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The lost girls of rome, p.29
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.29

           Donato Carrisi
 

  Marcus went in through what remained of an iron door, and found himself in a corridor. The interior was as ghostly as the exterior. The columns surrounding the foyer, corroded as they were by the flames, were so thin that it was difficult to believe they could still support the weight of the roof. The floor had risen in several places and grass had grown in the cracks. There was a gaping hole in the ceiling, through which the upper floor could be seen. Ahead of him was a double staircase.

  Marcus walked through the rooms, starting with the second floor. The place reminded him of a hotel: single rooms, equipped with all the comforts. From what remained of the furnishings, it could be assumed that they had been pretty luxurious.

  Canestrari’s clinic must have been very lucrative. In the operating theatres, of which there were three, the fire had been especially fierce: fed by the oxygen equipment, the flames had melted everything, leaving a carpet of surgical instruments and other metallic objects that had tried to withstand them. The ground floor was in the same state as the upper one. The fire had gone from one room to another: the fleeting shadows of its passing could still be seen on the walls.

  The clinic had been empty when the fire broke out. After Canestrari’s death, the patients had all left. After all, what had brought them there was an absolute faith in his skills.

  An idea had been growing in Marcus’s mind over the last hour. The fact that someone had destroyed the clinic after the doctor’s suicide suggested there might have been something incriminating hidden there. That could also be the reason why spy cameras had been placed in his surgery and why those two thugs had been after him this morning. They weren’t ordinary burglars: they wore elegant dark suits, they had the look of professionals. Someone had hired them.

  Marcus hoped that the fire had spared something. A premonition told him it must have, otherwise the penitenziere who had preceded him would have broken off his investigation.

  If he got to the truth, so can I.

  In the basement, Marcus found a room where, according to the notice on the door, the clinic’s waste had been stored. He assumed that it would subsequently have been sent to a special facility for disposal. The room was filled with metal drums, partly melted by the heat. The floor was composed of little blue-tinted majolica tiles, many of which had come loose, again because of the heat, and all of which were blackened.

  All except one.

  Marcus crouched down to get a better look at it. He had the impression that someone had moved it, cleaned it and put it back in its original place in the corner of the room. He realised that it was not fixed to the floor, and he had no difficulty shifting it.

  It hid a shallow cavity, which extended under the wall. He put his hand in and, after feeling around for a while, took out a metal box, roughly a foot in length.

  It was not locked. He lifted the lid. It took him a while to realise that the long whitish object inside the box was a bone.

  He took it out and examined it, holding it with both hands. From its shape and dimensions, he established that it was a human humerus. He had the feeling this was something he had always known, even though he had no idea where in his past that knowledge came from. For the moment he dismissed the question, because he realised that wasn’t the only thing he knew about that bone.

  From the state of the calcification, the victim had not yet reached puberty.

  Was the death Alberto Canestrari had on his conscience a child’s? A shudder went through Marcus, taking his breath away and making his hands tremble. He didn’t know if he had the strength to bear it. Whatever test God was subjecting him to, he was not worthy of it. He was about to make the sign of the cross when he noticed something else.

  There was a tiny inscription carved on the bone with a sharp instrument. A name. Astor Goyash.

  ‘Sorry, I’m taking that.’

  Marcus turned and saw the gun in the man’s hand. He recognised him: it was the first of the two thugs in suits who had tried to attack him in Canestrari’s Rome surgery a few hours earlier.

  He had not expected to see him again. The situation in which they found themselves – in an abandoned building surrounded by woods, miles from any built-up area – put him at a clear disadvantage. He would die here, he was sure of it.

  But he didn’t want to die again.

  The scene suddenly seemed familiar to him. He had already experienced the same fear, staring down the barrel of a gun in the hotel room in Prague, the day Devok had been killed. Suddenly, along with the fear, there came another part of his memory of those events.

  He and his master had not been mere spectators. There had been a struggle. And he had fought the third man, the left-handed killer.

  So, as he held out the humerus to the thug, Marcus leapt up and threw himself on him. The man had not expected such an abrupt reaction. He instinctively drew back, hit one of the drums, and fell to the floor, dropping his gun.

  Marcus picked it up and held it out in front of him. A new sensation was throbbing inside him, one he had never felt before. He could not control it. It was hatred. He aimed the gun at the man’s head. He did not recognise himself, all he wanted to do was press the trigger. It was the other man’s shout that stopped him firing.

  ‘Get down here!’

  Marcus realised that the second thug he had glimpsed that morning was up above. He looked towards the stairs: he had only a few seconds at his disposal. The humerus was closer to the man on the floor. It was risky to pick it up, the man might try to disarm him. And Marcus now no longer had the strength to shoot him. He fled.

  He climbed the stairs without encountering any obstacles and headed for the back of the building. When he was outside, he looked for a moment at the gun he was holding, then threw it away.

  The only escape route was over the ridge of the hill. He started to climb, hoping that the trees would make pursuit difficult. All he could hear was his own heavy breathing. After a while he noticed that nobody was following him. He did not have time to consider why: a bullet hit a branch, mere inches from his head.

  He had become a target.

  He started running again, looking for shelter behind the shrubs. His feet sank into the earth and he almost fell on his back.

  A few more yards and he would come to a road. He was almost crawling on all fours. More shots. Almost there. He grabbed a root to pull himself up and found himself on tarmac. He lay there on his stomach, thinking he wouldn’t be seen if he kept low. He realised he was bleeding from his right side, but the bullet must have gone straight through and he didn’t feel any burning. If he hadn’t moved so quickly, they would have got him.

  A light blinded him. It was the reflection of the sun on the windscreen of a vehicle coming towards him. He saw a familiar face at the wheel.

  It was Clemente in his old Panda. He pulled up. ‘Get in!’ Marcus did as he was told. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘After you told me about the attempted attack at the surgery,’ Clemente said as he accelerated, ‘I decided to come and check that everything was all right. I saw a suspicious car outside the clinic, and was going to call the police.’ He noticed the wound in Marcus’s side. ‘Don’t worry,’ Marcus said, ‘I’m all right.’ ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘Yes,’ he lied. In fact, he wasn’t all right at all. But it wasn’t the fault of the bullet that had grazed him. He had managed to survive another encounter with death. But he regretted not losing his memory a second time, because now he knew something about himself he didn’t like: he, too, would have been capable of killing. He immediately changed the subject. ‘I found a bone in the clinic. A humerus. I think it belonged to a child.’

  Clemente seemed shaken by this, but said nothing. ‘In my hurry to get away, I left it there.’ ‘Don’t worry, saving yourself was more important.’ ‘There was a name on the bone,’ Marcus said. ‘Astor Goyash. We have to find out who he was.’

  Clemente looked at him. ‘Who he is, you mean. He’s still alive and he certainly isn’t a child any more.’

&nbs
p; 1.39 p.m.

  The first lesson Sandra Vega had learned was that houses and apartments never lie.

  That was why she had decided to inspect Lara’s apartment in the Via dei Coronari. She was hoping to re-establish contact with the penitenziere with the scar on his temple, because she wanted to know if Lara really was Jeremiah Smith’s fifth victim.

  The girl might still be alive, she told herself. But she lacked the courage to imagine what might be happening to her right now. In an effort to remain detached, she approached the task following the standard procedure for a forensic photographer.

  It was a pity she did not have her proper camera with her. Once again, she would have to make do with her mobile phone. Taking photographs was more than a necessity, it was a frame of mind.

  I see what my camera sees.

  She had considered making space in the phone’s memory by erasing the photographs she had taken in the chapel of St Raymond of Penyafort. It was pointless keeping them, seeing that the chapel had nothing to do with the case. But then she’d had second thoughts: those photos would be a useful memento of the day death had come close to her. It was an experience she ought to preserve, in order not to fall into that kind of trap again.

  Walking into the apartment in the Via dei Coronari, she was greeted by a smell of damp and mustiness. The place really needed a thorough airing. She hadn’t needed keys to get in: the door had been taken off its hinges by the police when the girl’s family had reported her disappearance. The officers hadn’t found anything unusual in what was officially the last place Lara had been before she had vanished into thin air. At least, that was what the friends who had been with her on the day of her disappearance had stated, and the phone records appeared to confirm it: she had made two calls from that apartment before eleven.

  Sandra made a mental note of that detail: if she had been abducted, it had happened after those calls; in other words, when it was completely dark. And that went against Jeremiah Smith’s habit of always acting by day. He had changed his modus operandi for Lara, she told herself. He must have had a good reason for that.

  She put her bag down on the floor, took out her mobile phone, activated the screen and prepared to take her photographs. In order to follow the manual to the letter, she started by giving her own details, plus date and time, exactly as she would have done if she’d had her recorder with her. She would make a detailed description of what she saw as she photographed it.

  ‘The apartment is on two levels. On the first floor there is a living room and kitchen. The furniture is modest but decent. The typical apartment of a student living away from home. Except that this one is well looked after.’ Too well looked after, she thought.

  She took a series of pictures. When she turned to photograph the front door, she was taken aback.

  ‘There are two locks. One is a chain and can only be opened and closed from the inside. But it’s been broken.’

  How could her colleagues not have noticed it? Lara was inside the apartment when she disappeared. It didn’t make any sense.

  She was anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery, but this discovery risked distracting her. Registering the incongruity, she reminded herself to focus on completing her survey of the upper floor.

  The second lesson that Sandra Vega had learned was that, like people, houses and apartments die.

  But Lara isn’t dead, she tried to convince herself.

  Sandra noticed immediately that, if the student had been abducted in her sleep, Jeremiah had taken the trouble to make the bed and take away a rucksack and some clothes together with her mobile phone. It had to look as if she had run away voluntarily. But the chain on the door contradicted that. And yet he’d had all the time in the world to cover his tracks. How had he managed to come in and go out if the door was locked from the inside? That question nagged at her.

  In rapid succession, she photographed the teddy bear on the pillows, the chest of drawers with the photograph of Lara’s parents, the desk with the unfinished plan for a bridge, the architecture books lined up in the bookcase.

  There was an anomalous symmetry in that room. That must be typical of architects, she thought. I know you’re hiding something, if that monster chose you it’s because he knew you. Tell me where you’re keeping a clue that’ll lead me to him. Let me have some confirmation that I’m right and I swear to you I’ll move heaven and earth to find you.

  As she appealed for a sign from Lara, Sandra continued to describe out loud everything she was seeing. She didn’t notice anything unusual, apart from that fanatical tidiness. She went back through the last pictures on the screen of her phone, hoping that some detail would strike her.

  Under the desk, there was a waste-paper basket filled with used tissues.

  The care that Lara devoted to her apartment had led Sandra to assume that she was rather a fussy kind of person. Compulsive, was the word that came to mind. Her sister was identical. There were things that could easily drive her mad: for example, the cigarette icon on the lighter in her car always had to be upright, the ornaments in her apartment always had to be in descending order of height. From the obsessiveness with which she approached such things, anyone would have thought the future of mankind was at stake. Lara was the same – the symmetry that Sandra had noted a little earlier was no accident. So the fact that she hadn’t emptied that waste-paper basket, even though it was full, struck Sandra as strange. She put down her phone and bent to have a better look at the contents. In the middle of lots of used handkerchiefs and old notes, she found a sheet of paper rolled into a ball. She opened it. It was a receipt from a pharmacy.

  Fifteen euros ninety, she read. There was no indication of what item had been purchased. The date of the receipt was a couple of weeks before Lara disappeared.

  For a moment, Sandra abandoned her photography. She started going through the drawers, in search of the medication that might correspond to that receipt. She didn’t find any. Then, still clutching the paper, she went back down to the lower level and headed for the bathroom.

  It was small, but included a little broom cupboard. There was a cabinet over the mirror. Sandra opened it. It was filled with medicines and cosmetics. She started pulling them out and checking the prices stamped on them.

  As she proceeded, she placed them in the wash basin, one by one. There was nothing that cost fifteen euros ninety.

  But Sandra knew that this information was important. She sped up the operation, more out of nervousness than out of necessity. When she was finished, she leaned with both hands on the edge of the basin. She needed to calm down. She took a deep breath, but was forced to expel the air because the smell of damp was stronger here than in the rest of the apartment. Even though the toilet seemed clean, she flushed it and turned to go back upstairs. It was then that she noticed the calendar hanging behind the door.

  Only a woman knows why another woman needs to keep a calendar in the bathroom, she told herself.

  She took it off the nail on which it was hanging and started going through it, in reverse chronological order. On every page, certain consecutive days had been circled in red. More or less the same days every month.

  But on the last page, these days were clear of circles.

  ‘Shit,’ she exclaimed.

  Sandra had understood from the start. She hadn’t needed that confirmation. Lara had thrown the receipt from the pharmacy in the waste-paper basket, but then hadn’t had the strength to empty it in the refuse. Because there had been something else with the receipt and the Kleenex. Something that had a particular meaning for Lara, something she couldn’t throw away.

  A pregnancy test.

  But Jeremiah had taken it when he had kidnapped Lara, Sandra told herself. After the hair ribbon, the coral bracelet, the pink scarf and the roller skate, was it the monster’s latest fetish?

  Sandra walked into the living room with the mobile phone in her hands, ready to inform Superintendent Camusso of her discovery. Maybe the information that Lara was
pregnant would give a new impetus to the investigation. But she held back, wondering what else she had neglected.

  The door closed from the inside, was the answer.

  That was the one obstacle to the theory that someone had taken Lara from her apartment. If she could demonstrate with certainty that the student had not left of her own free will, there would be no more doubt about the fact that she was Jeremiah Smith’s fifth victim.

  What am I missing?

  The third lesson she had learned is that houses and apartments have a smell.

  What was the smell of this apartment? Damp, Sandra thought immediately, remembering what she had smelled on first entering. But, paying closer attention, she realised she had smelled it above all in the bathroom. It might be sewage. There were no obvious leaks, and yet the smell was really pervasive. She went back to the bathroom, switched on the light, and looked around. She checked the pipes in the shower and under the wash basin, and flushed the toilet again. Everything seemed to be in perfect working order.

  She bent down because the smell came from below. She looked carefully at the mosaic tiles under her feet and noticed that one looked chipped. As if something had been stuck into it to lever it up. She looked around and grabbed some scissors she found on a shelf. She slipped the point into the crack, and to her great surprise found she could lift a portion of the floor. She shifted it to one side and saw what it concealed.

  Beneath her there was a stone trapdoor that someone had left open.

  That was where the smell came from. Travertine steps led down to an underground gallery. That in itself wasn’t enough to demonstrate that Jeremiah had come this way. She needed further proof. There was only one way to get it.

  Sandra summoned up her courage and went down.

  When she reached the bottom of the steps, she took her mobile phone from her pocket, intending to use the light from the screen to orientate herself. She lit up both sides of the tunnel, but from the right she had the impression she could feel a draught. And from that same side there also came a distant booming sound.

 
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