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The lost girls of rome, p.39
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.39

           Donato Carrisi
 

  De Michelis stroked her arm, just as Marcus had done before disappearing from the recovery room and her life. Over the inspector’s shoulder, Sandra noticed two men in jackets and ties addressing an officer, who then pointed in their direction. The two men approached.

  ‘Are you Sandra Vega?’ one of them asked.

  ‘Yes, that’s me.’

  ‘Could we have a quick word?’ the other man asked.

  ‘Of course.’

  They made it clear that the subject was confidential, and as they drew her aside, they showed her their badges. ‘We’re from Interpol.’

  ‘What’s going on?’

  It was the older man who spoke. ‘Superintendent Camusso called us this afternoon asking for information about one of our agents. He said he was calling on your behalf. The officer’s name is Thomas Schalber. Can you confirm to us that you know him?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘When did you last see him?’

  ‘Yesterday.’

  The two men looked at each other. ‘Are you sure?’ the younger man asked.

  Sandra was starting to lose patience. ‘Of course I’m sure.’

  ‘And is this the man you met?’

  They showed her a badge with a photograph and Sandra leaned forward to get a better look at it. ‘There’s a definite resemblance, but I have no idea who this man is.’

  The two men looked at one another again, and this time they looked nervous. ‘Would you be ready to give a description of the person you saw to one of our identikit specialists?’

  Sandra had had enough: she wanted to know what was going on. ‘All right, boys. Which one of you is going to tell me what this is all about? Because there seems to be something I’m missing here.’

  The younger man looked at his elder for approval. When he had obtained it, he said, ‘The last time he was in contact with us, Thomas Schalber was working undercover on a case.’

  ‘Why do you say “was”?’

  ‘Because he then disappeared, and we haven’t heard from him in more than a year.’

  Stunned by this news, Sandra didn’t know what to think. ‘I’m sorry, if your agent is the person in the photograph and you don’t know what’s become of him, then who was the man I met?’

  ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT

  The wolves were calling to each other in the deserted streets, howling their names at the dark sky. They were the masters of Prypiat now.

  The hunter could hear them as he tried to break open the door of Anatoly Petrov’s apartment on the eleventh floor of Block 109.

  The wolves knew that the intruder had not left the city, and now they were looking for him.

  He couldn’t leave before sunrise. His hands were hurting with the cold and the lock was proving a tough proposition. But in the end he managed to open it.

  The apartment was the same size as the one next to it. Nothing had been touched.

  The windows had been sealed with rags and insulating tape to keep out draughts. Anatoly must have taken this precaution immediately after the nuclear incident, to stop radiation from getting in.

  The hunter saw the tag with his photo on the uniform of the plant hanging just inside the door. He was about thirty-five years old. Smooth fair hair, with a fringe that covered his forehead. Glasses with heavy frames. Empty blue eyes. Thin lips surmounted by a light-coloured down. His job was ‘turbine technician’.

  The hunter looked around. The furnishings were modest. In the living room there was a flowered velvet sofa and a television set. In a corner stood two glass display cabinets, both empty. A bookcase covered part of one wall. The hunter went closer to read the titles of the volumes. There were texts on zoology, anthropology and many on ethnology. Among the authors represented were Charles Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins. Studies on animal learning processes, the environmental conditioning of species, the relationship between instinct and external stimuli. Not the usual reading matter of a turbine technician. On a lower shelf, a series of exercise books, about twenty of them, all numbered.

  The hunter didn’t know what to think. But the most important conclusion was that Anatoly Petrov had lived alone. There were no signs of the presence of a family. Or of a child.

  He was overcome by a momentary sense of unease. Now he was forced to stay all night. He couldn’t light a fire, because it would boost the effects of the radiation. He had no food with him, only water. He would have to find some blankets and a few tins. As he searched, he realised that there were no clothes in the bedroom wardrobe and that the shelves in the pantry had been emptied. Everything suggested that Anatoly had been farsighted enough to leave Prypiat immediately after the incident at the Chernobyl reactor, but before the mass evacuation. Unlike the others, he hadn’t abandoned everything in a hurry. He had probably not believed the reassurances of the authorities who, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, had kept telling the population to stay at home.

  The hunter made himself an improvised bed in the living room, using the cushions from the sofa and a few quilts. He thought he would use a bit of the water he had with him to wash his face and hands and take away at least a little of the radioactive dust. He extracted the flask from the bag, and as he did so the stuffed rabbit that had once belonged to the false Dima fell out. He put it next to the Geiger counter and the torch, so that it could keep them company in this absurd situation. He smiled.

  ‘Maybe you can give me a hand, old friend.’

  The toy simply stared back at him with its one eye. The hunter felt stupid.

  Nonchalantly, he turned to look at the row of exercise books in the bookcase. He took one out at random – number six – and took it with him to the bed, with the intention of leafing through it.

  It had no title and was written by hand. The Cyrillic characters were in a precise, tidy handwriting. He read the first page. It was a diary.

  14 February

  I intend to repeat experiment number 68, but this time I shall change the method of approach. The objective is to demonstrate that environmental conditioning has an effect on behaviour by inverting the dynamics of imprinting. For this purpose, I bought two white rabbits at the market today …

  The hunter abruptly raised his eyes and looked at the toy rabbit. It was a strange coincidence. And he had never cared for coincidences.

  22 February

  The two specimens have been raised separately and reached sufficient maturity. Today I shall set about changing the habits of one of the two …

  The hunter looked at the glass cases in the room. It was there that Anatoly Petrov had kept his animals. The living room was a kind of menagerie.

  5 March

  The lack of food and the use of electrodes have made one of the rabbits more aggressive. His tranquil temperament is gradually turning primitive and instinctual …

  The hunter didn’t understand. What had Anatoly been trying to demonstrate? Why had he devoted himself with such single-mind-edness to these activities?

  12 March

  I put the two specimens in a single cage. The induced hunger and aggressiveness have produced their results. One has attacked the other, wounding him fatally …

  Horrified, the hunter got up from his bed and went to take other exercise books from the bookcase. In some, there were photographs with captions. The rabbits had been forced to assume behaviour that was not in their nature. It was done by leaving them hungry or without water for some time, or else in darkness or in full light or

  provoking them with small electric shocks or giving them psychosis-inducing drugs. In the photographs, the expression in their eyes was a mixture of terror and madness. Every experiment ended in a cruel fashion, either with one of the specimens killing the other or Anatoly himself putting both of them down.

  The hunter noticed that the last exercise book referred to others with higher numbers, which were not in the bookcase. Anatoly Petrov had probably taken them away with him, leaving behind those he considered less valuable.

>   There was a pencilled annotation on the last page that particularly struck him.

  … All creatures in nature kill. Only man, however, does it for reasons other than necessity, sometimes out of pure sadism, which is the pleasure of inflicting suffering. Good and bad are not merely moral categories. In the past few years I have demonstrated that a homicidal rage can be instilled in any animal, erasing the inherited characteristics of its species. Why should man be any exception?

  As he read these words, the hunter shuddered. Suddenly the toy rabbit’s insistent gaze made him uncomfortable. He reached out a hand to move it and, as he did so, inadvertently knocked over the water flask, which, in falling, spilt a rivulet of water on the floor. When he went to pick it up, he noticed that some of the liquid had been absorbed by the skirting board beneath the bookcase. The hunter poured out some more water. That, too, disappeared.

  He examined the wall, took note of the size of the room, and guessed that there was something behind the bookcase, perhaps an air space.

  He also noticed that on the bricks in front of the bookcase there was a circular scratch. He bent down to get a closer look at it. Supporting himself on his hands, he blew along the groove to free it of the dust that had filled it over the years. When he had finished, he got to his feet and looked at it. It described a perfect arc of 180 degrees.

  The bookcase was a door, and constant opening and closing had left that mark on the floor.

  He grabbed one of the shelves and tried pulling it towards him to open the door. But it was too heavy. He decided to take out the books. It took him a few minutes to pile them on the ground. Then he tried again and started to feel the bookcase moving on its hinges. After a while, he managed to open it.

  Behind it, there was a second small door, with two bolts to keep it shut.

  In the centre was a spy hole, and next to it was a switch that, without any electric current, was no use at all. All the same, the hunter tried to peer inside, but without success. He decided to open that door too. It took him a while to get the bolts to move because the metal had rusted over time.

  He finally succeeded, and found himself staring into a dark space. The stench forced him to retreat. Then, with one hand over his mouth, he picked up the torch and aimed it into the darkness.

  The space measured about six square feet, the ceiling barely four feet high.

  The inside of the door and the walls were lined with a soft material of a dark colour, the kind used for soundproofing. There was a lamp of low voltage, protected by a metal grate. In a corner, he could see two bowls. The surface of the walls was covered in scratches, as if an animal had been imprisoned here.

  The beam of the torch fell on something shining at the far end of the cell. The hunter leaned forward, picked up a small object and examined it.

  A blue plastic wristband.

  No, whatever had been kept here was no animal, he thought with horror.

  On it was carved in Cyrillic:

  KIEV STATE HOSPITAL. MATERNITY WARD

  The hunter stood up again, unable to remain in the room. On the verge of retching, he rushed into the corridor. In the darkness, he leaned on one of the walls, afraid he would faint. He tried to calm down and, finally, managed to catch his breath. In the meantime an explanation was taking shape in his mind. It disgusted him that there should be a lucid and rational motivation for all this. And yet he understood it.

  Anatoly Petrov was not a scientist. He was a sadist, a psychopath. His experiments concealed an obsession. Like children who kill a lizard with a stone. What they are doing is no game. There is a strange curiosity in them that drives them to seek out violent death. They may not know it, but they are experiencing for the first time the pleasure of cruelty. They know they have taken the life of a useless creature, and that no one will reprimand them for it. But Anatoly Petrov must soon have tired of rabbits.

  That was why he had stolen a baby.

  He had brought him up in captivity, using him as a guinea pig. For years he had subjected him to every kind of test, in such a way as to condition his nature. He had provoked homicidal instincts in him. Are we born, or do we become, good or bad? That was the question he had been trying to answer.

  The transformist was the result of an experiment.

  When the Chernobyl reactor had blown up, Anatoly had left the city as soon as he could. He was a turbine technician, he knew how serious the situation was. But he couldn’t take the child with him.

  He may have thought of killing him. But then something must have made him change his plan. Probably the thought that his creature was ready to face the world. If he survived, that would be his true success. So he had decided to free his guinea pig, who had now become an eight-year-old child. The boy had wandered through the apartment, then had found refuge with the neighbours, who did not know who he was. Because there was one thing Anatoly Petrov hadn’t thought of: he had forgotten to provide him with an identity. The transformist’s mission to understand who he really was had begun with Dima and was still continuing.

  The hunter again felt a sense of oppression. His prey had been deprived of any empathy, all his most elementary human emotions had been eradicated. His capacity for absorbing knowledge was extraordinary, but deep down, he was a blank page, an empty shell, a useless mirror. The one thing guiding him was instinct.

  The prison behind the bookcase – which no one had ever known was there, in an apartment surrounded by others all identical, in a building full of people – had been his first nest.

  As he thought about this, the hunter looked down. He had accustomed his sight to the gloom of the corridor and was now able to see the dark stains on the floor, next to the entrance.

  This time too, there was blood on the ground. Little spots. The hunter bent down to touch them, as he had done at the orphanage in Kiev and in the apartment in Paris.

  But this time the blood was fresh.

  TODAY

  As she finished packing her bags in her hotel room – something she hadn’t managed to do the previous day – Sandra thought again about the evening she had spent with the man who had convinced her he was Thomas Schalber, in the apartment she had thought belonged to Interpol. The dinner he had cooked, the confidences they had exchanged. Including the photograph of the girl he had said was his daughter Maria, who he didn’t see as often as he would have liked.

  He had seemed so … genuine.

  In the presence of the two real Interpol agents, she had asked herself who she had really met. But there was another question hovering in her head right now.

  Who had she slept with that night?

  It was an unpleasant sensation, not having an answer. The man had managed to insinuate himself into her life by playing various roles. At first, he had been only an irritating voice on the phone trying to convince her that she should doubt her own husband. Then he had played the part of the hero who had saved her life, removing her just in time from a sniper’s line of fire. Then he had humoured her, trying to get round her in order to gain her trust. Then he had deceived her, getting hold of the photos from the Leica.

  Jeremiah Smith had said that David had managed to find the penitenzieri’s secret archive. That was why he had been forced to kill him.

  Was the false Schalber also looking for the archive? Maybe he had had to give up when faced with that final dark photograph, which would probably have contained the solution if the image had come out.

  At that point, as Sandra had feared, he had devoted his energies to tracking down Marcus, partly because the photograph that David had taken of the penitenziere was the only real lead he had.

  But then he had reappeared in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, in front of the chapel of St Raymond, just to provide her with an explanation of why he was acting the way he was, and then disappeared again. When you came down to it, there was no need for him to have done that.

  So what had his purpose been?

  The harder she tried to find a logical connection between these episodes
, the more the significance of each single action escaped her. She did not know whether to consider him a friend or an enemy.

  A good man or a bad man?

  David, she told herself. Had he realised who he was dealing with? He had had his telephone number, he had even provided Sandra with the missing digits thanks to the photograph taken with the Leica in front of the bathroom mirror in this very hotel room. Her husband had not trusted him enough to hand over the clues, but all the same he had wanted her to meet him. Why?

  As she mulled it over, other puzzling aspects emerged. She forgot about her packing for a moment and sat down on the bed to think. Where am I going wrong? She wanted to forget the whole story as quickly as possible. She already had plans for a new life, and forgetting was essential if she didn’t want to jeopardise them. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with these questions still unresolved. They might drive her mad.

  David was the answer, she was sure of it. Why had her husband got involved with this story in the first place? He was a good photojournalist, but this whole thing was a long way from his usual concerns. He was Jewish and, unlike her, almost never talked about God. His grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and David maintained that such horrors had been conceived not to destroy his people, but to make them lose their faith: once the Jews had proof that God did not exist, it would be easy to wipe them out.

  The one time they had tackled the question of religion a little more seriously was not long after they got married. Sandra had been taking a shower when she discovered a little lump. David’s reaction had been typically Jewish: he had made a joke of it.

  She thought his attitude showed a certain weakness of character, assuming that the reason he ridiculed her health problems and turned them into a game was because he felt guilty at not being able to solve them. It was affectionate in its way, but no help at all. He had gone with her to do the tests, making fun of her all the time. Sandra had let him believe that he was relieving the tension with these jokes. In fact, she felt terrible and wanted him to stop. It may have been his way of dealing with things, but she wasn’t sure she liked it. Sooner or later they would have to discuss it, and she sensed an argument looming.

 
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