Read The Zurich Conspiracy Online
Authors: Bernadette Calonego
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
Josefa could feel Esther’s bony shoulders under her shirt.
She almost felt guilty because she hadn’t been home to prevent the break-in; she felt as if she hadn’t done her neighborly duty. There had never been a burglary in their building, though break-ins were not uncommon in this part of the city. Esther pulled away, trembling, surveying the destruction in disbelief. It will take days to clean up this mess, Josefa thought to herself.
“Did anybody see the burglars?” Josefa asked.
Esther shook her head.
“They certainly must have made a lot of noise,” Josefa remarked. “
body must have heard them.”
Esther shrugged. “The police asked me that too.”
Josefa picked up a slashed cushion as she thought about what to do next.
“Please don’t touch anything,” a voice behind her commanded. A man in a raincoat was standing in the smashed doorway.
“Sebastian Sauter, Criminal Investigation,” he announced quite calmly, flashing his ID. Josefa wondered why she hadn’t met the detective on the stairway or seen him outside. Where had he been waiting?
The man came nearer.
“Do you live here?” he asked, turning to Josefa. He was powerfully built and only about as tall as she was. His eyes were small, almost invisible behind his sleepy eyelids, giving his face a slightly crafty expression.
“I’m a neighbor from one floor down.”
The officer turned around, and Josefa saw another man, this one in uniform, behind him.
“Keep looking for evidence and write the report. I’m going to talk to the neighbor here,” Sauter told the other police officer. “Frau Ardelius, this man will look after you,” he said in a softer tone to Esther before turning his attention to Josefa. “Can we sit down somewhere?”
Josefa glanced at the mutilated furniture and broken china all around them. “If we’re not supposed to touch anything, that’ll be difficult,” she replied.
“You live right below?” Sauter asked in a let’s-not-make-this-complicated tone of voice.
“Yes. Come with me.” Josefa went out to the stairwell and Esther stayed in the apartment, motionless. Josefa started downstairs.
“Please stay here,” Sauter told Esther, “the other officer still needs you.”
Esther raised a limp hand. “See you later,” she whispered to Josefa.
Sauter led with a firm step. “Just a few questions, it won’t take long,” he assured her. He wore a plaid cap, like an English squire. Josefa left her apartment door ajar and took him past her Loyn luggage into the kitchen.
“Can I offer you anything?” This was a reflex reaction she had inherited from her mother, who was known to serve unexpected guests polenta and
even at midnight. She noticed she still had her purse tucked firmly under her arm—as if anybody would snatch it!
“I’m dying for a pitch-black coffee,” Sauter replied, taking his cap off. His blonde hair was a touch thin in places, but the pronounced shape of his head signaled decisiveness. So that’s what a Zurich police detective looks like, Josefa thought to herself. She ground the beans and fixed the holder to the espresso machine. She could see out of the corner of her eye that her unexpected guest was looking around intently.
“You probably know the interiors of half the homes in Zurich,” Josefa said.
He paused. “I know them at best when they’re in a state of matter that’s been dissolved,” he answered in a warm, amused tone of voice.
“You sound like a chemist,” she quipped, handing him a cup of steaming espresso.
“Good espresso,” he said, clearly grateful for her offering.
Josefa did not want to sit down so she leaned against the fridge.
“You’re just back from a trip?” he asked, taking out a notebook.
“Yes, I was away for a little over a week.”
He looked at her a little suspiciously.
“Vacation in Spain,” she added.
“You weren’t here, then, when it happened?”
Sauter brushed his hair back. “What’s the rent here, actually?” he asked out of the blue, an odd interrogation technique.
Josefa frowned. “Is that part of your official inquiry?”
He apologized at once. “No, it’s more out of curiosity; I’ve always liked this part of town.”
“Yes, it’s a good area to live in,” Josefa said—hearing the sudden irony in that statement.
“You live here alone?”
He went to the window; over the Zurich rooftops you could see where the clouds were about to obscure the snow-covered mountains on the horizon.
“You’ve got a nice view.”
“Yes, I think a view’s important. Why have the most beautiful apartment and an ugly concrete wall out the window?” She rummaged around in the kitchen cupboard for the chocolate biscuits she always had on hand.
“Aha…And what’s your line of work?”
“I’m a manager for event marketing.”
He gave her a quizzical look, but she was not in the mood for long explanations.
“I market luxury luggage for the well-to-do.”
“Aha, and what does it take for a job like that?”
Josefa was perplexed:
What’s this guy trying to get at?
His eyes behind those sleepy eyelids seemed to betray nothing more than just a normal curiosity. But Josefa wasn’t fooled. By way of explanation she repeated her mantra. “I must completely put myself into the customer’s head; I must feel what they feel. I must turn into the customer, though I’m really the salesperson. That’s the trick.”
“You call it a trick,” he said, a statement, not a question.
She was getting a little indignant. Why should she be explaining her job to a total stranger, to a detective, of all people? “It’s much more extreme in your case, surely,” she replied. “You must get into the criminal’s head, right? You must think and plan like a criminal—be able to understand their feelings.”
“So you’re suggesting I’m supposed to become a criminal in my mind?” Sauter asked, putting his coffee cup down noisily on the saucer.
“To a certain extent…Of course it’s for a good cause—I don’t mean to insinuate anything,” Josefa replied unfazed.
“See, we’ve got something in common, then,” Sauter responded. “And why do you think people buy these deluxe suitcases?”
She thought their conversation was becoming positively bizarre. “I think they want to belong somewhere. To an exclusive club of course…But they want to belong somewhere,” she replied after some hesitation, a little surprised by her own answer.
“Do you know anybody else living in this building?” The question came without any warning. It was an interrogation, after all.
“I only know Esther Ardelius really well. I’m often away, and the apartments change hands a lot. They’re small, for students, whoever. The people I knew have slowly moved away.”
“Why’s that?” Sauter asked, taking notes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe because of the asylum seekers in the two bottom apartments.”
“Are there any problems with them?”
Josefa was turning a chocolate biscuit around in her hand. “Actually, no. Except…” She hesitated with her answer, afraid of making herself look ridiculous. “They do their washing all day long, and at night too. The washing machines are always in use. It’s as if they’re doing other people’s laundry too!”
“Do those people downstairs often have visitors?”
“Visitors? Not a clue. I only see them now and then on the stairs. They keep moving in and out. Most of the time I haven’t any idea who’s living here and who’s not.”
She noticed that Sauter was using a gold fountain pen. A detective writing with blue ink!
“Has anything caught your attention here recently? Something you found odd? Any changes?”
Nothing really came to mind so she told him all she knew. “A family with a child, a little boy, is living there now, I think. But I don’t know them very well.”
His cup was empty; he looked tired.
What else does he want?
Josefa’s shoes were pinching her.
“You look tired,” she remarked, the words just slipping out.
How typical of a woman to say something like that
, she thought.
“Oh?” he said, turning his cup around on the saucer. “I’ve a lot to do. Long days, short nights, irregular working hours.”
“But of course your family is overjoyed about your flexible hours.”
“Oh, sure—a few years ago my wife had it with ‘overjoyed.’ We couldn’t plan anything. I was an unknown quantity and still am. That’s why she filed for divorce.”
“I know about that.”
“No, unknown quantities. Can’t plan anything. Always on call.”
Why am I telling him all this?
Fortunately he didn’t pursue it. Josefa was wondering if she should offer him another cup of coffee when there was a knock on the door and Esther and the other policeman came in.
“We’re finished,” the policeman said.
“So are we,” Sauter replied, getting up and holding his hand out to Josefa. “Thank you for the coffee,” he said, shaking her hand in goodbye. She escorted the two men to the door, locking it after they left.
“Would you rather spend the night here?” Josefa asked Esther who was sitting at the kitchen table.
“That would be awfully nice, but you haven’t even unpacked, Josefa.”
“I’ve still got a few days for that. A cup of tea?”
“He forgot something,” Esther said, nodding at the cap on the chair beside her. Josefa put the kettle on the burner.
“It can wait,” she replied as she put Sauter’s cap in her dresser drawer.
Josefa woke up in the middle of the night. It was unusually quiet; not even the sound of the occasional car could be heard. Josefa genuinely wished this silence would go on forever, but something told her that this moment of calm would be her last for a long, long time. Although she could just make out the sound of Esther’s breathing from the next room, Josefa suddenly felt very much alone.
The next morning Esther had just retreated to her apartment when Claire Fendi arrived.
“I thought it best to come by in person,” she explained, her voice as thin as a violin string.
“Come on in,” Josefa said and was soon sitting with somebody in her kitchen again. Claire folded her arms across her chest protectively.
“Won’t you take your jacket off?” Josefa asked.
“No, no, I must get to the office right away. Officially I’m at the dentist.”
Claire was not well; Josefa could see that at once. Her face was a sallow, gray color, her eyes were red, and her nervous hands were nestled in her jacket sleeves. Josefa could almost feel her tension.
Claire took a deep breath. “Werner…I mean, Herr Schulmann…He’s put forward a plan for the music festival to the management board.”
The music festival…Josefa and Claire had been working for months on a plan they were both very proud of. They had culled their experience from years past and added a few splendid new ideas to it as well.
Josefa stared at Claire, flabbergasted.
“I don’t get it…He can’t work that fast; he doesn’t have any idea what it’s all based on, or what the management board wants, all the records from past…All he can possibly come up with is hot air.”
Claire fixed her eyes on the table in front of her. She had folded her hands now, white-knuckled.
“Wrong, Josefa, he knows all the details…He got them from my computer.”
The air in the kitchen turned to ice.
“What is that supposed to mean? Did you show him any data?”
“No…No. I had our plans on my computer. You know I often work on the details at home. Sometimes…Werner would interrupt me when he came over. I didn’t always turn off the computer; he’d often catch me by surprise, and I intended to go back to work afterward. I honestly didn’t have any idea that he’d…” Claire paused and shut her eyes for a second. “He must have looked at my files when I went to the bathroom or the kitchen or something. But it could also be…I mean, it’s possible he got to my data when the computer crashed, and he got it running again. He…he knows what he’s doing with technical stuff. He probably simply copied the data.” Claire buried her face in her hands.
Josefa was dumbstruck. It slowly dawned on her what all of this implied.
“You mean to say, then, that he copied our plan. Stole it.”
“He didn’t copy it exactly. He stuck in a few technical items, but I recognized our plan right away. Bourdin crowed about how fantastic Werner’s plan was. So I went to Werner’s office one night and…looked around a bit. Werner was so damn sure of himself that he simply left the papers on his desk.” She rested her head on her fists. “I recognized it immediately.”
Josefa slapped the table.
“He’s not going to get off so easily,” she said vehemently. “This time he’s gone too far.”
“What can you do? Even if we tell Bourdin or Walther that Werner stole our project—they’d never believe us in a million years. They’ll think we want to cut him down. They’ll think we’re out for revenge because you didn’t get Werner’s job.” Then she suddenly sounded resigned. “And of course Werner will deny everything. We’ve got no proof.”
“Sure we’ve got proof. We’ve got the draft in our computers. How could those plans get there if
hadn’t come up with them in the first place? Schulmann could never argue that he planted them in our computers!”
“Oh, yes he can,” Claire contradicted. “He can claim he told me about them.”
“And how can he?” Josefa pushed her chair back. “How’s he going to back it up? How’s he going to tell our guys he let us in on his secret project even before he took the job at Loyn?”
Claire kept her eyes off Josefa. “He could tell them about our love affair, and the fact that it’s now over.”
“I thought he wanted to keep that a secret. Didn’t you say so?”
“Werner always does what’s best for Werner,” she said, quickly getting to her feet. “I’ve got to get to the office. I’m sorry, Josefa. I’m so terribly sorry.”
Josefa didn’t say a word. She would have to think about this whole business in peace and quiet.
When Claire was at the door Josefa asked, “Are you really not seeing Schulmann anymore?”
“Yes, it’s over.”
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know yet…I’m sticking to my job. And I really like working with you.”