“I’m going with you.” Eve blocked Jake’s exit from the cave. “And don’t tell me no.”
“No.” He emptied the morning’s fruit onto the tabletop and readjusted the katana scabbard on his back.
She huffed. “You shouldn’t go alone.”
“Should we leave Betty and Crystal here alone?”
Her mouth twitched down at his logic. There was no way she would abandon Betty and Crystal, if that’s what accompanying him meant.
“I’ll be back tomorrow by sundown.” He stuffed some of the fruit into his pockets, stepped around her, and crawled outside.
Then she’d just do her own exploring. The rocky slope above the signal fire would be perfect.
She grabbed the kitchen knife and hacked furiously at the fruit. Nine weeks left before the Danny Romero trial. Each day she stayed on the island was a prison cell that bound her and freed Romero. She had to get off. One more day—she would give Jake one more day. Tomorrow, if he didn’t start work on the boat, she would. It had survived an explosion—repairing it couldn’t be that hard.
After breakfast, she helped Betty assemble the moccasin for her injured foot, then lugged the tripod to the hearth and hung the cauldron while Crystal fetched two buckets of water from the stream. Mussel soup to surprise Jake was the target of Betty and Crystal’s day. Fine, because the last thing she wanted was anyone’s company.
She picked up one of the bayonets. “I’m going to check out the slope above the signal fire. I’ll bring fruit when I return.”
The two chefs barely acknowledged her departure.
On the plateau, she stopped to inspect the firewood. In spite of last night’s wind and rain, the sail was tight and everything under it dry. Satisfaction with the job she’d done raised her spirits. She was tempted to start a signal fire, but Jake had creeped her out with his concern about what might be on the island. No sense attracting unwanted attention while he was gone.
The slope proved an easy climb, with occasional shallow craters and large boulders breaking the monotony of bare rock stretching toward the distant volcano. Although she didn’t know what to look for, she kept an eye out for booby traps.
Her heart jumped when she spotted what she was sure was a trail—a man-made one. The path wound around several boulders, crossed a small stream, and ended at an opening between two vertical rock formations. She squeezed between them and halted, her heart pounding at what she found on the other side.
Before her lay a garden. Its loveliness spoke of human hands crafting every square inch. Not only had a pocket been dug into the lava to cradle the garden, but the walls had been chiseled into artful geometric designs. Across from her, a miniature waterfall splashed in a cascade of descending ledges to several small pools linked across the garden. It wouldn’t have surprised her to find goldfish with graceful, flowing fins gaping at her from the water.
The reedy grass of the Lone Soldier’s field had taken root in the garden, but the invasion was sparse. On impulse, she began pulling the trespassers, stacking them in a mound behind her. A passion to restore the beauty of the garden overtook her and she worked feverishly.
Flowers, watered by the pools and sheltered from the sun by the lattice of weeds, released sweet fragrances as she uncovered them. Unfamiliar with all of them, she reveled in the glory of their colors, their forms, their scents. She imagined the soldiers finding them in the jungle and transporting them to the garden. At the exposure of a cluster of petite, white flowers, her breath rushed from her lungs.
This flower she knew. Its name meant I promise. She knew because eight months ago she had made a promise to a sixteen-year-old prostitute—
* * *
The phone rang as Eve entered the District Attorney’s office. The receptionist’s desk was unattended. She punched the speakerphone button and peeled off her scarf and gloves, spattering the floor with specks of snow.
“Federal prosecutor’s office, Evedene Eriksson speaking.”
“Eve!” Debra Baker, her bud at the state attorney’s office, shrieked at her. “We’ve got a trafficking witness! Hurry! Cook County Hospital ER.”
“On my way!” She grabbed her purse, hustled outside, and hailed a cab.
The driver flew across Chicago at the promise of a doubled fare. Debra grabbed her by the arm in the emergency room and pulled her to a small room. A nurse nodded at Debra and left, closing the door.
A hospital bed, straddled by two chairs, took up most of the space. Its occupant, a slender teenage girl, was covered by a white sheet up to her chest. Arms, bare shoulders, and face bore a spectrum of black and blue bruises. Her left eye was swollen shut. Blood caked her lips, both ears, and a swathe of cuts across her cheeks. Although the girl’s hair was colored red, the slanted corners of her eyes identified her as Asian, and the honey color of the skin on her hands, as part Caucasian.
Eve’s chair crackled as she sank onto the plastic cushion.
“Alicia, this is Evedene Eriksson. She’s—”
“I know. I’ve seen her before. I want to testify.”
“Testify against whom?” Eve searched her memory, but the girl’s face was too messed up to recall.
Eve’s heartbeat skyrocketed. “Danny Romero?”
“You told us at the jail you’d help us if we testified against him. I didn’t care then, but now he’s tried to kill me.”
“Danny Romero tried to kill you?”
Eve leaned forward. “I need hard facts, Alicia. Proof that will hold up in court.”
“I got them.”
“All right.” Eve fetched her notebook and pen from her purse. “Let’s begin with your name and birth date. The real ones, not what’s on your ID.”
“Marikit Santos Torres, August 23, 1965.”
Sixteen years old. Definitely underaged. Eve’s hand trembled at the thought of finally nailing Romero. “Where were you born?”’
“I don’t know. Here? I’ve always lived in Chicago.”
Eve slapped her pen onto the notebook and turned to Debra. “Why did you call me? If she hasn’t crossed state lines, federal has no jurisdiction.”
“Hear her out. Go on, Alicia . . . Mari. Start at the beginning.”
Eve waited two breaths before the girl finally opened her mouth.
“My mother’s pimp started me when I was twelve. A year ago he sold me to a club. We got rounded up one night by the cops, and that’s when I heard you at the jail. I didn’t know who Danny Romero was, but I asked around and found out stuff.”
With her good eye, Mari studied Eve. “You were pretty and smart and powerful, and for a while I wanted to be like you. I never went to school after sixth grade, but I read a lot.”
“I can help you—”
“No, you can’t. Nobody’d ever give me a job. Anyways, I liked the club. I had a bed and food and TV and pretty clothes. Then they promoted me, said I’d be part of a special group, the Sampaguitas.”
How could the girl think there was anything special about prostitution? But this was just a kid, a sixteen-year-old kid, held in bondage for four years, and who knew how many before that? “Is this group connected to Danny Romero?”
“Yes. The Sampaguitas are his. I moved to a different club. His club.”
The idea of “special” galled Eve, but the question had to be asked. “What’s special about the Sampaguitas?”
“All of us are Asian. No one can do”—she looked down at her body—“this to us.”
“Are all of you children?”
“I’m the oldest.”
Eve wanted to scream, but instead she asked, “Why the name Sampaguitas?”
“It’s the national flower of the Philippines. We’re supposed to be from there, but some of us are Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese. Anyway, Americans can’t tell the difference.” She shrugged. “It’s a small, delicate flower. The name means ‘I promise.’”
Mari’s chin trembled, and she hung her head.
“Never mind. Tell me about the proof you have.”
“When we were put together at the club, some of the little girls cried, but after a while they stopped. Not Tala, though. Even with the drugs, she still cried. Maybe because she’s the youngest.”
Eve closed her eyes. So what if Mari saw her pain. The girl needed to see it, needed to feel it, needed to be kicked harder than those bruises with it. She opened her eyes and met Mari’s.
“I wanted to help her.” Mari’s voice quaked. “I didn’t want her to be stuck like me for the rest of her life. She had a home and a family, and she told me their address—”
“What state?” Eve swallowed. This would be the deciding factor. It had to be across the state line for her to get involved. For her to get Danny Romero for trafficking. Child trafficking.
Eve slumped back in her chair. She scribbled down the address, her heart thumping. “What happened? Did you help her?”
“I didn’t know how to get her home. I couldn’t take her there, and I couldn’t send her all by herself.” Tears trickled from Mari’s good eye. “I should’ve called you.”
Dread squeezed Eve’s gut. “Should’ve” meant something had gone wrong. Impulsively, she slipped her hand over Mari’s. The slender fingers were cold. “What happened, Mari?”
Mari took in a shuddering breath. “I sneaked out with Tala and took a taxi to Child Services. I knew they’d ask me questions and maybe even hold me if I went inside with her, so I told her what to say.”
“What was that?”
“To just keep saying her parents’ names and address—that’s what mattered, to get her back home to them, and then they’d look out for her. She didn’t know stuff like Romero’s name or the club address, and I didn’t tell her.”
“Once she got inside the building okay, I went back to the club. Nobody saw me. There was a big stink when they discovered she was gone, but no one suspected me. I was happy, figuring she was home safe and all with her mum and dad.”
Her voice fell. “A week later they brought her back. She didn’t talk to me or no one. And she didn’t cry any more, either.”
For several heartbeats, none of them spoke.
Eve glanced at Debra’s blanched face and knew she was thinking the same thing. How could someone who should have helped little Tala betray her instead? She steeled herself to ask more questions. “Did you find out how she got taken back to the club?”
“No. Everyone was scared to talk to her. Scared even more ’cause she’d stopped crying all the time. I kept thinking what they must of done to her, scared of what they’d do to me if they found out.”
“It looks like they did.”
“I ran—that’s how they found out. I couldn’t stand hanging around waiting for them to get me. I sneaked out just like before, but this time they were watching. They made me tell everything and then beat me up. That’s when I knew they were going to kill me, because no one was allowed to hit us.” Sobs shook her chest in quick gasps.
The nurse poked her head into the room. Eve signaled “one minute” and turned to Mari. “How did you escape the men?”
“I don’t know. I woke up in the hospital.”
For the first time since Eve started the interview, Debra spoke. “They dumped her into the Chicago, but a patrolman saw them and fished her out. It was touch and go. You’re a lucky girl, Marikit.”
“I want to testify against Danny Romero!”
Eve released the girl’s hand and stood. “Thank you, Mari. We’ll take you to a safe place until you can. With your help, we’ll put Danny Romero behind bars. I promise you.”
“And send Tala home?”
“Yes. And send Tala home.”
A week later, Eve and Debra were the sole attendants at Marikit’s funeral. An anonymous benefactor paid for it. A bouquet of Sampaguitas sat on the coffin, mocking the two mourners. Mocking their failure to find Tala. The club. A group of Asian girls called the Sampaguitas.
“I made a promise to you, Marikit.” Eve dumped the flowers into the trash and stomped them flat. “I’m going to put Danny Romero behind bars.”
* * *
Rain pelted the Japanese garden. Eve hunched her shoulders and gazed around her. Her heart pounded. She’d made a promise, and no matter how long it took, she’d keep it.
She sheltered her eyes and peered up. The sky glowered with dark clouds that roiled from horizon to horizon. This storm was going to last awhile. Jake had chosen a bad day to walk around the island.
Across the garden, she spotted a second entrance. Betting it would lead to the stream that flowed from the waterfall pool, she cut a path through the vegetation until she stumbled onto the stream. Already the water was overflowing its banks and hurtling toward the ocean. At the waterfall, she picked the fruit easiest to reach and waded downstream to the cave. No sense battling the rain attacking the bare mountainside she had climbed that morning.
She entered the cave, soaked to her bones, teeth chattering. Betty and Crystal scooted a chair close to the hearth and handed her a coconut shell of their seafood concoction. “Sit and sip,” Betty commanded. “We don’t have towels to dry you off, but between the fire and the soup, we’re going to stop those shivers.”
The soup tasted like diluted ocean water with lumps of chewy sea creatures she presumed were mussels. But the broth was hot and she was cold and she drank every bit of it. When her body stopped shaking and she could put two words together, she told them about the Japanese garden.
“Those soldiers took a long time carving out this cave and planting that garden.” Betty’s voice was somber. “They made this island their home, didn’t they?”
