The Lost Girls of Rome, p.8Donato Carrisi
She had found some addresses in a diary, addresses that were also marked on a map of Rome. A two-way radio tuned to a mysterious frequency. And finally, the recorder that David used to make notes was missing.
As she turned these things over in her mind, looking for a logical connection between them, she was overcome with a sense of unease. After the accident, she had asked Reuters and the Associated Press – the agencies her husband usually worked for – if by any chance he was doing a job for them in Rome. Both had said no. Whatever he had been doing, he was doing it alone. Of course, it wouldn’t have been the first time he had worked on a story then placed it afterwards with the highest bidder. But Sandra had the terrible feeling that this time there had been more to it. And she was not sure she wanted to discover what.
Dismissing these unpleasant thoughts, she again devoted herself to the contents of the bag.
From the bottom she extracted the Leica. This was an original camera from 1925, made by Oskar Barnack and developed by Ernst Leitz. It was the first truly portable camera. Given its extreme flexibility, it had made a revolutionary impact on war photography in particular.
It was a beautiful camera. A focal plane shutter, with a range from 1/20 to 1/500 of a second, and a fixed 50 mm lens. A real collector’s item.
Sandra had given it to David for their first anniversary. She still remembered his surprise when he had unwrapped the package. With what they earned, they would never have been able to afford it. But Sandra had inherited it from her grandfather, who had passed his passion for photography on to her.
It was a family heirloom, and David never let it out of his sight. He called it his lucky charm.
But it didn’t help to save your life, Sandra thought.
It was in its original leather case, on which she had had his initials – DL – inscribed. She opened it and sat looking at it, trying to recall the way David’s eyes had shone like a child’s whenever he handled it. She was about to put it away when she noticed that the screw that activated the shutter mechanism was in place. There was film in the camera.
David had used it to take photographs.
They called them safe houses: apartments spread around the city, used for logistical support, as a temporary refuge or simply as places to have a bite to eat and relax a little. Next to the bell at the front door, there was usually the name of a non-existent business.
The apartment Marcus entered now was one he knew from having been there once with Clemente. It was Clemente who had revealed to him that they owned numerous properties in Rome. The key was hidden in a crack next to the door.
As Marcus had foreseen, the pain had started up at dawn. The attack he had suffered had certainly left its mark. Apart from a couple of bruises on his ribs that reminded him of what had happened last night with every breath he took, he had a broken lip and a swollen cheek. All of which, added to the scar on his temple, must have made him look very strange.
In a safe house you could usually find food, a bed, hot water, a first-aid kit, false documents, and a secure computer with which to connect to the internet. But the one Marcus had chosen was empty. There was no furniture and the blinds were down. In one of the rooms there was a telephone on the floor.
The sole purpose of the place was to house that apparatus.
It was Clemente who had first pointed out to him that it wasn’t advisable for them to own mobile phones. Marcus never left any traces behind.
I don’t exist, he thought before calling an information service.
A few minutes later, a polite operator gave him the address and telephone number of Raffaele Altieri, the attacker who had surprised him in Lara’s apartment. Marcus hung up and called the number. He let the phone at the other end ring for quite a while to make sure there was nobody at home. He decided it was safe to pay the young man a return visit.
Within a short time, he was standing in the pouring rain at the corner of the Via Rubens, in the posh Parioli neighbourhood, looking at a four-storey building.
He got in through the garage. The apartment that interested him was on the third floor. Marcus put his ear to the door, to make doubly sure it was temporarily uninhabited. There were no noises. He decided to risk it: he had to know who his attacker was.
He forced the lock and entered.
The apartment that greeted him was a large one. The furniture suggested both good taste and ready availability of money. There were antique pieces and valuable paintings. The floors were of clear marble, the doors lacquered in white. The most interesting thing about the place was that it did not seem like the home of a street tough.
Marcus started his search. He had to be quick, someone could come back at any moment.
One of the rooms had been fitted out as a gym. There was a bodybuilding bench with barbells, Swedish wall bars, a treadmill and various other kinds of gymnastic equipment. Raffaele Altieri obviously kept himself in shape. Marcus had felt the results of that passion on his own body.
The kitchen indicated that he lived alone. In the refrigerator, there was nothing but skimmed milk and energy drinks. On the shelves, tins of vitamins and boxes of vitamin supplements.
The third room was just as revealing of the kind of life the young man led. There was a single bed, neatly made. The sheets had images from Star Wars on them. On the wall behind the bed was a Bruce Lee poster. There were posters on the other walls, too, of rock groups and racing bikes. A stereo stood on a shelf and there was an electric guitar in a corner.
It was a teenager’s room.
How old was Raffaele? Marcus wondered. He got his answer when he went into the fourth room.
A chair and a desk stood against one wall. They were the only furniture. On the opposite wall, a collage of newspaper articles. The paper was yellow with age, but they had been well preserved.
They went back nineteen years.
Marcus went closer to read them. They were arranged in chronological order from left to right.
There had been a double murder. The victims were Valeria Altieri, Raffaele’s mother, and her lover.
Marcus lingered over the photographs accompanying the articles, photographs that had appeared not only in newspapers but also in gossip magazines.
The ingredients for gossip were certainly not lacking.
Valeria Altieri was beautiful, elegant, pampered, accustomed to luxury. Her husband was Guido Altieri, a well-known commercial lawyer, who was often abroad: rich, open-minded and very powerful. Marcus saw him in a photograph taken at his wife’s funeral, looking serious and self-composed despite the scandal that had overwhelmed him, watching the coffin and holding the hand of his son Raffaele, who was three years old at the time. Valeria’s erstwhile lover was a well-known yachtsman, the winner of numerous regattas. A kind of gigolo, some years younger than her.
The murders had created quite a stir, given the fame of those involved and also the manner in which they had been carried out. The lovers had been surprised as they lay in bed together. The police had established that there had been at least two people involved. But there had been no arrests, nor were there any suspects. The identity of the killers was never discovered.
Then Marcus spotted a detail that had escaped him at first reading. The murders had happened right here, in this apartment where Raffaele still lived at the age of twenty-two.
While his mother was being slaughtered, he had been asleep in his bed.
The killers had either been unaware of him or had decided to spare him. But the next morning, the child had woken up, gone into the other bedroom and seen the two bodies, which bore more than seventy stab wounds between them. Marcus could imagine him bursting into tears at the sight of horrors he could make no sense of at that age.
Valeria had sent the servants away in order to receive her lover, so the murders went undiscovered until her husband returned from a business trip to London.
The little boy had been alone with the bodies for two whole days.
He did not know when he had experienced it, but it was present in him. His parents were no longer alive to tell him where the memory came from. He had even forgotten the pain of losing them. But maybe that was one of the few positive sides of his amnesia.
He concentrated again on his work, shifting his attention to the surface of the desk.
There were mountains of files. Marcus would have liked to sit down and go through them carefully. But there was no time. It would be risky to stay here much longer. So he made do with a superficial examination, leafing through them rapidly.
There were photographs, copies of police reports, evidence lists. These documents should not have been here. Together with notes of various kinds and personal reflections written by Raffaele Altieri himself, there were also reports from a private investigator. He noticed a business card from a detective agency.
The name on it was Ranieri.
It was a name Raffaele had mentioned last night: ‘Did Ranieri send you? You can tell that bastard I’m through with him.’
Marcus slipped it into his pocket, then looked up again at the wall covered with articles and tried to take it all in at a single glance. It was obvious that a shrewd investigator could screw a lot of money out of a young man obsessed with a single, overriding idea.
Finding his mother’s killers.
The cuttings, the reports, the papers were all evidence of an obsession. Raffaele wanted to give a face to the monsters who had defiled his childhood. Children have enemies made of air, dust and shadow, Marcus thought, the Bogeyman, the Big Bad Wolf. These monsters live in stories and come out only when they throw tantrums and their parents want to scare them. But then they always disappear, going back to the darkness that generated them.
Raffaele’s monsters, though, had remained.
There was one last detail that Marcus had to check. He started looking for anything that might throw light on the symbol: the three little red dots at the bottom of the letter summoning Raffaele to Lara’s apartment.
‘What about the symbol, then?’ Raffaele had said. ‘Nobody knew about the symbol.’
In the files, Marcus managed to find a document from the prosecutor’s department that mentioned it specifically, although there seemed to be some omissions. There was an explanation for that: the police often concealed certain details of a case from the press and the public. That helped to prevent false testimonies from the kinds of cranks who confessed to every crime, but also to make the guilty parties believe they were in the clear. In the case of the murder of Valeria Altieri, something important had been discovered at the scene of the crime. An element that the police, for some reason, had decided not to reveal.
Marcus still didn’t know what any of this had to do with Jeremiah Smith or Lara’s disappearance. The crime was nineteen years old and, even if there had been clues not picked up by the police at the time, they would be impossible to recover now.
The crime scene was gone for ever.
He looked at his watch: twenty minutes had already passed, and the last thing he wanted was another close encounter with Raffaele. But he decided it was worth taking at least a quick look at the bedroom in which Valeria Altieri had been killed.
When he opened the door, he realised immediately that he had been wrong about the crime scene being gone.
The first thing he saw was the blood.
The double bed with the blue sheets was drenched in it. There was so much of it, you could see exactly how the victims had been positioned during the murder. The mattress and pillows still bore the shapes of their bodies. Lying side by side, locked in a desperate embrace, unable to resist the homicidal rage unleashed on them.
From the bed, the blood had overflowed like lava on to the white carpet, soaking the fibres, colouring them a red so glossy, so sumptuous, as to clash with the very idea of death.
The blood had hit the walls, too, but what was most striking was how neatly and coherently the stains seemed to be arranged, as if that frenzied attack had produced a strange harmony.
And some of the blood had also been used to write on the wall over the bed. A single word, in English.
Everything now was fixed, motionless. But it was also startlingly vivid and real, as if the murders had just taken place. Marcus felt as though, merely by opening that door, he had taken a journey back in time.
It isn’t possible, he said to himself.
There was no way the room could have been preserved exactly as it had been on that tragic day nineteen years earlier.
There was only one explanation, and he found confirmation for it in the paint pots and brushes in a corner of the room, as well as in the forensic photographs Raffaele had somehow got his hands on, showing the actual scene: the scene as encountered by Guido Altieri, returning home on a quiet March morning.
Subsequently, everything had been altered. By the intervention of the police, but also by whoever had immediately afterwards cleaned everything, trying to wipe out all memory of the horror and restore the place to its original state.
That always happens when there has been a violent death, Marcus told himself. The bodies are taken away, the blood dries, and life returns to normal.
Nobody wants to preserve those memories. Not even me, he thought.
Raffaele Altieri, though, had decided to faithfully reproduce the scene of the crime. Pursuing his own obsession, he had built a shrine to the atrocity. And in trying to enclose the evil within that shrine, he himself had been imprisoned by it.
But at least this faithful reproduction gave Marcus the opportunity to examine it and look for the anomalies he needed. So he made a belated sign of the cross and went in.
As he approached what looked like a sacrificial altar, he understood why the slaughter must have been carried out by at least two people.
The victims were to be allowed no escape.
He tried to imagine Valeria Altieri and her lover, surprised by that inhuman violence. Had she screamed, or had she held back in order not to wake her little son, who was asleep in the next room, and stop him running in to see what was happening?
At the foot of the bed, on the right, a pool of blood had formed, while to the left Marcus noted three small circular marks.
He bent down to get a better look. They formed a perfect equilateral triangle. Each side measuring roughly twenty inches.
He was considering the possible meanings of that sign, when, looking up for a moment, he saw something he had not noticed at first glance.
There on the carpet were the prints of small bare feet.
He imagined the three-year-old Raffaele putting his head in at the door of that room the morning after the massacre, seeing that horror and being unable to understand the meaning of it. He saw him running to the bed, dipping his feet in the pool of blood as he did so, and desperately shaking his mother, trying to wake her. Marcus could also imagine his little body on the blood-soaked sheets: after crying for hours, he must have huddled by his mother’s body and, exhausted, have fallen asleep.
He had spent two days in this apartment before his father had found him and taken him away. Two days and two very long nights, confronting alone whatever lurked in the darkness.
Children don’t need memories, they learn by forgetting.
Those forty-eight hours, on the other hand, had been sufficient to mark the existence of Raffaele Altieri for ever.
Marcus could not move. He started taking deep breaths, fearing a panic attack. Was this his talent, then? To understand the obscure messages that evil left in objects? To listen to the silent voices of the dead? To witness the spectacle of human wickedness, powerless to intervene?
Dogs are colour blind.
That was why only he had understood something the world did not know about Raffaele. That three-year-old boy w
‘There are things you have to see with your own eyes, Ginger.’
Those were the words David always used whenever a discussion arose about the risks of his work. For Sandra, the camera was a necessary refuge, to lessen the impact of the violence she documented every day. For him, it was merely an instrument.
That distinction had occurred to her as she put together a makeshift darkroom in the bathroom of her apartment, as she had seen David do many times.
She had sealed the door and window, replacing the small light over the mirror with one that emitted a non-actinic red light. She had recovered the enlarger from the attic and the tank for developing and fixing negatives. For the rest, she had improvised. The three small basins she would use for the processing were those she washed her underwear in. From the kitchen she had taken pliers, scissors and a ladle. The photographic paper and chemical products, which she put to one side, had not yet reached their expiry date and were still usable.
The Leica I used 35 mm film. Sandra rewound the roll and took it out of its compartment.
The operation she was about to carry out required absolute darkness. After putting on gloves, she opened the spool and extracted the film. Relying on her memory, she cut the initial part with the scissors, rounding the corners, then slipped it into the spiral of the tank. She poured the developing liquid, which she had previously prepared, and started calculating the times. She repeated the operation with the fixing liquid, then rinsed everything under the running water, put a few drops of colourless shampoo in the tank, because she did not have absorbent, and finally placed the roll to dry on the bath.
She started the timer on her watch and leaned back against the tiled wall. She sighed. This wait in the darkness was nerve-wracking. She wondered why David had used that old camera. Part of her hoped that there was no particular significance to it, that the sole reason she was placing so much importance on it was because she couldn’t resign herself to his senseless death.
David only used the Leica to try it out, she told herself.
The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes