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The lost girls of rome, p.15
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.15

           Donato Carrisi
 

  But the man he was hunting – his prey – was much more than that. He had no true identity, which was why he had constantly to borrow one from somebody else. He was a unique example, an extremely rare psychiatric case.

  A transformist serial killer.

  He didn’t just take another person’s place and imitate his behaviour, he actually became that person. That was why nobody, apart from the hunter, had ever identified him.

  It was impossible to predict his moves. The transformist had exceptional learning skills, especially as regards languages and accents. Over the years he had perfected his method. First of all he chose an appropriate individual. A man similar to himself: non-descript features, the same height, easily reproducible distinguishing marks. As in the case of Jean Duez in Paris. The most important thing was that he had no past, no ties, and a monotonous daily routine, and preferably worked from home.

  The transformist took over his life.

  The modus operandi was always the same. He would kill the person and wipe out his face, as if wanting to remove his identity for ever, then assume that identity for himself.

  Angelina wasn’t merely a confirmation. She was a second example. Looking at her, the hunter realised that he hadn’t been deceiving himself all this time. But he still needed a demonstration, because the most difficult challenge was in trying to imagine such a talent combined with an instinct to kill.

  Florinda Valdez’s mobile phone started to vibrate. She excused herself and went out to answer the call. This was the opportunity the hunter had been waiting for.

  He had done some research before coming here. Angelina had a younger brother. They had lived together for a very short time, given that she had been sold at the age of five. But perhaps that had been sufficient for some trace of him to remain in her.

  For the hunter, it was the key he needed to enter the prison of her mind.

  Alone now with the girl, he went and placed himself in front of her, kneeling in such a way that she could see his face properly. Then he started to speak slowly.

  ‘Angelina, I want you to listen to me. I’ve taken your brother. Little Pedro, do you remember? He’s a lovely boy, but now I’m going to kill him.’

  The girl did not react.

  ‘Did you hear what I said? I’m going to kill him, Angelina. I’m going to tear his heart from his chest and hold it in my hand until it stops beating.’ The hunter held out his open palm towards her. Can you hear it beating? Pedro is dying. And nobody will save him. And it’ll really hurt, I swear. He’ll die, but first he’ll have to suffer terribly.’

  All of a sudden, the girl lunged forward and bit the hand the hunter was holding towards her. Caught off guard, he lost his balance, and before he knew it Angelina was on top of him, pressing down on his chest. She was not heavy; he yanked at her and managed to pull free of her. He watched as she crawled back into her corner, her mouth filled with blood, her sharp gums stained red. Even though she had no teeth, she had managed to inflict a deep wound.

  Dr Valdez came back in and saw Angelina sitting calmly in her corner and her visitor using his shirt to try and stem the blood gushing from his hand.

  ‘What happened?’ she cried in alarm.

  ‘She attacked me,’ the hunter hastened to say. ‘It isn’t serious, but I’ll probably need a few stitches.’

  ‘She’s never done that before.’

  ‘I don’t know what to say. All I did was try and talk to her.’

  Florinda Valdes accepted that explanation, perhaps because she was afraid to spoil her chances with Dr Foster. As for the hunter, he had no further reason to stay here: in provoking the girl, he had got the answer he was looking for.

  ‘I think it’s best if I have this seen to,’ he said, exaggerating his grimace of pain.

  Dr Valdez was all at sea, she didn’t want him to go, but she didn’t know how to detain him. She offered to accompany him to Emergency, but he politely declined the offer. In sudden desperation, she said, ‘I wanted to talk to you about the other case …’

  Her words had the hoped-for effect. The hunter stopped in the doorway. ‘What other case?’

  ‘It happened many years ago, in the Ukraine,’ Dr Valdez replied. ‘A boy named Dima.’

  THREE DAYS AGO

  3.27 a.m.

  The corpse started screaming.

  Only when his lungs were empty and he was forced to catch his breath did he realise that he had come back from the dream. Devok had been killed, again. How many more times would he have to witness his death? This was the earliest memory he possessed, and it was repeated every time he closed his eyes to sleep.

  Marcus put his hand under the pillow and searched for his felt-tip pen. When he found it, he wrote on the wall next to the bed: Three shots.

  Another glimmer of his past. But this new element changed many things. Like the detail of the smashed window the night before, the perception had been an auditory one. But he was convinced that this time it was really important.

  He had heard three distinct shots. Previously, he had always counted two. One for himself, one for Devok. But in the latest version of the dream there had been a third shot.

  His unconscious could have been playing tricks on him, arbitrarily modifying the scene in the hotel in Prague. Sometimes it inserted unlikely or incongruous sounds or objects: a jukebox, a piece of pop music. Marcus had no control over its quirks.

  But this time it was as if he had always known it.

  This third shot now joined the other fragments of the scene. He was sure it, too, would prove useful in reconstructing what had happened and, above all, in helping him to see the face of the man who had killed his master and had forced him to forget himself.

  Three shots.

  A few hours earlier, Marcus had again found himself facing the threat of a gun. But that had been different. He hadn’t been afraid. The woman in San Luigi dei Francesi would have pulled the trigger, he was sure of it. But there was no hate in her eyes, there was desperation. Only the momentary blackout had saved him. At that point, he could have escaped. Instead, he had stayed and revealed to her who he was.

  I’m a priest.

  Why had he done that? Why had he felt the need to tell her? He had wanted to give her something, some kind of compensation for all her suffering. His identity was his greatest secret, he should have defended it at all costs. The world would not understand. That was the litany Clemente had repeated to him from the first day. And he had failed in that commitment. With an unknown woman, as well. This woman, whoever she was, had a reason to kill him, that reason being, apparently, the murder of the man she had loved. And yet Marcus felt unable to consider her an enemy.

  Who was she? In what way could she and her husband have been part of his previous life? What if she held some clue to his past?

  Maybe I should look for her, he told himself. Maybe I should talk to her.

  But that wasn’t wise. And besides, he didn’t know anything about her.

  He wouldn’t say anything to Clemente. He was sure he wouldn’t approve such an impulsive act. They both served a sacred oath, but in different ways. His young friend was a faithful, devout priest, whereas in Marcus’s heart spirits moved that he was unable to comprehend.

  He looked at his watch. Clemente had left him a message. They had to meet before dawn. A few hours earlier, the police had suspended their search of Jeremiah Smith’s villa.

  Now it was their turn to visit the house.

  The road wound between the hills to the west of Rome. A few miles away were Fiumicino, the coast, the turbulent estuary of the Tiber. The old Fiat Panda laboured up the slope, its headlights barely illuminating a portion of the road. Around them, the countryside was starting to wake up. Dawn was near.

  Clemente was leaning forward as he drove to see where he was going. He was often forced to shift gears noisily. Marcus, who had climbed in near the Ponte Milvio, had given him an account of what had happened the previous evening in Guido Altieri’s house. His fr
iend, however, was much more interested in the version that had appeared on television, which failed to mention the presence of a third man at the scene. He was relieved by that: for now, their secret was safe.

  Marcus made no reference to what had happened later, the episode of the armed woman in San Luigi dei Francesi. Instead he went straight on to how the events of the last few hours reflected on the disappearance of young Lara.

  ‘Jeremiah Smith didn’t have a heart attack. He was poisoned.’

  ‘The toxicological tests didn’t reveal the presence of any suspicious substances in his blood,’ Clemente retorted.

  ‘Well, I’m convinced that’s what happened. There’s no other explanation.’

  ‘Then someone must have taken the words on his chest seriously.’

  Kill me, Marcus thought. Someone acting in the shadows had offered both Monica, the sister of Jeremiah Smith’s first victim, and Raffaele Altieri the opportunity to redress the terrible wrongs they had suffered. ‘When justice is no longer possible, there remains only one choice: forgiveness or revenge.’

  ‘An eye for an eye,’ Clementi said.

  ‘Yes, but there’s something else.’ Marcus paused, trying to formulate an idea that had been maturing in him since the previous evening. ‘Someone was expecting our intervention. Do you remember the Bible with the red satin bookmark I found in Lara’s apartment?’

  ‘The page with St Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”.’

  ‘Somebody knows about us, Clemente,’ he said with ever greater conviction. ‘Think about it. He sent Raffaele an anonymous letter, for us he chose a sacred text. A message appropriate to men of faith. I was involved for one reason, and it’s the reason Raffaele was summoned to Lara’s apartment. In the end, I was the one who led him to the truth about his father. It’s my fault that Guido Altieri was killed.’

  Clemente turned for a moment to look at Marcus. ‘Who can have arranged all this?’

  ‘I don’t know. But whoever it is has not only been putting the victims’ relatives in contact with the killers, he’s also been trying to involve us.’

  Clemente sensed that this wasn’t mere hypothesis, and that troubled him. At this point, the visit to Jeremiah Smith’s villa had become of vital importance. They were convinced they would find a sign there that would lead them to the next level of the labyrinth. It was their one hope of saving Lara. Without that objective, they would have been less motivated to continue. And whoever was behind this enigma knew that, which was why he was offering the young student’s life as a prize.

  There were still police patrolling in front of the main gate. But the property was too large to be watched in its entirety. Clemente parked the Panda on a side road half a mile away. Then they got out and continued on foot, trusting that the darkness would hide them.

  ‘We have to be quick,’ Clementi said as they hurried across the uneven ground. ‘In a couple of hours the forensics team will be back to continue their work.’

  They got into the villa through a back window, removing the seals. They had others, fake ones, which they would put on when they left. Nobody would suspect a thing. Having put on overshoes and latex gloves, they lit the torches they had brought with them, keeping the beams of light partially covered with the palms of their hands so that they could orient themselves without being noticed from outside.

  The house was a kind of refurbished Art Nouveau, with a few modern concessions. They went into a study with a mahogany desk and a large bookcase. The furnishings bore witness to a comfortable past. Jeremiah had grown up in an upper middle-class family, and his parents had built up a decent fortune in the textile trade. Their dedication to business had prevented them having more than one child. They had probably assumed he would carry on with the company and preserve the good name of the Smiths. But they must soon have realised that their sole heir was not cut out for that.

  Marcus shone his torch over a series of framed photographs neatly arranged on an oak table. The story of the family was condensed into those faded images. A picnic in a meadow, a very young Jeremiah on his mother’s lap, his father embracing both of them in a protective hug. On the villa’s tennis court, in immaculate sportswear, clutching wooden rackets. At Christmas, dressed in red, posing in front of a decorated tree.

  Waiting stiffly for the camera’s self-timer to go off, always composed in a perfect triptych, like ghosts from another era.

  At a certain point, though, these photographs lost one of their protagonists. A teenage Jeremiah and his mother, smiling sadly and formally: the head of the family has left them after a brief illness and they continue the tradition, not so much to perpetuate his memory as to distance themselves from the shadow of death.

  One image in particular aroused Marcus’s curiosity. It struck him as rather macabre that they had found a way to include the dead man in the pose. Mother and son stood on either side of a large sandstone fireplace above which hung a rather austere portrait of the father.

  ‘They haven’t found anything to link Jeremiah Smith to Lara,’ Clemente said behind him.

  In the room, marks of the police search were evident. Objects had been moved, furniture inspected.

  ‘So they still don’t know he was the one who took her. They won’t search for her.’

  ‘Stop it,’ Clemente said, his tone suddenly hard.

  Marcus was surprised: it wasn’t like him.

  ‘I can’t believe you still don’t get it. You’re not a detective, and you’re not allowed to intervene. You’ve been trained to do what you do, and that’s it. Do I have to spell it out for you? There’s every chance the girl will die in the end. In fact, I’d say it’s almost certain she will. But it won’t depend on anything we do or don’t do. So stop feeling guilty.’

  Marcus concentrated again on the photograph showing a solemn twenty-year-old Jeremiah Smith posing beneath his father’s portrait.

  ‘Where do you want to start?’ Clemente asked.

  ‘In the room where they found him dying.’

  It was clear that the forensics team had been hard at work in the living room: there were halogen lamps on stands, deposits of residue from the reagents they used to detect organic liquids and prints, and numbered stickers marking the positions of finds that had been photographed and then taken away.

  It was in this room that a blue hair ribbon, a coral bracelet, a pink knitted shoe and a red roller skate – items belonging to Jeremiah Smith’s four victims – had been found. These souvenirs indisputably proved that he had been involved, and keeping them had been a risk. But Marcus could imagine how the killer had felt every time he touched these trophies. They were the symbols of what he did best: killing. Having them in his hands, he absorbed their energy, as if violent death had the power to reinvigorate the person who dispenses it.

  They were kept in the living room, because Jeremiah wanted them next to him. That way the girls were always there. Souls in torment, prisoners of that house together with him.

  But among the objects there wasn’t one that belonged to Lara.

  Marcus entered the room, while Clemente remained in the doorway. The furniture was covered with white sheets, apart from the sofa in the middle of the room and the old television set. A small table had been overturned, and on the floor were a broken bowl, a pool of milk, now dry, and crumbled biscuits.

  Jeremiah had knocked them over when he had felt ill, Marcus thought. In the evening he had milk and biscuits while watching TV. The image of solitude. The monster didn’t need to hide, other people’s indifference was shelter enough. If only the world had paid any attention to him, he might have been stopped earlier.

  Jeremiah was an unsociable character, and yet he transformed himself in order to lure his victims. Apart from Lara, he took the others by day, Marcus recalled. What method did he use to approach them and gain their trust? It must have been convincing, because the girls didn’t fear him. Why didn’t he use the same tricks to
make friends? The one thing that drove him was murder. His success was down to evil. Because evil somehow made him seem a good person, someone you could trust. But Jeremiah Smith had overlooked one important fact: there is always a price to be paid. The greatest fear of every human being, even of those who have chosen to live as hermits, is not death, but dying alone. There is a subtle difference. And it’s one that you don’t realise until you experience it.

  The thought that nobody will mourn us, that nobody will feel our loss or remember us. It’s the same thing that was happening to me, Marcus thought.

  He was looking at the part of the room where the ambulance team had tried to resuscitate Smith. Sterile gloves, pieces of gauze, syringes and cannulas: everything was still there, as if frozen in that moment.

  Marcus tried to focus on what had happened before Jeremiah Smith started to feel the symptoms. ‘Whoever poisoned him knew his habits – he did to Jeremiah exactly what Jeremiah had done to Lara. He introduced himself into his life, into his house, and observed him. He didn’t choose sugar to conceal the drug, but maybe he put something in the milk. It was a kind of retaliation.’

  Clemente watched as his pupil entered completely into the psyche of the person who had done all this. ‘That’s why Jeremiah felt bad and telephoned Emergency.’

  ‘The Gemelli is the nearest hospital – it was only natural for the call to be directed there. Whoever did this to Jeremiah Smith knew that Monica, the first victim’s sister, was the doctor on duty in Emergency last night and that she’d go with the ambulance.’ Marcus seemed impressed with the skill of the person who had orchestrated this opportunity for revenge. ‘He doesn’t act randomly, he’s meticulous.’ He had taken the crime scene apart, piece by piece, revealing the conjuring trick that had been played. ‘Yes, you’re good,’ he said, addressing his adversary as if he were present. ‘And now let’s see what else you have in store for us.’

 
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