Maragana Girl
Copyright 2004 by EC
EC's Erotic Art & Fiction -
(warnings: judicial corporal punishment, forced public nudity, sex between adults, references to drug use, references to violence)

Chapter 21 -- The Danubian Spring

"Socrates' Mistresses" returned to the national stage on May 1, once again performing for the Danubian public. Like the year before, the group performed live in Danube City's Central Plaza as part of the May Day Celebrations. Once again the deputies and staff-members of the National Parliament lined up on the rooftop and balconies of the old building to take advantage of their privileged viewing opportunities.

However, the crowd was much larger during the band's second May Day performance and included large numbers of foreign fans. It was obvious that any other group performing that day simply was a warm-up for Danube City's favorite lead singer, so the other Danubian modern musical groups stepped aside for ones that specialized in traditional folkloric music.

"Socrates Mistresses" put out a grueling performance of three full hours, as the crowd shouted "DOC-DOC ELOISA... DOC-DOC ELOISA... DOC-DOC ELOISA..." between songs. Eloisa was a bit taken aback by her popularity and became visibly more nervous as the concert wore on. She looked over her shoulder at her back-up singers several times with a frightened expression. Finally, the lead singer signaled Kim to join her at the main microphone for a series of duets. Eloisa needed Kim's reassuring presence at her side, as she finally comprehended the awesome success the band was becoming. With Kim present, the magic returned to Eloisa's voice. It was at that moment Kim realized how much Eloisa truly needed her.

The group performed again the second week in May, to another outdoor concert almost as large as the May Day crowd. This time there were even more foreign fans, some of whom were fascinated at the thought their favorite group lived and performed in the nude. There were numerous television interviews following the second concert, including in-depth interviews with Kim in English from British and German television companies.

The following week a major US entertainment magazine picked up on Kim's story and did a detailed feature on her participation in the Danubian music scene. Criminal # 98945 posed for several pictures, most of which were from the chest up. However, she also posed for a full-body shot, in which she turned sideways and crossed her legs to comply with US censorship rules. The magazine wanted its readers to know that, yes indeed, Kimberly Lee had not worn any clothing for nearly two years as a condition of her sentence.

Kim, for the first time, discussed her views on drugs with the US press. She described her trial and sentence, trying to emphasize that she felt what had happened to her ultimately was extremely fortunate. She discussed the experiences that led to the writing of "A question I cannot answer", the immensely sad retelling of her conversation with her mother as they discussed Susan's death in Prague and her own narrow escape from a similar fate. She went on to describe the origins of a second song she had largely written herself, titled "Marooned". The second song focused on Kim's decision the year before to stay in Upper Danubia rather than return to the US and risk being unemployed and getting back on drugs.

There were further questions about how Kim became a friend of the Danubian singers, and the path that led her from participation as a back-up singer to singing partner to co-leader of the band. She discussed her plans for the future: marriage and a career as a Danubian Spokeswoman for the Criminal. The interviewers clearly were fascinated with the story as the interview went much longer and in much greater detail than they previously had envisioned.

The magazine feature about "Socrates’ Mistresses" was an important step in the group's rise to popularity in the US market. The piece became much more important for the magazine's June 1 issue than the editors originally had planned. Apart from Kimberly Lee's full-body sideways portrait, the magazine also included numerous facial shots and a couple photos of Kim and Eloisa singing together, cut off just below their shoulders. The editor decided to include a second full-body shot of the two lead singers in concert, taken from behind and showing the large crowd of fans in the background. The editor defended the shot by saying: "This is their reality, and you can't censor the truth."

Kim did not return to work for Victor Dukov during the final spring of her sentence. She regretted not having the opportunity to ride her bicycle around Danube City and get paid for it, but she needed the three days per week to finish her university classes and attend to the growing needs of Eloisa's band.

When Kim visited Victor's office to justify not returning to work for him, she had a bit of a surprise when she saw his office. Victor clearly was about to re-direct the focus of his business, because there were a large number of fax machine promotional pamphlets on his desk. Victor explained that the Danubian Parliament was debating legislation to allow some business and legal documents to be faxed instead of forcing them to be delivered in person. The law was one of many measures Upper Danubia had to implement to get ready to join the European Community and it was getting very little attention from the public. Victor, however, foresaw the arrival of fax machines eventually would reduce Danube City's need for bicycle couriers and potentially ruin his business if he could not adapt. He was getting ready for the change by importing fax machines from abroad. As soon as the legislation passed, Victor would open a fax machine store and over time curtail his bicycle business as more local businesses started using faxes. Already he was preparing to send two of his couriers abroad to receive training for servicing and repairing fax machines. As time went on and the need for bicycle couriers slowly diminished, one by one he would send his other employees abroad for training.

"For a while I will offer both fax machines and courier services, but the change is coming." Victor was reflective, but a bit sad about the impending transition in his business. "The courier services in our country go back many years, but I'm afraid that's one of the things we'll have to give up to modernize."

In the late spring Mrs. Dolkiv finally accepted the American "Maragana Girl" as Sergekt's future wife. Kim noted the difference as her fiancee's mother began treating her with warmth and kindness, as opposed to a distant cold tolerance. The change began very slowly in the fall, right after the forest fires were put out, but it was not until after the second Easter that Kim's future mother-in-law became truly nice as opposed to just courteous.

Although she did everything she could to keep her doubts about Criminal # 98945 to herself, secretly Mrs. Dolkiv had hoped at some point her son would break up with that Asian drug-addict. However, the American had proved herself a worthy woman time and time again, to the point it was obvious Sergekt could not find a better partner. Sergekt would marry the "Maragana Girl", study his hydrology, and live the path the Ancients had laid out for him. His mother knew that he was happy, happier than he had been at any time since his father had died, which was what mattered.

Mrs. Dolkiv finally accepted it was time to put her prejudges aside and treat her future daughter-in-law properly. She and Sergekt's aunt began taking up some of Kim's precious spare time by inviting her to shop and cook, taking her to the nearby temple, and teaching her some protocol the Dukovs had overlooked. Kim was not particularly thrilled about doing any of those activities, but she understood it was necessary to accept the invitations offered by her future in-laws. Kim was happy enough to have finally ingratiated herself that she took the time needed to build up the relationship, one that would be crucial for a peaceful marriage in the future.

Kim and her friends spent the final two months of their sentences in very upbeat moods. The stress of university classes passed, their bodies finally could enjoy the warm late spring weather, and the impending promise of freedom beckoned. Kim marveled at the change in the entire group, a change that was real, and reflected, among other things, in the music Eloisa was choosing for her group's rehearsals and recordings.

The evenings at the Socrates Club were full of happy discussions about plans and hopes for the future. Psychologically the group already was making the transition to becoming free citizens, as they discussed clothes they wanted to buy and places outside the Danube City collar zone they wanted to visit. Many of the group's members planned to travel to provincial cites to visit grandparents and other relatives the week after their release, others simply wanted to relax at the campgrounds and beaches of the Rika Chorna Reservoir.

There were plenty of wedding plans for that summer. Most of the group's members wanted to get married. There were 5 couples within the group itself, including Kim and Eloisa and their partners, as well as 12 other members who were engaged to people who had not been part of the original 28 students convicted after the riot. The desire among all of the couples was to have a normal settled life as quickly as possible, even though Kim doubted the maturity of some of Sergekt's friends. Now was a time for dreaming, but reality would set in once the group's collars were off.

Kim and Sergekt were among the couples that planned to get married later in the year. Considering the hectic summer that lay ahead, the couple decided the best time to get married would be in the fall, possibly on October 18th, Kim's 21st birthday. Kim felt that marrying Sergekt would be the perfect 21st birthday present for her.

When Kim discussed her possible wedding plans with Vladim Dukov, he made it very clear that he expected her to stay at his house until she was properly married. Dukov's statement came as no surprise to Kim, since she knew that "living together" was unheard of in the socially conservative Duchy. An unmarried person always lived with a relative. In the rare cases when no relative was available, as was the case for Malka Chorno, then an unmarried person almost always lived in the household of an older person or family.

Dukov made it clear to Kim that as long as she remained in his house, the rules, protocol, and expectations of proper behavior would remain in effect. Her status in the household would not change at all, in spite of her change from convicted criminal to free US citizen with a transition visa. The Dukovs never treated Kim any differently than they would treat any other single young woman who was a member of their household.

Over the winter the US exchange student Jennifer Thompson took her studying of the Danubian language more seriously, mostly so she could communicate with her classmates and join them in what social activities were available to high school students. She joined the girls' soccer team and did very well. She began swimming and exercising more. By the end of the school year she in great physical shape and actually was enjoying her time in the Duchy. Most importantly, Anyia taught her friend that it was possible to be rebellious in Upper Danubia, just not in the way Jennifer had envisioned.

There was one significant act of rebellion open to the teenagers. During the spring both of them started dating convicted criminals. The two high-school girls took delight in parading their naked boyfriends around Danube City. Jennifer distressed her parents by having Anyia take several photographs of her dressed in her school uniform and standing arm-in-arm with her naked boyfriend. She delighted in sending them home to her father. That'll stress-out my dear old Dad, thought Jennifer to herself, knowing that his daughter has a nude boyfriend in Danube City.

Spokesman Dukov was not thrilled at all with his daughter's choice of a boyfriend, because the guy was convicted for a perfectly legitimate crime. He had gotten drunk and participated in a football-riot while studying abroad in Germany. He was videotaped participating in several acts of vandalism including helping his German friends overturn and burn some cars. On top of that, he threw several bottles at the German police and injured a bystander when a bottle missed its intended target. Germany quickly expelled him back to Upper Danubia, where he faced a government very angry at the negative publicity he had brought to the Duchy. Because his crimes appeared in the German press with some comments about "uncouth easterners", he was given a rather harsh 10-year sentence for the crimes of assault, insurrection, and "dishonoring the Duchy" once he returned home.

Dukov did not treat his daughter's boyfriend with the same warmth and trust with which he treated Sergekt. The young man's crimes had not been "crimes of honor"; quite the opposite, the he had dishonored himself and Upper Danubia with his loutish, drunken behavior. Still, Dukov felt he could not openly reject Anyia's boyfriend unless he did something specific to offend the Spokesman. Dukov himself had served a sentence and spent his life representing people like his daughter's boyfriend in court, so he had to show a minimal amount of respect to the young man kneeling at his feet. That respect was minimal, however. Dukov made it very clear to his daughter's boyfriend that he was to treat the Spokesman and his wife with the proper protocol due to public officials at all times.

Jennifer's boyfriend was a straight-forward criminal, convicted of burglarizing several warehouses and trying to sell stolen merchandise. He was serving an eight-year sentence and would not have his collar off until he was 26. The relationship became rather interesting over time, because after several weeks of going out she began disciplining him. Because Jennifer was free and her boyfriend was a criminal, the American student had a superior legal status and thus could tell him what to do. The young burglar was grateful enough to have a girlfriend, especially an attractive red-headed American, so he was willing to put up with having to submit to her.

The discipline started with an occasional sharp slap to the bottom if Jennifer's boyfriend did not move fast enough or do something the American had told him to do. After a few weeks, every time Jennifer told the young criminal to do something, the order always was accompanied with a sharp slap to the bottom. Then it became two slaps to the bottom. Always. Then, shortly before Easter, Jennifer's boyfriend accidentally bumped into her back-pack and crushed a pair of sunglasses as they were entering Dukov's house with Anyia.

The house was empty, so the teenagers were free to do what they wanted. Jennifer sat on the sofa and ordered her boyfriend to lie across her lap, right in front of Anyia. The silent, embarrassed pleading in the criminal's eyes only stiffened Jennifer's resolve.

"I told you to get over my lap! Now do it!"

Once the young man was properly positioned, Jennifer began spanking him while Anyia watched. The punishment was not nearly as painful as the switchings the young man was enduring as part of his sentence, but was infinitely more embarrassing. The slaps continued for a very long time, as the criminal's bottom changed color from light pink to deep pink.

Anyia ran upstairs and grabbed a camera. To the young man's horror she began taking pictures of the spanking. When he turned his head away from the photographer, both girls sharply admonished him to keep his face visible to the camera. Once again, the girls' photo session proved far more embarrassing then the video-tapings made of the criminal's judicial switchings. To be forced across his girlfriend's lap, with another friend taking pictures....

Finally Jennifer finished the spanking, mostly because her hand became sore and her arm was too tired to continue. The next time, I'll see if I can find a paddle or belt, Jennifer thought to herself. Still, the girls were not finished with the punishment; they wanted to do something more. Anyia came up with the idea of making the young criminal kneel in the corner, with his hands behind his head. Once he was in position, there were several more pictures. The finishing touch came when Jennifer decided to write something on her boyfriend's back. Anyia got a black magic marker and, in careful block letters, wrote in Danubian: "I stupidly broke my girlfriend's glasses and she had to punish me."

Right after that the three went back outside and got on a trolley and go downtown. Jennifer and Anyia thoroughly enjoyed the young man's utter humiliation as bystanders stared at his pink bottom and the message on his back.

The experience changed Jennifer and made her realize she actually could enjoy her time in Upper Danubia. Yes, it was true there were no raves, drugs, tattoos, nor any other "fun" things to do in Upper Danubia, but then, where else could you spank a naked boyfriend and then make him walk around in public with a pink bottom and a punishment message written on his back?

During the final months of their sentences Kim and Eliosa had very little time to daydream about what life would be like without their collars. Their recording company approached them with plans for a late summer tour through Europe, a series of live performances in several major cities throughout the EU. There were plans to have the group record some more music in Germany after July 2 and another possible movie deal. The two lead singers were forced to rehearse hard with the female vocalists from the band, night after night, as they tried out new music. They recorded song after song with the musicians, desperate to produce what they could while the group's music was still rising in popularity.

There were rumors the soundtrack for the Hollywood movie about the Roman invasion of Gaul would be nominated for several prizes, including best musical score. The haunting music from "Socrates' Mistresses" provided a perfect backdrop for a tragic story that dealt with the destruction of Gaul and its lost civilization. As the soundtracks sold, the group's other CD's sold, with the music stores struggling to keep up with demand.

During that spring music companies began approaching other Danubian musical groups, as the "Danubian sound" moved to the forefront of global popular music. The owner of the Socrates Club and the owner of the music store scrambled to prepare bands for auditions and make arrangements for recording studios. The two men eventually pooled some money and bought several warehouses close to downtown to set up as recording studios. They brought in equipment and technicians from the EU to set up a top-quality recording studio complex for Danube City. Group after group, almost all of them criminals or ex-criminals from the Socrates Club, passed through the new Danube City studio complex on their way to recording albums and receiving contracts.

The Danubian Parliament quickly had to change the law that initially had protected the Danubian music industry and kept Danubian music unique. The law that prohibited top billboard music from being played or distributed in Upper Danubia had to be overturned, or Eloisa's music would have been banned in her own country. As regrettable as removing the protection was to many of the deputies, there was no choice if the Duchy was to have any respect for its popular singer and her friends. With the passage of the new music law Upper Danubia took a major cultural step in ending some of its isolation. That step, however, was done on Danubian terms and to accommodate Danubian interests, not the interests of foreigners. Having to change the law made Danubians more confident of the country's contribution to global culture, and even more proud of the Duchy's culture and traditions.

The summer months following Kim's release would bring changes to Danube City. Foreign investors bought shares in the studio complex and soon the owners of several older buildings downtown began converting them to hotels and cafes for the increasing contingent of foreign technicians and music representatives. Following the music industry employees would be fans of the various groups and tourists interested in seeing the historical capitol of the Duchy. Within a very few years Upper Danubia was to become a major tourist destination in Central Europe. The arrival of the tourists and their money was the beginning of Vladim Dukov's hope that Upper Danubia could face the future and adapt to the world without surrendering what made the country so unique.

The record company promoting "Socrates's Mistresses" had big plans for the group for the weeks following July 2. There was a scheduled international tour with a series of concerts in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Athens, and finally Vienna. The schedule would allow the group to be back in Danube City in time for their university classes, but the original idea was to have the Warsaw concert on July 6 and the Berlin concert July 12. The band members were both excited and disappointed by the impending trip. The opportunity to travel excited the group, but at the same time any post-sentence vacations had to be cancelled. Many of the group's members had wanted to spend time with relatives outside Danube City and were distressed at the thought their musical careers would interfere with their family plans.

Kim was determined to travel back to the US for a couple of weeks with her sister Cindy to visit her parents. She also felt a trip to her former home would allow her to come to terms with her forfeited life as an American. Cindy planned to travel to Upper Danubia at the end of June and be present for Kim's de-collaring ceremony. After Kim was released from her sentence she wanted to spend time with her sister, and then travel to the United States to visit her hometown.

Kim decided not to allow anything to interfere with rebuilding her relationship with her sister and her parents. She had to have the two weeks following her release to herself. Kim, sitting next to Eloisa and the owner of the music store, put her foot down on what would be scheduled for July.

"Whatever else happens this summer, there's something I gotta to do. I have to go back to visit my parents for a couple of weeks, before I do anything else. I need to do that before I get married and change my citizenship, before I tour, before I record, before anything. I gotta go home for little bit, and try to figure out who I really am. Then, I'll be back, I'll tour, I'll sing, I'll do whatever we need to make Eloisa's music successful. But my going home for a couple of weeks is not negotiable."

Kim's own needs forced the group's company to alter its summer plans for "Socrates' Mistresses". The music company's representatives mulled over Kim's trip home, and decided Kim's return to the US would be a good opportunity for her to promote "Socrates' Mistresses" in the North American market. Ultimately there would be plans for the group to go on tour in the US the following year, during the summer when its members were not in class at the university. Kim's trip home would help lay some groundwork for next year's concerts, assuming she was willing to grant a couple of interviews.

