In Book One of the series, the story of Jewel’s reluctant surrender begins . . .
Jewel has everything going for her—a handsome husband, a promising future, and lots of time to explore an island paradise she now calls home. But when a group of strangers accompanies her husband home for a friendly game of poker, her life quickly becomes a hellish nightmare of deceit and betrayal.
Now her very survival depends on entering a world where sex, domination, and money are inseparable, where women must obey every master, and where every desire has its price.
We’re all captives, in one way or another . . .
I’m awakened by the sounds of creaking wood and straining rope—constant protests to the unsteady pitch and roll of the darkness.
Dizzy and disoriented, I take a breath, trying to dispel the nausea. But the air is laced with the pungent smell of damp rot, and its raw bite forces me to shallow my breathing.
Staring into the darkness, I search for a shape, a silhouette—anything to give me a clue about my surroundings. But there is only a thick layered blackness, as endless as the grave.
I’m plagued by the sensation of motion, of being rocked up and down. A flash of impaired logic tells me to dismiss it as a specter, an artifact from the nearly depleted dose of Halcion.
A minute passes—or an hour. I can’t tell which.
I hear something—a garbled voice, remnants of disconnected conversation. And from much farther away, the plaintive cries of a bird. The sounds seem genuine, missing that phantom-like quality associated with suspects from a barbiturate daze.
I take it as a sign—the drugs are finally leaving my system.
A prickly thaw sweeps the surface of my skin, bringing with it the nagging sensation that something is pulling at my limbs, tugging at me from both ends.
It’s not an after-effect of the drugs, I’m sure of that. It’s too strong, too constant. I have the sense it’s been there all along, waiting to break through the chemical cloud that kept me unconscious.
It’s growing stronger, getting worse, becoming a piercing burn stretching from my shoulders to my hips, cutting me to the quick.
I try to turn, to get away from the waves of searing heat raking at my arms and legs.
I can’t move.
The realization is as damning as if I’d awakened in the sulfur pits of hell. I’m bound like an animal, my wrists tied above my head, my legs strapped at the ankles—my body a living bridge of straining joints and wrenched sinew.
Even as my muscles scream at the draw of the restraints, I feel the bite of riveted steel against my back, the harsh, unforgiving surface running the length of my spine.
It’s no accident. Whoever did this intentionally stripped me, leaving me exposed and vulnerable, determined to violate my mind as well as my body.
The blackness rolls then plunges, releasing something new into the shifting darkness. Slithering against me, it touches my skin with a bitter cold that breaks through the unrelenting agony of the rope. I hear my own tortured wheeze catch in my throat as I feel it scoring my stomach, the freezing nip and sting quickly followed by the unmistakable seeping of liquid, collecting in the hollow of my belly, running down my sides.
A rush of useless adrenalin floods my bloodstream, my chest threatening to explode as my racing heart frantically pumps blood to an unseen wound.
Even through the suffocating surge of panic, a vision of what I cannot see crystalizes with vivid detail: My arms and legs are tortuously drawn on a makeshift rack . . . a pendulum of biting chill slices across my naked torso . . . tiny rivers of fluid trickle down my sides.
I barely hear it over my pounding heartbeat—the sound of sloshing liquid.
In seconds, it becomes as familiar as it is terrifying.
I’m lying in water.
I take a halted breath as I realize the truth. The fluid running down my sides is not blood, but ribbons of over-wash from the frigid pool that surrounds me.
Rope and water.
Pain and fear.
It’s deliberate . . . to break me.
Again, the darkness lurches and rolls, churning the water, splashing it over my breasts and thighs. And although the icy burn forces me to gasp for air, it also sparks a moment of fleeting recognition—a vague memory from my past, a connection to the rise and fall of everything around me.
I’ve felt it before.
But where? When?
Stray thoughts flood my mind—the gentle climb, the momentary sense of weightlessness, the sudden drop . . . the unique motion of the sea.
It isn’t much, but it gives me something to hold on to, a starting point in remembering what has happened to me.
My husband, Carl, was betting strong, challenging the table. He knew better. He’d warned me on more than one occasion never to bet strong this early in the game.
Carl had met the four men this morning. Crewmen from a large schooner docked in the harbor, they were in town to buy provisions and spare parts from the marine supply store where Carl worked. He’d offered them a few tips on installing an upgrade to their GPS, and in return, they had extended him an invitation to join them for lunch.
Their offer wasn’t unusual. Carl was one of the best marine diesel mechanics on the island of Sri Lanka. And the price of a meal in exchange for his opinion of the newest oil additives and cold-weather starting tips was a frequent occurrence.
Lunch had been followed by several pitchers of dark beer, and the discussion had quickly transitioned to one of the men’s favorite pastimes—cards. At sea it was a common activity, helping to fill the empty hours. Often taking the place of internet-provided entertainment, a round of poker was an onboard ritual.
The suggestion of a game was more temptation than Carl could stand. He loved to play, but the locals had nothing to bet. And wagering for poker chips that had no value beyond their plastic content made it impossible to win—or lose.
That was Carl’s world. Strictly black and white. He hated the idea of pretending. ‘Life is not a spectator sport,’ he’d said. ‘You either jump in with both feet or not at all.’ To a naïve twenty-year-old it had sounded like scripture, the missing truth I was searching for.
Carl and I met in San Diego during one of his leaves from the Navy, where he worked as a diesel mechanics instructor in Little Creek, Virginia. I was two years out of high school and marriage was the last thing on my mind. But he was seven years my senior and immediately impressed me with his plans for the future.
With eleven months remaining of his four-year enlistment, he was already making plans to travel the globe—this time as a civilian. After dating less than five months—he visiting me on leave, and I making one trip to Virginia—he made it clear he wanted to marry me.
His proposal had come Navy-neat and methodical. ‘We’ll coordinate everything for an effective and timely execution,’ he’d said, quoting from one of his management textbooks. At the time, we’d laughed. But I knew there was a part of him that was already systemizing every detail. With my own dreams of marriage constructed from bits and pieces of TV sitcoms and dozens of happily-ever-after movies of the week, it wasn’t quite the whirlwind romance I’d hoped for.
That’s not to say the prospect of sharing our future wasn’t exciting. If I joined Carl as his wife, we would see the world together, a carefree couple without the usual constraints of kids, a mortgage, or a car payment.
‘That can come later,’ he’d said. Carl’s version of the American dream had nothing to do with climbing the corporate ladder or ass-kissing his way into a corner office. His idea of success was lying on a tropical beach or trekking through an Asian rain forest while thinking about ways to boost diesel engine horsepower without increasing cylinder displacement.
Did I love him? I told myself I did. We got along well and had similar interests. We liked the same music, clothes, films, and food. And after all, he was older and more experienced. There was a lot he could teach me. Independent and ready to live life at full speed, Carl was a proverbial open book, and I never had to second-guess him. He had a no-bullshit, bottom-line approach to everything—including our relationship. If something was important, he told me about it. If it wasn’t—and he was always quick to remind me that most of it wasn’t—he didn’t waste the words. Maybe Carl wasn’t as romantic or affectionate a man as I’d hoped to find in a husband. But instead of flowers and candy, Carl brought something else into my life—self-confidence. He’d made me realize it was okay to accept the attention I’d always received from others.
In high school, I’d been nominated for homecoming queen. But I had a shy streak that sent a huge wave of relief through me when I lost to perky cheerleader Sharon Burgess, who we all knew would win anyway since she did such a nice job of taking care of the football team on those out-of-town games.
In reality, I was much happier being out of the limelight. Accepting compliments about my appearance came with a lot of reluctance, and I’d never been comfortable being called ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful.’ As far as I was concerned, the flirty comments were simply the boys way of hitting on me, hoping I would let them fondle my breasts or allow their hands to linger on my ass. And flattery from my girlfriends came with the territory, a social requirement of sisterhood, even though a few of them made it clear they wouldn’t mind exploring the possibilities. Regardless of the source, I never let myself think I deserved more attention than any of the other girls.
My epiphany finally came during one of those late night conversations with Carl. After watching a rented movie and a half-hour of sex, I’d asked him about his past girlfriends, wanting to know who they were and what they’d looked like. He’d brushed the question aside, saying there hadn’t been anyone significant before me.
That was worrisome.
Without having previous relationships with other women, how did he know I was the right one? He must have sensed my concern, as he reassured me he’d always wanted a golden-haired, green-eyed California surfer girl with tits that could throw their own shadow.
Discovering I was the realized fantasy of his youth gave me the courage to knock down the wall I’d hidden behind since I was thirteen. I gained a sense of how others saw me—a pretty blonde with a nice body that received a twice-weekly aerobic tune-up. More important, I learned that how others perceived me didn’t have to influence the way I acted around them. I could be a bit shy, enjoy the quiet times, and choose my friends based on their personality and sincerity.
With his outspoken honesty and support, Carl had given me every indication he would be a loyal and faithful husband. Plus, his Navy training gave him the kind of education and experience that assured a successful career. Even with all that, I’d asked myself, is it enough?
Looking back, I suppose I’d hoped my love for Carl would blossom while we pursued the exciting future he’d laid out for us. In spite of my doubts, I knew one thing for sure. He was going on a great adventure—with or without me. And if I married him, we would travel to places I didn’t even know existed. On the other hand, if I stayed behind, my choices weren’t nearly as exciting—take a stab at college and tolerate four years of tedium or, worse, continue my entry level secretarial job while sharing my two-bedroom apartment with three other girls.
During the last six months of Carl’s hitch in Little Creek, our endless emails and nightly phone calls helped to crystalize our future.
We set the date.
Seven days following his discharge, he flew to San Diego where we had a quick ceremony followed by a weeklong honeymoon driving up the northern California coast.
I was anxious to begin our new life of travel, but Carl insisted we work another year. ‘We need to save at least twenty thousand dollars,’ he’d said. ‘Then we can take our time to explore, decide which part of the world we want to live in.’ It wasn’t just the journey that appealed to Carl. He wanted to experience other cultures, people, and lifestyles. And as I listened to him, I convinced myself it was what I wanted, too.
We left the States a month before my twenty-second birthday.
Sri Lanka had never been one of our top five destinations for an extended sleepover, as Carl called it. But by the time we arrived, we’d been traveling for eight months and we both needed a break.
Like anyone in our situation, I was a little nervous. Would the locals accept us? Would we be able to find a decent place to live? Carl countered my apprehension by reminding me of the pretty scenery, gentle people, and a fairly large ex-pat population. And he also saw a real opportunity to make some decent money as a boat mechanic.
The main port on the island was in the bustling city of Colombo, about a twenty-five-minute drive south of the village of Kandana, a sleepy residential area where we’d found a two-bedroom cottage on a large wooded lot. It was the last house on a dead-end road and offered the rare privacy of a much larger and more expensive property. The monthly rent was at the upper end of our budget, but we both agreed the cozy hideaway was a place we could call home—at least for a while. That had been a little over a year ago, and in that time, I’d grown to love the place, with its covered front porch where I often sat for hours reading cheap romance novels as the warm rain dropped lightly on the coconut palms. I’d even started a garden by the side of the driveway—in spite of Carl’s prediction the weeds would quickly overtake the flowers.
With Carl’s work schedule—six days a week and often ten hours a day—I had a lot of time to myself. Carl encouraged me to enjoy the freedom of exploring the countryside and its people. ‘You’ll have plenty of time to work later,’ he’d said. ‘And when the right job comes along, you’ll know it.’ He was referring to the low-paying and frequently available clerking and waitress jobs he adamantly discouraged me from taking, since they typically required shift work and would reduce the amount of time we could spend together.
The warm reception we’d expected to receive from the ex-pat population had been disappointing. While a few would wave or even speak politely when passing on the street, most kept to themselves. Like many displaced Americans, they had a common desire for seclusion and privacy, and went out of their way to maintain it. Even so, we’d managed to make a few friends, most of them native to Sri Lanka.
We still talked about continuing our adventure. But as the months passed, our passion to explore new destinations gave way to the comfort of home and the surprising security of routine. I also knew how much Carl enjoyed his work. He’d not only acquired the reputation of being an expert mechanic, he was also a bit of a “magician”—one of those rare technicians who could squeeze another thousand hours out of a thirty-year-old engine.
Personally, I felt settled. I enjoyed my weekly hikes into the rainforest, and driving to the south end of the island to spend the day at the beach. I especially liked Saturday mornings, when I drove to the Kālu Grill, the little café where I’d eaten my first meal in Sri Lanka—a roti pancake stuffed with eggs. I’d even shown the cook how to put yeast in the batter to make a traditional American pancake, adding pecans for flavor. Now a regular customer, I ate there every weekend, looking forward to seeing the owner’s old brown and white dog lying across the entrance, the trusting mutt hoping patrons would understand his silent request to step over him and not disturb his sleep.
The quick double-tapping of cards on the table brought my attention back to the game. It was Carl’s turn to deal. He was showing off with two quick taps, one to the top of the deck, and another to the bottom. He said it brought the cards into alignment. In truth, it had nothing to do with straightening the deck. It was all swagger and fanfare, a display of his dexterity. I’d watched him practice the move for hours—a quick flip of the deck and a twist of his wrist. ‘In the world of poker,’ he’d said, ‘confidence with the cards is just as important as skill.’
I’d never wondered how much truth there was in Carl’s logic—until now.
“Anybody know what time it is? My watch stopped.” One of the men at the table—he’d introduced himself as Roy—was thumping at the diver’s chronograph on his wrist. He’d been the last one through the door and the first to take a seat. With long scruffy hair nearly touching his shoulders and a full beard covering his face, I couldn’t begin to guess his age. His manner seemed unthreatening, and I didn’t give him a second thought.
“For what you paid for that thing, it should have come with a Swiss watchmaker and a handful of batteries.” It was Wiley, a small wiry fellow with protruding bottom teeth that kept his mouth from completely closing, the gap forcing me to look in another direction every time he’d taken a bite of the apple cobbler I’d offered the men as a snack. As sarcastic as they come, he never seemed to miss an opportunity to get in a jab at someone else’s expense.
“Doesn’t use batteries. It’s a self-winder,” Roy said proudly.
“That must be why it’s keeping such perfect time.” Wiley chuckled.
“It’s two-thirty,” Carl said. “Shank of the evening.”
“Now that we’ve confirmed the time, you two think you could shut up long enough to play out the hand?” Victor’s irritation was obvious. A brown-skinned man with a narrow nose and chiseled jaw, he seemed overly serious and a bit edgy, as if he were hiding something sinister. From the few times our eyes met, I was glad he kept his secrets to himself.
The older man—everyone called him Captain—sat through the entire exchange without blinking. Mid-fifties, too much over six foot to measure, and sporting a full head of gray hair fringed with coal-black tufts at the temples, his commanding presence made it clear he was in charge, and not the least bit interested in the men’s petty squabbles.
Carl had invited the four men back to the house, where the game had gone on for hours. There had been too many hands to count, and so far, only small amounts of money had moved back and forth across the table. Carl had managed to stay about even.
That was his strategy. Take a little. Give it back. Then ramp it up. Never let them see it coming. Blindside them with skill and they’ll invariably think it was luck—and want to play again.
I couldn’t fault Carl’s ability with a deck of cards. Regardless of whether it was a private game or a tournament, he regularly came out on top. And that’s what made it so difficult to defend my argument against his desire to pursue gambling as a career. But Carl’s obsession was tantamount to addiction—something I refused to live with. And although he adamantly denied it, I was convinced the lure of a full-time gambling gig could easily override his desire to travel and experience third world cultures. In fact, one night he’d talked about his fantasy of living in Vegas and working the tables, ultimately playing the high rollers to make that once-in-a-lifetime score. I’d gently reminded him we still had lots of world to see, and Vegas was a long way from Sri Lanka.
He’d quickly agreed, partly to placate me, and partly because it was true.
“I want to be clear of the harbor an hour after sunrise,” the captain said. “So we best make this our last hand. I don’t want to see your butts dragging on the deck when it’s time to weigh anchor.”
“Right you are, Cap’n.” Wiley nodded, his allegiance to his master—at least on the surface—obvious and absolute. “Last hand it is.”
“Let’s raise the ante,” Roy suggested. “Make it count.” He looked directly at my husband, asking for agreement.
“Sure, no problem,” Carl said.
Wiley and Roy glanced at the captain, as if he always had the final say. The captain’s assenting nod lifted the previous twenty-dollar limit.
Like the rest of the men, Carl had been drinking. And it didn’t take long before he had pitched every penny of last week’s paycheck into the pot.
That’s enough, I thought. You need to stop. But Carl was a rotten mind-reader.
The betting continued, the stakes increasing with every round. Finally, Carl was draining our savings. I had to speak up.
“Carl, can I see for you for a second?”
I felt awkward bringing it up. He had been the sole provider for over a year and had never complained. By rights, it was his money to do with as he chose. But he was in over his head, betting money he didn’t have. That was stupid—and dangerous.
“Uh-oh,” Wiley chided. “Looks like the missus is pulling back on the reins.” He started to say more, but a quick glance from the captain stopped him cold.
“Not to worry, babe,” Carl assured me. “Everything’s under control.”
“It’s a lot of money,” I said. “And I know how hard you have to work for it.”
Carl smiled and gave me his trademark wink as he pushed the last of his chips into the middle of the table.
I knew he was good. He wouldn’t be this confident if he didn’t have an excellent hand. But I could also see his quiet anxiety. The money had pushed him over the edge, the lure of easy cash more important than the fun of playing. It was exactly why I had such an aversion to Carl’s gambling. At some point, the game always seemed to evolve from harmless entertainment into a mythical siren of temptation, turning the players into ruthless competitors.
Another round of bets brought the ante back to Carl.
“What about a little credit?” From Carl’s flippant tone, I knew he was trying to hide his frustration. He desperately wanted to stay in the game.
“Credit?” The captain raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got that good of a hand?”
Carl backpedaled. “Just want to keep the ball in play, keep things interesting.”
The captain took a deep breath and frowned. “Don’t know if you’re good for it. And I don’t want you turning me into a debt collector. If you can’t play, you need to fold.”
“I’m not asking for much,” Carl argued. “How about if I offer some collateral?”
The captain scanned the room. “I don’t see much here that can be sold for quick cash.”
I could have interpreted his comment as an insult. But he was right. Our belongings were second-hand and well-used, most of them purchased from a local hotel after the owner replaced the property’s aging furniture.
“What about the mantel clock?” Carl motioned to the bookcase displaying the timepiece. “It’s over a hundred years old,” he added. “And there’s also my mother’s silverware, place settings for eight.”
I cringed. The clock was a cheap reproduction and the “silverware” was stainless steel.
“What’d’ya say, Captain?” Carl asked. “Can you give me a thousand on the clock and silverware?”
“No more than I would give you a thousand for an hour of your wife’s time.” He paused to look up and lock eyes with me. “Even as lovely as you are, my dear,” he added. Then turning his attention back to Carl, he said, “Although I will say she comes far closer to a fair exchange of value than that clock or set of steak knives.”
I told myself it was a compliment, even though his words were wrapped in innuendo.
Carl was quiet. Maybe he’d taken offense, though that seemed unlikely. We were both used to his Navy buddies and their flirtatious comments, even their tendency to be a bit “handsy” with me during their hellos and goodbyes.
I knew he’d been counting the cards, extrapolating the odds. No doubt he was determining the probability of whether the remaining face cards were still in the deck or in the hands of the other men.
Finally he broke the silence. “What would you pay for an hour with my wife?”
I hoped I hadn’t heard him right. “Carl, can I talk to you?”
He looked at me with his familiar sly grin, his way of asking for permission and forgiveness at the same time. “You’ll play along, won’t you babe?”
“That’s enough, Carl,” I cautioned. “Maybe it’s time you fold and we call it a night.”
I could tell from his expression he was ignoring me. Either I wasn’t getting through or he’d turned pig-headed stubborn. I would give him a piece of my mind later.
Focusing on the captain, I tried another tactic. “I’m afraid my husband has forgotten his manners. It’s probably best to finish the game and end the evening on a friendly note And of course, if you’re ever back in Colombo, you’re welcome to—”
“But wouldn’t it be fun to find out?” Carl interrupted. “Just for kicks?”
Until now, the captain had projected his usual quiet, commanding demeanor, his attention focused squarely on the cards. “What are you talking about . . . exactly?”
“I’m saying,” Carl began, laboring over each word, “we put a price on my wife’s favors, for fun, you know, to see how it plays out. We can freeze the money right where it is.”
Jesus, the man has completely lost his mind. I was more embarrassed than worried. No one was going to take him seriously. The money was the only thing of importance—the only thing that mattered—to those holding a decent hand. Putting anything into the pot that had no redeemable value was pointless.
“Please, Carl,” I pleaded, “let’s move on so we can call it a night. It’s late.”
“It’s just to put a little spice in the game,” he argued. “And we’d only be pretending. It won’t involve you at all.”
And there it was—the look. I hadn’t seen it since I’d dragged Carl from a casino on St. Maarten.
“I’m not going along with this,” I shot back—directing my words not only at Carl, but to every man sitting at the table. “You need to drop it.”
The captain chuckled, seemingly out of character for the man, and it made me wonder if he was laughing at me or the situation. “The universal currency, eh?” He brought a hand to his chin. “That’s a creative proposition, and while it would certainly make the game more interesting, it’s obvious the little lady is not in agreement.”
He was talking as if Carl’s suggestion was made in good faith. I felt the muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten, a sudden attack of anxiety sending a stream of acid to my stomach.
“The captain is very perceptive,” I said. “The lady is definitely not in agreement.”
Carl bristled. “But it’s our last hand and I’d really like to play this one out. Please, babe, go along with me so we can get back to playing.”
I started to object, but Carl cut me off. “Besides, it’s just a friendly game. No one’s going to take advantage of the situation.”
The captain scanned the table, then shifted his gaze to me, his steely eyes giving me the once-over. His scrutiny seemed more facetious than perverse.
Either way, he was waiting for an answer.
I could see Carl wasn’t going to give up. And if he eventually took no for an answer, he’d be ticked off at me for a week.
I shook my head, the way a frustrated parent might display their irritation with a misbehaving child. “All right. But make it fast. I’m getting tired and our guests have an early sailing.”
The captain drew a noisy breath. “The lady’s right. Let’s finish it.”
There was a sudden buzz between the men, the air reeking of bravado and testosterone.
“First, we have to set a value on my wife’s favors.” Carl was unable to hide his excitement over striking some credit—even if it was only Monopoly money. “We have to get specific,” he added. “You know, how much for what.”
The idea of putting a price on my body—even in jest—was as degrading as it was unsettling. I glared at Carl. More than irritated, I was ready to explode. But it was too late. And I refused to be one of “those” wives—the kind that agreed to go along with their husband’s wishes, but made it clear they were plenty pissed about it. In other words, a bitch.
Besides, I was probably over-reacting. There had been flirtatious banter all evening, and this was nothing more than a suggestive joke—albeit a bad one. Soon the game would be over, the men would leave, and I could get some sleep.
I went back to the kitchen, wiped down the counters, and began putting away the dessert plates. The men’s conversation faded into the background.
“. . . and the value of the pot, it stays or floats?” I overheard the captain asking Carl a question, talking in a lowered voice.
Carl mumbled, too soft for me to hear.
“You’re sure? No changing your mind later.”
I heard Carl again, a word here and there, with gaps of silence between—too much silence to understand what he was saying.
Poking my head around the corner, I saw him nodding.
What the hell is he doing now?
“Can I get you anything?” I walked into the living room, hoping my return didn’t seem like the obvious ploy it was.
Carl shook his head, the cryptic exchange between him and the captain having come to a suspicious and immediate halt.
Although my husband remained quiet, the captain reacted automatically. “No, thank you,” he said. “We have everything we need.”
He wasn’t just placating me, the man was glossing over the awkward hush. I had the sense I’d caught him mid-sneak, before he had put everything back in place—before he could close the lid on his own personal Pandora’s Box. And yet, even with the possibility I had seen a flash from the darker side of his character, he seemed consummately satisfied with the situation.
I wanted him out of my house—the sooner the better.
“Carl, don’t forget. You promised you’d wrap it up, so no extra hands.”
He hadn’t actually promised, but I wanted him to think I’d interpreted it that way. And I planned to hold him to it.
I could tell my proximity to the table—standing next to Carl—was slowing the game. “I’ll sit over here,” I said, “by the breakfast bar.”
There was no way I was returning to the kitchen, out of earshot.
Carl scribbled an IOU and pitched it into the pot.
The captain picked it up and shook his head. “That’s way above the going rate. A hundred bucks for a hand-job? And you want twice that for a blow-job? I can get either one of those in town at half the price.”
Carl bristled. “She’s worth every penny of it and you know it.”
The captain’s lips narrowed into a frown. Rolling the IOU between his fingers, he seemed to be in deep deliberation. Finally, he pitched the scrap of paper back on the table. “Let’s play.”
“I’ll raise,” Wiley said.
Carl set his cards face down on the table to write another IOU.
I didn’t know whether to be amused or concerned as the bets continued to escalate. More than once I thought of interrupting them, to reconfirm their bets were imaginary, without the remotest possibility of being redeemed. Yet I knew their earnest wagering was the very thing giving the game its edge—a reason to continue. I also knew part of their fun was watching my reaction, seeing me squirm over the prospect of paying off my husband’s gambling debt with sexual favors.
Noticing another beer bottle had been added to the inventory of empties, I slipped off my chair, intending to gather them. A challenging glare from the captain stopped me cold. I tried to soften his dismissal with the suggestion of coffee, but my offer was immediately refused with a hand gesture—curtly directed and delivered with a scowl.
Five minutes passed. Another round of bets.
Eventually, Carl was forced to convert the value of individual sex acts into full days of sexual servitude. A few rounds later, even that wasn’t enough to stay in the game. Again, Carl and the captain renegotiated my value, calling it “full-service companionship,” joking about how housework and laundry should be included in the week-long intervals of time.
As they bantered back and forth, the breaking grins and little smirks helped dispel my concerns. Secretly, I wanted to confront them, to make sure everyone still understood the idea of using my body as sexual currency was just man-whimsy, a virtual wet dream that would end when the last bet was made. But my interruption would be a full scale attack on Carl’s masculinity. Especially now, since the game had taken on a life of its own—men playing in a man’s world—something the “weaker sex” could never fully appreciate.
So I did what I thought Carl would want me to do—continue to watch, offer the occasional feigned smile, and attempt to convey my amusement over their game of pretend.
Eventually, the three crewmen folded, leaving Carl and the captain to play out the hand. There was a haunting sense about those three men and, for a moment, I wondered if they had retired from play as a collective strategy, motivated by some secret and pre-established signal.
I told myself I was being paranoid. If there was any collusion among them, it was more likely to reduce the game to its principle players, since the crew’s money surely came from their employment and their contributions to the pot were simply extensions of credit from the captain.
I looked at the pile of chips and hand-scribbled scraps of paper in the pot, trying to estimate the value. It was close to twenty-five grand—with nearly a third of it from Carl.
The captain had also gone to IOU’s written against an established credit line at the marine supply.
Neither man could possibly expect to collect.
I couldn’t let it go.
“The captain is using IOU’s?”
“More realistic that way,” Carl said.
They were like little boys playing cops and robbers. I supposed from their perspective, it made sense. Carl’s Navy buddies had often talked about the realism of the new computer flight simulators and how it gave the experience an extra kick, as if the mind had been tricked into believing the activity was real.
It was nearly four in the morning. I had to get some sleep.
“Carl?” I waited until I had his attention.
“Yeah babe, almost done here.”
“It’s late,” I said. “You need to call this one a draw and let the men get back to their boat.”
“On a roll here, sweetheart.” His tone was dismissive and dripping with irritation.
I was about to push back. I decided to leave it alone, give him some slack. But soon I would insist he shut it down or I was going to bed without him.
Ten minutes later, I lowered my magazine with lots of rustling. I was done. “So how we doing, Carl?”
Their collective IOU’s had bumped the pot to over forty-five thousand dollars, and from what I remembered about the last agreement over the rate of exchange, Carl’s last raise had extended my “body-use collateral” to over three months of exclusive possession.
They’re ending the night on a high note. Having some fun at my expense.
Carl nodded slightly, acknowledging my question, but not answering it.
The captain, however, was more than aware of my building irritation. He tapped his cards on the table. “Your wife has been more than patient.” He looked around the table, then directly at Carl. “I call. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I looked around the living room. I’d straighten up the mess in the morning.
I glanced back at Carl, expecting to see his usual unrestrained gloating after setting his cards on the table. I planned on speeding the process along, reducing his savoring of victory to a minimum. I’d given him what he’d asked for—time to finish. Now I wanted him to focus on my needs, which were centered on the queen-size Beautyrest calling to me from the bedroom.
It took a moment to register—Carl wasn’t gloating. In fact, he hadn’t even shown his cards.
He was . . . hesitating.
Carl never hesitated. Unless he was bluffing.
“Let’s see ’em,” the captain repeated.
Carl’s gray eyes were half-shuttered, the color dull and lifeless. A thin strand of brown hair fell across his forehead as the corners of his mouth began to twitch. With trembling fingers, he collapsed his hand on the table.
He was one card shy of a straight flush.
The captain leaned forward, never breaking his deadpan expression. “You kept playing with an empty hand?”
I didn’t know if he was complimenting my husband or calling him stupid.
The captain slowly laid his cards on the table.
Carl dropped his head.
For a moment, the captain sat there, as if waiting for acknowledgement of the win. But Carl remained silent. The captain’s authority was apparent and unchallenged, not only over his men, but now over my husband as well.
During the game, the captain had paid little attention to me. Now he looked at me as if evaluating a piece of merchandise, making sure it wasn’t torn or frayed at the edges. “Do you have anything you want to take with you, clothes, shoes, that sort of thing?” His voice was dry and matter-of-fact, without a hint of play.
“What are you talking about?”
The game had been a joke. They all knew Carl’s IOU’s were nothing more than a ploy to keep playing. No one in their right mind would actually think they could win a twenty-three-year-old girl in a poker game.
The rest of the men turned toward me—I assumed to watch my reaction, to make sure they didn’t miss the gag.
Except for Carl.
His face was white, his eyes locked on the table.
“I’m really tired,” I began. “It’s been a long day, so I’ll say goodnight and my husband can show you out.” I began nervously gathering up empty beer bottles and butt-filled ashtrays.
I wanted these men—especially the captain—out of my house.
“We’re leaving,” the captain growled. “I’ll give you two minutes to get whatever you want to take with you.”
I felt my stomach tighten, my throat go dry. “Look, you’ve had your fun, and I didn’t mind going along with the joke. But the game’s over. It’s time to call it a night.”
The captain lowered his head slightly, his eyes burning right through me. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. Judging from the sudden flush on his face, I had challenged his authority and he didn’t like it. If there had been any part of him conveying the slightest bit of weakness, I would have scolded him for acting like a ten-year-old. But his skin was tanned and leather-tough from endless days on a sun-scorched ocean, and even though he was at least twenty years older than Carl, his arms were as big as my thighs and just as solid with muscle.
He was intimidating as hell.
Every instinct told me the same thing . . . run.
The thought of bolting through the back door and disappearing into the darkness lasted a micro-second.
They want me to run, I reasoned. So they can laugh at me and make fun of the scared little girl.
I threw Carl my I’ve had enough of this shit look and raised my voice. “I’m going to bed. Leave everything the way it is. I’ll clean up in the morning.”
The sound of scraping chairs filled the room as the three crewmen rose from the table. I held my breath, waiting for one of them to break out laughing and say something that would untie the knot in my stomach.
“Good night, all,” I chimed as I turned toward the hallway leading to the bedroom.
The captain rose from his chair and with a few quick strides, stepped in behind me. “I’m not going to ask again,” he said, placing his huge hand on my shoulder.
An eerie chill seized the air in my chest. If this was still a joke, it had gone too far. I really didn’t know him, and I didn’t want his hands on me. I tried to brush him away, taking another step forward.
I didn’t get far. Sinking his vice-grip deep into my shoulder, he spun me around and yanked me to within inches of his face. “That’s the last time you’ll ignore me,” he barked.
I stared at Carl in disbelief. “Do something. Tell him it’s a mistake.”
Carl glanced up, then dropped his eyes back to the table, his face grimacing as he bit his lower lip.
“Carl, what the fuck? Tell this asshole to let go of me.”
The captain tightened his hold, pinching my skin. “You got a real fast tongue in your head, don’t ya, bitch.”
I twisted back and forth, recoiling against the pain, trying to break free. “Stop it, you’re hurting me!”
I was no match for a man the captain’s size. I was in good shape, but at five-foot-three, my weight rarely exceeded a hundred and ten pounds. My efforts to defend myself were nothing more than a token display.
“Carl, help me!”
I kept waiting for him to pull the guy off and, if necessary, grab the .38 caliber revolver hidden behind our wedding picture on top of the bookcase. But in spite of my continued pleading, Carl remained frozen in his chair, mute and paralyzed, a look of sick acceptance contorting his face. Later, I would remember his expression hurting me more than the monster pinning my arms behind my back.
The memory of the captain dragging me from the house is still a hysterical blur of disbelief and savage fear. Once I nearly broke free, surprising him with a backward jab of my heel to his knee. But as I lunged toward Carl—believing his protective instincts would kick in—the big man grabbed me around the waist and lifted me off the floor, his powerful arm crushing me to the point of restricting my breathing.
With no resistance from Carl, the captain carried me through the front door. As we crossed the threshold, I caught the doorjamb and held on, still desperately believing this was some kind of sick charade and after the men had their fun, it would end. But the expression on the three crewmen’s faces—their wicked smiles, nodding their heads in approval as the bastard slid his arm between my legs for extra leverage—told me otherwise.
“You can’t do this,” I screamed. “The bets weren’t real!”
“You couldn’t be that stupid,” the captain shot back. “Why would we continue to play if we couldn’t collect on your husband’s markers? He knew the bets were genuine. It was the only reason we let him stay in the game.”
I struggled to believe it—this Neanderthal actually thought I was his property.
And judging from the lack of challenge from Carl, my husband believed it, too.
Losing my grip on the doorframe ended my connection with my home—the place I’d thought was a safe refuge.
As the captain carried me across the yard, I continued screaming for Carl.
Only the crew followed. Like a pack of wolves driven by the promise of shared prey, they trailed closely behind, just out of reach of my flailing arms.
The truth—my husband having lied to me—was heartbreaking. But it couldn’t compete with the sheer terror of realizing these men were about to carry me off into the night.
Any hope I had that the captain’s behavior was a prank carried much too far, quickly surrendered to the tormenting ache in my groin. With his hand firmly planted in my crotch, he was squeezing—hard.
“Go on, Cap’n, show her who’s boss.”
“Take charge of that bitch.”
The men were goading him on, wanting a show.
I shouted at Carl one last time. “For God’s sake, get the gun!” I hoped the threat of my husband charging out of the house wielding a pistol would be enough to scare them off and make them realize he was only seconds away from dropping all four of them.
But Carl never stepped beyond the front door. Either too ashamed or embarrassed to show his face, he had gambled away his wife, and with it, his honor as a man.
Refusing to surrender, I pounded on the captain’s back, clawing at his shirt, trading broken nails for the satisfaction of seeing small blots of blood spot the fabric. For a moment, I thought it was working—he loosened his grip. But he was only pausing to brace himself, firming up his stance to throw me into the back of our panel truck—now his, collected as part of the winnings.
The irony was fleeting but strong. Not only had Carl sold me to strangers, he’d supplied them with a vehicle to make the transfer of ownership more convenient.
I landed against the spare tire, the jolt of pain a convincing argument to the erroneous notion of soft rubber. Roy and Wiley were immediately on top of me, holding me down, slapping handcuffs on my wrists.
Screaming, kicking at anything within reach, I continued to fight back, hoping to catch the attention of someone passing by—someone who might call the police. But the privacy that both Carl and I cherished also came with seclusion. There was no one to hear—or see—my struggle.
“Victor, shut her up!” The captain was sliding behind the steering wheel.
Victor had been the silent one. I had intentionally avoided engaging him, his unflinching stare setting me on edge. Now he was crouching over my head, clamping my face between his knees. “This will quiet you down,” he snarled, dangling a large rubber gag-ball in front of my eyes.
Even in my state of terrified panic, I understood—Victor was the captain’s henchman, the one who did the dirty work. Not only did he obey orders without question, he was also well-suited to the task. His emerging wicked smile and clouded eyes smoldering with anticipation made it clear—he enjoyed his job.
I struggled to turn my head, to get away from the gag-ball pressing against my clenched teeth. But Victor kept up the pressure, the building strain on the back of my skull so excruciating, I was struck with the grisly possibility of snapping my own neck.
Determined to pry my mouth open, he pinched my upper lip and twisted the skin into a knot, his show of teeth a convincing argument he would tear my flesh if I didn’t cooperate. My eyes wide with fear, I saw the thrill—the satisfaction—in his grotesque sneer as he used both thumbs to press the hard rubber ball deep into my throat.
I never realized how effective the threat of slow suffocation could be—forcing my lungs to wait, wavering on the edge of passing out—intensified by the horror of knowing I could die here and now.
Even as I struggled to suck air through my mucus-clogged nose, I nodded at Victor, letting him know I would cooperate. I was not willing to jeopardize my life over the threat of an unknown future.
He ignored my promise of submission, taking pleasure in watching me labor over each tortured breath. Only when he was sure my convulsions were real and I was on the verge of passing out did he lessen the pressure on the gag, allowing me to inhale a few times before retightening the strap.
It struck me with frightening clarity—the men’s brash and controlling arrogance, the ease with which they produced and applied a set of handcuffs, their aloof detachment from another’s suffering—they had done this before. Their collective attitudes and behaviors were the villainous traits of criminals, thugs, and outlaws. They had learned by repetition, with each new experience adding to an insulating veneer of indifference.
Despite my growing fear of what they planned to do with me, I began taking a mental inventory of what I’d last seen in the back of the truck—a few tools, some emergency flashers, and a small air compressor. Nothing with the deadly potential of a knife or a gun.
I remembered the advice our senior class had received during a safety presentation. The best time to flee from a kidnapper is during the initial encounter. Always fight. Always run. While I hadn’t been able to avoid capture, I might still have a chance. I had to brainstorm, think of a way to escape.
The harbor was twenty-five minutes from our house. They wouldn’t need to stop for gas. Carl always kept the tank full.
My chances would improve once we reached the marina. Even though sunrise was an hour away, the dock would be busy with locals loading their boats and heading out for a day of fishing. Certainly, a girl who was gagged, handcuffed, and being hauled across the docks would be noticed by someone. With any luck at all, a Good Samaritan would call the police.
Most of the locals—the ones sincerely wanting to help—would know better than to describe me as a blonde, white-complexioned American. Expatriates living in Sri Lanka rarely received much more than a token response from the authorities, and even less protection. The local law thought of us as outsiders, undeserving of their time and resources.
“You live here at your own risk,” one of the immigration officials had told us, making no effort to conceal it.
But what could go wrong? I remembered thinking that.
Never in my darkest nightmare could I have imagined my husband betting—and losing—me in a poker game. Sure, I knew Carl could be a sucker for the promise of easy money. The temptation of striking a big win was so intoxicating to him that I’d often wondered if he’d been better off with a two pack-a-day habit or predisposed to Saturday night benders with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Now I knew. And this time, his obsession had blinded him to the consequences of his actions. He had stamped a price on my head and thrown me on the table.
I decided right then and there—if I ever got out of this mess, I would track him down and tell him what a sniveling excuse of a man he was. And then I would cut him out of my life forever.
Wiley, the disgusting troll with buckteeth, leaned in close. He’d stared with rapt attention while Victor shoved the gag-ball down my throat, and for the last few minutes seemed fascinated with Victor’s sadistic need to pinch my nose shut and hold it until I began to jerk and tremble in spastic suffocation.
“Hey, little girl, I’m going to put these in your mouth. You need to swallow them. If you try to spit ’em out, I’ll hurt you. Understand?”
Bringing his face within inches of mine, Wiley waved his dirty, grease-stained fingers in front of my eyes, showing me the two tiny pills. Knowing the rubber ball would keep me from biting, he slipped his index finger into my mouth and held my tongue to one side, his bulging, blood-shot eyes confirming his own perverse brand of excitement. Ignoring my smothered whimpers, he continued to stretch the opening, in no hurry to get the pills down my throat. Unable to contain the building pool of saliva within his gaping mouth, a thick string of drool breached his lips, connecting his face to mine, his mucus-laced spit adding to the revolting taste and feel of his grimy digit.
I started to retch.
I had to control my convulsing stomach. Throwing up could aspirate the puke into my lungs—I could suffocate and die.
“Hold your breath,” he said. “I don’t want you coughing these up.” He dropped both pills—Halcion—into the back of my mouth, watching me until he was sure I’d swallowed them.
He had just eliminated any chance of escape. In a few minutes, the opportunity to attract attention from those at the dock would be lost to the effects of the powerful tranquilizer.