This week, Donato Carrisi’s THE LOST GIRLS OF ROME, a “powerful psychological drama” (Kirkus, starred review), reaches bookstores across the country and is also available from your favorite e-tailer. Below is an excerpt from this amazing Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week. Enjoy! And don’t blame us if you end up running out to grab a copy of your own after reading this!
The third lesson that Sandra Vega had learned is that houses and apartments have a smell. It belongs to those who live in them, and it’s always different and unique. When the occupants leave, the smell vanishes. That was why every time Sandra got back to her apartment on the Navigli, she immediately looked for David’s smell.
Aftershave and aniseed-flavored cigarettes.
She knew that one day she would come home, sniff the air and not smell it. Once the smell had gone, David really wouldn’t be there anymore.
That thought made her despair. And she tried to be out as much as possible. In order not to contaminate the apartment with her presence, not to fill it with her own smell.
At first, she had hated the cheap supermarket aftershave David insisted on buying. It seemed to her aggressive and all-pervading. In the three years they had lived together, she had tried many times to find him a replacement. Every birthday, Christmas or anniversary, in addition to the official gift there was a new scent. He would use it for a week, then put it away together with the others on a shelf in the bathroom. Each time he would attempt to justify himself with the words: “Sorry, Ginger, but it’s just not me.” The way he would wink as he said this was intensely irritating.
Sandra could never have imagined that a time would come when she would buy twenty bottles of that aftershave and sprinkle it around the apartment. She had bought so many out of the senseless fear that one day they would take it off the market. And she had even purchased those terrible aniseed-flavored cigarettes. She would leave them, alight, in ashtrays around the rooms. But the alchemy hadn’t worked. It was David’s physical presence that had linked those smells indissolubly. It was his skin, his breath, his mood that made that union special.
After a long day’s work, Sandra closed the apartment door behind her and waited a few seconds, motionless in the darkness. Then, at last, her husband’s smell came to greet her.
She put the bags down on the armchair in the hall: she would have to clean the equipment, but for now she was putting everything off. She would see to it after dinner. In the meantime she ran herself a hot bath and lay in the water until her fingers became wrinkled. She put on a blue T-shirt and opened a bottle of wine. It was her way of escaping. She couldn’t bear to switch on the television anymore, and she didn’t have the concentration necessary to read a book. So she spent her evenings on the sofa, with a bottle of Negroamaro in her hands and her vision gradually blurring.
She was only twenty-nine, and found it hard to think of herself as a widow.
The second lesson Sandra Vega had learned was that, like people, houses and apartments die.
Since David had died, she had never felt his presence in objects. Perhaps because most of the things here belonged to her.
Her husband had been a freelance photojournalist, and he had travelled the world in his work. Before meeting her he had never needed a home, making do with hotel rooms and other temporary accommodation. He had told her that in Bosnia once he had slept in a graveyard, inside a walled niche.
Everything that David owned was packed into two large green canvas bags. There was his wardrobe: some things for summer, others for winter, because he never knew where he might be sent for a story. There was the dented laptop that he never let out of his sight, and there were utensils of every kind: multi-use knives, batteries for his mobile phones, even a kit for purifying urine in case he ended up in a place without drinking water.
He had pared everything down to essentials. For example, he had never owned a book. He read a lot, but every time he finished one, he gave it away. He had only stopped since he had come to live with her. Sandra had created a space for him in the bookcase and he had started to warm to the idea of having a collection. It had been his way of putting down roots. After the funeral, his friends had come up to Sandra and each one had brought her a book that David had given to them. The books were full of his annotations, corners turned down to mark the page, little burns or oil stains. She imagined him calmly reading Calvino, smoking a cigarette in the burning heat of some desert, next to a broken-down off-road vehicle, waiting for someone to come and rescue him.
I’ll continue to see him everywhere, they all said to her, it’ll be difficult to shake off his presence. And yet it wasn’t like that. She had never had the feeling she could hear his voice calling her name, nor had she ever unthinkingly put an extra plate on the table.
What she did miss, desperately, was the daily routine, those little, unimportant moments that had made up their lives.
