The Lost Girls of Rome, p.38Donato Carrisi
All she could say to him was ‘Hello.’
He looked at her in surprise. ‘Haven’t you brought your husband?’
Sandra didn’t understand, but hastened to clear up any misunderstanding. ‘Actually, I was looking for Thomas Schalber.’
The man thought this over. ‘Maybe he was a previous occupant.’
‘I think he’s a colleague of yours. Don’t you know him?’
‘As far as I’m aware, the only agency handling the sale is ours. And there’s nobody of that name working for us.’
Sandra was starting to understand, even though it wasn’t at all clear to her. ‘You’re from an estate agency?’
‘Didn’t you see our sign on the front door?’ the man said in an affected tone. ‘The apartment is for sale.’
She didn’t know whether to be more upset or surprised. ‘How long has it been on the market?’
The man seemed puzzled by the question. ‘Nobody’s lived here for more than six months.’
She didn’t know what to say. No explanation that came to mind seemed especially convincing.
The man approached her. ‘I’m expecting some potential buyers,’ he said affably. ‘But if you’d like to have a look around in the meantime …’
‘No, thanks,’ Sandra replied. ‘I made a mistake, I’m sorry.’ She turned to go.
‘If the furniture’s not to your taste, you’re not obliged to take it. We can deduct it from the price.’
She ran back down the stairs, so quickly that by the time she got to the ground floor she felt dizzy and had to lean against the wall. After a couple of minutes, she went out on the street and got back in Camusso’s car.
‘You look pale. Do you want me to take you back to the hospital?’
‘I’m fine.’ But it wasn’t true. She was furious. Another deception of Schalber’s. Was it possible that everything he’d told her was a lie? So what had that night they had spent together been all about?
‘Who were you looking for in that building?’ Camusso asked.
‘A friend who works for Interpol. But he wasn’t there and I don’t know where he is.’
‘I can find him for you, if you like. I know some people who work in the Rome office of Interpol. I can give them a call. It’s no trouble.’
Sandra felt she had to see this through to the end. She couldn’t go back to Milan with that question unresolved: she had to know if Schalber felt for her even a fraction of what she felt for him. ‘Thanks, I’d really appreciate that.’
Bruno Martini had gone to ground in one of the garages in the courtyard of the apartment block where he lived. He had turned it into a kind of laboratory. His pastime was small repairs. He repaired domestic appliances, but also dabbled in carpentry and mechanics. When Marcus saw him beneath the raised metal shutter, he was working on the engine of a Vespa.
Martini didn’t notice him as he approached. The rain was coming down as vertically as a curtain, and he didn’t see him until he was very close. On his knees next to the scooter, he looked up and recognised Marcus. ‘What do you want with me now?’
He was a mountain of a man, with muscles strong enough to face the trials and tribulations of life, but his daughter’s disappearance had left him feeling powerless. His quick temper was the one thing still protecting him from complete collapse. Marcus didn’t blame him. ‘Can we talk?’
Martini thought about it for a moment. ‘Come inside. You’re getting wet.’ He got to his feet, wiping the palms of his hands on his grease-stained overalls. ‘I talked to Camilla Rocca this morning,’ he said. ‘She was quite upset. Now she knows she’ll never have justice.’
‘That’s not why I’m here. Unfortunately I can’t do anything more for her.’
‘Sometimes it’s better not to know.’
He was surprised to hear Martini say this: a father who would do everything he could to find his daughter, who had bought a weapon illegally, turned himself into a lone avenger, stood up to the authorities. He wondered if he had done the right thing to come. ‘What about you? Don’t you still want to know the truth about what happened to Alice?’
‘For three years I’ve been looking for her as if she was alive but mourning her as if she was dead.’
‘That’s no answer,’ Marcus replied with equal sharpness.
‘Do you know what it means not to be able to die?’ Martini went on, lowering his eyes a little. ‘It means continuing to live without any choice, like an immortal. But think about it, what kind of sentence is that? Well, I won’t be able to die until I discover what happened to Alice. I have to stay here and suffer.’
‘Why are you so hard on yourself?’
‘Three years ago I was still a smoker.’
Marcus wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything, but he let him continue.
‘That day at the park, I’d walked away to smoke a cigarette when Alice disappeared. Her mother was also there, but I was supposed to be the one watching her. I’m her father, it was my job. Instead I got distracted.’
For Marcus, that answer was sufficient. He put his hand in his pocket and took out the file that Clemente had given him.
He opened it and took out a sheet of paper. ‘What I’m about to tell you has one condition attached to it: you mustn’t ask me how I found out and you mustn’t ever say that you heard it from me. Agreed?’
Martini looked at him, puzzled. ‘All right.’ There was a new note deep in his voice. It was hope.
‘I warn you that what I’m going to tell you won’t be pleasant. Do you feel ready?’
‘Yes,’ Martini said in a thin voice.
Marcus tried to be delicate. ‘Three years ago, Alice was kidnapped by a man and taken abroad.’
‘How can that be?’
