27

“Irina Kozak,” he said after they’d said goodbye and made it down the rutted, winding drive and turned onto the gravel road. “I met her about three years ago. She was buying cigarettes at a convenience store and was having trouble with the cashier, who was trying to rip her off. I straightened him out and we fell into conversation. She didn’t know any English, so she was happy to have someone who understood her. But she didn’t tell me what was going on for the longest time. Too scared.”

“What was going on?”

“She’d been trafficked. Not what people usually think, it wasn’t sex work. She cleaned office buildings and hotel rooms. In exchange for working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, they agreed not to kill her.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“The Demchak brothers. Real charmers. Their organization brought her over on a tourist visa, with the understanding they’d get her a work permit and a job at a hotel. She’s from a dinky little town. No jobs, no future there, so it seemed like a good deal. Once she got here, they took her passport and told her how it was going to work. They had organized all the paperwork, paid for the bribes and the airfare, gave her a place to live. She had a debt to pay off. Pretty soon, she realized there was a whole bunch of women like her paying off debt, and none of them ever got free and clear.”

“Those crooked cops you told me about, were they involved?”

“That . . . well, I may have misled you a little.”

“It was a lie.”

“No, course not. Well, parts of it. What happened is, I had been helping my BPD friend out with a thing involving a prostitution ring. Some guys were bringing in kids from the boondocks to work on the streets, and a couple of cops were involved, taking a cut. That part was true. It didn’t involve the deputy superintendent, though, or a strike force. I exaggerated a little.”

“That’s what they call a lie.”

“I wasn’t sure I could trust you at that point. I needed to stay out of the picture long enough to make sure she was safe. Lying to a federal officer can get you five years in the slammer, and I wasn’t about to tell them where she was.”

“This Irina person.”

“Right. She’s from Ukraine. They have a network there, the Demchaks. They recruit women from the countryside, people who are desperate, and feed them into the outfit over here. It’s big. They operate in eight cities, servicing office buildings, hotels, and industrial laundries up and down the east coast, and nobody asks questions about the workers’ status because it’s all handled through a tangle of subcontracts. You get the labor you need and none of the responsibility for hiring people without documents. All of these women are caught between our government, which would deport them in an instant for overstaying their visa, and the Demchaks, who not only beat the crap out of them to keep them in line but promise to have them killed back home if they get deported. Which has happened. At least six women who tried to get away were scooped up by ICE. Irina knew two of them personally. The gang had photos of what happened to them back in Ukraine. They’d make sure all their workers saw those pictures so they’d know not to turn to the authorities.”

“But Irina did?”

“Not at first. Too risky, so I tried to get the goods on the Demchaks myself, but that didn’t go too well. They took me on as an errand boy, but before I could get enough evidence for a prosecution they figured out what I was doing and tried to take me out. So, that door was closed. By that time I’d taken the whole mess to my friend in the BPD, and it was going up the chain. A prosecutor decided this could be a good case for his career. He wanted witnesses. Irina agreed to help, which would have worked out fine if the feds hadn’t tried to take it over. They got into a pissing match with the prosecutor, and all Irina wanted was to take care of her little boy.”

“How did this kid come into it?”

“Right, it complicated things. When she got pregnant, she kept it quiet. They didn’t know until she was well along. Had the baby by herself in one of the apartments where they kept them when they weren’t working. A couple of the older women knew what to do. The bosses tried to take the baby away, but Irina’s fierce. When she gets this look in her eye . . .”

He turned to gaze out the passenger side window for a minute, as if the cows they were passing were fascinating. Then he coughed and pinched his nose. “Anyway, she just bundled him up and took him to work and nobody messed with her. They had already pulled her off hotels, too many opportunities for her to interact with people and get ideas. She was cleaning empty office buildings overnight, and when that shift was done they’d take her to a laundry they controlled. She kept Max with her the whole time. Maksim. Cute little guy.”

“That arrangement wasn’t going to work forever.”

“No. He was getting too big. She was afraid they were going to take him from her and . . . god knows what. It was only a matter of time, so she needed a way out. I took her to meet with the police and a prosecutor, but then FBI agents and CBP and an asshole from Homeland Security got into it. They wanted to use her to nail the Demchaks, and kept putting the screws on her in different ways. She wasn’t cooperative enough. Not the right kind of victim. It would have been more compelling if it was sex trafficking, instead of her coming here for honest work, that shit’s illegal. Besides, she’d slept around and had a baby, that showed poor character. Like that. When they pushed her, she pushed right back, and they didn’t like it. The feds hinted she could get a T visa, but the prosecutor wouldn’t certify her.”

“What’s a T visa?”

“It’s temporary status for people who have been trafficked. You can stay for up to four years, but only if a local law enforcement agency says you’re cooperating in an investigation, which means if they don’t like your attitude, you’re screwed. That’s one thing Irina has plenty of, attitude. When the prosecutor decided to be a hardass and threatened to take Max she decided she wasn’t going to let them be separated. So I helped her out.”

“Helped, how?”

“I found some people who found other people who could smuggle her across the border to Canada so she could apply for refugee status. The lawyer who sent that message to you, she lined up supporters there, including a politician who knows about Irina’s situation and likes to poke the US  government in the eye. ‘Arrived safely’ meant Irina presented herself at an immigration office and they think she has a credible asylum claim. It’ll take a long time to work through the process, and it’s not a guarantee. People have been pouring over the border, given the situation for immigrants here. But at least for now she’s with her son and they won’t be separated. That’s all she wanted.”

“What’s going to happen to you?”

“Not sure. Best case scenario, I get to help make a case against these traffickers. If the feds and that prosecutor really want to bust these guys, there are ways to do it without her testimony. Worst case, they’ll find something to charge me with and I’ll go to prison.” He shrugged. “Or the Demchaks try again and manage to bump me off this time.” He seemed to find that amusing.

“Those are all crappy options. Don’t you worry that—”

“Weren’t we supposed to turn back there?”

“Shit. I think you’re right.” She looked for a place to turn around.

“Or take the scenic route. I have plenty of time.”

“I don’t get it. Why are you in such a good mood?”

“You solved your case. Irina and Max are safe. It’s a good day.”

She found a wide spot in the gravel road and circled back to the intersection, made the turn, made a few more turns and got onto the interstate. “I wish there was a way to make sure nobody else finds Danny,” she said once the highway was humming under them. But he had fallen asleep.

She chased the problem in circles as she drove, but didn’t get anywhere.

 

“You mind dropping me off in Bronzeville?” he asked as they approached the city, traffic growing clotted with rush hour, the spiky profile of the Loop jutting into low clouds. “Might as well go straight to headquarters, get this over with.”

“You sure?” He nodded. “All right. Let me know what happens.”

“If I can, I will.”

“I couldn’t have found Danny without your help. I owe you.”

“If you want to pay me back, set the record straight. Tell the world who Felix really was: a man who helped kids in trouble, not a monster.”

“I don’t know. I mean, sure, he wasn’t a monster but if the police think he was, if they concluded he killed Danny, they’d stop looking and Danny would be safe.” She thought about that notebook, the one in which Feliks Król told Danny’s story in his weird, mythic way. She should delete it from the server, try to get her hands on the original . . .

“That’s true.” He frowned in thought. “You’re going to keep working for this art historian guy?”

“For now.”

“So, in the course of your research, you find evidence pointing to someone else. Lay down a false trail.”

“You have ideas?”

“Let me think on it.”

She thought about it, too. It would have to be something good enough to fool Shirley McGrath and her partner, something that would hold up to media scrutiny. Planting physical evidence would be tricky. Something circumstantial, but solid enough . . . it wasn’t going to be easy.

The towers of the Loop rose in front of them, veiled in mist off the lake. Slovo smiled and shook his head ruefully. ”Man, I missed this place.”

“Do you think you’ll come back when this business in Boston is wrapped up?”

“Nah. Too many memories. Too many ghosts.”

“Plus you have family here and you don’t get along with them.”

“It’s not . . . I mean . . .” He scratched his scalp and sighed. “It’s not their fault we grew up like we did. I should probably call Steve one of these days.”

“When he’s actually home?” He shot a look at her. “He told me you only call when nobody’s around to answer. He seems like a good guy.”

“He is. We just don’t have much in common except sharing a crummy childhood. For a long time, I was mad at him for not fixing it, for joining the army and leaving me behind, but that’s stupid, he was just a kid himself. He couldn’t do anything. And our mother . . . I can’t say I’ll ever understand whatever was going on with her, but I was kind of the same way. I mean, I had a temper. A really bad temper.”

“A bust-up-the-office-furniture temper.”

He laughed. “You remember that?”

“Heard about it. It was legendary.”

“Yeah, well. Weirdest thing, it mostly went away. Almost like during all those surgeries I had on my leg, that anger got removed. So maybe I could talk to Steve now without losing it. You close to your brother?”

“Yeah. Real close, though our childhood wasn’t great. I had a temper, too. Acted out at school a lot. I was mad at my mom for a long time, for the way we grew up, for abandoning us, for all those foster homes. I got over it when I realized why she probably did what she did. I mean, I don’t know anything about her, but I met enough people in situations like hers to realize it probably was the best she could do for us.” She made the exit onto LaSalle. “So, what, you’ll stay in Beantown, then?”

He shrugged. “Probably. They need translators, I’ll have work, and I like the place well enough. Though for a while I actually had the crazy idea I might try to emigrate. Join Irina and Max once they got settled, but she nixed that plan.”

She made the turn onto Michigan and drew up to the curb across from police headquarters.

“You and Irina. You were . . . in a relationship?”

“It’s that what you call it?” he said. “I love her, that’s all.”

Anni thought back. What had he said, he’d met someone, and it changed him? This sounded serious. “Is Max your son?” she blurted out.

“I thought so for a while. I wanted him to be. She says he isn’t.” He smiled wryly. “And don’t ask her about it. She’ll tell you it’s nobody’s business, and the way she says it? You won’t ask twice. She’s independent,” he added. “And tough as nails. It’s just her and Max against the world. They’ll be all right.”

“Maybe you can visit, anyway.”

“I don’t think so. I didn’t say she loved me.”

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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.