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The lost girls of rome, p.34
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.34

           Donato Carrisi
 

  He summoned the courage to break the contact between her and young Goyash. He took her by the shoulders with the intention of leading her to the door.

  She gently removed her palm from the boy’s chest, as if in a last farewell.

  Then she walked to the door with Marcus. They went along the corridor, heading for the lift. Unexpectedly, Camilla now turned to her saviour and seemed to see him for the first time. ‘I know you. You’re a priest, aren’t you?’

  Marcus was taken aback and didn’t know what to reply. He simply nodded, waiting for the rest.

  ‘He told me about you,’ she went on.

  Realising that she was referring to the mystery penitenziere, Marcus let her continue.

  ‘A week ago on the telephone he told me I would meet you here.’ Camilla tilted her head and looked at him with a strange expression: she seemed to be afraid for him. ‘He asked me to tell you that the two of you will meet where it all began. But this time you’ll have to look for the devil.’

  10.07 p.m.

  She had caught the number 52 bus from the terminus in the Piazza San Silvestro, and got off near the Via Paisiello. There she had taken the 911 to the Piazza Euclide. She had gone down into the station and caught the local train from Viterbo to Rome, which at that point went underground, connecting the northern zone of the city with the centre. She had got off at the only stop on that stretch of the line, Piazza Flaminio, and changed to the Metro in the direction of Anagnina. Getting off at Furio Camillo, she had come back out on to the surface and called a taxi.

  Each transfer had taken only a few minutes and the route had been dictated by chance, just to throw any possible pursuers off the scent.

  Sandra didn’t trust Schalber. He had shown a certain skill in predicting her moves. Although he had managed to escape on the way out of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, she was sure he must still be lurking somewhere, trying to get back on her trail. But the tricks she had adopted should have been sufficient to throw him off. Because she still had one more thing to do tonight before she went back to her hotel.

  She had to pay a visit to a new acquaintance.

  The taxi dropped her in front of the main entrance of the Gemelli hospital. Sandra followed the signs until she reached the small building that housed intensive care – the department that the staff of the Gemelli knew as ‘the border’.

  She went through the first door, a sliding one, and found herself in a waiting room with four rows of plastic chairs, one joined to the other, as blue as the walls that surrounded them. Even the heaters were the same colour, as well as the coats of the doctors and nurses, and even the drinking water dispenser. The effect was an incomprehensible monotony of colour.

  The second door was a security door. To get to the heart of the building – intensive care – you had to have a special magnetic card that opened the lock electronically. There was a policeman on guard here, a reminder that the department housed a number of dangerous individuals, even though they were currently unable to harm anyone. Sandra flashed her badge at her colleague, and a nurse showed her the procedure for visitors, making her put on overshoes, a white coat and a cap. Then she activated the door to admit her.

  The long corridor that stretched out ahead of her reminded her at first of an aquarium, like the one in Genoa she had visited a couple of times with David. She loved fish, she could watch them for hours, letting herself be hypnotised by their movements. In front of her now she had a series of goldfish bowls, which were in fact the recovery rooms, each behind a glass partition. The lights were low, and there was a strange silence over everything. If you listened hard, you realised that it was in fact made up of sounds. As quiet as breathing and as rhythmic and constant as a submerged heartbeat.

  The place seemed to be asleep.

  She walked along the linoleum floor of the corridor and came to the nurses’ station, where two nurses sat in the gloom in front of a console, their faces reflecting the gleam of the monitors tracking the patients’ vital signs. Behind them, a young doctor was sitting at a steel desk, writing.

  Two nurses and a doctor: that was all the staff needed to keep an eye on the ward at night. Sandra introduced herself and asked for directions, which they gave her.

  As she passed the goldfish bowls, she looked at the men inside them, lying in their beds as if swimming in a sea of silence.

  She headed for the last of them. As she approached it, she realised that someone was watching her from the other side. A short young woman, about the same age as her, in a white coat, stood up and came to the door. There were six beds in the room, only one of which was occupied. By Jeremiah Smith. He was intubated and his chest rose and fell regularly. He looked much older than his fifty years.

  The young woman looked straight at the newcomer. Seeing her face, Sandra had a sense of déjà vu. After a moment, she remembered where she had seen her before, and the memory sent a shiver through her. The monster was being visited by the ghost of one of his victims.

  ‘Teresa,’ she said.

  The young woman smiled. ‘I’m Monica, her twin sister.’

  This wasn’t just the sister of one of the poor innocents killed by Jeremiah, this was also the doctor who had saved his life.

  ‘My name’s Sandra Vega, I’m with the police.’ She held out her hand.

  Monica shook it. ‘Is this the first time you’ve come here?’

  ‘Is it that obvious?’

  ‘Yes, from the way you were looking at him.’

  Sandra turned to look at Jeremiah Smith again. ‘Why, how was I looking at him?’

  ‘I don’t know. Maybe the way you’d look at a goldfish in an aquarium.’

  Sandra shook her head, amused.

  ‘Did I say something wrong?’

  ‘No, nothing. Don’t worry.’

  ‘I come here every evening. Before starting the night shift or when I’ve finished the day shift. I stay here for fifteen minutes, then go. I don’t know why I do it. I want to, and that’s it.’

  Sandra admired Monica’s courage. ‘Why did you save him?’

  ‘Why do all of you ask me the same thing?’ Monica retorted, although not in an unpleasant way. ‘The right question should be: why didn’t I let him die? They’re two different things, don’t you think?’

  ‘Yes.’ She hadn’t thought of it that way.

  ‘If you asked me whether I’d like to kill him now, I’d reply that I’d do it if I didn’t fear the consequences. But what would have been the point of letting him die without intervening? A normal person getting to the end of his life should pass away naturally. He’s not a normal person. He doesn’t deserve it. My sister didn’t get that chance.’

  Sandra was forced to reflect. She was looking for David’s killer, and she kept telling herself that it was in order to get at the truth, to find some meaning in her husband’s death. To get justice. But how would she have behaved in Monica’s place?

  ‘No,’ Monica continued, ‘my greatest revenge is to see him in that bed. No trial, no jury. No law, no technicalities. No psychiatric reports, no extenuating circumstances. True revenge is in knowing that he’ll stay like this, imprisoned in himself. That’s a prison he certainly won’t escape from. And I’ll be able to come and see him every day, look him in the face and tell myself that justice has been done.’ She turned to Sandra. ‘How many of those who’ve lost loved ones through other people’s wickedness have been granted the same privilege?’

  ‘Yes, you’re right.’

  ‘I was the one who gave him cardiac massage. I put my hands on his chest, on those words … Kill me.’ She choked back her revulsion. ‘The smell of his faeces, his urine, was on my clothes, his saliva was on my fingers.’ She paused. ‘In my job, you see many things. Illness is a great leveller. But the truth is that we doctors don’t save anyone. Each person saves himself. Choosing the right life to lead, the right path to go down. For all of us, the time comes when we’re covered in faeces and urine. And it’s sad if we don’t discover who we a
re until that day.’

  Sandra was surprised at so much wisdom. And yet Monica was more or less her age and seemed quite fragile. She wished she could stay and listen to her some more.

  But Monica looked at her watch. ‘I’m sorry I’ve kept you. I’d better go, my shift will be starting soon.’

  ‘It was a pleasure to meet you. I’ve learned a lot from you tonight.’

  Monica smiled. ‘Even slaps in the face teach you to grow, as my father always says.’

  Sandra watched her as she walked away down the deserted corridor. Once again an idea materialised in her head. But she continued to dismiss it. She was convinced that Schalber had killed her husband. And she had slept with him. But she had needed those caresses. David would have understood.

  She took a mask from a sterile container and put it on, then went through the door into that little hell that contained only one damned soul.

  She counted the steps as she approached Jeremiah Smith’s bed. Six. No, seven. She stared at him. The goldfish was within reach. His eyes were closed, surrounded by an icy indifference. The man was no longer in a position to arouse either fear or compassion.

  There was an armchair next to the bed. Sandra sat down in it. She placed her elbows on her knees, put her fingers together, and leaned towards him. She would have liked to read his mind, to understand what had driven him to evil. When you came down to it, that was what the penitenzieri’s work consisted of: scrutinising the human heart in search of the underlying motives for every act. She, on the other hand, as a forensic photographer, examined the outward signs, the wounds that evil left on the world.

  She was reminded of the dark photograph in the roll from the Leica.

  That’s my limit, she told herself. Without that image, irretrievably lost perhaps because of an error as it was being taken, she couldn’t go any further along the path indicated to her by David.

  God alone knew what there had been in that photograph.

  Outward appearances were her source of information, but they were also her limitation. She realised how much good it would do her for once to be able to look inside and draw everything out, trying to find a path to forgiveness. If nothing else, a confession would be liberating. That was why, suddenly, she started talking to Jeremiah Smith. ‘I want to tell you a story about a green tie.’ She didn’t know why she had said it, it had simply come out. ‘It all goes back to a few weeks before my husband was killed. David had come back from a long assignment abroad. That evening seemed like all the other times we saw each other after a long absence. We celebrated, just the two of us. The rest of the world was shut out, and we were the last two members of the human race. Do you know what I mean, have you ever felt that?’ She shook her head, amused. ‘No, of course not. But that evening, for the first time since we had known each other, I had to pretend to love him. David asked me a routine question. ‘How are you, everything all right?’ How many times we ask each other that every day, and we never expect to get an honest answer. But when I told him that everything was fine, it wasn’t just a polite phrase: it was a lie … A few days earlier I had been in hospital having an abortion.’ Sandra could feel the tears welling up in her eyes, but she held them back. ‘We had everything it takes to be fantastic parents: we loved each other, we were sure of each other. But he was a reporter, always off photographing wars, revolutions and massacres. I was a policewoman working for forensics. You can’t bring a child into the world if your work makes you risk your life, as was the case with David, or if you see all the things I’m forced to see, every day, at crime scenes. All that violence, all that fear: that wasn’t good for a child.’ She said this with great conviction, and without a trace of regret. ‘And that’s my sin. I’ll carry it with me as long as I live. But what I can’t forgive myself is that I didn’t allow David to have a say in the matter. I took advantage of his absence to decide.’ Sandra gave a sad smile. ‘When I got back home after the abortion, I found in the bathroom the pregnancy test I had done on my own. My child, or the thing they had pulled out of me – I don’t know what it was after barely a month – had stayed in that hospital. I’d felt it die inside me, and then I’d left it there alone. That’s terrible, don’t you think? In any case, I thought that creature deserved at least a funeral. So I took a box and in it I put the pregnancy test and a series of objects that had belonged to its mother and father. Among them, David’s only tie. The green one. Then I drove from Milan to Tellaro, the village in Liguria where we used to spend our holidays. And I threw everything in the sea.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I never told anyone. And it seems absurd that you should be the person I’m telling it to. But now comes the good part. Because I was convinced that I’d be the only one to pay the price for what I’d done. Instead of which, without knowing it, I’d brought about a disaster that couldn’t be remedied. I didn’t realise until later, when it was too late. Together with the love I could have felt for my child, I’d also thrown away the love I felt for David.’ She wiped away a tear. ‘It just didn’t work: I kissed him, I caressed him, I made love with him and I didn’t feel anything. The nest that child had started to build inside me in order to survive had become a void. I only started loving my husband again when he was dead.’

  She crossed her arms over her chest, and bowed her head. Sunk in that uncomfortable position, she started to sob. The tears came out of her in one great uninterrupted flow. But it was liberating. She couldn’t stop. It lasted a few minutes, then, as she blew her nose and tried to compose herself, she laughed at herself. She was exhausted. But, incomprehensibly, she felt good here. Another five minutes, she told herself, only five. The regular beep of the cardiograph connected to Jeremiah Smith’s chest, the cadence of the respirator that was keeping him alive, worked their hypnotic, relaxing spell on her. She closed her eyes for a moment and, without realising it, fell asleep. She saw David. His smile. His dishevelled hair. His kindly eyes. That grimace he made whenever he found her looking a bit sad or thoughtful, jutting out his lower lip and tilting his head to the side. David took her face in his hands and pulled her to him to give her one of his long kisses. ‘It’s all right, Ginger.’ She felt relieved, at peace. Then he waved at her and walked away. Dancing and singing their song: ‘Cheek to Cheek’. Even though the voice seemed like David’s, in her dream Sandra didn’t know that it belonged to someone else. And that it was quite real.

  Someone was singing in the room.

  10.17 p.m.

  After seeing Camilla Rocca unexpectedly place her hand on the chest of the boy who had inherited her son’s heart, Marcus, for the first time, sensed an invisible, compassionate force intervening in his life. We are so insignificant in the immensity of the universe that we don’t seem to deserve the privilege of a God who might be interested in us. That was what he had always told himself. But now he was changing his mind.

  We will meet where it all began.

  He would see his antagonist face to face. He would receive the prize of Lara’s salvation.

  And the place where it had all begun was Jeremiah Smith’s villa.

  He parked the Panda outside the main gate. There were no longer any policemen guarding the entrance, and the forensics team had moved out a little while earlier. The place was desolate and melancholy, just as it must have been before it had revealed its secret. Marcus walked towards the house. Only the full moon fought the power of darkness.

  The trees in the drive swayed in the cool night breeze. The rustling leaves were like fleeting laughter, mocking him as he passed then fading behind him. The statues that adorned the untended garden stared at him with their empty eyes.

  He reached the villa. Seals had been placed on its doors and windows. He wasn’t actually expecting the penitenziere to be waiting for him here. The mandate in the message was clear.

  This time you’ll have to look for the devil.

  This was his last test. In return, he would obtain the answers.

  Did those words mean that he would have to look for a super
natural sign? But he told himself once again that the penitenzieri were not interested in the existence of the devil, in fact they were the only people in the Church to doubt it. They had always considered him a convenient pretext, invented by human beings to evade responsibility for their own sins and to absolve the defects of their own nature.

  The devil only exists because men are wicked.

  He removed the seals from the door and entered the house. The moonlight did not follow him inside, but stopped at the threshold. There were no noises or presences.

  He took the torch from his pocket and made his way along the dark corridor. He recalled his first visit, when he had followed the trail of the numbers behind the paintings. And yet he must have missed something if the penitenziere had wanted him to come back. He pushed on as far as the room where Jeremiah Smith had been found dying.

  The devil doesn’t live here any more, he told himself.

  A few things were missing from the previous time. The overturned table, the broken cup and the crumbs had been removed by forensics. Along with the materials – sterile gloves, pieces of gauze, syringes and cannulas – used by the ambulance crew when they had tried to revive him. Also gone were the souvenirs – the hair ribbon, the coral bracelet, the pink scarf and the roller skate – with which the monster had invoked the ghosts of his young victims to keep him company during his long nights of solitude.

  But if the objects were gone, the questions remained.

  How had Jeremiah Smith – a limited, antisocial man, devoid of any kind of attraction – managed to gain the trust of these girls? Where had he kept them prisoner for a month before killing them? Where was Lara?

  Marcus avoided asking himself if she was still alive. He had carried out his own task with the greatest devotion, so he wouldn’t accept a different outcome.

  He looked around. Anomalies. The sign isn’t supernatural, he told himself, but some detail that only a man of faith could recognise. This time he had to call on a talent he was afraid he didn’t possess.

 
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