Sunday 2 June 2019
The body was found lying under a small group of trees on the lawn near the pool on a Sunday morning. It was the only thing out of place in the elegant, manicured gardens around Villa Genius.
A group of buildings and gardens, the estate was immersed in the green hills overlooking the bay of Portofino and the Ligurian Sea. The view was simply breath-taking.
Standing on more than a hectare of land, the estate boasted an array of intriguing splendours. A network of paths and stone steps wound their way around the hill. The gardens contained an exotic array of rare trees, shrubs, plants and tropical flowers. The scenic clifftop viewpoint was called “the infinite view” after the poem by the Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi.
The swimming pool was oval shaped. From inside, the water seemed to float away to the horizon. At the bottom of the garden, there was a sheer drop from the cliff to the forty fathoms of water below.
The breakfast patio overlooked Portofino, once a fishing village, now a luxury resort.
A second patio on the other side of the villa was for lunches and dinners. The views were even more spectacular from there, the sunlight glinting on the sea just before sunset. Perhaps the mansion’s most romantic vista.
Walking through the gardens, you would often come across statues of Greek gods.
There was a large marble chessboard, its ornate pieces depicting Alexander the Great and his archenemy Darius. A vegetable garden. Ornamental ponds with fountains.
Villa Genius was built at the beginning of the twentieth century. A liberty style building, it was a jewel of Italian architecture. The design, floors, ceilings, decorations, furniture and furnishings all reflecting the period’s “zeitgeist”. The original owner had hired Gino Coppedè, one of the most famous Italian architects of the time, to create his home. Everything had been studied in meticulous detail, the aim being to create both a welcoming environment and something that would surprise visiting guests. Beauty and originality. Style and exclusivity.
The nearby town of Santa Margherita was already popular with wealthy British aristocrats and then became the catalyst for development in the surrounding area. Spreading out into Portofino was the obvious choice for the more discerning tourist.
Several more villas were eventually built in the Portofino area. Tunnels were excavated from the centre of the village at great cost, allowing easy access to the villas on the headland. Just one tunnel was made at first. But due to the competitive nature, or pure jealousy, of the owners, many more followed. Each tunnel was then fitted with a lift.
The lift up to Villa Genius was not just functional, it was close to luxurious. Passengers could even sit on a comfortable sofa.
The first owner of Villa Genius was a wealthy Italian businessman whose fortune came from silk production. A member of the “nouveau riche”, he was intent on joining the old money. The rich aristocrats. But he was somewhat presumptuous when naming his residence. The name “Villa Genius” was often frowned upon by the other residents of Portofino. And, unfortunately, business acumen is not hereditary. His children and grandchildren all lived well beyond their means, frittering away the family fortune.
By the time Günther Fischer bought the house, about five years before that Sunday in June, it had laid in disarray for quite some time. Günther needed to invest an enormous amount to return Villa Genius to its former glory. Fortunately, being at the height of his entrepreneurial success, money was not a problem. The result of many years of hard work.
Villa Genius was returned to its former splendour. Günther used it as his secret escape, a private hideaway where he could simply leave his busy life behind.
The body was immediately identified as that of Günther Fischer. Still wearing his black Speedo swim shorts and bathrobe, he had either been about to take a dip or had just got out of the pool.
Günther had been in surprisingly good shape for a man in his sixties. His hair had only recently started to go grey around the temples, adding an air of distinction to an already winning smile.
But that day, his smile turned into a grimace of agony. His athletic body was contorted by the same pain. As if he had been suffering from the bends.
Maria, the housekeeper, called the police after the frantic gardener informed her of his grisly discovery.
Francesco Parodi, Genoa’s senior pathologist, arrived at the scene about an hour after being notified by the police. A preliminary examination completed, he concluded that something was very strange. And there was enough evidence to require the intervention of a magistrate.
So, Letizia Caruso, magistrate, arrived at the scene. Following standard procedures, she spoke to the senior of the two police officers, Mario Damiano.
She wanted to know the identity of the deceased. When and by whom the call had been made. When the police had arrived to secure the scene and the relationship between the caller and the victim. She was starting to put the background story together. Letizia told Mario to go back into the house. Checking the security videos was essential. From the moment of death back through the previous few hours.
Not really wanting to be there that Sunday morning, the magistrate stood watching the pathologist impatiently. Her desk was already full of folders, having spent the last six months on what she considered ‘a really big case’. Big enough to catapult her from the small town crime of Liguria into big city life. With its appropriate media attention and, hopefully, that promotion. A step up she considered long overdue.
She paced up and down, annoyed at the pathologist for taking his time. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulled out her electronic cigarette and pushed the button. Taking a long, deep drag, she paused a second to savour the taste. Then she blew out loudly.
The pathologist looked over his shoulder, “Do you mind… this could be a crime scene.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Letizia retorted. “Just give me a cause of death so I can get back to work.”
“I estimate the time of death at between six-thirty and seven this morning,” said Francesco, “based on the body temperature and the outside temperature. Plus the fact that he was not fully dressed. As you can see, he was just wearing swim shorts, this blue bathrobe and these black slippers.”
“And the cause?” the magistrate butted in.
“Well, the victim suffered convulsions before dying. Death was probably caused by cardio-respiratory failure. There’s no sign of violence. It appears to have been caused by a toxin. If you look here, there is a strange mark on his leg.”
The magistrate came over to take a closer look. “What is that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” answered Francesco. “It looks like some sort of sting. Maybe from a spider or an insect. Or even a jellyfish.”
“Oh, come on,” said Letizia. “A deadly jellyfish in a swimming pool in Portofino…”
She took another drag on the electronic cigarette and stared defiantly at the pathologist.
Francesco turned his attention back to Günther’s body. “I’m not quite finished here. I still need more time.”
“OK,” said Letizia. “You get on with that. I’ll go into the house and check up on Starsky and Hutch.”
Inside the villa, the two policemen were riveted to the computer screen. Intently watching the security playback and expecting to catch the criminal red-handed. They didn’t notice Letizia arrive. Standing right behind them, she said in a deliberately loud voice, “What have you got?”
Roberto, the younger of the two, jumped visibly. He had only been a police officer for three months. This was probably his first case involving a stiff.
Mario took his eyes off the screen and turned to Letizia. “We started looking back from the moment of death but so far we haven’t found anything or anyone. No break in. Nothing unusual.”
“Show me the moment of death,” said Letizia.
Roberto quickly moved the mouse and went back to what they had found. “We received the call at seven fifty-two. So we’ve looked back from that time.” The video played backwards.
“You can see the body prone on the ground. Now, here,” Mario said, pausing the video, “you can see him writhing around. Just before that he was on the lounger. It looks like he had been sleeping.”
Letizia stepped forward, slowly pushing Mario to the side. She sat down and took hold of the mouse. She played the scene forwards in slow motion, watching the last few seconds of Günther’s life.
She watched in silence, over and over. Günther seemingly asleep and then fighting for his life, writhing in agony so violently that he falls off the lounger, stops moving and dies.
Letizia turned to Mario. “Can you make me a copy of this?”
“Of course,” said Mario.
The magistrate got up and headed back outside to talk to the pathologist.
“Make a copy for the magistrate,” ordered Mario. Knowing that he was not very adept with a computer, he wasn’t going to make a fool of himself in front of Roberto.
Back outside, the pathologist had finished and was packing up his things.
“I’ve completed my preliminary examination. Now I have to get this body to the morgue for a more conclusive autopsy,” said Francesco. “Have you found anything?” he asked nonchalantly.
“I’ve seen the moment of death,” said the magistrate.
“And?” Francesco asked.
“And… it’s strange,” answered Letizia with a puzzled voice. “One minute he’s asleep on the lounger, the next he keels over and dies.” She pondered for a moment. “Do you still think it was an insect or a jellyfish?”
Mario came out of the villa, a disk with a copy of the video in his hand.
“I mean, a jellyfish in a swimming pool, surely the water would kill it?” Letizia went on.
“It’s seawater,” said Mario.
“What?” said Letizia, annoyed. The policeman had interrupted her.
“The water in the pool. It’s seawater. Everybody here fills their pools with water pumped up from the sea. It’s a local tradition,” Mario said smugly, hoping his small contribution would somehow crack the case.
Letizia took the disk from Mario’s hand and looked at the pathologist quizzically.
“Anyway, Mediterranean jellyfish are not poisonous enough to kill,” she pointed out.
Then she asked to talk to the people that had found the body.
The gardener and housekeeper both explained what they had been doing at the time. The gardener had been doing his usual spring maintenance, getting the garden ready for the coming summer. The housekeeper had been in the kitchen getting her employer’s breakfast ready.
On finding the body, the gardener had raced into the house and frantically called Maria. Not knowing what to do, he had thought it best to get help. But Maria could only call an ambulance and hope that they were still in time to save Günther.
Sadly, the paramedics told them that he was already dead, and given the suspicious circumstances, they would have to call the police.
Maria had asked the paramedics if she could at least cover the body, but they told her not to touch anything until the police arrived.
