out exactly what acts had earned him the moniker, but she’d been able to safely rule out practicing law.

Based on his vicious reputation—a reputation the Bureau still hadn’t officially tied to Brian Kolthoff—the nickname had its roots in bloodshed.

She swallowed the bitter taste that always came to her tongue when she thought about Kolthoff. He should have been charged with sex trafficking of a minor like Emilio Leóne had been, but his team of expensive lawyers had whittled away at the charges over the last month.

As the case dragged on, she was forbidden from discussing the details and charges with anyone other than the agents who had been assigned to the initial investigation, even though she wanted to rage to everyone she saw about the unfairness of it all.

She’d been so sure that they’d caught The Shark high and dry, but even after they’d searched every millimeter of the yacht he owned, they’d found nothing…nada…absolute zero evidence to tie him to a trafficking ring.

It still pissed her off, and Amelia had been tempted to hire her own boat and inspect every single yacht in the sea. Which would have been illegal…and probably futile…and would have taken all the rest of her life.

But one day…

Forcing her mind away from Brian Kolthoff, she focused back on Vivian Kell. According to the reporter’s phone call the night before, she’d uncovered a potential lead into another human trafficking ring.

Gesturing to the curved desk, Amelia shook herself free of the bleak thoughts. “Here, let’s get you a visitor’s badge, and then we can head upstairs to talk.”

The three of them made casual conversation as they waited. Since the topic of conversation was Emilio Leóne’s conviction, Amelia couldn’t quite call the discussion “small talk.”

One of Vivian’s coworkers at The Chicago Standard—a branch of a major media conglomerate devoted exclusively to Chicago—had covered Emilio Leóne’s trial. Because of that connection, she’d been filled in on many of the court-related details.

In all honesty, Amelia was surprised at how closely Vivian had kept track of the trial. As they all stepped into the elevator and ascended to their floor, Amelia reminded herself that Vivian wasn’t just another reporter. She was an investigative journalist.

Though she made much of her living by writing online articles about the daily goings on of the city, her real focus was unraveling major stories, many of which were mired in controversy.

Finally, at the end of a quiet hallway just beyond the elevator, Zane pulled open a heavy wooden door and waved Vivian through. Amelia followed behind, and as she stepped over the threshold, she met Zane’s gaze.

With his hand still on the door, Zane lowered his voice. “Seems like she’s pretty interested in the Leónes. We’d better watch what we say to her.”

Amelia offered a stiff nod in response. She didn’t think the Leóne family would add a reporter to their payroll, but she also wouldn’t have thought they’d manage to weasel their way into the FBI office, either.

But here they were.

Clearing her throat, Amelia stepped through the doorway. The room wasn’t lavish, but the space was far more comfortable than the areas they used for questioning suspects. With its warm lighting, solid chairs, and file cabinets of office supplies, the ambiance was closer to a professional meeting space than an FBI interview room.

Once the door latched closed, Zane took his seat at Amelia’s side. He propped his elbows on the table and folded his arms. “So, Ms. Kell, my partner tells me that you’ve got a lead on a potential human trafficking ring, is that right?”

Vivian’s gaze shifted between Amelia and Zane as she set a manila folder atop the wooden table. “Yes, that’s right. I didn’t want to discuss it too much on the phone just because,” she paused and shuffled through a handful of papers tucked neatly inside the folder before returning her attention to Amelia and Zane, “it’s…complicated.”

Zane chuckled. “Well, you’re in luck because complicated is just about all we deal with around here.”

Watching the other woman carefully, Amelia pulled open the middle drawer of the file cabinet. After a couple seconds of rummaging, she retrieved a half-used legal pad and a pen.

Vivian’s expression was neutral as she absently fingered the edges of the pages in her folder. “That would be why I’m here and not at the Chicago PD. I’ve covered enough crimes and trials to understand the difference between local and Federal jurisdiction. Believe me, if I didn’t think this warranted the FBI’s scrutiny, I wouldn’t waste your time.”

Amelia and Zane exchanged a curious glance as Vivian pulled out a few printed photographs. Most of the people who contacted the FBI didn’t vet the jurisdiction of the crime they were reporting.

At Vivian’s attention to detail, Amelia couldn’t help but wonder how long she’d had the information she was about to present to them.

“We appreciate your diligence.” Amelia felt like a customer service answering machine, but the response was the best she could manage.

Glancing up from the pictures, Vivian offered them a slight smile. Though Amelia was sure she intended to come across as reassuring or confident, the way her eyes flicked back and forth between the pictures and the door told an entirely different story.

Vivian Kell was nervous.

Before Amelia could open her mouth to ask a follow-up question, Vivian turned over one of the pictures and slid it closer to her and Zane. With a quiet sigh, she did the same for the other two prints.

“I always include pictures in the longer pieces I write. I think it helps the readers visualize the more complex stories, which helps them understand what I’m trying to get across.” She tapped the first photo. “I figured I’d do the same today.”

Resting her arms on the table, Amelia leaned in to get a better look. The young man peering up at her couldn’t have been any older than seventeen. Clad in a Chicago Cubs t-shirt, he rested a wooden baseball bat over one shoulder as he grinned for the camera. His ebony hair was windblown, and his tan complexion told Amelia that he enjoyed spending time outdoors.

Vivian tapped the top of the picture with a manicured finger. “This is Javier Flores. He’s sixteen, and he’ll be a junior when school starts up next month. From what his mom told me, he’s a huge baseball buff, and he loves to go fishing and hiking.”

Amelia and Zane held their silence as Vivian slid a second picture into view. A teen girl, maybe fifteen or so, wore a grin that bore a striking resemblance to Javier’s. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her cheeks were smudged with dirt. In one hand, she held a wrench that was about as long as her forearm, and in the other, an orange pumpkin basket. When Amelia took a closer look at the girl’s gray jumpsuit, she spotted a name tag that read Bubba.

“This is Javier’s younger sister, Yanira Flores.” Vivian’s expression turned wistful. “This was from last Halloween. She dressed up as a mechanic.” She stared Amelia straight in the face as she pointed to the third and final photo. “And that’s their mother, Mari Flores. Mari’s husband passed about a year ago from natural causes, and the family has been struggling financially ever since.”

The truth was there. Even through the photogenic smile, Mari’s tired eyes displayed a type of weariness that went beyond physical exhaustion. Amelia knew that fatigue all too well. She’d seen the same shadow in her father for close to seventeen years.

Amelia pushed the thought aside, refusing to let her mind wander away from the small family in front of her.

Vivian gestured to the photo again. “Mari and her husband came to the United States about twelve years ago when Javier was four. They both got temporary work visas, but when those expired, they couldn’t afford to either renew them or apply for permanent residency.”

Zane leaned back in his chair. “Permanent residency can be expensive, and it’s complicated to apply for. A lawyer is almost always required, especially if the applicant isn’t a native English speaker. Even without a lawyer, it’s still a few grand, depending on where you are.”

“Right.” Shadows beneath Vivian’s eyes became more pronounced as she looked back at Mari’s picture. “That’s why I’m here, and not Mari. She came to my office yesterday, and she was almost in tears. She said that she and some of her friends had read a few of my articles in the past and they thought I’d be a trustworthy person to turn to. She thought if she went to the police, she’d be deported.”

Amelia scribbled the names down on her notepad. “That’s not an unreasonable fear. I get why she came to you instead of going to the cops.”

Vivian let out a relieved chuckle, and her shoulders relaxed as did the tension that had been apparent in her face. “That’s good. That means we’re on the same page.”

Tapping her pen against the notepad, Amelia offered a polite smile. “We are. Why was Mari there?”

As she cleared her throat, Vivian’s professional demeanor returned. “I’ll start at the beginning of her story and go from there. It makes a little more sense that way.” She tapped Javier’s picture. “Her son was trying to get a summer job so he could make a little extra money for the family. Mari tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary, but you know teenage boys.”

Zane grinned. “I sure do.”

Though brief, Vivian returned the expression. “He was insistent, but he and Yanira are both in the same predicament as their mother. All three of them were born in Guatemala. None are technically legal citizens. It hasn’t been an issue so far since he’s just a high school student, but it limited the places he could look for a job.”

Amelia stopped writing, already knowing where this story was headed. Though Jim Storm never went into much detail, Amelia knew that her mother had been in a similar situation after her family emigrated from the Soviet Union. Bonnie, like Mari and Javier, had been an illegal immigrant.

“Mari didn’t know a lot about this part of it.” Vivian folded her hands together atop the table, her fingers twisting together. “But Javier came across a man who was looking for workers to help out with some farm labor. It was the type of thing you don’t need experience for, and apparently, they were willing to pay under the table. It seems suspicious to us, but to a sixteen-year-old boy whose family is broke and who can’t work a legal job, it was like a godsend.”

Amelia couldn’t help but wonder if her mother had been approached by one of these so-called recruiters. Had she been pushed into the position and been exposed to the carcinogens that had ultimately ended her life when Amelia was ten?

But even though she could relate to Mari Flores and her children on a personal level, Amelia kept the notion to herself.

One of Zane’s eyebrows arched sharply. “He took the job?”

“He did.” Vivian sighed. “Mari saw him once after he first took it, and she said that he just seemed rundown. But he’d tell her that everything was fine, that he was making money, and that he’d be done with the work in time for the school year. But after that short visit, she didn’t see him again. That was about four weeks ago, and all she’s gotten since are a few emails saying that he’s doing okay.”

As she set down the pen, Amelia sorted through the multitude of questions in her head. “What about the money he was making? Did she ever see any of it?”

Vivian’s expression darkened. “No. Javier told her that he was saving it for when he was able to come back home. Mari, however, never saw any of it. She said she wasn’t even sure that he was being paid as much as he claimed.”

Zane cast a sidelong glare at Amelia. “That sounds like a pretty common tactic that labor traffickers use.”

“Common, yes.” Amelia’s fingers found a lock of hair that had come loose from her braid and began twirling. This was hitting too close to home. “But it’s common for a reason. It’s effective.”

Vivian looked grim. “I’ve done research on forced labor and human trafficking before, and that’s what I thought too. But it didn’t seem like Mari was fully aware of the types of things traffickers do to lure people in.” She heaved a sigh as she pushed the photo of Yanira closer to Amelia and Zane. “But I think she is now. The day before yesterday, Yanira went missing. She went to soccer practice with her friend but never came home.”

The room lapsed into silence. Amelia continued to twist the lock of hair until it had tightened so much it tugged at the roots in her scalp. The truth was something she didn’t want to put into words.

When a trafficking victim’s family started to go missing, there were only a couple probable explanations.

Either the family member was being used as collateral, or the traffickers were expanding by force.

Storm's Peril  releases on February 11! Add to your Goodreads shelf now!

Storm's Peril by Mary Stone

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