The Church of Lost Souls 7
‘Look,’ I told Paolo, ‘if you don’t believe me, let’s go to the police and ask them. I swear I have nothing to do with that girl’s death.’
And then it twigged. What if they were a bunch of loonies in that building? What if they were part of some weird ancient sect looking for victims to play their nasty game on? They’d certainly done a good job on me and Paolo.
He was walking ahead of me probably because he couldn’t stand the sight of me. So well shaken up by the old man that he could hardly walk in a straight line so I reached out, put my hand on his shoulder, which made him jump, and asked him to stop.
When he turned to face me I could see tears in his eyes. Finally the gravity of the situation hit me.
‘Listen, Paolo,’ I said. ‘I swear I do not know what you’re talking about,’ and that was when he agreed that it would probably be a good idea to go to the police.
We trotted off to the bus depot at a slower pace and when we got there I asked a few people where the police station was while Paolo eyed me with confused suspicion.
It was only a few minutes’ walk down the main road. Neither of us said a word on the way. When we got there I spoke to the officer on duty and he asked us to wait while he went to find someone who spoke English.
During this time I tried to explain to Paolo what had actually happened but he cut me off and asked me to remain quiet so we just sat there like two feuding brothers.
A female officer appeared after a short while and led us to a room where we could talk.
We sat down around a table, me and Paolo on one side and the officer on the other.
‘We’ve come to ask you if you know anything about the death of an American woman who worked in a joke shop close to here,’ I said.
The officer looked at me sideways, inquisitively. ‘When did this woman die, do you know?’ she asked.
‘According to my friend,’ I said, gesturing to Paolo, ‘an old man told him that she died sometime in the last week.’
‘And why is this woman important to you, may I ask?’ she said.
For a brief moment I didn’t know what to say. After all, she meant very little to me. ‘I met her only once and exchanged a short conversation with her, enquiring as to the whereabouts of The Church of Lost Souls.’ The moment I mentioned the church, the officer’s expression changed.
‘Did you say The Church of Lost Souls?’ she asked.
‘Yes, a woman at the British Embassy told me about it and said it was a good place for English speakers to find work. I don’t know why I bothered even going, it’s been a complete waste of time. Anyway, that’s how I met the American woman. She worked in the joke shop.’
‘The joke shop is The Church of Lost Souls?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘well, yes, or at least they both have the same address.’
Paolo was getting rather hot under the collar. ‘This is crazy,’ he said. ‘Do you or do you not know about this American woman? I don’t know anything about this Church of Lost Souls but what I do know is that an old man just cried in my arms because, apparently, his shopkeeper has just died and he’s lost his business.’
‘Did he say how she died?’ asked the officer.
‘No,’ piped Paolo, ‘but he did say that my friend here had something to do with it, which is why we’re here, to find out if the old man is telling the truth.’
The officer excused herself, saying, ‘I will be a few moments. Please wait here.’
Paolo and I sat in silence. What was there to say? We’d only met that morning and already he was accusing me of murder.
The officer returned and sat down. ‘I’ve checked with my superior and he tells me that no one from the United States has died in Rome over the last week.’
‘See? I told you,’ I said, looking at Paolo.
‘But,’ said the officer, ‘an American woman has been reported as missing.’
‘How old was, or is, this woman, if you don’t mind me asking?’ I said, hoping that she wasn’t in her early twenties like the girl in the joke shop.
I tried in vain not to roll my eyes. ‘OK, but did she work at a joke shop?’ I said, knowing the chances of that would have been negligible.
The officer refused to answer, insisting that information about the woman was confidential.
So my victory was shortlived. The officer couldn’t say any more on the matter but noted our names and where we were staying in case we were needed for any reason. Before getting up to go I asked whether it would be possible to inform us if and when the woman reappeared and the officer obliged by saying she would call the campsite.
Leaving the building I could tell that Paolo was still very wary of me and he seemed intent on parting company there and then but I wouldn’t have it. The last thing I wanted was for him to return to the campsite and tell other people the story he’d been thrown by the old man. Maybe there were some nice girls there to hang out with. They wouldn’t want to hang around a murderer and it would be hell just being there. Maybe I’d get kicked out by the management and be forced to stay in the park by Central Station with all the needles. Even the stray cats didn’t go anywhere near that place.
One way or another, I had to get through to Paolo that he’d been lied to by the old man.
‘Paolo,’ I said as we stopped to wait at a junction to cross the road, ‘please, you have to hear me out.’
He looked over to me but still said nothing.
‘Please, can we take the bus back to the campsite?’ I asked. ‘I’ll tell you everything that happened.’
When he nodded his approval we went back to the depot and caught the bus.
There weren’t many other passengers so I felt at ease recounting my time at the joke shop, The Church of Lost Souls and my subsequent visit the day before. It was so clear in my mind that, along with the Maria and Giovanni show, it took most of the journey.
He didn’t say a word until I’d finished, at which time I felt physically exhausted.
‘I hear what you’re saying, James, but that doesn’t explain the disappearance of the young American woman.’
I had to admit that this was a strange coincidence but my mind was still clear enough to see potential solutions. ‘Yeah, but she could have had a quarrel with her boyfriend and run off. Besides that, there’s always the possibility that the old man reported her disappearance, for whatever reason he may have.’
A confused grimace rolled Paolo’s upper lip as he thought about it, but then he shook his head. ‘Why would he do that?’
‘I don’t bloody know,’ I said. ‘Look, Paolo, if I’d just killed his shopkeeper why would I ask you to go and visit him? Why would anyone with half a brain do such a thing?’
He shook his head again and I could see he was starting to see sense without being quite there.
‘You’re a good guy,’ I said, ‘but you’ve been fed a line by this old man and I need you to see that.’
‘Fed a line?’ he said.
‘Yeah, like a fish is fed a line, you’ve been deceived.’
Paolo sighed angrily. ‘But he was so believable. He cried in my arms and then all these people opened their windows and looked down at us.’
‘Just like they did with me. Look, I don’t know who they are or what they’re up to and to be honest I don’t want to know. I went looking for a job and found a bunch of screwed up weirdos and now I’m here in this mess, just like you.’
It was then, looking at Paolo, that I realized the extent to which he’d been traumatized. I felt a certain confidence, knowing it had affected me so little in comparison, which was admittedly only small consolation considering he was the only friend I’d made apart from Thomas in Naples.
‘All I’m doing is trying to find a job and have a good time, just like you. Can you not see that?’ I said.
As the bus drew in at our stop, Paolo sighed.
‘Come on, let’s go and get a crate of beer from the supermarket. I need a drink,’ he said.