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The lost girls of rome, p.24
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.24

           Donato Carrisi
 

  They were the only animals who could live with him in darkness.

  He closed the door behind him, shutting out the storm. After all that noise, he expected silence. Instead, he heard a shrill, intermittent electronic sound, somewhere close by.

  He went further in, following the sound. After a few steps, he saw a cordless telephone, standing on its base, next to the refrigerator. That was where the signal was coming from, an indication that the battery was running out.

  The same telephone had rung unanswered when he had called Zini’s number from Federico Noni’s house. But it wasn’t its constant ringing that had exhausted the battery: somebody had cut off the current.

  What reason did Figaro have to turn the lights out in a blind man’s house?

  ‘Zini!’ Marcus called. But there was no answer.

  He advanced along the corridor that led to the other rooms. He was forced to take out his torch. As soon as he lit it, he saw that there were some items of furniture barring the way, as if someone had put them there while trying to run away.

  Had there been a chase?

  He tried to reconstruct what had happened. Blindness had opened Pietro Zini’s eyes: he had understood. It had been the anonymous email that had put him on the right track, perhaps reviving an old suspicion.

  He is not like you.

  The body at the Villa Glori had provided confirmation of that. So he had phoned Federico Noni. Perhaps there had been an argument, and Zini had threatened to turn him in.

  Why hadn’t he done so? Why had he given him the time to come there and kill him?

  Zini had tried to escape, but obviously Federico – who, as a former athlete, was not only stronger, but also, and above all, sighted – hadn’t let him get away.

  Marcus knew for certain that someone had died here.

  Preceded by the cats, he headed for the study. He was about to go in when he noticed that the cats all gave a little jump as they entered the room. He aimed the torch and saw something shining a few inches from the floor.

  It was a nylon cable stretched across the doorway. Only the cats could see it in the dark.

  He had no idea why that obstacle was there. He stepped over it and entered the room.

  The wind was blowing hard outside the house, looking for a crack through which to enter. As Marcus moved the torch around the study, the shadows danced. All except one.

  But it wasn’t a shadow. It was a man lying on the floor with a pair of scissors in one hand and another pair planted in his neck. One cheek lay in a pool of dark blood. Marcus bent over Federico Noni, who stared up at him with lifeless eyes, his mouth twisted in a grimace. Suddenly he realised what had really happened within these walls.

  Zini – a man of justice – had chosen revenge.

  It was Zini who had insisted on Marcus meeting the policewoman. While they had been at the Museum of Purgatory, Zini had taken advantage of their absence to put his plan into operation. He had telephoned Federico Noni and told him that he knew the truth. But it was basically an invitation. And Federico had fallen for it.

  While waiting for him to arrive, Zini had prepared obstacles, including the nylon cable. By cutting off the electricity he had put them both on an equal footing. Neither would be able to see the other.

  Zini had acted like a cat. And Federico had been the mouse.

  Zini was bigger and more capable in the dark. He knew the place, he knew how to move about in it. In the end, the advantage had been his. Federico had tripped over the cable, and Zini had plunged the scissors into him. It was a kind of retaliation.

  An execution.

  Marcus stood for a while longer looking at the corpse’s hypnotic gaze. He had made another mistake. Once again he had been the one to provide the missing piece of the puzzle, leading to an act of revenge.

  He turned and looked back, but realised that the cats had gathered in front of the French window that led to the little garden.

  There was something outside.

  He opened the window wide and the wind rushed into the room. The cats ran to the deckchair on which Pietro Zini was sitting, just as he had been the first time Marcus had met him.

  Marcus aimed his torch at the absent eyes. He wasn’t wearing his dark glasses. He had one hand in his lap, still clutching the gun with which he had shot himself in the mouth.

  He should have been angry with Zini. The man had used him, had led him on a wild goose chase.

  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.

  The ex-policeman could have turned Federico Noni in, established the truth, released the innocent man imprisoned in Regina Coeli. But Zini was convinced that Nicola Costa had been on the verge of taking a fatal step when they had arrested him. He wasn’t just a compulsive liar, he was a dangerous psychopath. The attention he had received since his arrest had appeased his instinct for the moment. But when you came down to it, it was merely a palliative. There were several sides to his character. The narcissistic side would eventually lose out to the homicidal side.

  And for Zini it was also a matter of pride. Federico Noni had played with him, striking him in his weak spot. Because of his own imminent blindness, Zini had felt empathy with the young man. It had been his compassion that had led him astray. He had forgotten the first rule of every policeman: never believe anyone.

  In addition, Federico had committed the most outrageous of crimes by killing his own sister. What kind of creature strikes his own nearest and dearest? The young man would stop at nothing. That was why, according to Zini’s law, he deserved to die.

  Marcus closed the French window, as if drawing a curtain over that spectacle. In the study, he immediately located the Braille display. Although there was no electricity, it was on. It was being fed by a generator.

  It was a sign.

  That afternoon, thanks to the voice program, he had listened to the contents of the anonymous email that Pietro Zini had received a few days earlier. But Marcus was sure that there had been more in that message and that Zini had switched it off before he had heard everything.

  That was why, after locating the right key, Marcus again activated the device. The cold and impersonal electronic voice resumed those mysterious words that he was now in a position to decipher.

  ‘He-is-not-like-you … Look-in-Vil-la-Glo-ri-Park …’

  That was the part he knew. But as he had foreseen, there was more.

  ‘ … The-boy-de-ceived-you … You-will-soon-have-a-vis-i-tor.’

  This second fragment referred directly to Federico Noni and, indirectly, to Marcus, telling Zini in advance that he was coming.

  But it was the last verse of this electronic dirge that most struck him.

  ‘It-hap-pened-be-fore … it-will-hap-pen-a-gain … c.g. 925-31-073.’

  It was partly the prophecy it announced – It happened before, it will happen again – partly the code number referring to another unsolved crime – 925-31-073 – but above all it was the two letters that preceded the number.

  Culpa gravis.

  At last Marcus knew the truth.

  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 … I have to chase it back into the darkness.

  Whoever was putting victims and murderers in contact with one another was a penitenziere like himself.

  ONE YEAR EARLIER KIEV

  ‘The great dream ended when we traded our integrity for a bit of consensus. We went to sleep with hope and we woke up with
a whore whose name we couldn’t even remember.’

  This was how Dr Norzhenko summarised Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin wall, the breakup of the republics, the rise of the oligarchs: in other words, twenty years of Soviet history.

  ‘Look at this …’ He stabbed his index finger at the front page of the Kharkovskii Kurier. ‘Everything’s going to pieces and what do they say? Nothing. So what was the point of freedom?’

  Nikolai Norzhenko gave a sidelong glance at his visitor, who was nodding, apparently interested, even if not sharing as fully in this invective as he would have liked. Then he stared at the man’s bandaged hand. ‘Did you say you were American, Dr Foster?’

  ‘Actually I’m English,’ the hunter replied, trying to distract Norzhenko’s attention from the bandage. Beneath it was the bite he had received from young Angelina in the psychiatric hospital in Mexico City.

  The office in which they were sitting was on the second floor of the administration building of the State Centre for Child Assistance, in the western part of Kiev. Through the large window there was a view of the grounds, the birch trees bright with the colours of early autumn. In the room, Formica predominated: everything was covered in it, from the desk to the walls. On one of the walls you could still see three lighter rectangular patches where portraits of Lenin, Stalin and whichever Secretary of the Communist Party was then in power must once have hung. The stale smell of cigarettes hung in the room: the ashtray in front of Norzhenko was filled with cigarette ends. Although he was probably only in his early fifties, his scruffy appearance and the unhealthy cough that punctuated his sentences made him seem much older. The man seemed to be seething with resentment and a sense of humiliation. The empty photo frame on a side table and the folded blankets at the end of a leather sofa suggested a marriage that had ended unhappily. In Soviet days, he must have been a respected man. Now he was a sad parody of a State functionary, with the salary of a street cleaner.

  Norzhenko picked up the sheet of paper with the fake references that the hunter had shown him on his arrival and looked at it again.

  ‘It says here that you’re the editor of a review of forensic psychology at the University of Cambridge. That’s remarkable at your age, Dr Foster, congratulations.’

  The hunter had known these particulars would attract his attention. He wanted to appeal to Norzhenko’s wounded ego and he was succeeding.

  Pleased, Norzhenko put the paper down. ‘You know, it’s strange. You’re the first person who’s ever come here to ask me about Dima.’

  The hunter’s presence here was all down to Dr Florinda Valdez. Back in Mexico City, she had shown him an article Norzhenko had published in a minor review of psychology in 1989. It concerned the case of a child: Dmitry Karolyszin – Dima. Perhaps Norzhenko had hoped that the article would open doors for him, lead to a new career, at the very moment when everything around him was falling apart. But that hadn’t happened. The story had remained buried, along with his expectations and ambitions – until now.

  It was time to bring it back to the surface.

  ‘Tell me, Dr Norzhenko, did you know Dima personally?’

  ‘Of course.’ Dr Norzhenko formed a pyramid with his hands and raised his eyes as if searching for a memory. ‘At first he seemed like any other boy; sharper, perhaps, but very quiet.’

  ‘What year was that?’

  ‘The spring of 1986. At the time, this centre was at the forefront of childcare in the Ukraine, perhaps in the whole Soviet Union.’ Norzhenko’s tone as he said this was full of self-satisfaction. ‘Unlike orphanages in the West, we didn’t just take care of children who had nobody in the world, we prepared them for the future.’

  ‘Everyone knew your methods. You were an example.’

  Norzhenko was happy to accept the flattery. ‘After the disaster at Chernobyl, the authorities in Kiev asked us to take care of the children who had lost their parents through radiation sickness. It was thought likely that they, too, would develop symptoms. Our task was to care for them until relatives could be found who might be able to take them in.’

  ‘Did Dima arrive with these children?’

  ‘Six months after the disaster, if I remember rightly. He was from Prypiat. The city was in the exclusion zone around the reactor and had been evacuated. He was eight years old.’

  ‘Was he with you for a long time?’

  ‘Twenty-one months.’ Norzhenko paused, frowning, then stood up and went to a filing cabinet. After a brief search, he came back to the desk with a file in a beige cover. He started leafing through it. ‘Like all the children from Prypiat, Dmitry Karolyszin suffered from bed wetting and mood swings, common results of shock and forced separation. His case was followed by a team of psychologists. During the interviews, he told us about his family: his mother Anya, a housewife, and his father Konstantin, who had worked as a technician at the Chernobyl plant. He described details of their life together … details that would turn out to be accurate.’ He emphasised these last words.

  ‘What happened?’

  Before answering, Norzhenko took a cigarette from the packet he had in the breast pocket of his shirt and lit it.

  ‘Dima had only one relative still living, a brother of his father: Oleg Karolyszin. After a long search, we managed to track him down in Canada. He was perfectly happy to be given the chance to take care of his nephew. He only knew Dima from the photographs Konstantin used to send him. So when we sent him a recent image so that he could confirm the boy’s identity, we had no idea of what would come next. It was little more than a formality.’

  ‘Instead of which, Oleg told you the child wasn’t his nephew.’

  ‘Precisely … and yet even though Dima had never met him, he knew many things about his uncle, even anecdotes about his childhood that his father had told him. He remembered the presents he sent him every year for his birthday.’

  ‘So what did you think?’

  ‘At first, that Oleg had changed his mind and no longer wanted to take care of Dima. But when he sent us some of the photographs of the child that his brother had sent him over the years, we were astonished … We were dealing with a completely different person.’

  For a few moments, there was an awkward silence in the room. Norzhenko studied the hunter’s face as if to see whether he considered him mad.

  ‘You hadn’t realised this before?’

  ‘There were no pictures of Dima prior to his arrival at the centre. The population of Prypiat had been forced to abandon their houses in a hurry, taking with them only what was strictly necessary. The child arrived here with nothing but the clothes he was wearing.’

  ‘What happened next?’

  Norzhenko took a deep drag on his cigarette. ‘There was only one explanation: the child, whoever he was, had taken the place of the real Dima. But there was more … it wasn’t simply a case of assumed identity.’

  The hunter’s eyes gleamed, and at the same time there was a flash of something in Norzhenko’s eyes, too. Almost certainly fear.

  ‘The two children were not simply similar,’ Norzhenko went on. ‘The real Dima was short-sighted, so was this boy. Both were lactose intolerant. Oleg told us that his nephew had no hearing in his right ear because of an inflammation that had been badly treated. We subjected our Dima to audiometric tests, without telling him why. He turned out to have exactly the same defect.’

  ‘He could have been pretending. Audiometric tests rely on the answers provided by the patient. Maybe your Dima knew that.’

  ‘Maybe …’ The rest of the sentence died on Norzhenko’s lips. ‘A month after our discovery, the boy disappeared.’

  ‘Had he run away?’

  ‘Not so much run away as … vanished.’ Norzhenko’s face turned sombre. ‘We looked for him for weeks, with the help of the police.’

  ‘And the real Dima?’

  ‘No trace of him, or of his parents: we only knew they were dead because our Dima had told us. These were chaotic times, and it was impossible to che
ck the facts. Everything connected with Chernobyl was kept under wraps, even the most trivial information.’

  ‘Immediately after that, you wrote your article.’

  ‘But nobody took any notice.’ Norzhenko shook his head bitterly and looked away, almost as if ashamed of himself. But then he regained his composure and looked straight at the hunter. ‘The boy wasn’t simply trying to pass himself off as someone else, believe me. At that age, the brain isn’t capable of structuring such an elaborate lie. No, in his mind he really was Dima.’

  ‘When he disappeared, did he take anything with him?’

  ‘No, but he left something behind …’

  Norzhenko leaned down and opened one of the desk drawers. After searching for a moment, he extracted a little toy and placed it on the table in front of his visitor.

  A stuffed rabbit.

  It was blue, dirty and tattered. Someone had mended its tail and it lacked an eye. It had a smile that was both blissful and sinister.

  The hunter looked at it. ‘It doesn’t seem like much of a clue.’

  ‘I agree with you, Dr Foster,’ Norzhenko admitted, his eyes lighting up as if he had something else in reserve. ‘But you don’t know where we found it.’

  It was getting dark. Norzhenko led his supposed colleague across a corner of the grounds and into another building belonging to the centre.

  ‘This used to be the main dormitory.’

  They did not head for the upper floors, but down to the basement. Norzhenko activated a series of switches and the fluorescent lights came on, illuminating a vast area. The walls were dark with damp. Pipes of every size ran across the ceiling, many of them in poor repair.

  ‘One of the cleaners made the discovery some time after the boy disappeared.’ He went no further, almost as if he wanted to enjoy his younger colleague’s surprise once they got there. ‘I’ve tried to keep this place exactly as we found it. Don’t ask me why, I simply thought that one day it would help us to understand. And besides, nobody ever comes down here.’

 
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