In this sequel, when Sara Nardell and Peter Wellington meet with a man telling a tale of an upscale brothel in the heart of Manhattan, it disrupts the easy life of reunion that Sara and Frank Revere have enjoyed over the last year and a half.
Peter springs into action and assembles the Team, now part of a United Nations Special Operations unit. And Sara soon discovers a world rampant with sex trafficking, from Vancouver to China.
What begins as a relatively simple mission blows up into something with much larger consequences, including economic world dominance, which endangers members of the Team and citizens of all western nations. At the center of it, shrouded in deception, hides a Chinese government-sanctioned group, known only as The Elders.
Like sediment stirred in a stream, deeper layers only further muddy the waters of truth…and increase peril for all.
(While this is the sequel to Deadly Exchange, it can be read as a stand alone story.)
Targeted Age Group:: 16 plus
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
After the success of the award-winning Deadly Exchange (2007), which The Secret Keepers is the sequel, readers were asking for the next one. At the time, I didn’t have any workable ideas for that. However, upon returning from an extended stay in Europe, several new characters began to speak to me and share their story, which I could then fit into what would become the sequel, The Secret Keepers.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Not sure that I come up with characters, rather a character begins to tell me his/her story and I listen. Sometimes, as indicated in the previous section, it is more than one character. Perhaps this sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. Sometimes the characters are fully formed with all their flaws and attributes, other times they must be flushed out. That is where being an observer of human nature comes into play. Characters become like little portrait paintings, but live of course.
The Secret Keepers
The Secret Keepers: A Novel
Copyright © 2015 Geoffrey M. Gluckman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Published by BookLocker.com, Inc., Bradenton, Florida, U.S.A.
Printed on acid-free paper.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015914469
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gluckman, Geoffrey M.
The Secret Keepers/Geoffrey M. Gluckman.
1. Espionage—Fiction. 2. United Nations—Fiction. 3. Undercover operations—Fiction. 4. Economics—Fiction. 5. Politics—Fiction.
Cover design by Melissa Gilbert Haney
Author photograph by David Hartig
Cover design © 2015 Geoffrey M. Gluckman
Author photograph © 2015 Geoffrey M. Gluckman
The Secret Keepers
Geoffrey M. Gluckman
Praise for Deadly Exchange
Honorable Mention in fiction
Los Angeles Book Festival 2009
“…moves along at the speed of light. The excitement starts on page one, and keeps going till the final sentence…”
Ð Simon Barrett, Blogger News Network, Reviewer
“…a fast-paced thriller.”
– Eric D. Goodman, Borders Books Reviewer, author of The Flightless Goose
“…this is a fantastic book! …a love story intricately entangled with a devious, take-over-the-world story.”
– Desiree DiFabio, www.book-club-queen.com/review
“…a riveting spectacle of thrills and chills that comes with a heart and soul. More than just some thriller you put away after a reading, it is also a warning about making bargains with personal freedoms…”
“…an exciting thriller that keeps readers at the edge of their seats. This is a frightening story that leads to an explosive ending. This has the makings for an excellent movie.”
–Socrates Book Reviews
“…a very exciting and compelling read.”
– Margaret Orford, Allbooks Reviewer
“…CREEPY. Ok one more word … PLAUSIBLE. Yikes. Gluckman [has] put together a great thriller … the pages flew by…”
– Monie G, Reading with Monie
Praise from Readers for Deadly Exchange
“Having worked intel for Uncle Sam, Deadly Exchange was glued to my hands from cover to cover. When’s the next one coming? Look out “Jason Bourne”, Frank Revere is in town! … a most wonderful book.”
–Jeff Allen, Florida
“I really enjoyed it. I liked it even more than the last LeCarre I read”
–Rocco Marano Reston, VA
“Deadly Exchange grabs you early and doesn’t let go. This highly original thriller is much more than page turner…”
–John Clapp, PhD., author and professor, Ohio State University
I LOVED Deadly Exchange!
