Title to be determined © 2020 Tammy Rébéré
Eve Winters, a former social worker, just joined Phoenix, a team funded by a corporate billionaire to help people escape bad situations and start new lives. On Eve's very first assignment she uncovers a deadly ring of criminal activity connected to stem cell research that takes her from Boston, Massachusetts all the way to Tiajin, China, and what she finds shakes Phoenix to its very core.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Tianjin, China, August 3, 9:52pm
A foul smell permeated the street from a backed-up sewage drain just outside the medical clinic. Fen covered her nose as she hobbled out the back door into the night. She wanted to get as far away from this place as quickly as possible. Away from him. There had been six women in her recovery room. Two had died. It hadn’t been Fen’s first procedure, but she knew it would be her last. She had to hurry. She could feel her life being drained as blood dripped onto her thigh. She didn’t have much time left. She needed to find Mei.
Mei was her strength, her confidante, her sister. Sisters not by blood—at least not that they knew of. They didn’t know anything about themselves, not even their own birthdays. Raised in an orphanage in the province of Hebei, their lives were harsh. They knew only of hard work. No family. No praise. No love. The two orphans had nothing, except each other. At the age of twelve they were to start work at a sweatshop factory and live in dorm housing, but the girls didn’t want that life, and ran away. They thought as long as they stayed together, they could do anything, and promised never to leave the other. Fen and Mei, together, against the world.
They found employment as seamstresses—or so they thought—rather it was a front for prostitution training. Their life had gone from bad to worse. They begged to be released, but the cruel mistress beat them and threatened that if they tried to leave, she would kill one or both of them. They eventually came to believe that this was the best that life could offer, and learned their new trade well, so that they could always stay together. After several months, their training had been completed, and they were sold to the highest bidder—a pimp from Tianjin. A few years later, Fen and Mei were sold again to another buyer and worked their services outside a prominent hotel not far from Gŭwénhuà Jiě—Ancient Culture Street—on the East bank of Haihe River, a significant improvement over their last location at a smoky drug-laden massage parlour. The girls would never had garnered such a spot to lure liaisons had it not been for their training.
I have to find Mei.
Weak and frantic, Fen, desperately looking for her friend, turned onto Ancient Culture Street. As usual, the street was littered with vacationers trying to get a deal before the many antique and artisan shops closed for the night. She passed a bakery where she had bought a sweet roll and hot jasmine tea just the day before. There was a large Buddha carved out of jade sitting in the window, like a mascot. He seemed appropriate for the venue, with his oversized belly and jolly countenance, as though he had eaten too many of the baked goods and joyfully loved every minute of it. The fried cakes wafting from the store that normally tantalized Fen’s senses, now made her stomach lurch.
Keep going. Not much farther. Mei must be here. Somewhere.
She plodded on, passing more shops, more people, more attractions. It was a stormy sea full of fish, and the harder she looked, the more the waves crashed against her pushing her down with an undertow pulling her further in. She was drowning. Her strength left her, and she faltered, then fell onto the stone pedway in front of an American family. The mother gasped when she saw a streak of blood on the calf of the prostitute’s leg. She gathered two of her young children close to her hips, shielding their eyes. The father picked up the third child and faced a store window that displayed art supplies.
Fen tried to regain composure to stand, but her vision began to deceive her. The red lanterns hanging above appeared close enough to touch, but then blurred into many more than there were, making the sky look like a sheet of red. Confusion overcame her and she envisioned she was still at the clinic. She could hear the moans of other women and one of them cried out for her dead baby. A bright light shone in one of her eyes and then the other. She blinked several times, then fixated on the doctor’s wry smirk. The insidious little man morphed into a nurse who was trying to remove her intravenous drip. When the needle was extracted, the bed opened up causing Fen to fall through into a black oblivion. As she fought from being swallowed into the darkness, she reached up to grab something. Anything. Her fingertips grazed the tubing the nurse was holding. She reached again stretching her arm longer. She made firm contact this time and grabbed it tight. The nurse let out a shriek and tried to push Fen down. The shrieking became louder and louder, then the nurse yelled, “Mommy, mommy, the lady won’t let go.”
Fen woke from her delirium and saw that she had wrapped her hand around the ankle of the young American boy clutching his mother. He kicked his leg several times in an effort to shrug her off. Coming to her senses, she finally let go. The feeble girl tried to apologize to the family, but they wouldn’t listen and left abruptly, consoling their frightened child.
Disgruntled with the insolent tourists, an old local woman took pity on Fen, grasped her arm and helped her to sit up. After a few moments of sitting in silence, Fen nodded that she was okay to continue and the woman helped her to regain her footing.
Humbled by the woman’s thoughtfulness, Fen bowed her head. “Xièxiè—thank you.”
The elder waved her off, as she herself shuffled away.
Fen continued her search for Mei through the crowd. She slogged down the street passing the Tiānhòu Gōng—Temple of the Queen of Heaven. The last tour had just ended and a large group of Australian teenage students were leaving, carrying little bags filled with trinkets from their visit to the gift shop. They were laughing and carefree. Fen saw that they were about her age and wondered what it must be like to have such a happy-go-lucky life.
