The Whispererby Donato Carrisi
A gripping literary thriller and smash bestseller that has taken Italy, France, Germany and the UK by storm.
Six severed arms are discovered, arranged in a mysterious circle and buried in a clearing in the woods. Five of them appear to belong to missing girls between the ages of eight and eighteen. The sixth is yet to be identified. Worse still, the/em>… See more details below
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A gripping literary thriller and smash bestseller that has taken Italy, France, Germany and the UK by storm.
Six severed arms are discovered, arranged in a mysterious circle and buried in a clearing in the woods. Five of them appear to belong to missing girls between the ages of eight and eighteen. The sixth is yet to be identified. Worse still, the girls' bodies, alive or dead, are nowhere to be found.
Lead investigators Mila Vasquez, a celebrated profiler, and Goran Gavila, an eerily prescient criminologist, dive into the case. They're confident they've got the right suspect in their sights until they discover no link between him and any of the kidnappings except the first. The evidence in the case of the second missing child points in a vastly different direction, creating more questions than it answers.
Vasquez and Gavila begin to wonder if they've been brought in to take the fall in a near-hopeless case. Is it all coincidence? Or is a copycat criminal at work? Obsessed with a case that becomes more tangled and intense as they unravel the layers of evil, Gavila and Vasquez find that their lives are increasingly in each other's hands.
THE WHISPERER, as sensational a bestseller in Europe as the Stieg Larsson novels, is that rare creation: a thought-provoking, intelligent thriller that is also utterly unputdownable.
Intricate plotting. Major surprises. THE WHISPERER has already won several literary awards abroad and has been a bestseller all over Europe. I predict no less for it here."BookPage"
Donato Carrisi has a unique gift for blending fascinating forensic detail, mind-bending plot twists, and empathetic characters into a seamless, powerful narrative. THE WHISPERER intrigues, informs, and haunts simultaneously, a novel that will linger in the mind long after you've finished."Michael Koryta"
Intriguing....an engagingly gruesome tale."Publishers Weekly
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By Carrisi, Donato
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2012 Carrisi, Donato
All right reserved.
Penitential district no. 45
Report of the Director, Alphonse Bérenger
For the attention of the Office of the
District Attorney, J. B. Marin
Dear Mr. Marin
I wish to inform you about the strange case of one of our inmates.
The individual in question is prisoner number RK-357/9. We can only refer to him in this way, since he has consistently refused to supply his personal information.
His arrest occurred on 22 October. The man was wandering at night—alone and naked—along a country road near the town of ■■■■■.
A comparison between the subject’s fingerprints with those contained in the archives ruled out his involvement in previous crimes or in cold cases. Nonetheless, his repeated refusal to reveal his own identity, even before a judge, earned him a sentence of four months and eighteen days in prison.
Since the moment he set foot in the penitentiary, inmate RK-357/9 has never shown any sign of indiscipline, and has always respected prison rules. The subject is of a solitary disposition and reluctant to socialize. Perhaps for that reason no one has been aware of one particular trait of his, which has only recently been noticed by one of our warders. Prisoner RK-357/9 wipes and rubs with a piece of felt each object with which he comes into contact; he collects all the hairs that he loses each day; he polishes to perfection the sink, the taps and the toilet each time he uses them.
We are plainly dealing with someone with a mania for hygiene, or, more likely, an individual who wants at all costs to avoid leaving behind “organic material.”
We therefore seriously suspect that prisoner RK-357/9 has committed a particularly serious crime and wants to prevent us from taking his DNA to identify him.
So far the subject has been sharing his cell with another recluse, which has certainly helped him in his task of mixing up his own biological traces. Thus our first measure since discovering his habit has been to remove him from this social setting and put him in isolation.
I am informing you of the above to start the appropriate investigation and request, if necessary, an urgent measure to force prisoner RK-357/9 to provide a DNA sample.
The matter is urgent because in precisely 109 days (on 12 March) the subject will have served his sentence.
Dr. Alphonse Bérenger
Somewhere near W.
The big moth carried him along, moving by memory through the night. It quivered its dusty wings, weaving through the mountains that lay like giants sleeping back to back.
Above them, a velvet sky. Below, the dense forest.
The pilot turned towards the passenger and pointed ahead to a huge white hole in the ground that looked like the glowing throat of a volcano.
The helicopter veered off in that direction.
Seven minutes later they landed on the verge of the highway. The road was closed, and the area was guarded by police. A man in a blue suit walked beneath the blades and welcomed the passenger, holding down his flyaway tie as best he could.
“Dr. Gavila, we’ve been expecting you,” he said loudly to keep his voice from being drowned out by the noise of the rotors.
Goran Gavila didn’t reply.
Special Agent Stern went on: “Come with me, I’ll explain on the way.”
They walked along a makeshift path, leaving behind them the sound of the helicopter, which was gaining altitude again, sucked up into an inky sky.
The fog rolled like a shroud, blurring the outlines of the hills. Around them, the aromas of the forest, mixed and sweetened by the damp of night that rose up inside their clothes, creeping coldly along their skin.
“It hasn’t been easy, I assure you: you really have to see it with your own eyes.”
Agent Stern walked a few steps ahead of Goran, pushing his way through the bushes with his hands, talking to him without looking round.
“It all kicked off this morning, at about eleven. Two little boys are walking along the path with their dog. They enter the forest, climb the hill and come into the clearing. The dog is a Labrador and, as you know, they’re dogs that like to dig…so suddenly the animal goes mad because it’s caught a scent. It digs a hole. And out comes the first one.”
Goran tried to keep pace as they made their way into increasingly dense vegetation along the slope that was gradually becoming steeper. He noticed that Stern had a little tear in his trousers, at knee height, a sign that he had come this way several times that night.
“Obviously the boys run away immediately, and alert the local police,” the officer continued. “They arrive, carry out an examination of the place, the hills, looking for clues. So far, all routine activity. Then someone thinks of digging again to see if there’s anything else…and out comes the second one! At this point they called us: we’ve been here since three now. We still don’t know how much stuff there is under there. So, here we are…”
A little clearing opened up in front of them, lit by spotlights—the volcano’s shining mouth. Suddenly the scents of the forest vanished, and the men were struck by an unmistakable stench. Goran lifted his head, allowing the smell to fill him. Phenic acid, he said to himself.
And then he saw it.
A circle of little graves. And about thirty men in white overalls digging in that Martian halogen light, armed with little spades and brushes to move the earth as delicately as possible. Some of them were combing the grass, others taking photographs and carefully cataloging everything they found. They moved in slow motion. Their gestures were precise, calibrated, hypnotic, wrapped in sacral silence broken only by the occasional little explosions of the flashes.
Goran could see special agents Sarah Rosa and Klaus Boris. And Roche, the chief inspector, who recognized him and immediately came striding over. Before he could open his mouth, Goran cut in with a question.
“Five. Each one is fifty centimeters long, by twenty wide and fifty deep…What do you think you would bury in holes like that?”
One thing in all of them. The same thing.
The criminologist stared at him expectantly.
The reply came: “A left arm.”
Goran turned to look at the men in the white overalls working away in that absurd woodland cemetery. The ground yielded only decomposing remains, but the origin of the evil that brought them here must lie somewhere before this unreal and suspended time.
“Is it them?” Goran asked. But this time he already knew the reply.
“According to the PCR analysis they’re female. They’re also Caucasian and between the ages of seven and thirteen…”
Roche uttered the phrase without any inflection in his voice. Like spittle that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth if you keep it in.
Debby. Anneke. Sabine. Melissa. Caroline.
It had started twenty-five days before, like a little story in a provincial magazine: the disappearance of a young student from a prestigious boarding school for the children of the rich. Everyone thought she’d run away. The girl in question was twelve and her name was Debby. Her schoolmates remembered seeing her leaving at the end of lessons. They’d only noticed her absence from the girls’ dormitory during the evening register. It looked very much like one of those events that make a middle-sized article on the third page, and then fade quietly away into Other News, waiting for a predictable happy ending.
And then Anneke had disappeared.
She was from a little village with wooden houses and a white church. Anneke was ten. At first they had thought she’d got lost in the woods, where she often went on her mountain bike. The whole of the local population had joined the search party. But without success.
Before they could work out what was really going on, it had happened again.
The third was called Sabine; she was the youngest, seven years old. It had happened in town, on Saturday evening. She had gone to the fairground with her parents, like lots of other families with children. There she had climbed onto a horse on the merry-go-round, which was full of children. Her mother had watched her go round once, and waved. And a second time, and waved again. The third time, Sabine wasn’t there.
It was only then that someone had started thinking that three children disappearing over three days might amount to an anomaly.
Searches had started on a large scale. There had been television appeals. Suddenly people were talking in terms of one maniac or several, perhaps a whole gang. But there were no clues to help them narrow it down. The police had set up a dedicated hotline to collect information, including anonymous tip-offs. There had been hundreds of leads; it would have taken months to check them all. But of the little girls not a trace. To make matters worse, since the disappearances had happened in different places, the local police forces couldn’t agree about which one had final responsibility.
That was when the violent crimes unit, run by Chief Inspector Roche, had been called in. Missing person cases didn’t normally come under its jurisdiction, but because of the mounting hysteria these had been treated as an exception.
Roche and his men were already on the case when child number four disappeared.
Melissa was the oldest: thirteen. Like all girls of her age, she had been under a curfew from parents who feared she might become another victim of the maniac who was terrorizing the country. But her enforced seclusion had coincided with her birthday, and Melissa had other ideas for the evening. She and her friends had come up with a little escape plan to go and have a party in a bowling alley. All her friends arrived. Melissa was the only one who didn’t show up.
From that point onwards a hunt had begun for the monster, one which was often confused and improvised on the spur of the moment. People had mobilized themselves, ready to take justice into their own hands. The police had set up road blocks all over the place. Checks on people who had been condemned or suspected of crimes against minors had been stepped up. Parents didn’t dare send their children outside the house even for school. Many schools had been closed for lack of pupils. People left their homes only when it was strictly necessary. After a certain time of day, towns and villages were deserted.
For a few days there had been no news of fresh disappearances. Some people had started to think that all the measures and precautions applied had had the desired effect of discouraging the maniac. But they were wrong.
The abduction of the fifth little girl was the most sensational.
Her name was Caroline, aged eleven. She had been taken from her bed, as she slept in the room next to her parents, who hadn’t noticed a thing.
Five little girls kidnapped in the course of a week. Then seventeen very long days of silence.
Until these five buried arms.
Debby. Anneke. Sabine. Melissa. Caroline.
Goran looked around at the circle of little trenches. A macabre game of ring-around-the-rosy. He could almost hear them chanting.
“From now on it’s clear that we’re no longer dealing with a case of missing persons,” Roche said, beckoning everyone around him to deliver a brief speech.
They were used to this. Rosa, Boris and Stern joined him and listened, eyes fixed on the ground and hands clasped behind their backs.
Roche began: “I’m thinking of the person who has brought us here this evening. The person who predicted that all this would happen. We are here because he wanted us to be, because he imagined it. And he has constructed all of this for us. Because the spectacle is for us. He has prepared it all very carefully. Savoring the moment, savoring our reaction. To take us by surprise. To let us know who’s big and powerful.”
Whoever was responsible for this had gone completely unnoticed.
Roche, who had for some time included Gavila in the squad to all intents and purposes, noticed that the criminologist was distracted, his eyes motionless as he followed a train of thought.
“So, Dr. Gavila, what do you think?”
Goran emerged from the silence that had fallen, and said only, “The birds.”
At first no one understood.
He continued, impassively: “I hadn’t noticed on the way here, I’ve only spotted it now. It’s strange. Listen…”
The voices of thousands of birds rose from the dark forest.
“They’re singing,” said Rosa, startled.
Goran turned towards her and gave a nod of agreement.
“It’s the floodlights…they think this light is daybreak. And they’re singing,” Boris observed.
“Do you think it makes sense?” Goran went on, looking at them this time. “And yet it does…Five buried arms. Pieces. Without the bodies. We could say that there’s no real cruelty in all this. Without the bodies, no faces. Without the faces, no individuals, not even people. We just have to ask ourselves, ‘where are the children?’ Because they aren’t here, in these trenches. We can’t look them in the eye. We can’t see that they’re like us. Because there’s nothing human in any of this. There are only parts…No compassion. He didn’t grant them any. He left us with nothing but fear. You can’t feel pity for these little victims. He wants to let us know only that they are dead…Do you think that makes sense? Thousands of birds in the darkness, forced to sing in response to an impossible light. But it’s the product of an illusion. And you have to be careful with illusionists: sometimes evil deceives us by assuming the simplest form of things.”
Silence. Once again the criminologist had caught a small and telling symbolic meaning. What the others often couldn’t see or—as in this case—hear. The details, the outlines, the nuances. The shadow surrounding things, the dark halo in which evil hides.
Every murderer has a “plan”—a precise form that brings him satisfaction, even pride. The hardest task is to understand what his vision is. That was why Goran was there. To banish that inexplicable evil with the reassuring notions of his science.
At that moment a technician in a white overall approached them and spoke directly to the chief inspector with a confused expression on his face.
“Mr. Roche, there could be a problem…there are six arms.”
The music teacher had spoken.
But that wasn’t what had struck her. It wasn’t the first time. Lots of lonely people give voice to their own thoughts when they’re in the safety of their own domestic walls. Even Mila sometimes talked to herself when she was at home.
No, it was something else that was new. And it was her reward for a whole week of waiting; sitting in the cold of her own car, constantly parked outside the brown house, peering inside with a little pair of binoculars at the movements of that fat, milky-white man in his forties as he moved calmly in his orderly little universe, always repeating the same gestures, weaving a web that only he was aware of.
The music teacher had spoken. But what was new was that this time he had uttered a name.
Mila had seen it emerging, letter by letter, on his lips. Pablo. It was the confirmation, the key to enter that mysterious world. Now she knew.
The music teacher had a guest.
Until almost ten days before, Pablo was only an eight-year-old boy with brown hair and bright eyes, who liked speeding around the area on his skateboard. And one thing was certain: if Pablo had to run an errand for his mother or his grandmother, he skated there. He spent hours on that thing, up and down the street. For the neighbors who saw him passing by their windows, little Pablito, as they all called him, was like one of those pictures that have become part of the landscape.
Perhaps that was why no one had seen him that February morning in the little residential district where everyone knew everyone else by name and houses and lives all seemed the same. A green Volvo station wagon—the music teacher must have chosen it because it was like so many other family cars parked in the driveways—appeared in the deserted street. The silence of a perfectly normal Saturday morning had been broken only by the slow squeak of the tarmac beneath the tires and the gray scrape of a skateboard progressively gaining speed…It was six long hours before anyone noticed that something was missing from the sound of that Saturday. That scrape. And that little Pablo, on a cold, sunny morning, had been swallowed up by a creeping shadow that wouldn’t give him up, parting him from his beloved skateboard.
That four-wheeled plank had ended up lying motionless in the middle of a swarm of policemen who had taken over the area as soon as the report had come in.
Now, ten days later, it could be too late for Pablo. Too late for his frail child’s psyche. Too late to wake up untraumatized from his nightmare.
Now the skateboard was in the boot of the policewoman’s car, along with other objects: toys, clothes. Clues that Mila had sniffed out as she tried to find a trail to follow, and which had led her to this brown lair. To the music teacher, who taught in an institute of higher education and played the organ in church on Sunday morning. The vice president of the musical association that organized a little Mozart festival every year. The shy, anonymous bachelor with the glasses, the incipient baldness and the soft, sweaty hands.
Mila had observed him very carefully. Because that was her gift.
She had joined the police with a precise purpose and, after leaving the academy, had devoted herself to it completely. She wasn’t interested in the criminals, let alone the law. That wasn’t why she ceaselessly searched every corner where shadows lurked, where life rotted undisturbed.
As she read Pablo’s name on the lips of his jailer, Mila became aware of a searing pain in her right leg. Perhaps it was from too many hours spent in the car waiting for that sign. Then again, perhaps it was from the wound in her thigh, which she had stitched herself.
I’ll treat it properly later on, she promised herself. Afterwards, though. And as she formulated that thought, Mila realized that she was ready to enter the house, to break the spell and bring the nightmare to an end.
“Officer Mila Vasquez to headquarters: have identified suspected kidnapper of Pablo Ramos. The building is a brown house at 27 Viale Alberas. Possibly dangerous situation.”
“Fine, Officer Vasquez, we’re sending backup, but it’ll be at least thirty minutes.”
Mila didn’t have that much time. Pablo didn’t.
The terror of having to utter the words “it was too late” when giving her account of events impelled her towards the house.
The voice on the radio was a distant echo and—pistol in her fist, arm lowered across her body’s center of gravity, eyes alert, quick, short steps—she reached the cream-colored fence that surrounded the rear of the little house.
An enormous plane tree loomed above her. The leaves changed color with the wind, showing their silvery outlines. Mila flattened herself against the fence and pricked up her ears. Every now and again the blast of a rock song reached her, carried on the wind from somewhere nearby. Mila leaned over the wooden gate and saw a well-tended garden, with a shed and a red rubber hose that snaked through the grass to a sprinkler. Plastic furniture and a gas barbecue. All very normal. A mauve door with frosted glass. Mila stretched an arm over the gate and delicately lifted the latch. The hinges squeaked and she opened the gate just wide enough to step into the garden.
She closed it again so that no one inside, looking out, would notice a change. Everything had to stay as it was. Then she walked as she had been taught in training, carefully weighing her steps on the grass—just with her toes, so as not to leave footprints—ready to leap if the need arose. A few moments later she found herself beside the back door, on the side from which she would cast no shadow when she leaned over to look inside the house. The frosted glass meant that she couldn’t make out the interior, but from the outline of the furniture it looked like a sitting room. Mila ran her hand towards the handle on the opposite side of the door. She gripped it and pushed it down. The lock clicked.
It was open.
The music teacher must have felt safe in the lair that he had prepared for himself and his prisoner. Soon Mila would find out why.
The linoleum floor creaked beneath her rubber sole with each step she took. She tried to control her footsteps to keep from making too much noise, then she took off her trainers and left them beside a chair. Barefoot, she reached the entrance to the hall, and she heard him talking:
“I would also need a roll of kitchen paper. And that cleaning product you use for polishing porcelain…yes, that one…Then bring me six tins of chicken soup, some sugar, a copy of the TV guide and a few packets of cigarettes, lights, the usual brand…”
The voice came from the sitting room. The music teacher was shopping by phone. Too busy to leave the house? Or perhaps he didn’t want to leave—he wanted to stay and keep an eye on his guest’s every move?
“Yes, number 27 Viale Alberas, thank you. And bring change for fifty, because that’s all I’ve got in the house.”
Mila followed the voice, walking in front of a mirror that reflected a distorted version of her own image. Like the ones you see at funfairs. When she reached the door to the room, she stretched out her arms holding the pistol, took a breath and burst into the doorway. She expected to surprise him, perhaps from behind, with the receiver still in his hand, standing by the window. A perfect living target.
Which wasn’t there.
The sitting room was empty, the receiver resting quite normally on the phone.
She realized that no one had made a phone call from that room when she felt the cold lips of a pistol resting like a kiss on the back of her neck.
He was behind her.
Mila cursed to herself, calling herself an idiot. The music teacher had prepared his lair well. The garden gate that squeaked and the linoleum floor that creaked were the alarms to signal the presence of intruders. Hence the fake phone call, the bait to attract his prey. The distorting mirror so that he could take up a position behind her without being seen. It was all part of the trap.
She felt him stretching his arm out in front of her, to take the gun from her. Mila let him do it.
“Shoot me, but there’s no escape for you now. My colleagues will be here soon. You can’t get away, you’ll have to surrender.”
He didn’t reply. She could almost see him out of the corner of her eye. Was he smiling?
The music teacher took a step back. The barrel of the gun detached itself from Mila, but she could still feel that extension of magnetic attraction between her head and the bullet in the magazine. Then the man turned towards her and finally entered her field of vision. He stared at her for a long time. But without looking at her. There was something deep in his eyes that looked to Mila like the antechamber of darkness.
The music teacher turned round, fearlessly turning his back on her. Mila saw him walking confidently towards the piano against the wall. Reaching the instrument, the man sat down on the stool and looked at the keyboard. He set both pistols down on the far left.
He raised his hands and, a moment later, let them fall back on the keys.
As Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor filled the room, Mila breathed hard, the tension spreading along the tendons and muscles of her neck. The music teacher’s fingers slipped lightly and gracefully over the keyboard. The sweetness of the notes made Mila feel like a spectator at this performance, hypnotized by it.
She struggled to remain clearheaded and let her bare heels slide backwards, slowly, until she was back in the corridor. She got her breath back, trying to calm her thumping heart. Then she started searching quickly around the rooms, pursued by the melody. She inspected each of them, one by one. A study. A bathroom. A larder.
Until she reached the closed door.
She pushed it with her shoulder. The wound in her thigh hurt, and she concentrated her weight on her deltoid.
The wood yielded.
The faint light from the corridor burst ahead of her into the room, whose windows appeared to have been walled up. Mila followed the glow into the darkness until she met two terrified, liquid eyes that returned her gaze. Pablito was there, on the bed, his legs drawn up against his thin chest. He was wearing only a pair of underpants and a sweater. He was trying to work out if there was anything he should be afraid of, if Mila was part of his nightmare or not. She said what she always said when she found a missing child.
“We’ve got to go.”
He nodded, stretched out his arms and clung to her. Mila kept an ear out for the music, which was still pursuing her. She was worried that the piece wouldn’t last long enough, and that there wasn’t enough time to get out of the house. A fresh anxiety took hold of her. She had put her own life and the hostage’s at risk. And now she was scared. Scared of making another mistake. Scared of stumbling at the last step, the one that would take her out of this horrible lair. Or discovering that the house would never let her go, that it would close in on her like a silken net, holding her prisoner forever.
But the door opened, and they were outside, in the pale but reassuring light of day.
When her heartbeats slowed down, and she was able to forget the gun that she had left in the house, and press Pablo to her, shielding him with her warm body to take all his fear away, the little boy leaned towards her ear and whispered…
“Isn’t she coming?”
Suddenly heavy, Mila’s feet were rooted to the ground. She swayed, but didn’t lose her balance.
Fueled by the strength of a terrifying realization, she asked, “Where is she?”
The little boy raised his arm and pointed to the second floor. The house watched them with its windows and laughed, mockingly, with the same gaping door that had let them go a moment before.
It was then that the fear fled entirely. Mila covered the last few meters that separated her from her car. She sat Pablo on the seat and told him, in the solemn tone of a promise, “I’ll be right back.”
Then she went back to let the house engulf her.
She found herself at the bottom of the stairs. She looked up, without knowing what she would find up there. She started climbing, gripping the banisters. Chopin’s notes went on undauntedly, following her exploration. Her feet sank into the steps, her hands stuck to the banisters which seemed to be trying to hold her back.
Suddenly the music stopped.
Mila froze, her senses alert. Then the dry report of a gunshot, a dull thud and the disjointed notes from the piano beneath the weight of the music teacher as he collapsed onto the keyboard. Mila quickened her pace as she continued on her way upstairs. She couldn’t be certain that it wasn’t another trick. The stairs curved round and the landing stretched into a narrow corridor covered with thick carpet. At the end, a window. In front of it, a human body. Frail, slender, against the light: feet stretched on a chair, neck and arms stretched towards a noose that hung from the ceiling. Mila saw her trying to slip it over her head and gave a cry. The girl saw her and tried to speed up the operation. Because that was what he had told her, it was what she had been taught.
If they come, you must kill yourself.
“They” were the others, the world outside, the ones who couldn’t understand, who would never forgive.
Mila hurled herself towards the girl in a desperate attempt to stop her. And the closer she got, the more she seemed to be running back in time.
Many years before, in another life, that girl had been a child.
Mila remembered her photograph perfectly. She had studied it closely, feature by feature, running through her mind every fold, every expressive wrinkle, cataloging and repeating all distinguishing features, even the tiniest imperfection of the skin.
And those eyes. A speckled, lively blue. The eyes of a ten-year-old child, Elisa Gomes. Her father had taken the picture. An image stolen at a party as she was busy opening a present and didn’t expect it. Mila had imagined the scene, with the father calling her to make her turn round and take the picture by surprise. And Elisa turning towards him, without time to be surprised. A moment had been immortalized in her expression, something imperceptible to the naked eye. The miraculous beginning of a smile before it opens up and spills onto the lips or brightens the eyes like a rising star.
So Mila had not been surprised when Elisa Gomes’s parents had given her that particular photograph when she had asked for a recent picture. It certainly wasn’t the most suitable photograph, because Elisa’s expression was unnatural and that made it almost unusable for re-creating the ways in which her face might change over the course of time. Her other colleagues who had been put on the investigating team had complained. But Mila hadn’t cared, because there was something in that photograph—an energy. And that was what they should have looked for. Not a face among others, one child amongst so many. But that girl, with that light in her eyes. As long as no one had managed to extinguish it in the meantime…
Mila grabbed her just in time, clinging to her legs before the rope could take her weight. She kicked out, struggled, tried to scream. Until Mila called her by name.
“Elisa,” she said with infinite gentleness.
And the girl recognized herself.
She had forgotten who she was. Years of prison had erased her identity, a little piece every day. Until she had become convinced that this man was her family, because the rest of the world had forgotten her. The rest of the world would never save her.
Startled, Elisa looked Mila in the eyes. She calmed down and let herself be rescued.
Six arms. Five names.
With that mystery, the squad had left the clearing in the middle of the forest and joined the task force waiting on the highway. Snacks and fresh coffee seemed to clash with the situation at hand, although they did provide a semblance of control. But no one on that cold February morning touched the buffet.
Stern took a box of mints from his pocket. He shook it and slipped a few into his hand before throwing them straight into his mouth. He said they helped him think. “How is it possible?” he asked, more to himself than anyone else.
“Fuck…” Boris muttered, shaking his head. But it came out so quietly that no one heard him.
Rosa concentrated her attention on a spot inside the camper. Goran noticed. He understood—she had a daughter the same age as those girls. It’s the first thing you think about when you find yourself faced with a crime against minors. Your own children. And you ask yourself what would happen if…But you don’t get to the end of the sentence, because even the very thought is too painful.
“He’s going to make us find them in bits,” said Chief Inspector Roche.
“So that’s our task? Collecting corpses?” asked Boris with a hint of annoyance. A man of action, he didn’t want to see himself relegated to the role of gravedigger. He wanted a perpetrator. And so did the others, who quickly nodded at his words.
Roche reassured them. “The priority is always an arrest. But we can’t avoid the heartrending search for remains.”
“It was deliberate.”
Everyone stared at Goran, pondering his words.
“The Labrador scenting the arm and digging the hole: it was part of the ‘plan.’ Our man had his eye on the two little boys with the dog. He knew they took it into the forest. That’s why he put his little graveyard there. A simple idea. He completed his ‘work,’ and he put it on display.”
“Do you mean we’re not going to catch him?” asked Boris, unable to believe his ears, and furious.
“You know better than me how these things go…”
“But he’s really going to do it? He’ll kill again…” This time it was Rosa who didn’t want to give up. “He’s got away with it so far, he’ll do it again.”
