by A.D. English
Author's note: In this excerpt from the novel Arcadia Day, security man Charles Miller is hunting a runaway slave woman named Bettie. You can find all my books on Amazon or Smashwords.
Knowing her to be a single woman running a small farm, Miller had somehow formed a mental image of Bibiana Zawadzki as a bizarrely dressed old crone with wild grey hair and mad staring eyes. But the woman who looked suspiciously at him as he drove into the yard of New Hope Farm was very tidy, clearly under the age of forty, and looked at least as sane as most people and more so than many. The only notable thing about her was the coiled whip in her right hand, and even that was not so remarkable in Arcadia.
As he got out of the Ford he noticed another woman, this one naked and fastened by her wrists to a post at the far end of the yard, close to what he knew was a slave shed, a low building with barred windows. The brand on her upper left arm said she was a slave, as did her mass of underarm hair and the tracery of thin scars reaching from her muscular shoulders to her thick waist. Twisting against her bonds she partially turned to look at Miller, revealing heavy breasts that sagged onto her belly, with her nipples, tiny red buds set in the huge dark discs of her areolas, pointing down at the ground. She cleared her throat noisily and spat on the ground. ‘Like what you see, mister?’ she shouted. ‘Gonna make an offer for me?’
In her facial features and solid build she reminded him of a whore he had visited a few times when he had been on an anti-terrorist squad, a woman whose dry repartee had been more worth the price of admission than her sexual services. Very briefly he wondered what her unfortunate life story was, what sorry trail had led her to a whipping in this this miserable yard, but ignoring her he spoke to the woman with the whip. ‘Are you Bibiana Zawadzki?’
‘I am, and you pronounced it very well.’ Only the faintest hint of a land far to the east was in her accent.
‘What’s happening here?’ Miller asked, even though the answer appeared to be obvious. ‘My name’s Charles Miller, and I’m from the security department.’ He pulled his ID from an inside jacket pocket and handed it to her.
Bibiana took the ID, glanced at it, and handed it back to him ‘I see, you’re some kind of state official. Well, that woman is my property Roza, and I need to punish her. Is that a problem? Do you have to see proof of ownership? I have my receipt and the title deed to her in the house.’
Miller shook his head. ‘I don’t need to see any paperwork, Miss Zawadzki, only to speak with you.’
Bibiana’s attempted smile showed on her face as a grimace. ‘When I’ve finished this little job, if that’s fine with you. She was an expensive buy for me, and if I don’t control her I’ve wasted that money. I understand you may not want to see this, because it won’t be pretty, so you can wait in my kitchen.’ She pointed to the back door of her house.
Miller had never seen a whipping, had never wanted to see one. Now though, he thought it was time he should view the sharp end of the right of property, and he decided to watch. ‘I’ll wait here until you’ve finished,’ he said.
‘As you wish. Please stand well clear.’ Bibiana strode to a position a few feet from the post, where she shook the whip out to its full length, flicked it back over her shoulder, and then swung it against her slave’s upper back.
Miller had expected a spray of blood and an agonised scream, but he could see no immediate mark of the lash and Roza only twitched and grunted. After the second stroke, however, lived welts were becoming apparent under the slave’s shoulder blades and she gave a gasping cry. ‘Oh, Miss Bibiana, please.’
The third stroke landed higher, across the shoulders, and a thin line of blood appeared as Roza shuddered and let go a throaty scream. Bibiana glanced at Miller, her face expressionless, and then laid the fourth stroke on, drawing more blood and another scream. Two more strokes were given, both across Roza’s lower back, drawing howls of pain and bright splashes of blood where they cut across old scars.
‘That’s your six, Roza,’ Bibiana said loudly. ‘What do you say to me now?’
‘Thank you, Miss Bibiana,’ Roza croaked,
‘That’s right, and I hope you’ve learned something today.’ Bibiana reached up to release Roza’s wrists from the leather straps securing her to the post, nimble fingers swiftly unfastening the buckles. The slave staggered back and turned away from the post to look at Miller, lifting her breasts in her hands and covering the nipples but making no attempt to conceal the thick bush of her groin. Leaned forward slightly, she spoke to Miller again. ‘This girl can take whip and prick, and my cruel mistress needs money. You could be putting me in that fine car and taking me away with you.’
‘Shut it, Roza. I’m sure the gentleman wouldn’t want a scraggy old piece of meat like you. Come on, you can rest for a couple of hours but then I need you back at work.’
Bibiana grabbed her slave’s upper arm and took her to the shed. ‘Just get in your bunk and stay there until I come for you.’ She banged the door shut, locked it top and bottom, and returned to Miller. ‘Cup of tea?’
‘I’d love one.’ He noticed she had a few spots of Roza’s blood on her face. ‘How tough was that for you? Whipping another woman, I mean.’
‘Not tough at all. It’s just part of Arcadian farming.’ She led him into her plain kitchen, where he sat at the table while she hung the whip, now coiled again, on a wall hook, and then filled the kettle before wiping her face with a threadbare towel.
‘I’ve never seen a flogging before,’ Miller said.
She put the kettle onto the stove top. ‘That wasn’t a flogging.’ She opened an air vent to get the flames going. ‘I need her to finish getting my winter crop planted, not laid in her bunk recovering for weeks. So it was just a few affectionate strokes, and Roza knew she had them coming.’
‘What’s the problem with her?’ Miller asked. He wanted to get Bibiana relaxed and talking before he brought up the purpose of his visit.
‘She’s just not happy with being owned as a slave, I suppose.’ Bibiana shrugged. ‘She resents it like hell and shoots her mouth off, so I decided to let her feel the whip for her insolence.’
‘I guess her resentment is understandable,’ Miller said.
‘Of course it is,’ Bibiana agreed, ‘and nobody understands it more than me. I served a three year labour sentence on a farm, so I know how it feels to a slave, and I know how it feels to be whipped, too.’
‘You were sentenced to slavery by a court?’
‘Yes. But don’t think I was a thief or something, because I wasn’t. They were just rounding up live bodies to work the farms, and I was one of them. Some women got five years or more for prostitution, so maybe I was lucky.’
‘And at least you could look forward to being set free again,’ Miller observed. ‘Whereas I assume the woman you just whipped is slave for life, unless a kind owner gives her freedom.’
Bibiana smiled. ‘I don’t think I’m quite kind enough to do that. For what I paid for Roza I need to get at least five years’ work out of her before I begin to break even. But who knows what the future holds? Like you said, when I was slaving on that farm I was counting down the days to freedom, but I didn’t even dream that one day I’d be mistress of my own place. So maybe things will work out for Roza someday, but in the meantime she can do as she’s bloody well told and keep a civil tongue on her head.’
Miller was watching Bibiana and thinking how very ordinary she seemed, only a normal woman chatting pleasantly in her home. The whip on the wall and the beaten slave in the locked cabin were just part of her normality, he knew that.
‘The runaway, that’s what you’re here about.’ Bibiana said. ‘You want to know why I went to the police station.’
‘Correct. I’m thinking you wanted to know how much you’d get for turning the runaway Bettie in.’
‘Yes. No. Not exactly. You see, I walked into Monkton, it’s over two miles each way for me, to get a few things from the shop there. Teabags, milk, just a little shopping. There I heard some other people talking about a field hand killing someone and running away. Most of us around here have field hands, so that was big news, and naturally I was curious.’
‘So curious that you went into the police station, a place that even the most law-abiding people usually tend to avoid?’
She shrugged. ‘Yes. I’m not most people, I’m me, and I wanted to know more.’
‘I would think you had a special reason to know what the reward is.’
‘No special reason. But the border with free territory is close, so a runaway might pass through this area, isn’t that so? And if I happened to see something, perhaps someone trying to hide, and I could then claim a reward, well why not?’
‘Why not indeed. The woman you whipped said you’re short of money.’
‘I’m not ashamed of that.’ She shrugged again. ‘All small farmers struggle for money. I think the kettle is ready.’
Miller watched as she prepared tea, noticing that she used one teabag for two cups and carefully put it aside afterwards, obviously intending to use it yet again. She poured milk and brought both cups to the table. ‘I’m sorry if you take sugar, but I don’t have any. So much sugar is grown in Arcadia, but the price of it here is crazy.’
‘No problem.’ He watched as she did something his mother used to do, hold her cup to her mouth and blow across the liquid to cool it. ‘Bibiana, I’m sorry but I think you’re lying to me. I think you know exactly where the runaway is, maybe you’ve even got her on this farm.’
She set her cup down. ‘That’s ridiculous. Why would I keep her on my farm? There’s a thousand dollar reward, and I could really use that money.’
‘If you kept her here as one of your hands she’d be worth a lot more than that to you, wouldn’t she?’ He took a first sip of his tea. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to look around the rest of this house, and in your barn and slave quarters.’
‘No. I’m sorry as well, but I’ve been speaking the truth and you can’t search my property without a warrant.’
‘If I was a police officer, which I’m not, then certainly I’d need a search warrant. But I’m just a guy who happens to work for the government, and I’m going to look around whether you mind or not. Just think of me as a nosey neighbour.’
‘We are not neighbours,’ she retorted.
‘Of course we’re neighbours, because in this little country nobody lives very far from anyone else.’ He pushed his chair back and stood up, abandoning his weak tea. ‘You know, I really don’t think I’ll find anything in this house, so I’ll start with the barn.’
She leapt to her feet. ‘No. You can’t just come here and search my property, it isn’t right.’
‘Watch me.’ He turned away from the table and went out into the yard, but as he walked towards the barn he heard her scream at him.
‘Stop, Mister Miller. I’m entitled to defend my property, and I’ll shoot if I have to.’
Turning around, he saw she was holding a gun in her hands, a folding single-barrel shotgun of a type he knew was sold in many general stores. Cheaply imported from Andalusia, they were often sold as a kit with one box of solid slug ammunition and five of shot shells, the former for defence and slaughtering animals, and the latter for killing rabbits and birds.
Now he knew for sure what he would find in the barn, but living to set eyes on Bettie seemed uncertain.
‘OK then, Bibiana,’ he said with far more bravado than he felt. ‘Go ahead and shoot me, if you want to hang.’
‘Stay away from my barn.’
‘Before they hang a woman, they put her in a pair of thick canvas trousers, did you know that? That’s a little trick they’ve copied from England, and it’s because her bowels and bladder tend to open before, during, or after she drops, which is messy and most undignified.’
‘Please leave my property. I beg you to leave.’
‘But really there’s no dignity in death, and they stuff her into a plywood coffin quickly, before she goes stiff. Rigor mortis, nature’s last joke, eh? Either I’m going to look in your barn, Bibiana, or you’re going to be rotting in an unmarked prison grave soon.’ He turned and forced his legs to step towards the barn.
There was a click he knew was the gun’s hammer being cocked, and he feared for the security of his own bowels. He hoped for a solid slug in the head rather than a cloud of shot that would open him up and leave him writhing in pain as he died, spilling his organs onto a dirt farmyard far from home. No, no, it would be crazy to lay down his life on runaway catching mission. He stopped, just as Bibiana spoke.
‘Alright, Mister Miller, you’re a brave and stupid man, but you can look in my barn.’
Colossal relief flooded through him as he continued to the barn, and he made a series of resolutions. He would never work alone again, he would always carry a weapon, and he would under no circumstances assume that nice-seeming people couldn’t suddenly become homicidal.
The barn door was ajar, and he threw it further open to allow more light in. He immediately saw the chained slave sitting on the floor. ‘You must be Bettie.’
She shot him a contemptuous glare, but made no reply.
Still on an adrenalin rush after his apparent close encounter with death, he walked over and kicked her in the ribs, something he would not usually dream of doing. ‘Answer me, girl. What’s your name?’
‘Bettie,’ she said dully, without looking at him.
‘How long have you been here?’ He was standing over her, barking his questions.
‘I don’t know. A couple of days.’
‘Did you kill your young master?’
Now she looked at him, sideways, upwards, and malevolently. ‘I’d like to kill you. Someone should have kicked your mother when she was carrying you.’
‘Don’t hurt her, Mister Miller,’ Bibiana was speaking from the doorway. ‘There’s no need and she’s got a line of troubles waiting for her. Come back to the house and we’ll talk, yes? That is good? She won’t be going anywhere.’
Following the farmer back across her yard, Miller suddenly remembered the old Ruger revolver in the glovebox of the car, and briefly considered getting it. He decided the moment of danger had passed, and rejected the notion. Back in the kitchen he sat at the table again and watched admiringly as Bibiana stretched to put her shotgun back on top of a cupboard. The motion lifted the hem of her skirt above her knees, revealing something of her strong thighs, and the trim shape of her upper body was well displayed.
‘Might you really have shot me?’ He asked as she came to the table.
‘Shoot you? I would completely deny ever pointing a gun at you, Mister Miller.’ She grinned, then giggled, and he realised he liked her a lot.
‘You’re in a mess, young lady.’ He could not help smiling at her as he spoke. ‘Why the hell have you got that runaway here?’
‘Because I just couldn’t sell her life for a thousand dollars. But how can I be in a mess? I found a runaway and I detained her securely, yes? There can be for me no trouble.’
Her English grammar was lapsing, and he knew she was feeling more pressure than her cheerful face showed. ‘Why would turning her in cost her life?’
She gave him a summary of Bettie’s story, adding that she believed it. ‘So what happens now is up to you.’
‘Up to me? Great. Bibiana, I’m not going to make a decision on this, because like you I wouldn’t be happy to send that woman to her death. And probably unlike you, I even think that flogging her would be cruel. So what I’ll do is consult with my boss to see if there’s some way of closing the Bettie story without her hanging or dying under the lash.’
‘And when will you let me know? It’s been difficult to hide Bettie from my hands, and how do I know when a nosey neighbour might come snooping around?’
‘Damn those nosey neighbours.’ Miller grinned. ‘I’ll come back here this evening with an answer, but it might be that you’ll have to turn her in come what may.’
‘I see.’ Bibiana looked solemn. ‘If only she had hidden in someone else’s barn. Mister Miller, is your boss so powerful they can make a decision over the head of Bettie’s owner?’
‘Oh yes. My boss can tell the wind which way to blow.’ Miller stood up. ‘I’ll see you later. And Bibiana, I shall much prefer it if you call me Charles.’
‘OK.’ She looked at him curiously and pushed her fringe away from her eyes. ‘Charles.’ Then her grin appeared again, wiping years off her face, and he dared to mix pleasure with business.
‘Perhaps I could take you out for supper somewhere?’
She looked at him seriously. ‘It would only be supper, you understand?’
‘I hear you saying yes to supper with me, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that.’ He wanted this slaveholding farmer, and the desire he was feeling easily overpowered any revulsion he might have felt about seeing her wield the lash.
Under bruised purple clouds he thought might herald stormy weather Miller drove away from New Hope Farm feeling good about the world, Arcadia, and his own place in the grand scheme of things. Bibiana had shown a practical and common sense view of servile labour that had impressed him enough that he felt no shocked horror at the whipping he had seen. Plainly Rosa was an insolent and unruly woman, and if she needed a touch of the whip to keep her in line, then how terrible was that? Not terrible at all. Bibiana had paid good money, hard-earned money, for the field hand’s service, and it was suddenly obvious to him that an owner’s right to control property must be absolute. He knew he had taken a big step towards acceptance of Arcadia’s cruel institution, and knew also that the involvement with Bibiana he intended would take him deep into the country’s dark heart.
Copyright© 2014 by A.D. English. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org