Swiss-American police officer Agnes Lüthi is on leave in Lausanne, Switzerland, recovering from injuries she sustained in her last case, when an old colleague invites her to the world’s premier watch and jewelry trade show at the grand Messe Basel Exhibition Hall. Little does Agnes know, another friend of hers, Julien Vallotton, is at the same trade showand he’s looking for Agnes. Julien Vallotton was friends with Guy Chavanon, a master of one of Switzerland’s oldest arts: watchmaking. Chavanon died a week ago, and his daughter doesn’t believe his death was accidental. Shortly before he died, Chavanon boasted that he’d discovered a new technique that would revolutionize the watchmaking industry, and she believes he may have been killed for it. Reluctantly, Agnes agrees to investigate his death. But the world of Swiss watchmaking is guarded and secretive, and before she realizes it, Agnes may be walking straight into the path of a killer.
Tracee de Hahn's next mystery, A Well-Timed Murder, is another magnetic mystery that will engross readers from the opening page to the stunning conclusion.
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There was a crowd but none of them mattered. Agnes Lüthi had eyes for only one man, the one she'd nicknamed the Roach. The one she'd only dreamt of finding in Switzerland.
She moved quickly despite her injured leg, focused on her destination, closing her umbrella when she reached the high canopy. A chain of buses discharged passengers in front of the Messe Basel Exhibition Halles, and they flowed past her toward the doors as if the world's premier watch and jewelry show might sell out of goods if they dallied. She had never before been to Baselworld, but from the look of the well-dressed crowd judged it was a fitting place to find this particular man.
She was within grasping distance of a door handle when Marcel Aubry appeared from behind a kiosk. He was cloaked in a long, belted raincoat and had a finger pressed to his ear, listening. Before she could speak, he grasped her wrist with his free hand and pulled her behind the advertising stand, out of sight of the glass front of the lobby.
"Slight change of plan," Aubry said, his voice low and hurried. "The Roach is headed this way." He frowned, listening to the voices in his earpiece.
Agnes moved closer to Aubry; it felt like stepping into a shadow. He was a big man, not exactly fat, but big enough to make her feel slim. She could hear the scratch of a voice broadcast from his earpiece, but not the words. Her pulse quickened. They'd worked together for years in Financial Crimes. Despite that, she'd never seen him run a field operation. This was an important arrest for him, one he'd not leave to others. She was thrilled to be included.
"Did you ever think you'd see us catch him?" Aubry said to her, still focused on the chatter in his ear.
"No, and I don't believe it yet today." She'd had the Roach in her grasp three times, only to have him scurry back into a crack at the last moment. All of Europe and half of Asia was looking for him. In addition to Swiss francs, he'd stolen millions of euros, yen, dollars, and pounds — all electronically. Despite his methods, she'd always believed that he occasionally appeared in person at a place he'd targeted. Now it looked as if her suspicions were proving true.
"This time he's definitely here," said Aubry. "Problem is, the place is littered with exits and there's a record crowd. Feels like half the world's come to Baselworld. Good for the economy, bad for us, since on-site security doesn't want a fuss disturbing their clientele." He nodded. "Anyway, I'm glad you're here to see it."
"I was nearby when you called. I left my mother-in-law at the Beyeler Museum like a bride at the altar. She may not forgive me." Agnes watched the crowd stream into the building, oblivious of the police operation. Aubry had orchestrated a smooth intervention despite having to move quickly.
"Your call was the best news I've had in weeks," she added. "A few days ago one of my kids accused me of missing the criminals."
Vincent — her oldest — had phrased it more bluntly: that she liked spending time with the bad guys more than with them. Before she could protest, her youngest son had added that at least she wasn't a criminal herself. They'd all laughed. It was true, she did miss work. Surely that wasn't a bad message for the boys? Their father had had a strong work ethic.
Aubry pulled his wrist up and spoke into a microphone, asking a question. He looked at her. "When are you officially back on the job?"
"Three days. Monday." She gave her wool jacket a downward tug and straightened the matching skirt. Her stint in hospital had melted a few kilos away. Nearly being killed wasn't the easiest diet, but it was no doubt effective. A few more kilos and she would consider thanking the man who had knifed her.
Aubry held up his hand, listening to chatter in his earpiece. "Any minute now," he whispered, as if they could be overheard. "He's heading to the lobby. It's perfect. Fewer civilians and more space gives us an advantage."
"He'll run." Agnes shifted weight off her bad leg. Critically, she eyed the long bank of doors. The building's sleek overhang soared across the street, sheltering trams, taxis, a restaurant, and a flower stall. She hoped Aubry really did have all exits covered. She had a vague notion that the five or six halls of the Messe Basel facility were connected by upper corridors and enclosed walkways. It was a large complex.
Aubry tapped his thigh impatiently. His gaze strayed to her leg. "How's life in Violent Crimes?"
A voice sputtered in his ear and Aubry listened, sparing her the need to answer. "He's on the move," Aubry said quietly.
"Now," Aubry shouted, running to the doors and yanking one open.
Two men in suits moved from another angle and Agnes spotted their earpieces. The men broke into a half run, and a few bystanders gasped while others pulled out mobile phones set to record video. The officers pushed ahead toward the turnstiles leading to the show, and Agnes followed. Aubry put a hand to his earpiece and stopped her. He angled his head down and she could hear voices talking on top of one another. Someone yelled and Aubry flinched.
Suddenly, in the distance, car tires screeched. There was a loud thump and a scream, followed seconds later by other shouts. Agnes turned toward the noise and Aubry followed. They ran to the right side of the building, ignoring the drizzle. The side street was closed to all but exhibitors' vehicles, and Agnes pushed her way through the gathered crowd. What she saw stopped her in her tracks. Aubry, close behind, collided with her.
The street was dedicated to instruments of luxury and speed, and in the middle of the road a gleaming red Ferrari had struck a man. He lay in a shallow pool of rainwater a meter from the front bumper. Both car and man were broken. The hood of the car was dented and smeared with blood. The man's leg was angled mid-calf, and the fabric of his pants was split by a bone. Blood spilled from the back of his head, pooling around his hair, mixing with rain and running in rivulets to the curb. Agnes recognized the man immediately. She put a hand to her mouth. A second glance at the unique shape of his ears confirmed it: the Roach.
Aubry cursed under his breath and darted around her. Other officers were already there. A security guard leaned over the body; a quick check confirmed the obvious. The man was dead.
Agnes stepped back a pace, memories overlaying what was in front of her. Three weeks ago, a man had knelt beside her, spoken to her, and touched her neck for a pulse when she lay twisted on the floor with her leg and chest dripping blood. She remembered the blackness closing in, the numbness, the ringing in her ears. The memory bled into reality and she touched her side, feeling off-balance. She stumbled away, needing room to breathe.
Outside the press of the crowd, the scent of blood receded, the memories faded, and her pulse slowed. The rain had stopped and she leaned heavily on the tip of her furled umbrella. The Roach dead? He wasn't a murderer. This wasn't a fitting end to his crimes or to their investigation. There should have been an arrest. A trial. She glanced back in his direction. Officers were huddled over the body. She felt they'd been cheated out of the end. She'd wanted to interview him. To learn more about how he operated. Maybe even understand what motivated him. Why keep stealing when you've already made a fortune?
Her phone buzzed and she glanced at the screen. The feeling of uncertainty shifted when she read the caller ID. Julien Vallotton. He had saved her life, yet she'd ignored him in the past weeks, not ready to talk. Not trusting her judgment or her feelings.
This time the message was different.
She looked toward the dead man again. There were enough officers on-site to handle a situation far more complicated than this, and technically she was an observer to Aubry's operation. She pushed through the next layer of gathering crowd until she reached the building. There, she leaned against the cold black metal façade.
She reread the message: Please call me. Urgent.
She had seen Julien Vallotton only once since leaving hospital. Since then, he'd texted her twice. The first time to see if she was recovering. The second, to ask if she would like to go to dinner. She'd not replied the second time. How could she go to dinner with him? What would she tell her boys? Or her in-laws? With her husband dead only four months, what would she tell herself? She glanced at the message again. He wasn't the kind of man to say something was urgent as a ploy to prompt a response.
Baselworld security guards were dispersing the crowd, and Agnes could see past the dented Ferrari to its well-dressed driver. He was vomiting into a potted plant, and she hoped he would feel better once he realized he'd killed a master criminal and not a family man. She took another look at his car. Julien Vallotton had one like this. A Ferrari Pininfarina Sergio. What had he said, that it was one of only six in the world? Possibly the man was vomiting because he'd dented his hood.
She took a deep breath and called Vallotton. It only took one sentence to change the course of her day.
"We buried a friend yesterday. Police say it was an accident." He paused and his tone altered. "I think it was murder."
Agnes held her phone tight against her ear and asked Julien Vallotton to repeat his words. An ambulance approached and she could barely hear him over the nasal woohoo woohoo of the siren. The noise reverberated between the exhibition halls, making her head hurt.
"I believe someone I know has been killed," he said, enunciating carefully.
The siren grew louder. She put a finger in one ear.
"The coroner says it was an accident. I — we — need someone who will listen to a different point of view. That's why I thought of you."
The crowd was dispersing, revealing a row of luxury automobiles backed in against the building. Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, late-model Rolls-Royce, vintage Rolls-Royce, Maserati, another Ferrari, several emblazoned with the logo of a luxury watchmaker or jeweler. Now that Aubry no longer needed her to interrogate the Roach, she had no reason to be at Baselworld. The alternative to listening to Vallotton was to return to the museum and her mother-in-law. She would rather help the cleanup crew than do that.
"Let's start with who died," she said.
* * *
Five minutes later, Agnes reached the center of Halle 1, where the glamorous Global Brands were displayed. The light changed. It brightened. She looked up from the Baselworld map she had been studying and laughed out loud. This was a different world from the gray drizzle outside. This was glamour and lights. The people who streamed into the exhibit had been transformed, stripped of their coats and umbrellas and turned into sophisticated butterflies. They laughed and greeted friends and admired window displays filled with watches that were gem studded or miracles of mechanical ingenuity or both. The air was heavy with a mixture of hushed noise and palpable giddiness, and Vallotton was here. Here with the dead man's daughter.
Heading toward the café where she had agreed to meet them, Agnes felt as if she were walking down the Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich. The individual pavilions were as large as houses and laid out like stores on a street: Chopard, Bulgari, Breguet, Blancpain, and dozens more in the distance.
Guy Chavanon, she said to herself, repeating the name of the man who had died. She hadn't recognized it even when Vallotton assured her that he was a well-known watchmaker.
Agnes passed the Patek Philippe showroom. The upper stories were built of luminous white glass, curved like a floating spaceship.
Hastening past early tulips blooming in raised long containers, she admired the Rolex pavilion to her left, tempted to take a photograph to show her sons, and instead committing details to memory. The building glowed green near the floor while the upper part was a contoured white structure, a geometric cloud. Farther on, Omega boasted a sophisticated white marble-and-etched-glass façade, while Tissot was a towering black grid. Agnes wondered if the show had a theme, thinking it should be money meets more money.
Carried along by the hum of the crowd, she felt the heart of Switzerland pulsing, transforming the raw materials of other countries into luxury items. Official theme of Baselworld or not, for six days money would definitely meet money here. Money would make more money here. It had been a fitting place to find the Roach, and for different reasons it was a fitting place to meet Julien Vallotton. Her own pulse rate increased.
At the end of the connecting passage, Halle 3, Stones & Pearls, was smaller and quieter. She glanced around appraisingly. The one-story showrooms were connected by standardized white, black, or gray façades. Overhead, large signs identified the brands. Immediately ahead, the sign above the café read as Julien Vallotton had described on the phone: THE HALL OF ELEMENTS. Elements meaning gold, diamonds, and their near relatives, Agnes presumed. No pedestrian fire and water for this crowd. Beneath the sign, she spotted Vallotton greeting a young woman. Even in a crowd of beautiful well-dressed people, he commanded attention: aristocratic bearing, dark, nearly black hair graying at the temples, arresting blue eyes. He wore a dark suit with a striped shirt and brightly patterned silk tie, and the cut of his suit was subtly better, and the shine of his shoes brighter, than anyone else's. Agnes hesitated. She'd avoided this meeting for weeks and now remembered exactly why. He approached before she could change her mind and leave.
"I didn't expect you'd agree to talk to Christine," he said after they had shaken hands.
Agnes's gaze flicked to the young woman at the café. The dead man's daughter. "Even after you learned I was already here?"
She relaxed now that they had passed any initial awkwardness. If only she could keep the conversation away from their personal life. Her personal life, she corrected. She shifted her gaze to the woman. She was young, maybe midtwenties, well dressed in a conservative dark suit. Her brown hair was pulled back in a low bun, and her makeup was tasteful. Her slightly irregular features would never be described as beautiful, or even pretty. She was attractive at best. Today, the rims of her eyes were slightly reddened, as if she had been crying.
"Full disclosure," Vallotton said. "Claiming murder was a statement longer on impact than fact, but I wanted your attention." His mouth was set in a grim line. He glanced at his watch and straightened a cuff under his jacket. "Christine's on a work break and doesn't have much time."
"If you stretched the truth, perhaps that's fortunate," Agnes said, surprised and disappointed. She stepped forward and extended her hand in greeting. "Mademoiselle Chavanon, I'm Inspector Agnes Lüthi."
The café bar was a long narrow oval, and Christine was seated at the rounded end. After shaking hands, Agnes sat on an empty stool and ordered an espresso from the waitress. "With an almond croissant, s'il vous plaît," she added, seeing her favorite pastry in the case.
"Please call me Christine. I can't thank you enough. I knew Monsieur Vallotton would know who to call." The young woman pulled an envelope from her purse, her hand shaking, and handed it to Agnes. "I found this under my doormat this morning."
The envelope was scuffed with dirt. Agnes withdrew a pristine sheet of paper, careful to touch only one edge. Two sentences were written in a distinctive man's script. Be careful. We are being watched. She glanced from Christine to Vallotton, noting his surprise. He'd told her that Guy Chavanon had died in circumstances that the police labeled accidental. A label Vallotton and the man's daughter didn't agree with. He certainly hadn't mentioned any threats. Agnes felt her adrenaline spike again.
"I haven't been home for two weeks," Christine's words tumbled out. Her voice quavered. "I was staying with a friend near the office because I was working so late getting ready for Baselworld, and after my father died" — tears streamed down her cheeks — "I couldn't face being there. Being so alone. I went back last night. I needed different clothes for today and I found the note this morning. My father must have put it under the mat before he died. It's his handwriting."
Her tears turned to sobs and Vallotton handed her a monogrammed handkerchief. Agnes studied the note for a moment, then returned it to the envelope and placed everything in one of the plastic evidence bags she kept handy. Slow and steady, she reminded herself. It was possible the local police had similar notes and had already discounted their importance. A worried victim didn't turn a death into a homicide, but thankfully, it also couldn't be ignored.
Excerpted from "A Well-Timed Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Tracee de Hahn.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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