Friday, September 28, 2018

El DIablo by G. Zotov



El Diablo
A supernatural thriller
by G. Zotov



Release - December 26, 2018


Prologue

Lima, capital of the Republic of Peru
October 14 1931

THE OLD TELEPHONE rattled, jumping up and down on the bedside table. Miguel groped for it, then swatted it like a fly with a blow of his hand.
Contrary to his expectations, the phone didn’t shut up. It continued to annoy him with its repeated buzzing which sounded like a snoring man having rust poured down his throat.
Miguel struggled to rub his eyes. What was going on, dammit? He reached out in the dark, feeling for the receiver, and brought it blindly to his ear. “Speaking.”




“Excuse me, Señor Capitan,” the phone wheezed.
“You have any idea what time it is?” Miguel said, swelling with spite.
“Yes, Señor Capitan. It’s four a.m. May the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself be the witnesses of my apologies, but I was told to wake you up on the orders from Deputy Minister Juarez. He demands you arrive at Plaza Mayor ASAP. This is an emergency.”
“And what’s up there?” Miguel asked, suppressing a yawn.
“I’ve no idea, Señor. We’ve had a driver sent to get you. The car should already be waiting by your front door.”
Miguel hung up without saying goodbye.
He sprang from his bed. A dull light bulb under the ceiling lit up a closet which the hotel keeper had had the audacity to call a furnished room. A well-worn bed, a wash stand, a faded bedside table, a stone floor (especially welcome in this constant heat), a writing desk (which, judging by its age, must have been left behind during the conquistadors’ retreat) and a portrait of El Presidente on the wall, generously embellished with the dried bodies of mosquitoes. Luis Sánchez Cerro stared wearily into the semidarkness of the room, lips pressed tight, his epaulettes resembling large unwashed dishes on the faded photo.
Miguel splashed his face with some icy-cold water. Yawning mercilessly, he buttoned up his tunic.
He walked down the loose steps which groaned their death throes underfoot. That bastard landlady of his had had the cheek to ask fifteen sols a month for this dilapidated box of a “hotel room” on the third floor of a 17-th century colonial shack.
The car’s motor was already chugging away below. Predictably, a Ford and a rather ancient model at that. Could anything new come out of this country?
A familiar young driver courteously opened the car door. Miguel slumped onto the worn back seat, immediately transported to another planet: one that smelled of cheap two-centavo cigars, with a magazine picture pinned to the dashboard, a cracked windscreen and a missing rearview mirror. It was a good job the driver was sober - something that didn’t happen very often in Peru.
The car sped off, racing through the empty city.
“Do you know what happened, Señor?” the driver tried to strike up a conversation.
“It’s none of your fucking business,” Miguel snapped.
The driver subserviently shut up.
The Ford turned off toward the Barrio Miraflores, bypassing a coconut grove and a row of dark yellow morisco houses with their columns, tiled roofs and little carved balconies. The sound of the ocean surf lulled him to sleep; the car’s rocking motion felt like a cradle. Unwittingly Miguel closed his eyes and didn’t even notice himself dozing off.
He had the same dream he’d always had in Lima ever since his first arrival here. It had already become some sort of tradition. American and Japanese warships, packed into Vladivostok harbor like sardines. The clouds of explosions hanging in the autumnal sky. The screams and the sounds of weeping and cussing voices that hung in the air.
It felt like true pandemonium. The whole world seemed to be there: respectable merchants, their beards quaking with fear; petrified young girls in school uniforms; ladies in threadbare furs.
That was the early-morning scene of October 25 1922 during the evacuation of General Dieterichs’ troops from Vladivostok. Rumors spread, one more terrible than the next, about the Japs’ treachery and their alleged retreat from their positions. The Bolsheviks were expected to enter the defenseless city within an hour.
With shouts of “Get back, motherfuckers!” the Americans fended the panic-stricken people off with their bayonets as the crowds stampeded for the last ships, even though the night before, the most beautiful girls in Vladivostok had parted with their virginity in the sailors’ cabins, paying for their right to be the first to step on the life-saving gangplanks. The whole surface of the water was littered with the contents of smashed suitcases, clothes and children’s toys floating side by side.
Miguel had been one of them that day, a puny blond lad of about twenty years of age with a pallid freckled face. ‘Allow me to introduce myself, ladies and gentlemen: Second Lieutenant Mikhail Martynov’. He'd been wearing a tattered army greatcoat, with a Nagant revolver in his hand and a crazy look in his eyes.
Good God, how long had it been... he could still clearly remember the moment when the ship had finally set sail, packed to the brim with fugitives. And as the gray strip of the shore began to widen, he’d realized he’d never return to his home city.
As he’d stood on the deck that day, he'd vacantly put the revolver’s barrel into his mouth and licked it. The taste of gun oil assaulted his tongue. He’d said a prayer, then silently sworn as he pulled the trigger with all the determination of youth.
The click echoed in his ears like the tolling of a funeral bell. Of course. There hadn’t been any rounds left in the cylinder for a long time. The White army had been completely depleted of ammunition during the prolonged campaign.
What a young idiot he’d been then. He'd then spent years in Tokyo gutters - without money, in lice-ridden tatters, subsisting on one cup of rice in three days and sleeping rough under the bridge next to drunken prostitutes. He quickly realized that his Spanish was of no use here whatsoever and began dreaming of getting to Spain which was prohibitively far away.
Three months later, he found a job as a deckhand on a rickety old tub which was taking some Japanese migrants to Peru.
That’s when Mikhail Martynov had become Miguel Martinez.
He got himself a Peruvian passport, then made a quick career from ordinary policeman to criminal investigator. He finally had a roof over his head, never mind it that was only an old shack but, excuse my French, only generals could afford the good life on their salaries in this country. How many of his fellow officers had either gone on the bottle or shot themselves; some of them were now shoeshine boys in Tokyo and Shanghai while countless others had become horse-cab drivers in Harbin. He'd been one of the lucky ones...

“SEÑOR? Excuse me, Señor, but we’ve just arrived,” the driver had already opened the car door and was shaking him awake.
Reluctantly Miguel climbed out of the Ford. His head felt leaden; he was falling asleep as he walked. He reached into his tunic pocket for a small wad of pressed coke leaves and blindly sent it into his mouth. Great stuff. It may have numbed the tongue and tasted like a cross between bay leaves and peppermint, but it gave you a real boost.
In just a couple of seconds, he felt fresh as a daisy. His mind had cleared, his eyes could focus, his body sensed the chill in the air. Where had they brought him to? He was in some rundown back alleys behind the pretentious Plaza Mayor. He'd been here many times before. Murders were common in nighttime Lima. The city thrived on them. Knife fights, shootouts, rapes and drunken brawls... very nice.
The sunrise was long in coming. Miguel headed for a group of men with flashlights who froze in the gloom between the skeletal remains of houses. A beam of light flashed straight in his face.
“We’re very happy you’re here, Señor Capitan.”
Hearing the voice had finally awoken Miguel to the fact that something bad must have happened. Up until then, he’d thought it just a bad joke... but if the deputy police minister had arrived at the scene in person, there must have been a reason for it.
He brought two fingers up to his kepi in salute, “Good morning, Sir.”
The Deputy Minister Juarez, a squat overweight balding half-breed (like half the local population, he was an explosive mix of the Quechua Indian and Spanish colonials) and looked rather funny in a civilian suit and a Fedora. He would have looked more at home hunting jaguars in the jungle with a spear in his hand, Miguel thought lightheartedly in Russian.
The deputy minister brought a handkerchief up to his head and wiped his brow. His lips were shaking. Miguel’s reckless cheerfulness vanished, replaced by an uneasy anxiety. The two of them stood in a small clearing between an ancient colonial casa and an abandoned church. The old priest had died almost a year ago and a new one hadn’t yet been assigned.
Miguel cussed as his shoe got stuck in the viscous mud. Juarez lowered his flashlight.
All the remaining drowsiness had now cleared from Miguel’s head. His shoe was colored a deep cherry red.
“It looks like the murderer bled her to death,”  the deputy minister said. “It’s like a lake here. All the grass and tree roots are soaked in blood. The rest you’ll see in a minute, Señor Capitan,” he stepped aside, giving way.
The police photographer’s camera flashed, imprinting the scene on Miguel’s retinas. A girl, dressed in a lacy cream-colored dress puffed up  with petticoats almost medieval in their style, the sort women still wore in the areas bordering Bolivia. Her thick black hair was meticulously coiffed, her eyes wide open - as was her mouth with just the tip of her tongue showing. Her face resembled a crimson mask: someone had covered it with blood, painting it like a fence around a peasant’s hut. Her arms had been tied behind the trunk of a thick tree, her body positioned on top of its roots. A wash tub stood by her feet; judging by the dirty-brown streaks covering its bottom, it must have been used to collect the blood.
He shouldn’t have been so cross with Juarez. This was indeed an emergency.
Miguel walked over to the body. The cops parted, letting him through. Blood squelched underfoot.
“How long ago was she found?” Martinez asked, peering at the dead face.
“Two hours ago, Señor Capitan,” a young corporal said in a stifled voice, trying not to look at the victim. “You know how old people can’t sleep at night sometimes, don’t you? They just take their dogs for a walk or something. It was one of them who found the Señorita. You can’t imagine how quickly he ran to the police station. At first we wanted to untie her but... as soon as we touched her we decided to call an officer. He told us to contact his superiors. And his superiors called you, Señor.”
Miguel crouched in order to get a better look at the dried blood on the girl’s cheeks. A faint pleasant aroma hung in the air. How strange. Normally, a murder victim stinks like a dead animal at an abattoir. And this... he couldn’t quite place it. It smelled like perfume but sweeter... more delicate.
He reached out and touched the girl’s arm, pulling it toward himself, then recoiled as the body gently leaned toward him with a soft rustling sound, like a pillow.
Martinez touched her arm again, gently pressing the skin. Something crunched inside. How interesting. The murderer had professionally removed every bone from her body, then stuffed it with aromatic herbs, painted her face with her own blood and brought it to the slums behind Plaza Mayor about midnight. He must have drained her of blood prior to that (aha, there was a lacerated wound on her throat), then used some of it as decorating material and dumped the rest of it on the ground.
This wasn’t going to stop at the Deputy Minister’s level! Very soon El Presidente would know too.
Her eyes were framed with four glittering lines pointing in different directions. Miguel nodded to a cop to bring his flashlight closer. He'd been right: it was gold dust, hence the shimmering. Oh, great. The guy had some sick imagination. Miguel didn’t for one moment doubt the fact it had been a man. He'd already solved three serial killer cases in the past in different Peruvian cities, including the Trujillo Predator - a baker who’d strangled four street whores. But those were rather narrow-minded people with no imagination whatsoever who’d collected their victims’ body parts as souvenirs following the moth-balled example of Jack the Ripper.
This was something different. A very specific approach. This girl wasn’t a well-ridden priestess of the high street, the kind he’d encountered already in Vladivostok. She appeared to be no more than fifteen, a mere schoolgirl.
So what would our murderer’s profession be, then? A surgeon? A taxidermist? A crazy artist? In any case, it made no sense for Miguel to linger here. The body (or cynically speaking, the stuffed bird) had to be sent to the station for further investigation. It was hard work trying to examine it in this weak light.
It didn’t look as if he’d get any sleep tonight. Nor the next night, most likely.
Miguel rose to his feet.
The sound of surf came from the ocean. The girl, painted with blood and stuffed with aromatic herbs, looked like an expensive doll in the first sunrays, similar to those that Miraflores-based rubber tycoons give to their spoiled little daughters. The gold streaks around her dead eyes were dazzling.
Miguel reached into his pocket for his cigarette case. The cop offered him a lighted match with a bow. Miguel’s head disappeared in clouds of bluish smoke. Tobacco was excellent here, much stronger than the Russian home-grown samosad. The only thing he couldn’t get used to was the local brew, pisco, and there was no way he could get vodka here, even from smugglers. Red parrots shuttled between palm trees, squawking. What was he doing here, at the very edge of the Earth?
Martinez stepped toward the Deputy Minister, then swung round.
The nails.
The dead girl’s fingernails had been different.
He walked over to her and took a closer look, bringing her hands to his eyes one after the other. Her left hand had the long, sensitive fingers of a piano player. Her right-hand fingers were short and knobbly.
Miguel cussed in Russian, investing all his fury into two snappy words.
This time he spent a good ten minutes examining the body before he finally returned to the Deputy Minister.
Juarez raised his blood-shot eyes to him.
Miguel waved his hand at the tree to which the girl was strapped. “I’m afraid, this is gonna be fun, Señor.”
The Deputy Minister raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What makes you think so?”
“She was put together from several bodies - at least four, by the looks of it. The murderer took his time creating this doll. It looks like he might want to open a toy shop.”
Seagulls squawked hysterically over the ocean. Dark clouds concealed the sky. A powerful gust of wind from the shore threw up grains of sand which stuck in the teeth of early-morning passersby. A storm was brewing.


Chapter One

Vintage

October 14 2015, location unknown

HAVING ARRIVED on the scene as the promise of a new world wonder - the mixture of a childish dream and medieval magic - the film industry had quickly degraded to the state of a mediocre dumb-entertainment option. By the early 21st century, it had already grown into a fat kraken whose tentacles had already reached into any available space, forcing its way out of the tiny movie theaters and taking over the world which had willingly succumbed to its dominance. Take a look around yourself. Movies are everywhere: in our offices and lounges, in front of our airplane seats and on our smartphone screens. It reaches its fine predatory earbuds into our brains, focusing our eyes on the images it wants us to see. We’ve been reduced to a state of blind zombies, the obedient slaves of a colorful world of make-belief. Movies have been absorbed into the bloodstream of every living being on planet Earth. We can’t be a hundred percent sure anymore whether it’s us living our real lives or whether it’s someone else filming a movie of them. As any priest will tell you (maybe in not so many words), God is the film director of our Universe which makes us a bunch of underpaid extras in His latest blockbuster.
But I digress. Time to start this show.
The lights dim. The celluloid rustles in the projector.
Ladies and gentlemen, please remove your 3D glasses. You won’t need them: the movie’s rather old. Everybody got their popcorn? Make yourselves comfortable and try to disconnect from the rest of the Universe in order to hear these two people speaking.
They’re walking toward you gingerly, groping their way in the pitch darkness. You can hear the sound of their footsteps from afar: a soft and predatory feline gait interspersed with a timid clatter of stilettoes on the cemented floor. Like a tiger stalking a young deer. Or is it the other way round?

[Male voice] Please don’t. The electricity doesn’t work here. There’s a candelabra here somewhere.

[Female voice] Why doesn’t it work?

[M.v.] It’s a very old basement. I don’t think there’s electricity in it at all. It’s been empty for ages. Nothing lives here, not even rats, can you imagine? This is my underground world. The rusty pipes, the smell of a rotting mattress, the rustling of crumbling old magazines, the crunching of broken bottles underfoot... This is the music of my solitude. You understand, my girl, don’t you? The symphony of salvation.

[F.v., unhappily]. Sorry to be so rude but this place is a mess! It looks like a BDSM torture chamber.

[M.v.] That’s how I need it to be. This way I can hear it when they finally get to me.

A match strikes. A weak uneven candlelight sends the trapped shadows darting in horror across the walls. The floor is heaped with half-rotten women’s clothes and colorful underwear, some filthy red leather corsets and stockings. The dark lair of a grim monster who doesn’t leave his den for months at a time.

[M.v., catching her gaze]. Yes, this is my bed. I sleep here too. That’s why I chose this ruin in the suburbs. No one ever pays any attention to it. I get out once a day, to get some food and see what’s going on. I don’t have to hide. I don’t paint my face with camouflage, if that’s what you think. Still, even once a day is once too many. I need to bring my outings to a minimum, otherwise it might end very badly. Very. They don’t for one moment stop hunting me down.”

[F.v., echoes] I know.

[M.v., coughs]. Finding something suitable to eat is a problem. There’s no decent food here! I’m sick to death of cucumbers, bananas and whipped cream! My stomach is in tatters. I’m getting jumpy like a wild animal. Whenever I manage to doze off, I dream of those awful streets flooded with neon lights. Me cowering behind trash cans from the floodlights searching for me... encircling me, baring their teeth as they close in...

The shadows flitter. Obeying a sudden bout of sympathy, she raises her hand, about to stroke his cheek. He recoils from her touch.

[F.v.] Sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry. I keep forgetting...

[M.v., gasps]. It’s not your fault. Nothing to do with you. Where was I? Yes, the horror of it all. The City’s divided between several groups, you know that, don’t you? There’re certain twilight zones where the likes of me disappear like melting snow. We never hear from them again. I’m sick and tired of never having any money because the City lives in a subsistence economy. I can’t afford even the barest of necessities. I have one last candle left. Once it burns down, I might need to-”

[F.v. shakes, breaking]. But from what I heard, the monastery...

[M.v.] Maybe. I have no choice, do I? Even though the monastery is the craziest place in the entire City. No one stands a chance there. Have you any idea who inhabits it? If you meet a couple of Black Habits in the street - or three even - you still have a chance of escaping. Or, if push comes to shove, you can work it off. But the monastery is jam-packed with them. There’re at least a hundred of them in there. That’s death. They can sniff you out the moment you approach its walls; you can hear them laugh, a disgusting laughter, sort of carnivorous. No male has ever come back from there. Even their skeletons have never been found. Me, I’ve been in there twice.

[F.v.] Twice?!

[M.v.] Well, what do you want? I need more candles. It’s no fun siting in the dark, it’s sorta spooky. Tomorrow I’m going there again. You know why, don’t you? It’s my only chance of survival. I’ve been here for way too long. I’ve learned to survive in your world - and no one knows what it’s cost me! Without money or food. I’ve been forced to show up in the City’s most dangerous streets, knowing they could suck the life out of me drop by dwindling drop. They’re constantly hungry, those creatures, regardless of their age. The Checkered Skirts are only merciless during their springtime hunting periods; but it’s the Black Habits who are the real monsters. You never know who you might come across: they’re masters of disguise capable of putting even the most vigilant of townsfolk off their guard.

[F.v., with regret]. I used to help them. How awful... I didn’t know what I was doing. You opened my eyes to their true nature. I wish you good luck - I won’t go to bed before I hear from you, I swear. Don’t fall for their charms. The Black Habits’ voices are sweet like those of sirens, it's all too easy to forget oneself listening to their songs. Sometimes they used me too to lure passersby to the monastery walls. I’m so ashamed of it.

A little light flickers on with a typical hissing sound as one of them lights a cigarette.

[M.v.] Stop beating yourself up. That was meant to happen. Before I came to your world, I too used to think of it as heaven, everything a red-blooded man could wish for. I used to think things like these could only happen in a teenager’s wet dream - or on Cuba although there you’d have to pay. Whatever. I couldn’t have even imagined I’d be stuck here cowering in a basement, hungry, exhausted and totally wasted! I thought... doesn’t matter, sweetheart. I used to think lots of things, none of them too decent. Instead of coming to heaven, I’d been given a one-way ticket to hell. Never again will I ever ask for a dream to come true! Because they do come true only to devour your life with demonic laughter. Had I believed in God, I’d have considered my fiasco a punishment for my sins. Do you think I’m crazy? Life amongst monsters prays on my mind which shrinks in panic, inch by desperate inch...

[F.v., hopeful]. Are you sure you’ve chosen the right place? Old women say, there’re some old-school settlements only a couple of hours’ drive away. They have those cute 1970s cottages, very pretty, and the air there smells of milk and fresh hay. Nothing too complicated, everything’s pretty natural. If they catch you, they finish you off quickly. They don’t torture you to death. The locals are a happy bunch. They’re not into any BDSM stuff.
[M.v., sighs]. I know. It’s called vintage mode. In vintage mode, the entire ordeal lasts from twenty seconds to a maximum of five minutes. It’s not that bad, even if they attack you in bulk. But... I can’t get there, can I? From what I hear, the journey is too perilous. I don’t even want to tell you what kinds of neighborhoods it crosses. Have you ever heard about the “tough illegals” neighborhood? I knew you haven’t. When they play, they kill for real. In my world, a video of this kind costs eighty thousand bucks. There’s so much dirt here... so many perverts, mutants and predators. How come I knew nothing about it before?

She looks him in the eye. Their lips almost meet.

[F.v.] Let’s change the subject. You seem to be nicer... and calmer when you’re telling me about your world.

[M.v., heaves a sigh.] Oh. Can you imagine I didn’t really appreciate it? Now I go to bed every night hoping that I might wake up and realize all this was only a dream. Dream my ass! Every morning it starts all over again. And the thing is, I know I’m not asleep. If I die here, I’ll die for real. It’s a real Freddy Krueger nightmare.

[F.v.} Who’s that?

[M.v.] Just a horror creature from my world. You have the likes of him too in some neighborhoods. He’s an incredible, unbelievable killer who visits his victims in their dreams. He pierces them with his steely claw and they die for real... what a lot of bullshit. I’m stuck here now and I’ve got no idea what to do. Luckily, I met you. I never thought creatures like you existed in the City. They might, theoretically, but they don’t.

[F.v., pensively]. If your theory is correct and we’re just an artificial embodiment of other people’s fantasies, why not? Didn’t you say that even in your world virgins are difficult to come by?

[M.v., agrees eagerly]. Absolutely! Not at your age, anyway. Funny, isn’t it, there’re plenty of fourteen-year-old virgins around but if you want to find a twenty-four-old one, you’ve got your work cut out for you. And even those who are are mainly fakes courtesy of cosmetic surgery.

[F.v.] Well, I’m not exactly innocent, either. Here, virgins are preserved for very special kinds of games. Did you say that our world is based on a mere dozen scenarios which keep going round in circles, repeating themselves? You might be right. I’m quite experienced at certain things. I’ve taken part in BDSM orgies and seen things that would make the most seasoned of City whores shrink in horror even though it might not involve penetration. Would you like me to tell you? Having said that... no, not a good idea. You’d better tell me how you got here. I’ll listen to you. I won’t interrupt you, I promise.

The weak candlelight expires. In the thickening darkness, the two converse in whispers - but the audience can hear them. For the umpteenth time, he describes in every detail how he came to the City while she shrieks weakly in fear and suspense. In the absence of light, all the camera shows is a black square. The man explains that very soon he’ll go hunting in the monastery; the girl sobs, sympathetic. Their relationship is just as erotic as it is innocent. She wants to touch her new friend but is reluctant to do so even in the dark... because she already knows his reaction to touch.
The two seem to be perfectly safe. No one can find their secret hiding place. They’re alone in the basement, just as the man said.
Still, he’s wrong. There’s at least one other man watching their secret meeting from a considerable distance. He doesn’t exhibit any emotions neither does he show any animosity.
He just watches them. He’s been doing it for quite a while.



Chapter Two

The Monastery

October 17 2015
The vicinity of Sex City

THE PICTURE ON the movie screen becomes blurred, apparently filmed by a primitive 1960s handheld camera. The audience boo their disappointment. Someone whistles. A man in front rises from his seat and leaves the theater, cussing under his breath and slamming the exit door in protest.
He shouldn’t have been so impatient. Soon after he leaves, the picture comes back into focus, showing a close-up of a twenty-year-old nun, her hands pressed together in an ecstatic prayer. She casts anxious glances around her cell. She’s a lousy actress but the audience doesn’t seem to mind. This isn’t the Academy Awards, anyway.

SISTER NATHALIA had discovered something was missing almost straight away. It wasn’t that difficult even. Only a moment ago, there’d been two fat bunches of wax candles lying on the oak table on both sides of a carved malachite box. Now the bundle on the left was gone.
The nun emitted a guttural groan. The audacious theft could only mean one thing: that quite a few of the sisters would be forced to miss the midnight orgy in the refectory. And she’d be the one to blame as usual.
The nun darted toward the window (which was the only possible escape route for the impudent thief) and looked out.
The sight had immediately cheered her up, inspiring her more than any prayer ever could have done. The thief - a real flesh-and-blood male of about thirty years of age - was scrambling down the drain pipe, clutching his trophy in his teeth. He was dressed in filthy tattered jeans and a threadbare T-shirt.
The thief seemed to be in a hurry. Deep down she could understand him.
Nathalia bit her plump lower lip, trying not to scare her prey away. Wasn’t it great? It had been a year since the last city dweller had walked willingly into their trap. This had made her day. All she had to do now was warn all the other sisters, and then-
And then, as if on cue, the stranger looked up.
Their eyes met. Seeing the young nun in her body-hugging habit, the stranger must have realized what kind of fate he was facing. With a stifled cry (his teeth still closed tight around his trophy), he let go of the drainpipe and dropped down, desperate to reach the ground as soon as possible.
Seeing him fall, the nun pressed her hand to her own mouth in panic, pleading and praying. Heavenly forces must have heard her: the lucky thief collapsed onto a plantation of raspberry bushes which rebounded under him, preserving his body intact.
Nathalia made the pious sign of the cross and hurried to peel off her hated habit.
“A maaaaaaan!” she wailed like a Banshee, sticking out of the window naked. “A man in the monastereeeeeee! In the name of God, sisters, don’t let him escape!
Her screaming must have reached the stranger’s ears as he barged through the raspberry bushes into the garden, leaving the shreds of his T-shirt on the thorns. Nathalia grabbed a camera from atop the malachite box and took a snapshot of the stranger’s firm buttocks. She could use the pic later to relieve her solitude during one of her nightly self-gratification sessions.
She unlocked the door and darted down the stairs. She had to be quick before everything was over. If the sisters were truly hungry, no amount of shouting from the abbess would delay their orgy, in which case Nathalia might only get the stranger's cold corpse to play with. It had happened before. Quite a few times, in fact.
The stranger raced past the dead apple trees like a cheetah, heading toward the slimy monastery gates of gray stone. Considering his adrenalin rush, vaulting over them wouldn’t be a problem for him. And then he’d be as good as gone...
He would have been. Only he didn’t get the chance.
A sharp snapping metallic sound pierced the air. The bushes by the wall parted commando-style, releasing two nuns, focused and determined. The one who’d happened to be in front - a plump gingerhead in a white headdress - cocked her gun, pointing it at his stomach. Despite it being an old single-shot hunting rifle, it still looked threatening enough.
“Be careful,” the one next to her whispered, a dark-haired woman with lips painted a bright bloody red. “Make sure you don’t hurt anything vital. The Abbess will go mad if he can’t do his job. She’ll have us flogged and lock us up in the cellar. It’s too important, you understand it honey, don’t you?”
“I do,” the gingerhead said through clenched teeth. She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and addressed the stranger, “You’d better surrender, dude. You’re staying here anyway. No one has ever escaped the Black Habits. If you move, I shoot to kill. Then one of us will rape you until you’re dead. Or both of us, depending on how long it takes you to die. You knew very well where you were heading.”
The stranger didn’t appear surprised. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to see that his chances were slim. His face was covered with a two-week’s growth of stubble, his body reeked of sweat (he hadn’t washed for three days prior to his foray), his face was streaked with dirt - but nothing seemed to repel them. His dark-brown eyes, his high cheekbones, his well-defined muscles and the stench of a cornered wild boar - all that was plenty to arouse them.
This was the monastery, the monsters’ den notorious in the City, the birthplace of bloodcurdling legends. Apparently, about a year ago a seventy-year-old illegal migrant had come to its gates and asked for a drink of water in his halting, broken accent. There was nothing left of him afterwards.
Step after tentative step, the stranger kept backing off in search of an escape route until he stumbled over a tombstone.
A cemetery. The Black Habits had corralled him into the cemetery.
He bit his lip in expectation of his agony. Panic clenched his chest. The tombstone was old and crumbling, one of about thirty similar ones. Who had they been - burglars? Adventurers? Lone travelers? All of them at some point in the past had been lured here by the tempting songs of those virginal sirens... Each of them had entered the monastery walls oblivious to his fate, to never come out again. All of them had been sexually worked to death. What was it the wise Giovanni Boccaccio had said in his Decameron? “While farmers generally allow one rooster for ten hens, ten men are scarcely sufficient to service one woman.” One woman! Here, there were at least fifty of them.
The sound of their triumphant giggling sliced through his ears. The black habits encircled him; the gingerhead clutched her rifle, licking her lips in carnivorous anticipation. Slender hands with sharp nails reached out to him. A couple of the more impatient nuns had already stripped down to their lacy underwear. The vigilant Sister Nathalia stood in the first row, stroking her breasts (and not only them). Her thighs were just a tad too plump for his taste.
“In the name of our Lord, sisters, clear the way,” a stern voice said.
The nuns hurried to part their ranks, letting through the Mother Abbess.
The stranger gave her a wary look. The Mother Abbess was a stout woman of about forty-five years of age, her 5D bra size almost as scary as her attire. An SS officer’s cap crowned her head, complete with skull and crossbones; a jacket of black riveted leather hugged her ample chest; high red boots reached to her thighs. A short riding crop enlaced her wrist. He could have bet his bottom dollar that before taking the veil, she must have worked in the local medieval BDSM quarter.
The woman caught his haunted gaze and flashed him a victorious smile.
“You’re thinking in the right direction,” she said sarcastically. “All these men had their own agendas - but they had forever remained our guests. You look quite healthy and fit, stranger. You’re not as exhausted as some of them were. You might last a month, I’m pretty sure of that. We’ll feed you a diet of walnuts and honey to make sure you're able to satisfy my sisters for as long as you can.”
She turned a haughty head toward the restless, impatient crowd. “I have the first night. All the others, draw lots for your turn.”
The stranger cast a desperate look up at the sky. The monastery’s golden domes loomed over him as if preparing to collapse on top of him and squash him under their weight.
The women closed in, licking their lips and exchanging encouraging slaps. He could sense their hot breathing; he could see the droplets of saliva on their lips.
Today was their day.
Or so they thought.
A gunshot thundered. The redhead dropped her rifle and screamed, pressing her hand to her bleeding shoulder. Her dark-haired friend (wearing nothing but a pair of lacy crotchless panties) darted to pick up the rifle but collapsed next to it, bleeding profusely, as the second bullet hit her thigh.
Shrieking weakly, the half-naked nuns froze in terror as the stranger raised his Makarov semi-automatic.
“There’s no way you’re fucking me,” he said, waving the gun  from side to side. “I’ve plenty of rounds to kill at least twenty bitches like you. I’ve nothing to lose, you know that, don’t you? Are you prepared to die right here, right now? You realize you’ll never be able to indulge your carnal desires ever again?”
The crowd fell silent, even the wounded. He could hear birds chirruping in the garden.
The nuns froze in blank dismay. It would have been stupid to meet their own deaths now, denying themselves all the perverted carnal pleasures which had been the reason for their taking the veil in the first place. By the same token, it seemed like a real shame to let this full-blooded male go. A real living man whose arrival held the promise of thirty explosive nights. Few of the sisters were capable of forgetting it, reverting to the solitary pleasures of carrots, cucumbers and other garden-variety substitutes. In the five minutes they’d spent chasing the man, each of them had already possessed his body in her mind at least once - a few of them twice and even more.
The stranger pointed the gun at the Abbess’ forehead, aiming for the silver skull on her SS hat. The woman gulped. His hand was shaking but at this distance, there was no chance he would miss.
“Let me go,” the stranger said through clenched teeth. “I’ll kill you all, I swear.”
It didn’t take the Abbess long to make up her mind. It might be easy to play a hero in the movies - but when you’re looking down the barrel of a real gun, you become much quicker on the uptake.
The Abbess reached into the holster hanging from her hip and produced a remote control. At the press of a button, the monastery gates creaked slowly open.
That was the end of their hopes. The nuns hugged one another, sobbing.
“Piss off, you wanker,” the Abbess hissed. “We’ll meet again, I promise.”
“Go and plant some more carrots,” the stranger retorted, grinning. “You’ll need some tonight.”

ONLY WHEN HE’D PUT a good three miles between himself and the monastery, did Oleg breathe a sigh of relief. He'd been bluffing all along. His Makarov had only one round left. Had the nuns called his bluff, he might have had to shoot himself instead. Just think he’d allowed himself to be caught so stupidly when he’d nearly escaped!
For the first time in the six months of his stay in Sex City, he’d been granted the chance to escape this Catch-22 situation. He had an important meeting the day after tomorrow... and he fully intended to capitalize on it.
Oleg secreted both bundles under his shirt (one containing the candles he’d stolen simply to divert their suspicions, the other containing the true goal of his perilous visit) and headed for the highway to hitch a ride back to Sex City. Here, money had no value - but his bleeding skin ripped by raspberry thorns might arouse one of the women drivers enough to accept his offer to pay in kind.
Disgusting, he knew it. Still, he had no option. Time was an issue.

FURIOUS, THE ABBESS went back upstairs to her cell to change for evening mass. As she laced up her corset and slid on her silk stockings, she was choking on her tears. They’d missed such a chance!
That’s false economy for you. Never mind. Tomorrow she'd have cameras installed on the walls to make sure no newcomer could escape. It might take some time though because lesbian installers weren’t easily available (and no man fitter would go anywhere near their place). The sisters were so upset she’d even had to cancel the carrot orgy. She also had to order more candles to replace the missing ones.
But did it justify denying herself one final nighttime pleasure? Not really. That wouldn’t be right.
As soon as the mass was over, Sister Nathalia went upstairs to the Abbess’ cell. Her face puffy from all the crying, she knelt and offered the Abbess the malachite box.
Shaking with excitement, the Abbess blew a breath, readying herself, then swung the lid open.
Her pupils dilated. The Abbess sank her nails into her cheeks and screamed in horror.
The blasted thief!

THE CAMERA FOLLOWS Oleg who stops a yellow Honda cab. The muted picture closes in as he fakes a smile, discussing something with a girl in the driver’s seat: a long-haired braless blonde in an unbuttoned white shirt, her skirt dangerously short. Suppressing a grimace of disgust, the man climbs in. The girl laces one arm around his neck and presses his head to her chest as she steers away.
Some distance away from the car, the wilted grass parts. A man scrambles to his feet, a tiny figure in a large field, and watches the departing Honda through a pair of binoculars.
Then he turns to the audience.
The celluloid freewheels.


CHAPTER THREE

THE DOLL MAKER

Lima, the Republic of Peru
October 17 1931

BEFORE EVERYTHING else, had he ever had such an opportunity, he would most definitely have explained his position to the public. He had absolutely no criminal intentions in doing what he did. The police should stop trying to come up with theories which only betrayed their own illusions regarding his work. Ditto for the newspapers. Everything he did, he did in the name of love.
Yes, love. No need to grin so cynically. Love did exist. It controlled this world bogged down by laziness and malice, cladding darkness in robes of light. Great love, the kind that only visited man once in the course of his useless little life.
For a love like this, he too would have broken his own ribs and dug deep into his own chest, ripping his own heart out in order to present it - a throbbing clump of flesh and blood - to the object of his adoration. He could swear by the hair of the Virgin Mary that his intentions were holy and sacred. Had they not been, would he have submitted himself to the kind of tribulations he now had to suffer?
From what he’d heard, murderers enjoyed the agony of their prey. If newspapers were to be believed, their victims’ death throes even aroused them. How terrible, how blood-curdling. He'd never experienced anything of the kind. He was fully aware of what he was doing. He knew this was illegal. But unfortunately, he had no choice.
You couldn’t resist love. Nor fight it. You could only go down on your knees and serve it in almost-religious elation.

A SNAZZY CABALLERO stopped at the crossroads and glanced at his watch.
In a clatter of hooves, a horse-driven cab rolled past, its drunken driver hollering a ribald song.
The man’s contemptuous gaze followed the cab, a bitter smile playing on his lips. Jesus, this country was a real hole. In Europe, there were automobiles everywhere these days, not a horse cab in sight. But here you could still see peasants riding astride their llamas. He had to watch where he was going to make sure he didn’t step into steaming piles of shit. And it was everywhere like this here! Nothing but filth, dirt and heaps of refuse. Could you believe that Francisco Pizarro, the legendary conquistador who’d founded this city in 1535, originally called it La Ciudad de Los Reyes - The City of Kings?
Still, it wasn’t for nothing the man had chosen to live in Barrio de Chino. It wasn’t about the money even: a seedy place like this offered plenty of opportunities to remain unnoticed.
The Chinese janitor stopped raising street dust with his broom and bent his back in a ceremonious bow, “Good evening, Señor.”
“Good evening.”
The squat pagodas of the local China Town looked exotic amid the Spanish churches of yellow stone. The red Chinese roofs with upturned edges looked as if they’d been nailed to the colonial houses with tiny trellised balconies. The road was littered with dried-out fallen coconuts. Stinky Guanako llamas with matted hair walked around; baby pigs basked in the roadside mud. Chinese symbols on red paper lanterns swayed in the breeze. The unwashed bodies of local whores reeked of cheap self-made perfume; the stench of corn oil mixed with the effluvia of animal farms. Most locals kept pigs which they’d slaughter in the morning when you had to leap over pools of blood trickling from everywhere. The pigs would scream a single monotonous note, drowning out all other sounds.
Which was a very good thing. He too had some screaming noises to conceal. Only in his case, they weren’t pigs. Quite the contrary.
The man winced. Oh, yes. He did it for love. For a love heavenly and eternal, the likes of which had never been born amid lowly humanity. He could speak about it for hours at a time until his throat became dry and rasping. Then he’d have a drink of water and continue his inspired soliloquy.
As he walked, he looked down at his own reflection in a pool of dirty water. He looked way too dandy for this area. The bespoke suit, the alpaca shoes, an English fedora hat... He’d bought his suspenders in Paris. Wasn’t he getting too reckless? Smart dressers like himself were bound to attract unwanted attention. Still, you couldn’t surprise the locals with a rich dandy who’d steal into their dark alleys searching the company of black girls or wishing to relax in an opium den. Apart from the month of August, Lima was a rather hot place but this awful sea breeze forced him to wear warm clothes even at night.
Never mind. Once he was finished, he’d take his beloved one as far from here as possible: to New York or maybe even Paris, to drink champagne and shine in high society ballrooms. She was older than him, more intelligent and definitely more experienced. And he would do all it took to make sure he didn’t disappoint the love of his life.
He walked past the statue of Confucius marking the red-lanterned entrance to a restaurant and turned off into a side alley. His snazzy shoes slipped on the cobblestones covered in fish scales. The stench of rotten fish hung in the air. Holy Virgin Mary, the things that happen in this quarter...
Finally, he came to the right door secured with two padlocks.
The key squeaked as he unlocked both and darted inside, barring the door behind him. Just in time, dammit.
A hoarse, wheezy wailing came from the dark depths below, a woman’s sobbing voice,
“Help! Someone! Please help me! In the name of Jesus! Somebody help!”
It looked like his doll had somehow chewed her way through the rag that had gagged her and was now screaming her head off. Women were strange creatures. Their survival levels were extremely high. Using men as material for his dolls would have been much easier: men were weak creatures who didn’t cling to life so desperately. With women it was much more difficult. She must have ripped the gag with her teeth and spat it out. He should have thrown her into the pit next to the others to keep her company. But he’d thought it a waste of time and effort; he’d wanted the damsel to be fully ready for his arrival. And what was he supposed to do with them from now on? If he gagged them too tightly, they might choke and spend several extra hours hanging there, forcing him to get rid of all that useless flesh. And the contents of their veins? To satisfy the love urge, blood had to be absolutely fresh.
Never mind. Let her wail. He'd padded the outside walls with plenty of rags. She could scream all she wanted, no one would hear her. Still, it never hurt to be careful.
The funny thing was, the stupid girl wasn’t thinking logically! Did she really hope to get out now that she’d seen his face? Yeah right. Hopeful idiot. The likes of her would pray for a miracle rescue even as the guillotine blade slid down toward their necks.
Like a child, really. Hoping for the nightmare to end the moment she closed her eyes. Thinking the monster wouldn’t be under the bed when she woke up the next morning.
... He'd hung the girl up at the far end of the slaughterhouse before he'd left. A taut chain pulled her hands toward the ceiling so she could barely stand. Her shins were chained too to make sure she couldn’t kick him.
Seeing him, his victim screamed again, this time in bitter desperation. He smiled sympathetically at her.
Yet another step on the precipitous staircase to love. She was only fifteen. Having said that, at this age most Indian girls have had two or three children already. Swarthy skin, dark eyes holding the promise of witchery, the glossy sheen of her body drenched in sweat. He kept her naked: the filthy rags that her kind wore made him nauseous. The attire of his future doll should smell of fresh flowers.
The horrified prisoner watched as he undressed. When he had nothing left on but his underpants, she started screaming and wailing again. Stupid cow. Preserving her virginity was the least of her problems now. But of course all these girls had been raised in dumb sheep-like obedience to Catholicism. They couldn’t possibly think of anything else.
True, he didn’t enjoy what he did. But really, his guest’s behavior was annoying. She kept screaming on one monotonous note. His ears were hurting. And what did she hope to achieve?
Completely naked, he stood in front of her.
The girl wasn’t screaming anymore, she was croaking. Poor animal. Yes, he had to force himself to view them as such because it would be unbearable to realize he had to do such things to human beings. But as long as he considered them as part of the animal world, he could take it. If you thought about it, all those innocent schoolgirls, children or married ladies walked past butchers’ shops every day, ignoring the sight of the shop windows hung with poor dismembered creatures, their legs, heads and even hearts. They didn’t seem to be too affected by all the gore, did they?
For him, too, his victims were like... like well-washed pretty little pigs. Would the pig really think he’d removed his clothes only to defile his body by copulating with her? God forbid. He was free from sin. He was saving himself for the love of his life, elated and pure, the kind that man only experienced once in his lifetime. Jesus his witness, he wasn't even experiencing an erection which was something any man was supposed to have at the sight of a naked woman.
Finally, the doll had screamed herself voiceless and stared in horror at his blue and red tattoos.
He reached into a chest in the corner and produced a stone box. In it lay a dagger of dull grey steel.
He tried its edge with his fingernail. Good. Sharp as a razorblade.
He was soaked in sweat. The air in the basement was hot and close. A few burning candles added to the feeling, creating the impression he was a turkey in the oven.
He took in a wheezing lungful of air, exhaled and walked over to the girl. She stared at the glinting blade, her body shaking uncontrollably.
The monster took his time as he looked over her. His gaze paused on her breasts.
Exactly what he needed. The barely formed breasts of an adolescent, their nipples so dark they appeared almost black.
“Please, Señor,” the prisoner begged. “Please don’t hurt me.”
His brows raised ever so slightly. “Of course,” he said in a warm, paternal tone. “Don’t be afraid, my girl. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
In one swift thrust he buried the blade to the hilt in her left eye, ripping through the brain tissue. She died instantly and painlessly. He wasn’t some street lowlife; he always kept his word.
Gushing blood, thick and hot, spurted onto his face and weapon hand. He stuck his tongue out and curiously tasted it as he waited for the victim’s convulsions to subside. They lasted for about twenty seconds after which he slowly, millimeter after painstaking millimeter, drew the dagger out of the eye socket.
He'd have to discard the head, anyway. The girl’s features were too crude for his ideal creation. But her chest was nothing short of perfect. He'd been truly lucky with her.
He carefully wiped the blade with a cloth and returned the dagger to the stone box. He couldn’t have chosen a better place than this slaughterhouse. Its slimy walls were black with pigs’ blood, the heavy stench of rot blocking your nostrils, the surrounding gloom barely dispersed by the candlelight... awesome, truly awesome.
Time to get to work, anyway. The dolls’ parts could keep for a long time but still he preferred them fresh.
The murderer unscrewed the handcuffs. The girl’s body slumped to the cement floor. He walked over to the basement’s far corner and soon returned with his tools: a hatchet and a hand saw. He wasn’t at all looking forward to what he had to do next even though he should have gotten used to it by now.
He'd already ordered the necessary plants to be delivered. Normally, he’d had it done for him but this time he’d had no choice. The aromatic herbs from the foothills of the Andes would have to make do this time but in the future, he would need special plants possessing a very specific aroma. The doll had to be stunning, that was the whole idea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very often you came across a young Señorita who complied with every standard of beauty.
Sadly, such was women’s nature. No justice on earth!
With the precision of a surgeon, he clenched the saw in his hand and prepared to make the first incision.

