MADE IN THE IMAGE
by Mickie Turk
Andy O’Keefe knew he was being watched, but not by the blue-grey uniforms assigned to the lines.
He had felt Sasha’s limpid stare tracking him since early morning. It started when he finished retrieving data from a frozen hard drive. While putting his tools away, Andy dropped a screwdriver behind him. When he turned around, the gangling Russian slave was holding it in his hands standing like a bird of prey, blinking hard. Andy had felt naked, like bait. During lunch, Sasha watched him eat his whole sandwich before going outside to smoke. Was he on to him? Was this really how it would all end? After six months of dogged surveillance, wiretaps, and countless man-hours and resources poured into undercover police work, to be outmaneuvered and trounced by a twelve-year-old? Or was the boy just curious about the outsider. A non-Russian, looking anything like but what you might expect in a techie. Andy refused to wear a uniform, just stuck to jeans and a tee. His hair was always in his eyes, too long, and subject to cowlicks. A real live American.
Maybe the kid was lonely and wanted a friend. But he didn’t speak English. And they both knew that the illegal factory made for a lousy neighborhood meet-and-greet. A cavernous space laid out in twelve rows, eight boys to each. Serious looking goons walking back and forth making sure no one dropped a stitch. A place where young supple hands and small dexterous fingers—ideal tools for quick and efficient assembly—attached small parts to circuit boards. The new startup company, MotionAmerica, specialized in motors and drives used in semiconductor technology. Andy had it on authority that ever since sales had started to soar, more and more of the company’s profits had to be laundered. Not much of a surprise when the biggest overhead, salaries and benefits, had been eliminated. When you only employed itinerant workers and human slaves, anything was possible. Hear! Hear! America was about to become great again.
No, Andy didn’t think it was safe to chummy up with one of the kids, not yet. Not with so much at stake. But at the end of the day that is exactly what the undercover cop would do.
Andy closed the cover on the main server. The motherboard inside the installation computer was as good as new. He looked at his watch. Just enough time to check in with the captain and make it to the World Series game. Not just any World Series, but the first of the season played at Marlin Park, where, if there were any justice in the world, the Marlins would soon be thrashing the Minnesota Twins. But just then, flailing hands and pointing fingers beckoned him to the back of the room. Now he would be late. Shit, those tickets cost $250.00 each.
He walked over to the Sasha’s computer expecting the worst. The page was open to Google Translate. Andy glanced at the computer screen, back at Sasha who for once was not looking at him, then back at the screen. With a simple keystroke Russian morphed into English and, for the first time, Andy felt the crust of everyday routine lift. The air crackled with promise.
I KNOW THINGS. I CAN HELP.
It was time to call in their secret weapon.
Ten months later
Special Agent Lydia Angelova wished she could take off her jacket. The air conditioning in the truck was no match for Miami summer heat and humidity. But that would give her away. She looked in the rear view mirror and liked what she saw. A ball cap pulled down low over her forehead and oversized sunglasses camouflaged her delicate feminine features. She looked just like another UPS driver. She looked like a guy. Satisfied, she pulled high-powered binoculars to her head and scanned the horseshoe-shaped warehouse across the interstate. Two-story square buildings attached by a series of steel garage doors, lined up like concrete cutouts. A half-dozen unwashed white vans lounged at a deserted loading dock. The small parking lot was full but quiet. On the western side, men and boys stood around eating sandwiches. When they finished, they smoked. As soon as two boys came out of a door at the opposite end and sat down on the stoop to eat their lunch, Lydia slid into drive.
She parked at an angle, positioning the UPS truck to keep her and the informant concealed from the rest of the warehouse and most of the parking lot. She studied the two boys. Where Sasha was tall and fair, golden-eyed like a cat, Tadzio was dark haired, short and stocky, with round mournful brown eyes. While he ate his sandwich, the younger boy kept his eyes on the ground, trained on a sketchpad and broken pencil. When Lydia stepped out of the truck, Sasha smiled at his friend and then gently elbowed him in the ribs. Without a word, the younger boy swallowed the rest of his sandwich, gathered up his drawing materials, and clambered up the stairs.
