In the middle of September there was another indication that Kim was becoming more settled in her new life in Danube City. She sat at the table of Sergekt's mother for the first time. Danubian social protocol mandated that any social contact between a young man and a young woman had to be preceded by the young man sitting at the table of the woman's father, or in the case of Kimberly Lee, her guardian, Spokesman Vladim Dukov. Sergekt had complied with that custom and now came over to the Dukovs' house once a week for dinner.
The second phase of the social protocol, that the young woman sit at the table of the young man's parents, only took place if the young man decided that he wanted to become romantically involved with her. By the middle of September Sergekt had decided that he wanted Kim to become his girlfriend. He asked Kim to eat at home with his mother and aunt. Kim accepted, not fully understanding the seriousness of what Sergekt was proposing.
The afternoon before Sergekt arrived to escort Kim to his house, Dukov sat in his library, wondering about the consequences of what was about to happen. He liked Sergekt tremendously. He had all the makings of an excellent Danubian citizen. He was brave, determined, and had "proper values". He clearly understood the importance of friendship and protocol. The fact that he was a convicted criminal did not bother Dukov at all. If Anyia were just a couple of years older, the Spokesman would have been very pleased if Sergekt had shown an interest in her, collar or no collar.
Dukov was somewhat puzzled by Sergekt's interest in Kim. Kim was very different from a typical girl from Upper Danubia and obviously would make a fascinating friend for anyone. However, to become romantically involved with her was quite another issue. At the end of two years Kim would be going home to the US. Did Sergekt hope to go to the US with her? Did he expect that Kim would stay in Upper Danubia past the end of her sentence?
Dukov's instincts told him he needed to dissuade Kim from any romantic involvement with a Danubian. However, he also remembered what he had told Kim the first night she was at his house, that she had to live from day to day and enjoy the small daily pleasures of life. A romantic relationship certainly would help her get through the difficult times that lay ahead.
Dukov glanced over at the picture of himself and his future wife on the wall, the one in which they were naked and wearing collars. Dukov took his own collar off the wall and studied it, running his fingers over its groves and touching the broken latch. This piece of metal had been on his neck for five years. Like Sergekt, Dukov had worn this collar not so much because of anything he had done wrong himself, but because he had refused to betray his friends. The circumstances had been different, of course, but the Danubian definition of honor had remained intact over time... a definition shared by the Spokesman and by his client's young suitor.
Sergekt reminded Dukov so much of himself when he was young. He remembered the countless nights he had danced with Maritza at the Socrates club, just like Sergekt was doing with Kim... and the nights they sat at the tables of each other's families. There were the good times and the hard times... hard times, yes... very hard times. The relationship between Vladim and Maritza had survived through it all. They had been together 28 years.
Dukov's thoughts turned back to his client. Kim hardly fit the image of a proper Danubian woman, but she seemed to be moving in that direction. Two years... what would two years in Upper Danubia do to Kim? Maybe she was not destined to leave the country after all...
In the end Dukov decided not to say anything. Kim would sit at the table of Sergekt's mother, just as Sergekt would sit at the Dukovs' table.
When Kim went to Sergekt's house, Sergekt's mother and aunt were dressed in old-style Danubian dresses and the same elaborate dishes the Dukovs had prepared for Sergekt were on the dining room table waiting for Kim. However, Sergekt's mother greeted his new girlfriend with skepticism. An American who was not even of European descent, a convicted drug user, someone who could not express herself properly in Danubian... what on earth was Sergekt thinking? Kim faced a much more difficult task of sitting at Sergekt's table than he faced sitting at hers.
Kim sat uncomfortably while Sergekt's mother probed her with questions that she struggled to understand and answer. She resented being placed in this awkward position, but at the same time realized that Sergekt had to do the exact same thing for her. If Kim wanted to live in Upper Danubia and have friends, something she had no choice over for the next two years, she had to play by the rules of the country.
In the end Sergekt's mother warmed up just enough to allow Kim to continue coming over. It was not exactly an approval, but instead a withholding of judgment. In spite of all her deficiencies, "Geemberglek" seemed like a decent-enough girl, so Sergekt's mother did not feel justified telling her son she disapproved of her. To do so would be unfair and possibly cause problems for Sergekt and this strange foreign girlfriend of his. To condemn Kim also would have violated the Danubian idea that a person should never form a negative opinion about another person without a very specific reason.
That night Sergekt took Kim back to Dukov's house. Once again in the trolley they held onto each other. Once again she thrilled at the feel of his body next to hers. When Sergekt left Kim at the front door, he took her hands in his and looked at her with a question in his eyes. For some odd reason Kim decided to answer in English.
"You can kiss me, Sergekt."
Perhaps he did not understand her words, but he did understand her meaning. They kissed, slowly at first, then passionately. Eventually they forced themselves to stop. Kim squeezed Sergekt's hand and he was on his way home. In the US it would have been different, Sergekt would have come in and spent the night. Not in this country, and certainly not in Dukov's house. In Upper Danubia the pace of relationships, just like everything else in life, was much slower.
As the weeks passed Kim became a regular member of Sergekt's social group at the Socrates Club. They went to the club at least twice per week to drink Danubian beer, eat salted deep-fried vegetables, talk, and share their music and thoughts. Kim had found her place in this hostile country, the one spot where she felt she belonged. She chatted with the others and danced with Sergekt. Increasingly they danced closer and closer, enjoying the feel of each other's bodies. Over time their souls became more and more connected. Over time Kim thought about Sergekt more and more when she was not with him.
In mid September Kim listened to "Nemat mi biciklet" performed live for the first time in the Socrates Club. When she heard to the song and understood the words, tears ran down her cheeks. The song and its sad message of not appreciating the good things of life until it was too late deeply moved not just Kim, but everyone who listened to it. Quickly it became popular throughout the entire criminal community and the club scene. Within a year the song was featured on Danubian radio. With a simple, heartfelt speech, Kim had left a lasting influence on Danubian popular culture.
The following week was the Autumn Equinox, and also the Danubian Day of the Dead. The holiday was the most important celebration in Upper Danubia, much more important than Christmas, New Year's Day, or even the birthday of Vladik the Defender, Upper Danubia's greatest king.
The Day of the Dead marked the end of the summer growing season and the country's long descent into darkness, cold, famine, and death. It had been celebrated in the same manner since Pagan times, and it remained very much a Pagan event. It was a dark, morbid holiday, designed to appease the dead spirits by letting them know that those still alive were all too aware of the fate that awaits all living things. It was the chance for the living to show their respect and to assure the dead spirits that they appreciated the fleeting gift of life. Once the country converted to Christianity in 900 AD, Catholic Saints were incorporated into the Day of the Dead, but the ceremony itself and its purpose were only slightly changed. Now that Christianity was on the wane in Upper Danubia as it was in the rest of Europe, the ceremony had almost completely returned to its Pagan roots.
On the day of the equinox all electrical power in Upper Danubia was shut off, with the sole exception of emergency services in hospitals. All battery-operated devices had to be shut off. All telecommunications had to be shut off. The borders were closed and no motorized vehicles could operate. The country became completely silent for 36 hours, from sun-down on September 21st to sun-up on the 23rd. The Dukovs observed the holiday by dressing in black capes, as did everyone else in the neighborhood.
Kim did not spend the Day of the Dead with Dukov's family. Kim was a criminal, and the Day of the Dead was the one day out of the year criminals had an honored place in Danube City. Criminals played a central role in the main ceremony and the collective request for atonement. Shortly before sun-down on the 21st, Kim, Sergekt, and every other criminal in Danube City rode trolleys downtown. The criminals gathered in the plaza in front of the Temple of the Ancients, joining about 500 additional people who were not criminals, but instead performing public penance. There were over 2,600 criminals and penitents altogether. They lined up in groups, where their organizers were waiting with white and black body-paint. Every criminal in the city would be painted, first white, then with black highlights. The make-up job had been done in the same manner for 3,000 years. It was primitive, but very effective. From a distance, the criminals looked ghoulish, half-way between cadavers and skeletons.
The marchers were all painted by the time it was dark. Kim was amazed at the effect of seeing 2,600 naked, painted bodies all gathered in one place. It actually did look kind of scary. Temple officials passed out 2,600 torches with over-the-shoulder torch slings and explained how to carry the torches to minimize the strain on the marchers' arms. The participants then divided into two groups and started filing out in opposite directions. They would circle the city that night and meet again on the opposite side of Danube City in the morning. The following night they would complete their march by returning to Temple of the Ancients through the city center. Kim later learned that part of the purpose of all this was to present the Spirits of the Dead with an opportunity to walk the earth again through the marchers, if they so chose.
The criminals marched all night in single file. The group that included Kim and Sergekt followed the trail upstream along the Danube River and finally turned right to head inland. They walked along dark country roads, their surroundings illuminated only by their own torches. All along the route ordinary citizens silently knelt in their black robes, apparently praying for forgiveness for whatever they had done wrong over the past year. Death seemed to hang in the air. Kim could feel it all around her, as though the dead spirits really had woken up.
Kim's eyes shifted back and forth from Sergekt's back to the kneeling crowds, as she tried to comprehend her own participation in this very strange ceremony. No one had asked her about doing this. It had just been taken for granted that Criminal # 98945 would participate along with all the others. She was a Danubian criminal and a member of Danubian society, whether she liked it or not. As such she had certain responsibilities.
Kim spent part of the night wondering about her forfeited life in the US. She would go back home in two years... probably. Suddenly she wasn't so sure. How could she return to her old life, after everything she had been through? Kim knew that she was changed. Less than three months into a two year sentence she had changed. Was it possible to change back? She thought so, but wasn't so confident about that anymore. This Day of the Dead, for example. Walking naked at night over silent country roads, covered with white and black body-paint, carrying a torch in front of thousands of kneeling Danubians...how on earth could she explain what she was doing to someone in the US without sounding like a total nut?
There were breaks in the marching about every two hours for going to the bathroom, exchanging torches, and drinking blackberry punch. The punch was dark red and stained the criminals' mouths. Some of the criminals, including Sergekt, allowed the punch to drip down their chests to give their body paint the appearance of being covered in blood.
Kim's group walked a half circle around the city. Shortly before sunrise she made out the torches from the other group as they came from the opposite direction. The distant line of torches and the white bodies underneath truly did look scary. The two lines converged on a campsite made up of military tents and bed-rolls. The criminals would sleep and relax during the day and after sunset resume the march back through Danube City to the Temple of the Ancients.
Kim and Sergekt slept holding hands. She woke up in mid-afternoon to absolute silence. Most of the others were still sleeping. Ceremonies were going on in the Plaza of the Ancients, but they were too far away to be heard from the campsite where the marchers were staying. Kim got up to go to the latrine, get something to drink, and get her body paint touched up. As she stepped outside the tent she was amazed at the absolute quiet surrounding her. An occasional bird chirping or insect flying by: that was it. It truly did seem like all life had stopped.
After it got dark there was a religious observance and group prayer for the marchers. Then the procession back into Danube City resumed. The two columns of criminals walked side-by-side along the city's main boulevard, their torches partially illuminating the spectators. Once again Kim felt death all around her. She began to get scared as strange ominous sensations swept through her body. Kim had no idea what was going on, but she had no choice but to continue walking. Finally the weird feelings passed, leaving her apprehensive and shaken.
As the criminals approached the Temple of the Ancients, they were greeted with ancient music and choir singing. Suddenly every church bell in the city started ringing. The kneeling spectators then stood up and joined the singing, in this weird mix of Pagan and Christian customs. The sudden noise after two nights of absolute silence somewhat unnerved Kim.
The marchers walked straight behind the old temple towards the Danube River. They threw their torches into a huge bonfire near the shore. To symbolize their return to the land of the living, the marchers walked out to a submerged stone platform in the river to clean off the body paint. Death was washed off, momentarily defeated. The criminals then filed back through the Temple of the Ancients and back out onto the plaza. As the sun came up they sang an ancient hymn and then dispersed.
Kim and Sergekt walked silently with some of his friends, all of them lost in thought as Danube City slowly came back to life. They made their way back to the Socrates Club to wash off properly, have breakfast, and then go to the Central Police Station.
The day after the equinox was the day that the police handed out winter clothing for the city's criminals. Kim was a bit surprised and somewhat relieved at the news that yes, even criminals wore clothing during the winter. She had wondered about that, with winter coming up. When Sergekt saw that his girlfriend seemed happy about the winter outfits he commented in Danubian.
"Kim, when you see what that outfit actually looks like, you won't want to put it on unless it's absolutely freezing outside. They do that on purpose, giving you something that no one in his right mind would want to wear."
Along with the others Kim picked up a garment bag and a set of bright orange boots. Bright orange boots. That was not a good sign. Sure enough, when she opened her garment bag she pulled out the most hideous piece of clothing she had ever laid eyes on. It was a bright orange top that looked something half-way between an army poncho and a cape. It had a hood and a sewn-in wool shirt underneath. There was a yellow stripe running up the middle of the cape and blue reflective strips sewn around the edges. There were several drawstrings to tighten the hood and waist. On the back was a large patch of Velcro.
"You need to pick up your criminal number from Spokesman Dukov and keep it attached... that is, IF you want to wear this. They’ll let you wear the boots without the cape during the winter... which is what I did last year during the day. If you keep your feet warm and stay moving when you're outdoors it's not so bad. Not bad enough to wear this."
Kim agreed. Better to stay naked than wear a bright orange cape with a yellow stripe and blue reflectors, but at least she did have something to put on during cold snaps.
When Criminal # 98945 went to Dukov's office to pick up the Velcro patch with her number, he seemed in a very serious mood. Kim hoped that it was not over something that had anything to do with her, but unfortunately it was.
"Kimberly... please sit down. I need to talk to you about... a very unfortunate event."
"Spokesman? Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Kimberly, nothing like that. You have committed no transgressions. But... where to begin... I will tell you that I have taken the liberty of staying in contact with your parents in the United States. I believe that it was my obligation to make sure they understood your situation. I even sent them pictures of my house, my family, and your room, so they could see and understand... and perhaps not be so worried about you."
"Did that cause a problem?"
"No Kimberly. No problems. But the same afternoon you had to go to the Plaza of the Ancients I received a very bad piece of news from your mother, which she instructed I should relay to you at an appropriate moment. It is the obituary of your friend Susan."
"Susan... she's... dead?"
"Yes. I will let you read it, and then I will inform you about the rest of what I found out."
With that Dukov handed Kim a cut-out piece of newspaper from her hometown in the US. She read:
"Tyrone and Debbie Taylor announce the commemoration and celebration of the life of their daughter, Susan Taylor, at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 19 at the Eastwood Baptist Church. Funeral services will be held Sunday, July 20 at the Eastwood Public Cemetary. Susan passed away unexpectedly on July 12, while vacationing in Prague, the Czech Republic. She is survived by her parents and brother. We all love you Susan. We love you so much."
Kim sat silently, absorbing this horrible new shock. "Susan... my God. But... how?"
