Chapter 1: Stranger
She gazed at the sky for probably the umpteenth time in the past hour.
It was a starry night. The North Star and the many known constellations stood out clearly, brightly. The moon was bright and perfectly spherical. There was no chance of rain.
It was the kind of night for romance, at least for a teenaged girl.
Estella Montero sat by herself at the street corner. The bench, with a newly dried coat of fresh paint, courtesy of a congressman, was right by the bus stop.
This was her favorite intersection, one she had grown up in. It was always brightly-lit by traffic lights and neon storefront signs. Green, red, orange, yellow and blue; it was its own kind of rainbow.
A gust of wind blew, stirring the street before her. Discarded newspapers and fliers flew by, tumbling on the stone pavement decorated by graffiti as colorful as the lights overhead.
Stella looked at the sky again. In mere seconds, it seemed to have grown murky and cloudy, as if someone had stolen the lights.
The stars were not the only ones that disappeared that night. Her hopes had gone, too.
Was it only this afternoon when Aaron called and asked if she wanted to go to the movies with him? Was it only a few hours ago when she, drifting on fluffy white clouds, had put on her best dress and favorite shoes and snuck into her mother’s room to use her makeup and perfume?
She had already fallen from those clouds. More like stumbled, fell, and landed on the cold hard ground on her ass.
Six-thirty, the time she was supposed to meet Aaron Soler, had come and gone.
It was getting cold. She looked at her watch. It was already half past eight. She pulled her now-rumpled white cardigan more tightly around her body, shoving her hands into their shallow pockets. She would be an idiot if she allowed herself any more hope that he would show up at all. She had more self-respect than that.
“Stood you up, hasn’t he?” The voice came out of nowhere, causing her to nearly jump out of her skin.
She sprang to her feet and backed a few feet away, hands clenching into fists as she turned to face the owner of the voice.
She had a box cutter in her bag, she thought, comforted. A girl who grew up in a city like hers knew how to protect herself.
He emerged from underneath the awning of an ice cream shop.
It was a boy. No, a man, tall and dangerous-looking as any predator of the shadows.
He had a thick mane of hair that fell past his shoulders. His skin was duskier than most, allowing him to blend easier into the night. Most of his face was still shrouded in the darkness; what she could see was about a third of his profile, sharp and harsh.
He was the most fearsome and compelling sight she had ever laid eyes on.
“Who are you?” It was almost a shriek, nothing like her own voice. “What do you want?”
He advanced into the light. His face looked even harder and older. There was a scar that ran the length of his right cheek, hidden in part by his long hair. He appeared to be in his early twenties, perhaps older.
“My name is Trey,” he said, almost formally. “Hello, Stella.”
She backed further away, hot and cold rushing through her veins at the same time.
“How did you know my name?” she demanded.
He gave a slight shrug, his shoulders rippling. “I asked.”
She drew herself to her full height of five-foot-five, enough to intimidate most boys her age. It would probably have no effect on him, seeing that he was much bigger, but there was no harm in trying to appear braver than she actually was. “Asked who?”
“The people here. Everyone knows you.”
“The people?” she echoed, stumped.
“You see them every day.”
She stared, trying to understand what he meant.
Them? The people?
She blinked, slightly taken aback by the bright light coming out of the open doorway of the leather repair shop down the street. She shut her eyes for the briefest of moments. When she opened them, she saw the sweet old woman who ran the shop give her a smile and a friendly wave. Seconds later, someone else left the shop, the old man who did all the repairs by hand or using an ancient pedal machine.
She watched them lock up the shop and walk off.
This was her intersection, her neighborhood, her city.
“Yes,” she said, more to herself than to the stranger. “I see them every day.”
“So you do.”
She glared up at him, feeling infinitely more confident that she did minutes ago. “That doesn’t explain why you’re here, or what you want from me.”
“With you? Nothing.” Trey sat on the bench she had vacated, draping his arm over the back of the seat and extending his legs. With his dark shirt and jeans, he looked like a giant snake, coiled and poised to strike. “Why I’m here has everything to do with your friend, the pretty boy.”
“We were tipped off by one of his sidekicks. They come here and pick up girls for their pot sessions. The last one didn’t go so well. Joshua didn’t want to be part of the repeat performance.”
‘Pretty boy’ Aaron, who was supposed to be her date, was a senior and the most popular boy at their college. His father was the mayor of one of the smaller towns that bordered the city. Aaron always had a lot of boys in his entourage, mostly those from more affluent families; they moved around the school as if they owned it. Girls who got his attention instantly became the most popular ones at school. With her being only a freshman, his initial attentions had flattered Stella to no end.
“Joshua.” She repeated the name, trying to jog her memory. “He’s the one with the red car. He was supposed to pick me up tonight, with Aaron, and…” Her voice trailed off.
“Joshua Benitez won’t be coming, either,” he said. “As for Aaron Soler, let’s just say his plans have changed.”
Girls. Pot sessions. Repeat performance. His words kept echoing in her head as she stood stock-still on the sidewalk. This time, she shivered for real. The night breeze was nothing compared to the cold coming from within her
“Did you want to sit down?” Trey moved his arm out of the way and slid to one side of the bench.
Stella hurried over and plopped down next to him, before she collapsed from the sheer weight of information she was absorbing.
“How long has this…been going on?” So many questions popped into her head, but it was difficult to put them into words. This was the kind of urban cautionary tale picked up and sensationalized by late-night crime investigation shows. “How did you know about them? How the hell do I know you’re even telling the truth?”
“I don’t have to answer any of that, do I?” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his thighs and clasping his massive hands between them. He turned his head and peered at her face. “Or would you really want me to?”
She found herself looking into his eyes. They were midnight-black, unblinking. Strangely, she felt no discomfort under his gaze; instead, she stared right back.
“I just wanted to go on a date with Aaron, you know,” she said softly. “When he asked me out, I was on top of the world, everyone at school was looking at me. They all saw me. And Aaron…he actually knew who I was, he got my name right and everything.”
“I’m sure he did.” There was no sympathy or sarcasm in his voice. He sounded as if he didn’t have to convince anyone of anything. “He knew Victoria, Yasmeen, Jennifer and Grace very well, too. Unlike you, they never stood a chance.”
Stella didn’t know the other three, but Jennifer Ang was a sophomore Aaron had dated the previous semester. She was a beauty queen, slated to compete in the national circuit of pageants that coming summer. Shortly after Jennifer and Aaron broke up, Jennifer’s parents, who both worked abroad, had pulled her out of college in the middle of the year and brought her with them to Singapore. There had been rumors of a pregnancy, a party blunder that displeased her sponsors and ruined her image, an expulsion notice that was kept quiet...
“I knew Jennifer,” she said. “She’s a beauty queen who used to go to my college. She was his girlfriend for a while. She left town end of last semester.”
“She got lucky. Grace was from about six weeks ago; she was studying Political Science in the university across town. She sat where you are sitting now. They saw her here before she got in the car with Benitez. She’s in rehab now.”
The strange reality of it all was overwhelming. In a matter of hours, she had been stood up in what was supposed to be the biggest date of life, her great crush had become a junkie who was bad news for girls, and a stranger from out of nowhere had appeared to be some twisted version of a guardian angel.
“Do you know where Aaron is?”
There was a crooked smile at the corner of Trey’s mouth. “Do I really have to answer that question? The less you know, the better for you.”
“I can’t just sit here without knowing anything,” she insisted. “If you want me to at least believe in what you’re trying to tell me, then give me some answers.”
“Soler won’t be able to come here tonight. He and his friend are both at the docks. I brought them there earlier. We’re trying to get them to sing. If they’re lucky, they would get a little beaten down. If not…” He shrugged. “It’s not like they even cared about what would happen to those girls.”
“And you…you got them there?”
“It’s my job. I work for the man who decided to put them there and, at the same time, get you out of something you wouldn’t want.”
She sat next to him, trying to keep her breathing even. She had somehow stumbled straight into the plot of a cheap action movie. At any other time, this would have felt contrived, even cheesy.
But she felt nothing like that.
This was a close call, not a joke. She could have ended up like any of those girls.
At that moment, Stella wanted nothing more than to see her mother. If anything happened to her, she could not even imagine her mother’s reaction, the pain it would cause her. Even thinking about it made her feel guilty.
“I think I want to go home,” she said.
The intersection was almost empty except for a few pedestrians and the familiar nighttime vendors who sold peanuts, duck eggs and green mangoes from their baskets. Most of the stores were already closed for the night. She had been there for almost three hours.
“I’ll walk you there.” He stood up the same time she did. Side by side, she barely made it to his shoulder. “Or wait until you get into a taxi.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she said, flustered. “I live a few blocks away, near the commercial port.”
“You can walk on your own if you want. I’ll follow, anyway, and make sure you get there.”
At any other time, she would have found those words creepy. She would have felt uncomfortable at the very least.
Tonight, however, was the kind of night that brought creepy to shame. If anything, she was past creepy.
With Trey, there was no feeling of discomfort, only a sense of awareness that he was more intimidating than everyone and everything else around her.
“Fine,” she said, thinking she would rather have someone like him walking her home, rather than the less impressive assurance provided by her box cutter. “Let’s go.”