Later that night, Bess stood in the parlour and listened to the murmurs and chuckles of men dressed in tuxedos flowing through the room while the girls took empty champagne glasses from their hands and replaced them with full ones. The clients who had been there before smiled easily and let the girls run a hand along their arm and giggle at inane jokes or compliments. Bess had been surprised at first to find that most of the compliments were genuine. Men could admire something and truly appreciate its beauty while feeling no respect or compassion at the same time.
Jefe was smart that way. He understood that the difference between what he provided and what these men could find on a street corner was the illusion that there was a mutual desire that transcended the obscenity of money and the convenience of never having to look back when they left.
Newer clients smiled too much and laughed nervously when asked what they liked in a girl. They waited for somebody to take away the burden of knowing that there was nothing right about any of it. Neither the champagne nor the girls dressed in custom-fitted dresses, caressing their lapels that made them almost seem like real women, could relieve them of that burden. But they didn’t understand that – not at first. The shimmer of light dancing in the crystals of the chandelier, the burgundy carpet and the flirting glances of the girls all helped them create the illusion they had paid for. But it was up to them to create that illusion in their own minds. Nobody could do that for them.
The clients who understood this had no problem easing into the routine. They knew exactly why they were there and their lust boiled out of the sweat beading on their foreheads. She had seen the same thing in Tony Halk. It was bad enough that they came to a place where men like Jefe forced girls like Bess to satisfy those urges and abandon their own soul-wrenching revulsion just so they could wake up and breathe the next day. What made it worse was they didn’t think about what that really meant. They would leave that behind when they left, never letting the question of what happened to her and the rest of the girls afterwards enter their minds.
That Bess understood these things made her the most attractive to virtually every man that walked through the door. It was as if she could smell who they were on their breath from the very first time they spoke. She could see it in their eyes and sense it in the way they held their drink. This was the power she had, pulling on their strings and leading them right to where they wanted to be. She knew how to do this without them ever realizing the she was casting a spell over them. This was the one sliver of true power that she had, the one she clung to for dear life because it guaranteed she would breathe the following day. That it also kept Jefe at a safer distance inspired a smoldering envy in the other girls. That distance was another illusion of something closer to home, but like the rest of her little powers, it did nothing to help her find a way out.
Across the room, Angela stood in front of one of the new clients, her wide eyes darting around the room. She stopped to look at him, pawed at his forearm and flashed a toothy grin. But she couldn’t keep her eyes on him for more than a second before letting her gaze roam around the room again. Her hand drifted away from his arm and hung idly at her side. The client said something. Angela nodded and jerked her hand back to his elbow, making him almost spill his drink. She looked mortified as she apologized and scurried off to get a fresh drink for her client. Bess was horrified by her sudden urge to chuckle at the girl’s ineptness as she hopped around the room like a bird in a cage.
Bess sidled over to the man and tilted her head down so she could look up at him and purse her mouth into a sensuous pout. She slid her hand along his wrist, barely touching him with her fingertips, and felt the muscles in his forearm soften as she moved up to his elbow.
“How do you like it so far?” she asked.
The client brushed his hand across the top of his head, smashing his thick blonde hair. He let out a strained sigh. “I don’t know yet. This isn’t quite what I expected.”
She slid her fingers behind his lapel and brushed her thumb over its front in smooth circles. She let her lips twitch into a smirk and slowly blinked her eyes just once, biding her time until Angela came back with a fresh drink.
When Angela slipped up beside her, Bess took the drink without looking and pressed it into the client’s hand. Holding it there and letting her fingers brush against his, she turned to Angela.
“I’ve got this one, sweetie. Why don’t you go check on everybody, see who needs a refill?” As Angela nodded and skittered away, Bess caught a glimpse of Jefe standing against the wall next to the bar. His eyes scanned the room in a steady sweep, never stopping on anyone particular. He was in watchdog mode, making sure nobody disrupted the carefully orchestrated atmosphere that allowed his clients to weave their illusions and fall into the intoxication of what he had brought them here to find.
Turning back to her client, she gave him a furtive glance. He was still nervous, glancing around the room and looking out of place, just like Angela. She knitted her brow and cupped her hand over his shoulder.
“What were you expecting?” she asked.
