Sue Lange |
Five minutes later I stepped off the Chicago to Wyoming line into the stench of Dubuque’s suburbs. Place called Gurwood. I hadn’t had enough time to review the particulars so I inserted the stick into my Slot A and uploaded the info the old-fashioned way: straight to the brain. I perused as I walked to the scene of the crime. I wanted to see how bad it was so I’d know what tack to take.
Club called The Man Cave. One in a line of franchises. Aptly named, I thought. Ironic? Sure, but in this case a little too appropriate.
Progress was slow as I wasn’t used to walking, but Dubuque is Dubuque and hadn’t seen a working people mover since it was declared a vice zone twenty-two years previously.
Kid’s name was ‘Danny.’ It’s always a Danny or a Jimmy or a Johnny. Something diminutive even though they were usually in their twenties and beefy. Grown up but innocent.
Danny had been found in the basement in a cage with seven other boys and taken to Central Casting where he was waiting for his caseworker—me. CC isn’t the only corrupt branch of the Continental Government, but they’re the worst. They usually just send any freshly rounded up boys back to the same ol’ same ol’. They’re trafficked or they’re volunteers. CC doesn’t care as long as the paperwork is processed. They call us in because it’s procedure, that’s about it. Personally, I think they get kickbacks from the bad guys to keep the best boys off the record and under the radar, but that’s just me. At any rate, Danny must not have been one of the ‘best’ boys because they called us in.
The Man Cave’s front door was off its hinges. The only thing preventing looting was the yellow police tape Dubuque’s finest are reduced to using instead of something more substantial. I stepped under it to get inside. Luckily the electricity hadn’t been turned off yet. The windows were blacked out and I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.
The stage stood squarely in the middle of the room. It was set up like a boxing ring with the audience’s plushy loungers surrounding it. The walls had mirrors tricked out with multi-colored boas, balloons, and Mardi Gras beads. Tasteful white and black tiling covered the floor. Three chandeliers threw a good light from above. The joint was high class: margaritas and chardonnay on tap. Winston Mary Jane and lacquered snuff boxes in the vending machines; hookah stands next to every couch corner. Tony places like this set up in the bad side of town was an indication of…something.
I walked around the room taking in the ambiance while looking for a way down. There’s always a downstairs and that’s where the story would be. On the other side of the room I found it: a trapdoor leading to the basement.
Upstairs posh and elegance held sway, but down in the cellar, water pooled into low spots and a moldy smell thickened the air. In the far corner stood the cage. The padlock was broken and the gate stuck open on a raised patch of the floor.
I surveyed the scene, nodding to myself: textbook trafficking, a snapshot of the colonized mind. Uneducated, easily entertained, unaware of rights and procedures. Fooled into thinking this was it. No way out and even if there was what else is there?
I headed back upstairs and over to Market Square.
Five minutes later I was a block away from Central Casting with a rhythmic chanting noise coming up the street. Four in the morning and the pro-choice mob was already protesting. As usual. They held homemade electric signs lit up with red letters stating: “Sex work is work” and “Autonomy for sex workers.”
And so on.
The crowd reluctantly parted for me as I made my way to the building.
“Hey asshole!” one of them screamed. “Did you ever consider they don’t want to be saved?”
“Did you ever consider a license for assembly?” I answered.
“First amendment,” ten of them shouted simultaneously.
I just walked on, shaking my head. It’s stupid to engage them. They don’t get that they’re being allowed here out of the courtesy of the local officials who feel caught between them and us and don’t really care one way or the other. CC doesn’t dislike strippers and whores, but trafficking is against the law and who’s to say who is trafficked and who is entertaining of their own volition?
I am, that’s who. I have a Ph.D. in identity identification. Did my undergrad work at Harvard, majoring in Stockholm Syndrome, minored in personality cult building. I think I know who wants what and why.
Danny was big—six three—and 28 years old. He was dressed in warm-up clothes: loose jeans, baggy sweater, headband. He had tattooed eyeliner and embossed lips. Whoever handled him had spent a bundle, but he wasn’t one of the ‘best’ boys. Somehow.
“Hi Danny,” I said as I entered the holding room. “May I sit?”
He giggled. Bad sign. Didn’t even know he could say no.
I ask for a few more insignificant things: can I get him a coffee, water, juice; may I take off my coat. I only ever wear a coat so I can ask that question. Even Dubuque has ambient temp control so it’s superfluous, but it’s handy.
After the pleasantries, I got into the nitty gritty.
“Danny, do you know who Napoleon was?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid.
“Of course,” he said. “The god of war.”
Standard answer from the histo-mythology text. I moved on. “Who was Barack Obama?”
“She was the 13th president of the United States.”
“He,” I said.
“Uh uh,” he said, as expected.
“Danny, Barack Obama was a male. There’s a whole long line of very important males—thinkers, leaders—men, who were educated and intelligent. The only reason most of your kind have such limited usefulness nowadays is because your forefathers dropped out of school. After that the whole idea of formal education for males just atrophied.”
Just then my MCS rang. My boss was interrupting the interview.
“You’re going too fast,” she said.
“There’s a protest outside,” I answered mentally. “Any minute they’re going to send a lawyer in.” That was all silent, but then I made a mistake. For some unknown quirk I exhibited a breakdown in intervention procedure. I forgot to keep the conversation with my boss to myself and said the next thing aloud. “I have to get him a semblance of identity ASAP.” Was it a Freudian slip? Was I pushing the envelope?
“Well don’t screw it up,” she said and then the line went dead
Apparently what he heard triggered something in Danny. Maybe the honesty was a slap. Or the annoyance I felt with my boss. Whatever it was, all of a sudden he trusted me.
“I know all that,” he whispered. “It’s just that I don’t want to get into trouble.”
It was a spark, a point of no return. He might have whispered it, but he might as well have shouted it from the Chicago to Wyoming line overpass.
“Danny,” I said, halting with pregnant pause. “Do you . . . ?”
And then I waved my hand to the mirror to signal that I wanted a recorder. Everything up until then had been off the record. When I moved my arm, Danny flinched as if I was holding a whip.
We both heard the recorder engage. He shook his head, but I started anyway.
“Shelly Brown, Ph.D, to take Danny 128 into custody. Case worker ID 23X09J.”
The boss buzzed again.
“Good job,” she said. “One more for the good guys.”
“Right,” I answered as if I needed her support. As if it wasn’t obvious I knew what I was doing.
She clicked off. The white shirt came in and uncuffed Danny and we left together, him more or less following me babbling about lavender and beauty sleep.
Five minutes later we found an empty car on the Wyoming to Chicago line. We sat down and I wasted no time.
“Do you read?” I asked.
“Do I read?” he said.
“We can talk,” I said. “It’s against the law to eavesdrop here.”
“I don’t read, no,” he said. “But…”
You can. I filled in the rest in my head.
So. . .
Here’s a boy, not trafficked. Educated somehow — an indulgent aunt, an enlightened mother. Who knows what the story is. Was. Somehow he learned…to read. So many things to ask. Where to start with this anomaly?
“Why are you allowing yourself to be exploited? Why were you in that. . . “
“Place?” he said for me.
“Well, yes. I mean. . . you can . . .”
“Read. Sure. So what?”
“Well, you don’t have to. . . “
“But I like to.”
The ICM buzzed.
“What?” my boss asked.
“He said he likes it.” I said to her privately.
“I heard that,” she answered.
I ignored her and returned to Danny. “But that club, that cage. That man cave.” I said to him.
“Yeah, well,” he started. “I wasn’t really part of that group.”
“What?” I said.
“What?” my boss said.
“Yeah, I’m. . . a. . . ” He was trying to gauge my trustworthiness. What would I do with him?
“Freelancer,” Danny, my boss, and I said it all at the same time.
“When that place got raided,” Danny continued on his own. My boss and I listened. “I was upstairs angling. You know.” We did in fact know. “When I saw the cops I didn’t know what to do.”
“Uh huh,” my boss and I said.
“I mean, I don’t want any. . . ”
“Misunderstanding,” my boss and I said.
“So I just headed downstairs to get picked up like the rest of the dupes. Only I ain’t a dupe. I choose what I do and I don’t. . . ”
He continued talking in his self-assured way, but I could hardly listen as my boss was babbling like some sort of nutty military strategist. “Bring him in, we’ll turn him. He doesn’t know what he wants. He thinks—”
I cut the com completely. I didn’t need any more advice, I knew the score. Save the traffickers, turn the volunteers. Intervene in whatever is going on.
“So what now, Danny?” I asked him. “Or whatever your name is.”
“Daniel,” he answered. “My mom gave it to me.”
I took a deep breath, stared at the fire extinguisher in the corner for a moment. I hate my job at these times.
Danny had a mom, a mom who loved him. He could read and liked selling himself.
“We’ll set you up in service. Something not as . . . degrading. Houseboy or soupline or something.” Even I knew it was weak.
He cocked his head sideways and then pulled up his shirt to reveal about fifty grand in snake tattoos. He didn’t even have to tighten his stomach. It was just naturally perfect in a young man kind of way. If I wasn’t so tired and hadn’t seen it so much already, I might have went for it. It was divine. Really attractive. If I was a younger woman…
He swayed a little in his seat to punctuate the idea. He had a diamond belly button stud glittering with each hip movement. I could see it was real. Half to three-quarters carat at least. There was no way Danny was giving up his line of work. He was talented and hoping I saw that talent.
Can’t say I blame him. But the law’s the law.
Five minutes later I was in the office with a manufactured black eye.
“He just came at me from out of nowhere,” I explained to the boss.
“Where was your taser?” she wanted to know.
“It was too fast. No time,” I answered.
“Why’d you cut the comm?”
“You were getting on my nerves.”
“There’s a reason for that. Look what happened.” She lifted her hand to my chin to tilt my head so she could see it better. “You obviously don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Boy’s not trafficked,” I said. “He belongs in jail, not with the anti-trafficking unit. What were you going to do? Save him? Get him a job doing data input?”
“We could have turned him.”
“No we couldn’t have.”
We argued for another good five minutes. Then she suspended me for a day with no pay. I could have pled hardship, but why? I had a day off.
I walked out of the office with my hand in my pocket. When I got home I pulled out the shiny button bling I’d been fingering. I could see it was real: half to three-quarters carat at least.
Bio: Sue Lange is a novelist and a playwright. She has published four science fiction novels and a number of short stories. Her 2003 novel, Tritcheon Hash, was republished as an ebook in 2011; it was included on Kirkus’ best of list for that year. Her trilogy of stage plays, entitled Potty Mouth, includes the award-winning “The Glass Ceiling” It will be produced by the Reading Theater Project in 2014.