Authors: Conor Fitzgerald
For my mother, Marion Deane
Before we begin,’ said the magistrate, ‘I want you all to know that there is no chance of a happy ending to this story.’
A policeman stepped forward. He was a young man with an accent full of the unclosed vowels of southern Italy. He said, ‘Sometimes these cases work out for the best.’
‘How old are you?’
‘I am almost twice your age, Agente. I have had experience of cases like this before. Just one is enough to change your outlook on life and stop you from hoping.’
The other four police officers filling the small room nodded, which had the effect of isolating their outspoken colleague. The magistrate regarded them with a hint of disdain, and pressed the tips of his fingers against the polished wood of his organized desk, then shook his head in sadness at the open laptop in front of him as he set forth the essentials of the troubling case before them.
‘At four o’clock yesterday, after spending two hours in the “Aqua Felix” swimming pool, Teresa Resca, fourteen years of age, was waiting for a bus that would take her back home to San Donato. A car drew up, and for some reason she climbed into it. The whole scene was captured by a CCTV camera located on the outside wall of an office block here.’
The magistrate spun his laptop around on his desk so they all could see, and hit the space bar to start the video.
‘There she is, holding her pink sports bag. The camera has a narrow field of vision. She seems to be talking to someone, who moves out of frame. Now you can see the car pull up and, before you ask, yes, the camera is too high up to capture the number plate. The car is probably a grey Yaris, which might or might not be relevant at a trial held some day in the far future, but is not enough for us now. An unidentified older-looking woman goes over to the car, and you can see her talking to the driver, but we get no picture of who he or she is. She might be the same person Teresa was talking to a moment before. My instinct says it is, but let’s wait for the technicians to analyse the images more carefully, see what they say. This woman starts getting in and, at the last moment, beckons to Teresa. The girl, who, her parents and friends tell me, is not rebellious or unhappy or stupid enough to do something like this, climbs willingly into the car. The car drives off. Imagine being her parents seeing this video. Imagine being her as she realizes her mistake, which happens within half a mile, because it is then that her phone goes dead and vanishes from the network. Imagine the worst, because that is what will happen.’
They watched the girl get into the car, and the car driving away. He hit replay, and they watched the scene again.
‘It makes you want to reach into the screen and pull her back,’ said the southern policeman who had spoken up before.
‘It’s like being an all-seeing but powerless god,’ said the magistrate. ‘We need to get through a lot of detestable business first. We need to check the father. We need to look deeper into the family and its friends. That is the most promising hypothesis of all. Why would Teresa climb into a car like that? Our first idea must be that she knew the driver. Father, all family friends, relatives, all the girl’s friends, and then the mother. We rip into the lives of those who are suffering most. Let’s do it immediately and quickly. We strike when the nerves are raw and the pain is greatest, and we try not to drag it out for longer than we must. Next, we look into the father’s activities. He appears to be a failed journalist, but perhaps he is wealthier than he seems, and a ransom demand is in the offing, though twenty-four hours have now passed. Perhaps he owes someone something. Find out everything about his colleagues, past jobs, employment records. Go through the girl’s diaries, if she had any. Her phone records have already been checked, and every contact she had needs to be questioned. Check out boyfriends, if she had any. Check out fights with teachers, with classmates and any disputes involving her or her family, no matter how trivial: a fight over an apartment-block boiler bill, an unpaid dentist bill, a broken fence. Then, when we have done all that, we pass on to the worst scenario, worse for us because it leads to a dead-end: a random attack. Remember, though, this is a story that will not end well.’
Magistrate Francesco Fossati of the Fifth Section of the Criminal Court of Milan dismissed the police officers, and replayed the video, willing the girl not to get into the car and watching helplessly as she ignored the thought waves he was sending back in time.
Standing on a white pebble path at a quarter to eight in the morning towards the end of what had been another uneventful working week in an almost empty office, Matteo Arconti, now deputy head of the actuarial division of the insurance company, pulled out a pair of folding glasses to consult his new book. He pushed the glasses down his nose and raised his eyes to focus again on the tree in front of him. He had a lot of things to take in. Pale grey bark with deep fissures, a wide crown with sinuous low branches, entire leaves in alternate pinnate pairs. He was not sure about how deep a deep fissure was supposed to be, nor what ‘pinnate’ meant, but surely there could be no mistaking the round green fruit which, the book told him, ripens slowly over long hot summers. This was almost definitely a walnut tree, a
. He had been walking past it, under it, for fifteen years and had never thought to examine it, or any of the other trees in the Indro Montanelli Gardens. He lowered his eyes to read the botanical name again:
He skimmed through the pages to see if he could spot an illustration of the taller and thinner tree on the other side of the path, but he was already running late. He gave himself a certainty score of 85 per cent with regard to this probable walnut. In need of more data, he reached up and plucked one of the bright lime-coloured fruits. He split the outer skin of the globular casing with his thumbnail, causing it to release a scent that cut through the air like the aromatic volatiles of a synthetic detergent. He tried to prise it open to get to the walnut inside.
Unexpectedly, fluid squirted out, hitting his white shirt cuff, which poked neatly out from beneath his business suit. Damn. Watery as it ran into the webbing between his thumb and index finger, the fluid quickly became sticky. He stopped off at a drinking fountain to wash his hands, and tossed away the unsplittable case. Through the railings, he could see his dark-blue BMW 5 Series. A dirty white van drove slowly past.
He rubbed his hands under the flowing water and then stared at them in puzzlement. The juices from the smooth green fruit had tanned his skin with shades of yellow and brown. His fingers seemed nicotine stained, and the purple and black streak across his thumbnail was so similar to a bruise that he fancied he felt it throb as he looked at it. The more he washed his hands, the darker the stain became.
His wife had set him a challenge as she handed him the book: identify every tree in the park by the end of September, before the leaves fall. He liked the idea, and had even figured out how to set up a spreadsheet on his laptop to keep track. He had decided to locate the trees he identified on Google Maps, and mark the date too. Walnut tree, August 26. It would be the first thing he did when he got to the office. In these dog days of late summer, he had plenty of dead time.