He scoffed, trying to expel his nervousness. “I don’t know.”
Bess let her smile fade and drew back to let the intimacy evaporate. “Sure you do,” she said.
The client looked around the room and frowned. “I guess I had the impression that we would go somewhere else besides here.”
“You mean like on a date?”
“Yeah, I guess. Something like that.”
She hooked her arm in his and turned him towards the door. “Let’s go somewhere we can talk.” She took the drink from his hand and placed it on the bar as they passed by.
One of the guards, dressed in the tuxedo they all wore during the nightly reception, opened the door for them and she guided the client onto the sidewalk.
As they strolled towards the block, he started to say, “Is there a way -“
“Not here,” she said under her breath. She stroked his forearm and smiled at another guard as they approached the block. She could feel the client tensing up as they passed by the guard and towards her room.
“What’s this?” he asked, frowning. It was the first time she had ever seen disdain on a client’s face. Her heart skipped a beat as she wondered if it was something that happened more than once.
The nightly reception was one of the few times the doors in the block were unlocked, but only to give the client’s the simple illusion that everything that happened was somehow by choice. Clients never saw the doors latched shut with the padlocks. They never saw the girls imprisoned behind them with nothing but their own shadows to face the unwavering truth. They never knew that after escorting their last client back to the block, the only thing waiting for the girl of their dreams would be a single candle in a cupcake.
Even as these things flowed through her mind, Bess still smiled and stroked her client’s arm gently as she opened the latch to her door and swung it open. She started to descend the steps to her room, but the client did not move. His eyes drooped as he inspected the interior and she had to tug his arm to coax him down the steps. “Come on.” She gave him a disarming smile, promising nothing.
After pulling him gently down the steps, she closed the door behind them and stood at the foot of the bed, facing him. Normally, she would have sat down and invited the client to do the same, but the sweat on his forehead and the tightness of his lips told her he would be more comfortable if they both remained standing.
“This is all they give you for, um, entertaining?” he asked.
She narrowed her eyes and removed every trace of pretense from her gaze.
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s just so cold. You know, it’s functional. They could have made it a bit more…”
“This is where I live,” she said. His eyes widened and his mouth fell agape.
“Why would you…” He furrowed his brow, totally blind to the obvious. A smirk rippled across her lips as Bess thought that maybe he was just the perfect match for Angela.
“Do you understand what goes on here?” she asked.
He raised his hands and said, “I thought this was some kind of escort service. Spend the evening with a girl who’s elegant, dresses well and could just let me remember what it’s like to be with a beautiful girl without all the…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Without all the hassle of real life I guess.”
“And who is sixteen,” she said, arching a brow.
“Well, yeah. That was part of it.”
“You wanted a date with a princess.”
“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Yeah, that works.”
“And when you paid whatever it is you guys pay to come out here, they didn’t explain it to you?”
“Well, yeah, an evening with an elegant young lady. That’s what my friend told me, anyway.”
A chuckle escaped Bess’s throat and she shook her head. “Well, since you didn’t get the memo, let me explain it to you. It’s simple. You guys come out here to meet and greet young girls, drink champagne and then come back here to live out the fantasy of sleeping with a girl that would normally get you thrown in jail.” She patted the bed behind her. “See?”
He stared at the bed, looking as if he almost saw it the way she did – the end of all things except the darkness that circled around to be dispelled by a needle every night until…
He let out a deflated sigh. “Yeah, I get it.” He shifted his gaze to her. “Why would you do this?”
Bess’s chest surged as she realized the man might actually not be like the others. Like her, he might be somebody who was caught up in something he didn’t understand until it was too late. Another sliver that might lead to something more. She looked into his eyes and for the first time saw a glimpse of a way home.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said, “Do you think any of us want to do this?”
He blinked rapidly, again scanning the walls of her room. “This isn’t right.”
“Hey, you’re catching up.” She couldn’t help the petulance in her look as she marveled at the ignorance of somebody who thought paying money for the company of a girl could somehow be chaste.
“Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?” he asked.
Bess let out a sigh and rubbed her forehead. “Wow, is this some kind of joke or are you really this slow?” She didn’t want to be mean, but the ember flared at the thought of him walking between two worlds at will and daring to be nothing more than disappointed. She wanted to believe there was more, but she couldn’t afford that kind of hope. Resenting his disappointment was a pleasure she would allow herself to relish, but she knew better than to think there was anything more to be gained from it.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t know about…” He shrugged and ran his hand along the back of his neck, roughing his neatly styled hair. “Maybe there’s something I could do.” He let his hands drop to his side and gazed at her as if she were adrift in the water, just beyond the reach of his hand. Her lips parted and she stared back at him, choking on the words that strained at the chains of her mind. Help me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He squinted and bit his lip. “No, I mean your real name.”
Bess’s face hardened and she took a long breath through her nose as her body tensed. She put her finger to her mouth and shook her head.
“You need to stop,” she said, “before you get us both in trouble.”
“First name, then,” he said, showing his palms.
She stared at him, lightly tapping her front teeth together as she tried to figure out who this man really was. In the real world, asking for a name was as trivial as breathing. Here, breathing was something she and the other girls would never again take for granted.
She stepped closer to him and tried to imitate the look Jefe used that could make her start shaking before he even said a word. “You really need to stop asking questions.”
His mouth parted and she could feel the heat of his breath quicken as it splashed over her chest. It was different this time. It wasn’t the air dripping from Jefe’s mouth like venom from the fangs of a snake waiting to bite her. It wasn’t the wash of lust just beyond the control of men who surrendered to impulses that they would never admit to anyone. No, this was the shallow and bitter panting of fear. They now shared something real, the only thing that was truly real in her world now.
“If you really want to help, there is one thing you can do,” she said.
He gulped and licked his lips. “What?”
She stepped back and let her eyes slowly survey the room. She had checked every crack in every wall herself more times than she could count and had never found anything, but she could never be entirely sure if they didn’t have some way of listening.
“Find out where we are.”
His eyes widened under a wrinkled forehead, now damp with sweat. “You don’t know?”
Bess shook her head. “Did they let you bring your phone?”
“No. I had to leave it with somebody before they drove us out here.”
“Well…” She watched him, waiting for it all to sink in, until he finally nodded. “Next time you come back, we’ll talk some more.”
His eyes drifted away, lost in thought. “Okay.”
“When can you come back?” she asked.
“Tomorrow I guess. Yeah, I can come back tomorrow.”
“Okay then.” She took several deep breaths, closed her eyes and let the tension in her body ebb away so she could once again show everybody on the other side of the door what they expected to see. Still, she couldn’t help feeling that what she was thinking was written on her face in bright red letters.
She took his arm and said, “We’re going back to the reception now. You need to act like a satisfied customer who wants to come back for more. Can you do that?”
Bess reached into his jacket and plucked out the handkerchief peeking from the inside pocket. She dabbed his forehead and said, “Smile.” She then tucked the handkerchief back in his pocket and ran her hand along his lapel, once again Teresita Fuego, the temptress of men’s hearts who knew every repugnant secret they tried to hide from even themselves.
She let her face ease back into character and smiled at him coyly, softening her eyes as if he was the only man she had ever wanted and then led him up the steps and opened the door.
A week later, the client hadn’t returned. Bess had left him in the parlour with the rest as they waited for the guards to escort the girls back to the block before driving the clients back to wherever they came from. The last she saw of him was a smile and nod as he raised a glass of champagne in a silent toast.
She couldn’t blame him too much. He hadn’t liked what he had seen and chose to walk away and never come back. She would have done the exact same thing. Unlike any other client she had ever met, he had been able to see through it all and sense the fear that controlled everything in her world. He had been the only whisper of sanity she had known since coming to this place. Then he took it away, and with it, her only glimpse of hope for ever finding her way home.
As the days passed, she let that night drift away like a raft untethered from a dock, leaving her to stand alone forever. It was useless to her now, and she still had to face the prospect of ensuring every day was one where she would breathe, so she could survive until the day came when another glimpse revealed itself to her.
The routine was grinding her away though, and she felt herself becoming somebody who was dissipating into an apparition of some unspoken secret that would never be heard again. To keep herself from disappearing entirely, Bess decided there was one more sliver of sanity she could grasp onto and hold fast. It wasn’t the same as a glimpse of home. But if she had any power at all, it would help her remember who she was for a little while longer.
