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The lost girls of rome, p.22
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.22

           Donato Carrisi
 

  ‘Just that. You say you used to go to Mass, so you must be a Catholic. Aren’t you angry with God for what happened?’

  ‘Believing in God doesn’t necessarily mean loving Him.’

  ‘I don’t follow.’

  ‘Our relationship with Him is based solely on the idea that there’s life after death. But if there wasn’t, would you still love the God that created you? If you weren’t going to get the reward you were promised, would you still be capable of kneeling and praising the Lord?’

  ‘What about you?’

  ‘I believe in a creator, but not in an afterlife. So I feel justified in hating Him.’ Zini burst into a laugh that was as loud as it was bitter. ‘This city is full of churches. They represent men’s attempts to prevent the inevitable and, at the same time their failure. Yet each one contains its own secret, its own legend. My favourite is the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio. Not many people know it, but it houses the Museum of Purgatory.’ Zini’s voice grew sombre. He leaned towards her, as if to confide something important. ‘In 1897, a few years after it was built, there was a fire. When the flames were overcome, a few of the faithful noticed that a human face had appeared in the soot on the wall behind the altar. Immediately the rumour spread that this image belonged to a soul in Purgatory. A priest named Victor Jouet was so impressed, he started hunting for other traces left by the dead as they wander in pain, trying desperately to ascend to Paradise. What he collected is in that museum. You’re a forensic photographer, you should go there and take a look at it. Do you know what he discovered?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘That if a soul has to try and get in contact with us, it wouldn’t do it with sounds, but with light.’

  Sandra thought of the photographs David had left her in the Leica, and shuddered.

  Not hearing any response from her, Zini apologised. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you, please forgive me.’

  ‘It’s nothing. You’re right, I should go there.’

  ‘Then you’d better get a move on. The museum only opens one hour a day, at the end of Vespers.’

  From Zini’s tone, Sandra realised it wasn’t just a casual piece of advice.

  The water was bubbling up from the drains, as if the belly of the city could no longer contain it. Three days of heavy rain had stretched the sewerage system to its limits. But it was over.

  Now the wind had arrived.

  It had risen without any warning, and had started to blow through the streets in the centre. Loud and unpredictable, it had invaded Rome, its alleys and squares.

  Sandra was making her way through an invisible multitude, as if battling an army of ghosts. The wind was trying to force her to change direction, but she carried on regardless. She felt the vibration of the mobile phone in the bag she kept with her. Frantically, she searched for it, simultaneously thinking about what she would tell Schalber, because she was sure it was him. It hadn’t been easy to persuade him to stay in the guest apartment, so she could imagine the objections he would raise on hearing that she wouldn’t be coming straight back to tell him the outcome of her conversation with Zini. But she had an excuse all ready.

  At last she dug the phone out from amid the jumble of objects she carried with her and looked at the screen. She was wrong, it was De Michelis.

  ‘Vega, what’s all that noise?’

  ‘Just a minute.’ Sandra took shelter in a doorway. ‘Can you hear me now?’

  ‘That’s better, thanks. How are you?’

  ‘There have been some interesting developments,’ she said, although she had decided not to tell him that someone had shot at her that morning. ‘I can’t tell you too much now, but I’m putting the pieces together. David had discovered something big here in Rome.’

  ‘Don’t keep me in suspense. When are you coming back to Milan?’

  ‘I need a couple of days, maybe even more.’

  ‘I’ll see if I can extend your leave.’

  ‘Thanks, Inspector, you’re a friend. How about you, any news for me?’

  ‘Thomas Schalber.’

  ‘So you managed to find out something?’

  ‘Of course. I talked to an old acquaintance who used to work for Interpol but who’s now retired. You know what they’re like, they’re a bit suspicious when you ask them about their colleagues. I couldn’t be too direct, couldn’t come straight out with it, so I had to invite him to lunch. Quite a long lunch, as it turned out …’

  De Michelis had a bad habit of wandering off the point. ‘What did you find out?’ Sandra prodded him.

  ‘My friend doesn’t know him personally, but when he was working for Interpol he heard that Schalber’s quite a tough nut. He doesn’t have many friends, he prefers to work alone, and his superiors don’t like that. But he gets results. He’s stubborn and argumentative, but everybody agrees he’s honest. Two years ago he carried out an internal investigation into corruption. Obviously, that didn’t make him very popular, but he did nail a group of agents who were in the pay of a drugs gang. He’s one of the Untouchables!’

  De Michelis’s description, however ironic and exaggerated, made her think. Why should an agent like that be bothering with the penitenzieri? Judging by his past, Schalber generally seemed drawn to cases where the crime was a more obvious one. Why was he so determined to hunt down these priests who were performing a positive task and weren’t actually harming anyone?

  ‘So, Inspector, what’s your overall impression of Schalber?’

  ‘From what I’ve heard, he seems to be a real pain in the arse. But I’d say he can be trusted.’

  De Michelis’s words reassured Sandra. ‘Thanks, I’ll bear that in mind.’

  ‘If you need me again, don’t hesitate to call.’

  She hung up and, with renewed determination, plunged back into the invisible river of the wind.

  In his farewell to her, Pietro Zini had been trying to give her a message. The visit to the Museum of Purgatory wasn’t one she could put off. Sandra didn’t know what to expect, but she was sure she had understood what the former policeman had been telling her. There was something there, something she absolutely had to see as soon as possible.

  Within a few minutes, she was outside the church of the Sacro Cuore del Suffragio. Its neo-Gothic style immediately reminded her of Milan Cathedral, even though the building only dated from the late nineteenth century. Inside, Vespers was coming to an end. The congregation was not large. The wind beat at the doors, got in through a few cracks and whistled down the naves.

  Sandra followed the sign to the Museum of Purgatory.

  She soon discovered that it was a collection of strange relics – at least ten – crammed into a single display case in the passageway leading to the sacristy. Among them, an old prayer book opened at the page on which the print of a hand appeared, a hand that was said to belong to a dead man. Or the marks left in 1864 on the cover of a cushion by the tormented soul of a dead nun. Or those present on the habit and shift of an abbess who had received a visit from the spirit of a priest in 1731.

  When she felt a hand coming to rest on her shoulder, Sandra was not afraid. She knew now why Pietro Zini had sent her here. She turned and saw him.

  ‘Why are you looking for me?’ the man with the scar on his temple asked.

  ‘I’m a police officer,’ she said immediately.

  ‘That’s not the reason. There’s no official investigation, you’re acting in a personal capacity. I realised that after we met in San Luigi dei Francesi. You weren’t there to arrest me last night, you wanted to shoot me.’

  Sandra did not reply: it was all too obvious that he was right. ‘You really are a priest,’ she said.

  ‘Yes, I am.’

  ‘My husband was David Leoni. Does that name mean anything to you?’

  He seemed to give it a moment’s thought. ‘No.’

  ‘He was a photojournalist. He died a few months ago, falling off a building. He was murdered.’

  ‘What does that have to do with me?’


  ‘He was investigating the penitenzieri. He took a photograph of you at a crime scene.’

  Hearing the penitenzieri mentioned, the priest gave a start. ‘And is that the only reason he was killed?

  ‘I don’t know.’ Sandra paused. ‘That was you on the phone to Zini, wasn’t it? Why did you want to meet me again?’

  ‘To ask you to drop this.’

  ‘I can’t. I have to discover why David died and find his killer. Can you help me?’

  He took his sad blue eyes off her and turned his gaze to one of the objects in the display case, a small wooden table on which a cross was imprinted. ‘All right. But you have to destroy the photograph of me. That’s all your husband found out about the penitenzieri.’

  ‘I’ll do that once I’ve got the answers I want.’

  ‘Does anybody else know about us?’

  ‘No,’ she lied. She didn’t have the courage to tell him Schalber and Interpol were also involved. She was afraid that, if he realised he was in danger of being exposed, he would disappear forever.

  ‘How did you discover I was investigating the Figaro case?’

  ‘The police know – they intercepted a conversation in which you discussed it.’ She hoped he would be content with that version. ‘Don’t worry, they don’t know who they’re dealing with.’

  ‘But you do.’

  ‘I knew how to find you. David showed me.’

  He nodded. ‘It seems to me there’s nothing else to say.’

  ‘What if I want to see you again?’

  ‘I’ll find you.’

  He turned to go, but Sandra stopped him. ‘How do I know you’re not deceiving me? How can I trust you if I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing?’

  ‘That’s nothing but curiosity. And people who are too curious commit the sin of pride.’

  ‘I’m only trying to understand.’

  The priest moved his face closer to the case containing the unlikely relics. ‘These objects are examples of superstition. Man’s attempt to look into a dimension that isn’t his. Everyone wants to know what happens when our time on earth is over. They don’t realise that every answer they get contains within itself a new question. So even if I explain to you what I do, it wouldn’t be enough.’

  ‘Then at least tell me why you do it …’

  The penitenziere was silent for a few moments. ‘There is a place where the world of light meets the world of darkness. It is there that everything happens: in the land of shadows, where everything is vague, confused, undefined. We are the guardians appointed to defend that border. But every now and again something manages to get through.’ He turned to look at Sandra. ‘I have to chase it back into the darkness.’

  ‘Maybe I could give you a hand with Figaro,’ she said instinctively, and saw an expectant look come into his eyes. From her bag, she took the file on the case that Zini had given her. ‘I don’t know if it’ll be of any use to you, but I think I’ve discovered a clue that was overlooked in the murder of Giorgia Noni.’

  ‘Go on,’ he said, with a gentleness that surprised her.

  ‘Federico Noni is the sole witness to what happened. According to his statement, the killer continued stabbing his sister until he heard the police siren. Only then did he run away.’ Sandra opened the file and showed him a photograph. ‘These are the prints that Figaro left in the garden after he ran out through the back door.’

  The priest leaned forward to get a better look at the image of the shoe prints in a flower bed. ‘What’s strange about it?’

  ‘Federico Noni and his sister Giorgia were victims of a series of tragic events. Their mother abandons them, their father dies, the boy has an accident, the doctors tell him he’ll walk again but it doesn’t happen, and finally, the girl is killed. Too many things.’

  ‘What does that have to do with the prints?’

  ‘There was a story that David liked to tell. He was fascinated by coincidences, or synchronicity as Jung called it. He believed in them so much that once, after a series of incredibly unfortunate events that had led him to a beach, he started following the prints left in the sand by a girl who was jogging. He was convinced that once he found her it would make sense of all the bad things that had happened to him along the way. In fact, he was sure he would meet the love of his life.’

  ‘Very romantic.’

  He wasn’t being sarcastic. Sandra could tell from the way he was looking at her that he was perfectly serious. So she continued with her story. ‘David was wrong only about that last detail. The rest was true.’

  ‘What are you trying to say?’

  ‘That if I hadn’t recently recalled that story, I mightn’t be able to give you the solution you’re looking for … Like all police officers I’m a sceptic when it comes to coincidences. So whenever David told me that story, I always tried to pull it apart. “How could you be sure that the prints belonged to a girl?” I’d ask him. Or: “How did you know she was jogging?” And he’d reply that those feet were too small to be a man’s – or at least he hoped so – and that the prints were deeper at the soles than at the heels, because she was running.’

  As Sandra had expected, this last statement triggered a reaction. The priest looked again at the photograph of the garden.

  The prints seemed deeper at the heels.

  ‘He wasn’t running … he was walking.’

  He had got there. Now Sandra was sure she hadn’t been mistaken. ‘There are two possibilities. Either Federico Noni was lying when he said that the killer ran away when the police arrived …’

  ‘ … or else someone, after the murder, had all the time in the world to prepare the crime scene for the police.’

  ‘Those prints were left deliberately, which can mean only one thing.’

  ‘Figaro never left the house.’

  8.38 p.m.

  He had to hurry. Getting there by public transport would have taken too long, so he had hailed a taxi. He asked the driver to drop him a short distance from the house in Nuovo Salario and continued on foot.

  As he approached, he thought again about the policewoman’s words, the intuition that had allowed her to reach the solution of the mystery. Even though he hoped he was wrong, he was pretty sure now that things had happened exactly as she had said.

  It was still windy, and plastic bags and scraps of paper whirled around Marcus, accompanying him to his destination.

  There was nobody in the vicinity of Federico Noni’s house. All the lights were off inside. He waited a few minutes, huddling inside his raincoat, then went inside the house.

  Everything was quiet. Too quiet.

  He decided not to use the torch.

  There was no sound.

  Marcus reached the living room. The blinds were down. He lit the lamp next to the sofa and the first thing that leapt to his eyes was the wheelchair, abandoned in the middle of the room.

  Now he could see clearly what had happened. His talent was to enter into objects, identify with their mute souls, and look at the past through their invisible eyes. This scene revealed the meaning of a phrase in the anonymous email received by Zini.

  He is not like you.

  It referred to Federico. It meant they weren’t both suffering from physical handicaps. The boy was simulating his.

  But where was Figaro now?

  If Federico lived like a recluse, he could not have left the house through the front door. The neighbours might have seen him. How did he manage to get out undisturbed to attack his victims?

  Marcus continued his search. As he approached the staircase leading to the first floor, he noticed that there was a door under the stairs, and that it was ajar. He opened it and went in. As he did so, his head knocked against something hanging from the low ceiling. A lamp with a short rope next to it. He pulled on the rope and the light came on.

  He found himself in a narrow cubbyhole that stank of mothballs. Old clothes were kept here, divided into two rows. Men’s clothes on the left, women’s clothes on
the right. They had probably belonged to the boy’s dead parents, Marcus thought. There was also a shoe rack and boxes piled up on shelves against the wall.

  He noticed two dresses on the floor, a blue one and a red flowery one. Maybe they had slipped off their hangers, or maybe someone had dropped them. Marcus put a hand between the hangers and moved the clothes aside, revealing a door.

  He deduced that the cubbyhole had originally been a passageway.

  He opened the door. He took the torch out of his pocket and shone it at a short corridor with peeling, damp-stained walls. He walked along it until he reached a place into which a number of large boxes and a few items of furniture no longer in use were crammed. The beam of light fell on an object lying on a table.

  An exercise book.

  He took it and started leafing through it. The drawings on the first pages were clearly the work of a child. The same elements recurred endlessly.

  Female figures, wounds, blood. And scissors.

  A page was missing, clearly torn out. Presumably the one they had found hanging, framed, on the wall of Jeremiah Smith’s loft. He had come full circle.

  The subsequent pages of the exercise book, however, bore witness to the fact that this practice had not ended with his youth. The drawings continued, more precise, more mature in their line. The women were much more defined, the cuts ever more realistic. A sign that the monster’s sick, twisted imagination had grown as he had grown.

  Federico Noni had always harboured these violent fantasies. But he had never realised them. It was probably fear that had stopped him. Fear of ending up in prison, or of being pointed out by everyone as a monster. He had created the mask of the good athlete, the good boy, the good brother. He had even believed it himself.

  Then the motorcycle accident had happened.

  That event had released everything. Marcus recalled the policewoman telling him that she had heard Federico Noni say the doctors believed he would recover the use of his legs. But then he had refused to continue with his physiotherapy.

  His condition was the perfect camouflage. At last, he could let his true nature emerge.

  Reaching the last page of the exercise book, Marcus discovered that it contained an old press cutting. He unfolded it. It went back to more than a year before and reported the news of Figaro’s third assault. Across the article, someone had written in black felt-tip pen the words I know everything.

 
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