Novel excerpt – hot off the press!!!

Here’s an excerpt from my novel in progress. Let me know what you think, I’d appreciate any feedback!!!!

The basic storyline centres around the people trafficking industry in Europe, France in particular. A young English couple (brother & sister in their late teens/early twenties) are abducted soon after making the acquaintance of an American couple on a train in rural France (also a brother and sister and of similar ages). Tenuously held notions of romance are soon tested and the situation thrown into chaos as Winston, the young, well-heeled Englishman, is forced to work for the trafficking gang under threat of death to his sister. Initially, the Americans attempt to track their newly found friends with the sole intention of rescuing the beautiful Madeleine and her charming brother but things soon become complicated as Marcus finds himself dealing with a corrupt body within the French police. Ultimately, his at-first noble pursuit of the gorgeous young English maiden spirals into a  personal vendetta against her brother whom he sees as betraying Madeleine to the brutality of the traffickers. Allies and enemies abound as Marcus and Annika race against time to liberate their friends and in so doing, discover the unimaginably cruelty which is the trade in human beings.

 

Chapter Eight

 

An assortment of passports, drivers’ licences and identity cards splayed out across the floor like articles of evidence on a courtroom table. Their connection to the items of clothing was unmistakable, the implications striking the young man like a blow to the side of the head. He staggered for a moment before managing to steady himself against the cupboard door. His sister simply stared at the open cupboard, her thoughts spiraling into an attempt to reconcile the fate of those to whom the articles belonged. As her lungs began to constrict she put a hand to her chest and would have screamed at her brother had it not been for the dwindling supply of oxygen. Instead she slumped onto the bed gasping for air, her eyes wide with terror and her lips barely mouthing the obvious question, “Where are these people?”

Winston’s thoughts flashed back to their initial meeting with the inspector on the station platform. If only he’d obeyed his instincts, fled, taken his sister out of danger.

He steadied himself against the cupboard, his vision blurring as the effects of the Ketamine began to take control. He was strong and well-conditioned yet the result would no doubt have been the same. Even had he drunk only one glass of the drug-laced juice the dizziness and disorientation, even the nausea and difficulty in speaking would have been quite pronounced by now. Their host had been particularly careful to add more than enough of the chemical to each of their glasses. It had been quite unpleasant in the past when she’d been a little too conservative with the dosage; the victims were only slightly sedated and thus had to be subdued, by other means. It had all become quite messy. The reason Ketamine was chosen and not Rohypnol or GHB or another of the readily available ‘date-rape’ drugs was quite simple; Ketamine is still used in some medical and veterinary settings as a short-acting anesthetic. As such, Christina was able to procure the drug on the premise of using it on the farm. Perhaps it was better like this anyway. His valiant attempts to protect his sister, though completely understandable, would have proved quite futile. Police officers in France are of course armed and in this particular instance were not at all averse to using their weapons  at the slightest provocation. Lying paralysed on the floor with his sister barely conscious on the bed beside him, the alternating sensations of euphoria and relaxation brought on by the drug would act as a kind of buffer against the horror which was to follow. As the first men entered the room a sudden sense of elation erupted within the young Englishman. Through the drug-induced haze he recognised the uniforms as those of police officers – dark trousers, light shirt with coloured lapels and the distinctive round hat or képi of the Police Nationale. Unfortunately due to the accompanying effects of a ‘dissociative anaesthetic’, the inability to process sensory input meant that the excitement quickly dissipated, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and paranoia. Paranoia changed to panic and the initial paralysis soon gave way to convulsions as his head began to thrash from side to side covering the floor and himself in his own vomit. At that moment the woman peered through the doorway.

“Do something you idiots,” she yelled turning to the tall police officer who had himself just entered the cottage carrying a few lengths of rope and some hessian sacks. He stood well over six foot and sported a narrow mustache.

“So you couldn’t even get the dose right you stupid cow,” he bellowed. “How hard can it be? We call you, give you their location – you pick them up, you feed them, you call me!”

Winston now lay motionless in the acrid-smelling discharge having lost all ability to control movement. Though still somewhat cognitive, the drug continued to permeate his circulatory network, reaching to the very extremities of his nervous system and sewing chaos amidst the delicate transmissions of the inner brain.

“Hey I gave them the same dose I always give them,” she screamed. “Fuck you, and fuck this whole business.”

Madeline on the other hand was still completely aware of the events unfolding around her. Having kept her handbag over her shoulder, the result of a renewed diligence to maintain the precious inhaler close after the incident on the train, she’d laid it on the bed while helping Winston with the bolt cutters. Now within moments of unconsciousness, she reached across the bed clutching desperately at its contents.

“‘This business’,” he repeated mockingly, “is, as you may remember, our business. Why yes,” he continued, obviously enjoying the opportunity to taunt the increasingly agitated woman, “you’re an integral part of this incredible enterprise. Christina, we’d be lost without you.”

He flashed a satisfied grin at the other two officers who now stood in the doorway listening to the arguing which had come to characterise any interaction between their superior and his ex-wife. One of them made a suggestive humping gesture to which the other roared with laughter. Ignoring their half-witted attempt to side with him in the altercation, he threw the sacks and rope at their feet. “Put a bag over the bitch’s head, and take care with her, she’s a beauty.” He paused and then added, particularly for the benefit of his estranged wife, “I might even have her myself before we deliver her to Chavaux. And clean him up, he smells like shit.” This was of course totally against the inspector’s rules. Typical of his twisted sense of morality, Chavaux disallowed any interference with the female victims and yet would readily facilitate their sale into a life of sexually slavery, quite often ending in their death.

Despite his apparent ruthlessness in dealing with the woman, Lieutenant Leon Bellenger had grown quite tired of the repeated confrontations. Desperate to clear his head, he retreated through the back door and took up a relaxed position against the side of the police van. Having lit a cigarette, he drew a particularly long draft before arching his head back leisurely against the side of the van and exhaled into the night air. Suddenly Christina burst through the door and made for the lieutenant who quickly stiffened to attention.

“Oh so you’re so brave now? So you think you are not afraid of him?” she ranted, “You are weak as piss, you and those other morons. He will always control you. Chavaux owns you!”

“Christina,” he pleaded, lacking somewhat of the venom that had characterised his previous attack, “what is it you expect from me?”

At that point the other two officers emerged chatting from the side of the cottage leading their frail-looking captive, her hands bound in front of her and the hessian bag draped over her head. Another length of cord secured the bag firmly around her neck. After a brief imposition of his own demented version of torture in which the older and seemingly more menacing of the two officers had held the inhaler just out of her reach and sprayed it mockingly into the air, he’d finally allowed her to snatch it from his grip and inhale the precious vapour. Although terrorized and gasping for breath she’d managed to kick him in the groin and then scramble onto the floor to help her brother. Of course they’d overpowered her with ease, and Marin, the larger of the two, an athletic looking man in his late twenties, dragged her to her feet by her hair and applied the rope and hessian bag. The other had rolled Winston onto his side using his foot, muttering something about him choking on his vomit. As if to excuse his display of compassion, he’d quickly followed it with a brief mockery, holding his hands to his throat making a sickening gargling noise. The other officer laughed and spat onto the wall. Then placing his face within inches of the trembling figure beneath the bag he added threateningly, “Your boyfriend is as good as dead.”

Now, as they led Madeleine out to the van and seeing another altercation forming between their senior and the ‘crazy bitch’ as they called her, they came to an immediate halt, looking nervously from side to side for a legitimate reason to detour. Bellenger motioned them sharply towards the back of the van and then took a few steps away in an attempt to draw the woman’s attention from the situation.

Completely unphased by the intrusion she continued her ranting, “What is it I expect?” Then raising her pitch to an almost unintelligible level, she continued, “I expected that when we lost our little girl you would remain with me. I expected we would support each other. I expected that you would not despise your own wife because she bore the scars of the very flames that killed our baby and instead go fuck every whore that you could find.” She stumbled back a few paces, hunching over, her arms wrapped around her stomach. Now with tears in her eyes, her tone no longer vengeful but rather like one last pitiful plea for mercy, she added, “You know what I did not expect Leon? I did not expect that you would sell your soul to that evil bastard in return for this.”

“What would you know? Sell my soul, huh! You’re a joke.” His tone was now becoming somewhat defensive as the woman probed closer to the truth. “And what have you done then? If I’ve sold my soul, then you are as just as weak.”

Madeline sat huddled on the metal bench in the back of the van, physically shaking yet determined to remain coherent in the face of the unfolding events. It had always been her brother’s role to ‘steady the ship’, to provide the stability; suddenly, now she must be the one to stay calm. Despite their being some yards away from the van, she could hear the exchange between the officer and his ex-wife quite clearly through the stillness of the night.

“No, no that’s where you’re wrong,” she replied, “You know well the power he has – fear, his weapon is fear. But I’m not afraid of him, what do I have to fear from that fat pig. My child is gone. My beauty, my life, my…” She would’ve  added, “my husband, my marriage,” but stopped mid-sentence. “Anyway, it’s all gone, what else can he take?”

“Do you want us to bag this one as well Lieutenant?” The two subordinates had reappeared carrying an unconscious Winston, half dragging, half lifting him towards the back of the van.

“No. He’s not going anywhere for a while.”

His casual prediction was based on a certain amount of experience. The effects of the drug would last for several hours, particularly given the amount he’d ingested. They hoisted the limp figure up into the van with Alain, the younger and more nimble of the two, clambering up and dragging him to the front beside Madeleine. Pushing him once again onto his side, he said softly to the young women, “Don’t let him lay onto his back. Keep him on his side. If he vomits while he’s on his back he will choke.” Then lowering his voice he added, “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”

It had been at his suggestion that they’d allowed Madeline to keep her handbag and with it of course her inhaler. “What good will she be if she’s dead before we can get rid of her?” he’d argued. Accordingly, they’d tied her hands to the front to allow her access to the medication. Apparently it was up to her to somehow direct the spray through the hessian bag.

With the ‘merchandise’ now securely stowed, the two were becoming anxious to complete the transaction and make the required delivery to Rudaj’s holding facility some eighteen miles to the northeast.

“Lieutenant, we are ready,” the older one ventured, knowing that it was ill-advised to interrupt Bellenger when he was locked in confrontation with the women.

“Just start the fucking engine, and wait.”

Turning back to the women, he spoke in an almost conciliatory tone.

“Christina, just a little longer. Just a couple more shipments and it can all change. We can leave this place, start again.” She offered no response but simply stared blankly into the forest behind him. Interpreting her silence as perhaps an acceptance of his proposal, he continued, “This isn’t us. This isn’t how it’s meant to be. It can all change. You’ll see. You know, I never really stopped loving you.”

She turned to him, her face devoid of expression and said softly, “Get off my land.”

He stood motionless for a moment, as if he’d somehow misheard her and was trying to reconcile the mistake. As she took one step closer, slowly, deliberately, her face now only inches from his, his heart began to pound, confusion clouding his thoughts. Talking was fine – healthy even. It felt good to clear the air between them. But physical contact? Perhaps not yet, not so soon. Suddenly his head recoiled instinctively as the spray of saliva caught him on the side of his face. She stood motionless, her face sculptured by a cold, detached stare. He glared back at her, a mixture of shock and anger.

“You’re crazy. You’re fucking mad.”

Storming off toward the waiting police van, wiping the spit form his face, he smashed his back into the seat and slammed the door behind him.

“What are you waiting for?” he barked, “Go, just go!”

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

“Monsieur Winston Saltmere et Mademoiselle Madeleine Saltmere, s’il vous plaît venez à la billetterie principale.”

The announcement was repeated in English, despite the reluctance of the Lyon-Part-Dieu station officials.

“Winston Saltmere and Madeleine Saltmere, please come to main ticket office.”

It was ten forty-five in the morning. Marcus and Annika had arrived just after ten together with their father Ben and his good friend Albert Spaggiari, both men rather hungover from the night before. After making a beeline for the nearest coffee shop for yet another dose of caffeine, they had intended purchasing their tickets for the journey south to Marseille. Time permitting, they would wander across to the adjacent shopping centre, purportedly the largest in France outside of Paris and possibly even ascend ‘Le Crayon’.

“The Crayon?” Ben Agyros asked his companion with more than a hint of sarcasm in his decidedly New Yorker brogue, “Seriously Al, you call a skyscraper ‘Le Crayon’?” he continued, “How very French, how very artistic,” before slapping him playfully across the shoulders.

The previous day’s events had taken a rather unhappy turn for Marcus and Annika who’d had to leave the train without re-establishing contact with their new English acquaintances. They’d heard nothing more from either the rail steward who’d assured them he would locate their friends nor from Winston and Madeleine. As would be expected, the investigative instincts of such an ambitious young agent were particularly acute and so left Marcus with a gnawing sense that all was ‘not quite right’. On the one hand, he certainly didn’t discount a possible ‘miss-reading’ of the entire situation.  She certainly appeared to be interested in him and surely that unmistakable moment in the midst of scattered notepaper and spilt coffee when his eyes met hers, surely there was something there, a spark, an attraction? Or perhaps he was clearly reading too much into the situation – they’d simply been fortunate to meet a pleasant young couple who, whether because of a decision on their part to avoid further involvement with ‘two very loud Americans’, or maybe just a case of ‘plain bad luck’, this is how things had turned out and it was foolish to think he could do anything about it.

The afternoon and evening spent with the Spaggiaris had been festive to say the least with perhaps even more wine consumed than their father, or even his French colleague had anticipated. The reunion had been heart-warming, the food spectacular and yet despite maintaining a reasonably cheerful demeanor, neither Marcus nor his sister had been able to fully engage with the festivities.

Again the public address system crackled to life:

“Monsieur Winston and Mademoiselle Madeleine Saltmere please come to the main ticket office.”

Annika looked at her brother somewhat  stunned by the unexpected announcement.

“Marcus, they’re here!”

Her brother had already reacted and was scanning the plethora of advertising billboards and rail information signs for a direction to the ticket office. As everything was written in French he quickly turned to Albert for assistance.

“Uncle Al, where’s the main ticket office?”

“Straight ahead.” He pointed in the direction of a number of official looking offices. “The one with double doors and a hundred people in line ahead of us – ‘Billetterie Principale’”

Perhaps not a hundred, but the line of commuters, Marcus could see as he approached the entrance, snaked up and down along the taped-off ‘overflow’ path and out the doors into the main thoroughfare. The automatic entrance doors shunted back and forward threatening to guillotine any nervous patron who stepped between them as the line slowly advanced. Two disinterested looking ticket attendants sat behind the counter beside the other three vacant booths. Just outside, a number of obviously non-French travelers were grappling with the two auto-ticket dispensers while impatient locals waited in the queue behind them, glancing repeatedly at their watches and muttering what was most likely not an endorsement for international tourism.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marcus mumbled as he peered into the office. “Anny try and see who’s making the announcement. There must be an office adjoining this one.”

The only other officials to be seen were the three women behind the glassed-in counter of the travel information booth adjacent to the ticket office. Marcus shook his head in frustration, “Great, they’ve got three attendants telling people to line up and buy their tickets from the other two.”

“Come on Marcus, let’s just get in line,” Annika added having become seasoned by the crushes and crowds of the New York subways.

“Not this time sis,” Marcus answered and walked directly to the front of the line and tapped on the glass barrier of the information counter.

“Excuse me ma’am,” he asked in his most official voice and holding his gold FBI badge against the glass, “Agent De Niro from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York office. I believe you’re department is attempting to contact a Winston and Madeleine Saltmere. Ma’am they are of particular interest to our investigation.”

Despite sounding completely ‘authorized’, Marcus was hoping desperately that there were no French authorities anywhere within earshot. The ramifications of an American agent flashing his badge at a French civilian without due authorization would be significant to say the least. The action on this particular occasion however achieved the desired result. Even the younger attendant left her position at the adjacent counter and huddled against her colleague eager to join in the conversation.

“Ah oui Monsieur, and how can we help?” she offered excitedly.

She then proceeded to explain to Marcus the circumstances which had led to their public appeal. The request had come from the rail authorities in Valence where Winston and his sister were to have met their aunt and uncle. The last communication they’d received from their nephew and niece had been Winston’s brief call earlier the previous day from Clermont-Ferrand before his mobile phone battery had died. When they failed to arrive at the expected time, their aunt Adele had enquired as to what time the later train left Lyon, assuming they’d simply missed the earlier service having become distracted by their sight-seeing in St. Etienne. When they were not aboard the last train, she had become quite concerned and contacted the rail authorities who’d agreed to have them paged at the station in Lyon. Despite her appeals, the attendant station master in Valance had insisted the matter was not serious enough to inform the police, citing his ‘vast experience with young such tourists’ who, he said, ‘routinely missed their connections and caused a great deal of unnecessary work’ for he and his colleagues. “English backpackers, huh!” he had surmised indifferently, “you should begin by calling the taverns in St. Etienne.”

Marcus thanked the female attendant and made a hasty withdrawal motioning for Annika to follow. When they were well out of view of the information booth he quickly explained to her the details of Winston and Madeleine’s disappearance.

“Anny something’s definitely not right. The lady told me that their aunt in Valence has heard nothing from them at all. Can you imagine Madeleine just forgetting to call her? Winston maybe, but no, not Madeleine.”

“ ‘De Niro’? You couldn’t come up with anything more original than, ‘De Niro’?” his sister asked with more than a hint of sarcasm.

“Hey they bought it didn’t they?”

At that point their father and Albert caught up with them, having detoured briefly to take a couple of espresso shots.

“Pop, Anny and I have to stay on in Lyon for a while.”

After explaining the situation to his father, and countering the expected suggestions of ‘overreaction’, Marcus assured him that they would meet them later that day in Marseille. Ben Ageros knew his son well enough to know that it was better to simply allow him to follow his instincts. Experience had taught him that a good field agent was developed more from the repetitive, seemingly mundane and more often than not, fruitless investigations, often based on little more than a vague hunch or some insignificant detail. Those extraordinary occasions where the clues just seemed to pop up for the taking were about as rare as a string of royal flushes in a poker game. His son’s experience as an FBI agent he knew, would be no different. That was except perhaps for his remarkable ability to ‘read’ a person’s motives from the subtle markers left behind from their actions –  no substitute of course for good, solid detective work, it just meant there might be fewer ‘dry creek beds’ and ‘blind alleys’ – still the same “bullshit to swim through” though.

The details of their rendezvous arranged and goodbyes said, the two older men ambled off towards their departure platform. Stopping for a moment and turning towards his old friend, Albert placed a hand on his aging partner’s shoulder and offered softly, “Ah my friend, perhaps there is a bright future for your American FBI after all.”

“Yeah well you aint gonna get no argument from me on that one Al.”

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

The back of the police van reeked of vomit and stale urine. Despite the temperature having dropped to almost freezing, beads of sweat trickled across her brow, stinging her eyes and threading their way to the corners of her mouth. The coarse hessian sack pulled tightly across her face, although some help in diffusing the stench, made breathing all the more difficult. Her brother lay on the floor beside her, motionless except for an occasional jerk of his head or a twitch in an arm or a leg. Bare wooden benches ran along either side of the five by seven chamber. Had it not been for the crude blindfold, the first traces of dawn filtering through the small gap in the rear doors may have allowed her to distinguish the various scrawlings etched into the splintered surface of her seat: the usual array of simple-minded obscenities which, although written mostly in French and punctuated largely with the letter ‘f’, was evidence no doubt of the degenerates and criminals for which the vehicle had been originally intended. The sight however of certain other engravings, many in English and some only partly finished: “STEVEN MILES” or “JESSICA WALAC …” or “rebecca s. help me”, may well have extinguished what little hope she had. Perhaps the very last trace of Winston and Madeleine Saltmere of West Sussex in southern England would simply be a crumpled passport photo squashed into the chained cupboard of a lonely farm house in the middle of the Vercors forest. She began to tremble. The thin metal walls offered little insulation against the outside temperatures and before long the stinging cold began to permeate through her sweat-soaked skivvy. Restraining shackles were bolted to the floor every two feet directly below the benches with a corresponding device attached to the wall just above head-height. Chavaux had had these particular modifications added using departmental funds, citing the need to provide ‘more adequate restraints’ to ensure the ‘safety’ of the more violent offenders. No one in the provincial office at Lyon had paid much attention; the request had apparently held some validity although the contractor engaged to complete the work would comment to his friends at the local tavern that he was working on “the inspector’s torture chamber – the only thing missing” he would add derisively, “is the rack.”

When the trafficking enterprise had commenced, Chavaux had insisted that each of their victims be shackled, wrists and ankles. “We operate as professionals in this organisation,” he would boast, “we are French, not fucking Albanians.” Then with the air of a self-proclaimed dictator, he would add, “Soon we won’t need those filthy bastards at all; we will deal directly with our international counterparts.” The proceeding two years had however brought a certain decline to his entrepreneurial zeal. Alekshandor Rudaj, although few dared to address him by his Christian name, had made it quite clear that Chavaux’s “small, amateur operation” was “completely dispensable” and would never amount to more than a mere conduit for his sophisticated network of Albanians operatives. Gradually then, as the inspector’s grandiose vision of an international organisation had failed to materialise, anesthetizing drugs, hessian sacks and simple violence had come to replace the more elaborate structures of fake holiday inducements, holding centres and the pathetic array of petty criminals who had acted as his handlers.

The crude metal collars suspended by lengths of rusty chain rattled and clunked against the wall as the van lurched back and then suddenly forward as the less-than-experienced driver made a last-second gear change.  A solitary road sign passed through the yellow halo of the van’s headlights.

“You missed the turn you idiot, you want to drive through the centre of town so the bitch can scream for help?”

The lieutenant was alluding to a previous experience where they had decided to take the shorter more direct route to the transfer facility. Driving through the larger town of La Rochette on their way to deliver a cargo of two young Slovak backpackers, their entire operation had almost completely unraveled as one of the young women had suddenly become aware of their location and begun screaming for help. Only the fact that she spoke absolutely no French, together with some quick thinking by the lieutenant had averted disaster. Bellenger had stopped the van, jumped out of the driver’s seat and proceeded to pound on the wall of vehicle bellowing threats of “further charges for disturbing the peace and obscene language”. A brief apology was offered to the stunned onlookers regarding the ‘drug-crazed felons’ they were transporting before a hasty departure from the town.

“Relax lieutenant, she’s not going to make any noise,” Marin, the older of the two officers replied. “I made sure of that.”

He eased casually back against the head rest with only one hand on the steering wheel, the other now resting on the door trim and tapping nonchalantly to the rasping  stream of techno music coming from the radio.

“What? You didn’t stuff anything in her mouth did you? She’ll suffocate. She’s barely able to breathe as it is.” Alain, the younger officer, had suddenly abandoned his nervous preoccupation with the drop-off into the ravine below.

“No, no,” the driver had responded casually, “I just gave her her boyfriend’s hand to hold, well more his finger really,” and then added sadistically, “and then I just reminded the bitch that she will be holding his severed fucking head if she makes even one sound.”

In the back of the van the severed finger tip had rolled under the seat and become wedged in the rusting chain attached to the restraining collars. The cheap FM radio in the driver’s cab laced the air with a succession of ‘latest hits’ while the drone of the diesel engine would occasionally erupt into a torturous roar as both driver and passengers were thrown back against their seats, the vehicle veering precariously close to the edge of the roadway before Marin managed to regain control and somehow match acceleration with inertia. On seeing his colleagues’ reaction he would howl derisively, smashing the steering wheel with the palms of his hands. Bellenger shook his head. The lieutenant’s patience was wearing thin with his unruly subordinate. He had certainly observed other police officers who displayed a similar penchant for violence, but this new member of the precinct was proving completely unpredictable. Although almost thirty years of age, he was virtually a new recruit having served a mere 4 months post-academy before being transferred to Chavaux’s charge. The inspector had immediately taken a particular interest in him, virtually encouraging his brutality and assuring him that there would be ample opportunity to advance under his command. The fact that he assaulted the watchhouse inmates regularly and had on at least one occasion to be literally dragged from the neck of a security guard during a call to an altercation at one of the local taverns seemed to register little with Chavaux.

“You worry too much Leon,” he would assure the Lieutenant, “he is merely passionate; perhaps you have abandoned such zeal for the mediocrity of security?”

He would then launch into his usual oration about the ‘vast opportunities’ that were theirs to be exploited and how that France ‘would only rise to greatness again’ if its people rediscovered the ‘passion and fervency that was once theirs.’ The sickening fact that he preyed upon the helpless and vulnerable to achieve this ‘greatness’ appeared to present no contradiction at all. On the contrary, he would espouse the economic benefits of the trafficking business, preferring rather to charge the Albanians with such violations. His party’s role, he insisted, was simply to supply an in-demand commodity. The blame for the possibility that these ‘commodities’ would somehow furnish the insatiable demand of the burgeoning sex industry, was laid squarely at the feet of the ‘barbarians from the Balkans’.

Although avoiding La Rochette and similarly sized towns, the journey to Rudaj’s holding centre perched high in the pre-ranges of the Graian Alps, required that they pass through a number of smaller villages. Experience had taught them that it was of course more prudent to make the journey in darkness. The events of the preceding night however, had not played out as expected and the first glint of daybreak was beginning to break across the snow-capped peaks to the east. The village of La Cote was only just awakening to the chilly autumn morning as the plain black van wound its way slowly through the centre of town. It was painted so, despite the fact that the French police had abandoned the particular motif some decades previous, yet another example of Chavaux’s tenuous grasp on reality. Except for the barking of a stray dog or a casual glance from a curious local, they attracted little attention.  Shopkeepers hovered busily around the front of their stores adjusting billboards and hosing off their footpaths in anticipation of a brisk weekend’s trade. A bakery van from a nearby village unloaded freshly prepared breads and pastries to a small cafe and adjacent convenience store. Bellenger and his two officers were particularly careful to avoid eye contact with any onlookers preferring anonymity to explanation – neither of them was particularly confident in carrying off a pretence of innocence and chose rather to avoid such a situation.

In the back of the van, Madeleine began to pull desperately at the cords securing the sack over her head. The coarse hessian fibres chafed against the soft tissue above her collar and soon a layer of skin had worn from both sides of her neck. Blood trickled across her collar bone and soaked into the skivvy above her breast. Tears of frustration welled in her eyes and she would have slammed herself back against the wall but instead lowered her head slowly onto her chest exhausted. It had been almost twenty-four hours since she’d slept and the deadening effects of fatigue now began to play out their part. The first subtle fingers of delirium clawed at her mind, drawing her ever closer to a state of complete collapse; if not for the occasional groan from her brother she would have soon succumbed. With the effects of the Ketamine still very much controlling Winston’s body, he would stir slightly, uttering some incoherent gibberish before rolling back against the wall of the van. Easing herself from off the bench and onto the floor, she took particular care not to overbalance fearing that such a commotion would almost certainly alert her captors. The horror at having the bloodied stub of her brother’s finger thrust into her hand was sufficiently seared into her memory. As the officer had forced her against the wall, his hand clamped vice-like around her neck, she perceived, somewhat correctly as was to become clear, his threats to be more the deliberate intentions of a psychopath rather than a mere warning to garner control.

To her relief, Winston’s vomiting now appeared to have stopped. Remembering the somewhat veiled advice of the younger officer, she was careful that he remained on his side and struggled to heave him into a safer position. Somehow, despite the roles her father had so ardently intended, she now appeared to be the one upon whom their survival depended.  “Trained to ‘SAS’ level” her father would boast of his son, himself a retired member of the elite British regiment, Winston now lay impotent, defenceless, partly covered in his own vomit and seemingly far closer to a shallow grave than to fulfilling his father’s noble vision of military honour. She knew that if they were indeed to be sold, it would almost certainly be separately and with little hope of ever seeing each other again. The few movies and documentaries she’d seen detailed quite clearly the fate of those women sold into the sex industry. Some of the girls, she understood, were taken by force, as it appeared her and Winston had been. They were simply kidnapped and then induced, through threat of violence, to perform as per the whim of their new masters. Others were seduced with promises of a lucrative job opportunity or the chance to travel abroad. Whichever route the unfortunate victims followed, they would inevitably be forced into an existence equating to nothing more than modern slavery, where they would ceased to exist as an individual and where violence became the supreme arbiter. Such brutality was not necessarily withheld even if they were to obey their master’s orders. For most, it was systematically applied to bring the woman to a place of absolute submission. Any hint of resistance would literally be beaten out of them leaving them as merely a commodity to be sold and used before being sold again. Escape it seemed was their only hope.

She began to tear again at the hessian sack as if to rip it from her head but the heavy fibres held fast and she soon collapsed exhausted onto the floor. Dragging her handbag from off the bench, she rifled through its contents searching aimlessly for anything that might prove useful.

The notebook.

Flipping it open to the centre, she fished the pen out of a side pocket and began to write: help taken winston drugged 0196285600

Of course she did so ‘blindly’ and simply hoped that her scrawling was at least legible. Thoughts of what would comprise the most appropriate ‘help’ note were of course overshadowed by panic as trembling fingers transposed her terror onto the ornate pages. Feeling her way along the wall, she searched frantically for an opening but felt only the welds and partly-corroded rivets of the sheetmetal. Lowering her head and taking a few increasingly shallow breaths, she pushed the sweat-soaked blindfold against her eyes in an effort to daub the tears now streaming across her cheeks. Again, she traced her way along the wall and across the doors to the centre join. Perhaps the door would provide at least some space through which to eject the notepaper. Folding over the notepaper a number of times, she attempted to thread it through the narrow opening but the fine paper simply collapsed in her fingers.

Breath Madeleine, just breath”.

Unfolding it again, she rubbed it flat against the surface of the door. Holding it delicately between thumb and forefinger, she carefully threaded the corner into the slender space just above the latching bolt. Slowly, almost surgically, the ornate sheet disappeared into the opening until, with only about a quarter inch remaining, it slipped completely from her fingers and out into the almost-perfect French morning. A sudden wave of euphoria washed over the young woman as for the very first time since their ordeal began, a tiny measure of hope now appeared to be theirs.

For the next half hour, as the vehicle wound its way along the narrow highway and through the series of tiny villages en route to the holding facility, Madeleine scribbled madly and squeezed page after page through the slender opening. Almost two dozen of the intricately designed leaves swirled and tumbled amidst the dust and grime of Savoie autoroute number D207. Unfortunately however for the young heiress, her pen had run out of ink while writing on the very first sheet.

On the side of the road just outside the picturesque village of Les Landaz, a solitary leaf of stationary fluttered and danced across the ground, carried along by a gentle alpine breeze. It would rise occasionally, sailing over the smaller regrowth and the wild Broom shrubs which seemed to thrive along the corridor between the road and the newly constructed sound barrier. After one final, graceful swirl, it sat momentarily atop the barred cover of a stormwater drain, before falling through the bars and coming to a rest at the bottom of the pit.