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The lost girls of rome, p.28
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.28

           Donato Carrisi
 

  A tall thin man was giving instructions to the officers of the canine unit, pointing them in the direction of the garden. He noticed Sandra and gestured to her to wait. Sandra nodded and waited in the hall. The officers with the dogs left the house, the animals pulling them towards the garden. Now the thin man came towards her.

  ‘I’m Superintendent Camusso.’ He held out his hand. He was wearing a purple suit and a striped shirt of the same colour, with a yellow tie as the finishing touch. A real dandy.

  Sandra refused to let herself be distracted by her colleague’s eccentric costume, even though it offered some much-needed light relief amid all this darkness. ‘Vega.’

  ‘I know who you are, they told me. Welcome.’

  ‘I don’t want to get in your way.’

  ‘Don’t worry. We’re nearly finished here. The circus is taking down the tents this afternoon. You’ve come a bit late for the show, I’m afraid.’

  ‘You already have Jeremiah Smith and the evidence linking him to the four killings – what are you still looking for?’

  ‘We don’t know where his playpen is. The women weren’t killed here. He kept them prisoner for a month. He didn’t rape them. They’d been tied up, but he didn’t torture them. After thirty days he cut their throats. But he must have needed a secluded spot to do all that in peace. We were hoping to find some clue that might lead us to it, but we’ve drawn a blank so far. And what are you looking for?’

  ‘My chief, Inspector De Michelis, wants me to write a detailed report on the killer. Cases such as this don’t turn up every day. It’s an excellent opportunity for a forensics person like me to get some experience.’

  ‘I see,’ Camusso said, apparently unconcerned as to whether or not she had told him the truth.

  ‘What’s the canine unit still doing here?’

  ‘The dogs are going to take another sniff around the garden. A body may yet turn up – it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. With all the rain there’s been in the last few days, we haven’t had a chance till now. Though I doubt they’ll be able to pick up a scent. When the ground is damp, there are too many smells. The animals get confused.’ The superintendent signalled to one of his subordinates, who approached with a case file. ‘Here, this is for you. Everything you need to know: reports, profiles of Smith and the four victims, and obviously all the photographs. If you want a copy, you’ll need make a request to the examining magistrate. This one has to come back to me when you’ve finished with it.’

  ‘That’s fine, I won’t need it for long,’ Sandra replied, taking the file.

  ‘I think that’s everything. You can go wherever you want, I don’t think you’ll need a guide.’

  ‘I’ll manage, thanks.’

  Camusso handed her overshoes and latex gloves. ‘Well, have fun.’

  ‘Yes, I think this place must put everyone in a good mood.’

  ‘We love it. We’re like children playing hide and seek in a cemetery.’

  Sandra waited for Camusso to walk away, then took out her mobile phone, intending to take some photographs of the house. She opened the file and scanned through the last report. It referred to the way the killer had been identified. As she read it, she had difficulty believing that things had happened as they were described.

  She headed for the room where Jeremiah Smith had been found dying by the ambulance crew.

  In the living room, the forensics team had already finished their work, and Sandra found herself alone. Looking around, she tried to imagine the scene. The ambulance people arrive and find the man lying on the floor. They try to revive him, but he’s in a critical condition. They’re stabilising him in order to take him away when one of them – the doctor who’s come in the ambulance – notices an object in the room.

  A red roller skate with gold trimmings.

  The doctor’s name is Monica and she’s the sister of one of the victims of a serial killer who has been kidnapping and murdering young women for the past six years. The skate belonged to her twin sister. Its pair was found on the foot of her corpse. Monica realises she has the murderer lying in front of her. The paramedic who is with her knows the story, as does everybody at the hospital. Sandra knew how it was: the police were the same. Your workmates become a kind of second family, because it’s the only way to deal with the pain and injustice you come across every day. Out of that bond come new rules and a kind of solemn pact.

  So at this point, Monica and the paramedic could let Jeremiah Smith die, as he deserves. He’s in a desperate condition, nobody would accuse them of negligence. Instead, they decide to keep him alive. Or rather, Monica is the one who decides to save him.

  Sandra was sure that was the way it had happened, as were the police who were in the villa now, even though it was quite incredible.

  Fate had played a strange trick in this house. The coincidence was so perfect, it was hard to imagine it had happened any other way. After all, you couldn’t stage something like that. But there were aspects of the matter she found hard to swallow.

  The words on Jeremiah Smith’s chest. Kill me.

  In the file, together with a photograph of these words, there was a report from a handwriting expert, confirming that he had carved them there himself. Although it could be explained as an indication of Smith’s sadomasochistic tendencies, it was strange that this invitation should correspond so exactly to the choice Monica had found herself faced with.

  Sandra took a series of photographs of the room. Jeremiah Smith’s armchair, the smashed bowl on the floor, the antiquated TV set. When she had finished, she felt a sudden sense of claustrophobia. Accustomed as she was to crime scenes, death seemed to her all the more tangible, all the more obscene, amid these familiar objects.

  It was so unbearable, she needed to get out of the house.

  There are objects that connect the dead to the world of the living. You just have to find them and liberate them.

  A hair ribbon, a coral bracelet, a scarf … and a roller skate.

  Sandra went over the brief list of keepsakes found by the police in Jeremiah Smith’s house, linking him to the victims. In a way, the four murdered girls had become synonymous with those objects.

  She ran out of the house, past her colleagues, and took refuge in the garden to avoid their glances. She sat down on a stone seat to catch her breath. It was pleasant to be there, caressed by the morning sun, with the trees swaying in the wind, the rustling of the leaves like laughter.

  Four victims in six years, Sandra told herself. All had had their throats cut.

  Monica’s sister was called Teresa. She was twenty-one years old and loved roller skating. One Sunday afternoon, she disappeared. Actually, the skating was a pretext: there was a boy at the rink she liked. That afternoon, she’d waited for him, but he didn’t show. Perhaps that was when Jeremiah spotted her, sitting all alone at a table by the drinks kiosk. He approached her on some pretext and offered to buy her a drink. Forensics had found traces of GHB in a glass of orange juice. One month later, Jeremiah left her body on the banks of a river in the same clothes she had been wearing the day she had disappeared.

  Everyone in the fast food restaurant remembered the blue satin ribbon twenty-three-year-old Melania used to gather her blonde hair. The waitress’s uniforms weren’t much to look at, so she decided to brighten hers up with that decidedly retro, Fifties touch. One afternoon she was abducted as she was on her way to work. The last time anyone saw her, she had been waiting for a bus. Her body turned up a month later in a car park. She was fully dressed, but the ribbon had disappeared from her hair.

  At the age of seventeen, Vanessa was obsessed with the gym. She went there every day for a spinning class. She never missed a training session, even when she wasn’t feeling well. The day she disappeared, she had a cold, and her mother had tried to persuade her to skip the class for once. As she couldn’t get her to change her mind, she had given her a pink woollen scarf so that she could at least be a bit more covered. To please her,
Vanessa had put it on. Her mother couldn’t have known that the scarf wouldn’t be enough to protect her from the danger that awaited her. This time, the drug had been concealed in a little bottle of mineral supplement.

  Cristina hated her coral bracelet, but the only person who knew that was her sister: the same sister who noticed it wasn’t on her wrist when she identified the body in the morgue. Cristina only wore it because it had been a gift from her boyfriend. They were both twenty-eight and were planning to get married. Maybe that was why she was a little tense. All those preparations to make, and so little time. So she had looked for quick and easy methods to relax her nerves. Alcohol helped. She would start in the morning and continue through the day, a little at a time, without ever getting really drunk. Nobody realised that it was becoming a problem. But Jeremiah Smith did. All he had to do was follow her into some bar or other, and he soon realised that it would be easier with her than it had been with the others.

  Cristina had been the killer’s last victim.

  These portraits had been put together from the testimonies of relatives, friends and boyfriends. Everyone had added an intimate detail or two, giving colour to a cold recital of events, letting these girls appear for what they really were.

  People, not objects, Sandra told herself. Even though, since their deaths, objects – a hair ribbon, a coral bracelet, a scarf and a roller skate – had replaced them in the imaginations of those who had loved them.

  But there was a strange contradiction that emerged from these profiles. The four girls were not naive. They had families, friends, rules of conduct, examples to follow. And yet they had let themselves be approached by someone as insignificant as Jeremiah Smith. A man in his early fifties, far from handsome, who had offered them a drink. Why had they accepted? He had acted in broad daylight and had captured their trust. How did he do it?

  Sandra was convinced that the answer was not in those items. She closed the file, looked up and let her face be caressed by the breeze. For a time, she, too, had identified David with an object.

  An awful green tie.

  She smiled at the thought. It was even uglier than the yellow tie worn by the superintendent who had greeted her a little earlier. David never wore smart clothes, he didn’t care for dressing up.

  ‘You should get tails, Fred,’ she would tease him. ‘All tap dancers have them.’

  So he only had one tie. When the undertakers had asked her what clothes to put on him in the coffin, it had been a shock. She had never imagined she would have to make such a decision at the age of twenty-nine. She had had to choose something that represented David. She started to rummage desperately through his clothes. She selected a safari jacket, a blue shirt, khaki trousers and trainers. That was how everybody remembered him. But it was at that moment that she realised that the green tie had disappeared. She couldn’t find it anywhere but she wouldn’t give up. She turned the house upside down. It became a kind of obsession. It might seem like madness, but she had already lost David and couldn’t bear the idea of giving up anything else. Even an awful green tie.

  Then one day she remembered exactly where it had ended up. It came into her mind suddenly, when she was thinking about something else. How could she have forgotten?

  The tie was the only remaining proof of the time she had lied to her husband.

  Sitting now in the garden of Jeremiah Smith’s house, it struck Sandra that the warmth of the sun and the caress of the wind were undeserved. She opened her eyes, which she had half closed, and saw a stone angel gazing down at her. With its silence and stillness, the statue reminded her that she had something to be forgiven for. And that time doesn’t always give us the opportunity to remedy our mistakes.

  What would have happened if the sniper who had shot at her in the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort had managed to kill her? She would have died with that weight on her conscience. What object would have remained to her family and friends to remember her? Whatever it was, it would have hidden the truth from them. Which was that she did not deserve David’s love, because she had been unfaithful to him.

  The girls Jeremiah Smith kidnapped felt safe, she told herself. Just as I did before I entered that church. That was why they died. He was able to kill them because their hunger for life prevented them from understanding what was about to happen to them.

  Behind the stone angel, Sandra saw her colleagues from the canine unit searching a portion of the garden with their dogs. It was as Camusso had said: the animals appeared disorientated by the smells given off by the soil. The superintendent had told her they were only doing it in order to leave nothing untried. ‘A body may yet turn up, it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened,’ he had said. But she was experienced enough to know when a colleague was trying to throw her off the scent. It was a cautious attitude that police officers adopted when they were afraid they had overlooked some detail that might come back to haunt them.

  At that moment Superintendent Camusso himself came up behind her. ‘Is everything okay?’ he asked. ‘I saw you run out of the villa and—’

  ‘I needed a bit of air,’ Sandra cut in.

  ‘Found anything interesting? I wouldn’t want you to go back to your superior empty-handed.’

  It was obvious he was saying it to be kind. But Sandra decided to take advantage of the opportunity. ‘There is something, something a bit odd. Maybe you could help me to understand …’

  The superintendent stared at her in surprise. ‘Go on.’

  Sandra noticed a shadow pass across his eyes. She opened the file and showed him the profiles of Jeremiah Smith’s four victims. ‘I noticed that the murderer struck on average every eighteen months. Seeing that when you found him nearly eighteen months had already gone by and that you know for certain that he took the girls to another place, I was wondering if by chance he wasn’t preparing to strike again. As I’m sure you know, with serial killers the intervals of time are crucial. If every crime is divided into three phases – incubation, planning and action – then I’d say that when he was taken ill, Jeremiah must have been in the middle of the third.’

  The superintendent did not say a word.

  ‘So I wonder,’ Sandra went on, ‘if somewhere out there, there isn’t another girl being kept prisoner right now.’

  She waited for this last sentence to sink in.

  Camusso’s face darkened. ‘It’s possible,’ he said, at the cost of some effort.

  Sandra guessed that she was not the first person to formulate this hypothesis. ‘Has another girl disappeared?’

  Camusso stiffened. ‘You know how these things are, Officer Vega: there’s always a risk of confidential information getting out and compromising the outcome of an investigation.’

  ‘What are you afraid of? Media pressure? Public opinion? Your superiors?’

  Camusso took his time. Realising that she wouldn’t let it go, he finally said, ‘A young architecture student went missing nearly a month ago. At first, everything pointed to the likelihood that she had run away of her own free will.’

  ‘My God.’ Sandra could not believe that she had guessed correctly.

  ‘It’s as you were saying: the times coincide. But there’s no evidence, only suppositions. You can imagine what fuss there’d be, though, if people found out that we’d downplayed this until Jeremiah Smith turned up.’

  Sandra found it hard to blame her colleagues. Sometimes the police acted under pressure and made mistakes. Except that they were not forgiven. Which was natural: people wanted answers, security, justice.

  ‘We are looking for her,’ Camusso said.

  And you’re not the only ones, Sandra thought, at last understanding the role of the penitenzieri in this affair.

  The stone angel cast its shadow over the superintendent.

  ‘What’s the name of this student?’

  ‘Lara.’

  11.26 a.m.

  Lake Nemi had a surface area of less than a square mile and was situated in the Colli Albani to the
south of Rome.

  It had originally been the crater of a volcano. For many centuries it was reputed that the wrecks of two huge ships, so richly appointed as to be floating palaces, built on the orders of the Emperor Caligula, lay at the bottom of the lake. The fishermen in the area had brought up a number of finds over the years. After many attempts, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the lake was partly drained and the vessels recovered and moved to a museum. Here, they had been destroyed by fire during the Second World War. German troops had been blamed, but there had never been any definite proof.

  This information was contained in a tourist leaflet that Clemente had left for him in the letter box they used for exchanging documents. Into its pages he had inserted a brief dossier on Dr Alberto Canestrari. There was nothing especially remarkable in it, apart from one fact that had led Marcus to make this short trip outside the city. As he sat on the coach, looking out at the lake, he reflected on the singular link between this area and fire.

  As if in echo of the tragic fate of those ships, the clinic that Canestrari owned in Nemi had been destroyed in an act of arson. Those responsible had never been identified.

  The coach climbed along the narrow scenic road, spluttering and leaving a trail of dark smoke behind it. Through the window, Marcus spotted the flame-blackened building, which still enjoyed an enviable view of the landscape. When the coach came to a halt, he got off and continued on foot until he came to a gate. Alongside it was a sign with the name of the clinic, although the ivy that covered it made it illegible. He went through the gate and then along an avenue that cut through a little wood. The vegetation had grown unchecked, overrunning the space. The clinic was composed of two floors plus a basement. It must originally have been somebody’s holiday home before being converted to its new purpose.

  This had been Alberto Canestrari’s little kingdom, Marcus thought, as he looked at the building, made unrecognisable by the soot. Here, the doctor who considered himself a good man had given the gift of life.

 
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