Swiss Vendetta, Tracee de Hahn's mesmerizing debut, is an emotionally complex, brilliantly plotted mystery set against the beautiful but harsh backdrop of a Swiss winter (available February 7, 2017).
Inspector Agnes Lüthi, a Swiss-American police officer in Lausanne, Switzerland, has just transferred to the Violent Crimes unit from Financial Crimes to try to shed all reminders of her old life following her husband's death. Now, on the eve of the worst blizzard Lausanne has seen in centuries, Agnes has been called to investigate her very first homicide case. On the lawn of the grand Château Vallotton, at the edge of Lac Léman, a young woman has been found stabbed to death. The woman, an appraiser for a London auction house, had been taking inventory at the château, a medieval fortress dripping in priceless works of art and historical treasures.
Agnes finds it difficult to draw answers out of anyone—the tight-lipped Swiss family living in the château, the servants who have been loyal to the family for generations, the aging WWII survivor who lives in the neighboring mansion, even the American history student studying at the Vallotton château's library. As the storm rages on, roads become impassible, the power goes out around Lausanne, and Agnes finds herself trapped in the candlelit halls of the château with all the players of the mystery, out of her depth in her first murder case and still struggling to stay afloat after the death of her husband.
The offices of the newly formed violent crimes division of the sûreté were unusually quiet for late afternoon and the voice startled Agnes Lüthi. She looked at the perfectly coiffed redhead in front of her desk and shut her drawer like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar. Involuntarily both women glanced over the desk and shelves. The brushed aluminum and white surfaces gleamed. Not a photograph remained of the dozen that the staff had so carefully placed after moving Agnes’s belongings from her old office at financial crimes, and what had been a tribute to a loving family was now a sterile workspace. Files, reference books, and procedure manuals were all in place, but no trace of her husband or her three sons remained.
Agnes met the other woman’s gaze and said nothing. She saw a flicker of uncertainty followed by sadness as her colleague’s eyes skimmed her disheveled hair and tweed suit.
“Monsieur Carnet was sorry to lose you, but change is good.” The redhead paused. “If you need anything, let me know.”
“Thank you,” Agnes mumbled, startled by the mention of Robert Carnet. The invitation to transfer from his division into violent crimes couldn’t have come at a better time. She tugged the hem of her jacket self-consciously, no longer optimistic about losing the ten pounds that seemed to come with her brand of grief.
“We’re happy to have you with us,” the other woman said. “Chief Bardy should have been here today to get you sorted out. It’s all new, this group he has in mind. Even the offices are new.” She shrugged slightly and leaned forward. “He’s a bit distant and if you need … well, if you need more time off just let me know and I’ll handle him. We’ve talked about it”—she glanced around—“and we can cover for you. Anytime. Monsieur Carnet said you might need … he said your boys might need you.”
Anger flashed through Agnes and it was difficult to speak. Pity and concern were bitter medicine; she wanted anonymity. “Carnet has no idea what my boys need. None whatsoever.” She ran a hand through her short hair, instantly regretting it. Wondering if she looked like a porcupine had landed on her head.
“I really came to say welcome and to let you know they’re sending everyone home. All nonessentials.” The woman rolled her eyes with a smile. “Be thankful you’re still nonessential. A bit early in my view, but the news on Espace 2 has announced that this will be the storm of the century. The rain is turning to ice, and if you don’t leave now you may be stuck for the weekend.”
She gave a cheery wave and turned, but not before Agnes saw the uncertainty on her face. No one knew how to treat her, what to do with her. She was certain there was an abundance of euphemisms for her situation. She had heard the whispered exchanges. “Grieving.” “Still in shock.” Each in some way an accurate expression. It was the other unsaid thoughts that angered her, although it was to be expected. Even her place in Bardy’s group was undefined. The invitation to join violent crimes as part of a special team he was assembling held promise. Unfortunately, she had been so desperate for change she hadn’t listened to the details. Different work, new colleagues, new environment, that’s all that had mattered. Now she considered her options. Iced-in all weekend away from home. A welcome reprieve.
She opened the desk drawer again and looked at her husband’s smiling face. The photograph was only six months old. It was taken the day she won a first at the shooting match in Bienne. He had looked so happy. Not just his usual geniality but genuinely happy. Exuberant.
She slammed the drawer. Nonessential. That’s what she was.
She was reaching for her coat when the phone on her desk rang. The voice over the receiver was crisp. “Inspector Lüthi, the gendarmerie at Ville-sur-Lac telephoned the chief. A woman has died. He’s on his way and wants you to join him there.” The voice added other essential details then paused and continued in a different tone: a human element inserted into police business. “Of course, if you don’t want to … I mean, with the weather I could explain—”
Agnes interrupted. “No, I’ll go. I’m leaving now.” Although the child of American parents, she’d lived in Switzerland her entire life and wasn’t going to let a winter storm stop her. Everything she had wanted, and now it was happening. She slipped her arms into her coat, relief flooding her. It wasn’t yet time to go home.
Ten minutes later she had second thoughts about her decision. Her Citroën C1 handled well, but tonight it felt like a flimsy cocoon of heat as she moved through the storm. She turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial until she found Espace 2. It only took a few minutes to comprehend that she should have paid attention to the earlier warnings. The announcer’s voice intoned disaster: roads closing, accidents on the highway, and the promise of more to come as the storm gained power with every minute. Farther west, in Geneva, Cointrin was closed and all flights were grounded. The temperature was dropping and the wind accelerating. A dangerous mix.
Agnes switched the radio off, eliminating the distraction. She wished Bardy had chosen to locate their new offices in the city center and not on the outskirts. Nervous, she gripped the steering wheel firmly and concentrated. The Citroën’s headlights cut across the wind, barely illuminating a few meters of roadway, and she constructed the view from memory: the long gentle slope separating the highway from the lake, the famous view of Lac Léman and in the distance the French Alps. Normally, train tracks were visible between the road and the lake, however, tonight all she could see were a thousand shards of white falling from the sky.
Slowly, she looped through central Lausanne, the city a glow of lights. It was Wednesday and passing Place St. François she could practically taste the roasted chestnuts and mulled wine of the city market, a favorite childhood memory, a ritual unchanged in her nearly forty years. She turned the car onto the Avenue du Théâtre, then angled right to descend the Avenue Villamont to the Avenue de la Gare, before turning left onto the Avenue d’Ouchy. The road was steep and slick and she slowed her pace and leaned forward, white-knuckled. Reaching level ground at Ouchy, she skirted the luxurious Beau-Rivage Palace hotel on the left, the yellow awnings quickly fading from sight. Here, near the lake, the full force of the storm was in evidence. A clear line of white marked the advancing edge of ice where the wind blew moisture off the lake’s surface, adding to what was descending from the clouds and freezing instantly. Immediately, she knew that she was in a race to reach the château before the road was impassable.
Her hand strayed to her mobile phone. It was still possible to call the station and say she couldn’t make it, but the thought of going home prevented her. That, and a need to prove herself to Bardy. If he sidelined her, she would lose the cornerstone of her sanity. Her sons might need her, but she needed this.
The road veered inland at the Tour Haldimand and slipped behind lakeside homes. Here there was less ice and she hoped the road would provide more traction. Minutes passed in silent terror of losing control of the car. Near the village of Cully the storm allowed only a few glimpses of the vine-covered hills and terraced walls. Where the road aimed for the lake before turning to follow the curve of the shore, she strained to see her destination. Château Vallotton was across the water off the point. Tonight it wasn’t visible. Or perhaps it was—that slightly brighter glow of lights through the whiteout. It was impossible to tell.
After passing a small port filled with ice-coated sailing yachts, worry turned to near panic. The few other cars were stopped at awkward angles and she didn’t have any illusions that her own driving skills were superior. There were no more towns on the lake road until Ville-sur-Lac and road crews would not have gone beyond this point. She shifted into a lower gear. She touched the brake, then the gas pedal, undecided about continuing. This stretch of road was isolated. She turned on the radio again and frowned at the news. The storm’s impact was unprecedented: a state of emergency across three cantons.
Ahead, the road narrowed. On each side were high stone walls and she knew she should not have started this trip. There was no way to turn back now, no place to stop. She owed her boys safety and security. If she died they would be orphans.
Twenty minutes later, the lane crested on the cliff and the wall on the lakeside fell away. Wind struck the car and it slid sideways, pushed inland. At that moment, just when she thought she wouldn’t make it, the car slipped into the shelter of the village.
Agnes relaxed and took a deep breath, blinking moisture from her eyes. She unclenched her hands from the steering wheel, feeling her stress dissipate. She remembered passing through Ville-sur-Lac years before. The buildings of the tiny village were ancient stone and they shouldered together against the road, leaving only a narrow strip of pavement for cars to maneuver. Tonight, hers was the only vehicle battling the elements and she kept to the center of the street. The green pharmacy sign flashed through the white blur and she could imagine each business as clearly as if it was broad daylight: butcher, confiserie, hotel. Somewhere was the gendarmerie where the small local police force was likely worried about storm damage. She glided to an uneasy stop where the lane to the château sloped down precipitously. Farther up the main street she could make out the rear of a large tourist bus. Shadowy forms filed off and scurried into a building. The village hotel, she presumed, absently thinking it unlikely they had enough rooms to accommodate an unexpected busload of guests. At that moment her mobile phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID and remembered why she was anxious to take this assignment.
