The Lost Girls of Rome, p.27Donato Carrisi
Don Michele did not seem surprised, but all the cordiality abruptly drained from his face. ‘As usual, I transcribed the penitent’s words and submitted it to the Paenitentiaria. I couldn’t absolve him, the sin he confessed was too awful.’
‘I read the account, but I’d like to hear it directly from you.’
‘Why?’ It was clear that this was a subject Don Michele would have preferred not to revisit.
‘Your first impressions are important to me. I need to grasp all the nuances of that conversation.’
Don Michele let himself be persuaded. ‘It was eleven at night, and we were closing. I remember noticing the man standing on the other side of the street. He had been there all evening. I realised he’d been trying to summon up the courage to come in. When the last visitor left, he finally made up his mind. He came straight to me and asked me to hear his confession. I had never seen him before. He was wearing a heavy coat and a hat, and he didn’t take them off the whole time. It was as if he was in a hurry to get away. Our conversation didn’t in fact last very long. He wasn’t looking for solace or understanding, he merely wanted to relieve himself of a burden.’
‘What did he tell you, exactly?’
Don Michele scratched at his straggly grey beard. ‘I realised immediately that he was thinking of doing something extreme. There was a kind of torment in his gestures, in his voice, which made me think his intentions were serious. He knew that there was no forgiveness for what he was about to do, but he hadn’t come to be absolved of the sin he hadn’t yet committed.’ He paused. ‘He wasn’t asking pardon for the life he was planning to take – his own – but rather for the one that he had already taken.’
Don Michele Fuente was a streetwise priest, constantly in contact with the ugly side of life. But Marcus did not blame him for his discomfort: what he had listened to that night was the confession of a mortal sin. ‘Who had he killed, and why?’
The priest took off his glasses and started wiping them on his cassock. ‘He didn’t tell me. When I asked him, he was evasive. He said he thought it was best I shouldn’t know, or I might be in danger myself. All he wanted was to be absolved. When I told him that, due to the gravity of his sin, a mere priest wouldn’t be able to absolve him, he seemed upset. He thanked me and went away without another word.’
Terse as this account was, it was all that Marcus had to go on. In the archive, the confessions of murderers were kept in a separate section. The first time he had set foot there, Clemente had given him a single piece of advice: ‘Don’t forget that what you will read is not a statement in a police database, where objectivity acts as a kind of protective barrier. In these confessions, the vision of what happened is subjective, because it is always the murderer himself telling the story. Sometimes you may feel that you are in his place. Don’t let evil deceive you, remember that it’s an illusion, it can be dangerous.’ Reading those accounts, Marcus had often been struck by tiny details. There was always some element in the stories that seemed incongruous. One killer, for example, remembered that his victim had been wearing red shoes, and the priest had included that in his transcription. It wasn’t important, it wouldn’t influence the judgement. But it was as if, in a list of horrific acts of violence, they wanted to create a way out, an emergency exit. Red shoes: a splash of colour interrupted the narrative for a moment, allowing whoever was reading it to catch his breath. In Don Michele’s account there were no details of that kind. And Marcus suspected that the transcription was incomplete. ‘You know who the penitent was, don’t you?’
Don Michele hesitated a fraction too long, and Marcus knew he was right. ‘I recognised him a few days later, in the newspapers.’
‘But when you submitted his confession, you omitted the name.’
‘I consulted the bishop, and he advised me to conceal the man’s identity.’
‘Because everyone thought he was a good man,’ he said laconically. ‘He built a big hospital for the poor in Angola. The bishop convinced me that there was no need to tarnish the memory of a great benefactor, that it was better to preserve it intact as an example to others. Any judgement to be made on him was no longer our concern.’
‘What was his name?’ Marcus insisted.
Don Michele sighed. ‘Alberto Canestrari.’
Marcus sensed that there was something else, but he did not want to force the other man’s hand. He sat watching him in silence, waiting for him to speak again.
‘There’s another thing,’ Don Michele said, with some trepidation. ‘The newspapers wrote that he died of natural causes.’
Alberto Canestrari was not only a world-famous surgeon, a luminary of medical science and an innovator in his profession. He was above all a philanthropist.
That much was clear from the plaques that adorned the walls of his office in the Via Ludovisi, along with the framed press cuttings that described his many innovations in surgical technique and praised his generosity in exporting his skills to the developing world.
His greatest achievement had been the building of a large hospital in Angola, where he often went and performed operations.
Those same newspapers that had celebrated his work had later reported the news of his sudden death from natural causes.
Once Marcus got into what had been Canestrari’s surgery, located on the third floor of a prestigious building near the Via Veneto, he let his eyes wander over these relics, examining the doctor’s smiling face in photographs in which he was posing with various celebrities, as well as the patients – many of them very poor – who owed their recovery and, in some cases, their lives to him. They were his family. Having devoted his entire existence to his profession, Canestrari had never married.
If he’d had to judge the man from the paeans of praise displayed on that wall, Marcus would have had no hesitation in calling him a good Christian. But experience had taught him to be cautious in his judgements. All that might have been a facade. Especially in the light of the words Canestrari had uttered a few days before his death, in his last confession.
As far as the world was concerned, Alberto Canestrari had not killed himself.
But Marcus found it difficult to believe that that he could actually have died from natural causes so soon after announcing his intention to commit suicide. There had to be more to it.
The surgery consisted of a large waiting room, the secretary’s office, and the doctor’s own office, a room with a large mahogany desk surrounded by a vast collection of medical books, many of them bound. Behind a sliding door was a small consulting room, with a couch, various pieces of apparatus and a compact medicine cabinet. Marcus concentrated on Canestrari’s office. Part of it was a reception area with leather sofas and a swivel chair, also of leather, in which – according to the media – the surgeon had been found dead.
Why am I here? he asked himself.
Even if the man really had committed a murder, the case was now closed. There was nothing left for Marcus to do. The killer was dead, and this time the mystery penitenziere wouldn’t be able to give anyone the chance to take revenge. But he had led him here, which meant the truth couldn’t be as simple as that.
One thing at a time, he told himself. The first step was to ascertain the facts, and the first anomaly to deal with was the suicide.
Canestrari had no wife or children, and after his death his nephews and nieces had disputed the inheritance. That was why the surgery, which was one of the contested assets, had remained unchanged over the last three years. The windows were shuttered and there was a thick layer of dust over everything. The dust also hovered like gleaming fog in the thin beams of light that filtered through the shutters. Although time, in its indifference, had preserved the room as it had been, the place certainly didn’t resemble a crime scene. Marcus almost regretted that there hadn’t been a violent death here. Such deaths always left traces on which he could hang his own deductions. Amid the chaos generated by evil it was easier to detect anomalies. Here, though
What counts most for me? he asked himself. Fame interests me, but it’s not essential: unfortunately you don’t become famous by saving lives or giving to charity. Then my profession. But my talent is more important to other people, so it’s not what is most dear to me.
The solution came spontaneously as he looked again at the wall celebrating the doctor’s life. My name, that’s what really counts. My reputation is the most valuable thing I possess.
Because I’m convinced that I’m a good man.
He went and sat down in Canestrari’s armchair. He put his hands together under his chin and asked himself one essential question.
How can I kill myself while making everyone believe I died from natural causes?
What Canestrari had feared most was scandal. He would never have tolerated the idea of people remembering anything bad about him. So he must have thought up a method. Marcus was convinced that the answer was very near.
‘Within reach,’ he said. He swivelled the chair round towards the bookcase.
Simulating a natural death should not have been a problem for someone so versed in the secrets of life. He was sure there was a simple method that would not arouse suspicion. Nobody would investigate, nobody would dig deeper, because it was such an upright man who had died.
Marcus stood up and started examining the titles of the books lined up on the shelves. It took him a while to find what he was after. He took out the volume.
It was a handbook of natural and artificial poisons.
He started to leaf through the lists of essences and toxins, mineral and vegetable acids, caustic alkalines. Everything was here, from arsenic to antimony, from belladonna to nitrobenzene, phenacetin and chloroform, with an indication of the fatal dosage, the active ingredients, and the uses and side-effects. At last he came across something that might be the answer he was looking for.
It was a muscle relaxant used in anaesthaesia. Being a surgeon, Canestrari would have been familiar with it. In the book it was compared to a kind of synthetic curare, because it possessed the ability to paralyse patients for the duration of an operation, thus avoiding the risk of spasms or involuntary movements.
After studying the drug’s properties, Marcus came to the conclusion that Canestrari would have needed a one-milligram dose to stop his respiratory muscles from working. A few minutes, and he would choke. It would have felt like an eternity, and made for a terrible death, but it would certainly be highly effective, because the paralysis of the body would make the process irreversible. Once the drug was injected, there would be no time for second thoughts.
But there was another reason why Canestrari had chosen it.
Marcus was surprised to learn that the principal quality of succinylcholine was that it did not show up in toxicological tests because it was composed of succinic and choline acids, two substances normally present in the human body. Death would seem to be from natural causes. No pathologist would think of looking for a very small hole caused by the insertion of a syringe, between the toes for example.
His good name would be safe.
But what of the syringe? If someone had found it next to the body, the idea of simulating a natural death would have gone out of the window. That didn’t quite fit with the rest.
Marcus mulled it over. Before coming here, he had read on the internet that it was Canestrari’s nurse who had found his body, when she opened up the clinic in the morning. Maybe she had been the one to get rid of the embarrassing evidence that it had not been a natural death.
Too risky, Marcus told himself: what was there to guarantee that the nurse would do that? Canestrari must have been sure that the syringe would be removed. Why?
Marcus looked around at the place where the famous doctor had decided to take his own life. This surgery was the centre of his universe. But that wasn’t the reason he had chosen it. He must have been certain that someone would see his plan through to its conclusion. Someone who had an interest in getting rid of the syringe.
He did it here because he knew he was being watched.
Marcus leapt to his feet. There had to be a device in the room. Where could they have put it? In the electrical wiring, was the answer.
He looked at the light switch on the wall. He went up to it and noticed that there was a small hole in the box. To remove it, he used a paper knife he found on the desk. First he loosened the screws, then slowly prised the box off the wall.
It took one glance to recognise a transmitter cable among the electric wires.
Whoever had hidden this spy camera had been good.
But if someone was watching the clinic at the time of Canestrari’s suicide, why was the device still there? Marcus realised he was in imminent danger. By now, his presence in the clinic must already be known.
They’ve left me alone so far to see who I am. But now they’re on their way.
He had to get out immediately. He was heading for the door when he heard a noise coming from the corridor. Cautiously, he peered out through the doorway and saw a big, thuggish-looking man in a suit and tie trying to manoeuvre his huge frame along the narrow corridor without making a noise. Marcus retreated before the man could see him. There was no way out. His one escape route was occupied right now by that human mountain.
He looked around and saw the sliding door that led to the consulting room. He would be able to hide there. If the man came into the office, he might be able to slip out. After all, he was more agile than his adversary, and once he was out he would run.
The man stopped in the doorway. His head turned slowly on his massive neck, and two tiny eyes peered into the semi-darkness without seeing anything. Then he noticed the sliding door leading to the consulting room. He went to it, put his fat fingers in the gap, quickly pulled the siding door across, and burst into the consulting room. He had barely had time to see that it was empty when the sliding door closed behind him.
Marcus congratulated himself on having changed the plan at the last moment. He had hidden under Canestrari’s desk and as soon as the man had fallen into the trap had jumped out and rushed to the sliding door to shut him in. But just as he was feeling smug about his own cleverness, he realised that the key did not turn in the lock. The sliding door started to vibrate as the man hammered on it. Marcus dropped the key and started running. He was in the corridor and could hear the thug behind him: the man had freed himself and was gaining ground. He slammed the main door of the surgery behind him, to slow his pursuer down, and ran to the landing. He was about to continue his escape down the main stairs when it struck him that the man behind him might not be alone, that he might have an accomplice downstairs, keeping an eye on the front door of the building. He spotted an emergency exit and decided to use it. The stairs were narrower and the steps themselves shorter, and he was forced to jump them to keep his head start. The thug was much more agile than he had anticipated and had almost caught up with him. The three floors separating him from the street seemed to take forever. Behind the last door lay salvation. When he flung it open, he found himself not in the street but in an underground car park. It was deserted. At the far end of the vast space, he saw a lift whose doors were opening. When they did so, instead of offering him a new way out, they revealed the existence of a second man in a jacket and tie, who recognised him and started running towards him. With two pursuers on his heels he wouldn’t make it. He was getting out of breath. He was afraid he might collapse at any moment. He started climbing the ramp that led out of the garage. A few cars came towards him in the opposite direction. Some almost grazed him, and the drivers hooted their horns in protest. By the time he came out on the street, the two men had almost caught up with him. But then they stopped suddenly.
Ahead of them, a party of Chinese tourists formed a human barrier.
Who were these two? Who had sent them? Could someone else have been involved in the death of Alberto Canestrari?
Her badge hanging around her neck, she presented herself to the police officers standing guard outside the gate of Jeremiah Smith’s villa and showed them the service order that De Michelis had sent her. As the officers checked her credentials, they exchanged knowing glances. Sandra had the impression that the male race had suddenly started taking an interest in her again. And she knew why. That night spent with Schalber had removed the stench of sadness from her. She bore the procedure with resignation. At last, the officers let her pass, apologising for detaining her.
She walked along the drive leading to the Smith residence. The garden was in a state of abandonment. The grass had grown until it had covered the big stone planters. Here and there, statues of nymphs and Venuses, some without limbs, saluted her with incomplete, though still graceful, gestures. There was a fountain covered with ivy, the pool around it brimming with green, stagnant water. The house was a monolith made grey by time. Access to it was via a flight of steps that was wide at the bottom but narrowed towards the top. Instead of making the front of the house look thinner, it seemed to be supporting it like a pedestal.
Sandra climbed the steps, some of which were crumbling. As she went in through the main door, the light of day suddenly vanished, absorbed by the dark walls of a long corridor. It was a strange sensation, as if a black hole had sucked everything in.
Forensics were still at work, although they had nearly finished. Right now they were examining the furniture, pulling out the drawers, tipping them out on the floor and sifting through the contents, taking the lining out of the sofas and emptying the cushions. Some were probing the walls with phonendoscopes in search of cavities that might have been used as hiding places.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes