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