The Wrong Girl
“You speak English,” Taylor said, still in English, his mind reeling.
That was the third time today he’d completely misjudged something. It was becoming an epidemic and showed how out of his depth he was. Not that Taylor allowed that excuse to stand, even when just giving it to himself.
“I speak some,” she said in English, before switching to Russian, “Your Russian is better than my English, however.”
She’d been silent from the moment she had been brought out to him until exiting the bathroom and calling out his ruse, and he found her voice both strange and yet oddly right for her. It was high pitched, although not squeaky, and he was sure if she tried at it, she could sound like the stereotypical valley girl. What it did do, was make her seem even younger than she looked, which he would have thought was impossible.
“I’m not sure what you heard, but it’s not...” Taylor said, trying to come up with another lie on the fly and realizing he was having trouble keeping them all straight by this point. He had always known he preferred the straightforward approach, and this entire day was doing an excellent job of reinforcing that feeling.
“I heard you talking about the auction and your plan of getting into it to find some girl. I heard you talk to someone I am guessing was from the police about coming to help you. And I heard you talking to a girlfriend or wife about buying a prostitute.”
For a girl who spoke ‘some’ English, she seemed to have followed every damned thing he’d been planning, and witnessed his single-handed torpedoing of all those plans. The calculating look she wore now made him feel like a mouse being looked over by a cat. He made a mental note to try not to underestimate her again. Setting the satellite phone on the small desk, Taylor stepped back to lean against the wall and rubbed his face in frustration.
“I wasn’t talking to her about ‘buying’ a prostitute. I did mention that I’d made an attempt to ... umm ... buy credibility so I could get into the auction. If you were listening to all that, you also heard that I planned to turn you over as soon as I could.”
“I’ve been turned over enough,” she said, sounding serious.
“To the authorities?”
She let out a laugh that somehow ended up sounding sarcastic all by itself.
“How very thoughtful of you,” she said, her voice as sharp as a knife. “However, I think I’ve found my own way out.”
“And how’s that?”
“You give me all the money I saw tucked in your pockets, and I use that to get as far from Timor as I can and hope he never finds me.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Taylor said, his voice now matching hers. “I need this money to buy the person I’m looking for.”
“Why do you want to buy this girl so much?”
“Because I was hired to find her and bring her home to her family.”
“I’m not going to let you turn me over to the police just so I can end back up in Timor’s hands and catch the blame when you f•©k up whatever you’re doing.”
If the impasse hadn’t been so serious, Taylor would have found it amusing that he was here, locked in a battle of wills with a teenager, and not sure he was going to come out on top.
“We have a problem then,” Taylor said.
“Not really. As soon as you’re off to the auction I can start screaming you’re a plant, Timor will skin you alive, and my life will be just as shitty as it was, but at least not any shittier. Or you can give me the money.”
“True. Of course, I could haul you out into all that forest and find a hole to drop your body in.”
She stared at him for a minute then let out a throaty chuckle, “No you won’t.”
“Are you so sure?”
“Yes,” she said confidently. “I’m good at reading people, and that is not who you are. If I was someone who was actually dangerous to you or someone else, like immediately dangerous and not just screwing up plans, I have no doubt you could do just that. But someone like me? No.”
‘Damn,’ Taylor thought, ‘she’s got me pegged.’
“I’m not going to let you screw up my plans,” Taylor said, pausing as they each tried to stare the other down, “but...”
“I am working for someone with a lot of money. If you help me, I’ll get you ten times what I paid that man in there, which is a lot more than I have on me. If you play a role in getting her daughter free, she’ll pay it.”
“Sure, and we finish this, then you just leave me cold,” she said, almost snarling.
“You told me you were good at reading people. Is that what you think I’d do?”
She stared at him for a long moment, the calculations almost visible behind her eyes, before she said softly, “No. One hundred thousand.”
“Deal,” Taylor said, already thinking about how the hell he was going to explain that to the senator. Pushing that thought off as a problem for the future, he extended his hand to her, “I’m John, what’s your name?”
