The Lost Girls of Rome, p.1Donato Carrisi
Donato Carrisi was born in 1973 and studied law and criminology. He lives in Rome, where he works as a TV screenwriter. His first novel, The Whisperer, was an international bestseller and winner of three Italian and two French literary awards.
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © Donato Carrisi 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
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FIVE DAYS AGO
ONE YEAR EARLIER PARIS
FOUR DAYS AGO
ONE YEAR EARLIER MEXICO CITY
THREE DAYS AGO
ONE YEAR EARLIER KIEV
TWO DAYS AGO
ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT
ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT
ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT
ONE YEAR EARLIER PRAGUE
There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible, as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
The corpse opened his eyes.
He was lying on his back in bed. The room was white with daylight. On the wall facing him was a wooden crucifix.
He looked at his own hands, lying at his sides on the snow-white sheets. It was as if they didn’t belong to him, as if they were someone else’s. He lifted one – the right – and held it in front of his eyes to get a better look at it. It was then that he felt the bandages covering his head. He had clearly sustained an injury, but the strange thing was, he didn’t feel any pain.
He turned towards the window and saw a dim reflection of his face in the glass. That was when he started to feel afraid. A question hit him, a painful question. But what was even more painful was the awareness that he did not know the answer.
Who am I?
FIVE DAYS AGO
The address was outside the city. Because of the bad weather and the satnav’s inability to find the house, it had taken them more than half an hour to reach this isolated spot. If it had not been for the little street lamp at the entrance to the drive, they might have thought the whole area uninhabited.
The ambulance proceeded slowly through the untended garden. The flashing light awoke statues from the darkness, moss-covered nymphs and mutilated Venuses, who greeted their passage with lopsided smiles and elegant, uncompleted gestures, dancing motionlessly for them alone.
An old villa welcomed them like a port in a storm. There were no lights on inside, but the front door was open.
The house was waiting for them.
There were three of them: Monica, a young intern who was on duty in Emergency that night, Tony, a paramedic with years of experience, and the driver, who stayed in the ambulance while the other two defied the storm and set off towards the house. Before crossing the threshold, they called out to see if they could attract anyone’s attention.
There was no reply. They went in.
A stale odour, dark walls, a corridor dimly lit by a row of yellowish bulbs. To the right, a staircase leading to the first floor.
At the end of the corridor, through the open doorway of the living room, they caught sight of a body lying on the floor.
They rushed to him. All the furniture in the room was covered with white sheets, apart from a worn armchair in the middle, positioned to face an old-fashioned TV set. Everything smelled of age.
Monica knelt beside the man on the floor. He seemed to be unconscious, and was breathing with difficulty.
‘He’s cyanotic,’ she observed.
Tony made sure the respiratory tract was clear, then placed the Ambu bag over his mouth, while Monica checked his irises with a torch.
The man could not have been more than fifty. He was wearing striped pyjamas, leather slippers and a dressing gown. With several days’ growth of beard and his sparse, dishevelled hair, he looked like someone who didn’t take care of himself. In one hand, he was still clutching the mobile phone he had used to call Emergency, complaining of terrible chest pains.
The nearest hospital was the Gemelli. In a serious emergency, whichever doctor was on duty joined the paramedics in the first available ambulance.
That was why Monica was there.
A small table had been overturned, a bowl broken. Spilt milk and biscuits lay everywhere, mixed with urine. The man must have been taken ill while watching TV and knocked everything over as he fell. It appeared to be a classic case, Monica thought. A middle-aged man, living alone, has a heart attack and, if he can’t manage to call for help, is usually discovered, long dead, only when the neighbours start to notice the stench. In an isolated villa such as this, of course, that wouldn’t have happened. If he didn’t have close relatives, years might have passed before someone noticed what had happened. In either case, it was a familiar scene, and she felt sorry for him. At least until they opened his pyjama jacket to massage his heart and saw the words on his chest.
They both pretended they hadn’t seen it. Their task was to save a life. But from that moment on, they moved with especial care.
‘The saturation’s dropping,’ Tony said, checking the oximeter. That meant that no air was getting into the man’s lungs.
‘We have to intubate him or we’ll lose him.’ Monica took out the laryngoscope and moved to position herself behind the patient’s head.
In doing so, she cleared Tony’s field of vision. She saw a strange look suddenly come into his eyes. Tony was a professional, trained to deal with any kind of situation, and yet something had startled him. Something that was right behind her.
Everyone in the hospital knew the story of the young doctor and her sister. No one ever talked about it, but she was aware of them looking at her with compassion and concern, wondering in their hearts how she could live with such a burden.
Now there was the same kind of expression on Tony’s face, combined with a kind of fear. So Monica turned, and saw what Tony had seen.
A roller skate, abandoned in a corner of the room. A roller skate that unleashed hell.
It was red, with gold buckles. Identical to its twin, which wasn’t here, but belonged to another life. Monica had always found them rather kitsch, but Teresa had preferred to call them ‘vintage’. The two girls were twins, too, so Monica had had the feeling she was seeing herself when her sister’s body had been found in a clearing near the river on a cold December morning.
She was only twenty-one years old, and her throat had been cut.
They say that twins feel things simultaneously, even when they are miles away from each other. But Monica did not believe that. She hadn’t had any feelings of fear or danger when Teresa was abducted one Sunday afternoon on her way back from roller skating with her friends. Her body had been found a month later, wearing the same clothes she had had on when she had disappeared.
And that red roller skate, like a grotesque prosthesis on one foot.
For six years Monica had kept it, wondering what had happened to the other one and if it would ever be found. The number of times she h
Now, perhaps, Monica had found what she was looking for.
She looked down at the man on the floor. With his cracked, pudgy hands, the hair sprouting from his nostrils, the urine stain on the crotch of his trousers, he didn’t look like the monster she had always imagined. He was a creature of flesh and blood, an ordinary human being – and one with a weak heart, to boot.
Tony’s voice jolted her from her thoughts. ‘I know what’s going through your mind,’ he said. ‘We can stop whenever you want, and wait for the inevitable to happen. You only have to say the word. Nobody will ever know.’
He had already seen her hesitate with the laryngoscope poised over the man’s mouth. Once more, Monica looked at his chest.
That might well have been the last thing her sister had seen while he was cutting her throat as if she were an animal in a slaughterhouse. No words of comfort, the kind that any human being who is about to leave this life forever deserves. Instead, her killer had mocked her with those words. It had probably amused him. Perhaps Teresa, too, had begged for death, wanting it all to end quickly. Angrily, Monica gripped the handle of the laryngoscope until her knuckles turned white.
The coward had carved the words on his chest but, when he had felt ill, he had called Emergency. He was just like anyone else. He was scared of dying.
Monica died inside herself. Those who had known Teresa saw her as a kind of copy, like a statue in a wax museum. To her family, she represented what her sister might have been and would never be. They watched her grow and saw Teresa. Now Monica had an opportunity to distinguish herself and exorcise the ghost of the twin who dwelt within her. I’m a doctor, she reminded herself. She would have liked to find a glimmer of pity for the human being lying in front of her, or the fear of a superior justice, or else something that resembled a sign. Instead she realised that she felt nothing. So she tried desperately to think of something that might convince her this man had nothing to do with Teresa’s death. But, however hard she thought about it, there was only one reason that red skate was there.
At that moment, Monica realised she had already made her decision.
The rain covered Rome like a funeral pall. The silent, weeping facades of the buildings in the historic centre were draped in long shadows. The alleys that wound like intestines around the Piazza Navona were deserted. But a stone’s throw from the Bramante cloister, light spilled through the windows of the long-established Caffè della Pace on to the wet street.
Inside, red velvet chairs, grey-veined marble tables, neo-Renaissance statues, and the usual customers: artists, especially painters and musicians, greeting the uneasy dawn, shopkeepers and antique dealers waiting to open, and a few actors who dropped in for a cappuccino after an all-night rehearsal before going home to sleep. They were all in search of a little relief from the terrible weather, and all deep in conversation. Nobody paid any attention to the two black-clad strangers sitting at a table facing the entrance.
‘How are the migraines?’ the younger of the two men asked.
The older man stopped gathering grains of sugar around his empty cup and instinctively stroked the scar on his left temple. ‘They keep me awake sometimes, but generally I feel better.’
‘Do you still have that dream?’
‘Every night,’ the man replied, raising his deep-set, melancholy blue eyes.
‘Yes, it’ll pass.’
The silence that followed was interrupted by a long hiss of steam from the espresso machine.
‘Marcus,’ the younger man said, ‘the moment has come.’
‘I’m not ready yet.’
‘We can’t wait any longer. They’re asking me about you. They’re anxious to know how you’re getting on.’
‘I’m making progress, aren’t I?’
‘Yes, it’s true: you’re better every day, and I’m pleased, believe me. But expectations are high. There’s a lot depending on you.’
‘But who are these people who take such an interest in me? I’d like to meet them, talk to them. The only one I know is you, Clemente.’
‘We’ve discussed that before. It’s not possible.’
‘Because that’s the way things have always been.’
Marcus touched his scar again, as he did whenever he was nervous.
Clemente leaned forward, forcing Marcus to look at him. ‘It’s for your own safety.’
‘Theirs, you mean.’
‘Theirs, too, if you want to see it that way.’
‘I could turn out to be a source of embarrassment. And that mustn’t be allowed to happen, must it?’
Marcus’s sarcasm did not faze Clemente. ‘What’s your problem?’
‘I don’t exist,’ Marcus said, his voice painfully constricted.
‘The fact that I’m the only one who knows your face leaves you free. Don’t you see that? All they know is your name. For everything else, they trust me. So there are no limits to your remit. If they don’t know who you are, they can’t hinder you.’
‘Why?’ Marcus retorted.
‘Because what we are chasing can corrupt even them. If all the other measures were to fail, if the barriers they’ve put up turned out to be useless, there’d still be someone keeping alert. You are their last defence.’
‘Answer me one question,’ Marcus said, a gleam of defiance in his eyes. ‘Are there others like me?’
After a brief silence, Clemente said, ‘I don’t know. There’s no way I could know.’
‘You should have left me in that hospital …’
‘Don’t say that, Marcus. Don’t disappoint me.’
Marcus looked outside, at the few passers-by taking advantage of a lull in the storm to emerge from their makeshift shelters and continue on their way. He still had many questions for Clemente. Things that did not directly concern him, things he no longer knew. Clemente was his one contact with the world. In fact, Clemente was his world. Marcus never spoke to anyone, had no friends. Yet he knew things he would have preferred not to know. Things about men and the evil they do. Things so terrible as to make anyone’s confidence waver, and contaminate anyone’s heart for ever. He looked at the people around him, people who lived without that burden of knowledge, and envied them. Clemente had saved him. But his salvation had coincided with his entrance into a world of shadows.
‘Why me?’ he asked, continuing to look away.
Clemente smiled. ‘Dogs are colour blind.’ That was the phrase he always used. ‘So, are you with me?’
Marcus turned away from the window and looked at his one friend. ‘Yes, I’m with you.’
Without a word, Clemente slipped his hand into the pocket of the raincoat draped over the back of his chair. He took out an envelope, placed it on the table and pushed it towards Marcus. Marcus took it and, with the care that distinguished every one of his gestures, opened it.
Inside, there were three photographs.
The first was of a group of young people at a beach party. Closest to the camera were two girls in bathing costumes toasting with bottles of beer in front of a bonfire. One of the girls reappeared in the second photograph, wearing glasses and with her hair pulled back: she was smiling, pointing behind her at the Palazzo della Civilità Italiana in the EUR area of Rome. In the third photograph, the same girl was seen embracing a man and a woman, presumably her parents.
‘Who is she?’ Marcus asked.
‘Her name is Lara. She’s twenty-three years old. She’s from the south, and has been in Rome for a year, studying at the faculty of architecture.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘That’s the problem: nobody knows. She disappeared nearly a month ago.’
Blocking out his surroundings, Marcus concentrated on Lara’s face. She seemed a typical provincial girl transplanted to a big city. Pretty, with delicate features, and no make-up. He assumed she usually wore her hair in a ponytail because she couldn’t afford to go to the hairdresser’s. Maybe, in order to save money, she only had her hair done when she went home to see her parents. Her clothes were a compromise. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which absolved her of the need to keep up with the latest fashions. Her face showed traces of nights spent poring over her books and dinners consisting of a tin of tuna, the last resource of students living away from home for the first time, when they have exhausted their monthly budget and are waiting for another transfer from Mum and Dad. He imagined her daily struggle with homesickness, kept at bay by her dream of becoming an architect.
‘Tell me what happened.’
Clemente took out a notebook, moved the coffee cup aside, and began consulting his notes. ‘The day she disappeared, Lara spent part of the evening with a few friends in a club. Her friends say she seemed perfectly normal. They chatted about the usual things, then about nine she said she felt tired and wanted to go home. Two of her friends gave her a lift in their car and waited as she went in through the front door.’
‘Where does she live?’
‘In an old apartment block in the centre.’
‘Are there other tenants?’
‘About twenty of them. The building belongs to a university agency that rents the apartments to students. Lara’s is on the ground floor. Until August she’d been sharing it with a friend. She was looking for a new flatmate.’
‘What’s the last trace we have of her?’
‘We know she was in the apartment over the next hour, because she made two calls from her mobile: one at eight twenty-seven p.m. and the other at ten twelve. The first one, which lasted ten minutes, was to her mother, the second to her best friend. At ten nineteen her phone was switched off, and wasn’t switched on again.’
A young waitress approached the table to take away the cups. She lingered to give them time to order something else. But neither of them did so. They simply remained silent until she had gone away again.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes