Bring Out the GIMP (Girls in Merciless Peril)


By Eda Chang


November 5 (day)


"Well, hello. It's Eda. Where have you been? You missed the best part, you know. It'll take me an hour to fill you in on what happened after you left."

"I'm looking forward to hearing about it. Just don't have the time right now. Garcia's picking me up in 10 minutes." Mira's voice sounded dull.

"Aren't you pleased? He sure knows how to throw a party."

"This just started with the role he gave me to play on Saturday. I had only seen him the one time before, when I had gone to his party but had no role. He gave me a role this time as an excuse to take advantage of me during the party. And after the party. And still. I have to figure out what to do. I mean. He's nice enough. And he's fun enough. And he certainly is more than rich and generous enough. But he's also scary. So I don't want to offend him."

"Hey, he at least took you off to some exotic location in his private jet, no? At least that's the rumor. That must have been fun. Where'd you go?"

"We went to Paracas, but I'm not supposed to tell anyone the details. He has a place there, but, like I said, he's into privacy, so I have to let it go at that."

"Just the two of you?"

"Yes and no. Yes until he had some appointments with a few men. Not the most honest-looking characters. But I don't know what that was all about. Listen, you'll have to fill me in another time. He'll be here any minute, and I've got to finish getting ready. And think of how to dampen his ardor just a bit."

The phone clicked before Eda could respond.


Three months later -- February 4 (2:30 p.m.)

Eda could not contain her excitement as she held the package in her hand. Although there was no return address, the writing on the outside, including the small attached envelope and the size of the package itself were nearly identical to the one she had received three months earlier from Marco Garcia, the one that had invited her to a role play that had turned into the most intense weekend of her life. Marco Garcia, whom she had only met for a few minutes during that weekend. But whom she couldn't stop thinking about ever since.

It wasn't that he was handsome. In fact, if the now paunchy man on the far side of 50 had ever been handsome, it had probably been before Eda was born 27 years ago. Nor was it because he was rich, although that he was.

Eda even forgave Garcia's persistence with Mira during the first month after the party. Why couldn't men ... especially wealthy and powerful men ... understand that not every woman craved them? Mira certainly hadn't. Eda knew the obvious reason -- rich and powerful men were used to getting what they wanted. So they weren't good at accepting rejection. But Mira had stopped complaining about Garcia, and told her that everything had worked out after Garcia had moved his affection, and married ... hadn't Eda seen something in the tabloids about it ... another woman, a Victoria something, just a few weeks ago.

So, Eda assured herself, since Mira said all was forgiven between her and Garcia, and Mira had been the one to introduce her to Garcia, that Mira's couldn't object to Eda accepting this new invitation, if that's what was in the package. And, although Eda knew that no second game could be as perfect as the first, since she could not again be fooled into the same state of terror for her life that she had been that first time, if the second game was even half as good as the first it would be the second most intense weekend of her life.

Eda took a deep breath and tore open the envelope attached to the outside of the package. It was what she hoped -- an invitation to a role play. She was intent on savoring ever moment involved in learning the details of the play. There were two pages. She remembered that the previous invitation had had three pages. Maybe Garcia felt that he could be a bit briefer with a guest who had played before. That he needn't explain the rules in as much detail with such an experienced guest. Or maybe it was just that her role would not be so complicated as the previous one. PFF spy. That had been an exciting role.

Eda began to read aloud from the top of the first page. Hearing the words in her ears, and not just in her mind, would make it sound even more real, she figured. "You are cordially invited to an event ..." An event? Not a party? Was there a difference? "... to be held at two p.m. on Saturday, February 5." What? Tomorrow at two? That was less than 24 hours away. Hardly any notice to prepare herself. Had delivery of the package been delayed? Or, Eda wondered, maybe she hadn't been the first choice for this role. Maybe someone else had turned it down and she had been a late replacement. She couldn't imagine, though, that someone would really turn this down. But it didn't really matter whether she had been the 1st or 2nd or 10th choice. She wasn't going to stand on ceremony or feel insulted. She just wanted to play again, and she was going to play. If there was still time to accept.

At two p.m.? A strange time, she thought. I mean, she'd heard of afternoon teas, but afternoon torture sessions? Again, though, it didn't matter. Maybe the party started on Friday. Maybe it started Saturday night. Maybe there was a reason why her character was to arrive early or late. Who cared? She'd been invited again after having to wait three months. And whether she was there for the main party ... or event ... with the non-players didn't matter at all to her. In fact, she'd prefer to spend only the time needed to do what she had to do for her role. So if she was to arrive at a time different than the others, that actually pleased her.

" ... at the Garcia villa located at 34 Calle Moderno, Paracas." Paracas? Not at Garcia's mansion? Paracas was 150 miles away. "You will be responsible for your own transportation to the event and for your own hotel arrangements should you need to come before your scheduled time to arrive at the event. You may use the credit card included in the accompanying package to cover all of your travel and hotel expenses, and any other expenses that you might need or wish to incur relating to your attendance at the event."

This Garcia was even more interesting than she had thought. He seemed to like variety as much as she did. Not just a different role, but a completely different set-up and location. Paracas would be about a four hour drive down the Panamerican Highway. Best if she rented a car and drove down tonight, Eda thought. To avoid any chance of a car problem or flat tire or blocked road or anything else that might delay her if she did not leave until the morning.

Paracas, she now remembered, was where Mira told her Garcia had taken her during the first role play, but they'd flown down in Garcia's private jet. So that's where this event was going to take place, Eda guessed. What had Mira called it? Garcia's villa? Eda could not remember exactly.

Eda continued reading. "You will be asked to play the role described on the next page." Yes. No need for a long explanation of the rules in the invitation sent to experienced players. Like Elena and her husband had been last time. Like she was now.

"To accept the invitation, call the number above by Friday at 5 p.m." Eda noticed that "Wednesday" had been crossed out and replaced by "Friday." She had indeed been a replacement choice. "Tell the person who answers that number 5 will be attending. If we have not received your acceptance by that time, your role will be given to another and you will not be admitted to the event." Same as before. But with only hours left to accept, Eda felt no need to wait to respond. She immediately picked up the phone and dialed the number.

"Hello." The voice sounded like Diego's. This time she did not stammer her acceptance. "Number 5 will be attending."

"Very good, Ms. Nguyen. I will let him know." She heard a click. No questions today. Not for a person who had played before and knew what to expect.

Ms. Nguyen? Eda realized that she had not yet even read the second page of the invitation yet, the page that described her role. Ms. Nguyen. So she was Vietnamese this time. Eda smirked. Garcia really did think that all Asians were the same.

Before reading her role, though, Eda dialed Mira's apartment. As soon as she heard "Hello," she launched into her information. "You're not going to believe this..."

"This is Mira. I'm not able to answer your call right now ..."

Darn. Not home. Should she leave a message or not. How detailed? She heard the beep on Mira's machine. "Mira. Eda. Call me. Interesting news. Call me soon. I'll also try you on your cell. Bye." Eda wanted to know whether Mira had been invited also. If she had, Eda thought she would accept, if she was being honest in telling Eda that all with Garcia had been forgiven. Mira would figure that this time she might get a better role, since Garcia had moved on to other women who he would prefer to have on his arm. More compliant women than Mira. In fact, Garcia might want to make Mira's role very rough for her, given the recent circumstances between them. Mira would like that, Eda thought.

Eda called Mira's cell phone, and heard the click of the voice message even before it had started to ring. No reason to leave the same message twice. Eda hung up. Where was Mira? She usually could reach her on one of the two numbers. She must be in one of those meetings with that boring politician whatever his name was that she worked with as liaison something or other. Eda hated politicians and was proudly apolitical. What difference did it make anyway who won elections? They were all the same. Promise you the world and then steal you blind. And now, because of some politician, Mira had her cell phone off and she might not have time to speak with her before she had to leave for Paracas.

Eda realized that she still did not know who "Ms. Nguyen" was. She turned to the second page of her invitation. "Your Role: You are to play Eda Nguyen." Eda guessed that Garcia always used the real first names, probably for the reason that Elena had told her the last time. "Eda is a highly paid assassin who takes no more than four to six assignments a year. Those selective few employers who know how to reach her do so through a scheme known as 'paired middlemen.' The employer gives half of the coded assignment information to one middleman and the other half to another. The two do not know each other. Each leaves his half in a different designated spot that Eda reveals in a weekly coded advertisement that she places in Lima's Caretas newspaper." Very clever, Eda thought.

"Although Eda learns the identity of her target from this combined information, she insists, for the protection of the employer, that he not reveal his own identity. If she declines the assignment, she will advise him in another coded newspaper advertisement. Eda is paid 75% of her fee in advance, and 25% after completion of her job."

Eda tried to imagine how her character might have started such a system, but, after finding holes in the first few theories she advanced, decided that it was not worth the trouble. She also wondered whether an assassin who operated in such fashion might ever be asked by one client to kill another client, since she would not know that her target was also a client. Now that would make a great story.

Eda reached the invitation's description of her mission. "Eda has been hired to kill First Vice President Guillermo Garcia ..." Gee, might Marco himself be playing that role? "Garcia will be staying for the weekend as the guest of the host, in the top floor bedroom at the southeast corner of the residence. He is known to take a nap every day between 2 and 4 p.m." All right. Name of target. Location. Time. This time she had better pay attention and not make her own modifications to her assignment.

"You are to wear the clothes in the package." As before. And, also as before, "Here are some hints that may assist you in succeeding in your mission:

"1. An agile person will not have to go through the house itself, but can climb onto the garage of the residence, and, from there, onto the roof of the newly added adjacent wing, which will lead to the top floor's bedroom window. But the window may be locked.

"2. If you come early and stay at a hotel, you might not want to tell anyone where you are staying. Other players may be looking for you, even before the event begins, so know that you risk capture even before you begin your mission.

"3. You are limited to two shots ..." Two shots? Eda hoped that Marco didn't think that she really was going to shoot someone. Then she remembered the last time. Paint ball gun, she guessed, "... and your target may not be alone, so it may be wise not to use both shots on him unless you have confirmed that he is with no one else. How you perform your assignment, however, is completely up to you, since you are the professional."

Another interesting scene, and another great role for her, Eda thought. But this time she was not the mouse. She was the cat. And this Guillermo was the mouse. So she would have to be careful. If he learned of the assassination plot, he would not be sleeping in the room that afternoon. Instead, he would be waiting for her. And if he learned of the plot early enough, he might even try to capture her ... tonight.

That she would have to climb onto garages and roofs to reach the bedroom did not concern her at all. She certainly had whatever agility would be required. Although she had never mountain-climbed, she was expert on those new climbing walls that had become very popular. And she had taken dance, gymnastics and hapkido as a child. So neither the climbing nor any other physical aspect of her task that might be required was anything other than exhilarating. She knew she could handle that.

But one definite danger was that other players might be searching the hotels for her that very night, before she even got to the event ... and she would have no idea who they might be. They were not limited to the few people at a party. They could be anyone.

And a second, perhaps even more terrifying, danger was that Eda did not know who her employer was, nor even who the middlemen were, so, if she were captured, she would have no information to give her interrogators. But they certainly would not believe that she knew nothing, so there would be no way for her to avoid whatever torture awaited her. Last time she had had plenty to tell and told everything to end the pain inflicted upon her. This time, though, she would be, in effect, working without a net. Her enemies could be anyone. And she had nothing to give them. Eda wondered if Garcia had intentionally increased the intensity because she was no longer a novice player.

Still, there was no use worrying about any of that. She had already accepted the invitation. And she knew that she would have accepted even had she discovered these greater risks before she had committed herself to attend. Maybe she would have accepted even more readily had she known.

Eda finished reading the invitation. "Good luck. If you succeed, there will be a nice reward for you." Same promise as before. What that reward was she did not know, of course, since she had not succeeded the first time.

Eda finally tore open the package to find, as had the last one, that it contained four boxes. She started with the largest. As she expected, it held her basic outfit. A camouflage uniform. Green-brown mud pants with a matching short-sleeve pullover shirt and a hooded jacket. She moved on to the second box. Obviously a shoe box. It held a pair of soft-soled brown shoes. She didn't bother to look at the size. Garcia always got the size right. Who said size wasn't important? Eda laughed to herself.

In the third box was a credit card in the name of Eda Nguyen. A driver's license issued to Eda Nguyen. With a lousy photo of her on it that looked very familiar. Eda pulled out her own driver's license. Same photo. This guy was indeed amazing. Talk about detail. A small retractable glass cutter. In case the window was locked, she guessed. A photo marked "Guillermo Garcia." Eda was surprised that it was not a photo of Marco, although this Guillermo also looked to be in his 50s, if a bit trimmer than his namesake. So Marco was not going to play her intended victim. Which meant that he was not necessarily going to be her adversary. She wondered what his role would be. Her invitation identified no one else except Guillermo. She hoped he wasn't going to play her lover. She saw what that had done to Mira. Boring role.

Next in the box was a small pair of binoculars. So Marco really did expect her ... what was the phrase? ... to "case out the joint," Case out the joint? Geez. Is that how assassins talked, even to themselves?

Taking up the rest of the third box were a tranquilizer gun, about a foot long, with two darts already loaded, and a holster and belt for it. Attached to the end appeared to be ... what? Was that a silencer? It must be a silencer, Eda thought. So it was not a paint ball gun. Guillermo was fortunate. The paint ball pellets hurt like hell, Eda remembered, while the darts eased the pain. So this is what they looked like? But didn't they make these guns any smaller?

Finally, Eda opened the very small fourth box. It contained ... matching camouflage panties? Well, at least I'll be color-coordinated, she thought. Drab all over. Last time she'd worn a beautiful avocado dress with open-toed black heels and sexy undergarments to a party at a mansion. This time ... she was expected to dress in army surplus for an event somewhere in the boonies of Paracas. Eda reminded herself that these were just the accoutrements. And that she hadn't worn her beautiful clothes that last time for very long. Eda searched the box for a bra, but there was none. Certainly not an oversight by Marco.

As she had the first time, Eda immediately tried on her outfit. She noticed that the jacket came down far enough to cover the dart gun strapped to her waist. But she also noticed that, while last time she looked great in her play outfit, this time she looked very much out of her element. And why would a professional assassin ... and a highly paid one at that ... dress like ... an assassin, she wondered?

Eda realized that, if she were going to get to Paracas that night and get a hotel room, she had to leave right away, and it still would be late when she got there. And she would be tired.

She had second thoughts. I've been warned that they will already be looking for me by the time that I arrive. And the other players don't know that I didn't get my invitation until today. They'll think that I got it a few days ago, like they did, so they're probably already looking for me and have paid workers in each of the hotels to tell them when I check in.

So wouldn't it be better if I drove down early tomorrow morning, after a good night's rest? I would still get there with time to "case out the joint." Eda smiled each time that strange expression crossed her mind. That way, even if I fail, I'll at least get to the place. I mean, it took Marco three months to invite me again, probably because I'd failed so miserably the first time. If I'm going to get invited a third time, I'd better make a good show of this, win or lose. Her decision was made.

February 5 (1:00 p.m.)

As she saw the sign that announced her arrival in the Paracas city limits, Eda checked the clock on the dash of the black Toyota 4Runner that she had rented the day before. 1 p.m. Plenty of time.

She had decided on the 4Runner for several reasons. First, she thought that it would fit in with the types of cars that she would find in Marco's area, and therefore not draw much attention. Second, the car offered her privacy in the back, which would allow her to take a nap, without anyone being able to see her, if she arrived too early. More importantly, it would allow the privacy, and room, to change her clothes before she made her move. She did not want to stop at coffee shops and gas stations along the way dressed like the assassin that she was playing. She didn't want to blow her cover if she happened to find a need to ask for directions three blocks from the house. So she decided that wearing the camouflage pants would be all right, as long as she wore a plain white t-shirt with it. The forecast was for a hot day, so that wouldn't be too unusual an outfit, she figured. With a bra. Not that the absence of a bra would really draw much attention, but she could pretend otherwise.

She had left her apartment at 8:00 a.m. Traffic had been light and it had been an easy trip. Even with stops for a quick breakfast, gas and coffee, it had taken her just under five hours to reach the outskirts of Paracas.

Eda stopped to purchase a street map of Paracas at the next gas station, and found that Calle Moderno was across town, at its southwest corner. She had no difficulty finding the street, and noticed the "dead end" sign as she made a left turn onto it. She was not at all surprised that Marco's villa would be in such a secluded place. She had, in fact, expected it.

The houses on the street were large and beautiful, with manicured grounds. Eda quickly realized that the street was very much longer than she would have expected a dead end street to be. The numbers of the houses that she was passing began at 1200 and descended slowly as she drove. It would be miles until she got to ... she checked the invitation again. Number 34. Right near the end of the road. She hoped that wasn't a fateful turn of phrase. Very secluded. Eda made a note to check the distance on her odometer on the way back.

She drove slowly, admiring the variety of nice homes that she passed. She saw no people, and wondered why she didn't see at least one or two cars with guests going to the ... event. Or coming back from it. Maybe the people who had places here, like Marco, only stayed a few months a year. Maybe those who were here were already out for their Saturday activities.

After 15 minutes, Eda saw that the house numbers had finally moved under 100. She slowed even more, and, after another minute, she saw it. Number 34. She tried to focus on every detail as she drove slowly by, knowing that she could not stop. It was nicer than most of the other houses, she thought, but it fit in with its surroundings. Brick. Not ostentatious. Not gated. Not surrounded by any high wall. There was a fence on the two sides that she could see -- the front and the right, but the fence was less than six feet high. Obviously not designed to keep people out, just to separate the property from the other properties. She saw the garage and the new addition on the house. She thought that she could make out where the upper floor bedroom must be. The one in which Guillermo would soon be sleeping. It would not be difficult to climb up to it.

But what surprised Eda more than the house's accessibility was that she could see no cars in front or around it. No guests, no servants, no activity, not even any movement. The place looked as if it could have been abandoned. There definitely was no event in progress that had started the evening before and lasted through the night and into the next day. This was all so much different than the first time. But she had the right place. There, at the end of the driveway at the left edge of the property was a mailbox that clearly read "Garcia."

As Eda drove past the house, she could see why, perhaps, Marco had selected this camouflage outfit for her. The left side of the property bordered a large wooded area into which her outfit would blend remarkably well. So she could park the car down the road, out of sight, maybe even off-road, since she had been foresighted enough to get four-wheel drive. Then she could cut through the woods, do her deed, and escape back through the woods to her waiting car and out down the road. She wished that it was not a dead end, since she would have liked to have a second way out. But all in all, she now had a plan. She was very pleased to have foiled any plan to catch her last night by waiting to arrive until this morning, and to have "cased out the joint" to figure out her plan.

Eda continued down the street and saw that there was about a quarter mile of wooded area between No. 34 and its neighbor. She also saw that there was a place for her to pull off the road far enough into a small clearing to make her car almost, though not entirely, invisible from either house or from the road. So that's where things would start. Eda looked at the clock again. 2 p.m. Time for Guillermo to be starting his nap. But she had learned her lesson. She was going to wait an hour before moving in.

Eda couldn't decide whether it would be best to drive out and then return at 3 p.m., now that she knew exactly what she wanted to do. Or to stay and rest for the hour. Finally, she decided that it would be more prudent to stay. Better not to be seen driving back and forth down the street this close to the zero hour. But first she wanted to drive to the end of the street just to see if she could learn anything more that might be valuable to her.

It was another half mile to the end of the road. It seemed that the wooded area behind No. 34 swept around the back of the remaining houses into a full-fledged forest at the end of the street. In fact, there were two cars parked where the larger forest began, and a footpath leading right up its middle.

Eda turned the car around and returned to the small clearing behind No. 34. She backed the car into it, facing out to allow her a quicker exit after she had successfully completed her mission. No reason not to be optimistic. Still, Eda could not help but remember the study in Marco's mansion, with its light on and its open door, the scene of her last mission. All too inviting. She had feared a trap then and she feared one now.

-- 2:20 p.m.

Eda looked again at the clock on the dashboard. Time to move. She climbed into the back of the car and pulled off her white t-shirt and bra. She could feel the warm air. She slid on the camouflage shirt, strapped the belt and holster around her waist, and put the glass cutter in her pocket. She checked the tranquilizer gun, still loaded with its two shots, took one last look at the photo of Guillermo at whom at least one of these darts would be aimed, pulled on the jacket, and, grabbing the binoculars, got out of the car. Glancing around, she saw no one within sight, and dashed off into the woods.

-- 2:30 p.m.

Eda did her best to figure where she needed to come out of the woods to be opposite the garage, and she soon found herself at the edge of the woods, at the middle of the south border of Garcia's property. She could see the southeast bedroom above the new addition, and slowly moved down until she could look directly into its window. She pulled out the binoculars to get a better look. The window was open. This was seeming all too easy. Part of a trap? It didn't really matter, she thought. She had a mission to complete and no other plan. After scanning the entire complex, and still seeing no one, she hung the binoculars on a branch of a tree. She would retrieve them when she went back to the car if she could. If not, they had served their minor usefulness. She decided to wait a few more minutes before making her move. She went through everything again in her head, visualizing herself climbing onto the garage and the addition, moving to the window, entering the room, locating Guillermo and presenting him with his gift -- one tranquilizer dart, possibly two if he didn't fully appreciate the first. Then retracing her route to return to the woods.

-- 2:55 p.m.

Eda knew that the time had come. There still had been no movement anywhere around her. She even thought it possible that she would find the bedroom empty, that she had gotten the date wrong, or some emergency had arisen that had forced Marco to cancel the event at the last moment, but that he forgot to tell her or just could not reach her. But she couldn't begin with that possibility in her mind. Guillermo was there. In the bedroom. And he was going to be hers.

Eda took a deep breath and then darted across the lawn to the garage. She found a brick on the garage's side where enough dried mortar allowed her a foothold to propel herself up enough to get her left hand around a small pipe on the garage's roof. What the pipe was for she didn't know, but she quickly brought her right hand around her left hand -- the pipe was too small to put both hands around it -- and pulled herself up onto the roof in a squatting position. So, according to the invitation, I am an agile person, she thought to herself.

From the garage it was just a small jump up to the roof of the new addition, a jump that even the hardly agile Marco could himself have made. And, two minutes after leaving the safety of the woods, Eda was crouched at the side of the open bedroom window, her gun drawn.

She leaned to look inside. The room was large and quiet. It took her a second to locate the king size bed against the long outside wall of the house. She saw the back of someone ... she assumed it must be Guillermo ... sleeping on the side of the bed nearer her. She thought about shooting at him right from where she was, without even entering the room, but then decided that the distance was just a bit too far and the angle not quite right, so that she would have to risk entry into the bedroom.

Eda dropped herself into the bedroom as quietly as she could. She listened, but heard nothing except the slight sound of rhythmic breathing. She crept toward the bed.

Suddenly, Eda heard some rustling of covers, and a young woman on the far side of the bed, previously hidden by Guillermo's sleeping body, sat up with a startled expression on her face, staring straight forward. The woman was naked from the waist up -- and may have been naked from the waist down, as well, but her body below the waist was obscured by the bed covers. Eda could, however, immediately see two things that interested Guillermo in this woman. Eda also knew that in a second, there in the broad daylight of the room, this woman would scream and Eda would be discovered unless ...

Eda fired the first dart, and heard a very muffled pop. The projectile struck the woman under her rib cage just as she opened her mouth to scream. The tranquilizer, though, seemed to work quickly ... had it worked this quickly on her? Eda could not remember ... and, before any sound escaped her lips, the woman's body fell back to the bed, facing Guillermo, with her arm draped across his chest. He stirred, and then moved to cuddle closer to her, but his eyes remained closed and he did not awaken.

Eda slowly raised herself to a standing position and approached the bed for a better look. The woman was out and Guillermo was breathing normally. Eda took a step back, aimed at his neck, and fired the second shot. Another muffled pop. His body jolted upward for a second, and his left hand began to move toward his neck, but then fell back again, draping across the side of the woman lying next to him. The two of them looked like they were in a lover's embrace, Eda thought.

Eda moved to the inside door of the bedroom, carefully and quietly opened it a crack to see if she could hear whether anyone else was in the house. Having neither seen nor heard anyone in the home since first driving past it an hour or so earlier, she was surprised to hear the voices of at least two men and a woman in a room almost directly below the bedroom. If they were Guillermo's body guards, then they had lost the game. Maybe Eda would have a chance to see their punishment as a member of the audience. Or even the reward of participating in it.

Eda closed the door as carefully as she had opened it, and moved back to the open window. Her timing had been perfect, she thought. Guillermo's nap lasted until 4 p.m. If the people downstairs did not discover her handiwork before then, she would have a full hour to get far out of Paracas before Marco ... or anyone else ... learned of her success.

Out the window, onto the roof of the addition, down to the garage and back to the ground. Eda hadn't realized how fast her heart was now beating, not from the physical exertion required, but from the excitement of her "kill." Rather, her "kills." Two shots. Two victims. She was back to her car before she even realized that she had raced through the woods.

Of course, Eda wondered what more there was to this event. What did success mean? When would she learn what her reward was? But, wait, slow down. Last time, remember, hadn't she thought that she had succeeded only to discover ...? She couldn't be sure that she had succeeded yet. She needed to escape first. Once back in Lima she could consider her mission accomplished.

Best to get out of the camouflage outfit, she thought. The rules of the game didn't require her to keep it on after she had completed her mission. Eda hopped into the back of the car. Off with the jacket and shirt. On with the white t-shirt. She'd wished she'd brought some other pants, but, since she had not, she had to leave on the camouflage pants. But wearing the white t-shirt with them still gave her a much different look than wearing the entire camouflage outfit. She got out of the back of the car, opened the trunk, removed the spare tire from its holder, and put the holster, gun, glass cutter, shirt and jacket into the emptied space. After smoothing the mat back over the newly filled-space, she left the spare tire loose on top, and got into the driver's seat. She looked at the clock on the dashboard.

-- 3:25 p.m.

Eda pulled out from the clearing, and turned back toward the Garcia house. She could still see no activity anywhere on its grounds as she drove by, careful not to reduce her speed. Constantly glancing into her rear view mirror, the trip back to the beginning of the street seemed longer than it had when she had driven the other way down it the first time.

About halfway back -- the last number she recalled seeing was 512 -- Eda saw the first moving vehicle that she had seen on the street. A police car. Traveling the other way. Siren blaring. No doubt heading to No. 34. The others in the house must have finally checked and discovered Guillermo and his lover. It looked like a real police car to Eda, but, then, she knew that Marco had a flair for detail. And she didn't really know what a Paracas police car looked like. Eda figured that it had been 10 minutes, and would take another five or more for the car to reach the home. She would have at least a 15 minute head start, maybe more. Plenty of time to get across Paracas and back on the highway to Lima.

But was that it? What kind of "event" was that? She'd been in the house no more than a couple of minutes, spoken to no one, interacted with no one ... well, except her minimal contact with her two victims. Not much conversation, however. Eda laughed. It had been an exciting few minutes, but not when compared with the hours of intensity the first time. Maybe failure was more rewarding than success. Or maybe Marco would make sure that the reward for success would be much nicer than her reward ... and, face it, Eda thought, it had been a reward ... for failure.

As she approached the end of Calle Moderno, however, Eda could see that Marco's "event" might not yet be over, that its true location might not have been 34 Calle Moderno, and that she could not be sure yet that she had been successful. Like the first time, Marco apparently liked to tease his guests into believing prematurely that they had succeeded. Because there, up ahead, was a police roadblock.

-- 3:45 p.m.

One police car blocked each side of the street, with a space between them large enough to allow one car to pass. In that space, however, stood two uniformed police officers. About 10 feet in front of them was the only car ahead of Eda on the street. Outside it, a man, who must have been its driver, was holding a piece of paper and arguing with a third officer, who seemed to be holding a packet of papers. A fourth officer had stopped Eda's car about 20 feet behind the other.

