The mafioso´s smile had turned into an angry sneer. Another minute or two, and the beach would be swarming with hunky - and heavily armed - Italian coast guards. I was just about to flash a smile at the mafioso when a nasty ricochet hit the sand just inches from me and reduced my taunt into something resembling a hiccup. It didn´t matter: I´d be all right in just a few moments.
That´s when the searchlight went out.
Suddenly the world had plunged into total darkness, with only the afterimage of the bright searchlight playing havoc on my retinas. Immediately, angry and ever louder shouting could be heard from the Coast Guard vessel, but I was too busy trying to figure out where the killer mafioso was than to try to translate the furious shouting. It didn´t matter, in any case. In Italy nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to, so a malfunctioning searchlight was only to be expected.
“I love my country,” I heard the mafioso proudly mutter as he stood up.
My eyes had adapted just enough to be able to discern movement, and he wasn´t wasting time. Knife ready, he was already almost halfway through the distance between us.
Fuck, fuck and fuck – why the hell had I been so stupid as to choose a country that frequently could pass for a third world nation while sporting some of the richest cities in Europe? I bet that the mafioso´s knife had a Versace Casa logo on it.
I didn´t have time to find out. Out of nowhere, several dull thuds shook his body and he collapsed into a dark heap on the sand. One of his arms was shaking convulsively for a moment but yet another thud put a quick stop to it.
They had snipers with infrared goggles! The bastards had faked the broken searchlight to lure the mafioso out in the open to be gunned down. As far as I knew, the glare of the searchlight would have blinded the goggles, so some kind of second team must have been ready and waiting in the shadows. My opinion on Italian competency went up several notches while I kept gasping for air, and getting used to the idea that I wasn´t going to be gutted like a fish.
The lights came back on, and I could hear terse military speak exchanged at the water´s edge. Moments later I was surrounded by the most handsome men I´d ever seen in my life – my objectivity was perhaps a little off, under the circumstances – and hands were groping me all over to ascertain that I hadn´t been hit.
“I´m OK, not hurt,” I managed to say, immediately regretting the words as the inquisitive hands withdrew and instead focused on undoing the leather restraints on my wrists and ankles.
The leading officer didn´t seem at all surprised when I added, “I know who those two men are.”
Instead, he just nodded. “Ispettore Capo di Polizia Matarazzi from Milan is waiting for you in Gallipoli.”
I was propped up on my feet, and escorted past the dead mafioso towards the waterline where two dinghies were waiting. I was feeling very cold now, and my teeth were starting to chatter.
One of the dark-eyed handsome guards made a drinking gesture, threw a glance at the boat and said, “Caffé caldo?”
“I sure need some.”
And I did. The trip to Gallipoli was surprisingly fast, but the first preliminary interrogation with Ispettore Matarazzi was nothing but. It seemed that I had drank about a gallon of the tiny espresso coffees before I was allowed to talk to Angelo and Jan who were waiting for me on the first floor of the Questura. They´d been picked up on the coastal highway shortly after having left the beach.
The first thing I noticed was that there was a rather conspicuous bandage on Angelo´s right hand.
“What happened?” I asked when I finally managed to free myself from his smothering bear hug.
Jan rolled his eyes. “He hit a policeman when they told him you were being used as a bait.”
I was taken aback. “Bait? Ispettore Matarazzi didn´t say anything about that.”
“He wouldn´t have, now would he?” Angelo said. “That´s why we weren´t stopped on our way to the beach. They were waiting for the mafiosi to come and pick you up.”
“I´m really sorry,” Jan said, looking uncharacteristically awkward. “I had no idea my people had sold you-”
“That´s OK, I know,” I reassured him, then turned to Angelo. “Have you guys, um, talked to... Ivan?”
Angelo shook his head. “I´ve been told he no longer wants to have anything to do with any of us. But I´m glad he finally believed them that you weren´t going to be indicted and told them about Gallipoli.”
We sat down on the worn out, gray wooden bench of the waiting room.
“He´s a good kid,” I said and added, after a rather long silence, “So it all came down to those good old-fashioned fingerprints?”
