Book by Bernadette Calonego
Translated by Gerald Chapple
Published by AmazonCrossing
The streetcar stops so abruptly that it knocks Josefa Rehmer against the bar on the seat in front of her and then sideways, her briefcase dropping to the floor. The rapid-fire ringing of the streetcar’s shrill bell sounds in her ears as she tries to grab something to hold onto. Her left temple hits a hard object covered in rough cloth. Leaning against the person next to her, who is hanging onto the straps and swinging back and forth like a gymnast on rings, she feels a piercing pain in her temple.
The gymnast pulls himself up to his full height and smoothes out his black suit under his unbuttoned sheepskin coat. Josefa senses his eyes on her. But when she smiles an apology at him, he quickly looks away. The young man is apparently as embarrassed by their unintentional body contact as she is.
The streetcar had been gaining speed after leaving its last stop when something on the tracks forced it to brake sharply. The lead car is now stopped on Zurich’s tony Bahnhofstrasse, having sustained some sort of damage. The automatic doors open and dazed passengers push their way out. Josefa grabs the briefcase she’s dropped and steps onto the sidewalk. The icy January air stings her face.
A group of curious spectators on the other side of the street is surrounding a Mercedes coupe, its fender crushed like an Easter egg. A stylishly dressed man, hands on hips, stands helplessly beside it.
But Josefa doesn’t have a moment to spare. She rushes ahead, impatiently forcing her way through the crowd, her breastbone suddenly throbbing. It must have hit the bar harder than she thought. She quickly touches her forehead, which feels wet, and notices a red stain on her fingers.
Still on the run, she takes a little mirror out of her purse, flips it open, and stops for a second to hold it up at an angle. Nothing. She must have dabbed the blood off with her finger. But she can see something behind her. The man in the sheepskin coat is standing before a shop window, only a few steps away. Once again she feels that throbbing pain in her head. That guy must have had something damn hard in his pocket, she thinks to herself.
Josefa stuffs the mirror away and hurries on. Time’s running out. Even before the collision, the streetcar was late, abnormal in a city legendary for its punctuality. If Josefa’s fast enough, she can still make it to Paradeplatz in time. But after this unpleasant incident she’ll get there distraught and sweaty in spite of the cold.
Bahnhofstrasse suddenly seems to her to go on forever, with far too many people in front of the palatial banks and upscale stores. An alphorn blower has set himself up on Paradeplatz, an earthy character with a full beard and an Edelweiss wreath on his green felt hat. Rushing past, she can decipher just two words painted on his cardboard sign: “Silence” and “Reflect.” The alphorn drowns out the squeals of the streetcars and other traffic noise from nearby streets.
A cyclist attempts to cross the tracks, skids, and falls. What a crazy day! Josefa thinks, glancing back to see if he’s hurt, before catching a glimpse of the man in the sheepskin coat disappearing behind a pillar in the doorway to a private bank.
Josefa finally spots the hotel but before entering takes the precaution of wiping her temple with a tissue; it’s streaked pink. Just across the street she notices a poster on a department store wall summoning all Swiss soldiers to the annual obligatory weapons drill.
Josefa pushes through the revolving door to the elegant hotel lobby with its blue-and-gold carpet. The concierge gives her a casual once-over before turning his attention back to his phone call. Josefa glances quickly at her watch: already five minutes late. Never good for a first meeting. A young woman finally appears behind the counter and turns toward her with the tight-assed charm of a German newscaster.
“The Dessag Corporation must have left a message for me,” Josefa says. The receptionist raises a quizzical eyebrow.
“What company, please?”
“Dessag. D-E-S-S-A-G,” Josefa repeats. This will be the first meeting in this hotel as the Hotel Baur au Lac is closed for renovations.
“Dessag? And a message for whom, please?”
Josefa’s getting edgy. Hasn’t the staff been informed? Or maybe the people I’m supposed to meet are at the wrong hotel?
“Dessag,” repeats the concierge who has hung up the phone. “Yes, we do indeed have a message from them. You are requested to go to room 398.”
Josefa hesitates. “Three ninety-eight? Isn’t that just a normal hotel room?”
Meetings do not usually take place in hotel rooms. Josefa looks at the concierge with a twinge of embarrassment, recalling tales of high-class prostitutes who see well-heeled clients in grand hotels. For a brief moment she imagines the person he may be thinking she is: a slim woman, mid-thirties, in a bright blue mohair coat with a matching Fabric Frontline silk scarf, a briefcase in her hand. Her graying hair is upswept (she had a few gray strands by the tender age of twenty—her mother’s legacy). Apart from pale lipstick and very thin eyeliner, she has no makeup on. Fortunately, she also inherited her Italian mother’s dark eyes and heavy eyelashes. Her finely toned skin doesn’t need any cosmetic enhancement.
Josefa sucks in her breath. “I have been told a small conference room was reserved,” she says in a firm voice.
The concierge nods an excuse. “All our conference rooms are taken, I’m afraid. But room 398 is a large suite with all necessary office infrastructure, rest assured.” He picks up a thick document and hits the stapler with a sweeping gesture.
There’s a bang in Josefa’s ears. She winces. And it’s then she realizes: It was a gun that rammed her temple! A revolver or a pistol. That must’ve been it. She goes weak in the knees. Is she still being followed?
“Would there be anything else?” the concierge asks.
“The elevator, please,” Josefa says.
“Over there and immediately on your left.”
Josefa waits impatiently for the elevator. A cluster of tourists is standing next to her, loaded down with bags of loot from the expensive designer shops between Paradeplatz and Storchenplatz. Josefa, pull yourself together. Everything’s going to be okay. How easily she’s frightened! She’s all nerves. Probably the fault of the poster advertising the military drill. That must’ve stimulated her imagination. The world is still perfectly normal, she tells herself, trying to calm down, take this hotel, for example, or these tourists now floating up with me in the elevator.
The fourth-floor corridor is deserted. An inviting, illuminated button at room 398 says, “PLEASE PRESS.” But Josefa knocks instead, several times, hard. She waits. Gleaming letters appear, “PLEASE ENTER.” She pushes down on the door handle.
The vestibule is dark, but there is light in the adjoining suite. Even standing some distance away, she can see that the curtains are drawn. Should something have tipped her off? Should she have been more cautious after the past few months? She’s shifting her briefcase from one hand to the other in indecision when a figure appears in the doorway.
Josefa freezes. “You?” she gasps. She has no desire to see the man who’s now raising his hand a little. Not now and not ever.
“I’ve been wanting us to have a little chat for a long time,” she hears him say in a slurred, hoarse voice. At that moment a noise makes her spin around. A man has pushed open the door to the room. He’s wearing a sheepskin coat over a black suit. And in his pocket is a sharp-edged metal object.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2005 by Bernadette Calonego
English translation copyright © 2012 by Gerald Chapple
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
The Zurich Conspiracy was first published in 2005 by Bloomsbury Verlag GmbH as Nutze deine Feinde. Translated from German by Gerald Chapple. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2012.
Published by AmazonCrossing
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