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The lost girls of rome, p.5
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.5

           Donato Carrisi
 

  Sandra switched off the phone. ‘I love you too, Fred.’

  Every time she listened to the message, she felt the same sensation. Nostalgia, grief, tenderness, but also anguish. A question was hidden in those last words, a question Sandra could not and would not answer.

  It’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back.

  She had been used to David’s travelling. It was his work, his life. She had always known that. However much she might harbour the desire to hold him back, she had realised that she had to let him go.

  It was the only way to make sure he came back to her.

  His profession often took him to the most hostile places in the world. God alone knew how many times he had risked his life. But that was how David was, it was his nature. He had to see everything with his own eyes, touch it with his own hands. To describe a war, he needed to smell the smoke of burning buildings, to know that the sound of bullets is different depending on which objects they hit. He had never wanted to be exclusively tied to any of the great newspapers, although they would certainly have fought to get him. He couldn’t bear the idea of anyone controlling him. And Sandra had learned to dismiss her worst fears, confining her anxiety to a place buried deep in her mind. Trying to live in a normal manner, pretending she was married to a clerk or a factory worker.

  There had been a kind of unwritten pact between her and David. It entailed a series of strange courtship rituals, which were their way of communicating. So he might stay in Milan for long periods and they would start to have a stable married life. Then, one evening, she would return home and find him preparing his famous shellfish soup, the one with at least five varieties of vegetable, accompanied by salted sponge cake. It was his speciality. But in their code, it was also his way of telling her that he would be leaving the next day. They would have dinner as usual, talking of this and that, he would make her laugh and then they would make love. And the next morning she would wake up alone in bed. He might be away for weeks, sometimes months. Then one day he would open the door, and everything would start again from where they had left off.

  David never told her where he was going. Except that last time.

  Sandra emptied the glass of the remaining wine. She drank everything in one gulp. She had always avoided the thought that anything bad could happen to David. He ran risks. If he had to die, then it had to happen in a war or at the hands of one of those criminals he often investigated. It all seemed equally stupid to her, but she could accept it somehow. Instead, it had happened in the most banal way.

  She was starting to doze off when her mobile phone rang. She looked at the screen, but did not recognise the number. It was nearly eleven o’clock.

  ‘Could I speak to David Leoni’s wife?’

  It was a man’s voice, speaking in a foreign accent, possibly German.

  ‘Who is that?’

  ‘My name’s Schalber, I work for Interpol. We’re colleagues.’

  Sandra sat up, rubbing her eyes.

  ‘I’m sorry to phone you so late, but I only just got your number.’

  ‘Couldn’t it have waited until tomorrow?’

  There was a cheerful laugh at the other end. Schalber, whoever he was, had a curiously boyish voice. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help it, whenever there’s a question that’s nagging at me, I have to ask it. Otherwise I might not sleep tonight. Doesn’t that ever happen to you?’

  Sandra didn’t know what to make of the man’s tone; she couldn’t figure out if he was hostile or simply flippant. She decided to be businesslike. ‘How can I help you?’

  ‘We’ve opened a file on your husband’s death and I need to clarify a few things.’

  Sandra’s face darkened. ‘It was an accident.’

  Schalber had probably been expecting this reaction. ‘Yes, I read the police report,’ he said calmly. ‘One moment …’

  Sandra heard the sound of pages being turned.

  ‘It says here that your husband fell from the fifth floor of a building but survived the fall, dying many hours later from the fractures sustained and from internal bleeding …’ He stopped reading. ‘It must be hard for you, I imagine. It can’t be easy to accept something like that.’

  ‘You have no idea.’ The words came out sounding cold, and Sandra hated herself as she said them.

  ‘According to the police, Signor Leoni was on that construction site because it offered an excellent vantage point for a photograph.’

  ‘Yes, that’s right.’

  ‘Have you been there?’

  ‘No,’ she replied irritably.

  ‘I have.’

  ‘What are you trying to tell me?’

  Schalber’s pause lasted a moment too long. ‘Your husband’s camera was destroyed in the fall. A pity we’ll never see that photograph.’ His tone was sarcastic.

  ‘Since when has Interpol bothered with accidental deaths?’

  ‘True, it’s an exception. What I’m curious about is not so much the circumstances in which your husband died.’

  ‘What, then?’

  ‘There are some obscure aspects to the case. I found out that Signor Leoni’s luggage was returned to you.’

  ‘Yes, two bags.’ She was starting to get annoyed, which she suspected was actually Schalber’s intention.

  ‘I put in a request to see them, but apparently I was too late.’

  ‘Why would you want to see them? What possible interest could they have for you?’

  There was a brief silence at the other end. ‘I’ve never been married, but I came close to it a couple of times.’

  ‘And how does that concern me?’

  ‘I don’t know if it concerns you, but I do think that when you trust your life to someone – I mean someone really special like a spouse … well, you stop asking yourself certain questions. For example, what that person is doing every moment you’re not together. Some people call it trust. The truth is that sometimes it’s fear … Fear of the answers.’

  ‘And what kind of questions should I have asked myself about David, in your opinion?’ But Sandra already knew the answer.

  Schalber’s tone turned solemn. ‘We all have secrets, Officer Vega.’

  ‘I didn’t know every detail of David’s life, but I knew the kind of person he was, and that’s enough for me.’

  ‘Yes, but did it ever occur to you that he might not always have told you the whole truth?’

  Sandra was furious. ‘Listen, it’s pointless for you to try and make me doubt my husband.’

  ‘Indeed it is. Because you already doubt him.’

  ‘You don’t know anything about me,’ she protested.

  ‘The bags that were sent back to you five months ago are being kept in a storeroom at Headquarters. Why haven’t you collected them yet?’

  Sandra smiled bitterly. ‘I don’t have to explain to anyone how painful it might be to see those things again. Because, when that happens, I’ll have to admit that it really is all over, that David will never come back and that nobody can do anything about it.’

  ‘That’s bullshit and you know it.’

  The man’s lack of tact left her stunned. For a moment she couldn’t say anything. When at last she was able to react, she did so angrily. ‘Go fuck yourself, Schalber.’

  She slammed the phone down, then grabbed the empty glass, which was the first thing to hand, and flung it at the wall. The man had no right! She’d been wrong to let him go on talking, she should have hung up sooner. She stood up and began pacing nervously about the room. Up until that moment she hadn’t wanted to admit it, but Schalber was right: she was afraid. The phone call hadn’t surprised her. It was as if part of her had expected it.

  This is crazy, she thought. It was an accident. An accident.

  Then she started to calm down. She looked around her. The corner of the bookcase with David’s volumes. The boxes of aniseed-flavoured cigarettes piled up on the desk. The aftershave, now past its use-by date, on the shelf in the bathroom. The place in the
kitchen where he read the newspaper on Sunday mornings.

  The first lesson that Sandra Vega had learned was that houses and apartments never lie.

  But people do.

  It’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back.

  That had been a lie, because David had died in Rome.

  11:36 p.m.

  The corpse woke up.

  Around him, darkness. He felt cold, disorientated and scared. And this mixture of emotions was strangely familiar to him.

  He remembered the gunshot, the smell of it, then the smell of burning flesh. The muscles yielding simultaneously, sending him crashing to the floor. He realised that he could reach out his hand, and he did so. He should have found himself in a pool of blood, but there wasn’t one. He should have been dead, but he wasn’t.

  First of all, the name.

  ‘My name is Marcus,’ he told himself.

  At that moment, reality attacked him, reminding him of the reasons why he was still alive. And of the fact that he was in Rome, in the place where he lived, lying on his own bed and that, until a few moments earlier, he had been asleep. His heartbeat had accelerated and refused to slow down. He was bathed in sweat and was breathing with difficulty.

  But once again he had survived the dream.

  To avoid the sense of panic, he usually kept the light on. But this time he had forgotten. Sleep must have taken him by surprise: he was still fully dressed. He switched on the light and checked the time. He had slept barely twenty-five minutes.

  They had been sufficient.

  He picked up the felt-tip pen he kept next to the pillow, and wrote on the wall: Shattered windows.

  The white wall next to the camp bed was his diary. Around him, a bare room. This attic in the Via dei Serpenti was the place without memory in which he had chosen to live in order to be able to remember. Two rooms. No furniture, apart from the bed and a lamp. His clothes in a suitcase on the floor.

  Every time he re-emerged from sleep he brought something with him. An image, a word, a sound. This time it was the noise of a window smashing.

  But what window?

  Still images of a scene, always the same one. He wrote everything on the wall. Over the past year he had put together a few details, but they still weren’t enough for him to reconstruct what had happened in that hotel room.

  He knew for certain that he had been there and that Devok, his best friend, the person who would have done anything for him, had been there, too. Devok had struck him as afraid and confused. He could not have said why, but it must have been something pretty dire. He remembered a sense of danger. Perhaps Devok had been trying to warn him.

  But they had not been alone. There was a third person with them.

  He was still an indistinct shadow. The threat came from him. It was a man, of that he was certain. But Marcus did not know who he was. Why was he there? He had a gun with him, and at a certain point he had taken it out and opened fire.

  Devok had been hit. He had fallen, in slow motion. The eyes that had stared at him during the fall were already empty. His hands pressed to his chest, at the level of his heart. Gouts of black blood between his fingers.

  There had been a second shot. And almost simultaneously, he had seen a flash. The bullet had hit him. He had distinctly felt the crack, the bone shattering, that foreign body penetrating his brain like a finger, the blood oozing, hot and oily, from the wound.

  That black hole in his head had sucked everything out. His past, his identity, his best friend. But above all, his enemy’s face.

  Because what really tormented Marcus was his inability to remember the appearance of the person who had shot him.

  Paradoxically, if he wanted to find him he had to avoid looking for him, because in order to see that justice was done it was necessary for him to go back to being the Marcus he once was. And, to succeed in that, he couldn’t allow himself to think of what had happened to Devok. He had to start over from the beginning, and find himself again.

  And the only way was to find Lara.

  Shattered windows. He set aside the information and thought again about Clemente’s last words. ‘From now on, you’re on your own.’ There were occasions when he doubted that there was anyone else apart from the two of them. When Clemente had found him in that hospital bed – half dead and deprived of memory – and had revealed to him who he was, he hadn’t believed him. It had taken time to get used to the idea.

  ‘Dogs are colour blind,’ he repeated, to convince himself that it was all true. Then he picked up the file on Jeremiah Smith – c.g. 97-95-6 – sat down on the bed and started studying the contents in search of anything that might lead him to the missing student.

  He started with the potted biography of the killer. Jeremiah was fifty years old and unmarried. He came from a well-to-do middle-class family. His mother was Italian and his father English, both of them now dead. They had owned five draper’s shops in the city, but had given up their commercial activities some time in the 1980s. Jeremiah was an only child, and had no close relatives. Having been provided with a respectable income, he had never worked. At this point, information about him petered out. The last two lines of the profile reported laconically that he lived in complete isolation in his villa in the hills outside Rome.

  Jeremiah Smith struck Marcus as a fairly unremarkable person. Nevertheless, all the conditions were there for him to become what he was. His solitude, his emotional immaturity, and his inability to relate to his fellow men all worked against any desire he might harbour to have someone near him.

  You knew that the only way to get a woman’s attention was to kidnap her and keep her tied up, didn’t you? Of course you did. What were you trying to gain, what was your purpose? You didn’t take them to have sex with them. You didn’t rape them, and you didn’t torture them.

  What you wanted from them was a sense of family.

  These were attempts at forced cohabitation. You tried to make things work, to love them like a good little husband, but they were too scared to give you anything in return. You kept trying to be with them, but after a month you realised it wasn’t possible. You realised that it was a sick, twisted kind of relationship, and that it existed entirely in your mind. And then – let’s admit it – you were eager to put a knife to their throats. So in the end you killed them. But all the same, what you were searching for was love.

  However coherent the idea might be, most people would have found it intolerable. Marcus, on the other hand, had not only grasped it but had even managed to accept it. He asked himself why, but couldn’t give himself an answer. Was that also part of his talent? Sometimes, it scared him.

  He went on to analyse Jeremiah’s modus operandi. He had worked undisturbed for six years, killing four victims. Each had been followed by a lull, during which the memory of the violence perpetrated was sufficient for the murderer to keep the urge to kill again under control. When this beneficial effect faded, he started to hatch a new fantasy that led to a new kidnapping. It wasn’t a plan, it was a genuine physiological process.

  Jeremiah’s victims were young women, aged between seventeen and twenty-eight. He sought them out in broad daylight. He approached them on some pretext or other, offered to buy them a drink, then put a drug in it: GHB, the date-rape drug. Once they were in a dazed state, it was easy to persuade them to follow him.

  But why did the girls agree to have a drink with him?

  That was what Marcus found strange. Someone like Jeremiah – a middle-aged man, far from handsome – should have made his victims suspicious of his real intentions. And yet the girls let him approach them.

  They trusted him.

  Perhaps he had offered them money or an opportunity of some kind. One of the techniques of luring women – much favoured by perverts and their kind – was to promise them a chance to earn some easy money, or to take part in a beauty contest, or to audition for a part in a film or a television programme. But such stratagems required a definite ability to socia
lise. That didn’t tally with what was known of Jeremiah, who was antisocial, a hermit.

  How did you trick them?

  And why had nobody noticed him as he was approaching them? Before Lara, four young women had been abducted in public places and there had not been a single witness. And yet his courting of these women must have taken time. But maybe the question already contained the answer: Jeremiah Smith was so insignificant in other people’s eyes as to be invisible.

  You moved among them undisturbed. But you felt strong, because nobody could see you.

  He thought again of the words on Jeremiah’s chest. Kill me. ‘It’s as if he’s telling us to look beyond appearances,’ he had said to Clemente. ‘The truth is written on the skin, it’s within everyone’s reach, hidden and yet close.’

  You were like a cockroach scuttling across the floor during a party: nobody notices it, nobody’s interested. All it has to do is take care not to be crushed. And you became good at that. But with Lara you decided to change. You took her from her own apartment, from her own bed.

  Just thinking again about Lara, Marcus was assailed by a series of painful questions. Where was she now? Was she still alive? And if she was, what was she feeling? Was there water or food in her prison? How much longer could she hold out? Was she conscious or drugged? Was she injured? Had her captor tied her up?

  Marcus cleared his head of these emotional distractions. He needed to remain lucid, detached. Because there had to be a reason why Jeremiah Smith had radically modified his own modus operandi when it came to Lara. Referring to Jeremiah, Clemente had expounded the theory that some serial killers change their methods as they go along, adding elements that increase their pleasure. So the abduction of the student could be considered a kind of variation on a theme. But Marcus didn’t believe that: the change had been too drastic, too sudden.

  Maybe Jeremiah had tired of resorting to that complex chain of deceptions to reach his goal. Or perhaps he knew that little game wouldn’t work for much longer. One of the girls might have heard about the previous victims and could have unmasked him. He was becoming famous. The risk was increasing exponentially.

 
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