Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cascina del Benessere

The following story is a purely fictional account. Any relationship to any real person living or dead is coincidental. The narrative deals with the non-consensual torture and death of human beings, and is intended for mature readers who wish to view such material and for whom it is legal to do so. The authors in no way condone or promote such acts in real life.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Ferdinando Neri and by POW. For spam protection, animal names have been added to the authors' addresses - remove it to get their actual addresses. (ferdinandoneri zebra at yahoo dot it) and (POWauthor zebra at yahoo dot com). This story may be freely copied and distributed so long as it is copied in its entirety, including the author credit information and disclaimer. The authors welcome feedback. More stories are available at http://powauthor.blogspot.com and Ferdinando's site

Cascina del Benessere

("Fat Farm")


Yes, it is so, Pedro thinks. The evidence is there, glowing on his screen. Now Pedro knows he is right.

After a short search, he found what he knew he would: Matteo Ridolfi, the Italian doctor he met at the camp, "disappeared" and nobody knows where he is. It's in the online edition of some Italian newspapers. Matteo arrived at his home in Milan on Monday evening, very late. Nobody saw him, but the neighbours heard him walk into the apartment and take a shower. Then he wrote three messages to some friends on Facebook from his PC. In one of them he told a friend he was waiting for a late visit and... that was the last anyone heard from him. He bed was not slept in.

Pedro is certain that Matteo never went home. Someone else entered his home, sent those messages and then disappeared, just to make people think that Matteo was still alive on Monday evening. But he wasn't - Matteo died three weeks ago, when he was at the "Cascina del Benessere", the camp where Pedro met him.

They killed him.

Pedro stares at the screen and thinks. He thinks about Vincenzo, the big, hairy, strong man who went away with Matteo the last time Pedro saw the Italian doctor. He imagines Vincenzo forcing Matteo to strip, fucking him, killing him. How would Vincenzo do it? Would it be cold and impersonal, a quick bullet to the back of the head? Probably not. A man like Vincenzo would be more likely to use a knife. Pedro can see it vividly in his mind, Vincenzo opening Matteo's belly, spilling the hot blood onto the ground. Pedro is hard, now. It often happens when he imagines a man being raped and killed by another strong man...

"Cascina del Benessere", Well-Being Farm. A nice, pretty name for a place where you can go to lose weight... at a cost, a cost not in money, but in pain. Danger and pain were in store for all the guests who went there. Some found they lost not only weight, but their lives, too, if they were too curious. Matteo was a curious man, too curious for his own good.

Pedro is not curious, but when he came back from the camp, he began to search for news about the Italian doctor whom he met at the camp and who disappeared before the end of the training. He was sure that Matteo was dead and lacked only proof. Now, with the proof staring back at him, he was certain that he had narrowly escaped death himself: when Helmut, the head, told him not to come back to the Cascina a third time, it meant that the third time Pedro wouldn't be going back home.

Pedro's first trip to the Cascina came after he had to spend three months lying around the house waiting for his broken foot to heal. The forced inactivity was hard for Pedro, who would much rather have been out running, hiking, trekking, playing volleyball. But he had no choice and spent the three months at home relieving his boredom through food. He grew fat, really fat, and when he was at last physically able to exercise again, he found he lacked the willpower to get himself back into shape. And so he went to this "Cascina del Benessere", a nice place in southern Italy, whose rates were much more reasonable than any of the other health spas he looked at. Only when he was there did he realize why the place was so cheap and their methods so effective.

Strange place, the Cascina del Benessere...

Why did he go back to the camp a second time, a year later? He knows the answer very well: he deliberately overate for another three months, just to have an excuse to return and lose the weight again. To lose weight and explore the camp, discovering how much pain he could endure, how dangerous the place was.

Because Pedro likes pain and danger, the idea of risking his own life arouses him, like now, while he looks at pictures of the missing Matteo on his monitor, thinking of how Helmut or Vincenzo could have easily killed Pedro, too.

Pedro remembers Vincenzo, a strong, hairy man around 45 years old; Pedro admired Vincenzo's tattooed body, his large head, his dark beard and his grey hair. And he remembers his strong hands, a killer's hands.

Vincenzo killed Matteo, Pedro is sure of it. Vincenzo is a born killer.

Pedro is fascinated by Vincenzo.

He reaches into the box of doughnuts on his desk and extracts another one, taking a large, deliberate bite.

"Gavin? Gavin, is that you?"

Devon had to look not twice but three times to confirm that the man with the stunning, Adonis-like physique standing in front of him at the coffee machine was indeed his co-worker. When Gavin had gone on leave six weeks ago, he had looked as he always had: pudgy, balding, skin a bit saggy and blotchy-looking. Now, though, now...

"Good Lord, man, you look... wow, you look... how did you do that?"

"Cascina del Benessere, my friend!" Gavin struck a pose, one that would have been ludicrous before he left, his left arm planted on his hip, his right curled to highlight his bulging biceps. There was a sizable dollop of self-mockery in his manner, as if he felt his new physique were merely a costume he had donned, one that he wasn't quite comfortable wearing. But Devon could see there was nothing false about the rock-hard muscles straining at the sleeves of Gavin's shirt. They were real, solidly real. The hairline was still receding, the skin was still a bit blotchy, but the overall effect was as if Gavin had gone away with one body and come home with a completely different one.

"Kasheena who?" Devon said, only half-jokingly.

"La bella Cascina del be-NEH-se-ray" Gavin drawled, overexaggerating the lyrical Italian words. He dropped the pose, poured himself a mug of coffee, then offered the pot to Devon. "Little place in the south of Italy. Means something like 'camp of well-being' or 'health spa' or some such. It's a fat farm, really."

"A fat farm? Like the sort of place where they have you do yoga and Pilates all morning and then all they let you eat for lunch is a stalk of celery?"

Gavin chuckled half-heartedly, his eyes darting uncomfortably about. "Yeah. Kind of like that."

"Well, whatever their method is, it sure worked. You look great, man. Really great."

"Yeah, thanks."

Devon returned to his desk, though there wasn't much for him to do there. Business at the Parking Authority of Greater Leeds was not exactly brisk in September. Today would likely be another leisurely day of filing paperwork and generating reports. In another month, the boredom would be soul-numbing, but now, just after the summer holiday season, the reduced workload was a welcome change.

The slow season also provided plenty of time for his co-workers to stop by to visit the new, improved Gavin. All morning long he listened over the fabric-covered wall to replays of almost the exact same conversation. And it wasn't just the handful of people in Parking - soon enough, word had spread to Permits and to Finance and to Water and Sewer... everyone wanted to know how Gavin had done it, where he had found the willpower, what the secret of "Cascina del Benessere" might be. Gavin seemed talkative enough on the topic, but after half a dozen repetitions, Devon began to realize that Gavin was being distinctly evasive about the actual details of the programme. The vagueness aroused his curiosity, but only a bit - it was probably just that Gavin's struggle with his weight issues was a sensitive topic for him.

Still, as the day progressed, Devon couldn't help but make comparisons between Gavin's new look and his own. Before, Devon would have considered himself the better-looking of the two of them. Not that he would ever have been so tactless as to say such a thing out loud, of course. But if, hypothetically speaking, the two of them were to go out for a round at the local pub and a comely lass were to wink coyly in their direction, Devon would have been more than half certain that the gesture had been intended for him. Now, though...

He looked down at his belly, much thicker now than it had been 15 years ago. When had that happened? It must have crept up on him over the years, a bit at a time, hardly noticeable as it was happening but glaringly obvious now that he stopped to think about it. Somehow, the tow-headed rugby player had been transformed into a sturdy bureaucrat, not exactly fat, but not exactly trim and fit, either.

At midday, Devon made a point of poking his head in to Gavin's workspace, where he found Gavin eating a sensible lunch - a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole-wheat bread, carrot sticks on the side. More than a stalk of celery, certainly. "Er, excuse me. Gavin? I'm very sorry, I know you've been answering these questions all day..."

Gavin, mouth full, gestured that it was no trouble at all. Devon plunged ahead. "It's just that, I was wondering... is it an expensive place?"

Gavin chewed thoughtfully and took his time before swallowing his bite of sandwich. "Are you considering a visit, then?" he finally asked.

"Well, you know, er... that is... I mean, I could certainly stand to shed a pound or two, and maybe it's just a matter of diet and exercise and such, but then, well, just look at you! If you could make that kind of improvement in only six weeks..." Devon's face flushed with shame as he heard what he was saying. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to imply... I mean, it's not like you were obese or anything, no not at all..."

Gavin jumped in and kindly rescued him from the mortifying hole he was digging for himself. "Yes, a change of diet and exercise habits might do the trick. I would be happy to help you along, if you'd like. You know, moral support?"

"Right. Thank you, you're very kind," Devon said, hoping the ruddiness of his face wasn't as visible as he feared it was. "It's just that... well, clearly, this Cascina del Benessere has got a very effective system, and I was thinking I didn't take a holiday this summer so I've got some time coming..."

Gavin interrupted, his face gone cloudy and dark. "Devon. Please, believe me when I say this. Yes, it's true that the Cascina's programme worked wonderfully well. But getting through it was by far the hardest thing I've ever done. If I had the choice to do it over, I absolutely would not. Really, if you want to get in shape, join a gym. Walk more. There's dozens of ways to become fit. Don't go to the Cascina. Sure, I got fantastic results... but those results are most definitely not worth the price I paid."

Devon's face fell. "It's expensive, then?"

Gavin again seemed at a loss for words. "In a word, yes," he finally mumbled.

At home later that evening, it took Devon barely any time at all to find "Cascina del Benessere" on the web. Contrary to Gavin's assertion, the rates were quite reasonable. Even counting the travel to Calabria, all the way at the toe of the Italian boot, the cost for a six-week stay was less than what he would spend on that one-week holiday in Tenerife that he kept postponing year after year. And if he booked now, he could start by mid-October and be back home in early December. Fall was a perfect time to be off from work; he would be back just in time for the busy Christmas season with its loads of shoppers and their parking violations....

Some Mediterranean sunshine sounded like the perfect alternative to a grey November in England.

Helmut Lehrer studied the list of this week's expected arrivals, trying to finish before the sounds from the room next door became too distracting.

It wasn't that the sounds Antonio and whoever-he-was would soon be making were unpleasant - Helmut himself had caused those sorts of sounds to occur on more than one occasion. But a balance was required. It couldn't all be fun and games; some effort had to be put into making the camp run smoothly. It was only when everything was running smoothly that one could find the time to enjoy the fruits of one's labours. Without that necessary organizational effort, things had a tendency to fall apart, and when things fell apart, everyone's pleasure was diminished.

The sounds were easy enough to ignore for now - just two voices. Antonio's routine almost never varied. He always started out with talk; the rougher stuff would come later. Helmut would take advantage of the relative quiet while it lasted.

There were four on the list for this week. One or two were almost guaranteed to be no-shows - the last time everyone who was supposed to arrive at the Cascina del Benessere actually did so was thirteen weeks before. Helmut had tried to find a pattern to predict which men would be the no-shows but if there was such a pattern, it was not one that showed up in the information in the dossiers he possessed.

This week's crop included one Waclaw Dawidowski, a man with a Polish name but who listed his hometown as Leipzig. Age 45, married, one daughter, hoping to lose approximately 15 kilos. Looking at the front- and side-view photos and checking the statistics in the file, Helmut had estimated an eight-week stay for him when they had first scheduled his visit to the camp. Whether he would actually be on the train tomorrow remained to be seen.

Next was Devon Newcomb of Leeds, England. Age 38, divorced for the last eight years, no children, target weight loss 10 kilos. All in all quite typical of the men who visited the Cascina. Five weeks should do.

The noise level from the next room had steadily increased while Helmut was perusing the dossiers. The talking had become shouting and now the shouting was becoming screaming. Helmut could hear the sharp cracks as Antonio swung his favourite leather strap against the other man's bare skin. The man - what was his name again? Gerard, perhaps? Or Gregoire? Something French, anyway. The man, whoever he was, was outraged at being subjected to this indignity. And Helmut knew he would be even more outraged at the next indignity he would suffer at Antonio's ever-predictable hands.

Next on the list was Roberto Russo. A local boy, it seemed, from just up the road in Trebino. Age 28... younger than the typical client. But grossly overweight. Helmut's programme, rigorous though it was, could not be expected to produce miracles, even when a client stayed the maximum twelve weeks. This young man - if he survived - would come out with less fat and more muscle, but there was no chance he would ever be considered thin.

Finally... oh, now this was interesting. Pedro Sanchez, age 42, was returning for his third visit. This despite Helmut's very clear warning of what might very well happen should Pedro place himself once again into the hands of the three managers of the Cascina del Benessere. Very interesting, indeed. One had to wonder about the mindset of such returnees. Could it be that Señor Sanchez actually desired the outcome that Helmut had expressed would happen? There certainly were easier ways to accomplish that... so what was it about the Cascina programme that inspired him to come back?

The noise had grown too loud to concentrate on even such intriguing thoughts. Helmut tucked the pages into their folder and replaced it neatly in its drawer. He headed outside to check on the progress of the current crop of dieters. On the way he passed by the open door of the room where Antonio was. The screaming had ended, but Gerard - yes, it was definitely Gerard - was cursing a blue streak. Glancing in as he passed, Helmut saw Gerard's head and fists protruding from a pillory with Antonio standing behind him, fucking his ass like a demon. Helmut could only make out a few words of Gerard's French, but Antonio's speech was the same as it always was:

"Lurido finocchio. È questo quello che vuoi, eh? Vuoi sentire il mio grosso cazzo in culo! Ho visto come mi guardavi, mezzasega. Pensi che sono un frocio come te, eh? Ma io non sono come te, non sono un frocio di merda. Sono un uomo, non un finocchio sempre a caccia di cazzi da succhiare o da prendersi in culo. Tu sei un finocchio, un finocchio di merda!"

Gerard's eyes looked at Helmut beseechingly, but Helmut continued resolutely on his way.

His script never changes, Helmut mused as he walked. "You like my thick cock up your ass, faggot?" I wonder if Antonio would be happier if he would just accept the fact that he is attracted to men? Things are different now than they were twenty, even ten years ago. He could find himself a nice husband, settle down...

Gerard let out a particularly loud shout of disgust, one that was quickly muffled as though a thick, fleshy object had been rammed into his mouth.

Then again, perhaps he is quite satisfied with the status quo.

"Welcome, gentlemen."

Devon thought he detected a slight touch of German in the speech of the sharply-dressed man in front of him, but it was very faint. He was feeling a bit tired after the journey, which always surprised him because how can one get tired by just sitting? Whether in station waiting areas, on trains, or buses, or wherever, it was all just sitting. Why should that be so tiring? And yet somehow, it was.

He stole a quick glance at his two compatriots, Waclaw and Pedro. When Devon's train arrived, Waclaw had been waiting at the station with a Cascina employee - his train had arrived earlier in the day. Pedro, it turned out, had been on the same train as Devon, though neither had known it. "Vat-slav", as he had introduced himself, had been all smiles, greeting both his new best friends with a cheery handshake and a slap on the back. The Cascina employee hadn't bothered to give his name, simply gesturing the three of them toward a car for the ride to the camp.

During the long ride through the Calabrian countryside, Waclaw had tried to engage the others in conversation and camaraderie. His efforts met with little success. Devon would ordinarily have been happy to talk, but he was feeling a bit out of his element, and when that happened he tended to retreat into himself and so failed to hold up his end of the conversation. The Spaniard's English was so heavily accented that it was hard to understand a word he said. And the driver didn't speak at all. Presumably the fellow was capable of oral communication, though he provided no evidence of it during the course of the trip. In the face of such resistance, Waclaw's friendly banter eventually faded away and the four men spent the latter half of the ride in silence.

Now, standing in a draughty room with the others, Waclaw's cheeriness was but a memory. Devon could see why: the atmosphere was definitely not the warm, supportive, Alcoholics Anonymous-meeting environment he had been anticipating. In fact, it was downright prison-like. Waclaw clearly felt it, too. Pedro was harder to read. His dark eyes seemed to seethe with some kind of emotion, but Devon could not tell what. That notorious Latin temper, he supposed.

"I am Mr. Lehrer," the sharply-dressed man continued, "your host and the director of this institution. With me are Vincenzo Virga and Antonio Macaluso, co-directors here."

Devon took in the men as they were introduced: Lehrer was tall and blond and moved with crisp, efficient, and yet graceful motions. Vincenzo was darker, with close-set eyes that looked like smouldering cigar tips. And Antonio looked like a cross between a model for a painting on a Grecian urn and a street thug. His presence made Devon uncomfortable; he looked as if he was liable to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Not for the first time, Devon reconsidered whether this trip was really something he should be doing. And yet Gavin had come through it just fine, hadn't he?

The director was still speaking. Devon realized his mind had wandered.

"... a change in lifestyle. You will find the programme to be rigorous but fair. And even though there will come a time - and I promise this time will come for each of you - when you do not believe that you can endure it, I tell you now: you can.

"I know this will happen because it has happened to every single man who has come to the Cascina del Benessere before you. Without exception, every single one of them reached a point during their stay when they felt they simply had to abandon the programme before seeing it through to completion. And yet, every single one of them did, in fact, see the programme through."

"You are here, gentlemen, because you lack the willpower to control your own diet and exercise to the degree you wish you could."

Devon shifted uncomfortably on his feet and thought briefly of protesting, but Lehrer continued without pause.

"There is no shame in admitting this. It is not a defect in your character. Rather, it is a challenge to be overcome. We are here to provide the willpower that you lack and to help you create new habits for cleaner living. Once these habits have been ingrained, you will find that you do not need much willpower to sustain them. The initial breaking of your old habits is the hard part. Once this is accomplished, new ones can be formed, and you will be able to return to your homes and still maintain your new level of fitness. Unless, of course, you slide back into your old ways."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence here, but although Devon could sense the tension in the air, he had no idea what its source might be.

"For this reason," Herr Lehrer continued, "there can be no backing out of the programme once you have committed to it. It is a matter of psychology. If you know you have the option to quit, then you will find it impossible not to quit when you encounter difficulties. You lack willpower; that is why you are here. Thus, you must surrender your will... to me."

He clapped his hands. "So. You will be shown to your rooms. In them you will find a paper. You will either sign this paper and commit to stay at the Cascina del Benessere for the number of weeks specified for your individual programme, or I will have the driver return you to the train station tonight. Take your time while making your decision, because once made, it is irrevocable."

Pedro is sitting in his room. He looks at the paper on the little table, then at the landscape out of the window. His room is the one where Matteo Ridolfi stayed. Coincidence? There are only six rooms, so coincidence is certainly a possibility. But Pedro is certain it is not. It is a warning. The last warning, probably... "There can be no backing out of the programme once you have committed to it."

Helmut Lehrer's words linger in Pedro's brain. "There can be no backing out... no backing out..."

He knows very well there is no way out once he has signed the paper. Once the programme begins, there is no way he could physically get out even if he wanted to. This is the last opportunity to change his mind.

He could refuse to sign, go back to the train station, back to his normal life, . Or could he? Is it perhaps already too late? Now, immediately, before signing this bloody paper which doesn't mean anything to Pedro: the real matter is not backing out of the programme, it is backing out of death.

Why did he come? Why doesn't he go away, right now? Helmut Lehrer wouldn't stop him, now. But by tomorrow morning, escape will become impossible. To go through the entire programme without any "mistake"? Not so difficult, perhaps, but it is not what Pedro wants. He knows it. He didn't come here just to follow the programme. He is looking for something else.

Pedro looks again through the window. A beautiful landscape, the aura of a peaceful countryside, the enchanting little villages nestled among the rolling hills and the mountains far away. A peaceful land. Cascina del Benessere is located in a little paradise.

Somewhere in this beautiful landscape, Matteo Ridolfi's corpse is rotting under the ground.

Pedro looks at the paper, at the place where he is supposed to sign. Signing doesn't mean anything. Staying here, in this bloody place, means danger, death. Pedro shakes his head: he ate too much for three months just to have a plausible pretext to come back. Why? He knows it, very well. He likes pain, violence and danger. No, that's not it, or rather, that's not all of it. He is aroused by pain, violence and danger, by the idea of risking his life. This is the truth. Is it? Yes, but there is something more. He is fascinated by death. His own death. How far does he want to go? Which choice will he have if he remains here?

Helmut Lehrer's warning was very clear. This is the reason why Pedro is back.

From the window Pedro can see Vincenzo walking towards the woods. Near an old oak, he turns and stares at Pedro's window. He can see Pedro. Pedro can see Vincenzo, his strong body, his big hands, his hard face.

Pedro holds his gaze. Vincenzo seems to smile or to grin, not in a friendly way, more like the grin of a wolf. Then he turns and disappears into the woods.

Pedro takes the pen and he signs.

Only one no-show, Helmut Lehrer thought to himself as he returned to his room. About average.

The evening air was pleasant. A gentle autumn breeze swirled through the needles on the fragrant pine trees, and he caught the faint scent of olives from the groves that abutted the camp. The harvest was finished, but the aroma still lingered, even now while the long twilight of the year gently settled over this southern country. In his homeland, he knew, the season would be much more advanced. The higher mountains may have even felt their first kiss of snow. Here, though, the climate offered barely more than a token nod to Winter, two or three months of greyer skies and cooler weather before the next long, sun-drenched summer began.

He walked at a steady pace back to his cabin, neither rushing nor dawdling. It would take him fourteen minutes to complete the journey. Sometimes the remoteness of his dwelling place from the rest of the camp's bustle was a source of frustration for him, but these occasions were rare. More often he appreciated the privacy that the secluded location provided.

He pondered the three men he had met a few minutes ago, the men who were now settling in for the night and trying to decide whether or not to sign the papers they had found in their rooms. He was fairly certain they would; absolutely certain in one case. The face-to-face meeting had confirmed his initial impressions of each of them, and solidified his decision as to how to apportion them out among the leadership triumvirate when the time came.

Waclaw was a goof, cheerful and good-natured, but fundamentally a goof. He would have no ability to appreciate the artistry that Helmut took pride in. He would be best matched with Antonio, who would be able to work with that type of personality. Antonio didn't much care who he was paired with, and it didn't much matter, anyway. His act never changed.

Devon he would take himself. It was always a treat to work with Englishmen. That "stiff upper lip" attitude kept them going for such a long, long time. They simply had no mechanism to cope with adversity except to suck it up. Especially when the adversity was disguised with civility.

Pedro... now there was the interesting one. Vincenzo was the logical choice. He was the clean-up man, the one who handled problems and situations as they came up. He and his... associates were adept at smoothing out bumps in any road, though their methods could be somewhat heavy-handed. And yet... it would probably be a good idea to find out exactly what Pedro was after before committing to any specific course of action.

Interesting, too, that both Devon and Pedro were scheduled for a five-week stay. They had arrived together, and they would depart together. One way or another...

His cabin appeared out of the gathering gloom. He eased the door open and slipped into the main room, lit by the warm glow of an electric lamp.

A naked man stood there, 5kg free weights taped in his clenched fists. Helmut took a moment to admire the man's physique. The arms and shoulders had filled out quite nicely in the six weeks since his arrival at the Cascina, the legs likewise. The belly was much firmer, though not exactly flat - building washboard abs was not just a matter of exercise, one had to be born with the right genes, too. The chest and pecs were showing good definition. All in all, quite a well-built specimen... just the way Helmut liked them.

Helmut had little interest in the pudgy, flabby men who arrived at the Cascina's gates each Saturday. But after they spent a few weeks in the programme he had designed... what a difference! Then they started to become more worthy of his scrutiny.

The man's ankles were chained to bolts in the floor, forcing him to stand with his legs spread at about shoulder width. Despite the cool evening air, he was sweating profusely. As Helmut entered the room, he jumped and lifted his wavering arms above his head, touching the weights to two pads suspended from the ceiling. A small click registered the contact. Then the man crouched down and touched the weights to two matching pads on the floor. Another click. He stood up again, his movements slow and shaking.

Helmut stepped to the side of the room and checked the small mechanical display on a table there. It read "317".

"Ach, Reiner, es tut mir Leid," he said softly. "Nur dreihundertsiebzehn? Nach drei Stunden?"

The chained man whimpered, also speaking German. "But sir, I have tried! I have pushed myself as hard as I could! Please, just a bit more time!"

"More time is not what you need, Reiner," Helmut replied. "Three hours should have been plenty of time for you to reach 500." Of course it wasn't. The best anyone had ever done in Helmut's experience was 438 - dangerously close to succeeding at a task designed to be impossible. 317 was actually above average. No doubt somewhere on Earth men existed who could do it, but they were not the sort who needed to sign themselves up for a weight-loss camp.

"What you lack is not time, but motivation," Helmut continued silkily.

Reiner forced his exhausted arms to keep working while he spoke, his voice ragged. "No! No, please, no! I can do it, see?" His muscles quivered and strained. The small display clicked its way up - 318, 319, 320. It was a simple mechanical device with no fancy electronics, one whose workings Helmut had modelled after a cuckoo clock: press both ceiling pads at once to set an escapement, press the floor pads to release it, advancing the number on the display. Reiner lifted and fell, and though he was able to make contact a few more times with both ceiling and floor, he was clearly near the limit of his endurance.

Helmut waited until one of the upward presses failed to make full contact, so that when the weights came crashing to the floor, the number on the display did not change, eliciting an explosive sob of frustration from Reiner. He reached over to the small table and pulled out a wand, perhaps 30 centimetres long with a metal tip. A wire led from the back end of the wand to a device on the floor, from which another wire extended to connect with the chain affixed to Reiner's left ankle. He spoke softly, not really caring whether his voice carried over Reiner's increasingly frantic gasps and grunts. "Perhaps this will provide the motivation you require."

He touched the metal end to Reiner's thigh. A small blue spark jumped the gap just before it made contact. Helmut held it there for one eternally long second, then pulled it back. Reiner's shout became a scream and his leg almost buckled beneath him. With a surge of strength, he lifted the weights once more and lowered them, his muscles spasming and a line of drool forming at the corner of his mouth. The mechanical counter clicked to 327. He fought to bring the weights up again.

Helmut held the wand nearby, ready to deploy it at the first sign of weakness. He would enjoy watching Reiner drive himself past exhaustion, working his agonized muscles in a vain attempt to stave off the punishment Helmut had threatened him with. And when the end came, as it inevitably would, Helmut would enjoy every second of the rape he had promised. But there was still a long way to go before that time arrived. In the meanwhile, Helmut would enjoy the anticipation almost as much as the event itself.

Besides, who could say? Perhaps Reiner would actually make it to 500.

The first day dawns. They begin their work early. The rock line is just the same as Pedro remembered it - why would it be different? Pedro knows very well how things are going to develop. He doesn't say a word to his companions. He doesn't say anything.

Antonio let slip - deliberately? - in the presence of the other two newcomers that Pedro had been here twice before. And so yesterday evening the Englishman began asking him questions, trying to learn more. Pedro's English is not great, but he understood the man well enough. Still, he preferred to pretend he didn't know what the man was saying - "no comprende, amigo". Much easier to avoid saying anything relevant that way. The Englishman will discover it soon enough. In fact, the first part of his education had already begun.

Pedro looks at his companions, who are discovering for the first time what is waiting for them. What is waiting? There is more, much more than the line. The rock line is the simplest device, the most innocent, the least painful, even if it can appear hell. But for four weeks (no, Mr. Englishman, four weeks, not five as you think) it will be their daily routine. They will be like prisoners in Dante's Inferno, going on and on in an endless task.

Pedro remembers the first time he saw the line, the strange feeling which overpowered him. Something like yielding to his own fate, accepting something he was craving for, even if he didn't know he was craving it. He accepted it. In a strange way he couldn't explain, he knew he was waiting for it and the line was waiting for him. And now again, step after step, on and on, a senseless walking whose hidden meaning has now been made clear to him.

Briefly, he wonders whether the other newcomers are having the same sorts of feelings he did on his first arrival, then firmly pushes the thought from his mind. Pedro is not interested in the other men who are going to follow the training routine, he doesn't want to make friends. He doesn't need company or support. He is here for a different purpose.

He will follow the instructions he is given. No whim, no improvisation, no deviation from the rules. Pedro doesn't want to speed the end up. He wants to have the time to make his choices. That is, if he has any choice left? When he went away last time, Helmut's words didn't leave much room for doubt. Pedro is afraid, but he is aroused, too. Every time he thinks about the last week of the training - as he is now - his cock quickly stiffens. And with no clothes on, there's no way to hide it. Best to think of something else.

He focuses on the rocks, on putting one foot in front of the other. The swelling at his groin goes down. But his mind keeps coming back to the same topic, like a buzzard circling a dying man in the desert.

Pedro looks at Vincenzo. It will be him. Vincenzo is the man who solves the problems and Pedro has turned himself into a problem. He wants this, he craves this. But now Pedro has the feeling his heart is beating so loudly the others can hear it.

What does Vincenzo know? Vincenzo is not very clever. No, that's not exactly right. Vincenzo is not very bright in terms of book learning, but he has a keen mind in other areas. Vincenzo is a wild animal, he can detect the scent of blood on the wind, follow the tracks, jump on the prey, kill it with a single bite. Or he can play with the prey, like a cat with a mouse.

Vincenzo may not be book-smart, but Pedro senses that he knows perfectly well what Pedro is after. When Vincenzo is taking his turn supervising the rock line, Pedro looks up at him every few laps, trying to catch his eye, to see if he can read anything in that dark face. But Vincenzo never looks back at him.

Perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps Vincenzo doesn't know, doesn't understand. No matter. There is no hurry. Pedro still has five weeks to prepare, to be ready for the end.

He sets one foot in front of the other, over and over and over.

"Up! Up! You get up now! Up!"

Devon's eyelids felt like they were weighted down with stones. He forced them apart to discover that the dream he had been having - the one where he was in hell being tormented by demons - was, in fact, not a dream.

His body ached all over. His muscles were stiff and sore and tired from his neck all the way down to his toes. His belly gnawed at him with pangs of hunger. Yesterday's efforts had left him completely exhausted; spending the night on a barely-padded floor hadn't helped a bit. The idea that he was now expected to get up and start the whole thing all over again was simply preposterous.

"You get up!"

The insistent voice was joined by an equally insistent booted foot prodding at his ribs. Devon groaned and tried to roll over. The motion sent fresh waves of pain creaking through his joints, stiff and frozen from a night on the barracks floor. Seeing him in motion, the owner of the boot moved on to the next body, the voice still shouting in heavily-accented English.

Slowly, like an uncoordinated animal, the twenty-five naked dieters shucked off their thin blankets and stood up to prepare for their day. It was a complicated process, requiring a good amount of coordination. Joined at the neck as they were with 150cm of rope between each man, they had to stand up more or less as one or risk yanking on their neighbours. The veterans - the ones who had already been at the Cascina for a couple of weeks - were a bit quicker at getting up and moving, and they prodded the slower-moving newbies along. Antonio and his helper, whose name Devon did not know except by his own private moniker of "Eyebrow Guy" after his most prominent facial feature, glowered at them, just waiting for one of the prisoners to give them an excuse to hurt him.

Devon was apparently too slow-moving for his nearest neighbour. "Come on, get up!" he urged, tugging on the connecting rope.

"Errrrr," Devon groaned as he levered himself upright. "Calm down already, mate!" he grunted once he had achieved a standing position. "What's the bloody hurry? You that eager to go lug rocks?"

"The bloody hurry is if you don't get your arse moving, Tony will do it for you. Now, I don't much if care you get a few good whacks from that crop, but I'm right next to you, and Tony doesn't really care how accurate his aim is. He just likes to swing."

Devon stood awkwardly, covering his groin with his hands. He still wasn't used to being naked, even among dozens of equally-bare compatriots, none of whom seemed to notice or care that they wore no clothing. The nudity had been the most shocking thing for him two days ago, when they had roused him from bed the night after he had signed the commitment paper. When they had instructed him to remove his clothing, he had refused three times. Only the look in Vincenzo's eye had persuaded him that being naked was preferable to whatever Vincenzo might do to him as punishment for disobedience.

Once the men were all up, Antonio - "Tony" - and Eyebrow Guy formed them into two lines. Each line took its turn at the piss-trough in the adjoining room, and then they were led off to the main room of the barracks, where, one by one, they retrieved their morning meal from the window to the kitchen area.

The meals, Devon had to admit, were top-notch. Far from being the celery stalk he had gibed Gavin about, the food was actually good - lean meats and fish and whole grains and legumes and vegetables, all well-seasoned and flavourful. It was a far cry from the boiled mush that characterized the British cuisine Devon was accustomed to. One thing about Italians, he mused as he dug into a plate of crusty multi-grain bread with tomatoes and some sort of cheese, drizzled with olive oil, they sure can cook.

All too soon, however, meal time was over. Boots were handed out; each man put a pair on. Tony got the men up, formed them into lines again, and marched them off outside and up the hillside. The day had dawned grey and sullen. Mist and clouds veiled the sun from view.

They walked for perhaps five minutes, and then the rock line came into view. Only day three, Devon thought, and already I loathe the sight of that thing. It looked something like a chairlift from a ski resort - two thick poles at either end, each topped with a mushroom head of a ring. A cable ran around the rings, creating an endless loop suspended three metres off the ground.

The men were taken one by one off from the connecting rope and led to their starting positions, then split into two groups. The twenty men in the larger group were fixed to the overhead cable by means of the steel collars around their necks. Each collar was attached to a line dangling down from the cable. Devon had counted the day before - there were forty of the dangling lines, meaning that half of the lines did not have a naked, stinking, chilled, dirt-and-dried-sweat-encrusted man affixed to its end. The gaps were spaced out evenly around the loop, so Devon had an empty space on either side of him, leaving about four metres between him and his nearest neighbours.

The five men in the smaller group were taken to seats near one of the upright poles. They were fixed in place along a long horizontal shaft studded with bicycle-like pedals, some of them seated with their feet on the pedal arrangement while others were positioned to grip them with their hands.

Next, Antonio and Eyebrow Guy went around the loop handing the men their harnesses. The harness went over the chest and shoulders and held a pole whose ends stuck out to either side. Hanging down from each end of the pole was a bucket. There was padding, but the harness nevertheless chafed on Devon's shoulders after he had fixed it in place, irritating the blisters it had created yesterday.

"OK, you go now!" Form-up was completed; Tony shouted out to get them all moving. The five men in the seats began to pump their legs or arms, pushing hard at first to get the long shaft moving, but spinning it easily once it was going. The power from the drive shaft was transmitted up the thick post, and slowly, creakingly, the giant wheel on top began to turn and the line began to move. Each man walked along the well-worn path under the cable. The pace was an easy one, a slow, ambling walk.

The walk wasn't hard at all. The hard part was keeping it up all day.

At either end of the loop of cable, near the two support posts, were two enormous piles of roughly fist-sized rocks, currently about the same size. Yesterday morning, the pile at the eastern end had been slightly larger. When the endless walk brought Devon around to the pile at the eastern end, he bent down, filled his buckets with rocks, then lifted and carried them along on his measured walk to the western pile, where he dumped them out. He would then shuffle back to the east where he would begin the process all over again.

By the end of the day, the western pile would be noticeably larger than the eastern pile. Carrying the process to its logical conclusion, at some point all the rocks would have been moved from east to west. Devon had asked one of the veterans what would happen after that. The answer was depressingly predictable: they would start moving the rocks back from west to east.

The work was mind- and soul-numbing. The first day, the newbies Devon, Pedro, and Waclaw had only had to put in a four-and-a-half-hour afternoon shift. On day two, they had done six hours, three in the morning and three after the midday siesta. From today on, they were expected to put in the same full nine-hour shift as the rest of the men: four and a half hours in the morning, a break for lunch and a two-hour rest, then another four and a half hours in the afternoon. Counting the time it took to assemble the men in the line and take them out again, the process filled their entire day.

Devon had to admit, the rock line was a thorough whole-body workout. He reached the eastern pile and squatted down to load up his buckets, feeling the burn in his calves and thighs. Reaching for the rocks worked his arms and chest, as did balancing the buckets during the walk to the far end. Dump the rocks - more arm and chest - then the slow walk back to the east.

Every so often, Tony or Eyebrow Guy would pull him off the line to take his turn on the drive shaft, spinning his legs or arms to power the machine that pulled the rock carriers relentlessly along. This was the cardiovascular portion of the workout, and each man spent roughly 20% of his time doing it. The break from the endless walking and carrying was certainly welcome, but Devon was unused to such exercise and his first session had left him dizzy and breathless. The second, which had lasted a bit longer, was even worse. He was not looking forward to his next one.

Very quickly, Devon had learned how to take advantage of the what effort-minimizing strategies he could. He found that when he reached the eastern pile, he could walk a bit ahead of the cable, squat down and take a quick breather while the cable slowly moved ahead. It wasn't a rest, exactly, but it was a change of pace from the endless walk. When the pull on his neck grew too tight, he would sidle over and snatch another few seconds of not walking. He filled his buckets at the last possible moment, minimizing the amount of time he had to spend carrying the heavy weight.

This late-fill strategy was employed by all the men, meaning the eastern pile was steadily eroding from its farthest point backward, while the western pile, conversely, was growing from the nearest possible dumping point forward. The strategy was not without its risks, however - if one waited too long and didn't leave enough time to completely fill one's buckets, or dumped the rocks out too early on the west side, then one would make the slow walk to the other pile with Antonio or Vincenzo or one of their unnamed hired helpers shouting a polyglot mixture of obscenities in one's ear while swatting at one's legs and back with their leather straps. Likewise, if the staff felt that one was not putting forth a sufficiently enthusiastic effort at the drive shaft, one was invited to improve one's attitude by means of bright red stripes across one's shoulders.

Truly, if there was a hell, Devon could not imagine how it would be worse than this.

Devon stood up after loading his buckets and soon passed Waclaw heading the other direction, looking morose and miserable. At least the gag is out, he thought. Both the previous two days, Waclaw had complained about the arrangement one too many times. The things he had to say were exactly the things Devon was thinking himself: "What the hell is this? This is not what I signed up for! You can't treat us like this! Let me out of here! I'll sic the police on you!" and so on. Devon would have joined his voice to Waclaw's, but he was by nature a shy soul and besides, Waclaw was doing a fine job all on his own.

As it turned out, remaining quiet was a smart move. Helmut Lehrer, the man in charge of the line on the first day, had told Waclaw twice to pipe down. Waclaw hadn't, and so Helmut had ordered a gag to be fitted in place. It was a red rubber ball held in place with a black leather strap around the back of his head. It didn't stop him from making noises, but he couldn't say anything that anyone could understand. He had worn the gag from the afternoon of the first day until they took it off him at supper time.

Devon was a quick learner; it took him very little time to figure out how the Cascina del Benessere handled whingers and to decide to keep his complaints to himself, no matter how bad things got. After all, Gavin had come out of this same program just fine in the end, hadn't he?

Waclaw, on the other hand, was not a quick learner - the morning of the second day, it happened again. This time Vincenzo was in charge. The gag he used was a monstrous device, with a larger ball than the first one, covered in pointed knobs. Devon couldn't imagine how horrible it would be to have that thing in his mouth, the knobs pressing constantly on his lips and gums. Waclaw had worn the gag all the rest of that day and the following night; it had only come out just before breakfast today. It was impossible to eat through it, so he missed both lunch and dinner, though they did keep him hydrated by periodically tipping his head up and pouring water around the ball to dribble down his throat.

Now, all the fight was drained out of him. Twenty-four hours of starvation and a painfully sore jaw had left him looking wiped. Hopefully, he'll manage to control his tongue today, Devon thought.

Devon continued to pace, slowly, endlessly, one foot in front of the other. He passed two more men on his trip west, each wearing a chain between his ankles. The chains were short enough that the men had to take tiny, frequent steps, and made kneeling down to get rocks much more difficult. Devon hadn't asked, but it seemed pretty clear that this was the price of trying to escape.

He reached the western end, lifted his buckets up one by one, dumped their contents out, and settled in for the slow walk east. This would go on all morning: reach the eastern pile, bend, load the rocks in the buckets, pick them up, trudge to the other end, dump the rocks out, repeat. Any rocks that fell into the walkway during the dump portion of the cycle had to be picked up and replaced on the pile, so there was incentive to not just tip the bucket but to actually lift it and heave the rocks over the top of the pile. The better to work one's arm and chest muscles, he supposed.

After two hours, the morning chill had burned off and the sun was peeking fitfully through the clouds. Cups of water appeared along the eastward leg of the march; each man was expected to drink a full one. A short time later, Devon was pulled off the rock line to take his turn at the drive shaft. At first, sitting down was a welcome respite, but soon he was labouring to force his muscles to push the pedals around, heart pounding in his chest and blood flushing his face while his breath tore in and out of his throat. No slacking was permitted. Eyebrow Guy evidently had taken a special interest in him and seemed to be a constant presence behind him, flicking Devon's shoulders with his whip if he saw any signs, real or imagined, of flagging effort. When Devon could spare the energy to think, he wondered if it was something special about him or if all the new guys got extra attention until they had been thoroughly broken in.

After half an hour, they put him back on the line. Throughout, the line never stopped moving. It was a machine in which the men were merely bit parts, interchangeable cogs that could be plucked out from one slot and plunked into another without slowing the monster's progress in the least.

The sun climbed higher in the sky. Devon's vision began to swim. His legs were like rubber, barely able to hold him up. Several times they had almost buckled beneath him, causing him to lurch downward or to the side until the supporting rope yanked on the steel collar around his neck hard enough to arrest his progress. He wondered in his red, dreamy haze what would happen if he actually lost consciousness. Would anyone even notice? Or would they just let him hang there to be dragged around the loop until his breathing stopped forever? Would Tony come and pound his strangled body with his whip, thinking that a sufficiently hard beating was all that was needed to rouse Devon for more pointless labour?

By the time Antonio called a halt to break for lunch,. Devon was sweating and more exhausted than he could ever remember being. The men hauling rocks finished carting them to the west end where they dumped them, but no new rocks were picked up by the men at the other end of the loop. When everyone was empty handed, the drive shaft crew stopped their pedalling and the great wheels creaked to a stop.

Antonio and Eyebrow Guy repeated the morning's cable-hookup procedure in reverse and the men, roped together at the neck again, were brought back to the barracks for a bathroom break and their midday meal. Devon stumbled down the hill in a haze of pain and fatigue, emptying his bowel and bladder, then taking his seat at the long table to eat.

The meal revived him a bit - locally-caught fish and loads of vegetables, smothered in delicious but low-fat sauces or coated in savoury spices. It was so incongruous - they were worked like convicts in a gulag, but fed like royalty. The only drawback to mealtime was the constant barrage of advice from whoever was shepherding them for the day, pointing out the healthful qualities of their diet and exhorting them to make smarter food choices when their term at the Cascina had ended. From Mr. Lehrer, the sermon was soft and implacably logical, not at all hard to listen to and impossible to disagree with. Vincenzo, when it was his turn, didn't say much, but he made the point all the same. Tony was the hardest to take. He would get right in the men's faces, flailing his hands in that Italian way and shouting in his heavily accented English. "You see? You eat here the good food! What you eat at home, you eat the Big Mac, eh? You lie all day on the couch? No more! Now you go home you eat there the good food, you get the exercise! You no eat the Big Mac, you eat the fish, si? You eat the broccoli!"

At each meal, they were given enough to feel full, but the menu was so low in calories that they still managed to burn off more than they took in over the course of the day, resulting in a steady improvement in the men's condition over time.

Devon looked around the table. It was possible to tell roughly how long each dieter had been at the camp simply by looking at them - the new arrivals like Devon were pudgy and soft; the ones who would be leaving at the end of the week were toned and trim, with firm muscles and taut skin. In between was a steady progression toward improved fitness. Facial hair length was another good indicator - shaving and other habits of hygiene were not considered important at the Cascina.

It may be hell, Devon thought, but Gavin survived it, and so can I.

They finished eating, then were led in to the sleeping room for the mid-day siesta: an all-too-brief rest before the gruelling afternoon shift began. Devon had no trouble at all falling asleep.

Of course, some of them are complainers. It is always so. Each time Pedro has come here, someone has remonstrated, kicked up a fuss, and been gagged for it. Or someone has tried to escape and found himself wearing leg irons for the remainder of his stay.

Not for Pedro. From the first, he accepted the line, and after it the tortures, the rape. He went down every step, in his heart craving for more steps. This time there will be more steps, the last ones. He'll reach the bottom, he feels it.

The first time he was here, his everyday life had suddenly become a senseless river running only because it didn't know how to stop. Now, the rock line had brought him a real meaning. It was life, real life.

He sneaks a peek in the gloom of the barracks at Waclaw, who is finally able to close his mouth. He seems a nice enough fellow, but he is too much of a hothead. He needs to learn discipline. And he is curious, too curious, like Matteo Ridolfi.

Pedro senses the danger. Pedro cannot make up his mind: he craves for torture, agony, rape, death, but all the same, he is afraid. It is fine for him to go down this path, he is expecting it.

But Waclaw is an innocent. His blundering and bellowing could easily bring down on himself the same fate that Pedro is expecting. What if Helmut and Vincenzo conclude that Waclaw is a danger: what would they do? Would they kill him instead of Pedro? Occasional disappearances they can obviously cover up, but two men disappearing at the same time after a period at the Cascina? That might raise suspicions that even Vincenzo's connections could not make go away...

He must have fallen asleep, because he is awakened by something: a noise? A furtive movement? He cannot tell, and it is too dark to see clearly.

There it is again! A slithery, sliding noise. Pedro sees a shadow arise out of the darkness, in the direction where he last saw Waclaw. Has he somehow managed to slip out of the ropes or remove his collar? This cannot be. It is suicide.

He speaks before even realizing he is going to, whispering in the darkness. "Stop, you stupid asshole! Stop with this crap! It is dangerous! Stop! You are a blockhead, a stupid shitbag. They could kill you, son of bitch!"

Pedro's English is not so good, but the other man speaks no Spanish at all, so it is their only common tongue. He wishes he knew a lot more words to tell Waclaw what he thinks of him and his stupid behaviour. The words lack, but Waclaw can understand even so. An answering whisper comes back to him.

"No way. Fuck this shit, man. I am out of here. Wish I could help you, too, but time is short. You'll have to find your own way out."

The shadow begins to move over to the doorway. Pedro knows, as Waclaw would if he would only think, that the door is, of course, locked and that one of the hired men will be posted on the far side. When Waclaw begins to rattle the latch or look for another exit, the guard will notice and come in. He will then take Waclaw down, but if Waclaw makes too much trouble, he may have to call the camp directors for backup. It will be chaos.

"You can't. There is no way out. The guard will stop you." The shadow continues toward the door. Why does he not see reason?

Others are waking up. The older men, the ones who are nearing the end of their stay, join Pedro in trying to call Waclaw back, but all they can use are words. Waclaw is already beyond their reach. Soon the guard will come in, the wave will break, anarchy...

Pedro tries to calm down. What does he care what happens to Waclaw? He is here for himself. Only why is he here? For what bloody reason is he here? Mierda! Mierda! He overate for months, just to be here. For the pain, the danger. The danger. Not only this, he knows very well. Even now, if he thinks that Helmut could call Vincenzo and tell him Pedro has to be killed, when he thinks about it, he is hard. And now, why is he afraid?

Is he afraid Waclaw will take his place? That he will take the prize Pedro has been aiming for? Is that what he is afraid of? Or is it the prize itself he fears?

Afraid, furious. Pedro doesn't understand what is happening. He thought he could keep the situation under control, to decide his own fate. He cannot manage anymore. Helmut is not stupid. He'll understand and... Pedro realises he is hard, so hard his cock is almost aching. He sees in his brain the scene. Vincenzo approaching, his knife... Pedro closes his eyes. He nods, twice.

Yes, this is what he wants. He is mad, but this is what he wants.

Waclaw's fumbling rouses the guard at last. The door opens. The lights come on, harsh and glaring in the dark night. Voices, motion, roped necks yanked this way and that, shouts, blows... chaos. Even the Englishman, who had been sleeping like the dead, is roused.

By the time it is all over, half an hour later, Waclaw is wearing chains that connect his ankles together and handcuffs on his wrists. The cuffs will come off in the morning and go back on every night, but the ankle chains will stay on until it is his time to leave. Pedro tries to feel sympathetic for the man. It is hard enough to sleep on a bare floor with only a thin blanket, harder yet if you can't even bring your arms out from behind your back to pillow your head. But he brought his fate on himself. Pedro did all he could to help. It was not his fault it wasn't enough.

Gazing into the restored darkness, he thinks that perhaps Waclaw has at last been tamed. Not tamed, he is still wild in his heart. But he will not be able to make more trouble. Pedro's plan, mad as it is, is still in motion.

Devon had lost track of the days, so it was a surprise to him when one morning two of the familiar faces on the line were absent. Later, in the afternoon, three new ones took their places. Has it been a week already?

But yes, an entire week must have passed, because suddenly, Tony and Vincenzo and their minions weren't hovering over Devon and Waclaw and Pedro, ready to pounce like hawks at the slightest misstep. Now they had fresh meat to focus on. Not that they completely ignored the rest of the men, of course...

Devon's discomfort was a constant thing, always there to a greater or lesser degree. The harness that held the buckets had chafed his skin badly, so that every time it shifted on his shoulders he cringed with the pain. His hands were covered in blisters from handling the rocks, blisters that kept breaking open to ooze and seep. His feet were blistered from all the walking with boots that never quite fit right. I suppose I should be grateful to have boots at all. All this on top of the pain of his constantly-exhausted muscles...

... and yet, he suddenly realized, they weren't quite as exhausted as he expected them to be. Usually, by the time of the mid-afternoon watering, he was trudging along with no thought in his head but to keep moving to avoid being beaten. Now, though, he was more bored than anything. His muscles were sore, sure, but it was actually a good kind of sore, the kind he remembered feeling after an intense rugby match. Could it be that his body was actually getting used to this new level of activity?

Evening came. The line was broken down and sent off for supper and bed. The three new guys were not treated well by the veteran members, who seemed to fear that their inexperience would lead to punishment for the whole group. The newbies didn't do anything dramatically wrong that Devon could see, but the slightest deviation from the work line's norm was met with harsh criticism. Perhaps the intent was to bring the new guys in line themselves before the Cascina staff noticed, but Devon wished he could shelter them a bit, remembering his own bewildering first few days. Surely coaching would produce results just as well as chastising? Unfortunately neither of the new men was near him, and their roped necks prevented the men from moving around, so it couldn't be helped.

He went to sleep. The floor was as unyielding as it always was, and just as uncomfortable, but somehow it didn't bother him quite so much.

Wednesday. Eleven AM. A beautiful southern late-autumn day: sunny, dry, and warm. The weather here was comfortingly predictable: sunshine always brought warmth; coolness came with the clouds. Vanishingly rare were the days that were both cold and sunny, or both warm and overcast. For the most part, the climate here was readily predictable.

Predictability was a trait Helmut Lehrer approved of.

He stood near the line and watched the progress - the predictable progress - of the men in it. He noted that the newcomers, right on schedule, were becoming accustomed to the Cascina's routine, after having offered up their customary protests, voicing their useless outrage at the assault on their dignity. In time, they would be just like the old hands, resigned to their days of seemingly-pointless drudgery. The brighter among them would recognize that the drudgery was not pointless, but rather served its purpose quite well. The rest... well, it didn't really matter what they thought, or even whether they thought at all. Mental acuity was not a precondition for acceptance into the Cascina's programme.

Helmut basked in the warm sunshine, enjoying the lovely day and the vision of sweaty, naked, toiling man-flesh. Back at his cabin waiting for him was one of the men who had until recently been a part of the great machine, and Helmut would be heading back to visit with him soon, but not just yet. There was no particular rush to get back. The man, a Frenchman who had arrived like all the rest a flabby, fleshy blob and was now in much improved shape, would not be going anywhere.

The original plan was for him to spend six weeks at the Cascina del Benessere and then return to his ordinary life. How surprised Monsieur Jean-Marie had been when he was pulled away from his compatriots a whole week earlier than he had expected! And how much more surprised he had been to discover the reason for his premature extraction...

The burdened men on the line all looked very much alike. Differences in skin tone and hair colour all tended to fade away under the coat of greyish-brown dust that caked them all. Even the new arrivals of the last weekend had already acquired their layer of grime. Only height and body shape were much help in distinguishing one shuffling, shackled creature from another.

Nevertheless, Helmut was able to pick out his next prize - a tall fellow of Arab-African descent, here for a five-week stay before returning home to Lisbon. After that would be Anton from the Netherlands, who was much more difficult to locate, and then after that... where was he? Ah, yes, right next to Anton - the Englishman. Devon.

Helmut allowed the smallest fraction of a smile to cross his face. He was looking forward to taking his turn with the gentleman from Leeds. By all accounts, Devon was holding up quite well under the rigors of the programme, enduring everything that was dealt to him without complaint. It seemed he had a high tolerance for physical hardship.

Perhaps we shall need to explore mental hardship, then, Helmut mused. What's the point of torturing a man if he can take it?

He turned to go, but as he did his eye was caught by the wild card who had arrived at the same time as Devon: Pedro. Three-time Pedro. The Spaniard stared at him while he lugged his load of rocks along. Helmut returned his stare, keeping his face expressionless, not breaking eye contact until Pedro's motion around the loop forced him to look away. Only then did Helmut turn and leave, a glimmer of an idea forming in his head.

Mental hardship it will be, yes. He would work out the details later. For now, Jean-Marie was waiting.

He made the fourteen-minute walk back to his cabin, neither rushing nor dawdling. The sun was warm, the sky bright and clear. Fallen pine needles rustled beneath his feet as he walked along the path. A beautiful day, indeed.

Jean-Marie was indeed waiting, just where Helmut had left him - encased in a leather sleep-sack. It covered him from head to toe; only a tube sticking out from his mouth for breathing broke the smooth surface of the sack. He had been in the sack since midnight or so of the previous night.

Helmut was constantly amazed at the variety of men he encountered in his line of work. Not just the enormous variations in physical type, but the huge number of different mentalities, too. There were men, for instance, who had practically welcomed being strapped into the sleep-sack. For them, it was a rest, a chance to take a break from the constant physical toil of their lives at the Cascina.

Not so for Jean-Marie. For him, being enclosed in a tight, dark space was the stuff of nightmares, for he, Helmut had learned, suffered from claustrophobia.

It had been quite a chore getting him into the thing, requiring the assistance of Vincenzo to help hold him still enough to get his legs into the suit and his arms into the sleeves that would prevent them from moving around inside the sack. Jean-Marie had fought the whole time while Helmut and Vincenzo were tightening the straps around his body. But it was only when they started sealing up the leather around his face that he had truly panicked, screaming and crying out. Helmut had jammed the tube into his open mouth, then taped it to the hood so that the tube was the only point on Jean-Marie's entire body that was not covered in tight leather. Then he had gone to bed, spending a restful night, not bothered at all to be occasionally awakened from his slumber by the sounds of despair coming from the floor nearby.

Now, nearly twelve hours later, Helmut considered the leather lump by his feet. If its occupant had heard him come in, the lump showed no sign of it. Perhaps he was sleeping? Or in that twilight state that the mind sometimes retreats to when confronted with unbearable stress? Helmut knelt down to listen. Air was steadily moving in and out through the tube. He reached out his hand and covered the opening of the tube with his palm, timing the movement just at the end of an exhalation.

It took a few moments, but then Jean-Marie exploded. He thrashed and bucked, his trapped body spasming uselessly in its form-fitted prison. Helmut held his hand firm as Jean-Marie tried to shake it loose by rolling his body from side to side. Helmut matched him move for move, not letting up on the pressure. The Frenchman strove in vain to suck air in through the blocked opening. Helmut waited about half a minute until the first hint that the struggles were weakening, then pulled his hand away. Air whooshed through the tube, in and out and in while Jean-Marie made shapeless moaning noises deep in his throat.

Helmut began undoing the straps around the man's head. Bit by bit they loosened until he was able to wiggle the tube out of Jean-Marie's mouth and slip the hood up to expose the man's face. Jean-Marie's eyes were wild like a starving animal's, unable to focus on anything. With the extraction of the tube, the incoherent moans turned into words - "Si'u plait, m'seur... si'u plait... si'u plait..." - but the eyes kept rolling crazily around the room and the words were punctuated with sobs.

"Look at me, Jean-Marie," Helmut commanded. He had to repeat himself several times before finally, slowly, the bound man's eyes came into focus. Jean-Marie was out of his mind - twelve hours of claustrophobic confinement had driven him near to - if not over - the brink of insanity. Helmut tried a slap to the face, hard enough to sting and, hopefully, get Jean-Marie's attention. After a few more slaps and the constant repetition of the command in his most soothing voice, Helmut could see the panicking man at last starting to come back to himself. Another minute more and he looked, comprehending, into the eyes of his tormentor.

"Last night, I asked you to provide a particular sexual service for me. You refused. Have you changed your mind yet?" Helmut asked in that same soothing tone.

Jean-Marie replied with no hesitation. "Oui! Si! Yes, yes, I will suck you the cock! Only let me out! Please!"

Helmut released him from the sack, carefully cuffing his hands behind him before removing the leather completely. The Frenchman got up unsteadily to kneel on the floor. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth. Helmut, already hard, slipped out of his trousers and placed the tip of his dick on Jean-Marie's lips. "Now remember, please," he said. "You are to do this well. If I am dissatisfied with your performance... well, I don't think I need to spell out what your punishment will be. We both know."

He leaned down to whisper in Jean-Marie's ear. "And, in case you were thinking any thoughts along the lines of using those teeth of yours, let me assure you: if you attempt to harm me in any way, I will see to it that you are buried two metres under the ground. Alive."

He stood up. "Get to work."

For a straight man with no previous experience at giving a blow job Jean-Marie did remarkably, astoundingly well.

Start of week four, Sunday afternoon. Devon had two more weeks to go.

Another crop of new arrivals came in, four of them. Three departures the night before. A total of forty-two men working the line. The western pile, having become completely filled some days before, was now the pickup pile, and the eastern one the drop point.

Devon hardly noticed the harness over his shoulders now, and the fact that he had not worn a stitch of clothing in three weeks seemed perfectly normal. His palms and fingers had healed and were now reinforced with sturdy calluses that acted like built-in gloves to protect his skin while handling the rocks. His turns on the drive shaft flew by so quickly that when they pulled him back to the line he felt like he had barely gotten started pedalling.

His body was getting firmer, harder. He had no idea how much weight he might have lost, but his belly had shrunk considerably since his arrival at the Cascina, and the muscles all over his body had grown stronger - arms, legs, chest, shoulders, everywhere. The program, for all its humiliations, abuse, and pain, certainly produced results.

He walked and lifted, walked and dumped, walked some more. The afternoon was cloudy and cool, but the exertion kept him comfortable. Shortly after the watering, there was some sort of disturbance at the far end of the line. One of the new recruits was causing trouble, objecting to the treatment he was receiving. Lehrer was in charge today - he always handled the newbies' first day, it seemed - and, just like clockwork, in went the gag. It happened every single time - there was always someone the first day who couldn't get a handle on how things worked and had to be muzzled to stop him from disturbing the others.

Devon wished they would just accept things. It was so tiresome to have to listen to the same useless protests week after week. Did these guys honestly think that anything they had to say hadn't been said a hundred times before? The faster they would just shut up and learn the system, the happier everyone would be. If he found himself next to one of the newbies tonight, he would make sure the guy knew what was good for him...

Saturday, before dawn, week four.

In the middle of the night, Devon was awakened by Vincenzo's hand shaking his shoulder. A whisper: "Get up."

Devon opened his eyes to find that the rope around his neck had been disconnected from his still-sleeping neighbours. He stood, confused at this turn of events but nevertheless cooperative due to four weeks of obedience training.

Vincenzo led him and two others, whose faces he could not make out in the darkness, out of the barracks. The cold ground was hard on his bare feet. They were led to the intake area, to the building that Devon recognized as the one where a lifetime ago he had signed the paper committing himself to a five-week stay at the Cascina del Benessere. Why were they returning here now? It had only been four weeks, hadn't it? Had he lost track of the time that completely?

In the light of the building, Devon could see his fellows at last. One was a man named Simon, who Devon had only spoken with a few times. The other - surprise, surprise - was Pedro, a dark, wary look in his eye. Devon couldn't figure out why. He himself was feeling a bit wary, to be sure, but more confused than anything. Did Pedro know something he didn't?

"In there," Vincenzo growled, pointing at the bedrooms with their individual bathrooms. "Go shower. Take as much time you want. Then come back here." With that, he used a key to unlock the collars on the men's necks, and for the first time in four weeks, Devon was free.

Free. Should he make a run for it? It had been all he had dreamt about for the last month, how the moment he got a chance when he wouldn't be caught, he would seize it and disappear from this hellhole. But now, apparently, the hellhole was letting him go. There was no need to run. Besides, he was naked and filthy - how far could he go? Neither of the others seemed inclined to make a break for it. Pedro walked into the nearest room without a backward glance; Simon picked the next one over, so Devon walked to the next one down the hall and went in.

The shower felt absolutely glorious. He stayed in it for what felt like forever, scrubbing the grit and grime out of his pores, his hair, his eyes and ears. The water didn't have all that much pressure behind it, but nevertheless it was hot and it cascaded like liquid sunshine over him. Truly, if that was hell, then this is heaven, he thought. There was no need to ever move from this spot again, he could spend the rest of his life standing under the streaming, steaming water and feeling, finally, clean.

