“Go up to that hill on the edge of town and get some colour shots of the farmland,” Valerie directed. “If you can actually find any fields with tractors in them, get close-ups, but good luck with that.”
The fact part of the camera crew was being split off for colour pretty strongly indicated that Valerie and her researchers had most of the story locked down before they got into place - it was time to put it together, more than anything.
“Alright. You guys, let’s get the on-camera intro done while we’ve got a good backdrop. I’ll voiceover the location and the first impressions over our colour shots, then we’ll cut to this.” She stood with her back to the corrugated green metal wall of the barn they’d parked by, held the microphone close to her, waited to get a sign that the camera was rolling, and adopted a serious expression. “But this quiet border town hides a dark secret. Like many rural areas around the country, smaller farms here have either sold out to bigger concerns, gone bankrupt, or had to find other ways to survive. In Cornwall, there’s a thriving trade in exotic meats. And according to rumour, the solution this sleepy little town found is a lot less than legal.”
Valerie paused, then nodded. “And cut.” The team stopped rolling, the cameraman shifting his burden into a more comfortable position.
“We’ll do the next bit of spiel on the high street,” she said. “Standard walk-and-talk.” They nodded and started moving. “But while we’re packing everything back into the van, Tony, I want you to see if you can get a zoom shop over the farm wall into the opening of the barn. If you can, we may be able to use it.”
Tony did his best to comply while Valerie and Lisa busied themselves packing away kit and hiding what he was doing with their movement.
“That can’t be right,” he said eventually.
“You get the shot?”
“Good. Load up and let’s get out of here. We can check your shot in the van; I don’t want anyone thinking I’m on to them yet.”
As they pulled away, she checked the shot. The half-open barn door revealed several pens; inside each pen, a steel frame with a woman strapped into it. Their arms were bound across their chests, their elbows attached to the frame by tight chains; their legs were spread apart, ankles cuffed directly to the frame; tubes extended into their mouths from rigs mounted above the frame; and small, cheap VR headsets - it looked like the types made from phones and cardboard structures - obscured their eyes.
“What’s even going on here?” Tony asked. Valerie sighed. “Tony, if you’re asking that, and you’re used to seeing all kinds of human tragedy, then focus on how big this is going to be when it’s cut together and goes out on the news.”
“Yeah, but - government experiment? What?”
“Oh, definitely not. This is for-profit. This is about as for-profit as it gets.”
The straps around Lisa’s wrists had just been removed. Her arms flopped to the surface she was lying on, but otherwise they were in much the same position they had been. The strap across her ankles was removed, then the one across her knees. Her legs parted slightly, moving into a more comfortable position, but otherwise there was no change.
Whoever had undone her restraints picked up one of her arms by the wrist and moved it, gently placing her hand on the gentle slope of her breast. In the climate-controlled, temperature-maintained room she was in, this was actually the first time Lisa realised she was naked; the skin of skin contact was shocking, exciting…
Inviting. She discovered through the sudden shock of endorphins that her body was operating at a permanent state of high arousal now, which somehow had not been clear to her through her mental fog. Given a part of herself to play with, her hand found its ability to move again, stroking, tugging, caressing, toying, until the pleasure started to filter in through the fog the headset was wrapping her in.
She could hear a giggle that definitely wasn’t hers, and wasn’t part of the sounds she was now used to. Moans, whispers, goals, all had been dripping into her mind through her ears for who even knew how long now. At first she’d been certain those weren’t her, but by now they were part of her mental landscape.
The giggle from outside turned into a voice.
“Hi! I’m Daisy. I’m helping out with you because you’re outside the usual cycle. Pretty soon, you’re going to be juuuuuust like me.” More giggling.
Lisa decided she liked this woman. She sounded friendly, but much more importantly, she clearly understood duty. Lisa was only learning about duty now. Daisy had much to teach her. And Lisa had so much ground to make up.
If it weren’t for the gag, she’d have said so.
Daisy relocated her other hand to her other breast, and Lisa began to play there, too. Her legs began to writhe against each other as she played.
Soon, duty would claim her. For now, she had time. And a friend.
Ten farms seemed to be in on the abduction and the slave trade. By the size of them, and what few records they could find, there might be a hundred or more workers reliant on the money.
Valerie and her team started out by setting up a watch on Lyman Farms. Their website boasted they were “curators of exotic livestock for special markets”, which made Gavin roll his eyes at first before the double meaning in the pretentious words hit home.
They spent the afternoon settled in some distance away, zoomed in as close as their cameras would let them get. “We’ll count heads,” Tony said. “See if we can get a sense of how easy it’d be to get in.”
After an hour, they were getting worried. There were at least twenty different people walking around the farm openly, unrestrained, looking like they were farmers rather than the farmed - you’re not going to allow the people you’re trafficking to walk free, after all.
That meant twice the number of staff expected, which suggested even more of the town had to be involved on at least a level of complicity. It also meant any raid was going to be harder.
“Let’s… let’s check somewhere else, see if there’s a weak spot somewhere?” Tony suggested. After a long moment thinking about it, Valerie nodded. “I don’t know if we can change anything here,” she said. “But if we can do anything to rescue Lisa…”
The three of them exchanged looks. Nobody wanted to admit what each one was thinking; that it might be too late for Lisa.
In the end, it was agreed that three people plus their gear was too visible. That splitting up would go better.
Valerie was nervous about the idea, but she didn’t want to spook the others by admitting it. And since she figured she’d be most at risk anyway, she decided that if she was comfortable with the risk, it was fine.
She stayed outside Lyman Farms, watching, as the others set out for their own quarries. Once they were out of the way, she took a deep breath, set her back against a tree and, with her camera pointed at herself, began to talk.
“I don’t know how much of this will make the broadcast,” she began. “Maybe none of it will. But this is part of the story, even if our network lawyers eventually decide we can’t air this.
“I came here with a crew of three. As the woman in front of the camera, you all know me, but the others are strangers to you. They’re still essential to what we do. We needed other people with us, too, to discover this story. To find out the details. And then we came here to break the story.
“As of this morning…” Her voice cracked for a moment, and she swallowed. “I have an active crew of two. Lisa Jensen disappeared from her hotel room last night, leaving her suitcase, her clothes, and most of her travel kit behind.” She pulled out her phone. “But her phone went with her. And her abductor has attempted to tell us that nothing has happened to her. That there’s nothing wrong with any of this. They wrote,” and she read aloud from her phone, “ ‘Sorry about this morning - I know that must have rattled you! Got an emergency call from home and I had to get the first train back. Keep my things safe and I’ll catch up in a day or two, or let me know when you’ve finished?’. She paused, looking at the camera with a lopsided smile. “Lisa might get an emergency call. That much is true. But even if we were stupid enough to believe she’d leave all her clothes behind, it’d be from the home. Lisa only has her mother right now, and her mother is being looked after by specialists.
“So we know - with certainty - that this message wasn’t written by our colleague.”
She glowered at the camera. “We will be reporting her missing as soon as we can. However, we can’t make that report to the police in this town. For what’s been happening here to have happened for as long as it has, we have to assume bribes at some level in the police force.”
Valerie looked away for a moment, then back. “I believe myself to be a fair and accurate reporter. I might want at this point to say that the corruption and bribery would have to extend up the ranks. The fact is, that isn’t proven. And in the meantime, we have a job to do.”
Another deep breath. “That these people know what we’re working on is obvious. Not only that, they don’t want this story to get out.
“We’re not willing to accept that.”
She looked up at the Lyman farm, past the view of the camera. “This is crime on the greatest level. And this story must get out.”
Tony and Gavin had been walking away together at the start, and while it hadn’t been anyone’s plan, they’d been trying to pick a destination each when Tony said “I think maybe I might take a look at the people at the top, do some research. This has been going a long time.”
Gavin nodded. Valerie often reported on criminal rings, and you could only film so many reports without realising a few constants.
Set aside that none of the women kidnapped had ever escaped and come forward to tell their story. That was an improbable miracle all its own.
But if the research was right, and this had been going since at least the 1990s, then people would have left the ring, dead, ousted, or retired.
Dead men tell no tales, and retired men might be paid enough to stay quiet. But the ousted?
The ousted have scores to settle, and they’ll tell you anything you want to know, and do it eagerly.
“Good idea,” Gavin said. Both of them knew they were actually agreeing that there seemed no chance of rescuing Lisa before she was sold and smuggled away. Neither of them wanted to admit that to themselves, let alone say it out loud. Even this abstract idea had felt too much to voice near Valerie, whose instincts saw through this kind of self-deception.
Silence reigned over their walk for a few paces longer while Gavin turned over ideas of his own. If he was letting Lisa go, then studying another farm was a waste of time.
“Maybe I should take another look at the auction rooms,” he said. “They’ve got to advertise somehow. I might be able to figure out how.”
Tony nodded, reached out to clap Gavin on the shoulder once, and the two parted. It was easier to bear the shame of their decision alone.
They shot the walk-and-talk next, in the town’s high street. Many of the shops on display as she walked past them were shuttered, or their window displays were barren, the lights not on. “Like many towns outside the South, government subsidies don’t tend to arrive, and that affects everyone, from the farm workers who can’t make ends meet to the retailers who can only sell to their community when it has the money to buy.
“You can’t sell direct to the supermarkets if you’re not a big enough farm. Instead, you sell to a bigger farm, and your cut is even smaller. Towns like these were hit hard by the BSE scare of the late 1990s, and didn’t get a chance to recover before foot-and-mouth hit the sheep farmers in turn. The Credit Crunch hit them next. Without further investment, the situation has been getting worse for twenty years.” Valerie stopped walking, and the camera came to a halt. She looked directly down the camera. “It was only a matter of time before the farmers asked: What if we started farming and selling something else?”
She walked out of shot to the viewers’ left.
“I want to get the cattle market footage in the next town over,” Valerie directed. Tony, Lisa, and Gavin (freshly returned from colour shots) exchanged puzzled looks. “Look,” Valerie persisted, “we’re here for three days anyway. There’s a lot planned.”
“Can we be part of the planning?” Lisa asked. “I get that you need to keep this secret but we can’t help you break the story if we don’t know the story.”
“We’ll discuss it tonight,” Valerie proposed as a compromise. “Gavin, wind your window down. We’ve got a caravan park coming up on the left and I want you to film it.”
Gavin shrugged, and did indeed collect a shot of the sign reading KEOGH CARAVAN PARK as their van rolled past.
“The problem is,” Valerie went on, “the entire town has to be in on it. Usually when we shoot something like this we know nobody’s going to act up too much because there’s a whole town full of people they don’t want to look suspicious in front of. Here, nobody cares - which is why we’ve been acting like this is just a standard economic-downturn thinkpiece.”
“That was the Keogh Caravan Park,” Lisa said slowly. “Weren’t we just filming at the Keogh farm?”
Valerie nodded. “You’re starting to get it.”
“Is Keogh the name of the local lord?” Gavin asked. Lisa snorted.
“Fucking hell, Gav, it’s rural England, not 1250.”
He took the criticism in reasonably good grace, considering.
Valerie filled in an answer of her own in turn. “No, Keogh’s not a local lord. He’s not really anything except a farmer. That’s basically my point.”
Silence fell again while her crew digested that. “Right,” Tony said at last. “Because your story is, this is the whole town. Or widespread enough the rest of them are better off turning a blind eye.”
“You got it, Tony. So we’re filming a cattle market in the next town - because the farmers who sell there aren’t part of this, and they won’t report us sniffing around.”
The van was silent the rest of the way to the cattle market.
Rural livestock markets cover a wide area. The central arena, the big circular room where lots are shown off and bid on, is the heart of the market, but it may be the smallest part. Most of the activity happens in other sections, which might even be in a different building. Farmers selling their wares come in early and secure their cattle, sheep, or whatever in pens. When it’s time for them to shown off, it’s led through a tunnel into the central arena, then walked around the circle a few times. The market itself has an auctioneer in the place.
Valerie had managed to sweet-talk the market staff and a local farmer into ‘keeping the auction going’ after sales had been completed, with one farmer leading his new purchases around as if he was offering them for sale. Lisa and Tony, loitering in the background, privately expressed sympathy for the farmer who might become associated, in many minds, with the story she was intent on breaking.
“It’s in a market just like this one that the town’s sinister trade takes place,” Valerie said. “If you’re a certain type of person and you have the money, you know about the market. If you don’t, you won’t. But this is where women - and occasionally men - selected for their looks, abducted, and trained for subservience are sold to the highest bidder.”
She tried to keep a frown from crossing her face. She didn’t want to ruin a take if Gavin’s gasp hadn’t been picked up by her microphone - and it shouldn’t have been. Lisa and Tony both looked disgusted by the idea, but they had the professionalism not to make their distaste known. Valerie continued.
“According to our sources, at first there were just a few sales, mixed in with the sales of livestock. But over the years, farmers split into those who brought in merchandise for this market, and those who kept to honest business. Here, just a few miles from the other market, the legitimate businesses of the area come to trade. A blind eye is turned for the sake of the economy.”
“And that,” Valerie explained as the four gathered in her hotel room to talk strategy, trays of Chinese takeout dotted around them, “is why I put off telling you. I knew that the basic essentials were going to be covered at the next shoot.”
“Surely by now somebody’s escaped,” Tony said. “Got free and explained. If they’ve been selling women for the best part of twenty years, just the numbers say someone only pretends to be trained, waits for their shot, and calls the cops.”
Valerie shrugged. “We found out about this investigating another story,” she said. “That’s where the caravan park shot came from - Danni in Research had noticed that a surprising number of backpackers went missing from the caravan park. She followed up on that, she noticed a few more anomalies. Stumbled onto this. And realised it’s not just one park.”
Gavin whistled in surprised appreciation of the scope of the thing. Lisa nodded. “But that’s still not a leak,” she said. “That’s a numbers pattern. Tony’s right. How are they making sure nobody talks?”
Valerie had no answer, much as she wanted one.
When they woke the next morning, Lisa didn’t respond to a knock on her room door. They called her phone, and listened to it ring and ring from inside the room. Eventually, Gavin went round the outside of the building and clambered, precariously, up until he could peer in through the window. His tone was sombre on return, as he reported that her bed had been slept in but she was gone, belongings left behind, no sign of a struggle.
“So we’re calling the police, right?” Tony asked.
Valerie was silent a long time before she answered. “I don’t think we can trust them,” she said eventually. “Not yet. So yes, but… not until we have something.”
Tony didn’t look happy about it. “Mind you,” Gavin said, “they usually ask for a day or two missing minimum if it’s an adult, right?”
The three of them looked at each other uncomfortably.
“A lot can happen in two days,” Tony said warningly. This time, Valerie’s answer was immediate. She nodded and stood. “Alright, then. I guess we’re finding her, aren’t we?”
Lisa, meanwhile, was just coming round, her first two thoughts as she swam back to awareness being I have a headache and my jaw hurts. There was something in her mouth, something becoming slick with saliva after she’d slept with it there. She tried reaching up to find out what it was and her arm only came up so far before, with a slightly muffled clatter of chain, it hit a limit.
That startled her awake. Her eyes opened into a blackness that seemed somehow to have an intensity to it, and she tried to sit up, only to find that both of her splayed-out arms had been attached to quite short chains, giving her little freedom of movement. Her legs didn’t move at all, but she felt a band of pressure across her thighs and another across her ankles.
It was suddenly very clear roughly what was happening, even if she couldn’t get the specifics. She tried yelling for help, and a muffled squeeping seemed to emerge from around whatever was in her mouth. Get a hold of yourself, Lisa.
Taking a deep breath seemed impossible, but she focused on her heartbeat - this was the kind of situation where she was aware how hard it was going, especially with the lack of light, hearing it thundering away, and tried to keep it calm. And then she heard a woman’s voice calling, not far from her, but distorted slightly - there was something over her ears, maybe?
“Master?” the woman called. “Our new friend - I think she’s ready.”
“Now that’s a good girl, Daisy,” came a warm, cheerful male response, still muffled. The speaker was moving closer as he talked - he’d have to be navigating astonishingly well in darkness. So there was something keeping her from seeing.
She thrashed in her bonds. Maybe she could keep whoever this was from getting near, and maybe someone was looking. Maybe it was just about outlasting them.
Unfortunately, whoever it was just moved around her reach. One large, calloused hand reached under her head and caught her by a handful of her hair. He didn’t need to pull from there; just the grip made thrashing her head more painful, and Lisa hadn’t been braced for that.
Holding her head steady, he tucked earbuds into her ears, looping their long tails up. She felt something press against the side of her head, one side in turn, as he clipped those tails onto something waiting. Must be whatever was blocking her view.
She heard a click from somewhere near the back of her head and her eyes were suddenly flooded with light. A few moments later, music and moaning erupted from the earbuds around her, too.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the light, but she could still feel it beating against her eyelids. There was a flickering, a lack of constancy to it, that seemed somehow to seep in through closed eyes. Or maybe that was the sound; heavily overmixed dubstep, a true layered distraction, with something that sounded like people moaning and grunting in pleasure.
Was she being shown a porno or something?
Then the voices began to whisper amongst the rest of the recording.
“What you want is overrated. Duty is not.”
“Do you even know what you want?”
“You’re having a lovely holiday. You keep thinking you should tell your friends.”
“Are you ready to do your duty?”
“It feels so good to do what’s right.”
“Doing what you want always leads to feeling bad.”
“Do your duty.”
“Do you want to never feel bad again?”
Lisa listened in frank and honest confusion. The longer it went on, the harder it was to keep her eyes squeezed tight, and little by little, her eyes opened.
After perhaps twenty minutes, she started to whimper around her gag.
They still had to do some filming, Tony argued, to keep their cover even halfway intact. Valerie was furiously against this - their cover was already blown - until it was pointed out that if they were filming, whoever was watching them wouldn’t be sure they were hunting for Lisa.
Gavin had asked tentatively whether they wanted to back away and was still looking a little stung by how violently negatively the others had reacted.
All the same, they’d relocated to a cheap hotel a lot further away.
The big question had been whether Keogh was involved, or whether it was somebody else. The second big question was where Lisa might now be stashed away by whatever scheming bastard had done it.
They figured this made the Keogh Caravan Park the right place to start. A collection of free-standing, immobile mobile homes in a landscaped garden deep in a beautiful valley, this seemed to be the input side of Keogh’s operation.
They drove around and parked up in a layby on the other side of the valley, then prepared to carry their gear across and try to sneak in through any side entrance rather than risking the front gates. Why announce your arrival, after all?
Crouched just outside the high perimeter hedge, Valerie faced the camera with a grim expression. “William Keogh owns a local farm and a local caravan park. Looking into financial records of the local farmers, there are a few others who own and operate holiday homes, chalets, a cheap travel hotel franchise. It’s an unusual second business for farmers - both businesses seem to take up all available time - but in such a beautiful part of the world, it only merits a second glance when you notice.
“We think of farmers as being efficient with the animals they rear. Use every part for something. It makes sense to us that a farmer might use every part of their land, too - not just a farm, but a beauty spot; what money can we make from that?”
“But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a curious statistic. Keogh Caravan Park is the last mentioned destination on the social media of a lot of people who are eventually declared missing.” She took s visible deep breath. “There are rarely any photographs on their social media actually from the park or the area. But there’s a long time before they’re noticed.”
She paused, then drew a line across her neck with her hand. Tony cut the camera off as prompted.
“Dannii tried doing a pre-interview encounter with the parents of one victim she identified,” she said, “but there’s almost nothing to their account, so we’re just going to be using her footage there.
“The short version is, they basically didn’t notice for months. They said it was like they didn’t think about her, then one day like six or seven months later, they remembered she existed.”
“That’s pretty fuckin’ creepy, boss,” Gavin said flatly. “Are you sure this is something we can handle?”
“No,” Valerie said. “But two days is a lot of time to disappear someone. And I’d rather we made them too uncomfortable to try moving against her. Against any of us.”