The Lost Girls of Rome, p.18Donato Carrisi
Obviously, it was a risk, one that might undermine their secrecy. But the drawing found in Jeremiah Smith’s attic suggested that the Figaro case might not be closed after all. Marcus was here to find out.
After walking down a long stone passageway, he came out into a high octagonal space, bounded by the three floors that housed the cells. The balconies were protected by metal nets that extended all the way to the ceiling, to stop prisoners committing suicide by jumping off.
A guard led him into the church and left him alone to prepare for the service. One of the priestly duties was to celebrate Eucharist: priests were expected to say Mass every day. Because of the particular ministry he carried out, Marcus had been given a dispensation relieving him of such duties. But since the events in Prague, he had celebrated a few Masses under Clemente’s guidance, just to feel comfortable with the ritual. So he was well prepared now.
He had not had time to study the man he was to meet in any great depth, especially as far as his psychological state was concerned. But the definition ‘borderline’ was an excellent way of expressing the idea that there was a tissue-thin membrane between good and evil. Sometimes, that membrane was elastic, allowing brief incursions into the dark side, but also the possibility of coming back. In some instances the barrier broke, leaving the way open for individuals to go back and forth with ease. They might appear completely normal, but one step to the other side was all it took to transform them into dangerous psychopaths.
According to the psychiatrists, Nicola Costa belonged to this latter category.
Marcus was preparing the altar, with his back to the deserted congregation area, when he heard the clink of handcuffs. Costa entered the church escorted by the guards. He was wearing jeans and a white shirt buttoned to the collar. He was bald apart from a few scattered tufts of hair, and he moved in an awkward way. But the most noticeable thing about him was his cleft palate, which gave his face a fixed and very sinister smile.
Costa dragged himself to one of the pews. Supporting him by his arms, the guards helped him to sit down, then went and stood sentry outside the door, where they would remain for the duration of the service, in order not to invade the sanctity of Mass.
Marcus waited another few minutes, then turned.
Costa was startled and clearly dismayed. ‘Where’s the chaplain?’ he asked.
‘He wasn’t feeling well.’
Costa nodded and said nothing. Holding a rosary in his hands, he started muttering incomprehensibly. Every now and again he was forced to take a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his shirt and wipe the saliva from the split on his lip.
‘Before we proceed with the service, do you want to confess?’
‘With the other priest I’ve been embarking on a kind of spiritual journey. I tell him my doubts and anxieties and he teaches me the Gospels. Perhaps I ought to wait until he’s back.’
He was as meek as a lamb, Marcus noted. Or maybe he was just playing his part well.
‘I’m sorry, I thought you liked it,’ he said, turning his back on him again.
‘What?’ Costa asked, confused.
‘Confessing your sins.’
The phrase evidently upset him. ‘What’s happening? I don’t understand.’
‘It doesn’t matter, don’t worry.’
Costa appeared to calm down and started praying again. Marcus put on his stole, as if to begin the service.
‘I don’t suppose someone like you ever weeps for his victims. Mind you, with that deformed lip of yours it’d probably look grotesque anyway.’
These words hit Costa like a punch, but he made an effort to absorb the blow. ‘I always thought priests were kind-hearted people.’
Marcus went close to him until their heads were almost touching. ‘I know what happened,’ he whispered.
Costa’s face became a wax mask. The fixed smile was belied by the harsh expression in his eyes. ‘I’ve confessed my crimes and am ready to pay for them. I wasn’t expecting gratitude, I know I did a bad thing. But at least I deserve a bit of respect.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Marcus said, sarcastically. ‘You gave a full and detailed confession of the assaults you carried out and of the murder of Giorgia Noni. But none of the victims you assaulted before you committed that murder was able to provide a single detail about you.’
‘I always wore a balaclava.’ Costa had swallowed the bait, feeling it his duty to support the theory of his guilt. ‘And besides, Giorgia Noni’s brother identified me.’
‘He only recognised your voice,’ Marcus retorted.
‘He said the attacker had a speech defect.’
‘He was in a state of shock.’
‘That’s not true, it was because of my …’ Costa did not complete the sentence.
‘Your what? You mean that twisted lip of yours?’
‘Yes,’ Costa said, struggling to restrain himself. He was clearly taken aback by the offensive way this man referred to his handicap.
‘It’s always the same, isn’t it, Nicola? Nothing’s changed since you were a child. What did your classmates call you? They had a nickname for you, didn’t they?’
Costa shifted on the pew and emitted a sound that resembled a laugh. ‘Leper face. Not very inventive. They could have made a bit more effort.’
‘You’re right, Figaro is better.’
Nervously, Costa wiped his mouth again with a handkerchief. ‘What do you want from me?
‘I shan’t absolve you of your false sins, Costa.’
‘I want to leave.’ He turned to call the guards.
