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The lost girls of rome, p.16
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.16

           Donato Carrisi
 

  ‘Do you think there are any clues that could lead us to the place where Lara’s being kept prisoner?’

  ‘No, he’s too clever for that. Even if there had been, he would have removed them. The girl is a prize, don’t forget that. We have to deserve her.’

  Marcus started moving around the room, convinced there was something he was still missing.

  ‘What do you think we should be looking for?’ Clemente asked.

  ‘Something that has no connection with anything else. Something the police wouldn’t notice, but that only we could grasp.’

  He needed to find the precise point to start his examination of the scene. He was sure that from there, the anomaly would be evident. The most logical spot was right here, where Jeremiah had been found dying.

  ‘The shutters,’ he said. Clemente went and closed the shutters over the two large windows that looked out on the back of the house. Now Marcus let the beam of his torch wander over the room. The shadows of the objects rose in turn, like obedient little soldiers, as he aimed at them. The sofas, the sideboard, the dining table, the armchair, the fireplace with the painting of tulips above it. Marcus was struck by a feeling of déjà vu. He turned back and again shone his torch at the painting.

  ‘That shouldn’t be here.’

  Clemente did not understand. But Marcus had a clear memory of the sandstone fireplace as he had seen it in one of the photographs in the study: the photograph of mother and son standing beneath an oil portrait of Jeremiah’s late father.

  ‘It’s been moved.’

  The portrait wasn’t there now. Marcus went up to the painting of the tulips, shifted the frame and ascertained that the mark left on the wall over the years was a different size. He was about to put it back into position, when he noticed a number on the back, in the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas: the number 1.

  ‘I’ve found it,’ Clemente called to him from the corridor.

  Marcus joined him and saw the painting of Jeremiah’s father on the wall next to the door.

  ‘The pictures have been swapped round.’

  He took the painting from the wall and checked the back. The number this time was 2. They both looked around, with the same idea in their minds. They separated, and started taking every painting off the wall, trying to find the third one.

  ‘Here it is,’ Clemente announced. It was a landscape painting hanging at the end of the corridor, at the foot of the staircase that led to the upper floor. They started climbing and, halfway up, found the fourth painting. They knew now they were on the right track.

  ‘He’s showing us the way,’ Marcus said. But neither of them could imagine where it would lead them.

  On the second-floor landing they located the fifth painting, then the sixth in a little passage, and the seventh in the corridor that led to the bedrooms. The eighth was very small: a tempera painting of an Indian tiger. It was next to a little door in what must have been Jeremiah Smith’s bedroom as a child. A battalion of lead soldiers on a shelf, a Meccano set, a catapult, a rocking horse.

  We often forget that even monsters were children once, Marcus thought. There are things we carry with us from childhood. But God knows where the urge to kill comes from.

  Clemente opened the little door to reveal a steep flight of stairs that probably led to the attic.

  ‘Maybe the police haven’t yet had a good look up there.’

  They were both sure that the ninth painting would be the last in the series. Cautiously they climbed the uneven steps. The ceiling was low, forcing them to stoop. At last they came out into a large room crammed with old furniture, books and trunks. A few birds had made their nests between the rafters. Startled by the presence of the two men, they began whirling around, desperate for a way out, which they found in an open dormer window.

  Clemente looked at his watch. ‘We can’t stay too long, it’s almost dawn.’

  So they immediately started looking for the painting. There were various canvases piled up in a corner. Clemente looked through them. ‘Nothing,’ he announced after a moment or two, shaking the dust from his clothes.

  Marcus caught a glint of gold from behind a chest. He stepped around it and saw a richly decorated frame hanging on the wall. There was no need to turn it to realise that this was indeed the ninth picture. The content was unusual enough to confirm that they had reached the end of this strange treasure hunt.

  It was a child’s drawing.

  Done with coloured pencils on a sheet from an exercise book, it had subsequently been put in this frame that was much too elaborate for it, the very incongruity calculated to attract attention.

  It depicted a day in summer or spring, with the sun casting a pleasant glow over a luxuriant scene. Trees, swallows, flowers, a small river. There were two children in the picture, a little girl in a red polka dot dress and a little boy clutching an object in his hand. Despite the gaiety of the colours and the innocence of the subject, Marcus felt a curious sensation.

  There was something malign in that drawing.

  He took a step forward to get a better look at it. Only then did he realise that what he saw on the little girl’s dress were not polka dots but bleeding wounds. And that the little boy was holding a pair of scissors.

  He read the date written in the margin: it went back twenty years. Jeremiah Smith was already too old at the time to be the artist. No, this picture was part of somebody else’s sick fantasy. He remembered Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew: what he had in front of him was the depiction of a crime scene. But, when it had been drawn, the crime had not yet been committed.

  Even monsters were children once, he repeated to himself. The one in the drawing had grown up in the meantime. And Marcus realised that he would have to find him.

  6.04 a.m.

  The first day in forensics they teach you that in a crime scene there is no such thing as coincidence. Then they continue to repeat it to you at every opportunity, in case you forget it. They tell you that coincidences are not only misleading but could turn out to be harmful and counter-productive. And they cite various extreme cases in which this had compromised investigations irrevocably.

  Thanks to this conditioning, Sandra didn’t much believe in coincidences. But in real life, she admitted that these accidental connections between events could sometimes be useful, at the very least to call our attention to things we wouldn’t see otherwise.

  She had come to the conclusion that some of them were of little importance. These were the ones that could be dismissed with the words: ‘Oh, it’s just a coincidence.’ Others, though, seemed designed to point our lives in a different direction. These were given a different name: ‘signs’. These make us feel we are receiving an exclusive message, as if the cosmos or a superior entity has chosen us. In other words, they make us feel special.

  Sandra recalled that Jung had called this second kind of coincidence synchronicity. He had enumerated the fundamental characteristics of these coincidences. They were absolutely acausal, in other words unconnected to the nexus of cause and effect. They coincided with profound emotional experiences. And they possessed a strong symbolic value.

  Jung maintained that certain individuals go through life looking for deeper meanings in every unusual event that happens to them.

  Sandra was not one of those people. But she had been forced to re-evaluate her position. And this turnaround had been brought about by David’s story of the extraordinary chain of events that had led to their meeting.

  It was two days before the August bank holiday and he was in Berlin. He was supposed to join a few friends on Mykonos, where they would board a sailing boat for a cruise around the Greek islands. That morning, however, his alarm clock had not gone off; he had woken up late, yet still managed to get to the airport moments before check-in closed. He remembered thinking: What luck! He hadn’t known what was in store for him.

  To get to his destination, he needed to catch a connection in Rome. But before he could get on this second plane,
the airline told him there had been a problem and his luggage had been left behind in Berlin.

  Having no intention of giving up, he quickly bought a new suitcase and new clothes in the airport shops and presented himself punctually at the check-in for his flight to Athens – only to discover that, due to the large numbers travelling over the holiday weekend, he was double-booked.

  At eight in the evening, when he should have been sitting in the stern of a three-master sipping ice-cold ouzo with a gorgeous Indian model he had met two weeks earlier in Milan, he found himself in a departure lounge packed with tourists, filling out insurance forms to reclaim his baggage.

  He should have waited until the following day and taken the first available flight, but he didn’t think he could bear that. So he rented a car with the intention of going to the port of Brindisi and there embarking on a ferry for Greece.

  After driving all night, a journey of over three hundred miles, he saw the sun begin to emerge over the coast of Apulia. The road maps indicated that he was not far from his destination, but just then his car developed a fault. After chugging along for a while, it finally broke down completely.

  Pulling up at the side of the road, David got out and instead of cursing his bad luck looked at the landscape around him. To his right, a white town on a plateau. To his left, a few hundred yards away, the sea.

  He walked to the beach, which was deserted at that hour of the morning. On the foreshore, he took out one of his aniseed cigarettes, lit it, and celebrated the rising sun.

  It was then that he looked down and saw some small, perfectly symmetrical footprints in the wet sand. Instinctively, he attributed them to a woman jogging. The coast in that direction was full of inlets, so whoever had left them had already disappeared from sight. But one thing was certain: not much time had passed, or the backwash would have erased the prints completely.

  Whenever he told the story subsequently, he always found it difficult to describe what had gone through his head at that moment. He had suddenly felt that he absolutely had to follow those footprints, and had broken into a run.

  At this point in the story, Sandra would always ask him how he knew it was a woman.

  ‘I didn’t know, I could only hope. I mean, it could have been a little boy, or even a short man.’

  She was never entirely convinced by this explanation. Her instinct as a police officer drove her to ask, ‘And how did you know they were jogging?’

  But David was prepared for this, too. ‘The prints in the sand were deeper at the front, which meant the person was running.’

  ‘I guess that’s plausible.’

  And David would resume the story from where she had interrupted him. He said that he had gone a hundred yards, climbed a dune, and from the top spotted the figure of a woman. She was wearing shorts, a figure-hugging T-shirt and trainers, and her blonde hair was gathered in a ponytail. He couldn’t see her face. He felt an urge to call out to her, which was stupid, because he didn’t even know her name.

  At this point, he put on speed.

  What would he say once he had caught up with her? The closer he got, the more he realised that he had to come up with something so as not to appear a complete idiot. But he couldn’t think of anything.

  After much effort, he managed to come up alongside her. She was very beautiful – when Sandra heard him say this, she usually smiled. He apologised to the woman and asked her to stop. She did so, but reluctantly, and stared at this madman standing there trying to catch his breath. He couldn’t have made a great impression on her. He had been wearing the same clothes for twenty-four hours, he hadn’t slept all night, he was sweating from his run, and he probably didn’t smell particularly good.

  ‘Hi, I’m David,’ he said, holding out his hand. She looked at it in disgust, without taking it, as if he had offered her a rotten fish. Then he continued, ‘Do you know what Jung said about coincidences?’ And he launched into an account of all the things that had happened to him since he had left Berlin the previous day. She stood there listening to him without saying a word, trying perhaps to figure out where he was going with all this.

  She let him finish, then said that their meeting couldn’t exactly be called a coincidence. Because, although the chain of events that had led him to this beach had been independent of his will, he had decided of his own volition to follow her footprints. Which meant that the theory of synchronicity didn’t apply.

  ‘Who says so?’

  ‘Jung says so.’

  David considered this an excellent objection, and fell silent. Not knowing what else to add, he bade her goodbye and sadly turned away. On the way back, he thought how wonderful it would have been if that girl had indeed turned out to be a special woman, maybe the love of his life. It would have been memorable to fall in love like that and have that story to tell in years to come. It would have transformed a series of small misadventures into a great romantic epic.

  All because of some mislaid luggage.

  The girl didn’t run after him to tell him she had changed her mind. He had never even learned her name. But after waiting a month for the airline to find his case, he had gone to Police Headquarters in Milan to report the theft. There, in front of a coffee machine, he had met Sandra for the first time, they had exchanged a few words, had liked each other and, a few weeks later, had started living together.

  Now, waking up in her hotel room in Rome with a weight on her soul – the recent discovery that David had been murdered and the knowledge that she had to find his killer – Sandra couldn’t help smiling.

  Every time David had told that story to a new friend, this friend had assumed that the girl on the beach would turn out to be her. But the amazing thing about it was that life sometimes takes the most banal way to offer us the greatest opportunities. Men and women don’t need to look for ‘signs’.

  Sometimes, amid billions of people, they simply have to find each other.

  If, when they were standing at that coffee machine, she hadn’t had a five-euro note and David hadn’t been able to change it for her with some coins he had in his pocket, they might not have had a reason to talk. They might have just stood there, waiting for their respective drinks, then walked away as two strangers, unaware of the love that they could have shared and – which was the most incredible thing of all – they wouldn’t have suffered any regrets for a missed opportunity.

  How many times a day does this kind of thing occur and we don’t know it? How many people meet by chance and then separate as if nothing has happened, without knowing that they were perfect for each other?

  That was why, although David was dead, she felt privileged.

  And what of last night’s events? she wondered. That encounter with the man with the scar on his temple had left her stunned. She still couldn’t get over it. She thought she had met a killer, only to discover he was a priest. There was no doubt in her mind that he was telling the truth. He could have taken advantage of the blackout to escape, instead of which he had stayed and told her what he was. Faced with that unexpected revelation, she had wavered, unable to press the trigger. It was as if she had heard her mother’s voice admonishing her: ‘Sandra, my dear, you can’t shoot a priest. It’s simply not done.’ It was ridiculous.

  Coincidences.

  How to figure out the relationship between David and that man? Sandra got out of bed and went to look at his photograph again. What did a priest have to do with the investigation? Instead of providing answers, that image complicated everything.

  Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten for hours. She also felt feverish. Last night, she had been soaked to the skin by the time she had got back to the hotel.

  In the sacristy of San Luigi dei Francesi she had realised that what she was looking for went beyond justice. There was something else, something darker, that needed to be assuaged. Suffering produces strange effects. It weakens us, makes us more fragile. But, at the same time, it strengthens a desire we thought we could keep at bay. The desire to
inflict the same pain on others. As if revenge is the only cure for our own pain.

  Sandra realised she would have to come to terms with a dark side of herself that she had never been aware of until now. I don’t want to become like that, she thought. But she feared that she had changed irrevocably.

  She put to one side the photograph showing the priest with the scar on his temple and concentrated on the last two.

  One of them was the dark photograph. The other was the one showing David in front of the mirror, waving sadly.

  She held them both up in front of her, as if trying to grasp the connection. But they didn’t suggest anything to her. As she put them down again, she froze, her gaze fixed to the floor.

  There was a small card just inside the door.

  She stood there for a few moments looking at it. Then, steeling herself, she picked it up, quickly, as if she was afraid. Someone must have slipped it in overnight, during the few hours she had yielded to sleep. She looked at the card. It was a holy picture, depicting a Dominican friar.

  St Raymond of Penyafort.

  The name was printed on the back, together with a prayer in Latin to be recited in order to obtain the saint’s intercession. Some of the phrases were illegible, because someone had written a word across them in red ink. Only one word, but a word that sent a shiver down Sandra’s spine.

  Fred.

  7.00 a.m.

  He needed a crowded place. At this hour of the morning, the McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps fitted the bill perfectly. Most of the customers were foreign tourists looking for more substantial fare than the usual Italian breakfast.

  Marcus chose the place because he needed to feel the presence of other people. He needed to know that the world was capable of going on despite the horrors he witnessed every day, and that he wasn’t alone in this struggle, because the families that surrounded him – bringing children into the world and raising them with love – played a role in the salvation of the human race.

  He moved his cup of watery coffee, which he hadn’t even touched, into a corner of the table, and put in the middle the file that Clemente had left for him half an hour earlier in a confessional: another of the places they used for exchanging information.

 
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