The ride took all of four blocks, and when they stopped in front of an A-frame building on a quiet side street the driver said in Italian, "This hotel is very good."
"Looks fine. Thanks. How far away is Zurich by car?"
"Two hours, more or less. Depends on the traffic."
"Tomorrow morning, I need to be in downtown Zurich at nine o'clock. Can you drive me there?"
The driver hesitated for a second, his mind thinking of cold cash. "Perhaps," he said.
"How much will it cost?"
The driver rubbed his chin, then shrugged and said, "Two hundred euros."
"Good. Let's leave here at six."
"Six, yes, I'll be here."
Marco thanked him again and watched as he drove away. A bell rang when he entered the front door of the hotel. The small counter was deserted, but a television was chattering away somewhere close by. A sleepy-eyed teenager finally appeared and offered a smile. "Guten abend," he said.
"Park inglese?" Marco asked.
He shook his head, no.
"I speak a little too," Marco said in Italian. "I'd like a room for one night."
The clerk pushed over a registration form, and from memory Marco filled in the name on his passport, and its number. He scribbled in a fictional address in Bologna, and a bogus phone number as well. The passport was in his coat pocket, close to his heart, and he was prepared to reluctantly pull it out.
But it was late and the clerk was missing his television show. With atypical Swiss inefficiency, he said, also in Italian, "Forty-two euros," and didn't mention the passport.
Giovanni laid the cash on the counter, and the clerk gave him a key to room number 26. In surprisingly good Italian, he arranged a wake-up call for 5:00 a.m. Almost as an afterthought, he said, "I lost my toothbrush. Would you have an extra?"
The clerk reached into a drawer and pulled out a box full of assorted necessities-toothbrushes, toothpaste, disposable razors, shaving cream, aspirin, tampons, hand cream, combs, even condoms. Giovanni selected a few items and handed over ten euros.
A luxury suite at the Ritz could not have been more welcome than room 26. Small, clean, warm, with a firm mattress, and a door that bolted twice to keep away the faces that had been haunting him since early morning. He took a long, hot shower, then shaved and brushed his teeth forever.
Much to his relief, he found a minibar in a cabinet under the television. He ate a packet of cookies, washed them down with two small bottles of whiskey, and when he crawled under the covers he was mentally drained and physically exhausted. The cane was on the bed, nearby. Silly, but he couldn't help it.
In the depths of prison he'd dreamed of Zurich, with its blue rivers and clean shaded streets and modern shops and handsome people, all proud to be Swiss, all going about their business with a pleasant seriousness. In another life he'd ridden the quiet electric streetcars with them as they headed into the financial district. Back then he'd been too busy to travel much, too important to leave the fragile workings of Washington, but Zurich was one of the few places he'd seen. It was his kind of city: unburdened by tourists and traffic, unwilling to spend its time gawking at cathedrals and museums and worshiping the last two thousand years. Not at all. Zurich was about money, the refined management of it as opposed to the naked cash grab Backman had once perfected.
He was on a streetcar again, one hed caught near the train station, and was now moving steadily along Bahnhofstrasse, the main avenue of downtown Zurich, if in fact it had one. It was almost 9:00 a.m. He was among the last wave of the sharply dressed young bankers headed for UBS and Credit Suisse and a thousand lesser-known but equally rich institutions. Dark suits, shirts of various colors but not many white ones, expensive ties with thicker knots and fewer designs, dark brown shoes with laces, never tassels. The styles had changed slightly in the past six years. Always conservative, but with some dash. Not quite as stylish as the young professionals in his native Bologna, but quite attractive.
Everyone was reading something as they moved along. Streetcars passed from the other direction. Marco pretended to be engrossed in a copy ofNewsweek, but he was really watching everyone else.
No one was watching him. No one seemed offended by his bowling shoes. In fact, he'd seen another pair on a casually dressed young man near the train station. His straw hat was getting no attention. The hems of his slacks had been repaired slightly after he'd purchased a cheap sewing kit from the hotel desk, then spent half an hour trying to tailor his pants without drawing blood. His outfit cost a fraction of those around him, but what did he care? He'd made it to Zurich without Luigi and all those others, and with a little more luck he'd make it out.
At Paradeplatz the streetcars wheeled in from east and west and stopped. They emptied quickly as the young bankers scattered in droves and headed for the buildings. Marco moved with the crowd, his hat now left behind under the seat in the streetcar.
Nothing had changed in seven years. The Paradeplatz was still the same-an open plaza lined with small shops and cafes. The banks around it had been there for a hundred years; some announced their names from neon signs, others were hidden so well they couldn't be found. From behind his sunglasses he soaked in as much of the surroundings as he could while sticking close to three young men with gym bags slung over their shoulders. They appeared to be headed for Rhineland Bank, on the east side. He followed them inside, into the lobby, where the fun began.
The information desk hadn't moved in seven years; in fact, the well-groomed lady sitting behind it looked vaguely familiar. "I'd like to see Mr. Mikel Van Thiessen," he said as softly as possible.
'And your name?"
"Marco Lazzeri." He would use "Joel Backman" later, upstairs, but he was hesitant to use it here. Hopefully, Neal's e-mails to Van Thiessen had alerted him to the alias. The banker had been asked to remain in town, if at all possible, for the next week or so.
She was on the phone and also pecking at a keyboard. "It will be just a moment, Mr. Lazzeri," she said. "Would you mind waiting?"
"No," he said. Waiting? He'd been dreaming of this for years. He took a chair, crossed his legs, saw the shoes, then put his feet under the chair. He was certain that he was being watched from a dozen different camera angles now, and that was fine. Maybe they would recognize Backman sitting in the lobby, maybe they wouldn't. He could almost see them up there, gawking at the monitors, scratching their heads, saying, "Don't know, he's much thinner, gaunt, even."
"And the hair. It's obviously a bad coloring job."
To help them Joel removed Giovanni's tortoiseshell glasses.
Five minutes later, a stern-faced security type in a much lesser suit approached him from nowhere and said, "Mr. Lazzeri, would you follow me?"
They rode a private elevator up to the third floor where Marco was led into a small room with thick walls. All the walls seemed to be thick at Rhineland Bank. Two other security agents were waiting. One actually smiled, the other did not. They asked him to place both hands on a biometric fingerprint scanner. It would compare his fingerprints to the ones he left behind almost seven years ago, at this same place, and when the perfect match was made there would be more smiles, then a nicer room, a nicer lobby, the offer of coffee or juice. Anything, Mr. Backman.
He asked for orange juice because he'd had no breakfast. The security agents were back in their cave. Mr. Backman was now being serviced by Elke, one of Mr. Van Thiessen's shapely assistants. "He'll be out in just a minute," she explained. "He wasn't expecting you this morning."
Kinda hard to make appointments when you're hiding in toilet stalls. Joel smiled at her. Ol' Marco was history now. Finally laid to rest after a good two-month run. Marco had served him well, kept him alive, taught him the basics of Italian, walked him around Treviso and Bologna, and introduced him to Francesca, a woman he would not soon forget.
But Marco would also get him killed, so he ditched him there on the third floor of the Rhineland Bank, while looking at Elke's black stiletto heels and waiting on her boss. Marco was gone, never to return.
Mikel Van Thiessen's office was designed to smack his visitors with a powerful right hook. Power in the massive Persian rug. Power in the leather sofa and chairs. Power in the ancient mahogany desk that wouldn't have fit in the cell at Rudley. Power in the array of electronic gadgets at his disposal. He met Joel at the powerful oak door and they shook hands properly, but not like old friends. They had met exactly once before.
If Joel had lost sixty pounds since their last visit, Van Thiessen had found most of it. He was much grayer too, not nearly as crisp and sharp as the younger bankers Joel had seen on the streetcar. Van Thiessen directed his client to the leather chairs while Elke and another assistant scurried around to fetch coffee and pastries.
When they were alone, with the door shut, Van Thiessen said, "I've been reading about you."
"Oh really. And what have you read?"
"Bribing a president for a pardon, come on, Mr. Backman. Is it really that easy over there?"
Joel couldn't tell if he was joking or not. Joel was in an upbeat mood, but he didn't exactly feel like swapping one-liners.
"I didn't bribe anyone, if that's what you're suggesting."
"Yes, well, the newspapers are certainly filled with speculation." His tone was more accusatory than jovial, and Joel decided not to waste time. "Do you believe everything you read in the newspapers?"
"Of course not, Mr. Backman."
"I'm here for three reasons. I want access to my security box. I want to review my account. I want to withdraw ten thousand dollars in cash. After that, I may have another favor or two."
Van Thiessen shoved a small cookie in his mouth and chewed rapidly. "Yes, of course. I don't think we'll have a problem with any of that."
"Why should you have a problem?"
"Not a problem, sir. I'll just need a few minutes."
"I'll need to consult with a colleague."
"Can you do so quickly?"
Van Thiessen practically bolted from the room and slammed the door behind him. The pain in Joel's stomach was not from hunger. If the wheels came off now, he had no plan B. He'd walk out of the bank with nothing, hopefully make it across the Paradeplatz to a streetcar, and once on board he would have no place to go. The escape would be over. Marco would be back, and Marco would eventually get him killed.
As time came to an abrupt halt, he kept thinking about the pardon. With it, his slate was wiped clean. The US. government was in no position to pressure the Swiss to freeze his account. The Swiss didn't freeze accounts! The Swiss were immune from pressure! That's why their banks were rilled with loot from around the world.
They were the Swiss!
Elke retrieved him and asked if he would follow her downstairs. In other days, he would've followed Elke anywhere, but now it was only downstairs.
He'd been to the vault during his prior visit. It was in the basement, several levels below ground, though the clients never knew how deep into Swiss soil they were descending. Every door was a foot thick, every wall appeared to be made of lead, every ceiling had surveillance cameras. Elke handed him off to Van Thiessen again.
Both thumbs were scanned for matching prints. An optical scanner took his photo. "Number seven," Van Thiessen said, pointing. "I'll meet you there," he said, and left through a door.
Joel walked down a short hallway, passing six windowless steel doors until he came to the seventh. He pushed a button, all sorts of things tumbled and clicked inside, and the door finally opened. He stepped inside, where Van Thiessen was waiting.
The room was a twelve-foot square, with three walls lined with individual vaults, most about the size of a large shoe box.
"Your vault number?" he asked. "L2270."
Van Thiessen stepped to his right, bent slightly to face L2270. On the vault's small keypad he punched some numbers, then straightened himself and said, "If you wish."
Under Van Thiessen's watchful eyes, Joel stepped to his vault and entered the code. As he did so, he softly whispered the numbers, forever seared in his memory: "Eighty-one, fifty-five, ninety-four, ninety - three, twenty-three." A small green light began blinking on the keypad. Van Thiessen smiled and said, "I'll be waiting at the front. Just ring when you're finished."
When he was alone, Joel removed the steel box from his vault and pulled open the top. He picked up the padded mailing envelope and opened it. There were the four two-gigabyte Jaz disks that had once been worth $1 billion.
He allowed himself a moment, but no more than sixty seconds. He was, after all, very safe at that time, and if he wanted to reflect, what was the harm?
He thought of Safi Mirza, Fazal Sharif, and Farooq Khan, the brilliant boys who'd discovered Neptune, then wrote reams of software to manipulate the system. They were all dead now, killed by their naive greed and their choice of lawyer. He thought of Jacy Hubbard, the brash, gregarious, infinitely charismatic crook who had snowed the voters for an entire career and finally gotten much too greedy. He thought of Carl Pratt and Kim Boiling and dozens of other partners he'd brought into their prosperous firm, and the lives that had been wrecked by what he was now holding in his hand. He thought of Neal and the humiliation he'd caused his son when the scandal engulfed Washington and prison became not only a certainty but a sanctuary.
And he thought of himself, not in selfish terms, not in pity, not passing the blame to anyone else. What a miserable mess of a life he'd lived, so far anyway. As much as he'd like to go back and do it differently, he had no time to waste on such thoughts. You've only got a few years left, Joel, or Marco, or Giovanni, or whatever the hell your name is. For the first time in your rotten life, why don't you do what's right, as opposed to what's profitable?
He put the disks in the envelope, the envelope in his briefcase, then replaced the steel box in the vault. He rang for Van Thiessen.
Back in the power office, Van Thiessen handed him a file with one sheet of paper in it. "This is a summary of your account," he was saying. "It's very straightforward. As you know, there's been no activ ity."
"You guys are paying one percent interest," Joel said. "You were aware of our rates when you opened the account, Mr. Backman."
"Yes, I was."
"We protect your money in other ways."
"Of course." Joel closed the file and handed it back. "I don't want to keep this. Do you have the cash?"
"Yes, it's on the way up."
"Good. I need a few things."
Van Thiessen pulled over his writing pad and stood ready with his fountain pen. "Yes," he said.
"I want to wire a hundred thousand to a bank in Washington, D.C. Can you recommend one?"
"Certainly. We work closely with Maryland Trust."
"Good, wire the money there, and with the wire open a generic savings account. I will not be writing checks, just making withdrawals."
"In what name?"
"Joel Backman and Neal Backman." He was getting used to his name again, not ducking when he said it. Not cowering in fear, waiting for gunfire. He liked it.
"Very well," Van Thiessen said. Anything was possible.
"I need some help in getting back to the US. Could your girl check the Lufthansa flights to Philadelphia and New York?"
"Of course. When, and from where?"
"Today, as soon as possible. I'd like to avoid the airport here. How far away is Munich by car?"
"By car, three to four hours."
"Can you provide a car?"
"I'm sure we can arrange that."
"I prefer to leave from the basement here, in a car driven by someone not dressed like a chauffeur. Not a black car either, something that will not attract attention."
Van Thiessen stopped writing and shot a puzzled look. "Are you in danger, Mr. Backman?"
"Perhaps. I'm not sure, and I'm not taking chances."
Van Thiessen pondered this for a few seconds, then said, "Would you like for us to make the airline reservations?"
"Then I need to see your passport."
Joel pulled out Giovanni's borrowed passport. Van Thiessen studied it for a long time, his stoic banker's face betraying him. He was confused and worried. He finally managed, "Mr. Backman, you will be traveling with someone else's passport."
"And this is a valid passport?"
"I assume you do not have one of your own."
"They took it a long time ago."
"This bank cannot take part in the commission of a crime. If this is stolen, then-"
"I assure you it's not stolen."
"Then how did-"
"Let's just say it's borrowed, okay?"
"But using someone else's passport is a violation of the law."
"Let's not get hung up on US. immigration policy, Mr. Van Thiessen. Just get the schedules. I'll pick the nights. Your girl makes the reservations using the bank's account. Deduct it from my balance. Get me a car and a driver. Deduct that from my balance, if you wish. It's all very simple."
It was just a passport. Hell, other clients had three or four of them. Van Thiessen handed it back to Joel and said, "Very well. Anything else?"
"Yes, I need to go online. I'm sure your computers are secure."
His e-mail to Neal read:
Grinch-With a bit of luck, I should arrive in US. tonight. Get a new cellphone today. Don't let it out of your sight. Tomorrow morning call the Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton, in downtown Washington. Ask for Giovanni Ferro. Thats me. Call Carl Pratt first thing this morning, on the new phone. Push hard to get Senator Clayburn in D. C. We will cover his expenses. Tell him it's urgent. A favor to an old friend. Don't take no for an answer. No more e-mails until I get home. Marco After a quick sandwich and a cola in Van Thiessen's office, Joel Backman left the bank building riding shotgun in a shiny green BMW four-door sedan. For good measure, he kept a Swiss newspaper in front of his face until they were on the autobahn. The driver was Franz. Franz fancied himself a Formula One hopeful, and when Joel let it be known that he was in somewhat of a hurry, Franz slipped into the left lane and hit 150 kilometers per hour.
At 1:55 p.m., Joel Backman was sitting in a lavishly large seat in the first-class section of a Lufthansa 747 as it began its push back from the gate at the Munich airport. Only when it started to move did he dare pick up the glass of champagne he'd been staring at for ten minutes. The glass was empty by the time the plane stopped at the end of the runway for its final check. When the wheels lifted off the pavement, Joel closed his eyes and allowed himself the luxury of a few hours of relief.
His son, on the other hand, and at exactly the same moment, 7:55 Eastern Standard time, was stressed to the point of throwing things. How the hell was he supposed to go buy a new cell phone immediately, then call Carl Pratt again and solicit old favors that did not exist, and somehow cajole a retired and cantankerous old senator from Ocracoke, North Carolina, to drop what he was doing and return immediately to a city he evidently disliked immensely? Not to mention the obvious: he, Neal Backman, had a rather full day at the office. Nothing as pressing as rescuing his wayward father, but still a pretty full docket with clients and other important matters.
He left Jerry's Java, but instead of going to the office he went home. Lisa was bathing their daughter and was surprised to see him. "What's wrong?" she said.
"We have to talk. Now."
He began with the mysterious letter postmarked from York, Pennsylvania, and went through the $4,000 loan, as painful as it was, then the smartphone, the encrypted e-mails, pretty much the entire story. She took it calmly, much to his relief.
"You should've told me," she said more than once.
"Yes, and I'm sorry."
There was no fight, no arguing. Loyalty was one of her strongest traits, and when she said, "We have to help him," Neal hugged her.
"He'll pay back the money," he assured her.
"We'll worry about the money later. Is he in danger?"
"I think so."
"Okay, what's the first step?"
"Call the office and tell them I'm in bed with the flu."
Their entire conversation was captured live and in perfect detail by a tiny mike planted by the Mossad in the light fixture above where they were sitting. It was wired to a transmitter hidden in their attic, and from there it was relayed to a high-frequency receiver a quarter of a mile away in a seldom-used retail office space recently leased for six months by a gentleman from D.C. There, a technician listened to it twice, then quickly e-mailed his field agent in the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Since Backman's disappearance in Bologna more than twenty - four hours ago, the bugs planted around his son had been monitored even more closely.
The e-mail to Washington concluded with "JB's coming home."
Fortunately, Neal did not mention the name "Giovanni Ferro" during the conversation with Lisa. Unfortunately, he did mention two of the three hotels-the Marriott and the Sheraton.
Backman's return was given the highest priority possible. Eleven Mossad agents were located on the East Coast; all were ordered to D.C. immediately.
Lisa dropped their daughter off at her mother's, then she and Neal sped south to Charlottesville, thirty minutes away. In a shopping center north of town they found the office for US. Cellular. They opened an account, bought a phone, and within thirty minutes were back on the road. Lisa drove while Neal tried to find Carl Pratt.
Aided by generous helpings of champagne and wine, Joel managed to sleep for several hours over the Atlantic. When the plane landed at JFK at 4:30 p.m., the relaxation was gone, replaced by uncertainties and a compulsion to look over his shoulder.
At immigration, he at first stepped into line with the returning Americans, a much shorter line. The mob waiting across the way for non-U.S. was embarrassing. Then he caught himself, glanced around, began cursing under his breath, and hustled over to the foreigners.
How stupid can you be?
A thick-necked uniformed kid from the Bronx was yelling at people to follow this line, not that one, and hurry up while you're at it. Welcome to America. Some things he had not missed.
The passport officer frowned at Giovannis passport, but then he'd frowned at all the others too. Joel had been watching him carefully from behind a pair of cheap sunglasses.
"Could you remove your sunglasses, please?" the officer said.
"Certamente," Joel said loudly, anxious to prove his Italianness. He took off the sunglasses, squinted as if blinded, then rubbed his eyes while the officer tried to study his face. Reluctantly, he stamped the passport and handed it over without a word. With nothing to declare, the customs officials barely looked at him. Joel hustled through the terminal and found the line at the taxi stand. "Penn Station," he said. The driver resembled Farooq Khan, the youngest of the three, just a boy, and as Joel studied him from the backseat he pulled his briefcase closer.
Moving against the rush hour traffic, he was at Penn Station in forty-five minutes. He bought an Amtrak ticket to D.C., and at 7:00 left New York for Washington.
The taxi parked on Brandywine Street in northwest Washington. It was almost eleven, and most of the fine homes were dark. Back - man spoke to the driver, who was already reclining and ready for a nap.
Mrs. Pratt was in bed and struggling with sleep when she heard the doorbell. She grabbed her robe and hurried down the stairs. Her husband slept in the basement most nights, mainly because he snored but also because he was drinking too much and suffering from insomnia. She presumed he was there now.
"Who is it?" she asked through the intercom.
"Joel Backman," came the answer, and she thought it was a prank.
"Donna, it's me, Joel. I swear. Open the door."
She peeped through the hole in the door and did not recognize the stranger. "Just a minute," she said, then ran to the basement where Carl was watching the news. A minute later he was at the door, wearing a Duke sweat suit and holding a pistol.
"Who is it?" he demanded through the intercom.
"Carl, it's me, Joel. Put the gun down and open the door."
The voice was unmistakable. He opened the door and Joel Backman walked into his life, an old nightmare back for more. There were no hugs, no handshakes, hardly a smile. The Pratts quietly examined him because he looked so different-much thinner, hair darker and shorter, strange clothing. He got a "What are you doing here?" from Donna.
"That's a good question," he said coolly. He had the advantage of planning. They were caught completely off guard. "Will you put that gun down?"
Pratt put the gun on a side table.
"Have you talked to Neal?" Backman asked.
"All day long."
"What's going on, Carl?" Donna asked.
"I don't really know."
"Can we talk? That's why I'm here. I don't trust phones anymore."
"Talk about what?" she demanded.
"Could you make us some coffee, Donna?" Joel asked pleasantly.
"Scratch the coffee."
Carl had been rubbing his chin, assessing things. "Donna, we need to talk in private. Old law firm stuff. I'll give you the rundown later."
She shot them both a look that clearly said, Go straight to hell, then stomped back up the stairs. They stepped into the den. Carl said, "Would you like something to drink?"
"Yes, something strong."
He went to a small wet bar in a corner and poured single malts - doubles. He handed Joel a drink and without the slightest effort at a smile said, "Cheers."
"Cheers. It's good to see you, Carl."
"I bet it is. You weren't supposed to see anyone for another fourteen years."
"Counting the days, huh?"
"We're still cleaning up after you, Joel. A bunch of good folks got hurt. I'm sorry if Donna and I aren't exactly thrilled to see you. I can't think of too many people in this town who'd like to give you a hug."
"Most would like to shoot me."
Carl gave a wary look over at the pistol.
"I can't worry about that," Backman continued. "Sure, I'd like to go back and change some things, but I don't have that luxury. I'm running for my life now, Carl, and I need some help."
"Maybe I don't want to get involved."
"I can't blame you. But I need a favor, a big one. Help me now, and I promise I'll never show up on your doorstep again."
"I'll shoot the next time."
"Where's Senator Clayburn? Tell me he's still alive."
"Yes, very much so. And you caught some luck."
"He's here, in D.C."
"Hollis Maples is retiring, after a hundred years in the Senate. They had a bash for him tonight. All the old boys are in town."
"Maples? He was drooling in his soup ten years ago."
"Well, now he can't see his soup. He and Clayburn were as tight as ticks."
"Have you talked to Clayburn?"