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The lost girls of rome, p.6
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.6

           Donato Carrisi
 

  No. That’s not why you modified your tactics. What makes Lara different from the others?

  What complicated things was the fact that the four girls who had preceded her had nothing in common: neither their ages nor their looks. Jeremiah didn’t seem to have a specific taste in women. The word that came to Marcus’s mind was random. He had trusted to fate in choosing them, otherwise they would all have resembled one another. The more he looked at the photographs of the murdered women, the more convinced he was that the killer had chosen them simply because they were in an exposed position, which made them easier to approach. That was why he had taken them in broad daylight from public places. But he didn’t know them.

  Lara, though, was special. Jeremiah couldn’t risk losing her. That was why he had taken her from her own home and, above all, why he had acted at night.

  For a moment Marcus put down the file, got up from the camp bed, and went to the window. When evening fell, the uneven roofs of Rome were a turbulent sea of shadows. It was the time of day he preferred. A strange calm took possession of him, and he felt at peace. Thanks to this calm, Marcus realised where he was going wrong. He had visited Lara’s apartment in daylight. But he ought to do it in the dark, because that was how her abductor had worked.

  If he wanted to understand the man’s mental processes, he had to reproduce the exact conditions in which Jeremiah had acted.

  Marcus picked up his raincoat and rushed out of the attic. He had to go back to the building in the Via dei Coronari.

  ONE YEAR EARLIER PARIS

  The hunter knew the value of time. His prime gift was patience. He knew how to wait, and in the meantime he prepared for the moment, savouring the anticipation of victory.

  A sudden breeze lifted the tablecloth, making the glasses tinkle on the next table. The hunter lifted his pastis to his lips, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. He watched the cars pass in front of the bistro. The hurrying pedestrians paid no attention to him.

  He was wearing a blue suit with a blue shirt and tie, loosened in such a way as to make him look like an office worker stopping off for a drink on the way home. Knowing that solitary people attract attention, he had a small paper shopping bag on the seat next to him. A baguette, a clump of parsley and a tube of coloured sweets stuck out from the top of it. He would be taken for a family man. He was even wearing a wedding ring.

  But he didn’t have anyone.

  Over the years he had reduced his needs to a minimum, and led a frugal life. He thought of himself as an ascetic. He had quashed every aspiration that was not useful to his one purpose, avoiding the distraction of desire. He needed only one thing.

  His prey.

  After all that time spent following him in vain, he had received information that suggested he was in Paris. Without waiting for confirmation, he had moved here himself. He needed to know his prey’s new territory. He had to see what his prey saw, walk the same streets, experience the curious sensation that he might meet him at any moment, even if he didn’t recognise him. He needed to know that they were both under the same sky. This excited him, made him think that sooner or later he would manage to flush him out.

  To keep a low profile, he had changed accommodation every three weeks, always choosing smaller hotels or rented rooms, covering an ever broader area of the city.

  For a while now he had been staying at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères, in the sixth arrondissement. In his room he had piles of newspapers that he had accumulated during that long period, all underlined feverishly in search of a clue – however remote – that might open a breach in that terrible wall of darkness and silence.

  He had been in Paris for almost nine months, but had not made any progress. His confidence had wavered. But then, unexpectedly, the event he had been waiting for occurred. A sign. A clue that he alone could decipher. He had never given up, he had kept to the rules he had set himself, and now he was rewarded.

  Twenty-four hours earlier, workers digging on a building site in the Rue Malmaison in Bagnolet had uncovered a body.

  Male, aged around thirty, no clothes or personal objects. Death was believed to have occurred over a year earlier. While waiting for the results of the autopsy, nobody had asked too many questions. Given the amount of time that had elapsed, the police regarded it as a cold case. Any evidence – if there had ever been any – was now faded or compromised.

  The fact that the discovery had been made on the outskirts of the city suggested a settling of accounts between drug gangs. In order not to draw the attention of the police, the perpetrators had taken the precaution of getting rid of the body.

  The police were so used to that kind of thing, it didn’t get them too excited. Even the one truly macabre aspect of the case, which should have set alarm bells ringing, hadn’t aroused any suspicions.

  The body didn’t have a face.

  It had not been an act of pure cruelty, or the final outrage visited on an enemy. All the muscles and bones of the face had been meticulously broken. Anyone taking so much care must have had a reason.

  That was the kind of detail the hunter was always on the lookout for.

  Since the day he had arrived in Paris, he had kept an eye on the bodies arriving at the morgues of the large hospitals. That was how he had learned of this discovery. An hour later, he had stolen a white coat and broken into the cold room of the Saint-Antoine hospital. With a pad, he had taken the corpse’s fingerprints. Back at the hotel he had scanned them and then hacked into the government databases. The hunter knew that every time a piece of information is put on the internet, it can’t be removed. It’s like the human mind: all it takes is one detail to reawaken the synapses and bring back things we thought we had forgotten.

  The web never forgets.

  The hunter had sat in the dark, waiting for the response, praying and thinking again about how he had got here. Seven years had passed since the first disfigured corpse in Memphis. That had been followed by Buenos Aires, Toronto and Panama. Then Europe: Turin, Vienna, Budapest. And finally, Paris.

  These at least were the cases he had managed to identify. There might have been many more, which would never be discovered. These murders had taken place in such widely flung places and at such long intervals that nobody, apart from him, had linked them to a single perpetrator.

  His prey was also a predator.

  At first the hunter had assumed he was dealing with a ‘pilgrim’: a serial killer who travelled in order to conceal his crimes. If that were the case, he would only have needed to locate his base. Clearly, he was dealing with a Westerner, someone who lived in a large city. Pilgrims were socially integrated individuals, with families, children and enough money to afford frequent travel. They were clever, cautious, able to camouflage their movements as business trips.

  But then he had noticed something about that chain of crimes, something that had escaped him at first but now threw a new light on everything.

  The age of the victims was increasing.

  That was when he had realised that the criminal mind he was dealing with was much more complex and terrifying than he had thought.

  He was not killing and then leaving. He was killing and then staying.

  That was why, here in Paris, this could finally be it, or it could turn out to be yet another failure.

  After a couple of hours, a response had arrived from the government files. The faceless corpse found in Bagnolet had a criminal record.

  He was not a drug dealer, but a normal man who had committed a youthful sin: at the age of sixteen he had stolen a model car, a Bugatti, from a shop for collectors. At that time, the police even took the fingerprints of minors. The charge had been withdrawn and the case had been closed, but although his file had been deleted from police records it had ended up in the archives of a government body that was carrying out a statistical investigation at the time into crimes committed by adolescents.

  This time, his prey had made a mistake. The corpse without a face now had a name.

&nbs
p; Jean Duez.

  After this, it had been easy to discover the rest. Jean Duez was thirty-three years old and unmarried. He had lost both his parents in a road accident, and had no close relatives except for an elderly aunt in Avignon who suffered from Alzheimer’s. He had set up a small business on the internet, working from home, selling model cars to collectors. Human relationships reduced to the minimum, no companion in his life, no friends. A passion for miniature racing cars.

  Jean Duez was perfect. Nobody would notice his absence. Nobody would bother to look for him.

  The hunter assumed that the previous victims had had similar profiles. Nondescript people, with no distinguishing features. Jobs that required no special gifts or abilities. A solitary life verging on the misanthropic, with no acquaintances and few human contacts. No close relatives, no family.

  The hunter was impressed with his prey’s cleverness. He might be committing the sin of pride, but he was pleased when the challenge was of such a high level.

  He looked at his watch: it was almost seven. Regulars were starting to come into the bistro, having made reservations for early dinner. He signalled to a waitress that he wanted to pay. A boy was walking between the tables, selling the latest edition of the evening newspaper. The hunter bought one, although he knew that the news of the discovery of Jean Duez’s body would not appear until the next day, which was why he still had an advantage over his prey. He was excited, the wait was finally over. The best part of the chase was about to begin. He only needed one thing to confirm it. That was why he was here, sitting in this bistro.

  Again the breeze blew along the street, carrying with it a cloud of coloured pollen from the florist’s stall on the corner. He didn’t know spring in Paris could be so beautiful.

  Then he felt a shudder. He had just seen his prey in the middle of the crowds emerging from the Metro. The man was wearing a blue anorak, grey velvet trousers, trainers and a small peaked cap. The hunter’s eyes tracked him as he walked along the pavement on the other side of the street. The man was looking down, hands in his pockets; it hadn’t occurred to him that there was someone pursuing him, so he wasn’t taking any precautions. Excellent, the hunter said to himself as the prey walked calmly towards a green door in the Rue Lamarck.

  The waitress approached with his bill. ‘How was the pastis?’

  ‘Very good,’ he replied with a smile.

  And as the hunter put his hand in his pocket to find his wallet, Jean Duez, unaware of his presence, entered the building.

  The age of the victims is increasing, he kept telling himself. The hunter had cottoned on to his prey almost by chance: linking these faceless bodies spread around the world, he had realised that over the course of the years someone had taken over their lives. As the killer grew older, the age of the victims changed accordingly, as if he was changing his outfit.

  His prey was a transformist.

  He still did not know the reason why the man acted as he did, but he would soon – very soon – find out. The hunter took up a position a few yards from the green door, holding the paper shopping bag, waiting to take advantage of someone coming out in order to get inside the building.

  At last he was rewarded. An elderly man in a heavy overcoat, a wide-brimmed hat and thick glasses appeared in the doorway. He had a brown cocker spaniel with him, and the dog was tugging at its leash, anxious to get to the little park nearby. The hunter put his hand out to stop the door from closing without the old man even noticing him.

  The stairwell was dark and narrow. He stood there listening. The voices and other noises coming from the apartments mingled together in a single echo. He looked at the letter boxes: Jean Duez lived in Apartment 3Q.

  He put the shopping bag down on the first step, took out the baguette and the clump of parsley, and recovered from the bottom of the bag the Barretta M92F, adapted as a tranquilliser gun by the American army, which he had bought from a mercenary in Jerusalem. In order for the tranquilliser to work immediately, you had to aim at the head, heart or groin. It took five seconds to expel the cartridge and recharge. It wasn’t a long time, which meant that the first shot had to be accurate. It was quite likely that his prey also had a weapon, but with real bullets. The hunter did not care: the tranquilliser gun would be enough for him.

  He wanted him alive.

  He had not had time to study his prey’s habits. But over the years, he had realised that his guiding principle was continuity. He would not stray far from the life he had assigned himself. If you scrupulously repeat your actions in a pre-established order, it’s easier to remain inconspicuous and to control the situation: that, too, was something the hunter had learned from him. When you came down to it, his prey had become a kind of example to him. He had taught him the value of discipline and self-denial. He adapted to circumstances, even the most hostile. Like those organisms that live in the depths of the ocean, where no light penetrates and the cold and pressure would kill a man instantly. That was what the prey reminded him of. It was the only way of life he knew. The hunter actually admired him a little. Basically, his was a struggle for survival.

  Clutching the tranquilliser gun, he ascended the stairs to the third floor. He came to a halt outside the door of Jean Duez’s apartment and easily picked the lock. There was no sound but the ticking of a grandfather clock. The apartment was not very large, no more than eight hundred and fifty square feet, divided into three rooms plus bathroom. In front of him was a short corridor.

  A light filtered from under the one closed door.

  The hunter advanced, stepping carefully in order not to make a noise. He reached the first room. Rapidly, he moved to the doorway and aimed the gun inside. It was a kitchen, and it was empty. Everything was clean and tidy. The china on the dresser, the toaster, the dishcloth hanging from the oven handle. He felt a strange emotion, finding himself in the prey’s lair, in contact with his world. He proceeded to the bathroom. There was nobody here either. White and green tiles in a chessboard pattern. A single toothbrush. A fake tortoiseshell comb. In the next room there was a large double bed with a brown satin quilt. A glass of water on the bedside table. Leather slippers. A wall of shelves filled with model cars: Jean Duez’s passion.

  The hunter left the bathroom and at last came to the closed door. He listened. There was no sound coming from the other side. He looked down at the floor. He could see the line of light below the door. But no shadows passed across it to show that there was someone there. What he did see on the floor was something he had never seen before.

  A ring of small brown stains.

  Blood, he thought. But now was not the time to become distracted. His prey was a ruthless, complex man, he could not forget that. However fascinated he might be by him, he knew there was a total lack of pity in the man’s soul, and he had no desire to stand up to him in equal combat.

  The only way was to act first, take him by surprise. The moment had come. The hunt was nearing its end. Only then would all this have a meaning.

  He took a step back and kicked the door open. He aimed the tranquilliser gun, hoping to locate his target immediately. But he couldn’t see him. The door bounced back on its hinges, and he had to put out his hand to stop it. He entered and looked rapidly around.

  There was nobody in the room.

  An ironing board. A cabinet with an old radio and a lighted lamp. A coat rack with some clothes hanging on it.

  The hunter approached the rack. How was it possible? These were the clothes his prey had been wearing when he had seen him enter the building. The blue anorak, the grey velvet trousers, the trainers, the peaked cap. The hunter looked down and noticed the bowl in a corner.

  The name Fyodor was written around the edge of it. He recalled the old man taking his cocker spaniel out for a walk.

  Damn, he said to himself, but then, realising how cleverly he had been tricked, he burst into laughter. He had to admire the method the transformist had devised to trick anyone who might be after him. Every day he returned home, p
ut on that disguise, and took his dog to the park. From there, he could keep an eye on the building.

  That meant that Jean Duez – or, more precisely, the foul creature who had taken his place – now knew about him.

  FOUR DAYS AGO

  1.40 a.m.

  After the storm, stray dogs had taken possession of the side streets in the historic centre. They moved about in silent packs, keeping close to the walls. Marcus saw a pack coming towards him as he walked along the Via Coronari. It was led by a red mongrel with one eye missing. For a moment their eyes met, and they recognised each other. Then they turned away again, each continuing on his way.

  A few moments later, he again entered Lara’s apartment.

  In the dark, just like Jeremiah Smith.

  He reached out a hand towards the light switch, but thought better of it. Lara’s kidnapper had probably had a torch with him. So he took out the one he had in his pocket and began searching the apartment. In the beam of light, the furniture and fittings loomed up out of the shadows.

  He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he was convinced that there was a connection between the young student and Jeremiah. Lara was much more than a mere victim, she was an object of desire. Marcus had to find out what linked them: that was the only way he could hope to discover where the girl was being kept prisoner. This was all speculation, but at the moment he couldn’t rule anything out.

  From the distance there came the barking of the stray dogs.

  With that melancholy sound in the background, he began his exploration of the lower level, starting with the small bathroom that concealed the trapdoor beneath its floor. On the shelf next to the shower stood bottles of shower gel, shampoo and balm, all neatly lined up according to height. The same care was noticeable in the arrangement of the detergents next to the washing machine. Behind the mirror above the wash basin was a small cabinet containing cosmetics and toiletries. The calendar on the door was open at the page corresponding to last month.

 
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