****Trigger Warnings Saved by the Dark starts in a very dark place where the main character is being held hostage by a human trafficker. There is strong language and sexual references. Do not read if this will trigger you.
If my options are to jump off a cliff or get eaten by a bear, I’ll leap and hope I learn to fly on the way down…
The late afternoon crowd of rowdy and rough-looking men at the aging roadside bar might have scared a normal traveler. To Phoebe, though, the over-the-top laughter and the smell of old beer and fried food was like a sweet memory that helped her remember life hadn’t always been a nightmare. Hell, a year ago she would have fit in perfectly. Working under the table at a dive bar for tips was probably the most respectable way she had ever earned money. She didn’t need much, four walls and a moderately clean bed. Back then her clothes were cheap and her housing erratic, but she had been happy and understood how to survive. She believed being completely homeless was as low as a person could drop and took pride in the fact she only slept on the streets a few weeks a year.
The past six months of hell proved how naïve she was. She might be wearing a linen pantsuit and flashy jewelry, but she would gladly sleep on a cement street corner every night in winter if it meant escaping her current situation. The man sitting next to her in the tailored suit was worse than a drugdealing pimp. He was a violent nightmare who trained and sold women like expensive, broken pets. Phoebe hadn’t been a saint, but she tried to cling to the thought that she was worth more than a dog. Actually, people probably would have cared more if a dog was treated the same way he treated women. The men at the twisted sex auctions and parties that ‘Master’ hosted laughed and joined in the abuse of the female party favors he provided.
Phoebe ground her teeth and mentally reviewed the image of his driver’s license. He was Mitchel Thomas, not Master. Blond hair, blue eyes, 5’10” and selfishly not an organ donor. Her eidetic memory meant whether she wanted to or not, she remembered every little detail of each horrifying minute. Phoebe tried to focus on useful things, but with each hour that passed her dreams changed from escaping to finally ending the nightmare. Being taken out of the training center and away from the hallways that echoed night and day with women’s screams and whimpers was a rare treat. The sights of human depravity and cruelty she’d witnessed during her time there would forever haunt her nights. The public surroundings were new and should have comforted her, but dread built inside her each moment she spent in the fake freedom.
Phoebe would give anything to be sitting with the other customers instead of trapped at this table. The woman she used to be, would have flirted with the men, distracting them as she emptied their pockets, her small stature and elfin look fooling almost everyone into believing she was an innocent. Hell, looking back, she was an innocent. Life on her own on the streets couldn’t compare to the horrors of her current life. Maybe it was time to give up and seek a way to end everything.
Did these strangers know how lucky they were to be drinking and joking with friends? She clenched her fists and used the pricks of pain her nails caused to focus and lock down her spiraling feelings. Envy and hope were emotions Phoebe couldn’t afford.
Nothing made sense. If they were going to spend the afternoon at a dimly lit bar, why had Mitchel insisted the stylist use makeup to cover up her sallow skin and gaunt looks and put hair products on her blonde curls? He reveled in showing her off as his broken pet. After accepting a drink from the wrong guy and waking up chained in this new reality, she had tried to figure out how to escape and survive. But the beatings, drugs and chaos meant that every time she thought she understood the rules of this horrifying world, something changed and had her struggling to hold on to a single scrap of her sanity.
Phoebe shifted slightly, trying to ease the discomfort caused by the fresh cuts and bruises on her back and legs. Doing her best not to draw her captor’s attention, she let the pain wash over her, focusing on the adrenaline and the wonderful rush of chemicals her body produced.
“Where are you?” Mitchel’s cultured voice held iced impatience as he spoke to someone on the phone. “I’m here at the god-awful pit in the middle of nowhere because you insisted we had to meet tonight. The product better be worth my time.”
A shiver ran down Phoebe’s spine. The product Mitchel dealt in was exclusively unwilling women. Sitting here quietly, listening to arrangements for the pickup of girls about to be dragged into slavery, made her ill. Would they be like she had been: twenty, living on the streets, and stupid enough to take the wrong guy up on the offer to party? How many of them would survive even a week at the training center with their minds still intact?
“If you aren’t here in five minutes, I will find another source for the low-class trash you provide.”
She had been a piece of low-class trash. Phoebe had watched dozens of girls pass in and out of Mitchel’s ‘training center’. Most of them sold after a month, already broken and ready to do anything for their new owners. Yet she was still there, Mitchel’s personal whipping post. A durable toy he wanted to break before letting it go. A week ago, she had swallowed her pride and pretended to give up, continuing the fight inside her mind while clinging to her sanity by her fingernails. Was that why they were here? Could he finally be selling her?
Would that be a good or bad thing? Escape from the training center was impossible, but her new owner might be less vigilant. Her pessimistic side said her new owner was just as likely to kill her. A small part of her soul crumpled at the knowledge that both options appealed equally.
Loud laughter erupted from the other part of the bar as a group of ten rough-looking men flirted with their waitress. From her seat across the room, Phoebe swore she could smell the savory mix of cheese and bacon emanating from the fries they were eating. Her stomach cramped remembering the single protein bar they had allowed her earlier that morning. The clock on the wall showed it was after six, nearly ten hours since her meager meal. Phoebe had noticed a row of beautiful motorcycles lined up outside on her way into the bar and guessed, by the matching black leather vests the men wore, the bikes belonged to them.
Every man in the group was tall, muscled, and tattooed, advertising to anyone with eyes they were dangerous. Phoebe’s gaze was drawn like fire on a dark night to the man at the head of the table. With deep brown eyes and hair, and a scruffy jawline, he had a face that would melt any woman’s panties. More reserved than his companions, he leaned back in his chair like a king on his throne, taking everything in. Phoebe’s breath caught in her throat as his predatory gaze caught hers, locking all her muscles like a rabbit trying to hide on a mowed lawn. He smirked when he noticed her attention and winked.
Pain seared through her as Mitchel’s hand closed around the cuts and bruises lining the back of her neck.
“Eyes down, slut. Don’t you look at them.”
“Sorry, Master.” Phoebe dropped her gaze, her whole-body trembling at what he might do next. Being in public should mean safety, but Mitchel was unpredictable. When no blow or further words followed, she relaxed a little, keeping her gaze on the dirty stained wood in front of her.
The quiet click of his ever-present switchblade made her stomach turn. He ran the edge lightly along her thigh, the scrape of the material of her pants against the metal causing her to flinch. “I can force your attention if you can’t focus on your own. What would those men think if they knew you were a dirty little pain slut? That you love being hurt?”
Shame swamped Phoebe as it always did when Mitchel taunted her with her body’s responses to pain. She tried to remember when her love of rough sex with a large bite of pain was a quirk rather than a weakness. Mitchel could make her body respond even when her mind was quivering in fear and she hated it. It was that mental torture that had broken her more than the physical. Her sanity only held in place by being able to transform pain to pleasure and disconnect into her vivid pleasant memories, but she now believed it might have been better if she had broken long ago like the countless women who came through the training center. It had to be easier being a shattered, mindless drone than being aware and hating yourself.
“What’s with the piece of ass?”
Mitchel pulled the knife away as two men joined them at the secluded table. Phoebe lifted her gaze long enough to notice the two men were also bikers like the other customers, but they wore slightly different leather vests than the men across the bar. They also seemed oilier somehow, without the powerful aura of strength and violence.
“Caravaggio finally made me an offer I couldn’t pass up. I’m delivering her to him personally after we finish this meeting.”
Caravaggio. The name echoed inside her head. He was one of Mitchel’s frequent customers. Half of the scars on her back were from his cruel attentions. Too many times she had listened through the walls as the screams of his recent purchase faded into whimpers and eventually silence, signaling the death of his victim. So, when he had paid for the privilege of helping Mitchel break her, she had found comfort in refusing to scream for him. Able to disassociate since childhood, she knew that within the limits Mitchel set for him, she could remain blessedly quiet. That act of defiance made him want her with an obsession that bordered on mania. Tears would burn in her eyes, but she would fight them back. If given complete freedom without consequence or witness, that psycho would make her scream. She would end up unrecognizable, buried in some unmarked grave in the forest.
“This bar is neutral territory. No trading of goods here.”
“I’m not meeting Caravaggio here.” Mitchel said the word as if this bar was a cesspit.
“Just saying. Taking her out in public takes balls, man.”
“My little slut knows better than to cause trouble, don’t you?” Mitchel squeezed Phoebe’s neck, and the pain pulled her out of her spiraling thoughts.
“Yes, Master.” Her voice shook. She should run and take her chances. Even if it got her killed, anything would be better than ending up raped while bleeding to death by Caravaggio. Mitchel chuckled, probably loving both her fear and obedience.
“Drinks before we talk, though I doubt they have any good scotch in this place.” Mitchel turned his head as if looking around for the server. Through her lashes, Phoebe took in the room. The single waitress in the place was still flirting with the table of bikers and unlikely to pause any time soon. “The service is appalling here.” He raised a hand, trying to attract her attention, but she smirked and pointedly ignored him. Anger darkened Mitchel’s face. “Screw this. Slut, get us three glasses of scotch, neat.”
Phoebe stood, at first hesitating, not believing Mitchel would let her out of his grasp for even a second. Surprised, she kept her face neutral and slid out of the booth. She turned towards the bar to get their drinks and realized this was her chance. Running was a possibility, maybe she actually could escape the hell that was her life. Mitchel’s bodyguards were outside, but if she surprised them…
No, making a scene wouldn’t work. Who would help a stranger, a girl like her? Phoebe racked her brain for some plan that might save her from her fate. Mitchel always had a gun in the small of his back. She could easily lift it with a slight distraction. Killing him would be satisfying if she could, but even the worst-case scenario gave her comfort. She could use it to kill herself. Hundreds of ideas swirled through her mind on how to get the gun, every one of them bringing her one step closer to a shallow grave.
And she was okay with that.