On May 14, 2014, Julia Mallory Wyatt played hooky for the first time in her life. Julia was often called Jul, a diminutive of an already small name, but in most people’s minds the spelling had changed to Jewel because she was a gem; beautiful, smart, funny and kind, and always, always reliable. Today, though, she was breaking the rules and she counted on her perfect attendance record and exceptional scholastic achievements to allow her to cut class just this once without getting caught.
She planned her tardy to coordinate with the day her dad was away. Every month on the full moon her father stayed out until the small hours. Sometimes he was away longer but it was a standing date- if the moon was full he was gone. When she was little he’d joke that he was a werewolf and he had to leave so he wouldn’t bite the kid. Then his eyes would glaze over and get wide and he’d grab her up and pretend to bite her on the neck and she’d scream with laughter and struggle till he released her.
He was such a funny daddy.
But anyway, Jewel had waited and made her plans and today was the day. As soon as he left for work she called the school.
“Hi Mrs. Garrett.” Jewel made her voice raspy and weak. “I’m sick. I have a sore throat and headache. Dad said I should stay home so…”
“Oh, thanks. I hope I’ll be better by tomorrow.”
“If I have to stay out longer they can e-mail the homework but I’m sure I’ll be back by then.”
“Thanks, I will.”
In her bathroom she worked with a sticky substance that guaranteed it would turn her pale blonde hair black, then wrapped the whole mess in Saran Wrap. She went to her closet to choose an outfit.
Hmm. Prostitute, prostitute. What will give the right impression?
She gazed at her considerable wardrobe appraisingly. Her father liked her to look modest. Cute, sure. Elegant, why not? Sexy? No. He did not believe that a female adolescent needed to increase her natural allure and he wasn’t shy about removing items that he thought sent the wrong message. That left her some church dresses with peter pan collars, skirts (not above the knee) and the All American standard, t-shirts and jeans. Not the skin tight variety. No article in her wardrobe screamed ‘cheap hooker.’ She heaved a sigh of frustration, then returned to the bathroom to rinse and blow dry.
Wow. The hair transformed her and by the time she layered on heavy black mascara and ruby red lipstick she thought she just might pass. Jeans and a spangly blue t-shirt didn’t look too bad when she added a tiny bag and tried swinging it. Maybe some gum. Yes, swinging bag, snapping gum, raving hair and blood red lips: she was ready for Van Buren Street.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Van Buren was a well-known strip for street walkers. This was a historical fact but in the present many of the run-down properties had been refurbished into clean, attractive apartment complexes, ruining many miles of old-fashioned ambience. Jewel drove her dusty blue Datsun past several gated communities before finding what looked like the right neighborhood, a blast zone of car lots and bars that looked as if they’d been cooking in the desert for centuries.
The buildings were low. The view north swept past light industry and old mechanic shops, past the railway yards and clapboard houses to a raised freeway underlining tiny skyscrapers in the distance. This was the place.
She found a hidey hole for her car behind a bar. She couldn’t make out the name in the grime-coated storefront but sounds of washing dishes escaped the open rear door with the odors of cigarettes and old beer. She locked up before leaving the car.
Practicing a world-weary sashay in the graveled lot before hitting the street, her heart pounded. She’d filled her miniature purse up when she put in the pepper spray, keys and a ten dollar bill but the contents did not have enough heft to use as a weapon if she were way-laid. She didn’t think violence was imminent but…
This better work, she thought, but once she made it to the sidewalk she saw the street was deserted. There were no people, no cars, no businesses open. Her watch said 9:30. Where were the prostitutes?
She sighed, slightly discouraged, but proceeded to walk the street.
Jewel was here this morning to help her father. She was so proud of him. Her dad, Eddie Wyatt, was a detective in the Phoenix Police Department and had a secret project, a long-term investigation into a human trafficking gang.
Jewel had discovered the case by accident while researching a genealogy project. Strictly speaking she was not to go into her father’s study at all, which had never been a problem. His den was boring in the extreme and she had better equipment in her own cheery room.
But she needed pictures of older generations and since all the photographs she’d ever seen were of herself and her dead mother, her father’s office seemed the obvious place to look. He was at work, he was always at work, and the homework was coming due. Just this once she was sure he wouldn’t mind. Later, she realized he certainly would mind.
The bookshelves in his den hid no photo albums so she moved to his file cabinets. They were locked but the key was in the top right drawer of his desk. Very tricky, Dad. The file cabinet contained no pictures but she did find an empty file folder among the wage stubs and tax returns. It was marked ‘Inv,’ followed by a complex string of numbers, letters, and special characters.
Jewel had not planned to get into her dad’s computer but those numbers, obviously some randomly generated code, intrigued her. She opened her father’s laptop and tried the password. It did nothing on the opening page but when she switched users it opened another page where she was given administrative rights.
At this point she took a moment to consider. She should back out now that she’d solved that little mystery. But. It couldn’t hurt to open the one untitled folder on the screen. So she did. And she finally found pictures, so many pictures.
And heard her father’s truck in the driveway.
Eddie Wyatt found her in the living room going through their photo albums. He sat next to her and they looked at old pictures. One of them showed Jewel’s mother, turning from the sink to talk to the camera, laughing at the photographer with suds dripping from her soapy hands. Eddie’s eyes teared up and Jewel hugged her dad fiercely, wishing her mother was alive. He missed her so.
The tenderness she felt for her father, though, did not instill any sense of guilt nor deter her from returning to his computer. For a week she shunned after school activities and raced home to explore the file she’d discovered. The data was appalling.
The hidden records contained detailed information about a human trafficking ring abducting Mexicans. Small but regular shipments of people had been funneled through Phoenix for many years and the dates always corresponded with the full moon. Her father had been going out of town on the full moon, excepting obvious holidays, every month since she was a baby. He let everyone know that he went off into the hinterlands to ride dune buggies on those nights. Most of his friends, and Julia when she was older, assumed he was really seeing a woman and Jewel harbored a secret wish that someday she might have a new mom.
Now, though, the trips took on a different meaning. He was tracking these monsters and had gathered a wealth of information. He must have an inside operative.
Jewel knew from her study of mystery novels and television crime dramas that it was important in undercover work to leave the criminals undisturbed until all of the evidence could be gathered. You don’t want the small fry, you want to catch the project managers. Kingpins, whatever. It’s no use to jail the little players if the bosses are just setting up shop elsewhere. Still, that didn’t seem right in this situation when every small crime resulted in human loss. Maybe he had been saving everyone, unknown to the bad guys, or maybe… Well, she didn’t know the details.
It also struck her as strange that he had this information at home. Surely this sort of intelligence should be top secret, never leaving secure government offices. Why was it here, on her dad’s home computer?
Despite the bottles, cans and used condoms littering the pavement, the spring air and gentle exercise had caused Julia Wyatt to drift off into these recollections. She was startled when a human voice interrupted her reverie.
Jewels heart thudded. Was this a ‘john?’
She spun around to find a short but muscular man standing in a doorway smoking a cigarette.
“Hola!” she replied.
At this inviting sign of a shared language the man rattled off a long string of words that was far beyond Jewel’s ability to comprehend with her school-girl Spanish. She blinked. “No intiendo.”
The door behind the smoker opened and a woman of the same height, though less friendly, came out to see what was happening. She rattled off a long paragraph in Spanish, the only word of which Julia understood was ‘puta,’ meaning ‘whore.’ Apparently her disguise was working.
Jewel had had a lot of time to prepare for this field trip and had cover stories designed for men, prostitutes and non-prostitute women. Unfortunately, she had not pre-translated her ploys into Spanish so she struggled, now, to communicate to the woman.
“My hermana, tienes siete anos…”
This set the little Mexican woman into a rage and she shoved the smoking man behind her and advanced on Jewel, who suddenly realized it sounded as if she was trying to sell her seven year old sister.
“No, no, no!” Jewel said, hands up, “I’m looking for her! She’s lost! Uh, uh, Yo quiero encuentra mi hermana! No sabe adonde esta!” That was not grammatically correct but at least it slowed the woman down. Still scowling fiercely she gripped Jewel’s shoulder and shouted behind her, summoning someone from inside.
The alleged Roberto arrived and, looking Jewel up and down said, “I speak English. What’s up?”
The woman spoke. He asked Jewel, “Something about your seven year old sister?”
“My sister disappeared. Someone said she might be taken to be a prostitute. That is why I have on this make-up.” Jewel spoke slowly, not knowing the extent of Roberto’s English. She pointed to her face. “I thought if men who use prostitutes spoke to me they might tell me where children are kept.”
Roberto translated this to the fierce little woman whose grip on Jewel changed from imprisoning to embracing. She was pulled into the little woman’s arms.
“Aiee! Pobrecita!” She pulled back and stared into the teenager’s eyes. “Es verdad?” She did not want to be made a fool of.
“Si, si! Es verdad!” Jewel lied. She turned to Roberto. “Do you know where children might be taken? Have you heard anything that would help me find my sister?”
At this the two men hung their heads which both Jewel and the lady of the house understood to mean that yes, they did, but could not explain how they knew this. The Mamacita gave them both a stern look and spoke at length while the men ducked their heads.
Finally, Roberto told Jewel where to go. Just in time, too, as a truck cruised slowly by, a man looking pointedly at Julia. She was glad she could toss her black hair and strut stiffly back to her car, outraged that someone would mistake her for a woman of negotiable affection.
She hit the freeway and drove north until she reached Bell Road, then east to 19th Avenue. She parked in the Sam’s Club lot on the south side of Bell and walked to a three story motel painted a dark purply maroon. This was not a nice neighborhood, though the businesses crowding the corners and the continuous traffic going back and forth down the six-lane thoroughfare kept the street safe enough. The ugliness of the urban tangle was mitigated by the bright blue sky and gentle breeze, though the temperature, which had climbed into the nineties, increased the odors emanating from a dumpster she skirted on her way to the motel.
The building, with rooms facing an inner courtyard and rooms backing these facing out, was serviced with stairs and walkways open to the Phoenix air. She avoided the grubby lobby but found a laundry room near the inside stairs where the smell of cigarettes suggested it was a loitering area. She loitered.
Before long two men dressed in business casual passed the service area, avoiding her eyes. This was a relief as she didn’t want to be noticed, but it did strike her as suspicious. First off, men rarely passed Jewel without a glance. And second off, why were they there at all? Two men at 11:00 in the morning, not at work, not ogling pretty girls, not talking; all business at this cheesy hotel. What were they up to? Once they started up the inside stairs she scurried to keep them in view and followed quietly.
On the top floor the men moved through a dark hall to the outer walkway on the west and turned left toward the rear of the building. A door opened and the men disappeared inside. Jewel crept to the door they’d entered, trying to listen through the draped window to a muffled conversation. Intent but unsuccessful at her eavesdropping she almost failed to notice two more men that had rounded the far corner and were heading toward her. Julia straightened up from her covert posture and began strolling toward them, her pulse thumping in her ears. Behind her she heard pounding on the door she’d just left and she turned, in a panic as she was now bracketed between the advancing men and a new couple knocking loudly at the room she’d just left.
“Open up, it’s the police!”
Her arm was grabbed from behind. She began to struggle, but stopped to watch the scene unfolding around her. She stood passively at the rail as the other two men separated and rapped authoritatively on adjacent doors, calling again that they were the police. Female officers in uniforms then joined them and Julia lost count as firmly closed doors were opened with passkeys. The man holding her passed her off to one of the female officers. He unlocked another door then stood plastered to the wall out of sight as he shouted into the room.
“Drop any weapons and come out with your hands up!”
The narrow walkway became a chaos of people as men, women and children came reluctantly out of the rooms but none, thank goodness, were armed. There were many tears, not all of them from children, as the undercover and uniformed officers handled this mass of humanity.
Jewel almost cried herself, swelling with reflected pride as these brave officers carried out what was obviously a well-planned though dangerous sting operation that would save so many children. God bless the police.
Then both of her arms were pulled back and wrist restraints applied. One of the uniformed officers began Mirandizing her.
“You have the right to remain silent—“
“Wait,” Jewel interrupted. “I’m not with them.”
“Anything you say may be used against you—“
“I’m not with them!”
But her disguise had been far too effective. Her appearance and location left the police with no options. The cops paid her words no mind and hauled her off with the others to be booked.