“I was lead to believe they have something else, too,” Angelo said. “Probably not, but that way someone might believe they´ve got an actual CSI lab stashed away somewhere.”
The Chief Matarazzi descended the wide staircase of the old building, and walked towards us, looking concerned.
“We should get going,” he said after a wary nod to Angelo.
Angelo and Jan already seemed to know what he was talking about.
“Where?” I asked frowning.
“Milan,” Chief Matarazzi answered, looking rather unhappy.
“What? It´s... past 4 a.m.” This was weird. “How about a hotel room, a few hours of sleep and a flight in the morning?”
“We should get going,” Matarazzi insisted.
I turned to Angelo.
“The Inspector may be right,” he said as if Matarazzi´s order was the most natural thing in the world. “We´ll stop at some Autogrill restaurant on the way to get something to eat.”
I made some quick calculations. A car ride to Milan would take at least twelve hours. “What´s going on?”
Matarazzi cleared his throat. “We don´t think this is the best place in the world for you to be right now.”
I stared at him, but it was Angelo who answered.
“There´s some speculation that it was no coincidence that you weren´t caught during the summer,” he started. “There may be, um, someone, who perhaps doesn´t want you to be found.”
I looked at them one after another, but no one was coming to my rescue.
Finally Angelo, used to my obtuseness, spelled it out. “Do you have any clients who might get in trouble if you outed them?”
“All of them,” I chuckled stupidly, but turned serious when I saw his expression.
“What does that have to do with us leaving for Milan right now?”
“You might not be safe here,” Angelo said bluntly. “Whoever this client is, he might have enough clout to get you in trouble.”
“Here? In Questura?”
My incredulous smile faded when Inspector Matarazzi interrupted us and said quietly but firmly, “We should go.”
Not safe inside a police station? There weren´t many people who could pull off an accident in a Questura. The only ones who sprang to my mind were big time politicians with Mafia connections. Maybe it was time to start reading Italian newspapers and paying more attention to the photos.
To my chagrin, Angelo and Jan were herded into another car and I had to share with Matarazzi. When I saw that we would be escorted by four additional police cars, their lights already flashing, I felt the first flutter of fear in the pit of my stomach. Quit it, I told myself. This is just regular Italian drama. A few flashing lights will do wonders for Matarazzi´s career.
Despite Gallipoli being a rather small town, there were quite a few photographers and film crews outside the Questura as we drove into the street from the protected inner courtyard. I could make out the familiar Canale 5 logo on the side of a large white van with a satellite dish, but the flurry of camera flashes was over in moments as the presence of the police cars discouraged any of the paparazzi to try to follow us.
Fortunately, Matarazzi wasn´t in the mood for talking. He appeared to relax a little as our little motorcade left the town behind and approached the high-speed turnpike network, Autostrada. Not that we had to worry about speed limits: I suspected we were already going at about twice the allowed top speed. I watched the scattered lights of the countryside pass by.
Apparently, during the summer I´d grown into some kind of authority on matters of male prostitution. Earlier I´d been no threat to anyone, but now I could claim I´d had a threesome with the Pope and the devil himself and the entire country would believe me. Or that Berlusconi´s son, the probable next prime minister of the right-wing coalition, might have a taste for hoods and leather restraints in addition to blond American males. I could see how something like that might make a regrettable freak accident an attractive solution.
About an hour into the drive we passed through a thunderstorm. The lights outside were separated into thousands of small points of light on my window. Where would I be going next, I wondered. For a while, back at the Questura, I´d believed everything was back to normal, and I´d been wrong. Every large car that seemed to be driving at approximately our speed made Matarazzi instinctively move his hand a little closer to his side where he was carrying a gun. Despite having my name cleared – sort of – I would have to leave my only friends behind just as I´d feared and move on somewhere I could lead a safely anonymous life again. Not that Angelo couldn´t fly all over the globe wherever and whenever he wanted, but it just wouldn´t be the same. You don´t fly intercontinental just to go to the movies together. I looked back at the car behind us, wishing to see at least the vague dark shapes of the people inside, but the car was almost completely hidden by a curtain of gray rainwater spraying from our tires.