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The lost girls of rome, p.17
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.17

           Donato Carrisi

  The child’s drawing of the boy with the scissors that they had found in Jeremiah Smith’s attic had immediately reminded Clemente of something that had happened three years earlier. He had given him a brief account of it while they were still in the villa. But after they had left, he had rushed to the archive to look for it. The code number on the cover was c.g. 554-33-1, but everybody had called it the Figaro case. Figaro was the name that the media had given to the perpetrator of the crime – catchy, but showing scant regard for the victims.

  Marcus opened the file and started reading the account.

  The scene that had greeted the police in a small house in the Nuovo Salario area one Friday evening was a truly horrifying one. A young man of twenty-seven was lying semi-conscious in a pool of his own vomit, at the foot of the staircase that led to the upper floor of the house. Some distance from him, a damaged wheelchair. Federico Noni was a paraplegic and, at first, the police had thought he had simply fallen and hurt himself. But then they had gone up to the first floor, and it was there that they had made their macabre discovery.

  In one of the bedrooms lay the naked and mutilated body of his twenty-five-year-old sister, Giorgia Noni.

  She had suffered multiple stab wounds. The fatal one had torn open her stomach.

  Analysing the lesions, the pathologist had established that the murder weapon had been a pair of scissors. This had caused alarm bells to start ringing in the minds of the police, because three women had been attacked previously in the same manner by a maniac – hence the nickname Figaro. They had all escaped with their lives. But it was clear that the assailant had wanted to go one stage further. This time, he had killed.

  Maniac was an imperfect definition, Marcus thought. This individual was much more than that. In his sick, twisted imagination, what he was doing with the scissors was necessary to give him pleasure. He wanted to smell his victims’ fear, mixed with the smell of the blood gushing from their wounds.

  For a moment, Marcus lifted his eyes from the papers. He needed a breath of normality. He found it in a little girl a few tables away who was licking her lips as she carefully opened a Happy Meal, her eyes shining with excitement.

  When is it that we change? he asked himself. When do our lives become irreversibly modified? Not that it always happens. Sometimes, everything goes the way it should.

  The sight of the little girl was sufficient to restore his faith in humanity. He could again immerse himself in the abyss opened up by the file in front of him.

  He started reading through the police report.

  The killer had got in through the main door, left carelessly open by Giorgia Noni when she had come back after doing the shopping. Figaro was in the habit of choosing his victims in hypermarkets and then following them home. The others, though, had always been alone when they were attacked. In the case of Georgia, her brother Federico was also in the house. He had been an athlete with great prospects, but a motorcycle accident had put an end to his career. According to the young man’s testimony, Figaro had come up behind him and overturned his wheelchair, sending him crashing to the floor and knocking him out. Then he had dragged Georgia upstairs, where he had subjected her to the same treatment as his other victims.

  When Federico regained consciousness, he had discovered that the wheelchair was irreparably damaged. From his sister’s screams he had realised that something terrible was happening upstairs. After trying to call for help, he had attempted to drag himself up the stairs. But his body was long out of training, not to mention that he was still dazed from the blow on the head, and he had had to give up.

  From where he was, he had been forced to listen, unable to do anything to help the person he loved most in the world: the sister who took care of him and would probably have continued to look after him for the rest of her life. He had lain there at the foot of those damned stairs, cursing, angry and powerless.

  A neighbour who had heard the screams coming from the house had finally raised the alarm. Hearing the siren of a police car, the killer had run away through the back door, which led out into the garden. His shoe prints had been found in the soil of a flower bed.

  When he finished reading, Marcus noticed that the little girl with the Happy Meal was now diligently sharing a chocolate muffin with her younger brother, while their parents looked on benevolently. His vision of this idyllic family picture was clouded by the questions rushing into his mind.

  Was Federico Noni the victim appointed this time to carry out an act of revenge? Was somebody already helping him to find his sister’s as yet unpunished killer? And was it his, Marcus’s, task to stop him?

  As he was considering this, Marcus came across a note at the end of the file. It was something that even his friend Clemente might not have known, because he had omitted it from the account he had given him while they were still in Jeremiah Smith’s villa.

  No revenge seemed possible, because Figaro had a name. He had even been arrested, and the case was officially closed.

  7.26 a.m.

  She had sat staring at the holy picture signed Fred for at least twenty minutes. First there had been the macabre singing of the song that symbolised her love for her husband, as left on the recorder hidden in the abandoned building site, with the voice of the man who had killed him. Now something else from their private lives had been defiled. The affectionate nickname she had used for David no longer belonged only to her.

  It must have been his killer, she told herself. He slipped the card under the door. He knows I’m here. What does he want from me?

  Sitting in her hotel room, Sandra tried to find an explanation. In addition to the picture of St Raymond of Penyafort and a prayer, the card also mentioned a place dedicated to the saint.

  A chapel in the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

  Sandra made up her mind to call De Michelis and ask him for information. She picked up her mobile phone, but the battery had run out. She started recharging it and went to pick up the telephone in the room. But before she could dial the number, she stopped suddenly and looked at the receiver in her hand.

  Since discovering that David had come to Rome to carry out a delicate investigation, she had been wondering whether he had contacted anyone during his stay in the city. But there were no emails on his laptop relating to that time, nor any calls in the memory of his mobile.

  That had struck her as odd.

  What she realised now was that she hadn’t checked the hotel’s phones.

  We’re so used to all this technology, she told herself, that we forget the most obvious things.

  She dialled 9 to get through to reception, and asked to speak to the manager. When he came on the line, she asked him for a list of calls made by David during his stay at the hotel. Once again, she used her authority as a police officer, claiming that she was conducting an investigation into her husband’s death. She didn’t know if he entirely believed her, but he did as she asked. After a while, he sent somebody up to her room with a printout. There was only one number on it.

  0039 328 39 56 7 XXX

  She had been right: David had called somebody’s mobile phone several times. She would have liked to know who that number belonged to, but the last three figures had been blocked out with Xs.

  To safeguard guests’ privacy, the hotel’s switchboard did not record the complete numbers of incoming and outgoing calls. All that mattered from the hotel’s point of view was that each call should be itemised on the bill, so they merely kept a tally of how many calls a guest made and whether they were local or long distance.

  Since David had chosen to phone that number from his hotel room, that meant he didn’t fear whoever was at the other end. Why should she?

  She looked again at the card signed Fred.

  What if it hadn’t been her husband’s killer who had sent it to her? What if it was the work of some mystery person who was helping her? Whoever it was, he must feel he was in danger after what had happened to David. So it was natural that he should b
e cautious. Maybe what she had found under the door was an invitation to go to the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, because there was something there that might help her. The only reason he had signed himself Fred was to reassure her that he had known David. When you thought about it, if this person had wanted to harm her, it would have been easy for him to wait and then attack her when she least expected it; he certainly wouldn’t have left her a message.

  Sandra knew there were no certainties, only questions and more questions. She realised she was at a crossroads. She could take the first train back to Milan and try to forget this whole business. Or else she could continue, whatever the cost.

  She decided that she would carry on. But first she had to find out what was waiting for her in the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort.

  The basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not far from the Pantheon. It had been built in 1280 on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva.

  Sandra’s taxi pulled up in the square in front of the church. In the middle of the square was a curious statue, designed by Bernini: an obelisk on the back of a small elephant. According to legend, Bernini had deliberately positioned the elephant with its back turned to the nearby Dominican monastery, in a mocking reference to the friars’ obtuseness.

  Sandra was wearing jeans and a grey sweatshirt with a hood that she could pull up in case it rained. The previous night’s storm seemed but a memory. The warmer air had dried the streets. The taxi driver had even apologised for that endless succession of rainy days, assuring her that in Rome the sun always shone. But black clouds were already spreading like gangrene across the golden sky.

  Sandra entered the church and discovered that the Romanesque and Renaissance facade concealed a Gothic interior, with a few debatable Baroque touches. She stood for a few moments looking up at the blue vaulted ceiling adorned with the figures of apostles, prophets and doctors of the Church.

  The basilica had only just opened its doors to worshippers. According to the calendar at the entrance, the first Mass of the morning would not be celebrated until ten. Apart from a nun arranging flowers on the main altar, Sandra was the sole visitor. She found the nun’s presence reassuring.

  She took out the card showing the picture of St Raymond of Penyafort and set off in search of the original. She walked past numerous chapels: the church had twenty of them in all. They were all luxurious, full of veined red jasper that pulsed with life, polychrome marble falling in soft curves like drapery, smooth and luminous ivory statues.

  The chapel that interested her was the last one on the right, and it was the simplest of them.

  It was no bigger than a hundred and fifty square feet, a dark alcove with bare, soot-blackened walls, filled with tombs.

  Sandra took out her mobile phone, and proceeded to photograph it, just as she would a crime scene. From the general to the particular. From the bottom to the top. She devoted particular attention to the works of art.

  St Raymond of Penyafort, in his Dominican habit, was shown next to St Paul in the altarpiece over the main altar. On the left was an oil painting of St Lucy and St Agatha. But Sandra was particularly struck by the fresco to the right of the chapel.

  Christ the judge between two angels.

  Beneath it were a large number of votive candles. Their little flames danced in unison at the slightest breath of air, giving the narrow space a reddish tinge.

  Sandra photographed these works in the hope that they would supply her with the answer that had been promised to her, just as had happened with The Martyrdom of St Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi. She was sure that everything would appear clearer to her through a camera lens, the way it always did at a crime scene. But she couldn’t see anything here to help her solve the mystery. It was the second time this morning she’d hit a dead end, the first being the discovery of the mysterious mobile number catalogued by the hotel’s switchboard but with the last three numbers missing. It was discouraging to know that she was so close to a truth and could not take that last, decisive step.

  Was it possible there was nothing in David’s photographs that referred to this place?

  She thought of the two remaining images. As before, she ruled out the dark one and concentrated on the other: David bare-chested in front of the mirror in the hotel room. With one hand he was photographing himself, with the other waving at the camera. It might seem a cheerful pose, but because of his serious expression there was nothing comical in the image.

  Abruptly, she stopped taking pictures and thought about what she had in her hand. A mobile phone taking photographs. She hadn’t made the connection until now. Photographs and mobile phone. No, she said as if she had been struck by the most ridiculous of brainwaves. It couldn’t be. The solution was within reach and she had not grasped it earlier. She looked in her bag for the printout with the mobile number they had given her at the hotel.

  0039 328 39 56 7 XXX

  David was not waving at the mirror. Instead, he was communicating a number to her with his raised hand. The very one that was missing from that telephone number. Sandra dialled the sequence on her mobile, replacing the three Xs with three 5s.

  She waited.

  Outside, the sky was again overcast. A greyish, sooty light had furtively penetrated the basilica through the windows. Gliding along the naves, it had filled every corner, every nook and cranny.

  She was getting through.

  A moment later, she heard the ringing of a mobile phone echoing through the church.

  It couldn’t be a coincidence. He was here. And he was watching her.

  After three rings, the sound stopped and the line went dead. Sandra turned towards the main altar to see if the nun she had seen a little while earlier was still there. But she wasn’t. She looked around, waiting for a presence to manifest itself. She didn’t realise she was in danger until something whistled just above her head and then hit the wall. Recognising the sound as a shot fired from a gun with a silencer, she crouched, moving her hand to her service weapon. All her senses were alert, but she couldn’t stop her heart from pounding. A second bullet missed her by a few feet. She was unable to establish the position of the sniper, but she was certain he couldn’t see her. Confident as she was of this, she would need to move to get a better vantage point.

  She had to get out of here.

  Holding her gun out in front of her, she swivelled on her heels, exactly as she had been taught to do at the academy, all the while surveying her surroundings. She spotted another exit a few yards from where she was standing. To get to it, she would have to take shelter behind the columns of the nave.

  She had been wrong to trust that card slipped under her door. How could she have been so careless, with David’s killer still at large?

  She gave herself ten seconds to get to the exit. She started counting, and simultaneously darted forward. One – no shot. Two – she already had a couple of yards advantage. Three – the dim light from a window fell on her for a moment. Four – she was again in the shadows. Five – a few more steps to go, she’d soon be out of here. Six and seven – she felt herself being seized by the shoulders, someone was pulling her to him from one of the chapels. Eight, nine and ten – the person was unexpectedly strong, and she couldn’t resist. Eleven, twelve and thirteen – she struggled, trying to free herself from that embrace. Fourteen – she managed to get free, but only just. Her gun fell and, in her desperate attempt to start running again, she slipped. Fifteen – she realised that her head was going to hit the marble floor and, with a kind of sixth sense, she felt the pain one second before she touched the ground. She put her hands forward to cushion her fall, but it was useless. All she could do was turn her head in the hope of softening the blow. Her cheek hit the cold floor, which in a second became white hot. A shudder went through her like an electric shock. Sixteen – her eyes were open, but she felt as if she had already lost consciousness. It was a strange sensation, as if she was absent and present at the same time. Seventeen – sh
e was aware of two hands grabbing her by the shoulders.

  Then she stopped counting and darkness fell.

  9.00 a.m.

  Regina Coeli was a former convent, built in the second half of the seventeenth century. It had been a prison since 1881, but had kept its original name, which meant Queen of Heaven, a homage to the Virgin Mary.

  The building, which could house up to nine hundred prisoners, was divided into various sections depending on the category of crimes committed. Section 8 held the so-called borderline cases. These were individuals who had lived normally for years, working, building relationships, sometimes families, and then suddenly had committed heinous crimes for no clear or explicit reason, arousing doubts concerning their mental health. They did not present the unmistakable signs of mental illness. Their abnormality was revealed solely through their criminal conduct and was not the result of morbid psychological manifestations: the only thing morbid about these people was their crimes. While waiting for a court to pronounce on whether or not they could be classed as criminally insane, they enjoyed different treatment from the rest of the prison population.

  For more than a year, Section 8 had been the home of Nicola Costa, also known as Figaro.

  Having undergone the normal checks, Marcus went in through the main entrance and proceeded down a long corridor punctuated from time to time by gates, gradually getting deeper into the heart of the prison. It was as if he was descending into the Underworld.

  For the occasion, he had put on his priestly garb. He was not used to the white collar that constricted his throat, or to the cassock that fluttered around him as he walked. Never having worn it before, he thought of it less as a uniform than as a disguise.

  A few hours earlier, after learning that Figaro was safely behind bars, he and Clemente had decided on a stratagem to get in to see him. Nicola Costa was waiting for a judge to decide whether he should continue to see out his sentence in prison or in a psychiatric hospital. In the meantime, he had set out on a path of conversion and repentance. Each morning he was accompanied to the little church inside the prison by the guards. He would make confession and follow the Mass in perfect solitude. Today, however, the chaplain had been summoned urgently to the Curia for an unspecified reason. It would take him a while to realise it was all a mistake. Clemente had arranged everything, even getting Marcus a permit to temporarily replace the chaplain, and thus gain unimpeded access to Regina Coeli.

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