March 31, 2017,
15:39 local time,
Angkor General Hospital,
Connie Hedburg arose from her slumber with instant anxiety. She darted her head around the room, confused over where she was and shaken by how she got there. Her heart began to race, which caused her to cry out after experiencing a significant dart of pain coming from her chest.
The nurse attended to her quickly, and, after determining it was just a panic attack, worked to sooth Connie’s worries.
“Connie,” said the nurse, “you’re fine now. You will make a complete recovery.”
“Where am I?” Connie asked, struggling to regain her composure.
“This is Angkor,” said the nurse, “in the Roman Republican province of Khimerium. You were airlifted here to the General Hospital because the Birean hospitals couldn’t take care of your needs...you had a ton of complications arising from your stab wound. Whoever did it to you was a very nasty man.”
“No, he wasn’t” said Connie adamantly, “and I stabbed myself.”
“That’s not what the police told me,” said the nurse, confused.
“They lied to you,” said Connie, who began to get defiant. “I was married to the nicest man in the world...and the ‘police’ took him away from me.”
“Sweetie,” said the nurse, “you were used in a human trafficking ring...he was not a nice man.”
“That is not true!” Connie declared. “Mason Jeffrey treated me with the utmost care and respect...I have never met anyone who treated me better than Mason did. Did he find me using a service one would call a ‘human trafficking ring’? Yeah, he did. However, Birea is so messed up that Mason could not find a woman in ‘more conventional ways’...the demographics there won’t allow it. So he had no choice...and this ring, the Order of St. Germain Cousin, they nursed me back to health, saved me from actual rapists in Sweden and never forced me into anything. I chose to be a part of their program...and I talked with Mason beforehand. In fact, I chose him from a list of men they gave me. Really, there was no more of a way that the Order did not degrade or disrespect me.”
“You know,” said Connie with tears in her eyes, “if it wasn’t for that stupid Ingrid coming in and messing things up...I wouldn’t be here in a hospital bed. I’d still be in Birea...happy...living the best possible life...with him.”
Connie then broke down and cried, causing the nurse to take pity on her.
“Well,” said the nurse. “Good news is you have recovered. We’ll need to keep you here one more night for observation but after that, you’re free to go.”
The nurse then left, leaving Connie with her lone roommate, who woke up.
“Hey,” said Connie with a warm smile to her roommate, an athletically slender blonde woman. “You finally woke up. I’m Connie, by the way.”
“Holly,” said the woman, neither shaking hands because they were too tired to make the gesture.
“How long was I out?” said Holly, scratching her groggy eyes.
“I don’t know,” said Connie. “I just woke up from surgery myself.”
“I’m glad you did,” said Holly. “I was worried about you.”
“You were?” Connie said, pleasantly surprised.
“Yeah,” said Holly. “You had a lot of infections...today is the first day I’ve seen you that they’re not running any tests on you. I’ve been in here longer than you...I heard what that guy did to you...I never wanted anyone more than you to pull through.”
“Well,” said Connie with a wistful smile, “I never should have been here...truth is...I stabbed myself.”
“What?” said Holly, aghast. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know what story you heard,” said Connie, “and I don’t feel like going into detail...but I wasn’t trafficked. A charity took me away from my troubles in Sweden and paired me with the best man I have ever met...but the police took him away from me so I tried to kill myself.” Connie then let out a sigh. “I wish I was more successful.”
“Oh muffin,” said Holly, taken by Connie’s words, “don’t ever say that. Life is a blessing...you’ve been given a chance to continue, and it’s been given to you for a reason.”
“What reason?” said Connie. “I’ll probably have to go back to Sweden…stay with my parents, who loved paddling me more than actually taking care of me. I might have to go back to the streets…the cold, hard streets where there’s too many of us because the welfare state sucked us dry. Or go bed surfing with men who simply see you as an ‘opportunity’…my life was so much better with Mason.”
Connie sighed as Holly sat up in her bed, struggling to do so.
“What happened to you?” said Connie, seeing Holly’s struggle.
“I,” started Holly, wincing in pain. “I was in Birea too…on assignment. I don’t know if you know of the Spitzenkrieger, but that’s who I am.”
“Spitzenkrieger,” said Connie, “you’re a Vandal superhero.”
“Yup,” said Holly as proudly as she could with her strained voice. “Born and raised in Saldae…there were rumours floating last year that the Soldiers had abducted some girls from the city so I went…on my own…to the country to investigate.”
“The Academy let you do that?” said Connie.
“I told them I would do it,” said Holly, “and they were okay with it. Understand, we’re given a lot of latitude as Spitzenkrieger…we work alone, so we don’t need ‘clearance’ like other police departments do. We just follow our leads.”
“Of course…it leaves you vulnerable,” said Connie
“Yeah,” said Holly. “It’s tough…but I knew the risks…and the reward is great…”
Connie picked up on Holly’s facial expression.
“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere,” said Connie.
“There are just some problems I can’t solve,” said Holly with a sigh.
“Not even Birea?” Connie asked.
“Birea isn’t the Vandal Kingdom,” said Holly. “The Vandal Kingdom…despite how weird our criminals get, we still have order and respect. In Birea…it’s a dog eat dog world…only the strongest of alphas survive there.”
“Mason told me it was no picnic,” said Connie. “I’ve seen a few times…Mason taught me self-defence to get through it…I mean, it wasn’t the greatest society to live in…but if you found a way to be comfortable in it, you could manage. It’s probably no worse than a lot of countries…heck, it’s better than Sweden.”
Holly let out a sigh.
“Birea is a ticking time bomb,” she said gravely. “The country only succeeds because James Dowell ruled with a fair but strong hand, but since Ingrid Fjallsdottir came around and forced his hand, the people have been getting restless. You don’t understand what the world created.”