Finally, the man stopped arguing, got back into his car, and, as the two officers closest to the intersection stepped aside, drove past them to make a left turn out of Calle Moderno. The officer closest to her signaled Eda to move forward, as the two officers again moved to block the intersection. Eda drove up to the officer holding the papers, who signaled her to roll down her window. She obeyed. This might require quick thinking, she thought, and hoped that her mind would comply, if it became necessary.

"Driver's license, please."

"Of course," Eda reached into the open compartment attached to the driver's door and picked up the small fanny pack that she had placed there that morning. She opened it, found the license that Marco had provided, and handed it to the officer. "May I ask what the problem is?" She tried to sound as innocent as possible.

The officer did not answer, but looked at the license, then back at Eda, then at the license and back again. "Ms. ... Nguyen?" Obviously this officer, unlike Marco, knew that not all Asians looked alike. "Yes. My stepfather's name." Good response, she thought.

"I see. We're investigating an unfortunate event that occurred this afternoon. We need to question anyone on this street who might have seen anything that can help us. You are willing to help us?"

Although he made it sound like a question, Eda knew that it was not. "Yes. Definitely."

"Good. It makes our job easier to have cooperative citizens. Please open your trunk."

The trunk? Damn. If the officers made half an effort, they would find her camouflage outfit, glass cutter and ... dart gun. Eda flicked the trunk lock to open it, and, as the officer moved to the back of the car, she decided to take a risk ...

Eda got out of the car and followed the officer to the back of the car. Just as his eyes started to scan its contents, she spoke out. "Sir, you know, ever since I had a flat tire last week, I haven't been able to get the spare back into the wheel well. It's sliding around when I drive. It makes me crazy. Could you help get it back secure?"

Having seen that the trunk was apparently empty except for the spare tire, the officer quickly closed it, to Eda's great relief. "I'm sorry, ma'am. We have no time for that." He nodded behind him, and Eda could see that two more cars had been stopped and were waiting for their turn to get through the roadblock.

The officer handed Eda one of the pieces of paper that he was holding. "Ms. ... Nguyen, these are directions to the police station. The old police station, so don't get confused and go to the new one. It should take only 15 minutes for you to get there, and, unless there's a backlog, you should be out within an hour after giving your statement and answering a few questions." So that's what had upset the driver ahead of her.

The officer continued. "I am forwarding to the station your time of departure here. Go straight there. They will be expecting you." The officer signaled the next car to advance. Eda had her instructions.

Eda got back in the car, as, again, the two officers blocking the road parted momentarily to let her through. For a second she thought about making a quick right, back toward the center of town and the highway. Maybe these officers couldn't leave their posts and she could avoid any that they might send after her. But that seemed much too rash under the circumstances. They had not found anything in her trunk. They had made no accusations against her. Discretion, not valor, as the saying went, was best at this point. Eda turned left as she entered the intersection.

Eda decided that she would drive straight to the police station, as directed. Except ... she needed to make one stop at a dumpster along the way to toss everything hidden in her trunk.

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, though, so Eda knew that people and cars would be swarming around any shopping area or restaurant that might hold a dumpster. Fortunately, though, her drive to the station took her through an industrial area. Shut down for the weekend. She turned quickly down a driveway, around to the back of a large building, and spotted what she needed. She jumped out of the car and unloaded the trunk, not securing the spare tire in the wheel well, but leaving it right where the officer had seen it, just in case he ever compared notes with anyone at the station who might examine her car. She then got back in and pulled back onto the road to the station.

-- 4:05 p.m.

As Eda arrived at the station, she could see that its grounds were overgrown and the buildings themselves not recently maintained. Then she remembered that this was the "old" station, and again thought how clever Marco was to have rented this abandoned police station. She had finally arrived at the event's real location, she was certain.

Eda pulled into a parking space out front, where all of the activity seemed to be taking place. She could see the car of the man who had been in front of her at the roadblock parked three spaces down. So, angry as he had been, he too had feared to do anything but obey the officer's instructions.

As Eda entered the main building, she saw a table set up just a few feet inside, behind which two officers stood. One asked her name, then checked a list that he held in his hand. Eda imagined that this was the list of names that the officer at the roadblock had called in. At the same time, the other officer placed a sheet of paper and ink pad in front of her, and reached out to grab her right hand. "We will need your fingerprints, ma'am." Eda didn't like this, but offered no resistance as the officer rolled each of her fingers on the pad and then on the paper, doing the same next with the fingers of her left hand, before finally reaching for a wet cloth and wiping most, but not all, of the ink off her fingers. As soon as he had finished, the first officer spoke. "Ms. Nguyen. Room 6, down the hall, on the right." He pointed the direction. "But first remove your shoes and leave them here, and give me your car keys." Eda looked at him quizzically, but obeyed both requests.

She saw a few officers as she walked toward the room to which she had been directed. She knocked, heard no response, and then slowly opened the door and entered, finding herself in a small room with a desk and three chairs. Behind the desk sat an officer who, without looking up, motioned her to sit in the chair in front of the desk, which was piled with papers. And, in the third chair, at the back corner of the room, sat another officer who appeared to be of higher rank than any of the others she had so far seen.

"Ms. Nguyen?" The officer behing the desk finally raised is head and stared at her. Eda nodded in confirmation. "I'm Sergeant Montez. This is Captain Flores." Flores looked at her, offering no greeting or gesture. Montez continued.

"Ms. Nguyen, I have a few questions for you. I'm sure you understand." Eda again nodded. "According to our records, you reached the roadblock at 3:45 p.m. How long were you on the street?"

"I like to hike in the woods at the end of the street. I find it very relaxing. Seeing the trees gives me a sense of survival." When she saw Montez wrinkle his brow, she realized that she hadn't answered his question. "I got there about noon, I think, but I'm not exactly sure." Best not to have arrived too soon before the event in which he was interested, she thought, especially since she had left so soon after.

"I see. So you were there about ...?"

"Maybe three hours. Again, I'm not sure exactly."

"And during that time, did you see anyone else hiking in the woods?" Montez seemed to ask the question more as a matter of routine than because of any perceived doubt in her story.

"I did see a few people." Eda remembered the two cars that had been parked at the end of the road near the path leading into the woods. "Two men, I remember seeing. Probably a few other people, too. There usually are others there when I go hiking on Saturday mornings."

"Were these two men together? Can you describe them?"

"I'm not sure if they were together. One was walking about thirty feet in front of the other. So I'm not sure. They were both young. In their 20s I would say. I'm not good at ages. One was dark-haired. The other wore a hat." Eda hoped that she had said nothing inconsistent or provably wrong, but her story sounded good to her.

"Oh," she continued before being asked another question, trying to appear eager to help and to divert follow-up questions about a part of her story that she had just invented. "I saw two cars at the end of the street. That's where the hikers usually park." She described the cars to Montez as accurately as she could remember, thinking it best to tell him the truth about them since the information might lead to other suspects.

Another officer quietly entered the room as Eda was speaking, and whispered into Montez's ear, then departed. Eda noticed Montez nod slightly several times as the officer told him whatever it was that he had to say.

"Ms. Nguyen, this may seem like a strange question to you, but I ask it in all seriousness for a reason. Are you wearing a bra?"

Eda was taken aback for a moment, then realized the reason for the question and relaxed. "No. It was a hot day and I took it off. I left it in the car." Eda had forgotten she had done so. She imagined that, if she were wearing one, Montez would have thought that the one that the officer found in her car might belong to someone else. An accomplice perhaps.

"And where did you stop after the roadblock before coming here?

"I .." How did he know? It had only taken a few minutes. "I stopped for gasoline." She had passed several gas stations on the way.

Montez looked at her. "And you filled your tank?"

She hadn't filled her tank since she was 75 miles outside of Paracas. "Er, no. I ... I don't always have enough money to fill the tank. I filled it about halfway." Not the best answer, she thought. But plausible.

"You can afford to rent such a nice new car but cannot keep its tank filled?"

"I can. I just meant that I didn't have a lot of cash on me and the station wouldn't take my credit card."

Eda could not tell if Montez was satisfied with her answers as he turned to look at his superior officer seated behind him. Flores spoke for the first time. "Before we thank Ms. Nguyen for her help, especially about the description of the two cars at the end of the street, and send her on her way, we should see if she can identify a possible suspect. Would you agree, Sergeant?"

"Well, yes." Was a Sergeant really going to disagree with a Captain, Eda thought. "If you think it will not be ... too much for her."

"Yes," the Captain was directing his remarks to Eda, "and if we can trust you to be discrete about what you see. Can we, Ms. Nguyen?"

How else was Eda to answer this strange question. "Of course. I only want to help."

Flores rose and moved to the door. "That is much appreciated, Ms. Nguyen. Please follow me." He held the door open for her, and the two walked out of Room 6, her questioning over at least for the moment, it appeared.

-- 4:25 p.m.

Eda walked at Flores' side down a long straight corridor, past several other rooms that she imagined were also used for questioning. Finally, they reached a door at the end of the corridor, and Flores stopped. "We have captured a suspected traitor who we believe has been involved in the tragic event that occurred today. You will learn some of the details of those events fairly soon, either while you are still here at the station or on the radio or television after you leave. Word travels fast. But, for now, all you must remember is that betrayers of our wonderful country are not entitled to our sympathy. They are people who are attempting to destroy us and our way of life. Keep that in mind at all times." Eda's eyes were fixed on Flores. She nodded.

Flores opened the door, and Eda saw that behind it was a narrow staircase, surrounded on both sides with walls of stone, that wound up and around, like she imagined might be the steps leading to a castle's dungeon tower. But this was not a castle, it was a police station.

As Flores slowly circled up the steps, with Eda just a few steps behind, Eda thought she could hear a low moaning. Like a mantra. "Ooooommmmm, Ooooommmmm." As they approached the top of the stairs, and she could see the door that separated them from where Flores was taking her, she realized that the sound was more staccato. Breathy. And the repeated word, was not "ooomm." It was "no."

As Flores opened the door, the sound became clearer to her. "No. No. No. No." Not a scream. Not even very loud. Not a plea. "No. No." Each "no" started as soon as the one before it had ended. Every second, maybe even twice a second. "No. No." More as if the word was said to convince its utterer that something was not as it was than to convince anyone else not to do something. Flores stopped before entering the room and turned to Eda. "Remember. Traitors do not deserve sympathy." Eda nodded automatically in response.

The door opened onto a narrow balcony, about three feet wide and 10 feet long. There was a full wall of stone on the right, but on the left was a railing that rose only about four feet to allow those on the balcony to watch whatever was happening in the room over which it looked. Eda was reminded of scenes in television hospital shows where young doctors stood on a balcony overlooking an operating room to watch a senior surgeon and his team perform a complex medical procedure.

Flores walked halfway across the balcony and leaned over the top of the railing, his eyes fixed on the room below. "No. No. No." Eda paused for a few extra seconds, then joined him.

The balcony, she confirmed, overlooked a large L-shaped room with a high ceiling. The room was long and narrow on the left, then doubled or tripled in depth halfway across. This deeper side of the room was empty. But two large spotlights shown down from the sides of the foot of the balcony, pointed directly at the left side of the room below, clearly illuminating it the room below, but preventing anyone below from seeing up to whoever might be standing on the balcony. Eda saw three men and a woman. And the mantra came from the woman for reasons now quite apparent to Eda.

This, obviously, was the station's main interrogation room. The woman was chained face up on a wooden rack that ran parallel to the balcony, about ten feet from the balcony's base, her head on the right. She was naked from the waist down. Her wrists were bound in metal cuffs attached to chains that pulled them up toward a roller. A man, naked from the waist up, hairy chested, and wearing a black hood ... had it been white, it would have looked to Eda like those that the Klansman had worn in America 50 or 100 years ago ... stood at this end of the rack, on the side farther from the balcony, holding the roller's handle. Other than the hood, he wore only long black pants that could not stop his large gut from spilling out over its waistband. And he seemed to be enjoying his work ... and the sight that he had helped create.

The woman's ankles were secured firmly in wooden stocks, between which stood another similarly-hooded man who was resting his weight on top of them, even though it was clear that the stocks did not need his help to hold her ankles in place. From Eda's side view, she could see that this one's gut was also too large for any pair of pants ... if he had been wearing pants. This one, though, wore nothing but the hood. And, noticeably, his body showed no sign of arousal. Eda knew that this had to mean one of two things. Either he was a cold-blooded torturer or he had recently satisfied himself on the only object in the room that could have served that purpose.

The woman's face was also covered by a black hood, but, unlike the others, hers was tightly secured across her throat and neck. A small opening revealed her mouth, allowing her to breath ... or at least to gasp for breath. Perhaps more significantly, Eda thought, it allowed her to talk ... to confess ... to scream. Or, for now, to pant the word "No" over and over.

Eda guessed that the woman had occupied this rack for a long time. Her toes pointed straight out of the stocks, toward the near wall, and it looked as if the arches of her feet, as well as her calves, were spasming painfully. Of course, given her current situation, this added but little more to her overall pain. Her shoulders were stretched to the point where Eda thought that the next half-inch turn of the roller ... or certainly the one after that ... must separate them. They already bore a purple tinge that indicated broken blood vessels.

Although the woman's white shirt had not been completely removed, the buttons down its front had been undone and the shirt pulled fully open, so that it largely lay under her and covered only a small part of her upper arms. If she had once been wearing a bra under that shirt, she was no longer.

As best Eda could see, her breasts were firm, of slightly larger than average size, and nicely-shaped. Or they would have been nicely shaped if they had been allowed to rest naturally on her body. But, adding considerably to the woman's pain, Eda saw, two clamps dug deeply into her nipples, each of which was attached to a chain that rose high above her ... Eda's eyes followed the path ... to its own ring in the ceiling ... Eda had to look up even from the upper level of the balcony to see these rings embedded in the high ceiling ... and then back to end a few feet above the rack. There, these ends of the chains were secured to the top of a small horizontal metal bar, on the bottom side of which were a half dozen or so hooks. Three were empty. But to the other hooks were attached small weights that removed all slack from the chain and tugged the woman's nipples upward far enough that she was forced to arch her back up off the rack to try to relieve the great pressure that the added weights placed on the chains holding her clamped nipples. Such seemingly small weights to Eda, she thought, but not to the woman subject to their effect.

