Solikha Duong lives the carefree life of a village girl in northern Cambodia until her world is torn apart by ‘truck men’ from the south. But Solikha is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight …
Alice Kwann is on vacation when she’s attacked by thugs at a stopover in northern Nevada. But Alice too is tough, resourceful, and won’t give up without a fight …
What binds these women is a shocking trade — the third-largest criminal activity in the world.
Now Solikha and Alice must go deeper than they’ve ever gone before, to fight the demons that haunt them and battle the evil men who would use them and destroy them … because sometimes your past won’t let you go.
“Gritty, suspenseful, page-turning action that lifts the lid on a shocking trade we’d rather ignore.”
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Solikha Duong was nine years old when she killed two men. She was a pretty child, and that was their undoing.
Village life in northern Cambodia consisted of long days and hard work. Everyone helped where they could, young or old. That’s what a villager did. The communal storehouse never emptied and there was still time to play in the lush green fields and the forest fringes that surrounded them. Time for games and laughter. Time for stories around the brazier at night and growing sleepy in her mother’s arms.
Then something changed. Her parents went to market one day and never returned.
Old Aang told her, her eyes heavy with grief, her arms full of comfort, but Solikha didn’t really understand. How was it possible? She’d seen death before, of course. Mr Aang and Old Nhek and baby Sann. But death visited the very old or the very young, not vital people like her parents.
Then they brought the bodies back.
Shrouded outlines. Formless. Surely not real people? They were laid out on a low mound in the meeting hut, surrounded by fresh leaves and rumdoul blossoms, lit by candles. She was allowed to visit, to touch, to say prayers, but not to see their faces. That was strange. Mr Aang and Old Nhek and baby Sann had been laid out in such a fashion, but swaddled from the neck down, not wrapped from head to foot. She placed a flower, lit a candle, said a prayer, but did not understand until the van that delivered them returned two days later. The mangled bicycles told the story more eloquently than the mangled bodies. A narrow lane, a drunk driver, a speeding truck…
Six days later she was sent away, to an uncle in the north. To a man she’d never met before and a village she’d never seen. A village where few people could afford bicycles and where there was little time for play or stories. Where the communal storehouse was often empty, and where one more mouth to feed added to life’s burden.
She worked in the fields with the others and tried hard to prove her worth, but it never seemed enough for her sharp-tongued aunt and taciturn uncle. Two months later, when men from the south came and swapped money for her, it was almost a relief to get in their truck.
A new life, they said. A better one. Solikha just wanted her old one back.
There were three men in the cab. A driver with a pockmarked face, a simple boy who did the menial work, and a muscled man with hair dyed the color of fire who seemed to be in charge.
The journey was long. A nightmare of rutted tracks with nothing but a hard wooden bench for sitting on and the hard wooden floor for sleeping. Every day more people joined them. Young women mostly, older than Solikha, but not by much. A few boys too. They hardly spoke. Like her, they were wary, but when they did exchange a few words, the dialects and accents sounded strange.
The interior of the truck sweltered from the heat and the press of bodies. Condensation clung to the canvas roof and ran down the canvas sides. Solikha kept to her corner at the front. It was a good spot because a little air came up between the boards when they were moving.
They stopped. Again. The truck was already full. Surely they wouldn’t take on any more?
Solikha lowered herself to the floor and peered through a gap between the boards. Something was happening outside. Something important. She saw a guard post and a barrier arm. A man in uniform. Flame Hair beckoned to him and they talked together quietly. Money changed hands, a fat wad of it. The barrier was raised and the truck moved on.
The journey grew easier after that. She could hear it in the sound of the wheels and the note of the engine. The bump and grind of rutted tracks became a steady hum, and the breeze through the gaps in the boards increased, lightening the air inside.
Outside, the little she could see of the world changed too. Forest gave way to fields interspersed with houses, shops and buildings. And people! Hundreds of villages worth. Thousands. So many it seemed beyond belief.
They stopped for one final addition, a cheeky boy in a torn blue shirt. He appeared to amuse the truck men because he called to them as they closed the tailgate and retied the canvas flap. He said something to the children at the back that made them smile. But Solikha didn’t understand his words and didn’t care. She’d been huddled in her corner for four bruising days now and was groggy with fatigue.
After another endless day on the smooth road—fields and villages giving way to tarmac and a sea of cars and trucks—they arrived to night lights and the bustle of a crowded market street. The air smelled of rotting fruit, drains, and an undertone of something darker she could almost taste. Like grit between her teeth. People bellowed in a strange tongue, beckoning and shouting. In the distance, she glimpsed towering buildings filled with light and guessed this must be a city.
They spent that night and most of the next day in a bare concrete room with just a water barrel and an open toilet. It was a relief from the constant noise and movement of the truck, and at last she had room to stretch and walk about.
Late the following afternoon, the truck men reappeared and herded them out with bamboo canes, slapping and poking at them as is if they were cattle. Flame Hair laughed and grabbed at some of the older girls in ways she knew he shouldn’t.
Solikha shielded her eyes from the sudden sunlight and found herself in a closed courtyard with high concrete walls. They were lined up shoulder to shoulder, pushed into place with stabs of the bamboo canes.
The yard went quiet. The truck men stiffened and stood a little straighter as three strangers strode in wearing tan pants, white shirts, brown shoes, and sunglasses. They fanned out, facing the weary collection of women and children, and were followed by a large man in a dark blue suit. His shirt was the color of barley husks, open at the neck, and his black shoes had a lustrous shine. He turned cold, appraising eyes on them, standing with his legs apart, hands resting on his hips.
He looked from one end of the line to the other, then his gaze returned to linger on a girl beside Solikha. A girl twice her age whose hand and forearm were withered and scarred. A burn. Perhaps a fall into an open fire. Solikha felt her shrink back, trying to hide her damaged arm behind her skirt.
Cold Eyes snapped something. Flame Hair pursed his lips and replied respectfully, moving to pull the girl out of line. She stood trembling as Cold Eyes looked her up and down, his lip curled in disapproval.
Flame Hair leaned close and said something in her ear.
The girl looked back, shocked.
He raised an eyebrow, nodded, his expression reasonable.
She shook her head.
He shrugged, sighed, and tossed his bamboo cane to one of his friends. Then he whirled back and lashed out, tearing at her thin cotton blouse, baring one breast for a moment before she could cover it with her withered arm. She tried to draw away, step back to the wall with the others, but he seized her and dragged her forward, yelling the words in her face.
She pushed him off. He staggered, almost fell.
The courtyard went deathly still.
Flame Hair snarled, glanced at Cold Eyes, and received a faint nod in reply. He spoke again, gesturing this time so that even those who didn’t hear his words would understand. He wanted her to undress.
She cowered and held her ripped blouse tighter.
His temper vanished and he shrugged again, seeming to accept this. The girl relaxed a fraction. Then he suddenly exploded, lunging and grabbing her by the hair, dragging her head down as he brought his knee up sharply. They met with a dull crack and she staggered back, her jaw askew, blood welling from her mouth. He kicked her legs away. She fell, landing on her back, and he slammed his heel into her face.
He raised his boot to strike a second time, but Cold Eyes said something and he paused, lowered the boot slowly, wiped the blood and tissue off on the girl’s torn blouse, and stepped back.
Cold Eyes stared at the others, then down at the crumpled heap on the ground, then back at them, his face expressionless. The message clear: do what you are told.
* * *
Later, they came for them individually. One of the older, prettier girls first, then another, then the cheeky boy. Not so cheeky now. By the time they led him away, he looked as frightened as the others.
Each time the door closed, a collective sigh ran around the room. Each time it opened, all breathing ceased.
It opened again and Flame Hair stood looking them over. Then he pointed to Solikha and jerked his thumb.
She didn’t think her legs would carry her across the room. She could feel the apprehension—and relief—in the others. A tight knot formed in her chest. But she was a village girl from Trasek Chrum and there was a song they sang in the fields as they worked, her and the other girls. A taunting song for the boys: how they were twice as good, and twice as tough, and never cried. She sang the words in her mind as she went towards him.
He took her by the wrist and led her out. Through an alley, across a street, then into a building through a side door. She glimpsed a maze of lighted rooms, smelled cooking, candle wax, and sandalwood. Heard pop music—a pounding beat—the sounds of laughter and dancing.
Flame Hair rapped on a door. It opened and she was given over to a matronly woman in a red shawl who smelled of sharp perfume and cigarettes. She looked Solikha over with a weary eye and directed her to a bathroom. There she was made to bathe and wash her hair.
Solikha stood huddled in a thin white towel while the woman flicked through a rack of dresses, drew one out, held it against her, put it back and found a smaller size. The dresses were all the same. Like uniforms. The fabric was coarse, but the pattern was a gay swirl of bright flowers in orange and red. Striking. Distinctive. It was cotton, close-fitting at the top, with a flared skirt and button-down pockets on the bodice. It was pretty. Solikha had never had a brand new dress before.
The woman tucked a pink flower in her hair, but gave her nothing else, no underthings, and Solikha didn’t have the words to ask. She wouldn’t have done so anyway. She was shy and the woman was brusque and businesslike, but not, she sensed, unkind.
She tried to focus on her good fortune instead. She’d been frightened when Flame Hair took her from the concrete room, but now she’d bathed and had a new dress and a flower in her hair.
Memories of the cramped, unpleasant journey were already fading, and for the first time in many days Solikha felt a ray of hope that this new life might not be so bad after all.
The woman in the red shawl pulled a string that rang a distant bell. Another man appeared and led Solikha away. Not one of the truck men. He was better dressed but had a distant air. He held her by the wrist, lightly, like a guide, and she followed him up a narrow staircase, down a corridor, then along a wider passage with closed doors to her left and bare light bulbs overhead. Muffled screams came from behind one of the doors. Plaintive and pitiful. The man didn’t pause. Solikha did, for just a moment, and his grip tightened around her wrist. He jerked her forward. On towards a door at the far end, which stood ajar.