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The Lost Girls of Rome
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- ebook $13.99 $16.99 CAD
- Hardcover $26.00 $29.00 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 19, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Sandra Vega, a forensic analyst with the Roman police department, mourns deeply for a marriage that ended too soon. A few months ago, in the dead of night, her husband, an up-and-coming journalist, plunged to his death at the top of a high-rise construction site. The police ruled it an accident. Sanda is convinced it was anything but.
Launching her own inquiries, Sanda finds herself on a dangerous trail, working the same case that she is convinced led to her husband’s murder. An investigation which is deeply entwined with a series of disappearances that has swept the city, and brings Sandra ever closer to a centuries-old secret society that will do anything to stay in the shadows.
There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible,
as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
The corpse opened his eyes.
He was lying on his back in bed. The room was white with daylight. On the wall facing him was a wooden crucifix.
He looked at his own hands, lying at his sides on the snow-white sheets. It was as if they didn't belong to him, as if they were someone else's. He lifted one—the right—and held it in front of his eyes to get a better look at it. It was then that he felt the bandages covering his head. He had clearly sustained an injury, but the strange thing was, he didn't feel any pain.
He turned towards the window and saw a dim reflection of his face in the glass. That was when he started to feel afraid. A question hit him, a painful question. But what was even more painful was the awareness that he did not know the answer.
Who am I?
Five Days Ago
The address was outside the city. Because of the bad weather and the satnav's inability to find the house, it had taken them more than half an hour to reach this isolated spot. If it had not been for the little street lamp at the entrance to the drive, they might have thought the whole area uninhabited.
The ambulance proceeded slowly through the untended garden. The flashing light awoke statues from the darkness, moss-covered nymphs and mutilated Venuses, who greeted their passage with lopsided smiles and elegant, uncompleted gestures, dancing motionlessly for them alone.
An old villa welcomed them like a port in a storm. There were no lights on inside, but the front door was open.
The house was waiting for them.
There were three of them: Monica, a young intern who was on duty in Emergency that night, Tony, a paramedic with years of experience, and the driver, who stayed in the ambulance while the other two defied the storm and set off towards the house. Before crossing the threshold, they called out to see if they could attract anyone's attention.
There was no reply. They went in.
A stale odor, dark walls, a corridor dimly lit by a row of yellowish bulbs. To the right, a staircase leading to the first floor.
At the end of the corridor, through the open doorway of the living room, they caught sight of a body lying on the floor.
They rushed to him. All the furniture in the room was covered with white sheets, apart from a worn armchair in the middle, positioned to face an old-fashioned TV set. Everything smelled of age.
Monica knelt beside the man on the floor. He seemed to be unconscious, and was breathing with difficulty.
"He's cyanotic," she observed.
Tony made sure the respiratory tract was clear, then placed the Ambu bag over his mouth, while Monica checked his irises with a torch.
The man could not have been more than fifty. He was wearing striped pajamas, leather slippers and a dressing gown. With several days' growth of beard and his sparse, disheveled hair, he looked like someone who didn't take care of himself. In one hand, he was still clutching the mobile phone he had used to call Emergency, complaining of terrible chest pains.
The nearest hospital was the Gemelli. In a serious emergency, whichever doctor was on duty joined the paramedics in the first available ambulance.
That was why Monica was there.
A small table had been overturned, a bowl broken. Spilt milk and biscuits lay everywhere, mixed with urine. The man must have been taken ill while watching TV and knocked everything over as he fell. It appeared to be a classic case, Monica thought. A middle-aged man, living alone, has a heart attack and, if he can't manage to call for help, is usually discovered, long dead, only when the neighbors start to notice the stench. In an isolated villa such as this, of course, that wouldn't have happened. If he didn't have close relatives, years might have passed before someone noticed what had happened. In either case, it was a familiar scene, and she felt sorry for him. At least until they opened his pajama jacket to massage his heart and saw the words on his chest.
They both pretended they hadn't seen it. Their task was to save a life. But from that moment on, they moved with especial care.
"The saturation's dropping," Tony said, checking the oximeter. That meant that no air was getting into the man's lungs.
"We have to intubate him or we'll lose him." Monica took out the laryngoscope and moved to position herself behind the patient's head.
In doing so, she cleared Tony's field of vision. She saw a strange look suddenly come into his eyes. Tony was a professional, trained to deal with any kind of situation, and yet something had startled him. Something that was right behind her.
Everyone in the hospital knew the story of the young doctor and her sister. No one ever talked about it, but she was aware of them looking at her with compassion and concern, wondering in their hearts how she could live with such a burden.
Now there was the same kind of expression on Tony's face, combined with a kind of fear. So Monica turned, and saw what Tony had seen.
A roller skate, abandoned in a corner of the room. A roller skate that unleashed hell.
It was red, with gold buckles. Identical to its twin, which wasn't here, but belonged to another life. Monica had always found them rather kitsch, but Teresa had preferred to call them "vintage." The two girls were twins, too, so Monica had had the feeling she was seeing herself when her sister's body had been found in a clearing near the river on a cold December morning.
She was only twenty-one years old, and her throat had been cut.
They say that twins feel things simultaneously, even when they are miles away from each other. But Monica did not believe that. She hadn't had any feelings of fear or danger when Teresa was abducted one Sunday afternoon on her way back from roller skating with her friends. Her body had been found a month later, wearing the same clothes she had had on when she had disappeared.
And that red roller skate, like a grotesque prosthesis on one foot.
For six years Monica had kept it, wondering what had happened to the other one and if it would ever be found. The number of times she had tried to imagine the face of the person who had taken it. The number of times she had peered into the faces of strangers in the street, thinking one of them might be him. Over time, it had become a kind of game.
Now, perhaps, Monica had found what she was looking for.
She looked down at the man on the floor. With his cracked, pudgy hands, the hair sprouting from his nostrils, the urine stain on the crotch of his trousers, he didn't look like the monster she had always imagined. He was a creature of flesh and blood, an ordinary human being—and one with a weak heart, to boot.
Tony's voice jolted her from her thoughts. "I know what's going through your mind," he said. "We can stop whenever you want, and wait for the inevitable to happen. You only have to say the word. Nobody will ever know."
He had already seen her hesitate with the laryngoscope poised over the man's mouth. Once more, Monica looked at his chest.
That might well have been the last thing her sister had seen while he was cutting her throat as if she were an animal in a slaughterhouse. No words of comfort, the kind that any human being who is about to leave this life forever deserves. Instead, her killer had mocked her with those words. It had probably amused him. Perhaps Teresa, too, had begged for death, wanting it all to end quickly. Angrily, Monica gripped the handle of the laryngoscope until her knuckles turned white.
The coward had carved the words on his chest but, when he had felt ill, he had called Emergency. He was just like anyone else. He was scared of dying.
Monica died inside herself. Those who had known Teresa saw her as a kind of copy, like a statue in a wax museum. To her family, she represented what her sister might have been and would never be. They watched her grow and saw Teresa. Now Monica had an opportunity to distinguish herself and exorcise the ghost of the twin who dwelt within her. I'm a doctor, she reminded herself. She would have liked to find a glimmer of pity for the human being lying in front of her, or the fear of a superior justice, or else something that resembled a sign. Instead she realized that she felt nothing. So she tried desperately to think of something that might convince her this man had nothing to do with Teresa's death. But, however hard she thought about it, there was only one reason that red skate was there.
At that moment, Monica realized she had already made her decision.
The rain covered Rome like a funeral pall. The silent, weeping facades of the buildings in the historic center were draped in long shadows. The alleys that wound like intestines around the Piazza Navona were deserted. But a stone's throw from the Bramante cloister, light spilled through the windows of the long-established Caffè della Pace on to the wet street.
Inside, red velvet chairs, gray-veined marble tables, neo-Renaissance statues, and the usual customers: artists, especially painters and musicians, greeting the uneasy dawn, shopkeepers and antique dealers waiting to open, and a few actors who dropped in for a cappuccino after an all-night rehearsal before going home to sleep. They were all in search of a little relief from the terrible weather, and all deep in conversation. Nobody paid any attention to the two black-clad strangers sitting at a table facing the entrance.
"How are the migraines?" the younger of the two men asked.
The older man stopped gathering grains of sugar around his empty cup and instinctively stroked the scar on his left temple. "They keep me awake sometimes, but generally I feel better."
"Do you still have that dream?"
"Every night," the man replied, raising his deep-set, melancholy blue eyes.
"Yes, it'll pass."
The silence that followed was interrupted by a long hiss of steam from the espresso machine.
"Marcus," the younger man said, "the moment has come."
"I'm not ready yet."
"We can't wait any longer. They're asking me about you. They're anxious to know how you're getting on."
"I'm making progress, aren't I?"
"Yes, it's true: you're better every day, and I'm pleased, believe me. But expectations are high. There's a lot depending on you."
"But who are these people who take such an interest in me? I'd like to meet them, talk to them. The only one I know is you, Clemente."
"We've discussed that before. It's not possible."
"Because that's the way things have always been."
Marcus touched his scar again, as he did whenever he was nervous.
Clemente leaned forward, forcing Marcus to look at him. "It's for your own safety."
"Theirs, you mean."
"Theirs, too, if you want to see it that way."
"I could turn out to be a source of embarrassment. And that mustn't be allowed to happen, must it?"
Marcus's sarcasm did not faze Clemente. "What's your problem?"
"I don't exist," Marcus said, his voice painfully constricted.
"The fact that I'm the only one who knows your face leaves you free. Don't you see that? All they know is your name. For everything else, they trust me. So there are no limits to your remit. If they don't know who you are, they can't hinder you."
"Why?" Marcus retorted.
"Because what we are chasing can corrupt even them. If all the other measures were to fail, if the barriers they've put up turned out to be useless, there'd still be someone keeping alert. You are their last defense."
"Answer me one question," Marcus said, a gleam of defiance in his eyes. "Are there others like me?"
After a brief silence, Clemente said, "I don't know. There's no way I could know."
"You should have left me in that hospital…"
"Don't say that, Marcus. Don't disappoint me."
Marcus looked outside, at the few passers-by taking advantage of a lull in the storm to emerge from their makeshift shelters and continue on their way. He still had many questions for Clemente. Things that did not directly concern him, things he no longer knew. Clemente was his one contact with the world. In fact, Clemente was his world. Marcus never spoke to anyone, had no friends. Yet he knew things he would have preferred not to know. Things about men and the evil they do. Things so terrible as to make anyone's confidence waver, and contaminate anyone's heart for ever. He looked at the people around him, people who lived without that burden of knowledge, and envied them. Clemente had saved him. But his salvation had coincided with his entrance into a world of shadows.
"Why me?" he asked, continuing to look away.
Clemente smiled. "Dogs are color blind." That was the phrase he always used. "So, are you with me?"
Marcus turned away from the window and looked at his one friend. "Yes, I'm with you."
Without a word, Clemente slipped his hand into the pocket of the raincoat draped over the back of his chair. He took out an envelope, placed it on the table and pushed it towards Marcus. Marcus took it and, with the care that distinguished every one of his gestures, opened it.
Inside, there were three photographs.
The first was of a group of young people at a beach party. Closest to the camera were two girls in bathing costumes toasting with bottles of beer in front of a bonfire. One of the girls reappeared in the second photograph, wearing glasses and with her hair pulled back: she was smiling, pointing behind her at the Palazzo della Civilità Italiana in the EUR area of Rome. In the third photograph, the same girl was seen embracing a man and a woman, presumably her parents.
"Who is she?" Marcus asked.
"Her name is Lara. She's twenty-three years old. She's from the south, and has been in Rome for a year, studying at the faculty of architecture."
