Now available for publication:
Salvage, the debut novel by Karen K. Ford
What happens to a decent man when he is confronted by an evil he is powerless to change?
Sanitation worker Rafael Gutierrez clings to his belief that anything worth saving can be fixed. Finding hidden beauty in throwaways, he populates his world with treasures he has rescued and restored. His faith is rewarded until the day he interferes with the trafficking of a teenage sex slave, which starts a slow crumbling of his carefully constructed life. After a violent encounter and the rescue of an enigmatic foreign girl — who may or may not understand his intentions — Rafael brings the girl into the home he shares with his wife and two young children. In a story that is by turns heartbreaking and hair-raising, Rafael is forced into a crisis of survival, as he struggles to reconcile his belief in renewal with some hard-won truths about the danger of good intentions.
Salvage is a story of idealistic immigrants who, in searching for the American Dream, find instead the dazzling excess and moral ambiguity that is contemporary L.A. Inspired by a tragic reality that has been dissected in the news and illuminated by such books as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, examines the personal toll the sex slave trade exacts through the microcosm of one girl and one man, both its victims. Told with enough page-turning suspense to satisfy thriller fans, and written in a style with upmarket appeal, Salvage is perfectly positioned to become the next book club “must read.”
Rafael sat sweating in a square patch of sunlight that bled through the dirty window of the bus. Time was racing now, faster with each mile they covered eastward through the city. No one had seemed to notice them when he first escorted the girl onto the bus, but now he could feel the eyes of his fellow passengers on him like prying fingers. In particular, one elderly woman two rows ahead seemed intent on catching his eye, turning halfway around in her seat and craning her neck backwards again and again to “tsk” her disapproval, as if Rafael weren’t already keenly aware of the presence of the girl at his side, and what it might mean to others.
On the ride across town, through two transfers and the waiting at stops, Crystal had followed obediently and wordlessly. She had kept her head down, hiding behind the barrier of her hair, but Rafael was not convinced that she was entirely passive. He had felt a subtle shift after he had rebuffed her advance in the parking garage. In that moment he had sensed her fear replaced by something he could not identify, but he knew it was far from trust. Though the girl appeared disinterested in her surroundings, Rafael saw that, in fact, she noticed everything. He noted how her body reacted with an animal awareness to the movement of people around her, constantly on guard, alert and defensive. Now she sat in kind of a trance, staring into the near distance, until a sudden stop in traffic and the blast of a car horn outside seemed to awaken her. She nudged Rafael’s knee with her own.
“Hey,” she said. “You got cigarette?”
Rafael recoiled from the sudden intimacy of the gesture. “No,” he said.
The girl leaned across the aisle toward a man whose eyes flicked downwards to peep into the gap made by her flimsy top. “You got cigarette?” she asked.
“You can’t smoke on the bus,” the man replied.
Crystal flicked a hand in the air. “Yeah, okay. You got?”
The man reached into a breast pocket and pulled out a pack. The girl reached across the aisle and took three, silencing the man’s protest with a brown-toothed smile. “You got match?”
As Rafael stepped off the bus at their final stop, the girl was already lighting up, striking the match and cupping it expertly to shield it from the breeze of the departing bus. He watched, trying to guess her age. Her physique suggested young womanhood, but her hands were tiny, like a child’s, and her skin, though smudged, was smooth as a puddle of milk. The practiced way she handled a cigarette lent her the illusion of a sophistication she didn’t actually possess; she was a teenager. Whether thirteen or seventeen or somewhere in between, Rafael could not say for certain. She stood at the curb smoking with a hypnotized air, waiting for further instructions. Rafael thought that he could leave her there and come back the next day to find her still rooted to the spot, smoking and staring, but a closer look at her eyes would have revealed a subtle reconnaissance of her surroundings; if he turned his back on her for a second she would have vanished like smoke.
Rafael gestured with his head and they began to walk.
He turned his mind to the task at hand: he had just six blocks to devise an explanation for Stella. He already knew what her arguments would be, and he knew he had no good answers for any of them. Except… He glanced at the girl, walking beside him, just a few precious years older than his own Esperanza, fragile, naive, vulnerable despite her tough exterior. She was just as Gabriela had been the last time he’d seen her, when he’d had to leave her in that place. This Rafael knew for certain: to leave this girl to the life she had been living would be a waste that he could not bear to be party to. And he believed resolutely that, no matter what she had endured, what privations or tortures, there would be time for one so young to forget, to go back to the start, to begin again a life that was fresh and clean.
Crystal shuffled along beside him, eyes down, sucking ferociously on her cigarette as if it would give her life instead of take it away.
“There is no smoking in my house,” he said.
The girl did not answer.
“I’ll let you finish that one, but enjoy it, because it’ll be your last.” They walked a while in silence. “No one in my house smokes anymore,” he said. “Stella used to smoke but she gave it up when she was pregnant with our first child. That’s Esperanza. She’s a few years younger than you, I think.” Rafael realized that Crystal probably didn’t understand most of what he was saying, but talking seemed to release some of the tension he’d been feeling. “How old are you, anyway? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
Like a dog, the girl seemed to react to the tone of his voice rather than the meaning of the words. When he asked her questions, she offered no reply, but he saw her awareness shift to him, her shoulders tensing as if waiting for a demand that she answer. Rafael thought that if he were to say something in a commanding tone of voice, he would have her full attention, whether or not what he said made any sense to her at all.
“You’ll meet Esperanza,” he continued, “and my son, Pedro, also. Pedro is very sweet. Esperanza doesn’t like to play with him anymore. She says it’s because he’s a baby, but really I think it’s just because he’s a boy…”
The girl wasn’t listening, and Rafael found he had no more to say in any case. What could he say that might explain today? He was a man who never acted on impulse, yet today, he had. In a single instant, he had put at risk a life meticulously constructed, one as orderly as time, as warm and nurturing as good memories. That life, Rafael suspected, was about to change. But it was not in his nature to imagine how much, or in what ways. If it had been, he might have turned the girl around, put her back on a bus to anywhere, and let the doors close forever between them. Instead, he did the only thing that ever felt right to him when he was weary at the end of the day: he went home.