She wanted someone to contradict her, but Goran had no reply. And even if he had had an opinion on the matter, he couldn’t have translated into humanly acceptable terms the cruelty of having to divide himself between the thought of those terrible deaths and the cynical desire for the murderer to strike again. Because—and they all knew this—the only chance of catching him would be if he didn’t stop.
Chief Inspector Roche went on: “If we find the bodies of those little girls, at least we’ll be able to give their families a funeral and a grave to weep over.”
As usual, Roche had put it in the most diplomatic manner possible. It was a rehearsal for what he would say to the press, to soften the story to the advantage of his own image. First mourning, grief, to take time. Then the investigation and the finding of the culprits.
But Goran knew that the operation wouldn’t be successful, and that the journalists would hurl themselves on every scrap, greedily stripping the matter to the bone and spicing it with the most sordid details. And more than anything, from that moment the police would be forgiven nothing. Their every gesture, every word, would acquire the value of a promise, a solemn undertaking. Roche was convinced that he could keep the hacks at bay, feeding them a bit at a time with whatever they wanted to hear. And Goran left the chief inspector with his fragile illusion of control.
“I think we’re going to have to give this guy a name…before the press does,” said Roche.
Goran agreed, but not for the same reason as the chief inspector. Like all criminologists who present their work to the police, Dr. Gavila had his own methods. First and foremost that of attributing traits to the criminal, to transform a still rarefied and indefinite figure into something human. Because, faced with such fierce and gratuitous evil, we always tend to forget that the one responsible for it, like the victim, is a person, often with a normal life, a job and perhaps even a family. In support of his thesis, Dr. Gavila told his university students that almost every time a serial killer was arrested it came as a complete surprise to his neighbors and family.
“We call them monsters because we feel they are far away from us, because we want them to be ‘different,’” Goran said in his seminars. “And instead they’re like us in every respect. But we prefer to remove the idea that someone like us is capable of so much. And we do so in part to absolve our own nature. Anthropologists call it ‘depersonalization of the criminal’ and it is often the greatest obstacle to the identification of a serial killer. Because a man has weak points and can be caught. Not so a monster.”
For that reason, Goran always had on the wall of his lecture theater a black-and-white picture of a child. A chubby, defenseless little man-cub. His students saw it every day and always grew fond of the picture. When—more or less towards the middle of term—a student summoned the courage to ask him who it was, he challenged them to guess. The answers were extremely varied and fantastical. And he was amused by their expressions when he revealed that the child was Adolf Hitler.
After the war, the leader of the Nazi movement had become a monster in the collective imagination, and for years the countries that had emerged victorious from the conflict had been opposed to any other vision. That was why no one knew the photographs from the Führer’s childhood. A monster couldn’t have been a child, he couldn’t have had any feelings other than hatred, or a life like that of his contemporaries who would later become his victims.
“For many, humanizing Hitler meant ‘explaining’ him in some way,” Goran would tell his class. “But society insists that extreme evil cannot be explained, it cannot be understood. Trying to do so means trying to find some kind of justification for it.”
In the task force van, Boris suggested that the creator of the arm cemetery should be called “Albert,” after an old case. The idea was welcomed with a smile by everyone there. The decision was taken.
From that point onwards, the members of the unit would refer to the murderer by that name. And day after day, Albert would acquire a face. A nose, two eyes, a life of his own. Everyone would imbue him with his own vision, rather than seeing him only as a fleeting shadow.
“Albert, eh?” At the end of the meeting, Roche was still weighing up the name’s media value. He moved it around on his lips, he tried to catch its flavor. It could work.
But there was something else that tormented the chief inspector. He mentioned it to Goran.
“To tell you the truth, I agree with Boris. Holy Christ! I can’t force my men to pick up corpses while a crazed psychopath is making us look like a bunch of idiots!”
Goran knew that when Roche talked about “his” men he was really referring to himself. He was the one afraid of coming away without a result. And he was always the one who feared that someone would talk about the inefficiency of the federal police if they couldn’t arrest the culprit.
And then there was the question of arm number six.
“I thought I wouldn’t disseminate the news of the existence of a sixth victim for the time being.”
Goran was disconcerted. “But how will we find out who it is?”
“I’ve thought of everything, don’t worry…”
In the course of her career Mila Vasquez had solved eighty-nine missing-person cases. She had been awarded three medals and a great deal of adulation. She was considered to be an expert in her field, and was often called in to help, even by other forces.
That morning’s operation, in which Pablo and Elisa had been freed at the same time, had been called a sensational success. Mila had said nothing. But it annoyed her. She would have liked to admit all her mistakes. Entering the brown house without waiting for reinforcements. Underestimating the environment and the possible traps it contained. She had put both herself and the hostages at risk by allowing the suspect to disarm her and aim a gun at the back of her neck. Finally, not preventing the music teacher’s suicide.
But none of that had been mentioned by her superiors, who had instead stressed her merits as they were immortalized by the press in the ritual photographs.
Mila never appeared in those snaps. The official reason was that she preferred to protect her own anonymity for future investigations. But the truth was that she hated having her photograph taken. She couldn’t even bear to see her image reflected in a mirror. Not because she wasn’t beautiful, quite the contrary. But at the age of thirty-two, hours and hours of training had stripped her of every trace of femininity. Every curve, every hint of softness. As if being a woman were an evil to be eradicated. Even though she often wore male clothes, she wasn’t masculine. There was simply nothing about her that suggested a sexual identity. And that was how she wanted to appear. Her clothes were anonymous. Jeans that weren’t too tight, worn trainers, leather jacket. They were clothes, and that was that. Their function was to keep her warm or cover her up. She didn’t waste time choosing them, she just bought them. Lots of them were identical. She didn’t care. That was how she wanted to be.
Invisible among the invisible.
Perhaps that was also how she was able to share the district changing room with the male officers.
Mila had spent ten minutes staring at her open locker as she ran through all the day’s events. There was something she had to do, but her mind was elsewhere at the moment. Then a stabbing pain in her thigh brought her back to herself. The wound had opened up again; she had tried to staunch the blood with a tissue and sticky tape, but it hadn’t worked. The flaps of skin around the cut were too short and she hadn’t been able to do a good job with needle and thread. Perhaps this time she really would have to consult a doctor, but she didn’t want to go to hospital. Too many questions. She decided she would put on a tighter bandage, in the hope that the bleeding would stop, then try again with new stitches. But she would have to take an antibiotic to avoid contracting an infection. She would get a fake prescription from one of her contacts who gave her information every now and again about the new arrivals among the homeless at the railway station.
It’s strange, thought Mila. While for the rest of the world they’re only a place you pass through, for some they’re a terminus. They stop there and they don’t leave again. Stations are a kind of ante-hell, where lost souls congregate in the hope that someone will come and collect them.
An average of twenty to twenty-five individuals disappear every day. Mila knew the statistic very well. All of a sudden these people vanish without warning, without a suitcase. As if they had dissolved into nothing.
Mila knew that most of them were misfits, people who lived off drugs and dodges, always ready to sully themselves with crime, individuals who were constantly in and out of jail. But there were also some—a strange minority—who at some point in their lives decided to vanish forever. Like the mother who went shopping at the supermarket and didn’t come home, or the son or brother who boarded a train never to reach their destination.
Mila’s belief was that each one of us has a path. A path that leads to home, to our dear ones, to the things we are most bound to. Usually the path is always the same; we learn it as children, and each of us follows it for the whole of our lives. But sometimes the path breaks. Sometimes it starts again somewhere else. Or, after following a series of twists and turns, it returns to the point where it broke. Or else it remains hanging there.
Sometimes, however, it is lost in the darkness.
Mila knew that more than half of those who disappear come back and tell a story. Some, though, have nothing to tell, and resume their lives as before. Others are less fortunate; all that remains of them is a mute and silent body. Then there are the ones you never hear about again.
Amongst those there is always a child.
There are parents who would give their lives to know what happened. Where they went wrong. What act of negligence produced this silent drama. What happened to their little one. Who took their child, and why. There are those who question God, asking what sin they are being punished for. Those who torment themselves for the rest of their days in search of answers, or who die pursuing those questions. “Let me know at least if he is dead,” they say. Some end up wishing it was so, because they want only to weep. Their sole desire is not to give up, but to be able to stop hoping. Because hope kills more slowly.
But Mila didn’t believe the story of “liberating truth.” She had learned that by heart, the first time she had found a missing person. She had felt it that afternoon, after bringing Pablo and Elisa home.
For the little boy there were cries of joy in the district, festive car horns and parades of cars.
Not for Elisa; too much time had passed.
After saving her, Mila had brought her to a specialist center where social workers had taken care of her. They had given her food and clean clothes. For some reason they’re always one or two sizes too big, Mila thought. Perhaps because the people they were meant for wasted away during those years of oblivion, and had been found just before they vanished away entirely.
Elisa hadn’t said a word all that time. She had allowed herself to be looked after, accepting everything they did to her. Even when Mila had told her she would bring her home, she had said nothing.
Staring at her locker, the young officer couldn’t help seeing in her mind the faces of Elisa Gomes’s parents when she had turned up with Elisa at their door. They were unprepared, and even a little embarrassed. Perhaps they thought she would be bringing them a ten-year-old child, and not that fully grown girl with whom they no longer had anything in common.
Elisa had been an intelligent and very precocious little girl. She had started talking early. The first word she had said had been “May”—the name of her teddy bear. Her mother, however, would also remember her last one: “tomorrow,” the end of the phrase “see you tomorrow,” uttered in the doorway before she went off for a sleepover at a friend’s house. But that tomorrow had taken too long to arrive. And her yesterday was a very long day that showed no sign of coming to an end.
In her parents’ minds Elisa had gone on living like a ten-year-old girl, with her bedroom full of dolls and Christmas presents piled up around the fireplace. This was immortalized like a photograph in their memory, imprisoned as if by a magic spell.
And even though Elisa had returned, they would go on waiting for the little girl they had lost. Without ever finding peace.
After a teary hug and a predictable emotional outburst, Mrs. Gomes had brought them in and offered them tea and biscuits. She had treated her daughter as you would treat a guest. Perhaps secretly hoping that she would leave at the end of the visit, letting her and her husband return to the sense of deprivation that they had come to find so comfortable.
Mila had always compared sadness to an old cupboard that you’d like to get rid of but which ends up staying where it is, and after a while emanates a certain smell that fills the room. And over time you get used to it and you end up being a part of the smell yourself.
Elisa had come back, and her parents would have liked to shake off their own mourning, and give back all the compassion bestowed on them during those years. Never again would they have a reason to be sad. How much courage would it take to tell the rest of the world about their new unhappiness at having a stranger walking around the house?
After an hour of civilities, Mila had said good-bye, and she had felt as if she had noticed a plea for help on Elisa’s mother’s face. “Now what do I do?” the woman cried mutely, terrified about coming to terms with this new reality.
Mila too had a truth to confront: the fact that Elisa Gomes had been found purely by chance. If her abductor had not felt a need to enlarge the “family” by taking Pablito as well, no one would ever have known what had happened. And Elisa would have remained closed away in that world created for her alone, and for the obsession of her jailer. First as a daughter, then as a faithful bride.
Mila closed the locker on those thoughts. Forgetting, forgetting, she said to herself. That’s the only medicine.
The district was emptying, and she felt like going home. She would have a shower, open a bottle of port and roast chestnuts on the hob. Then she would sit and look at the tree outside the sitting room window. And perhaps, with a bit of luck, she would go to sleep early on the sofa.
But as she prepared to reward herself with her usual lonely evening, one of her colleagues appeared in the changing room.
Sergeant Morexu wanted to see her.
A gleaming layer of damp covered the streets that February evening. Goran got out of the taxi. He didn’t have a car, he didn’t have a driving license; he let someone else bother about taking him where he wanted to go. Not that he hadn’t tried driving, and been rather good at it. But it’s inadvisable for someone accustomed to losing himself in the depths of his own thoughts to sit behind the wheel. So Goran had given up.
Having paid the driver, the second thing he did after setting his size nines on the pavement was to take from his jacket the third cigarette of the day. He lit it, took two drags and threw it away. It was a habit he’d formed when he had decided to give up smoking. A kind of compromise, to trick himself about his need for nicotine.
As he stood there, he met his image reflected in a shop window. He stopped to contemplate himself for a few moments. The untidy beard that framed his increasingly weary face. His glasses and his tousled hair. He was aware that he didn’t take much care of himself. But the person who did had given up the role some time before.
The striking thing about Goran—everyone said—was his long and mysterious silences.
And his eyes, huge and piercing.
It was nearly dinnertime. He slowly climbed the steps. He went into his apartment and listened. A few seconds passed and, when he got used to that new silence, he recognized the familiar, welcoming sound of Tommy, who was playing in his room. He went towards him, but only observed him from the door, without having the courage to interrupt what he was doing.
Tommy was nine. He had brown hair, he liked the color red, basketball and ice cream, even in winter. He had a best friend, Bastian, with whom he organized fantastical “safaris” in the school garden. They were both in the scouts and that summer they were going to go camping together. Lately they hadn’t talked about anything else.
Tommy looked incredibly like his mother, but he had one thing of his father’s.
A pair of huge, piercing eyes.
When he became aware of Goran’s presence, he turned and smiled at him. “It’s late,” he said.
“I know. Sorry,” Goran said defensively. “Did Mrs. Runa leave a long time ago?”
“She left to get her son half an hour ago.”
Goran was annoyed: Mrs. Runa had been their nanny for some years now. She should have known he didn’t like Tommy being left at home alone. And this was one of those little inconveniences that sometimes made the business of getting on with life seem impossible. Goran was finding it difficult to resolve everything on his own; the only person who possessed that mysterious power had forgotten to leave him the book of magic spells before she left.
He would have to talk to Mrs. Runa and perhaps even be a little harsh with her. He would tell her to stay in the evening until he came home. Tommy became aware of his thoughts, and his face darkened. So Goran suddenly tried to distract him, asking, “Are you hungry?”
“I ate an apple and some crackers and I drank a glass of water.”
Goran shook his head, amused. “That’s not a proper dinner.”
“It was my snack. But now I’d like something else…”
Tommy clapped his hands at the suggestion. Goran stroked his head.
They cooked the pasta together and set the table; each had his own tasks and carried them out without consulting the other. His son was a quick learner, and Goran was proud of him.
The last few months hadn’t been easy for either of them.
Their lives risked unraveling. Goran tried to hold the scraps together and make up for absence with order. Regular meals, precise timetables, established habits. From that point of view, nothing had changed from before, and that was reassuring for Tommy.
They had learned together to live with that void, but when one of them wanted to talk about it, they talked about it.
The only thing they never did anymore was say her name. Because that name had left their vocabulary. They used other ways, other expressions. It was strange. The man who was concerned about christening every serial killer he came across no longer knew what to call the one who had for a time been his wife, and had allowed his son to “depersonalize” his mother. She could be a character in one of the fairy tales he read to him every evening.
Tommy was the only anchor that still kept Goran bound to the world. Otherwise it would only have taken a moment to slide into the abyss that he explored every day out there.
After dinner, Goran went and hid in his study. Tommy followed him. It was another ritual. Goran sat in his creaking old chair and his son lay belly down on the mat, resuming his imaginary dialogues.
Goran studied his library. The books of criminology, criminal anthropology and legal medicine were beautifully displayed on the shelves, each one with its damask spine and gold blocking. Others were simpler, more modestly bound. They contained the answers. But the difficult thing—as he was always telling his pupils—was finding the questions. These books were full of disturbing photographs. Wounded bodies, tortured, martyred, burnt and dismembered; all rigorously sealed in shining pages, annotated with precise captions. Human life reduced to a cold study.
That was why, until a short time before, Goran had not allowed Tommy to touch the books in the library. He worried that his curiosity would get the better of him, and that by opening one of those books he would discover how violent life could be. Once, however, Tommy had transgressed. He had found him lying, as he was now, flicking through one of those volumes. Goran still remembered him lingering over the picture of a young woman fished from a river, in the winter. She was naked, her skin purple, her eyes motionless.
But Tommy didn’t seem at all disturbed, and rather than shouting at him, Goran had sat cross-legged beside him.
“Do you know what this is?”
Tommy had considered impassively for a long time. Then he had replied, diligently listing all the things he could see. The tapering hands, the hair in which frost had formed, the eyes lost in who knows what thoughts. In the end he had begun to fantasize about what she did for a living, about her friends and where she lived. Then Goran became aware that Tommy noticed everything in the photograph except one thing. Death.
Children don’t see death. Because their life lasts a day, from when they get up to when they go to sleep.
That time Goran understood that, however much he tried, he could never protect his son from the evil of the world. Just as, years before, he had not been able to rescue him from what his mother had done to him.
Sergeant Morexu was not like Mila’s other superior officers. He cared nothing for glory, or for having his picture in the paper. That was why Mila expected him to haul her over the coals for the way she had conducted the operation at the music teacher’s house.
Morexu was brusque in his manners and moods. He couldn’t hold an emotion for more than a few seconds. So one moment he would be furious or sullen, and immediately afterwards he would be smiling and incredibly kind. Also, to avoid wasting time, he combined his gestures. For example, if he had to console you, he would put one hand on your shoulder and walk you to the door at the same time. Or he would speak on the phone and scratch his temple with the receiver.
But this time he wasn’t in a hurry.
He left Mila standing by his desk, without inviting her to sit down. Then he stared at her, his feet stretched out under the table and his arms folded.
“I don’t know if you realize what happened today…”
She anticipated him. “I know. I made a mistake—”
“And yet you saved three people.”
The statement froze her for a long moment.
Morexu sat back in his chair and lowered his eyes to a piece of paper in front of him.
“They found a note in the music teacher’s house. Apparently he planned to take another one…”
The sergeant handed Mila the photocopy of a page from a diary. Beneath the day and the month, there was a name.
“Priscilla?” she asked.
“Priscilla,” repeated Morexu.
“Who is she?”
“A lucky little girl.”
And that was all he said. Because it was all he knew. There was no surname, address, photograph. Nothing. Only that name. Priscilla.
“So stop beating yourself up about it,” Morexu went on and, before Mila could reply, he added, “I saw you today at the press conference: it looked as if none of it mattered to you.”
“For God’s sake, Vasquez! Do you realize how grateful the people you saved should be to you? Not to mention their families!”
You didn’t see the look on Elisa Gomes’s mother’s face, Mila wanted to say. Instead, she merely nodded. Morexu looked at her, shaking his head.
“Since you’ve been here I’ve never heard a single complaint about you.”
“And is that good or bad?”
“If you can’t work it out for yourself, you’ve got big problems, my girl…That’s why I decided you’d enjoy a few days working with the unit.”
Mila didn’t agree. “Why? I do my job, and it’s the only thing that interests me. I’m used to managing that way. I’d have to adapt my methods to somebody. How can I explain that—”
“Go and pack your bags,” Morexu interrupted, dismissing her complaint.
“Why the hurry?”
“You’re leaving this evening.”
“Is it some kind of punishment?”
“It isn’t a punishment, and it isn’t a holiday either: they want advice from an expert. And you’re very popular.”
Mila’s face grew serious.
“What’s it about?”
“Five abducted children.”
Mila had heard it mentioned on the news. “Why me?” she asked.
“Because it looks as if there’s a sixth, but they don’t know who it is yet…”
She would have liked further details, but Morexu had clearly decided that the conversation was over. He went back to being brusque, merely holding out a file with which he pointed at the door.
“Your train ticket’s in here as well.”
Mila took the bundle of papers and made for the door. As she left the room she repeated the name in her head. Priscilla.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967. A Saucerful of Secrets, 1968. Ummagumma was 1969, as was the sound track of the film More. In 1971 there had been Meddle. But before that there was another one…in 1970, he was sure of it. He couldn’t remember the title. The cover, yes. The one with the cow. Damn, what was it called?
I’ve got to get some petrol, he thought.
The fuel gauge was on empty, and the warning light had stopped flashing to settle into a peremptory red glare.
But he didn’t want to stop.
He had now been driving for a good five hours, and had traveled almost six hundred kilometers. And yet putting that remarkable distance between himself and what had happened tonight didn’t make him feel any better. He held his arms stiffly on the wheel. The tense muscles in his neck ached.
He glanced behind him for a moment.
Don’t think about it…don’t think about it…
He kept his mind busy by running through familiar, reassuring thoughts. Over the past ten minutes he had concentrated on the entire discography of Pink Floyd. But over the previous four hours it had been the titles of his favorite films, the players in the last three seasons of the hockey team he supported, the names of his old schoolmates, and even the teachers. He had got as far as Mrs. Berger. What had become of her? He would have liked to see her again. Just to keep that thought at bay. And now his mind had got stuck on that stupid album with the cow on the cover!
And that thought had come back.
He had to chase it away. Send it back to the corner of his mind where he had managed to confine it at various times during the night. Otherwise he would start sweating again, and every now and again he would burst into tears, despairing of the situation, even if it didn’t last long. The fear came back and gripped his stomach. But he struggled to stay clear-headed.
Atom Heart Mother!
That was the title of the record. For a moment he felt happy. But it was a fleeting sensation. In his situation there wasn’t much to be happy about.
He turned round again to look behind him.
Then, again: I’ve got to get some petrol.
Every now and again a gust of ammonia rose up from the mat at his feet to remind him that he had lost control of himself. The muscles in his legs were starting to ache and his calf had gone to sleep.
The storm that had been beating down on the motorway almost all night was moving away beyond the mountains. He could see its greenish flashes on the horizon, while a voice on the radio delivered yet another weather report. Soon it would be daybreak. An hour before he had come out of a tollbooth and emerged onto the motorway. He hadn’t even stopped to pay the toll. His purpose at the moment was to carry on, to get further and further.
Following the instructions he had received to the letter.
For a few minutes he let his mind wander elsewhere. But inevitably it kept coming back to that memory.
He had reached the Hotel Modigliani the previous day, at about eleven in the morning. He had done his work as a salesman in town all afternoon and then in the evening, as planned, he had had dinner with some of his clients at the hotel bistro. Just after ten, he had gone back to his room.
Having closed the door, he had loosened his tie at the mirror and, at that moment, his reflection had shown him, along with his sweat-drenched appearance and his bloodshot eyes, the true face of his obsession. That was what he turned into when the desire took hold of him.
Looking at himself, he had been surprised at how he had been so good at hiding the true nature of his thoughts from his colleagues all evening. He had talked to them, listened to their inane chatter about golf and demanding women, laughed at the irritating jokes about sex. But he was elsewhere. He was savoring the moment when, back in his room, the knot in his tie loosened, he would let the lump of acid that was choking his throat rise up and explode in his face in the form of sweat, labored breathing and a treacherous expression.
The true face beneath the mask.
In the seclusion of his room he had finally been able to give vent to the urge that had been pressing in his chest and in his trousers, making him fear that it too might burst out. And yet it hadn’t happened. He had managed to control himself.
Because soon he would be leaving.
As always he had sworn to himself that this would be the last time. As always, that promise was repeated before and after. And, as always, it would be denied and then renewed the next time.
He had left the hotel at about midnight, at the peak of his excitement. He had started idling: he was early. That afternoon, between tasks, he had made sure that everything was going according to plan, so that there would be no glitches. He’d been preparing this for two months, carefully grooming his “butterfly.” Waiting was the down payment required for any kind of pleasure. And he had savored it. He had checked all the details, because any one of them could expose everything. But that wouldn’t happen to him. It never happened to him. Now that the graveyard of arms had been found, he had to take additional precautions. There were a lot of police around, and everyone seemed to be on the alert. But he was good at making himself invisible. He had nothing to fear. He just had to relax. Soon he would see the butterfly in the driveway, at the spot they had agreed the day before. He was always afraid that they might change their minds. That something would go wrong. And then he would be sad, that rotten sadness that took days to dispel. And what’s worse, you can’t hide it. But he went on repeating to himself that this time too everything would be fine.
The butterfly would come.
He would quickly help her into the car, welcoming her with the usual pleasantries. The ones that help things along, make everything nice, take away the doubts produced by fear. He would take her to the place he had chosen for them that afternoon, turning off into a little side road from where you could see the lake.
The butterflies always had a very penetrating scent. Chewing gum, gym shoes. And sweat. He liked that. That smell was now part of his car.
Even now he could smell it, mixed with the smell of urine. He wept again. So many things had happened since that moment. Things had moved quickly from excitement and happiness to fear and disaster.
He looked behind him.
I’ve got to get some petrol.
But then he forgot and, taking a mouthful of that polluted air, he immersed himself once more in the memory of what had happened next…
He was sitting in the car, waiting for the butterfly. The opaque moon appeared from time to time among the clouds. To dispel his anxiety, he ran through the plan again. At first they would talk. But he would mostly listen. Because he knew that the butterflies always needed to receive what they couldn’t get elsewhere: attention. He played his part to perfection. Listening patiently to his little prey which, by opening up its heart to him, made itself weaker. It lowered its guard and let him move undisturbed into deeper territories.
Close to the cleft of the soul.
He always said just the right thing. He did it every time. That was how he became their master. It was nice to teach someone about their own desires. Explain properly what it takes, show them how it’s done. It was important. To become their school, their training ground. Give a lesson in what is pleasant.
But just as he was composing that magical lesson that would throw open all the doors of intimacy, he had glanced distractedly into the rearview mirror.
At that moment he had seen it.
Something less solid than a shadow. Something you might not really have seen, because it comes straight from your imagination. And he had thought of a mirage, an illusion.
Right up to the fist on the window.
The dry click of the door opening. The hand snaking into the gap and grabbing him by the throat, clutching it. No chance of reacting. A gust of cold air had filled the inside of the car and he clearly remembered thinking, I forgot to lock it! The locks! Not that they would have been enough to stop him.
The man was remarkably strong and he had managed to drag him out of the car with only one hand. His face was covered with a black balaclava. As the man held him in midair, he had thought of the butterfly: the precious prey he had taken such trouble to attract, which was now lost.
And this time he was the prey.
The man had slackened the grip on his neck and flung him on the ground. Then he had lost interest in him and gone back towards his own car. He’s gone to get the weapon he’s going to use to finish me off! Driven by a desperate survival instinct, he had tried to drag himself along the damp, cold ground, even though the man in the ski mask would have needed to take only a few steps to reach him and finish what he had begun.
People do such pointless things when they’re trying to escape death, he thought now, in the stale air of his car. Some people stretch out their hands when they’re faced with the barrel of a gun, and all that happens is that the bullet perforates their palm. And to escape a fire some people throw themselves out of the windows of buildings…They’re all trying to escape the inevitable, and they make themselves ridiculous.
He hadn’t thought he belonged to that group of people. He had always been sure that he could confront death with dignity. But that night, he had found himself wriggling like a worm, naively begging for his own safety. He had just managed to limp a few yards.
Then he had lost his senses.
Two dry blows to the face had brought him to. The man with the balaclava had come back. He loomed above him, staring at him with two dead, dark eyes. He wasn’t carrying a weapon. He had nodded to the car and said only, “Go now and don’t stop, Alexander.”
The man with the balaclava knew his name.
At first it had struck him as reasonable. Then, thinking about it again, it was the thing that terrified him most.
Getting away from there. At the time he hadn’t believed it. He had got up from the ground and staggered to the car, trying to hurry for fear that the other man might change his mind. He had immediately sat down at the wheel, his eyesight still misty and his hands trembling so much he couldn’t start the engine. Then at last his long night on the road had begun. Far from there, as far as possible…
I’ve got to get petrol, he thought, becoming practical again.
The tank was running on fumes. He looked out for signs for a filling station, wondering whether or not this was part of the task he’d been set the night before.
Two questions had filled his thoughts. Why had the man with the balaclava let him go? What had happened while he had been unconscious?
He had had the answers at one o’clock in the morning, when, his mind clear for a moment, he had heard the noise.
Something rubbing against the bodywork, accompanied by a rhythmic, metallic beating—tom, tom, tom—grim and ceaseless. He must have done something to the car; sooner or later one of the wheels will loosen and detach itself from the axle and I’ll lose control and crash into the guardrail! But nothing of the kind happened. Because the noise wasn’t mechanical. But he’d worked that out only later…even if he still wasn’t able to admit it to himself.
At that moment a road sign had appeared: the nearest filling station was less than eight kilometers away. He would get there, but he would have to be quick.
At that thought he turned around for the umpteenth time.
But his attention wasn’t focused on the motorway that he was leaving, or the cars in his wake.
No, his gaze stopped before he got there, long before.
What was pursuing him was not on the road. It was much closer than that. It was the source of the sound. It was something he couldn’t get away from.
It was the thing in his luggage.
That was what he kept staring at insistently. Even though he was trying not to think about what it might contain. But by the time Alexander Bermann turned around to stare straight ahead, it was already too late. The policeman at the edge of the carriageway was gesturing to him to pull over.
Mila got off the train. Her face was bright and her eyes swollen from her sleepless night. She walked under the roof of the station. The building consisted of a magnificent nineteenth-century main hall and a huge shopping center. Everything was clean and orderly. And yet, after a few minutes, Mila knew all its dark corners. The places she would look for missing children. Where life is bought and sold, where it nestles or hides.
But that wasn’t why she was there.
Two colleagues were waiting for her in the office of the railway police. A stocky woman of about forty, with an olive complexion and big hips, too big for the jeans she was wearing. And a man of about thirty-eight, very tall and well-built. He made her think of the lads from the village where she had grown up. She’d gone out with a couple of them at middle school. She remembered how clumsy their advances had been.
The man smiled at her, but his colleague merely stared, with one eyebrow raised. Mila stepped over for the introduction ritual. Sarah Rosa mumbled her name and rank. The man, however, held out his hand, saying clearly, “Hello, I’m Special Agent Klaus Boris.” Then he offered to carry her canvas bag: “Let me.”
“No, thanks, I can do it myself,” said Mila.
But he insisted: “It’s not a problem.”
His tone, and the stubborn way he smiled at her, told Mila that Agent Boris must be a bit of a ladies’ man, convinced that he could work his charm on any woman who came within range. She was sure that he’d decided to have a try as soon as he had seen her in the distance.
Boris suggested having a coffee before setting off, but Sarah Rosa glared at him.
“What’s up? What did I say?” he pleaded.
“We don’t have much time, remember?” the woman shot back dismissively.
“Our colleague has had a long journey and I was just thinking that—”
“There’s no need,” Mila cut in. “I’m fine, thanks.”
Mila had no intention of getting on the wrong side of Sarah Rosa, who didn’t seem to appreciate the fact that Mila was there to work with them.
They reached the car in the car park, and Boris sat down in the driver’s seat. Rosa sat next to him. Mila got into the back, along with her canvas bag. They pulled out into the traffic and headed down the road that ran along the river.
Sarah Rosa seemed rather annoyed to have to act as escort to a colleague. Boris didn’t seem to mind.
“Where are we going?” asked Mila shyly.
Boris looked at her in the rearview mirror. “Headquarters. Chief Inspector Roche needs to talk to you. He’s going to be giving you your instructions.”
“I’ve never had anything to do with a serial killer case before,” Mila pointed out.
“You won’t have to catch anyone,” Rosa replied acidly. “We’ll take care of that. Your only task is to discover the name of the sixth child. I hope you’ve been able to study the file…?”
Mila ignored the note of smugness in her colleague’s voice as she thought of the sleepless night she had spent on that envelope. The photographs of the buried arms. The sparse medico-legal data about the age of the victims and the chronology of the deaths.
“What happened in that forest?” she asked.
“It’s the biggest case for ages!” Boris said, taking his hands off the wheel for a moment, excited as a little boy. “Never seen anything like it. If you ask me, the shit’s about to hit the fan at the top level. That’s why Roche is bricking it.”
Boris’s vulgar slang annoyed Sarah Rosa, and Mila too, in fact. She had never met the chief inspector but she already knew that his men didn’t hold him in especially high regard. Certainly, Boris was more direct, but if he took these liberties in front of Rosa it meant that she agreed with him, even if she didn’t let on. It’s not going well, Mila thought. She decided to judge Roche and his methods for herself, not be swayed by the comments she might come to hear.
Rosa repeated a question and only then did Mila notice that she was talking to her.
“Is that blood yours?”
Sarah Rosa had turned in her seat and was pointing at a spot at the bottom. Mila looked at her thigh. Her trousers were stained with blood; the scar had opened up. She put a hand on it and hastily came up with an explanation.
“I fell when I was jogging,” she lied.
“Well, try and get that wound healed. We don’t want your blood contaminating any of our samples.”
Mila felt suddenly embarrassed by the rebuke, not least because Boris was staring at her in the mirror. She hoped it would stop there, but Rosa hadn’t finished her lesson.
“Once, a rookie who was supposed to be keeping an eye on the scene of a sexual homicide went and pissed in the victim’s bathroom. We spent six months chasing a ghost, thinking the murderer had forgotten to flush.”
Boris laughed at the memory. Mila, though, tried to change the subject. “Why did you call me? Couldn’t you find the girl by just glancing at the list of disappearances for the past month?”
“Don’t ask us…” said Rosa spicily.
The dirty work, thought Mila. It was only too obvious that that was why she had been called in. Roche had wanted to give the thing to someone outside the unit, who wasn’t too close to him, to let them take the fall if the sixth corpse were left nameless.
Debby. Anneke. Sabine. Melissa. Caroline.
“What about the families of the other five?” asked Mila.
“They’re coming over to headquarters too, for the DNA test.”
Mila thought of those poor parents, forced to subject themselves to the DNA lottery to be certain that the blood of their blood had been barbarously killed. Soon their lives would change forever.
“And what do we know about the monster?” she asked, trying to distract herself from that thought.
“We don’t call him a monster,” Boris observed. “That would depersonalize him.” As he said it, Boris exchanged a meaningful glance with Rosa. “Dr. Gavila doesn’t like that.”
“Dr. Gavila?” Mila repeated.
“You’ll meet him.”
Mila’s unease increased. It was plain that her scant knowledge of the case put her at a disadvantage over her colleagues, who would be able to make fun of her over it. But once again she didn’t say a word to defend herself.
Rosa, on the other hand, had no intention of leaving her in peace and pressed her indulgently: “You see, my dear, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t understand how things stand. I’m sure you’re good at your work, but this is different, because serial killers have different rules. And that applies to the victims, too. They’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their only crime, most of the time, is that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or they were wearing one particular color rather than another when they left the house. Or, as in our case, their crime was to be little girls, Caucasian, and to be aged between nine and thirteen…Don’t take this the wrong way, but you can’t know these things. Nothing personal.”
Yeah sure, I believe that, thought Mila. Since the very moment when they met, Rosa had made everything personal.
“I learn quickly,” Mila replied.
Rosa turned and looked at her, her face hard: “Do you have children?”
Mila was startled for a moment. “No, why? What’s that got to do with it?”
“Because when you find the parents of the sixth little girl, you’ll have to tell them the ‘reason’ why their beautiful daughter was treated like that. But you will know nothing about them, about the sacrifices they made to bring her up and educate her, the sleepless nights when she had a temperature, the savings they’d put aside for her studies, to make sure she had a future, the hours spent playing with her, or helping her with her homework.” Rosa’s tone was getting increasingly angry. “And you will never know why three of those girls wore the same shiny polish on their nails, or that one of them had an old scar on her elbow because maybe she fell off her bike when she was five, or that they were all young and pretty and their dreams and desires of that innocent age have been violated forever! You don’t know these things because you’ve never been a mother.”
“‘Hollie,’” was Mila’s brusque reply.
“What?” Sarah Rosa stared at her without comprehension.
“The brand of nail polish is called Hollie. It’s the shiny kind, coral dust. It was a freebie that was given away a month ago with a teenage magazine. That’s why all three of them had it: it was really successful. Also, one of the victims was wearing a charm bracelet.”
“We haven’t found a bracelet,” said Boris, who was starting to get interested.
Mila took one of the photographs out of the folder. “It’s number two, Anneke. The skin near her wrist is paler. A sign that she was wearing something there. The murderer might have taken it off, perhaps she lost it when she was being kidnapped or during a struggle. They were all right-handed except for one: she had ink stains on the side of her index finger, she was left-handed.”
Boris was impressed, Rosa startled. Mila was a river in full spate. “One last thing: number six, the one whose name we don’t know, knew the one who vanished first, Debby.”
“How the hell do you know that?” asked Rosa.
Mila took the pictures of the arms out of the folder one by one. “There’s a little red dot on the tips of both their index fingers. They’re blood sisters.”
The Department of Behavioral Sciences of the Federal Police dealt chiefly with savage crimes. Roche had been head of it for eight years, and he had been able to revolutionize its style and methods. He had been the one, in fact, to open the doors to civilians like Dr. Gavila who, with his writing and research, was unanimously considered the most innovative amongst current criminologists.
In the investigative unit, Agent Stern was the information officer. He was the oldest and the most senior. His job involved collecting data that would then be used to construct profiles and trace parallels with other cases. He was the “memory” of the group.
Sarah Rosa was the logistics officer and computer expert. She spent much of her time studying new technologies, and she had received specific training in the planning of police operations.
Finally there was Boris, the interrogating officer. His responsibility was to question the people involved using the most appropriate method, and to make the possible culprit confess. He was a specialist in all kinds of techniques that would achieve that goal. And usually he reached it.
Roche issued the orders, but he didn’t materially direct the unit: it was Dr. Gavila’s intuitions that guided investigations. The chief inspector was a politician more than anything else, and his choices were often dictated by his career. He liked to appear in public and take the merit for investigations that were going well. In the ones that were unsuccessful, however, he divided responsibility around the whole group or, as he had called it, “the Roche unit.” This method had brought him the dislike and often the contempt of his subordinates.
They were all in the meeting room on the sixth floor of the building that was home to the midtown Department headquarters.
Mila sat down in the back row. In the bathroom she had treated the wound in her leg again, closing it up with two layers of sticking plaster. Then she had changed her jeans for another identical pair.
She looked around, setting her bag on the floor. She immediately recognized a gangling man as Chief Inspector Roche. He was talking animatedly to an unassuming man with a curious aura about him. A gray light. Mila was sure that outside that room, in the real world, the man would have vanished like a ghost. But in here his presence had a meaning. He was plainly the Dr. Gavila that Boris and Rosa had been talking about in the car.
There was something about the man that immediately made you forget his crumpled clothes and untidy hair.
It was his eyes, huge and piercing.
As he went on talking to Roche, he shifted them onto Mila, catching her in flagrante. She looked away, awkwardly, and after a while he did the same, going to sit down not far from her. From that point onwards he ignored her completely, and a few minutes later the meeting officially began.
Roche stepped onto the platform and began to speak with a solemn gesture of his hand, as if talking to an enormous audience rather than an auditorium of five people.
“I have just heard the scientific report: our Albert has left no clues behind. He really knows what he’s doing. Not a trace, not a fingerprint in the little graveyard of arms. He just left us with six little girls to find. Six bodies…and a name.”
Then the inspector invited Goran to speak, but Goran didn’t join him on the platform. Instead he stayed in his place, with his arms crossed and his legs stretched out under the row of chairs in front of him.
“Albert knew from the start how things would go. He predicted them down to the smallest detail. He’s the one running the show. And six is a complete number in the formula of serial murder.”
“Six-six-six, the number of the beast,” Mila interjected impulsively. Everyone turned to look at her with expressions of reproach.
“Let’s not resort to that kind of banality,” said Goran, and Mila felt herself sinking into the floor. “When we talk about a complete number we are referring to the fact that the subject has already completed one series or more.”
Barely noticeably, Mila frowned and Goran guessed that she hadn’t understood, so he explained it better: “We call someone a serial killer if they have killed three times using similar methods.”
“Two corpses only make a multiple murderer,” added Boris.
“That’s why six victims are two series.”
“So it’s a kind of convention?” Mila asked.
“No. It means that if you kill for the third time you don’t stop,” said Rosa, bringing the discussion to an end.
“The inhibitory brakes are relaxed, the sense of guilt is lessened and now you’re killing mechanically,” Goran concluded and turned back to the others. “But why don’t we know anything about corpse number six?”
Roche broke in. “We do know one thing now. From what I have been told, our distinguished colleague has supplied us with a clue that I consider to be important. She has linked the nameless victim to Debby Gordon, our number one.” Roche said it as if Mila’s idea were in fact his own. “Officer Vasquez, if you would be so kind as to tell us the results of your investigative intuition.”
Mila found herself at the center of attention again. She lowered her head to her notes, trying to bring some order to her thoughts before starting to speak. Meanwhile Roche nodded to her to stand up.
Mila got to her feet. “Debby Gordon and child number six knew one another. Of course this is just a supposition on my part, but it would explain the fact that they both have an identical mark on their index fingers…”
“What is it exactly?” Goran asked curiously.
“Well…it’s that ritual of pricking your fingertip with a needle and mixing your blood by bringing your fingertips together: an adolescent version of the blood pact. You usually do it to consecrate a friendship.”
Mila herself had done it with her friend Graciela; they had used a rusty nail because needles had struck them as too girly. The memory suddenly flooded into her mind. Graciela had been her playmate. Each knew each other’s secrets, and once they had even shared a boyfriend, even though he hadn’t known anything about it. They had allowed him to believe that he was the clever one who managed to go out with both friends without their noticing. What had happened to Graciela? She hadn’t heard from her for years. They had lost contact too soon, never to see one another again. And yet they had promised each other eternal friendship. Why had it been so easy to forget her?
“If that’s the case, child number six should be a contemporary of Debby’s,” she concluded.
“The Barr body test carried out on the sixth limb bears out this thesis: the victim was twelve,” said Boris, who couldn’t wait to gain points in Mila’s eyes.
“Debby Gordon went to an exclusive boarding school. It isn’t plausible that her blood sister could have been a schoolmate, because none of the other students are missing.”
“So she must have met her outside of the school setting,” Boris butted in again.
Mila nodded. “Debby had been at the school for eight months. She must have felt very lonely far from home. I would guess that she had trouble bonding with the other girls. So I suppose she met her blood sister in different circumstances.”
Roche said, “I want you to go and take a look at the girl’s room at the school: something might come out of that.”
“I’d like to talk to Debby’s parents too, if possible.”
“Sure, do what you see fit.”
Before the chief inspector could continue, there was a knock at the door. Three quick taps. Immediately afterwards a short man in a white shirt made his entrance, even though no one had invited him in. He had bristly hair and unusual almond eyes.
“Ah, Chang,” said Roche by way of welcome.
The man was the medical examiner dealing with the case. Mila realized almost immediately that he wasn’t actually oriental. His name was Leonard Vross, but everyone had always known him as Chang.
The little man came and stood next to Roche. He carried a dossier that he opened straightaway, even though he had no need to read its contents because he knew them by heart. Probably keeping those pages in front of him gave him a sense of security.
“I’d like you to listen carefully to what Dr. Chang has discovered,” said the chief inspector. “Even though I know that it might be difficult for some of you to understand certain details.”
The reference was to her, Mila was more than sure.
Chang put on a pair of glasses that he kept in his shirt pocket, cleared his throat and began to speak. “The state of preservation of the remains, in spite of their having been buried, was excellent.”
This confirmed the idea that not very much time had passed between the making of the arm graveyard and its discovery. So the pathologist expanded on a number of details. But when Chang finally had to illustrate the method by which the six little girls had been killed, he got straight to the point.
“He killed them by cutting off their arms.”
Lesions have a language of their own, and they use it to communicate. Mila was well aware of that. When the medical examiner turned the page of the file to the enlargement of the photograph of one of the arms, she immediately noticed the reddish halo around the cut and the break of the bone. The seepage of blood into the tissue is the first indication of whether the lesion is lethal or not. If it has been inflicted on a corpse there is no activity from the cardiac pump, so the blood flows passively from the torn vessels, without settling in the surrounding tissues. If, on the other hand, the blow is delivered when the victim is still alive, the heart is pushing the blood into the injured tissues in a desperate attempt to scar them. In the little girls, the lifesaving mechanism had stopped only when the arm had gone away.
Chang went on: “The lesion occurred halfway down the brachial biceps. The bone isn’t shattered, the break is clean. The killer must have used a precision saw: we haven’t found any iron filings along the margins of the injury. The uniform section of the blood vessels and the tendons tells us that the amputation was completed with what I would call surgical skill. Death was caused by bleeding.” Then he added: “It was a hideous death.”
At this phrase, Mila felt an impulse to lower her eyes in a sign of respect. But she immediately noticed that she would have been the only one.
Chang went on: “I would say he killed them straightaway: he had no interest in keeping them alive longer than necessary, and he didn’t hesitate. The methods of killing are identical for all the victims. Except for one…”
His words hung in the air before raining down on his listeners like a shower of icy water.
“What do you mean?” Goran asked.
Chang pushed his glasses back from the tip of his nose and stared at the criminologist. “Because for one of them it was even worse.”
Absolute silence settled on the room.
“The toxicological examinations have revealed traces of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals in the blood and the tissue. In this case: antiarrhythmics like disopyramide, ACE inhibitors and atenolol, which is a beta-blocker…”
“He reduced her heart rate, lowering the pressure at the same time,” added Goran Gavila, who had already understood everything.
Excerpted from The Whisperer by Carrisi, Donato Copyright © 2012 by Carrisi, Donato. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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