Police Inspector Peter Hunkeler Investigates #1
It is the end of October, the northern Swiss city of Basel is grey and wet. It could be December. It is just after midnight when Hunkeler, on his way home and slightly worse for wear, spots old man Hardy sitting on a bench under a streetlight. He wants to smoke a cigarette with him, but the usually very loquacious Hardy is silent – his throat a gaping wound. Turns out he was first strangled, then his left earlobe slit, his diamond stud stolen. The media and the police come quickly to the same conclusion: Hardy’s murder was the work of a gang of Albanian drug smugglers.
But for Hunkeler that seems too obvious. Hardy’s murder has much in common with the case of Barbara Amsler, a prostitute also found killed with an ear slit, and her pearl stud missing. He follows his own intuition and the trail leads him deep into a dark world of bars, bordellos and strip clubs, but also into the corrupt core of some of Basel’s political and industrial elite. More ominously, he will soon discover the consequences of certain events in recent Swiss history that those in power would prefer to keep far from the public eye.
translated by Mike Mitchell
Peter Hunkeler, inspector with the Basel City criminal inves- tigation department, divorced with one daughter, came out of the Milchhüsli onto Missionsstrasse. It was early in the morning of Monday, 27 October, half past midnight to be precise – he’d looked at the clock on the wall of the inn before heading outside. There was a shimmer of white in the air, cast down from the street lamp in the fog. The end of October and already the town was grey and wet, just like the beginning of December.
Hunkeler felt a need to pee. The sudden cold, he thought: inside it had been nice and warm. Not just because of the heating but also because of all the people sitting round the regulars’ table, one next to the other, like beasts in the cowshed. He wondered whether to go back inside to the toilet. Then he heard a tram approaching from the right, from the city centre. The soft sound of the wheels on the rails, metal on metal, a round light, the outline hardly discernible. A ghostly gleam gliding through the fog. Then the lighted windows of the number 3, a man with a hat on in the front car, a young couple in the rear. The girl’s light hair was draped over the boy’s shoulder. The tram disappeared in the fog, heading for the border. A sudden screech of the wheels – the light on Burgfelderplatz was presumably on red.
Hunkeler waited until he heard the tram setting off again. He crossed the road to the Turkish pizzeria and looked in through the window of the Billiards Centre. He saw the artist Gerhard Laufenburger sitting at the round table with his girlfriend Nana, beside them little Cowboy with his Stetson on his head and his black dog. He didn’t want to see them that evening, so he headed off towards Burgfelderplatz.
After he’d taken a few steps he came to the Cantonal Bank on the corner that had a little tree in a tub outside. He thought the plant was ridiculous. Either a tree or no tree, rather than an apology for a tree. But now the little tree was just what he needed. He went over to it and pissed on the slim trunk. Bloody prostate, he thought, by now he couldn’t even hold his water for the few hundred yards to his apartment.
He turned his head and saw a dark figure sitting on the stone bench in the corner, leaning against the wall. He went over to see who it was. It was Hardy, the old vagabond who always had a diamond in his left earlobe. He appeared to be asleep, mouth open. Hunkeler sat down on the damp seat beside him, grasped the collar of his jacket and pulled it up. He looked across the square, where there was nothing but fog. After a while he heard the sound of a car approach- ing. Two bright headlights appeared and slowly went past.
“Shitty weather,” Hunkeler said. “Shitty town, shitty time of year.”
He looked back at Hardy, who wasn’t moving. His false teeth had a strange white glow.
“My Hedwig,” Hunkeler said, “is a lousy bitch. When you need her, she isn’t there. At the moment she’s away in Paris, studying the Impressionists. A sabbatical, that’s what she calls it, for three months, until the new year, to recharge her batteries. Being a kindergarten teacher is obviously an extremely stressful job, normal holidays aren’t enough for you to recover. You need an extra three months’ further study in Paris to be able to withstand the psychological pressure of the brats. That’s a quarter of a year.”
He spat on the wet asphalt, three yards away, and lit a cigarette. He took a drag, coughed and leaned back against the wall.
Thank you, Hansjörg Schneider and Random Things Tours
About the author
Hansjörg Schneider, born in Aarau, Switzerland, in 1938, worked as a teacher, and journalist. He is one of the most
performed playwrights in the German language but is best known for his Inspector Hunkeler crime novels. Schneider has received numerous awards, among them the prestigious Friedrich Glauser Prize for The Basel Killings. He lives and
writes in Basel.
About the translator
Mike Mitchell lives in Scotland and has published over eighty translations from German and French, including all the
Friedrich Glauser Sergeant Studer novels and Gustav Meyrink’s five novels. His translation of Rosendorfer’s ‘Letters Back to Ancient China’ won the 1998 Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize.
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