There’s a hot new Kristen Maroney mystery that tackles one of the most vicious forms of crime that plague Central America. It’s high tourist season in the Caribbean, and boutique owner Kristen Maroney spends her days working, except for stolen moments with Conrad, her casino manager boyfriend. Just as the January snowbirds are descending, her assistant Belinda starts acting surly and alienates customers. A simple inquiry of “What’s wrong?” draws Kristen into the treacherous world of child sex trafficking and the fat white men who thrive on it. She and Conrad must pull out all the stops to protect themselves and the children they care about.
Here’s an excerpt:
“You know Belinda and Patrice have a foster child.”
“Yes, Elena.” Liz said.
“There’ve been some problems.” I waited but Liz was immovable. I’d come to talk to her because she’s older, wiser and especially patient, but sometimes her refusal to prompt me gets on my nerves. I needed some encouragement.
“Well, she’s been sneaking out. Stayed out all night recently, and then showed up at the casino in the morning.”
“And this concerns you because?”
“Because,” I snapped. “Don’t you think it’s worrisome?”
“Perhaps. But then the behavior of half of the teens in Placencia is worrisome.”
“No, this is serious,” I objected. I didn’t know where to go from there, so I took a sip of cognac. Liz did likewise.
Finally I found a thread to pull. “Belinda is very upset and hasn’t been herself. She’s gets easily irritated with customers.”
“And that’s unusual.” It was a statement.
“Yes, very. She’s easy going. Obnoxious remarks slide off her back. Yet lately she’s the one to snipe. And by and large customers are not easy going.”
“Imagine what they’re like when they’re not on vacation.”
“Belinda makes raising two kids look effortless. If she’s this worried about Elena, she must sense that something’s wrong.”
“Like?” Finally a prompt.
“I went to see Sister Erica this afternoon. At St.Ignacio. She’s the one who placed Elena with the Arayas.”
“Ah,” Liz fell back against her chair.
“What do you mean, ‘ah?”
“Something mysterious is going on and you’ve decided to look into it.”
“No! Well, not exactly. It’s just that if anything’s happened that her mother doesn’t know about, that should be remedied.”
“And you’re going to do the remedying.”
I puffed up my cheeks and blew out. “There is something, Liz. Sister Erica says that at Casa Alianza Elena acted like a girl who’d been sexually used. Those were her words.” I felt the energy drain from my body. I slumped in my chair and reached for the cognac. It felt good as it burned its way down.
“Didn’t you write an article a while back? About street children?”
She put her glass down and considered me levelly. “Yes I wrote an article about child prostitution in Latin America. But I would caution you not to jump to conclusions. Elena could be going through a normal process of getting used to family life.”
“That would be nice. But I don’t think so. You should have heard the way she talked to Belinda today. Like she hated her. And Belinda’s not her birth mother. I’m no child expert. But don’t you have to feel secure to treat your parents badly?”
“You have a point. When children are used for sex, they sometimes show loyalty and affection toward their handlers and johns, while they treat other adults with contempt. If what you say is true, Elena’s not reacting to Belinda like a foster parent, but like just another hateful adult.”
“And why would that be?”
“I don’t know. But one of the most distressing things I learned while writing my article is that children who are used for sex develop attachments to their handlers, and even a fondness for the fat fifty year olds who use them. At the same, time they’re angry and ashamed, and the feelings can be aimed almost anywhere.”
“What about the ones who are rescued, like Elena?”
“Again, I don’t know. I only came across a couple of references to abused girls who found their way into foster care. As I remember, those particular cases were doing pretty well except for the usual fights about makeup and boyfriends.”
I sat up straight. “See, that’s what I mean! Those are the normal ways that girls act out, right? What privileges they can and can’t have. What they wear, who they hang out with. But Elena, well, it’s like she wants to have another life, separate from Belinda and Patrice. Like she wants to live with them and be on the street at the same time.”
“Emm,” Liz said again. She gazed out through the mosquito netting at the tropical night sky and drifted away. I sensed I wouldn’t get much more from her, because when Liz wants to ponder something, she disappears into the subject of her meditation and there’s no fishing her back until she’s done.
I picked up the dishes and set them on the tray that Ana had left behind. I went into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. Ana and Katy were curled up in a living room chair watching “Real Housewives of LA.” I waved good-bye and headed down the veranda steps with Buster.