“My name is Katherine. I’m here to help you get settled.”
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been unconscious. The last thing I remembered was Bobby pulling Annie and I apart and dragging me out of the cage. And then nothing . . . until a few minutes ago, when I’d woken to the soft white noise from an A/C vent.
Katherine had knocked lightly, announcing herself with, “May I come in?”
It was a token courtesy—saying no wouldn’t have kept her out. And yet, I didn’t fear the stranger on the other side of the door. There was something about the environment—the comfortable bed, the modern upscale room furnishings, the original artwork on the walls—that dispelled any suggestion of captivity. It extended far beyond the sterile ambiance you’d expect from a contemporary hotel room.
The space had a welcome, homey quality that immediately replaced my fear with curiosity. And as I’d heard the click of the door handle, it wasn’t apprehension that propped me up on one elbow, it was anticipation. If these people were really the sort Bobby had described, they could easily find out what happened to Annie. And more important, they might be able to help her.
Katherine was mid-40s, trim, and attractive. She wore a short, brown tailored skirt revealing legs that appeared to have spent plenty of time on a Stairmaster. An ivory silk blouse—open to the second button—draped lightly over her breasts, then snuggled around her small waist. Flawless make-up accented deep green eyes. Her sandy-blond hair was cut in a no-nonsense bob, framing her soft, pretty face with a perky salute. She could’ve been a model in another life.
She smiled and leaned against the dresser, her clothes accommodating her movements like a second skin. Admittedly, it was an odd thought, especially under the circumstances, but I suddenly wondered if I’d ever see her naked.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she began.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m just glad to be out of that place . . . the auction.”
She grimaced. “You don’t need to worry. Those people can’t touch you anymore. Not here.”
I ached to ask if she could extend the same protection to Annie, but it was too soon. I would have to wait for the right time.
“From what I understand,” she continued, “Robert—oh, he probably asked you to call him Bobby—gave you some idea of what your new position entails, correct?”
Bobby. That asshole!
“He told me a lot of things. Unfortunately, not all of them were true.”
Katherine’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never known Robert to intentionally misrepresent the truth, especially when offering an opportunity to serve with us here, in the department.”
Unable to wait any longer, I blurted it out. “I’m talking about the other girl, the one in the cage with me at the auction. Bobby told me he would take us both, keep us together. Then he let someone else buy her.” My voice cracked and I fought to retain my composure, determined not to break down in front of her.
“You mean the other American girl, the one bought by Gregory Housing?”
“Her name is Annie,” I said.
“Yes, we know about Annie. She was working on the Kelsey before the ship was lost at sea.”
“Then you know Bobby promised to buy her, too.”
“I assure you, it’s a promise he deeply regrets.”
I waited for more, but she stood quietly. That wasn’t good enough.
“Bobby said he was outbid,” I offered. “I think there’s more to it than that. A guy who buys girls from slave auctions with government money isn’t pinching pennies, and I doubt he ever runs short of cash. If he really intended to buy us both, the price wouldn’t have mattered.”
Katherine watched me carefully, making sure I was finished. “You’re very perceptive. We’ll teach you to hone that skill, how to use it accurately without jumping to unjustified conclusions.”
“What does that have to do with Annie?”
“Your assumption that more than money was involved in Bobby’s decision is correct. And before I go on, I want you to understand he fully intended to buy both of you. But the situation changed at the last minute. He had to get you out of the auction as quickly as possible . . . for your own safety. And because time was short, he couldn’t tell you the whole story.”
No amount of explaining would change the fact that Annie had been left in the hands of a madman. Now the only important thing was what could be done to help her.
“None of that matters,” I said. “Gregory Housing is a killer, and Bobby knew it. He let that monster take Annie after he’d promised to protect her. If I’d known that’s the way you do business around here, I would’ve refused Bobby’s offer and stayed with her. At least she wouldn’t have been left to die alone.”
The cheery expression that had been a constant part of Katherine’s demeanor changed to serious concern. “I understand your loyalty to your friend, and I’m not saying it’s misplaced. Right now, you’re speaking from emotion . . . from anger and fear. And those are poor substitutes for clear, accurate thinking, especially when negotiating for something you want. Remember this, Jewel. It’s much too early for you to be making hollow threats to leverage your value.” She threw me a cold, icy stare. “I’m going to give it to you straight. For me to do my job, I need your commitment. I can’t have you second guessing your decision to work for the department, and I won’t have you challenging me with ultimatums. Now, if you’re ready to listen, I’ll explain what happened.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. There was no point in arguing. She was right. I had no influence here. I’d shot off my mouth before evaluating my situation and the people around me—people who might be able to help me find Annie.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I keep hearing Annie’s voice screaming at that bastard, begging him to let her go. It was the last thing I remember.” I wiped at a tear streaking down my cheek. “I can’t get it out of my head . . . Gregory walking into the cage, carrying a handful of straps and a coil of rope. And then hearing her cries, begging him not to hurt her. The worst part was not being able to help, and now, I can’t imagine what she’s going through.” My voice broke. I couldn’t continue. I dropped my head, half-slapping at the tears, mad at myself for wallowing in my own misery when Annie’s was so much greater.
For the longest time, Katherine was quiet. When I finally looked up, her expression had changed. Not to the original façade of a cheery Polly Anna, but to one of compassion, not unlike what I might have expected from a concerned big sister.
“You and Annie went through a lot together. And it’s only natural to feel the way you do, especially when someone like Gregory Housing is involved. I can tell you what I know, but it’s important you understand it’s all I know. If and when there’s more, I’ll share it with you. And if it becomes necessary to withhold something from you, I’ll let you know that, too. I won’t intentionally lie to you. From here on, you must believe we’re on the same side. You can’t work here under a guise of suspicion. You’ll need to trust those around you, and they’ll expect your trust in return.” She paused. “Jewel?”
I was staring at the floor. I raised my eyes toward her and bit my lip.
“There are no exceptions,” she added.
I collected myself as best I could. “I want to know what happened at the auction.”
Katherine nodded. “Bobby is required to do his job with extreme discretion, maintaining a low profile. When Housing began to bid against him, Bobby countered with slightly higher bids, trying to dissuade Gregory with simple economic leverage. When he realized Gregory was determined to buy Annie, he had to back off. If Bobby had engaged in an all-out bidding war, it would have called attention to his identity and the amount of money he spends. And that’s simply not acceptable.”
“Why? What difference does it make?”
“Because sooner or later, someone will begin asking questions about who he works for and what he does with the girls he buys. Bobby’s service to our department is very important, for all the wrong reasons. Too many questions can compromise his effectiveness.” She stopped, hiked up her skirt, and pulled a cell phone from a holster-case strapped to her right thigh. Glancing at the screen, she looked up, finishing with, “Do you understand?”
“You’re telling me the people who work here have to avoid doing anything that would create unnecessary attention.”
She nodded. “It’s called intelligent discretion, a kind of protective umbrella that maintains the department’s political integrity.”
I took a deep breath, feeling the sudden tension between us.