Thirteen-year-old Brianna Walker is thrilled. She’s about to sneak off to meet Jaden, her first real boyfriend. But Brianna is in for a horrifying surprise because the boy she met on Instagram doesn’t exist. Instead, Brianna is hurled into a shocking world most people know nothing about. Brianna’s Uncle Dre is not content to wait on police to bring his niece home. He searches the streets of Los Angeles determined to end this nightmare. But will he find Brianna before it’s too late?
Read an Excerpt Below!
Brianna sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed, her thumbs rhythmically tapping the screen of her iPhone. She paused, then hit the Send button, firing off a text message.
Her soft hazel eyes lasered into the screen, anticipating—no craving—an instantaneous response. Jaden had told her to text him when she was about to leave the house. So why didn’t he respond?
She hopped off the bed and cracked open the door. A gentle tinkle—probably a spoon clanking against the side of a stainless-steel pot—signaled that her mother was busy in the kitchen preparing breakfast.
Easing the door shut, Brianna leaned against it and closed her eyes. To pull this off, Brianna couldn’t just act calm, she had to be calm. Otherwise, her mother would surely notice. But at only thirteen, she’d become pretty good at finding ways around her mother’s unreasonable rules.
She gently shook the phone as if that might make Jaden’s response instantly appear. Brianna was both thrilled and nervous about finally meeting Jaden, her first real boyfriend—a boyfriend she wasn’t supposed to have. Texts and emails had been racing back and forth between them ever since Jaden hit her up on Instagram five weeks earlier.
It still bothered Brianna—but only a little—that Jaden had refused to hook up with her on Skype or FaceTime or even talk to her on the phone. Jaden had explained that he wanted to hear her voice and see her face for the first time in person. When she thought about it, that was kind of romantic.
If it hadn’t been for her Uncle Dre, Brianna would never have been able to have a secret boyfriend. When her uncle presented her with an iPhone for her birthday two months ago, her mother immediately launched into a tirade about perverts and predators on the Internet. But Uncle Dre had teased her mother for being so uptight and successfully pleaded her case.
Thank God her mother was such a techno-square. Although she’d insisted that they share the same Gmail account and barred her from Instagram and Facebook, Brianna simply used her iPhone to open an Instagram account using a Yahoo email address that her mother knew nothing about. As for her texts, she immediately erased them.
A quiet chime signaled the message Brianna had been waiting for. A ripple of excitement shot through her.
Jaden: Hey B almst there cant wait 2 c u
Brianna: Me 2
Jaden: Cant wait 2 kss dem lips
Jaden: Luv u grl!
Brianna: Luv u 2
Brianna tossed the phone onto the bed and covered her mouth with both hands.
She was finally going to meet the love of her life. Jaden’s older brother Clint was taking them to the Starbucks off Wilmington. Her mother kept such tight reins on her, this was the only time she could get away. Jaden had promised her that Clint would make sure she got to school on time.
Turning around to face the mirror on the back of the door, Brianna untied her bushy ponytail and let her hair fall across her shoulders. The yellow-and-purple Warriors tank top her Uncle Dre had given her fit snugly across her chest but wasn’t slutty-looking. Jaden was a Stephen Curry fanatic just like she was. He would be impressed when she showed up sporting No. 30.
Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, Brianna trudged down the hallway toward the kitchen.
“Hey, Mama. I have to be at school early for a Math Club meeting.”
Donna Walker turned away from the stove. “I’m making pancakes. You don’t have time for breakfast?”
Brianna felt a stab of guilt. Her mother was trying harder than ever to be a model parent. Brianna had spent much of the last year living with her grandmother after her mother’s last breakdown.
“Sorry.” She grabbed a cinnamon-raisin bagel from the breadbox on the counter. “Gotta go.”
Donna wiped her hand on a dishtowel. “It’s too early for you to be walking by yourself. I can drop you off.”
Brianna kept her face neutral. “No need. I’m picking up Sydney. We’re walking together.”
Brianna saw the hesitation in her mother’s overprotective eyes.
Taller and darker than her daughter, Donna wore her hair in short, natural curls. Her lips came together like two plump pillows and her eyes were a permanently sad shade of brown.
Donna had spent several years as a social worker but now worked as an administrative assistant at St. Francis Hospital. Work, church and Brianna. That was her mother’s entire life. No man, no girlfriends, no fun.
Brianna wasn’t having any of that. She was gonna have a life, no matter how hard her mother tried to keep her on a short leash like a prized pet.
Donna finally walked over and gave her daughter a peck on the cheek, then repeated the same words she said every single morning.
“You be careful.”
Brianna bolted through the front door and hurried down the street. As expected, no one was out yet. Her legs grew shaky as she scurried past Sydney’s house. Brianna had wanted to tell her BFF about hooking up with Jaden today, but he made her promise not to. Anyway, Sydney had the biggest mouth in the whole seventh grade. Brianna couldn’t afford to have her business in the street. She’d made Sydney swear on the Bible before even telling her she’d been talking to Jaden on Instagram.
As she neared the end of the block, she saw it. The burgundy Escalade with the tinted windows was parked behind Mario’s Fish Market just like Jaden said it would be. Brianna was so excited her hands began to tremble. She was only a few feet away from the SUV when the driver’s door opened and a man climbed out.
“Hey, Brianna. I’m Clint, Jaden’s brother. He’s in the backseat.”
Brianna unconsciously took a step back. Jaden’s brother didn’t look anything like him. On his Instagram picture, Jaden had dark eyes, a narrow nose and could’ve passed for T.I.’s twin brother. This man was dark-skinned with a flat nose and crooked teeth. And there was no way he was nineteen. He had to be even older than her Uncle Dre, who was thirty-something.
Brianna bit her lip. An uneasy feeling tinkered in her gut, causing her senses to see-saw between fear and excitement. But it was love, her love for Jaden, that won out. It didn’t matter what his brother looked like. They probably had different daddies.
As Clint opened the back door, Brianna handed him her backpack and stooped to peer inside the SUV.
At the same horrifying moment that Brianna realized that the man inside was not Jaden, Clint snatched her legs out from under her and shoved her into the Escalade.
The man in the backseat grabbed a handful of her hair and jerked her toward him. Brianna tumbled face-first into his lap, inhaling sweat and weed and piss.
“Owwww! Get your hands offa me!” Brianna shrieked, her arms and legs thrashing about like a drowning swimmer. “Where’s Jaden? Let me go!”
“Relax, baby.” The stinky man’s voice sounded old and husky. “Just calm down.”
“Get offa me. Let me go!”
She tried to pull away, but Stinky Man palmed the back of her head like a basketball, easily holding her in place. Clint, who was now in the front seat, reached down and snatched her arms behind her back and bound them with rope.
When Brianna heard the quiet revving of the engine and the door locks click into place, panic exploded from her ears. She violently kicked her feet, hoping to break the window. But each kick landed with a sharp thud that launched needles of pain back up her legs.
“Let me gooooo!”
The stinky man thrust a calloused hand down the back of Brianna’s pants as she fought to squirm free.
“Dang, girl,” he cackled. “The brothers are gonna love you.”
“Cut it out, Leon,” Clint shouted, turning away to grab something from the front seat.
“Don’t touch me!” Brianna cried. “Get away from me!”
She managed to twist around so that her face was no longer buried in Stinky Man’s lap. That was when she saw Clint coming toward her. He covered her mouth with a cloth that smelled like one of the chemicals from her science class.
Brianna coughed violently as a warm sensation filled her body. In seconds, her eyelids felt like two heavy windows being forced shut. She tried to scream, but the ringing in her ears drowned out all sound. When she blinked up at Stinky Man, he had two—no three—heads.
Brianna could feel the motion of the SUV pulling away from Mario’s Fish Market. She needed to do something. But her body was growing heavy and her head ached. The thick haze that cluttered her mind allowed only one desperate thought to seep through.
Mommy! Uncle Dre! Please help me!
Day One Missing
“Sex traffickers often recruit children because not only are children more unsuspecting and vulnerable than adults, but there is also a high market demand for young victims. Traffickers target victims on the telephone, on the Internet, through friends, at the mall, and in after-school programs.”
Day One: 8:05 a.m.
When Brianna’s voicemail clicked on again, Dre hung up.
That was the second time this morning that he’d tried to call his niece. He didn’t even know why he even bothered. Anybody under twenty only used phones for texting.
He chuckled to himself, then pecked out a text.
Dre and his buddy Gus were installing tile in the bathroom of a two-bedroom house he’d recently picked up at an auction. The two men had done time together at Corcoran State Prison. Gus was good with his hands and Dre was happy to have the help.
Dre reached for a towel and wiped sweat from his shaved head. He was surprised when he didn’t receive an instantaneous response from his niece. The girl was usually glued to her phone.
Brianna had gotten a real kick out of the fact that he had called her to help him pick out a nice restaurant for his date tonight with Angela. His niece wasn’t your average thirteen-year-old. She was smart as a whip and knew almost as much about sports as he did. The fact that she looked more like him than his own son was another reason he loved her to death.
Dre was calling Brianna to let her know which restaurant he had selected.
“Hey, man, what’s going on?” Gus asked. He was in his late forties with a muscular frame, perfected during his time behind bars. “Why you smiling so much today?”
“Didn’t know I was.” Dre stroked his goatee. He was close to six feet with a sturdy body built for hard work.
“Yeah, you were. Smiling and whistling.”
Dre grabbed another tile and carefully set it into place. He wasn’t quite ready to let people know he and Angela were getting back together. It was as if talking about his date to anyone other than Brianna might jinx it. His relationship with Angela had been rocky from the start, but he’d finally convinced her that his life of crime was truly over. And it was.
He checked his phone again. Brianna still hadn’t texted him back. She was probably already in class by now.
Dre couldn’t wait to talk to her. Brianna would be almost as happy as he was.
Day One: 8:10 a.m.
Clint glanced in the rearview mirror. Brianna was stretched out across the backseat, still knocked out cold, her head resting in Leon’s lap.
The grab had worked precisely according to plan. Clint just hoped it wouldn’t take too long to break in Little Miss Brianna. The girl looked like she had a lot of fight in her.
He punched a button on his cell.
“We should have her on lockdown in a few,” Clint said into the phone. “This one’s real fresh, man. Got them light eyes. She’s gonna bring in some long dough.”
He barked several instructions, then hung up.
Clint was relieved that everything had gone so well. You never knew what could happen when you were snatching a girl in broad daylight. So far, the Instagram scam was working like a charm. His boss was a genius.
Clint smiled to himself. “Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.”
Leon yawned from the backseat and ran a hand over Brianna’s rear end. “This girl is bangin’.”
“Don’t mess with the merchandise,” Clint snapped, eyeing him in the rearview mirror.
A phone began to ring. Leon looked around, then realized the sound was coming from Brianna’s backpack.
“Don’t answer it!” Clint shouted. “Give it here.”
The caller ID read Uncle Dre. He turned it off and tossed it onto the passenger seat.
“I’m hungry,” Leon complained. “We need to hit a drive-thru.”
“We ain’t stoppin’. I ain’t about to risk nobody seeing that girl knocked out in the backseat.”
Clint shook his head. His cousin was such a screw-up. But what did he expect from a crackhead? His boss would have a big problem with Clint bringing someone into the operation without his say so. Hopefully, he would never find out.
Clint exited the Harbor Freeway at Gage and slowed when he reached a yellow house that was little more than a shack. He hit a button opening the electronic gates, then steered his Escalade down a short driveway and parked on the grass behind the house.
Leon hopped out first, followed by Clint. His cousin bounced on his tiptoes as Clint pulled a money clip from his front pocket and peeled off fifty bucks.
“You can go now.” Clint shoved the money into Leon’s hands.
“Thanks, cuz!” Leon gazed excitedly at the bills. “When you gonna need me again?”
Never. “I’ll let you know. Just make sure you keep your big mouth shut.”
Leon was already trotting back down the driveway. Clint knew exactly where he was headed. To get high.
After first opening the back door to the house, Clint easily retrieved Brianna’s limp body from the backseat and hurled her over his shoulder.
The house was stuffy and night-time dark, even though it was still morning. Every windowpane in the place had been painted black. He flicked on a light switch in the kitchen and marched down a narrow hallway. He stopped outside the second bedroom on the west side of the house. Using a single key, he unlocked the three deadbolts on the door.
Inside, a low-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling provided minimal light. A naked girl with wild blonde hair sat huddled in a corner hugging her knees to her chest. Her face was clear and smooth, but her chest, arms and legs bore red, black and blue markings that stood out against her white skin. The filthy mattress where she sat was the only piece of furniture in the room.
“I brought you some company,” Clint announced. He dumped Brianna on the mattress next to the frail girl. “If you’re ready to act like you got some sense, I’ll bring you something to eat.”
The girl didn’t respond.
“Well?” Clint said.
“Yes,” she mumbled. “I want something to eat.”
“Okay then. You better get with the program. Next time, just do what I tell you or I’ma beat your ass again.”
He pointed toward Brianna.
“When the new girl wakes up, you tell her the deal. Let her know that if she plays along, everything’ll be fine. But if she plans on being hard headed like you, life is gonna be rough.”
Day One: 1:00 p.m.
Brianna’s eyes fluttered open and she took in the unfamiliar surroundings. The room was close in size to her own bedroom, but that was the only similarity. She was lying on a bare, damp mattress. A strong, putrid smell made her want to puke. The dirty gray walls and faint lighting reminded her of a horror movie.
She tried to lift her head, but she was so woozy, her first attempt failed. Gripping the edge of the mattress, she finally managed to sit up.
“Are you, okay?”
Brianna jumped at the sound of the soft voice behind her. She looked over her shoulder at the naked girl sharing the mattress with her. Her sad eyes were bleary and her hair looked as if she’d just run through a wind tunnel.
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” The girl started to whimper.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Where are your clothes?”
“They took ’em. They’re gonna take yours too.”
The girl hugged her knees and sniveled. “I don’t know.”
“What’s your name?”
“How long have you been here?”
The girl began to rock. “I don’t know. It seems like a long time though.”
This didn’t make any sense. “Where do you live?”
“Oakland? How did you get here?”
“I met this boy named Jaden on Instagram. I told him how my foster mother beat me for talking back. So Jaden said I could come live with him and his brother. He was supposed to pick me up in downtown Oakland. But when I walked up to the car, a man grabbed me and put a nasty-smelling rag over my mouth. When I woke up, I was in a room with a bunch of other girls.”
“They brought you all the way here from Oakland?”
“Not at first. They kept me there for a while.”
“You need to call somebody to come get you.”
“Like who? Don’t nobody care about me. And anyway, if I did have somebody to call, they wouldn’t let me. They not gonna let you either. This is like a prison.”
“I’m getting out of here!”
Brianna crawled across the mattress toward the wall and struggled to get to her feet. To keep her balance, she palmed the wall until she made it to the door. But there was no doorknob. Just a hole where a doorknob should have been. She pounded on the door with both fists.
Kaylee ran over and tugged on her arm. “Stop it! You can’t do that! They’re gonna beat you just like they beat me.”
Brianna eyed the bruises all over the girl’s body. She pointed in distress at a red splotch of skin just below Kaylee’s collarbone. It looked as if she’d been burned.
“What happened to you?”
Kaylee’s eyes followed Brianna’s. “It’s a tattoo. They put it on all the girls. They’re gonna do the same thing to you too.”
“No they’re not!” Brianna cried. “Where’s Jaden? Does he know these men?”
“You so stupid! There ain’t no Jaden. They tricked you just like they tricked me.”
“What? What are you talking about? Why would they do that?”
The girl buried her face in her hands and fell back onto the mattress.
Brianna kneeled next to her. “What’s going on?” Brianna shouted. “Tell me!”
“They gonna make us have sex with men,” the girl blurted out. “For money. That’s what they made me do in Oakland and now they gonna make me do it down here!”
“I’m not doing that!” Brianna cried, her anger squashing her fear. “I can’t. I won’t.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, I do have a choice!”
Parallel tears rolled down Brianna’s cheeks as she tried to comprehend what was happening to her. She was still a virgin and proud of it. She wasn’t having sex with anybody.
“I’m not staying here,” Brianna declared through her tears. “My Uncle Dre’s coming to get me. You just wait and see.”