Excerpt from Queen of Hearts by Nicole Austin
Copyright © Nicole Austin, 2017
Stepping out of the taxi, I stood for a moment and enjoyed the light fall breeze ruffling the hem of my cotton peasant dress. It was a beautiful night with millions of stars visible in the inky black Moroccan sky. A variety of people, Casablanca locals and tourists alike, rushed here and there, rarely slowing to appreciate their surroundings, but not me. In my line of work, I make time to appreciate the world around me because I know how quickly freedom can be taken away.
The miniature, nearly invisible device in my left ear crackled to life, bringing my focus back on task. “We’re a go.”
Fluffing my hair with my left hand, I spoke into the microphone embedded in my bracelet. “Heading in. Watch my six.”
I knew Darren’s response indicated more than just watching my back. He wanted me and expressed that desire in no uncertain terms. Smart, handsome and charismatic, sadly Darren wasn’t the man for me. Another held my heart. Three men actually, but that’s a story for later.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped through the restaurant doorway and requested a table for four. To avoid any missteps, I always stuck to the same role—a young, naive American tourist meeting friends who don’t show up because I’m mistakenly at the wrong restaurant.
In reality I’m a well-trained undercover operative working to take down sex traffickers, one cell at a time. Most people don’t realize that sex trafficking has become an international multi-billion dollar a year enterprise. They just can’t believe it happens in their seemingly safe little worlds. I knew the ugly truth.
After having nearly been snatched and sold as a sex slave at the tender age of twelve, saving other girls is my driving force and life’s passion. A dirty little secret kept from my family, who would not approve. Hell, my overprotective stepbrothers would lock me away somewhere to keep me safe if they ever found out about my real job. They believe I travel as a saleswoman for an international high-end software manufacturer and have a security team that shadows my every step. I do everything possible to keep that lie alive and believable.
I’m getting too old to be used as bait and won’t be able to pull this off much longer. On my last birthday I turned twenty-three. With the right hairstyle, makeup, clothes and behavior, I can pass for seventeen or eighteen but sex traffickers want young girls, teenagers mostly. Innocent girl who are easy prey. Soon, I’ll have to work behind the scenes, do something boring. Collect intel or plan ops, let someone else put their ass on the line. I loathe the mere idea.
There’s a dream I’ve had for many years that I know not to truly hope will ever come true. It involves a quiet life in a small town and a business I’d run with my stepbrothers. I don’t care what kind of business, perhaps something in tourism. Too many things would have to change and the stars would all have to fall into perfect alignment before that could ever happen. So it remains my own private, guilty fantasy I dust off and rely on when I’m feeling alone and yearning for a different life. But for now, it’s game on. I have a job to do which requires keeping my head out of the clouds and on the job.
Seated at a table, I pretended to read the menu while circumspectly scanning the room. I quickly captured the interest of several men and an older woman. She sat silently at the end of the bar sipping a drink. The moment I’d been targeted was clear when she dipped her chin in a nod to a young man leaning against the wall near the restroom.
Straightening, he headed across the room attempting to appear casual. He started to walk past my table then turned as if having just noticed me.
“Hi,” he greeted. “You speak English?”
He fell into a predictable pattern, claiming to be from Chicago, visiting Morocco on vacation with his friends, who he’d lost track of. Invited himself to join me because he hated to see a pretty girl dine alone. Yadda yadda, yakety yak…
When the check arrived, he gallantly paid for the meal then made his move. He knew a place just down the street with great live music where we could dance and have coffee or a drink.
I played hesitant at first. “I don’t know…”
He insisted it was close by and safe, even pulling the waiter over to offer reassurance.
I pretended to reluctantly give in. “Oookay. I love to dance.” Wiping my mouth with the napkin, I made sure the mic picked up my cue to the team. “Let’s go.”
“On the move,” came through my earpiece.
Those three words set the team in motion. A man and woman posing as a couple out for a stroll would follow at a discreet distance. There were also team members in three strategically positioned vehicles at the ready should they be needed. As added protection my bracelet had a tracking chip. We wouldn’t be going far.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I looked to the left, spotting Adam and Raina, but not allowing my gaze to linger. My would-be trafficker, Tazim, indicated we should turn right. We were walking casually along a sidewalk lined with cars when his hand came to rest at the small of my back. Two fingers tapped against me and I felt a pinch.
Instantly, my head spun and I started to stagger. Before the realization sunk in that he’d stuck me with a needle, I reached out to support myself on a parked van. Only my hand never made contact. The van door slid open and gloved hands grabbed my shoulders, pulling me into the darkened interior.