Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chapter 1 - Permit to stay


In early June, the Northern Italian landscape was at its lushest, and the frequent thunderstorms of the season hadn´t yielded to the hot and dry midsummer yet. The trees and fields were glossy with deep, luxurious shades of green which would lose their sheen in July when the summer anticyclone would faithfully bounce approaching Atlantic storm fronts beyond the Alps, turning Italian cities into unbearable furnaces and driving the populace to seaside resorts. The hot afternoon sun was blazing from nearly overhead, as there were less than three weeks to the summer solstice, and the howling wind barely managed to keep us comfortable from the heat as Angelo´s authentic, convertible US Army jeep roared along the autostrada from Milan towards the southernmost peaks of the Alps rearing ahead of us. The mountains stood in stark contrast to the sun-drenched plain, shadowed by white clouds billowing above them in huge standing waves that seemed likely to crash down the slopes any moment due to their sheer weight. And sometimes they did; cloudbursts could turn tranquil mountain valleys into frothing, unstoppable torrents in a matter of minutes. Yet most often, upon reaching the Alps, the sun inexplicably continued to shine through seemingly stationary gaps in the cloud cover for the benefit of high-altitude sunbathers. However, this Sunday we weren´t going to Val Maggia on the Swiss side for a day of sun, swimming and cruising along the meandering alpine river, but to visit Angelo´s parents´ villa by the Como lake to see if the recent storms had toppled trees in the garden, blown away roof tiles, or in any other way damaged the old building cherished by his family as their holiday residence. I´d been there twice before and remembering our previous visits made me wonder if there was a hidden agenda to this one as well.

I threw a quick sideways glance at his direction to probe my feelings about the possible outcome of the afternoon. At six feet four inches, Angelo´s height was the first thing people noticed about him, followed by either the handsome face if he was wearing something baggy and modest as usual, or the massive gym-trained body in those rare occasions when he was feeling reckless or sufficiently unrefined to show it off. Today he was wearing a pair of military shorts and a tank top, further feeding my suspicions about his motives for the trip. He had unmistakably grown during the year I´d known him, and despite his shocked denials I remained convinced that human glands alone could not pump out sufficient amounts of testosterone to produce a physique like his. Not that I could claim innocence on the subject myself. I decided I´d have no qualms about him cheating on his boyfriend Luca, which actually was a foregone conclusion as we´d never gotten along well, me being not only Angelo´s best friend but also an occasional – and for the time being, former – fuck buddy.

“How are things with Luca?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the wind.

“Could be better,” Angelo replied.

“Is he getting tired of the role of a battered housewife?”

Angelo shot me an annoyed look, then grinned. "You shouldn´t joke about it."

“Well, you warned him from the start. He knew what he was getting into.”

“No, he probably didn´t,” Angelo said, returning serious.

“What did you do this time?”

He shrugged. “I had to take him to emergency room two days ago. Apparent concussion.”

“Was it?”

“No. But it could have been.”

“Angelo…”

“I know.”

Several people, some of them complete strangers, had come to warn me after I´d first met Angelo. I had discounted the stories as envious gossip, given the universal interest people showed for him every time we went out, but shortly afterwards he had told me himself that some of it was true. Wryly, he had added that ever since his violent streak became known more people than ever came on to him.

“Did he leave you?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“They never do,” Angelo answered, merely stating a fact.

He took the exit ramp to Como, paid the fare at the toll booth, and soon we were on a narrow and winding state road hairpinning up to the mountains. Even by Italian standards the landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful, with an airy blue haze suffusing the verdant mountains whose slopes plunged dramatically straight into the glittering lake. The shoreline was crowded with old pictoresque palazzos, like a thin strip of Venice transplanted in the Alps, and here and there, far above the lake, a few solitaire villas clung to the mountains. Angelo´s was one of these, and we had to turn to a narrow and dangerous-looking road to reach the estate. As we climbed higher I couldn´t help wishing that whoever had built the road had included safety barriers as well. A single incautious swerve would be sufficient to send us tumbling down into the fathomless depths of the lake, which looked far more sinister now than at the beginning of the ascent, and as if on cue one of the ubiquitous clouds covered the sun and turned the water almost black. To distract myself with gossip, I turned to Angelo.

“So, what exactly happened with Luca? Did he deserve it?”

Angelo frowned slightly as he tackled yet another steep curve. “No. Not really.”

“Not really? What does that mean?”

“He just wasn´t as co-operative as he should be.”

I waited.

When there was no answer, I pressed on. “Is this, unco-operativeness, related to things like the red thatch marks I saw on his biceps two weeks ago at the dinner? When he reached for the wine?”

“He´s fixated on his biceps, so I like to give them some extra attention,” Angelo replied with a grin. “The marks are never permanent, though.”

“I figured that´s why he never comes to the swimming pool with us.”

“Quite right.”

“Isn´t it getting to be the time to dump him? Before you really hurt him?”

He nodded. “You might be right. It´d be a pity, though. I picked him up from the hospital the next morning and we had, quote, the best sex ever, unquote.”

I believed it. "Well, when the time comes, don´t ask me to replace him."

Angelo laughed. “I wouldn´t dare.”

He slowed down, and turned to a driveway that was, if possible, even more dangerous than the main road. The wheels of the jeep crunched over minor landslides that had fallen on the hairpinning drive, and several times the trees came so close on both sides that Angelo had to slow down to almost nothing to keep the branches from sweeping us from our seats. Then the trees fell back, and an ancient stone bridge, possibly dating back to Romans, took us over a deep and narrow canyon and delivered us to the front yard of the palazzo, separated from the precipice by a reassuringly sturdy-looking balustrade. I jumped off the car, and once again was awestruck by the beauty of the place. The villa wasn´t one of the largest or most exclusive in the area, but it was a superb example of 19th–century craftsmanship nevertheless. The ocra stonework had weathered beautifully, and the effect was further enhanced by tall, narrow windows with their rust-colored wrought-iron bars, and a row of large terracotta vases with palm trees. The building had one floor, except for the beautifully proportioned, narrow tower on the left side which was two stories high, vaguely modeled after a medieval castle, and topped by a roofed terrace. The back garden ascended steeply behind the villa, offering a view to the cypresses and gnarled sea pines, and some overgrown bushes with dark red flowers in bloom. A small brook ran through the garden, forming a series of small cascades before vanishing into the canyon. To the opposite direction, the view over the lake was incomparable.

“I can´t believe you grew up here,” was my lame and repetitive first comment every time I visited the place.

“It´s not bad,” he agreed. “And it does look attractive after a few weeks spent in the Milan smog.”

“There are no signs of the storm,” I noted. “Should we check out the back?”

The path to the backyard passed too close to the canyon for my liking, considering that a part of the passage was cantilevered, and should the old construction give in we´d have plenty of time to reach terminal velocity – literally – before smashing into the rocks below. Admittedly, a collapse wasn´t very likely after almost two hundred years of impeccable service, but I was glad nevertheless when I found myself back on the firm ground. Apart from a few torn branches, scattered here and there, the backyard had survived the storms in pristine condition. Almost.

“Angelo,” I said, standing still. “Look at the back door.”

A small window, the one right above the handle, had been smashed in. The door was unlocked as Angelo tried the handle. He stepped in, and I followed, unsure if it was the wisest thing to do. The back door lead directly into the living room, and we stood still, listening.