Standing in her room, Bess smoothed down the front of her black satin cocktail dress. It hugged her curves from her shoulders to her knees and then draped a few inches over her shins. She tugged at the top, making sure the plunging neckline curved perfectly over her chest.
She let out a scoff, amused by the fact that Jefe had always dressed them in sensual but respectably tasteful clothes. They promised much more than they actually revealed. Whoever made them was meticulous and the girls always looked stunning in whatever they were given to wear. Jefe packaged his product well. But would it matter if he was the one being presented with an offer?
Bess banged on the inside of her door and waited for the guard to open it. Staring at the guard as he glared at her from behind his sunglasses, she took a deep breath, jutted her chin out and said, “I need to see Jefe.”
“Then wait for him to ask for you the next time you piss him off.” The guard flicked his eyebrows and turned away as he started to close the door.
She grabbed the door, held it fast and stepped all the way out of her room and onto the walkway. “It’s important.”
“When are you going to learn?” the guard asked. “The only thing that’s important is making Jefe happy.”
Bess looked at her feet. The kindnesses had slipped away and she could sense that Jefe had told the guards to haul in her leash and make her heel, even if she was his top draw. Like all power, hers was fleeting – if it had ever really existed at all.
“And this isn’t how to make him happy,” the guard continued.
Bess bobbed her head to the side and flashed him a smile. “How about if I make you happy?” A wave of revulsion rippled through her body even before she finished saying the words.
The guard laughed. “No. We don’t touch the merchandise. That would make Jefe very unhappy.”
Relieved at his refusal, Bess let her face go slack. “Alright then, what would make you happy – something I can do that will make it worth your while to get me to Jefe’s office right now. What’s your price?”
“This one time, Teresita Fuego. And you don’t ever ask me for anything again.”
“You do as you’re told.”
“You keep your mouth shut and quit being a pain in the ass.”
“Understood.” Bess nodded curtly, as if they had concluded a business deal.
The guard stepped closer and looked down at her. Lowering his voice, he said, “You need to stop pushing. There are some things you don’t want to know about and you’re closer to them than you think. You need to step back into the shadows. It’s safer there.”
She caught a glimpse of his eyes behind the rim of his sunglasses. They were sunken into sockets too tired to care and he seemed to look at her almost as if he were her big brother, if she’d had one.
“Fine,” she said, looking away.
When they reached the top of the stairs in the main house, Bess smoothed over her dress one last time and made sure her hair was behind her shoulders before the guard opened the door.
He poked his head inside and said, “She says she needs to talk to you.”
Jefe’s voice was muffled by the partially open door. “Who?” he asked.
The guards inside chuckled and then he opened the door and gestured for her to walk in. Bess bowed her head once as she walked across the carpet and then stopped in front of the desk. Jefe leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his chest. The guards moved in to take up their positions next to it.
“Look at this,” Jefe said, “You dressed up for me.”
Trying to hide her self-consciousness, Bess looked at his forehead and focused on keeping her expression impassive. Jefe wasn’t like her clients. He couldn’t be charmed, persuaded or led anywhere he didn’t want to go.
“What do you want Teresita Fuego?”
“Jefe – “
“No!” He slammed his open hand on his desk. The guards laughed as she flinched and jumped back a half step.
“I didn’t ask yet,” she said.
“So? The answer is no.” He leaned forward, folded his hands on his desk and waited. He didn’t tell her to leave and he didn’t ask any more questions. He just stared at her, waiting for her to blunder into an excuse for him to unleash some new torture to teach her what she already knew. She glanced at the safe towering in the corner. Everything she was to him was locked up inside it. But the stacks of money attributed to her were higher than what he made from the other girls. What if there could be even more? Was there power in that? Bess bit her lip as she tried to think of something to say before she ran out of time.
“Maybe there’s something I can do for you Jefe?” Her eyes darted around the room as she felt her window of opportunity closing. “I mean, I know you don’t want… merchandise. But, maybe there’s something?”
“Oh, Teresita Fuego, if only you knew what you were saying.” His mouth puffed out in a grotesque smile and he let out a low grumble, like a hungry beast. “You have something you want from me.”
