Drip, drip, drip…
My heart was pounding in my ears. Each step into the alley made bile rise in my throat. I wasn’t supposed to be here; he had told me to wait in the car.
But when four men had walked back out onto the street and he wasn’t with them, I knew something bad had happened. I didn’t hear gunshots, so I was holding out hope that he was alive.
My feet crunched over broken glass, and I froze. It was eerily quiet, aside from the constant drip.
The flicker of the streetlight made shadows on the building beside me. Every time something moved, I panicked, only to realize it was nothing.
The air was wet and foggy; the rain was coming down like mist now. The delicate drizzle soaked me down to the skin, leaving me shivering.
Trampled cardboard and bags of trash were piled up high on each side of me, making the walkway narrow. When I reached the dumpster at the end, fear gripped me. Drawing in a shaky breath, I stood up on my toes to peek inside.
Trash. It was full of trash.
The momentary relief I felt was short-lived. A groan drew my attention to a pile of garbage bags on the other side of the dumpster.
As I carefully walked toward the sound, my heart pounded in my throat. Moving one of the bags, I saw his hand.
“Oh God, Dad!” Tugging the bags to the side, I managed to move them enough to see his face.
“Anaïs…run…” He coughed, blood dribbling down his chin.
“I can’t leave you here,” I said desperately, kneeling down among the trash to get closer to him.
Even if I wanted to run, my body wouldn’t go. Every muscle was tight, coiled in fear, too tense to move.
“Go,” he choked out.
“Let me help you; I’ll get you home,” I begged, my hands frantically trying to get a grip on his broken body.
I tried to stop the bleeding, but it appeared to be coming from everywhere. I kept pressing down on the bloody open wounds, but my efforts were useless.
“Anaïs, run.” His voice was stern. There was no room for argument. If he wasn’t so gravely injured, I would have feared my punishment for disobeying him.
Burning tears blinded me as I stood up on shaky legs.
As I took a step away, his breathing changed; the harsh, labored breaths suddenly grew quiet. Against his orders, I remained there, watching his chest, instead of running.
Then, there was no movement.
I didn’t need to check. He was dead.
In my heart, I knew it.
The streetlight flickered and broke my transfixed gaze.
Dad’s car was parked just across the street. With the quietest steps I could manage over the gravel and glass, I ran back toward the opening at the other end of the alley.
As I sprinted onto the sidewalk, I collided with the solid chest of a gigantic man.
Falling backward, I braced myself for impact with the ground.
It didn’t come.
The man had me by the arm, holding me suspended in midair.
He was not alone. The equally gigantic man behind him smiled down at me. The kind of smile that made my stomach roll.
“Hello, love! We were just looking for you.” He clamped his blood-stained hand tightly over my mouth and pulled me from the other man’s grip.
I thrashed and struggled, but it was no use. The blunt handle of a gun came down hard over my head, causing my vision to blur before it went completely black.
I jolted forward.
The sudden movement and brightness of the room caused me to wince. Nauseous and dizzy, I laid my head back down.
I cracked one eye open to look for the source of such a cheery voice.
The girl standing in front of me was naked but for two small heart-shaped stickers over her breasts.
“Let me go get Zion!”
Before I had a chance to say anything, she had bounced out of the room.
With a groan, I forced myself to sit up. I was on a filthy, itchy plaid sofa in the corner of a small room. There were racks of bikinis, if they could even be classified as such, lining one wall. A small desk with a mirror was pushed against the other.
Makeup, hygiene products, condoms, clear plastic heels, and articles of clothing were strewn all around the room.
The door swung open, and the same girl skipped inside. An intimidatingly large man followed behind her.
As soon as I got a look at his face, my pulse quickened. The girl had said his name earlier, but it hadn’t registered.
Zion Azrael. The Devil’s little brother.
It would be hard not to recognize him due to his stature and tattoos. One tattoo in particular gave him away: “Damned” inked on his right cheek, under his eye.
I was glad I was sitting down. My legs were trembling, so I wasn’t sure I would have been able to stand.
“Hello, Babydoll.” He sat beside me on the sofa with a smile that sent a chill up my spine. It was sweet, kind, even. That scared me. My father had told me all about him; I knew what horrors hid behind his handsome face.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Not trusting my voice, I shook my head.
“Your father owed me a large sum of money. Now that he’s gone, I need to retrieve that somehow. Do you understand where this is going?”
I nodded my head.
“Good girl. You will work here, at The Playground, until I am satisfied that the debt is repaid.”
I didn’t know what The Playground was, but I could guess, based on the mostly naked girl behind him.
“The harder you work, the more money you earn, the faster the debt will be paid, and the sooner you will be free to leave. Do you understand, Babydoll?”
He stood, turning to the girl. “Show her around, get her settled in, then get your ass back out there.”
When he was gone, she came to stand beside me. With my fingers, I gently prodded the throbbing wound just inside of my hairline.
“I’m Demi,” she said, pulling me up to stand. “My stage name is Honey. Sounds like you’re going to be called Babydoll.”
I stumbled slightly as I followed her out the door and across the hall to another room. This one was almost identical except that, aside from the furniture, it was bare.
“This will be your room. Do you have anything with you?”
“W-wait… Am I not allowed to go back to my house?”
“No, you live here now.”
Lunging forward, I fell to my knees in front of a small plastic trash can. My stomach heaved, forcing up the small amount of food I had eaten earlier that day.
By the time I stopped retching, my face was slick with tears and sweat.
I hunched over on my knees, holding my pounding head as I sobbed into my hands.
“Look, I won’t sugar coat this; I don’t know how much you owe, but you’re probably going to be here for a while. No use crying.”
I felt Honey crouch down beside me.
“Get up and start working. Zion is fair. You can keep half of your tips for personal spending or you can give him 80 percent to get out faster. Work hard, keep your head down, and stay out of trouble. It’s not so bad.”
“What do I have to do?”
“There are several jobs. You can dance. That’s what I do; it makes the most money. You can serve drinks, or you can clean.” She scrunched her nose up at the last one.
“If you clean, you have to work out wages with Zion, but, trust me, you don’t want to do that. This place is filthy, and the pay is shit!”
“How long have you been here?”
“A year. My debt should be paid off in three months, but I’m going to stay on as a hired dancer.”
My throat closed up, and I felt like I was choking.
“Come on, let me show you around so I can get back to work.”
She stood up and studied me with furrowed brows.
“You can’t wear that… Follow me.”
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