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The lost girls of rome, p.12
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.12

           Donato Carrisi
 

  Her service gun.

  She checked the magazine and the safety catch, then placed it on the chest of drawers. From now on, she would always carry it with her.

  She put on just a pair of knickers and started sorting through the other things she had brought with her. She removed the small TV set from the shelf where it stood and replaced it with the two-way radio, David’s diary with those strange addresses, and the voice recorder. With adhesive tape, she stuck the five photographs she had developed from the Leica to the wall. The first was that of the building site, and she had already used it. Then there was the one that had come out completely dark, which she had decided to keep all the same. Then the one of the man with the scar on his temple, the detail from the painting, and, finally, the image of her husband waving and simultaneously taking a photograph while standing bare-chested in front of the mirror.

  Sandra turned towards the bathroom. That was where this last photograph had been taken.

  At first sight it appeared to be one of those humorous gestures typical of him, like when he had sent her a photograph of himself lunching on roast anaconda in Borneo or another where he was covered with leeches in a swamp in Australia.

  But, unlike those photos, in this one David was not smiling.

  Maybe what she had at first thought of as a sad farewell from a ghost concealed another message for her. Maybe Sandra ought to search the room, because David had hidden something there and wanted her to find it.

  She shifted the furniture, looked under the bed and the wardrobe. She carefully felt the mattress and pillows. She took the cover off the telephone and the TV set and looked inside. She checked the floor tiles and the skirting board. Finally, she carefully inspected the bathroom.

  Apart from proof that it wasn’t cleaned very often, she didn’t find anything.

  Five months had gone by. Whatever it was might well have been removed. She cursed herself again for waiting so long before checking what was in David’s bags.

  Sitting on the floor, still without any clothes on, she started to feel cold. She pulled the faded bedspread around herself and stayed there, trying not to let her frustration overcome her powers of reasoning. Just then, her mobile phone began vibrating.

  ‘So, Officer Vega, did you follow my advice?’

  It took her a moment or two to recognise that irritating, German-accented voice.

  ‘Schalber, I was hoping I’d hear from you.’

  ‘Is your husband’s luggage still in the police storeroom, or can I take a look at it?’

  ‘If there’s an investigation in progress, you can submit a request to the examining magistrate.’

  ‘You know as well as I do that Interpol can only work alongside a country’s official police force. I wouldn’t like to bother your colleagues, it might be embarrassing for you.’

  ‘I have nothing to hide.’ The man really did have the ability to get on her nerves.

  ‘Where are you now, Sandra? I can call you Sandra, can’t I?’

  ‘No, and it’s none of your business.’

  ‘I’m in Milan, we could meet for a coffee, or whatever you prefer.’

  Sandra absolutely had to avoid him finding out that she was in Rome. ‘Why not? How about tomorrow afternoon? Then we can clear up this whole thing.’

  Schalber gave a loud laugh. ‘I think the two of us are going to get along very well.’

  ‘Don’t delude yourself. I don’t like the way you operate.’

  ‘I assume you asked one of your superiors to check me out.’

  Sandra said nothing.

  ‘You did the right thing. He’ll tell you I’m the kind of person who doesn’t easily let go.’

  That phrase sounded to her like a threat. She wouldn’t let herself be intimidated. ‘Tell me, Schalber, how did you end up in Interpol?’

  ‘I was in the police in Vienna. Murder squad, antiterrorism, drug squad: a bit of everything. I got noticed and Interpol called me.’

  ‘And what do you deal with for them?’

  Schalber made a pregnant pause, and when he spoke his jocular tone had vanished. ‘I deal with liars.’

  Sandra shook her head. ‘You know what, I should slam the phone down on you, but I’m still curious to hear what you have to tell me.’

  ‘I’d like to tell you a story.’

  ‘If you really think it’s necessary …’

  ‘I had a colleague in Vienna. We were investigating a gang of Eastern European smugglers, but he had a bad habit. He didn’t like to share information, because he was desperate to advance his career. He took a week’s leave, telling me he was taking his wife on a cruise. Instead of which, he infiltrated this gang. But they found out who he was. They tortured him for three days and three nights, knowing nobody would come and look for him, then killed him. If he’d trusted me, he might still be alive today.’

  ‘That’s a nice anecdote,’ she said sarcastically. ‘I bet you tell it to all the girls.’

  ‘Give it some thought. We all need somebody. I’ll call you tomorrow about that coffee.’

  He hung up. She sat there, wondering what he had meant by that last phrase. The only person she needed was no longer here. And what about David? Who had he needed? Was she sure she was the target of the clues he had disseminated before leaving forever?

  When he was still alive, he had kept her out of the investigation, he had not told her he was running any risks. But had he been alone in Rome? On David’s mobile phone there was no record of calls received from or sent to unknown numbers. He didn’t seem to have been in contact with anyone. But maybe he had received help of some kind.

  Her eyes came to rest on the two-way radio. She had wondered what David was doing with it. What if he had used it to communicate with someone?

  She got up, went to the shelf, picked up the radio and examined it now with different eyes. It was tuned to channel 81. Maybe she should keep it on, maybe someone would try to contact her.

  She switched it on and raised the volume. Of course she was not expecting to hear anything. She put it back on the shelf and turned back to her case to get her clothes.

  At that moment, a transmission began.

  It was the cold, monotone voice of a woman reporting that a fight between drug dealers was in progress in the Via Nomentana. Patrol cars in the area were asked to intervene.

  Sandra turned to look at the radio. It was tuned to the frequency used by the headquarters of the Rome police to communicate with patrol cars.

  And with that realisation, she also understood the meaning of the addresses in David’s diary.

  7.47 p.m.

  Marcus went back to his attic room in the Via dei Serpenti. Without turning on the light or taking off his raincoat, he lay huddled on the bed with his hands between his knees. His sleepless night was catching up with him, and he could feel another migraine coming on.

  Ranieri’s death had brought his investigation crashing to a halt. All that effort for nothing!

  What had the detective taken from the safe in his office that morning?

  Whatever it was, it had probably been destroyed with him in the Subaru. Marcus took the file on case number c.g. 796-74-8 from his pocket. He didn’t need it any more. He threw it down, and the papers scattered across the floor. The moonlight shone on the faces of those involved in a murder that had occurred nearly twenty years ago. Far too long ago to get at the truth now, he thought. If he couldn’t have justice, he had to be satisfied with that conclusion. Now, though, he had to start again from the beginning. His priority was Lara.

  Valeria Altieri looked up at him from a newspaper cutting, smiling in a photograph of a New Year’s Eve party. She looked very elegant, her blonde hair and shapely body perfectly set off by the dress she was wearing. There was a unique magnetism in her eyes.

  She had paid for so much beauty with her life.

  If she had been a less striking woman, her death might not have interested anybody.

  Marcus found himself involuntarily think
ing about the reason the killers had chosen her. Just like Lara, who for some obscure reason had been selected by Jeremiah Smith.

  Up until that moment, he had thought of Valeria as Raffaele’s mother. After seeing the bloody footprints of his little feet on the white carpet in the bedroom, he hadn’t been able to focus on her.

  There’s always a reason we attract other people’s attention, he told himself. It didn’t happen to him, of course, he was invisible. But Valeria was a woman who was very much in the public eye.

  The word EVIL written on the wall behind the bed. The numerous stab wounds on the victims’ bodies. The murder taking place within a domestic environment. Everything seemed to have been done in order to be noticed. The homicide had captured the public’s imagination not only because it had involved a member of high society and her equally well-known lover, but also because of the way it had happened.

  It seemed to have been staged specially for the scandal magazines, even though no paparazzo had photographed the crime scene.

  Horror as spectacle.

  Marcus sat up in bed. Something was germinating in his mind. Anomalies. He switched on the light and retrieved the profile of Valeria Altieri from the floor. That fine-sounding surname belonged to her husband: before she was married her name was Colmetti, a name less suited to the jet set. She came from a small middle-class family, her father a clerk. She had attended teacher training college, but her true talent was beauty. That, and a natural propensity to drive men wild. At twenty she had tried to make it as a film actress, but had only managed to obtain a few walk-on parts. Marcus could imagine how many men had tried to get her into bed by promising her an important role. Maybe at first Valeria had yielded. How many compliments with a double meaning, how many unwanted fumblings, how many faked orgasms had she had to endure in order to realise her dream?

  And then, one day, Guido Altieri had come into her life. A handsome man, a few years older than her, from a well-known and highly respected family. A lawyer with an assured future. Valeria knew she wasn’t able to love anyone exclusively. Guido in his heart was aware that this woman would never belong to anybody – she was too selfish and too beautiful for one man alone – and yet he asked her to marry him.

  It was there that everything started, Marcus told himself, getting up to look for a pen and paper to take notes. The wedding had been only the beginning, the first act in a chain of apparently happy events that would inevitably lead to the slaughter in the bedroom.

  He found a notebook. On the first page he drew the symbol of the triangle. On the second he wrote EVIL.

  Valeria Altieri represented everything that men might want, but that nobody could have. Desire, especially when it is uncontrollable, makes us do things we wouldn’t believe ourselves capable of. It corrupts, undermines, and occasionally it can be a motive for murder. Especially when it is transformed into something else, something dangerous.

  An obsession, like the one tormenting Raffaele Altieri.

  But if Raffaele was obsessed by a mother he had barely known, then perhaps someone else had felt a similar obsession. And what is the only solution in such cases? Marcus was afraid to answer his own question. He said it in a low voice. A single word.

  ‘Destruction.’

  Annihilating the object of our obsession, rendering it incapable of hurting us any more. And making sure it stays that way forever. To achieve that aim, death sometimes isn’t enough.

  Marcus tore the pages with the symbol and the word from the notebook. He held them in his hands, looking from one to the other, hoping to find the key to this mystery.

  He sensed someone behind him, looking at him insistently. He turned and saw who it was: his own reflection in the windowpane. Although he hated looking at himself in mirrors, this time he didn’t move.

  He read the word reflected there – EVIL – but the other way around.

  ‘Horror as spectacle,’ he repeated to himself. And he realised that the woman’s scream he thought he had heard coming from Ranieri’s office was not an acoustic hallucination. It was real.

  The large red-brick villa was situated in the exclusive Olgiata area. It was surrounded by a luxuriant garden with an English lawn and a swimming pool. The two-storey house itself was well lit.

  Marcus walked along the drive. The privilege of entering the gates of these dwellings was limited to a select few. But it hadn’t been difficult for him to get in. No alarm had gone off, no private guard had come running. And that could mean only one thing.

  Someone inside the villa was expecting a visit.

  The glass-fronted door was open. He went in and found himself in an elegant living room. No voices, no other noises. To his right was a staircase. He started climbing. The lights were out on the upper floor, but through the doorway of a room at the end of the corridor he could see the dancing reflections of a fire. He followed them, sure that at the end of his journey he would find what he was looking for.

  The man was in his study. Sunk in a leather armchair beside a lighted fire, with his back to the door and a glass of cognac in his hand. Facing him – just as in Ranieri’s office – the jarring combination of a plasma TV and a video recorder.

  He realised that he was no longer alone.

  ‘I sent everybody away. There’s nobody else in the house.’ Guido Altieri seemed to be confronting his fate pragmatically. ‘How much do you want?’

  ‘I don’t want money.’

  Altieri made as if to turn. ‘Who are you?’

  Marcus stopped him. ‘If you don’t mind, I’d prefer you not to look at my face.’

  Altieri humoured him. ‘You won’t tell me who you are, and you haven’t come for money. So what brings you to my house?’

  ‘I want to understand.’

  ‘If you’ve come this far, you already know everything.’

  ‘Not yet. Do you intend to help me?’

  ‘Why should I?’

  ‘Because, apart from saving your own life, you can also save that of an innocent girl.’

  ‘I’m listening.’

  ‘You also received an anonymous message, didn’t you? Ranieri’s dead, the two killers have been shot and then burnt. And now you’re wondering if I was the person who sent all those notes.’

  ‘The one I received announced a visitor for this evening.’

  ‘Not me, and I’m not here to harm you.’

  The crystal glass in Altieri’s hand reflected the flames of the fire.

  Marcus paused before coming to the point. ‘When an adulterous woman is murdered, the first suspect is always the husband.’ He had quoted Clemente’s words, even though at first that motive had seemed too obvious. ‘The murder on the eve of a religious festival, the night of the new moon … All coincidences.’ Men sometimes let themselves be guided by superstition, he thought. And to fill the void of doubt, they are ready to believe in anything. ‘There was no ritual, no sect. The word written behind the bed, “Evil”, wasn’t a threat, it was a promise … Read the other way round, it says “Live”. A joke maybe, or maybe not … A message that had to go all the way to London, where you were: the job had been carried out as requested, you could go home … Those marks on the carpet, the occult triangle, weren’t a symbol. Something had been placed in the pool of blood next to the bed and then moved to the other side. As simple as that. A creature with three paws and a single eye. A video camera on a tripod.’

  Marcus thought again of the woman’s scream he had heard coming from Ranieri’s office. It hadn’t been an acoustic hallucination. It was the voice of Valeria Altieri, and it came from the video cassette Ranieri kept in his safe, the cassette he had viewed before taking it away with him in the leather briefcase.

  ‘Ranieri arranged the murder, you simply commissioned it. But after the anonymous note and those bodies in the warehouse, he was certain somebody knew the truth. He felt hunted, he was scared they wanted to pin it all on him. He was paranoid. He ran back to his office and burned the note. If someone had managed to tra
ck down the killers after nearly twenty years, then they were quite capable of replacing the tape in the safe with a fake, that was why he checked it before taking it away with him … Tell me, was the one Ranieri owned the original or a copy?’

  ‘Why do you ask that?’

  ‘Because it was destroyed when his car crashed. And without it, there’ll never be justice.’

  ‘A sad twist of fate,’ Altieri commented, sarcastically.

  Marcus looked again at the video recorder beneath the plasma TV. ‘It was at your request, wasn’t it? You couldn’t be content with your wife’s death. No, you had to see it. Even at the risk of becoming a laughing stock: the husband betrayed by his wife while he was on a trip abroad, in the family home, in the marriage bed. You would be the butt of everyone’s jokes, but in the end you would have your revenge.’

  ‘You couldn’t possibly understand.’

  ‘You may be surprised. For you, Valeria was an obsession. A divorce wouldn’t have been enough. You wouldn’t have been able to forget her.’

  ‘She was one of those women who can make you lose your reason. Some men are attracted by creatures like that. Even though they know that, in the end, they’ll be led to their own destruction. These women seem sweet and loving, but they only grant you the leftovers of their affection. After a while you realise that you can still save yourself, have another woman who loves you truly, children, a family. But at that point you have to choose: either you or her.’

  ‘Why did you want to see it?’

  ‘Because then it’d be as if I’d killed her myself. That was what I wanted to feel.’

  ‘And so, every now and again, when you were alone in the house like now, you sat down in that lovely armchair, poured yourself some cognac and put on that tape.’

  ‘Obsessions are difficult to get rid of.’

  ‘And whenever you saw it, what did you feel? Pleasure?’

  Guido Altieri lowered his eyes. ‘Regret … that I hadn’t done it myself.’

  Marcus shook his head: he felt anger, and he didn’t like to feel anger. ‘Ranieri hired the killers. The word written in blood was an amateur touch, but the symbol on the carpet was a stroke of luck. A mistake that might have revealed the presence of the video camera, instead of which it turned into an unexpected advantage, by complicating everything.’ Marcus laughed at himself for having thought of Satanism as a motive, when the reality was much more banal.

 
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