Frederic Berthelot paces back and forward in his room at Place Louis Lépineon on Ile de la Cité. Roux has already seized his chance to blow new life into the investigation. He couldn’t know, of course the shocking truth behind the grim murders. It all points to a serial killer, and the DNA evidence that existed had been destroyed on his command. But, with the recent discovery, not only does the power balance stand to shift, but the entire Network risks possible exposure.
His first option, and probably the only one, is to fabricate new evidence to support the theory of a lonely madman. He will have to go back to similar killings before the Reaper murders. It is a question of planting someone’s DNA and a very convenient confession and subsequent suicide.
Where the fuck am I? The Man is saying something inaudible as he draws a curtain. It exposes an arsenal of equipment, all designed for the purpose of severance of limbs, causing aggravating pain and bodily harm. He takes a fine knife. It’s miniature in comparison to the rest, and I feel relieved that I won’t be losing any limbs. At least not yet.
“What are you doing?” I hear myself ask. My voice already breaking with fear.
“You don’t know what this is? The Grim Reaper is visiting with you tonight.” He smiles at me.
He slips off my ballet flats and carefully unbuttons my jeans – button by button. As he pulls them off, my knickers follow with them, exposing my sex. The knife that I had hidden in the waist of my trousers falls to the ground. He picks it up and views it with great amusement.
“You really thought you could take me on with this? You have quite some guts.
I like it.” He puts it aside before adding, “We won’t be using it. It’s too dull and would make a hell of a mess.”
He turns his attention to my tank top and slices through each strap with a single stroke of his knife. Then follows the bra. I am petrified – it’s an indescribable terror, and although not gagged I instinctively know that screaming won’t help; no one is near enough to come to my rescue.
“Please don’t hurt me,” I softly plead with The Man. “Please, I have money, I can have it wired instantly, if you just let me go. Please.” For the first time tears are beginning to show. It may be the worst thing I could let happen, so I hold them, involuntarily heaving before I eventually stop.
“Do you know why you are here?”
I nod. I do know.
“I had something that was yours.”
“I got involved in something that wasn’t my business.”
“Yes, very good. I knew you would understand me. So you will understand also if I apply certain techniques to make sure you tell me all I need to know.”
“I will tell you all, sir. I have…”
“You don’t need to tell me yet. First I will tell you something. You see… it’s not only that you may have certain things that I don’t wish for you to have. The problem is…” He walks away and takes a chair straddling it in reverse. “The problem is, you see, that you know a lot. It’s an issue that is very difficult, if nor impossible, to resolve, wouldn’t you say?”
“I promise whatever I know will stay with me. I won’t tell a word. I won’t say…”
“Shhhh.” He puts his hand over my mouth. “That’s what they all say. But it rarely works in practice. If it’s not the police they talk to, then it’s some friend, their wife, even their fucking dog. So you see, sooner or later it always comes back to ME.”
“I don’t even know your name, sir.”
“Well, that is debatable, and even though I go by many, you know enough to pick me out of a line-up, wouldn’t you say?”
“I promise, I’ll disappear. Whatever it takes. Just name your terms.”
“Won’t work, I would have to keep track of you.”
I’ve run out of options, and I am absolutely sure this is to be my last hour.
“But…” he begins, “there is one alternative. I can always keep you here. In the basement, away from everyone else. You have no escape of course, but I will let you live.” He ponders the idea in mock earnest and again I feel my eyes burning from supressed tears. A single tear escapes. The Man sees it and walks up to me, catches it with his finger and licks it off with his tongue.
“How sweet,” he coos, before continuing, “So yes, your life is not yet forfeit. But that is not all I need to tell you. You see…you will most likely suffer at the hands of this blade. If you don’t tell all, you will undoubtedly die. It’s a death that has gone down in history as the Thousand Cuts. It’s a centuries-old practice of the Chinese whereby the victim has his or her skin slowly removed until he or she will part with life…from the one-thousandth cut.” He looks at me, taking delight in my terror. I used to suffer from hyperventilation when I was a child, and for the first time in my adult life I start to draw deep breaths, first slow then fast and shallow. The cold air hits my lungs and, although it’s what I desperately crave, it burns with every breath.
“The Nigerians practice a similar rite – that of the 200 Cuts. It’s a ritual mostly performed on animals, but legend has it it’s been performed on humans too. There is in fact a famous account of a British soldier who suffered the fate under an infamous colonel and a witchdoctor by the name of Drago. The colonel, who practiced the ancient religion of Ju Ju, the origin of religions such Santeria and Palo Mayombe, needed a slave in the spirit world to serve his cause. The British soldier had been one that he knew well and had even had the pleasure of sharing his specially imported Cuban cigars and the best Scottish whisky with. But for all their friendship, which obviously the Brit took as a sign of loyalty, the colonel saw a deeper meaning too. So one night, he brought over his most loyal soldiers, the witchdoctor and his apprentice. He told them it was time to make the British soldier an ‘iko-awo’ – a spirit slave. The more he would scream — and that he would do of pain and fright — the more the Orishas, the gods, would come and see what was happening. When the final 201st cut was administered, severing the throat, the man would escape to the spirit world and become a sort of inter-mediator between the gods and the sorcerer he served. The man was put on a stainless steel medical table, very much like the one you are on now, with a tennis ball in his mouth. From there on Doctor Drago administered cut after cut. The man howled in pain, his eyes bulging, but he did well. A trained soldier, not unfamiliar with the cruelties of humankind, he took the cuts until he was completely flayed but still alive. The apprentice administered the last cut and the man transitioned from this world to the next.”
The story grips me with sheer terror, and I can feel, imaginary or not, my skin being flayed by the hands of The Man in front of me. He rises up, knife in hand, and makes a small incision on my left thigh. I cry out in pain.
“This is nothing compared to what you will suffer later. I will probably have to follow standard practice and mute you with a gag ball.” He laughs at this, a sudden roaring laughter. For a moment I can hear the colonel’s voice in his. He must have been there, I think.