– Irene Nelson, Bay Area, CA
1. In Greek mythology, the breastplate of Zeus, used by several other gods, especially Athena;
2. Any shield or armor;
3. A protecting influence or power; sponsorship
New York Harbor, NY
Sunday 2:05 am EST
The outline of three masts belonging to a ninety-foot schooner anchored in the harbor could just be seen against the canvas of a dark sky. Having arrived late afternoon, it was moored south of the Brooklyn Bridge in the third largest harbor in the United States. Off to the right lay the port for immense container ships, filled with a variety of poor quality items, primarily made in China, destined for American markets around the country. Almost all of the container vessels would return home empty.
Bells clanked. Boards creaked. Buoys rang. Boats of all sizes strained at mooring ropes as the tide shift brought deeper water.
A tall figure moved upon the schooner’s deck, then motioned with a hand to someone unseen. From below deck emerged a line of shorter and narrower figures all linked by rope. Most of them trudged along with feet dragging. Despite the cloudless night and light from the city that never sleeps, the movement of the group as they got into a small dinghy was well hidden beneath the cloak of darkness.
The tall figure had chosen this night well—an evening between a waning and a waxing moon. Yet, if one looked closely, it could be perceived that the line of figures carried themselves differently to the tall man and his compatriot at the end of the line.
Knowing better than to curse aloud, the tall man kicked a figure that stumbled upon stepping into the small craft. Shortly after all were huddled in the dinghy, the compatriot, who looked like a human fire-plug, began to move the oars of the boat cautiously in the water. The slight slap of oars mingled with other harbor sounds, becoming indistinguishable. The boat’s cargo kept a low profile as instructed by the tall man, thus giving the appearance of only two occupants.
After ten minutes of steady but gentle rowing, the boat bumped up against a pylon for one of the more decrepit piers. The tall figure climbed a rickety wooden ladder to the pier and secured the mooring. He stood motionless, waiting, watching.
From the shadows nearer the shore, a small bent-over, limping figure moved toward the tall man. Rather than make an effort to meet the less able person, the tall man simply stood stock-still.
Eventually the hunched figure reached the waiting man, who was almost two heads taller. They murmured in low voices, mostly in a foreign language.
Finally, the tall man reached into his long, black seaman’s coat and extracted a withered envelope, which he slid into the waiting palm of the hunched figure.
“Dobre,” said the bent-over man. He lit a cigarette, the small flame showing his face to be lined and weathered from a life lived by the sea. Two faint glows replaced the flame as each man inhaled tobacco, sealing the deal.
“Nice girls, ha ha,” he added between puffs, his hollowed sockets portending deep suffering. The tall man nodded, flicked his cigarette into the water, and signaled his compatriot in the dinghy.
Awkwardly, each girl clambered the weathered wooden ladder onto the pier. None could move too fast or too slow due to the heavy rope looped around each girl’s waist, linking her to the next girl. Once all stood upon the pier, they huddled together, trying to keep warm, as most wore clothing ill-suited to early March.
The tall man loosed the dinghy from mooring, then ushered the line of girls toward the dock. The hunched man limped along behind the girls, muttering softly. He believed the girls would be placed with good homes, doing domestic work, thus paid more than him.
As the group neared the rundown shanty office at the shore-end of the pier, a black paneled van came to an abrupt stop nearby. The side door slid open and the man inside beckoned toward the tall man. The girls were herded into a spacious area suitable for cargo—no seats.
The tall man nodded to the old man and stepped up into the passenger seat. Before his door closed, the driver had put the vehicle in motion, whisking all into the night.
San Francisco, CA
Sunday, 10:38 am, PST
Sara stood erect in front of the vanity basin, grabbed a hand towel, and dried her face. Warily she opened her eyes, but the reflected image in the mirror reassured her—no surprises.
In the eighteen months since the destruction of Lectures and More, Inc., the nibble of horror at seeing another face in any mirror had subsided, for the most part. Yet, deep in the back of her mind, she kept expecting that other face to appear, but none had.
She ran a hand through the gentle ringlets of blond hair that once again tickled her shoulders. She smiled at her reflection. She truly had returned to her former self, Sara Darnell, except that she had kept Peter Wellington’s altered version of her name, Sara Nardell, just in case.
She turned, hearing Frank calling to her from the kitchen, or so it sounded.
“Just a minute, hon,” she said and stepped into the walk-in closet, predominantly filled with her clothes, ones that she had selected and bought, unlike all those years with Lectures and More, Inc. also known as LAM. And unlike the motivational speakers circuit that she had unknowingly been bewitched to tour for LAM, after being stripped of her real identity, now she got to present educational lectures for Cherish the Wild Foundation, a not-for-profit organization promoting stewardship of the planet, its resources, and its myriad collection of species, humans included. Ostensibly, she had merely jumped ships, taking on a similar role with the Foundation that she had endured for five years at LAM.
The difference this time was conscious choice.
Brushing a hand over some outfits hanging before her, she remembered that it was Sunday, so nothing too fancy. Her hand drifted to a pair of jeans that fit well. Dispelling the mild indecision about the pants, she took them off the hanger, which tipped the scale on what else to put with it.
Within ten minutes she was silently descending the stairs in the two-story townhouse shared with Frank, her true love, lost and found. Frank Revere, as he was called, had wisely sold his Coit Tower condo before the real estate bubble burst in California. Then he had bided his time, waiting for the right place to appear, at the right price—for both of them. The purchase had been a joint decision, the year anniversary of living together only weeks away.
She lightly tapped her fingers on the oak banister, and smiled. It’s going well.
She admired the bamboo flooring in the entry hall lit by faint bands of sunlight streaming through the long, narrow windows beside the front door. The flooring had been a conscious effort for further greening of their home, like the solar panels installed on the roof, which had reduced their use of electricity considerably. True, the panels were expensive, but they would pay for themselves in five years, or so.
Treading softly, Sara paused in the archway that led into the living room and peaked in. Just inside the doorway, with eyes closed, there sat Frank in his favorite chair—a papasan. It was positioned perfectly to catch the rays of morning sun, when it decided to appear, especially this time of year as the sun traversed the sky at a lower angle. Often the Bay Area remained overcast and rainy in March.
She gazed at his strong jaw-line that had drawn her attention in San Diego—the second time. In the time since, he hadn’t changed much, maybe a line or two around the eyes. His dark complexion seemed to linger even without the sun. The chocolate-colored hair was still cut short, but not severe, like his friend and former SEAL Willem Tasker.
A shiver went up her spine. She loved to watch him resting, but leaned over and gently placed her lips to his. He didn’t jump, of course. No matter how silent she tried to be, he always could sense it. Instead, his lips responded with welcome warmth.
“So, mister, all ready, I see.”
She withdrew as Frank arose from the deeply padded saucer-shaped chair. He reached out and put a hand to her cheek. She closed her eyes, as tingles trickled up and down her body.
“You happy, honey?” she said, gazing into his hazel eyes.
“Absolutely. I was just reflecting on what has happened between us in the last two years.”
“That’s one year and nine months, to be exact. I was thinking of that magical day at Seaport Village in San Diego, when we first crossed paths. Again, that is.”
He nodded and, with a gentle touch on her elbow, began to move toward the front door.
Sara gave a sideways glance. The lines between his eyebrows were almost gone and he was talking more now. For six months after the battle at ENOCH, the research and development building of LAM, Inc., in a Virginia suburb outside Washington, D.C., he had remained so reticent. The first month afterward, spent on the island of St. Kitts with the rest of the team, had been the worst. He hardly spoke the entire time, except to John Wilde, the ex-CIA operative turned Rastafarian, and to Willem.
She remembered how he had spent hours walking the sand alone or in the water, once the eight-inch gash on the back of his leg from Dr. Jones’s blade had healed enough. Despite what she expected, he had continued to push himself with Willem and some of the others, doing mission specific physical training and practicing with weapons.
For her, there was something eerily terrifying in his silence, as if she were glimpsing a living ghost, a spectre of his former self.
Fortunately, she thought, that’s all past.
She turned the key to lock the front door. Frank had already set the alarm inside. Hand in hand, they stepped into the sunshine. She felt the roughness of his hand from the physical training that he had continued with Willem. She had continued too, but not to the degree that Frank had. Part of that included a weekly run of an obstacle course at night, no matter the weather, dressed in combat gear.
“So, where to my lovely lady?”
Sara smiled, more at Frank’s tone than the question. “How does Fisherman’s Wharf sound?”
Before he could answer, her Blackberry chimed—text message. Rummaging through her purse, she pulled out the maroon-colored device. She glanced at the message, which was encoded. Only one person would send it that way. She typed a coded reply per protocol and dropped the device into her purse.
“You know,” Frank said, a shadow of a wry smile gracing his lips. “Most of us at Cherish the Wild have iPhones.”
“I know. It’s just that I got so used to this type.” The truth, Sara knew, lay with the sender of the coded message, whose encryption only worked on the phone operating system she had, for now anyway.
Frank continued the playful banter about antiquation, but she only half listened as they made their way to Fisherman’s Wharf. She contemplated the message, which called for a meeting tonight. She would need an excuse to get away, as Sundays were dedicated to sharing quality time with each other. Not that he would pry, he couldn’t know what she was doing. Not yet.
The deception felt as if she were having an affair. If only he could know the real reason.
Soon enough, she thought, taking hold of his left arm above the elbow.
San Francisco, CA
Sunday, 7:51 pm PST
Sara hurried down the street to the designated meeting place, received by text message fifteen minutes ago. She’d had to lie to Frank, saying that a girlfriend had just broken up with her boyfriend and needed consoling. It meant that she would miss the movie that they had rented.
Had Frank minded? She wondered, turning the corner onto Webster. He had not seemed too perturbed, but he was so hard to read. In truth, the enigma that he had been when they met again almost two years ago had not diminished that much in the last year of co-habitation. He was a very private person, perhaps from years of covert missions with the National Security Agency.
She rounded the corner of Union Street, knowing she was almost there—Café Pergolesi—an all night coffee house. She and Frank came here, whenever not at a nearby Peet’s Coffee & Tea. She checked her watch—two minutes before the hour—and pulled the door open. Once inside, her eyes casually swept over the patrons settled into a variety of off-beat tables and chairs, low sofas, and deep pillow chairs. The décor, best described as eclectic, suited San Francisco. Above the chatter, soulful jazz tickled her ears. Three two-foot round diameter pillars, which reached to the ceiling, punctuated the open room. She knew that the building dated back to the turn of the twentieth century, having survived the earthquake of 1906.
Sara’s contact, if she could call him that, would be disguised. She took a few steps further into the room, still using practiced observation techniques. Her eyes returned to a man with gold-rimmed bifocals, his back to a wall and reading a newspaper at a corner table in a more secluded section of the café.
That’s him! She cautiously began to move his direction, noting his erect posture, which he could alter at will, a hallmark of his upbringing in the Old Country, as he often called Great Britain.
As if by radar, the man’s eyes lifted and focused directly on Sara. It was unnerving how he knew, as did Frank too, when she was nearby. She had been practicing the invisibility techniques taught to her before the LAM operation, but still struggled.
Sara slid into the empty chair at the man’s table with a sigh. “I made it on time.”
“I see. Your promptness is appreciated.”
She noticed that the lines around his brown eyes had deepened since their last meeting. The disguise, effective to be sure, included the glasses and medium length black hair, which she knew to be a wig because his real hair was gray. A black wool fedora with a gray band lay on the table. His face showed the color of regular sun exposure, as he lived further south in the state.
An upraised hand cut her off.
“Right. I forgot—no names.” She put a hand to her forehead. It was as if everything she had learned about tradecraft had slipped from her brain, like sand through a sieve.
The man, known to her as Peter Wellington, a long-time friend of her dead parents, and the one to re-connect her with Frank, placed a hand atop hers. “It’s quite all right, my dear.” He allowed his true British accent to seep through as he spoke, exuding genuine warmth. Then he added, “Take a few breaths. That’s it. As it is we’re waiting for a third party to arrive.”
She leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. “I don’t like lying to…you know who. When can I bring him in from the cold?”
“Does he suspect?”
Before Sara could respond, she saw Peter shift his focus for an instant, and then run a hand over his hair. Recognizing it as a signal, she fought the desire to turn and look at who received it. Instead, she looked at the man before her: the one who had orchestrated her ‘extraction’, as it was known in espionage circles, from LAM, Inc. On the surface, he owned an import/export company in San Diego with his lifelong friend, John Wilde. The two had been counterintelligence operatives for the U.S. government quite a few years ago. Though both had since quit the government, Peter kept a hand in the espionage business as a consultant, mostly for corporations. Despite that, and in his mid-fifties, he displayed a calm and serene demeanor, as well as being physically fit. After all, she knew he had been with the British SAS before the CIA had recruited him.
Sara turned her head as a tall, lanky man in his late thirties ambled toward their table with a loose-limbed gait and the smile of a con man.
The man placed a white espresso cup and saucer on the table, eyed Sara up and down, and took the seat that had its back to the door, which appeared to evoke some discomfort for the newcomer.
“Mr. Lawrence Marchetti has some information for us,” said Peter, eyeing Sara. “Please begin.”
“Call me Gino, please,” he said, after taking a sip of espresso. “So nice to have such a beautiful audience. May I know your name?”
About to speak, Sara shook the man’s large, soft hand, but Peter cut her short. “That won’t be necessary. Please, Mr. Marchetti, our time is precious.”
“Yes, just so much hush-hush. I thought…” He stopped, settled back into the chair, and unbuttoned his black leather jacket, as if to unveil his stylish clothes, a black button-down shirt woven with fine gold vertical lines. His long legs were clad in grey wool slacks and his black Euro-styled shoes were Italian, of course.
He then related how a few months ago a friend of his, who shall remain nameless, had encountered some interesting fellows in New York City late one night. Out on the town with some friends, one of whom knew these Eastern European guys. One thing led to another, drink after drink, and the group of guys ended up at an illegal brothel. Marchetti’s friend wouldn’t have thought anything about it as each guy enjoyed a young lady from the house, except the girl Marchetti’s friend ended up with spoke some Italian, despite being from Turkey.
“Is there a reason for that?” Peter asked.
“Is he always this impatient?” Marchetti looked at Sara, but didn’t wait for a reply. “Evidently, the young girl’s uncle had lived in Rome for some time and taught her Italian, one of the easiest languages to learn. Gracie mille, unlike English.”
Peter shifted his chair and crossed his arms in front of him.
Marchetti took the hint and continued. According to his friend, the girl was very pretty, but not even sixteen. And she whispered to him, as they rolled in bed, how she had been kidnapped when she had traveled to Romania seeking work. According to her, a woman in her home town, a small one outside Ankara, had suggested she meet with colleagues of hers in Constanța, Romania. Supposedly, they employed young girls in various domestic capacities, such as housecleaning. Yet, once across the water into Romania, the woman had handed over the group of ten girls to several men, and money changed hands.
From that point on, Marchetti’s friend’s girl for the night had been held prisoner and forced into prostitution. First, the men who had paid for them in Romania broke them in and then transported them across Europe by truck, possibly to Prague. Next, the group of girls was split up. Some went to England, others to America.
Marchetti stopped speaking, interlaced his fingers and placed his hands behind his head. The shape of his lips always appeared to offer a smile.
“That’s it?” Sara said, sandy-colored eyebrows arching.
Marchetti gave a slight nod and the smile became a grin.
“My colleague has a point.” Peter placed his hands on the table and moved the newspaper a fraction. “Are there any other details? An address for the New York brothel?”
“I didn’t ask for an address, as I prefer not to pay for my dates. I know that my friend did not contact the authorities.”
Peter nodded, evidently understanding the unspoken request. “What does your friend want?”
“Ah, yes, the fun part,” said Marchetti, eyeing Sara. Then he explained how his friend had a cousin that wanted to come to America, but that her visa had been delayed.
“So he wants this in exchange for the rest of the information?”
“Precisely, pretty lady.”
Sara looked at Peter to see if he was as annoyed as she, but his demeanor hadn’t changed, except that he gently stroked his chin. She knew that this meant deep thought, so she addressed the Italian. “Has your friend no conscience? Think of the plight of these young girls, not even sixteen, for God’s sake.”
“Touching. Look, honey…”
“Don’t call me honey.” Sara’s eyes flashed with real fire.
“Both of you. Keep your voices down,” Peter said, his voice low and harsh, though still maintaining an American accent.
“You see, it’s simple,” Marchetti began. “Everything has a price. Sure, these girls should be helped, but everyone needs help. Right? Besides, prostitution is the oldest profession.”
“Oh my God!” Sara threw up her hands.
“Enough. Mr. Marchetti, I can’t make any promises, as I’m certain that you are aware of the tightening of U.S. Immigration policies. Give me your friend’s cousin’s name, and I’ll see what I can do.” Peter paused. “Also, I need the brothel address, or no deal.”
Marchetti sat upright, placing his hands on thighs. He looked at Sara and Peter, then slowly reached into his jacket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. With the same lack of speed, he placed it on the table and slid it toward Peter.
Peter opened the paper, but did not remove it from the table. Beside the paper was a small photo of of striking dark haired girl no older than sixteen. Sara leaned over to read:
2472 Tenth Avenue NW ?
Peter folded the paper and placed it in an inside jacket pocket. Then he said, “Very well.”
“How do I know you’ll work on this?”
“Mr. Marchetti, you have my word.”
“That’s not saying much these days, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not acquainted with the people that you choose to spend time, but in my line of work my word still means honor.” Peter began to gather his things, folding the newspaper and placing the fedora on his head.
“Wait!” Marchetti said, his voice less calm. “How do I contact you?”
“You don’t. We’ll contact you. Thank you for your cooperation. Human trafficking, especially sex slavery, is a vile business.”
Marchetti stood quickly and extracted an engraved silver business cardholder, flipped it open with practiced one-handed skill—a card offered toward Sara. Again, the perennial smile deepened.
Peter placed a hand on Sara’s outstretched hand, and said, “Not necessary. We know where to reach you, Mr. Marchetti.”
With that, Peter placed an arm around Sara’s shoulders and proceeded to guide her toward the entrance of the café, but in a circuitous fashion that never let Marchetti out of sight, nor fully exposed their backs.
Outside, the chill of evening had descended upon the city, and, with it, the deepening fog. They easily slipped into the folds of grey before Marchetti even exited the café.
Sara and Peter walked in silence, until reaching the corner that led to Sara and Frank’s home in the Pacific Heights region of the city.
Sara faced her companion, and said, “Peter?”
“You did splendid tonight, if I do say so.” His British accent had returned to full fluidity. He had also removed the disguise, except for the fedora.
“What do you mean? I was just myself.”
“Precisely. It was that genuineness that I counted on, as well as your charm and beauty, to distract our new friend there.”
“I don’t understand. What’s going on? Is this…this human trafficking something our group handles?”
“Quite right, my dear. The fact is that at least two and one half million people are trafficked every year, bringing a profit of thirty-two billion dollars. Governments around the world remain largely indifferent to this form of slavery. For sex trafficking, seventy-five percent begins online. I hadn’t mentioned it before now as there was no need. However, now you know. I’ll explain more later, when I have both you and Frank as my audience.”
“You mean…” Sara’s eyes sparkled with delight. She felt her heart surge with joy. No more hiding.
“Yes. Time to bring your dearly beloved in from the cold, so to speak. But,” Peter took gentle hold of her arms, “you must begin to bring him around, because I sense he may be quite resistant, to say the least.”
“But how do I do that?”
“Oh, I’m quite certain that you’ll find a way.” He released her and turned to go.
“What about Marchetti’s friend’s cousin?”
Peter stopped and gave a chuckle. “There’s no friend. And as for a cousin, that’s Mr. Marchetti’s girlfriend, I imagine. Perhaps a sister. Now, I must be off. Cheerio.” Within seconds, he had melted into the fog and darkness.
Sara’s mouth hung open until a raindrop splashed her cheek. She shook her head and hurried to the house a few doors down the street. Still stunned by Peter’s revelations, and her ignorance of Marchetti’s game, she burst through the door, wanting to spill everything to Frank.
But she couldn’t. Slowly, she thought. It must come like drips from a leaky faucet.
Suddenly aware that everything was quiet, too quiet, she reached for the entry hall light switch, which should have been on.
A strong arm grabbed her body and lifted it off the ground, and a hand clamped tight over her mouth.
She screamed, but the sound was muffled. She struggled to get free, but her captor had immense strength and size in comparison to her.
New York City, NY
Sunday, 11:59 pm, EST
The large upstairs living room remained divided, the experienced girls on one side, the new girls on the other. Helene was part of the latter. Since arriving in America they had been treated much better than during the long journey to get here. They enjoyed good meals, coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol—whatever they wanted—all delivered to them. True enough, they weren’t allowed to leave the building, but she hadn’t expected that. Some of the more outgoing girls had become friendly with the established girls of the house.
All together, Helene counted, sixteen girls. She glanced around the room. Most were chatting, smoking, and drinking. The room looked like a Sultan’s palace with plush furniture and lavish ornamentation, though much of it outdated. Newer, huge, puffy pillows were strewn everywhere. Handmade rugs, perhaps Persian, covered hardwood floors. The building seemed old, but kept up well. Several large hookahs on large low round tables were strategically placed as centerpieces in lounging areas.
She had never known luxury. Her family barely scraped by. That’s why she had followed that old bitch to Romania for work, so she could send money home.
This room served for customer entertaining, before going off to a ‘love nest’, as the keepers liked to call the bedrooms. No customers were allowed the day after new girls arrived, so the others had said, supposedly to endear the new girls to the experienced ones.
Helene surveyed the heavy, gaudy drapes that adorned the numerous windows. Earlier, in the day, sunlight had flooded in, but other than that the windows only functioned one way—the girls could see out, but no one could see in. All the windows were linked to an alarm system in case of breakage. That was an innovation. Sula, also from her home country, who seemed nice, had told her that last year a girl had gone berserk and tried to throw herself out the window. It had worked except in her drunken, drugged out stupor she had chosen the window leading to a rusting fire escape. She had managed to fly through the window only to land on the fire escape platform below, and had lain there for some time, bleeding profusely.
In the end, according to Sula, the injured girl, Tanya, had been taken to hospital, but she didn’t believe that and had argued with another girl from Romania that did believe it.
The fact remained: Tanya had never returned to the house. The story told by their keepers, mostly Eastern European men, was that she was sent back to her family in Turkey.
Helene reached behind her back and retied the bow of the two sashes from her white cotton blouse. Earlier, after a shower, she had had to redress in the same clothes she wore upon arrival. According to Sula and some others, tomorrow was shopping day. Of course, they didn’t get to leave. Instead, a big truck packed with clothes came to the house and each girl got to select what they wanted, presumably paid for by the keepers.
Helene released the bun that held her jet-black hair, now cascading about her shoulders. She stood, lightly shook her head, and massaged her scalp. Then, she smoothed her tight-fitting American jeans, a gift from an uncle who traveled frequently.
Silently, one of the established girls offered her a cigarette. Hesitant, she took it, though usually she only smoked when drinking at clubs. Exhaling, she thought it didn’t matter now. As a prisoner, who knew what the future held? Besides, the girl who had been there the longest, Katya, a long-legged platinum blond with an attitude, from somewhere in Russia, had said that most girls were ‘moved on’ after two years. For some unexplained reason, Katya had not been ‘moved on’, despite being there more than two years.
Helene took another drag as someone handed her a shot of vodka, which she downed. The liquid was nice and cold, so no sting. They had a fully stocked refrigerator and pantry in the kitchen, just down a hallway. Downstairs, towards the rear of the house, was a larger kitchen. All the new girls passed through it upon entry into the house from the secluded alley at the back of the building. Off the foyer was a dining area, living room, and a study, none of which the girls ever visited, only heard about from the keepers.
Helene recalled the fresh fruit, not canned, that she had eaten after tonight’s dinner. Her faint smile faded as she took a step and felt residual soreness in her inner thighs, though they no longer ached from the beasts that had raped her when first taken in Romania. She ground the cigarette out in one of many ashtrays, as if trying to remove the memory.
At that moment, a hand touched her head gently. Helene jumped.
“Don’t worry,” said Sula. Her accent revealed her to be from İzmir, a coastal town. On a clear day, she had said, one could see Athens, Greece from the shore of her hometown.
Helene relaxed and leaned her head against Sula’s shoulder, welcoming the nurturing, and longing to be at home in Çeşme, also a coastal town in Turkey. It had been the longest day of her life.
The worst was yet to come.
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