Italy - Present Day
The man picked her up in Vernazza, a picturesque village perched along the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera.
From his salt-and-pepper hair, and his lined face, Mary guessed he was in his early 50s. He bought her a drink, then dinner, then a new dress and a pair of pumps and a few other things, spending lavishly on her in the quaint village shops.
There were no pretenses. They went to his plush villa, which afforded a breathtaking view of the sea. When she asked his name, he looked at her with his brooding dark eyes and said, "Are names important, cara?"
All she knew was that he was a businessman from Rome. She supposed it didn't matter.
They were soon hungrily making love to each other on the king-sized bed. She hadn't expected such energy out of a man his age—he was insatiable. She often had to fake orgasms with older men, but not with this one.
They spent most of the weekend in the bedroom. In between sexual bouts, they hiked up and down the cobblestone streets of the village, admiring the view and the lovely, narrow houses that were painted in pink, blue and yellow pastels. They gorged themselves on the local cuisine—cappon magro, a pyramid made of fresh vegetables and a half
dozen different types of fish, and the torta pasqualina, a cake made of 18 layers of light pasta and stuffed with ricotta cheese.
They spoke very little. Mary didn't care. Words might break the spell, and she didn't want this to end.
— — —
On the third day, he felt that he had won the girl's trust.
The experiment he wanted to perform was far too important to delegate to one of his lieutenants. There was much riding on the outcome. He needed to see the results first hand.
But he had to be careful.
When she lay in his arms, spent, he said, "Did you know I am celebrating this weekend, cara?" He stroked one of her full, firm breasts. "You are a gift to myself."
She looked up at him with liquid brown eyes. "What do you mean? What are you celebrating?"
He rose naked from the bed and picked up a small leather Gucci bag that was sitting on the coffee table. He knew she was curious about what was inside—he had been carrying it around everywhere they went, keeping it close at all times.
When he opened it, she gave a little gasp.
The satchel was packed with crisp, new U.S. $100 bills.
"So much money," she said in a hush. "Where did it come from?"
"I sold a flat in Portofino, a dilapidated hovelI have been trying to rid myself of for years. I finally found an American gullible enough to buy it, but he insisted on paying part cash. It's only about fifty thousand dollars."
Even though she was trying to hide it, he could see the greed in her 21-year-old eyes. She was a velina, a soft hooker who survived on her good looks, roaming up and down the Riviera, living off one rich man after another, staying a few days or weeks in a villa or onboard a yacht until the current sponsor tired of her and threw her out, after which she moved on to the next.
He said, "I was thinking of driving up to San Remo and trying my luck. Have you ever been to the casino there?"
"No," she lied.
"You'd love it—it's the largest casino in Italy. All the richest people gamble there." He also happened to know that the establishment had just updated its currency verifying machines with the latest software.
He motioned to the cash, feigning frustration. "Unfortunately, I left my passport in Rome. There's no way to change this kind of money without one."
"I could change it for you," she blurted, but then checked herself. "I mean, if you want me to." When he didn't react, she said, "I have my passport right here," and reached over to her purse and produced it.
He smiled. He already knew she had a valid passport. He also knew that she had left her home in Naples at the age of 16, and was unknown to anyone in these parts.
— — —
Ten minutes later, they were driving up the coast, heading towards San Remo in a metallic blue Porsche cabriolet, the wind blowing through their hair. It was just before sunset. The highway ran up and down the rugged cliffs along the shore. Soon, the sky exploded into a riot of orange and indigo and violet.
Mary was excited, looking forward to a few more days of luxurious meals, plush accommodations, and expensive presents. Maybe he would buy her a diamond bracelet at the casino gift shop. Why not?
— — —
When they reached San Remo, he surprised her again. He pulled up in front of the sidewalk that led to the casino entrance and handed her the Gucci bag. "Take that inside and convert all of it to casino chips." He motioned to the other side of the street. "I'm going to have a cup of coffee and catch up on a few business calls I have to make."
Mary was astounded that he was going to let her walk away with all that cash. When she got out of the car, he leaned over and looked up at her and smiled. "Try not to gamble it all away before I get there!"
She walked up the long sidewalk towards the casino. When the uniformed man opened the door for her, she glanced over her shoulder. Her generous friend was just sitting down at one of the tables at the cafe. He waved at her.
Mary was tempted to try and run away with the money. But she wasn't some stupid puttana—she knew better than to try and steal from a man like him.
Carrying the Gucci bag in one hand and feeling very chic and powerful, she went inside the busy currency exchange.
There were security cameras above each counter. Then she noticed a sign on the wall:
- WARNING -
ANYONE CAUGHT TRYING TO PASS AS MUCH AS ONE COUNTERFEIT BANKNOTE ON THESE PREMISES WILL. BE TURNED OVER TO THE POLICE
Of course the money she had to change wasn't fake—she had nothing to worry about.
"Casino chips, please," she told the male clerk, emptying the bag on the counter.
She was disappointed with his reaction—he only looked bored. "Passport?" he said.
Mary handed it over.
He studied the document, then took a few of the bills and studied them, rubbing them between practiced fingers.
Mary was suddenly terrified. What if this money was fake? She didn't know the man who had brought her herel He could be a criminal!
With a sinking feeling, she wondered if she was being used to change counterfeit currency.
The clerk began feeding stacks of the notes into a big, complicated-looking machine. It had a red digital display that showed the total amount, the numbers escalating as the bills were swallowed up.
If any of the money was fake, it was too late now. She would be arrested on the spot, just like the sign said. And the man who had supposedly given it to her? Conveniently disappeared.
"Here you are, signora," the clerk finally said. He handed her a handsome, leather-crafted carrier that was loaded with casino chips.
Thank God, she thought, greatly relieved. She let out a little laugh as she carried the chips into the casino. It was silly of her to think badly of the man she had just spent the last three days in bed with—he was a nice person, she had known it from the start.
She began playing roulette, betting only €50 at a time.
A few minutes later, her friend showed up.
"Ah, there you are!" he said, rushing over to her. He took the chips and placed a drink in her hand and gave her a warm smile. "Come, cara—I will teach you how to play baccarat."
— — —
He gambled recklessly that night, delighted with the results of the experiment. Within several hours, he had lost €15,000 worth of chips, but he didn't care. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money he would make in the coming months. He gave Mary €10,000 in chips to gamble with and sat back and watched her lose it.
By 3 am, she was tipsy, and he was getting tired.
"Let's go back to Vernazza," he said, stopping her before she placed another bet.
"Vernazza?" she said. She looked disappointed. "I thought we would stay here..."
"It's silly to waste money on a hotel room here when I own a beautiful villa so close by."
A guilty look flickered across her face. "I'm sorry I lost all that money..."
"It's nothing," he said. "It was thrilling, wasn't it?"
— — —
By the time they were back at the villa, he found his second wind. He drove his lean, hard body into the young girl, bringing her to a series of toe-curling orgasms.
They lay there for a few minutes, and then he suddenly rose from the bed and started putting on his pants. "I'm
buzzing with energy—I can't sleep. Let's go for a walk."
"A walk? Now?"
"Come," he said, pulling on her hand. "The fresh air will make you feel better."
"But it's so late..."
He ignored her protests and helped her get dressed, making sure she wore only her own clothes and not anything that he'd bought for her. When she reached for her wristwatch, he grabbed her hand and impatiently said, "For God's sake, cara, you're not going to a fashion show!"
It was windy outside, the sky just hinting at the coming dawn. They walked up the hill, along the cliffs.
Vernazza is part of a cluster of five villages known as the Cingue Terre. They veered off in the direction of Corniglia, the next closest village, which was only 3 km to the south. The path soon became so narrow that they had to walk single file.
"Be careful, cara," he said, letting her move ahead of him. "It's slippery in places."
The sea along this particular stretch of coastline was always rough, the waves breaking over clusters of jagged rocks that were covered with razor-sharp coral. It was not uncommon for hikers to slip and fall down the sheer 200-foot cliff face. Within minutes, their bodies were pulverized into bloody slabs of unidentifiable gristle and bone.
"Isn't the view incredible?" he said, stopping her after the path widened again.
"Yes," Mary said, snuggling her back up against his warm chest. Far below, the waves were exploding over the rocks, the spray filling the air with brine.
He kissed the top of her head, hugging her tightly. It was a shame. She was a beautiful girl—he was already developing a paternal, protective feeling for her.
Even though the fake $100 bills had passed through the casino's verifying machine, they would eventually be detected. She had shown her face on video. Her passport had been in the camera's field of view as well.
He gently turned her around and kissed her again, aggressively, shoving his tongue deeply into her mouth.
When he drew away, her eyes widened—all at once, somehow, she understood everything.
He shoved her into the abyss.
— — —
A few minutes later, he placed a call to a number at a sprawling dacha on the outskirts of Moscow.
A deep voice answered on the other end. "Da?"
"I have good news, my friend. Our experiment was a smashing success."