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The lost girls of rome, p.13
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.13

           Donato Carrisi

  ‘But you understood everything.’

  ‘Dogs are colour blind, did you know that?’

  ‘Of course, what has that to do with it?’

  ‘A dog can’t see a rainbow. And nobody will ever be able to teach it what colours are. But you know as well as I do that red, yellow and blue exist. Who’s to say that isn’t true of people, too? There may be things that exist, even though we can’t see them. Like evil. We know it’s there only when it manifests itself, by which time it’s too late.’

  ‘Do you know evil?’

  ‘I know men. And I see the signs.’

  ‘What signs?’

  ‘Bare little feet walking in blood …’

  Altieri made a bad-tempered gesture. ‘Raffaele wasn’t supposed to be there that night. He was meant to go and stay with Valeria’s mother, but she was sick. I didn’t know that.’

  ‘But he was there, in the house. And he stayed there for two days. Alone.’

  Altieri fell silent, and Marcus realised that the truth hurt him. He was pleased to see that part of the man at least could still experience a recognisably human feeling.

  ‘For all these years, Ranieri had the task of putting your son off the scent as he continued to investigate his mother’s death. But at a certain point, Raffaele started receiving strange anonymous notes that promised to lead him to the truth.’ One of them led him to me, Marcus told himself, even though he didn’t know why someone had wanted to involve him in the case. ‘First your son dismissed Ranieri. A week ago he managed to track down the killers, lured them to an abandoned warehouse and killed them. He killed Ranieri, too, by tampering with his car. Which means he’s the one who’s coming here. I just got here before him.’

  ‘If it wasn’t you, then who plotted all this?’

  ‘I don’t know. What I do know is that less than twenty-four hours ago a serial killer named Jeremiah Smith was found dying, with two words written on his chest: Kill me. In the ambulance team that came to his rescue was the sister of one of his victims. She could have taken the law into her own hands. In my opinion, Raffaele has been offered the same opportunity.’

  ‘Why are you so interested in saving my life?’

  ‘Not just you. That serial killer kidnapped a young student named Lara. He’s keeping her prisoner somewhere, but he’s in a coma and can’t talk.’

  ‘Is she the innocent girl you mentioned a while ago?’

  ‘If I find out who arranged all this, I may still save her.’

  Altieri raised the glass of cognac to his lips. ‘I don’t know how I can help you.’

  ‘Raffaele will be here in a little while, probably looking for revenge. Call the police and turn yourself in. I’ll wait for your son and try to persuade him to talk to me. There’s every chance he knows something that may be useful to me.’

  ‘You want me to confess everything to the police?’ From his derisory tone, it was obvious he had no intention of doing any such thing. ‘Who are you? How can I trust you if you won’t tell me who you are?’

  Marcus was tempted to reply. If that was the only way, he would contravene his rule. He was about to tell him when the shot rang out. He turned. Behind him stood Raffaele with a gun in his hand pointed straight at the armchair in which his father was sitting. The bullet had perforated the leather and the upholstery. Altieri slumped forward, dropping the glass with the cognac.

  Marcus would have liked to ask the boy why he had opened fire, but he realised that Raffaele had chosen revenge over justice.

  ‘Thank you for getting him to talk,’ Raffaele said.

  Marcus knew now what his role had been in the whole affair. It was why somebody had brought them together in Lara’s apartment.

  He was to provide Raffaele with the missing piece of the puzzle: his father’s confession.

  Marcus was on the verge of asking him a question, still hoping to find the link between this twenty-year-old case, Jeremiah Smith and Lara’s disappearance. But before he could say anything, he became aware of sounds in the distance. Raffaele smiled at him. It was the police siren. He had called them, but he didn’t make a move to escape. This time justice would be done, all the way. Even in this, he wanted to be different from his father.

  Marcus knew that he only had a few minutes left. He had many questions, but he had to leave. They couldn’t find him here.

  Nobody was supposed to know that he existed.

  8.35 p.m.

  After putting what she needed in a bag, Sandra managed to get a taxi near the Via Giolitti. She gave the address to the driver, then sat back and went over the plan she had worked out. She was running an enormous risk. If they discovered her true purpose, she would certainly be suspended from the force.

  The taxi passed the Piazza della Repubblica and turned into the Via Nazionale. She didn’t know Rome very well. For someone like her, born and brought up in the North, this city was an unknown quantity. Too much beauty, maybe. A bit like Venice, which always seemed populated only by tourists. It was difficult to believe that people actually lived in such a place. That they worked, did their shopping, took their children to school, instead of spending all their time looking in awe at the splendours around them.

  The taxi turned into the Via San Vitale. Sandra got out in front of Police Headquarters.

  Everything will be fine, she told herself.

  She showed her badge at reception and asked to speak to someone of equal rank in records. They told her to sit down in the waiting room while they tried to contact him by telephone. After a few minutes, a redheaded officer in shirtsleeves came to greet her, with his mouth full.

  ‘What can I do for you, Officer Vega?’ he asked, chewing. Judging by the crumbs on his shirt, he had been eating a roll.

  Sandra gave him her most conciliatory smile. ‘I know it’s late, but my chief only sent me to Rome this afternoon. I should have warned you I was coming, but there wasn’t time.’

  Her redheaded colleague nodded, vaguely interested. ‘What’s it all about?’

  ‘I have to do some research.’

  ‘On a specific case or …’

  ‘A statistical study on the incidence of violent crime within society and the police force’s ability to intervene effectively, with particular emphasis on the differences of approach between Milan and Rome.’ She had said all this in one breath.

  The man frowned. On the one hand, he didn’t envy her: it was the kind of mission that was usually assigned as a punishment or because your chief was really angry with you. On the other hand, he couldn’t figure out what the point of it was. ‘Who on earth’s interested in all that?’

  ‘I don’t know. I think the Commissioner’s going to a conference in a few days. He probably needs it for his presentation.’

  The man had started to realise that this was going to take a long time, and he had no desire to ruin a quiet evening shift with all this hassle. Sandra could see it in his face.

  ‘Can I see your service order, Officer Vega?’ he said in a bureaucratic, authoritarian tone, as if to prepare her for his refusal.

  But she had planned for this, too. She leaned towards him conspiratorially and said in a low voice, ‘Listen, between you and me, I really don’t fancy spending the night in records just to keep my stupid chief, Inspector De Michelis, happy.’ She felt tremendously guilty for depicting him in this way but, in the absence of a service order, she needed to mention her superior’s name. ‘Let’s do something: I’ll leave a list of things to look for and you give me what I need as soon as you can.’

  Sandra handed him a printed sheet. Actually, it was a list of the tourist attractions of the city, provided by the porter at her hotel. She knew that her colleague only needed to see how long it was and all his objections would disappear.

  He immediately gave her back the list. ‘I really wouldn’t know where to start. From what you tell me, it’s quite tricky research. I think you’d be better suited to it.’

  ‘But I don’t know your cataloguing system.
‘No problem, I’ll explain it to you. It’s really very simple.’ Sandra exaggerated her annoyance, shaking her head and raising her eyes to heaven. ‘Well, all right, but I’d like to get back to Milan tomorrow morning, or in the afternoon at the latest. So if you don’t mind I’d prefer to start straight away.’

  ‘Of course,’ he said, suddenly more than willing to help. ‘Follow me.’

  A richly frescoed room with a high damasked ceiling, in which there were six desks, with a computer on each one. The records were all here. The paper records had all been transferred onto a database, the server being located two floors below, in the basement.

  Police Headquarters dated from the nineteenth century. It was like working inside a work of art. One of the advantages of Rome, Sandra thought as she allowed herself a glance upwards.

  She was sitting at one of the desks. The others were unoccupied. The only light came from the lamp on her desk, which spread a pleasant glow around her. In that silence, every noise echoed through the room. Outside, another storm could be heard rumbling.

  She concentrated on the computer in front of her. Her redheaded colleague had taken a few minutes to explain to her how to get into the system, provided her with temporary security codes, then left.

  Sandra took David’s old leather-bound diary from her bag. Her husband had spent three weeks in Rome and, on the pages corresponding to that time, had written down some twenty addresses, then pinpointed them on a map of the city. That was why he had needed a radio tuned to the police frequency. Presumably, every time the operator had sent out a message to the patrol cars, David had proceeded to the scene.

  Why? What had he been looking for?

  Sandra went to the page of the diary on which the first address had been noted. She entered it together with the date in the search engine of the records department. Within seconds the result appeared on the screen.

  Via Erode Attico. Homicide of a woman by her partner.

  She opened the file and read a quick summary of the police report. It was a domestic quarrel that had degenerated. The man, an Italian, had stabbed his Peruvian companion and run away. He was still at large. Not at all sure why David had been interested in this story, Sandra decided to insert a second address, together with the date, in the search engine.

  Via dell’Assunzione. Robbery and involuntary homicide.

  An elderly lady’s home had been broken into. The thieves had bound and gagged her, and she had died from suffocation. However hard she tried, Sandra could not grasp the connection between this and the affair in the Via Erode Attico. The people and the places were different, as were the circumstances of these violent deaths. She continued: another address, another date.

  Corso Trieste. Homicide following a fight.

  It had happened at night, at a bus stop. Two strangers had come to blows for some stupid reason. Then one of them had taken out a knife.

  What has this one got to do with anything? she wondered, increasingly frustrated.

  She could not find any link between the three episodes, nor with those she examined as she proceeded with her search. They were simply violent acts with one or more victims. A strange map of crimes. Some had been solved, others not.

  All of them, though, had been documented by forensic photographers.

  Her job was to understand the scene of the crime on the basis of images, which was why she was not so good at studying written documents. She preferred a visual approach and, given that there were photographs relating to all these cases, she decided to concentrate on them.

  It wasn’t a simple task: twenty homicides meant hundreds of photographs. She started to view them on the computer. But given that she didn’t know what she was looking for, it might take days and David hadn’t left any further indications.

  Damn it, Fred, why all this mystery? Couldn’t you have written me a letter of instructions? Would it have cost you too much, darling?

