Back in the day, I had a chance meeting with a very nice man, Kent Gilmore. He told me about his novel he wrote and I asked if I could put it on my website. He said yes…It’s a great read- here is a review of the thriller…. Thank you for letting us share your passion!
A web of deception surrounds the murder of a valuable horse in this international thriller.
Geronimo was Germany’s finest equine, rode and dressed by one of its most famous athletes–so the exquisite animal’s death instantly raised eyebrows. Furthermore, the high-ranking inspector sent from the horse’s insurance house is brutally killed, fed to the lions at the Paris Zoo. The murderers videotape his death and send the footage to his powerful Swiss insurance company, which must weigh the specter of the inspector’s murder with the urge to preserve their balance sheet. Meanwhile Bret Roemer, the charismatic yet disillusioned scion of a powerful American family, is asked to keep watch on his family friend, an equestrian named Claire who’s involved with Geronimo’s training. As the prospect of a widespread conspiracy becomes greater, fear for Claire’s safety has increased, and Bret attempts to protect her, while feeling increasingly attracted to her. Lurking in the background are Geronimo’s owners, an enigmatic and dangerous consortium known only as Kirchborn. These disparate players–along with Swiss bankers concealing Jewish wealth, the International Olympic Committee and Eastern-European organized crime–eventually intersect in interesting ways as the mystery of Geronimo’s death deepens. Tense conversations and bank accounts propel this plot more than gunfights or car chases. Fortunately, Gilmore is a strong writer well-versed in the art of thrillers. But while the prose is fast-paced, the Eurocentric subject matter–the international world of horse training–may not appeal to certain readers, and detailed descriptions of dressage will lose some entirely. Additionally, glimpses into the closed-door boardrooms of Europe’s most powerful corporations do not ring realistic. However, these are easily overlooked issues, given how enjoyable this book can be.
A winning thriller.
The flight from Dubai to DeGaulle International was mercifully short for one of its regular passengers. The cultural differences between the Middle East and Western civilization were and always would be worlds apart for Jean-Paul Plutard. He had been on the road for weeks and eagerly awaited returning to his native land where he could finally shake the sand out of his socks one last time. As an experienced business traveler, he steadfastly refused to fly from one hellhole to another; a layover in Paris, which he considered the capital of the world, was not just another rest stop, it was an absolute necessity.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Plutard,” the doorman of the Hotel Littre said as Jean-Paul heaved himself clumsily from the taxi. He gave the doorman a nod, expecting to be recognized. He always stayed at the four-star Littre when in Paris–particularly when he was on an expense account. He paused a moment under the porte cochere as the bellman unloaded his luggage. The bags were of calfskin, and easily scratched. But the bellman knew his job, as did the doorman—more, he thought, than could be said for those savage ragheads he left behind in the desert.
A shameless pretender to an imaginary throne that existed solely in his own imagination, Jean-Paul waddled into the hotel lobby with a feigned air of nobility usually reserved for the ruling classes, unaware that his every movement was being carefully monitored from across the street.
“What a pig,” said one of the men sitting in an unmarked van parked conspicuously close to the hotel entrance. “He’s even fatter than he looks in his pictures.”
“Yes, we should charge by the pound for this job.” His partner tossed a cigarette butt out the window where it joined the half-dozen preceding it. The two men had been waiting over an hour for this moment; now they must wait just a little longer. They knew exactly what the fat man would do next. It was all spelled out in the dossier accompanying their generous commission. Plutard’s photos, his travel itinerary, a list of all the places he frequented, and the little excursions he was known to take when he came to Paris. And some list it was, too. Jean-Paul was quite a ladies man as well as a predictable creature of habit. He was accustomed to indulging certain…appetites.
”L’Auberge,” Jean-Paul snapped as he and the bellman entered the suite that Swiss Bancorp & Indemnity had rented for him.
“L’Auberge,” Jean-Paul repeated impatiently. “The restaurant? Please arrange a table for one at eight o’clock this evening. Comprend?”
“I will take care of it immediately, Monsieur.” The bellman gratefully accepted his handsome tip and backed out of the room obsequiously.
Jean-Paul slid the window curtains open, letting in a shower of light that reflected on a large envelope laying on the antique Louis XIV writing desk. The logo next to the return address was all too familiar. Scowling but curious, he picked it up. It was not the first time his company had been thoughtful enough to send a set of working papers ahead for him to study before the next assignment. How very like them. “Homework,” he muttered cynically. “What am I, a schoolboy?”
How laughable, thought Jean-Paul, who had worked as a claims adjuster for over twenty years. One of his specialties was equine mortality, and in this capacity he had saved his company millions of dollars. When he had finished investigating a claim, the policyholder rarely recovered full payment. His modus operandi was simple: manipulate the facts, introduce technicalities, confuse the clients. More often then not, it worked, and worked so well that clients almost never questioned the result.
He hesitated a moment, then tore open the envelope and scanned a summary of information about the latest dead horse, Geronimo. He raised his eyebrows. Surprised, he actually recognized the name–this was a valuable animal by any standard, even by the stratospheric valuations found at the highest level of international equestrian competition. The animal had been found dead two days ago in his stall at the world-famous Dreieichenhof training facility in central Germany. Included in the envelope were a map of the area and a list of the people expected to attend tomorrow’s meeting near Frankfurt—a sort of postmortem committee of inquiry. He scanned it carefully. Hubertus Falckenstein he knew; everyone in the equine community was familiar with the great trainer Falckenstein, if only by reputation. He also recognized the name of Dr. Siebert , the official veterinarian for the German National Team. The other names were not familiar.
He would have to ponder Falckenstein’s involvement, though. This was not a man who was easily intimidated, least of all by someone else’s knowledge of horses and riders.
But for the moment Jean-Paul tossed everything back on the desk and dressed for dinner. After all, how could a man like him, a man of refinement and exquisite taste, concentrate on business when his stomach was growling?
By ten p.m. Jean-Paul had finished his meal at L’Auberge: consuming seven courses, washed down by two bottles of Lafitte Rothschild Cabernet. When he rose to leave, he had to steady himself on the table for a moment before heading for the front door.
Outside, he climbed into a taxi and instructed the driver , “Le Palais du Noir.” Then he sat back to digest his meal, partially closed his weary eyes, while anticipating an evening at one of Paris’ most famous brothels. He believed the trick to living a happy and fulfilling life on the road was to appreciate all the perks.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity outside the window. The taxi screeched to a halt, slamming Jean-Paul headfirst into the safety divider. He toppled back, grunting and stunned, vaguely aware that a dented van was half-blocking the right-of-way. Then the door beside him flew open and hands reached in. Two hands, then four. Powerful hands, grabbing him, hauling him out of the cab and hurling him into the back of the obstructive vehicle.
Although stunned, he was well aware of abruptly backing up and then rudely lurching forward as they sped away down the dark, twisting back streets of the city. He felt a sharp knee pressed cruelly into his neck, driving his face into the seat cushion, all but paralyzing his limbs. Still, enough sensation remained to feel his wrists being lashed together behind him as the buttons on his shirt started popping off. A moment later he heard a distinctive ripping sound. A strip of duct tape had been torn from its roll and slapped over his mouth. Now he could breathe only through his nose, and that wasn’t enough. The whistling of his own breath filled him with horror. He panicked. His feet flailed violently as he struggled to free himself. The man sitting on his back barked out an order to his accomplice in a Slavic-sounding tongue, more like a curse. If only he could understand what they were saying. Then he felt his wallet being pulled from his jacket, and some other object, hard and cold, pushed into its place. Mon dieu, he thought. What was that? A bomb? God knew there were plenty of people who wanted him dead, but would someone really try to kill him?
Or perhaps this was a kidnapping. Alive, he would be worth a lot more money to his employer. Yes…. Yes, that must be it. If only he could speak, ask. But he could barely even breathe. And the knee now dug into his neck so savagely he felt as if his spine would break. He fought the sudden urge to throw up. How terrible it would be to suffocate on his own vomit, to die in such an undignified manner–especially if he was only being kidnapped. Panic gave way to relative calm as he pondered his predicament. He forced himself to breathe more slowly. To stop struggling.
But he could not stop thinking.
Where were they taking him…?
The van coasted to a stop by a row of thick bushes just outside two imposing cast-iron gates. The driver switched off the lights but not the engine. After a few minutes another van of the same make, model and color approached. It came to a stop and a man in uniform climbed out, placed a large key into the lock, and pushed the gates open. He then climbed back into the passenger side as it pulled away, presumably headed to one of the local patisseries. According to the surveillance documents, the guards always took their break on time. And they always stayed out for one half-hour. And most importantly, they always left the gates open behind them.
As soon as the coast was clear, the van containing Jean-Paul crept forward, silently. The windows were fogging up so the driver rolled one down to let in some fresh air. What was that stench?, thought Jean-Paul. He was a gourmet as well as a gourmand. He could not only taste and describe the differences between vintage wines, but also detect a woman’s perfume from half a block away. Now, as the van drove closer to its destination, his nostrils flared wide. Chanel it wasn’t!
The green belt surrounding the Parc Zoologique de Paris was a favorite walking tour for Parisians at all hours of the day and night. The regulars had grown accustomed to hearing strange and sometimes frightening sounds emanating from inside the walled compound. Extraordinary noises made ordinary by familiarity.
But tonight there was a new addition to this cacophonous symphony, a sound that stopped even the most preoccupied walkers dead in their tracks. Entwined within the occasional elephant trumpeting, monkeys squealing, exotic birds calling, and the thunderous roaring of lions, there arose a distinctly different sound.
A piercing scream. A shrill note repeated over and over and over again. Not an animal’s.
But human. One of Jean-Paul’s questions had been answered. He was at the Zoo.
Henri Madrid stepped inside the back seat of his sleek black limousine shortly after dawn. Twenty minutes later it was approaching the towering headquarters building of Swiss Bancorp & Indemnity. As CEO he never grew tired of looking at its distinctive silhouette, having supervised the architectural design personally—a lean and crystalline skyscraper, it had become a symbol of postmodern revitalization in the historic city of Zurich
Furthermore, thanks in large part to Madrid’s leadership, Swiss Bancorp had grown to become one of the largest financial conglomerates in the world, and more importantly, one of the most prestigious institutions in Switzerland. After climbing the ladder to the top, Madrid had managed to transform a medium-sized regional banking concern into a far-flung international financial powerhouse by combining banking, insurance and consulting services into a single conglomerate. He had also gained a reputation from both his peers and clients as a man of integrity, vision, uncanny instincts–and most of all, unshakable confidence.
Now, having accomplished most of the lofty goals he had set for himself as a younger man, he was looking forward to an orderly retirement. He felt confident that the business would be left in good hands–hands attached to brains that he had personally selected and mentored.
The limo stopped just outside a private side entrance to the building. Madrid reached for the handle; he was not the sort of man to wait for someone to open doors for him. But before he could reach it, the privacy screen separating him from the driver slid down. Surprised, Madrid looked up.
The driver was just lowering the handset of the car phone from his ear. “Excuse me, sir, but your secretary just called. She wants you to know that all your senior vice-presidents are waiting for you in the reception area.”
Madrid’s eyebrows rose. He had scheduled no meetings with his top staff today. “All of them, you say?”
“Evidently they’ll explain everything when you get there. Frau Hilfenberg wanted to call so you didn’t walk into a surprise.”
He hesitated a moment, frowning pensively, then nodded and slipped out of the car.
Henri Madrid had risen to his current position of influence and power by being willing to take risks, calculated risks…every one of them had been anticipated and prepared for in meticulous detail.
Madrid was also not given to flights of emotional fancy. Still, as he stepped into the executive elevator and pushed the button for the 30th floor, he had the strange feeling he might be about to put his retirement on hold. He had handpicked each of his executives, and knew them as well as he knew his own family. They were strong managers as individuals, and even stronger as a team.
When the elevator doors slid open, he stepped into the elegant anteroom of the executive suite and was greeted by three of his top managers: Rolf Ullenberg, Ernst Farner and Sabrina Petrova. Their salutations seemed sincere enough, but somewhat glum. There was an unmistakably anxious undercurrent. And the head of the claims department was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is Croucher?” he asked, immediately detecting his absence.
“Already in the conference room,” said Sabrina Petrova.
As the Vice-President of Human Resources, she was the only woman to have successfully reached the top executive ranks at Bancorp. Standing six feet tall in heels, she cut a striking figure, with her straight black hair reflecting the overhead lights in a halo-like ring atop her head. “You know how he is.”
Madrid nodded. “Let’s all join him, then, shall we?”
As they moved toward the conference room, Madrid gave his secretary the customary hand signal for holding his telephone calls.
The clear light of an Alpine morning poured into the conference room through floor-to-ceiling windows. Madrid took his seat at the head of a long mahogany conference table. Ullenberg, Farner and Sabrina distributed themselves evenly around it. David Croucher, barley able to look up in recognition of his new found company, was already seated at the far end of the room, impatiently tapping his pen on the polished tabletop.
Croucher was known to have ice water running in his veins. Trained as an actuary and accustomed to being chained to his desk, he viewed the bank and his job as his whole life. As far as he was concerned, small talk and superfluous formalities were a waste of his time and everyone else’s.
This morning he was noticeably disheveled: hair uncombed, business suit rumpled, tie askew, face ashen pale and clearly in need of a shave. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for Croucher to spend the night sleeping in his office in order to get his work done, and it looked as if he had done exactly that last night. Madrid didn’t mind; he liked having such dedicated men working for him. But this morning he noticed that Croucher seemed to have actually aged since he had seen him last, only a few days ago.
When everyone had settled, Madrid pushed the intercom button. “Frau Hilfenberg, please have Danny bring in some coffee. I have the feeling we will be awhile.” Then he looked at the faces of those seated around the table, one at a time, not saying a word. Then, tiring of the suspense of the moment, he offered an icebreaker.
“Clearly something important has happened. And judging by your faces, the news is not good. David, you in particular look like you’re going to jump out of your skin; why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
With a slight pause, Croucher set his pen down, punctuating the tenseness in the room with one last decisive click. “Yes, sir,” he said in a rattled, hesitant voice. “Sir, there has been a tragic accident, I’m afraid. Yesterday morning I got a call out of the blue from an Inspector Berçut of the Paris Prefecture of Police. He informed me that one of our claims adjusters, Jean-Paul Plutard–a twenty-five-year man with the company–was murdered early Friday night.”
“Mudered you say. That is indeed tragic. And what were the circumstances?” said Madrid, now taking on the malaise and concerned of the rest in the room.
“Well, that’s the thing. They were highly… shall I say unusual.” Stumbled Croucher. “You can see that for yourself.”
“See it? How so?” said Madrid.
“Believe it or not, the whole thing was videotaped, apparently for our viewing pleasure.”
“Or more accurately, our displeasure,” snapped Sabrina.
“Videotaped? Deliberately?” Madrid questioned.
Croucher opened his briefcase and removed a standard-looking videocassette. “This is a copy. The original was recovered from the murder scene by Berçut’s people.”
“You have all watched it?” Madrid asked.
Croucher cleared his throat as his deep set eyes looked away under darkened circles. “Yes. It’s… disturbing, to say the least.”
“And you say the original was found at the murder scene?” added Madrid.
“Left there, the police believe so. Intended to be found. And almost certainly intended to make its way back to us.”
“Then perhaps we should watch it.”
“Are you sure?”
It was not like Croucher to be so diffident. Madrid hardened his voice. “Isn’t it best to have more information rather than less, no matter how distasteful the situation?”
Croucher nodded, then rose to push the cassette into the VCR. He turned on the screen and sat back down, like his colleagues, only pretending to watch the screen.
Two minutes later, Madrid gestured at Croucher. “That’s enough. I’ve seen enough.”
Sabrina swallowed audibly and said, “I think I’m going to be ill.”
“Make sure that thing is safely locked away after the meeting,” Madrid said to Croucher. “Also, get Legal on this right away. That tape doesn’t see the light of day without a court order from a magistrate. Is that clear? And get hold of Media and make sure the police don’t leak it, either.”
“This is dreadful,” Sabrina said. “That poor man.”
“Not to mention the lions.” Ernst Farner leaned back in his seat and gave Sabrina a sanguine look accompanied by s snide wink.
As always, Ernst seemed to be battling a mild case of boredom. But then, as Bancorp’s Chief Financial Officer and undisputed heavyweight financial wizard, Farner was used to keeping up appearances. Impeccably dressed in a grey three-piece suit, starched blue collar and diamond cuff links, with his full head of salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back and held in place by an ample application of gel, he looked like a United Nations diplomat. This sleek image was weakened only by his ashen pallor, the result of too much smoking and too little fresh air. He waved a hand at the darkened TV screen. “I was under the impression it’s against the rules to feed the animals at the zoo.”
Sabrina’s grey eyes flared with controlled rage. “I can’t believe you’re making jokes at a time like this, Ernst. Do you think–”
Just then the door opened and a young man entered, carrying a service tray of coffee. Silence filled the room as he put everything out on the table.
“Thank you, Danny,” said Madrid.
As the door closed behind the youth, Sabrina turned to Madrid and said, “That was close. Can you imagine what they’d be talking about around the water cooler if he’d come in two minutes earlier?”
“Probably not about what they’d like for lunch,” Farner said.
Sabrina turned on him again, but Madrid spoke first, looking at Farner. “Let’s go on with the factual accounting…shall we…without any more wisecracks, Ernst.” Actually, he would have preferred that Farner not be involved in this matter at all. Bancorp controlled billions of dollars in the world’s financial markets, and it was CFO’s responsibility to outperform the competition, which Farner did with uncanny regularity. It was no secret that he could have been president of any number of commercial banks of his choosing, but his loyalty to Madrid was unshakeable. Still, this matter, as serious as it was, didn’t concern him. This matter should be of importance to only the insurance side of the business. He thought to himself.
Madrid turned back to Croucher. “Tell me the whole story of this tape, David, if you please. From the beginning.”
Croucher seemed to have fully regained his usual composure, something akin to a machine-like calm. He answered without looking down at his notes in front of him. “Jean-Paul was scheduled to be in Germany on Saturday morning to investigate the death of a dressage horse named Geronimo at a training facility near Frankfurt. This horse was extraordinarily valuable, I might add; the pride of the German team and a national asset.”
“Its death was suspicious?” Madrid asked.
“That’s what we wanted Jean-Paul to find out. Jean-Paul is–was–our best equine mortality specialist. At the time he was already working on a job in the Middle East, but we arranged to fly him to Frankfurt for a meeting with the horse’s owners, riders, trainers, sponsor’s…the lot. An entourage of sorts, you might say. Anyway, the meeting was scheduled for Saturday. Jean-Paul flew into Paris for a layover on Friday, checked into his hotel, went to dinner, then got into a cab outside the restaurant. The cab was forced to the side of the road by an unmarked van. Two thugs dragged him out of the vehicle and carried him away. That’s all the cab driver remembers. He’s apparently the only witness to what happened but has already been cleared of complicity.
“According to the French police, Jean-Paul was then bound and driven to the Zoo. The kidnappers knew what they were doing. They waited for the security guards to take their coffee break, then drove Jean-Paul to the lion enclosure and lowered him in, as you saw. The lions had not yet been fed for the day. And of course now you know the rest of it.”
There was a moment of silence around the table as darting glances flicked toward the TV screen.
“So the question,” Madrid said, “is ‘why?’ Why murder a simple insurance adjuster? Why in such a terrible manner? And why leave a record of it? Was there a note? Any explanation at all?”
“Not that was found, sir.” Croucher said. “But there is something else you should know about. The police say they have seen this particular M.O. before…it is evidently something that appeals to the Russians.”
He paused momentarily. “ Mafia.”
“Mafia?” Madrid’s calm voice now clearly changing to one of even greater concern as he focused his eyes on Croucher without blinking.”
“You mean the police believe this was a professional execution? A ‘hit?’”
“But why would the Mafia want to snuff out a lowly insurance adjuster? Maybe it’s a contract hit. Unless… the Russians themselves are involved… as owners or financiers?”
“Well…the truth, Henri, is that we don’t know. At least not yet. We have no idea who does own Geronimo.”
“You’re saying we insure something without even knowing who owns it?”
“Geronimo changed hands just a couple of weeks ago. At the moment all I can tell you is that the new owner is a consortium, not an individual, and it is domiciled in Luxembourg. Our only point of contact with them is the registered attorney-in-fact who represents the ownership group, and I haven’t been able to get hold of him.”
Farner grunted. “And even if you do, he’s under virtually no obligation to reveal the identities of the consortium members. Not under Luxembourg law.”
On the far side of the table, Rolf Ullenberg made a noise halfway between a laugh and a snort–the first sound from him all morning. It was his style to wait until he had heard everything before weighing in. He worked best under pressure and relished the challenge of unexpected situations. He was Madrid’s go-to man when the chips were down, and gossip had it that he was being considered to replace Madrid as CEO after Madrid’s retirement.
When everyone looked in his direction, as his notorious temper began to flar. “Luxembourg law, my ass! They’ll give us what we want. They always do, even if we have to twist their arms a bit. Those little weasels owe us plenty for all the favors we’ve done for them. I’ll have the information by the end of the week, Henri, or their cash flow at the bank is going to slow to a trickle.”
“Wait just a minute, Rolf.” Farner said, leaning forward in his chair “You’re on my turf now, Rolf. Just because we’re not members of the Central Banking System doesn’t mean we can walk all over everybody anytime it suites us. If we squeeze Luxembourg too hard, there could be negative consequences to ourselves–like a sudden transfer of cash balances to a different bank, or another asset-restitution article in the press with our name all over it.”
“I agree that now is not the time to stir the pot ,” Madrid said. “Nevertheless, Rolf, within that framework I will hold you to your word–have the names of those consortium members on my desk by the end of the week.”
Ullenberg nodded his agreement.
“Look,” said Farner. “This all could be totally unnecessary. “We’re assuming this whole mess is about insurance fraud–but Croucher, tell me this if you can. How do we know the horse didn’t die of a heart attack or some other natural cause?”
“Simple. The official announcement on cause of death will come from the German Dressage Team’s veterinarian, Dr. Philip Siebert,” Croucher said. “I spoke with him briefly this morning, and he informed me that a necropsy will be required in order to determine exactly what happened.”
“So, how long will that take?” Madrid asked.
“A couple of days, maybe.”
“As of this moment, then, we have no idea what our exposure might be, is that correct?” said Madrid.
Ullenberg responded. “Not yet. Of course, we won’t have any exposure if this turns out to be fraud. On the other hand, if it turns out to be almost anything else, we’re on the hook to make payment.”
“Of how much?” said Madrid.
“Three million dollars.”
Farner looked at the ceiling and shook his head. “That’s a lot of rubles.”
“Is there anything unusual about the terms of the policy?” Madrid continued. “Anything we should put on the table right now?”
Croucher drummed his fingers nervously over Geronimo’s file folder lying unopened in front of him. “The coverage was bound under our standard equine mortality policy with a double-indemnity rider. This was acceptable to the client and was pre-authorized by Underwriting some time ago. Sabrina, I don’t think you were here then so let me elaborate. Internally, we moved the underwriting numbers around to fit everything under the big umbrella of the Olympic Package. That was a policy decision we made shortly after the Atlanta Games, as I remember it.”
It was a well known fact within Bancorp that the OOSC was one of Henri Madrid’s favorite corporate clients, and one he took a personal interest in. But Farner wasn’t one to let delicate relationships bother him. “Are we likely to regret that decision now?” he asked.
Ullenberg shrugged and added, “Our strategy was devised to discourage our competitors from bidding against us. We didn’t want other companies doing any cut throat underwriting during the two year interval between Olympiads–keep the camel’s nose from getting under the tent, so to speak. And it’s worked very well up until now; we have almost total control of that market, and not a camel in sight.”
“Okay, I’ll discuss all of this with Carlo later today,” Madrid said, referring to his long-time friend Carlo Sebastiani, the President of the OOSC. “Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our approach, especially if it’s about to cost us three million dollars.”
“Not to mention the life of one of our employees,” Sabrina added.
There was a moment of thoughtful silence, then Farner’s analytical mind began stirring once again. “All this assumes that the police know what they’re doing which is far from certain.” He looked at his watch. “Gentlemen, what we should do next is throw this unfortunate distraction over the wall to Legal. Jean-Paul’s murder is clearly out of our area of expertise. Insurance fraud is another matter entirely. Believe me, it’s the money. It always the money. Someone intends to profit from his death. Perhaps Legal can reassure us that we don’t have to fork over three million dollars to our German friends after all. Rolf, do you agree?”
“Not particularly, Ernst. With all due respect, I must say that the facts, as limited as they are, don’t reassure me that fraud is all that’s involved here. Not if Jean-Paul’s murder and the death of the horse are connected, which they certainly seem to be.”
“In what way?” Farner said.
Ullenberg turned to Croucher. “David, you said that when Jean-Paul was kidnapped, he was on his way to Germany to meet with Geronimo’s handlers and so forth, is that correct?”
“I would like to know who those people were, because they’re bound to be the police’s main suspects.”
Croucher shuffled through some papers. “Well, apart from Dr. Siebert, there was the owner’s representative, the trainer, and Geronimo’s rider, Helena de Groot–probably the best rider on the team. Given the importance of this particular horse, it’s likely somebody from the Frankfurt police would have been there, and maybe even an Interpol agent.” He turned toward Madrid. “Incidentally, Dr. Siebert seemed extremely suspicious when I told him the meeting had to be postponed.”
“What reason did you give?” Madrid asked.
“I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just winged it with a story about Jean-Paul being delayed in the Middle East.”
Madrid scowled. “Everybody is going to find out what happened eventually, so let’s not erode our credibility by building a wall of ill will that we can’t jump over later on. As soon as we’re finished here, I want you to call Dr. Seibert and set the record straight.”
“And from now on,” Madrid said to the table at large, “let me suggest that all of you start thinking about the big picture. Be very careful what you say to anyone until we know for sure what’s going on. And for God’s sake, don’t start covering up or putting spin on something that hasn’t been approved personally by me or by our PR people. Don’t forget that the media will eventually get their hands on this. By that time, I want us all to be on the same page. When that time comes, I will personally take charge of damage control, and our PR people can take it from there. After that, we can spin it any way we want, depending on what suits our purposes–and, of course, the interests of our clients.”
“What about Jean-Paul’s family?” Sabrina asked. “We can’t give them spin.”
“Of course not. Tell them the truth–we’re working with the French police on this matter, and also approaching it internally. In fact, when this meeting is over I’ll call them with you, Sabrina. David, do you have any idea when more information might be available from the authorities?”
“Inspector Bercut told me they won’t release any more information until the investigation is complete…which may take weeks.”
“The routine answer,” Farner said in disgust.
“Perhaps,” Madrid said, “but this is not routine for us, so let’s stop treating it that way. And we can use the time. For now we must proceed as if we know for a fact that Jean-Paul’s murder and the death of the horse are linked. Finding out how and why is our challenge now.
“On the other hand, we don’t want to unduly alarm our investors, stockholders, or for that matter our own employees. So, let’s try to follow normal operating procedures, starting with getting this meeting in Dreieichenhof rescheduled, ASAP. David, I want you to go to the meeting personally, as head of the department.”
Surprised, Croucher’s looked up suddenly. “Me?”
“To show how seriously we take this.” Madrid hesitated slightly. “Bring someone from security with you. As a precaution, of course.”
Farner coughed. “Excuse me, but aren’t we kidding ourselves? Sending bodyguards to business meetings is hardly normal operating procedure. The news will surely get around the rest of the organization, and then what? I think it sends the wrong message.”
Sabrina stiffened in her seat at Farner’s callousness. “Ernst, I have a message for you. If you don’t think it’s advisable to send security with David, perhaps you’d like to save him the trouble and expense by making the trip to Dreieichenhof yourself, instead.”
Farner ground out his cigarette slowly as his ears began to ring. “Goodness, Frau Petrova, your offer sounds a bit like a death sentence in disguise. Or am I reading too much into it?”
“Enough,” Madrid said. “Ernst, for God’s sake, I’m not suggesting we dress the guard up in uniform and give him a machine gun. But as much as I would like to avoid broadcasting fear to the world, I want to avoid even more getting another videotape like the one we just viewed this morning. Understood?”
Everyone, even Farner, agreed with that.
“Very good, then.” Madrid looked around the table. “If there’s nothing else, let’s agree to meet again in two weeks and see where we stand. Sabrina, if you’ll wait behind, perhaps you and I could telephone Jean-Paul’s family together.”
Croucher, Ullenberg and Farner all rose and left the room. Sabrina waited for her moment alone with Madrid, the executive alpha male she admired so much. Being singled out in front of her peers for a private meeting with Madrid was always something she enjoyed. Being head of Human Resources had many perquisites, but for her, private time alone with Madrid was at the top of her list.
She followed him toward his private office. As they passed Frau Hilfenberg’s desk, the secretary signaled that Madrid had a call. “It’s Lausanne, Sir. Mr. Sebastiani. Are you in?”
“Take a message. I’ll call him back in twenty minutes. Then when Sabrina and I are through, call Lyon and see if you can find out who Interpol has assigned to the case. Sabrina can explain the details.”
He turned to Sabrina as he opened the door to his office and said in his characteristic candor, “I doubt it’s a coincidence that Sebastiani is calling now, of all times. He knows something. I wonder how he found out so quickly?”
Sabrina’s three-inch spike heels placed her gray eyes slightly above Madrid’s brown ones. “Carlo always knows when his best interests are at stake, sir,” she said. “If I had as many enemies as he reportedly does, I’d be sleeping in a different tent every night, like Kadaffy in Libya.”
“I’ll pass that idea along to him,” Madrid said dryly. “You’d be surprised what a good sense of humor Sebastiani has.”
“I hope so. I’d say he needs one right now.”
Madrid acknowledge the throw away comment without revealing how close to home her remarks had actually come. He, too, would need a touch of humor when it came to explaining to his wife that their much anticipated retirement years may be put on hold for awhile.
Claire Fischer awoke at five a.m. as she did every morning, ready to begin her daily training schedule at the prestigious Dreieichenhof Equestrian Center. But today would be different. There were other things on her mind. Disturbing things, that no innocent young girl should ever be tormented by. And so reluctantly she promised her coach, Hubertus Falckenstein, that she would attend a meeting later that day concerning Geronimo’s death. A meeting already postponed once without explanation. Lying in her bed, eyes still closed, she once again recalled her coach’s words:
“I would like you to stand in for Helena tomorrow. I can’t bare the thought of putting her through that kind of hell. It would kill her, especially with the incident occuring only days ago.” These surprising words repeated themselves in her mind seemingly with a life of their own, as though trapped in a perpetual replay loop that wouldn’t stop. The tragic loss of one of the world’s greatest athletes had left her emotionally distraught and wanting to escape reality rather than face it down in a fact finding meeting attended by total strangers. But her respect for her coach and her close personal friendship with Helena left her no choice.
‘Helena’ was the famous Helena de Groot, Flackenstein’s greatest protege and the reigning equestrian queen at Dreieichenhof–which meant that she was one of the top competitors in the world of international dressage. For Helena, riding Geronimo for her country was the highest personal honor of her life and an achievement reached by only a very few in her chosen profession. “But now, she refused to participate in any way.” Falckenstein repeated her exact words to Claire. “You know her force of will.” He said knowingly. And, indeed Claire did, as an understudy of Helena for the last three years. Helena’s sharp words continued to reverberate inside her head. “Most of the people invited to the meeting have never seen Geronimo when he was alive, much less cared about him one way or the other. I refuse to listen to anything they have to say about him now. It only matters that he is gone, gone from my life forever.” She told Claire in a state shock, gripped by a wrenching, debilitating grief.
Like the other riders at the training facility, Claire lived in a small apartment above the stalls along with the other so-called “working students.” Their rooms were close enough to run for help if they heard anything which might threaten the safety or well being of the horses below, hoping it would never be necessary. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened only days ago.
The sounds Claire heard from below her room that fateful day were haunting. The force of Helena’s screams early in the morning hurled her out of bed….She remembered running down the stairs as fast as she could, half dressed, the first to arrive at the gruesome scene below. And now the memory of that morning was gradually becoming too much for her to bear. Tossing her sheets aside, Claire slipped out of bed and walked over to her pint sized kitchen to prepare something to eat. She moved in a trance, without thinking clearly, even neglecting to turn on the lights.
Beginning each day in darkness was nothing out of the ordinary for her and the other riders like her; it was simply a price one paid for a life of dedication to horses and the classical art form known as dressage. There were other sacrifices, too. More and more she became aware of how the joy of working with horses every day was balanced by trade-offs. The last time she had been on a conventional date was over a year ago. She was sure she still owned some dresses, although they must have migrated by now to the back of her closet. She sometimes wondered if Helena ever even owned one? Probably not, she thought.
And the sacrifices only grew worse the higher up the competitive ladder she climbed. Claire knew that if she decided to make a career of riding, she must accept that in the end there would be no unemployment insurance, no retirement plan, and no financial safety net of any kind. No wonder her father had urged her to stay in college.
These thoughts made her think, again, about Helena. Riding professionally was a zero-sum game. In addition to all of its shortcomings, professional riders were subject to the whims of sponsors who provided the equestrian industry with its life’s blood–money. These fickle financiers came and went like the changing wind, more often than not leaving little behind little to nothing for the benefit of the riders and trainers. Of course, for the horses the prospects for success were even grimmer. If a dressage horse didn’t have the talent or stamina to compete at the highest level, it was either sold or sidelined. The hard truth was that in addition to being a sport and an art, dressage was a business, which meant that owners demanded performance and a healthy return on investment.
This was especially true in Germany, who’s national and Olympic teams were accustomed to being on top. In all of the previous six Olympic Games, German teams had medaled in either gold, silver, or bronze. But staying on top requires capital and lots of it. The most successful breeders happened to be German as well, but they were also keen businessmen, which meant that at times they could be persuaded to lose track of their patriotism for the right price. That had nearly happened in Geronimo’s case. The French national team, which had been working for years to become medal contenders in international competition, had offered a sum for the horse that would almost have financed a trip on the Space Shuttle. But just before Geronimo crossed the border into the land of champagne and bottled water, a consortium of wealthy Germans had offered a superior counter offer–an amount rumored to be the largest ever paid for any one horse. Geronimo would remain in Deutschland after all.
His new owners had asked Hubertus Falckenstein to recommend a rider, and he had selected Helena. For three years, the results of this union had met or exceeded all expectations. A new dynasty was clearly in the making.
But now all that wishful thinking and grand expectations had come to an unexpected end, leaving just an obscure footnote at the bottom of an imaginary page in Dressage history, chronicling a long litany of ‘almost success stories.’ Helena faced the immediate prospect of no longer being asked to model for advertising shots promoting her sponsor’s clothing line. She would no longer be involved in the production of training videos; no longer be asked to travel around the world, conducting clinics for developing riders. She would still have her position at Dreieichenhof, of course, and would continue to train other client’s horses and do all she could to improve her skills… but losing a champion and team horse like Geronimo was like losing one’s grip on the edge of a cliff. Merely surviving the fall would certainly be problematic; but climbing back to the top again might well be impossible.
If only I’d heard something that terrible night. Claire thought, blaming herself.
Helena had told her the whole story only a few days ago, speaking in the flat, emotionless voice of a shock victim. She had arrived at the stables early in the morning as usual, well before anyone else. Or so she thought, expecting to be alone as usual. But as she walked down the long aisle toward Geronimo’s stall, she immediately sensed something was wrong. Horses are creatures of habit and Geronimo never failed to greet her by stretching his long neck over the Dutch door of his stall and nickering for the sugar she always carried in her coat pocket. But on that morning, no proud head turned toward her. She heard no nickering or whinny. In fact, she saw and heard nothing at all. It was, in fact, too quiet. She covered the last few meters at a dead run and then peered over the stall door which had been left unlatched and slightly ajar.
The next part Claire had experienced first-hand–the terrible wailing of human grief, a disturbing primal scream permeated the air so completely around Dreieichenhof that it took Claire a few moments to sense exactly where it was coming from as it reverberated off the courtyard walls; the discovery of Helena sobbing over Geronimo’s sprawled, lifeless body explained everything and nothing at the same time. Claire was unable to pull her away, not even with the help of two stablemen who had just arrived for work. Helena was inconsolable and, for quite some time, unmovable.
“I wanted to die,” Helena had told Claire in her new, emotionless voice. When I saw Geronimo lying there, I wanted to join her. Thought Claire.
Badly needing some fresh air, Claire now sought a temporary escape from her tormenting thoughts. Something… anything to help her cope with her own vicarious sense of grief and loss. She dressed warmly and went for a walk into the countryside, as she often did, following the many paths surrounding the expansive grounds of Dreieichenhof. Before long she had left the forest and entered a small clearing, her gaze picked up the flight of a large bird, an owl in broad daylight, headed unmistakably her way just above the horizon, its golden wings reflecting the morning sun. It seamed to be honing in on her as it circled, not once but three times. Getting so close that she could feel the brush of air from its wings on her face; its yellow eyes were riveted on hers, as though it was trying to tell her something. Startled and in disbelief, she didn’t know whether to freeze or flee. As her heart pounded like horses hooves against her chest, the words of her Aunt Madeleine rushed back to her, memorable ones about omens and their interpretation. She was told that they can be precursors of major events in one’s life, for good or evil. When she was a little girl, her Aunt loved to fill her head with superstitions and folk stories from the old country. “They are as real as life, itself.” Her aunt would tell her. “Learn to recognize them.” Claire never believed there was anything to it, that was, not until this moment. But if it were true, what could the owl’s odd behavior possibly mean?
The mysterious raptor then left, just as suddenly as it appeared, returning from the direction it had come, toward the east. Move east and follow me. Was that the message? Claire said to herself. Then, distracting her attention once gain, came a familiar sight. This time it was the sound of clattering hooves from a single horse and rider off in the far distance. Close enough though that she could make out the unmistakable silhouette of her coach, Hubertus Falckenstein. An increasingly unusual sighting, given his advancing years and increasingly busy travel commitments. Competitive riding was a sport for the young.
As the handsome chestnut approached, galloping across the meadow, the air now visible from its nostrils looked like smoke blown from a chimney in the cool morning air. The tall rider came to an abrupt halt and looked down at Claire like a country squire surveying his property.
“Guten morgen, Claire.” He said, breathing a little heavy himself. “What brings you out in the country so early this morning?”
Before she could answer, he said. “How thoughtless a question. No doubt it’s the same reason that I, too, am out here for some fresh air. I always think more clearly in the country, particularly when I’m on a horse and alone.”
“ I’m glad I ran into you young lady. You have inadvertently given me an idea, a solution really, to a large problem. I want you to consider doing something very important for me today. For both of us really, Helena and me.”
Always flattered by his attention, she said.
“I’ve never turned you down yet, Hubertus. What is it?”
“Later this morning there is going to be a meeting in the administration building. Maybe you have heard about it?”
“Yes, I know. It’s about Geronimo, isn’t it? Helena told me.”
“Helena was supposed to attend, but now I’m sure she won’t. In fact, I don’t want her to anymore. Anyway, will you…can you Claire possibly bring yourself to take her place as a representative of all the riders at Dreieichenhof?”
“Yes, of course, Hubertus, but why me? I don’t think I have much in common with bankers and policeman, and don’t want to start now.”
“I understand how you must feel, but the meeting is about more than that, I’m afraid.”
Claire looked back, confused.
“What do you mean, Hubertus?”
“I don’t want to alarm you or any of the others, but I have a sneaking suspicion we have not seen the end of this, whatever it is that’s going on. And I think there will a great deal of new information coming out today. That’s all I can say for now, Claire. But please be there by eleven o’clock…at my office.”
She nodded again differentially, feigning a smile as Falckenstein turned and galloped off in the direction of the stables, as always, looking younger on a horse than riders half his age.
After returning to her tiny apartment, Claire opened the pantry door and unconsciously reached for something to eat, but then stopped, realizing she had lost her appetite. As she turned away from what passed for a kitchen, she stepped into the small alcove located directly under the dormer light, where a makeshift office awaited her. Sitting at her writing desk, she looked out of the window of wavy glass in front of her, she relived in her mind, with a small portion of melancholy together with unflinching gratitude, all the cherished moments she could remember in her short life, everyone filled with wonder and discovery. Even in the day’s pre-dawn gloom, this most copious view soothed her restless soul as it had done countless times before. For her, simply gazing across the landscape at the grounds below, over a sea of variegated green, was like peering through a magical looking glass, back into the richness of Germany’s deep rooted past.
Dreieichenhof had for centuries played host to landlords and peasants alike, as they and their families toiled tirelessly, pitting their determination to survive against all odds. Even the great impostures, war and peace, had changed the essence of this hallowed ground little over the centuries.
And so, here, strategically located on the edge of a vast fertile plateau, this land, this terra firma, this Dreieichenhof, had come to possess, some would say, a palpable and real soul of its own, accompanied by a well hidden force intent on seducing, as one of its own, this young girl’s heart… one day at a time.
She continued to look out at scores of moss and ivy covered buildings dating back to Medieval times, buildings which lay within her immediate line of sight. Like a fortress the surrounding dark green sylvan canopy formed an impenetrable barrier; a primeval backdrop far older than the work of any man, as it lay just beyond the crumbling walls of this ancient remnant enclave.
On this particular morning, however, an unfamiliar and uncharacteristic translucence appeared in the sky, emerging slowly from the light of a breaking dawn, radiating an eerie glow in all directions. Fueling a young girl’s imagination, it quickly captured her in its wake, a transient dreamlike state that provided a fleeting opportunity for those, who like Claire, would try in vain to escape its grasp, but relentlessly it continued to tug at her, pulling her inexorably down toward a kind of netherworld, a world her Aunt had warned her about, a frightening one where wolves, witches and trolls flourished.
And, then, as if by dramatic contrast, Claire also saw something else, something quite different, an imposing distraction. Appearing as a motley group of multi-faceted spires on the horizon, she saw a kaleidoscope of colored light, representing the cosmopolitan city of Frankfurt, an internationally known symbol of modernity. However, this imposing interloper played no part in fantasy, nor did it intend to do so, for in its role, it served as a somber reminder to all those who would seek to understand its meaning, that there was no escape from reality, or modernity, or pure evil, not even from high atop the cloistered training stables of Dreieichenhof.
Pausing briefly to collect her thoughts, she sought clarity and vision, if not resolution. Claire turned her attention once again to the much dreaded meeting shortly ahead. Strangers, as Helena had warned, would soon descend upon this special place, a place that she now called home. They would callously argue over the many ways to divvy up the spoils resulting from the untimely death of one of its most famous former residents. And she prayed for Geronimo with all her heart but most of all she prayed for Helena.
Whack! Bret Roemer’s attention was riveted to the piercing sound of a white wooden ball being hammered fifty yards behind him. He sank his spurs into his horse’s sides, demanding maximum acceleration and getting it. He found himself in the middle of a stampede toward the goalposts of the country club’s polo field. It was at times like this when he was glad to be wearing a helmet, thick kneepads and stiff leather boots.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he picked up the flight of the ball as it outpaced the entire field of eight ponies. He could tell the ball must have been hit by one of the Argentines, since it climbed in an upward trajectory that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Only a pro could strike a ball that far and true.
But this was no time to dwell on aesthetics. The other players on his team were gaining fast on his flank, readying themselves to take another swing.
One of the lead opposition players caught up to the ball and executed a perfect reverse swing, sending the ball back the other way, right over Bret’s head. Instantly the action reversed direction.
As Brett turned his pony, one of the cars parked by the long side of the field blasted its horn, sounding the end of the last chukker.
Bret sighed in disappointment and well earned weariness. Although he had been playing polo regularly for six months, he had yet to score a single goal. It was disheartening. He didn’t like to think of how much money his first goal was going to end up costing him. That was probably why polo used to be called the game of kings. Only kings could afford it.
He reined his horse to a walk, then headed to the sidelines with the rest of the players. As he left the field, he was pleased–and surprised–to see his father’s car parked near the tie rail where the team ponies were strung together. His father had never come to watch him play before. Max Roemer would have preferred that his son take up golf or tennis, something he could do with clients. None of the firm’s clients played polo.
Bret could understand his father’s perspective, of course. Max was a brilliant corporate attorney whose firm was very much in demand by the most prestigious corporations in the State of New York. The proudest moment of his life had been ten years ago, when Bret had graduated from law school and become an associate.
Bret raised his mallet in a gesture designed to get his father’s attention, but there was no acknowledgment. It was then he noticed that a young woman whom Bret had been dating for the last few weeks had discovered Max and was in the process of introducing herself. Bret winced; he could just imagine what his father would think of a woman who had been christened with the James Bond-esque name of Honeydew Mellen.
From astride his pony, Bret had a good view of his father. It hadn’t been that long ago that the old man had had a full head of reddish hair? Now there was little red left and Max’s hairline was receding. At five-feet-seven, he showed every ounce of the extra weight he had put on in the last few years. The gain was due to the usual suspects–lack of exercise and long hours sitting at his desk. But this was a price Max Roemer had paid gladly for the opportunity to build the successful legal practice that bore his name.
Bret wasn’t so sure he was willing to make the same sacrifice. He was taller than his father and had his mother’s dark hair and eyes, and kept his body lean and muscular through involvement in sports of all kinds. He knew from experience that women were attracted to his rough and ready looks, and he wanted to keep it that way.
He rode over to his father and Honeydew as she already turned toward him. Looking down at them from atop his sweating pony, he tried to brake the ice as gently as possible. “Well, I see you two have met.”
“Yes, Miss…Mellen…just introduced herself,” Max said, without looking Bret in the eye.
“Good.” Bret smiled bravely at Honeydew but spoke to his father. “I wish I’d known you were coming, Dad. I could have used the extra moral support.”
“I’m sure Miss Mellen was cheering you on.”
“Yes, of course I was.” She was thirty-something, but covered so heavily in makeup that even Bret wasn’t quite sure of her age. She was also dressed rather formally for the country club in a blue pants suit, a silver chiffon blouse and an oversized black leather belt with large silver studs. Multiple bracelets and rings, all real silver, adorned her wrists and fingers. Her shoulder-length, strawberry-blond hair was perfectly composed, as though she had just come from the hairdresser, and her open-toed, spike-heeled shoes meant she was looking down on Max.
“What did you think of my game?” Bret asked Max as he swung his leg over his horse and dismounted.
“To be honest with you, son, I think a couple of things need a bit more work.” Max glanced at Honeydew.
Bret laughed nervously. Honeydew had obviously made a questionable first impression on the old man. That was not surprising; the level of his father’s approval of the women Bret dated depended on how close they came to being like Bret’s mother–which meant being gentle, soft-spoken and always conservatively dressed.
“Frankly, I’m surprised to see you out here, Dad. I didn’t think you were the clubby type anymore.”
“I have my reasons. I’m meeting Ari Fischer for lunch in the clubhouse in a few minutes.”
“I see.” Bret was disappointed but not surprised that his father had come to keep a business appointment rather than to watch him play. He was getting used to the idea of not seeing as much of his father as he once had. Since Bret had joined the firm, Max had reduced his social calendar substantially. When Bret needed to see his father now, it was always at the office.
Max smiled slightly. “Now that I think of it, if you’re finished with your…commitments…” He cleared his throat–”on or off the polo field, how about joining us for lunch? I don’t think Ari would mind.”
“Great,” Bret said. “Let me clean up and change my clothes, and I’ll meet you in, say, twenty minutes.”
Max nodded and turned to Honeydew. “Sorry you can’t join us, Miss Mellon, but we’re going to be having a little business discussion over lunch.”
“I have to run along now, anyway. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Roemer.”
“Good day to you, Miss Mellen.” Max turned and walked toward his car.
When he was beyond hearing, Honeydew looked at Bret. “I’m surprised I haven’t met your father before. He’s been a member here for years, hasn’t he?” Because her family owned the club, she knew most of the people on the membership list, which read like a who’s-who of upper New York State society.
“Dad’s practically a founding member,” Bret said.
“I got the feeling he wasn’t exactly delighted when I introduced myself.”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to that. He can be a bit stuffy; his idea of fun is reading Goethe in the original German.”
“No, I get the feeling he really doesn’t like me.”
“Of course he likes you. He just doesn’t know how to show it. By the way, what are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing special.” She’d been saying that ever since he’d first noticed her watching him during polo matches, but he knew damned well she had plenty of suitors. Her parents owned not only the country club but half the real estate in New York. A guy could do a lot worse….
“I’ll pick you up at seven,” he said. “We’ll think of something to do then. But right now I’ve got to run.”
“See you at seven.”
The grooms came to take Bret’s horse, and he hurried to the clubhouse to change his clothes.
Dressed in a blue blazer, khaki pants and an open Madras shirt, Brett walked to the club’s restaurant and approached the hostess stand. The hostess smiled. “Are you Mr. Roemer?”
“Yes. The younger one.”
“I thought so. Your father told me to keep an eye out for you. Let me take you to his table.”
Bret was often amused by the fact that total strangers could tell Max was his father, in spite of what Bret considered to be a total lack of resemblance. He followed the hostess to the most distant corner of the room, far from other diners. Ari Fischer had already arrived and appeared to be deep in conversation with Max.
When Bret reached the table, he extended his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Fischer. It’s been a long time.”
“Too long,” said Ari, as he rose to shake hands.
Bret was immediately struck by the expression on Ari’s lined face. The man was usually affable and smiling, but today he looked drawn, and there were dark hollows around his hazel eyes. Unlike Bret’s father, Ari had lost little of his hair. Cropped close to his round head, it was iron gray on the top, with patches of snowy white at the temples.
Bret’s mind flashed back in time ten years, to the day he had sought Ari’s advice about whether or not to accept his father’s invitation to join the firm. Ari’s words had been clear and unequivocal. “Yes, I would advise you to join. Family is more important than you may think. Take my word for it.”
Brett had known immediately what Ari meant. On the walls of Ari’s office in Manhattan hung photographs of the people who, Ari had said, meant the most to him. But the collection was far from complete. Missing were photographs of the sixty members of his family who had not survived the Holocaust.
“Your father tells me you’re a polo player now.”
“Not a very good one, I’m afraid. I’ll have to keep my day job for a while longer.” Bret hesitated. “You sure it’s all right if I join you? I get the feeling I might be intruding on something important.”
“No, please stay. In fact, I’m glad you’re here.”
As Bret slipped onto the chair beside his father, Ari sat opposite him and said, “This is kind of a family matter anyway, and I would like you to hear what I have to say directly, without any translation from your father.”
Max raised his chin in mock insult. “And what’s so bad about my translations?”
“Nothing at all. It’s just that this is not exactly a legal matter, and I don’t have all the facts yet. It’s not like we’re discussing case law.”
“Fire away,” said Max, then winked at his son. “We Roemers are professionals; we can handle anecdotal testimony just fine.”
The waiter approached. They all decided to have the buffet, then ordered drinks: wine for the two older men and beer for Bret.
After the waiter left, Ari leaned forward, clasping his hands on the tablecloth in what looked to Bret like an intentionally solemn gesture. “Last night I had a very disturbing conversation with Claire. You remember Claire, don’t you, Bret?”
“Sure. I last saw her…let’s see, I guess it was five years or so ago, at her high-school graduation.”
“She attended college for a couple of years, but has been in Germany for the last three years training in dressage. You are familiar with dressage?”
“All I know is that it’s a kind of fancy horseback riding.”
“Well put. Both my sister Madeleine and Claire are mad about it, so I took it upon myself to learn a bit of background. The term ‘dressage’ is from the French dresser, which means ‘to train.’ And that is what dressage riders do. They spend enormous amounts of time and money conditioning themselves and their horses to perform very precise movements, like gymnastics on horseback, but only the horse moves. You can’t see the rider do anything. It’s like a magic act.”
Bret had to laugh. “And that doesn’t make sense to you?”
“I can’t honestly say it does, but at least I have been able to console myself with the fact that the greatest danger is falling off a horse now and then.” He paused. “But that’s changed.”
“How so?” Max asked.
Ari sighed, then reprised a brief account of everything Claire had told him over the phone, including the terrible news about anthrax spores and the zoo fiasco. When they heard this, their chins dropped. Ari added, “Claire tried to minimize the threat to herself, personally, but it’s clear to me that she could be in real danger–not because of anything she’s done, but because she happens to be involved with the wrong sport, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I’m wondering what to do about it.”
Max didn’t hesitate. “That’s easy. Just–”
He broke off as the waiter reappeared with the wine and beer. After he left, Max leaned forward. “Ari, my advice is simple: bring Claire home. Now. I know your sister has horses over there for training, but why not persuade her to sell them? Cut your losses, sleep at night, become a grandfather, and leave the rest to the police. From what you just told us, Claire could be in the way of people who are willing to feed living human beings to lions.”
“While videotaping it,” Bret added. Suddenly the thought of the luncheon buffet was no longer appealing.
Ari waved a hand. “I agree with you completely, but I’m afraid Madeleine and Claire are both absolutely closed-minded about selling the horses. That option is out of the question. Also, apparently Claire is becoming a top-notch rider , so she’s reluctant to break her training. As for the police, pah! I’ve done some checking, and the word is that between Interpol, Paris and Frankfurt, the authorities are too busy bickering with one another to do anything productive. In fact, Interpol doesn’t even believe the killings of the horse and the insurance man are connected.”
“That’s entirely beside the point,” Max said. “But the truth hurts sometime, and your daughter is a grown woman now. No matter how worried you are, you can’t force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.”
Ari snorted. “That’s more truth than I want to hear. Which is why I need to have someone in Germany to act as my eyes and ears and maybe lean on the authorities a little bit. Meanwhile, whoever I send, they could see to it that my daughter is protected. I would go myself, but as much as I hate to admit it, I’m getting too old to be involved in something like this.” He sipped his wine. “So what about you, Max? Go for me, just like in the good old days. You’ve always been my good-luck charm. Isn’t that so?”
Max chuckled. “Not so fast, Ari. I’m not getting any younger myself–and besides, I wouldn’t make a very good Sherlock Holmes. This sounds like a job for someone younger than me, and a lot more adventurous…….” His voice trailed away. After a moment his gaze flickered to Bret. “Son, would you give your father and me a minute, please?”
“Sure,” Bret said, still thinking that maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to accept the invitation for a free lunch. Nevertheless, he got up and headed toward the buffet, but decided to pass on the roast beef this time.
Max leaned over the table. “Ari, Ari, Ari…I know what you’re thinking, but I am not–hear me now–am not going to give you my only son. I don’t care how noble the cause is. He needs to continue the practice of law and not be distracted by running off to Europe.”
“I don’t want you to give him to me, Max. I just want to borrow him for a while.”
“Oh, how innocuous you make it sound now–but it’s too late; I’ve already heard enough about deadly diseases and man-eating lions.”
“Max, listen. We’ve been to hell and back together, haven’t we?”
“Yes….” Max said warily.
“Having to deal with a few horse trainers and police detectives can’t possibly match the difficulty of what we went through during the war, could it? Or what about the negotiations we pulled off in Zurich and Coblenz twenty-five years ago?”
“That’s different. Horse trainers, police detectives and Swiss bankers do not typically feed people to lions.” But he spoke as if he weren’t thinking about his own words. “I wonder…is our old friend Henri Madrid still at the helm at Swiss Bancorp, do you know?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” said Ari. “And the answer is ‘yes,’ thank God–although he must be getting close to retirement age by now. Why?”
“You said Bancorp insured this dead horse, right? Geronimo?”
“Then they’ve got a vested interest in what happened, too. Which works to your advantage, because it means they’ve also got the kind of the clout they need to get things done in Europe. Maybe Madrid will recommend someone to keep Claire under surveillance while…”
Ari was shaking his head. “Forget it. I’m not going to have someone snooping on my daughter without her knowledge, and I know she would never agree to a bodyguard. But if someone she knows were to suggest–”
“‘Someone she knows?’ She hasn’t seen Bret since they were kids.”
Max drummed his fingertips on the tabletop, then let out a sharp puff of breath. “Let’s see if we can establish some kind of connection with Madrid first. Ari, I am not going to ask Bret to walk into a lions’ den–so to speak–unless we have a few friends nearby in case he needs to be dragged out.”
“Agreed,” said Ari. Now it was his turn to fall silent for a moment. “Speaking of Madrid, I’ve been thinking… this might be a good time to tell Bret the family secrets.”
Max’s eyebrows rose. “What about the confidentiality agreements?”
“This is family, and our children are old enough now to understand what we did. Besides, if Bret agrees to go to Europe, he’ll need to know the background–especially if Madrid gets involved.”
Max thought a moment, then nodded. “I have no problem with that. Frankly, I’ve been dying to tell him myself for years.”
“Then it’s agreed.” The two men reached toward one another over the table and solemnly shook hands.
“When will you tell Claire?” Max asked.
“As soon as I can. As for Bret–” Looking toward the buffet, he saw Bret approaching with a plate heaped with salad. Ari caught his eye and reassured him with a nod. But the moment Bret took his seat the hostess appeared, carrying a cordless phone. “Excuse me, Mr. Fischer, there’s an emergency call for you. Would you care to take it here, or…?”
“Thank you,” said Ari, eyes sparking with worry. He reached for the phone. “Hello? Yes? What is it, Madeleine?” He listened a moment, and his hand, laced with blue veins, tightened on the receiver. “I see. I see. No, I haven’t spoken to Claire today. I agree. Actually, I’m working on it right now. With Max Roemer and his son Bret. Please don’t worry, Madeleine; we’ll work something out. I promise. All right. I’ll call you later. Goodbye.” He put the phone down on the tablecloth, then slowly lifted his head.
“What’s wrong?” Max asked. “Something about Claire?”
“My sister just got word through the equestrian grapevine that there was a big fire at a stable in Poland last night. An American girl who trains there was badly injured; one of her horses was killed. Other horses had to be put down from smoke inhalation.”
“Do you think it was the same people who…”
Ari shrugged. “Possibly Claire will know more. I’m sure she knew about this before Madeleine, but didn’t tell me for fear of making me even more worried. Well, I am even more worried.” His gaze focused; his eyes regained their sharp energy. “This clinches what we were just discussing, Max. We need to get involved in this, and soon.”
“I agree,” said Max. “Forgive me for whatever reservations I had before. I just realized in my selfishness that Claire is also your only child. How could I have been so insensitive?”
“I forgive you. Now let’s eat…”
Together, they then turned and looked at Bret.
Bret put down his salad fork. “What?”
Bon Appetite, New York.
Ari’s gaze became even more intent and focused, looking at Bret as if Max’s son were, at that moment, the most important person in the world. “We need your help, Bret. That is, I need it, and so does Claire. Whether you choose to go along or not is, of course, up to you. But first, I ask that you hear me out completely.”
“Sure,” Bret said, settling back in his seat, his expression committing to nothing. He had a pretty good “litigation face” himself.
Ari nodded. “I’m going to start by telling you a story very few people have ever heard, or will ever hear. You must promise to keep it in strictest confidence.”
“No. The honor of honest men.”
Bret nodded. “Agreed.”
Although Ari had promised a rare story, he began by summarizing events that Bret had heard many times before, from his own father. How Ari and Max had met in 1945, two little orphaned boys on a ship carrying them from Liverpool to Ellis Island. “It was no picnic for any of us. Imagine seeing the City of New York from the eyes of a child who had just arrived from a country in ruins.”
Bret nodded, but he knew that he couldn’t imagine it, not really, and thought about how easy his life had been compared to his father’s. That was the problem. No matter what he did, he would never be able to match the achievements of men like his father and Ari. The challenges just weren’t there anymore.
Ari continued. “We made do, as so many refugees did. We grew up and found our ways. Eventually Max went to law school, and I found work in sales for a printing company. We were both very ambitious in those days. I wanted to start my own company, as was my family’s tradition; Max wanted to one day have his own firm. And we both eventually succeeded, of course.”
Bret nodded patiently. This was the point where the “immigrant saga” always ended, its lessons conveyed; after all, the rest of his family history simply described ever-increasing achievement. Bret’s favorite part of the tale was actually the very earliest part–the unlikely and unbreakable friendship that formed between an Aryan and a Jew during a time when such allegiances were not welcome, even in the New World.
Ari was still watching his face with unnerving intensity. “Now jump forward to 1971. Your father and I were still young men, grabbing the first rungs of the ladder in our chosen fields. You may wonder why I was attracted to the printing business, as opposed to all the other options available in New York. The answer is simple. In Germany, my family owned and operated a very successful printing business. Eventually, as happened to so many Jews, the Nazis confiscated our property and assets. The records supporting most of the confiscation orders were hidden away. They were concealed in unlikely places, such as the former Soviet Union or some of the more notorious South American countries. In fact, only recently, newly discovered documents in Russia have been released to the public, which further confirmed suspicions about the purpose of the Wannsee Conference.”
Max laughed ruefully. “All those private schools, and for what? Ari, I’m afraid you’ll have to explain what you’re referring to.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot, young people haven’t been taught these things in school. Well. The Wannsee Conference of 1942 was a meeting of the highest-ranking Nazi officials where the so-called ‘Final Solution’ was adopted as a policy of state-sponsored genocide. Not just genocide–extermination; the elimination of any evidence that Jews, Gypsies and certain other groups ever existed. Naturally, this included getting rid of their earthly wealth, including all the ownership records. In some cases the wealth had already been transferred to so-called safe harbors, such as Switzerland. But after the war, when the survivors tried to get their assets back, few records existed. Trying to match specific personal information with the survivors making claims was, more often than not, impossible. To make matters worse, the Swiss banks, notorious for secrecy, refused to cooperate with them or their representatives.”
“Are you speaking from personal experience?” Bret asked.
Ari made a casual gesture with his hand. “I knew my parents had managed to transfer some of their assets to the Bank of Switzerland before the rest was confiscated, and I had made a few inquiries over the years–with no result. Fortunately, more recently organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the National Jewish Congress forced the U.S. Government to hold hearings, and a new dialogue finally began to emerge. Truth and money are at last being released to their rightful beneficiaries.”
He shifted his position slightly. “Now, with this background, I would like your father to tell you what he and I did in Switzerland in 1971.”
Bret twisted toward his father. “I remember you leaving on that trip. I was five or six years old, and Mom cried all the time you were gone–until one night she got a phone call and started walking around like she was in a dream.” He paused. “Come to think of it, that was right before you started your own firm.” He looked at Ari. “And your printing company, am I right?”
Max smiled. “It all began when Ari and I were having one of our weekly luncheons downtown. We got to brainstorming about life in America and what the future had in store for us, as we often did. We knew there were thousands of lawyers in New York, and hundreds of printers. We both disliked working for other people. We realized we would never meet our goals if we didn’t start thinking outside the box a little more. So that day we hatched the beginnings of different strategy. A unique strategy. Frankly, to this day I’m still amazed we pulled it off.” He lifted his wine glass, as though he were about to propose a toast. “It was Ari who came up with the plan.”
Ari shook his head. “Bret, don’t give any credence to this unwarranted modesty from your father. He was indispensable then, as he is now. He is a man of considerable gravitas, your father, a genius in my book.”
Bret smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time Max had taken credit for the many things he had accomplished. It was simply not in his nature to gloat.
“The plan,” Max said, “was unique and ethically justified–but it required just the right spin to make it work. Ari and I flew together to Europe. He had already gathered all the available evidence concerning the assets his family had left behind after the Nazis took over. The idea was that I would go to the Bank of Switzerland with this material and–”
“Wait,” said Bret. “Why you? Why not Ari? And you just said that finding documentation was always a problem, and the Swiss banks always stonewalled.”
“That’s correct,” said Ari. “During the war the Swiss banks were actually in cahoots with the Nazis; we know this from documents that were confiscated later. When it came time to honor their commitments, all the banks acted in concert, deciding to honor only insurance policies and bank accounts outside of Germany and Austria. The Swiss banks were in charge of most insurance at that time as well, you see. They were afraid that if they allowed German Jews to make claims, world markets could be destabilized and ruin the entire Swiss banking industry’s financial credibility. All claims that had been made directly by German and Austrian Jews had been turned down cold.”
“But my father…”
“Am not a Jew,” Max said. “In fact, to my knowledge I was the only German national and United States citizen who had ever played the role of principal agent in a restitution claim.”
“Still, if they gave in to you, that must have been some good evidence you showed them.”
Ari smiled. “Max had every single record concerning my family’s pre-Wannsee assets. Everything. It had all been preserved by a German man named Dr. Egon Falckenstein.”
“Falckenstein…that does sound familiar.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention it before. Hubertus Falckenstein, Egon’s son, is my daughter Claire’s riding coach.”
“That’s right. So his father defied the Nazis and hid your family’s records from them?”
“Oh, he hid more than that. He and his wife hid Madeleine and me until we could escape to America; they kept us in a small room above the stables at Dreieichenhof for almost a year.” He smiled slightly. “I suspect that’s where Madeleine’s obsession with horses began.”
Bret cocked his head. Stunned by the revelation. He swallowed hard into a dry throat and then chocked back the emotion swelling in his chest. This was no Hollywood movie, a light weight Broadway play, or some storytellers fantasy. This was real. The story of his family he had never heard. After a well hidden sigh, he exhaled and then caught his breath and composure once again.
“Couldn’t they have been executed for hiding Jews?” he blurted out.
“Yes indeed.” Ari lifted his glass and gulped down his wine, as if to also find a way to clear his throat. “When I saw Dr. Falckenstein again in 1972, I asked him point-blank why he risked so much for two Jewish children. He said, ‘Not all Germans agreed with the government’s policies in those days. I did what I could.’”
Bret nodded. He wondered what he would have done in the same circumstances. He hoped he would have been as courageous as Dr Falckenstein, but how could one know a thing like that for sure?
“Dr. Falckenstein was a farmer and an agricultural scientist,” said Max . “The Fischers were printers and packaging manufacturers. As the old saying goes, ‘An army marches on its stomach,’ so the Nazis were very interested in packaging and processing food. In the early stages of the war they were not above taking advantage of Jewish enterprise, so Falckenstein and the Fischers were brought together in a close working relationship.”
Ari picked up the thread. “Will you my old friend?”
“As time went by the fact that my family was Jewish became more and more of an issue, but Falckenstein ignored that. He was a man of character, and with the privileges attached to his government position, he had an unusual opportunity to see what was really happening to innocent people in his country. He didn’t like what he saw and grew increasingly determined to thwart the injustices of his government no matter what the personal cost to himself or his family. So when the confiscation order came down, he smuggled me and Madeleine to his estate and hid us away.”
Ari cleared his throat again. “Over the years, my sister and I stayed in touch with Dr. Falckenstein, but it wasn’t until after Max and I had planned our trip back to Europe that I found out about the hidden documentation. As you can imagine, I was elated. I had expected to spend most of my time in Europe researching government archives and running into one obstacle after another, like everybody else. But when we arrived in Frankfurt, we were taken to the office where the documents had been kept under lock and key for almost thirty years. Everything was there: insurance policies, bank account numbers, bonds and old corporate records of my family’s printing business. The only thing that seemed to be lost was a copy of the 1942 confiscation order issued from Munich, with Goering’s signature on it. We never found it.” He glanced at his old friend. “Why don’t you continue, Max? The next part of the story is really yours.”
Max nodded. “Once we had the documents, Ari and I split up. I went to the Swiss bank of record by myself, while Ari remained in Frankfurt. We figured that even with the documentation we had, the Swiss would never agree to anything that would open the floodgates to other claimants. We had to structure our request in such a way as to avoid establishing a precedent.”
Brett raised his eyebrows. “How in the world did you manage that?”
“With some help from one of the bankers, actually. I arrived at the Bank of Switzerland–that was its name in those days–with key documentation in my briefcase, but no clear idea of how I was going to use it. I was to meet a man named Henri Madrid, the only mid-level officer at the time. That struck me as a bad sign, but Madrid seemed open and interested in doing the right thing. He reviewed the documents I’d brought and told me quite candidly that although they appeared to be complete and authentic, he could never get approval for any traditional form of reparation, under any circumstances. Still, he didn’t throw me out. We continued to discuss the matter, until three hours later we had a possible solution–though I wasn’t sure Ari would go for it.”
“You’re teasing me,” Brett said.
“Perhaps a little. The plan was this: if Ari and the bank could agree on a sum that represented the value of the Fischer’s confiscated assets adjusted over time, Madrid would persuade the bank to loan Ari up to eighty percent of that value, interest free, on a ten-year revolving cycle. This loan could be extended twice under identical terms as long as the outstanding balance was paid off every ten years. For his part, Ari would agree to never make the terms of the agreement public.
“But as I say, that was just the first step. The next thing was to persuade Ari to go along, and that took considerable discussion over the phone. But we worked it out, and I caught a train to Coblenz the next day to implement our plan. This time we acted together, calling on a company called Print Machine International. Before and during the war, PMI supplied equipment to the European printing industry, including the Fischers. But Ari had done his homework on this company, and he knew that it had not only sympathized with the Nazi cause but collaborated in carrying out official confiscation orders. The company had actually prospered during the war, and continued to do so afterward.
“It was clear from the moment we walked into their office that they expected trouble–remember, Ari? Despite the short notice, all the Board members were there, and an attorney as well.
“Ari did all the talking. I pretty much just sat there and watched as he laid out a non-combative strategy to deal with a potentially explosive situation. He began by telling the Board that we had come looking not for restitution, but for a relationship that would benefit both parties then and in the future. His proposal was to purchase state-of-the-art equipment from PMI, at their cost, for his printing company in New York. He would pay cash, using the interest-free capital loaned by the Bank of Switzerland. From then on, his shop would be the showcase for PMI’s advanced printing technology in America, and any cutting-edge engineering or equipment they developed would be available to him first, to further assure his commercial advantage.”
Ari broke in. “In the printing business, I knew all I needed was a six-month lead-time on my competitors and they would never catch me.”
“For PMI’s part,” Max added, “they had been hoping for years to penetrate the American market. Overall the situation was pure win-win, and PMI jumped at it–their counsel did nothing during that meeting but nod, and we had a contract signed before we returned to New York. And to this day, both parties have benefited greatly.”
Max eased back in his chair and smiled across the table at Ari. Bret let out a breath. “What an amazing story. I don’t know what to say.”
Max pushed away from he table. “Well, why don’t you think about it while Ari and I get some food. All this talking has made me hungry.”
Ari rose, too. “I could eat a little.”
Bret tucked into his salad, which he’d hardly touched up to now. When the older men returned to the table, he forced himself to let Ari eat a few bites before saying, “Forgive me, Mr. Fischer, but I’d like to ask a couple of questions. I hope they don’t seem impertinent.”
Bret noted his father’s instant frown and realized that Max feared a rude inquisition, or at least disrespect. But Ari said, “Please go ahead. I appreciate the fact that you care enough to put me on the spot.”
“Well, first of all, there’s no question that what you both did turned out to be a good deal, for you personally…but what about all the other Jews who were not as fortunate? Don’t you feel a little bit guilty about that?”
The answer came without hesitation. “In a word, no. I thank God every day for His blessings, and in appreciation for my good fortune, I’ve done my best to use my success to help others who are less fortunate.”
“Bret,” Max said, “over the years Ari and Madeleine have donated millions of dollars to the Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other charitable organizations. Not to mention the little foundation Ari and his wife set up ten years ago to aid needy families in New York City. Or the fact that when the Congressional restitution hearings were held, Ari’s donations to the legal fund helped produce meaningful results for the first time.”
Bret nodded. “I expected something like that. But I’m also wondering about God.”
“I beg your pardon?” Ari said.
“You’ve thanked God a couple of times, and I think you mean it as more than a figure of speech. I wonder about that. Most of your family went to the gas chambers, and you became an orphan, all because of your heritage. Didn’t that shake your faith? Weren’t you ever angry with God?”
Ari folded his hands together on the table. “Bret, I don’t think there is any other choice but to trust in God. I ask you, what happens if you abandon God because you are angry with him and put all your faith in mankind? What does history teach us about mankind’s habits?”
Bret thought about that for a moment, then spread his hands wide in a gesture of acceptance. “I understand. In fact, I would feel very privileged if you would consider me your friend from now on, Ari, as you do my father.”
“Of course, I would be honored to do so.”
They shook hands over the table while they ate in silence.
When Bret eventually sat back he broke the spell in a way that made the older men proud. “Now maybe you two schemers would do me the favor of telling me what, exactly, you want me to do for you.”
Max smiled with half his mouth. “We hadn’t planned to ambush you with this, son; I really did invite you here for a meal. But now…well, we were wondering if you would mind taking a brief trip to Germany, to look in on things with Claire and the horses. It would ease Ari’s mind tremendously to have you there.”
“And Claire’s mind too, I’m sure,” Ari added.
Bret held up a hand, palm out. “You don’t have to talk me into it. It’s been years since I’ve visited Europe, and the history lesson you just gave me only whets my appetite for more. Besides…sorry, Dad, but environmental law isn’t the most exciting field in the world, even if it’s personally very satisfying.” When his father rolled his eyes, Bret turned to Ari and smiled. “Dad calls me a tree hugger. But the truth is that lately I’ve been hugging more corporate clients than trees. This sounds like an opportunity for me to take a break and smell the roses a while.” What he really needed, he thought, was some time away from the firm, to think more clearly about his future in general.
“You won’t be smelling any roses in Germany my son,” Max said. “Don’t mistake this for a vacation. Not when there’s a chance you might end up seeing a zoo from the wrong side of the bars.”
“I can appreciate all that,” Bret said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy myself while I’m there, does it?”
“Then it’s settled,” said Ari, smiling. “If it’s all right with your father, you can pack this weekend and be on your way by early next week. I’ll give you Claire’s phone number and e-mail address. She can help you get a hotel and make any other arrangements you may need.”
Max gave Bret a cautioning look. “But don’t forget about your clients. Make sure they’re fully informed about this sabbatical, or whatever we decide to call it.”
“Fortunately,” said Bret, “environmental law is such a slow-moving process that I probably won’t even be missed. And if my clients need an explanation, why not tell them that I’m going abroad to study the European approach to environmental law?”
“That’s perfect,” said Ari. “Max, I feel better already. Bret thinks on his feet, just like his father, a chip off the old block for sure.”
Bret looked at the expression of pride on his father’s face and felt a sudden tremor of apprehension. Not about ending up as food for lions, which seemed a very remote possibility now, but about the chance he might disappoint either of these great men in some unintentional way. His father was right–this was not just about some kind of holiday he was undertaking. It was a lot more. It was… a mission.
Later that afternoon, Claire stopped at the office to visit with Hubertus’s administrative assistant, Frau Erlich. She made a point of doing so at least once every day.
The austere but functional office building housed the Dreieiechenhof staff for all of Falckenstein’s various business enterprises. She peered through the glass partitions separating the interior cubicles and spotted her friend, Frau Erlich. As usual, she was well turned out, although conservatively dressed by American standards. She wore her medium-length gray hair pulled back in a severe bun, little jewelry, and a floral print blouse with a wool skirt that fell well below the knee. Despite the severe wardrobe, her youthful enthusiasm for her work and her loyalty to Falckenstein were always evident, making her seem much younger than her years.
When she turned her head and saw Claire, she immediately dropped what she was doing and came over, wearing an easy smile.
“Good morning,” Claire said. “Any mail for me today?”
“Oh, I am so glad you came by. Yes, there is a letter for you, but there was also a man looking for you. Did you see him? I told him where to find your apartment.”
“I wasn’t there; I went for a walk before my afternoon riding schedule. Who was he?”
“He said he was from Interpol. First he asked to talk to Herr Falckenstein, then Helena, and finally to you.”
“Did you get his name or ask for identification?”
Frau Erlich’s smile vanished. “I didn’t think…he seemed to be…oh, dear–”
“I’m sure it’s all right, Frau Erlich,” Claire said. “Was he a large, imposing-looking man with curly hair?”
“No, not at all. He was thin and muscular looking.”
“Then it’s not the same Interpol agent who was here for the meeting yesterday. Do you know where I can find him?”
Frau Erlich was pale with concern. “He could still be talking to Helena.”
“Helena?” Frau Erlich’s mused. “Yes, Helena resumed her duties this morning.”
Claire wasted no time and went searching for Helena immediately. Fortunately, she was sitting alone in the communal lunchroom. What Claire planned to discuss was not something for the working students to overhear. “Hello, Helena. Teaching today?”
Helena’s middle aged skin looked grayish under its perpetual tan. “Your cowboy movies have a saying: ‘It is time to get back in the saddle.’”
“Everyone will be happy to see you out here again. I’m so glad,” Claire said. “I’m sure Hubertus will be, too. Where are all your students? It’s not like you to be drinking coffee alone”
“Working hard, I hope. They aren’t so happy with me right now. I had to scold them this morning for being irresponsible again.” Helena shrugged her broad shoulders. “They’ll get over it. They always do.”
If Helena was back in full dictator mode, then she was definitely recovering from the loss of Geronimo. Claire had never been the recipient of one of Helena’s tongue-lashings, but she had frequently seen others get dressed down. Helena even scolded the horses when they were naughty, using Dutch, French, English, or German, depending on the severity of the transgression. But even the most reprimanded student would admit that Helena was never mean, just short-tempered. And if they were honest about it, they deserved all the criticism they received.”
As Claire took a seat at the table, she looked closely at her friend, trying to read what lay under the surface of her face. Helena’s expression gave nothing away except that she was tired, which was typical even without the added stress of recent events. While Claire was responsible for taking care of only three horses, Helena was expected to ride as many as twelve. She wore no make-up to hide the dark circles under her eyes or the weathering of her skin from spending ten hours each day in the open air in all kinds of weather. She was holding a half-empty coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
She looked at Claire, “We have someone new in town with a lot of questions on his mind. Did you see him? He just left. From Interpol, of all places.”
“Yes, I heard. Frau Erlich told me he was here. What sort of questions did he ask you?”
“Stupid ones, like have there been any unusual happenings here lately, and have we noticed any strangers on the property. What a joke! I told him to look around. ‘You’re a stranger yourself,’ I said to him.” She shrugged. “He seemed satisfied with that, and left.”
“Was he looking for me, too,” Claire asked. “If he comes back, please let him nothing, would you? Or tell him to leave a message for me with Frau Erlich.”
“Okay. Really I don’t mind sharing him with you, Claire,” Helena said with a smile.
“Thanks, but no thanks. He doesn’t sound like my type.”
“No? Well, who is your type then?”
“Right now, something with a mane, tail, and four legs.”
“Ah, that’s my type, too.” Helena’s smile vanished as her concern for the horses returned. “What do you think is happening, Claire? I heard about the fire in Poland. I hope the danger is past . That Aladdin of yours, he’s becoming quite well-known. Don’t you worry about him now?”
“Yes. In fact…I was thinking about paying Saskia a visit soon.”
“Saskia Handler? The girl who trains over at the Reitenlage?”
“Yes. I’m thinking about moving my aunt’s horses there. They have much better security than we do you know. Maybe you should consider it as well.”
Helena’s face sank into its fiercest dictator mode. “I’ve never thought of leaving here, for any reason. This is my home. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“I’m not talking about moving permanently. Just until better arrangements can be made here to protect the horses. If I were you, I’d at least relocate Excalibur until the trouble blows over. It’s only five minutes away, and Hubertus goes over there all the time.”
Helena shrugged. “I’ll consider it. But right now, get Aladdin ready before my evening students start to arrive. We’ll work on the canter zig-zag. I have an idea for you that may help Aladdin smooth out his transitions in each change of direction….”
Henri Madrid eased back in his oversized leather chair and pondered what had become known at Swiss Bancorp as the “Kirchborn Enigma.” It was not nearly enough. What he didn’t know left him with a feeling of extreme dissatisfaction, one he had never quite grown accustomed to. He had built his career by solving problems, not being victimized by them. He sank even deeper in his chair, putting his heels up on the desk. In ten minutes the Interpol agent assigned to the Geronimo case would be arriving for his appointment; after that, the executive staff would get together for the first time in weeks. Perhaps at the end of the day he would finally have what he wanted most, a clear sense of direction.
Meanwhile, he turned his thoughts to a conversation he’d had with Carlo Sebastiani recently. It, too, had been frustrating and inconclusive. To many people, Geronimo was “just another dead horse”–but not to Carlo Sebastiani. Geronimo was too well-known and too closely associated with the romantic image of the Olympic movement. It surprised Madrid that even Dressage competition was on Sebastiani’s radar screen. He had been known to refer to the Olympics as “my Games,” and vehemently guarded against any suggestion of scandal that might threaten the blissful picture of world peace so carefully packaged for public consumption by the OOSC’s marketing department.
Madrid also learned that Sebastiani had been informed first about the incident by Contessa Ballestora de Tarrentino, his countrywoman and a longstanding member of the Executive Committee at the OOSC. Coincidentally, she also just happened to be the head of the World Equestrian Institute, which–like the OOSC–was based in Lausanne. All international sport horse activity was tracked through her office.
It was not hard to understand the quid pro quo in this arrangement. The equestrian component of the Games was a perennial target for elimination. The events were judged too expensive, too elitist, and above all, too costly. But as long as the Contessa voted the way Sebastiani wanted her to, he would take a hands-off approach. Most OOSC appointments and elections were built around such flagrant reciprocity. Which was to say, business as usual.
Madrid understood this, but was not troubled by it. In his experience, acknowledging the way the world actually worked was more beneficial–and profitable–than pretending things were otherwise. Together, he and Sebastiani had learned the value of this lesson in 1980, when the United States and several other countries pulled out of the Olympic Games in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. No financial institution was willing to back a reduced program, particularly when the boycott threatened the future viability of the Olympics themselves.
No financial institution other than Swiss Bancorp & Indemnity, that is. The crisis erupted during Madrid’s first month as Vice President of Finance for Bancorp and, coincidentally, Sebastiani’s first year as director of the OOSC. Even back then it was Madrid’s nature and strength to think long-term and strategically. For him, international politics was not an obstacle to investment, but rather a dynamic and fluid environment to be exploited. And he was impressed with the energy and commanding style of Sebastiani. He convinced the Bancorp Board of Directors to finance and indemnify the OOSC’s multi-million-dollar capital requirements for the Moscow Games. His financial projections were very optimistic. But if they were accurate, the bank would make out like a bandit.
As it turned out, they were accurate, and in the years that followed, Swiss Bancorp had become an ongoing financial partner of an increasingly sophisticated and growing OOSC. The creative accounting and confidentiality protocols of the Swiss banking system were used to shield the size, scope and nature of their relationship from preying eyes and the public view. It didn’t hurt, either, that Madrid’s mother was Italian and Madrid spoke the language fluently. For Sebastiani, a sentimental Fascist, it was like keeping things in the family.
Still, looking back on his last conversation with Sebastiani, Madrid felt unsettled. His client had seemed unusually interested in finding out what Madrid knew. When he asked why it mattered , Sebastiani became evasive. “Oh, just curious.” He said unconvincingly. Madrid, an excellent judge of people, felt that his friend had been fishing for information on the one hand while trying to conceal it on the other. Not his usual style. But why would he–
Ring, ring….the self induced trance was broken.
Madrid was nearly startled out of his chair. Was that Lausanne calling already?
No. It was Frau Hilfenberg, informing him that his two o’clock appointment–the agent from Interpol–had arrived.
Madrid sat up and straightened his tie. “Please show the inspector in.”
When the door to Madrid’s office opened again following the meeting with Inspector Geisel, Madrid’s top lieutenants ,Croucher, Petrova, Farner, and Ullenberg, were waiting patiently outside his office. Madrid’s meeting with Geisel had run late, something they all noted as uncharacteristic of their leader. As the door opened, Geisel walked ahead followed by Madrid, who wore a grave expression.
“Good to see you again, Inspector.” Said Ms Petrova, taking his hand briefly. “Thank you for the beautiful flowers.”
Ullenberg and Farner looked at each other curiously, not knowing who the inspector was and why he was sending flowers to one of their vice-presidents. But they knew Madrid’s style and knew they would soon be told everything. Madrid was not one to keep secrets, especially from his management team.
“Inspector, this is Herr Ullenberg, the head of our Underwriting Department and his counterpart in Finance, Herr Farner. In the coming days, I suspect you will all need to work closely together.
“My pleasure, said Geisel as he shook their hands and headed for the door, not offering to make small talk.
“Ms Helfenberg, please see the inspector out.”
Madrid turned to his team. “Sorry we ran late but I think when you learn what I have just heard you will forgive me. Now, please close the door so we can get started.”
Lufthansa Flight 1546 touched down on the tarmac of Frankfurt am Main Airport on schedule, and the passengers immediately began preparing to disembark. Most were traveling because they had to. The primary lure of Frankfurt am Main was business; the city was a hub for institutional commerce worldwide. Banking was central to the cities thriving economy, which had become a model for the growing economic strength and stability of the European Union.
Frankfurt was also a Mecca for equestrians. Many of the best riders in the world had moved there, hoping to find the right combination of training and competition to qualify for a national team.
Bret Roemer, tired by the long flight and in dire need of stretching his legs, straightened his tie, grabbed his carry-on bag from the overhead compartment, and walked down the jetway toward the terminal. He made the long trek through immigration, customs and baggage claim in a semi-fog. This was his first visit to Europe in years and his first ever to Germany—and he hoped, his last experience with serious jet lag.
But the time away from his legal duties and social obligations gave him a much-needed opportunity to think about what sort of reception he was going to get from Claire Fischer, and how he was going to accomplish his mission–a mission with no specific guidelines and no timetable. He was not used to unstructured working conditions. The practice of law was all about order, rules and precedent. He now had to play the role of a freelancer. The trip was as close to professional bungee jumping as he ever wanted to get. He would have to adjust to his new environment quickly and make up the rules as he went along. In short, he was under no illusion about the challenges ahead
After claiming his luggage, he negotiated his way through the sliding doors that separated the international passengers from the general public. Like just another bee in a swirling hive, blurry-eyed and disoriented, he was carried along by the flow, merging with the amorphous crowd milling chaotically around the terminal.
Claire Fischer stood on tiptoe, watching the large pneumatic doors open and close as they released a few passengers at a time from customs. It had been some time since she had seen the son of her father’s best friend. But she recognized him instantly when she finally caught a passing glimpse through the congestion. Would time have changed him? Was he aging gracefully? Surprisingly, he hadn’t changed much, after all. Tall, at six-feet-three, with dark, almost black hair inherited from his Argentinean mother, his boyish good looks were balanced by piercing brown eyes and an aristocratic nose.
She raised an arm and waved it over the bobbing heads that momentarily separated them. “Brett! Brett Roemer!” He heard his name as three musical notes floating over the rumble of footsteps and droning of loudspeakers. He turned to look for the source. As he recalled, Claire’s teenage voice had been rather skinny and angular, just like the rest of her. Certainly nothing like the mollifolis sound he was hearing now.
Then he spotted a young woman looking directly at him from only a few feet away. Average height, blond hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones, lots of curves…if that was Claire, more than her voice had changed. He thought. But the closer he looked, the more he realized how much she looked like Ari’s sister, Madeleine.
Claire slipped through the few people separating them and thrust out her hand. “Willkommen zu Deutschland, Bret. Wiegehts? I’m Claire. Do you recognize me?”
“Absolutely,” he lied. “It’s great to see you again. But please take it slow on the German for a while, will you, till I get the hang of it? My Berlitz course is still in its box inside my luggage.”
She laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get around without knowing much more than the basic vocabulary.”
“That’s a relief.”
She guided him through the crowd by gently pushing his elbow. “You must be tired. We’ll be out of here in no time, and I’ll drive you to the hotel. You probably could use some rest before dinner.”
“You’re right about that. Airline food just doesn’t do it for me.” he said.
As they shouldered their way through the terminal, she glanced up at him again. “I’m very relieved that you’re here. And I confess, a little excited. There’s so much to tell you.”
“I feel the same way,” said Bret, smiling at her, thinking that his father couldn’t have been more wrong about one thing: this trip was definitely not going to be all work.
The group of vice presidents filled the same chairs they had taken during their last meeting, with one exception: there was now a sixth member of the group, a barrel-chested, square-looking man in his mid-forties who caught up with them just before the door to Madrid’s office closed. A double chin partially covered the small bow tie that matched the green-brown hounds tooth pattern in his suit. Black, slicked-back hair, black-rimmed glasses, and a distinct dimple with a powerful jaw gave the impression of a no-nonsense personality.
Madrid gestured toward him. “I believe you all know Mr. Liedermann. I asked Marcus to sit in on the meeting.”
Liedermann made a courteous gesture of acknowledgement but uttered not a word. As a staff attorney at Bancorp, he was used to sitting quietly in the corner during high-powered meetings and speaking only when necessary. A trait that stood him in good graces with Madrid.
“Now, I’m sure you all wondering about the gentleman who just left” said Madrid, opening the meeting. A couple of you might remember him, because some years ago he worked for Bancorp as a young man in internal security. Now he’s with Interpol. In a moment I’ll tell you what’s on the inquisitive minds of our fair weather friends in Lyon, but first I want an update on what’s happened since we last met. Then, I’ll brief you all on what I’ve just learned from the inspector about Interpol’s preliminary investigation.
“Rolf, you first. You promised to have identified all the members of Kirchborn for us.”
Ullenberg looked around and cleared his throat. Dressed as formally as Madrid in a three-piece suit, he removed his glasses.
“Actually, I haven’t had much success, sir.”
“Meaning what?” Madrid asked in a level voice.
“Meaning, I don’t have a single name for you, Henri. This Kirchborn group is as secretive as a cabal of spies. Also, as you may recall, at the last meeting I was strongly advised not to squeeze our friends in Luxembourg too hard for information. So I didn’t. Instead, I tried to squeeze Interpol; in fact, I specifically tried to contact Inspector Geisel. But he was never in his office–or so they said–and I ended up being pushed off to an underling, some low level functionary named Michel Gérard.”
“Let me guess, he was of no help, either. I take it?” Madrid asked.
“That’s right. All he had to offer was theory, innuendo and assurances that Interpol was doing its very best. Well, I’m far from convinced of that. I’m sorry, Henri. But I don’t intend to give up. I’ll continue digging for as long as it takes.
“As long as I still have the floor, Henri, I’d like to make a couple of general observations.”
“Go ahead. That’s what we’re here for.”
“Bear with me a minute while I try to analyze aloud. If Kirchborn’s intention was fraud, then this job was so badly botched, I simply don’t believe it. You don’t commit transparent fraud in an environment that makes it difficult to get your money. That makes no more sense to me now than it did when I first heard of it, two weeks ago. I think there is a possibility that Kirchborn never expected to be paid in the first place.”
Before anyone could respond, Ullenberg bent down and hoisted his briefcase onto the conference room table. “In here is the result of a data search over the past ten years of mortality claims in the equine market. I defy anyone to find even one fraud case in which there was no attempt to cover it up.”
“Okay, Rolf,” said Madrid. “You made your point. Kirchborn’s blundering is intentional. So then what do you suggest we do about it?” Madrid asked tersely.
“Don’t pay the claim. Stand our ground. That might help stabilize the market, so we can get our clients back before the competition reacts and starts getting creative.”
“Fine. What do the rest of you think? What say you Counsel.?” Madrid said turning to Liedermann. “I believe you know everyone? What’s your take on this matter?”
“Good to see you all again.” Liedermann’s voice was low and thundering, seemingly made for courtroom drama. “Let me cut to the heart of the issue. The question most of us want answered is: Do we or do we not pay the mortality claim on this horse, Geronimo? And if not, why not? The answer is pretty simple, really. Until fraud is proven, we have no basis for denial. And at present there is simply no known connection between this Kirchborn entity and the actual killers of Geronimo. I can’t speak for Interpol, but I would expect them to concur.
“Yes, Marcus. You are right about that.” Madrid added. “Geisel has just informed me of Interpol’s official position. No direct linkage. Go on.”
“Therefore I would say that legally, the baby is split. We could hold back payment and wait for more information, but the policy calls for timely not eventual payment. We may be pushed hard by the client if we stall for too long. Kirchborn will undoubtedly take the position that the horse’s death was totally unrelated to their ownership–and if we cannot prove otherwise …well…?” He shrugged his shoulders for emphasis and added:
“It wouldn’t be the first instance of such a tactic being used.”
Madrid nodded. “Of course.” Without another word he turned toward Croucher. “Okay David, what’s the latest? Tell us about your meeting, the one you called to get all the interested parties together to discuss the killing.”
Croucher, looking rumpled as always, said.
“First, regarding our friends in Lyon…Inspector Geisel, who was officially appointed to this case, was also Interpol’s representative at the Dreieichenhof meeting near Frankfurt where we met for the first time. It’s no exaggeration to say I found him less forthcoming than Geronimo would have been if he were still alive.”
Sabrina smiled, thinking of the flowers Geisel sent her after she met with him briefly in her office.
“Frankly, I can’t tell you if Interpol is going to help us or just get in our way.”
“I believe you’ll find them more cooperative now than you feared at first,” Madrid said. “Or at least I’ve been so assured by Inspector Geisel just this afternoon.”
Croucher shrugged. “The French police, on the other hand, have been a more reliable source of information, but the news from Paris is not good. Their investigation into Jean-Paul’s death is either stalled or we’re all being kept in the dark intentionally. The bottom line in Claims is to recommend against payment. I’m basing that on our interpretation of the contract language in Paragraph Nine, Section Four, which clearly states that fraud is not covered. And if this isn’t a fraud case, I don’t know what is.”
“Do you have anything else to add.” said Madrid.
“Yes, sir. I do, indeed.” he said hesitantly, looking for support from Madrid and getting it.
“Well, it’s complicated, but autopsy and necropsy reports, as well as clinical analysis of one of Jean-Paul’s kidnappers, has identified small traces of anthrax and foot and mouth disease on everyone, including the animals. To be perfectly honest, my department is pretty shook up. I think I could describe it as a fluctuating state of collective gloom, anger and fear. People are even starting to talk about an epidemic.”
“David, if it’s that bad I think you should implement a damage-control plan to address any morale problems right away.”
“Epidemic.” Farner screeched. “What’s this about an epidemic.”
Croucher continued, “During the meeting in Dreieichenhof, it was reported by the German team veterinarian that traces of both foot-and-mouth disease and anthrax were discovered. Insignificant amounts that had nothing to do with the horse’s death, but nevertheless clearly identified as potentially toxic spores. I also have a report from the laboratory corroborating those results; it was just released.”
He cleared his throat. “Unlike the rest of you, I have personally seen the results of foot-and-mouth infestation. It’s truly horrible, very destructive and expensive, but at least it’s not contagious to humans. Anthrax is a different matter, especially in the form found on Geronimo, the inhalation variety. It starts off with the symptoms of a common cold, then progresses to severe breathing problems, and is almost always fatal.”
A hush came over the meeting as the implications of such an explosive revelation sunk in. There could be no doubt now about linkage now as the word epidemic stuck in their minds.
“Holly shit.” Shouted Sabrina, raising her arms in frustration. That sounds like a connection to me.”
Suddenly, Madrid realized Geisel had lied to him in their meeting. But why?. If this wasn’t evidence of a conspiracy, then what was it? Madrid bit his tongue as he collected his thoughts.
“Ernst, we haven’t heard much from you today. Your thoughts, please?”
“Don’t pay,” said Farner. “If we cave in now, we’ll not only disrupt the market further, we’ll have to rewrite clauses in our contracts or face more of this kind of thing in the future. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important to salvage business like this in our portfolio.”
Sabrina looked in Farner’s, often seeing things diametrically opposed to a detached calculating point of view, but for once she found easy agreement with the consensus of her peers.
Madrid nodded. “Any disagreement? Anyone have something else to add?”
No one spoke.
“Very well, then it’s my turn,” Madrid said. “And I’m going to do something I almost never do. My most trusted advisors and confidants, my friends…I’m overruling you, all of you except Liedermann, that is.”
Some of the reactions around the table were obvious; others noticeable only to a keen observer like Madrid himself. “I say we pay the full amount of the claim under our contractual obligations…but without informing our treaty partners of the decision. That would bring too many cooks into the kitchen, and we would undoubtedly experience many, if not all, of the negative consequences just described. So I suggest we go it alone and cover the payoff as a self-insured retention on the books.”
“But, Henri, we have no contractual obligations to do so.” pleaded Sabrina. “That is if the crimes are truly linked, as they seem to be… I don’t get it.”
Madrid knew his suggestion was unprecedented, and he could sense the rising skepticism in the room. “Before the rest of you start bloviating,” he said, “hear me out. I have new information on this matter, I feel compelled to share. And it’s disturbing enough to make me suggest—no, insist–that we pay the claim despite all the sound reasons not to.”
“And what might that information be, Henri?” Sabrina asked somewhat impatiently. We are all waiting to hear it.”
“In a word, one that David has just used.” said Madrid, “Anthrax.”
My God,” Sabrina said. “That’s not so new. We all just heard it from David, a moment ago.”
“I heard it, too, Henri, like everybody else, but doesn’t this just strengthen are argument not to pay?”said Rolf.
“I disagree.” said Croucher, waving his hand, and then differing to Madrid. “What else have you just learned from Interpol that changes things. What does Interpol want from us, Henri, blood?”
“No, not exactly,” said Madrid. “Something worse. They also want us to pay the claim.”
”But why should we?” said Ullenberg. “You still haven’t explained why. Even if we’re able to prove fraud later, we may never get our money back. We’re a bank, not an ATM machine for Lyon.”
“He’s right,” said Liedermann. “I’m tempted to reverse my earlier recommendation.”
“They want to trace the money…” said Madrid. “And in my opinion, so should we. I’m fairly sure we can work together on something as important as this without getting in each other’s way.
”Let me explain my thinking further. To begin with, our piece of the equine insurance pie is relatively small on an international basis. But if these diseases became more widespread in Europe, it would hit us very hard. Therefore, helping Interpol track down the criminals now means we protect our flank against future bio- terrorist threats. That’s worth something, isn’t it?”
All nodded in silence.
“But does Interpol have even the slightest idea where the money will end up?” Farner asked.
“I think we all know what the answer to that is,” Sabrina said. Looking to quickly line herself up with a changing consensus.
Madrid gestured for her to go on.
“To Kirchborn, of course. Henri, your plan sounds to me like an opportunity for damage control, both now and in the future. It might be worth a try after all. I vote we go with it, to act on the conservative side. This is no time for gambling.”
Madrid turned to Farner. “Well, Ernst, can we all agree?”
“Sure, Chief, you know me. I’m a team player.”
“Good. Then, you and Rolf can team up later and track the money down, wherever it leads you, Kirchborn or wherever. Is that clear?”
“Crystal.” said Farner, snapping to attention while thinking just the opposite.
But in this case he understood his colleague’s reluctance. When financial tracing of this kind was required, it was always conducted secretly; it was important to maintain internal security protocols and take additional precautions to protect the company from unwanted intrusions into its confidential business practices. The long arm of Interpol or any other governmental entity looking into its financial affairs was the last thing any Swiss bank wanted.
“Do you think you can work with Interpol on a friendly and collaborative basis?” he asked everyone at once.
“I know what you’re worried about, Henri,” said Farner. “I can’t tell you right now exactly how we’ll do it, but if you give me a little time, I’ll come up with something.”
“Fine, but make it a priority. Let’s get that money traced as soon as possible.”
“Henri,” Ullenberg said, “this is your decision and you have every right to make it. But as an executive of this company I must ask you: Will you also be responsible if things go wrong?”
“Yes, of course. No one’s career will be tainted by this. I’m going to handle it as a closed, in-house transaction, transparent to no one but us, until the end of the next financial quarter. If we should lose the money or if it’s frozen, we’ll deal with it then, and only then. You all have read the astronomical losses projected in the U.K. for foot-and-mouth–maybe a billion dollars or more. Imagine the public panic from a real anthrax attack on the same scale.”
“I’d rather not.”said Sabrina.
Madrid had the last word. “If we can play a role in stopping this Kirchborn thing dead in its tracks, the return on investment to Bancorp and the civilized world for that matter would be more than justified.”
The meeting ended on a note of consensus for the greater good. No one wanted to leave without supporting their Chairman and CEO, however unpredictable the outcome might be.
Promptly at seven, the front desk rang Bret’s room and he went down and met Claire in the lobby. While making arrangements for a rental car at the desk, Claire approached him from behind. She tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. And that’s exactly what she got. She had changed from blue jeans and tennis shoes worn at the airport into a sleeveless blue summer dress. A lightweight wool coat was draped over her arm, and a multicolored silk scarf was tied in a loose knot around her neck.
Their eyes met as he shook her hand. She smiled. “You look refreshed. You must be hungry.”
“Starving is more like it.”
“Do you like Indian food?”
The question surprised him; he had been anticipating wurst and potato salad and beer served in bathtub-sized steins. Also, his sole experience with Indian food, back in college, had been a disaster. He had made the mistake of ordering a spicy meal. Too spicy. He remembered losing his breath several times, temporarily unable to speak and later getting sick.
But he didn’t want Claire to consider him culinarilly challenged. “I’ve had Indian food before,” he said, “but you’ll have to help me with the menu.”
“Great! It’s in walking distance. Let’s go”
He finished signing the papers and was handed the keys by the desk clerk. They strolled together two blocks away to a small, unimpressive-looking restaurant. In the vestibule they were greeted by the obligatory multi-armed statue of the goddess Kali seated in the lotus position. Sitar music played in the background, creating a quieting mood very conducive to fighting off jet lag.
A waitress escorted them to a corner table and handed out menus. As Bret sat, his eye was caught by the unique hand-embroidered place mats at each table.
Claire noticed. “There’s a story depicted in each one of these. We could try deciphering them if you’d like.”
Bret laughed. “Sure, maybe later after we’re both in the same time zone.”
“Fair enough. The food is great here. You’ll feel better soon.”
Bret picked up his menu. It was written in Hindi, with a German translation. He turned helplessly to Claire.
“Would you like me to order for you?” she asked.
She flipped through the pages of the menu with the familiarity of a gourmet. In German, she patiently questioned the waitress about several of the items. After the waitress left, Bret asked, “What was that all about?”
“You have to be careful with Indian food. It can be very hot. If you like what I ordered for you tonight, you can start ordering the hot stuff as your palate becomes more conditioned to it. Meanwhile, if you don’t mind, we can share dishes so you can sample the food. I ordered one hot one just for myself, but if you feel brave, you’re welcome to try.”
“I’ve been in Germany for only a few hours, and already I’m facing my first test,” Bret said, smiling.
“You have to start somewhere.”
They raised their glasses of water in a toast. “Welcome to Germany, Bret,” Claire said. “I’m very glad you’re here.”
He smiled. “So am I.”
While they waited for their meal to be served, Bret asked Claire what it was like to participate in classical dressage. He admitted he knew nothing about the sport except what coverage he’d seen of past Olympics, which portrayed something that looked rather like gymnastics on horseback, but more conservative. As Claire began to describe her training routine, he grew more and more impressed with the dedication the sport required. By seven every morning, Claire and the other riders were up and getting the horses ready for schooling; their day didn’t end until six p.m. He thought it sounded a lot like slavery, but of course Claire would probably say the same about the long hours Bret put in at his law firm.
She also told him about Dreieichenhof’s history. The way she described it, it sounded idyllic, a fairytale setting. But Bret was already reading the tea leaves. According to Ari Fischer, Dreieichenhof suffered from security risks, and lots of them. “Shooting fish in a barrel” was the unfortunate analogy that came to Bret’s tired mind; he was careful not to share his insight too soon with Claire.
Claire must have had intuition about Bret’s taste for Indian food. He left it up to her. Whatever she ordered was perfect, not to hot and surprisingly good.
As the evening progressed, Bret discovered that Claire’s interests extended far beyond the world of dressage or food. She had a passion for the performing arts and an intellectual curiosity that belied her age. Smart and beautiful. He quickly concluded. Claire possessed a winning combination. Talk about getting lucky, he thought. And look at my teacher! Not bad for a guy going out on a virtual blind date in a foreign country.
Conversation came easily as they caught up with what had happened in their lives over the last six or seven years. When they finally reached the reason for Bret’s visit, the mood changed. Tears climbed into Claire’s eyes as she described the tragedy that had befallen Helena.
When she was finished, Bret frowned. “You say that just a month before this happened, someone bought Geronimo…but nobody told either his trainer or rider about it? Isn’t that a bit strange?”
“I would say so, yes.”
“And just a month before Geronimo was killed…. So, does anyone know who or what this Kirchborn is?”
“Helena told me it was a consortium; a lot of horses are owned by groups.”
They stayed late, unaware of the time passing, talking until the restaurant closed its doors.
Claire dropped Bret off at his hotel with a parting question. “Have you figured out your cover story yet? I’m afraid that if it isn’t convincing, there will be questions about what you’re doing here. The last thing I want to do is draw attention to us.”
“Just tell anybody who asks that I’m here to do legal research.”
“Legal research, huh? Better break that Berlitz course out soon.”
He leaned through the open passenger doorway of her car. “Obviously, I’ll need a research assistant while I’m here. Know of anyone who might be interested?”
“You’re looking at the only applicant right now.”
“Fine with me. Let’s get started tomorrow.”
“Okay, tomorrow it is. See you at six-thirty. Am that is”
“See you then,” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Six-thirty in the morning here was something like midnight back home. He would be getting up just when he would normally be thinking about going to bed….
Right on time the next morning, Claire picked Bret up, hot coffee in hand, and drove directly to the Equestrian Center, only ten minutes away. “I’ll introduce you to everyone,” she said. “Well, not Hubertus; unfortunately he’s in America for the next couple of days, conducting classes. He spends a lot of time doing that, all around the world.”
Claire was dressed in her usual riding clothes–a warm sweater; black boots shined to a mirror reflection, with polished silver spurs strapped to the heels; and skin-tight, full-seat breeches, designed for dressage.
She was beautiful, Bret thought, no matter how she dressed. So was the countryside. It seemed peaceful, charming. How could he reconcile his first impressions with the greater reality facing him ahead? According to his father and Ari, Dreieichenhof was potentially a place of danger, but the stately forests that surrounded it hardly seemed capable of harboring evil. Had the Fischers overreacted to events that had nothing to do with Claire? Or were they justified in taking immediate steps to prevent even bigger problems further down the road?
He was no expert in matters of security, but when they arrived at Dreieichenhof, he could see how exposed the place was. The property was out in the countryside, nestled between two small towns, and had no visible form of security at all. He saw no gates, no guards, nor fences of any significance–and as Claire had told him during the short trip, anyone could wander around as they wished, unchallenged. Probably the security issue had never even been given thought before. No wonder Claire’s family was afraid for her safety.
She parked in the central courtyard and hurried toward the stables, Bret keeping pace. The activities of the day had already begun, with riders getting their horses groomed and tacked up for their morning exercise. Claire had told Bret that, on a normal day, either the stable’s top rider, Helena de Groot, or Falckenstein himself would work with the riders individually. Weather permitting, it was quite common for spectators to watch the lessons.
“Anyone can just hang around here and watch?” Bret asked.
She nodded. Clearly she knew what he meant. “Come on, let’s find Helena. She’s got to be around; with Hubertus gone, she’s in charge of the riding hall and stables.”
“Helena’s the one whose horse got poisoned?” Bret asked.
Claire nodded. “She was devastated, but she’s already moving ahead. What an amazingly strong woman.”
They entered the stables and walked past stall after stall occupied by talented–and extremely valuable–horses. The old brick structure, with its high ceilings and heavy timber buttresses, reminded Bret of lithographs he had seen in history books.
“Oh, there she is,” said Claire. “Come on, Bret; I want to introduce you to a superstar.”
Bret’s first impression of Helena was mixed. He could see in her face that the years of hard work and dedication had taken a terrible toll. She had broad shoulders and stood over six feet tall, and her body looked every bit as strong as his own. She projected a one-dimensional image–a woman who had sacrificed everything, including her femininity, to reach her goals.
“Good morning,” she said. “You must be Claire’s friend.”
“Happy to meet you.” He took her hand, which was as hard as saddle leather. “Bret Roemer.” He struggled to match her grip, it was as strong as a vice. Surprised, he had the impression until now that the hands of a professional dressage rider were soft and sensitive.
“Do you ride, as well?” she asked.
“Yes, but not much dressage. I used to jump, and now I play a little polo on the weekends.”
“Then you came to the right area. Claire may have already told about our neighbors.”
She turned to Claire as her expression changed to all-business. “Would you have time later this morning to film my freestyle for Falckenstein? I’ve changed the routine for Wiesbaden, and I want him to see it on film first.”
“Sure, Helena. What about just before lunch?”
“Fine. I’ll notify everyone to clear out of the arena by then.”
With a nod at Bret, she turned and strode away.
“What do you think?” Claire asked.
“Intense,” Bret said.
“But kind beneath it all,” Claire added. “Did you notice she spoke English to me, so as not to leave you out?”
Bret realized that he hadn’t noticed. He was more concerned about Helen’s reference to the neighbors.
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you there is a polo field just down the road.”
Claire led him down the line of stables, introducing the other riders, who were busy grooming their horses. All but one of them was young like her, and all had the same dreams. The exception was Alexander von Stein. He shook Bret’s hand too, although not as friendly as the girls had been. He had curly brown hair, intense eyes, and stood nearly Bret’s height. The hug he and Claire gave each other caught Bret off guard.
Which was ridiculous. Claire was the type of woman whom any man would find beautiful and interesting, and after all, she shared her biggest passion in life with von Stein. He had to smile at himself. He had known the adult Claire Fischer for one day. So far they got along well and she was certainly stimulating company, but beyond that, he had no claim on her or for distractions from his mission. He was here to do a job, he told himself, and when that was over, he was going home. Claire wasn’t leaving Germany, not if she intended to compete at the top level of dressage. So…
He decided to adopt a Continental attitude. Well, if Alexander von Stein is Claire’s boyfriend, then c’est la vie!
After the introductions to all her compadres, both human and horse, Claire went from stall to stall offering sugar to her aunt’s horses: Aladdin, Falstaff, and Willow Bay. To Bret these horses looked nothing like polo ponies or even thoroughbreds, the kinds of horses he was familiar with. For one thing they were bigger–far bigger. They also seemed more docile and friendly, especially by comparison to some of the hot-blooded thoroughbreds he had handled. So then why were they called “warmbloods?” he mused. He decided not to ask Claire. He’d look it up on his own; at the moment he didn’t want to seem even more ignorant about dressage than he already was.
All three horses were introduced to him as though they were members of the Fischer family, which he supposed they were in many ways: a liver chestnut gelding, a brown bay mare and a magnificent jet-black beauty, a stallion that Claire admitted was her favorite. Like the others at Dreieichenhof, these were special horses, bred and trained exclusively for dressage and very finely tuned. And like their human counterparts, each was an individual athlete, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities.
The black, Aladdin, nickered as Claire slipped two small sugar cubes from her pocket. She turned to Bret and gave him some sugar for the other two, who were quick to accept his friendship.
Aladdin was to be Claire’s first ride of the day. As she began to groom and tack him, she suggested Bret take a walk around the grounds. “It will help with the jet lag,” she said sympathetically.
“I look that bad, huh?”
“A little tired is all.”
“I’ll bet.” He said, taking the advice to heart.
As he walked, he tried to take mental notes of what he observed around the ancient compound. The more he saw, the more his earlier impression about the lack of security was strengthened. There were no guards, and few fences or gates. Worse, people of all kinds seemed to be wandering back and forth from the restaurants, golf courses, stables, bakery, and administrative offices. Some were just out for stroll with their dogs, a favorite cultural pass time in Germany.
Eventually Bret spotted what had to be the Falckenstein Estate House, rising in brooding splendor from neatly-trimmed lawns and manicured hedges. Bret stopped and gazed at it for a while, especially the top floor as he tried to guess the location of the attic annex where the Fischer children had been hidden away so many years ago. After all, it was equally a part of her family history.
He eventually found his way to Dreieichenhof’s famous indoor riding hall where some of the riders he had met earlier were already putting their horses through their daily exercises. The unique building rose above the far end of a small field. Its top level was walled in glass and had a balcony encircling three sides.
Bret realized instantly what it was. Claire had informed him that, in Europe, “viewing rooms” were standard amenities of the best riding establishments. It wasn’t unusual for horse deals to be conceived, developed, and consummated in such rooms. And some of the most famous riders in Germany had visited this one many times.
Bret walked to the building, climbed the stairs, and found himself in the vestibule of a small cafe offering unobstructed views of the riding below. On the walls hung portraits of riders, both men and women in various modes of period dress; prominent among them was one identified by an engraved plaque as “Dr. Joseph Neckerman.” Bret didn’t recognize either the face or the name; perhaps Neckerman had been one of Dreieichenhof’s more famous riders or trainers of the recent past?
After hanging his coat on a rack near the door, he entered the cafe. He was not alone; even at this early hour, voices floated past him from the back of the room and the smell of coffee, cigarette smoke and fresh baked goods blended into an inviting combination. He had observed on previous trips that Europeans made time for each other. Socializing was an essential part of everyday life, to be enjoyed without rushing.
Looking for a place to sit, he walked past the glass windows. The large room was quite crowded and German was the only language spoken; the words came much too fast for his tin ear to decipher.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at an empty table, where he tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. He was a bit ashamed that he hadn’t dare to speak to anyone he passed, even to say “Gutten morgen.” Fear of being misunderstood was only part of his concern. There was also the fact that someone might notice his accent and wonder why he was there, to buy an expensive horse perhaps. He couldn’t get it out of his mind… a horse-poisoner or arsonist might be sitting at the next table.
Just then, a gravelly voice spoke in English behind him: “You, there. Young man. Are you the American friend of Claire Fischer?”
So much for blending in. Bret turned in his chair. “Why, yes, I am.”
The friendly stranger was a sturdy-looking man with a full but disheveled head of salted hair. He appeared to be in his fifties. He wore work clothes like a farmer, but Bret doubted many farmers frequented this cafe. “Let me introduce myself,” the man said. “My name is Hans Handler; I own another riding facility down the road.”
The tables were next to each other, so all Bret had to do was reach out to shake Handler’s thick, callused hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Young Claire will be riding soon, yes?”
“I believe so.”
“Good. She is a pleasure to watch; she and my daughter Saskia are at about the same level.”
“Well, in that case I’m looking forward to watching her, too. But I’m afraid I don’t know much about dressage.”
“Then you have come to the right place; nobody alive has done more to promote dressage around the world than her coach, Hubertus Falckenstein. Ah, look, here is Claire now, on Aladdin.”
Claire began with a warm-up: walk, trot, and finally canter work. Bit by bit the movements became more difficult and the activity level increased; still, Aladdin carried her around the arena like a princess. It was obvious they had a special relationship, the two of them working together as one. Claire’s controlled movements were invisible; her hands and legs seemed to be motionless as her horse trotted in place, then extended across the diagonal, covering ground at an exhilarating pace. The same was true of the canter exercises. Galloping aggressively, then making a seamless transition to cantering on the spot, followed by more extensions. It was a beautiful picture, and Aladdin performed his duties happily, with no sign of resistance to the physically demanding work he was being asked to do.
Bret watched intently as Claire developed Aladdin’s natural suspension. The lift and impulsion were almost supernatural, the visual hang-time seeming to defy gravity.
Next came the piaffe and passage transitions, the highest collected movements of the Grand Prix. Bret was mesmerized. The schooling of canter pirouettes was next, and carried out with exquisite precision as Aladdin collected himself, carrying all the weight on his haunches, in ever-decreasing circles to a spot no larger than a dinner plate, then out again in expanding circles. It looked to Bret as if horse and rider were dancing on the head of a pin.
When it was over and Claire walked her horse out of the arena, Bret sat back with a sigh. “That’s horsemanship like I’ve never seen,” he said.
“Do you ride yourself?” Handler asked from behind him. Bret started; he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone.
“Not like that. I play a little polo.”
“Really? Well, then, you must meet Werner, my new neighbor. He just started boarding his polo ponies with us and wants to make some cooperative arrangements with me. The polo club in our area is quite active by German standards, but it can always use an infusion of new blood…and money, of course. Werner has plenty of both at his disposal. If you intend to stay here for a while, perhaps you could ride with the club.”
“That sounds very interesting,” Bret said. “If I’m here long enough, I just might take him up on that”
“Splendid. Well, if you will forgive me. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“So do I,” Bret said, and watched him leave. Amazing. Only a few days ago he had been sitting behind a desk, reading endless briefs and depositions and wondering if that was all there was to look forward to. Now he was watching expert riders take the finest horses in the world through their paces on an ancient Germanic estate, and he had a tentative invitation to play polo as well. That sounds very interesting was quite an understatement of his real enthusiasm for his experience here so far.
He realized he was already becoming more comfortable in this strange new environment than he dared dream. As he studied the riding and training activity below, he sipped coffee and listened to the conversations of the people who drifted in and out of the observation deck. He was learning by osmosis to understand a new language, one word at a time.
Claire reappeared on a different horse and gave it a lighter training session. Again she rode off, and then came back with the third of the horses in her care. Perhaps it was Bret’s imagination, but Claire always seemed to stand out even in the busy practice area.
Then the arena was suddenly empty as the other riders cleared out. Had the time passed so quickly. He looked down at his watch. A moment later Helena de Groot entered on a dark bay stallion, Excalibur, followed on foot by Claire, carrying a video camera.
After a few minutes of casual, warm-up, Helena drew Excalibur to a halt in the center of the arena known as ‘X’, held the reins in her left hand and raised her right arm high in the air. There it remained, motionless, until the music began.
Conversation on the observation deck ended as everyone turned to watch one of the best riders in Europe dance with her magnificent stallion in what is known as a musical kür, a so-called freestyle ride. Years of training and hard work produced what seemed to Bret to be one of the most elegant displays of horsemanship he had ever witnessed.
At the end of the ride came an exact four-square halt, followed by Helena’s salute to the imaginary judge at ‘C,’ a marker at the end of the arena. A chorus of cheers and clapping broke out spontaneously in the restaurant as the small audience responded to the display of haute école riding at its best.
As the clapping grew louder, Bret felt an odd vibration coming from the floor.
Everyone must have felt it too as the room grew strangely quiet.
Then it happened, without warning. As Helena walked toward the exit door to the arena, the sound of a tractor strained against one of the main beams holding up the roof where she had just halted her horse. Bret heard it crack loudly, then crash to the ground, sending debris and dust flying in every direction.
Her horse bolted in a panic and bucked wildly as it tried to escape from harm. She circled the animal to get him under control as everyone in the observation deck froze with fear. Then, an explosion of energy, as fear griping them all in panic, they realized what had happened. Herd instinct took over as everyone ran for the stairs in an effort to get out of the building and to safety. Someone grabbed Bret by his jacket and pulled him along with the rest. Nearly everyone came together— from the Bakery, the golf club, and the restaurants—all at once in the courtyard outside. It was too soon to tell for sure, but none of the animals seemed to be hurt and miraculously, no one else.
But what could have caused the roof to give way so suddenly?
Hans Handler appeared and rushed to the spot of the collapse to inspect the broken timbers and torn sheetrock. There was an unmanned tractor, the one usually used to drag the arena right before lunch every day, chained to one of the huge support beams with the engine still running. Hans reached for the keys and turned the engine off, allowing the tractor to come to rest. Meanwhile, Claire tucked her camera under her arm and ran to the office for help from the staff. The police and fire departments needed to be called.
Siren’s sounded immediately in the distance as she hurried back to the disaster area. She saw Hans and Bret in the direction of the clearing smoke and dust.
“Look.” Hans pointed to a spot near the tractor. I think I see what happened.” He reached down. “These bolts holding the roof supports have been removed. See here, these, they are missing. You can tell from the holes in the iron braces. The constant vibration in the old building should have alerted us that there was a structural problem. But there was no time to react. The tractor seems to have been used to finish the job. Who would do such a thing and who was driving the tractor when it happened?”
“Manual is the only one authorized to drive the tractor.” said Claire. “It couldn’t be him.”
“Well, we’ll see about that. It could have been much worse if the arena was busy.” said Bret, feeling a little shaken himself “So where is this Manual.?”
“Just then a small man in a straw hat approached them, visibly shaken and speaking in rapid-fire pigeon German to Handler. Even Claire couldn’t understand what he was trying to say.” Handler shook his head. Then asked him if he knew anything. “Stay right where you are, Manual. The police will probably want to speak with you. Understand, amigo?”
“Do you really think it was sabotage ?”said Bret.
“What else?” said Handler, looking more closely at Manual and putting his hands into the rubble to get a better look. “And where was he when it happened?
“These buildings have been standing here for hundreds of years and I know Falckenstein has them inspected regularly, just like the rest of us who own old buildings. It’s the law. But now I think we are looking at a crime scene, not an accident, or at least we will know soon enough. When the authorities arrive, I’m sure they will tape off the area while they study the evidence.”
Bret was thinking to himself, “A crime like this in broad daylight?…What have I gotten myself into?”
When the police and fire departments finally arrived, Bret looked at his watch. Right now, there was only one person he wanted to see. Where did she go?
He caught up with Claire who had slipped away from the courtyard to see for herself that none of the horses were hurt.
As he approached, she pulled him aside and slipped a video tape into his hand, making sure they were not being watched. “Quick Bret, come with me for a minute, I want you to take this cassette of Helen’s kur with you and hide it in your hotel room. I started taping a few minutes before the music began and kept shooting even while the roof was collapsing. Then I ran into the courtyard and panned everything in sight until the battery ran low. I’m afraid there might be something or someone on that tape that could be involved. And if they think we got it on tape, we’re toast.”
“Claire, you may be right but I think everyone’s overreacting. Don’t you?”
“Not anymore, I don’t. Just do it, Bret, please. I’m really scared.”
“Okay. The video would sure clear Manual if he was telling the truth. Wouldn’t it.” said Bret.
“I don’t know who to trust anymore, Bret. Go! Take my car, here are the keys. Hide it away in your room and don’t stop to talk with anyone. Meet me back here at the office in half an hour. There’s someone I want you to meet. Someone who I know can be trusted.”
As he left the stabling area, Bret could see for himself how much foot traffic there was on what he presumed was an average day, as life around Dreieichenhof seemed to be returning to normal. It was not quite noon and the parking lot was full. Golfers and other members of the public were streaming in to play a round or take their daily constitutional through the countryside. He couldn’t help wondering if any of them would be recognized on the tape. Someone driving that tractor, for instance. And maybe watching him now as he carried it away to a safe place. If that were the case, he would make sure he wasn’t followed.
From the balcony of his hotel room he could here more sirens off in the distance. Clearly, many rescue vehicles had been called to the scene. And then he heard something else—a loud explosion coming from the direction of Dreieichenhof. He looked up, startled and momentarily numbed. He quickly hid the tape away and ran through the hotel lobby toward his car, thinking of nothing but Claire and the safety of those he left behind.
He expected the worse when he reached the scene in the courtyard, where he was met with a new security perimeter manned by the police. Behind them were three fire trucks, hosing down the partially downed arena. He parked his car and ran to find Claire but Hans Handler found him first.
“It’s all right Bret. You look panicked. Don’t worry. The explosion was set by the authorities. Nobody is hurt as you can see.”
“What was it. It sounded like a bomb.”
“It may have been. As soon as you left and before the police got here, the Fire Marshall discovered a suspicious looking box near the tractor. When the police finally arrived, they cleared the area and detonated whatever it was just to be on the safe side. Or so they told us. I don’t know anything more than that. And I wonder how smart it was to destroy possible evidence.?”
“Your right, Hans, but you’ll have to excuse me, I must try to find Claire now. We’ll talk later.” He headed directly for the administrative offices. And there she was waiting for him.
As he approached, her emotions took over. He reached for her hand and she hugged him with all her strength.”
“That’s better,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“Better, now that your back. Were you followed?”
“No! I’m sure of it.”
“Good. Let’s go inside the office for a minute. Even though what just happened is a terrible timing, I want you to meet my closest friend in Germany, Frau Erlich, Hubertus’s secretary and personal assistant. We discovered we have a lot I common. We enjoy the same music and have many of the same artistic interests.
“ She’s worked for his family for over twenty-five years.”
“That’s the kind of secretary I need at the firm. Does she speak English?”
“Come see for yourself.”
They entered the small office building across from Falckenstein’s home. A woman in the rear of the room looked up when they entered and smiled with relief at the sight of Claire. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties and looked her age. She was conservatively dressed in a plaid summer frock that ended well below the knee. Her reading glasses hung loosely around her neck for quick retrieval. With the exception of a gold ring on her right hand, she wore no jewelry. Considering what had just taken place, she seemed remarkably calm—that is, until she spotted Claire.
She nearly ran to Claire’s side, reaching out to her for comfort. “My God, there you are. I was so worried.” She spoke with a strong accent, as did many older Germans who had learned English on the fly and not in school. “I heard that no one was hurt. How fortunate.” She gave Claire a spontaneous hug. “And, this must be the young man who has come to visit you. So nice to meet you, Mr. Roemer. I hope you will have an enjoyable stay in spite of what happened this morning.I don’t know what to make of it?” She reached out an unsteady hand to shake his. “I’m afraid I’m still trembling from it all. And I haven’t been able to reach Herr Falckenstein yet.”
“I’m sure you will, Frau Erlich” Bret tried to sound reassuring. “I’ve only been in Germany a day and a half, and I’m already more involved than I ever imagined.”
“That’s wonderful. As you can see for yourself, we could use some outside help, or so it would seem. Though, I’m afraid we are creating a very bad first impression of German life. Perhaps something more…uplifting to show our better side is needed? Could you join Claire and me to see the opera or symphony some evening soon, yes? There is much to do in the city of Frankfurt and maybe we need to get our minds off what just happened.”
“I’d be flattered. Thank you.”
” Unfortunately,”Claire said , “the only things my fellow students want to do is go to the discos or shopping.” Then she turned to her friend and spoke rapid-fire German. The conversation went back and forth before Frau Erlich smiled again, shook Bret’s hand one last time, then excused herself and returned to her duties, which now included contact with the police and investigators.
As they walked away, Claire turned toward Bret,
“Oh, I asked Frau Erlich when Hubertus was returning; she said tomorrow. I’m thinking of asking for more security here and maybe even moving the horses to Hans’s stables.”
“Good thinking. Maybe Helena should move, too.” said Bret boldly.
“Exactly. Guards, fences, less public access in general. We could be very happy there, at least for awhile.”
“Moving seems more than just a good idea. It’s more a necessity, now. Anyone could walk up and kill a horse, or a person for that matter, in this place.” He paused. “and, they almost did.”
“What do you mean. Wasn’t it an accident?”
“Hans doesn’t think so. He found evidence of sabotage. And you heard the explosion. They think it could have been a bomb as well.”
Claire dropped her head, eyes downcast. She kept her thoughts to herself. She was reminded of her conversation with Frau Erlich just days ago concerning the Interpol agent’s unannounced visit to Dreieichenhof. This development suddenly took on new significance. She was convinced, more than ever, that the visit by the Interpol inspector was certainly no coincidence and the time to move the horses was now. The importance of the film she gave to Bret was an additional concern. Her expression grew even more grim.
Seeing this, Bret lightened his tone, happy to change the subject. “I’m looking to taking in my first opera with you and Frau Erlich. But I’m afraid I’ll be a fish out of water. After today’s events, I wouldn’t mind a temporary change of venue. It might be good for all of us.”
Claire’s eyes picked up their familiar brightness again. “Oh, no, we’d love to have you. We need a break from reality. Great music is a wonderful tonic for the soul, wherever it’s performed. But there’s something special about concerts in Europe, where much of the classical music was originally created.”
Bret nodded. In less than twenty-four hours he had begun to feel the seductive powers of the old World, of Germany, and Dreieichenhof. Perhaps he was sensing the presence of his own roots in a country where he was being relentlessly pulled alone as he discovered many unexpected contrasts. It would be for him a mixed blessing.
And then it happened. When he momentarily glanced at Claire, he felt something he had never felt before, at least not with that level of intensity. Was he feeling deep irrational emotion ?—Or could it be the same sense of danger Ari and his father felt as they spoke to him before he left New York for foreign shores, leaving behind the familiarity and safety of his native land? Questions he now entertained privately but yielded no satisfactory answers–at least, not yet.
Upper New York State
Madeleine Fischer Mortinson had lived in the state of New York most of her life. Although she had no children of her own, she loved her niece, Claire, as she would her own daughter. High among Madeleine’s varied interests were the performing arts: ballet, opera and symphonic music. She was enamored of anything classical, including what she considered one of the oldest and most classical of art forms, riding horses.
Over the years, under the direction and training of her oldest and most trusted friend, Hubertus Falckenstein, she had been able to find the horses that were best suited to her ability and age. Unfortunately, although her aspirations had been high when she was younger, her talent had never allowed her to exceed the level of amateur.
Then, three years earlier, due to failing health and advancing years, she reluctantly faced the necessity of abandoning her life long passion. But the very thought of selling her beloved horses was traumatizing.
Fortunately there was Claire. Madeleine had done her best to instill an appreciation for the finer things of life, including horses, in her beloved niece. This had not proven difficult, for Claire was a naturally talented rider. However, she had been reluctant to pursue dressage seriously. A waste, in her Aunt’s opinion. Under the right circumstances, Madeleine believed, Claire could have developed into the elite rider she coveted for herself.
So Madeleine urged her Niece to put off the next semester of college and accompany her three horses to Germany in order to supervise their sale–a conditional agreement based on the assumption that the horses would find new homes quickly, with Hubertus’ help, of coarse. And as long as Claire happened to be at one of the premiere riding schools in Germany, why not do a bit of riding herself?
After only a few weeks, Herbertus was so impressed with Claire’s raw talent that he recommended she stay longer than originally intended. Under the right circumstances he felt Claire could quickly rise to international level. And soon he was proved to be right as Claire seemed to be developing an interest and talent for doing just that. Madeleine could not have been more gratified with these developments and postponing the sale of the horses indefinitely. Madeleine’s powers of intuition seldom failed her.
