A rubber speedboat, able to elude Cost Guard radars, was supposed to appear from the darkness and take me about thirty miles out to the sea, where it would meet with an Albanian cargo ship on its way to Tunisia. Angelo had provided me with a water-proof package of cash that would allow me to live in a hotel until he could fly to Tunis, the capital city, and arrange for the next leg of my trip.
Unhurriedly, Jan sauntered towards us from the forest.
”It´s time to turn on the lights,” he said, and when Angelo nodded he walked to the flashlights he´d set up in the sand in a way that they could only be seen from a narrow angle in the sea.
Five minutes passed, then ten. When Jan glanced at his wristwatch for the third time I began to worry. If the boat didn´t show up there was nowhere left for me to go, figuratively and literally; we were already almost at the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy.
”What if-” I started, but Angelo interrupted me.
”Calm down. If they don´t show up, I´ll figure out something.”
”No. This thing has gone on long enough. If they don´t show up, I´ll go to the police.”
Angelo gave me a look reserved for a bit slow but cute children. ”You really think I´d let you?”
I didn´t say anything, but suddenly, as I glanced out at the dark sea, the idea of being locked in a jail cell while Angelo and his lawyers were somewhere in the same building fighting for my rights seemed like a far safer option.
Another fifteen minutes passed. Then I thought I heard something, and a moment later a gust of the night breeze carried the low roar of a powerful boat to us. Soon the sound faded away, though, and I thought I´d been imagining things, but suddenly there was movement in the water and the black rubber speedboat emerged from the darkness only twenty meters from us. Angelo said something under his breath, also impressed by the way the boat had stayed hidden in the night. There were two men on board, both of them wearing black clothing, and it had been only the faces that had given away their presence. All of a sudden I felt a large cold fist grab a hold of my innards in a spasm of fear. My feet seemed to gain a mind of their own, and they didn´t want to get on the boat.
”Hurry up, we don´t have all night,” one of the men called.
”I´ll see you soon,” Angelo said and gave me a quick bear hug.
Then I was wading into the dark sea, knowing this was a mistake, and as I reached the boat it started moving when I was still climbing over the black rubber buoyancy tube. One of the men grabbed me and pulled me inside, and when I turned to look back Jan was already turning off the flashlights. Angelo was standing at the waterline, looking at my direction, and then the last light went off and my friends vanished into the night.
The boat was picking up speed, fast, and I instinctively crouched lower against the rising wind to keep myself from being flung overboard as we hit a wave from a bad angle. The only light came from the screen of a navigation computer held by the man controlling the two huge outboard engines, and his face was unreadable and totally oblivious to my presence. I turned my back to him and caught his partner studying me, but when I nodded at the man in sign of some kind of complicity he just turned away without a word. PR clearly wasn´t necessary in their line of work.
After twenty minutes had passed and I still hadn´t been shot and tossed overboard I began to relax a little, as miserable as I felt about leaving Angelo and about my cold wet feet. I was glad I´d brought a sweater and a jacket along, and as if reading my thoughts the man in front of me turned and waved something that might have been a thermos.
I wasn´t sure if I´d heard right over the roar of the engines, but nodded just the same. A moment later the man handed me a plastic mug half full with something hot. I´d heard right, it was coffee, although probably the most bitter concoction I´d ever tasted. It´ll ward off hypothermia, I told myself and took another sip, and then another. The first sign of seasickness appeared when I was halfway through. All of a sudden my sense of balance was clearly off and I had to lean against the buoyancy tube to keep myself from falling backwards as the boat hit an unusually large wave. The next wave made me feel even worse, and then I realized I was sprawled on the air deck, my head resting uneasily against the rubber tube on the side. I didn´t feel nausea, though, so there was at least something to be thankful about.
The man with the coffee crawled over to me, and with his face only inches from mine, to be heard over the noise, asked if I was all right. I´m seasick, I wanted to say, but only meaningless mumbling sounds came out. I tried to sit up but couldn´t. Gulping a few mouthfuls of air did nothing to clear my mind either. Slowly it dawned to me that the coffee had been spiked.
They were going to throw me overboard, after all.
A wave of panic hit me. The sea was so dark, and water would be cold and black. Once below the surface, I wouldn´t even know which way was up and which down. But worse than the fear of suffocating water was the sudden knowledge that it would be all that there was left for me. No more evenings with friends, no more sex, no more fun and new music. Just the cold water and then nothing.
”Troublemaker,” the man leaning over me muttered. ”You didn´t recognize us, did you?”
I stared at him, disoriented and too frightened to really care. How was I supposed to know them? With an effort, I could turn my head just enough to see the other man, now staring at me impassively from behind his GPS screen. My mind remained blank for a moment, but then the realization made my skin crawl like I´d suddenly seen a snake in the grass. These were the same two men who´d been at Gabriele Zaigler´s house the night he was murdered.
The people Jan had contacted must have sold me for a good price for the mafia. I was sure Jan himself had nothing to do with it: he was too taken by Angelo, despite his apparent self-controlled attitude.
The man rummaged through the same black sports bag where he´d procured the thermos and came up with a pair of wide, deeply cushioned leather handcuffs. He rolled me over and locked them onto my wrists, and another similar pair went around my ankles.
”We don´t want these to leave any marks,” the man said, checking that the cushions fit snugly. ”Your suicide will have to look perfect.”
He noticed me staring at him and moved closer. ”You´ll be found in the ruins of an old church not far from here. With a convenient suicide note in your pocket.” He waited for a moment for dramatic effect. ”Hanging from a beam.”
I felt an absurd sense of relief. At least, it wasn´t going to be the cold black water.
The man frowned, having seen something in my face. ”You don´t look too unhappy,” he said. ”Just wait and see. After all the trouble you´ve caused, I´m sure we can make it last for quite some time.”
He turned away, leaving me to think about his words. I did my best not to, and flexed my arms and legs as I could feel my strength returning. They hadn´t wanted to use a strong dose, to keep it from showing in a possible toxicology test. They´d probably wait at least a couple of hours more before doing away with me, to make sure. With an effort, I managed to change my position until I could lift my head over the buoyancy tube to see where we were going. The boat was racing way too close to the shore considering our speed, and the seemingly endless beach had turned into cliffs, interspersed with narrow slices of sand.
With two sudden ninja kicks I could fling the mafiosi overboard, take over the boat and guide it into one of the beaches. Then I could don a frock and red Prada shoes, become the Pope and out all the gay cardinals, and maybe resolve world hunger too. An excellent plan.
About five minutes later, a dark jagged line of a cape extended from the mainland and the speedboat had to change its course to escape from crashing into the cliffs. Just before we reached the tip of the cape waves began to reflect the glow of a powerful light and the man guiding the boat cursed, but it was too late to change course. A large illuminated Coast Guard vessel appeared from behind the cape, charging straight towards us.
The reaction of the man in front of me was immediate: he turned and tried to grasp my upper arms, to heave me overboard. I pressed my arms tight against my chest to keep him from gaining purchase while trying to wiggle away from him, but I was stuck against the buoyancy tube and couldn´t move. Without a warning the driver made a sudden swerve to the left, but to no avail: a searchlight found the boat, and the combination of blinding light and the change of direction forced the other man to let go of me lest he fall overboard himself. Fighting for a grip on the wet buoyancy tube his feet slipped and he landed on the air deck. I kicked him to the side as hard as I could, but the angle had been too awkward to do any real damage. I squirmed away from him for the second and more powerful kick but he had already retreated. A meter away, he stared at me coldly, trying to figure out his plan of attack. If he managed to get a hold of me and throw me over the rubber tube the Coast Guard could never get to me fast enough before I´d be lost in the black water.
I bent my legs, ready to give him a hard kick if he tried to approach me. He had no choice, of course, and without wasting time he threw himself on top of me, trusting that his sheer weight would cancel out my defense. I landed a kick on his left thigh but it wasn´t enough to ward him off, and with my hands cuffed behind my back the man instantly had me pinned to the deck, his powerful arms tightening around my torso. I squirmed and twisted in his grip with all my strength, but he knew he had won. There was no way I could dislodge him now: all he had to do was to find the right leverage for his knees, lift me up, and shove me over the rubber tube. A grin spread to his face as I felt him shift his weight, getting ready for the move, and I could swear that the bulge pressing against my thigh was an erection.
The boat hit a large wave and jolted him out of the position, but it didn´t matter. His arms were wound around me as tight as ever, my own weight working against me now and keeping him stable, and there was no doubt any longer: the man was sporting an huge hard-on. He was soon ready again, and despite all my efforts I could feel myself being lifted from the deck until he had my shoulders on top of the tube. Inch by inch, he pushed me forward until my head was hanging on the other side and the spraying water almost blinded me. I vaguely noticed that the driver´s escape manoeuver had brought us even closer to the shore, but not close enough for me to cover the distance in an attempt to swim with my wrists and ankles shackled.
The man lifted me clear of the buoyancy tube. His muscles tensed for the final effort, but then, without a warning, the boat made another hard swerve and the man lost his balance. Suddenly I was back inside the boat, lying on the deck in a heap of tangled arms and legs, but too disoriented to keep the man away as he crawled on top of me, pinning me down with his weight, and wound his arms back in a tight hold around my chest. This time, he positioned himself carefully as he prepared for the single determined wrestling throw that would fling me overboard, and once ready he glanced at his buddy to make sure he would see what was happening. However, the man´s expression quickly turned into scowl and as I struggled to turn my head to see the reason I heard him curse out loud.
The driver had collapsed on top of a buoyancy tube, clutching at his side, his other hand still on the tiller but gradually losing the grip. His black shirt was glistening wet and it took me a second or two to realize it wasn´t water but blood. A sniper from the Coast Guard ship had managed a hit even under the impossible conditions. He might just as well have shot me; but then, it wouldn´t have made much of a difference as I´d been seconds away from disappearing into the sea.
Losing his grip on the tiller, the driver slid down to the air deck and went into his death throes, spraying blood from his mouth with each gasp for breath. The boat wasn´t slowing down, as I´d somehow expected it to, and took a sharp turn towards the cliffs. The man let go of me and lunged for the tiller, but another shot punctured the buoyancy tube next to him and he threw himself down. Only then I realized that other two sections of the tubes were deflating; the roar of the engine had covered the gunshots. Too close to the shore, either the side or the bottom of the boat scraped at an underwater rock and made the boat swerve even tighter towards the sharp cliffs.
I´m fucked, I thought. We were going to hit the rocks at full speed, and even if I survived the impact I´d be quickly drawn underwater and drown.
The man scrambled to the tiller, eyes wide as he glanced at the approaching cliffs, totally unaware that he was trampling his dead buddy and prompting another gush of blood from his mouth. Apparently, the Coast Guard had stopped shooting at us, at this point considering it a waste of ammo. The man grasped at the tiller and the boat obeyed, turning to the right, and for a second I thought we´d be all right, relatively speaking. I struggled to lift my head above the tube to see where we were going and caught a glimpse of a narrow, fjord-like beach, but the deflated buoyancy tubes made the boat hard to steer and I could see that the impact was inevitable. The man could see it, too, and at the last moment threw himself overboard.
”Fuck you-” I had time to yell before a huge hammer blow lifted the boat off the water, and I braced myself for an exceedingly unpleasant landing on jagged rocks.
Instead, I splashed into water, and one of my spastic kicks hit the sandy bottom and lifted my head above the surface for a moment. Not long enough to gasp a breath, though. It occurred to me that it might have been wiser to abstain from yelling profanities and save the air for something more important.
Waves were throwing me this way and that, and my cuffed hands and ankles made swimming impossible. If my feet didn´t catch the bottom again soon, I´d drown five meters from the shore. After a few more futile kicks, my lungs burning worse and worse, my left foot connected with something. I kicked as hard as I could, and a lucky combination of position and an approaching wave carried me to shallow water. My knees resting on the sandy bottom, I hunched forward awkwardly with my head just above the surface, and another wave picked me up and carried me the last few meters to the beach. By now I was coughing so hard that I thought I must be spewing blood, yet some instinct drove me higher up to the beach, out of reach of the waves that might pull me back into the drink.
The nature drives a hard bargain: now that I was away from the water and able to breath again the gravity had its hold on me, too. After just a few moments in the water, my body now felt incredibly heavy as I tried to scramble on my knees on the treacherous sand, and failed miserably thanks to my shacked ankles. Then something occurred to me and I looked back. The collapsed boat was hanging limp on rocks, but the murderous mafia thug had jumped in time to avoid the crash. He was only ten meters from the beach, ignoring the Coast Guard searchlight as he swam closer with long powerful strokes, his black reptilian eyes fixed on me.
With a mad combination of squirming, rolling and kicking, I tried to get away from the shore, but soon realized there was nowhere to go even if I could actually move. The sliver of a beach was surrounded by steep cliffs and narrowed down to nothing in another ten meters. A couple of large boulders had fallen down but I couldn´t possibly climb them, and the rocks weren´t nearly tall enough to help me get away from the beach anyway. I turned back to face the man walking out of the sea. I had time to notice that he was smiling when the shooting suddenly resumed without a warning. Bullets were spraying up sand and water behind him and he dived for cover behind one of the fallen boulders, while I had to make do with a highly graceless worm-like crawl to find a safe place, which was a jagged rock just barely large enough to cover me from the sniper fire.
However, the Coast Guard seemed to be shooting at the right man as none of the bullets had strayed to my direction. I didn´t think the Italian Coast Guard had a habit of spraying every speedboat they came across with bullets, so maybe this wasn´t a coincidence. Someone had talked to the police; Angelo and Jan would never have done it, which left Ivan as the only possibility. So the kid had taken his revenge, but right now I wasn´t too unhappy about it.
Not that it was going to change the outcome. His gun either lost, or too wet to work, the mafia thug had nevertheless no intention of giving up and with a smile pulled a knife from a calf sheath. There were less than ten meters between us, and if he moved fast enough it would take just a little luck to cover that distance without getting hit by sniper fire. The thug waved his knife at me and ran his eyes intently over my stomach.
"Don´t worry," he crooned at me. "I´ll make sure you won´t die right away. It´ll take a couple of minutes, at least. But they´ll be a pretty bad couple of minutes."
He moved into the starting position of a sprinter, ready to pounce.