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THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT Escape was pointless. Even if she managed it, she knew she would return of her own volition. Already she would give anything, do anything; just as long as the needle followed. They no longer bothered to shackle her. The heroin was shackles enough. Shivering, stomach cramping, she clutched at her belly and…
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Escape was pointless. Even if she managed it, she knew she would return of her own volition. Already she would give anything, do anything; just as long as the needle followed.
They no longer bothered to shackle her. The heroin was shackles enough. Shivering, stomach cramping, she clutched at her belly and dry-heaved once more. Tasting the H at the back of her throat. Ashamed that she wanted to swallow back on it, feel the euphoria as the drug entered into her bloodstream.
She could smell it on her sweat, doubly ashamed that even in her filthy state the smell was a comfort. And a hunger.
A sweat-stained cotton shift, all that covered her, clung to her body. Her hair — once blacker, more lustrous, than any raven’s wing — hung in wet hanks to her waist. Before, Sunguoshu would brush it for her each evening in the little Shenzhen apartment she once thought a place from which to run. Now, thinking of home and her big brother gave her a few seconds of respite from the hunger. For moments could she grasp and hold such love, before the Horse kicked at her guts again.
Soon a man would come. Perhaps he would bring another. Or others. A few infinitely long days ago, she had fought. Screamed and scratched until her fingernails broke one by one by one. Kept her knees locked with such desperation that her brain burned up. Then after the abuse, the blessed needle. Heaven and Hell. Reward and Punishment.
Lena would not be working in the Big House — not the Big House of her dreams anyway. Another big house. One of nightmares. Not saving her wages to send back to Sunguoshu so that one day… One day. She tried to think away the hunger.
She remembered the blind girl, Su Li, who tried to warn her at the airport. Thanking her, Lena crossed into London and propelled herself up the dark steps to a fate of her own making.
The red-haired woman. Welcoming. Filling in the Model Release form. Smiling in encouragement, the woman turned the paper for Lena’s signature. Checked the false passport and grinned as a co-conspirator. Unfolded, and with a small curl of amusement on her thin lips, perused the leaflet tucked inside the faked document. Opened a desk drawer and deposited the papers. Closed and locked the drawer with a key hanging on a leather thong between her soft flabby breasts. The short telephone call.
‘Exceptional,’ was all the woman said to an unknown question.
Lena drank coffee. There was no tea, as would have been customary at home, waiting for the photographer to arrive for her audition.
Shy, she giggled and posted her eyes to the floor, round face soft. Just how they like it. The photographer snapped away. ‘Just a little cleavage.’ Lena fisted her little hands against her breasts until the photographer pulled them away with less than encouraging fingers. When she baulked, the woman unbuttoned her blouse for her, exposing a pretty lace bra. And then the photographer was throwing up his hands. Shouting.
‘You want to leave?’ Grabbing her elbow. ‘You want to go? That it?’ Hissing into her face. ‘I’ll call them for you. Immigration, is it? Go back to China? You want that?’ She did not want that, but the questions were rhetorical anyway. ‘Forget it!’ Snarled. ‘You’re never going home, baby.’
And then she was clothed in her bra and panties, and nothing more. The man got rough. The red-haired woman left, but not before extracting the documents from her drawer and stuffing them into her big black shoulder bag.
That was days ago. Days and nights. Some men came and spoke in Russian. Hauled her down the stairs naked. By then it was dark. Into a black van and into the black night.
Lena fought. Screamed. Cried. Begged. To no avail. And bled. Sore and humiliated, the blood streaming down her thighs. On the little cot in the dark room she wept. All ‘face’ expunged. Peeled away. Her last vestige of pride, pissed into a bucket. Urine and blood leaving her body in equal quantities. That night, for the first time, after another savage round of abuse, the man pushed a needle into her vein.
Blessed, and cursed, Lena slept.
Yesterday afternoon pewtered clouds swagged high. Snow fell like duck’s down. Nikki could catch the big feathered flakes on her tongue. She could spin around and make them dance. Her simple happiness had infected the household. And she felt safe. Loved.
Robbie perspired under his Fair Isle sweater and quilted anorak. Earlier, the wind had been razor sharp. By 3 o’clock the cottage glowed with heat from the Aga and ‘Billy’ whistled a sigh of contentment in the slot on the stove top. Ever full, ever ready with scalding water for tea.
Jilly draped her long legs over the arm of the couch and finger-picked a jumble-sale twelve string guitar. The very idea of not going to study in London had seemed like the end of the world at first. As luck would have it Hull University had pretty fine tutoring in the instruments she loved, and the extraordinary advantage of a Chinese tutor who had taken to Jilly and offered to teach Mandarin in exchange for social interaction at the farmhouse.
The events of the past year when Robbie had ended up in plaster, and Nikki almost got herself killed now seemed like a dream. Now, if Nikki and Robbie could just begin to sort out their issues. Yesterday had been good. There had been no juvenile squabbling, and Phyllis had given thanks for small mercies. Late last night the weather had closed in again and slates rattled on the roof. This morning there was no sign of the drystone wall that bordered the cottage gardens. But there were worse things in heaven and earth than being snowed in.
Nikita, warm inside after her joyful scrunch in the snow, hunched over her laptop at the kitchen table. Squealed, clapping her hands. Seventeen and closing in on eighteen fast, Nikki had at last discovered childhood. And she wasn’t going to let it go for a long time yet. No one, Robbie the least, begrudged the girl her youth. She had been grown up before she had had a childhood. She thought she was growing up in reverse. She was working on her book.
Though Max Lomax thought he had put an end to it, Robbie’s eidetic memory had not failed him. The ability to remember every word of a text, how something felt, smelled, even subtle differences in colour were both his blessing and his curse. This time, a blessing. They had spent hours and hours reconstructing every word, every full stop and apostrophe. Nikki, desperate to grasp it back, pushed and pushed, hammering away at the laptop keys. Robbie blinked and fidgeted. Then she saved the text onto her flash drive and backed it up with a printed copy. The print -out went off to Jock Mactavish as custodian of The Word. Jock preferred paper to pixels for reading. Not that he had let the grass grow under his feet technologically speaking. Pragmatic to a fault, Mactavish carried with him at all times a digital voice recorder and his trusty ebook reader loaded with The Classics. Given that he was now an international journalistic ‘star’, he was happy to carry an entire library with him on his regular flights to London. His friends Meegan Freegan, Pixie, and Mariya had ambitions to make Save The Planet documentaries. Thanks to Nikita and fate, Jock had become not just the local journalist, but an international name. He stayed loyal to the Holderness Gazette. It was his anchor to the small things in life The once-defeated seaside town of Withernsea had stepped out of the shadows since the lighthouse had been woken from its long sleep. It was not just Withernsea that loved Nikita Tarasov. It was the world.
Trinity House had come through, and the light, now run by a Local Light Authority had swept away the soul deep darkness that had wormed its way into the town.
‘Andy sent email!’ Nikki, underscored her excitement with a squeal and clap of delight, dedicated to the man she now, with respect, called ‘daddy’.
Jilly took Billy off the boil, preparing the oversized teapot with big scoops of loose tea leaves.
‘Read it to us our Nikki.’ Robbie’s shoulder butted up to Nikita’s.
The months had changed Nikki. Older, of course. Wiser too. But best of all younger as well. Now she laughed a lot more.
‘I begin?’ She looked around, spending a few moments more gazing at Robbie than at Jilly. Phyllis took over the tea-making. ‘Go on luv. I’m listening.’ She said absently.
‘He says,’ Nikki read aloud, ‘My dear Nikita.. Time I think moves faster as we grow older. Or perhaps happiness shifts it along at a pitiless pace. Yesterday you were seven years old, now soon to be nineteen. Or is it twenty? If time is passing at speed for you, then it is not age but happiness, the cause. Grace keeps me youthful. Without her I would age at a clip!
Nikki giggled. ‘Always Grace! Grace this! Grace that! I think he loves Grace!’
Robbie laughed. ‘Jealous little Girl from Kosovo!’
Nikki elbowed him. Hard and without amusement. ‘Do not call me so! I am Withernea girl! Withernsea!’
Jilly glared at her brother who knew full well he had been bad. And then at Nikki for equal measure. Robbie bowed his head. He had overstepped a mark. It had been agreed between them. Nikita hated being The Girl From Kosovo. Hated it. Bowing her own head she called an undeclared truce and read on. ‘Grace is divorced from SO10 and the SIS at last. Her simple delights now revolve around my dear Ann, Ben, and of course yours- truly. Just as Ann, when she was a little girl, referred to me as daddy, she now addresses Grace as mum. What a strange occidental/Caucasian family we have become.’
Nikki clapped her hands again. Commander Grace Kelly had done her job as a police officer with SO10- Special Branch, against the odds. Inducted into the SIS, the British Secret Intelligence Service by insidious means Grace understood the need, but not the methodology by which the innocent were entrapped into deniable activities. Had she remained a serving officer there would have been another move sideways. Rank. Praise. And out of the way. The less than agreeable alternative might have been another kind of retirement. She no longer conformed to the philosophy of The Greater Good.
Nikki read ahead, her lips moving before she engaged her throat once more.
‘We are in constant contact with our friends in London. The foundation is in fine hands with Richard Deacon and his associates. How were we all so lucky amidst such tragedies? The Butterfly Effect appears to have value as a theory. I trust that Meegan, Maryija and Pixie will do it justice with their new documentary which I understand is to be narrated by Mr. Mactavish.’
‘Keeps ‘is finger on the pulse I reckon.’ Jilly spread a thick slice of toast with Very British Marmite, the taste of which resembled bird shite. At least as she imagined bird shite to taste. She handed it off to Robbie with a smirk of disgust. Robbie loved the stuff. ”E knows more about goin’s on than we do!’ He licked at the thick black smear with a gross look at Jilly. ‘Good job I saw it comin’ out the jar our Jilly. Looks like your undies!’
Nikki shoved in. Not before giving Robbie a sharp elbow to the ribcage. ‘He says; Soon I will have new legs. To be free from pain is a gift to be treasured. I am happy to endure Grace’s manhandling without complaint.’
Robbie hooted. ‘Woman handling I reckon.’
‘Behave our Robbie.’ Phyllis cut in, plunking mugs of scalding tea on the table. Gross-outs were no new thing to her, but decorum had to maintained to some degree.
‘Go on our Nikki.’ He chose to ignore his mother’s admonishment.
‘That’s all except that he just says to say hello to all of Withernsea and to say that he is happy and hopes that we are also.’
No. Winter stood no chance in this household. Days filled with banter. With laughter. The letter from Andy filled each one of them with a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
Day to day life returned to the comfortable unspoken word. Nikki, hunched over laptop and lined exercise book. Typing, jotting, cutting and adding. Every now and then, when her brow furrowed and the eraser end of her HB pencil tapped her lip, Robbie ruffled her hair from behind. Though she shook her head in mock annoyance, she did not mind. She minded even less when he wrapped his big arms around her shoulders and blew naughtily in her ear.
Phyllis bustled. Unflustered by anything at all. These days every day was gold. A constant stream of tea mugs and platters of sandwiches. If no sandwiches, then scones, cakes, fresh hot bread rolls straight from the Aga oven. All Phyllis needed in her life was a brood to look after and a day in town with Mrs. Boulster playing bingo. The youths might take a hike out beyond the drystone wall before dark.
The girls were ready to be moved. Each to a new location. The Russians discouraged bonding. In this house each girl knew that others existed. They had never seen, though had heard. And what they heard was never laughter or conversation. Cries, pleading, begging and screams was all.
Lena stretched. Now empty of shame she invited the needle into her ankle. Careful to avoid pumping the same location, the man released the rubber strap, dropping the syringe into a slotted container hooked over the side of the trolley. He pulled back a white hand-towel covering a stainless steel kidney shaped dish. Loaded syringes were lined up with military precision. Obsessive preparation.
He looked kind when he smiled down at her. The kindness of a wolf. From the bottom shelf of the trolley he lifted a bundle of clean linen. Towels. A dress. Underwear.
‘When you can, you must dress.’ Yes, there was a kindness in his voice. A schoolmaster’s voice after the corporal punishment. Accented, but not Russian.
Then Lena’s eyes dropped and she stopped caring. Warmth spread through her naked body. A million soft, fluttering wings eased the pain. Her eyes flickered. Head too heavy to lift. A beatific smile softened her lips.
The man touched her. His hand warm on her cold skin. It was not a predatory touch, more one of careful concern and she was grateful for it, this human contact that was not brutish and ugly.
When Lena opened her eyes he was gone. Her cell door was open and the sound of water shushing through shower sprinklers sounded like monsoon rain. Knowing, but without knowing what was expected of her with certainty she scooped up the pile of clothes. Freshly laundered. The smell, divine. She pressed her nose into the top folded towel, felt its softness, inhaled the scent of oranges.
Deep down a tiny spark, no more than a flicker invaded her shrunken soul. Not daring to think of the spark as hope, it became so. There was hope now of no more beatings. No more depraved, shaming rapes. No more shackles or invasions into her body. The needle, yes, and submission. She must find the water and cleanse the stench of stale humanity from her body.
Everything until now had been schooling. Lessons. The Buddha taught acceptance, and through acceptance dharma-happiness. That was the way of the Buddah. Lena knew these things to be true. The Hong Fa temple in the Fairy Gardens at home in Shenzhen showed these things to be true. Ah, the temple. Just a tourist destination. The legend of a fairy coming down to the Xian Hu the Fairy Lake was for tourists. But not the thought. The meaning. Now, acceptance must come. Through submission could dharma be sought. This, she could teach to the western girls down the hallway. Their voices, devoid of laughter soughed through the hallway, mingling with the shushing of water.
Naked in the shadowed hallway Lena took tiny steps. Faltering, she closed her eyes. If she delayed, courage would leave her and panic fill the void. She would not panic.
No door held back the sweet-scented steam. The odour inviting. Coursing through her veins the skank had shed the cloak of misery and now she felt normal. As normal as the poison permitted. For the first time, out of her cell, Lena took in the surroundings.
The place was big, with many rooms. Lines of doors each one barred with inch thick steel. No guards at the shower room door, and none within. The warm fog thick but not impenetrable. The open door drew away the bulk of it. Wisps of steam dancing into the cold air in the hallway.
Five girls, four of them tall, blonde and milky-skinned. The fifth, a short, modestly plump girl, younger perhaps than the rest washed herself separate from the others. Even under the circumstances, her posture cried ‘Outcast’. Her skin, counterpoint to the other girls, a dark-chocolate black. This girl faced the white-tiled wall, over-hot water cascading down her back.
The white girls were talking. Not in whispers, but subdued and listless. They too were stoned. Lena’s appearance in the doorway imbued the space with a momentary shock. The air sucked back into silence. The girl’s vocal cords snapped shut, conversation trapped at the back of their throats. Then, perceiving no threat the air opened up again and they began talking as if Lena did not exist. Strangers might be captors.
The girls speech was not English. They conversed in some European tongue unknown to Lena. Most Chinese understand the English language nuances even without speaking it. But few can determine European accents. The girls were not English. They were round-eyes. Gweipo, the feminine of Gweilo ‘white devils’. Gweilo, once disparaging no longer bore its original stigma.
Lena placed her bundle on a wooden bench and stepped up to a wide, fixed-in-place shower head. The build up of calcium and green copper from years of use and no cleaning blocked most of the water from the sprinkler. She turned the star shaped tap half a turn and the water scalded. She turned the cold tap to regulate the heat and the sudden pressure blasted out the caked dirt and hammered like cold needles against her skin. She adjusted the taps until the spray was comfortable. For a few moments she luxuriated under the shower, but then the pipes rattled and banged and the pressure came and went, scalding and freezing.
There being no way to control the heat or force of water, Lena stepped away. Moving closer, using her hands palms up she waited. Soon the cleansing downpour comforted. She washed her filthy body in silence. Without warning a thick burst of fury and disgust overwhelmed her. She tore at her skin, wanting to rip away the flesh, to dig out what had crawled inside her. In her mind’s eye her body was full of worms. Tiny white revolting worms burrowed into her skin, through flesh, invading organs eating at her brain.
But as the water soothed, the feeling quelled and she used the basic yellow slab of carbolic soap to get inside every crease and crevice. Lena rubbed and scrubbed at her private parts with an awful sense of panic. But the worms inside her brain had eaten away all chastity. Nothing would return to her the ‘face’ that had been ripped away. Something else had been planted inside her, Something foul and stinking. And it would grow in the darkness of her soul.
Where the racking sobs came from only the Buddha, God, and Satan could know. They burst from her mouth and nose in an endless string, unheralded and unwelcome. Even the scalding water, the chilling water, neither one nor the other, with the force of a fire hose, could sluice away the fluids from her body and into the drain with sufficient haste.
She had come to wash. To dress in clean chaste clothing. To offer the wisdom of the Buddha. To soothe these other captive souls and give hope to the hopeless. To accept and counsel acceptance. Now the other girls gathered around her. Comforting her with their hands. On her shoulders, her face, arms, neck. Arms wrapped around her waist, her neck. Not a hand, nor a finger went beyond decency. They knew, these girls, even as she knew without knowing that to touch her there would be further defilement. All they had between them, the shared experience. And compassion.
Dressed and clean the six girls waited, unsure of what came next. The drug thickening in their veins. At first they sat on the wooden bench and talked in earnest quiet tones. They offered up their names and from whence they came. In common they were all illegals. Each with a different story to tell. Each the same in its essence. Irina, Mariena, Chloe, Sondra, Rebecca. Lena.
No! With a burst of pride she tossed away that ghost of a name.
‘Guo Ya Na. That is my name. I am not Lena Guo. I am the sister of Sunguoshu. Lena Guo is a passport. A fake. But I am real and I am Guo Ya Na.’
Lena Guo did not exist. Had never. She did not ask about the other girls, or if their names were truth or fiction. No matter. What harm small secrets now? The Buddah had spoken into her heart and mind. In order to accept, she must be who she was. Anything else was not acceptance, but denial.
Lena Guo had been a victim. Guo Ya Na, sister of Sungoushu was not a victim. This little thing she could choose. If all other choice had been ripped from her, this she could keep. Maybe it was not much. Not diamonds or gold, but precious beyond price.
The hours passed. The girls stood, walked, turned and paced. Sat. Squatted. And with the passage of time, need slithered and sliced its way into their guts. Cold slipped into the tiles. What had been bright and white became yellow with age. Bare plumbing pipes, rusting tap fittings. The building shedding its comfort. Now shrouded in decay, it yawned and displayed its awful past. Sondra pointed to the horrible words arced above the door to the cavernous tiled room. Randall Asylum for the Insane. 1807.
The heroin that had made everything look bright and shiny now brought forth rats, and the smell of misery and decay. Irina began to shiver and the familiar clutching at her belly made the other girls nervous. Soon they too would succumb to the pain. And it would be terrible. The alternate constipation and diarrhoea, nausea and dry-heaving. They would begin to run their tongues around their gums, that chemical smell in their nostrils, the taste in their mouths. Sondra started to scratch under her arms, down her arms, her thighs, ankles. The itch was all over her. She gritted her teeth as red welts rose in lumps on her milky skin.
Guo Ya Na stared at the big-boned white girl, and called upon the Buddha for wisdom. She would pray for her. One by one they were falling into the pit of need for the drug. In a short time all of them would become compliant, and would beg, would offer themselves to the humiliation, and be thankful for it. She must call upon the strength of the Buddha’s teachings to help them. For herself too. For Guo Ya Na sought the strength of humility.
‘They will come soon.’ She said in English, an edge of despair in her voice. She gulped it back and her words sounded more like a sob.
Irina looked up from the floor. She squatted. Snakes squeezed her guts. She swallowed the taste on her tongue. ‘Yes. With the heroin. I know this.’ Then fell quiet. She did not want to think of the needle. The thought was like sustenance and she knew that if she thought, she would want to gobble it up.
Guo Ya Na wrung on the corner of a towel, twisting against the cramps, now too clutching at her belly. She too swallowed, forcing back the nausea.
Rebecca, the Sudanese girl, her teeth chattering, but seemingly strong, set her face at the others.
‘Men from my village came in the night. They came with machetes. And hammers. I do not want happiness. That happiness will kill me too slowly. They have my life because they hold me on a spike? No. They will take it the hard way. I will fight, and if I die I will die like a warrior woman.’
Guo Ya Na nodded, a small smile of respect for the black girl pulling at her lips. ‘I understand.’ She said in a small whisper. ‘Like the Shaolin of Henan. Warriors also.’
Mariena, jittery, sweating even as the cold seeped into their bones nodded. ‘I think soon we will beg. Now, we are strong and brave, but soon they will put us to their use again. This is a part of our torture. I know this. To make us soft and willing. Tomorrow, the day after, next week, they will turn us into play dolls, and then we will be for sale. I know this. I know, and I fear this!
‘We can escape’. Chloe, the Ukrainian girl. Tall, big boned and stunningly beautiful. But diminished.
Irina, deteriorating fast, gasped out. ‘I need it Chloe. So much I need it. I don’t know if I have will to do this, what you are thinking. Even if we can walk out, we will steal, sell our bodies. We will seek out the drug and when we find it they will find us. There is no escape for us.’
Sondra had remained silent. Listening to the others. All her energy locked into simply coping.
‘I came to study. Medicine. I think we can if we plan well. We must act soon. In three days the heroin will be leached from our bodies. I know some things we can do. Hot baths. Massage. We can help each other. We must do this together. In a week, maybe two weeks we could die from heart failure. But we could also be free. Whichever way, heart failure or survive, we will be free. Not slaves. I do not want to be a slave.’ She bit down hard on her lower lip. Hard enough to draw blood. She too was fighting the pain as hard as anyone was. ‘Maybe we can try.’ She said. ‘If we can escape we can make hope for us.’
Guo Ya Na shifted from face to face. She had wanted to bring comfort. To talk about the Buddha and to accept. But what of acceptance? Of submission? Now, of a sudden, she understood. Now she accepted. Now she submitted. She accepted the pain. Submitted to it. The Buddha was wise. He would say accept, submit. But to what? The inevitable?
This? A life of defilement and abuse. Of hunger and submission to the delicious euphoria. This was not inevitable. Only death was inevitable. ‘I have been wrong.’ She said quietly looking to Sondra. Then to Rebecca. ‘I will accept death if that is what the Buddha asks of me. I will not submit to life if life is one of submission to dishonour. My brother Sunguoshu told many stories when I was very little. Of opium. How the Chinese people became slaves to their masters who ruled an empire from Britain. To plunder our people. Until one day when the Righteous Harmony came to cast them from our land. Yes. I think we can escape. No masters. No submission to those who would make us slaves. I will honour my brother.’
All the girls had spoken. If they could stay together, just for a little while, maybe there would come an opportunity to fight. Hope stirred in them all. Hope infected them and Guo Ya Na knew that if she spoke with strength they would follow. Guo Ya Na was no leader. Her brother had always cared for her. But the Buddha had spoken into her head. Even now he spoke. They would fight, even maybe against each other as the disease raged. Maybe there would be betrayal. She must keep them strong and do what must be done. Not just against men, but against time and the poison that shackled them. They must do battle.
Down the hallway keys rattled. Wheels trundled over bare wooden boards. The man was coming.
Dimitri bore none of the hallmarks of the movie bad guy. His eyes though blue, were not iceberg blue but the blue of a summer sky. His smile even, from corner to corner rather than curling up on one side into a sneer. Teeth neither rotten nor film-star doctored. Above all Dimitri was polite, introducing himself with a slightly Teutonic bow, he apologised. With professorial demeanour he looked first at Rebecca, and then quickly and directly into the eyes of each girl. Even as he spoke six pairs of eyes scanned over, then lingered on the six syringes.
On a white napkin the syringes perfectly aligned and loaded with clear liquid bliss. At their head a stainless steel oblong dish. Cotton buds, white meth, rubber straps.
A banquet. The table laid perfectly. Precisely. An invitation to savour uncommon delights.
Irina, wound over-tight already, absently flicked her tongue around her plump lips. Clearly she wanted to rush the table and feed with both hands and no finesse.
Dimitri sat on the bench, drawing out the girl’s pain. Feeding himself on their need. ‘Your lesson is my lesson.’ He explained without using his hands to inflect. His body language entirely vested in his face. ‘Harsh treatment is a necessity in the understanding of subordination. Your basic training,’ He smiled, ‘you will be gratified to learn, is complete. But I would like to explain. You must consider this time as a boot camp.’ He nodded at his own perfect analogy. Deciding that this route would hasten their understanding, he followed his own train of thought. Many texts had contributed to the knowledge he would now impart.
‘Conscripts are not the same as volunteers. You understand? A volunteer is appraised of the process which builds a unified force. So they quickly assimilate and accept the rules as they are laid down. The conscript however, is initially less malleable. There is need for a little extra incentive to ensure compliance.’
Dimitri by name, but this young man was educated with no trace of an accent. Highly educated. He would not defer to those of lesser vocabulary. Besides, the girls would quickly get the drift. He would brook no argument and expected attention while he spoke. There would be time set aside for questions later. After the lecture was over. ‘I have not been party to your experience. You understand. My role is academic. I am a student of medicine and neuro-psychology.’ Pausing, he let this sink in; that he personally had not been a part of the abuse in any physical sense. ‘Your lessons will form a part of my thesis of course.’ He said this with more than a hint of personal pride.
Sondra listened with as academic an ear as the girl’s situation allowed. Auschwitz. The doctors. Those men and women of kind demeanour and dead hearts. Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen. Though young, in her home village the old folk had talked about the gates above which the words Arbeit Macht Frei had been emblazoned. Work May Set You Free. Sondra had learnt at home near Kiev, of the Babi Yar Ravine, not far away, where 33,000 souls, children and babies too, were hurled into the ravine.
The trolley. The table of delights. It’s display of succulence began to draw more greedy glances. Irina’s eyes locked. She scratched. Her chipped nails scraping off pieces of skin. Dimitri’s monotone coming from somewhere far away in another galaxy.
‘So that we can rebuild first we must destroy. That is the purpose of training. Everything you were has been removed and all that you are now is what you have been given. Today, you are graduates.’
Sondra with inspired will kept her eyes averted. Away from the trolley. She concentrated on the wall tiles, the detail of dirt in the grouting, flecks of red rust. The smell of over-chlorinated water. The sound of Dimitri’s voice. His monologue. His cold evil intent. Dimitri, feeding off their agony. Tasting, savouring, enjoying this drawn-out soul pain.
He looked at Irina with a beneficent fatherliness. Just and only for her. His eyes clouded with momentary sadness. ‘Soon.’ He said, only to Irina, as she were alone in the company of a favourite uncle. ‘The final lesson is now. Patience.’
Sondra wanted to rush to Irina’s side. To comfort her, but knowing too that to do so would invite immediate punishment. She bit down on her lip and concentrated.
‘Religion.’ Dimitri said suddenly as if abandoning his original cliché ruled approach. ‘Some of you; most of you, I think, believe in a God. Or perhaps merely a concept of God. You may even believe that after such disciplined training that your God has gone on a vacation. Perhaps never to return. You think He has deserted you.’ Again he nodded at his own revelation, pleased with his choices.
‘Today, and for eternity you have a new God.’ he did not have to glance with such powerful meaning at the syringe laden trolley. Nor any meaning for that matter. Nevertheless, for effect he did so, even though it was self evident. ‘You have been instructed in obedience. You have learned that art of submission, and so long as you are compliant and work hard you will be treated well and rewarded.’
Dimitri put his hands on his knees, pushed himself to his feet. Leaving much unsaid, he approached the trolley.
Dimitri smiled in a kindly manner. A college professor inviting discourse after a gruelling lecture.
‘May I speak? Sir?’ Sir. She even managed to make the monosyllable rich with respect. Sondra Swat, they had called her. Always with a book. Ever willing to learn. To study. Sondra prided herself in learning quickly and well. As a medical student she had already extracted blood a thousand times. She had volunteered at local surgeries and schools at home in Kiev, where university had been a dream. When she could no longer study after her first year, she had been devastated.
‘I would like to learn to inject myself.’ Eschewing eye contact, Sondra gazed shyly at her toes.
Dimitri, taken aback, paused. The wheels of thought processing the request. And then he smiled that smile again. ‘Yes! Yes, of course. You must learn.’ Without irony he looked around. All eyes had followed Sondra’s lead and were cast to the earth.
Rebecca glanced furtively with a flash of question at the big blonde girl. Then returned to her subservient posture. Nothing worse than what had already been visited upon them could happen now. Not even death. Right now, ten hours after the last administration of the drug, shooting up held no fear. Fear fell away like a lead shroud.
Mariena stepped forward. Her teeth chattering, shivering cold but by comparison doing well.
‘Yes. Yes’ Dimitri waved a magnanimous hand, inviting. ‘Come. Gather around so that you may observe.’ He beckoned and the sorry troupe shuffled around the tall girl, tentative and shy.
He handed Sondra the rubber strapping. ‘To pump up your vein.’ He explained. ‘For ease of access we will select your arm? Right or left?’ Sondra held out her right arm, underside up. ‘You should wrap this around like so.’ Dimitri took her arm, his hands soft and unworked. ‘You should pull the strap tight around your arm. You may use your teeth. When you have it tight, this buckle,’ he pointed, ‘will lock. You can release it when you finish by pulling against the buckle. See? Easy. You now. Be careful now. If you inject often into the same place it will scab and infect. Your ankle is good. Anywhere you have a good vein yes?” He nodded like a salesman about to hand over the pen and get a signature. Nodding always elicits a nod.
Dimitri instructed with clarity, showing how to keep the syringe low, laying alongside the vein.
Sondra snagged the strap, pulling tight. She looked up into his benign face, the strap between her teeth.
Not much older than herself, she thought. A few years. Very handsome but for his overblown ego and cold heart. Very handsome.
With satisfaction she saw his eyes widen when he felt the sting in his backside. Mariena had plunged her syringe. Unloaded it directly into his left buttock. Guo Ya Na thrust hers into his belly. Rebecca, into his back. Irina, pausing regretfully only for a moment jabbed his muscled upper arm. And then Chloe.
Shocked by their own instinctive actions the girls stumbled back, fearful. Dimitri stood stock still. Surprised, but with no sign of panic. He looked instead a little disappointed. Other men, those who had previously tormented would have lashed out. Dimitri stood, not a trace of fear or concern floated across his features. The only change, an odd look of concern.
‘Intra muscular.’ He voiced this cryptic compound medical term twice, stressing each of the five syllables. And then. ‘Intra venous.’ Again twice, stressing each of the four syllables.
For once, Sondra was glad of her height. She knew what Dimitri was expressing. Intra venous. Intra muscular. Vastly different absorption rates. In the vein the rush is instantaneous. Dimitri turned, addressing the five anarchists, now huddled together, contrite. Defeated.
But before he opened his mouth to remonstrate, his eyes rolled up to red-veined white.
Sondra stood, trembling and empty handed. The syringe still embedded in Dimitri’s jugular vein, he crashed to the floor and was motionless in seconds.
Shock filled the void. Surely the hallway would pound with booted feet. The thousand thousand horrors already ingrained into these walls retreated into an awful silence. Frozen into an alabaster statue, Sondra stood, eyes wide, arms limp by her sides.
Rebecca, moving through space and time, faster than her own thoughts which too had jammed like an engine seized, found herself at the tall girls side.
Adrenalin filled every molecule of her being, where heroin fought for supremacy. Fight or Flight. That nanosecond that fires the human body into superhuman acts.
A little girl, imagining herself as small as a chickpea. Machetes raining down. Oceans of blood. The sickening dull crunch of hammers. Brain matter, just snot, sticking to the walls of a crude shack in a razed Sudan village.
No God. Least of all heroin. Rebecca, all fear expunged, shook Sondra with such force that she rattled her own teeth. ‘It is done! We must go! Now!’ She raced back to the huddled mass of limbs. Without care she kicked. Barefoot, the impact did no harm but Mariena, taking the brunt of it, stirred. The drug inside her still making her sleepy.
Still there was no sound. No raised voices in the hallway. The old building as dead and decayed as an ancient corpse.
Rebecca pushed, shoved, hauled on dead weight. And slowly Mariena’s synapses began to spark once more.
At the hallway’s end, a small office. Perhaps once a nurse’s station- or a guard’s. Dimitri’s lone lair. A small two-bar electric heater glowed. The only light, a table lamp which illuminated several thick books. One lay open. ‘The Psychology of Terror in Modern Warfare.’
Zombie girls followed the flying black banshee. Rebecca swept the books from the desk. Scrambled through drawers. Snatched at a stainless steel hoop crammed with keys. Scores of them, big, small. Jailers keys with long shanks to fit fat ancient locks.
The Sudanese girl alight with the fire of potential freedom bit down on the alluring after-taste of poison bliss. Acting only on screaming instinct she tossed the bunch of keys at Sondra, who caught them with the practised ease of the basket baller she had once been.
‘Go! I follow!’
Not wanting to leave this amazing black girl, Sondra hesitated.
‘Go!’ Rebecca turned away, tearing at pages, emptying drawers of stationery onto the floor. ‘Go!’ She repeated, refusing to look back to see if the Ukrainian girl still hovered.
Rebecca slammed open cupboards, a maelstrom of destruction. A cabinet held boxes of syringes, cotton buds, methylated spirit. Too impatient to open the childproof caps, she dropped each plastic bottle, stomping down hard with bare feet. Plastic splintered, drawing blood.
Down the hallway Sondra’s voice herding. Guo Ya Na in concert. Two German Shepherds herding a tiny flock.
Their voices receding into the distance, Rebecca continued her assault, ransacking the obsessively neat office. Dimitri’s black medical bag, a fat, bulging antique by the side of the desk, reminiscent of a plump toad. She upended it, pouring out and sorting the contents. Repacking for her needs, she placed it by the door. The girls would need it.
Soon she had a bonfire piled up. Paper, wood, the naughyde office chair. Anything combustible she threw on top. Methylated spirit soaked paper she scattered around, and on, the mounting pile. She tossed several more unopened bottles into the mess, holding on to one.
The squat little electric fire burned her hand when she ripped off the flimsy wire guard. It didn’t matter. Rebecca was beyond minor burns and lacerations. She hurled it atop the bonfire. With growing satisfaction she surveyed her creation. Then, the final bottle of meth in her hand, she squeezed off the top, splashing and pouring until it was empty. A second thought, and she plucked another bottle from the floor, uncapping it with surprising ease.
She splashed and dashed every combustible surface as she fled down the hallway, hauling on the heavy doctor’s bag. Pelting down the echoing hall to catch up with her new found friends.
Dimitri died hard. The heroin little more than a show stopper. Had Sondra extended her medical knowledge, been able to study instead of dropping out she might have guessed. The hit to the vein in his neck sent him well and truly into noddy land. The others, after a conservative ten minutes or more were unlikely to stop a healthy heart. Sondra would never know the truth. Guilt settled on her spirit.
Had Dimitri attempted to suffocate the flames that engulfed the width of the hallway first, he might have lived. Instead, staggering with numbed brain through the flames towards the main door became his undoing.
Every exit required access through a secondary iron-barred door. The nineteenth century locks were fashioned to keep inmates in. Effective for nearly more than two centuries. Rebecca, in her measured retreat had remained conscientious. Her spirit bore no guilt.
Dimitri barged back through the spreading flames, gulping toxic black smoke. Long-banned chemicals hit his chest. Ragged coughing encouraged bigger breaths, and by the time he had the agony under control, he was dizzy and disoriented.
Like a horse trapped in a stable box, panic supplanted all reason. Dimitri began to beat at the flames with bare hands. Flesh melted away. Whinnying screams wheezed from his blistered lungs. His polyester shirt shrivelled, stuck to his body and burst into flame. And then his carefully groomed hair disintegrated. He died in agony. His body fat heated beyond boiling, turned to molten wax. Muscle and sinew shrank, curled up, contorting his once lanky frame. Hands became claws, and his corpse an oversized blackened foetus.
Guo Ya Na, struggling on bleeding feet, fed her friends courage, keeping up a steady stream of encouragement she did not feel. It was all the sustenance the girls could take. Rebecca walked by her side. The Sudanese girl recognised a fellow traveller. Guo Ya Na had never witnessed the savagery of the human beast that Rebecca had. What unfathomable melding of spirit they shared was soul-deep.
An ancient lane way, all cobble-stones joined two wide thoroughfares. At the far end, traffic hummed by in a constant stream. The side from which Guo Ya Na entered, just a gloomy conglomeration of run down, boarded up terraced houses and empty store fronts. Sparse vehicles hunted slowly back and forth, most with only sidelights lit. Trolling.
They needed to be away from there. To the thoughtless mind this road offered places to hide. Shelter from the weather, should it turn angry. The shadows might render them invisible from prying eyes. The reality Guo Ya Na knew was different. Shenzhen, a mighty city of over 20 million was scarred by many such places. Landscapes of shooting galleries, drug deals. Inside these desolate havens, the hopeless homeless. Fed on by the white worms who, in return delivered up misery and death. Sunguoshu had always protected her from the detritus. Now there was the possibility of becoming such. She had to reclaim face lost and left behind her.
The alternative choice, the busy lights, where, dressed identically in their cheap white wear they would be as obvious as Coca Cola.
The big shadow was what she had hoped it would be. She spun and hurried back to where Rebecca had halted the other four girls.
‘Here! I find! Good place. Only for rest. We can begin to consider!’ Though her English still needed some polish, the idea of rest and a place to think things out conveyed well to Rebecca, whose English was excellent. Without waiting, Guo Ya Na plunged back into the alley, running headlong towards the big shadow.
Either someone else had already hammered off the big brass padlock, or the Salvo’s had given up replacing them constantly. The lock hung open, as useless as a broken arm. Guo Ya Na unhooked it and slipped open the catch. Had the bin been already occupied the hasp would not have been closed and the padlock hung. Tonight they were lucky.
The bin was huge. Made of heavy steel. Easily ten feet long and seven or eight wide. In the dim light it appeared to be of a mid green colour. Surrounding the Salvation Army’s proclamation of ownership as a charity bin, lesser knowns had pasted their own stickers and flyers. Whether to advertise, or warn it was impossible to know, someone had written in thick black texter pen the messages ‘BASTARDS’ ‘DEALERS’ ‘PROSSIES’. All by the same hand.
Sondra reached up, the steel lid a few inches above her six foot height. Bracing herself, she gave it her best, but she was weak. Defeated. She had height, which none of the other girls had, but even had her strength not been so diminished, it would have made little or no difference. Greater still than the heavy steel lid of the bin, the emotional weight now betrayed her. So far, she had held fast. When the opportunity to escape had been granted, she had acted without hesitation. As had her friends. But she, Sondra, had emptied her syringe into the man’s neck. While they had been fleeing, Sondra had been justifying. Arguing with herself that no individual could be held solely responsible. That she was a victim. But straw by straw a simple charity bin now brought her to her knees. Riddled with guilt, I killed him! She could no longer keep pushing aside the thoughts which sapped her physical and emotional strength. All the pain, screams, blood. The rapes, smashed into nothing by a Salvation Army clothing receptacle.
No one else was in much better condition. They stood helpless. Too short, too frail, and intolerably helpless, they needed even a tiniest speck of hope.
Of the six Chloe stood out. Had she wanted to claim the role of pre-pubescent teenie, it would hold water. Certain men found ‘the waif’ irresistible. At that place she already knew her future fate. There was no time to comfort Sondra. Standing around waiting for a knight in shining armour was not a choice. They did not inhabit these parts. Here they must stay, and in front of them was that speck of hope.
Deposits had to be made by pulling down on a handle, placing the donations into the chute, and closing the door to send the goods down into the body of the bin. Guo Ya Na tested the mechanics, opening and closing the door. She looked at Chloe, and at the door handle. ‘You try?’
The implication was to Chloe, obvious. She stared, then she nodded sharply. ‘I try. Yes.’ Pleased that she had at last an opportunity to perform some small heroic task. The idea gave her a biting courage. ‘I think I can do this. If I can get inside. Yes?’
Guo Ya Na dropped on all fours offering her back to stand on. Even as she did so a flash of remembrance of the woman who has placed her in such a position snapped through her mind. Rebecca, of similar height to Guo Ya Na, twinned the position, head to head, and Chloe stepped carefully up onto their backs, one foot on each of the other girls.
Mariena squeezed her way between the awkward cluster and pulled down on the door handle. No choice makes anything possible. Guo Ya Na had once seen a street performer in Shenzhen, a tall string of a woman, wriggle and contort herself into an ordinary paper shopping bag without so much as a tear or a split seam. The woman had performed the feat for a few Yuan and a lot of applause from bystanders. Surely Chloe for a greater reward, the safety and gratitude of her friends, could replicate the performance. She did.
With the extra push from underneath. Chloe, standing on a thick pile of unstable garments and stuffed plastic garbage bags, pushed up with her shoulders. When the heavy steel lid moved, Sondra quickly recovered her poise and set to helping from the outside. The lid yawned open and Sondra boosted each of the girls up and over into the container. She heaved her own body wearily over the lip, falling onto a pile of bodies.
Mariena giggled. In spite of their immediate situation in the pitch dark, like sardines in a tin, she found a bubble of joy. While sirens cut the night air, with the acrid smell of noxious smoke, Mariena giggled. At last, if only briefly they could swallow their fear and rest for a while.
‘Clothes.’ She exclaimed, jiggling up and down on the thick, warm pile. ‘And shoes!’
Irina, silent until now, began to cry. At first she had fought long and hard. They had punched the heroin into her day and night it seemed. Irina’s body, flawless and perfectly proportioned had been used often and without mercy. It had been Irina’s screams in the night, in the mornings, in the afternoons. The others, too full of shame to admit that while Irina screamed, they at least, remained untouched. Small comfort. Comfort nevertheless. They all wore the guilt of knowing that while Irina suffered, they had not. Sondra rested her head on Irina’s shoulder. She, among all of them now still suffered the most. The craving for the drug vibrating every molecule in her body.
Blessedly safe for the time being, the promise of inconspicuous clothing to be sorted and donned. With the coming of dawn something reminiscent of peace settled over the six girls. No one cared for the cries and whimpers that dogged each fitful sleep. They huddled, cuddled, and whispered comforting words. And when it was their turn to cry out, comfort came.
Thus, the girls endured.
The wall phone rankled its archaic dring dring! Dring dring! Sounding as old and tired as the finger dialler on its face. Phyllis liked it that way. No 1812 overtures or Homer Simpson’s Doh! Doh Doh that Robbie found so amusing.
No one stirred. To the Three Stooges it was Phyllis’s phone. Robbie argued that if any phone in the house went doh doh doh he would not expect Jilly to run and answer it. Similarly if the 1812 Overture clobbered the quiet, that was for Jilly. No one was going to budge at Nikki’s choice of ringtone that just implored ‘Pick up Nikki! Pick up Nikki.’ Phyllis had resisted the youth’s rampant rush to technology. The recording studio, the computers, the smart phones and wireless cameras. So, if the old bell still went Dring Dring! Dring, the only activity from Robbie, Jilly or Nikki was to flap their gums.. ‘It’s your phone mum!’
‘Hello?’ The inquisitory ‘hello’, Phyllis’s best effort at coping with unknown callers. She would never get used to the telephone and their disembodied voices. Shy by nature even telephones sent a frisson of fear up her back.
‘Oh. Do you want to.?’ Phyllis glanced around the room at the eager faces all wondering who might be calling mum. But Jock butted in while Phyllis looked uncertainly at the kids.
‘No. No just wantin’ to check if yer all ‘ome eh? Don’t want t’turn up for nowt if’n yer all gone out or summat eh?’
‘No. We’re all in Jock. The kids were goin’ to go off on a hike over t’jackdaw woods later.’ She giggled nervously. The kind of giggle that made every man of a certain age- and younger, say something flirty. Jock Mactavish was no more resistant to Phyllis’ sweetness than any other man.
True to form Jock threw one in. ‘Pity then eh? You can leave crumbs in my bed any day eh?’ From other men the insinuation would have been sexual harassment. From Jock, no more or less than a compliment. He would never act on any of it anyway.
Embarrassed, Phyll brushed back her thick, wavy red-hair with her left hand. Her freckled face blushing up her cheeks. No matter that the caller could not see. That was just a Phyll thing and not one she would grow out of at this late stage.
Robbie got up and grabbed a couple of warm scones. ‘Who was it mam? Boyfriend wantin’ a night in then?’ He broke open a scone and flicked a blob of home -made white butter on both sides.
‘Don’t be silly. It was Jock. He’s comin’ over from town. Wanted to know if we’re all in.’
‘What the ‘eck for? Snow’s a bit thick on’t ground for comin’ out this far in’t it?’ Then with a sly bat of his eyebrows, added ‘We can clear out for an hour you know. Mind, knowin’ Jock he’d be in and out in ten minutes.’ With a typical Robbie grin he added, ‘ The ‘ouse I mean.’
Phyllis could not help herself, her natural smile lighting up her face, and the admonishment falling from her lips bore no heat. ‘Now give over our Robbie! He asked if we’re all in so I expect he wants to see you lot for something. Though I don’t know why he can’t tell you over the phone.’
Robbie teased, stuffing a whole scone in his mouth at the same time. ‘He’s after yer mam. Half the blokes in town ‘ve been eyeing your skirts since we was little ‘uns.’
‘Robbie! I said give over didn’t I?’ But Phyll was quite pleased really.
Jilly propped her guitar up against the armchair, uncurling cat-like. The lazy day, the warmth in the kitchen, the whole cosiness of today had made her languid. They’d always ‘lived’ in the kitchen. It was big and warm. Close to food.
‘I’ll be Polly then.’ She said, filling the kettle full enough to bubble out of the whistle. Second thoughts made her pour a little off before she jammed Billy’s whistle back on his spout.
‘I’ll be Sookie.’ Nikki waved an arm away from her laptop without looking backwards. If Polly put the kettle on, then Sookie always took it off again. Nursery rhymes tended to stick around in these parts.
‘Too late f’walkin’ in’t woods anyhow’ Robbie volunteered, gazing out the kitchen window. A huge mushroom of nimbo cumulus, billowing white and steel grey was rising, grumbling into the early afternoon air. Growing into a giant ice-cream cone, it formed quickly.
‘I reckon we’ll be snowbound ’til spring.’ Gathering up another couple of scones, Robbie set them on a side plate. He reached up to the top cupboard and spread his big fingers around the handles of half a dozen plain white, pint mugs.
‘Oi! Yer bloody greedy bugger our Robbie!’ Jilly skited, grabbing for the last two scones while his hands were occupied elsewhere. Robbie glared at her but undeterred she waved her clutched fists at him. ‘Emergency rations.’
Peeved, Robbie waved the side-plate, plonking the mugs on the solid old kitchen table. ‘These are fer Nikki anyway.’ He retorted, slapping more great globs of butter between each one. Whether they had originally been for Nikki or not, the words had committed him, and he strolled over to where she was hunched at the kitchen table. Still working on her book.
Phyllis laughed, wiping palms on her floral smock. Nikki always thought she looked pretty in it. Decorated with big red roses, the pastel colours suited Phyll’s complexion and accented her femininity. All told, in her mid forties, and generously proportioned, Phyll was disarmingly attractive. Fair skinned and freckled, she had always drawn attention, though she was -even more attractively, oblivious to her looks. ‘I better put another dozen in then.’
‘Better make it three if Jock’s stomach is comin’ with ‘im.’ Jilly said.
‘Better still, make that four.’ Robbie added. ‘No doubt we’ll need emergency rations.’
Jilly punched him, though not hard enough to cause a flinch.
Nikki, not being whole-hearted family could easily have felt left out of all this personal banter. Not so. She looked on at the three adoringly. From the very first moment, she had been enveloped. If she had had to choose a big sister Jilly would have come first, second, third and last. As for Robbie. Brother? Not. With every passing day Nikki pulled more of the man into her heart. That he loved her there was no question. Even so, he could never touch more than the skin she exposed daily.
She did not want to think about it. No matter how often or how hard it invaded her waking and sleeping thoughts it could never be. Still, she couldn’t bear him NOT to touch her, which he did often. Ruffling her soft curls. Draping a big arm over her small shoulders. In private, he kissed her mouth, and she allowed. The feel of his lips on hers, the heat in her lower belly sometimes made her want to risk it. Phyll did not see them as children, no matter how she referred to them as kids. If they were sixty they would still be her kids. Phyll had no objections if they chose to share a room and a bed. Secretly she desired it.
Nikki was afraid though that Robbie would be disgusted, and never want to touch her again. In those times when a hand accidentally or not so accidentally brushed her one little breast it generated the closest thing to a panic attack she had ever experienced. Sometimes the feeling became so unbearable that it was almost asthmatic and she had to run away.
Those times Robbie traipsed after her, eyes cast to his shoes. Stammering apologies followed by a day of humiliated silence. And those days hurt Nikki too.
Once, when she was fifteen she had flirted. On the promenade by the Pier Towers she’d offered herself to him, but he would have to do it to her clothed. She’d forced a laugh at his shock. A laugh that came manufactured from a soulless place. Still, she had meant it then, and meant it still. In her room upstairs there was no full length mirror.
Even so, loving Nikki had always been easy for Robbie.
The series 11 Land Rover Jock Mactavish piloted would never gain accolades for stealth. Even less so with snow chains and his home-engineered snow plough jutting off the front end.
The old truck, the last of the flatbed model in the area clanked and wheezed in ‘snow gear’. All four wheel hubs engaged into 4wd, the snarling V8 wore its disguise well.
Richard Deacon and Michaila, squished shoulder to shoulder on the bench seat, with Jock at the wheel, felt every bump and jounce.
‘We’ll not be long now eh?’ Jock grinned at his relatively new ‘old friends’.
‘I hope not.’ The Deacon muttered through clenched teeth. His lanky frame added to the discomfort he felt. Mitch, the nickname to which Michaila answered was no ‘wee lassy’. At well over six two she was shorter than the Deacon by a cigarette paper. Though Brixton born and bred she had the colour and bearing of an African Princess.
Today her jet hair which, when loosed, caressed her ankles, was braided into hundreds of perfect plaits, and folded under so that it looked impossibly thick, falling only to her waist.
Talk was difficult over the scream of the over-revved engine and more so with every bone-jarring assault on the hard shock absorbers.
‘He’s got us over a barrel Jock.’ She said, trying with difficulty to fill the old journo in on the reason for this crazy trip. ‘He’s a ghost. There are no boundaries he can’t cross and we are the ones being forced into hiding. He’s a criminal of the worst kind, and there’s nothing we can do to stop him.’ She fell silent, as much from the effort of trying to talk while keeping both hands braced against the roof of the vehicle as for the fact that the quiver in her voice signalled the advent of tears.
The Deacon, a man of caged emotions, put a hand on her thigh and squeezed.
‘Nobbled the damned helicopter, Jock!’ The words filtered through thin, angry lips.
‘That’d take some nerve. Bein’ back in London an’ all.’ Jock glanced across the bench-seat, seemingly oblivious to the thin sleet that was now slashing the windscreen.
‘I don’t think he is Jock.’ Shouted the Deacon. ‘I think he was demonstrating the length of his reach. He’s a bloody national hero in Serbia these days. Misguided fools! He’s got plenty of minions in London that’s for sure!’
‘Better ‘old yer ‘eads. I’ve lost t’road.’
The vehicle, with plough and show chains; all 2000 pounds plus of it, dipped its nose, crossing a five foot wide snow filled ditch with a sickening lurch.
‘Found it eh.’ Jock said, hauling a hard left on the ‘drover’s massive steering wheel. .
”ere y’are.’ Taking one hand off the wheel he pointed into the middle distance. Standing stolidly in the apparent middle of nowhere the boxy red-brick two storey farmhouse was like the first glimpse of land to a lost sailor.
Sleet, now turned into blizzard-snow suddenly eradicated the glimpse of the old house.
‘Just med it I reckon eh?’ Nothing phased Jock Mactavish, farmer’s son of this parish. He flicked the switch on the windscreen wipers. For a couple of moments they jammed and juddered. Jock gave the inside of the screen a thump with his scrawny fist. The wipers behaved.
It had taken two hours to travel eight miles. ‘So what is it ‘e wants eh?’ Returning to the conversation, hoping to get it out of the way before the impending welcome.
‘That’s what we’re here for Jock.’ Mitch offered. ‘He’s made it clear exactly what he wants. But we’ll fill you in on the ultimatum as soon as Phyll stokes us up with some hot tea and scones.’
‘Sounds a bit ominous eh?’ Jock shouted over the roar of the blizzard. ‘Ye’ve taken two days to get ‘ere so it’s obvious it’s something that can’t wait eh? Just fill me in quick like, so’s I’m not left wonderin’.’
‘That’s the thing Jock.’ Mitch found herself shouting into a vacuum when Jock shut off the engine. ‘He’s not prepared to negotiate. Why don’t we just wait until we’re all together and you can have the whole story?’
Phyllis, unprepared for visitors, other than the old reporter, scooted up the stairs rabbit fast exclaiming that ‘I’m not decent!’ Too flustered to be seen by city folks in her at-home smock.
‘Someone with ‘im.’ Robbie reported too late. He stared snow-blind from the kitchen window, not keen to throw open the door yet and let in the blizzard.
Jock parked the ‘drover close to the wall in the lee of the house. Jilly, ever the welcomer, made a scolding noise that sounded like ‘Welleteminthen!’ Before racing to the front door herself. Grudgingly Nikki flopped down the lid on her laptop and closed the notebook from which she was working. She was busy piling her books together trying hard to disguise her unwelcoming demeanour.
Nikki loved the isolation. Guests, with the exception of those she knew well and trusted, were an unwelcome diversion. An intrusion rather. She had taken to being enjoyably grumpy at intruders into her family space. That was until she heard Robbie’s big voice roar. ‘Deacon! Mitch!’
Fortunately the two guests were also huggers. Robbie threw his great arms first around Mitch, and then the Deacon. Anyone smaller would have been crushed in the embrace. He had much to thank this pair for. Not the least of which had been the unstinting care he had received at the London studio apartment. Granted they – well, Meegan, had run over him in the first place. But none of that mattered. It was they who had been instrumental in bringing Nikki home to stay.
Nikki too lit up. She buried herself mouse-like in the folds of the Deacon’s coat before he could shed it and get a grip on the girl. Then Mitch got her share.
Settled, after Jilly and Phyllis made up beds, the household knuckled down to catching up. Questions and answers flowed thick and fast from all parties. Having consumed multiple pint mugs of tea while Michaila filled in the details and gossip, she got to her feet and announced with little concern for volume that ‘I’ll be peeing for a week. Where’s the toilet.’
‘Such a lady.’ The Deacon grinned. Seldom did this man relax into the comfort of friends. Most people found him surly and stodgy.
Jilly showed Mitch the way to the ladies room, which also doubled as a men’s room and displayed a plaque on the door ‘Potting Shed’. Just a private Robbie potty joke.
Jock needed to be back in Withernsea before too late and it was already dark. ‘A bit ‘o snow’ wouldn’t be a worry. Jock’s ‘drover came complete with Arctic sleeping bags and metho stove. Not to mention suspicious looking foil packets of ‘probably food’ labelled ‘made for NASA’.
‘Better you stay on for a while yet.’ The Deacon said in his usual cryptically clipped manner. Suddenly only the screeching of the wind punctuated the silence. Mitch returned from the toilet and stared at the Deacon, her eyes begging for some clue as to where to start. None came.
‘It’s him isn’t it?’ Robbie finally spoke on an expulsion of breath.
Robbie paced the kitchen kicking things until Phyllis testily told him to stop. ‘e’s just a bloke for Chrissake!’ He stormed. ‘A criminal! Christ! He’s a killer an’ all! Yet no one’s ever done ‘owt!’
‘Sit down Robbie.’ It was obvious as usual that the Deacon was leaving everything to Mitch in spite of the terse command. She waited until Jilly cleared the kitchen table and set up a miniature banquet of tea and scones, jam and marmalade, and in the interim they made pointless small talk.
Mitch cradled her pint mug, sipping the scalding brew without taking it away from her lips.
‘Just give them the bottom line for crying out loud Michaella.’ The Deacon demanded, beginning to lose patience with her silent procrastination. She glared at him.
‘Bottom line then.’ Mitch took a breath and blew it out like gunsmoke.
‘He wants Nikita.’
Max had a damned nerve. He laughed. Nikki listened to the recording. Everyone tight lipped. Robbie clicked his fingernails. Jilly’s foot tapped. ‘OK. Your clever people found her money. Now she is rich. You have my compliments. My people however are clever too. Now we have not just Bitcoin. We have Litecoin and Monero. We have more than you can imagine. We have Omni and Peercoin. You are something, what is that word you use? You are shagged. I believe that is a suitable adjective. I am sure your geek boy by now has torn the last hair from his bald head.’
Mitch chirped up before Robbie exploded. ‘The phone was tracked to a place called Zemun, Serbia. But if you listen to the clicks, this message was recorded before being sent. You can hear the recorder being switched to pause and back again. He’s long gone from there. And he is well protected by Nationalist Serbs. ‘
‘He uses the dark web Robbie. The Onion Router or TOR is his first level of anonymity. Then heavy encryption. We can’t touch him without using spooks, and I’m sure there are more than just the UK government on his trail. Frankly though, it’s pretty much impossible.’ The Deacon, rarely one to speak more than a sentence or two set his lips tightly.
‘Listen.’ Mitch. She pressed the pause button and tinny sound burst from it once more. ‘Ah! Money, money, money. I have enough to buy an army. Billions of US dollars, and Euros, and British Pounds. Money is of no importance. You may stop your geek from bursting his head on the wall now. Yebachu ti sve po spisku! ‘
Nikki blanched at the threat. Everyone else looked puzzled. ‘I can say,’ She said, ‘but it is a very bad word. She glanced guiltily at Phyllis who nodded and excused herself to climb the stairs. Once out of earshot Nikki whispered. ‘ I fuck everything on your list.’ It means I think that he will do some bad things.’
‘Makes sense.’ The Deacon muttered before unpausing the recorder once more.
‘She is listening. You think I do not know? I want my Nikita. My property. Propisaces majcino mleko! ‘
‘That is for me alone.’ Nikita whispered.
Mitch stretched her hand, placing it over that of the suddenly whiter-than- white girl. ‘Tell me.’
Mitch pulled out her phone. ‘Then I will find out for myself.’ She tapped and scrolled. Her beautiful face hardened, and her eyes. ‘I don’t know how to spell it! I can’t follow the words!’
Nikita reached out, taking the phone and tapping in the Serbian threat. She turned the screen back to Mitch, shaking her head in the negative. Not to speak the words aloud. You will piss your mother’s milk!
‘You work it out.’ Nikita said. Now she looked hard into Michaela’s eyes. Mitch looked away first. ‘I understand.’
Once more The Deacon unpaused the recording. ‘I will have my property. You will return it to me. Ja ću te ubiti sve jedan po jedan! ‘
Robbie nudged Nikita, his eyebrows raised in question.
‘I will kill you all one by one.’ Nikki translated. The recording morphed into white noise. ‘That’s all of it.’ The Deacon said, his tone terse.