"I called the American embassy in Prague, but of course that was foolish of me. They refused to tell me anything. So I called a colleague I have there, and he made some calls to the coroner's office and hospitals. It turned out Susan died of hepatitis. I also determined that your friend Tiffany contracted hepatitis, but she survived and returned to America."
"Hepatitis... but... how'd they get that? Where'd it come from?"
"They were sharing a needle at a night club. Two young Czech men who were with them contracted hepatitis as well. One died, the other survived."
"Shit... Tiff had said that in Prague we were gonna..."
"Yes, Kimberly. I recall you telling me that you were planning to experiment with 'smack', as you say it, in Prague. With needles, I presume?"
Kim nodded her head. She stared blankly at the floor, not really knowing what to think. She no longer really considered Susan her friend, but still, the shock of knowing she was dead...
"I suppose this is a terrible blow to you. I believe your mother might know more than I do, although you can relay to her what I learned from my Czech colleague. You may call her from my office if you wish."
Kim quickly dialed home. She talked to her mother, telling her a censored version about her participation in the Day of the Dead Ceremony. However, she quickly got to the reason she called. It turned out that it was only by chance Kim's parents even learned about Susan's death. They had missed the obituary when it first came out in July, but when Mr. Lee was unfolding old newspapers to clean up an oil spill in the garage, he just happened to notice the name Susan Taylor on one of the pages. Needless to say, he was shocked to read that his daughter's friend had died only a week after she had been sentenced in Upper Danubia. Kim's parents called the Taylors, who verified that, yes indeed, their daughter had died in Prague in July. They refused to talk about it further and abruptly hung up. Mrs. Lee decided to forward the obituary to Vladim Dukov. Kim then relayed what Dukov had told her about what he learned from his end. Kim's mother had a final question for her.
"Honey, I need to know something, and you need to be honest with me. If you had gone to Prague, you would have gone to that nightclub with Tiffany and Susan, right?"
"Yeah, Mom. I was gonna go."
"And shoot up?"
"Honey, how could you? How could you do that to us?"
"Mom, I don't know why... it just would have happened... we were partying..."
"And you would have died of hepatitis! Just like Susan!"
"Yeah... Mom... that's what would've happened."
Suddenly Kim heard her mother crying on the other end of the line. Finally Mrs. Lee pulled herself together enough to continue.
"Honey, I... can't talk to you right now. But I gotta talk to Mr. Dukov."
Dukov took the receiver. He sat quietly as Kim's mother cried into the phone. Finally he started to answer some questions.
"No, Mrs. Lee... there is nothing like that here... Our laws are much stricter... Yes, Mrs. Lee... I assure you I will watch after her... Maybe you are right, Mrs. Lee, maybe it was for the best she was arrested... Thank you, Mrs. Lee, but it was my duty as a Spokesman for the Criminal, nothing more... Thank you, Mrs. Lee... Yes, you too, Mrs. Lee, please take care of yourself."
Dukov hung up. He folded his hands and looked at Kim.
"Do you remember what I told you a few days ago, when I said that had you not been arrested, it was quite possible your experience may have ended elsewhere under equally bad, or even worse, circumstances? That I told you that if you believe yourself unlucky to please give that consideration? Do you remember that?"
"Yes Spokesman Dukov, I remember that."
"I believe we now know where, and when, your experience would have ended. You life would have ended in a Prague hospital, on or around July 12. Is that not so?"
"Yes, Spokesman. That is so."
"Kimberly, you will understand that you cheated Death. Is that not so?"
"Yes, Sir. That is so."
Criminal # 98945 spent the rest of the day writing an essay about her feelings. It most certainly was something she wanted to share with her friends at the Socrates Club. They needed to know. Kim's story was worth hearing, because there were plenty of lessons to be learned from it. She sat writing for the entire morning at a spare desk in the reception area, in spite of having not slept the previous night. Dukov looked over Kim's text in the afternoon and made some minor corrections to make some of Kim's imagery more understandable to a Danubian audience, and then helped her translate.
That night the Socrates Club was full. The night after the Day of the Dead ceremonies always was a time when plenty of club-goers had a lot on their minds, so it was one of the few nights of the year with no music, just criminals talking about their thoughts and experiences. There were over 40 speakers altogether. However, no one was rushed. The speakers could take their time and speak their minds. The song-writers listened attentively. Usually the night after the equinox was one of their best for gathering ideas and phrases for their music.
The night after the equinox Criminal # 98945 gave her second reading at the Socrates Club. She had not had time to practice her speech and was horribly tired. However, she spoke from her heart, even more so than she had spoken about her bicycle. As Kim spoke the obituary clipping describing the death of Susan Taylor made its rounds through the audience. She spoke at length about her feelings of betrayal. She spoke about the feelings of guilt and relief over not having been in that disco in Prague when that poisoned needle was passed to her two friends. Finally she spoke of the pain of having her own mother cry on Dukov's phone over her stupidity and her narrow escape. The thoughts were burned into Kim's soul, making up for the fact she had not had time to practice her speech. The audience was silent after Kim finished speaking. For a moment the American stood at the microphone, also in silence, as tears ran down her cheeks. Finally she added, in accented but flawless Danubian:
"The police woman who arrested me kept calling me 'Maragana Girl'. I hated her for doing that, but who knows? Maybe she knows me better than I know myself. Maybe that's all I am... just the stupid 'Maragana Girl'."
Kim stepped off the stage to rejoin her boyfriend and his classmates. For a couple of minutes she sat in her seat, crying while Sergekt tried to comfort her. Around the room sympathetic glances went in her direction. Finally she managed to calm down. That night other criminals had stories to tell. Kim owed it to the others to listen with respect and try... try to understand.
Upper Danubia's daily rhythm was changing rapidly by the end of September. Farmers were harvesting their crops, school was in full session, and extra trolleys appeared on the streets, ready to begin transporting commuters who had been riding their bicycles all summer when the weather was sunny. The trees began changing color and the nights became colder and colder. Kim and Sergekt began wearing their bright orange winter boots, as did Danube City's other criminals. For the first few days the boots made Kim all that much more aware of the nakedness of the rest of her body. Over time she got used to her new outfit.
Kim's weekly social routine was set by the end of September. One night each week Sergekt came over to Dukov's house to eat dinner with the family. One night per week Kim went over to Sergekt's house to eat dinner with his family. Two nights out of the week Kim and Sergekt joined his friends at the Socrates Club. Another night each week Kim and Sergekt joined some of his friends to play cards at one of their homes. The normal games were card games from Eastern Europe. However, Kim contributed to the card playing by teaching the group how to play Poker, something she had learned in high school the previous year.
Criminal # 98945 now was a full member of Sergekt's social group. No longer was she just "Sergekt's American girlfriend". If the women had something they wanted to do without the guys, they called Kim and asked her if she wanted to join them. The language barrier still impeded her somewhat, but as the weeks went by that barrier became less and less.
Kim's friendship with Sergekt's female classmates solved one important problem in her life, her need to get an indoor job during the winter. The group's lead singer, a petite blond girl called Eloisa, worked at a music store owned by a friend of her father. As the weather got colder and Christmas loomed ever closer, Eloisa suggested Kim to her boss as a new employee. The store owner agreed. As a result of the music store job, Kim's last day working for Victor Dukov was September 30.
Kim dreaded breaking the news to Victor, thinking he would be furious and give her an unpleasant lecture. He surprised her with his response: "Kimberly, you smart girl. I know winter comes, and you no ride bicycle with cape. I know that. But, maybe, in Spring you come back? Ride bicycle for me? Maybe I no good boss, but I like you. You good girl and good worker. So you come back?"
Kim responded by doing something she never imagined she would want to do. She promised Victor Dukov she would work a second summer with his courier service. Victor threw a small party the afternoon of her last day. He drank some wine with his workers and became quite cheerful. Kim thought to herself, maybe this guy isn't so bad after all, if he could just loosen up.
The next day Kim started her new job at Danube City's largest music store. The store had a huge inventory of both traditional and modern Danubian music. It also had music from other parts of Europe, and many lesser-known artists from the United States. There also was a wide variety of musical instruments and sheet music. The one thing lacking from the store, and from any other music store in Danube City, was music from popular radio play-lists in either Europe or the US. Danubians regarded the radio station play-list concept and billboard charts with utter contempt. The entire country rebelled against the global music industry by officially banning any music that was featured on billboard charts in major European and US markets. Danubians took pride in thumbing their noses at global pop culture and instead developing their own music industry, to the ire of both the US and the European Community.
Unlike Victor Dukov's courier service, every employee in the retail area at the music store was a criminal. Kim's new boss was convinced that only criminals understood music and he also wanted to promote the image that his store was at the forefront of the Danubian music scene. There even was a small studio upstairs where employees were encouraged to test and rehearse songs, and there was access to musical instruments for employees who did not have their own.
A few ex-criminals also worked at the store in the stock room or in the accounting department. Because they had completed their sentences they were allowed to work out of public view. However, the store had the same rule for all employees that the Socrates Club had for its patrons, that all ex-criminals in the firm had to show respect to those still serving their sentences by staying naked during working hours. Even the store's owner adhered to that rule, in spite of being in his late 50's and never having been a criminal himself.
Kim's nationality placed her in a unique position in the store. She was the only English-speaking employee and therefore on-call to attend any foreign tourist who had entered looking for "typical" Danubian music to take home. Over and over Kim found herself explaining about the Danubian manner of writing songs and the unique role criminals held in the country's music scene. Kim quickly became the store's unofficial tour-guide. Of course nearly every tourist also wanted to know why Kim was in the store, as a naked American wearing a Danubian criminal's collar. Kim simply told the truth, giving an abbreviated account of her arrest at the beginning of July and a stern warning not to possess or use drugs in Upper Danubia. "...unless you want work here and have me train you as a new employee," she always concluded joking.
Kim felt quite relaxed being among naked co-workers, many of whom were friends or acquaintances from the Socrates Club. However, she noticed a huge difference in the between the demeanor of the criminals and that of the ex-criminals working in the store, in spite of the universal lack of clothing among the store employees. To the ex-criminals nudity was simply the store uniform. As soon as they left work they could get dressed and return to their normal lives on the street and at home. They could leave Danube City, or even cross the border and leave Upper Danubia when they wanted. Most importantly, they did not have to think about their next upcoming judicial punishment. Their burden of wearing a collar and facing constant judicial punishments had passed.
For Kim and the other 23 cashiers and information clerks, the collars and the ongoing sentences they represented were something never far from their minds. Each week at least one employee, and usually more, came in from court with his or her bottom freshly marked from a recent switching. She realized something that scared her, no matter how many times a person was switched, it hurt just as bad each time. The welts were every bit as red, the blows every bit as painful, the experience every bit as traumatic. It never got any better, no matter how many times a person already had faced punishment. It was quite common for co-workers who had held up well during their most recent switching in court to come back to work, excuse themselves, and cry for hours in the break room. Kim sighed whenever she heard crying coming from the break room's closed door. It'll be my turn in January, she thought bitterly.
Kim's 19th birthday was on October 18. She woke up very depressed, thinking about her 18th birthday the year before and how much she partied and how the world seemed to open up to her at that time. She had gotten drunk with Tiffany and Susan and a bunch of other friends from high school. It seemed like it was a lot of fun, although... she couldn't remember because she passed out. Tiffany got stoned and Susan spent the evening pulling up her top and flashing the guys at the party. Kim was sick the whole next day... and... hmm... maybe that wasn't such a great birthday. Maybe this year would be better.
Indeed it was, thanks to two presents. One was from Kim's parents and the Dukovs, the other was from Kim's friends at the Socrates Club.
The Dukovs, of course, went all-out fixing Kim an elaborate lunch and an American-style cake. The four members of the Dukov family, plus Vladik's fiancée and Sergekt, stuffed themselves with traditional food. A Danubian birthday party was never complete without singing, and the three Danubian women sang several traditional songs in honor of Kim. Dukov then sent his daughter to the tool shed to get Kim's birthday present.
"Kimberly, your parents, and Maritza and I, decided that for your birthday you should not have anything new. Perhaps what is old in your life is what is best for you. But with an old gift we all wish you much happiness."
With that Anyia came in with an object painfully familiar to Kim, her mountain bike from her parents' house in the U.S. It was the second time the bicycle would be presented to Kim, but the first time she could really appreciate it.
"Uh... Spokesman Dukov... how...?"
"I talked to your parents about what would be best for your birthday. I suggested they ship your bicycle to you. I took responsibility for bringing it through our customs. This item is what you most need in our country, is it not?"
"Yes... Oh thanks!"
With that Kim hugged the elder Dukovs and their daughter. She then called her parents to thank them and update them on her life.
That evening Criminal # 98945 proudly rode her bicycle downtown to the Socrates Club, as Sergekt rode Vladik's old bike, trying to keep up with her. At the club there was universal good cheer and jokes about now having to re-write the song "Nemat mi biciklet", given that Kim was reunited with her mountain bike. She joined Sergekt and Eloisa at their usual spot at the table, along with 15 of Sergekt's classmates and three of her co-workers from the music store.
Kim was in a very upbeat mood. The sad songs coming from the singers on stage made her reflective, as opposed to melancholy. She actually felt good about her life, better than she had felt in a very long time. She knew this feeling was only fleeting, but she would take Spokesman Dukov at his word and try to enjoy the small pleasures in her world as much as possible.
The group's birthday present to Criminal # 98945 was three songs dedicated to her, one of which was written by Sergekt himself. Sergekt's work was a deeply moving love song. He knew better than to try to write a sentimental love song; instead he had written about Kim's strange journey through life and his own efforts to understand her. Sergekt played in the band with his usual balalaika-looking instrument, while he entrusted the singing to Eloisa and a male classmate.
The next song was loosely based on Kim's arrest and the fact the arrest prevented her from going to Prague and dying of hepatitis. The final song was titled "A question I cannot answer", and focused on Kim's painful conversations with her mother. It was sung by 5 women, with Eloisa in the lead and the others providing back-up voices. The back-up singers punctuated Eloisa's singing with the peculiar and complicated deep-throated vocals that were unique to traditional Upper Danubian music. The song and its music was the most complex Kim had heard in the Socrates Club. The vocals left her marveling at Eloisa's talent and her ability to organize and lead four other female voices, all of whom were singing different notes.
Kim was deeply moved. She had given her friends ideas for their music; in turn so far they had produced four incredible songs dedicated to her. How many other people could say that, having provided the inspiration for such music?
Kim spent the rest of the night dancing with Sergekt, mischievously rubbing herself against him and looking into his eyes with a very seductive expression. She was totally aroused. She had not had sex with anyone since the end of May. She had waited long enough. She badly wanted Sergekt.
Sergekt now had a bit of a problem. He was hard, his erection pressing into his girlfriend. He could not separate from her, not unless he wanted to make a total spectacle of himself in front of 200 other people. However, he was not the first male in the Socrates Club in that situation, and he knew exactly what to do. He eased his partner towards a back entrance that led to a staircase going upstairs. As soon as they got to the door, Sergekt quickly slipped through and pulled Kim through with him. As soon as the door went shut he separated from her and took her face in his hands. He kissed her passionately. He ran his hands over Kim's breasts and down her stomach, as she reached for his penis and gently squeezed it. Sergekt gasped.
"Geem... Geem... Ya lubik tebe... Ya lubik tebe..." Danubian for "I love you".
With that he buried his mouth in her neck. Suddenly he grabbed her hand and led her up the stairs. As soon as they were up the stairs, Kim realized the Socrates Club, as a service to its customers, had several small "intimacy rooms". Each intimacy room had a double-bed with a nightstand and a small bathroom. The room Sergekt led Kim into was very clean and tastefully decorated. There was nothing tacky about it.
For a minute Kim and Sergekt stood near the door, passionately embracing each other. He sank to his knees and kissed the insides of Kim's thighs. Yes... oh yes... she wanted this so badly. He stood up again, and Kim massaged his penis. He was so hard... he had wanted this for such a long time... and now finally his moment with Kim had come.
Sergekt's next move surprised Kim, but greatly increased her respect for him. He reached in the dresser next to the bed and pulled out a condom. Kim had not even thought about that, but Sergekt did. In the movies this detail was always left out, but this was real life. Sergekt was a person who always thought ahead, even in the heat of passion. Sergekt quickly put on the condom while Kim threw herself on the bed.
It had been five months for Kim. Five months of celibacy and she was desperate. As Sergekt moved on top of her, Kim pulled at his head, eager to draw his face into hers. She wanted to become one with her lover, to feel his tongue against hers, to feel his body on hers, to feel him inside her. As he entered her and started thrusting, Kim came immediately. She gasped and groaned. Sergekt took his time, seeking to stretch out this moment as long as he could. Finally he climaxed and his movements inside Kim slowed down. Reluctantly he pulled out of her.
Sergekt got up and reached down to take Kim's hand. She really did not want to get up yet, but she forced herself off the bed. Sergekt led her into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Kim stepped in as he disposed of the condom. He joined her and began soaping her back. The simple feel of her lover's hands on her back aroused Kim yet again, but in a more relaxed and peaceful way than she had felt on the dance floor. Once again Kim had a moment to enjoy, the warm water from the shower and Sergekt's hands on her shoulders. In the shower they kissed each other with a quiet tenderness, as the water washed away the soap and remnants of their love-making.
Once they cleaned up, Sergekt surprised Kim yet again as he complied with club protocol for the room. He pulled off the sheets from the bed and took a clean set from the nightstand. Kim helped him spread the new sheets and make the bed. Sergekt stuffed the bedding into a pillowcase along with the towels from the bathroom. Quickly he took spray cleaner and squirted the shower, cleaning it with a cloth that also went into the pillowcase when he finished. Kim put out new towels in the bathroom. Within five minutes the room looked exactly like it had looked when they entered. Sergekt and Kim left the room and Sergekt put his name on a sign-up sheet, apparently to charge the use of the room to his account. He then threw his pillowcase into a huge hamper full of other pillowcases and they went back downstairs.
Kim and Sergekt rejoined his friends at the table, their hair still damp and their bodies smelling of fresh soap. Kim expected a lot of jokes from the group, or at least some knowing smiles and thumbs-up signs. Instead, they acted perfectly naturally, as though Kim and Sergekt had just gone to the bathroom. Later she learned that in Upper Danubia friends never joke about their sexual relationships to each other. What Sergekt and Kim had done was a natural part of being together and there was no point of anyone making an issue out of it.
The following day was a holiday, so neither Kim nor Sergekt had to work. Kim's newly acquired mobility allowed Sergekt to invite her to his family's garden plot, which was outside the city limits, but fortunately just inside the boundary of the Danube City collar-zone. The garden plot was located completely on the opposite side of the city from the neighborhood where Vladim Dukov lived, so getting there involved a 20-kilometer bicycle ride. Fortunately the day was surprisingly warm for it being so late in the year, promising a pleasant outing.
Kim raced Sergekt along streets and hills, her fancy mountain bike easily outpacing the primitive bike Sergekt had borrowed from Vladik Dukov. She rode with ease as he struggled to keep up. Finally they turned onto a dirt road and entered the city's family garden area, an area covered with small plots of land and dotted with tiny houses that were barely bigger than storage sheds.
The area near Sergekt's family plot was completely deserted. The gardens had been harvested the week before and there was very little left to be done until the planting next year. A few older people remained at their plots to finish up canning their harvests, but no one remained near the plot where Sergekt took Kim.
Sergekt's family plot had a tiny house with a porch, a storage area for tools, a canning station, some chairs, and a very old sofa. Sergekt asked Kim to help him move the sofa onto the porch. The autumn sun shined gently onto the porch and cool breezes blew through the nearby trees. For two people who had very little privacy in their daily lives, this setting was ideal.
Kim was in a very strange mood. She wanted sex, but she also wanted to submit to Sergekt. She rubbed her legs together as she sat with him, wondering what exactly she wanted. Sergekt had his arm down at Kim's side, gently caressing her hip. Kim realized that he actually wanted to caress her bottom. She went over his lap, spreading her legs slightly to feel the warm sun and cool breezes caress the most intimate parts of her body. Sergekt gently rubbed his hand over Kim's bottom, exploring the soft brown skin with his fingertips and his entire hand. Sergekt marveled at the flawlessness of Kim's smooth skin. It seemed to him his girlfriend's petite bottom was the most perfect, the most beautiful, he had ever seen.
Kim shifted on her boyfriend's thighs to get into a more comfortable position and tilted her bottom up slightly. For a long time she was content to simply enjoy the feel of his hand gently passing over her bottom-cheeks. But then her fantasies returned, and she wanted to do something more to show Sergekt that she truly belonged to him. The strong sexual urge came back. There would be love-making, but Kim wanted something else first, something intense...something...and then she remembered that her birthday had been yesterday. Sergekt owed her a birthday spanking. Kim went wet with just the idea. In Danubian she commented:
"Sergekt, in my country we have a tradition. A naughty girl like me gets spanked on her birthday... one good hard spank for each year. So... you want to do that for me... spank me for my birthday?"
Sergekt couldn't believe his good fortune. This beautiful, flawless bottom stretched over his lap, and its owner requesting a spanking. He could smell her excitement. He gently ran his fingertips over Kim's vagina. She was very wet. He was completely hard, his erection pressing into Kim's side.
"So this is the birthday present you really wanted, hmm? Very well, Kimberly, happy 19th birthday."
With that, Sergekt drew his hand up and delivered a sharp SLAP! to Kim's right bottom-cheek. He gently caressed the reddish area, and then delivered an equally sharp SLAP! to Kim's left bottom-cheek. Kim moaned with excitement. Slowly Sergekt delivered another sharp SLAP! to Kim's right bottom cheek and yet another to her left bottom cheek. Kim shifted again on Sergekt's lap. The slaps were just the right intensity and she wanted more...she was desperate for more.
Slowly and lovingly Sergekt continued Kim's birthday spanking. The fact that Kim would only receive 19 swats made him want to make sure that every one of those swats would count. He wanted Kim to feel and appreciate each sharp slap. As Sergekt continued to spank and caress Kim, her sexual desire intensified. She gasped, arching her back and thrusting herself up, completely exposing her wet vagina to the warm autumn sun. She wanted to feel Sergekt's hands touch her most intimate areas, to tease her there and perhaps punish her there as well. However, Sergekt remained concentrated on Kim's bottom and the increasing the reddish color on her bottom cheeks.
For the last five swats, Sergekt pressed Kim back down so he could give her extra sharp slaps. Kim's eyes were partially closed and she was gasping, her voice breaking. When Sergekt finished his 19th slap, he kept his hand on Kim's bottom for a few seconds and then delivered one final slap, an extra for her next birthday and good luck.
Sergekt led Kim onto the grass and ordered Kim on her hands and knees. Kim's bottom and vagina were on full display, spread wide and glistening in the sunlight. It was a sight that would have tempted any man, but this lovely bottom belonged to Sergekt's own love, his own "Geemberglek". He quickly slipped on a condom and entered her. She pressed back into him and he thrust hard, so hard it almost hurt. Kim moaned and gasped through two of the most intense orgasms she ever had experienced. Sergerkt climaxed immediately, but continued thrusting, hoping for a second orgasm. Kim climaxed yet again, and Sergekt finally got what he wanted, the coveted second orgasm that left his legs shaking and his body completely relaxed. It was so good he almost blacked out.
Finally they pulled apart, their bodies shining with sweat and covered in dirt. However, a chilly breeze hit the two lovers at that moment, a reminder the day was short and it quickly would be getting colder as the sun dropped in the sky. Sergekt got up to fetch a bucket of water from the garden's pump. Kim giggled as Sergekt pushed the lever up and down in an effort to tease some water into the bucket. Finally some water came up and the two lovers were able to sponge off and head home.
As they rode back to Dukov's house, Kim showed Sergekt no mercy as she rode her mountain bike. She easily outpaced her boyfriend as he struggled on his primitive one-speed. Kim lifted up from her seat to tease him with her bottom, and then shot ahead, forcing him to petal hard just to stay within sight of her. She then dropped back, again lifted up to tease him, and again took off.
"Kim, I ought to spank that naughty bottom of yours for doing this."
"Maybe, but you got to catch me first."
He never did manage to catch her that day, but both knew that there would be plenty of days next summer, plenty of bicycle rides, and plenty of opportunities for Sergekt to catch Kim and give her that well-deserved lover's spanking.
The weather quickly changed a couple of days after Kim's birthday. Cold rain and sleet constantly bombarded the dreary streets of Danube City, with the promise that there would be no let-up until next spring. The pavement was covered with cold water and the last of the bicyclists were driven off the streets and into the city's trolleys. The entire fleet of trolleys and trolleybuses was working non-stop, but all public transportation was packed with commuters at all times.
In spite of the cold weather, Kim learned from Sergekt that she really did not need to wear her criminal's cape during the day. The criminal's cape was a truly humiliating piece of clothing, to be used only during the most inclement weather. Sergekt and most other criminals took pride in wearing it as little as possible. At the beginning Kim had thought about wearing her cape, but over time peer-pressure forced the American to leave hers at home as well.
Kim's orange boots kept her feet warm, and she quickly learned how to keep the rest of her body warm enough to move about in the city. Of course, the packed trolleys were so hot that the criminals actually were more comfortable than the average citizens who stood sweating in their coats. As a courtesy, average citizens usually allowed criminals to get on the trolleys first to let them get out of the cold as quickly as possible.
As for outdoors, the survival tactic adopted by Kim and the other criminals was to duck into stores as much as possible, warm up, and then dash to the next store, warm up, and keep moving. In Kim's case there really was no problem, since the music store was right next to a trolley stop. The store employees waited at the front door for the trolley to come by, then quickly dashed across the sidewalk to get in once it had stopped. The Socrates Club presented even less of a problem during the winter. The club had built an enclosed heated trolley stop right outside its main entrance to accommodate the patrons who did not want to wear their capes.
Kim settled into a stable, peaceful relationship with Sergekt during November. They got to know each other better as Kim's ability to speak Danubian improved, they hung out at the Socrates Club, went to an occasional movie, ate at each other's houses, and just enjoyed being together. They made love every so often in one of the Socrates Club's "intimacy rooms", enough that Kim considered taking birth control pills to free Sergekt from the responsibility of always wearing a condom. Kim had established her routine with her boyfriend and felt very satisfied with that part of her life. Sergekt was the most serious relationship Kim ever had experienced, very different from the casual encounters and partying she had done the previous year.
During November another relationship opened up for Kim, her growing friendship with the singer Eloisa. Eloisa was by far the most unusual woman in the group. She was deeply philosophical and serious, but she could talk about anything and made a good conversation partner. There was something very sad and haunting about her, a pain in her soul that came out in both her conversation and in her music.
Eloisa was dating one of the guys in the group, a very serious young man called Dima Chernákt. It was obvious they were very serious about each other and they planned to get married. Dima was with her constantly and she seemed to rely on him to give her protection. And yet, not once did Kim notice the couple ever touching each other. No hugs, no kissing, no physical contact whatsoever. The relationship was not platonic nor a simple friendship, but it was by no means a normal relationship either.
Kim asked Sergekt about Eloisa's strange behavior. He responded, "Eloisa has been through a lot. She has suffered much more than anyone else I have ever known. That's why she sings the way she sings. She has been to the dark places of life, places I hope I never have to see."
"But what happened to her?"
"I can't tell you. If you get to know her better, maybe she might... but that's up to her. I can tell you that what happened to her is something that shouldn't ever happen to anyone... but it does, sometimes even here in this country."
Sergekt had given up very little information, but it was enough, together with Eloisa's obvious dislike of any physical contact, for Kim to figure out what happened. She guessed that Eloisa must have been raped. That was true, but when she later found out the full story Kim would much better understand, not only Eloisa, but also Dima, Sergekt, the group of classmates, and the social values of Upper Danubia.
Kim's friendship with Eloisa began when one of the band's back-up singers completed her sentence at the end of October. The young woman was a fellow employee at the music store, and as a result the store shut down for a couple of hours to allow the employees to attend the de-collaring ceremony. The young woman left the courthouse wearing a traditional Danubian dress and a raincoat. She returned to work for a brief party, bade everyone a tearful goodbye, and disappeared from their lives.
Kim's co-worker had been accepted to study at Upper Danubia's most prestigious medical university, which was located at the other end of the country in the distant capitol of Rika Chorna Province. She needed to board a train immediately to attend an orientation and was out of Danube City by nightfall. The woman's departure left Eloisa with only three back-up singers, and for much of her music she needed four.
The next day Eloisa heard Kim humming a song that she had heard several times and liked. She listened attentively to Kim's voice, realizing its pitch was identical to the pitch of the voice of the friend who had just left. During lunch break Eloisa asked Kim to sing some notes... Excellent... Now deeper... From deep in your throat... Not bad... Try it again... Good... Now try this... By the end of lunch Kim had a new obligation in life, as a back-up singer for Eloisa.
It was obvious that Kim would not be able to sing songs with words because of her accent. However, Danubian music often relied on a group of women singing different notes, in the same way a band uses different instruments. Each female voice was part of the background music, unique and indispensable for the entire song to work. It was the pitch of Kim's voice that Eloisa needed, not her ability to sing actual words. It was as though Eloisa had lost a musical instrument and needed to replace it with another.
That night Kim found herself rehearsing with the other three back-up singers, closely following Eloisa's lead. The following Saturday night Kim was on stage at the Socrates club during the group's musical presentation. She now was more committed than ever to her new life in Danube City.
Kim spent increasing amounts of time with Eloisa when she was not at work or with Sergekt. As much as she participated in the Socrates Club, her group, and in her personal relationship with her boyfriend, the internal torments in Eloisa's soul set her apart from everyone else. She was part of the group, but at the same time different and somewhat apart. Kim was in a similar situation, being Asian, being an American, and being a convicted drug-user. She was part of the group, but at the same time she was "different". As a result Eloisa and Kim gravitated towards each other.
Eloisa seemed to understand Kim better than anyone else, including Sergekt. Sergekt understood Kim from a male perspective, but there were certain things about her he could not understand due to the barrier of sex. Eloisa did understand Kim and could even understand why Kim had done so many stupid things in her life prior to getting arrested. Even Kim couldn't understand everything about herself, but it seemed that Eloisa had her figured out.
At the beginning of December the morale of Sergekt and his friends began to decline. They were more moody, quieter, and increasingly apprehensive. The reason was simple enough -- on December 15 they faced returning to their old school to receive the next scheduled installment of their punishment. The school authorities wanted to switch the group at their old high school to set an example for the younger students who had not yet graduated. Since vacation started on the 20th, the punishment needed to be moved up to the middle of the month, to make sure the younger students were on-hand to see what happens to criminals.
Kim sympathized, since the next installment of her own punishment would be January 2, six months to the date she had been punished in July, Kim was scared herself, and she was lucky. She only faced punishment every six months. Sergekt, Eloisa, and 26 others faced punishment every four months.
Just a couple of days before the 15th, Kim and Eloisa decided to have some Danubian fruit punch after a musical practice. They sat alone in the break-room of the store on a sofa, quietly sipping at their glasses. Eloisa sighed, thinking about the group's upcoming punishment.
"It never gets any easier," she noted sadly. "You think it will; that somehow you'll get used to it. But you never do. It hurts just as bad every time. And each time, before, I mean, you just get more and more scared, because you know, you know how bad they'll hurt you."
Kim nodded. Eloisa stared straight ahead. In a very distant voice she continued.
"You know, it's because of me the others have to do this. I'm the reason they're serving these sentences. It's because of me that 27 other lives got ruined. I should have just killed myself, and that would have saved them. Now I can't. Now I can't die. I owe it to the others to stay alive, even though that's not what I want."
Kim had no idea how to respond. She felt horrible about the consequences of her own decisions, but Kim had no desire to die. Quite the contrary, she realized how important it was to be alive. Kim treasured her life and the chance to remain on the planet. To hear Eloisa talk like this...
"You can't talk like that. Your life is a gift, and you can lose it real easily. I almost did. I mean... we all love you."
"I know. But to know what I did... and what happened... I mean it wasn't really my fault, but in a way it was... I mean... it wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for me."
"What happened? You didn't do anything..."
"Kim, did Sergekt ever tell you why we all got these three-year sentences?"
"He tried to explain it to me when we first started going out, but I didn't understand Danubian enough to follow all of what he told me. I did get that it was all out of a sense of honor that you guys all stuck together and you all got punished. He made a big deal out of that, because he was real upset about what my friends did to me... you know, when they told the police they didn't know about the marijuana in my backpack. But anyhow, I didn't understand much... he said something about a riot at your school."
"Yes, there was riot. I guess you could call it that. It was because of me it happened."
"You? What did you do?"
Eloisa sat quietly for a few minutes. Finally she forced herself to speak.
"I didn't do anything except just be a stupid kid. I thought he loved me... that's what he always said... but he made me... I mean, for three years he made me..."
Eloisa struggled to catch her breath and push back the awful memories that suddenly had surfaced. Finally she was able to tell Kim her story.
It turned out when Eloisa was just 14, she was seduced by a male teacher at the school. The relationship quickly became very abusive, especially after the teacher took a series of pornographic photos and threatened to show them to Eloisa's parents if she ever said anything or tried to break off the relationship. What the teacher forced Eloisa to do apparently went way beyond ordinary sex, it left her feeling completely degraded and nauseated by the thought of any physical contact with anyone. On that point Eloisa did not elaborate and Kim really did not want to know the details. The abuse went on for three years and got worse over time.
Eloisa's life changed the summer before her final year in school. The teacher molesting her was on vacation in Germany, and she began seeing one of her classmates, Dima, the guy she was currently engaged to. Eloisa was completely traumatized by what was happening to her and felt too degraded to have any friends from the school. Dima spent time with her, and slowly got her to realize she did have value as a person. He fell in love with her, perhaps in part because she was so distant and he hoped to bring her back.
The possibility that Eloisa could have a normal relationship with someone her own age gave her courage to start confronting her situation with the teacher. She quit seeing him after school. When he threatened her with the photos Eloisa responded, "Go ahead and show those photos. Then you get to explain why you have them."
Eloisa thought she had escaped her tormenter because she did not have any classes with him during her final year. However, he proctored a series of tests for the end of the autumn semester that Eloisa had to take. He saw the finals as a chance to get revenge against Eloisa for leaving him. He accused her of cheating and began a series of reports to get her expelled from the school and charged with insurrection. As a result of the accusations Eloisa was suspended from school, pending the resolution of the cheating charges.
The male students in Eloisa's class knew the accusations were false. They talked among themselves, trying to figure out how to save Eloisa from being expelled from school and possibly from facing a formal sentence. Finally youthful tempers started to flair, and 27 students, male and female, decided to directly confront the teacher and force him to recant his accusations. They filed into his classroom and surrounded him. When he tried to get away several students punched him in the stomach and pinned him against the wall. Dima struck him hard across the face, breaking his nose. Suddenly the teacher realized he was trapped in a room with 27 angry students who were perfectly willing to kill him.
The students extracted confession after confession from the teacher, including forcing him to reveal where he was keeping the photos he had taken of Eloisa. They were in a locked filing cabinet in the classroom with the tests, but the key was not in the school. That was not good enough for the students. The rage among the group was mounting. While Dima landed several more hard punches, several of his friends, including Sergekt, picked up the filing cabinet and heaved it through the window. Then several male students ran downstairs to retrieve the packages of photos. Sure enough, among the wreckage of the filing cabinet were several packets of very sick pictures. They ran back upstairs and waved a couple at the teacher.
"THIS IS WHAT YOU MADE HER DO?! THIS IS WHAT YOU MADE HER DO?!"
The police arrived at that moment, screaming and pointing automatic weapons at the students. It was a terrible scene; a smashed window, desks and chairs kicked everywhere, 27 irate teenagers, and one bloodied teacher. The next few seconds were horrible chaos, as the police shot into the ceiling to get the teenagers to lie down. The teacher, hugely relieved at being rescued, headed towards the door, but the head police officer pointed his weapon at the supposed victim and snarled, "You're not going anywhere! Not 'till we get this straightened out!"
There was a lot to straighten out. The police were smart enough to understand that no group of students could have behaved in such a manner without being severely provoked. The answer was clear enough as soon as the police officers started picking up Eloisa's pictures, which had been strewn all over the room. The teacher ended up on the floor in handcuffs along with the 27 students. Vans arrived and everyone was taken to the Central Police Station.
Because Eloisa had been suspended from school pending resolution of the cheating charges, she did not learn about the riot until that evening. She took a trolley to the police station, identified herself, and quickly was dragged into the case. It was obvious she was the girl in the photos. She had to sign several statements discussing what had happened with her teacher, which were introduced later that night at his trial and helped condemn him.
What happened next was a very Danubian resolution to the case. Partly because what was in the pictures was so offensive, the teacher faced the death penalty for child molestation. His trial took place at midnight, as was the tradition for all death penalty cases. The teacher was dressed in a black robe and ordered to stand during his trial, even as he nursed his broken nose and bruised stomach. There was not much argument over guilt or innocence, the pictures and Eloisa's statements assured the verdict. The police also had searched the teacher's home and found yet more photos of Eloisa and three other high school girls.
The execution took place at sunrise. Still dressed in his black robe, the teacher was taken back to the central police station and ordered to stand at the end of the courtyard in front of a thick wooden wall. He stood with his hands untied, since any Danubian who faces death by execution is expected to greet it with dignity, no matter how heinous his crime might have been. The 27 students, still dressed in their school uniforms, were brought out in handcuffs to witness the execution. Very quickly five police officers pointed their rifles at the teacher, there was a whistle, and a second later he was reduced to a crumpled corpse.
The students then were led to the cement circle in the courtyard and one by one ordered to strip. They too, faced trial and punishment. However, they faced corporal, not capital, charges.
Their cases were assigned to Spokesman Alexi Havlakt, who was the oldest member of Danube City's criminal defense team and on the verge of retiring. Now Spokesman Havlakt suddenly had 27 new cases thrust upon him and his retirement postponed indefinitely. Still, the path of his life was to help persons facing the Danubian court system and the fate of 27 high school students weighed on him more that his foregone years of rest. The old Spokesman prepared to mount as best a defense as he could, given the group's bleak circumstances.
The students faced multiple violations, including assault, attempted murder, disrespect for authority, vandalism, and insurrection. The police brought each frightened student in for questioning individually, but in the holding cell they all had previously agreed that whatever charges they faced they would face together. 27 seven times the police asked the same questions and got the same responses:
"Who punched your teacher?"
"All of us, sir. We all punched the teacher."
"Who threw the filing cabinet out the window?"
"All of us sir. We all are responsible..."
The police did not push the issue once they figured out all the students would give them the same responses. In the US the police would have tried to get some of the students to testify against the others. In Upper Danubia the police understood that attempting to get some of the students to turn on the others would have violated the society's social norms, something no one in the police department wanted to do. The questioning became a mere formality. The group would have to be judged by the facts, not by what any of the students had to say.
While the 27 students were being questioned, Eloisa demanded that she be arrested and charged with her classmates. She was innocent of any wrong-doing, but the riot had taken place because of her. Eloisa's friends had sacrificed their own lives for her, and her Danubian perception of honor demanded that whatever consequences they suffered she would have to suffer as well.
Eloisa explained to Kim that under such circumstances the police chief had no choice but to arrest her. Eloisa would have lost honor had she not stood with her friends, especially in this situation where they had given up their freedom because of her. Danubian protocol demanded that, whether they had been right or wrong, it was her social duty to join them. Eloisa quietly undressed in front of the chief of police and was led in handcuffs to her classmates.
The students had confessed as a group, and they were tried as a group. Now 28 with the addition of Eloisa, they knelt naked in the courtroom as charges were read against them. The case presented a very difficult dilemma for the trial judge. Their Spokesman pointed out that the students had done nothing more than defend a classmate's honor. However, as pointed out by the prosecutor, in doing so they had broken several laws and disrupted the peace of the community. As unfair as it was, they had to be punished. In the end they were convicted of vandalism and insurrection, the charges of attempted murder, assault, and disrespect for authority being dropped. They received a standard sentence of three years, with a corporal punishment every four months. They had to kneel in line as they were fitted with collars.
Most of the students in the group were still underage, so the court ordered they would be punished the following day at their school instead of in the courtroom. The police allowed them to get cleaned up and have dinner at the police cafeteria, and then they were locked overnight in a large room with mattresses. Early the following morning they were handcuffed and loaded into police vans to be transported back to their school to be punished. Following the punishment they would be released back into the custody of their parents.
Eloisa recalled with horror that second day, when she and the others were ordered to kneel in the cold school courtyard in front of 400 classmates. One-by-one they had to stand up and present themselves at the switching table. Each of them received 25 strokes, standard for someone under-age. As each student turned 18, later switchings would become the standard adult punishment of 50 strokes.
At the end of the day the school director gave a short speech, with the 28 students kneeling behind him. He announced that several serious crimes had been committed and all of them resolved. No one in the school, neither teacher nor student, would be permitted, under any circumstances, to ever mention the tragic events that led to this group punishment. The following day all 28 students would return to their classes and the matter would be closed.
Eloisa's parents were devastated. Over a four-year period they had known absolutely nothing about what had happened to their daughter. Eloisa had suffered in silence, her parents blissfully unaware of what was happening to her. Suddenly their bright daughter had ended up with a three-year sentence in the midst of a massive scandal. However, her father tried to make the best out of the bad situation. That afternoon he sought out Dima. Choking back the tears he had cried over what had happened to Eloisa without his knowledge, he addressed Dima, "I would be very honored if you come to our house and sit at my table on Saturday. And you, and any of your friends, are welcome, very welcome, to sit at my table whenever you want."
Eloisa was allowed to re-take her semester finals and did quite well. A riot, an execution, and 28 three-year sentences were all it took to get Eloisa re-instated in her school as a student in good standing. The students considered that a victory.
The riot changed Eloisa's outlook on life. She had always sought to avoid any attention and live quietly. She never trusted anyone except her boyfriend. And yet, when the moment came for her to be unjustly expelled from school, 26 other students had joined Dima to stand up for her. She was indebted to all of them. She had to come out of her world and join the others who had sacrificed for her. She always went with the group to the Socrates Club. Within two months, by pure chance, Eloisa discovered she had a natural talent for singing. Shortly thereafter she discovered that she had a real talent for organizing other singers and choreographing groups of other voices. She began singing on a regular basis. Just six months after her initial sentence, Eloisa was the lead singer for Sergekt's group and the most popular singer at the Socrates Club.
Eloisa's only release in life was singing. Standing on stage allowed her to release the sadness in her soul, a sadness well-suited to a society that valued music with morose philosophical overtones. She was a true Danubian singer, the living incarnation of the expression "to sing like a criminal".
There was another tragedy in Eloisa's life, a holdover from the abuse that she had suffered from her teacher. Eloisa loved her boyfriend in a manner that very few women could love a man. She loved him with all her spirit, all her soul. And yet the one thing she most wanted to do, to have him touch her and hold her, she couldn't. Eloisa was so nauseated by what had happened to her that she was repulsed by any physical contact with other people. No matter how much Eloisa loved her boyfriend, and no matter how much he loved her, he couldn't touch her.
"We keep hoping that, maybe someday it'll be different, that someday Dima can touch me. But Kim, I can't see how it ever will be any different. I'm broken, and I can't be repaired."
Two days later, 28 young criminals reported to the small police station close to their old school. Spokesman Havlakt accompanied them to assure that they would not be injured and that any sexual fondling from the punishing officers was kept to a minimum. Fortunately for Eloisa, he had obtained a psychiatric release mandating that she could not be touched at all except for the switch. He vaguely hoped the officer punishing Eloisa would violate that psychiatric release, because if he did, her switching could be stopped immediately.
In spite of the unfairness of what had happened, there was very little pity for the group from the school officials and police officers assigned to punish them. The ex-students were forced to kneel while their collars were chained together. The police then handcuffed them and shackled their feet. The officer in charge walked down the line, kicking the kneeling criminals and striking them on the shoulders with his switch.
"Alright you little dishonored bastards... get your filthy bodies moving!"
The line of naked criminals struggled to stand up and slowly shuffled towards their old school. It was bitterly cold and most of them were shivering. They walked about two blocks and filed into the school's main doorway. From there they would go to the gymnasium (a concession to their Spokesman who had not wanted them to be forced to stay outside in the cold school courtyard), and one by one, each would receive 50 strokes of the switch. The terrible detail was the fact that Eloisa and Dima would be forced to witness each other's switchings. For Eloisa and her boyfriend to see each other suffer was a punishment far worse than being punished themselves.
Vladim Dukov and Kimberly Lee, for once dressed in her criminal's cape, quietly stood on the sidewalk across from the police station, sadly watching the group shuffle towards the school. Kim spotted Sergekt, who was fifth in line. She did not try to draw his attention.
"Spokesman Dukov, this is so wrong. At least I did something to get convicted. I mean... Eloisa..."
"No, it is not fair, but it is the way our justice system works. Laws were broken. Violators are punished. It has been this way for 1,000 years. In a situation like this fairness is of only minor importance."
Dukov and Kim returned to the Central Police Station as soon as the classmates had entered their school. Kim removed her cape as soon as they entered the building, since she was strictly prohibited from wearing it inside. She folded it over her arm and followed her Spokesman back to his office. Upon getting back upstairs, Dukov and his client helped the secretaries set up four recovery tables.
All of the Spokespersons previously had agreed among themselves to help Eloisa's classmates as much as possible. Spokesman Havlakt had persuaded the sentencing judge to grant several concessions to ease the suffering of the group. The most important was forcing the punishment to be moved indoors. There was the psychiatric release for Eloisa that spared her any physical humiliation by forbidding the punishing officers to touch her. Finally, the sentencing judge had agreed that as soon as each criminal's switching was over he or she would immediately be released back into the custody of the Spokesman, instead of having to wait for the entire group to be finished.
The police had arranged to switch the ex-students in groups of four. Once each group was punished, there would be a brief break while the punished criminals left the school, and then the following group would be tied down and punished. The ex-students had agreed that the women would be punished first so they could be released and returned to Spokesman Havlakt's custody as soon as possible.
Part of the males' motivation for allowing the women to go first was out of self-interest. The men knew they faced sexual humiliation at the hands of the female police officers assigned to punish them. They did not want their female friends to see that part of their punishment, so they preferred to have the women from the group leave the school and return to their Spokesman's office before their own switchings began. There were eight women and 20 men, so the first two groups to be punished would be the females.
Spokesman Havlakt hired a van to bring the punished criminals back to the Central Police Station, paying for the service out of his own pocket. The other Spokespersons helped by having their recovery tables set up in their offices. Dukov planned to take four of the criminals, including Eloisa.
Kim was hoping to have Sergekt come to Dukov's office. She wanted to comfort him, but Dukov explained why that would not happen.
"Kimberly, it is not proper that you see Sergekt after he has been punished. Nor is it proper that he be present following your punishment. If you love another person, do you really want to see him broken, crying, and humiliated? Is that how you would want Sergekt to see you?"
"No, Spokesman Dukov, I guess not... I guess I really wouldn't want him to see me..."
"Then you will allow Sergekt to preserve his dignity in your presence, and he will do the same for you. You must not see him after he has been whipped. The person who needs you today is not Sergekt, but Eloisa."
About a half an hour after the recovery tables were set up, Spokesman Havlakt called Dukov to let him know that he was coming in with the first four women from the group, including Eloisa. The van pulled to the side door of the police building that was closest to the stairs leading up to the Spokespersons’ office area. Dukov, Kim, one of Dukov's secretaries, and two other Spokesmen-for-the-Criminals were on hand to receive the four women and help them get upstairs.
Spokesman Havlakt opened up the side door of the van to reveal four naked women, all of them Kim's friends. He helped each one get out. Eloisa's face was distorted with pain and tears were running down her cheeks. She was not crying. The other three were sobbing and holding on to each other, but Eloisa was absolutely quiet.
The three sobbing women quickly went inside and made their way upstairs, guided by the other two Spokesmen. Kim took a quick look at their backsides. The bottom of each was badly marked up with dark reddish lines, punctuated with ugly-looking purple welts. All of the women had been struck across the upper thighs as well. One had four red lines across her upper back. However, as bad as the marks were, in no place had the skin been broken and within two weeks all traces of the punishment would vanish from the women's bodies. It would take much longer for the marks to vanish from their minds.
Eloisa stood alone in the cold, shivering with her arms wrapped around herself. She sadly stared at the ground, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. Forgetting about Eloisa's fear of physical contact, Kim walked up to her friend and tried to touch her shoulder. Eloisa squealed and backed away. She looked at Kim with a truly horrified expression.
"Eloisa... please. You have to come upstairs. I promise I won't try to touch you again. But you have to get out of the cold. You'll get sick if you stay out here."
Dukov stepped near Eloisa, gently adding, "Eloisa, please come with us. Kimberly is here to watch over you. You must come to my office and rest."
Shivering ever more violently, Eloisa nodded and slowly made her way to the door. By now her body was almost white from the cold, making her switch-marks looked like red slashes of paint laid across a marble statue.
Dukov and Kim breathed a sigh of relief when Eloisa made it through the door into the heated police station. She was shivering violently and still hugging herself, but with a slow, unsteady walk she managed to climb the steps.
Kim studied Eloisa's face as she ascended the steps alongside her Danubian friend. Kim realized that Eloisa must not have cried at all during her switching. She had focused all of her internal torments into one purpose, to not let the police hear her cry. Kim could tell that she still was tensed up from that effort, and she needed to release her pain and emotion. Eloisa's face almost seemed locked in that horrified expression.
After a very slow, laborious climb up two flights of stairs, Dukov's secretary held open the main door to allow the Spokesman and the two criminals to enter. Eloisa stopped in the reception area, staring the four recovery tables. She put her hands on one of them to steady herself.
"It's my fault," she said quietly. "It's all my fault. I'm the reason the others have to do this."
Rather than argue with her, Kim decided to try to get Eloisa to release her pent-up anguish. She stood close to her friend, as close as she could without touching her.
"Eloisa, you are a very brave girl. You did good not to cry. But now you're safe, with people who love you. It's all over, and you have to let yourself cry now. Please, you have to cry. It's OK. There's just me. No one else will hear."
Eloisa looked up at Kim, then straight ahead. Suddenly she did start crying quietly. She sank to her knees, holding onto the table and burying her face in her knuckles. Kim so badly wanted to hold her, to try to re-assure her with a simple touch from a friend, but she couldn't. She worried that if Eloisa completely sank to the floor, there would be no way to get her up.
"Eloisa. Eloisa. Please, you have to get on the table. I have to make sure you're not hurt."
Eloisa struggled to get back on her feet and slowly positioned herself face-down on the table. Her body jerked with sobs. Kim studied the red and purplish stripes on Eloisa's bottom and legs. They were no worse than the markings on the other three classmates, but Kim felt that to punish Eloisa in such a manner was an abomination. She had suffered so much, and through no fault of her own, continued to suffer.
As Eloisa lay crying, Kim studied her backside. The welts on her bottom now formed hard, ugly ridges where the switch marks had crossed each other. It was obvious it would be several days before she could sit normally, not until the blood drained out of the welts and the skin had softened again. In spite of Eloisa's fear of being touched, Kim planned to wait until she went to sleep and then would gently spread some lotion on the welts to soften them.
When Eloisa finally cried herself to sleep, Kim set to work with the lotion. She put small amounts on her fingertips and very gently applied the lotion to the welts. As she softly touched her friend's damaged bottom, Kim again felt that strange sensation of arousal and sexual excitement. She totally forgot about her earlier view that punishing Eloisa was an abomination. At that moment Eloisa looked so graceful and tragic, lying on the table with her pale body contrasting sharply with the dark red and purple marks from the switch. Kim now badly wished she could have witnessed Eloisa's switching, instead of just being tempted by studying its aftermath. As Eloisa's body relaxed and her bottom spread, Kim could see her open labia and bottom-hole, nestled in a small patch of unmarked skin among all those welts. Like the others, Eloisa had shaved prior to her punishment, so the most private parts of her body were completely on display. Kim suddenly felt the urge to lean down and gently kiss Eloisa...
Kim came to her senses with a start. What in the hell was she thinking? This was her friend, and here was Kim, getting aroused by the sight of her punished body. She felt horribly guilty. And yet, Kim continued to see a strange beauty in Eloisa at that moment. Somehow it seemed that suffering fit the melancholy singer, just as her collar and welts seemed to complement her beautiful figure and soft pale skin.
Kim's first Christmas in Upper Danubia was the most emotional she ever experienced. She badly missed her family in the U.S. She envisioned her parents and her sister, her cousins and grandparents, all gathered to celebrate without her. Kim knew full-well there would be plenty of uncomfortable discussion about why she could not be in the United States this Christmas, and why she would miss the next Christmas as well. Kim knew that her actions had left a huge hole in her family's soul. Once again her heart filled with remorse as she remembered last year, how she had been so desperate to break away from her parents to go off with Tiffany and Susan and get drunk with a bunch of classmates. If only she had known, if she could have appreciated...but now of course it was too late.
Kim's Christmas in Danube City, however, promised to be full of fun and social events. She had to divide her time between the Dukovs, Sergekt, Eloisa, her co-workers, and her friends at the Socrates Club.
It was only natural that Vladim and Maritza Dukov would want Kimberly to spend as much time as possible at their house during Christmas vacation. She made the rounds to visit various relatives and friends of both Maritza and Vladim as they took her to dine at other people's houses. The elder Dukovs also took her to several churches and pageants. Often the events required her to stand outside for long periods of time, so like it or not, she had to wear her criminal's cape.
One night, as a member of Vladim Dukov's family, Kim even had dinner with Vladik's fiancée and her family. The visit to the house of Vladik's fiancée was the most awkward of that first Christmas season, because she was the only criminal in a house full of 25 people. During dinner the American was forced to sit naked at a table full of formally dressed members of Dukov's family and the family of his future in-laws. To make things worse, Dukov was treating Kim in the same manner he treated his own daughter, and introducing her as though she was family instead of a foreign client serving a two-year sentence. Dukov's future in-laws stared at Kim with unabashed curiosity throughout the dinner. Things got even more uncomfortable when Kim's singing career was mentioned and she was asked to join eight other women in singing Christmas hymns. The group stood in the living room, Kim's bare figure contrasting sharply with the bright dresses of her companions. However, in the end Kim survived the evening and was left with the impression that everyone in the household liked her.
The elder Dukovs treated Kim very warmly on Christmas day. She cooked dinner with Maritza and Anyia. Later she ate with the entire family, including Victor Dukov, his wife, and their two sons. Kim had to spend this Christmas separated from her own family in the US, but she was fortunate enough to be part of another.
Kim spent more time with Eloisa than she originally had planned, given that Eloisa's singing was very much in demand at the end of the year. Kim found herself on stage with Eloisa's other back-up singers almost every night between December 20 and January 1. On December 24 the five singers appeared at Danube City's main cathedral to sing several ancient Danubian Christmas hymns. The event was televised, with Eloisa's performance prominently featured as part of the Christmas programming. Many Danubian television viewers were intrigued by Kim's appearance among the back-up singers, amazed to see the American "Maragana Girl" singing Danubian folk music that was hundreds of years old.
During all their Christmas performances, including the televised one, Eloisa and her back-up singers remained completely naked except their collars. In spite of their contribution to the nation's Christmas celebration, the five young women were criminals, still subject to the laws that denied them the privilege of wearing normal clothing at any time during their sentences. When they finished, always to loud applause, the five lead singers, as well as the men who were playing the instruments, acknowledged both their gratitude and their place in society by kneeling on stage and touching their foreheads to the floor instead of bowing. Kim knelt and leaned forward to put her forehead to the stage floor along with the others. The practice had long since stopped bothering her. She was a Danubian criminal and it was what society expected of her.
By the end of the year Kimberly Lee's identity had undergone a profound change. She no longer saw herself as a graduate from her high school, as a tourist from the United States, nor even really as an American. Kim instead had become a full member of Danubian criminal society. All of her closest friends were criminals, her co-workers were criminals, and even her de facto parents were ex-criminals. In some ways Kim's life was fairly easy. As a part of the criminal sub-culture she was forced to adhere to very strict rules and protocol. She had her place in society, a place as well defined as that of a professional such as Vladim Dukov, or even that of a policeman such as Vladik.
Kim's friends were the most important part of her existence. The group was very close. Kim felt that any of them could be a soul-mate, not just Sergekt and Eloisa. She could talk to any of them about anything. Most importantly, her Danubian friends were people she could trust. They shared everything: their free time, their suffering, their hopes for the future, their dreams.
The place where Kim most fit in was the group's musical band. She sang in harmony with Eloisa's other three back-up singers, to the point that Eloisa decided to start training Kim to sing songs with Danubian lyrics. Eloisa listened attentively to Kim's singing, occasionally telling her how to re-sing a word of phrase to cover her English accent. By January, the American was a full member of Eloisa's group of back-up singers, able to perform as well as any of the others. Kim's soul came out in her singing every bit as much as Eloisa's soul came out while she was on stage.
One part of Kim's life as a criminal was not easy, however, and that was building up the courage she needed to face the next of her four corporal punishments. As Christmas passed and New Year's day rapidly approached, Kim's soul filled with apprehension. The punishment would take place on January 2. Vladim Dukov confirmed that the arresting officer would be available to switch his client. In fact, the female cop was planning to cut short a vacation in Vienna with her boyfriend precisely to be on-hand to punish the American. Dukov also learned that the cop's male partner also would be present for sure. He planned to cut short his vacation with his family at the other end of the country to return to Danube City on the 1st, to be on-hand for Kim's punishment the following day.
Dukov was concerned about the two officers' enthusiasm. "Those two seem quite determined to punish you. It is not common for a police officer to cut short a vacation solely to be present at a particular criminal's punishment. You know that police officers can stand in for each other, but in your case the two officers have been adamant that they will remain in charge of your punishment."
Kim spent New Year's Eve with Sergekt and his friends. By this time the group's members were fully recovered from their punishments and back to their normal selves. Kim spent the entire evening in extreme apprehension, nervously watching the clock. Within 36 hours she would have to face those two cops again. She wondered if the two officers had thought of some horrible new way to punish or humiliate her. She trembled at the knowledge that the two officer's hands would be able to touch her wherever they wanted. She knew they would, that their rough hands would fondle her most intimate regions, that her body would hide no secrets from her two tormenters.
Sergekt was as kind as he could be to Kim throughout the evening. He knew what she was going through, having gone through the exact same emotional turmoil just two weeks before. There was very little he could say to comfort his girlfriend, other than to tell her to remember that, however horrible the moment of her punishment might be, at some point it would be over. "I tell myself that every time I have to face the switch. It doesn't help when I'm actually being punished, but it helps a little bit before because it is the truth, nothing lasts forever."
Kim and Sergekt stayed as long as they could at the Socrates Club after New Years Eve. Before returning to Dukov's house they sadly and quietly made love in one of the "intimacy rooms". When Sergekt finally said goodbye to her in Dukov's livingroom the following morning, Kim held him tightly as tears rolled down her cheeks. She faced punishment in less than 24 hours. She would not see him again until after the switching.
Dukov now had to get his apprehensive client through the day. He and Maritza took Kim back downtown to watch some New Year's festivities. Dukov's idea of keeping her busy that final day worked. In fact, there were moments, however brief, that she was able to focus on something other than her upcoming punishment. The day went by fairly quickly and pleasantly. That night, Kim followed Sergekt's advice and shaved off her pubic hair. Shaving beforehand ensured that at least she would not suffer the indignity of being shaved in public or by one of those sadistic medical students in the medical classroom in the basement of the Central Police Station.
Kim woke up the next morning after spending most of the night wide awake, tossing in her bed. Dukov entered her room with a very forlorn expression on his face. He no longer saw Kim as a client. To Dukov she was his daughter. He wanted to protect her and save her from hardship, but in this case Danubian law was firm. Kim had to be punished, and there was nothing he could do about it.
"Kimberly, we must go." He held up Kim's criminal cape. "Do you want to wear this?"
Kim shook her head. "No, Spokesman Dukov. I'll just go in my boots."
With that Dukov and his client silently took the trolley downtown. Once they got to the police station Kim took off her boots. Once they entered his office Dukov instructed her to get a drink of water and use the bathroom one last time. When she came out, the Spokesman told her to kneel in the middle of the reception area and wait for the police escort to arrive. The police escort would handcuff her and take her downstairs for the switching.
As much as she had feared this moment for the last several weeks, when the time actually came for Kim to wait for her escort, she felt very little emotion. She felt a bit numb from fear and depression, but that was about it. She quietly stared at the carpeting as her Spokesman sorted through her file and pulled out several forms.
When the police escort arrived, Spokesman Dukov saluted while Criminal # 98945 knelt forward and touched her head to the carpeting.
"Put your hands behind your back."
Kim complied, and quickly felt the metal cuffs wrap around her wrists. The numb feeling quickly vanished from Kim's soul, replaced with fear. The fear seemed to grip her chest and restrict her breathing. She felt the officer's hand roughly grip her arm.
"Get up," he snapped.
Kim struggled to her feet as the officer's fingers dug into her upper arm. She heard Dukov's voice, sounding as though it was coming from very far away. "Tatiana, please set up a table. I expect Kimberly and myself to be back in an hour."
Kim walked down two flights of stairs to the main police corridor. She relived the ugly memory of her first day at this station as she was marched down the busy hallway and passersby stared at her. However, instead of being taken across the plaza to the courthouse, she was led to a much smaller room towards the back of the main police building. Because Kim was not on trial, there was no reason to have her punished in the court.
The audience for Kim's second punishment was much smaller than it had been back in July. An assistant police doctor, three medical students, three policemen, one court photographer, and five witnesses were sitting in the audience area. The judge presiding over the punishment was not the same judge who had presided over Kim's trial. A single video camera was pointed at the punishment table, with its operator adjusting its settings.
The two arresting police officers were present, but the female cop did not have the same enthusiastic look in her face she had back in July. Her expression was neutral, perhaps even a bit upbeat. She had remembered that officer was quite pretty, but taking another look at her Kim was amazed at how pretty the cop really was. She was not pretty in the way a model would be pretty, but rather she had a cute country-girl appearance. She wondered if perhaps the officer would not be so harsh this time.
The officer and Dukov saluted each other. The female cop had a question for him. "Spokesman, are there any restrictions concerning the punishment of this criminal that I need to be advised about?"
"No Officer, no special restrictions."
With that Dukov reluctantly let his arm down, ending the salute and indicating that Criminal # 98945 had been released into the custody of the officer. The female cop and her male partner walked up to her and took off the handcuffs. She knelt forward and kissed each of their shoes, four shoes altogether.
"Young lady, stand up and face me."
Criminal # 98945 stood, looking the police officer directly in the eyes. There was no cold hard stare, just a very relaxed expression. At that moment something very strange and very unfortunate happened to Kim. Along with her fear she was feeling a hint of erotic excitement.
The cop picked up on the criminal’s mixed emotions and decided to go beyond simply punishing her. The officer began by gently running her fingertips down Kim's breasts, down her stomach, and over her shaved pubic area.
"Kimberly Lee, it was very considerate of you to have shaved for me. Too many criminals don't do that. Too many criminals don't respect authority. But you..."
Very gently the police officer brushed her fingertips up and down Kim's body until she began to relax. She then concentrated on her victim’s inner thighs and lightly touched the sensitive area between her legs. Against her best judgment, Kim spread herself slightly to allow the cop to explore her further. She felt genuine erotic excitement as the cop’s fingers gently brushed her clitoris.
"You know, Kimberly Lee, you are very beautiful."
Kim then felt another set of hands gently touching her back. The second set of hands glided to her bottom. It felt so good, so relaxing and yet so stimulating.
"You lovely American... Does it feel good? Do you like it?"
Kim gasped "It... feels so good... oh."
Dukov watched the scene with alarm. He knew what was about to happen, but he had no way of being able to warn his client. He was prohibited from interfering in the punishment other than to prevent serious injury. Had he tried to intervene now, he could risk losing custody over Kim and seeing her re-assigned to another Spokesperson. The officer looked over at Dukov and smiled. She said nothing with words, but her challenge to Dukov was clear enough in her expression... do it, Mr. Spokesman, say something. I dare you.
The two officers gently led Kim to the punishment table. While the male officer tightened the straps around Kim's wrists and ankles the female continued to gently play with Kim's body. It felt so good, totally the opposite of what Kim was expecting. Kim's defenses were completely down. She thrust herself backwards, desperate to feel the tender caressing fingertips in her most sensitive areas.
The female cop nodded to her partner. Very quietly he passed the punishment switch over to her, as she continued to gently caress Kim between the legs with her free hand. The male then took his partner's place caressing Kim as she positioned herself to begin the switching. Kim gasped with her eyes closed, totally unaware of what was about to happen. The female cop gave a sharp nod to his partner. He quickly jerked his hands away as the switch descended against the lower part of Kim's bottom and her exposed labia.
Kim screamed as the pain seared into her exposed flesh. The shock tore into not just her bottom, but also into the sensitive area between Kim's bottom-cheeks. Kim was caught completely off-guard. The officer did not wait, but instead quickly struck four more times, landing savage blows close to where she landed the first. Kim screamed each time the switch landed.
The officer quickly changed sides and laid five additional blows against Kim's bottom from the other side. Again and again Kim screamed, as the switch marked Kim's bottom with bright pink stripes.
The officers smiled to each other. Their plan had worked beautifully. Today it seemed "Maragana Girl" wasn't so tough after all. Her resistance had broken with the very first stroke. Now she was reduced to a sobbing spectacle, and the officers still had 40 strokes to go. They had all day to deliver them, if they so chose. They could take their time and enjoy Kim's suffering.
The female cop waited for Kim's crying to die down a bit. She delivered two vicious blows across Kim's left bottom cheek that set her screaming again. She waited for the sobbing to die down. She then passed the switch to her male partner, who laid two vicious strokes across Kim's right bottom cheek. Two more strokes, two more screams, much more sobbing. The cops stood back to gloat over the spectacle of the crying American.
The cops spent the next hour punishing Kim at a very leisurely pace. They never struck until Kim's crying had died down. They continued to take turns. The female officer always struck first, with two sharp strokes to Kim's left bottom-cheek, then her partner took the switch, to concentrate two blows on the right side. The pain was savage in its intensity. Kim sobbed over and over as the punishment went on and on.
It was nearly an hour later when Dukov finally was able to raise his hand to re-direct the switch against Kim's back. The officers had punished Kim with precision, delivering a total of 46 vicious blows against Kim's bottom and thighs without breaking her skin. Dukov was hugely relieved when the switch started descending on Kim's back, because it meant the punishment was close to ending.
More than an hour after the switching had started, the female cop finally laid the 50th stroke against Kim's upper back. The American continued to jerk with sobs as the two cops undid her straps and released her from the table. However, Kim remained stretched on the table, in too much pain and too traumatized to move.
The female cop moved her head close to Kim's tear-stained face and addressed her in Danubian. "You thought you were pretty tough, didn't you? You thought you were better than me, and that you could resist me. Well, Maragana Girl, here's my answer. You don't try that with me. You are nothing but a pathetic little cry-baby druggie, and that's all you'll ever be." Then, returning to her broken English, the cop ended with "I much hurt you, Maragana Girl. You much cry."
With that the cop and her partner reached for Kim's arms to pull her off the table, but Kim still had a trace of resistance left in her. She struggled to stand up before the cops could grab her arms. She backed away from the table and quickly fell to the ground. Kim ended up on the floor, but at least it was not because the cops had dropped her there. She continued to sob at the feet of the two punishing police officers for several more minutes as they stood over her with triumphant expressions. Finally the pair of police officers grabbed Kim's arms and led her to before the judge. Kim's body still was shaking from her sobs as she stood with her back to the judge. The judge quickly signed the punishment certificate. There was no doubt this criminal had been properly punished.
There was one final part of Kim's ordeal, thanking the two officers. Kim tearfully looked over at Dukov, who reminded her to thank the cops by putting his hands together and lip-synching the word "spakeebo".
Kim managed to get into a kneeling position. She kissed the shoes of both her tormenters. Between sobs she tried to thank them. However, the female cop showed her no mercy, not even with the phrase of thanks Kim needed to utter to officially end her punishment.
"Sp... Spakeebo...d...dak..ub moi...moigu..."
"What was that? What did you say? You spoiled little American, you will have to speak better than that. Remember, I'm just an uneducated cop. I can't understand your foreign mumbling."
Kim sobbed, and quickly got out, "Spakeebo dakub moigu".
"I still can't understand you, and I didn't like your tone of voice."
Kim had to try six times before the cop finally accepted Kim's "thank you". It was Maragana Girl's final humiliation, one the cop enjoyed almost as much as beating her. But finally she did touch Kim's shoulder with her switch.
"Very well, then. I'll see you in six months. It'll give you something to look forward to."
Dukov and the two police officers saluted each other, and with that Kim was released back into Dukov's custody. Kim was still crying and somewhat disoriented. Dukov was extremely worried. Kim had to walk out of the room on her own, but once they got through the door, the Spokesman would help Kim get up the stairs. Dukov quietly addressed his client in English. "Kimberly, walk to the door. Walk with me to the door, without touching me. Once we pass through and I close it, I will assist you."
Kim staggered to the door. Dukov was enormously relieved when Kim made it through and he kicked it shut. Kim immediately fell into her Spokesman's arms, sobbing. Dukov put his arm around Kim's waist, careful to avoid touching any of the welts. He led her upstairs as she continued to cry into his shoulder. They entered Dukov's office. Dukov wanted to get Kim up on a recovery table to make sure her skin was not broken anywhere, but she tightly held onto him as she continued to sob. Dukov quietly told his secretary to look over Kim as she remained standing. Kim continued to cry, with no sign of letting up.
This punishment had taken a much bigger psychological toll on Kim than her first punishment. Dukov had to hand it to those two cops. They had thought long and hard about how they would administer his client's second punishment. That female cop had her completely figured out. As another woman, she was able to read her vulnerabilities and use those vulnerabilities to completely trick her.
Dukov was angry at his own inability to offer any meaningful help to Kim. He felt an overwhelming desire to protect her, but when the moment came for her to be punished there was nothing he could do. He officially had to release legal custody of his client over to the arresting officer during the punishment, so at the moment she was being switched Dukov had as little control over her fate as would a bystander off the street.
For the first time in his life, Dukov began to question Upper Danubia's justice system. He had grown up in the country, been convicted himself, served his sentence, and came out quite well in life in spite of everything. His son was an excellent and upright police officer, a fine example to Upper Danubia's police force.
However, to see poor Kim like this, emotionally devastated because she had been so cruelly tricked, made the Spokesman think that perhaps some legal modification of the way the police could administer punishments was necessary. Dukov did not question the system of corporal punishments, but he did feel that the time had come to outlaw the practice of sexually fondling criminals. Dukov pondered how he could begin that process, the long, difficult task of changing people's minds and eventually pressuring the National Parliament to pass legislation.
Dukov's more immediate problem was Kim. He needed to comfort her and slowly pull her out of her emotional abyss. Tomorrow would be another day, one in which she would return to work and see her boyfriend. However, today was the day she had to get through first, a day in which a world of pain, trauma, and humiliation would be the only things on her mind. For a very long time Criminal # 98945 remained hugging her Spokesman, crying and crying.
Kim spent the rest of the day in Dukov's office, slowly recovering from her ordeal. For a very long time she just wanted him to hold her and comfort her. She felt as though her Spokesman was the only source of kindness and stability in her life, momentarily forgetting about Sergekt and her other friends.
Finally, exhaustion overtook Kim. She lay down on the recovery table and fell asleep, at last giving Dukov the opportunity to examine her and make sure she was not injured. The young woman's bottom was badly marked up, but nowhere was the skin broken. Dukov breathed a sigh of relief. Within a week or two the welts would be gone and she could move ahead with her life.
That night Kim returned home with Dukov on the trolley. She had somewhat recovered from her switching, enough that she was able to ride home unassisted. The weather was bitterly cold, but she insisted on wearing only her orange boots. Like most other criminals, Kim took pride in not wearing her winter cape, even if it meant momentarily exposing her body to the cold at the trolley stop and her welts to public view in the trolley itself. Dukov chose to stand next to his client on the way back. Both of them tried to ignore the constant stares directed at her welts from the other passengers in the crowded trolley. She seemed lost in thought, so Dukov stayed silent as well, respecting his client's quiet mood.
Kim's body was horribly marked up. To Dukov it seemed the welts were even more severe than they had been the first time she was switched. Dukov marveled at how completely in control that cop had been, pushing the punishment to its legal limits without passing them. Under the circumstances Dukov had been powerless to really offer much help, except at the very end when he was able to re-direct a few strokes away from Kim's battered bottom.
As he looked at his petite Asian client, Dukov pondered his own role in her life. Since the very beginning he had felt an overwhelming desire to protect Criminal # 98945. That night he felt he had failed her.
Kim returned to her normal life the next day. She went to work at the normal time in her normal manner, taking the crowded trolley downtown to the music store wearing nothing but her collar and orange boots. Her co-workers, of course, were curious to see the results of Kim's latest punishment. As was customary, Kim turned around and placed her hands on the cashiers’ countertop to show off her welts and bruises to her co-workers. Some of them commented that the welts seemed particularly severe. Kim recounted her punishment, going into some detail about how the female cop had so cruelly tricked her. Some of her co-workers sympathized, having experienced the same abuse themselves.
There still was a half an hour before the store had to open, so there was time for Kim to talk in depth about her experience. She discovered that being able to casually discuss what had happened to her with others who had endured similar experiences helped her considerably in coming to terms with the trauma of the previous day. Her co-workers were sympathetic in exactly the right manner to help her recover. They weren't patronizing, nor did they express the phony sympathy of someone who had not endured the same experience. At the same time, they helped put Kim's punishment into perspective. It simply was something she had to face as part of her sentence; she endured it, recovered, and now had to move on with her life. Eloisa noted:
"Remember what Sergekt told you. Nothing lasts forever, not even suffering. It's over. Anyhow, tonight I need you for rehearsal, because we've got to get ready for our concert on the 6th."
"But... but I wanted to see Sergekt tonight."
"Yes, and you will. You'll see him at rehearsal. I already told him to bring his instrument. We don't have any choice. Either we practice, or we look like a bunch of fools on national television."
Suddenly another thought hit Kim. "Eloisa, there's something else. I can't go on national television in three days. I'll still be all marked up."
"Will that affect your voice?"
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem is I'd like to think I still have some pride in myself. I don't want to show up on television with a bunch of welts on my butt."
Eloisa sighed. "Kim, the reality is that you are a convicted criminal. In this country criminals are beaten. When we are beaten we still have to show ourselves in public. It's part of our punishment. It's the way things are and everyone understands that. You just accept it and you move on with your life. Now, as for you and your 'pride', if you really want to take pride in yourself, then you need to show that cop who switched you that she didn't break you. The only way you can do that is to sing with us on the 6th."
Kim remained silent. Eloisa continued, "Look, the rest of us did the exact same thing the days leading up to Christmas. We were all marked up, but we still sang and we did it where everyone could see us. And why? Two reasons. First, the music we create is more important than is any one of us individually. It is our gift to the nation. Without us there is no music. So, no matter what each of us must suffer, we cannot let that interfere with our purpose in life. I sing, no matter what, and that's what I expect from all of you; to sing, no matter what. The second reason is to show everyone that, maybe we're nothing but a bunch of naked criminals, but they can't defeat us. They beat us, they humiliate us, and we suffer, but we move ahead in our lives, and we can take pride in that. Now... think about that cop who switched you. If she sees you singing your heart out on TV just four days after she punished you; it will show her she didn't win after all. You're still here, in spite of what she did to you. If you try to hide, then she really will have defeated you."
For a long time Kim was quiet, while her friend waited for an answer. Eloisa then added, "Didn't that cop tell you that you were nothing but a pathetic cry-baby druggie and that's all you'll ever be? Don't you want to get up on stage and prove her wrong?"
Finally Kim agreed. "OK, I'll stay for rehearsal tonight. Any new music?"
"Yes, we have two new winter solstice hymns we practiced last night that you need to learn. I'll go over them with you during lunch break. I think if you and I practice a bit this afternoon you should be ready for the rehearsal tonight. There's something else I want to try with you, an experiment. I'll explain at lunch."
With that Kim took up her position at the store's information counter as another co-worker unlatched the front door. Customers were crowded outside, because in Upper Danubia January 6th was an important gift-giving holiday, almost as important as December 25th. Kim was still quite stiff from her ordeal 24 hours before, but life moves on and does not wait for any single person. She spent the morning answering questions about the store's music and trying to ignore the customers' stares at her marked backside. She wondered what Eloisa had in mind for her.
In the lunchroom the American was shocked when Eloisa told her that she wanted Kim to help her sing lead in one the hymns. The hymn required two lead singers, one who would sing immediately ahead of the other. Eloisa would sing and Kim would echo her, while the other three women would provide the back-up voices.
Kim wondered why none of the others objected to Eloisa's arrangement, given that the others were Danubian and thus one of them rightfully should have been the lead singer's companion at the main microphone. However, in reality she knew the answer; it was because Eloisa's instinct for music was so powerful that everyone else had long since stopped questioning her judgment when it came to choosing the group's songs and deciding how they were to be presented. The group’s lead singer liked to take risks, but in every case the success of her decisions proved her right. Now she was gambling that the American had a better voice for the hymn than any of the others. It was not because of any favoritism for Kim that Eloisa wanted her to help sing lead, it was because Eloisa genuinely thought Kim's voice was the best for that role.
Eloisa led Kim through the hymn with ease during the short time they had for lunch. Kim was amazed herself at how effortlessly she was able to follow Eloisa's voice through the immensely sad notes of the ancient hymn. The song was a true Danubian lament of suffering, written hundreds of years before, probably in the dead of winter during a famine. It was a dark, morose piece of music, infinitely sad and moving, perfectly suited for Kim's mood at the time.
Kim spent the next three nights rehearsing with her friends, which turned out to be the best way for her to get over her punishment. Under Eloisa's leadership, her mind fell in line with the rest of the group in pursuit of a single purpose in life, the January 6th presentation.
As much as she needed to spend time with him, during the first week of January Kim's time alone with Sergekt was limited to quick trips home on the trolley, very late at night after practice. Like everyone else, his mind was on the presentation. His voice was not good for singing, but his ability to play was a true asset to the group. Thus Kim and Sergekt gave up their personal lives for something far greater, the presentation to be led by Eloisa.
Very late at night, in the bitter cold, Sergekt always took Kim back to Dukov's house. They hugged each other closely in the trolley connecting their bodies as much as possible for warmth. She felt guilty about him having to go home alone in the cold after leaving her, but he was stubborn. However, in the brief moments they were together, Kim and Sergekt realized how much their souls truly were connected.
On January 5, the day before the concert, Criminal # 98945 changed her outward appearance to better match the changes taking place inside her soul. She remembered she had not cut her hair since her arrest and she decided to try to get it styled. As she looked at herself in the mirror, she realized that her hair was long enough to braid in the traditional Danubian style. That night Kim approached Dukov's daughter about helping her with her hair. Anyia, who fortunately happened to be in one of her rare good moods, spent the next hour braiding Kim's hair and explaining how to do it. When the American went to work the following day, her co-workers greeted her new hairstyle with complements and enthusiasm. Eloisa was especially happy to see Kim's hair done up in traditional braids, since it made her fit into her group of singers even more.
The January 6th concert was a turning point in the lives of Kim, Eloisa, and the other members of the music group. Eloisa and fourteen of her friends were performing on stage at the National Theater, 5 female vocalists and 10 males playing various instruments. As required by their sentences, they performed completely naked except for their collars, in front of 3,500 people and the cameras of the National Danubian Television Network. The fading switch-marks on the American's bottom and back showed up vividly, a message to the world that Criminal # 98945 was condemned to suffer but had learned to overcome it. Kim took Eloisa's message to heart and concentrated on one thing that night, singing as best she could. She owed that not just to Eloisa and her friends, but also to the audience who had taken time out of their lives to listen to the music.
Eloisa and her four friends sang for nearly two hours, all of it televised. The performance was flawless, a very public demonstration of Eloisa's incredible talent for singing and conducting the other voices in her group. Upper Danubia was amazed to see the American "Maragana Girl" in traditional Danubian braids and taking the lead microphone alongside her Danubian friend. The public was even more amazed to hear the American perform an ancient song in flawless Danubian. Kim even surprised herself, realizing that she could sing Danubian much better than she could speak it.
As the criminals knelt on stage to thunderous applause at the end of the performance, they were able to appreciate just how popular they had become. They had come from nothing, a group of convicted high school rioters and an American marijuana smoker. However, under the leadership of their talented lead singer, the 15 individuals on stage stood on the threshold of something truly great. The coming year would be filled with recording sessions and public performances, hard work and endless time at rehearsals. Their music eventually would be heard beyond the borders of Upper Danubia. The music had been the purpose of Eloisa's life, but now it would become the purpose of all 15 members of the group. They would face the future together, putting whatever personal plans aside for their greater purpose. At that time Kim was only vaguely aware of that fact, but her own plans for the future would be completely set-aside for Eloisa and her music.
The hairstyle change symbolized a significant turning point of how everyone around Kim saw her and how she saw herself. Increasingly Kim's American identity was fading away, replaced by a new perception of herself as Danubian. To a bystander on the street Criminal # 98945 might still have had a somewhat foreign appearance, but to the people she knew, Kim was one of them. She was a full and trusted member of Vladim Dukov's family, a full and trusted member of Eloisa's musical group, and just another employee at the music store. Her romantic heart belonged to Sergekt, to the point that she no longer could imagine her life without him. She no longer judged people's behavior through the eyes of a person from the US. Her definition of proper behavior and values now were forged by the society in which she lived, not the one from which she came.
Kim's changing identity did not mean she loved or idealized Upper Danubia. Her integration into her surroundings was complete enough for her to have balanced view of Danubian society. The society that had so forcefully adopted her was unjust and close-minded, superstitious and obsessed with its own past. Upper Danubia would never be a powerful or influential nation, largely because its people lacked much imagination for anything other than music. Still, Kim realized that the society had many positive points. The Duchy's lack of imagination and ambition meant that its people lived quietly and courteously, not competing against each other. The noise and aggressiveness of other major cities was totally absent on the silent streets of Danube City. Upper Danubia was a very peaceful country, not eager to impose itself on the rest of the world, but also determined that the rest of the world should not impose itself on Upper Danubia.
The duet Kim sung with Eloisa on January 6 was the first out of several songs the two women sang jointly. The group's lead singer had taken a real liking to Kim's voice and her ability to sing and the fact that her partner's voice was slightly different from any of the other voices in her group. As a result, Kim found herself not only echoing Eloisa, but later actually singing side-by-side with her. The American "Maragana Girl" became a feature of the stage at the Socrates Club, as many song-writers were curious to test their music with the Eloisa-Kim duo.
Kim's life continued uneventfully throughout the rest of January and February. The marks from her switching were gone within two weeks. She continued to eat with Dukov and his family, or with Sergekt's friends, or with Sergekt's mother. She continued to dance with him at the Socrates Club and spend time with him in the club's intimacy rooms. She spent endless hours with Eloisa, not just at rehearsals, but also talking alone with her and relaxing with her in general. There were recording sessions and performances, praises and parties.
The beginning of the year sped by. Kim's prior existence became only a distant memory, which only intruded upon her when she talked to her parents in the US. Her life had become quite pleasant, in spite of the limitations placed on her by her sentence. She had everything any reasonable person could want, a great romantic relationship, a wonderful host family, close friends, a reasonably fun job, and the challenge of her music. All of that far outweighed the restrictions of her sentence. In fact, it was precisely because of her restrictions that Kim was able to fully appreciate the positive aspects of her life.
As much as she was forgetting about her American life, Kim's situation was a constant torment for her family back in the US. The thought of their poor daughter stuck in that awful back-water country, naked and with a collar around her neck, filled the Lees with horror. They easily could have traveled to Upper Danubia to visit Kim, but they could not bear the thought of seeing her in her current status as a convicted criminal. The very thought of seeing their daughter naked in public made them physically sick.
However, Kim's father spent a considerable amount of time and money researching ways he could extricate his daughter from Upper Danubia. He thought of everything, ranging from litigation to a human-rights campaign. He even briefly considered hiring mercenaries to grab Kim and get her out of Upper Danubia by force. Finally he settled on a lawyer who claimed he could obtain her release through the European Union. Upper Danubia was not yet part of the EU, but its government wanted to join and could ill-afford to do anything major that would upset Brussels. The lawyer proposed including Kim's release as a condition for some upcoming trade negotiations between Upper Danubia and the EU. It would be expensive, but the lawyer seemed reasonably sure that he could get her released before her next switching in July.
The elder Lees decided to send Kim's older sister Cindy to Upper Danubia to explain the situation and let her know that her family in the US was trying everything they could to get her out of Upper Danubia. Cindy flew to Europe on March 2, first to Frankfurt, and then on to Danube City in a connecting flight. Vladim Dukov rode a trolley out to the airport to pick up Cindy. He went alone because the airport was 15 kilometers outside Danube City, well outside the Danube City collar-zone and inaccessible to any convicted criminal.
As they rode back to the Danube City's Central Police Station, Cindy Lee quickly laid out her father's strategy for getting her sister out of Upper Danubia. Dukov took Cindy to his office to discuss the matter in greater detail. Dukov was somewhat dubious about the whole idea. To him it seemed to include a criminal's release as part of a trade deal was a bit far-fetched and to be honest, an insult to Upper Danubia's justice system.
"Well, the other option we got is to litigate this through the courts, either here or over at the EU."
Dukov admitted that was possible and told Cindy he was willing to help argue the case in Kim's favor, should it get to that level. However, privately, he did not believe releasing Kim from her sentence at that point in her life was a good idea. She was doing extremely well with her job, with her friends, and with her participation in Eloisa's musical group. She had a fulfilling life in Upper Danubia, and probably did not have much of a life waiting for her back in the US. If she were released, would she go back to using drugs? Would she track down Tiffany and do something stupid to get even with her? How long would it be before she could get into college? And what about Sergekt and Eloisa? It wasn't just Kim's life at stake anymore, but theirs as well.
Dukov ultimately knew that his client would have to make her own decision about appealing her conviction. He suspected she would go along with the appeal, even though he felt that would be a mistake. It was only logical that a convicted criminal would want out of having to serve her complete sentence and most certainly Kim would want her freedom back. What concerned Dukov was what she would do with her freedom, especially if she were expelled from Upper Danubia and not allowed to return.
Dukov and Cindy met Kim at the music store when she got off work. To avoid totally shocking her sister, Kim had taken her criminal's cape to her job and wore it as she left the building. As soon as they entered another building she would have to take her cape off again, but she would deal with that problem and her sister's reaction when the moment came. The two sisters tearfully hugged each other. They had talked enough on the phone to be caught up on each other's lives, so the conversation focused on Kim's job. "It's actually a lot of fun," she concluded, "and I'd like you to come over tomorrow and meet everyone."
"Yeah... sure. I guess it'd be good for me to see what you're doing."
Cindy still was not checked into a hotel, so Dukov made a few phone calls and booked her a room. The hotel was within walking distance of the Central Courthouse and the Central Police Station, the two places Cindy would have to visit frequently if she decided to pursue her project of obtaining an early release for Kim. They had to go back to the main police station to pick up Cindy's suitcase. Upon entering the building Kim would have to take off her cape and boots, and thus confront her sister with the most disturbing reality of her sentence.
Kim knew that Cindy would be deeply troubled and probably offended the moment she stripped off her cape. Kim and her sister had not seen each other naked since they had been very small children. Cindy knew what was coming, which, in fact, was why she had come instead of her father. Still, when the moment came to actually be confronted with the sight of Kim's naked body, Cindy would have to overcome a terrible shock to the values she had grown up with. As they climbed up the steps outside the Central Police Station Kim warned Cindy, "You know that once we get inside I'm gonna have to take off my cape. I don't have any choice, it's part of my sentence."
Cindy breathed deeply. "There's no way you could keep it on? I mean..."
With that Kim quickly pulled her cape over her head and kicked off her boots. Cindy looked away. However, Dukov and his client had to walk up the stairs ahead of her sister to lead her to the Spokeman's office. Cindy could not avoid studying her sister's bare backside as she followed her upstairs.
As they entered Dukov's office everyone hung up their coats. Kim picked up a tray of tea and sweet rolls the secretaries had left before going home for the night. She returned with it to Dukov's desk and poured tea for herself and the other two. However, Dukov decided to leave the two sisters alone for a while. He quickly emptied his cup and stood up.
"Kimberly and Cynthia, I believe it is appropriate that I should excuse myself from your conversation for a while. I must go to the courthouse anyway. I will return within an hour. Cynthia, once I return we will accommodate you at your hotel. Kimberly, you may stay with Cynthia or return home with me, as you see fit."
Cindy was enormously relieved to see Dukov depart, but his absence made Kim feel somewhat uneasy. For the first time Cindy had a chance to get a good look at her sister's face and see what eight months in Upper Danubia had done to her. There was, of course, the sight of her collar. Kim's hair was a bit of a shock as well. She looked so... different...with her hair done up in braids. There was the expression in Kim's face. That was different as well. Cindy had expected to see her sister with a broken, miserable demeanor, but instead saw a look of relaxed confidence that somewhat unsettled her. Cindy realized that no matter what might have happened to her, Kim was not miserable.
Cindy laid out the same strategy to Kim that she had laid out to Dukov, pursuing her release through the EU trade treaty and simultaneously litigating her case through the courts in both Upper Danubia and the EU. At first Kim was excited about the prospect of her release, especially if it could be taken care of before the July 2nd switching. To head home a year early, that would be great!
However, Kim's mind started to fill with doubts when she started talking about her current life in Upper Danubia. When she thought about her Danubian friends, the Dukovs, and even her job, she realized how much she would miss them. Kim also fully understood the devastating impact her departure would have on Eloisa's musical group. They were just starting to achieve real notoriety, and her departure would be huge blow to the entire project. And there was Sergekt... Sergekt, how could she explain this to him?
Dukov returned. He quickly looked at his client's face, hoping to gauge what was going on in her mind. He was somewhat relieved to see Kim's expression, not full of happiness, but instead full of worry and apprehension. It turned out she was smart enough to realize the difficulty of the choice she was facing.
Kim decided to spend the night with Cindy, but not to talk to her anymore about her case. There were many other issues she had to resolve with her sister, painful confessions and the hope that the relationship with the rest of her family somehow could be re-built. Cindy slowly reconciled herself to Kim's constant nudity as they talked at length about their pasts and Kim's relationships with the other members of her family. Cindy came to realize just how messed up Kim's life had been before her trip to Danube City.
At that point Kim still took it for granted she would be going home shortly. She wanted to repair as much of the damage in her life as possible, but knew going back would be extremely difficult. As she conversed with Cindy, she began to realize how difficult returning to her life in the US truly would be.
One problem Kim faced was the complete lack of a social life waiting for her at home. Her high school friends had scattered. Cindy told her sister that one of her ex-boyfriends was in jail for ecstasy-dealing, another friend had died in a car wreak, and yet another had overdosed and never completely recovered. Some of Kim's friends were out of state at various universities; others were sitting at home, not doing anything other than getting drunk or getting high. As for Tiffany, no one had any idea where she was. She spent a long time at her mother's house recovering from her bout with hepatitis, but then she vanished.
"Well, what about college? Do you suppose I'd get into college?"
Cindy sighed, "Kim, that's something else I got to tell you. Your grade-point average in school was 1.9. You won't be getting into any college with that. All the places you applied to turned you down. Maybe you could take some classes at a community college... then you could build up an academic record... I don't know. Maybe you could try the military, see if that would help you. Dad seems to think that's what you should do."
The conversation turned to their parents. Details came out that further filled Kim's mind with doubts. There was a final blow coming.
"You know that you really hurt Dad with all your crap. I mean, it seems like you've changed, but I can't see that he'll ever really forgive you. I mean... we all love you and want the best for you, and of course we want you back home, but sometimes... you just push things too far and they can't be fixed. Once you get back Dad wants you to get your own place. I suppose you could stay with me a while, till you find something."
With that the two sisters got in bed and turned off the lights. Cindy immediately went to sleep, but Kim spent the night in restless thought. The familiar sound of her sister's breathing brought back many memories in Kim's mind. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she relived much of her past, the pleasant memories of her early childhood, and the not-so-pleasant memories of her more recent years. Cindy's bleak words continued to echo in Kim's mind.
"Sometimes you just push things too far and they can't be fixed."
The next day Kim called her boss at the music store to tell him she would be late for work that day. She urgently had to see Spokesman Dukov: immediately, first thing in the morning. He went to his office an hour early to accommodate her.
Kim laid out her situation. Dukov listened attentively to what he already knew, Kim had very little to go back to in the US. She would be giving up a lot if she left Upper Danubia. With a series of questions about her life the Spokesman made Kim clearly understand her situation. She had no job, no prospects of study, no friends, no family with whom she could live, no boyfriend waiting for her in the US. Nothing awaited her except a bleak emptiness.
"Kimberly, this is your life and only you can make this choice. I will support either decision you make. If you decide you want to go home, I will do what I must, even go to Brussels if need be, to ensure your release. If you decide to stay here, your life in my house will continue as before. I cannot decide what is best for you, but I care for you and want to see you happy, no matter what your decision."
"I don't know... I mean... I wanted to go back so much... but what am I gonna do when I get home?"
"I have the same concern, Kimberly. Indeed, what will you do with your life in the United States?"
Kim sat silent for a long time. Finally she came out with a question that somewhat surprised her Spokesman.
"Spokesman Dukov, what would happen if I complete my sentence and then, say, married Sergekt? Is that possible? Like, could I stay here?"
"It is possible, yes. Upon finishing your sentence your passport will be returned to you with a 'transition visa'. That visa will remain valid as long as you retain your current employment. Should you quit your employment, your status will revert back to tourist and your visa will expire in 30 days. If you marry with a transition visa, you would have to apply to become a Danubian resident. You would be eligible for full citizenship after another year."
"Then... I hate to say this... but the truth is... I don't have anything to go back to. I mean my life's gone. It's like... I'm stuck here."
"You are faced with a choice, Kimberly. Neither choice is pleasant, but then very few choices in life are pleasant. But your decision is a real one. You can return, or you can stay. My suggestion? I firmly believe you should complete your sentence. You are changing; your character has transformed. Do you not want to see where that transformation might lead you? Do you not want to see where your time with Eloisa and Sergekt might lead you? Or do you want go home, face life alone, and change back to who and what you were before you came to our country? That is your choice."
Kim shook her head. "I can't believe this. I can't believe I'm making this decision. I mean..."
"So you wish to stay?"
"I can't go back, Spokesman Dukov... I just can't. It's not that I 'wish to stay', but... to go back... I can't do that... there's nothing there... I don't want to go back. But, what am I gonna tell Cindy?"
"Kimberly, your sister will remain in our country four more nights. Take her with you and allow her to see your life here. Let her understand what you will give up if you go home. In doing so, by showing her your life, I believe that your decision to stay will be better resolved in your own mind as well. Remember what I said, you Americans are too impatient. Not everything needs to be resolved instantly."
Kim went to work, while Dukov went to the hotel to pick up Cindy. He had to attend a trial in the morning, so he asked his daughter to take a day off from school to show Kim’s sister around Danube City. Cindy was impressed by the peacefulness and tranquility of a city that was not jammed with cars like every other place she had ever seen. Danube City, like any other European City, did not look its best during the late winter, but it still looked pretty good with its historical architecture and well-kept appearance.
Once Dukov's newest client had been switched and was lying on a recovery table in his office, the Spokesman decided to take a couple of hours off work to take Cindy to Kim's music store. Cindy was reluctant to go in when she saw the entire staff was working nude, but Dukov explained to her the reason and the store's significance in the Danube City music scene. Cindy agreed to go in and confronted the sight of naked cashiers and information clerks, all of them wearing metal collars. What struck her was the fact the staff's demeanor was that of any other store. They worked the registers, tidied up the shelves, and interacted with customers in a perfectly normal manner. Cindy watched Kim from a distance as she bantered with some German customers in English.
Kim turned the information counter over to a co-worker and greeted her sister and her Spokesman. She toured Cindy around the store and introduced her to Eloisa. Kim then took Cindy upstairs and showed her the recording and rehearsal studios. She then excused herself, needing to get back to work, but she mentioned that Cindy would be invited to have dinner with the Dukovs that night. Dukov took his guest back to the Central Police Station and temporarily excused himself as well, since he needed to finish up with his new client and contact his parents to pick him up from the Spokesman's office. Dukov encouraged Cindy to walk around a bit and perhaps visit the National Parliament, which had a famous museum of medieval artifacts.
Cindy found herself alone during the late afternoon, walking the streets of Danube City in the cold drizzle of late winter. Her emotions were in turmoil. She was angry that she had come all this way to get her sister out of Upper Danubia, and here Kim was, working at that damn store as though it were just an average day. It was a bit of a shock for Cindy to be confronted with the fact that Kim actually was happy in Upper Danubia. Somehow she had pictured her sister sitting next to a sign at the edge of her collar-zone, crying and wistfully dreaming about her lost freedom. Instead she seemed content with her life. It was obvious she was very close to that blond girl in the store and that she liked her job. And Kim was singing? What was up with that?
Cindy suddenly had her own doubts about her father's idea of bringing Kim home, especially if he wasn't going to let her live with him. Her life had been very messed up in the US. She now seemed to be doing OK, here in this weird little country. Maybe pulling her out wasn't such a good idea, not if she didn't have anything to go back to in the US. Still, no matter what, Cindy's task was to get things moving for overturning or shortening Kim's sentence. She resented Kim's nonchalant attitude about the entire project, not yet realizing the truth that her sister really did not want to leave.
Dinner with the Dukovs did not help Cindy's mood any. The traditional formal clothes worn by the Dukovs somehow bothered her. This was just too strange, having dinner at some medieval costume party, with her sister sitting naked among this family and talking to them in Danubian. And yet, Kim seemed to like these people. She had a nice room, in some ways better than the one she had at her parents' house in the US, and certainly better than anything she would be getting upon returning.
The next night Kim performed on stage with Eloisa. The performance was much simpler than the ones the group normally did. It was just Eloisa, Kim, and three guys on stringed instruments, including Sergekt; while the backup singers and most of the other musicians had the evening off. Once again Cindy was confronted by the reality that Kim actually had a life in this country. Cindy realized that her sister had a beautiful voice for singing, something that no one in Kim's life, not even Kim herself, knew before her trip to Europe. It was very strange to see her up there on stage with that blond singer, their hair done up in exactly the same manner. What was truly bizarre was that, in spite of her Asian features, she really did not look out of place among the Danubians.
After the performance, Kim introduced Cindy to Sergekt. All three of them knew that the only purpose for the introduction was to allow Cindy to see what Sergekt looked like, since neither spoke the other's language. This meeting was yet another shock to Cindy, being confronted with the sight of her sister's nude boyfriend. She felt very uneasy about the situation, but at the same time she realized this naked European was far better than anyone Kim ever had gone out with in the US.
The following night, the fourth out of six nights Cindy planned to stay in Danube City, the two sisters sat down in a booth in the back of the hotel restaurant for dinner. Cindy had spent the day very agitated that there seemed to be no progress on any of her efforts to challenge Kim's sentence. She began berating her sister about not pushing Dukov to get the ball rolling on the appeal. She only had two more full days here and could not go back without having something to show for her trip.
Kim realized that telling Cindy truth could not be put off any longer. It was time to break the news about her decision to not appeal the conviction. Kim stared at her plate and twirled a spoon on the table as she nerved herself to speak.
"The truth is, I don't think I ought to go home. I don't think this appeal is such a good idea."
Cindy's lips tightened. Deep down she knew Kim was right, but was not ready to admit that to herself yet.
"Kim that's bullshit. What they've done is they brainwashed you. Of course you..."
"No. That's not it and you know it. It's what you said the first night you were here, in your room upstairs. That's what got me thinking."
"What was that?"
"That 'sometimes... you just push things too far and they can't be fixed'. I realized that's true. Everything you told me... Mom and Dad, my friends, my grades, the job situation, it all... just made me realize... I really don't have anything to go back to. There's nothing there. So why bother with all this appeal stuff, getting the Danubian government pissed off at the US, messing up the trade deal, spending all that money... just to have me go back and sit in your apartment with nothing to do? What's the point?"
"The point is that we still love you and we want you home. We want you out of that stupid collar and with your clothes back on. We can't stand seeing you like this."
"I don't like it either, but it'll end. And maybe, by July of next year, I will have gotten something out of all this... I mean I have gotten a lot already. If you think about it, my life's really not that bad. I'm better off than a lot of my friends from school, from what you've told me about them."
"Well, yeah, but they're just a bunch of druggies."
"And that's what I was becoming, a druggie. It wasn't just pot, Cindy. I was doing other stuff as well, and it was getting worse. When I came here I stopped, stopped completely, but it's because I was forced to. To be honest, you put me back in the US, with nothing to do... and no friends... what do you think is gonna happen? I'm gonna start using again. I won't want to, and I'll hate myself for it, but it's what'll happen. It's just the way it is."
"So that's why you don't think you ought to go back? You're afraid you'll start using again?"
"Yeah. I really don't think I ought to go back. I don't want to go back to being who I was last year. It just isn't what I want."
For a long time Cindy sat silent. Finally she asked. "So that's it? You really don't want to push the appeal?"
"No. I can't see how it's gonna help me. From everything you told me about back home, I think I'm better off staying here, in spite of all the criminal crap I have to put up with. I never thought I'd say that, but I think it's the truth."
Cindy stopped arguing. It was blatantly obvious Kim was right. There really was nothing waiting for her in the US, apart from boredom, depression, and a return to using drugs. Cindy was convinced. The only thing left was to convince their parents. That would be Cindy's job, not Kim's.
The day before Cindy left Upper Danubia, Criminal # 98945, in her own handwriting, composed a letter to the Danubian government. The letter had to be stamped at the Central Courthouse and then notarized at the US Consulate. At Kim's request, Cindy would take an original copy with her to the United States and turn it over to her father's attorney. The letter read:
I, the United States citizen Kimberly Annette Lee, under my own judgment, wish to formally express that I have no desire nor plans to file any legal challenge to my conviction for marijuana possession and the public use of marijuana in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. My decision not to appeal my conviction is final and I wish to have it respected in the courts of law of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, the United States of America, and the European Community. I am determined to complete my sentence to the satisfaction of the judge who sentenced me, the laws of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, and my Spokesman for the Criminal, Vladim Dukov.
Kimberly Annette Lee
Criminal # 98945
Cynthia Lee's final night in Upper Danubia passed quietly, since there no longer was any urgency about her purpose for being in the country. Cindy and Kim felt enormously depressed, at yet at the same time somewhat liberated, given that Kim's situation was settled. Perhaps what she was doing was not the most courageous decision that she could make, but it was the only logical decision, given her circumstances. There now was time for the two sisters to simply relax and try to repair the relationship between each other. Cindy promised to visit Kim later in the year.
The following day Kim accompanied her Spokesman and Cindy on the trolley as it headed to the airport. They got off at the last stop within the Danube City collar zone. Kim bid her sister a final tearful goodbye. Dukov and Cindy then caught the next trolley, leaving the naked criminal standing alone and shivering at the trolley stop. In spite of the cold she stood in the chilly drizzle for quite some time.
She had made the right decision, the only logical decision she could have made. For better or worse, life had stranded Kimberly Annette Lee in Upper Danubia. She couldn't leave without facing a completely empty and meaningless existence back home, one that would completely consume her soul and destroy her. Maybe, thinking of her lost friends, especially of Susan and Tiffany, and of her jailed ex-boyfriend...maybe Kim was the most fortunate of them all. At least she currently had a life that meant something.
Criminal # 98945 caught the trolley going back into Danube City. She headed to the Socrates Club where Eloisa, Sergekt, and the other members of her musical group were waiting for her.