The house was silent, but only for a moment. The inevitable creaks of a large old building were there; and the roof tiles clicked almost inaudibly as they shifted under the hot sunshine. The thick stone walls had absorbed the heat of the day, and inside the air was still pleasureably cool, and smelled faintly of dry wood. Shafts of daylight leaked in through sheer white floor-to-ceiling curtains, and the massive but sparse furniture added to the airy, uncluttered feeling of the room. An open door lead to a small dining room adjacent to the kitchen, and on the other side of the living room, along the wall, a staircase of dark wood climbed to the second floor of the tower. Underneath the staircase was a short corridor to enter the master bedroom, and a large, modernized bathroom. There were no signs of burglary.

Carefully, to avoid making noise on the tiled floor, Angelo walked to the dining room where he could see into the kitchen. I followed him, and saw that his intuition had been right. The dining room was as impeccable as the rest, but on the kitchen table lay the remains of a simple meal: an opened bottle of mineral water, half a loaf of bread on rumpled white paper, some cheese and a tomato. Angelo gestured me to stay in the dining room, where I could guard the rest of the house, while he stepped into the kitchen for a closer look. It crossed my mind that the intruder might be armed, but then remembered that guns weren´t as ubiquitous in Italy as back home in Texas, and to keep one at home was almost unheard of. I heard Angelo move around in the kitchen for a little while, and when he returned he looked serious but not overtly alarmed.

Then it was the turn of the rest of the first floor. Again, Angelo gestured me to remain in the living room where I could see all the exits and warn him if someone appeared on top of the stairs. As I waited, I made some calculations and came to the conclusion that it would take at least two hours for the police to arrive if I slipped outside and called 112 on my cell phone – which might ring any moment. I snatched it from my pocket, and turned it off. It took Angelo only few seconds to check the rooms, and I showed him my phone when he reappeared. He nodded, pulled out his own and turned it off as well.

We proceeded to the second floor. Luckily, the wooden part of the staircase was massive enough to make almost no noise at all as we slowly went up, step by step. At the corner of the living room the stairs turned, and continued upwards within the stone structure of the tower. The second floor held two bedrooms and another, smaller bathroom, and when we reached the landing we saw that two of the doors were closed but the third one, leading to a bedroom, was a little ajar. Very quietly, Angelo stepped to the door, and slowly pushed it open. His eyes widened, but he didn´t move. I went to him, and peered into the shadowy room.

The wooden shutters were closed, but the inner glass windows had been left open, to allow a light breeze and some light pass through the slants of the shutters. The long white curtains were swaying a little, and suddenly the filtered daylight turned brighter as a cloud moved away from the sun. The white sheets of the bed glowed as if illuminated from within, and in the bed, partly covered by the sheets, lay a dark-haired young man, fast asleep. He was lying on his back, head turned to the side, one curled hand raised on his pillow and slightly touching his cheek, and his eyelashes fluttered slightly as he dreamt. He was wearing only a fresh pair of plain white underwear, some nameless brand that could be found at large department stores or supermarkets, and on the floor next to the bed, in a small heap, were his jeans and a white t-shirt.

As I stared at him I realized he was much younger than I had first thought. His face belonged to a kid of only sixteen or seventeen, but his hands, although carefully scrubbed, bore the evidence of a job at a construction site and thus explained the well-muscled body. His skin was perfectly smooth, with only a tiny whiff of visible hair above the waistband of his underwear, and none on the chest, and there was just a trace of baby fat still clinging to his belly and cheeks. The neck was strong, and the set of his eyes unusual, making me think the boy was of Eastern European origin, perhaps a Romanian who were famous for their good looks. I glanced at Angelo, and could tell I wasn´t the only one mesmerized by the sight. He noticed my glance and shrugged, somewhat amused. But then, instead of politely knocking on the door to wake up the boy, he entered the room taking advantage of his entitlement as the owner of the house, and looked around enquiringly. Not quite sure about his intentions, I followed.

In a corner, behind the bed, was a worn canvas gym bag with all the boy´s belongings. There were some clothes, topped by a frayed brown envelope which seemed to contain a few photographs and a letter, and a small unopened package of cheap potato chips. The edge of a passport poked out from a side pocket. A small frown appeared on Angelo´s face as he observed the bag and then turned back to the boy. I knew he wasn´t going to call the police.

Despite our silent entry the boy was growing restless, aware in his sleep that something was not right. He sighed, turned to his side, and then his eyes opened. Instantly, he was wide awake. He snapped into action, trying to jump on his feet next to the bed, but snagged by the sheets he nearly fell down and had to seek support from the bedside table. Angelo stepped between him and the door, seemingly relaxed and unthreatening, but his size was quite enough to frighten the boy whose eyes darted between the two of us, trying to figure out who we were, and how we were going to hurt him. He was breathing fast, almost gasping, and his blue Slavic eyes were wide with panic as he quickly glanced sideways, looking for something to defend himself with.

“Calm down,” I said slowly, in my accented Italian. “We won´t harm you.”

He made no answer, but since neither I nor Angelo was moving he stood still as well, observing us more closely. Then, while assessing Angelo, he nervously realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, and his eyes searched for his clothes. He didn´t dare to pick them up, though, afraid that we´d assault him if he let his guard down.

“Angelo,” I said. “Tell him to calm down.”

“He´s right,” Angelo obeyed. “We won´t hurt you. Do you speak Italian?” he added tentatively as the boy didn´t react to his words.

The boy nodded, but didn´t move. He gave me another glance, confirming his impression of me being foreigner like himself, and turned back to Angelo.

“Your – place?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The boy gestured around him. “Not harm your place.”

His voice was soft and low, and despite the accent he pronounced the words quite clearly.

Angelo nodded. “I saw that. How long have you been here?”

Now the boy blushed, and shifted on his feet. “Three weeks.”

The two were staring at each other, and then the boy blinked twice, having realized something. He glanced at me, then Angelo again. His eyes widened a little. The atmosphere of the room shifted, and in my mind I quickly had to suppress an image of the three of us in the bed, naked, the boy´s face incredulous and slack-jawed with pleasure as he discovered what two men could do to him.

“Put on your clothes,” I said, pointing at his jeans, afraid that the kid would freak out.

“What´s your name?” Angelo asked politely, following my lead, as the kid picked up his jeans.

“Jan.”

Pulling on his t-shirt, which was soiled with concrete dust and some dark stains, he added, “I have job. No home.”

“Where are you from?”

Romania.”

Jan finished tying up the laces of his sneakers, which were in pretty bad shape, and asked, “Want eat?”

He moved towards the door, as if being the host inviting us for a late lunch, but as Angelo stepped aside to let him pass Jan suddenly gave him a hard shove, with all his might, and tried to slip through the door. Angelo hardly budged, being far too heavy for the boy, but taken by surprise he almost let the boy slip by before reacting. He reached out and grabbed Jan by the t-shirt, pulling him back, and the side seam of the shirt ripped all the way up to his armpit. Instinctively Angelo let go, and the boy was out of the room and running. Angelo cursed, more for having ripped the shirt than for letting the boy go, and ran after him, pounding down the stairs two steps at time. The kid was faster, though, and by the time we had stomped through the living room and reached the front yard, he had already crossed the brigde and was running along the road. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder, mouth agape, the ruined white t-shirt flapping in the wind, and seeing us follow him he dived into the undergrowth, beginning the long breakneck descent towards the lake. When we reached the edge of the road he was plunging recklessly down the slope, holding on to trees and bushes, and risking to break his leg or worse any moment.

“Slow down!” Angelo yelled after him. “We´re not following you!”

Jan came to a halt, hanging on to a branch, and looked upwards to us.

“Come back,” Angelo continued. “I want to help.”

For a moment, the kid stared at us with a blank expression, and then he turned his back and carried on with his descent, this time without hurry. Angelo cursed again, under his breath.

“Is there a road down there? Can we get to him by car?” I asked.

Angelo thought for a moment, and shook his head. “Not in time. We´d have to drive back almost to Como to take that road.”

“Is he going to make it without breaking his neck?”

Angelo looked grim. “I hope so.”

We watched Jan until the last glimpse of his white shirt had vanished from view. When we were sure he was so far below that we couldn´t possibly any longer hear him shout for help, we slowly returned to the house. A dark cloud had risen above the lake, and on the windshield of the car there were tiny droplets.

“It´s starting to rain,” Angelo said, disheartened.

“He would probably have bolted anyway, but the way you stared at him sure didn´t help.”

“And you didn´t?” Angelo looked at me, incredulous. “You should have seen your face!”

“Ehm, maybe you´re right,” I backpedalled, and changed the subject. “All his stuff is here. Those photos… What are we going to do?”

“I´ll make some phone calls.”

We retreated into the house, and the rain started in earnest. To the north, where the lake vanished behind the mountains, a few jagged lightnings reached down from the clouds but they were too far for the thunder to be heard. Angelo spent the next forty-five minutes sprawled on the huge leather couch in the living room, talking on his cell phone, calling every local constructor whose number he could get. No one knew anything about a Romanian called Jan. Frustrated, he threw the phone down and stared outside through the rain-streaked windows.

“The kid´s an illegal alien, underage, and with no working permit. They´re not going to tell me anything.”

“Maybe we should pack his things up,” I suggested, “and take them somewhere he can get them.”

“Where?” Angelo asked, but stood up.

I was stumped. “The front door? When we leave? I mean, we have to do something.”

“The eave isn´t wide enough to protect the bag from rain.” He paused. “We´ll leave the bag inside, on a chair in front of the back door. So the kid will know it´s OK to break the window again to get to it. That is, if we find someone to fix it before he comes back.”

“I like that,” I agreed.

The upstairs window was still open, and the room was chilly. The few possessions of the boy seemed even more wretched now that he was gone. While I closed the window, Angelo picked up the passport and flipped through the pages.

“Jan Tariceanu,” he said unhappily. “Not seventeen yet. And there´s no permit to stay.”

We started gathering his things, and packed them in the canvas bag. Next to the bed, on the floor, we found an old, dog-eared issue of Playgirl.

“That´s from my room,” Angelo said, staring at the magazine. “Put it in the bag.”

“Planning ahead?” I asked, squeezing in the magazine. “Should we write your phone number on the cover?”

“Not a bad idea. Not at all,” Angelo answered, his mood lifting up a bit.

When everything was ready, we stood up and looked around the room. The bed had remained untouched, and the depression left by Jan´s body was still discernible. The image of the three of us in the bed crossed my mind again, this time with Jan wearing nothing but his torn t-shirt, and when I turned to Angelo I saw he´d been thinking somewhere along the same lines. He gave me a knowing smile, one that I recognized.

Darkness had fallen when we left the house for the ride back to Milan. It was still raining, and occasional distant flashes of lightning illuminated the lake and the mountains, and the road seemed more treacherous than ever. Before closing the doors behind us, Angelo had left a note on Jan´s bag:

“I want to help. This is a serious offer. Call 347-5431153. Angelo.”



Chapter 2 - The out call

Ever since I´d made my latest career move I no longer had to spend my evenings, especially on Sundays, fretting over the early wake-up call the next morning. I could sleep as late as I wanted, usually getting up at leisurely one o´clock in the afternoon, sometimes even later if I felt particularly slothful and had earned well the previous days. Having gone through my slow-motion morning routines of high-protein breakfast and reading the daily papers on line, I set off for the gym, looking forward to my daily dose of male flesh in various stages of undress and, fairly regularly, arousal. Even the first whiff of the locker room as I entered, with its mixture of soap, detergent, and the strong underlying male scent, was often sufficient to give me a quick stab of a hard-on that subsided only when my nose became accustomed to the smell. The situation wasn´t much easier in the weight room, where most Italian men seemed to shun baggy sportswear and most of them wore outfits that were designed to show off not only their muscles but their sturdy genitals as well, and in great detail.

On Monday evening, after the workout, I got a call from one of my favourite clients on my way home. Marco was a handsome Italian financial adviser in his early forties, always impeccable in his Armani suit which hinted at the muscular gym-trained body underneath, and he never took off his wedding ring before visiting me. It was always a turn-on to watch his strong hand slide up and down my shaft, caressing the bulging veins and the leaking head, while the pale golden ring glinted wickedly in the dim light of my apartment. He wanted to book me for Wednesday evening, and I certainly had no objections. In addition to great sex, each of his visits paid half of the monthly rent, and so I was in quite good mood when I got off the antiquated yellow tram and dropped by the corner store to buy some pasta farfalle and pesto genovese. With Marco visiting on Wednesday, I could easily afford a night off and either rent a DVD or check out the new bathhouse – although unfavourably reviewed - that had recently opened only few blocks from my place. A movie with Angelo was out of question, as Luca had just returned from Rome where he´d been visiting his parents for a couple of days.

There was no elevator in my building, and I climbed the four floors to the small loft apartment I´d been renting for almost a year, ever since I moved to Milan after my brief and unlucky stay in New York. The furnishings were still far from complete; there was nothing but a low couch of minimalist, white design which had been unreasonably expensive despite being second-hand, and an old 1950s metallic reading light I had found in a thrift shop. The white walls were bare as I never seemed to find anything that I wanted to see staring back at me day after day, and likewise there were no carpets on the gleaming hardwood floor. There was no table either; my laptop computer lay on the floor next to the couch that doubled as my bed, along with a small acquarium Angelo had given me for my birthday. The kitchen was hardly any more practical than the living room, as I had spent my money on two period barstools by a Scandinavian designer and continued to use the countertop as a table. However, the few pieces of furniture I had were all first-rate, and I happily ignored the remarks on my weird unfinished choices by guests who frequently risked stepping on my computer.

I prepared the farfalle al pesto, and turned on the TV to see if there was anything interesting on while I wolfed down the pasta. Despite the networks´ best efforts to keep their viewers watching, and most of all to keep them awake, the programming backfired miserably as my eyelids began feeling heavy after clicking through channels showing an Italian TV series about the tribulations of a particularly full-breasted Roman actress, a footballer´s girlfriend guessing the number of beans in a glass jar, and something that resembled celebrity karaoke. Admittedly, my lassitude wasn´t all due to the lousy programs, as Angelo had decided that an afternoon in Como hadn´t been enough and had stayed over in my place until the early hours. I wondered if he´d had trouble staying awake during all those mind-numbing meetings about procedural pitfalls or something similar in his family´s law firm where he was going to be a partner in not too distant future.

The ring of my phone woke me up, and apart from the flickering blue light of the TV set, now showing a rerun of Get Smart, the apartment was in the dark. My phone was unable to ID the caller, but as far as I could tell the prefix belonged to a residential line in Milan.

“Am I speaking with Erik?”

“That´s me,” I replied, rationing some professional good humor into my voice since I had discovered, to my surprise, that most clients preferred someone who sounded nice instead of a single-minded sex maniac.

“You gave me your number in Piazza Trento some time ago,” he said. The voice was matter-of-fact, and not very friendly. “I´d like to see you tonight, if that´s fine with you.”

“Sure.” I only gave my number to men I liked, much to the chagrin of Sebastian, my Brazilian friend who had put the idea of hustling into my head. It´s unprofessional, he kept telling me, as if choosing one´s clients were comparable to a priest sending away people who wanted to confess.

“You said you do both in and out calls,” the man continued. “Could you come over here, let´s say, in a half an hour? I live near the city center.”

“Sounds fine to me. What´s your address?”

“There´s something I´d like to explain to you first. We´re a male couple, both tops, and sometimes we do a threesome with a friend who likes it rough. What we´d like you to do is to come here and fuck him while we watch.”

So there would be two men I hadn´t seen before. I hesitated a moment.

“You´d find us wearing leather, and our friend already tied to a bed,” the man continued. “It´s an unusual scene, so we´d pay double. For each of us.”

That was six times my regular fee. “Would you want me to wear leather, too? Or restraints?”

“No, that won´t be necessary,” the man assured me.

“All right. I´ll be over in half an hour.”

The man gave me the address. “I´ll add the taxi fares to your fee. We´d like you to get here as soon as possible.”

Keeping an eye on the clock I quickly swallowed a few cookies and a yoghurt, thinking back at the conversation. I felt uneasy about a bondage scene with total strangers, but at the same time the idea was making my heart beat faster. If everything went right the job could be particularly exciting, and then there was the not inconsiderable amount of money they´d pay me for topping their helpless friend. I put on a t-shirt and a pair of cammies, stacked a side pocket with lube and condoms, slipped my cell phone in the other, and called a cab.

I hadn´t known there were mansions with private gardens so close to the very center of the city. When the cab driver turned away from one of the main thoroughfares I was quite surprised by the lavishness of the small street he had entered. The houses looked like something one might expect to see in Côte d´Azur facing the Mediterranean and not in the center of a major industrial city. The sidewalks were lined with huge trees that engulfed the streetlights until they became merely ornamental, glittering uncertainly through the foliage and doing little to illuminate the street itself. I paid the driver, and as the car vanished into the darkness I stood still awhile, studying the place. All the houses were surrounded by inhospitable spiky fences, or brick walls with their tops undoubtedly sprinkled with broken glass, and many of them were unlit since, I presumed, the inhabitants were presently either residing at the Paris Ritz or relaxing in the Caribbean. The air smelled fresh and at the same time of moist earth, like in a large city park, and the sound of the traffic was reduced into a distant hum. The house I was standing in front of had two floors, and it had been built noticeably later than the others, perhaps replacing an older mansion that had been hit during the Allied bombings during the World War II and deemed irreparable. Less ornamented than the others, it bore the marks of postwar architecture although by no means could one call the building modest. All the curtains were drawn, letting only faint suggestions of light through to indicate that someone was home, and to get my libido up and running I spent a moment imagining what was happening behind the darkened façade of the house. Then I pressed the gate buzzer.

The lock clicked open almost immediately. I stepped through, and the heavy gate swung back with suprising force and clanged shut, making me jump. No neighbors opened their windows to protest, though, with the trees stifling the noise as efficiently as they hid the other houses from view. Privacy was clearly highly appreciated in this enclave of privilege. The garden was rather narrow but skillfully designed, with its two large maples among the culprits smothering the street lights, and to compensate the effect there were several dim garden lanterns to draw attention to the some of the best features: a rosebush that seemed to be bursting with deep red blooms, another one with delicate white flowers, and an ancient marble fountain sprouting water from the jug of a rather mouldy female figure. A stairway, lined with potted palm trees, lead to a porch that ran the width of the house and served no other purpose but to accommodate another extensive array of plants, some of them creeping up the pillars to almost hide the terracotta roof of the porch, and others dangling down to the ground, their blooms swaying in an occasional breeze. I pressed another buzzer, and cranked the old-fashioned handle after hearing the click of the lock. The door was so heavy it had to be armored, and it took some effort to push it open.

I found myself in an empty vestibule, with the host apparently unwilling to risk a glimpse of his leather kit to any neighbors despite the protection provided by the trees. I closed the door behind me, and walked into the living room, an expression that seemed inadequate for such a large shadowy space. The most prominent feature was a large fireplace of grey marble, with a massive leather couch and two matching armchairs facing it. Generously proportioned oil paintings hang on the walls, mostly portraits, each with its own muted spotlight, the only source of illumination in the room. There were various antique tables, vases with enormous flower settings, and three potted trees between the front windows, but any further details were lost on me as my attention focused on the sole figure standing in front of me.

He was an inch or two shorter than me but obviously no stranger to steroids, and he wasn´t in full leather drag as I had expected. Instead, he was wearing a pair of black jeans and a black t-shirt that showed off the beginnings of a gut, but given the thick muscular arms and legs the overall effect was proportionate and, undeniably, quite stimulating. Adding to the perverse appeal was a pair of black kid gloves, which had always been a turn-on for me, and a perfectly fitting executioner´s black leather hood that removed all expression from his eyes. The skin of his powerfully built arms was tanned, and of a shade that suggested him being from the south of Italy. I felt a sudden rush of blood into my groin, building up a pleasureable heaviness against my cammies.

“Hi Erik,” the man said. “You´re looking good.”

“So are you,” I said, sincerely.

“Let´s get this part over and done with.” He handed me a few banknotes which I pocketed without looking at them. “Let´s go upstairs.”

Most of the house was in the dark, and I had to pay attention not to stumble as I followed him through a library with floor-to-ceiling shelving and a massive mahogany writing desk, and all the appropriate paraphernalia including an large-sized antique globe held in an old-fashioned wooden framework. Then we climbed a wide staircase, and continued along a corridor with several doors, some of them open, others closed, and I caught a partial look of several lavishly furnished bedrooms and a home theater. Only one of the rooms was illuminated; the master bedroom, at the end of the corridor. It was decorated as the rest of the house, with dark gleaming wood and rich, embroidered fabrics that shimmered in the dim light of two bedside lamps. For a moment, I paused at the doorway, taking in the view.

Leaning against a rococo writing desk, arms crossed across his chest and in harsh contrast to the delicate piece of furniture, stood the other top. He was wearing a pair of black trousers and a t-shirt as well, and the same type of gloves and hood as his friend. He was taller, with a more average build, and perhaps because of him standing still and not talking, only staring at me with the deadened eyes through the black mask, I reckoned him as the more aggressive one, the one I´d have to watch out for. Next to him, on top of the desk, almost hidden by a black gym bag, I noticed an open beer can. Then my eyes were drawn to the man tied to the canopied bed.

He was lying on his stomach, spread-eagled, his ankles and wrists tightly secured to the bedposts with smooth hemp rope that drew his body taut and left him utterly powerless. He was completely naked except for another black leather hood, but this one was more elaborate than the others. It fastened tightly in place with a belt around his neck, and it included a snap-on blindfold and an efficient leather belt gag with either an extra large or inflatable rubber ball that completely filled up his mouth, judging by the pitiful, muffled groans he was fighting to let out. The muscles of his back flexed as the blinded man vainly struggled to free himself, and there were signs of rope burn already as he alternatively bunched his hands into fists and then tried to reach out with extended fingers, searching for leverage or help that couldn´t be found. He looked uncommonly agitated, giving the impression of being truly afraid, and I glanced questioningly at the two tops.

“He´s good, isn´t he?” the one who had paid me said.

The man in the bed was in good shape and clearly worked out regularly, but I pegged him between fifty and sixty years old, whereas the two men were probably the same age as Angelo, in their early thirties. The setup made me wonder if the two men were in fact my colleagues.

“Want something to drink?” the beer guzzler asked, and picked up a can from the bag. He threw it at me, without waiting for an answer, and I caught the can in midair. It was a popular energy drink I liked, and I popped the lid open and took a sip.

The words had an alarming effect on the captive. Realizing I had arrived, he began squirming frantically, choking on the gag as he repeatedly tried to shout. Again, I looked at the men, and they smiled at me smugly. I turned back to the slave, and watching him fight the bondage I sipped at the drink, letting my hard-on grow until it visibly tented my cammies and I had to unzip them. Even behind their masks I could tell the men were impressed by what they saw.

“We´d like you to fuck him bareback. For extra.”

I inhaled sharply. “Sorry, guys. I´d like to, but that´s just something I don´t do.”

“That´s OK,” the more talkative one responed. “But we want you to come inside him, even if you´re using a condom.”

“That I can do,” I said, setting down the drink and pulling off my t-shirt. “Do you want to see him take my cock down his throat first?”

“No, we just want you to fuck him,” the one next to the drawer said, and turned to his bag. “But first you have to open him up.”

He pulled out a spectacular chromed dildo with massively ribbed shaft, and a bottle of lube. I had stripped off all my clothes now, and the man gestured me to climb on the bed between the spread legs of the man. The victim went into another fit of convulsions when he felt my weight settle on the bed behind him, and, smiling, the hooded topman handed the dildo over to me. It felt cold and heavy, and at close range the shaft seemed disproportionately thick. Unless the captive was accustomed to something that size it would take a long time and a lot of effort to work it in, and it would be painful.

The prop master snapped open the transparent bottle of lube. I expected him to slowly rub the thick liquid into his slave´s ass, and then play a little, slip in a finger or two to tease the man´s prostate and make him squirm, perhaps while lubing up my hard-on with his other hand. Instead, he simply poured the liquid between the man´s cheeks, and stepped back to watch the effect it had on him. Now the man was fighting even harder than before against the restraints, but it only helped the lube to seep deeper in between his buttocks and as he felt the touch of the slick liquid on his anus his whole body went rigid, and he let out another choked whimper, shaking his head. With one hand, I spread his asscheeks, and nudged the tight little opening with the blunt head of the dildo. Watching the man struggle had made my cock so hard it was starting to ache from within, and I felt an early drop of precum force its way along my pisstube. A glistening bead of liquid appeared on the tip of my cock, grew in size, and in slow motion dropped between the man´s legs.

“Wait,” the more muscular man said. “I really want to see you fuck him. Do you mind?”

He stepped next to me, and lifted the dildo from my hands. I gave it to him, naturally, but now I was getting a little annoyed by the inaptitude of the two. There was also the consideration of putting on a good show to ensure they´d call me again, and so far the scene had been remarkably dull except for the captive´s performance. So I picked up a condom, and made sure they noticed how difficult the girth of my dick made the task of slipping it on. Once ready, I slapped the man´s glistening asscheeks with my hard-on a few times, to lube up the rubber, while forcing a finger into him to seek out his prostate. He was very tight, fighting my entry, but when I reached the goal the clenched ring of muscle suddenly loosened up, and I instantly took advantage of the fact and slipped in a second finger. Then I couldn´t wait any longer. I grabbed the root of my shaft with one hand and pointed it at the opening, and began the penetration, very slowly, enjoying the tightness and heat engulfing my cock. The man let out muffled, throaty whimpers, and his body opened up to me. I slipped in all the way. For a moment, I stayed still to savor him, and to allow him to adjust to my size, and when I felt him start to relax I began the fuck.

Almost immediately, the more muscular topman moved to my side.

“Can I touch you?” he asked.

“Sure,” I grunted. Finally things were going right.

He stepped behind me, and I felt his strong gloved hands grip my trapezius muscles and start to massage them. I reached out and took his left hand, bringing it down to cup my pectoral and tease the nipple. He did it for a while, unenthusiastically, then pulled his hand back and continued with my shoulders. I restrained myself from making a face, aware that his friend was watching, and decided to give up on the two and focus on the man I was fucking. He had stopped squirming, and I could feel him start to respond to my long, slow thrusts.

“Are you close to coming?” the man behind me asked.

I felt an urge to turn and slap his face, hard. “Already?”

“I want to see you come,” he murmured. “To fill that scumbag.”

If that´s what you want, I thought, completely put off by his manner. They were paying me so well it didn´t matter if this was just a one off job. I picked up speed, hoping he´d stop massaging my shoulders as his touch had become truly annoying. Then I realized he wasn´t enjoying it either, and that he really didn´t know how to touch a man, nor was he familiar with men´s bodies. I knew the kind, a bisexual married man with little or no experience on the subject. Most often the clumsiness was endearing - and they learned fast - but this one I judged a lost cause, among those who even kept compulsively rubbing me between the balls and the anus, unable to kick the habit, as if that was where the pleasure lay for a man as well. Or perhaps they were afraid to actually touch men´s genitals, I didn’t know; there was no way to ask one politely why they were such incompetent lovers. In any case, I was now glad that this one was limiting himself to my shoulders.

So the whole setup made no sense, unless the sub intentionally sought out straight thugs to rough him up, and a gay one to actually fuck him as the others weren´t up to it. Theoretically it made sense, but my instincts told me something was wrong with the scenario. The details didn´t add up. My annoyance began to turn into preoccupation and I decided I needed to finish the job as soon as possible and get the hell out of the house. I picked up speed and tried to muster a fantasy that would do the trick, but believing me close to coming the man moved his left hand to my gay buttock and squeezed. It felt as if he were checking out a loaf of bread at a bakery, instantly postponing my orgasm, and I removed the hand as gently as I could, under the circumstances. I closed my eyes, and conjured images of Jan in the place of the tied up client, which worked wonders. I groaned out loud to let the men know what was happening, and let go. My pleasure was as faked as the thug´s caresses, and when I was done and he wrapped his arms around me from behind I almost shuddered.

“Pull it out,” he coaxed me. “I want to see.”

I complied. The slave went silent, pressing his head against the mattress in sign of abject fear, his body shaking, as I slowly slipped out of him.

“Very good,” the thug said as he saw the full condom.

His embrace became tighter, and when I made a move to step out of the bed he suddenly squeezed me hard, forcing the air out of my lungs.

“Now,” he said as I tried to throw myself sideways to break his grip, and I now realized the other man had moved out of my sight towards the end of the fuck.

A foul-smelling rag was pushed to my face. I fought to free myself but the man holding me was too strong, and in seconds the room turned into a blur. I flailed inefficiently as my muscles lost all their strength and he set me down on the bed, and then darkness fell and I slept.

Chapter 3 - Gabriele Zaigler

I was lying on the floor on my stomach, and my hands were hurting, badly. So was my head. It took some effort to force my eyes open, and I decided it was better to lay still for a while longer, merely trying to adjust my eyes to the light.

The room appeared perfectly normal. There was no sign of a fight, and no sign of the thugs either. The black gym bag was gone. I let out a sigh of relief, and turned to my hands to see what was wrong with them. A grey electric cord – a phone cord, I realized – was wrapped around them, forming a garrote. There were visible bruises on my palms where the cord had been pulled tight. I stared at them for a moment, and then the implications of what I was seeing began to sunk into my sluggish brain. I looked around and noticed the old-fashioned telephone dropped on the floor, on the other side of the bed, and the receiver silent at the end its cord under the rococo desk. Then I saw that the loops of rope were still knotted around the bedposts, but from the floor it was impossible to tell if someone was still lying on top of the bed.

I rolled onto my back, unwilling to stand up, afraid that I would vomit if I did, and even more afraid of what I would find once I did get on my feet. Very slowly, trying to breathe regularly and not go into hyperventilation, I began to unwound the cord around my hands. They were shaking badly, and the cord became entangled. I stopped, took a deep breath, and carefully undid the knot. The bruises would remain visible for days, I realized. They were no accident. They had been added intentionally after whatever had taken place was over.

When my head had cleared a little more I gradually sat up, leaning on the hardwood floor with one hand, fighting nausea, and keeping my eyes averted from the bed. However, at the edge of my vision, I couldn´t help seeing the soles of the feet of the dead man. He was still tied to the bed, in the same position. I stood up, and recoiled from the sight.

His back, buttocks and thighs had been whipped or caned savagely while he was still alive, as almost every lash had bled copiously onto the bed. An extremely wealthy client – he wouldn´t have paid the special fee otherwise – had once wanted to whip me, and I knew how surprisingly painful the experience was even when utmost restraint was practiced. I stared at the sight, aghast, and couldn´t imagine the pain the man had endured, and yet it hadn´t been sufficient for the thugs. The huge steel dildo had been inserted deep into his anus, whether before or after the whipping I couldn´t tell, and remembering how tight the man had been I knew he could never have been able to accommodate the ribbed shaft without brutal violence. My legs were becoming wobbly again, no longer because of the drug, and I had to lean on a wall to stay upright.

The hood had been removed, and I realized that not even the most truculent slash movies had ever dared to portray the signs of strangulation truthfully. The man´s disfigured face was dark and swollen, bloodshot eyes gaping wide open, and a black tongue, grotesquely engorged, protruded from the grimacing mouth. It crossed my mind that until recently this was what people had gathered to watch as a pastime in the town marketplace. My stomach churned, both at the sight and the thought of people watching it happen, and I turned away. After blinking a few times to clear my vision I glanced around the room to see if my clothes were still there, but then something in the back of my mind made me look at the man again, and with a sinking feeling I realized I knew him. Not personally, although I had worked for his company before my modeling agency had so humiliatingly fired me. It was Gabriele Zaigler.

His self-made fashion empire provided a significant percentage of Italy´s economy and export figures and employed tens of thousands of people through its fashion, make-up and luxury goods subsidiaries, not to mention the indirect locomotive effect he had on the industry and the prestige of the entire nation. To know his name suddenly made it all so much worse, and for a moment I thought I was going to lose it and start yelling, perhaps running. Smashing things. I took a few deep breaths and managed to regain a degree of self-control, focusing tightly on one of the oil paintings on the wall, staring at a stupid-looking, gnarling lapdog at the skirt hems of a society lady. The grisly details of Gabriele´s death would be the news story of the year, and I would be the lurid and mean half of it. Another spell of nausea and dizziness came over me, and I had to sit down, turning away from Gabriele and burying my head in my hands.

The thugs had told him what was going to happen before my arrival. They´d tied him up, gagged him, and told him. All the time I´d been fucking him, he´d known. My instincts, and reason, had warned me something was wrong, but I´d chosen to ignore them for the money, and for the thrill of taking a helpless man tied to a bed.

My cammies were still lying on the floor – there was an almost hidden bloodstain on one of the legs, and certainly not by accident – and I reluctantly picked them up. My cell phone had vanished from the side pocket. The thugs had called me come from Gabriele Zaigler´s home number, and it would take the police merely minutes to check his record and find out who´d been called. Come to think of it, my phone was probably hidden somewhere in the house to be found by the investigators, perhaps fallen under a couch in my presumed hurry to escape the crime scene. That would save the police a lot of trouble, if the fingerprints on the hideous metal dildo weren´t clear enough. I remembered the energy drink can, of which there was no sign, and who knew how many other objects had been pressed into my hands and left around the house to be tested and matched against the prints in my apartment. Not even that would be necessary, I realized. About a month earlier, a police patrol had picked me up from Piazza Trento and taken me to a station to be photographed and fingerprinted. No charges had been pressed, as prostitution wasn´t illegal in Italy, but the police did their best to have a file on every hustler in town in case they murdered a client. And a telephone cord was apparently the classic device used by drug-crazed, gay-panicked straight hustlers who killed their clients when they suddenly realized they liked what they were doing. Then I remembered the hitmen´s obsession for the used condom, and couldn´t help glancing at the dead body. DNA evidence would be found in his anal cavity, sealing the case against me.

I could squirm as much I wanted, but there was no getting out of the hook. I felt a sudden shock of irrational anger towards Gabriele Zaigler. People didn´t usually get professional mafia hitmen after them unless they deserved it. However, one brief look at his terrified, suffering face cured me of this lack of sympathy. I stood still for a moment, unsure what to do, and then opened the nearest cupboard – my fingerprints were all over the place in any case – and picked up the first piece of white fabric I saw. It turned out to be a silk sheet, and I laid it down over his twisted body, the most I was able to do to show him some respect.

When I was pulling on my t-shirt, and wiping tears from my face, another thought occurred to me. No one would believe it was just a coincidence that I had worked for his label for the previous season´s advertising campaign. There would be tabloid stories of casting couch and long-standing mercenary relationship, jealousy and greed, despite the fact that I had never met him in person and the casting had been done by his art director, who had also supervised the photo shoot. I wondered if the thugs had known about my work, and chosen me because of it.

The police should already have arrived. I had to get out of the house. I headed for the corridor, found the lights and flicked them on, and yet hesitated to step forward when I saw the long line of doors, some of them gaping open like black mouths. Get a grip, I told myself. The thugs are gone. There´s no one else here. Yet I almost ran for the staircase, unable to muster any sangue froid, and as I turned the corner to the stairs I looked back, half expecting Gabriele´s agonized corpse to stand at the bedroom door, waving at me. Of course there was no one.

Cautiously, I crossed the library, and the living room, and found myself holding my breath as I slipped out of the front door. All the surrounding houses were dark, and the street was quiet. But then, it didn’t really matter; all the necessary evidence had already been planted. I walked fast towards the circonvallazione, a thoroughfare that circled the very center of the city, to find myself a cab. I was past caring if the driver would later recognize me, as the most important thing was to get home as soon as possible, gather my things, and go. It would take less than half an hour for the police to arrive at my place once they found the cell phone. I stopped at the corner of the circonvallazione when a new and alarming thought crossed my mind. Why hadn´t the police arrived already, catching me red-handed in the crime scene? Why hadn´t the thugs called 112, complaining about ruckus and screaming from Gabriele Zaigler´s house?