Only then did Lydia speak. She loved the guttural resonance of Russian but had few opportunities to use it.
"Где же вы были? Я ехал сюда пять раз в две недели фиктивные поставки. Я не смел спросить о вас. Даже не—"
“Where on earth have you been? I drove here five times in two weeks on bogus deliveries. I didn’t dare ask about you. Not even—”
They watched the departing Tadzio shut the door behind him.
“I imagined the worst. You had me so scared,” she said.
“They sent me to another facility to learn a new computer program. Right now I’m their star pupil. That’s good, don’t you think? I can be more help to you.”
Lydia didn’t want more help from Sasha. She wanted it to be over. To be able to break the case and free all the boys. The case to break all cases. If everything went right, this bust would lay the foundation for identifying future crimes before they even happened. Not only would mid-and high-level Russian traffickers go to prison, their slaves would be freed and given a new chance at life. And best of all, everyone would find out about it. Word would leap across continents that the Russian crime syndicate was invadable. When news broke out that mere children fought back and snitched on their captors, world traffickers would lose credibility. In the future, it wouldn’t be so easy to rely on complete submission from their victims. Lest one betray them, like Sasha had.
Sasha wrinkled his brow when he saw Lydia’s eyes dart back and forth. He knew that’s what she did when she was deep in thought, but he never liked it. It took her away from him. Then he saw her reach inside her pocket and he beamed.
“New iPod. For me? What do I tell the others?”
“Tell them I’m a perv trying to get next to you.”
Sasha laughed. “Good plan. Thanks, everyone will be jealous.”
Lydia said, “Anything new I should know about?”
“No, the delivery is still going down like I said before. Same place, same time. In a week. It’s big, the biggest, I think.”
Sasha tore his gaze away from his present to scrutinize Lydia. He raised a slender finger.
Before she could stop him, her ball cap slid off. As it did, long dark chestnut tresses fell past her shoulders. She took off her sunglasses and smiled.
“You remind me of my mother. But not so tired. What’s going to happen to me? I can’t go back. There’s nothing there for me anymore,” the boy said.
Lydia knew Sasha was right. He had no one. And now he was working as a slave for the same people that had annihilated his family only two years earlier. Back in Russia, his father had been murdered for turning state’s evidence against the mob. At first his mother tried to keep it together, but they soon ran out of money, then food, and finally she had to sell their apartment to settle debts. Out on the streets, Sasha’s mother gave up and began disassociating from reality. Right before pneumonia killed her, she had stopped talking to her son, because she no longer recognized him.
Lydia quickly wrapped up her hair, popped the ball cap back on, and adjusted her sunglasses.
“Don’t worry. I gave you my word. I will find you a good home. I promise, you’re going to love it.”
“But I want to live with you, Lydia.”
Sasha’s gaze strayed upward. Lydia followed it and detected a slight movement in a small round window on the second story stairwell. The noonday sun appeared to melt the glass, but they could still make out the chubby round cheeks mashed against windowpane. As quickly, they slid their eyes past the truck when they heard footsteps on the tarmac. Lydia grabbed a package from the passenger side and mumbled, “I better get going.”
Sasha got up to follow when a strong hand gripped his neck.
The man was a human block and he matched the building. Grey, nondescript, and square. The block snatched Sasha’s iPod and scowled.
"Из драйвера ИБП. Я думаю, что он любит меня."
“Where did you get this?”
“From the UPS driver. I think he likes me.”
“Don’t you know anything about pedophiles? First they give you gifts, and then they want blowjobs. Maybe you want that too?”
Sasha said, “You’re sick. Give it back. He tugged at the electronic device. The block spat at the ground. A sickly yellow mass pooled next to Sasha’s foot. He let go of the player but not before jabbing the boy in the back. “Just be sure you’re not, or Markiza will feed you to the wolves.”
