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 socialise. 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 cataloguing 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 recognised him and immediately came striding over. Before he could open his mouth, Goran cut in with a question.
‘Five. Each one is fifty centimetres 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 terrorising 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 mobilised 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-a-ring-o’-roses. 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. Savouring the moment, savouring 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.’