Lisa’s whimpering had completely died away by this time. She lay almost completely still, lost in the flickering images, adrift on a sea of words being poured into her head. The moans of pleasure filling her ears were joined by the occasional moan from elsewhere in the room.
She’d formed the vague idea that the others in the room were a lot further along than she was, and had developed a fondness for the small hand that, every so often, gently held her jaw in place while a soft cloth wiped away her drool.
This time, though, when she experienced someone else’s touch, she felt her hair being grasped in the same manner as before. Her head was lifted by it, and she felt a scrabbling near the base of her neck. The strap on her gag was unfastened and it was teased away.
Lisa’s head span. Her world had changed. That familiar rubber gag was gone. What else might she lose? And it felt like a loss. Lisa had to remind herself that she hadn’t always worn a gag; in just a few hours it had become part of the way the world was.
“Hello, Ms Bailey,” said a man, audible through the moaning and mantras. “What’s your full name, please?”
“Lisa Rochelle Bailey,” Lisa replied promptly, then internally scolded herself for admitting it.
“And what’s the pattern to unlock your phone?”
“Bottom left, up one, top middle, top left, bottom right,” Lisa replied again. If she’d been angry with herself for admitting her name, she was furious she’d just told him that. But there was no way not to. Answering questions truthfully was like doing your duty; it was just what you did.
Doing your duty was its own reward.
“Good. Last question, what’s the pin code on your Visa?”
“Four six one two,” she said again. This time, there was no frustration. She had remembered how important it was to do your duty.”
“Open wide, then.”
“Aaaaah,” she mustered, opening her mouth wide. She was inexplicably relieved to have her gag fastened back in place.
Lunchtime saw the crew on the grounds of the former cattle market they’d originally ignored. They were ‘backstage’, moving among the cabins and larger buildings behind the arena. And Tony had two thin pieces of metal wire in his hands.
This had been his idea, his suggestion, and he’d had to admit to having practiced a couple of skills you only ever use if you’re trying to do something you shouldn’t in order to persuade Valerie to go along with it. Fortunately, she hadn’t been too interested in how he might have picked them up. The fact he was willing to volunteer to use them to help recover Lisa was enough for her.
Crouched at the door of one of the cabins, he chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip, his entire attention on the minute feedback from the wires in his hand, until the last of the tumblers clicked into place. He looked up to Valerie and nodded, and she reached out her gloved hand and opened the door.
The market wasn’t completely empty even on a day like this with nobody in attendance. But you couldn’t have called it busy, either.
The three of them slipped inside quickly and shut the door. It was daylight outside, so they felt comfortable turning the lights on inside - most people wouldn’t notice at a glance, and those who did might well assume it was fine anyway.
Somewhere in this place’s records, there would be a way to find out how many farms were involved. How many places Lisa might be.
They moved systematically, but they didn’t exactly take care to preserve the way the place had looked. The people they were up against might not know what exactly the crew’s goal was, but they definitely did know exactly what was going on.
Valerie had taken down one of the big leather books, but the notes in there looked dense, and complicated; they seemed to be written in code and, worse, written by someone with terrible handwriting, which would make deciphering that code much, much harder. Frustratedly, she hauled out her phone and started photographing pages. Maybe that would get her what she needed…
“Hey,” Gavin said, “I think I’ve got something.”
Both of them clustered around him, what they’d been working on themselves temporarily set aside. Valerie was looking at the books, Tony had found something that looked like a business diary; Gavin had taken down a box file of glossy magazines the others had ignored.
Except that it turned out these magazines were sales day catalogues, the glossy paper perfect for photo printing, the magazines a catalogue of naked human flesh, mostly female, posed to show off, their expressions unreadable, being sold for profit. Gavin had opened his at random, but there was a clear name up at the top:
Cup size: 30 B
Instruction method: McCabe-Lo hybrid
Height: 5′ 8″
Starting Price: £21,000
Cup size: 26 C
Instruction method: McCabe-Lo hybrid
Height: 5′ 4″
Starting Price: £18,000
Cup size: 30DD
Instruction method: McCabe-Lo hybrid
Height: 5′ 1″
Starting Price: £25,000
“Instruction method?” Tony asked, confused.
They flicked through the pages. McCabe and Lo were both commonly namechecked, in combination or alone. Stepford came up twice. Archer Farms boasted the Archer method, and might well be the foundation of all this.
Their phones chimed, almost simultaneously. The trio looked at each other, suddenly startled.
It was the same message on each 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?
Gavin and Valerie lifted their heads from the screen at the same time and stared wordlessly at one another. Tony was still reading and rereading the message, but the set of his shoulders and the working of his jaw made his thoughts as clear as if he’d been speaking them aloud.
“Fuck them,” Valerie said eventually - and firmly. “Fuck all of them.”
They each nodded. This pathetic attempt at fakery didn’t even merit the respect of discussion.
Valerie grabbed a handful of the magazines. “We can get a complete list from this. It’s time to start looking,” she said firmly. “Let’s go.”
Lisa wanted to smile. If it wasn’t for her gag, she would be. Smiling showed you understood your duty. Smiling showed you accepted your duty.
Smiling was what good slaves did, and Lisa definitely wanted to be a good slave. Good slaves were the highest ideal, if you weren’t lucky enough to be an owner.
Lisa completely understood she couldn’t be an owner. She still had some vague idea that she’d done something bad, even if she wasn’t sure what. She couldn’t imagine she’d have had to be chained down for this wonderful experience otherwise.
Lisa barely cared about the past she could hardly remember. In the past, she’d had no purpose, no duty. In her future, she would be able to embody it.
Gavin didn’t have Tony’s skill at finessing locks, but he had size on his side, and he was determined to contribute. There were plenty of times he felt like the low man on the totem pole; maybe not as quick on the uptake as the others, and usually lagging behind when they laid ideas out. In his worst moments, he called himself dumb; most of the time, he was much more likely to look at himself as just focused on other things.
He’d always considered himself a man’s man, someone whose best qualities were physical. Strength, endurance, a passion for football and rugby, the ability to hold his drink, courage… These were his strong suit. When he and Tony had been kids, the sensitive type like Tony was a New Man, but you only had to look at the characters on TV to know that era was good and over. Masculine men were back on top.
None of the above exactly went through his mind when he took a set of bolt cutters from the van to the auction building’s padlock and chain, but it was certainly the driving force behind his actions.
Inside the compound, he thought about going straight for the main building’s door, but had second thoughts. Before trying that, he circled the building - and, just as he’d expected, found a window left ajar.
He levered it up, passed his camera through the hole, and squeezed inside. OK, maybe there was something to be said for not having size on your side quite so much. Still, now he was in - and it was time to start looking.
He made his way first into the big central auditorium. Gavin was keeping closely against the walls, watching above him, and he felt his caution rewarded when he saw a camera mounted on the wall.
While surveillance CCTV is now usually mounted behind mirrored domes, this looked like it had been quite an expensive digital cam around seven or eight years ago. It was aimed fairly directly at the centre of the auditorium. Not security, then; not surveillance. Which meant it was going to be for observation. Gavin pictured a rich man sitting at home, a sleek Macbook on his overlarge desk, a roaring fire to one side of the study. He held a glass of brandy in one hand and idly looked over naked women, bound and uncomfortable, as they were exhibited.
There was something wrong with that picture. (Others might have argued there were several things wrong with it, but only one stood out to Gavin.) Nobody looks at their best if they’re tied up and looking sullen, and few people smile well on command.
Gavin wasn’t sure what he was missing, but the only way this made sense was if the women at least looked peaceful.
He decided to follow the camera’s cable back to whatever computer was hosting it. There was bound to be something useful on those hard drives.
The Internet, Tony thought privately, was and always had been a godsend for journalists whose targets knew they might be investigated. It wasn’t so much that you could find any story about them online - as many would be false as true - just that you could find information you might otherwise have to go somewhere they could watch and ask for.
On this particular job, that seemed like even more of a threat than usual. He’d started by looking up who owned the auction venue; without their consent, this project could never have started. Or, if it had, it would be just one farm, with some other way of reaching an audience.
The owner was Sandra Archer, but she’d only been owner for four years, since her husband George passed away. George, though, he would have been in charge when this started, always assuming it really had started in the 1990s - Archer had settled in the area in the 70s, in his late thirties and already independently wealthy.
It wasn’t entirely clear where Archer came from. Maybe that was something he could dig up later. It couldn’t be too important right now - he definitely wasn’t calling the shots anymore. Was Sandra?
Well, she was nearly forty years his junior. Despite coming in at pretty much the end of Generation X, she didn’t show up on social media until…
Tony frowned, then checked again. He tabbed back and forth between the two screens multiple times, staring at them both and trying to make his decision.
Sandra Archer didn’t show up on social media until the day after George Archer’s death. And she hadn’t married him until six months before his death.
“Why does nothing about this whole steaming pile of bullshit make any fucking sense?” he muttered.
Okay, he told himself. Think it through. She’d have to be turning a blind eye to what was going on at the auction. Maybe she didn’t even know about it. The age difference, the short interval of marriage - everything about it said trophy wife on one side and gold digger on the other. So that was it, and that was all of it, surely.
Maybe the farmers would be easier to work with.
Most of the farms have been in their families for generations. There might have been a time when ‘who runs this farm?’ was a question you’d need census data for, if it wasn’t sealed away for a hundred years (and up to ten years old), but farms now are part of a wide business net. Even with these ones mostly disappearing into a shadow world of crime, there were taxes to be paid, and for enterprises with that many employees, that made forming and registering companies the smart play.
Tony worked down the list. Still assuming a 90s beginning, most of the farms were still under the same management - which made sense; farm control turnover is typically a once-in-a-lifetime event.
But two had seen a changeover. And while he wasn’t too familiar with the world of farming, heads of farming households retiring before fifty? That stood out.
A farm can make a lot of money but at any given time, most of that money is tied up in the farm. They’re better at generating ongoing security than great wealth.
The fact that two farmers had passed their businesses on to their children before turning fifty? That stood out.
William Keogh still lived fairly close by, but he’d moved to the next village over. Like he was leaving a criminal life behind for respectability.
Maybe he’d have the arrogance of the retired untouchable. But maybe he’d be talkative like many ousted bosses.
Tony decided to collect Valerie and go shoot an interview. Two of them together would be a more effective safety net than one alone.
Daisy was still sticking by Lisa. She’d started out by caressing the rest of her nude body while Lisa’s hands helplessly played with her own chest. A series of kisses down Lisa’s body had followed that up, each one accompanied by a gleeful giggle. She finished by gently parting the legs of the captive woman, cooing briefly over the aroma of arousal that emerged, and putting her mouth to better work.
The pleasure took the programming and helped it diffuse out into more and more of Lisa’s brain. It crept into every crack, every line of her thought. Some small part of her was watching for that, and when it happened, she was surprised by the delight she felt.
Daisy eventually stopped. Lisa didn’t, still groping, still fondling. It was starting to ache, and she felt almost as if pleasure was irrelevant now her programming was done. But until someone monitoring her told her to stop, she’d be helpless to do so.
“You’re doing so well,” Daisy said, audible over the headset sounds now they were just part of Lisa’s mental landscape. She knew she would hear them for a long time after the headset came off, and she feared she might be uneasy once she couldn’t. “You’re almost at the end of Stage One.
“That makes me so happy. We’re not going to get Stage Two until you’re done and the whole batch is moved on.”
Another voice joined in, a male voice with a hint of warning in the tone. “Now, Daisy, you’re not qualified to make that judgement,” the man said.
“No, sir. Sorry, sir. I meant well, sir.”
“I know, Daisy, I know. And you’ve been very good while you helped out. But your duty to do this right is much more important than hurrying this along.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll remember, sir.”
“Good. Now go fetch the girl’s lunch. You’ll be handling feeding.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir!”
Lisa’s head was again lifted by a hand at the back, much more gently than when he’d first put in her earbuds. He unstrapped the gag across her throat.
“Ninety-two,” she answered, happy to do her duty with a response.
He stood there a little while longer, his fingers intertwined with the hair against her scalp, holding her head off the surface she lay on.
Lisa was still fondling herself. “Can I call you sir?” she asked. “Like Daisy does?”
“That you can,” he said. He let her head back down to rest, and under her headset, Lisa lost track of him until his hands were wandering over the soft pudge of her belly. “I wonder,” he said thoughtfully, but what he wondered he didn’t bother to say.
Lisa heard the slap of bare feet running across concrete. When it stopped, to be replaced by the loud scrape of a stool being dragged from one spot to another, she concluded that Daisy had returned.
She couldn’t see the world around her, but she knew she’d be able to soon. They’d removed her bonds because she now understood her duty was not to struggle or flee. They could remove her gag because she understood, too, that her duty forbade screaming, even if she wasn’t now happy with her lot in life.
“Open wide,” Daisy instructed, and Lisa did. Daisy spooned something delicious into her mouth. Then, after a moment, she continued, “Chew.”
Lisa did so.
Daisy continued to feed her in this manner. The man with them watched, one hand still on Lisa’s body with the easy confidence of someone it was her duty to revere. He casually swatted her hands from her breasts, after a little; they hung there, raised from the surface, her arms unmoving without duty that needed them to move.
“How do you feel, Lisa?”
She swallowed. “Oh, this is wonderful, sir!” she assured him. “Totally amazing, sir.” She opened her mouth for more.
“That’s good,” he said. “But pleasure is fleeting.”
After finishing her next mouthful, Lisa completed his thought. “Duty is forever, sir.”
“Correct. So it’s going to be time to underline that lesson soon. For Daisy, too.” He paused. “In fact, Daisy would be learning this lesson now if we hadn’t had to accommodate you.”
“Sorry, Daisy,” Lisa said, and evidently genuinely meant it.
“It’s okay! We’re going to be friends.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” the man said. “During Stage Two, you’re going to forget everything beyond your duty. We’re going to erase everything but your name and your purpose.”
That sounded horrible. To have achieved this level of purring, ongoing, consistent pleasure, and to have to forget it… well, it would be worse to remember it, doubtless, but this was still awful.
However, if it was her duty, she would accept it, of course. Lisa lay there and offered no comment, still peacefully chewing on her food.
“When she’s finished eating, Daisy, take the headset off, and both of you come find me.”
“Yes, sir!” they chirruped in almost perfect unison.
Tony had persuaded himself that the home of William Keogh would be some aging but well-maintained, sprawling building, at least four or five rooms wide and three stories tall, in a wide garden. It seemed the obvious place for a wealthy rustic to retire.
Instead, he and Valerie found themselves looking up a short drive at a new-build semi-detached at the heart of a recent building development. It looked like it might be a little roomier than the usual starter home, but not by much.
The only part of his mental picture that had come true was the battered old olive-green Land Rover in the drive, and the sporty hatchback next to it seemed entirely out of place.
Valerie made her way up the paving path beside the drive and rung the bell. A sing-song melody played as Tony, the footage captured just in case, shifted his camera for easier carrying and followed her up the path.
The door was answered to them by an attractive, slender woman somewhere beyond sixty. Valerie was immediately struck by immaculate makeup and hair – not far from her own, but hers was needed professionally.
Her body showed signs of determined, disciplined yoga and fitness routines, and the touch of silvering to her hair was something she’d worked with, not ignored. Still a striking woman, and she carried herself like one. To judge by the light, almost scanty nature of her clothing, this woman wasn’t planning to go out today.
In fact, Valerie found it quite surprising she’d been willing to answer the door dressed so revealingly without throwing on a dressing gown at least.
She peered out at them, smiling brightly. “Where do I know you from?” she asked Valerie.
Never one to miss her cue, Valerie smiled her friendly, confiding smile. “You’ve probably seen me on TV with a microphone,” she said. “I work for a production company specialising in detailed investigative reporting.” She paused to let that sink in. “And you are…”
“Becky,” the woman said, with a broad smile and an intonation that made Tony flush and made her seem thirty or more years younger; a young woman’s mannerism ingrained so deeply it had survived as the woman who used it evolved.
“We were hoping to speak to Mr Keogh,” Valerie tried. “Is he in?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, her face lit up in a radiant smile. “Wait here.”
She closed the door, a deft bit of business with her own foot preventing Valerie from keeping it open with her own. That was the journalist’s first indicator that there was more to her than the initial houseproud, body-proud woman she’d seen.
She pulled out her phone, opened her notes program, and started skimming through the research, looking for the information gathered or suspected about the early days of this smuggling ring.
There was certainly a Becky there, or, more accurately, a Rebecca Wilson. She’d even disappeared while staying at Keogh Caravans.
She turned the screen to show Tony, who frowned.
“Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t look that happy,” he said. Valerie could only nod.
This puzzle kept on failing to fit into place.
“So why is she staying with him? She’s clearly got the run of the place.”
Valerie chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. “I keep thinking our perspective is wrong,” she says. “That we’re looking at this from the wrong angle. And if we find the angle, everything will just fit into place…”
The door opened again.
“He’s happy to speak with you,” Becky told Valerie. “But I mentioned that your young man,” and the confiding, sensual tones she imbued the phrase with had Valerie smiling in the conspiracy of sexually satisfied sisterhood for a moment, despite the fact she’d never even considered Tony, “had a camera.”
Her smile became a quick frown of gentle disapproval. “He doesn’t want to be filmed. He wondered if perhaps you’d be willing to record the interview in sound only?”
Tony and Valerie exchanged glances. It was a fair enough question. Just… awkward.
“Alright,” Valerie said, answering for Tony.
Becky nodded. “Right. That’s settled. Now, would you rather both come in and leave the camera in your car or van or what-have-you or would you rather he minds the camera?”
Another pair of surprised glances. It felt like some kind of trap, but it was phrased as concern. And Becky had a point; there was already plenty of footage on there – evidence – they wouldn’t want to lose.
Becky chuckled. “Oh, don’t be silly,” she said. “Billy couldn’t win a fight with either one of you if he wanted, these days. And if you think I could you’re giving me too much credit. But if you want an interview, you’ll be here a while.
“So if this was a trap, it’d be easier to catch you on the way out.” Her face still bore that half-angelic, half-lewd knowing smile. She could have been discussing how the reporters took their tea. And yet it was absolute confirmation of her knowledge. Tony wished he’d had the camera trained on her.
“In fact,” Valerie said slowly, “We’re actually better off if we’re in two different places.”
That got Tony’s attention. His eyes widened and he snapped his focus away from Becky (well, alright, Becky’s unconcealed cleavage), back to Valerie. “What? No.”
“You know I’m right, Tony,” she said. “Tell you what. Stay near. Call me every fifteen minutes.”
It was too reasonable a compromise to refuse, but he hated that. His jaw worked fruitlessly for a few moments, then, with a sigh, he nodded, and turned to trudge back up the drive.
Valerie took a deep breath, steeling herself, and stepped over the boundary.
Lisa was confused, when her headset was removed, to discover herself in something that looked more like a school gym with twenty long metal tables set up than anything else. Daisy was grinning. “Hi properly,” she said.
“Hi,” Lisa answered with a grin of her own. “Should we go find…” She realised she was at a loss for his name. “Sir?” she eventually finished.
“Of course,” was Daisy’s only answer. Lisa felt chastened, but the pleasure filling her head kept it from lasting long.
The two walked through the gymnasium into a corridor with several barred doors, many of which had been padlocked off, before going through a single door into a huge industrial kitchen. It was the kind of room designed to be seen only when bustling, but it was almost entirely quiet. Despite looking like it should have five or even ten staff in place, it had two, and neither were doing even prep work. Also there was a man in a suit, obviously part of some other group, who was leaning back in a chair, braced against the wall, chatting with the chefs.
Daisy went straight up to him. “As you said, sir!”
He grinned. The others stared. Lisa was just making sure she truly understood what Sir looked like.
“Jesus, they’re ripe this time,” one of the chefs said.
Sir laughed. “You aren’t wrong. But they’re also trouble. I don’t know what we’re even doing with this one.” He gestured at Lisa. “She’s supposed to send someone a message.”
“Yes, sir,” Lisa said. “I can do that, sir.”
All three of the men laughed.
Keogh had let himself go to seed a little, possibly just since his retirement, possibly for some time. But he still clearly had the physical capability of someone who’d worked with his hands most of his life, still wore faded jeans with the marks of heavy wear on them. The pot belly didn’t do much to dispel the potential sense of threat, but the broad smile did. He rose slowly from his armchair and held out a hand. “I’ve seen some of your shows,” he said. “Probably nowhere near all. Would you sit?”
Somewhat uncertain how to act here, she nodded, then sat. She took out her phone and placed it down on the coffee table between their armchairs. “Mind if I start this recording?”
“Not at all,” he said. “But no identifying names, please.”
Valerie started recording before she spoke - then had to pause again, as Becky bustled in to ask whether she’d prefer tea or coffee, and how she’d take it. She answered distractedly, then turned back.
“Interview with, uh, Mr X,” she began. “You know why I’m here?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, smiling easily. “We can surely skip the early dance.”
“So. How long were you part of the activities of a major people-trafficking ring?”
“Oh, I don’t entirely remember. I’m not permitted.”
Valerie was abruptly glad this wasn’t being filmed. Her expression of slack-jawed amazement at those words might be appropriate for the interview itself. On the other hand, it would also turn her into meme-fodder - the single worst way for a reputable journalist to go viral.
“That’s a very strange comment,” she began. Keogh smirked slightly and talked over her next gambit. “The thing is, you can put a lot of this together, but it’s never going to get past a hypothetical. You won’t find anyone who’ll pass comment.”
“I imagine the people you sold would be willing to talk.”
Keogh actually laughed.
Valerie closed her eyes and took a moment to centre herself. “This is it, isn’t it?” she asked. “I’ve been feeling all day that we’re missing something key. Something that makes it all make sense. And right now I’m so far off the way you see things I’m a punchline.”
She looked back at Keogh for confirmation. With a broad grin, he nodded.
“Am I going to get an explanation?”
“What if I told you brainwashing was involved?”
Valerie snorted and shook her head. “You’d have to do a bit better than that. I’ve seen Stockholm syndrome. It doesn’t do this.”
Keogh flapped a hand almost irritably. “No, no. Not crude brainwashing. Elegant, sophisticated, thorough brainwashing.”
Becky wheeled in a small silver cart. Atop it, three cups, one teapot in tea cosy, a milk jug, and a silvered sugar bowl. She smiled.
Something clicked in Valerie’s head. “Like your wife?”
“Oh, we’re not married,” Becky said cheerfully.
“I do get the common law tax benefits,” Keogh grinned. “But no, we never married. I put her through Stage One and stopped. It was enough for me.
“Stage Two is a little more… detailed.”