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The lost girls of rome, p.40
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.40

           Donato Carrisi
 

  During the week when they were waiting for the results of the tests, David had kept on with that irritating attitude. Sandra thought of confronting him with the question, but she was too scared to just blurt it out.

  The night before they were due to receive the results, she had woken up and reached out her hand for David. But he was not there. She had got out of bed and noticed that there were no lights on in the apartment. As she was wondering where he was, she got to the doorway of the kitchen and saw him. He was sitting with his back to the door, bent over, rocking back and forth, incomprehensibly. He had not noticed her, or he would have stopped praying. She had gone back to bed and wept.

  Fortunately, in the end the lump had turned out to be benign. But Sandra had needed to clarify things with David. They were bound to go through other difficult times during their marriage and they would need something more than irony to keep going. She told him about the night she had seen him praying and David, with a certain embarrassment, had been forced to admit how scared he had been at the thought of losing her. For himself he wasn’t afraid of death, his work in the frontline led him automatically to downplay the very idea that he could die. But when it came to Sandra, he hadn’t known what to do. The only thing that had come into his mind had been to appeal to a God he had always avoided.

  ‘When you have no more resources to call on, all you have left is faith in a God you don’t believe in.’

  For Sandra it had been as good as a declaration of undying love. But now, in that hotel room, sitting on the bed next to a half-packed case, she wondered why on earth, if her husband had the feeling that he could die in Rome, the farewell message he had chosen to send her consisted of the clues to an investigation. Photographs, to be exact, because – thanks to the professions they were both involved in – that was their language. But why, for example, had he not made a video to tell her how important she was to him? He hadn’t written her a letter, a note, anything. If he had loved her so much, why had his last thought not been for her?

  Because David didn’t want me to be tied to him in case he died, she told herself. And it was a revelation.

  He gave me the rest of my life. The chance to fall in love again, to have a family, children. To lead a life that went beyond a widow’s existence. Not in a few years’ time but immediately.

  She had to find a way to say goodbye to him. When she got back to Milan she would have to put away the memories, take his clothes out of the wardrobe, get rid of his smell – aniseed-flavoured cigarettes and out-of-date aftershave – from the apartment.

  But she could start immediately. With David’s last message, which had led her to Rome and which she still had on her mobile phone. First, though, she wanted to listen to it again. It would be the last time she heard her husband’s voice.

  ‘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!’

  Unhesitatingly, Sandra pressed the erase key. ‘I’ll miss you, darling.’ The tears rolled down her face. It was the first time in a long time that she hadn’t called him Fred.

  Then she gathered the copies of the photographs from the Leica: the originals were still in the possession of the fake Schalber. She put them in a little pile, putting the dark one at the top. She was ready to tear them up and forget, but she stopped.

  Among David’s photographs there wasn’t one of the chapel of St Raymond, even though St Raymond had been a penitenziere. It was Schalber who had led her to the basilica by slipping that card under the door of her hotel room. Until now, Sandra had dismissed that detail. Why had he wanted to introduce her to that place with his deception?

  The dark photograph.

  The reason he believed there was an answer to the mystery of the penitenzieri’s archive in that photograph was because the archive is hidden in that bare chapel, Sandra told herself. Except that Schalber was unable to locate it.

  She looked at the photograph again. The darkness was not the result of a mistake, as she had always thought. David had deliberately wanted it to be dark.

  When you have no more resources to call on, all you have left is faith in a God you don’t believe in.

  Before leaving for Milan, she had to go back to Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

  David’s last clue was a test of her faith.

  ONE YEAR EARLIER PRYPIAT

  The hunter was not alone. There was someone else in the ghost city.

  He’s here.

  The transformist had chosen the most inhospitable place on earth to hide. A place where nobody would ever think of looking for him.

  He’s come home.

  The hunter could feel his presence. The spots of blood on the floor had not yet completely congealed.

  He’s close.

  He had to think quickly. In the living room, next to the lamp, was the bag with the tranquilliser gun. But he didn’t have time to get it.

  He’s been watching me.

  All he wanted was to get out of Anatoly Petrov’s apartment. His one hope of salvation was to get to the Volvo, which he had parked in front of the concrete blocks that had been placed in the middle of the road to stop vehicles entering the city. It was quite a distance. To hell with the wolves, he would make a run for it. There was no strategy involved. All he could do was run.

  He rushed to the door and started tearing down the stairs. He was barely aware of them beneath him. In the darkness, he couldn’t even see where he was putting his feet. If he fell, it would be the end. Instead of leading him to be cautious, the idea of being stuck here in this building with a broken leg, waiting for his enemy to appear, was making him take risks. Every now and again he jumped a few steps, narrowly avoiding heaps of refuse. He was panting and the sweat froze on his back. His steps echoed in the stairwell.

  Eleven floors running hell for leather, and then the street.

  Nothing but shadows around him. Buildings looking at him with a thousand empty eyes, cars like sarcophagi ready to welcome him, trees stretching out their thin wooden claws to grab him. The asphalt crumbled in contact with his shoes, as if the world was collapsing beneath him. He felt a sense of anguish growing in him. His lungs were starting to burn, and every breath was a spasm in his chest. So this was how it felt to run from someone who wants to hurt us.

  The hunter had become the hunted.

  Where are you? I know you’re here and you’re watching me. You’re laughing at my desperation. And at the same time getting ready to show yourself.

  He turned a corner on to a broad avenue. Suddenly he realised he couldn’t remember the way he had come. He had lost his sense of direction. He stopped to think, bent double with the effort. Then he saw the rusty carcasses of the merry-go-rounds and realised that he was near the amusement park. The Volvo was less than a quarter of a mile away. He would make it.

  I’ll make it.

  He put on speed, ignoring the pain and exhaustion, the cold and the fear. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw the first wolf. The animal had come up beside him and was running together with him. In a short while a second one emerged. And a third. They were escorting him, keeping at a distance. The hunter knew that if he slowed down, they would attack him.

  So he kept going. If only I’d had time to take the tranquilliser gun from the bag …

  He saw the Volvo, parked where he had left it. A small relief, even though he didn’t know if it had been tampered with. If it had, that would be the final twist of fate. But he couldn’t give up now. He still had a few yards to go when one of the wolves decided to try
and attack. He gave it a kick and, although not hitting it very hard, persuaded it to keep its distance again.

  The car was no mirage. It was real.

  He started to think that, if he made it, many things would change. Suddenly he realised how much his own life meant to him. He wasn’t afraid of death, just the thought of dying in this place, and in a way he couldn’t even begin to imagine.

  No, not like this, please.

  When he reached the vehicle, he couldn’t believe it. As he opened the door, he saw the wolves slow down. They had realised they wouldn’t make it and were getting ready to withdraw into the shadows. He looked feverishly for the keys he had left in the dashboard. When he found them, he was afraid the car wouldn’t start. But it did. He laughed, incredulous. He steered rapidly, putting the car in reverse. Everything was working perfectly. The adrenaline was still pumping but the signs of tiredness were starting to make themselves felt. Acid was rising in his chest and his joints hurt. Maybe he was starting to relax.

  A last look in the rear-view mirror: his still-frightened eyes and the ghost city receding. And the shadow of a man emerging from the back seat.

  But before the hunter could complete that thought, a painful darkness fell over him.

  It was the sound of water that woke him. Little drops oozing from the rock. He could imagine the place even without opening his eyes. He didn’t want to look. But in the end he did.

  He was lying on a wooden table. The dim light came from three bulbs hanging from the ceiling. He could hear the buzz of the generator that kept them alive.

  He couldn’t move, he was tied up. He wasn’t even going to try. He was fine like this.

  Was he in a cave? No, in a basement. There was an all-pervading smell of mildew. But there was something else. A metallic odour. Zinc. And there was also the unmistakable miasma of death.

  With difficulty, he turned his head to get a better view. He was in a crypt. The walls were a neatly arranged mosaic. It was beautiful and yet, at the same time, sinister.

  They were bones.

  Some piled one on top of the other, others slotted together. Femurs, ulnas, scapulas. Soldered to the zinc that lined the coffins to protect them from contamination.

  This was the only kind of space the transformist could have used for his lair. He had been clever. In a place where every object was infected with radiation, the one thing not poisoned was the dead. He must have disinterred them from the cemetery and used them to construct a shelter.

  He recognised three skulls blackened by time, watching him from the shadows. Two adults and a child. The real Dima and his parents, he thought.

  The hunter heard the transformist approaching. He didn’t need to turn. He knew.

  He heard his calm, regular breathing, and felt his hand brushing the hair sticky with sweat from his forehead. It was like a caress. Then he walked around him until their eyes met. He was wearing military fatigues and a torn red high-necked pullover. His face was covered with a balaclava, from behind which only his inexpressive eyes and a few tufts of unkempt beard were visible.

  The only emotion in those eyes was curiosity. He tilted his head, the way children do when they want to understand. There was a question in his gaze. Looking at him, the hunter realised there was no way out.

  The transformist was unfamiliar with pity. Not because he was evil. But because nobody had ever taught him.

  He was holding the toy rabbit and absent-mindedly stroking its little head. Then he walked away. The hunter followed him with his eyes. In a corner there was a bed made up of blankets and rags. He put the rabbit down on it, sat down cross-legged, and resumed staring at him.

  The hunter would have liked to ask him so many things. He knew what his fate would be: he wouldn’t get out of here alive. But what saddened him most was not knowing the answers. He had invested so much energy in this hunt, he ought to have answers. It was a matter of honour.

  How did the metamorphosis happen? Why did the transformist feel the need to leave drops of his blood – a kind of signature – every time he stole someone’s identity?

  ‘Please, speak to me.’

  ‘Please, speak to me,’ the transformist echoed.

  ‘Say something.’

  ‘Say something.’

  The hunter laughed. So did the transformist.

  ‘Don’t play with me.’

  ‘Don’t play with me.’

  And then he understood. He wasn’t playing. He was practising.

  He saw the man stand up and simultaneously take something from the pocket of his fatigues. A long, shiny object. At first he did not realise what it was. As the man approached, he recognised the sharp blade.

  The transformist placed the scalpel against his cheek and slowly traced the lines that he would soon go over more deeply. It was like being tickled. The feeling was both pleasant and chilling.

  Nothing exists but hell, he thought. And it’s here.

  The transformist didn’t want just to kill him. Soon the hunted would become the hunter.

  But in the meantime, at least one question was answered. The transformist took off his balaclava, and for the first time the hunter saw his face. They had never been so close. He could say he had done it after all. He had achieved his aim.

  But there was something on the transformist’s face, something he didn’t even seem to be aware of.

  The hunter finally grasped the origin of what he had thought was a signature.

  It wasn’t a signature, it was a symptom of his weakness. The hunter realised that the man in front of him was not a monster but a human being. And like all human beings, the transformist had a distinguishing feature, a thing that made him unique, however good he was at hiding behind multiple identities.

  The hunter would soon be dead, but at that moment he felt relieved.

  His enemy could still be stopped.

  NOW

  Rain has descended on Rome like a black pall. Impossible to tell if it is day or night.

  Sandra passes through the anonymous facade into the only Gothic church in Rome. With its luxurious marbles, its tapering vaults, its magnificent frescoes, Santa Maria sopra Minerva greets her. It is deserted.

  The noise of her footsteps echoes in the right-hand nave. She proceeds towards the last altar. The smallest, the least graceful.

  St Raymond of Penafort is waiting for her. Except that, previously, she did not know that. It is as if now she is presenting a case to Christ the judge between two angels.

  The Tribunal of Souls.

  In front of the fresco, the votive candles left by the faithful are still dripping wax on the floor. Unlike the other chapels in the church, only in this one – the poorest – is there such a profusion of candles. Obedient little flames that bow their heads in unison at each draught then stand up straight again.

  On the other occasions she has been here, Sandra has wondered for what sins they have been lit. Now she has her answer. For everyone’s sins.

  She takes the last of the Leica photographs from her bag, and looks at it. The darkness of the image conceals a test of her faith. David’s last clue is the most mysterious but also the most eloquent.

  She should not look for the answer outside, but inside herself.

  Over the past few months she has asked herself where David is now, what is the meaning of his death. Unable to answer this question, she has felt lost. She is a forensic photographer, she looks for death in the details, convinced that only through them can everything be explained.

  I see things through my camera. I trust in details, because they tell me what happened. But for the penitenzieri there exists something beyond what we have in front of us. Something equally real, but that a camera cannot perceive. So I have to learn that sometimes it is necessary to give oneself up to the mystery. And accept that it is not granted to us to understand everything.

  Faced with the great questions of human existence, the man of science frets, the man of faith stops. And right now, in this church, Sandra
feels she has reached a borderline. It is not by chance that the penitenziere’s words come back to her: ‘There is a place where 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.’

  Marcus said it clearly. But Sandra has never understood it until now. The true danger lies not in the darkness, but in that intermediate state, where the light becomes deceptive. Where good and bad are confused, and you can’t tell one from the other.

  Evil does not hide in the darkness. It is in the shadows.

  It is there that it distorts things. There are no monsters, she reminds herself, only normal people who commit terrible crimes. So the secret, she thinks, is not to be afraid of the dark. Because deep inside it lie all the answers.

  Holding the dark photograph in her hands, she bends over the votive candles and starts blowing them out, one by one. There are dozens of them and it takes a while. As she proceeds, the darkness rises like a tide. Around her, everything vanishes.

  When she has finished, she takes a step back. She cannot see anything, she is afraid, but she tells herself again that all she needs to do is wait and, at last, she will know. Just like when she was a little girl, lying in bed before falling asleep, and the darkness seemed threatening to her, but as soon as her eyes got accustomed to it, everything magically reappeared – the small room with her games, her dolls – and she could sleep peacefully. Slowly Sandra’s gaze adapts to the new conditions. The memory of light fades and suddenly she realises that she can again see something.

  The figures around her begin to re-emerge. On the altarpiece, St Raymond reappears, radiant. Christ the judge and the two angels are clothed in a different, brilliant luminosity. On the rough plaster of the walls, made grey by soot, forms begin to reveal themselves: frescoes depicting scenes of devotion, repentance and forgiveness.

 
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