“Well, we’re not.” The words blazed from Eve’s heart. She had a promise to keep. “Tomorrow, Jake will be back and he’ll start repairing the boat. In a few days we’ll sail for the sea-lane.”
She paced the floor, restless for Jake to return, restless to end the day and start a new one. The cloud cover and rain shut out the sun, so they had to guess when evening came.
“I’ll wait up for Jake in case he comes back tonight.” Betty shooed them to the sleeping ledges. “Get your sleep. You’re going to have a busy day tomorrow.”
But when Eve arose the next morning, he hadn’t returned. They waited all day through a whipping rain, and he still didn’t show up.
Sunlight was poking through the cave windows when Eve got up. Her heart jumped. No more rain. No more sitting in the dark inhaling the acrid stench of soggy ashes, with only cold chowder to eat. Today they would get something done so they could finally get off the island.
She glanced around the cave. If Jake had returned last night, there was no sign of him. His bed was empty, the firewood in the cave hadn’t been replenished, and there was no good-morning fruit dumped on the table. Today made three days.
Her stomach tightened into double knots. Why hadn’t she insisted on going with him—or would she, too, have vanished, leaving Betty and Crystal to fend for themselves?
She fought the sparking across her nerves. She had to get ahold of herself before Betty and Crystal woke up. Have a plan ready for the three of them. Crystal could take over the chores of gathering fruit and firewood since Eve would be off working on the boat. It would only be for a few days.
She stopped. Maybe that’s where Jake was, repairing the boat. It would be just like him to make the repair, rainstorm or not, and sail pleased as could be into the cove today, not a thought given to their worry about where he’d been.
She shook Betty and Crystal awake. “The rain has stopped, and Jake’s not back. I’d like to take Crystal with me to get fruit and firewood—”
“Nonsense.” Betty sat up. Wisps of dried grass from the bed tangled in her hair. “You should look for Jake, not fool around with what we’ve already got. Crystal can fetch firewood from under the canvas, and we can make more soup.”
“I could be gone for several days, and you’d have no—”
“Look for Jake. We don’t need fruit. If we run out of wood, Crystal can go upstream for it.”
Eve sighed. She’d just have to say it straight out. “What if I disappear too?”
Betty took Eve’s hand. “Look for Jake. He saved our lives, and we’re not abandoning him.”
Guilt stabbed her. Once again, without even thinking about it, she’d chosen Romero’s trial over Jake. “All right.” She helped Betty hobble to the table. “I’m going to the boat first. Maybe he’s there, repairing it. But, please, be careful while I’m gone. Don’t take any chances.” She picked up one of the bayonets and left.
A sharp wind rustled the stalks of grass in the Lone Soldier’s field and whipped her hair into her eyes. Gray clouds hovered around the sun, boxing it in, promising rain. Ignoring the hunger pinching her stomach, she trotted across the trench, stopped at the top of the incline to check the broad expanse on the other side for Jake, and hurried to the stream for a drink.
She hadn’t climbed the rocky cliff beyond the stream since they had arrived at the cove a week ago. Scaling the precipice was easy with her moccasins, but farther on, at the ocean cliff, with its sheer rock face and seething water far below, her heart pounded. Had they really climbed up the side of this?
She should have listened better to Jake’s description of the path he’d made through the jungle to circumvent the cliff. She’d made a mistake by assuming he’d be there to show it to her. A mistake to think he’d be there to protect and lead her and Betty and Crystal. She should have known better. It was best, always best, to make sure you had control over what was happening in your life.
Rain spattered cold drops that in minutes soaked her clothes. The jungle path was clearly her only option. In spite of the time it would take to follow the path, fighting vegetation beat a fatal misstep on the cliff’s wet side. This way, too, she’d be prepared for getting Betty and Crystal back down to the boat. Besides, she was hungry. She’d find something to eat along the path and get out of the rain.
The jungle’s edge offered several entries. One bore fresh cuts on its trees that had to have been sliced by Jake’s katana sword. The farther she went, however, the more obscure the trail became. The cuts and obvious broken branches that guided her at first became difficult to find. She doubled back and corrected her path three times before she gave up and hacked her own trail with the bayonet.
She found mangosteens and ate, swatting away tiny, winged competitors at every bite. They crawled into her hair and under her clothing and inside her moccasins, leaving itching gravesites when she smashed them. As soon as she got out of this jungle, she was going to strip down in the rain and scrub every inch of her body.
Would she ever get out, though? For all she knew, she was looping circles, or worse, heading straight into the interior of the island. At some point, the path needed to veer back toward the ocean. She should be moving downhill, too, from the top of the ocean cliff to the plateau where they’d rested.
The logic calmed her. She bore left in what she hoped was a turn seaward and oriented herself to journey in a descent instead of climbing. At the sight of chopped tree branches that all but glowed like neon signs, she let out a whoop. She had found Jake’s path! Soon the scraggly trees of the ocean coastline crowded into the jungle against a backdrop of gray sky and drizzling rain. The crash of ocean waves against rock boomed louder as she trudged through the thinning trees.
Unwilling to overlook anyplace she might find Jake, she climbed the stony path to the plateau where they had rested at the bottom of the cliff. Nothing. Nothing on the rocks far below where white foam frothed like spittler. Ridiculous to peer over, flattened on her belly, whimpering as the wind lashed her shirt and hair, but she had to look.
No stripping down to wash the bug bites, either. Water ran from the top of her head down every inch of her body and pooled inside her moccasins. By the time she descended to the next level of jungle, she was shivering uncontrollably. The warm air was no deterrent to wet skin chilled by the wind off the ocean.
She passed the clearing where Jake had cut the moccasins for her, climbed down to the beach where Betty had challenged her that Jake was a good man, and at last stepped onto the long stretch of sand she had stumbled across holding onto Jake’s and Betty’s shoulders. Their journey to the cove ten days ago seemed like ages now, so much had happened.
The tree line at the back of the beach afforded little protection against the rain. The wind swirled the drops in a heavy mist between the trunks of the towering palms and tossed it far back into the slapping leaves of green vegetation. Rubbing her arms, teeth chattering, she plodded one squishy step after another, squinting for a glimpse of the boat among the trees.
She halted. “Jake?”
He stepped onto the beach. She ran to him, laughing, crying, furious. Should she hug him for being alive, or smack him for making them worry?
He grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the pummeling rain to the boat. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, what do you think?” Anger flashed heat to her skin but subsided in a snap when she saw him shivering, fists jammed into his armpits to warm his hands. “Why didn’t you come back to the cave? Did you find something on the other side of the island?”
“Nothing but sand and trees—except for these.” He pointed to a pile of thick bamboo poles propped upright against the boat. Their tips were poked between the branches of a nearby tree to keep the wind from blowing them down. “Took me two days to drag them here. Look at those babies, they’re perfect for building outriggers for the boat.”
She forgot all about chiding him. “How long will it take?”
“A day, two at the most, once the sap leaches out."
“Sap? We have to wait on that?” She touched the wood. It was slick beneath her fingertips, supple, far from hard like the bamboo table and chairs in the cave.
“If we want the boat to float, we do.”
“How long will that take?”
He shrugged. “I’ll have to keep checking. Days. A week. Two weeks.”
She held her breath to keep from screaming. “Can’t we use some other kind of wood?”
“Why would we do that when bamboo is exactly what we want?”
Her huff punched a hole in the mist. “I told you. I’ve got an important deadline coming up. I’ve got to be there.”
“What kind of deadline? Be where?”
“A court date.” There, she’d told him! She folded her arms across her chest, defying him to ask more questions.
But he did anyway. “When?”
“August 24, nine weeks from now.”
He smiled, no doubt pleased he’d pulled the information out of her. “Not a problem. A few sunny days to build the outriggers, and we’ll be off this island long before then. I promise.”
Promise? She huffed another hole into the mist. How good was he for that?
CONTINUED ON THURSDAY- FRIDAY TO FINISH PART 1