“CHRIS,” BRIGGS said as he stalked into the locker room like a man on a mission. His gaze was hard and his posture as rigid as a two-by-four. Anger and discontent rolled off him in waves, worse than Chris had ever seen in the month since he had moved from jail duty.
Two years of whining, demanding prisoners who thought being in jail was the worst thing to ever happen to them and thought a jail cell should be like a suite at the Hilton. Those were the ones Chris was pretty sure were never going to see the inside of a cell again if they could help it. And then there were the repeat offenders who thought of the jail as home and a chance at three meals a day. God, he had hated every minute of the constant noise of men and women talking, fighting, yammering on about nothing just to make noise so the reality of the shit they were in didn’t close in around them.
“What can I do for you?” Chris smiled as best he could. Briggs had been instrumental in getting him off jail duty and into the sheriff’s office, so he owed the guy.
“It’s not me. His Majesty wants to see you.” Briggs turned, flashing a beam of damn near hatred out the door.
Not that Chris blamed the guy. When Sheriff Hunter had decided to retire, Briggs had stepped in as acting sheriff at Hunter’s request. The entire department had been pretty happy about it. Briggs was well respected and good at his job. But the county board had other ideas. They did some lame-assed search, and lo and behold, they’d found the current sheriff, a political appointee. That had been a month ago, but Briggs still hadn’t gotten over it.
“Thanks.” He checked that his uniform was perfect, because that was what Sheriff Mario Vitalli liked. He was all about how things looked and appeared. It didn’t seem to matter how things got done as long as he looked good—at least that was the general feeling in the locker room. “I’ll go right away.”
Briggs rolled his eyes. “He’s on a call, so give him five minutes.”
Vitalli liked everyone to wait for him, though he never wanted to wait for anyone or anything. Which would be fine if he were good at his job. He wasn’t particularly—at least Chris didn’t think so.
“Okay.” Chris wanted to say something to Briggs. He really thought a lot of him, but everything that came to mind sounded completely lame, so he kept quiet and showed Briggs the respect he thought he deserved.
“Do you want something?” Briggs asked, taking a step closer.
Chris realized he’d sunk into his thoughts and had been looking at nothing in particular. Briggs must have thought he was staring at him. “No.” Chris turned away and closed his locker. “I’ll see you around.” He left the room and headed up to where the big guy had his office.
The door was closed, so Chris sat in the chair outside to wait. Things had changed a lot in a month. Everyone was quiet around the office. The people who worked near the sheriff all spoke in whispers. Sheriff Vitalli didn’t like noise, and to him, talking meant people weren’t working. Which seemed ridiculous to Chris, because for him, talking in a sheriff’s office meant work was getting done and investigations were being discussed and moving forward.
The door opened and Sheriff Vitalli tilted his head outside.
Chris snapped to his feet, went in, and closed the door. “Good morning.”
“Anducci,” Vitalli said, taking his seat behind the desk. Chris couldn’t miss the file that sat there in front of him, and wondered if he was being sent back to the jail. His stomach clenched. He’d worked hard and diligently to get out of there. “I have an assignment for you.” He pushed the file off to the side as though he had made a decision. Chris wondered if it was good or bad.
“Yes, sir,” he said quietly, hoping to hell he wasn’t on his way back. No matter what, he was going to have to return to his locker for an antacid.
Vitalli shook his head and scoffed. “Everyone seems to think that this office is some kind of protection service.” He sneered.
Chris kept his mouth shut. It was their job to protect the public, which was why they became police officers in the first place. At least why Chris had. Granted, most people would think him idealistic, but so the fuck what.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Chris answered quickly.
“I got a request from a social worker.” Vitalli yanked open a drawer and pulled out a thin file, then tossed it on the desk dramatically. “The cops in Carlisle busted up a whorehouse and found a bunch of aliens working there. In their touchy-feely world, they set about helping them and found they were brought here against their will.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not buying it, but no one asked me my opinion. Anyway, they say they need help for one person they found. It’s a man, not a woman….” The sheriff paused as if he were expecting some sort of agreement to his ignorance and shortsightedness. He didn’t seem to believe that men could be trafficked as well as women, and Chris wasn’t going to agree with him.
“Human trafficking takes many forms,” Chris said, then cleared his throat when the sheriff frowned deeply. “What would you like me to do?”
Vitalli groaned dramatically. “The Social Services folks found these people safe places to live, but one of them has been found out. Apparently he’s preparing to testify against his captors, and now he’s been getting threats. The feds, DA, and Social Services are all asking for protection for this guy, and it’s falling on me to provide it. So….” He picked up the file and thrust it toward Chris. “It’s you.”
“Me?” He took the file and tucked it under his arm. He wasn’t going to read it while standing in front of the sheriff.
“Can we not let this interfere with your shifts?” he groused, then turned back to his empty desk, grabbing the first piece of paper he could find.
“Is there anything else?”
He didn’t think he was going to get an answer, but then the sheriff lifted his gaze. “Don’t screw this up. It’s an easy job, so just do it and be done.” He turned away, back to his papers. Chris took it as a dismissal and left the office, closing the door behind him.
With a sigh of relief, Chris went to his old metal desk at the back of the station and placed the file on the empty surface. He was usually out on patrol or working with one of the other deputies, so he spent very little time there. No pictures or papers littered the space, just a phone and a few files hanging in one of the drawers. It would be so easy for him to pack up and move on. Part of him, some fear deep inside, wondered how long he would get to stay before being sent back to jail duty.
“What did the sheriff want?” Pierre asked as he approached the desk.
“He gave me an assignment,” Chris said, rather pleased.
Pierre smiled. “It looks like you’re going to stay, then.” Pierre had been the first one to welcome him, handing over a fresh coffee on Chris’s first day. “That’s good.”
“Suppose so, as long as I don’t mess it up.” Chris opened the file and scanned through it. There wasn’t much information, just a name and address for the witness, along with information on how to contact the caseworker. “Kasun, Pavle Kasun…,” he said, and nodded.
“Does that mean anything to you?” Pierre asked.
“Not personally. My mother’s family is Serbian, and this has that sound.” He picked up the phone and called the number for the caseworker. It went to voicemail, so he left a message asking her to call back as soon as she was able.
“What did the sheriff tell you?”
“That this Pavle is a witness who was in a safe house until he was found out. I suspect he’s been moved, and they want me to try to help keep him safe until the FBI and DA can talk to him and he can testify against the traffickers.” It shouldn’t be too difficult a job as long as they could keep his location a secret.
“Then do what you can for him.” Pierre glanced at the sheriff’s office, choosing his words carefully. “He doesn’t think too much of others… who are different. Anyone who is different from him.”
“I see.” Chris knew Pierre had a partner, Jordan, who worked at the courthouse, and there were other gay men in the department. Apparently they were worried about this particular sheriff. Sheriff Hunter hadn’t been prejudiced; either that or he hadn’t cared as long as the job got done. Chris supposed that was probably the best kind of person to occupy the office. Someone who looked at accomplishments and results.
“No, you don’t. Be careful, and do this to the best of your ability.” Pierre clapped Chris on the shoulder. “Because this could be your one and only chance with this man. He doesn’t seem to abide anything that makes him look bad in any way.” Pierre held his gaze, and Chris nodded. They were both thinking of Graves, who the new sheriff had already demoted and relegated to patrolling country roads for speeding and crap just because one of his arrests fell through on procedural grounds.
“I know.” Chris had started reviewing the file again when his phone rang. He smiled at Pierre, who left his desk, and Chris answered the call.
“Hello, this is Marie Foster returning your call. Is this in regards to Pavle?” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t slept or had a break in weeks.
“Yes. I was hoping I could meet you and we could discuss what you believe is required, and then I’d like to meet him. I need to assess the situation so I can develop a plan to help keep him safe.”
“Excellent. If you’d like to come to my office on Pitt Street, we can go see him from there.” She gave him the address. “And please don’t come in an official car. We don’t want to draw attention to where he is. This is the third safe house we’ve housed him at, and we keep getting indications that he’s been found. We don’t know how, and I don’t want to take any chances.”
“Then I’ll change into civilian clothes as well before I come see you.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you in about half an hour, then.”
After hanging up, Chris left his desk, picking up the file to take it with him. He returned to the locker area, changed out of his uniform, and let dispatch know that he was going to be out on an assignment from the sheriff. Then he took his own car and drove the five minutes to the office.
The building embodied small and utilitarian at its worst—nothing at all of any personality in the place—and Marie’s office was equally drab and stuck in the eighties. When he entered, she stood to offer her hand. Then he sat in an olive-green office chair that creaked under his weight.
Marie was a big woman with a ready smile and bright, expressive eyes that bristled with intelligence and care. She dressed professionally casual, wearing a dark blue and white blouse with jeans. Her office was as neat and organized as any he’d seen. Two phones rested in holders on her desk, which also held a computer and a few pictures.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on so I can try to help?” Chris asked, needing to get some background.
She nodded. “We discovered the house about three weeks ago, and the Carlisle Police raided the place. They discovered people inside, including two wanted sex offenders, who are still in custody in the county prison, and Pavle, who was cowering in the corner of a closet. It took them an hour to get him to come out. Once they called me, I was able to explain enough to him that he understood those people were there to help him.”
“Did you work with him?”
“Yes. I found him a safe house that was a group home with five other individuals. It was… not good. He cowered when any men came near him and basically stayed in a corner, watching everyone, for days. Either that or he went to his room and hid. I think his poor mind was simply overloaded. Then someone tried to set fire to the home and damaged it enough that everyone had to be relocated. That was hard, but then they reported people watching the next house two days after Pavle moved in.” She swallowed and leaned back in her chair.
“Do you think someone is feeding his captors information?” Chris asked.
“Honestly? Yes,” she said, and he nodded. “We have a system that tracks each person in our safe houses. Pavle has been anonymized, but someone is using the information to try to find him, which is a violation of a number of state and federal laws.” Marie leaned forward, her demeanor turning more serious. “We can’t protect him anymore, and the longer he stays in the safe house, the more he and the others there with him are in danger.” She humphed softly. “At the moment he’s being housed in a home for women because we didn’t want to put him with men right now. And that’s causing some problems for the women, though I think those are dissipating.” She was clearly coming to the end of her resources. “I guess what I’m asking you is if you’d be willing to take Pavle to live with you. That way I can remove him from the system, at least as far as the information about where he’s staying. Get him off the grid for a while.”
That hadn’t been something Chris had thought about doing, and the request surprised him. His instinct was to say no. His own home was his sanctuary, and he liked to keep it that way. Growing up, he’d moved many times—military family. Luckily, when his dad had been close to retirement, he’d been able to get posted to the Carlisle Barracks, near family. Chris’s home here was like his castle because it was the first one he’d had that was his and no one else’s.
“Why don’t you take me to meet him and then we can see what we need to do,” Chris said, purposely vague and noncommittal. Surely Marie couldn’t blame him for not giving an answer until he met Pavle.
“I’ll do that. But there are some things you need to know first.” She floundered, seeming to be trying to figure out where to start. “We haven’t gotten the full story from him about how he got here. There is a language barrier that’s hard for us to breach. He does speak some English, mostly what he taught himself from listening to his captors and the few people he’s been around for the last four years.”
Chris gaped. How in the hell could someone live that way for such a long time? “Oh my God.”
“Yes. We believe he was brought in through New Jersey during the Super Bowl in 2014. Newark is a huge human trafficking point of entry. Anyway, we aren’t sure how long he’s been in Carlisle or how many owners he’s had over the years.”
Her words sent a spike through Chris’s heart. How in the hell could people do that to someone else? Chris had most definitely seen human beings at their lowest, and just when he thought he’d seen it all… wham… it got worse.
“Okay. So he’s been traumatized and most likely gaslighted for years,” he said, and Marie nodded. “So in his mind, this is all his fault, and everything that has happened to him is because of something he did.”
“You got it. Years of fear and guilt conditioning. Those are the greatest weapons they have. Though, deep down, there is some steel in his back. There has to be for him to have survived this long.” She gathered her purse and phone, as well as a spring jacket. The early May weather this year had been up and down. “This is the address.” She handed it to him on a small sheet of notepaper, and Chris memorized it and dropped it into the shredder in the corner of the office. That earned him a smile.
“I’ll meet you there. I’m in the blue Edge,” he explained as he left the office with Marie behind him.
Inside the car, he took a few minutes to breathe. Things like this shouldn’t affect him. He saw bad things every day. But this story got under his skin, and he needed a few minutes to get his professional distance back into place. Once his anger and indignation wore down a little, he pulled out of the lot and drove to the east side of town. He parked on the street and waited for Marie before approaching the house with her.
Marie stopped at the base of the walk. “I know you’re a cop, but try not to walk like one. You’re standing tall and strong. I know in your job you have to project strength, but here that’s not a benefit. Every one of these people have been abused or hurt at the hands of a man, so they are going to be intimidated.”
Chris slumped a little and lowered his gaze slightly. “Better?”
“Try smiling and not being so serious.”
Chris chuckled, and Marie must have approved because she turned, continued forward, and knocked on the door.
The house was deadly silent. Three women sat in chairs, looking up at him as though he were the devil incarnate, fear radiating off each and every one of them. He nodded to each lady and gave them all a small smile.
“This is Deputy Chris,” Marie said.
“What he want?” one of the ladies asked. She had big brown eyes, and her lips curled in a sneer.
“Letty, that’s enough,” Marie said gently, but with a firm undertone. “He’s here to help Pavle.”
A woman bustled into the room, and Marie introduced her as the housemother, Annette.
“His room is down the hall. He rarely leaves it, even to eat,” Annette explained, never raising her voice much above a whisper. “Follow me.” She turned to lead him down the hallway to the last room. Annette knocked, spoke softly, and opened the door.
The curtains were drawn, the room dark, even though it was the middle of the day. A single light burned next to a twin bed that had been made to within an inch of its life, with corners sharp enough to make any drill sergeant proud. The room, however, was empty.
“Pavle, sweetheart. It’s Annette,” she said gently and waited.
Slowly a figure, curled up and small, made an appearance from around the side of the dresser. The first thing Chris noticed were the biggest, brownest eyes he had ever seen, filled with the pain of years of hurt. They blinked, and then Pavle stepped farther into the light. Even standing, he looked half hunched over.
“This is Deputy Chris. He’s here because he’s going to help keep you safe.”
Pavle raised his head slightly, his black hair, long and uneven, falling to the sides of his face.
“Hello,” Chris said, mimicking the soft tone the others had used. “I’m Chris. They told me you needed help, so I’m going to protect you so no one hurts you anymore.” In that moment, he made up his mind to do whatever was needed to help this man, and if that meant moving him into his home to protect him, so be it.
“I’d like it if you went with Deputy Chris. He is a good man and will not hurt you,” Marie explained slowly and gently.
Chris didn’t expect Pavle to believe her or to agree to come. “It’s okay if you don’t want to,” Chris said, crouching down so he was at the same level as Pavle. “This is your choice.”
“Choice?” Pavle asked in a raspy voice that tore at Chris’s insides, looking at him and then back to Marie.
“Yes. You can choose to stay here or go with Deputy Chris. We want you to be safe, but we aren’t sure how well we can protect you here. If you go with Deputy Chris, he will protect you. Keep you safe.”
“INS?” Pavle asked.
“No. He is good man. Caring. He will help you.” Marie seemed to have infinite patience.
Pavle blinked, standing still, then nodded and walked to Chris. It seemed as though he either didn’t understand or thought he didn’t have a choice, even though he was being given one. Chris held out his hands, palms up, to show that he wasn’t going to hit him. When Pavle looked at him with those huge eyes and the face of an angel, he looked much younger than the twenty-four listed in his file. Maybe that was his previous owner’s fetish. Still, after all he’d been through, Pavle’s handsomeness and light shone through, with soft features and an almost delicate frame.
“I’ll gather his few things,” Annette said.
Marie extended her hand to take Pavle’s gently. He went with her in silence. She led him out of the house, and once they were in the sun, Chris got a better look at him. Pavle was pale, probably from years of being inside. Chris reminded himself to ask Marie about any past injuries. He suspected that Pavle had been treated very badly in the past and he needed to know if he was okay physically.
“Thank you for doing this,” Marie said once she had opened the door to Chris’s car and gotten Pavle settled in the passenger seat. He sat without moving or looking to either side. “You have to keep him safe. He is the main witness against the man who held him for nearly two years. We need to get that man and then trace back to the people who sold Pavle to him. We’re pulling each thread to see what we can unravel.”
“Okay. I will do my best, I promise you.”
“I’ll follow you to your house and help Pavle get settled.”
As Marie got to her car, Pavle reacted for the first time.
“She’s just riding separately. She will be back in a few minutes.”
Chris drove the short distance to his house and pulled into the garage. He didn’t want Pavle to be seen, and yet he also didn’t want him to feel like a prisoner again by being hidden. He got out and waited, hoping Pavle would get out on his own. After a few moments, Pavle opened the door and climbed out of the car. Chris opened the door to the yard and motioned for Pavle to go ahead of him.
Marie came through behind him, and Chris closed the garage doors and joined the two of them in the yard. Pavle looked around, saying nothing. Chris wished he would say something… anything. He was way too quiet, and that worried Chris because he had no idea what he was thinking, and damn it all, those eyes still held buckets of fear.
“It’s okay. This is where you are going to stay.” Marie gently coaxed Pavle toward the house, and he shuffled along, looking at the yard. Hopefully he liked what he saw. Chris had spent too many hours working out stress for the garden to be unappreciated.
Chris opened the back door, went inside, and turned on lights, letting Marie bring Pavle into the kitchen, motioning toward the living room. Maybe this was the biggest mistake of his life. He wasn’t equipped to handle someone as fragile and frightened as Pavle. Chris had no clue what he needed or even how to get through to him.
“I sold?” Pavle finally asked, barely above a whisper.
Chris caught Marie’s gaze, and his heart twisted in his chest. God, this was going to wrench his guts six ways from Sunday.
“No. This is where you are going to live. You are not going to be sold to anyone anymore. Deputy Chris is here to help you and nothing more.” She patted his hand and took Pavle through to the other room.
Chris got three glasses of water and put some cookies on a plate. He needed some sugar if he was going to get through this in one piece.
Marie and Pavle were talking softly on the sofa when Chris handed each of them a glass and offered them cookies. Marie took one, and Pavle stared at the plate as though it were a foreign object. Finally, he took one and ate a small bite before shoving the whole thing in his mouth, chewing and swallowing like he hadn’t eaten in days. Then he drank the entire glass of water.
Chris offered him another, and Pavle took it in disbelief, ate it quickly, and then rested his hands in his lap.
“Why don’t I take you upstairs and show you your room?” Chris offered. He led Pavle and Marie upstairs and into the bright guest room, with cream walls and a deep green coverlet on the bed. The furniture was white and rather plain, but functional. He’d found the set at a secondhand store and painted it himself to clean it up. “You can put your clothes in here,” Chris told Pavle, who shrugged and looked down at what he was wearing.
“I have his things in the car. There isn’t much right now,” Marie explained.
“That’s okay. I can take him to get everything he needs.” Chris needed to do some shopping tomorrow anyway and figured he could take Pavle with him. He would need to disguise Pavle somehow. “I have something he can wear tonight if he needs to, and then we’ll shop tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Marie said with a sigh. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked Pavle, who nodded.
Chris showed her downstairs, while Pavle stayed behind, and got Pavle’s things from her car.
“I’ll stop by whenever I can. He’s going to need care and plenty of help.”
“Of course. Is he seeing a counselor?” Chris asked.
“Yes. But they are having some language issues. I’m working on it. I’d like to find one who understands Serbian so they can talk in his native language, but it’s very difficult in this area. But I’m not giving up. I’ll let you know when his next appointment is.” She left through the back gate, and Chris locked it from the inside and went back into the house. He brought Pavle’s things up to his room and set them on the bed next to him.
“Are you hungry?” Chris asked. When Pavle finally nodded, Chris motioned, and they left the room. He didn’t know what to make for dinner, but decided on pasta. He got Pavle seated in the kitchen and started cooking. It wasn’t fancy, and the sauce was from a jar, but when he put the plate and a glass of water in front of Pavle, the surprised expression and then the way he shoveled the food into his mouth, his arm nearly a blur, told him a great deal about Pavle’s treatment. Chris got his attention and ate slowly. “I’m not going to take your food.”
Pavle nodded and ate a little more leisurely, but his body was rigid the entire time, as if he expected Chris to take away his plate at any moment.
Once Pavle had eaten everything, Chris got him a little more and showed Pavle what he had to drink. Pavle pointed, and Chris poured him some juice. Pavle sniffed the glass and sipped before downing the liquid like it was a huge shot.
“I am not going to take your food or drink. You can have all you want.” He poured Pavle some more grape juice and set it in front of him before clearing the dishes. Pavle stared at the glass like it held some deep meaning and then sighed dramatically and drank it.
Once Chris had cleaned up, he motioned for Pavle to follow him through to the living room. Chris put on the television and sat in the chair. Pavle sat in the other one, alternately watching the television and then him. It was a little unnerving, but Chris sat still and tried to relax, hoping Pavle would do the same.
At bedtime, he turned off the television and led Pavle up the stairs, turning out the lights. “It’s time to go to bed.” He showed Pavle the bathroom and the towels that were his to use. He also found a new toothbrush and some extra toiletries for him, placing them on the bathroom counter. He tried to think of anything he was forgetting. “Is there anything else you need?”
Pavle shook his head and went to his room, and when Chris came in to bring him some pajamas, Pavle stood in the center of the room, naked, his hands behind his back, head bent down.