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The lost girls of rome, p.36
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.36

           Donato Carrisi
 

  ‘So if I kill you now, I’ll save this woman’s life and lose Lara.’ Marcus was starting to understand. ‘If I don’t, you’ll tell me where Lara is, but then you’ll shoot the woman. In either case, I’m done for. I’m your true victim. The two choices are actually equivalent: you’re trying to demonstrate that only by doing evil can we do good.’

  ‘Good always has a price, Marcus. Evil comes free.’

  Sandra was horrified. But she had no desire to be a simple spectator in this absurd situation. ‘Let this bastard kill me,’ she said. ‘And then make him tell you where Lara is. She’s pregnant.’ Jeremiah hit her with the grip of his gun.

  ‘Don’t touch her,’ Marcus said, threateningly.

  ‘Good, I like you that way. I want to see you react. Anger is the first step.’

  Marcus hadn’t known that Lara was pregnant. The revelation shook him.

  Jeremiah noticed. ‘Is it harder to see someone killed in front of your eyes, or to know that someone else is already dying far from here? The policewoman or Lara and the child she is carrying? You decide.’

  Marcus had to gain time. It wasn’t impossible that the police might arrive. What would happen then? Jeremiah had nothing to lose. ‘If I let you shoot the policewoman, how do I know you’ll then tell me where Lara is? The fact is, you could still kill both of them. Maybe you’re hoping that, by doing that, you’ll arouse my anger and force me to take revenge. Then you really will have won.’

  Jeremiah winked at him. ‘I did an excellent job with you, there’s no denying it.’

  Marcus didn’t understand. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Think, Marcus. What led you to me?’

  ‘The succinylcholine that Alberto Canestrari injected into himself: you got your idea from the last case.’

  ‘Only from that? Are you sure?’

  Marcus was forced to reflect.

  ‘Come on, don’t disappoint me. Think of the words I have on my chest.’

  Kill me. What was he trying to tell him?

  ‘I’ll give you a little help: a while ago I decided to reveal the secrets of our archive to relatives and friends of the victims of crimes still officially unsolved but that I had solved. I practically handed them the results of the investigations on a plate. But then it occurred to me that, as I, too, had committed crimes, I had to grant the same chance to those I had made suffer. That was the reason for all that performance with the ambulance, the simulated heart attack. If instead of taking care of me the young doctor had let me die, I would have paid my debt. Instead of which Teresa’s sister chose to let me live.’

  It hadn’t been a great choice, Sandra told herself. The evil Monica had avoided doing had found another way to manifest itself. That was why they were here, because Monica had been good. It was absurd.

  ‘And yet it was so obvious that I’d arranged everything. I’d even written it on me to avoid there being any ambiguity … But no one knew how to read the words. What does that remind you of?’

  Marcus made an effort to remember. ‘The murder of Valeria Altieri. The word written in blood behind the bed. “Evil”.’

  ‘Good,’ Jeremiah said, looking pleased. ‘Everybody read it as “Evil”, but it was actually “Live”. They were looking for a sect, because of the triangular symbol traced in the victim’s blood on the carpet, and nobody realised it was the base of a video camera. The answer is always in front of our eyes – Kill me. And nobody ever sees it. Nobody wants to see it.’

  Marcus realised now what had inspired this absurd plan. ‘The case of Federico Noni. Everybody saw a boy in a wheelchair, nobody could imagine he was his sister’s killer – because he couldn’t walk. It was the same with you: a man in a coma, apparently harmless. Only one policeman to guard you. After ruling out a heart attack, none of the doctors could figure out what it was you had. Instead of which you were under the effects of the succinylcholine, which would soon wear off.’

  ‘It’s pity that messes things up for us, Marcus. If Pietro Zini hadn’t had pity on Federico Noni, he’d have caught him immediately. If this policewoman hadn’t felt pity for me, she wouldn’t have told me about the time she aborted her child. And now she’s worried that Lara is pregnant.’ He laughed derisively.

  ‘You bastard. I didn’t feel any pity for you.’ In the position she was in, Sandra’s back hurt. But she kept on calculating how to get out of this. She could take advantage of a moment when Jeremiah was distracted and try to throw herself on him. At that point, Marcus – that was the penitenziere’s name, now she knew it – might be able to disarm him. Then they would beat the monster until he revealed to them where Lara was.

  ‘I haven’t learned anything from you,’ Marcus replied.

  ‘Subconsciously, you’ve absorbed all these lessons. That’s how you got here. Now it’s up to you to decide if you want to go further.’ He looked at him solemnly. ‘Kill me.’

  ‘I’m not a killer.’

  ‘Are you sure? To recognise evil, you have to have it inside you. You’re exactly like me. So look inside yourself and you’ll understand.’ Jeremiah moved the barrel of his gun so that he had a better aim at Sandra’s head, at the same time putting his other arm behind his back and assuming a martial pose. An executioner ready to strike. ‘Now I’ll count to three. You don’t have much time.’

  Marcus raised his gun and aimed at Jeremiah: he was a perfect target, from that distance he could easily hit him. But first he looked again at the woman: he realised she was going to try and free herself. He just had to wait for her to make a move, then he would shoot Jeremiah without killing him.

  ‘One.’

  Sandra didn’t give him time to count: she leapt to her feet, knocking the gun out of Jeremiah’s hand with her shoulder. But no sooner had she made the first move towards Marcus than she felt a spasm in her back. She thought she had been hit, but she still managed to reach Marcus and take cover behind him. That was when she realised she hadn’t heard a shot. She immediately lifted her hand to her back and felt the object stuck between her ribs. She recognised it.

  ‘My God.’

  It was a syringe.

  Jeremiah was roaring with laughter, rocking back and forth on the edge of the bed. ‘Succinylcholine,’ he said.

  Marcus stared at the hand Jeremiah had abruptly taken from behind his back. He had even foreseen the policewoman’s move.

  ‘Incredible what you can find in a hospital, isn’t it?’

  He had prepared it after shooting the policeman guarding the door, that was why she had found him in front of the storage room. Sandra realised it too late. She felt first a numbness in her limbs, which quickly spread to her throat. She couldn’t move her head and her legs yielded. She was on the ground. Her body was convulsing, without her being able to control it. She couldn’t breathe. It felt as if there was no more air in the room. Just like in an aquarium, she thought, remembering the comparison she had made on first entering this place. But there was no water around her. It was quite simply that she was out of oxygen.

  Marcus threw himself on the woman: she was flailing and turning cyanotic. He did not know how to help her.

  Jeremiah pointed to the rubber tube next to the bed. ‘To save her you have to put this in her throat. Or else give the alarm, but first you’d have to kill me, otherwise I won’t let you.’

  Marcus looked at the gun he had placed on the ground.

  ‘She has four minutes, maybe five. After the first three, the brain damage will be irreversible. Remember, Marcus: on the border between good and evil there is a mirror. If you look into it, you will discover the truth. Because you, too—’

  The gunshot interrupted the sentence. Jeremiah fell back with his arms open wide and his head thrown over the side of the bed.

  After pressing the trigger, Marcus lost interest in him and the gun he was still clutching in his fist and concentrated instead on the woman. ‘Please hold on.’ He went to the door and pressed the lever to raise the fire alarm. It was the quickest way to
get help.

  Sandra didn’t understand what was going on. She could feel herself losing consciousness. Her lungs were burning and she couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out. Everything was happening inside her.

  Marcus knelt and took her hand. He felt powerless to help her in her silent battle.

  ‘Out of my way!’

  The commanding voice came from behind him. He did as he was told and saw a short young woman in a white coat grab Sandra by the arms and drag her to the nearest empty bed. He helped her by lifting Sandra’s feet. They laid her down.

  The young woman took a laryngoscope from an emergency trolley, put it into Sandra’s throat, and calmly inserted a tube that she then connected to the respirator. With a stethoscope, she listened to her chest. ‘Her heartbeat’s getting back to normal,’ she said, ‘maybe we’ve been in time.’ She turned towards the lifeless body of Jeremiah Smith and looked at the bullet hole on his temple, then at the scar on Marcus’s temple, struck by the unusual similarity.

  Only then did he recognise her. It was Monica, Teresa’s sister. This time she had saved Sandra’s life.

  ‘Get out of here,’ she said to him.

  Marcus didn’t immediately react.

  ‘Get out,’ she repeated. ‘Nobody would understand why you shot him.’

  Marcus still hesitated.

  ‘Although I do,’ she added.

  He turned again to Sandra, who in the meantime was getting some colour back in her face. He even saw a gleam in her wide-open eyes. He agreed to go. He stroked her arm and walked away towards a service exit.

  ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT

  The sun was setting over Chernobyl.

  The nuclear plant, stretching placidly beside the river, was a smoking volcano. In reality, however spent and harmless it might appear, it was more alive and lethal than ever, and would continue to spread death and deformity for thousands of years to come.

  From the road the hunter had a good view of the reactors, including number four, responsible for the greatest nuclear disaster in history, now wrapped in its fragile sarcophagus of lead and reinforced concrete.

  The asphalt was full of holes and the suspension on his old Volvo groaned with every jolt. He continued across a vast area that was home to luxuriant woods. After the accident, because of the radioactive wind, the trees had changed colour. The people of the place, still unaware of what was really happening, had dubbed it the Red Forest.

  The silent apocalypse had begun on 24 April 1986, at 1.23 in the morning.

  At first the authorities had downplayed what had happened, trying naively to cover it all up. They were more worried about the news spreading than about the health of the population. The evacuation of the area did not begin until thirty-six hours after the incident.

  The city of Prypiat was not far from the reactors. The hunter saw its spectral profile appear through the windscreen. Not a light, not a sign of life between the tall concrete buildings, which had been constructed at the same time as the plant. In the year it had been abandoned, it had had 47,000 inhabitants: a modern city with cafés, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, sports centres and two good hospitals. The living conditions had been better than in many other places in the country.

  Now it was a grim black-and-white postcard.

  A small fox crossed the street, and the hunter had to brake in order not to run it over. Nature had taken advantage of the absence of man, and many animal and vegetable species had reclaimed the habitat for themselves. Paradoxically, it had become a kind of paradise on earth. But no one could predict what would happen in the future, because of the long-term effects of radiation.

  The hunter had a Geiger counter on the seat next to him. It continued to emit a rhythmical electrical sound, like a coded message from another dimension. He did not have much time. He should have bribed a Ukrainian official to obtain a pass to the exclusion zone, which extended for a distance of nineteen miles around the now disused plant. He had to take advantage of the dusk to complete his investigation. And it would soon be dark.

  He started coming across abandoned military vehicles at the side of the road. There were hundreds of trucks, helicopters, tanks and other forms of transport that had been used by the army when it had intervened to contain the emergency. By the end of the operation the vehicles were so contaminated that they had simply been left here.

  A rusty sign in Cyrillic lettering welcomed him to the city.

  On the outskirts was an amusement park where the children had continued to play the day after the accident. It had been the first place to be hit by the radioactive cloud. There was the big wheel, now a skeleton rusted by acid rain.

  A few concrete blocks had been placed in the middle of the road to prevent access to Prypiat. On the barbed wire hung danger signs. The hunter stopped the car, intending to continue on foot. He took a bag from the boot and swung it over his shoulder. Clutching the Geiger counter, he ventured into the ghost city.

  His entry was greeted by the chirping of birds. The sound, along with that of his footsteps, echoed down the avenues lined with buildings. The raw daylight was fading fast, and it was getting colder. Every now and again he thought he heard voices echoing down the empty streets. Auditory mirages, or maybe old sounds imprisoned forever in a place where time no longer had any meaning.

  Wolves wandered among the ruins. He could hear them, or sense their presence as grey patches. They were keeping their distance for now, but they were watching him.

  He checked the map he had brought with him and then looked around. Each building was marked with a number painted in white on the facade. The one that interested him was Block 109.

  Dima Karolyszin and his parents had once lived on the eleventh floor.

  Hunters know that you have to start the investigation not with the last murder in a series, but the first. Because the murderer has not yet learned from experience and is much more likely to have made mistakes. The first victim is a kind of ground zero, the starting point for an unstoppable chain of destruction, and through him or her many things can be learned about a serial killer.

  As far as the hunter knew, Dima had been the first subject whose identity the transformist had absorbed, when he was just eight years old, before he was taken to the orphanage in Kiev.

  He had to take the stairs because there was no energy to work the lift. And yet, paradoxically, these places were saturated with energy in the form of radiation. The Geiger counter experienced a surge. The hunter knew that it was much more dangerous indoors than in the open air. Radioactivity clustered around objects.

  As he climbed, he could see what remained of the deserted apartments. What had been spared by the scavengers gave a clear picture of the domestic scenes interrupted at the time of the evacuation. An abandoned meal. An unfinished chess game. Clothes left to dry over a heater. An unmade bed. The town was a huge collective memory where every person who had fled had left his or her own memories for safekeeping. The photograph albums, the most intimate and precious things, the family heirlooms: all waiting for a return that would never happen. Everything had been left hanging. Like an empty stage set at the end of a play, when the actors depart, revealing that it has all been make-believe. Like a trick of time. A sad allegory of life and death combined. Of what had been and would never be again.

  According to the experts, it would be another hundred thousand years before human beings could safely set foot in Prypiat.

  As soon as he entered the Karolyszins’ apartment, the hunter noticed that it was almost intact. The narrow corridor led to three rooms, plus kitchen and bathroom. The wallpaper had peeled off in several places. Damp had gained the upper hand. Dust covered everything like a transparent curtain. The hunter started to walk through the rooms.

  Konstantin and Anya’s bedroom was perfectly neat and tidy. All their clothes were still in the wardrobe.

  In Dima’s little bedroom, there was a camp bed next to the main bed.

  In the kitchen, the table was laid for four.
r />   In the living room, there were empty vodka bottles. The hunter knew why. When the news of the accident had reached the town, the sanitary authorities spread the false information that alcohol would weaken the radiation. In reality, it was a surreptitious way of sapping the will of the population and preventing protests. On the table, once again, the hunter counted four glasses. The repetition of that number could mean only one thing.

  The Karolyszins had had a guest.

  The hunter looked at a framed photograph of the family that stood on a cabinet. A woman, a man and a child.

  Their faces had been erased.

  Turning back, he noticed that there were four pairs of shoes next to the entrance. A man’s, a woman’s and two children’s.

  He put together these details and deduced that the transformist had come to this apartment in the hours immediately following the accident at the plant. The Karolyszins, unaware of who he was, had given him hospitality. In that time of fear and agitation, they hadn’t had the heart to hand over a lonely, frightened child to the authorities.

  They could hardly have imagined what kind of monster they were welcoming into their home. So they had given him a hot meal and let him sleep in the same room as Dima. Then something must have happened. Maybe during the night. The Karolyszin family had vanished into thin air and the transformist had taken Dima’s place.

 
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