First Chapter FREE: One for All

 

PROLOGUE

Australia

December 1942

Rita Winger’s eardrums pounded even harder than the last time her husband had struck her. She grabbed both sides of her red felt hat and tugged it down over her ears. She could still hear the roar of the B-24 bomber’s engines as the treacherous weather battered the aircraft around in the sky. It bucked and shuddered then pitched with a ferocity that slammed her head into the metal wall. How in heaven’s name had she let Ann talk her into this? It had been raining when they took off from Brisbane but they had never anticipated this storm, which had grown more violent as the warplane pushed its way north.

As she rubbed her smarting head she glanced forward, locking eyes on her usually savvy nursing colleague. Ann sat tucked in a ball with her gloved hands clasped around her knees. Her hair had sprung from her ritzy hairclips where she had been clawing at it. Sweet mother of Jesus. This was no time for her to develop a case of the jitters! As Rita righted herself, she could see Ann press her hands firmly together. She couldn’t hear her words over the engine noise but her friend appeared to be uttering a frantic prayer. You better damn well pray for both of us! After all, this whole caper was Ann’s little brainchild. Using a bit of her hotsy-totsy charm with the U.S. fly boys, Ann had talked their way on board the B-24 Liberator that morning. God help them both if Rita’s husband ever found out.  

She looked away but not before she caught the sneers from the crew and the few male civilian passengers on board. Unaccustomed to displaying her bare legs, she tried to tuck them beneath her. ‘What you all looking at?’  

One of the civilians yelled over the noise, arching his head toward her like a snapping turtle. ‘You broads got no place on a U.S. war plane, or the battlefields of New Guinea.’

Rita huffed. She and Ann had no intention to be on the Liberator when it reached its final destination. Looking again at the cowering woman in front of her, Rita wondered at the futility of Ann’s brash plan. She had been brazen enough when she discovered the warplane was scheduled to carry four month’s pay to the U.S. gunners stationed in New Guinea. ‘Pennies from heaven,’ she had claimed. Now look at her. She sat pinned against the wall with her smitten flyboy by her side, stroking her arm as she sucked in deep ragged breaths. Rita let her glance wander upwards. Tucked on a shelf above them, the satchel containing the payroll money taunted her. Was she going to have to be the one to take charge?

Rita had no experience of flying but she felt confident they were safe. The U.S. Air Force had only recently delivered the new Liberator from the factory back in the States. This shiny beauty was on her maiden Australian flight, just as she was. She smiled inwardly at the thought. Once this is over, I’ll be free. Free to get as far away as she could from her miserable life and her abusive military husband.

The aircraft rolled, throwing her sideways into the wall. She rubbed her bruised shoulder and her smile grew. Never again would she have to feel the pain of bruises left by a man’s fist. Lieutenant Carl Winger had fooled both her and her naive Australian parents with his U.S. Officer charms. Once baby Harry came along, she was trapped. Ann’s plan to steal the money was a beacon of hope. If she were to escape with her son, she could never come back.

At least Ann was keeping their patsy occupied. The U.S. Officer looked overly concerned and continued to fuss over her. Rita glanced at her watch. She would have to take action. According to her calculations, they had almost reached the town where they had plotted to force an unscheduled landing. Her cohort had better regain her composure once they were on the ground and follow out the rest of their plan.

Rita took a deep breath. She could hear the blood rushing in her ears. It’s now or never. She unclipped her restraints and crawled in the direction of the flight deck. She would feign acute illness. She was good at holding her breath and swooning – a trick that often got her out of trouble at home. The other passengers waved their arms and called out but their warnings were muffled by the sounds of the engine and the turbulent storm. She ignored them all as she propelled herself forward. It wasn’t easy in the tight dress that hugged her thighs or the high red stilettos cramping her toes. Ann had leant them both to her, insisting they were needed to make over her ruddy looks to get her on board the aircraft.

‘Nice pins!’ called out one of the men as he feasted on her bare legs. She cringed and cursed her slow progress. One of the red stilettos slipped from her foot giving her leverage to push forward with her toes but the parachute strapped to her back hindered her balance. She thought about stopping to remove it, along with the other shoe, but she didn’t want to stop now in case she lost her nerve.

 

From out of the pelting rain, the dark terrain of a mountain loomed in the vast expanse of glass in the observation nose of the aircraft. The navigator’s eyes widened. ‘Pull up!’ he shrieked. The pilot, recognising the crisis at the same moment, responded by hauling back on the controls and raising the nose of the aircraft but it was already too late.

 

Above the piercing engine noise, Rita heard shouting from the flight deck. She caught the words, ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ as the plane came to a violent halt that sent her flailing across the deck into the lap of Ann’s protective fly boy. The screams and shouts of the passengers were drowned out by a deafening crunch as the belly of the aircraft peeled open. A gaping hole shredded across the floor. Rita felt herself slipping toward it.

An Officer’s hand tightened around hers. She looked heavenward in thanks as it halted her descent but then felt her sweaty palm began to slip from his grasp. Her wild-eyed terror was reflected in the Officer’s eyes as she began to slide downward once more. She closed her eyes, but images of her baby son flooded her mind spurring her into action. She clawed at the floor with her fingernails then thrashed out in search of a stronghold. Her fingers clamped around a thick canvas strap which held her mid-air. She was about to thank God a second time when the strap jerked loose. She slid from the hole into mid-air, still clinging to it for life as the cold rain hit her face. A shock jolted through her body as she hit the wet rock then bounced across the jagged surface of the mountain peak, tumbling over the edge of the cliff into a dark ravine.    

Rita grappled for the ripcord on the parachute and moments later the fabric whistled from the bag, sending a further jolt through her body. She drifted downwards, the wind and rain still playing havoc with her descent. She cast her eyes down at the strap gripped between her other fingers. She was about to let go when she realised it was attached to a padded satchel. She hugged it to her face as an explosion ripped through the air above her, showering her with heat and debris. As a hot piece of wreckage seared its way through the parachute, she crashed through the leafy branches of the trees then came to a thudding stop on the mulched rainforest floor. The world went black. 

 

Rita forced her heavy eyes open. A dull throbbing at the back of her skull made the world appear in soft focus. The ancient trees crowded in a shadowy and sinister presence around her, their trunks darkened by the moisture that hung heavy in the air. They whispered amongst themselves about her unwelcome manifestation on the rainforest floor. She clapped her hands over her ears but she could still hear the buzzing sound. Was she in a dream? She drew quick breaths. The unfamiliar dank smell of the rainforest told her otherwise. As the first rays of the dawn pierced the rainforest canopy, Rita looked up to find that she was interred by a dense shroud of leaves. Something rustled in the leaf matter beside her. She jumped then cried out as an excruciating pain shot through her leg. Nausea welled in her stomach and she screwed her eyes shut. Her breath quickened with the pain then the world faded out.   

 

The next time Rita opened her eyes, her focus had sharpened but the light was waning. How long had she been out? There was an incessant ringing in her ears. She squeezed her palms against them but it only made the noise louder. She tried to push herself into a sitting position, moaning as a fiery pain shot through her lower leg. She attempted to wiggle her toes but it was hopeless. How would she get out of here if her leg was broken? A deep gash across her ankle would soon become septic in this tropical climate if it were not irrigated. She looked around her but despite the saturated earth, the only water she could see were small droplets that hung to the underside of low-lying leaves. All they managed to do was incite a deep thirst. She reached for some of the leaves and licked them greedily, bracing herself against another onslaught of pain. Twisting her head away from the agonising injury, the canvas satchel came into view. She pulled it toward her and chopped at its sides as if fluffing a pillow, intending to use it to elevate her ankle above the unsanitary rainforest floor. Surprised by the dull thud that the effort drew, she clawed at the zip and opened it a small way. Rita laughed out loud. She thrust her hand in and pulled out a fistful of greenback American dollars then tossed them into the air. ‘Mission complete!’ she called out to the high canopy of the trees as a deep throaty laugh rocked her body. She grimaced as the exertion caused further pain. ‘Can you hear me Ann, you greedy cow? Here it is. Come down here and get it!’     

Dwarfed by the tall tree trunks, Rita felt suddenly very small and alone. She had no idea how far she had fallen. If she were alive, there might be other survivors. ‘Help! Help! I’m down here,’ she called out but her voice rasped in her dry throat. Her plea was met only by the haunting sound of a cracking whip. She had read about the rainforest whip birds but the way their drawn out call rebounded through the trees disoriented her. A tingle crept down her spine then intensified into a shiver. Her body continued to shake as the damp cold invaded her veins like iced water. She had to keep warm to prevent her body going into shock. She rifled through the side pocket of the satchel finding matches and a few packets of tobacco. To make a fire she would need some dry kindling but the rainforest was unyielding. She piled up some of the damp sticks then began to rip some fabric from her petticoat when she glanced back at the satchel.

What the hell? It’s no use to me here. She grabbed a fistful of cash then screwed it into a loose ball. Placing it underneath the sticks, she set it alight then watched as the fire licked the edges of George Washington’s curls. It fizzled out and it took several more attempts before the flames took hold.  

Rita’s stomach rumbled but the satchel held nothing else but the cash, a small leather-bound book and a few pencils. The book listed the names of the officers due to be paid. ‘Damn you and your foolish plan, Ann!’ She tore the pages from the book and tossed them into the fire. They blazed briefly before settling down with the rest of the embers.

How long it would take them to find her out here? She was not even a registered passenger on the plane. Would they even search for her? She picked up one of the pencils and began to write to her young son, Harry, in shaky lettering.

 My Dearest Little Harry,

Just yesterday I held you in my arms and it is hard to fathom that we are now parted. The six short happy months since I was blessed with you have been the most precious moments of my life. I love you my darling son with all my heart and shall always do so, and tho’ I am far away from you this night I am thinking of you as I always do. Please God take care of him for me and keep him safe and sound, help him to bear the burden of our parting. I hope and pray the time will be short before I am rescued and your loving mother will be back by your side to hold and protect you. Until then, take care of him God and tell him I love him so much. God bless you my sweetheart xxxx

She drifted back to sleep with the pencil still in her hand.  It left a wavering line down the page as her hand dropped heavily to her side.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 The Trafficking Protocol (UN 25 December 2003) defines human trafficking as:

(a) [...] the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

 T-MINUS 06 DAYS

Marley Nixon’s eyes fluttered open but the world remained black as pitch. A moment ago she had been tucked between the soft sheets of her bed, enveloped in the arms of her husband Ted. Her lips trembled. Was it a dream?

One arm extended upward into the darkness but she couldn’t feel her fingers. She took a deep breath then coughed as the reek of stale urine stung her throat. She reached out with her other hand, feeling for something familiar in the darkness. As her hand contacted with the cold concrete floor, her whole body recoiled with a shudder. Memories of the past two days flooded back in nauseous waves. Marley could now feel the cold bite of metal on her wrist. She yanked hard. A chain clanked against the wall and pins and needles prickled down her arm. Her breath caught in her throat.

A woman’s sobs echoed through the darkness. Marley gasped, spluttering again as she sucked in the putrid air. ‘Mom, is that you? Are you alright?’

‘Shush,’ came a nervous response from nearby. ‘They hear you.’ It was the voice of a young Latino girl, or had she imagined it? She tapped her fingers on her woozy forehead. ‘W…where are we?’

‘Los Mochis.’ The girl’s voice sounded strangled but quite real.

‘In Mexico!’ Marley’s stomach lurched. How would Ricky find them now? Her brother was barely able to look after himself these days, even when he was sober. She had known it was hopeless to rely on him to raise the ransom money.

‘Shush,’ the girl repeated as the sound of footsteps boomed down the hall.

Marley’s heart jolted. Was it the vile Mexican man? She reached out in the dark with her free hand, a sudden parental urge to protect her ailing mother. She heard a jangle of keys and felt her mother flinch. The lock made a sharp crack as the barrel turned and the door opened, accompanied by an unintelligible grunt.

Glaring light penetrated the room. Marley blinked hard. She tried to focus on the silhouette in the doorway but her vision blurred. Something glinted. She blinked again then the sour taste of fear filled her mouth. It was the same man – with a knife!

Marley lunged for him as he headed for her mother but the chain stopped her short. He aimed a warning look at her then grabbed for her mother’s hand with the knife raised. It came down with a sickening crunch through flesh and bone.

The young girl chained to the opposite wall muffled a scream.

 

Undercover detective, Sol Ramirez, stepped through the doorway cursing under her breath in her native Spanish tongue. It had all happened so fast. 

Marley’s eyes beseeched her in a silent plea for help while her mother sat whimpering in shock. Sol stepped around the Mexican brute with a first aid kit in her hand. He pointed and ordered her to tend to the injured woman. It took all her will to resist the urge to lay the kit box across his smug face. She nodded then went to work on stopping the bleeding and dressing the woman’s wound.

There was nothing more she could have done. Not without risking her cover and she couldn’t do that. She was too close to learning the truth about her past.

Excerpt from One for All, © Lea Scott 2013

 

       

 

 

 

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Lea Scott