Read an Excerpt
“Attention! Le train de sept heures à destination de Zurich partira du quai numéro douze.”
The tall American in the dark-blue raincoat glanced up at the cavernous dome of the Geneva railway station, trying to locate the hidden speakers. The expression on his sharp, angular face was quizzical; the announcement was in French, a language he spoke but little and understood less. Nevertheless, he was able to distinguish the word Zurich; it was his signal. He brushed aside the light-brown hair that fell with irritating regularity over his forehead and started for the north end of the station.
The crowds were heavy. Bodies rushed past the American in all directions, hurrying to the gates to begin their journeys to scores of different destinations. None seemed to pay attention to the harsh announcements that echoed throughout the upper chambers in a continuous metallic monotone. The travelers in Geneva’s Bahnhof knew where they were going. It was the end of the week; the new mountain snows had fallen and the air outside was crisp and chilling. There were places to go, schedules to keep, and people to see; time wasted was time stolen. Everyone hurried.
The American hurried, too, for he also had a schedule to keep and a person to see. He had learned before the announcement that the train for Zurich would leave from track twelve. According to the plan, he was to walk down the ramp to the platform, count seven cars from the rear, and board at the first entrance. Inside, he was to count again, this time five compartments, and knock twice on the fifth door. If everything was in order, he would be admitted by a director of La Grande Banque de Genève, signifying the culmination of twelve weeks of preparations. Preparations that included purposely obscured cablegrams, transatlantic calls made and received on telephones the Swiss banker had determined were sterile, and a total commitment to secrecy.
He did not know what the director of La Grande Banque de Genève had to say to him, but he thought he knew why the precautions were deemed necessary. The American’s name was Noel Holcroft, but Holcroft had not been his name at birth. He was born in Berlin in the summer of 1939, and the name on the hospital registry was “Clausen.” His father was Heinrich Clausen, master strategist of the Third Reich, the financial magician who put together the coalition of disparate economic forces that insured the supremacy of Adolf Hitler.
Heinrich Clausen won the country but lost a wife. Althene Clausen was an American; more to the point, she was a headstrong woman with her own standards of ethics and morality. She had deduced that the National Socialists possessed neither; they were a collection of paranoiacs, led by a maniac, and supported by financiers interested solely in profits.
Althene Clausen gave her husband an ultimatum on a warm afternoon in August: Withdraw. Stand against the paranoiacs and the maniac before it was too late. In disbelief, the Nazi listened and laughed and dismissed his wife’s ultimatum as the foolish ravings of a new mother. Or perhaps the warped judgment of a woman brought up in a weak, discredited system that would soon march to the step of the New Order. Or be crushed under its boot.
That night the new mother packed herself and the new child and took one of the last planes to London, the first leg on her jour ney back to New York. A week later the Blitzkrieg was executed against Poland; the Thousand Year Reich had begun its own journey, one that would last some fifteen hundred days from the first sound of gunfire.
Holcroft walked through the gate, down the ramp, and on to the long concrete platform. Four, five, six, seven.… The seventh car had a small blue circle stenciled beneath the window to the left of the open door. It was the symbol of accommodations superior to those in first class: enlarged compartments properly outfitted for conferences in transit or clandestine meetings of a more personal nature. Privacy was guaranteed; once the train was moving, the doors at either end of the car were manned by armed railway guards.
Holcroft entered and turned left into the corridor. He walked past successive closed doors until he reached the fifth. He knocked twice.
“Herr Holcroft?” The voice behind the wood panel was firm but quiet, and although the two words were meant as a question, the voice was not questioning. It made a statement.
“Herr Manfredi?” said Noel in reply, suddenly aware that an eye was peering at him through the pinpoint viewer in the center of the door. It was an eerie feeling, diminished by the comic effect. He smiled to himself and wondered if Herr Manfredi would look like the sinister Conrad Veidt in one of those 1930s English films.
There were two clicks of a lock, followed by the sound of a sliding bolt. The door swung back and the image of Conrad Veidt vanished. Ernst Manfredi was a short, rotund man in his middle to late sixties. He was completely bald, with a pleasant, gentle face; but the wide blue eyes, magnified beyond the metal-framed glasses, were cold. Very light blue and very cold.
“Come in, Herr Holcroft,” said Manfredi, smiling. Then his expression changed abruptly; the smile disappeared. “Do forgive me. I should say Mister Holcroft. The Herr may be offensive to you. My apologies.”
“None necessary,” replied Noel, stepping into the well-appointed compartment. There was a table, two chairs, no bed in evidence. The walls were wood-paneled; dark-red velvet curtains covered the windows, muffling the sounds of the figures rushing by outside. On the table was a small lamp with a fringed shade.
“We have about twenty-five minutes before departure,” the banker said. “It should be adequate. And don’t be concerned—we’ll be given ample warning. The train won’t start until you’ve disembarked. You’ll not have to travel to Zurich.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“I trust that will be changed,” said the banker enigmatically, gesturing for Holcroft to sit opposite him at the table.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.” Noel sat down, unbuttoning his raincoat but not removing it.
“I’m sorry, that was presumptuous of me.” Manfredi took his seat and leaned back in the chair. “I must apologize once again. I’ll need your identification. Your passport, please. And your international driver’s license. Also, whatever documents you have on your person that describe physical markings, vaccinations, that sort of thing.”
Holcroft felt a rush of anger. The inconvenience to his life aside, he disliked the banker’s patronizing attitude. “Why should I? You know who I am. You wouldn’t have opened that door if you didn’t. You probably have more photographs, more information on me, than the State Department.”
“Indulge an old man, sir,” said the banker, shrugging in self-deprecation, his charm on display. “It will be made clear to you.”
Reluctantly, Noel reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew the leather case that contained his passport, health certificate, international license, and two A.I.A. letters that stated his qualifications as an architect. He handed the case to Manfredi. “It’s all there. Help yourself.”
With seemingly greater reluctance, the banker opened the case. “I feel as though I’m prying, but I think …”
“You should,” interrupted Holcroft. “I didn’t ask for this meeting. Frankly, it comes at a very inconvenient time. I want to get back to New York as soon as possible.”
“Yes. Yes, I understand,” said the Swiss quietly, perusing the documents. “Tell me, what was the first architectural commission you undertook outside the United States?”
Noel suppressed his irritation. He had come this far; there was no point in refusing to answer. “Mexico,” he replied. “For the Alvarez hotel chain, north of Puerto Vallarta.”
“Costa Rica. For the government. A postal complex in 1973.”
“What was the gross income of your firm in New York last year? Without adjustments.”
“None of your damned business.”
“I assure you, we know.”
Holcroft shook his head in angry resignation. “A hundred and seventy-three thousand dollars and change.”
“Considering office rental, salaries, equipment and expenses, that’s not an altogether impressive figure, is it?” asked Manfredi, his eyes still on the papers in his hands.
“It’s my own company and the staff is small. I have no partners, no wife, no heavy debts. It could be worse.”
“It could be better,” said the banker, looking up at Holcroft. “Especially for one so talented.”
“It could be better.”
“Yes, I thought as much,” continued the Swiss, putting the various papers back in the leather case and handing it to Noel. He leaned forward. “Do you know who your father was?”
“I know who my father is. Legally, he’s Richard Holcroft, of New York, my mother’s husband. He’s very much alive.”
“And retired,” completed Manfredi. “A fellow banker, but hardly a banker in the Swiss tradition.”
“He was respected. Is respected.”
“For his family’s money or for his professional acumen?”
“Both, I’d say. I love him. If you have reservations, keep them to yourself.”
“You’re very loyal; that’s a quality. I admire. Holcroft came along when your mother—an incredible woman, incidentally—was most despondent. But we split definitions. Holcroft is once removed. I referred to your natural father.”
“Thirty years ago, Heinrich Clausen made certain arrangements. He traveled frequently between Berlin, Zurich, and Geneva, beyond official scrutiny, of course. A document was prepared that we as”—Manfredi paused and smiled—“… as biased neutrals could not oppose. Attached to the document is a letter, written by Clausen in April of 1945. It is addressed to you. His son.” The banker reached for a thick manila envelope on the table.”
“Just a minute,” said Noel. “Did those certain arrangements concern money?”
“I’m not interested. Give it to charity. He owed it.”
“You may not feel that way when you’ve heard the amount.”
“What is it?”
“Seven hundred and eighty million dollars.”