AFTER ABOUT AN HOUR, the murderer - tired and covered in blood - had packed the part of the doll he needed into some soft fabric (which became immediately sodden and blotched with dark crimson) and walked downstairs into his secret room. The slaughterhouse owner must have used it to cure meat, judging by the remaining tubfuls of brine which were perfect for preserving dolls’ parts.
The door into the room was wide open. This was his lair; he had no one to fear down here. He'd taken his time preparing this place, including the “reception room” with the handcuffs under the ceiling, the “hotel” for the damsels, the “storeroom” and even a “recreation room” with a telephone line which had cost him an arm and a leg in bribes. It couldn’t be helped, unfortunately. You couldn’t do completely without a telephone these days: give it a few more years, and this rattling coffin-shaped device would become the main means of communication between people, he was pretty sure of that.
He leaned over the edge of the tub and peered into the brine.
So what did we have now which could make a complete set? A head he’d already obtained, with beautiful (albeit now dull) azure eyes which were extremely rare among native Peruvians. The hair was dark but he couldn’t help that. Once he’d shampooed the blood away and curled the tresses with curling irons, it would look gorgeous. The chest he now had... a good pelvis and attractive hips...
Oh yes. He could now put together a new doll. He'd already bought some coarse thread. This was going to be a painstaking job.
He decided against taking the new victim’s blood. He already had plenty. Two large tanks surrounded by heaps of ice stood by the tub, full to the brim with thickened red liquid. He had everything he needed. Time to put his pretty girl together.
Just think of all the work! He had to sew her together, then dress and paint her - and he had to do all of it by hand. It would take him the whole night - and then he’d have to wait for the plants which would arrive by the morning at best.
Still, the result was going to surpass all expectations. He was sure of it. He’d take an icy-cold shower now, drink a cup of strong mate and get busy creating art.

HAVING DROWNED the bag containing the girl’s body parts in a brine bath, the murderer went to the shower. The cold water struggled to wash away the caked blood, tricking down the faces of the tattooed creatures and mixing with red streaks. It was an eerie feeling, having one’s ablutions where the butchers had once removed the traces of dismembered pigs.
He'd have to get rid of the girl’s remains. Either he’d have to discard them or move them over to the “hotel”. That was another problem. Taking them to the dump site was too risky. And the “hotel” was currently a bit crowded.
He heard the rattling of the telephone over the noise of the shower.
He walked downstairs and picked it up with a badly washed hand.
“In the name of love,” a faraway voice said.
“Truly so,” the murderer replied. “In the name of the only love, forever and ever.”
His face lit up with the naïve dreamy smile of a child looking at candy.


Release - December 26, 2018




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