Sneak Peek (re-edit)

by Callum B. Downes

Here’s an extended excerpt from chapter 1 of my novel in progress. I am currently polishing off my first draft of the second chapter!

Thank you to those who are supporting me already, and also to those offering feedback. Your kind words are helping this important message to be shared.

An excerpt from chapter 1:

The approach to Detention Centre 12 invites such jovial denial in order to distract oneself from its sheer desolation. It is a grim blemish of humanity that squanders any shard of light protruding from one’s soul. None smile here. For here exists a betrayal of benevolence so conspicuous that ears prick at the blood-curdling pleas well beyond its barb wired borders. To suggest a fellow may arrive here and triumph above the sludge of impurity is naive. And to guess a man can leave here with a functional psyche is an empty bet.  But clarity of thought is a commodity less sought after than the slave, and so a visit to its cells is well worth a few chips. Besides, with a decent poker face, one can return with medication a plenty. A bounty of those more servant hearted, who are inclined to put your mind at ease. There’s no doubt of this journey’s worth. Just ensure personal security is prioritised, as their chains and muzzles often falter beneath the weight of loss, leading to a bloodbath unprecedented to the average cobber. Shudder you may, but she’ll be right. Oh, and don’t forget an overcoat. Yeah it’s bloody hot, but the stench of death is palpable and the smog will fix up your lungs good and proper, with all the black gold those bastards burn by the heap. Flies greet each man’s arrival and opening the mouth is ill advised. It’s a shit of a place.

Chester fastened his overcoat above the lip and stepped out from the Bentley onto the cracked earth, crushing a partially melted Barbie doll with the weight of his boot. Sweat accumulates rapidly upon his brow, as the venomous heat strikes its prey. He squints toward the ocean, now blackened by oil spills, glimpsing cargo liners keeling over the horizon and the familiar sight of children being thrown overboard in the desperate hope of freedom. This is promptly followed by the deathly rattle of the semi-automatic rifle, forcing them to an early grave deep beneath the waves. Head down, he strides purposefully to the main quadrangle where the exchanges take place, Roge trailing close behind.

Rounding the back corner of the administration block, he swung into the excitement of the day’s trade, dodging the various proprietors who have learnt to avert their eyes and evade Chester’s determined gait. Once Chester had passed and was out of earshot, the stallholders re-surged into a frenzy of sales pitches learned by heart, shoving their goods into the path of their customers and even physically pulling them into their shops. The noise was beyond unholy.

One man refused to tolerate such pushy tactics from an overly zealous sex trader and clocked him over the skull with a suitcase, before spitting into his display product’s eyes. With an infuriated yell of colourful profanities, the trader threw himself head first into his customers torso, driving him into the neighbouring shop’s display of personal butlers. Understandably, such commotion disrupted the stall owner from his perpetual haggling and he turned to see a man twice his size, gouging out the eyes of his neighbour, frightening off his prospective buyers. This inspired his own violence and he threw himself into the tussle. In what seemed like seconds, a large part of the marketplace had broken out into an all in brawl. The vast majority of the crowd had no quarrel of their own, yet felt obliged to join in the condemnation of anyone who disrespected their fellow traders. If they witnessed any sort of malice directed against their people from outsiders they banded together and dealt in blood. It was a way to protect each other from theft and damages, a system to bring order to a lawless cesspool. During these riots, a spirit of inconceivable hatred possessed their bodies and widened their eyes so as to resemble crazed animals breaking free from a tormented life behind bars. They stormed through the alleyway in a cloud of dust with fists raised above their heads in furious blood lust, yet parted warily either side of Chester who continued coolly toward the auction yards. He pivoted, once the yelling had ceased, to catch the aftermath of the carnage. The stallholders, burdened by guilt, shuffled back to their posts, parting the way for Chester to catch a glimpse of the victim’s remains. They had dismembered into several pieces.

Chester continued on to the auction yards unaltered. Once there, he assumed his usual position, with Roge assembling his fold out table and chair beneath the shade of a lone gum tree. The constant blaring of the auctioneer was something he’d grown accustomed to and he unfolded the day’s price guide, highlighting any bargains with clinical efficiency. Roge fixed him up a stiff scotch on the rocks and started yet another Cuban cigar to ease the oncoming tide of anxieties.

The dust, which had been gradually settling post storm, became more prominent as the courtyard filled with traders shuffling forward with urgency to take prime position for the next round of sales. Sensing it was time, Chester signalled Roge to reveal his wristwatch. Sure enough, he was correct and he reached into his overcoat to reveal a fluoro green signpost marked 77.

