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The lost girls of rome, p.7
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.7

           Donato Carrisi

  The dogs outside started barking and growling, as if they had got into a fight.

  Marcus returned to the small living room and kitchen. Before heading to the upper level, Jeremiah Smith had taken care to empty the sugar bowl on the table and the box on the shelf with the word SUGAR on it, in order to get rid of all traces of the drug. He had done everything calmly and unhurriedly. He wasn’t taking any risks. With Lara asleep, he had all the time in the world.

  You’re good, you didn’t make any mistakes, but there must be something. Marcus knew that the idea that serial killers were dying to reveal their work to the world and deliberately challenged their pursuers was just a fairy story, one circulated by the media to keep the public’s attention alive. But serial killers did enjoy what they did. Which meant they wanted to continue doing it as long as possible. They weren’t interested in fame – that would only be a hindrance – but they did sometimes leave signs. Not to communicate, but to share.

  What did you leave for me? Marcus wondered.

  He aimed his torch at the kitchen shelves. On one of them stood a line of cookery books. He imagined that Lara had never had to cook when she lived with her parents. As soon as she had moved to Rome, though, she had had to start looking after herself, which included learning to cook. But in among these volumes with their coloured spines, one stood out because it was black. Marcus went closer and bent his head to read the title. It was a Bible.

  Anomalies, he thought.

  He took it out and opened it at the page marked by a red satin bookmark. It was Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians.

  The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

  A macabre irony, and definitely not a coincidence. Had someone put the book there? The words referred to the day of judgement, but could also describe what had happened to Lara. Someone had carried her off. The thief, this time, had stolen a person. The young student had not been aware of the presence of Jeremiah Smith,

  moving around her like a shadow. Marcus surveyed his surroundings: the sofa, the TV set, the magazines on the table, the refrigerator with the magnets, the worn parquet floor. This little apartment was the place where Lara had felt most secure. But that had not been enough to protect her. How could she have known that? Nature leads human beings to be optimists, he told himself. It’s fundamental to the survival of the species to neglect potential dangers, apart from the most obvious.

  We can’t live in fear.

  A positive vision is what keeps us going despite the setbacks and misfortunes that fill our lives. The sole disadvantage is that it tends to stop us seeing evil.

  At that moment the stray dogs stopped barking, and he felt an icy tingle at the back of his neck: he had heard a new sound. An almost imperceptible creaking of the floorboards.

  The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, he told himself, realising that it had been a mistake not to check the upper level first.

  ‘Turn it off.’

  The voice came from the stairs behind him and clearly referred to the torch he was holding. Without turning round, he did as he was told. Whoever it was had been here when he arrived. Marcus concentrated on the silence around him. The man was no more than five or six feet from him. God alone knew how long he had been watching him.

  ‘Turn around,’ the voice ordered.

  Marcus did so, slowly. The light from the courtyard filtered dimly through the bars over the window, projecting a cage-like pattern on the wall. Within it, enclosed like a wild beast, was a dark, threatening silhouette. The man was about eight inches taller than him, and solidly built. They both stood there motionless for a time, without speaking. Then the voice emerged again from the darkness.

  ‘Is it you?’

  From the timbre, he sounded little more than a boy. Marcus recognised anger in the tone, but also fear.

  ‘It is you, you son of a bitch.’

  He had no idea if this man was armed. He kept silent, letting him speak.

  ‘I saw you come here with that other man yesterday morning.’ Marcus guessed that he was referring to his first visit with Clemente. ‘I’ve had an eye on this place for two days. What do you people want with me?’

  Marcus tried to make sense of these words, but in vain. And there was no way to predict what would happen.

  ‘Are you trying to rip me off?’

  The shadow took a step towards him, and Marcus saw his hands: he wasn’t carrying a weapon. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘You’re fucking with me.’

  ‘Maybe we should go somewhere else and discuss this calmly.’

  ‘Let’s talk about it now.’

  Marcus decided to come out into the open. ‘Are you here because of the missing girl?’

  ‘I don’t know anything about the girl, I had nothing to do with that. Are you trying to frame me, you bastard?’

  Marcus sensed that he was genuine. If he was an accomplice of Jeremiah Smith, why run the risk of coming back?

  Before Marcus could think of an answer, the stranger rushed at him, grabbed him by the collar and pushed him up against the wall. Pinning him there with one hand, he took out an envelope with the other and waved it under Marcus’s nose. ‘Are you the one who wrote me this fucking letter?’

  ‘That wasn’t me.’

  ‘Then what are you doing here?’

  First, Marcus needed to understand how this situation might be connected with Lara’s disappearance. ‘Let’s talk about that letter if you like.’

  But the young man had no intention of yielding control of the conversation. ‘Did Ranieri send you? You can tell that bastard I’m through with him.’

  ‘I don’t know anybody called Ranieri, you have to believe me.’

  He tried to get away, but the man was still holding him firmly. He hadn’t finished with him yet.

  ‘Are you a policeman?’


