“You lied. And now you’re going to pay.” The love of my life hisses the words, his fist wrapped around the shackles holding my hands above my head. He shakes the chains, makes them jangle, and causes a little cry to rise to my lips. I am racked with fear—not of him, but of the natural consequences of what I have done. This man might be the only person in the world who understands how very guilty I am.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I’d be caught out. I thought when this happened that I would be strong and rebellious. I would stare my tormentor down, spit in his eye, tell him to go to hell. But I’m not strong, not in body or in spirit. I’m bared, and I’m weak, and he is so much larger, so much more powerful than me, and so angry too.
I wish he didn’t have a right to be, but I deserve this. Everything he is going to do to me, I have earned a hundred times over. His green eyes bore into mine, the muscles under his tattoos rippling as he reaches for some devilish implement that will no doubt cause pain.
I can’t even bring myself to beg for mercy. He would laugh in my face, I am sure of it and the humiliation of being mocked would be too much now.
All I can do is submit… and regret…
A row of muscular men parades before me, men walking slowly along a purpose built dais. They are entirely nude, their legs shackled one in front and one behind so they are attached inexorably to the other men with whom they share the same situation. They are fallen warriors, criminals, men who have escaped prison or death and ended up somewhere worse.
While I stare, a large hand grabs me suddenly and roughly by the arm. “How did this bitch escape?” a voice growls in my ear as I am dragged nearly off my toes. For the first time in my privileged life, I suddenly understand what it is like to be nothing. I am being held as if I am less than a piece of meat, my joints tugged painfully without regard for my person. I am pulled up to my very tiptoes, my arm wrenched high. I let out an angry sound, but my voice means nothing.
“Let her go!” the seller roars, his voice filling the space with a fury that makes the man’s hand drop from my arm as if I am made of lava. “She’s not product. That’s Sophie Mortari! Treat her with respect.”
“Oh, my god, I’m so sorry!” The man goes from monster to sycophant in about two seconds flat. I’d find it funny, if I found anything about this situation amusing. “Please, forgive me, ma’am.”
I absolutely do not forgive him. He has messed up my hair and I think he might have torn the seams on the underside of my blouse. What an animalistic meathead of a human being he is. It’s hard for me to hide my disdain for these men, so I don’t bother. I don’t even reply to the one who is now stammering apologies.
They are dressed almost as well as I am, these salesmen who turn people into commodities. They look like they could be about to sit down to dinner at one of New York’s finest restaurants. One of NYC’s most popular joints is actually a couple of stories above us. I had a veal rib-eye before I came down here, along with a very nice merlot.
I don’t think the men shuffling in front of me have eaten nearly as well. They’re kept low on water to make their muscles stand out. High-protein insect-based diets to give them mass. No carbs. The salesman explained it all to me as though I’d be impressed. Instead, every ripple I see in front of me just represents a few hundred thousand mealworms choked down in place of food. These guys are unwilling bodybuilders, and it shows.
I am standing in the middle of one of the city’s many dirty secrets. I am sure the men who have been detailed to help me make my purchase think I will be shocked by this, but I know all of this city’s secrets. Every single sordid sick little story in this hive of humanity lives inside me. I wish they didn’t, but they’ve been creeping their way in their entire life, through sights I shouldn’t have seen and conversations I shouldn’t have heard.
“All of these men have previous military or urban warfare experience,” my personal salesman says. His name is Austin, and he is nothing but a cog in the machine that brought these men from all over the world. These days, the preference is for Russian, Balkan, Eastern European men. They are coming over in droves thanks to big upheavals over there, so I hear.
I can’t even pretend to care. I have my own problems. My life is about two seconds away from ending at any given time. The antidote to the ever-present threat of assassination is the fact that I have money. A lot of money. At this point, it is all I have. No family. Certainly no friends. Money means that anybody who smiles at me has an agenda. My wealth is written all over me, from my perfectly manicured brows and nails to the shoes on my feet. I’m wearing my sixth favorite pair of limited edition Louboutin shoes. I didn’t want to dress up for this. It’s sordid and desperate. Beneath me. But I have a certain appearance to maintain, and so I put on nice clothing, even though what I am doing isn’t very nice at all. This is the most desperate thing I’ve done so far, and I know it won’t be the most desperate thing I will do before this is over.
I’m wanted. Not by the law, but by men who do not follow any laws. Corrupt, twisted, nasty men who have no place in society. Some of them could have been in the restaurant with me today. It’s conceivable that one of them prepared my food. The people who want my life are ghosts, a network of the disenfranchised and despairing. They made their first attempt on my life when I was just a teenager. Now I am twenty-six, hoping to make it to twenty-seven, though the likelihood of that dwindles by the day.
I rub my wrist, trying to work the ache out of it. The cast just recently came off after I was injured in a car accident. The official report says a dog ran out into the road and caused a mail truck to swerve into my car. I saw no dog. The driver is still in the hospital. My former bodyguard has handed in his resignation. I am alone in the world again, utterly naked and exposed, waiting for the next attempt, which will of course be disguised as a misfortune or accident.
To others, I must appear to be the most unlucky woman in the world. I know that luck has absolutely nothing to do with it.
It’s not my name that draws my attention, but the familiarity of the man who dares speak it as if he has the right to, in front of all these condemned men. We are not friends, and I make sure my sharp glare imparts that fact. He probably thinks I’m a bitch. I don’t care. The men who run this place usually find flesh like mine on the other side of the transaction. I know that. I can feel both their eyes on me, appraising my worth. I could buy and sell any one of them a hundred times over. They know that. It’s what keeps them respectful, at least on the surface. Beneath their bolted-on smiles is a festering horror show of twisted lust and the desire to destroy.
I cast my eyes back over the lineup of discarded men. “Is this all?”
There are only nine to choose from. I thought there would be more.
“Not many men match your exacting specifications, ma’am,” the salesman says, dropping the familiarity and returning to a more formal mode of address, which I am much more comfortable with. “These are the ones with military backgrounds.”
I run my eyes over the line again. It is hard to tell what a man is really like when he is shackled. There is something about the way iron drags against his soul that makes him crouch and wither. But I need a man who does not care about a little metal. I need a man made of stronger, sterner stuff.
For a very long time, I pretended none of this existed. I knew there were markets where people were traded. They exist across the world. They’re not supposed to, but they do. Some far eastern countries have open markets, but in the west they must be hidden, like this one. Not because they are illegal and immoral, which of course they are, but because if it became common knowledge that you could just go out and buy a person, I’m fairly certain everybody would. Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s just my own twisted lack of morality talking.
I wrestled with the idea before coming down here, finally rationalizing to myself that if it is legal to hire a man, then it is no less a transactional arrangement than buying him. It’s still flesh for money.
But free will! my mind sneered. Someone who has been hired can leave. True. Sometimes. But every day I see thousands of people doing jobs they’d much rather not be doing for money that will barely be sufficient to support them. Is it more ethical to pay one person a few dollars per hour for their labor? Or simply to pay a lump sum outright? Legally, I know the former is in fashion, but again, when one breaks down the actual terms of the transaction, I can make it nebulous enough in my mind to allow me to stand here and look at these imprisoned men and not feel bad about buying one of them for my purposes.
I could have hired a bodyguard, but all the agencies are compromised. I need a man who works only for me. I need a man who has to obey me. This won’t be cheap. And it likely won’t be easy. If I pick the wrong one, I could find myself dead far sooner than expected.
“None of these men are American,” my salesman tells me redundantly. “They’re Russian imports. Good group. Strong. Well suited to security, if you’ve got someone to break them in. I wouldn’t handle any of them by yourself.”
I have means of controlling a man, if I need to. And I will certainly handle the man I buy myself. Otherwise he could be corrupted before I can get any use out of him at all. I ignore the salesman and inspect those who are arranged in front of me. These foreign men are perfect. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who wants me. At least, I hope they don’t. My enemies are Russian, but my savior might be too. As long as I pick the right man, I will receive a blank slate who will believe what I want him to believe, and with any luck, do what I want him to do.
As I make eye contact, a few of them smile at me, lascivious even in their chained positions. I look past those ones. I am not looking for a lover, and I am not interested in a man who will be too distracted by my body to protect me. I am attractive, but I don’t consider that a personal success or a failing. I was cursed with good genes and thrown into a life where I am constantly too nervous to eat regularly enough to fill out like I should. When I do eat, it is usually processed. I trust nobody with my food, but I believe in fast food. Except for today, in the restaurant. Today is a day for taking risks and consuming innocence.
I’m not sure about this lineup. I’m not feeling what I need to feel from any of these men. It is an intangible quality I’m looking for, hard to describe, and unlikely to be found in a lineup of criminal Russian rejects who are no doubt narrowly avoiding death sentences in their own country.
There is one man at the far end who draws my eye, even though he is doing his best not to. The other eight men are looking at me with everything from overt lechery to hatred. This one is feigning a disinterest so deep he doesn’t even look at me or my salesman. He just stares off into space, as if the whole process disinterests him.
“I wouldn’t, ma’am,” my salesman says apologetically as I approach the one on the end.
“Wouldn’t what?” I turn to him.
“That one…” He trails off as I curl my fingers into a light fist and rap on the bulletproof shield that keeps these animals from ripping our throats out.
That gets #9’s attention. He looks up. Green eyes sear into mine. I feel the force of his fury, his hatred. It is like a physical thing battering my senses, making my heart flutter, little electric tingles hitting the tips of my fingers and toes. I am so immediately physically affected that I look about to see if I might have inadvertently touched a charger or something. There’s nothing. Just the man with the tattoos, a man who looks as though life has marked him in more ways than one.
“Who is he?”
“He is known as Vadim,” my salesman says. “He’s not recommended. We included him in the lineup to…” He pauses and looks embarrassed.
“What? Pad it? Don’t want to lose your reputation as the city’s finest traders in human flesh?”
“He is a wanted man,” he says. “He’s bound for the ring. I’d recommend one of the others. Any of the others.”
But I already know that there are no others. There is only this man. Neither one of us have broken eye contact yet, and his stare is more intimate than any orgy.
“I’ll take him,” I say.
The salesman coughs again, as if his little irritating exhalations will change my mind. I am all the more agitated for having to take my eyes off my new prize to address him.
“What is the problem?”
“You really don’t want this one, ma’am.”
“That’s the idea.”
“He could hurt you.”
“He could hurt other people too.”
“We were going to keep him for the ring.”
The ring, as I understand it, is a particularly distasteful competition where men must do battle in order to survive. None of them ever do. I am saving this man’s life then. Perhaps he will be grateful.
“I will pay extra. Twenty percent more than usual.”
His brows go up. A man is not a cheap item. A twenty percent increase is a substantial amount of money, more than enough to buy a mansion with. But I do not need a mansion. I need a man. This man. He looks at me with those fierce green eyes, loathing me with every inch of his muscular being, and I know I should be scared, but fear was replaced inside me long ago. Practicality has taken its place.
“Immediate funds transfer,” I say. “No guarantee necessary.”
“Ma’am,” my salesman says. “He was sent to us as punishment for crimes against…”
“I don’t care what he did,” I interrupt curtly. I don’t need to hear the slaver’s narrative. They put the man on the block for me, so he is for sale. They are clearly willing to part with him, so all this talk is just that, talk. Dramatics. Meaningless noise.
I was not paying attention when they beat me into line and chained me like a beast. Since finding myself in captivity, I have been doing the only thing a man can do before he escapes—keeping my mind free. They might have me behind stone walls and iron bars, but my head is somewhere else entirely.
Of course I am aware of the two figures on the other side of the barrier, but they are not any more relevant to me than the chains on my wrists and ankles, or the aching in my muscles. I’ve been hurting since I left Russia, and I think I will hurt until I return. The beatings don’t help, but even without the constant thrashing of hardwood rods designed to crack skulls and bones, I’d be in pain. The source doesn’t matter. Even the pain itself doesn’t matter, not anymore.
Then she bangs on the barrier like a poorly supervised child antagonizing animals at the zoo and I look at her, assessing her. She’s young. Can’t be more than twenty-five. My initial reaction is that she looks as though she should be for sale here too, but she’s on the wrong side of the bars and barriers, and no heroin haze clouds her eyes. She walks among these American criminals, flesh sellers, and slavers, like she is one of them. Perhaps a daughter or a wife.
When women look at me, they are usually afraid or intrigued. But she doesn’t look at me as a potential mate or feared aggressor. Her expression is of pointed curiosity, looking me over like a prize animal, not a man. I look back, sharing her interest. Thanks to all the makeup on her face, she has the kind of beauty that is all too common, the manufactured kind that might either hide true beauty or complete hideousness beneath it. Her stance is too stiff to be elegant. She is trying to portray strength, but the longer I look, the more I sense fear in those eyes that waver for a moment and then turn back to the man beside her as she snaps something that makes her upper lip curl with obvious disdain for him.
I share her disgust for these people who call themselves men. They use guns and cattle prods to keep us under control and yet still fail. I have been forcibly sedated so many times I cannot count, because it is easier for them to drag me where they need me to be than to convince me to bend to their decadent western will.
Americans are weak. Their men have lost their talent for true brutality, so we outcast Bratva are worth something here. Easier for those who once called themselves our brothers to save a bullet and make a buck. It is tacky, capitalist thinking. They have no honor. They have no loyalty. They follow the dollar like dogs.
There is hunger in this woman; I just don’t know for what. What I do know is that she looks at me like a starving dog might look at a chained wolf. With some hope, a little awe, and an increasing amount of fear.
They are negotiating now. I can hear their voices through the plastic screen that bears traces of blood across the bottom. It has been cleaned badly since the last time someone was killed here. I have seen more cruelty and brutality in thirty days on American soil than I saw in a lifetime of service to the Russian mob.
“She wants you,” the man beside me says. I do not know his name. I have not learned any names here. These people are not real to me. I have one goal: to be free of this prison, and to make my way back to Russia, where unfinished business festers.
The guard yells the words, and a second later I hear the crack of electricity making contact with another unfortunate in the line. We are all covered in welts, burns, bruises. I do not feel them. Rage makes me numb. They could break every bone in my body and I would spit on them. The metal at my wrists and ankles is an inconvenience, but it is temporary. The heft of the chains and the thickness of the iron is the true gage of their fear of me.
He screams the word even though I am only a few inches away from his bloated face. We stop, and they detach the links that join me to the rest of the line.
“Walk on!” another guard screams, and the eight men before me shuffle back to the hole we all came from.
“I’m going to uncuff you, and you’re going to get dressed,” he says. “You make one funny move and I’m going to tase you into next year.”
I don’t bother to reply. I just stare at him until he cracks. They always crack. Try to stare me down and instead end up glancing away or reaching for an electric rod to beat me with.
“Get dressed,” he says, pressing shoes, shirt, and pants to my chest. No socks. No underwear. No matter. I pull on the cheap shoes, feeling my feet pinch at the plastic toes. The pants are too short, and the shirt is too large. I don’t care. I am getting out of this prison. The world lies outside the heavy guarded doors and once I am alone with this woman, I can do as I please.
When I am dressed, he puts the cuffs back on and leads me through a series of doors. I find myself standing in front of the woman who decided to buy me. She is shorter than I thought she was, but I notice that she seems to wax and wane with expression and body language. In reality, she is probably no more than five foot five, but she seems taller and larger when she turns the force of her personality on me, the very corners of her lips turning into a smile.
“Your purchase, ma’am. But you’re under no obligation to go through with it…” The guard in the suit is talking to her again.
“I want him,” she says directly, turning her pale blue gaze on the man, who seems to shrink under her glare. She does not like him, I can tell. She thinks she is too good for this place and the people who run it, that much is obvious. But she is not. She is down here with her money, supporting a trade that destroys every human who comes in contact with it.
“Take the cuffs off. They’re ridiculous,” she sneers.
The guard looks at her, and then at me. “We would be more comfortable if you removed them yourself off the premises, ma’am.”
“You’re that afraid of him?”
“It’s a matter of risk management.”
“So, yes.” She rolls her eyes, exhibiting the same contempt I feel. I find myself warming to her for a second, before I remind myself that she is a woman who just purchased me. She is every bit as depraved as a man who would have done the same, and the fact she wants the handcuffs removed might only indicate that she is feeble-minded.
“I will give you the keys, ma’am,” he says. “You can unlock him in your vehicle. I advise having several others present. His capacity for violence is extreme, and he comes with baggage. Again, I advise you to reconsider your purchase.”
The suited guard talks about me as if I am not here, or as if I am, but not sentient. I am an unstable, aggressive shelter dog, being adopted to an unsuspecting new owner who will not listen no matter how much they tell her I have a tendency to rip faces off.
She ignores him completely and turns to me instead.
“You’re handsome. You’re going to scrub up well,” she says. Those are the first words she has addressed directly to me, speaking in a strong, feminine, rather husky voice. As if I care if I meet her aesthetic requirements. I think this woman is accustomed to getting what she wants. It was obvious they did not intend to sell me to her, but she insisted and she got her way.
I like will in a woman, or a man for that matter. Most people crumble when there are obstacles in their path, conforming to the world around them, squeezed by convenience and ease until they are empty people with no purpose or soul. I see purpose in this woman’s eyes. I see fire, and I see the cold anger of someone who has lost more than they ever had to lose. In a matter of seconds I know this woman. And I know something else too. I will find her weaknesses. I will exploit them. And then, I will be free.