But Marcus put a hand on his shoulder and looked him straight in the eyes. ‘When you’ve always been called a monster, it’s easy to get used to the idea. And as time passes, you start to realise it’s the one thing that makes you really special. You’re no longer a nonentity. Your face is in the papers. When you appear in court, people stare at you. It’s one thing for people not to like you, quite another for them to fear you. You were used to everybody’s indifference or scorn, but now they’re forced to pay attention to you. They can’t turn away, because they need to see what they fear the most. Not you, but people like you. And the more they look at you, the more different they feel. You’ve become their alibi for thinking they’re better than they are. After all, that’s what monsters are for.’
Marcus put his hand in the pocket of his cassock and took out the drawing he had found in the attic. He carefully unfolded it and placed it on the pew next to Nicola Costa. The boy and the girl smiling amid lush vegetation. The girl with her little dress stained with blood and the boy with the scissors in his hand.
‘Who drew this?’ the prisoner asked.
‘The real Figaro.’
‘I’m the real Figaro.’
‘No, you’re a compulsive liar. You only confessed to give your insipid existence some meaning. You’re playing your part well, I have to say. The religious conversion is a nice touch, it makes you seem more credible. And I think the police were only too happy to close a case that risked exploding in their faces: three women assaulted, one killed and nobody behind bars.’
‘So how do you explain the fact that there haven’t been any more victims since I was arrested?’
Marcus had foreseen this objection. ‘Barely a year has gone by, but it’s just a matter of time before he strikes again. It’s convenient for him, knowing you’re inside. I wager he’s even thought of stopping, but he won’t be able to resist for much longer.’
Nicola Costa sniffed, his eyes darting restlessly from one side of the church to the other. ‘I don’t know who you are, or why you came here today. But no one’s going to believe you.’
‘Admit it: you don’t have the courage it takes to be a monster. You’re taking the credit for someone else’s work.’
Costa seemed on the point of losing his temper. ‘Who says so? Why couldn’t I be the boy in this drawing?’
Marcus went closer to him. ‘Look at his smile and you’ll understand.’
‘I know,’ Marcus replied. ‘But it’s enough for me.’
Sandra was woken by an intense pain in her left cheek. She opened her eyes slowly, almost afraid to look. But she was lying on a bed, with a soft red quilt beneath her. Around her, IKEA furniture and a window with dark shutters. It must still be day, because a glimmer of sunlight still filtered through.
She was not tied up, as she might have expected. She was wearing her jeans and sweatshirt, although someone had taken off her trainers.
There was a door at the back of the room. It was slightly ajar. That was a kind gesture, she had to admit. They hadn’t wanted to wake her by closing the door.
Her hand went to her side, feeling for her gun. But the holster was empty.
She tried to sit up, but immediately felt dizzy. She collapsed back on the bed and lay there looking up at the ceiling until the furniture and objects stopped spinning.
I have to get out of here.
She moved her legs to the edge of the bed and dropped first one, then the other, to the floor. When she was sure both feet were steady, she tried to push herself up into a vertical position, keeping her eyes open in order not to lose her balance. She managed to sit up. Reaching out her hands to the wall to support herself and then using a chest of drawers to give herself the necessary impetus, she was able to get to her feet. But it did not last. She felt her legs giving way. An invisible wave passed over her, making her totter. She tried to resist, but it was hopeless. She closed her eyes, and was about to fall when someone grabbed her from behind and laid her back down on the bed.
‘Not yet,’ a male voice said.
Sandra grabbed hold of two powerful arms. Whoever it was had a good smell. She found herself lying on her stomach, with her head sunk in a pillow. ‘Let me go,’ she murmured.
‘You’re not ready. How long is it since you last had something to eat?’
Sandra turned. Her eyes were no more than cracks, but she could make out a male figure in the half darkness. Ash-blond hair, worn long. Delicate yet masculine features. She was sure he had green eyes, like a cat’s, because of the light that emanated from them. She was about to ask him if he was an angel when she realised where she had heard that oddly boyish voice with the German accent.
‘Schalber,’ she said, disappointed.
He smiled at her placidly. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t hold you and you slipped.’
‘Damn, so it was you in the church!’ ‘I tried to hold you, but you were kicking.’ ‘I was kicking?’ Her anger made her forget her grogginess. ‘The sniper would have got you if I hadn’t intervened and stopped you walking right in front of him. You would have been an easy target.’ ‘Who was he?’
‘I have no idea. Luckily I was following you.’ Now she was really furious. ‘You were what? Since when?’ ‘I got here last night. This morning I went to the hotel where David stayed when he was in Rome. I was sure I’d find you there. I saw you come out and take a taxi.’
‘So the idea of meeting for a coffee today in Milan …’ ‘I was bluffing. I knew you were in Rome.’
‘The persistent calls, the request to look at David’s bags … All this time you’ve been leading me on.’
With a sigh, Schalber sat down on the bed, facing her. ‘I had to.’ Sandra realised he had been using her. ‘What’s behind all this?’ ‘Before I explain, I need to ask you a few questions.’ ‘No. Right now you have to tell me what’s going on.’ ‘I will, I promise. But first I need to know if we’re still in danger.’ Sandra looked around, and spotted what looked like a bra – definitely not hers – draped over the arm of a chair. ‘Just a minute, where am I? What is this place?’
Following the direction of her gaze, Schalber went and removed the undergarment. ‘Sorry for the mess. It belongs to Interpol, we use it as a guest apartment. People come and go constantly. But don’t worry, we’re safe.’
‘How did we get here?’
‘I had to fire a few shots, I doubt I hit the sniper, but we did get out of the basilica unharmed. It wasn’t easy to carry you outside on my back. Luckily, it was pouring with rain and I managed to put you in my car without anybody seeing. It would have been rather complicated trying to explain it to a passing policeman.’
‘Oh, so that was your only worry, was it?’ Then she stopped to think. ‘Hold on a minute, why should we still be in danger?’
‘Because whoever tried to kill you will certainly try again.’
‘Someone slipped a card under the door of my hotel room. It’s what sent me to that church. What’s so important about the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort?’
‘Nothing, it was a trap.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘David would have mentioned it in the clues he left you.’
These words stopped her dead in her tracks. ‘You know about David’s investigation?’
‘I know many things. But all in good time.’
He stood and went into the next room. Sandra heard him rattling dishes. Soon afterwards he came back in with a tray bearing scrambled eggs, toast and jam, plus a steaming coffee pot.
‘You have to get something in your stomach if you’re to feel better.’
It was true: she hadn’t eaten for more than twenty-four hours. The sight of the food awakened her appetite. Schalber helped her to sit up with her back propped against a couple of pillows, then placed the tray on her lap. As she ate, he sat down next to her, stretched his legs out on the bed and folded his arms. Until a few hours earlier, their relations had been formal, now they seemed intimate. The man’s intrusiveness got on her nerves, but she said nothing.
‘You took a big risk this morning. The one thing that saved you was that the ringing of my mobile phone disturbed the sniper.’
‘So it was you …’ she said with her mouth full.
‘How did you get hold of the number? I always used another phone to call you.’
‘It was the number David called from the hotel.’
‘Your husband was stubborn. I really didn’t like him.’
Sandra was upset to hear him talk about David in that way. ‘You don’t know what kind of man he was.’
‘He was a pain in the arse,’ he insisted. ‘If he’d listened to me, he’d still be alive.’
Irritably, Sandra put the tray aside and tried to stand up. Her anger had made her forget her dizziness.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I can’t bear a stranger saying these things.’ Still swaying, she walked around the bed, looking for her trainers.
‘All right, you’re free to go,’ he said, indicating the door. ‘But give me the clues David left you.’
Sandra looked at him in astonishment. ‘I’m not going to give you anything!’
‘David was killed because he’d tracked someone down.’
‘I think I met him.’
Schalber stood up and went to her, forcing her to look at him. ‘What do you mean, you met him?’
Sandra was lacing up her shoes, but stopped. ‘Last night.’
‘What a question! What’s the most likely place to run into a priest? A church.’
‘That man isn’t just a priest.’ He had recaptured her full attention. ‘He’s a penitenziere.’
Schalber went to the window, opened the shutters wide, and looked out at the black clouds preparing to invade Rome again. ‘What’s the biggest criminal records archive in the world?’ he asked her.
Sandra was taken aback. ‘I don’t know … The one at Interpol, I suppose.’
‘Wrong,’ Schalber retorted, turning with a smug smile.
‘Wrong again. It’s in Italy. In the Vatican, to be precise.’
Sandra still did not understand. But she had the impression she would have to worm it out of him.
Schalber motioned her to sit down again. ‘Catholicism is the only religion that includes the sacrament of confession: men tell their sins to a minister of God and in return receive forgiveness. Sometimes, though, the sin is so serious that a mere priest cannot give absolution. That’s the case with the so-called mortal sins.’
‘Murder, for example.’
‘Precisely. In such cases the priest transcribes the text of the confession and submits it to a higher authority: a college of high-ranking prelates called together in Rome to pronounce on such matters.’
Sandra was surprised. ‘A court to judge the sins of men.’
‘The Tribunal of Souls.’
The name reflected the gravity of its task, Sandra thought. What secrets must have passed through that institution! She could see why David might have been driven to investigate it.
‘It was established in the twelfth century,’ Schalber continued, ‘under the name Paenitentiaria Apostolica. Its scope was a smaller one then. At the time there was a great influx of pilgrims into Rome, not just to visit its basilicas but also to obtain absolution for their sins.’
‘This was the period of indulgences.’
‘Precisely. There were dispensations and pardons that the Pope alone could grant. But it was a huge task for him. So he began delegating it to certain cardinals, and they set up the Paenitentiaria.’
‘I don’t quite see the relevance of all this today …’
‘At first, once the tribunal pronounced judgement, the texts of the confessions were burnt. But after a few years, the members of the Paenitentiaria, known as penitenzieri, decided to create a secret archive … and their work has never stopped.’
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes