By good fortune, all the guards they passed were men until they were deeper into the old city, beyond guards, where sports-mad tourists wouldn’t likely stray, moving slower now through looser crowds but narrower, more congested streets. To not risk separation, they walked tightly arm in arm as they’d been told to, checking the map as infrequently as possible. Ardythe couldn’t decide whether eyes followed them or not. Figuring that at least Spanish must rarely be spoken this side of the Pacific, she murmured, “Hembras no necesitarian percepción extrasensorial para ver que no somos asiáticas.”
“Stai zitto!” Etienne clamped harder to Ardythe’s arm with a steel-talon grip despite thirty years between them, forcing a faster pace. Ardythe bit back a sound of pain and muttered instead, “How do I say in Italian that you’re crushing the map?”
“Quel fromage.” Etienne shocked her with a dirty look, but loosened the grip enough to take the map, snarling, “What language do you need to get the message to shut up?”
“Wait, wait — there’s the place.” Ardythe pulled her to a stop and nodded down the filthy alley they’d almost passed. Fifteen yards along was the wooden staircase to look for, with the blue-painted door at the top. The stairs looked rickety, and the door’s paint was peeling and split. Sagging metal shutters blocked the tiny windows to each side of the door. Except for that, the entire length and height of the alley walls on both sides were blank, long ago other windows and doors bricked solid, rusting hooks of iron halfway up marking where more stairs had once been.
The face-fold of Etienne’s hijab slipped to her throat as she stood looking up at the blue door. Ardythe added, “Should I have shut up about that, too?”
“I’d have noticed anyway,” Etienne snapped. it was probably true. They’d pored over the map, photograph, and instructions the whole prolonged shiplboard week. Still clutching the map in one hand, Etienne let go of Ardythe’s arm with the other to adjust the hijab, and took a step the alley. It was colder there, though the sun glared harshly in from the street at the other end. Ardythe squinted, wishing they’d been allowed sunglasses, trying to glimpse whether anyone might be watching from either of the streets the alley connected. She was suddenly more frightened than at any moment before, in case Etienne was breaking the rules they seemed to have been given.
Catching up to her, Ardythe angrily said in undertone, “This is for my cousin.”
“Who’s my daughter-in-law!” Etienne swung around to face Ardythe, making her stumble back. “My last link to my dead son.”
“What if there’s a baby?”
“So what. It can’t be my son’s.”
“But if she wants to keep it?”
Before Etienne could answer, a man with multicolor Olympics rings printed on his mask turned into the alley from the far end. He carried a big, battered cardboard carton with grease stains on one side, and eyed them curiously around it as he approached. They moved under the warped wooden staircase to give him room, and stood silent until he passed without another glance, pacing steadily to the street they’d just left, where he turned the corner and disappeared.
“Keep your voice down.” Ardythe said then, taking Etienne’s arm again, thinking she would answer now. Etienne twisted away. At the motion, Ardythe felt the bearer bonds scrape her skin. “These walls are masonry, the sound’ll echo all over the place,” she warned Etienne.
“Oh, now it’s you saying to shut up?” On the words, Etienne pushed her aside to lead the way up the rickety stairs. A fragment off one of the steps splintered away behind them and crackled down onto the alley’s asphalt. If so much money was involved, Ardythe suddenly thought, why had they been sent to such an impoverished place?
The peeling door opened immediately to Etienne’s knock. Before she could speak, a chic, chignon’ed woman in a navy blue Chinese airline flight attendant skirt-suit came out and gestured for them to go back down to the alley below. She had a big soft-sided travel bag with her that lumped loosely here and there.
Ardythe stumbled as she started back down, slivers of handrail driving into the palm and fingers of one hand as Etienne shoved her from behind. The heels of the flight attendant’s pumps clacked bizarrely on each step above them, and then clicked on the pavement as she took the lead, making for the end of the alley the man with the carton had come from.
A nondescript taxi stood idling there. Ardythe’s mouth had gone too dry for a word of question to come out and Etienne said nothing either. The flight attendant opened the taxi’s back door and gestured them in, then followed and pulled a jump-seat up from the worn carpeted floorboards to perch on. She twisted around a little to rap on the sill of the black-glass privacy panel, and the driver set it raising up. It sealed with a faint screech. Ardythe could barely hear the car shift into gear but she felt it pull slowly into traffic that moved around them at tortoise rate.
The attendant said then, “Turn around, both of you. I’ll take the bearer bonds now.” Showing she knew the instructions they’d been given, she yanked up the backs of their coats, their jackets underneath, and their shirts, to rip the duct-taped packets away. Ardythe throttled a gasp of pain. If Etienne felt anything, she let out not a sound.
Turning back, Ardythe was surprised to see the woman not checking the packets. She’d tossed them to one side of the opened-flat travel bag on the floor, and was shucking off her uniform and pumps. From the bag she pulled a full set of professional hospital whites, wriggled into them —trousers, tunic, doctor’s blazer, a pair of white leather trackshoes— and the airlines uniform went into the bag in their place. The woman even traded the pale blue mask she’d been wearing for a black one, after yanking off the cute flight attendant hat … and with it the chignon hairdo, a wig that loosed grey-threaded black hair roughly cut close enough around her head that Ardythe, staring, suddenly couldn’t remember what this woman had looked like before. She was pulling some kind of kit out from under the uniform, and casually flipped the bearer bond packets in on top, after pulling the duct-tape off and setting it aside, sticky surface up.
“Show me your hands,” she told Ardythe, who automatically obeyed, thinking a beat too late that the tape might be to bind her wrists. But the woman in white was asking, as she looking closely at the hand with the wood slivers from the staircase handrail, “Did you get a tetanus shot before your trip here?”
Her jaw dropping, Ardythe nodded. The woman opened the kit from the travel bag, dug around and came up with a flat, sealed waxpaper square, ripped it open, and scrubbed something wet in one carefully selected direction across the wounded hand, burning it like hell until the skin suddenly went numb.
“Who are you?” Etienne managed. The woman gave her something halfway between a grimace and a grin, keeping her attention on her work.
“Dry. Good,” she said, slapped duct-tape sharply across the slivers, and yanked. Ardythe yelped.
“That took most of the wood bits out, probably,” the woman said. “You’ll be pretty busy until the anesthetic wears off and the pain reminds you to get your hands thoroughly checked over. If you’re not where you can do that by then, whatever infection sets in will be the least of your worries. Give me your overcoats. Come on, we don’t have all day. You were told about the coats. Hurry up.”
“Our coats?” Etienne sat back hard in the seat and straightened up with oddly aristocratic posture. Ignoring her, Ardythe struggled out of her own long coat, raising puffs of dust as she knocked half-numb clumsy knuckles on the warn arm-rest at the side of the seat. Lurching up, she pulled the coat loose and fell into the seat as she handed it over. The woman snapped her fingers and pointed at the hijab scarf. Ardythe pulled that off too. Slowly, Etienne was following suit. The woman shoved everything into the travel bag, knelt on it to flatten the bulges enough to zip it closed, and scrambled back onto the jump seat. Only the medkit stayed out of the travel bag. She leaned sideways to peer out the dirty window.
Straightening her own clothes, Ardythe glanced out too and saw the car was drawing to the curb on an avenue edged with wide, tall modern buildings.
“Take this, there’s no room.” The woman pushed the medkit into Ardythe’s lap, reached into an outside pocket of the travel bag, and came up with a wad of paper currency. Ardythe and Etienne leaned away from puffs of dust as she shoved the money partway into the seat cushions between them, grabbed the handle of the travel bag, and rapped on the black privacy glass panel.
“Well, get out. What are you waiting for?” Before they could move, she was scrambling past them and flinging the door open, the travel-bag smacking against them as she hauled it out. Etienne cursed soto voce but followed right on the woman’s heels, and Ardythe on hers, clutching the medkit’s strap.
They got barely a glimpse of the sculpted concrete facade towering over them as the woman led the way into the lobby at a fast clip, and used a cardkey from another pocket of her white coat to head off down a warren of hallways, to a freight elevator standing with it’s double-wide doors half open, slightly askew.
Pulling Ardythe in by her jacket sleeve and the travel bag behind her, she barely left Etienne an instant to follow before jabbing at buttons the symbols for floors had been scratched and worn off of long ago. Ardythe’s knees seemed to give with every shudder as the elevator jolted its way up.
‘This is a very old hospital,” the woman said, as if by way of casual conversation. “There used to be a small park to each side and at the back, for patients to sit in, get sunshine and air, visit with family. Gone now. New structure was build around the original core, completely filling the parks in. A loss to the neighborhood, but the contractor got paid as if the whole thing was brand new on a fresh site.”
“Where is my daughter-in-law?” Etienne ground the words out in a voice like stone.
“Here, of course.” The woman spared her a glance. “In the detox ward. She’s been on drugs probably ever since the traffickers took her, as nearly as we could tell.”
“My cousin was never a—“ Ardythe began.
“—She is now.” The woman didn’t specify what. “With luck and a good sobering program once she’s home, she’ll only have to be a recovering addict the rest of her life, not an active one.” If there was anything to say about whatever else she’d been, the woman in white wasn’t mentioning it. “We’ve only had her a couple of weeks, since the Thai police took the incubator house down and turned over to us the three Americans they found there.”
“The what?” Ardythe and Etienne both said. The woman waved the question off as if it was worthless. The elevator jolting to a stop pre-empted anything else they might have asked. The woman strode out and they trailed after her, down more old hallways into newer ones, to an office the woman strode straight into, blowing her breath out a little the way people do when they’re finally home. A stainless steel placard on the outside of the door had some lines on it in characters Ardythe didn’t recognized, and below them, “Dr...” — there wasn’t time to read more.
Inside, an elegant brown-skinned streaky-blonde nearly the doctor’s exact height and build sat up in the recliner chair, yawning a little. She had scrubs on that bagged around her.
“Fair dinkum?” she asked, standing up and stretching.
“Yup.” The doctor hefted the travel bag onto the desk, opened it, and hauled the coats out, bundling them into the arms of an orderly who had followed them and handed the doctor some paperage in a mania envelope. Without a word, he left, carrying the coats away, the tail ends of the hijab scarves waving a limp farewell.
“Hey,” Etienne said. The doctor and the true flight attendant and looked at her. “Your documents and money and things are in your jacket pockets the way you were told?” the doctor asked. Ardythe and Etienne nodded. The doctor shrugged and went behind her desk, reading through the papers.
Ardythe thought the airline uniform seemed huddle in the bottom of the travel bag only slightly less embarrassedly than she felt for Etienne protesting the loss of the coats. Etienne had seemed from the start trying to hold onto things that couldn’t help but slip away like smoke. You couldn’t hold onto smoke.
The doctor was telling the flight attendant, “Sorry about the wrinkles and the scuffs on the shoes. A longer walk and a tighter squeeze than usual this time.”
“All in a good cause. Anyway, dark blue hides a multitude of sins.” By two fastidious fingers, she separated the cute hat from the black chignon wig and tossed the wig into the wastebasket. The doctor barked a laugh. The flight attendant laughed too, took everything else into the the adjoining bathroom, and shut the door.
“Let’s get moving,” the doctor said, reaching for the medkit from Ardythe, and shoving some enveloped papers into Ardythe’s hand instead. “You’ve lucked out. Our special passengers are ready to go, and there’s room for you to go with them. But the plane’s got over two hundred tourists and businesspeople soon to board. If you’re not there on time, they’ll leave without you. Some businesses are too big to buy off at a thousand times the price, you understand?”