A short, round man in a dirty tuxedo and top hat appeared on the stage, hammering a loud speaker with his fist in an effort to kick-start it back to life. Chester sighed. “For God’s sake, get on with the show, man!”

The auctioneer positioned himself behind a lectern and lifted the loud speaker to his mouth. “Apologies for the delay ladies and Gentleman.” He allowed the amplifier time to squeal, then gathered his notes as the first lot of slaves trudged up the stairs of the platform, led by a behemoth guard clad in black leather and fastened to each other by the waist with thick, rusted chains. Their expressions, bound by the vice of shame, spoke louder of their turmoil than the clang of their shackles upon the timber decking, as they knelt down before the growing assembly. Their humiliation was met with the brimming interest of hundreds of bidders, crushing themselves willingly into the fences below to bag a bargain.

“The first of today’s premium selection arrived from the exotic shores of Sri-Lanka not two days ago.” Spat the auctioneer. His multiple chins bouncing visibly below the loud speaker.

“Sure they might have sea legs, but rest assured they’re happy to see land again. That’s right folks, these here specimens are climate refugees, free from the traumas of gun rattling and baby snatching, and not a scratch or severed limb to be seen. Forget sleepless nights filled with blood curdling screams; today we bring you mentally sound worker bees, fit for any task laid before them. They’ve seen no worse than a soul or two dip beneath a rising tide. Hell, we witness no worse during the floods right here on our doorstep. There’s not a biter, nor fighter in the mix. Just a bunch of no fuss, bang for your buck, willing servants of yours truly.” He was beginning to pant and sweat from the rapidity of his oration. “So let’s have it folks, who’s got an opening wager for this here labourer.”

The leather-clad guard yanked the chain with a grunt, forcing the first of the slaves to his feet.

“Oh, he’s as strong as a bullock, Roge.” Mumbled Chester, attempting to maintain confidentiality. “He’s a dead set mammoth.”

Although sturdy in physical stature, the man was staring directly ahead through the gaps of his iron face-muzzle, clearly agitated, as evidenced by the trembling of his lips and the stagnant tears stinging his eyes. His entire body was shaking, limb-to-limb, offering an interesting juxtaposition between his black, masculine figure and whimpering inner spirit. Like a timid child trapped inside a brave warrior. A valiant response in the face of the adversities he’d no doubt crumbled against in the past 48 hours under detention. Most just shut their eyes, totally neglecting the sensory human experience. The best of them slouch and moan endlessly to their Gods. Many don’t make it to their feet at all, rag-dolling on the pull of the chain. But this one stood in upright defiance. He’s a pearl in an ever-rising sea.

“$400 000, to number 55, that’s 400 once!” Yelled the auctioneer, clearly sweating now.

“Fuck me, I better make a move. Roge, what’s our -“

“470 sir.” Predicted Roge. “You may wish to keep an eye on our friend by the fountain.” Roge tipped his head toward the meaning of his description.

Meeting his master’s gaze was a Chinese businessman scrolling through a computer tablet with an expression void of all feeling. His attire was similarly detached, consisting of black dress shoes, a plain black two-piece suit, a white shirt and black tie. The exact outfit he wore at last month’s sales. Not one of his hairs was out of place and upon first sight one could assume he never went a day without his round specks. If sobriety had a mascot it would be this man.

He observed the unfolding auction whilst pre-empting future sales on his computer with clinical precision. Forming a triangle of protection, his entourage flashed their M16 rifles and glared at any competition that dared to challenge their master’s sales sniping. To maintain optimum security, however, as well as surveillance of opposing bidders, a drone buzzed above and slightly behind him at all times.

“Fucking Chingas,” gasped Chester under his breath. “Thought they’d be after maids this time of year.”

Roge raised his eyebrows in surprise before informing his ignorant master. “I assumed you were aware of Mr Jiang’s recent investments.”

“Don’t tell me he nabbed that wind farm up north. He’ll wipe us out like clockwork.”

“450 once!”

“Not likely, sir. He’s swimming with great whites now. Ascertained a fine plot of prime cane land for a very reasonable price.”

“Kept it in house than, eh?” Assumed Chester through gritted teeth, his entire body clenching in anticipation of the magic number.

“Certainly, sir. Wouldn’t you if you had connections in congress?” Roge knew the answer before he thought of the question, but enjoyed provoking his master’s formidable opinions.

“Congress? They call that congress? Those reds wouldn’t recognise democracy if it spat in their fried rice.”

