The Lost Girls of Rome, p.10Donato Carrisi
While he had been carrying out his research in the library that morning, Clemente, as promised, had acquired the file on the case for him – code number c.g. 796-74-8. It contained a detailed dossier on all the protagonists involved in the affair. He had left it for him inside a letter box in a large block of flats. It was a place they always used for exchanging documents: that particular box was not assigned to any of the occupants of the block.
Marcus had had plenty of time to study Ranieri’s profile while waiting for the detective to arrive.
Ranieri did not have much of a reputation. But that was hardly surprising. He had been suspended from the list of licensed investigators for improper conduct. Apparently, this was not his only occupation: in the past he had taken part in various scams, and had even done time in prison for passing false cheques. His best client was Raffaele Altieri, from whom, over the years, he had managed to obtain a considerable amount of money, although their relations had broken off abruptly. The office in the wealthy Prati neighbourhood was a facade to attract unknowing clients he could exploit. He did not even have a secretary.
It was as Marcus was going over these things in his mind that a woman’s scream echoed down the stairwell. It seemed to come from the top floor.
His training was clear: in cases such as this, he should leave immediately. Once in a safe place, he would be able to alert the police. The most important thing was anonymity, which had to be preserved at all costs.
I don’t exist, he reminded himself.
He waited to see if anybody in the building had heard anything. But nobody appeared on the landings. Marcus couldn’t help it: if a woman really was in danger, he would never forgive himself for not intervening. He was about to go up to the top floor when the door of the office opened and Ranieri started down the stairs. Marcus took shelter in the recess and the man passed without noticing him. He was carrying a leather briefcase.
When Marcus was sure that Ranieri had left the building, he raced up the stairs, hoping he was still in time.
When he reached the landing, he launched a kick at the door of the office. He found himself in a narrow waiting room. At the end of the corridor was a single room. Marcus rushed in that direction. When he got to the doorway, he stopped. He could hear a knocking sound from inside. He leaned in cautiously and saw that it was just an open window banging in the wind.
But there was a second door, which was closed. He approached cautiously. He placed his palm on the handle and opened it abruptly, sure he would be faced with some terrible scene. It was nothing but a small bathroom. And it was empty.
Where was the woman he had heard screaming?
The doctors had warned him about auditory hallucinations. A side effect of his amnesia. It had happened before. Once he had thought he heard a telephone ringing incessantly in his attic room in the Via dei Serpenti. But he didn’t have a phone. On another occasion, he had heard Devok calling him by name. He didn’t know if it was really his voice, as he couldn’t remember what it sounded like. But he had linked the sound to Devok’s face, which gave him hope that one day his memory might come back. The doctors said no, amnesia linked to brain damage is always irreversible, and his wasn’t a psychological condition. He still believed, though, that he might eventually retrieve some hidden, ancestral memories.
He took a deep breath, trying to get the woman’s scream out of his ears. He had to figure out what had happened in that room.
He went to the open window of the office and looked down: the space where Ranieri had parked his green Subaru was empty. The fact that he had taken the car meant that he wouldn’t be back soon, so Marcus had a little time.
He noticed an oil stain on the asphalt. Added to the mud he had noticed on the bodywork of the car earlier, it suggested that some time that morning Ranieri had been somewhere where the ground was uneven, soiling and damaging the Subaru in the process.
He closed the window and turned to the office.
Ranieri had stayed barely ten minutes. What had he come to do?
There was one way to find out. Marcus had a very clear memory of one of Clemente’s lessons. Criminologists and profilers called it the enigma of the empty room. It started with the assumption that every event, even the most insignificant, left traces which, as the minutes passed, lost their latency. That was why, even if this place might seem empty, it wasn’t. It contained a lot of information. Marcus, though, didn’t have much time to locate the clues and use them to reconstruct what had happened.
The first approach was visual. So he looked around. A half-empty bookcase, with ballistics magazines and law books. Judging by the dust that covered them, they were there purely for appearance. A threadbare sofa, a couple of small armchairs in front of a desk with a swivel chair.
He noted also the anachronistic combination of a plasma television and an old video recorder. He didn’t think anyone still used video recorders, and despite its presence he noticed that there were no videocassettes in the room.
He registered the detail and went on. Diplomas on the walls showing that he had taken part in specialist courses in investigative techniques. An out-of-date licence, hanging lopsidedly. Marcus moved it and discovered a small safe behind it, its door not fully shut. He opened it. The safe was empty.
He thought again of the leather briefcase Ranieri had been carrying when he left the office. He must have taken something with him. Money? Was he running away? From whom, from what?
He next considered the state of the place. When he had arrived, the window was open. Why had Ranieri left it that way?
To let some air into the room, he told himself. He sniffed. There was a slight but peculiar smell of burning. Chlorophyll, he thought. He rushed to the waste-paper basket.
There was a single sheet, crumpled by fire.
Ranieri had not only taken an item from the office, he had also got rid of something before he left. Marcus recovered what remained of the piece of paper from the bottom of the basket and placed it carefully on the top of the desk. He went back to the bathroom, checked the label on a bottle of liquid soap, and took it into the office. He poured some on his fingertips and, unfolding the sheet of paper as best he could, ran them over the darkest part, where there were traces of handwriting. Then he took a match from a box on the desk – Ranieri had probably taken one from the same box earlier – and got ready to set fire to the sheet. Before doing so, however, he stopped to think. He would have one chance at this, then everything would be destroyed forever.
Apart from the migraines, the sound hallucinations and the sense of confusion, the amnesia had produced at least one advantage: it had given him remarkable mnemonic skills. Marcus was convinced that his ability to learn and absorb things quickly was due to the empty space in his head. And he had realised that he also possessed a perfect photographic memory.
Let’s hope it works, he told himself.
He struck the match, took the sheet of paper and passed it under the flame, from left to right.
The ink started to react to the glycerine in the soap and the characters on the paper fleetingly reformed. Marcus ran his eyes quickly over the numbers and letters as they appeared. The effect faded in a few moments, ending in a puff of grey smoke. He had his answer. The text was an address: 19 Via delle Comete. Before everything vanished, though, he had also noticed the three little dots that formed the symbol of the triangle.
Apart from the place, it was identical to the note received by Raffaele Altieri.
‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
On the telephone, De Michelis was quite direct. Sandra almost regretted involving him. The traffic in Rome was slowed by the rain, and the taxi she had taken at the station was advancing in fits and starts.
The inspector was perfectly willing to help, but he didn’t understand why she had needed to go there in person.
‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?’
Sandra had packed a cas
‘David had a dangerous job. By mutual agreement, he would never tell me where he was going on his travels. So why did he tell me that lie in the message he left me? Why did he have to say he was in Oslo? I’ve thought about it and I’ve realised I was an idiot. He wasn’t trying to hide something, but to call my attention to it.’
‘OK, so maybe he made a discovery and wanted to protect you. But now you’re putting yourself in danger.’
‘I don’t think so. David knew he was taking a risk. If anything happened to him, he wanted me to investigate. That’s why he left me clues.’
‘You mean the pictures in that old camera?’
‘Talking of which, have you figured out what painting the detail of the child running away is from?’
‘From your description, no. I’d have to see it.’
‘I emailed it to you.’
‘You know what I’m like with computers. I’ll ask one of the boys to download it for me and let you know as soon as possible.’
Sandra knew she could count on him. It had taken him five months to tell her how sorry he was that David had died, but all things considered he was a good man.
‘How long have you been married?’
De Michelis laughed. ‘Twenty-five years. Why?’
Sandra had thought again about what Schalber had said. ‘I know this is a personal question, but … have you ever doubted your wife?’
The inspector cleared his throat. ‘One afternoon, Barbara told me she was going to see a girlfriend. I knew she was lying. You know that sixth sense we police officers have?’
‘Yes, I think I do.’ Sandra was not sure she wanted to hear this. ‘But you don’t have to tell me.’
Ignoring her, De Michelis continued with his story. ‘Well, I decided to follow her, as if she was a criminal. She didn’t notice a thing. But after a while, I stopped to think about what I was doing, and I decided to turn back. You can call it fear, if you like, but I know what it was. The fact is, I didn’t care if she had lied to me. If I’d discovered she really was going to see her girlfriend, I would have felt that I’d betrayed her. Just as I had the right to a faithful wife, Barbara deserved a husband who trusted her.’
Sandra realised that the story her older colleague had just shared was one that he had probably never confided in anyone. So she summoned up the courage to carry on. ‘Inspector, there’s another favour I’d like to ask you.’
‘What is it now?’ he asked, pretending to be annoyed.
‘Last night, an Interpol agent named Schalber called me. He thinks David was involved in something shady. I thought he was a pain in the arse.’
‘I get it: you want me to check him out. Is that all?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ Sandra said, relieved.
De Michelis, though, had not finished. ‘Tell me one thing. Where are you going now?’
Where everything ended, Sandra would have liked to say. ‘The building David fell from.’
The idea that they should live together had been hers. But David had accepted it willingly. At least, that was what she had believed. They had known each other only a few months and she was not yet sure of her ability to figure out what he really thought. He could be complicated at times. Unlike her, David was never clear-cut in his emotions. When they disagreed, she was always the one who raised her voice, whereas he would remain detached and vaguely conciliatory. Sandra could not help thinking that this wasn’t a lack of interest on David’s part but a definite strategy: he would allow her to let off steam, then wait until she gave in out of sheer exasperation.
The proof of her theory was what had happened a month after he had moved into her apartment.
For a week, David had been in a strange, silent mood, and Sandra had the impression he was avoiding her, even when they were alone in the apartment. Although he was not working at the time, he was constantly busy. He would shut himself up in the study, or else he would mend a plug or clear a blocked sink. Sandra felt there was something wrong, but she was afraid to ask. She told herself that she had to give him time, that David was not only unaccustomed to having a place he could call home, but lacked any experience of living as a couple. Along with her fear of losing him, though, her anger at his evasive attitude also grew, until she was ready to explode.
It happened one night. As they were sleeping, she felt his hand shaking her to wake up. Realising that it was not even three in the morning, still dazed by sleep, she asked him what the hell he wanted. David switched on the light and sat her up in bed. His eyes wandered around the room as he searched for the words to tell her what had been churning in his head for some time. Which was that they couldn’t carry on this way, that he felt uncomfortable and found the situation stifling.
Sandra struggled to understand the meaning of this speech, and the only explanation she could come up with was: the idiot is dumping me. Her pride wounded, and incredulous that he couldn’t wait till the following morning to ditch her, she got out of bed and started hurling insults at him. In her anger, she flung to the ground any object that came to hand. One of these was the remote control that, as it fell, switched on the TV. It was the time of night when all that was broadcast was old black-and-white films. At that moment, they were showing Top Hat, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing a duet.
The mixture of the sweet melody and Sandra’s hysteria created a surreal scene.
To make matters worse, David didn’t say a word, just bore her insults passively, his head bowed. When her fury was at its height, though, Sandra saw him put his hand under the pillow, take out a blue velvet case, and put it down on her side of the bed with a sly smile. Suddenly struck dumb, she looked at that little case, knowing full well what it contained. She felt such a fool, her mouth fell open in astonishment.
‘I was only trying to tell you,’ David said, ‘that we can’t go on like this and that, in my humble opinion, we ought to get married. Because I love you, Ginger.’
He said this to her – it was both the first time he had told her what he felt and the first time he had called her Ginger – as Fred sang ‘Cheek to Cheek’.
Heaven, I’m in heaven,
and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak;
and I seem to find the happiness I seek
when we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
Sandra, without even realising it, started to cry. She threw herself in his arms, needing to be held tight. Sobbing on his chest, she started to undress, driven by an urgent desire to make love to him. They had carried on until dawn. There were no words to describe what she had felt that night. Pure joy.
It was at times like those that she knew she would never have a calm, quiet time with David. They both needed to live their lives with passion. But for that very reason, there had also been a fear that everything could burn out itself out quickly.
And that was what had happened.
Now, three years, five months and a handful of days after that unrepeatable night, Sandra found herself on an abandoned building site, standing at the exact spot where the body of David – her David! – had come crashing to the ground. There was no blood; it had long since been washed away by the bad weather. She’d thought about bringing flowers, but was afraid of being overcome with emotion. The main reason she had come here was to understand.
After his fall, David had lain here all night, dying, until a man on a bicycle who happened to be passing by noticed him and raised the alarm. Too late, however. David had died in hospital.
When her colleagues in Rome had told her, Sandra hadn’t asked herself too many questions. For example, whether he had remained conscious all that time. She preferred to think that he had died immediately, rather than later from his many fractures and
If someone had noticed David lying there earlier, could he have been saved?
That slow death agony supported the theory that this had been an accident. If someone had pushed him, they would certainly have finished the job.
Sandra noticed a flight of stairs to her right. She put down her bag and started to climb, taking great care because there was no handrail. On the fifth floor the dividing walls were completely missing, and there were just pillars supporting the floors. She approached the edge from which David had slipped. He had gone there after dark. She recalled the conversation on the telephone with Schalber the previous night.
‘According to the police, Signor Leoni was on that construction site because it offered an excellent vantage point for a photograph … Have you been there?’
‘No,’ she had replied irritably.
‘What are you trying to tell me?’
‘Your husband’s camera was destroyed in the fall,’ he had said drily. ‘A pity we’ll never see that photograph.’
When Sandra saw what David had seen that night – a vast open space, surrounded by apartment buildings – she understood the reason for Schalber’s sarcasm. Why would he have wanted to take a photograph of it? And in the dark, to boot.
She had brought with her one of the five images contained on the roll from the Leica. She had not been mistaken: it was a photograph of this building site, but by day. Her first thought on developing it was that he had come here to look the place over.
Sandra looked around: there must have been a purpose. The site was abandoned, it didn’t seem to be of any importance, at least on the surface.
So why had David come here?
She had to think in other terms, to shift focus, as her forensics instructor used to say.
The truth is in the details, she repeated to herself.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes