Special Agent Olivia Clopton pulled her blue FBI-issued Chevrolet Caprice down the narrow driveway of Dock 42 in San Pedro, California and braced herself for what was coming.
The night was at its peak, the moon muted behind a few lingering storm clouds and casting barely enough light to outline the ships in the harbor, their sterns and hulls like a steel geometry lesson of acute, obtuse and straight angles.
Up ahead and down a small slope of paved asphalt was a staggered grouping of sheriffs’ vehicles, lights flashing, and another unmarked FBI car that had slid sideways into a Ford F-350, the suspects’ vehicle. Agent Schmidt’s car, no doubt.
In the middle of all the vehicles, lit by their headlights, was a faded orange shipping container, the number 584-12 stenciled beneath a spray-painted logo of a fake produce company in Thailand.
As Clopton pulled up, her tires slid on the metal ramp at the end of the driveway, causing all the men gathered around the container to turn and look. Off to her right, a few sheriffs had pinned one of the suspects to the ground, and the other was cuffed and lying face-first against the hood of the truck.
She put the car in park and hopped out, noticing as she walked that she was the only female law enforcement agent there, and the irony of this fact was so thick it made her heart sink.
“Agent Clopton?” asked one of the sheriffs. He was an older man with white hair and had a chevron on the left shoulder of his shirt.
“Sheriff Briggs,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same here,” she said, shaking his hand as she glanced over at Schmidt, who was approaching them and looking a little frazzled.
“Hey there,” he said, his brown hair pushed over his scalp in the wrong direction.
She squirreled up the corner of her mouth. “Tussle?”
“Hell, yeah,” Schmidt responded. “They didn’t want to go down without a fight.”
With both of them working out of the FBI Office in West Los Angeles, Clopton had teamed up on more than a few cases with Schmidt. But this was the first one of this kind for either of them, and as such, their nervousness was obviously mutual. Schmidt raised his eyebrows at her and tilted his head, guiding her attention toward the shipping container.
“We have the dockworker here yet?” Clopton asked.
Briggs nodded, then barked, “Mr. Esguerra?”
A burly Filipino man with a Fu Manchu goatee stepped out of the darkness with a set of tools. “Yeah?”
He nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Somewhere in the distance, the ocean was doing a few wavy turns and splashing against a dingy, which was clanging in protest.
Clopton motioned to the door of the container. “Let’s do this, then.” But it was brave talk. Because how could she not be worried? This was not a drug bust, and she was feeling like she’d give her right arm for it to be. Cases of cocaine, she was used to dealing with. But this was different. Or could be, if their source was correct.
Esguerra stepped forward with a small blowtorch, a thick spike and a crowbar. When he went to work, everyone fell silent, including the two suspects, who up until that point had been cursing at each other in Spanish. It took longer than one might expect, but eventually the lock on the latch was cut and then broken off entirely. Then came the latch itself and a support bar that fell to the damp cement with a clamor.
When the door finally came loose, Esguerra looked to Briggs, who looked him off and motioned toward Clopton. She nodded, and the door was pulled open.
The picture that unfolded next was like some horrible painting of the damned: colors too stark, eyes too wide, horror too pervasive. All women.
At first only a half dozen of them were visible, and then somehow that horribly bleached moonlight made its way through the cracks in the door and further into the container and began to reveal more of them. A dozen, then two dozen, then four. The wide eyes began to fill with wonder as they saw all the lights and the badges. Some of them began to weep and call out to the rest.
My God, Clopton thought, her mind going numb, there’s more?
The smell of human sweat, urine and feces that began flooding out of the container caused instant nausea in her stomach. The fact that it was cut by the heavy salt air that already carried with it the smell of gasoline and seaweed didn’t help. But she forced herself to keep her dinner down as another group began to scurry forward from the very back of the container, expressions of relief, exhaustion and shock twisting their faces like clay.
She heard Schmidt sigh loudly, as if he’d been holding his breath the whole time and finally given in to the protest of his lungs.
As the women emerged, they began to share the same look: humiliation. They were all either partially or totally naked. Many of them were trying to cover their breasts with trembling hands.
“Someone get them some covers!” Clopton said through gritted teeth as she looked away. She called over one of the ambulance drivers and gave him her suit jacket, and Schmidt did the same. She pointed at the suspects. “Get their damn shirts and jackets, too!”
There was a scurry of activity as paramedics and sheriffs ran to gather sheets and shock blankets from their vehicles, but still it wasn’t enough.
Briggs spoke into his radio, calling for more backup. “Bennie!” he shouted at one of the other sheriffs nearby, a tall man with a dark mole on his left cheek. “Hop in your car and get over to the Red Cross building on Ocean Avenue. Tell them what we’re up against and get all the blankets and clothes they can spare. If they don’t have clothes, then get scrubs. They’ve gotta have those. And food and water.”
Bennie nodded, trotted to his car and drove off urgently up the same driveway that Clopton had pulled down.
“You okay, Agent Clopton?” Briggs said, startling her out of her trance. He’d somehow walked right up next to her without her noticing.
She nodded but couldn’t help herself from looking back to all the women. Most of them were openly crying now, collapsing into the arms of their rescuers.
“What now?” Briggs said, looking shaken.
“Well,” Schmidt replied, “first, we get them all taken care of. Then? We get these two assholes out of here and booked.”
Briggs nodded, glanced at the women and then glanced away quickly. “It’s not human.”
Clopton nodded. “No. It’s not.”
“And, well, I’ve got two granddaughters at home, ya know?”
“Hmm,” was all Clopton could manage.
Then Briggs asked a big question. “So. Who are they?”
Clopton put her hands on her hips. “No idea. Yet. But what I can tell you is that they’re probably all from Thailand, some from a city called Pattaya. Most of them look very young. So, I’d say they were either sold by their families for food or outright kidnapped from their towns or villages.”
“Man, oh man,” Briggs said, shaking his head again. Even though the night was cool, sweat had dampened his forehead.
“We got ’em, though,” Schmidt said with the smallest hint of encouragement.
Clopton sighed. “Yeah. But last week we missed the ones at the Long Beach port.”
“Long Beach?” Briggs asked, a look of shock coming over his face.
“Yeah. That group was supposedly out of South America, primarily Ecuador and Peru.”
Some of the women were sitting on the ground while others remained standing. Those that were covered, or partially covered, were shivering, and those that were still stark naked had gathered in a circle, buttocks out, huddling for warmth.
Briggs looked at Clopton. “Same guy?”
“Yep,” she said through clinched lips. Then, almost spitting out the words, she added, “Güero Martinez.”
“Well. One more step in getting to him, right? And, if nothing else, tonight you saved these ones.”
He had no sooner said the words than a younger sheriff, with blue eyes and a square jaw, came walking forward with one of the women. She was short, perhaps five feet, and wrapped in one of the ambulance blankets, her face smeared with dirt and grime and her hair plastered to her head. Her lip was cut and she squinted against the harsh glare of the overhead dock lights.
“Sheriff Briggs? This lady speaks English. She wants to talk to you.”
“No!” the woman shouted, startling them all. “Not him. Not you! Only . . . her!” It was with a painfully bony finger that she pointed at Clopton. Her body looked severely malnourished from the long trip across the ocean, which she and the rest of the women had no doubt been forced to make with barely any food.
Clopton nodded and swallowed hard. Of course. The woman before her would probably never trust any man, ever again. “How can I help?”
“No help. Too late.” The woman said as her lips curved downward and her eyes began to fill with tears. She stumbled and half fell toward Clopton, who caught her by the shoulders. “Dead. In back of box. Five dead. You no help in time!”
The night froze. Schmidt looked to the ground and Briggs took a step back. Two, actually. Probably one for each granddaughter who, but for the grace of birthplace and luck, might not be the ones home safe and in bed tonight.
Clopton, meanwhile, had been knocked completely speechless.
The woman’s eyes widened in agony. “Five. Five dead. One . . . one my sister!” she moaned.
Her small hands gripped Clopton’s forearms with incredible strength. “You!” she screamed. “Understand? You?”
“Y-yes,” Clopton managed.
Then, for some reason, no doubt based in the sheer desperation of it all, the woman asked one, final question with a face full of agony and sorrow. “Why?”
Not a soul on Dock 42 had an answer.