A third man, perhaps a bit less paunchy than the other two, dressed in hood and blue pants -- Eda saw that the easiest way to tell the three apart was by what they wore ... or didn't wear ... below the waist -- stood next to this bar, which hung about four feet off the ground, his hands playing with more weights as yet unattached.

What this all did, Eda realized, was give the woman no way to remain motionless, no resting point. She had to arch her back up off the rack to relieve the pressure to her nipples, but soon would tire and begin to sink back down onto the rack. This would stretch her nipples unmercifully, forcing her again, exhausted, to struggle to raise herself. Raising herself not only sapped her energy, but increased the rack's pull on her limbs. More and more she twisted her body and hips in all directions to try to relieve the areas of her greatest pain, even though such movements subjected other areas of her body ... her knees, her thighs, her hips, depending upon how she twisted ... to increased pain. Eda noticed the thin line of hair between her legs, not that anything there was going to provide any protection for her.

Her movements began to look like a choreographed dance scene. Up off the rack, stretching her body farther, to relieve the pressure to her breasts. Slowly sinking back down onto the rack as her muscles fatigued from this effort, but twisting her body and hips to try to reduce the building pressure on her nipples as she slowly descended. Then immediately struggling to rise again, and repeating the entire cycle every five or ten seconds, her movements growing more desperate each time, the certain panic in her face hidden by the hood that covered it.

After watching this pattern repeat several times, Flores called down to the Roller Man. "Another notch, Pietro." Pietro, the Roller Man, looked up, though he could not see either of them in the balcony with the bright light shining directly down on him. Hearing the words, the woman screamed, and, seconds later, Pietro turned the handle to the next click, wrapping more chain around the roller, and stretching the woman that much farther. The woman returned to her Mantra of No, but now with a more fevered volume, as Eda watched her shoulders and hips try to withstand the increased onslaught on them. The stretch also lowered slightly the woman's center of gravity, which forced the clamps to pull harder against her nipples. The woman's cycle of movement also quickened, as she could not hold herself up for as long as before, as she searched for a new rhythm to her movements to try to find other parts of her body that might share this added pain with her shoulders and nipples and back and hips and wrists and ankles.

Above the woman's now-louder mantra, which was quickly turning to desperate please, Flores turned to Eda, who continued to stare transfixed at the woman and her plight. "She is weakening rapidly now. She will soon be ready."

Eda forced herself to turn away to face Flores. "How long has she been here?" She hoped Flores would not find her question too daring or suspicious. To the contrary, he appeared pleased to be able to explain to her the station's interrogation techniques.

"She was detained 36 hours ago. She was first left in a small cell for 12 hours. Next, she was brought here, where she was given a tour of all of the equipment in the room, and told exactly how each device would be used on her if she did not answer our questions. Then she was taken into the courtyard, where, in front of two platoons of officers, she was made to strip, and then hold her hands in the air above her head with strict instructions not to lower them, while the men filed past her, one by one. Some looked. Some touched. Some spit. Then she was led back to her cell, where we left her for another 12 hours, before bringing her back here. But this time not just for show."

"She has been in this room for 12 hours?" Eda could not imagine how the woman, or anyone, could last so long, if the torture that she underwent before Eda had arrived was anything like what Eda was seeing now.

"Yes. And for the last five hours on the rack."

Eda was incredulous. "And she still has not told you what you want to know?"

"Of course not ... We haven't asked her yet." Flores watched Eda's jaw drop and her eyes widen, revealing her lack of understanding of how suspects were broken. Eda tried to imagine how it would feel to be shown what would be done to you if you didn't talk, and then have it done without even being asked to talk.

"Remember. She is a traitor. This treatment is not designed just to convince her to tell us what she knows about the conspiracy. She will do that. Soon. No. It is also designed to give us a degree of revenge, simply to make her suffer for her betrayal. She deserves no better." Flores looked back to the room, this time to the Weight Man. "Three more pounds, Miguel." Said so matter-of-factly. Miguel, the Weight Man, too looked up toward where the voice had come, then back toward the woman, and up again. "She can take five." The woman, who had screamed at the word "three" continued to scream at this new and more brutal suggestion. "No," Flores replied, "Three. For now."

Miguel immediately took one of the smaller pieces from his hand, hooked it onto the bar, held it for a second, and then released it. The woman gave a loud grunt as her nipples were stretched upward by more than she could add to the arch in her back. Twist and turn as she might, she could not shift all this new pain, and was forced to accept a new increased baseline level of agony. Flores stared at the woman below for a second before continuing his explanation to Eda of the reasons they had used the methods they had used on her. "When we brought her in, there was no need to proceed other than in our normal methodical fashion. But, with the recent developments of this afternoon, we have been required to speed up the process. Were it not for the assassination ..." He stopped in mid-sentence. Eda could see that he was looking into her eyes for her reaction to this news. She hoped that she had not given him one. "... we would not yet have reached this stage. But now we need answers more ... expeditiously. So we have focused sooner on increasing the pain, which means reducing the number of other ... indelicacies."

Eda closed her eyes at the thought of what "indelicacies" the woman must have suffered, in addition to such great pain. And over such an extended period of time. Eda remembered how shocked she was when she had learned, the first time that she had played, that Elena had been imprisoned for three hours before Eda arrived. But this woman. Almost twice as long just on the rack.

So the scene that Marco had concocted this time was not only much different than the first, but it was far more intense, something that Eda found astonishing in light of the fact that, the first time, it had been intense enough that she thought that she was going to die. She amazed to think what a third scene might be like if she were ever asked to play again, if Marco continued to increase its intensity in this fashion.

"Ms. Nguyen," Flores' voice brought Eda back to the scene before her, "again you are forgetting that we are dealing with a traitor. A person who, for years, has tried to use our citizens for her own purposes. Can you criticize the need for a few of our citizens," Flores motioned down toward the men below, "to wish to pay her back in kind? But, as I said, most of that is now finished for her."

Flores leaned over the balcony to be sure that the Stock Man standing by the stocks holding the woman's feet heard him. "It's time for questioning, Ernesto. I'm coming down."

"But I know that she can take two more turns and another three pounds. At least," Ernesto, the Stock Man, complained.

"There are other considerations now. And I'm sure that she is ready."

As Flores moved to the door to begin his descent to join the others in the interrogation room, Pietro reluctantly pushed in the handle of the roller, which released its tension on the woman's arms. At the same time, Miguel scowled and unhooked the chains from the bar, relieving the woman's nipples from the strain of the weights attached to it. The woman's body crashed down on the rack, and her mantra quickly turned to hyperventilated gasps that sounded liked lengthened sighs of relief. Ernesto opened the stocks and lifted her ankles from them. The woman immediately pulled up with her still chained wrists to reduce the tension on them. As she did, Ernesto dropped her feet to the rack inside the stocks. The woman was now lying on her back, unstretched for the first time in so many hours, her wrists chained only to the now slackened chains attached to the roller.

Ernesto then climbed onto the rack and straddled the woman's waist with his knees, his nakedness resting on her stomach. He began to massage her strained breasts and nipples in a circular motion with the palms of his hands. The woman's resulting moans were a combination of pain and pleasure, Eda thought, as the blood resumed its circulation in them.

After a few more seconds, Ernesto lowered himself onto his stomach and moved up against the woman's body until he was lying completely on top of her. Had Eda not known that Flores would be entering the room in just a few seconds, she would have thought it obvious what the man intended to do. But, instead, lifting his hands to the chains that still held the woman's wrists, which pressed all of his considerable weight down on her body, he released them. As he climbed off, Eda could hear him tell her, "You were wonderful, my love. We will have to do this again soon." Eda noticed that his arousal level had increased.

The woman slowly started to curl her body into the fetal position, just as Flores entered the room.

"Not just yet, my dear," Flores directed his comments as much to the men as to the woman. The three men all moved back to their positions around the rack, pulling the woman's limbs out from her body until she was again lying flat on her back on the rack, her wrists and ankles now held not by chains, but by the hands of the men, who allowed her to keep her elbows and knees bent. Her entire body was now accessible, but not stretched. Eda could see how bruised and chafed the woman's wrists and ankles had become from being held so tightly for so many hours and from struggling so hopelessly to free herself from the agony inflicted on her. Or, more accurately, agonies.

Flores moved to the head of the rack and began to undo the clasps that held the woman's hood in place. Just before he removed the hood, he nodded to Miguel to turn off the spotlights. As soon as the spotlights dimmed, recessed lights that dotted the ceiling beamed down on the room.

Eda prepared herself to show Flores no reaction when he revealed the woman's face to her. While Eda was sure that she would not know the woman, since the identity of no woman player had been disclosed to her in the information in her role play package, and, after all, she was still playing her role, she did not want Flores to misinterpret a reaction to seeing the extreme pain that Eda expected to see on the woman's fact as one of recognition.

As Flores finished removing the hood, the woman kept her eyes squinted shut. Having been engulfed in darkness for so long, she could not open them for more than a split second at a time, and it took her several minutes before she could keep them open enough to focus on anything.

Eda could not stop herself from quickly darting her eyes to the various parts of the woman's face, to see what effect the hours of torture had had on them. She saw that the woman's cheeks were blotched and tear-stained. Her eyes, in the few glimpses that Eda got of them when they opened briefly, were red and glazed. He lips were bleeding, and Eda imagined that, to try to reduce the pain, she had bit hard on them, as well as on the insides of her cheeks.

"Do you know her?" Flores looked up at Eda and asked the question for which he had, at least superficially, brought her here. With the spotlights off, he could now see her clearly standing at the edge of the balcony. The other men also looked up to see who had been observing them with their Captain.

Even as Eda started to look for the first time at the woman's entire face, she promptly answered Flores' question with the lack of emotion or reaction that she had practiced. "No. I do not."

But before she had finished her brief response, Eda's heart began to pound so hard in her chest that she was grateful that Flores was not still standing beside her or it would have given her away. Because the woman on the table, Eda could now see clearly, ... was Mira!! No boring role for her this time, Eda thought. Thirty-six hours of hell that included 12 hours of total damnation.

-- 5:15 p.m.

So it was now apparent to Eda why she had been unable to reach Mira yesterday, and why, unlike her usual promptness, Mira had not returned Eda's call or responded to her message. Mira, to say the least, had been quite occupied at the time ... and ever since.

"It was still worth a try," Flores did not seem surprised at Eda's answer. "I will need a few minutes to finish my work here. Then I will take you back." Flores signaled to Miguel to turn the spotlights back on, after which Flores turned his full attention to Mira, lying face up on the rack surrounded by the four men.

"Now my dear Mira-bella. Or, rather, Mira Lazan, at least that's the name that you gave us." As usual, Eda thought. Real first name, invented last name. "Ms. Lazan, what was your role in the assassination of First Vice President Garcia?"

Mira looked puzzled. And, of course, she should be. Mira had been held in interrogation since ... very early Friday morning. Eda guessed that Mira had taken a hotel room in Paracas, Flores' men had learned where she was staying, and broken into her room as she slept. But Eda had not assassinated the First Vice President and his ... whoever she was ... until just earlier that Saturday afternoon. So Mira could not know that it had been done successfully. "He has been assassinated?" Mira finally dared to ask.

"Mira-bellla. If you play games with me, it will not be pleasant for you. You have seen how we treat our guests. And you know what more we can also do. We showed you that before, remember? Now, again. We know you didn't kill him yourself. But what was your role?"

It was clear to Eda that Mira wanted to resist, but that, as the seconds passed, she could think of more reasons to answer than not. Flores grew impatient with Mira's silence as she came to this conclusion.

"Very well. Not a wise choice, I can assure you." Wait, Eda thought. Give her a chance. She hasn't yet refused to answer. But Flores and Pietro had already pulled Mira up off the rack, even as she began to scream. "I'll tell you. Wait. I will. I'll tell you. Please..."

But before she could say more, Ernesto, from behind her, looped his hands over her face and thrust a dark cloth into her mouth. Mira closed her mouth to try to stop him, but she was too slow. Ernesto tied the ends of the cloth tightly at the back of Mira's head, leaving her with her mouth and teeth opened. Mira was not going to answer any questions ... at least not then.

Miguel had removed a small T-shaped piece, about an inch high, from the wooden rack, and walked into the deeper part of the room, out of Eda's sight. When he returned, he held by a pair of tongs an identically shaped piece made of metal. He inserted it in place of the wooden piece that he had removed. Eda couldn't be sure, but the way that Miguel holding it, she feared that the metal had been heated.

The four men then grabbed Mira by her limbs and pulled her back up on the rack, this time face down on all fours, her knees and forearms holding up the middle of her body in a doggy-style position. Her ankles were reinserted into the stocks, toes pointing down, and her wrists were again attached to the chains that wrapped around the roller, but, for now, the roller was left disengaged so that she could continue to rest on her knees and hands. If looked as if they were preparing Mira to receive another of their ... what word had Flores used? ... "indelicacies."

But Mira's eyes were darting from the piece of metal below her to each of the men's faces in a silent plea for mercy that she knew would not come. Eda wondered if, much earlier in the day, this was one of the tortures that Flores had told her that she might suffer if she did not tell him what she knew.

Then Mira's eyes fixed on the metal. Eda determined that Mira was trying to figure out, as was Eda, exactly where against Mira's body this metal would strike if ... or, Eda was fairly sure, and Mira probably knew as well, when ... she was pulled tight by the roller and her body stretched flat against the rack. Just as Eda concluded that it would be somewhere above Mira's pubic bone and below her belly button, Mira looked up and screamed. Eda guessed that she had reached a similar conclusion.