Yes. He knew it would be so. Pedro remembers perfectly well. The first time he was here it was the same, and the second time too, on the Saturday night of the next-to-last week: the call and, in the stillness of the night, the short walk. The feeling of being a prisoner in an armed camp, in inexorable captors' hands. The fear and the stirring of something deep, very deep, inside him, an unknown craving revealing itself for the first time. His heart racing and his cock stiffening...

Now it is the same. He knows what he is going to face.

His first time was with Antonio. Antonio had used him, humiliated him, tried to break him, but for all the abuse, the effect was the opposite: the more abuse Antonio gave, the more Pedro craved. Antonio's Italian was close enough to Pedro's native tongue that he could understand the sense, if not the exact words, of what Antonio was calling him: filthy faggot, cock-sucking pervert... Even through the language barrier, by the end of the week Pedro knew that Antonio was actually describing himself. And yet, how much truth was there in his words?

It had been so fascinating, Pedro needed to go back again, and so he deliberately put on weight. The second time was with Helmut. The session with Helmut was similar, but different. There was pain, there was abuse, but it did not stir the same fire in Pedro that the first time had. Helmut's style was too intellectual, too mechanical. Pedro needed less of the sterile operating room, more of the dirt and blood and passion. When that session ended, when Pedro left for the second time, he had the feeling of having missed something, his real goal, but he wouldn't be able to tell what it was.

Now he knows. And so he has overeaten yet again, and returned once more to the Cascina del Benessere, asking himself only one question. Will it be Vincenzo this time? He knows what that would mean.

Eventually, though, Devon was sated. He turned off the water and dried himself. He realized then that he had no clothing to put on and so, feeling awkward about his nakedness for the first time in weeks, he stepped out into the hall to ask about getting something to wear.

The moment he did, Vincenzo caught him by surprise and clapped the collar around his neck again. Devon spun, outraged, to see not just Vincenzo but Tony and Eyebrow Guy as well, and Pedro and Simon kneeling on the floor with collars on their necks and their hands cuffed behind their backs. "What the..." he sputtered, earning a slap across the cheek. His arms were wrestled behind him and he felt the cold bite of steel on his wrists.

"You not finish yet, strenzo," said Vincenzo. "You still have one week left, si? Only now you get the special treatment, for the special client." Antonio sniggered. Heavy hands on Devon's shoulders made him drop to his knees beside Simon, where he waited with the others, not knowing what they were waiting for. Asking questions was not encouraged - every time Devon or Simon (though never Pedro) opened his mouth to speak, a slap across the face interrupted their thoughts. They quickly gave up trying.

Not quite out of hell yet, after all.

After a few minutes, Helmut Lehrer stepped into the corridor. "All set, I see," he said. "Let's get started then. Antonio, you have Simon, yes? Vincenzo gets Pedro, and I'll take this one." He reached out and picked up the end of the rope attached to Devon's collar. "Up you go, now."

Devon and the others stood up. He followed along behind Helmut, out of the building. After the blissful heat of the shower, the chill of the pre-dawn air brought goose bumps to his skin. The group split up; Devon quickly lost track where the others went as Helmut led him down a path through the pines.

Devon decided to risk speaking again. "Er, excuse me, what's going on?" he asked, then mentally slapped his forehead. "Excuse me?" he thought. Here I am being led like an animal to God knows what fate, and instead of demanding answers, I say "excuse me"?

Helmut's voice came softly from in front of him. "You have successfully completed the first part of the Cascina's fitness programme. Have you noticed the improvement? Your labour has produced acceptable results, but for your final week here, you will receive more personalized attention. From me."

They walked a bit more, eventually coming to a cabin nestled among the pines. Helmut opened the door and ushered Devon inside. There was a chain hanging down from one of the roof beams. Helmut clipped the end of it to Devon's collar, leaving plenty of slack. Then, to Devon's great surprise, he dropped his pants to reveal an erect penis and said. "Get down on your knees and suck on this."

"I beg your pardon?" Devon spluttered. "What? No. No, I won't do that."

"Very well, then." Helmut replied. He re-belted his pants, then selected a leather strap from a drawer. "You may run in place, instead."

Devon, uncomprehending, only blinked in response, until the leather strap slammed into his shoulders.

"RUN, I SAID," Helmut shouted. The sound of Helmut's raised voice, more than the sting of the strap, set Devon's feet to moving.

"Pick up your knees," Helmut told him. "Higher. Up to your chest. Higher. They should nearly touch your chin. Better. No, every step, not just once in a while." It took several more strokes from the strap to get Devon moving the way Helmut wanted him to. His endurance was much better now than it had been a month ago, but even so, after five minutes of high-knee running, he started to get winded.

"I can't... keep this up... for much longer." he panted.

"You may stop any time you wish. Simply get down on your knees and open your mouth."

"You can't... be serious."

"Oh, I'm absolutely serious."

"But that... but that's just... sick." Devon's knees had started creeping downward, not quite reaching as high as they had been going before. Another blast from the strap across his shoulders brought them back up again, if only temporarily.

"Oh, is it? Tell me, Mr. Newcomb, what is it you expected when you signed up for this place? Surely you did some comparison shopping before you booked with us? You must have noticed that the fee we charge is substantially less than the fees charged by similar organizations. Did that not raise any warning flags in your mind? No? Perhaps you should get in the habit of thinking things through before you start wantonly signing papers of commitment. Bring your knees up higher."

Devon was in a full sweat, his breath heaving in and out of his chest, but he tried to comply.

"Remember, you can stop at any time. While you enjoy your jog, let me explain the economics of the Cascina del Benessere. We charge participants a fee that pretty much exactly covers the cost of feeding and housing the camp guests and staff, plus a small salary for myself, my co-directors, and the hired help. In return, we not only feed you - excellently, I might add - and house you, we also provide a service for you: we improve your fitness, breaking you out of your old, destructive habits and teaching you how to eat right and exercise. You see? We are providing you with more than you pay for.

"But we are not philanthropists. In return for this extra service, we expect an extra service in return. For one week of their term, selected guests are expected to provide such services as my co-directors and I require. In my case, right now, that selected guest is you. And the service I require is oral sex. Fellatio. What's the American term? A 'blow job'."

"No. You can't... do this... the police...". Devon's knees weren't even coming halfway up his chest. He kept expecting a blow from the strap, but it didn't come.

Helmut snorted. "Please. Again you are not thinking logically. You are not the first guest to threaten me with law enforcement, you know. And yet, here I remain. Can you think of why that might be? No? Let me give you a hint. Here we are in southern Italy? Not so far from Sicily? Hmm?"

Devon realized what Helmut was getting at. "Oh... Mafia," he gulped.

Helmut shrugged. "It is considered in poor taste to use that term. Besides, in this part of the country, it is rather the 'Ndrangheta. Close cousins to the organization you are familiar with, but not the same. Vincenzo, as it happens, is the nephew of a rather highly-placed individual. It's quite a nice arrangement for the family: Vincenzo has found an acceptable outlet for his... shall we say, darker desires, saving the family the trouble and embarrassment that would result if he were to indulge his tastes in any other setting. Homosexuality, you know, is not as accepted here as it is in more cosmopolitan places like Amsterdam or Madrid. And even in those places, the sort of thing he most deeply enjoys is frowned upon."

"But... neighbours?"

"The neighbours are dull, backwoods peasant stock. They grow olives. They know how dangerous it is to be too inquisitive about things that are not their concern. Over the years, they have become quite accustomed to strange noises echoing over the hills and the occasional unclothed escapee running through their groves. They have even been so kind as to return one or two that managed to elude us for a time."

Devon was still running, but making only a token effort at raising his knees now, gasping for breath, red circles beginning to close in around the edges of his vision. Helmut held the strap up in front of his face, but even that threat was not enough to get him to lift them higher again - his muscles simply could not be pushed any further. And yet, to stop...

"I see the strap has lost its power to motivate you," Helmut said conversationally. "We have a choice, then. You can accede to my request, or I can bring out stronger methods of persuasion."

I can't do this any more, Devon thought. I have to stop. Again he thought of Gavin. Was this the sort of thing he endured? Was this the real reason why he had tried to warn Devon away? Not the mindless, gruelling labour - the depraved appetites of the camp management?

He survived. I can, too.

He allowed his legs to come to a halt, then slowly, grudgingly, sank to his knees, chest heaving.

Helmut's dick was long and thin... at least in comparison to Devon's own cock when erect, which was pretty much all he had to go on by way of comparison. It pressed against his lips. He held them shut briefly, but his hunger for air was too intense and he had to open his mouth, and when he did, the cock slithered in. He had no idea what to do with it once it was there. His inexperience must have been obvious, because Helmut provided him with instruction.

"Suck on it," he told him. "Caress it with your tongue. Make a seal with your lips and slide your head up and down along it."

It was hard to do - he kept having to open his mouth to breathe, and having his hands trapped uselessly behind his back made balancing on his exhausted legs awkward. But he managed. Eventually he recovered enough to be able to breathe through his nose alone. He slid his lips wetly along the shaft, trying not to pay attention to the smell, the taste. Every time it pressed against the back of his throat, he had to fight down the urge to gag. He dreaded the thought of the inevitable end result of his efforts - the wet, slimy splash of sperm on his tongue and teeth, coating them, covering them with a taste that he would never be able to wash away, no matter how many times he rinsed out his mouth...

Fortunately, it never came to that. Helmut pulled out before the end came. Devon sat back on his haunches.

"Enough for now. You need to eat, and then we will plan your day's exercises. I must say, Devon, I am quite looking forward to providing you with a customized fitness programme for your final week."

The next few days were a constant stream of increasingly-severe workouts for Devon, punctuated by increasingly-depraved sexual encounters. Each time he thought it couldn't get any worse, it did.

There was forced weight lifting, where he was bound under some kind of counting contraption. Weights were taped to his hands. He had to lift them up to the ceiling, then lower them to the floor, each repetition triggering a click of the attached counter. Helmut told him he expected to see the number 500 on the counter when he returned, and then left.

Devon strained and struggled, but by the time Helmut returned he had only reached 359. The next hour and a half were filled with increasingly severe torment - blows from the strap, electrical shocks, painful squeezing of his balls - until at last he could not force any more from his depleted muscles.

That happened at 422, well short of the target. When it became clear that he would never be able to reach the goal, Helmut raped him: bent him over a table, spread his ankles wide, cuffed his hands behind him, then stuffed his unprotected virgin asshole with dick.

When it was over, Devon lay spent on the table, shuddering and trying not to let the tears squeezing out from the corners of his eyes turn into full-blown sobbing. He tried to find consolation by telling himself that after being raped, at least he had at last reached rock bottom: there was no way things could get any worse. And yet...

He spent the night with his hands still cuffed behind his back, chained by the neck like a dog to the foot of Helmut's bed. He was able to snatch a few fragments of sleep on the cold, draughty floor, but not much.

When morning came, the horror began again. This time it was aerobic exercise. There was a pole outside Helmut's cabin. Devon's neck collar was attached to a rope hanging from the top of the pole, leaving about three metres of slack. Devon was then compelled to run in a circle. Clearly this had been done before; there was a well-worn track to follow. Round and round, over and over, until his legs were burning with fatigue, his breath was tearing his throat raw, and his balls - which had nothing to support them but skin - had been bounced and jangled until they felt like they were the size of cantaloupes.

Throughout, Helmut had sat, idly paging through a book. Occasionally, when Devon passed, he would give him a flick with the strap, exhorting him to maintain his speed. At last, Devon could take no more. Fatigue, sleeplessness, and hunger caught up with him; his vision began to swim, his head felt like it was floating away above his body, and he pitched forward onto the dusty ground. He barely even felt the savage yank on his neck as the rope drew taut and pulled him toward the centre of the circle just before he hit.

When he came to, he was propped up in a chair inside. "Ah, you are awake," Helmut said. He then proceeded to instruct Devon in how to improve his oral sex technique. Devon learned how to take Helmut's cock in his mouth so deep that he could lick his balls at the same time, how to allow the swollen head to press itself into his throat without retching, how to shape his mouth and throat in such a way as to mould them to the shape of the shaft, fitting it like a glove.

This time, when the end came, Helmut did not pull out. Devon felt the dick in his mouth begin to pulse, and a second later, hot liquid spurted into his throat. He retched then, and the tip of the dick slipped out of his throat, but Helmut held his head firmly, so that the second spurt covered the back of his tongue while he fought to hold down his gorge. The third and fourth squirts added more volume to the slimy mix of spit and semen, and after that came several more spasms, each contributing another drop or two until at last Helmut withdrew and allowed Devon to breathe.

"Swallow it," he commanded, but Devon could not. This was too much; this was beyond impossible. He spat the foul mixture onto the floor.

"Oh, that was an unfortunate mistake," Helmut crooned. For punishment, Devon was hog-tied in a severely uncomfortable position: his hands were tied together behind him, and a pair of ropes led from them down under his crotch, up along the front of his body, over his shoulders on either side of his neck, and down to his ankles, which were yanked up tight behind him. Helmut placed him on one end of the cabin's main room. The stain was over on the other side, shining liquidly on the wooden floor.

"I will untie you after you have crawled your way over to that spot and licked up and swallowed every last drop," Helmut informed him. He covered the spot with an inverted bowl to keep it from drying out, then went back to his book.

Devon refused at first, but very quickly, the pain grew intolerable. The position was impossible to hold - there was no way he could move to ease the discomfort. His spine was bent like a bow, and he couldn't straighten it no matter what he did. His hands were pulled downward, his legs upward, and trying to get relief for either meant worsening the pull on the other. It quickly became obvious that he could not out-wait Helmut, who merely paged through his book.

At last he began to squirm his way over to the other end of the room, but this was much harder to do than he had anticipated. He had waited so long that the ropes around his wrists and ankles had begun to bite into his skin, so the slightest movement chafed and burned. He could only move with glacial slowness, lurching from one side to the other, making a tiny bit of forward motion in the process.

By the time he was halfway across the room, his hands had gone numb, possibly his feet too, although it was hard to tell. He tried pleading to Helmut for mercy, that if this kept up he could lose the use of his hands, but Helmut's response was to drag him a metre backward, negating all the painfully-won progress he had recently made.

The remaining trip across the room was lost in a haze of pain. He focused all his attention on making his awkward, lurching way across the floor. After an eternity, he reached his goal. He tried to flip the bowl over using his lips, but could only slide it, making a smeary mess.

The slimy glop was cold on his lips and tongue. After so much time, the semen had begun to de-coagulate into a thin, clear liquid and a lump of settled-out solids. He sobbed a few times as he tried to slurp the foul substance into his mouth. When he had finished, he called out to Helmut, who had made him lick the spot on the floor over and over until every possible molecule had been removed. Only then did he loosen the ropes. "This is going to hurt," he cautioned.

It did. Blood rushing into dormant tissue and nerves awakening after long confinement were painful beyond anything Devon had yet experienced. He screamed and screamed, then screamed some more.

In the days that followed, Devon forced himself to obey any command Helmut had issued, no matter how repugnant he found it. The worst, by far, came when he had to jam his tongue up Helmut's asshole. The stench was repugnant, the taste utterly vile. But he did it without complaint. Second worst was when Helmut made him do squats while he lay underneath. Every time Devon lowered himself down, he impaled himself on Helmut's erect cock. It took a long time for Helmut to work his way to orgasm, and Devon had to hold the position until he did, his legs burning, until at last Helmut got his release and allowed Devon to collapse to the floor.

He soon lost track of how many more days he had to endure. The only thought that kept him going was Gavin survived. I can, too.

Pedro waits in the blackness, feeling the aches all over his body.

He is in a small space below the floor of Vincenzo's room. It is dark and cramped. There is not enough room for him to stretch out his legs, he must remain curled up.

Whenever it is Vincenzo's turn to supervise the rock line, Pedro gets to take a break from the rapes, the beatings, the cuttings, and wait in this impossibly small space. When evening comes, Vincenzo will return and the pain will begin again.

He has no idea what day it is. All time blends together. The only distinction is between pain-now and memory-of-pain. Vincenzo has turned out to be inventive. Imaginative. Imaginative and vicious. Exactly as Pedro hoped he would be.

He shifts his position in the darkness by another few millimetres and waits for his master to return.

Helmut was enjoying a tour of the countryside around the Cascina. After two days of gloomy drizzle, the morning had dawned crisp and clear, perfect weather to go for a ride.

He was using the carriage today, a two-wheeled device like a rickshaw. The seat was not the most comfortable, and the springs were not quite adequate for the bumpy ground, but nevertheless the journey was most enjoyable. The still-wet pines were fragrant in the bright Mediterranean sunshine, the gulls wheeled off in the distance, and a handful of clouds drifted like puffy cotton balls across the achingly blue sky.

He gave the left rein a gentle tug, and his steed obediently responded by pulling the chariot to the left.

They reached the edge of the woods. Beyond, olive trees marched in long lines up and down the slopes of the hills. Two workers were in the grove nearby. They looked up at Helmut's arrival, then quickly averted their eyes, feigning fascination with some root or insect near their feet. Best not to impose too much on the neighbours, Helmut thought. He yanked the reins back to the right. The pull of the straps was transmitted to the bridle that enwrapped Devon's head, turning his face in the direction Helmut wanted him to go. Devon guided the rickshaw back into the cover of the pines.

He was naked, as always, though Helmut had granted him boots to wear while running through the stiff-branched, sometimes thorny scrub brush. His hands were cuffed to the poles of the rickshaw. The metal bit in his mouth was attached to the harness that fitted his head, complete with blinders to block his peripheral vision and keep his eyes focused straight ahead. Helmut held the reins loosely in his hands - Devon had learned the system quickly enough that only the slightest touch was needed to get him going in the desired direction.

It would have been nice, Helmut mused as they loped through the trees, if he were able to use this mode of transportation all through the camp. There was something immensely satisfying about using a human being as a beast of burden, reducing an intelligent, speaking entity to nothing more than a means of motive power. In a sense, it was no different from what the rock line did, and yet Helmut knew that his chariot had to remain a secret from the men working the line. If they ever got the notion that this was what their future held, there would no doubt be open rebellion.

His steed was breathing heavily but steadily, his body now quite accustomed to the work demanded of it. The weeks he had spent at the Cascina had hardened him, firmed him, toned him, until now he was as fit as it was possible for him to be. Another mission accomplished, Helmut thought with satisfaction, fondly remembering a montage of scenes from the past week: the feel of Devon's ass muscles as they clenched around his spasming cock, the look in his eyes as Helmut screwed the nipple clamps down, the way his balls stretched and reddened as weights were added to the bucket dangling beneath them. I do hope he makes the right choice up ahead. He's got such strength of will - I don't know where he gets it from. It would be such a shame to have to waste him unnecessarily.

He guided Devon on a meandering path until at last they reached his destination. It looked no different from any other patch of woods, but it was the spot he had agreed to meet Vincenzo at. There was plenty of time, as Helmut had planned: no matter which way things turned out, this would be his last chance to squeeze one final session in.

He released Devon from the rickshaw and made him kneel with his back against a thick-trunked tree, a gnarled oak. Devon's legs went one on either side of the trunk; Helmut tied them together around the back side. Then he stretched his arms around the sides and fixed them in place as well. He returned to the front to stand in front of the kneeling man and removed the bit from his mouth and the harness from his head. Then he lowered his trousers.

At this point, Devon did not require coaxing or threats. He leaned his head as far forward as it would go, opened his mouth, and drew Helmut inside. Helmut sighed with delight - the straight man's lips and tongue made the perfect warm, wet nest for his engorged shaft. He allowed himself to be suckled for a while, then broke away, retrieving a bag of clothes pegs from the rickshaw. He reinserted himself into Devon's mouth and began to apply the pegs to Devon's body. Nipples first, then here and there, all over Devon's chest and arms and sides, even some on his ears and nose. The cumulative effect of the pegs was to cause Devon to make little whimpering noises while he worked on Helmut's cock, trying to ignore his body's suffering to devote his full attention to providing pleasure to his captor.

Such progress after only one week!

It took a long time. Helmut typically used his victims hard, having them bring him to climax at least once a day, but with Devon it had been closer to twice, and he was no longer the youth he once was. Still, the stimulation of Devon's tireless tongue work, coupled with the effect that he knew all those pegs were having, eventually brought him to shoot a load straight into Devon's throat. He swallowed it down without even blinking, then looked up into Helmut's eyes.

Helmut waited a bit, but when Devon said not a word, he began to remove the pegs, one at a time. Good - he has learned that asking for less pain will only bring him more pain, he thought. That's a lesson that not everyone understands. Devon cried out a few times at particularly painful removals, but Helmut didn't mind those sorts of noises at all.

When all the pegs were off, Helmut retied Devon in a standing position, his back against the same tree, only this time with his arms stretched up over his head to one of the twisted branches there. They waited in the warm sunshine.

At last, when the sun was nearing its zenith, Vincenzo arrived. He was lugging a wagon behind him that must have contained something fairly heavy, judging by how it bounced over the ground. Whatever it was was wrapped in bundles of cloth, making it impossible to tell what shape the object might be.

"Ah, Vincenzo, here you are."

"Helmut," Vincenzo replied.

Helmut gestured toward the tree where Devon stood bound. "There he is. I must say I will be sorry to see this one go. Look at his body. Has he not turned out well? Those arms - such definition, and the legs, quite massive now. His endurance is much improved, as well."

"Yes. A fine one."

Not a word from Devon. Has the habit of obedience been drilled too deeply into him? For his sake, I hope he has not completely lost his spirit.

"Well, I will leave you to him, then. You are a master at what you do, but you understand that I have a more squeamish stomach. Watching you work would be... distressing."

"Of course. I understand."

Helmut turned to go. Vincenzo reached behind himself and pulled a knife from his belt. With no fanfare, he lifted it to Devon's face and flicked the tip across his cheek. Blood began to drip down the Englishman's face, stirring him at last from his passivity.

"Wait! Stop! What's going on? Mr. Lehrer! Come back!"

Helmut turned back, but did not approach. "Yes?"

"What is this? What's going on?" He lurched his body from side to side, trying to avoid the knife, which Vincenzo was waving menacingly, perilously close to his face.

"What's going on? It is the end of the road, Mr. Newcomb. I did mention to you, did I not, that Vincenzo had some darker desires that he could only satisfy here at the Cascina? I am afraid that you have been selected for him today."

The knife made contact with Devon's other cheek, and a second trail drizzled redly down his face. He shouted in alarm.

"No! No, you can't! Oh, God, no, please don't do this!"

Helmut continued to speak in a conversational tone. "It is unfortunate and, as I said, I won't be staying to watch. The sight of Vincenzo at work is most upsetting to me. To be sure, as you've learned, I like causing men pain, but the kind of pain I cause seldom leads to lasting injury. And blood is not really my thing."

Another flick of the knife, and Devon's arm began to bleed. The arm's position, tied up above his head as it was, put the cut right next to Devon's eye where he couldn't help but see it.

"Stop! Oh, please..." His voice was becoming shrill, frantic.

"He tends to take a long time, a very long time" Helmut said. "What is the term, 'death by a thousand cuts'? Although the actual number on a few of the corpses he has produced must have exceeded that count. I can only imagine what those men went through, feeling their life's force ebb away as their blood seeped out of their bodies, not in one fast jet, but in hundreds of tiny trickles. What do you suppose they felt toward the end? Do you think they reached some sort of peace, some kind of acceptance of their fate?"

Vincenzo made another red line on Devon's other arm, this one longer than any of the others. Enough blood came spilling out to dribble all the way down his chest and leg. Devon was thrashed and screamed.

"No, please, no, I'm begging you, don't!"

"I suppose you'll find the answer to that question in due time. Now, I really must be going." He turned to leave.

"Stop! I'll do anything, just stop this!"

Helmut turned round once again and stepped up to stand next to Vincenzo. "Anything, did you say?"

"Yes, anything, I'll do anything," Devon babbled, his relief at a possible reprieve written all over his face. "Don't kill me, please don't kill me..."

"Because 'anything' is a very broad category, you know. What, exactly, would you be willing to do to save your life?" He nodded to Vincenzo, who lowered the knife. With one hand, he gripped Devon's balls; with the other, he placed the knife behind them, in a position where one swift pull would be enough to sever them forever.

"Would you, for instance, be willing to offer your manhood in exchange for your life?"

Devon couldn't answer. It was too large a decision to make on such short notice. But Helmut continued speaking.

"Not an easy decision, is it? How fortunate for you that it was only a rhetorical question. But this next one is for real. There is exactly one way for you to avoid becoming Vincenzo's next victim. Would you like to know what that is?"

Devon nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He was sweating heavily, the sweat mixing with the slowly-drying blood on his face and arms, the stench of terror filling the air between the three men. Vincenzo kept the knife where it was, pressing up against the back side of Devon's balls.

"I will tell you, then. One moment, please." Helmut walked over to the wagon that Vincenzo had brought. He tossed the hunks of cloth out. Underneath the cloth was the figure of a man, naked as Devon was and wearing a hood. His body was covered with marks: scabs and bruises and discolorations. His hands were tied behind him and there was a black cloth hood over his head.

Helmut led the figure over to join the others. "Here is your one way out," he said to Devon. "Today, Vincenzo is going to take someone. Right now, that someone is you. But you, if you wish, can nominate someone else - this man - to take your place." With that, Helmut lifted the cloth hood up just enough that Devon could see who it was...

... Pedro.

Pedro had a gag in his mouth to prevent him from speaking, and Helmut lowered the hood again the instant he saw recognition appear on Devon's face. There would be no communication between the two.

"So. Choose. You... or him. And choose quickly, lest I let him take the both of you."

Devon gaped. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. His lips flapped like those of a fish pulled from the water and tossed to lie gasping on the shore. After a few seconds, Helmut turned to Vincenzo. "Motivate him."

Vincenzo, still gripping Devon's balls and pulling down hard, lifted the knife to Devon's eye and pressed it against the side, making a little indentation in the skin with the tip. One more tiny drop of blood oozed out to join the larger puddles already there, and Devon found his voice at last.

"Him!" he squeaked. "Take him instead! Oh, God help me, take Pedro!"

"You are absolutely sure?"

"Yes! Let me go," Devon sputtered, the last word swallowed up by a sob.

Vincenzo lowered the knife and released his grip. Devon gulped in a huge breath of air. There was no reaction from the hooded figure, but Devon wouldn't have seen it anyway. His eyes were squeezed shut and it seemed like his entire attention was devoted to trying not to burst into tears.

"Very well, then," Helmut said. "Vincenzo, it seems Pedro is all yours."

Pedro's heart is jumping. No escape. No way out. He knew it from the beginning, he knows it now.

Vincenzo frees Pedro's mouth and uses his knife to cut Pedro's bonds: when the blade touches his skin, Pedro shivers. That blade, gently tickling his skin, will soon open his flesh, entering it, slicing deep.

There is a ferocious delight in Vincenzo's voice:

"You can run. Five minute."

The last run. Pointless, but it must be. Running for his life, running for his death. Pedro nods. Devon and Helmut are looking at him, but they don't exist for Pedro. There is one man left on the earth, his murderer, Vincenzo, the man who for the last six days and nights raped and tortured him, who told Pedro just last night as he was fucking him that he was going to kill him in the morning. The man who is looking at him now, a grim smile on his lips, a savage flashing in his eyes.

Pedro begins to run towards the woods. A senseless run, a necessary run.

His body aches from the various ways Vincenzo used him. They both knew it was only a preparation. The real thing was going to happen during the day, is happening now. Right now. His body aches but Pedro is running, running for his life. Or simply running for Vincenzo's enjoyment, because his murderer likes a good hunt. A thrill kill. Pedro is running, sweat is pouring in rivulets down his neck and chest, his heart is beating furiously, but his cock is stiffening. He knows Vincenzo is going to run after him, death itself is going to run after him, death will reach him soon, very soon.

Pedro's heart is pounding in his chest, he cannot breathe, the long night has left him exhausted. He turns to look behind him. Vincenzo is running down the slope of the hill, he is very near, his knife in his hand, the same grim smile on his lips. Pedro starts again to run.

He can hear his murderer's running after him, near, nearer, Vincenzo is grabbing him. Pedro yields to this embrace, but his hands are trying to stop Vincenzo. Now, it will be now. His body is struggling, but its struggling is only a way of yielding completely to the impending death.

Vincenzo is stronger, Pedro cannot stop him, they both know it, but Pedro continues to resist because it is his role in this play they are performing. Vincenzo doesn't want a willing sacrifice, a life freely handed to him. He wants to take a life by force. As Pedro wants his life to be seized from him, not to surrender it. They want the same thing. Pedro looks at the knife, pointing towards his belly. He screams.

"No, no!"

Then Pedro feels the sting of Vincenzo's blade in his belly, slowly entering it through his navel. So strange, to have no pain at first, only a coldness, a wetness. Then the pain comes, and when it comes it quickly spreads from his gut to every part of his body. He mutters "Mierda!"

His mouth drops open, he closes his eyes, while the blade slowly, very slowly, finds its way into his gut, punching his breath from his body. He feels his flesh parting under the blade, the muscles sliding away from the cut, his intestines bulging out through the new opening Vincenzo has made.

He can feel Vincenzo's body against his back, Vincenzo's hard cock pressing against his ass, Vincenzo's heavy breath in his ears.

Then Vincenzo rips the knife out of Pedro's belly. Pedro grunts. "Mierda," he says again. But he knows this is what he was craving.

The second time Vincenzo rams the knife into Pedro's belly, it is with a violent thrust, much fiercer than the first gentle brush. Pedro yells, pain overwhelming him. He catches a glimpse of his life's blood spilling to the ground in front of him... so much red! His head begins to swim. Only Vincenzo's arms keep him from falling over.

A third time Vincenzo drives his knife through Pedro's belly. This thrust is even more powerful than the last two and the knife sinks deeper yet into his gut. Pedro can feel the scrape of the steel against his spine. Pedro moans, he says again "Mier...da....".

Vincenzo's arms let him down. Pedro's body collapses. He lies on the ground on his belly, bleeding slowly, trying to catch his breath, waiting for the end.

Suddenly Vincenzo is on him. He can feel his murderer's cock entering his ass, ravaging him furiously. He moans. Vincenzo grunts. It feels like only seconds later that Vincenzo is shooting into Pedro's ass. Then Pedro feels the cock pulling out and he is left empty.

Vincenzo turns the dying body over, forcing Pedro to face him. Vincenzo lies down on Pedro, his eyes staring into Pedro's eyes, the slick wet blood pooling between their bodies. Pedro looks at his murderer's face. He can feel Vincenzo's stale breath.

He feels like he is drowning. Taking a breath becomes more and more difficult. He is cold all over, except in his belly, where he burns with fire. He coughs. Red flecks fly into the air.

Death comes slowly, but in his agony, Pedro knows this is the way he wanted it.

Vincenzo gets up. He put his knife under Pedro's cock and balls. "Cazzo e coglioni non ti servono."

Vincenzo is right: Pedro doesn't need his cock and balls anymore. He can die without them. But when Vincenzo does it, Pedro screams anyway. He says, for the last time, or maybe only thinks it, "Mierda..." Then he turns his head and life slowly fades from his eyes.

Vincenzo looks at Pedro's lifeless carcass and smiles. It was good, really good. He liked it. No better place to stick a cock than the ass of a dying faggot.

He looks at his own body, full of the blood of his latest kill. "Bellissimo..." he murmurs. He rubs his hands through the slick liquid, feels the stickiness.

The first fly lands on the meat on the ground. He leaves it to its explorations. I'll dispose of the carcass later, he thinks, after one last humiliation for the English prick...

Helmut watched Pedro run off - well, hobble would be a better term - into the trees. The five minutes before Vincenzo left to follow him felt like an eternity, an awkward silence that would not end. Devon kept his eyes on the ground the whole while.

Vincenzo moved off at last, a vicious leer on his face, lumbering up the slope, not bothering to be stealthy. More minutes passed, and then shouts, screams echoed over the hills. One particularly loud scream caused Devon's head to snap up, trying to see what could have torn such a noise from a man's throat. But he could not see: Vincenzo and Pedro had disappeared from view. Devon could only imagine the details of the suffering Pedro was enduring in his stead.

The scream dissolved into a ghastly, liquid gurgle, and then there was silence. Helmut watched Devon, reading the emotions that went sliding across his face as clearly as if they were blazing neon signs. There it was: the moment Helmut had been waiting for, the moment when he broke Devon completely. Whatever source of inner strength the Englishman had been using to endure the physical abuse could not sustain him against this.

It was evident all over his body. He sagged in his bonds, too drained to make a sound, stinking of the after-wash of fear, of narrowly-escaped peril. His eyes shone with relief at having survived, but they were haunted with the guilt of having thrown another man to the wolves in his place. And make no mistake: Vincenzo was a wolf, however human he might appear to be.

Devon would never know that Pedro was already a dead man no matter what Devon chose. He would never know that Pedro was suicidal. All he would know is that when it came to crunch time, when his back was up against the wall, he was the sort of man who would willingly sacrifice a near-total stranger to save his own skin. It was a hard admission to have to swallow - every man carried in himself a narrative of his place in the world, imagining himself as the hero of whatever story line was unfolding. Having to recast oneself as the weak, craven coward of the tale was a painful cut to one's self-image.

Vincenzo returned, blood covering his bare chest, his hands, his arms. He stood in front of Devon and opened his pants. His belly and cock were soaked in blood, too.

"Puliscimi il cazzo, stronzo."

Devon stared at Vincenzo, puzzled, uncomprehending, but Vincenzo didn't offer a translation, so Helmut stepped in. "He says, clean his cock."

Devon gulped. He sank as low as the ropes would allow, bending his neck to reach downward. He looked at the shaft, still engorged, at the blood and other bits of mess on it, and shuddered again. He took the shaft in his mouth and he began to clean it with his tongue.

Vincenzo didn't try for a second climax. When he had sufficiently humiliated the Englishman, he pulled back, hiked up his trousers, and, with a nod to Helmut, began towing the wagon over the ground in the direction where Pedro's body presumably lay.

After he was gone, Helmut stared at Devon for a long while, savouring the sight of the broken man he had created. The beautifully-muscled form hanging slack in the ropes, the blank, thousand-mile stare in the eyes, the occasional shuddering, wheezing gasp of air as he remembered now and again to breathe.

It was a magnificent sight, but even so, Helmut could feel himself gradually losing interest. It always happened this way - for him, the joy was in the process, not the end result. Taking a man down, ripping him apart, shattering him into a million pieces, whether through physical or sexual or mental abuse... THAT was erotic. The wasted shell that was left behind after he was finished? Not so much.

Now that Devon's transformation was complete, there was nothing left to hold Helmut's interest. To be sure, the newly-firmed muscles were pleasing to the eye, the restraints appealing to contemplate, but now, standing there in the warm sunshine, the after-glow of his intellectual orgasm steadily fading away, Helmut might as well have been looking at a photograph. The passion had all leached out, leaving behind only a vague, hollow, empty sensation.

That hollowness was not a pleasant feeling, but fortunately, Helmut knew how to deal with it.

Next up is that Danish fellow, he thought as he untied Devon from the tree. He didn't even have to chain the Englishman to the rickshaw - Devon picked up the handles of his own volition. They bounced over the rough ground back toward the main camp, where Devon would spent his final night in the comfortable bed of the receiving building before boarding the train for home tomorrow morning. Lovely blond hair, handsome features, shaping up well from the rock line. I wonder what his Achilles heel will turn out to be?

"Devon? Devon, is that you?"

Devon had taken a few extra days of holiday after his return from Italy, but there was no way he could postpone his return to work forever. Once there, he knew he would face the inevitable questions from curious co-workers. There was nothing for it but try to brute-force his way through, the same way that Gavin had.

He turned from the coffee pot to face Helen from Finance.

"Wow, you look... you've been working out, haven't you?"

From another woman, the words might have been flirtatious, but Helen was in her sixties and happily married. He could take the compliment at face value.

"Ah, er, yes, a bit," he murmured in reply, hoping to hand her the coffee pot and get back to his desk, but it was not to be. Miriam heard the commotion and came by, and then they descended on him like a pack of hounds.

He tried to fend them off with generic platitudes, but they pried the details out of him one by one. He, of course, did not tell them the truth, but rather half-truths and plausible-sounding stories based on a kernel of truth. But the actual truth? Never.

It was well over an hour before the hubbub finally died down and he could make his way back to his desk. He tried to focus on catching up on weeks' worth of e-mails and piled-up papers. It felt wholly, utterly surreal, this return to his mundane existence. There was a dream-like quality to everything, as though if he punched the wall hard enough, it would ripple and shudder and break and the whole world would dissolve into formlessness.

Some time later, he became aware of a presence behind him. He turned to see Gavin standing there. They stared at each other for a long while.

Finally, Gavin spoke. "So," he said. "Now you know."

Devon nodded, repeating the motion over and over until he became aware that he must resemble one of those bobble-head dolls and forced his head to stop moving. "Right," he murmured.

Neither of them ever mentioned the subject again.