BOOKCASE – Deadly Game by Matt Johnson

In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Matt Johnson talks of how he became a writer and gives a fascinating insight into the evil trade that was the inspiration for Deadly Game.

In 2016, my first attempt to write a book went rather better than expected. I was signed by an agent, agreed a contract with a publisher and then I sat back to see what happened. At that time, I had no intention of penning a second novel. Once was enough, I thought. I’d written as therapy, a way of exorcising demons that haunted me. Getting thoughts, trauma and all those unpleasant experiences out and into the open in a way that did me some good was my motive, anything else was a bonus.

It therefore came as something of a surprise to me when Wicked Game was included in the Crime Writers Association (CWA) Daggers awards for that year, particularly as, until that moment, I had not heard of the CWA.

I had never been to a literary festival, never read a book blog, never read The Times best-seller list and never met a ‘real’ author. I read a book only once a year, on holiday, as a way to unwind. Work, family and all the demands life throws at you restricted what had been something of a childhood passion. I used to read, a lot. I can still remember the trips to the local library in Rayners Lane and then excitedly hurrying home with the latest P G Wodehouse, Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert offering under my arm. I read comics, Look and Learn, the Wizard, the Dandy and others. My favourites were those with ‘proper’ stories.

The CWA nomination resulted in invitations to appear at literary festivals on panels. I ‘googled’ the term, anxious to know what may be expected of me. From what I discovered – through YouTube –  you sat with a group of authors around a table talking about writing. Not very exciting, I thought. I didn’t stop to think there would be an audience.

And so, I found myself in Deal, Kent, on a panel chaired by none other than William Horwood. I confess to having been rather in awe – read Duncton Wood, you’ll understand why – but this was nothing compared to the anxiety that set in as the audience numbers grew. I dressed the part – smart jacket, shirt and ‘squad’ tie – but soon realised I stood out like a sore thumb. The norm was rather more casual, it seemed.

William and I got on well and have become friends. He gave me some great advice that day that I will always be grateful for. I also met Lisa Cutts, a lovely author from Kent, thanks to the fact that she was on the same ‘panel’ as me and her father had come to watch. I saw him in the audience and he saw me. I thought I recognised him, he winked knowingly. I was right, he’d been my DI (Detective Inspector) when I’d been a sprog DC back in the early 80s.

So, this was my first initiation into the friendly and supportive world of crime fiction writers.

Which brings me on to the following text. I’ve chosen it because, at that first festival, an audience member asked the panel what subject – in crime – authors weren’t covering as much as they, perhaps, should be. My answer was based on my experience, limited in the writing world but extensive in my previous working life – sex trafficking.

‘Trafficking,’ I said, explaining it is the hidden, lucrative and violent ruining of people’s lives by others who exploit them for serious financial gain. ‘If anyone thinks slavery is a thing of the past, think again.’

After the festival, my publisher took me to one side. We’d like you to write more, she said, why don’t you write that book you think people should read?

Deadly Game was the result. The title describes trafficking well and was an appropriate name for a book written as a sequel to Wicked Game. I retained my central character, placed him a role where he – and the reader – would learn the reality behind sex trafficking, and let him loose.

This is the prologue. It’s fiction, yes, but based very much in reality. It’s an example of how an ambitious, yet vulnerable, young woman can be tricked and exploited to then fall into a world from which there is little chance of escape.

1999. Romania.

‘The wind can kill.’

Relia Stanga recalled father’s warning clearly as she pulled her coat tight and then huddled against the stone garden wall for shelter.

Winter was around the corner. The east wind was beginning to turn cold. Soon, she would need to take a chance and wait inside the house for the factory bus to arrive. In a few short weeks the winds from the east would bring snow and, as father had warned, it would be certain death to wait in the street for the six o’clock pick-up.

One day, she prayed, summers would no longer be spent cutting and gathering wood to see them through to the following spring. One day, there would be food on the table every single day and she would not have to rely on mother for hand-me-down clothes.

One day … with luck, she would find a new life.

For now, Relia contented herself with wrapping mother’s woollen coat tight around her slim figure, lifting the collar and making herself as small and as tight as possible.

The wall provided the only protection from where she could see the approach of the bus. Miss the bus, no ride. Miss the ride, no job. Miss the job, go hungry.

Every morning at first light, father would expect her to milk the two family cows, muck out their stall and then open the gate to the street so they could join the village herd as it headed out to pasture.

Alexandru, the herdsman, would whistle up the animals, lead them out to the fields and in the evening guide them home. Every day he would watch over them. With him always were two dogs, his trusted lieutenants. Larger and more loyal than the packs of wild dogs that wandered the countryside in search of food, they earned their keep as both guards and companions.

Relia hated the wild dogs. At night, they roamed the streets of the village in search of scraps. They would raid insecure barns and steal anything edible they could find. Many of the villagers had seen the packs take down a sick or injured sheep and they had been known to attack cattle. There were no longer any cats in the village. The last one had been taken by the pack many years previously. Alexandru’s dogs made sure they didn’t strike the village herd.

Home for Relia was a small village on the north-east edge of Romania, near the border with Moldova. She was now beginning her seventeenth season and had spent the previous day with the men, cutting logs. Huge piles were now stacked in the village stores and in shelters people built in the yards at the rear of their houses. Most of the harvest had been sold. Father and her brother had left at first light to deliver the last of the summer maize crop. With the income, they would buy salted meats that would be eaten once each week with potatoes and root soup.

On their return from the market, the men would be drunk. It was their release. They would meet friends, gossip, moan about the harvest, play cards and drink. Sorrows would be drowned with home distilled ţuică. Relia’s father made his own from a family recipe using apples and plums. The women said it was the work of the devil, for the rage it sometimes brought out in the men.

Father was a hard-working man, a good man. But the drink would release his pent-up frustrations and anger. Mother would always bear the brunt of his wrath. The children … they just kept out of the way. Such things were the way of men, they all had to vent their rage and using the women stopped them from killing each other. This was the way of things, as it always had been.

But now, she had a plan.

Every month or so, the factory would host men from the city. Men from Brasov and Bucharest. Men who wore suits, drove Mercedes cars and talked of incredible adventures.

A friend who was a house servant to the wife of the factory owner told her the men came looking for girls. Relia could barely contain her excitement on learning these girls secured work in places in the city, in kitchens or waiting on tables. They had jobs, proper jobs, and they made enough money to keep some for themselves and send the rest home for their families.

The men, not surprisingly, would choose the best looking girls. To each they would give a small, yellow ticket. It was their approval to ride in the warm van on its way to the city, their passport to a better life. The men were due today.

Beneath her worn and ageing clothing, Relia was possessed of unusual beauty and yet, they had not noticed her. She was determined that would change. She was slim, pale skinned, and was blessed with shiny raven-black hair that a woman in the village had recently cut into a neat bob. She had bought a little make-up, and her friend, the servant, had loaned her a dress that would show off her figure. The next time the men came to the factory, Relia was to help serve their drinks.

The bus arrived. It was late, as always, and as he always did, the driver drove fast to get the workers to the factory by seven o’clock. Relia snoozed on the journey. She didn’t mind the pot holes, the tight bends, the heavy braking or the driver swearing. The bus was warm. For nearly forty minutes she could drift into a world where there was no cold, no hunger.

When they arrived at the factory gates, Relia looked across to the owner’s house. On the drive she saw his car, a big four-wheel drive. Then she saw the Mercedes, a black one, and behind it, a black van. The city men had arrived.

She checked her pocket, fearing she may have forgotten the powder and lipstick. It was there. As the factory gate opened, she saw her friend. There was a smile, then a wink. Today was the day. Today she was to have her chance.

The day on the factory line passed slowly. Relia was a glue mixer. The factory made shoes. Leather imported from Mongolia was cut, shaped and stitched together by hand. Relia helped make the adhesive that would bind the upper parts of the shoe to the sole. It was easy work. Day after day she simply poured ingredients into containers in the prescribed measures and mixed them for the correct amount of time and at the right temperature. It was the heat of the glue room that made the job sought after in the winter and hated in the summer.

All the workers in the glue section smelled of fish, a fact that earned them the nickname ‘pesti’, and led them to conclude the product they prepared was derived from that source. Relia knew that as soon as she finished, she would have to sneak over to the owner’s house, use her friend’s bath and cleanse herself. Only then might she be ready to serve the city men and, hopefully, her freshly scrubbed skin and hair would be perfumed well enough to mask the smell of the glue.

During the day, four girls were interviewed by the city men. Three of them were selected for employment, given their tickets and instructed to send messages to their families that they would not be home that night. In fact, they might never be home again. With one exception, Relia could not recall selected girls having ever returned to the villages. Who could blame them? With a new life in the city, money in their purses and, probably having met their new husbands, there was no reason to come back to such a lowly life. Some would write, many would send small amounts of money, but none came back to the poverty of the villages.

The one that had returned had been the wife of one of the city men. She had spoken of having made her fortune, of the bright lights and excitement of the city, of girls marrying American soldiers and of the opportunities available to those willing to leave the villages. As she spoke, she held the young factory girls spell-bound. The older women weren’t convinced. ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,’ they would mutter. But the young women wanted their chance and it was them the city men came to see.

Relia wasn’t ever invited for interview. She didn’t think the owner even noticed her. She was just a glue mixer, a pesti. She smelled, her skin was pale, her clothes stained and faded. There was nothing vaguely attractive about her. Tonight, she promised herself, that would change.

That evening, Relia avoided the queue for the homeward bound bus and, using the shadows, she crept slowly around the back of the factory. Here, she knew she could find the door to the owner’s house. It was locked, as always. The owners thought all the workers were thieves.

At the arranged time, six o’clock, her friend Elisabeta was waiting.

Elisabeta unlocked the garden gate from the inside and the two girls then scurried along the concrete path towards the house. Within a few steps, Relia noticed how the path became smooth. In the half-light from the windows of the house she could see the garden was green and luxurious, nothing like the sun-parched yards of the village. It was the first time she had seen behind the high walls into this secret place. Only the owners and selected house staff were allowed such a privilege. Relia had heard the stories and now, with her own eyes, she could see it was as beautiful as they said. To one side there was even a swing and a fountain.

Relia paused for a moment to stare. It was just like she had seen in the well-thumbed magazines that sometimes appeared in the factory for the workers to look at during their break. Voices came from the house – male voices –laughter.

‘Hurry,’ her friend whispered. ‘We must not be seen here.’

Relia understood perfectly. If they were caught, it would be assumed they were stealing. They would be dismissed if they were lucky, jailed if the owner called the police. The ‘politia locale’ were good men, in the main, but they would always believe a respected factory owner over a poor village girl. It would be best they were not caught.

Elisabeta stopped as they reached a back door to the house. It was a small door and led to the servants’ quarters. She pressed a single finger to her lips to impress the need for silence. Gently, she opened the door and within a second they were both inside.

The first thing that struck Relia was the heat. Even in this part of the house, it was warm and comfortable. In the village they could only afford to heat one room. Sometimes, if the fire was burning well, they would open doors to allow the warmth to spread through the house. Here, in the owner’s home, there were radiators on the walls in all the rooms, and even in the corridors.

That evening, Relia enjoyed the longest, hottest bath she had ever experienced. She scrubbed her hands, her feet, her face, all the while sniffing herself to check the smell of fish was fading. She washed her hair four times before she was satisfied the aroma was gone and, even then, she asked Elisabeta to confirm it.

Elisabeta sprayed her sparingly with a body perfume. Relia would have liked a little more but her friend was insistent, and it was just for this night. The owner’s wife gave it to all the female staff so they wouldn’t carry their body odours into the main rooms of the house. There was one spray-can each per month, and they were expected to make it last.

When Relia saw the dress Elisabeta had prepared for her, she nearly wept. It was thin, silk-like and hugged her figure. Although blue, it was such a dark shade as to almost appear black. The design was sleeveless and reminded Relia of pictures she had seen of film stars like Marilyn Monroe. It was sexy.

The dress was a colour all the household staff wore to serve dinner. On Relia it took on a different purpose. Skin tight, it emphasised her curves and suggested at hidden treasures. It was perfect. It had a job. On this night, it was a lure to interest the city men.

At eight o’clock, the head girl sounded the brass gong in the hallway to signal dinner was prepared. Elisabeta served at table and had arranged that Relia would support her. The girl who normally filled the role had agreed to hide in her room for the evening. Elisabeta was sure her absence would not be noticed, especially when the men saw Relia.

The plan worked. The men fell silent the very first moment they set eyes on the new girl in the dark blue dress. One of them beckoned her to come closer. Relia had seen the approving smile of the owner. A brief conversation followed, an account as to who Relia was as the owner did not recognise her. Elisabeta explained, the owner grunted approvingly, and the oldest of the city men immediately asked Relia if she would take up a chance to be his personal assistant in Brasov.

Relia nodded and then backed away as the men negotiated a price to secure her services from the factory owner.

A deal was done. Relia heard the figure of two thousand Lei being argued over before the owner and the elder city man shook hands. There was much laughter and the men returned to eating and drinking. The mood of the group was excellent, it seemed good business had been done that day and they were in a mood to celebrate.

Relia was instructed to be ready to leave at ten with the other girls who would be travelling. By nine-thirty she was ready. As the chosen girls waited for the city men’s van to be made ready, they wrote letters to their families. The factory owner’s wife had suggested it, and even helped them with the wording.

‘Are you excited?’ one of the girls asked Relia, as the owner’s wife collected their envelopes and left the room.

Relia didn’t answer. The owner’s wife had left the door ajar and, through the gap, she could now see a hand dropping the little stack of letters into one of the sacks they used for rubbish in the factory.

‘Relia?’ asked her companion, a tiny frown knitting her brow.

Relia shook herself and smiled, but a gnawing sense of worry remained.

‘Yes,’ she replied. Then, trying to sound more certain: ‘Yes, I can’t wait.’

Read more about Matt Johnson on his website and his Crime Cymru page.

You can see Matt’s books on his Amazon page.

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