Realizing what Flores intended ... after all, she had already undergone so many hours of torture before being asked even the first time for information ... Mira tried frantically to make it known to him through the gag that she wanted to talk. Eda had no doubt that Flores knew that Mira was desperate now to tell him everything that she knew, but he didn't seem to care at the moment.

"I told you before, Mira-bella," Flores spoke in such a soft, calm, soothing voice that was totally incongruous with the scene that Eda was witnessing. "I only ask once. Then I give you some incentive to answer the next time I ask." Flores nodded in Pietro's direction.

Slowly Pietro began to turn the handle, gradually wrapping the chain around the roller, and Mira's hands were forced toward it. After what Eda knew had to be one of the longest minutes in Mira's life, her hands and knees were far enough apart that neither could easily support the weight of her body straining between them. As Mira's body began to sink toward the rack and its new metal addition, the muscles in her stomach and upper arms began to twitch violently as she struggled to keep herself elevated. All the while her eyes were darting down to the metal object and then around to the faces of the men. Four of the people below were enjoying the situation a lot more than the fifth. Mira's attempts to talk ... and scream ... through her gag became crazed.

Until now, Eda realized that, just as the first time she had role played in one of Marco's games, despite the inhumane length of Mira's torture, Flores' men still had done nothing physically to her that would not heal within the promised 72 hours. But Eda knew that Mira would not be struggling so desperately had the metal T placed below her not been heated to a degree that would burn her horribly where it finally met her skin. Eda could not imagine how such a burn could heal within the required time. Unless Mira had agreed to a longer period -- no, Eda thought. Mira's kinky, but not crazy. Or unless Mira was at least as good an actress as Elena had been the first time. Possibly, Eda conceded, but doubtful. In all the time that she had known Mira, Mira had always had difficulty hiding the truth from Eda even when she tried. But Eda knew that she also should not underestimate Marco's creativity. He somehow had a way to make these role plays so incredibly realistic and seemingly dangerous. He really seemed to Eda like a magician. She knew it couldn't be, yet she couldn't figure out how it wasn't.

By this time Mira's arm and stomach muscles were strained to exhaustion, and Eda could see that it was just a matter of seconds before she fell to the rack, even though Pietro had stopped turned the handle to the roller. But just then, Flores looked at Ernesto. "End her struggles." A reprieve, Eda wondered? That was not like Flores.

Eda was right. It was not like Flores. In response to Flores' words, Ernesto leaped up on the rack, and, again positioning his naked body on top of Mira's ... this seemed something that turned him on ... the pressure of his weight forced Mira down squarely on heated metal T. Just below her belly button.

Mira screamed savagely as Ernesto's weight held her down. Five ... ten seconds. Finally he moved off her and pulled her midsection up and off the metal, as Pietro released the tension of the chains. Ernesto held her with his arm across her waist as Miguel removed the metal. Ernesto then removed his arm from under Mira, and Mira's body once more crashed down to the rack, her ankles still held by the stocks, her arms flying over her head. Eda could not see exactly what the burn had done to her, but, when Mira turned her head toward her, Eda could see that Mira's eyes were glazed and unfocused.

Mira remained motionless, except for her strained breathing, for several minutes, the eyes of all four of the men on her. Flores finally issued his next order. "Put her back up like before, and bring the other two pieces." As Ernesto leaned over to slide his arm under Mira's waist and pull her back up to the doggy-style position on her hands and knees, Miguel removed two more small T-shaped pieces of the rack, and returned to the deeper area of the room, again out of Eda's sight, no doubt to retrieve two more metal equivalents. Having seen from where on the rack the two pieces had been removed ... about a foot or so higher, one from the left center and one from the right center, Eda did not have to wonder this time where the metal would hit Mira's stretched body. And how this could heal in 72 hours Eda could not imagine. She prayed that Marco was even a better magician than he had so far needed to be.

As soon as Ernesto removed the gag, Mira made sure that Flores knew that she was ready to talk. "I'll tell you what you want. Just ask me. Please. Just ask."

This time Flores obligated. "Very good, my dear. Now, again, were you involved in the assassination of First Vice President Garcia?"

"Yes. I mean, I think so. I didn't know he was the intended target. But yes. I guess so." Mira hoped that this confused-sounding answer did not earn her the return of the gag. "I can explain. Please. I can explain."

"You will have to, Mira-bella. You will have to."

"All I did was pass a message. I was just a go-between. Between the person ordering the hit and the assassin." Mira looked at Flores, then at the others, to see their reaction, to see if they might understand that she was telling them the truth, before she continued. "I received the package. It was thick with a sealed envelope attached to the outside."

Eda wondered if Mira was talking about her invitation from Marco, if she had decided to come out of her role before she was supposed to because of all the pain that she had suffered. If the degree and length of the pain that she had suffered had caused her to forget that this was a game and she was supposed to be playing a role.

"The envelope contained my instructions. Where to leave the package. What day. What time. In the morning at 9 o'clock, I remember. In a particular locker at the train station. A key was enclosed. I assumed that a second key had been made and given to whoever was going to pick up the package." No, this was a different package that Mira was talking about, Eda realized.

Mira was relieved to see that Flores appeared to be nodding his recognition that she was telling him the truth. "And what was in the package?" he asked.

"I'm not positive. I mean, I didn't open it. But it felt like it was cash, a lot of cash, for the payoff for the hit. Like the person that was hired was a professional."

"And who had hired the hit," Flores next asked.

The question terrified Mira, and she looked down at the two pieces of metal which had been positioned between where her hands now rested. She stared at them for the few seconds that it took her to confirm what they would do if she was again stretched on the rack face down. Eda thought the renewed panic meant that Mira did not know the answer to this question, and was trying to decide whether to admit that she did not know, or to make up a name. Either route was dangerous and could result in the dreaded sound of the roller consuming the chains that held her wrists. But this time she made her decision before Flores denied her the chance to speak, as he had before.

"I don't know. That's not how it works. I don't know. I just received the package and the instructions."

Flores raised his brow. "So how did you know it was to be a hit?"

Mira took a deep breath, but she had already made up her mind that she was going to answer every question truthfully. "That's what I do. I get instructions and leave them for the assassin. I don't know the person hiring the hit or the assassin. That's why they do it that way."

"I see," Flores was again nodding slowly. "If you are telling me that truth, then it is very smart of them, but very dangerous for you."

"I am telling you the truth," Mira screamed, fearing that the chances that her body ... her breasts ... would soon feel the heat of the metal had grown considerably with her lack of information.

Flores chose his words carefully. "So ... it could have been Minister of the Interior Quinones and his brother who hired the hit?" Eda wondered if Flores had been listening. Didn't Mira just tell him that she didn't know?

"Could ... if ... ," Mira stumbled. "Are you asking if ... the hit was hired by Minister Quinones and his brother? I told you, it could have been anyone. I don't know who it was."

Flores seemed to play back Mira's answer in his head. Then he glared at her. "So you're telling me that you don't know who hired the hit or who the assassin was? You're not of much use to us then, are you?" Flores nodded to Pietro, who turned the handle two notches, pulling Mira's hands upward, but not enough to cause her to lose her balance or even strain to keep herself lifted off the rack. More of a reminder of the fate that awaited her from being so unhelpful.

Mira's eyes immediately widened. The action had the desired affect of returning her mind to the fate that was beginning to seem inevitable. "I ... I'm not supposed to know either of them. But ..." Mira paused to think how to tell him what she could.

Flores' curiosity at what might follow this "but" was aroused. "But what, Mira-bella?"

"But ...," Mira determined how she wanted to put it. "I was late for the drop. I didn't get there until 9:20. I was afraid that I'd screwed the whole thing up. So I dropped off the package as I was told, and then left the area quickly, since I knew that I wasn't supposed to be there when the locker was opened by whoever had the other key."

Flores was very curious now. "So you didn't see the person who picked up the package?"

"Well, I did. I wasn't supposed to, but I did. I tried to get away from the spot so fast that I turned the wrong way, and, when I realized it, I just turned around to go back the way I had come, and ..."

Flores was growing tired of these pauses. He nodded again to Pietro, who turned the handle of the rollers once more, jolting Mira, who quickly resumed her story.

"I saw the person opening the locker and taking out the package." Mira sighed. That was what she knew. That was her story.

"A person you knew?"

As before, Mira hesitated, not knowing whether the truth or a lie was more likely to save her from further turns of the roller handle. But, again, she decided that the truth was safer. "No. No one I had ever seen before."

Flores moved to the side of the rack closer to the foot of the balcony, and, standing now between Mira and Eda, he summoned Ernesto, who walked over to a small table in the corner of the room, picked up a large envelope, and returned to hand it to Flores, who pulled several pages from it.

"Was this the person?" Eda could not see the photo that Flores showed Mira. Mira shook her head. "No." Flores then showed her another, again turned so that Eda could not see it. This time Mira hesitated, facing the same dilemma. If she said "no" to all of them, she figured that she would find herself flat against the rack, with the dire consequences that would result. But if she said "yes" to one that turned out to be Flores' brother, and was shown her just as a control, then her fate would likely be that or worse.

Again, she opted for the truth. "No."

Flores' forced smile, Eda thought, showed nothing more than his frustration, as he showed her a third photograph. Mira's body relaxed noticeably and she took a deep breath. "Yes. That is who I saw." Flores' smile did not change.

"I see, Ms. Lazan. I'm pleased that you have decided to cooperate. So what more do you have to tell us."

Mira looked concerned. "Sir ... I have nothing more. I have told you everything."

"Do you know something? I believe that you have, Ms. Lazan. I believe that you have." Eda could hear the sigh of relief released by Mira at Flores' words.

"Men," Flores issued what Eda thought must be his final orders on Mira, "you are not ... did you hear me? Not ... to bring Ms. Lazan any more pain to try to force her to tell us anything more. I believe that she has told us all she knows." Mira was still staring down at the hot metal, but starting to breath more easily after hearing Flores' words. The men were still standing around the rack. Pietro's hand was still on the handle to the roller.

Flores continued, speaking quickly now. "But traitors should be punished not just for information, but to show them what happens to those who betray our country." Almost before he had finished his sentence, Pietro ... obviously knowing how Flores thought about things like this ... cranked the handle firmly, not bothering to count how many notches he passed in the process. Before the unsuspecting Mira had any idea what had happened, her wrists were pulled upward until her knees straightened and her body, stretched as far as it had been earlier, fell down onto the rack. Her breasts landed squarely on top of the two metal pieces, cooled only a little during the time that they had waited to perform their service on the traitor above them.

Eda was amazed at how much louder Mira's scream this time was ... until Eda realized that it sounded so loud to her because Eda too had screamed nearly as loud as Mira had. She watched in horror as the men left Mira in her disfiguring position. Nor was there any need for Ernesto or any of them to use their weight to increase Mira's pain, as just the size of her breasts forced them against the metal with much more pressure than her belly had been before Ernesto's assistance.

Five seconds. At least. And then Mira stopped screaming. It was a few more seconds before Pietro disengaged the chains and Ernesto and Miguel lifted Mira off the rack, her head falling limply toward her burned chest.

As Eda tried to see what damage had been done ... how could that heal in 72 hours? ... Flores flicked off the spotlights and again the room was illuminated by the overhead dots in the ceiling. Now Flores could once again see Eda in the balcony. As he did so, Eda could see Pietro and Miguel dragging Mira by her upper arms to the deep side of the room, out of Eda's sight. Eda wanted to move down the balcony to see what was now happening, but Flores' voice stopped her.

"Ms. Nguyen, you had more of a chance to see this Mira Lazan woman now. You still don't know her? She's not someone you've seen before?"

"No, she's not. No." Eda could not tell how convincing her answer sounded to Flores, but it was the truth, at least as far as her role was concerned. Nothing in her roleplay materials indicated that she knew anyone named Mira Lazan.

"That's interesting, Ms. Nguyen," Flores paused, and then slowly turned around the third photograph that he had showed Mira, the one that she had identified as the person in the train station. "Because she knows you." Flores turned to show Eda a large glossy photograph ... of Eda Kawani, dressed in her avocado halter dress. A photo taken at Marco's first role play party. But Eda knew that, for purposes of this second role play scenario, the photo was that of Eda Nguyen.

Eda gasped and immediately realized that she needed to get away as fast as she could. Out the door of the balcony to anywhere that she could escape. She turned. But standing inside the balcony door, having entered unnoticed during her conversation with Flores, were Pietro ... and Miguel ... and Ernesto. Standing in the doorway of the balcony's only exit.

Eda decided that her only hope was to jump the eight or ten feet down to the interrogation room, but, as she moved to the railing, the men's hands were on her, pulling her back and dragging her face down to the floor. While one of them ... Eda could not see and did not really care which ... sat on her back, another chained her ankles together and the third chained her wrists in front of her. Then they pulled her back to her feet. It was Ernesto who expressed the obvious. "Guess whose turn it is now?"

Eda decided that she would definitely need all of her strength and that it was pointless to struggle. She felt Miguel and Ernesto drag her off of the balcony and down the stairs, much as she had just seen them drag Mira into the deep end of the interrogation room. The only differences were that Eda was still clothed and was still conscious. She was fairly certain, however, that the first condition was not likely to last very much longer, and the second much too long for what these men intended to do to her.

-- 6:30 p.m.

To Eda's surprise, when the men reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the balcony, they did not turn in the direction of the interrogation room. Eda remembered, of course, that Flores had told her that, before being taken to the interrogation room, Mira had been left in her cell ... clothed ... for 12 hours. Eda knew, however, that Flores did not have time to treat her so patiently.

After being dragged down several long corridors, Eda could see that they were no longer passing rooms, like Room 6 where she had started. Now they were passing small cells separated from the hall by iron bars. All were empty. Finally, at the end of the last corridor, Miguel pulled out a set of keys and slid open the bars to the last cell, securing them in an open position.

The cell was about 12 feet by 8 feet. It was entirely empty except for a small bed ... well, more a cot ... pulled into the middle, away from the walls. Not even a cot. It might have been a cot had it had a mattress or a cover. But all it really was, Eda could now see, was a rectangular piece of metal with bare coiled box springs. It would be more comfortable, Eda realized, to sleep on the floor. If she were allowed to sleep at all.

Pietro pushed Eda inside, to the far corner of the cell. At the same time, Ernesto reached up and released two loops of chains that had been held nearly flush against the ceiling by hooks. The chains dropped about two feet apart from each other to hang two feet above the cot. At their ends were two leather cuffs. It seemed pretty clear to Eda what purpose they would serve.

"Ms. Nguyen," Pietro's voice was firm. "We do not have the luxury of time with you as we did with your friend, Ms. Lazan. We will be back in 10 minutes. Between now and then you are to do exactly as I tell you. Do you understand?"

Cowered in the corner of the cell, Eda nodded.

"Good. There is a clothes chute here. See?" Pietro pushed open the cover of a small rectangle, no more than 12 inches by 6 inches, in the wall at the opposite end of the cell. Eda had not before noticed it. "You are to remove all of your clothes and drop them down the chute. Then you are to lie down on the bed and place your ankles into the leather cuffs. When both are in place, press down hard with your heels and the chains will lock them there."

Eda stared at the device and could see how the pressure would tighten a chain running across the sides of the cuffs. She also could see that, in that position, she would be lying face up on the cot, with the metal coils digging into her back, and that her ankles would be raised and spread apart two to three feet. So this was no doubt the kind of "indelicacy" to which Flores had referred earlier, the kind that Mira had experienced, or worse.

Pietro was not through with his orders. "You see the blindfold at the left side of the bed. You also see the cuffs for your wrists, at the sides of the bed." Eda saw them. "Blindfold yourself and then place your wrists in the cuffs. Again, pull hard toward you and they will lock your wrists into place at the sides of the bed."

The three men left the cell and slid the iron bar closed after them until it locked. Pietro looked at her through the bars. "10 minutes. For your own sake." Eda heard the footsteps of the three men gradulally fade as they walked down the corridor. She was now completely alone ... no guard, no other prisoner ... in this wing of the station.

Eda looked at the metal springs and the hanging chains. She gingerly sat on the springs and then lifted her feet off the floor to make sure that they would support her weight. They did, but the different angles of the coils bit into her flesh. She knew the pain would be even greater when less protected areas of her body were forced against them, most likely with two hundred pounds ... or three hundred pounds, if Pietro participated ... pressing down on her.

Eda resigned herself that she needed to do what she was instructed. Undressing was simple enough. She had been wearing only three items of clothing since she had removed her shoes upon entering the station. She unbuckled her camouflage pants and stepped out of them, and shook her head as she now again saw that she was wearing camouflage panties. How strange? Was the wearer supposed to believe that, wearing them, no man would be able to find the part of her body that he was looking for?

She walked over to the chute, opened it, and pushed the pants through the slot quickly, so that she would not have time to reconsider her decision to obey the orders given her. She watched the chute close on its own. Then she reached down, grabbed the sides of her white T-shirt and pulled it over her head and off. She could see, though she certainly had known without seeing, that her nipples were hard. From the cold? Yes. It was cold in the cell. From fear? Yes. She knew that she was afraid. Even if this was just a role, Marco had a way of keeping his players off-balance. Well, at least had a way of keeping her off-balance. From excitement? Arousal? From a combination of everything, Eda knew. Of the general intensity of the way that Marco played. But where was Marco? Why hadn't he taken a role? Or maybe Marco's role just hadn't yet interacted with hers.

Eda tossed her T-shirt down the chute and wrapped her arms around her chest. Naked except for those camouflage panties. She looked for the first time toward the wall on the side of the cot where her legs would be. And she thought that she saw something flicker. She walked closer to the wall and looked up. A small hole near the top center of the wall. Eda moved back to the cot and stood up on its metal sides, the only part of it she was sure wouldn't bite into her. Another small flicker. Yes, she was being videotaped. She imagined that Mira had been also, including her performance in the interrogation cell. Certainly Flores and his men would claim that they watched these tapes to help them improve their techniques? Right. With one hand holding their ... Eda laughed, then stifled it, remembering that she was being taped, then laughed again at the futility of it all. What did it matter to her what anyone saw on any tape or any monitor?

She knew that it was time for her to finish what she needed to do. Facing directly toward where she was sure the camera was, she slid down her panties, twirled them a few times, and dropped them down the chute. There, without her camouflage panties, her viewers could now see what she had to offer. She, like Mira, had left a thin line of hair between her legs so that she could wear the skimpiest of bathing suits and thong underwear. Hope you like it, you voyeuristic perverts, she thought.

Eda sat down on the edge of the cot. The edges were the only places where the metal was even and did not dig or cut into her. Then she pushed herself as carefully as she could onto the cot's center of the cot, feeling the rough ends and sides of the coils dig into her. She spun her legs around until she was positioned where she needed to put her feet in the leather cuffs. Then she slowly lay back until she felt the springs against her body. She wondered how Mira had felt as she readied herself for whatever particular "indelicacies" she had been forced to suffer.

Eda raised her left leg and placed her heel in the leather cuff. She started to raise the right, but, as soon as she did, one of the coils cut into her side and she was forced to put her right leg back down on the cot. Even more gingerly now, she again raised her right leg, knowing better what to expect, and slipped it into the leather cuff. The Marquis de Sade's gynecological table, she thought. She was careful, though, not to press down with either heel to lock the cuffs in place. She was not quite ready for that yet.

Eda took the black cloth blindfold from the left side of the cot into her hands. Before putting it over her eyes, she took one more look around the small cell. The camera certainly had been positioned to share a most private view of her. But privacy was now the least of her concerns.

Eda wrapped the blindfold around her eyes, and tied it tightly behind her neck. She checked to make certain that she left no gaps through which she might see, knowing that, if she did, she might be forced to pay added consequences. When she was confident she could not see through even the smallest crack, she moved her wrists into the cuffs on the edges of the cot at the level of her head. Again, she did not pull in on them to lock them. Not yet.

Eda was not sure how much time had passed. Probably close to the 10 minutes that she had been allowed. All she needed now was a final burst of courage to lock herself in place. And await her fate. First, though, she tried to imagine what the next few hours might be like. She always considered herself to be sexually experienced. But nothing like what she expected would soon happen to her had ever happened before. Nothing even close. With a deep breath she finally summoned the courage, pushed down with both heels and heard what Pietro had promised she would hear. Click. Click. Then she pulled in with both wrists. Click. Click. Chained spreadagled on the metal cot. Blindfolded. Naked. With a camera focused between her legs. It wouldn't be long now.

-- 7:15 p.m.

Still Eda waited. More than 10 minutes. More than 15. And the room was growing colder. They were playing with her emotions. Just part of the procedure, she was sure. Watching her on the monitor to see her breathing and movements perhaps, waiting for the right moment. Or just to enjoy watching her.

The touch to her right nipple startled her, and she let out a shriek. How long had this person been there, she wondered. "Who are you?" She tried not to make her question sound demanding.

"I drew number one," was the reply. And now his hands were on both of her breasts, and she could tell that he had been standing at the side of the cot and now had sat down on its edge.

"Number one?" Eda asked, "How many numbers are there?"

The man laughed. "I don't know. I just got lucky this time. My friend got number seven, I know that. We don't like traitors here, you know? But we only get five minutes, so you'll forgive the lack of foreplay." Again he laughed.

Number seven? There would be at least seven? Eda's body started to shiver. She felt the man's weight lift off the edge of the cot and knew that he was moving around to between her hanging legs. Then she felt his weight on her stomach and chest, and the added pain from the metal coils digging into her back. How many more than seven winners could there be who were entitled to a reward from Garcia? And was she to be the reward for all of them?

Number One's hands were again on her breasts, squeezing, but not too uncomfortably, and he kissed her neck. Eda was surprised at how easily he entered her, then realized that her body had been given time to prepare, even if she had not focused on it. Number One reached his arms around neck, and then pushed down on her shoulders as he thrust into her to deepen his pleasure even beyond what the chained position of her legs allowed. Eda screamed as he climaxed, mostly in pain, but ... if she permitted herself the thought ... a little pleasure. When she felt him lift himself off her and leave, she didn't even think that he could have taken the whole five minutes that he had been given.

Number Two took more time on her breasts, first with his hands, then with his mouth. When he sucked in as much of her right breast as he could, she let out a loud gasp and felt her body twinge, and did not dread it so much when he moved himself between her legs. Oh, they should have given this one more than five minutes, but she hoped that he would at least take all five that he was given.

But there were no more for her like Number Two. Numbers Three, Four and Five were all brutes. Squeezing too hard. Pinching too hard. Four and Five seemed to get off calling her vile names. Pressing her body too hard against the coils. She guessed that Five was Pietro. Such a large gut. But without the matching-sized equipment. No wonder he had worn his pants in the interrogation room.

Strange thoughts, Eda realized, but they helped take her mind off what was happening to her, at least a little. To get through an experience that was cutting her back and tearing her insides, so that the next number was always worse than the one before. Each one after Number Two.

Now it was Number Six, unless she had lost count. This one, though, pushed a cold piece of metal into her mouth and then turned it. As soon as she moved her tongue to see what it was, Eda knew it was a ring gag. And she knew its purpose. As she expected, Number Six pushed her body up on the cot the several inches required until her neck was at the top edge and her head fell backward.

Number Six wasted no time in inserting himself through the ring and thrusting himself into her throat, his hands squeezing the top of her breasts. Eda began to choke, but he ignored the desperate gagging sounds that emerged from her throat. She tried to breath through her nose.

Within a few seconds, Eda felt that Number Six did not work alone. Number Seven was taking a more conventional road, but there were now four hands over her breasts. The hope crossed Eda's mind that these were the last. Hadn't Number One said that Number Seven was his friend? Maybe he had drawn the highest number. Or maybe they knew that Eda was soon to be brought to interrogation so that they had to finish in a hurry and therefore had to take her at the same time. But if this one horror was soon over, Eda knew that it would not be the last.

In the back of Eda's mind, she could hear Number Six directing "now, now, now," and the two seemed to be playing the game of thrust together. If they were, Number Seven easily outlasted Number Six, and then Eda waited to see if, in fact, seven was the highest number.

It was not. She heard Number Eight ... and Number Nine ... enter. "Look at her," she heard one of them complain, "what a mess." "Yes," the other replied, "but we have time. I mean, with two of us we get 10 minutes, right?"

Eda felt the cuffs on her ankles loosened and her legs removed from the chains and placed on the cot. Then the cuffs on her wrists were undone. If took Eda just a second to realize what these two had in store for her, as one grabbed under her knees and the other her elbows and they turned her over onto her front and dropped her onto the cot. The ends and edges of the coils dug into her breasts and stomach and Eda screamed. The two men mistook her scream as one objecting to what they intended. Had Eda's new pain not consumed her for the moment, they would have been right.

A few of her lovers had suggested this to Eda, even begged her, but she had always rejected the idea. It seemed too painful and unnatural to her. But now she was not being asked. It was just going to happen. She was going to learn why God had destroyed Sodom.

While one of the men held her wrists at the top corners of the cot, the other spread her legs and then moved himself into position. Eda tried to relax her muscles, knowing that tension would only increase her pain. But her muscles would not listen to her. Thousands of years of evolution had directed them innately to resist such a violation.

Eda could tell that, as he pushed his way slowly into her, Number Eight was having difficulty that was causing both of him distress. "This is going to take a while," he grunted to Number Nine at the head of the cot. "You may need to do what you can now."

"You bastard, we agreed that ..." But, instead of continuing their stimulating conversation, Number Nine apparently realized that he had no choice. Within a few seconds, the ring gag was once again filled.

This time, though, there was no game of thrust together. Number Eight was struggling, while Number Nine seemed satisfied -- and Eda was grateful, even in her present situation -- allowing Eda to do the work that she could for him without pushing himself down his throat. Unlike the other, Eda had experience in this area, and she worked her tongue as well as she could, although it would have been better for him if she could also have used her teeth. This, however, was the price that he paid for making sure that she did not use her teeth on him too aggressively.

As Eda's muscles contracted on Number Eight long before he had violated her fully, she could feel that she had succeeded in bringing him to his climax in a manner totally dissatisfying to him. And, as soon as Number Nine reached his conclusion, far more enjoyably, it seemed to Eda -- how ironic that the one who had complained about the other taking the role that he preferred had had the better experience -- she waited again to see if nine was the highest number. This time, however, with her ankles and wrists both freed, she could lift herself off the metal springs and sit on the smooth metal edge of the cot. She left on the blindfold, although she could have removed it. No Number Ten came. Eda waited, wondering. Finally, she heard approaching footsteps.

-- 8:30 p.m.

Well, my dear Ms. Nguyen, I hope you had a few restful hours on your bed," the voice was Ernesto's. "Now it is time to bring you to your favorite room. And this time you get to do more than just watch, isn't that nice?" Eda felt two men grab her elbows and lift her to her feet. Her knees immediately buckled. She knew that she could not walk, that her body was too sore and torn.

The men apparently accepted this. They wrapped her arms around their necks so that she did not have to bear any of her weight, and exited her cell. Eda wished now that she had removed her blindfold, an option no longer available to her.

Eda sensed that they were retracing the steps toward the interrogation room and balcony. There were no sounds other than the men's footsteps. During her ordeal in her cell, Eda had, of course, forgotten the cold, but now her body again began to shiver.

When the men opened a door, the sounds of their feet told her that the floor had changed, and she could feel heat coming from above. She figured that they must be in the interrogation room, and the heat was coming from the two spotlights. Eda could also hear noises from above, and realized that the balcony must be occupied, whether by police personnel come to watch her interrogation or by future victims, she could not know, though she imagined the former.

Eda expected to be placed on the rack, as Mira had been. At least ... other than any pieces of heated metal that might be added, its surface was smooth and cool, not like the horrible cot on which she had spent the last few hours. Was she trying to find solace in being placed on a rack?

But the rack was not her fate, she soon knew, as her back was pushed against what felt like it must be an X-frame, and her limbs cuffed to its four ends. She had not noticed one in the room before, when her mind had been so focused on the rack.

Now the blindfold was removed. "Welcome back, Ms. Nguyen." Her first sight, as her eyes very slowly began to adjust to light after several hours in darkness, was of Flores. As she had expected when watching from above earlier, she saw that, with the spotlights shining, she could not see up to the balcony. She looked around the room, and did not see Mira, although she could not see into the deeper area of the room into which Mira had been brought at the end of the session that Eda had witnessed. The only people now in the room with Eda were Flores and his Three Stooges.

Pietro and Miguel stood with their arms folded across their chests. Ernesto, however, stood holding a heated metal iron, the glowing end shaped in the same T-pattern that had marred Mira's smooth body in three places. Eda's eyes stared at its glow.

"In case you didn't know," Flores offered, "the T stands for traitor. Others must always know when they are dealing with those who have betrayed our country." Eda remembered that, even after Mira had told everything she knew, she suffered the mark of the traitor. Eda had no doubt that, no matter what happened here, she would share at least this fate with Mira.

"You are in a more fortunate position than your friend was, Ms. Nguyen," Flores began. "You see, we had more time with her. Much more time. And we also then had less evidence, so we needed to persuade her to give us ... help." But now, Eda knew, they had Mira's testimony against her, if not more. "From you, though, we simply need your confession."

During the time that she had been forced to wait to see what would happen to her ... before Number One arrived and after Number Nine left ... Eda had rehearsed her response to Mira's accusation. She repeated it now, as calmly as her beating heart would allow, trying to make it sound spontaneous and true, rather than rehearsed and memorized as it really was.

"It is true, as she said, that I picked up a package. I confess. But there weren't instructions or money for a hit in the package. There was an invitation to a special party. And it contained the clothes I was to wear to the party." This wasn't coming out of her role, Eda reasoned. Her character's explanation was just somewhat similar to true events.

"As I said, Ms. Nguyen," Flores' voice remained even, "it is lucky for you that we need to finish our investigation very soon, and file our report, so we have no time to punish you for your lies, as we did your friend for hers." Eda saw Pietro move to a table and return with a large box, but Eda could not see what it contained. Had Flores not just told her that they had little more time with her, she would have guessed that it held more implements of torture.

"Ms. Nguyen, I'm going to save you a lot of trouble. I'm going to tell you what you did and how we know." Flores glanced up toward the balcony, although, with the spotlights on, neither he nor Eda could see the persons whom Flores obviously knew were there. "And, when I'm finished, you will confess that all that we have discovered is true."

Eda tried to prepare herself. Everything had gone so perfectly. How could he know what she had done? How could he know what the package had contained? Mira didn't even know that.

"One." Flores held out one finger. "You drove down from Lima yesterday or today. We know this because we ran a check on your car's license plate. A rental. From Lima. Rented to you yesterday." So not all of the information that Flores and his men had acquired over the last several hours had come from the mouths of torture victims. Some had come from good old-fashioned police work.

"Two." Flores added a second finger to the first. "You parked in the clearing in the woods next to the Garcia home." Flores looked for a reaction, but Eda gave him none, although she stared at him intently. "We know this," Flores paused briefly, "because we found fresh tire marks there. Tire marks ... that match the tires on your rental car." More basic police work. Eda had not even thought of this.

"Three." Three? How many more numbers would there be? Eda wondered. So much for her perfect mission. It now seemed as perfect as her work had been during the first role play. "You walked through the woods to the side of the house. We know this ..." Eda knew that she was going to hear about more police work. "... because shoe prints in the soft dirt match your shoes." By now, Eda knew that she did not make a good criminal. Basic oversights on her part. Well, not even oversights. Things she just had never even thought about.

"Four." Eda couldn't hide her reactions any longer. She closed her eyes and grimaced. She felt her heart race. Her body, already hot from the spotlights, was now covered with perspiration. Flores waited for her to open her eyes again. When she did, she saw that he was smiling broadly at her, obviously proud of the work that he and his men had done in such a short time. "You looked into Garcia's bedroom window from the edge of the woods. We know this ..." Eda cringed at the repeated, matter-of-fact way that Flores said these words each time and then paused before telling one more thing that she had done wrong. "... because you left these hanging from a tree branch." Flores pulled out from the large box the pair of binoculars that Eda had forgotten to retrieve after finishing her mission. Eda was beginning to feel that there was nothing that she had done that Flores and his men did not know. It seemed as if the camera had not first focused on her in her cell, but had been trained on her since she left for Paracas. "And one clear fingerprint on it matches ... yours." Eda dropped her head to her chest.

Whenever it was that Flores finished counting and explaining, she decided, she would confess to everything. There was no point in denying any of it. As different as this second play had been from the first in so many ways, the result was the same. Her belief that she had succeeded again turned into her realization of her utter failure and defeat.

"Five." Not that it mattered, but how many foolish, ignorant, stupid things had she done? "Although you were prepared to cut open the window to the bedroom, you did not have to, since the window had been left open because of the day's heat. So you climbed up to it, entered the room through the open window, and shot Garcia with a poisoned dart while he slept in his bed." All true, Eda thought. At least for purposes of the game, the tranquilizer dart could be considered a poison dart.

"Six." Eda wondered if Flores had now moved to counting on his other hand, but not enough to open her eyes. "Before you could make your escape, a maid opened the door from the hallway to check on Garcia, entered the room, and saw you either right before or right after you killed her employer. So you shot her, too." Flores finally had something wrong, Eda knew, but she didn't bother to tell him that he too made mistakes. Probably Garcia's loved ones, trying to protect him, had pulled the maid out of his bed, dressed her and deposited her body on the floor near the bed before the police arrived. But she was not sure how they could hide the fact that the bullet had not passed through any clothing, but had hit bare skin. Maybe Flores really knew and was just protecting the family, since the fact that Garcia was sleeping with the maid wasn't really important in the grand scheme of things.

"We know these things because ..." Flores again reached into the box, "... we found these, also with your fingerprints on them ..." He pulled out the holster, the gun and the glass cutters. "tossed in a dumpster behind a building between the roadblock and the police station. We knew that you had stopped because you did not arrive at the station until after the persons in the two cars behind you had arrived. We also showed your photo to the owners of the two gas stations between there and here, and neither remembered you stopping there this afternoon."

"And seven." The word "and" meant that, finally, this was the last number, Eda figured. So the list of her fatal errors was coming to an end. Flores took from the box the camouflage clothes that Eda had stuffed into the dumpster with the other items that the police had retrieved. "The shirt and jacket match the pants you were wearing." Since he was now nearing the end of his evidence against her, Eda raised her head and opened her eyes, knowing that it would soon be her turn to speak. "As for these," Flores held in front of her face the camouflage panties that she had sent down the chute in the cell with her pants, then turned to hold them up so that whoever was in the balcony could have a better view, "well, none of us have figured out exactly what purpose they served." Flores enjoyed the laughter that his remark brought from above before turning back to Eda.

"How did my men do, my dear Ms. Nguyen? Do you confess that you did exactly what I have accused you of doing?"

Eda stared at him for a second, knowing that she was not going to tell him about his one small error, but thinking that, if she said "yes," she would soon feel the mark of the T that Ernesto was holding in his hand. But if she refused to say "yes," then .. well, she didn't know exactly what would happen to her, but she knew it would be worse than the alternative. Eda finally chose the definite horror over the uncertain terror. "Yes," she said, hoping that she could say it clearly and strongly, but hearing it expelled in a shaking tone from a shaking body.

Flores was satisfied. He walked to the switch for the spotlights and extinguished them, which also turned on the ceiling lights. Eda could see that, standing in the balcony, were at least half a dozen men, several wearing what looked like high-ranking military uniforms, others dressed in plain clothes. Perhaps players who had succeeded and were receiving part of their reward by being invited to watch her pain. Had everyone succeeded in this game except Eda and Mira?

But Eda could see the men in the balcony now begin to file out, at the same time that Flores walked to the exit of the interrogation room without another word to her. Did this mean that the game was over? That Ernesto would not get to use his heated iron on her. If he were going to, wouldn't they stay to watch? Or were they going to be replaced by others on the balcony? A second sitting, so to speak?

Eda did not see whether any others entered the balcony when her attention was forced to shift back to Ernesto, now standing within arms' reach of her. "We have identified a traitor. Now we must make sure that others can identify her, too." Pietro and Miguel stood at the sides of the X-frame, watching Ernesto. Eda knew that her thought that the game was over had been too optimistic.

Ernesto looked at Pietro standing on Eda's left. Pietro moved his hand under Eda's left breast and then slowly pushed up until he reached the top and it fell back down to her chest. Then Ernesto looked at Miguel on Eda's right. He moved his hand under her right breast. Eda realized that Ernesto, now holding the iron just a few feet from Eda, was deciding where to place the mark.

This was all much too real now for Eda. So far, as painful and horrible as her situation had been in the cell, nothing that had been done to her would not heal within the promised time. But this hot iron ... and she could already feel its heat ... would certainly leave a mark that could not heal so quickly. If ever. And on such a sensitive part of her body. No, this seemed so far beyond the rules of the game.

Ernest decided on the right breast, just below its nipple, and jabbed the iron hard into it. Eda screamed, the pain beyond anything she had ever experienced, that day or any other day. If this is what they had done to Mira, then Mira was no actress. This was pure pain. Eda's eyes and mouth opened as far as they physically could and her body began to leap and twist in a hopeless effort to separate itself from this monster of pain. But it was not for five full seconds until Ernesto pulled the iron away to look at his handiwork.

Eda's mind was spinning, totally consumed with pain. She was sure that her mind was about to snap. She knew that she must be screaming, but she could not hear herself. She prayed for unconsciousness. And, finally, slowly, she could feel her mind moving far away to get away from the pain. About to fade.

But then she felt another sharp, searing pain, even more brutal than the first, that seemed to set the entire lower half of her body on fire. She forced her eyes open to look down and see ... Ernesto removing the iron from between her legs after leaving its mark where her thin line of hair seemed to point to it. She could not believe that he could have done this to her. He thoughts were no longer about the game or the rules, just about the unbearable pain in her body. Blessedly, her mind shut off.

-- 11:00 p.m.

As Eda's mind gradually revived after how long away she didn't know, she found herself in what she knew must be the deep part of the interrogation room that she had not before seen. Immediately she felt renewed pain from her wounds, which again started to consume her mind. She fought off the strong desire to drop her ahead and rest.

Eda's wrists were cuffed together from a chain looped through a ring embedded in the ceiling and then chained to the near wall. It left her toes six inches above the floor, adding severe pain in her shoulders to all of the other aching and sore and torn parts of her body. When she looked up, she immediately noticed another pair of wrists cuffed to the same chain and could feel another body chained behind her, back to back. She realized that it could only be one person.

"Mira. Mira," Eda whispered loudly, wanting desperately to hear Mira's voice to learn how she was doing, as if their present position did not already give her most of that answer. But there was no response. Mira had been rendered unconscious several hours before Eda. If Eda had revived first, then Mira must really be in much worse shape, whether they had continued to work on her after Eda was taken to the cell or not.

It was just a matter of minutes before the Feared Four entered the room. Eda figured that they must have been watching on a monitor, and were waiting for the first of the two to regain consciousness. Pietro and Ernesto examined Mira, while Flores and Miguel moved around to Eda.

"Either you are stronger than your friend," Flores broke the silence, "or, as I really think, we were too easy on you." Too easy? Eda thought about the hours of the metal coils digging into her back as it was pressed hard against them by the weight of the Numbers One through Nine. And the pain between her legs. How could that heal in 72 hours?

Pietro had moved to the chain, unhooked it from the wall, and pulled it up two feet before hooking it again to the wall. As he jerked the chain upward, Mira had stirred. Eda could feel her movements behind her, and imagined that she would soon realize who was chained behind her. Mira, though, was even more certain than Eda had been. Mira didn't need to ask.

"Eda, the pain. I had to tell them. This was more than I bargained for. Beyond my limits. I'm sorry if it was beyond yours."

Miguel was looping and tightening a short chain around Eda's right ankle and Mira's left, and then another around Eda's left and Mira's right.

Eda tried to soothe her. "I saw what they did to you. I was there in the balcony. Your were very brave." Miguel was now wrapping a longer chain around their waists, pulling it tight and then locking it. Eda continued, "It was a bit much for me, too, but quite thrilling. Terrifying, but isn't that what we wanted? And we survived it. We showed them. But I hurt so much. I'm sure Marco violated his rules. People will still be able to see these marks in three days. They may never heal."

Eda, who was facing toward the long end of the room, could now see that Flores' three flunkies had moved to the wall, removed rifles that were hanging there, and walked to the far end of the deep side of the room, about 20 feet away. So, Eda thought, as different as the play had been, the ending was going to be the same. Marco was into firing squads.

"Mira," Eda whispered, "this is what they did to me last time, and it's going to hurt like hell. Paint balls and tranquilizer darts. So prepare yourself."

Flores' attention was on the two women, chained naked, back-to-back, hanging from by their wrists from the ceiling chain. "You have now both confessed your treason. As you certainly know, the punishment for treason is death by firing squad." Even the exact same words, Eda thought. Strange for Marco to repeat the ending after providing such a different scene from the last one. But, of course, her first role play was not Marco's last scene. He certainly had played many in between. And he had planned this scene without knowing that Eda would be participating. So for the rest it was probably new. And this time there had been no offer of a blindfold.

Standing in front of Eda, Flores grabbed her by her hips, pulled her left hip toward him and her right hip away, which sent the chain holding the two women spinning. Flores reached across several times more as the two spun in a small circle, to force them around faster until it was nearly a blur as to which was facing in which direction.

Then he issued his order to his men. "Ready" Spinning as quickly as she was, Eda saw the men raise their rifles as if there were a strobe light shining on them, their motions seeming herky-jerky.

"Aim." This was it. Eda tried to prepare herself. The distance was a little farther than the first time. Maybe the pellets wouldn't sting so much.

"Fire." Three pops not more than a second apart. Eda grunted loudly as the first shot struck her in the belly, then second in her side, thrusting her body back into Mira's. The third must have hit Mira, since Eda heard her scream and could feel a pain in her own back as Mira's body was propelled even harder into hers. Eda couldn't tell for sure which was the tranquilizer dart, but it must have been the second. She could feel her mind already dizzying.

And then again Flores' voice. "Fire." By now it was difficult for Eda to distinguish which pellets were hitting Mira and which were hitting her. The pain was not lessened by the greater distance they were from their executioners. If anything, as Eda's eyes looked down, the red covered as much of her body as the first time.

As their spin started to slow, Eda could feel Mira's head slump down against her chest. A few seconds later, Eda's head slumped down against her own chest, just as Flores ordered "Fire" a third time, and three more shots slammed into the two bodies. It was several more seconds before the spinning stopped, and the men in the room could see the results of their work -- the two naked traitors, chained by their wrists, hung with their heads down, their bodies covered in red.

February 6 (11:00 a.m.)

When she opened her eyes, she found herself alone in the large bed. The clock next to the bed read "11:00 a.m." She got out of bed, and decided to go down to breakfast dressed just as she was, in loose fitting pajamas.

It was quiet downstairs, and, as she entered the kitchen, she saw Marco sitting at the breakfast table, dressed as if he were going to work, although it was Sunday and she knew he was not. He put down the newspaper he was reading and smiled when he heard her enter. "Quite a day yesterday, wouldn't you say?"

"Oh? And why is that?" She sat down. They were alone. Sunday was Diego's day off.

Marco was obviously pleased with himself. He pushed the newspaper over to her. The headline was written in much larger and bolder print than Caretas usually used for its front-page headlines. Her eyes widened as she began to read:


February 5: Paracas --

"First Vice President Guillermo Garcia, the leading candidate for the presidential nomination of the ruling Peru Posible party in the upcoming elections, was assassinated in his home as he slept on Saturday afternoon. A Garcia maid was also killed.

"Police captured two suspects, who quickly implicated Defense Minister Quinones as the man behind the plot. Quinones' motive for the killing: as the leading candidate of Peru Posible's major rival party, ARPA, Quinones hoped that the death of Garica would leave Peru Posible in disarray, and thereby allow his ARPA party to seize control of the country, with Quinonens as president, in the elections.

"Quinones was reported to be out of the country at the time of the assassination, and is believed to have gone into hiding upon learning of the disclosure of his involvement. A Quinones spokesman denied the reports, claiming that Quinones was the victim of a political frame-up by members of Peru's communist and other lesser parties, who had vigorous objected to Quinones' announcement that, if elected president, he would discontinue what he called President Leandro's 'policies of appeasement' that allowed the communists and other minor parties a voice in government decision-making.

"Paracas Police Captain John Flores praised his officers on their swift and thorough police work that broke the case so quickly. The captured assassins were identified as 27-year-old Mira Lazan and 28-year-old Eda Nguyen, both of Lima. Neither was known to have connections to either Quinones or the communists.

"Flores recognized that, to break such a major case as quickly as his officers did often takes not only good police work, but a bit of luck as well. 'We had that luck in this case,' Flores explained. 'About 3 p.m. industrialist Marco Garcia called Vice President Garia's home. [Note: Marco Garcia and Guillermo Garcia are not related.] He asked his staff to see if Guillermo might have awakened early from his usual mid-day nap because that was the only time that Marco had that day to speak with him. It appears, however, that, when she went to check, the maid walked into his bedroom while the assassins were in the room, and she was killed, too. But after a few minutes, when the maid did not return, another staff member went up and discovered the bodies. Had Garcia not received the phone call, his body likely would not have been discovered for at least another hour, and the assassins would have had more than enough time to make their escape. As it was, though, we were able to set up our roadblock in time to trap them. So all that remains now is the apprehension and return of Minister Quinones to face justice for his role in the plot.'

"Not surprisingly, Marco Garcia did not share Captain Flores' view that the timing of his phone call had been fortuitous. 'If I had just called five minutes sooner,' Marco lamented, 'my friend Guillermo might still be alive.'

"Offered the choice between standing trial in the face of the overwhelming evidence against them, or pleading guilty to their crime, both assassins chose to confess their guilt before the military tribunal, which sentenced them to the mandated punishment for treason -- death by firing squad. Their executions were carried out at midnight, barely nine hours after their murder of Garcia. While relatives have 48 hours to claim their bodies, it is doubtful that any will wish to associate themselves with such a stain on the country. If not claimed within 48 hours, the bodies will be buried in an unmarked grave.

"In an effort to stem the expected turmoil from the death of Peru Posible's leading presidential candidate at the hands of ARPA's leading candidate, members of the two parties met into the night to determine how best to unite the country against any increase to the power of the communists that might otherwise result from Garcia's assassination and the implication of Quinones in the plot. Ultimately, the two major parties determined, ironically, to send a joint delegation at noon today to the home of Marco Garcia, the same man who had placed the phone call that led to the capture of the assassins, in order to ask the industrialist to accept the nomination of both major parties for president. If he accepts, Marco Garcia is assured of victory in the upcoming elections."

As she finished reading the article, Vicky Garcia looked up at Marco, then back at the photos on the right side of the page. Two small photos, side-by-side, each perhaps an inch square, above a larger photo perhaps two inches by three inches. The top two showed the assassins' drivers' license photos under which were written their names. The larger photo showed them, heads fallen to their chests, hanging naked by their chained wrists in the interrogation room after their execution. The angle of the photo showed the left side of Mira's body, including bullet wounds to her chest, stomach and side. Eda's body, behind Mira's, was not identifiable, although it was clear from the photograph that there were two bodies, and it was equally clear from the story whose the second body was. No wounds other than the bullet wounds from the firing squad were visible in the photo, the caption under which read: "Justice in Peru was fair and swift for the assassins."

Vicky slid the paper across the table to Marco after looking briefly at the largest photo. "Why do they print such a picture in a family newspaper?" she asked disgustedly.

Marco opened the paper again to look more closely at the photo that so offended his wife. "Because everyone should know that what happens to traitors is not pretty." He paused before offering a second explanation, but his more light-hearted tone was lost on her. "That and the paper couldn't pass up an excuse to print a photo of two naked woman. Or do you think that it was an accident that the photo focuses on the one with the nicer breasts?" He closed the paper.

Vicky stared coldly at Marco for several seconds. Then her words were deliberate, suspicious, almost accusatory. "And how do you know that it does?"

Marco sighed. "I will tell you when we have more time, love," Marco responded evenly, "but now you must get ready. As you know," he nodded at the news article, "we are having visitors in just a few minutes."

"Oh, yes, that's right." Vicky rose from the table. "And is it also an accident that you are the one person who appears to have benefited from this event?" She rose from the table and walked toward the circular staircase in the hall leading up to the master bedroom. He waited for her to reach it.

"Actually, love, we both have benefited." He watched her continue up the stairs into the bedroom before muttering quietly, "You need to read a bit more carefully." Marco guessed that Vicky had a much more beautiful picture of Mira in her mind than the one shown in the photo. But could it really not have registered with her that the woman in the photo with the nice breasts -- even with her different last name -- was hanging there only because of Vicky's jealousy and Marco's desire to quench that jealousy? That she was hanging there because, no matter how many times Marco told Vicky that it was she whom he loved, which was why he had married her and not any of the others, he simply could not overcome her insecurity?

After the last time, about a week ago, that Vicky complained that it was Mira whom Marco loved, when he tried to explain that leaving her for Mira was not even an option that Mira allowed to him, but she just couldn't believe that any woman he wanted could resist his wealth and power -- oh, were it so, he had thought -- he decided to prove just how much he loved her, and, at the same time, perhaps make her respect his power in the way that she claimed others did.

So he had prepared two packages for delivery on Tuesday. One to Mira, his lover before Vicky. And one to Anna, his lover before Mira. It wasn't that Vicky had also expressed jealousy of Anna. Marco wasn't even sure that Vicky knew about Anna. But Anna was a bitch who had humiliated him when she walked out on him -- maybe it was only Vicky who loved his power and wealth -- and, as long as he was going to show Vicky how much he loved her, he might as well include Anna in the festivities.

Marco made the packages to Mira and Anna to look like invitations that each had previously received to his famous parties. He doubted that either would accept, in which case he would simply have to find a different way to please Vicky. But, to his surprise, Mira had accepted. The lure of his games was apparently just too overwhelming for her. The last time she had played, she had had no role other than as his lover, which he had briefly turned into her real life role. He guessed, somewhat sadly, that she had accepted the invitation this time because this new role had been more to her liking than her first one.

He chose Mira to play the "middle-man" because, once she had accepted, he could proceed with his plan even if Anna rejected her role as the actual assassin, and, after all, it was Mira who was his immediate target if he were to appease Vicky. The role of Mira "Lazan" explained in detail how she received instructions from unknown persons seeking to hire a professional assassin, and passed them along with payment on to the assassin, but without knowing the identity of the assassin, the procurer of the assassin's services or the intended target. That, in this instance, she had gone to the locker at the train station, where she had accidentally caught a glimpse of the assassin, whom she was surprised to recognize from a party that both had attended several months earlier.

Marco's instructions further explained that, having completed her delivery of the package to the assassin late on Thursday evening, Mira Lazan was to check into the Hotel Santana in Paracas for the night, and that, on Friday, she would receive and deliver -- in a manner that she would learn on Friday -- the rest of the money owed to the assassin for successful completion of the mission.

Marco did not remember too well what Mira Lazan's assignment was to be on Friday, because he knew that she would never get a chance to carry it out. In fact, as soon as Mira had telephoned her acceptance on Wednesday, Marco, without even waiting for Anna's reply, had an envelope delivered anonymously to Captain Flores of the Paracas police that contained a letter warning him of the early stages of a plot to kill a leading government official. Marco was not more specific as the target of the plot, and made sure that Flores knew that the plot was only in its "early stages," so that Flores would not feel an urgency to warn the First Vice President of it or to incur the cost of extra police protection for him that would deny Anna the chance, if she accepted, to succeed in her part of the mission. Marco also identified one of the conspirators as Mira Lazan, and enclosed in the envelope a copy of Lazan's driver's license.

So Marco knew that Caretas' news story had gotten most of the story right. Its one major error was that Mira had not been captured with Eda at the roadblock after the murder. Marco couldn't be sure, but he imagined that poor Miss Lazan had never even made it up to the comfort of her room after she arrived at the hotel on Thursday night, dressed in the dark business suit, pressed white shirt and black heels that he had enclosed in her package. She must have looked stunning, he thought. At least two of Flores' men, maybe three, would have been waiting for her, probably in the hotel lobby. Maybe one had even dressed as a bellhop, and chloroformed her as they rode up the elevator to her room. Or maybe they didn't feel a need for subtlety or subterfuge, and had just dragged her screaming to their waiting police wagon.

Whether the assassination itself ever proceeded, Flores' questioning of Mira -- and he had heard that Flores' men were quite brutal, well beyond what Leandro would have considered proper questioning -- would certainly create enough evidence against her to convict her of conspiracy to commit treason. Yes, once Mira had accepted the invitation, it would be no more than a few days ... unfortunately, but necessarily, quite painful ones for Mira ... before Marco could show Vicky that, indeed, she no longer had to fear that he might leave her for Mira. Perhaps Flores would give him all the details some day ... the last hours of a woman who had spurned him. And he must remember that Flores deserved a nice promotion after Marco became President.

But, Marco thought, at least a small consolation for Mira was that, in a way, she'd gotten what she wanted. She got to play her role. For a long time. In fact, for all eternity, since, in the public's mind, she would forever be remembered as a conspirator in the assassination of the First Vice President. And, in the end, though perhaps only in the most technical sense, Marco had kept his promise to her. Mira's injuries would not be visible to anyone after 72 hours, since she would be buried 48 hours after her death.

So Anna's failure to respond to her invitation by the Wednesday deadline did not change Mira's fate. At first, he resigned himself to the fact that his plan would not accomplish both the death of Mira and the death of the Vice President, though he really never expected to pull that off completely.

But before abandoning the idea after Anna failed to respond, he tried to think whether there might be someone else who might accept the assassin's role ... and, with his mind focused on Mira, he remembered that, at the party a few months earlier where Mira played ... and become ... his lover, one of her friends had also played a role. He hadn't thought of Mira's friend before because, wanting to be alone with Mira, he hadn't stayed for her friend's death scene, which was how he cataloged in his mind the players that he liked best. But hadn't Elena and her husband told him later how gullible and manipulable Mira's friend had been? Yes, she would be perfect. He scanned his past invitations and finally found her address and role. Last time she had been Eda Kawani. This time she would be offered the role of ... Eda Nguyen, professional assassin.

So, on Friday, with one last hope to revive the other major part of his plan, and even after he was sure that Mira must already be in the hands of Flores and his men, he had delivered the package to Eda. Almost immediately, she had called to accept her new role as professional assassin. And she had fulfilled that role, too. Well, maybe not "full-filled," but half-filled, at least. She certainly had not been professional, but Marco was counting on the fact that she would not be. But she had assassinated Garcia ... and his maid. Thereby spinning into motion the rest of his plan ... his sudden rise to the Presidency of Peru.

As soon as Eda had accepted, Marco had delivered to Flores a second anonymous envelope that he had been waiting to send until after Anna's hoped-for acceptance. This one had three photographs in it. Before having it delivered, Marco replaced the photo of Anna in her yellow dress with a photo of Eda in her avocado green dress, both photos taken on the same day at the same party.

So, because of Eda, Marco was now able to give Vicky not only the assurance that she need never worry about Mira again, but the added prize of becoming the First Lady of Peru.

The doorbell rang a few seconds before the grandfather clock in the living room struck 12. Marco looked to the top of the staircase to see his beautiful bride begin to descend. He loved her so. He waited for her at the bottom of the stairs, kissed her, took her arm, and walked with her to the front door, to open it himself. To show his visitors proper respect. After all, they had a question to ask him.


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