The Lost Girls of Rome, p.30Donato Carrisi
She walked on, taking care where she put her feet. The ground was slippery and if she fell she might do herself serious harm. Nobody would find me down here, she thought.
After going twenty yards, she saw a glimmer of light and realised that she was coming to an exit that led directly to the Tiber. The river was swollen by the rainfall of the past few days and the muddy water carried detritus of every kind with it. It wasn’t possible to go any further, because of a thick metal grille. Too difficult for Jeremiah, she thought. So he must have gone in the other direction. Still using the light from the mobile phone she turned back, went past the stone staircase that led up to Lara’s bathroom, and soon discovered that on the other side, the gallery turned into a maze of tunnels.
Sandra checked that there was still a network and used the phone to contact Headquarters. After a few minutes, they put her through to Superintendent Camusso.
‘I’ve been in Lara’s apartment. It’s as we feared: Jeremiah kidnapped her.’
‘What proof do you have?’
‘I’ve found the passage he used to take her away without being seen. It’s hidden under a trapdoor in the bathroom.’
‘He’s been really clever this time,’ he said. But from Sandra’s tone he sensed there was more. ‘Anything else?’
Camusso fell silent. Sandra could guess his thoughts. The pressure on them had increased: now there were two lives at stake.
‘Listen, Superintendent, send someone immediately.’
‘I’m coming myself. We’ll be right there.’
Sandra hung up. She made to turn back, aiming the light from the phone at the viscous ground, as she had done when coming. But she must have been lost in thought earlier and had not noticed the second row of footprints in the mud.
There was someone down here with her.
Whoever it was, he was hiding now in the maze of tunnels in front of her. Sandra was frozen with fear. Her breath condensed in the cold air of the gallery. She put her hand on her gun, but immediately realised that, where she was standing, she was too easy a target if her pursuer was armed.
He is armed. She was sure he was, especially after her experience with the sniper. It was him.
She could turn and start running to the stone steps. Or else fire blindly into the darkness, hoping to hit him before he hit her. Both solutions, though, were risky. She was aware of two eyes watching her. There was nothing in those eyes. She had felt the same sensation listening to the recorded voice of David’s killer singing ‘Cheek to Cheek’.
‘Officer Vega, are you there?’ The call echoed behind her.
‘Yes, I’m here,’ Sandra cried, her voice transformed by terror into a ridiculous high-pitched scream.
‘Police,’ the voice went on. ‘We were on patrol in the area when Superintendent Camusso called us.’
‘Please, come and get me.’ Without her realising it, her tone had turned imploring.
‘We’re in the bathroom, give us time to get down.’
It was then that Sandra clearly heard the footsteps of someone moving away in the opposite direction along the gallery.
The invisible eyes that had terrified her were escaping.
They had gone to one of the safe houses the penitenzieri used, one of the many Vatican properties spread throughout the city. In it, there was a first-aid kit, as well as a computer to connect to the internet.
Clemente had got hold of a change of clothes and some sandwiches. Marcus, standing bare-chested in front of the mirror in the bathroom, was stitching his wound with needle and thread – another skill he didn’t know he had – and as always was concentrating on what he was doing, and avoiding his own reflection.
This would not be only his second scar. In addition to the one on his temple he had other marks on his skin. The amnesia prevented him from finding memories in his mind, so he had looked for them on his body. Traces of small traumas in the past, like the pinkish nick he had on his calf, or the incision in the hollow of his elbow. Maybe they came from a fall from a bicycle when he was a child, or a trivial domestic accident when he was older. But they hadn’t helped him to remember. It was sad not to have a past. The child whose bone he had found, though, would not have a future. In any case, both of them had died. Except that for Marcus death had worked in a strange way, proceeding in reverse.
On the ride from Canestrari’s clinic to the safe house, Clemente had told him about Astor Goyash.
He was a seventy-year-old Bulgarian, who had lived in Rome for the last twenty of those years. His business interests, legal and illegal, ranged from construction to prostitution. He was known to have connections with organised crime.
‘What does someone like that have to do with Alberto Canestrari?’ Marcus asked once again, after listening to Clemente’s story, unable to find a satisfactory explanation.
His friend, who was holding cotton wool and disinfectant for him, said, ‘First we should try to find out who left that bone there, don’t you think?’
‘It’s the mystery penitenziere,’ Marcus stated with certainty. ‘When he first looked into the case, after Canestrari’s confession, he found the remains of the little boy in the storeroom. Maybe Canestrari, feeling guilty, had been hesitant to get rid of it. Luckily the penitenziere hid the humerus, first writing the name Astor Goyash on it. He wanted us to find it. If he hadn’t hidden it, it would have been destroyed in the fire at the clinic.’
‘Let’s try and put the events in chronological order,’ Clemente suggested.
‘All right … Canestrari kills a child. A major criminal named Astor Goyash is also involved. But we don’t yet know why.’
‘Goyash doesn’t trust Canestrari: the doctor is conscience-stricken and could easily make a false move. So Goyash decides to keep an eye on him: that would explain the spy camera concealed in his surgery.’
‘When Canestrari killed himself, it must have set alarm bells ringing in Goyash’s mind.’
‘That’s why, immediately afterwards, his men set fire to the clinic, in the hope of wiping out for once and all any possible proof of the child’s murder. They had already got rid of the syringe that Canestrari had used to inject the poison, to avoid an investigation being opened into the death.’
‘Right,’ Marcus agreed. ‘But one fundamental question remains: what’s the connection between a highly regarded philanthropist like Canestrari and a criminal like Goyash?’
‘Frankly,’ Clemente said, ‘I can’t see any. They belonged to different worlds.’
‘And yet there must be something that unites them, I’m sure of it.’
‘Listen, Marcus, time is running out for Lara. Maybe you should drop this Canestrari business and concentrate on finding her.’
The suggestion struck Marcus as strange. For a moment, he pretended to concentrate on medicating his wound, all the while examining Clementi’s expression in the mirror. ‘You may be right, I realised that today. It was lucky you came to the clinic: if you hadn’t got me out of there, those two would have killed me.’
As he said this, his friend lowered his eyes.
‘You were keeping an eye on me, weren’t you?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Clemente said, feigning indignation.
Marcus turned to look at him. ‘What’s going on? What are you hiding from me?’
‘Nothing.’ Clemente was clearly on the defensive.
‘Don Michele Fuente reports the confession of the would-be suicide Alberto Canestrari but, at the request of the bishop, omits the penitent’s name. What are you all trying to safeguard? Who above us wants to keep this quiet?’
Clemente did not reply.
‘I knew it,’ Marcus said. ‘The link between Canestrari and Astor Goyash is money, isn’t it?’
‘Canestrari didn’t seem to be short of money,’ Clemente objected, although without much conviction.
Marcus grasped his difficulty. ‘T
Clemente realised that he could not continue much longer with this deception. ‘The hospital Canestrari built in Angola is a wonderful thing. We mustn’t run the risk of destroying it.’
Marcus nodded. ‘Whose money did he use to build it? Astor Goyash’s?’
‘We don’t know.’
‘It seems plausible, though, doesn’t it?’ Marcus was angry now. ‘The life of one child in exchange for thousands of lives.’
There was nothing Clemente could say: his pupil had understood everything.
‘So we choose the lesser evil,’ Marcus went on. ‘But when we do that, we embrace the same logic that led Canestrari to accept such an unholy pact.’
‘The logic of it doesn’t concern us. But the lives of thousands of people do.’
‘What about the child? Didn’t that life count?’ He paused to control his rage. ‘How would the God in whose name we act judge all this?’ He looked Clemente in the eyes. ‘Someone will avenge that child’s life, as the mystery penitenziere planned. We can decide to stand and watch while it happens, or we can try and prevent it. If we opt to do nothing, we’ll be accessories to murder.’
Clemente knew Marcus was right, but he still hesitated. At last, he broke the silence. ‘If Astor Goyash still feels the need to bug Canestrari’s surgery three years after the event, it’s because he’s afraid of being implicated. That means there’s evidence that can connect him to the murder.’
Marcus smiled: his friend was on his side, he wouldn’t abandon him. ‘We have to identify the child who was killed,’ he said immediately. ‘And I think I know how.’
They went into the adjoining room, where the computer was. After connecting to the internet, Marcus went on the police website.
‘Where do you want to look for him?’ Clemente asked over his shoulder.
‘The mystery penitenziere is offering someone the possibility of revenge, so the young victim must be from Rome.’
He opened the page devoted to missing persons and clicked on the link for minors. The faces of children and teenagers appeared. There were an extraordinary number of them. Many were children contested in custody cases who had been taken by one of the parents, so the solution to the mystery was simple and their names soon disappeared from the list. Just as frequent were cases where the children had run away from home: these usually ended after a few days with a family reunion and a telling-off. But some of these minors had been missing for years, and would remain on this page until it was known what had happened to them. They smiled out from old, blurred photographs, a violated innocence in their eyes. In some cases, the police were able to take the image and make an identikit showing how their faces might have changed as they got older. The hope that these children could still be alive was a slim one. The photo graph on the site was often a substitute for a headstone, a way to keep their memory alive.
By a process of elimination, Marcus and Clemente concentrated on the minors who had disappeared in Rome three years earlier. They narrowed the choice down to two. A boy and a girl.
Filippo Rocco had vanished one afternoon after leaving school. His classmates who were with him hadn’t noticed anything. He was twelve years old and had a cheeky grin which displayed a gap where an upper incisor was missing. He was wearing the smock of the religious school he attended, a pair of jeans, and an orange sweater with a blue polo shirt and trainers. His satchel was covered with Scout badges, as well as the emblem of the football team he supported.
Alice Martini was ten years old and had long blonde hair. She wore glasses with pink frames. She had disappeared while she was in the park with her family: father, mother and younger brother. She was wearing a white Bugs Bunny sweatshirt, a pair of shorts and canvas shoes. The last person who had seen her was a balloon seller: he had spotted her near the toilets talking to a middle-aged man. But it had been a fleeting glimpse and he had not been able to provide the police with a description.
