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The lost girls of rome, p.9
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       The Lost Girls of Rome, p.9

           Donato Carrisi
 

  Even though photography was their passion and their work, there were no photographs of the two of them together. Every now and again, she reflected on this. It hadn’t seemed so strange when her husband was alive. They hadn’t felt the necessity. When the present is so intense, you don’t need a past. She had never thought she ought to be hoarding memories because she would need them one day to survive. But now, as time went on, her stock of memories was dwindling. The time they had spent together had been too short compared to the time that, statistically, she still had to live. What would she do with all those days? Would she ever again be capable of feelings as strong as those she had felt for him?

  The sound of the timer roused her. At last she could switch on the red light. First she took the roll that she had hung and viewed it against the light.

  Five photographs had been taken with the Leica.

  At the moment, she couldn’t make out their contents. She made haste to print them. She filled the three containers. The first with the developer, the second with water and acetic acid for the stop bath, the third with the fixer, also diluted in water.

  Next she used the enlarger to project the negatives on to photographic paper until they were imprinted. Then she immersed the first sheet in the basin with the developer. She gave it a gentle shake and, gradually, the image began to appear in the liquid.

  But it was too dark to see anything in it.

  Maybe David had made a mistake while taking the shot. She bathed it in the other two containers anyway, then hung it over the bath with a clothes peg. She did the same with the other negatives.

  The second photograph showed David bare-chested, reflected in a mirror. With one hand he was holding the camera in front of his face and with the other he was waving. But he wasn’t smiling. On the contrary, his expression was serious. Behind him there was a calendar, and the month displayed was the one in which he had died. This might well be the last image of David when he was still alive, Sandra thought.

  The grim farewell of a ghost.

  The third photograph was of a building site. She could see the bare pillars of a building under construction. The walls were missing and the area around it was empty. This might have been taken in the building from which David had fallen, she thought, although obviously before his death.

  Why had he gone there with the Leica?

  David’s accident had happened at night. This picture, on the other hand, had been taken by day. Perhaps he had been reconnoitring the place.

  The fourth photograph was very strange. It was of a painting – seventeenth century, she thought. But she was sure it was only part of a larger canvas. It showed a child, moving his body as if on the verge of running, but with his head still turned, incapable of averting his gaze from something that both terrified and attracted him. He had a stunned expression, his mouth wide open in astonishment.

  Sandra was convinced she had seen this image before. But she could not remember what the painting was. She recalled Inspector de Michelis’s passion for art: she would ask him.

  Of one thing she was certain: the painting was in Rome. And it was there that she had to go.

  Her shift was due to begin at two in the afternoon, but she would ask for a few days off. After David’s death, she hadn’t taken the compassionate leave she was entitled to. If she took an express train, she would be there in less than three hours. She wanted to see with her own eyes, as David used to say. She felt the need to understand, because now she was certain that there was an explanation.

  She planned the journey in her head as she printed the final photo graph in the roll. The first four had provided nothing but questions, to be added to all the unanswered questions she had accumulated up until now.

  Maybe there was some kind of answer in the fifth photograph.

  She treated it with particular delicacy as the image emerged on the paper. A dark stain on a clear background. It became clearer, one detail at a time. Like a wreck gradually re-emerging from the bottom of the sea after having spent decades in absolute darkness.

  It was a face, in profile.

  The person had clearly not realised that someone was photographing him. Did he have anything to do with what David was doing in Rome? Might he even be involved in his death? Sandra knew she would have to find this person.

  Hair as black as the clothes he wore. Sad, evasive eyes.

  And a scar on his temple.

  9.56 a.m.

  Marcus let his gaze wander over the view of Rome from the terrace of the castle. Behind him rose the Archangel Michael, his wings unfolded and his sword unsheathed, watching over human beings and their infinite miseries. To the left of the bronze statue, the bell of mercy, whose tolling had announced executions during the dark days when the Castel Sant’Angelo was the papal prison.

  This place of torture and despair had become a magnet for tourists. Here they all were now, happily snapping away, taking advantage of the sliver of sun that had peeped out from behind the clouds and was shining down on the rain-washed city.

  Clemente joined Marcus and stood by his side without taking his eyes from the view. ‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

  They used voicemail to make appointments. When one of the two wanted to see the other, all they needed to do was leave a message with the time and place indicated. Neither had ever missed any of these appointments.

  ‘The murder of Valeria Altieri,’ Marcus said.

  Before replying, Clemente looked at his swollen face. ‘Who did that to you?’

  ‘I met her son Raffaele last night.’

  Clemente shook his head. ‘A nasty business. The crime was never solved.’

  He said it as if he knew the case well, which seemed somewhat odd to Marcus, given that at the time of the events his friend must have been little more than ten years old. There could only be one explanation: they had dealt with it.

  ‘Is there anything in the archive?’

  Clemente didn’t like it being mentioned in public. ‘Careful,’ he said.

  ‘This is important. What do you know?’

  ‘There were two lines of inquiry the police followed. Both involved Guido Altieri. When an adulterous wife is murdered, the first suspect is always the husband. Guido had the contacts and the resources. If he’d wanted someone to kill her for him, he could have done so and got away with it.’

  But if Guido Altieri was guilty, he had knowingly left his son with the corpses for two days merely to strengthen his own alibi. Marcus found that hard to believe.

  ‘And the second line of inquiry?’

  ‘Altieri is a big wheel in finance. At the time he was in London, finalising an important merger. In fact, there were some pretty dubious elements to the business – something to do with oil, and also something to do with arms. There were important interests involved. The English word “Evil”, written over the bed, could be interpreted as a message for Altieri.’

  ‘A warning.’

  ‘Well, the killers did spare his son.’

  Some children ran past Marcus, and he followed them with his eyes, envying their ease and self-confidence.

  ‘How come the two lines of inquiry didn’t lead anywhere?’

  ‘As far as the former is concerned, Guido and Valeria Altieri were on the verge of divorcing anyway. She was too free with her favours: the yachtsman was only the latest in a long line. The lawyer can’t have been too grief-stricken, given that he remarried a few months after the murders. He has another family now, other children. And besides, let’s admit it, if someone like Altieri had wanted to get rid of his wife, he would have chosen a less cruel method.’

  ‘And Raffaele?’

  ‘He hasn’t spoken to his father in years. From what I understand, the boy is mentally disturbed, forever in and out of psychiatric clinics. He blames his father for what happened.’

  ‘And the second line of inquiry, that it was a warning from someone who knew about his shady dealings?’

  ‘They pursued it for a while, but there w
as no evidence.’

  ‘Weren’t there any prints, any clues at the scene of the crime?’

  ‘It may have looked like a frenzied attack, but the killers did a clean job.’

  Even if they hadn’t, Marcus thought, the murders had happened at a time when forensics still used outdated methods and DNA analysis was not in general use. In addition, the crime scene had been contaminated by the presence of the child for forty-eight hours, and then wiped out forever. He thought again of the replica that Raffaele Altieri had constructed in the hope of finding an answer.

  ‘There was a third line of inquiry, wasn’t there?’

  Marcus was guessing: why else would they have shown an interest in the case? He didn’t understand why his friend had not mentioned it. And in fact, Clemente immediately tried to change the subject. ‘What has this got to do with Jeremiah Smith and Lara’s disappearance?’

  ‘I don’t know yet. Raffaele Altieri was in Lara’s apartment last night. Someone sent him a letter telling him to go there.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘I have no idea, but in the apartment I found a Bible among the cookery books. It was an anomaly I hadn’t spotted during the first inspection. Sometimes you need darkness to see things better: that’s why I went back to the apartment last night. I wanted to reproduce the same conditions in which Jeremiah had acted.’

  ‘A Bible?’ Clemente echoed, uncomprehending.

  ‘There was a bookmark indicating St Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night …” If it wasn’t absurd, I’d say someone put that message there for us, specifically so that we should meet Raffaele Altieri.’

  Clemente stiffened. ‘Nobody knows about us.’

  ‘Of course not,’ Marcus said. Nobody, he repeated to himself bitterly.

  ‘We don’t have much time to save Lara, you know that.’

  ‘You told me I’m the only person who can find her, and that I should follow my instincts. That’s what I’m doing.’ Marcus had no intention of letting go. ‘Now tell me about that other line of inquiry. At the crime scene, apart from the word “Evil”, there were also three circular marks in the pool of blood, arranged in the shape of a triangle.’

  Clemente turned towards the bronze archangel, almost as if to invoke its protection. ‘It’s an occult symbol.’

  It was hardly surprising that the police had decided to omit that detail from the files, Marcus thought. The police were practical people, they didn’t like cases that touched on the world of the occult. It wasn’t an easy subject to bring up in a court of law, and could easily give a defendant the chance to claim mental illness. Not to mention the fact that it could make the police look bad.

  But Clemente clearly took the matter seriously. ‘According to some,’ he said, ‘a ritual was celebrated in that bedroom.’

  Crimes linked to the occult were precisely the kind of anomalies they dealt with. While waiting for Clemente to procure the file on the Altieri case from the archive, Marcus was anxious to understand the meaning of the triangular symbol, so he had gone to the one place where he might find the answer.

  The Biblioteca Angelica was located in a former Augustine monastery in the Piazza Sant’Agostino. The monks had been collecting, cataloguing and preserving since the seventeenth century, amassing some two hundred thousand precious volumes that had formed the basis of the first ever public library in Europe.

  Marcus was sitting at one of the tables in the reading room – known as the Salone Vanvitelliano, after the architect who had renovated the complex in the eighteenth century – surrounded by wooden shelves crammed with books. You gained access to it through a vestibule adorned by portraits of members of the Arcadian Academy. It was here that that the catalogues were kept. A little further on was the strongroom that contained the most valuable miniatures.

  Over the course of centuries, the Biblioteca Angelica had been involved in various religious controversies, due to the fact that its collections contained a large number of banned texts. These were the ones that interested Marcus, who had asked to examine some volumes on symbology.

  He put on a white cotton glove, because contact with acids in the skin could damage the older books. The sound of hands turning pages, a sound like the beating of a butterfly’s wings, was the only noise in the room. At the time of the Inquisition, Marcus would have paid with his life for reading these texts. In one hour of research, he managed to trace the origin of the triangular symbol.

  Seen as the opposite of the Christian cross, it had quickly become the emblem of a number of Satanic cults. Its creation went back to the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion. The Christians stopped being persecuted and abandoned the catacombs. The pagans, on the other hand, took refuge there.

  Marcus was surprised to learn that it was from this old paganism that modern Satanism derived. Over the course of centuries, the figure of Satan had replaced the other deities, because he was the principal antagonist of the Christian God. The followers of these cults were regarded as outlaws. They met in isolated places, usually in the open air. They traced the walls of their temple on the ground with a stick, making it easy to erase them if they were discovered. The killing of innocents was used to seal pacts of blood between the followers. But, as well as possessing a ritualistic purpose, it also had a practical one.

  If I make you kill someone, Marcus thought, you are bound to me for life. Anyone leaving the sect risked being denounced as a murderer.

  In the catalogue he had found books that explained the historical evolution of these practices, right up to the present day. As these were recent publications, he took off the glove.

  In a volume on criminology, he learned that there were many murders with a Satanic element. In most cases, though, Satanism was merely a pretext for sexual perversions. Some psychopathic killers claimed that a superior force was trying to communicate with them. Indulging in a ritual of blood was a way of responding to the call. The corpses became messengers.

  The best-known case was that of David Richard Berkowitz – best known as the Son of Sam – the serial killer who had terrorised New York at the end of the 1970s. When they finally captured him, he told the police that he had been ordered to kill by a demonic presence speaking to him through his neighbour’s dog.

  Marcus ruled out the idea that the murder of Valeria Altieri was a pathological crime. There had been more than one perpetrator, which suggested that the killers were in full possession of their mental capacities.

  Group homicides, however, were a constant in cases of Satanism. In a group, individuals often found the courage to carry out heinous acts of which they would not otherwise have been capable. Acting in concert helped to overcome the normal inhibitions, and when responsibility was divided there was less of a sense of guilt.

  There was also so-called ‘acid Satanism’, among whose followers drug use was common. Such groups were easily recognisable by their clothes, which made extensive use of the colour black and Satanic symbols. Their inspiration came less from sacrilegious texts than from heavy metal music.

  The word EVIL on the wall of Valeria Altieri’s bedroom could point to this kind of thing, Marcus thought. But it was rare for such groups to go as far as murdering human beings: they usually limited themselves to sacrificing poor animals in their imitation black masses.

  True Satanism was not so overtly dramatic. It depended on total secrecy. There was no actual evidence of its existence, only deceptive and contradictory clues. There were, though, a few cases of Satanic murders not attributable to fanatics or mentally ill people, and it was here in Italy that the most famous of these had taken place: the so-called Monster of Florence case.

  Marcus read a brief summary of the case. Having realised that the eight double homicides that had taken place between 1974 and 1985 were the work not of a single hand but of a group of killers, the police had arrested the culprits, but had stopped there, even though there was a suspicion that the murders had been or
dered by members of some kind of unidentified sect. The theory was that the purpose of the killings was to procure human body parts to be used in rituals.

  Marcus found a passage in this account that he thought might turn out useful. It was in reference to the Monster of Florence’s motive for always killing young couples. The most favourable death was that which came during orgasm, which was termed mors justi. The belief was that at that precise moment, certain energies were unleashed that were capable of increasing and reinforcing the effects of a malign ritual.

  In some cases, the murders occurred on dates that preceded Christian festivals, with a preference for nights when there was a new moon.

  Marcus checked the date of the murders of Valeria Altieri and her lover. They had occurred on the night of 24 March, the eve of the Annunciation. And it was a new moon.

  The elements of a Satanic crime were all there. In the light of this information, Marcus would have to reopen an investigation that had been closed nearly twenty years before. He was convinced that someone who knew a lot had chosen to keep quiet over the years. He searched in his pocket and found the business card that he had taken from Raffaele Altieri’s desk.

  He would begin with Ranieri, the private detective.

  Ranieri had an office on the top floor of a small building in the Prati area. Marcus watched as the detective got out of a green Subaru. He was much older than the photograph on his agency’s website. It had struck Marcus as strange that someone doing a job based on discretion should display his own face to the world. But presumably Ranieri didn’t care.

  Before following him inside the building, Marcus noticed that the parked car was spattered with mud. Despite the constant rain of the last few hours, it was unlikely that it had got that way in Rome. He deduced that the detective had been outside the city.

  The doorman of the building was intent on reading a newspaper and Marcus passed him undisturbed. Ranieri had avoided the lift, maybe not wanting to wait for it. Judging by the way he was climbing the stairs, he seemed to be in a great hurry.

  As he entered his office, Marcus stopped on the first floor, where there was a recess in which he could hide and wait for the man to come out again. He would then get into the office and try to find out why he was in such a rush.

 
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