  ‘What about the symbol, then? Nobody knew about the symbol.’

  ‘What symbol?’

  ‘The one in the letter, you arsehole.’

  The letter and the symbol: Marcus stored away this information. It wasn’t much, but it might help him to understand the young man’s intentions. Unless, quite simply, he was mad. He had to take charge of the situation. ‘Forget about the letter. I don’t know anything.’

  ‘Who the fuck are you?’

  Marcus did not reply, hoping he would calm down. Instead of which, he was thrown to the floor and found himself crushed beneath the other man’s weight. He tried to defend himself, but the young man was pressing down on his chest and hitting him. He lifted his arms to protect his head, but the blows stunned him, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. He had the feeling he was about to lose consciousness, until he realised it was all over. From where he lay, he saw the young man opening the door of the apartment. For a moment he saw him from behind, framed in the light from the courtyard. Then the door closed, and he heard his steps quickly move away.

  Marcus waited a while before trying to stand. He felt dizzy and his ears were whistling. He did not feel any pain. Not yet. It would come all at once, he knew, but it would take time. That was always how it happened. He would feel bad all over his body, even where he had not been hit. He did not remember what past experience that memory came from, but he knew that was how it was.

  He lifted himself into a sitting position and tried to put his thoughts back into some kind of order. He had let the young man escape when he should have found a way to detain him. He tried to be lenient with himself, telling himself he wouldn’t have been able to make him see reason anyway. And he had achieved one result, at least.

  In the fight, he had got hold of the letter.

  He groped on the floor for the torch, which had slipped from his hand earlier. He found it, gave it a couple of knocks to switch it on and aimed it at the envelope.

  There was no sender indicated, but it was addressed to someone called Raffaele Altieri. The date on the post
mark was three days earl ier. Inside was a sheet of paper containing only the address of Lara’s apartment in the Via dei Coronari. But what struck him was the symbol that seemed to serve as a signature.

  Three small red dots forming a triangle.

  6 a.m.

  She hadn’t slept. After Schalber’s phone call, she had tossed and turned in bed for hours. Finally the alarm clock had told her that it was five o’clock and Sandra had got up.

  She got ready in a hurry and called a taxi to take her to Headquarters: she didn’t want any of her colleagues to spot her car. They certainly wouldn’t have asked for an explanation, but for some time now she had been irritated by the way they looked at her. The widow. Was that what they called her? It was certainly the way they thought of her. Their compassion hit her like a nasty slap whenever they passed her. The worst of it was that some of them felt obliged to say something. She’d built up quite a collection of platitudes. The most popular was: ‘Be brave, David would have wanted you to be strong.’ She would have liked to record all of these phrases so that she could then demonstrate to the world that if there is anything worse than indifference to other people’s grief it’s the trite way most of us try to deal with it.

  But maybe that was just her being over-sensitive. All the same, she wanted to get to the storeroom a fraction before the night shift ended.

  It took her twenty minutes to reach her destination. En route, she dropped into the canteen for a takeaway croissant and cappuccino.

  Her colleague was getting ready to leave. ‘Hello, Vega,’ he said, seeing her come in. ‘What are you doing here at this hour?’

  Sandra put on her sweetest smile. ‘I brought you breakfast.’

  His eyes lit up. ‘You’re a friend. It’s been a busy night: they arrested a gang of Colombians who were dealing outside the Lambrate station.’

  Sandra didn’t want to get involved in a pointless conversation, so she came straight to the point. ‘I’d like to pick up the bags I left here five months ago.’

  Her colleague looked at her in surprise, but didn’t hesitate. ‘I’ll fetch them.’

  He disappeared into the depths of the storeroom. Sandra heard him muttering to himself as he searched. She was impatient, but tried to control herself. She had been extremely irritable lately. Her sister said that she was going through one of the four phases that follow the death of a loved one. She had seen that in a book, though she couldn’t remember the sequence, which meant she couldn’t tell Sandra which phase she was in now and if she’d soon have got through all of them. Sandra doubted she would, but she had let her talk. The same went for the rest of the family, none of whom really wanted to deal with what had happened to her. Not out of insensitivity, but because there wasn’t really any advice you could give a twenty-nine-year-old widow. So they simply told her things they had read in magazines or cited the experience of a distant acquaintance. This was sufficient for them to feel they were doing the right thing, and that was fine with Sandra.

  After five minutes, her colleague returned with David’s two large bags.

  He was carrying them by the handles, unlike David who always put them over his shoulders. One on the right, one on the left, which always made him sway as he walked.

  ‘You look like a pack mule, Fred.’

  ‘But you still love me, Ginger.’

  As she had feared, the sight of those bags hit her like a punch in the chest. Her David was in those bags, they contained his whole world. If it had been up to her, they would have stayed in the storeroom until someone had unthinkingly sent them to be pulped along with all the other things that had outlived their usefulness. But last night Schalber had given substance to the questions that had been clinging to her heart ever since she had discovered that David had lied to her. She could not allow anyone to harbour suspicions about her man – and that included her.

  ‘Here they are,’ her colleague said, placing the bags on the counter.

  There was no need to sign a receipt. After all, they had been doing her a favour by keeping the bags there. They had arrived from Rome police headquarters after the accident, and she simply hadn’t collected them.

  ‘Do you want to check if anything’s missing?’

  ‘No, thanks. I’m sure everything’s fine.’

  But her colleague continued to stare at her, his expression suddenly sad.

  Don’t say it, she thought.

  But he did. ‘Be brave, Vega, Daniel would have wanted you to be strong.’

  Who the hell was Daniel? she wondered, forcing herself to smile. Then she thanked him and walked out with David’s bags.

  Half an hour later, she was back home. She put the bags down on the floor by the door and left them there. For a while she stood at a certain distance from them, looking at them like a stray dog inspecting its food, trying to figure out whether it was suspect. What she was actually looking for was courage to confront the test. She walked towards the bags and then moved away again. She made herself some tea and sat on the sofa, cradling her cup and looking at the bags. For the first time, she realised what she had done.

  She had brought David home.

  In all those months, part of her may have hoped, imagined, believed that sooner or later he would come back. The thought that they would never again make love drove her crazy. There were times when she forgot that he was dead, something would come into her mind and she would say to herself, ‘I have to tell David.’ A moment later the truth would hit her, in all its bitterness.

  David would never come back. Full stop.

  Sandra remembered the day she had first been confronted with that reality. It had happened here, at the door of her apartment, on a quiet morning like this one. She had left the two policemen standing at the door, convinced that, as long as they remained there, as long as they did not cross that border, then the news of David’s death would not materialise. And she would not have to face what was about to come into her house. A hurricane that would devastate everything, even though it left everything intact. She didn’t think she could do it.

  And yet here I am, she told herself. And if Schalber is interested in this luggage, there has to be a reason.

  She put the cup of tea down on the floor and resolutely walked towards the bags. First she picked up the less heavy of the two: the one containing only clothes. She emptied it on to the floor. The shirts, trousers and sweaters tumbled out. The smell of David’s skin overcame her, but she tried to ignore it.

  God, how I miss you, Fred.

  She held back her tears as she rummaged among the clothes in a desperate frenzy. Images came back to her of David wearing them, brief moments of their life together. She felt a mixture of nostalgia and anger.

  There was nothing among these things. She even checked the pockets. Nothing.

  She was exhausted. But the worst part was over. Now it was the turn of his work things. They represented the reason David was no longer here, but they weren’t part of her memories. So looking through them ought to be easier.

  First of all, she took out David’s second camera. The other one had been broken in the fall. It was a Canon, whereas Sandra favoured a Nikon. They had had many lively discussions on the subject.

  She activated it. The memory was empty.

  She crossed the camera off the list and continued. She connected the various electronic devices to the mains, because the batteries had worn out in those months of inactivity. Then she checked through them. On the satellite phone the last call went back a very long way and was of no interest to her. The mobile phone she had already checked when she had gone to Rome to identify the body. David had used it only to book taxis and for the last telephone call he had made to her answering service: It’s freezing cold here in Oslo. Otherwise, it was as if he had isolated himself from the world.

  She switched on the laptop, hoping that here at least she would find something. But all the files seemed to be old and of no great consequence. Even the emails yielded nothing interesting or new. In none o
f his documents or messages did David make any reference to the reason he was in Rome.

  Why maintain such a level of secrecy? she wondered. She was again assailed by the question that had kept her awake all night.

  She could have sworn her husband was as honest as the day was long, but what on earth was he up to in Rome?

  Go fuck yourself, Schalber, she repeated to herself. It was his fault she had all these doubts.

  She went back to the bag and, putting aside whatever didn’t seem to be of any interest for the moment, like the multi-use knife or the telefoto lenses, came across a leather-bound diary. It was worn at the edges and very old. Every year, David replaced only the central part of it. It was one of those objects he never let out of his sight. Like the brown sandals with the worn soles or that felt cardigan he wore whenever he wrote at the computer. Sandra had tried endlessly to get rid of them. For a few days he would pretend not to notice, but then would always somehow discover where she had hidden them.

  She smiled at that memory. That was the way David was. Another man would have protested vociferously, but he never challenged her little abuses of power, just quietly went back to doing what he wanted.

  Sandra opened the diary. On some of the pages corresponding to the period when David was in Rome, he had noted down one or two addresses. He had also marked the same addresses on a map of the city. In all, there were about twenty of them.

  As she was pondering the meaning of these addresses, she noticed there was a new object in the bag, one not on the list. A two-way radio. She instinctively checked the frequency. Channel 81. It didn’t mean anything to her.

  What was David doing with a radio like that?

  Searching through the remaining objects, she realised that something was missing: the little voice recorder David always carried with him. He called it his spare memory. Yet he hadn’t had it with him when he had fallen. There were many ways it might have got lost, of course, but Sandra decided to make a note of it.

  Before continuing, she quickly went over what she had discovered so far.

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