On Sundays, she would usually get up after him and find him sitting in the kitchen, drinking his third pot of coffee and leafing through the newspaper in a cloud of aniseed-scented smoke, with his elbow placed on the table and the cigarette held between his fingers, the ash on the verge of falling, so absorbed in his reading as to forget everything else. As soon as she appeared in the doorway with her usual disapproving expression, he would lift his head with its mop of curly hair and smile at her. She would try to ignore him while she made breakfast for herself, but David would continue to stare at her with that goofy smile on his face until she couldn’t hold out any longer. It was that crooked smile, the result of a broken incisor, a memento of falling from his bicycle when he was seven. It was his glasses, with their fake tortoiseshell frames held together with scotch tape, that made him look like an old English lady. It was David, who within a few moments would draw her on to his knees and place a damp kiss on her neck.
At that memory, Sandra put down the glass of wine on the table next to the sofa. She reached out an arm to pick up her mobile phone, then dialed voicemail.
The electronic voice informed her as always of the presence of one message, which she had already listened to. It was dated five months earlier.
“Hi, I called a couple of times but I always get the recorded message…I don’t have much time, so I just want to make a list of what I miss…I miss your cold feet searching for me under the blankets when you come to bed. I miss you making me taste things from the fridge to make sure they haven’t gone off. Or when you wake me up screaming at three in the morning because you’ve got a cramp. And I know you won’t believe this, but I even miss you using my razor to shave your legs and then not telling me…Anyway, it’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back. I love you, Ginger!”
David’s last words seemed to sum up a perfect harmony. The kind possessed by butterflies, snowflakes and a very small number of tap dancers.
Sandra switched off the phone. “I love you too, Fred.”
Every time she listened to the message, she felt the same sensation. Nostalgia, grief, tenderness, but also anguish. A question was hidden in those last words, a question Sandra could not and would not answer.
It’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back.
She had been used to David’s travelling. It was his work, his life. She had always known that. However much she might harbor the desire to hold him back, she had realized that she had to let him go.
It was the only way to make sure he came back to her.
His profession often took him to the most hostile places in the world. God alone knew how many times he had risked his life. But that was how David was, it was his nature. He had to see everything with his own eyes, touch it with his own hands. To describe a war, he needed to smell the smoke of burning buildings, to know that the sound of bullets is different depending on which objects they hit. He had never wanted to be exclusively tied to any of the great newspapers, although they would certainly have fought to get him. He couldn’t bear the idea of anyone controlling him. And Sandra had learned to dismiss her worst fears, confining her anxiety to a place buried deep in her mind. Trying to live in a normal manner, pretending she was married to a clerk or a factory worker.
There had been a kind of unwritten pact between her and David. It entailed a series of strange courtship rituals, which were their way of communicating. So he might stay in Milan for long periods and they would start to have a stable married life. Then, one evening, she would return home and find him preparing his famous shellfish soup, the one with at least five varieties of vegetable, accompanied by salted sponge cake. It was his specialty. But in their code, it was also his way of telling her that he would be leaving the next day. They would have dinner as usual, talking of this and that, he would make her laugh and then they would make love. And the next morning she would wake up alone in bed. He might be away for weeks, sometimes months. Then one day he would open the door, and everything would start again from where they had left off.
David never told her where he was going. Except that last time.
Sandra emptied the glass of the remaining wine. She drank everything in one gulp. She had always avoided the thought that anything bad could happen to David. He ran risks. If he had to die, then it had to happen in a war or at the hands of one of those criminals he often investigated. It all seemed equally stupid to her, but she could accept it somehow. Instead, it had happened in the most banal way.
She was starting to doze off when her mobile phone rang. She looked at the screen, but did not recognize the number. It was nearly eleven o’clock.
“Could I speak to David Leoni’s wife?”
It was a man’s voice, speaking in a foreign accent, possibly German.
“Who is that?”
“My name’s Schalber, I work for Interpol. We’re colleagues.”
Sandra sat up, rubbing her eyes.
“I’m sorry to phone you so late, but I only just got your number.”
“Couldn’t it have waited until tomorrow?”
There was a cheerful laugh at the other end. Schalber, whoever he was, had a curiously boyish voice. “I’m sorry, I can’t help it, whenever there’s a question that’s nagging at me, I have to ask it. Otherwise I might not sleep tonight. Doesn’t that ever happen to you?”
Sandra didn’t know what to make of the man’s tone; she couldn’t figure out if he was hostile or simply flippant. She decided to be businesslike. “How can I help you?”
“We’ve opened a file on your husband’s death and I need to clarify a few things.”
Sandra’s face darkened. “It was an accident.”
Schalber had probably been expecting this reaction. “Yes, I read the police report,” he said calmly. “One moment…”
Sandra heard the sound of pages being turned.
“It says here that your husband fell from the fifth floor of a building but survived the fall, dying many hours later from the fractures sustained and from internal bleeding…” He stopped reading. “It must be hard for you, I imagine. It can’t be easy to accept something like that.”
“You have no idea.” The words came out sounding cold, and Sandra hated herself as she said them.
“According to the police, Signor Leoni was on that construction site because it offered an excellent vantage point for a photograph.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Have you been there?”
“No,” she replied irritably.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
Schalber’s pause lasted a moment too long. “Your husband’s camera was destroyed in the fall. A pity we’ll never see that photograph.” His tone was sarcastic.
“Since when has Interpol bothered with accidental deaths?”
“True, it’s an exception. What I’m curious about is not so much the circumstances in which your husband died.”
“There are some obscure aspects to the case. I found out that Signor Leoni’s luggage was returned to you.”
“Yes, two bags.” She was starting to get annoyed, which she suspected was actually Schalber’s intention.
“I put in a request to see them, but apparently I was too late.”
“Why would you want to see them? What possible interest could they have for you?”
There was a brief silence at the other end. “I’ve never been married, but I came close to it a couple of times.”
“And how does that concern me?”
“I don’t know if it concerns you, but I do think that when you trust your life to someone—I mean someone really special like a spouse…well, you stop asking yourself certain questions. For example, what that person is doing every moment you’re not together. Some people call it trust. The truth is that sometimes it’s fear…Fear of the answers.”
“And what kind of questions should I have asked myself about David, in your opinion?” But Sandra already knew the answer.
Schalber’s tone turned solemn. “We all have secrets, Officer Vega.”
“I didn’t know every detail of David’s life, but I knew the kind of person he was, and that’s enough for me.”
“Yes, but did it ever occur to you that he might not always have told you the whole truth?”
Sandra was furious. “Listen, it’s pointless for you to try and make me doubt my husband.”
“Indeed it is. Because you already doubt him.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” she protested.
“The bags that were sent back to you five months ago are being kept in a storeroom at Headquarters. Why haven’t you collected them yet?”
Sandra smiled bitterly. “I don’t have to explain to anyone how painful it might be to see those things again. Because, when that happens, I’ll have to admit that it really is all over, that David will never come back and that nobody can do anything about it.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it.”
The man’s lack of tact left her stunned. For a moment she couldn’t say anything. When at last she was able to react, she did so angrily. “Go fuck yourself, Schalber.”
She slammed the phone down, then grabbed the empty glass, which was the first thing to hand, and flung it at the wall. The man had no right! She’d been wrong to let him go on talking, she should have hung up sooner. She stood up and began pacing nervously about the room. Up until that moment she hadn’t wanted to admit it, but Schalber was right: she was afraid. The phone call hadn’t surprised her. It was as if part of her had expected it.
This is crazy, she thought. It was an accident. An accident.
Then she started to calm down. She looked around her. The corner of the bookcase with David’s volumes. The boxes of aniseed-flavored cigarettes piled up on the desk. The aftershave, now past its use-by date, on the shelf in the bathroom. The place in the kitchen where he read the newspaper on Sunday mornings.
The first lesson that Sandra Vega had learned was that houses and apartments never lie.
But people do.
It’s freezing cold here in Oslo and I can’t wait to get back.
That had been a lie, because David had died in Rome.