Extract from Mike Mitchell's translation

Hansjörg Schneider's Silver Pebbles

Peter Hunkeler, detective inspector with the Basel police, formerly married with one daughter, now divorced, was stuck in the traffic jam on Johanniterbrücke over the Rhine. It was already starting to get dark, even though it wasn't 4 p.m. yet, and the Intercity from Frankfurt was due at 4.27. The cars had their lights on, their windshield wipers as well, for light snow was drifting down out of the fog. At higher altitudes, the TV weatherman had forecast, there was now good visibility as far as the Alps. Up there you could see a gleam of red in the west, where the sun was going down, to the south the snow-covered slopes were shining like the moon and the first stars would soon appear.

Peter Hunkeler was nervous. It wasn't the understandable nervousness of someone arriving late and missing an important meeting through his own fault — and the assignment at Badischer Station was hugely important. That didn't bother Hunkeler; he had been in the police too long to worry about personal failure. Sometimes an operation was successful, sometimes not. For him as an inspector the difference wasn't that great. If an operation went well, the praise of his superiors was limited; if not, the rebuke was limited too. Moreover, he was just a few years away from retirement and, as a state official, his pension was assured. Promotion was no longer a possibility and dismissal after so many years highly unlikely.

And what about the professional ethos of the guardian of the law, the brave fighter for justice? He couldn't care less about that, to be honest. He was fed up with that kind of prattle and had been for ages. The things he'd seen in all the years he'd spent with the police had put paid to his youthful belief in justice.

A crime, what was that? A poor devil, in desperate straits financially and emotionally, goes to pieces just once in his life and commits some terrible misdeed which later on he can't understand and bitterly regrets, is branded a monster by the law and convicted. A rich moneybags, who has a dozen lawyers at his beck and call and knows the law like the back of his hand, rips people off every which way for years on end — there's your worthy citizen.

And first you have to catch your criminal and convict him. Peter Hunkeler was sceptical about that. “Of course,” he would say when pontificating to his fellow regulars in the bar, “of course it's easy to convict a man who kills his wife out of jealousy and goes to the nearest police station to confess. But you just try and prove that a rich gentleman who lives up there on Bruderholz in a nice villa with a swimming pool and two or three sheep in his garden has earned his millions by laundering drug money.”

Hunkeler looked to the right, down through the railings of the bridge to the Rhine. There was a dull gleam on the surface of the water. The water down there was dark at this time of the year, cold water, murky water, drifting down to the sea. In the summer it was seaweed-green and warm, he loved swimming in it in the evening. Now it looked curdled. Further upstream it was crossed by Mittlere Brücke, it too crammed full of cars, and beyond it the chancel of the cathedral rose up against the evening sky, barely visible in the softly falling snow.

Hunkeler watched the wipers making triangles on the windshield. He switched off the engine, put his hands on his knees, closed his eyes and breathed calmly, repeating to himself sentences he'd learned on a free course in autogenic training provided by the Basel police. “I am calm and relaxed,” he repeated in a low voice, “and my right arm is heavy and warm.” He noticed how these stupid sentences were starting to take effect, how he was slipping away from the outside world to somewhere deep within his body. Before he could enter a pleasant state of suspension, he opened his eyes wide.

Nothing had changed in the meantime, except that there was a thin layer of snow on the windshield.

He was not unhappy sitting there in the traffic jam, stuck between the car behind and the one in front, waiting for something that ought to happen but never did. It was restful being out of circulation, safe in the general paralysis. Peter started at a honk from the vehicle behind him. He had nodded off after all, thinking about his daughter Isabelle, dreaming of the good times with her, with his beautiful, clever, cheerful Isabelle whom he hadn't seen for a year.

He looked in the rear-view mirror. The man at the wheel behind him was throwing his arms around furiously and tapping his forehead. Hunkeler gave an apologetic shrug, which just made the man even more furious and sound his horn again. He turned the engine back on and set off.

On the other side of the bridge were two cars that had crashed into each other. The policeman by the revolving blue light waved Hunkeler on.

He arrived at the station on time, parked, got out and ran onto the concourse. Detective Sergeant Madörin, who was standing at the kiosk behind a rack of newspapers, gave him an unobtrusive sign. The large hand of the clock up in the cupola — funeral-parlour architecture, Hunkeler thought — showed half past four.

He saw his men at once: Haller was standing by the German Federal Railways ticket office smoking his curved pipe, Schneeberger sitting reading a book on a bench in the middle of the concourse and Corporal Lüdi was studying a timetable on the wall by the exit. None of them looked across at Hunkeler, who strolled over to the kiosk to buy some cigarettes.

The first passengers started coming down the tunnel from the platform. The customs official let them all pass: a young couple who had greeted each other with kisses and were now heading, full of anticipation, for the exit, some businessmen with briefcases who looked neither to the right nor to the left, an elderly woman who was obviously expecting to be met and stood there on the concourse, bewildered.

Then Guy Kayat appeared. Hunkeler recognized him at once, he'd studied his photo often enough: a young, powerful Arab in a camel-hair coat with a black leather bag, who was walking in a strangely stiff way. He stood still for a moment, had a brief look round, then headed for the exit. A man — a bald, rather fat fifty-year-old oozing Swiss respectability — left the bank counter, where he'd clearly been changing money, turned towards Kayat, trying to give him a discreet sign, and then, when that brought no response, hurried over to him.

“That's him,” Madörin hissed, about to dash off. Hunkeler held him back. The bald man grabbed Kayat by the arm, turning. him round, but Kayat shook him off, pushed him away and said something to him they couldn't make out. The Swiss, baffled, looked round the concourse. Lüdi was already running towards them. Dropping his travel bag, Kayat grabbed the man and threw him at the charging Lüdi. He then ran off, past the kiosk to the passage leading to the toilets. Hunkeler and Madörin would probably have been able to catch him had a couple with a child and a loaded luggage trolley not suddenly com round the corner, with the result that they knocked the child over and fell down themselves. Hunkeler struggled to his feet, swearing, just in time to see Kayat heading down the corridor to the men's toilet.

Madörin had also got up by now. “Police,” he shouted, pulling out his pistol and heading off down the corridor with Haller and Schneeberger.

Hunkeler gestured an apology. “I'm so sorry,” he said to the horrified parents, “it's diamonds we're after. Go and report to the police.” He watched the mother pick up the child and try to comfort him. Then he ran off to the toilets — after all, he was in charge of the operation and God only knew what Madörin was doing with his gun.

He arrived just in time to stop Haller, who, covered by his colleague who was holding the gun, arm outstretched, was about to break down the toilet door with his shoulder.

“Stop!” Hunkeler shouted. “Are you out of your minds?” Pausing for Madörin to move aside, disappointed, he pushed on the door handle and the door opened.

On the right of the tiled room were two wash basins, on the left four urinals; the cubicles were at the back. He knocked on the first door. It was a while before it opened. Standing there was an old man who had clearly just pulled his trousers up. He was trembling with fear.

Hunkeler was about to apologize when he noticed Madörin kicking the next door in, gun at the ready. A young man, a drug addict, the needle in the crook of his arm, was sitting on the toilet. He made no sound but his upper body sank back against the cistern and, eyes closed, his head slumped onto his chest. They heard the flush of the lavatory in the next cubicle. The door opened and Kayat came out looking surprised to see the men, who immediately seized him. Hunkeler watched as Madörin dashed over to the toilet bowl, tore off his jacket, rolled back his sleeve and stuck his arm in up to the elbow. “Nothing,” he said.

Click  here  for Mike Mitchell's home page. Click here for Translations.