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The lost girls of rome, p.2
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.2

           Donato Carrisi
 

  ‘When was her disappearance reported?’ Marcus asked.

  ‘The following evening. When she didn’t turn up at the faculty next day, her friends called her several times, but all they got was a recorded message. About eight o’clock, they went and knocked at her door, but there was no reply.’

  ‘What do the police think?’

  ‘The day before she disappeared, Lara withdrew four hundred euros from her bank account to pay her rent. But the agency never received the money. According to her mother, there are some clothes and a rucksack missing from the wardrobe. And there’s no trace of her mobile phone either. That’s why the police decided she ran away of her own free will.’

  ‘Very convenient for them.’

  ‘You know how it is. If there’s nothing to make them fear the worst, after a while they just stop looking and wait.’

  Maybe for a corpse to show up, Marcus thought.

  ‘Lara lived quite a regular life, spent much of her time at the university, and always kept within the same small circle of acquaintances.’

  ‘What do her friends think?’

  ‘That Lara wasn’t the kind of person to do anything on a whim. Although she had changed a bit lately. They say she seemed tired and distracted.’

  ‘Any boyfriends?’

  ‘From her mobile phone records, she doesn’t seem to have called anyone outside her circle, and nobody mentioned a boyfriend.’

  ‘Did she use the internet?’

  ‘Mostly from the library in her department or from an internet point near the station. There were no suspicious messages in her inbox.’

  At that moment the glass door of the café was flung open to allow a new customer to come in, and a gust of wind blew through the room. Everyone turned in annoyance, except Marcus, who was lost in his own thoughts. ‘Lara returns home, just as she does every evening. She’s tired, as she’s quite often been lately. Her last contact with the world is at ten nineteen, when she switches off her phone, which then disappears with her and isn’t switched on again. That’s the last anyone hears from her. Some of her clothes are missing, along with money and a rucksack, which is why the police think she left home voluntarily. She may have gone alone, or with someone else, but nobody saw her go.’ Marcus stared at Clemente. ‘Why should we think that something bad happened to her? I mean why us?’

  The look Clemente gave him spoke for itself. They had reached the crucial point. Anomalies: that was what they always looked for. Tiny tears in the thread of normality. Little departures from the logical sequence of a straightforward criminal investigation. It was in those insignificant details that something else often lay concealed, something that pointed to a different, unimaginable truth. That was where their task began.

  ‘Lara never left home, Marcus. Her door was locked on the inside.’

  Clemente and Marcus went straight to the scene of Lara’s disappearance. The building was in the Via dei Coronari, not far from the Piazza San Salvatore in Lauro with its little sixteenth-century church. It took them only a few seconds to get into the ground-floor apartment. Nobody noticed them.

  As soon as he set foot in Lara’s apartment, Marcus began looking around. First of all, he noted the broken door chain. In order to get into the apartment, the police had had to smash the door down, and they had not noticed the chain that had come loose and was now dangling from the doorpost.

  The apartment covered no more than a hundred and fifty square feet, divided between two levels. The first was a single room with a kitchen area. There was a wall cabinet and an electric hotplate with cupboards above it. Next to it, a refrigerator with coloured magnets on the door. On top of the refrigerator was a vase containing a now dry cyclamen plant. There was a table with four chairs and, in the centre, a tray with a tea service. In the corner, two sofas arranged around a television set. On the green walls, not the usual pictures or posters, but plans of famous buildings around the world. There was a window that, like all those in the apartment, looked out on the inner courtyard. It was protected by iron bars. Nobody could get in or out that way.

  Marcus registered every detail with his eyes. Without saying a word, he made the sign of the cross, and Clemente immediately did the same. Then he started moving around the room. He did not limit himself to looking. He touched the objects, brushing them lightly with the palm of his hand, almost as if he was trying to perceive a residue of energy, a radio signal, as if they could communicate with him, reveal to him what they knew or had seen. Like a water diviner who listens for the call of strata hidden underground, Marcus was probing the deep, inanimate silence of things.

  Clemente watched him, keeping well back in order not to distract him. Marcus did not seem to hesitate: he was totally concentrated on the task in hand. This was an important test for both of them. Marcus would demonstrate to himself that he was again able to do the work for which he had been trained, and Clemente would know whether or not he had been right about Marcus’s ability to recover.

  He watched as Marcus moved towards the far end of the apartment, where a door led to a small bathroom. It was covered in white tiles, illumined by a fluorescent light. The shower was an unpartitioned area between the wash basin and the toilet. There was a washing machine and a broom cupboard. On the back of the door hung a calendar.

  Marcus turned back and walked along the left-hand side of the living room: here, a staircase led to the upper floor. He went up three steps at a time, and found himself on a narrow landing, faced with the doors to two bedrooms.

  The first was the one vacated by Lara’s flatmate. Inside it was only a bare mattress, a small armchair and a chest of drawers.

  The other was Lara’s bedroom.

  The shutters on the window were open. In a corner was a table with a computer and shelves filled with books. Marcus approached and ran his fingers along the spines of books, mostly on architecture, and over a sheet of paper containing an uncompleted plan for a bridge. There was a glass filled with pencils. He took one out and sniffed it, then did the same with a piece of rubber, savouring the secret pleasure that only articles of stationery can instil.

  That smell was part of Lara’s world. This was the place where she had felt happy. Her little kingdom.

  He opened the wardrobe doors and looked through the clothes. Some of the hangers were empty. Three pairs of shoes stood in a row on the lower shelf. Two pairs of trainers and one of court shoes, for special occasions. But there was space for a fourth pair, which was missing.

  The bed was a large single. A teddy bear sat between the pillows. It had probably been a witness to Lara’s life ever since she was a child. But now it was alone.

  On the bedside table stood a framed photograph of Lara with her parents and a tin box containing a small sapphire ring, a coral bracelet and a bit of costume jewellery. Marcus took a closer look at the photograph. He recognised it: it was one of those that Clemente had shown him at the Caffè della Pace. In it, Lara was wearing a crucifix with a gold chain, but there was no sign of that in the jewellery box.

  Clemente was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. ‘Well?’

  ‘She may have been abducted.’ As he said it, he became certain that it was true.

  ‘What makes you say that?’

  ‘It’s too tidy. As if the missing clothes and mobile phone were all a set-up. Whoever was responsible, though, missed one detail: the chain on the door.’

  ‘But how did he—’

  ‘We’ll get to that,’ Marcus interrupted him. He moved around the room, trying to focus on the exact sequence of events. His head was whirling. The pieces of the mosaic were starting to come together before his eyes. ‘Lara had a visitor.’

  Clemente knew what was happening. Marcus was beginning a process of identification. That was his talent.

  He was seeing what the intruder had seen.

  ‘He was here when Lara was out. He sat down on her sofa, he lay on her bed, he searched among her things. He looked at her photographs, he made her memor
ies his own. He touched her toothbrush, sniffed her clothes, tried to find her smell. He drank from the same glass she’d left in the sink to be washed.’

  ‘I don’t follow you …’

  ‘He knew where everything was. He knew everything about Lara, her timetable, her habits.’

  ‘But there’s nothing here to suggest an abduction. There are no signs of struggle, nobody in the building heard screams or cries for help. How can you be so sure?’

  ‘Because she was asleep when he took her.’

  Clemente was about to speak, but Marcus got in first. ‘Help me find the sugar.’

  Even though Clemente didn’t quite grasp what was going through Marcus’s head, he decided to humour him. In a cupboard over the oven he found a box with the word SUGAR on it. In the meantime, Marcus examined the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, next to the tea things.

  They were both empty.

  The two men looked at each other with these objects in their hands, a charge of energy vibrating between them. It wasn’t mere coincidence, and Marcus hadn’t made a random supposition. He had had an intuition that might confirm his theory.

  ‘Sugar is the best place to hide a drug. It conceals the taste and guarantees that the victim will absorb it easily.’

  And Lara had been feeling tired lately, her friends said. This clinched it for Clemente, although he couldn’t tell Marcus.

  ‘It happened gradually, there was no hurry,’ Marcus continued. ‘That proves that the person who took her had been here before that night. Along with her clothes and mobile phone, he also got rid of the sugar containing the drug.’

  ‘But you’re forgetting the chain on the door,’ Clemente said. That was the one detail that blew any theory to pieces. ‘How did he get in? And above all, how did they both get out?’

  Marcus looked around again. ‘Where are we?’ Rome was the greatest inhabited archaeological site in the world. The city had developed in layers; you only had to dig a few feet down to find traces of earlier periods, earlier civilisations. Marcus knew very well that even on the surface life had become stratified over the course of time. Every place contained many histories, many lives, within it. ‘What is this place? I don’t mean now, but before. You told me the building dates from the eighteenth century.’

  ‘It was one of the residences of the Costaldi family.’

  ‘Of course. The nobles occupied the upper floors, and down here were the storerooms and the stables.’ Marcus touched the scar on his left temple. He had no idea where that memory came from. How did he know that? Much had vanished for ever from his memory. But odd fragments of information surfaced unexpectedly from time to time, provoking the awkward question as to where they came from. There was a place within him where certain things existed but remained hidden, a place of mist and darkness that he was afraid he would never find.

  ‘You’re right,’ Clemente said. ‘That’s how the building used to be. The university authorities received it as a bequest about ten years ago and converted it into apartments.’

  Marcus looked down. The parquet floor was of solid, untreated wood, with narrow floorboards. ‘No, not here,’ he muttered to himself. Undaunted, he headed for the bathroom, followed by Clemente.

  He took a bucket from the broom cupboard, placed it under the shower and half filled it. Then he took a step back. Clemente, who was standing behind him, still did not understand.

  Marcus tilted the bucket so that the water spilled on to the tiled floor. A puddle spread beneath their feet. They stood looking at it, expectantly.

  After a few seconds, the water began to disappear.

  It looked like a conjuring trick – just like a girl disappearing from an apartment locked on the inside. Except that this time there was an explanation.

  The water had filtered through the floor.

  Along the sides of some of the tiles, little bubbles of air appeared, eventually forming a perfect square, each side approximately three feet.

  Marcus crouched down and felt the tiles with his fingertips, trying to discover a crack. When he thought he had located one, he stood up again and searched for something to use as a crowbar. He found a pair of scissors that did the trick. He put his fingers into the opening and lifted the square, revealing a stone trapdoor.

  ‘Wait, I’ll give you a hand,’ Clemente said.

  They slid the lid to one side, uncovering a flight of time-worn travertine steps that went down six feet until it met what appeared to be a passage.

  ‘This is the way the intruder came,’ Marcus announced. ‘At least twice: when he came in and when he went away with Lara.’ He took out the little torch he always carried with him, lit it, and aimed it at the opening.

  ‘You want to go down there?’

  He turned towards Clemente. ‘Do I have any choice?’

  Holding the torch in one hand, Marcus descended the stone steps. Reaching the bottom, he realised he was in a tunnel that ran under the building in two directions. It was not clear where it led.

  ‘Are you all right?’ Clemente called down to him.

  ‘Yes,’ Marcus replied distractedly. In the eighteenth century, the gallery had probably been an escape route in case of danger. All he had to do was venture in one of the two directions. He chose the one from which he seemed to hear the distant noise of pouring rain. He went at least fifty yards, slipping a couple of times because of the wet ground. A few rats brushed against his calves with their hot smooth bodies before scurrying away into the darkness. He recognised the roar of the Tiber, swollen by days of persistent rain, and the sickly odour of the river, reminiscent of an animal in a headlong race. He followed it and soon came to a solid grille through which the grey light of day filtered. Impossible to go any further this way. So he turned back, went past the steps, and set off in the other direction. Almost immediately, he spotted something shining on the ground.

  He bent down and picked it up: it was a crucifix on a gold chain.

  The crucifix Lara had been wearing around her neck in the photo graph of her and her parents that she kept on the chest of drawers. It was the final proof that his theory had been correct.

  Clemente was right. This was his talent.

  Electrified by his discovery, Marcus did not notice that Clemente had come down to join him until he was right on top of him.

  He showed him the chain. ‘Look …’

  Clemente took it in his hands and examined it.

  ‘Lara might still be alive,’ Marcus said, excited by his discovery. ‘Now that we have a lead, we can find out who took her.’ But he realised that his friend did not share his enthusiasm. On the contrary, he seemed troubled.

  ‘We already know. We just needed confirmation. Unfortunately, we now have it.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘The drug in the sugar.’

  Marcus still did not understand. ‘So what’s the problem?’

  Clemente gave him a solemn look. ‘I think it’s time you met Jeremiah Smith.’

  8:40 a.m.

  The first lesson Sandra Vega had learned was that houses and apartments never lie.

  People, when they talk about themselves, are capable of creating all kinds of trappings around themselves that they actually end up believing. But the place where they choose to live inevitably reveals all.

  In the course of her work, Sandra had visited many houses and apartments. Every time she was about to cross a threshold, she felt as if she ought to ask permission, even though, for what she had come to do, she didn’t even need to ring the doorbell.

  Years before taking up her profession, whenever she travelled by train at night, she would look at the lighted windows in the buildings and wonder what was going on behind them, what stories were being played out. Every now and again she’d caught a glimpse of one of these stories. A woman ironing while watching television. A man in an armchair sending up smoke rings from his cigarette. A child standing on a chair rummaging through a cupboard. Still images from a film, each
captured in its little window. Then the train would pass. And those lives would continue on their way, unaware of her.

  She had always tried to imagine what it would be like to prolong that exploration. To walk unseen among those people’s most precious possessions, to watch them as they went about their everyday lives, as if they were fish in an aquarium.

  And in all the places she had lived, Sandra had asked herself what had happened within those walls before she entered them. What joys, quarrels and sorrows had flared then faded without leaving an echo.

  She would wonder about the tragedies and horrors preserved like secrets in those places. Luckily, houses and apartments forget quickly. The occupants change, and everything starts all over again from the beginning.

  Once in a while, those who go away leave traces of their passing. A lipstick forgotten in a bathroom cabinet. An old magazine on a shelf. A sheet of paper with the telephone number of a rape crisis centre hidden at the back of a drawer.

  Through these little clues, it is sometimes possible to trace someone’s story.

  She had never imagined that the search for such details would actually become her profession. But there was a difference: by the time she arrived in these places, they had lost their innocence for ever.

  Sandra had joined the police through a competitive examination. The training had been standard. She carried a service gun, and knew how to use it. But her uniform was the white coat of the forensics team. After a specialisation course, she had chosen to become a forensic photographer.

  She would arrive at a scene with her cameras, her sole purpose that of stopping time. Once everything was frozen by her lens, it would never change again.

  The second lesson Sandra Vega had learned was that, like people, houses and apartments die.

  And her destiny was to be there just before they died, when their inhabitants would never again set foot in them. The signs of that slow death agony were unmade beds, dishes in the sink, a sock abandoned on the floor. As if the inhabitants had fled, leaving everything in disorder, to escape the sudden end of the world. When in reality the end of the world had actually happened within those walls.

 
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