He could hear the sounds of large doors being raised. He didn’t know exactly what the sounds represented, but they scared him. Everything and everyone here scared him.
He felt a tap on his shoulder and jerked. Then he turned to face him.
Diego stared at Mateo and Mateo stared back at Diego.
They were in a space about twenty feet square and steel bars kept them there. They were more precisely lying on the floor of the cage that had been their home for the last two days.
Mateo whispered, “I’m scared, Diego.”
Diego nodded and gripped the little boy’s hand.
Diego had gone to the duenos to see if they would protect him and his cousins from the three men who had beaten Isabel and Mateo. He had taken Mateo with him because there had been no one at his abuela’s home to watch the little boy. And plus Diego did not think they would harm him with Mateo there.
He could not have been more wrong.
What had come next had been frighteningly chaotic.
Men had arrived.
Something had been given to Diego and Mateo to drink. The next thing he knew he was in this place. He didn’t know where this place was, or how he had gotten here.
He cupped Mateo’s ear with his hand and whispered back, “It will be okay.”
It was a lie, and from the look on Mateo’s face he knew it.
The light here was dim, so dim in fact as to make Diego queasy. Mateo had thrown up once, perhaps as an aftereffect of whatever had been slipped into their drinks.
They were not alone here. There were ten cages like the one they were in. And all of them were full. In Diego’s cage were ten other people. All adults, or close to it. They had segregated men from women.
Diego could make out some of these shapes in the weak light.
In his cage the men and teenage boys sat on their haunches, looking at the gap between their knees.
It was exactly how Diego felt.
He didn’t know for sure why he and Mateo had been taken.
In the back of his mind, however, he had heard the stories on the streets.
Secuestradores de personas.
Takers of people.
Diego never thought he would be taken.
He looked over at Mateo. He was only five. Little more than a baby. Why would they take Mateo? It made no sense.
A guard came by with a slender jug of water and a plate of bread and fruit. He passed them through a slot in the bars.
The biggest men in the cage grabbed at the plate and jug. They drank their fill and ate what they wanted and the leftovers were passed down. By the time the plate and jug got to Diego and Mateo there was barely a sip of water left, a few crumbs of bread, and a wedge of apple. He gave it all to Mateo, trying to ignore the thirst in his throat and the rumble in his belly.
He sat back up against the bars and stared down the line at the other cages. His gaze flitted to one that contained women. None looked older than thirty. Many were teenagers.
Diego could understand why they had been taken.
Putas, he thought. They would be worth a great deal of money.
His gaze ventured upward to the high ceiling of the place where exposed air ducts and electrical lines were revealed.
This was a warehouse of some kind, Diego had already deduced.
But where it was he had no idea. He had no idea if he was still in Paradise. Or even still in Florida.
He thought of his abuela and his eyes grew heavy with tears. He thought of Isabel wondering where they were and his eyes grew heavier still.
Then he thought of the big man who had asked him to find the two men in the car. He seemed interested in Diego. He had helped Isabel and Mateo. He could beat people up. He was big and strong. He had driven a fancy car. Perhaps he was rich. Maybe he would come and find them.
But Diego maintained this hopeful thought for barely a second. That was crazy, he told himself. The man would not come. No one would come.
He looked around at the other cages again.
This was obviously a big business. They were organized and had lots of money behind them. They took people and sold them all over the place; he just knew this to be true.
He looked at Mateo.
Would they sell them together? Or would Mateo go off alone?
He knew Mateo would cry and cry. And maybe the secuestradores de personas would get angry and kill him to quiet him.
He reached out and gripped Mateo’s arm so tightly that the little boy let out a small gasp.
I will never let you go, Mateo, Diego promised himself.
The lights grew dimmer still. Diego looked around, fear gripping him.
All the other prisoners in the cages were doing the same thing, looking around, but also trying to shrink themselves so as not to draw attention.
They could all sense that something was coming. And that what was coming would not be good for them.
The man slowly came up the metal steps and stopped in front of the line of cages. Peter Lampert’s image was not clear enough for Diego to make out who it was. But he had never seen Lampert before, so an identification would not have been possible in any case.
There were other men behind Lampert. One was James Winthrop. The men were dressed elegantly in blazers, white shirts, and slacks that looked professionally tailored to their bodies. Thousand-dollar shoes were on their feet. They could have been investment bankers going to a meeting.
Winthrop held an electronic tablet and was making notes on it as Lampert inspected his product and made certain decisions. He walked up and down in front of the cages pointing to people inside and giving instructions to Winthrop, who dutifully inputted them on the tablet. They could have been inspecting cattle in slaughterhouses or cars rolling off an assembly line. There was a clear air of business being conducted here, even though the product was human and breathing.
Two other men came toward them. They carried packages wrapped in plastic. Lampert snapped his fingers and the men hurried forward.
Lampert examined the packages and slit one open with his finger. He pulled out four blue shirts, looked at the list Winthrop had compiled, and pointed at four people in three different cages. The shirts were taken to these people and they were forced to put them on.
Red shirts came out and were given to all men who were larger and more muscular than the others.
Green shirts were pulled out and placed on the younger, good-looking women and some of the younger, angelic-looking men and boys.
All the shirts were given out, except for two in a separate package.
Lampert slit this package open and pulled out two yellow shirts.
He glanced at Winthrop’s tablet, running his eye down the list.
Then he turned and looked up and down the row of cages until his surveillance finally came to a stop in front of Diego’s cage.
He looked down at the two boys and smiled. He said something to Winthrop that Diego could not completely catch, but it sounded like, “New product line.” Then some more words were spoken he could not hear, and then he caught another snatch.
“Family unit. Lower scrutiny. Fetch a good price on the market.”
He gave the yellow shirts to another man, who went into the cages and forced Diego and Mateo to put them on.
A few moments later, men, hardened evil- looking men, came through the cages and told each of the prisoners what would happen to them if they uttered one word about where they had come from once they reached their final destination.
“Everyone you love, every family member you have—and we know where they all are, indeed we have many of them in cages like this— will be slaughtered. If you speak one word to anyone we will bring you their heads as a reminder of what you have done.”
They had looked down at Diego and Mateo and asked them if they would like to hold the severed head of their abuela.