The Rome Prophecy(4)
Author:Sam Christer


    ‘Nothing at all.’ She glances around: beautifully painted ceilings, high stained-glass windows that probably make sunlight look as though it has come from heaven, intricate marble flooring and two spectacular staircases leading to prayer lecterns. But everything is past its prime. ‘It looks as old as Rome itself.’

    ‘It almost is. Sixth century. In her day this girl was a stunner – hence the name, Cosmedin; it comes from the Greek kosmidon, meaning beauty.’

    ‘Impressive. But why do I need to know this now?’

    ‘You’ll see when we get to the portico.’ He guides her past a dark side altar and into a thin corridor paved in what looks like engraved tombs. ‘There’s a huge old drain cover in there, stood up by the far wall; it’s known as the Bocca della Verità, the Mouth of Truth.’

    ‘Why’s it called that?’ There’s puzzlement in her voice, ‘Who would even think of giving a drain cover a name?’

    ‘The sewers in Rome are pre-Christian. Originally they were used for everything, and I mean everything. They even used to dump bodies down there.’

    ‘Ugh!’

    Federico struggles to find the handle to the door that will actually let them into the portico. ‘There was also probably a demon from the underworld associated with it all, because the thing has a formidable face engraved on it and a wide slit for a mouth. It’s spent most of its life stood up on a plinth as part of a ritual whereby you put your hand into the mouth and if you told a lie it got cut off by the gods.’

    Valentina puts the pieces together. ‘So we have a severed hand being found in the most famous place in the world for severed hands.’

    ‘That’s about it.’

    ‘And has this ever happened before?’

    ‘Not for a few centuries.’ He finally opens the interior door leading into the portico. ‘Be careful here, there’s no light. The photo team came but their equipment fused. They’ll be back shortly.’

    ‘No spare kit?’

    ‘No spare kit. Cutbacks. Recession. You know how it goes.’ He shines his Maglite along the dark pillars and walls. At the far end the beam picks out a drain cover as big as a man.

    ‘That’s the Mouth of Truth?’ It’s so much larger than she’d expected.

    ‘Si. The hand was found actually in the mouth.’ He plays the beam around the lopsided slit a third of the way up the heavy slab. Blood has dribbled like Burgundy from the corner of the marble lips.

    ‘Was it done here?’

    Federico points the light on to the portico floor. A puddle of red answers her question.

    Valentina studies the dark mess. ‘Looks like it was severed from the left of the victim.’ She remembers something that Tom Shaman – the man she’s meeting tomorrow – once told her. Sinister is Latin for left – traditionally the side of evil.

    ‘Why are you so sure?’ asks Federico.

    ‘Lend me your torch, please.’ He hands it over, and she scorches the beam down the long wall running to the right of them. ‘It would be difficult for someone to stand that side of the victim because of this wall. In this light – or lack of it – it’s hard to see the blood spatter, but what little I can make out flows left to right, not right to left, so we’re looking at the blade cutting from the victim’s left, with her kneeling. That would indicate at least two offenders. One to make her kneel and hold her there, one to deliver the precise blow.’ She looks across to him, ‘Where’s the hand now?’

    ‘Patalogica. It’s in the mortuary in deep freeze.’ Federico’s cell phone rings, ‘Scusi.’

    He steps away to take the call. Valentina notices a sign for tourists that says: ‘Only one photograph per person please.’ She guesses the crime-scene photographers will have had a laugh at that. No doubt taken their own pictures, too. She walks closer to the blood, but not so close that she’ll contaminate the scene.

    There’s no visible sign of a struggle.

    She turns sideways on.

    The portico is draped with crime-scene plastic sheeting to keep out prying eyes, but normally it would be very visible from the open road through iron railings.

    Surely someone would have seen something?

    Heard something?

    The victim must have screamed. Unless she’d been drugged or gagged – then she could more easily be manoeuvred into position.

    Why?

    Why would someone want to do this?

    The questions are still stacking up as Federico reappears. ‘Mystery over.’ There’s a real bounce in his voice, a tone of relief. ‘Seems some crazy woman has been picked up wandering the streets. She’s covered in blood and – you won’t believe this – she’s carrying some kind of old sword.’

    If the light had been better, he’d have seen that the look of disbelief on Valentina’s face is nothing to do with the weapon.

    She had the attacker down as male.

    And the victim is still missing.

    ‘I think your mystery is far from being over, Lieutenant,’ says Valentina. ‘In fact, I’d say it’s only just beginning.’





    5



    My eyes are closing now.

    Shutting for the final time.

    Through the milky veil of death I see Arria, my body servant.

    Sweet Arria, do not look so sad.

    She calls me Domina, then gathers her robes and kneels beside me in the dirt.

    The last of the crowd moves away.

    Even they know that they must scavenge no more.

    The time has come.

    I am cold.

    Colder than I have ever been. Arria is so alive she seems to burn like a fire next to me. She has brought blankets to wrap around my cooling husk.

    No doubt she also has my shroud.

    I have not the strength to move a muscle.

    Oh, that I could smile to show her my gratitude. But I cannot.

    I feel her warm hands press the cloth around me, as she tucks me tight like she once did when I was an infant in a manger.

    Her old and bony fingers hold my one remaining hand.

    Dearest Arria, I thank you.

    In my palm I feel a coin. Enough to pay Charon the Ferryman. Enough to take me across the Styx to the gates of the underworld and stand before great Pluto.

    I am being lifted up and carried. I cannot see who bears me. Nor do I wish to.

    My eyes are closed fast now.

    The lids that once upon the sight of a lover fluttered faster than the wings of a butterfly are now too heavy to move.

    I am done.

    The unseen hands drop me.

    I thud and bounce on the rough wood in the back of a dusty cart.

    I feel the heat of the sun surfacing from behind the clouds. Great Apollo, I praise you. Wondrous Pluto, I seek your kindness.

    Through the muffled tunnel between life and death I hear the cart wheels trundle towards oblivion.

    Someone lifts my head.

    It is Arria. I recognise her smell. Her face is close to mine. She knows that my time is over, and as no relative is here, she performs her final duty.

    I feel her hand across my bosom, her fingers seeking out my fading heartbeat. She is bent low. Her lips touch my face.

    She is ready.

    Ready to catch my last breath in her wise old mouth.





    6



    Rome

    Federico gets a message from Central Comms. A street patrol has taken the female prisoner to a holding cell at the Carabinieri barracks in Viale Romania.

    By all reports, their new admission is as jumpy as a box of frogs.

    A doctor’s already been called to sedate her, but Valentina issues instructions that no medication is to be given until they arrive.

    The night is cold, crisp and clear. Halogen lights pick out swirls of dust and insects around the giant grey sign identifying the ugly, squat building as the COMMANDO GENERALE DELL ARMA DEI CARABINIERI. Federico is a local boy and he thinks the whole concrete edifice sits like a boil on the face of Villa Ada, Rome’s largest and most beautiful park.

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