Authors: AD Starrling
I studied the layout of the road, heart pounding in my chest. A peek in the rearview mirror showed the SUV thirty feet behind and closing.
‘Yes. Put your seat belt on.’
Five seconds later, I crossed the central reservation and accelerated toward a truck in the opposite lane. The driver’s eyes widened behind the windscreen of his cabin. He gaped and spun his steering wheel to his left.
The roadster raised a cloud of dirt and gravel as it skidded into the lay-by. The tail of the truck swung perilously close to the Jag’s front bumper before spinning lazily through a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. Bales of hay fell off the flatbed and scattered across both lanes.
The truck tilted on its wheels before coming to a juddering halt in the middle of the road.
The SUV hurtled into one of the haystacks, skidded wildly, and smashed head on into a utility pole. Flames erupted from beneath the hood and engulfed the front of the vehicle. The doors opened and dark-clad figures stumbled out.
I steered the roadster onto the road and drove off.
Reid observed the chaos behind us before turning to me. ‘That was a bit wild.’
I shrugged. ‘It worked.’
‘You’re bleeding again.’ He indicated his right temple.
I wiped the blood dripping down the side of my head and winced at the stabbing pain radiating from my broken ribs. I merged with the traffic heading south on the N118 moments later and headed east on the A5 motorway.
It had just gone noon when I pulled into the town of Troyes. We grabbed something to eat and went in search of a cyber cafe. The incident at Gif had already made national news.
‘One student has been shot dead and three more were seriously injured on the campus of the CNRS in Gif-sur-Yvette, following an incident earlier this morning. According to the police, gunfire erupted during an apparent altercation between a number of unidentified men just after nine-thirty. Judging from the scenes of devastation around us, the use of some sort of incendiary device or bomb has not been excluded by the authorities. The men implicated in the disturbance subsequently fled the scene in separate vehicles. Two black Freelanders with unknown registrations have since been recovered within a two-mile radius of the campus. Both have been involved in crashes. One police source reports that although a significant amount of blood was evident at the sites of the accidents, no bodies have been recovered from the vehicles.’
The live feed had been shot on the Gif campus. The building housing the laboratories of the
Centre de Génétique Moléculaire
dominated the background. Behind the female presenter, a police cordon enclosed a large area of the lawn. Two coroner officers were zipping a body into a bag under the elm trees.
‘Police are still looking for the third vehicle involved in this incident, thought to be a black vintage Jaguar. So far no information is available on its possible whereabouts.’ The female presenter faltered. Her hand rose to her earpiece and she listened intently for several seconds. Her eyes widened. ‘I have just received some breaking news from my colleague in Paris,’ she continued excitedly. ‘The body of internationally renowned scientist Professor Hubert Eric Strauss was discovered in his apartment in the
two hours ago. Professor Strauss, who worked at the
Centre de Génétique Moléculaire
on this very campus behind me, is thought to have been the victim of a botched burglary. The police in Paris have confirmed that one of the professor’s neighbors reported seeing a black vintage car at the scene of the crime late last night.’
We watched the images on the computer silently.
‘Hunters put the body there?’ said Reid finally.
I gazed blindly at the elm trees on the screen. The immortals were more than desperate; the mounting body count was proof of this. The anger simmering in my gut flared at the thought of Olsson.
‘I don’t get it,’ said Reid. ‘If he’s the one they were looking for, why kill him?’
I tapped a finger on the cover of the late professor’s journal. ‘Maybe it wasn’t him they were after.’
Reid looked at me blankly.
‘I think whatever they’re searching for has something to do with his work.’
He rubbed his chin. ‘Well, we’ve got his journal.’
‘Yeah. But we lost the memory stick,’ I said with a grimace.
‘I still don’t see what any of this has to do with you.’ A sigh of frustration left his lips. ‘Where’s the connection?’
I frowned. Things were getting more dangerous by the hour. Yet, I felt I was still far from finding any answers.
The monitor in front of Reid flickered. He studied it for a couple of seconds. ‘I’m afraid I’ve got more bad news.’
I stiffened. ‘What?’
He indicated the display. ‘Looks like we both made the wanted lists.’
I leaned across and studied the fuzzy mug shots on the NCIC and Interpol pages. ‘We always look that disreputable?’ I said, arching an eyebrow.
Reid shrugged. ‘Depends on the time of day, but yeah, mostly we do.’
A name on the Interpol site drew my eyes. The agent assigned to our case was one Christophe Lacroix.
‘I don’t know whether to call it coincidence or irony,’ said Reid flatly.
I glanced at him. ‘Do you need to tell Sam?’
Samantha was Reid’s ex-wife. Despite their divorce five years ago, they still got along well. I suspected they would get back together at some point in the future.
‘No, it’ll only make things worse,’ he muttered. ‘Besides, they might trace the call.’ He struck a match and lit a cigarette.
I looked past Reid at the bearded colossus behind the cafe’s reception desk. ‘I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke in here.’ I flashed a smile at the man; his brow knitted into a scowl.
Reid inhaled and blew smoke rings toward the ceiling. ‘It’s been a busy day. Anyone who wants to stop me from having a light is gonna have to kill me first and pry this from my cold, dead fingers.’
The bearded giant had rounded the desk and was heading our way like an unmoored tugboat.
I shut down the computers, rose, and dragged Reid off the chair. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here. We need to find a new set of wheels. And I’ve got a call to make.’
I found a public phone booth two streets down from the cafe and rang Gustav Lacroix.
‘What’s going on?’ said the old detective in a troubled voice. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m sorry. We never meant to cause you any trouble.’ I hesitated. ‘Tell your nephew that not everything is as it seems.’ I disconnected, a pang of guilt stabbing through my chest.
We bought a secondhand Audi A4 from a dealership just outside Troyes. Reid followed me in the new car as I headed down a series of small country roads in the Jag. I left the roadster under a dusty tarpaulin in an abandoned barn tucked in some woods at the end of a rutted lane. I would call Vauquois at our next stop and tell him of its whereabouts.
‘Where to now?’ said Reid once we were back on the motorway.
I glanced at him, my grip light on the steering wheel of the Audi. ‘We’re going to Zurich.’
Silence followed. ‘We checking out Strauss’s bank?’ he said finally.
‘Among other things.’ I gazed at the road. ‘The number Strauss was calling is also in Zurich.’
‘You think this “
” person is there as well?’
‘I’m betting on it.’
e drove through Basel and
followed the Limmat River to Zurich, reaching the city late in the afternoon.
Known as the cultural capital of Switzerland, the political center being Berne, Zurich started life as a tax collection point on the border of the Roman Province of Gallia Belgica, in the first century AD. It passed through the hands of several Holy Roman Emperors during the ensuing centuries before finally becoming part of the independent Swiss Confederation in 1291. Immortals had a heavy hand in molding the future of the country, as they did in so many others throughout the history of mankind.
I exited the motorway west of the river, crossed over the Wipkingerstrasse, and pulled into the parking lot of a hotel on the Limmat Quai. The room we booked faced over the water, the windows offering a glimpse of the lake as well as sweeping views of the Limmat and two of the city’s most famous churches, the Fraumünster and St. Peter. Reid went in search of cigarettes while I used the hotel’s internet room to access an online reverse search database. Minutes later, I had an address for the Zurich phone number Strauss had called repeatedly over a month ago. It was in Riesbach, an affluent district on the banks of the lake.
We left the hotel shortly after six and headed east on the Uto Quai.
The drive to the Bellerivestrasse was short and uneventful. The harsh cries of black-headed gulls and the piping calls of terns echoed across the lake in the crisp evening air. To the south, fading sunlight glistened on the distant peaks of the Alps.
The house was a fairytale, three-story Swiss cottage, complete with shingled roof, bracketed eaves, gables, and decorative wood trimmings. Located on a low rise at the end of a residential street, it had spectacular views over the water.
Night soon fell and traffic slowed. The shores of the lake came alive with the lights of the city. The cottage remained dark and lifeless.
We left the car at eight and ascended the slope at the rear of the property. Hazel bushes and honeysuckle shrubs formed a hedge around the yard, and the air was rich with the sweet smell of late-blooming flowers.
Lights came on in the neighboring house as we stepped onto the edge of the lawn. We waited in the shadows and watched an elderly man close the curtains on the ground floor. Seconds later, we were on the steps of the rear porch. A pair of sturdy walking boots and a lone umbrella stood on the wooden deck.
Reid slipped the lock pick out of his pocket and went to work on the door. Beyond it, we found a kitchen full of vivid autumnal colors. The countertops were tidy and clean. A single, cold mug of black coffee stood by the sink. From the mould coating the inside, it had been there for days. The cupboards were well stocked, while the fridge and bin stood empty.
The rest of the house was decorated in pale pastels. Oil paintings dotted the walls and corridors. An eclectic collection of antique furniture crowded the rooms, their dark lines broken by a scattering of bright throws and cushions. On the second floor, a large, black, French Rococo bed dominated a distinctly feminine bedroom. The wardrobe and drawers were full of women’s clothing, and the air smelled of oranges.
A study lined with bookcases looked out onto the lake, an imposing antique Louis XVI desk occupying the space in front of the main window. A careful search of the drawers and wall cabinets provided no clues as to the identity of the owner of the house. There was a letter on the doormat inside the front door. Addressed generically to the owner of the property, it confirmed that all the post had been diverted to a private mailbox in Geneva.
Of the dozens of picture frames that crowded the windowsills, walls, and console tables around the house, not one contained a single photograph.
It was Reid who found the metal and glass casing wedged in a gap between the floorboards in an upstairs closet.
‘This looks old,’ he said, handing it to me.
My lips curved in a faint smile as I traced the antique plating with my fingers.
‘Yes, it is. It’s a daguerreotype.’ I looked up into Reid’s blank face. ‘It’s a style of photography dating back to the early nineteenth century,’ I explained.
It had been several decades since I had last seen one of them. I turned the frame over and studied the picture under the glass. Though the image had faded with the passage of time, I could still make out the two figures in the photograph.
The first one was a tall, thin man with graying hair. Dressed in a double-breasted frock coat worn over a buff waistcoat and trousers, he had a top hat on his head and held an ivory-headed cane in his hand. The second figure was a little girl in a pale, high-waisted gown, complete with pelisse. Dark curls peeked out from beneath her bonnet and framed a pair of pale, wide eyes. She was holding on tightly to the man’s left hand.
They stood in front of a half-finished St.Vitus Cathedral, within the grounds of Prague Castle.
‘This original?’ said Reid.
‘Yes.’ I examined the man and the little girl for silent seconds before slipping the frame inside my coat.
Although I was certain I had never met either of them before, a strange sense of recognition hovered at the edge of my consciousness.
We left the house and returned to the hotel. Once in the room, I took out Strauss’s journal and laid it on the coffee table. We had not had time to study it yet.
‘Do you understand any of this stuff?’ said Reid after we had pored over it for half an hour.
‘Not really,’ I replied, dismayed.
The pages of the journal were filled with scientific jargon. Occasionally, a series of exclamation marks followed a particularly complex paragraph. To complicate matters further, the last pages of the journal had been encrypted. Neither of us could decipher the code.
‘This is interesting,’ said Reid minutes later. He held out a copy of an email.
It had been sent two years ago by the President and CEO of GeMBiT Corp and was addressed to Strauss at his UPMC mailbox. The content was brief: Burnstein was offering his congratulations to Strauss on successfully securing a research grant worth ten million dollars for his project on advanced cell cycle control and DNA transposition.
Reid whistled softly. ‘That’s a lot of money.’
I stared at the figure. ‘Yes, it is.’
We found another email from Burnstein near the back of the journal. This one was dated three months ago. The message was short and conveyed an undeniable element of urgency: Burnstein was requesting an immediate meeting with Strauss to study the latest results of his research and had demanded access to the laboratory samples that the scientist had been working on.
Strauss had forwarded the email to a third party on a separate server. The internet address of the mail recipient consisted of a series of numbers followed by the letters
. Above Burnstein’s message, the scientist had written, “The Americans are getting restless. We need to talk.”
The reply to the email was encrypted.
‘Isn’t this a Swiss email address?’ Reid asked, brow puckering.
The letters looked vaguely familiar. I reached for the document wallet containing copies of Strauss’s research papers and leafed through the contents.
‘It stands for the Functional Genomics Center of the University of Zurich.’ I showed Reid the article featuring the FGCZ logo. There was a name next to it.
It was Prof. A.M. Godard.
‘So, we now know who the elusive “A” is,’ murmured Reid. ‘Isn’t the University of Zurich close to here?’ He rose and brought the map on his bed over to the table.
‘There’s another campus in Irchel Park, to the north of the city.’ I indicated another section of the map. ‘Let’s see what we can find at the bank first.’
The next day, we left the hotel early and went to buy some suits.
Strauss’s bank was located on the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping avenues in Europe. At almost a mile long, it was also home to the Zurich Hauptbahnhof, Switzerland’s largest railway station. We observed the bank from a newspaper kiosk across the road before crossing the busy avenue and stepping through revolving doors.
The bank’s decor was pale and fairly clinical. An armed guard stood unobtrusively next to a potted palm tree to the left of the airy lobby. He scanned us briefly before resuming his stoic inspection of the street life outside.
The woman behind the reception desk looked up with an inquisitive smile when we crossed the cream marble floor toward her.
I smiled back. ‘We need to see the director please,’ I said in Swiss German.
‘Do you have an appointment?’ she asked pleasantly.
‘I’m afraid not.’ I removed a badge from the inside pocket of my suit and showed it to her. ‘This is a police matter.’
The woman’s smile became strained as she studied the insignia. She lifted a telephone handset and spoke softly in the mouthpiece. A short conversation ensued. She placed the receiver in its cradle and indicated an artfully arranged circle of seats to the right of the vestibule.
‘If you would please take a seat? The Director will be with you immediately,’ she murmured politely.
“Immediately” turned out to be a quarter of an hour later. By then, Reid had loosened his tie and paced around the lobby several times.
‘I need a smoke,’ he explained at my stare.
‘You had one an hour ago.’
He gave me a blank look. ‘What does that have to do with anything?’
I sighed and smoothed out the wrinkles in my coat. Just as I was about to rise from the seat and approach the reception desk, a musical ting sounded from the end of the foyer.
‘I am extremely sorry. I was in an important meeting,’ said the man who walked out of the lift to greet us. ‘My name is Florent Mueller. I am the Executive Director of the bank. How may I be of assistance?’
Muller was short and dapper. He had a firm handshake and smelled faintly of menthol.
‘I am Agent Petersen of Swiss Interpol. This is FBI Agent Barnes.’ I indicated Reid. ‘We’re investigating the murder of one of your clients, a Professor H.E. Strauss. He transferred a substantial sum of money to your bank a fortnight ago. We would like to study the details of the account. We’re especially interested in any transactions that may have transpired on it since then.’
Mueller glanced at Reid’s rumpled suit and carefully studied our identification.
Qin Lee had done a first-rate job; the IDs were as good as the real things.
The director hesitated. ‘I take it you have obtained the appropriate legal document to access the account?’
I reached inside my coat and produced a perfect forgery of a lifting order by the Prosecutor-General, granting Swiss Interpol access to the bank accounts of Professor H.E. Strauss; I had had Qin Lee fax it through to the hotel last night.
Mueller inspected the paper and turned to speak to the receptionist briefly. He indicated the lift. ‘After you.’
We stepped out onto the fifth floor of the building a moment later. A man stood waiting for us inside the director’s office.
‘This is Gustav Allenbach, our Head of Accounts,’ said Mueller in heavily accented English. He turned to Allenbach. ‘These gentlemen are from the International Police. They would like some information on one of our clients.’
Allenbach made a copy of the lifting order before opening a laptop on the desk. He typed and clicked on the keyboard and pad before swiveling the screen around for us to look at.
‘I’m afraid there’s not a lot to see,’ he said apologetically. ‘Hubert Strauss opened an account with us two months ago, with an opening balance of two hundred and fifty thousand Euros. He transferred another one hundred thousand Euros into the account four weeks later. No further transactions have been made since then.’
I glanced at Reid with a sinking feeling. It looked like this was going to be another dead end.
Allenbach frowned as he studied the monitor. ‘I do, however, note that the safety deposit box was accessed by the co-account holder last Friday.’
‘The safety deposit box?’ I repeated, staring blankly at the man.
‘Yes. It was opened at the same time as the account,’ said Allenbach.
‘Who’s the co-account holder?’ said Reid.
I knew the name before Allenbach said it. ‘Professor A.M. Godard.’
A light rain was falling across the city when we exited the bank a short while later.
Reid hunched his shoulders against the cool autumnal wind sweeping down the avenue. ‘Want to check out the university?’
A quick internet search that morning had confirmed that the Functional Genomics Center was on the Irchel campus. We took the tram toward Stettbach and got off in Milchbuck. From there it was a short walk across the park to the university.
A site map showed the location of the FGCZ on the first floor of a building to the north of the grounds. The entrance foyer was busy and no one paid us any attention as we headed for the stairs. One flight up, a glass security door appeared in our path.
A couple of students sauntered down the steps from the floor above. They glanced at us curiously as we hesitated on the landing.
‘We can’t exactly open this one without being seen,’ Reid muttered, his eyes following the pair disappearing toward the ground floor. ‘We could always break the fire glass.’ He indicated the alarm on the wall.
I touched his arm. ‘Wait.’
A young woman was approaching the security door from the other side. She had a stack of folders in her arms and was reaching distractedly for the access badge at her waist. The door beeped and swung open. We moved silently aside as she crossed the threshold, head cast down.
I took a step toward her.
A gasp left her lips. The files fell from her arms.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,’ I murmured apologetically. ‘Let me give you a hand.’ I smiled and hunched down to help her gather the scattered folders.
The woman flushed and stammered a quick ‘Thank you!’ in Swiss German before dashing down the stairs. I watched her until she vanished from view.
‘Charming,’ Reid muttered. The access card he had lifted off her waist dangled from his hand.
We swiped through the security door and entered a wide corridor. Twenty feet in, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall appeared on our left. Beyond it was a large laboratory. Figures in white coats sat behind the crowded worktops.