About This Tale
Part Two of a seven-part series. Delve into the minds of interlinking characters as they deal with misplaced affection, mental health and murder in their own inimitable ways.
Part Two: The Inquisitor
It’s too quiet. I’m not used to this dull sense of nothing. There isn’t a thing going on. It’s nearly 8am, and the place is dead.
A missing girl case lit up the phones over night. The local force have been out and questioned the whole village by the sounds of it. The whole of Sunday has been and gone and now they call me. I get it. I understand there’s a process for missing people. But she’s 14 years old. Simone. If it’s my teenage daughter that goes missing I want the village torn to shreds before the sun goes down. Somebody knows something.
So we let a day slip behind us. An extra day for her to run. An extra day for someone to hide her. An extra day to dream up every worst possible scenario you could think of. I feel for the parents, I really do. I know my words of comfort won’t help them right now, and truthfully we all know they are meaningless.
I know as little as they do. Save for the handful of other cases I’ve worked like this, I have no more of a vantage point than every other person in the village. Every case is different, my experience means nothing. My experience is underwhelming. I know we need to find this girl. My experience tells me that if you don’t… Well, I focus on finding the girl.
I spend 15 minutes or so with the mother and father. They are the homely types, typical little village family. Dad grew up here; mother met him in school in the city. Married, kids, history. They couldn’t be less likely to be suspects in this case if they were on the moon when she disappeared.
Not suspects, and not helpful. I thank them for their time, force down the still-too-warm coffee, make my excuses and leave.
The one thing they did give me was that she had made plans at school. I got a couple of names and strolled through the village. It’s still too quiet. Nothing moves here. I see five cars in my entire morning, maybe twice as many people milling about. They look at me like I don’t belong, which of course I don’t.
I say good morning to a few; nod my head to some more. Politeness gets you everywhere, and I need them on my side.
The school is probably the second oldest building here. Through the main street and off to the right. It’s a squat little thing; made of old stones with jarring additions like the wheelchair access ramp which some bright spark decided would be good in a fluorescent green.
As I wander up the path towards the gates, I look left and take in the sprawl of the rest of the village. A patch of gardens, a few houses which look out onto fields. The old vineyards; long gone. Behind them all stands the church. Impressive to look at, baroque and commanding.
I ask the young girl at the desk which teacher I need to speak with. She’s flustered. Things like this don’t happen in these places. They’ve only seen a detective on television. I’m hardly Montalbano, I promise her. She nods, apologises, and off she goes to bring the girls’ teacher to me.
After five minutes I know all I need to know. Simone is a perfect student – maybe not an A-star genius, but certainly not one for getting into trouble. She has a particularly large group of friends but the teacher knows the main three or four. She’s happy to bring them through.
I should stop her at this point. I’m not planning on grilling these kids, but they deserve a parent with them. At least consent. I don’t stop her. Time is of the essence. We lost one day, I don’t want to lose another to then find out these kids know nothing at all. That’s usually the case.
Three identikit teens enter the office. I smile over the steaming mug of coffee the secretary has handed me. I introduce myself and ask as nicely as I can what they know, and for them to be quick about it.
Teen girls gabble. They love to chat, and hear themselves chat, and chat over their friends, who only gabble louder. After a minute or two I stop them. Firmer now, fairly sure they have nothing concrete to offer.
So they weren’t meeting her on Saturday morning? No.
And you don’t know who she was meeting? Maybe.
Tell me everything you know now, because the more time that slips away from us here…
They go the long way round. Some boy has been hanging around, typical teenage stuff. They say she wasn’t interested, but they know she met him. I ask why and they give no answers.
Noah. At the church.
That’s all I need. She meets him on Saturday mornings, sometimes. She said she wasn’t going to do it again. Thank you, girls.
I’ve learned my lesson with hot coffee, and only take a sip before handing it back to the secretary. I make my apologies and leave. I don’t feel the need to hang around, momentum waits for no man.
The village is livelier now. There are people on the streets, more than I’d expect actually. My pleasantries are lost now, as I march towards the church. All of the interviews conducted yesterday and not one of them got this information? Am I that good as a detective? Am I that intimidating to a group of young girls? Or are the local PD really that incompetent?
All questions that can wait. Maybe I am that good, but I’m not sure I could answer those questions anyway.
I make my way through the gardens of the church. It’s very serene. Calming. My heart is pounding in my chest. I realise how unfit I’ve allowed myself to become sat behind the desk all day. It’s hard work and it’s even harder to push yourself after 12 hours of it. I’m resolved to get myself back to the beaches. I used to run 10k there on weekends. Now I’m struggling with the weight of a church door that 80 year old nuns manage daily.
Inside is hushed. A few of the older generation of the village are settled in, praying in silence. I look around, not sure what exactly I’m hoping to find. I need to speak to a cleaner or someone who would have been in here on Saturday. Anything might be a clue.
After five minutes of pacing the back of the hall, I give in and take a seat. A cursory prayer, a leftover from my youth. I hadn’t been to church for years save for the odd wedding. I see a woman, hunched and shuffling, leave her prayers and begin to leave. I quickly slip out after her.
She knows me already. Word gets around. She says she tried to speak to the PD yesterday, but they wouldn’t take her calls. They said the officers would get round to her sometime but they never did. I apologise, and ask what her concerns are. I can sense it coming, the tipping point where a mystery turns into a resolution.
She saw the girl. She’s positive it was her. Has known the family for years, she says. Everybody knows everybody in these places. That is, until these kinds of things happen. I cautiously question her, making sure. I know she is telling the truth. There’s a feeling in the air when you’re on the right path sometimes and I was breathing it in right now.
The boy. She was with the boy, she says.
I call the school back, get the boys’ full name. My pace has quickened again, the village is a blur. I don’t even notice how busy the streets have become. My focus is narrowed now. The boy seems the obvious candidate. Focus.
Noah lives on the far side of the village, on the family farm. I get to my car quickly and swing it around in the middle of the street. I head up the hill, past rows of house old and new. Into the quieter part of town. Under an archway of trees, and out into farmland. A few houses are scattered into the distance, but I turn immediately right.
Noah lives here. My first impression is it is a dump. An old tractor lies rotting in the drive. The fields are overgrown, the fence destroyed by rust. Even the old mutt tied to the back gate looks mangy. An even older truck sits neatly parked up by the side of the house, wheels a good foot deep in the soggy mud. I can’t let any of this colour my judgement. But this boy needs to be talked to.
The father answers the door eventually. He looks like he was sleeping. It’s 2.30 in the afternoon. His shaggy, yellowing beard tells me he doesn’t shave often enough, and doesn’t see the sun half as often as that. He invites me inside and I step in, fearing the worst.
The boy isn’t home, he says. He went to school as normal. Kids were all upset yesterday about the news, but it seems they all wanted to be together at school this morning. That’s what the boy told his dad and I have no reason to doubt it – the teachers didn’t mention any major issues today.
I’m taken aback as we pick our way through the house. Its furnishings are classy, not over the top. Not cheap. The decor is maybe faded here and there from lack of upkeep, but all in this place puts the outside to shame.
I ask if all is ok in the home. Is Noah getting on ok with school, friends, everything?
The father is forthcoming with his answers. The stale odour of a hangover hangs around him, but his marbles are all there. He tells me the boy is fine. He has his moments, now and then, but he’s a teenage boy. He lost his mother two and a half years ago and that gets on top of him. But it would now, wouldn’t it? He spends a few hours in her room sometimes. Sleeps the night in his mother’s bed. That makes him feel better.
I get the feeling daddy doesn’t spend much time with his boy. He talks about him in the abstract – like a distant thing he once owned but now is content to know is out there somewhere, doing its own thing. It’s not happy families by any means. But then it’s not abnormal in this day and age either.
I tell him about the girl. He knows Simone, knows the family. Of course. I let him know that his son was the last person seen with her. He seems genuinely surprised. The boy never mentioned any girls. He didn’t even know Simone, other than as a classmate.
Conversation is hard, the man wavers between reverie and self pity. He rambles off track, and I suspect he doesn’t know more. He never knew about Noah’s secrets. He’s an old man who lost his wife, and let his family slip into the background as a result.
My phone rings just as I was beginning to think the old man might never stop talking. Vineyards, and devolution, and farming taxes. Big news to people like him. Not relevant to me now.
The call comes through from dispatch; PD have followed up at the school and someone has asked for me. I say my thanks for his time, and leave the grieving father alone.
The road leading to the school is filled with people now. I beep the horn repeatedly to force people out of the road. I see the commotion up ahead – the PD boys have parked their three patrol cars outside of the gates. That’d draw a crowd any day. Today it was a beacon.
I head inside and find the head teacher waiting with the officers. One of the girls has more of a story to tell, something she omitted earlier. Her parents are here this time.
I sit down at the desk designed for 12 to 15 year olds, and greet the parents. I say hello to the girl again. She is in tears this time; far from the confident gabby girl who came as part of a set earlier. She spills the tale immediately. How Simone had been leading Noah on. How he was obsessed with her and would draw pictures of them together. How he had poems and notes for her, all lined up on the inside of his locker. It was a school joke. An embarrassment.
The group of friends found this hilarious, of course. I nod along. She tells me how the girls encouraged Simone to lead this besotted child on, to bring gifts to her and promise to keep it all a secret. They had shared the gifts sometimes, but they knew. They knew that Simone had met him sometimes without telling everyone else. She had taken gifts for herself.
Last week they had teased her about it. Her parents had found a gift in her room, hidden away. A perfume bottle or something like that. They teased her about it; until she was so anxious she told them that she had to end this thing with Noah. She couldn’t let him believe she was interested anymore.
Crisis of conscious or simple peer pressure? The girls certainly think it was their fault. They agreed not to tell anyone. But this afternoon that all changed. Noah was here. He hadn’t been in school this morning but this afternoon, at some point, he had paid it a visit. They think they saw him in the hallway, skulking out of a fire exit. His locker door was left open, the sketches and notes which they mocked him for in the past were all gone.
I thank the family for letting the girls talk. I assure them we are doing all we can. They are worried now. Now that their girl is an informant, now that she’s clued me in to the villain. I tell them straight. Calm down. Your girl, along with a hive mind of other kids, has taken one small piece of information and let her imagination run away with it. We will handle it all. You are perfectly safe.
Leaving the school I am greeted by the parents of other kids, more and more anxious. The crowd at the gates is a circus. Is everyone in this town here now? I waste too long talking the parents down. I instruct the officers to clear the gates, send these people back to their homes. Impeding a blossoming investigation is the last thing we need, and standing here answering more questions is the last thing I want.
I want to visit Noah’s farm again. I crawl through the crush at the gate at 5 miles an hour, then put my foot down hard and tear up the street. That will have them wondering now too. It won’t be long before they know the story of these young girls. Everyone knows everything in no time.
I know everything I need to know within seconds of pulling onto the drive. The old man is sat out front, the dog let loose. Fresh tyre tracks are visible in the muddy lane, and the old truck is parked haphazardly now, in front of the shed at the bottom of the garden.
He doesn’t stand to greet me.
Have you seen your son, sir? I speak clearly. I make it known that I’m aware Noah isn’t in school. The father looks at me like an alien has landed. He tells me, in no uncertain terms; my son is no longer with us.
I ask what he means by that. Alarm bells ringing in my head.
He almost laughs. Nothing sinister, he says, he’s just gone away for a while.
It’s my turn to let out a laugh. Gone away? This 14 year old boy is taking a holiday? The old man looks away. He needed to get some space, he tells me. He needs to get his mind off these terrible things. His emotional state has been affected by this girl’s disappearance. He was very fond of this girl.
I point out that earlier this afternoon this man had no idea of his son’s relationship, whatever it may have been, with this girl. He takes it all in his stride. He tells me that his son has taken it badly. That the stress of this, not so long after losing his own mother? Well it was all too much.
I ask where he has gone. Where do you send your teenage son for recuperation? He is growing more and more pained at my questioning. More protective of his son.
He looks me dead in the eye. Detective, he says, I cannot allow you to pursue my son. He is a good boy dealing with a shitty hand in life. I promise you that. I don’t want to see the vultures descend and tear his fragile life apart. I’m sure he has no idea what happened to that young girl, I know it in my heart.
I see no reason to argue now. Whatever the father’s wishes at this stage, the boy needs to be found. I need a description circulated, I need patrol stops. I need train stations and airports on the lookout. A minor suspect is now the centre of a manhunt. Whatever the father’s wishes…
I turn to leave but think of one thing. I wonder about the gifts. When I was fourteen years of age I couldn’t afford the stickers for my Panini football collection.
I look back at the man; the relief in his face is evident. I ask him about his son. Did he have any disposable income? Any cash left to him?
Had he ever been in trouble with the police – shoplifting, petty theft, the usual kids stuff?
Have you ever noticed, maybe more recently, any items missing from the home? Perfume, perhaps? Didn’t you say Noah liked to spend time in his mother’s room when he felt down?
The look in the father’s eyes tells me it all.
We have to find this boy.
to be continued