An Accidental Billionaire
This is an 83,000 word Romantic Thriller, told with humor and irreverence
D K MITA
This book is a work of fiction. Any similarities or resemblances to actual people are purely coincidental. Any references to real people, real places, real institutions or real localities are used fictitiously. Any other similarities in names, places, characters, characterizations, locations, events or persons living or dead, are purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by D K Mita –
Email through: www.facebook.com/dkmitabooks
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
To my son, Alex Mita:
Thank you for everything you have done for me, including saving my life and teaching me how to write. May your compassion and your infinite kindness be passed on to your son, Lorenzo.
Table of Contents
PART ONE.. 1
Chapter 1. 1
Chapter 2. 17
Chapter 3. 23
Chapter 4. 32
Chapter 5. 36
Chapter 6. 39
PART TWO.. 42
Chapter 7. 42
Chapter 8. 49
Chapter 9. 53
Chapter 10. 56
Chapter 11. 60
Chapter 12. 66
Chapter 13. 73
PART THREE.. 80
Chapter 14. 80
Chapter 15. 86
Chapter 16. 92
Chapter 17. 95
Chapter 18. 101
PART FOUR.. 103
Chapter 19. 103
Chapter 20. 108
Chapter 21. 117
Chapter 22. 122
Chapter 23. 127
Chapter 24. 132
Chapter 25. 138
PART FIVE.. 145
Chapter 26. 145
Chapter 27. 153
PART SIX.. 162
Chapter 28. 162
Chapter 29. 174
Chapter 30. 185
Chapter 31. 193
PART SEVEN.. 198
Chapter 32. 198
Chapter 33. 212
Chapter 34. 222
PART EIGHT. 233
Chapter 35. 233
Chapter 36. 246
Chapter 37. 256
Chapter 38. 267
Chapter 39. 275
The difference between an ignorant fool shoveling manure in a bullpen, and a fool with a PhD, is that the fool with the PhD can shovel more of it, faster.
Inside the ‘Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club’ Gem F. Stone leaned on the long bar of the establishment, bathed the barmaid with a sweet, boyish smile and shoveled as fast as he could.
“There is only one way out of this, young Claire. Marry me. Polygamy is a much-misunderstood condition and I shall lay an almost unblemished heart at your feet. The ‘almost’ being the operative word here.” The twinkle in Gem’s usually inebriated, but expressive red eyes was almost irresistible.
The barmaid knew Gem well by now, and giggled along with his nonsense.
“But I don’t quite fancy being the ‘other woman.’”
“Ah, but think of the quiet evenings the three of us shall spend together. I, reverting to pipe smoking for purposes of effect, you, telling stories, while our other wife is preparing the coffee and biscuits. I tell you it’s the only way.”
Her generous breasts quivered with laughter. “Well, I do like cookies.”
“Ah…, alas, dear Claire - but I suppose now I must call you ‘darling’ – I have to confess. The Stones refuse to become accessories to the propagation of falsehood, so brace yourself, because I have told a lie. Our wife does not cook, or do windows. If it is cookies that will win your little heart, then they will have to be bought ready packed from the local Tesco. I shall sacrifice myself by hacking my way through the undergrowth in order to get to that hallowed establishment and bring back whatever your generous heart desires. Let it not be said that the Stones do not look after their women. Think of the pleasant evenings we shall share, exchanging brilliant thoughts in front of the fire.”
Deep male laughter behind him caused Gem to turn. Through a ghostly haze of smoke emanating from the huge Cuban cigar the apparition was smoking, he saw the one man he would have preferred to avoid at this particular time; John Cunningham, the owner of the club.
“That’s a good one, young Gem. You are the only bachelor I know who tries to pick up women by claiming to be married.” The man laughed again and gave Gem a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“Ah, Mr. Cunningham, the very man I wanted to see. Excuse us, darling, while we move to the table over there”.
Achilles had his one vulnerable heel. Gem felt like a jackass with four susceptible heels. Gambling being one of them, John Cunningham was about to collect on that particular weakness.
The bookie club-owner was in his sixties, short with a round face, a round body, a round bowler hat to hide the round bald patch on top of his round head, and a round cigar in his mouth. He was dressed very expensively in a hand-made, three-piece, Prince of Wales suit, totally unsuitable for his shape and size. People called him Tubby, behind his back. However, his stature had been no serious obstacle to his career, apparently, as he was one of the most feared crime bosses in the county.
The two men took their glasses to one of the more isolated tables and eased themselves into the soft, plush, red cushions of the chairs.
“Let’s talk business young man. I like you, Gem, because drunk or sober, you are always pleasant company. But you have now passed your credit limit by far and the time has come to settle up.”
His audience began to fidget.
“No, don’t interrupt me; I’ve heard it all before.” He leaned forward with a fatherly expression on his face that did not quite fit in with what he was really saying. He breathed paternal cigar smoke into Gem’s face. “My daughter’s just been accepted at Oxford and, as you know, that doesn’t come cheap.” He beamed with pride for a minute, and then got back to the subject. “I can’t afford charity, Gem. No more bets from you and no more bar credit until your account is settled.”
He took a thoughtful mouthful of smoke before continuing.
“At the end of every month, for the next four months, you will remove five hundred pounds from your pay packet before you spend even a penny elsewhere. You will hand it over to me personally, at this very table. Is that clear?”
The gentle voice the man used, in no way detracted from the essence of his meaning. The erring Gem quailed visibly, pulled at his eyebrow with the fingers of his right hand and a vivid blush brightened his amiable face. He coughed in a strangled sort of way and nodded, since he could not think of anything helpful or clever to say. Nor could Gem bring himself to burden Tubby with such minor details as owing money to another bookie also, and falling well behind with his rent.
“I am keeping this personal young Gem. Don’t force me to hand over the case to one of my collectors.” John Cunningham’s voice continued to be gentle and sympathetic, like a priest’s at a confessional.
There were two very sound and practical reasons why the ‘Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club’ at Oxford, England, was a private, members-only establishment.
One was to bypass the legislation prohibiting smoking in public places in England and Wales. In its wisdom the legislation excluded ‘specialist tobacconists in relation to sampling cigars and/or pipe tobacco’. Consequently, all club members were required to fill in the obligatory club application form, as specialist tobacconists.
The other was that the club was a den of iniquity as far as illegal gambling is concerned.
Gem squirmed into the soft cushion of the chair, trying and failing to find a softer spot. His face now became positively scarlet and shiny. The possibility of changing the proposed formula through eloquent appeal appeared to be an unlikely prospect, so he nodded again.
“Good. Let me buy you a drink and let’s talk about the weather.”
Just before the larks announced the arrival of the new day, Gem, still in his shirtsleeves, puked painfully into his toilet bowl. He did it to the sound of La Traviata’s overture, which he had on continuous loop replay.
He was on his knees hugging the toilet bowl as if he was begging a beautiful woman not to leave him, or praying to a particularly fickle, unobliging God.
His understanding and appreciation of the incredible beauty of the classical music gave him the illusion of entitlement to some vague personal, superior deserts. Such theoretical entitlements, however, clashed with his undoubtedly plebeian reaction to the events of the previous Friday’s evening.
Pneumonia, the cat, stopped licking her backside for a couple of seconds to look at him, then went back to her business, her right hind leg raised in a Nazi salute.
The loveliness of the music created the fleeting thought in his mind that, like mumps, it is imperative that poetry, Shakespeare, and opera should be caught when young and that in the unhappy event that there is a postponement to mature years, the results might be devastatingly embarrassing. This thought pleased him and gave him a measure of comfort, until the next retching.
Von Karajan’s version of the overture, the only perfect recorded version in Gem’s mind, started again from the beginning. It begins as unexceptional, ordinary, pleasant music. Good, but nothing to get really excited about. Then ninety odd seconds into the score a subtle change occurs and forces one to pay real attention. A few more seconds later, the odd oump-pa-pa, oump-pa-pa and half way through the third oump-pa-pa the magic begins; the magic that brings tears to the eyes. Gem retched once more, feeling as if his testicles had just scraped by his teeth into the toilet bowl, and he also cried. Not because of the music, but at the loss of his progeny.
Eventually, having nothing more to give, he crawled on his hands and knees out of the bathroom to the ancient, brown leather sofa of his bedsit. He felt a sense of mild achievement, because he’d managed to push–slide himself onto the couch without dropping his head on the worn carpet in the process.
Posterity was unfortunate enough to receive the issue of one Henry Jeremiah Stone through no fault of its own and for thirty-odd years had patiently put up with it. Gem was an unintended joke and he knew it. Even his given name, Geminiano, was a bad joke. He simply had to shorten it to Gem, just to make it through junior school alive.
Having parents without a sense of humor and getting lumbered with a name like Gem F. Stone, just because they wanted to honor two different original founders of the clan, was cruel and unusual punishment on a child which had done nothing wrong to deserve it.
He had heard all the joke variations about his name and had the answers down pat:
“So you are a Gemstone, eh? What does the ‘F’ stand for?’
“Ah, one of the Flint-Stones, then?”
“Yes, the Eton branch,” he would respond in an attempt at superiority.
Sending Gem to Eton had been an educational extravagance necessary to the family’s future social prospects.
An immense fortune, obtained through the thankless and often dangerous trade of providing reasonably priced labor to the bloated capitalists of the Louisiana cotton fields and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, had established the Stone family as a pillar of English society. They were a family for whom the sun had decidedly risen in the West. Even after the abolition of their trade in the nineteenth century the family’s resulting investments continued to do well. It was a fortune sufficient to create envy in the Sultan of Brunei. Until, that is, the sportive sons of sons began to experiment with investments calculated to raise the approbation of enterprising purveyors of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and the esteem of charismatic bookies.
Gem’s father had struck the final blow to the family fortunes, though the real effort had begun well before his time. Physically rather handsome, no one was more adept at quoting Shakespeare than Mr. Stone Senior, provided he had his book of quotes handy.
He had been guarded by a domineering and anxiously jealous wife against every other female he came across; but an untimely violent dispute regarding right of way with a London taxi cab ended her guardianship and left Mr. Stone at a loss. Until, that is, he’d met Julia.
It is customary for wealthy men of all levels of intelligence to marry shapely, well-dressed Julia’s and to be subsequently relieved of a large portion of their riches. The fortunate ones acquire this problem at the beginning of their career and put it down to experience. The unfortunate ones undergo the calamity late in life and they become entertainment for the media. Mr. Stone Senior belonged to the latter class.
By the time he realized that believing in Julia’s ardor for him, he might have been somewhat over-optimistic, the damage had been done and his Julia had managed to syphon off what little had remained of the family fortune. His only compensation had been his triumphant observation of the shock and dismay his Julia exhibited, when she’d finally discovered how little gold her careful digging had eventually produced.
To celebrate the event of his divorce, Mr. Henry Jeremiah Stone went on an extended drinking binge and was discovered unconscious on the bathroom floor by Gem, who had passed by to investigate his father’s psychological condition. Gem called the ambulance and supposed that, blood being thicker than Pernod, his father would pull through. That was not the case. He died the next morning.
That was two years earlier and Gem had been forced to make use of his expensive education and to seek employment for the first time in his life. This was not easy for someone who, until then, had known about work only from hearsay. However, the ever powerful clique of the British establishment ensured that he obtained a job at Oxford, though a low paid one, as an assistant lecturer in English literature
Alcohol and magnetic bookies, with cigar stubs at the corner of their mouths, devoured his unimpressive salary every month, making the cheap, rundown, bedsit the unimposing seat of ‘The Last of the Stones’.
The late afternoon chill invaded every nook and cranny of the bedsit, insistently nudging Gem as it spread itself over everything in the room. He shivered on the edge of awakening, but he did not feel strong enough to open his eyes. He heard the door unlock, squeak open and he almost screamed at the first flash of brightness as the light was turned on.
“It’s freezing in here! And what a mess!” The familiar female voice pierced his soul and he winced.
“Don’t shout pleeeease…” he croaked. “Where am I?”
“We are just passing Nottingham. Get up useless cherry blossom and be a man.” Shalini threw on an apron as she said this. Her usually gentle, soft voice became strong and firm whenever she spoke to Gem. This was not her first time cleaning up after him, following one of his drunken excursions.
She walked over to the window and closed it with a bang making Gem wince in pain, before she put some coins in the gas meter and turned on the heating.
“That cat will be the death of you. She is not called Pneumonia for nothing.” There was annoyed resignation in her voice.
Pneumonia was a stray cat which felt itself to be of independent means. She was able to call on what she considered to be unlimited resources in Gem, and he was not her only source of caloric income. She was a free spirit bound to no man and able to scrounge from one and all without prejudice or favor. She insisted on having the window open whenever she was visiting for breakfast, lunch or dinner, so she could leave immediately after she cleaned herself. As a result, Gem was always in danger of catching pneumonia. Hence the name.
Another shrill exclamation from Shalini raised an additional groan from Gem.
“What have you done to the bathroom, you animal?”
He made a pleading ‘time out’ signal with his hands over his head, still face down on the sofa. Shalini took pity on him, covered him with a blanket and switched off the overhead light. She replaced it with the gentle efforts of the green desk lamp, by which she started to clean the place up.
Shalini Vakil was an incredibly pretty, fifty six years old, Indian woman who looked like a forty year old well rounded fashion model. She was a lovely dark dream and her exquisite velvet Indian skin showed no sign of aging. Time appeared to have stilled for her since she’d given birth to her daughter, Ashvina, sixteen years and five months earlier. It was as if the beautiful round face of the child was an inspiration and a source of youth in itself for the mother. Her body turned many a healthy student head in her direction, as well as the heads of those few professors who did not subscribe to the love that dare not yodel its name.
It was six thirty in the evening when Gem’s stomach became aware of the cooking smells that forced the corpse to stir and rise.
“Go and shower, useless chrysanthemum, and come to eat,” she said when she saw him sitting up gingerly on the sofa.
“Stop shouting at me, I don’t pay you to shout.” He groaned as he rose like an old man.
“You don’t pay me at all, Einstein. You haven’t paid me for six weeks now,” she responded calmly with her back turned, stirring something that smelled delicious over the cooker.
He watched her shapely hips moved in rhythm with her stirring. He grunted and headed for the bathroom.
Shalini was a widow who lived across the corridor from him in the same decrepit old building. She was a secretary in the personnel department of his university, who supplemented her income by doing some cleaning work to support herself and Ashvina through school.
Besides cleaning for Gem, she also managed to create culinary miracles for him at the miniscule alcove which served as a kitchen.
Eventually, Gem came out of the bathroom, his black hair combed back and his pink skin glowing like a baby’s, a new and refreshed version of himself. His youth usually ensured a speedy recovery from his occasional debaucheries.
“I am starving. What are we experimenting with today?” He asked, as he deposited himself on one of the two stools at the fold-down kitchen table.
Shalini was a sad case in that she was allergic to curry and she continuously experimented with the cuisines of all nations except her own.
“Don’t sit here, sit on the sofa. Ash has downloaded those Humphrey Bogart films you wanted and we can watch them while we eat. I am trying my hand at Italian this weekend.” Her face had a determined, concentrating expression while she worked, as if she was diffusing a particularly sensitive explosive device.
Gem did as he was told. He was fortunate enough to stand out from the masses by inheriting physical and mental attributes from his parents, which had never been apparent in the late Mr. and Mrs. Stone. He was also fortunate in that he did not know how good-looking women found him and he was always surprised whenever he ‘struck lucky’, as he considered it, with some attractive female.
The complete lack of maternal affection had destroyed his self-confidence and his self-esteem to the extent that he could not believe that any woman would find him attractive. He was six feet tall, beefy but powerful beefy, not fat, with only vestiges of the family arrogance he originally commenced life with. When he was sober, his eyes were green and went well with his strong nose and wide forehead. He had a good mouth, which was always ready to smile, mainly at himself.
He had started out determined to pursue an existence of unbridled eccentricity by which to leave his mark on the world, something on the lines of Oscar Wilde. But without that gay blade’s more obnoxious pederast particulars, he hastened to assure himself. The loss of the family fortune was a decidedly serious blow to his plans and the necessity to earn his daily bread did not quite facilitate his policies.
His lazy indifference to work, combined with a resentment of everyone in authority, ensured that a career in teaching was a temperamental impossibility. An unjustifiably buoyant vanity, under the circumstances, completed the recipe for inevitable failure.
Shalini put the DVD in place and switched on the television set, then sat next to him on the sofa, both of them with plates of Italian food on their knees.
Gem felt at peace at last. He had heard her once say to someone over her cell phone, “He is such a good boy. Pity he is an imbecile.” But he did not hold this against her.
He felt that she loved him like a mother and he loved her too, only Gem’s love was quite an incestuous one. He lusted after her every sober waking moment. He did not know that though she was wiser and more self-controlled than he, she was still a woman and a passionate one at that, susceptible to the compliment of being desired by a handsome young man.
A debauched all night session of linguine, wine, zabaglione and Humphrey Bogart movies left them both reeling with un-satiated hormones.
Sunday found an uncommonly sober Gem up early drinking bad coffee and reading the usually depressing news of the national press on the internet.
Contemplating disastrous local events in the news from one’s sofa is comforting, in the sense that one does not have to actively participate in them. Corrupt banks, corrupt politicians, corrupt police, corrupt press, corrupt judges, corrupt church, corrupt tradesmen, corrupt Jimmy Saviles – an endless list of pedophiles and thieves in suits. And the establishment doing its very best to minimize the events by pretending it is not an actual participant in the whole sorry mess.
He thought of the banks – all the banks – consciously and fraudulently using their position of power to trick their clients into buying completely unnecessary products. And the authorities, instead of putting those responsible in the dock as the fraudsters they are, call the fraud ‘miss-selling’ and allow the fraudsters to simply return the £12 billion of stolen loot without any further repercussions.
And so the ownership of the country protects and rewards its higher ranking obedient servants, he thought.
Gem was about to take a drink in disgust when the door opened and Shalini poked her head through it.
“Don’t get drunk today. You are taking Ash to the car-boot sale. She wants to find a sleeping bag for a sleep over with her friends. I am working today.”
Gem groaned inwardly and lied without a single change in his expression.
“I wasn’t about to take a drink. Anyway, it’s Sunday today and I have to lunch with the professor as usual, so I can’t take her.”
“Yes you can and you will, useless tulip. Your lunch is not until one and you have almost four hours until then. Get ready and she will be right over. Bye”.
Safe with the closing of the door Gem now allowed himself a proper groan as he got up to dress.
“I heard that!” Shalini shouted from the stairs on her way out and Gem cringed.
Ashvina walked in a few minutes later, as he put on his coat. She was a typical teenager, slim and doll-like at barely five feet. Like most kids of her age, she was permanently dressed in jeans. She had her mother’s lovely dark velvet skin, gorgeous large black eyes, a French nose and a permanently smiling shapely mouth in a pretty round face framed by black hair. The hair fashion changed almost on a daily basis.
“Hello sexy,” she said.
“Don’t call me that Squirt, or I’ll tell your mother.” He growled in an absent-minded manner, searching himself for keys and wallet.
“I was speaking to Pneumonia, genius,” she lied. “And if you tell my mother something like that, I’ll deny everything and she’ll kick your ass so bad you won’t be able to sit down for a year.” She laughed as she let the cat out and closed the window.
“If you lie like that, you’ll never get a lift from me to anywhere until you are seventy. And I’ll beat up that boy, Mark, I saw you flirting with the other day, so he’ll scream in horror every time he sees you.” He spoke absent-mindedly again because all this bantering had become routine and he went through the motions more out of habit than anything else.
“Now, now, my sweet Gem, you know that you wouldn’t do that to your best girl,” she said, taking his arm as they walked off together.
The car-boot sale was only ten minutes away and Gem walked patiently behind the girl while she looked in vain for a pink sleeping bag. It was one of those unusual English summers, where warmth and sunshine appear as welcome overseas visitors in transit. The perfection of the weather inspired him to look for a pretty woman close to his own age that might show an interest in picking him up. Gem’s custom was to step away from expired relationships firmly and with no lingering glance behind. The trusty rudder of his youthful spirit would always point him in the direction of new conquests, completely rejecting the idea of long term relationships. However, nothing promising in the way of a new one night stand had as yet appeared.
He felt responsible for the Squirt and kept her in his peripheral vision at all times. He saw her suddenly freeze still, and stopped to see what idiocy she was up to. Ashvina let out a quiet, pretend squeal of horror and laughed.
“Have you ever seen anything uglier than that?” She laughed in amazement, pointing and seriously offending the vendor.
This time Gem had to agree with her, but he held his tongue. The most atrociously ugly object of what he assumed was a poor imitation of a Clarice Cliff work, stood in the center of a table. It was surrounded by the pathetic remnants of cheap wine glass sets, and survivors of one complete tea set of painfully bad taste.
The item that offended Ashvina’s artistic taste was supposed to represent a rather strange-colored green and yellow chicken. It was more yellow than anything else. It had unnaturally long spindly legs and it was standing over what he supposed was intended to be a rather sickly-green egg. Gem had seen color like that only in his toilet bowl after one of his heavier drinking bouts.
The elephantine woman behind the portable table obviously took offense at Ashvina’s evident lack of appreciation of her green and yellow chicken.
She appeared to be a woman of few words, but when she did speak, what she said sounded very much to the point.
“Hoy, whachu mean goil, wos so funny?”
She was apparently ready and willing to go beyond a simple verbal Yorkshire response. Unusually for Gem, he could not think of a ready witty remark to defuse the situation with. Instead he felt a vapid comment about the weather trembling on his lips. He had no intention of starting a new War of the Roses, so he took her side.
“You simply have no taste Squirt and you just cannot appreciate the workmanship of a talented artist.” He swallowed hard. “How much is this, Madam?” He reluctantly asked the bulky Yorkshire lady behind the foldaway table.
“Poon, Dove,” came back the expectant nodding reply.
Gem, forced into the reckless extravagance, moodily handed over the one pound coin and picked up the monstrosity. It was heavier than it looked, made of good old unpretentious clay, slim at the top, but with a half-egg shaped bottom, obviously intended to make a point. Gem looked underneath and it was closed off as if the egg had been over-boiled to solidity and then cut across the center.
The woman did not have a bag to hide the thing in, so Gem had to carry it, exhibiting the masterpiece to a world which, in his imagination, appeared to recoil in horror at the sight of it.
He kept an eye open for a bin in which to dispose of the weight, but then the Squirt went and spoiled it.
“There’s a bin over there, Picasso. No doubt it’s been strategically placed for items like yours. It’s your chance to get rid of it. Or, if you are embarrassed that someone might see you disposing of a world heritage, you can give it to me and I’ll pretend to trip and drop it.”
It was the accompanying annoying laughter that did it. Gem couldn’t admit that he had actually shared her opinion of this atrocity to art now.
“Certainly not, Squirt, this shall take pride of place in my apartment and I shall enjoy its company for many years to come.” He said this with pompous dignity and Ashvina folded over with laughter.
“What a chump!” She screeched laughing and Gem accidentally cuffed this apostle of frivolity on the ear.
Still full of wishful yearnings for a pink sleeping bag, Ashvina was eventually returned to storage accompanied by her newly purchased, olive green, military issue version.
Gem had more than an hour to spare until his lunch appointment with the professor. He decided to kill time with a liquid hors d'œuvre at his bedsit.
Alone he pondered his options as to the best way to “accidentally” break the terracotta horror without losing face with the Squirt, knowing Ash was waiting for him to do just that. As prolific of incident as life might appear, he knew it was highly unlikely that the thing could break without some actual, first hand assistance on his part.
With a devious self-satisfied smile he got up and opened the window slightly, leaving just enough space for the cat to squeeze through onto the window ledge. The windowsill had long since become one more depository for his countless books and space there, as everywhere else in his flat, was at a premium. He placed the eyesore where it would do the most good.
There was now a space just big enough for the cat to squeeze in between Thucydides’ ‘Peloponnesian Wars’ and the chicken.
Immediately after the objet d'art he placed a freshly opened can of tuna fish. He stepped back admiring his ingenuity, then drew the curtains closed, to conceal his plot, just in case the child decided to visit his bedsit during his absence
Professor Robert Asquith, head of the mathematics department, opened the door and gestured Gem to enter.
“Come in, my boy”.
He was in his late sixties, of average height and like Cunningham, the bookie, an overweight man who appeared to be comfortable with his condition and had no aspirations of ever losing weight. A briar pipe, an almost permanent fixture in his mouth, defied modern conventions about smoking. The tobacco pipe complimented the ensemble of the man, along with his proud nose, his half-moon glasses, his partly thinning gray hair and blue eyes.
His wife Elaine shouted from the kitchen, a welcoming smile in her voice. “The food is ready Gem, have a drink with Robert and I shall be right over.”
Gem had been their son Harry’s best friend and drinking companion during the boys’ four years at Oxford and Gem had been a regular visitor to their home. In fact the two boys looked very much alike and strangers seeing them together would often mistake them for brothers.
Harry had subsequently graduated from officer training school at Sandhurst. When he was killed in his very first week in Afghanistan, Gem’s sharing of their grief and his constant, every day, support was one of the reasons they managed to retain their sanity at the loss of their only child.
The Sunday lunch ritual had been established ever since then, and Gem did not dare break it. In him they saw the image of their own son. He, in turn, had come to love the professor like the father he had never really had.
They moved to Professor Asquith’s office after lunch, while his wife disappeared into the kitchen with the dishes. Sunday was the maid’s day off.
Professor Asquith puffed on his pipe. “I hear that Naismith is after your scalp and that he has asked you to see him next Tuesday.”
Professor John Naismith was the head of Gem’s department.
“He does not take exception to the way I teach Oscar Wilde, Professor, but he objects to my interpretation of Wilde’s personal life, sir”.
“People’s personal lives are their own business, so why the conflict?”
“I say, sir, he is not being fair. I simply told my students that it was an offense to the idea of culture and logic to try to equate Wilde’s incredible artistic talent and the beauty of his literary eloquence with the vileness of his personal habits, trying to justify the latter. I told them that there is no defense for justifying the actions of a pedophile whether he is heterosexual or homosexual. That both types should be equally despised even if they are blessed with literary genius.”
Gem spoke with the passion, flamboyance and charisma of a TV televangelist preacher - before being caught in unseemly acts - his face a signboard of emotions.
“I said that evidence from his contemporaries, like Frank Harris, indicates that, in fact, Wilde was the most selfish, corrupt, self-serving ruthless pedophile. If the reality had been known, he should have been imprisoned for far longer than the two years he actually got.” He leaned forward in his armchair, the better to make his point, preaching his cause with engaging passion.
“The fact that Harris later fell on hard times and ended up writing that bit of pornography of his is used by some to discredit his biography of Wilde. But no one has denied Harris’ position of power and influence in the literary world of London at the time, when he was the publisher of one of the most influential journals.” He leaned back and crossed his legs as if to say, “So there”.
The professor smiled his indulgence as he tried to relight his pipe.
“I think you should bow to your superior’s position. Little pleasure or profit can be derived from any discussion with him on the subject of Oscar Wilde.”
“But surely he will accept a differing academic point of view, as a matter of principle?” Since his immediate superior was not present, Gem allowed himself to feel the exhilaration of revolt.
“But you know that Naismith is a raging homosexual?”
“Is he?” Gem’s jaw dropped, his rigid sense of proprieties had just received and unexpected nasty jar.
“You simply cannot be that simple minded, boy. And for the last time do please try to modify that infuriating Eton accent of yours.” The professor waved his match between puffs. “I am surprised he hasn’t made a pass at you,” he said exasperated.
“I say! You mean when he…? And when he asked me if I liked… Oh, my….”
“You poor, silly boy. Naismith simply wants to replace your father’s past fortune.”
“I am afraid I don’t understand, sir.”
Rays of golden sunlight peeped in through the window as if interested in their conversation. So did a sparrow standing on the window ledge outside, which looked at the two men with its head tilted to one side, as if waiting to hear what would come next. The professor stifled an after-lunch-yawn, looked at a sparrow and smiled.
“Of course you don’t. When you first came to Oxford you looked as if your father’s money was constantly giving you a blow job. Now that the money is gone, Naismith wants to take over the role.” He laughed out loud, scaring the sparrow, which flew off in search of a quieter spot.
“Oh, I say! Steady on sir. I may have joined the ranks of the sweaty bourgeoisie and henceforth I shall be accommodatingly conventional and all that, but there are limits. I am afraid that professor Naismith and I shall remain in permanent disagreement about Oscar Wilde.”
The professor laughed at Gem’s innocence and pomposity.
“For God’s sake, stop with the accent already,” he continued to laugh, trying to imitate a Yiddish accent.
A fresh coffee pot arrived and Elaine quickly escaped the clouds of pipe smoke that filled the room, steadily increasing in readiness for the professor’s coffee.
“You must be careful my boy,” the old man said as he filled their cups. “Naismith is a dangerous enemy for you to have and he is a Christian in everything but faith.” He waved a match at his pipe bowl and then looked with interest at a new hole he had managed to burn on his vest. He shrugged.
“He is vindictive and he will not hesitate to cause you as much harm as he can and derive pleasure in doing so. He happens to be the grandson of one of our ex-Prime Ministers on his mother’s side and we still live in a world where these things count.” He put another match to his pipe.
Gem felt that the professor was getting ready to speak on his favorite subjects of corruption and cronyism in the UK and he leaned back, expecting to enjoy the performance.
With his twenty year old three-piece suit and his bow tie the professor looked the archetype English gentleman as portrayed in literature and the movies, but he spoke Noam Chomsky. Along with his thick plume of pipe smoke the professor ejected pleasant, sweet-smelling words of wisdom and as always Gem inhaled those with pleasure.
It was very late in the afternoon when Gem managed to get home and the first thing he did was to draw back the curtains to see the result of his ingenious scheming - and ingenious it proved to be.
The green and yellow chicken - that brutality to art - lay on the floor, cracked in many different ways and in many different directions, but it had simply collapsed in on itself. Because of the thick crudeness of the workmanship, it still retained its approximate shape.
The romantic in him partly hoped that a great hidden jewel would materialize, somehow concealed by 20th century pirates, or a map with an X showing where the treasure had been hidden, so he looked inside.
Nothing. Oh well, back to reality, he thought. Carefully wrapping the cracked pottery in the palms of his large hands, he lifted the whole lot up and dropped it from a height in the bin by his desk. The green and yellow chicken turned into rubble of baked mud. Pneumonia’s now empty tuna fish tin joined it for company.
He stretched himself on the sofa then and started practicing his imitation of Harry’s accent, determined to do away with his own and to sound like a human being from then on.
Gem’s appointment with Professor Naismith had been arranged for the Tuesday, because that was a day Gem did not have lectures. At the prescribed time of ten-thirty he was on the carpet, so to speak, of his superior’s office.
Professor Naismith was a tall, very thin man with haughty, tiny astigmatic eyes peaking over the battlement of a large nose, which guarded the moat of a mouth extending almost from ear to ear. Life experience had painfully drilled charity out of him and had laid unassailable, solid foundations for a life of arrogance and self-importance.
Malicious students had spread a dastardly rumor, however, that as unpleasant as he was as a person, Professor Naismith was a skilled performer in playing the spoons, proving once more that there is good in all of us
“I have asked to see you, Stone, on the matter of your persistently bigoted, intolerant and inaccurate presentation of a literary genius, to the young and impressionable minds of my students. I refer, of course, to your discussions with my undergraduates on Oscar Wilde.” His voice was not kind.
Gem had a habit of pulling at his right eyebrow when nervous, and he did that now, trying to be conciliatory.
“With respect, sir, I believe that my admiration of the literary genius of Oscar Wilde is second to none.” He stopped at the surprised look on the professor’s face at his new accent, by now an almost exact copy of Harry’s voice. Gem had an uncanny ability to imitate other people’s voices.
The old man looked at Gem as if he had just spoken in Swahili using bad grammar.
“Why are you speaking like that?” There was surprise in his voice. Apparently, the professor was unable to believe that a member of his own old school would deliberately try to distance his accent from that of the hallowed institution.
“I don’t follow, sir” Gem said in his most innocent voice.
“Never mind that now. Your professed admiration of a National Treasure does not conform to your ghastly, homophobic aspersions of the great man and I wish you to stop.” He leaned forward and tapped his pen on the pad in front of him. “And since we are on the subject of your innovative approach to teaching, I also wish you to rethink your position on Machiavelli.” There was no friendliness in his watery blue eyes.
The dictionary describes simple-mindedness as “lacking in subtlety or sophistication; artless or naïve.” So, without thinking the matter through properly, Gem immediately proceeded to prove it by getting on his favorite band wagon.
“Sir, Oscar Wilde and Machiavelli are the favorite subjects of the superficially knowledgeable, the illiterate parrots of philosophy and literature. These are people who reduce everything to their own unimaginative level and to their own experiences, in order to talk about the subjects as if they actually comprehend them.” He stopped in order to chuckle at something he remembered. “I saw a documentary about Machiavelli a few days ago and the presenter was comparing Machiavelli to well-known rock bands.” Here Gem gave a carefree, chummy laugh, inviting the professor to join him in ridiculing the illiterati. “It was the only way the poor creature could bring the subject down to his own level, beneath the flat rock at which he resides.”
The professor’s face became an interesting purple color.
“Are you calling me an illiterate and a worm?”
His pose was reminiscent of a Victorian father, in literature of the period, who was about to show the door to his strayed spinster daughter, now six months pregnant.
Eloquence had carried Gem away, but even simple-mindedness has its limitations. He immediately realized that his choice of words did not achieve the ideal. He tried to pour the ketchup of diplomacy over the obviously unpalatable burned concoction of his expressed opinion, in an attempt to soothe the savage beast the professor had turned into.
“I say, sir,” he said, unconsciously reverting to Eton and pulling at his right eyebrow, “I did not mean it like that. No one can question your unparalleled knowledge of literature and philosophy,” he crawled shamelessly, figuratively in his mind dropping on all fours in front of the great man asking for the expiation of his sins.
It was no use and it was certainly too late. Professor Asquith began to express himself in a manner that even the kindest critic could not have claimed was kind, tolerant or forgiving. The accused, feeling like a stag at bay, venturing to speak for the defense, simply gurgled and bleated at intervals, but to no effect. The justly indignant accuser showed no mercy.
The man spoke with a cold fury which was frightening to watch. “Stone, this university shall not avail itself of your questionable services next semester. We have the exams next month and you will support my students over the period, but you need not bother returning here in September. I wish you a good day, sir.”
Gem curled up like a burnt match. The sunshine appeared to be dimmed in his disposition, as if by a dark cloud. Possibly conscience, he supposed. Feeling the futility of mere language, he reluctantly dragged himself away from the professor’s office in a daze, with as much dignity as he could muster. He tripped over himself as he did so, his poise somewhat frayed in the process. His ears glowed red with bruised conceit and his cheeks flushed with injured pride. He headed out into the June day sun as if in a stupor. He felt as if he had just lived through a Homeric experience.
He lacked the impartiality to realize that even a well-paid attorney in the court of history, could not deny that Gem had fired the first shot of the campaign he had just lost.
Thoughts of friendly bookies lamenting on how sad it is to have to break the legs of a good friend of long standing raced through his mind. He thought of perpetual skirmishes with uncooperative tradesmen and he shuddered. The thought of John Cunningham’s five hundred pounds a month from a now nonexistent pay check was stupefying. His fortunes had now reached solid bed-rock and were looking for a jackhammer with which to continue the downward journey.
He walked in shock, fear and confusion, unconsciously heading for Professor Asquith’s lecture theatre, as was his wont when he was between lectures.
The auditorium was packed like a woman’s suitcase, with students crammed in the role of her afterthoughts. Followers of the professor from other departments and disciplines would drop in to hear the great man speak of matters other than mathematics at the end of his lectures, as was his custom.
“So you see ladies and gentlemen,” he said, stopping to take a swig of water from a small plastic bottle as Gem squeezed in next to one of the attendees, “The flute of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has never left us and it is essential that we train our ear to detect its false notes; because in our case the flute is now being played by the rats.”
The students laughed and thundered their approval by clapping in adoration.
“We are all singers in an opera carefully planned and the libretto has been written for us by the ancestors of the current owners of our country. The ones we do not hear much about.” He rested his left elbow on the podium, half turning to his right, in an effort to support his considerable weight. “Our roles in this opera and our very positions on the stage are all predetermined and prearranged. A few manage to write and sing their own arias, to become partially free, even if not totally free, but they are very few and far between. The rest of us face the infuriating, unwarranted, arrogant self-esteem of our literate, but ignorant politicians with bovine apathy.”
He looked at the young faces in front of him, his own serious.
“But their conceited self-esteem is built on the foundations of hypnotized acceptance by those they rule and that acceptance is an unshakable one. The reason being that the country’s ownership has not only imposed its own wishes on the masses, but has systematically brainwashed all of us into accepting the lies they feed us.”
He took the final sip of water from his plastic bottle and set it aside.
“For example,” he said slowly changing supporting elbows, “Just because a bumbling fool of a Mayor has been to Eton, he will manage to convince his voters that his blundering incompetence is only an act. As if any sane person wants to systematically and persistently make an ass of himself in public.”
At the mention of the famous clown Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, the students erupted in laughter and cheering.
For a while Gem forgot his own problems and joined the students in their reaction to the professor’s words.
The necessity of finding a means to support himself was not lost upon Gem, but despite his fears and black depression, the idea of actually working for a living was less than palatable to him. He enjoyed literature immensely and so getting his PhD had been nothing like work to him. It was as if someone who loved golf had been paid to play his favorite game every time he felt like playing. The hard part was offering for hire his sketchy acquaintance with the teaching profession.
After Professor Asquith’s usual success with the students Gem did not have the heart to dampen the old man’s spirits with the news of his own dismissal.
He hurried to the safety of his bedsit, his cocoon and his mansion, the inner core of his very life. There, he ate, whenever Shalini remembered to cook for him. There, he drank to excess, made love whenever he was sober enough to become his boyish charming self - the version of Gem that women seemed incapable of resisting. There, he read and listened to his opera.
The geniuses who had designed the modification of the original large, ancient building, into tiny, money earning residential units, had not seen the need for a real kitchen and they made do with an imitation one.
Overall, the place gave the impression of having the dimensions of an oversize cupboard in which one just might be able to swing a cat. If one didn’t mind decorating the four walls with splattering’s of the cat’s brains.
The main door opened straight into the sitting room and visitors were treated to a view of an ancient brown leather sofa against the opposite wall. It occupied a recess into a wall-to-wall book shelf. In fact the bookshelf had been built around the sofa, as this was the only way for Gem to easily access his thousands of books.
Books lay everywhere, used in piles as door stoppers, as coffee tables and even as stools to sit on. It’s easy, if you don’t mind using salvaged pieces of plywood as table tops or stool seats.
Opposite the sofa there was a TV set and the only expensive item in the place: A home theater audio system on which Gem listened to his music. Next to this was a small desk that faced the wall as if in permanent detention punishment.
The bedroom was simply another alcove without a door, just long enough to accommodate a bed big enough for one and a half persons.
He had to close the main door if he wanted to open the bathroom door, but that was fine, because he was lucky enough to have an actual bathtub instead of just a shower.
Gem lay on the sofa staring at the high ceiling of the decrepit old building and at the landlord’s ancient wallpaper, which missed beauty by a mammoth margin. Murky black thoughts raced through his brain, of how John Cunningham would deal with him and what painful means Tubby would find to ensure that his daughter’s Oxford tuition fund was not lost to charity.
Here he sulked, in the company of another type of spirit and meditated on a future without employment and an income. He felt more dead than alive, like an unappreciated corpse at the morgue about to be taken to the autopsy room.
He tried to provide a measure of solace to his fevered, frightened brain with pleasing thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition and their undoubtedly admirable methods of dealing with low worms such as Professor Naismith. He allowed other similar diverting thoughts to flood his mind. He felt that what the world needed, to make it a place fit for heroes to live in, was fewer and less vile Professor Naismiths.
Just after six in the afternoon, Shalini found him on the sofa hugging a bottle of whisky, but still relatively sober. She looked as if she had just got word that her favorite dog and her mother had died on the same day.
“I am very sorry Gem. Everyone at the office was upset when the note from Professor Naismith came to personnel about your dismissal. What will you do now?”
Gem hiccupped in a dignified manner.
“I don’t know. Probably emigrate to the back of beyond where the foot of the white man has never set and missionaries have never managed to make it through the undergrowth. Somewhere like Worksop in Nottinghamshire springs to mind. I passed through there once and, if they spoke English, it would be my first choice. As it is I shall have to spend a year learning Worksopian and it is not an angelic sound, I assure you.”
Shalini looked at him in surprise.
“What happened to your accent? Why are you speaking like Harry?” She said with mouth slightly ajar.
Gem poured himself another drink and drank half of it before he replied.
“The Stones have been pretentious parasites on this planet for as long as they could find people to rob, so from now on I shall speak like a human being.
Shalini put her hand on his. She now regarded Gem as a martyr, earmarked for the lions’ dinner menu.
“Good for you, young prune,” she said in admiration. There was soothing tenderness in her gentle hands and a spell in her mild, soft voice, but Gem continued to wallow in his misery.
Ashvina barged in without knocking as usual and, unaware of Gem’s difficulties, she went straight to the point.
“So you couldn’t bear the sight of Leonardo da Vinci’s undiscovered masterpiece and you accidentally dropped it, eh?” She gloated and her laughter pierced Gem’s brain as if his skull was a mold for pouring molten metal at a steel foundry. He knew that the child meant no harm and he did not respond, but Shalini did and she spoke with annoyance and vigor.
“Go away useless vine. Gem’s been fired and he is in no mood for your nonsense.”
The child’s face immediately fell and her lovely eyes brimmed over.
“Oh my poor Gem, I am sorry I teased you about your chicken,” she said and sat next to him on the sofa hugging him. Without realizing it, she made his headache more bearable.
“Now that she mentioned it,” Shalini said, taking out of her bag a piece of the broken ceramic, “Pneumonia went into the waste basket to lick the tuna tin and when I came in yesterday there were pieces of your chicken all over the room. This was one of them.”
It was a two by three inch piece of clay, which had remained intact because on the inside was a metal plaque of the same size. It had been imbedded into the terracotta prior to baking it in the kiln. Because of its ‘accidental’ acquaintance on the window sill, and subsequently in the waste bin with Pneumonia, the plaque had now almost completely peeled off the hard baked mud.
Gem took the piece and looked at it indifferently. The rectangular thin metal plaque had words punched into it:
Berenbauer (Schweiz) AG
Utoquai 29, Zürich
• Das Konto läuft unter der Nummer
Kontonummer 527 68 41 44 2 64 00 98 98
• Der Agent läuft unter dem Decknamen Spinne
• ‘Das Wasser läuft ab’
“It looks to be in German and it’s probably the manufacturer’s name and address with the product reference number. Look, the first number 527 is thicker and bolder. So what?” Gem said.
“The plaque has almost peeled off and if you move it with your finger, you can see what it has on the back. If it is the manufacturer’s name and address, what is the swastika doing there?”
Mildly curious Gem had a look and there was, indeed, a Nazi swastika stamped on the back in black ink.
“OK, so it was made during the war. What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I checked the word ‘Spitzengeheimnis’ on Goolge’s online translator and the translation came as ‘Top Secret’.”
The metal strip spent the following day in Gem’s trouser pocket, cuddled up next to a rather thin, pathetic money pin which did not have any apparent prospects of increasing in size any time soon. Gem spent all his free time on the internet with a copy of the text constantly on hand.
Google Search informed him that ‘Berenbauer (Schweiz) AG’ was the Swiss branch of one of the oldest banks in history, of German ownership.
Google Maps showed him where the address ‘Utoquai 29, Zürich’ was - and a very nice street it looked to be.
Google Translator confirmed that “Spitzengeheimnis” in German means “Top Secret.”
The same translator also informed him that ‘Das Konto läuft unter der Nummer’ translated was “The number of the account is” and that the word before the number itself “Kontonummer” 527 68 41 44 2 64 00 98 98 also meant “Account Number.”
Then the interesting bit:
“Der Agent läuft unter dem Decknamen Spinne” - Meaning “The agent goes by the cover name of Spider,” but why any agent would want to do such a silly thing was unclear.
And finally “Das Wasser läuft ab” informed Gem that “The tide is going out,” but why the tide would be going on a date was also unclear.
In the end Gem managed to have the text written down on paper in English and he could now view it more or less in his own language:
• Berenbauer (Switzerland) AG
• Utoquai 29, Zürich,
• Top Secret
• The number of the account is
Account-Number: 527 68 41 44 2 64 00 98 98
• The agent goes by the cover name of Spider
• “The tide is going out”
Gem knew that he was not the brightest spark at the university and he was anxious to obtain Professor Asquith’s opinion on the matter, so he called for an appointment. At six thirty sharp, Gloria, the housemaid, led him in and he found the couple in the library poring over some accounts.
He smiled his usual sunny, boyish smile. “Good evening Mrs. Asquith, good evening sir, you are both well, I trust?”
They both froze in place and looked at him. Mrs. Asquith started to leave the room at a slow pace but ended up leaving it at a run, sobbing. Looking dazed and far away, the professor sat down behind his desk and took a large handkerchief out of his coat pocket, to cover his face so Gem could not see him wiping away his own tears.
“What’s wrong, sir, did something happen?” Gem was prepared to do anything to prevent his adopted family from suffering any grief. He did not, as yet, realize that he was the one causing the grief by reminding the two parents of their lost son. Their son’s appearance, their son’s smile and today their son’s speaking voice.
“It’s nothing, my boy, nothing for you to worry about. Let me ask Gloria to bring us some coffee and you can tell me how you are feeling.” He spoke in a throaty voice as he pressed the number for the kitchen into the phone on his desk.
“Have you made any approaches to Naismith to reconsider?” He asked when Gem sat down in his usual armchair, skillfully changing the subject after speaking with Gloria and hanging up the phone. “He is certainly giving me the cold shoulder since your dismissal.”
One of the inescapable certainties of life was that Gem was temperamentally unsuitable to be a spy. His face was not simply an open book. It was a 3-D movie projection screen where everything was there for all to see.
“I have nothing new to report in that department, sir,” he shrugged. “I now spend most of my free time dreaming of Professor Naismith being shipwrecked alone and forever on a deserted island with only the complete works of Schopenhauer for reading material.” Gem stopped to enjoy the smile he raised in the face of his old friend. He leaned back and made himself more comfortable.
“But then I rethink my position, because Schopenhauer might make the eternity of actual hell a pleasant alternative for our gallant professor.”
Despite his grief the professor found himself now laughing. He got up from his desk and took command of his own favorite armchair opposite his visitor.
“Yes, I see what you mean. As our friend Schopenhauer said, ‘the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom’. Naismith will get plenty of those on a desert island with only the sad philosopher for company. Come in,” he added, in response to the knock on the door.
Gloria walked in with a tray and a coquettish smile at Gem. She dispensed the cups, the coffee pot and the biscuits. She made sure she touched Gem’s hand as she gave him his cup.
The professor searched for his pipe and, after some effort, found it and relit whatever remnants of pipe tobacco still remained inside. He waited for Gloria to close the door behind her before he spoke again.
“I'm getting an impression that you don't like Professor Asquith, and I can’t really blame you. He is a lost cause, my boy. It is over forty five years now since wit and humanity waved a final goodbye to Professor Naismith and left him at peace with his rock collection and his Victorian etchings of naked boys.” The old man waved his burning match at both the pipe and Gem, making a point and setting the tobacco alight at the same time. “At the beginning of his career, he made an effort to canter through life with grace and panache, but he unfortunately attempted to do it on a donkey.”
The image brought a childish, grin to Gem’s face and his eyes acquired a far-away look.
“Take advantage of the few weeks you have ahead of you to look for another job, but do try to get one close to us so you can continue to visit us,” the professor continued.
Gem rapidly returned to planet earth.
“Knowing Professor Naismith as I do now, it does not appear at this time that another position anywhere in Oxford is a likely possibility for me sir, but I shall certainly give it a go.”
Gem leaned forward and put the metal plaque on the professor’s desk.
“Actually, I came to see you about this, sir.”
The professor picked the object up, obviously patiently ready to see what new idiocy the boy had come up with this time.
“My German is a bit rusty, but,” he took a magnifying glass from a desk drawer, “What is supposed to be ‘Top Secret’?”
Gem placed the German and English transcripts he had prepared on the desk and explained how it all came about.
“Well, now,” the professor contemplated out aloud, “a carefully hidden metal plaque, the Swiss branch of a German bank, possibly a numbered Swiss bank account, a swastika, odd phrases which look like codes… all rather obvious I should think…”
Gem nodded in agreement, but then he felt the need for clarification.
“Is it? Oh, that’s good sir…” Gem responded, confirming the professor’s opinion of his brain power once more. The old man took a sip from his cup, a couple of puffs on his pipe and waited for the question. “So what is it, sir?”
“Well, it’s only a guess of course, but I should think that it’s a bank account where some Nazis have deposited funds, or perhaps it refers to a safety deposit box at this specific bank.” Professor Asquith leaned back on his chair, making himself more comfortable. “How much money is involved or what might be in a safety vault, we have no way of knowing. Unless of course you go there personally and ask them,” he smiled. His guest did not appear to be thrilled at the idea.
Gem bit his lip, felt for his eyebrow, and leaned over to better make his point. “I’d end up in jail if I tried anything like that sir and I am not overly fond of jails on principle.”
The old man was a picture of patience as he puffed some more on his pipe. He got up from his desk and again took command of his own favorite armchair opposite his visitor.
“No, they won’t. When Harry died the government paid us £820,000 in compensation. We didn’t need the money so Elaine and I opened a numbered account with a Swiss bank in Zurich, which specializes in investments.” He shrugged. “As a result, you now see before you a contented man, comfortable in the knowledge that he bought Nobel Energy at $9 a share.” The professor paused so that Gem could digest all the information.
“I tell you this because I know something about numbered accounts. Depending on the agreement you make with the bank, all you might need is the actual number itself.” He tapped the pipe in an ashtray. “That acts like a confirmation that you may have access to the account to which the number belongs.” He had taken the pipe apart as he spoke and was now using a pipe cleaner on the parts, as if that was the most important part of his day. He spoke without looking at Gem. “However, some depositors may have a special agreement with the bank by which the bank will not give access to an account unless the person possessing the account number also knows specific passwords.” He smiled at his now clean pipe and began to refill it.
“So you say that I might be able to have access to this account and that there might be a few quid in it?” Gem’s brain began a laborious turning over which he found to be refreshing as well as exciting.
“There is no guarantee that this plaque is the only one in existence.” The professor now spoke through the pipe between his teeth. “The account may have been closed decades ago, or it may, indeed, have only a few pounds in it. There is only one way to find out. Go there and see. When you receive your pink slip at the end of July just treat yourself to a holiday in Zurich and find out what the true situation is.” The contended smile on Professor Asquith’s face indicated that the pipe was now going strong.
All through this Gem was listened with rapt attention, finding himself going through a series of changing emotions along the way. From curiosity, to partial excitement, to real excitement, to greed at the thought of possibly unbridled wealth, to the life of luxury this could mean to him and finally to the downturn of reality.
He thought of bank alarms going off as soon as he gave the number of the account to some clerk, asking for access to it. He imagined metal cages dropping from the ceiling, guards with guns drawn and finally the Swiss police, leading him away in handcuffs. But politely, he assumed, because they were, after all, Swiss.
He finally shook his head in a manner which left no doubt as to his opinion of this idea.
“Tempting, but this sounds too much of a risk for me, I am afraid.” He shifted his position in his chair, trying to think of the best way to avoid appearing like a wimp. “Bearing in mind that I have a firm prejudice against going to prison, and also bearing in mind my current financial constraints, this pot is just a bit too rich for my blood. The spirit shudders at the thought of jail and even more to the point, the wallet is too weak to take the strain. I’d have to pour my bank account into this. No, I think I shall stay at home with a good book and some grape juice.”
The professor smiled and looked at his pipe with affection, in preparation to speak like a Dutch uncle. He looked at the holes he had managed to create in his vest with burning tobacco and shook his head at his own carelessness. The sound of a dropped plate in the kitchen and Elaine’s annoyed little screech came through the closed door and he smiled with indulgence. Outside one of the neighbors had decided that this was the perfect time to cut the lawn.
Gem watched the gray ash weave about like seaweed on the bottom of a shallow sea and his chest contracted. A feeling of foreboding descended upon him. He caught his breath and looked at his mentor.
“When you have been at this university for as long as I have, Gem, especially when you are the head of a department, you get to hear things about people whether you like it or not.”
The pipe had gone out again, so the professor put a match to the tobacco and then puffed to get it going, while pouring himself and Gem another coffee.
“Junior lecturers appear to think that by collecting negative information about their colleagues and to casually pass this information on over tea and biscuits at every opportunity, will somehow ingratiate them with their superiors.”
Gem pulled at his right eyebrow and began to wiggle in his leather chair.
“That is how I know that you play craps with some of your students during breaks. Not a brilliant career move I would have thought.” There was kindness in his eyes as he said this.
Gem tried to swallow, but he was unsuccessful. He made another effort to say something, but the old man held his palm up and silenced him.
“That is how I know that you and two other junior lecturers belong to a private club well known for its gambling activities and that you have a number of pressing gambling debts to meet.” He leaned back in his chair as he said this, trying to indicate that he was not one to cast the first stone, but Gem felt that a distance created between them.
The embarrassment began to overflow out of Gem’s burning cheeks and ears and he fidgeted, ready to get up and escape the torture.
“Don’t go just yet, Gem. Let me finish what I have to say. I know that you owe back rent and I know that you haven’t paid your cleaning woman for weeks. Yet through all that, you have never once asked me to help you financially, even knowing that I would.” The stem of his pipe was now pointing at Gem.
The old man’s dry blue eyes hypnotized Gem into immobility. Gem’s own eyes were pleading.
“That means character to me, my boy. And I know that in that, sometimes confused, head of yours, there is a man of character and goodness which the indifference of your parents has not managed to wrench out of you.” The pipe stem stabbed the air, making the point.
Gem collapsed in his chair, crushed in spirit and embarrassed as never before. He did not have the strength to get up and leave, though somehow he now did not want to do that. Despite his thirty years, he wanted to be counseled, to be guided, to feel the paternal care and the warm kinship of fatherly love for a change. He could not look at the old man, so he looked at the floor.
The professor raised himself off his armchair with some difficulty, and went to his desk to look for something.
The professor spoke with his back to Gem, lifting documents and files. “You are almost like a son to me boy and I am going to give you two options. For a start, how much do you owe altogether?”
Gem fidgeted, looked carefully at his shoes to make sure they were from the same pair. He tried to change the subject, but eventually had to whisper the amount.
“It’s not an insignificant amount, I am afraid, sir. It all comes to three thousand eight hundred pounds.”
Still looking at his shoes he heard the professor writing down something before returning to his favorite armchair, then he felt a nudge.
“Here is a check for five thousand pounds.”
Gem found himself holding a cheque and was about to return it when the professor held up the palm of his hand and spoke again.
“As I’ve said I am giving you two options. Option one. You can pay off your debts and gamble the rest of it away. You will not owe me a thing, but you will never be able to come and see me, ever again.” The old man put his pipe down in his ashtray.
Gem’s eyes became round disks of fear, the thought of not being able to see the professor again, inconceivable to him.
“Option two. You take this cheque, pay off your debts and use the balance to take that holiday to Switzerland we spoke about. If you find any money in that account, you first pay me my five thousand pounds and the rest is yours.
He leaned back in his armchair and intertwined his fingers across his ample stomach, looking like a benevolent Buddha. .
“So, what will it be?”
Gem sank against the back of his seat as the plane raced down the runway.
On this sunny August morning, the romantic in him imagined the elastic strings connecting him to his past snapping one by one, leaving him attached to just the unbreakable two by time the machine lifted off the ground: the ones connecting him to Professor Asquith and Shalini, who would be waiting for him to return to his bedsit seven days down the calendar. Those, he felt were attached directly to his heart, and he couldn’t help remembering the tear Shalini had shed as she’d waved off the minicab taking him to the train station, where he’d caught his connection to Heathrow airport.
Gem sipped whisky and water provided by the stewardess and smiled to himself with pleasure as he followed that trail of memories back to the previous night. The emotions of a confirmed bachelor who has just proposed and been rejected are always simple and satisfying.
The Squirt stayed over with her friend as she often did on Sundays and Gem had taken Shalini to a Japanese restaurant for a bon voyage dinner.
“So you see Shal, as difficult as it is to suddenly pull away from everything one knows, the time comes when one simply must take a deep breath and go on; Taking the plunge into the abyss of the unknown, so to speak.” He’d taken a sip from the Japanese sake cup to wet his mouth for more eloquence.
“But fear not; I expect to find at least a couple of quid in the account, and naturally you shall be entitled unto half my kingdom. After all, fair is fair.”
Shalini’s pretty face had registered theatrical awe and admiration.
"You wish to buy me with your gold?"
“Naturally. I intend to become a true capitalist. Allow me to refill your cup with this refreshing sake.”
“A couple of pounds, eh? How is a girl to spend so much wealth, I wonder?” she’d said, her voice soft and feminine; its natural condition, free of Gem’s idiotic antics. “I suppose that I shall be able to stop cleaning after you for a start.”
“Steady on. Even bloated capitalists have to go to work on occasion.” Gem had drained his cup and refilled it, the smile on his face growing wider.
She’d batted her eyelids at him. “Yes, but dare one imagine that cleaning vomit from toilets is a pleasure they manage to do without?”
He’d been in top form conversationally and she’d risen to the occasion as his equal, so the outing had been a huge success. Full of Shushi and optimism, they’d walked home from the restaurant to clear their heads from the sake, but the alcohol had caused them to lean on each other along the way, creating an intimacy they hadn’t shared before.
When Gem had opened his bedsit door, Shalini had followed him in. They’d looked into each other’s eyes and all the suppressed desire they’d carried for each other over the previous two years burst its dam and they rushed at each other; kissing in madness with their hands grasping and searching each other’s bodies until Gem had come up for air.
“At last, Christmas Day,” he’d said with a smile.
“No, it’s Worker’s Day,” she’d growled in a strange animal sound as she’d pushed him onto the one-and-a-half size bed, climbing on top of him.
After a long session of insanity, Gem had looked at her naked body as they lay side by side, eyes drooping from sleepy weariness.
“How is it possible for anyone to be so pretty?” He’d asked.
Shalini had stretched her body luxuriously with her arms straining extended over her head, slowly rocking her arched frame right and left, her still youthful impressive breasts trembling with her movement.
“And at this mature age,” she’d responded, smiling with the supreme confidence of a woman who knows her own worth.
“What’s wrong with my age?” He asked casually, unable to resist. “I was, of course, speaking about myself,” then he’d jumped out of bed just in time to avoid the punch.
Naturally, she’d laughed good naturedly at him when, as the idiot he was, confusing lust for love, he’d proposed to her, ignoring their considerable age difference. They’d fallen asleep in each other’s arms as gentle lovers will, both safe in having eaten their cake and stowing the rest in the cooler for next time.
Now here he was, on his way to an adventure which may end up with him in jail, but he was committed to it and there was no turning back.
The taxi ride, to the bed and breakfast establishment he had booked online, cost more than the budget flight from London to Zurich, but he had to bite the bullet. There was no other way he could get to it safely. He had chosen the place because it was cheap and had free WiFi.
It was a pretty wooden house in a quiet neighborhood. The huge smile of the gigantic fifty five year old lady who opened the door for him, made him feel as if he had come to the right place. The woman had long ago given up on any attempts at symmetry of figure and this somehow created a sense of security in him.
“Herr Stone? I am Frau Fankhauser. Welcome to my little house.” She had a no-nonsense voice and she shook his hand vigorously, as if pumping water from an old well with a tricky manual pump.
She looked as if she was capable of pulling nails out of lumber with her bare teeth, grinding them between her molars, and sprinkling the dust over her salad in place of salt, but he found her smile captivating.
“How do you do Frau Fankhauser? It’s good to be here,” Gem returned the smile, flexing his fingers trying to get the circulation going again.
It was noon by the time he felt ready to explore the city and he said goodbye to the landlady, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“It is time for lunch and you must eat with us before you go,” she insisted in her powerful voice. And for the next hour Gem found himself giving English lessons to her three grandchildren.
It is a matter of record that a Spartan diet was wholesome, but no one has been found as yet to claim that it was good. This was the case of all the dishes which came out of Frau Fankhauser’s kitchen and Gem made several mental notes in red, never to repeat the experience while he still had his strength and could fight to the death.
He wanted to scout the area before visiting the bank next morning and he had all the information he needed to do it within his notebook. Google maps had provided all the material, including street views of the place, bus services, costs and time schedules.
The bus stop was a short walk away from Frau Fankhauser’s establishment and he paid about thirty five pounds for a seventy two hour bus pass. He knew that forty minutes later he would be at the main Zurich bus station, which also happened to be next to the main train station. The street he wanted began about three hundred yards away and ran parallel to a scenic lake. There was a shortcut from the bus station through a park.
He first walked around both the bus and train stations, noting the seedy streets that seemed to branch off to the east, clashing in style with the expensive streets which headed west, the direction he was supposed to take. He looked around some of the backstreets, in hopes of spotting the local equivalent of the ‘Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club’ for when the need arose, but no likely establishments appeared.
He took the shortcut through the park. Out of the periphery of his vision, he casually observed the presence of a handsome, old, tall and slim, African-looking man sitting on a bench. The man was leaning back and gazing in a thoughtful manner at the infinite, through the smoke of his cigarette. The closer to him Gem got, the more familiar he looked, until he realized with surprise that the man looked like the American film star Morgan Freeman.
Curiosity is a powerful instigator so, after tripping over himself, Gem stopped; his shock now reduced by the fact that the supposed actor was poorly dressed. A number of notable details in Mr. Freeman’s suit indicated to even the most absent-minded observer that it was unlikely to be a product of the House of Armani.
The man turned and looked at Gem’s confusion and a gentle, tolerant, almost secret, smile showed at the corner of his mouth, showing that he understood.
“I say, you are not…”
The man shook his head, the almost secret smile still on his lips.
“I am terribly sorry, do you mind if I sit down for a minute? The shock you know. Are you related to Mr. Freeman, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“No, no relation I am afraid. I am just a simple accident of nature.” The man spoke cigarette smoke through his secret smile.
“By Jove, thankfully the voice is not the same; otherwise I would be tempted to doubt your word. Obviously you are also an American. I think I need a drink. Any bars around here?”
The man looked at Gem’s expensive suit, a remnant of the good old days, before daddy’s money had run out.
“Do you see that classy looking building across the street from the park?” He pointed with his cigarette. “That’s the best hotel in Zurich, the five-star Bischoff Hotel. They are sure to treat you well there.”
Gem could not suppress an embarrassed laugh, which spoke volumes.
“I don’t think that the wallet will stretch to a five star hotel. Is there anything in the zero star price range nearby?” His sheepish smile made the other nod in sympathy and understanding.
“Lili’s Bar,” he said and the cigarette pointed to the new direction. “Walk back the way you came and you will find a water fountain in the square in front of the bus station. The second street on your right, after the fountain, is Hoffstrasse and the watering hole is about a hundred meters down the road.” He took a puff on his cigarette and added: “That’s where I usually end up and if I can afford it, so can you.” The secret smile was still there. It seemed to go well with the gentle, amiable August sunshine.
“Many thanks.” Gem pulled at his eyebrow and smiled. “It shall be the next tourist attraction I shall visit after I scout the Berenbauer Bank building. I am visiting the place tomorrow and I wanted to get to know the area, before I drop in.”
“You’ll find the bank about five blocks to the left of the Bischoff Hotel.” The cigarette pointed the new direction and then rose in salute. “Good luck.”
Gem waved a cheerful goodbye and headed off into the warm afternoon, in search of his bank. Following the stranger’s instructions, he turned left at the end of the park and walked along a lovely street full of wonderful buildings, many of them banks, but also emporiums of expensive brand names. He eventually found number twenty nine and it was an old, large, impressive six story building made of stone.
He crossed to the opposite side of the street. He found a bench lakeside, and sat there deep in thought and concerns about what would be awaiting him inside that building the next day. Would he find a fortune, or would he end up in prison?
The thought of prison turned his mind to drink.
The unimpressive façade of Lili’s establishment offered him the confidence of familiarity, and he walked into its dark interior with a firm step. Not unlike his favorite Oxford watering trough, he thought, except for the endless black and white photographs of Marlene Dietrich on the walls. And the chairs did not have the soft cushions Mr. Cunningham used, to keep the punters in his establishment for as long as possible.
To get to the long bar, he had to navigate through a lot of tables and chairs, most of them empty this early in the afternoon. At the far end of the bar, at the corner, he saw his acquaintance of earlier that day. He smiled a greeting as he went up to him and got the secret smile in return.
“May I buy you a drink to thank you for your kind help earlier and to solidify our acquaintance?” He asked the man.
“The first one is on me. What will it be?” The other responded.
“How kind. Whisky and water for me please.”
The man spoke to the barman and Gem put his personal card on the bar in front of his new friend.
“A Gemstone, eh? What does the F stand for?”
Gem pulled at his eyebrow and told him, looking like a sheepdog that had managed to lose its flock. The other’s response was a raised eyebrow.
“A fellow sufferer, I see. I am M. A. C. Smith and please don’t ask what the initials stand for. You can call me Mac, or Smith, any way the mood strikes you.”
“Mac is fine, I think. Please call me Gem.”
They drank in harmony and spoke of neutral matters, neither wanting to pry into the other’s affairs.
A couple of hours later Gem looked at his watch.
“I must be sober and presentable for my appointment with the bank tomorrow, so allow me to buy the last one and I shall be off. I certainly hope that we shall see each other again, before I go back home on Sunday.” He smiled friendship at his new acquaintance.
“Well, I shall be killing time in this place until this coming Friday. The Embassy assures me that my new and unsoiled passport will be ready by then and on Saturday I shall be off home.” Mac returned the smile of friendship.
Just then the door opened and a large man on crutches walked in followed by two tough looking characters. The large man stood at the door until his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the place and looking around, he spotted Mac at the bar.
“Hoy Smith!” He shouted in triumph in an American accent. “Your hotel told me I’d find you here. I heard you were out and its payback time, boy.” His was a face proudly devoid of any sign of intelligence, sufficiently happy in the thought that it belonged to a world superpower, as if that in itself was the result of some personal athletic achievement
Mac did not return the greeting and did not appear to obtain any pleasure from the visit. Gem felt a domineering urge come upon him to be elsewhere and fast.
“Stay here, Gem. Don’t get involved, this is not your fight,” Mac said, as he put his drink down and stepped away from the bar, heading slowly for the trio.
Gem, despite his personal preference to be in a different, more peaceful place at that moment - like St Paul’s Cathedral at the Vatican for example - followed Mac’s lead, determined not to leave him alone in his difficulty.
The two toughs walked towards Mac to meet him half way. Mac raised his palms up in a sign partly of peace, and partly of surrender when they stopped three steps apart.
“Look out, it’s a trick!” The large man shouted and the two goons turned to look at him in surprise, to see what the trick was. But the damage had already been done.
Gem heard the crack of a broken knee and the screams of one of the toughs before he realized that Mac had actually moved.
The second tough though, being more experienced, recovered immediately and lunged at Mac, but Gem tripped him up and he fell flat on his face. When he sprung right back up, Mac kicked him in the head and he fell down motionless. The whole thing was over as quickly as the blink of an owl.
Mac began walking toward the leader, but the big man dropped his crutches and sat on the floor holding his knees.
“No, Smith. Please don’t do it.”
Mac looked at him with contempt, nodded to Gem and they hurried out of the place, getting into the first taxi they found.
“They know my hotel. I need to move out before he sends more goons after me,” was Mac’s calm comment. “And by the way, thanks for the help.”
“Don’t mention it. I say, Mac, I know the perfect place to disappear for a few days. Shall I call and see if they have a room for you?”
Upon receiving the affirmative, he called Frau Fankhauser on his cell phone. Yes, she did have a room available until next Saturday and would be happy to put up Herr Stone’s friend.
After collecting his stuff from the hotel, Mac insisted they change taxis at the train station to ensure that their tracks could not be followed.
On the way, Gem felt honor bound to do the decent, manly thing and come clean with Mac.
“The local female fauna appear to be seven feet tall and very capable, seeming able to lift busses off children with one hand tied behind their back. However, in the case of Frau Fankhauser, to say that when she is trying to put something together in the kitchen human life is not imperiled, that would be a base, shameless lie.”
The secret smile appeared on Mac’s lips again, only wider. Few things draw two men together more surely than a mutual aversion for bad cooking.
A few hours later they sat having dinner and a drink at a friendly pub in their new neighborhood and Mac was instructing Gem in the fine art of breaking the knees of much bigger and violent men. Apparently the skill lay in kicking the knee in a downward motion, putting one’s full weight behind the effort – after first distracting them with raised palms up, in a sign partly of peace and partly of surrender.
“Breaking a knee requires just thirty five pounds of pressure, so that’s the easy part. The real challenge of the exercise, is diverting their attention so they don’t know what’s coming. Let’s have another drink,” Mac said.
He then proceeded to explain pressure points in the human body which, if hit just right, would incapacitate and even kill.
At ten o’clock the following Tuesday morning, Gem walked with trepidation along the pavement running in front of the bank. He felt was a distinct cooling of the feet as the bank came closer and closer, as St George must have felt before he’d gone out to have that spat with the dragon.
Twenty feet or so from the bank’s main entrance, he raised himself to his full height, rolled his shoulders back and walked with confidence – just like an old war horse which hears the bugle for the charge. And all because the loveliest woman he had ever seen had just stepped out of the bank and was headed his way.
She was almost as tall as he, in her fashionable dark blue high heels. She wore a matching dark blue, knee length designer dress, which captivatingly flared at the hem as she walked.
‘Only an Italian would splash out on such an obviously expensive dress,’ he thought.
Her shoulder length blond hair framed an unbelievably pretty face, almost translucent in its whiteness, with red pouting lips perfectly and carefully rouged. Her fashionable blue framed prescription glasses hid the color of her eyes, but his eye color preference was specious and he was sure that the color would be as perfect as the rest of her. Her slim waist accentuated two incredible breasts and shapely hips designed for child bearing. She walked as only a woman can walk, swaying in that charming, feminine way that is the exclusive prerogative of her sex.
Gem realized that he had no chance with her, and he was too proud to give her the satisfaction of looking at her, so he ignored her before she could ignore him, looking straight ahead as they passed each other.
But she was too pretty not to look at, so about six steps further down he turned to look at her.
To his amazement, at that very moment, the girl turned to look at him as well. They caught each other out and they both laughed, she bending slightly forward, and automatically bringing her hand to her face to cover her blushes, as women do. They then went on their separate ways never to meet again.
Having a beautiful woman turn to look at him was the tonic he needed to boost his self-esteem and so he walked into the place as if he owned it, though he regretted not being able to go after the girl. Enquiries led him to the right desk of the right assistant manager, who handled cases such as his. According to the sign on the man’s desk, in front of him, his name was Fischer.
“I have inherited a numbered account and I wish to see what money, if any, is in it, please. This is the number” he said, handing it over with his card to the young man behind the desk.
Herr Fischer looked at his personal card, looked at the paper and typed the number in his computer, which apparently told him what to do.
“Please sit down, Mr. Stone. I shall be with you in a short while.”
Half an hour later, Gem noticed two heavily built men, with guns at their waists, join the unarmed security officers who stood at the entrance directing traffic and he wondered if they had anything to do with him. His knees became liquefied a bit and he felt the urgent need of a drink, expecting the heavy goods vehicle of reality to collide painfully with the scooter of his unrealistic aspirations at any moment.
Herr Fischer finally returned another half an hour later.
“It will be necessary for you to complete the relevant form before we can go any further, Herr Stone,” he said, placing the form in front of Gem. He made no mention of his promise to return ‘in a short while’.
The form was a lengthy one and it included almost everything pertaining to Gem’s history. Main address, local address, contact telephone numbers, passport number, parents' names and so it went. As he completed the form, Gem felt more and more apprehensive about the whole thing, but at least the police had not been called in yet. He handed the completed work in, and Herr Fischer took a long time going over it, to ensure that every question had been answered.
“Excellent Herr Stone, everything seems to be in order. Kindly see Herr Niklas Schneider next Thursday, August 6th at ten forty five. I wish you a good day.”
That was it.
No police, no arrest – but, equally and very importantly, no money. Gem thanked the man and left the building with a sense of foreboding. It was going to be a very difficult forty eight hour period and he needed a drink.
He took the bus to Frau Fankhauser’s place, collected Mac and headed out to the countryside for a scenic pub, in which to drown his worries.
They spent the next forty eight hours in each other’s company, each keeping his own secrets and carefully skirting around questions which might embarrass the other. This respect each of them showed for the other’s privacy began to form a bond between them, even at such a short period of time.
It was a grave and thoughtful Gem who presented himself at the Berenbauer Bank on Thursday, August 6th at ten forty five. At that moment, he would have preferred to face a pride of wounded lions with only a penknife to his name, than face this ordeal. But he had made up his mind to see the thing to the end, no matter how bitter that end might turn out to be.
He asked to see Herr Schneider. Two armed guards were already there apparently waiting for him, because as soon as he gave his name they led him to the back of the building, through a maze of corridors. One guard led and the other followed.
They eventually reached a huge elevator and the guard in front spoke to it instead of pressing buttons. The large doors silently slid open and the guard motioned Gem inside. It surprised him when they remained outside.
“Aren’t you coming?” He asked.
“No guns allowed in this elevator,” the guard’s lips moved in an ‘almost’ smile, and then said something to the machine.
The doors slid closed and Gem felt himself going down instead of up. There were lights indicating six floors up and five floors down, but there were no buttons anyone could push.
Feeling more and more concerned, he felt the elevator come to a stop at basement five. The doors slid open to a large metal walled room with a desk at the far end and an old man sitting behind it. Two very large athletic men stood on either side of him.
“Ah, Herr Stone, welcome, I am Schneider. I am obliged to ask you, sir, whether you have any type of weapon, camera or computer device on your person.”
“Does a mobile phone count?” Gem asked, feeling for his eyebrow.
“With respect, sir, it is a requirement that all visitors to this level are searched. Do you have any objection to that, Mr. Stone?”
Gem was too nervous to speak, so he shook his head. The two men came forward and searched him thoroughly, both with metal detectors and by hand. They removed his cell phone, his pen and his wallet, and asked him if he required anything from his wallet. He took his metal disk out of it and put it in his pocket, not feeling comfortable leaving it behind in strange hands. At his nod, they put everything in an envelope, sealed it and then placed the envelope in a tray.
“Your property will be here when you are finished Mr. Stone.”
“Finished with what?”
“Verifying your right to the account you are claiming,” Herr Schneider almost smiled. Everyone seems to ‘almost’ smile in this place. They never allow a real smile to show, he thought. “Everything has been computerized now and it will be quite easy for you. Are you ready?”
Receiving Gem’s confirmation, Herr Schneider spoke to the elevator. The doors opened and Herr Schneider spoke again. Doors opened on the other side of the elevator as well and one of the security men led the way with the other following. Gem walked like a man on death row, finally heading for the execution chamber. They walked through corridors and turnings with cameras at almost every step and eventually came to a door, which one of the guards opened by speaking to it.
It was a Spartan room, furnished only with an average size desk, which had a large, flat screen computer monitor on it, and a keyboard. There was a chair on which to sit in order to operate the keyboard. No other chairs for guests. No bookshelves. No decoration of any type.
“The computer is switched on Mr.Stone. Please take your time and follow the instructions on the screen,” the leading security man said, not unkindly. He and his companion went and stood on either side of the door.
His knees were liquefied again and his hands acquired a bad case of Parkinson’s disease, as he sat in front of the computer screen.
He was given a choice of language and he chose English. Immediately a flashing notice came on the screen informing him that all passwords must be entered in the original language they were registered.
Once he entered the account number, he was asked for “NAME”. He carefully copied from his paper “Spinne” and for “PASSWORD” he wrote, “Das Wasser läuft ab.”
It turned out to be an incredibly simple and easy process.
“ACCEPTED. Please choose from the menu below”
His heart felt as if it was being mercilessly squeezed in a vice.
Is this right? Could it be as easy as that? Surely something must go wrong?
The options were numerous and far too technical for Gem’s classic education. Unfamiliar with the jungle of accounting, he swallowed, trying to get his heart out of his throat and chose ‘Balance Sheet’. A number of new options came up and he gave a sigh of relief when he saw ‘Net Assets’. He pressed that and the computer informed him that his net assets were a total of $37,201.
Oh well, at least the professor will get his money back, he thought, with conflicting feelings of disappointment and relief.
He was about to close the computer when he saw the option ‘Edit’ and he clicked on that. One of the options here was to change the passwords and after a few seconds thought, he decided to do just that.
He switched off the computer and smiled at the security men that he was ready. One of them spoke to the door and a short while later he was back in the company of Herr Schneider.
“Mr. Stone, here is the envelope with your personal effects. Please open it in our presence and confirm that everything is there.” The man remained polite and non-committal as before. But when Gem confirmed that all his property had been returned to him, Herr Schneider shook him warmly by the hand.
“Mr. Stone, our Chairman, Herr Dr. Jan Schönbächler asks that you kindly visit his office for a conference.”
Astonished that the Chairman of the bank would want to meet a depositor with a measly $37,201, Gem agreed.
Herr Schneider personally led him to the elevator, shook him warmly by the hand once more and spoke to the elevator when Gem stepped inside. A few seconds later Gem found himself on the top floor.
A very well dressed mature lady of about fifty was waiting for him when the doors of the elevator opened. She was short and wide, wearing a matching skirt and jacket, which must have cost an ordinary secretary a year’s salary.
“Mr. Stone, welcome. It is a real pleasure to meet you sir. Please follow me.” She smiled, showing him a wonderful set of teeth. They were the best money could buy. She was the epitome of courtesy, as she let him into the Chairman’s office.
Opulence would be a better word to describe it than luxury. The place was huge and must have cost as much as the building’s construction to decorate with such expensive furniture and paintings.
Bankers in Zurich do not appear to smile much, but they certainly do a lot of handshaking, Gem thought, as the Chairman rolled himself in a wheelchair from behind the huge desk to meet with Gem half way and offer him a seat in the lounge area of the office. The mature lady waited for the two men to go through the introductions and the hand shaking, to settle themselves down and she stood by for instructions.
“Mr. Stone I believe that you enjoy the occasional drink, so we shall celebrate your arrival with a bottle of champagne. Hilda, would you please help us out here?” He spoke to her in English out of courtesy to his guest. His voice was soft and genteel with only a trace of an accent.
Hilda went to the telephone.
“How would you know, Dr. Schönbächler, that I enjoy the occasional drink?’ Gem asked suspiciously, his hand going to his eyebrow.
He looked with surprise at the man in the white waiter’s jacket who just walked in behind a trolley. There was an ice bucket with a bottle of Dom Pérignon and champagne glasses on it.
They even have uniformed waiters here!
“Mr. Stone, I have been personally handling your account since I became a director of this bank 37 years ago. In that time we have had six attempts to get access to your account by people whose efforts ensured them long periods of hospitality as guests of the Swiss Government.” The memory seemed to give him some secret satisfaction. “I would be remiss in my duty were I not to check up on anyone who lays a claim to your account.” He said this in the manner of someone making polite, everyday conversation.
“That is the reason we have asked you to wait for a couple of days. We wanted to know who you are and how to reach you if … hm … the need arose.”
There’s the ‘almost’ smile again, Gem thought.
Gem sipped the free champagne and could not resist asking, “How can your bank afford to make costly checks like you describe, for clients with assets of only $37,201?”
The odd look in Dr. Schönbächler’s eyes forced Gem to stop, though he wanted to express himself on the subject of being spied on to some length. The man’s face was expressionless, but his eyes had the look someone wondering what he’d done to deserve this.
“Mr. Stone, you did not look at the top of the column. If you had, you would have seen that all figures are in millions.” He cleared his throat. “You have $37,201 million, not thousands.” Realizing at last that he was dealing with an ignoramus, he clarified it even further.
“That is over thirty seven billion, Mr. Stone.” He spoke slowly, articulating his words clearly, as if speaking to an imbecile child. “Your income from our efforts on your behalf,” Dr. Schönbächler could not resist advertising the home team, “after expenses and our …er... hm… fees is over one million US dollars per day.” He leaned slightly forward to better see if his visitor understood words of one syllable.
The world became a blur and the room swayed. His mind went blank, and for a split second, Gem thought the man made a thin line of his mouth that actually looked like a smile.
Am I passing out? Have I heard correctly? Am I going to make an idiot of myself - again?
“Ah, jolly good,” he croaked, as the room gradually came back into focus. He cleared his throat and tried again: “Jolly good.” That’s all he could come up with. He knew that his response was not the ideal, but that was all the idiot part of him could come up with.
The Chairman understood and his expressionless face became almost human in sympathy. He seemed to feel that more details would not be amiss.
“Mr. Stone, fifteen years ago we saw huge prospects for the offshore drilling business. We therefore thought it wise to keep only the companies you own outright and to convert all your other investments into cash.” He stopped to make sure Gem was following him. Gem felt for his eyebrow and pulled it down in a nod.
“We used these funds to pre-pay for three offshore drilling rigs which were delivered to us two years later. The pre-payment ensured us a discount of twenty percent.” Here, the Chairman could not keep the satisfaction out of his voice. He cleared his throat as if he considered any boasting to be inappropriate.
“You now own thirty one such rigs, working all around the world. It has turned out to be a wise move on our part.” There it is again; the smile without the teeth showing. It wasn’t my imagination. This person just might be human after all.
“The oil companies pay you, whether oil is found or not.” Dr. Schönbächler leaned back with a justifiably smug look.
“That is really splendid Dr. Schönbächler, and I must thank you for your efforts.” Gem managed to stammer. He tried to think of something intelligent to say. “What are the other companies that I... err… own outright?”
The good Dr. took a sip of champagne, obviously trying to make out what type of person he was dealing with here.
“Well, our thinking was based on the fact that all our clients are very wealthy and they all visit us at least a couple times a year. Since our clients must come to visit us, they require first-class accommodation. Therefore, we have invested in five star hotels on your behalf.”
Dr. Schönbächler put his glass down and shifted his body in the wheelchair with his hands on the armrests, trying to make himself more comfortable. A painful expression appeared on his face, but he immediately reverted to his expressionless mode.
“Once our clients are here, they require transportation, so we have invested in a limousine service for you.” He said this with a wave of his hand as if he was embarrassed to mention it. “And finally, our clients very often fly in on their own jets, but some of them charter executive jets for their requirements. As you can guess, we have invested in that for you too.”
He raised his left hand and he began counting fingers with his right. “Besides here, we have offices in Berlin, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Beijing.” He returned his hands on the armrests of his wheelchair. “You own five star hotels, limousines, and airplanes in all of these cities.”
He looked at Gem trying to discern his reaction to the report and Gem tried not to show his ignorance, but it was an impossible task.
Dr. Schönbächler understood and nodded to himself as if telling himself that he did his best, but there were limits.
“My assistant will spend the rest of the day with you, Mr. Stone, and he will give you all the details,” he looked at Hilda as he said this and she went to the phone and spoke into it. He began to rub the armrests of his wheelchair in a manner indicating action. “In the meantime, I would suggest that you move out of Frau Fankhauser’s Bed and Breakfast accommodation” – a less than subtle demonstration of the thoroughness of his knowledge - “to the Bischoff Hotel which is close by.”
“That’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?” Gem asked, succeeding in making a fool of himself once more.
Dr. Schönbächler was lost for words and composure for only a second. When he spoke, his tone was reproving.
“You own it,” he said, somewhat coldly.
A knock at the door broke the embarrassment and in walked Herr Schneider.
“Herr Schneider is my assistant, exclusively handling your account. He will offer you lunch – we have an excellent chef on the premises – and he will spend the rest of the day explaining all the details to you. Do you have any immediate requirement for cash?”
Gem thought of Shalini cleaning his toilet to make ends meet, Professor, and Mrs. Asquith, his own need to spend freely at last. He thought of his one million dollars a day income and felt strong and powerful. He spoke with new confidence and certainty in his voice; a change that resonated through the room and struck everyone present.
“I should like ten pre-paid debit cards, with one hundred thousand pounds sterling in each, delivered to my hotel this evening, please.”
Without batting an eyelid Dr. Schönbächler nodded at Herr Schneider and the latter simply took a note. That was it.
“I shall also require an accountant with banking experience to act as my Personal Assistant. Please note that I intend to travel a great deal, so I require someone who is unmarried, or divorced without children. He will not have much of a family life. Please make sure that this is clearly stipulated. I should like to interview at least three candidates tomorrow, please.”
Another exchange of looks, another scribble in the notebook, then Herr Schneider stood up.
“Please follow me, Mr. Stone and I shall do my best to show you everything you wish to know.”
It was just before seven in the evening when Herr Schneider apologized and said: “My wife is an invalid, Mr. Stone and depends heavily on me. Though I have telephoned her that I will be late, she will be getting worried about me.” His tone was that of someone letting the team down.
Gem felt like a louse for keeping him at work so late. “By all means, let us continue this discussion tomorrow Herr Schneider.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stone. You will need to familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of working with us. You will find everything relevant in this file.” He handed over a fairly thin file and sighed with what appeared to be relief.
“May I say what a pleasure it has been, meeting you and discussing all these projects with you? Having the owner of the account physically present to discuss ideas and projects is a huge relief.” He seemed to mean it. “I have arranged for a limousine to take you to the Bischoff Hotel and then the driver will go to your other... er… hotel, to bring your luggage. I have already spoken to the Bischoff Hotel manager and he is anxious to meet the owner for the first time and to be of service to you.”
Gem needed fresh air and time alone to think. A limousine at that particular moment was the last thing he wanted.
“The hotel is not far, Herr Schneider, and I want to walk to clear my head. Please ask the driver to wait for me at the hotel. I have an errand for him, which I need to explain personally. He speaks English I hope?”
“They all do, sir.”
“Good. Well, Goodnight then. See you tomorrow.”
And with that, he floated to the pavement and headed for the Bischoff Hotel, the most expensive hotel in Zurich, his hotel.
Darkness had fallen, but his personal world was full of bright sunshine. He stood in the park opposite to his hotel with his hands in his pockets, admiring it. Like every father of a firstborn, he could not imagine anything being more gorgeous than his baby.
He thought of taking a picture of it on his cell phone. As he took his hands out of his pockets and eased back a step to arrange the shot, he was grabbed from behind by some very strong individuals. There were four very beefy men in all; two holding his arms, one materialized in front of him, and one behind him.
“Hay!” he shouted, and crumpled to the ground as someone punched him the stomach. Now groaning through the pain, he heard a woman’s voice calling “Aidez-moi! Police! Hilfe! Polizei!” And then the sound of what sounded like a police whistle screaming incessantly. The sound proved too much for the muggers. They let go of him and ran off.
The shrill sound of the whistle continued and he looked up to see an aristocratic looking, lady of a mature age, blowing it as fast as she could towards him. An anxious looking female helper of sorts held her arm.
The lady spoke to him in French but he smiled his ignorance from the ground as he was getting up. She tried in German and when he said ‘sorry’ she tried in English.
“Are you alright, my boy? Did those brutes hurt you?”
“No, no, I am fine, I think”
A very handsome young couple came running from the hotel and rushed anxiously to the old lady.
"Vous êtes très bien marmmy? Nous avons entendu votre coup de sifflet."
Out of courtesy for Gem, the dignified old lady responded in English.
“Some brutes attacked this young man just a moment ago.” Her left hand was on her breasts and it was trembling as if the large, white diamond on her ring was too heavy for her. “Take him to our hotel and take care of him. Gem tied to object. “No, I won’t hear of it, come on you two, get a move on.”
“Yes marmmy,” they both smiled and each took one arm on either side of Gem.
“Honestly, I am fine there is no need”
“Do you want to get us into trouble with mother?” The girl said. “Just be quiet will you, or we shall never hear the end of this.” She smiled up him and winked.
She had very dark red hair, which reached just below her sexy chin, with two enchanting dimples on the cheeks demanding to be noticed when she smiled. She seemed to smile all the time. Her shapely young figure was a joy to behold and Gem guessed her to be about twenty three years old. Her polka dot red dress must have cost someone the price of a small family car.
This family must be loaded, he thought.
The man was also smiling, as if to say “here we go again” and he patted Gem on the back in brotherly compassion as they led him along to the hotel.
They steered him to the bar and they introduced themselves as Amélie and Florian Géroux. The two siblings obviously enjoyed each other’s company and their laughter was infectious. They both had enough style and charm to sink a ship.
Gem’s aristocratic bearing, his cultured manner and voice and his expensive suit from the dead past, were sufficient passports to their world. They accepted him as one of their own. They did not ask him questions and they did not volunteer information about themselves. In their minds everything was at it should be.
They had just finished the introductions and their first drink at the bar when the old lady slowly walked in on the arm of her companion and her children introduced her.
“Thank you, Hanna,” she said to her maid. “Did you call a doctor?”
“He doesn’t need a doctor marmmy, he is fine.”
“How would you know?” She asked in an annoyed manner.
“Because I am a doctor marmmy,” he laughed and the girl joined him.
“Since when have psychiatrists become doctors?” She asked, then turned to Gem, “Are you also so rude as to laugh at your mother too, young man?”
The young woman got up and hugged and kissed the old lady. Her apparent inability to stop smiling was captivating and though she was slim and barely five feet two, her personality stood at least seven feet tall.
The young man raised his eyes to the ceiling at Gem and also got up and hugged her and kissed her, making much of her.
“Please forgive our odd behavior” the young woman said to Gem coming to sit next to him. “Ever since we lost our younger brother in an incident much like yours, our mother cannot see a young man in trouble without getting involved. She even went and bought a police whistle to use in emergencies.”
“And very useful it proved to be too,” the old lady said.
“Yes, if it was not for your mother, I would be in a very bad shape. I don’t think that I had the chance to thank you for saving me Madame. Thank you.”
“You are welcome my boy,” she looked at her children in triumph. “Did they steal your wallet?”
Gem began feeling his pockets, as men do when they have lost something. He now realized that his wallet was gone, the metal disk gone, and so was the paper in his coat’s breast pocket on which he had copied the original message and the translation. He went deathly pale for a minute and his new friends became worried.
“Have you lost something serious?” The older woman asked.
“No, no, it’s nothing,” he smiled sheepishly embarrassed at his stupidity at forgetting that he had changed the codes.
“You must join me for lunch tomorrow, my boy.” Her dignified regal face made the request a command.
Though she was small in stature, Madame Marion Géroux radiated an aura of aristocracy and culture. Her small, slim, body looked fragile but, in her eyes, there was strength and determination. Dressed in an off-white suit, her skirt barely covered her knees. Despite her sixty odd years and her silver hair, she clearly had not given up on fashion and was unlikely to do so in the future. The twelve carat white diamond on her ring finger showed that she was not ready to give up on life as yet. She was obviously the source of her children’s blue eyes.
He learned that they called their mother marmmy instead of mommy, because that’s how Florian had pronounced it when he was a baby and the name had stuck.
They were French, normally living in Paris, but they had properties in other countries as well, which they visited from time to time. They had only just checked into the Bischoff Hotel and it was fortunate that marmmy never went out without her whistle, as was the case when she’d gone out for her evening exercise that day.
“I am really sorry, Madame but I cannot. I have something very serious I must do. Please allow me to invite all of you for lunch on Saturday here, at this hotel.”
“Are you staying here as well, Gem?” Amélie asked, as she leaned forward with interest.
“Well, yes, actually, I am.” It took a great deal of self-control for him not to say ‘actually I own it’.
“Well then, Gem. My beast of a brother has got a date with some bimbo he met on the airplane coming here, and he has backed out of his promise to take me to Oberhofen Castle on Saturday. Instead of lunch, would you take me there, please? Is it OK if I go with Gem to the Castle marmmy?”
“Of course you may go darling. Florian, you are a monster. Why did you break your promise to your sister?” The look she leveled on Florian would have paralyzed Gem, but the son just fidgeted a little.
“Oh, marmmy, please have a heart. I can take her on Monday, if Gem is busy.”
Florian was about the same age and as tall as Gem, only more athletic and muscular, a psychiatrist by education, though he did not look the part. His rimless glasses simply accentuated his blue eyes and handsome face. Gem felt envious of the world they’d come from, where perfection appeared to be the norm.
“No, no, Saturday is fine for me,” said Gem more quickly than he would have liked. He hoped nothing would go wrong with Florin’s date and spoil his outing with the lovely Amélie. “I’ll arrange for a limousine to be here at nine.”
“Not a limousine Gem, dear, please. It’s only two hours away, so let’s drive ourselves and enjoy the day without people staring at us all the time. We can stop for a swim in the lake along the way.”
“Right ho, but no lakes for me, I fear. I can’t swim a stroke.” The girl and her brother exchanged surprised looks and Gem felt genuinely embarrassed.
“Sorry about that. If we remove swimming and heights from the equation, you are otherwise looking at a man of steel who with the jaw of an ass has slain a thousand men.”
While Amélie and Florin looked at each other with raised eyebrows and laughed, Madame took a more kind and complimentary view of the matter.
“Ah, you know your bible, my boy. Good. Not like some people who have become atheist just because they have a degree in psychiatry,” Madame Géroux said, pointedly looking at her son.
“Just by force feeding of it at school, Madame, nothing to seriously hinder a growing boy’s development” Gem replied with a smile and turned to face the laughing Amélie. “I’ll arrange the car with the hotel. But now I must be going. I have some very important business to attend to.”
He felt bathed in smiles and good fellowship as he left them. He reveled in the unique experience.
How is-it possible for people to be so attractive, yet so charming and friendly, he thought? He certainly had not come across people like this at the - Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club-.
Leon Kielholz was forty seven, slim, tall, elegant and immaculately dressed. He looked like a duke, but with ethics. He had been the hotel’s general manager for fourteen years and Gem was the first owner of the hotel he’d met. He refused to call Gem by his first name when Gem suggested it to him and fawned over his employer, as he presented the Presidential suite.
The place was spacious enough for a couple Triceratops in love to raise a large family. Eight large, floor-to-ceiling windows were arranged in alcoves along the wall facing the park. An equal number of alcove-windows covered the opposite wall, facing the lake. Each alcove-window had a coffee table and two soft, luxurious, peach-colored armchairs. Two smaller coffee tables were provided for each armchair. The hotel obviously wanted the suite’s occupant to have choice as to where place their drinks when they sat, but the alcoves had been designed to ensure the occupant’s business or political guests could discuss deals in private before they went back to the main group. The large conference table with the twelve leather executive chairs, at the end of the room, would welcome them and permit them to voice their decisions.
A staircase led to the upper section where the main bedroom and bathroom was located. An overhanging balcony allowed the occupant to look down on the lounge area below. There were enough designer sofas and armchairs to accommodate at least a dozen people.
Mr. Kielholz had made sure that the suite was generously decorated with flowers and supplied with fruit and champagne, for the owner of the hotel.
“As you can see it is on two levels sir, and everything is spacious in the extreme. Everything important is in twos. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, two refrigerators…” his voice trailed off eloquently. “There is a kitchenette behind the bar and the hotel chef will be only too happy to accommodate you privately should you wish it. Otherwise, room service is available on a twenty four hour basis.” His English was flawless and he sounded as if he was addressing royalty.
“Is there another suite next to mine?”
“Yes, sir, there are four suites in all on the top floor. We usually keep them for heads of state or high ranking diplomats.”
“Good. Please book them all in my name.” Gem had some idea of bringing the professor’s and Shalini’s families over for a holiday. “And please have a rental car ready for me on Saturday at nine. Something spacious with a sunroof. In the meantime, would you please ask someone to send up the limousine driver who has been waiting for me?”
The duke withdrew, as if leaving the royal presence, and Gem then had time to himself to think.
The thieves had stolen his cell phone as well, so he had the hotel telephone operator, find Frau Fankhauser’s phone number and call for Mac.
“Where have you been, man? I began to think that something was wrong. Your cell phone doesn’t respond. What happened?” There was genuine anxiety in his voice.
“Mac, you will not believe this, but please trust me that what I shall tell you is solid fact. You will remember the five-star Bischoff Hotel you pointed out to me the first time we met?” His voice was rising as he spoke and he made a conscious effort to speak normally. “Well, it turns out that I own it. I am in the presidential suite and there is a suite here for you booked in my name. A limousine will be with you in an hour or so and reception will know how to point you in the right direction when you arrive. Speak to you later.” And he hung up.
When Mac finally arrived it took Gem until four in the morning to convince him that there was no danger of any jail time in the case.
Through the open window of his bathroom, he saw that the sun was shining, the sky was blue and August was behaving as it should. From the sound of it, the trees outside his window, on the park side, were the nesting places of local birds in good voice. He wanted to join their choir, but he was otherwise occupied, retching into his toilet bowl some of the various drinks he had ingested the night before with Mac. He did this while listening to La Traviata’s overture, which he had on continuous loop replay in the suite’s sound system.
Life was wonderful.
After freshening, he joined Mac who sat across the breakfast table with a buttered toast in one hand and one of the debit cards in the other. It was just before nine, on the loveliest morning of Gem’s life.
“You say that there are one hundred thousand English pounds sterling in this thing? That’s over $150,000. Can this be right?” Mac kept switching his gaze from the debit card to the toast, as if unsure which of the two to bite.
“By all means check the balance at the first cash machine you come across, just to ease your mind. I have to interview people for the position of Accountant/Personal Assistant at the bank. Meet me there at one and we shall go for lunch.”
Gem plucked at his right eyebrow.
“However, before that, make sure you use the card to stock up with a dozen or so Armani suits with accessories. Hopefully one of those will be wrapped around you when you show up. I shall require a right hand man and that right hand must be dressed in a manner to reflect well on my new status as a bloated capitalist.”
The phone rang. It was Herr Schneider.
“Mr. Stone, a gentleman has shown up here as soon as we opened at nine and he claims access to your account. He insists that he has all the codes.”
“I was attacked and robbed last night Herr Schneider and this guy is the result. I have changed the codes. He cannot get in, but can you delay him until I get there?”
“Of course. Leave it to me. I shall have him fill up some forms.” Gem thought he may have heard a mild, soft chuckle at the other end, but could not swear to it.
Gem explained the situation to Mac, who considered it for a long minute with a worried look on his face.
“This is very serious, Gem. How did they know about your visit to the bank? How did they know about your account?” He seemed to make up his mind at last and took a bite out of the toast. “Obviously someone within the bank told them about you. Who and why? You and those close to you could be in very serious danger.”
“Do you want out?”
“Don’t be silly man. I wasn’t speaking of myself. I was speaking of people whom you love, not people you drink with.”
“I don’t have a family and if anyone kidnaps Pneumonia the cat, they are welcome to her but they shall rue the day. She will eat them out of house and home.” Gem did not want to speak to anyone about the special bond he had created with Shalini and the squirt, nor about his affection for the Professor.
Mac looked at him in a thoughtful manner, as if trying to make up his mind about something. He let out a long sigh, having decided.
“There is something you must know about me, kid. I am sixty seven years old. I am a disgraced ex New York cop and I have spent the last eight years of my life in a Swiss prison.” He waited for Gem to say something, but since the face of his new friend was impassive and indifferent, he went on. “I have managed to save seven thousand dollars during this time, by working very hard for the state and some inmates and my intention was to use that money to buy a ticket to the States and see if I can manage to survive there.”
Gem looked at him straight in the eye.
“I am convinced that I am not wrong about you, Mac. You hold in your hands the means to make a fool of me if you want. Today your passport will be ready. Cash the card and send the money to yourself in the States if you want. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
“You don’t want to know what I did?”
“I used to be a New York City homicide detective, yet I stupidly lost control of myself and killed someone here in Switzerland. We were on holiday at the time.” Mac spread his arms showing himself as an object worthy of temporary assessment. “I’ve lost my job, my pension, my reputation, my whole life.”
“You said ‘we’.
Mac’s nod was one of despair as he said: “I was here with my wife, trying to help her sort herself out. She was a drug addict. She came at me with a knife hallucinating on LSD. I lost control. I hit her in the throat.” The despair in his voice was almost palpable. “One of the moves I talked to you about. I should have known better.”
Gem felt the man’s pain, but knew he could not help. He touched him on the shoulder as he headed for the door.
“No doubt we shall be able to tell each other our personal problems in due course, over a couple of drinks.” He tried to think of something comforting to say, but he couldn’t. “Lunch at one? I’ll wait for you at the bank then.”
Mac shrugged as if to say ‘I tried to warn you, before stating:
“You’ll need bodyguards and I think I know a couple who will do. Can I negotiate wages?”
Gem smiled. “The sky is the limit.”
Gem arrived at the bank just after eleven and this time he was shown to Herr Schneider’s real office on the fourth floor. The office was large and it had a view of the lake, signifying that Herr Schneider was held in high esteem at the bank.
Herr Schneider got up and shook hands with him in welcome. Why does everyone want to shake hands in this country, Gem thought, but his thoughts were diverted when his host pointed to a large TV screen.
“That’s the man.” On the screen, a typical banker type sat downstairs where Gem had sat, downstairs in the very chair Gem where Gem had waited. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, of average height, and he sat with the casual confidence of a man wearing a striped three piece suit and who knows why he is wearing it.
“You say you have changed the codes? Then we can proceed with informing the police.”
Herr Schneider spoke into the phone and a few moments later the screen showed the two guards who had guided Gem previously, approach the man and lead him away. Gem and his host watched their progress on the screen. They saw how the man travelled down alone on the elevator without buttons, how they searched him and how they led him into the computer room.
The man confidently removed a piece of paper from his coat’s breast pocket and began typing. The shock on the man’s face a few seconds later was almost palpable. He tried again without success and when he failed the third time the computer simply shut itself off.
One of the guards spoke to the door, the door opened and two uniformed policemen, who had been waiting outside, walked in. One of them had a pair of handcuffs at the ready. The man behind the computer had simply collapsed into his chair, unable to move.
“And so life goes on,” said Herr Schneider with a small smile. It was the first time Gem had seen him make an attempt at humor. “Shall we get to work? About your PA…”
“I’d rather leave work until Monday please. Something important has come up.” This did not please Herr Schneider and there was no second attempt at a smile, only a reluctant acceptance.
Gem called Mac to tell him of the change in plans and they arranged to meet for lunch at the bar of their hotel.
Mac was already at the bar when Gem arrived, but it was a new Mac who greeted him; a beautifully dressed Mac who was a decoration to the place. They smiled at each other.
“And there are five more like this one upstairs.” He indicted his suit, and broadened his smile. “Also, two Apple cell phones, one being for you. They are snuggled up to my brand new American passport.”
On Saturday at nine sharp, Amélie Géroux swirled around in the lobby of the Bischoff Hotel, showing off her incredibly lovely, white, Dior summer dress to Gem, as one of the receptionist let them to their car.
“What do you think?” She asked, smiling.
“Looks very expensive”
“Barbarian!” She laughed. “Is that all you can say?”
“You look lovely.”
She curtsied like a mischievous child. “Thank you! That wasn’t so hard now was it?”
She squealed when she saw the Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet the manager had arranged for them.
“Florian has one just like this, but the horrible beast won’t let me drive it. May I drive, Gem dear, may I, may I, may I, please, please, pleeeease?”
He could not resist her childish ways and handed her the keys.
She was a good driver. The scenery along the way was magnificent and her girlish chatter kept him smiling all the way to Lake Thun and the castle. The road soon reached the lake shore and they drove along it enjoying the view. From a blue heaven a benign sun shone over the waters of the lake, making it shimmer like an unlikely mirage too beautiful to be real.
She told him that she was a sculptress, specializing in both human and animal heads and her work was beginning to get recognition, if the sales figures were to be believed she’d impishly implied. He, in turn, was obliged to provide information about his own occupation and he was forced to admit that he owned the hotel she was staying at. She squealed with delight at the news.
When they reached their destination, Gem stared in awe at the castle. Though not particularly large, as castles go, it was a poem of Swiss architecture for this type of building. It was built right on the lake, the original owner obviously anticipating an attack from the water side.
They rested at the wonderful Schloss Oberhofen restaurant with a snack and coffee, staring all the while through the establishment’s floor to ceiling glass wall at Lake Thun.
Amélie simply adored the view and wanted to return to the restaurant later.
“It’s almost twelve.” She said looking at her watch. “It will take us about an hour to see the place properly, so before we head back, can we have lunch here, Gem dear? Shall we? I simply adore the view from here.”
She had got into the habit of calling him “Gem dear” and he liked it.
“Certainly. How can anyone resist you anything at all?” He asked, raising another smile and surprising himself flirting.
Gem admired the beauty of what must have been an observation tower built directly in the lake itself. It was connected to the main castle by a covered bridge with only the lake water underneath it.
“Let’s go and see it,” Amélie said and led the way in a skipping, whirling, manner which he found charming.
Gem navigated the bridge over the untroubled waters of Lake Thun, which led to the tower. The lookout turret was about the size of a large lounge area. At the far end there was a wooden balcony hanging over the lake and Amélie was already there leaning far out over the rail.
“Please don’t lean so far out,” Gem timidly suggested, thinking of his inability to save her should she fall off.
“Oh, Gem dear, come and look at this magical view!”
“No thanks, I don’t much like heights,”
She laughed at him and left her observation post to put her arm through his and lead him to the balcony.
“Here is where I dig in my hind legs,” he insisted. “I don’t feel comfortable with heights.”
“Just trust me Gem, dear. I shall hold on to you and you will be perfectly safe.”
Feeling embarrassed he followed her with some trepidation and when they reached the railing, he kept about a foot back.
Amélie shook the railing with all her might.
“Look, solid as a rock. Come on, shake it yourself and see.”
Gem took hold of the railing. He shook it, gingerly at first and then with more and more force. It would take a tractor to budge the thing.
“You see? You will have to climb and stand on the railing to be in any danger. Don’t lean over if it makes you uncomfortable, just enjoy the view!”
He found himself actually leaning on the solid rail and enjoying the experience. He couldn’t fall unless he deliberately climbed over the railing, so he eventually found himself leaning his elbows on the rail and breathing in the fresh air and the incredible view.
“My hero! Let me take your photo on my cell phone and you can admire yourself every time you are chump enough to think that you are afraid of heights.”
She took her cell phone out of her bag as three men joined them in the tower.
“I won’t be a moment,” she told them with a smile, which froze on her lips when two of the men pushed past her. The third grabbed her cell phone and threw it into the lake.
Before she could scream, the two men had pinned Gem’s arms on either side of him, with his head over the edge of the railing and he stared at the water below him in horror. They then flipped him over – heels- over- head - and he ended up hanging outside the railing facing outward over the lake, his arms pinned by the two men to the balustrade, feet towards the lake. He looked like Christ nailed to the cross.
“I say, chaps, a joke’s a joke, but I can’t swim.” He tried to sound reasonable, as his heart chased itself around his chest in terror, trying to get out.
“Don’t worry, you won’t need to swim; you’ll be dead when you hit the water. Karl Wölfflin sends his regards,” one of the jokers said in a thick German accent.
He heard Amélie bellow a seemingly endless ‘Nooooooo’ as they released him and he fell feet first, with his arms frozen by fear in the position they had held him, and he looked as if Christ himself had been dropped while still on the cross.
His feet hit the water with hardly a ripple since his body was stiff with terror and he only felt pain when his sideways extended arms hit the water. He went down like a lead ingot and he hit bottom about thirty feet down, but very gently, because by then the water’s buoyancy had reduced his speed. His knees bent slightly when his feet touched bottom, making him appear as if he was in a sitting position without a chair.
He just floated there, bound to an invisible desk, with his eyes open, looking around him in curiosity, shock delaying the panic. The strong August sunlight penetrated the depths and he could see boulders and mud and what looked like grass on the lake floor. He was amazed to see a bubble detach itself from what looked to be a flower and he wondered how it was possible for a flower to live under water and to produce bubbles like that.
Incongruously, he thought of the woman who had turned to look at him outside the bank and he felt his chest tighten. It hit him suddenly that the tightening in his chest was simply nature’s signal that he needed to breathe. But to breathe what?
Panic did not have to knock for long at the door of his soul before he let it in, dislodging the remnants of his dignity within. His lungs were bursting and his arms began to flail about in desperation. He delayed the inevitable by releasing some air from his lungs, but he knew that the time had come. He closed his eyes and braced himself for the inevitable agony of breathing water into his lungs instead of air.
What a horrible way to die, was his last thought.
Just then he felt two hands grab him from behind, pushing him upwards with what seemed like the speed of a fighter jet. He made one last valiant effort to keep his mouth closed and to delay breathing – but he just could not. He took the inevitable deep breath – and it was of delicious fresh air as his head broke the surface.
He could not control his body’s reaction. It insisted on taking a deep breath after deep breath in rapid succession to compensate for the long deprivation of oxygen. Several moments passed before he realized that his head was being held above the waterline by gentle female hands.
“Gem dear, please listen to me. I am a very good swimmer and I can take you ashore, but you must stay perfectly still. Don’t flay about or we shall both drown.”
Gem had no strength and could not thrash about even if he’d wanted to. His body ensured that all his energy was expended in taking those deep breaths while his arms lay useless at his side. He could not understand why with every breath the word mettbrötchen flashed in his brain like a neon sign at a Las Vegas quick wedding establishment.
Mettbrötchen, mettbrötchen, mettbrötchen.
He realized that his savior was Amélie, but he could not respond, so he just lay there with eyes closed, helplessly letting her take him wherever she wanted. He did not know how much time passed, before he felt the boat arrive. He felt strong male hands lift him into it.
He thought of the girl still in the water.
“Amélie,” he croaked opening his eyes at last and trying to get up.
“I am here, Gem dear, please don’t try to get up.”
He could hear that she was crying and he was suddenly surprised to remember that mettbrötchen was one of the nauseating specialties of Frau Fankhauser, the one she was especially insistent that he tried.
He tried to pull himself together.
“I am fine now, please let me sit up.”
“Stay where you are!” A male voice spoke with a strong German accent and even stronger authority. “An ambulance will be here to take you to the hospital. We are insured for this,” he added incongruously, as if trying to reassure him that his master’s business would not suffer financially and he could therefore die with an easy conscience.
Gem looked at Amélie. Her beautiful Dior dress clung to her body and might as well have been sackcloth. Her wet hair stuck to her head in a manner which was anything but chic. Her mascara was running down her face and she was crying.
He’d never seen anything more beautiful.
Sitting together in borrowed hospital bathrobes after hot rejuvenating showers, Gem and Amélie underwent police questioning for almost three hours before Mac and Amélie’s mother arrived with fresh clothing and support.
A regally dignified Madame Géroux immediately took charge, insisting that she be given another private room in which to assist her daughter in dressing. A stern and worried Florian tryied to get information out of Gem about how his sister had been placed in such a dangerous position. Gem was mystified and simply could not help.
“They just said that someone called Karl Wool or something sends me his regards.” His face plead to be understood. Please forgive me for endangering your sister, he wanted to say but couldn’t. “I just don’t know anyone by that name. More to the point, I don’t know anyone who might want to kill me, whatever his name might be.” He said this while Mac helped him put on his coat.
“I have two limousines outside, along with a couple of bodyguards. I think we had better go back to the hotel and consider the events from the safety of your suite,” Mac said.
“Right. We’ll wait for Amélie to get ready and then we’ll be off.”
Florian shook his head. “I think not, Gem. You appear to be a dangerous man to be around and I don’t want to risk my sister’s safety by letting her travel with you. We’ll use our own limousine to get back and we shall consider the situation at a family meeting tonight.” He sliced his hand through the air, as if he was cutting Gem off. “All this is quite disturbing, especially for our mother, as you can appreciate.”
Gem nodded in understanding and asked to say goodbye to Amélie and to thank her again for saving his life before he left. Florian went to see if she was ready.
Twenty minutes later a new and refreshed Amélie lit up the room with her entrance, beautifully dressed once more, with her makeup perfectly done and her usual winning smile in place. She ran over to Gem and hugged him.
“I want to go with you,” was the first thing she said in a childish voice. Those six simple words captivated Gem immediately.
“I think your brother is right to want you away from me for a while, until we find out what this is all about.”
He patted her on the back. She responded with a pout, apparently offended by his reserve.
“Good doggy…, here’s a pat on the back and go…”
“Oh, Amélie, please don’t be hurtful. I know that if it was not for you bravely and selflessly jumping in and saving me, I would now be only be fit for gourmet cat food. All the more reason I want you to be safe. And safe, for the time being appears to be away from me.” He spoke with feeling and meant every word.
“He is right, dear. Come along now and we shall meet up with Gem later” Florian said as he led his reluctant and sulking sister away.
Gem watched her leaving with a sense of loss.
He felt a compression in his chest and some fluttering butterflies in his stomach. For an illogical second he thought that he was about to make local news with a heart attack at age of thirty. But then logic prevailed and he realized that, illogically, the pain in his heart felt wonderful to him. He was in love for the first time in his life.
Mac had brought all the small bottles from the hotel’s mini bar that would fit in his pockets and he and Gem went through them at a rate of knots.
“I supposed smoking is not allowed in a hospital, so the earlier we leave this place the better I’ll like it,” Mac was saying as he drained his last bottle. “But first there are a couple of guys I want you to meet. They are outside and they are the bodyguards I spoke to you about earlier,” Mac threw the empties in a bin and began to put the wet clothing in the bag in which he had brought Gem’s clean clothes.
“I’ve put your wet wallet along with the other baptismal and we’ll sort it out when we get to the hotel.”
He closed the suitcase and placed it by the door, then thoughtfully searched himself for a lighter.
“Now brace yourself.” He walked about as if trying to find the best way to put it. “The two guys waiting outside are not angels, but I’ve known them on the inside and there you can’t hide who you really are. These are reliable men - if they are being paid well and you are paying them well.”
He put a cigarette in his mouth without lighting it.
“$5,000 apiece per month, all expenses paid and if you are alive twelve months from now, you will pay them a bonus of $25,000 each. Under these terms, I guarantee you that your life will be the only mission in theirs.
Gem nodded and sat down. This was getting interesting. He looked at Mac waiting for the rest of it.
“One of them is a 28 year old Turkish Cypriot by the name Mehmet Gokcebag. He is as tough as they come. He used to be a professional boxer and I can tell you with certainty that I wouldn’t want to get into a fight with him. He is a handsome lad and quite popular with the ladies”
Mac decided to stop walking about and sat down on one of the armchairs.
“Now the other one is a bit more… how shall I put it? Exotic! Yes, I think that’s a good word for him. He is 46 years old and he is the Reverend John Pinoy Priestley.”
He stopped when Gem choked on the contents of his last tiny bottle of whisky.
“Did you say Reverend?”
“Yes. He was ordained by the Anglican Church. However, apparently there comes a time in the life of some men of God when doing God’s work becomes too much of a burden. At that time, their human side gets the upper hand.” Mac smiled his secret smile.
Gem beganto feel light headed questioning whether this was actually happening to him, or he was dreaming.
“The Anglican Church, at some point, considered it unsporting of Reverend Priestley to use his personal magnetism to the extent that he did.” Mac spread his hands when he said this, as if asking for justice in this unreasonable and unfair world. “His manner had charmed unlimited financial and other favors out of willing females, within a wide spectrum of ages, his most renowned being a 63 year old maiden from New York. He also charmed substantial monetary contributions to his unregistered charities, out of unsuspecting innocent female bystanders.” Here Mac raised his shoulders a little as if to say, What can you do? Boys will be boys.
“A true philanthropist, then” interjected Gem.
“Perhaps, but the Anglican Church was unsporting in his case and did not share this view. It also frowned on Pinoy’s personal inclination towards the ladies of the peroxided persuasion, though Pinoy himself always ensured that they did not cost more than $50 a pop to the collection box.”
Gem smiled enthralled. “Surely this must have counted for something?”
“It appears that the Church was unreasonably rigid in this instance.” Mac released the secret smile again.
“Pinoy modified his tastes, when he was posted to the Philippines, where the Church of England hoped to teach him a lesson. His is a flexible character and when he came face to face with the exotic beauty of the east, he realized his error in not previously expanding his experiences. Admiration spread over Mac’s face as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
“It was there that he learned the Filipino fine art of knife fighting and he claims that he should not have spent those five years in a Philippine prison, because it was self-defense against the four victims, especially since their wounds were not fatal.” Mac shrugged in sympathy. “He came out of prison with the nickname Pinoy, which is a name the Filipinos call themselves. He says that he is now a Filipino. Mac raised his shoulders again at this peculiarity.
“Now, all of us learned the three languages of Switzerland in prison; German, French and Italian. There was nothing much else for us to do, so that is an additional benefit there, since you only speak English. Your knowledge of Latin and Greek is not much help in the real world. He looked Gem directly in the eyes as he said this and there was a clear warning in his voice.
“And that is the brief introduction. Shall I bring them in?”
“Yes, but one by one please. My weak constitution may not be able to survive all of it at once.”
Mac went to the door and signaled to someone. The black haired young man who walked in was serious and unsmiling. About 5’ 10” he had a round handsome face and might have been thought babyish if it did not look to be made almost of solid granite. The broken nose made him look more approachable.
“This is Mehmet, Gem.”
“How do you do Mehmet.” Gem got up to shake the man by the hand and felt the pressure of a vice gripping his own for a few seconds, before Mehmet let go.
“I am fine, sir. Glad to be working for you.”
“Just call me Gem, please.” The young man nodded but there was doubt in his eyes.
Mac went to the door again and motioned the other one in. As the man walked in, Mac simply said:
“The Reverend John Pinoy Priestley.”
He looked tough, practically like the first mate of a pirate ship which had spread death and destruction on the high seas. There were knife cuts on his hands and face, but he was not unattractive.
“How do you do, Reverend?” Gem said, and once more experienced his hand in a vice.
“I am fine sir. Just call me Pinoy.”
Pinoy smiled a smile which contrasted his tough exterior and created a welcome diversion from his potential danger. Gem asked him to just call him Gem and the man’s smile widened in acknowledgement.
“Gem, Pinoy and Mehmet are not what you would call model citizens. But whatever their defects – and some would claim there are more than a few – they are men of their word. They will at least try hard to keep you safe.
The two men nodded their confirmation of Mac’s statement and Gem said: “I feel like Job with his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, I cannot ask for more than that, so let’s go to the hotel.”
It took until Monday for security arrangements to be completed. The top sixth floor, where the suites were located, was isolated, with the elevator programmed to go no further than the fifth floor. Only Gem and Mac had special keys which allowed the elevator to reach the sixth floor when required.
Mehmet and Pinoy shared a large room next to the staircase on the fifth floor, so they could act as one should the need arise. The hotel security staff had been strengthened and extra security cameras had been installed and were constantly monitored. Special monitors had been placed in the bodyguards’ room, as well as Gem’s and Mac’s rooms, with the security cameras providing a feed of the ongoing activities in public areas.
By Monday the place was a fortress.
“So you see, Herr Schneider, something very odd is going on and until we find out what it is, I’d better not circulate,” Gem said.
“Very wise Mr. Stone. What about your Personal Assistant?”
“Well, please send all the applicants to my hotel. Can you do that?”
“Of course, but I do have a suggestion”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Well, I have already made preliminary interviews of the three candidates you have requested. If you would allow me to guide you, the best appears to someone from an auditing firm we work extensively with. Although young, this person has the accounting knowledge you… erm… appear to lack for the time being. What do you think?”
“Fine, as long as he is willing to travel without giving me any hustle about it. Send him over for lunch at one with his suitcases. I’ll arrange a room for him with the manager.”
“It’s a she, sir. Her name is Natalia Louise Berger. She is 28 years old and she has been working very efficiently for this auditing firm, for the last six years, right out of university.”
“But Herr Schneider, I explained the travelling requirement!”
“She has no family Mr. Stone but she does have a young person’s liking of adventurous travelling. Besides, she knows that accommodation and travelling arrangements will be of the best. Luxury is a great compensator of hard work.”
A man already deeply in love is not interested in female assistants, but business is, after all, business.
“Oh, very well, send her over, but on a six month trial period, after which we shall see what will come of it.”
“Do I have your authorization to brief her about your situation and your requirements in detail, before I send her over?” Herr Schneider asked, accepting no half measures in his professional dealings and wanting proper authorization.
“You do,” Gem said before hanging up.
Gem called the hotel manager to make the arrangement and then turned to Mac, who had draped himself over one of the arm chairs and was smoking another attentive cigarette.
“As you have heard, we are now a group of five, Mac. I’ve arranged for all of us to have lunch up here and please keep your experienced eye open and tell me if we are on the right track.”
His new friend simply nodded and spoke in a thoughtful tone, through clouds of smoke.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, Horatio. Things just don’t fit into my poor conception.”
Gem rose to the Hamlet challenge. “Heaven will direct it, Marcellus, will it not?”
“Heaven helps those who help themselves, young Gem. I have been whipping my brain, such as it is, to understand how these people, who do not seem to like you very much, know so much about you. And I always end up with the bank. They have someone on the inside. And why do they want to kill you? What will they gain?”
“Revenge, for picking up the loot they feel was theirs?”
“Yes, but revenge is not profitable, business-wise. It would be much better to try to negotiate with you, somehow. And they haven’t tried to do that.”
“Perhaps they know that they shall not succeed. The thought of waving goodbye to all that money without the possibility of ever shaking hands with it again makes me feel quite faint.”
“The only logical explanation is if the bank itself is trying to kill you. They have been doing very well out of this account, until you showed up.” Mac breathed smoke into his whisky glass until it was empty.
“It’s conceivable, I suppose. But surely banks cannot afford to keep bumping off their clients, just because they want the clients’ money. What if you showed up the next day, with the right codes and proper access to the account? Will they bump you off too?”
“There is that I suppose,” Mac agreed and poured himself another drink. “It’s the ex-cop part of me that’s always suspicious.
Two great minds pondered their way down the question’s long winding road for hours, well-oiled with whisky and water, but arrived without any solid results.
At precisely one o’clock the receptionist called to say that Miss Natalia Louise Berger was there to see him. Gem asked for her to be sent up. Mac called the boys to let her through.
At the knock on the door Mac motioned him down, opened the door himself, and Natalia Louise Berger walked in.
Literature is full of descriptions of lower jaws falling in surprise, but from the time of Homer, no author has been able to divine an adequate description of the speed with which Gem’s and the girl’s jaws synchronized in hitting the floor. The prospective PA was the woman Gem had passed in the street outside the bank – the one he had not turned to look at until he’d passed her, only to find that she had also turned to look at him.
“Ah, we meet again,” he finally managed to stutter once she’d walked in and Mac had left them the room with a parting inquisitive glance.
To his amazement, the girl laughed. It was a sweet, low, purring laugh, completely unembarrassed.
“Thank God you stuttered! I was about to do that myself and you beat me to it, saving me from making a fool of myself, Thank you.” Her voice was soft and tender, like that of a cat with full mammary glands calling its first litter to lunch and her smile was captivating. Her expression was as calm as a garden pond in the summer.
She had the kind of beauty which creates a sense of insecurity in even the most self-confident and accomplished of men.
“Always glad to be of service in this cruel, selfish world by making an ass of myself. The Stones are constantly prepared to don the old knightly armor, to save the blushes of a maiden in distress.” He smiled, but he reminded himself that he was a man in love. He could not help feeling relief, though, because having found a girl who could bandy words with him on equal footing.
The girl’s smile became more serious, more businesslike.
“Should I leave?” she asked in a confident and practical manner.
Gem smiled back, equally businesslike. “Why? You just got here.”
“I thought that because of the circumstances of our previous encounter you might prefer to find someone else for your business requirements. Someone, perhaps less distracting, Mr. Stone,” she smiled again, but business was not in it this time.
“We have managed to get all the distraction out of the equation at our very first encounter, I think. We can now proceed to the business at hand, if it is OK with you.” He gestured towards the lounge area and they headed for it together. “I need someone who, unlike me, can work out the difference between debit and credit without getting a headache. I am told that you can do that.”
“That, Mr. Stone, is one of the things I do really well.” She said this as she sank into one of the luxurious armchairs, smoothing her skirt after she sat down. He took the armchair opposite her.
“Splendid. You are hired. Provided you get yourself to address me as Gem, unlike the poor General Manager of this hotel who finds it impossible and who constantly calls me sir.”
She smiled. “I can do that as well, Gem.”
Gem felt a witty, flirty remark trying to get out, but repressed it. Down boy; don’t get sidetracked. Concentrate your energies in capturing the heart of the beautiful Amélie. Don’t screw this up.
Aloud, he said: “Good. Let me call in the others and you can get to know them over lunch.”
He picked up the phone and spoke to Mac.
The lunch was a pleasant affair. Natalia brought out the best of the men, and when the waiters cleared the table the five of them sat in the lounge area to talk business.
“I hereby call our first meeting to order. Any questions before we commence?”
“I could use a drink,” Pinoy said just as they sat down. “May I?” He indicated the drinks cabinet.
“This congregation shall be a rather socialist one Reverend and certainly not a slave to etiquette. There will be no trousering of the key to the cellar with the expensive wines and spirits. All for one and one for all shall be the shameless cliché by which we live.”
Gem enjoyed the immediate, but the subtle satisfaction the group now projected, including the relaxed attitude of Pinoy, who went to the bar, poured himself a generous glass of vodka and returned to the lounge area with a new spring in his step.
“One of life’s tragedies,” Gem continued, “Is to be mistreated or ignored by one’s nearest and dearests. I refer, of course, to you uncouth lot who guzzle the drinks cabinet by yourselves, without thinking of those around you,” Gem smiled and Pinoy got up again with a laugh and asked what the others would like.
“Cheers. Wealth and happiness” Pinoy yodeled from the bar.
“With so much loot to go around, we shall have wealth and happiness flowing out of our ears,” Gem responded, then he turned to Mac and said:
“Mac, will you please bring Natalia up to date with our situation, so that she knows why we are cooped up here, instead of enjoying the August sunshine outside? Any ideas anyone might have will be welcome.”
Mehmet went to help Pinoy with the drinks while Mac explained the murder attempt on Gem.
“Had it not been for young Amélie…” Gem’s voice trailed off as he realized that he had not actually called Amélie that day. He had been thinking about her, but with one thing and another, the other being Natalia’s visit, he had not actually called her. He collected himself and continued: “… a small portion who looks as if she weighs as much as three wet swan feathers when she steps out of the shower, you would not be enjoying the company of the dashing and debonair founder of the new Flintstone dynasty. I find it amazing that she could save an ox like me without a second thought.”
“Obviously an admirable girl,” Natalia said with a thoughtful look in her eyes. “But this is quite serious. What about the police?”
“They are as baffled as we are. No one knows who this Karl Wool-or-whatever is.”
She removed her fashionable prescription glasses to look him directly in the eyes.
“Well, to the common or garden citizen, bafflement is understandable,” she said. “But not in one to whom God comes for a loan when God is a bit short towards the end of the month. According to Herr Schneider, you can afford to buy the services of the best investigating firm in the country,” she added reasonably. “Why not use the one the bank is using? I know them well because my own firm uses them also and I can call them up.”
Gem and Mac looked at each other, embarrassed for not thinking of it themselves as did Mehmet and Pinoy, but without any embarrassment in their case.
“While Mac and I try to hide our girlish blushes for not considering this, do you have anything else to suggest that we may not have thought of?”
“Not off the top of my head, but let me consider this matter for a while and you never know…” she sounded very thoughtful indeed.
“In the meantime, let us all share telephone numbers and other contact details, because I wish to send you a link to a property for sale, young Natalia.” And when the deed was done: “This is a property that I wish you to purchase for friends of mine, by the names of Shalini and Ashvina Vakil. Purchase it with its current furniture included.”
“Some friends,” Natalia said with a smile when she opened the link and saw the Oxford mansion for sale. “You must allow me to negotiate the price because the UK property market is depressed right now and we can pay considerably less than the £5,250,000 asking price.”
“I want a big favor of you, young Natalia. I’d like you to take the afternoon flight to London, first class, of course,” he smiled, “And buy the property by next Wednesday. Take possession of it even if the documentation is not completed. I intend to fly into Oxford by then and I want to surprise my friends with this. Take this debit card with you, which is in pound sterling in any case. The £100,000 in it will see you through with regards to travel and other expenses. Buy yourself the nicest dress you can find, as a bonus for your trouble.”
“I’ll get on to it immediately’ she said with another charming smile. “Then I shall see about buying the property,” she added, raising a laugh from everyone. She became more serious.
“I shall send the money transfer details to Herr Schneider and once you authorize him, he will send the money immediately. Shall I get a cook and at least a couple of maids for this? Your friends will not thank you if they have to clean this place for themselves.”
“What a brilliant girl you are! Yes, of course. Do whatever you think is right and proper. And before you leave, please arrange for one of our airplanes to take the rest of us lot to Oxford Airport, at noon of this coming Wednesday.”
The pockets of both Mehmet and Pinoy buzzed and they both took out walkie-talkie receivers whose headphones they plugged into their ears.
“Someone is coming up the stairs” Pinoy said and immediately stepped outside, while Mehmet stayed on the inside of the door. A signal knock and he opened the door to let in Amélie.
Though beautifully dressed and pretty as a flower in one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s best paintings, she looked angry. Pleased to see her regardless, Gem walked towards her with his arms outstretched in welcome, but he stopped when she stomped her foot.
“Beast!” She shouted and she stomped her foot again, like a difficult child. “You didn’t call me today!”
Before Gem could react, she ran to him, put her arms around his neck and stayed there, her face hidden in his shoulder. Gem felt how God must feel at one of the more visited worshipping shrines.
Everyone else left the room with smiles on their faces and once Gem and Amélie were alone, he patted her back gently and with tenderness.
“Good doggy…” she said as she had before at the hospital. She lifted her face to his. “Please don’t pet me like a doggy… I am not a doggy Gem, I am a woman…”
That was when he kissed her.
It was the need for food which forced Gem and Amélie apart around dinner time. Both having dressed and Amélie having called her mother to say that she was having dinner with Gem, they wolfed down some of the hotel chef’s better efforts in Gem’s private dining room.
Amélie was now her usual bright, happy self and could not keep her hands off Gem. But when he told her that he would be going to England on Wednesday, she began pouting again.
“I want to go with youuuuu…” she purred.
“I don’t think that your brother and mother will be very pleased with that idea.” Gem was flattered but he did not want trouble with the wonderful friends he had just made in her brother and mother.
“I don’t care. I can handle mother and Florian is away on business. I will simply not call him to tell him.” The impish smile on her face was irresistible.
“Well, it will only be for a few days, so if your mother says it’s OK, you can come. We are leaving the hotel at ten in the morning.”
Wednesday morning found the whole group in the hotel lobby ready to depart, when the receptionist arrived to tell Amélie that her mother wanted her urgently upstairs.
Fifteen minutes later, the receptionist informed Gem that he was also wanted urgently in Madame Géroux’s suite. He rushed upstairs and the maid led him to her mistress's room, where the mother was in bed, deathly pale.
“She is not well, Gem, we can’t go just yet.” The look on Amélie’s face prevented the ungallant part of Gem from saying that he will see her on his return.
“Come and sit by me, my boy. Florian will be back in a couple of hours, so please stay with me until he returns.” Madame Géroux’s voice was feeble and without hesitation Gem called Mac downstairs to tell him to postpone the flight until four that afternoon.
He was tenderly holding Madame Géroux’s hand on one side of the bed, with the doctor on the other side taking her blood pressure, when Mac came and asked to speak to him privately about one hour later.
The latest news was that the airplane they were supposed to be travelling on had just been blown up in its hangar.
The power of money is unquestionable in all parts of the world, but in Switzerland it is supreme. Since the charter flight had been booked through the bank, there was no record of a passenger list as yet, so the police did not appear with difficult questions for Gem about possible motives. It was just another strange incident to be reported by TV channels that evening and by the press the next day.
“There but for the Grace of God, goes Gem Flintstone, Reverend,” Gem said to Pinoy.
“Well, in this instance the Grace of God thankfully included blameless bystanders. Are you sure you don’t have the blood of innocent widows and orphans on your hands, Gem? Perhaps it’s God’s way to get you to repent.” Pinoy’s grin was rather a strained one.
“You wound me, Pinoy, you wound me deeply. I am as innocent as a newly hatched sparrow and just as frail.” Gem was walking up and down his suite, addressing the rest of the group.
“But this gathering is turning out to be like a little get together at a wake, with distinct plans to meet again at the funeral home for the cremation,” he continued, his hand on his right eyebrow. “We can’t just sit in this hotel for the rest of our lives. We must do something.” He stopped his strolling to look at the group seated in the lounge area of his suite.
Mac had his leg over the arm of a sofa and was lighting another cigarette. “The bomb was timed to go off just over the English Channel. If we had not been delayed, the local fish would have received unexpected delicacies for lunch.” He blew smoke at Pinoy. “Though, no doubt, Pinoy would have given some poor unsuspecting shark indigestion.” He was unsuccessful in his attempt to lighten the mood.
Gem continued to stroll about, plucking at his eyebrow.
“Our local charter company’s airplanes have been grounded by the police for the time being, but Natalia has arranged for a jet from our London office to be here tomorrow at ten. We’ll get out of this snake pit and seek safe shelter in England, until we decide what to do. Can I borrow a cigarette, Mac?” He sat next to Mac as he said this and started coughing as soon as he lit up. “This is vile.” He coughed again and rubbed the offending cigarette into an ashtray in a vengeful manner which turned it into tobacco flakes.
“Can’t we go by train?” Pinoy fidgeted in his armchair, his face a signboard of anxiety.
Gem raised an eyebrow. “Why, Pinoy! This snobbishness at the thought of sharing a private jet with us borders on the hurtful. What’s the matter?”
Pinoy fidgeted some more and touched the cross hanging around his neck. “It’s times such as these that I begin to think that if the Good Lord wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. In any case, I usually have to get really loaded to get on an airplane.” Pinoy fidgeted some more and touched the cross hanging around his neck.
“Then loaded, you shall be when we get on board,” Mac smiled.
The two limousines arrived promptly at nine to take them to the airport for the ten o’clock flight, Mehmet and Pinoy sitting next to the drivers. They had decided to go to the garage and search the cars there for any explosives, just in case.
Gem and Mac sat in the leading car, Mehmet and Pinoy in the other, keeping an eye on them from the rear. Just as Gem’s car began to pull away from the curb, someone banged on the top of the car roof and the driver stopped. The door opened and Amélie stepped in, pushing Mac to the center towards Gem, to make room for herself.
“You forgot the baggage’ she said cheerfully as the driver headed out into the traffic, assuming that all was well.
“Amélie, you can’t go with us! Think of the danger. What will your mother and brother say?”
“There was nothing they could say, once I informed them that we are engaged and that a woman’s place is by her man, through thick and thin.”
“Are we engaged?” Gem found himself genuinely interested to know.
“Of course we are,” Amélie said. “You don’t think you can take advantage of a poor maiden and then cast her aside like… like… what’s the word, Mac?”
“I believe the traditional term is ‘old glove’”.
“Thank you Mac.” Amélie leaned over to look at Gem, “You don’t think you can take advantage of a poor maiden and then cast her aside like an old glove, do you?”
“No, now that you mention it, I suppose not,” was all Gem managed to say with a smile.
“What about your luggage?” The practical side of Mac needed to ask.
“Don’t be silly, Mac,” she said, sitting back and smoothing her skirt as close to her knees as she could get it. “I have all I require in my purse, meaning, of course, my passport. What is the use of having Croesus’s nephew for a fiancé, if you cannot buy a complete new outfit at Harrods whenever the mood strikes you?” The men could not help laughing because she said it so naturally and so matter of fact, as if there was no sense in discussing it, and indeed there was not.
“Mother says to give her at least two weeks’ notice of our arrival in France.”
“Are we going to France?”
Amélie again leaned over to look him.
“Of course; we shall live in France, didn’t I tell you? It’s the only place to live. You don’t think that I shall live in a hotel for the rest of my life do you?” At that Gem remained silent.
“Anyway, mother wants to give a reception in honor of our engagement at one of her chateaux.
“ONE of her chateaux? How many does she have?”
“Gem darling, you must try and control this childish tendency you have of asking too many questions one after the other. It’s not cultured.”
“Sorry” was all that the pride of the Stone Clan could gargle.
“And to answer your silly question, yes, she has several chateaux – plural – and she is giving us one as a wedding present.
“That’s nice of her.”
“Isn’t it? I chose the one at La Flèche because it has been recently renovated and has private baths in all the rooms. It also has equestrian facilities. Do you like riding, darling?”
“Yes, but can it accommodate all of us?” Gem was trying to find escape routes, just in case, finding some insurmountable impediment to the idea of this proposal.”
“Well, as long as you keep your entourage to less than twenty, we shall not have to resort to hotels. The chateau has 24 very large and very comfortable bedrooms or suites, all of them as good as the Bischoff Hotel.”
“Very kind of your mother, I am sure, but… but… why?”
Mac began to laugh uncontrollably.
“You are getting a goddam dowry,” he said, putting his head back the better to enjoy the laugh. Gem joined in after a moment’s hesitation.
As soon as they boarded the Legacy 600 Executive jet they wallowed in its luxurious soft leather seats and got another taste of true extravagance. Mac ensured that Pinoy was supplied with the needful and by the time they landed in Oxford at 11:30 a.m., Reverend Priestly was steeped to the gills with vodka, an infinite love of all humanity and mumbling religion.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.
Natalia had arranged lunch at the newly bought mansion and Mrs. Lemmon, the cook, was giving of her best in the kitchen, wanting to impress her new employer. One of the maids assisted her and another maid served drinks to the group in one of the three sumptuous reception rooms. All of them were waiting to see the surprise on the faces of Gem’s friends when Natalia returned with them in one of the limousines. All Shalini and Ashvina knew was that Gem was back in England and wanted to see them.
“I think that your next PA should be a man, darling,” Amélie said and everyone stopped to see what would come out of that facetious, captivating mouth this time..
“This work is bound to be too much for a woman her age. She is at least thirty and you can see bags beginning to form under her eyes.” She had a caring look on her face as she said this and Pinoy and Mehmet watched her with interested expressions on their faces.
“She is only twenty eight,” Gem informed her with a grin.
Annoyance swiftly replaced the caring look as she considered his response. “Well, she looks much older. I am not saying she is unattractive, but this type of woman ages very quickly and in another five years she will need a wheelchair.”
Amélie took out a gold compact powder case and studied her own face in its mirror. Satisfied, she turned to look at Gem. “At this rate you will drive the poor woman to an early grave.” She double checked Gem’s face for a reaction, but he held it expressionless. “No, I think next time you should let me choose a really good male PA for you.”
Ever since she had met Natalia, Amélie had put her arm through Gem’s and would simply not let go of him. Even now, with Natalia away on her errand of mercy she had squeezed Gem to the end of a sofa, leaning into him with her feet on the couch, preventing anyone else from getting near. The other men thought this to be a very good show, so even Pinoy put down his drink to enjoy the spectacle.
“I don’t know…” he drawled. “She looks incredibly pretty to me…” His face was serious, but his eyes laughed.
“And to me,” Mehmet joined in, his voice soft and admiring. “I wouldn’t mind being married to a strikingly beautiful girl like that.”
Pinoy agreed. “Strikingly beautiful… yes, I think you have described her perfectly Mehmet. You don’t see many women like her about, no sir. She is certainly an Act of God.” He looked at Mehmet with admiration for his perception.
Amélie squeezed herself even harder into Gem. With a crimsoned face, she looked up at him to see how he’d taken it.
“That’s a silly description for an old woman! And from a priest as well; Shame on you for calling her an Act of God, Reverend. I simply cannot see what you find in her.” She said with childish petulance.
“Well, let’s see,” Pinoy raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if trying to divine how to best answer her question. Amélie began to look worried. “She has the longest legs I have ever seen, for a start. Have you seen longer legs in your life Mehmet?”
Mehmet gave the matter some serious thought before he replied.
“No…, no, I haven’t. Not only do her legs go up to her tonsils, but they are shapely too.” He allowed a dreamy look to come into his eyes. “And not just your common or garden shapely female legs that you see every day on every attractive woman who go by.” Amélie looked as if she was about to cry. “If Natalia decided to go into fashion modelling, she would put Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bündchen and Claudia Schiffer out of business at a stroke.”
Amélie’s eyes became flamethrowers and she tried to incinerate him with their green glare.
“Then there is that exquisite, pretty face of hers.” Pinoy leaned forward to pour himself another drink. “Let’s face it guys, that’s a face in a million. Wouldn’t you say so Mehmet?”
Mehmet shook his head in disagreement.
“No, sorry old friend, but you couldn’t be more wrong there.” Out of the corner of his eye, Gem saw the ray of hope in Amélie’s fiery green eyes as Mehmet continued. “I’d say one in ten million. Easy.”
A strange gurgling sound came out of Amélie and jealousy’s emerald eyes flashed at Gem over the edge of female expectation of support.
The experienced Mac decided to end her torture.
“On a scale of 1 – 10, Natalia needs at least three points to reach Amélie’s level,” he said, placing a newly acquired cigar into his mouth, while searching himself for matches.
“Why, thank you, my dear, sweet Mac,” Amélie said, looking triumphantly at her two tormentors, happily digging even further into Gem. But she was a woman and women want to crash their victims in victory, not just let them bleed to death in simple agony.
“So how would you grade her, Mac dear?” Mac was becoming her ‘dear’ more and more regularly of late.
Mac appeared to be thinking of more important things, like ensuring the proper lighting of his cigar. “It’s simple arithmetic, Kid,” he puffed. “You are obviously a thirteen.”
Amélie’s day became one of bright, warm, life giving sunshine; But with a bit of cloud in the horizon at the back of her mind, at the thought that Natalia was considered to be a perfect ten.
Mac’s diplomacy had won the day, though.
Thanks to Natalia’s warning telephone call, Gem was waiting for his friends on the driveway in front of the mansion when the limousine eventually drove up.
The driver opened the door for Shalini who stood stunned on the paved road, looking around in awe. Ashvina followed, but instead of wasting time she ran up to Gem and hugged him tightly.
“I missed you, Einstein!” was all she said at first, then, “What is this place? It took us five minutes just to drive from the main gate to here. Don’t tell me that you own this pile Gem?” Her innocent boyish face was a beacon of light.
“No, it’s not mine,” Gem smiled. Hello, Shal.”
Shalini stood smiling up at him with friendly, loving eyes, waiting for an answer. “Well, if it’s not yours, useless turnip, what are we doing here?”
“We’ll talk about it inside. Come on.”
They walked up the stairs to the main door, but the door was locked.
Ashvina folded over laughing.
“What a chump!” She screeched. ‘Have you locked yourself out Einstein, or are we breaking into the place?” And she kept going around herself bent over, laughing.
Gem pulled a bunch of keys from his coat pocket and silently offered them to Shalini with a gentle meaningful smile, while she stared at him surprised. He looked deeply into her eyes, speaking volumes without words.
Almost a full minute passed before tears welled in her eyes and started to run down her cheeks. The tears came thicker and faster as she slowly lifted her hand up to collect the keys. The sound of Ashvina’s clowning seemed to have been completely switched off by her swirling brain. She bit her lip and then began to silently sob, her body shaking uncontrollably as she slowly put her arms around his neck and stayed there, frozen.
Ashvina stopped laughing because she first saw Natalia’s eyes brimming over with tears and, turning, she just stiffened at the sight of her mother sobbing quietly in Gem’s arms. Natalia made a sign for her to keep quiet and say nothing to spoil the moment.
It took some time for Shalini to stop shaking and when Gem gently stepped back, Natalia was there with a handkerchief and feminine support. She slowly led Shalini to the door and guided her hand to the lock, helping her to turn the key.
“Let me take you up to your suite to freshen up before you meet the others,” she said quietly and motioned the stunned Ashvina to follow without making noise.
It took more than half an hour for Shalini to compose herself enough to meet her guests and her newly acquired staff. Eventually the introductions were completed and the seven of them sat around the dining table. Gem insisted that Shalini sit at the head. Gem, Amélie and Mac sat on her right; Natalia, Mehmet, the Squirt and Pinoy on her left.
“So, great story tellers of the future shall probably refer to the time Gem Flintstone was dropped from a great height and survived to tell the tale. Thankfully, dear, sweet Amélie took a deep breath, commended her soul to God and dived in. Had she not done so, I would now be totally unfit company for this venerated gathering.”
His fiancé’s pleased laughter was throaty, soft and deep, like that of an infant being tickled.
“You don’t think I am stupid enough to let a good thing be wasted on Swiss fish do you?” She crooned. “I wanted you for myself and I wanted you in full working order.” She turned to her hostess. “Did I tell you we are engaged, Shalini?”
Mehmet and Pinoy looked at each other and tried not to laugh, but it was a close thing. They could not get enough of the girl’s funny ways and they did not want to be the cause of her changing her style by laughing at her.
“It is such wonderful news, I never get tired of hearing it” Shalini responded diplomatically, with a kind smile, “You make such a lovely couple.”
“We do, don’t we darling?” Amélie glowed up at Gem on her left, while surreptitiously glancing at Natalia across the table, to make sure that the latter got the message and was dust beneath her fashionable high heels. Mehmet and Pinoy began to giggle like school girls then they both coughed to hide the sound.
“Darling, please tell our friends what you like best about me,” Amélie said. This had Gem flummoxed. He could hardly speak of her luscious body and the way she… He tried to look at Mac behind Amélie, for help.
“No, don’t cheat. Don’t look at Mac for help, dear, look at me.” She brought her palms up above her head, to prevent Gem getting any help from Mac behind her.
“Why that’s easy,” Gem said trying to buy time, his peripheral vision begging for help from across the table.
“I am glad to hear it,” Amélie said. “Tell them.”
Across the table, Natalia pushed back on her nose her prescription glasses by stabbing the lenses with two fingers. Gem got the message.
“It’s your eyes of course. What else could it be?”
“My sweet love!” Amélie said, throwing her arms around his neck, kissing him passionately with her eyes closed. Gem kept a judicious left eye on Natalia, who was celebrating her triumph by lighting a non-existent cigarette with an imaginary lighter.
Amélie pulled back and looked deep into his eyes while holding his head in her two hands, preventing him from looking right or left. “Now tell them why you like my eyes more than anything else about me, darling.”
Gem felt at ease. Natalia’s signal had reminded him of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and it was easy street from then on.
“You silly girl, it must be obvious to the meanest intelligence. Your bewitching eyes shine like mystical candles, that burn in broad daylight; the sun reddens, but does not quench their eerie flame.”
Tears ran down Amélie’s face as she brought his head down again for another long kiss. Gem raised embarrassed eyebrows at his friends in a message that said, ‘what can you do?’. Mehmet and Pinoy both suddenly left the room in a rush, hopping to be able to make it outside before they spoiled the scene with their laughter.
Eventually, Gem was released from the clinch.
“She claims to be in love with me,” Gem said to Shalini when he was finally allowed to surface, “and this is surprising in a person of otherwise excellent taste. Personally, I wouldn’t do it for a bet.”
“Don’t be modest Gem. If she hands you the mitten, I’ll marry you” Ashvina contributed with a chuckle, earning a suspicious look from Amélie.
Natalia, having made sure that the limousine drivers waiting outside were fed, was able to relax and to enjoy the banter, until Amélie remembered that she needed to buy a few things for herself, for the evening and for the next day. They would be going to London then, where she could let herself go more freely, shopping wise. It was time to leave.
Gem had a private meeting with Shalini in the library, where he gave her two of the debit cards until more permanent arrangements could be made. She cried some more. Natalia then showed her the brand new Mercedes in the garage, gave her the keys and she cried some more still. And she cried again as she waved her friends off on their way to their Oxford hotel.
Gem had called Professor Asquith and he had been invited with his fiancé for dinner that evening.
Pinoy and Mehmet insisted that they follow in another car and wait outside the professor’s house, just in case. They took sandwiches with them and Pinoy filled his pockets with various tiny bottles from the room’s minibar. They took turns walking the street, on the lookout for suspicious activity while Gem and Amélie were inside.
Amélie, in a nice red dress she bought at one of the most fashionable shops of Oxford, was a huge success with Professor Asquith and Elaine. The evening was a very pleasant affair.
After dinner, Elaine invited Amélie for tea in the sitting room, while the men retired to the professor’s office for coffee and a briefing.
“So you see, sir, getting the money was easy. Keeping it is easier. Living long enough to spend it appears to be the issue here.” Gem shrugged, smiled and crossed his legs as he leaned back on his usual armchair. His new self-confidence was obvious to his old friend.
“But what would they gain by killing you, though? That’s what I cannot understand.” The professor set a fresh match to his pipe and drew on it to keep it going. “There appears to be no gain for them and the danger of possibly being caught surely must be a consideration. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“That’s what Mac says and he is a pretty smart fellow.”
“At least you are fortunate enough to have found a competent friend there to support you. He seems to be a very capable man from what you say. You must introduce him to me one of these days”
“Certainly, sir. Now about that check you gave me…”
Professor Asquith waved his hand in dismissal.
“That, my boy, will be our wedding present to you and your sweet Amélie. She is a captivating girl.”
At that moment there was a knock on the door and Amélie and Elaine walked in.
“Darling, I’ve invited Elaine and the professor for a cruise to the Greek islands.”
“Ah, splendid,” Gem said. “I didn’t know you had a yacht.”
“I don’t. You are chartering one,” Amélie smiled impishly.
Upon returning to the hotel, Gem left his fiancé to get ready for bed and went to Mac’s suite for a chat. Pinoy and Mehmet had already beaten him to it and were busy with a large bottle of whisky that had just been delivered by room service. Gem grabbed a glass and joined them.
“I am racking my brains to work out why these people have already made two very serious attempts to kill you and I just can’t figure it out,” Mac began. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
The others could only sip their drinks, unable to provide an answer.
“The problem is that the way we are traveling now, you are very easy to track. We are like a circus. We have to be prepared for the eventuality that you may have to disappear somewhere under a new identity, with us leading them in different directions.”
“I don’t want to disappear anywhere!” Gem objected. “We can afford to hire unlimited numbers of professional bodyguards.”
Mac was shook his head thoughtfully.
“If you have someone who is determined to kill you, especially people who obviously know how to obtain and how to use explosives, it will only be a matter of time. We’ll be driving along one fine day next to a parked car and ‘boom’. It will be as simple as that. No, we have to prepare for the worst.”
“And with that cheerful thought, does anyone have any ideas?” Gem asked, but faced blank faces.
“If only you had not led a sheltered life and knew the criminal element of this country, there might be a way to get you a good, immigration-proof passport by which to travel safely under a different name. They won’t be able to track you so easily then.”
Gem drained his glass in protest. “And get arrested at the first airport the first time I try to use it? No thank you.”
“You won’t. What I have in mind is 100% infallible. But we can’t do it without knowing criminals willing to do the dirty work for a price.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do know the biggest gangster in this area quite well. We used to share a drink together on a regular basis,” said Gem casually pouring himself another drink.
The silence that followed was almost deafening and Mac’s expression of astonishment was priceless.
“Are you telling me that you used to drink with criminals?” He spoke slowly, as if addressing a ten year old.
“No, not ‘criminals’, just ‘a’ criminal; he is the boss of all the other criminals in this area.”
Mac tried to be patient with his amateur friend. “Any chance you can call him up and arrange a meeting?”
“Sure. I was his favorite drinking buddy and he likes me a lot.” Gem did not think it prudent to mention the many allowances John Cunningham had made to him in the past because of their drinking relationship.
“Can we get hold of him tonight?” Mac patiently insisted.
“Oh, certainly. It’s only about ten thirty. He is bound to be at his club, supervising the illegal poker games in the back rooms.”
“Then call him and let’s go. Pinoy, take an empty pillow case with you. We’ll make a stop at a few cash machines on the way to fill it. And boys; he will not want a lot of witnesses to the conversation, so you stay at the bar. And Gem, just let me do the talking.”
And so it was that shortly afterwards the bouncers at the entrance of the ‘Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club’, allowed them entrance into the place on instructions from their boss, after professional glances at Pinoy and Mehmet..
Another bouncer waited for them inside the door and while Pinoy and Mehmet headed for the bar, he let Gem and Mac to the office of his boss.
Judging from the huge smile on John Cunningham’s round face when he came out from behind his desk to shake Gem by the hand, a smile big enough to almost dislodge the large cigar from his mouth, he was pleased to see his old client.
“Where have you been young Gem? I missed you, lad. No one makes me laugh so much as you,” he said and turned to shake hands with Mac. He seemed to recognize something in Mac and nodded before asking them to sit down, as he went back behind his desk.
Mac placed the half-filled pillowcase on the desk.
“This is to show you the seriousness of our visit and to get your attention. No strings attached.”
Cunningham looked inside, then opened one of his desk drawers and dropped the pillowcase in it, without changing expression..
“There is £5,000 in there,” Mac said. “I shall tell you our story and if you can help, there is more where that came from.”
John Cunningham opened the humidor on his desk and offered his guests his favorite cigars. They both took one and lit up.
It took Mac almost forty minutes to partially explain how Gem was now loaded; how people were trying to kill him and what he wanted from John
“The burglaries you want are the easy part. They will cost you only £500 a pop.’” He looked at Mac and when Mac nodded, he continued.
“Your main problem, naturally, is finding out who is trying to kill Gem and there I might have just the right man for the. Have another cigar to go with this fine brandy.”
John leaned back in his executive chair, and a small smile appeared on his lips as he looked at the ceiling.
“The man I have in mind has the appearance of a Bishop, but the soul of a loan-shark’s lawyer. Just remember to keep your hand on your wallet all the time when in his presence and always make sure your watch is still in place after shaking hands with him.” He took a deep drag at his cigar, then added benevolently: “Not wishing to speak ill of my own brother, of course."
His visitors exchanged glances, impressed by his fraternal loyalty.
“My younger brother is, in fact, one of those real geniuses, with an IQ of one hundred and eighty or something, higher than Einstein’s. However, he has a small corrupt streak in him, which tends to get in his way. Personally, I am convinced that if he was a bit more corrupt he would now be Prime Minister of Britain. Unfortunately, our dear departed mother caused him a great deal of damage. With persistent obstinacy she managed to instill in him a rudimentary conscience, the vestiges of which burden him to this day.”
His listeners tried to put on a face of sympathy.
“He used to be a Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard, until questions were raised, about his personal relationship with a number of dubious characters the Yard was investigating. There were questions about these characters’ ability to know when to be elsewhere when their various premises were raided by the police. More crucially, though, there were questions about his wife’s lifestyle, the luxury of which was not justified by her husband’s income.”
John Cunningham took a sip from his glass and a puff from his cigar as he smiled at the ceiling with an obviously satisfied, proud feeling at the ceiling obvious pride. His brother was a Cunningham, alright.
“Scotland yard does not like to take its members to court, because it undermines the very foundation of public confidence in the force, so carefully fabricated through the years,” he continued. “My brother was allowed to take early retirement at a considerably reduced pension, and given a private investigator’s license, by which to supplement his meager income through pathetic divorce cases. I believe he is going through a divorce process himself right now and is in need of some serious funding. In other words, you are catching him at an opportune moment, just as he is bending over.
“However, his connections with what the press calls the underworld are second to none. I can have him over from London by noon tomorrow if you want to have a chat with him.”
“Can he offer protection to some of our friends, if needed?”
“Here or in London?”
“He would come to me for that; but you know how difficult it is to prevent a killing, if that is what you have in mind. Especially if the killing will be done by imported talent.”
Mac nodded thoughtfully and silently. “Let’s talk to your brother tomorrow.”
The clock on the mantelpiece in Mac’s hotel suite signaled Saturday the 15th of August just as the two friends walked in.
“So why do you want to burglarize people’s homes?’ Gem asked as they sat down on leather armchairs facing each other. Mac poured them each a drink from the bottle standing by on the coffee table, before he spoke.
“There are companies which specialize in collecting all publications, in either a single country or internationally.”
Mac took a couple of cigars he had bummed off John Cunningham out of his pocket and handed one to Gem.
“For a fee, they will cut out news clippings from these publications for their clients, be they businesses, celebrities, politicians or simply the vain, who do not have the time to go through all of the journals themselves and who want to know what the press is saying about them.” He carefully lit his cigar and waited until it was properly lit all around, before he continued.
“These are good. I’ll be getting some of this myself tomorrow. Shall I get a box for you as well?” Gem nodded as he too lit up.
“I’ve already checked on the Internet and there are over twenty four thousand serious injuries in the UK from road accidents every year. I shall employ one of these news-clipping companies to collect the information about how many of these are males between the ages of twenty eight and thirty two ‘for insurance research purposes,’” Mac smiled.
“Are we going into the insurance business now?”
“In a fashion, yes we are. At the very least, fifty of these victims will be about your age, shape and approximate appearance. Our investigators will determine who are the closest matches and we shall have their homes burgled for their passports and only for their passport. Nothing else will be taken and no sign of entry will be obvious to anyone.”
“And what happens when they look for their passports to go abroad to recuperate?”
“Not everyone has your money Gem. When people get seriously hurt, they stay in the hospital or at home to recover. You will end up with a few good, official passports with which you can travel with no questions asked.”
Gem found the satisfied grin on Mac’s face irrepressible.
“Dead people are no good to us, because with the death certificate, their passports will be cancelled. But the last thing seriously injured people will do is to make sure that their passport is where they left it the last time.”
“One of the blessing of unlimited financial resources, I see,” Gem said thoughtfully.
“Exactly. If we do our research properly, even you won’t be able to tell you are not the one in the passport photo. But I need time to put this entire project together, Gem. I’d say two to four weeks. I need you to be somewhere safe during this time, because I don’t want to be distracted by daily attempts to put you six feet under.”
“Well, I think Amélie has come up with the perfect solution. She says that Professor and Mrs. Asquith, along with Shalini and the Squirt are the closest thing to a family I have and she wants to take them on a cruise to the Greek islands. Her own family will come as well of course. What do you think?”
“It sounds perfect. They can hardly get their hands on a submarine with which to blow you out of the water. By all means charter a yacht, but don’t give a predetermined route to the charter company. Make up your mind as you go along, so that no one knows your plans in advance.”
“I’ll get Natalia to arrange it in the morning.”
Gem still smelled of cigars when he slipped into bed next to Amélie, after a quick shower. She wrapped herself around him and mumbled in her sleep, “Hmmm… you smell so manly, darling.”
Clive Cunningham looked as if he had just stepped out of a misguided American movie about a British detective. His ramrod straight back and confident bearing gave the impression of a high ranking police officer, a military officer or a senior banker and the close-clipped mustache seemed to exist to emphasize that effect. He was fifty eight years old and had been out of the force for eleven years, but still managed to look the part.
From the top of his carefully combed thinning brown hair to his burgundy brogue shoes, he projected the image of a gentleman. The waist coat of his three-piece dark brown suit encompassed an impressive midriff, which could not actually be called a waist by anyone, without blushing - if that someone was particularly careful about specifics.
At about 5’ 10”, he gave the impression that he was observing the rank and file of his fellow-humans from a seven foot height and he moved with purpose and authority, giving the impression of a man one could rely upon in an emergency.
When he spoke, it was with an Oxford accent, but Gem’s experienced ear could easily detect the unmistakable charming accompaniment of Liverpool in the background.
It was all a sham.
However, John Cunningham was correct. He did possess an incredibly quick mind, supported by an IQ of genius proportions and if he was not a crook by inclination, he would, indeed, have made a great detective.
They had just finished lunch, generously provided at the ‘Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconists Club’ by its proprietor and the four of them had moved to John Cunningham’s office for coffee and a chance at the excellent cigars of their host.
“So let me try to sort things out in my mind,” Clive Cunningham saidng. “You have inherited, by means unknown to us and irrelevant at this time, a fortune which had connections to the Nazis. Correct?”
“No one has approached you to ask you for anything regarding the inheritance, correct?”
Gem nodded again.
“There have been two, not very subtle, attempts to kill you, correct?
Again the nod.
“When you were dropped in the drink, someone called Karl Wool, or something similar, sent you his regards. Correct?”
Gem didn’t bother with the nod this time. He just blinked.
“I know you don’t remember the name, but what did the name sound to you when they said it?”
“German,” was the immediate reaction from Gem. No one had asked him that question before and he never thought to mention it to anyone.
“You gave the job of finding the Karl-something to a Swiss detective agency and they haven’t come up with anything as yet, correct?”
“I am not surprised. They are not likely to, either.”
“Well, to a German speaking person, including a detective, when you mention a German sounding name to him, he thinks of his neighbor. Either the one he drinks beer with over the fence, or the sod who doesn’t cut his grass as often as he should. This is excellent brandy, John, may I have another?”
John Cunningham obliged his brother with a smile.
“On the other hand, when you say anything German sounding to a Brit, we think of bloody Krouts. When we think of Krouts, we think of Hitler and when we think of Hitler we think of Nazis.”
He sipped his drink waiting for the information to sink in.
“So?” Gem spurred him on.
“So it’s one thing to look for a Karl Wool-something in a general sense and another to look for the same Karl who may have something to do with the Nazis. We’ll soon find the bugger if you want him found.”
Despite the arrogant self-satisfied look on Clive Cunningham’s face, Gem wanted to kiss him. “Wonderful news. Well done,” he said.
“Naturally, this will cost a fair amount of money, with my staff expenses, travelling expenses, accommodations…”
“You’ll discuss those details with me and report any progress to me.” Mac interjected in a quiet, knowing tone. “We shall be spending a lot of time together over the next few weeks or so, when Gem will be away.”
“Are you leaving us, young Gem?” John asked.
“You can reach him through me at any time,” Mac answered on his behalf, preventing Gem from giving out any information.
The M/Y Maritsa was an inch short of 300 feet long and the absolute last word in luxury
Gem introduced his ‘family’, Professor Robert and Elaine Asquith, Shalini and the Squirt, to Madame Marion Géroux and her son Florian, when the latter two joined the ship at the port of Piraeus, Greece, shortly before departure. The thermometer sauntered north as the ship sailed leisurely south and a feeling of wellbeing spread over its passengers.
Madame Géroux immediately fell in love with Robert Asquith and spent hours discussing literature and music with him and Elaine.
Florian’s laugh could be heard throughout the ship all day long, as he was captivated by the wit of Shalini and the antics of the Squirt.
Natalia had confiscated the ship’s library and turned it into an office, from which she was in constant contact with Herr Schneider, about Gem’s affairs. Whenever she stepped out of her office, she enjoyed the flirtatious company of the handsome and athletic Florian, who made sure to be near her, whenever she was free.
Pinoy and Mehmet were a hit with two of the many Greek stewardesses on board and looked forward to better things from them in the near future.
There were two swimming pools on board, one of which for children and Amélie spent a couple of hours every day with Gem in the kiddy pool, teaching him how to swim. When he finally graduated to the larger pool, floating unsupported at last with the grace of a discarded lemon peel, everyone stood around clapping, making friendly fun of him.
Amélie was ready in her bikini whenever the ship dropped. She would jump from the highest ship’s rail into the Mediterranean, screeching joyfully all the way down. Gem’s heart pounded at the thought that something may happen to her, every time she jumped from such a great height.
Whenever they reached a port, they would lunch or dine on delicious Greek food at one of the tavernas ashore and this constant contact with each other, under such wonderful circumstances, created a warm bond between them.
In the evenings they would congregate either on the deck lounge area or in the seemingly endless inside lounge space and sing, dance or tell each other stories.
Gem’s irreverent stories about his parents were particularly popular.
“I must have been a very unpleasant child because my parents kept accidentally dropping heavy objects from windows under which I carelessly strolled. The disappointment on their haggard faces at constantly missing me by just a hair’s breadth, hounds me to this day with a perpetual feeling of guilt.”
Amélie screeched, Natalia smiled and everyone else laughed.
“My family had never been shy in exhibiting the unbridled license to which they believed they were entitled; they were people who had no boundaries or limitations simply on the basis of their wealth and political power, shamelessly and fraudulently laying claim to Norman descent.”
“Come, come, Gem. Surely you exaggerate, Florian smiled.
“No, unfortunately it is all too true. In the old days attending the apartheid of Eton was in no way an educational extravagance to them, but a necessity designed to overcome their inevitable mental disadvantages which were, in part, the result of their systematic inbreeding.”
“You are not to talk like that about my in-laws!” Amélie shouted into his ear. She hit him. It was easy, as she was sitting next to him as usual.
“Well, you’d be surprised at how many first cousins got hitched in our family.” He had to stop because she was hitting him gain. After he managed to put her off, he continued.
“Like all ‘aristocracies’ the Stones’ had been based simply on financial foundations made of mortar mixed with the blood of the weak and the defenseless.
“As for your dear, departed mother-in-law; now there was a gem. The magnificence of giving birth to the heir of the autocracy was an achievement of such monumental proportions that it was comparable only to the Immaculate Conception. Since the accomplishment could never henceforth be surpassed, she made no further efforts of repetition and devoted herself exclusively to the Infanta. Father immediately installed a very attractive mistress at one of his mortgaged apartments.”
The members of the audience could no longer contain themselves. They just let themselves go and laughed.
“Anyway, an expensive education was expected to replace parental responsibility and to result in children able to talk glibly, even if superficially, about literature, classical music and the opera in an accent fabricated to impress.”
“Your accent sounds quite nice, my boy. You should not complain,” said Madame Géroux with a gentle smile.
“If you only knew Marmmy the effort it took for me to speak like a human being, you would pity me.”
She had long since told him “Call me Marmmy, boy,” and he took to that without a second thought, not realizing that ‘Marmmy’ had gradually been replaced by mommy.
Robert and Elaine Asquith, who heard their son’s voice every time Gem spoke, reached out and held each other’s hand in comfort.
“On top of everything else, I was lumbered with a father who excelled in incompetency, mediocrity and Latin.” The cheerful way Gem said these things made his listeners comfortable enough to laugh, without fearing that they would appear unseemly.
“Your departed father-in-law, young Amélie, was a man who, if pressed, would admit to being a God to all women and a leader of men. He believed that he was the unquestionable possessor of character, allure, charisma, composure and overall superiority. His flexible and obliging sense of honor he simply considered to be the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.
“Stop this, or I’ll hit you again,” Amélie said, but Gem continued undaunted.
“His one and only indisputable disadvantage however, lay in accounting. This was a fatal one as he could never distinguish the difference between debit and credit. As a consequence the right side of the ledger would invariably hold unpleasant surprises for Mr. Stone Senior.” Even Natalia laughed at this one, thinking of what Gem had said about himself during her first interview, about getting a headache trying to work out the difference between debit and credit.
“I won’t hear any more insulting things about my dear, departed father-in-law. Whatever his faults, if any, he left me you, so all his errors are forgiven, Amélie said. Again she squeezed into Gem, as had become her habit of late. “Tell us about the reception you will give in honor of our engagement, mammy. Who will be invited?”
The days passed in jesting and harmonious laziness, but all good things being destined to come to an end, they all eventually left Athens on August 26th in one of Gem’s company jets. Two and a half hours later they landed in the French capital.
Florian remained in Paris, because summer holidays were over for him. Family business demanded his attention
It took the waiting limousines the same period of time as the flight, to deposit the rest of them at Amélie’s impressive future dowry, outside the town of La Flèche. It was five thirty by the time they arrived and by then everyone needed a rest before dinner.
Gem called Mac, who said that he needed a few more days before he could join the group, then responded to Amélie’s calls for him to join her in the shower.
Amélie’s dowry was situated twelve kilometers outside the town of La Flèche. It was just a shack – if you compared it to the Palace of Versailles; a sort of poor cousin twice removed, but the family resemblance was striking. Instead of the seven hundred rooms of the original, this one had just a measly twenty-four en suite bedrooms and a dozen or so reception areas.
It was two and a half floors high. The first two floors had thirty foot high curved ceilings each. All the reception rooms, offices and the library were on the ground floor. The whole front of the ground floor had a row of arcaded windows that overlooked endless looking and well-tended gardens at the front, with a large fountain in the center.
The second floor had the bedrooms for the family and guests and the third ‘half floor’ accommodated the servants’ quarters.
The stables were at the back and looked good enough to accommodate a lord. They had a well fenced paddock surrounded by vegetable gardens tended by professional gardeners ensuring fresh vegetables for the family and staff without the need to go shopping often.
Surrounded by one hundred and twenty acres of forest, it had a lazy section of Le Loir River flowing on its boundary to one side, and a sizable private lake at the opposite end, well stocked with fish.
Gem came from a wealthy background himself and had been used to luxury and excess in his younger years, but luxury such as this bordered on the offensive.
He was in love with Amélie, however, and he was also in love with her captivating family and love turns a blind eye to many things. The owner’s suite, which had been confiscated by Amélie for herself and her fiancé, had become a place of joy and companionship such as he had never known before.
Madame Géroux cheerfully surrendered her domain to her daughter and moved to another suite to make room for the young lovers. She kept herself busy with invitations and plans for the engagement reception, which was now planned for Saturday, September 12th.
Gem would horse ride every morning with Amélie, and also ride in the afternoon, when Amélie was busy with invitations and girlish things. As a result, he got into the habit of riding with the only stable groom the property laid a claim to, helping him to exercise the horses.
Dermot O’Toole was an Irishman and he was happy to take care of the six horses by himself, since he was allowed to keep his eight years old son, Patrick, with him on the property.
He was a skinny, wiry mid-aged man of medium height, with thinning brown hair, whose sense of humor was irresistible, except for his habit of saying “Holly Mother” about every third sentence. Without realizing it, Gem got into the habit of going to the stable every day to help his new friend out with the mucking, after which he would unsuccessfully try to drink Dermot under the table. When Pinoy and Mehmet realized the true situation, they considered it their duty to be near their charge all the time, and the stable soon became an impromptu male social club.
O’Toole’s son, Patrick, was such a sweet child that all the men came to consider him as their own adopted son. Gem secretly dreamed of one day having a son like him. Pinoy and Mehmet wanted to buy the boy a proper go-cart so he could learn to drive around the paddock, when the horses were indoors, but Dermot put a stop to that, as a crazy idea.
“I tell you Gem, lad, this is the life for me. Being around horses and having my boy with me, what else could I want out of life?” He raised his glass.
“Cheers; and I wish:
“Health and a long life to you.
Land without rent to you.
A child every year to you.
And if you can't go to heaven,
May you at least die in Ireland.”
His friends solemnly raised their glasses in return.
“Gem, do you know how to fish?” Young Patrick wanted to know.
“No, not really, why?”
“I could show you if you want. I am going fishing tomorrow. I don’t have any friends to play with here,” He added with an expression that nearly broke Gem’s heart.
“Sure, Patrick, what time are we going?”
The boy leaned over and hugged him tightly. “Oh, that’s great, Gem. Five o’clock.”
Gem nearly chocked on his drink and the others roared with laughter.
“My poor lad. He misses his brother Liam, and the Bretzel Bakery on Lennox Street. Separation is hard on the kids, but what else is to be done?” The men did not want to pry into his private affairs, so they kept quiet.
Gem’s cell phone rang. It was Florian.
“I need to see you very urgently, Gem. I’ve just had some very strange visitors who scared the hell out of me. I am coming over tonight to see you.”
It was Wednesday, September 2nd and Gem felt uneasy, because Mac was not due to arrive until the next day. This sounded as if it could be important and he could use Mac’s clear thinking when important things had to be considered.
Florian arrived at seven that evening and immediately asked to see Gem in his office. He was in a very distressed state. He got straight to the point.
“Two very well dressed, very gentlemanly Englishmen came to see me at my office today. They first shocked me by saying that they had $500 million dollars they wanted to give to you. Just like that.”
“Great. Did you bring it with you?” He smiled.
Florian was not in the mood for jokes. “Don’t be flippant, Gem. This is serious. They said that they know all about your Indian friends and your professor friend and they know all about your new family. And they said that you cannot protect all of us, no matter how much money you have.”
“What did they mean by that?”
“The implication was quite clear. Obviously I care about what happens to me, Gem, but my primary concern is the security of my sister and my mother!”
“Obviously. I feel the same way. What did they want?”
“They said that they want their account back, the one you have ‘stolen’ from them. They will give you $500 million for your trouble on the day you transfer the account to them, so you will come out of this a very wealthy man indeed and each side will go its separate ways, never to meet again. In order for you to feel safe that this is a genuine transaction, the meeting to take place at your own bank and they will hand over to you that same bank’s certified check for the $500 million, in a hand-over-hand exchange.”
Florian stopped long enough to take a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wipe his face. It was turning out to be a very warm September.
“They also said that their lawyers, who will simply believe that they are handling a large business transaction, will come and see you, if you agree, for the specifics.” He fanned himself with the handkerchief, a very worried man.
“This, as you said, is serious. I shall have to think about this very carefully.” Gem was now equally solemn and just as worried as Florian, both for himself and his friends, but mostly for Amélie. It was the first time in his life that he felt concern like this for anyone.
“Well, I ask you to also think very carefully about their parting words to me. ‘Take the money, or lose your family and friends one by one’.”
Young Patrick was waiting for him at the stables, ready to go with an armful of fishing rods, when he arrived right on the dot, at five am. The boy’s smile was reward enough for the lost sleep.
Dermot was speaking to someone who had ridden up on horseback from somewhere. As soon as Gem came on the scene, the man turned his animal and cantered off, without allowing Gem the courtesy of a good morning or a good look at him. Dermot on the other hand was as cheerful as ever, as he began disbursing breakfast to the horses. He waved the ambitious fishermen off as they drove away in one of the Land Rovers.
Patrick would simply not stop talking and Gem was very glad of the distraction.
It was a clear and cloudless, almost perfect morning, and the lake glimmered in the early dawn, as the sun’s rays began to peak over the horizon. It was going to be another perfect day.
The fishing experience turned out to be addictive for Gem. Since the lake was private and only the family was allowed to fish there, it was very well stocked. As a result, every time they cast their lines, they would end up with a fish, which they would bring up with shouts of triumph. Patrick would throw the fish back in the lake, because there were just too many of them to take home.
Gem became eight years old once more and matched Patrick’s antics, feeling the joy of childhood again. They had to stop their frolicking at nine o’clock, when Amélie rode up on her gelding to tell him that Mac had arrived and to complain with a pout that he had left her to go riding alone that morning. Gem was too happy to argue.
As he got in the car to return Patrick to his father, he noticed Pinoy and Mehmet leaning on another Land Rover, hidden by a cluster of trees, from where they had been keeping an eye on him. He laughed and waved to them and they waved back, as they got into their own car.
Gem went into the breakfast room for a late breakfast and was pleased to see Florian and Mac already there with the same idea. Florian had already met Mac in Zurich, but they never had a chance to talk properly and he was obviously enjoying Mac’s company. They were having coffee and Mac started to ask if smoking was allowed in such regal surroundings, when a young woman came in and said something to Florian in French. The latter got up immediately, apologized to his friends and left in a hurry.
“What was that about?” Gem asked.
“She wanted him to look at something from the security cameras outside the stable.”
“So, if you finished gorging yourself, there is a new development I’d like to discuss with you in private. Let’s take a long walk to use up the twenty thousand calories you’ve consumed this morning,” he said to Mac.
As soon as they stepped outside, Mac said, “Clive Cunningham has found Karl Wölfflin.”
Gem waited until they were well into the woodland, away from potentially prying ears, before he responded. “So, why does he want to kill me?”
“He doesn’t. Yet.”
“But the goons who dropped me in the lake said…”
Mac signalled for him to stop. He shook his head and fished for a cigar from his inside breast pocket. “I spoke to him myself. He has heard of you and he wants a meeting with you as soon as possible, but he did not send anyone to throw you into the lake. Your dancing partners on the tower balcony had taken his name in vain.”
Gem put his own hand in Mac’s coat pocket and took a cigar for himself.
“Well, since he is the only one who does not as yet want to kill me, I shall be happy to make his acquaintance. Who is he?”
Mac put his hands in his trouser pockets and looked around him, obviously enjoying the peace and quiet of the private forest.
“He is the head of a private Jewish organization, based in Berlin, which tries to recover loot stolen by the Nazis from Jews during the Holocaust. “There was even a documentary made about him and he is generally held in high regard, though various government authorities around the world have accused him of using violent, unorthodox and sometimes illegal means to get results.”
“And I for one do not blame him a bit, as long as it’s not me he is dropping from great heights.”
“That’s the general consensus of opinion, but according to Clive, he is not 100% kosher. Apparently he lives a life of such luxury that he must stick like glue to much of what he finds. Clive says that he lives in an apartment in Berlin worth a couple of million. He also has an apartment in Manhattan, which is worth over ten million dollars. The properties are registered to an anonymous offshore trust in Nauru, a notorious tax heaven, in the middle of the Pacific.”
“Perhaps he is one of those people who save for a rainy day?” Gem asked.
Mac kicked a few fallen leaves in a thoughtful manner. “Perhaps he is, but he is fifty one years old and he used to earn his living driving a taxi in New York just thirteen years ago.”
“Ah, the land of opportunity strikes again. It appears that there is no limit to what one may achieve in that great country.”
Mac looked at Gem to make sure there was an ironic smile on his lips when he said this.
“Anyway, Brother Mac, whatever he is, he is a bit late I am afraid. We now have an offer that we simply cannot refuse, as the Godfather movie goes.”
They walked through the forest for an hour, while discussing the new proposal.
“Whatever you decide, Gem, I’ll stand by you. $500 million, along with the peace of mind that it is supposed to come with, is not to be sneezed at. You won’t have to look over your shoulder all the time. On the other hand, you’ll be making this money anyway, in just sixteen months down the road and keep on making it ad infinitum. But no peace of mind there, I fear. Why don’t you discuss it with your future wife and see what she says?”
“It can’t do any harm. I’ll talk to her tonight.”
That evening Gem put the proposal to Amélie and asked her for her opinion.
“You are such a child, my sweet Gem. Take a look around you. Do you think I need your millions? We have enough to live comfortably several lives over. The important thing is that we are safe together and I won’t have to worry every day if this is the day they will take my baby away from me. I tell you, I won’t be able to bear it. If you die, I shall kill myself.”
She said it in her natural, childish manner of certainty and there was no question of another option in her mind. Gem found her captivating. He made the sign and she jumped on him, putting her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately.
Days earlier, in a moment of jest, he had clapped his hands to draw her attention, braced himself with bent knees and signaled her to come to him. She’d accepted the challenge, came at him running and when she’d got close she jumped, encircling his waist with her legs and his neck with her arms. Ever since, it had become their signature hugging moment.
She had become his sunshine, his solace, his daily ego boost, his everyday dose of pride in himself, and he was beginning to slowly rid himself of the feeling of inferiority the lack of parental affection had burdened him with all his life.
They decided to tell the family the following evening, as to give Amélie the opportunity to arrange a surprise celebration for the event.
At five o’clock next Friday morning young Patrick O’ Tool took Gem, Mac, Mehmet and Pinoy to the lake, to instruct them in the fine art of fishing. This time Gem arranged to take sandwiches and drinks with them and they made a day of it.
The four adults reduced their ages to that of the boy, in order to replace the playmates he needed so much and Patrick was the leader. For fun, Mehmet built a fire and cooked some of the fish they’d caught. A delicious experience Pinoy called it, just as he got a big bite. He nearly lost his fishing rod.
“It’s a big one, Pinoy!” Patrick screamed in excitement.
Pinoy had done a lot of fishing in the Philippines, where fishing was not a sport, but something which often made the difference between being hungry or not. He knew what he was doing, but kept asking Patrick questions just to make the boy feel good and Patrick kept jumping up and down, shouting instructions.
It took Pinoy thirty minutes to land the fish and it was a monstrous carp, at least forty pounds. Screams and shouts echoed across the lake, as Pinoy lifted it over his head in triumph. Patrick could not contain his excitement.
“Mazel tov!” He screamed to Pinoy and Mehmet lifted him up to be next to the fish already held high by Pinoy, so that Gem could take his photograph on the iPhone.
Only Mac became thoughtful.
Gem took the floor at the dinner table that same evening.
“Amélie and I have something to announce. We have decided to accept the offer, thereby also ending the Gem Flintstone hunting season.”
Everyone clapped, mostly in relief.
Florian got up and shook him gratefully by the hand. Madame Géroux motioned him over to her and to bend down. She took his head in her hands and kissed him on the forehead, as a mother would. There were tears in her eyes and Gem struggled to contain his own.
His team came up to him to shake his hand, including Natalia, who told him that it appeared to be the wisest and safest move, under the circumstances.
Florian then went to his office to find the number he was supposed to call in case Gem agreed, and he returned with the glad tidings that two lawyers from England would arrive on Monday afternoon, to discuss the agreement with Gem and sort out the details.
Amélie presented her surprise, which included champagne, a large cake and a twenty piece orchestra to entertain them with dance music until well after midnight.
It was two thirty when Gem finally fell asleep after private celebrations with Amélie.
A sound nudged his brain.
The strange sound dug into his brain, again and again, at regular intervals. Eventually he just had to find out what it was, so Gem forced himself half awake, his tired eyes almost completely closed.
There it was again, emanating from the window pane. He pulled back the curtains. The sun had not peeped over the horizon as of yet, but the advance guard of its rays preceded it with large, sure strides. He opened the window and looked down, only to be hit on the forehead by a pebble.
He found Patrick there with his fishing rods aiming another fistful of pebbles at his window. The boy stopped mid-effort, when he saw Gem gesticulating at him.
“It’s five fifteen, Gem, you are late!” His whispered voice had the sound of both urgency and annoyance.
Gem did not have the heart to disappoint the lad.
“Sorryyyyyyyy…. I won’t be long!”
He dressed by the first light of the day, then he closed the curtains, so that daylight would not awaken Amélie and opened the door quietly. As he turned to head on his way, the door across the corridor opened and Pinoy was there, fully dressed.
“Don’t you guys ever sleep?” He whispered.
“Of course we do. In turns. Should I wake Mehmet?” Pinoy came back at a whisper when he stepped into the corridor.
Gem shook his head. “Patrick wants to go fishing.”
Pinoy’s face lit up at the thought of the poor boy who needed friends to play with.
Patrick was really cross with them for being late by the time they finally arrived and wouldn’t talk to either, theatrically crossing his arms across his chest and turning his angry back to them, as they drove the Land Rover to the lake.
Naturally, he forgot his annoyance five seconds after they got out of the car and their laughter carried across the calm waters of the lake to the distant opposite shore.
When Mehmet showed up at around nine with the food and drink the fishermen had asked for, he had Natalia in tow to be mommy. She wore slacks for the occasion and played her role of mother so well, that Patrick began to gravitate to her more and more, gradually deserting his ‘play mates’.
“You are good at this,” Mac said and smiled.
“I am not called Berger for nothing,” she smiled back and seeing the blank look on his face, she explained.
‘My father was French and my mother Russian, so I have the Russian given name of Natalia and the Norman French surname of Berger, meaning ‘shepherd’. I am the shepherd of this little flock." The brightness of her smile competed with the sun rays now beating down on them. It was one of those warm days that fool you and make you think that autumn might as well give up this year and stay at home with a cup of cocoa.
“So what does Géroux mean, then, loaded?”
Natalia smiled at the joke.
“I think it’s derived from the French form of the old Germanic name Gerwulf.”
The team spent most of the weekend in the company of Patrick, because they knew that, with close family members of the Géroux family arriving soon for the engagement party, they would miss out on much of their time with him.
The two English lawyers arrived just before dinner on Monday, September 7th. First their airplane had been delayed. Then their rental car had broken down on the way from Orly to La Flèche, and then they had lost their way.
Gem smiled in sympathy when he saw the state they were in. “It’s a horribly hot and humid day for September. You’d better clean yourselves up, enjoy a good dinner and there will be sufficient time to talk business tomorrow.”
William Z Dickinson was quick to agree with an appreciative smile. “Clear heads are more important than speed in cases such as the one we are about to discuss,”
He and James Arthur Holland were both portly men of mature years and, in their pinstriped suits they might as well have been cousins, who proudly spoke only English, without a word of French or German. They were both of average height, with receding hairlines and when they came down to dinner in tuxedos, they both looked extremely embarrassed to find their hosts casually dressed.
The unlimited supply of welcoming champagne eased their awkwardness. The more they drank, the more comfortable they became, until there was no discomfort left in them at all.
They were not only lawyers; they were also boring and uninteresting. Of the two, William Z Dickinson came in as more boring by a nose, but as the time rolled on Gem felt that in such a close race it would be unfair to declare a winner between men of such equal merits.
By eleven, Amélie, sitting cross legged next to Gem, began to surreptitiously kick him repeatedly in the shin, trying to get his attention to the effect that they were engaged, they were young, and that young hormones were impossible to ignore.
They wished everyone a good evening and headed off to their private wresting ring. After exhausting themselves, they finally fell asleep, bathed in each other’s sweat. The heat and humidity of the day had refused to abate, and with Amélie wrapped around him, Gem found himself still soaked in perspiration when he gradually woke up later that night.
He gently disengaged from the girl and slowly shifted to at the edge of the bed dripping sweat and fanning himself with a book. He blinked sleepy eyes at the digital clock on the bedside table, which claimed that it was one forty after midnight.
Waking up Amélie by using the shower did not appear to be a wise option. But he did want to cool down and he also wanted one of those Cuban cigars he had now gotten used to. He decided to combine the need to cool down with the pleasure of a smoke in the open spaces of the chateau grounds.
He yawned and stretched into a T-shirt and the linen trousers he had worn earlier that evening, as quietly as he could. He opened the door like a thief, as not to bother Pinoy or Mehmet, but as soon as he stepped out into the corridor, the door across opened and Mehmet stepped out fully clothed. Gem, exhibiting the offensive jauntiness of a man who has just had his, and does not care who knows it, waved to him good–naturedly and slowly let himself out into the night.
There was no sign of a breeze, so he decided to walk around the chateau until he found the coolest spot to sit and enjoy his Havana. He heard mild, classical music in the distance and followed in its direction. When he neared the source, he realized that the music was coming from Florian’s office.
The French doors leading out to the porch were open and he saw Dickinson and Holland casually and chummily draped over armchairs in front of Florian’s desk. Their bow ties were undone, their jackets were off, and they had drinks in their hands. Just like two sailors on shore leave in Calcutta, who had come across their old shipmate Florian Géroux, a long lost brother. They were laughing. Florian was sitting behind his desk with his feet propped atop it, sipping a companionable drink with the two British lawyers, whom he was supposed to have met only that day
Gem was not exactly simple minded, but unless the people he came across possessed low brows and cauliflower ears, he had a childish liking and trust of everyone he met. In consequence, more often than not he paid the price. In this instance, however, his instinct warned him to keep quiet.
He stopped himself from calling out to let them know that he was there, as was his first instinct. He dropped his cigar on the grass and crushed it with his heel, so that it would not attract attention by its glimmer.
“It never fails” Dickinson was saying, “Get hold of the loved one and it’s like you’ve got their balls in a vice. As soon as he saw his kid dipped into the trough head first, he couldn’t talk fast enough.” He picked up a magazine and fanned himself, to cool down.
“But why did the idiot bring his son with him on Wölfflin’s business? The man was a fool.” Florian said.
“I imagine Wölfflin pays them well, but some of them are also fanatics,” Holland contributed, and continued to talk as he got up to refill his glass. “Pity about the kid, but it couldn’t be avoided. Dealing with the others will be so much easier for my own peace of mind. Are you sure we need to throw away $500 million? It’s a shame to make Stone’s inheritors rich beyond the dreams of avarice without at least trying to get our money back somehow.”
“Amélie is working on that right now. If she gets the idiot to marry her, she will naturally inherit everything and that will include our $500 million.”
Dickinson raised his glass in admiration. “The way you handled the whole thing has been simply brilliant, Florian.”
“Bah, kindergarten stuff for a professional psychiatrist. Once you guys established his past history, it was obvious that he had been denied parental love and that he needed his mommy. I simply provided a mommy and a family for him in the form of my own mother, my sister and myself.
“I must admit though that pretending I had called her ‘marmmy’ in place of mommy and that even now the ‘R” is supposed to be silent, was rather clever. He lapped it all up and he is calling her “Mammy” at every chance he gets, but in his head he is actually saying ‘mommy’. It’s like shooting sitting ducks at a carnival with a shotgun.”
The laughter this raised caused Gem physical pain.
“When he told us that he is afraid of heights and could not swim, dropping him in the drink from a height and having Amélie rescue him was the only logical thing to do. The whole thing took only a few seconds, but to him it was a lifetime.”
They laughed again and raised their glasses in celebration.
“The cherry on the cake was, of course, stopping him from getting on that airplane we blew up. He could not comprehend that we need him alive until he transfers the account to us. Florian shouted, “Enter!” a moment later because someone must have knocked on the door.
The door opened and two men walked in. One spoke in a quiet voice. Florian thanked him in German and waved him on but not before Gem recognized them as the men who’d thrown him from the castle tower balcony.
Gem now felt like a cat which, having decided to jump over the new neighbor’s fence in order to pay a social call, had just discovered that the neighbor keeps Dobermans.
Florian dropped his feet to the floor once the door closed and swirled around 360 degrees.
“It’s done, gentlemen. They will be found downstream tomorrow and the tragedy will be obvious to the meanest intelligence. The boy fell into the river and the father dived in to save him, both perishing in the incident.”
Everyone raised their glasses again in celebration.
Horror, rage, fury, hate, disgust, agony; swept through Gem all at once, as well as terror for his own safety. He slowly walked backwards, afraid to turn his back on the monsters and the horrors they were plotting.
“Coo, coo…,” A soft coy voice behind Gem caused him to leave his skin five feet beneath him as the rest of him jumped in the air and it took him a few seconds to get back into it.
Amélie just stood there, smiling, while invitingly holding open her bathrobe to flaunt her luscious naked body.
Gem did the only thing possible for an English gentleman of refinement, culture and breeding, who has just learned first-hand that he is about to be murdered. He socked her one on the side of the jaw and dropped her like a butterfly struck by lightning.
Mehmet stepped out of the darkness and stood there waiting for instructions. “She was that bad in bed, eh?”
“They killed the child!” His whispering voice was hoarse with terror, the tears running down his face, thick and fast, uncontrollably.
“They killed our little Patrick and they are planning to kill us too! Pick her up and let’s leave this leper colony while there is still time.” And pulling himself together for a minute,
“The time has come for me to give the raspberry to this particular love of my life.”
Mehmet carried Amélie all the way back to Gem’s suite, placed her on Gem’s bed, unconscious, and rounded the others up in less than ten minutes. Mac, Pinoy, and Natalia stood in the lounge, in various stages of undress. Natalia wore a nightdress that hardly fell lower than the middle of her thighs, but no one paid any attention.
“They killed the child and Dermot O’ Toole. Their bodies will be found down river and they have made it look as if Patrick fell into the river and his father jumped in to save him, both drowning in the attempt. They are planning to kill us as well. I heard them with my own ears. We have to make a run for it.”
“Let’s calm down.” Mac said. “We are not going to react like the heroine in some cheap Hollywood movie who doesn’t think of doing the only logical thing of calling the police and instead runs off into the dark and mysterious forest, to be hunted down by the villain.”
He turned to Natalia.
“Natalia, call 112, the European emergency number, and the call will automatically be answered by the nearest call center in our area. Tell them there have been two murders and another five are about to happen. That should get them here at the speed of light. Give all our names, so even if we are murdered in the meantime, at least Géroux will not get away with it.”
Natalia had already started dialing on her cell phone.
“What is she telling them?” Gem asked.
“We are at the Géroux chateau just outside La Flèche. There have been two murders. A child and the child’s father. The bodies have been thrown into the Loir to be found tomorrow. They are planning to kill us too. The child was Patrick O’ Toole and the child’s father Dermot O’ Toole. Hurry, they plan to kill us. She is giving our names now.”
They heard the door of the bedroom slam shut and the key turn in the lock. Then they heard the dialing sound of a cell phone. Amélie had come to, and was obviously calling for help. Pinoy and Mehmet looked at each other and moved as one to barricade the outside door with a variety of heavy furniture.
Amélie now shouted hysterically in German.
“What’s she saying?” Gem asked Mac again.
“They know about the Jews. Gem knows everything. The police are coming. Run,” Mac translated.
Mehmet and Pinoy, having barricaded the main entrance, now rushed the bedroom door and crushed it off its hinges, their muscular shoulders hitting it at the same time. A large knife appeared in Pinoy’s hand.
Amélie stood there, with her cellphone in hand, terrified. She had the open window behind her, through which it would have been impossible to jump without breaking her neck or a number of bones in her body.
Mac and Mehmet realized at the very same time that Pinoy was about to gut her and they rushed him just as the knife came upward towards her lower belly. Mehmet grabbed the knife arm and lifted his feet off the ground so that his weight would stop the forward motion of the blade and Mac grabbed the other arm, while at the same time kicking Pinoy in the back of the knee, bringing him to the ground.
“Let me gut the bitch!” Pinoy shouted, sobbing. “She killed Patrick, she killed our poor little boy!” Tears ran uncontrollably down his face.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Pinoy’s only wish in life at that moment was to see her entails on the expensive carpet. This was especially obvious to Amélie, who’d froze in fear, now standing still, like one of the plastic mannequins at her favorite store, Harrods.
Mehmet threw the knife away. It stuck in the door frame, but he paid no attention to this. He searched Pinoy’s legs and removed two more knives from sheaths covered by Pinoy’s socks. Once he’d done this, he nodded to Mac and they released him, but both stood between Pinoy and Amélie. He would no doubt have killed her with his bare hands, but he was exhausted by grief and remained sitting on the carpet which had managed to avoid a bloody dousing.
Gem heard running and loud commotions on the chateau grounds below. Lights, kept on at night on the grounds for security purposes, had been switched off. Car engines started and doors slammed.
In the silence of night the sound of police sirens echoed faintly from the direction of La Flèche. At first they sounded like the faint recollection of a terrified shriek, and gradually grew louder. Gem watched through the window as a convoy of Land Rovers and other vehicles headed away from the sirens, without any lights. Natalia, still on the phone, explained to the police dispatcher what was happening. When the police cars finally pulled up and surrounded the chateau, their sirens became like important props in a living nightmare.
Mehmet helped Pinoy up and led him to the barricade at the main door, then got him to assist in removing it. It was one way of keeping him away from Amélie.
Mac walked up to Natalia and whispered in her ear: “Get hold of the guest list. It’s important.”
“I already have it. I am the PA, remember? The future Mrs. Flintstone wanted to be sure I earned my wages.”
At five in the morning Gem stood at the window, looking down, as the sun’s vanguard ray’s tried desperately to disperse the darkness. He would have given every single cent of his fortune to see Patrick standing there with an armful of fishing rods, waiting for him to go fishing.
Inspector Thierry Blanc had just finished the third interview with Natalia in the suite’s sitting room. He asked to speak with Gem once more. He was a tall, thin man in his fifties, with a head of rich gray hair, very perceptive, intelligent eyes and a desire to practice his English.
“Madame Géroux and her daughter claim that they have no idea why Florian Géroux left in such a hurry in the middle of the night. They also do not know why the two English lawyers also left with the same urgency. We shall, of course, ask Scotland Yard to interview them, if indeed they are lawyers as they claimed. Which I seriously doubt. I say this because I am convinced that what you have told us is the truth and this will be verified when the bodies are found later on today, as I am confident they will be.”
The police eventually drove them into La Flèche, where they managed to find four double rooms in one of the larger hotels. Pinoy and Mehmet wanted to share a room so as to be able to wake each other up if the need arose.
When the bodies were found around noon that day, it became obvious that the friends would spend some time in the area, because the police needed them to be at hand for further questioning.
A specialist police forensic team had arrived from the neighboring large city of Le Mans - a couple of hours after the incident. Inspector Thierry Blanc placed Florian’s office under police guard and it soon began to reveal its fingerprint and DNA evidence to them. It would take time to match the results, though, and so the five friends remained there to help in any way they could. But they also had another reason: they were waiting for the police to release the bodies.
Health and a long life to you.
Land without rent to you.
A child every year to you.
And if you can't go to heaven,
May you at least die in Ireland.
There was no question that Dermot and Patrick O’Toole would not be buried in Ireland.
“O perfidy of woman! O feminine inconstancy!” Gem said, going down for the third time in a sea of alcoholic beverages and self-pity.
He had headphones on, listening to Placido Domingo on his cellphone, singing ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca, which he had on continuous loop replay. He felt that this was the greatest aria ever written. Every word applied to his situation. Even the great Pavarotti could not match Domingo in the execution of this particular aria.
My dream of love faded away, for good!
Everything's gone now.
I'm dying hopeless, desperate!
His dignity had long since packed its bags and departed, clad only in the shredded remnants of its previously fashionable apparel, regretted by all. Especially by his companions, who had to put up with the resulting spectacle.
His manly spirit was no more. Weakened by the recent events and even more by his almost constant drinking, it had surrendered to the numbing Antarctic winds of fate and the all-encompassing snow of human cruelty. Like Captain Scott, it had lain down and sought relief in frozen sleep.
“Man, enough is enough. Pull yourself together, it’s not even lunchtime yet and you are already above the Plimsoll line,” Mac said.
Gem lifted his head off the hotel’s coffee shop table and tried to focus his red, inebriated eyes on his friends. He was not appearing to advantage. “It’s never too early to pour a glassful down the hatch if the international criminal element is after your hide.”
Mac took the headphones off him and Gem became poetic:
“Woman, the fountain of all human frailty!
What mighty ills have not been done by woman?”
“Gem, this is becoming embarrassing. Self-pity does not become you.”
“The club committee must forgive me in this instance, if at this moment, the best I can do is the hollow, mirthless laugh one reads about in novels. Though I may not show it, spiritually I feel like a helpless prey of destiny. Psychologically, I am down in the cellar. Not just among the wines and spirits, but lower, where the body is secretly buried.” He looked for his drink, but Mac had taken the whisky bottle away. “What a chump I have been, thinking that a pretty girl would fall head-over-heels in love with an ox like me.”
Alcohol gave free rein to his self-pity, yet a sliver of pride stopped him from saying out loud what he really thought: It seems as improbable as the possibility that I shall ever find love and happiness in this life ever again.
“I tell you that Thomas Otway really knew his onions.
Who was't betray'd the capitol?—a woman!
Who lost Mark Antony the world?—a woman!
Who was the cause of a long ten years' war,
And laid at last old Troy in ashes?—Woman!
Destructive, damnable, deceitful woman!
The man knew what he was talking about.”
Natalia placed her hand on his arm. “Listen to me as a woman, Gem. I don’t doubt for a split second that, though the whole thing was obviously planned, Amélie was deeply in love with you at the end.”
The comforting words of friendship became idle words of burden to a man suffering in betrayed love.
“Amélie? Amélie?” Gem straightened himself up. “My opinion of Amelie was revolutionized the moment I heard that she was part of that particular snake pit. And I have this to say to you about Amélie, my friends.”
He tried to get up to make a speech, but was unsuccessful.
“Think of yourselves many years hence, when age, good living and arthritis shall take their toll on your then dilapidated, haggard bodies.” He waited for them to create this image in their minds. His words were slightly slurred, but clear. “Now, think of yourselves as you lean on your walking sticks in order to creakily bend down, determined to honor me by personally assembling the wood for my funeral pyre.”
He placed a hand on his right kidney, bending over to better create for them the image he wanted, exhibiting the embarrassing exactitude which comes from advanced intoxication
“Naturally, judiciously avoiding green shoots.” The old boyish smile appeared for a split second as he lifted a warning finger and Natalia’s eyes filled with tears. “And as you prudently pile the wood - in a staggered fashion for maximum air flow effect - glance at my body; peacefully lying there with arms across the chest, waiting patiently to be lifted onto my bier.”
He searched their faces to make sure they understood his words.
“That will be the time to consider bringing up the subject of Amélie Géroux again in my presence.”
They continued to sit in the hotel’s coffee shop, killing time before lunch, and Mehmet pointed out a man who just walked in and sat at a table across the room from them. The man was speaking on a cell phone.
“I saw that guy at the chateau. He was one of the servants.”
The man had finished his call and they kept a cautious eye on him. Ten minutes later he got up respectfully. Madame Géroux walked slowly and dignified into the room. While she’d looked around the area, Mac had pressed the speed dial on his phone and Gem’s phone rang.
“Answer it. Leave it on, on the table. Keep the line open. She will want to speak to you alone.”
Gem tried to pull himself together to do as he was told, but was unsuccessful. Natalia had to do it for him. Madame Géroux, having established their position in the room, was now walking towards their table. Her poise hadn’t changed; ramrod straight back, raised, proud head, but her face looked extremely pale. She looked down her nose at Gem and those around him.
“It is important that I speak with you. In private.” There was no subtleness in the alteration of her behavior. She made it distinctly clear that they were no longer of her society. He could practically hear the wheels of her turning and the sound of those wheels was not soothing.
Gem felt annoyed by her attitude and was ready to make an issue of it, but Mac had already got the others up and they all moved to another table, out of hearing range.
Gem remained seated, the insult of not getting up for a lady clearly understood by his visitor. She soon realized that he would not invite her to sit, but she could not very well remain standing and be a spectacle. She slowly sat down on the edge of a chair opposite him in her dignified manner.
“You have destroyed my son’s life. He is now a wanted man and I shall never forgive you for this,” she began.
Obviously a woman whose conscience is currently hibernating, Gem thought.
He smiled with genuine pleasure at the thought that he had destroyed her son’s life, his mind saying what his lips did not:
And hopefully I shall be able to see your vile son behind the bars of a prison cage, more appropriate for an animal such as him.
“However, Florian is willing to let bygones be bygones. He asked me to see you and tell you that he wishes the agreement of the $500 million to proceed and each side moves on without any further conflict.”
You crazy monster. “Your son killed an innocent child,”
As an experienced drunk, Gem’s speech was only very slightly slurred, but Madame Géroux noticed.
“You are intoxicated! Jude lieb drecksau,” she said with tight lips. She was now looking at him as something the Food and Drug Administration had condemned as unfit for human consumption.
“As you know, I do not speak German, but no doubt you have expressed your shared disgust for your son. For your information, my only aim in life henceforth shall be to find and dissect Florian Géroux limb by limb. Following which I shall dance the rumba on his remains under the light of the full moon. You shall be able to enjoy the spectacle, because I shall post it on You Tube, for your personal viewing pleasure.”
It was impossible to hide the malice in those shiny blue eyes, even though she tried to hide it with a fixed, frozen smile.
“Schweinigel! I am not here to bandy words with you. I have brought you a simple message.” She intertwined her fingers on the table in front of her. Her knuckles were white with the pressure. Even her large white diamond appeared to flash rays of fury at Gem. “Florian asked me to tell you that if you do not go ahead with the agreement, it will mean war. And in this war Florian will know how to find your friends; but you will not be able to find Florian.”
She spoke faster now, anxious to leave.
“It is Saturday, September 12th. It is your engagement reception day.” A dry mirthless smile appeared on her lips. “Let us say about ten days. Monday the 21st of September. I shall keep Amélie’s old SIM card number myself. You know it and you can reach me through that number. “If I do not hear from you by midnight of Sunday 20th, then on Monday the cellphone number will no longer be operational and war will begin.”
“Hmm… How does one respond?” He leaned back in his chair and spread his hands in bafflement. “The problem I have is in expressing myself appropriately.”
“By that I mean expressing myself in a much broader and colloquially more satisfying fashion. You see,” he now leaned forward on his elbows and his fingers intertwined, “I am restrained by the traditions of a family lineage going back to Ethelred the Unready.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I will go as far as to quote an Arabic saying which is considered to be quite severe in that culture: ‘May wild asses defile the grave of your grandmother’.
Gem had a bright idea. He stared at her with penetrating eyes as if he wished to drill her into her seat.
“Of course you will be more familiar with the Latin version: futue te ipsum, or even more telling futue te ipsum et caballum tuum. He leaned back as if that should do it. He raised his shoulders and spread his hands.
“Other than that, let my silence speak the volumes of expletives your comments deserve.” He slurred, smiling his drunkard’s smile again. He felt as if the ghosts of long dead and gone generations of pretentious ancestors were turning in their graves in unison, reproachful at his ungallant treatment of the fair sex.
Madame Géroux’s withering glare fired thunderbolts back at him, hate and contempt bare across her face, got up with her usual dignity and slowly walked away without looking either right or left.
Gem’s friends returned to his table.
“Weren’t you a bit extreme?” Natalia asked, concern in her eyes.
“On the contrary,” Gem said. “My moderation astounds me.”
“I’ve recorded the whole thing on my cell phone.” Mac placed the unit on the table. He played the conversation back for them, to better digest the exchange.
“What was it she said in German?”
“She was not very ladylike in a language you cannot understand. First she called you a Jew-loving bastard and then she called you a dirty pig.” Natalia poured cold water on their implied prospects the next instant. “You cannot use the recording in a European court, since she was not aware she was being recorded.
Mehmet and Pinoy had reached their limit of eloquent sidestepping, where practical words would do to perfectly describe a situation of this nature, inside a prison or out.
“Fuck this ‘May wild asses defile the grave of your grandmother’ and the other polite Latin shit. Just let Pinoy and me give them a taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their methods.” Mehmet’s expressionless granite face made his comment all the more striking.
“Mehmet is right. We’ve had enough of this verbal jerking off,” Pinoy added. “Sorry, Natalia, but our language is the language of the streets and of prisons. We’ve been keeping quiet so as not to offend your sensitive ears, but we were not employed for our manners or our savoir vivre. And we fucking know the meaning of savoir vivre because we’ve fucking learned French in fucking prison, for God’s sake!”
People at other tables turned in their direction and hiked their wealthy noses in meaningful contempt at Pinoy’s raised voice.
Mac’s strong, but quiet voice left no room for doubt as to who was in charge. “We’ll talk about this later and any action we take shall be taken with a cool head; and only after careful consideration of all the factors involved. Now it’s time to eat and reflect.”
Patrick and his father were buried in the Dublin Jewish cemetery on the morning of Monday, September 21st, the date set by Florian as the last day before commencement of their war. The Jewish community attended in large numbers and they offered support to the tragic mother and her remaining son, Liam. Gem and his friends could only watch the procedure as outsiders, as ‘goyim’.
Totally depressed and unhappy they went from the burial straight to the airport for their flight to Zurich. They intended to spend a night there, where Gem had a three o’clock appointment with Dr. Schönbächler the next day.
The day after, they were to fly to Berlin, where they would meet with Karl Wölfflin.
Gem, sober for a change, tried to lighten the mood and to get the others’ minds off the loss of little Patrick, while two stewardesses prepared their tables for serving lunch.
“We must give credit where credit is due.” He said. “Florian must be a very good psychologist. Another six months and he would have trained me to sit on my hind legs outside Paddington Station, with a begging bowl in my mouth. He would have made a fortune in collections from passersby.”
“The signs were there. I just wasn’t smart enough to combine and analyze them into some recognizable form,” Mac responded, shaking his head.” He sipped his drink as he watched the stewardess at work. “When the boy in his excitement shouted ‘Mazel tov’ at Pinoy’s catch at the lake, something nudged my brain, then, but I chose to ignore it. We, as adults, say ‘Mazel tov’ as a joke amongst ourselves, but a Jewish child would have learned it at home.” He shook his head thoughtfully, as he leaned forward in his chair to inspect the rare T-bone steak he had asked for.
“Then Natalia told me that her name, Berger, means ‘Shepherd’ in old Norman French and that she is ‘the shepherd of our little flock’. I joked that Géroux must mean ‘loaded’ then, but she explained that it is from the Germanic name Gerwulf.”
Mac spoke between thoughtful bites of steak, and stopped often to savor the taste. He seemed to be watching the whole incident in his mind like a movie, while chewing slowly.
“I just didn’t connect the dots. I should have thought more like Clive: German name equals Nazis. Nazis appear to be after you. Nazis and Jews don’t mix. Dermot O’Toole constantly referring to ‘Holy Mother’ but his son shouted “Mazel tov” when he got excited. Too many signs.”
“Oh, come on, Mac you expect too much of yourself.” Natalia said and Gem agreed.
“I’ll drink to that.” Pinoy looked at the empty glass in his left hand. He then looked at the whisky bottle in his other hand. He tried to pour but could not find the glass. He solved the problem by drinking straight form the bottle. He needed to forget his fear of flying and little Patrick’s face.
“No, it should have clicked,” Mac said. “Nazi fortune, six attempts made to get it in the thirty seven years your banker has been handling it. One new attempt immediately after you get mugged.” He pointed his fork at Gem. “You told me you panicked in front of the Géroux family when you realized that the plaque was gone, forgetting that you had changed the codes. They saw your reaction and thought that they could get at the funds. The poor fish they sent simply got nailed, because you accidentally made them believe that you had lost the real thing.” Mac was unfashionably drinking scotch and water with his meal. He drained his glass and put it down, waiting for it to be refilled. The stewardess serving him was busy giving her telephone number to Mehmet.
Gem and Natalia stopped eating their own steaks to look at each other and jointly shrugged their opinion of the excessiveness of Mac’s deductive expectations.
“Well, in retrospect it may seem easy, but at the time…”
“Considering the fortune involved, we should have been more suspicious, Gem. You mentioned that you are afraid of heights and that you can’t swim. You get dropped in the drink from a considerable height immediately after. And a slip of a girl jumps in without a second thought and saves you.” Mac shook his head again. “Then I hear that during your cruise to the Greek islands, the same girl kept jumping off the ship’s rail into the Mediterranean just for the fun of it. From thirty feet up!”
“I am the one who is inexcusable,” Gem stabbed the stake with his fork between bites, as if stubbing himself. “I saw a strange rider speaking to O’Toole at five in the morning, when I went to pick up Patrick for our first fishing trip. The guy obviously avoided me deliberately by riding off without a word. Later Florian was asked to view the recording from a security camera outside the stable and I didn’t find this in any way interesting. I must be as thick as asphalt.”
“If Clive Cunningham had this information, he would have worked it out before taking his first sip of his brother’s fine brandy,” Mac added, his expression now one of despair and self-contempt. “Too many coincidences bunched up too close together. We were stupid and we were set up properly. If Clive wasn’t so crooked, I’d have him sitting next to you every single day. As it is, if we let him get too close, he will find a way to leave us all penniless.
“They knew you would survive the drop, so they gave you Karl Wölfflin’s name, to misdirect you and the police. A well-known Nazi fortune hunter, the police would have him under investigation to this day, had you remembered the name. But they misjudged your ability to remember a German name. Something which to their German minds was an easy thing to remember, for you it was impossible.”
For those who are lost and for those who have strayed,
that they may return to the way of Christ, Pinoy declared, happy to converse with only himself and the Lord, aware that the burden of life would soon descend upon him, as soon as they landed. Let us pray to the Lord.Lord, have mercy.”
A package delivered by special courier was waiting for Mac at the reception desk of the Zurich Bischoff Hotel.
The team soon settled in and Mac got on the phone to the Cunningham brothers to make sure that the security arrangements - already agreed for Shalini and the Professor - were in place and running smoothly.
Mac hung up and looked pleased when he turned to his companions.
“These were in Clive’s special delivery. I asked him to purchase them for everyone,” he said, handing out watches to the group.
Natalia was not enthusiastic. “Why, Mac. How generous. These must have cost at least five dollars each.”
“Actually, one hundred and twenty and they are the latest word in GPS technology. Clive will now be able to keep track all of us on his laptop, twenty four hours a day, if we want him to. You just press this button here and you will activate the GPS any time you feel it’s necessary.”
“Can we trust a flexible conscience such as Clive’s?”
“Oh, yes, within reason. I gave him one of those debit cards for expenses and told him a similar one was given to the guy who will kill him in case something happens to me and I can’t do it personally, should he betray us. He believed me.” Mac removed his watch and replaced it with one of the new ones. His friends looked at theirs with distaste and put them aside. “I took him to a cash machine to verify the amount in the card. He’d never seen so much money together. He is now convinced that we can afford to have him killed without having to cut down on our daily vegetables to do it. By the way, we are going to need some more debit cards.”
Natalia jotted a note on her notepad.
Gem’s phone rang.
“Please don’t hang up darling. I misssss you so much my love, please believe that I just can’t live without you.” It was Amélie Géroux. She spoke so fast her words had no chance to set in before Gem hung up on her, stunned.
It would be paltering with the truth to say that Gem’s heart did not skip a beat at the sound of her sweet, pleading voice. The temptation for specifics was almost overpowering. He felt desperate to know just how much she missed him and to wallow in further minute details of how she could not live without him.
He gave at the knees a bit and felt the urgent need to confide in his friends, but Gem knew that Pinoy’s idea of Nirvana at that particular time was to see his hands dripping with Amélie Géroux’s guilty gore.
“Clive tells me that he has just acquired one of those passports we’ve discussed. I’ve asked him to fly over today to bring it and to give us a firsthand report of what he’s been doing. He will be here around five this afternoon,” Mac said.
“I’ll make arrangements with the hotel to have a room ready for him,” Natalia added, continuously writing in her notebook, while also keeping a worried eye on Gem. She had noticed his distress at the telephone call and asked him with her eyes what had upset him so.
Weariness flooded Gem’s eyes. He wanted to be alone. To think. To be where people could not get to him, even his friends.
“You guys will have to excuse me. I want to spend some time alone to think.” Gem looked at Mac. “Take care of things, will you please Mac? Just call me when Clive arrives.” With that, he took a bottle of whisky and the nearest tumbler at hand and headed for his bedroom. He pressed a button on the music center in his room and listened to Pavarotti, singing Vesti La Giubba, on continuous loop replay.
The hammering in his head became more and more unbearable. Then he realized that he could stop it by picking up the phone. He lifted the receiver and the hammering stopped. It was Mac.
“It’s six thirty. Are you OK? Our leading sunbeam has arrived.”
“Yeah,” Gem croaked, his hangover making speech difficult. “Give me half an hour to shower and then bring him up.”
Gem yawned and stretched the remnants of his hangover out of his system through his shower, and got out more or less in working order. The thumping in his head had ebbed from that of a jackhammer to the bearable sound of a very busy street traffic. His thoughts sauntered off and circled around the lovely image of Amélie, as he returned to the land of the living.
He walked into the sitting room and the familiar scene of his friends lounging around with drinks in their hands, comforted him.
The self-satisfied look on Clive Cunningham’s face advertised that he bore glad tidings. His alcoholic complex tried vainly to match the red rose in his buttonhole.
“You look a bit under the weather, young Gem.” He said, as Gem made himself comfortable in one of the armchairs.
When Gem stared back at him, not in the mood for sharing his inner thoughts with the new visitor, Clive placed documents on the coffee table in front of him and leaned back like a happy, satisfied Buddha.
“Perhaps this will cheer you up. This is the first of your new passports. It comes with a driving license.” Clive leaned forward in a confidential manner and spoke in a whisper, as if they were sitting in a public place. “We should be able to get at least three or four more over the next few months.” He did not stop beaming as he leaned back again.
Gem took the passport and looked at the picture inside. A much younger Gem stared back at him. The passport was eight years old and had two more years to go.
“Iain Lawrenson. You must remember the name and the date of birth.” Clive intertwined his fingers over his generous midriff, accentuating the Buddha image. “It might be a source of embarrassment if you happen to forget either in front of an immigration officer or a policeman.” He broadened his Buddha smile. “Also memorize the address on the driving license. As you can see, it’s one of the old ones, without a photo.”
“What about the Nazi?” Gem asked.
“We have an army of detectives looking for Florian Géroux. They are watching all the residences of the people invited to Gem’s engagement party.” The uncomfortable silence this produced made Clive cough in strained embarrassment. “There were seventeen addresses on the invitation list Mac gave me and we are watching every single one of them. They are spread to France, Germany, Austria and Argentina. He is bound to turn up somewhere. I’ve given a detailed written report to Mac.” He leaned back in his chair, smoothed his vest and again intertwined his fingers across his imposing midriff, as if saying, don’t worry we’ll get there soon.
Mac looked at Gem with paternal interest.
“You don’t look so hot, Kid. Did you eat anything today?” He said.
“No. The Stone’s cannot face food without turning bright green about the gills when their world has been turned upside down. The spirit is too pickled in grief to be willing and the flesh feels like it’s been buried for a week.
“Well, I could use a bite to eat and a drink. Tell you what. Let’s go to Lily’s place for a burger and a couple of beers. Give Natalia a rest from us. What do you say?”
Gem shrugged. “I could use a drink, I think. And I have fond memories of Lilly’s.”
“Fine. But let’s take the boys with us just in case their talents are required,” Mac smiled. “I am getting too old to get into fights,”
Half an hour later they were chewing on burgers and drinking with their guest and the two bodyguards. Inevitably, they could not avoid reminiscing about how they first met at the beginning of this strange adventure.
Clive got fed up with beer and was halfway through demolishing a bottle of Napoleon brandy when he decided to unburden his soul about his recent divorce from his ungrateful wife, Mildred.
“Unlucky?” He said. “Unlucky? My divorce lawyer is the only member of his profession to have risen to sainthood.” He waved his brandy glass at the universe.
The friends’ laughter caused heads to turn in their direction. It was almost eight p.m., and the place was beginning to fill up. Mehmet simply smiled, keeping his eye on the barman while Pinoy raised an inquiring eyebrow at him.
“In fact,” Clive continued, “he is one of the few saints to be unanimously recognized as such by all western Christian faiths, something like Mother Teresa, only more virtuous. However, though I sympathize in spirit with his murderer, I think that putting him through a stump grinder while still alive was a bit over the top.” The consumption of alcohol made the joke sound funnier than it was and the friends roared with laughter.
Mehmet signaled to Mac and Pinoy to get closer. “That barman’s been looking at us very strangely. He was on the phone a couple of times, looking at us and speaking to someone, as if we are the subject of the call.” He spoke quietly and with calm, as if there was nothing to worry about.
“I might have guessed,” Mac said. “Let’s get Gem out of here now.” He called the waiter over and asked for the bill.
“We are not leaving already, are we Mac?” Gem asked. “I am having a good time here.” The door opened with a bang and he tried to focus on the noisy, uncivilized culprit who had entered.
Memory did its stuff; the crutches, the beefy frame, the face that looked as if it had been soaked in anger. . . It was none other than their old friend from Lili’s Bar. The man had a wishful look on his face as he practically screamed from the door: “Smith!”
The silence that befell Lily’s Bar was as heavy as an overfed elephant.
Two men got up from a table near the door and joined the newcomer. They had obviously preceded him and had been waiting for his presence to act. The three of them began to walk towards the bar.
“Mac, it’s our old friend. Shall we go and say hello and you can do your stuff?” Gem asked.
“Nah… Why get into a sweat when we have these two youngsters here?” Mac wanted to know reasonably.
Pinoy seemed to agree with him.
“There’s only two of them. I don’t count the crutches. It’s a piece of cake for Mehmet. Let him do it.”
Gem put in his two cents worth: ‘You don’t think he’ll kick at the idea?’ he asked Pinoy.
‘Please don’t be hurtful,” Pinoy replied with a shocked expression and Mac joined in:
“We are speaking of a man whose deeds are bound to be sung by poets of the future,” he said taking a step back to admire Mehmet better.
“A man of made of solid steel who knows no fear and who laughs in the face of death,” Pinoy added.
“Bastards!” Mehmet said with disgust and pushed himself away from the bar.
“Twenty will get you forty that he goes for the nose first,” Pinoy said to Mac. They leaned their backs on the bar and propped their elbows on the bar top.
“No bet,” Mac sort of yawned. “I think that our visitors are about to collect any back wages of sin they may have coming to them.”
Gem tried to be as casual as his friends holding up the bar, but curiosity got the better of him. He cocked his head at the two observers.
“Why the nose?” He asked.
“If you punch someone on the nose, his eyes run like rivers for a few seconds and he is temporarily blinded,” Mac said by way of explanation.
“Thank you for the information. I shall file it away in my folder for quirky but useless titbits. Personally, I have what I believe to be an admirable sense of self-preservation. It ensures that I have mastered the skill of distancing the self from anything likely to result in physical unpleasantness. Though this makes me an unlikely candidate for the military, I believe that it is a healthier option in both the short term and the long term.”
His friends laughed, without taking their eyes from the developing events.
One of Crutches’ companions, on his left, had a face which showed that it had been in a few tough fights, but which left no doubt about the condition of the other guys’ faces. It was a face which said, go ahead, hit me first so I will have the excuse I need to break every bone in your body. He had a version of a grin on his face which looked as if it had been fixed there with an electric screwdriver. He looked at Mehmet with interested curiosity, his head slightly to one side.
Everyone took it for granted that Mehmet would say something to the newcomers as he walked up to them. Everyone was wrong.
A vicious straight left to the nose from Mehmet caused the man to take a couple of steps back. Mehmet followed him and knocked Crutches sideways, with a Taekwondo kick, just above the left hip, sending him sprawling into the second goon. He then swiveled around and kicked the first man in the groin, making him fold like an angle bracket. The victim was tenderly and affectionately holding his private parts.
By then the second goon had disengaged himself from Crutches to move towards Mehmet. He was a man whose appearance easily confirmed him to be of a lower level of evolution than the rest of humanity. He was big, muscular and things had been done to his head, which might have been in a road accident, or not. If he could read, he was the type who was guaranteed to do any reading with his lips and his tongue.
Gem could not imagine him spending a quiet evening at home with Schopenhauer's ‘Art of Literature’.
The goon made a fist with a hand whose fingers were thick as bananas, and aimed it at Mehmet’s head - only the intended target was no longer there. Mehmet was on the man’s left now and was in the process of delivering a roundhouse punch with the precision of a chemist dropping the correct amount of drops into the right test tube.
The punch caught the man exactly on the jaw and he pirouetted gracefully, his feet, leaving the floor for a few inches. When he landed on one of the tables, the crash could have been heard two blocks down the road. He lay there motionless for a while. Then he gargled something incoherent and tried to move, but it was like watching a mouse caught in a glue trap.
Crutches limped out of the bar in a hurried but dejected manner, obviously sorry that he had to tear himself away. He seemed to recollect and become a proponent of the favorite theory of Theophrastus that time is the most valuable thing a man can spend and, remembering a previous engagement, departed in rather a hurry.
“Now I know how the Assyrian swooping down on the fold must have looked like,” Gem said, impressed.
Mehmet looked at Pinoy and Mac and said in disgust: “Bastards! Now I need another shower. And I just had one before we came out.”
“What’s so confidential that it cannot be discussed over the telephone, Dr. Schönbächler?” Gem asked their host. He smiled in turn at the good Doctor, at Herr Niklas Schneider and at Hilda, the only one standing, ready to react to her boss’s slightest request. Having introduced Mac and Natalia, they all relaxed in the Chairman’s sitting room area.
“Telephones are notoriously insecure and your competitors would love to have advance warning of what we are doing,” Dr. Schönbächler said. The great man now treated Gem as a returning prodigal son.” Why give them the satisfaction?”
“We require your signature on a very important document. You are about to order another offshore oil rig and the cost is beyond even my personal limit.” The banker changed position slightly in his wheelchair by using his hands to shift himself in the small space his wheelchair provided. “The purchase price is just over one billion dollars. It is essential that you sign the relevant agreement in this office, in front of witnesses and a notary public. The bank’s lawyer will also be present; to vouch to you officially that he has approved the wording of the documents.”
“But you’ve been doing fine all these years without any signature. What has changed all of a sudden?”
“It’s very simple. It is because you have changed the passwords. Before the bank became computerized, we had the passwords on file. When the system was computerized, we registered the same passwords into the system, so we had access to the account that way.” The Dr.’s face took an unhappy look. He looked at his visitors one by one before he continued.
“All this is in the documentation Herr Schneider gave to Mr. Stone when they had their first briefing.” He looked at Gem in an accusatory fashion, as if he was about to say that he expected more of him. “With the codes changed, the bank is only able to access the operational budget allocated to each account by the board of directors, according to the size of the account. In your case it is up to sixty million dollars.” A mere pittance, the look said. “Anything above that requires the approval of the account holder, or access to the passwords.”
“But surely you know your own clients’ passwords? What happens if someone forgets his?” Mac asked.
“Again, the answer is in the documentation we have already given you.” He looked at Gem over his spectacles, as a headmaster would look at an erring boy behind with his homework. “For security purposes, no one has access to the passwords. It is all done by a special algorithm which creates the password as you type it in, but does not keep a record of it that can actually be accessed. It is only registered in the system and the relevant software can recognize it when you type it in.” Clearly Dr. Schönbächler was not very fond of these modern obstacles, or of people who did not study the documentation given to them.
“It all has to do with fraud prevention and to remove the temptation of any one bank employee, no matter how high up, to use the account for his own purposes.” Here his expression began to grudgingly soften. “The software used is such as to make it impossible for anyone to break the code. The computer on which you changed the passwords is encrypted and once you press the ‘change passwords’ link, a special algorithm prevents even the computer you are using at that very moment from copying the information.”
“So what happens if Gem forgets the passwords?” Mac asked.
That question managed to raise one of the ‘almost’ smiles in Dr. Schönbächler.
“You would need a court order from the Swiss Federal Court,” Dr. Schönbächler addressed Gem directly. “Its nine judges will have to be convinced that you are the real registered owner of the account. Since the password cannot be changed, the judges will authorize the creation of a new account into which all the assets will be transferred. You will then be able to create new passwords for that account.”
“I lost the file Herr Schneider gave me, when I was attacked outside the Bischoff hotel. I forgot to ask for another one,” Gem said in a sheepish fashion. Then, as an afterthought, he asked in a quiet voice: “What if I die?” Everyone leaned forward to hear the answer as Dr. Schönbächler shrugged.
“Your inheritors will have to go through the same court, in the same process.”
“So what would anyone gain by killing me?”
Dr. Schönbächler looked dumbfounded at the question and unable to express a businesslike opinion, he shrugged again.
The friends looked at each other with blank faces. Mac sat straight up.
“Nothing by God! They have nothing to gain by killing you. In fact, with you dead, the account becomes hopelessly entangled.” His expression was one of excitement. “That’s why Florian’s mother said that Florian will know where he could find your friends, but you would not know how to find him. They may kill us off one by one, but you, personally, are bullet proof and generally invincible. He laughed with satisfaction at the discovery. “As long as you don’t hand over the account and the passwords, that is.”
“We have to increase the security for Shalini and the professor,” Gem said, thinking of the people closest to his heart.
Dr. Schönbächler asked for an explanation of what was going on and they told him. He could not help.
Suddenly Gem had a thought which made his brain whirl.
“Dr. Schönbächler, I must change the passwords again. Now, before I step out of this building. But first I need access to the Internet.
Forty minutes later, Gem stepped back in Dr. Schönbächler’s office, obviously very pleased with himself.
“It’s done. The new password is the name of a well-known Welsh village with the longest name on record.”
“Nooooooooo!” Was the collective reaction from all those present. Dr. Schönbächler was particularly annoyed.
“Herr Stone, that was highly inappropriate and completely uncalled for. You have placed all of us here in a very difficult situation. I ask you to change the codes again, without giving us even an inkling of what they might be.”
A triumphant looking Gem tried to calm everyone down. “But I want the world to know about this. Let me explain. We believe that someone from this bank has given out information about my account and my comings and goings with the bank.” He raised his hand to stop the bankers from objecting to this. “You will understand what I mean in a minute. The village name is,’ he read from a piece of paper he held in his hand, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogery chwyr nd - robwllllantysiliogogogoch. Everyone flinched when he started to read, but gradually bafflement reigned supreme. “That is not how the name is properly pronounced, but if you Google ‘longest welsh village name’ you will be able to see how it is spelled and pronounced.” His listeners had pained expressions on their faces.
“The name means” he read again from the piece of paper he had in his hand “Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave.”
His companions’ bewilderment increased. Gem looked at their worried faces with distinct pleasure.
“I have written the name as I understood it to be phonetically, meaning incorrectly, on a piece of paper, adding random numbers in arbitrary places.” He could not help himself from gloating. “I then copied the result carefully so I could replicate it when the system asked me to repeat the password. Having changed the passwords, I then destroyed the paper on which I had written my version of the name.” He leaned back, waiting for the information to sink in. “Now I could never replicate the password in a million years, even if I wanted to. I cannot possibly enter the correct password into the system, even if my life depended on it. Please make sure that this information is passed around to as many people as possible.”
He looked around the faces in the room and he could see comprehension begin to settle in.
“If something happens to me, those trying to get at the account will lose all hope of getting their mitts on it. We are now ready to move on to our next stop, Berlin.”
They arrived at the Berlin Bischoff Hotel by noon the next day.
Timm Lustenberger, the general manager, kept falling over himself to accommodate the owner of the hotel he’d been running for the last eight years. He was a short, well fed, bald, elegant dandy of a man. He was in his mid-forties and he liked his job enough to obey the owner’s instructions with utmost efficiency.
The top floor of the hotel had been cleared of all residents and isolated for the exclusive use of the hotel’s owner and his friends. Additional security cameras had been installed as requested and Mehmet and Pinoy given direct access to the CCTV feed.
The appointment with Karl Wölfflin was for the next day, so they spread themselves on the sitting room armchairs and sofas with drinks in their hands.
Gem’s phone rang. It was an unknown number. He answered it with care, as if the phone was a bomb that could go off at any moment.
“If you leave me, I shall wear black for the rest of my life. Please forgive me my love. Please give me the opportunity to prove to you how much I love you. I just can’t live without you.” It was Amélie again.
It took a lot of willpower for Gem to hang up this time.
He got up and poured himself a drink. Natalia looked a question at him. She was the only one there with any knowledge of the female mind that he could actually trust. After thinking it over for a few seconds, he signaled her to follow him, away from the others. He led her to an alcove, in front of one of the many windows that appeared to be the preferred design of Bischoff Hotel presidential sites.
Two thick, peach colored, cushioned armchairs faced each other over a low coffee table. He waited for her to sit first, enjoying the regal grace with which she moved, before he flopped down on the armchair opposite hers. He took a sip from his drink, shrugged, and made a gesture as if to say, ‘what can you do?’
“When the lady of your affections hands you your hat, your options are limited,” he said after gulping down half the liquor in his glass. “Going off to discover new worlds is no longer a possibility. Writing revolting poetry about the fickleness of woman is just too trite even for me. Shooting lions in Africa is also out, as it tends to raise the censure of the universe.”
Natalia’s smile was full of sympathy. He felt that he was not doing a good job of explaining himself.
“However, it would appear that the spark of passion strikes for even the most underserving cases. That was my murdering betrothed, telling me that she cannot live without me.” Gem shrugged. “It must be the magic Flintstone personality.” He took another sip from his glass and watched her for her reaction.
She leaned forward, crossed her forearms on her knees, and spoke in a soft voice. “First of all, you are not an undeserving case by any means. And I already told you that, as a woman, I could tell that she was in love with you for real. Perhaps you should reconsider and give her another chance.”
He tried to laugh. He was unsuccessful. He put down his drink on the coffee table in front of him, leaned back, crossed his legs and began searching himself for a cigar. “Regrettably, there is a fatal weakness in the Flintstone character, Natalia. When a woman wants to kill us, she tends to lose almost all of her fascination for us. It has become obvious that, the certainty of my belief that she liked me, was, unfortunately, built on decidedly shifting sands.”
His words lacked the ring of conviction and she looked thoughtfully at him, her eyes speaking volumes in empathy with his situation.
“Perhaps she was not in on the whole thing.”
Gem shook his head sadly and felt the need to indicate some weak points to this perspective.
“I fear that I must correct this view, young Natalia. It’s obvious that even someone with your acknowledged brain power can fall victim to the occasional bloomer. No, her call to her brother leaves no doubt that she was in on the whole thing, from the beginning. ‘They know about the Jews, Gem knows everything’. Though at times the Flintstones can appear to be made of ivory from the neck up, in this instance there can be no doubt, even to someone of my own limited brain power. She was in on it.”
His appearance conveyed the general impression of a dog that had been left out in the rain and then blow-dried by the elements.
“Stop running yourself down! There is nothing wrong with your brain power and you are an intelligent, handsome, captivating man. You are a perfect catch for any woman of culture and good taste.” She flushed and Gem remembered her turning to look at him as he turned to look at her, outside the bank. She now had the look of a guilty child. She blushed, making a feeble effort to smile. She looked into his eyes and her cheeks became crimson. His insecurities did not permit an interpretation of this that might be complimentary to himself, so he continued to stare, until he finally realized that he must help her. The only way he could think of was to play the fool.
“Life has burdened me with a fatal modesty which has forever been the bane of all Flintstones. As numerous as our virtues are, our modesty is what makes us stand out from the herd. What you see before you is the result.” He flashed his boyish smile. She shook her head as if trying to resist it.
He saw that she understood what he was doing and appreciated it. He saw her collecting herself as she looked at him straight in the eyes.
“You men know so little about us women, it’s incredible. Let me tell you something about us that few men manage to comprehend.” She leaned forward again and this time touched his hand, like a mother advising her child on his first day at school. “It’s wrong to judge a woman by male ‘standards’. For the sake of their so called pride and self-perceived dignity, most men will step away from a relationship with a woman they love if they think that she has betrayed them in any way. A man will often prefer to die in loneliness and hurt, rather than forgive an infidelity, for example.” Her face reflected a woman’s inability to comprehend so much idiocy.
“On the other hand, a woman truly in love and I mean really and truly in love, not just in lust, has no such impediments. A woman in love is sick.” She paused, as if searching for the right words to explain it to him. “She really suffers from a sickness of which she does not wish to be cured. Can you understand what I am telling you?”
Gem shook his head ‘no’ and she patiently touched his hand again, to make sure he was really focused. .
“A woman in love is sick.” She repeated. “She will have no boundaries or limitations as far as her man is concerned and she will do absolutely anything to keep him.” She waited for the information to sink into a male brain. “She will have no hindrances, such as pride or shame. She will not be constrained by pride, dignity, humiliation, or restrictions.” Again, she waited for the information to sink in, as if certain that a male moronic brain needed time to grasp what, to a female brain, was the obvious.
“If her man leaves her for another woman, she will be angry of course, but instead of giving him up, she will park outside his house or his office and simply stare at his window, making sure that he sees her doing so.” She stopped once more, to give him the opportunity to catch up with reality. “She will call him even if he hangs up on her. She will…”
Gem’s ringing phone interrupted her. He answered it out of pure absent-minded instinct, fascinated by what Natalia had been saying.
“Please don’t hang up on me my love. Please forgive me and give me another chance.” He hung up and looked at Natalia. “That was Amélie again,” he said sheepishly.
“Trust me Gem. I know what I am talking about. She leaned back her face now strained. “Devotion, love and desire of any kind are generally time limited, unless you suffer from a chemical imbalance. That chemical imbalance is a sickness; a sickness that can be created in a woman by a simple thing, such the man’s smell for example.”
Her pretty face was serious and her eyes moist.
“Serotonin is one of love's most important chemicals and one that may actually send us temporarily insane. Truly,” she assured him, when doubt rose on his face. A woman may begin a relationship for a number of reasons, but she could find herself falling in love for the strangest of details, smell being one of them. I know that it sounds incredible, but it is true. It might also be the way he dresses and holds himself.”
Gem imbibed his whisky and her wisdom in equal doses, but it was a bit too much for him to digest all at once. He relapsed to his Smithsonian Specialist Tobacconist’s club escapist style of speaking with women, masking his insecurities and fears.
“Speaking of dresses, that dress is having a rather disturbing effect on a weak artist such as me. It is grossly unfair of you to tempt a betrothed from the love of his life with a creation of such perfection. I may have been able to resist it were it not for that magnetic flare at the hem, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.”
Recognizing for the diversion it was, Natalia decided to play along. She batted her eyelids at him.
“This is not a dress, infidel, this is haute couture and you have to speak to it in French or else it becomes offended.” She crossed her legs and smoothed the cloth lovingly over her knees.
“When something you wrap around you, simply to prevent you from getting arrested for indecent exposure, uses up such a sizable portion of the debit card you gave me, you must be polite to it. And yes, that is exactly why I bought it, to dazzle you with my unparalleled beauty.”
Gem began to relax, his pain temporarily eased.
The male heart detests a vacuum. When betrayed or given the raspberry by a loved one, man’s initial instinct is to try his hand at self-pitying poetry. But then, after the heart has lain empty for a few days, he tends to clean up shop and redecorates, placing welcome signs in strategic places. It is not long before some girl will fall over herself to enter. The spiritual agony, originally caused by the betrayal or rejection begins to wane. The offending girl, the one of whom in his mind, he now refers to as “what’s-her-name”, is but a dim memory of which he wonders at the idiocy of ever having allowed her to get under his skin.
Gem’s heart was very much of the male persuasion and though he did not yet feel that it was time to begin redecorating the shop of his soul, a bit of cleaning up could not hurt.
“Behind those very chic prescription glasses of yours, I detect that your eyes are hazel–green, bright stars whose flame no sun can pale. The Flintstones have been known to write poetry about hazel–green eyes such as yours, but personally, up to now, my taste in eye color has been rather broad. Now, I begin to feel the Flintstone genes urging me towards my poetic side.” Her gentle, sweet laughter was a soothing elixir to his damaged pride. “The curious thing is why some dashing gallant has not swept a girl like you - so abundantly endowed with all the necessary - off her feet as yet. Or am I wrong? Am I too late?”
“No, I have never married; always faithful to your memory. I have been gazing out of the turret window, like the lady of Shallot, waiting for my He-Man to come along carrying his horse on his back because it had sprained its ankle. Hoping that my tears, like drops of molten lead, with torment burn the passage to your heart.”
Mac must have heard their laughter and turned to look at them. He smiled his secret smile back at Gem, but this time it seemed to be accompanied by a twitch of pleasure and hope.
“Let’s have lunch in one of the restaurants downstairs, like normal people do,” Natalia said. “Room service has its advantages, but it can be overdone.”
“I don’t see why not,” Gem smiled and was already halfway to the door when the phone rang. Mehmet answered it.
“It’s reception. Herr Karl Wölfflin is downstairs in the lobby and wants to see Herr Stone.” Mehmet could not hide the surprise in his voice.
The friends looked at each other in wonder. Their appointment with Karl Wölfflin was for the next day at his office on Kurfürstendamm Avenue, just four blocks down the road from the Berlin Bischoff Hotel. Gem nodded to Mehmet, then he and Mac puffed on thoughtful cigars while they waited for their guest to arrive.
“It may be that he wants to catch us off guard,” Mac suggested, as Mehmet went to answer the door to their new visitor.
Karl Wölfflin’s smile nearly touched the walls on either side of the large room. He was a man who wanted to be noticed. He succeeded. He was as inconspicuous as a fly doing the backstroke in a glass of milk.
“I was in the neighborhood and I thought, why not drop in and say hello?” their visitor said, as soon as he walked in.
Karl Wölfflin was in his early fifties, about five feet ten and well fed, with thick black hair and blue eyes. His smile was intended to disarm, but inclined his new acquaintances more towards feeling for their wallets, than relaxing in his presence. In short, he looked like a man who would water the cat’s milk.
Along with his smile, Karl Wölfflin’s personality filled the room as soon as he walked in. Having been introduced to everyone and having shaken hands with each of them in turn, he generously asked everyone to sit down and to make themselves at home. His loud voice cut the smoke-filled air like a chainsaw. He gave the impression that he owned the place and was prepared to be the perfect host; a perfect host who looked like a Sherman tank.
Though he appeared to have strong Neanderthal genes, he was well-dressed by his own standards. The Italian leather which swathed him and the gold chains which decorated his person were intended to make a statement and they did so in a loud, undeniable manner. He was the type whose appearance in court, on charges of living on immoral earnings, causes juries to sigh with relief. The jury immediately feels that they will be home for lunch and begin writing the word ‘guilty’ on their relevant slips of paper, just as the prosecution rises to begin its presentation of the case.
Gem could not help liking the man.
“Well, now. Your visit signals the time to kill the fatted calf. You must join us for lunch. Shall we have it up here after all Natalia?”
Over lunch it soon became obvious that a very sharp and intelligent mind lay behind the Neanderthal façade.
Now, sitting in the chairs of the luxurious leather lounge suite, he appeared to enjoy the coffee, the male company and the captivating femininity of Natalia. The right female presence is the yeast, which, combined with the male ego, becomes the catalyst for inducing fermentation.
“It’s a joy to meet a woman who allows smoking in her presence, Natalia,” he smiled at her as he joined the others in lighting one of the Cuban cigars offered him by Mac. He had a strong German accent, but he spoke fluent English.
“My father was a cigar smoker,” she smiled back, “and I gave up worrying about second hand smoking a long time ago.”
Karl Wölfflin grinned through the haze created by his thick Cuban cigar and turned to Gem.
“It seems that we have both been after the same thing; The Géroux fortune. You nearly managed to get married into it, I believe. I am not as pretty as you and I have had to resort to other methods.” He drank black coffee through his smile and his keen blue eyes held Gem’s ready to assess his response.
Gem shrugged. “It was actually the other way around. I had no idea about the Géroux family and their fortune until they took care to make themselves known to me. It subsequently became clear that their intent was to relieve me of the burden of wealth.”
Pinoy could not resist the opportunity to become biblical: “Perhaps they believed that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. They might have wanted to save you from such a tragedy,” he contributed with a grim smile. “No doubt they also believed that when their turn came, they could give a little something to St Peter at the pearly gates, to make an exception in their case.”
Their guest nodded in appreciative agreement.
“Yes, that mentality seems to run in the family,” Wölfflin said, holding the coffee cup with both hands, his cigar sticking out between his index and middle finger. “The grandfather started it all.”
He still held the cup with both hands as he placed his elbows on his knees and looked at each of them in turn, before he said in a softer tone:
“Colonel Ulrich Gerwulf.” Wölfflin looked at each of them again to see if the name meant anything to them. “Colonel Ulrich Gerwulf,” he repeated as if to himself, when it became obvious that the name meant nothing to his listeners. He put his coffee cup down on the side table beside him. He sat back in his chair and with his spread arms he indicated that everyone should make themselves more comfortable. It will be a long story, the gesture implied.
“Ulrich Gerwulf was at university when he joined Hitler’s Nazi party, at a time when it was not yet fashionable to do so.” Wölfflin watched Pinoy go to the drinks cabinet and pour himself a large brandy and a happy smile appeared on his face. “I wonder if I might join you,” he said to Pinoy, who was only too happy to find a fellow connoisseur of alcohol.
Pinoy half-filled a brandy tumbler and handed over to their guest before he sat down again.
Clive Cunningham, Gem and Mac looked at each other, then got up to help themselves. Wölfflin waited for them to sit down again before he continued.
“Gerwulf joined Hitler’s inner circle when he was arrested with Hitler during the demonstration that led to the treason trial of March 1924. In prison, he acted as Hitler’s secretary and, in fact, took down the dictation of Mein Kampf. That formed a bond between the two men and Hitler came to trust Gerwulf’s loyalty.” He sipped his drink with what appeared to be relish and smiled his thanks at Pinoy.
“Though he had no military training or experience, he was later baptized a colonel of the SS by his master. Hitler trusted him enough to place him in charge of stripping occupied countries of their treasures.” Confident that he had his audience’s full attention, he slowly took another loving sip from his brandy glass for effect. “In January of 1944 he was stationed in France with his family. When the Allies invaded Normandy in June of 1944, he begun to load trainloads of treasure destined for Germany. He ensured that not all of them reached their destination.” The glee in his smile was infectious, but no one dared to interrupt his flow of information.
“When he realized that the war might be lost, he used his position to obtain documents for his family as French citizens by the name of Céline and Philippe Géroux. Nothing could have been easier for him at the time.” He shrugged again to make his point.
“He waited until the very last moment, towards the very end of the war, before he loaded his wife with stolen jewels and shipped her and his son off to Buenos Aires. He also gave his wife a detailed map of where he had hidden a full train load of treasure designated for himself.” His listeners hung on his every word and Gem could see that Wölfflin obviously relished the undivided attention of everyone in the room. He paused for effect before he continued.
“In addition, he gave her the maps of three other hidden treasures, with instructions to share them with specific persons after the war, for the sake of the Nazi cause. Just in case he didn’t make it. He didn’t make it. He actually died on the last day of the war, while trying to hide his tracks.” Karl Wölfflin cocked his head to one side and looked at his host with affection.
“My informant told me that Hitler’s Nerobefehl or Nero Decree was issued when Gerwulf was in the process of transporting a second batch of 250 tons of gold to the Kaiseroda salt mine, in Merkers.
Having demolished the brandy bottle in front of him, he got up as he spoke and went to the drinks cabinet with the air of a family member.
“As you may know, with the Nero Decree, Hitler ordered that everything of value must be destroyed, so as not to fall into the enemy’s hands,” he said as he inspected the varieties of brandy available. He chose a bottle of twenty year old Hennessey and opened it while he spoke. “Gerwulf had already taken the first batch of 250 tons to Merkers. That is the gold the allies found and confiscated. However, when the Decree was issued, he diverted the second train to Switzerland. As you can imagine, he had in his possession the means by which to bribe anyone in his way.”
The envious, admiring look in the orator’s face made it plain that he would have loved to find himself in the same position. Wölfflin went back to his seat with the bottle and poured himself another generous drink.
“My informant also told me that Gerwulf, having deposited the gold in a Swiss bank numbered account, had the access information placed in an ugly, clay, green and yellow chicken ornament. He gave this to his wife, just before she sailed. He called it his son’s ‘piggy bank’. It was to be given to his son to open when the boy became twenty one.”
He drank a generous measure from his glass immediately after he said this. His closed eyes as he drank failed to see Gem stiffen at the mention of the green and yellow chicken.
“Céline despised the object and so she placed it in one of her many trunks, for the sea voyage to Argentina. The trunk was lost there, during the transfer from the ship to her hotel.” He placed his glass down carefully and shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, we shall never know what happened to the green and yellow chicken.” The sad, yearning look in his eyes remained there for a few seconds. Then he shook his head, as if to remove the thought.
“However,” he continued, cheering up. “Céline had enough stolen jewels with her to ensure her a life of luxury to the end of her days. She didn’t worry too much about a piggy bank. She became a widow at age thirty-three and widowed female hormones are particularly susceptible to Argentinian tango instructors.” He made a a c’est la vie gesture. “She lived a vigorous life, most of it on her back.” He seemed to be lost in thought as he said this and then added: “She became an excellent tango dancer.” He shrugged as if he thought this to be the only logical expectation.
Pinoy replenished their guest’s glass, before emptying what remained in the bottle into his own.
“By 1960 the war had become history to be taught at schools. Only a few Jews were still looking for Nazis and for justice. She was then forty eight years old and the glow of youth was beginning to fade more and more rapidly, requiring a larger investment in Latin tango instructors.” He took a drink from his glass and smiled his thanks at Pinoy.
“She still had enough to see her through comfortably to the end of her days, but who can resist the attraction of hidden treasure? Especially if she is the only one who knows where it is hidden?” He drained his glass and walked over to the drinks cabinet for a refill, gently placing a hand on Pinoy’s shoulder to keep him from rising to help. He spoke as he poured.
“Phillipe was now twenty one and able to help with the extraction of the hidden wealth. The need for more tango lessons, Phillipe’s coming into manhood and the promise of adventure combined convinced her to make the trip to the mother continent.” He filled his brandy glass almost to the brim and then sat down again.
“The rest is, as they say, history. Phillipe Géroux became known as the scion of a billionaire Frenchman from Argentina, with unlimited funds to invest in real estate and other ventures. He made contacts with the people his father had designated. They helped him to get at the loot from two of the three hiding places that were destined for the cause. Their share of the loot ensured him a very powerful group of well-connected friends who were very grateful to him for cutting them in.”
He took a large slug from his tumbler and waited for the drink to settle. He paused for the effect of the drink to spread through his body before he continued.
“They are a tight bunch and they help each other. I have been after them for almost thirteen years now, ever since my informant told me all about them.”
“So it’s not just the Géroux I am dealing with then,” Gem said. “It’s disturbing to think that the combined strength of the surviving Nazi element is now gnashing its teeth at the name of Gem Flintstone.”
“You said two of the three hidden treasures,” Clive said. “What about the third one?”
“Ah, I’ve got that one,” Wölfflin said with a pleased look on his face. He leaned back in his chair while exhaling smoke, like a fire breathing dragon that has made short work of some impertinent knight and was now relaxing with the memory.
At a loss for words, his audience looked thoughtfully at a smoke ring floating nonchalantly, undecided which direction to take.
Their guest decided to explain how he got ‘the third one’.
“One of the people who were designated to be included in the loop by Colonel Ulrich Gerwulf, decided to save his own skin in another case, in exchange for the information. God rest his soul.” Wölfflin did not smile when he said this. “That’s how I came to know all this.”
“By Jove, you are not related to Clive Cunningham here by any chance are you?” An incredulous Gem asked. “I don’t want to flatter you, but I think you are destined to be a Genghis Khan of crime.”
Clive Cunningham’s chuckle and the laughter from everyone else helped the joke go across well and their guest joined their mirth.
Professor Robert Asquith looked up at his crowd and smiled. The auditorium was so packed that people had to sit on the steps. He knew most of the youngsters there were not from his own mathematics course and had come in expectation of what he might decide to say about politics or ethics at the end of his lecture, as was his wont.
“You honor me with your presence,” he began following the end of his lecture. He slowly looked around at all the keen faces, noting the presence of some lecturers amongst the young students, at whom he flashed an especially warm smile.
“At 69, I am at the springtime of my eternity, inhabiting as I do a mortal coil which is not currently at its best. I am also probably at the seed-time of my senility. And galloping senility requires constant weeding of the garden of memory, but in the process valuable perennials often join the compost heap.” He looked at the video camera which was there to record his comments for a You Tube project organized by adoring students.
“But neither my mortality nor my senility frightens me, since I shall be leaving you in my stead. You, with your bright young minds, minds which are able to comprehend faster and better than the mind of the old man before you. You are in a temple of learning, with access to information which will enable you to rise on the stepping stones of the collected thoughts of men and women who have preceded us, leading you to higher things.” He skimmed his gaze over the young faces before him, as though speaking to each and every one of them directly.
“You are the reason that I do not rage against the dying light, but instead go gentle into that good night. You are my hope and my conviction that you will, indeed, take arms against the sea of troubles which we are all currently facing and, by opposing, end them.
“I refer, of course, to the need for you to oppose the political mafia which currently rules our country and our lives.”
At the last sentence the students burst into laughter and applause. The professor knew that his unusual use of Shakespeare, Tennyson and Dylan Thomas in his introduction was bound to make them wonder at what is going on. He heard comprehension in their laughter.
“Our lives are ruled by self-satisfied, self-serving, political mediocrities, which are simply packages of corruption and devoid of ideas and ideals.
“The masses now obtain their beliefs, their prejudices, their political outlook, and their principles by simply putting their feet up in front of the TV, or by reading the mouthpiece newspapers of self-serving, unethical political parties.
“We are force-fed predigested intellectual food and drink provided through our media by these corrupt political parties and their representatives, because the struggle for daily survival has turned us into anxious, tired individuals exclusively involved in the business of survival. We have ended up surrendering our families’ future to grasping, unimaginative, incompetent and crooked politicians whose only foundation and incentive is self-serving greed.
“Instead of cordially loathing our politicians, we should put them to the practical litmus test of minutely analyzing the source of their immediate family’s accumulated wealth.
“Prime ministers are the tools of the proprietors of the country and some take their cut. Why is it that the UK tax office does not investigate the source of income of ex-prime ministers? How is it possible for an ex-prime minister to die in a mansion worth twelve million pounds, purportedly belonging to an offshore company with mysterious owners, and not be investigated? Especially since that particular prime minister started out with practically nothing and was never involved in business? How was the money acquired? Her husband’s net estate of one point three million pounds does not justify such extravagance and the lie about a generous friend providing it rent free is exposed by the facts.
“The long arm of greed has lain on our shoulders for centuries and it is now bent at the elbow, encircling our throats. We are born into dependency and therefore slavery, to parents who are already enslaved. We are subsequently given the illusion of freedom because slavery generates revolt and our rulers do not want revolt. The only times the British establishment made concessions to its slaves at home was when the slaves were indisputably ready to revolt.
“In the old days, the kings collected taxes to put in their own coffers, for their own personal use. They sought expansion, because more land meant more people to tax for their personal benefit and more people to use as soldiers for further expansion. In the event of additional expansion requirements, they simply taxed the people more.
“Nowadays it is exactly the same, but in a disguised form. Now that they cannot be seen to use taxes for their personal benefit, they create huge projects requiring tax funds out of which they take their cut in commissions. Take the HS2, proposing high speed rail network that is supposed to cost as much as eighty billion pounds. It is a long-term project, designed to provide an income in commissions for the next generation of descendants of the owners of the country, the real power behind the scenes, in lieu of taxes. The same applies to Britain’s Trident nuclear defense system. Its cost is in the billions and justified by Britain’s prime minister because ‘the country faces an increased threat of nuclear attack from North Korea!’ The same PM who is on record as offering to a person accused of a serious crime to appoint a friendly judge to head an inquiry into her case.
“Let’s face it. The possibility of the United Kingdom, the USA, Spain or France being invaded and occupied by a foreign power by force of arms, is far beyond the realms of possibility. Yet the leadership of these countries has managed to convince their nationals that they are somehow in danger of enslavement and so you often hear these people refer to the ‘fight for freedom’, meaning freedom from some foreign foe.” He turned to look directly at the camera again.
“Unfortunately, the news from the front for such freedom fighters is not good. We have lost and we are already slaves. We live in a type of feudal system, where the only difference is that the Lord of the Manor does not practice droit du seigneur; at least not by right of law.
He waited for a period of two minutes, during which until he looked into the eyes of as many students as possible. “I repeat. You are my hope and my conviction that you will, indeed, take arms against the sea of troubles which we are all currently facing and by opposing, end them.
“And since I have begun by partly plagiarizing great literary minds, let me leave you with a piece of advice from another great mind, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“‘To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded’.”
The auditorium burst into applause as he left the podium.
A short while later, the professor smiled his way through admiring students, thinking of Elaine and the loving companionship that would be awaiting him at home all the way to his car. He strapped himself in, and then remembered to check that he had his favorite pipe in his pocket before he turned the car key.
The violent explosion at the turn of the ignition key could be heard throughout Oxford. The car became a mess of torn metal, engulfed in flames.
By two thirty, lunch had ended and the generous flow of alcohol in the Presidential suite of the Berlin Bischoff Hotel had created a feeling of comradeship amongst the group. With the exception of Natalia, who sat in her usual ladylike fashion, everyone sat draped casually across the expensive armchairs and sofas of the luxury hotel.
Karl Wölfflin had not ceased looking like a Sherman tank, but he was now a Sherman tank which has been fueled with good lunch and was ready for a restful, after lunch drink and another cigar. He had a captive audience in Gem’s little group and he was obviously enjoying himself, by demonstrating his unique knowledge. He had reduced the last bottle of Hennessey to mere wreck of its former self, though this fact did not appear to have influenced him in any significant manner.
“In 1969 Phillipe married a French society girl, but the marriage was not a happy one. She was not a Nazi and she was infertile, unable to give him an heir. She died in a mysterious ski accident in 1983.” He tried to get up in order to go to the drinks cabinet once more, but Pinoy motioned him to continue, taking on the charitable errant upon his own shoulders.
“A wealthy widower at 44, Phillipe was not destined to remain a bachelor for too long. After careful research, he married Marion Heffelfinger, the 29 year old daughter of a German Nazi, who died at the hands of Mossad’s Nazi assassination squad. He smiled at Pinoy when he heard him speaking to room service on the phone, asking for two more bottles of Hennessey to be sent up. “She was well indoctrinated in the principles of Nazism; she hates Jews in general and for killing her father in particular. It was love at first assessment. She immediately changed her name to Marion Géroux and devoted her time to losing her German accent.
“The couple was blessed with a son, Florian Géroux, in 1985 and later a daughter, Amélie Géroux. The daughter was born in 1992, the year Phillipe’s mother died. Phillipe himself died 2001 from cancer of the colon, a particularly painful and very deserving end, in his case.” His audience appeared shocked by the sudden hate in his face for a moment. He collected himself and smiled. “And there you have, more or less, the gist of the Géroux history.”
“We didn’t see you at O’Toole’s funeral” Pinoy said in a stern, unkind tone. “He died in your service I believe.”
“I assure you, I was there.” No one questioned Wölfflin’s word. There was an underlining dignity in his statement and an unquestionable genie of risk and adventure within the man that could not be doubted.
“Yes, it’s a great pity about O’Toole. I told him that it was a mistake to take the child with him, but he wouldn’t listen.” Pain rose in his eyes. He shook his head, and continued with a vacant, sad look on his face. “He used to get important information listening outside Géroux’s office.” He continued with a vacant sad look in his face. “That’s how we know about the Nazi meeting in October.”
“What meeting is that?” Mac asked.
“There are nine families which profited as the original beneficiaries of Colonel Ulrich Gerwulf’s generosity. Their descendants make up what they call a Management Committee, which supervises their world-wide interests.”
The memory of O’Toole appeared to have deflated him and now he spoke without his usual vim.
“The aim is supposed to be the furthering of their cause, but it is all nonsense, of course. They are just a bunch of crooks that fell into the honey pot and don’t want to get out of it. They are so much like the Mafia, they all bring their personal ‘consigliere’ with them, only they call them ‘advisors’.” The hate appeared in his eyes once more, but he blinked it away to conceal it from his audience.
“We are dealing with a brutal pitiless monster whose parents are greed and self-interest. It’s a monster incapable of any human compassion, one that is only able to destroy. Think of it as a statewide tornado that indiscriminately destroys everything in its path.” The hate in his face and eyes was back and this time it took Karl longer to erase it from his expression.
“According to O’Toole their next annual meeting is scheduled for the first two weeks of October.” Wölfflin took out a notebook as he spoke and studied it. “They do not want to have their meeting on one of their own properties, just in case they are watched for whatever reason.” Wölfflin put the notebook away and picked up his glass once more. “In consequence, every year they rent a luxurious villa in a different country and have their get-together there.
“This year it will be somewhere in the district of Genoa, Italy, but we lost O’Toole before he could find out exactly where. And the district of Genoa covers a very large area.” He took a long, thoughtful drink as soon as he said this, apparently in deep concern.
Clive Cunningham’s phone rang and he answered it. Those present immediately observed how he deflated in his chair and turned deathly white. He looked at his cell phone for a long minute after he hung up, but eventually he had to raise his eyes to meet Gem’s stare.
“I am sorry Gem. The professor has been murdered.”
Silence fell, heavy and absolute for one long minute. The feeling of guilt crushed Gem and he got up, needing to breathe.
“And we know who killed him,” he said.
He went to one of the windows facing the main road which passed in front of the hotel. The weather had changed and rain lashed the window, but he paid no attention to it. He did not want the others to see the tears running down his cheeks. His body was stiff and erect. The reflection of his face looked deathly pale.
Natalia made as if to get up and go to him, then seemed to think better of it. “What shall we do now?” She asked, her voice full of pain.
Pinoy said he was having stomach trouble and he excused himself. The others remained fixed in their positions. Even Karl Wölfflin remained still, knowing that words of comfort at times like these were useless. When Pinoy returned, he found them in the same positions he had left them. He was holding a handkerchief to his mouth and it was soaked in blood.
“It’s my ulcer,” he said in a muffled voice through his handkerchief, looking at Mac.” Gem wiped his tears with his handkerchief before he turned around to see what was wrong.
“I can take you to a very good specialist,” Karl offered in sympathy.
Pinoy shook his head,looking only at Mac.
“Sorry Mac, I need to take care of this. I need to see my own specialist. Sorry to let you down.”
Gem saw Mac slowly shake his head at Pinoy and he wondered why Mac was being so unfair to their friend. Something about this conversation felt odd. He looked at Natalia who had stopped making notes to herself, obviously full of sympathy for Pinoy’s condition.
“I really need to take care of this Mac. Please,” Pinoy insisted, his teeth crimson with blood.
“Let’s try to use Karl’s doctor and try to get this fixed here. I need you,” Mac stared intently into Pinoy’s eyes.
“I really need to see my own doctor in Portsmouth. Also, my mother knows how to look after me when I am in this state.”
His mother? Now Gem knew something was not kosher here. For a while he forgot the death of his friend.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Pinoy spit some blood into his handkerchief so he could speak clearly. “One hundred percent. I can get you someone to replace me here.”
Mehmet stood next to Pinoy. “Please let me go with him, Mac. He will need help.”
OK. This is now becoming unreal. Mehmet wants to leave his job to babysit PINOY?
“I got this, man, thanks. I know exactly what to do. I can get all the help I need. Can I go? Please Mac.”
“Very well. Come to my room and I’ll give you some money to see you through until you return,” Mac said reluctantly. ‘I am going to need another debit card Natalia.”
They considered her the brainy one and so she had been placed in charge of what Gem called the Privy Purse.
Gem realized that something very odd and very important was going on and despite his sadness, whispered to Mehmet while Natalia went through her purse. “What’s going on?”
Mehmet leaned over and spoke directly into his ear so that Natalia and Karl Wölfflin would not hear.
“He doesn’t want to talk in front of Wölfflin, so he is using this old bleeding trick as an excuse to get out of here fast. He is going to find and kill Florian. It’s an old prison trick, the blood. There’s a vein just inside the mouth that if you nick it with the tip of a knife, it will bleed rivers for a few seconds.”
“Goodbye for now. See you in a couple of weeks,” Pinoy said as he left the room with Mac.
“Natalia, I want to go to the UK today. Please arrange for our airplane to take us to Oxford at the earliest possible,” Gem told the girl as soon as Mac and Pinoy left the room.
She nodded. Karl Wölfflin fidgeted.
“Please forgive my intrusion into your business Gem, but I know these people a lot better than you do,” Karl Wölfflin said in a reluctant and embarrassed manner. They were on first name basis by now. “It might be a trap; A means to get you to act hastily. Don’t go rushing in just yet. Wait until tomorrow. And don’t fly into Oxford. They would expect you to do just that. Choose another airport. Stop and think. Work out safe routes first. I know these people operate and how well organized they are.” He made a gesture with his arms and upper body as if to say be sensible. “They have guns and explosives and know how to use them.”
“Well, it’s time to test just how bullet proof I am. Natalia, please call and have the airplane ready to leave in an hour. You guys don’t have to come along if you have any reservations.” When Gem saw that they were determined to follow him, he said: “Then ask the limousine service to send us two cars right away. We’ll be off in half an hour.”
Karl Wölfflin got the hint: “I’ll leave you to it then. I hope to see you all safe and well soon,” he said and hurried out.
The friends all looked at the closing door with a sense of loss. Karl Wölfflin was not easy to forget. Like curry. The taste remained long after the enjoyment of the dinner had ceased.
Mac returned to the room and they told him the new schedule.
“Pinoy’s already left. Pity we can’t give him a lift to the UK,” he said. He did not appear to be overly upset by the misfortune of not being able to give their friend a lift.
By the time they got into the limousines, the weather had rapidly deteriorated to the point of malignancy. The thermometer had taken a dive and the rain was trying it’s to drill holes in the car roof.
Gem sat with Natalia in the first car. He tried to look out of the window, but it was fogged up with water. The rain continued to pelt the glass like an angry debt collector. It seemed to Gem that its only desire in life was to get inside and drown him. The driver slowly and carefully moved into the traffic flow, his windscreen wipers barely able to cope with the downpour.
Behind them, Mac, Mehmet and Clive rode shotgun, without shotguns, in the second car. Gem hoped they could keep up.
It took fifteen minutes to get to the highway leading to the airport, with the easier traffic flow. Their driver wisely kept to the slow lane. The higher the speed, the more mercilessly the rain slapped the windshield.
The highway’s white, emergency notice lights began to flash. The highway traffic began to slow down.
“There’s two lanes blocked up ahead, sir,” the driver said. “A serious accident.” He stopped talking to answer his cell phone. “That was the office, sir. They are following the traffic news on the radio. It’s a serious accident up ahead and the highway will be closed. I’ll get off the highway at the next junction, or we’ll be here for hours.”
Gem and Natalia looked at each other worried, but their car was already headed off the highway. They were still going slow since the driver had to strain to see through his flooded windscreen.
Another ten minutes later Gem saw that they were travelling through a forest that he knew run parallel to the highway.
Natalia’s phone rang and she answered it. A worried look came over her face when she hung up a moment later. “That was Amélie,” she whispered. “She says she’s been trying to reach you, but your phone is switched off. She says not to go to the airport because they have set a trap for you.”
Traffic slowed down again and from his place at the back of the car Gem saw a white van that had come to a stop in front of them.
Their driver stopped their car behind the van and turned around. He had a large automatic pistol in his left hand. To Gem, the round hole of the barrel looked big enough for a train to get through.
The driver looked at them with indifference. It was a look which made the air prickle with danger.
“Don’t risk it, mate,” he said with a new Yorkshire accent.
The blood drained from Gem’s face and every drop of manly courage he may have had seeped through the soles of his feet. His mouth tasted like cat litter.
The back of the white van opened and two men wearing hats and raincoats came out of it in a hurry. One of them walked right past them, heading for the car which had stopped right behind them. Gem assumed that it was Mac’s car. The other opened the door next to the driver and sat facing them. He was dripping wet and he was showing them his large automatic.
Gem’s dignity suffered another sudden fatal heart attack and perished at the sight of the second gun. The view caused his soul to freeze and he desperately wanted to shove himself into the comforting oven of Natalia’s care. But since she seemed in exactly the same frame of mind, the soul remained frozen along with the rest of him.
“You know that your boss will not be happy if you shoot me,” Gem managed to say with a calmness he did not feel.
The man with the gun seemed unmoved by this logic. It was obvious that there was no molecular vibration in their atoms.
“No, but he doesn’t give a shit if I shoot her,” he said with a sardonic smile, pointing the gun at Natalia.
Gem saw his point. The best-laid plans of mice and men had unquestionably tripped over each other and fell down the stairs breaking their necks.
A couple motorcycles roared past them ignoring the rain, their ugly inconsiderate noise making the gunman’s face twist in annoyance, but he did not take his eyes off Gem.
“Just sit still and you’ll be fine,” he said as the driver slowly eased past the white van, followed by the car behind them.
Gem and Natalia tried to hide their terror and unconsciously, their hands reached out and found each other for mutual comfort. Misery, hate and anger struggled in Gem’s breast. Misery won. He felt the urgent need of a drink. If the sun was shining on this venture he would need a flashlight to confirm it.
The incessant rain was like a thick fog in the headlights and about a mile down the road their driver stopped just in time from hitting a fallen motorcycle driver lying in the middle of the road. One of the riders who had roared past them earlier had obviously lost control and his friend was bent over him. The driver expressed his opinion of foreign drivers in flowery Yorkshire eloquence, ignoring Natalia’s presence. The sounds of more motorcycles reached them and one stopped by their side. There was a tap on the driver’s window and the driver slid it half way down to see what they wanted.
There were two persons on the motorbike. The passenger on the pillion shot the guy with the gun first.
The gunman’s brains splashed the inside of the car. Before the driver could react, his own brains mixed with those of his colleague’s. Shots behind them indicated that the motorbike next to the limousine behind them was involved in the same business.
The smell of death was suffocating.
The gunman on the bike lifted his helmet visor to be heard: “Karl Wölfflin sends his regards. You will get his bill for this. Now you have to run because the white van will be here soon. We’ll keep them off you as long as we can.”
The fallen biker was now on his feet. He had a gun in his hand and so did the man who was supposed to be helping him. They took cover behind the limousines and as Gem and Natalia ran into the wood, they could hear a battle going on behind them.
The headlights of the white van bathed them for a crucial few seconds as it came to a stop. They both ran like young gazelles leading a pride of lions, unashamedly showing a firm wish to be elsewhere and to be there fast. A bullet hit a tree trunk next to Natalia and they realized that at least one of the kidnappers was chasing after them.
A heavy curtain of rain hid them from view. The wind seemed to pick up speed and the merciless rain slapped their lightly dressed bodies without compassion.
They breathed rain for a while, trying to think of the next step. The sweet smell of pine clashed with the smell and sounds of death behind them. Gem felt that if the forest road was the one which ran parallel to the highway, as he had originally thought, he might be able to get back to the main road. They were bound to find help there.
They heard the screams of police sirens from the direction in they had come. The sound of someone running towards them from the same direction settled his decision..
What am I doing here? No amount of money is worth this shit. He looked around for something to use as a weapon. He picked up an arm’s length, fallen piece of tree branch.
The wet pine needles were slippery and Natalia’s high heels were of no help. She took them off. Gem took them and threw one shoe about five yards ahead and the second another five yards further down.
“This way,” he said to Natalia, taking her hand and running to the left of the route he had indicated with the shoes. They heard the man chasing them shouting into what they assumed was a cell phone.
The flood continued unabated.
“We should be coming up to Noah any moment now, hammering in the last nail into the ark prior to climbing aboard and closing the hatches, Gem said. “We’ll ask him for a lift.” The joke did not go down well with Natalia, whose bare feet were hurting.
“As long as the rain keeps up like this, we have a good chance,” Gem continued as they ran. “We can hardly see in front of our noses, so they are not very likely to see us.”
Naturally, that was the moment the afternoon rain decided to stop for a cigarette. The clouds moved on and the sun came out with determined assurance, appearing to waltz with itself in celebration of the joke it was playing on them.
September sunlight filtered through the pines and speckled the forest floor. The raindrops that now played the drums on their heads and shoulders were provided only by the pine trees. The forest floor was still flooded, with leaves racing each other down small channels on the forest floor.
Birds expressed their operatic appreciation of the new state of affairs and the forest smells became almost overpowering. It was around four thirty when they heard the sounds of unseen cars in a hurry. They headed in that direction.
Shivering, wet and cold, they finally came to the loveliest highway in existence. In fact, they were behind a truck resting area and they felt it possible to find some generous soul to explain where they were, and to give them a lift while they called the police.
A waterlogged ditch separated them from a sandwich van which served the needs of the truckers. They were in a desperate need of a hot drink and they looked at the van with fondness. They stood there, thinking of how to jump across, when fate grabbed the reins and showed them how. Natalia slipped and slid down the embankment with a small scream. Gem grabbed for her and they both ended sprawled at the bottom breathing mud.
They were now soaked to the skin. They crawled up the embankment behind the van, without worrying about their clothes. As Gem helped Natalia up, she froze and pointed. At about three hundred yards away a man wearing a hat and a raincoat came out of the forest. His hand was inside his wet coat. He looked towards the truckers’ stop and started walking in its direction. There was no question in their minds that he was one of the gunmen.
The side door of the van opened and a Filipino lad came out to dispose of garbage. He looked at his wet visitors with interest.
“Do you speak English?” Gem asked him.
“Yes, sir,” the lad answered with a toothy, friendly smile.
“I’ll give you one thousand Euros if you close down right now and another thousand if you drive us to the nearest taxi rank.” He signaled to Natalia as he spoke, who had already started digging into her bag. She flashed cash at the boy. He nodded with his toothy smile and, one by one, pulled down the shutters of his mobile shop as they crawled inside. They sat on the floor to avoid any chance of being seen, but kept an eye peeking through the rear window.
As soon as the shutters came down, the gunman began to walk faster and then run, but he was waterlogged, tired and he was slow. When the van pulled away into the main traffic, he was still fifty yards away.
“That man sure wanted a hot drink very badly,” the young man smiled through his rear view mirror. “Can I have the money now, please ma’am?”
Gem handed over the cash and the boy’s smile became even wider.
The weather now retreated to the west, skulking away like a hyena from its meal at the approach of a pride of lions. It did not appear to be happy having to leave.
“Look at us, we are a mess.” Natalia said.” I don’t think there is a taxi driver in Germany who will let us get into his cab in the shape we are now.”
Gem had to agree with her. “How would you like to make another five hundred by taking us to the nearest sports goods store at a shopping center and doing some shopping for us?” He smiled at the boy and he got the toothy smile back in return.
It was just after six, and the sun had begun to tire, when they finally stepped out of the sandwich van. They were both dressed in track suits, wearing brand new jogging shoes and socks. They felt warm and comfortable for the first time in hours.
“Mac and Mehmet don’t answer their phones,” Natalia said. “What do you think we should do?”
“It would be great to simply disappear for a while, where no one will know where to find us.” Gem pulled at his right eyebrow, then shrugged and shook his head. “It’s not a good idea. The police will start a manhunt for us and it it’s not really fair. Anyway, how would we explain our sudden disappearance for a few weeks? No, we better go back to the hotel.”
Gem watched Timm Lustenberger, his hotel manager, continuously wring his hand and wipe his bald head with a handkerchief. The man was in a state of desperation at the numbers of policemen who crowded his hotel lobby, his office and the Presidential Suite. His only comfort seemed to be that he could keep the TV and newspaper people outside. He seemed to think that he was in the process of getting a heart attack but considered that to be the least of his problems.
The report of a terrorist attack on hotel residents had caused Lustenberger’s establishment to empty at a rather rapid pace. Two limousines had been hijacked and their drivers murdered. Then the owner of his hotel had gone missing and said limousines had been found full of dead bodies. It was enough to drive a man to drink.
Lustenberger kept coming in and out of the owner’s suite wringing his hands as if it was all his fault, until Gem insisted that he needed to be alone.
It was shortly before ten in the evening and Mac’s group had just been released by the police, after interrogation.
Mac no longer looked like a mature male model. He looked old, his face was drawn, his voice trembling and he walked up and down incessantly. He had let Gem down in his own mind and said so. “The man with the Uzi told us: ‘I don’t mind spraying you right here and now, but you know how it is. The more bodies, the more intense the investigation. And we don’t want that, do we?’ and the gunman had just smiled at us. We had to get out of the car and we were told to leave our cell phones behind. They drove off and we had to stop cars behind us and get them to call the police.”
All three of them had made a beeline for the drinks cabinet as soon as they’d walked into Gem’s suite. “But you must admit that for them to cause that traffic jam at just the right moment, took skill,” Mac added.
“The police have only just now left us too,” Natalia said. “And they will want to speak to us again tomorrow.”
“I bet they will. They found the bodies of the two company drivers in some alley. Then they have four dead men in the limousines and another three in the van. Nine people dead. It was a massacre,” Mac said between refills of his glass.
“We must admit that it was very decent of Amélie to try and warn us,” Natalia said looking at Gem. “Her warning came too late, but that was not her fault. I think you should make sure you have your phone on all the time. Just in case.
“She is right, Gem. You had better turn your phone back on and leave it on,” Mac agreed.
Embarrassed, Gem turned on his cell phone a waited several seconds for the twenty odd messages to download. They were all from Amélie and they were all warnings about his impending danger. The pain in his chest grew unbearable. He did not look at his friends as he went to the drinks cabinet to pour himself a drink.
They all spent the next three days in interviews with the German police, whose theory was eventually given out to the press: Two different gangs had tried to kidnap a wealthy businessman at the same time and had ended up shooting each other. The friends liked this version. They liked it even more when the police returned the cell phones and their luggage from the two limousines.
On Saturday, September 26th, Mac received news from Pinoy.
“Pinoy’s been busy,” he told the friends over their usual drinks. “He’s got together some old acquaintances of ours, three of them, along with Tina, one of his old girlfriends of the peroxided persuasion.” He could not stop his secret smile from showing. “His plan was to find Madame Géroux through her personal maid, Hanna. He figured that the Géroux family has enough money and sense to make finding them very difficult. But the maid may have a family she keeps in touch with. They staked out the chateau at La Flèche and watched to see who does the shopping. Tina got friendly with one of the girls who went to the shops and asked about Hanna. It turns out that Hanna supports her mother who lives in one of the less attractive parts of Paris and who drinks.” Mac frowned in disapproval of this, as he emptied his glass and headed to the drinks cabinet for a refill..
“They went to Paris and there, Tina made friends with the mother, with the help of a couple of bottles of Pernod. It turns out that Hanna had called her mother yesterday, Friday, to let her know that she is going to Rome with her mistress. The mother was very proud that her daughter usually stays at the best houses and the best hotels when they travel.”
Clive Cunningham got up immediately. “I’ve got to let my people know about this. Excuse me, but I have to make a lot of telephone calls.” He left for the privacy of his own room.
“Pinoy says that he has sent money to a very old Italian inmate we had met on the inside, Drago. He is to meet Pinoy and the others in Rome and they will look for her through the old man’s contacts in Italy. If Clive has any news, we are to share with Pinoy as soon as we know. He will do the same.”
They had thought it wiser not to contact Karl Wölfflin, even to thank him, just in case they were being watched. Karl Wölfflin solved the problem by coming to visit them himself, on the evening of Sunday, September 27th, unexpected, as before. The friends shared an after dinner drink in Gem’s suite. Only Pinoy was missing. Having been announced and then hand delivered by the hotel’s head of security, Karl Wölfflin’s smile entered the room. As soon as he shook hands with all of them, Karl Wölfflin headed for the drinks cabinet, fixed himself a generous drink and hospitably asked everyone to sit and make themselves comfortable. His smile was irresistible.
“I’ve been following your misadventures in the German media,” he said after taking a generous swig from his glass. “I wanted to pass by to offer my sympathies earlier, but I thought that you would be preoccupied for a while.” He looked appreciatively at the glass from which he had just drank, obviously happy with the contents.
“Naturally we are in your debt,” Gem said, “but we did not want to contact you for understandable reasons. Your messenger said that you will send us your bill in due course.”
“My bill? Oh, for my consultancy services. Yes. There were five of you, so I think five million should cover my overheads and leave a little something for a rainy day.” Wölfflin leaned back in his chair with his arms on the armrests, the drink in his right hand. “Do you think that’s fair?” He asked.
“Natalia will arrange a remittance to you first thing on Monday,” Gem responded.
Karl Wölfflin handed Natalia a piece of paper marked with his bank details as Gem spoke. She smiled at him with gratitude.
“I am also obliged to you,” he said to Gem as his easy smile broadened. “Because of you, Florian is now a wanted man and therefore easier to deal with. I am hoping to find him before you do,” he said with his easy smile getting bigger.
“We are not interested in his money, only in his hide,” Gem said. “You are welcome to anything you can get out of him, once we find him.”
“There we have a conflict of interest, Gem,” Karl said. His smile did not decrease in size. “I want him alive and healthy until I can relieve him of the unbearable burden of wealth.”
Gem could not help but admire the man. A person of solid business sense, he always seemed ready and willing to share in others’ good fortune. Any issue of actual entitlement to such a share was a moot point, irrespective of cold, legal accuracy. He was so exuberantly corrupt that, in a world full of uncertainties, his success in it was the only certainty
Karl took another long drink and then looked at Gem straight in the eyes and said: “O’Toole died before he could get a copy of the guest list for your engagement reception. You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of it would you? I don’t know exactly where the group will meet in Genoa, but I can tell you where Madame Géroux was two days ago, in exchange.” His smile winked.
Gem looked at Mac, then he turned to his new friend.
“We know that she is in Rome,” he said, stopping for a few seconds to enjoy the raised eyebrows of their guest, “but it may take us a few days to find out where. In any case, you’ve been a great help to us and we owe you.” He nodded at Natalia.
“I’ll get it,” she said standing up. Ten minutes later Natalia returned and handed the list to their guest.
“Good,” Karl Wölfflin said, standing up. “Isn’t international cooperation wonderful? She was at the Excelsior Hotel in Via Veneto, Rome. She stayed only Friday night and was gone before I could get my people there to follow her.” In answer to their puzzled looks he continued. “I have made arrangements, through my people, with concierges at every five star hotel, in every major city of Europe. You will now hopefully understand how justified my consultation fee was. She registered in her own name, so it was easy. You have my contact details. Should you require any further consultation services, you only have to ask.” And with that, he was gone.
The police informed the friends that they were free to leave the next afternoon, Monday, September 28.
Gem was anxious to get to Oxford. He wanted to visit the professor’s wife, Elaine, and to see if there was anything he could do for her.
“They seem able to track all our movements,” he said to his male friends. “Of course we make it easy for them by travelling as we do. I could travel by other means, but they seem to be so well connected that as soon as I use my passport to enter the UK, I am sure they will know about it.”
With Natalia away shopping, the men felt free to be messy and untidy. They lay draped horizontally in one fashion or another, over different chairs, so comfortable in their brotherhood, they were a step shy of picking their noses.
“Sorry Clive, but I won’t dare to use that passport you’ve brought just now. It would complicate things too much at a crucial moment, if I get caught. I need to get to England quietly somehow.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Clive said. He lay on a sofa with his legs over the backrest, while lovingly stroking a bottle of Metaxas brandy balancing on his ample stomach. “You can get in and out of the UK from France without a passport.” He sipped his drink from the side of his mouth, pretending not to understand the stir he had created.
This was so interesting that Mac almost opened his eyes and Mehmet’s hand stopped halfway to picking his nose. The friends waited for him to continue, but because Clive was over-enjoying his moment by trying different ways of drinking his brandy lying down, Mac got involved.
“All right, Clive, you have our attention. There are thousands of refugees at Calais waiting to enter the UK and you are saying that they can do it without a passport or a visa?”
Clive yawned loudly, unrestrained by female presence.
“That’s exactly what I am saying. The incompetence of Italian and Greek bureaucracy pales to insignificance when compared to British immigration.” He continued with his drink and his self-satisfied smile became infuriating.
“OK, Clive, you’ve had your fun. Out with it,” Gem said in a quiet voice.
“Well, I was planning to use this information in case times got hard. Those refugees in Calais are willing to pay good money to get into the UK.” The frozen looks from Clive’s audience caused him to cough and to turn a deeper shade of beetroot than usual. “But, seeing that this is a special case, I shall give you the information in the strictest confidence. You wouldn’t have one of those wonderful Cuban cigars of yours, would you Mac?” Clive was determined to get at least something out of this.
Having received his cigar, he smelled it, rolled it next to his right ear, clipped it, and slowly lit it. He was enjoying his time on center stage.
“There is a French port called St-Malo.” He took a long pull at his cigar, making the end glow bright red. Then he watched the smoke rings he exhaled float to the ceiling. “Pity Natalia isn’t here to find it on Google maps for us.” Curiosity made Gem reluctantly get up and go to the computer. Clive waited until he found the port and turned the laptop screen to the center so that everyone could see.
“For about thirty quid, you can buy a ferryboat day trip from there to Jersey. Thousands of French and British people make this trip every year. It’s good business for both Jersey and France and no one bothers with passports.”
Everyone sat up. Clive’s smile at their astonished faces was simply triumphant.
“Once in Jersey, you are in the UK and you can take another day trip to Poole for another thirty odd pounds and no one will ask you for a passport, since it will be internal travel. It’s like going from London to Manchester by train.”
Clive pretended to yawn with boredom.
“To make the whole thing foolproof, get someone in England to send you his driving license. One of the old type. The older British driving licenses, as you know, do not have photos. Just flash that one to the crew of the ferryboat and you are onboard.
“Say you are a terrorist and you get seasick, so you want to fly into London. You get an accomplice who already resides in the UK legally and who has a driving license. You get your friend to buy a return flight ticket to Jersey. He gives you the return part of the ticket and he stays in Jersey for a day or so. You end up in London with your driving license as proof of your right to be there. Your friend, simply gets one of the ferries to the mainland. Simple.”
“It can’t be!” Everyone jumped in at once.
“Try it and see, Gem. You can’t get into trouble, since you already have your own British passport to show in any case. But you won’t need it.” He drank and smoked with almost palpable glee.
“Theoretically, you are supposed to show your French National Identity Card, your British driving license or your passport. In reality no one bothers to check. In case the ferry boat staff feels particularly conscientious on the day you will travel, you can flash your grandmother’s ID, your friend’s UK driving license, or any stolen EU passport and you get through. Just dress for a day trip, don’t carry any luggage and try not to look too guilty.”
Gem’s phone rang and he saw that it was Shalini’s number.
“Gem! Ashvina has disappeared!” she cried, her voice panicked.
“How could she disappear? What about her bodyguards?” He asked, his own voice rising, reflecting the panic he was beginning to feel.
“The guards waited for her outside the school. When she didn’t come out, they went in to check up on her. Her teacher said she did not show up for classes. I am afraid that she may have deliberately skipped school to meet that boy, Mark, she is so infatuated with. I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you spoken to Mark?”
“I don’t know how to get hold of him.”
“If she is wearing the GPS watch Clive bought for us, he will find her.”
“I am afraid not, Gem. I found it on her dressing table. She must have planned it deliberately.” Shalini was sobbing now.
“Clive will call you back in a few minutes. He will find Mark for you and he will also coordinate the search. I’ll be over immediately.”
Everyone in the room sat fully alert as he explained to them what had happened. Clive began to express himself in a fashion that only the sons of the Mersey are capable.
Gem’s phone rang again. It was Florian Géroux. His voice was calm and civilized, as usual.
“If you have not already heard, you are short of a young friend. I am sure that neither of us wants any unpleasantness and you are already aware that youth is not a guarantee of a long life. Go to the Rome Bischoff Hotel and wait for my call. When I am ready, we’ll discuss an exchange of valuables. If we reach an agreement, the girl will be delivered to you at your hotel.” Florian hung up.
Gem stared at the phone speechless, his hands trembling.
“That was Florian Géroux. He has Ashvina. He wants me to go to Rome for an ‘exchange’. You can guess what he wants in exchange.”
Mac got up and headed for the exit.
“I have to call Pinoy,” he said with a set, determined face.
Gem had no option but to obey Florian Géroux’s instructions. On Wednesday, September 30, he and his team went to the Rome Bischoff Hotel, and waited to be contacted. Gem had spoken to Shalini and had sent Clive to Oxford to assure her that they would get the child back at whatever cost and to bring Shalini over, if she wanted to come.
Mac walked into Gem’s suite with news.
“I spoke to Pinoy. He is here in Rome and has a lead on Lady Macbeth. He cannot spare the time to go to Genoa himself, but thinks that one of us should go to make contact with someone who may be able to help – provided he wants to help.” He walked up and down the room, unable to sit still. His nervousness was contagious.
“The guy is in the protection racket, Pinoy says, so it’s not at all certain that he will want to help us. But in his racket, money might prove to be an incentive. Pinoy got the name from the old convict, Drago, who is now also in Rome helping Pinoy to find Lady Macbeth.
“Drago says to go to Via Virginia Oldoini, in Genoa, and look for a bar there by the name of ‘Jovani’. That’s also the name of the bar owner. According to Drago, Jovani can work miracles, but only if he likes you. Apparently he is a very strange man.”
Via Virginia Oldoini was a long, pedestrians-only, cobbled street, no more than six paces in width. Three stories high, stone fronted, terraced buildings were connected to each other on either side in a continuous line, like the walls of a high security prison. Only the long succession of doors, perforating the ramparts at regular intervals, indicated that these were not prison walls in the ordinary sense.
The light had long faded by the time he reached the designated street, where he hoped to meet Jovani. Were it not for the gentle electric lighting, and the prostitutes in their short skirts, guarding the walls of their chosen prison with diligence, Gem could easily believe that he had been transported back to medieval times.
On his left, an attractive, full bodied woman in her thirties, stopped communing with her neighbor to push herself from the wall and walked in front of him, measuring him with her eyes. She wore a red blouse, a black mini skirt and an interested, assessing look. She was not flirtatious or coquettish. In fact she seemed to deliberately remove from her walk that magic female swivel of the hips that is so irresistibly captivating to men. It was just business. Her perfumed scent reached him before she did and to him it bore the rotten sweetness of corruption. But that may have been simply because he knew her profession. She blocked his path. He stopped. She looked at him up and down without smiling, as if she was at the butcher shop assessing a side of beef. Rightly assessing him to be a foreigner, she said in what must have been the only English words she knew: “You want fucky, fucky?”
Ever the well brought up polite gentleman, Gem replied with a courteous “No thank you,” and walked around her.
He had read about streets like this in literature, of course, but he had never been able to really conceptualize it. Prostitutes in their hundreds crowded the street and stood around, singly or in groups, like a herd of cows before dinner. They were like beasts, waiting for the farmer to drop by with the evening’s feed. He was astonished to see that a few of them were really shapely and attractive enough to be fashion models.
What are you doing here? He thought. He then smiled at the thought, as it confirmed in his own mind that he was justifiably not renowned for his sparkling, quick intelligence. What they were doing there was obvious.
The rest of the ‘girls’ covered the full spectrum of the female of the species, in terms of shape, size, color and age. They all measured his monetary value with their eyes as he passed along, including a short, stubby woman who was old enough to have been on Mussolini’s staff during the last war. Her generous belly flopped toward the hem of the mini skirt she unwisely chose to wear. She looked tough. She smiled a nicotine smile at him and nodded her head in invitation, pointing at the door next to her. He smiled back at her and winked, in the hope that she would not take offense at being rejected and use him to sweep the street. He wondered at what type of client would choose her instead of the hundreds of other more attractive specimens, but since she was there, she must have had an appeal to some customers.
The women in groups continued talking to each other, while giving him the eye as he passed, making various signs of invitation with their eyes, their lips or with their pelvis. At regular intervals, between the groups of women, there were sleight of hand artists doing the three card monte trick. Incredibly, they could still find enough tourists and sailors for the three or four crooks required to make the trick work enough times, to make a living at this for all of them.
Gem walked on, entranced by the naked exhibition of human corruption and need; the human need for a shortcut to a ‘better life’, but what sort of better life was this? Surely it would be much better, more dignified and self-fulfilling to sweep this street than to work on it under such terms?
About half a mile of humanity-for-sale later, he saw the bar with the green neon sign informing passersby that its name was ‘Jovani’. It stood in a large recess of the stone wall on his right. Two tables with small circular marble tops and two chairs each were placed in the recess, on either side of the entrance door outside, to tempt tired passersby to sit and contribute to the bar’s rent. They were both unoccupied.
Large, barn-like semi-circular wooden doors on unseen rollers had been moved to either side of the entrance to reveal the single large room inside. Eight stools were screwed to the floor in front of a polished wood bar. Four long levers of beer dispensers were set on one end and in the center stood an attractive bottle-blond girl in a low cut dress and an RSVP smile. The décolleté of her dress was so low that her nipples desperately hung on to the neckline by the skin of their teeth. Any deep breath would have caused them to lose their grip and spill out into the abyss of familiar freedom, without the required monetary reward.
Eight small round tables, each just big enough to accommodate four pints of beer, were placed, four on either side of the entrance inside the barroom itself. Some marketing optimist had decided that four chairs would fit comfortably next to each table.
Gem walked in and quickly noted three girls at the bar and three couples negotiating at the tables. He nearly missed the old man sitting in a dark corner by himself.
The girls at the bar and the barmaid had cash-machine eyes, smiles, and an obvious willingness to be of service at a price. No sign here of the little orphan girl or the single mother forced into a life of depravity. They seemed to enjoy their work.
“Is Jovani here?” He asked the girl behind the bar.
“Jovani no here,” the girl said in broken English, with the melodious Italian accent he had come to enjoy.
“May I wait for him?”
“Buy us drink. You wait,” she laughed, pointing to herself and the girls at the bar.
He smiled back and nodded. He asked for a bottle of white wine and pointed to the old man at the corner, wanting to buy him a drink as well.
“I’ll sit outside and wait for Jovani,” he told the girl after he paid and he walked to one of the outside tables to watch the human traffic. October evenings can be quite pleasant in Mediterranean countries.
He sat and watched the girls and their clients walk into the doors on the prison walls and not long after walk out again, the men speeding off and the women with pleased expressions on their faces. Gem assumed that the quicker the trick, the happier the whore.
Time passed and he went inside to ask for another bottle of wine. The barmaid asked him if he would buy the others drinks as well and he made the investment.
Back at his observation post, his attention was drawn by a badly dressed old woman across the street who had stopped and was looking at him. Her face had desperation in it that was of such tragic magnitude that it felt mentally and almost physically painful for him to watch.
She was in her late seventies and she was unkempt. Not in the way a careless person or a tramp is unkempt. She had just been frayed by poverty. She had made an effort to tie her hair in a bun at the back of her head, but something had given way and the hair fell about, looking worn. Her clothes were from different sets and of different unmatched colors, but it was obvious that they had started life at the same original size. She had lost a lot of weight in them and they hung from her body in equal looseness everywhere.
Tears streaked her face and through those tears their eyes locked and she recognized the pain her unknown suffering was causing him. She looked about her and not finding what she was looking for, she looked down at the street. A torn piece from a discarded newspaper floated around her ankles, like a small playful puppy. She picked it up and more tears ran down her face. She dried them with a small, clean, worn handkerchief, then walked the short distance across the street, stopped in front of him and silently offered the useless paper to him. She did not want to beg, she wanted to sell him something and the piece of torn newspaper was the only thing she had to sell, in order to preserve some remnants of her shattered dignity.
“Grazie,” he said, using the only Italian word he knew, trying to stop his own tears from pouring out. He took the paper and handed her a hundred Euro note.
She looked at the note as if she was unable to believe it. More thick molten tears ran down her face. She extended her hand to him and he took it, happy to shake hands with her, but she suddenly bent down and kissed the back of his hand before he could pull it back. Then she walked off, in the direction she had come from, presumably to her home and her local grocer.
A wheezing sound came from behind his right shoulder.
“Kindness and generosity are not commodities one finds in Via Virginia Oldoini.” A hoarse, weak, rasping male voice said at his shoulder. “They left the street like migrating birds, many years ago and never returned. The whores and the pimps saw to that. May I join you?” Gem looked up to see the old man he had seen at the dark corner of the pub, now standing at the bar entrance, leaning on a walking stick. The old man spoke with an effort, conserving his strength as meticulously as a refugee does his last grains of rice.
Gem smiled a welcome and the old man, moving like a slow, careful crab, gently lowered himself onto the empty chair across the small table. He placed the walking stick between his legs.
The old man visibly made an effort to reach deep inside himself to pull his voice up to his lips and said: “That woman you just helped used to be one of the most beautiful women in Italy.” He stopped to concentrate on breathing for a few seconds. “She hates my guts and won’t let me help her.” He took another rasping breath and continued: “Even when I try to send her help through third parties. She always knows and she prefers to starve than to take a single Euro that may come from me.” There was infinite, but resigned sadness in his voice.
The old man had brought his drink with him and he sniffed it, like a hound-dog would the shirt of a runaway. He took a tentative sip.
“Thank you for the Limoncello,” he wheezed at Gem with a partly toothless smile.
“It’s my pleasure. Why does she hate you so?”
“Because I am a bastard,” he croaked simply. Sparse bundles of white hair moved up and down, confirming his statement by agreeing with him.
The old man must have been slim and elegant in his youth, but now his skinny frame was bent and unattractive. His face was skeletal and emaciated, with a dimple in his jutting jaw deep enough to house a bird’s nest. He was bald, with thin, lonely bundles of white hair trying to cling on, looking like wild wheat growing on a barren, windswept hilltop of a scalp. His suit was fashionable in the forties and seemed not to have been to the cleaners since the end of the Second World War.
He saw Gem’s assessing look and he smiled his half toothless smile again. Gem looked into his eyes for the first time and felt a chill run down his spine. Their black, moist depth had the look of a mysterious, stationary, dangerous pool, and did not belong to an old weak man. Behind those eyes was a man of powerful presence with a strong character and unwavering will. The impression they gave was that, any type of conflict with their owner would not be beneficial to the party of the second part. They were eyes which had an odd curiosity in them. A measuring curiosity, like how easy or difficult it would be to kill you.
With a gesture of his trembling, skeletal hand, the old man asked for the newspaper remnant still in Gem’s hand. When he got it, he looked at the page and coughed out what sounded like laughter. “It’s the obituary column,” he coughed out his laughter again; “the staple news of the old.” He seemed to find this very amusing. “I used to adore that woman. And I still do to this day. But she will not forgive me my jealous sins against her.” He shrugged his defeat.
Gem felt a depth of sympathy for the old man and asked: “Surely it can’t be that bad?”
He did not expect the response he got from his companion.
“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood. The old man spoke as if in a dream.
“Ah, you’ve studied Hamlet,” Gem said impressed.
“We were both teachers of English for a while, when we first started out in life,” Said the old man through his daydream. “Before I destroyed her life; and mine.” He downed his drink in one gulp and racked his body trying to cough out his lungs again for a full minute. Then out of the blue, he asked: “Have you ever been in love?”
Gem felt as if an elephant had sat on his chest, at the thought of Amélie Géroux. He drained his wine glass, but it did nothing for him.
He put the empty glass on the table a bit more harshly than he intended. Old, keen eyes registered his every move. He looked into them with wrinkles of self-mockery around his own eyes and said: “I need a real drink. How about some brandy?” The bundles of white hair moved up and down again, almost imperceptibly. Gem went inside to get the right stuff. A few minutes later he was back in his seat, where he measured shots in two glasses from a brandy bottle.
Gem poured himself a generous tumbler that would have floated an ordinary drinker like a balloon. He drained the brandy in one gulp like throat medicine. He watched as his guest honored him by emptying his own glass afterwards, sip by sip. The tumbler shook in the dry hand and he wheezed with each drop that passed the aged lips, but by the time he put down on the table, it was empty. His black eyes smiled at Gem.
“Doctors do not approve of my drinking. That’s why I keep changing them,” he cackled. He brought some coins and keys out his pocket, along with a handkerchief as dirty as a mechanic’s rag. He used it to wipe his lips; they were now smiling along with his eyes. “I am eighty two years old. This body has been stabbed, shot and beaten, too often for me to deny it the only pleasure left that I can give it. I am convinced that is the reason it is still in some sort of working order.” His smile looked not only genuine, but impish, as he put the handkerchief and its companions back in his pocket.
Gem felt a strange affinity with this stranger and he smiled in turn. He brought out one of the cigars he found so comforting of late and set fire to it. The avaricious yearning in the old black eyes spoke volumes. He brought out another one for his guest. There was a gleeful look in the moist eyes as Gem extended a match. They both leaned back and puffed in communion.
Gem poured the second round as the old man machinegun-coughed smoke out of asthmatic lungs. When he finished coughing, he leaned back and gazed dreamily at the round bullets of smoke rings he had fired, floating to the stars.
“Do you live around here?” Gem asked.
The old man nodded his white head. “I’ve lived here all my life.” The voice sounded as if it didn’t want to climb the steps of his throat all the way out of his mouth and preferred to stay where it was until it finished its cigar. He began to cough again. Once he returned to his regular wheezy breathing, he said: “It still hurts then.” It was a statement not a question.
Without meaning to, without thinking the matter through, Gem found himself telling the gist of his story about Amélie. Without going into figures, he told about how he came into ‘some money’. He told how he met her, how she saved his life and how he found out that it was all a Nazi scam. He told how he was trying to find her brother to stop him from murdering everyone he cared about. How his search had let him to Genoa. They’d emptied the brandy bottle by the time he finished the story and his voice slurred as he spoke.
“So you are searching for Nazis then? I might be able to help you, young man” the old man said as he coughed smoke with apparent delight in his cigar. “What is your name?”
“I am Gem.”
“I am Jovani. I want you to meet my grandson, Dante.”
“After that, events flowed rather fast.” Gem told his friends back in Rome. “Jovani tapped the entrance step with his stick and the barmaid with her nipples still desperately trying to hold up her dress, immediately materialized. He spoke to her in Italian and the grandson was there in five seconds flat. He came out from the building next door. He was the Italian version of Mehmet, but not as ugly.”
Mehmet accepted the teasing with a nod and a smile.
“The man who was introduced to me, this Dante, was about my age and he looked exactly like a Mafia boss’ right hand man. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what he is. The guy looks tough and when you have said that of him, you’ve said everything.
“The old man had me tell Dante all about the expected Nazi meeting. Bearing in mind the number of their so called Management Committee, their staff and their bodyguards, Dante thinks it won’t take him long to find a villa to accommodate them all. The old man started coughing again and Dante said that the meeting was over. He was taking his granddad home. It was incredible to watch that vicious looking character turn suddenly into a caring nursemaid. He said he will call me as soon as he has news for me.”
“Not that it matters, but what do they want in return for their help?” Mac wanted to know.
“They haven’t asked for anything as yet, but whatever it is, we’ll pay it. Our main priority now is to force Florian to return the Squirt to store and seek other means by which to entertain himself.”
“Let’s hope they will be able to come up with something. A company plane is bringing Shalini and Clive over this afternoon and Clive is also bringing some of his men with him. We’ll spread them out all over Genoa and see what they can do. In the meantime, you had better stay here and wait for Florian’s call.”
Gem’s phone rang. It was Dante.
“I think we may have struck lucky. Earlier last month, a local catering firm, one we are connected with, was contracted to provide victualing for members of an insurance company. They are supposed to be undergoing a two week company training seminar. There are thirty-three people attending the conference and they do not want live-in staff. They gave as their reason the fact that they will be discussing confidential company strategies and they do not want their competitors to be able to get any information from staff they might bribe.”
“Are they in Genoa itself?”
“No, they are in Campomorone, about ten kilometers north of here. That’s in the mountains. I’ve been up there this morning with the truck, which delivered their breakfast to them. The people I saw inside are too well dressed, too wealthy to be salespersons. And outside there is a lot of security. It doesn’t make sense. I think you should come at once and see if you recognize anyone. Make sure you have good hiking boots, suitable for mountain walking, a backpack and rain-proof clothing.”
“I’ll take the next available flight. I’ll meet you at the bar and we’ll discuss the next step.”
He hung up and explained to his friends what happened.
“This is the time for Clive’s special passport to prove its worth. I’ll need it to register at a hotel. Hopefully my movements won’t be traced. I’ll leave from the back of the building. I can get out through the kitchen without being seen. I shall need to stop at a shop for mountain hiking shoes and clothing.” Gem turned to Natalia. “Natalia, please take care of Shalini when she arrives. Don’t let her sit and mope in the hotel all day long. Take her out to lunch, shopping, sightseeing; whatever you can think of. Just try to get her mind off the kidnapping. We’ll get the Squirt back. Tell her I guarantee it.”
Gem reached Jovani’s just after eight in the evening. The same barmaid stood behind the bar and she smiled at him as she pressed a button under the counter. Her nipples still worked overtime to hold up the top of her neckline in place.
“Is Jovani here, please?” Gem asked as he sat on one of the bar stools.
“Jovani no here. Brandy?” She poured the drink without waiting for a reply.
Dante slid onto the stool next to him as he lifted the drink to his lips.
“You are late,” he said. “The dinner truck has already left and it’s too dark now to do anything useful.” He signaled the girl for a drink by pointing to Gem’s glass and she obliged.
“Sorry. I had to stop for hiking equipment. Then the flights were full and I had to wait a long while before I could book myself a seat. Where’s Jovani?”
“My grandfather is not well. He doesn’t have long to go. That cigar you gave him was nearly the end of him, but he is a very happy man right now. He told me to help you. I don’t know why he wants to help you and I don’t care. I just want him to be happy during his last days, so for his sake, you will get all the help I can give you.” He emptied his glass placed it on the bar, and held it while the girl refilled it.
“Is there any chance that I might see him? It would mean a lot to me to be able to thank him for his help. And despite our age difference, I think that we connected somehow, though I can’t really explain why.”
“Well, he did say that he wanted to see you, but I am a bit reluctant to get him excited. He feels that there is an adventure brewing and he is like an old war horse which hears the bugle call.” Dante sat thoughtful for a few seconds, then drained his glass once more and put it down on the bar. He left before Gem could respond.
Dante returned a couple of minutes later. He fidgeted a bit and said: “He is awake. He wants to know if you have one of those Cuban cigars with you.”
Gem nodded ‘yes’ and put his hand in his jacket’s inside pocket for one.
“No, you give it to him. It might be the death of him, but a few days more or less won’t make any difference, if it will make him happy. Come on.” And with that Dante led the way out of the bar.
They walked only a couple of steps to the first door on the right as they came out of the bar. Dante rang the bell and looked up at a security camera over and to the left of the door. The man who opened it could have been a professional wrestler. He nodded at Dante and looked curiously at Gem, but stepped aside to let them in.
Gem found himself in a huge room luxuriously furnished. Desks lined the right wall, where men sat staring at computer screens and CCTV monitors. Expensive looking Italian suede leather sofas and armchairs had been arranged at the center of the room. On the left, a walnut brown conference table, surrounded by twelve brown leather executive chairs. A group of six men of various ages, shapes, and sizes played cards there. They all looked up at Dante as if asking if he needed them, then returned to their card game.
Dante crossed the room and opened the door opposite the entrance. It led them into a very wide corridor with doors to the right and left, like in a hotel. At the end of the corridor stood another door and Dante gently scraped his nails on it. A short, fat, round man in shirt sleeves and suspenders opened it, nodded and let them in.
Gem felt as if he had stepped into King Henry VIII’s bedroom. It was about four times the size of a large bedroom and the antique four poster bed must have, indeed, belonged to a potentate in years gone by. Everything in the room was obviously expensive, especially the paintings on the walls, which included a Picasso, a Perušek, a Derkovits, and a Modigliani. The central heating did its job well and the light was gentle and soothing.
From the center of the bed Jovani smiled his almost toothless smile and gestured to Gem to sit next to him. He spoke to the others in Italian and they reluctantly left the room.
“It’s nice to see you again, young Gemstone,” he cackled. “Did you remember to bring cigars?”
Gem could not resist smiling back as he handed a Churchill size Cuban to the old man. He liked the old devil. “Are you sure that this is a good idea?”
“What exactly will be the downside, young Gemstone?” The old man cackled again. “My time has come and I know it. I don’t believe in God, so there is no hell for me, and I have given up on the only woman I loved a long time ago. Like Kazantzakis said, ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’ What are a few hours more or less?”
“Well, I for one would enjoy a couple of hours with you sitting on those uncomfortable chairs in front of Jovani’s, for a start,” Gem said. He took back the cigar and clipped the end before offering it back to the old man.
“Light it for me my boy.” The old man lifted himself higher on his pillows the better to enjoy the smoke. He took the lit cigar from Gem and the smile on his face as he placed it in his mouth was a joy to behold. He took a deep drag and started to cough immediately.
The door opened almost at once and the short fat man came in.
Jovani waved him away, but the man wouldn’t go. He said something in Italian and there was an aggressive exchange for a while. The man went and drew open the curtains, then opened a window, still shouting at Jovani. Jovani eventually won and the man left growling something in Italian which sounded very rude, closing the door behind him.
“Love takes many shapes and forms, young Gemstone. Carlo has been with me for so long he got used to me and cannot think of life without me.” He puffed on his cigar, not drawing the smoke into his lungs this time. Gem guessed that it must have been part of an agreement he had made with the fat man. “It’s the same with Dante. I raised him myself since he was a child. Both his mother and my son died together when Dante was only eight.” He stopped and seemed to reflect on the deaths of his family members. “He was an unfortunate boy, because I raised him in my own image.” He shook his head as if he regretted his actions.
Gem smiled. “That can’t be all bad from what I have seen.”
“I like you Gem. You remind me of myself, when I was young and innocent. Unfortunately for Dante, I did not remain innocent for long.” He practiced blowing smoke rings while he spoke. He seemed to get a childish pleasure from the results. “I did not want that boy to become a victim like the majority, so I made him into a predator, which is just as bad.” He shrugged, as if to say, that’s how stupid I am. “As you have seen, Dante is one of those men who, once seen, are not easily forgotten.”
Behind the smoke, Jovani’s mocking, half toothless smile made its appearance again.
“The rugged countenance hides a sweet and gentle nature in which murder is only practiced as a matter of necessary business.” He cackled smoke at Gem. “He is a fortunate man in the profession I have chosen for him, because I blessed him with the conscience of a predominantly debauched Army mule, one of particularly loose morals.”
He chuckled and coughed smoke again, with obvious pride in his grandson. “I had the power to turn him into a decent human being, but I chose to turn him into my copy.”
“It may not be as bad as you seem to think. You look quite a decent sort of person to me. Anyway, whatever your drawbacks, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me out in my hour of need. A child has been kidnaped; a child which means a lot to me and I feel responsible for whatever happens to her. If there is any way I can repay you and Dante…”
Jovani shook his head. “One last adventure before I go, young Gemstone. That’s more than enough reward for me. And Dante will honor my wishes.” He looked at his cigar affectionately and then placed it between his lips. He took a rebellious deep drag on it.
Dante led Gem to the conference table in the front room. The men playing cards moved to the sitting room area and continued their game on the coffee tables.
“Dante, do you know the woman your grandfather is in love with?” Gem asked.
“Of course I do. Everyone around here knows her and my grandfather’s infatuation with her,” Dante replied while starting up a laptop.
“Why does she hate him so?”
“He killed her husband in a fight, just a week after she got married. It was not a fair fight. Her husband was a bookish intellectual and my granddad was a bruiser from an early age.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
“Will you take me there?”
“No chance. She knows I am Jovani’s grandson and she would love to stab me, just to cause pain to the old man.”
“Does she speak English?” Gem had some gallant idea of visiting her and convincing her to forgive the old man at the end of his life.
“Sure. She used to be a teacher of English, as was my grandfather. They used to work together at the same school.” Dante then waved his hand in a dismissive fashion. “But we don’t have time for this. I need to prepare you for tomorrow. Where are you staying?”
“The Grand, but I am staying there under a different name. I am using the name Iain Lawrenson. Suite 526.”
“Right. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at six and we’ll go here.” He pointed to a Google satellite view, on his laptop. “Make sure you have a good breakfast and bring a bottle of water with you. It will still be dark, but we will be in place by sunup.”
Dante spoke to one of card players in Italian and the man brought a bottle of brandy and glasses.
“Campomorone is in a valley. Look at this large hill or mountain on the right of the screen.” Dante poured the drinks as he spoke. “Half way up, on the south side of the hill, is this very large residence. It’s the only one there. The road ends right on the house. This is the place.” He emptied his glass and poured another. “When I went there this morning, I saw the first guard more than a hundred meters before we reached the house. Then we had to pass by other guards on the way to it.”
Dante waited for Gem to finish his drink before he went on. Evidently, he wanted to be sure Gem understood.
“Now look at the north side of the hill, behind the house. There is another road which also ends half way up it, on the other side. While the delivery truck goes to the front, we’ll go to the back and climb to the top of the hill on foot.” Dante looked up and down at Gem and nodded, as if satisfied.
“It will be a hard, long walk through the forested mountain top, but you look in good shape, so it will not be a real hardship. The trees will be good cover for us. We’ll find a nice spot and wait there with a good pair of binoculars until the residents start coming out for a stroll. They can’t stay indoors all day long. If you recognize anyone, we’ll know it’s the right place. If not, I don’t know what to do, because I don’t have any other leads right now.”
The asphalted road ended abruptly, against the mountain side. It was 6:30 am, it was raining, and a heavy darkness prowled unchained and threatening outside, making Gem feel as if he were being watched. Their rainproof hoodies did their job well as soon as they got out of the car. The rain fell lightly, but was merciless in its steady persistence. They shouldered their backpacks and Dante led the way without saying a word.
There was no footpath to follow. They simply had to sig-zag a route between the pine trees, trying not to get their walking shoes soaked too much in the small rivulets that formed every few steps or so. Gem began to breath hard after just ten minutes of climbing, but Dante did not show any signs of tiring. He might as well have been window shopping in one of Genoa’s main shopping streets. Another ten minutes later, Gem had to ask Dante to stop for a breather. The Italian shrugged, leaned against a tree and lit a cigarette while Gem tried to recuperate.
Three stops and an hour later, they stood at the top of the hill and the sun began to make its appearance. Dante chose a rocky outcrop well protected by wild bushes, took a couple of binoculars from his backpack, then placed the bag on the ground and sat on it. Gem did the same as he accepted one of the powerful binoculars.
“That’s Villa Vannozza dei Cattanei,” Dante said.
As soon as Gem looked through glass, the house chimney became so close, it seemed almost to pierce his eyeballs and he instinctively pulled his head back. He looked at the binoculars, impressed. They were of the highest military-grade quality.
Dante smiled at his reaction. “Look at the two guards over there,” he pointed. “Do you know them?”
The man nearest to Gem picked his nose in an easy and debonair manner, casually inspecting his excavations on occasion, before flicking them away. The one further down tried to light a cigarette, without getting it soaked by the rain. Both were complete strangers to Gem, so he shook his head ‘no.
They sat in wet misery until the catering company’s mini bus arrived, followed by two large vans, at 8:15. The caterers went into immediate action and soon everyone moved indoors. At nine, four men came out of the building from the back. Two replaced the guards Gem and Dante had been watching and the other two went on further down the hill. A short while later, two other men walked up to the house and went inside, using the back door.
The rain stopped shortly after ten and it did not take long for the Mediterranean sun to bless the countryside with its powerful, life giving rays. Suddenly it was a joyful, sunny autumn day. The aroma of wet grass, flowers and rain-washed trees intoxicated the senses.
The caterers poured out of the house with their equipment, which they loaded onto the vans before taking off.
At around 10:30, the residents began to come out into the sunshine. Amongst the first to emerge was a short, rather wide lady in a very expensive two piece suit.
At the sight of the woman, Gem caught his breath as if he was having a heart attack and Dante turned to look at him, curious.
“That’s Hilda! That’s Hilda, Dr. Schönbächler’s personal assistant. This explains how they knew so much about the account and me.” Gem’s voice rose as he spoke, and Dante placed a hand over his mouth.
“Explain.” Dante whispered.
“I’ll explain on the way back. I must get back to Rome and discuss this with Mac. The need for Napoleonic strategic thinking is now imperative.”
The first thing he did when he returned to Rome was to hug the haggard looking Shalini and to reassure her that he would get the Squirt back at any cost.
He could not help smiling at Clive and his bottle of Courvoisier Brandy. “Where’s Natalia?”
Shalini pulled at Gem’s coat sleeve desperately, looking up at his face. “She had to pick up some clothes from a store nearby. They needed some minor adjustments to fit her properly and the store asked her to return later to pick them up. Do you have any news of Ashvina?”
Gem placed his arm around her shoulders. She nestled her face in the space of his armpit and sobbed silently.
“It will be alright, kid, don’t worry. It’s not in their interest to harm her. They just want the money and they can have that.” Her tear-streaked face searching his for proof of hope. He led her to one of the sofas and turned to Mac.
“The contact Pinoy gave us in Genoa has come through for us. We know where they are holed up. The place has a good defensive position, but it is also boxed in, so they can’t get out if we can get enough men to surround them. Karl might be able to provide suitable men for this. Of course there is an Interpol warrant out for Florian and we can get the police to drive up to the place and arrest him. But is that in our interest? Will this get the Squirt back to us safely? The problem is that…” Gem’s cell phone rang. It was Natalia.
“I need to talk to you alone, Gem. It’s important. Meet me downstairs in the bar, but please come alone. I am waiting.”
Gem put the phone away in a thoughtful manner when she disconnected and looked up to find that everyone staring at him with silent expectation.
“You guys have a drink. I have to meet someone at the bar. No, you stay here, Mehmet. I won’t be long.” And he headed out of the door.
Mehmet ignored Gem’s instructions and made a move to follow, but Mac called him back. Mehmet reluctantly returned to the sitting area.
The large, luxuriously furnished, bar of the Rome Bischoff Hotel appeared to be a favorite meeting place of the wealthy of Rome. All the tables were occupied, but Natalia was nowhere in sight. There was a free stool at the bar and he went to it, keeping his back to the barman and scanning the room for Natalia.
“A whisky and water for my friend,” a familiar male voice from the stool next to him, said to the barman.
Startled, Gem turned to see that he had not made a mistake. The voice belonged to Florian Géroux.
Gem did not count himself a fighting man. He was powerfully built, so troublemakers tended to leave him alone, preferring easier targets for their entertainment. As a result, he had never felt the need to train in martial arts and had no fighting experience. Now, however, he felt an irresistible urge to grab this man by the throat and choke the life out of him. His whole body tensed and Florian lifted the palm of his left hand in a warning.
“Don’t do it, Gem. If we get into a fight here, you will lose, but I’ll get arrested. If that happens, you will never see the child or your girlfriend again.”
This stopped Gem in his tracks. “My girlfriend?”
“I admire her loyalty, I must say. She would not agree to call you for a meeting, unless it was within this hotel, so you would be safe. First you captured my sister’s heart and now Natalia’s. You seem have a way with women, Gem.”
Gem realized that Florian had just admitted to kidnapping Natalia. The fear that flooded Gem’s very being about Natalia’s safety came to him as an intense, unexpected shock that squeezed his heart. It felt as if a heavy-duty road roller had suddenly parked on it. He had not realized how much she had come to mean to him.
He saw her with his mind’s eye, like a hologram. Her lovely face radiantly outlined by a mass of corn colored hair. The exquisite simplicity of her clothes that perfectly accessorized a face and figure found only on the catwalk of a fashion show. She appeared to him to be the result of a highly successful genetic experiment and her attentive gentle consideration of those around her, speaking to them in her refined modulated voice, gave the impression of strong spiritual presence. And he’d ignored her, his mind. filled with thoughts of Amélie, a woman who had betrayed him.
How could I have been such a fool?
He tried to bluff.
“You’ve got it all wrong, Géroux. She’s just a Personal Assistant. Now if you had kidnapped your own sister, you might have been able to have something on me. But my accountant?” He shrugged and looked at his adversary with as much contempt as he could master, in order to hide his fear.
Florian looked at him with interest. “Yes, I know that my sister got under your skin.” Then he laughed and leaned back. “But for me to kidnap my own sister, to get you to come to an agreement with me? It would hardly be convincing. You already know how much my family means to me. No… it wouldn’t have worked.” He laughed again, as if he would have tried it, if it had a chance of working.
“What do you want?”
“I am not an unreasonable man, Gem. I want to make things easy for both of us. My old offer stands, but naturally, in a revised form. You transfer ownership of my father’s legacy to a company of my choice. I shall then give you back your friends, plus one million US dollars for your trouble. Considering what you started out with, I’d call this a pretty good deal for you.”
Gem didn’t care now about the fortune. He would have agreed to any conditions, but he took a few minutes, pretending to think about the offer. He felt that he would be more convincing if he pretended to care about the money.
“Very well, you win. I will come with you now. As soon as you let the girls go, we will go to Zurich together and I shall sign everything over to you.”
A look of suspicion came into Florian’s face. “Let’s not be hasty, Gem. I don’t want anything to go wrong with our deal. You might do some insane Kamikaze act which will place my father’s fortune out of my reach for ever. You see, I know how and why you changed the passwords. If you were to die, I would lose everything.”
“Yes, Hilda must have informed you first hand of how and why I changed the passwords.”
Florian went deathly pale.
“Hilda? Who is Hilda?” He asked, but his confidence was now completely shuttered.
“No more games, Florian. Give me the girls and I will give you the money. You can have me as a prisoner until then. I’ll go with you now, this minute. After you have me safely imprisoned, you release my girls. Once I have confirmation from Mac that they are safe, I will give you what you want.”
Florian looked at Gem with suspicion. “Is this some kind of trap?”
“No. You’ve won. It’s as simple as that.”
“And you are willing to go with me, this minute? You don’t want to talk to anyone before we leave?”
Gem shook his head. “Here’s my cellphone. When you release the girls, you give it back to me and I will use it to call Mac for his confirmation that they are well. I will then go with you to Zurich and sign over everything to you.”
“I must admit that I did not plan for such a development. I need to make some phone calls, but I am afraid I do not trust you to be alone. You must, therefore, excuse me, if I will speak to my people from here, next you, in German.”
Florian had already started dialing. He spoke for a long time, obviously giving instructions to underlings. He spoke in a low voice, but distinctly, taking advantage of the bar noise, the laughter and other sounds around them to keep anyone who might speak German from following what he was saying.
Finally, he hung up and said: “Let’s go,” gesturing for Gem to lead the way out.
The black Lincoln Navigator SUV awaiting them had three men inside; the driver and two passengers in the back.
The passenger on the right got out and gestured for Gem to step in. He was a tall, blond, broad shouldered man, in a black suit which bulged with muscles. He had blue eyes made distinct by being too close together. Gem recognized him as one of the men who’d thrown him off the observation tower into Lake Thun. He got into the car and found his second playmate already there.
Florian held the door open for a few seconds. “You remember your old friend Günther, of course. He will look after you. It will be a long drive, Gem. I’ll be flying over and I shall be waiting for you when you arrive. Don’t do anything silly on the way.” He closed the door gently and stepped back.
It surprised Gem that they allowed him to look out at the route they took. They navigated the crazy Rome traffic for half an hour, following the road signs for Anzio. An hour and a half later, they switched vehicles at the parking area of the Anzio Grand Hotel dei Cesari. When he got inside the large motorhome Gem realized why his captors had not been worried, until then, if he looked at the view. With all curtains drawn closed, he was now unable to see anything outside the vehicle.
“It will be a seven to eight hour drive,” Günther, the bruiser with the thick German accent said. “That’s your bed over there. You might as well sleep, because there will be nothing for you to see. We’ll use the second bed when we get tired from relieving the driver.” The man’s thick accent reminded Gem of what the same man had said just before dropping him in the lake: “Karl Wölfflin sends his regards.”
He decided to take Günther’s advice and sleep, so that he would have a clear head when he arrived at their destination.
Günther shook Gem awake at 7:20 am. He stepped out of the motorhome into a forest clearing, in front of an impressive, three-level, stone villa. The new Mediterranean sun had already begun to make itself comfortable, certain of giving satisfaction to the most difficult of October pessimist. He heard the soothing sound of sea waves somewhere behind the building.
His three captors herded him to the building’s entrance door, waving away two guards with dogs, who appeared from either side of the building. They remained with him even after a servant in uniform led the way inside, and were still behind him, when Gem followed the servant into a bright dining room, where Florian breakfasted alone. Gem could just barely see the glass door in the floor to ceiling double-glazed glass door behind Florian, which led to a vast balcony outside.
“Good morning, Gem. You are just in time to join me for breakfast. Lovely day, don’t you think?”
Florian spoke as if they were back in the old days of comradeship. He smiled as he said something in German to the guards, waving them away, then he said something in the same language to the servant.
“I have taken the liberty of ordering a very large English breakfast for you. You must be starving.” He pointed to the chair on his right, inviting Gem to sit down. Gem sat without saying anything.
“In order to avoid any unpleasantness, Gem, let me just mention to you that this place is guarded like a fortress.”
The servant brought Gem’s food, placed pots of tea and coffee in front of him to choose from, and departed at a sign from his master.
“This house is built on the edge of a granite hill, with a hundred foot vertical drop to the sea. The balcony on the south side, behind me, covers the whole rear section of the house and extends outwards, over the water of the Mediterranean. It’s a long drop from there onto a very rocky shore. I know you don’t like heights, but if you did, you would be able enjoy the wonderful view, while you verify this for yourself. The two floors above us have similar balconies.”
Gem ate quietly through the soliloquy, wanting to keep his strength up, in case he had to act in some yet unknown violent manner. He was not at all hopeful that he would succeed in a fight, but he would do his best.
He pushed his plate away half eaten, leaned back and searched himself for cigars. He did not have any. Florian rang a bell and spoke to the servant in German, when he saw Gem’s searching movements. The man reappeared with a full box of large Havana cigars and placed them in front of Gem, along with a cigar cutter and matches.
“Considering that each cigar in this box will cost me a billion dollars, I shall enjoy setting fire to them,” Gem said as he lit one of the fat Cubans. “Now, if you will give me back my cell phone, I shall call Mac to verify that the girls are safe and well with him, as agreed.”
Florian rang the bell once more and gave new instructions, then turned to Gem.
“We shall have to make a slight adjustment about the girls.” Gem stiffened and sat up straight.
“Now, now, let us have nothing drastic, please.” Florian raised the open palms of his hands in front of him, signaling peace. “I had to interrupt a very important annual meeting in order to deal with you and to organize all these little events, which I know will lead to a happy conclusion. I cannot be absent from such an annual meeting indefinitely.”
The door opened as he spoke and Ashvina walked in, followed by Natalia.
“Einstein!” Ashvina ran into his arms, as Gem stood up. She hugged him tightly, squeezing with all her might. He hugged the kid in turn and kissed the top of her head, as he looked at Natalia. Walking slowly, with grace and dignity, Natalia came over and hugged both of them. Both girls wore pink track suits and trainers.
He turned to Florian. “You had better come up with a pretty good explanation about this treachery, Florian. If you think that I will accept anything less than what we have agreed, you can kiss my money goodbye. I am determined that you will not see a cent of my money, if you do not release the girls, as agreed. You will have to scrape my remains from the bottom of this hill you are so proud of, first. You can take those scrapings to Zurich, and get them to sign a fortune over to you.”
“Now there, you have expressed my concerns perfectly, Gem. What if my ex-almost-brother-in-law decides to do anything romantically irreversible, I thought. What if he kills himself at the last moment, to deprive me of my legacy, out of sheer spite? After all, your reaction to the death of the O’Tooles, was really excessive.”
“Was it, now?”
“Let’s not get sidetracked with a debate on ethics. It is Sunday, October fourth. My organization’s annual meeting, or conference, if you will, ends next Sunday, October ten. Early in the morning on Monday the eleventh, the four of us will be driven to Zurich in the motorhome. It will be less than an eight hours drive. We can sleep all the way in the motorhome. You will instruct the bank to have all the documents ready for signature. Since you have somehow found out about Hilda, you know that I have the means to gain firsthand information about the type of instructions you give.” Gem tried to say something, but was stopped by a raised palm.
“Your own guarantee will be that I will walk with you into the bank.” Florian waited for the proposal to sink in. “We shall both be in constant cellphone communication with our people. When the necessary documents are signed, I will tell you where your friend Mac can collect the girls. I will wait inside the bank with you, until you are satisfied that all is well.” Again Florian waited until his proposal was properly digested.
“Then, and only then, I shall be able to leave the bank. If at any time you feel betrayed, you can ask your friend Dr. Schönbächler to call security and have me arrested on the spot. As you know, Interpol has a warrant out for my arrest, for two murders.” Florian shrugged as though this was very unfortunate, but what could one do about it. These things can happen.
“If on the other hand you betray me after I release the girls to you, then the girls and everyone you know and love will be killed within days. You will be killed last, so that you suffer the full pain of your stupidity.
“Until next Sunday, you will spend six days with the girls, in rooms on the third floor. It will be like living in the suite of a five star hotel, including room service. Now, I really must be off, because I have a ninety minute drive to my meeting place.” He rang the bell in a different manner than before and two very tough looking individuals walked in.
“These men will show you to your suite. Call room service if you require anything, but please do not attempt to come downstairs. These men will hurt you if you attempt this. I shall have Hilda prepare a written transfer request on your behalf for Dr. Schönbächler, so that everything will be ready for your signature when we arrive in Zurich.”
Natalia put her arms around Gem’s waist and stayed there when they finally found themselves alone in the lounge area of the third floor. She squeezed him as tight as she could. He felt her body trembling, as he reciprocated the embrace, tightening his own arms around her shoulders.
“I knew you’d come for us, my love,” she said simply, her voice muffled against his coat. The two magic words, ‘my love’, shook him to his foundations. A warm feeling went through his body and his whole demeanor changed. His chest tightened, but his face softened.
Ashvina’s expression showed she felt something grownup was going on, as she discreetly left the room when Natalia raised her head and looked up at him.
Gem looked into Natalia’s hazel-green eyes overflowing with tears as they appealed to him from beneath long curving lashes. His heart skipped a beat. It is possible that there are men in the world who are strong enough to resist such an appeal. Gem was not of their number. He suddenly and gladly surrendered his male ego to the opposite sex exposing himself for the first time to the possible hurt of rejection that he had tried to avoid his whole life.
“I thought I’d lost you, and the pain was unbearable,” he said. “That’s when I realized how much I love you. How much I have loved you since the very first moment I set eyes on you. Yours was the only image that came to me when I was drowning in Lake Thun and my heart contracted as I thought of you. I thought it was because I was drowning, but it was at the thought of dying without having the opportunity to see you again. I am so moronic; I trapped myself in a ridiculous, childish, comic-book fairytale with Amélie. It started with me thinking that I owed my life to her. From that moment on, it became easier for me to ignore my heart’s constant and desperate appeals concerning you. Will you ever forgive me?”
Gem’s heart did a perfect backward dive: 2.5 summersaults with 2.5 twists in the piked position.
“The indescribable pain you’ve caused me,” continued Natalia, “every time I thought of you sleeping with that bimbo has turned my heart to ashes. It will not heal, until…” She brought her right hand from behind him, made it into a fist and stamped his forehead with the bottom of her fist. It was as if she was holding an old type of rubber stamp and was stamping his forehead, with the official seal of bureaucracy.
He kissed her and he understood for the first time what authors mean when they write that ‘she melted into his arms.’ He felt her become almost liquefied, as if she had fainted. If he needed assurance that she really loved him, he had it right there and then, in her reaction.
A salt-laden breeze drifted up from the sea, climbed up the granite hill face and entered through the open sliding doors, keeping them company. All day long they sat as close as they could, cuddled in harmony, listening to music on the CD player, making plans for the future, ignoring the predicament of their current imprisonment.
Between kisses, he said to her: “I just cannot grasp how it’s possible for you to be in love with an incompetent like me.”
Her laughter was like the sound of a shallow mountain stream trickling over round pebbles.
“How can I love a man who can do everything for himself? I adore you because you are so useless,” she said laughing and kissed him some more. “Once I tapped your forehead and heard the empty sound inside fade off into the distance, I had to have you and look after you,” she continued.
Being so deliriously happy at being insulted, was a new experience for him. Even when she continued in the same vein.
“I fell in love with you at first glance, my love, right there on the pavement, outside the bank. I was sure that it was the same with you, but since you are burdened with male idiocy, I knew that the realization would come to you with a certain delay. Like the delay switch they use in explosives when demolishing a fifty story building. It’s not really your fault, my love. It all has to do with the less developed male brain. I was perfectly willing to sit back and to observe with patient pleasure the wheels in your brain slowly begin to rotate and the gradual realization creep into your conscious thought. I admit, though, that I did not expect the wheels to be so clogged up.”
The day sped by as if in a dream. Ashvina appeared only when called, for lunch and dinner. She then slipped back to her room, leaving them alone in the lounge. Gem wanted to scold her for not having the GPS watch with her, until he realized that both he and Natalia were guilty of the same omission. They had simply put away the watches, not believing that they might prove useful in their case.
When it was time to separate, Natalia asked him with a worried look, “Are you sure there will be no more bimbos?”
“At time of going to press, mine is a soul profoundly elevated by Fate’s boundless generosity. I thought I was happy with the financial part fate cast my way, but now I realize that the real fortune lies in the opportunity I was given to meet you. That’s the only important thing in my life.” He wondered how he had come up with what he’d just said. He didn’t care if it sounded pompous or unnatural, because she seemed to like it and showed it in a practical manner.
They eventually managed to separate with a final kiss at two am, each going to their designated room. It somehow did not seem odd to either of them at that moment. They both simply felt the need to demonstrate to themselves, and to each other, that sex was not their motivation for wanting to be together; that they were bound by something more complete and absolute.
At five thirty am, Gem was still awake in his lonely bed, thinking of this new, unique experience, this love. He realized that he was truly in love for the first time in his life. He knew this, because his young hormones were completely overpowered by another new, and until then, unknown feeling. They were overpowered by a feeling of caring love for Natalia, the only woman in the world for him.
Just as the first streams of morning sunrays began to defeat the darkness, he wrapped himself in a bathrobe and he went back to the lounge, where he had spent such pleasant hours with Natalia. He wanted to feel her presence again, even in spirit, until she woke up. He chose a Julio Iglesias CD and made sure the sound was really low.
He studied the room for the first time. It had obviously been hurriedly modified to serve its current purpose. The lounge of the third floor covered the whole depth of the building. Walls had come down in order to achieve this. The resulting forty foot by fifteen foot space had an odd, unplanned, look about it. The new steel supporting beams were unpainted and they sustained masonry which had the look of temporary patching up. The floor was of brand new parquet, covering any differences in the floor, where walls had been removed.
The window facing the front of the house had been barred. On the sea side, floor to ceiling sliding glass doors, led onto the balcony. Next to the sliding glass wall a modern, thick, peach colored, rug marked the center of a sitting area. There was a three-piece, beige, suede leather sofa, with two matching armchairs on either side of it and with modern glass coffee tables. The sofa faced a large TV and sound system on the east wall, with the glass, balcony wall on its right hand side.
At the opposite side of the long room another, similar, carpet played host to a dining table and six chairs.
Towards the center of the room, two other identical carpets served as decorative afterthought, near the staircase which was the only way to and from their prison.
Behind the sofa, a door, in the center of the lounge wall, led to a corridor which had two bedrooms on either side, separated by bathrooms. The two facing the balcony and the sea had been occupied by the girls. He had been given one of the remaining two bedrooms facing the front of the building. The windows of these bedrooms were also barred.
The sweet voice of Iglesias singing Caruso quietly filled the room, as he leaned back with his bare feet on the coffee table. Just as the song came to the end, he knew that if he looked up she would be at the door leading to the corridor. She was. He stood up.
“I can’t sleep without you,” he said and shrugged.
She came to him. They kissed. She melted again and he had to hold her upright. He partly led and partly carried her to his room.
He realized that he was being kissed in his sleep. Being woken up in this fashion was a new exhilarating experience, an electrifyingly enjoyable one. It made the efforts of the best meaning lark seem like being awaken by a prison warden on the day of the execution.
He smiled up at her glowing, smiling face. She lay with her incredibly lovely bare breasts on his chest and her blond hair created a curtain around his face. It was a curtain that did not do a good job of keeping the strong morning sunlight away from his eyes. A few diamonds of sunlight dappled her corn-colored hair as they seeped through the curtain. He inhaled her cinnamon sweet breath with greedy pleasure.
Her happy eyes were misty, like the dewed, green of a lush meadow after rain. She brought her fist up to his forehead and stamped him again.
“You are mine at last,” she said with satisfaction, as her tears dripped onto his face.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s a magnificent experience to be in a bed filled with such perfect womanhood.”
“You are not supposed to say anything, since you don’t know what I have planned for you.” She smiled again and stamped his forehead once more with the bottom part of her fist. “From now on you are only supposed to listen to your momma and do as I tell you. If you don’t listen to your momma, I’ll send you back to the orphanage.”
His laughter sounded like the gurgle of an infant.
“It’s after ten. Ashvina must already know why we are late getting up, but our jailers will be wondering why we have not called for breakfast yet.”
“Ah, a jail with room service! How civilized.”
“Yes, we are valuable commodities and they want us to be safe and reasonably happy. Until we outlive our usefulness. Come on, my gentle giant, get up. I’ll use the bathroom across the hall and you use the one next door.”
Gem had to endure Ashvina’s sniggering innuendos for almost forty five minutes, before Natalia joined them in the lounge area.
To Gem’s mind, men do not understand why women take so long over their makeup and wardrobes. Gem believed the answer is simple. Woman is born with an inbred knowledge that the man of her dreams is certain to pop along at the most inconsiderate moment. She does not want him to arrive and find no one there suitably adorned to meet him. And after he arrives, she does not want him wandering off sightseeing and possibly forgetting to return.
Man, on the other hand is a materialist. The love of his life is there to be adored, but she can only be properly adored on a full stomach. Gem called his jailers and asked for an early lunch.
He rose as Natalia came into the room, a beautiful dream in a pink track suit. She, in turn, went up to him, placed her arms around his neck and kissed him with her mouth open, unembarrassed, devouring him as if they were alone.
Ashvina sniggered once more. “Bear in mind that technically I am still only sixteen in the eyes of the law and you may be liable for corrupting the morals of a minor.” She giggled again.
Natalia ignored her, laid her head on Gem’s chest and with the bottom of her right fist, stamped his forehead a third time.
The gesture seemed to impress Ashvina. “I don’t know what that signifies, Einstein, but whatever it is, you are in deep doo-doo.” She began to laugh in her usual childish, uncontrollable fashion.
Gem knew that The Squirt was probably right, and he could not have been happier.
They were half way through lunch when Günther, the bilingual goon, who’d thrown Gem off the Lake Thun observation tower, came up. He placed Gem’s cell phone in front of him,
“You are to call your friend Mac. I must listen to what you say. Have the phone on speaker.” He spoke like a robot.
Baffled, Gem pressed the speed dial for Mac. His friend answered on the first ring.
“Gem, are you alright? Have they hurt you or the girls?”
“We are all well Mac. What’s going on?”
“That’s enough.” The goon took the phone away and he left.
Gem took a cigar and looked at the girls. “I shall hang myself on the balcony rail for an airing, while I ponder this new mystery” he said deep in thought.
He walked through the open glass sliding doors onto the balcony, keeping well away from the rail. The unusually warm, sunny, October weather continued. The calm Mediterranean Sea playfully reflected the sun’s rays back to their source, like the balls in an endless, friendly tennis game.
He stood there, smoking, deep in thought about the meaning of that telephone call. Natalia came out and placed her arm through his.
“Come and sit with me, my love. I want to feel you next to me. Please.”
One hour later, the goon came up again and found them sitting on the sofa, Gem squeezed to one side of it by Natalia. She had her arm through his and her feet on the settee, as if she wanted to prevent anyone from sitting there. It was the same way that Amélie used to sit. It was obvious to Gem and Ashvina that the scene had been painful to Natalia, that she had felt jealous of Amélie’s right to do it, and she wanted to exorcize that part from her life.
“Get ready, we are taking you to Genoa,” the goon said. “You are to be taken to a hotel of your choice. Do you have any preference?”
Gem sat in incredulous silence for a while, then he remembered the five star hotel he had used previously.
“The Grand,” he said quietly to the goon.
The goon nodded. “We’ll let your friends know. When you are ready, I shall wait for you downstairs. It will be a drive of one hour.” He turned around and went down the stairs.
The friends looked at each other, perplexed. They had nothing of value they wanted to take with them, so they simply followed the goon down the stairs. Gem turned around at the last moment and picked up the box of cigars for company.
The motorhome waited for them outside, with the engine running. The same driver was at the wheel and the two goons, who had brought Gem down the previous day, joined the friends in the curtained interior of the vehicle.
The goon refused to answer any questions. They spent the next hour in silence.
Eventually the motorhome came to a firm stop, Günther slid the door open and gestured the friends to get out. The goon handed Gem his cell phone, and to Natalia the handbag they had confiscated from her. He slammed-slid the door shut and the friends found themselves free under the porte-cochere canopy of the hotel entrance.
The doorman looked down his nose at their crumpled, unfashionable attire, as Gem called Mac’s number.
“Where are you?” Mac asked immediately.
“We are standing just outside the Genoa Grand Hotel, with a doorman looking down his nose at us.”
“Good. The Rome Bischoff Hotel has made the bookings in its name. The manager here has spoken to the manager of the hotel in Genoa. He’s booked the presidential suite for you and another suite for the girls. You will have unlimited credit in the hotel’s shops for any clothing you might require. The manager will hand over to you ten thousand euros in cash. We are taking the next flight out and will be with you as soon as possible. I am hanging up now, because I want our manager here to call the manager of the Grand to confirm your arrival.”
Gem explained matters to the girls, as they began to climb the stairs to the hotel’s main entrance.
The doorman stopped them and spoke to Gem in Italian. Gem looked at Natalia, who responded on his behalf. After a short exchange with the doorman, she turned back to Gem.
“He wants to know what our business is here,” she said. “I’ve explained that we have reservations, but he is asking to see our reservation confirmation. We must look a real mess.”
A bald, slim, middle-aged man in a suit came out of the hotel at that moment in a hurried manner, and the doorman stood at attention.
“Mr. Stone, of the Rome Bischoff Hotel?” the man asked. At Gem’s nod, he said with a smile: “I am La Tella, the General Manager here. Welcome.”
“Where are the best boutiques in Genoa, please?” Natalia asked, in place of a return introduction.
The General Manager personally showed Gem to the penthouse suite and the connecting suite next door for the girls. Gem asked that the connecting door remain unlocked.
“First things first, my love,” Natalia said to Gem. “Ashvina and I will run downstairs to have our nails and our hair done. After which, we shall buy a few things from the hotel boutiques, until we can do some real shopping in Rome. In fact, bearing in mind the stress poor Ashvina has gone through, I think that you should take us to Milan for shopping. It’s the least you can do for Ashvina. I shall sacrifice myself by accompanying her and allowing you to pamper me, as you no doubt cannot wait to do.”
Gem couldn’t stop himself laughing. “Ashvina will first have to do a lot of explaining about how she got us into this mess in the first place. Personally, I can survive in the clothes I am in, until Mac arrives with my stuff from Rome.”
Natalia kissed him goodbye, went to the door then came back to kiss him again and to stamp his forehead with her fist.
Alone at last, Gem called Mac, who again answered on the first ring. “What’s going on, Mac?”
“It’s all Pinoy’s doing. He won’t tell me what he’s done. He says the less we know, the less we will be liable to be accused as accomplices and conspirators. All I know is that Florian called me and said that my ‘animal friend’ wanted me to verify personally that you are all well. He then called to say that you are being delivered to the Grand Hotel in Genoa.”
“Florian referred to Pinoy as your ‘animal friend’? That, coming from Florian, is saying something. It frightens me. What could Pinoy have done?”
“I have no idea. He refuses to tell me. We are on our way to the airport now. We should be there by four pm. Shalini can’t wait to see the kid. We’ll talk some more when I arrive.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Gem said as he headed for the drinks cabinet.
Shalini arrived, agitated and anxious to see her only child, but she had to wait. The girls were still shopping and the hotel had to page them.
Eventually, two stunning fashion models walked through the door of Gem’s suite, followed by two porters holding their shopping. Even Shalini stood taken aback for a second. Then she ran to her daughter and hugged her, the relief at finding the girl safe making her whole body shake with emotion.
Mehmet tipped the porters and relieved them of their burdens, placing the bags and packages near the door.
When they finally settled down in the lounge area, Ashvina - completely disinterested in their conversation - kept going in and out of the adjoining suite. Each time she took a bag or a box, from her shopping trip to try things on and show them to the adults.
Mehmet sat next to Gem on one of the sofas, because it faced the door and he wanted to keep an eye on it. This did not suit Natalia.
“Sorry, Mehmet, you are in my seat,” she said casually. Surprised, Mehmet got up and she sat next to Gem, her arm through his and her feet on the sofa, prohibiting anyone else from sitting there. The projection of ownership brought smiles to the faces of their companions.
“Yes, well, this is as good a time as any to announce that Natalia and I are engaged,” Gem informed the group.
“Mazel tov,” Mac said, raising his glass, his secret smile no longer able to hide the supreme pleasure he felt. The others did the same.
Natalia looked up at Gem with tenderness. “You’ve been such a good boy yesterday and today,” she smiled. “If you continued to be good, I’ll let you go out and play with your friends.”
The doorbell rang as everyone laughed at Natalia’s joke. Before Mehmet could stop her, Ashvina, who was nearest and about to get another bag from the pile, opened it.
Amélie Géroux pushed by the girl and stopped just two steps inside the door, getting her bearings. A prolonged and deafening silence followed her entrance.
She wore a black formfitting dress that covered her from the throat to her knees. It showed her lovely body to great effect, but this time it was postured in defeat. Her beautiful face looked worn and desperate. She wore no jewelry. She held a small, light green, square plastic box with rounded edges in front of her.
She looked at Gem and then at Natalia, who squeezed even harder into her man. Jealousy’s emerald eyes flashed at Gem in desperation. Illogically, the look made Gem feel like a Bishop caught in a girls’ dormitory after lights out.
It was clear that melancholy had a half Nelson on Amélie and she could not hide the pain in those shiny, round, jealous eyes, even though she tried with a feeble attempt at a smile. With the loving arm of Natalia holding on to him on one side and Amélie’s accusing eyes on the other, for a moment Gem had a feeling akin to the thrill of crossing the English Channel in a hot air balloon, only to discover halfway over that the thing had sprung a leak.
“I knew that you wanted to steal him from me.” Amélie’s voice trembled as she spoke directly at Natalia, ignoring everyone else. “You fooled everyone else, but not me. I could see that you were in love with him and that you would do everything in your power to destroy our love. But he loves me. He told me so.” There was a crazed look in her eyes now, but Natalia remained unfazed, digging even further into Gem, declaring her ownership.
“I bet you got your monstrous friend to do this,” Amélie continued, looking down at the box in her hands, tears now running down her face. Suddenly she threw the box at Natalia’s face, an overhead female throw, which would have hit its target if Gem had not caught it in the air, just inches from Natalia’s face.
Angry now, Gem stood up in defiance.
Amélie’s pain was palpable. “You want to kill me!” She screamed.
The insanity of it all struck him, as he remembered little Patrick and he became ice cold.
“No, I wish you and your murdering family to have an infinite life, but one that is filled with endless sorrow.
Amélie looked at him full of desperation, then turned around and ran out of the room, sobbing.
The whole thing had taken only a few seconds and everyone had been frozen into place for the duration.
Gem looked down at the green plastic box and lifted the clasp at the front. When he opened the box, he let out a gasp of horror and dropped it in disgust. Ashvina let out a scream and her mother rushed her out of the room. Everyone now stood up.
The box lay open on the thick carpet and they all could see the sealed, transparent plastic sheath, which enclosed a female finger with a twelve carat white diamond on it. Underneath the finger lay a DVD.
Clive recovered first. He picked up the box, casually removed the finger and placed it on the coffee table. He then took out the DVD and inspected it for any information it may have on it.
“There is nothing written on this. I can guess what it contains, but Florian Géroux must have received it with an accompanying letter. That letter is not in the box. Natalia, I think you had better leave the room.” He walked over the DVD player of the sound system as he said this.
“No, I am not leaving, Gem,” she said, her blood-drained face giving the impression that she was about to faint.
Gem placed his arm through hers and led her to the connecting suite next door. She tried to resist, but he was firm. He closed the door behind her and returned to his friends.
Clive took a bottle Courvoisier brandy from the drinks cabinet and four tumblers. He poured out the alcohol into the tumblers, until the bottle was empty, sharing equally, only his own tumbler was more equal than the rest.
“Drink up gentlemen. I think that we are all about to appreciate the benefits of strong alcohol.” He pressed the play button on the remote control of the DVD player.
Immediately the TV screen filled with the image of Madame Marion Géroux. She sat in a wooden chair, her arms strapped to its flat armrests at the wrists and elbows, her fingers splayed open.
Another strap went around her waist and disappeared behind her chair. Straps bound her ankles and her knees as well..
Except for her diamond ring, she was completely naked. Her face was a mask of terror.
Like dried prunes, her old woman’s breasts drooped pathetically down to her stomach. Suddenly a bucket of water poured down on her from out of screen. It must have been cold, because she gasped, with her mouth wide open.
A robotic computer voice spoke.
In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ,
let us pray to the Father.
For ourselves; for grace to repent and amend our lives,
that we may be pardoned and absolved from all our sins,
let us pray to the Lord.
Then the same voice continued.
“Florian Géroux, as you will shortly see, this is only the beginning. If you think that only you and your revolting family can be sadistic, you are about to get the education of a lifetime.
“You are to provide proof of life, within one hour of receiving this. You will then release my friends, and you know which ones I mean, within six hours. If you delay, I shall cut off a piece of your mother every hour that goes by. I shall make sure that she lives long enough for you to feel the maximum possible pain, because I shall send you video of every step.
“No doubt you believe me, but for the sake of little Patrick, I shall now demonstrate that I mean what I say. We don’t want too much of a shock to the old lady, so I shall use an anesthetic this first time. After that, I shall reconsider the matter, depending on how long I need to keep your mother alive. After all, we don’t want her to die from shock now, do we?”
A hooded man came into view, wearing black overalls, an Anonymous mask and blue surgical gloves. He was held a syringe. He injected Madame Géroux’s ring finger. Madame Géroux started begging.
“All merciful God, please have pity on me,” she cried.
“A God all mercy is a God unjust,” the robotic voice responded. “I quote one Dr. Edward Young, of whom you no doubt never heard.” A large knife appeared in the man’s hand.
She screamed. The man remained unmoved. With a two handed downward, pressing motion he calmly removed the finger with the ring, and then stemmed the blood with some type of liquid and bandages. The old lady fainted.
The man lifted the finger in front of the camera and said: “Tick, tock.”
The TV screen went black.
The brandy tumblers had all been emptied and Clive went to the drinks cabinet and got another bottle.
Gem spoke first. “Is that the gentle, kind, smiling, Pinoy we have all come to know and love?” His attempt at humor fell flat on its face.
“You ain't seen nothin’ yet,” Mehmet said and gulped a large portion of his second drink.
Clive tried to alleviate everyone’s shock and confusion by shifting subjects. “Aren’t you a Muslim, Mehmet? I thought Muslims are not supposed to drink.”
Mehmet gulped down the rest of his drink, shook himself like a dog just out of the rain and said: “I am a Cypriot Muslim. There’s a big difference. We are more flexible, religion wise and we tend to take it with a pinch of salt. We’ve lived with the Greeks on the island for too long and, in our peculiar love–hate relationship, we’ve managed to corrupt each other in many areas.”
Gem’s telephone rang. It was Florian.
“I’ve kept my end of the bargain,” he said in a strained voice. “When will your animal friend release my mother?”
“I don’t have any friends who are animals, Géroux. And considering that the common or garden earthworm probably has more soul than you, I don’t think that you are in a position to judge anyone.” Gem’s voice was harsh. “We’ve just watched the video you’ve sent us.”
The doorbell rang as he spoke, and Mehmet went to open it.
“No doubt you and your kind are used to this kind of thing,” Gem continued. “We are not. We shall do everything in our power to have your mother released as soon as possible.”
Dante walked through the door and Gem gestured him to join them.
Florian’s voice started breaking, as if he was crying. “Gem, I know that you are a decent man and I am begging you. Let my mother go and our differences will be at an end. You can contact me through this number. It will show up on your cell phone. Please.” Gem thought he heard a sob before the man hung up.
Gem had already got on his feet to welcome the new visitor.
“Dante, you are a most welcome sight. Come and join us,” he said, and proceeded to introduce the others to him. “I don’t know what I would have done without Dante and his grandfather,” Gem spoke to his friends as he pointed their guest to one of the armchairs.
Clive returned from the drinks cabinet with another bottle of brandy and a tumbler for Dante. He poured for everyone.
“Nice ring,” Dante said, pointing at the finger on the coffee table. His face remained impassive as he lifted his glass in a toast.
“We have just watched a video that came with that and we are all in rather a shock. Would you like to see it?”
Dante shook his head. “No, I’ve met your friend, Pinoy, and I am full of admiration for the man. I really like him. I was happy to help, when he asked me to deliver a package and a letter to Villa Vannozza dei Cattanei. That box there looks like the package. I had it delivered by the catering crew who went up there to serve lunch. The driver simply said that someone paid him to deliver it.”
“How did Pinoy know about Florian’s meeting place?”
“I had taken him up to show him the place, the day before. When he came to me and said he was a friend of yours and that you were kidnapped, I discussed it with my grandfather. My granddad is very fond of you, Gem. He said that I should do whatever it takes to have you and your friends released. I must say, I admire your friend’s methods. They appear to be very effective.”
“So the villa will be deserted by now.”
“No, the letter was addressed to Florian Géroux. The guards accepted it without question, confirming they knew him and he was there. In it, Pinoy wrote that if Géroux told anyone there of what is happening and they began to leave, then the repercussions would be irreversible. At least that’s what Pinoy told me. I have my people watching the place and Géroux seems to be taking him seriously.”
“Do you know where Pinoy is now?”
“He is with my grandfather. They have come up with an interesting idea, a final solution to your Nazi problem. I’ve been told to set it up, but it is not for your virginal ears. My grandfather asked me to come and see you and to make sure that you are alright, before we put it into effect.”
“Please tell your grandad I am fine. I shall be over to see him as soon as we’ve sorted out this mess. How is he doing?”
Dante shrugged in unhappy resignation. “Not long to go, I am afraid. I shall miss the old devil.” He remained thoughtful for a while, as if imagining life without Jovani and not liking the thought, then shrugged again. “Anyway, he says that since he cannot be there personally for the final solution to your problem, he wants you to be there in his place. Are you willing?”
“How can I refuse him anything, even if I wanted to?”
“Good. I’ll pick you up at seven tomorrow morning. We are going back to the same spot as before. Dress appropriately and bring a rucksack, with a thermos.”
They drove in silence to Campomorone. They intended to park in the same spot they had previously, behind the Villa Vannozza dei Cattanei. Only their spot was now occupied by an articulated, red water truck of the fire service. Firemen in full gear were operating the diesel pump behind the truck, the noise filling the night air.
Dante parked the car off road, leaving room for the fire truck to depart, and switched off the lights. The firemen looked up, nodded to Dante and went back to their work.
“I hope you are in better shape than the last time,” Dante smiled as they began their climb.
Three more firemen were spaced at regular intervals along the hillside to the top, looking after a firehose at their feet. They all nodded at Dante as he and Gem passed them making their climb to the summit, but said nothing.
By eight thirty, they’d returned to the same rocky outcrop they had used as an observation post on their previous visit, the sound of the firetruck’s diesel pump following them all the way up. Dante sat on his backpack, after taking out binoculars from it as he had before, and Gem followed suit.
“What’s that fireman doing behind the house?” Gem asked.
A red firetruck drove to the front of the house at that point and turned, facing the way it came. The guards went and chatted with the female driver. Laughter reached Gem and Dante, as they looked on the scene through their field glasses. The sound of the diesel pump stopped.
“This is a forested area and the fire department has regular fire prevention exercises here. The residents were informed of this one yesterday, both by the police department and the fire service. They will be gone soon,” Dante explained, his face hidden behind the binoculars.
The catering vans appeared and had to stop, as the fire truck obstructed the way. The fire truck sounded its horn and the fireman from behind the house came to the vehicle, said something apparently witty, that caused everyone to laugh, and climbed into it. The driver sounded the horn again and waved goodbye to the guards as she drove off, making room for the caterers.
The new arrivals turned their vehicles to face the way they had come, before they got out and began offloading their equipment.
“Something’s not kosher here, Dante. What’s going on?” Gem was pulling his right eyebrow with a trembling hand.
“You have a very suspicious character, Gem. You should have more faith in your fellow man,” his companion responded in a calm voice.
An ambulance arrived. The driver and the medic got out, opened the door at the back and after unhooking a wheelchair, they brought it out. Through his field glasses Gem could see Madame Géroux, her eyes wide open, looking about her with a smile of recognition and relief on her face.
The medics took the wheelchair inside, came out, got into their vehicle and drove off.
Twenty minutes later the caterers ran out without their equipment, and got into their cars.
“My Grandfather obviously cannot be here himself, so he wants a big favor of you. He wants you to call this number,” Dante said, handing a cellphone to Gem. “Just press that speed dial there.”
Gem took the cellphone and pressed the speed dial, as he was told. He heard the dialed phone number ring, but he looked down at the villa, when shouting came from that direction.
He saw Florian on the porch, shouting orders to the guards. He must have been ordering them to stop the caterers, because the guards drew their guns and ran towards the departing trucks.
“Shit,” Dante said, looking like an irritable bulldog, which had just missed biting the tail of the neighbor’s cat as it raced up a tree.
They heard a whooshing sound.
The villa behind Florian exploded into flames. The blast threw Florian to the ground, face down.
Horrible screams screeched from inside the burning house. Florian returned to his feet, dazed.
“Mutter!” He screamed and rushed inside the burning house, obviously intend on saving her. A huge explosion tore the building apart and parts of it almost reached the spot where Gem and Dante sat. The fire must have reached the gas main pipe.
Dante looked pleased. “Now that is what I call a happy conclusion.” He handed Gem an envelope. “My grandfather passed away last night. He knew his time had come and he asked me to give you this.”
Still shocked at what he had seen, the heat from the burning building almost singing his eyebrows, Gem took the envelope and tore it open with trembling hands. He looked down at a coarse yellow cloth. A garish yellow Star of David, outlined in black lines and the word “Jude” had been written inside it. It was the star the Nazis had forced all Jews to wear throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, as a means of identification and humiliation.
Gem looked up a question at Dante.
“Yes, my grandfather was a Jew. That was his ‘final solution’ to your problem. It was taken out of the Nazi book of practical deeds. Now let’s get out of here before the real fire department and the real police arrive.”
The smell of wet earth came to them through the open window of the restaurant’s glass-fronted extension. The sweet, intoxicating smell of pine and wet grass, mingled with the smell of their scrambled eggs and prosciutto made a strange, powerful mixture. The coffee smell was a heavenly addition.
Beyond the glitter of the water of the lake across the busy street, they saw black smoke rising in the distance. A seemingly endless line of fire engines and police cars passed in front of the restaurant, sirens blaring, on their way to the Villa Vannozza dei Cattanei, half way up the hill.
Gem and Dante sat alone in the glass extension of the restaurant. The usual breakfast clients had already left and the lunch crowd had not yet arrived.
“We got the plans of the villa from the municipality.” Dante whispered between ravenous bites of his breakfast.
“We saw that there used to be a coal cellar under the place. We know that in all these old houses, with time, such cellars become too wet and moldy, and get abandoned. The old chute cellar-door at the back of the building was overgrown and had rotted through. But we knew from the drawings that it was there. Once we found it, it was easy to pass the hose through. It was like pouring twenty tons of gasoline into an underground pool.” He wiped his lips with a paper napkin and then looked at the smudge he left across the establishment’s logo, before putting down. He sipped coffee and smiled.
“A small fire bomb, set off by a cellphone signal, was all that was needed. Granddad wanted to do it himself, but since he could not be there personally, he wanted you to do it on his behalf. He asked me to tell you that he takes the whole blame with him. You should not feel any guilt. You were simply an extension of his hand.” He signaled to the waiter for more coffee.
“How could you get so close, without raising suspicion?”
“Let’s say a police car drives up to your door. Policemen in uniform tell you that there will be a fire department drill in your area next day. It is, after all, a forested area with residences, which would be endangered in case of a fire. Would you have reason to question them? What if a red fire department truck comes along a short while later, to scout the area for next day’s drill, would you question them why they are there?”
“But how is it possible for you to have so many resources?” Gem could not help himself asking.
“You have no idea what we can do, Gem. Just leave it at that.”
Gem fidgeted. “I can’t believe that I’ve just killed thirty odd people. I am a mass murderer and I am sitting here eating eggs and prosciutto with melon, as if nothing has happened. I must be a monster,” he whispered back, scraping the last piece of scrambled egg from his plate.
“Don’t be childish, Gem. These Nazi’s cannot be given any quarter. Else they turn around and tear you to pieces without the slightest sign of pity. Anyway, you had nothing to do with it. It was all our doing, mine and my grandfather’s. It was not only an obligation to the millions of victims of our race. It was also a pleasure, to remove scum like these from the face of the earth.”
The cheerful, friendly, waiter arrived with fresh coffee, speaking to Dante in Italian, gesticulating towards the smoke. From the waist down he moved like a professional dancer, his hips swirling as if he was demonstrating the salsa. There is a never-failing fascination in a man who is effortless in all his movements and this one was so happy, it was impossible not to immediately like him.
“There’s been a fire,” Dante translated as the waiter poured coffee.
“I hope no one’s hurt,” Gem mumbled, looking at the billowing smoke in the distance.
“It’s wonderful to be able to sit at a bar like ordinary people, without the thought that someone might come along at any moment to murder us,” Gem said, as he leaned on the long bar of the Genoa Grand Hotel. “It’s wonderful, even if it is to drink fresh orange juice in the morning.” He looked at his drink and smiled. He was waiting for Natalia to show up.
Mac nodded, as he looked down at his own orange juice with some doubt.
“I can’t wait to get out of here. As soon as old Jovani’s funeral is over, I want to leave this place behind me and never come back.” He took a pensive sip of his drink. “Did you manage to get rid of Lady Macbeth’s diamond ring?” He wanted to know.
Gem thought for a minute before he answered.
“Yes, Dante showed me the old woman’s place and I waited for her to come out. She recognized me immediately and she came to me, smiling. It took some convincing to get her to accept the ring.” Gem had a pleased, faraway look on his face.
“It’s better than Clive flushing it down that toilet, like he did with the finger. That should keep her in caviar till the end of her days,” Mac laughed, also pleased.
After a while he turned to Gem again and said: “Everything seems to have worked out in the end, Gem. You were in bad shape for a while and it’s really good to see you contented at last.”
“You know, Brother Mac, I am more than contented. I am happy. And if you want to distinguish the difference between happiness and contentment, you have before you the man who is able to give you the right answer.” Gem smiled pensively before he continued, as if speaking some newly discovered great truth.
“When there is a state of mind by which the mind and body are in accord, without friction, that is Contentment.” He had a dreamy look in his eyes as he said this.
“Happiness is when the woman you love kisses you while you sleep, thinking that you cannot feel it, and when she seeks you out in her own sleep, her arms and legs, her whole self, wrapping around you as if she wants to make you a part of herself.”
Mac’s happy laughter brought him down to earth.
“Yes, I am ashamed to admit, that I am becoming poetic of late,” Gem shrugged, embarrassed. “And happy for a change to leave behind me the wonderful, inevitable, entanglement with women of unquestionable charm, but doubtful morality.”
They sipped their orange juice in silence for a while. Then Gem coughed, unsure of himself.
“Mac, there is something I want to ask you.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“What does M. A. C. stand for?
Gem detected a defiant, dangerous glitter in Mac’s left eye and a few seconds loaded with pregnant tension passed before Mac finally shrugged before answering.
“Mordecai Aloysius Cornelius,” he said, waiting for Gem to start something. The look of a fellow sufferer on Gem’s face eased the tension and he added, “My parents thought it would be funny, if added to a name like ‘Smith’.” He shrugged again, in resignation. “And they were right of course, but the joke wears off after a while.”
Gem nodded in sympathy, feeling that discretion was a much wiser option to the valor of allowing the smile to manifest itself across his lips at that particular moment. There was time to do that in the privacy of his suite.
Mordecai Aloysius Cornelius had shown at Lili’s that he could be unpredictable, when stirred, and it seemed inevitable to Gem that any provocation might result in Mac yielding to his primitive impulses. It was obvious to the naked eye that it did not take much effort to extricate the caveman from within Mordecai Aloysius Cornelius Smith. In such an event, it had already been proven that Mac was ready and able to knock the stuffing out of any number of individuals who might be in the vicinity. It would then be a case of women and children first.
Mediterranean winter sunlight ripened the mid-day, as Gem and Natalia walked hand in hand along the grounds of the Genoa Park Tennis Club, like youngsters in love. The sun, well before its peak, smiled down at them with approval. A gentle breeze sauntered along the footpaths interweaving the park, making their stroll a pleasant affair. As they walked towards the east, their long shadows trailed behind them like loyal bodyguards who believed in their cause.
“I must thank Mr. Tella for recommending this place to us,” Gem said. “Now that our lives are no longer under threat, I realize how much I missed being outdoors.”
He raised his face up to the sun, to receive as many of its rays as it had on offer. He put his arm around Natalia’s shoulders and she hugged him around the waist with both arms. He felt bound to her by silken fetters, woven by the silkworms of love and her question to him felt very natural.
“So how long will you keep me waiting?” She purred.
“Waiting for what?” The pride of the Flintstones asked.
“To make an honest woman of me, of course. We accountants are a practical lot and we want our questions answered with specifics. Are you going to ask me to marry you, or not?”
“I don't see how any billionaire can hope to survive in this cruel world without being married to you,” he shrugged.
She squealed, like a girl of Ashvina’s age, and jumped on him, with her arms around his neck.
“I am beginning to suspect that there is a grain of sense lurking somewhere in you, after all,” she said as she kissed him with her mouth wide open.
“As a matter of fact, I have a twelve carat white diamond ring in my pocket, if you care to have it,” he said and began to feel in his pockets.
She stepped back from him in horror.
“You wouldn’t!” her eyes widened with shock and dismay. “Would you?” There was fear intermingled with hopeful doubt in her question.
“Of course I would.” He said with a sly smile. “Look.” He brought out a small jeweler’s box and opened it in front of her face. “I bought this yesterday,” he laughed. “Gotcha!”
“Oh, darling, it’s beautiful.” Her eyes filled with tears as he placed the ring on her finger. She placed one hand behind his head and pulled it down for a kiss. Her other hand, the one with the ring, came up in a fist and she stamped his forehead with the bottom of it, in ownership.
Had the lovers not been so preoccupied with each other, they might have seen Amélie Géroux pointing a trembling finger at Natalia from behind a hedge. She was dressed in all black and her expression seemed to radiate jealousy and hate as she spoke to the large man standing next to her, the one who thrown Gem into Lake Thun.