“465 to number 33, thank you sir! Do I have 470?”

Chester launched to the edge of his seat and his voice grew tense. “So it was Li’s joint on the Richmond?”

“Correct, sir. A vast improvement on his previous interests in the renewable market. The cane industry is booming after those wild fires ripped through São Paulo.”

“Any takers for 475 000 dollars?”

Any sane man would be startled at Chester’s ferocity, yet than again, sane men were few and far between within centre 12. He shot to his feet and punched his bright signpost toward the heavens with blinding speed, knocking an opposing bidder off balance. The man swiveled around to meet the barrel of Roge’s handgun and quickly directed himself back towards the stage.

“That’s 475 to number 99! Let’s have 480 000. Bring on 480!”

“You’re joking! I was up by a mile! Roge, sort those Chinga bastards –“

His threat was cut short by the distinctive sound of raised firearms and he turned out of half-fright to confront Jiang’s guard for what seemed like hours, but was only seconds. The staring contest was by no means a novel experience for the opposing parties, both of which frequented the slave markets of centre 12. Yet never before had Chester been on the losing side of such a tussle. The tide was changing, ever-rising, and the trader from way back was finally being outgunned, drowning alongside the boat children off the coast. But unlike them, he wasn’t lucky enough to meet a led bullet courtesy of the Australian Navy.

The auctioneer’s hammer startled Chester from the stand off, of which Jiang had taken no part, instead choosing to place early estimates on the price of the next slave online, never lifting his gaze from the tablet beneath his busy fingers. “Sold to number 99! Well done, sir!”

Like a factory line, the burly Sri-Lankan was detached from his fellow inmates and ushered down from the stage into a delivery vehicle for transportation. Not many noticed his violent screams for his son, or the desperate pleas for his wife. Mostly because the noise could barely be differentiated from the whining of a dog. But some did notice. They just didn’t talk.

The procession continued in the same manner for hours, until all of the premium adults had been sold.  Unflinching, Jiang bided his time and pounced on every sale at the dearth, his transportation barge brimming with new inmates. A few spaces to the left, Chester’s transport remained empty. He’d been humiliated on his own stamping ground. Never before had he missed out on a premium adult, not even during his first auction two years earlier, when he’d ascertained his finest butler who still serves diligently to this day.

Jiang had been consolidating himself as an upcoming threat for the past six months, but nobody could have predicted the dominance he’d displayed by taking out the entire auction, effectively cutting out the middle men and rendering slave traders obsolete. Written on every man’s lips in the auction yards that day was one question. How many more of these Chinese farmers will arm themselves to the teeth and buy at wholesale prices? Everyone knew it was suicide to undercut the middlemen. They owned the game, made the rules, dealt out the punishment toward breakers of those rules. They dealt in blood. Nobody stood against them, especially within centre 12, and especially not through direct eye contact. Somebody had to pay.

Led by a second security drone, Jiang and his vicious triangle marched in unison to his awaiting convoy, slipped into an armoured car and left the remaining bidders frozen beneath the sweep of a turret gun mounted atop his rearmost vehicle. Sitting ducks on an open plain.

All the while, life goes on behind closed doors at Centre 12. The foul excuse for life goes on for countless inmates. Something else goes on for one young girl. Aged fourteen and beautiful, she should be full of hope, but the dormant numbing feeling stands out against the passage of blood that ventures down her thigh in excitable spasms. By the end of it, her skin could be easily likened to the Mekong Delta or some other prominent estuary, gushing relentlessly into the sea with countless tentacles. In reality, it was just a bloodied limb, and when reality strikes it is much less romantic and sort of slower to notice. Oh, and did it strike! It settled in once she was tossed into a dirty corner of the cell as leftovers for the weedier inmates. The larger one fixed his fly, buttoned his trousers and laughed distantly as if to say I deflowered a child virgin but may Allah have mercy. The girl who lost her flower weeks ago lay still and tried hard not to breathe too much. Sensation was returning now and assaulting her noticeably in great laboured heaves of rotting air that bent her over. The man dived into his pocket to retrieve a handkerchief and dabbed his sweaty forehead. Feeling indifferent, he leaves with a growl to signal his time’s up. Three rolled cigarettes later and his debt is paid. A grubby looking man sitting at a table by the door takes the payment unwaveringly and raises a gnarled thumb to invite the next client of an extensive cue. Nobody talks and the process continues. There’s no relenting and the girl never cries. That is very sad. That nobody talks.