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The lost girls of rome, p.11
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.11

           Donato Carrisi
 

  And it was in the details that she had to look for answers. So she did what she always did at the crime scenes she photographed. She got ready to read the scene. From top to bottom. From the general to the particular. As a point of comparison, she had the photograph taken by David with the Leica.

  I have to compare the reality with the picture, she told herself. Like those puzzles where you have to find the differences between two apparently identical pictures.

  Keeping strictly to what was shown within the frame of the photograph, she began with the floor. She let her eyes move over what she had in front of her, foot by foot, then raised them to the ceiling. She was looking for a sign, something written in the concrete. There was nothing.

  She looked at the pillars, one at a time. Some had suffered a little damage in the course of those five months, due partly to the fact that they didn’t have plaster on them and so were more exposed to wear and tear.

  When she reached the one furthest to her left, towards the edge, she noticed that it was different from the way it looked in the photograph. It was a small detail, but it might be significant. When David had been here, the pillar had had a horizontal cavity at its base. It wasn’t there now.

  Sandra bent to get a closer look. The difference lay in a strip of plasterboard that covered the base of the pillar. It seemed to have been put there specifically to conceal something. Sandra moved it away and what she saw left her stunned.

  The cavity was still there, and in it lay David’s voice recorder. The one she remembered not finding in his bag, even though it was included on the list that her husband had used to pack his bags.

  Sandra took it out and blew on it to get the dust off. It was four inches long, thin, and with a digital memory. It was the kind that had replaced the old tape models.

  Looking at it in the palm of her hand, Sandra realised she was scared. God alone knew what could be on it. It was possible that David had hidden it here and had taken that photograph to indicate the hiding place. Then, later, he had come back to pick it up and had fallen. Or else he had brought it here to make a recording, maybe the very night he had died. Sandra recalled that the device could be activated from a distance. All it took was a noise and the recording started.

  She had to decide, she couldn’t wait any longer. But she hesitated, aware that what she heard might change for ever her certainty that David had been the victim of an accident. The result of that would be that she wouldn’t be able to resign herself, that she would have to keep looking for the truth – with the risk that she would never find it.

  Without further hesitation, she started the machine and waited.

  Two coughs. Probably just to start the recording from a distance. Then David’s voice, dim, distant, blurred by surface noise, and fragmentary.

  ‘ … be alone … I’ve been waiting since then …’

  His tone was calm. Sandra, however, felt quite uncomfortable, hearing his voice again after so long. She had got used to the idea that he would never again talk to her. Now she was afraid the emotion would overwhelm her, just when she needed to keep a clear head. This was an investigation, she told herself, and she needed to approach it as a professional.

  ‘ … doesn’t exist … had to imagine it … disappointment …’

  The sentences were too broken up to be able to understand the drift of what he was saying.

  ‘ … I know … everything … all this time … it isn’t possible …’

  None of this made any sense to Sandra. But then came a complete sentence.

  ‘ … I looked for a long time, and in the end I found it …’

  What was David talking about, and who to? There was no way of knowing.

  Maybe she could copy the recording and have a sound technician listen to it and get rid of the surface noise. That was all she could think of at this point. She was about to switch off the machine when she heard another voice.

  ‘ … yes, it’s me …’

  Sandra felt a sudden chill. Now she had confirmation that David had not been alone. That was why he had wanted to record that dialogue. What followed were a series of agitated phrases. The situation, for some reason, had changed. Now her husband’s tone was scared.

  ‘ … wait … it isn’t possible … really believe … I don’t … what I can … no … no … no! …’

  The noise of a struggle. Bodies rolling on the ground.

  ‘ … Wait … Wait! … Wait! …’

  And then a last desperate scream that gradually faded into the distance before ending abruptly.

  The recorder fell from her hands. Sandra put both her hands flat on the concrete. She retched violently, then vomited, twice.

  David had been killed. Someone had pushed him over the edge.

  Sandra would have liked to scream. She would have liked not to be here. She would have liked not to have known David, not to have ever met him. Not to have loved him. It was a terrible thing to think, but it was the truth.

  The sound of footsteps approaching.

  Sandra turned towards the recorder. The machine hadn’t finished with her, it still claimed her attention. It seemed as if the killer had known the location of the microphone.

  The footsteps stopped.

  A few seconds passed, then a voice. Not a speaking voice this time. No, it was singing.

  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.

  3.00 p.m.

  The Via delle Comete was on the outskirts of the city. It took Marcus a while to get there by public transport. After the bus dropped him at a stop, he had to continue on foot for two hundred yards or so. Around him, uncultivated fields, industrial warehouses, and a number of apartment blocks, well spaced out, forming an archipelago of concrete. In the middle, an ugly modern church, very different from those that had graced the centre of the city for centuries. Traffic flowed by on the avenues.

  Number 19 was an abandoned-looking warehouse. But this was certainly the address written on the sheet of paper with the triangular symbol that he had found in Ranieri’s office. Before going in, Marcus stopped to look around. He didn’t want to run any pointless risks. On the other side of the street there was a petrol station with an adjoining car wash and a café. There was a constant coming and going of customers. Nobody seemed interested in the warehouse. Marcus slowly walked towards the petrol station, pretending that he was waiting for someone who was late. He stood there, watching, for half an hour, until he was convinced the place wasn’t under surveillance.

  In front of the warehouse there was an open space. The rain had turned it into a quagmire. He could see the furrows left by tyres. Probably those of Ranieri’s green Subaru, Marcus immediately thought, remembering how muddy they had been.

  The detective had been here. Then he had rushed back to his office to destroy that paper. Finally he had left, taking with him an item from the safe.

  Marcus tried to put these elements together to form a complete picture. But the one thing uppermost in his mind was how much of a hurry Ranieri had been in.

  The urgency of a man afraid. What had he seen that had thrown him into such a panic?

  Deliberately avoiding the main entrance to the warehouse, Marcus looked for a side door. He made his way through the brushwood surrounding the low rectangular building. With its bulging roof made out of sheet metal, it resembled a hangar. He found a fire exit. Ranieri might well have come this way, because the door was ajar. With a little effort, pulling the door with both hands, he managed to open it enough to slip in.

  He entered a vast, dimly lit space, empty except for a few stacked machines and some pulleys hanging from the ceiling. Rain dripped through the roof, forming dark, stagnant puddles on the floor.

  As Marcus moved, his steps echoed. At the far end, an iron staircase led up to a mezzanine, where there was a small office. As he approached it,
he was immediately struck by something. There was no dust on the handrail. Someone had taken the trouble to clean it, perhaps to erase his own fingerprints.

  Whatever this place hid, it must be up there.

  He started climbing, taking care where he put his feet. Halfway up the stairs, the smell reached him. It was unmistakable. Once you had smelt it, you could recognise it anywhere. Marcus couldn’t remember where and when he had first encountered it. But something inside him had not forgotten it. That was the kind of trick amnesia played on you. He would have preferred to remember the smell of roses or his mother’s breast. But what he remembered was the smell of a dead body.

  Covering his nose and mouth with the sleeve of his raincoat, he climbed the last steps. He could see the bodies from the doorway of the office. They were close together. One on its back, the other on its stomach, both with bullet holes in the head. An execution, Marcus concluded.

  Their already advanced state of decomposition was made worse by fire. Somebody had tried to burn them with alcohol or petrol, but the flames had attacked only the upper parts of the bodies, leaving the lower parts intact. Whoever had done it had merely succeeded in making them unrecognisable. Then Marcus noticed something that told him the two men must have been criminals: if they didn’t have records, why take the trouble to remove their hands?

  Trying not to retch, Marcus went closer to get a better look.

  The hands had been removed at the wrists. The fibres were torn, but there were regular scratches on the bones. The kind usually left by a jagged instrument, such as a saw.

  He lifted the trousers of one of the two, uncovering the calf. There were no burns on the skin at this point of the body. Judging by the lack of colour, he estimated that death had occurred a little under a week earlier. And from the swollen but flabby appearance of the skin, he also judged that they had both been over fifty.

  He didn’t know who they were, and would probably never know. But he strongly suspected that they were the killers of Valeria Altieri and her lover.

  What he had to do now was figure out who had killed them, and why so long after the event.

  Just as Raffaele had been drawn to Lara’s apartment by an anonymous letter, so Ranieri had been summoned to this warehouse with the note that Marcus had found in his office.

  Here, he had discovered the two men, who might have been led there by a similar ploy, and killed them.

  No, Marcus didn’t buy it.

  Ranieri had been here just a few hours ago. If the two had been dead a week, what had he come back for? Maybe to set fire to them or remove their hands, or simply to check the condition of the bodies. But why take such a risk? And why was he scared? Who was he running away from?

  No, someone else killed them, Marcus thought. And if that someone hadn’t got rid of the bodies, it was because he had wanted them to be found.

  These two were probably of little account. Maybe they’d simply done as they were told. He still favoured the theory that the Altieri murder had been ordered by someone. Or maybe by more than one person. Although he didn’t like this last possibility, it couldn’t be ruled out. Given the apparently ritualistic nature of the killings, the hypothesis that it could have been a sect seemed stronger than ever. An occult group capable of eliminating anyone who might incriminate them, even two of their own members.

  Marcus sensed the presence of two entities in this case, working in opposing directions: one intent on exposing the secret by sending anonymous notes, the other determined to protect it at all costs.

  The link between them had to be Ranieri.

  The detective had known something, Marcus was sure of it. Just as he was convinced that in the end he would find a link with Jeremiah Smith and Lara’s disappearance.

  Obscure forces were at work. Marcus felt like a pawn at the mercy of events. He had to define his own role, which meant that it was necessary to confront Ranieri.

  He decided he had had enough of the stench of corpses. Before leaving, he instinctively raised his hand to make the sign of the cross, then thought better of it. These two probably didn’t deserve it.

  Ranieri had been summoned to the warehouse by an anonymous message. He had gone there this morning and seen the bodies. Then he had returned to his office, destroyed the note, and run away, taking with him whatever it was he had been keeping in the safe.

  Marcus continued to ruminate on this sequence of events. He was sure he was missing some important detail.

  In the meantime, it had started raining again. He left the warehouse and headed across the open space, taking care not to get himself too muddy. As he did so, he spotted something he hadn’t noticed earlier.

  It was a dark patch on the ground. There was another one a bit further on. They were similar to the one he had seen that morning outside Ranieri’s office, on the asphalt where the green Subaru had been parked.

  The fact that the rain had not washed it away suggested it was some kind of oily substance. Marcus bent down to check. It was motor oil.

  Clearly, the car had been parked outside the abandoned warehouse. That much he had already deduced from the muddy bodywork. At first, Marcus had thought the two things were linked: Ranieri had damaged and dirtied the car at the same time. But he looked around and did not see any potholes or protruding stones that might have caused damage. So that must have happened earlier, somewhere else.

  Where had Ranieri been before coming here?

  Marcus lifted a hand to the scar on his temple. His head was throbbing, another migraine was on the way. He needed a painkiller and something to eat. He felt as if he had come to a dead end and needed to find a way to continue. When he saw his bus approaching the stop, he hurried to catch it. Once aboard, he made his way to one of the seats at the back, next to an elderly lady with a shopping bag, who looked askance at his swollen cheek and split lip, both souvenirs of the attack by Raffaele Altieri. Ignoring her, Marcus folded his arms across his chest and stretched his legs under the seat in front. He closed his eyes, trying to forget the hammer ing in his head and drifted into a kind of half-sleep, still vaguely aware of the voices and other noises around him, and unable to dream. There had been many times he’d got on a bus like this one or an underground carriage and fallen half-asleep, aimlessly going back and forth between termini, trying to escape the recurring dream in which he and Devok both died. The motion cradled him, creating the impression that an invisible force was taking care of him, making him feel safe.

  He opened his eyes again because he had stopped feeling the peaceful rocking of the bus and the passengers around him had suddenly become agitated.

  The bus had, in fact, ground to a halt and some of the passengers were complaining about the time they were wasting. Marcus looked out of the window to see where they were. He recognised the buildings lining the ring road. He got up from his seat and made his way to the front of the bus. The driver had not switched off the engine, but was sitting there with his arms folded.

  ‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

  ‘An accident,’ the driver replied. ‘I think we’ll be moving soon.’

  Marcus looked at the vehicles in front of them. One by one, they were driving across a space that had been cleared at the side of the road in order to avoid the scene of the accident, which seemed to have involved several cars.

  The bus advanced in fits and starts. When their turn finally came, a traffic policeman motioned them to hurry up. Marcus was still on his feet next to the bus driver when they passed a mass of twisted and burnt metal. The firemen had only just managed to put out the flames.

  He recognised Ranieri’s green Subaru from part of the bonnet that had been spared by the flames. Inside, the body of the driver had been covered with a sheet.

  At last Marcus understood the reason for the oil stains the detective’s car had left behind everywhere it stopped. He had been wrong: they were not linked to a place Ranieri had visited and where he had damaged the Subaru. The oil must have been leaking from the brakes,
because someone had tampered with them.

  This was no accident.

  5.07 p.m.

  The song was for her. A message. Drop the investigation, in your own interest.

  Or else the exact opposite. Come and get me.

  The water from the shower poured down her neck and back. Sandra stood there without moving, her eyes closed, her hands pressed against the tiled wall. In her head, she again heard the melody of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ mixed with David’s last words on the recorder.

  ‘Wait! Wait! Wait!’

  She had decided she would not cry again until this was all over. She was afraid, but she would not turn back. Now she knew.

  Someone was involved in her husband’s death.

  That death was irreversible, she knew, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her. The idea that she could do something, something that could make up, at least partly, for an absurd, unjust loss, was one she found strangely consoling.

  She had settled for a modest one-star hotel near the Termini station, used mainly by groups of pilgrims who had come to visit the Christian sites.

  David had stayed here when he had been in Rome. Sandra had asked for the same room and fortunately it had been available. In order to carry out her own investigation, she needed to reproduce the conditions in which he had operated.

  Why, after her discovery of the recording, hadn’t she immediately gone to the police and told them what had happened? It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her colleagues. The husband of one of their own had been murdered. They would have given priority to the case. That was the unwritten rule, a kind of code of honour. She could at least have told De Michelis. She continued to tell herself that she preferred to put together enough evidence to facilitate his work. But that wasn’t the real motive. The real motive was one she wouldn’t even admit to herself.

  She came out of the shower and wrapped herself in the bath towel. Dripping, she came back to the room, put her case on the bed and started emptying it until she came to an item she had put right at the bottom.

 
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