“There now. No more talking. We watch.”
Miraculously, incredibly, the boy let go of his nostrils and pulled the balled-up running socks out of his mouth. Air rushed painfully into Edward’s lungs and tears streamed down his cheeks.
“Jesus!” he sobbed. “That wasn’t funny. I thought you were going to kill me.”
Sergei Milescu looked at him and smiled.
“Maybe I am.”
Henry Whitman felt the sweat pouring down his back as he increased the incline on his running machine. The prime minister’s daily workouts were grueling, but did wonders for his stress levels.
“Prime Minister? Sorry to disturb you, sir. But I have the home secretary on the line.”
Henry scowled at his secretary, Joyce Withers. “Can’t she wait?”
“Apparently not, sir.”
Henry hesitated, aware how foolish he must look in front of Joyce. I’m the damn prime minister. Alexia De Vere works for me, not the other way around. But he took the call. He was too afraid not to.
Afterward he ran and ran until his legs shook with exhaustion. But his frustration lingered. How had he gotten himself into this situation?
More importantly, how the hell was he going to get himself out?
Sir Edward Manning stared at the laptop, wide-eyed with terror. On a pillow in front of him, Sergei Milescu had arranged Edward’s own top-of-the-line Japanese chef’s knives into the shape of a fan.
“You see, that’s what I call true love,” Sergei was saying. “Not just being willing to die for someone. But being cooked and eaten. Would you do that for me, Eddie? Do you love me that much.”
The images on the laptop weren’t graphic. Sergei was showing Edward a CNN news report from a few months ago of a famous case in which a gay psychopath had murdered, dismembered, and ultimately eaten his boyfriend in the ultimate snuff movie. The boyfriend was filmed willingly consenting to the entire affair, prompting a flurry of philosophical hand-wringing about the dangers of sadomasochism, and whether voluntary killing could ever be classed as murder.
It was the look in Sergei’s eyes that terrified Edward, turning his bowels to liquid and making sweat stream in little rivers down his back and chest.
“Now. Where shall we begin? Here, perhaps?” Picking up a serrated fruit knife, Sergei pressed it against Edward’s left nipple. The old man shrieked into his gag.
“Or here?” He moved the knife over an index finger. With a flick, he sliced into the skin. Edward screamed, his pupils dilating wildly with terror and pain. The cut was small but deep. Blood was everywhere, soaking the sheets in a deep, plum-red pool.
“Or here?” Slowly, relishing each second, Sergei dragged the point of the knife onto Edward’s belly, tracing a line downward till the blade brushed the top of his penis. “Would you like that, Eddie? Would you like me to cut?”
Sir Edward Manning strained wildly, pulling so hard that the ropes at his wrists and ankles drew blood.
Death was coming. He knew that now. It wasn’t death that scared him as much as the torture that would precede it. He wasn’t very good with pain. Never had been.
How could I have been so stupid? Risked so much, and for what? For sex?
In his terror, he thought about his mother. He thought about Andrew, his college boyfriend and the only man he’d ever really loved.
“Close your eyes, Eddie,” Sergei whispered in his ear. Through his tears, Sir Edward Manning did as he was told. He felt the cold blade against his genitals and wondered when, or even if, he would pass out.
“Let’s get some sound effects, shall we?” Leaving the knife resting on Sir Edward’s groin, Sergei untied his gag. “I want to hear you beg for your life.”
“Please!” Sir Edward hated the sound of his own voice, but he couldn’t help himself. “Don’t do this. You don’t have to do this! I’m a rich man. I . . . I can pay you.”
“Pay me? Pay me what?”
“Whatever you want! Anything. Name your price.”
“Name my price? You still think I’m your whore, don’t you?” Grabbing a second, larger knife from the pillow, Sergei slashed like Zorro across Sir Edward’s chest. The old man let out a bloodcurdling scream.
“No, please. Please! Tell me what you want. I’m sorry! Just tell me what you want, for God’s sake!”
