The Lost Girls of Rome, p.20Donato Carrisi
But you know what you have to do now. Go and see what’s in that
In the months since David’s death, solitude had been like a shell. It was not a state, it was a place. The place where Sandra could continue talking to him, without feeling that she was going mad. She had shut herself up in an invisible bubble of sadness, and let things bounce off it. Nothing and nobody could touch her if she remained there. Paradoxically, her grief protected her.
Until the pistol shots meant for her that morning in the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort.
She had been afraid to die. At that moment, the bubble had burst. She wanted to live. And that was the reason why she felt guilty towards David. For five months, life had been suspended. Though time had passed, she had stood still. But now she wondered how loyal a wife had to be to her husband. Was she wrong to want to live when he was dead? Could it be considered a kind of betrayal? It was stupid, she knew. But for the first time, she had moved away from David.
Schalber’s voice broke the spell of her thoughts. They were in Sandra’s hotel room and he was sitting on the bed, holding the photo graphs David had taken with the Leica. He had looked at them over and over again.
‘Are you sure there are only four? No others?’
Sandra feared that he had guessed her little deception: she had decided not to show him the photograph of the priest with the scar on his temple. But Schalber was still a policeman, and she knew how policemen thought. They never allowed themselves the benefit of the doubt.
‘Even though you may think it’s a good thing, what the penitenzieri are doing is illegal. There are no limits or rules to their activities.’ That was what he had said when he had told her about them. Which meant that, as far as he was concerned, that priest was a criminal. Nothing would make him change his mind.
In the academy, she had been taught that everybody was guilty until proven innocent, not the other way round. Plus, you should never believe anybody. For example, during an interrogation a good police officer should question every word. She remembered once giving the third degree to a hiker who had discovered a woman’s body in a ditch. It was obvious that the man had nothing to do with the death, he had simply raised the alarm. But she had bombarded him with pointless questions and made him repeat his answers, pretending she had not understood, all with the intention of making him contradict himself. The poor man had submitted to this relentless onslaught, innocently thinking that it could help to throw light on the woman’s death, unaware that if he had shown the slightest uncertainty he would have ended up in real trouble.
I know what you’re thinking, Schalber. And I won’t let you. At least until I know I can trust you completely.
‘Just four photographs,’ Sandra confirmed.
Schalber looked at her for several moments, either weighing up her reply or hoping she would betray herself. She managed to sustain his gaze. He looked away and started examining the photographs again. She thought she had passed the test, but she was wrong.
‘You told me before that you met one of them last night. I wonder how you managed to recognise him if you had never seen him before.’
Sandra realised she had made a mistake. She blamed herself for supplying him with that information while they were in the Interpol guest apartment, but it had come out spontaneously.
‘I went to San Luigi dei Francesi to see the Caravaggio painting David had photographed part of.’
‘You already told me that.’
‘I saw a man standing in front of it. I didn’t know who he was. He was the one who recognised me. He immediately moved away and I followed him. I pointed my gun at him, until he told me that he was a priest.’
‘You mean he knew who you were?’
‘I don’t know how, but he gave me the impression he knew me. So yes, I think he did know.’
Schalber nodded. ‘I see.’
Sandra was sure he hadn’t swallowed her lies. But for the moment he had preferred to let it go. In any case, it was all right: this way he would be forced to include her in the investigation. She tried to change the subject. ‘What about the dark photograph, what do you think it means?’
He had been distracted for a moment, but he immediately recovered. ‘I don’t know. For the moment, it doesn’t mean anything.’
Sandra got up from the bed. ‘All right, so what do we do now?’
Schalber gave her back the photographs. ‘Figaro,’ he said. ‘They caught him. But if the penitenzieri are interested in the case, there must be a reason.’
‘What do you plan to do?’
‘The attacker became a killer: his last victim died.’
‘You want to begin with her?’
‘With her brother: he was there when she was killed.’
‘The doctors were convinced I’d walk again soon.’
Federico Noni kept his hands flat on his thighs, and his eyes bowed. He had not shaved for a while and his hair was long. Beneath his green T-shirt, the muscles of the athlete he had once been could still be glimpsed. But his legs were thin and motionless in the track-suit trousers. His feet were raised up on the foot rests of the wheelchair. He was wearing a pair of Nikes with clean soles.
Looking at him, Sandra catalogued these details. Those Nikes encapsulated his whole tragedy. They looked new, but he may well have had them for years.
She and Schalber had presented themselves at the door of the little villa in the Nuovo Salario area a few minutes earlier. They had rung the bell several times before the door was opened. Federico Noni lived like a recluse and did not want to see anyone. To persuade him, Schalber had had Sandra give him an Italian police badge and had shown it to Noni through the video entry phone. He had passed himself off as an inspector. However reluctantly, she, too, had lied. She hated Schalber’s methods, his arrogance, the way he used other people for his own ends.
The house was untidy. There was a musty odour and the blinds had not been raised in ages. The furniture was positioned in such a way as to create routes for the wheelchair. You could see the tracks of the wheels on the floor.
Sandra and Schalber were sitting on a sofa, with Federico facing them. Behind him were the stairs that led to the upper floor, where Giorgia Noni had been killed. But her brother, obviously, never went up there. There was a camp bed for him in the living room.
‘The operation was a success. I’d been assured that with a bit of physiotherapy I’d recover. It wouldn’t be easy, but I could do it. I was used to physical effort, it didn’t scare me. And yet …’
Federico was trying to respond to a blunt question from Schalber on the cause of his paraplegia. The Interpol agent had deliberately started with the most uncomfortable subject. Sandra knew that technique, it was the one some of her colleagues used when they questioned crime victims. Compassion often made them clam up, whereas if you wanted to get useful answers you had to be cold and unsympathetic.
‘When you had your accident, were you speeding on the motorbike?’
‘Not at all. It was a stupid fall. I remember that at first, despite the fractures, I could still move my legs. After a few hours I couldn’t feel them any more.’
On a cabinet was a photograph of Federico Noni standing in his motorcycle gear next to a bright red Ducati. He was holding a wraparound helmet and smiling at the camera. A handsome, happy, fresh-faced young man. Quite a heartbreaker, Sandra suspected.
‘You were an athlete. What was your speciality?’
‘Were you good?’
Federico merely pointed at the display case filled with trophies. ‘Judge for yourselves.’
Obviously, they had seen it when they arrived. But Schalber was using the subject to gain time. He was trying to provoke Noni. He had a plan, although Sandra couldn’t yet understand what he was hoping to obtain.
‘Giorgia must have been proud of you.’
The mere mention of his sist
‘What about your parents?’
He was clearly reluctant to talk about them, and quickly disposed of the question. ‘My mother left home when we were still young. My father brought us up. But he never got over her leaving him, he’d loved her too much. He died when I was fifteen.’
‘What kind of person was your sister?’
‘The most cheerful person I’ve ever known: nothing hurt her, and her mood was contagious. After the accident she took care of me. I knew what a burden I would become over the years and that it wasn’t right for her to take it on, but she insisted. She gave up everything for me.’
‘She’d been a veterinarian …’
‘Yes, and she also had a boyfriend. He dumped her when he realised the kind of responsibility she’d assumed. I know you must have heard this a hundred times, but Giorgia didn’t deserve to die.’
Sandra wondered what divine plan could possibly be behind the chain of tragic events that had destroyed the lives of two good young people. Abandoned by their mother, orphaned by their father, the brother confined to a wheelchair, the sister brutally murdered and killed. For some reason, what came into her mind was the girl David had met on the beach. That encounter after a whole series of mishaps – the lost suitcase, the double booking, the hire car breaking down a few miles short of the destination – could have ended differently. If that unknown jogger had found David even slightly interesting or attractive, he and Sandra might never have met, and there might now be another woman mourning him. Fate sometimes seemed really determined for things to work out in a particular way, a way that had some kind of meaning. But in the case of Federico and Giorgia Noni that meaning was elusive.
Federico tried to move the conversation away from these painful memories. ‘I don’t quite understand why you’re here.’
‘There’s a possibility your sister’s killer, Nicola Costa, may get a big reduction in his sentence.’
The news clearly upset him. ‘I thought he confessed.’
‘Yes, but apparently he’s now claiming insanity at the time of the murder,’ Schalber lied. ‘That’s why we need to prove that he was always in full possession of his faculties. During the three assaults and above all during the murder.’
Federico shook his head and clenched his fists. Sandra felt sorry for him and upset about the way they were deceiving him. She hadn’t yet said a word, but her mere presence here supported every one of Schalber’s lies, so she felt complicit.
Federico looked at them, his eyes glowing with anger. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Tell us what happened.’
‘Again? It’s been a long time, my memory may not be what it was.’
‘We’re aware of that. But we have no choice, Signor Noni. That bastard Costa will try to distort the facts, and we can’t allow him to do that. It was you who identified him.’
‘He was wearing a balaclava, I only recognised his voice.’
‘That makes you our sole witness. You do realise that?’ Schalber took out a notebook and pencil, pretending that he wanted to write down every word.
Federico stroked his bristly beard. He took a few deep breaths, his chest rising and falling, as if he might hyperventilate. He started to reconstruct what had happened. ‘It was seven o’clock in the evening, Giorgia always came home at that hour. She’d been shopping, and had bought the ingredients for a cake. I like sweet things.’ He sounded apologetic, as if that was the reason for what had happened later. ‘I was listening to music on headphones. I didn’t pay any attention to her. She used to say I was becoming a slob, that she was prepared to wait for a bit but then she’d make damn sure I became more active … The fact is, I was refusing to do physiotherapy. I’d lost hope of ever walking again.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘All I remember is being thrown to the ground and passing out. The bastard had come up behind me and tipped my wheelchair over.’
‘Hadn’t you noticed that someone had got into the house?’
They had reached a critical point. From now on, the story would become more difficult.
‘Please go on.’
‘When I recovered consciousness, I was dazed. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and my back hurt. I didn’t understand straight away, but then I heard the screams coming from upstairs …’ A tear welled up, ran down his cheek and ended up in his beard. ‘I was on the floor, my wheelchair was five or six feet away, but it was damaged. I tried to get to the phone, but it was on a cabinet, and I couldn’t reach it.’ He looked down at his legs. ‘When you’re like this, even the simplest things become impossible.’
But Schalber was unmoved. ‘What about your mobile phone?’
‘I didn’t know where it was, and anyway I was in a panic.’ Federico turned to look at the stairs. ‘Giorgia was screaming and screaming … She was asking for help, begging for mercy, as if that bastard would give her either.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘I dragged myself to the stairs, and tried to climb them, using my arms to support me. But I didn’t have the strength.’
‘Really?’ Schalber gave a smug smile. ‘You were a trained sportsman. I find it hard to believe it could have been so difficult for you to get up the stairs.’
Sandra turned and glared at him, but he ignored her.
‘You don’t know how I felt after banging my head on the floor,’ Federico Noni retorted, his manner hardening.
‘You’re right, I’m sorry.’ Schalber said it without conviction, deliberately letting his scepticism shine through. He looked down and made a note. In reality, he was waiting for Federico to take the bait he had held out.
‘What are you getting at?’
‘Nothing, go on,’ he said with an irritating movement of his hand.
‘The killer escaped through a back door when he heard the police coming.’
‘You recognised Nicola Costa from his voice, is that right?’
‘You stated that the killer had a speech defect, which is perfectly compatible with his deformation.’
‘Yes, what of it?’
‘At first, though, you had taken the effect of his cleft palate for an Eastern European accent.’
‘It was you police who made the mistake, what does it have to do with me?’ Federico Noni was on the defensive now.
‘All right, goodbye.’ Taking Federico – and Sandra – by surprise, Schalber held out his hand to the young man and made as if to leave.
‘Wait a minute.’
‘Signor Noni, I have no time to waste. There’s no point being here if you won’t tell us the truth.’
‘And what is that?’
Sandra saw that Federico was quite shaken. She didn’t know what game Schalber was playing, but she took the risk of butting in. ‘I think it’s best if we go.’
Schalber again ignored her. He went and stood in front of Noni and started pointing his finger at him. ‘The truth is, you only heard Giorgia’s voice, not the killer’s. Forget about an Eastern European or a speech defect.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘The truth is that when you came to, you could have climbed up there and tried to save her. You’re an athlete, you could have done it.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘The truth is that you stayed down here, while that monster finished the job.’
‘That’s not true!’ Federico Noni cried, bursting into tears.
Sandra stood up, took Schalber by the arm, and tried to pull him away. ‘That’s enough now, leave him alone.’
But Schalber wouldn’t let go. ‘Why don’t you tell us what really happened – why you didn’t intervene to help Giorgia?’
‘I, I …’
‘What? Come on, be a man for once.’
‘I …’ Federico Noni was stammering through his tears. ‘I didn’t … I wanted …’
Schalber kept going. ‘Show me
‘Please, Schalber,’ Sandra said.
‘I … I was scared.’
Silence descended on the room, broken only by Federico’s sobs. Schalber at last stopped tormenting him. He turned his back on him and headed for the door. Before following, Sandra stood for a moment looking at Federico Noni, who was shaking with sobs, his eyes bowed over his useless legs. She would have liked to console him, but she could not find the words.
‘I’m sorry for what happened to you, Signor Noni,’ Schalber said as he walked out. ‘Good day to you.’
As Schalber hurried to the car, Sandra ran after him and forced him to stop.
‘What were you thinking? You didn’t have to treat him that way.’
‘If you don’t approve of my methods, you can always let me work on my own.’
He was contemptuous of her, too, and she couldn’t accept that. ‘You can’t treat me this way!’
‘I told you: my speciality is liars. I can’t do anything about it, I hate them.’
‘Were we so honest in there?’ she asked, pointing to the house behind them. ‘How many lies did you tell? Or have you lost count?’
‘Haven’t you ever heard of the ends justifying the means?’ Schalber stuck his hand in his pocket, took out a packet of chewing gum and slipped one into his mouth.
‘And what was the end that justified humiliating a cripple?’
He shrugged. ‘Listen, I’m sorry Federico Noni has been dealt a bad hand by fate, he probably didn’t deserve it. But bad things happen to everybody, that shouldn’t absolve us of our responsibilities. You more than anyone should know that.’
‘Because of what happened to David, you mean?’
‘Precisely. You don’t use his death as an alibi.’
He chewed the gum with his mouth open, which jarred on her nerves. ‘What do you know about that?’
‘I know you could spend all your time crying and nobody would blame you. Instead, you’re fighting. They kill your husband, they shoot at you, and yet you don’t give up.’ He turned his back on her and continued towards the car. It was starting to rain again.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes