“Seriously? Ten?” I shake my head but hand over the money for my coffee. It’s not like I have a choice in the matter. Without it, I’ll fall asleep before I get my shot and seeing as there’s not another cafe within walking distance, the barista smiling at me with coffee stained teeth will get his money.
I snag the cup offered and inhale the sweet scent of caffeine. It’s probably the cinnamon I’m smelling, but I lie to myself that the caffeine will work better if I can smell it, too.
The sun barely shines through the overcast sky, but it’s enough to make me put on my sunglasses. It’s going to be a long day, and I need to get my head on straight.
It’s taken me three years to get this opportunity, and I can’t blow it. Spending most of my savings, I’ve rented a small apartment above a flower shop and have bided my time.
Andrei Dowidoff’s home is nearby, a large estate an hour drive from London. It’s a damn fortress, but not without its weaknesses. I just need to find them – and someone willing to talk. Anyone at this point would be helpful. I just need a solid interview, just one.
Officially, Andrei isn’t being investigated by any department I’m aware of. He’s not the main target, but he’s a big player.
“Excuse me.” An older man with graying hair and deep creases around his eyes touches my arm as I walk past him. “I’m sorry, my car broke down. Radiator trouble, I think, and my cell isn’t working. Do you happen to have one I can borrow to call my son? He’ll come get me.”
I scan our surroundings. The morning rush around the coffee shop has died down and only a few cars pass us on the street.
“Sure.” I pull out my phone from the back pocket of my jeans and hand it over to him, unlocking the screen with a swipe of my finger before he takes it.
He thanks me and starts to punch in a phone number while I sip my coffee. His fingernails attract my attention. Trimmed low and clean. Not a spec of dirt or oil on his fingertips at all.
When I turn my gaze up to his face, I find him grinning at me. He shrugs, but before I can question him, thick fabric is smashed across my mouth and nose. A sweet pungent smell invades my senses as I struggle. Arms wrap around me from behind, and I throw my head back, aiming to hit the bastard’s nose. But I miss. My vision blurs. I try to hold my breath while I fight to break free, but it doesn’t take any time at all for the chemical to take over.
I drop my overpriced coffee. My muscles weaken, become heavy, and my struggles are too pathetic to do any good. The darkness takes over and wins.
Darkness almost always does.
My eyelids are heavy when I try to blink them open. A dense fog still fills my vision, and there isn’t enough light to give me any sense of where I am. An itch on my nose becomes annoying, and I try to lift my hand to rub it away. I can’t move my hands; they’re bound behind me.
Bound, drugged and alone with no idea of where I am or how I came to be here. I force myself to raise my head and get a good look at the room I’m in. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness enough to realize it’s more a cell than a room. The floors, the walls, the ceiling, all concrete. A single bulb hangs over my head, but it’s not lit. A thin line of light illuminates along the bottom of the only door in the room. It’s probably steel enforced.
Shaking my head, a sad attempt to rid myself of the lingering cloud, I try to focus my thoughts. Testing my feet, I realize my ankles are bound to the chair. My shoulders burn from the bondage. A burn I usually welcome, but this isn’t a dungeon. And there isn’t a safe-word that will get me out of whatever mess I’ve put myself in.
I inhale a deep breath, choosing to ignore the rotting stench of the room. I need to clear out as much of the chemical from my body, and cleansing breaths are as good as I can do being tied up.
The door creaks when it’s opened followed by a bright white light shining directly into my face. I clench my eyes closed and turn my head, not needing anymore discomfort. Booted footsteps head toward me, two sets.
“Good, you’re awake,” a deep voice says with a thick Russian accent. I open my eyes and look sideways up at him. He’s older than I would have thought from his voice. Thick dark hair with hints of silver at the roots. His mustache is pure gray, and the deep wrinkles on his brow giveaway that he’s past his middle age.
I blink a few times, looking past him. Another man, not as old, stands in the doorway, blocking most of the light and casting himself in a dark shadow. I can’t make out his features, but his large, muscular build is easy to see.
“I have to say, Danuta, I am surprised you were so easily taken. You’ve been a thorn in my side for too long, and so easily you were plucked.” His accent makes it hard to understand him through my foggy mind, but I’m pretty sure he called me Danuta.
It’s probably the drugs he gave me, but I start giggling.
“You – idiot,” I laugh and tug at my binds.
I’m rewarded quickly for the insult with a hard slap across my face. The pain radiates through my jaw and makes golden stars dance before me. Grunting, I shake my head. That didn’t help clear up the haze.
“Chertovski suka!” He spits on the ground at my feet. My bare feet. I ignore the fact that he’s just called me a fucking bitch and concentrate on my clothing, or lack thereof. I’m naked. Completely exposed.
He has my full attention now.
“I’m not Danuta,” I state, working my jaw open and closed. I press my knees together as best I can, given my feet are bound spread apart. “You have the wrong girl.”
He gets closer to me, and I can smell the cigar smoke on his clothes. His eyes narrow, and he examines my face, grabbing my chin and turns my head one way then the other.
“More light!” he yells over his shoulder and the bulb over me illuminates. I blink several times, it’s too much at first, but slowly I adjust, and I can see him more clearly. A deep scar runs across his chin, down his neck. I’ve heard about that scar. How he got it. I swallow hard. This isn’t a little game for ransom.
Fear floods my stomach, but I manage not to whimper when he increases his hold on me. Showing him my fear, letting him see how scared I really am will only fuel him. Monsters like him feed on it.
“Resemblance is too close.” He sneers at me, and I swallow back a smartass retort. My wit isn’t going to help me now. Not with Andrei Dowidoff. This man has no sense of humor. At least not the usual kind. His idea of a good time is skinning a man alive to see how long he’ll stay conscious.
The stories I’ve heard are enough to keep my mouth shut.
“I’m not Danuta,” I say again.
“I would think a CIA suka like you would have better tricks than lying about your name.” He lets go of my chin only to pat my cheek. “But we’ll see. I can easily give you an injection to make you talk. You’ll tell me everything I need to know, and you’ll be punished for your lies.”
The way he says the word punished makes my skin crawl. It’s not like when I usually hear the word. There’s no excitement, just raw disgust.
“I’m not Danuta. I swear it.” I jerk against my binds, but all that happens is I make him laugh. “Check my ID. It’s in my pants.” I look around the cell. “Where are my pants?”
“We did. All of your clothing and that little bag you had were inspected. You carried no ID.” He stands over me now, his hands on his hips.
I had my wallet. Didn’t I? I had money to pay for the coffee. Shit. I had grabbed the cash from my pocket. I must have left my wallet in my apartment.
“Even if you had it – IDs can be forged,” he says.
He’s right of course. How many IDs had I seen in my sister’s briefcase over the years? She’s been too many different people for me to remember. I have to convince him I’m not her. That he’s got the wrong girl and somehow let me go.
“I’m a journalist,” I blurt out. “I’m not Danuta. I’m not working with the CIA. I’m writing a story.” On him, but he doesn’t need to know that. I didn’t come to England looking to do an in-person interview.
“You disappoint me,” he says, reaching behind him. Producing a knife, I assume he had strapped to his belt, he holds it up for me to see clearly. The blade is wide and jagged. I have no doubt of the sharpness. Again, I try to jerk free, but nothing happens. The ropes dig into my wrists, but I don’t put any more room between us.
Pressing the cold steel blade against my throat, he brings his face closer to mine. “I should slice you, from one ear to the other.” His breath is heavy with cigar stench, and spittle lands on my chin when he gives his threat. “Maybe I cut you from chin to cunt, instead.” He drags the blade to my chin, nicking me with the tip. I clench my jaw but don’t make a sound. Any movement could make the knife cut deeper – and the asshole doesn’t need my help in hurting me.
“I’m not the woman you’re looking for,” I say again, softer, avoiding his eyes out of fear that I’ll start whimpering like the pussy he probably thinks I am. I’m not trained for this. I can only go on what I remember my sister telling me of her training, little bits and pieces of things I overheard her talking about with her partner when she thought I wasn’t listening.
But she never went over what to do if kidnapped by a high-profile Russian sex trafficker.
He drags the knife over my collarbone to my shoulder. “How is it you look like her then, hmmm?” He doesn’t let me answer, just stabs the knife into the fleshy part of my shoulder.
I can’t keep quiet now, the pain is blinding and quick. I scream out, a ragged sound. Tears form and fall down my cheeks. He pulls the knife out and presses it to my skin, a new spot, a new threat. Blood dribbles down my arm, droplets hit my thigh.
“I’m not Danuta!” I yell in his face.
He captures my chin with his free hand and turns my head until I can see his knife poised at my shoulder again.
“I swear it. I’m not her,” I whisper this time. “Please. I’m not her.” I plead in my mind for him to believe me. Because I’m not her.
“Tell me then. Tell me how you have her eyes, her hair, tell me.” I can’t see his expression. My eyes are focused on the knife, on the wound he’s already created. I can’t answer him.
“What do you think, Kristoff? Hmmm? Should we dose her with truth serum? Give her to the men? Maybe a dozen or so cocks shoved in her cunt and ass will help her speak?”
“It’s worked before,” the man from the doorway speaks. His accent isn’t as thick, his voice not as heavy, but just as full of authority. He has a hint of control in his tone, unlike Andrei.
“Answer me, suka.”
“I’m not her. My name is Magdalena,” I try again, sniffling and holding as still as I can manage.
He shakes his head like I’ve disappointed him again. Slowly, with purpose, he pushes the knife into my shoulder. It’s worse this way than the stab. I scream, cry out as more of the blade disappears into my shoulder. I try to move, try to pull away, but all that happens is a larger gash.
“I need more than that,” he says, starting to drag the knife toward me. He’ll flay my shoulder open if he keeps it up.
“I’m a freelance journalist. I’m writing a story on sex traffickers,” I cry out when he twists the knife. “I swear I’m not with the US government or any government.”
“You know Danuta then?” he accuses but doesn’t move the knife. So much blood covers my shoulder. My stomach swirls into nausea unlike any I’ve felt before.
I nod. “Stop. Please,” I beg, and hate myself for it at the same time. Danuta wouldn’t be so fucking weak. She would already be untied and have his throat between her hands.
Things won’t get better once I do. Things could get a lot worse. But the pain is too much.
“She’s my sister!” I say with the last gust of energy I have. “My older sister,” I whisper.
Andrei yanks my chin back until I’m looking right into his eyes. He’s searching me, to see if I’m lying probably. Like he’s a detective now. He has to know I’m telling the truth. Danuta wouldn’t have caved so easily.
He jerks the knife from my shoulder and a new burst of pain erupts. I scream, burning my throat from all of the yelling. My head drops forward when he lets go of my chin.
“You are a stupid girl,” Andrei says with disgust dripping from the words. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it, but it’s the first time I’ve agreed. Coming to Europe, chasing the story, may be the dumbest thing I’ve done to date.
“Your men grabbed the wrong girl – but I’m the stupid one?” I laugh between sniffles. I’ve never handled stress well.
“You want a story about sex trafficking? I will accommodate you.”
Pain bursts through my head and the lights go out again.