Vahide sat on the edge of her sagging bed with her elbows digging into her gaunt legs just above her kneecaps, her head resting in her hands as her hair reached lazily for the floor, and her eyes pinched shut. A lone, cinnamon scented candle burned fitfully on the small table to her left, struggling to be detected over the lingering aromas of stale sweat, cheap cigarettes, and passionless sex.
The wooden floorboards beneath her bare feet were stained by blood and alcohol, while the walls were covered only with faded, peeling wallpaper. The solitary exit was a door, sturdier in appearance than anything else in the room, which loomed silently on her right.
Three days previous she had returned the letter and photograph to her hiding place, not daring to be caught with proof of Nesrin’s continued, happy existence. Bora would have lost his mind if he found it and Vahide knew she would suffer the brunt of his rage. No lie about how it had come into her possession would do and the truth was out of the question. So she would have to remain silent, as always, as he screamed and beat her, first with his fists and then, once his knuckles grew too tender, with his leather belt.
And she was so, so tired of being silent.
The letter promised her an escape. A chance to have a voice. Maybe, and the tears began to fall at this thought, maybe she would even be respected.
But what was being asked of her was unthinkable. Nine strangers, men and women, sons and daughters, had to die at her hand. What had they done to deserve such a sentence? And why could They not render this terrible justice themselves? Why have her, a nothing, a nobody, do it for them?
“A game,” she whispered with a shake of head. “Who thinks murder is a game?”
The thought snapped her eyes open. Was that all this was about? Bored rich men looking to keep themselves entertained by setting a pathetic, desperate whore on nine unsuspecting victims? No, there must be more to it than that…
Her train of thought was smashed off the tracks by a heavy fist pounding on the door. Bora. Even thinking his name made her skin crawl, made her want to curl in on herself and disappear. But she knew better than to keep him waiting, crossing the floor as quickly as her bruised feet allowed. She opened the door, keeping her head bowed.
“Another client for you,” he growled, running a lone, warm finger up the length of her bare arm. “He is expecting first class service so you better treat him well. His name is Henry, an important American man. Do not disappoint me.”
Vahide nodded and returned to her seat on the bed, leaving the door open behind her. She was careful not to show her relief; there were never any guarantees in her line of work, but the majority of her American clients treated her better than the locals and Eastern Europeans she’d serviced. She said a silent prayer that Henry would not belong to the violent, cruel minority.
She heard Bora say something in the hallway, the floorboards creaked, and then the door was closed. Gently. She allowed her shoulders to sag slightly with relief and rose to her feet, as gracefully as she could manage. The grey nightgown, which had been white in another lifetime, hung loosely down to her knees as she waited for her instructions.
“Hello there, little darlin’.” The words carried with them the weight and wear of many years. An older man – even better. She raised her head and flashed a timid smile at the grey haired man in the beige slacks and white and black button up short sleeve. “Well now! Ain’t you got just the prettiest dang smile I’ve ever seen!”
“Thank you,” she murmured, allowing a little color into her cheeks before brushing her hair back over her shoulders. “You have a very kind face.”
“Don’t I just, though? I do seem to get that a lot from you people. What’s your name?”
“Maria,” she replied smoothly. A different name for a different person. She would be anyone but Vahide in that room.
“Well, Maria, we best get to it! I only paid for half an hour, you know. An old man like me just can’t afford to stay much longer than that. Help me get this shirt off, won’t you?”
She glided over to him, ignoring the waves of pain her feet sent up her legs, and began to unbutton his shirt, starting at the top. She breathed in his musky scent as he ran his wrinkled hands over her shoulders and down her arms. He lingered on her wrists for a moment and she noticed that his fingers were bare. No ring, no tan lines.
Not cheating, just lonely. Poor thing.
This would not be the one, she realized. She was safe with him. She let the remaining tension drain from her shoulders and tilted her head to plant a delicate kiss on his neck.
“Mmm, that’s nice,” he said as his shirt came free and fell to the floor. Vahide ran her fingers through the thick grey hair on his sunken chest and purred unintelligible sounds into his ear. He hooked his fingers under her shoulder straps and whispered, “Now it’s your turn.”
The gown was all that had stood between his eyes and her flesh. He stepped back to drink her in before motioning for her to get down on her knees as he pulled the wallet from his pants pocket and placed it on the table next to the candle. Vahide could see a thick wad of American bills threatening to spill from its cracked brown leather confines and she felt temptation rush through her veins. She turned her head away from it but not before Henry saw where she had been looking.
“Oh, little darlin’. You ain't thinkin' of stealin’ from me now, are you?”
“No sir,” she said with a jerky sideways shake of her head.
“Because I already paid your keeper good money to be here and I simply cannot abide greediness. It’s indecent.”
“Of course sir. I am not greedy. I would never steal.” It was an effort to keep the panic from her voice.
“That’s all well and good,” he said as he removed his belt with trembling fingers, “but I’m not quite sure I believe you. In fact, I think you need to be taught a lesson.”
“No sir,” she said, her eyes wide and beginning to moisten. “That is not nee-“
The belt buckle slammed into her jam with surprising force, cutting off her words and sending her sprawling face down on the floor. She turned her head as she rose to all fours and her eyes found the knife she had discovered discarded in the alley behind the butcher shop after returning the letter from Them. She had brought it back there and attached it to the bed frame, telling herself she didn’t know why she was doing it.
Another blow across her lower back brought her crashing down onto the floor. Henry was yelling now, his anger rushing his words together so that she couldn’t understand him. Bora would be able to hear him from his office down the hall but he wouldn’t care. At most, he might charge extra if she required a trip to the hospital. She didn’t bother to cry out, knowing both men would only derive pleasure from the sound.
It took five more skin-tearing blows before she finally reached for the knife.
It took two more after that before she used it.