A van reversed into the processing room. Together with another ten women, Lisa and Daisy clambered into the back of the van, completely nude.
They were driven out of the hotel ‘gymnasium’, all naked, all smiling brightly.
All looking forward to doing their duty.
At the end of their journey, the van reversed again, this time into a barn. Lisa watched a facade of straw go past before the doors opened and the girls dutifully herded themselves out.
Then they were led to their assigned bunks. Lisa and Daisy lay down on the same bunk, took their new headsets in their hands, and settled them into place. Then they simply waited for the barn staff to activate the system for all of them.
There was, as there often is, one basic terminal in the venue’s server room. Before trying to pull hard drives, Gavin booted it up. He was expecting to lose thirty seconds or so - a minute, if it was horribly outdated and ill-maintained - confirming he couldn’t log in. All the same, he’d learned over the years that being methodical could make him more effective than ‘smarter’ folks who weren’t.
And every so often you got lucky. This time, Gavin got lucky.
Nobody had thought to password-protect the terminal. There was an actual chance he’d be able to find something from the drives in time for it to be useful on the ground.
He glanced at the door into the server room and moved the fire extinguisher to prop it shut.
Figuring out the file directories on a sever machine took time (and a grudging Google on his phone), but before too long he’d found a collection of ten-minute video clips, going back years. He opened one of the earlier ones just to confirm it was what he thought, and almost immediately, wished he hadn’t.
A man in brown corduroys, thick green woollen jumper over a white shirt, and waxed jacket, his hair starting to whiten at the temples and thin on top, was leading a much younger woman in a circle. She was almost completely naked; she wore a pair of crotchless black Lycra shorts and a black collar attached to a chain leash. You could still see the thin scar lines where she’d recently had cosmetic surgery. He didn’t think that had exactly been her idea.
He led her in a complete circle, then directed her to stand on a podium, and she did it all with a bright, slightly glassy smile.
As much as he watched the clip, he couldn’t persuade himself her smile was fake.
How did that work?
Tony had found a greasy spoon cafe just down the road from where Valerie was getting what he hoped would be the interview of a lifetime. His guess was that she’d be there for a good couple of hours. He ordered a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich and sat down in the corner, near the window, where he could at least watch the van. And he stewed.
When the woman behind the counter brought over his tea she gave him a perfunctory, hollow smile. If he’d known Gavin was, at the same time, trying to tell himself that a woman up for sale wasn’t really smiling, Tony might even have seen the humour in it. He couldn’t believe the woman serving him was smiling.
All the same, that didn’t seem unreasonable. British customer service didn’t involve real smiles or being genuinely happy to see random customers.
He gulped down some tea and stared out of the window, watching the van, trying to purge the anger and frustration he felt by nothing more than force of will.
He hadn’t really expected it to work, and it wasn’t.
All the same, when the door to the cafe opened and three bulky men in rough-wearing jeans, worn and faded T-shirts, and heavy jackets stepped in, he wasn’t paying enough attention to see them coming before they approached his table.
Tony looked around the cafe. The waitress was nowhere to be seen. One younger man was pointedly reading the Sun to the exclusion of all other awareness. An older man was rising and pulling on his jacket. Nobody here was going to be on Tony’s side; everyone just wanted to be out of the way themselves.
Tony stood. “You know,” he said. “I think I’ll just give you lads this table, and leave while my friend here does.”
The older man shot him a look of something probably close to hatred for bringing him into this, especially as one of the three surrounding Tony shot him a look.
Tony was kind of glad Gavin wasn’t here. That could lead to trouble, and he was hoping he could think his way through this. He reached down and picked his jacket off the chair.
“Where’s the woman?” one of his threats asked. Tony’s brain had supplied the word thugs, but they clearly weren’t; just strong, outnumbering him, and with plenty to lose at his hands. That didn’t make them thugs, but it did make them dangerous.
“Where’s the woman?” he asked again.
Tony blinked. They had to mean Valerie. And that meant they didn’t know.
Which meant they’d found him without hearing from Keogh. A kind of cold purpose settled on him. He needed to get their attention away from Valerie. This group only sold women. There was no evidence they’d ever killed anyone. He was much less at threat.
His plans not to fight his way out changed. Tony’s hand, resting lightly on his coffee mug, tightened its grip. He brought the mug up and hurled it forward fast, jinking to one side. It hit the largest of the three, but in the shoulder, splashing off a wax jacket.
That made Tony’s attempt to charge past one of the others more complicated. He took a punch to the side but kept pushing, until one of the others stomped on the back of his calf. His leg folded and he went down despite himself.
Which made it near-impossible for him to complete his escape. These three weren’t fighters, but they also weren’t incompetent.
He was bundled to the floor and his arms tied behind his back. A dishcloth was shoved forcefully into his mouth.
They carried him out of the cafe and loaded him into the back of a Land Rover. Nobody said a word. Tony stared out of the back window and met the eyes of one woman hanging out her washing on the line.
She turned away.
“You assumed the woman here was my wife,” Keogh told Valerie. “I don’t think that’s an unfair assumption. It just happens to be untrue. She came along in the first year that I’d been part of this business. And I’d been… frustrated. Beautiful women, and the occasional good-looking man - but the finances on that were never as good; we didn’t attract as large a market. I never was sure if that was just the way we advertised, but that never changed no matter how often they promised to discuss it.
“Beautiful women, anyway, slipped through my hands day after day. It was impossible not to be constantly aware. And it was frustrating, and I didn’t have anyone, and…” He shrugged. “You’ll think that’s immature and childish. Looking back on it, I think it’s immature and childish. And I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Valerie was listening to Keogh, but her eyes were on Becky. She was trying to read the woman; as much as it was clear where Keogh’s story was going, Becky was just smiling demurely as she poured the tea. She was perfectly happy about all of this.
Valerie had a hard time believing that could really be true.
“So one day, I just…” Keogh shrugged. “I decided ‘that one’. And she was the one. I set her aside from the others and I only allowed her to go through the first stage of the process. Much more interesting to me to have her in this state, a person in deep, docile love, than the standard way we sell them on.” He smiled thinly, his eyes elsewhere. Disdain was creeping into his voice but Valerie couldn’t be sure whether it was snobbery or actual distaste for the alternative.
“And that would be…?”
“Completely unaware of their past. Fixated on their duty to the highest bidder, which is to say, their owner. My slave here, she enjoys herself, she has her own opinions, it’s just that most of them are about how great I am.” He grinned, the lecherous grin of an older man who thinks he has a point to make about control. “About how much she wants to suck my cock.”
Becky had just finished pouring the tea. Immediately she turned away from Valerie, sank to her knees in front of Keogh, and began daintily (and with visible skill born of long practice) to unfasten his trousers.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Valerie said, as politely as she could. “It’ll definitely make the audio unusable.”
Keogh smiled. “That’s rather the idea, my dear. Well, part of the idea. I frankly want to avoid my voice appearing much at all.”
Becky had pulled him out now and was briskly teasing him to hardness with her hands. Valerie tried to ignore the display - and, with it, ignore the blatant power play. “I suppose I should ask the obvious question, then?”
Keogh nodded, and Valerie continued. “Why give this interview at all?”
“Because I’m not part of that anymore,” Keogh said. “And because my son, for all that he’s slick and he’s smart, has never met a challenge he’s had to think his way around. You probably represent one, and I’m curious to see how he resolves it.”
She took almost a minute considering how to respond to that. “That sounds like a warning.”
“Well, it’s more of a musing. I’ve retired now. It’s not my life, and if anyone comes for me over it, I plan to ask them to prove I wasn’t brainwashed into it.”
Valerie opened her mouth to respond, then shut it again with a resigned sigh.
Now she knew her duty, Lisa’s stints in the headset were shorter but more intense. Between times, she was given food, allowed to wash herself, and from time to time, technicians would come up to her. They asked her questions, wrote down her answers, and asked more questions. The man in the suit was one of them, and he still smiled at her when she smiled at him.
Lisa didn’t smile as much now, though. The headset was explaining so many new parts of her duty that her time was taken up processing it, not enjoying the sensation of doing her duty.
But that was alright. She didn’t need a reward. Duty was its own reward.
She expected that one day there would be only the duty, without the pleasure. It would be a true test, but it would be her duty to succeed.
She was standing up and walking around, keeping herself limber between headset sessions, when the Land Rover bounced across the pot-holed courtyard of the farm, heading directly toward the conditioning barn where Lisa and the rest of the livestock spent their time.
Lisa happened to be facing in that direction, so she watched it drive toward her, some level of struggle going on in the back. Curiosity was not a duty unless an owner required it, in which case it should be simulated. But Lisa didn’t yet have an owner.
The Land Rover pulled to a halt and the driver got out first. The back door opened as the driver headed back there, and two other men got out, dragging a fourth who’d been tied up.
It was a diversion, but it wasn’t something that really inspired any emotion in Lisa.
The man who’d been tied up, though, he seemed inspired to emotion. There was fear, there was rage, and when his eyes fell on Lisa, there was bewilderment and hope.
None of these were useful emotions. All were ones to shut off.
“Lisa?” he said, then swallowed and tried again, much more loudly. “LISA!”
She looked at him for a moment, trying to decide why he was so aggressive about this.
“Help me, for God’s sake,” the man demanded. It sounded like a command, but did she have a duty to him? He wasn’t an owner, but she didn’t have one yet. She knew she had a duty to the technicians and didn’t have one to the other livestock.
She looked to a technician for guidance, only to find his expression grim, brows drawn, as he studied her in turn. He was watching her for something, and she didn’t know what. For half a moment or so, that terrified her, but she realised quickly that if she followed her duty, she would be fine.
“My God,” the man said loudly, “what have they done to you?”
Lisa turned back to face him, her expression placid. This was surely a test. Duty must apply to specific people, once granted; not to everyone until revoked. Which meant she had no duty to this man, and that she would be right to let his protests go by.
Now that she knew that, she could simply regard his antics with the equanimity they deserved.
She did not answer his question, partly as she had no duty to him, partly as she did not understand it.
He was carried past her, and she turned to watch him as the three men who had brought him dragged him over to the technicians.
One technician injected him with something and, a few moments later, his trembling body ceased trembling and simply sagged instead.
Lisa and the other livestock watched as the techs stripped him down and strapped him to the lower bunk of one set. The tech who had been testing her looked at her and crooked a finger. She went over to him, eager to learn of any new duty.
“Watch him,” the tech said. “Come get me as soon as he seems to be waking. As soon as you’re sure he’s awake. Understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” Lisa said. She tried to keep all trace of happiness from her voice; happiness was for owners, not livestock.
Lisa did not remember how closely this echoed something that had happened to her.
Gavin climbed out of the window, the same way he’d got in. His bag had several hard drives in it, ready for later use. Evidence. Gavin had to smile, having got it; sometimes it wasn’t difficult to feel like you mostly made up the numbers. Getting a win every now and again reminded him that he contributed more than just a strong pair of shoulders to carry a camera.
He took a little while to make sure he wasn’t being followed, and headed back to the hotel, where he started the process of transferring the footage onto his computer and uploading it to the cloud.
This was crazy, all of it, and he had no idea if any of it could be used - but maybe they could blur the faces or something, and parts of the bodies, and anyway at this point there had to be a police investigation too, didn’t there?
And if there’s a police investigation, all the evidence should be there. It needed to be available. Sure, this way there might be a chain of custody issue, but at least they couldn’t delete them.
He was pretty sure Valerie would be happy with him - she paid a lot of attention to her team, and she was always keen to give them the recognition they deserved. But he was hoping for the rare, slow nod of approval Tony occasionally gave when Gavin came up with the win.
Gavin didn’t think much of Tony, but as often happens between people who work together and don’t think much of each other, he could occasionally feel locked in to needing validation from someone so different.
Transferring the files took longer than he thought, and he was a couple of drives into it before he realised he should, by now, have gotten a text or a call from Valerie or Tony. It was starting to get dark outside. The surveillance they’d left Valerie on couldn’t have lasted so long, could it?
He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialled Valerie’s number, but she’d clearly turned her phone off; it clicked straight over to voicemail. Gavin didn’t bother leaving one; she’d see he’d called. That was enough of a message.
Wondering what she was doing, he called Tony instead. The number rang and rang - and rang - for a long time. When it was finally answered, it wasn’t by Tony, but by some guy with a local accent. “Yeah?”
Gavin felt himself freeze up. This wasn’t expected and he didn’t know how to deal with it instinctively. “Who the fuck is this?” he blurted. “Where’s Tony?”
“This must be the other guy. We’re watching you, arsehole. Don’t try anything funny. Don’t tell anyone shit. And piss off.”
The call ended. Gavin sat there, staring at his phone, torn between having difficulty believing any of it and furious that he was actually scared.
After her interview ended, Valerie tried to call Tony, and got nothing. Then she tried finding him, eventually just walking the neighbourhood with her eyes wide open. It was only when she glanced into a local cafe for the second time - in case she’d somehow missed him - that she saw how uncomfortable the woman behind the counter was when Valerie looked at her.
If she looked nervous when Valerie looked at her, that was nothing to her reaction when Valerie opened the door and went in. Her lips moved, but no sound came out; she went pale and swayed from the waist, but seemed somehow rooted to the spot by panic.
Valerie stalked across and slammed both hands down on the counter, leaning across it. “What do you know?”
“What? I don’t know anything! Why would you think that?”
There was no clever retort, no cunning comment on choice of words. Valerie was honestly probably too angry for that. She just glared, and it had something like the same effect.
The woman tried to meet Valerie’s stare, and faltered, visibly, over time. “K-Keogh…” she eventually stammered.
“Young or old?” Valerie demanded.
Valerie reached across the counter and slapped her, all of her pent-up fury and anxiety going into the hit. In her panic, the woman wasn’t braced at all; she folded at the waist, going back and down hard, her hip crashing into the prep counter behind her on the way down.
Valerie was already wheeling and stalking out. She heard a clatter of pans, which had been hanging neatly on the wall, as they came loose and crashed to the counter.
She wasn’t thinking clearly. Frustration at Lisa’s loss had blended with the anger that had driven the report, and now both were curdling together. That wasn’t a situation where people were at their smartest.
She headed back to the van, got in, and grimly started the engine.
Behind her, the woman, jaw open, peered over the counter to assure herself Valerie had gone. Once she was completely sure she was safe, she braced herself with an arm on the counter and slowly, unsteadily, pulled herself back to her feet. A few moments to collect herself and she crossed to one side of her space, picked up the phone hanging on the wall, and read the number off a scrap of paper on the noticeboard next to it.
She dialled the phone and waited, disbelief turning slowly to anger via embarrassment and humiliation. When an answer came, she said tartly “You told us we’d never have to be involved.”
After a long pause, the man on the other end of the line spoke. She cut over him, still shaking. “She just barged in here. She actually hit me.”
Another pause, much shorter this time. “Oh, she’s on her way. Don’t worry about that.”
Her lips tightened into a thin smile. “Good.” She hung up, turned around, and slowly made her way back across to the urn. Silently she made herself a cup of tea, spooned in the sugar, and sat down, taking a deep breath.
She wasn’t shaking anymore and, as the first rush of fury wore away, she found herself ashamed of her decisions. She’d practically set a trap for the woman just because she’d been slapped.
She didn’t know much about what they did on the farms, but everyone knew it was the price they paid to not be struggling, not like the villages in the next valley. A little way further other, another small gathering had been lucky enough to get a chocolate factory. Here, there were no such luxuries, either for freebies or for your conscience.
Shame can ignite into rage easily, but when the rage burns it just leaves more shame behind. She sat there, contemplated the enormity of what she’d done, and drank more tea to hide from it.
This had made her an active participant, and everything felt different now.
She should never have called. If she hadn’t, the woman would still have gone there, still been lost, but she would be able to tell herself she didn’t know.
Lisa bounced over to the tech who’d given her a first active duty. She didn’t mean to; she meant to walk politely and with decorum, as befitted someone doing their duty. But in her chance to complete a first big task, she couldn’t help it. “He’s waking up, sir!”
He didn’t smile like she’d expected. Instead, with an almost distracted air, he said “He is? Uh, good.” Then he smiled perfunctorily.
Lisa lingered, uncertain whether there might be anything else. She watched the tech register that and saw an idea form in his mind. Clearly he had a plan here, and she might have a part in it. How exciting! She smiled welcomingly. Sometimes people needed a nudge. She’d been taught that.
“You know,” he said slowly. “There’s something you can do while I deal with that guy.” She smiled eagerly.
“Hey, Jakey!” he called. Another of the men here - one of the ones who’d driven in with the man undergoing treatment, not a suit but something rougher - ambled over.
“Take her with you,” he said. “That should work the trick.” Then he turned to Lisa and said “Just do whatever he tells you, okay?”
Lisa nodded. She beamed toward Jakey, but he’d already turned and was walking away, uninterested. Knowing she would follow.
She did, of course.
Valerie’s anger sustained her back to the van and most of the drive over to Keogh Farms. But just as it was for the woman in the tea shop, her rage was burning out, and for her it left behind clarity.
This was crazy. They’d taken Lisa. They’d taken Tony. There wasn’t going to be a good resolution to this. She wasn’t an action star. The police weren’t even called yet.
Her fame might be a shield - what were they going to risk doing to someone who appeared on national TV? What it wasn’t, couldn’t be, was a weapon.
So Valerie didn’t drive straight into the farm. Instead she turned off the road earlier, then swung around and took the van to the edge of a field.
From there she went closer on foot. Not looking to storm the castle, just looking to find what she needed. A little bit of proof, then she’d collect Gavin and be out of there. Call the police.
There’d be no scoop that way. But honestly she was disgusted with herself now that she’d ever entertained the possibility of not calling the police in until the program aired. It was too real now for her to treat these people’s victims as stories. Not when Lisa was among the victims.
(She wasn’t at all sure what might be happening with Tony. She doubted they’d have a market for men.)
She hauled the camera to her shoulder, powered it on, set her eyes on the viewfinder, and zoomed in toward the farmyard.
Where she saw a man in denim jeans and a worn grey T-shirt leading a nude Lisa around on a lead.
And Lisa was smiling.
Valerie was so startled she almost forgot to check the camera was recording.
“You won’t be able to see this clearly,” she said, her instincts for TV once again reasserting themselves. “Part of it will be pixellated out. The woman down there is Lisa Jensen. By now, you’ve already heard me mention her; she was the woman on my team who disappeared.”
Her voice was about to break. She paused recording, then sighed, taking in a gulp of teary air to try and calm herself.
Valerie sat on the grass. She closed her eyes, let herself feel her emotions. Sat there for she wasn’t sure how long.
Eventually she turned the camera around to face herself. Flipped the viewfinder so she could see. And started recording again. “I don’t know how to end this report. I need to do it soon. The safety of my team has been compromised. I can’t - I can’t be a party to that anymore.
“What we’ve witnessed, what we’ve discovered here, it more than confirms our worst fears. A brainwashing operation in the heart of rural England, selling women into slavery… who even knows how many… and undetected by wider society for decades.
“Why? No good reason. Except… except that this business has sustained the community. Money has kept coming in. When we looked at the financial data for this area in 2008, during the Credit Crunch, we found far fewer bankruptcies, far fewer lost houses, than in comparable communities.
“With such a rich trade in town, money has flowed out. Mortgages have been paid off. When the worst of the financial crisis arrived here, people across the community had more money in their pockets. And I believe it’s possible some of that money was directly handed across. The price? Silence.”
She sat for a few moments longer, looking out toward the farm over the camera. “Silence that kept them safe until a researcher finally noticed the pattern of their victims while looking for something else. If we hadn’t been on the trail of another story, these people would still be secret. They cannot - cannot - be allowed to continue.”
She didn’t want to die on camera. She’d lost so much from this story she didn’t want to add her dignity into the bargain. So she stopped recording, let the camera drop, and paused.
And then she became aware of the sound of someone approaching through the grass.
She whirled, startled - and it was her coworker, wearing her collar and leash, and nothing else, and smiling.
The smile gave way to a frown. “How did you know?”
All the air went out of Valerie in a single moment. “What’s happened to you?”
“Huh?” Lisa looked genuinely confused, then her eyes cleared in realisation. “Oh!” A broad smile. “I learned my duty.”
“Do you know how creepy that sounds?”
Lisa tutted. “You’re being silly. Duty’s the most important thing in the world.”
Valerie stared in horror. Then, after a long, long moment, she reached out to Lisa…
…who responded by wrapping her leash around Valerie’s arm, pulling her off balance.
Valerie was completely unprepared, but managed to catch herself on hand, foot and knee before she faceplanted, her other arm being twisted round by Lisa’s trap. Before she could steady herself, though, Lisa kicked her foot out from under her and she folded onto the ground.
Lisa promptly knelt down onto her lower back, pinning her in place and driving the breath out of Valerie. As Lisa pulled her arms back and bound them, having unclipped her leash, she panicked, struggling to draw in enough breath to scream.
“Let me go, Lisa,” she begged. “Please. I’m sorry I let you down, but don’t do this to me.”
She felt the knot around her wrist drawn tight. “Sorry,” Lisa asked, “do I know you, then?”
Valerie felt the last of her hope go, even before she saw Lisa’s handler approaching. Still, when Lisa shifted off her to let her up, she tried. She pushed to her feet and tried to run.
She got four paces before Lisa hit her like a missile in the small of the back. “Bad!” Lisa exclaimed. “You need to understand!”
The nude woman and her handler hauled Valerie to her feet, a firm hand on each upper arm to stop her fleeing, and carried her off toward the farm. Valerie opened her mouth to scream before it occurred to her that if anyone in earshot might listen, they’d have gagged her.
Gavin hadn’t done any detective work. Hadn’t asked anyone. Instead, knowing as he did that the Keoghs were deeply wrapped up in all this, he’d just gone straight there.
Of course, he didn’t have the van with him. Instead, he ran most of the way, hauling his heavy bags of kit. By the time he got there he was sweating heavily, worn out and worn down. And up ahead of him was a naked woman and a man hauling another, struggling, bound woman.
It took a few moments of exhausted bewilderment before Gavin was able to recognise them. “Hey,” he said, then stopped, sucking in breath to make himself heard. “Hey!”
The man looked over his shoulder. So did Lisa. Valerie started yelling. “Gavin! Gavin, please. Help me. Help!”
That brought another man out of the farm gateway. The two men turned to stare at Gavin.
“How about it, smart boy?” one of the men called. “Say we say it’s her or you. Who stays?”
Gavin stared. Valerie, twisting round in her captors’ arms, stared back, silently entreating.
Seconds ticked by into minutes. More of the farmhands emerged.
Without saying a word, Gavin turned and began to trudge away.
Lisa clapped her hands delightedly. “Isn’t that better?” she asked. “Come on. You’re going to love what you learn.”