First Date

“I’m going to disappoint you.  But you knew that already.  I mean, this is not like the dancing was, and…”

“Look, I know you can do it – just give it your best shot.  For me, OK?  We’ll talk afterwards about how it went.  But now it’s time.  Your date’s waiting.”

It’s Tina’s voice alright.  And the guy must be Alexi.  Good.

The door opens and she steps in, closing it lightly behind her.  Head bowed, shoulders slumped, she walks toward me, looking defeated.  Her thin fingers pulling absently at the straps of a cheap bikini.

“Leave it on Tina; that’s not why I’m here.”

She raises her head, looking at my face for the first time.  Recognition, then hope, followed quickly by shame.

“Uncle Gus!”  Hands now trying to cover instead of reveal, awkwardly though, there’s too much showing, hands too small, all this happening too fast for graceful modesty. “How…?”

Her voice trails off as she starts to sob, falling into my arms, relief and hope overpowering shame.

How, indeed.  Seven weeks ago the seamy world of human trafficking and forced prostitution was something that I barely knew existed.  Then my sister’s teenage daughter disappeared.  Desperate and in a panic, Mika called me, screaming “You have to find her!”

No use explaining that a rogue computer hack was probably not her best hope.  And no use telling her to let the police do their job either.  Tina was a runaway, and unless there was evidence of a crime, then their job was just keeping an eye out.  So maybe it really was up to me.  Shit.

So I crack Tina’s e-mail account because…well, it’s what I’m good at and I have no idea where else to start.  Once inside, I see that a couple months ago she starts getting close to someone named Joey.  He’s a regular on a chat site that she likes, and I follow how he exploits her youthful rage, insecurity, and vulnerability.  At first it’s merely support.  But after two weeks the flirting starts, and once she bites, he ratchets it up, saying that he loves her and suggesting they run away together.

Next, I visit the chat sites, hack into Joey’s accounts, and learn that he’s not the cool teen rebel that he pretends.  Linking together bits and pieces from his various accounts, it becomes clear that “Joey” is actually a predator that lures kids into hell.  I learn that his real name is Alexi and he procures “talent” to be groomed and sold like common goods.  I dig hard enough that I even find some pictures of him.

After nearly two months of on-line trolling and creating a number of my own identities, I finally spot Tina on a site called ViXXXens wearing not much more than a forced smile.  I call the 800 number and make an appointment for seven o’clock, giving me enough time to get in touch with some of the guys from my rugby league.

Now, finally, I hold Tina for a few long minutes while she sobs.  No hurry; I paid for an hour.  While she cries herself out, I fine-tune my plans.  On the way in I’d spotted Joey/Alexi heading into an office behind the reception desk.  So…I know where he’s waiting.  It’s just a quick detour.

“Here,” I say as I take clothes and sneakers from the small pack that I’d brought.  “Put these on.”

She dresses quickly, shivering with fear, excitement, or both.  “I’m so ashamed, Uncle Gus.  What am I going to tell Mama?”

“Listen, Sweetie,” I say as she finishes dressing.  “We can talk about that in the car.”

Her eyes widen as she sees me take a large pistol and a small radio from the bag.  I key the mic and speak: “Leaving the room in five seconds, guys.”

“You mean… I can leave?  But Joey…he’ll…  He hurt me, Uncle Gus. I’m really scared!”

“Just do exactly as I say and you’ll be fine,” I tell her, putting the radio in my pocket.  I look in her eyes, my hand on her shoulder. “And Tina?”

“Yeah?”

“You were right,” I smile as I cock the pistol.  “He’s going to be pretty disappointed.”

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