“Marcy, don’t tell her anything,” Rose pleaded. “We can’t trust her.”
“She just climbed in our window at great risk to herself. We have no one else to trust, so why not the person who’s willing to do that. Who’s willing to go down in the basement in the first place. Let her try.”
“Can you tell me where all the buildings like this are? I need addresses for all of them so when it’s time to finally crack down on them we can make sure they are all taken care of at the same time and everyone gets out safe.”
“She’s crazy,” Rose hissed. “It’s not possible.”
“I don’t know all the addresses,” Marcy apologized. “But I know how you can find out. There is a woman named Susan Morales. She’s a real estate agent. She gets money to do things for them off the books. I heard them talking to her before. She would have sold them all the properties.”
“You’re going to get us killed,” Rose scolded impatiently. “If they find you in here and think we knew about it, we’ll never see our children again. They’ll be gone within the hour.”
“I’m sorry, Rose. I’m going to do everything I can.” Charlize slipped through the door and into the dimly lit hallway. She knew she had limited time and couldn’t make a sound as she made her way toward a stairwell.
The metal door was ominous. The deadbolt on the wrong side, locking in anyone down there. She pulled her hood tighter and shielded her face from the cameras as she clicked the lock and pulled open the door.
Why did it always have to be a basement?
Descending the stairs, the air grew colder, and dampness filled her senses. The basement was shockingly worse than the sparse dank room she’d just left. A world of neglect and decay. The walls seemed to close in around her as her tiny flashlight lit only one little spot at a time, horror movie style.
Charlize reached into her bag and retrieved a small camera concealed within. She needed photographic evidence of whatever horrors lay in store. With each step she took, her resolve strengthened. She couldn't turn back now; she had come too far. Mick was upstairs keeping the men busy, flashing money around. This part was up to her.
At the bottom of the stairs she spotted another door. The sounds beyond it were muffled but haunting. Charlize took a deep breath, pushed the door open just a crack, and peered inside.
Her blood ran cold as she witnessed a scene straight out of her worst nightmares. The basement was a grim chamber of despair. Rows of cots lined the space, and on them lay women and children, all in varying states of exhaustion and fear. Some children clung to their mothers, while others sat alone, their eyes vacant. These were the punished people. The ones who hadn’t sold enough drugs or maybe hugged their child too long that morning and ran late for their job. Did they talk back? Argue with the armed men? This prison was full of innocent victims and it took all Charlize’s willpower to not flip on the lights and have them run straight out the door.
She held her finger to her lips as she stepped out for them to see. They stared at her, hallow eyes and vacant stares. She knew every photograph she took was a step closer to exposing the truth, a step closer to dismantling the organization that had wrought such misery. But she also knew that time was running out. Mick was upstairs, playing a dangerous game, and she needed to regroup with him before their presence was discovered.
“I will try to help,” Charlize whispered, her voice strangling in her throat. “I will come back.” A noise upstairs reminded her instantly of the damage that would be done if she were caught. She put her finger over her lips again and stepped back.
Carefully, Charlize closed the door and retraced her steps, holding her breath with every inch she proceeded. She had seen the face of evil in that basement, and she was more determined than ever to bring it to its knees. As she reached the hallway leading back upstairs, Charlize's phone buzzed with a message. Mick was giving her a heads up.
Charlize would slip back down the fire escape. She’d get back to the safety of the car. But there was one thing she needed to do first.
She’d seen it on her way down the hall. The room where the camera equipment was stored. Someone would come back to this room, know she was lurking around, and the women would be punished for not admitting they knew more.
Pulling open the door, she was relieved to see the dated equipment. It was not some state-of-the-art digital setup. It was ancient stuff with an easy solution. She ejected the tapes, pocketed them quickly, and made her way back to the fire escape, not stopping this time to utter even a word to the women as she passed them.
Mick wasn’t back at the car yet when she slipped inside and pulled the blanket back over her. This time it wasn’t to hide, it was to cry under. And the tears wouldn’t stop no matter how much she told herself she’d be back. That this would be over. Because right now, she just couldn’t see how they could make that happen without painful collateral damage.
“You good?” Mick asked breathlessly as he tossed the bag into the passenger seat and pulled out of the alley.
“It’s bad,” Charlize said, trying to make sure she cleared all the emotion out of her voice. “I got photographs.”
“He mentioned Brenda, did you hear that? He’s tying her directly to the decision-making. I’m calling Carmen.”
She climbed to the front seat and he tossed the bag of drugs in the back to make room for her.
“Mick?” Carmen asked, sounding a bit sleepy as she answered the phone. “What’s going on?”
“Charlize and I are both here. We have an update and a bag of drugs we need to deal with.”
Charlize looked in the rearview mirror as she spoke. “We’ve gotten eyes on one property and I have photographic evidence of what’s going on in there. Deplorable conditions. Some of the women are restrained.”