Letizia authorized the removal of the body.
“How long before you can give me the autopsy results?” she asked the pathologist.
“Well, I can give you the results in a couple of days. If I need to do toxicological tests, it may take a little longer,” he answered.
“Why do you need toxicological tests?” she asked.
“As you can see, there are no external signs of trauma, so I suspect it’s either natural causes or some form of poisoning,” he explained.
“OK. You know where to find me.”
The magistrate really hoped it was natural causes. That way, she could be done with Günther and get back to some real police work.
Some days later, Mario was carrying out Letizia’s orders. He was looking into Günther Fischer’s background. Not really knowing where to begin, he simply googled the name.
To his surprise, he found something straight away. The Google search came up with www.miningtechnology.com. He clicked and an article instantly popped up on the screen.
Mario tried his best to read it. Sadly for him, English was a school subject he had neglected a long time ago. But he did possess a policeman’s instinct. He copied the file and emailed it to the magistrate.
A moment later, Letizia’s phone gave out the usual ‘bing’ telling her she had received an email.
She sat down in front of her PC, opened the email and saw that it had been sent by Mario. The policeman working on the Villa Genius case. She opened the attached PDF and began to read.
“Günther Fischer, Founder of Opes Trading, dies from sudden illness,” read the headline, under which a photo of the man, familiar to her now, stood out.
“Early on Sunday morning, Günther Fischer, founder of Opes Trading, was found dead in the garden of his residence, Villa Genius, in the hills of Portofino, Italy.
He was one of the world’s leading figures in the rare-earth elements market.
Opes Trading, its head office in the small town of Zug, Switzerland, is one of the market leaders. It supplies high-technology companies in many of the world’s most prestigious markets.
The company was founded at the beginning of the 90s, just at the start of the explosive rise in demand for rare-earth elements.
Günther Fischer probably chose a Swiss location for the generous tax benefits offered by the local authorities. The decision clearly benefitted the company in its early years, thanks to the central European position and unrestricted international trade agreements.
The main deposits of rare-earth elements are found in China. These amount to more than 90% of world production. Other producers are the USA, India, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Malaysia. Thanks to their unique properties, rare-earth elements are used in a variety of fields.
They are found, for example, in superconductors, magnets, catalysers, hybrid car engines, and laser and fibre optic equipment. The name ‘rare-earth’ couldn’t be more appropriate. Demand outstrips supply by about 40,000 tons every year.
Thanks to new technology, a further rise in the use of these elements is forecast in the future.
The true size of the Opes Trading has never really been made clear.”
“The beginnings of the entrepreneur remain shrouded in mystery,” the article went on. “Born in East Berlin, Fischer finished his studies at a technical college. He was then a public official for many years, handling international business relations in the DDR, the old East Germany. Yet some sustain that he had a prominent role in the Stasi, the notorious secret services of the communist regime. This would explain his frequent trips abroad in the 1980s.
After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Fischer disappeared from view. It appears that he spent time in a number of countries, strengthening business relations built at the time of the DDR.
Fischer then started trading in rare-earth elements. He excelled thanks to an ability to close deals. Any type of deal, even with the most difficult counterparts.
Opes Trading was talked about a few years ago, being on the fringes of an international investigation. An inquiry into the trade of raw materials coming from illegal mines in China. But no clear responsibility ever emerged. And a group of powerful lawyers were able to display the company’s lack of involvement.
Günther Fischer was a secretive man. Consistent with his alleged past in the Stasi. A hard worker. Methodical. Determined. Private. He had a network of support, and influential friends in the governments of the most important rare mineral producing countries.”
His personal life was just as private, said the website. “Fischer got married in the old DDR. His wife was the daughter of a ministerial official. The couple didn’t have any children. She died in a car accident in the 1980s.”
Intrigued, Letizia did some quick research on the internet, finding several pages on Wikipedia and an interesting report by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.
Rare-Earth Elements (REE) are fifteen minerals discovered in 1794.
They were given the name “rare-earth elements” by Johann Gadolin, a Finish chemist who discovered the first element in the group and deemed them all quite rare.
The scientist made the discovery by chance. In 1792, he received a sample of a strange, heavy, black mineral. It came from a pit in the Swedish village of Ytterby, near Stockholm. Gadolin was able to extract oxide from the mineral, naming it yttria in honour of its place of origin. The mineral was later named gadolinite.
His work was published in 1794, opening the way for unexpected developments that would bring rare-earth elements to the fore in the centuries to come.
Letizia picked the folder on Günther Fischer up again.