The Lost Girls of Rome, p.19Donato Carrisi
Sandra was starting to understand the significance of this undertaking.
‘For nearly a thousand years,’ Schalber went on, ‘the worst sins committed by mankind have been preserved there. Including crimes that never came to light. You have to remember that confession is undertaken voluntarily by penitents, which means they always tell the truth. So the Paenitentiaria Apostolica isn’t simply a database of criminal cases, the kind that any police force in the world would have.’
‘What is it, then?’
Schalber’s green eyes gleamed. ‘It’s the largest and most up-to-date archive of evil in the world.’
Sandra was sceptical. ‘Do you mean it has something to do with the devil? What are these priests, exorcists?’
‘No. The penitenzieri aren’t interested in the existence of the devil. Their approach is a scientific one. They’re more like profilers. Their experience has matured over the years, thanks to the archive. After a while, in addition to confessions, they started collecting detailed records of all criminal cases. They study them, analyse them and try to decipher them, the same way a modern criminologist would.’
‘You mean they even solve cases?’
‘And the police don’t know?’
‘They’re good at protecting their secrecy. They’ve been doing it for centuries.’
Sandra went to the tray with the food and poured herself a large cup of coffee. ‘How do they operate?’
‘As soon as they discover the solution to a mystery, they find a way to communicate it anonymously to the authorities. Sometimes they intervene personally.’
Schalber went and fetched a briefcase from a corner of the room and opened it to look for something. Sandra remembered the addresses in David’s diary, derived from listening to the police frequency: that was why her husband had been looking for that priest at crime scenes.
‘Here it is,’ Schalber announced, holding a file in his hands. ‘The case of little Matteo Ginestra from Turin. The boy went missing, and his mother thought his father had taken him. The couple were separated, and the man wasn’t satisfied with the amount of access the judge had granted him. It took the police a long time to track him down, but when they did he denied kidnapping his son.’
‘Who was it, then?’
‘While the police were following that lead, the child reappeared unharmed. It turned out he’d been taken by a group of older boys, all of good family. They’d kept him shut away in an abandoned house, intending to kill him. Purely for fun, or out of curiosity. The child said he’d been saved by someone who’d broken into the house and got him out.’
‘That could have been anybody, why specifically a priest?’
‘Not far from the place where he was found, some papers containing a detailed account of what had happened were discovered. One of the teenagers involved had started getting a bad conscience and had confessed to the priest of his parish. That confession was what was on the papers. Someone had apparently mislaid it.’ Schalber handed her the document. ‘Read what’s written in the margin.’
‘There’s some kind of serial number: c.g. 764-9-44. What is it?’
‘The penitenzieris’ method of classification. I don’t think the numbers mean anything in particular, but c.g. stands for culpa gravis.’
‘I don’t understand. How did David come to be investigating them in the first place?’
‘Reuters had sent him to Turin to cover the case. He was the one who found those documents while he was taking photographs. That’s how it all started.’
‘And where does Interpol fit into this?’
‘Although you may think what the penitenzieri are doing is a good thing, it’s actually illegal. Their activities have no rules or limits.’
Sandra poured herself another cup of coffee and sipped at it, looking at Schalber. Perhaps he was expecting her to say more. ‘It was David who put you on to it, wasn’t it?’
‘We met years ago, in Vienna. He was pursuing an investigation, and I passed him a few tips. When he started investigating the penitenzieri, he realised that their activities extended beyond Italy and so might interest Interpol. He called me a couple of times from Rome, telling me what he’d found out so far. Then he died. But if he arranged things so that you could get my telephone number, that means he wanted you to meet me. I can complete his work. So where are the clues?’
Sandra was sure that, just as Schalber had taken away her gun while she was unconscious, he must also have searched her things. So he must already know she didn’t have the clues with her. She certainly had no intention of handing them over to him just like that. ‘We need to join forces.’
‘No way, forget it. You’ll take the first train back to Milan. Someone wants you dead and you’re not safe in this city.’
‘I’m a police officer: I can look after myself and I know how to conduct an investigation, if that’s what you’re worried about.’
Schalber started to walk nervously about the room. ‘I work better alone.’
‘Well, this time you’ll have to rethink your methods.’
‘You’re really pig-headed, you know?’ He came and stood in front of her, and raised his index finger. ‘On one condition.’
Sandra raised her eyes to heaven. ‘Yes, I know: you’re the boss and we always do what you say.’
Schalber was taken aback. ‘How did you …’
‘I know how men’s egos work. So, where do we start?’
Schalber went to a drawer, pulled out the gun he had taken from her and handed it back to her. ‘They’re interested in crime scenes, right? When I arrived in Rome last night, the first place I went to was a villa outside the city where a police search was in progress. I placed bugs in the house, hoping that the penitenzieri would show up as soon as forensics had cleared the place. Before dawn, I recorded a conversation between two of them, I don’t know who they were. They were discussing a killer named Figaro.’
‘All right, I’ll show you the clues David left me. And then we’ll try to dig up more on this Figaro.’
‘I think that’s an excellent idea.’
Sandra, no longer on the defensive, looked closely at Schalber. ‘Somebody killed my husband and they tried to do the same to me this morning. I don’t know if it was the same person or what any of this has to do with the penitenzieri. Maybe David knew too much.’
‘If we find them, they’ll tell us.’
Pietro Zini’s only companions were cats. He had six of them. They would stay in the shade of an orange tree, or else go wandering amid the pots and flower beds in the little garden of his house in the heart of Trastevere.
Through the open French windows of his study came the strains of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings on an old record player, making the curtains dance – not that Zini was aware of this last detail. He was in a deckchair, enjoying the music and the warmth of a sunbeam that seemed to have got through the clouds just for him. He was a sturdy sixty-year-old, with the prominent belly typical of certain brawny men from the early twentieth century. The big hands with which he usually explored the world rested in his lap. His white stick lay at his feet. His dark glasses reflected a reality that had become superfluous to him.
Ever since he had lost his sight, he had given up on human contact. He divided his days between the little garden and the house, blissfully immersed in his record collection. Silence bothered him more than darkness.
One of the cats jumped on to the deckchair and curled up in his lap. Zini ran his fingers through its thick fur and the animal purred in gratitude.
‘Nice, this music, isn’t it, Socrates? I know you’re the same as me: you prefer a sweet tune. Your brother likes that pretentious fellow Mozart.’
The cat was grey and brown, with a white stain on its muzzle. Something must have drawn its attention, because it raised its head. It deserted its master and followed the flight of a bluebottle. After a few minutes, it lost interest in the insect and
‘Come on, ask me what you need to.’
Calmly, Zini reached out his hand to take a glass of lemonade from the small table next to him and sipped at it.
‘I know you’re here. I realised it as soon as you arrived. I was wondering when you would speak. So, have you made your mind up yet?’
One of the cats rubbed against the intruder’s calf. Marcus had been here for at least twenty minutes. He had got in through a side door and had been watching Zini all this time, looking for the right way to approach him. He was good at understanding people, but didn’t know how to communicate with them. The fact that the retired policeman had lost his sight had led him to believe that it would be easier to talk to him. In addition, there was the advantage that he wouldn’t be able to recognise his face: his invisibility was safe. And yet the man had somehow seen him better than anyone else.
‘Don’t be deceived. I haven’t gone blind. It’s the world around me that’s gone dark.’
There was something about him that inspired trust. ‘It’s regarding Nicola Costa.’
Zini nodded, then smiled. ‘You’re one of them, aren’t you? No, don’t try and think up an answer. I know you can’t tell me.’
Marcus found it hard to believe that the former policeman knew.
‘There are stories that circulate in the force. Some people think they’re myths. But I believe them. Many years ago, I was assigned a case. A married woman had been kidnapped and killed. The details were unusually horrible. One evening I got a phone call. The man at the other end told me why we shouldn’t be looking for a random kidnapper and pointed me in the direction of the real perpetrator. It wasn’t the usual anonymous call, it was very convincing. The woman’s killer had been a rejected suitor of hers. We arrested him.’
‘Figaro is still at large,’ Marcus said.
But the man was wandering off the point. ‘Did you know that in ninety-four per cent of cases the killer is known to his victim? There’s more chance of our being killed by a close relative or an old friend than by a perfect stranger.’
‘Why won’t you answer me, Zini? Don’t you want to finish with the past?’
The Dvořák had come to an end, but the needle kept bouncing on the last groove of the vinyl. Zini leaned forward and crossed his hands, forcing Socrates to slide to the ground and join his companions. ‘The doctors told me well in advance that I was going blind. So I had plenty of time to get used to the idea. I said to myself: when it starts interfering with my work, I’ll stop immediately. In the meantime, I prepared myself. I studied Braille, I sometimes wandered through the house with my eyes closed, training myself to recognise objects by touch, or else I went around with a stick. I didn’t want to depend on other people. Then one day things started to appear out of focus. Some details vanished, others became incredibly clear, almost iridescent. It was unbearable. Whenever that happened, I prayed that the darkness would come quickly. Then one year ago my wish was granted.’ Zini took off his dark glasses, exposing his motionless pupils to the glare of the sun. ‘I thought I would be alone down here. But you know what? I’m not alone at all. In the darkness there are all the people I wasn’t able to save in the course of my career. Their faces stare at me, lying in their own blood or their own shit, at home or in the street, in an empty field or on a slab in a morgue. They’re all here, they were waiting for me. And now they live with me, like ghosts.’
‘I’ll bet Giorgia Noni is one of them. What does she do, does she talk to you? Or does she look at you without saying anything, making you feel ashamed?’
Zini flung the glass of lemonade down on the ground. ‘You don’t understand.’
‘I know you rigged the investigation.’
Zini shook his head. ‘It was the last case I worked on. I had to hurry, I didn’t have much time left. Her brother Federico deserved a result.’
‘Is that why you sent an innocent man to prison?’
Zini looked straight at Marcus, as if he could see him. ‘That’s where you’re wrong. Costa isn’t innocent. He had previous convictions for stalking and molesting women. We found hardcore pornography in his apartment, illegal stuff downloaded from the internet. The theme was always the same: violence against women.’
‘Fantasies aren’t enough to condemn a man.’
‘He was preparing to act. You know how his arrest came about? He was on the list of suspects in the Figaro case, we had our eye on him. One evening we saw him stalking a woman outside a supermarket, he had a gym bag with him. We didn’t have any proof, but we had to decide quickly. We could let him make his move, taking the risk that he’d harm the woman, or else stop him immediately. I chose the second option. And I was right.’
‘Did he have scissors in the bag?’
‘No, only a change of clothes,’ Zini admitted. ‘But they were identical to the ones he was already wearing. And you know why?
‘To change in case he got blood on his clothes. Perfectly logical.’
‘And besides, he confessed. That’s enough for me.’
‘None of the victims of his attacks provided a description that could identify him. They simply stated after the fact that it was him. Women who are subjected to violence are often so upset that when the police show them a suspect, they immediately say it’s him. They’re not lying, they want to believe it, in fact they’re convinced of it. They couldn’t live with themselves, knowing that the monster who harmed them is still at large. The fear that it’ll happen again is stronger than any feeling of justice. So one guilty party is as good as another.’
‘Federico Noni recognised Costa from his voice.’
‘Really?’ Marcus said angrily. ‘Was he in his right mind when he fingered him? Think of all the traumas he’d suffered in his life.’
Pietro Zini did not know how to reply. The old mettle was still there, but something had snapped in his heart. The man who once had been capable of striking terror in a criminal with his eyes now seemed incredibly fragile. And it wasn’t merely because of his blindness. In fact, his blindness had made him wiser. Marcus was convinced he knew more and, as was so often the case, all he needed to do was to let him talk.
‘After they told me I was going blind, I made sure never to miss a sunset. Sometimes I would go up on to the terrace of the Janiculum and stay there until the light had completely faded. There are things we take for granted and forget to look at. The stars, for example. I remember when I was a child I used to lie in the grass and imagine all those distant worlds. Before I went blind, I started doing it again, but it wasn’t the same. My eyes had seen too many terrible things. One of the last things I saw was the body of Giorgia Noni.’ He held out his hand to summon his cats to him. ‘It’s hard to accept that someone could have put us in this world just to see us suffer. They say that if God is good then He can’t be omnipotent, and vice versa. A good God wouldn’t let His children suffer, which means He must be powerless to prevent it. If on the other hand He’s foreseen everything, then He isn’t as good as He’d have us believe.’
‘I wish I could tell you there’s some greater design that we can’t understand, that it’s beyond the comprehension of any one of us. But the truth is, I don’t know the answer.’
‘At least you’re honest. I appreciate that.’ Zini got to his feet. ‘Come, let me show you something.’
He took his stick and went into the study. Marcus followed him. The room was extremely neat and tidy, a sign that Zini was perfectly self-sufficient. The ex-policeman went to the record player and started the Dvořák LP again. As he did so, Marcus noticed a rope, some six feet long, lying in a corner of the room. He wondered how many times Zini had been tempted to use it.
‘My mistake was to give up my weapons licence,’ Zini said, as if he had guessed his visitor’s thoughts. Then he went and sat down at a desk with a computer on it: not a normal computer but a Braille display. ‘You won’t like what you’re going to hear.’
‘But first let me tell you that Federico Noni has already suffered enough. Years ago he lost the use of his legs. Becoming blind at my age is a blow you can learn to accept, but losing the use of your legs when you’re a young athlete! Then his sister was brutally murdered,
practically in front of his eyes. Can you even imagine something like
that? Think how powerless he must have felt, think of the guilt he
must still feel, even though he didn’t do anything wrong.’
‘What does this have to do with what you’re going to tell me?’ ‘Federico has a right to justice. Whatever that justice is.’ Pietro Zini fell silent, waiting for Marcus to demonstrate that he
had understood. ‘You can live with a handicap,’ Marcus said. ‘You
can’t live with doubt.’
That was enough for Zini, who began tapping at the keyboard.
Technology was a great boon to blind people. It allowed Zini to
carry on activities like surfing the internet, chatting, or else sending
and receiving emails.
‘I had an email a few days ago,’ he said. ‘Let me play you this …’ On Zini’s computer there was a program that read his email
messages for him. He activated it and sat back in his chair, waiting.
A synthesised voice first recited an anonymous Yahoo address. The
message had no subject. Then came the text.
‘He-is-not-like-you … Look-in-Vil-la-Glo-ri-Park.’
Zini pressed a key to stop the voice. Marcus was stunned: the
person responsible for the enigmatic message had to be the
unknown guide who had led him here. Why had he written to a
‘“He is not like you.” What does that mean?’
‘Frankly, I’m more interested in the second part: “Look in Villa
Zini got up from his chair, came to him and grabbed him by the
arm. He almost seemed to be begging him. ‘Of course I can’t go.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes