Adam James spat out his spearmint gum as he leaned against a wall that vibrated from the train tracks below his feet. He hefted his AK-47 and watched the group of girls sitting on a bench across the train car. He sighed and looked away when they stared at him again. This was just a job. No need for attachments or conversation. After serving in Iraq, Adam couldn’t believe he resorted to this kind of work, but that’s what happens when you risk your life for your country and end up homeless. He eventually got a job bagging groceries and bouncing at a few night clubs in Philadelphia before he met a guy who offered him twenty grand a job to watch these women they transported on trains from Pennsylvania to Indiana.
Sure it looked fishy. They never stopped or showered, and every once in a while another guard gave them food, but nothing more. Girls who requested phone calls home got ignored. If they asked too many questions, they got guns pointed at them.
Adam knew traffickers when he saw them. He just didn’t give a damn. He needed to live too. He promised himself he would never do it again once he got stable. He considered going back to school and getting a college degree in something. Anything was better than listening to these random women groan when their stomachs growled.
“Sir?” a blonde woman asked as she scratched her arms. “When are we going to stop?”
Adam ignored her and surveyed the room. There was no other cargo in this car but women. Adam shook his head. If he died on this job somehow, there was a special place in hell for him. He muttered a prayer for forgiveness under his breath. He then asked God for a way to do something else for a living until he got his degree. Why exactly did they need him anyway? If they thought Adam was going to shoot at police officers, or shoot one of these women, they were dead wrong. Even he had his limits, and you couldn’t pay him enough to do that. Adam scowled at the thought.
“Hey, Asshole!” the blonde growled as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I asked you a question!”
“I don’t know, Lady, but my name ain’t asshole,” Adam replied.
“Yes you do,” the blonde said. “Look at you. You’ve done this before.”
“Look, it’s probably a couple hours, all right?”
The blonde stood up wearing a white blouse and jeans with white high-heeled shoes. If she didn’t have dirt on her face and sloppy hair, she could be quite the looker. Adam looked her up and down as she approached. She stood in front of his chest and squinted as she looked him in the eye.
“You don’t belong here,” the blonde said. “Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Lady.”
“My husband just kicked me out,” the blonde said. “I had to strip to make ends meet. I heard this pays more. What’s your excuse?”
Adam snorted and looked away.
“Look you said we have a couple hours, right?” the blonde asked. “Might as well pass the time, and since nobody else in here speaks a word of English, I’m talking to you.”
Adam sighed and shook his head.
“Served in Iraq, ended up homeless, now I’m here,” Adam said.
“That sucks balls,” the blonde said with a frown before extending her hand. “Toni.”
“So Adam,” Toni said. “Got a girlfriend?”
“You want one?” Toni asked as she undid the top button on her shirt. “You can have one if you get me off this train.”
When she moved down to the second button, Adam grabbed her hand and shook his head.
“Just sit down.”
Toni flinched before turning and walking across the room to her seat.
“You know if you were a real bad guy you wouldn’t have done that,” Toni said as she leaned back and crossed her legs. “Be a hero, and get me out of here. I don’t think it’s what they say it is.”
“What’d they tell you?”
“Brothel in Nevada,” Toni replied with a flip of her hair. “Great way to get back at my husband if it wasn’t bullshit.”
“What makes you think it is?”
Toni cocked her eyebrow and pointed at the sleeping girl sprawled across a couple seats next to her with pink barrettes in her brown hair wearing a plain brown dress and sandals. The girl moaned and frowned until Toni rubbed her back. The girl smiled and resumed snoring as Toni ran her fingers through her hair.
“Legal brothels require legal age, honey,” Toni asked. “Either she’s a kid or she’s going to look real good when she hits forty. She doesn’t belong here like you and me. She should be in an orphanage somewhere.”
Yet another reason Adam was going to hell’s VIP section. His employer was trafficking kids too. Adam shook his head again. He needed to get out of this fast, but how? He needed the money or he was out on the street again. Adam had nowhere else to turn.
“You could save us both,” Toni said. “You can save us all, not just me. I’ll still be your girlfriend.”
“Don’t want a girlfriend.”
“I’ll be whatever you want.”
“Can you be 20 grand?” Adam asked.
“So you can be bought, but you can’t be seduced?” Toni replied. “With that kind of focus how’d you end up here?”
“I already told you.”
“The real reason,” Toni snapped. “You couldn’t call one of your soldier buddies to help you out?”
“Look it doesn’t matter, all right?” Adam snapped back. “Just be quiet until we arrive.”
Toni glared at Adam before crossing her arms and legs and looking away. He felt a tinge of guilt in his throat, but when he looked at her, she refused to make eye contact. Adam sighed and looked at his gun. That bridge was officially burned. Adam frowned when he heard the door from the next car open. Another guard pushed a brown-skinned woman with long, jet black hair wearing a black dress into the car. Her hands were plastic tied behind her back and the guard pushed her with the butt of his AK-47, sending her crashing to the floor.
“Hey, pal, she’s a lady,” Toni said. “Take it easy.”
“Shut up,” the guard snapped before looking at Adam. “She tried to escape. Pay attention, will you? These black chicks are sneaking around. They don’t listen to anybody.”
Adam frowned at the black woman lying on the ground. He watched every woman enter this car and none of them left this room. Where did this chick come from? Adam studied her body. She looked like a few female military personnel he knew. Did she serve before? Maybe her country failed her too. It didn’t matter. Adam still had to get paid and getting blamed for an escapee might interfere with that.
“Look, if she got lost it’s not on me,” Adam said. “I watched all these girls get on the train.”
“Then why was she hiding in the kitchen?” the other guard demanded.
“I don’t know, man,” Adam said. “I’m paid to stay in this car, not chase chicks around the whole damn train.”
“I’m not buying it,” the other guard barked.
“I don’t give a shit if you do!” Adam replied. “I’m telling you the truth. She never got in this car.”
“It’s not bullshit,” said the black woman and Adam and the other guard stared at her as she rolled onto her knees and faced him with her hair flopped over her face. “Adam didn’t see me coming because I didn’t sneak on this way. Adam always does his job. Don’t you, Adam? At least you did in the Marines. What happened to you wasn’t fair.”
“How do you know my name?” Adam asked and he gulped before his next question. “And how do you know…what happened?”
The black woman flipped her hair back over her head and smiled at Adam with a stare so intense he felt trapped into staring back into her emerald green eyes. Adam snapped to attention when she blinked. His heart didn’t forget though. It kept pounding against his chest. What the hell was that?
“Doesn’t really matter,” the black woman said before facing the other guard. “As for you, you should really learn to be gentler with a lady.”
Adam frowned at this black woman who spoke with so much confidence while her hands were tied and she was surrounded by two guards with automatic guns. Something about her presence when she spoke made his knees shake. He survived bombings and gunfire overseas and staring at this woman felt no different than watching a grenade drop in front of him. Adam noticed Toni staring at the black woman with her mouth open and her bottom lip quivering. She must’ve felt the same way.
“Adam, you have one chance to surrender,” the black woman said. “It’s too late for your friend. He won’t die, but he won’t go unpunished either. I’ve got something for his ass, but I don’t have to have it for you if you stay out of this fight.”
“Look, lady,” Adam said with a chuckle as he clutched his gun. “You’re not in any position to–”
The black woman hopped up and snapped open her restraints. Adam jumped back and the other guard drew his gun. Adam blinked and the black woman held the other guard in a rear naked choke. He squirmed until his body limped, and she dropped him to the floor. She wiped her hands on her dress before she paced the car with her hands on her hips.
“What?” she asked Adam. “He’ll survive. I promise. I already killed my intended target. I just needed to stop this shipment.”
“How?” Adam stammered as he pointed at his coworker. “How the hell did you–”
“They never inform you guys,” the black woman sighed. “I’m the reason you have that gun. It’s because I’m…unusual.”
Adam looked at the other guard. He still wasn’t moving.
“He’ll get up,” the black woman said with a wave of her hand. “I’m not that careless.”
“He looks dead,” Toni muttered.
“And you look like you work out as much as I do,” the black woman said. “Can you do what I just did?”
Toni shook her head.
“Outside appearances don’t matter much,” the black woman said. “It’s the inside that matters. Oh! That gives me a good idea.”
Adam watched this woman saunter toward him before leaning next to him against the wall. She knocked on the wall with her knuckle and leaned her head against it before grinning at him. When she closed his eyes, Adam wondered if she fell asleep like the girl across the car. She looked so peaceful as she rubbed the wall with her brown hand and clipped nails, nails much cleaner than the other girls on the train. She was never a captive. She boarded this train for another reason. Was she a cop?
Her eyes snapped open and Adam flinched.
“You might want to grab onto something,” she said before snatching his gun, bending the barrel and handing it back. “Just in case you get any crazy ideas.”
Adam’s jaw dropped. He had never been disarmed in his life and she took his gun and returned it before he could react? She even twisted it like a lump of play dough! Who was this woman? What was she? Why was she here now of all nights?
“What’s your name?” Adam asked.
“If you require one, call me Janet.”
“Janet, what are you doing?” Adam asked.
“Like I told you,” Janet replied with a grin. “I’m preventing this shipment from reaching its destination. All right, we’re far enough from the bridge.”
Janet darted across the car and slammed her shoulder into the opposite wall. Toni shrieked over the groaning and crashing as Adam’s world turned upside down and the car turned dark. Adam couldn’t see what he banged his head against, but when the rolling stopped, he held his temple and searched the black car. When he heard a creaking, screeching noise he covered his face and curled into a fetal position. The ruckus stopped and he looked up and saw a star-lit sky above him. Adam watched Janet carry two women on her hips and another on her back as she jumped on top of the now open train car. Did she pull the train car open like a can of soup? How could anyone have that kind of strength?
“You all right?” Janet asked.
“Yeah,” Toni said from Janet’s back. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re a mile from town,” Janet said with a pointed finger as Toni stepped down. “Walk that way, and you’ll make it to shelter. I wish I could follow you, but I can’t.”
“Why not?” Toni asked.
“In a few moments I’ll be fighting for my life,” Janet said as matter-of-fact as a weather prediction. “Go.”
Toni looked back at Adam and waved before climbing over the edge followed by the other two girls after Janet let them go. Janet then faced Adam.
“Again, I recommend you stay out of this,” Janet said before she turned her back. “Four other cronies are coming now. I’ll take them out, and then I’ll leave. You should check your bank account when you get home. I already deposited your check with lots of interest. Just don’t tell the military I stole it. It’s kind of a crime.”
“Thanks,” Adam said.
“As far as I’m concerned, they owed it to you,” Janet replied. “You’ll never have to do this again. So don’t. Got it?”
“Yeah sure,” Adam said as Janet jumped off the train car. He sprinted and climbed up to watch her leave. Janet stood a hundred feet from the car when four men with guns approached from her left. They were the other guards assigned to this train, and Adam heard they had just as much military experience as him. Janet stopped and faced them.
“Stand down, gentlemen,” Janet called. “You’re not paid enough to deal with me.”
Adam heard a gun cock just before Janet darted across the grass and kicked one guy in the gut. When he blinked, she stood behind another guard and backhanded his temple, sending him to the ground. The third guard shot and missed when Janet ducked out of the line of fire, and the guard behind her screamed as he clutched his shoulder and fell to his knees. Janet uppercut the shooter’s chin and he fell onto his back. The injured guard dug into his back pocket, pulled out a grenade, yanked the needle with his teeth, and rolled it behind Janet.
The grenade exploded into a cloud of dirt.
Adam turned his head and cursed under his breath. He watched too many Marines fall victim to explosives from close range, and that blast was right between her legs. There was no way she could walk away from that. When the dirt settled, Janet remained standing with her head tucked into her forearms. She removed her arms and examined herself, patting her dress and wiggling her legs. Adam’s dropped his gun as he stared.
“Huh,” Janet said as she flexed her triceps and checked them out. “I wondered about that. Good to know.”
She darted across the field and stomped the grenade thrower’s injured shoulder, grinding her foot into his wound until he screamed and passed out. Adam’s hands trembled when Janet stepped over her last opponent and jogged toward the train. He jumped down and leaned against the wall,closing his eyes as if they could shield him from an impending attack.
“Hey, Adam,” Janet called. “If I were you, I’d fight for the Marines to clear your name. It’s not murder when your comrade shoots first. I saw the evidence. If I was your attorney, I could prove it. Someone else can to.”
Adam flinched. How did she know about that? More importantly, why did she care? Did she do a background check on him or something? What was the point in that?
“You might want to find Toni in town first,” Janet said. “She thinks your cute. Head east about a mile. She’ll be in the motel, and I might’ve told her to wait for you. I saved her for now, but if you want, you can be the hero she asked for from this point on. Up to you.”
“Now wait a minute,” Adam said as he stood up and climbed up the train car. “How am I supposed to-”
She was gone. Adam climbed onto the train car and searched the field and the trees on the other side. It was too dark to tell which way she went, and considering how fast she moved, there was no way he could catch up. Adam sighed and looked back into the train car when he heard the guard inside groan awake. He then looked at the group of guards Janet left in the field as they rolled on the ground and asked each other what happened and where she went. When Adam hopped off the train car, one of the guards pointed a gun at him.
“Where the hell were you?” he asked.
“I was watching,” Adam said.
“You didn’t help?”
“For what?” Adam replied. “So we can peddle more kids? No thanks, man.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not trying to say anything,” Adam barked. “I quit.”
“Not an option,” the guard said as he pulled the trigger. Adam flinched until he only heard a click. The guard clicked over and over as he cursed at his weapon. Janet must’ve disarmed him so fast he couldn’t see it. She didn’t come here just to help the girls. She wanted to help Adam too. Now the background info made sense. Adam looked at the sky and smiled.
Well, that was one way to answer a prayer.
“Like I told you,” Adam said. “I quit. I’m leaving. Don’t follow.”
Adam turned his back on the guards and strolled east. If Toni needed a hero, she had one. He owed Janet that much. He owed God a little more. Adam always paid his debts.
Oh, and Toni wasn’t half bad herself.
How much damage has Achilla done to Xerxes’ sex trafficking ring? You’ll have to read on June 5th to find out! Pre-order your copy of Strike of the Mantis here!
Be heroes, my friends.