The Lost Girls of Rome, p.14Donato Carrisi
Sandra found the painting again on the computer. David could have found the image on the internet and photographed it from the screen. Instead of which, by photographing just the detail of the boy, he had been trying to tell her that he had been there in person.
‘There are things you have to see with your own eyes, Ginger.’
She remembered what De Michelis had told her. The painting was in Rome, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
The first time he had been with Clemente at a crime scene, it had been here in Rome, in the EUR area. The first victim in whose eyes he had looked was a prostitute fished out of the little lake there. Since then there had been other bodies, and all had the same look in their eyes. A questioning look.
Always the same surprise, the same astonishment. Incredulity mixed with the unrealisable desire to turn round, to wind back the tape, to have a second chance.
Marcus was sure that the surprise was not at death, but at the sudden terrible intuition of how irreversible it was. These victims hadn’t thought, ‘Oh God, I’m dying,’ but rather, ‘Oh God, I’m dying and I can’t do anything to prevent it.’
Maybe the same idea had occurred to him, too, when someone had shot him in that hotel room in Prague. Had he felt fear or was it a comforting sense of inevitability? The amnesia had wiped out that last memory and everything before it. The first image that had fixed itself in his new memory was the wooden crucifix on the white wall facing his hospital bed. He had lain there looking at it for days, wondering what had happened to him. The bullet had not affected the areas of the brain that controlled language and movement, so he could still walk and talk. But he did not know what to say or where to go. Then Clemente had appeared: that smiling, clean-shaven face, that dark hair with the side parting, those benevolent eyes.
‘I’ve found you, Marcus.’ Those were his first words. A hope, and his name.
Clemente hadn’t recognised him from his face, because he had never seen him before. Only Devok had known his identity, that was the rule. Clemente had simply followed his trail to Prague. It had been his friend and mentor Devok who had saved him, even as a dead man. That had been the bitterest news that Marcus had had to learn. He didn’t remember anything about Devok, any more than he remembered anything else. But now he had discovered that Devok had been killed, and had realised that grief is the one human emotion that doesn’t need to be linked to a memory. A child will always feel grief at the loss of a parent, even if that loss happened before it was born or when it was still too little to understand what death was. Raffaele Altieri was a good example of that.
We need memory only to be happy, Marcus had thought.
Clemente had been very patient with him. He had waited for him to recover, then had brought him back to Rome. In the months that had followed, he had tried to teach him the few things that he knew of his past: his country of origin, which was Argentina, his parents, who were now dead, the reason he was in Italy and, finally, his task – Clemente did not call it a job.
He had trained him, just as Devok had done many years earlier. It had not been difficult, all he had had to do was make him realise that certain things were already present in him, he simply had to bring them out again.
‘That’s your talent,’ he would say.
Sometimes Marcus didn’t want to be the way he was. Sometimes he would have preferred to be normal. But all he had to do was look at it himself in a mirror to know that he would never be normal, which was why he avoided mirrors. The scar was a grim memento. Whoever had tried to kill him had left him that souvenir on his temple, because death was the one thing he would never be able to forget. Every time Marcus saw a murder victim, he knew he had been in the same condition. He felt similar to them, he was doomed to feel the same solitude as them.
The prostitute fished out of the little lake was the mirror he had been trying to escape.
She had immediately reminded him of a painting by Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, in which the Madonna was shown lying lifeless on what looked like a slab in a morgue. There were no religious symbols around her, and she was not enveloped by any kind of mystical aura. Far from being shown as a creature halfway between the divine and the human, which was usually the case, Mary was a pale, abandoned body with a swollen belly. It was said that the artist had been inspired by the corpse of a prostitute fished out of a river, that was why the painting had been rejected by its sponsors.
Caravaggio liked to take a scene from the horrors of everyday life and superimpose a sacred meaning on it, giving the people different roles, turning them into saints or dying virgins.
When Clemente took Marcus for the first time to the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, he told him to look at The Martyrdom of St Matthew. Then he asked him to divest those figures of any holy element, as if they were ordinary people at a crime scene.
‘Now what do you see?’ he asked.
‘A murder,’ was the reply.
That was his first lesson. The training, for people like him, always started with that painting.
‘Dogs are colour blind,’ his new teacher had said. ‘We humans, on the other hand, see too many colours. Take them away, leaving only black and white. Good and evil.’
But very soon Marcus had realised that he could see other shades, too. Shades that neither dogs nor men could perceive. That was his true talent.
Thinking about it now, he was overcome with a sudden nostalgia. He didn’t even know for what. But it happened sometimes, this feeling things he had no reason to feel.
It was late, but he didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to fall asleep and have that recurring dream that took him back in time, to Prague and the moment when he had died.
Because I die every night, he told himself.
Instead he wanted to stay here, in this church that had become his secret refuge. He often came back here.
Tonight he was not alone. He was waiting together with a group of people for it to stop raining outside. A concert had not long ended, but the priests and caretakers hadn’t wanted to throw out the few spectators who had remained. So the musicians had started playing more pieces for them, unexpectedly prolonging the sweetness of that evening. As the storm attempted to drive them out, the music rose up against the roar of thunder, spreading joy through those present.
Marcus stood to one side, as always. For him, San Luigi dei Francesi also meant Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of St Matthew. For once he allowed himself to look at it with the eyes of a normal man. In the gloom of that side chapel, he noticed that the light illuminating the scene was already inside the painting. He envied Caravaggio’s talent: to perceive light where others saw only shadows. Exactly the opposite of his own talent.
Just as he was savouring the results of that intuition, he happened to turn his eyes slightly to his left.
At the end of the nave, a young woman, soaking wet from the rain, was looking at him.
Immediately, an alarm was triggered inside him. For the first time, someone was violating his invisibility.
He turned away and headed quickly towards the sacristy. She moved to follow him. He would have to throw her off his trail. He remembered that there was another exit on this side. He walked faster in that direction, but could hear her rubber shoes squeaking on the marble floor as she tried to catch up with him. A roll of thunder echoed over his head, drowning out that other sound. What could this woman want with him? He entered the vestibule that led to the back of the church. There was the door. He went to it, opened it, and was about to step out into the shroud of rain when she spoke.
‘Stop.’ She said it without shouting. Her tone was cold.
‘Now turn round.’
He did so. The only light was the yellowish one from the street lamps, which stopped at the threshold of the church. But there was enough light to see that she was holding a gun.
‘Do you know me? Do you know who I am?
Marcus thought before replying. ‘No.’
‘What about my husband, did you know him? Did you kill him?’ There was no anger in her voice, just despair. ‘If you know something you have to tell me. Or I swear I’ll kill you.’ She seemed sincere.
Marcus said nothing. He had his arms down by his sides, motionless. He returned her gaze. He was not afraid of her. Rather, he felt compassion.
The woman’s eyes turned watery. ‘Who are you?’
At that moment there was a flash of lightning, followed by a deafening roll of thunder. The lights of the street lamps trembled for a moment, then went out. The street and the sacristy were plunged into darkness.
But Marcus did not run away immediately. ‘I’m a priest.’
When the street lamps went on again, Sandra saw that he was no longer there.
ONE YEAR EARLIER MEXICO CITY
The taxi advanced slowly in the heavy rush-hour traffic. The Latin music on the radio joined the music coming from the other cars, all with their windows open because of the heat. The result was an unbearable cacophony, but the hunter noticed that each of the drivers seemed to be following his own little tune. He had asked his driver to switch on the air conditioning, only to be told that it wasn’t working.
It was thirty degrees centigrade in Mexico City, and the rate of humidity was due to rise that night. It would be made all the worse by the canopy of smog that covered the metropolis. That was why he had no wish to linger too long. He would do what he had to do and then leave immediately. Despite the discomfort, he was excited at the idea of being here.
He had to see with his own eyes.
In Paris, his prey had made a narrow escape and then, predictably, had wiped out all traces of himself. But this city represented a new hope. If the hunter was going to relaunch the chase, he needed to gain a better understanding of who he was dealing with.
The taxi dropped him outside the main entrance of the Hospicio de Santa Lucía. The hunter looked up at the white, somewhat dilapidated five-storey building. However striking its colonial architecture, the bars on the windows left no doubt as to the place’s current use.
This was, after all, the destiny of psychiatric hospitals, he thought. Once you went in, you didn’t come out.
Dr Florinda Valdez came to the reception desk to greet him. They had exchanged a few emails, in which, for the first time, he had assumed the identity of a lecturer in forensic psychology in Cambridge.
‘Hello, Dr Foster,’ she said with a smile, holding out her hand.
‘Hello, Florinda.’ The hunter had realised immediately that this plump woman in her early forties would easily be won over by the suave Dr Foster, if for no other reason than that she was still unmarried. He had done his research before contacting her.
‘I hope you had a good trip?’
‘Oh, yes, and I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico.’
‘Well, I’ve thought of some very nice things we can see this weekend.’
‘Good,’ he said, feigning enthusiasm. ‘Then I suggest we get straight down to work. That way we’ll have more time to ourselves later.’
‘Yes, of course. Come this way.’
The hunter had come across Florinda Valdez by chance while doing some internet research on psychiatric disorders. On YouTube, he had found a lecture she had given at a convention of psychiatrists in Miami. It had been a stroke of luck, the kind that made him believe that he would achieve his aim in the end and that his self-denial would be rewarded.
Florinda Valdez’s lecture had been entitled The case of the girl in the mirror.
‘Of course we don’t allow just anybody to see her,’ she hastened to say as they walked along the corridors of the hospital, implying that she might be expecting something equally flattering from him in return.
‘You know, my scholarly curiosity got the better of me. I left my luggage at the hotel and came straight here. Perhaps we could go back there later before we go out to dinner? If you don’t mind, of course.’
‘No, of course not.’ She blushed, imagining all kinds of developments that evening. But he did not have a hotel room. His flight was leaving at eight.
The woman’s joy was out of place amid the moans emanating from the rooms of the hospital. As they passed them, the hunter managed to glance inside. Their occupants were no longer people: heavily sedated, their faces as white as the clothes they wore, their skulls shaved to deter fleas, they wandered barefoot, bumping into one another like drifting pieces of flotsam. Others were tied with leather straps to sweat-soaked beds, writhing and screaming with the voice of demons, or else lying motionless, waiting for a death that was mercilessly late in coming. There were old people who seemed like children, unless they were children old before their time.
As the hunter passed through this hell, the malign force that kept them locked up within themselves stared out at him with wide-open eyes.
They reached what Florinda Valdez called the special ward. It was in a wing isolated from the others, where the patients were kept two in a room at most.
‘This is where we keep the violent patients, but also the most interesting clinical cases … Angelina is one of them.’ There was pride in her voice.
They came to an iron door like that of a cell, and Florinda gestured to a male nurse to open it. Inside, it was dark, with just a glimmer of light filtering through a small window high up on the wall. It took the hunter a while to make out a body as slender as a twig huddled in a corner between the wall and the bed. The girl could not have been more than twenty. A certain delicacy could still be glimpsed in a face hardened by suffering.
‘This is Angelina,’ Florinda announced with a dramatic flourish, as if presenting a fairground freak.
The hunter took a few steps forward, eager to find himself face to face with the reason that had brought him here. But the patient did not even seem to be aware of them.
‘The police discovered her when they raided a brothel in a village near Tijuana. They were looking for a drug trafficker, and instead they found her. Her parents were alcoholics and her father sold her into prostitution when she was barely five years old.’
She must have been a valuable asset at first, the hunter thought, to be reserved for clients ready to pay for their own little vice.
‘As she grew up, she lost her value and the men could have her for a few pesos. The people who ran the brothel kept her for drunken peasants and lorry drivers. She probably had sex with dozens of men every day.’
‘She never left the place, they kept her prisoner. The woman who had charge of her mistreated her. She never spoke. I doubt she really understood what was happening around her. As if she was in a catatonic state.’
The perfect escape valve for the worst instincts of those perverts, the hunter was about to remark, but he held back. He had to make sure his interest seemed purely professional. ‘Tell me when you first noticed her … talent.’
‘When they brought her here, she shared a room with an elderly patient. We’d thought of putting them together because both were disconnected from the world. And in fact they didn’t communicate with each other at all.’
The hunter looked from the girl to Florinda Valdez. ‘What happened then?’
‘At first Angelina developed strange motor symptoms. Her joints were stiff and painful, and she moved with difficulty. We thought it was some kind of arthritis. But then she started to lose her teeth.’
‘Not only that: we ran tests on her and discovered a serious weakening of her internal organs.’
‘And when did you finally realise what was happening?’
A shadow passed over Florinda Valdez’s face. ‘When her hair turned white.’
The hunter turned to look at the patient again. From what he could see, her almost shaven hair was unmistakably black.
‘To reverse the symptoms, all we had to do was take the old lady out of the room.’
For a long time, Angelina had been forced to be what the men who violated her wanted her to be. An object of pleasure, nothing else. So she had adapted. The result was that she had lost her own self. One little piece at a time, it had been taken away from her. Many years of abuse had wiped out all traces of identity. So she borrowed one from the people around her.
‘We’re not dealing with a case of multiple personality,’ Florinda Valdez said, ‘or the kind of patient who claims to be Napoleon or the Queen of England. Subjects affected by chameleon syndrome tend to imitate perfectly whoever they meet. Faced with a doctor they become doctors, faced with a cook they say they know how to cook. Questioned on their profession, they respond in a general but appropriate manner.’
The hunter remembered reading about a patient who identified with the cardiologist he was talking to and, when the doctor asked him a trick question on the diagnosis of a particular cardiac anomaly, answered that he couldn’t give an opinion without careful clinical examination.
‘But Angelina doesn’t simply emulate other people. When she was in contact with the old woman, she actually began to age. Her mind was causing her body to change.’
A transformist, the hunter told himself. ‘Have there been other manifestations?’
‘Some, but insignificant ones, lasting barely a few minutes. Subjects affected by the syndrome are the way they are because they’ve undergone brain damage or, as in the case of Angelina, some kind of shock that produces the same effects.’
The hunter was both disturbed and fascinated by the girl’s abilities. This was the proof he needed to demonstrate to himself that he had not been labouring under a delusion all this time. The theories he had formulated about his prey had been confirmed.
The hunter knew that all serial killers suffer from a crisis of identity: when they kill they are reflected in the victim and recognise themselves, they don’t need to pretend any more. While the murder is happening, the monster deep inside them appears on their faces.
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