Authors: Monica McGurk
“Young people are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, in great part, because there are not enough resources focused on prevention.
fills that void. It is a compelling story that will appeal to young readers while giving them critically important information on how to escape this scourge and sparking conversations among each other.”
—Deborah J. Richardson, executive vice president,
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
“Monica tackles the real-world problem of human trafficking in the intriguing world of fantasy that is
. Young adult readers will be turning pages quickly as the battle of good and evil unfolds before their very eyes. It is my hope that
will inspire and propel another generation to action to protect children against trafficking.”
—Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson, president
and CEO of Street Grace, Inc
“An effortlessly strong narrative voice, engaging writing style, and intriguing details that make you want to read on. What’s not to love?”
—Aaron Kite, author
A Touch of Poison
2012 Watty Award recipient for
Most Popular fantasy book
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by River Grove Books
Copyright ©2014 Monica McGurk
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the copyright holder.
Distributed by River Grove Books
For ordering information or special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact River Grove Books at PO Box 91869, Austin, TX 78709, 512.891.6100.
Design and composition by Greenleaf Book Group
Cover design by Greenleaf Book Group
Cover images: [background image] ©
; [replacement girl]
; [angel illustration] ©
; [birds] Copyright Background Land, 2014. Used under license from
eBook ISBN: 978-1-938416-69-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-938416-67-5
To my husband and children, for their love, patience, and support, and for my fan fiction readers, for their inspiration and encouragement
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to organizations that fight human trafficking, especially the sexual trafficking of minors
hen the SWAT team stormed the motel room, the first thing they saw was the little girl. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding her blankie and sucking her thumb, her bare legs hanging over the edge, absentmindedly kicking at the faded bedspread.
The television set blared—Wile E. Coyote getting crushed by a falling anvil, courtesy once again of the Road Runner.
The girl turned her big brown eyes and stared at the men. She didn’t scream; she didn’t cry; she just looked at them as if she had been expecting them all along, as if they were as natural a part of the run-down room as the peeling, speckled wallpaper and the rust-colored shag carpet.
They turned and fanned their guns around the room, looking for the man who had taken the girl, the bad man who had hurt other little girls, the man who was lurking in the corner or hiding under the bed. But he wasn’t there. The door to the bathroom was closed, however, so they surrounded it.
Two of the men, who looked like bugs in their funny helmets and gas masks, began talking to her, touching her hair, her arms, as if to reassure themselves that she was there, really, really there. Was she all right? Was she hurt?
While they wrapped a blanket around her, another bug-man kicked in the bathroom door and rushed inside, brandishing his gun.
“Oh dear God,” he choked out, his voice sounding tinny and far away as he backed out through the door. An acrid smell floated out with him.
The other men rushed into the bathroom to see what he had seen. Suddenly, they had to strain to move their feet, as if springs were pulling them back. The faded linoleum had melted and was sticking to their boots, stretching apart like long strings of taffy. There, in the middle of a scorched, black circle of gooey plastic, lay a pile of ash flecked with little chips of white. Teeth. Bones. The body was still smoking, its whispery tendrils rising up to leave a film of soot on the ceiling. One of the men kicked the pile, revealing a few misshapen lumps. A putrid smell washed over them as he kicked around the remains, musky sweet and tangy, like copper.
One by one the men came out, holding their hands over their faces. One rushed to the little Formica table in the corner, thrust up the front of his helmet, and vomited into the wastebasket. Walkie-talkies started buzzing and bulbs started flashing and everything seemed to get hot and loud all at once.
The first man, the man who had kicked in the bathroom door, knelt before the little girl on the bed.
“What happened? Who did this?” he asked the little girl. “Was there someone else here with you?”
The little girl just stared at him with her big brown eyes and sucked her thumb. She had no idea what he was talking about.
“Let’s get you out of here,” the man said, his voice rough. He swept her up in his arms, pulling the industrial blanket tightly around her. She was so tiny, almost weightless. He wound through the crowded room and headed toward the open door, trying to block the memory of what he’d seen in the bathroom.
He emerged, blinking, into the gray light. On the concrete sidewalk he paused, taking great gulps of fresh air. Emergency personnel swirled all around them while police barked at the gathering crowd, pressing them back from the caution tape where they surged, hoping for a glimpse.
The girl whimpered against his shoulder, clutching her threadbare blanket even tighter.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, patting her awkwardly on the back. “We’ll find your mommy and your daddy. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He didn’t wait for her answer before striding purposefully across the parking lot, moving closer and closer to the flashing lights, the cameras, and the crowd.
A wild-eyed woman broke through the tape, past the restraining arms of the police officer, and then was swallowed up in the crowd.
The girl squirmed in his arms, straining toward the voice.
“Hold on now,” the man cautioned, but the little girl was kicking at him now, determined to get to her mother. Carefully, he set her down on the cracked pavement. “Be careful, you’re barefoot,” he warned her, holding her back ever so slightly. It wouldn’t do to lose her now.
A pair of EMTs fell upon her, peppering her with questions as one shone a penlight in her eyes and the other took notes. Reporters crowded around them, microphones eagerly thrusting forward
like branches of trees, showering questions down upon the little girl’s head.
The little girl shrank back against the SWAT leader, who instinctively wrapped her in a protective arm.
“Hope!” A desperate voice rose above the chatter of the reporters. “That’s my daughter! Let me through!”
Slowly, the crowd parted for the woman who was clawing her way through.
“Hope!” she sobbed, falling on her knees before her daughter. In an instant, a man, eyes heavy with shadows, fell in behind her—the father.
The woman laughed through her sobs, running her hands over the little girl, checking that she was whole, as if she were a newborn.
“Oh my God, what did he do to you?” she choked out through her tears, clutching the little girl in her arms. Her husband wrapped them both in his embrace, weeping silently.
The SWAT leader cleared his throat, leaning in to speak to the parents. This part always made him uncomfortable, but it had to be said.
“She seems unhurt,” he said steadily, low so that the reporters would not hear, “but we haven’t had a physical examination yet. We don’t know what he may have done to her. We need to take her in now. To be sure.”
He locked eyes with the father, who blanched. He’d heard the father had been the one with her at the time she was snatched. He felt for the guy. It would be hard to live with yourself, if the worst had, indeed, happened.
The mother just kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “Of course,” she said. “But we go with her. I’m not leaving her side.” She rose to her feet, shifting her baby girl in her arms. The girl made a
little sound of protest where she rested her head against her mother’s shoulder.
“Oh, poor baby, your hair is caught,” the woman said. She hitched the girl up on her hip and swept the girl’s cascade of silky hair around her neck.
The SWAT leader started. “What’s that?” he demanded, pointing at the little girl.
“What’s what?” the mother responded, confused.
“There, on her neck.”
The woman turned to face her husband. “What is it, Don?”
Her husband shuddered and reached out with a tentative hand to lift up her hair and touch his little girl’s neck. She flinched from the touch.
Her husband’s face hardened into a mask of fury as he let her hair fall back into place.
Mona straightened the picture frame on the bookshelf. There, captured under glass, three-year-old Hope smiled up at her with big brown eyes that were untouched by fear, by danger, or by sadness.
It had been more than ten years since that portrait sitting. She remembered holding Hope’s favorite stuffed animal behind the photographer, making it dance and fly around his head in an effort to get her daughter to laugh. The sound had bubbled out of her, the sound of unadulterated delight, and with a snap of a shutter the photographer had frozen that moment in time forever.
They hadn’t known, then, that their carefree days were about to end.
Mona ran her finger along the edge of the frame, checking for dust. She stepped back and looked at the other photos, taking them in one by one.
There was the snapshot of her and Don graduating from Georgia Tech. A gust had threatened to lift away her mortarboard, and
she’d lifted her hand to hold it down while the wind blew her long chestnut hair off her shoulders. She was laughing, and Don was turned, admiring her, the reflection of her face in his Ray-Bans and a broad, toothy grin lighting up his own.
They’d had jobs—good jobs—lined up: she as an analyst with a consulting firm and he as an engineer. They were young and crazy in love; it was there, plain to see in that simple snapshot taken by one of their friends. They were going to conquer the world. And they were unaware that at that moment a new life was already forming inside of Mona, a new life that would change everything.
So young, she thought wistfully. So young to have so much responsibility thrust upon us. But what could you do? She lingered over the wedding portrait that was tucked behind the others. Their marriage had been hastily arranged. She hadn’t really cared about the fancy wedding—after all, she had no family to speak of, no one to impress or to worry about tradition—but Don had insisted.