“Are you crazy?”
I hadn’t meant to speak, but the absolute insanity of what I’d just heard brought the words out of my mouth without conscious thought. Across the table from me, my boss frowned, squinted his already beady eyes at me, and shook his head.
“Paul, I’m going to let that crack slide because I need you to do this for me…and if you want to have any sort of future with the company, you need to do this for me. Are we clear on that?
Bill Winters was a bastard, no two ways about it, but he was also my ultimate boss. I knew my performance as a salesman had been faltering the past few months, but I also knew my immediate boss understood the reasons. My dad’s death had hit my whole family hard, but trying to help my mom take care of him at home before that terrible event had been a task that had fallen on me alone.
But Bill…well, if it didn’t benefit him, it wasn’t important. And for Bill, nothing was more important than keeping his department’s sales constantly growing. Anyone who stood in the way of Bill being able to brag about how well his department was doing, who he did not think were “pulling their weight”, was living on borrowed time.
When he’d asked me to stay at the end of the day, I’d been wondering what was going on. Bill’s usual MO for firing someone was to walk up to their desk and loudly announce they were no longer needed in front of their fellow employees. Bill was a bastard, but he also knew fear was a powerful motivator. Now, sitting across the conference table from him, I could understand why he wanted to talk to me in private.
“Bill, I can’t do it. I’m sorry, but you’re asking me to break the law! I might even face jail time if it gets found out. No, I won’t do it.”
A sly smile spread across Bill’s face, and he leaned across the table towards me as he shook his head.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about anyone finding out…not unless you’re stupid enough to say something. I tell you, it’s a perfect solution. You get to keep your job, and I get to keep Jun.”
When Bill had opened our meeting by telling me he wasn’t faithful to his wife, I wasn’t surprised. But to then have him profess himself in love for a young Korean woman he met in a massage parlor had been. Everyone knew Bill owed a large part of his rise to the fact that his wife was the daughter of the president of the company, and on those few occasions when his wife had visited the office, the cold interaction between them made it clear there was no love in their marriage.
Bill’s story was that he had gone to his favorite massage parlor, and from his first ‘session’ with Jun, he professed to have fallen in love. But like most other people in America illegally, ‘his’ Jun worried that she might be swept up in an immigration raid and deported back to Korea. Bill wasn’t going to risk his corporate VP job to divorce his wife to marry and poor Korean girl, so he proposed a solution to me, one that would allow Jun to stay in America and give him access to her when ever he wanted. I was single, so I would marry his ‘girlfriend’, giving her a reason to apply for permanent residency. The marriage, of course, would be a sham, and I would never see the young woman in question outside of our meeting for the ceremony. Bill had already rented an apartment where Jun lived, and where I can only assume he had sex with her, and she would continue to live there.
Bill made it clear that if I refused, he would fire me immediately for my falling sales figures. He also made it clear that if I tried to blackmail him with his plan, he would not only fire me, he would make sure I never worked in sales again. He would brand me as a ‘malcontent’ and my claims the fabrications of a man trying to seek revenge on his boss.
I was in a box I couldn’t see a way out of. Even if I kept my mouth shut and just accepted being fired for not going along, I knew I’d have to start from the bottom at a new firm. Worse, I’d have a termination I couldn’t explain hanging over my head. Bill had me right where he wanted me, a fact he made clear with the smug smirk he aimed my way.
“See what I mean, Paul? It’ll be easy, and all you have to do is show up at the right time, go through the ceremony, and walk away. I’ll tell you what, to show you how much I appreciate what you’re doing for me, after you get the marriage license, I’ll bump up your commission. How does an extra five percent sound?”
It sounded like peanuts, but I knew I wasn’t in any position to complain. So I nodded my head, and wondered what the penalty for a fraudulent marriage was.
Bill had told me to carry a red rose so Jun could recognize me. Standing in front of the Civil Court building, holding a rose, made me feel like the only thing I could do to be more obvious would be to wear a flashing neon sign. I look at my cell again, note that Jun should have been here five minutes ago, and begin to wonder if Bill might have grown some sanity. A forlorn hope. A light touch on my arm causes me to turn.
The woman I saw standing before me was the size of a child. I was looking down to see her face, way down. The top of her head barely came to the lower part of my chest. She was dressed in a pair of care-worn jeans, a coat that didn’t look thick enough to turn aside the chilly wind that was whipping about, and I could see nothing but a red tee shirt under it. Her hair was long and black, darker than any hair I’d ever seen. Her face was far from cute, the skin mottled as if she had once had an extremely bad case of acne, and her slightly sloped eyes seemed to be too close together.
And her whole body was tense, like she wanted to run away, but didn’t know which way to run. Trying to sound calmer than I felt, I asked her the only truly important question.
“Are you Jun?”
Her eyes, which had been fixed on the sidewalk like she’d seen a hundred dollar bill lying at my feet, slowly came up to focus on my face. She gave a barely perceptible nod, and her eyes dropped again.
Great! I have to get married to this woman, and she acts like she’s afraid to look at me. Then a very worrying thought occurred to me.
“Do you speak English? Do you understand English?”
Another twitch of her head, then in a soft, surprisingly warm voice, she replied.
“English…yes, I speak. Not…not good, I speak.”
The prospect of standing in front of a judge, or whomever conducted civil ceremonies, and trying to explain why I was marrying a woman who I could barely communicate with, and who could hardly understand me, flashed through my mind. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I was ready to call Bill and tell him to fire me when one of those rare moments in insight came to me. I pull out my phone, scroll through the apps, and find what I was looking for.
The last month of my father’s life, he had been in hospice, and his primary caregiver had been an elderly immigrant from the Ukraine. Her English had often been iffy, so in order to be sure we understood each other, I’d installed a translation app. I opened it, and after a quick search, changed the translation from English to Ukrainian to English to Korean. Now, I just hope the translations aren’t half as bad as they were when I used it the last time. I type in my question.
Do you understand why we’re here, what we’re supposed to do?
I tap Jun on the shoulder, and when her head rises, I hold my phone out so she can read it. I watch her eyes widen, then narrow as her head cocks to one side. She brings her hand up, take hold of the phone, and gently pulls on it, clearly wanting me to give it to her. I let go, and she types in something before offering it back to me.
Yes, he told me we are to get me papers to stay in America.
So Bill hadn’t told her the truth, no surprise there. If we were going to pull this off, she was going to have know enough to answer whatever questions the officials would need to know. She would probably also need to know my name. I tap the screen, entering what I think will be our biggest problems.
We’re supposed to get married so you can stay in America. They might ask you my name. It’s Paul Sanchez. Can you tell me your name?
When I handed it back, what I had written seemed to stump her, as she spent at least a minute staring intently at the screen before typing her reply.
Married? He said this would get papers for me to stay, not to get married.
I could understand her confusion, and tried to clarify the situation as well as I could.
Yes, if you are married to an American, you can apply to stay, and while that is being decided, you get to stay in America without having to worry about being sent back to Korea. A thought occurred to me. Her responses had not sounded like those of someone overjoyed to be where they were, so I asked. You do want to stay in America, don’t you?
As I was finishing, Jun moved to stand beside me, reading the text as I typed it. She extended her hand, and once she had the phone, switched modes to start relying. Like she had, I leaned over to watch the translation appear on the screen.
Yes, I want to stay in America. Things are very bad at home, and he has bought my debt, so I must stay.
What the fuck? Did she mean that Bill had really bought her debt? That she had been trafficked into the US?
He, bought your debt? Did someone force you to come to America, and who did he buy your debt from?
I could see her blush, and she turned her face down even more so I could barely see her eyes as she took the phone back and began to tell me her story.
My father borrowed money for his shop and could not pay it back. The people he borrowed it from say either I can come to America and work to pay off father’s debt, or they will take his shop. They told me I would work on women’s hands, so I agreed to come. Once I get here, they tell me I will have to have sex with men to pay off my father’s debt, and to pay off the cost of bringing me here too. He met me while I worked and bought my debt, telling me I had to have sex with him to pay off what he had paid.
Jesus! I knew Bill was a sleaze, but sleazy enough to buy a woman? Now the qualms I was having about doing this shifted from legal to moral.
If we don’t get married, couldn’t you just go back to Korea and start over? I typed, and her reply made it clear this was totally hopeless optimism.
No! If I go back, they will make me come back again because they will know I did not pay my debt to him. They will make me come back again, and then they will make me work off all I owe him plus the cost of bringing me back again. I must do this.
“So you’re as screwed as I am?” I muttered it under my breath, but she was close enough to hear me. Her English might be nearly nonexistent, but she must have understood the meaning in the tone of my voice. Jun nodded, and the hollow-sounding “Yes.” she replied with made it clear she knew how bad things were for her.
It took us several tries to find the right office, and the wait in line was far longer than either of us expected. While we waited, I found out Jun’s real name was Doh Jin-su, and she managed to memorize my name. I even managed to make up a believable (or so I thought) about how we met that I told her through the translator. It was looking like I could accomplish this disgusting task when a plump Hispanic woman in some sort of uniform stepped out of the office to address the line.
“Attention, attention please! We can get through these appointments much faster if you have all you paperwork in order, and I do mean all your paperwork. So be sure you have your license, your blood tests and everything else you’ll need ready and properly filled out. Thank you.”
“Shit, we can’t get married.” I took Jin-su’s hand and stepped out of the line. She resisted, but I pulled harder and she followed me to the exit. Outside, I stopped and resorted to my phone again.
We can not get married. We need many forms, all of them filled out, before we can marry. Did Bill give you anything to give to me?
Jin-su looked at the screen, then at me. From the drawn-down brow to her frown, it was clear she did not understand something I’d written. She began tapping, and I watched her reply as it scrolled out.
Who is Bill? Is that the man who owns my debt? He gave me nothing for you, no forms. He showed me a picture of where I was to go, and told me to look for the man holding the red flower, then he told me to get out of his car. She stopped tapping and looked at me again, but now her face was pale and her eyes wide, like she was scared to death of something. Then, she turned her attention back to the screen. He wanted this done, and told me he would punish me if I tried to run away or did not get it done. He will do things to me. Bad things. Jin-su’s hands began to shake as she typed, and by the time she reached this point, her hands were shaking so violently I feared she’d drop the phone. I reached out and took her hands in mine, trying to steady them, to reassure her, but I knew nothing I could do or say would accomplish that. I let go of her hands and took the phone back.
Is he coming back for you?
Reading as I typed, she nodded, and I continued.
How long will it be before he comes for you? Can you not go to the police before he does?
Jin-su shook her head and held out her hand for the phone. I handed it back, and saw the reason for her hopelessness.
No! If I do not work off my debt to him, he will tell the people who brought me here. They will tell their people in Korea, and my father will be killed! I can not run away.
“There has to be something I can do, that we can do! Here, give me this.”
I took the phone back, but my hopeful words were already ringing hollow in my own mind. Then, an idea occurred to me, and I started typing.
How long do you have before Bill comes for you?
Jin-su look at the screen, the pulled back the sleeve of her coat to show me a chunky old-fashioned looking wind-up wrist watch. She pointed at the face. Nearly an hour from now. Time enough.
I have an idea, a way to make Bill let you go without telling the people who own your debt. But you must be willing to do what I ask you to. Do you want to be free of Bill?
She looked from the screen to study my face through narrowed eyes. I could imagine what she was thinking, so I started tapping the screen again, hoping to dispel her doubts.
I don’t want to do to you what Bill has. I hate him too! He is my boss,and he owns me almost as completely as he owns you. Can you trust me, can you help me get both of us free from him?
Jin-su looked up at me as the translation finished appearing, and I thought I could see hope in her eyes for the first time since I’d met her. She nodded, and didn’t have to type her response. “Yes.”
My laptop chimed, and I moved opened the screen that had been minimized. I could see a large bed in an otherwise bare room, and beside it, Jin-su was struggling with Bill. I watched as he raised his hand and delivered a blow that snapped Jin-su’s head violently aside. He must not have felt the blow enough, as he hit her again. And again. And again. Jin-su had stopped struggling, had stopped even attempting to resist, Bill seemed to be hitting her for no other reason than he enjoyed it. Then he drug her to the bed, threw her on it…and I finally understood why Jin-su had feared him. I had only watched a few minutes before I closed the laptop. I knew I had to close it, or I would begin vomiting, or I’d give in to the over-riding impulse what I’d seen stirred in my and kill my boss the next morning.
I couldn’t sleep that night, not after what I’d seen. I checked the laptop, found the video file of what had streamed in the previous night, and copied it twice. One copy went into a cloud storage account I’d set up in my name, the other onto an SD card that I pocketed as I left for work.
Bill intercepted me before I even got in the front door, and he was clearly not happy.
“What the fuck, Sanchez? I give you one simple task to accomplish, and you can’t manage to get it done?Are you that anxious to get fired?”
I wanted to punch him. To grab his head and slam that smug face of his into the sidewalk until he didn’t have a face. The desire was so strong my hands, my whole body, was shaking. I choked the anger down, got control of the violence and my voice, and spoke.
“Well gee, Bill, I guess it’s my fault you’re a total screw up. What did you expect when you send me and Jin-su to the court house without a marriage license, or any of the other paperwork we’d have had to have to actually, you know, get married? How the fuck did you expect me to fix that mess?” I move my head,letting Bill watch me watch the people entering the building, and lean forward to address him in a lower voice. “And speaking of fucking up, do you really think it’s a good idea to be talking about something like this out here, where some one walking past might hear?”
That brought Bill up short. He swept the passing stream of people as if he expected to see someone dressed in a trench coat and slouch hat, then jerked his head towards the entrance. “You’re right. Let’s talk about this in my office.
Just what I hoped you’d say, fool!
I did my best to keep the feeling of triumph off my face as I followed Bill inside. I caught more than a few looks of concern, a couple of slow head shakes, as we passed through the cubicle farm as everyone who saw us concluded I was in deep, deep trouble. Having Bill close his office door behind us no doubt confirmed their conclusion. If only they knew…my boss’ voice brought me out of my thoughts of how sweet what was to come would be.
“All right, Paul, I’ll give you the point that the paperwork should have been taken care of before I sent you and that stupid Korean cow down to the court house. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you the afternoon off, with pay, so you and Jun can get the license, and I’ll take her to get the blood test afterwards. You do the same after you pick up the forms.”
I couldn’t keep the smile off my face any longer. “Well, gee, Bill, that’s awful generous of you, offering to pay me to commit fraud for you, but I think I’ll pass.”
“Have you forgotten, Sanchez, that I have you over the proverbial barrel? You’re going to do what you’re told, or you’re going to be out of a job, got it?”
I doubt I could have done anything that would have stunned Bill more than when I started laughing at him. His face turned a decidedly unhealthy purple, and I could almost hear his teeth grinding together behind the scowl his mouth set into. How he kept from screaming at me before I finally stopped laughing, I don’t know. But when I was forced to stop and draw a wheezing breath, Bill let out a snarl that would have done a big cat proud before he addressed me. I had to give him credit, Bill managed to moderate his voice to a low, rumbling growl.
“And what the fuck do you have to laugh at? Do you think I don’t have the balls to fire you? That’d be a bad bet to make, because I’ll fire your worthless ass in a heartbeat if you try to fuck with me!”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re going to do shit, Bill. As a matter of fact, I know you’re not going to do anything to me, or to Jin-su either. Want to know why? Let me show you.”
Bill had done what he usually did when he took someone into his office for a ‘talk’, he’d sat himself down behind his overly-large desk, leaving the person he felt like intimidating to stand in view of everyone in the cubicles outside. As I spoke to him, I moved around the desk so I could reach his computer. I knew Bill well enough to know he was too lazy to secure his computer. It was an open joke among my fellow employees that he didn’t secure his computer because he was too lazy to key in a password, but because he was too stupid to remember his password. I gave the mouse a quick shove to awaken the monitor, then reached into my pocket for the SD card. His machine was no different from the one I had at my desk, so I knew there was a slot on the front I could put the card into. When I inserted it, the icon popped up on the bottom of the screen, and when I clicked on it, the video file started playing.
I watched Bill’s face, and saw his eyes open wide, then the color drain from his already pasty face. I had to focus on his face, because I knew if I had to watch what he did to Jin-su again, I wasn’t sure I would let him leave his office alive. Give him credit, he tried to bluff his way out of what he was in front of him.
“So what? So I fucked some Korean whore. So I like my sex a little rough. How do you think that makes any difference?”
I leaned forward, so close my mouth was nearly touching his ear. I could smell the sour stink of fear rising from him, and I knew I had him.
“Oh, you know what difference it makes, Bill. Because if, say, Mr. Saunders, or your wife, were to see this…well, how long do you think you’d be married, or have a job here for that matter? I doubt your father-in-law would be terribly happy to see you cheating on his little girl.”
I delivered my message in a whisper, but from the way he recoiled, you would think I’d shouted into his ear. Any semblance of composure left Bill at this point. His whole body began to shake, and he drew himself as far away from me as the chair he sat in would allow. When he managed to speak, his voice had none of the domineering sneer it usually possessed. No, now it was barely a quavering squeak, a voice choked with all the fear now etched on his face.
“What…what do you want? Money? A raise? Promotion? You can have it, Paul, you can have anything you want!”
I felt like telling him I wanted to never have seen him begin to rape Jin-su. I wanted to tell him I wanted him dead. The anger rose in me, and I had to fight it down, to bring my reason to the fore.
“I want you to set Jin-su free. She said you bought her debt, so let the people you made the deal with know you’re satisfied so she can go home without having to worry about her family or herself.”
“What, you think I’d honestly pay the type of money she owes for the chance to use her? I know the guy who runs the massage parlor, and he was willing to let me ‘rent’ her for a few weeks. She’s supposed to go back next week.”
The anger flared again, higher than it had before, and I felt my fists close so I could punch the worthless piece of human filth in front of me. Bill must have noticed, because he tried to push his chair away from he. I grabbed the arm rests and held him in place as I brought my face nose-to-nose with his.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’d lie to her to keep her under your thumb. Fine. So here’s what I want from you: you’ll make your lie the truth. Buy her debt, clear it all, get confirmation she’s clear of the people who have her debt. And get her passport so she can go home. Do that and this file never sees the light of day.”
“But….but that’s almost a hundred thousand dollars! Where the hell am I supposed…”
I didn’t give him the chance to finish. I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed as hard as I could. “You’re going to find the money, you worthless son of a bitch, do you hear me! You’ll find the money, or not only will I send this file to your father-in-law and your wife, I’ll send it to the cops too. You can tell them how you like to engage in ‘rough’ sex with prostitutes while they’re leading you to a jail cell. Who knows, you might get a chance to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end while you wait for someone to be stupid enough to bail you out.”
I could see tears starting to form in Bill’s eyes, and while part of me felt sorry for him, the most prevalent feeling was one of cold victory. That feeling was reinforced when Bill managed to choke out his response. “Okay, okay, I’ll find the money. It’ll take me a few days, but…”
“No, you’ll have the money together by tomorrow! You’ll have the money together, and you’ll have her passport back to her too. And if you get some bright idea about going to your ‘friend’ who owns the massage parlor and asking him to ‘take care’ of Jin-su or me, know that a copy of this file is online, stored on a cloud storage service in my name. If anything happened to me, the police will find it, and then you’ll be facing charges of rape and conspiracy to commit murder. And another thing: you’ll leave Jin-su alone. When I bought the ‘nanny-cam’ that caught you raping her, I also bought her a ‘burner phone’. If you show up, she can call the cops before you can force the door. She can also call her parents to make sure they’re all right too. So do as I tell you, and everything will be all right. Clear?”
Security at O’Hare has been tight for years, but I never realized how tight it could be until I stood outside the entrance to the international terminal. I could go inside, but between the TSA employees and the Chicago police on duty, I wasn’t sure I would be allowed to stay there for more than a few minutes. Standing here, in the constant stream of people entering and leaving, wasn’t easy or inconspicuous, but security seemed willing to leave me be. Jin-su was standing beside me, her plain face split by a smile. She’d contacted her parents after Bill had given her passport back, and they had assured her that it was safe to come home. She was to be inside to check in for her flight home, but she’d stopped here to give me that smile before bowing to me. “Thank you, Paul. You are good man.” She stopped for a moment, like she was trying to remember the rest of a memorized speech she wanted to make, and I did what I could to stop her.
“No, I’m not. I just saw a chance to do some good.”
Jin-su’s English had not improved in the short time since we’d blackmailed Bill, so my reply stumped her. I typed it into my phone and showed her the screen. She held out her hand, and for the final time, we leaned over the phone, exchanging words through the translation app.
But why did you help me?
Because I hated Bill. And because I could help you when I couldn’t help someone else.
Who could you not help.
My girlfriend. She disappeared while we were in college. They found her years later. She had been kidnapped, raped, and forced to be a prostitute. I found out about it after she kill herself and I saw her death notice in the newspaper.
Jin-su looked up at me and the smile was gone, replaced by the beginnings of tears. I typed something I hoped would forestall them.
It happened a long time ago, and helping you makes up for not being able to help her. Go home. Be with your family. Live a long, happy life, it’s the best revenge you can have on the people who did this to you.
Jin-su’s eyes rose from the screen, then she did something I hadn’t expect. Rising onto her tiptoes, she put her arms around my neck to give me a hug before kissing me on the cheek. That done, she stepped away from me, bowed again and as she straightened, looked me in the eyes.
“Yes, I will. Thank you. Goodbye.”
[A note to those who read this: human trafficking isn’t confined to pervert having sex with women in massage parlors. From the woman doing nails in the local beauty parlor to the people stooping in the midday sun to pick vegetable, people are forced to work as virtual slaves all across America. Don’t ignore them. Don’t assume they’re just ‘dirty illegals’ who are ‘taking’ American jobs.]