The Lost Girls of Rome, p.33Donato Carrisi
‘What had my husband discovered about this place?’
‘So you pretended to have saved my life, you betrayed my trust, you told me a lot of nonsense about the relationship between you and my husband.’ She resisted the temptation to add, you slept with me and made me believe you were genuinely fond of me. ‘All that, just to get hold of the picture of the priest with the scar on his temple.’
‘Yes, I was playing a part, same as you were. I knew you were lying to me. I knew you hadn’t shown me all the photographs. Liars are my speciality, remember? There’s some kind of pact between you and the priest, isn’t there? You’re hoping he’ll help you get to the truth behind David’s murder.’
Sandra was furious. ‘That’s why you followed me: to see if I was meeting him again.’
‘I also followed you to protect you.’
‘Stop it!’ Sandra’s tone was sharp, her expression a mixture of revulsion and resentment. ‘I don’t want to hear any more lies.’
‘There’s one thing, though, that you really ought to hear.’ Schalber’s tone was equally harsh. ‘It was a penitenziere who killed your husband.’
She was shaken, but tried not to let him see it. ‘It’s very convenient for you to tell me that now. Do you expect me to believe you?’
‘Aren’t you curious as to why the Vatican suddenly decided to abolish the order of penitenzieri? It had to have been serious for the Pope to take such a decision, don’t you think? Whatever it was has never been revealed. A kind of … side effect of their activities.’
Sandra said nothing, hoping that Schalber would continue.
‘The archive of the Paenitentiaria Apostolica is a place where evil has been studied, taken apart, analysed. But there’s a rule that says each penitenziere only has access to part of it. That’s to preserve secrecy, of course, but also so that nobody should have to bear the knowledge of so much wickedness.’ Aware that he now had Sandra’s full attention, he continued, ‘They deluded themselves into thinking that, by putting together the broadest possible record of sins, they’d be able to understand the manifestations of evil in human history. But however hard they tried to classify it, to force it into specific categories, evil found a way to elude every pattern, every attempt to predict it. There were always anomalies: small imperfections that needed correcting. So the penitenzieri transformed themselves from mere researchers and archivists into detectives, intervening directly in pursuit of justice. The greatest lesson of the archive, one the priests set great store by, is that evil generates evil. Sometimes it’s like an unstoppable epidemic, which corrupts men indiscriminately. What the penitenzieri didn’t take into account was the possibility that, as human beings, they, too, might be caught up in that process.’
‘Do you mean that, over time, evil lead them astray?’
Schalber nodded. ‘You can’t live in close contact with such a dark force without being influenced by it. There was a reason why the individual penitenzieri weren’t allowed to know too much of the archive, a safeguard which unfortunately fell by the wayside over the centuries.’ Schalber’s tone became friendlier. ‘Think about it, Sandra, you’re a police officer. Can you always leave behind the things you see at crime scenes? Or does some of that pain, that suffering, that malignity follow you home?’
She remembered David’s green tie. She realised that Schalber might be right.
‘How many of your colleagues have you seen give up because of that? How many have gone over to the other side? Officers with an impeccable career suddenly taking a bribe from a drug dealer. Policemen you would have trusted with your life beating a suspect half to death to make him talk. Abuses of power, acts of corruption, all committed by men who surrendered, who realised they couldn’t help it. No matter how hard they tried, evil always won.’
‘I know, I’m a policeman too. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.’
‘And you’re saying it happened to the penitenzieri?’
‘Father Devok refused to accept it. He continued recruiting priests in secret. He was convinced he could keep control of the situation, but he paid for that naivety with his life.’
‘So you don’t know exactly who killed David. It might even have been the priest with the scar on his temple.’
‘I could say yes, but the truth is, I don’t know.’
Sandra looked closely at him, trying to tell if he was sincere. Then she laughed and shook her head. ‘What an idiot – I almost fell for it again.’
‘Don’t you believe me?’
She gave him a look filled with hate. ‘For all I know, it could even have been you who killed my husband.’ She emphasised the words my husband as if to mark the difference between him and David, even though that was something she had conveniently forgotten during the night they had spent together.
‘What can I do to convince you otherwise? Do you want me to help you find the killer?’
‘I’ve had enough of forming alliances. And besides, there’s a simpler way.’
‘Go on, tell me.’
‘Come with me. There’s a superintendent I trust, his name’s Camusso. Let’s tell him everything, and he can help us.’
Schalber fell silent for a moment as if thinking it over. ‘All right, why not? Shall we go now?’
‘Why waste time? Walk in front of me as we go out so that I can see you.’
‘If that makes you feel any better.’
He set off along the nave. The basilica was about to close and the worshippers were moving towards the central exit. Sandra followed Schalber at a distance of a few feet. Every now and again, he turned to check that she was still behind him. He was walking slowly to let her keep up with him, but he was soon swallowed up by the little crowd that had formed near the door. Sandra kept her eyes on him the whole time. Schalber turned again towards her and made a gesture as if telling her that it wasn’t his fault. Sandra, too, was immersed in the flow. She could see his head among the others. Then someone ahead of her fell to the ground. Voices rose in protest: someone had pushed that person. Realising what had happened, Sandra tried to force her way through. She could no longer see the back of Schalber’s head. Elbowing her way to the front, she at last managed to get out of the church. Schalber had vanished.
All it had taken to motivate Camilla Rocca was a phone call. She hadn’t needed any proof.
She had a name, Astor Goyash, and that was enough for her.
The Hotel Exedra was in what had once been the Piazza dell’Esedra – so called because it followed the lines of the semicircular recess, or exedra, in the vast baths of Diocletian, the ruins of which could still be seen a short distance away – and since the 1950s had been called the Piazza della Repubblica. But the Romans had never got used to the change and, despite all the time that had passed, continued to use the old name.
The Exedra was a luxury hotel situated on the left-hand side of the square, facing the large Fountain of the Naiads. From the motorway, it took Marcus half an hour to get to his destination. He still hoped he could intercept Camilla before she did something foolish.
He had no idea what might await him. He had not been able to discover the reason for little Filippo’s death. This time the message from the mystery penitenziere had not been so clear. ‘You’re as good as he is,’ Clemente had said. ‘You’re like him.’ But it wasn’t true. He had never stopped to wonder where his predecessor was currently hiding. Marcus was sure he was watching him, though, judging his every move from a distance. He’ll show himself eventually, he thought. He was convinced that they would meet in the end and that the penitenziere would explain everything to him.
He entered the hotel, passing a porter in top hat and livery. The light from the crystal chandeliers was reflected on the precious marble, the furnishings were luxurious. He lingered in the foyer like any other guest, wondering how he could find Camilla.
He saw a large group of young peo
‘This is for Astor Goyash.’
The receptionist pointed to the far end of the foyer. ‘The birthday party’s up on the terrace.’
At last Marcus understood the meaning of the gift-wrapped package he had seen in Camilla Rocca’s house, as well as the purchase of a new dress: they were ploys designed to get her into the Exedra without looking too conspicuous.
He saw the bellboy getting into line together with other guests in front of the lift leading directly to the terrace. The two thugs who had followed Marcus to Dr Canestrari’s surgery and then to the clinic were there, keeping an eye on those going up.
Astor Goyash would be there this evening. With these security measures, it would be impossible to get close to him. But the mystery penitenziere had supplied Camilla with an alternative.
Marcus had to get to room 303 before she did.
The main door of the hotel opened and a large group of bodyguards came in, surrounding a shortish man of about seventy with grey hair, a tanned and heavily lined face and glacial eyes.
Marcus looked around, afraid Camilla might appear at any moment. But it didn’t happen. Goyash was escorted to another lift. When the doors closed behind him, Marcus realised he had to be quick. Very soon his presence would be noticed by the surveillance cameras and the hotel’s security staff would approach him discreetly to find out why he was here. He went to the receptionist and asked for the room he had reserved a little earlier using Bruno Martini’s mobile phone. Asked for identification, Marcus showed the false Vatican City diplomatic passport Clemente had given him at the beginning of his training.
‘Is Signora Camilla Rocca here yet?’
The receptionist looked at him, unsure whether or not to give him this information. Marcus sustained his gaze and in the end the receptionist limited himself to admitting that the lady had checked in one hour earlier. For Marcus that was sufficient. He thanked him and was given an electronic key: his room was on the second floor. He walked to another row of lifts, one not being watched by Goyash’s men. Once in the lift, however, he pressed the button for the third floor.
The doors opened to reveal a long corridor. He looked around, but there were no bodyguards in sight. That immediately struck him as strange. Reading the numbers of the rooms, he headed for 303. He turned a corner, and after another ten yards came to the room. There was no one on guard, which again struck him as odd. Maybe they were inside with Goyash. A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung on the electronic lock. Marcus, unsure what to do, knocked. After about twenty seconds, a female voice asked him who was there.
‘Hotel security. Sorry to disturb you, but the smoke detector in your room has triggered an alarm.’
There was a click, and the door was opened, much to Marcus’s surprise, by a young blonde girl, fourteen at most. She was half naked, wrapped in a sheet, and had the misty-eyed look of someone on drugs.
‘All I did was light a cigarette,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.’
‘No need to worry, but I do have to check.’ Without waiting for an invitation, he moved her aside and entered.
It was a suite. The first room was a reception room with a dark parquet floor. There was a lounge area with a huge plasma TV set and a cocktail cabinet. A number of gift-wrapped packages were piled in a corner. Marcus took a look around: apart from the girl there didn’t seem to be anybody here.
‘Is Signor Goyash about?’
‘He’s in the bathroom. I can call him if you like.’
Marcus ignored the suggestion and headed for the bedroom.
Disconcerted, the girl followed him, forgetting to close the main door of the suite. ‘Hey, where are you going?’
There was a large unmade bed. On a coffee table he glimpsed a mirror with lines of cocaine and a rolled-up banknote. There was a TV in here, too. It was on, and playing music videos at high volume.
‘Get out of here, now,’ he said to the girl.
He put his hand over her mouth and looked straight at her to make it clear to her that there was no point protesting. Now she was scared. Marcus approached the door of the bathroom and pointed to it. The girl nodded: Goyash was in there. The volume of the TV prevented him from hearing what was happening on the other side.
‘Is he armed?’
The girl shook her head. Marcus realised she was the reason the old Bulgarian had temporarily got away from his bodyguards. A little present of sex and cocaine before the birthday party.
He was about to ask the girl to leave, when he turned and saw Camilla Rocca standing in the doorway of the suite. At her feet was the open gift package. In her hands, a gun. In her eyes, a dark gleam of hatred.
Instinctively, he reached out his hand to stop her. The girl gave a scream that was drowned by the deafening rock music from the TV. Marcus pushed her aside and she went and took shelter behind a corner of the bed, terrified.
Camilla was taking deep breaths, as if trying to summon up strength. ‘Astor Goyash?’ Obviously, she knew he ought to have been a man of seventy.
Marcus tried to remain calm and make her see reason. ‘I know your story. You won’t solve anything this way.’
The woman noticed the light filtering under the door of the bathroom. ‘Who’s in there?’ She raised the gun in that direction.
Marcus knew that, as soon as it was open, she would shoot. ‘Listen to me. Think of your new child. What’s its name?’ He was trying to gain time, to shift her attention on to something that would make her hesitate. But Camilla didn’t reply. She was still staring straight at the door. He tried again: ‘Think of your husband. You can’t leave the two of them alone in the world.’
The first tears welled in Camilla’s eyes. ‘Filippo was such a sweet child.’
Marcus decided to be blunt with her. ‘What do you think will happen when you’ve pulled the trigger? How do you think you’ll feel afterwards? I’ll tell you: it won’t change anything. Everything will be exactly the same as it is now. There’s no relief in store for you. Things will still be hard. And what will you have gained?’
‘There’s no other way to get justice.’
Marcus knew the woman was right. There was nothing to link Astor Goyash and Canestrari to Filippo. The one piece of evidence – the bone he had found at the clinic – had been taken by Goyash’s men. ‘There’ll never be justice,’ he said in a firm but compassionate tone, with a tinge of resignation, because he feared he wouldn’t be able to prevent the worst. ‘But revenge isn’t the only possibility left to you.’ He recognised in her the same look he had seen in Raffaele Altieri’s eyes when he shot his father, the same determination Pietro Zini had shown when he had executed Federico Noni instead of turning him in to the police. This time, too, it was all pointless – the door of the bathroom would open and Camilla would pull the trigger.
They saw the handle turning. The light inside went off and the door opened wide. The girl screamed from the bed. The target appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a snow-white dressing gown, he stared at the barrel of the gun in sudden confusion, and his icy eyes melted in an instant. But he wasn’t an old man of seventy.
He was a boy of fifteen.
There was confusion and dismay all round. Marcus looked at Camilla, who stared at the boy. ‘Where’s Astor Goyash?’ she asked.
He replied in such a thin voice that they couldn’t make out what he was saying.
‘Where’s Astor Goyash?’ Camilla repeated angrily, brandishing the gun in his direction.
The boy said, ‘I’m Astor Goyash.’
‘No, you aren’t,’ she replied, disbelieving.
‘You must mean my grandfather … My birthday party’s upstairs, he’s there now.’
Camilla realised her mistake and for a moment she looked unsteady on her feet. Marcus took advantage of this to go to her, put his hand on the gun,
Camilla was thinking about this when she stopped suddenly. She had noticed something.
Marcus followed the direction of her gaze and saw that she was again looking at the boy, staring at his bare chest as revealed by the opening of his dressing gown. She advanced and he retreated, until he found himself with his back to the wall. Camilla gently moved aside the lapels, uncovering the long scar on his chest.
A shiver went through Marcus, taking his breath away for a moment. My God, what did they do?
Three years earlier, Astor Goyash’s grandson had been the same age as Filippo Rocca. Alberto Canestrari was a surgeon. He had killed Filippo on commission in order to procure a heart for this boy.
Camilla couldn’t have known that, Marcus told himself. But some premonition, maternal instinct, a sixth sense – had driven her to make that gesture, even though she didn’t seem to fully understand why.
She put her hand on the boy’s chest, and he let her. She stood there, feeling the throb of that heart. A sound coming from another place, another life.
Camilla and the boy looked at each other. Was she looking for something deep in his eyes, a light that told her that her son was still there? Or perhaps the revelation that Filippo, too, could somehow see her at that moment?
Marcus didn’t know, but he realised that the only evidence that could link old Astor Goyash to the child’s death was encased in his grandson’s chest. A biopsy taken from the boy’s heart and a DNA comparison with Filippo’s family, and they could nail him. But Marcus was not sure that such justice would be any consolation to this poor mother. The grief would be agonising. So he decided to keep silent. All he wanted right now was to take Camilla out of the room. The woman had another child to think about now.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes