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The lost girls of rome, p.35
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.35

           Donato Carrisi
 

  His eyes roamed the room, looking for anything that stood out. A small crack that led into another dimension. The breach utilised by evil to spread.

  There is a place where the world of light meets the world of darkness … I am the guardian appointed to defend that border. But every now and again something manages to get through.

  His eyes came to rest on the window. Beyond it, the moon was showing him the way.

  The stone angel, unfolding its wings and looking in his direction. Summoning him.

  It was in the middle of the garden, together with the other statues. According to the Scriptures, Lucifer was an angel before he fell. The Lord’s favourite. Remembering that, Marcus ran outside.

  He stopped in front of the tall figure, which was lit by a pale glimmer of moonlight.

  The police hadn’t noticed a thing, he told himself, examining the ground at the foot of the angel. If there’s something under here, the dogs ought to have scented it. But because of the persistent rain of the last few days the odours given off by the earth might have confused the animals’ sense of smell.

  Marcus put his hands on the base of the statue, pushed it, and the angel moved, revealing beneath it an iron trapdoor. It was not locked. All he had to do was lift the handle.

  Darkness. A strong smell of damp rose like a fetid breath from that hole. Marcus aimed his torch: six steps led to the abyss. No voice, though. No noise.

  ‘Lara!’ he called. Then three more times. Then once again. But there was no answer.

  He went down the steps.

  The beam of light illumined a narrow space, with a low ceiling and a tiled floor that dipped at a certain point. It must have been a swimming pool once, but somebody had turned it into a secret room.

  Marcus moved his torch around in search of a human presence. He feared now that he would find merely a silent corpse. But Lara was not here.

  Only a chair.

  That was another reason the dogs didn’t scent anything, he told himself. But it was here that Jeremiah brought them. This was the lair where he kept them prisoner for a month before killing them. There were no chains on the walls, no devices for giving vent to his sadistic impulses, no alcoves in which to have sex. No torture, no violence, Marcus reminded himself: Jeremiah didn’t touch them. Everything was reduced to that chair. Next to it was the rope he used to tie them up and a tray with the knife, some eight inches long, with which he cut their throats. That was the extent of his perverted imagination.

  Marcus went closer to the chair and saw that there was a closed envelope on it. He picked it up and opened it. Inside were the original plans of Lara’s apartment, including the location of the trapdoor in the bathroom, a list of her movements and timetable, notes that mentioned the plan to hide the drug in the sugar, and finally a photograph of Lara smiling. Over her face, a question mark had been scrawled in red. You’re mocking me, Marcus said to himself, addressing the penitenziere. The contents of the envelope were incontrovertible evidence that Jeremiah really had taken the girl.

  But of Lara herself there was no trace. Nor of his mysterious companion who had led him here.

  Marcus was seething with rage. The penitenziere had failed at his task. He cursed him, and cursed himself. The mockery was unbearable. He didn’t want to stay a moment longer in this place. He turned to go out again, but the torch slipped from his hands. As it fell, it lit up something behind him.

  Someone was in the corner.

  He had been watching the scene. And he wasn’t moving. In the beam of light, all that could be seen was the outline of an arm, clad in black. Marcus bent down to pick up the torch and slowly lifted it to the stranger.

  It wasn’t a person, but a priest’s cassock on a hanger.

  Everything suddenly became clear. That was how Jeremiah Smith had approached his victims. The girls had not feared him because they had seen, not a monster, but a man of the cloth.

  One of the pockets of the cassock was bulging. Marcus approached and put his hand in. He took out a small medicine bottle and a hypodermic syringe – succinylcholine.

  He hadn’t been mistaken. And yet the objects in that pocket told a different story.

  Jeremiah did it all himself.

  He had known that the sister of one of his victims was on duty that night. So he had called the emergency number describing the symptoms of a heart attack. He had waited for the arrival of the paramedics before he injected the poison. He could even have thrown the syringe in a corner of the room or under a piece of furniture: the ambulance team in their excitement wouldn’t have noticed and forensics would have confused it with the waste material left by the doctor and paramedic after their intervention.

  He didn’t disguise himself as a priest. He is a priest.

  The beginning of his plan must have gone back to about a week earlier, when he had sent the anonymous notes to those involved in the murder of Valeria Altieri. Then he had sent the email that had informed Pietro Zini about the Figaro case. And then he had called Camilla Rocca to inform her that Astor Goyash would be at the Hotel Exedra a few days later.

  He is the penitenziere.

  All the time they had had him in front of their eyes without knowing who he really was. Just like Dr Alberto Canestrari, Jeremiah had simulated a natural death with the succinylcholine. No toxicological test would locate it. All you needed was a one-milligram dose to block the respiratory muscles. A few minutes and you choked to death, as had happened with Canestrari. The drug provoked immediate bodily paralysis, leaving no room for second thoughts.

  But Canestrari hadn’t planned for any ambulance team to come to his aid. Whereas Jeremiah had.

  What do the police see? A serial killer who no longer constitutes a threat. What do the doctors see? A patient in a coma. What did Marcus see?

  Anomalies.

  Sooner or later, the effects of the succinylcholine would wear off. At any moment Jeremiah Smith would wake up.

  11.59 p.m.

  Forward. Stop. Back. Then again. Forward, stop, turned back.

  In the blue waiting room of the intensive care department, that was the only sound, loud and repetitive. Marcus looked around. The place was deserted. He advanced cautiously towards the source of the noise.

  The sliding security door that led to the department moved forward, suddenly stopped, and turned back. Repeating the same movement over and over, without ever completing it. Something was stopping the door from closing. Marcus approached to see what it was.

  It was a foot.

  The policeman who had been on guard was lying on the floor, face down. Marcus looked at the body – the hands, the blue uniform, the rubber-soled shoes – and realised that something was missing. It was his head, he didn’t have a head. The cranium had exploded after receiving a bullet at point-blank range.

  He’s only the first, Marcus told himself.

  He leaned over the policeman and saw that his belt holster was empty. He uttered a rapid benediction and straightened up again. He walked slowly along the linoleum floor of the corridor, looking at the recovery rooms on either side. The patients all lay on their backs asleep, impassive and unconcerned. The machines were breathing for them. Everything appeared unchanged.

  Marcus moved through that unreal stillness. Hell must be like this, he thought. A place where life is no longer life but nor is it death. Only hope kept it going. It was like a conjuring trick. The essence of the illusion was the question you asked yourself looking at these individuals. Where are they? Because they were here, and yet they weren’t.

  When he got to the nurses’ station, he came across three people who hadn’t been as lucky as the patients they were looking after. Or maybe they had, depending on your point of view.

  The first nurse was lying back on the control console. She had a deep wound in her throat, and the monitors were stained with her blood. The second was lying next to the door. She had tried to run away, but in vain: a bullet had hit her in the chest, sending her flying backwards. At the far en
d of the station, a man in a white coat sat slumped in his chair, his arms dangling, his head thrown back and his eyes staring up at the ceiling.

  The room that housed Jeremiah Smith was the last one at the end. He headed towards it, sure he would find an empty bed.

  ‘Come in.’ The voice that had called to him was low and hoarse, the voice of someone who has been intubated for three days. ‘You’re a penitenziere, aren’t you?’ For a few seconds Marcus was unable to move. Then he pushed on slowly to the open door that awaited him. Passing the glass partition, he saw that the curtains had been drawn. But behind it he could see a shadow in the centre of the room. He took up a position next to the door, in the shelter of the wall.

  ‘Come in. Don’t be afraid.’

  ‘You’re armed,’ Marcus replied. ‘I know, I checked the policeman’s holster.’

  Silence. Then he saw something slide towards his feet through the door. It was a gun.

  ‘Check it: it’s loaded.’

  Taken by surprise, Marcus didn’t know how to react. Why had Smith handed over his gun? It didn’t look as if he was surrendering. This is his game, he remembered. And I have no choice, I have to play it. ‘Does that mean you’re unarmed?’

  The gunshot was deafening. The answer was an eloquent one. He was armed.

  ‘How do I know you won’t shoot me as soon as I come through the door?’

  ‘It’s the only way if you want to save her.’

  ‘Tell me where Lara is.’

  A laugh. ‘I wasn’t actually talking about Lara.’

  Marcus froze. Who was with him? He decided to put his head in for a moment to check.

  Jeremiah Smith was sitting on the bed, wearing a hospital gown that was too short for him. His sparse hair was combed straight across his head. He had the clown-like appearance of someone who had just woken up. With one hand he was scratching his thigh, while with the other he was holding a gun aimed at the back of the neck of a woman kneeling in front of him.

  The policewoman was with him.

  Knowing now where the second gun came from, Marcus stepped forward.

  Sandra had on her wrists the handcuffs Jeremiah had taken from the policeman on guard after shooting him. Like an idiot, she had fallen asleep. She had been woken by three gunshots in rapid succession. She had opened her eyes and immediately searched for her gun in her holster, but it wasn’t there.

  It was only then that she had realised the bed was empty.

  A fourth shot and the whole scene had flashed in front of her eyes, as if she were photographing it with her camera. Jeremiah gets up, steals her gun. He passes the nurses’ station and executes the nurses and doctor on night shift. The policeman at the entrance hears the shots. In the time it takes him to open the security lock, Jeremiah is already at the door. As soon as it opens, he shoots the officer at point-blank range.

  She had rushed out of the room, thinking she could somehow stop him even though she was unarmed. Though she knew it made no sense, she felt in some way responsible for yielding to her fatigue, for not staying alert. But perhaps there was also something else.

  Why didn’t he kill me, too?

  She hadn’t seen him in the corridor. She had rushed to the exit. It was as she passed the room where drugs were stored that she had spotted him. There he was, looking at her with a nasty smile. She had been taken aback. Then he had pointed the gun at her and

  thrown her the handcuffs.

  ‘Put them on, we’re going to have some fun.’

  She had done as she was told and the waiting had begun.

  Now, from the floor of the recovery room, Sandra looked up at

  the priest with the scar on his temple, telling him silently that she

  was fine and he shouldn’t worry. He nodded to let her know that he

  had grasped the message.

  Another laugh from Jeremiah. ‘Well? Happy to see me? I’ve wanted for so long to meet another penitenziere. For a long time I thought I was the only one. I’m sure it was the same for you. What’s your name?’

  Marcus had no desire to grant him any concessions.

  ‘Come on,’ Jeremiah insisted. ‘You know my name. It’s only right I should know the name of the person who’s been so clever as to track me down.’

  ‘Marcus,’ he said, and immediately regretted it. ‘Let the woman go.’

  Jeremiah turned grave. ‘Sorry, Marcus, my friend. She’s part of the plan.’

  ‘What plan?’

  ‘Actually, it was a pleasant surprise to get a visit from her. I had intended to take one of the nurses hostage, but given that she was here … What is it we call them?’ He raised his forefinger to his lip and looked up, pretending that he couldn’t remember. ‘Oh yes: anomalies.’

  Marcus said nothing, refusing to humour him.

  ‘The presence of this young lady is the confirmation that the theory is correct.’

  ‘What theory?’

  ‘“Evil generates evil.” Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?’ He gave a grimace of disapproval. ‘You see, I never expected to meet her. Although I did meet her husband a while back.’

  Sandra raised her eyes to look at him.

  ‘David Leoni was a good reporter, there’s no denying that,’ Jeremiah went on. ‘He had unearthed the story of the penitenzieri. I followed him from a distance, learning a lot from him. It was … instructive getting to know all those details of his private life.’ He looked at Sandra. ‘While your husband was in Rome, I went to Milan to meet you: I got into your apartment, I searched among your things, and you didn’t even notice.’

  Sandra remembered the song sung by the killer on David’s recorder: ‘Cheek to Cheek’. She had always wondered how that monster had managed to learn such a private piece of information.

  Guessing her thoughts, Jeremiah confirmed them. ‘Yes, my dear, I was the one who made an appointment with your husband in that abandoned building site. The fool had been taking precautions, but he trusted me because he believed that all priests, basically, are good. I get the feeling he changed his mind just before he crashed to the ground.’

  Sandra had suspected Schalber. Now the truth hit her. She seethed at the cavalier manner in which Jeremiah dismissed David’s death and the realisation that she had confided her innermost secret to her husband’s killer. He hadn’t been in a coma and had heard the story of the abortion and how it had preyed on her conscience. Having already taken the rest, he now possessed yet another part of her and David.

  ‘He had discovered the penitenzieri’s archive,’ Jeremiah said, in justification. ‘You understand, Marcus, surely? I couldn’t let him live.’

  Now Sandra knew what the motive was, and if the man who was holding a gun at the back of her neck was a penitenziere, then Schalber had been right. He had told her it was one of them who had killed David, and she hadn’t believed him. Over time, evil had corrupted them.

  ‘Anyway, his wife came to Rome to avenge him. But she would never admit it. Isn’t that right, Sandra?’

  She looked at him with hate-filled eyes.

  ‘I could have let you believe it was an accident,’ Jeremiah said. ‘Instead I gave you the opportunity to find out the truth and track me down.’

  ‘Where’s Lara?’ Marcus interrupted him. ‘Is she all right? Is she still alive?’

  ‘When I planned all this I thought you’d come here once you found my hiding place at the villa and ask me that question.’ He paused and smiled at him. ‘Because I know where the girl is.’

  ‘Then tell me.’

  ‘All in good time, my friend. Alternatively, if you hadn’t discovered my plan by tonight, I would have felt perfectly justified in getting up from this bed and disappearing forever.’

  ‘I figured out your plan, I’ve been equal to the task. So why not let this woman go and hand over Lara?’

  ‘Because it’s not as simple as that: you have to make a choice.’

  ‘What choice?’

  ‘I have a gun, you have a gun. You hav
e to decide who will die tonight.’ With the barrel of his gun he stroked Sandra’s head. ‘If you let me shoot the policewoman, I’ll tell you about Lara. On the other hand, if you kill me you’ll save this woman’s life, but you’ll never know what happened to Lara.’

  ‘Why do you want me to kill you?’

  ‘Haven’t you understood yet, Marcus?’

  Jeremiah’s tone and the look in his eyes as he asked this question conveyed an unexpected air of smugness. It was as if he was telling Marcus he really ought to know the answer.

  ‘Why don’t you tell me?’ Marcus retorted.

  ‘That old madman Father Devok had absorbed the lesson of the penitenzieri: he thought that the only way to stop evil was evil itself. But think about it. What presumption! In order to be acquainted with evil, we had to go into its dark territory, explore it from the inside, become one with it. But some of us lost the way back.’

  ‘And that’s what happened to you.’

  ‘And others before me,’ Jeremiah said. ‘I still remember when Devok recruited me. My parents were very religious, that’s where I got my vocation from. I was eighteen, and attending the seminary. Father Devok took me with him, taught me to see the world through the eyes of evil. Then he wiped out my past, my identity, relegating me forever to this ocean of shadows.’ A tear slid down his cheek.

  ‘Why did you start to kill?’

  ‘I always thought I was on the side of the good people. And that this made me better than others.’ There was a sarcastic tone in his voice. ‘But at a certain point I had to be sure it wasn’t all in my mind. The only way was to put it to the test. I kidnapped the first girl and took her to the hiding place. You saw it: there are no instruments of torture, because I couldn’t feel pleasure in what I was doing. I’m not a sadist.’ There seemed to be a touch of sadness in this self-defence. ‘I kept her alive, looking for a good reason to let her go. But every day, I put it off. She’d cry, she’d plead with me to let her go. I gave myself a month to decide. In the end I realised I didn’t feel any compassion. So I killed her.

  ‘But I wasn’t yet satisfied. I continued carrying out my task in the penitenzieri, identifying crimes and criminals, without Devok suspecting anything. I was at one and the same time a just man and a sinner. After a while, I repeated the test with a second girl. And then a third and a fourth. From each of them I took an object, a kind of souvenir, hoping that over time they’d help me develop a sense of guilt for what I’d done. But the result was always the same: I felt no pity. I was so accustomed to evil that I could no longer distinguish between what I was coming across in my investigations and what I was doing myself. And you want to know the absurd conclusion to this story? The more evil I did, the better I became at uncovering it. From that moment on, I saved dozens of lives, foiled many crimes.’ He laughed bitterly.

 
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