Tadzio couldn’t wait any longer for Sasha in the stairwell. The bell rang for the second time and he had to go back to work. They would be expecting him to restart the all-day task of shredding paper. The boy trod up the last set of stairs and was almost through the doorway when someone blocked his way. He had to point his chin way up to the ceiling to see the top of the man’s head and then froze. Markiza. He wasn’t scowling for once; instead he smiled before bending down to pat his head. When he saw the behemoth reach for his sketchpad, Tadzio quickly drew his hand back. The boy slid between the man’s legs and was almost free when another man sandwiched him. He looked back to see Markiza waggle his fingers.
“Дай мне это мальчик.”
“Give it to me boy.”
This time, while the back of his throat began to close and small tears formed in the corners of his eyes, Tadzio let go and as he did, something smooth and cool pressed against his palm. A clear plastic bag with an unmarked drawing pad and a box of brand new colored pencils. Tadzio immediately forgot about his sketchbook.
Markiza carried Tadzio’s sketchbook to his office, sat down, and began flipping through the drawings. The first pages detailed the factory space—young boys at work, their handlers standing over them. On a separate sheet, the same room, same perspective, but Markiza was in it this time and shown shouting at a subordinate. He was the biggest thing in the room. Markiza liked that. The boy had talent. His friend Sasha dominated many of the next pages—standing, sitting, or working at a computer. All normal observations until he got to the drawings of the UPS truck. There were dozens of renderings detailing a variety of angles and perspectives of the vehicle. Much like what a photographer might do if he were obsessed with a delivery truck. In the last sketches, Tadzio inserted a driver. In one, the UPS driver had just stepped out of the vehicle carrying a small package under his arm. He wore a ball cap and sunglasses. It could have been a mock-up for the company’s ad campaign. In another, the driver had climbed back into the truck with Sasha waving behind him. The next one showed the same driver leaning against the truck grinning, smoking. Sasha stood next to him, also smoking. In the last one, the driver’s half-closed eyelids exposed long curled eyelashes like a doll’s. Here, Tadzio’s cartoon-like motion of Sasha flipping back the ball cap, revealed a shock of thick luxuriant hair flowing past the narrow shoulders of a female.
Darryl King sank his body deeper into the earth and was barely conscious of Andy next to him until the other man chirped.
“Darryl, sting and stakeout are two different animals. A sting is art. You create diversions, misdirections, traps; then you storm the citadel like a Roman. That’s art. But stakeout is only a distant relative of surveillance; it comes from the practice of surveyors, who mainly measure stuff before a project commences. This here, what we’re doing, is a stakeout. But this here, should be a sting.”
“Don’t let Lydia hear you say that,” Darryl said.
“I’m just saying, if it’s coming, it better come soon. Besides, she doesn’t scare me,” Andy said.
“Really? Because she does most people.” Darryl said.
They continued to lay at the top of an earthen berm above the interstate in companionable silence. Thanks to a night sky that was both moonless and cloudless, neither man could see the other’s expression nor read his thoughts for once. But they were thinking the same thing. The Russians weren’t coming.
They had been watching the frontage road that led into the industrial park for almost three hours. At the bottom of the steep embankment, Lydia and Captain Carlos Sans sat cramped together inside a mobile unit monitoring video images of the deserted loading dock. Further back in an empty field, a convoy of squad cars and armored trucks filled with police in riot gear, sat at the ready. When Sans gave them the order, they would drive their vehicles over the berm and across the freeway to do their own version of rushing the fortress.
Lydia called on the radiophone, “Darryl, what’s Andy doing?”
“Same thing he was when you asked two minutes ago. Looking through night vision goggles at concrete and seeing nothing. Right Andy? He says, right.”
“Fuck you two reptiles. You’re missing something.”
Darryl said, “You can’t fool me. I know you love us.”
Sans took the radiophone away from Lydia. “Just let us know when you do see something.”
