Chapter 2: The Dark Corridors of Memory
She could still remember the scene vividly. The burning building, the screaming, the sirens, the hoards scattering out of the building like ants. They were all warning signs blatantly telling her not to go in, but she went in anyways.
She had to go in. Anyone in her place would have done so. Every human being with an ounce of humanity would have gone in. She did nothing wrong. That was what she kept telling herself for five years. She did nothing wrong.
She imagined the scene so many times in her head, and every time, she would not be able to think of a reason that would have kept her or anyone from going in. The anonymous tip told her that a group of people were trapped in the basement of a building for the purposes of sex slavery. She could not look the other way.
So where was the problem exactly?
She did not expect the building to be on fire. Was it an attempt by the people responsible to cover their tracks? Possibly but not likely. The fire started in one of the top floors’ apartments. If somebody wanted to erase all evidence of human trafficking activities, they would have saved themselves a great deal of trouble by setting the apartment where the victims were locked on fire.
It was possibly an accident, a fortunate accident for some and an unfortunate one for others. But all in all, seeing the thick dark plumes of smoke rising out of the building sent her into a state of panic. She wanted to get to those victims and she wanted to get to them fast. She could not wait for her team to arrive. She had to go in.
Should she have waited for the team?
No, that was not it. She was armed. Self-defense was not an issue. She carried a gun. She was actually against guns, but the condition of the city and the rising crime rate kind of made carrying a gun a survival necessity for residents, specifically the women. She needed the team, yes, but it was possible for her to take care of herself until they have arrived.
So when did the problem emerge exactly?
That was a question that needed her to dig deeper into her memory. Walking through the empty corridors in search of the apartment in question was a nerve-wrecking experience. Every once in a while, she would hear the sound of running footsteps echoing from every direction. There were people still trying to evacuate the building before the fire swallowed them whole.
She pressed forward despite every warning sign around her, the shattered glass under her feet, the shrill voices ordering people to leave that instant, the cries of children in the distance. Every person with a functioning survival instinct was running in the opposite direction. Why couldn’t she do the same?
Every turn she took through the maze of the gigantic building presented her with an identical scene to the one before it. Her only clues that she was on the right track amidst all that confusion were the numbers on the doors. She was getting closer. There was no turning back.
More footsteps echoed. This time they were echoing in her direction, edging closer and closer until she managed to see the individuals responsible for them. In her effort not to get trampled to death, she pulled out of their way and pressed her back against the wall until they have vacated the hallway. Her eyes watched them in dread as they ran past her, almost knocking her to the floor a couple of times in their state of panic. She did not know she was holding her breath until her lungs compelled her to exhale sharply.
She carefully left the safety of the walls and stood in the middle of the hallway examining the direction the group ran through until they have disappeared out of her sight. Maybe she needed to backtrack then. Maybe it was not safe to go any further. Maybe those victims were not meant to be saved. Those were the thoughts that ran through her head back then. She wanted to obey them. She did, but the sight she witnessed next kept her from doing so.
She took one last look in the direction she wanted to pursue. There was nothing but a dark hallway barely lit by whatever sunlight that managed to break through the building. There were no emergency lights, no sprinklers, fire extinguishers or any safety measure of any sort. She took a couple of steps back, and just as she was about to turn around, she heard what seemed like a cry for help. Upon examining the hallway one more time, she noticed a shadowed figure limping in the distance.
It took her mind a moment to register the scene. That person was possibly an injured tenant in need of assistance. The moment her mind played the possibility, she ran towards the distressed individual without giving it much thought. He fell to the floor seconds before she got to him. His shoulders, neck and head were slightly supported by the hallway wall he was leaning against for support earlier.
She approached him, hoping to help him stand on his own two feet so the two of them could leave the building.
“Sir, we have to leave now. It’s not safe,” she said as she tried to reach for his arm, but the moment she lifted it, he released an agonized groan that made her hesitant to proceed any further.
She was about to reason with him again when she felt something on her hands…blood. She held her hands in front of her, looked at them to confirm, and shook her head in denial. Her mind tried to dismiss that one possibility so it sent her fishing through her pockets for her phone. She turned on the flashlight and tried to examine him.
He was in a horrendous state. His form was bloodied from head to toe. She did not know at first whether it was his blood or somebody else’s blood, but the stab wound she noticed next sooner confirmed that it was his. He seemed conscious. That much was confirmed by his feeble attempt at keeping himself from bleeding to death, but it did not seem that he possessed enough strength to apply pressure to the wound. It was at this moment that she realized that she needed to do that for him.
Lesly immediately untied the scarf from around her neck and used it to press on the wound while her free hand dialed the emergency phone number. Her voice shook when she was finally connected to the emergency personal. She asked for an ambulance, and just as she was about to hang up, she noticed his laboured attempt at trying to voice something. She leaned closer to him, hoping to be able to hear what he wanted to say.
He did not say anything else. It did not seem that he was capable of speaking another word even if he wanted to. She examined his wound one more time, wondering if there was anything she could do to ease his suffering until the medics have arrived, but there was nothing to be done.
It was not just the stab wound that was the problem. The man had other serious injuries that required immediate medical attention. His face was heavily bruised and cut. A giant gash covered his forehead and oozed blood all over the right side of his face. There were burn marks extending from his neck all the way to both arms and to his torso which was barely covered by the worn out t-shirt he was wearing. The blood and swelling on his left arm were caused by a fractured bone that was now sticking out of his arm, and to top it all his right shoulder appeared to have been dislocated.
Given the severity of the injuries and the current state of emergency that was sending everyone into panic, it was doubtful that he would make it. The fact that she had to sit there and do nothing but apply pressure to his stab wound and monitor him in silence made her feel even more helpless. It was obvious that he was still conscious and in a lot of pain, but there was nothing else to be done. That thought did not sit well with her. There must be something she could do.
Her hand started fumbling with the phone involuntarily. Her team, she needed to call her team again. They must have arrived by now. Maybe they can help move him out of the building at least.
“Come on. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.”
“Hello,” answered the voice on the other end of the line.
“Charlie, please tell me you’re here.”
“Just a couple of minutes, Collins.”
“I’m inside the building.”
“Have you lost your mind?! You went in alone?!”
“I couldn’t wait,” she clarified. “Listen, there’s somebody here who needs help. He’s been stabbed. I already called for help, but I don’t think he can wait for long.”
“We’re almost there, Collins.”
Lesly was about to give further instructions to Charlie when she noticed the man wincing and groaning in pain. He was trying to move his right arm, so she immediately hung up and tried to calm the stranger down, “Shh Sir, you’re gonna be okay. Help is on the way.”
He did not stop. He was trying to say something, but he could not speak. Then he managed to raise his index finger and point shakily into the direction he came from. She looked, not knowing what to expect exactly, but she did not see anything. She looked back at him again and noticed that his gaze was fixed on her. That look. She could recognize it now. It was fear, and not just fear, but pure terror.
It was at that moment that everything clicked, the stab wound, the dried traces of blood, the torn clothes, the rope marks around the man’s wrists, the circular pattern to the burn scars that could have only been left by cigarettes. That man was not injured in the process of evacuating the building. No, something else happened.
Ominous footsteps echoed in the distance, a sound that will forever be engraved in her memory.
“He’s here. I found him.”
She looked at the direction of the strange sound, and noticed a shadowed figure motioning to somebody else she could not see to come. Soon afterwards, the shadowed figure turned towards her and began a steady march in her direction. The more he got closer, the more visible he became by her illuminated surroundings. He was a tall dark-haired man who seemed completely normal in every way, but the look of terror in the injured man’s eyes told her that she should be on her guard.
He came closer wearing an expression of relief, and then started to talk to her, “Thank God you found him. I was getting worried. I’ve been looking everywhere for him.”
“Do you know him?” she asked, not knowing quite well what to make of his statement.
“Yes, he is a friend of mine. He was coming to see me. I live here. He must have been pushed down the stairs by somebody in panic. He called me and told me to come get him,” the dark-haired man explained.
If there was one thing Lesly picked from her career as a lawyer, it was how to know that somebody was lying. She already concluded that the injured man was not almost trampled to death, so what was this person’s game exactly?
She did not say anything at first. It was not wise to engage with him any further or insinuate that she was aware of the holes in his little story. The best thing she could do now was to wait for medics, but could she keep the inured stranger alive until then?
“We should not move him. We could make his injuries worse,” she instructed calmly as she continued to apply pressure to his wound.
“I can’t leave him like this!” The suspicious man shot back, almost succeeding at feigning concern.
“Medics will be here soon. I already called for help,” she tried to reason.
He went silent for a second as he stared at her with an expressionless face. Then he smiled as he ran his hands to the back of his head in a sign that she could only construe as frustration.
“You called an ambulance? Great!” Then he started shouting, “Hey, she called an ambulance. Get your ass over here. We need to act quick.”
Her mind tried desperately to rehearse every possible scenario that could unfold, but there was no time. Another shadowed figure was coming. Now there are two of them against her. Her gun. She needed to reach for her gun, but was that a wise move at the moment? They could be armed, too. It would be impossible for her given her current skill level to debilitate one before the other attacked her. What if she waited? What could happen then? They would most probably drag the poor man away or finish him off that instant. They may even shoot her, too.
Was it better to fight then? Try her luck and see if she could live another day? She had to try. There was no other option, so she reached for the gun stealthily as the two men engaged in what appeared to be a heated discussion. She kept it at her side in preparation for any problem that may arise.
The second man soon turned to her and stared at her long and hard. He seemed less calm and more excitable than the dark-haired one. His tone and the words that came out of his mouth next further proved that, “Step away!”
“Step away! Leave this building before it burns to the ground. You did not see anything. You do not know anything,” the threatening stranger warned.
“Make me,” Lesly retorted in defiance.
Silence hung between the two parties as they both contemplated their next step. When the aggressive man stepped forward, Lesly immediately drew her gun and aimed it at the threatening pair. She summoned every ounce of well power to keep her hands from shaking. She needed to look strong and confident. If they find out that this was her first time using a gun, or that she was terrified on the inside, they could easily use that against her.
She took a deep breath and spoke as calmly as possibly, “Now you listen to me. Leave or I’ll pull the trigger.”
“You don’t know who that man is,” the calm dark-haired man tried to reason.
“I don’t care,” she reasoned.
Silence again. How much longer was it going to take before either the medics or her team arrived? It was obvious now that she was the only armed individual at the scene. If either of the two men had weapons, they would have used them by now. This should have given her a boost of confidence to handle the situation, but their standing there staring down at her was slowly shattering her grip on her act. She did not know how long she could keep on pretending to know what she was doing. Her hand…she must keep her hand from shaking.
“I’ll give you five seconds to reconsider or you’re gonna have to find me a replacement,” the aggressive man warned again.
When she did not respond, the aggressive man tried to speak again, but the sound of footsteps echoing through the hallways and the shouting that accompanied it kept him from doing so. Somebody was coming, her team possibly. Help was on the way, finally. They had to leave. The look on their faces told her that they did not feel safe to stay. The dark-haired man turned over towards his angry companion and tried to explain, “We have to go. We’ll deal with this later.”
The other man would not budge, however. He stood there, his furious gaze locked with hers before he considered his companion’s pleas to leave. He finally relented, but not before he spoke the words that would forever echo in her mind.
“I’ll make you wish you were dead.”