Small candles nestled in a silver candelabrum are ceremoniously lit to announce the start of a medieval auction. Sadly, however, we are not in the middle ages but in the first decade of this century. The auction is a nightly event somewhere in Eastern Europe. On the block are naked teenage girls, the latest casualties of the global flesh market. These sex slaves are not fiction: “Natasha girls” already number over a million, an atrocity that has joined weapons smuggling and drug trafficking as one of the largest and most lucrative criminal activities on earth. Kristýna Sondheim, at age 16, was among the first Natasha girls, but managed to break free of her captor and begin a new life in the States. That life turns ugly when she is sentenced to 25 years for the murders of her husband and young daughter – murders she did not commit.
The novel opens with Kristýna’s breathtaking escape from Abbyville, a women’s prison built on land adjacent to Sing Sing. All we know at this point is that there is some link between the prologue and this remarkable woman; and that she knows her daughter, who witnessed Arthur Sondheim’s murder, is alive somewhere in Eastern Europe. Kristýna becomes the focus of both the public and the FBI because of her escape. What is not known is that she and her little girl are also the focus of Stepan Obruchev, the man from whose sexual servitude she had escaped, the man responsible for her husband’s murder, her daughter’s kidnapping and the set-up that landed her in prison. Obruchev, one of the Trade’s major players, has contacts everywhere. He must find the girl, Teresa, who knows too much. He must find Kristýna before she is hunted down by Interpol. She will lead him to the child; he will have his revenge while eliminating the threat that he will be revealed – both as a killer and a kingpin in the Trade. Thus begins an international race across continents, a frantic attempt by Kristýna to evade both Obruchev and the law in order to rescue her daughter. Her heart-stopping quest takes her and the FBI on a terrifying journey into the bowels of the Natasha Trade. In Genoa, Special Agent Connor and his international team have her cornered. Kristýna again escapes; her courage and cunning evoke the most suspenseful scenes in The Fugitive. With the help of Natasha rescue groups throughout Europe, she spots her ragged daughter traveling with a tribe of Gypsies. Connor becomes convinced he is dealing with more than an escaped convict. His attention shifts to the Russian Mafia, the seedy criminal element calling the shots in the former East Bloc. He learns who Obruchev is, learns that he is looking for Kristýna. Together with the Austrian police he carries out a sting to penetrate Obruchev’s operation in Slovenia. Posing as an insatiable buyer of teenage girls, he picks up the evil man’s trail. What has been kept from the reader to this point is that Obruchev’s auctioneer, Rasputin, a fake priest and castrato, seeks to dominate his inferiors – those driven by lust. What better way to do this than to set up Obruchev for the cops and take over his business? Rasputin kidnaps Teresa before her mother can free her. In a note tied to Teresa’s dog, Kristýna learns of a farm in Slovenia where she must go to find her daughter. Rasputin sends the same message to Obruchev, knowing the FBI will follow. All roads lead to the farm, desolate and enveloped in fog, for a nail-biting yet ultimately exhilarating denouement.
The Trade is a hard book to read because of the subject matter. The human trafficking of young girls being sold into the sex trade is totally disgusting. The men who reap huge profits from this misery are evil, in my book, as are the johns who buy and use young girls. But where’s there is evil, there’s also good; a group of people willing to risk their lives to save as many young girls as they can. I prefer to read escapist literature that helps me unwind from a day job that requires me to help people deal with real, sometimes life-threatening situations. But The Trade forced me to be more aware of how the sex trade operates.
One young girl, Kristyna, manages to escape this life. The Trade tells the story of what happens to her after she escapes. In literature, the character who is the hero acts heroically for the greater good of all humanity. Kristyna is just trying to save her daughter, her own little piece of the world. That makes Kristyna a hero, I believe, because she is willing to give up her own life to save someone she loves.
The characters in The Trade are larger than life: An FBI agent who always gets his escapee, a self-proclaimed priest who’s wickedly smart and 100% evil, the leader of a Gypsy tribe, and a scumbag purveyor of human flesh. Add to this mix a New York City judge who needs to retire, assorted law enforcement officers around the world (some of them trying to stop the Natasha Trade), and a group of organized people trying to rescue as many Natasha girls as they can. And then there’s Kristyna, a survivor, a fighter who has survived things I cannot even imagine.
The story moves quickly, because the FBI has been charged with the apprehension of Kristyna the escaped convict. Kristyna, with some help, is on a frantic search to find her daughter before it’s too late. And then there’s Obruchev, lurking, as always, in the dark as he plots and schemes to get rid of Kristyna and her daughter for good. The dialogue of this story is fast paced and sharp, with some humor thrown in at an unexpected moment that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The ending was a bit too abrupt for me; the heart-stopping action was over with a jolt, and I wanted more!
The Trade is a tale well told, with a message about human trafficking that we all need to take acknowledge, and consider how each of us can take action against this evil.
I give The Trade four stars, an excellent work worth being in your library.
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