Marcus gathered other information from the websites of the newspapers that had reported the two disappearances. Both Alice’s parents and Filippo’s had put out appeals, taken part in talk shows and given interviews to keep interest in the two cases alive. But neither investigation had led anywhere.
‘Do you think the child we’re looking for is one of these two?’ Clemente asked.
‘It’s likely, but I would’ve preferred there to be only one. Time isn’t on our side. Up until now the penitenziere has calculated everything, planning for one act of revenge to be carried out every day. First, the sister of one of Jeremiah Smith’s victims finds him dying in his house and discovers the truth. The following evening, Raffaele Altieri kills his father, the person responsible for the murder of his mother twenty years ago. Yesterday, Pietro Zini killed Federico Noni, guilty of assaulting a number of women and of killing first his sister Giorgia to silence her and then a girl buried in Villa Glori. Have you noticed that in these last two cases the messages from the penitenziere to the avengers arrived with split-second timing? He left us just a few hours to discover and stop the mechanism he’d set in motion. I don’t think this case will be any different. So we have to hurry: someone will try to kill Astor Goyash by tonight.’
‘It won’t be easy getting to him. You’ve seen the kind of bodyguards he uses. He never goes anywhere without them.’
‘In that case I need you, Clemente.’
‘Me?’ Clemente said, surprised.
‘I can’t keep an eye on the families of both missing children, so we have to divide the tasks. We’ll use voicemail to communicate: as soon as one of us finds out something, he leaves a message.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Find the Martinis, I’ll deal with the parents of Filippo Rocca.’
Ettore and Camilla Rocca lived in Ostia, in a small one-storey house facing the beach. It was a decent-looking house, bought with savings.
Theirs was a normal family.
Marcus had often asked himself what that adjective really meant. It could mean a whole lot of small dreams and expectations that had become fixed over time and constituted a protection against any misfortune. For some, the greatest aspiration was to live a quiet life without too many upsets. It was a tacit pact with destiny, renewed every day.
Ettore Rocca was a travelling salesman and was often away from home. His wife Camilla was a social worker in a centre providing support to disadvantaged families and young people in difficulty. She spent her life helping others, even though she herself had become someone who needed help.
The couple had chosen to live on the coast because Ostia was quieter and less expensive. It meant commuting to Rome to work, but it was a sacrifice worth making.
When he entered their house, Marcus felt for the first time that he was an intruder. There were bars on the doors and windows, but he had had no difficulty in opening the main lock, closing it once he had entered. He found himself in a combined living room and kitchen. The dominant colours were white and blue. Not much furniture, all of it in a nautical style. The dinner table seemed to have been made out of the planks of a boat and above it hung a fisherman’s lamp. On the wall was an old tiller with a clock face inlaid in it, and a fine display of shells stood on a shelf.
The sand came in with the wind and crackled under his shoes. Marcus moved further into the room, hoping to see some sign that might lead to the penitenziere. First of all, he looked at the refrigerator, on which a sheet of paper was held in place by a magnet in the shape of a crab. It was a message from Ettore Rocca to his wife.
See you in ten days. Love you.
So the man was away on business, although it might also be a lie for the benefit of his spouse. He might be preparing to kill Goyash. Given the risks involved, he wanted to leave her out of it, to protect her. A week to prepare, shut up in a motel outside the city. But Marcus couldn’t indulge in speculation. He needed confirmation. He continued to search the room
There was no sense of grief here.
Perhaps naively, he had expected that Filippo’s disappearance would have created a kind of fracture in his parents’ lives. Like a wound that, instead of being on the flesh, was on the objects, and you would just have to touch them to see them bleed. No, the boy seemed to have vanished even here. There were no photographs of him, no mementoes. But perhaps it was in that void that the grief manifested itself. Marcus wasn’t able to perceive it, because only a mother and a father could see it. Then he understood. When he had looked at little Filippo’s face surrounded by other missing children on the police website, he had wondered how their families managed to carry on. It wasn’t the same as when a child died. When one disappeared, you had to learn to live with doubt. Doubt could insinuate itself everywhere, corroding everything from inside, without your being aware of it. It consumed the days, the hours. Years might pass without an answer. By comparison, Marcus had thought, how much better to know for certain that your child had been killed.
Death took hold of your memories, even the most beautiful ones, and inseminated them with grief, making them unbearable. Death became the master of the past. But doubt was worse, because it took away your future.
He entered Ettore and Camilla’s bedroom. On the double bed, their pyjamas were laid out on the respective pillows. The blankets were smooth, the slippers matched. Everything in its place. As if all that order could compensate for the madness of grief, the upheaval caused by a tragedy. Domesticating everything. Training the objects to carry on a charade of normality, making them repeat the comforting news that everything is fine.
And in that idyllic little picture, he at last found Filippo.
The boy was smiling out of a framed photograph, together with his parents. He had not been forgotten after all. He, too, had his place here: on a chest of drawers, beneath a mirror. Marcus was about to leave the room when his eye fell on an object and he realised he had been mistaken.
On the bedside table, on the side of the bed where Camilla slept, was a baby monitor.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes