It was the coldest winter in memory. For the first time since 1962 the Lake of Zurich threatened a solid freeze. Already a shelf of blue ice clung to her shores. Farther out a transparent crust floated upon the surface. The stately paddle wheel steamships that called regularly on Zurich and her prosperous environs had taken refuge at their winter harbor in Kilchberg. At ports around the lake storm lamps burned red: danger, conditions hazardous.
The last snow had fallen only two days before, yet the city's roads were immaculate. Muddy piles of frozen slush that might sully the sidewalks of other urban centers had been removed. Recalcitrant patches of ice likewise. Even the rock salt and gravel spread to hasten their decomposition had been neatly swept up.
In any other year, the continuing bout of record low temperatures and unending snowfall would be reason for spirited discussion. Many a newspaper column would be devoted to a thorough tallying of the economic gains and losses to the country. To her agriculture and livestock--losers, as thousands of cows had frozen to death in low-lying barns; to her many Alpine ski resorts--all winners, and about time, after consecutive seasons of insufficient snowfall; and to her precious water table--also a winner, as experts forecast a restoration of the national aquifer after a decade of depletion. More conservative rags might even include a spiteful article pronouncing the much-feared "greenhouse effect" dead and buried.
But not this year. On this first Monday in January, no mention of the severe weather could be found anywhere on the front pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung,
the Tages Anzeiger,
or even the chronically mundane Zürcher Tagblatt.
The country was struggling with something far rarer than a harsh winter: a crisis of conscience.
Signs of turmoil were not difficult to find. And Nicholas Neumann, stepping off the number thirteen tram at the Paradeplatz, immediately spotted the most prominent of them. Fifty yards ahead, along the east side of the Bahnhofstrasse, a band of men and women were gathered in front of a drab four-story building that was home to the United Swiss Bank. His destination. Most held signs, which Nick, as he preferred to be called, could read even at this distance: "Clean Up the Swiss Laundry." "Drug Money Is Blood Money." "Hitler's Bankers." Others stood with their hands shoved into their pockets, marching determinedly back and forth.
The past year had witnessed a parade of embarrassing revelations about the country's banks. Complicity in the wartime arms trade with the Third Reich; hoarding of funds belonging to survivors of Hitler's death camps; and the concealment of illicit profits deposited by the South American drug cartels. The local press had branded the banks "soulless instruments of financial chicanery" and "willing conspirators to the drug barons' deadly trade." The public had taken note. And now those accountable must be made to pay.
Worse storms had raged and passed, mused Nick, as he set off toward the bank. He didn't share in the country's self-inculpatory mood. Nor was he sure the nation's banks were solely to blame. But that was as far as his interest went. His concern was focused elsewhere that morning: on a private matter that had haunted the darkest corners of his heart for as long as he could remember.
Nick moved easily through the crowd. He had broad shoulders and stood just over six feet tall. His step was confident and purposeful and, except for a faint limp, commanding. Veterans of the parade ground would note the curled hand laid along the rail of the trousers, the shoulders pushed back a breath more than was comfortable, and immediately recognize him as one of their own.
His face was cast from a serious mold, framed by a crop of straight black hair. His nose was prominent and spoke of a distinct, if unlanded, European heritage. His chin was sturdy rather than stubborn. But it was his eyes that caught people's attention. They were a pale blue and surrounded by a network of fine lines unexpected in someone his age. They offered a furtive challenge. His fiancée said once that they were the eyes of another man, someone older, someone wearier than a twenty-eight-year-old had any right to be. Someone she no longer knew. She'd left him the next day.
Nick quickly covered the short distance to the bank. A freezing drizzle had begun to fall, whipped up by a stiff lake breeze. Flakes of snow darkened his trench coat, but the foul weather did not intrude on his thoughts. Threading his way through the crowd of demonstrators, he kept his eyes fixed on the twin revolving doors that sat before him at the top of a broad flight of granite stairs.
The United Swiss Bank.
Forty years ago his father had begun his employ here. Apprentice at sixteen, portfolio manager at twenty-five, vice president at thirty-three, Alexander Neumann had been on the fast track to the top. Executive vice president. Board of directors. Anything was possible. And everything expected.
Nick checked his wristwatch, then climbed the stairs and entered the lobby of the bank. Somewhere close by, a church bell tolled the hour. Nine o'clock. His stomach fluttered and he recognized the uneasy frisson of a mission at hand. He smiled inwardly, giving silent greeting to the once familiar sensation, then continued across the marble floor toward a lectern marked "Reception" in letters of gold relief.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Cerruti," he said to the hall porter. "I'm to begin work today."
"Your papers?" demanded the porter, an older man resplendent in a navy topcoat with braided silver epaulets.
Nick passed across the counter an envelope bearing the bank's embossed logo.
The porter withdrew the letter of engagement and looked it over. "Identification?" Nick presented two passports: one navy blue with a golden eagle emblazoned on its cover, the other a bold red with a prim white cross painted upon its face. The porter examined both, then returned them. "I'll announce your arrival. Take a seat, please. Over there." He motioned toward a grouping of leather chairs.
But Nick preferred to remain standing and walked slowly through the great hall. He took in the elegantly dressed customers waiting for their favorite tellers and the gray executives hurrying across the shiny floor. He listened to the stubble of hushed conversations and the whisper of computer-assisted commerce. His thoughts drifted to the flight over from New York two nights earlier, and then back further, to Cambridge, to Quantico, to California. He'd been headed this way for years, without even knowing it.
A telephone buzzed behind the porter's lectern. The porter snapped the receiver to his ear and nodded crisply in time to his every grunted response. Moments later, Nick was being shown across the lobby to a bank of antiquated elevators. The porter walked ahead with perfectly measured strides, as if determined to establish the exact distance to the waiting elevator, and once there, made a show of sweeping open its smoked glass door.
"Second floor," he said, in his clipped voice. "Someone will be waiting for you."
Nick thanked him and stepped into the elevator. It was small with maroon carpeting, burled wood paneling, and a polished brass balustrade. Immediately, he caught scent of a medley of familiar fragrances: the blunt trail of stale cigar smoke; the nasal pinch of well-polished shoes, and most distinctly, the bracing note, at once sweet and antiseptic, of Kölnisches Wasser, his father's favorite eau de cologne. The masculine odors assaulted his senses, conjuring up a fractured image of his dad: wine black hair cropped unfashionably short; unblinking blue eyes capped by unruly eyebrows; stern mouth locked in a downcast expression of disapproval.
The porter grew impatient. "You must go to the second floor. "Second floor,"' he said, this time in English. "You're expected. Please, sir."
But Nick did not hear a word. His back remained to the open door, his eyes staring blindly ahead. He struggled to fit the separate images together, to bind them into a finished portrait. He recalled the powerful feelings of awe and pride and fear he'd experienced when in his father's company, but nothing more. His memories remained incomplete and somehow disjointed, wanting for some essential fabric that he did not possess.
"Young man, are you all right?" the porter asked.
Nick spun to face him, banishing the disconcerting images from his mind. "I'm fine," he said. "Just fine."
The porter placed a foot into the elevator. "You're sure you are ready to begin work today?"
Nick raised his chin and fought the porter's inquisitive stare. "Yes," he said gravely, giving an imperceptible nod of his head. "I've been ready for a long time."
Offering an apologetic smile, he let the elevator door close and pressed the button for the second floor.
"Marco Cerruti is ill. Out with some virus or bug, who knows what," explained a tall, sandy-haired executive well on the downslope to forty, who was waiting for Nick on the second-floor landing. "Probably the lousy water in that part of the world--Middle East, that is. The Fertile Crescent: that's our territory. Believe it or not, we bankers
did not give it that name."
Nick stepped out of the elevator and offering the required smile, introduced himself.
"'Course, you're Neumann. Who else would I be waiting for?" The sandy-haired man thrust out his hand and gave a vigorous shake. "I'm Peter Sprecher. Don't let the accent fool you. I'm Swiss as William Tell. Did my schooling in England. Still know the words to 'God Save the Queen.'" He pulled at an expensive cuff and winked. "Old man Cerruti is just back from his Christmas run. I call it his yearly Crusade: Cairo, Riyadh, Dubai, and then off to points unknown--probably a sunny port where he can work on his tan while the rest of us back at head office wilt. Guess it didn't work out as planned. Word's come down he'll be out at least a week. The bad news is you're with me." Nick listened to the rambling outpouring of information, doing his best to digest it all. "And the good news?"
But Peter Sprecher had disappeared down a narrow corridor. "Ah, yes, the good news," he called over his shoulder. "Well, the good news is that there is a mountain of work to be done. We're a bit shorthanded at the moment, so you won't be sitting on your duff reading a sackful of annual reports. We're sending you out into the blue, pronto."
"Into the blue?"
Sprecher stopped at a closed door on the left-hand side of the hallway. "Clients, chum. We have to put somebody's pretty mug in front of our trusting customers. You look like an honest type. Got all your teeth, do you? Should be able to fool them.""Today?"
Nick asked, ruffled.
"No, not today," Sprecher answered, grinning. "The bank usually likes to provide a little training. You can count on at least a month to learn the ropes." He leaned on the handle and opened the door. He walked inside the small meeting room and tossed the manila envelope he'd been carrying onto the conference table. "Take a seat," he said, flinging himself into one of the quilted leather chairs. "Make yourself at home."
Nick pulled out a chair and sat across the table from his new boss. His momentary panic settled, giving way to the usual vague unease that accompanied his arrival at a new post. But he recognized a new sensation, too--a stubborn disbelief that he was actually there.
You're in, Nick told himself in the admonishing tone that had belonged to his father. Keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Become one of them.
Peter Sprecher pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope. "Your life in four lines, single spaced. Says here you're from Los Angeles."
"I grew up there, but I haven't called it home for a while."
"Ah, Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one. Love the place, myself." Sprecher shook loose a Marlboro and offered the pack to Nick, who declined. "Didn't figure you for a tobacco fiend. You look fit enough to run a damned marathon. Some advice? Calm down, boy. You're in Switzerland. Slow and steady, that's our motto. Remember that."
"I'll keep it in mind."
"Liar," Sprecher laughed. "I can see you've got a bee buzzing about your bonnet. Sit too damn straight. That will be Cerruti's problem, not mine." He lowered his head and puffed on his cigarette while studying the new employee's papers. "Marine, eh? An officer. That explains it."
"Four years," said Nick. He was trying hard to sit more casually--drop a shoulder, maybe slouch a little. It wasn't easy.
"What d'ya do?"
"Infantry. I had a reconnaissance platoon. Half the time we trained. The other half we floated around the Pacific waiting for a crisis to flare up so that we could put our training to use. We never did." That was the company line, and he'd been sworn to keep it.
"Says here you worked in New York. Four months only. What happened?"
Nick kept his answer brief. When lying, he knew it best to stay within the shadow of the truth. "It wasn't what I had expected. I didn't feel at home there, at work or in the city."
"So you decided to seek your fortune abroad?"
"I've lived in the States my whole life. One day I realized that it was time for something new. Once I made the decision, I got out as quickly as I could."
"Wish I'd had the guts to do something like that. Alas, for me it's too late." Sprecher exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. "Been here before?"
"To the bank?""To Switzerland.
Someone in your family is Swiss, isn't he? Hard to pick up a passport any other way."
"It's been a long time," said Nick, purposely keeping his answer oblique. Seventeen years, actually. He'd been eleven, and his father had brought him inside this same building. It had been a social visit, the great Alex Neumann poking his head into the offices of his former colleagues, exchanging a few words before presenting little Nicholas as if he were an exotic trophy from a far-off land. "The passport comes from my father's side. We spoke Swiss-German together at home."
"Did you? How quaint." Sprecher stubbed out his cigarette and brought his chair closer to the table so that he sat directly facing Nick. "Enough small talk, then. Welcome to the United Swiss Bank, Mr. Neumann. You've been assigned to Finanz Kundenberatung, Abteilung 4.
Financial Client Management, section 4. Our small family deals with private individuals from the Middle East and southern Europe, that is Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Right now we handle approximately seven hundred accounts with assets totaling over two billion U.S. dollars. In the end that's still the only currency worth a damn.
"Most of our clients are individuals who hold numbered accounts with the bank. You might see their names penciled somewhere inside their files. Penciled, mind you. Erasable. They are to remain officially anonymous. We don't keep permanent records regarding their identity in the office. That information is kept in DZ, Dokumentation Zentrale.
Stalag 17, we call it." Sprecher wagged a long finger at Nick. "Several of our more important clients are known only to the top brass of the bank. Keep it that way. Any inclination you may have about getting to know them personally had better stop now. Understood?"
"Understood," said Nick. The help does not mix with the guests.
"Here's the drill: A client will call, give you his account number, probably want to know his cash balance or the value of the stocks in his portfolio. Before you give out any information, confirm his or her identity. All our clients have code words to identify themselves. Ask for it. Maybe ask their birthday on top of that. Makes them feel secure. But that's as far as your curiosity runs. If a client wants to transfer fifty thousand deutsche marks a week to an account in Palermo, you say, 'Prego, Signore. Con gusto.'
If he insists on sending monthly cash wires to a dozen John Does at a dozen different banks in Washington, D.C., you say, 'Of course, sir. It's my pleasure.' Where our clients' money comes from and what they choose to do with it are entirely their own business."
Nick kept his wry comments to himself and concentrated on keeping straight all the information being tossed his way.
Sprecher stood from his chair and walked to the window, which overlooked the Bahnhofstrasse. "Hear the drums?" he asked, tilting his head toward the demonstrators who paraded in front of the bank. "No? Get up and come over here. Look down there."
Nick rose and walked to Sprecher's side, from where he could see the assembly of fifteen or twenty protesters.
"Barbarians at the gate," said Sprecher. "The natives are growing restless."
"There have been calls for greater disclosure of the bank's activities in the past," Nick said. "The search for assets belonging to customers killed during the Second War. The banks handled that problem."
"By using the nation's gold reserves to set up a survivors' fund. Cost us seven billion francs! And still we stonewalled them over direct access to our records. The past is verboten. You can be sure of one thing: Swiss banks must be built of the hardest Bernadino granite, not of porous sandstone." Sprecher glanced at his watch, then dismissed the demonstrators with a wave. "Now more than ever we have to keep our mouths shut and do as we're told. Granite, Neumann. Anyway, that's enough of Saint Peter's pap for now. You're to go to Dr. Schon at personnel to have an identification card made up, get a handbook, and take care of all the other niceties that make our beloved institution such a wonderful place to work. Rules, Mr. Neumann. Rules."
Nick leaned forward, listening carefully while directions to the personnel director's office were given. Rules,
he repeated to himself. The admonition sent him back to his first day at Officer Candidate School. The voices here were softer and the barracks nicer, but all in all it was the same. New organization, new rules, and no room to mess up.
"And one last thing," said Sprecher. "Dr. Schon can be a little testy sometimes. Americans are not a favorite topic. The less said the better."
From his window on the Fourth Floor, Wolfgang Kaiser stared down upon the damp heads of the demonstrators gathered in front of his bank. Forty years he had worked at the United Swiss Bank, the last seventeen as chairman. In that time, he could recall only one other demonstration taking place on the steps of the bank--a protest against the bank's investments in South Africa. He had frowned on the practice of apartheid as much as the next man, but politics simply didn't factor into a business decision. As a rule, Afrikaners were damned good clients. Paid back their loans on time. Kept a decent amount on deposit. Lord knows they held gold bars up to their eyeballs.
Kaiser gave each end of his mustache a brief tug and moved away from the window. Though of medium height, he was a formidable man. Clothed, as was his custom, in bespoke navy worsted, he could be mistaken only for Lord of the Manor. But his broad shoulders, plowman's back, and stout legs testified to a common upbringing. And of his less than noble parentage he carried a permanent reminder: his left arm, damaged at birth by the enthusiastic forceps of a drunken midwife, was thin and limp, a paralyzed appendage. Despite constant exercise during his early years, the arm had remained atrophied and would always be two inches shorter than the right.
Kaiser circled his desk, staring at the telephone. He was waiting for a call. A brief message that would bring the past into the present. Word that the circle was closing. He could not expel from his mind the message written on one of the crude placards below. "Child Killers," it read. He didn't know what exactly it made reference to, but still the words stung. Damned press! Vultures were thrilled to have such an easy target. The evil bankers so eager to accommodate the world's baddies. Horseshit! If not us, then somebody else. Austria, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands. The competition was closing in.
The phone on his desk buzzed. He pounced on it in three swift steps. "Kaiser.""Guten Morgen, Herr Direktor.
Brunner speaking. "Well?"
"The boy has arrived," said the hall porter. "He came in at nine o'clock sharp."
"And how is he?" Kaiser had seen photographs of him over the years. More recently, he had viewed a videotape of the boy's interview. Still, he could not stop himself from asking, "Does he look like his father?"
"A few pounds heavier, perhaps. Otherwise, a spitting image. I sent him to Mr. Sprecher."
"Yes, I've been informed. Thank you, Hugo."
Kaiser hung up the phone and took a seat behind his desk. He turned his thoughts to the young man sitting two floors below him, and soon a faint smile pushed up the corners of his mouth. "Welcome to Switzerland, Nicholas Alexander Neumann," he whispered. "It's been so long since we last met. So very, very long."
Excerpted from Numbered Account by Christopher Reich. . Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.