Connie looked on, intrigued by what she was hearing.
“There are what, ten, 15,” said Holly, “30 million Birean men unable to find a wife simply due to demographics…I don’t think the world truly understands what kind of social problems that creates, especially when those are exacerbated by Nathanism.”
Connie was about to protest before Holly stopped her.
“I know,” she said, gesturing to Connie, “it’s really the people who choose to interpret the religion in the worst possible way…but, given what happens in Birea, it only compounds the problem.”
“How so?” said Connie.
“When you have an entire society that is literally told that, as men, you are owed a woman and you are to be dominant over her,” said Holly, “and you suddenly can’t find a woman for yourself that…creates issues.”
“So you don’t think human trafficking is wrong, then,” said Connie.
“Not quite,” said Holly. “I don’t agree with human trafficking…I’m just not sure the solution was to round up all the customers. Sure, there were a lot of bad ones, but there were a lot of good ones too, and besides, arresting them doesn’t address the actual societal pressures.”
“Good ones left with no other choice,” said Connie with a sigh. “Like Mason.”
“…and then there’s Andrew O’Baley,” said Holly wistfully. “I was simply following a lead…I found that a woman from Saldae had gone missing…tracked her via the Order of St. Maria Goetti.”
“Ingrid’s ring,” said Connie, “the one where she employed all kinds of abusers just so that she could give the Birean traffickers a bad name.”
“Which worked,” said Holly with a wry smile.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Connie, “there are a lot of traffickers who were bad people…but bad operators doesn’t mean the concept is bad.”
“That’s fair,” said Holly, “but I still think you got lucky.”
“Anyway,” continued Holly, “I come up to Andrew’s house and right away something was off.”
Holly paused to collect herself before continuing.
“I heard the screams of a woman from outside of the house,” said Holly. “I decided to forgo pleasantries and just kicked down the door, my gun drawn. As soon as I enter, a security guard bashes me in the head with his fist, but before he struck me again, I took out his legs and slammed him to the floor. I then tried to move towards the screaming but the guard got up and tackled me from behind. He was a clumsy guy so after a bit of wrestling, I was able to knock him off of me.
“I picked up my gun and moved from the front towards the basement, where the screaming was coming from. There was another guard, who was much more of a capable fighter than the other guy, and we fought for quite some time before I could subdue him. I then went for the door, but, noticing it was locked, I drew my gun on the guard I had just subdued and got him to give me the key.”
Holly took in a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh before continuing.
“I got in,” she said, tears beginning to form in her eyes, “drew my gun and pointed it at Andrew. When I saw what he was doing, my rage got the better of me.”
“What happened?” Connie asked, with grave concern.
“He had the girl,” said Holly, “the girl I was looking for. She was...” At this point, Holly could barely keep her composure. “She was naked, spread eagle on the chair...and Andrew was doing...oh gosh I don’t want to get into it...but believe me when I say that Andrew was a sick, sick man.”
“Oh gosh,” said Connie, horrified.
“I ordered him to stop,” said Holly, “showed him my badge and everything. He just...kept going. So I cocked my gun and that’s when he decided to stop.”
“That allowed you to arrest him, right?” Connie said. She was gripped, hanging on to every word Holly was saying.
Holly lowered her head and let out a heavy sigh before continuing.
“It,” said Holly, stammering, “it happened so fast…one of the guards I had knocked down earlier clocked me from behind…I fell to the floor…I tried to get up but soon I had Andrew and another guard all over me sending me a fury of fists and kicks all over my body…I become so weak…helpless. In my daze, I see them ripping off my clothes and being unable to stop them.” Holly then began to breathe heavily, the toll of the story getting to her. “They rip open my legs, their hands so strong keeping them apart…then Andrew…Andrew…”
Holly then hunches over, wincing and grimacing, all while hyperventilating. Tears began to flow liberally from her eyes and she buried her head in her hands. Connie was shaken by Holly’s show of emotion, and it was not long before she cried too.
“It’s okay Holly,” she said, wanting to comfort Holly but unable to do so from her bed. “You don’t need to tell me what that…monster…did to you.”
Holly raised her head, appreciative of Connie’s words.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I…I have to make peace with it. Fortunately the pain was so unbearable that I passed out while they did their worst…I woke up here, in this hospital bed. Told me I was lucky to be alive…I was beaten beyond a point where most would have died…I needed weeks of physical therapy just to regain any kind of movement in my limbs…and…I’ll never have kids in my life.”
“I wanted to die too,” she said. “I don’t know how I made it here…but I did. Maybe to meet you…and tell you to fight for me…because it’ll be a while before I can fight for myself again.”
Connie sat in her bed, contemplating what she just heard.
“Fight for you?” she asked, intrigued. “I’d love to, because I hate what those monsters reduced you to. I’m just not sure how.”
“I have friends who work for Global Citizens,” said Holly, referring to the worldwide human rights advocacy group. “I don’t always see eye to eye with them…but, like you, they want to challenge worldwide conventions and hold governments accountable for their policies.”
“Policies that have led to you and me in these beds,” said Connie with a wistful sigh.
“Global Citizens want to work with governments through,” said Holly. “Because governments can get caught up in their idealism...we just make sure they get things right.”
Connie nodded her head.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do it. What’s my first task?”
Holly smiled at Connie’s eagerness while sending a text message.
“While I was in Andrew’s house,” Holly said, “I saw a file folder that had simply the word ‘Bessarion’ written on it. It may be nothing, but it could be tied to something. You’ll be going back there…Danel Hanno will assist you.”
“Danel Hanno?” said Connie. “The lawyer?”
“He’s helping the Birean government review the bust of the human trafficking rings,” said Holly, “so he has access to Andrew’s files. He’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to get you started.”
“Sounds good,” said Connie as both women smiled.