"What happened to her?"
"That's the problem: nobody knows. She disappeared nearly a month ago."
Blocking out his surroundings, Marcus concentrated on Lara's face. She seemed a typical provincial girl transplanted to a big city. Pretty, with delicate features, and no makeup. He assumed she usually wore her hair in a ponytail because she couldn't afford to go to the hairdresser's. Maybe, in order to save money, she only had her hair done when she went home to see her parents. Her clothes were a compromise. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which absolved her of the need to keep up with the latest fashions. Her face showed traces of nights spent poring over her books and dinners consisting of a tin of tuna, the last resource of students living away from home for the first time, when they have exhausted their monthly budget and are waiting for another transfer from Mum and Dad. He imagined her daily struggle with homesickness, kept at bay by her dream of becoming an architect.
"Tell me what happened."
Clemente took out a notebook, moved the coffee cup aside, and began consulting his notes. "The day she disappeared, Lara spent part of the evening with a few friends in a club. Her friends say she seemed perfectly normal. They chatted about the usual things, then about nine she said she felt tired and wanted to go home. Two of her friends gave her a lift in their car and waited as she went in through the front door."
"Where does she live?"
"In an old apartment block in the center."
"Are there other tenants?"
"About twenty of them. The building belongs to a university agency that rents the apartments to students. Lara's is on the ground floor. Until August she'd been sharing it with a friend. She was looking for a new flatmate."
"What's the last trace we have of her?"
"We know she was in the apartment over the next hour, because she made two calls from her mobile: one at eight twenty-seven p.m. and the other at ten twelve. The first one, which lasted ten minutes, was to her mother, the second to her best friend. At ten nineteen her phone was switched off, and wasn't switched on again."
A young waitress approached the table to take away the cups. She lingered to give them time to order something else. But neither of them did so. They simply remained silent until she had gone away again.
"When was her disappearance reported?" Marcus asked.
"The following evening. When she didn't turn up at the faculty next day, her friends called her several times, but all they got was a recorded message. About eight o'clock, they went and knocked at her door, but there was no reply."
"What do the police think?"
"The day before she disappeared, Lara withdrew four hundred euros from her bank account to pay her rent. But the agency never received the money. According to her mother, there are some clothes and a rucksack missing from the wardrobe. And there's no trace of her mobile phone either. That's why the police decided she ran away of her own free will."
"Very convenient for them."
"You know how it is. If there's nothing to make them fear the worst, after a while they just stop looking and wait."
Maybe for a corpse to show up, Marcus thought.
"Lara lived quite a regular life, spent much of her time at the university, and always kept within the same small circle of acquaintances."
"What do her friends think?"
"That Lara wasn't the kind of person to do anything on a whim. Although she had changed a bit lately. They say she seemed tired and distracted."
"From her mobile phone records, she doesn't seem to have called anyone outside her circle, and nobody mentioned a boyfriend."
"Did she use the internet?"
"Mostly from the library in her department or from an internet point near the station. There were no suspicious messages in her inbox."
At that moment the glass door of the café was flung open to allow a new customer to come in, and a gust of wind blew through the room. Everyone turned in annoyance, except Marcus, who was lost in his own thoughts. "Lara returns home, just as she does every evening. She's tired, as she's quite often been lately. Her last contact with the world is at ten nineteen, when she switches off her phone, which then disappears with her and isn't switched on again. That's the last anyone hears from her. Some of her clothes are missing, along with money and a rucksack, which is why the police think she left home voluntarily. She may have gone alone, or with someone else, but nobody saw her go." Marcus stared at Clemente. "Why should we think that something bad happened to her? I mean why us?"
The look Clemente gave him spoke for itself. They had reached the crucial point. Anomalies: that was what they always looked for. Tiny tears in the thread of normality. Little departures from the logical sequence of a straightforward criminal investigation. It was in those insignificant details that something else often lay concealed, something that pointed to a different, unimaginable truth. That was where their task began.
"Lara never left home, Marcus. Her door was locked on the inside."
Clemente and Marcus went straight to the scene of Lara's disappearance. The building was in the Via dei Coronari, not far from the Piazza San Salvatore in Lauro with its little sixteenth-century church. It took them only a few seconds to get into the ground-floor apartment. Nobody noticed them.
As soon as he set foot in Lara's apartment, Marcus began looking around. First of all, he noted the broken door chain. In order to get into the apartment, the police had had to smash the door down, and they had not noticed the chain that had come loose and was now dangling from the doorpost.
The apartment covered no more than a hundred and fifty square feet, divided between two levels. The first was a single room with a kitchen area. There was a wall cabinet and an electric hotplate with cupboards above it. Next to it, a refrigerator with colored magnets on the door. On top of the refrigerator was a vase containing a now dry cyclamen plant. There was a table with four chairs and, in the center, a tray with a tea service. In the corner, two sofas arranged around a television set. On the green walls, not the usual pictures or posters, but plans of famous buildings around the world. There was a window that, like all those in the apartment, looked out on the inner courtyard. It was protected by iron bars. Nobody could get in or out that way.
Marcus registered every detail with his eyes. Without saying a word, he made the sign of the cross, and Clemente immediately did the same. Then he started moving around the room. He did not limit himself to looking. He touched the objects, brushing them lightly with the palm of his hand, almost as if he was trying to perceive a residue of energy, a radio signal, as if they could communicate with him, reveal to him what they knew or had seen. Like a water diviner who listens for the call of strata hidden underground, Marcus was probing the deep, inanimate silence of things.
Clemente watched him, keeping well back in order not to distract him. Marcus did not seem to hesitate: he was totally concentrated on the task in hand. This was an important test for both of them. Marcus would demonstrate to himself that he was again able to do the work for which he had been trained, and Clemente would know whether or not he had been right about Marcus's ability to recover.
He watched as Marcus moved towards the far end of the apartment, where a door led to a small bathroom. It was covered in white tiles, illumined by a fluorescent light. The shower was an unpartitioned area between the wash basin and the toilet. There was a washing machine and a broom cupboard. On the back of the door hung a calendar.
Marcus turned back and walked along the left-hand side of the living room: here, a staircase led to the upper floor. He went up three steps at a time, and found himself on a narrow landing, faced with the doors to two bedrooms.
The first was the one vacated by Lara's flatmate. Inside it was only a bare mattress, a small armchair and a chest of drawers.
The other was Lara's bedroom.
The shutters on the window were open. In a corner was a table with a computer and shelves filled with books. Marcus approached and ran his fingers along the spines of books, mostly on architecture, and over a sheet of paper containing an uncompleted plan for a bridge. There was a glass filled with pencils. He took one out and sniffed it, then did the same with a piece of rubber, savoring the secret pleasure that only articles of stationery can instill.
That smell was part of Lara's world. This was the place where she had felt happy. Her little kingdom.
He opened the wardrobe doors and looked through the clothes. Some of the hangers were empty. Three pairs of shoes stood in a row on the lower shelf. Two pairs of trainers and one of court shoes, for special occasions. But there was space for a fourth pair, which was missing.
The bed was a large single. A teddy bear sat between the pillows. It had probably been a witness to Lara's life ever since she was a child. But now it was alone.
On the bedside table stood a framed photograph of Lara with her parents and a tin box containing a small sapphire ring, a coral bracelet and a bit of costume jewelry. Marcus took a closer look at the photograph. He recognized it: it was one of those that Clemente had shown him at the Caffè della Pace. In it, Lara was wearing a crucifix with a gold chain, but there was no sign of that in the jewelry box.
Clemente was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. "Well?"
"She may have been abducted." As he said it, he became certain that it was true.
"What makes you say that?"
"It's too tidy. As if the missing clothes and mobile phone were all a set-up. Whoever was responsible, though, missed one detail: the chain on the door."
"But how did he—"
- On Sale
- Nov 19, 2013
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Mulholland Books