“All right,” said Sergei. “I’ll tell you what I want.” To Sir Edward Manning’s astonishment, the Romanian got up off the bed and began getting dressed. Scooping up the knives, he rattled them close to Sir Edward’s face, laughing loudly as the old man cowered, then leisurely carried them back into the kitchen.
For the first time since he was a child, Sir Edward Manning prayed.
Please, please let it be over. Please don’t let this be a trick, a way to prolong the agony.
He tried to fight back hope but it was impossible. He wanted so very, very desperately to live.
Sergei came back into the bedroom and smiled. Sir Edward Manning smiled back.
Then he realized that the boy had something behind his back.
“No, please! Don’t hurt me. PLEASE!” Sir Edward Manning felt black despair overwhelm him.
Sergei came closer. “Too late!” He laughed. “Bang bang!”
By the time Sir Edward realized it was an iPhone in Sergei’s hand not a gun, he’d already lost control of his bladder.
“First,” said Sergei, “I’m going to take some pretty pictures of you, Eddie. So I need you to smile for the camera. Can you do that?”
Sir Edward nodded furiously.
“I’m going to send these pictures to some friends of mine. If anything happens to me—or if you don’t do exactly as I ask—they’re going to wind up online for the whole world to enjoy. Do you understand?”
“And after that, my friends will kill you. They will slice off your dick and roast it with rosemary and they will eat it.” Sergei Milescu’s upper lip curled. “Do you believe me, Sir Edward?”
“I believe you.” Sir Edward Manning felt nauseous with relief. “I’ll do anything you say, Sergei. Anything.”
“That’s good. My friends will be happy to hear it. They’ll be even happier when you get them the information they need.”
“About your boss. But shush now.” Sergei smiled, laying a finger over Sir Edward’s lips. “First it’s picture time. Say ‘cheese.’ ”
Billy Hamlin was sitting on the train on his way into London. Outside, a steady, gray drizzle had set in, sluicing the train windows with a grimy film of water. There was water everywhere, sucking him down, drowning him. An endless current that, no matter how hard or how fast he swam, he could never escape.
“You off up to London sightseeing?” The young mother next to him made conversation. “Heard your American accent earlier. You on your holidays?”
The woman was attractive but looked tired. She had two small, sticky-fingered kids with her, and was no doubt hoping Billy might provide some adult distraction. Taking in the normality of her life—the restless children, the stained raincoat, the bags of groceries wedged into the seat beside her—Billy felt a pang of envy so sharp it was like a knife in the heart.
“Actually, no. I’m on my way to visit Alexia De Vere.”
The young mother laughed. “Really? I’m off to see the Queen meself. Straight to Buckingham Palace once we get in to Paddington, aren’t we, kids?”
“I’m serious,” said Billy. “I have to warn Alexia De Vere.”
“Warn her? Warn her about what?”
Billy looked at the woman as if she were mad. “The voice. I have to warn her about the voice.”
The young woman turned away, drawing her children closer to her, protecting them.
She could see it now. The madness blazing in Billy Hamlin’s eyes.
“Excuse me.” Billy pressed his cell phone to his ear. “I have to take this. Hello?”
An eye for an eye, Billy. An eye for an eye.
Billy felt his throat go dry and his stomach turn to water.
Who will be the next to die?
The voice. It was back.
Billy started begging. “Please don’t hurt her!”
Hurt who, Billy? Your daughter?
“No, not Jenny.”
Or Mrs. De Vere?
“Neither of them.”
“But they’re both innocent! Why are you doing this? Please, please just leave me alone.”
I can’t do that, Billy.
“Then tell me what to do.”
You know what to do.
“I need more time. It’s not that easy. She’s the home secretary! It’s not like I can walk up to her in the street.”
“Are you all right?” A young man, a commuter, put a hand on Billy’s arm. He was looking at him curiously, the same way that the young mother had a few moments earlier.
He thinks I’m crazy, thought Billy. They all do. They don’t understand.
“I’m fine,” he said patiently. “I’m on the phone.”
“There’s no reception here, mate,” the man kindly. “We’re in a tunnel. See?”