“Yes Jefe.” Bess swallowed hard as his azure eyes stared out at her, drowning her in contempt. Did he resent her for learning how to do his bidding so well? She knew that what she had was something he could control, but not something he could induce. None of the other girls had the allure she had because it came from who she was, and that was something he would never be able to teach her. He resented that.
She felt a shiver build up in the base of her neck and decided to let him see it run through her body. Wasn’t that something he craved to see? Didn’t he yearn to crush the souls of his victims, extinguish their embers of hatred and condemn them to the shackles of despair? Isn’t that what he wanted to see? Needed to see? It wasn’t just the money. She still had something he wanted – something he had been unable to force from the clutches of her own will. Staring at him as he waited for her next words, Bess finally realized that was the only real power she had ever really possessed. And now she was going to use it.
“What about her?”
“She can’t take this. She’s too young to know how.”
“Two years makes that much of a difference?”
Bess blinked at him as the question cut through her like a knife. The truth was that she and the other girls had adapted to what was happening to them – at least a part of it – because they were that much closer to womanhood. Sixteen-year-old girls had babies all over the world, didn’t they? That made a difference somehow, one she couldn’t explain. It occurred to her that maybe that also helped with the rest of it. They could get through each night as their souls were leeched from them like blood, until there wasn’t anything of them left except what they could hide from themselves behind the veil of drug-induced stupor. They could do that because of those two years.
“Yes it does, Jefe. Please, let her be a hostess to warm up the blood of your clients. But don’t make her try to give them what she doesn’t have. Please.”
“See, that’s something I wouldn’t know,” he said. He stood up and stepped from behind the desk to stand over her. “I wouldn’t know about what a girl learns when she goes from being fourteen to being… older.” He snapped his fingers and one of the guards hauled over a plush leather chair from the corner by the safe and set it down behind her.
“Sienta te,” he said. Bess reached back to feel for the chair and fell back into it, drawing herself as deep into it as she could. He crouched down in front of her and let his eyes soften.
His voice was low, soft in a way she had never heard before. “You think I am a monster. Big Jefe, holding good American girls prisoner so men can pay me to let them rape you. I know that’s what you think.” He lifted a brow, prompting her to respond.
“Those are the facts, Jefe.”
He nodded. “Indeed.” He rubbed his forehead and continued. “Your name comes from what I used to call my own daughter. Teresita. A pet name for a ten year old girl.” He bit his lip and looked sideways, shaking his head. “She was taken from me before I could watch her grow into a young woman.” For just a moment, he wasn’t Jefe. He was a father, something that Bess couldn’t reconcile against everything he had done, but it was there. And she had reached it somehow.
He looked back at Bess, his eyes wet but nowhere near shedding even a single tear. “So, I know a little bit about how you feel. And now you and every girl I bring here knows what it means when justice reaches out blindly without asking itself why. But I know why. I am very clear on why.”
He stood back up and let out a long sigh. His eyes receded and his face hardened. “So, you’re right, I don’t understand how those two years make a difference. Thank you for helping me understand.” He wiped his hand across his mouth, down his chin and along his neck. “Because you have helped me, I am going to help you.”
Narrowing his eyes to slits, he leveled his piercing gaze at her and said, “Special service.”
Something in the room changed. The guards shifted their weight, visibly nervous at hearing the words.
“Men don’t just come here for the physical act of sex,” he said. “You’ve figured that out by now. They can get that on the right street corner in any city in the country. But here, they get something more. Even though strangers, there is a bond between man and woman that comes to life when you give it time and a quiet place where there is nothing else that can happen. I know you don’t see it that way, but they do. This is why you are with only one man a night. Did you know that?”
Of course she knew, but Bess shook her head, glancing at the guards as they continued to shift their weight uneasily. It was the illusion that he spoke of – the one that she unlocked in the mind of every client that came to see her. They weren’t prostitutes. They were forbidden mistresses, rented for the evening and then locked in cages, along with the truth so the clients would never have to see it.
“But there is one final bond that men will pay for. There is that primal urge to bond with a woman without any barriers, without any fear, without anything to get in the way of nature’s imperative.”
Bess felt a pit forming in her stomach and her mouth went dry, hoping that he wasn’t talking about what she was hearing.
“Nothing more than the gifts nature has given you and a man’s drive to claim a young woman and everything she has to give. Special service. You will do this for me.”
Bess realized it wasn’t a request. Suddenly trapped, her mind blurred with images of the compound and the girls. She had never seen one of them pregnant. She had never seen a child. Her heart slammed in her chest and she placed her hand on her belly, shielding it instinctively from the unseen forces being unleashed against her.
She imagined herself swollen with a young life that she would not be able to protect. She tried to imagine a child lying next to her, but couldn’t see it. Because the day that happened, she would no longer be allowed to breathe. Until that moment, she had known that her days were numbered, but there was a specific last day when all hope ran out – the day she turned seventeen. Now, she would be just like the other girls when they lined the courtyard and prayed for a click from the pistol put to their head. One night would be her last and she would never know which one until it happened. For the rest of her days, she would be a mother terrified for a child that would never be born. Bess felt her throat open with a dry heave.
His words were muffled now, curling around her in a veil of emptiness devoid of all meaning. “And I promise you, I will never send a man to Teresita Joven’s room. She will be, as you say, a hostess. She will stir their blood.” He grabbed her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. “And then I will send them to you.”
Bess stopped breathing. I will never send a man… The first day she had met Angela, the girl was already working in the parlour. She did not have her princess night. Bess stared at the smooth wood of Jefe’s desk as she tried to recall every other time she had seen the girl.
Not once had she ever seen the girl go back to the block with a client. The room began to sway as Bess realized she had just spent the last of what little power she had in a useless gesture. Angela wasn’t like the rest of them. She had not been brought there to service clients. Then why is she here?
Jefe snapped his fingers and she felt the guards’ hands wrap around her arms like vice grips. She looked down at her feet sliding along the carpet as they dragged her out of the room.
She heard, more than felt, her feet clunking down the stairs as they dragged her out of the main house. Once outside, raw panic that she couldn’t control gripped her body. Like an animal trying to claw itself away from a predator, she wrestled herself free of the guards and plunged towards the grass between the walkway and the black iron gate in the outside wall.
“Let me out of here!” she screamed, oblivious to the guards yanking the pistols from the holsters clipped to the backs of their belts. Just as she reached the gate, she felt a fist crushing her stomach and heard the sound of the guards sliding the actions on their pistols.
She gasped for air as she fell to her knees. She kept her eyes on the gate, now blurred by the tears streaming down her cheek. She reached out for the gate, unable to move her body.
“Let me out,” she wailed, her abdomen throbbing with a deep ache. The guards who had dragged her from Jefe’s office yanked her up and dragged her back to the sidewalk. As the gate receded back, she saw the other two tracking her with their pistols. Their fingers were on the triggers, ready to fire. Bess finally felt the cold knife of reality cutting through her, shredding all hope of escape. They were going to kill her. They wouldn’t kill her because she got too old or because she became damaged goods. They were going to kill her because their own lives depended on her never again breathing the air on the other side of that wall. The only reason they didn’t do it right then and there was because she was still inside those walls and there was more money to be made from her services. But she knew the rest of her life was now counted in weeks.
She let her body fall limp in the arms of the guards as they dragged her the rest of the way to her room. They opened the door and threw her on the bed, knocking the wind out of her. They slammed the door shut and shackled the lock.
She lay there, unable to expel the sobs welling up inside her while spasms clenched her gut as it tried to draw air back into her empty lungs.
When she could finally breathe again, she crawled up the stairs and pounded on the door with the back of fists so feeble she could barely hear them striking the heavy wood.
“Let me out,” she sobbed.
With the last of her strength, she crawled back down the steps and along the floor to her nightstand. She pulled open the drawer and fumbled inside until her hand found the capped syringe. She laid it on her lap and felt again for the vial. She deposited that next to the syringe and watched it roll around on the slick satin of her dress as she reached back up to find the ribbon.
She hastily tied the ribbon around her upper arm and pulled the syringe cap off with her teeth, spitting it onto the floor. She plunged the needle into the vial and drew back the plunger as far as it would go.
Still sobbing, she slid the needle into a vein and shoved in the plunger. Once she had injected every drop, she let the syringe and vial drop to the floor as an icy burn raced up her veins.
She wouldn’t remember anything after that, thankful for the oblivious numbing fog that carried her mind so far away that she barely knew she was even alive.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence