Chapter 1

"Thank you for your time, Mr. Bailey. Let me know if I can be of service in any way."

I got off the phone, then stood up to stretch my legs. Cold calling was a bear; I thanked my lucky stars that I'd progressed to a point where I didn't have to do a lot of it. As an insurance agent, however, I knew I'd never get away from it entirely.

I took note of the time: almost two in the afternoon. Rare was the day when I left work before six. I wandered down the hall to the water cooler, hoping that at least one of my colleagues would be in the midst of a break. No such luck. The break room, such as it was, was empty. I filled up a plastic cup with water, and carried it back to my office.

For the past three years, I'd been stuck in a rut of re-inventing myself professionally; re-inventing myself at thirty-seven. I had been a successful real estate agent, specializing in open lots of land for potential homeowners wanting to start from scratch in building their own home. I had worked this little niche into a lucrative business. Unfortunately, when the housing market crashed – especially here in southern Florida – that career went from lucrative to bust in a matter of months. I started losing money hand over foot. My wife, a sixth grade schoolteacher, became the primary breadwinner in the household. When school let out for the summer, we quickly found ourselves in financial trouble. I made a hasty decision to move into insurance sales. I got my insurance license, and paid my dues working as an independent agent. I spent my days making blind sales calls and visiting potential clients, from Miami clear up to West Palm Beach. Life on the road didn't suit me, however, and I finally landed myself a company position. I had an office, real co-workers, decent income, and one truly wonderful perk: a company car. In addition, I worked with mostly company-provided leads; selling medical, life, home, and auto policies. It wasn't the career I'd planned after graduating from college, but it was taking care of the bills.

I made a few more phone calls, and then had an urge to chat with someone face-to-face about less pressing matters. I headed down to Odalys' office. Finding it vacant, I eyed the exit door in the rear of the office. I knew that she sometimes slipped out back for a smoke break.

I opened the back door, and there she was, puffing away on a cigarette. Odalys Robles, you see, was another agent who'd started with the company at almost the same time I had. She was also my "work wife." Like me, Odalys was happily married, but with the long hours we spent on the job, she and I shared more time together than we did with our respective spouses. As a result, a fast friendship had sprung up between us. We discussed everything, both work-related and personal.

"How many times have I told you to quit smoking?" I said protectively, rehashing a never-ending theme. "You quit when you got pregnant last year, stayed off it for the entire nine months, and then had to go and start again."

"I need to keep the weight off," she said with gentle defiance. "If I quit, I'll balloon up into a whale."

"You won't," I asserted. "Ever heard of exercise?" And we went back and forth. As always, nothing was resolved. It wasn't resolution that we were seeking, anyway; rather, it was interpersonal communication outside the bounds of work in the middle of a long work day.

"Look, Jake. There's one of those Chinese girls again," said Odalys, gesturing toward another back entrance three doors away. There, a young woman had ventured outside, and was now walking toward the other end of the shopping center. Odalys, having veered onto another frequent conversation topic between us, inquired, "Heard any more about what's really going on down there?"

"Not a clue, Miss Busybody," I said with a grin. I enjoyed teasing Odalys; she could take it as well as anyone I knew. But I, like her, was also curious about the establishment three office spaces down from our place of business.

Our insurance office was located in a suburban strip mall. The shopping center was populated with typical tenants: a travel agency, a Thai restaurant, a dentist's office, a bakery, a pizza place, and a tax preparation firm, to name a few. A larger supermarket anchored one end of the strip mall. But getting back to the subject of our conversation ... according to the tacky neon lighting in the front window, it specialized in Oriental massage. As incongruous as it seemed, these massage parlors were actually quite common in this part of South Florida.

"Jose told me once that those places are run by the Chinese mafia," related Odalys. Jose was her husband. Both Odalys and Jose had been born in Cuba, and had emigrated to the United States as children, fleeing the Castro regime along with their families.

"Sounds like an urban legend to me," I snorted. "I'll have to check it out online sometime. Anyway, Steve assured me that the place is one hundred percent legitimate."

"Oh, really?" Odalys replied, raising her eyebrow. "And just what else have you and Steve been talking about?" Steve Robertson was a co-worker of ours. He was younger than both of us, in his late twenties. He was single, lived alone, and gave off a distinct man-of-the-world air when it came to discussing matters with even a hint of debauchery or sleaze.

"Keep your mind out of the gutter," I said with a slight laugh. "Nothing that would get me in trouble with Erin." I paused briefly, thinking fond thoughts of my lovely wife of twelve years.

By now, Odalys could read me like a book; she gave a soft smile and pursued a different line of conversation. "Did Steve actually ... um, patronize that business?"

I couldn't help but chuckle at that way too tactfully worded inquiry. "Well, he didn't come right out and say that he went there for a little rubdown, but you can draw your own conclusions. He said that the place is exactly as advertised ... a therapeutic massage establishment, nothing more, nothing less. There's maybe three or four women who work there, along with a guy who, according to Steve, acts as a manager. Not only do they work there, but they live in that small suite as well. I can only imagine how cramped it must be. Aside from the manager, no one in the place speaks even a lick of English. You tell the manager what type of massage you want, and for how long, and that's it. Any kind of 'extras' are strictly forbidden. They take great pains to avoid running afoul of the law. In fact, Steve said that it's a matter of routine for the women to be rotated among several of these places, to keep them from getting too attached to any one customer."

"Hmm," replied Odalys, a hint of disapproving skepticism in her voice. "Controlling bastards. Sounds like some kind of shady outfit is running the show down there. I wouldn't be surprised if the rumor is true."

"Well, we'll never know for sure, right? This is one case where I certainly have no interest in finding out the truth."

It was close to seven o'clock that evening when I arrived home and wearily trudged through the door, having spent most of the afternoon doing more of that infernal cold calling. Erin was waiting for me, and as she unfailingly did upon my arrival each day, greeted me with a warm smile and a kiss.

"You look exhausted," she noted immediately.

"It was a long, frustrating day," I uttered with a sigh as I plopped down into my recliner, kicking up the footrest.

"I have an idea," she said brightly as she settled into my lap. "You can work off that frustration..."

I proceeded to interrupt her. I knew full well what she was getting at, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. "Race you to the shower," I grinned cheekily.

"You have a one-track mind," she laughed. "That comes afterward. It's not too late, and if we start now, we can get our daily bike ride in. Later, we can have dinner out on the deck."

Despite my exhaustion, that prospect recharged my battery somewhat. Before too long, we were both out on the trail, pedaling our bicycles furiously. Today, I took the lead. Sometimes, however, I enjoyed trailing behind Erin, just to marvel at the way her magnificent legs pumped the pedals in piston-like fashion. She was a tall woman, standing about five-ten, with an athletic body, a long mane of natural blonde hair, and deep blue eyes. At thirty-one, she was six years younger than me. We'd met at a party over a decade ago, when I was a young buck of twenty-five, and she a mere lass of nineteen. Even with the age difference, the connection was immediate and lasting.

We wrapped up just as twilight began to set in. From there, we did indeed head straight for the shower. We took care of the basic concerns first, soaping up each other's nude bodies, removing all the sweat and grime. The lovemaking session which ensued spilled over into the bedroom and, eventually, the bed itself. We never used any form of contraception; it wasn't necessary. Following a long, frustrating, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at conceiving a child, my doctor identified the culprit: a low sperm count. I was basically shooting blanks. After the initial disappointment, both of us came to accept the fact that parenthood just wasn't in the cards for us.

A little later, with the dark of night having completed its quest to encompass everything outside, Erin and I headed out back for a late dinner on our well-lit backyard deck. Erin had slipped into one of my T-shirts and a pair of gym shorts, and she produced tonight's culinary delight: breaded tilapia, penne pasta with pesto sauce, plus a salad. She'd gotten home shortly after four, which was typical for her, and had obviously been hard at work in the kitchen. Each of us washed our food down with a beer.

It was a pleasant night for mid-August in Florida. The sky was clear, the humidity was as low as it ever got this time of year, and there was a refreshing breeze in evidence. I lit a few citronella candles to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The infernal bloodsucking critters were a constant annoyance in this locale. Our house backed up to a large artificial lake, roughly square in shape, with each side about a mile long. In South Florida, just about every middle- or upper-class housing development has at least some access to water. We had had a dock built down at the waterline not too long ago, and had also purchased a canoe, sometimes paddling from one end of the lake to the other.

"You know, honey," Erin said softly, "it's hard to believe how close we came to losing this house." That had been during my career crisis following the collapse of the housing market; we had indeed fallen way behind in our mortgage payments. We had gone to the very brink of foreclosure, before my new insurance career kicked in and gave us the income jolt we needed. We'd done a loan modification, and were now back on track.

I nodded in full concurrence with the point she'd made. "I don't ever want to live any place else," I said seriously.

Erin reached over to touch my hand. "Neither do I, honey. Neither do I."

The following evening, I was still at the office as darkness fell, with about an hour's worth of work still to muddle through before I called it quits. I'd called Erin earlier and told her we wouldn't be biking tonight. Odalys and the rest of my colleagues had long since departed the premises. Tonight, I'd be the one locking up.

I'd just wrapped up a rare evening appointment. A middle-aged couple – talkative and indecisive, a deadly combination – had come in to inquire about a medical insurance policy. I'd managed to close the sale, even talking them into a few riders and supplements, earning myself a tidy little commission in the process. The couple had left the office quite happy as well. However, I had a bunch of paperwork to finish up, and I wanted to take care of it before I left.

Still, I felt a need to take a short break. I decided to head out in search of a non-alcoholic beverage that was sweeter and more substantial than the water from the cooler in the office. Since I was working alone, I locked up the office. Compared to last evening's refreshing weather, humidity was decidedly more in abundance tonight. Even so, the sky was mostly clear. The sole interloper was a lone thunder cloud, way off in the distance, down close to the horizon. Every few seconds, the stray cloud would emit a ghostly, thunder-less flash of lightning.

I strolled over to the other wing of the shopping center, a jaunt of a hundred yards or so. I walked into a dollar store. Near one of the registers was a small refrigerated display case; I removed a bottle of deliciously chilled iced tea. I handed the cashier a one-dollar bill, along with several pennies to cover the sales tax. Frequenting dollar stores and carrying small change in my pocket were behaviors that dated back to our period of financial struggles. Old habits die hard.

As I stepped back out into the muggy evening air, I noticed a female form approaching me from the direction of the large grocery store. With a start, I realized that she was one of the masseuses from the Oriental massage place, struggling to carry about six jam-packed plastic supermarket bags containing an assortment of produce, raw meat, and inexpensive foodstuffs. My heart went out to her; I'm a firm believer in the concept that chivalry is not dead.

"Would you like for me to carry a few of those for you?" I said before realizing that the words had been wasted. I recalled Steve's earlier comment about these young ladies, and how they understood not a word of English. Confusion was evident on this woman's face, along with a hint of mistrust. I sought to alleviate that, pointing at my name tag, inscribed with "Jake Gustafson, Insurance Agent" along with the name of our firm. Hopefully, it identified me as a harmless businessperson, even if the inscription meant nothing to this particular young lady. I motioned toward the bags, and made a gesture which mimicked the act of carrying something heavy. This method of communication did the trick. Her expression softened, and she handed me three of the bags. I offered to take one more, but she demurred with a faint smile.

An oft-repeated generalization – one which smacks of ethnic stereotyping – holds that it is very difficult to guess the age of an Asian woman. At first glance, I would have placed her age at about nineteen or twenty, based strictly on physical appearance. However, she carried herself in a manner that indicated she may have been a few years older than that. She had a pretty, though serious, face and a flawless complexion. She was slender, and of slightly above average height, perhaps five-six or five-seven. Her long, jet black hair was tied into a braid, which ended just above her waist. She had on a plain light pink top, decidedly tight jeans, and tennis shoes; a rather odd mix of demure and provocative. We set off in the direction of our respective places of employment; her demeanor was companionable if not conversant.

There was a gap between the two wings of the shopping center which contained a narrow road. I moved to swing around to the front face of the other wing, but my new acquaintance motioned toward the back, where Odalys liked to take her smoke breaks during normal working hours. I knew that the masseuse and her cohorts regularly entered the massage parlor from the back, but I also knew that the area was dimly lit at night. Despite some mild safety concerns, I followed her lead as she made her way around back. The rear part of the shopping center was fully paved, to allow access to delivery trucks and the like.

I was surprised, and not a little alarmed, to note that the bank of lights which normally provided the scant illumination out back were turned off. Either there had been a small power failure, or someone had thrown a switch. It was almost pitch dark, but even so, I could detect a van parked near the rear entrance of the massage parlor. As we approached, I further noted that there were figures in motion near the rear of the van, which seemed to be open. One figure called out, in a threatening tone, in a language I did not recognize.

My companion gasped and began whimpering in terror. She made a move to hide behind me, but it was too late. Two forms emerged from the shadows and grabbed her. She started to scream, but was quickly silenced by a hand over the mouth. Too stunned to react, I watched as she was lifted up off of her feet, and carried into the back of the van, struggling and kicking in vain.

That's when I felt the cool metallic sensation of a gun muzzle pressed against the side of my head. A hand grabbed my forearm with brutal force, pulling me toward the van. Several male voices were engaged in some kind of a heated discussion; again, I could make neither head nor tail of what they were saying. These voices, raised in anger, were punctuated with the sound of women sobbing quietly. Suddenly, a bright light pierced the darkness, shining directly into my eyes. It was one of those small LED flashlights, and the intensity of the beam blinded me. Which was obviously its purpose; the resulting paralysis left me unable to defend myself. I felt something solid strike me in the back of the head, knocking me to the hard pavement, rendering me close to unconscious. Then, I vaguely felt myself being grabbed by all fours, lifted up off the ground, and thrown head first into the van. Several startled voices began babbling as I heard the door slam shut behind me.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic / Fiction / Tear Jerker / Slow / Violent /