Taking a moment, Fen looked around and soaked in the cool night air that was breezing off the river. A relief to her feverish sweating skin. She removed a purple handkerchief from the front pocket of her denim skirt, dabbed her brow, then wrapped it around her neck. Her gaze went down the street to the architecture of the blue bricked buildings with colorful artistic painted doors, and she wished she could take it all with her. She would never see this beautiful street again.
I must find Mei.
She moved on. For another quarter of a mile she dragged herself clutching her lower abdomen. With each sharp pain, she felt her legs get wetter from the dripping blood. She refused to look down to confirm what she already knew. She would soon die.
Stopping again to take a breath, she leaned against the cart of a fish vendor for support.
The middle-aged man was about to close up his shop for the night. “You buy fish? If not, go away. I closed.”
Fen shook her head.
He grumbled and walked back into the shop to continue counting his money from the register.
The smell of the rotting fish sitting in the once icy but now warmed water from the day’s sun overwhelmed the dying girl. She vomited. It took more energy than she had and she felt her life leaving her. She called out, “Bāng wŏ—help me.”
The man returned, narrowed his eyes, and studied her appearance unsympathetically. He hardened his heart even more when he saw bile dripping from his cart. Angrily and forcefully, he waved her away, “You go. I don’t want your kind here. You go now.”
Fen stumbled away and turned the corner into an alley. With the exception of a street lamp that flickered, the alleyway was dark and abandoned. A stark contrast to the busy well-lit Culture Street. A homeless man with his small dog were sleeping against the wall of a building, and in the distance a prostitute was busy with a client.
It was Mei.
Breathlessly Fen whispered, “I found you. I finally found you.” She tried to call out, but she couldn’t raise her voice above a cracked whisper. “Mei…Mei…”
Overwhelmed, feverish, and weak, Fen’s legs could no longer support her frail body, and gave way. Like a feather she drifted to the ground.
Mei took some money from the short, overweight man. His breath wreaked of chewing tobacco. American. She rolled the bills and stuffed them in her bra, then lifted her skirt. He opened the front of his pants and leaned into her. After a few thrusts, he adjusted his pants and left.
The slight girl wearing a short pink wig was grateful that the sex was quick. She had recognized Fen a few moments earlier when she had turned down the alley, and couldn’t wait to talk to her. The pair hadn’t seen or spoken since earlier that morning in their apartment, and Mei had been worried. Not just this particular day, but for some time. Something had been bothering Fen, but she wouldn’t talk about it. They shared everything. Never any secrets. And Mei couldn’t understand what had been going through Fen’s mind, and why she wouldn’t share. She was determined more than ever to find out what it was.
Mei turned her attention in the direction of Fen and waved, but her friend was no longer standing, rather, she was lying limp on the ground. Confusion and worry ran rampant through Mei’s mind as she hurried as quickly as possible to where Fen lay. She called Fen’s name as she ran, but there was no response.
When she reached her weakened friend, she sat down and placed Fen’s head on her lap, and began stroking her shiny black hair.
“Fen, wake up!”
The young girl groaned.
Mei shouted for help. “Bāngbāng wŏ!”
No one came.
She screamed louder when she saw the blood gushing down Fen’s legs from underneath her skirt. “Bāngbāng wŏ!”
Still, no one came.
“Fen, Fen, look at me. I will go and get help.”
Fen weakly said, “No Mei. Please, I don’t want to die alone. Stay with me.”
Tears dripped from Mei’s cheeks. “Who did this to you?”
Fen mustered what little strength she had left. “Túshā zhě.”
Her head fell to the side. The flickering street lamp reflected off her dead eyes as they coldly stared down the alley.
Mei sobbed loudly and rocked her childhood friend. Her beloved sister. She now knew what had been troubling Fen, and, she knew who Túshā zhě was. It was Dr. Pak—The Slaughterer.
Excerpt from Chapter 2
Six months later...
Boston MA, April 19, 10:37am
Eve Winters awoke feeling disoriented. Everything was dark with the exception of a skiff of light beaming from underneath the door. She blinked a few times, then squinted, forcing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She looked about trying to figure out where she was, wondering how she got here.
Her head ached. Pulsated.
Focus. Where am I? How long have I been here?
Concentrating, black became grey, and objects became defined. The room was an office of sorts, rather small, about twelve by twelve feet. In the middle of the room was a simple wooden desk with two drawers on each side and a pencil drawer in the centre. Behind the desk was the wooden high back chair that Eve was sitting on and tied to. An old four drawer filing cabinet stood in the corner. There were square and rectangular objects on it; she could only assume were magnets or stickers. The gag in her mouth tasted and smelled of motor oil, and the sound of a car’s engine revving below made Eve realize she was being held in the upstairs office of a garage. There were no windows, making the door her only escape route.
The last thing she remembered was shutting the passenger door of her car for Jessica, then everything had gone black. There was a pain at back of her head that overwhelmed her as though she had been hit by shovel. She wanted to comfort that pain now and wriggled her wrists beneath the coarse rope. There wasn’t much give.