‘To the hotel Xueyu Tiantang please!’ Ennio Marino ordered the tired-looking airport taxi driver.
The archbishop expected the driver to not speak a word of English, but he was answered fluently.
‘Yes sir! Holiday, business, or something else?’
‘Let’s agree on something else.’
‘Mysterious,’ the driver smiled.
‘I’d call it fortunate.’
‘Drive,’ Ennio snapped.
The driver fidgeted in his seat like a cat on hot bricks, curiosity gnawing at him. He drove at a snail’s pace, hoping that his secretive passenger would start talking. His plan worked; the archbishop grew weary of their leisurely crawl and said at last, letting out his bottled-up anger, ‘I can see you aren’t running this car into the ground. Are you saving it for something?’
The driver looked at him with a triumphant smile.
‘Yes, this is only my secondary source of livelihood. I teach English full-time at a primary school, but it comes with a meagre salary. Large family, small pay,’ he sighed. ‘I have to feed eight hungry mouths.’
‘That’s something! Congratulations! All yours, or did the neighbour lend you a helping hand?’
The archbishop’s remark struck the driver’s heart like a poisoned arrow.
‘Of course all mine,’ he replied with a doleful face.
He stayed silent for the rest of the journey. When Ennio counted out the fare, he nodded without a word, pushed his suitcase into his hand and, giving his vehicle full throttle, quickly took off.
Ennio walked slowly into the hotel, satisfied with himself. The silhouette of the giant chandelier spread above his head was reflected in the lustrously polished inlaid marble floor as if in a mirror. In his suite, he sank into the sofa, exhausted. The luscious colours of the peach-blossom pattern painted on the ceiling relaxed his soul. He thought of Francesca. She wears peach-blossom patterns too. Alas! Those flimsy summer clothes! I fight for my ideals like a lion but I can’t conquer that woman.
He closed his eyes and Francesca’s face appeared before him again. He saw her disappear in a crowd in Rome. He could smell her jasmine-scented perfume and see the sunshine in her eyes. He was enslaved by this woman.
Suddenly, the telephone rang. It was a call from reception.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Marino, I’m Jiang Li. You surely remember me.’ The stewardess’s animated voice sang from the other end of the line.
‘Yes, indeed. I’m glad you’ve called. I put a business card into the case.’
‘Yes, Mr Marino. Is exactly what I want talk about. I found business card, but why that heap money?’
‘Oh, don’t be scared, dear. This is only a sort of non-refundable reward, or shall we say a present, for your kindness.’
‘Thank you so much, Mr Marino, but I like take it back to you, I cannot accept.’
The girl’s voice became louder as her distrust grew.
‘All right, Jiang Li, you can bring it back if that satisfies your conscience, but it’s not worth the trouble really. This amount is nothing to me. Consider it a tip if you like.’
‘You really generous, Mr Marino. I do not know how I become worthy. I only do my job. Anyway, I certainly want take it back.’
‘You know best, lady. Unfortunately, I’m leaving for a village in the middle of nowhere early tomorrow morning. If you’d really prefer to bring it back, you can do so this evening.’
A moment’s silence ensued at the other end of the line.
‘I make myself free. You know, I live on my own and so I am flexible.’
‘On your own? Such an attractive woman?’
‘Thank you for compliment, but freedom is most important for me, and I can find it in my job perfect.’
‘That’s really respectable. Then I’ll look forward to your arrival. When can you get here?’
The archbishop was hesitating. His inner sense was telling him something, but he dismissed the sounds of his conscience and wiped the sweat off his forehead. The outlines of a vile plan were forming in his mind.
‘There’s one more thing, Jiang Li.’
‘Yes, listening,’ replied the woman and prepared herself for another request, which she would reject, of course.
‘When you come, would you bring the spectacle case as well?’
‘Of course, but why?’
‘I’d like to write something nice in it. May I?’
‘Of course, but on condition that I not making friends.’
‘Oh, I didn’t mean that … You need a young man, not an old warhorse like me.’
Jiang Li gave a chuckle.
‘When you arrive, could you please come up to room 206 directly? I don’t want them to know you’re visiting me. I hope you understand: you’re a pretty young lady so I don’t want to receive you at reception because …’
‘You cleric in Vatican. Yes, I understand, of course. I read it on your card.’
‘Haven’t you read anything else?’
‘But of course. Alliance of Peoples: you are president. Is it charity organization?’
‘Yes it is. We could talk about that as well. I’m looking for someone for an important position. Are you interested?’
‘Probably not, Mr. Marino. I like be a stewardess. So, eight in 206. And I be discreet if they ask me at reception.’
Her laugh almost tore through the membrane of the earpiece.
‘Thank you. Yes, at eight. So long!’
Ennio was overcome by wild lust. Impatient, he circled the room lost in thought, stroking the furniture. After ten minutes or so, he snapped his fingers, got dressed and made for Lhasa. He went into a sex shop, a pharmacy, a grocery and even two shops that sold handbags. He returned to the hotel happy with his hoard – and the four bottles of champagne and mounds of peanuts he’d added to them on the way back. Because of the yearly Shoton festival, the main street of Lhasa was absolutely swarming with people. Lamas resplendent in the colours of the setting sun and foreigners in jeans and boots mingled with locals who resembled tawdry scarecrows in their colourful clothes. Festive evening lights were lit, and peaceful happiness showed on people’s faces. Perhaps Ennio was the only one in the whole street whose soul was seething, sweeping him yet further into the dark maelstrom of his thoughts. He was in a hurry because it was nearing seven and he had to get ready to receive his unsuspecting visitor.
‘Look what a huge suitcase the old man has,’ whispered one receptionist, her hair gathered into a coil, to the other as the archbishop rolled his huge coffer towards the lift. ‘He must have bought up half of Lhasa. Soon he’ll realize he’d have to take it home too.’
They cackled but did not think much of it. They had seen weirder guests. Of his dark secrets, they had no idea.
Soon, Ennio disappeared inside the lift with the wheeled monstrosity. His fingertips trembled with impatience like the muscles of a tiger stalking a gazelle in a thicket. The lift door opened with a quiet ring. Ennio remembered the young sparrow that he had dropped into the water. How desperately she had flapped her wings. The silly little thing. He smiled. So many things had gone wrong for him over the years – or so it seemed to him. Although, perhaps, it was only that his soul was continuously dissatisfied by Francesca’s unswerving rejection. Perhaps. He wasn’t sure what he wanted any more. What does the tiger hidden in the thicket really want?
Once in his room, he feverishly began to get things ready. He spun a pair of metal handcuffs on his index finger, opened them up and hid them underneath the pillow. He put another pair into his pocket. He placed the diethyl ether from the pharmacy into the fridge, folded up a tea towel and laid the bottles of champagne on it. He checked the freezer. No ice cubes of course. Must call for ice cubes. He poured the salted peanuts into a wide crystal bowl, then covered the coffee table with official documents and turned on all the lights to hide his intentions. She’ll not suspect anything. This done, he stood in the middle of the room and once again went over his infernal plan. He felt an erection, a rare event, stir inside his underpants. He glanced at his watch. It was eight o’clock exactly. Ennio was sitting on the settee, his heart thumping, when he heard a quiet knock on the door. He put on his most aristocratic expression, coughed and opened the door wide, so that the girl standing in the doorway could see the flood of light and the heap of papers on the table well.
‘Good evening, Mr Marino.’ Ennio devoured his unsuspecting fawn with his eyes.
‘Good evening, miss. Please come inside. You needn’t be scared; I don’t have a long time. I still have a lot of work to do.’
‘Oh, then I not like disturb you. We can have few words here in door.’
‘My dear daughter, the honour is mine: I love talking to young people about their hopes, plans – though you’re wasting your precious time upon such a useless old man.. Please, do come in.’
The girl gave in to the grandfather-granddaughter balderdash and followed him with glittering eyes.
‘You staying at beautiful place, Mr Marino, and you very humble man.’
Ennio almost cried out in delight.
‘Do take a seat, Miss Jiang Li. I’m sorry I haven’t cleared the table. You see how inconsiderate I am.’
‘No matter.’ The girl waved his apologies aside. ‘Such important man must control lot of things. What order and how much luggage! You stay in Tibet long?’
‘Yes, I have to find a very gifted young boy; that is, our organization would like to start supporting him.’ He offered the peanuts in the meantime, but the girl refused with a graceful gesture.
‘Don’t you like them?’
‘Oh no, to the contrary, I do. But I must keep myself in shape because of work, you know.’
Ennio lifted his hand to his mouth and chuckled.
‘My child, my child, do crunch a few if you like them. You could let your diet go tonight.’
Jiang Li’s fine little fingers strayed to the bowl of peanuts at last. The gazelle bit off the first clump of grass, then the second. Her cautiousness abated.
‘Ask me what you want to know first, Miss Jiang Li. I’ll also talk later, but it’s the most correct and proper thing for us to get rid of your most burning questions.’
‘I agree,’ she answered with a broad smile, pouring more peanuts in her palm. ‘Before I forget, the money is in this envelope.’
She slipped an ash-coloured envelope onto the table. Ennio craved the girl’s young, soft lips terribly and was intrigued by the tender shape veiled by her rose-coloured dress. His eyes lingered on the string of pearls around her neck. Are they real? The desire created by her little ears and the red lips above her sculpted chin made the beast of prey ever more daring.
‘You must be thirsty, dear. Let me offer you a glass of champagne.’
‘Oh, no, no!’ the girl exclaimed. ‘I cannot bear drink alcohol, half glass influence me already.’
Fabulous, thought the archbishop, and smiled at her.
‘Ah, but I can’t either, so I drink a kind with a rather low alcohol content; it’s almost like soda water with grape juice. You can try it.’
‘I not really sure.’
‘I’m really thirsty myself. Tell you what, I’ll pour some for you too, dear, and you can see how weak it is. If you don’t like it, you can pour it away. I won’t be hurt, I promise.
‘Mr Marino, you so kind is almost impossible refuse. Do pour glass.’
Ennio’s temper turned ill in the kitchen because the gazelle was sniffing danger. Had the wind shifted? But he did not give up. He only poured a little champagne into the girl’s glass, then added a few slugs of mineral water and a decent amount of grape juice. Pale green light flickered through the glass window. He turned, startled, but it was only a neon advertisement outside. Ennio carefully placed the champagne glasses on a metal tray and rushed back.
‘Thank you,’ the girl said, and took a sip.
‘Well, what’s it like? Not strong, is it?’
‘Not at all.’
She took a swig of the false champagne and stuffed more peanuts into her mouth.
‘So much to diet, but I not interested. I glad I accepted invitation.’
Ennio’s brain was working feverishly on how to execute his plan, but he decided that he had to wait a while yet.
‘You know, my dear, it became instantly apparent as I was watching you at the airport that you have a special gift for communicating with people and for tactful, patient behaviour. After a little preliminary training, you could be excellent at helping mentally ill people.’
‘But Mr Marino, you know I keep flying about, right? Even if I interested, how could I do this? I not a social-worker type.’
Ennio nodded and lifted his glass.
‘That could still change. To your health!’
‘Thank you, to your health too,’ Jiang Li replied and took a gulp of the drink. ‘Yes, I surprised – this champagne weak.’
Ennio smiled at her. Just eat, my dear, eat. He put a leaflet that had a dark truncated pyramid dominating the front page in her hands.
‘You may want to read this. It may give you a more complete picture of our aid work.’
Jiang Li started reading the leaflet with interest. The man picked up the glasses and rushed into the kitchen. He poured champagne for the girl with shaky hands, this time not watering it down. An icy thrill formed a fan on his breast. If this works, the rest will be a piece of cake. He returned from the dark to the flood of light. The girl seemed comfortable now, as if all her suspicions had gone.
‘Mr Marino, I not even suspected you doing such important activity. It needs to know psychology, medicine and practice. I afraid my knowledge is little. Why you use symbol like that of Illuminati? This truncated pyramid. I suspicious at first, but want to know who you are.’
‘You’re a brave girl, Jiang Li.’
‘Oh no, only curious. I don’t believe meetings are coincidence. This why I come. Common sense say, tuck money away and bye-bye!’
‘See?’ the man slapped his knee. ‘It did occur to you after all.’
‘Yes, it did,’ she answered and blushed.
She gulped down half of the following glass of champagne, which was burning her throat a bit more than before, but felt better after each gulp.
‘Is still champagne?’ she turned to Ennio.
‘Of course. Don’t you like it?’
‘Yes, very much, but it seems stronger. Well, does not matter. Is divine.’
Tiny globes burst in Jiang Li’s head and her mouth grew numb. The peanuts did nothing to help. The muscles of the tiger stretched, his pupils began to glow with the desire to kill. The gazelle had made a mistake. Tipsily, the girl tilted her head and said casually,
‘I feel like talking a bit, Mr Marino.’
‘That’s funny. But you can talk all day, that’s your job.’
The girl smiled wryly.
‘I bored with endearing, nicely chirping colleagues and too polite passengers. I swear I hope for harshness sometime, a bit violence, some indecency.’
Ennio was lapping up the girl’s words. He knew his plan was working like clockwork.
‘This brochure answered many questions,’ she continued in a relaxed manner. ‘How long this organization exist?’
Ennio, looking into the distance as if lost in thought, turned his head towards the window.
‘I’ll fetch some more peanuts. Actually, I was the right-hand man of the founder. He passed away a few years ago, although the organization has age-old roots. We’ve existed in this form for about sixty or seventy years. We’ve got a vacancy at the moment: for a personal assistant. The previous lady earned five thousand dollars a year. Of course we’d pay her successor more: it’s a complex job. Are you interested, perhaps?’
The girl’s eyes changed, all her resistance seemed to have disappeared. She was about to answer when Ennio left her alone, returning to the kitchen with a satisfied smile. The predator had been victorious. Getting the trophy was only a matter of time. He poured for the girl again.
‘It seems interesting, Mr Marino. I very curious. Personal assistant, hmm, exciting?’
‘Yes. Then let’s drink to that.’
The champagne glasses clinked and the archbishop dazzled the already drunken girl with an enchanting tale. At the end of his trap of lies, the girl gave him a warm kiss.
‘Ennio. May I call you that? You my angel. I can hardly believe this happening to me. No more airplanes, cross passengers, false smiles. Make-up go to hell.’
‘So do you want this job?’
Jiang Li nodded wearily and flashed her porcelain-coloured teeth. She gulped down champagne for the last time in her life. The curtains of the room fluttered as Ennio stood up unnoticed, opened the fridge in the kitchen and soaked the tea towel with ether. Then he silently crept behind the now languid girl and pressed it into her face. After making some weak attempts to break free, her body went limp.
Ennio dragged her body into the bedroom, handcuffed her wrists to the double bed and tethered her legs loosely. Then he began to undress her meticulously. He unbuttoned her fashionable dress and, with shaky hands, unhooked her bra as well. He simply tore the knickers off, he was so excited. He admired her shapely labia and licked them. I’m the most fortunate man on earth. This girl is wonderful. He unbuckled her stiletto shoes, stuffed thick lint into her mouth, then began to undress himself. He sniffed her velvety skin with dilated nostrils, enchanted by the birthmarks, and began to lick her neck. He took his time with her nipples. This is the most beautiful day of my life. He bit the skin on her belly, at which point the girl woke up. Understanding her situation, she tried to scream but could only moan helplessly. Ennio progressed further and spread the girl’s labia. First he pushed his tongue inside, then a finger as well, like a young teenager acquainting himself with sex. Jiang Li uttered a louder groan and thrashed her head about, but it all became part of the grotesque show. She was in the claws of a psychopath.
Ennio looked at his flabby penis and did not understand: up until then, he had felt fierce desire, but it did not work. He took out a rope and wound it round the girl’s neck. He made a knot and began to tighten it, his eyes crazy. Violent writhing ensued – the struggle of a body gasping for air. To his relief, blood rushed into Ennio’s cock. He loosened the rope’s grip and penetrated the girl. Jiang Li held herself tight. His manhood was rebuffed at the entrance so he punched her belly violently, spat and penetrated her. The answer was a blunt yell and soft sobbing.
Even Ennio himself failed to notice when he picked up the hammer. Perhaps when he penetrated her the second time. The eyes of the girl, who was by now choking on her own saliva, showed mortal fear. In tears, she shook her head. But the tiger showed no mercy – he brought down the hammer on the velvety, pale skin of the forehead with a heavy blow. At last he came. He roared mightily in his complete and perfect ecstasy. Nirvana!
Jiang Li protested no more. There was a rhomboid dent in her forehead. The gazelle had perished. Ennio lay on the cooling body for at least an hour, then he climbed off the corpse with a blissful smile, opened the handcuffs mechanically, untied the fastenings from her legs and used the sheet to drag her into the bathroom and hoist her into the tub, careful to avoid smearing the carpet with the faecal matter. He doused the filthy sheet under the tap. He was filled with indescribable euphoria. He felt that he was truly himself at long last.
‘Beast!’ whispered a familiar voice.
‘No, I’m God!’ Ennio answered aloud and snatched at the velvet curtain. It clattered along its rail, but he saw only darkness. ‘Yes, I’m a beast. A perverted beast. But it is you who has made me one. You’ve made me so,’ he hissed into the darkness.
Having folded out the nylon bags, he went back into the bathroom. Pursing his lips, he cut the skin on the girl’s belly, then cut the body in two. He hurled the innards and viscera into the first bag, then, having pressed the air out of it, closed it with a bundling clip. He wrapped the torso, arms and head in one bag and the legs with the bottom and hips in another. Afterwards, Jiang Li’s body was only like a doll truncated by aggressive little boys. He tied another layer of nylon bags around the first to avoid spills creating embarrassing stains on the wall-to-wall carpet.
In his underwear, he carefully packed everything except the clothes he would wear the next day and began to tidy up the room. He poured the washing powder he had bought at the grocer’s over the sheet soaking under the tap. He shook out the remaining bed linen over the bath, picking off each hair Jiang Li’s had left behind, one by one. I hope I can soak every trace of you out of the sheet, Jiang Li.
He felt sick happiness and was on the verge of insanity. He crawled across the room meticulously, looking for marks on the floor. He found only a tiny bloodstain on the carpet, which he bleached out with vodka. Next, he had to rid the bathroom of the foul smells and the bloody fluids resplendent in all shades of red. Having hung the sheet to dry, he scoured the sink. The bath and the floor received a thorough cleaning as well. Once he was finished, he took a shower and slept for a few hours. When he woke up in the morning and looked into the mirror, he was satisfied with what he saw.
Thoughts swept through his mind like a muddy river; the bathroom, however, was shining clean. You see, Ennio, you’re a good and careful man. I like you for this. You’re the gem of your church.
After having his breakfast, he rented a car, checked out of the hotel and made his way into Lhasa and along the river to bid farewell to his casual sex partner. On the way, the sparrow he had thrown into the river in Rome came once again to his mind. Has it reached the sea already? Or did it get wedged in the riverbed? Who knows? Anyway, you shall stay on the bottom, Jiang Li.