The Lost Girls of Rome, p.23Donato Carrisi
Giorgia, Marcus thought immediately. That was why Federico killed her. And that was when he discovered that he liked the new game more.
The assaults had begun after the accident. The first three had been useful as preparation. They were a kind of exercise, although Federico may not have been aware of it at the time. What awaited him was another kind of satisfaction, one that was much more gratifying. Murder.
The killing of his sister had been unplanned but necessary. Giorgia had understood everything and had become an obstacle, as well as a danger. Federico couldn’t allow her to tarnish his clean image, or to cast doubt on his precious disguise. That was why he had killed her. But it had also helped him to understand something.
Taking a life was much more gratifying than a mere assault.
And so he had not been able to restrain himself. The dead girl in Villa Glori Park was the demonstration of that. But this time he had been more cautious. Having learned from experience, he had buried her.
Federico Noni had deceived everyone. Starting with Pietro Zini. All it had taken was a false confession by a compulsive liar, a confession he had confirmed. An inadequate investigation, based on the assumption that only an obvious monster could have committed such a crime, had done the rest.
Marcus put down the exercise book because he had caught sight of an iron door half hidden behind a sideboard. He went and opened it.
A raging wind burst into the little room. He looked out and saw that the door led to a deserted side street. Nobody would notice who went in or out. It had probably fallen into disuse over the years, but Federico Noni had learned to use it.
Where is he now? Where has he gone? The question echoed again in Marcus’s head.
He closed the door and hurriedly retraced his steps. Coming back into the living room, he started rummaging around. He didn’t care if he left prints, his one concern was that he might be too late.
He looked at the wheelchair. On one side there was a kind of pocket for keeping things. He put his hand in and found a mobile phone.
He’s clever, he told himself. He left it here because he knows that, even if it’s off, it might help the police to establish his location.
That meant that Federico Noni had left home to commit a crime.
Marcus checked the last calls. There was one incoming one, from an hour and a half earlier. He recognised the number because he had dialled it himself that afternoon.
He pressed the recall button, waiting for the blind ex-policeman to reply. He heard the ringing, but nobody answered. Marcus hung up and, with a chilling sense of foreboding, rushed out of the house.
As she looked in the mirror in the bathroom of the Interpol guest apartment, Sandra thought again of what had happened that afternoon after her meeting with the penitenziere.
She had wandered for nearly an hour through the streets of Rome, letting herself be carried by the wind and her thoughts, heedless of the risk she ran after the ambush by the sniper that morning. As long as she was among people, she felt safe. When she had had enough she’d returned here. She had waited a while on the landing before knocking, trying to put off for as long as possible Schalber’s reprimands for her long absence. But as soon as he had opened the door to her, she had seen the relief on his face. It had surprised her: she hadn’t expected him to be worried about her.
‘Thank God nothing’s happened to you,’ were his only words.
She was stunned. She had expected a million questions, instead of which Schalber had been content with her brief summary of her visit to Pietro Zini. Sandra had handed him the file on the Figaro case and he had leafed through it in search of any clue that might lead them to the penitenzieri.
But he had not asked her why she had taken so long to get back.
He had invited her to wash her hands because dinner would soon be ready. And then he had gone into the kitchen to get a bottle of wine.
Sandra turned on the tap in the wash basin and stood there looking at her own reflection for another few seconds. She had deep eye sockets and her lips were chapped, because of her habit of biting them when she was tense. She ran her fingers through her dishevelled hair, then looked for a comb in the cabinet. She found a brush in which some long, brown hairs were trapped. A woman’s, she thought, remembering the bra she had seen on the arm of the chair in the bedroom of the guest apartment that morning. Schalber had justified its presence by saying that the apartment was used by many people, but she had noticed his embarrassment. She was sure he knew the provenance of that undergarment. There was no reason for it to bother her that another woman had been in the bed in which she had woken up, maybe even just a few hours earlier. What irritated her was that Schalber had tried to justify himself. As if it was of any interest to her!
At that moment, she felt like an idiot.
She was envious, there was no other explanation. She could not bear the thought that people had sex. The very word was liberating, even if only in the privacy of her own head. Sex, she repeated to herself. Maybe because that possibility was denied her. There was nothing actually stopping her, but part of her knew that this was how it had to be. Once again she seemed to hear her mother’s voice: ‘Darling, who would ever want to go to bed with a widow?’ Her mother had made it sound like a kind of perversion.
No, she really was being an idiot again, wasting time on such thoughts. She had to be practical. She had been in the bathroom for too long and Schalber might start to get suspicious, so she had to hurry up.
She had made a promise to the priest, and she had every intention of keeping it. If he helped her to locate David’s killer, she would wipe out all traces that led to the penitenzieri.
In any case, it was better to put the clues in a safe place for the moment.
Sandra turned towards the bag she had brought into the bathroom and placed it on the cistern. She took out the mobile phone and checked that there was sufficient space in the memory. She was about to erase the photographs she had taken in the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort, but then she thought better of it.
Someone had tried to kill her there, and these images might help her discover who it had been.
Then she took from the bag the photographs from the Leica, including the one of the priest with the scar on his temple, which Schalber did not know about. She placed them in a row on a shelf and photographed them one by one with the mobile: it was better to possess copies, just as a precaution. She took a transparent plastic bag that could be hermetically sealed and put in the five photographs, lifted the ceramic lid over the cistern and dropped the bag in the water.
She had been sitting for ten minutes in the little kitchen of the apartment, looking at the laid table, while Schalber toiled at the stove, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, an apron round his waist and a dishcloth thrown over his shoulder. He was whistling. He turned and found her lost in thought. ‘Risotto in balsamic vinegar, mullet in foil, and a radicchio and green apple salad,’ he announced. ‘I hope you approve.’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said, surprised. That morning he had made breakfast, but making scrambled eggs didn’t exactly mean knowing how to cook. This menu, though, suggested a passion for food. She was full of admiration.
‘You’ll sleep here tonight.’ It was a statement of fact, not a suggestion. ‘It’s unwise to go back to your hotel.’
‘I don’t think anything will happen to me. And besides, I left all my things there.’
‘We can go and get them tomorrow morning. There’s a very comfortable sofa in the other room.’ He smiled. ‘Of course I’ll be the one to make the sacrifice.’
Soon afterwards, Schalber put the risotto on the plates and they ate, mostly in silence. The fish was delicious, and the wine helped her relax. It was a change from all those evenings she had spent alone at home since David’s death, knocking back glass after glass of red wine until she fell into a stupor. This time it was different. She hadn’t thought she was still capab
‘Who taught you to cook?’
Schalber swallowed a mouthful of food and took a sip of wine. ‘You learn to do a lot of things when you’re alone.’
‘Never been tempted to get married? The first time on the telephone, you told me you came close a couple of times …’
He shook his head. ‘Marriage isn’t for me. It’s a matter of perspective.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We all have a vision of our lives. It’s like a painting: there are some elements in the foreground, others in the background. The background elements are at least as necessary as the foreground ones, or there wouldn’t be any sense of perspective and everything would be flat and unrealistic. Well, the women in my life are background elements. They’re indispensable, but not so indispensable as to be moved into the foreground.’
‘So what is there in your life? Apart from you, obviously.’
She hadn’t been expecting that reply. Schalber was delighted to see that he had surprised her.
‘Do you want to see her?’ He took out his wallet and began looking in the pockets.
‘Don’t tell me you’re one of those fathers who go around with a photograph of their little girl in their pocket! Damn it, Schalber, you’re really going all out to astonish me.’ Her tone was ironic, but actually she found it rather touching.
He showed her the creased photograph of a little girl with ash blonde hair, exactly like his. She even had his green eyes.
‘How old is she?’
‘Eight. Gorgeous, isn’t she? Her name’s Maria. She loves dancing. In fact, she attends ballet school. Every Christmas or birthday she asks for a puppy. Maybe this year I’ll give in.’
‘Do you get to see her often?’
Schalber’s face clouded over. ‘She lives in Vienna. I’m not on good terms with her mother, who resents the fact that I wouldn’t marry her.’ He laughed. ‘But whenever I get the time, I go and see Maria and take her riding. I’m teaching her to ride, the way my father taught me when I was her age.’
‘That’s very good of you.’
‘Every time I go to see her, I’m scared it won’t be the same. That during my absence, our relationship will have cooled. Maybe she’s still too young now, but what’ll happen when she wants to go out with her friends? I don’t want to become a burden to her.’
‘I don’t think that’ll happen,’ Sandra said. ‘Daughters usually reserve that treatment for their mothers. My sister and I were crazy about our father, even though his work often took him away. In fact, that was probably why we doted on him. Whenever we knew he was coming home, there was this really happy atmosphere in the house.’
Schalber nodded, grateful for the reassurance. Sandra stood up and gathered the plates, ready to put them in the dishwasher. He stopped her. ‘Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll clear up.’
‘If we do it together it’ll only take a moment.’
‘Please, I insist.’
Sandra stopped. All this attention made her uncomfortable. She’d got out of the habit of having someone take care of her. ‘When you called me on the phone, I immediately hated you. I could never have imagined that two nights later we’d actually be having dinner together, let alone that you’d cook for me.’
‘Does that mean you don’t hate me any more?’
Sandra turned red with embarrassment. He burst out laughing.
‘Don’t joke with me, Schalber.’
He raised his hands in surrender. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.’
At that moment, he seemed genuinely sincere, and a very long way from the disagreeable image she’d had of him. ‘Why are you so keen to stop the penitenzieri?’
Schalber turned serious. ‘Don’t make that mistake, not you too.’
‘What do you mean, “you, too”?’
He seemed to regret having expressed himself badly, and tried to correct it. ‘I’ve already explained: what they’re doing is against the law.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t buy that. There’s more to it, isn’t there?’
From the way he hesitated, she knew that the stuff he’d told her about the penitenzieri that morning was only part of the story.
‘All right … It isn’t much of a revelation, but I think what I’m about to tell you might explain why your husband died.’
Sandra stiffened. ‘Go on.’
‘The fact is, the penitenzieri shouldn’t exist any more. After Vatican II, the Church disbanded their order. In the 1960s, the Paenitentiaria Apostolica was reorganised with new rules and new people in charge. The archive of sins was marked as confidential, and the priest-criminologists were told to put a halt to their activities. Some went back into the ranks, others objected and were suspended a divinis. Those who refused outright were excommunicated.’
‘So how is it possible that—’
‘Wait, let me finish,’ Schalber interrupted her. ‘Just when history seemed to have forgotten them, the penitenzieri reappeared. It happened a few years ago, which made some people in the Vatican suspect that many of them had simply feigned obedience to the Pope’s dictates while continuing their work covertly. And it was true. At the head of this closed group was a simple Croatian priest: Luka Devok. It was he who ordained and taught the new penitenzieri. It’s possible that he in his turn answered to somebody in the upper echelons of the Church who had decided to reconstruct the penitenzieri. In any case, he was the sole depository of a great many secrets. For example, Devok was the only person who knew the identities of all the penitenzieri. Everyone answered to him alone, and they had no idea who the others were.’
‘Why do you talk of him in the past tense?’
‘Because Luka Devok is dead. He was shot in a hotel room in Prague about a year ago. That was when the truth came out. The Vatican stepped in to put an end to a situation that might have become a serious embarrassment.’
‘I’m not surprised: there’s nothing the Church hates more than scandal.’
‘It wasn’t just that. The mere idea that someone high up in the Church had covered for Devok all those years frightened a lot of people. Disobeying a Papal order is tantamount to creating an irreconcilable schism.’
‘So how did they regain control of the situation?’
‘Well done,’ Schalber said. ‘I see you’re starting to understand how these things work. They immediately replaced Devok with someone they trusted, a Portuguese priest named Augusto Clemente. He’s very young but very good. The penitenzieri are all Dominicans, whereas Clemente is a Jesuit. The Jesuits are much more pragmatic and less inclined to sentimentality.’
‘So this Father Clemente is the new head of the penitenzieri?’
‘His task is to track down all the penitenzieri ordained by Father Devok and bring them back to the Church. So far, he’s discovered only one: the man you saw in San Luigi dei Francesi.’
‘So the ultimate aim of the Vatican is to pretend that there hasn’t been any violation of the rules?’
‘Precisely. They always try to heal any splits. Look at the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who’ve been negotiating for years to be allowed back into the mainstream of the Church. The same holds true for the penitenzieri.’
‘The duty of a good shepherd is not to abandon the stray sheep and try to bring it back to the fold,’ Sandra said ironically. ‘But how do you know all these things?’
‘The same way David did. But we had different visions, that’s why we quarrelled. When I asked you to not make the same mistake, not to think of the penitenzieri too leniently, I was referring to what David thought.’
‘Why makes you right and David wrong?’
‘Someone killed him because of what he had discovered, whereas I’m still alive.’
This wasn’t the first time Schalber had said something disrespectful about her husband, but Sandra had to admit that it was the truth. His version of the facts was convincing. She couldn’t help feeling
‘How come you never asked me why it took me so long to come back here after seeing Zini?’
‘I told you, I don’t like liars.’
‘Were you afraid I wouldn’t tell you the truth?’
‘Questions give liars an excuse to lie. If you’d had anything to tell me, you would have done so of your own accord. I don’t like forcing things, I prefer you to trust me.’
Sandra looked away. She walked to the dishwasher and turned on the tap. The sound of the water running filled the room. For a moment she was tempted to tell him everything. Schalber was a few steps behind her. As she got ready to wash the dishes, she became aware of him coming closer, casting his protective shadow over her. Then he put his hands on her sides and moved even closer so that his chest touched her back. Sandra let him. Her heart was pounding and she had the temptation to close her eyes. If I close them it’s over, she said to herself. She was scared, but she couldn’t summon the strength to push him away. He leaned over her and moved her hair away from her neck. She felt the warmth of his breath on her skin. Instinctively, she tilted her head back, as if to welcome that embrace. Her hands were motionless under the jet of water. Without realising it, she raised herself slightly on tiptoe. Her eyelids yielded to a gentle lethargy. With her eyes closed, and her body quivering, she leaned in to him, searching for his lips.
Over the last five months, she had lived with memories.
Now, for the first time, Sandra forgot she was a widow.
The door of the house was open and banging. Not a good sign.
He put on his rubber gloves and pushed open the door. Zini’s cats came to greet their new visitor. Marcus understood why the blind ex-policeman had chosen cats to keep him company.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes