The blistering new novel from the author of the multi-award-nominated The Professionals—“Laukkanen is one of the best young thriller writers working today” (Richmond Times-Dispatch).
When you’ve got nothing left, you’ve got nothing left to lose.
Cass County, Minnesota: A sheriff’s deputy steps out of a diner on a rainy summer evening, and a few minutes later, he’s lying dead in the mud. When BCA agent Kirk Stevens arrives on the scene, he discovers local authorities have taken into custody a single suspect: A hysterical young woman found sitting by the body, holding the deputy’s own gun. She has no ID, speaks no English. A mystery woman.
The mystery only deepens from there, as Stevens and Carla Windermere, his partner in the new joint BCA–FBI violent crime task force, find themselves on the trail of a massive international kidnapping and prostitution operation. Before the two agents are done, they will have traveled over half the country, from Montana to New York, and come face-to-face not only with the most vicious man either of them has ever encountered—but two of the most courageous women.
They are sisters, stolen ones. But just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you have to stay one.
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Owen Laukkanen’s first novel, The Professionals, was nominated for the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Novel: New Voices Award, and the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award for best first novel. He is a resident of Vancouver.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Only her sister kept her alive.
The box was dark and stank of shit. Sweat. Urine. Misery. Irina
Milosovici had lost track of how long she’d been inside. How long
since Mike, the charming American, had disappeared with her passport
in Bucharest. Since the two stone-faced thugs had shoved her
into the box with the rest of the women, maybe forty of them. And
Irina had lost count of how many days they’d spent in the pitch-
black and silence, sharing stale air and meager rations behind the
shipping container’s false wall. How many times they’d clawed at the
steel that surrounded them, screamed themselves hoarse, as the box
lurched and jostled on its terrible, claustrophobic, suffocating journey.
Only Catalina kept her alive. Only her younger sister’s warmth
pressed against her in the darkness staved off the fear and, above all,
the empty, sickening guilt.
They were in america now. For days the box had swayed
with the lazy rhythm of the ocean, had shuddered with the ever-
present vibrations of a big engine somewhere far below. Some of
the women had been seasick, and the smell of vomit filled the box,
mixing with the foul stench from the overflowing waste bucket in the
Irina had passed the time telling Catalina stories. “This is the
only way into the country for us,” she told her. “When we arrive in
America, they’ll give us showers and new clothes and find us all jobs.”
Catalina pressed tight to her in the darkness, said nothing, and
Irina wondered if her lies were any comfort at all.
Then the waves calmed. The pitch of the engine slowed. The box
seemed less dark, the air slightly fresher. The women screamed again,
all of them, pleading for help as the box was lifted from the ship, the
lurching of the crane sending them tumbling into one another, momentarily
The box touched down again. Irina could hear a truck’s engine,
and the box rumbled and shook along an uneven road for a short
while, maybe fifteen minutes. Then the movement stopped and the
engine cut off. A door opened in the container’s false wall.
The light was blinding. The women blinked and drew back,
shielding their faces. Irina pulled Catalina to the rear of the box, far
away from the light and whatever waited beyond.
Two men appeared in the open doorway, big men, their heads
shaved nearly to the skin. One had a long, jagged scar across his forehead.
The other held a powerful-looking hose. “Get these bitches out
of here,” he told his partner in English.
“What did he say?” Catalina whispered, and for a moment Irina
was angry. Her sister’s English was no good. What on earth had possessed
Catalina to follow her here?
But then Catalina had always been running to keep up with her
older sister, and Irina had baited the hook. She was as guilty as the
traffickers, she knew.
The men dragged the women out in pairs, past the stacks of cardboard
boxes holding DVD players and cheap electric razors, until the
container was empty and the women stood disheveled and weak in
the harsh sunlight.
They were in a shipping yard. Irina could smell the ocean nearby,
but the stacks of rusted shipping containers prevented her from seeing
anything but the box and the two thugs.
The men sprayed out the inside of the false compartment. They
dumped the waste bucket out onto the gravel and sprayed it clean
also. Then they turned the hose on the women.
The water was cold, even in the warm summer air. Catalina’s fingers
dug into Irina’s skin when the water hit her, spurring her on,
tempting her to run. She didn’t run, though. She withstood the spray,
coughing and sputtering, and then the hose was turned off, and they
stood shivering in the yard again.
The thugs began to maneuver the women back into the box. They
took one girl aside, a pretty young blonde about Catalina’s age. Then
the scar-faced man saw Catalina, and beckoned to his partner. “Her,
too,” he said.
Irina felt suddenly desperate. “No,” she said. “Get away from her.”
The scar-faced man reached around her, grabbed at Catalina. Irina
blocked his way, ready to fight. To claw at him, to hurt him. She
would die before she let her sister go.
But the thug didn’t try to kill her. He studied her for a moment.
“Whatever,” he said finally, and moved on down the row of women.
“The bitch is too old anyway.”
He picked out another girl instead, a black-haired girl even
younger than Catalina. Dragged her away from the container, the
young blond girl, too, and then the scar-faced man’s partner was
herding Irina and Catalina back into the box with the rest of the
women, confining them in the darkness again.
The doors had opened twice since the day of the hose.
Days passed in between. The box rumbled and lurched, and the girls
heard traffic outside, cars and trucks. The box rarely stopped moving.
Irina screamed for help, but no help ever came.
The doors opened. The thugs peered in, spoke to each other
quickly, unintelligibly, scanning the huddle of women. The man
with the scar on his face climbed into the box and chose two girls at
random. Another blonde, perhaps twenty, and a very young brunette.
He dragged them out of the box by their hair, ignoring their screams,
and came back for two more women, and then again, until he’d
taken a total of ten. Then the doors closed and were locked, and the
box resumed its journey.
The next time the door opened, the scar-faced man took only two
women. Irina clutched Catalina and fought with her sister to the rear
of the box, desperate to avoid being chosen. She screwed her eyes
tight, heard the screams from the unlucky ones, and only breathed
again when the men sealed the compartment.
The box rumbled onward. There was more space in the darkness
now. The men had taken almost half of the women away. Sooner or
later, they would come for the rest. They would come for Catalina.
The men had been careless when they’d sealed the box. The lock
on the compartment door had failed to engage properly; it rattled
and shook with a promise that hadn’t existed before. Irina crossed the
compartment and pushed at the door. Clawed at it. Punched it until
it swung open to the mountains of cardboard and the rest of the
Already the air seemed fresher. Here was opportunity. Let the
men do what they wanted to her, but they would not get Catalina.
She would get her sister home.
“Come on,” she said, pulling Catalina to the doorway. “The next
time they come for us, we’ll be ready.”
Cass county sheriff’s deputy Dale Friesen finished his
coffee and stepped out through the front door of the Paul Bunyan
Diner and into the waning light as another summer day met its end.
He stood on the steps for a minute, savoring the still air, the mad
rush of campers and city folk all but gone from the 200 highway just
across the way, everyone now hunkered down in their tents and cabins,
swatting mosquitoes and telling ghost stories and hoping the thunderheads
in the distance veered south before nightfall.
Friesen circled around the side of the diner to his Suburban, figuring
he’d be happy if the road stayed dry just long enough for him
to get back up to Walker, just long enough that he didn’t look like a
drowned rat showing up at Suzi’s door with a bottle of wine after
blowing off their big date day to go bass fishing. Shit but he was in
As Friesen reached his Suburban, a big semitruck pulled into the
lot, a nice Peterbilt towing a rusty red container. The guy pulled in
and parked behind Friesen, the ass end of his truck hanging out into
the driveway, and as the guy climbed out of the cab, Friesen called
over to him.
“You’re a little long for that spot,” he said, thinking, That’s what
she said. “Gimme a sec and I’ll pull ahead.”
The driver, a big guy with a shaved head and a face like he’d never
smiled in his life, looked back down the length of his rig, then back
at Friesen. “Yeah,” he said. “All right.”
“Don’t get too many long haulers up here in lake country,” Friesen
said. “Where you headed?”
The driver glanced into the truck, and Friesen followed his gaze
and saw the guy had a partner, another big, bald fella. This guy had a
scar on his forehead like he’d lost a fight with a band saw.
“Out of state.” The driver had an accent, some kind of European.
“Going to I-94.”
“I see you boys got the standard cab,” Friesen said. “No bunk in
the trunk, so to speak. You want a decent motel recommendation?
Town of Walker’s just up the road, about five miles or so. There’s a—”
“We make Fargo tonight.” The driver shifted his weight. “Got a
Friesen grinned. “That’s a hundred twenty miles away,” he said.
“Gonna storm, too. Chamber of commerce would hate me if I let you
“Thanks.” The man’s voice was flat. “We’re making Fargo.”
“All right.” Friesen gave it up. Something wasn’t meshing about
these two jokers, but hell, the county didn’t pay him enough to play
every hunch. Besides, it was his day off. He was turning back to the
Suburban, the driver and his buddy more or less forgotten already,
when he heard something out the back of the rig. Sounded like bang
ing. “You hear that?” Friesen asked the driver.
The driver shook his head. “I didn’t hear nothing.”
Friesen studied the truck again. New tractor. No logos. No markings
of any kind, except the USDOT registration number and an
operator decal. Standard cab, like he’d noted. Meant no beds, no
creature comforts. Had to be an original badass to be driving a
truck like that in northern Minnesota, hundreds of miles from anywhere.
“Where you guys coming from, anyway?” Friesen asked.
The driver shifted his weight again, glanced back into the cab at
his partner. “Duluth,” he said finally. “Look, buddy, I don’t have time
“Deputy, actually.” Friesen showed the guy his identification. Kept
his smile pasted on as he started toward the rear of the truck. “Look,
humor me, would you? Maybe you got a stowaway back there. Couple
of rats or something. What’s your cargo, anyway?”
The driver hesitated a split second, then followed Friesen to the
back of the rig. No markings on the container, just more old USDOT
numbers. Ditto the chassis. New Jersey plates, though. “You guys
sure are a long way from home,” Friesen said. “What’d you say you
The driver just looked at him. “Electronics,” he said.
Friesen felt his Spidey sense tingling. Slid his hand to his side, slow
as he could, and snapped open the holster on his hip. Kept his eyes on
the driver, kept his voice calm. “You wanna open her up for me?”
The driver didn’t blink. “I think you need a warrant to open up
“Heard something moving around in there,” Friesen said. “That’s
probable cause. Now, you gonna make me phone this thing in, or can
we just clear this up before the storm sets in?”
As if for emphasis, thunder rumbled in the distance. The driver
pursed his lips. Pulled a key ring from his pocket and fiddled with
the back-door lock. That’s when things got crazy.
As soon as the lock disengaged, the rear door swung open, knocking
the driver backward. Friesen caught a glimpse of a wall of cardboard
boxes, DVD players or something, and then a woman came
flying out, grungy and wild-eyed, barely more than a girl, yelling
something in some crazy foreign language as she launched herself
through the open door.
Friesen scrambled back, drawing his sidearm, hollering at the girl
to slow down. The girl didn’t listen. Probably couldn’t even hear him.
She knocked the driver to the ground as another girl appeared in the
container doorway. Even younger. Just as dirty. What the hell was
Friesen holstered his gun and grabbed at the first girl, couldn’t
hold her. She fought free of his arms and ran, bolted to the edge of the
parking lot, and the woods that butted up against the back of the Paul
Bunyan. The driver pulled himself off the ground. Made a run at the
second girl, who’d dropped down to the dirt. Tackled her from behind
as she ran after the first girl, wrenched her back toward the box.
“Jesus.” Friesen had started after the first girl. Now he stopped. The
second girl was screaming, fighting in the driver’s arms, crying and
clawing. The driver picked her up like she was paper, dragged her back
to the box, and Friesen just stood there and watched like the dumbest
kid in class, his mind struggling to piece the whole scene together.
The driver threw the younger girl into the container and scanned
the lot for the older one. She’d disappeared into the forest somewhere,
out of sight, and the driver hesitated for just a moment before he
slammed the door closed, and locked it again. Finally, something
triggered inside Friesen’s head. He drew his sidearm again. “Wait a
minute,” he told the driver. “Just hold your damn horses.”
The driver ignored him. Started across the parking lot, toward
the girl in the forest. Friesen followed. Was about to reach out and
grab the guy when he felt something behind him.
It was the other guy from the truck. The guy with the scar, and he
was holding a big goddamn gun.
“Shit,” Friesen said. “What—”
Then the guy pulled the trigger.
Irina ran into the woods as fast as her weak legs would
carry her, into the underbrush, fallen trees, and tangles. Somewhere
nearby, lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The first drops of rain
began to fall.
Catalina wasn’t behind her.
The realization came suddenly, like hitting a brick wall at high
speed. She was alone in the forest. Her sister was gone.
Heart pounding, panic in her throat, Irina hurried back through
the woods, toward the patch of parking lot, the truck. She was almost
at the clearing when she heard the gunshots.
Three fast shots, then silence. Voices—the thugs, arguing with
each other. They sounded frustrated, their tones urgent. Irina heard
doors slam, and the truck rumble to life.
Irina forced her way through the last of the forest. Burst out onto
the edge of the parking lot, where the big truck was pulling away
from the restaurant, where the third man lay dead in the mud. There
was no sign of her sister. The two thugs were leaving. They were leaving
her here. And they were taking Catalina with them.
Irina hurried across the lot to the third man’s body. He’d dropped
his gun in the struggle with the thugs, and she picked it up, fumbled
with it. Aimed it at the truck and fired.
The truck didn’t slow. Irina fired until the gun was empty and the
truck had disappeared. The men and Catalina were gone.
It was raining now, steady. Thunder and lightning like an artillery
barrage. Irina looked around the parking lot. Saw mud, forest,
nothing that looked like home. She dropped the gun beside the dead
man. Then she sat down next to him and cried.
“Please, dad, can we go somewhere with cell reception next
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