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The lost girls of rome, p.25
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.25

           Donato Carrisi
 

  They walked along a narrow, high-ceilinged corridor lined with steel doors through which the noise of the boilers could dimly be heard. Then they came to a second room, used as a store room for old furniture: beds and rotting mattresses. Norzhenko made his way through it and invited his colleague to do the same.

  ‘We’re almost there,’ he announced.

  They turned a corner and found themselves in a narrow badly ventilated box room under the stairs. It was dark, but Norzhenko managed to illuminate the place with his cigarette lighter.

  In the amber light of that little flame, his visitor took a step forward, incredulous at what he was seeing.

  It resembled a gigantic insect’s nest.

  The hunter’s first reaction was one of disgust, but then, as he went closer, he saw that it consisted of many small pieces of wood, held together with scraps of material of various colours, ropes, clothes pegs, drawing pins, and bits of papier mâché. Everything had been assembled with great care and meticulousness.

  It was a child’s makeshift refuge.

  He had built similar things himself when he was small. But this one was different.

  ‘The rabbit was in there,’ Norzhenko said, and watched as his visitor leaned into the narrow opening and touched the floor. He looked over his shoulder and saw him examining a ring of small dark stains.

  For the hunter, it was a startling revelation.

  Dried blood. He had seen the same thing in Paris, in Jean Duez’s apartment.

  The false Dima was the transformist.

  But he mustn’t appear too excited. ‘Do you have any idea where these stains come from?’ he asked.

  ‘I’m afraid not.’

  ‘Do you mind if I take a sample?’

  ‘Go ahead.’

  ‘And I’d also like the stuffed rabbit, it may be linked to the false Dima’s past.’

  Norzhenko hesitated. He was trying to figure out whether his colleague was really interested in the story. This might be the last chance he would get to redeem his own existence.

  ‘In my opinion, the case still has scientific value,’ the hunter said, to convince him. ‘It’s worthy of further study.’

  At these words, a naïve gleam of hope appeared in Norzhenko’s eyes, as well as a silent request for help. ‘So what do you think? Could we write another article, maybe the two of us together?’

  At that moment, the furthest thing from Norzhenko’s mind was that he would probably be spending the rest of his days in this institution.

  The hunter turned and smiled. ‘Of course, Dr Norzhenko. I’m flying back to England tonight, but I’ll be in touch as soon as possible.’

  In reality, he had another destination in mind. He would go where everything had started. To Prypiat, on the trail of Dima.

  TWO DAYS AGO

  6.33 a.m.

  The corpse said, ‘No.’

  The exclamation hung in the air between dream and waking. It came from the past, but it had somehow got through into the present an instant before the portal that connected the two worlds closed and Marcus was again awake.

  He had uttered that ‘no’ in a loud but fearful voice, staring into the impassive barrel of a gun. Already knowing, as do all those about to die, that it would be no use, that the word was the final, futile barrier put up against the inevitable, the prayer of those who knew they had no way out.

  Marcus did not immediately look for the felt-tip pen with which he recorded the fragments of his dreams on the wall next to the camp bed. He lay there breathing heavily, his heart thumping in his chest, contemplating what he had seen. This time he would not forget it.

  He could still clearly see the image of the faceless man who had shot him and Devok. In the previous versions of the dream, the man had been a vague shadow that vanished every time he made an effort to focus on it. But now he possessed an important detail about the killer. He had seen the hand with which he was holding the gun.

  He was left-handed.

  It wasn’t much, but for Marcus it was some kind of hope. Perhaps one day he would see past that outstretched arm and look into the eyes of the man who had condemned him to wander in search of his own identity, leaving him only the awareness of being alive and nothing more.

  He thought again of Federico Noni and the drawings in the exercise book he had found in his house. They recounted the genesis of a monster. The most disturbing fact about these violent fantasies was that they went back to childhood. In this whole tangled web, there was one question that predominated. If some people were good and some bad, some evil and some compassionate, was it because they were born like that or did they become that way? How could a child contemplate evil so lucidly and let himself be infected by it?

  Some might have blamed a series of events that had scarred Federico’s psyche, such as his being abandoned by his mother or his father’s premature death. But that was too simplistic an explanation. Many children lived through worse tragedies and didn’t turn into killers when they grew up.

  Marcus was fully aware that this question was of deep personal significance to himself. His amnesia may have wiped out his memories, but his past still existed somewhere. What had it been before that moment? In Federico’s exercise book there was perhaps a glimmer of an answer. In every individual there exists something innate, which goes beyond the consciousness of the self, the experience accumulated while growing up. A spark that identifies each man more than his name and appearance.

  One of the first steps in his training had consisted in liberating himself from the deceptiveness of appearance. Clemente had made him examine the case of Ted Bundy, the serial killer who to all appearances had been a perfectly pleasant young man. Bundy had committed twenty-eight murders, and yet he had a steady girlfriend and his friends described him as an affable, generous man. Before being unmasked as what he really was, he had even been awarded a medal for saving a little girl from drowning in a lake.

  We are always in a battle, Marcus had told himself, and the choice of sides is never clear cut. In the end the only arbiter is man himself, who decides to follow his own spark, whether positive or negative, or else to ignore it.

  That was true of the guilty, but also of their victims.

  The last three days had been very instructive from that point of view. Monica – the sister of one of the girls killed by Jeremiah Smith – Raffaele Altieri and Pietro Zini had all found themselves at a crossroads, and had made their choice. They had been given not just the truth, but also the opportunity to choose between forgiveness and revenge. Monica had chosen the first, the other two had opted for the second.

  And then there was the policewoman who was investigating her husband’s death. What was she looking for: a truth that liberated her or the opportunity to inflict punishment? Marcus had never heard of David Leoni, who, according to his wife, had been killed while he was investigating the penitenzieri. He had promised that he would help her to solve the mystery. Why? He feared that she, too, might yet be offered the change to take revenge, even though at this stage he couldn’t see how. He had done it, above all, to gain time. He felt there was something that linked her to the others.

  All the people involved so far had suffered a wrong that had changed their lives for ever. Evil had not merely struck them, it had sown seeds. In some cases these seeds had taken root, infecting their whole existence. Like a silent parasite, they had grown into a festering hatred and resentment, transforming the host body. Individuals who had never thought they could take the life of another human being suffered terrible losses, which, over time, transformed them into dispensers of death.

  Part of Marcus, though, did not feel able to condemn anyone who, rather than being content to learn the truth and move on, had decided to inflict punishment. Because he himself had much in common with these people.

  He turned to the wall next to the camp bed and re-read the last two details of the scene in the Prague hotel that he had marked there.

  Shattered window. Three shots. Now he ad
ded: Left-handed.

  What would he do if he found himself face to face with Devok’s killer, the man who had tried to kill him and had deprived him of his memory? He did not think of himself as a just man. How could you forgive someone who has not paid for his sins? That was why he was unable to completely blame anyone who, to remedy a misdeed, had committed a crime in his turn.

  These people had been granted an immense power. And it was a penitenziere who had given it to them.

  After that discovery, Marcus had felt conflicting emotions. He had seen it as a betrayal, but he had also felt an enormous relief in discovering that he was not the only one to possess that obscure talent. Even though he didn’t yet know what exactly drove this mystery penitenziere, the fact that behind every revelation there was a man of God gave him hope that Lara might still be saved.

  I won’t let her die, he told himself.

  All the same, Marcus could feel the threads of the investigation slipping through his fingers. His priority had to be Lara, and yet he had almost forgotten her. He had let himself be carried along by events, trusting that, whatever the mystery man’s plan might be, it somehow involved the missing student. But now the words of his last message, as contained in the email he had sent Pietro Zini, echoed in Marcus’s head.

  It happened before. It will happen again.

  What if the plan entailed his getting very close to freeing Lara and then failing? He would have to live with the remorse, which would be a heavy burden for his new memory to bear.

  I have to see this through, I have no choice. But I have to get there just before it’s all over. Otherwise I won’t be able to save her life.

  For the moment he put aside any sense of foreboding. It was a more imminent danger he had to consider.

  c.g. 925-31-073.

  The code number at the end of the email announced another crime that had remained unpunished, more blood that had been spilt without anyone paying the price. Somewhere out there, someone was getting ready to choose whether to remain a victim or become an executioner.

  Two months after beginning his training, Marcus had asked Clemente about the archive. Having heard so much about it, he was curious to know when he could see it. Late one night, his friend had come to his attic room in the Via dei Serpenti and said, ‘The moment has come.’

  Marcus had let himself be led across Rome without asking any questions. They had done part of the journey by car and continued on foot. After a while, they had come to an old building in the centre. Clemente had invited him to descend into the basement. Then he had led him along a frescoed corridor until they came to a small wooden door. As Clemente opened it with the key he had brought with him, Marcus looked at him uneasily. Now that he had reached this final frontier, he did not feel ready. He had never imagined it could be so easy to get here. Ever since he had first heard of the archive, it had filled him with a degree of fear. Over the centuries this place had been called many things, some quite disturbing. The library of evil. The devil’s memory. Marcus had imagined it as a tangle of dark cloisters, lined with shelves full of neatly arranged volumes. A vast labyrinth you could easily get lost in or that could drive you mad because of what it contained. But when Clemente opened the door, Marcus had looked inside in astonishment.

  It was a small room with bare walls and no windows. In the middle stood a table and one chair. On the table was a file.

  Clemente had motioned him to sit down and read. It was the confession of a man who had committed eleven murders. The victims were all little girls. He had killed the first one at the age of twenty, and after that he hadn’t been able to stop. He couldn’t explain what obscure force guided his hands as he dealt each terrible death. There was an inexplicable urge within him to repeat the act.

  Marcus immediately thought of a serial killer and asked Clemente if he had been stopped in the end.

  Yes, his friend had reassured him. Only the events went back more than a thousand years.

  Marcus had always assumed that serial killers were a product of the modern era. Over the last century, mankind had made enormous strides in the realm of ethics and morality. Marcus considered the existence of serial killers one of the prices to be paid for progress. But, reading that confession, he had had to think again.

  On each of the following evenings, Clemente led him to that little room and submitted a new case to him. Very soon, Marcus started to wonder why he took him there. Couldn’t he have brought him the files in his attic room? The answer, however, was simple. That isolation was necessary for Marcus to learn an important lesson.

  ‘I’m the archive,’ he said to Clemente one day.

  Clemente confirmed that, apart from this secret place where the testimonies of evil were kept, the penitenzieri themselves were the archive. Each one knew a different part of it, preserved that experience and took it out into the world with him.

  But from the death of Devok up until the previous evening at Zini’s house, Marcus had always thought he was the only one.

  This thought gave him no peace as he walked through the narrow streets of the Jewish ghetto to the Portico of Octavia, situated behind the great synagogue. In ancient Rome, it had housed the temples of Juno Regina and Jupiter Stator. Over the ruins was a modern pier of steel and wood, from which there was a view of the Circus Flaminius.

  Clemente was holding on to the balustrade with both hands. He already knew everything.

  ‘What’s his name?’

  ‘We don’t know,’ Clemente said, without turning.

  This time, Marcus would not be fobbed off. ‘How can you not know the identity of a penitenziere?’

  ‘I wasn’t lying when I told you that only Father Devok knew all your names and faces.’

  ‘But you lied about something,’ he insisted.

  ‘All this began a long time before Jeremiah Smith.’

  ‘So you knew that somebody was violating the secrecy of the archive.’ He would clearly have to get there by himself.

  ‘“That which has been done will be done again.” You wanted to know what that means? Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, Verse 9.’

  ‘How long have these revelations been going on?’

  ‘Four months. There have been too many deaths, Marcus. It isn’t good for the Church.’

  Clemente’s words made him uncomfortable. He had imagined that all their efforts were for Lara. Now he had to accept that this was not the case. ‘So that’s what interests you,’ he said angrily. ‘Plugging up the leaks in the archive, stopping it getting out that somebody has started taking the law into his own hands. What’s Lara, then, just an accident? Will her death be classed as collateral damage?’

  ‘The reason you were brought in was to save her.’

  ‘That’s not true.’

  ‘What the penitenzieri were doing ran contrary to the decisions of the Church hierarchy. They were dismissed, their order abolished. But someone wanted to continue.’

  ‘Devok.’

  ‘He maintained that it was wrong to stop, that the penitenzieri had a vitally important role to play. The knowledge of evil contained in the archive had to remain at the world’s disposal. He was convinced that his mission was just. You and other priests followed him in that mad undertaking.’

  ‘Why did he come to Prague to look for me? What was I doing there?’

  ‘I don’t know, I swear.’

  Marcus let his eyes wander over the remains of Imperial Rome. He was starting to understand his own role. ‘Every time he reveals one of the secrets, the penitenziere leaves clues for his colleagues. He wants to be stopped. The reason you trained me up again was to find him. You’ve been using me. Lara’s disappearance gave you the excuse you needed to bring me on board without my suspecting anything. In reality, you don’t care about her … or even about me.’

  ‘Oh, but I do. How can you say that?’

  Marcus went closer to Clemente so that he was forced to look him in the eyes. ‘If the archive wasn’t in danger, you’d have left me without a m
emory in that hospital bed.’

  ‘No. We would have provided you with memories so that you could carry on. I went to Prague because Devok was dead. I found out that when he was shot there was someone with him. I had no idea who it was, all I knew was that this unknown person was in hospital and had amnesia.’

  At first, Marcus had had Clemente tell him this story many times, to convince himself of his own identity. Searching among his things in the hotel room, Clemente had found a Vatican City diplomatic passport with a false identity and his notes, a kind of diary in which Marcus talked about himself in broad terms, perhaps fearing that, if he had died, he would have remained a nameless corpse. It was from that diary that Clemente had deduced who he was. But the confirmation had come later, after he had been discharged from hospital, when he had taken him to a crime scene and seen how Marcus had been capable of describing, with a remarkable degree of accuracy, what had happened.

  ‘I communicated the discovery to my superiors,’ Clemente continued. ‘They were reluctant to pursue the matter. I insisted, maintaining that you were the right person, and I managed to convince them. We haven’t been using you, as you put it. But you do represent an opportunity.’

  ‘If I find this penitenziere who’s been betraying the secrets of the archive, what will become of me?’

  ‘You’ll be free, don’t you understand? Not because of someone else’s decision, but your own. You could even leave now if you wanted to – it’s all down to you. You’re under no obligation. But I know that, deep in your heart, you feel the need to know who you really are. And even though you won’t admit it, what you’re doing is helping you to understand that.’

  ‘And when it’s all over, the penitenzieri will be history again. And this time you will all be sure they’ll never return.’

  ‘There’s a reason the order was abolished.’

  ‘What is it? Come on, tell me.’

  ‘There are things that neither you nor I can understand. Decisions that come from on high. Our duty as men of the Church is to obey without asking questions, knowing that there is someone over us who’s acting for our benefit.’

 
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