  She was nervous, she was hungry, she hadn’t slept in more than twenty-four hours and, ever since she had arrived at Police Headquarters, she had been desperate to have a pee. Over the past day, an agent from Interpol had undermined the trust she had in her husband, she had discovered that David had not died in an accident but had been murdered, and his killer had threatened her, transforming a song linked to the most beautiful memory of her life into a macabre funeral dirge.

  It was definitely too much for a single day.

  Outside, it had started raining again. Sandra let herself go, putting her head down on the table. She closed her eyes and for a moment stopped thinking. She felt weighed down with an enormous responsibility. Bringing criminals to justice was never an easy matter, that was why she had chosen her profession. But it was one thing to be part of the mechanism, to contribute to the result with her work. It was quite another matter when the result depended entirely on her.

  I can’t do it, she said to herself.

  At that moment, her mobile phone began vibrating. The noise echoed in the empty room, making her jump.

  ‘De Michelis here. I know everything.’

  For a moment, she feared that her superior had been informed that she had used his name inappropriately and was there without official approval.

  ‘I can explain,’ she immediately said.

  ‘Explain what? Wait, let me speak. I found the painting!’

  The euphoria in the inspector’s voice calmed her down.

  ‘The boy running away in horror is a figure in a painting by Caravaggio: The Martyrdom of St Matthew.’

  Sandra had hoped this might tell her something, but it didn’t. She had been expecting more, but she couldn’t bring herself to put a damper on De Michelis’s enthusiasm.

  ‘It was painted between 1600 and 1601. It was commissioned as a fresco, but then the artist opted for an oil painting on canvas. It’s part of a cycle about St Matthew, along with The Inspiration and The Vocation. The three paintings are in Rome, in the Contarelli chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.’

  None of this helped her. She needed to know more. She opened the browser and looked for the picture on Google Images.

  It appeared on the screen.

  It depicted the scene of St Matthew’s death. His executioner was looking at him with hatred, brandishing a sword. The saint was lying on the ground. He was trying to stop his killer with one arm, but had the other down by his side, almost as if accepting the martyrdom that awaited him. Around him were other people, among them the horror-struck boy.

  ‘There’s one unusual thing about the painting,’ De Michelis said. ‘Among those watching the scene, Caravaggio has painted himself.’

  Sandra recognised the artist’s self-portrait in the top left-hand corner. Suddenly she had a brainwave.

  The painting showed a crime scene.

  ‘Inspector, I have to go.’

  ‘What? Aren’t you even going to tell me how you’re getting on?’

  ‘Don’t worry, everything’s fine.’

  The inspector muttered something. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow. And thank you, you’re a friend.’ She hung up without waiting for him to reply. Now she knew what to look for.

  Forensic photography required other things to be photographed apart from the crime scene itself: the state of the surroundings and, especially in cases where the culprit had not yet been brought to justice, the crowd of onlookers who usually gathered beyond the police cordon. In fact, the guilty party was sometimes among them, checking up on how the investigation was proceeding.

  The maxim about the murderer always returning to the scene of the crime did sometimes hold true. A number of murderers had been caught that way.

  These were the pictures Sandra now concentrated on as she skimmed through the photographs of the twenty crimes noted by David in the diary. She was looking for a face among the onlookers. Someone who, like Caravaggio in the painting, was concealing his identity in the multitude.

  She lingered over the murder of a prostitute. The photograph showed the moment whe
n her body had been fished out of the little lake in the EUR area. The woman’s scanty, colourful clothes were in marked contrast to the deathly pallor that had already settled over her young skin like a patina. In the expression on her face, Sandra seemed to glimpse embarrassment and shame at being exposed in this way to both the pitiless light of day and the gaze of a handful of onlookers. Sandra could imagine their dismissive comments: she’d asked for it, if she’d chosen another life she wouldn’t have ended up like this.

  Then she saw him. The man was standing a little way back from the others. He was on the pavement, watching in a neutral, non-judgemental way as the mortuary staff got ready to take away the body.

  Sandra immediately recognised that face. It was the man in the fifth photograph from the Leica. Dressed in dark clothes, with a scar on his temple.

  Who are you, you bastard? Was it you who threw my David off that building?

  She looked for him in other photographs. His face cropped up on three more occasions. Always among the onlookers, but always standing somewhat apart.

  David had been hoping to catch a glimpse of him in places where an act of violence had been committed. That was why he had kept his radio tuned to the police frequency and noted those addresses in his diary and on the map of the city.

  Why had he been investigating him? Who was this man? In what way was he implicated in these cruel deaths? And in David’s?

  Now Sandra knew what to do. She would have to find him. But where? Maybe she had to use the same method, wait for radio transmissions to the patrol cars and then rush to the scene.

  Suddenly, she started to consider an element she hadn’t previously taken into account. It had nothing to do with the man she was looking for, but it was still a question that required an answer.

  David hadn’t photographed the whole of the Caravaggio painting, merely a detail. That didn’t make sense: if he had meant it for her, why make things more complicated?

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