“Drop the clothes.”
I removed them without hesitation.
The captain circled his finger in the air, indicating he wanted me to turn so he could inspect every inch of me.
I’d cringed as he’d walked into the room. He’d seen it. I didn’t care.
I’d thought—hoped—he was dead, in an optimistic, the-world-would-be-better-off-because-of-it kind of way. Finding him alive was like standing face-to-face with an ancient evil that refused to die, no matter how many stakes pierced his heart.
“Where are we?”
“You’re kidding, right? That’s in Thailand.”
The captain didn’t flinch.
“How long was I out?” I rubbed the black and blue marks on my hip.
“Doesn’t matter. You’re here now, and that’s what counts.”
R.J. had driven me across the border of Burma and into the very center of Thailand, a distance of six-hundred-fifty miles. Lashed to the van’s floorboards for over thirteen hours, I’d absorbed every jarring bump and jolt from the poorly-maintained roads.
The captain turned his head and did a double take on my butt. “You picked up a few bruises and scrapes, but nothing serious. You’ll be ready by next week.”
What about the ugly blue streaks around my neck? I wanted to tell him how R.J. had put them there. I even thought of embellishing the story, accusing him of slamming me against the floorboards for the sheer pleasure of it, then back-handing me so he could enjoy the feel of his knuckles smashing into my face.
I doubted it would make a difference. The captain knew what a thousand dollars would buy, not only in terms of getting his property returned, but also in regard to how the goods would be treated. The fact there was no permanent damage was all that mattered.
“We’re staying here three nights,” the captain said, his distracted manner making it seem as if he were talking to himself. “You’ll have the room to yourself.”
Here was a run-down hotel in the older district of Lampang. Years ago, the building was probably a cheap boarding house, hosting young travelers and a few intrepid tourists on a budget. Some of them had come to visit the temples and other historic sites, while others—mostly men—were surely lured by stories of easy-to-score hashish and transgendered women, their need to experience the intoxication of a smoking parlor or the thrill of having sex with a lady-boy often leaving them disappointed—or worse.
Now, the dilapidated building served as a sex-trafficking halfway house. Designated an unofficial neutral zone, the rooms were used by slave traders to get their girls rested and ready for passage to the next port. It was a place where deals were struck, where the law never entered, and where untrained girls were housed while they completed their “education.”
My room was small and dingy. The original color of the walls—some variation of off-white—was hidden under a gray mask of accumulated cigarette smoke and burned residue from free-based cocaine. The single bed sagged noticeably in the middle, and the only window was glazed with a piece of wire-mesh security glass.
The place smelled like death.
“From here, we’ll drive south to the coast. The Thailand broker will have my new boat ready the end of the week,” the captain continued. “I need to be there to take possession, sign the papers.”
“What happens then?” I wanted him to know I was paying attention.
“There’s an auction, on Saturday.”
My throat clenched, the air seizing in my chest. I dug my nails into my palm, hoping I could hide it. “Another auction? So soon? I look like hell.”
“Can’t be helped. That’s the schedule.”
He didn’t care that my bruises would still be visible. He was determined to sell me as soon as possible. He needed the money to pay for insurance deductibles, provisioning, and other under-the-table fees to insure the boat’s paperwork would be filed quickly and without a lot of scrutiny.
“What about your crew? Did they make it through the storm?” Truthfully, I didn’t care. I suppose I should have, as one human being cares about another. But I didn’t. The only reason I asked was to work my way toward what I really wanted to know—what happened to Annie?
“We lost quite a few. Dumb bastards tried to cut their way through the sails, work underneath the sheets to get to the forward raft. Current got ’em.”
“But some survived, right?”
The captain glared at me. Perhaps he considered the information privileged, beyond my need to know. Finally, he said, “The Kochi Mar dropped rafts around the area. So far, three men have been picked up.”
I couldn’t wait any longer. “And Annie?”
He paused, much longer than it should take to search such a short-lived memory. “Nothing yet.”
I felt my stomach sink. It was all he was going to say. I decided to leave it alone—for now.
Not caring that he was watching, I walked to the door and jiggled the handle, testing the lock, then realized how silly it was to think that a flimsy, worn-out piece of hardware would stop anyone from coming in. I looked back at the broken bed and, for a moment, wondered how circumstances, or fate, or my own stupidity had brought me to this horrible little room. I could only hope this was the first step to finding my way home. Maybe in a month or two, I would look back on the memory of this shit-hole with a kind of reverent gratitude. But for now, it was my prison, and escape didn’t seem likely.