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The ShortRead: Jonathan Freedland

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29 April

The 3rd Woman

Author: Jonathan Freedland

What's the story: Freedland is continuing to do his utmost to make the rest of us look work-shy: an award-winning journalist, you can find his weekly column in The Guardian, while his gentle tones can be heard of Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View

The 3rd Woman is his sixth novel: a high-concept thriller (you'll need to be concentrating) that follows the plight of journalist Madison Webb. Obsessed with uncovering the truth, Webb's life takes an unfortunate turn when she begins an investigation into her own sister's death. Refusing to follow the official line that Abigail’s death was an isolated crime, Madison discovers her sister was actually the third in a spate of killings that have been purposefully hushed up. 

Release date: 2 July


Extract

Normally Madison Webb liked January. If you grew up used to golden California sun, winter could be a welcome novelty. The cold – not that it ever got truly cold in LA – made your nerves tingle, made you feel alive.

Not this January, though. She had spent the month confined to a place of steel and blank, windowless walls, one of those rare corners of LA compelled to operate throughout the Chinese New Year. It never stopped, day or night. She had been working here for three weeks, twenty shifts straight, taking her place alongside the scores of seamstresses hunched over their machines. Though the word ‘seamstresses’ was misleading. As Maddy would be explaining to the LA public very soon, the word suggested some ancient, artisan skill, while in reality she and the other women were on an assembly line, in place solely to mind the devices, ensuring the fabric was placed squarely in the slot and letting the pre-programmed, robotic arm do the rest. They were glorified machine parts themselves.

Except that machines, as she would put it in the first in a series of undercover reports on life in an LA sweatshop, would be treated better than these people, who had to stand at their work-stations for hours on end, raising their hands for a bathroom break, surrendering their phones as they arrived, lest they surreptitiously try to photograph this dingy basement where, starved of natural light and illuminated by a few naked lightbulbs, she felt her eyesight degraded by the day.

Being deprived of her phone had presented the most obvious obstacle, Maddy reflected now, as she fed a stretch of denim through the roller, ensuring its edges aligned before it submitted to the stitching needle. She had worked with Katharine Hu, the resident tech-genius in the office and Maddy’s best friend there, to devise a concealed camera. Its lens was in the form of a button on her shirt. From there, it transmitted by means of a tiny wire to a digital recorder taped into the small of her back. It did the job well, giving a wide-angled view of everything she faced: turn 360 degrees and she could sweep the whole place. It picked up snatches of conversation with her fellow seamstresses and with Walker, the foreman – including a choice moment as he instructed one ‘bitch’ to get back to work.

With nearly two hundred hours of recordings, she knew she had enough to run a story that would have serious impact. The camera had caught in full the incident nearly a week ago when Walker had denied one of Maddy’s co-workers a bath­room break, despite repeated requests. The woman’s pleas had grown desperate, but he just bellowed at her, ‘How many times do I have to say it, sha’abi? You been on your break already today.’ He used that word often, but calling a woman a cunt in a room full of other women represented an escala­tion all the same.

When the other workers started yelling, Walker reached for the night-stick that completed his pseudo-military, brown-and-beige polyester uniform, the kind worn by private security guards in supermarkets. He didn’t use the weapon but the threat of it was enough. The crying woman collapsed at the sight of it. A moment or two later a pool of liquid spread from her. At first they thought it was the urine she had been struggling to contain. But even in this light they could see it was blood. One of the older women understood. ‘That poor child,’ she said, though whether she was referring to the woman or the baby she had just miscarried, Maddy could not tell. She had been near enough to film the whole scene. Edited, it would appear alongside the first article in the series.

She was writing in her head at this very moment, mentally typing out what would be the second section of the main piece. Everyone knew already that sweatshops like this one were rife across California, providing cheap labour, thanks mainly to migrants who had dashed across the Mexican border in the dead of night, to make or finish goods for the US or Latin American markets. That wasn’t news. LA Times readers knew why it had happened too: these days the big Chinese corporations found it cheaper to make goods in LA than in Beijing or Shanghai, now that their own workers cost so much. What people didn’t know was what it was actually like inside one of these dumps. That was her job. The stats and the economics she’d leave to the bean-counters on the business desk. What would get this story noticed was the human element, the unseen workers who were actually paying the price. Oh, that sounded quite good. Maybe she should use that in the intro. The unseen workers—

There was a coughing noise, not especially loud but insistent. It came from the woman across from her on the production belt, an artificial throat-clearing designed to catch her atten­tion. ‘What?’ Madison mouthed. She glanced up at her machine, looking for a red light, warning of a malfunction. Her co-worker raised her eyebrows, indicating something about Maddy’s appearance.

She looked down. Emerging from the third buttonhole of her shirt was a tiny piglet’s tail of wire.

She tried to tuck it away, but it was too late. In four large strides, Walker had covered the distance between them – lumbering and unfit, but bulky enough to loom over her, filling the space around her.

‘You give me that. Right now.’

‘Give you what?’ Maddy could hear her heart banging in her chest.

‘You don’t want to give me any taidu now, I warn you. Give it to me.’

‘What, a loose thread on my shirt? You’re ordering me to remove my clothes now, is that it, Walker? I’m not sure that’s allowed.’

‘Just give it to me and I’ll tell you what’s allowed.’

That he spoke quietly only made her more frightened. His everyday mode was shouting. This, he knew – and therefore she knew and all the women standing and watching, in silence, knew – was more serious.

She made an instant decision, or rather her hand made it before her brain could consider it. In a single movement, she yanked out the tiny camera and dropped it to the floor, crunching it underfoot the second it hit.

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