The Rome Prophecy(5)
Author:Sam Christer


    He and Valentina travelled separately from the chiesa in Cosmedin, but he’s waited patiently for her in reception.

    They clear the front desk together and are shown through to the cell block where they’re left in the unpleasant company of the overnight custody officer, Paulo Ferrera.

    A bad-tempered, heavy-set man in his late forties, Ferrera was just about to end his shift and go home before his late-night ‘guest’ arrived, covered in blood. He talks as he walks, breathing more heavily with each couple of steps. ‘We haven’t a name for her yet. She had no ID of any kind and she’s too drunk, drugged or ignorant to tell us who she is – è matto.’

    Valentina takes an instant dislike to him.

    ‘We were told she had a weapon – where is it?’

    ‘Forensics have it. It’s still being processed.’ He unlocks one of several security gates. ‘I’ll call them for you. They have her clothes as well. I say clothes; it was more of a gown than clothes.’

    ‘Gown?’ queries Federico.

    ‘Hooded. Like a nun or a monk. A long white garment – well, not so white now, not with all the blood on it.’

    ‘Did you take trace evidence from her body?’ asks Valentina.

    ‘We managed to swab her hands, but nothing else. She’s just been too violent.’

    Valentina winces. ‘You need to do it. Especially beneath her nails. She may chew and suck away something that we later find out we really need.’

    Ferrera glares at her. ‘We’ve tried. It’s not that easy. We’ve actually had to be more concerned with her not hurting herself.’

    Valentina stops walking and shoots him a playful smile. ‘Oh come on, Officer. You’re a big guy. I’m sure you and some of your men could restrain a mere woman and take evidence without hurting her.’ She glances at her watch. ‘I know it’s turned midnight, but to the best of my knowledge, normal daylight practices like acting professional still apply.’

    Ferrera says nothing.

    The colour of his face shows he’s fuming.

    The cell-block veteran is still chewing his lip as they enter the new admissions area. He points towards the room where their prisoner is being held and takes a deep breath to ensure there’s no anger in his voice. ‘Until the doc arrives, we have two officers with her all the time. When you see her, perhaps you’ll be more understanding about our difficulties.’ He strides past Valentina and unlocks the penultimate cage. ‘Watch out for her kicking and biting.’

    Valentina takes in her first impression of the small frightened woman sitting between two giant uniformed Carabinieri men.

    She’s pretty in an old-fashioned way.

    Her hair is swept back and parted in the middle. She has dark eyes and a fine, angular face tapering into a slightly dimpled jaw that Valentina is sure men must find attractive. She’s wearing white zip-up one-piece overalls that cover everything except her bony hands, which are stained heavily with blood.

    It will be a miracle if the victim is still alive.

    ‘I’m Captain Morassi, Valentina Morassi. Can you tell me who you are?’

    The woman says nothing.

    Valentina tries again ‘We need you to help us.’ She takes the woman’s wrist. ‘Your hands and body are covered in blood. We think someone might be badly injured. Can you tell me what happened to you?’

    Nothing. No response. Just a blank gaze.

    Valentina edges closer. She bends a little and tries to be more intimate. ‘Late last night, were you in Cosmedin, at Chiesa Santa Maria, at the Bocca della Verità?’

    Suddenly the prisoner lunges.

    The top of her head smashes into Valentina’s jaw.

    The guards are too slow reacting.

    The prisoner starts shouting and punching and kicking.

    Valentina reels backwards, holding her bloodied mouth.

    One of the officers finally grabs the woman.

    The prisoner is hysterical, screaming and lashing out uncontrollably.

    Ferrera and Federico bump into each other as they rush into the narrow cell.

    Blood pumps from Valentina’s mouth. She’s bitten her bottom lip and maybe knocked a tooth loose.

    The prisoner is now pinned on the floor. One of the guards twists her arms behind her back and clicks on some steel cuffs.

    ‘Now do you see what I mean?’ says Ferrera triumphantly. He looks across to Valentina. ‘With the captain’s permission, perhaps we could now sedate the prisoner and save ourselves a lot more pissing about?’





    7



    My corpse has been bathed.

    My colourless skin sags as it is oiled and perfumed by the skilled hands of the pollinctores.

    Bless you, gifted artisans from the temple of Venus Libitina.

    Bless all of you who have put your judgement aside and now prepare me to stage a dignified escape from my death.

    I see familiar faces around me.

    My family and friends are dressed in the dull mourning wools of vestes pullae, their bodies unwashed, their hair uncombed, their nails uncut and clothes unchanged since I passed.

    Flutes play outside in the darkness where they are waiting for me. The conclamatio has begun.

    I hear my name being chanted.

    Cassandra … Cassandra … Cassandra …

    One by one they bend over me to say their final farewell, my extremum vale.

    Musicians lead the way as they carry me feet first with my face respectfully covered.

    The female praeficae follow. Their tearful funereal dirge further chills the cool night air.

    Sadly, there will be no stopping in the forum. My redemption in death is not complete and the honour that should befall me as the wife of a senator has been denied because of my unjust shame.

    The walk to my resting place is a long one. Way beyond the city walls, as decreed by the code laid down in the Twelve Tables.

    The dirge has stopped by the time we reach the ustrina, the sacred enclosures. Those who have carried me are tired but do their best not to look pained or drawn.

    Much work has been done to observe proper ceremony. My husband has shown me more attention in death than in life.

    My altar is high. Four equal sides of strong timber. A fine exit.

    In the dead of night, the pyre is lit.

    The flames rise endlessly into the night sky and reach beyond the earth.

    So does my spirit.

    Cassandra is unshackled.





    8



    Paris

    Just after midnight, in a cobbled back street off the Champs-Élysées, Tom Shaman finds himself cradling a bottle of Mexican beer in a dubious club. It’s the type that privately promotes gambling and other pursuits that even in Paris aren’t legal.

    Jean-Paul has been coming here for more than a decade. He leads his friend away from the crowded main bar to the back of the club, where raucous cheers come from behind a long row of black curtains.

    ‘Do you know what savate is?’ shouts the Frenchman over the top of the crowd noise and the froth of his own beer.

    ‘Not a clue.’

    JP leans closer, ‘It is the boxe française, the only martial art to originate in Europe. It has been shown in an X-Men film, featured in Captain America and even Tintin.’ He laughs. ‘It is very select – very famous.’

    ‘A kind of kickboxing?’

    ‘Yes, if you like. It is a style of fighting with foot and fist made famous by Napoleon’s troops. Now it is something of a back-street sport, with heavy wagers. Do you want to see?’

    It’s his last night in Paris; Tom is up for almost anything. ‘Sure.’

    JP digs one hundred euros entrance money out of his jeans pockets and pays a burly, bald-headed man in a black suit to pull back the curtains. They’re ushered through a door that leads to what was once a large loading bay. Now it is filled with close to two hundred people, clutching drinks and gathered around a large, one-rope ring.

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