Authors: Anthony Quinn
She knew about border country. There were wolves, bears, and buried land mines in the one she had left behind, those snow-covered oak and pine forests that divided her homeland from the outside world.
During her enforced stay in the decomposing cottage, she dreamed of her homeland until the shadows of its trees stretched as far as this new border country. She could almost picture, in a dark corner of her mind, the forgotten light of her grandmother’s farmhouse at the edge of the alpine forest. But when she opened her eyes, all she saw was a cracked windowpane glittering in the moonlight, and the figure of yet another man hitching up his trousers, tucking in his shirt, and stumbling out the door.
As a teenager, she had been hungry for journeys, to be on the road to interesting, colorful places. She wanted to escape the forests that bounded her village, to travel where war had not, where politics bored people and music played all night long. She passed her time waiting for true love, or an adventure, one that would transform her life and help carry her to new destinations. Little did she realize that one man’s cruelty would do the job much more efficiently.
After two months in the farmhouse brothel, she was no longer interested in what happened to her for its own sake. A part inside her could not be touched or changed. She just watched. It was November. The sloe berries in the thorn hedges dripped with heavy drops of rain. From her window, late at night, she could hear the roar of a deep river devouring the darkness along the Irish border.
A sinuous flow of headlights made its way to and from the border brothel on weekend nights. Jeeps and expensive German cars snaked along the overgrown lanes, shifting down the gears, the barely controllable nature of the motorists’ urges resulting in haphazard parking; tires sinking into mud and gurgling ditches; handbrakes pulled abruptly; bonnets lurching one final time under the sodden thorn trees.
Jack Fowler was in no mood to be discreet. He drove up to the farmhouse in his flashy Mercedes, knocking the wing-mirrors of a Land Rover and a BMW along the way. He looked the part of a shrewd businessman in expensive clothing come to spend some of his hard-earned money.
Horseflies spun round him as he trudged into the farmhouse. In spite of his unsteady gait and the drops of sweat forming on his forehead, he had the air of a man who was in perfect control of the world, and his own life. In truth, however, his mouth was filled with the bitter taste of defeat. Deep down, his soul grieved over his avarice and the string of mistakes he had made in the property market. It was too late now to retrace his steps and correct the pivotal error of his greed. The value of his investments plummeted as each day rolled in with more news of job losses and business failures, one black wave after another, sweeping him closer to ruin.
He had knocked back several whiskies before seeking out this border hideaway, and already he could feel the approaching drum of pain behind his forehead. The cottage swam toward him, the door flapping open as if pushed by a gust of wind. A guilty feeling of transgression drafted through him. He closed the door behind and waited for his eyes to grow accustomed to the dim light.
At first, he was just anxious to talk to someone. The women whispering behind the red velvet curtain turned out to be Eastern European. Not many of them knew English well enough to carry on a conversation. He introduced himself to a girl called Lena, noticing that her eyes were clear, free of hate or disgust, or the signs of drugs.
She responded to his attempts at conversation not to please him but out of loneliness. Sometimes she went through the entire day without speaking to another soul. When they ran out of small talk, he paid the money and left. It had been the most expensive conversation he’d had about the weather in his forty-two years.
When he came back the next week, he asked specifically for her. This time they had sex, and afterward he fell asleep on the bed.
When his time was up, she poked him awake.
He roused himself quickly and searched for his clothes, but something made him stop. He leaned toward her, startled.
“Did I hurt you?” He sounded horrified with himself.
She hesitated for a moment. “No.”
“Those marks on your body.” He reached out to touch a line of bruises, dark blue smears against the pale marble of her rib cage. She had tried to hide them but there were too many.
She dragged the blanket over her shoulders.
“The man who guards this house came up last night. His name is Sergei. My presence makes him feel like a coward. So every now and again he takes his anger out on me.” She reached for a cigarette.
“How can you stay in this place?”
She did not reply.
“I came here seeking pleasure but . . .” He opened his mouth, closed it, and tried again. Nothing came out. His eyes were bright with confusion. He was like a man underwater trying to avoid suffocation.
She finished the sentence for him. “But all you’ve found is pain.” She lit her cigarette. “Pain of the ugliest type. The pain inflicted by men who hate women.” Her voice sounded different, savoring the words like the cigarette smoke she was inhaling.
“Is there another type? Can pain be anything but ugly?”
He reached out to touch her but she flinched.
Yes, of course there was. The pain caused by nature was never ugly, like when you ran barefoot in the snow, but she did not tell him that.
“You’re right. There is nothing but pain here.”
She closed her ears to his soul-searching.
“How do you keep going?”
She took a deep drag of the cigarette without taking her eyes off the opposite wall. “You know how the cliché goes. The one about separating the personal from the professional.”
“I’ve never understood that one.”
“The truth is I’m no longer afraid of anything.”
He stood up, made to leave, stopped at the door.
“How long have you been here?”
She flicked the cigarette ash. “I wish I could say. I don’t know. A couple of months. It feels like a year.”
His silence was more uncomfortable than the silence that usually came over her clients. She tried to dismiss him with her eyes.
“If you want to be left alone, just say so.”
“Yes. I mean no. I don’t want to be alone. Why have you stayed? What else do you want?”
He dropped into a chair in the opposite corner of the room.
“I want to help you.”
“Then save me from this hell.”
The minutes passed and neither spoke. The word
seemed to echo in the air between them. She was his prisoner, trading this intimacy for the promise of freedom.
“There’s nothing I can do right now,” he said eventually. In the half-light he appeared as solemn as a priest. He sat down on the bed next to her. Her face looked empty. He pulled her toward him, his fingers fumbling, light and then rough. He tried to wrap his arms around her. He almost overpowered her. Several times, she felt she might lose herself in his embrace, but then she crept away to the bottom of the bed. She felt relieved to know she had not yet crossed that territory where a man might care for her. She began to think there might be a way back to her old life after all.
A fierce gust made the cracked windowpane shift in its frame.
“This is a dangerous place,” she said. “The people who run this house are violent and evil.”
He stared out the window and nodded. The closer one came to the border, the deeper one fell into the nightmare domain of terrorists and criminals. He felt uneasy. He listened to the buffeting of the wind and an owl hooting in the darkness. He knew that out there lay a wild terrain of disappearing lanes and blown-up bridges, uninhabited farms and thick forests, a smuggler’s paradise and the ultimate refuge for people traffickers. He picked up his jacket and stood at the door, wishing he could just walk out with her, but he knew that was too dangerous. He would have to organize something more cunning. His solution lay somewhere outside in the darkness of the border and in the shadowy corners of his past.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
“It will mean digging up some old comrades,” he replied, half to himself. “It will cost me. And I’m not just talking about money.”
He stared at her face. Was it his imagination or had her skin grown paler? For the first time, he noticed the dark rings under her eyes. He wondered who she was, this woman who made him want to risk all he had left behind in his life. She had a lovely body and a pretty face, but these attributes were common in the places he frequented. Although she held his gaze, he had the uncomfortable feeling he might be little more than a shadow to her, one of countless others that passed through the room. He began to suspect that she had deliberately revealed the bruises on her body, as a way to seek his protection. If he had any sense, he would leave now and never come back to this house, which offered nothing but pain and despair.
“I’ll return in three days,” he told her. “I should have a plan in place by then.”
Before he left, he wrote down a mobile phone number on the back of a cigarette box.
“If anything happens before then, ring this number. It belongs to an old friend of mine. One with the right sort of connections. He should be able to help.”
Afterward, she could not sleep. The promise of escape penetrated even her subconscious. She lay on her mattress waiting for his return, and in the darkness her mind turned to the plight of the other trafficked women. She drew up a list of the girls working in the brothel, along with the contact details of relatives back in Croatia. She asked them questions about Jozef Mikolajek, the man who had hoodwinked her into traveling from Croatia to Ireland. The name was familiar to all of them. He had promised each of them something; if not love, then work, or simply the opportunity to escape poverty. In return, he had taken each girl’s whole world away. She felt the hairs stiffen on the back of her neck. Mikolajek was a predator, and they had been his prey. She had seen him on several occasions, walking through the farmhouse late at night, his face plunging by a crack in the doorway, his eyes shining like a wolf’s as he weighed up the girls he had brought to ruin. The pent-up anger rose within her and threatened to fly off in all directions, harming anyone who was near—herself, the other women, the pimps and their clients, even her rescuer. However, her anger had only one real target, and that was Jozef Mikolajek.
At her bedroom window, she contemplated the blackness outside. This was a dark country, peopled by ghosts and dangerous men, she thought. She would not let herself become part of its painful history. The impulse to act burned within her. It struck her that she could not leave the farmhouse and all its terrible memories for good without taking revenge on the men who had robbed her and so many others of everything. She would concentrate and pounce at the right moment, she decided. Only then would her nightmare be over. She stared at her reflection, tethered in the blackness of the window like bait to the men who roamed border country. After a while, it started to snow. She watched the wind swathe her shadowy face with flakes. The thought of revenge thrilled her. It was easier to kill when a part of you was already dead.
The evening that Jack was due to return, Lena crept into the next-door room and sat down at the edge of the bed. When the girl lying there woke up, she held her hand.
“Have you decided?”
“Yes. I want to help you kill them. Now. Tonight.”
“We have to wait our time. We have to be like hunters and lure our prey toward us.”
She stroked the girl’s cheek and handed her a small rag doll. Inside it was a piece of paper with the telephone number Fowler had given her, as well as the personal details of the women Mikolajek had trafficked. The girl hid the doll under her pillow.
“It’s a horrible thing to do,” she said to Lena.
“But we’ve been made to do horrible things.”
“It has to be done, then.”
Lena repeated those words to herself as she waited for Jack to return. The hours passed slowly, but there was no sign of him. After midnight, she got up and sat at the window. She waited for the headlights of his car to light up the snow-filled lane. She had almost nodded off to sleep when the reflection of a hunched figure appeared in the glass and startled her. She turned round. It was her pimp, Sergei. He smiled at her look of surprise.
“Get up. We’re going on a little trip.”
“A trip? Where to?” She had a horrible premonition that somehow her plans had been rumbled.
Without saying another word, he took her out to his car. He opened the front passenger door for her, but she climbed into the back. He flashed a look of annoyance and lit up a cigarette. In the flaring light, his eyes looked unsteady, hovering on the pivot of violence.
“Take off your shoes,” he growled.
She did as she was told.
“I don’t want you making a run for it.”
He sat at the wheel and examined her for a long time in the rearview mirror. With her bare feet and legs folded beneath her, she resembled a child. She had grown used to captivity like the others, he concluded. No matter how much they wished to escape, they could never break through the bonds of fear. He flicked on the headlights and the forest came into view, rising out of the depths of the night.
As he drove, she leaned back into the cold leather of the seat and struggled to think clearly. It was best not to take any rash chances, not to rush anything, she thought. However, she knew that if she did not escape soon, all would be lost. Her heart pounded. She tried to swim through her anxiety and stay focused.
Suddenly the car braked. The road winding out of snow-filled darkness halted like a frozen film. The headlights picked out the shape of a lorry jackknifed across the narrow road, and beside it, rammed into the ditch, was a new-looking Mercedes. Recognition hit her like a punch in the stomach. It was Jack’s car, but there was no sign of the businessman. Only a police officer waving a red torch in the middle of the road.
Sergei turned to her with a grim face.
“I knew I should never have left the house with you,” he said with a snarl. “You’re bad luck.”
He stuck the car in reverse and steered it at speed back up the road.
She pulled at the door, but the handle clicked lifelessly. The car dipped and skidded as he floored the accelerator. An urgent sense of desperation took hold of her. She began to strike him but he hit back with his free hand, the car clinging to the curves of the road as though it knew them by heart.
“We have to stay clear of police,” he tried to explain, batting off her fists.
Now even the car seemed to be whining and snarling at her as it struggled to stay on the road. She heard a churning noise as the wheels bit into the snow-covered verge and then the rasp of branches scratching its bodywork. She crouched down behind the leather seats just as the driver lost control. The rear of the vehicle slewed deep into the hedge, spun round, and hit a tree trunk.
When she came to, snow and the cold night air were gushing hungrily through the smashed rear window. Sergei lay slumped against the steering wheel, semiconscious, his head a dark bulk against the oncoming lights of a car. A torrent of thorns and branches had ripped through the canvas roof of the coupe. She crawled out the back and stumbled onto the road. Deep in the hedge, the car had filled its barbed cage with the glitter of smashed glass and the eye-smarting reek of leaking fuel.
Above the sound of the approaching vehicle she heard the wind swishing through snow-laden trees. She wondered if that was the sound death made as it drew close to the living.