The others in the group would be getting a vacation during the two weeks, time to spend with their families and getting used to being able to travel outside the collar zone. For Eloisa and her fiancée the two weeks would be a chance for their two families to travel together to the main resort at the Rika Chorna Reservoir and spend time getting to know each other better. Eloisa confided in Kim that she and her fiancée planned to announce their wedding plans at the summer retreat. The band's lead singer also confided to Kim that she wanted to make love in the forest and try to expand her sexual experiences.

Malka Chorno continued with her exercise classes as the spring progressed. Her groups had stabilized into a regular crowd of hard-core students who were determined to get into top shape before they finished their sentences. Malka's sharp voice and sweaty body became a fixture in many lives, to the point that Malka had to start a third fitness section of her class and a second martial arts group. The owner of the Socrates Club installed some showers and a public bathroom in Malka's gym to accommodate her clients; a clear indication he expected Malka's service as a gym instructor to be long-term.

Malka began giving the idea of permanently being a criminal gym instructor some thought. She had discovered she really liked being a gym instructor much more than police work. Oddly enough, the ex-police officer had found herself among the Danubian criminal community, to the point she no longer identified with who she had been the year before. Malka finally decided to approach her Spokesman about a possible change of plans, wondering if the only way she could end her sentence would be to return to the Police Academy.

Dukov brought up Malka's case with the sentencing judge. Malka's sentence was a provisional sentence, which was not very common. However, Malka's case allowed for some flexibility. The judge surprised Dukov with his suggestion.

"I think... if she does not want to go back to being a police officer, she should remain a criminal. She seems to have found herself in that gym of hers, and I would like to see her continue her life as it is now. Here's what I'm willing to do. I will expect her to serve the full 18 years of her sentence, and if she wants to be a gym instructor, then I will expect her to fulfill that commitment she has made to her fellow criminals. She will keep her collar and the clothing restriction will remain in effect for her. However, I will ease two conditions of her sentence. I will re-classify her as a 'willingly repentant' criminal. Also, I'll have the transmitter removed from her collar so she can move about the country."

Dukov agreed to suggest re-classification to his client. Malka would remain a convicted criminal, but under much less restricted conditions. Malka gladly accepted the proposal. The reclassification allowed her to sever her final ties to her former life. She was, and would be for a very long time, a criminal and a gym instructor. The gym was her life, the very real contribution she could make to improve the lives of many people. Now it was official. There would be no turning back for Malka; she could look at herself as a gym instructor instead of a disgraced former police officer.

Malka knelt in court toward the end of May to be officially reclassified, as her Spokesman stood at her side. Once the sentencing judge read the changes he asked Malka if she had any comments or requests.

"Yes your honor, I do have one request. My boyfriend wants to become a police officer. If he is accepted to the Academy, I ask that he be assigned my badge number and wear the badge that used to be mine. I think that having my badge will serve him, because it will constantly remind him he needs to take his responsibilities seriously."

"Very well, Criminal # 99348, that is an easy-enough request to grant. The day your boyfriend receives your former badge, I will require him to stand before his fellow cadets and explain the significance of that badge to his peers. I think that will be a good lesson to both him and to his fellow police officers."

Malka then knelt before the judge's desk to allow the collar technician to remove her transmitter. Once the transmitter was off the technician removed the steel ring from her collar and replaced it with a brass ring. The brass ring officially marked Malka as a "willingly repentant" criminal.

During the entire month of May, Spokesman Dukov spent almost every free moment of his time in his library. He returned home from work, had dinner with his family, and then retreated to his study and to a new computer he recently had purchased. He spent his time looking through a vast pile of history books stacked by his desk or typing furiously. He was driven, in a way he never had been driven before, to speak to the Danubian nation through his writing.

Starting May 15, the Spokesman began publishing a series of political opinion columns in the Danube City Post, which was the Duchy's most important newspaper. Dukov's readers expected him to discuss his ideas about criminals and their place in Danubian society, but he ignored that topic altogether. Instead Dukov wrote about his broader concerns for the Duchy's society and his vision for Upper Danubia's future.

During the two years Kim served her sentence for marijuana possession, there were two major political movements represented in the Danubian Parliament. There was the conservative ruling Party of the Duchy, which argued that Upper Danubia had to defend its traditions at all costs and shut out the outside world. The opposition was led by the Greater Danubian Progressive Party, which vehemently argued that Upper Danubia's society was a failed relic of the Middle Ages and that the country needed to modernize as quickly as possible, taking the good with the bad and becoming like the rest of the world. Dukov responded in his columns that neither approach served the country's best interests.

Dukov argued the Duchy's peaceful society was under tremendous threat from the outside world, in particular from globalization. In his writings the Spokesman compared Upper Danubia's current situation to the crisis which faced the country in the early 1500's, when the Ottoman Empire and the Counter-Reformation threatened to completely destroy Danubian society. The Kingdom of Danubia at beginning of the 16th Century was much larger then it was in modern times, and its nobility was confident it could be successfully defended against the growing threats posed by the Turks and the new Holy Roman Emperor. In the end Danubia did manage to survive and maintain its independence, but only because the country had a king who was smart enough to know that not everything in under his rule could be saved. There were some very difficult choices and national sacrifices that only one man, King Vladik the Bastard, seemed to realize were necessary.

The rest was history that every Danubian learned in school. Before Ottoman armies invaded from the neighboring country to the south, King Vladik ordered the southern half of his kingdom to completely evacuate. He essentially abandoned all of the fertile lands of Lower Danubia to the invaders without a fight, realizing his army was no match for the heavily armed Ottoman armies. As the invaders poured across the abandoned and burnt lands of Lower Danubia, the kingdom's subjects retreated to the part of the kingdom their ruler felt he could defend, the valleys of Upper Danubia that were protected by thick forests. He ordered his knights to melt their armor into weapons that could be easily carried over long distances and used at close quarters, bought smaller, faster horses for his soldiers, and hired bandits to teach his troops how to live in the forest for extended periods of time.

The king made his stand in the woods that separated Upper and Lower Danubia, with the goal of protecting the lives of his citizens, not protecting land or property. He won the first battle against the Turks in the forests, after a savage and protracted campaign of ambushes, raids, and traps. The following year King Vladik faced another invasion from a Christian army coming in from the Holy Roman Empire led by religious fanatics who saw the Danubians as heretics and pagans. The Papal Army was routed even worse than the Turks; very few of its soldiers even making it out of Upper Danubia alive.

There were a total of six invasions over a 25-year period, none of which ended successfully for the attackers. Danubia adapted, changed, and survived. What could not be saved was discarded. Among the things that could not be saved were the farmlands and manors of Lower Danubia. That was the sacrifice King Vladik had to make to save Upper Danubia. After he was killed in battle during the sixth and final invasion, King Vladik the Bastard was remembered as King Vladik the Defender and revered by his subjects.

Dukov's history lesson had implications for the present. Upper Danubia could jump into the global economy with no consideration of the social consequences, it could try to ignore the outside world and ultimately fail, or the nation could face and adapt to the over-all threat. Dukov argued that a rational modernization plan tailored to the Danubian social values would allow the Duchy to enter the 21st Century in a way that would cause minimal disruption to the country's society.

"We stand in the shoes of King Vladik. The Ottoman and the Holy Roman Imperial armies are fast approaching our lands. We can hide and pretend they are not coming, we can surrender our souls to the invaders and change our identity, or we can face the future and determine where the new boundary between Upper Danubia and Lower Danubia is located. Our task is to save Upper Danubia, yet again, by determining what we as a society can keep and what we must abandon. The goal is to maintain ourselves as a people and as a society. No matter what decisions we make, we must ensure there will be a Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia to pass to our grandchildren."

Dukov's columns caused a sensation, because they put into words the thoughts of many Danubian citizens. Dukov gave a coherent voice to the majority of Upper Danubia's voters who thought that both parties were wrong in their approach to modernizing the Duchy. Yes, the Duchy had to modernize, but in a rational way that would not destroy the country's society.

Towards the end of May the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia entered a political crisis. The governing party lost several no-confidence votes in Parliament after opposition deputies criticized the lack of planning that led to the previous summer's fire disaster in Rika Chorna Province. Suddenly several governing party deputies announced their withdrawal from their party and the formation of a new political group. To the shock of the nation, several deputies from the opposition Greater Danubian Progressive Party joined them. Upper Danubia began a political re-alignment as a third political movement took shape over the summer.

At the time the political uproar in the Parliament was taking place, Vladim Dukov watched with the detached interest of an average public official. As a professional, the only immediate concerns he had were how the political changes might affect court appointments and the National Police. He worked from day to day, continuing to argue cases and help criminals rebuild their lives after being sentenced.

What Vladim Dukov did not realize was that the changes he wrote about in his articles, as well as the resulting political turmoil in Parliament, soon would affect him directly. By the end of the year the political changes would completely alter the course of the Spokesman's life.

Criminal # 98945 passed her first round of final exams during the end of May. She had done well in her classes, completing her first semester in college with a cumulative class academic score of 94.5 percent. In the US that would have been the equivalent of a grade point average of 3.7 or 3.8. Kim was impressed by her own performance in college, considering that she had barely finished high school and was taking her current classes in a foreign language. She now was well on her way to fulfilling her Spokesman's vision of someday speaking on behalf of foreign criminals in Danubian courts.

Once their grades were returned and Dukov had a chance to examine their coursework, the Spokesman invited Kim and Tatiana to King Vladik's Castle. Dukov and the secretary wore their black prayer robes, while Kim, in compliance with her status as a criminal still serving her sentence, wore nothing.

They entered the ruler's chamber and knelt in front of the dead king's empty throne. A crown sat on the throne, but what struck Kim was the its simplicity. The crown was made from carved silver and brass, and inlaid with amber. There was no gold on the crown, nor any imported jewels. That crown had been made only from materials available within the realm. The crown was Kim's first introduction to Upper Danubia's greatest national hero. It was obvious he had been a modest and practical ruler.

Dukov spoke in the direction of the King's throne, but was not addressing the dead King directly. He asked, in Archaic Danubian, for the country's ancestors to bestow wisdom on him and his two protégés.

"These two young women will enter their responsibilities during very trying times. Life will test them in ways that my companions and I cannot even imagine. They will need your guidance, because my guidance, corrupted by the limitations of my generation's experiences, will fail them."

Kim looked over at her mentor, a bit taken aback by the Spokesman's doubts in his own abilities. To her Vladim Dukov was one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent people she had ever met. However, later in her life Kim would realize it was precisely because Dukov was so educated he realized how little about life he really knew.

The Spokesman and his two protégés left the castle. Tatiana returned to the Spokesman’s office to change her clothes and get back to work, while Kim and Dukov walked down to the park that extended along the Danube River. For a long time neither of them said anything, although it was clear to Kim that Dukov wanted to make himself available to answer her questions. Finally she spoke up:

"Spokesman Dukov, why... I mean... what's so great about King Vladik? Why did we go and pray to an empty throne?"

"Kimberly, I understand you have not taken the university history requirement for that time period?"

"No, Spokesman Dukov, not yet. That's why I'm curious."

"Kimberly, perhaps I should begin by explaining to you why I, as a Spokesman, would pay homage to King Vladik. King Vladik created the position of Spokesman for the Criminal. You will understand that prior to King Vladik's rule, a convicted criminal became subject to his accuser. Once a person was convicted, he had to serve the person he had wronged. You will understand that before 1524, many, many people were unjustly accused by others who wanted to use them as slaves. Every society has something that dishonors its people, and that was what dishonored us."

"That makes sense. So that's what he changed?"

"What the king changed was who held responsibility over the convicted criminal. In 1524 the criminal became subject to the Crown, not to his accuser. In a single decision the King swept away a justice system that had degenerated into a system of slavery. All the nation's criminals passed under his control, and under his protection. He ordered 10 of his most trusted advisors to assume custody of the nation's criminals and determine how many of them were unjustly accused of committing crimes. Those 10 advisors became our country's first Spokesmen for the Criminals. That was how our profession began. That is why King Vladik is so important to me, and to you. You will understand that you and I will have walked the same path in life before we join the dead. We began as criminals. We will have become free citizens and then Spokespersons. That was the path in life King Vladik foresaw for people like ourselves."

"And Spokesman... you really think I can do it, I mean... like... argue in your courts and hassle with your prosecutors?"

"You will. It is what I foresaw back in September. And... Kimberly, I will advise you of something important. The beginning of your responsibilities to our justice system will come sooner than you think, long before you finish your studies. Very shortly you will understand why I just made that statement."

"Spokesman... but how... if I don't have my degree..."

"Kimberly, I foresaw that very shortly you will be called upon to use our profession to save a life. As I stated before, you will understand when the moment comes."

The final major event in the lives of Kim and her friends prior to their release was the summer solstice festivals. During Pagan times the summer solstice was an important religious event, with festivities that lasted a full four days. The Danubian Ministry of Culture had decided to revive part of that tradition and raise the solstice events back to the importance they had held many years before. For the first time Upper Danubia would have an official four-day vacation and many ancient pageants would be revived. There would be the usual concerts in the Plaza of the Ancients on the day of the Solstice itself, but now there would be much more, as the country sought refuge in its distant past to understand its present.

There was the usual required performance for "Socrates' Mistresses", the very last public appearance of the group before the end of their sentences on July 2. Other groups would perform as well, but there was a mutual decision between the owner of the Socrates Club and the Ministry of Culture that all the performers that day would be criminals still serving their sentences.

The concert was a very emotional one for the members of Eloisa's band. It would be their final public act as criminals, the final performance as group performing only for Upper Danubia. All of the group's members felt the concert was an official closure to one part of their lives; a good-bye to their lives as criminals. The next concert the group had planned would be in Warsaw on July 30. By that time the lives of the group's members would be radically different and much more complicated.

The songs Eloisa had chosen for the equinox concert surprised Kim. The American had expected Eloisa to choose the group's more recent and upbeat songs, to fit the general mood of Upper Danubia's only cheerful holiday. Kim did not realize that, for this final performance as a criminal, Eloisa was not interested in providing simple entertainment. The group's lead singer wanted her listeners to reflect on the meaning of life. She chose the group's saddest and most philosophical songs, along with the songs that had the most ancient musical roots or themes. She asked that the group be allowed to perform at dusk, because she wanted the long summer twilight to set the backdrop for the melancholy theme she hoped to set for the concert.

The lead singer's instinct for music resulted in what many of her fans would consider the band's greatest performance during the criminal phase of their careers. Eloisa's voice was infinitely sad, and infinitely moving. While she was on stage that night, Eloisa seemed detached from the physical world. She sang her best, because at that moment singing was the only thing on her mind.

The following weekend Kim and Sergekt took their final bicycle ride together as criminals. As she felt the warm summer air blowing against her bare body, Kim realized there were things about being a criminal she would miss. She knew that she would miss riding naked on her bicycle, and the naughty chases with Sergekt through Danube City's forest parks. Such behavior was accepted for criminals, but there was no way Danubian social protocol allowed free citizens to act in such a scandalous manner.

Kim and Sergekt rode to the bench where he had spanked and made love to her the previous fall. They parked their bicycles and for a long time sat on the bench, simply relaxing and enjoying the hot weather and rustling leaves.

Both Sergekt and Kim knew she was due for another spanking. After sitting quietly with him for a while she went over his lap, nestling herself against his body and enjoying the feel of the summer breezes on her exposed bottom. For a long time he caressed her backside, studying her flawless soft brown skin. He ran his fingertips between her thighs and teased her vagina and bottom-hole.

Kim's lovely bottom always fascinated Sergket. After being with Kim for nearly two years, her body excited him every bit as much as it did when he first saw her. Yes, he would spank her, but just enough to put a slight shade of pink on her bottom. There would be no punishment that day, such a series of soft sensuous slaps that would heighten her sexual arousal and make her bottom even more beautiful than it was already.

Sergekt began spanking Kim, but the slaps were much more erotic than painful. Kim went wet, in a sexual bliss over the combination of sensations she was experiencing. Sergekt had been right; Kim was not in the mood for a hard spanking. She wanted the spanking to be a purely sensual experience, to feel the soft slaps of his hand over and over on her eager bottom. The pain on her bottom was slight -- just enough to completely stimulate her body and her senses.

Sergekt mixed the slaps with sensual teasing between his lover’s legs, including the occasional light touch on her clitoris. Kim lifted herself up every time Sergekt's finger brushed that most intimate part of her body, hoping for more touching, but he kept her in suspense. There was more spanking, and then more teasing between Kim's legs.

Finally both of them were ready for sex, more than ready. Kim lay on her back on a towel Sergekt had brought and he entered her. He thrust long and hard as Kim closed her eyes and gasped with delight. This was good...really good. She climaxed twice, as her orgasms swept away the stress of the past several weeks.

The spell slowly lifted as the pleasant summer afternoon dragged on. Yes, thought Kim to herself, maybe being a criminal is a rough experience, but I'll miss these bicycle trips. That part I'll miss.

Chapter 22 -- Redemption

Criminal # 98945 expected the final week of her sentence to be extremely hectic. However, because most of the issues surrounding the impending concert schedule of "Socrates' Mistresses" were settled the in the middle of June, there really was very little for her to actually do other than make final arrangements for her sister Cindy to be present at the de-collaring ceremony in July.

Kim had a very slight disappointment when she learned that the actual ceremony would not be on July 2, the official date of her release. She would have to wait one extra day, because the Monday closest to July 2 was the following day, July 3. The change of date did not really bother anyone, however. Kim's friends had served three-year sentences and she had served a full two-year sentence. One more day hardly mattered.

Vladim Dukov filed a series of papers related to Criminal # 98945's impending release, including a certificate that assured the Danubian government that she was psychologically ready to be released and that she posed no further threat to the community. That was standard procedure, given that a Danubian Spokesperson for the Criminal held legal custody over the criminals assigned to his or her caseload. In theory a Spokesperson could be held accountable if a criminal approved for release re-offended. As a result Spokespersons had the legal authority to declare a criminal "not ready for release" although in practice postponing a release date was not common.

Dukov and Tatiana went to the basement of the Central Police Station to retrieve Kim's backpack, which was dusty and smelled strange from having sat on a shelf for two years. He retrieved the plastic bags containing the jewelry and clothes she had been wearing on the day of her arrest. Finally the Spokesman retrieved his client's U.S. passport and had one of his brother's couriers take it over to the Danubian Ministry of Foreign Relations for a "transition visa" stamp. The stamp stipulated that as long as Criminal # 98945 held her job at the music store, she could continue to live in Upper Danubia as a legal resident. As soon as she quit her job, her visa would become a simple 30-day tourist visa, with the expectation she be out of the country before the visa expired.

Dukov studied Kim's passport picture, which had been taken about six months before her fateful trip to Europe. He marveled at the change, at how different she must have been when she was still in high school. He looked at the other stamps, noting the two-year-old exit stamp from the Netherlands on July 1 and the entry stamp issued on July 2 to enter the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. There was a third stamp, issued July 5 by the Danubian Ministry of Justice, indicating Criminal # 98945 was prohibited from leaving Danube City for two years and that her passport would be returned to her Spokesman upon completion of her sentence. Dukov initialed and dated that final stamp, to indicate he now had possession of Kim's passport pending her release.

Cynthia Lee pled with her parents to accompany her to witness Kim's release from her sentence, trying to explain what a big event in her sister's life her final court appearance would be. However, the Lees wanted nothing to do with Upper Danubia, in spite of their daughter's troubled life prior to her trip and her Spokesman's kindness to her during her sentence. Certainly they did not want to see Kim anytime before she was allowed to get dressed. Once she was properly dressed, well, then it would be a different matter. However, the Lees still did not see the point in traveling to Upper Danubia, given that Kim was coming back to the US just a couple of days after her release.

Finally Cindy boarded a flight to Frankfurt by herself, filled with regret her parents could not understand the momentous importance Kim's release would have in her life. The ceremony that ended her sentence would mark her official redemption, the chance for her to apply all of the hard lessons learned over the past two years to the decisions she would make throughout her future. At least Cindy understood. Her sister's support was something that Kim would appreciate for many years to come.

Cynthia Lee arrived in Danube City the final day of June. As before, Spokesman Vladim Dukov was at the airport to greet her, since his client still could not travel outside the Danube City collar-zone. However, the following week, when it was time for Cindy to leave, Kim would be going with her. They would fly out first-class, courtesy of their band's music company.

Once again Kim's sister would stay a hotel near the Central Plaza, to be within walking distance of the Central Courthouse and Dukov's office.

Cindy met up with Kim and Eloisa as they got off work at the music store. The store had changed now that several of the bands its owner had sponsored were becoming successful. The adjacent building had been converted to a contracting office for aspiring groups of musicians and was very busy. The store itself was much busier than it had been the previous year with foreign music fans and tourists, with more employees and an even wider selection of music.

Cindy had dinner with Kim and Eloisa at Sergekt's restaurant. Eloisa then departed with her fiancée, leaving Kim and Cindy alone. Kim decided to take Cindy to the Temple of the Ancients, and then to the spot where all her trouble had begun, now almost exactly two years before.

The two Americans sat on the same bench where Criminal # 98945 had sat smoking her joint, and where she had endured two very fateful encounters with Officer Malka Chorno. They sat quietly in the late afternoon shade as Kim tried to think of something she could tell her sister, something that would best explain who she had become during her two year sentence.  She decided to tell her sister the story of Officer Malka Chorno. She went into graphic description about her arrest then continued with the ugly encounter in this same spot the following year and its result. She had a hard time making Cindy understand the strange relationship she had with Malka Chorno following the police officer's conviction, the difficult efforts of the two women to come to terms with each other, and the ex-cop's genuine efforts to come to terms with herself and her flaws. Kim concluded:

"I guess we've all had to figure out who we really are. Me, Eloisa, Spokesman Dukov, Malka Chorno, and maybe even you. I can tell you that I really didn't know who I was two years ago... never really gave it much thought. I still really don't know who I am, but maybe I'm a bit closer to figuring it out."

Cindy sat silent and lost in thought for a while. Kim's sister changed the subject. "You know, I bet it's going to be really hard for you to go back next week... maybe more than you realize... I mean, see our old high school, Mom and Dad, your teachers... you know, everyone who knew you before you came here."

"I know that. I know it's gonna be hard for me stay focused on what I really want from my life."

"What do you want from life, Kim? I mean... it seems that you've sort of found yourself, here in this country. I can tell you this is the weirdest place I've ever been to, but you really seem to fit in. So, this is it? This is where you want to end up?"

"I think so. Spokesman Dukov wants me to take his place and represent all the foreigners he thinks will wind up in trouble, once we get a bunch of new tourists, Eloisa wants me to sing with her, and Sergekt wants me to marry him. So, that'll be my life, the path of my existence, as they say it here."

"But is it what you want?"

"I don't think that's the right way to put it, Cindy. This isn't what I want; it's what I've become. It's what I am. It's what life has turned me into. Take me out of here, put me somewhere else, and what do you think I'd have left? What do you think I'd be?"

"I guess we figured that out last year... it wouldn't be all that much."

"And that was last year... I've had another year here since then, and another year away from home. This is my life, here in Upper Danubia."

Cindy's own feelings were in turmoil, over some very old issues standing between her and Kim, ones that went way back. During Cindy's previous two trips to Upper Danubia Kim had made several hard confessions to her sister. Now it was Cindy's turn to come clean with Kim. She felt pushed from the inside to talk, almost against her will. Cindy buried her hands in her hair and leaned forward. She spoke without looking up. "Kim, I... we.... uh, well... you know that up until the time you got arrested, and even a bit afterwards, I always kind of... I don't want to admit this... I hated you... ever since we were little kids. That's something I realized last fall, and I realized it only when my feelings towards you changed. I realized I hated you all my life, and now I feel really bad about that."

"You were jealous because Mom and Dad always paid more attention to me than you?"

"Yeah. Ever since you were born, it was like you got everything and there was nothing left over for me. It was always 'Kim's younger than you and... Kim needs this and Kim needs that...' I always thought that if I was the good one, the one with the good grades and the one who never caused any problems, that over time Mom and Dad would love me. But you were the one who always got all the attention. It's like... it was all about you, and you were totally messed up, and... Mom and Dad couldn't see anything wrong with you. Not until... your trip. Then everything changed..."

Cindy sat silent, still staring at the ground. She was nerving herself for what she had to say next. Kim thought she knew what was coming...

"And so you were glad when I got arrested?"

"Yeah, Kim. I was glad. I hate to admit it, but at the time I felt real good about that. Mom, and especially Dad, I mean... they were totally devastated about your pot-smoking. And then, later that summer, when they found about your grades in school, I mean... the grades you really got, when all those college rejections started coming back because of your GPA... I loved it, watching their illusions about you fall apart. I felt like I was getting even for all the crap I put up with when we were growing up."

Kim sat quietly for a long time. It seemed that every time she sat in this spot something awful always happened. Cindy's confession frightened her. Kim forced herself to speak.
"So... why the three trips to Danube City if you hate me so much?"

"Because I don't hate you anymore, not now. A lot of what happened between us wasn't your fault, and that's what I came to realize a few months after you got arrested. Now it seems like... I'm the family's 'good girl' and you're not... and that's not right either. It's not right that either of us be 'the good one' or 'the bad one'."

Cindy again sat silent for a while, and then continued. "I'm telling you all this because... I realized that whatever happens between you, me, Mom, and Dad, I want to have my own relationship with you, on my terms, not anyone else's. I don't want you to be 'good' or 'bad' in my life. I just want you to be happy, I want to love you, and I want you to be my family. I want to appreciate you for who you are, not for what anyone else wants you to be. We have the rest of our lives, maybe 60 years, ahead of us, and I want you as part of my life. That would mean a lot to me. And that's what I started to realize when I came here at the beginning of last year. That's why I kept coming back, simply because I wanted to see how you were doing and because wanted to be with you. It wasn't because of anything Dad wanted... not really."

Kim bit her lip and nodded, overcome with the emotion of the moment. She felt, for the first time in her life, that she was destined to have a real relationship with her sister. They would live on different continents and would have to travel to make their changed relationship work, but Cindy suddenly had become an important and appreciated part of Kim's life. As Cindy had said, the two women had at least 60 years to set things right with each other.

Kim and Cindy stood up and hugged each other hard, on that Sacred Ground behind the Danubian Temple of the Ancients. Criminal # 98945's conversation with her sister was the final, and the most important, act of redemption she would experience as a result of her two-year sentence.

The night of July 1 was the final night Kim and her friends went to the Socrates Club as criminals. Kim and Eloisa went with Cindy, who entered the club wearing a simple sundress she could slip over her head as soon as she was inside. Once she was in compliance with the Club's dress code, Cindy sat among a couple of Sergekt's friends and started flirting with them, as Kim and Sergekt spent the night eating, dancing, and socializing.

That night there was no singing or performing from any member of "Socrates' Mistresses". The participation of Eloisa and her friends in the Club's creative efforts had ended. Tonight was a night for Eloisa's friends to simply relax and enjoy their final evening together as criminals. There were other performers on stage, and more recently sentenced criminals discussing their feelings about their punishments. Life was moving on. Now it was the time for others to read their thoughts, write songs, and perform for their friends.

As she danced with Sergekt, Kim looked nostalgically at the row of tables where she and her friends had sat evening after evening over the past two years. Within a couple of days the tables would be re-arranged to accommodate the fact that Eloisa and her defenders had graduated from the clientele of the Socrates Club. Kim's friends would be able to come back any time they wanted, but it wouldn't be the same. They would be coming in as guests and outsiders, not as criminals and members in full-standing. Kim found it odd thinking about how much she would miss some aspects of her life as a convicted criminal, realizing the loss of the Socrates Club and its supportive environment would leave a huge gap in her existence.

Kim's final full day as a Danubian criminal passed very quietly. It was the custom in Upper Danubia that a criminal spend the final day of his or her sentence with family, in quiet contemplation, or at church. Kim knew that Sergekt would be at church with his family, as would most of the other members of Eloisa's band. Kim and Cindy, somewhat less religious, spent the day picnicking with the Dukovs at a nearby park, along with Vladik's fiancée and her younger brother. It was a very quiet and anti-climactic end to Criminal # 98945's sentence, but everyone wanted to be well rested for the de-collaring ceremony the following day.

The next day was Monday, July 3rd. Kim woke up in her sister's hotel room after an excellent night's sleep. She had expected to pass the night in restless anticipation, but the quiet picnic from the day before put her in a relaxed mood, as did the familiar presence of Cindy.

The two sisters had a light breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then walked to the Central Courthouse. The sun already was shining hot on Kim's exposed body. In spite of the happiness she felt over having her sentence finally end, she felt slight regret over not being able to enjoy her body uncovered outside in the hot weather anymore, except when she went to the beach or relaxed in Dukov's backyard. At her job at the music store Kim would continue to work in the nude, but the morning's walk to the courthouse would be her last appearance without clothing on Danube City's streets.

Kim and Cindy met up with Dukov and his family at his office, and then the group walked across the Central Plaza to the Central Courthouse. A large group of naked criminals and their relatives already were assembled in front of the main door, waiting for the call to line up and go inside. The relatives snapped numerous pictures of the group, and group members took pictures of each other. As always, the whole affair had the general mood of a graduation ceremony, which in a way it was.

Cindy took several pictures of Kim: by herself, with the Dukovs, with Sergekt and Eloisa, and with her fellow singers from "Socrates' Mistresses".

Spokesman Havlakt finally arrived with three workmen carrying 29 packages of clothing. He was in a very upbeat mood, very happy to see the sentences of his 28 clients, along with their added friend Kimberly Lee, finally concluded. He also was looking forward to finally being able to retire, three years later than he originally had planned.

The workers carried the packages inside while the two Spokesmen whistled loudly to get their clients to separate from their families and form a line to go inside. The relatives then quickly passed through the door and filed into the courtroom to take their seats in the public viewing area.

The 29 criminals formed a line as requested, with the women in front. They waited in silence for a minute or so, until they heard the trumpet blast from inside the courtroom. Kim and her friends filed in, 9 women and 20 men. They knelt and put their heads to the carpet, for the last time of their lives. The trumpeter blew again.

"Doc-doc Danube!"

The entire room put their right hands to their left shoulders, except for the 29 criminals in the front of the room. Kim and her friends remained kneeling, but they did not need to keep their heads pressed to the floor. Today was their day, the ceremony was being held for them, so the court expected them to kneel upright to be able to watch what was going on.

Vladim Dukov and Spokesman Havlakt came forward. They saluted the judge, who saluted back.

The judge asked the Spokesmen if each of the criminals under their authority had completed their sentences and whether or not they were ready to assume the rights and responsibilities of a free citizen. He asked the same question to Spokesman Havlakt eight times for each of the women in his custody. Then Kim heard the question addressed to Vladim Dukov: "Spokesman Dukov, this court wishes to know if you consider Criminal # 98945, the American Kimberly Annette Lee, ready to assume the rights and duties of a free citizen."

Dukov replied with a very loud "Doc!"

Kim's heart raced with anticipation. The question and the answer from her Spokesman legally ended her sentence. The question had to be repeated 20 more times for the guys. Sergekt's name came up 10th on the list, while Dima, the leader of the group and the main instigator of the unlawful actions that lead to the sentences, was the last one whose sentence was ended.

As he did for all de-collaring ceremonies, the judge then gave a brief speech about the transition from criminal to free citizen and the significance of reform and a new start in life.

The next part of the ceremony was the actual de-collaring of the Criminal # 98945 and her friends. Vladim Dukov signaled to his former client to get up and to have her collar removed first. Kim got up and knelt in front of a short metal post slightly less than a meter high. The post had handles on it for the criminal to hang on to. The collar technician ordered Kim to grab the handles and hold herself steady. The post had a metal loop near the top to hold the collar extractor in place while it was being operated.

The technician closed the imposing-looking device around Kim's neck and closed several latches on her collar.

"Hold your breath and don't move."

The former criminal felt a slight jolt and heard the distinct crack of metal snapping. The collar technician had shot the firing pin into the latch of her collar to break it. He then pushed the extractor's levers apart and opened the collar. A second later Kim's collar was off. For the first time in two years she felt the cool air of the courtroom against the lower part of her neck.

The technician removed the transmitter from Kim's collar and handed it back to her.

"Congratulations. You're free."

With that Kim returned to her place in line, but as previously instructed, she stood, not knelt. Eloisa was next, and within a minute was back in line, standing next to Kim. The two friends stood at attention as the other members of the group stepped forward to get their collars off. It took nearly half an hour to get through the entire group, but Kim was not rushed. The American wanted to savor every moment, to hear the satisfying "crack" of the firing pin as it broke one collar latch after another.

The two Spokesmen then carried bundles of clothing to the line of ex-clients. Each bundle had its owner's criminal number on it and was color-coded by sex, white for women and beige for men. Dukov walked up to Kim with her bundle and smiled at her as he set it at her feet.

"This court authorizes you, as free citizens, to get dressed."

Kim opened her package and pulled out its contents. There was a traditional Danubian dress and a pair of women's sandals. She quickly slipped the dress over her head and bent down to put on the sandals. Then she looked over at Sergekt, who was adjusting his tunic and putting on a pair of traditional leather boots.

The two Spokesmen took their positions in front of the group. They exchanged glances and simultaneously saluted, putting their fists against their right shoulders. The group saluted back.

The judge spoke next. "People of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia, this court presents to you 29 persons who have earned the right to rejoin our community as free citizens."

Kim and her friends then turned around to present themselves to the Danubian nation. They held their collars up for the world to see they were indeed now free citizens. The room exploded into very loud cheering from the relatives of the 29 criminals. Kim only had one relative present, but Cindy was cheering, clapping, and making as much noise as possible.

It was over. Really, truly over. The emotion overwhelmed most of the members of the group, both men and women. Eloisa was crying, as she struggled to keep her collar held high in the air for her family to see.

I won't cry, Kim thought to herself. I won't cry. Even as that promise repeated itself over and over in Kim's mind, tears rolled down her cheeks.

Kim and her friends were done with their de-collaring ceremony by 11:30. The celebratory atmosphere outside the courthouse continued for a while, as the families continued to take pictures of their newly-freed relatives, and as Kim's friends took dozens of group pictures, now dressed in their official formal clothing. Finally, however, the picture taking wound down and the crowd began to diminish as its participants began to bid the others goodbye and drift away. Within an hour the majority of the group had departed the Central Plaza with their families, including Eloisa and the rest of her band members. Eloisa hugged Kim hard and departed, along with her long-suffering fiancée and their respective families.

Only Sergekt and his relatives remained behind, to accompany the Dukovs and Cynthia Lee back to their house for a family celebration. As she watched the others depart, Kim wondered if the entire group ever would be completely together again. The friendships would remain, as well as the still-growing career of "Socrates' Mistresses", but would all of Sergket's friends ever sit together in one place again?

Tuko, for example, quickly would disappear from their lives for a full year. He had been accepted to attend the National Police Academy and faced 12-months of very intense training. He would leave the Academy wearing Malka Chorno's badge and a blue uniform. He would carry a service revolver, wield a switch, and have a female partner. He would come out of training a very different person than he was now. Kim wasn't sure if she would still like him once he was a police officer.

The two families celebrated at Dukov's house, on large tables loaded with fancy food that had been set up in Dukov's back yard. It was a chance for the Dukovs and Sergekt's relatives to get to know each other better, and for Cindy to have a good look at her future in-laws. Kim and Sergekt confirmed their plans to get married in October, on or around Kim's 21st birthday. They stood arm-in-arm as the made the announcement, to much cheering and toasting. The party thus became not only a celebration of the end of their sentences, but also the public announcement of Sergekt's plans to marry Kim. With Sergekt's announcement Cindy found herself committed to yet another trip to Danube City in the fall, to attend her sister's wedding.

Although she officially was free, Kim spent the next day wrapping up some final details of her sentence. She went downtown wearing one of the sundresses that was in fashion that year. The dress was made of very light material, but Kim felt somewhat uncomfortable, still having to get used to the feel of cloth covering her body after two years of wearing nothing.

Dukov called his ex-client into his office to return her passport with the new "transition visa". Kim got her musty-smelling backpack back, along with plastic bags of clothes and jewelry. Dukov held up the T-shirt with the marijuana emblem and asked her if she planned to keep it.

"Yes, Spokesman Dukov, I'll keep it. What I want to do with it is hang it in my office with my collar... to show people who I really am and who I used to be." Kim then smiled. "But don't worry, sir. I don't plan to wear it around Danube City. I think my days of wearing marijuana leaves are past me. If I wore that everyone really would call me 'Maragana Girl'."

The final detail was a post-release mug shot in the police booking room for Kimberly Lee's now closed police file. The words "Criminal # 98945" at the bottom of the closing photo had a line through the letters to indicate Kim's criminal number had been retired from the Danubian judicial system.

Kim and Cindy worked out the final details of their trip to the United States with Eloisa's recording company. In exchange for a first-class flight Kim agreed to grant three interviews, one to a leading popular music magazine and the others to television stations doing features on Danubian music. Kim planned to spend the rest of the time trying to repair her relationship with her parents and visiting her hometown.

The two sisters left that following Saturday, on a "Griffin Airlines" flight to Frankfurt, where they would change flights to go on to the US. From the trolley window Kim watched as she passed the yellow sign marking the edge of the Danube City collar zone, and within a few minutes she and Cindy were at the small and rather primitive King Vladik International Airport.

An hour later, Kim and Cindy walked across the tarmac to the plane, which, like every other large object in Danube City, had a huge griffin painted on it. Once airborne, Kim stared out the window at the strange little country that had so completely refocused her life. The plane rose above Danube City and then banked west through the clouds to make its way to Frankfurt.

Chapter 23 -- "Willow"

Kimberly Annette Lee's homecoming turned out to be every bit as painful as her sister had feared. Kim did not bother to bring up staying at her old room in her parents' house; she instinctively knew it would be better to stay at Cindy's apartment.

Now that her sentence was over, the older issues poisoning Kim's relationship with her parents resurfaced, especially the endless deceptions she had inflicted on her family throughout her adolescence to spend time with two friends who turned out to be totally worthless. The Lees did not feel comfortable lecturing her or treating her in a condescending manner, however. Their wayward daughter obviously had matured in Upper Danubia. She thought and spoke like a person much older than her current age of 20. What most surprised them was how determined she was about details of her life; her marriage, her music, and the odd idea that she wanted to become a Danubian defense attorney.

Kim's parents instead treated her with a cold tolerance, none too happy about the fact she only planned to stay in the US for two weeks before going back to Upper Danubia. Kim's braided hair and foreign appearance bothered them, as did her radically changed personality and constant use of Danubian expressions such as "the path of my life", "it is a question of honor", "proper protocol", "damaged soul", and "the Ancients have guided me". To the elder Lees, their daughter had become a complete stranger, and on top of everything else, just plain weird.

Besides her strained and tense get-togethers with her parents, Kim spent much of her time trying to readjust to the United States. She was very uneasy during her trip and a bit dismayed at the fast pace of life and the over-all appearance of a society completely oriented around consumerism and automobiles. The crowded smoky streets bothered her, as did the enormous dirty parking lots, ever-present fluorescent lighting, the public's constant rushing, and overwhelming amount of cheaply-made products in stores and people's houses.

What bothered Kim the most, however, was the constant noise. Noise was everywhere, as though the entire nation was afraid of a few minutes of silence. Kim, after having been out of the US for two years, winced at the ever-present assault on her ears.

The three interviews went well. Kimberly Lee tried to set the record straight over who was the real inspiration for most of her group's music by trying to give as much credit to Eloisa as possible. Many US fans of "Socrates' Mistresses" had assumed Kim was the band's lead singer, because she was the band's English voice. Kim used the interviews to give US viewers a much more accurate idea of what her group really was all about.

Cindy accompanied her sister around her hometown as she confronted the ghosts of her past. Kim understood that her life in the US was truly over. As Cindy had warned the previous year, all of Kim's old friends from high school were scattered. The luckier ones had gone out of state to college, but most had drifted into obscurity. Two friends from her past, including an ex-boyfriend, were in jail. Kim's first week back in the US ended with a painful jailhouse visit to her former high school boyfriend, and a visit to the parents of another friend who overdosed about two months after she left for Europe. Everyone Kim talked to mentioned her how great she looked.

Kim's hardest encounter with her past came at the beginning of her second week, when she decided to visit to her old high school with Cindy. She talked to a couple of her teachers who happened to be giving school classes, and gave much needed apologies for some of her behavior. Kim then went around to a spot behind the gym where she had spent endless hours with Tiffany and Susan. Cindy stood in nervous silence as her sister sat down in her favorite old hang-out spot, just staring at the pavement and not saying anything.

As Kim silently sat contemplating her past, a tall, lanky teenager with a rather punkish appearance and reeking of cigarette smoke showed up. She jumped to her feet and hugged him. It was Joe Walker, Tiffany's younger brother. He heaved a sigh of relief.

"Hey, Kimmie, real glad to see ya... The guys said you were back... and fuckin' Jones just told me you were here at school... just got out of class... glad I got ya while you're still here."

Kim smiled slightly. "You're in summer school?"

"Yeah... fucked up the year again. What else is new?"

Cindy, who never really liked either Joe or his sister, excused herself, claiming she had to go to the bathroom. Cindy's departure left Kim alone with her former best friend's younger brother. She felt very uncomfortable, but at least one huge question in her life was about to be answered, what happened to Tiffany? She gathered from Joe's comments that he actually had been looking for her, which struck her as rather odd.

Kim decided to give her companion an update on her life with a very abbreviated and censored version of her sentence in Upper Danubia. She informed Joe she had just been released, and pointed to the tan-line from her collar that still was visible around her neck. She didn't mention the fact she had been nude during her entire sentence, hoping Joe was ignorant enough about foreign places that he didn't know that detail about Upper Danubia. It turned out he didn't know anything about Upper Danubia, nor had Tiffany been eager to share any details about her disastrous trip to Europe when she returned home.

"Ya know, when she got back, she didn't talk. People said a lot of shit to Tiff because of you and Susie... ya know... how she took two friends to Europe and came back solo...I don't know... She's pretty fucked right now... has been for two years... I think the trip did it."

"When you say Tiff's 'fucked', what do you mean by that? What's she actually doing?"

"What ain't she doin', Kimmie? She's doin' just about everything... weed, smack, 'K', blow, crank... I think now it's mostly crank, 'cause of her boyfriend."

"That's it? Just drugs?"

"That's it, Kimmie. Drugs. That's all she's doin'. Says she ain't no good for anything else."

"Where's she getting the money?"

"How do you think she's gettin' it? She's dancin' over at Dirty Grampy's. Strippin' and, well... ya know... gettin' paid..."

"Shit. And it's all going for drugs?"

"All of it, Kimmie. Drugs and that fuck, Raymond. That's her boyfriend. She ain't got shit for anything else."

"And that's why you were looking for me? To tell me this?"

"Kimmie, I was lookin' for ya... 'cause... I don't know... I thought maybe you could talk to her... make her feel better... maybe tell her you're not mad or something... you know... about Europe."

"Joe, I can't tell her I'm not mad, because I am. I'm fucking furious at her. Do you know what it felt like, when I was in that courtroom on trial, and my defense attorney told me what Tiff told the police, that the pot she bought was all mine and that she didn't know about it? That she lied to ditch me? Do you have any idea how that felt? Because of what Tiff told them, they were gonna hit me with a 20-year sentence, and it was Spokesman Dukov who talked them out of it. No, Joe... I'm mad, and Tiff's gonna know it. But... then... I guess I'll try to talk to her, and I suppose maybe I can do something for her."

Joe was a bit stunned at Kim's last statement. "20 years? For what?"

"For dealing. The Danubians don't like drugs. You want to piss-off their government the best way to do it is have drugs on you. I had a full pound of pot on me, and they thought I was dealing."

Kim decided to have Joe take her to Dirty Grampy's that night, along with Cindy. She called Cindy on her cell phone and told her to come back. An hour later the two women and Tiffany's brother made their way to the strip bar.

Dirty Grampy's was a juice bar, which allowed Kim, who was 20, and Joe, who had just turned 18, to go in. Cindy already was 23, so there was no problem for her. Joe was a bit reluctant having Kim see Tiffany at her current job. Kim, however, went in with the confidence that she knew exactly what she needed to do. She still was furious at Tiffany, but now she also was mulling over ideas with the hope of salvaging her life.

They entered as several scruffy middle-aged patrons turned around to see the two women's fresh faces. Kim and Cindy obviously were not dancers, nor did either seem a likely partner for Joe. The European-style braids made Kim really look out of place in Dirty Grampy's. Cindy obviously was out of her environment as well, with the clean-cut look of a serious graduate student.

Kim handed Joe two 20-dollar bills. "Get me some singles."


"I want singles. That's what you tip the dancers with, isn't it?"

Joe returned with a stack of one-dollar bills. Kim took them and sat at a barstool right next to the stage while the other two ordered smoothies and sat at a table a little further away. She watched the routine of a rather wasted-looking young Asian, who she thought looked eerily like herself. The girl ended her routine completely nude. Kim passed the dancer a few dollars to get her to do a sexual routine close up, to learn what the dancers actually had to do for their tips. Kim's companions were surprised to see her tip a stripper for a dance, but what she did next would shock them much more.

It turned out Tiffany was the next performer. Her stage name was "Willow", because she was so tall and thin. Kim watched in anger and disgust as Tiffany moved about the stage and peeled off her clothes. Once Tiffany had stripped down to a loose blouse and G-string, Kim pulled out two dollars and held them up. The flash of money drew Tiffany's attention, but as her glance met the face of the young woman holding up the cash, the dancer froze in horror.

Kim's dark, angry eyes bore into Tiffany. She waved the cash. "Willow, it's a tip. Please show me what you do for tips. I tip very well, but I expect value for my money."

Tiffany went white, but the club DJ and several patrons were looking at her, expecting her to put out the usual reward for hard cash. She had no choice. The dancer got on her knees and began waving her bottom in Kim's face. Kim slipped the money into Tiffany's G-string and then held up two more dollars. Once again the cold stare of Kim's dark eyes confronted Tiffany.

"Show me what you got... Willow."

Reluctantly Tiffany peeled off her blouse and flashed her breasts in front of her former friend. Kim took a look the dancer's arms, noting the needle-tracks. Kim held out yet more dollar bills, touching them to Tiffany's scarred arms. Yet again, Kim's cold, hostile stare tore into Tiffany as their eyes met.

The dancer reluctantly pulled down her G-string and slipped it over her feet. Kim showed her no mercy. She held up five dollars as the other patrons and the club DJ stared intently, wondering why a young woman was shelling out so much just to catch a few close up glances of Willow's body. With tears flowing down her cheeks, Tiffany spread her legs and waved her bare vagina in Kim's face. Her spectator's next comment was sarcasm in its purist form.

"Willow, you are so hot. I wish you could dance like this for me all night."

"Willow" couldn't see how she could be any more humiliated, but she was forced to face yet another indignity when the third song of her routine was played. The song was a slow piece by "Socrates' Mistresses" from the soundtrack of the recently released Gaul movie. As Kim listened to her own voice singing along with Eloisa, her lips tightened and her eyes flashed with anger. She held up dollar after dollar as she forced Tiffany to completely degrade herself throughout the final song.

Joe sat next to Kim's sister, silently looking into his glass. He was very afraid of meeting his sister's gaze or having her realize he was sitting in the audience. Cindy stared hard at the young woman on the stage, very curious to watch the infamous false friend who had landed Kim into so much trouble in Danube City.

The Danubian song ended and Tiffany, holding 30 of Kim's dollars in her hand, sadly collected her clothing and left the dance stage. There were a few whistles, sex-whoops, and some half-hearted clapping from the guys in the room.

Kim's moment of revenge had passed. There was no way, none whatsoever, that she could have found a better way to completely stun and humiliate Tiffany. Kim's idea was to first break her former friend, and then get her to talk. Once Tiffany was talking, she could try to figure out what to do next, with the ultimate hope to find some way to help her. The dance-floor encounter had its place in that plan. Kim could tell Tiffany was indeed broken and had nothing left to hide. Also, she now felt completely in control of the relationship.

Tiffany retreated to the dancers' changing room in shock over what had just happened. She had not known Kim even had been released, let alone that she was back in the US. Tiffany was as amazed seeing her as she would have been seeing someone she thought was dead. Finally, the drugs in her body, combined with the horrible experience she had just endured on the dance stage, made her sick enough to throw up in the bathroom. Once she finished, Tiffany tossed Kim's money all over the floor and began crying.

As soon as Tiffany left the stage, Kim got up to join the others at their table. Cindy was stunned at her treatment of Tiffany, while Joe was incensed. "You fuckin' bitch! What the fuck... what'd you do that for!?"

Kim stared at Joe with a cold calmness that somewhat disarmed him. "Joe, you will not call me a 'bitch' if you want me to do anything for Tiffany. I did that for a reason, so that when I talk to her she won't try to bullshit me. And besides, what did I actually do? I paid her to do her job, Joe; that's all I did! I just paid her to do her fucking job!"

Before Joe had a chance to respond, Kim stopped a waitress and passed her a five-dollar bill. She told the waitress she wanted to buy a drink for "Willow". She passed the waitress some more money for the club's very over-priced smoothies. The waitress took off to bring the smoothies and summon her co-worker. Kim then turned to her two companions.

"OK, I'm going to try to talk to Tiffany. I need you guys out of here. Go next door and get something to eat. I'll catch up as soon as I'm done."

Joe quickly got up, eager to leave before Tiffany had a chance to see him. Kim's sister also got up quickly, having no desire to stay in this awful place any longer than she needed to.

As Kim's companions vanished through the door, the waitress came back with Tiffany and the drinks. Kim handed the waitress another five-dollar bill, mainly to make sure the waitress stayed on her side if there were any problems.

Tiffany was dressed in her G-string and skimpy top. She looked wasted, but still was rather attractive. Her breath smelled of toothpaste and a hint of vomit. This was not the first time she had cried and thrown up but still had to face a customer.

The last thing Tiffany wanted to do was to see or sit with Kim. However, the drink on the table signaled that her high school friend had purchased 10 minutes of her time. Over the last year she’d sat with plenty of unsavory people and with some of them negotiated an hour in the cheap motel across the street. In this place the only real language was money, and Kimberly Lee spoke that language quite well.

As soon as Tiffany was seated, Kim's temper rose up in her. Suddenly the memory of that moment, in the middle of her trial when Dukov told her, "The most important witnesses are missing, your two friends. It is quite unfair you should go on trial and they should not." Unfair. For a second her emotions took over and she forgot the main reason why she had Tiffany sitting with her. She angrily leaned forward, tilted her head to the side, and pointed at her neck. The tan-line from her collar had darkened a bit, but still was somewhat visible. Again her dark eyes bore into Tiffany.

"OK, Willow. Ask me what this is! Ask me why I have a white stripe around my neck! Ask me where I've been and what I've been doing over the last two years! Come on... Willow... ask me! Then I've got some questions for you!"

"I... I know the answer... I don't have to ask you... 'cause I know. You were in Danube City all this time. They busted you because of me."

Kim calmed down slightly, a bit ashamed of her outburst. She took a deep breath and tried to focus. "Tiff, what I want you to understand is that I'm not mad about the conviction itself. That would have happened no matter what. What really hurt me was what you told the police. And I'm going to tell you how I found out about it. It was in the middle of my trial, when I asked my Spokesman what was going on, you know, 'cause I didn't understand anything that was happening. And that's when he told me... that you two had been released and gone to Prague. Then he told me why."

Tiffany sat silent, staring into her smoothie. Kim continued with a question.  "Tiff, I want to know, for real, whose idea it was for you two to play dumb about our stash."

"It was my idea. At first Susan felt bad about doing that to you, but I talked her into it. I mean, we were scared, Kim, both of us. We panicked."

"You panicked. And how scared do you think I was, standing there by myself in court the next day, naked, up on the prisoner's stand, facing the judge with my arms behind my head and four spotlights shining on me? How scared do you think I was when Spokesman Dukov told me you two had left and that I was facing 20 years... 20 years, Tiff... for marijuana dealing? How scared do you think I was?"

"I'm sorry Kim. I don't know what else to say. I'm sorry."

Tiffany reluctantly sipped her smoothie. She looked like she was going to be sick again, but she forced herself to talk. "If I could go back and take your place I would... and maybe I'd be better off. Maybe that's what should have happened, and if I'd told the truth, it would've been me in that courtroom and you and Susan would have left and come home. And... Susan would have come back. It was because of me she didn't. Maybe life is punishing me 'cause of what I did. Maybe..."

"OK, that's my other question. What happened to Susan?"

"When we got to Prague, she just wanted to get on a plane and come home, and maybe try to get you some help. I... I don't know Kim. I knew you were fucked, and I... just... didn't give a shit. So, I hooked up with some local guys, and we partied while Susan sat in the hostel by herself. The next day she told me to go fuck myself and that she was going home, and we had a big fight. Then I... grabbed her plane ticket and told her she wasn't going anywhere unless she partied with me one more night, you know, 'cause I didn't want to be alone with those guys. So she came with me, and we shot up... and then we all got sick."

"I know about that part. Spokesman Dukov told me about it in his office, after my mom sent him Susan's obituary. Hepatitis?"


The waitress came by, looking at Tiffany and tapping her watch. Before Tiffany could say anything, Kim handed the waitress a 20-dollar bill to shut her up.

"Tiff, I gotta talk to you after you get off work. We gotta sit down some place quiet and we gotta talk."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Raymond wouldn't let me. As soon as I get off work he's here to pick me up and he doesn't let me out of his sight unless I'm here or across the street with a customer."

"Yeah, your brother mentioned Raymond. You really did fuck up your life, didn't you?"

Kim shook her head at the thought of Tiffany's abusive boyfriend. Obviously Raymond wanted to prevent precisely what was happening right now, the possibility that someone could enter Tiffany's life, get her to talk about herself, and get her to think about her alternatives. Kim realized it was vital to keep Tiffany talking. She decided to purchase some more of Tiffany's time. "How much do you charge?"


"I want you to myself, for an hour. How much is it? You and the room... how much?"

"300 dollars."

"OK, Tiff, I'll hit the ATM. For the next hour, your ass is mine."

Kim felt driven to talk to Tiffany, as though some force were pushing her from within. What she was doing made no sense whatsoever, to drop $ 300 that would either fuel her friend's drug habit or go to Raymond, but she was desperate to have an hour of uninterrupted time with Tiffany.

She called Cindy and explained she would be with Tiffany the next hour. She told her sister to take Joe home, and then come back to pick her up. With the cash in her hand and the other members of her group dismissed, Kim prepared to cross the street with her former best friend.

For the next hour the two women brought each other up to date on their respective lives. They both realized something extremely important, that over the last two years Kim, while serving her sentence, actually had enjoyed far more freedom than Tiffany, who had never been arrested. Kim, the one who had been arrested, faced a fulfilling and interesting future, even if it was a future that cut her off from her past.

Tiffany, on the other hand, had spent a horrible two years, first recovering from her bout with hepatitis, then facing the ire of both the Lees and the Taylors, then drifting and getting high, and finally her somewhat more settled life dancing at Dirty Grampy's and servicing the club's customers. Kim's friend, between the torment of her chemical dependency and Raymond, led a grueling and horribly restricted life. She was in continuous discomfort from the drugs or withdrawal, exhausted from her work schedule, and living in constant fear of Raymond's paranoia and his tweaking from meth. Kim sat dumbfounded as Tiffany described one squalid event in her life after another.

"I don't know...  I'm just... such a waste. You know... I did OK in school, better than you for sure... could've gone to college, but... look at me. I probably won't see my 30th birthday even... I'll probably O.D., or get AIDS, or get stuck long before that."

"Tiff, I'm curious, from something you just said. Do you think you'd have been better off if you'd gotten sentenced in Danube City?"

"I know that for a fact. I mean... look at you. You're clean. You look good, I mean... really good, like you've been at the gym. You got your friends and your singing and your Spokesman, I mean you've got a really great life. Kim... I mean... just to be clean, to not think about your next hit, I'd go back just for that."

"You'd go back to Upper Danubia?"

"If it'd get me out of this shit life of mine, yeah, I'd go back. I'd give anything to exchange my last two years for the ones you had."

The image of Tiffany on trial in the Central Courthouse of Danube City flashed through Kim's mind, as did the comment from Dukov. That's it! She realized there was one place Tiffany could flee to, one place where she could kick her drug habit. If Tiffany were to travel to Danube City and live under the restrictions of a convicted criminal, she would be forced to kick her addictions, because drugs were completely unavailable in the Danubian capitol. She could escape Raymond, and all the other horrible details of her current life.

"Tiff, I have a question for you. Do you want to live to see your 30th birthday? Live without drugs? Walk around in a clean place and have some people in your life who care about you? Have a real job? Maybe even a family? Is that what you want from life?"

Tiffany nodded.

"I can give that to you. It'll be very hard and you'll have a rough transition, but I can give you all that, if you really want it. I can give you your 30th birthday, if you want it bad enough."

"Kim, how... I'm totally fucked."

"Yes you are, but there's very little in life that can't be fixed. You don't have HIV, do you?"

"No, not yet, at any rate."

"Then you can just walk away from all this... just walk away."

"I can't. I tried and I can't."

"Well, I'm leaving for Upper Danubia in four days, and if you come with me, I can guarantee to get you off drugs. You won't have any choice. There's no drugs in Danube City, so no matter how hard it is for you, you'd be forced to get clean."

"But, I can't go back there. I'd get arrested."

"That's right, you would. You'd be arrested right at the airport, and I'd go with you down to the Central Police Station to have you booked and arraigned. After that I'd take you to the hospital, where you'd dry out and go through withdrawal. Once you're cleaned up, you'd go on trial, get a long sentence, and be restricted to Danube City for many years. And things between you and me would be very different from what you're used to. I'd hold legal custody over you. I'd be telling you what to do, and you'd better damn well do it. I won't be nice to you, because 'nice' isn't how you're going to turn your life around. But I can promise you something that I hope would make it worthwhile... your 30th birthday, in good health, and many more after that."

Tiffany said nothing.

"You'd have a lot of your choices in life taken away from you, but maybe that's been your problem, too many choices. Yeah, your life will be restricted, but what about now? How much freedom do you really have, right now?"

"I don't have any."

"Well, that's my offer. Spokesman Dukov has a lot of pull in the country 'cause he got his legislation passed, so I'm sure he can get you in. I'm warning you, though, it's gonna be rough."

Tiffany suddenly was very agitated, at the thought that she really did have a viable alternative to the life she had at the moment. Her hands shook slightly as she played with the hem of her blouse. "Would they whip my ass... like they did to you?"

"Yes. That's part of their whole justice system, the ass-whippings. How many you'd get would be worked out in your sentence."

Oddly enough, the last detail put Tiffany somewhat at ease. She hated herself and felt she needed to suffer. At the same time Kim was being up-front about the fact she was offering Tiffany a very restricted life. Life in Danube City would be hard, but it would be livable. Her current life was not livable. Just since the beginning of the year two of her coworkers had overdosed and another had been murdered by a customer. Tiffany knew full well she was living on borrowed time.

"Kim, if I go, can you forgive me for what I did?"

"I want to forgive you, Tiff. That's something I need to work out with myself, just like I had to work it out with that cop. I'd find it easier to forgive you if I knew you wanted to save yourself, if I knew you wanted to do something else with your life besides get high and support a tweaker. It's going to take me a while, but I think I can forgive you, if you put some effort from your end to make some changes in your life."

"When are you leaving?"

"I'm flying out Friday afternoon to Frankfurt. I'll be back in Danube City about noon on Saturday."

"I'm gonna be working Friday. That's my early shift."

"Well, that's perfect, if you want to come with me. I can simply come over here on the way to the airport and pick you up."

"But I can't come here with my suitcases, everyone will see."

"Tiff, there's no point in packing anything. You're not gonna need your clothes. Whatever pictures or whatnot you want just stick in your purse. Now, one more question, where's your passport?"

"I think my mom has it."

"Not Raymond?"

"No. My mom took my passport when I got back. If she didn't throw it out she still has it."

"Well, then I'll get it and hold on to it. So you're coming?"

Tiffany nodded.

"No, don't nod your head. I want to hear, out of your mouth, what's happening Friday."

"On Friday I'm coming to the club and wait for you. You're gonna pick me up and take me to Danube City."

"You're not going to wait, Tiffany. You're going to act perfectly normal and do your first dance. Once you finish I'll buy you a smoothie and have you sit with me. Then, you and I go out the door. I'll take care of everything else. All I need from you is to be here at work on Friday and dance one more time, and between now and then for you to be careful about what you do with your customers."

Tiffany sat silent for a long time, almost to the minute she and Kim had to vacate the room. She had a final question for Kim. "I... don't get it. Why are you doing this? Why do you even give a shit about what happens to me?"

"I do give a shit about what happens to you, Tiffany. What we're doing is very important to me. I need to get you on that plane."

Again Kim thought about the many things Vladim Dukov had told her during the two years she was a criminal, and her visions from last year's Day of the Dead.

"I learned something while I was serving my sentence. I think everything in my life during those two years happened for a reason. Everything I did or experienced in Upper Danubia led to something else. I mean everything. You're part of all that. I'm here to pull you out of this mess because that's part of the path of my life, the path that has been laid out for me. I can't really explain it. I think once you get there and get settled into your daily routine you'll understand a bit better."

Kim squeezed Tiffany's hand and the two women headed back to Dirty Grampy's.

Cindy was sitting alone in the restaurant next to the strip club when Kim left the motel.

Kim watched Tiffany disappear through the door and then waved at her sister to come out. Cindy was more than skeptical when she explained her plans about Tiffany. Kim was going to take a tweaker to Upper Danubia and expect her to turn her life around? Yeah, right.

Kim, however, seemed oddly calm about the whole affair, which to some extent persuaded Cindy that maybe her sister knew something she didn't about either Tiffany or Upper Danubia. More than anything else Kim talked like a professional, with Tiffany being the first case out of many she would handle through Upper Danubia's court system during her life. Her sister's next comment made Cindy understand how she saw herself and the extent to which she had internalized Danubian values.

"Right now I believe the path of my life will be to help people repair their broken souls. That is the role of a Spokesperson. I now understand the Ancients are testing me, and it's something I foresaw last fall. Tiffany is the first test the Ancients have presented me with. She is the first test of my honor and the first broken soul I will try to redeem."

"And what if this doesn't work out? What if she doesn't make it?"

"Then I will understand I'm called upon to seek a different path in life."

The next day Kim spent several hours working out the Danubian portion of her plan to redeem Tiffany. She talked on the phone with Spokesman Vladim Dukov and Officer Vladik Dukov, making arrangements for the details surrounding Tiffany's entry into Upper Danubia, her arrest, her detoxification treatment, her trial, and her post-sentencing employment. She called her boss at the music store to set up a job for her future client. Tiffany would begin her Danubian life in a manner very similar to Kim, as a cashier.

Vladim Dukov decided to put Kim formally in charge of what would happen to Tiffany and award his protégé legal custody of her wayward friend. That meant she had to be officially certified as a Court Apprentice, something that usually did not happen until an aspirant studying to be a Spokesperson had completed the second year of university classes. However, because Kim was bringing another American to Upper Danubia to get her off drugs, the country's Supreme Court judges agreed to grant Kim the legal status she needed to handle Tiffany's case. Kim would become a provisional Court Apprentice, which gave her authority to argue Tiffany's case at her trial and negotiate her sentence. Officially she would be known as Apprentice Lee, which was how Tiffany would have to address her in public.

Dukov informed Kim that Tiffany faced three charges if she chose to return and submit herself to the Danubian justice system. The most serious violation was not the five years she would receive for marijuana possession, but 30 years for perjury. Tiffany would be sentenced to 20 years for committing direct perjury for lying to the arraignment panel about the marijuana during her interrogation following her arrest with Kim. She faced a second charge of indirect perjury for encouraging Susan to lie to the arraignment panel. Indirect perjury carried an additional 10-year sentence. Tiffany was facing a full 35 years of confinement to Danube City. Dukov asked how Kim planned to handle the seriousness of the charges.

"She'll serve the full 35 years, Spokesman Dukov. I need to keep her under my control, because if she's not, she'll relapse."

"Even after several years?"

"The danger will go down over time, but with as messed up as she is, I'm not taking any chances. I'll argue for leniency on some of the conditions of her sentence, but the time she has to wear her collar won't be one of them."

Kim's only real concern was retrieving Tiffany's passport. She met up with Joe and he took her to his mother's house. As Joe smoked one cigarette after another, Kim explained what she had in mind for his sister in terms he could understand. Kim compared what was about to happen to Tiffany to a very long rehab session. She didn't mention Tiffany's rehab session would last 35 years, but Joe did understand that Tiffany was leaving for a long time.

Tiffany's brother became agitated. He got up, unlocked a trunk in his room, and came back with a bottle of whiskey. He took a drink out of the bottle and offered it to his guest. Kim smiled, but held her hands up and shook her head.

"Joe, I gotta tell you something. You're... kinda fucked yourself. I mean... you’re just 18, and if you keep this up your gonna be worse than Tiff in a couple of years."

"Yeah, Kimmie, I know, I'm fucked. I don't know, I think some of it's from watchin' Tiff. Ya know... seeing her like this as a fuckin' tweaker and whore. Maybe if I know she's OK, over there in... Danube... or whatever the fuck you call that place..."

"Well, for that I need her passport. Do you know where it is?"

"Yeah, I'll get it."

Joe went to his mother's room and rummaged around a bit. Just as Kim was beginning to worry that Joe might not find the passport after all, he came back into the living room and handed it to her. A huge feeling of relief swept through her. She opened up the passport and looked at the stamp Tiffany got when she and Susan were expelled the night after their arrest. She put the passport in her pocket.

Joe took another drink from his bottle. "Ya know, she's been in fuckin' rehab... didn't do shit for her. What makes you think this'll work?"

"Do you have any other suggestions?"


"Then we gotta make this work, don't we? Now, the plan is I'm renting a car on Friday, and me and Cindy are heading over to Dirty Grampy's at about 2:00. Our flight leaves at 5:00, so we should be OK for time. Cindy's staying in the car, while I go in and get Tiff. I'd like you to come as well, to see us off. You can meet us at the club and we'll head to the airport together."

"Sure Kimmie, I'd like that."

The final two days in the US Kim spent with Cindy. As much as she wanted to make up with her parents, that was not to be, at least not during this trip. Kim's parents were deeply bothered by the enormous changes in their daughter. In spite of everything their two daughters had told them about Upper Danubia, they had not fully realized how much Kim was committed to her life in that country until they saw her in person.

Cindy, now her parents' favorite after so many years of doting on Kim, tried to explain the significance of Kim's transformation. She sadly commented: "If you just would've gone to her de-collaring ceremony you would have understood what's going on with her. You didn't, after I begged you to go. That's why you don't get it. Now, she's getting married in October, and I'm going. What I want is all three of us to go."

The Lees finally agreed to attend Kim's wedding. Hugely relieved, Cindy began making plans for the October trip. It would be in October, not July, when Kim and her parents finally would begin the long, difficult process of rebuilding their relationship.

Kim rented a car the morning she and Tiffany were scheduled to leave. As planned, Kim went in and watched her future client perform her final dance. While up on stage Tiffany's eyes scanned the audience, looking for her future Spokeswoman. Finally the dancer's eyes met Kim's and they exchanged nods. Once Tiffany was off the stage, Kim ordered two smoothies and asked for "Willow" to join her. Tiffany came out, wearing her usual G-string and skimpy top. Kim quickly stood up and the two women went to the door. Tiffany pulled a mini-skirt out of her purse and stepped into it. The top was not appropriate for traveling, but Kim planned to pull a T-shirt out of her suitcase for her companion to change into at the airport.

Joe was standing outside, smoking a cigarette and wearing a very forlorn expression. Tiffany took the cigarette from her brother's hand, took a very deep drag, and nervously nodded.

"OK. Let's get out of here before someone sees me and calls Ray."

Tiffany jumped in the back seat, with Joe beside her. Kim swung into the front seat and with that Cindy sped off.

The trip to the airport was uneventful. Kim, Tiffany, and Joe stood in line to check-in while Cindy parked. There was a brief question concerning the stamp in Tiffany's passport forbidding her to travel to Upper Danubia, but Kim countered with a fax from Dukov's office that over-rode the prohibition. Kim produced a second fax that granted her provisional custody of her companion, which struck the airline employees as odd, given both women were US citizens. All the time Tiffany was looking fearfully at the door, terrified Raymond might show up. However, in the end there was no real reason to hold up the travelers and finally they were issued their tickets.

At the security entrance Cindy and Kim hugged each other good-bye, but their farewell was not painful, given Cindy's plans to see Kim get married in October. Tiffany's goodbye to Joe was much more traumatic. She was leaving, probably forever. It was very unlikely her brother would ever see her again. She was crying quite vigorously, her emotions unstable because of her addictions. However she did say one important coherent thing to Joe.

"Please, Joe, please get off the booze. That's how I got started, and I don't... want what's happened to me to happen to you."

"Yeah, Tiff. If you get cleaned up, I guess I'll have to also."

Kim tapped her companion on the arm and pointed at the security scanners. "Come on, Tiffany. We gotta get moving."

Once they were in the waiting area for the first part of their flight, Tiffany became agitated again and began fidgeting. Kim worried about her client panicking and bolting right up until the time they were seated on the plane and the door finally closed. However, once the plane had taken off, Kim looked over at Tiffany. She was asleep, and did not stir until Kim shook her awake to change planes in Frankfurt.

That night, once Joe was dropped off and Kim's rented car safely returned, Cindy turned on the local news before going to bed. The top story was the emergency closure of the international terminal of the city's airport due to a security breach. It turned out that a subject by the name of Raymond Stark had been arrested after storming through the passenger screening area with a loaded gun. Prior to the airport incident local police reported that he had rampaged through a juice bar called Dirty Grampy's, causing extensive damage and injuring two bouncers. The reporters interviewed a dancer, who speculated:

"Well, you know... his girlfriend took off with a couple of Chinese girls this afternoon, or, you know... maybe they were Japanese... and we haven't seen her since. Ray... you know... he's got this real mean temper... and ... you know... with Willow gone, he just started bustin' stuff up... and then he... you know... busted Mike upside the head with a table leg... and..."

The police refused to comment, pending an investigation.

Chapter 24 -- Prisoner # 98946

While Tiffany was asleep Kim took the precaution of rummaging through her future client's purse, looking for ID, cash, and drug paraphernalia. Sure enough, she found all three, along with some pictures of Tiffany with family members and some others with young women who must have been coworkers from Dirty Grampy's. Kim's heart skipped a beat when she came across some worn pictures from high school. There were photos of Tiffany with Kim and Susan, and another with a friend who had been killed in a car accident the previous year.

Kim confiscated her companion's passport, money, credit cards, her state driver's license, and her medical records. She put those items in her own travel bag, to turn over to Vladim Dukov as soon as they were in Danube City. She pondered what to do with Tiffany's meth pipe. She thought about keeping it for her client's trial, but then thought no, I'll just get rid of it. She dropped it in the trashcan in one of the plane's bathrooms.

The two women had about a 90-minute layover in Frankfurt. They got off the plane with Tiffany a bit disoriented and cramped from having slept curled up in an airplane seat for eight hours.

As soon as they left the plane, Kim immediately led her companion to find the connecting flight to Danube City. At the far end of the terminal was the gate for Griffin Airlines. She saw the familiar braided hair and traditional-looking dresses of the stewardesses, shortened and modified to accommodate the needs of their profession.

Once they were near the departure gate, Kim began exercising her new role in Tiffany's life. She ordered her former friend to go into a nearby women's bathroom. While Tiffany watched, Kim stepped out of her shorts and T-shirt, replacing them with a long skirt and Danubian blouse. Kim explained that she needed to be dressed somewhat more formally upon entering the Duchy because she would be acting in an official capacity. She then put on the engagement gifts Sergekt had given her: the wedding band, the griffin necklace, and the silver hairpiece.

"I would be greatly dishonoring my fiancée if I'm not wearing these items when I re-enter the country. By the way, one of the things I expect from you is an apology to him for the way you behaved at the café before we got arrested, as soon as you speak enough Danubian."

Kim then addressed the issue of Tiffany's piercings. "OK, you got the piercing in your stomach, the one on your eyebrow and the one in your nose. Any others?"

"No, that's it. I used to have one, well you know... but I had to take it out when I started having customers at Grampy's."

"Alright, I need those piercings out. Take 'em off and hand them to me. You can't be wearing anything like that once we get to Danube City. They don't allow it."

"Kim... fuck... you don't have to be so bossy."

"Give me the piercings. And get your all those earrings out of your ears."

Tiffany, a bit taken aback by the tone of Kim's voice, removed the piercings from her face and stomach and handed them over. She then removed a row of cheap earrings from each ear. Kim promptly threw the items in the trash. When Tiffany objected she commented, "That part of your life is over. You don't need 'em."

Tiffany resented Kim's sharp way of talking to her, but there was much more to come. She was becoming agitated again, as the first symptoms of withdrawal loomed in her body. Kim was all too aware of the possibility her companion might break away and try to find someone selling drugs. In Frankfurt finding drugs was quite easy. Getting them for free wasn't. Tiffany suddenly began frantically digging through her purse.

"Where's my stuff? Where's my money?"

"I have your ID's and money. I'm putting them in your case file."

"You can't fucking do that! That's my money! You can't take my fucking money!"

Apprentice Lee, now asserting herself in the role of Tiffany's Spokeswoman, calmly looked her client in the eyes. With a very cold, knowing tone of voice she asked,
"Tiffany, why do you need money?"

"It's none of your fucking business! You can't just take my money!"

"It is my business, because I know why you want your money. You want one last hit before you go to Danube City. Just to calm your nerves. But that's the way it's always been with you, hasn't it? One last hit! Just one last hit! One last hit before we leave Prague! Isn't that what you said to Susan? One last hit? And for her it was, wasn't it?"

Tiffany said nothing, but her silence gave Kim her answer. "There's not going to be a last hit for you. Not this time. You're done. You've stopped using drugs. You've already quit."

"Kim... please... I..."

"It's over! You've stopped! Now, we need to get on our last plane, and you need to get your ass moving!"

Tiffany was becoming yet more agitated. Kim decided to get her on the plane immediately. She pulled out her two faxes and showed them to the ticket agent. In Danubian she explained the situation with Tiffany and the possibility her forlorn-looking companion might start going through serious withdrawal on the flight. The ticket agent got on the loudspeaker to ask in Danubian if there were any military or law enforcement personnel waiting to board. Two men in civilian clothing responded. Apprentice Lee saluted them and showed them Dukov's faxes. The ticket agent opened the door to the plane, allowing Kim, Tiffany, and the two police officers to board first.

Kim ordered Tiffany to sit next to the window and sat down next to her. The cops sat in the seats behind. Tiffany was running her hands through her hair and fidgeting, but had calmed down slightly. She was very nervous, knowing a hellish several weeks lay ahead. Kim's next words did not reassure her.

"Tiffany, now that we are on a plane that's Danubian and there's two cops sitting behind us, as far as I'm concerned, we're in Upper Danubia and you're under arrest. Do you understand?"

Tiffany nodded.

"OK. Here's the deal. I now hold legal custody over you as your Spokeswoman. I'm not officially a Spokeswoman and won't be for several years, but with you I have been granted a provisional status. As far as you're concerned, the word 'provisional' doesn't mean anything. You will treat me as your Spokeswoman, and you will do what I tell you. If you make any major decisions, like changing you job, you have to clear it with me first. If there's a guy you like, I have to meet him and say whether or not you can go out. And I can have you tested for drugs when I want, which at the beginning, is gonna be at least once a week. If you don't obey me I can have you charged with insurrection. If I have any doubts about anything I'll consult with Spokesman Dukov. You also have the right to appeal any decision I make to Spokesman Dukov, if you think I'm being unfair."

Tiffany buried her forehead in the hands.

"Do you understand?"

"Yeah-Yeah! I understand!"

"The other issue is protocol. You need to address me as Apprentice Lee, always. That's my professional title, and they're big on using titles in the Duchy. When I get married, it'll be Apprentice Lee-Dolkivna. When I get my degree and my apprenticeship ends, then I'll be 'Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna'. There's something else, and this is going to be hard, but you gotta do it. As far as you're concerned I'm a public official and you are a criminal. That means when you greet me, whether it's to say 'hello' or 'goodbye', you have to get on your knees and touch your forehead to the ground..."

Tiffany gave Kim a horrified look. "You're fucking crazy! You're on a fucking power trip! That's why you got me to do this... to..."

"No! That's not it! It's the way they do things in Upper Danubia and you'll just have to get used to it. I can tell you, up until three weeks ago, I had to kneel in front of a lot of people, because I was a criminal and that's the way things are. All I want is to keep you out of trouble and not have you embarrass me. If you don't believe me, then you can request a different Spokesperson. Now, let's get that issue settled, once and for all. Do you want another Spokesperson when we get to Danube City? If you do, I'll have you re-assigned."

Tiffany was silent.

"Do you?"


"No, what? How do you address me?"

Tiffany looked at her former friend and current Spokeswoman. Kim looked so totally different than she had looked two years ago, with her braided hair, her Danubian blouse, and engagement necklace and hairpiece. The change in what she was wearing, however, was nothing in comparison with Kim's hard, determined expression. The Kimberly Lee Tiffany had known in high school was gone... completely gone. For the first time she really saw Kim for what she truly was, a Danubian public official... and her custodian.

"No... Apprentice Lee. I... I don't want another Spokesperson."

"OK. I know you're about to start going through withdrawal, but I'm hoping it won't be too bad before we get to Danube City. By the way, I need to know what to expect. Is it meth or heroin that you've been using? Joe told me he thought it was meth."

"I've been doing both. You know, to control the binges."

Kim sighed. "Alright, once we're in the air I'll call the police doctor and let him know. I'm not sure what that means for your detox, but that's his job, not mine, to figure it out."

Kim was interrupted by the pilot welcoming the passengers and announcing the standard emergency procedures. The stewardesses took their positions and began safety demonstrations, as Apprentice Lee and her client stayed silent. Within a few minutes the plane was in the air and on its way to Danube City. The flight would be very short, slightly over an hour.

Once the plane was airborne, Kim pulled the phone off the seat in front of her to relay the information about the mix of methamphetamine and heroin in Tiffany's body. After she hung up she continued. "It's gonna be rough for you and I understand you'll be saying things to me over the next few days you don't mean. Whatever you say I won't hold against you 'cause I know you can't help it. This is it, Tiffany. There's no turning back now. You're gonna be clean and you're gonna see your 30th birthday. It's over."

Tiffany tried to smile, but she was terrified of the commitment she had made, a commitment she no longer could reconsider.

The plane landed and pulled to a stop at the King Vladik International Airport. The airport was primitive, so the plane did not pull up to the terminal. Workers instead wheeled staircases to the front and back doors of the plane. Kim, Tiffany, and the two cops accompanying them walked with the other passengers to the terminal. Right outside the entrance Vladim Dukov, as well as his son Vladik and his partner, were waiting. Kim's temporary escort saluted Vladik, said goodbye to Kim, and departed into the terminal. As her nervous and forlorn client looked on, Kim saluted Vladik and his partner, who saluted back. She then presented Vladim Dukov's faxes. In Danubian Kim announced, "Officer, I am entering the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia with the United States citizen Tiffany Walker, who has volunteered to return to the Duchy to face charges of marijuana possession, direct perjury, and indirect perjury resulting from offenses committed July 2, two years ago."

"Very well, Apprentice Lee, I am declaring your client, the American Tiffany Walker, under arrest for the crimes of marijuana possession, direct perjury, and indirect perjury."

Kim turned to Tiffany to address her in English. "OK, that's it. You're under arrest. Turn around because Officer Dukov needs to cuff you."

Once the handcuffs were on, Vladik's female partner firmly gripped Tiffany's arm, not painfully but with enough force to let the prisoner know who was in charge.

Once Tiffany was properly subdued and handcuffed, Kim saluted Vladik and made another for-the-record statement in Danubian. "The United States citizen Tiffany Walker will require medical treatment for methamphetamine and heroin addiction before she is processed through the Danubian judicial system. I request that my client be placed under medical confinement instead of judicial confinement. Furthermore, I request that the National Police of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia utilize the public resources necessary to conduct a full medical evaluation of her condition and to remove all traces of illicit narcotics from her body. I request that Tiffany Walker's medical needs be fully resolved before any judicial action is taken against her by the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia."

"That request is granted, Apprentice. I will escort this prisoner to the medical treatment center of the Danube City National Hospital and have her processed for medical observation and chemical detoxification."

Kim turned to Tiffany to explain in English what was going on. "Alright, these two police officers are taking you to the Danube City National Hospital and putting you under the care of the police doctor. They'll have to test you to see what's in your body. I'll have to catch up, 'cause I need to get my bags and get our passports stamped. I gotta drop my bags off at Spokesman Dukov's office and pick up your police file from two years ago."

Tiffany was shaking from both fear and withdrawal, which was starting up in earnest. Vladik and his partner pushed her into a nearby squad car and they took off. Kim and Vladim Dukov entered Customs to get the needed stamps for the two US passports. The Spokesman and his trainee signed a series of certificates to formally declare Tiffany's entry into the country as a prisoner. Then they went to the luggage claim area and picked up Kim's two suitcases. Since they were not police officers, they had to return to Danube City by trolley.

By the time Kim and Vladim Dukov appeared in the hospital with Tiffany's paperwork, Kim's client was in a large hospital room with a large group of medical students. Kim realized from the noises coming from the room that Tiffany already was suffering from full-scale withdrawal. She screamed and ranted as she endured bouts of extreme paranoia and delusions. When Kim entered the room, she saw Tiffany naked on a hospital bed, with several students trying to control her by holding her arms and legs. Other students and doctors were standing near the door frantically taking notes and thumbing through reports or papers downloaded from the Internet. Tiffany was the first real case of methamphetamine withdrawal any of them had directly witnessed, which presented them with a real learning opportunity.

Kim winced at seeing Tiffany going through her personal hell. The Danubians believed in treating drug withdrawal cold turkey, so there were no sedatives, just multiple hands holding her down. A couple of the medical students who spoke English were trying to communicate with her, but were making little headway.

Kim grimly watched for about an hour. After a protracted struggle, Tiffany finally calmed down, as her keepers nervously checked her vital signs and consulted their notes. Kim realized her client was about to crash again. She asked the old head doctor for his evaluation of Tiffany's condition. He responded by handing her a copy of the results of the medical tests. Tiffany had tested positive for high levels of methamphetamine in her body. She also had tested positive for heroin, as well as trace amounts of cocaine, marijuana, and valium. She later would need to be treated for Chlamydia and amoebas, as well as have some serious cavities in several of her teeth filled. He commented, "There's quite a bit that's wrong with her, but fortunately it looks like we can fix all of it and she'll lead a normal life. Well, a normal life for a criminal, anyhow. She's not damaged beyond repair, and you should give thanks to the Ancients that you managed to get her treatment when you did."

The doctor handed over some additional papers and signature forms, along with Tiffany's mini-skirt, G-string, and t-shirt. Kim took the clothes, not really sure what to do with them. As a condition of her impending sentence, Tiffany would not be allowed to get dressed again until she was 55 years old.

There wasn't much more Kim could do for Tiffany that night, so she spent the evening with Sergekt. He chose not to go to the airport when he found out about Tiffany, knowing that Kim needed to focus her energies on her new client. Kim, hugely relieved that Tiffany was safely undergoing withdrawal in a supervised situation, finally decided to go home and change, then call Sergekt.

Sergekt and Kim greeted each other in the proper manner of an average engaged couple, using correct protocol. Sergekt kissed Kim's hand and then she kissed his. They did not hug, because hugging was something done in private. Criminals hugged in public and no one said anything about that, but Kim and Sergekt no longer were criminals. They were free citizens, and with freedom also came responsibilities and protocol. They would be a serious couple determined to be strict and upright in their behavior, and exercise "proper values" at all times.

Precisely because Kim and Sergekt had suffered so many humiliations and indignities as criminals, they were fixated with achieving respectability from the people around them, which was a common obsession among recently released offenders in Upper Danubia. Ex-criminals tended to over-compensate for their sentences with proper protocol and formal behavior during the first several months after their collars were off, an obsession that usually faded after while. Kim and Sergekt were in the first stages of their lives as free citizens, which meant reasserting their dignity was still very much on their minds.

As the long summer afternoon slowly faded into dusk, Kimberly Lee and Sergekt Dolkiv walked down the streets of Danube City. It was the very first time in their lives they were downtown together as normal citizens, not criminals. Kim had changed into a light sundress, while Sergket was wearing a loose-fitting traditional shirt and modern cargo pants. Kim was wearing the three engagement items Sergekt had given her the previous fall, which she would be expected to wear on a daily basis for the rest of her life, unless she was at the beach or exercising.

Kim talked about her trip to the U.S. and her feelings about having extracted Tiffany from her death spiral. "It's strange how it all happened. In school she was the leader of our group. She was real popular and always got everyone to do what she wanted. You never argued with Tiffany, because if you did, she knew how to put you in your place. But, you wanted to please her, because she was a lot of fun to be around. She had real charisma and people really liked her. But now, she's...just emptied out, maybe like a glass of wine that got tipped over. There's nothing there, except her addictions and a bunch of self-pity. Everything she was in high school, the way she got people to like her, the fun, it's gone. I'm confident the path of her life is to recover, but she won't be the same. I don't know whether to feel good about that or not."

They walked in silence for a while, along the river in the twilight of the European summer. Kim continued, "She learned a very hard lesson in Frankfurt, when I cleaned out her purse and started bossing her around. I'm not her friend anymore. I'm her Spokeswoman and she's my client. I'll run her life, and she'll have to do what I tell her. She'll have to get on her knees when she greets me and ask my permission if she wants to do anything. If she disobeys me I'll ask Officer Vladik Dukov to switch her. That's going to be hard, because I still have some pictures of us, back when we were in high school, when it was her telling me what to do. But, with her addictions, I don't see how it can be any other way."

"What does Spokesman Dukov have to say about all this?"

"He was the one who put me in charge of Tiffany, because he thinks I can understand her better than anyone else. He thinks I'm doing the right thing, by planning on being so strict with her."

"What about her sentence?"

"She'll serve the full 35 years. I'll ask that she not be allowed to leave Danube City at all during that time. I'll ask that she be switched once each year on July 12. That's the date Susan died, and every year Tiffany will be reminded how her behavior resulted in our friend's death. Every year she'll remember, and every year she'll be punished for it."

"Don't you think that's a bit harsh, especially 35 years?"

"There's two things to remember. Direct perjury is a crime that has a maximum punishment of a 20-year sentence and a switching every four months. I don't really want Tiffany to be punished for perjury, but I plan to use the perjury charge as a justification to keep her under my supervision as long as possible. I'm worried about relapses, which, with methamphetamine, can happen years after a person gets clean. I'm also worried about the heroin cravings, which she'll be stuck with for a very long time. She's a drug addict, and she'll still be a drug addict 20 years from now, even if she never touches the stuff again."

Kim was quiet for a moment. She collected her thoughts and continued, "What she really needs to be punished for, on a yearly basis, is her role in Susan's death. I think she's full of guilt over what happened, and that guilt is what damaged her soul. That's part of the reason why she got so badly hooked on drugs. Instead allowing that guilt to destroy her though drug abuse, I'll make her suffer physically on the same date every year as a way of forcing her to perform penance. Every July 12, she'll get her bottom whipped and be forced to think about the consequences of her behavior. That should take care of the guilt problem. They used to do it that way in the Middle Ages, you know, penance. That, and her annual participation in the Day of the Dead ceremonies, should be enough to repair the damage to her soul."

"What kind of life will she have the rest of the year?"

"At the beginning she will follow my path, working at the music store. But her path won't end there. When I become a Spokeswoman-in-full-standing and represent foreigners convicted as drug users, I'll have Tiffany assist me. She's 'been there' as far as drug addiction is concerned. She knows a lot more about drugs than I do. She'll be able to help me with interviews and give me advice. She can talk to people and help them get used to being criminals. I think she will become a very great asset to me, which right now is what I have in mind for her future. Tiffany will be a very important part of my life, as my criminal assistant."

Sergekt marveled at his fiancée's rapid change. Just three weeks before she had been a criminal herself, and now it seemed she had completed her transformation away that mindset. She was serious and direct and had a very no-nonsense way of talking. The transition was so fast and so dramatic that Sergekt found it very disconcerting, almost frightening.

The following day Kim and Vladim Dukov visited Tiffany in her holding cell at the hospital. She was deeply asleep, in a crashed state as her body continued the long process of expelling the mix of chemical substances built up in her tissues. Kim shook her head.

"There's no way she's ready for trial, Spokesman Dukov, and from what the police doctor told me, it'll be at least another week before she'll want to do anything other than sleep."

A delayed trial was not a normal procedure in Upper Danubia, but in Tiffany's case it was the only viable option. Anyone looking at her would know right away she was not ready to face a court hearing. Not only did she need to have her body decontaminated from drugs; she also urgently needed dental work and to be treated for amoebas and venereal disease.

Tiffany woke up mid-morning. She stunk from not having showered for three days and from her sweaty bout of delusions the previous afternoon. The first thing she did was look for her clothes, but they were nowhere in sight. Kim reminded her why. "They gave me your clothes last night. I took my T-shirt back and threw out your mini-skirt and G-string. Don't forget you're now a prisoner of the Duchy, and they don't allow prisoners or convicted criminals to wear any clothes."

Kim sat with her client as she ate, and then told her to take a shower. Once she was clean, Vladik Dukov handcuffed Tiffany to take her to the Central Police Station to have her formally booked and photographed.

An hour later, for the second time in her life, Tiffany stood in front of the police cameras in the booking room to have an updated series of mugshots taken. She listlessly followed Kim's instructions, too tired to really care what was happening at the moment. Tiffany's original criminal number, 98946, was re-activated. Kim signed the papers that officially gave her custody of Tiffany and collected the new pictures to add to her case file. At Dukov's request, the arraignment committee agreed not to interview Tiffany until she had finished her medical treatments.

Tiffany was in a very irritable mood, because she desperately wanted to get back to sleep. At that moment she cared about nothing else. Kim decided to return her to the hospital. Vladik handcuffed the prisoner and took both women back to the hospital in a squad car. Tiffany was infinitely grateful when she was able to get back in bed.

Kim then met with the doctor in charge of the substance abuse program in the hospital to make the final arrangements for Tiffany's next month. As soon as Tiffany started sleeping less, she would begin a regime of exercising, physical labor, and a strictly controlled diet, under the direction of a medical intern who spoke English. The hospital would address her other medical problems and release her for trial at the end of August.

Kim worried about Tiffany becoming bored or trying to escape.

"Our patients don't get bored. We don't give them that opportunity. Boredom will be the last thing on her mind. As for escaping..." the doctor held up a sturdy plastic collar "we collar our patients, as soon as we're confident they won't have any more seizures. You will notice this collar is blue, which is what we use for alcoholics. Tiffany Walker will have a red collar, for heroin. We don't yet have a color for methamphetamine."

"Doctor, I have another question. What about visitation?"

"Sundays, between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Our patients have Sunday mornings to rest and that's when they receive visitors. However, they can only see family members or Spokespersons. The only visitors Tiffany Walker can see will be either you or Spokesman Dukov."

The doctor then took Kim to the hospital grounds, where a group of about 40 naked patients was performing calisthenics. Kim noticed that about half of the patients were middle-aged men wearing blue collars. The others were younger people, men and women, wearing collars of various colors. An older female doctor dressed in a white smock was directing the group. She walked around carrying a police switch, ready to give a quick stroke to anyone not performing to her expectations.

The doctor explained that because it was Sunday, the day was an "easy" one for the patients. They had spent the morning resting or receiving visitors. Once the group finished the calisthenics session they would stretch and then go swimming in the large hospital pool. The swim would be followed by the patients' weekly medical evaluations and another session of stretching.

The other six days of the week had a much more rigorous routine that always started at 5:30. After breakfast, the patients spent the morning gardening or performing other manual labor tasks. The chores were followed by calisthenics. Once the calisthenics were over, the group would go swimming. They would have a session of stretching, then have lunch, and then hike during the afternoon in a nearby forest park. In the late afternoon there was more stretching, another swim, dinner, a group activity, and finally bedtime at 8:30. They could write or read letters between 8:30 and 9:00, but no television or radio was permitted. The only day patients could sleep past 5:30 was on Sundays. Kim agreed with the doctor about Tiffany not having the opportunity to be bored. With this program, boredom was not an option.

"We don't give our patients much time to think or reflect, and we do that on purpose. Our job is simply to remove the substances from their bodies and restore their physical health. Once their physical health is restored, then they will earn the luxury of thought and reflection. We believe damage to the mind cannot be repaired before damage to the body is repaired. It is our path in life to repair the body of the patient. It is the Spokesperson's path in life to repair the mind and soul."

For a while Kim and the head doctor watched the on-going calisthenics session in silence. Kim noticed all the patients were trying to exercise as hard as possible, but each at his or her own pace. The switch was for anyone who quit trying. The doctor continued, "Tiffany Walker will walk out of here with her physical health restored. When she does, my job is finished, and your job, to restore her damaged soul, will begin."

Kim returned to Tiffany's room, to find her awake and listlessly staring at the ceiling. She gave her client a summary of the rehab program and its expectations. Tiffany was somewhat distressed upon finding out she would not see Kim until the following Sunday.


Kim countered, "Look, the doctor's right. You gotta fix your body, and for that you don't need me. There really won't be that much for me to do until your health's taken care of. Besides, I do have a life of my own, Tiffany. I have to sing in Warsaw at the end of the week, and I haven't even started rehearsing with Eloisa. Tomorrow I have to go back to my job at the music store, if I don't want to get fired and lose my visa. And between all that I have to spend quality time in Spokesman Dukov's office reading up on the laws affecting your case, to make sure I don't make a fool out myself at your trial."

Tiffany sadly nodded.

"OK, this coming week they're gonna let you rest in the mornings, but after lunch they'll at least want you at the pool and out stretching. There's an intern who speaks a little English who'll be giving you instructions. I think tomorrow's when they'll start your Chlamydia treatments, but I don't know what exactly they're gonna do. Your teeth will have to wait 'till next week, but they will get that fixed before you leave here."

She squeezed Tiffany's hand. "Anyhow, I gotta go, 'cause actually, I'm not supposed to be here outside official visiting hours. I know it's gonna be a rough week, but it'll get better once you're well enough to exercise. Just do what they tell you and they'll treat you fine."

Kim stood up to leave. Tiffany stayed sitting on her bed sadly looking at her. Kim stopped and flashed an irritated glance at her client. "Tiffany, what did I tell you about protocol?"

"Kim... I..."

"That's not the proper way to address me. You'll notice I'm not calling you 'Tiff' anymore."

Kim impatiently tapped the floor with her foot. Tiffany opened her mouth to object, but the sharp look Kim's dark eyes stopped her. Very reluctantly she got on her knees. Her sad expression asked the silent question, "What do I do now?"

"Please kneel forward and touch your forehead to the floor. Then say "Goodbye, until our next meeting, Apprentice Lee.' Next week I'll teach you how to say it in Danubian, which you'll need to know when you say goodbye to me, or to any other Danubian official, in public."

"Goodbye... until our next meeting... Apprentice Lee."

As soon as Kim left, Tiffany got back in bed. She cried very briefly, and then went to sleep.

The following day Kim went back to work at the music store, after a three-week absence. For the first time Kim entered the store dressed, but as soon as she was inside she pulled off her dress and hung it in the employees' break-room. As it had been for years, the store uniform for all employees, criminals and ex-criminals alike, was complete nudity. She returned to the information desk properly naked except for her engagement jewelry, which was the one item she now was allowed to wear. The other employees crowded around her as she passed out shot-glasses, baseball caps, and paperweights from her hometown in the US.

Kim spent most of her first day back at work talking about her trip to the U.S. and her feelings about her scattered friends and estranged parents. What she would not discuss in detail was Tiffany. Kim confirmed that she had brought Tiffany back with her to face criminal charges stemming from two years ago, but refused to say anything more, citing her responsibilities as Tiffany's legal representative.

"The details of her case will come out at her trial, which I'm sure will cause a bit of a sensation once it goes on TV. I would be violating my relationship with her if I were to say anything now."

Once back in the store and safely at her post at the information counter, Kim truly felt that she had come home. That day she made one important decision, that she did not want to quit her job at the music store anytime soon. She would continue to work three days per week, and use the other days to handle the finances of "Socrates' Mistresses" or pursue her legal studies under to tutelage of Spokesman Dukov. In spite of the store's modest pay, to simply banter with customers, hang out with her co-workers, and talk about music offered Kim a welcome break from all her other responsibilities. Besides, the store manager had signed her "transition visa", so she was committed to stay at least until her marriage in October.

Eloisa came in that afternoon, wearing one of her stylish sundresses. She warmly hugged Kim, but then got right down to business: the rehearsal schedule and the upcoming trip to Warsaw for the concert, which had been moved up to Friday the 28th. Kim was not surprised to hear Eloisa announce there would be rehearsals every night until the group's departure that Thursday morning, and then another dressed rehearsal in Warsaw Thursday night. The band would return home to Danube City the following Saturday afternoon, a fact that hugely relieved Kim. The concert would not interfere with her visit to Tiffany the following Sunday.

Besides rehearsal, there were other issues waiting for Kim to work out, mostly the financial details Eloisa had delegated to her American partner. When she was not working or rehearsing, Kim spent every moment of her spare time going over the band's business arrangements with her boss from the store.

Kim noted a very significant change in Eloisa during the rehearsals. She was happier than Kim had ever seen her, but in a rather detached, spiritual manner. The transformation was very evident in the way Eloisa sang. Eloisa sang as though she were dreaming. Her voice was infinitely moving, almost unbelievably moving, perhaps like the voice of an ancient wood spirit or angel.

That Thursday the band's 15 members, plus 10 support staff, took a short flight from Danube City to the dreary Polish capitol. It was the first time out of the country for most of Kim's friends. Warsaw held few surprises for the American, but her Danubian companions were a bit dumbstruck at the barrage of signs, traffic and noise. They huddled together as they made their way to the concert hall from their hotel.

Kim sighed. This is just Warsaw, for heaven's sake. How on earth are you going to handle Berlin or Barcelona?

That evening "Socrates' Mistresses" presented a mix of new songs and some of the original music that first made the band famous. Kim sang several solos in English, Eloisa sang some solos in Danubian with Kim backing her up, and the two sang several songs together.

Finally Eloisa worked off her stage fright. She ended the concert by performing several Danubian songs by herself, while Kim took her place among the back-up singers. The lead singer closed her eyes and focused her entire being on a single purpose in life, her music. During the final minutes of the concert Eloisa overpowered everything and everyone else, the beauty of her voice allowing everyone listening to forget the squalidness of this world for a few minutes.

As she sang with the other back-up singers, Kim watched with deep personal satisfaction as Eloisa shined on the stage. The American was a good singer, but as she watched Eloisa's soul come out with her mystical songs, she realized there was no way her own voice could possibly keep up with her friend's voice. No one's voice could keep up with Eloisa's voice.

Kim realized that Eloisa had completed her transformation from a traumatized high school student into something truly great. Her spirit finally had escaped "the dark places of life".

Chapter 25 -- Tiffany's Three Demerits

While Kim and her friends were occupied with the first week of their concert tour, Upper Danubia struggled through an ever-deepening political crisis. For the first time since the Second World War, the Duchy faced the prospect of political instability. The conservative government of the Party of the Duchy fell in the Parliament's first no-confidence vote since 1940. The Prime Minister immediately called elections assuming, correctly as it turned out, the deputies of the opposition Greater Danubian Progressive Party were not yet organized enough to win an election outright.

On July 29, the day after the successful concert of "Socrates' Mistresses" in Warsaw, the Duchy held the first out of a series of chaotic national elections. During the campaign the opposition deputies savagely attacked the government's disastrous handling of the previous year's fires in Rika Chorna province, which resonated among dispossessed voters in the entire eastern part of the country. However, the economic program the Greater Danubian Progressive Party put forward was frightening because of the commitments its leaders had made to foreign corporations. Included in the opposition's plans were the immediate abolition of many of the country's oldest institutions and social services, the removal of all legal protection for local businesses, and the immediate removal of most border security. The "Progressives" openly argued for closing Upper Danubia's public transportation system and encouraging the public to buy and import private automobiles. As for the farmland that would be destroyed by the proposed roads, the solution would be to import food from the European Community.

The proposal that most frightened much of the public about the opposition's program, however, was the idea to systematically log Upper Danubia's forests, in order to pay for road building and other large-scale development projects. Several international logging firms already had contracts pending to clear out the forests. All that was needed was a clear victory by the Greater Danubian Progressive Party.

As insane as the massive logging projects may have sounded to the western half of the country, to voters in the eastern half of Upper Danubia logging made perfect sense. Logging would remove the region's fire hazard once and for all, as well as finance the reconstruction of Rika Chorna and other fire-affected provinces. It was a financial quick fix that had its attractions, but any educated person realized the ultimate price would be far greater than any short-term gain for the east.

There was one final part of the opposition's program that struck real fear into the hearts of Danube City's 2,000 criminals: jails. The "Progressives" wanted to bring Upper Danubia's justice system in line with the rest of the world by rounding up all convicted criminals and putting them in jail. The incarceration program would begin with a concentration camp outside Danube City, which would stay in operation until a proper prison could be constructed. Once the prison was built, criminals would move in, be issued prison uniforms, have their collars removed, and spend the rest of their sentences in prison cells. Sure it would be costly and pull the criminals away from their families and jobs, but isn't that the way the rest of the world does it? Besides, a lucrative prison construction contract was waiting for a US corporation paying the campaign contributions of several opposition candidates.

Two nights before the election the Parliament's independent deputies invited Spokesman Vladim Dukov to address a campaign rally. He gave an angry speech to a large crowd, exhorting the public to reject the "insane" proposals of "capitalism in its most savage manifestation". He attacked globalization and the neo-conservative push to turn the world over to corporate interests. As she listed to him speak Kim realized, in spite of his kindness to her and his understanding of US citizens as individuals, Dukov did not like the United States as a society and rejected much of what its government stood for.

"We need to cultivate our land and we need to eat! We need to be safe! We need to walk down our streets in peace and breathe clean air! We do not need to become a nation of automobiles, international logging companies, pollution, and crime! We must not become a nation of people working 60 hours a week to buy imported products we don't need! And we must not sacrifice our identity on the altar of global commerce! I reject that false god, and I urge you to do the same!"

Dukov's speech killed the prospect of an outright victory by the "Progressives" and earned him some real political enemies in the Parliament. The popular vote split three ways, between the "Nobility", the "Progressives", and the unorganized group of dissidents from the two parties. Following the election, the Party of the Duchy formed an unstable coalition with the Duchy's independent deputies to set up a government. The new government would last a total of three weeks before the independents defected in a no-confidence vote and forced yet another election. The nation's Prime Minister later resigned in disgust, leaving Upper Danubia in political crisis with no real leadership.

Kim returned to the hospital to visit Tiffany on the 29th, the same day of the first round of elections taking place around the country. She entered the hospital grounds right at 9:00, expecting to spend the entire allotted three hours with her client. Kim was not surprised to see Tiffany still in her room, but she was surprised to see that her physical appearance had only slightly improved. Tiffany's intern reminded Kim that her client not only had spent the entire week cleaning out the drugs from her body, but also undergoing treatment for venereal disease and amoebas.

"She's had a rough week, but I think once we discontinue the antibiotics she'll feel much better. She's definitely past any danger of seizures, so I think we'll collar her today after her medical evaluation. Tomorrow we'll fix her teeth, and on Tuesday she'll start the regular exercise regimen with the other patients."

"How's her attitude been?"

"Apprentice, about the attitude... that's not been so good. She earned three demerits on Thursday, which is something I want to discuss with you. Our program includes a system of merits and demerits, which is one of the ways we encourage our patients to cooperate and behave appropriately. We issue merits based on good behavior and cooperation. A demerit results from a refusal to cooperate, or in the case of your client, disrespect and dishonesty. We've had quite a bit of unpleasantness from Tiffany over the last week. Some of that is to be expected, due to her medical condition. However, last Thursday we directed her to spend some time on a treadmill to check her heart and blood circulation. We run a total of three sessions on the treadmill to check a patient's endurance. Tiffany cooperated the first round, but she became rebellious after that. She... I presume it's an American manner of insulting... circled her eyes around when we issued our instructions, and then, in English, she called the doctor a 'cock-sucking fag' and to 'go fuck himself'. We did not understand what the term 'cock-sucking fag' meant, so I tried to look it up. I never figured out what the first word meant. The best I could figure is that it has something to do with sucking on chickens. The second word has two meanings, and I presume she was not calling the doctor a pile of firewood."

Kim sighed. "No. In the US that means only one thing, and it's an insult. A pretty bad one."

"Very well Apprentice. Then that is one demerit. I confronted Tiffany about the gesture with her eyes and her vocabulary, and she flatly denied both. Perhaps the gesture with her eyes was a misinterpretation on my part, but what she said was quite clear, and I am not the only person in the room who heard it. Several other patients witnessed the incident. We issued her a second demerit for lying and a third for the fact the incident took place in front of other patients."

"So... what is a demerit? What does that actually mean?"

"A demerit involves a formal apology and five strokes of the switch."

"And she's got three? That's fifteen strokes?"

"That is correct. Fifteen strokes and three formal apologies. Had she earned any merits, a merit would have canceled demerit. Unfortunately Tiffany did nothing this past week to earn a merit. To be honest, her behavior outside the Thursday incident has not been very cooperative."

Kim shook her head. The intern continued, I've discussed this matter with the doctors involved, and perhaps we can... postpone the corporal punishment until next weekend and hope she can earn a merit or two. That wouldn't sit well with the other patients, but perhaps it would motivate your client."

"Very well, Intern. I'll talk to her, and see what's going on."

Kim then returned to Tiffany's room, to find the patient sitting up and a bit restless. She gave Tiffany a sharp look and pointed at the floor. Tiffany sadly got on her knees and touched her forehead to the ground.

"OK, Tiffany, let's remember our protocol... it's 'Good morning Apprentice Lee. I am pleased you have safely returned.'"

Once she repeated the formal greeting, Kim invited Tiffany for a walk across the hospital grounds, to begin conversing with her. At first Kim gave Tiffany an update on her own life and the concert in Warsaw, and then went into detail about what Tiffany's life would be like once her trial was over. Kim wanted to emphasize that Tiffany would indeed have real life after her rehab and trial.

Kim continued with some questions about Tiffany's current life, beginning with how she planned to maintain contact with her friends and relatives in the US.

"I don't know who I'll stay in touch with. The only person who really cares about me is Joe. I know I... I gotta write him and tell him I... guess I'm doing OK. I don't know. I'm so doped up with antibiotics that I really don't know how I'm supposed to be feeling."

Kim and Tiffany walked out to the edge of the forest park, which was a place Tiffany would come to know very well over the next several weeks during the rehab program's afternoon hikes. For a long time both women stared at the woods, while Kim tried to think how she could bring up the subject of Tiffany's behavior and the resulting demerits. Finally she asked, "What about things here at the hospital? How do you feel you're doing?"

Tiffany was quiet for a moment. Kim knew her well enough to realize that she was struggling with whether or not to tell the truth or simply gloss over what happened.

Finally Tiffany sighed, "Kim... I mean Apprentice Lee, I don't know if you talked to the doctors yet... about something that happened Thursday. I kinda... said some things on Thursday... to the doctor... and... I think... I’m in some sort of trouble."

"Why? What made you talk to him like that?"

"I don't know. You know how I am with my mouth. And I didn't feel good and I was in a pissy mood, and they... do you know what happened?"

"I heard the intern's version of the story, so I know that much. What I need is to hear your side. Did they do anything wrong, anything to make you upset?"

"Not really, they just kept insisting on that treadmill test. But I starting to feel kinda sick and I mouthed off, and totally shocked everyone in the room. I think the other patients were more shocked than the doctors. It's like... I don't know... like the other patients are madder at me than the staff. They tried to be friendly at the beginning, but they haven't talked to me since Thursday... and that's got me a bit scared."

"Yeah, I guess it would. Tiffany, you just don't do that in this country, insulting someone and then lying about it. The Danubians get pissed about lying, because they're real big on this whole concept of 'honor'. Part of that thing with the 'honor' is you don't lie, and another part of it is you take responsibility for what you do. The other patients are avoiding you because you dishonored yourself. You know, if you just would have 'fessed-up and apologized..."

"I know I should've, but I... just can't. I've never apologized for anything."

"Well, this afternoon you're gonna have to. You owe the doctors three apologies, and you're gonna have to say it like you mean it. Nobody's gonna talk to you until you apologize."

"Yeah, I know. But the intern said something else... that they’re gonna punish me.

"Maybe. What's happened is you got what they call 'demerits', three of 'em; first for the insult, and then for lying about what you said, and the third for doing it in front of the other patients. Do you know what a demerit is?"

Tiffany shook her head.

"An apology is part of a demerit. The other part is five strokes of the switch. You got three demerits."

Tiffany gasped. "You mean... they're gonna whip me?"

"Well, that's what I'm not sure about. The intern said that maybe they could put it off 'till next Sunday, to see if you can get make up for it this week. The way their system works is if you get a 'merit' for good behavior, that'll cancel a demerit. If you could get three merits, that would cancel your punishment."

Tiffany's next question surprised Kim. "Apprentice Lee... do they... ever do that for other patients... I mean... postpone a whipping to see if they can make up for it the next week?"

"No. In fact, the intern said it wouldn't sit well with the other patients, 'cause it's not the normal way they do things. But I guess they're willing to make an exception for you, 'cause you're a foreigner and maybe they think you don't understand the system or you didn't know what you were doing."

Tiffany struggled with the information and the possibility of a reprieve. For a long time she was quiet. Then Kim noticed a change in her expression. The change was slight, but it was noticeable.

"On Thursday... I knew what I was doing. I just thought, because they didn't speak English, I could get away with it." Tiffany swallowed and continued, "I just... I'm... I really don't want to do anything that's gonna piss off the other patients, any more than they are already. I mean, Kim... I mean... Apprentice Lee... I gotta live with everyone here until the end of August, and I... just... can't have them... not speak to me... 'cause I got special treatment."

"So... what exactly are you trying to tell me?"

"I don't... I just think... I think the best thing would be for me to just get it over with. I... if I got punished, like normal... do you think the other patients would speak to me again?"

Kim thought for a moment, trying to draw upon her knowledge of Danubian society to answer Tiffany's question. "I don't know about the hospital. I can tell you that with a group of ordinary criminals, if you turned down a special favor and asked to be treated like everyone else, it would get the others to respect you again. Anyhow, the way a switching works in this country is you deal with it, it hurts like hell for a while, and then it's over. Like, with our sentences... me and my friends from the band... once our collars came off, with the Danubian government it's as though our convictions never happened. I've got one friend who just entered the police academy, and well, here I am, as a legal Apprentice. I don't see why it would be any different with you. You screw up, you get your butt whipped for it, and then you're done."

"I really don't want to worry about this next week. I just want to forget about it."

"Well, you're not going to just forget about it. The welts will hurt for several days."

"I mean, the others..."

"I think it would fix your problem, if you're worried about getting along with the other patients."

Tiffany drew a deep breath. Her voice quivered slightly with her next statement, "Then... I guess I'll just take the demerits and get it over with."

"You mean the switching?"

Kim's client nervously nodded. "Yeah."

"It'll be 15 strokes."

"I know. I'll just deal with it."

Tiffany began twisting her hands and fidgeting. Before she and Kim returned to the hospital, she had one final question for her custodian. "Kim...I mean Apprentice Lee, could you stay with me when I get punished, you know, to make sure I don't get hurt, like in court?"

"Sure. If you've got the guts to go through with this, then the least I can do is stay with you."

As they made their way back across the hospital grounds to the main building, Kim knew that, in her own way, Tiffany was about to make an important step in her personal transformation away from being a drug addict. For the first time in her life she had decided to directly face the consequences of something she had done wrong. She had turned down special treatment in order to regain the respect of her fellow patients. Tiffany's acceptance of her situation contained the seed of understanding the Danubian concept of "honor".

Kim approached the intern with her very forlorn client trailing behind her. Kim motioned with her fingertips for Tiffany to kneel. She then saluted the intern and addressed him in Danubian. "Intern, I have discussed the situation concerning the three demerits with my client, Tiffany Walker. Tiffany understands she dishonored herself last Thursday and is willing to accept the consequences of her behavior. I do not believe a postponement of her demerits is necessary."

"Very well Apprentice. I think that's for the best. I was more concerned about how the other patients would view this, much more than the staff. It's been a bit difficult for all of us, given that Tiffany Walker is from a different country, and we're really not sure how we should behave around her. If she can accept her role as a patient and abide by our rules, I think that will make all of our lives much easier."

"Intern, I do have one request to make. As her Spokeswoman, I would like to be present during her punishment."

"I don't see why that would be a problem. If you come back here about 5:00, the head doctor will issue you a hospital pass."

Kim decided to spend the early part of the afternoon at a nearby beach along the river. She pulled off her dress and for a while walked naked, with her clothes over her arm and her shoes in her hand, along the water's edge. After a few minutes she had the good fortune to run into her fellow-vocalist Valia and her family. Kim spent several pleasant hours just relaxing, for the first time in well over a month, as she swam and played cards with Valia, her boyfriend, and her younger brother.

Kim returned to the hospital in a relaxed and very upbeat mood. As promised, she was issued a special after-hours visitor's pass and made her way to the substance abuse department of the sprawling complex. She found the program's 40 patients sitting in a large classroom filling out questionnaires. Two doctors and five interns were standing in a group at the instructor's podium; looking over test results and organizing case files.

Tiffany and a middle-aged man wearing an alcoholic's collar were kneeling at the front of the room, facing the wall. The Danubian words "pogánit jéttit" were written in black magic marker on each of their backs, which, translated literally, meant "improper behavior". Kim realized the magic marker was indelible and would take several days to wash off. The humiliation of being marked was part of the demerit.

As soon as he noticed Kim was present, the intern called two security guards on a pager. The guards, a man and a woman, entered the room, as the head doctor loudly whistled. The patients quickly stood at attention, with the exception of the two demerits. The male guard was carrying a police switch.

The female guard approached the kneeling man and told him to stand up. Once he did so she took his arm and led him to the head doctor. He knelt and touched his forehead to the floor. Then he knelt upright and spoke: "Doctor, I committed a transgression that I need to apologize for. I pretended to be sick last Monday to avoid working in the garden. I lied about my physical condition, and wish to express remorse for my dishonesty. I request that I be appropriately punished for dishonoring myself."

"Very well, patient Dima. Once you are chastised, I will accept your apology."

Tiffany was next. The male guard looked at Kim, who instructed her client to stand up in English. The guard then took Tiffany's arm and led her to the head doctor. Tiffany knelt and looked nervously at Kim. Kim noticed the other patients were watching very intently, curious to see if she actually was going to apologize.

"OK. What you need to do is look at the doctor and say 'Doctor, I committed a transgression that I need to apologize for.' I'll translate."

Once Tiffany spoke and Kim translated, the Apprentice continued. "Now, say the following: 'I insulted you because I did not want to exercise last Thursday. What I said was in English, but I greatly dishonored you."

When Tiffany repeated Kim’s words and Kim translated the statement to Danubian, she continued: "My second offense was to tell a lie because I wanted to deceive you. I did this in front of other patients, not thinking about your honor or anyone else's. I want to say I'm sorry for my behavior. I ask that I be appropriately punished for dishonoring myself."

As best she could, Tiffany stumbled over the long statement in English while her mentor translated. As soon as the other patients heard the translation, their expressions changed somewhat.  They were very pleased that Tiffany was willing to accept the consequences of her scandalous behavior. She now could re-join the group once her punishment was over.

The head doctor answered in Danubian, "Very well, patient Tiffany. Once you are chastised, I will accept your apology and this incident will fade from our memories."

Kim's translation was, "OK Tiffany, they'll drop this and forget about it after they whip your butt."

The guards led Tiffany and the alcoholic to the hospital grounds as the doctors and other patients filed behind. There was a pole located in the middle of a grassy area that had several metal loops welded to one side. Kim realized the pole was a whipping post.

The guards took out two sets of leather cuffs and attached them to the wrists of the culprits. Because he had only one demerit, the man would be punished first. However, what his punishment lacked in severity it more than made up with humiliation. Kim later learned he had entered the rehabilitation program voluntarily, because his wife threatened to divorce him if he did not stop drinking. He was an ordinary citizen with a good job and three children. Until recently he had led a respectable life, before his drinking got the better of him. Finally, on the verge of losing both his job and his marriage, he entered rehab. Now, here he was, a respected citizen with children, being cuffed naked to a whipping post for a stupid lie he had told earlier in the week. Kim noticed he did not really seem to be afraid, but it was obvious that he was horribly embarrassed.

The male guard handed the switch to his female partner and attached the patient's wrists to the pole. As was the custom in the National Police, the hospital rules stated that a person of the opposite sex should punish an errant patient in the rehab program. It was a humbling experience, especially for substance abusers who were married or had serious relationships.

The guard then told the man to spread his legs and arch his back. The patient sighed, but complied. The female guard positioned herself and tapped the man's bottom with her switch as he closed his eyes and waited for the first stroke.

The female guard struck hard, as hard as any police officer would have struck. Her victim gasped and turned slightly, but then tried to properly reposition himself for the second stroke. As soon as he was back into position, his bottom sticking out and his feet spread, the guard struck again. The patient gasped as sweat started collecting on his forehead. Once again the guard waited for her victim to reposition himself, and laid a third cruel stroke to the man's bottom.

Kim winced as the blows landed, but, having endured three full criminal switchings herself, she knew the patient's punishment was relatively mild. While it was true the strokes were every bit as hard as strokes issued by a police officer, there would be only five, which was something anyone could endure. Sure enough, the man made it through the fifth stroke without making any sound apart from his breathing. The guards released him and he rejoined the other patients. He tried to avoid rubbing the five red stripes across his bottom, but every so often he winced as his hands went over his backside. Still, he had made it through his punishment properly and gave Tiffany an example of how she needed to behave.

The guard glanced at Kim, who turned to her client. "Alright Tiffany, you're up." Tiffany shot a frightened glance at Kim as she got up off her knees. Kim gently squeezed her arm.

"OK. It's gonna hurt like hell, and it's supposed to. It'll feel like you're being cut open, but they won't do anything to hurt you for real. Now, one thing. Please... please try not to scream or cry if you can possibly help it. If you really want to get the respect of the other patients, you'll tough it out as best you can."

Tiffany nodded, but Kim could tell she already was on the verge of tears, even before the first blow was struck. Sadly she moved to the post and the two waiting guards. The female guard attached metal clips to the cuffs on her wrists and raised her arms to one of the higher metal loops. She clipped the cuffs to the loop and then tapped the insides of Tiffany's thighs with her fingertips to force them apart. She then put her fingertips on Tiffany's waist to move her backwards and have her bottom sticking out.

"You, American Tiffany. This how you stand, you listen me?"

Tiffany nodded, as a tear rolled down her cheek.

There were no preliminaries to the punishment. The female guard stepped back as her male coworker positioned himself to whip Tiffany. He struck hard, hard enough to make all of the females in the group watching flinch in sympathy. Tiffany bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, but did not make any noise. Kim was relieved, because she had been afraid her client might not endure a switching very well. Tiffany bent her knees slightly and moved her body forward.

Kim admonished her in English. "Tiffany, get back in position. The quicker you get your butt out, the quicker this'll be over."

Tiffany gasped and nodded. She shifted herself back out. The moment her bottom was flexed back into position Tiffany felt another searing blow across her exposed backside. Her eyes were completely filled with tears and her lip was getting bruised from her teeth biting down from the pain, but Tiffany was determined to not cry out.

Patient Tiffany Walker struggled to get herself back into position. The pain from the strokes was a horrible experience, and yet, deep down inside, she was happy this was happening to her. This experience: being tied naked to a whipping post in a foreign country, being subjected and beaten by people who did not speak her language... somehow filled Tiffany with a sense of relief, as though her soul had been contaminated and now it was being cleansed. Tiffany now realized how much she would be forced to turn away from everything she had been just two weeks before. The pain tearing into her drove that message home. This was real. Her life had changed and there was no going back.

As the pain mounted in her bottom from the increasing collection of reddish welts, Tiffany's mind focused on a single purpose in life... don't scream... don't scream. For the first time in a while she was able to forget about the selfishness, impulsiveness, and self-pity, as well as the resulting guilt and self-hatred that had filled her thoughts for several years. At the same time she felt relief from having finally done something wrong, confessing to it, apologizing, and accepting the consequences. Tiffany was learning what it was to live a life in which each of her actions had consequences that were immediate and direct results of the things she had done wrong. She found that reassuring: considering that in her previous life the consequences for her actions came days or weeks afterwards, and usually in convoluted ways that never made any sense.

The punishment was over only about ten minutes after it began. Tiffany almost blacked out after the final stroke and her face was totally wet from her tears, but she had managed to not cry out, to the amazement of everyone watching. The guards undid Tiffany's cuffs and released her. She fell into Kim's arms. Her tears wet Kim's shoulder and the sleeve of her blouse, but she still managed to stay quiet, even as the pain in her welts mounted.

Finally Kim whispered into her client's ear, "You did good. Really good, Tiffany. I'm proud of you."

"Really? You think so?"

"Yeah. You're gonna be OK. You're gonna get past all this, and then you'll have a life that's worth living."

Tiffany finally took her place in formation with the other patients. Kim knew, from observing the others and from her knowledge of Danubian society, that Tiffany had redeemed herself among the doctors, and more importantly, her peers. She could look forward to participating as a fully accepted member of the group during the activities the following week.

The final part of Tiffany's incorporation into the hospital program came a few minutes later, when she was fitted with a red fiberglass medical collar. The collar was a clear indication she was progressing with her detox treatment, because the doctors only collared patients who were past the danger of seizures and ready to fully participate in the program's busy schedule. Tiffany would spend a good portion of the following day sitting in a dental chair, but once her teeth were taken care of, she would begin a regimen of rigorous exercising to finish cleaning and restoring her body.

That night, as Kim got ready to leave, Tiffany showed correct protocol. She knelt properly, and, in spite of the pain from her welts and bruises, she crisply placed her hands on the floor and touched her forehead to the ground.

"Goodbye, until we meet again, Apprentice Lee."

"Goodbye, Tiffany. I'll see you next Sunday."