THE GENEVA TRAP
It all began by accident.
Early one evening, Dieter Steinmetz of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service was at Geneva airport, seeing off his daughter Anna who was flying to Florence on a school exchange visit. Mireille, his wife, had seized the opportunity to go and see her mother in Basle, and had left the day before. So now he had a week on his own, and as he emerged from the departures hall, he was wondering whether he should go back to the flat, put a pizza in the oven and watch the football on television, or eat something more interesting in his neighbourhood café and watch the football there. He was pondering the choice when he spotted a familiar face coming out of the arrivals hall.
Steinmetz clocked him right away. He didn’t remember the name, but he did remember the face and the figure. Steinmetz rarely went out with the surveillance teams nowadays – he had twenty years’ seniority in the job and most of his work was done in the office – but they had been a man short recently, and he’d been happy to make up the numbers, glad to keep his hand in.
The man he was looking at now had been the target of the surveillance; a member of the large Russian Trade Delegation in Geneva and a suspected intelligence officer. The teams had watched the Russian for two days, and though nothing of particular interest had emerged on that occasion, there had been some suspicious sightings in the recent past – he had been seen twice with a Pole they strongly suspected of drug running – so he was still very much on their target list, along with at least half a dozen other Russian so-called ‘diplomats’ posted to Geneva.
Steinmetz filed this sighting away in his mind, resolving to report it the next day, then bought a paper and walked across to the short-term car park where he climbed into his ancient Renault and drove off to join the back of the queue at the exit. As he was waiting, he noticed with admiration the car in front of his, a large, shiny, black Mercedes saloon. An arm emerged from the driver’s window and pushed a ticket into the machine, but it must have been the wrong way up because it fell out of the slot on to the ground. The car door opened and it was the Russian who got out, picked up the ticket and impatiently stabbed it back into the machine. Steinmetz watched as the barrier lifted and the Mercedes accelerated fast out of the car park.
The Russian seemed bad-tempered and in a hurry; Steinmetz wondered why. He pushed in his own ticket and, as the barrier lifted, drove off towards the airport exit. To his surprise he saw that the Mercedes was heading towards the motorway leading north, rather than back into Geneva.
This seemed odd to Steinmetz, who was in the business of noticing unexpected behaviour. On a sudden impulse, he also took the northbound exit, hanging back a little to make sure he wouldn’t be spotted by the Russian.
The Mercedes joined the A1, skirting the lake’s edge and heading towards Lausanne. Steinmetz hoped that wasn’t where he was going; it would be a nightmare trying to follow him on his own in that town’s narrow streets. But less than a quarter of an hour later, about five miles short of Lausanne, the Russian turned off the Swiss autoroute, and headed north. On the outskirts of the small town of Aubonne, he stopped at a petrol station and filled up, while Steinmetz parked discreetly off the road a hundred yards behind him.
While he waited, he looked around the car for a pen and a piece of paper. He found a pencil stub in the door pocket but no paper. Searching further, he discovered a paperback novel in the glove compartment. Anna had left it behind.
The Mercedes drove into Aubonne, through the square with its ancient
Yet he almost did – the black saloon was moving quickly through the countryside, and Steinmetz had to struggle to keep up. As he passed the Aubonne arboretum, the road entered a pocket of dense woodland. When he emerged from the trees the lowering sun came straight through the windscreen into his eyes. He pulled down the sun visor, blinking to help his eyes adjust to the sudden brightness, and realised that there was no sign of the Mercedes ahead of him. Damn! He pushed the accelerator down to the floor as the road climbed sharply out of the valley.
As he crested the hill, he was relieved to see the Mercedes again. It had slowed down dramatically, so much so that although Steinmetz braked sharply, he was soon only a hundred yards behind the other car. They were on an unusually straight stretch of road; nothing was coming from the other direction. Any normal driver would take the opportunity to pass the dawdling Mercedes, and Steinmetz realised that if he didn’t do that his cover would certainly be blown. It would be obvious that he was following.
There was nothing for it, so he started to swing out to overtake. The road here ran like a causeway on top of an embankment, with the land sloping away to form a steep drop on either side. Mireille would hate this, he thought – his wife had a terrible fear of heights.
He kept his eyes straight ahead as he started to overtake. But as he did so the Mercedes picked up speed; it was taking Steinmetz longer than expected to pass. Then suddenly he saw a shadow coming from the passenger’s side, and he realised that the Mercedes was pulling out on to his side of the road.
Steinmetz hit his horn and jammed on the brakes. But it was too late – the Mercedes’s front wing smashed into the Renault, knocking the smaller car towards the flimsy barrier on the left side of the road. Steinmetz desperately swung the steering wheel to the right, but the Mercedes was still pushing against his car, making a terrible grinding noise of clashing steel. As his car slid left towards the barrier, Steinmetz saw with a helpless sense of dread what was going to happen next.
The Renault hit the thin barrier like a bullet going through a paper bag, and hurtled off the road. The front of the car dipped in the air, lifting Steinmetz up in his seat. The Renault landed and flipped on to its side. It rolled over once, twice, and then a third and final time, until it sat crookedly upright on its one remaining wheel. It had lost both front doors, and its roof was crushed like a concertina.
Forty minutes later, a fireman attending the scene remarked to a colleague that it was a miracle that the car hadn’t caught fire. His colleague looked at the body being removed from the Renault’s front seat, and said softly, ‘Some miracle.’
Russell White sat in the locker room with his head in his hands. Though he played tennis regularly twice a week, today for some reason he felt exhausted. His heart was racing and he was still breathing fast ten minutes after the game had finished. He must be putting on weight or perhaps it was just his age – forty-five next week. But that wasn’t old. The game on the indoor courts was always faster than on grass, but it would be weeks before the Geneva spring was far enough advanced for the outside courts to be used. He must cut down the alcohol and change his diet.
His tennis partner and colleague Terry Castle emerged, whistling, from the showers. ‘You OK, old chap?’ He nodded and Terry went on whistling as he put on his clothes – the informal uniform of soft wool jacket, open-necked shirt and slip-on shoes which the younger diplomats favoured.
‘If you’re sure, I’ll rush off. Got a meet in twenty minutes. See you back at the Station.’ He slung his bag over his shoulder and strode out.
White watched the younger man go, envying him his lean figure and jaunty attitude to life. He got up slowly, showered and dressed carefully. He himself still favoured the traditional Foreign Office style – a well-cut striped cotton shirt from Hilditch & Key in Jermyn Street, a blue worsted suit made by a tailor he’d been frequenting for years, and polished brogues.
He was standing in front of the mirror adjusting his Travellers Club tie when he saw the reflection of a man in tennis whites emerge silently from between the line of lockers behind ...