The Lost Girls of Rome, p.3Donato Carrisi
And so, as soon as Sandra crossed the threshold of an apartment on the fifth floor of a tower block on the outskirts of Milan, she realised that what was awaiting her would be a particularly unforgettable crime scene. The first thing she saw was the decorated tree, even though it was a long time since Christmas. Instinctively she understood why it was there. Her sister, too, at the age of five, had stopped her parents from taking down the decorations once the holiday was over. She had cried and screamed one whole afternoon, and in the end her parents had given up, hoping that sooner or later it would pass. Instead of which, the plastic fir tree with its little lights and coloured balls had stayed in its corner for the whole summer and the following winter. That was why Sandra suddenly felt her stomach gripped in a vice.
The tree told her there was a child in this apartment.
She could feel the child’s presence in the air. Because the third lesson she had learned was that houses and apartments have a smell. It belongs to those who live in them, and it is always different and unique. When tenants change, the smell disappears, to give way to a new one. It forms over time, mixing in other odours, natural and artificial – fabric softeners and coffee, schoolbooks and indoor plants, floor polish and cabbage soup – and it becomes the smell of that family, of the people who comprise it. They carry it on them and don’t even smell it.
The smell was the one thing that distinguished the apartment she saw now from the dwellings of other single-income families. Three rooms and a kitchen. The furniture acquired at different times, depending on financial circumstances. The framed photographs, mostly of summer holidays: the only ones they could afford. The tartan cover on the sofa in front of the TV: it was here that they took refuge every evening, sitting crammed together watching the programmes until sleep overcame them.
Sandra mentally catalogued these images. There was no warning in them of what was going to happen. No one could have predicted that.
The police officers were moving through the rooms like uninvited guests, violating the family’s privacy with their mere presence. But she had long since got past the feeling that she was an intruder.
Hardly anyone spoke at crime scenes like this one. Even horror had its code. In this silent choreography, words were superfluous, because everyone knew exactly what to do.
But there were always exceptions. One of these was Fabio Sergi. She heard him cursing from somewhere in the apartment.
‘Fuck, I don’t believe it!’
All Sandra had to do was follow his voice: it came from a narrow windowless bathroom.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked, putting the two bags with her equipment down on the floor of the corridor and slipping on plastic overshoes.
‘It’s been a great day so far,’ he replied sarcastically, without looking at her. He was busy giving energetic taps to a portable gas fire. ‘This damn thing doesn’t work!’
‘I hope you’re not going to blow us all up.’
Sergi glared at her. Sandra didn’t say anything else, her colleague was too nervous. Instead she looked down at the corpse of the man occupying the space between the bathroom door and the toilet bowl. He was lying face down, stark naked. Forty years old, she estimated. Weight approximately fourteen stone, height six feet. The head was twisted at an unnatural angle, and there was an oblique gash across his skull. Blood had formed a dark pool on the black-and-white tiles.
He was clutching a gun in his hand.
Next to the body lay a chunk of porcelain that corresponded to the left-hand corner of the wash basin. It had presumably broken off when the man had fallen on it.
‘What do you need a gas fire for?’ Sandra asked.
‘I need to recreate the scene,’ he replied curtly. ‘The guy was having his shower and he brought this thing in to heat the bathroom. In a while I’ll also turn the water on, so you’d better get your stuff sorted as soon as possible.’
Sandra knew what Sergi had in mind: the steam would bring out the footprints on the floor. That way they would be able to reconstruct the victim’s movements within the room.
‘I need a screwdriver,’ Sergi said angrily. ‘I’ll be right back. Try to stay as close to the walls as you can.’
Sandra didn’t reply, she was used to that kind of instruction: finger print experts always thought they were the only ones capable of preserving a crime scene. And there was also the fact that she was a twenty-nine-year-old woman operating in a predominantly masculine environment. She was accustomed to being patronised by her colleagues. Sergi was the worst of the lot; they had never bonded and she didn’t enjoy working with him.
While he was out of the room, Sandra took the opportunity to take the camera and tripod from her bags. She placed sponges on the feet of the tripod, to avoid leaving marks. Then she mounted the camera with the lens pointing upwards. After wiping it with a piece of gauze impregnated with ammonia, to stop it steaming up, she attached a single-shot panoramic optic, which would allow her to take 360-degree photographs of the room.
From the general to the particular, that was the rule.
The camera would focus on the entire scenario of the event through a series of automatic shots, then she would complete the reconstruction of events by manually taking ever more detailed photographs, marking her discoveries with numbered stickers to indicate the chronology.
Sandra had just finished positioning the camera in the middle of the room when she noticed a little tank on a shelf. In it were two small turtles. She felt a pang in her heart, thinking of the person in that family who had looked after them, feeding them from the feed box next to the tank, periodically changing the inch or two of water in which they were immersed and embellishing their habitat with pebbles and a plastic palm.
Not an adult, she told herself.
At that moment, Sergei returned with the screwdriver and again started fiddling with the gas fire. Within a few seconds, he had managed to get it working.
‘I knew I’d do it in the end,’ he said smugly.
The room was narrow and the body occupied almost all the space. It was barely large enough for the three of them. It wouldn’t be easy to work in these conditions, Sandra thought. ‘How are we going to move?’
‘Let me get the sauna working first,’ Sergi said, turning the hot water tap in the shower to full. It was obvious he wanted to get rid of her. ‘In the meantime, you could start in the kitchen. We’ve got a twin in there …’
Crime scenes are divided into primary and secondary, to distinguish the location where the crime has actually been committed from those which are merely linked to it, such as the place where a body has been hidden or the murder weapon found.
When Sandra heard that there was a ‘twin’ in this apartment, she immediately understood that Sergi was referring to a second primary scene. And that could only mean one thing. More victims. She recalled the turtles and the Christmas tree.
Sandra stood motionless in the doorway of the kitchen. To maintain her self-control in such situations, it was important to follow the manual to the letter. Its dictates brought order to chaos. At least, that was the illusion she clung to, and she had to believe it was true.
Simba the lion winked at her from the TV, then started singing with the other denizens of the jungle. She would have liked to switch it off, but she couldn’t.
Resolving to ignore it, she clipped the recorder to her belt, ready to make a verbal record of the whole procedure. She pulled back her long brown hair and tied it with an elastic band she always kept on her wrist, then arranged the microphone over her head, to keep her hands free to manoeuvre the second camera she had taken from her bag. She aimed the camera at the scene, glad that it allowed her to place a safe distance between herself and what she had in front of her.
Conventionally, the photographic survey of a crime scene went from right to left, from bottom to top.
She glanced at her watch, then started the recording. First, she stated her name and rank. Then the place, date and time when the proced
‘The table is in the middle of the room. It’s laid for breakfast. One of the chairs has been overturned. Lying next to it on the floor is the first body: a woman, aged between thirty and forty.’
The woman was wearing a light nightdress that had ridden up her thighs, leaving her legs and pubis blatantly exposed. Her hair was gathered with a clip in the shape of a flower. She had lost one of her slippers.
‘Numerous gunshot wounds. In one hand she is clutching a piece of paper.’
She had been making a shopping list. The pen was still on the table.
‘The corpse is turned towards the door. She must have seen the killer come in and tried to stop him. She rose from the table, but only took one step.’
The clicking of the camera was the sole measure of time. Sandra concentrated on that sound, like a musician letting himself be guided by a metronome. In reality, she was assimilating every detail of the scene as it imprinted itself into the digital memory of the camera and into her own memory.
‘Second body: male, approximately ten to twelve years old. Sitting with his back to the door.’
He hadn’t even realised what was happening. But, as far as Sandra was concerned, the idea of an unconscious death was a relief only for the living.
‘He’s wearing blue pyjamas. He’s lying prone on the table, his face buried in a bowl of cornflakes. There’s a deep gunshot wound on the back of his neck.’
For Sandra, death was not in the two bullet-riddled bodies, or in the blood that had spattered everywhere and was slowly drying at their feet. It wasn’t in their glassy eyes that continued to look without seeing, or in the unfinished gestures with which they had taken their leave of the world. It was elsewhere. Sandra had learned that death’s greatest talent was being able to hide in details, and it was in those details that she would reveal it with her camera. In the coffee stains on the oven, where it had spilled from the old coffee maker that had continued to boil until someone switched it off after discovering the scene. In the hum of the refrigerator, which continued impassively to keep the food fresh in its belly. In the TV, which was still broadcasting cheerful cartoons. After the massacre, this artificial life had continued, unheeding and pointless. It was in that deception that death lay hidden.
‘Nice way to start the day, eh?’
Sandra switched off the recorder and turned.
Inspector De Michelis stood in the doorway with his arms folded, an unlit cigarette drooping from his lips. ‘The man you saw in the bathroom worked as a guard for a security company. The gun was licensed. They lived on his salary. What with the rent and the car insurance, they probably found it hard to make ends meet. But who doesn’t?’
‘Why did he do it?’
‘We’re interviewing the neighbours. The husband and wife quarrelled frequently, but not violently enough for anyone to call the police.’
‘So there were problems in the marriage?’
‘Apparently, yes. He was into Thai boxing, he was even provincial champion for a while, but he gave it up after being disqualified for using anabolic steroids.’
‘Did he beat her?’
‘The pathologist should be able to tell us that. What we do know is that he was very jealous.’
Sandra looked at the woman lying on the floor, half-naked from the waist down. You can’t be jealous of a corpse, she thought. Not any more.
‘Think she had a lover?’
‘Maybe. Who can say?’ De Michelis shrugged. ‘How are you getting on in the bathroom?’
‘I set up the first camera, it’s already taking the panoramic shots. I’m waiting either for it to finish or for Sergi to call me.’
‘It didn’t happen the way it looks …’
Sandra looked at De Michelis. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The man didn’t shoot himself. We’ve counted the cartridge cases: they’re all in the kitchen.’
‘So what happened?’
De Michelis took the cigarette from his lips and stepped inside the room. ‘He was having a shower. He left the bathroom naked, took the gun, which he kept in the hall in a holster next to his uniform, came into the kitchen, and, more or less where you are now, shot his son. One shot in the back of the neck, at point-blank range.’ He mimed the gesture with his hand. ‘Then he turned the gun on his wife. The whole thing only lasted a few seconds. He went back to the bathroom. The floor was still wet. He slipped and as he fell he hit his head really hard on the wash basin, so hard he broke a piece off. Death was instantaneous.’ The inspector paused, then added sarcastically, ‘God is great sometimes.’
God had nothing to do with it, Sandra thought, her eyes on the little boy. This morning, He was looking the other way.
‘By seven twenty it was all over.’
She went back to the bathroom, feeling distinctly uneasy. De Michelis’s last words had shaken her more than they should have done. Opening the door, she was overcome by the steam that filled the room. Sergi had already turned off the tap and was leaning over his small case of reagents.
‘The cranberries, the problem’s always the cranberries …’ Sandra had no idea what he was talking about. He seemed completely absorbed, so she decided not to say anything, for fear of provoking a reaction. She checked that the camera had completed all the panoramic photographs and then took it off the tripod.
Before leaving the room, she turned back to Sergi. ‘I’m just replacing the memory card and then I’ll start in on the detailed shots.’ She looked around. ‘There are no windows and the light isn’t very bright, so we’ll need a couple of low-energy lamps. What do you think?’
Sergi looked up. ‘I think I’d rather be beaten like a whore by one of those big bikers. Yes, that’d really be good.’
Sergi’s words took her aback. If it was a joke, she didn’t get it. But from the way he was staring at her, he didn’t seem to be expecting her to laugh. Then, as if nothing had happened, he started fiddling with his reagents and Sandra went out into the corridor.
Trying to dismiss her colleague’s ravings from her mind, she started checking the photographs on the screen of the camera. The 360-degree panoramic shots of the bathroom had come out quite well. The camera had taken six of them, at three-minute intervals. The steam had brought out the killer’s bare footprints, but they were quite hard to decipher. At first, she had thought that there had been a quarrel between him and his wife in the bathroom, which had then led to the murder. But if that had been the case, the woman’s slippers would also have left prints on the floor.
She was betraying one of the rules of the manual. She was looking for an explanation. However absurd this slaughter seemed, she had to report the facts in an objective manner. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t figure out a reason, her duty was to remain impartial.
In the past five months, though, that had become increasingly difficult.
From the general to the particular. Sandra began to focus on the details, looking for meaning.
On the screen, she saw the razor on the shelf under the mirror. The Winnie the Pooh shower gel. The stockings hanging up to dry. The daily gestures and habits of an ordinary family. Innocent objects that had witnessed a terrible act.
They’re not mute, she thought. Objects talk to us from the silence, you just have to know how to listen to them.
As the images ran past her, Sandra kept wondering what could have unleashed such violence. Her sense of unease had increased, and she also felt a migraine coming on. Her eyes clouded over for a moment. All she wanted was to understand.
How had this little domestic apocalypse come into being?
The family wakes up shortly before seven. The woman gets out of bed and goes to make breakfast for her son. The man is the first to use the bathroom, he has to take the boy to school and then go to work. It’s cold, so he takes a little gas fire in with him.
What happened while he was taking his shower?
The water pours
But there was no quarrel this morning. Why?
The man comes out of the shower, takes the gun and goes to the kitchen. No words exchanged before he opens fire. What broke inside his head? An unbearable sense of anxiety, panic: the usual symptoms that precede a fit.
On the screen, three dressing gowns hanging next to each other. From the largest to the smallest. Side by side. In a glass, the family of three toothbrushes. Sandra was looking for the little crack in the idyllic picture. The hairline fracture that had sent the whole thing tumbling down.
By 7.20 it was all over, the inspector had said. That was when the neighbours heard the shots and called the police. A shower lasts a quarter of an hour at most. A quarter of an hour that decides everything.
On the screen, the small tank with the two turtles. The box with feed. The plastic palm. The pebbles.
The turtles, she told herself.
Sandra checked all the panoramic shots, zooming each time into that one detail. One photograph every three minutes. Six in all. Sergi had turned the hot water tap full on, the room was filled with steam … And yet the turtles hadn’t moved.
Objects speak. Death is in the details.
Sandra’s eyes clouded over again, and for a moment she was afraid she was going to faint.
De Michelis came in. ‘Aren’t you feeling well?’
At that moment, Sandra understood everything. ‘The gas fire!’
‘What?’ De Michelis didn’t understand. But she had no time to explain.
‘Sergi! We have to get him out of there right now!’
A fire engine and an ambulance were parked outside the building. The ambulance was there for Sergi.
He was already unconscious when they entered the bathroom. Luckily for him, they had been in time. On the pavement in front of the building, Sandra showed De Michelis the image of the little tank with the dead turtles, trying to reconstruct the sequence of events.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes