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The lost girls of rome, p.37
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.37

           Donato Carrisi
 

  What had become of the bodies? But, above all, who was the child? Where had he sprung from?

  Darkness was already besieging the gates of the city. The hunter took his torch from his bag, intending to leave the building. He would come back the following day, at the same time. He wouldn’t spend the night in this place. As he was getting ready to descend the stairs, another question struck him suddenly.

  Why the Karolyszins?

  He hadn’t thought about it before. The transformist had chosen the family for a reason. It hadn’t been chance.

  Because he hadn’t come a long way. He hadn’t arrived from just anywhere, he must have been very close.

  The hunter turned the beam of his torch towards the door of the apartment next to the Karolyszins’. It was closed.

  A brass plate bore the name Anatoly Petrov.

  He checked the time. Outside it was already dark and he would have to drive with his headlights off anyway in order not to be spotted by the Ukrainian guards who kept watch on the borders of the exclusion zone. So he might as well wait a while longer. The thought that he was close to an answer excited him, making him neglect the most basic precautions.

  He had to know if his intuition concerning Anatoly Petrov was correct.

  YESTERDAY

  4.46 a.m.

  The corpse was weeping.

  This time he didn’t switch on the light next to the bed. Nor did he pick up his felt-tip pen to add another detail on the wall of the attic room in the Via dei Serpenti. He lay there in silence, in the dark, trying to make sense of what he had seen in his dream.

  He went back over the last clues he had brought with him from his nocturnal evocations of what had happened in the hotel room in Prague.

  Broken window. Three shots. Left-handed.

  By inverting them, he reached the solution to the mystery.

  Jeremiah Smith’s last words had been: ‘On the border between good and evil there is a mirror. If you look into it, you will discover the truth.’

  He had found the reason why he hated looking at himself in the mirror so much. One shot each, for him and Devok. But the killer wasn’t left-handed. That was his own reflection. The first shot had shattered the mirror.

  There was no third man. They were alone.

  He had guessed it after what had happened in the intensive therapy department of the Gemelli, when he had fired without hesitation. But certainty had arrived only with the dream, making him revise the end of the scene. He still didn’t know why he was in Prague, or why his master was there, or what they had talked about.

  Marcus knew only that a few hours earlier he had killed Jeremiah Smith. But before him, he had done the same to Devok.

  At dawn the rain had returned, taking over Rome and clearing night from the streets.

  As he wandered through the alleyways of the Regola district, Marcus took shelter under a portico and gazed up at the sky. The rain didn’t look as if it would stop soon. He lifted the collar of his raincoat and continued on his way.

  Reaching the Via Giulia, he entered the church. He had never been here before. Clemente had given him an appointment in the crypt. Descending the stone steps, he immediately realised the peculiarity of the place. It was an underground cemetery.

  Before a Napoleonic decree had established the hygienic rule that the dead had to be buried far from the living, each church had its own graveyard. But the one where they were was different from the others. The fittings – candelabra, decorations, sculptures – were all made of human bones. A skeleton mounted in the wall greeted the faithful who dipped their fingers in a stoup. The bones were divided according to type and neatly grouped in the niches. There were thousands of them. The place was beyond macabre, it was grotesque.

  Clemente was standing with his hands behind his back, bent over an inscription beneath a heap of skulls.

  ‘Why here?’

  Clemente turned and saw him. ‘It seemed the best place after hearing the message you left me last night.’

  Marcus gestured at the surroundings. ‘Where are we?’

  ‘Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Confraternity of Prayer and Death began its pious work. Their aim was to give a dignified burial to the nameless corpses found in the streets of Rome or the countryside, or else fished out of the Tiber. Suicides, murder victims, or those who had simply died of poverty. There are approximately eight thousand bodies crammed in here.’

  Clemente was too calm. In the message, Marcus had summarised what had happened the previous night, but his friend didn’t seem at all perturbed by the outcome of the events. ‘Why do I get the feeling you don’t care what I have to tell you?’

  ‘Because we’ve already learned everything.’

  That condescending tone irritated him. ‘Who? You say “we” but you won’t tell me who you’re referring to. Who’s above you? I have a right to know.’

  ‘You know I can’t. But I’m very pleased with you.’

  Marcus was increasingly frustrated. ‘Pleased with what? I had to kill Jeremiah, Lara is done for, and last night, after a year’s total amnesia, I recovered my first memory … I shot Devok.’

  Clemente took his time. ‘There’s a prisoner on death row in a maximum security prison who committed a terrible crime and has been waiting to be executed for twenty years. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. When they removed it, he lost his memory. He had to learn everything again from the beginning. After the operation, he couldn’t understand what he was doing in a cell, sentenced for a crime he didn’t remember committing. Now he claims that he’s a different person from the killer who murdered a number of victims. In fact he says he’d be incapable of taking a life. He’s asked to be pardoned. If he isn’t, he says, an innocent man will be executed. The psychiatrists say he’s genuine, it isn’t just a trick to avoid the death sentence. But that’s not the real problem. If the person responsible for an individual’s actions is the individual himself, wherein lies his guilt? Is it inherent in his body, in his soul or else in his identity?’

  For Marcus everything was suddenly clear. ‘You knew what I’d done in Prague.’

  Clemente nodded. ‘In killing Devok, you committed a mortal sin. But if you didn’t remember it, you couldn’t confess it. And if you didn’t confess it, you couldn’t be absolved. But by the same token, it was as if you hadn’t committed it. That’s why you were forgiven.’

  ‘And that’s why you’ve been keeping it hidden from me.’

  ‘What is it the penitenzieri always say?’

  Marcus thought again of the litany he had learned. ‘There is a place in which the world of light meets the world of darkness. It is there that everything happens: in the land of shadows, where everything is vague, confused, undefined. We are the guards appointed to defend that border. But every now and again something manages to get through … My task is to chase it back into the darkness.’

  ‘Always hovering dangerously over that line, some penitenzieri have taken a fatal step. They’ve been swallowed by the darkness, and have never returned.’

  ‘Are you trying to tell me that the same thing that happened to Jeremiah had happened to me before I lost my memory?’

  ‘Not to you. To Devok.’

  Marcus didn’t know what to say.

  ‘He was the one who brought the gun into that hotel room. You just disarmed him and tried to defend yourself. There was a struggle and the gun went off.’

  ‘How do you know what happened?’ Marcus protested. ‘You weren’t there.’

  ‘Before he went to Prague, Devok confessed. Culpa gravis 785-34-15: disobeying an order from the Pope and betraying the Church. That was when he revealed the existence of the clandestine order of penitenzieri. He’d probably already guessed that something was wrong: the archive had been violated, four girls had been kidnapped and murdered and the investigation was constantly being thrown off the scent. Father Devok started to harbour suspicions concerning his own men.’

  ‘How many pen
itenzieri are there?’

  Clemente sighed. ‘We don’t know. But we hope that a few of them will come out into the open sooner or later. In his confession, Devok wouldn’t give any names. He said only, “I’ve made a mistake, I have to remedy it.”’

  ‘Why did he come to me?’

  ‘We assume he wanted to kill all of the penitenzieri. Starting with you.’

  Marcus was incredulous. ‘Devok wanted to kill me?’

  Clemente put a hand on his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. I was hoping you’d never find out.’

  Marcus looked into the empty eyes of one of the many skulls preserved in the crypt. Who had that individual been? What was his name, what did he look like? Had anyone ever loved him? How had he died and why? Was he a good man or a bad man?

  Some might have asked the same questions of his corpse if Devok had succeeded in killing him. Because, like all the penitenzieri, he had no identity.

  I don’t exist.

  ‘Before dying, Jeremiah Smith said, “The more evil I did, the better I became at uncovering it.” And I ask myself: Why is it I can’t remember my mother’s voice and yet I’m so good at uncovering evil? Why have I forgotten everything else, but not my talent? Are good and evil innate in each one of us, depending only on the path each person takes in his life?’ Marcus looked up at his friend. ‘Am I a good man or a bad man?’

  ‘Now you know you committed a mortal sin in killing Devok and then Jeremiah. So you will have to make confession and submit to the judgement of the Tribunal of Souls. But I’m sure you will receive absolution, because in having to deal with evil we sometimes get our hands dirty.’

  ‘And what about Lara? Jeremiah took the secret with him. What will happen to that poor girl?’

  ‘Your task finishes here, Marcus.’

  ‘She’s pregnant.’

  ‘We can’t save her.’

  ‘And her child won’t even have a chance. No, I can’t accept that.’

  ‘Look at this place,’ Clemente said, indicated their surroundings. ‘The meaning of it is pity. Giving a Christian burial to an individual without a name, independently of what he was or what he did during his lifetime. I wanted to meet you here so that you could feel a little pity for yourself. Lara will die, but it won’t be your fault. So stop torturing yourself. Absolution from the Tribunal of Souls will be useless if you haven’t first absolved yourself.’

  ‘So now I’m free? This isn’t how I imagined it. It doesn’t make me feel as good as I thought it would.’

  ‘I still have an assignment for you.’ Clemente smiled. ‘Perhaps this will make things less burdensome for you.’ He handed him a file from the archive.

  Marcus took it and read on the cover: c.g. 294-21-12.

  ‘You didn’t save Lara. But you may still save her.’

  9.02 a.m.

  In the intensive care department, a surreal scene was taking place. The police and the forensics team were carrying out the initial investigations subsequent to the night’s massacre. But everything was happening in the presence of the comatose patients, who could not be moved in such a short time. There was no risk of them interfering with the investigations, so they had been left there. The consequence was that the officers were moving quietly and talking under their breath, almost as if they were afraid of waking someone.

  Watching her colleagues from a chair in the corridor, Sandra shook her head, wondering if it all appeared idiotic only to her. The doctors had insisted on keeping her under observation, but she had signed a form to discharge herself. She didn’t feel at all well, but she wanted to return to Milan and get her life back. And try to start over.

  Marcus, she said to herself, recalling the name of the penitenziere with the scar on his temple. She wished she could talk to him one more time, and try to understand. As she was choking, his grip on her had inspired her with the courage necessary to resist. She would have liked him to know that.

  Jeremiah Smith had been taken away in a black body bag. As it had passed her, she had discovered that she did not feel anything. Last night, she had experienced what death felt like. That had been enough to free her of all the hate and resentment and desire for revenge. Because during those moments she had felt very close to David.

  With her skill as a doctor, Monica had snatched her from certain death. Then she had put on a performance for the police, substituting herself for Marcus in the scene and assuming responsibility for shooting Jeremiah. Before they arrived, she had wiped Marcus’s prints from the gun and put her own on it. It wasn’t revenge, she emphasised, but self-defence. Everything suggested that they believed her.

  Now, Sandra saw Monica coming towards her in the corridor after being questioned for the umpteenth time. But she didn’t seem tired.

  ‘So, how are you?’ she asked, smiling cheerfully.

  ‘Fine,’ Sandra said, clearing her throat. Her voice was still hoarse from the breathing tube, and every muscle in her body hurt. But at least the horrible sensation of paralysis had passed. An anaesthetist had helped her to gradually put behind her the effects of the succinylcholine. It was like being resuscitated. ‘Even slaps in the face teach you to grow, as your father says, if I’m not mistaken.’

  They laughed. It had been pure chance that Monica had come back to the intensive care department the previous night. Sandra hadn’t asked why, but Monica had told her that she didn’t know what had driven her to return. ‘Maybe it was because of the little chat we had earlier, I don’t know.’

  Sandra wasn’t sure whether to thank Monica for that, or fate, or else someone up there who made sure every now and again that things worked out. Whether it was God or her husband didn’t make much difference to her.

  Monica bent towards Sandra and hugged her. There was no need for words. They stayed like that for a few seconds. Then the young doctor gave Sandra a kiss on the cheek and took her leave.

  Distracted by watching Monica walk away, she had not noticed Superintendent Camusso approaching.

  ‘She’s a nice girl,’ he said.

  Sandra turned to look at him. He was dressed completely in blue: blue jacket, blue trousers, blue shirt, blue tie. She would have bet on it that even his socks were blue. The only exception was his white moccasins. If it hadn’t been for his shoes and his hair, Camusso would have blended into the furniture and walls of the intensive care unit like a chameleon.

  ‘I’ve been talking to your superior, Inspector De Michelis. He’s coming from Milan to pick you up.’

  ‘No, damn it. Why didn’t you stop him? I was planning to leave tonight.’

  ‘He told me an interesting story about you.’

  Sandra started to fear the worst.

  ‘Apparently you were right, Officer Vega. Congratulations.’

  She was startled. ‘Right about what?’

  ‘The gas fire and the carbon monoxide. The husband who shoots his wife and son after the shower, and then goes back into the bathroom and faints, knocks his head and dies.’

  The summary was perfect, but the outcome wasn’t clear. ‘Did the pathologist get to hear my theory?’

  ‘He not only heard it, he agreed with it.’

  Sandra couldn’t believe it. This wouldn’t make things any better. But the truth is always a consolation. Just as in the case of David, she thought. Now that she knew who had killed him, she felt free to let him go.

  ‘All the departments in the hospital are monitored by security cameras, did you know that?’

  The statement had come out of the blue, and a shudder went through Sandra. She hadn’t thought of that. The version of events provided by Monica and corroborated by her was in danger. Marcus was in danger. ‘Have you seen the tapes?’

  Camusso gave a grimace. ‘Apparently, the security cameras in intensive care were out of order because of the storms of the past few days. So there’s no record of what happened here. A pity, don’t you think?’

  Sandra tried not to appear relieved.

  But Camusso had something else to add.
You did know the Gemelli hospital belongs to the Vatican, didn’t you?’

  It wasn’t a chance statement, there was an insinuation in it, which Sandra ignored.

  ‘Why are you telling me that?’

  Camusso shrugged, gave her a sidelong look, but decided not to go further into the matter. ‘Oh, just curiosity.’

  Before he could go on, Sandra rose from her chair. ‘Could you ask someone to take me back to my hotel?’

  ‘I’ll take you. I don’t have anything else to do here.’

  Sandra hid her disappointment behind a false smile. ‘All right, but there’s somewhere I’d like to go first.’

  Camusso had an old Lancia Fulvia, which he kept in perfect condition. Getting in the car, Sandra had the impression she was going back in time. The interior smelled as if it had just come from the showroom. The rain was still falling steadily, but the bodywork seemed incredibly clean.

  Camusso drove her to the address she had given him. On the way, they listened to a radio station broadcasting hits of the sixties. They drove down the Via Veneto and Sandra felt as if she was back in the time of the Dolce Vita.

  This anachronistic tour ended outside the building that housed the Interpol guest apartment.

  As she climbed the stairs, Sandra was hoping with all her heart that she would meet Schalber. She was far from sure she would find him here, but she had to try. She had a thousand things to tell him, and above all she was expecting him to tell her something. For example, that he was pleased she had survived, even though it had been stupid on her part to cover her tracks: if he had followed her to the Gemelli the previous evening, things might have been very different. When you came down to it, Schalber had only been trying to protect her.

  But what she would have liked to hear him say more than anything else was that it would be nice to see each other again in the future. They had made love, and she had liked it. She didn’t want to lose him. She might not want to admit it yet, but she was falling in love with him.

  Reaching the landing, she found the door open. She didn’t hesitate: filled with hope, she walked in. Hearing noises coming from the kitchen, she went straight to it. But when she got there, she saw another man, wearing a very smart blue suit.

 
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