The next day Cynthia came by the room being used by Cecilia and Jason and knocked to wake them up. They had only slept for about four hours, but Cynthia was unsympathetic. That day, their first full day in Upper Danubia, would be a busy one for them. They had breakfast in the hotel and then walked past the Old City Wall back to the Central Police Station, where Kim already was waiting for them.
Jason and Cecilia spent the entire morning at Kim’s office. In that building they came face-to-face with the Danubian justice system, because they saw numerous naked criminals going in and out of the Spokespersons’ offices. Some of the criminals had very painful-looking switch marks on their backsides. Whenever a criminal greeted a Spokesperson, invariably they knelt and touched their head to the floor, as required by the society’s protocol for criminals.
Jason and Cecilia had to push aside the sheer weirdness of their situation and concentrate on their task at hand. Kim spent hours briefing the couple on the Danubian system for trying criminals, how testimony normally was given in court, how to address judges and other court officials, and even much smaller details such as when to salute and when not to salute. She then told them to type out their testimony on the computer in her office and suggested corrections. She played devil’s advocate, trying to make sure they understood clearly their roles in unraveling the coup and how they should answer questions from defense attorneys. Finally Kim had the two witnesses videotaped themselves practicing giving testimony in the booking room downstairs to review the next day. Within a couple of days Kim planned to have Jason ready to fulfill his Path in Life and speak clearly to the world about what he had done to stop his father’s ambitions.
By the time they finished with the videotaping it was mid-afternoon. They had a late lunch and then returned to Kim’s office, where Tiffany Walker was sitting at a desk going over a textbook. Upon seeing Kim she immediately stood up, moved in front of her and knelt.
“Good afternoon, Apprentice Lee. I am pleased you have safely returned.”
“Good afternoon, Criminal # 98946. I too, am glad that the Ancients kept you safe through the night. Please rise, so we may serve our purpose in life.”
Tiffany’s purpose in life became evident as soon as she was off her knees. It turned out that Kim and Cynthia would need to spend the rest of the afternoon helping translate the statements of several English-speaking mercenaries. It was likely that duty would take them well into the night. The departure of the Lee sisters drove home the stark reality that Jason and Cecilia would have to make their own lives in Upper Danubia as quickly as possible and not rely on Kim and Cynthia.
Tiffany told them that she would escort them to the university, where they would meet their Danubian instructor and get their first assignment for studying the Danubian language. Oh yeah… that’s right. On top of everything else, they had a new language to learn.
Tiffany asked Jason and Cecilia if they wanted to walk to the university, which was about a kilometer north of the hotel, or take a trolley. They decided to walk and enjoy the pleasant spring weather. Tiffany walked alongside them, completely naked except for her collar. She had a backpack full of books with her, but was carrying it, not wearing it.
“Sometimes I wish I could just put this on and free up my hands, but of course I can’t, because a backpack’s considered clothing. You know the rule, that we criminals can’t wear anything except in the winter, when we can wear boots.”
Tiffany’s statement about her backpack let Cecilia and Jason know that she was open to talking about her situation and available to answer their questions. At first the questions were general, about the university, how hard was Danubian to learn, what was the study schedule going to be like, but then gradually the questions shifted to Tiffany and her own life.
Cecilia and Jason were a bit taken aback when Tiffany described her former life in the U.S. as a stripper and meth user. She really had hit bottom and was just beginning the slow process of the lingering death of a meth addict when Kim showed up at the club's dance stage. The shock was horrible; that afternoon when Tiffany saw the friend she had betrayed sitting right at her feet with an infuriated expression on her face and two dollars in her hand. Kim was absolutely cruel over the next few minutes while “Willow” finished her dance, but out of that cruelty came Tiffany's salvation. Less than a week later she was in Danube City in a rehab program and beginning the long process of recovering from two years of heavy drug use.
Cecilia had a question.
“I was wonderin’ about something. Doesn’t it piss you off that Kim wants you to get on your knees every time you say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ to her? I mean, to see you do that, I just find kinda weird.”
“I’m a criminal. That’s what we have to do. It’s the way things are in this country and I’ve gotten used to it. But I’ll add something, maybe to make you understand why I don’t mind greeting Apprentice Lee like that. I’ve been off meth for almost two years. It’s because of her that I got off, and for that I’d lick her feet if she asked me to. If you haven’t seen meth, you wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from.”
“I ‘spose I do know. I haven’t seen meth, but I got a brother who was sellin’ crack when I was in school. I saw a lot of what that shit does to people, so I guess I know where you’re coming from.”
After a pleasant walk along a tree-lined street the three Americans arrived at the university. Tiffany took Jason and Cecilia to the instructor from whom they would be learning Danubian. She knelt and placed her head on the floor when she greeted him, because a professor was public official. Tiffany took an assignment out of her backpack and handed it to him before introducing the two new students.
With that another part of Cecilia’s life in Danube City was finalized, because the language instructor was the man who would be organizing the exchange program with Cecilia’s university in Chicago from the Danubian side. He would be setting up the orientation program and hiring the instructors to teach a crash-course in Danubian to new exchange students, the same program that Cecilia would be administering on a day-to-day basis.
The first class was simply learning the Danubian alphabet and a few short words to go with each letter. Jason and Cecilia left carrying homework assignments; letters and syllables they would have to memorize for the next day’s class.
Upon stepping outside, Tiffany took the two newcomers to a cafe at the university's language school. The university was set up very differently from a typical U.S. university, because instead of a large student center, each department had its own cafe. The closest thing to a central plaza was the courtyard in front of an old church that still was used for worship services and formal ceremonies. However, the university's social life revolved around the smaller cafes, not any centralized location.
Another significant difference was the lack of a stadium. There were no university-level sports teams per se, and the Danubian Olympic Team was not associated with the university at all. There was an athletic department, but its purpose was to run fitness classes for the entire university. All students had to exercise throughout their university careers by showing up for calisthenics sessions five days per week.
Another difference was the complete lack of dormitories. Almost all students commuted from their homes or lived with relatives. The few students whose families were too far to commute normally lived with family friends, or if there were no other options, in hostels run by the Danubian Church. Tiffany emphasized that there was no such thing as "living together".
Suddenly Jason and Cecilia had a sinking feeling. No living together, huh? It was Jason who asked the dreaded question.
"Tiffany, I think we're both kinda curious. Has anyone told you... what exactly our living arrangements are going to be?"
"Cecilia's probably going to be living with Victor Dukov's family, which is where I'm staying. One of Victor's sons just joined the Army, and so his room will be opening up in a few days. In other words we’re gonna be housemates, and I’ll be helping her with learning Danubian. As for you, I'm gonna guess you'll be at Spokesman Havlakt's place, since their kids are all grown up and they'll have room for you."
"But what about getting a place of our own, just us together?"
"Nope. Not gonna happen. And especially not with you two, because of your visibility. You're gonna have to put forth a good public image and show proper protocol. They're very strict about that in the Duchy. I’ll give you an example, me. I'm officially a member of Victor's household. My fiancée Vladik, even though he's a cop and Victor's nephew, still has to come over to dinner on Sunday afternoons and formally court me. Even though I'm just a meth head and a criminal, he’s still gotta do it. I never did anything formal in my life before I left America. But, now here I'm having to do all that formal courting stuff, just like any one else."
"It's not that bad, really.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound all that good.”
In a lot of ways their protocol makes things easier. The Danubians aren't as concerned about where you come from or what you look like as much as they're concerned about "haráshkt jettít", or "the proper way to live". They want you to play by their rules. They're real big on that. You learn their rules and protocol, and they'll treat you just like anyone else. Once again, I can give you my own example. When I was starting out in the drug rehab program… well you know, I was coming down off both meth and heroin. I wasn’t a pretty sight and I had these horrible mood swings. About a week after I started rehab, I snapped at one of the doctors and cussed him out. I did it in English and I thought they couldn’t understand me, which was dumb of me, because my tone of voice made what I was saying obvious. The intern confronted me, but I told him I never said anything to the doctor. What’s interesting was that all of the other patients quit talking to me, because I broke protocol and then lied about it."
“So what happened?”
“I had to take a switching, and that was my first lesson about the values here. What happened was that at the hospital they switch you for stuff like disrespect, but in my case they were going to cut me some slack because they thought I didn’t know what I was doing, you know, being a foreigner and not speaking the language. I thought about it and figured: screw it. Just 'fess up, take the consequences, and get it over with. Once I apologized and took the strokes, that was it. It was as though it never happened after I admitted I was wrong. That’s all they wanted, just for me to say I was wrong.”
Once they returned to the hotel, Tiffany stayed with Cecilia and Jason to help them with their language exercises. Finally Vladik Dukov showed up to take Tiffany home, and also came with the news that his father was coming back the next day. The first trials would start within a couple of days, because the Prime Minister wanted to resolve the situation of the mercenaries as quickly as possible.
Once Tiffany and Vladik left, Jason and Cecilia went to the pool for a swimming lesson, and then back to the hotel room. They spent a long time making love, first by massaging each other, then with a round of oral sex to bring her to orgasm, then a straightforward round of sex. Best to take advantage of the hotel room while they could, because they doubted they would be spending any time together in Victor’s house.
A very depressing thought…
The next day Jason reviewed his testimony on video while Kimberly Lee suggested changes and other ways to improve making himself understandable to a Danubian audience. He would have to speak in English and she would translate for him.
Cecilia and Cynthia also would have to testify, but Jason’s statements would be by far the most important of the three. Cecilia would testify about relaying the phone call and Cynthia would testify about her trip. However, Jason would need to explain what set off his curiosity about his father’s conversations, how he recorded the cassettes, and how he got into his father’s office and scanned the information. He would identify the six cassette tapes and three CD’s and state when he recorded each one. Identifying the recordings in turn would allow the prosecutor to use the items as evidence against the three Mega-Town employees; one of who was conversing with Mr. Schmidt while Jason was recording his voice.
Jason did have one problem. He had to protect Rita, the maid who opened the door for him. To do that he would have to claim he got the door open without any assistance, but to that Kim countered: “Just don’t say anything about how you got the door open. I bet that question won’t even come up unless you bring it up yourself. You went into the office. Period. If they ask you whether the door was locked you’ll tell them it wasn’t, which is true. Precisely at the moment you went in, that door wasn’t locked.”
Late that afternoon Kimberly Lee relayed the news that she and her sister, as well as Jason and Cecilia, were invited to have dinner at the Prime Minister’s official residence. Vladik and Tiffany also would be there, to allow Tiffany fulfill to her social obligation to dine every so often with her future in-laws.
The dinner was going to be strange one, because so many things were going on at once. Dukov genuinely wanted to have a social gathering and get together with his family, the Lee sisters, and Jason and Cecilia to chat with them socially, but unfortunately, there was important business to resolve as well.
Late in the afternoon Kim told Cecilia and Jason to put on their best clothes. For Jason that meant choosing which suit looked best, while Cecilia simply would wear her Danubian dress and shawl. The Lee sisters showed up in formal dresses accompanied by Tiffany who, as always, was completely naked.
Shortly afterwards, five Americans, four of them formally dressed and the fifth completely undressed, made their way around the Old City Wall towards the Prime Minister’s official residence. Kim explained to Jason and Cecilia that they would follow her lead and salute the Prime Minister and his wife when they came out. However, once the official greeting was over, they should expect Dukov to converse with them just like he would with anyone else. Maritza did not speak any English at all, while Vladik and Anyia spoke it badly, so there would have to be pauses for translating.
The residence was a very pleasant 18th Century Mansion, full of antique furniture and portraits of past Dukes and Prime Ministers. Once they arrived, the guests stood at attention, waiting for the Dukov family to come out and greet them. Vladik opened the door and held it for the rest of his family. Once Dukov was in sight the others saluted him, with the exception of Tiffany, who dropped to her knees and touched her head to the ground. Dukov returned the salute and asked Tiffany to stand up. That was it for formality, and a few seconds later everyone was inside seated at the dining room table.
There was the obligatory “how was your trip” part of the conversation, followed by the Prime Minister’s description of his trip to Greece. He gave an update on the status of the prisoners and mentioned his negotiations with other foreign leaders in his efforts to get rid of the lower-ranking fighters through repatriation.
Finally, Dukov discussed two important issues affecting the country. The Parliament of his country’s southern neighbor finally ratified the border treaty negotiated earlier in the year and a signing ceremony was slated for then end of June. Teams of surveyors already were setting up markers along the areas were the border was being changed.
The second announcement was the apparent capitulation of the EU over the trucking route destined to bisect the eastern part of the country. It turned out the coup attempt swung public opinion in many countries in favor of Dukov and other leaders felt forced to meet his demands. The road would be built, but paid for by the EU, not Upper Danubia. Only Danubian workers would be used in the construction, which pretty much would resolve the unemployment situation in the eastern provinces. What was even better, the EU had re-issued its invitation for Upper Danubia to join, but with several major concessions not included in the original treaty. It was clear that Dukov had played on a feeling of international guilt to obtain maximum advantage for his country.
“There is one concession I needed to make to my counterparts,” concluded Dukov, “and that was my promise not to execute any of the prisoners we convict from the coup. In the beginning it will be very difficult to explain that concession to the Danubian people. The citizens of this country are very angry and wish to paint the streets with the blood of our attackers, but now will be unable to do so. It is a dilemma for me, but perhaps one less than people think. Through our laws, I intend to resolve the dilemma to the satisfaction of the Danubian nation.”
Dukov moved on to Jason’s situation. He was very grateful to his young guest and made that clear. Then he questioned the college student about what he knew about Mega-Town Associates and his father’s role in the coup. Dukov did not understand what a lobbyist was, so Jason and Cynthia spent several minutes educating the Prime Minister about that aspect of U.S. political life.
Jason’s host was curious to understand his reasoning for turning against his father, since doing such a thing was not at all common in the Duchy. It was Cynthia who had to translate, not the English, which the Prime Minister understood very well, but the more intangible language of honor, fairness, and idealism. She explained that Jason felt his father had dishonored the Schmidt family by becoming involved in the coup plot. Jason’s motivation for helping the Danubians stemmed from his belief that he needed to redeem his family’s honor. Jason believed that his path in life was to restore the honor of his family, by undermining the dishonorable actions of a member whose soul had become damaged by greed.
It was very strange for Jason to hear his own motivations translated to allow a foreign mind with a different way of viewing the world to understand them. Jason simply would have said “I didn’t think what my dad wanted to do was fair.” However, he realized that the words Cynthia used for expressing his motives were just as true as his own words would have been, just phrased differently.
Jason realized something else at that moment. His concerns went way beyond his own family’s “honor” and what he saw as “fair” and “unfair”. He hated the corporate culture and ideology of greed that his father and Mega-Town Associates represented and defended. He decided to add another dimension to Cynthia’s explanation about his motives, trying to use the Duchy’s values to explain himself.
“Prime Minister Dukov, there’s more to this than just the honor of my family. I think we’re also talking about the honor of the United States. I don’t want the people of Upper Danubia to think that everybody in my country likes what’s happening. I think that most people in the U.S. don’t like it at all, what these corporations are doing to the world, but we don’t know what to do about it. Corporations like Mega-Town… like you’d put it… are poisoning our souls and dishonoring our people. What I did was to try, as an American, to prevent something that would have made the whole country look bad… or… I guess as you’d say it, dishonor us… I mean like… dishonor America. And… I mean… when I go to court… I want to tell you… and tell the world… that we Americans aren’t all like that. We’re just not. We’re not all like those Mega-Town CEO’s. That’s just not the way most of us think. I want you guys to get that…”
“So you consider what you did much more than just an issue of your family’s honor?”
“A lot more, Sir. It’s about all of us, all of us Americans who just are sick of the big guys always getting their way, and making the rest of the world think we support them.”
“Very well, Jason, I believe your thoughts are something our people should hear. You will honor us if you provide that statement in court. I think those words, coming from you, will help begin to heal the hurt and the anger of the Danubian people against the United States. To me you seem a person of great honor indeed, and I believe that not only the Danubian nation, but perhaps also the American nation, will ultimately be blessed by having you walk among us.”
The following Monday, over the furious objections of their defense attorneys, the trial of Mega-Town Associates Executives Richard Moore, Joe Guerra, and Jeff “Cutter” Stern got underway. The Chief Justice of the Danubian Supreme Court announced that, no matter what the defense attorneys wanted, the trial would begin, because keeping the lower-level mercenaries confined much longer in their current condition was not acceptable.
Before the trial, the judge issued a stern warning to the defense attorneys that, in Upper Danubia, a defense counsel was not permitted to commit any act in court with the intention of deceiving the judge. Evidence could be challenged only if its veracity could be called into question, and the same went for witnesses. There was no such thing as a motion to delay due to technicalities. Also, the sole purpose of a trial was to determine guilt or innocence of the defendants.
The judge had a final statement to the lawyers, “I want you to understand we are conducting this proceeding to find out the truth about your clients. You will make no attempt to conceal that truth or construe the facts to allege untrue events or motives. Perhaps such things are acceptable in the courts of your country, but they are not acceptable to the government of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. If I catch you making any effort to deceive me, I will prosecute you for perjury, which in the Duchy carries a 20-year sentence as a convicted criminal. We have 549 cases to resolve, and no one in this country has time to listen to any deception.”
Of course, the judge’s instructions to the trial lawyers neutralized many tactics they would have used in other countries. There would be no trial delays, no omitting of evidence unless it was proven to be false, and above all, no efforts to deceive the people running the proceedings. A trial that in other countries might have lasted for months would be resolved in Danube City within a few days.
The government’s plan was to prosecute the Mega-Town Executives first and make and example out of them. To legal experts following the trial, the strategy seemed rather odd, given that the normal strategy was to prosecute lower-level members of the conspiracy first, get them to testify, and then work up to collecting evidence against the organizers. However, the participation of Jason Schmidt removed the need to conduct the trial in the normal manner. The documents Jason provided the Danubian government, plus his father’s recorded conversations to someone he called “Cutter” on the phone, provided the evidence of both their actions and their motives needed to convict the Mega-Town executives of several serious charges. These included attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to wage war against the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, insurrection (because they were planning to be in Upper Danubia during the coup), and the illegal importing of weapons and explosives into the Duchy.
The conversations and documents from Jason’s three CD’s and six cassette tapes would be the main part of the case the prosecutor was presenting against the CEO’s. Jason’s role in the trial would be to verify that he was the source of the evidence and explain how and when the CD’s and cassette tapes were created. Cecilia would verify that she placed Jason on contact with Cynthia Lee, who in turn would verify that she was the person who transported the evidence to Upper Danubia and helped translate the contents. Vladim Dukov and several officers from the Danubian Secret Police would describe how they reviewed the information and used it to intercept the coup’s participants. Finally, the officers arresting the CEO’s would present additional evidence seized from them that matched the information Jason had provided.
Under Danubian law, the evidence was enough to convict “Cutter” Stern and Richard Moore of capital offenses. Guerra’s chances in court were much better, because the direct evidence against him was not nearly as strong. However, upon being convicted “Cutter” and Moore would be offered a choice, either face the firing squad or testify against Guerra and get life terms. Assuming that Stern and Moore were not particularly courageous men (which they weren’t), the hope was they would provide information about the coup not included in Jason’s documents to convict Guerra, and in doing so save themselves.
The next phase would be to resolve the bulk of the cases of the lower-level participants in the coup. Dukov already had promised to extradite the nearly 300 foreign participants to their home countries, but they had not been told about that arrangement and were terrified. Many of them were providing valuable information that would be used to prosecute the field commanders and coup organizers, whose trials would take place immediately after the Mega-Town convictions.
The Danubian government hoped that the easy conviction of the top-level conspirators in the case would scare everyone else involved into cooperating. The message would be very clear: we don’t need to make any deals with you, because, as you can see, we even had the evidence we needed to convict your bosses. We got them, and now we’ll get you. Tell us what you know about the coup, and maybe we’ll be lenient.
Jason Schmidt, Cecilia Sanchez, and Cynthia Lee, accompanied by their police escort, left the hotel and walked past the Old City Wall to get to the Central Courthouse. It was a beautiful May morning, a harbinger of plenty of nice hot summer days the three college students could expect to enjoy in that peaceful city. At that moment the world seemed to open up to them, as each step towards the courthouse was a step closer to fulfilling a very important part of their Path in Life.
For the first time in several years, Jason felt completely at peace with himself. Today was the day he would make the final break with his corrupted past. The wall in his soul, the barrier that separated the person who he had been from the one he would become, already was in place. Once he left the courtroom in the afternoon, that wall would be complete. He could never go back to who he had been just a few weeks before.
The three college students and their police escort made their way past the security cordons and tanks guarding the Central Courthouse. The two cops seemed relieved once they actually made it into the building, because their duty to safely deliver their witnesses was completed. Kimberly Lee and Vladik Dukov approached the three Americans and led them into the main trial chamber. Kim took them directly to the witness box, because she expected that at the very least Jason would be giving his testimony later in the day. Knowing how important his evidence was to the entire case, the trial judge had no intention of letting Jason out of his sight until he had given his crucial statement about the CD’s and cassette tapes.
Jason felt a tug at his arm. Cecilia, with her usual sarcastic smile, grabbed his tie and straightened it. She brushed off his jacket and then squeezed his hand as they sat down. As always, she wanted her man properly dressed and looking presentable, not looking like some MTV groupie.
The judge entered the courtroom and stood at his desk. The entire room, including the witnesses, saluted.
Three arrogant looking middle-aged U.S. citizens, dressed in black robes and restrained by chains, entered the courtroom with their police escorts. They were visibly infuriated. Mega-Town Associates’ CEO’s simply are not treated this way by a country as pathetic as Upper Danubia. They made that clear even before their lawyers had a chance to greet the judges. It was obvious they were not off to a good start, and equally obvious they did not realize the seriousness of their situation. Of course they were going to get out of these ridiculous charges…
The judge began with reciting the facts of the case. All three men, along with their personal bodyguards, were picked up in their hotel suites by uniformed officers of the National Police Force of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia early in the morning on April 21. From the rooms of Moore and Stern, the police officers recovered multiple documents indicating the two men’s prior knowledge and participation in a planned armed insurrection against the government of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, to be followed by a similar such insurrection against the government of the country’s southern neighbor.
The Prosecutor presented the documents into evidence, following the statements of the police officers making the arrests.
The chief of the Danube City precinct testified next, relating that, on April 16th, he had received direct orders from the nation’s Prime Minister to locate the defendants and detain them on the morning of the 21st. The defendants entered the country on April 17th via the King Vladik International Airport, and were placed under surveillance pending their arrests four days later.
Vladim Dukov spoke next. Even though he was the Prime Minister, he had to salute the judge as a subordinate, because the judge was the boss of the courtroom. In this trial Dukov was a witness, just like any other, and had to address the judge as such. He described drafting the arrest warrant as part of a major security operation aimed at disrupting an armed insurrection against the Duchy. He described what he knew of the plot at the time, but with emphasis on explaining why he decided the three defendants needed to be detained.
For the record, the judge had a question, “Prime Minister Dukov, you are stating that your actions against the defendants were based on prior knowledge of their intentions?”
“Yes, your honor. My decision to detain the defendants was based on information I obtained on April 7th of this year.”
“Would you please describe this information to the court?”
Dukov cited numerous scanned documents, calling out the items by their assigned document number. As Dukov cited the documents, the Prosecutor displayed them on a screen from a projector attached to a laptop. The laptop contained copies of all the files scanned by Jason.
Rage and horror swept through the faces of the three defendants. So the Danubians did have someone working for them on the inside! Then, “Cutter” Stern, the man who had talked to Jason’s father, glanced over and recognized Jason. Holy shit! That’s Schmidt’s kid! What the fuck is he doing sitting in the witness box of this courtroom?!
Dukov continued testifying, citing enough documents to convince everyone that the arrests certainly were justified given the circumstances. Then came the question: where did you obtain these documents? To answer that, Dukov to ceded the witness stand to the American Cynthia Lee. Cindy described how she found out about the CD’s and cassettes from the Cecilia Sanchez, how she drove to Wisconsin to retrieve them from Jason Schmidt, and finally her trip from Milwaukee to Danube City. She handed her plane ticket stubs to a court assistant to enter into evidence.
Jason’s “little crack whore girlfriend”, as Mr. Schmidt described her, testified next. She did a very good job toning down her accent as she described getting a call from her boyfriend Jason Schmidt during Spring Break. Jason had informed her that he had obtained information about a possible assassination plot against Vladim Dukov and coup attempt against the country’s southern neighbor. She relayed how she contacted Cynthia Lee and how she convinced Cynthia that she needed to drive to Wisconsin to retrieve the CD’s and tapes to give to Dukov.
Jason was up next. Given that he was the Prosecutor’s star witness, on other countries the Mega-Town defense attorneys would have attacked him statement by statement, but in this trial, no such interruptions were permitted. Jason would tell his story uninterrupted, with a translation provided by Kimberly Lee from English to Danubian.
Jason identified himself in court and began by explaining what he knew about his father’s relationship with Mega-Town Associates. He admitted that he was not very familiar with what his father did, but then went on to quote various comments his father had made throughout the previous year indicating his opposition to the Dukov government. Finally discussed his father’s strange behavior during Spring Break that alerted him that something was not right.
He moved on to describing the events that first night in the basement, the night he made his first recording. He quoted what he remembered his father saying that sparked his interest, and then what led him to record his first cassette. The prosecutor held up a plastic bag with a cassette tape.
“Mr. Jason Schmidt. Is this exhibit the tape you recorded?”
After Kimberly Lee translated the question, Jason examined the cassette.
“Yes sir. This is the first tape out of the six I made. This date and time is my handwriting, what I put on it so I wouldn’t mix it up with any others.”
“Why did you make this recording?”
“I made it, at first I mean… because I wanted to know what was going on. I mean… my dad was talking about shooting, and pumping rounds himself, and killing kids, and the airplane crash… I mean, I was curious to know what he was doing.”
“Do you remember the moment your thoughts moved beyond curiosity and you decided to take action to undermine your father’s intentions?”
“Yes sir. I remember the exact moment. It was the moment my father attacked my girlfriend’s honor on the phone. When he did that, my thoughts about him changed and I decided to see what I could do to stop whatever it was he and his group were planning against your country.”
“Is that comment recorded?”
“Yes sir. I asked the Court to key the first tape to that part of the conversation, because that’s what got me pissed off… I’m sorry… I mean offended, and it’s kinda important for understanding why I did what I did.”
That was the signal for the court assistant to play the following comment. There were a lot of cracks, background noise, and static, but the words were recognizable:
“…you know, my idiot son’s little crack-whore girlfriend actually likes that fucking commie bastard. You should've heard her last Thanksgiving… it was kind of funny to listen to her, when you think about it. ‘’Isn't that up to the Danubians? It's their country. Don't they get to choose who's gonna lead 'em? Isn't that what democracy's supposed to be all about?’ Well, at any rate, it’s gonna be a hoot looking at that little cunt’s expression when you guys have things wrapped up. I’m gonna have to get my moron son to bring her back just so I can see that little bitch’s face....”
The Danubians were shocked when they heard Kim’s translation. Under no circumstances would parents in the Duchy ever refer to their son’s girlfriend in such terms, even if they did not like her.
Jason continued, “My dad’s like that. His soul is damaged because he hates everyone. It’s not just me and Cecilia that he talks like that about, it’s everyone, my mom, my sister, my cousin, everyone. I guess… that night, I just got tired of it. I got tired of him and his stupid scams and his idea that money is more important than people. I just got sick of it.”
One by one Jason identified the other cassette tapes as the court played excerpts to demonstrate their relevance to the case. Finally Jason described how he made the three CD’s. He discussed his reasoning for scanning what he scanned, how long it took him to load the contents to each CD, and the steps he took to clean up his sister’s computer after he finished. He emphasized that even though he had used her computer, Cassie had absolutely no knowledge about what he had done, nor did anyone else in the household.
The Prosecutor continued, “So when you finished recording the CD’s, what did you do next?”
“For a few minutes I didn’t do anything. I mean, when you discover something like that, it kinda takes a while for it to sink in. I felt totally sick… I mean to know my dad’s capable of doing something like that… it kinda blew me away. Then, I went over to my grandma’s place and called Cecilia. I told her what I had found out, and she told me she’d call Cynthia Lee and ask her what to do. Cynthia came up to Wisconsin the next morning and picked up the CD’s, and that was it as far as what I did. A couple of weeks later Cecilia and me spent the night watching the news when the cable channels were showing the press conference about the bomb.”
“But, Mr. Jason Schmidt, your participation did not end when you gave the American Cynthia Lee the recordings. You decided to come here to the Duchy and appear in front of us to explain this evidence. We, in the Duchy, were very concerned about trying to process this case in a way to protect your identity, but you ignored our concerns and chose to come anyway. We believe that you have placed your life in danger by standing up like this and presenting yourself to this court and the world. I commend your courage, but I think our people are curious to know why you came here. What was it that motivated you to come here and help us?”
“I came here because Cynthia Lee told me that she wasn’t sure you’d get convictions against some of the defendants, unless you could present the evidence that allowed Prime Minister Dukov to stop the coup in court. In other words the stuff I got for you. You were in a dilemma about how to prosecute without making your cops commit perjury. So, I felt I needed to finish what I started. I want to make sure the truth about all this comes out. I want to make sure that the people of Mega-Town lose a round or two and maybe get forced to take their hands off your country for a while.”
Jason waited for Kim to translate, and then continued, “The other reason I came here is because of, as you guys would put it, honor. My honor, my family’s honor, and my country’s honor. My father has dishonored himself all of his life with his greed, and I have dishonored myself by living off his money. I came here to redeem my honor, and to redeem my family’s honor. What my father and his partners wanted to do to your country was dishonorable, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. What I ask, on behalf of the other members of my family, is that you can forgive us, because my dad doesn’t speak for the rest of us. None of the rest of us knew what he was doing.”
There was another pause while Kim translated, and then Jason repeated what he had told the Prime Minister the week before.
“There’s a lot more to this than just the honor of my family, because I’m also talking about the honor of the United States. I don’t want the people of Upper Danubia to think that everybody in my country likes what’s happening. I think that most people in the U.S. don’t like it at all, what these corporations are doing to the world, but we don’t know what to do about it. What I did was to try, as an American, to prevent something that would have made my whole country look bad, or, as you say it dishonor us; dishonor America. I’m doing this, I’m testifying for all of us Americans who just are sick of the big guys always getting their way, and making the rest of the world think we like what they’re doing. I don’t support what Mega-Town has done to the world. I don’t like the corporation and I’m opposed to the values people like these three defendants have promoted.”
With that Jason returned to the witness box and squeezed Cecilia’s hand. Then he exchanged glances with “Cutter”, who was staring at him with pure hatred. Jason sat back and looked at the prisoner with complete calm. It doesn’t matter anymore, “Cutter”, ‘cause I’m done. I’ve told my story, and now you’re gonna get convicted. Hah! So you were wondering who turned you guys in. Had a bunch of private investigators running around all over the US trying to find out who it was. Well, now you know. Surprising, huh? The Schmidt kid… who would have thought that? The idiot Schmidt wimp and his “crack whore” girlfriend. We were the ones who fucked up your plans, and now you’re goin’ down.
There was a brief break for a very late lunch, and then the trial continued with the speed typical of the Danubian justice system. Several lower-level mercenaries were brought into the courtroom to identify the three defendants and verify some of the information on the maps that Jason had scanned. It turned out that Jason’s CD’s were the gift that kept on giving, because many of the scanned documents matched or complimented documents seized from various mercenaries during their arrests. The noose tightened around the three CEO’s as the evening progressed and more and more witnesses confirmed what they were doing in Upper Danubia.
The first day of the trial adjourned at 10:00 p.m. nearly 14 hours after the proceedings started. There would be just enough time for everyone to go home, get eight hours of sleep, and return the next day to continue. During the second and third days of the proceedings, Jason and Cecilia could just sit back and enjoy watching other witnesses come forward to confirm the details about the testimony presented on the first day.
Jason felt deep satisfaction from knowing that even if he was killed, no longer would his death do anything to avert the looming fate of his father’s associates. Hour after hour he sat with his eyes glued to “Cutter” as the testimony dragged on.
In the end the defense attorneys did not have many options when their time came to counter the Prosecutor’s case presented during the week of the trial. Because of Danubian property law, they could not challenge much of the evidence, in spite of the fact that Jason had recorded the documents without his father knowing about it. In Upper Danubia personal property always belonged to the entire household, never to any particular individual within the household. Danubian law mandated that, because Jason was a member of his father’s household, anything that went on in the house was fair game as far as collecting information was concerned. The same was true for entering his father’s home office and using his sister’s computer. There was nothing illegal or questionable about what Jason had done, because the Danubians considered those resources communal property of all four members of his family.
None of the evidence collected during the arrests in April could be challenged without good reason, nor could any of the mercenaries’ statements identifying their superiors be thrown out. In such circumstances, a Danubian Spokesperson would not seek to challenge any evidence, but instead try to find circumstances to mitigate the alleged motives of the defendants and have the charges reduced. The problem was, there were no mitigating circumstances. There was no doubt whatsoever why Richard Moore and “Cutter” Stern had traveled to Danube City. There simply was too much evidence, real and circumstantial, that proved their intentions. The evidence did not directly implicate Guerra, but the Prosecutor already knew how to address that issue. More testimony would be forthcoming very quickly, the statements needed to convict the third defendant.
Thursday afternoon of the following week, just ten days after the trial began, it ended for two of the defendants. Richard Moore was found guilty on all counts, while “Cutter” Stern was cleared on the weapons charge, but convicted of everything else. Guerra’s case would not be adjudicated that day.
The verdict? Death by firing squad, to be carried out Saturday morning at sunrise in the courtyard of the Central Police Station. Suddenly the entire courthouse, as well as the crowded Central Plaza outside, began shouting:
“DOC-DOC DANUBE! DOC-DOC DANUBE! DOC-DOC DANUBE! DOC-DOC DANUBE!”
That night, as reporters converged on the Central Courthouse and filmed the jubilant crowds outside the National Parliament Building, frenzied negotiations were taking place between the attorneys of various defendants and the Prosecutor’s Office. Dukov’s cold calculation was paying off as suspects stepped forward to plea and testify to avoid the death sentence. Police video cameras rolled and translators stayed up all night as defendant after defendant confessed to his part in the scheme and named his associates.
Of course, the defense attorneys of Moore and Stern were desperately trying to save their own clients’ lives, and in doing so played right into the Prime Minister’s hands. Sure… your clients can avoid the firing squad… if they talk…
And talk they did. Moore and Stern turned on Guerra that Friday. Guerra struck back and further implicated the other two, as well as giving up information on the U.S. Commercial Attaché who still was trapped in the Embassy. Moore and Stern then turned on each other and offered additional testimony to convict the field commanders and CEO’s back in the U.S.
Saturday came and went with no executions, but during that time the Danubian nation listened transfixed to TV’s and radios as one revelation after another came out about the details of the coup. Throughout the following week the foreign defense attorneys attacked and undermined each other as the entire proceeding degenerated into a massive fight between various defendants and their councils. The capitol’s newspapers printed everything their reporters could get their hands on by press time. More and more unsavory details came out about Mega-Town Associates and the cowardice and ruthlessness of its leaders.
As the revelations continued pouring out in court during the third week of trials, the Danubian National Police quietly began deporting lower-ranking mercenaries whose home countries had promised to prosecute them. By the end of the week the number of low-ranking foreign suspects still being held in the country had dropped to under 100. The remaining prisoners would be leaving the country as soon as their home countries promised to put them on trial, not before. By the end of the fourth week yet another 50 would be gone.
Meanwhile, the prosecutions against 23 higher-ranking defendants continued. In the end, they showed themselves for what they were, men with absolutely no concept of honor or loyalty, not even to each other. They became nothing to the Danubians, pathetic shells of human beings with broken souls. The public demands to execute them died down, because they were too contemptuous even to warrant the dignified death of a formal execution. Let them live out their lives, in absolute disgrace.
Unfortunately for the defendants, there was such a sentence under Danubian law, a lifetime of absolute disgrace, or “life without honor”. A sentence of absolute disgrace ensured that Dukov could keep his promise to foreign leaders not to execute any of the prisoners, but at the same time satisfy his own people’s thirst for revenge. In Upper Danubia “a life without honor” was the lowest a person could sink, a lifetime of insult even worse than death.
After three weeks of trials and sensational revelations, 26 naked, chained defendants crossed the Central Plaza with their police escorts one last time to receive their final sentences. The group included the three Mega-Town CEO’s and 23 other higher conspirators.
When they entered the courtroom, the judge gave a short speech to the defendants. They had proven themselves greedy, bloodthirsty thugs and cowards, incapable of demonstrating any kind of loyalty, even to each other or their bosses at Mega-Town Associates. They had chosen to live in dishonor, and thus would continue to live in dishonor.
“We gave you the opportunity to end your lives in dignity, but you proved afraid to face the Creator with your actions. Instead you chose to continue dishonoring yourselves with your betrayals of each other. In this country, no matter how heinous a criminal you may be, we expect you to at least uphold the trust of your peers. You failed to do even that. I therefore have no reservation of implementing our harshest punishment, a life without honor.”
An ominous silence settled throughout the courtroom as the criminals were collared, one by one. While the collaring continued, workers spread out several tarps along the edge of the room and erected fencing normally used to corral animals. Why the tarps and fencing were necessary would become evident momentarily.
Once collared, the criminals were forced into a kneeling position by several cops threatening them with electric cattle prods. Meanwhile, 26 young and middle-aged women lined up at the foot of the judge’s desk. One by one they signed a contract and each was handed a police switch. None of the women had kind expressions, because each one was the widow, the sister, or the mother of a soldier or police officer killed in combat the month before. The contracts allowed each woman to continue receiving her loved-one’s salary in exchange for taking responsibility for carrying out the pending sentence against one of the criminals. The women saluted the judge, who stood up and saluted back.
The rear door of the courtroom then opened and two cops wearing pigs’ masks stepped in and saluted the judge. The crowd started laughing, and laughed even harder upon hearing the following announcement.
“The mistresses have arrived, your honor.”
“Very well, show them into the courtroom. Our defendants shall be honored to meet their new custodians.”
The crowd started chanting:
“NÁK SVINIÚKT POKCHÚKT VÁSHU! HADNÁSH ONÁCKT HARÁSH!”
Cynthia leaned over to Jason and Cecilia to translate, “They’re chanting, ‘the pig is your mistress, serve her well.’”
As the chant grew louder and louder, 26 young sows suddenly ran through the backdoor into the courtroom. The animals grunted and squealed as they ran along the fencing and clustered into a makeshift pen near the judge’s bench. Obviously they were scared, being in a strange place with hundreds of people chanting in the room. However, the 26 sows had nothing to be scared of. They were destined to enjoy very pampered lives as a result of the pending sentences.
The sentencing judge assigned each criminal to a “mistress”: one of the breed sows. Each animal was issued a certificate of custody that obligated the criminal to spend his life catering to her needs. The conditions of care were very exacting and strict, forcing each criminal to maintain his “mistress” in pristine condition at all times. To enforce the conditions of the sentence, the National Police had hired the 26 women, paying them their dead husbands’ full salaries. All day, every day, each woman’s only duty was to stand over her assigned criminal with a switch and make sure his pig was properly cared for. She was free to beat the convict as much as she wanted, since the normal restrictions protecting criminals did not apply in a sentence of “life without honor”.
The dishonored criminals would not be allowed to roam freely within a collar zone, but instead would be restricted to wherever the pig was being kept, which in most cases would be a rural police station. Wherever the sow went, the criminal in charge of her had to go. The criminal could not let the pig out of his sight, ever, not even at night when the animal went to sleep.
Police officers quickly separated sows, chained criminals, and enforcers. Each group was led them out of the courtroom and into the plaza, where the angry crowd continued to chant:
“NÁK SVINIÚKT POKCHÚKT VÁSHU! HADNÁSH ONÁCKT HARÁSH!”
As police vans took the coup leaders away to live out their bleak lives scattered about the country, Cynthia commented, “Sometimes dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. The foreign governments thought they got themselves a deal, by forcing Prime Minister Dukov to promise them he wouldn’t let the police shoot the coup leaders. But he had to do something to ‘em, ‘cause this country had to have its revenge. You do something bad in the Duchy, and you’re gonna suffer for it. That’s the way people here think. This just isn’t a ‘forgive and forget’ society.”
Later that night, Prime Minister Vladim Dukov watched the tanks and Army trucks move out of the Central Plaza. The capitol would be returning to normal, now that the trials had ended and the convicted conspirators had been shipped out to the provinces. The other foreigners were gone as well, quietly deported while the nation’s attention was focused on the sensational revelations coming out over the last two weeks.
Dukov was relieved. He was grateful to the Ancients that the world did not have to witness the spectacle of mass executions that seemed inevitable just two weeks ago. He had managed to settle the entire matter in a way that satisfied everyone except the 26 men who most deserved to be punished. In the eyes of the Danubian nation, their humiliating sentences overshadowed the deportations of the others. In the eyes of foreign governments, the deportations of their citizens overshadowed the 26 sentences. Now everyone could move on, because the crisis had passed.
Once the Plaza was cleared of military equipment, Dukov re-entered the Central Police Station to watch the sorting of the impressive collection of weapons and ammunition seized the previous month. A wealthier country might have simply destroyed the arms in a public ceremony, but Upper Danubia could not afford such wasteful luxury. Instead, the chief of the Danube City Precinct of the National Police would have to distribute the weapons to various police stations around the country to replace their aging arsenals. Hundreds of Danubian police officers would be getting new issues, courtesy of Mega-Town Associates.
Much later, Dukov excused himself and walked alone through the quiet entryway of the National Police Station. He stepped outside, and proceeded to the middle of the Central Plaza. The Plaza was completely empty after having been packed over the last month with soldiers, police officers, and demonstrators. The only other person within sight was a single street sweeper, and she was too far away to recognize the lone figure as the nation’s Prime Minister.
A new day was coming. Dukov could see it: a faint lightening of the sky to the east. A new day for Upper Danubia. A new hope for the Danubian people. The defeat of the nation’s enemies, a secure southern border (which would be finalized in just two weeks), jobs for the restive eastern provinces, the safeguarding of the nation’s natural resources, and a re-negotiated entry into the European Union. The Ancients had blessed the country after all.
It’s been a very hard two years since I took office, thought Dukov to himself, but I think we will succeed and take our proper place in the International Community. I think we will be able to join the world on our terms, not someone else’s. But of course, we must not be complacent.
Another thought went through the Prime Minister’s mind, his next idea for bringing his country’s ambitions in line with its reality.
The name of our country, the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, is a lie. We are not a Duchy. We haven’t been since 1942. And there is no such place as Lower Danubia. That hasn’t existed since 1502. The only Danubia is the one that exists today. There is no other, and if the Creator is willing, never again will we have to change our borders. I want our people, and the world, to understand that reality.
As the pre-dawn sky brightened, Dukov began pondering a proposal to officially change the country’s name. He mulled over several possibilities, but finally two stuck in his mind: the Republic of Danubia, or simply, Danubia. As soon as things settled down in Parliament, he would address the nation and suggest the change. Many people would not like it, but the country needed to have the debate as a nation. The symbolism would be extremely important, because the best symbols are always the ones that reflect reality, not wishful thinking.
Dukov noticed more pedestrians milling about. It was time to leave, because certainly people would find it strange to see the Prime Minister standing alone like a statue in the Central Plaza. It just wouldn’t look right. He entered the Parliament Building to get a few hours of sleep in his office.
Throughout the trial Jason wondered about his father, while he was taking this, knowing that at least some of what was going on in the courtroom would be making it to the international news services. Undoubtedly his father would fly into a blind rage, but then, what would he do next?
The answer to that question was… nothing. A dead man does not react to bad news, at least not in any way that is perceptible to those of us still in the realm of the living.
Mr. Schmidt may have been a greedy heartless sociopath capable of doing anything to further his ambitions. However, there was one flaw he definitely did not have, and that was the temptation to surrender to defeat or to despair. Despairing over his circumstances was not in Mr. Schmidt’s character. When faced with adversity, he always managed to pull out of whatever situation confronted him at the time and push ahead with his ambitions.
The events of April 21st and 22nd were the largest setback in life that Mr. Schmidt ever suffered. He was horribly in debt because of all the money he had borrowed to invest in the coup project. He would have to start over, and start over very fast, if he did not want to have to declare bankruptcy and sell his house and other holdings.
His associates were ruined and faced ostracism from their beloved Mega-Town Associates. “Cutter” Stern, the closest person in his life he had to being a friend, now was chained up in a holding cell in Danube City and faced being shot. He wondered if “Cutter” could get out of his situation, but more importantly, hoped that the prisoner would have no reason to bring up his name in court. If “Cutter” kept his mouth shut, many of the secrets the two men had shared would be blasted away by a Danubian firing squad. Too bad for him, but maybe it was just as well.
Mr. Schmidt spent the last week of April and the first two weeks of May working on damage control and a recovery plan. The shareholder meeting that ended his associates’ careers came and went without his name coming up. It seemed that he would escape being identified by his company as a participant in the disastrous coup project because he managed to hide most of his contacts with the other coup plotters. That piece of luck led him to suspect there was a very good chance he could find new clients and indeed start over. He would quickly rebuild his finances through both honest and dishonest means. The rest of the year would be crucial. As long as he could at least make interest payments on his debts for the next six months and replace his clients, he should be OK.
Of course that meant that the wimp’s college expenses would have to be cut, along with the Chicago apartment and… wait a minute. Screw cutting the apartment. I’ll cut the house instead and dump everyone. Really start over. No house, no family, no overhead. Get rid of everyone and everything and just start over. Why not? When they come after me… guess what? Sorry… no money… if you don’t believe me, check my bank statements. You’re on your own…
During the second week of May, Mr. Schmidt managed to set aside some cash for day-to-day living expenses as he prepared to sell the house and cut loose his family. While doing that, he continued to work for Mega-Town Associates, assisting the company’s campaign to repair its public relations. He became the most likely candidate to actually head the new lobbying project, because he certainly seemed to have done his research about the recent disaster in Eastern Europe.
There was another secret project in which he was participating, and that was finding out who had provided the information to the Danubian government. In spite of being broke, he contributed money to a team of private investigators determined to find out who had given the information to the Danubians. He and the others were genuinely interested in finding out the truth, and if possible, retaliate. At the same time he wanted to be in on the project so he could keep his eye on the other conspirators and not get hit with any nasty surprises.
The first week of the investigation pursued a dead end, the Danubian Embassy in Washington. It was a logical place to start, and a hefty payment to a Danubian diplomat assured the investigators a list of everyone who had contact with the embassy during April. Several promising leads led nowhere, which prompted the investigators to look at the Mid-West Foundation and its contacts with the Dukov government. An economics professor called Ruth Burnside seemed to be cozy with Vladim Dukov, but there was no indication that she knew anything about the Mega-Town coup project.
Then they hit upon something. The Foundation had a graduate student called Cynthia Lee as one of its members. It turned out Lee was the sister of that singer from the banned group “Socrates’ Mistresses”, that she had traveled frequently to Upper Danubia, and currently was nowhere in sight. Further investigation revealed that early in April she had bought a ticket at the international airport in Milwaukee to go to… Danube City. She had gone for just a week, came back to finish the semester, and then took off again. Suddenly Cynthia Lee became the investigation’s main target. It looked like they were closing in…
Then, Mr. Schmidt remembered Jason mentioning something about knowing someone called Cynthia, a graduate student. The wheels of suspicion ran in the man’s mind as he suddenly realized he had not heard from the wimp since the semester ended. So, just where was he? A call to Jason’s dorm director verified that yes; he had gone traveling with his girlfriend Cecilia Sanchez, to Europe, if the man recalled correctly.
That was as far as Mr. Schmidt got.
The day “Cutter” was scheduled to go on trial, Jason’s father returned home to his oversized house to clean out his home office. The place was eerily quiet. Something didn’t feel right, but he decided to shred some papers and then take out several boxes of folders from his desk. Later he’d have to dismantle his computer and load it into his car as well.
As he re-entered the house, that eerie feeling returned. Weird. He decided to go upstairs to see if anything was wrong. As he climbed the stairs he noticed the sound of a hair dryer coming from the Master bedroom. That figures. It’s nearly noon and that lazy bitch probably just got out of bed. Blow-drying her hair for her tennis undoubtedly. Well, you dumb cunt, you won’t be playing tennis on my dime much more.
What was odd was that the hair dryer sound was steady, not the normal whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of his wife moving it about her head. She must have left it on and gone out. Of course. Fucking useless bitch can’t even flip a switch anymore.
As Mr. Schmidt went towards the bathroom he noticed blood seeping into the carpet next to the door. What the hell? He moved closer and saw his wife’s foot lying in a pool of blood on the floor. As he moved towards the door the rest of her body came into view. Her head was a shapeless mass of hair and blood. There was a red splatter pattern on the far wall indicating that she had been killed by a single shot to the head. The hair dryer, hanging by its cord over the floor, gently swung back and forth.
Mr. Schmidt realized right away that his own life was in danger. He knew that it was not his wife they were after, but him. He needed to get out of the house and call the police. Yes, the cops would suspect him of killing his wife, but he had no choice. Unfortunately he did not have a gun with him, but there was one in his home office.
He rushed out into the hallway…
As he turned around, all he saw was a flash. He felt a tremendous crushing blow to his chest. He was flung against the nearest wall, bounced off and tumbled to the floor. He felt another shattering blow to his right leg, a shot that splintered the bone and sent blood splattering out the other side.
“So, faggot, you gonna beat me up? Huh? Still think you can do it? Come-on, ass-man, try it. Beat the fuck out of me!”
Breathing suddenly became very difficult for the ex-linebacker. He began feeling cold. With difficulty he turned his head in the direction of his assailant. Standing over him was Cassie’s pothead ex-boyfriend. It was obvious he was high on something. He had that weird, wild look in his eyes. He pointed his gun right at Mr. Schmidt’s head.
“Yeah, we fucked up those pretty boys real good. Fucked ‘em up. They weren’t so pretty when we got done with them. So how about it, ass-man. You gonna fuck me up?”
“Uh… you’re still… uh… uh… a fuckin’ faggot… shot me… no guts… couldn’t take me… uh… man to man… uh… uh… faggot… that’s all you are… faggot.”
Mr. Schmidt saw one final flash, the one that blew his head apart. It was the last thing in his life he would ever see.
The bloody drama in the Schmidt house was far from over. The young man fired a couple more shots into Mr. Schmidt’s body, just to get the satisfaction of watching the blood splatter out of the wounds. He popped another ecstasy tablet and reloaded his gun. He wasn’t finished using it.
Fucking bitch Cassie… I’m takin’ her out too. But I wanna see her fuckin’ face when she sees what I did to her fuckin’ dad. Fuckin’ bitch… she’s goin’ down. Just like her fuckin’ old man… fuckin’ bitch… I’m drilling her fuckin’ head…
Unfortunately, the next person showing up at the house was not Cassie, but the Schmidt’s maid Rita. Unaware of what had happened upstairs, the young Salvadoran rushed into the kitchen, worried that she had missed her bus and was running nearly 40 minutes late. It was not the first time she had been late to work, and Mrs. Schmidt had warned her that if she ever was late again, she would be fired and a formal complaint filed to her maid service. Rita was very stressed, hoping to enter the kitchen and quietly start cleaning before Mrs. Schmidt realized anything was amiss. She noticed something strange, the home office door was open and piles of files were stacked on the floor. That worried her, because Mr. Schmidt absolutely never left that door open. Rita’s mind immediately jumped to that morning she let her boss’s son into the office, making her even more concerned that her job might be in jeopardy.
On any other day her instincts would have warned her that something in that house was very wrong and that she needed to get out, but on that day the eerie silence only made Rita more focused on getting set up in the kitchen without anyone noticing she was running so late. She began quietly at first, arranging items to make it look like she had been working for a while, and then deliberately started making enough noise to let Mrs. Schmidt know that she was cleaning. What she could not have known, without going upstairs, was that her bosses no longer were alive to hear her.
The clatter of pans in the kitchen and the sound of the dishwasher alerted the teenager that he no longer was alone in the house. He staggered down the stairs, reeling from his latest dose of ecstasy, which was just starting to take effect. The loud hum of the dishwasher and Rita’s preoccupation with the pans masked the sound of the killer’s steps and condemned the young woman to the same fate as her employers…
The teenager rushed into the kitchen and wildly fired into the figure standing at the sink. As several bullets tore into her back, Rita’s body bounced off the counter and collapsed on the ground. The young woman lay motionless as blood poured out of her chest onto the kitchen floor.
The killer gloated over what he had just accomplished as he incoherently stared at the body. Then slowly it dawned on him that the person lying at his feet was not Cassie. What he felt was not regret or horror at the thought of killing someone completely innocent, but instead intense anger at his latest victim. He landed several kicks at the corpse and fired a shot into her head, just to be sure…
Fucking stupid maid.
So he wasn’t finished after-all. Still had some shooting to take care of...
He went back upstairs, emptied his pistol into Mr. Schmidt’s already mangled body, and reloaded.
Fuckin’ bitch… now I’m gonna get her… really get her… shoot her in the fuckin’ stomach… yeah… that’s what I’ll do… shoot her in the fuckin’ stomach… fuckin’ bitch… just wait ‘till she gets here… shoot her in the fuckin’ face…
A few minutes later Cassie did show up, with her latest boyfriend. She found it strange that both her parents’ cars were at the house at that time in the day, but maybe they weren’t around… or her dad was in that stupid office of his, doing God knows what. As she passed the office she noticed two strange things. First the door was open. Second, all of the files were lying on stacks on the floor, as though they were about to be taken out.
“Dad? Mom? Anyone home?”
She turned to her boyfriend.
“This is weird. Something’s going on…”
“You stay here. I’ll go upstairs and check it out.”
With that he slowly walked up the stairs.
“Mr. Schmidt? Are you up here? Anyone… FUCK!”
Three quick shots rang out, shattering the teenager’s head and chest. His body came tumbling back down the stairs. Cassie got a glimpse of his face, partially blown away by high caliber bullet. She started screaming. Then she saw the murderer, his gun pointed right at her…
He hesitated, as incoherent drug-addled thoughts caused his brain to stall for a second. That second saved Cassie’s life. She ran like hell towards the kitchen, only to be confronted with the horror of Rita’s body lying in a pool of blood. The girl screamed, but a crash in the hallway made her start running again. She tore open the sliding glass door and ran into the back yard.
The assailant chased her down the stairs, but tripped over his latest victim’s body and tumbled to the hallway floor. He dropped the gun and it slid to the other end of the entryway. He struggled up to retrieve it, but the sudden exertion, mixed with the chemicals swirling around his brain, completely disoriented him.
Cassie… Oh yeah… she wasn’t dead yet. He staggered to the kitchen, just in time to see her figure disappear through a gate in the back fence.
Cassie ran around to the front side of the neighbor’s house and into the open garage. Her neighbor was painting a birdhouse with his grandson.
“HELP! HELP! HE’S KILLED ‘EM ALL! THEY’RE ALL DEAD! HELP!”
“HE’S GOT A GUN! HE’S GONNA KILL ME! HELP ME!”
“Get inside! Both of you!”
As Cassie and the child ran into the house, her neighbor hit the remote to close the door. Down… down… down… yes! Just in time. Suddenly there was furious banging on the outside.
“OPEN UP! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU IF YOU DON’T OPEN UP!”
The older man ran inside and grabbed a shotgun off his living room mantle. He screamed at his wife to get Cassie and the grandkids upstairs while he struggled to load it with shotgun shells. He cocked the weapon and waited.
So… how’s he gonna get in?
The shattering of glass at the front door answered his question. Sure enough, a glass pane was broken and a hand was reaching through to unlock the door. The experienced duck hunter pointed his weapon and waited…
The door flung open and the older man pulled the trigger. Clear shot to the chest… good. A nice clean kill. That’d fix that little punk.
Following the trial, Jason and Cecilia faced the reality of having to live their lives as a normal unmarried couple in Danube City. What that meant was staying with families in two separate houses and adhering to the social norms of one of the most conservative countries in Europe. They could see each other whenever they wanted, were free to travel about Danube City and to any other part of the country, and could spend their time as they pleased. What they could not do was sleep together. Sleeping together came to an abrupt halt the day they checked out of their hotel room.
Vladik Dukov came by in his police van to pick up the three Americans from their hotel rooms the day after the trial ended. They had different destinations: Cynthia would stay with her sister Kimberly and her husband Sergekt Dolkiv, Jason would stay with the Prime Minister’s friend Alexi Havlakt and his wife, and Cecilia would stay with the Prime Minister’s brother.
Both Jason and Cecilia knew that they could expect to be treated kindly by their host families and that the arrangement was necessary to make sure they lived in houses of people the Prime Minister could trust. He valued their contribution to his country and wanted to safeguard their lives. He also wanted to make sure their difficult transition to a life in the Duchy was made as easy as possible by people guaranteed to treat them well.
There was another issue that concerned the Prime Minister, and that was the public image of Jason and Cecilia. Like it or not, the Americans now were public figures in the Duchy. They were unofficial representatives of the United States and would serve an important role in helping to soothe the anti-American sentiment now sweeping the capitol. They absolutely had to lead honorable lives that satisfied the social norms of the country and present themselves to the Danubian public as living proof that not everyone from the U.S. was a money-grubbing degenerate.
Following the trial Jason and Cecilia would have to follow daily routines typical for any unmarried young Danubian. In spite of their huge contribution to the country, the special treatment Jason and Cecilia received from their hosts would be rather modest. They were given what Dukov considered necessary to lead secure and productive lives, including full university scholarships and student visas, free study materials, a small weekly allowance for entertainment, and free room and board. They were expected to use those resources to move ahead with their career goals, but also they were expected to fit into the culture of Danube City. Their moment of notoriety came and went, and now it was time for them to live normally and settle into the society as ordinary citizens. They had been assigned their place in Danubian society, which would only change if they got married or left the country. They would move in with Danubian families and be subjected to the expectations and restrictions typical of most “proper” households.
Before the newcomers had a chance to balk at their situations, Kim was quick to explain the Danubian concept of “household”. A person who lived in a Danubian household was considered a full member of that family, even if he or she was unrelated. Being a member of a household was crucial to ensure that the newcomers were respected by everyone around them. “The household” was an important part of every person’s identity under Danubian protocol. Over time, as their ability to speak the language improved and they settled into a daily routine, which household Jason and Cecilia belonged to would be more important in the minds of the Danubians than the fact they were foreigners.
Kim cited her own life as an example of what was expected of the two newcomers. When she was first sentenced and placed under the custody of Vladim Dukov, the Spokesman faced a very difficult situation about what to do with her. Finally, since she had nowhere else to go and was under his custody anyway, he simply decided to make her a member of his household. At first he did not tell Kim that her arrangement with his family was likely to be permanent, just in case it did not work out. However, over time Kim learned that she had entered into an unspoken, but official agreement with the Dukovs. The agreement allowed Kim full use of anything in the house, but at the same time imposed responsibilities very similar to those imposed on Anyia Dukov, who was 14 at the time.
Whatever objections the couple might have to the restrictions, their situations did give Jason and Cecilia an immediate feeling of belonging. Being members of households also kept them busy. The Havlakts expected Jason to help with gardening and house repairs. Alexi Havalkt never asked Jason do anything by himself, but if he was outside in the yard or working on the house, he expected Jason to drop what he was doing and go out with him. Cecilia, as a member of Victor Dukov’s household, had to go shopping with Tiffany and help her carry groceries at least three times a week. On top of the shopping, there was always the intense cooking required for the weekly Sunday dinners for Vladik and Jason.
There was a final detail about their lives that Cecilia and Jason would only discover much later. The Prime Minister and several of his cabinet ministers, along with the members of “Socrates’ Mistresses”, had pooled money out of their own salaries to support them and finance their university enrollments. As much as he wanted the country to express its gratitude to the two young Americans who had saved his government, Dukov felt it was inappropriate to take money out of the national budget for what he considered a private matter. He did not want the young couple to feel obligated to the Parliament, nor did he want any Deputies to question why Americans were getting public money that could have been used to help Danubians. Instead he and the people close to him made their own arrangements to help Jason and Cecilia set up their lives in Danube City. It was a question of honor, for both the Prime Minister and his guests.
Kim addressed another issue that had been in the back of Cecilia’s mind, but had been afraid to bring up to anyone. She had been wondering how she might be received in a society that was the most isolated country in Europe and had seen very few non-Europeans. Somehow, Kim had picked up on Cecilia’s unspoken anxiety and decided to bring it up herself.
Kim admitted that the Danubians were very closed-minded about the outside world. The country felt besieged by foreign influences, which was why foreign music and entertainment were very much frowned upon. There was only grudging acceptance of any foreign fashion influences, and Kim speculated that the society never would accept any clothing such as swimsuits that directly manifested foreign values. The Danubians were especially hostile to any perceived threats to their traditions, such as being told their legal system was deficient or that they needed to change their faith. That embedded hostility explained why recently passed laws prohibiting the proselytizing of non-Danubian religion were very popular among the public.
“They’re totally adamant about the whole religion thing. You have these foreign missionaries coming into the country, telling people here that they’re going to Hell because they’re following beliefs that are 3000 years old, and yes, they get offended. Really offended. It’s not something they’re interested in hearing, so they made it a crime to promote any foreign religion in Upper Danubia. Even the Prime Minister, who’s probably about as open-minded a person as you’re going to get in this country, puts his foot down when it comes to religion. On that he’s as intolerant as anyone else.”
So the question remained, how was it that Kimberly Lee, who was not from the country and not even European, could find herself fully accepted by the Danubians? The answer was that she had become one of them in her habits, her outlook in life, and in the way she carried herself. During her two-year sentence she had internalized Danubian values and morals. Her friends and her lifestyle were Danubian, and she usually wore Danubian clothing. As for her hair, it always was done up in traditional braids.
“If you really want to fit in, do your hair up like I got mine. If you do that one simple thing, you’ll be sending a signal that you understand this country’s values and are willing to accept them in your life. As long as you don’t challenge the way people here think and make that clear to everyone, they’ll accept you. They don’t care about your skin. They care about what’s in your heart.”
Cecilia sighed. She was not thrilled about the closed nature of Danubian society, but at the same time was relieved that she would be judged depending on how she behaved, no so much on how she looked. She felt somewhat reassured that she controlled the extent to which she would be accepted.
She took a chair and sat down, allowing Kim to braid her hair. It turned out that her friend was right about the hairstyle. When Cecilia went back out on the street with her hair braided, she noticed far fewer curious looks from passers-by.
Cecilia heaved a sad sigh as she got off the van and let Victor Dukov and Jason help her unload her suitcases. Jason could not follow her in. He would be invited over for dinner Sunday afternoon. It would not be proper for him to enter the house anytime before the first formal dinner.
Tiffany Walker helped Cecilia get her suitcases upstairs and set up her room. Cecilia’s room was nice, with solid furniture and plenty of room to hang her clothes and keep her things. The room had a radio but no television. The window overlooked a tree-lined street that led westward to the National University, which was only about five blocks away.
Tiffany helped Cecilia unpack and put away her clothes. Cecilia noticed Tiffany looking at her clothing with interest, as the naked young woman asked what kind of clothing had become popular in the U.S. during the two years she had been living in Danube City.
Tiffany then invited Cecilia over to see her own room. Tiffany had a computer and several shelves of books. There were study materials on her desk and pictures of herself and Vladik Dukov on her dresser. There were also a bunch of pictures of her family members in the U.S. and of several young women, who she explained were co-workers at the strip club where she had been working before coming to Upper Danubia.
What struck Cecilia about her housemate’s room was the complete absence of any clothing. The closet was empty, even of hangers. There was only a single item Tiffany was ever permitted to wear during the summer, and that was a pair of orange tennis shoes when she rode her bicycle. If she wasn’t on the bicycle she had to take them off. Another thing about Tiffany’s room that struck Cecilia was that her bed had a sheet covering the mattress, but no covers. Tiffany explained that as a criminal she was not supposed to cover her body, not even at night. As best she could, she adhered to that condition of her sentence. Except during the coldest part of the winter she slept on her bed completely uncovered.
Tiffany talked about her daily life, which actually did not seem all that bad. She had a fairly normal relationship with Vladik, in spite of being a criminal engaged to a police officer. She went on to explain that he had been performing public penance when she met him. Essentially penance gave him a social status no better than that of a criminal and not much better than her. She comforted him during a very difficult time in his life, while he helped her adjust to the reality of her sentence. When he ended his penance Vladik flatly told his parents that he wanted to become engaged to her. He proposed the previous summer and gave her the three engagement presents that always accompanied a formal proposal.
Tiffany talked about their social life and their frequent evenings in the Socrates Club. Cecilia was curious, “So you’re always goin’ there? Just to dance and listen to a bunch of people talk about their lives? Doesn’t that get boring after a while?”
“No. That’s not all we do, Cecilia. Most nights we go upstairs, you know, to the intimacy rooms. I think Vladik would go nuts if we couldn’t go upstairs.”
“The rooms, you know, for making love.”
“They actually got that?”
“Sure. I mean it’s just for members, but that’s one thing out of a bunch of things they do to try to make our lives a bit better. You know, it’s tough being a criminal, but in some ways I think our lives are easier than most people here. The society doesn’t have the same expectations of us, and we don’t have to be so stuffy in our day-to-day living. We can hug each other, show our emotions, make love when we want… in a lot of ways our lives are a lot more natural than average people. Kim can tell you… she and Sergekt were a lot different when they were criminals than they are now.”
“What about Vladik?”
“When he’s on the street, he’s a cop. When he’s in the club with me, he’s my guest and no better than anyone else. And, that’s good for both of us. If it weren’t for the club, we’d have a real hard time finding a place we could spend time with each other… you know, like alone…”
Cecilia’s heart jumped. She had dreaded the possibility of being forced back into a life of celibacy, even though her emotional relationship with Jason was stronger than ever. So there was a place where people could go to make love…
“What do you gotta do, to be able to use those rooms?”
“You have to be a member of the club, or the registered guest of a member. But you gotta remember the club is mostly for criminals. To be eligible for membership you have to be collared. If you’re not collared they’ll let you onto the main floor, but you can’t use the upstairs rooms or the gym, not unless you’re the guest of a member who is collared.”
“So you gotta be convicted of something, right?”
“Or performing public penance for the Temple. The club considers a person performing penance a criminal as far as membership is concerned, because they’re officially wearing a collar.”
Cecilia was quiet, as she contemplated that interesting piece of information. The two Americans then heard a voice calling them from downstairs. It was Mrs. Dukov.
“Deevonay étek Cécilekt, yahúk hochtúckt yeestesh dék?”
Tiffany answered back.
“Doc-doc. Nam dék idém.”
She turned to Cecilia. “Lunchtime. Let’s head downstairs. After lunch we’ll go out and I’ll show you around the neighborhood.”
While Cecilia was getting to know Tiffany, Jason was struggling to communicate with Alexi Havlakt and his wife. He quickly settled into his room and joined them for lunch, then sat for a long period of time while they showed him a bunch of pictures of their kids as they were growing up. Of course, because of the language barrier, Jason did not have a clue about who were the people in the pictures. Sometime in the future he would have to see the pictures again, when he could figure out what on earth the older couple was saying.
Seeing the pictures reminded him of something. He needed to call his grandmother and ask how she was doing. As he thought about that, sitting in the living room looking at a bunch of pictures of people he did not know, the doorbell rang. Mr. Havlakt answered it and let in Cynthia and Kimberly Lee.
The two women did not have happy expressions on their faces. Kim briefly talked to Alexi Havlakt, whose expression suddenly changed and became very serious. It was Cynthia who took Jason outside.
“Jason, I got a question for you. Have you… ever talked to… talked to anyone in your family since you got here?”
“Uh, no. I’ve been kinda afraid to, you know, ‘cause everyone’s been saying I’m in so much danger and I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
“You’re grandma called this morning… she called my parents, and then she called me at Kim’s place. She’s gotta to talk to you, like… right away.”
“About my folks?”
“Are they OK?”
“No. They’re not OK. They both got shot last Monday… I mean Monday of last week.”
“Shit… I… didn’t…”
“It wasn’t because of anything you did. From what your grandma told me, Mega-Town had nothing to do with it. What happened was that some ex-boyfriend of your sister showed up at the house completely stoned and just started shooting… first your mom, then your dad, then one of your maids, and then one of her friends. What’s weird is the police think that what he really wanted to do was kill Cassie, but it seemed she was the only one he didn’t get. She got away, ran next door, and when the guy followed her, your neighbor shot him.”
“And they’re all dead?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What about Cassie?”
“She’s in the psychiatric ward at the Carterville Community Hospital right now. I mean, she saw her friend’s head get blown off and his body come down the stairs. She actually saw that guy get killed. And then seeing your maid shot up in the kitchen… and with your folks dead too… and her ex-boyfriend… she’s pretty messed up. I suppose I’d be pretty messed up too, if I saw all that.”
Finally Jason nerved himself to call his grandmother. He expected her to be distraught, but she seemed perfectly calm. She spent the next hour filling in the awful details about his parents’ deaths. Jason was surprised when he found himself much more upset over Rita’s murder than over the shooting of his own parents, and only later would understand why. Even in death, his father had managed to destroy the life of someone totally innocent. Mr. Schmidt’s actions had managed to take one final person to the grave with him.
Jason’s grandmother told him another detail, which made him understand why she did not mourn the death of her son. She had gone through his papers and realized how he was planning to deal with his financial problems, by cutting his ties to his family.
“You have to realize your father was a very sick man, Jason. I’m not surprised by anything that’s happened. I knew it was coming. And as for your father, I stopped grieving for him a long time ago. He’s been dead for years.”
Jason’s grandmother went on to describe the funeral of his parents. The only three people present were herself, Jason’s aunt on his mother’s side, and his fat cousin. No one else attended, not even Cassie. She was too distraught to even think straight and spent the day under sedation. None of Mr. Schmidt’s business partners attended, nor did any of his co-conspirators. He was dead, thus his usefulness to them had ended. In contrast, Rita’s funeral had been attended by nearly 200 friends, relatives, and co-workers from her maid service.
The conversation moved on to Cassie. She had calmed down enough that she would be released from the hospital the following week. Jason’s grandmother already had a room in her condo set up for her, since the girl had no where else to go. It would be very hard, because Cassie was completely withdrawn and uncommunicative.
“Grandma, do you think there’s anything I could do for her?”
“There will be, but not yet. When the time comes, when it’s safe for you to come back and she’s ready, I’ll need you to come get her. But that’s not going to be for a while. I’ll tell you, when it’s time.” Jason heard his grandmother sigh over the phone. “I’ve got a very hard summer ahead of me, dealing with what’s happened to your sister, but right now there’s nothing you can do about it. Just be thankful you got away when you did.”
By the tone of her voice, Jason knew his grandmother was not finished relaying bad news. She drew a deep breath and continued, “There’s more, Jason. Do you remember when you told me that you thought your father put his own money into the coup and you thought he got wiped out financially?”
“You were right. It turns out he took out several mortgages and was nearly four million dollars in debt. Your house just got seized and the banks are still fighting over it. They grabbed everything: the property, the cars, even the furniture. That includes whatever you might have had there. It’s all gone. They wouldn’t even let me on the property to get any of Cassie’s things.”
Jason was glad about the house. Good riddance. He was more convinced than ever that it was the house that had destroyed his family. As for the fancy furniture, he was glad that would be gone as well. Whenever he went back, there would be nothing to remind him of the hellish existence his family had endured during the final year of his parents’ lives.
Jason thought of something else, the neighbor he barely knew who had saved his sister’s life with his shotgun. He was curious, “Grandma, I know this is kinda a dumb question, but what’s gonna happen to our neighbor? You know, the guy who saved Cassie?”
“Him? Nothing. They’re not gonna press charges. How could they? It was self-defense. That kid was breaking into his house with a loaded gun. He had just shot four other people and was trying to kill your sister. I don’t think there’s a jury in Wisconsin that’d convict him. I sure as hell wouldn’t.”
The following Sunday Jason went over to Victor Dukov’s house for dinner for the first time. He was dressed in his best business suit, the one he had worn on the first day of the trial when he testified. Alongside him stood Vladik Dukov. The two men were there to “sit at the table” of Victor Dukov, the head of the household in which Cecilia Sanchez and Tiffany Walker were staying. The dinner was an important occasion for Jason, because until he had sat at Victor Dukov’s table, the society dictated he did not have the right to visit Cecilia at the house during the week.
Cecilia was dressed in her formal Danubian gown, while Tiffany stood beside her completely naked. She was wearing Vladik’s engagement jewelry, which was the only detail from her normal appearance she could change. The dinner, with its fancy dishes and formality, came and went. Once the dinner ended, Victor Dukov granted Jason permission to start seeing Cecilia, something he already had been doing in the U.S. for nearly a year. It was an absurd situation, but they were in Upper Danubia, and protocol came before anything else.
Jason invited Cecilia to go for a walk and work off the large dinner. They had to change out of their formal clothes because of the hot late afternoon sun. Cecilia changed into a simple one-piece sundress that was in fashion in the capitol, while Jason changed into a very old pair of pants and a short sleeved shirt. They spent a long time walking along the shaded sidewalks along the East Danube River. They passed several river beaches full of nude swimmers and sunbathers, but neither had any desire to go swimming, in spite of the heat. Instead they walked quietly, as though something was compelling them to make their way towards the Old Temple.
They passed their former hotel and the outer watchtower of the Old City Wall on their way to the Plaza of the Ancients. They passed the entrance to the Temple and decided to stop at the café where Kim’s husband had worked years before when he was a criminal. By pure chance they ran into Cynthia Lee, along with her sister Kimberly and her brother-in-law Sergekt. All three were dressed in black prayer robes.
Pure chance… or was it?
It turned out that Cynthia had decided to pursue her plan to perform public penance. She was very nervous, because her intention was to perform penance for at least the duration of the entire summer. She added that she probably would perform penance much longer than that, perhaps through the end of September of the following year.
“I’m kinda nervous, because once I start, I’ll have to keep my collar on until the Ancients give me a sign I can take it off. I have no idea when that’s gonna be, but I’m gonna have to wait for a sign.”
“What kind of sign?”
“I don’t know. That’s what’s so scary about what I’m about to do. I’m gonna be surrendering control over my future to the Ancients, and I don’t know when they’ll give it back to me.”
The thought of public penance stuck in the minds of both Jason and Cecilia. Neither was aware the other had secret thoughts on the matter, but that was about to change.
It was Jason who asked the first question. “You know, I’m… kinda curious. Do you think… maybe I could… could talk to one of the Priests about penance? I got some questions… and I… with my dad… and my family… and the whole coup thing… I don’t know how to handle all this. I’m curious… just kinda got some questions…”
“Sure, they’ll talk to you. If you want, I can translate.”
Cecilia looked at Jason and drew a deep breath. “I’m gonna want talk to one of those Priests too.”
Kim and Cynthia looked at each other with bewildered expressions. It could not be a coincidence that Jason and Cecilia would just happen to show up in front of the Temple of the Ancients a few minutes before Cynthia was about to be collared. Their two friends had been brought to them as part of their Path in Life. It was obvious they were destined to go into the Temple, and in some way or another come out changed before the night was over.
It was Kim who took charge of the group. “Cecilia, I want you to come with me. Jason, you’re going with Cynthia. Start thinking about your questions, and we’ll translate for you.”
Kim turned to her husband, and in Danubian asked him to go into the Temple and find the Priest who had converted Cynthia. He would need to explain that there were two foreigners who were seeking counseling. As Sergekt entered the Temple, Kim turned back to Jason and Cecilia.
“There’s something I gotta tell you about the Temple before you go in. Whoever you talk to is going to try to see into your soul and figure out what you need. If they think your soul is damaged, they’re gonna tell you what they think you should do about it. You don’t have to be a convert for them to talk to you, but you are going to have to take whatever they say seriously.”
Jason and Cecilia nodded. Sergekt came back out and summoned the others with a loud whistle.
Kim led Cecilia to a Priestess who had a particularly severe demeanor. It turned out she was the Priestess who had given the rough sermon at that nudist conference in Indiana back in February. Kim knelt, touched her head to the floor and then stood up. The Priestess saluted her and she saluted back. Kim began speaking to her in Danubian, but the Priestess stopped her.
“I speak to young woman in English. Maybe my English no good, but I listen her
word and look at her eye. She talk, I listen.” She turned to Cecilia and asked
her a question that surprised her,
“Why you come to Danube City? Why you here in Duchy?”
“I… ’cause of the trial… ’cause I had to testify…”
“No… that no reason… you say me why you here. Say me real truth, why you here.”
“I… I ‘spose I came here ‘cause of my boyfriend, Jason. I… didn’t want him to have to be by himself, you know… alone… dealin’ with…”
“No… that no reason. Truth is YOU no want to be alone. You no want to live without Jason. Jason come, you come. Because you need Jason, no?”
“I… I ‘spose that’s true. I didn’t wanna live without him.”
“So you love Jason?”
“A lot. A lot more than he knows…”
“Now we find truth. You need Jason. You love Jason. You come to Duchy to be with Jason. That why you here.”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s why I’m here.”
“Good. Now you say truth. So say me about Jason. Say me truth about Jason.”
Cecilia spent a very long time talking about her strange relationship with her boyfriend, and in doing so revealed much about her own life and personality quirks. It turned out the Priestess was an excellent judge of character. Somehow she knew that Cecilia would find it very difficult to talk about herself, but would find it much easier to talk about Jason. The Priestess looked hard into Cecilia’s eyes and interrupted her whenever she became vague or evasive with a severe, “You no say me truth. Say me real truth.”
It was only after the Priestess had a good feel for Cecilia’s personality that she began asking direct questions about her own life. She knew that Cecilia’s soul was severely damaged, a detail about the young American that became more evident as she began confessing some of her inner thoughts. The Priestess began closing in on the events of Cecilia’s life when she was 15. She drew out of her the stories about her brother Raul and his relationship with her boyfriend Vicente, their criminal activity and drug use, and lastly, the story about the abortion.
Cecilia was terrified at having confessed such a thing to a religious person, but the Priestess was not interested in judging Cecilia for her past. Judging was the duty of the Creator, not the Clergy. It was the Creator to whom Cecilia would have to show her mirror, not the Priestess. Instead what the woman wanted was to get Cecilia to put into own words the deep-seated fears she had about losing control over her life, and her insecurity over the fact that was precisely what had happened in her relationship with Jason.
“So now we find out truth. You scared.”
“Yes, I’m scared.”
“Now I scare you more. I ask you, and you say me truth. You think about…”
The Priestess turned to Kim and quietly asked her a question in Danubian. Kim
“Slov nák anglalís, ‘custody’.”
The Priestess responded “doc-doc” and turned back to Cecilia.
“You think about custody for Jason? Maybe use custody tell him so he no tell you?”
Cecilia’s heart stopped. That Priestess knew. Somehow she had figured out one of her most secret fantasies, the one she had about collaring Jason.
“I… I… yes, ma’am. I… thought about… usin’ the Church… ’cause I had this fantasy…”
Cecilia explained how she found out about the concept of custody from her correspondence with Apprentice Lee and how she had thought about using it to control Jason. Kim gave her a very offended look, obviously displeased over what her friend had been thinking. The Priestess did not seem any angrier however, because from the beginning she had suspected Cecilia had harbored a fantasy that was offensive to the Church. The frightened young woman would have to atone for her fantasy, but that was why the Creator had brought her to the Temple.
“Now I know truth. Now I know why you scared.”
“You want fight scared? Make right with Creator?”
“You do what I say?”
Again Cecilia nodded. That was not good enough for the Priestess. She stared coldly into Cecilia’s eyes and repeated the question, “You do what I say?”
“Yes… I’ll do what you say.”
“You give me hands.”
Reluctantly Cecilia stuck out her hands and the Priestess grabbed them. The woman then closed her eyes and stood very still for several minutes. When she opened her eyes, she let go. One final time she asked the question, “You do what I say?”
The Priestess then reached up and put her hands around Cecilia’s throat. She was terrified, thinking that the Priestess was about to choke her, but what she was doing was measuring her neck. She wrote down a measurement on a small piece of paper and handed it to a Temple Attendant. Then she grabbed Cecilia’s hand and took her to an outside patio that overlooked the Sacred Grounds. Cecilia found herself facing a small stone platform. Off to one side there was a stone pit enclosing a fire burning from coals.
“You no move.”
The Priestess produced a pair of very sharp scissors and cut the shoulder straps of Cecilia’s dress. She gasped as the cloth fell off her body and bunched up at her feet. Before she had time to react, two more quick snips cut the waistband of her thong. Within a second, Cecilia was completely naked except for her shoes. Her heart pounded as the Priestess moved in front of her.
“You put cloth in fire.”
Struggling to catch her breath, Cecilia did as she was told. She stepped out of her ruined dress, picked it up, and reluctantly tossed it into the fire pit. There was a brief flash as the cotton caught on fire, but quickly the flames died back down. The Priestess grabbed Cecilia’s shoulders and pushed her into a kneeling position.
“Hold out hands”
Cecilia stuck out her hands. The Priestess held a metal collar in front of Cecilia’s face, and then laid it in her hands. By that time she was shaking badly from fright. The Priestess moved behind Cecilia and placed her hands on her shoulders. She prayed out loud in archaic Danubian while the trembling American continued to kneel and hold her collar.
Oddly enough, when the Priestess finished, Cecilia’s nerves had calmed down considerably. She now was ready to accept the collar.
The Priestess took the collar from Cecilia’s hands and placed it around her neck. She inserted a key and locked it. Now it was official. Cecilia Sanchez, just three weeks after arriving in Danube City, had begun performing public penance.
A short while later the Priestess released Kim and Cecilia after reciting a final series of prayers and handing her a sheet of paper explaining the proper protocol for a person performing public penance. Among other restrictions, she no longer could salute a public official. She would have to kneel whenever a public official greeted her and wait to be given permission to stand up.
Even before she left the Temple grounds, Cecilia felt very exposed and vulnerable. It wasn’t just the thought of having to remain completely naked into the foreseeable future, but she also was experiencing a much deeper feeling of her soul having been stripped bare for the whole world to see.
Everything Cecilia had been to that point was gone, burned up in that fire along with her dress. She suddenly felt very free, very liberated as the warm late spring breeze gently reminded her of her exposure to the word. Yes, let them see me. I’m starting over. I’m leaving my psychological baggage behind and I’m starting over.
Cynthia and Jason were waiting for them in the Plaza as they left the Temple grounds. Both were naked and wearing collars. Cecilia rushed into Jason’s arms and hugged him, excited at the thought that they would be performing public penance together. It felt good to be outside like this, to feel the warmth of his body and the springtime air on her bare skin… this really felt good.
Cecilia and Jason returned home not really knowing how their host families would react to seeing them naked and with collars around their necks. They were surprised that there was not much reaction at all. There was absolutely nothing dishonorable about public penance, as long as the person performing it understood and respected the proper protocol.
The Danubians in Jason’s life actually approved of his decision to wear a Temple collar. It seemed a logical thing for him to do; given the fact his father had committed so many evil acts in his life and now was dead. The Danubians interpreted Jason’s penance as a public effort to redeem the honor of his family. Without knowing it at first, Jason was performing a ritual that any young Danubian under similar circumstances would be expected to perform.
The fact that Cecilia was performing penance alongside Jason also made sense to the Danubian way of thinking. She was Jason’s partner, so it was quite appropriate that if he were to publicly humble himself, she should as well.
The naked young couple would become a familiar sight around Danube City over the summer as they went about their business and struggled to learn enough Danubian to enter the university as regular students in the fall. Sometimes people asked one or the other how long they planned to stay collared, but they always provided the most accepted answer: that they really weren’t sure. At some point one or both of them would receive a sign to turn in their collars and resume normal lives, but they neither knew nor really cared when that would be. It was up to the Ancients to make that decision for them.
There was one pleasant irony in the lives of Jason and Cecilia that resulted from their decision to wear collars. They applied for membership in the Socrates Club and were accepted as full members by the management. Within a very short time Jason and Cecilia had established their social group at the Club. Normally they sat with Tiffany Walker and Vladik Dukov, along with Cynthia Lee and a young Danubian who also was performing public penance. As the summer progressed Cynthia’s relationship with him became more serious as he visited Sergekt and Kim’s house and sat at their table.
Their membership in the Club also meant the intimacy rooms were open to them, along with the renewed chance to enjoy each other’s bodies. The nightly visit to the intimacy room became a welcome part of the routine of Jason and Cecilia. The time they spent together continued to be a very important part of their lives: whether it was massages, or Jason’s tongue gently caressing Cecilia’s clitoris, or Cecilia waving her bottom in the air to tempt her boyfriend. No matter what else happened during their day, the time they could spend together always awaited them. Those precious moments were crucial for helping them get through their first summer in Danube City.
As the summer progressed, Cecilia realized that she was destined to become much closer to Tiffany Walker and Cynthia Lee than to Kimberly. The reason was the lives of Tiffany and Cynthia were similar to Cecilia’s life, while Kim’s life was very different. Tiffany and Cynthia were single and continued to be very American in their outlooks, while Kim was much more Danubian in her thinking, only a year away from becoming sworn in as a public official, and nearly two years into her marriage with Sergekt Dolkiv. When Cecilia got together with other women, she was with Tiffany and Cynthia much more than she was with Kim.
During July Cecilia witnessed an event in Tiffany’s life that made her understand her fellow American much better. In the end, the incident also would help her to understand some details about Danubian culture and thinking. On July 12, Tiffany was scheduled to receive her annual switching. The punishment was to be a full 50 strokes, delivered with severity.
What astonished Cecilia was Tiffany’s resignation to her punishment and the way she casually discussed it. It turned out that Tiffany had absolutely no resentment about enduring such a cruel ordeal, nor any indication she was really afraid. Instead she was stoic. Her attitude was that the annual punishment was a necessary part of her life, something that she deserved and had to deal with. The switchings were an important part of the sentence Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna had negotiated with the Prosecutor during her trial, something she fully accepted.
Tiffany explained that July 12 was the date that, four years before, she had been indirectly responsible for the death of a high school friend while using heroin in Prague. The other girl died of hepatitis resulting from sharing a dirty needle at a nightclub. Her friend’s death, coming only ten days after the two girls had abandoned Kim to her fate in Danube City, was the final unhappy event that sent Tiffany into a downward spiral of depression and drug use.
Tiffany Walker felt overwhelming guilt because of her actions, which was why the annual whippings were such an important part of her life. She needed to suffer for what she did, to be forced to remember and atone for behavior that ruined the life of one friend and ended the life of another. She felt that the intense pain she had to experience every July 12 helped keep her soul clean. It was an annual ritual she endured, and endured willingly.
There was a detail about the punishments that struck Cecilia as very odd. Tiffany’s fiancé, Vladik Dukov, was the cop responsible for punishing her. It was Tiffany herself who insisted that only Vladik should be the officer administering her switching. At first Cecilia assumed that Vladik was assigned to punish her to administer less severe strokes, because he was always very courteous and respectful every time Cecilia ever saw them together. It was obvious that Vladik and Tiffany loved each other and were very committed to their relationship.
However, during the hour that Criminal #98946 was strapped to the switching table, Vladik Dukov was a police officer, not her fiancé. During a punishment he showed her no mercy whatsoever. He struck very hard, in a slow methodical manner that left a full minute between each stroke, the legal maximum. To experience intense pain was what Tiffany expected, and what she wanted. Every July she expected Vladik to punish her severely.
“July 12 means a lot to both of us. That’s the one day I have a chance to face what I’ve done, and really suffer for it. I have a lot of bad memories, stuff that sometimes keeps me up at night… and when he’s finished whipping me, I don’t think about all that shit. All I’m thinking about is how much it hurts. I’m just thinking about the moment, and nothing else. Anyhow, when I’m on the table I’m only getting what I deserve. I don’t know if you’re going to be able to understand this, but the day Vladik is switching me is the one day I don’t feel guilty about what I did to other people. I’m suffering, and especially on that day, on July 12, I want to suffer.”
Knowing Tiffany’s past, Cecilia understood that part of her thinking, but she couldn’t understand why Vladik was the one punishing her. Tiffany continued with her explanation.
“Vladik’s the one whipping me, because he’s the one who loves me. He understands me. He knows my story, and he knows about all the crap that I did before I got sentenced. He sympathizes, but he doesn’t let me make any excuses. He loves me enough to punish me the way I need to be punished. It’s a special understanding that we have with each other. He’s the one who loves me, so he’s the one who’s making me atone for what I’ve done. And when he’s finished and I’m lying on the recovery table, he holds my hand and comforts me, and stays with me until I can get up. He understands. I need him to hurt me, but then I need him to comfort me and tell me that everything’s gonna be fine. I need those moments with him, because it’s the only way I’m able to face what I did with my life before I came back to Danube City.”
“What you did was really that bad?”
“Yes. It wasn’t just Kim and Susan. It wasn’t just the drugs. There was more… a lot more. If you’d seen some of my clients, and some of the shit they wanted me to do… and I did it ‘cause I wanted their money… I mean… I still have flashbacks. Vladik’s the only person who understands that part of me… he knows how he needs to treat me. He’s always very worried about my honor. He’s the kindest boyfriend I’ve ever had. But he also understands one day out of the year; things between us gotta be very different. His kindness wouldn’t mean anything to me if he didn’t make me suffer when I’m on the switching table. That’s just the way I am. I can’t appreciate pleasure unless every so often I feel real fear and real pain.”
As strange as Tiffany’s logic might have sounded to someone who didn’t know her, Cecilia realized that what she was saying did make sense, given her past and her circumstances. The criminal’s needs simply were a more extreme version of what Jason needed during the first couple of months she was disciplining him in her dorm room. Tiffany’s punishments were much more ritualized and much more painful than anything she ever did to Jason, but the basic need was almost the same.
July 12 came and Tiffany was up early. The young criminal was scheduled to present herself to the Central Police Station and be strapped to switching table at 9:00 a.m. If everything went according to plan, she would be finished by 9:50. Kim would then escort her to her office to recover. Vladik would stay with her until she was well enough to leave the building.
Cecilia also woke up early, because she had volunteered to go with Criminal #98946 to the Central Police Station as a witness for the Court. The previous evening Tiffany had surprised her by asking if she wanted to watch her punishment. She explained that a punishment had to be officially witnessed, and that if the witness was someone related to the criminal, so much the better. Cecilia also realized that her housemate wanted her to see the punishment so she could better understand her situation. It was as though Tiffany wanted to entrust her with a very intimate secret. Cecilia agreed, partially because she was genuinely curious to see a Danubian switching first-hand.
Cecilia accompanied Tiffany as she ate a very light breakfast and drank some water to calm her nerves. She called Jason to tell him to pick up her assignment from their language instructor, since she would not be going to the university that day and would have to miss classes. She told Jason to tell the professor the truth about why she would be gone, that her housemate was being switched at the Central Police Station and she had agreed to serve as a witness.
Both young women stepped outside at about 7:30, along with Victor Dukov and his wife. Vladik Dukov and Kimberly Lee showed up a moment later. Tiffany and Cecilia dropped to their knees, as customary for two collared women greeting public officials.
Kim ordered Cecilia to get on her feet and stand at attention.
“Cecilia Sanchez, I understand that you have agreed to witness the punishment of Criminal #98946 for the Court?”
“Yes, Apprentice Lee. Tiff… I mean… Criminal #98946 requested that I serve as a witness and I told her I’d do it.”
“Very well, Cecilia Sanchez. You will present this certificate to the presiding judge before the punishment begins. I will translate and relay any directions from the judge to you. Please remember your obligation to exercise correct protocol as required for a person performing public penance.”
With that Cecilia went back on her knees to take the certificate from Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna.
Kim then addressed Vladik in Danubian. She saluted Vladik and he saluted back, signaling the transfer of custody. For the next couple of hours, Tiffany’s fiancé also would be her legal custodian. He sharply spoke to her in Danubian. Immediately she knelt upright and put her hands behind her back. He quickly put on a pair of handcuffs and helped her stand up.
Because Vladik and Kim had shown up at her residence, the beginning of Tiffany’s annual atonement ritual was not typical. Ordinarily a criminal took a trolley to the Central Police Station on the day of a scheduled switching. He went directly to his Spokesperson’s office and waited for the police escort to show up, handcuff him, and deliver him to the punishment room.
Tiffany did not like to do it that way. Instead, about 90 minutes before her scheduled appearance in court, Officer Vladik Dukov and Apprentice Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna showed up at Victor’s house and formally transferred custody. Vladik then handcuffed Tiffany and made her walk with her hands behind her back from her home all the way to the Central Police Station, which was nearly two kilometers away. When he walked with her he carried his switch, so there was no doubt to any bystanders what was about to happen to Criminal #98946. To Tiffany it was very important that she be marched in such a manner through the busy streets of the capitol. On her annual day of suffering and personal atonement, she wanted the entire city could see her for what she was, a criminal facing a severe punishment. Most other criminals would have found what she was doing horribly humiliating, but Tiffany took a strange pride in announcing her situation in such a public manner.
Although it was by Tiffany’s own request that she be officially escorted to the Police Station, Vladik treated her as though she were an ordinary and slightly uncooperative criminal. He grabbed her hard by the arm and brandished the switch in front of her face to let her know that he was in charge. Then, with her arm still very firmly in his grip, he marched her onto the sidewalk and in the direction of the Central Police Station. Kim and Cecilia trailed behind, while Victor Dukov and his wife went back inside their house to get ready to go to work.
For the next forty minutes the police officer, the Apprentice, the criminal, and the penitent made their way downtown. They were a strange sight and caught plenty of curious looks as they approached the Central Plaza. They walked around the Parliament Building and continued across the open square to the main entrance of the police building. From there they went down one flight of stairs and entered a large room that had a judge’s desk at one end and a switching table at the other. The table was turned so that the bottom of the criminal being punished was facing towards the judge. There also was a video camera set up to record the punishment, which was a standard part of a routine switching. The videotape would be added to Tiffany’s criminal file to document that she had complied with that portion of her sentence.
Tiffany and Cecilia dropped to their knees when the judge entered the room. Cecilia heard Kim addressing the judge in Danubian and then telling her to stand up to give him her witness’s certificate. The judge then directly addressed Cecilia in Danubian. Kim translated, “The judge is letting you know that your need to comply with the protocol expected for public penance is suspended during your time in this courtroom. Your primary duty as a witness is to keep your eye on Criminal #98946, and that overrides your responsibilities to comply with public penance. Also, along with me, you are responsible for counting 50 strokes and making sure Officer Dukov does not strike Criminal #98946 to the point of drawing blood. You are authorized to raise your hand if you think Criminal #98946 risks serious injury. You will consult with me, and I will determine whether or not the punishment may continue on that part of her body. If you agree to all that, please say ‘doc-doc’ to the judge.”
Cecilia turned to the judge and very nervously got out, “Doc-doc.”
“OK, keep your eye on me. When I salute the judge, you’ll salute him too.”
The judge asked Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna about Criminal #98946’s custody in Danubian. Kim responded that she already had transferred custody at the criminal’s house, because of a prior agreement between herself and Officer Dukov. Because of that, there was no need to transfer custody in the courtroom and Tiffany was spared the indignity of having to kiss her fiancé’s shoes before the switching. However, before the punishment could begin, there was the obligatory exchange between the Police Officer and the Spokeswoman.
“Apprentice, are there any restrictions concerning the punishment of this criminal that I need to know about?”
“No, Officer, no special restrictions.”
The judge then spoke directly to Tiffany in Danubian, asking her if she understood the conditions of the sentence about to be carried out. Without raising her head she responded that she understood. The judge then ordered Tiffany to stand up and position herself over the switching table.
The punishment table was a very sturdy metal table that looked like it could have been taken out of an industrial shop or hospital and converted to its current purpose. Several sets of thick leather straps were attached to the metal surface and another pair of leather cuffs was attached to the legs on the side facing the judge.
Tiffany quietly bent over the table and extended her arms to allow her wrists to rest near the straps. Vladik buckled the straps, checking to make sure they were as tight as possible without cutting off the circulation to the criminal’s hands. He then wrapped her waist with another thick strap, buckled it firmly, and moved to immobilize her ankles. Once her ankles were secured Tiffany’s legs were widely spread and her shaved pubis on full display to the judge.
Although he loved the woman he was about to punish, Vladik did not say anything to reassure her. He would later stay with her and comfort her, but that would be in the privacy of Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna’s office after he released her back into Kim’s custody. In the punishment room he had a single purpose in life, and that was to properly administer the switching of Criminal #98946.
In spite of her inner need to have this happen to her, Tiffany was very scared now that she was actually strapped to the table and awaiting her first stroke. Her legs were trembling slightly and her breathing came in irregular frightened gasps. Her eyes were closed and beads of sweat already were forming on her face.
Vladik did not delay administering the first stroke. He stepped back, tapped the base of Tiffany’s bottom with the switch, and glanced back at Kim and Cecilia. Then he twisted back and delivered a fearsome blow across the very base of Tiffany’s tightly stretched bottom. The criminal jerked slightly and clenched her fists. She gasped from the mounting pain of the blow, struggling to catch her breath as she involuntarily pulled against the restraints.
Vladik waited about 45 seconds to make sure Tiffany felt the first stroke in its entirety. Then he lightly tapped the unmarked skin immediately above the darkening weal, and once again twisted back to deliver a cruel stroke against his lover’s unprotected backside. Again Tiffany gasped and struggled to catch her breath as the searing pain from the second stroke mounted into an unbearable burning.
Cecilia’s duty was to keep her watch over Tiffany’s bottom to make sure that Officer Dukov did not draw blood, but she was far more interested in seeing the criminal’s expression. Even at the very beginning Tiffany’s face was beaded with sweat, and as the punishment progressed her entire body became covered in perspiration from her ordeal. It was clear from her expression that the only thing on the criminal’s mind was horrible burning on her backside, which only increased as the minutes slowly wore on. The tears were flowing from her eyes and her face grimacing from the pain, but she was determined not to cry out as long as possible. She had her honor as a criminal to maintain.
Cecilia and Kim flinched in sympathy each time Vladik’s switch made contact with Tiffany’s shapely bottom. Kim knew exactly how such a punishment felt; having endured it three times herself. Cecilia had an idea of how a blow from the switch felt, but the punishment that Ruth Burnside had given her the previous year was nothing compared to what Tiffany had to endure.
Vladik slowly worked his way up to the top of Tiffany’s backside, laying on new strokes as the older ones at the base of her buttocks began to swell and darken. He aim was excellent, because each new stroke was perfectly parallel to its predecessor, almost touching it. Vladik was able to cover Tiffany’s bottom with a solid band of welts, laid so close together that they formed a solid stripe of dark reddish color on the skin.
Vladik managed to lay 20 welts on Tiffany’s bottom during the first part of her punishment without allowing any of them to cross or touch each other. He would continue by striking the backs of her thighs, and then return to her bottom with the strokes that would overlay the welts already present. The final blows undoubtedly would break her silence. It was during the second set of welts that the Spokesperson had to be especially vigilant, because it was towards the end that there was a much greater risk of breaking the already swollen skin.
Officer Dukov touched the switch to the middle of Criminal # 98946’s thighs to let her know that the backs of her legs would receive the next part of his punishment. He struck, leaving a cruel weal across both legs. Tiffany gritted her teeth and grunted from the pain. She was shaking badly but still was not openly crying. He moved up her thighs, striking with methodical strokes as he closed in on that very first line at the base of her bottom that marked where the punishment had started. As the strokes landed Tiffany groaned through her clenched teeth, her resistance finally beginning to break down.
Once he had worked his way to the very tops of Tiffany’s thighs, Vladik paused to tap the narrow strip of unmarked skin that remained at the precise spot where the fold in her skin divided her bottom cheeks from her legs. Vladik struck especially hard at that tender area with three strokes in rapid succession. The pain was so intense that Tiffany was left breathless for a couple of minutes. When she finally caught her breath her voice cracked as she started crying in earnest. Her body heaved with sobs while Vladik waited for the strokes to take their full effect.
He continued by striking hard at the main part of her bottom, crossing the first set of welts with new ones and leaving very painful-looking dark marks across the center of her buttocks.
Tiffany’s resistance finally vanished. She had done very well by not crying until the 40th stroke, but she couldn’t resist any more. Her body was shaking violently and she screamed as each stroke cut across her already very sore bottom. Between strokes she struggled to catch her breath, but then cried uncontrollably.
At the 47th stroke Kim raised her hand. The second set of lines was rapidly swelling and some of the weals looked like they were just about to break. Vladik stopped, with an irritated look on his face as Kim examined the welts to see if any were oozing blood. So far, so good, thought the Apprentice, but better to be safe than sorry. She pointed at the criminal’s shoulders, directing the police officer to finish the strokes on her upper back to spare her bottom any further damage. Vladik tightened his lips, because he did not like striking a criminal on the back. However, in that one detail of the punishment he was obliged to follow Kim’s direction. He obeyed, repositioning himself to quickly lay four cruel lines across his sobbing victim’s shapely shoulders.
Finally Cecilia counted the fiftieth stroke, immensely glad to have made it to the end of Tiffany’s whipping. She exchanged glances with Kim and the two women raised their hands simultaneously to conclude the punishment. Vladik was breathing heavily, but Cecilia could tell that he also was glad to be done with Tiffany’s yearly switching. In spite of the importance Tiffany attached to the punishments as part of her redemption, he did not like hurting her. It had to be done and he was the one who had to do it, but flogging Tiffany was not something that he enjoyed.
Criminal #98946 continued to tremble and sob as Officer Dukov unbuckled the straps. He freed her legs first, then her hands, and finally, keeping a hand on her waist to steady her, he unbuckled the large strap that immobilized her torso. He spoke quietly to her and she seemed to nod. She struggled to push herself off the table as Vladik and Kim each took an arm to help her get upright. She was still crying as the other two turned her backside to the judge to allow him to verify she had taken 50 strokes.
He signed the certificate, and with that Tiffany’s third switching came to an end. As directed by protocol, she knelt and kissed Vladik’s shoes. Between sobs she managed to get out, "Spakeebo dakub moigu."
She kissed Vladik’s shoes and then put her forehead to the floor. Kim and Vladik saluted each other to signal the transfer of custody of Criminal #98946 from Officer Dukov back to her Spokeswoman, Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna. Vladik then approached the judge’s desk to sign several papers verifying he had administered the punishment in accordance with the sentencing conditions of Criminal #98946.
Tiffany continued to remain crouched on the floor crying, her entire world reduced to the cruel burning tearing at both her body and her soul. The pain was her annual penance, the yearly cleaning out of her memories and thoughts by the intense biting pain that forced her mind off everything that had tormented her over the past year. He mind was cleared, ready to start a new year with new challenges. As horrendous an experience as the switching might have been, it was what she needed.
The judge told Apprentice Lee-Dolkiva that she needed to clear the room for another criminal’s punishment. After saluting the judge Kim directed Cecilia to take one of her client’s hands to help her get the sobbing criminal out of the room. Officer Vladik Dukov looked on in sympathy, but he could not touch Criminal #98946 because doing so would violate courtroom protocol. He could only watch as Kim and Cecilia struggled to get the taller woman through the doors and up two flights of stairs. As soon as they approached Kim’s office, Vladik grabbed the door and held it open. As soon as the women passed through, he closed it behind them.
The normal custom following a switching was for a punished criminal to lie down for several hours on a recovery table until she had recuperated enough to get up and walk out of the office. However, instead of settling down on the recovery table, Tiffany reached out to Vladik and collapsed into his arms. Now they no longer had to be Officer Dukov and Criminal #98946, but instead could return to being Vladik and Tiffany. He did what she needed him to do: hold her and not say anything. She needed to have plenty of time to cry, and she needed to be held and reassured. And cry she did, leaning against him as her tears stained his shirt.
Kim silently tapped Cecilia’s shoulder and walked out of the office. Cecilia gladly followed, suddenly feeling very uneasy about what she was witnessing. The two women left the police station and made their way to the parkland along the river.
Tiffany’s suffering had put both of them in a very pensive mood, which prompted Kim to suggest going to the park bench where she had been arrested four years before. For a long time the two Americans gazed out over the East Danube River, while they talked about Tiffany.
The relationship Kim had with Tiffany was very different from the one Cecilia was having with her. To Cecilia, Tiffany was a housemate and somewhat of a friend. The fact that both women were wearing collars made them social equals, and that was how Cecilia saw Tiffany, as a fellow American and a fellow college student in a foreign setting. Because Tiffany was a recent acquaintance, Cecilia had not seen her before the chaotic events that so completely changed her over the past four years.
To Kim, Tiffany was very clearly a subordinate. The two women were close, but they were not friends in a way that most people would define the concept of friendship.
Kim realized that Cecilia felt uneasy about how she treated her client and that she needed to explain the purpose of their relationship.
“I got a question for you. I guess you find it kinda weird how I treat Tiffany?”
“Yeah, Kim, I do. I mean, you’ve been friends with her since you were 13. How can you treat a friend like that?”
“I’m her Spokeswoman and the Path of her Life is to obey me. I treat her that way because I have to.”
“And so she’s not your friend any more…”
“No. I care for her and I want the very best out of life for her, but no, we’re not friends anymore. We can’t be friends, because I am responsible for her. I’m her custodian and I’m sworn to watch over her. It is my Path in Life to protect Tiffany from her addictions and her tendency to self-destruct. To do that, I have to be strict with her. She knows that, and it’s what she expects. She needs to obey me, because it’s the only way I can keep her from killing herself.”
Kim gave Cecilia a chance to think over what she was saying, and continued, “Anyhow, the Tiffany you’re looking at is not the same person I hung out with when we were in school. In my life there have been two separate Tiffanies, two women who share the same body and the same name, but who are two totally different people. The girl I knew in school is dead and there’s nothing left of her. That friend simply doesn’t exist anymore. She’s totally dead, and in my own life I’ve had to come to terms with that. Someone else took over her body, someone who’s only about three years old and needs me to guide her. Criminal #98946 is not the Tiffany Walker I went to high school with. That’s how come I can look at her as my client instead of my friend. She’s not the same person.”
“So, what’s gonna happen when she marries Vladik?”
“Nothing, if you mean any changes in our responsibilities to each other. Vladik and I talked about Tiffany’s future when he asked my permission to propose to her. He understands how things will have to be. He knows, even though she’ll be his wife, I’ll always be the one telling her what to do. For example, they can’t set a wedding date until I say it’s OK for them to get married, and that won’t be until the Ancients tell me she’s ready. After they’re married, I’ll expect him to come over to my office every so often and talk about how things are going. I’ll need to hear his opinion about how she’s doing and what she needs in her life. In the end, however, if I tell him I want things done a certain way, I’ll expect him to respect my authority and comply with what I want.”
“Dang… so you’re even gonna be runnin’ their marriage?”
“Yes. I’m her Spokeswoman and that’s my job, to control her life. To be honest, Vladik’s happy about that, because this way he can just relax and enjoy his time with her. He won’t have anything to worry about, because legally she’s my responsibility, not his. The Path of my Life is to watch over her behavior. The Path of his Life is to love her and comfort her. I get the hard part, and he gets the easy part, but in the end we both want what’s best for her.”
That night Cecilia and Jason went to the Socrates Club to watch “Socrates’ Mistresses” give a concert to the members of club. The songs being performed were all completely new, because the band felt most comfortable presenting their most experimental material in the safe environment where they first started out. Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna no longer was a hardened public official on stage, but instead a naked ex-criminal performing with other naked ex-criminals. The Club was where she had come to terms with her life as a criminal and where she had found friendship with the four other women singing on stage with her. She was home on that stage: she was where she needed to be.
Jason took Cecilia home very late that night, after the musical presentation was over and the couple had spent their nightly hour of lovemaking in one of the “intimacy rooms”. They returned to Victor’s house on the last trolley of the evening, unable to take seats because of the restriction against collared people that forced them to remain standing on all public transportation. They walked the short distance from the trolley stop to Victor’s house, and with that Jason kissed her goodbye. He had to get on another trolley by himself to go to his own home, but Cecilia was not worried about his safety. Assaults and muggings were almost completely unheard of in the Danubian capitol.
She returned to her room to take a shower and brush her teeth before going to bed. She was careful to run a dry washcloth under her collar, a standard precaution among criminals and Temple penitents to prevent the skin on their necks from chafing. She decided to check in on Tiffany and see how she was holding up following her punishment. Not surprisingly, she was lying on her stomach. She was still awake, given that the pain from her welts was still too intense for her to be able to sleep properly. As for the marks themselves, they had darkened and were clearly visible, even in a room barely lit by moonlight coming in through the window.
As Cecilia sat down on the bed, Tiffany asked about the concert at the Socrates Club and commented that she was sorry to have missed it. That comment struck Cecilia as rather strange. Had she been so severely punished and lying in her bed in such pain, missing a concert would have been the last thing on her mind.
She asked Tiffany if she was OK. The criminal’s answer was “Yes”. By the tone of her voice Cecilia could tell that she was very serious about that. She was fine, now that the dreaded annual punishment had come and gone. Criminal #98946 had endured her allotted dose of suffering for the year and now could look ahead to enjoying the rest of the summer. She would be returning to her job at the city’s largest music store the next morning, and would be getting together with Vladik in the evening. She would move ahead, largely free from the crushing guilt that had so much tormented her before she was sentenced.
Tiffany had found happiness, in spite of knowing that she faced another 32 years of harsh restrictions resulting from her conviction. She never would be a free woman, at least not in the way that most people would define freedom. However, the sentence had freed her from herself, freed her from own weaknesses and self-destructive personality. She had been liberated from the certainty of dying at an early age from drug abuse, freed from her psychotic tweaker boyfriend, freed from dancing in a smoke-filled strip club, and freed from servicing her unsavory clients. She was a meth addict, would always be a meth addict, and if left to herself would spend all of her time, day in and day out, pursuing her addiction.
The price of her existence in Danube City was nothing compared to what she had been able to reclaim in her life. She had her health, she had her studies, she had her friends, and most importantly, she had her relationship with Vladik. In spite of the ongoing punishment and restrictions, Tiffany was much freer than she ever could have been in the United States. She was actually proud of her collar. The collar was an important symbol to her; the sign that in exchange for the harsh sentence, she had taken her life back, a life that now was worth living.