A few minutes later she interrupted. “It’s an honor, working with Étienne Bardy.” She’d said these same words to her mother-in-law a hundred times since she had decided to return to work. “This may be an important case.” The white lie slipped out easily.
Through the darkness she could make out the roofline of the château on the shallow peninsula below the cliff and, to give her mother-in-law time to complain, she plucked facts about the historic property from memory. Every schoolchild knew the basics: the oldest part was a hulking round tower nearly a thousand years old. Perched on the edge of the lake, it was a well-known icon gracing generations of artists’ sketches and postcards.
“More important than your sons?” Sybille’s voice cut through her reverie. “Working when a mother should be home. I know your parents had different customs—”
It was an old refrain, one Agnes had long ago decided to ignore. In Sybille’s mind American and uncultured interloper were equivalent terms. Knowing a response wasn’t required, Agnes focused on the château and probed her memory. In addition to the original tower, there were three others, all joined by long arms to create the final square fortress. She peered out the side window of her car, squinting into the white blur of the night. Years ago she had read about the smaller towers and a wall along the top of the cliff where the village now stood. The whole arrangement was unusual: the family constructing a fortress to control lake trade and then adding protection high above. Why not build on the cliff in the first place? The wall remnants were long destroyed or incorporated into the village; Agnes couldn’t make out a trace of them.
“I’m at Château Vallotton,” she blurted out, mentally excusing herself for the slight exaggeration. The silence over the phone spoke volumes. She added a few details about the reason she was away from her family on a stormy night and in the pause could sense Sybille’s mental tug-of-war. No one they knew had ever been invited to the château. And, although not a social call, it would be the nearest any of Sybille’s friends came to visiting the property. Agnes knew that she was tempted to be curious.
While her mother-in-law chewed on this dilemma, Agnes made out a few lights glimmering through windows high in the nearest tower. She was familiar with the château from trips on Lac Léman and tried to reconcile what was in her mind with the narrow illuminated slits in front of her.
“If the dead woman is outside then you’re unlikely to go in,” Sybille finally said, cruelty winning out over curiosity. “They’ll keep you standing in the freezing rain and send you home to do your reports.”
Agnes didn’t argue.
Sybille’s voice was raised. “None of my friends have daughters who work at night in a storm. The worst storm of my lifetime. Who knows what is going to happen, and you’re thinking of yourself and not of your family—”
The line went dead. Startled, Agnes tapped the mobile phone screen. Call failed. At least she hadn’t hung up accidentally. She tried to connect a few times before slipping the useless device into her handbag. Just then, the blurred glow of the village went black. With the light went any sign of the buildings and all that was left was a white haze fading into darkness. If power was out because of the storm, tonight’s job just got harder, and would take longer. She lowered her forehead to the steering wheel in dismay. After a moment she smiled in satisfaction. She knew why the château was dramatically altered from this angle: the more familiar lakeside façades had newer, larger windows cut into them. She dredged up another morsel from her tiny store of knowledge about architecture: the windows facing the lake were in the Renaissance style, larger than the earlier narrow defensive arrow slits. She laughed under her breath. It made sense. Of course the Vallotton family had renovated over the centuries. Larger windows once they didn’t need a fortified residence, and, likely, modern plumbing and electricity.
She pulled herself nearer the windshield and peered down the hill through the eerie white night, the nearer trees glistening in her headlights. What kind of people lived in a place like this? Her curiosity was aroused by Sybille’s reaction more than she would admit. The phone call reminded her of the first time she met George’s parents. They were intimidating with their politeness, their hesitant questions drawing attention to her own upbringing and reminding her how her parents had worn a veneer of Swiss-ness in public, while keeping to their own customs at home. George’s parents’ house had been her dream: the perfect wooden chalet with balconies running on the upper floors and flowers cut into the old-fashioned wood shutters. She frowned. If George’s family home was at one end of Swiss domestic perfection then Château Vallotton was at the other, and she hoped she would have a chance to go inside. That would be something to tell her boys. Given the family’s prominence, it was no wonder Bardy had been called.
Bardy. His name was like a dose of cold water. The drive from Lausanne had already taken too long and now she had delayed unnecessarily. She nosed her car closer to the edge of the lane. It was impossible to see the pavement that cut down the steep hill. She glanced around one last time as if Bardy might be parked nearby, perhaps ready to suggest they manage the situation from the comfort of the gendarmerie. But the street was empty and she was expected below.
Gripping the wheel, she touched the gas. Instantly she knew it was a mistake.
Copyright © 2017 Tracee de Hahn.
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TRACEE DE HAHN completed degrees in architecture and European history at the University of Kentucky and then lived in Europe, including several years in Switzerland. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband, a Swiss architect, and their Jack Russell Terriers. Swiss Vendetta is her first novel.