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Agent Franck Woerli was pleased to do a favour for the French cop. As a member of FedPol, the Swiss Federal Criminal Police, Woerli’s purview was both extra- and international. And his inclination was to do what he could to counter the smallminded actions of too many local counterparts. He knew all about the sort of petty-minded crap Basel City Police Commander Heinrich Boehler threw in the way of what should have been straightforward, coordinated information sharing amongst police.
Boehler was devoutly pro-gun, very active in ProTell, the Swiss version of the NRA. He routinely blocked the sharing of gun registry information out of an inflated and retrogressive sense of patriotism attached to the national reputation for guarding privacy at whatever cost, and especially from foreigners. Franck Woerli was quietly ashamed to be even remotely associated with the likes of Heinrich Boehler. He was glad to make the call for Inspector Nouvelle. They had accomplished good things together, the latest being their central role in bringing down a trans-Euro hashish importation ring. About four years ago? Time flew. Woerli had been deskbound lately, investigating payroll fraud. But his desk had a phone and he had rank. He used it and extracted the required information.
He got back to her within the hour. The gun was registered to VigiTec, the security firm where her victim was employed.
‘Merci, Franki. It’s what I feared…’ A pause. A pause he could feel. In that French voice he did enjoy, she put it to him. ‘In the mood for some work, Agent Woerli?’
‘I would love it, Inspector. Unfortunately I’m up to my ears in payroll tax fiddles. Not too exciting, to say the least, but with all the migrant workers flowing in, it’s big a problem. And you know, a simple murder, I think you may have to work this one with the Commander.’
‘But it’s not so simple…’ Aliette Nouvelle hesitated again at the other end of the line. Then, with a what-the-hell kind of sigh, she said, ‘We also have a painting. Probably Swiss-owned.’ She described the ruined piece found near the victim. ‘Art means you people, not Boehler, yes?’
'Normally, but not absolutely.’ Woerli paused to open the newspaper on the desk in front of him — they’d moved Monday’s headline story to page three. ‘You say Friday night?’
‘Our best guess.’
‘That makes two in…looks like the same day. Art-related murders, I mean.’ He filled her in. Justin Aebischer, a well-regarded Basel art restorer, had been murdered on or about Friday afternoon or evening. Found Sunday on his back patio, sodden with the past weekend’s rain, a bullet through his head. ‘Not here. Biel. A village an hour out of town. Perp came up from the forest, through his garden and shot him. He worked there, studio’s in his basement. So — ’
‘So that is interesting, Franki. Justin Aebischer. Did a painting go missing?’
‘They are not saying much about that. As usual, it’s someone else’s business.’ In the same way Swiss democracy affords cantonal politics maximum leeway for laws and structures, the Swiss policing system confers maximum control on canton forces. Thus Heinrich Boehler could rule Basel City canton like the Sheriff of Nottingham. And whoever ran the Basel Lands force would have complete jurisdiction over the past weekend’s murder in Biel.
‘But, Franki, if a Swiss painting ends up in France?’
‘But,’ he said, quiet and patient, ‘we won’t know that until they decide to tell us.’
‘No.’ A pause. Franck Woerli wondered if the French cop could hear his weary resignation.
In that French pause, FedPol Agent Woerli reflected bitterly as to how he hated payroll fraud. Strictly numbers, dry as a bone. Only saving grace: it was an extra-territorial issue, no question, and he could actually close a case. Trying to work in a coordinated manner with the cantons was worse than frustrating. It was soul-killing.
‘Excuse me? Sorry…’
She repeated, ‘Do you know a place called Zup?’
‘A place called Zup?’
‘A club. A gay nightclub in the old city.’
‘Can’t say I do, Inspector.’
‘No…’ Another noticeable pause. ‘Can you find out more about this Justin Aebischer?’
‘I probably could.’
‘Bring it to me. I’ll buy you lunch. At the Rembrandt.’
She could not see it from France, but the offer brought a spontaneous smile. ‘I would enjoy that. Give me a day?’
‘Of course. Merci, Franki.’
‘You are most welcome. I look forward to seeing you again.’
And to lunch. That Dutchman who ran the place where they met whenever he made the trip to the otherwise dull city up the road — van Hoogsomething? — was a genius with carp taken from the streams in the forestlands along the border. The pleasing thought of a special meal and a few hours in the company of Inspector Nouvelle left Franck Woerli staring out at the Rhine. A tiny section was always there, visible from his office in a sixth-floor suite on Freiestrasse, just where it met Eisenstrasse. The humidity had blown away with a predawn shower. Today the river ran silvery and energetic on a blustery overcast morning.
A body. Art-related? He wondered what it held in store.
Amazing how a phone call will poke a hole in the greyness that settles on the soul.