A gripping and atmospheric Black Forest Investigation featuring Detective Inspector Louise Bonì.
In a Berlin hotel a man is beaten up, but it's more than a random assault and the attacker escapes undetected. When the trail leads to Freiburg, Chief Inspector Louise Bonì is sent to investigate.
It's a complex case, a professional job. The victim is a secret service informer, the only witness knows more than she's saying, and the intelligence service is hovering in the background, refusing to cooperate. Industrial espionage appears to be at play, focused on the booming solar-energy sector.
"Taut writing and pacy events" Sunday Times
Bonì's investigation is repeatedly obstructed, and again she has to rip up the police handbook in her attempt to find out how the different threads of the web tie together. But by the time she discovers the truth, it's already too late for one of those involved . . .
"Bottini is a terrific storyteller" Sunday Express
The fifth in the Black Forest Investigations featuring Louise Bonì - by the five-time winner of the German Crime Fiction Award
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Release date: May 25, 2023
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 272
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The Invisible Web
She threw back the duvet and sat up. It was 2.45 p.m., maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday already, but definitely November. Annaplatz was wreathed in mist, the church a dark shadow, and raindrops fell diagonally in the light of the streetlamps.
Since returning to Freiburg she’d been sleeping fifteen hours per day. Some days she found two editions of the Badische Zeitung outside her door. More than one dawn was followed immediately by dusk. Two months of boredom perverted the very course of time.
An attempt to make atonement. In summer, while on duty, she’d hit a rapist in custody. Rolf Bermann had talked her out of reporting herself – if found guilty she would have lost her job – and worked hard behind the scenes. In the end he’d been able to convince Marianne Andrele, the public prosecutor, and Reinhard Graeve, the Kripo head, that Louise hadn’t been thinking straight due to exhaustion and shock. The compromise they reached was a few weeks’ leave and Wertheim.
If she’d had an inkling that she might die of boredom in provincial Franconia, she might have not let herself in for it. The weekends with Ben in Freiburg were her salvation.
She staggered into the hallway, wearing Ben’s favourite T-shirt and shorts. On the floor were dust balls, shoes, clothes, newspapers, pizza boxes, and in the mirror she saw a ghost moving beneath a jungle of dark hair. A few months without the glaring neon-lit corridors of Kripo, stressed colleagues, everyday tension, and her entire life was in chaos.
The doorbell rang again, then a tentative voice from the past said over the intercom, “Louise? It’s us.”
Two short, bashful males, one now hanging around her neck, the other holding flowers and cakes, unsure where to put them.
“What about your mama?” Louise whispered.
“She’s a little bit sick,” her brother whispered back.
“She sends her regards,” her father said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Oh, just a cold.”
“She’s sad,” her brother whispered.
“Women are sad sometimes,” she whispered. “And now you get down.”
The dark locks flew back and forth, the thin arms tightened their grip around her neck. “Not the sadness with blood.”
“Louise, where . . .?”
She turned to her father. “In the kitchen.”
Together they watched him, cheek to cheek, the big sister, the little brother whose name she still found it difficult to say out loud, even after two years. Like the dark locks and wary eyes, the name belonged to her other brother, her real one. Who’d died in a car accident in 1983 and who’d been replaced without much ado in 1996, insofar as that was possible with another woman.
Ever since, there had been two Germains – a dead and a living one, who couldn’t help it that the first was dead. Or that it had taken their father seven years to tell Louise about his new family.
“Had you forgotten we were coming?” her father called out from the kitchen.
She didn’t reply. Germain, who refused to let go, her father amidst the mess in her kitchen – all a bit much for these sluggish moments after waking up from her Wertheim dream.
Louise had a good yawn.
Noises were coming from the kitchen. Something rattled and was pushed across wood. Rustling. Cupboard doors closing, water running. Drawers opening, closing. A clearing of the throat, silence. Then water again and the amusing gurgle of the almost empty plastic bottle when you squeezed out the last of the washing-up liquid.
With a sigh she closed her eyes and pictured her father at the sink. He rolled up his sleeves fastidiously, then his small, flaccid hands plunged into the water. And this was only right, she thought; her father ought to atone too. For the rest of his life, if she had a say in it.
“Alright, then,” she said, dragging the new Germain into the bathroom with her and shutting the door.
The flowers arranged in a vase on the dining table, a lit candle, the aroma of fresh café au lait. Plus half a dozen slices of cake and pastries, which looked as if they came from the French president’s private confectioner. When it came to food and drink, the French element in her father, which he’d been trying to eliminate for forty years, still came to the fore. His accent was polished, his German smugness well honed, his French family ignored, and all this merely to forget the 1960s and ’70s, the arguments with her mother, the failure of his life plan, and of course Germain’s death a few years afterwards.
They ate in silence; it was becoming increasingly difficult to talk to her father. Some things couldn’t be discussed in the presence of the new Germain – the fact that there’d been another Germain, his mother’s sadness, but not the sadness when she bled – while other things weren’t her father’s business – Ben, the problem, Wertheim.
He meekly pointed his fork at a note beside the vase. “Are you flying to Berlin?”
She frowned and picked up the note. Words jotted down and flight info for Monday – tomorrow. From Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden to Berlin-Tegel. Vague memories formed in her mind. A call from Rolf Bermann one morning – perhaps this morning – a request from their colleagues in Berlin for help with an investigation. A trail that led to Freiburg.
“Looks like it.”
“With your gun?” Germain asked.
“You’re not allowed to take guns on aeroplanes,” her father said.
“No, I’m sure not even Louise is allowed to do that.”
“The police can do anything.”
“Not anything, Germain.”
“Louise, would you please—”
“Do you have to arrest a killer in Berlin?”
“Germain . . .” Her father broke off. She saw resignation in his eyes and for a moment she almost felt sorry for him.
Then she couldn’t resist a smile. It had taken him years to accept that she’d joined the police. One child dead, the other with Kripo – could there be anything worse for someone like him?
The fact that his new child was fascinated by the police.
Because Germain insisted on hearing it all in detail, she told him, to her father’s visible chagrin.
No, she wasn’t going to arrest a killer, but to talk to a man who’d been beaten up by another man in a Berlin hotel and threatened with a gun. Because this other man had registered at the hotel under a false name and nobody had seen him, her colleagues in Berlin were at a loss and—
“And because they don’t know what to do they ring Louise,” Germain said, raising his eyebrows in triumph.
“It won’t be quite like that,” her father said.
“Well, they checked the other guests,” Louise said, “and staying in the room outside which one man attacked the other one was a woman from Freiburg. But she’s got no idea what was going on. And because the whole thing’s rather strange and my colleagues don’t know what to do, they get funny ideas . . .”
“And that’s why they call Louise,” her father muttered.
For a moment there was silence. Then Louise began to laugh and her two short men joined in.
They relaxed. Germain talked about school, her father about acquaintances in Kehl whose names and stories she immediately forgot. When Germain was in the bathroom, her father said quietly, “What about . . . the problem?”
That was the end of the relaxation.
“You know, your problem with the um . . .”
Splaying her fingers defensively on the table, she said, “There isn’t a problem.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“There used to be one, but there isn’t one anymore, OK?”
“Yes. That’s . . . that’s great.”
“Oh, she’s got a really nasty cold.”
“That’s rubbish, Papa.”
Her father gazed at her in surprise, then lowered his head and began pushing cake crumbs with his fork from the edge of the plate to the middle until he’d made a small brown pile. When there was nothing more to push he looked up. “Would you like another café au lait?”
“Is she cheating on you?”
“No, Louise!” He got up quickly and held out his hand.
She let him stand like that for a moment before passing him her cup.
“What does your new boyfriend do?”
“Have I got a new boyfriend?”
“I thought . . . Didn’t you mention someone called Ben Liebermann recently?”
“That’s old news, he’s been on the scene almost a year.”
“That long?” Her father forced a smile which seemed affectionate and desperate in equal measure. “Your mother will have met him, then.” Without waiting for an answer he went back into the kitchen.
Yes, Ben and she had gone to Provence for a week in August. Wonderful days with Ben, rough days with her mother, who also had problems with police officers, albeit for different reasons than her father. In the 1960s and ’70s “the state” had been the worst of enemies as far as she was concerned, and the wars of the past were not easily forgotten. Because Ben had left the force voluntarily in 2004, in the end she was prepared to give him a chance. But she would have preferred an incensed ATTAC official, a disillusioned social worker or an honourable failure of an existentialist bicycle courier to a former Kripo officer.
In the bathroom the flushing of the loo, in the kitchen the buzzing of the milk frother. Then her father was back, cup in hand. “I thought we might meet him today.”
“He’s not in Freiburg right now.”
She didn’t reply.
He put the cup in front of her and sat down. “You look tired.”
“And you look unhappy.”
“No, no, Louise, it’s just . . . You know, the age difference, thirty-four years, you’ve got to understand that people have different interests and needs.”
“Kick her out if she cheats on you.”
“Kick her . . .?” He didn’t finish his sentence. They looked at each other in silence, and for a moment Louise felt a connection. Father and daughter, both – if her hunch was correct – with unfaithful spouses, and in the end both humiliated fools.
She cleared her throat. Time for a few frank words between fellow dupes.
But her father put a finger to his lips: Germain was coming back.
“Who’s that man in the loo?” Germain climbed onto his chair and sat on it cross-legged. “In the photo.”
“A . . . a friend of Louise’s,” her father replied.
“He looks like me.”
“No, Germain, that’s just your imagination. Do you want another hot chocolate?”
“But he does look like me.”
Her father reached for Germain’s mug. “I’ll make you another one, OK?”
“What’s the man in the loo called?”
Her father froze, returning her gaze, panic in his eyes. Tell him, Papa, she thought, or I’ll do it. Not a friend, but a dead man.
“Err . . . Klaus,” he replied. “Isn’t it, Louise?”
“That’s funny,” Germain said. “Like Mama’s friend.”
Louise sighed. Nothing had changed. Just like herself and the dead Germain, the new brother was growing up with secrets and lies. With a fake story.
And, as in the past, she sensed she couldn’t tolerate it.
At around five o’clock her father and brother put on identical green anoraks and identical blue woolly hats. Whereas one of them already had his hand on the doorknob, the other had his arms around her neck again, pressing his cheek to hers.
“Can I sleep at yours tonight?” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered.
“I’ve got to go to Berlin tomorrow, remember?”
“Can I sleep at yours tomorrow, then?”
“No, but soon. OK?”
His locks flew in every direction. “Tomorrow or today.”
“That doesn’t work.”
“You could look after me once in a while.”
Louise said nothing. Words she fancied she’d heard for years in her father’s reproachful silence, especially after Germain’s death.
She put the new brother down and kissed him as affectionately as she could on the cheek. “Sometime, but not now.”
Then the two of them had gone, whereas the secrets and lies, and all the conflicting feelings that these had a habit of unleashing within her, would remain a while longer.
Louise went back to the sitting room. Cleared and wiped the table, washed the plates and cutlery, leaving only the flowers as a reminder of her old and new relatives from Kehl. She sat on the sofa. As ever in moments like this she felt the urge to pour herself a glass or two. Drink away the past, just as her over-fussy father seemed to wipe it away with a damp kitchen cloth.
The latter might work, the former wouldn’t.
At half past six Rolf Bermann called and asked how the afternoon with the “Kehl crew” had been. She replied it was just how you’d imagine an afternoon with people from Kehl: slightly dull.
He laughed. In the background children were yelling – the Bermanns had ended up with five of them – dogs were barking – two – and television voices were blaring away – at least four. An idyllic Sunday at the Bermanns’.
“Quiet, the lot of you, I’m on the phone!” Bermann boomed.
Louise went over to the balcony door and tried to look past her reflection into the misty darkness, but only saw herself, the reflection of the lights in the sitting room and the streetlamps.
The children and dogs had fallen silent.
“I was on the phone to Berlin earlier,” Bermann said. “The colleague looking after the case is called Rohwe. You’ll like him, he has hunches.”
“What’s he saying?”
“‘I’ve got a funny feeling somehow,’” Bermann said in a thick Berlin accent.
“Anything more specific?”
“‘A kind of hunch, you know? I’ve got a kind of hunch.’” Bermann gave a contented laugh. On his lovingly curated list of people he couldn’t stand, Swabians were in the top spot, followed by homosexuals, headstrong women, intellectuals and psychologists. In seventh or eighth place, above politicians and Islamists, were Berliners. First place on the list of things he liked was shared by children and compliant women, and in third place was whatever new car he’d just acquired.
That, at any rate, was how Bermann’s official behaviour could be classified. Unofficially things looked different, but because there were at most five minutes per week when he didn’t have his unofficial dark recesses under control, this was irrelevant. In any case the contradictions would have been hard to put up with, for him and for everyone else – since she’d stopped drinking and now looked attractive again, Louise was close to the top of both lists.
“You know?” Bermann said fervently, still in his ham Berlin accent.
“That’s why you’re sending me,” she said, “because of the hunches.”
“Got it in one.”
She’d wandered over to switch off the lamp and now went back to the balcony door in the dark. Outside, the mist enveloping the streetlamps was almost white, it was drizzling, and in some window on the other side of the square she could make out the first Christmas decorations shining a golden-yellow colour. She was looking forward to returning to Kripo life in a few hours, albeit via the Berlin detour. The boredom at Wertheim police academy, the visit from relatives, the racket of Bermann family life and now also the reminder that Christmas was around the corner – too much idleness for her taste.
“Everything just the same, eh?”
Bermann laughed. “I’m too old to change.”
“Thank God,” Louise replied and hung up.
Rain and grey skies in Berlin too, with a sharp wind to boot, driving the droplets beneath the canopy covering the entrances to Tegel. Bonì hurried alongside Eberhardt Rohwe – mid-thirties, detective chief inspector at police HQ 2 – to the car park in the centre of the ring of buildings, feeling tiny; Rohwe had to be at least two metres tall.
He pointed to a black car and held the door open for her. As she put on her belt he said, “Coffee at the station, crime scene or straight to the hospital?”
“Crime scene, hospital and then coffee at the station.”
Rohwe nodded, started the engine and drove off. He wasn’t a handsome man but she liked his eyes, his clear, intelligent look that made you realise a mass of serious thoughts were swirling in that brain of his.
And she liked his uncompromising Berlin vernacular.
“Been here before?”
“One or twice for a couple of days. And on a school trip, of course, in the late seventies.”
“With the obligatory visit to the other side.”
“A few hours in Alexanderplatz.”
Rohwe chuckled. He was ducking to avoid hitting his head. His hair was barely longer than his stubble and there were lots of moles on his cheeks damp from the rain. “Is there anyone in this country who didn’t go on a school trip to Berlin?”
She shrugged. “State education policy.”
“What do you remember about it?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Too much booze?”
They’d left the airport and were now on the city motorway. The grey of the sky seemed to match the grey of the road and of the capital as a whole. She thought that winter in Berlin must be unbearable – the cold, the wind and all colours anaemic, without lustre. Not her sort of city.
“Wrong topic,” she said to Rohwe.
“Berlin or too much booze?”
“No beer at the station, then.”
“I haven’t touched a drop in two and a half years, it’s going to stay that way and we’re not going to say any more about it. Put some music on, Eberhardt.”
“Not Eberhardt, please. Only my ex-wives call me that.”
He switched on the CD player and turned down the volume. Element of Crime, one of their German albums: Die schönen Rosen. Ben’s favourite band and favourite album. “Rowi or Ebbe.”
“OK, Ebbe then.”
“Shall I tell you about Saturday or do you want to see the crime scene first?”
“First I want to answer your question. About what I remember.”
Rohwe shot her a glance. “I’m prepared for anything.”
“Sex in a museum loo.”
He laughed. “I understand – state education policy. Which museum?”
“I’ve forgot. . .
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