For the third time, Darryl wondered how much longer Sans was going to let this charade go on. His gut told him nothing was going to happen tonight, and it must be obvious to everyone else that something had spooked the Russians. Otherwise they’d be here already. He knew how disappointed Lydia would be.
Sans trusted Lydia like she trusted Sasha. She had promised to deliver Markiza, arguably the world’s biggest and shrewdest trafficker, so Sans threw unprecedented dollars into the investigation. On top of everything else, he had called in his last markers to get a judge to run a wire on the warehouse. They had taps on the factory, the enjoining dormitory, and two of Markiza’s lieutenants’ cell phones.
Lydia was known among police investigators as the Miami architect of confidence games. If she had enough manpower and dollars to work with, no criminal was safe from her. Responsible for everything from design to delivery, she had exposed government fraud, brought down a major international banking system, put away a psychopathic killer, and got a high-level drug lord to rat on another. But that was before she got emotionally involved with an informant.
Darryl mused that at one time he been the recipient of that much care and love. Once, months after they had broken up, Lydia had asked him what had been the happiest time of his life. He answered truthfully. The six months they spent together. Without saying another word she patted his forearm with forgiving strokes and then kissed him on the cheek. She knew what it had cost him to tell her that. She wasn’t greedy or vindictive; it was just that occasionally she needed to know that her own love hadn’t happened in a vacuum.
Not in all the years he’d been married to Karen had he been that happy, or felt that comfortable around another human being. So it was with something like amazement that he’d discovered himself determined to quit the relationship. He always knew the pervasive reason for his decision, but on occasion, such as now, he questioned why his heart had allowed his brain to surrender so easily. When it knew the brain was telling brazen lies.
That morning seemed like yesterday. His hands had been full of Lydia—her luscious taught body, that riot of unruly first-thing-in-the-morning thick hair—as she dragged him into the brightly lit bathroom to show him their reflection. From the side, they looked like a single braided human in two color strands. She leaned into him lolling her head across his broad chest; one of her legs was pulled up seductively balancing the heel and ball of her foot against his calf. While she encircled his neck with arms pulled back and stretched like a gymnast’s, he had his hands wrapped around her waist, his chin dipped into her shoulder. Their chiaroscuro portrayal glistened from the night’s lovemaking, and Lydia said she recognized a magazine cover when she saw one. The last thing Darryl expected was for that same likeness inside the looking glass to jump out and mock him.
Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones. Not on your life, baby. Where the hell had that come from?
His face was all dark angles across features that since childhood family and friends had told him were striking, and so far his forty-year-old body had not betrayed him. It was still lean and muscular like a long-distance runner’s. He eased out of the embrace and saw Lydia as if for the first time. Yet he knew it was a trick, and that some part of him was deliberately sabotaging the best thing that had happened to him. And he allowed it.
Shape and proportion gave way to color. Or the lack of color. Before this he had thought of her as olive-skinned with plenty of pigment because after all, Lydia had been the only progeny of a Mexican artist and a Bulgarian banker. But here standing next to him, her skin resembled fine alabaster. He was too shocked to feel any shame for what he was thinking about.
How could he move past the color contrast between them when he finally glimpsed what others must have always seen? His mother and sister—the looks, the hushed tones whenever he first brought Lydia around. He remembered how he tried to ignore their occasional white-people jokes, their not-so-subtle suggestions to sign up with a black dating service. And then his mind traced dinners at fashionable restaurants that he and Lydia shared, the walks on the boardwalk afterwards, and so many Sunday afternoons on the beach. People always stared at them and he thought it was because they were so damned good looking together. Could he have been that naïve? Even at that juncture, he could have easily shut off the thoughts that lead to hell. Later...it really would be too late.
He could see now that wasn’t what mattered. Truth, it didn’t bother him what others thought. And his own family couldn’t help themselves; they fell in love with Lydia about the same time he did. His sister said later that she had been expecting wedding bells to chime.
The elephant in the bathroom had never been about their color differences—even though he did think about that sometimes. It was a self-created obstacle. It was his fear of failing again and becoming like his father. If fear were energy, the anxiety and dread that coursed through him when he stared at the reflection of their intertwined bodies, could have fueled a small planet. To get away from the fire that was about to consume him, he excused himself from love by drawing a bogus race card and then for good measure, told himself that he could never fully trust Lydia.
When Darryl stepped back from the mirror, peeling apart their photo op, Lydia knew what he was thinking and had screamed a defiant No. He’d left that morning without an explanation but sent her a letter a few days later. She answered it with two sentences.
I think I’m going to die. Nothing has ever hurt this much.
Darryl was pulled back from the past when his partner poked him in the shoulder. Andy held a finger to his tightly closed lips and pointed with another to his headset. He pulled off one ear bud and handed it to Darryl. Together they listened to an argument that should have remained private. It seemed either Sans or Lydia forgot to shut off their transmitter.
“Look Lydia, we can stay a little longer, but these riot squads guys, they’re getting paid in gold bullion. I can’t justify much more overtime for them.”
Lydia’s voice began calmly enough, “Something’s holding them up. You know for a fact that Sasha has never been wrong before. Thanks to him we’ve identified mob lieutenants, Miami business partners, banks, holding companies—all linked to Markiza. He’s got this too. We have to be patient.”
Sans said, “I think he was right.”
With a start, Darryl pictured Lydia’s stomach clenching.
“You think they’re onto him? But how? He’s discreet. Never talks or sees anyone. No computer searches could lead back to him. He’s too good.”
Sans said, “They might have spotted something between you two. Held the shipment back to see what would happen.”
“But Andy...he would have known before anyone. God, Captain. Schedules change. Besides, we know that the boys are in the country. And they’re coming here.”
Sans shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Distribution might have been relocated. If that happened, we’re back to square one.”
“No. They’ll be here.”
“Lydia, it’s not your fault. I’m not holding you responsible. Listen, if—”
Andy pulled up his binoculars and adjusted his microphone, “Captain, Lydia, two vans rounding the corner. Watch where they go.”
After a beat, Lydia said, “I see movement, I told you.” It sounded like she smacked something hard because the ear buds popped like firecrackers in their ears.
Darryl and Andy continued watching as two ordinary looking, white-paneled vans drove slowly into the parking lot. They parked side by side. A man got out of each van and shook hands with the other. They pulled out cigarettes and lit up. The detectives watched in disbelief as one of them found a flask, took a swallow, and handed it off to the other man. Ten minutes went by. The men talked, smoked, and laughed.
“’Captain, what are they saying?” Andy asked
“Lydia says they’re swapping gardening tips.”
This time Darryl and Andy looked at each other and clearly saw what the other was thinking. Darryl grabbed the mic. “Shit. They’re throwing it in our face. Giving us the finger. And you know what’s next, don’t you?”
They all knew. A stink bomb. They heard Lydia shout, “So what! We have them.”
Darryl’s voice snapped over the radio. “What the hell’s going on?”
Sans said, “You two can belly on down now. We’re leaving.”
Lydia said, “NO!! You can’t. I’m primary on this. I say when. Besides, two minutes ago I had more time. Now just because the thugs are taking a cigarette break, you call it quits?”
“You might be primary but I’m your superior officer. So pull yourself together. You know what happens next. It won’t be worth it.”
Lydia cried, “Look!”
The men flicked their cigarette butts into the air and strode to the back of the vans. Out of each vehicle they pulled out six sleepy boys and lined them up in a row. Next they marched them across the parking lot to the eastern end where they shoved them through the delivery door Sasha always used whenever he met Lydia.
Sans spat. “I knew it. See, that’s the stink bomb. They throw a few kids in our face, but they know we know it’s not enough.”
Lydia said, “Are you insane? They’re little boys about to be sold into slavery. We have a legal and moral obligation to help them. I gave Sasha my word.”