They didn’t, but they let her herd them out the office door like sheep, and down another confusion of doors and hallways, to where nurses were changing the IV bags of three comatose-looking, emaciated female patients strapped in highback wheelchairs, one of them looking vaguely familiar. Ardythe felt gravity shift sideways under her feet.
“You were part of this from the start,” she heard Etienne accuse the doctor, who only waved a dismissive hand again as if it had come to replace explanations repeated too often over too many years. But she did tell Etienne, “Don’t be more stupid than you can help.”
“Why didn’t you check the bearer bonds, to make sure they’re genuine? Why did you leave them in that cab as if they were worth nothing?”
“The cabbie carries the payment where it has to go. Didn’t you see him get out and go looking in the back seat?”
“You should have. It was your money. Anyway, in this particular moment, it doesn’t matter whether the bearer bonds are good or not. We had to pay upfront to get the women out, so we paid. If you’ve stiffed us, you’ve signed the death warrants of the next women we try to rescue, because we won’t have the money for it. Or as good as death warrants,” she added, pointing to them to follow the orderlies now wheeling the chairs to a clean, bright shiny elevator the sun shone into. “Get your hand looked at on the plane,” she called after Ardythe.
The rest of the trip was a blur. Ardythe wasn’t sure if she and Etienne exchanged a word during the flight in an isolated compartment converted for medical purposes, with her cousin’s chair and the other two bolted to the metal floor in place of the first-class seats that must have been there before. Sharing the compartment were three American military medics assigned to the patients. Ardythe thought the one for her cousin sat down and patiently explained things about catheter bags and who would be meeting them when they landed and other procedural things that went right over her head. With every sentence and pause, Etienne nodded like a metronome.
The last thing Ardythe thought she recalled was grabbing the doctor’s arm, just before they got in the elevator. She knew she’d wanted to ask what else because drugs had happened to her cousin, whether her cousin even knew, what she’d remember later... The doctor had given Ardythe no reassuring words, her only response even to mumbled, abject thanks a shrug.
For years afterward, Etienne railed about the doctor to Ardythe every time their paths crossed at family gatherings. She was filled with unabating accusations and rage. Ardythe supposed she had a right to feel that way. Once a minor state department employee, and widowed, she had been the one who’d first found how to pursue the disappearance of her son’s wife, and recruited Ardythe from the other side of the family, though they’d only met before at the wedding. But the rescue seemed not to have brought Etienne whatever it was she’d expected or hoped for. Seeing her cousin avoiding Etienne almost desperately, Ardythe let herself become Etienne’s target instead, letting time take its toll and the occasions of their meeting fewer and fewer. When Ardythe’s cousin married again, years later, Etienne’s rage was renewed, but in nothing like the strength of before, and not directed —never— at her former daughter-in-law; only at the doctor and the unknown organization that had done the rescue.
“Who else is there?” she once demanded of Ardythe, who wasn’t sure what she meant. Did Etienne think there might be others culpable in the kidnapping that had killed her son? Or had she meant, “Who else is there I can blame?” Slowly, Ardythe realized Etienne never spoke to anyone else on either side of the family the way she always had to Ardythe. As if willingness to be recruited somehow included blame. And meritted punishment. But it was too hard to demand answers from Etienne, so she didn’t. What good could it do, really? And finally, there was no one else left who really remembered any of it, Ardythe’s cousin least of all despite all the permanent effects — Ardythe understood then why the doctor hadn’t had anything to say at the end.
Eventually, Ardythe stopped having dreams of death warrants taped to her body and being smothered in overcoats. But sometimes, without any dreams at all, she’d wake up remembering the doctor and the real flight attendant. She hoped they were safe. She hoped they’d gotten other hostages of ransom safe. But knew she’d never know about that for sure, either.
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