‘He’s a psychopath: he thinks his dead wife has been reincarnated in your daughter. That’s why he took her.’
‘So …’ He couldn’t believe it.
‘Yes, she’s still alive.’
Martini’s eyes filled with tears: the human mountain was on the verge of collapse.
Marcus held out the sheet of paper he had in his hand. ‘Here is everything you need to trace her. But you mustn’t do it alone, promise me.’
‘At the bottom of the page there’s the telephone number of a specialist in tracing missing persons, especially children. Get in touch with her. She’s an excellent police officer, so I’m told. Her name is Mila Vasquez.’
Martini took the sheet of paper and stared at it, without knowing what to say.
‘I have to go now.’
Marcus stopped, but Martini couldn’t speak. Silent sobs shook his chest. Marcus knew what was going through his mind. Martini wasn’t only thinking about Alice. For the first time, he was envisaging the possibility of reuniting his family. His wife, who had left him because of the way he had reacted to the disappearance, might return to him, along with his other child. And they would love each other again as they once had.
‘I don’t want Camilla Rocca to know,’ Martini said. ‘At least, not yet. It would be terrible for her to know that there’s a hope for Alice, while her son Filippo will never come back again.’
‘I have no intention of telling her. Still, she has her own family.’
Martini lifted his head and looked at him in surprise. ‘What family? Her husband left her two years ago, he started a new life with another woman, they even have a child. That’s what brought the two of us together.’
Marcus remembered the note he had seen in Camilla’s house, stuck to the fridge with a magnet in the shape of a crab.
I’ll see you in ten days. I love you.
God alone knew how long it had been there. But there was something else that disturbed him, even though he didn’t know what it was. ‘I have to go,’ he said to Martini. And before the man could thank him, he turned and plunged once again through the curtain of rain.
The rain had slowed the traffic, and it took him nearly two hours to get to Ostia. The bus dropped him at a roundabout on the seafront, and from there he continued on foot.
Camilla Rocca’s car wasn’t parked on the little path, but Marcus stood for a while in the rain looking at the house, to make sure there was no one in it. Then he walked to the entrance and before long was again inside the house.
Nothing had changed since his visit the day before. The furnishings in nautical style, the sand crunching under his shoes. The washing machine in the kitchen, though, had not been turned off properly and was dripping. The sound of it mingled with the rain pouring outside.
He went straight to the bedroom. There on the pillows were the two pairs of pyjamas. He hadn’t been mistaken, he remembered it well. One was a woman’s, the other a man’s. The knick-knacks and other objects were as neatly arranged as ever. The first time he had been here, he had thought that this tidiness was a refuge from anxiety, from the chaos generated by the disappearance of a child. Everything had been in its rightful place, everything had been perfect. Anomalies, he thought, reminding himself what he should have looked for.
The smiling photograph of Filippo watched him from the chest of drawers, and Marcus felt as if he was being led. On the bedside table, on the side of the bed where Camilla slept, was the baby monitor with which the woman should have been listening to her new child sleeping. And that made him think again of the room next door.
He crossed the threshold of what had once been Filippo’s bedroom, now divided into two equal parts. The one that interested him was occupied by a changing table, a mountain of toys and a cot.
Where’s the child I ought to be seeing? What’s behind all this show? He remembered Bruno Martini’s words: Her husband left her two years ago, he has a new life now, with another woman, they even have a child.
Camilla had been forced to suffer a further blow. The man she had chosen to love had abandoned her. But his betrayal didn’t lie in the fact that there was another woman, but in the fact that this woman had given him a child. A replacement for Filippo.
The worst thing isn’t the loss of a child, he thought. It’s the fact that life goes on regardless. And Camilla Rocca hadn’t wanted to stop being a mother.
As soon as he realised the truth, Marcus noticed the anomaly. This time, it wasn’t a presence. Rather, it was something that wasn’t there.
Next to the cot, the other baby monitor was missing.
If the receiver was in Camilla’s room, where was the transmitter?
Marcus went back to the first bedroom and sat down on the double bed, next to the bedside table. He reached out a hand to the baby monitor and switched it on.
Constant, uninterrupted surface noise, like the incomprehensible voice of darkness. Marcus put his ear closer, trying to perceive something. Nothing. He raised the volume to maximum. The noise invaded the room. He sat there waiting, on the alert. The seconds passed as he probed the depths of that sea of whispers, in search of a slight variation, a different colour.
Then he heard it, deep in the grey dust emitted by the loudspeaker: another sound. A rhythmical sound. It wasn’t artificial, it was alive. Breathing.
Marcus grabbed the baby monitor and, holding it in his hands, started walking around the house in search of the origin of the signal. It couldn’t be far, he told himself. These devices don’t have a very long range. So where is it?
He opened all the doors, checked all the rooms. Reaching the back door, he looked out through the mosquito screen and saw the blurred image of an overgrown garden and a tool shed.
He went outside and for the first time noticed that the neighbours’ houses were not especially near and that the property was surrounded by tall pines that acted as a screen. The place was ideal. He walked along the gravel path towards the shed. His steps sank into the wet ground, the rain beat down without respite. He was walking against the wind, feeling as though dark forces were trying to persuade him to give up. But at last he reached his goal. There was a heavy padlock on the shed door.
Marcus looked around and immediately found what he needed: a small iron pole stuck in the ground that served as the base for a sprinkler. He put down the baby monitor, grabbed the pole with both hands, and tugged at it until he managed to get it out of the ground. Then he turned back to the padlock and started hitting it as hard as he could. At least, the steel ring snapped and the door opened a few inches. Marcus flung it wide open.
The murky daylight invaded the small space, revealing a carpet of refuse and a small electric heater. The second baby monitor stood next to a mattress thrown on the ground with a heap of rags on it – a heap that moved.
‘Lara …’ he called, and waited for a long time for an answer that did not come. ‘Lara?’ he repeated, more loudly.
‘Yes,’ came an incredulous voice.
Marcus rushed to her. She was huddled beneath filthy blankets. She was exhausted, dirty, but still alive. ‘It’s all right, I’m here for you.’
‘Help me, please,’ she said, weeping, without realising that he was already helping her.
She kept repeating the same words even when Marcus took her in his arms and led her out into the rain and along the gravel path and through the back door of the little house. Here, Marcus stopped.
Camilla Rocca was standing completely still in the corridor, soaked to the skin. She was holding a bunch of keys and some shopping bags. ‘He took her for me. He said I could keep his child …’
Marcus realised she was referring to Jeremiah Smith.
She looked at him and then at Lara. ‘She didn’t want it.’
Evil generates evil, had been Jeremiah’s words. Camilla had received a bad deal from life. But it was what she had suffered that had made her become what she was now. She had accepted a gift from a monster. Marcus realised how she had managed to deceive him. She had created a parallel world, which for her was real. She was sincere, she wasn’t playing a part.
He resumed walking and went past her with Lara in his arms. Ignoring her, he took the car keys from her hands.
Camilla stood watching them, then collapsed on the floor. She was talking to herself in a thin voice, constantly repeating the same words. ‘She didn’t want it …’
Inspector De Michelis was feeding coins into a coffee machine. Sandra was hypnotised by the care with which he carried out this operation. She had never imagined she would be back in the Gemelli hospital so soon.
Camusso’s call had come one hour earlier, as she was getting ready to pack her bags, leave the hotel and get in a train that would take her back to Milan together with her superior, who had come to fetch her. At first, she had assumed the superintendent had news about Schalber, but after assuring her that Interpol were dealing with it, he had told her the latest development in the case of Jeremiah Smith. At that point, she and De Michelis had rushed to the hospital to see with their own eyes if it was true.
Lara was alive.
The circumstances were unclear. The architecture student had been found in a vehicle abandoned in the car park of a shopping centre on the outskirts of Rome. There had been an anonymous tip-off, in the form of a phone call. The information was still sketchy and was not filtering beyond the door of the emergency department, where Lara was currently being kept for tests.
What Sandra did know was that Superintendent Camusso and his men had made an arrest in Ostia, led there both by Lara’s testimony and by the documents found in the car. She wondered exactly how Jeremiah Smith had been involved, but of one thing she was sure: Marcus had had something to with this happy outcome.
Yes, it was him, she kept telling herself. Lara was bound to mention a mysterious saviour with a scar on his temple. Would the police be able to trace him? She hoped not.
As soon as the news that Lara was free had got out, the media had besieged the hospital. Reporters, cameramen and photographers were lying in wait in the grounds. Lara’s parents had not yet arrived
So far, there had been only one medical bulletin. It reported tersely that the student’s clinical condition was good and that, despite the stress she had suffered, there had been no harm to her unborn child.
De Michelis approached Sandra, blowing into a plastic cup. ‘Don’t you think you have a bit of explaining to do?’
‘You’re right, but I warn you, you’ll need more than one coffee.’
‘Then we won’t be able to leave before tomorrow morning. We’re going to have to spend the night here.’
Sandra took his hand. ‘I’d prefer to talk to you as a friend, not as a police officer. Is that all right with you?’
‘What is it, don’t you like policemen any more?’ he said teasingly. But seeing that Sandra was serious, he changed his tone. ‘I wasn’t there for you when David died. The least I can do is listen to you now.’
For the next two hours, Sandra told him the whole story. She knew she could: he was a man whose moral integrity had always served as an example to her. De Michelis let her speak, interrupting her only to clarify a few points. When she had finished, she felt much lighter.
‘Penitenzieri, you say?’
‘Yes,’ she confirmed. ‘Have you really never heard of them?’
De Michelis shrugged. ‘I’ve seen so much in this job that nothing surprises me any more. It sometimes happens that there are cases that get solved through a tip-off or by chance, without any explanation. But I’ve never linked it to people investigating in parallel with the police. I’m a believer, you know. It’s nice to think there’s something irrational and yet beautiful that I can trust when I can no longer stand the ugliness I see every day.’
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes