Choice Read

The Letter Keeper by: New York Times Best Seller, Charles Martin

She didn’t move when I opened the door. She lay stretched across the bed, her skin cold. Eyes half closed. Pupils rolled back. Her carotid pulse was slow but strong, which suggested medicated sleep and probably total loss of memory. I compared her face to the picture, and while she was skinnier, hair shorter and darker, and eyes painted in darker circles, I’d found her. I pressed her thumb to my phone, scanned the print, and sent it to Bones. Seconds later, the match returned. After twenty-seven days, four countries, twenty-some thousand miles of travel, and little sleep, I’d found Christine Samson.

Chris was a high school junior. Cheerleader. National Honor Society member. Beginner violinist. Restaurant hostess. Weekend babysitter. Boy-crazy Snapchatter. And she was the daughter of an absent dad and divorced parents. Her mom worked a couple of jobs but made less than forty thousand a year, which meant Chris attended the seventy-five-thousand-dollars-a-year West Florida boarding school on a merit scholarship. She was currently ranked third in her class and had already received offers from most Ivy League schools. She could take her pick.

The scumbags who brought her here had vetted her through her Instagram account. She looked great in a bikini. Never met a stranger. Didn’t drink. Not one to party. Innocence wearing skin. Through a direct message from an up-and-coming amateur soccer player, she agreed to a milkshake. And a cheeseburger. Jean Pierre, who was twenty-one and preferred the name JP, drove a Porsche. But he was no gangster. No gold chains. He wore button-downs and chinos. Somewhere in a greasy burger joint, they laughed through the burger and then the milkshake, but he couldn’t stay out late because his team was playing a doubleheader the next day and the pro teams would be watching.

Chris remembered laughing and singing along to the radio as he drove her home at two miles over the speed limit. Mom would approve. Finally, a good guy.

She woke the next morning in a hotel room across town. Her muscles ached. Her head thumped, and when she opened her eyes, he was next to her. One eye swollen shut. Busted lip. Blood caked to his face. And just as naked as she. She sat up as the shock set in, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not remember how they got here or what precipitated it. Neither could he.

She grabbed her phone to call the cops and only then saw the photos. Who were these people and why were these pictures in her inbox? Then she looked closely. Her face. His face. Their bodies. She tried to focus. How did this happen?

If these get out . . .

She started to cry, but JP took charge. Gently. “We’ve got to get out of here.” They dressed, slipped out the back, and spent the morning looking over their shoulders and trying to piece it all together. Little developed. But he was calm and assuring. When he dropped her off, he asked to come inside and suggested they tell her mom everything. She made him swear. Not a word. To anyone. Ever.

A week ticked by. They talked every day. Their emotions intertwined. Most conversations centered on the photos, but she had one question she couldn’t verbalize.

What if they took video? If so, my life is over . . .

Late in the week, as they greenlit through worst-case and end-of-the-world scenarios, he described how his coach had been understanding about his no-show at the game and how professional soccer teams were beating down his door. Some were even Northeast clubs. Driving distance to Ivy League schools. Maybe he could get picked by a club near her. He could keep an apartment. He just needed somebody who understood him.

After a week, she was no longer holding her breath. Maybe the worst had passed. One and done. When not working, they were inseparable. He was a gentleman. Held the door. Paid for dinner. Didn’t put a hand on her—although she needed him to.

But then the attachments showed up in her email. His too. She threw up in the bathroom. When his Porsche arrived, she signed herself out of school.

Exhibiting the strength she needed, JP sent the videos to his dad. An international lawyer with offices in Germany and France. His father immediately canceled meetings and got on the phone, demanding answers from the authorities. He was flying in tonight to meet with a special crimes unit that handled this sort of thing, hire an investigator, and spend some much-needed time with his son. They were headed to the islands for the weekend. A short trip to the family home. She was welcome to come along. They had a sailboat. They could just get out of here.

He’d set the hooks deep.

Her mom dropped her off, exchanged phone numbers with the dad, and Chris promised to call when they landed.

That was twenty-seven days ago.

JP, whose real name was not Jean Pierre and who had never been a semi-pro soccer player, had one thing going for him. A boyish face. While I don’t know the particular facts, I know his type. On their first date, he had slipped something in her drink, driven her to a hotel, and staged the photos—which, when they awoke, made him look like just as much a victim as she. Completing the act that knit them together.

The last bread crumb led me to a small villa outside Florence. One more stop on the underground railroad, although this one did not lead to freedom. More like a train to Auschwitz. I tore a strip off the bedsheet and tied a tourniquet around my arm. JP was no high schooler but he was a knife guy, and the puncture was deep and the blade serrated. I hate knives. Maybe worse than guns.

I press-checked my Sig. One in the chamber. One in the magazine. Not much to work with so getting out should be interesting. Footsteps and angry shouting thundered above us. Multiple languages. Evidence that the fire I’d set was spreading toward the tank. We didn’t have long.

I pulled her cheerleading sweats onto her sweat-soaked body and felt a profound sense of sadness. Why hadn’t I gotten here sooner? What evil had been inflicted while they transported her and other girls in a drug-induced haze by bus and boat and plane? I stared at JP lying limp on the floor beneath me. Why do the evil prosper?

Bones had taught me that. I pushed him out of my mind. He pushed back.

It had been three months since I learned the truth about Marie, and I still hadn’t come to grips with the reality. For fourteen years, Bones had known she was alive and yet not told me. Fourteen years while I circled the globe looking for her. Logically, I understood why he said nothing as a priest. Emotionally, I could not wrap my head around how he kept silent as my friend.

I would have walked through hell if I’d known she was alive. He knew that. The chasm between knowing why and how was a lonely, painful place. I tried to shake the memory. Dwelling on matters of the heart in moments like this would get me killed.

I glanced at Chris. Tender, young, and now wounded. One more casualty in a twisted world where sick and wealthy men with no conscience buy what they want because they can. No matter the damage. Trafficking in people is an evil without comparison. And the motivations of those responsible are beyond comprehension.

If I got her home, I’d offer to find her and her mom a place at Freetown and nurse them both back to life. I’d suggest a gap year because while some of this would wash off quickly, some would not. She needed time. Her tendency—like all of them—would be to “just put it behind her.” Bury herself in the present. Focus on next steps. College. But in my experience, she could either deal with the trauma now or wait until it festered and the residue spilled out her chest. Neither would be fun. Bones and the team would surround her with girls who had the same experience. Let her know she wasn’t alone. Rebuild her one tear at a time. Undoing what had been done.

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