As soon as this story begins, we have a clear view of the drama this book has to offer. Chibuogu, a Nigerian woman who used to work as a prostitute in Rome, is given a second chance at independence and a happy life in Venice. However, a man named Tarek Duka is presently interrogating and beating her severely, looking for the location of a woman named Earta. Duka's actions may be surprisingly grounded in honor. Written in English but peppered with Italian words and phrases, the Venetian setting is merely teased early on, yet fully on display. The story's protagonists, a pair of visiting professors looking for love in romantic Italy, are not introduced right away, giving us advanced knowledge of the hidden dangers of their trip and motivation to turn page after page in anticipation. Full of tension, violence, and compassion, this story opens powerfully and sets the stage for plenty of suspenseful twists and turns.
“Where is she, puttana?” Tarek Duka repeatedly hissed the insistent question into Chibuogu’s bruised ear. Grasping the small, thin Nigerian woman’s arm with one hand, Tarek slapped her with the other. “Where is she?”
When his heavily accented Italian, the only language they shared, reached her numbed brain, Chibuogu closed her dark eyes and shifted her aching head from side to side in a pathetic gesture of helplessness. Through swollen lips she managed to whisper an unacceptable answer, “I don’t know. I don’t . . .” Another blow to her head silenced her.
As Tarek lessened his grip she marshaled the little strength left in her legs and staggered toward the door. But instantly he was again upon her, wrapping his sinewy arm around her waist, dragging her back into the tiny room. As he pushed her up against the wall, the hooded snake tattoo on his left arm flexed its muscle.
“I must find Earta,” he snarled, “and you know where she is. Tell me or I’ll kill you.”
“I don’t know anything . . .” Her voice cracked and she emitted a low moan as Tarek’s fist bashed into her mid-section and she slumped onto the ratty carpet.
Grasping her shoulders Tarek hauled her up and propped her back up against the wall. “Listen to me,” he commanded. “You escaped with Earta from Roma. Is she here too?”
Her pain eclipsed his voice but the words “Earta” and “Roma” unearthed suppressed images from that horrible time . . . the dank, ugly, two-room apartment housing ten women . . . thin mattresses strewn on the wooden floors . . . the stinking toilet on the floor below. She groaned under the weight of horrific memories. Nights standing on the streets or highways . . . dressed in a skimpy skirt and bra . . . freezing in the cold . . . going with men to squalid hotels or parked cars . . . being beaten by her captors if she didn’t bring in enough money or if she tried to escape.
A blow to her chest doubled her over.
Tarek jerked her up and pressed her against the wall, his breath singeing her ear. “Where is Earta? Where?” He punctuated each word with a blow to her body. “Where? Where?”
Separated from the other rescued women when she’d been taken to the mainland across from Venice to work in a Porto Marghera factory, she had no idea where they were now. But through the pain she dimly realized she would have to say something or die. “Venezia?” crept out of her swollen lips, more of a question than a surety.
“Venezia?” Tarek echoed.“Where in Venezia?”
She shook her head and lowered it to her chest as her aching, exhausted body began to crumple.
Tarek grabbed her under her arms and struggled to lift her mutilated body but Chibuogu slipped from his grasp and collapsed. As his anger flared, Tarek kicked her in the stomach and when she doubled over, he punched her head, smashing it like a soccer ball against the wall. For a moment her eyes widened, staring directly at him, and then the pupils turned upward as her head rolled to one side and dropped to her shoulder. A thin line of blood trickled down from under her closely cut curly black hair and dripped onto her cheek.
“Gioia! Are you there?”
Tarek jumped away from his victim when he heard a woman’s voice outside the door on which she was knocking. He looked again at the recumbent Chibuogu, limp and motionless as a rag doll. Cursing under his breath, he leaped out a window onto the dirt patch behind the rooming house, hoisted himself over a low fence, and took off running down the narrow alleyway.
“Gioia?” Alessandra DeSoto inserted her key, opened the door, and entered the room. “Dio mio!” She knelt beside the injured woman and, feeling a faint pulse, hauled out her telefonino and called for an ambulanza. She then rang Commissario Marcello Rossi at the Venezia police station. Quickly explaining the situation, she begged him to meet her at the Ospedale Civile. “I’m having Gioia taken there,” she told him, “and I’ll stay with her as long as I can. She has no one else.”
* * * * *
Ever since the Nigerian woman had arrived at the rescue shelter, Alessandra had looked after her, helping her change her name from Chibuogu, a name no one in Italy could pronounce correctly, to Gioia. From “protected by God” to “joy,” in celebration of her new-found, but now short-lived, happiness. “Whoever did this to her,” Alessandra said to Marcello hours later in the hall outside Gioia’s hospital room, “could be one or more of those bastardi who brought her to Italy and made her a sex slave.” Her hazel eyes filled with tears, her brow furrowed in anger. “Prego, Marcello. You must find out who they are.”
The Commissario’s six-foot height was tall for an Italian but he was not that much taller than Alessandra, who looked directly into his tawny eyes, a shade darker than her own. He spoke softly to calm her down. “Look, Alessandra, I understand your concern, given the brutality of this crime, and I, too, want to find the culprits. But it happened in Mestre, on the mainland, out of my jurisdiction. You should have had her taken to a hospital there and called in the local police.”
Her blonde bobbed hair swung from side to side as she shook her head. “Don’t be absurd, Marcello! You know as well as I do that the Mestre police would have given only a cursory investigation to the beating of an immigrant, especially one they would assume to be a prostitute. And I know in my heart that the Syndicate is behind the attack somehow. So the local police would have closed the case as soon as they realized it also.”
“Be careful, Alessandra,” Marcello warned her. “You know how dangerous it is to speculate in that direction.” Seeing her frown, he clasped both her hands in his. “But of course I will do all I can to discover who is responsible for this brutal beating.”
“Grazie, Marcello, grazie mille.”
As Marcello stepped aside to allow a nurse to enter the patient’s room, he caught a glimpse of Gioia’s bandaged head and body, anchored by long tubes to bedside machines. “What is the prognosis?” he asked Alessandra as the door closed behind the nurse.
“Not good at this point. She’s in a coma and the doctor says it’s too early to tell if she’ll come out of it.”
“Is she African?” Marcello asked, having noted her dark skin.
“Yes,” Alessandra said. “One of the many women brought here from Nigeria by slave traders to be prostitutes. Almost as many as those trafficked from Eastern Europe. We’ve been supervising Gioia’s progress toward citizenship for two years now.” She wiped her eyes. “Prego, prego, Marcello, I’m begging you to find whoever did this to her.”
Marcello tried to reassure her although he had his doubts, knowing sex trafficking to be both clandestine and protected by groups like the Syndicate. “Of course I will try, Alessandra.”
Tarek darted through the Mestre city streets, anger mingling with fear in his feverish brain. Back in the dingy room where the Syndicate had sequestered him, he paced back and forth, tugging at his long stringy hair and rubbing his cobra tattoo as if to rouse it to life. After he had learned that the Nigerian woman was also in Mestre, he had followed her in hopes she might lead him to Earta. But during the few days he had stalked her, she had gone nowhere except to the factory where she worked, her rooming house, a grocery in the neighborhood, and once to Venezia on a bus. And he had seen her with no one else although he suspected that she might have contacted Earta when he wasn’t around. He wondered if he been stupid to attack her, especially since she might die from her injuries. Maybe she would have given up Earta if he had bribed rather than beaten her. But he had no money for bribes.
Now and then he paused to glance out the dirty window down into the narrow street below. The person who had found her would contact the police, who would see her as a prostitute, which she probably still was, and so they wouldn’t take the beating very seriously, but still . . . What if she died? Even the murder of a whore would start an investigation. He swigged the last swallow of grappa from a bottle on the rickety table, stumbling a bit as he continued to pace.
Then Tarek almost howled as another possibility struck him.
If that puttana didn’t die . . . then she could identify him to the police. Worse yet, his bosses might find out what he had done and they were ruthless about punishing those who initiated criminal actions on their own. He cursed again and threw the empty grappa bottle across the room where it bounced against his dirty, tattered mattress lying on the floor. He sank down on a rickety wooden chair and buried his head in his folded arms on the table beside it. Think . . . have to think. Was Earta really in Venezia? He wanted desperately to believe the black bitch but had she lied just to stop the beating?
Minutes passed before he raised his head and pounded the table with his fist. He had to find Earta and he had to get money for both of them to escape to a better life together elsewhere. He stood up and flexed his muscular arms, making the cobra twitch its flat fanged head. Pulling his cap down over his forehead he set out for the bus to carry him over the Ponte della Libertà into Venezia. He was determined to find Earta or die trying.