“Kara,” she said, hesitating at first, then reaching out her own hand. Her grip was firmer than Taylor expected.
“What’s your plan?” she said, dropping his hand, and almost skipping over to the bed, sitting on it with a bounce.
Taylor pulled the chair away from the window across from her and sat in it backward, arms leaning on the back of the chair.
“I figured I’d go in, find her, bid on her, and we’d walk out the front door.”
She shrugged, “So who is this girl?”
“She would have been brought in recently. She looks kind of like you, although somewhat older, but red hair, freckles, blue eyes.”
Taylor was taken back when she burst out laughing. She almost doubled over, and he just stared at her, wondering what exactly had caused that kind of reaction.
“Let ... let,” she stuttered, wiping a tear that had formed in one eye, “let me guess. You walked in and said you want a girl who looks like this and this and that, and they brought you me instead of her. You already tried to buy her back, and got the wrong girl.”
Taylor shrugged, “Something like that, although I’m not sure it’s as funny as all that.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t get a lot of things to laugh at. You’re not very good at this, are you?”
“I usually go with a more direct approach,” Taylor said, looking at her curiously. “How old are you, exactly?”
“Old enough,” she said, the mirth disappearing completely and her voice becoming almost emotionless.
“To look at you, I’d think twelve, but talking to you I’d guess closer to forty.”
“Ha,” she said, a somewhat sad smile breaking the mask that had fallen in when he’d asked, “I guess this has a way of toughening a girl up. I’m sixteen, I think.”
“You think you’re sixteen?”
It was her turn to shrug, “It’s hard to keep track of. You only look at each day, wanting to make it to the next. It’s not like we get days off or weekends. Plus, what’s to celebrate?”
“I get that,” Taylor said.
His experience wasn’t exactly the same as hers, but those years in captivity, sometimes inside a cave for months at a time without ever seeing the sun, he had a similar sense of being adrift in time. He only knew it was three years because someone told him when he ended back up in civilization.
“I doubt it,” she said with a snort.
Taylor just shrugged. He wasn’t one to compare scars. Plus he wasn’t sure he wanted to see hers. They would be emotional instead of physical like his, but there was a good chance she’d win that contest. And there were some things he didn’t want to carry around.
“Did you see a bunch of new girls with the one I’m looking for. All Americans?”
“Yeah, there was a group of seven of them, including yours.”
“Will they all be on auction tonight?”
“Ohh, maybe I should have held out. You think you have enough to buy seven girls and not have Timor smell a sucker?”
“No, I don’t have that much. But I can hopefully track them from there and have my friend get to them.”
“Maybe. I don’t think they’ll be up for auction. From what they were saying, they usually like to break the new girls before selling them, unless a customer has a specific request.”
Taylor didn’t know exactly what ‘breaking’ a girl was, but he had a guess, and he knew for a fact he didn’t want to know more.
“So you haven’t been through this before?” Taylor asked almost apologetically.
“No. My most recent ‘employer’ had a place in Sevastopol, but the owner was in debt to Timor, and he saw it as a good opportunity to pay off his debt and get rid of his problem child. I tended to talk back a lot and needed frequent retraining.”
A haunted look crossed her face, but it passed quickly.
“Where are the girls being kept?”
“There are a series of rooms through a door by the stage. There’s a large holding room, basically some benches and a commode for the more seasoned girls, and individual rooms for girls to be trained for selling. The girls you’re asking about were sometimes in with us, and sometimes taken out on their own, I’d guess to the training rooms, but once they leave, I have no idea. Before you get any ideas, there are more guards back there, in addition to what you saw in the auction room. If you get yourself killed, I can’t get paid.”
“I didn’t have that idea. I know my limitations, and even if everything went my way I still think there’d be only a fifty-fifty chance that I’d make it out with any of the girls alive if I tried that.”
She gave Taylor a look, gauging if that was a backhanded brag or something else.
“Was there anyone else who matched your description?”
“No. But like I said, she’s unbroken so she won’t be on auction.”
“You also said they’d consider selling her if I requested that specifically.”
“Maybe. I’m just saying what I’ve heard. Like I said, I haven’t been through this before.”
“I’ll have to take you with me to the auction. I don’t think they’d find it believable if I left you here on your own.”
She shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
“I need to get you something warmer to wear. It’s twenty degrees outside and looks like it’s going to snow again.”
She nodded, looking out the window. Taylor reached into his bag and pulled out the rest of the money he’d stashed earlier since he would need it at the auction, which was only a few hours away. Sliding the money into his pants pocket, he rummaged around some more, coming out with a couple of T-shirts and a decent enough looking sweater. He dropped them over the arm of the chair and picked up his coat, handing it to her.
“Wear this for now. It will look ridiculously big on you, but at least you won’t freeze to death until we find you real clothes to wear.”
She took the long coat, which practically touched the floor as she put it on, the sleeves hanging well over her hands. She pushed them up enough, so as to at least be practical and pulled the coat around herself. It did look somewhat silly, but it was the best Taylor could think of for now.
Since he wouldn’t have his coat, he was going to have to opt for a few T-shirts and a sweater to stay warm enough until he could get a coat for her and get his back. Pulling off the button-up shirt he had worn earlier, Taylor pulled on the various layers. Tucking his discarded clothes back into the bag, he turned to her.
“When’s the last time you ate?” Taylor asked, finally letting his brain work past the weirdness of the whole situation and noticing how thin she was.
She had been staring at him, another odd look on her face when he spoke. Shaking herself, she said, “I had some bread, yesterday.”
“OK, let see if we can find you some food too,” he said. “But first, I need you to step into the bathroom again.”
“Why?” she asked, her brow furrowing.
“Just humor me for a minute, then we’ll go. Please.”
She frowned but turned and walked to the bathroom, shutting the door behind herself. Taylor hopped on the bed and replaced the sat phone in the vent quickly, making sure everything was where it needed to be before he opened the door and waved her out.
“Sorry about that. Let’s go get you some clothes and food,” Taylor said, opening the door to the room and gesturing for her to head out in front of him.
The desk guy started to give Taylor the stink eye again as he walked into the small lobby but smoothed the expression out as soon as Taylor turned and headed toward the desk. Taylor wondered if the guy actually thought no one noticed the little looks he kept giving.
“Is there somewhere in this town we can buy clothes? And is there somewhere to get food that won’t give me food poisoning?”
“There’s a place a few doors down, sells everything. A little down from that, across the road, is a place you can get food.”
Taylor turned, took Kara by the elbow, and directed her out of the run-down hotel. As they stepped outside, the wind cut through the sweater and both T-shirts, making Taylor grit his teeth. He would live since they wouldn’t be outside long, but it was below freezing already, and the temperature was continuing to dip from where it had been earlier in the day.
“While we’re out in public, at least here where someone might know the men holding the auction, you’re going to have to have the right attitude. I apologize if I come off as rude or mean to you, but we don’t want them to start thinking I might be here for anything less than buying girls for a client.”
“Don’t worry, I know what they are looking to see,” she said, her face becoming impassive.
They walked into the small general store that sold pretty much everything you could think of. It struck Taylor that something similar could be found in similar stores across the US. The details might be different, but it would essentially be the same thing.
Taylor found a small rack of very plain, very utilitarian clothes.
“Find a dress to wear,” Taylor told her, letting go of her arm.
She bobbed her head and started looking through the small group of women’s clothes.
“Can I help you?” a small older woman asked, coming up behind Taylor.
She had spoken to him, but her eyes kept darting to Kara. Taylor would be surprised if the people who lived here, especially those with actual businesses, would be unaware of what was going on in the warehouse just across the street. The built-up area of the town was little over a block long, and except for the warehouse, Taylor had seen no sign of industry. There were probably farms or the like scattered in the area that would come into ‘town’ from time to time for supplies. At some time in the past, the warehouse might have even been used by some sort of industry, but that was clearly in the past.
From the looks of the inside, it hadn’t been built by the people running the auction, just repurposed by them. They’d found a small, middle of nowhere town a few short miles from the border and a direct line to the port city of St. Petersburg and made it their home. By now they were probably one of the bigger sources of cash coming into the town from the outside. They would have to buy food, and a pretty large amount of it, to feed a dozen or more girls, and that many guards. In between auctions they probably had less staff, but Taylor doubted it ever emptied out. There were also clothes, toiletries, general first aid supplies, which they probably bought locally.
And that didn’t include the men who’d show up around the time of auctions. They were probably what kept the hotel in business, that and a place for the guards to stay since Taylor didn’t see where they would have stayed in the warehouse. He was pretty sure there were a few offices and maybe an apartment for the management guy, rooms for customers to ‘sample’ their purchases, and an area for holding and dealing with the girls. That would have left no room for all those guards to sleep.
No, this woman knew who Taylor was pretending to be, in a general sense, and what Kara was. Which explained the looks.
“I need some more practical clothes for her. We have to travel and what she has now wouldn’t be appropriate. Plus I would like a coat for her as well so I can get mine back.”
“I see,” she said, and roughly pushed Kara away from the clothes.
She glared at the old woman, but caught the reproachful expression on Taylor’s face and stepped back meekly.
“This should fit her,” she said, handing over a plain flowery dress and thick coat.
“Fine,” Taylor said and followed her to the front of the store, where he paid for the clothes.
“Switch coats,” Taylor commanded, handing over the new coat to Kara.
She did as instructed, looking almost ridiculous in her schoolgirl outfit next to the plainly average store around her. The clothes drew a frown from the old woman, but she refrained from making a comment. She did seem to have a good eye for sizes, however, and the coat she selected fit Kara well. It wasn’t fancy, but it was thick and warm.
Gripping Kara’s elbow again, Taylor led her out of the store and crossed the empty street, crunching through the snow and slush that had started collecting. The sun was almost down, and the sky was the darkish blue color of dusk.
The restaurant was easy to identify, but calling it a restaurant hit Taylor as quite a stretch. It was a small building with a counter in the front and an open kitchen in the back, with a single two burner stove, a metal table, and a fridge. Taylor had seen taco trucks with more equipment in it. There was a large pot on the burner with steam spilling out of it, and the entire place smelled like a mixture of cabbage and heavy spices.
“What?” the woman working there asked, throwing Kara the same looks the woman at the general store had.
She was more covered up now than she had been then, with a button-up coat that actually fit her hiding all evidence of the revealing clothes she wore underneath. Despite that, this woman had clearly no doubt what Kara was, or at least, what she would have been if Taylor had been an actual customer.
“I wanted to buy some food.”
“I have cabbage soup; three hundred rubles each.”
Three hundred rubles was roughly five dollars a bowl, which might not be out of place in the US but for a hole in the wall like this in the middle of a border town, it was exorbitant. Had this been a normal little town, that price would have been insane and she’d probably never sell anything. Of course, considering who her neighbors along the street where, it probably worked out for her. If he had to guess, anyone not connected to the warehouse ate at home.
“Two,” Taylor said, putting the money on the counter.
She scooped up the cash and paddled the stuff bubbling away in the pot into two small containers, which she handed to Taylor along with a couple of plastic spoons from a big box on the counter. Taylor picked up the food and tossed his head in the direction of the door, indicating Kara should open the door.
They crossed back to the hotel, and Taylor was surprised to find the front desk empty. Not that he needed the annoying proprietor for anything. It was just the first time he hadn’t seen the man sitting behind the desk, and Taylor found himself surprised.
Once in the room Taylor set the food on the table and went to pull the chair from next to the window over to the table, planning on offering it to Kara. Instead, she had already picked up one of the bowls and a spoon and was headed to sit cross-legged on the floor, her back against one of the walls. Taylor shrugged mentally and sat in the seat himself, getting his own food.
“We have about an hour until the auction starts,” he said between bites. “So after we finish, we should get changed and go there. I don’t want to wait and have her end up in one of these other guys’ hands.”