I was the only one who´d seen the two thugs. If I was to, say, commit suicide at home after having realized what I´d done, the case would be closed. No one would ever suspect anything. There had been no need to carry my drugged body away from Gabriele´s house, arousing suspicions and perhaps being seen, when they knew I´d run back to my own apartment and in their hands as soon as I woke up. It was a foregone conclusion that no hustler would call the police after waking up next to a dead client.

I hated the idea of involving him, but I had no other choice but to call Angelo. I reached Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and continued to Piazza Duomo where there were two newsagent´s open through the night. I bought a phone card and finally found an unvandalized booth near Piazza San Babila, with the receiver still attached to the main unit and no chewing gum shoved into the card slot. Then I realized I didn´t know Angelo´s number. It had been memorized in my cell phone. I searched the instructions plaque I´d always laughed at – who didn´t know how to use a telephone? – but there it was, the number for elenco abbonati. I called the operator, hoping no maniac or vengeful ex-boyfriend had forced Angelo to switch to a secret number, but I was lucky. As his phone rang, I glanced at the digital clock set on top of one of the buildings. It was half past three.

“Pronto?” a cranky voice answered. It wasn´t Angelo.

“Luca, is that you?” I asked, cursing under my breath. “This is Erik. Can I talk to Angelo?”

“Oh, you.” He sounded like I was calling for a donation for starving children. “What time is it?”

“It´s late. Is he there?”

“He´s asleep.”

There was a moment of silence, and then I heard Angelo´s voice in the background. Luca mumbled something, and Angelo picked up the phone.

"Erik? Is everything all right?”

“No. I need to talk to you. Without Luca listening in.” There was a pause, as we both knew the consequences of excluding a boyfriend from a late night call. “Please.”

“Just a moment. I´ll take the phone to the living room.”

I heard more mumbling, then someone raised his voice, and a moment later a door closed.

“OK, I´m getting worried here. What´s going on?”

I told Angelo everything that had happened. Every now and then he asked a relevant question, calm and business-like.

Having finished, I asked, “What should I do? Call the police?”

I had expected him to say yes, outright, and when there was a silence instead it hit me how hopeless my situation really was.

“I don´t work in criminal law,” he started. “But if those bastards haven´t made any mistakes, like leaving DNA in the house, or letting someone see them enter, it would be very difficult to defend you in court. Let me think.”

There was another pause. “I´ll pick you up there in San Babila in about twenty minutes.”

“Thanks, Angelo.” I was so relieved my knees went weak.

“Are there any taxis waiting for clients?”

“Two.”

“Stay close to them,” he warned before hanging up.

Chapter 4 - Aiding and abetting

Half an hour passed, and there was no sign of Angelo. One by one, the waiting cabs received a call and left, or perhaps they grew tired and went home to sleep. Hiding in the shadows of a portico, I warily kept scanning the empty piazza and almost bolted when a street-sweeper appeared behind a corner with an age-old broom that the city had not seen fit to update to something more modern and efficient. He barely glanced at my direction, probably judging me a drunk blond northern tourist, and disappeared into the direction of the Duomo. Every now and then I heard a car approach, but none of them was the large German sedan Angelo used for work -he could hardly present himself with a convertible army jeep at a law firm- and I promptly retreated back into the shadows, heart thumping. When forty minutes had passed a police car rumbled by, causing my legs to tremble so badly I almost stumbled as I stepped back into my hiding place, and as soon as it had vanished a BMW Roadster slowed down and stopped at the cab rank, with no one getting off. The roof of the convertible was up, hiding the driver, and as I watched the reflection of the car on a shop window I could feel the trembling of my legs get worse and worse. Then the headlights flared quickly, and I hesitantly emerged in sight, trying to see inside the car. The dark shape of the driver leaned over the passenger seat, and the door opened. It was Angelo. I jumped in.

“Did - did you see the police car?” I stuttered.

“Yes,” he answered coolly, but his expression was worried as he observed me. “Are you OK?”

I nodded. “Whose car is this?”

He switched gears. “Luca´s. I´ll explain you later.”

After an acceleration of only a hundred meters he slammed down the brakes and parked between two vans in one heart-stopping swerve, as only Italians can. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into a tight bear hug, his chin resting on top of my head. For a while, neither one moved. It wasn´t the most comfortable position imaginable, with the rather ostentatious chrome and leather gear stick digging into my hip, but I wasn’t going to complain.

“You almost got yourself killed tonight,” he said accusingly, never having been too happy about my career choice.

He let go of me, after a final crushing squeeze, and I slid back to my seat as he steered the car back into the late night traffic.

“Gabriele Zaigler did.”

Angelo winced. “I met him a couple of times. He seemed like a nice guy, and I´m really sorry for him.” He glanced at me. “But, you know, I´m not that surprised.”

“What do you mean?”

“It´s an open secret that when he started his business he was backed by the mafia,” Angelo said. “Then during the recession everyone else had to cut back their production except him, and afterwards there was a Guardia di Finanza probe into money laundering.” His tone turned caustic. “Nothing came out of it, naturally.”

“I see.” And I did. Mafia collusion was a rather widely used term in Italian. “Do you think it was a coincidence that the police fingerprinted me just a month ago? And that I have worked for Gabriele?”

Angelo thought about it for a moment. “I think it´s just a coincidence. I mean, you´re very special and everything- “ he flashed me one of his wicked smiles “- and you made quite a splash when you first came to Milan, but there was hardly enough time for you to become famous before that-“

“I get the picture,” I interrupted.

“Of course, there may be a closeted mafioso who reads L´Uomo Vogue.”

He almost managed to make me smile this time, but not quite, and seeing that he´d failed Angelo reached out with one hand and grabbed me by the neck, the way I liked, and after pulling me a little closer kneaded lightly the tender spot under my ear with his thumb. A warm reassuring feeling spread into my chest. There was someone in this world who liked me.

We were in the outer circonvallazione, and I noticed the Autostrada sign. “So, where are we going?”

“You´re going to have a long holiday in Tuscany.”

Tuscany. Sounds good.”

The drive would take us three or four hours. There would be plenty of time to talk. I sat back in my seat, with my muscles slowly relaxing as I soaked up the feeling of temporary safety Angelo´s presence gave me. I would ask questions later. About fifteen minutes later we were out of the city, and passed into the autostrada proper through a toll booth. I had spent the time doing my best to calm down, but I still started to shake every few minutes when the memory of Gabriele´s face crashed back into my mind.

I finally felt calm enough to try some coherent conversation. “So tell me about this holiday in Tuscany.”

“It´s an old farm house not far from Pisa, in the hill country,” Angelo said. “The place belongs to a friend of mine, Carlo, but he´s in Boston until September and I happen to know where the spare key is hidden.”

“Carlo doesn´t know that I´ll be staying in his place?”

“It´s safer that way. And don´t worry, we´re good friends. If anything should happen, like someone else should show up, just mention my name and it´ll be OK.”

“I don´t like that ´if someone should show up´ part.”

“It won´t happen, trust me. I wouldn´t take you to a place where strangers suddenly pop up. I only told you as a precaution.” He looked at me, anxiously. “Now, calm down. Stop shaking. I promise, no one will come.”

I drew a few deep breaths. “I´m fine.”

He reached out and rubbed my neck again with his thumb, and I started feeling better.

“What am I going to do about money?” I asked after a while. “My bank card is in my apartment-“

“Don´t worry about it,” Angelo interrupted, emphatically. “I´ll take care of that part, and besides, you won´t be needing any. I´ll come down once a week with a load of groceries.” He shifted in his seat, uncomfortably. “Another reason why you don´t need any money is because you can´t leave the house. By tomorrow evening everyone in the whole country will recognize you.”

“My fifteen minutes.”

“I´m afraid it´ll last longer than that.”

The silhouette of the towering mountains ahead had turned visible against sky that was paling into a cool, crisp summer morning. Soon the road began the ascent, and the lush greenery, glistening with dew, almost spilled onto the road from the steep mountain walls. The view had a sharp-edged reality, different from the plain of the river Po where traces of thin haze remained even in the clearest days, and once again I watched enthralled as the road curved along the slopes in broad sweeps, slipped into tunnels and reappeared on top of breath-taking viaducts. Higher and higher we rose, our ears popping frequently in the thinning air, even inside the long tunnels, which seemed odd and a little unsettling as there was no other sense of gradient.

As we emerged from one of the tunnels, ever closer to the topmost pass we´d have to traverse, the sun had risen high enough to slip into view from between mountain peaks. Its rays were slanting across the valley, and at the bottom, far below us, a river that was meandering lazily within its course of white rocks and sand glittered like black mercury. Here and there a lonely farmhouse clung to the slopes, barely visible, deeply embedded into the lush forest. Then the road curved around a mountain, and an odd construction with a vague resemblance to the top of the Seattle space needle came into view.

“There it is,” Angelo said, contented. “An Autogrill.”

“We´re stopping? I´m - hungry,” I realized.

“You can´t come in,” Angelo announced. “With your looks, people remember you. I´ll bring you something.”

“Well…” I hesitated. “I should use the bathroom.”

“There´s a rest area ahead, we can stop there.”

“It´s not one of those, is it?” Certain rest areas, all over the country, were famous for gay cruising.

“How would I know?” Angelo said archly, implying the presence of someone better acquinted with subject.

He parked the car as far from the building as possible without being conspicuous about it, and while he was inside the shop I tried to look as invisible as possible when passers-by stared at the fancy roadster. When Angelo returned he handed me a chicken sandwich and a soft drink.

“And now let´s take you to the toilets.”

He made it sound like a cruising expedition to the Grand Central Station, and I gave him a weak smile, but a smile nonetheless.

Some ten minutes later he slowed down the car. “There it is.”

The rest area had been built in a rare level spot which hadn´t required extensive landscaping. There was a long, narrow parking lot separated from the road by a line of trees, a small park with a few tables and benches, and the white utilities building. Angelo came to a halt with a flourish expected from a BMW Roadster, and I got off. The only other vehicle present was a semi with foreign logos plastered on the sides, and as I walked by I saw Prague written under the ads. So it came from the Czech Republic, with the driver hopefully asleep in the cabin and oblivious to other visitors to the rest area.

The toilet was quite filthy, as I had expected, and I decided not to use the stalls but one of the two urinals crammed into a narrow corridor-like space. I had just started when a shadow fell into the room. Someone entering the toilet had blocked the doorway and, nervous as I was, my flow instantly dried up. I was left standing with my dick in my hand, staring at a spot on the wall in front of my eyes and trying to relax as the figure stepped next to me and unzipped his pants. I waited a few moments, but there was no sound, and my heart started beating faster. As the silence stretched uncomfortably I tried to form a picture of the man at the edge of my vision, all the while struggling to let go. He was probably a little shorter than me, but clearly heavier, with a strongly built body that was going to seed. He was wearing a white t-shirt, tight over his belly, the sleeves barely able to accommodate the burly arms, and his jeans were spectacularly ill-fitting, or so I thought, unwilling to glance at him even fleetingly. His face was a dark blur, with a thick stubble and black hair cut very short, almost military-style. A flicker of movement caught my eye, and I looked down, reflexively. The man was holding a wide-backed, veined dick in his fist, squeezing it slowly to make the long, drooping foreskin slide upwards to expose the dark red glans. My face went hot, and I focused my eyes back on the spot on the wall.

Nothing happened for a moment. There was no way I could urinate with a Czech truck driver masturbating next to me. I started tucking myself back into my underwear, a task made somewhat difficult due to the infuriating hold the steroids were having over me, and the man nudged me with his massive shoulder.

“I see you like,” he said in heavily accented Italian, and gave another squeeze to his bloated cock. “Touch it.”

“No,” I said quietly but resolutely.

However, having to palm down the bulge in my underwear, to be able to zip up my pants, rather undermined my credibility.

He took half a step back, to better show himself, and to make it more difficult to pass by him in the cramped space. His eyes were blue, and narrowed. This was no friendly come-on, but something the man seemed to expect as his due.

“You like.”

He was fully erect now, the sloppy excess of foreskin slipping back and forth over the swollen head with each stroke of his hand. A vein throbbing at the back of his hard-on snaked all the way down to the foreskin, puffing it up, and his breathing was getting distinctly deep and fast. I´d have to push him aside to be able to leave the urinal, and there was no telling how he´d react. I had pegged him straight, with a wife waiting back home, and being shoved by someone he considered an Italian tearoom cocksucker would not be taken lightly.

I almost said, “Jealous boyfriend in the car. Big one,” but held back the last moment.

There was still a chance he hadn´t noticed Angelo, and wouldn´t even remember me if I didn´t make a scene. I laid my hand on his shoulder, and feigning a friendly smile, shook my head ruefully.

“Big cock. But can´t now,” I said, to satisfy his ego while gently exerting pressure to move him aside.

He didn´t budge, and now both of us were clearly starting to lose patience. I considered slugging the man, as I was no weakling myself, but I knew I couldn´t match him in meanness and I´d be in the losing end if a fight broke out. Besides, to put it mildly, I had already had more than my share of violence for one day. Slowly but firmly I pushed my way past him, ignoring the thick pressure of his erection against my leg, but when he grabbed my hand and placed it on his dick I snarled at him and yanked my hand back. Suddenly furious, I refused to run to Angelo for cover and entered a cubicle, slamming the door hard behind me, uncaring if a hand or a leg was crushed in the process. Fortunately, the man had held back, impressed by my snarl, and no fisticuffs ensued. I heard him scuffle outside the stall while I forced myself to calm down, but I managed to finish my business only after he had left the building.

There was no sign of him when I came out of the toilet, walked to the car and slumped down on my seat.

“That was quick,” Angelo quipped, throwing a leer at the direction of the truck, but I could tell he was worried and seeing my expression his frown deepened. “Did you get into trouble with the trucker? I saw him follow you.”

“Let´s just go,” I answered. “I´ll tell you on the way.”

He shook his head, unbelievingly. “Can´t leave you alone for a second.” He started the car. “He´s going to remember you, no doubt about it.”

“The truck is from Czech Republic, and he barely speaks Italian. I don´t think he watches the news here. And he didn´t see you.”

“But he saw the car.”

“Luca won´t like that one bit.”

“He sure won´t,” Angelo answered, maneuvering the car back to the autostrada and towards Genoa.