“Since when do you report to a child? You report to me and your obligation is to follow orders.” Scraping and shuffling noises made it sound like Sans was on the move or wanted to be. “Your source promised me two-hundred boys. You know we can’t make our case with just a few. We’ll never get Markiza this way.”
“Plus the seventy kids inside,” Lydia said.
“You’re forgetting something. If we move now, we’ll never find the others. Ever. So we have to wait.”
“For what? For more innocent children to get abused? To die? You bastard.” “Lydia—”
“If they’re onto Sasha, they’ll kill him. It’ll be on you.”
“No, special detective, it’s on you. You’ve completely lost your objectivity. Your emotional hang-up with this Russian boy has overshadowed good police instincts. What the fuck happened to you, Lydia? How did you lose the ground beneath you?”
“I walked up on a bigger stage.”
Sans sounded bewildered. “You were trained to withstand the effects of emotional involvement. You’re better than this.”
“You can’t know what’s really inside until something like this case opens you up.”
Forgetting that they were still eavesdropping Andy cut in. “Lydia, it’ll be okay. Captain’s got a point. We have to find all of the kids. And Markiza.”
Darryl said, “Lyd. I hate this just as much as you. But you know it’s not over. We’re going to get them, right? Just not tonight.”
Lydia said, “It never occurred to me that you two would sandbag me. How stupid was I?”
When Lydia walked down Biscayne Boulevard people gave her wide berth. Not because they were afraid of her—although some might be—but mainly to get a better, longer look before she turned into an afterimage and then disappeared altogether.
The Special Intelligence detective was tall and leggy with a slim athletic build; today she wore her hair gathered into a thick ropy braid that switched like a nervous pony’s. She wore a faded jean jacket with a white tank underneath, fitted chinos that molded to buttocks like they had been ironed onto her body, and rugged black lace-up boots. Green-tinted, mirrored shades accentuated a mixture of delicate and sharp features. She had skin that was tawny and as soft as a chamois cloth, and full pink lips that glinted in the sun. People always looked. But the manner in which she got scoped depended on who was doing the scoping.
Lydia knew she invited attention. She didn’t really mind because she likened her fast walking, strong body to a traveling mirror that could secretly record the city’s social yearnings. Along the roadway while men and women examined and passed judgment on her, often heaping on flirtatious leers; others showing disapproval or even jealousy, Lydia sensed escaping memories, secret dreams and desires, unspoken sadness and loneliness, and the unwinding emotional toll of being alive.
The old Cuban men always took the full snapshot and almost immediately withdrew their ogling eyes when Lydia returned their stare, but not before something shifted behind clouded gazes. Behind the ruins of their old selves lay hidden memories of strolling down Havana’s romantic seafront promenade with a girl who might have looked a lot like Lydia. During a time when war and embargo had not collided with their youth, managing to lock out childhood dreams forever.
The younger Cuban males, who never had to witness bloodied history right outside of their front doors, assessed Lydia with everything from overbearing gaping to whispered catcalls. She thought their actions were typical of the unemployed youth; they belied a bored, unfulfilled existence that no amount of swagger or machismo could mask.
Cuban women with small children often smiled up at her shyly, as if hoping that a drop of her essence might imbue their progeny with the same kind of confidence and success she seemed to possess. Sometimes Lydia looked back to see the women still watching her. They could never dream that even though she had the right kind of exterior packaging, inside and on most days, she felt as helpless as any one of them.
Black and dark Latino men watched her obliquely but took the most time. They hardly ever smiled but something in their gait slowed and altered, as if their thoughts were being invaded; for a split second they thought they might know her. Might stop and talk to her. But they never did. Because even though more than thirty years had passed since the savage beating and death of Arthur McDuffie by white Miami police officers, the hurt was still too deep, the cultural divide still too wide. Lydia was more white than Latino and, if they looked closer, they would know that the bulge under her jacket could only be a gun belonging to a cop.
Black and dark Latino women appeared to ignore her but managed to slide their eyes sideways for the quickest release of the shutter. It was enough. She was an attractive giant who posed no threat to them.