The Lost Girls of Rome, p.4Donato Carrisi
‘When we arrived, Sergi was trying to start the gas fire.’
‘That imbecile could have snuffed it at any moment. There were no windows: the firemen said the bathroom was saturated with carbon monoxide.’
‘Sergi was trying to reconstruct the condition of the room. But think about it: it happened only this morning, while the man was having his shower.’
De Michelis frowned. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘Carbon monoxide is a product of combustion. It’s odourless, colourless and tasteless.’
‘I know what it is,’ the inspector said ironically. ‘But can it also fire a gun?’
‘You know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning? Headache, dizziness, and in some cases hallucinations and paranoia … After being exposed to the gas while shut in the bathroom, Sergi was raving. He was talking about cranberries, saying things that didn’t make any sense.’
De Michelis grimaced: he didn’t like it. ‘Listen, Sandra, I know where you’re going with this, but it won’t stand up.’
‘The father was also shut in that bathroom before he started shooting.’
‘It can’t be proved.’
‘But it’s an explanation! At least admit the possibility that it happened like this: the man breathed in the monoxide, he’s confused, hallucinating, paranoid. He doesn’t faint straight away, the way Sergi did. Instead, he comes out of the bathroom naked, grabs the gun and shoots his wife and son. Afterwards he goes back in the bathroom, and it’s only then that the lack of oxygen makes him lose consciousness and he falls, hitting his head.’
De Michelis folded his arms. His attitude exasperated her. But she was well aware that the inspector could never support such a farfetched theory. She had known him for years, and she was sure he’d be only too pleased if the responsibility for these absurd deaths was down to something other than human volition. But he was right: there was no proof.
‘I’ll tell the pathologist. They can do a toxicological test on the man’s body.’
Better than nothing, Sandra thought. De Michelis was a scrupulous man, a good policeman, she liked working with him. He was crazy about art, which for her was an indication of sensitivity. As far as she knew, he had no children and when he went on holiday with his wife they always tried to visit as many museums as possible. He maintained that every work of art contained many meanings and that discovering these meanings was the task of those who admired them. That was why he was not the kind of policeman who would be content with a first impression.
‘Sometimes we’d prefer reality to be different. And if we can’t change things, then we try to explain it to ourselves in our own way. But we don’t always succeed.’
‘No, we don’t,’ Sandra said, and immediately regretted it. What he had said certainly applied to her, but she wouldn’t admit it.
She turned to leave.
‘Listen, I wanted to say …’ De Michelis ran his hand through his grey hair, looking for the most appropriate words. ‘I’m sorry about what happened to you. I know it’s been six months …’
‘Five,’ she corrected him.
‘Yes, but I should have said this earlier …’
‘Don’t worry,’ she replied, forcing a smile. ‘Thank you, anyway.’
Sandra turned to go back to her car. She walked quickly, with that strange sensation in her chest that never left her and that the others did not even suspect. It was like a ball inside her, a ball made up of anxiety, anger and grief. She called it the thing.
She wouldn’t admit it, but for the past five months the thing had replaced her heart.
The rain had started falling again with dogged persistence. Unlike those around them, Marcus and Clemente were in no hurry as they made their way along one of the paths leading to the city’s major hospital, the Gemelli.
‘The police are guarding the main entrance,’ Clemente said. ‘And we have to avoid the security cameras.’
He turned left, leaving the path, and led Marcus towards a small white building. There was a platform roof, beneath which stood drums of detergent and trolleys filled with dirty sheets. An iron staircase led to a service entrance, which was open. They entered and found themselves in the storage area of the hospital’s laundry. From here they took a lift to the lower floor and walked along a narrow corridor until they came to a security door. They put on white coats, masks and overshoes, which they found on a trolley, then Clemente handed Marcus a magnetic card. With that around his neck, nobody would ask any questions. They used it to open the electronic lock. At last, they were inside.
Ahead of them was a long corridor with blue walls. It smelled of alcohol and floor polish.
Unlike the other departments, intensive care was enveloped in silence. The constant rush of doctors and nurses was absent here; staff moved through the corridors unhurriedly and without making any noise. There was no sound beyond the hum of the machines keeping patients alive.
And yet it was in this silent realm that the most desperate life-and-death struggles took place. Whenever one of the combatants fell, it happened without any clamour. Nobody screamed, no alarms sounded, the sole announcement was a red light that went on in the nurses’ station, indicating as simply as possible the cessation of vital functions.
In other departments, the fight to save lives meant a race against time. In IC, time passed differently, expanding to such an extent as to seem absent.
Among those who worked here, this place was known as the border.
‘Some choose to cross that border,’ Clemente said, ‘while others turn back.’
They were standing in front of the glass partition separating the corridor from one of the recovery rooms. There were six beds in the room.
Only one was occupied.
In it lay a man of around fifty, connected to a respirator. Looking at him, Marcus thought again about himself and about the time Clemente had found him in a similar bed, fighting his own battle, hovering between life and death.
He had chosen to remain on this side of the border.
Clemente pointed beyond the glass. ‘Last night an ambulance was called to a villa outside the city. A man had phoned Emergency, saying that he was having a heart attack. In his house they found a number of objects – a hair ribbon, a coral bracelet, a pink scarf and a roller skate – that belonged to the victims of a previously unidentified serial killer. The man’s name is Jeremiah Smith.’
Jeremiah: a pious name, was Marcus’s first thought. Not really suited to a serial killer.
Clemente took a folder from the inside pocket of his raincoat. It was unmarked apart from a code number: c.g. 97-95-6.
‘Four victims in the space of six years. All with their throats cut. All female, aged between seventeen and twenty-eight.’
As Clemente went through these sterile, impersonal facts, Marcus concentrated on the man’s face. He mustn’t let himself be deceived. The body was merely a disguise, a way to pass unobserved.
‘The doctors say he’s in a coma,’ Clemente said, almost guessing his thoughts. ‘And yet he was immediately intubated by the ambulance team that came to his rescue. As it happens …’
‘By a twist of fate, one of the team was the sister of Jeremiah Smith’s first victim. She’s twenty-seven years old and she’s a doctor.’
Marcus looked surprised. ‘Does she know whose life she saved?’
‘She was the one who reported finding in the house a roller skate that had belonged to her twin sister, who was killed six years ago. There’s another thing that made this more than just a routine intervention.’
Clemente took a photograph from the folder. It showed the man’s chest, with the words Kill me. ‘He was walking around with that on his body.’
‘It’s the symbol of his divided nature,’ Marcus said. ‘It’s as if he’s telling us that we have to look beyond appearances. We usually stop at the first level, the level of clothes, to judge a person, when the real tr
‘There was a challenge in those words: Kill me, if you can.’
Marcus turned towards Clemente. ‘And what’s the challenge now?’
‘What makes you think she’s still alive?’
‘He kept the others alive for at least a month before killing them and dumping their bodies.’
‘How do we know he was the one who took her?’
‘The sugar. The other girls had also been drugged. He took them all in the same way: approaching them in broad daylight under some pretext and offering them a drink. In each case he dosed the drinks with GHB, better known as the date rape drug. It’s a narcotic with hypnotic effects that inhibits the ability to reason and choose. It seems to be his signature.’
‘A rape drug,’ Marcus said. ‘So the motive is sexual?’
Clemente shook his head. ‘There were no signs of sexual violence on the victims. He tied them up, kept them alive for a month, then cut their throats.’
‘But he took Lara from her own home,’ Marcus said. ‘How do we explain that?’
‘Some serial killers perfect their modus operandi as their sadistic fantasies evolve. Every now and again, they add a new detail, something that increases their pleasure. Over time, killing becomes a job, and they try to get better at it.’
Clemente’s explanation was plausible, but didn’t totally convince Marcus. He decided to let that go for the moment. ‘Tell me about Jeremiah Smith’s villa.’
‘The police are still searching it, so we can’t go there yet. But apparently he didn’t take his victims there. He has another place somewhere. If we find it, we’ll find Lara.’
‘But the police aren’t looking for her.’
‘Maybe there’s something in that house that’ll connect him to her.’
‘Shouldn’t we put them on the right track?’
‘Why not?’ Marcus asked, incredulous.
‘That’s not the way we operate.’
‘Lara would have more chance of being saved.’
‘The police might get in your way. You need complete freedom of action.’
‘Freedom of action? What does that mean? I don’t even know where to begin!’
Clemente looked him straight in the eye. ‘I understand you find it daunting, because it all seems new to you. But this isn’t your first time. You used to be good at what you did, and you can be good again. I assure you that if there’s anyone who can locate that girl, it’s you. The sooner you realise that, the better. Because I get the feeling Lara doesn’t have much time left.’
Marcus looked over Clemente’s shoulder at the patient – attached to a respirator, hovering over the final border – then at the reflection of his own face in the glass pane, superimposed over that image, as if in an optical illusion. He quickly took his eyes away. It wasn’t the view of the monster that had disturbed him. It was the fact that he couldn’t stand mirrors, because he still didn’t recognise himself. ‘What will happen to me if I fail?’
‘So that’s it: you’re worried about yourself.’
‘I don’t know who I am any more, Clemente.’
‘You’ll find out soon, my friend.’ He handed him the case file. ‘We trust you. But from now on, you’re on your own.’
The third lesson that Sandra Vega had learned is that houses and apartments have a smell. It belongs to those who live in them, and it’s always different and unique. When the occupants leave, the smell vanishes. That was why every time Sandra got back to her apartment on the Navigli, she immediately looked for David’s smell.
Aftershave and aniseed-flavoured cigarettes.
She knew that one day she would come home, sniff the air and not smell it. Once the smell had gone, David really wouldn’t be there any more.
That thought made her despair. And she tried to be out as much as possible. In order not to contaminate the apartment with her presence, not to fill it with her own smell.
At first, she had hated the cheap supermarket aftershave David insisted on buying. It seemed to her aggressive and all-pervading. In the three years they had lived together, she had tried many times to find him a replacement. Every birthday, Christmas or anniversary, in addition to the official gift there was a new scent. He would use it for a week, then put it away together with the others on a shelf in the bathroom. Each time he would attempt to justify himself with the words: ‘Sorry, Ginger, but it’s just not me.’ The way he would wink as he said this was intensely irritating.
Sandra could never have imagined that a time would come when she would buy twenty bottles of that aftershave and sprinkle it around the apartment. She had bought so many out of the senseless fear that one day they would take it off the market. And she had even purchased those terrible aniseed-flavoured cigarettes. She would leave them, alight, in ashtrays around the rooms. But the alchemy hadn’t worked. It was David’s physical presence that had linked those smells indissolubly. It was his skin, his breath, his mood that made that union special.
After a long day’s work, Sandra closed the apartment door behind her and waited a few seconds, motionless in the darkness. Then, at last, her husband’s smell came to greet her.
She put the bags down on the armchair in the hall: she would have to clean the equipment, but for now she was putting everything off. She would see to it after dinner. In the meantime she ran herself a hot bath and lay in the water until her fingers became wrinkled. She put on a blue T-shirt and opened a bottle of wine. It was her way of escaping. She couldn’t bear to switch on the television any more, and she didn’t have the concentration necessary to read a book. So she spent her evenings on the sofa, with a bottle of Negroamaro in her hands and her vision gradually blurring.
She was only twenty-nine, and found it hard to think of herself as a widow.
The second lesson Sandra Vega had learned was that, like people, houses and apartments die.
Since David had died, she had never felt his presence in objects. Perhaps because most of the things here belonged to her.
Her husband had been a freelance photojournalist, and he had travelled the world in his work. Before meeting her he had never needed a home, making do with hotel rooms and other temporary accommodation. He had told her that in Bosnia once he had slept in a graveyard, inside a walled niche.
Everything that David owned was packed into two large green canvas bags. There was his wardrobe: some things for summer, others for winter, because he never knew where he might be sent for a story. There was the dented laptop that he never let out of his sight, and there were utensils of every kind: multi-use knives, batteries for his mobile phones, even a kit for purifying urine in case he ended up in a place without drinking water.
He had pared everything down to essentials. For example, he had never owned a book. He read a lot, but every time he finished one, he gave it away. He had only stopped since he had come to live with her. Sandra had created a space for him in the bookcase and he had started to warm to the idea of having a collection. It had been his way of putting down roots. After the funeral, his friends had come up to Sandra and each one had brought her a book that David had given to them. The books were full of his annotations, corners turned down to mark the page, little burns or oil stains. She imagined him calmly reading Calvino, smoking a cigarette in the burning heat of some desert, next to a broken-down off-road vehicle, waiting for someone to come and rescue him.
I’ll continue to see him everywhere, they all said to her, it’ll be difficult to shake off his presence. And yet it wasn’t like that. She had never had the feeling she could hear his voice calling her name, nor had she ever unthinkingly put an extra plate on the table.
What she did miss, desperately, was the daily routine, thos
On Sundays, she would usually get up after him and find him sitting in the kitchen, drinking his third pot of coffee and leafing through the newspaper in a cloud of aniseed-scented smoke, with his elbow placed on the table and the cigarette held between his fingers, the ash on the verge of falling, so absorbed in his reading as to forget everything else. As soon as she appeared in the doorway with her usual disapproving expression, he would lift his head with its mop of curly hair and smile at her. She would try to ignore him while she made breakfast for herself, but David would continue to stare at her with that goofy smile on his face until she couldn’t hold out any longer. It was that crooked smile, the result of a broken incisor, a memento of falling from his bicycle when he was seven. It was his glasses, with their fake tortoiseshell frames held together with scotch tape, that made him look like an old English lady. It was David, who within a few moments would draw her on to his knees and place a damp kiss on her neck.
At that memory, Sandra put down the glass of wine on the table next to the sofa. She reached out an arm to pick up her mobile phone, then dialled voicemail.
The electronic voice informed her as always of the presence of one message, which she had already listened to. It was dated five months earlier.
‘Hi, I called a couple of times but I always get the recorded message … I don’t have much time, so I just want to make a list of what I miss … I miss your cold feet searching for me under the blankets when you come to bed. I miss you making me taste things from the fridge to make sure they haven’t gone off. Or when you wake me up screaming at three in the morning because you’ve got a cramp. And I know you won’t believe this, but I even miss you using my razor to shave your legs and then not telling me … Anyway, it’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back. I love you, Ginger!’
David’s last words seemed to sum up a perfect harmony. The kind possessed by butterflies, snowflakes and a very small number of tap dancers.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes