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The lost girls of rome, p.26
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.26

           Donato Carrisi
 

  Birds circled between the ancient columns, singing in the crisp morning air. The day had begun with sunshine, but that brightness did not correspond to Marcus’s frame of mind. However hard he fought against it, the thought that he could live differently was an attractive one. Ever since he had discovered his own talent, he had felt somehow obligated. As if the solution to all this evil lay with him. Now, though, Clemente was leaving an exit route open for him. But he was right: they needed what he was doing. Only if he found Lara and stopped the penitenziere would he feel he had the right to leave, to lead his own life.

  ‘What do I have to do?’

  ‘Find out if the girl is still alive, and save her.’

  The only way, as Marcus knew perfectly well, was to follow the trail left by the penitenziere. ‘He’s managed to solve cases that were classified as unsolved in the archive. He’s good.’

  ‘So are you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have discovered the same things. You’re like him.’

  Marcus didn’t know if that comparison cheered or depressed him. But he had to carry on. He had to see this through. ‘The code number this time is c.g. 925-31-073.’

  ‘You won’t like it,’ Clementi warned him, taking an envelope from the inside pocket of his raincoat. ‘Someone is dead, but we don’t know who. His killer has admitted his crime, but we don’t know his name.’

  Marcus took the file from Clementi’s hands. It was unusually light and thin. He opened it, to reveal a single handwritten sheet of paper.

  ‘What is this?’

  ‘A suicide’s confession of his sins.’

  7.40 a.m.

  She was awoken by a hand stroking her cheek. She opened her eyes, expecting to see Schalber next to her. But she was alone. And yet the sensation had been quite vivid.

  Her partner from that strange night had already got up. She could hear the water running in the shower. Better that way. Sandra was not sure she wanted to see him yet. She needed a little time to herself. Because now the pitiless honesty of the day gave her a completely different sense of what had happened between the sheets. Indifferent to her embarrassment, the sun filtered through the blinds, revealing her clothes and underwear strewn on the floor, the crumpled blankets at the foot of the bed, her own naked body.

  ‘I’m naked,’ she said, as if to convince herself.

  At first she blamed the wine. But then she realised this was hardly a sufficient excuse. Who was she trying to kid? Women never make love by chance, she told herself. Men, yes: they see an opportunity and they seize it with both hands. Women need preparation. They want to be smooth to the touch, to smell nice. Even when it seems as if they’re just throwing themselves into a one-night stand, the reality is that they’ve planned it. She might not have foreseen this particular encounter, but, physically speaking, she hadn’t let herself go over the past few months. She had continued taking care of herself. Part of her had refused to let grief gain the upper hand. And then there was also her mother. Before David’s funeral she had sent Sandra into the bedroom to do her hair. ‘A woman can always find two minutes to brush her hair,’ she had said. Even when she’s suffering and can hardly breathe, Sandra herself had added. It was a concept that had nothing to do with beauty. It was a matter of identity. A gesture that men might dismiss as pointless and affected at such a moment.

  But now Sandra felt ashamed. What if Schalber thought she had given in too easily? She feared his judgement. Not of her, but of David. Had he felt sorry for him, seeing how ready his widow was to sleep with another man?

  Suddenly, she realised that she was looking for a reason to hate him. And yet Schalber had been affectionate last night. It had not been a moment of wild passion, it had all happened with almost maddening slowness. She remembered how he had held her tight, without saying a word. Every now and again he had kissed her hair. She had felt the kiss coming by the warmth of his breath.

  She had been attracted to him from the first moment. Perhaps that was why he made her angry. She recognised it for the cliché it was. First two people hate each other, then, inevitably, they fall in love. She felt as trite as a fifteen-year-old. All she needed now was to make a comparison between her new boyfriend and David. She dismissed that idea irritably and summoned the strength to get out of bed. She picked up her knickers from the floor and quickly put them on. She didn’t want Schalber to come out of the shower and find her defenceless.

  She sat down on the bed, waiting for the bathroom to be free so that she could go and take a shower herself. Of course it would be strange passing him with her knickers on. He might interpret it as her belatedly having second thoughts. But the fact was, Sandra didn’t feel sorry at all. She ought to be crying, and yet she felt an unconscious joy.

  She still loved David.

  But it was in the word ‘still’ that the difference lay. The word concealed a trap: the trap of time. That word had been inserting itself into the middle of the phrase for some time now, without Sandra even realising it. Operating a de facto separation. Slyly anticipating what was bound to happen eventually. Everything changes and is transformed, sooner or later even that feeling would change. What would she feel for David in twenty or thirty years? Assuming she was granted all that time. She was twenty-nine, so she was obliged to carry on, even though he had stopped. Every time she turned back, her husband would be ever smaller. Until, one day, he would disappear beyond the horizon. They had been together a lot. But it was no time at all compared with the future that awaited her.

  She was scared of forgetting him. That was why she clung so desperately to memories.

  Looking now at her own reflection in the mirror next to the wardrobe and seeing not a widow but a young woman still capable of giving her energy and passion to a man, she remembered the countless times she had made love with David. Two of them, in particular.

  One, predictably, was the first time of all, which had been also the least romantic. After their third date, in the car, as they were going home, where a comfortable bed and all the privacy a moment like that needs was waiting for them. Instead of which, they had stopped at the side of the road, and literally thrown themselves on to the back seat. Unable to let their lips separate for one second. Frenziedly removing each other’s clothes. They had needed to find each other, urgently, almost as if they foresaw that they would lose each other all too soon.

  The second, though, was less obvious. It was not the last time. In fact, Sandra had only a vague memory of that last time. She had often noticed something that, instead of making her sad, made her smile: every time a loved one dies, for those who remain the last time they saw them becomes an instrument of torture. I could have said this, done that. She and David had no unsettled accounts. He knew how much she loved him, and vice versa. Sandra had no regrets. A sense of guilt, yes. And it arose precisely from that time she remembered now, a few months before her husband had been killed. In many ways, that night had been no different from any other. They had their courtship rituals, which required him to say nice things to her all evening. She would let him approach slowly, refusing him his reward until the very last moment. Even though they did that every time, they never lost the habit. It wasn’t simply a game to make everything more interesting. It was a way of renewing the promise that they would never take each other for granted.

  That day, however, something had happened. David had come back from an assignment that had lasted a couple of months. He could not have imagined what had happened in his absence. Nor could she let on. She wouldn’t lie, but she would pretend. An easy compromise to make. All you have to do is repeat a routine. As if everything is normal. Including the habit of making love.

  She had never told anyone. She actually forbade herself to think about it. David didn’t know and, if one day she had confessed it, he would have left her, she was sure of it. There was a word that defined her guilt, but she had never uttered it.

  ‘Sin,’ she said out loud now to her own image in the mirror.

  Would the penitenziere for
give her? The thought, meant humorously, didn’t help to alleviate the sense of discomfort she felt.

  She looked towards the closed door of the bathroom. What’s going to happen now? she wondered. She and Schalber had made love, or was it only sex? And how would they behave towards each other? She hadn’t thought of that before, and now it seemed a bit late to start. She didn’t want him to be the first to speak. But the truth was, she didn’t want to stop. She felt suddenly self-conscious. If he was cold to her, she didn’t want her disappointment to be too obvious. But she didn’t know how to avoid it. To distract herself from that thought, she looked at her watch. She had been awake for twenty minutes and Schalber still hadn’t come out of the bathroom. She could hear the shower, but now she realised for the first time that there was no variation in the sound, as there ought to be when a body moves under a jet of water. The noise was constant, as if there was no resistance.

  She leapt to her feet, and rushed to the bathroom. The door opened easily and she was overwhelmed by a blanket of steam. Trying to disperse it with her hand, she looked at the shower cubicle: there was no silhouette beyond the opaque sheet of glass. She pulled the shower door open.

  The water was running, but there was no one under it.

  There was only one reason why Schalber would have thought up a trick like that. Sandra turned immediately towards the toilet. She went to it and moved the lid of the cistern. The waterproof bag she had hidden was still there. She took it out to check the contents. Instead of David’s clues, there was a train ticket for Milan.

  She sat down on the damp floor and put her head in her hands. Now she really did feel like crying. And even screaming. It would be liberating, but she didn’t do it. She refused to think of the night they had spent together, or to wonder if the affection he had shown her had been part of the deception or not. Instead, she remembered that time she had made love with David even though she knew she was hiding something from him. For a long time she had tried to dismiss that secret. Now it welled up from her conscience and she could no longer silence it.

  Yes, I’m a sinner, she admitted. And David’s death was my punishment.

  She tried several times to contact Schalber on his mobile phone. But all she got was a recorded voice telling her that the number was unobtainable. She had little hope that he would let her find him. And anyway there was no time for recriminations, or for wondering if she had made a mistake. She had to get back to work.

  She had made a pact with the priest with the scar on his temple. But now that Schalber had the photograph that David had taken of him, it would be easier for him to track him down. And if he arrested him, that would be the end of it for her. The trail that led to her husband’s killer broke off abruptly with the dark photograph, and that priest was her last remaining hope.

  She had to warn him before it was too late.

  Sandra had no idea how to find him and she couldn’t wait for him to reappear, as he had promised he would. She had to come up with a plan.

  She started pacing the apartment, trying to think through the latest events. Her anger did not help, but she tried to keep it at bay. She had conflicting feelings about Schalber. But she wouldn’t let her anger get the better of her.

  She would have to go back to the Figaro case.

  The previous evening, at the Museum of Purgatory, she had provided the priest with a plausible solution to the mystery. He had listened to her and then had run away, saying that he had to hurry before it was too late. He hadn’t given her any other explanation, and she hadn’t had time to insist.

  She wondered whether the situation had changed overnight. And the answer might come from the television. She went into the kitchen and switched on the small set that was on the dresser. After hopping between channels, she came across a news bulletin, just as the newsreader was announcing that a woman’s body had been discovered in Villa Glori Park. This item was followed by another crime report: a combined homicide and suicide in Trastevere. The names Federico Noni and Pietro Zini were mentioned.

  Sandra couldn’t believe it. What had her role been in this tragic outcome? Might she have contributed, in however small a way, to these deaths? When she heard the chronology of the events, she realised the answer was no. The timetable did not match: while the tragedy was taking place, she was talking to the priest. Which meant that he hadn’t been present while it was happening either.

  Nevertheless, the Figaro case seemed to be over, and it wouldn’t be of any help to her in getting back in contact with the penitenziere.

  It was frustrating. She didn’t know where to start.

  Wait a minute, she told herself. How did Schalber find out that the penitenzieri were interested in the Figaro case?

  She went over what he had told her about the case until she found what she was looking for: Schalber had become aware of the penitenzieris’ interest by bugging a conversation. He had placed listening devices in a villa outside Rome where the police were carry ing out a search.

  What villa? And why were they there?

  She recovered her mobile phone from her bag and dialled the number of the last call she had received the previous day. De Michelis replied at the sixth ring.

  ‘What can I do for you, Vega?’

  ‘Inspector, I need your help again.’

  ‘That’s what I’m here for.’ He sounded in a good mood.

  ‘Do you know if the police here have been searching a villa in the last few days? It’s probably in connection with a major case.’ Sandra deduced that from the fact that Schalber had gone straight there to place his bugs.

  ‘Don’t you read the papers?’

  She was taken aback. ‘What have I missed?’

  ‘A serial killer was captured the other day. You know how crazy people get over that kind of thing.’

  It must have been an item on the TV news, but she had missed it. ‘Bring me up to speed.’

  ‘I don’t have much time.’ She could hear voices around De Michelis. He moved to somewhere a little more private. ‘Here goes: Jeremiah Smith, four victims in six years. He had a heart attack three days ago. An ambulance team went to his aid and that’s when they discovered the kind of man he is. He’s in hospital now, more alive than dead. Case closed.’

  Sandra paused for a moment to think this over. ‘I need a favour.’

  ‘Another one?’

  ‘A big one this time.’

  De Michelis muttered something incomprehensible. ‘Go on,’ he said.

  ‘A service order to work on that case.’

  ‘You’re joking, I hope.’

  ‘Would you prefer it if I started investigating without any cover? You know I’d do it.’

  De Michelis only took a moment. ‘You’ll explain all this one of these days, won’t you? Otherwise I’ll feel like an idiot for believing you.’

  ‘I promise.’

  ‘Okay, I’ll send the service order via fax to police headquarters in Rome in an hour. I have to invent a plausible reason, but I have a vivid imagination.’

  ‘Do I need to tell you I’m grateful?’

  De Michelis laughed. ‘Obviously not.’

  Sandra hung up. She felt as if she was back in the game. She wished she could forget what Schalber had done to her, but had to make do with venting her anger on the train ticket he had left her, tearing it into very small pieces and scattering them over the floor. She doubted that Schalber would be back here to receive that message. She was convinced they would never see each other again. And the thought hurt her a little. Best not to think about it. Sandra vowed that she would cast aside what had happened. She had other things to do. For a start she had to go to Headquarters to collect the service order. Then she would ask to be given a copy of the material on Jeremiah Smith. She would look through it, guided by one insight: if the case was of interest to the penitenzieri, then it wasn’t closed at all.

  8.01 a.m.

  Marcus was sitting at one of the long tables in a soup kitchen run by Caritas. There were c
rucifixes on the walls as well as posters proclaiming the Word of God. An all-pervading smell of beef stock and fried onions hung in the air. At this hour of the morning, the homeless people who usually frequented the place had left and the kitchen staff were starting to prepare lunch. For breakfast, people usually started lining up about five in the morning. By seven they were back on the streets, except when it was cold or rainy, when some lingered a while longer. Marcus knew that many of them, although probably not the majority, were no longer capable of being shut in and so they refused accommodation, even a dormitory for one night. This was especially true of those who had spent a lot of time in prison or a psychiatric institution. The temporary loss of freedom had disorientated them, and now they no longer knew where they were coming from or where their homes were.

  Don Michele Fuente would always greet them with a welcoming smile, dispensing both hot meals and human warmth. Marcus watched him as he gave instructions to his colleagues to make things ready for the next wave that would come flooding in silently within a few hours. Compared with this man and the mission he had set for himself, Marcus felt incomplete as a priest. Many things had vanished, not only from his memory, but also from his heart.

  When he had finished, Don Michele came and sat down opposite him. ‘Father Clemente told me you’d be coming. All he said was that you’re a priest and that I shouldn’t ask your name.’

  ‘If you don’t mind.’

  ‘I don’t mind.’

  Don Michele was a plump man of about fifty, with puffy red cheeks, small hands and unkempt hair. His cassock was dotted with crumbs and oil stains. He wore a pair of glasses with round black frames, a plastic watch that he looked at constantly, and shapeless Nikes.

  ‘Three years ago, you heard a confession,’ Marcus said. It was not a question.

  ‘I’ve heard a great many since then.’

  ‘You should remember this one, though. I don’t suppose you hear somebody planning to commit suicide every day.’

 
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