At the age of fifteen, Anastasija probably should not have been sitting on an expensive Chesterfield sofa, in a revealing outfit, sipping a glass of wine. In truth, she had been doing the same and worse for so long, that it all seemed commonplace.
Her olive skin and jet black hair seemed to absorb the heat from the studio lights, leaving her parched. Several hours beneath hot lamps was enough to drive anyone to find a drink, and her only options were alcoholic beverages of various flavours and strengths. Wine was the lesser of the evils on offer. She shrugged as she took another sip. I’ll stick to what I have. Asking for water wouldn’t help me.
She remembered one of the recent ‘new girls’, some months ago, who had been dehydrated. Instead of drinking from the expensive bottles on the table, she disappeared into the en-suite. She was caught a minute later drinking water from the cold tap like some kind of desperate animal. Sergei had explained the use of alcohol in “loosening up” for his photo-shoots and she had dared to disagree. By the end of the day she had gone, never to be heard from again.
Anastasija was, of course, up-to-date with the gossip between the girls under Sergei’s employ. She feigned friendship in order to keep her finger on the pulse. Secretly she could not stand a single one of the other girls. They were, in reality, her competition. They could spend their time developing bonds with other girls, but such bonds could be broken in an instant. I don’t even know their real names. What kind of friendship could I really expect anyway?
She was one of twelve girls aged between ten and sixteen who worked for Sergei. Each girl had their own, new Russian name.
The boss believed that it would help each girl to forget their own troubled past and to remember how lucky they were. A fresh start. This belief was imposed on the girls, who were prohibited from using their birth names, or from even speaking aloud their names or any part of their previous persona.
Under the watchful gaze of Sergei, they had no past. They had only the present, in his presence, posing for photograph after photograph.
Anastasija’s past had lurked somewhere at the back of her mind. Being unable to speak about her life, or to hold onto photos or mementos, had pushed her memories to the back of her mind, only coming to the fore when she concentrated on her life before Sergei.
In any case, there was little of worth to her past. Formerly called Annabelle, she was not aware of any living relatives. As the six-year-old only child of a couple who had been victims of a deadly of street mugging, she had been bounced around the care system for three years. At the age of nine she made a break for freedom from the foster home she hated. The atmosphere was cold, the people unsympathetic and the treatment and tolerances inconsistent.
As if to confirm her opinion of their apathy towards her, no one had apparently ever looked for her. Living in alcoves and begging for food, it had taken no time at all to see what the world had to offer. She had seen people starve to death. She had seen desperate people sell their bodies for food. She had seen knife fights. She had seen it all within one week.
She determined within herself that she would find a way off the streets, whatever it would take. It was at such a moment that a Russian man in a nice suit offered her a chance of a better life, a warm place to stay, and all of the comforts she had not known for a number of years.
The vulnerable nine year old leapt at the chance, taking the man up on his offer. By the end of that night, she was sleeping in her own hotel room, complete with luxury Queen Size bed. It took no time at all to drift off whilst wrapped in the silky, soft bedding, having eaten more food than she had ever seen in one place. There was no doubt in that young girl’s mind that she had landed on her feet.
The same, kind man showed up the next morning with fresh fruit for breakfast, several new outfits, and a camera.
Speaking between camera clicks, Sergei introduced himself properly as the owner of a modelling agency. Claiming that he was always on the lookout for new girls.
Annabelle was to be one of his girls, but she would be given a new, professional name.
As hours in front of the camera turned to days and weeks, the newly dubbed Anastasija offered little resistance to the new outfits and the new poses. Every day she was asked to do something more sexually provocative than the last.
Before she realised, she was trapped in this life, unwilling to relive the horror of her time living on the streets. She had to say yes as she transitioned from jeans and t-shirt photos in adorable poses to swimsuits, see-thru vest tops, and then the revealing of her underwear.
It was made clear to Anastasija that she would only have a roof over her head as long as she continued to bear her developing cleavage, wearing lingerie designed to cover nothing, made for a much older, fuller figure than hers.
There were times when she had caught sight of the photos that had captured her most shameful moments. The thought of seeing herself in such vulgar photographs made her stomach turn. A small part of her died whenever the realisation of her reality dawned on her. She had grown from a child into a young woman in front of the eyes of sex-hungry people. The product of her photo-shoots was purchased for pleasure, deplorably downloaded by anyone with a credit card and $30 to spare each month.
As much as such realisations caused her flesh to crawl, nothing engendered abhorrence more than being asked to provide the latest ‘money shot’, something new and ‘sexy’.
Her fears, theoretical and first, became real when other girls refused to cooperate. They had learned the hard way that they should have said yes, and the ones who had talked to Anastasija had cajoled her into compliance.
Some of the ‘No-No Girls’ as Sergei had dubbed them, had disappeared for days, returning with stories of forced sexual encounters with paying, overweight men. Others were ‘starring’ in rape fantasy videos. The rest had not returned at all. No one dared to ask the angry man what had become of them.
Wise to the dangers, Anastasija had never said no. She had done her best to seem eager to please her boss, landlord and judge. She was trusted, treated to lavish gifts, each one tainted with the secret knowledge that she had paid for it with the further relaxing or removal of her morals.
Those girls that showed enthusiasm continued to model and then to work for Sergei, long after their ‘best years’ were behind them, and Anastasija was keen to be one of those girls. At fifteen, she knew that she would soon be developed to the point of being of little interest to Sergei and his devoted fan base. If she worked hard to impress, she would become an integral part of the operation, possibly taking up a staff position in the business she was starting to know inside and out.
Her delicious food, her exquisite clothes and her hotel suite were funded by the increasingly popular website known as “Pretty Little Angels”, allegedly based in Russia. Purporting to purvey only innocent child modelling photos, the landscape changed when a subscriber logged in, where they were able to view all manner of material, and to make requests regarding models and scenarios.
The website was hosted and stored on Russian servers, with backups stored elsewhere in case the authorities ever intervened. Painstaking effort was undertaken to make every part of the setup look as if it still hailed from Eastern Europe, and the effort seemed to pay off. The clothes worn and the décor were designed to mislead.
Their efforts were not limited to the sets for each shoot. Thanks to green screens stuck to windows, and Photoshop software, views of the Kremlin, the Palace Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, Lake Baikal and other iconic Russian vistas could be added to further lend a Russian authenticity to photos taken in the East End of London.
Anastasija, though, was not ready to retire from modelling and the lavish lifestyle it would fund. She was at the top, and she was keen to stay there. Others gracefully moved on to webcam shows, broadcast live from rooms decorated like a teenager’s bedroom. The glamour, the prestige of these was non-existent, even if they did pave the way for a career in adult pornography, serious money and a home of her own.
She gritted her teeth in between sips of wine. Sitting in an electric blue micro bikini, covered with a bathrobe, she watched David, the photographer, set up for another girl. She was a recent addition, very flirtatious and incredibly ambitious. She shook her head as the girl winked for the cameraman. I’m not going to be upstaged by these young, unashamed little girls.
In another twenty minutes she would carry on where she had left off, another absurd pose, risking the straining of muscles in her legs and back, adding to her own shame for the enjoyment of others. Such things were necessary to appease Sergei, the man who held her life in his hands. She put her feet on the coffee table in front of her and tried to shake the tension from her shoulders. I won’t be here forever, but I’m not going to let anyone take the good life from me just yet.
Her legs had barely straightened when there was a cheerful knock on the door.
“Can you get that, luv?” said David in his typical cockney accent. “I’ve got me hands full. Tell ’em to come back later when Sergei’s ’ere.”
With a sigh she stood up and opened the door. A tall, pleasant-looking man was standing there, alongside a short, blonde girl, not too much younger than her.
The man cleared his throat and said, “I’m here to see Sergei.”
Anastasija started to close the door. “He’s busy,” she said, offering the standard response, remembering it from the many times she had heard it said by others. “He doesn’t like to be disturbed.”
As the door started to close the man extended a hand and pushed against it. “He’s expecting me.” He nodded his head in the direction of the pretty little blonde girl by his side. “I’m here to make a deal.”
She rolled her eyes and let out another sigh. “I’ll see if he’s available,” she said in a laboured tone. “Wait here.” She closed the door in a careful manner and walked towards the back office.
“Who is it?” David mumbled as he adjusted a light.
“Some guy with a girl he wants to trade,” she said, feeling frustrated that her rest time had turned into secretarial legwork.
“Is she cute?” David asked.
She shrugged as she walked further from him, and responded in a louder voice, “She’s probably better-looking than I am.” She stopped dead in her tracks and frowned. Perhaps there was no need for such honesty. I need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
At the point where she was about to knock on Sergei’s door, the large man came bounding out of the room as if he was escaping some ferocious animal.
“Ana,” he bellowed when he was within arm’s reach of her, causing her to wince, “you may accompany me in talking to these people. Be a friend to this new girl. You may have a longer break until your next shoot than you would expect.”
He strode with purpose to the door and flung it open.
“Sergei?” said the man behind the door, looking uncomfortable.
“Yes, I am he.” He said nodding and smiling. “You must forgive me sir, I am not so good with names.”
“Joshua,” said the tall but timid man, and then pointing to his right added, “This is Abigail.”
Sergei raised and kissed the back of the girl’s hand before straightening up. “A pleasure to meet you, girl.” He spun around and walked towards the Chesterfield sofa opposite the one on which Anastasija had recently been sitting.
As the guests entered and took their seats, Anastasija took hers next to her boss. She had not witnessed such a meeting before. She could barely hear the first few words spoken over the sound the increased beating of her heart. This could be the girl that takes my place. What if I’m gone by tonight?
She shook her head. He wouldn’t have me sit here, acting as the girl’s mentor if he was going to kick me out on to the streets.
She couldn’t believe her own reassurances. The more girls arrived, the slimmer her chances of surviving for very much longer. A wicked smirk glimmered on her face and disappeared in an instant. She would nod, smile, act friendly, encourage the girl, and then she would make a move to show Sergei that no one could improve on his number one girl. If I can get rid of this girl, I’ll feel much safer, at least for now.