She even knew when her phone was about to ring. Just not how or why.
Ringgggggg….”Hello, Madeleine. It’s Hubertus.”
“Hubie, how nice to hear from you! I knew you were over here for your clinics again and prayed you would me call as soon as you could. Shall we speak English or Deutsch?”
“Please, only English. I must always practice my English in order to get better. How is your health?”
“My health is about the same, but never mind that; I have some urgent news I must share with you.”
“It’s about Geronimo, isn’t it? Claire has already told me.”
“Hubie, you’re right ,of course. But this time, it reminds me of the scandal we had here in the U.S. a few years ago. In the international jumper market. Do you remember that?”
“Of course, I do.” said Falckenstein sadly. The horse world was shaken to its knees when it became clear that a racket was created to kill horses for the insurance money. There had been electrocutions, suffocations and other barbaric acts. Fortunately, every one of the criminals had done time in prison and made restitution. “Unfortunately, I think this might be the start of something even worse.”
“I’m concerned about Claire and the horses, as I’m sure you are. What should we do.”
“Don’t worry, Madeleine. I’m thinking about several options right now. As soon as I get back to Dreieiechenhof, I’ll put in a new security system. Things will be fine.”
He wasn’t so sure, even of the veracity of his own words. But he didn’t want Claire’s Aunt to worry needlessly.
As they continued their conversation, Madeleine got up and walked across her living room to where a large photo album lay on a mahogany table between two large windows that looked out onto her rose garden. She turned the pages one by one—photos showing her horses over the years, and the special people, such as Hubertus Falckenstein, who were closely connected to them. She felt a lump growing in her aging throat as she listened to the sound of his voice, the voice of the man who had made many of her dreams in life come true.
“Madeleine, is there any way you can come out to New Jersey so we see each other again? I have a lot of promising news to tell you about the horses’ and Claire’s progress.”
“I wish I could, Hubie, but the medication I’m taking makes it impossible for me to drive safely. So we’ll just have to rely on the telephone.” She hesitated. “Ari called this morning to tell me the mortality insurance policy has been canceled on all my horses.”
“Yes, I’m not surprised, really, after something like this. The market for horses with values above a million dollars has dried up. But I wouldn’t worry. Nothing bad has happened to any of your horses over all these years. We still don’t know for sure what happened to Geronimo. If I could keep all the premium money you’ve spent on insurance for your horses over the years, I could have built a bigger clubhouse for my golf course at Dreieichenhof.”
“Hubertus,” said Madeleine more sternly, “I know you’re opposed to insuring horses, like most Europeans, but the insurance isn’t my point. My point is that Dreieichenhof is not secure. The public’s running in and out of there all day long. And my niece is there, right in the middle of things.”
“Please, Madeleine, you mustn’t–”
“Hubertus, I must tell you–this is only the second time in my life that I have been truly frightened. You know the first time.”
“Yes, as if it were yesterday. It was when I tried to kiss you when we were children.”
“You know that isn’t true. Besides, we could never have been together as adults, even in post-war Germany.”
“I know. I’m only kidding.” Madeleine was right, Hubertus thought. It wasn’t quite true, but true enough. He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out his wallet. Inside, for all these years, he had carried a small picture of her as a young girl in Germany. The frayed black-and-white photo was getting yellow and faded now, but it reminded him on some deep emotional level that for as long as he had known her, he had loved her and loved the thought of her. He didn’t know why. The horses were part of it. And perhaps the dangerous circumstances of their meeting as children. And of course, her transformation from a little girl to an elegant and stately woman.
Now, he wanted nothing more than to reassure her. “Please, Madeleine, don’t be upset until we know there is actually some real basis for concern. If it makes you feel better, I could arrange for your horses to be moved to Necko’s old place just up the road. There’s plenty of security there. If necessary, I could send Helena and Excalibur there, as well.”
“That would be wonderful.” She paused for a moment. “There is one other thing I must tell you about, Hubie. I hope you can understand where I’m coming from, with Mort gone and my failing health. Claire is all we have of the next generation, and even though we agreed years ago never to discuss certain things with others, the story we have guarded so carefully over the years is too important to be lost.” Again she paused, drawing in a deep breath. “Hubie, she knows. On the phone yesterday, I told Claire about our history. Please forgive me, if you think this was a breach of sacred trust.”
He paused as the implications of this revelation suddenly sunk in.
“No, not at all.” He said. “ In fact, I’ve been tempted to tell her myself, actually many times. Seeing her striking resemblance to you has made me realize how close we have been all these years while so far apart physically. If you don’t object, when I get back to Dreieiechenhof, I will tell her my side of the story as well.”
“Wonderful. I’m so glad you agree. She will be very excited by that.”
“One more thing, Madeleine, and then I must go. You should know that Claire’s riding has improved so much I would like to keep the horses for her for a little while longer, just to see if she continues to improve, well enough to ride in international competition.”
“It really is up to Claire now, Hubie. She has remained with you longer than anyone expected already, so I think it’s only fair to let her come home and resume her studies if she wants to…especially considering the current situation over there.”
“I understand, and when I talk to her, I will tell her that the decision is entirely her own. I know she will make the right choice. I must…I must go now, dear Madeleine. My time is no longer my own.”
“That’s good for you but bad for me. I will never get used to sharing you. No never.”
“Auf Wiedersehen,” said Hubertus.
People rarely knocked on the tall wooden door that led into Rolf Ullenberg’s office in the Swiss Bancorp & Indemnity building. One of the purposes of a secretary was, after all, to prevent such interruptions from occurring. There was also a purpose of itineraries, schedules…and appointments.
So when the knock came, Ullenberg looked up from his desk in surprise and annoyance. “Yes?”
The door swung open and Ernst Farner strolled in. “Sorry to bother you, Rolf,” Farner said, “but I need your help.”
Ullenberg sat back. “Right now?”
“It’s important. I want to discuss something with you before I see the old man.”
Ullenberg sensed something he was all too familiar with having to meet with Madrid bearing bad news.
“Certainly. Have a seat.”
Farner sank into one of the chairs across the desk. “It’s about the insurance payout on Geronimo.”
“Someone took the bait?” Ullenberg asked, excited.
“You could say that. The money has disappeared.”
“What do you mean, ‘disappeared?”
“Two days ago we transferred three million dollars to Luxembourg, as planned…and that’s the last we’ve seen of it. Nobody’s telling us if it’s still there; or if it’s not there, where it went and who took it. Look at these internal reports.” He shoved a stack of papers across his desk.
Ullenberg scanned them. “That’s it? After all this time, that’s all the paper trail we have?”
“What about Interpol? Aren’t they supposed to be keeping track of this as well?”
“Well, according to that Gérard clown I’ve been talking to, Interpol has been monitoring financial transactions in and out of Luxembourg banks very carefully so they’ll know when the three million leaves. He says that so far they’ve seen nothing they can act on, but they did notice an unusual amount of activity at one bank over the last couple of weeks.”
“What bank is that?”
“Yes, ‘Ah.’ Farner lit a cigarette. “We need to call that worm Leonard Lowenstein and see if the name Kirchborn means anything to him.”
“But of course you can’t call the worm yourself.”
“Not if we expect to get any information. There aren’t many people in the world I can’t stand, but Lowenstein is one of them, and I’m afraid the feeling’s mutual.”
Ullenberg nodded. “So, let the games begin.” He raised the receiver of his phone and dialed, then pushed a button to switch to speaker phone. There was the distinctive double-tone of a ringing phone, then a click and a voice. “Lowenstein.”
“Hello, Leonard. Rolf Ullenberg here. How are things ‘offshore?’”
Lowenstein’s voice blared from the speaker. “Well, Ullenberg; what a surprise! Funny you should ask. Nice weather here today. Surf’s up and I’m planning to go outside in a few minutes and work on my tan.”
Then his sarcasm suddenly shifted to aggression. “I can tell you want something, as usual, so cut the crap.”
“Of course, Lenni….. I do, well uh… I need a little favor from you.”
“So does everybody.” He said curtly.
But Ullenberg let the comment pass. “This is a very simple one. I just want to know what the name ‘Kirchborn’ means to you.”
“A lot, infact. But all I can tell you is that Kirchborn is a client of Bank Leu. What about it?”
“Well, can you at least tell me what sort of client Kirchborn is? I mean is it an individual, a conglomerate, a financial enterprise, what?”
Lowenstein laughed. “You have to be shitting me. Are you drinking your lunch these days, man? I would never tell you that, or anything else on the phone, especially about one of my clients. Nice try, though. Are you alone, Ullenberg, or are you grandstanding for someone else?”
Ullenberg hesitated a moment, surrounded by smoke, then said, “Ernst is with me. We’re working on this little matter together.”
“How nice for both of you! Misery loves company. Say ‘Hi’ for me. I’m a busy man, gentlemen, so is there some other way I can help you? If not, I’ve got other things to do.”
Sure you do, Ullenberg thought. That’s why you’re answering your own phone, you little rodent. But he replied instead in his most nonchalant voice. “I’ll be straight with you, Lennie, Bancorp recently transferred the proceeds of a large insurance claim to one of Kirchborn’s accounts. We’d just like to make sure the money ended up where it was supposed to go, that’s all. No big deal.”
“Yeah, riiight…riiight. No big deal. That’s why two lonely guys like you and Farner are sitting around the office with nothing else to do but call up good old Lennie just to shoot the breeze, hey. Well, look, I can tell you this much, for old times sake: the cash made it safely to Luxembourg. All of it. Now, is that a good enough for you*-**?”
Farner sat forward fast, mouth open and aimed at the speakerphone. Ullenberg instantly punched the button to shut off the external mike so Lowenstein wouldn’t hear whatever Farner was about to say.
“Give me the phone,” Farner demanded. “I’m going to give that weasel a piece of my mind.”
“No.” Ullenberg waved him off. “We need to get information, and fast.”
Scowling, Farner sat back gain. When Ullenberg was sure he was going to stay there, he switched the speakerphone back on. Instantly came the sound of Lowenstein’s crackling voice: “What am I hearing in the background, Rolf? It sounds like Ernst is trying to tell me something. Are you still there, Rolf?”
“It was nothing, Leonard,” he said. “Ernst was reading the account number to me, that’s all. Now, are you going to help us out or not?”
“Oh, I’ll see what I can do, but no promises. Got a secure fax line in your office?”
“Yes; the number is 43-7102-8651-0988.”
“Give me the check number, account number and date.”
Farner pawed through the paperwork in front of him, looking for the data. He handed some forms to Ullenberg, who then read the information to Lowenstein.
“Stay right there. I’ll see what I can find out. And remember, we never talked.” Click.
“How can you stand talking to that slimeball?” asked Farner. “I hate it whenever we have to deal with those guys.”
“We’re just the same when it comes to protecting our clients.” Ullenberg pointed out.
Farner snorted. “Except we do a better job. Notice how he resisted for all of two seconds? The only problem is, you know he’s going to expect a quid pro quo some–” Farner voice faded out as the fax machine buzzed.
Ullenberg glanced at the transmission log. “This is it.”
“So soon?” Farner lifted his brows. “I’ll bet the stuff was sitting right in front of him the whole time.”
Ullenberg grabbed the first sheet, then rubbed his temple. “All it says is ‘ARPA, Washington D.C.,’ with an account number and wire transfer record.”
“What the hell is ARPA?”
“Let me run it on the Internet and see if a website pops up.” Ullenberg typed for a few seconds, waited, then shook his head. “It’s listed under Barbecue Foods. The Association for the Right Preparation of Animals.”
“That can’t be right,” said Farner. “Let me see it. Look, Rolf, it’s a spoof of some kind. It’s not even in Washington. Run the check again.”
“…Okay. Got it this time. ARPA. It’s an animal rights group: the Animal Rights Protection Association. Heard of them?”
“No, and I’ll bet this is a little joke courtesy of our little friend, Leonard. Think about it. A valuable horse is destroyed in order to collect insurance money, and then the proceeds are assigned to an animal rights group. Does that make sense to you?”
“Not much. What are you going to tell Henri?”
Farner ran a hand through his hair. “Well, I can at least throw him one tidbit. Off the record, Gérard told me that Kirchborn’s M.O. seems to fit that of a criminal they’ve been tracking for a long time. His name isn’t known, but he’s involved in drugs, guns, chemicals, germs, money laundering–all combined under one umbrella operation.”
“Like a corporation?”
“Yes, but based on terrorism. And guess where the money laundering for this enterprise is handled?”
“I have no idea.”
“Ah. Where Jean-Paul’s murderers came from.”
“Yes. I’m hoping this information will at least take the edge off the bad news I’m bringing to the old man.”
“It might, but I suggest you begin your report by blaming Interpol for not doing their job. It seems like all they’re interested in is tracking down the anthrax source, and they’re quite willing to use other people’s money to do it. Remember, Rolf, we strongly protested handing them the three million; that was Madrid’s idea. The ‘Big I’ never gave us a concrete quid pro quo, or any other assurances.” He shook his head. “What a way to do business.”
“Henri will want recommendations about what to do next,” Farner said. “But what can we do, apart from making unauthorized entries into foreign accounts? We’re never going to get our money back any other way.”
Ullenberger looked at Farner’s hapless expression with disbelief.
“Oh, give me a break, will you. This is starting to sound like an ethics lecture, Ernst. So save it for the examiners, if you don’t mind. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Here me out first. The old man knows the limitations we’re working under,” Ullenberg said. “He’s not going to ask for your head because of this.”
Farner sighed. “Can you think of any way to find out if the three million really did end up going to that animal rights group? Because if it did, I’ll have to give Henri some kind of explanation for it. And a damn convincing one.”
“Okay, assuming the account number Lowenstein sent is legitimate. Then, sure, we can find out. Not that that will tell us why they got the money, or what the funds will be used for.”
Farner briefly smirked again without humor. “Let’s assume for a moment that Lowenstein didn’t lie. The way everything else is going, if an animal rights group really did get our three million dollars, I’d bet the reason has something to do with horses.”
“I wouldn’t be sure of anything if I were you, Farner. You know Madrid.”
Hubertus Falckenstein’s plane arrived in Frankfurt on schedule. It was good to be home. As usual, his wife, Birgitta, picked him up at the airport, which gave her an increasingly rare opportunity to be alone with him for a few minutes.
The first thing he asked her bout was the damage to the riding hall and if there is any explanation from the police?
Mrs. Falckenstein had nothing new to report except a preliminary structural failure analysis which agreed with Hans Handlers first observations. And that the preliminary explosives report showed nothing conclusive. Materials in the so-called bomb were nothing more than the usual farm fertilizer and ammonia. Suspicious but not conclusive. Otherwise, it was too early for more detailed forensic evidence.
Once their car had pulled away from the terminal, she handed him a fax that he had been expecting for over a week. It was a copy of the Purchase and Sales Agreement for Geronimo, forwarded by Dr. Mitterand, a longtime friend who had Falckenstein to thank for getting him into the consortium that originally owned Gernomio. At the time, Hubertus and Mitterand had both viewed it as a potentially lucrative opportunity. And they had been right.
Hubertus concentrated on one particular section that he was of the most interested to him. The non-disclosure language was most unusual. It barred any of the previous owners from talking about the terms of sale for at least sixty days from the date of the sales contract…or from the date of Geronimo’s death, whichever came first.
As it happened, Geronimo was killed one month after the sale was finalized.
For Hubertus, the prospect of enjoying an afternoon nap in his own bed quickly faded. Upon arriving home, he spent a few minutes with his son, home on holiday from his university studies, then walked to his modest offices.
Once inside, he called the riding hall to summand Helena and Claire; then he asked Frau Erlich to call Hans Handler. Falckenstein wanted to confirm the availability of four stalls immediately.
Next he phoned France and spoke with Dr. Mitterand, who confirmed his suspicions. The non-disclosure clause was to be strictly enforced by all the signatories to the new sales agreement. If even one of the original consortium members violated the clause, all five would forfeit half their individual share.
No sooner had Hubertus put down the phone than Claire, Helena and Bret came into his office, escorted by Frau Erlich. “It’s wonderful to have you back, sir.”
“Hubertus , welcome home,” Helena said. “But what’s the emergency? I’m right in the middle of a group lesson.”
“Please have a seat, everyone. This won’t take long.”
“Mr. Falckenstein,” Claire said, “this is my friend from New York, Bret Roemer. And I agree, I’m glad you’re here.”
As Bret shook Falckenstein’s hand he thought that the trainer was truly an imposing figure. Even though sixty-eight years old and slightly graying, Falckenstein had a long, lean body still taut from physical activity, and radiated energy. Claire had described Falckenstein’s reputation in the equine community. Even his closest friends would have described him as enigmatic and, at times, inaccessible. His peers, some of the most successful trainers and coaches in Europe, often found themselves confused by his unconventional approach to training horses. Still, his highly logical methods established a proven foundation from which riding talent, both equine and human, could build to something uncommonly successful. He had detractors, but the record spoke for itself.
After he shared with them what he had learned the past hour, Hubertus sat behind his desk and fixed his gaze on the two women in turn. “I have made a decision that affects both of you, “ he said looking at them both alternately.
“I’m sure you’ll agree there are too many suspicious and dangerous things going on in the equestrian community, including in our own backyard, for us to just sit back and wait to see what happens next. We must act now. First, I want you to move several horses out of Dreieichenhof and over to Reitenlage immediately. Take Claire’s three horses–and Helena, take Excalibur. I’ll talk to Hans about beefing up security even more around there by adding a night watchman for a few months, even if I have to pay for it myself, and we must also try to monitor traffic in and out of the barn area here as well.”
“What shall we tell the farriers and vets?” Helena asked. “They’ll start talking. You know how rumors circulate.”
“Tell them we’ve been discussing this move for months, but don’t mention our reasons for doing it. After all, we’ve moved horses over there many times before when necessary. Please enlist the help of all your working students this afternoon, so you and Claire can get the horses and the tack loaded and be out of here before dark.”
Hubertus turned to Claire. ” I spoke to your aunt while I was in New Jersey, and she agrees about the need for greater security. I was afraid to mention the collapse of the arena. Will you let her know the details of it later. And, it will be more expensive across the road but worth the peace of mind.”
“ Bret, you look like a big strong guy. Can you help them load the van?”
“Absolutely. In fact, I could use the exercise.”
“That would be a big help. Claire, be sure to check back with me tomorrow; I want to discuss a few things with you. Helena, I know you want me to look at your freestyle routine, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.”
Claire swallowed hard. The tape. He’ll want to see the tape, and so will Helena.” She hoped it would be forgotten in the short lived chaos.
“There are only ten days left until the show at Wiesbaden.” Falckenstein continued. “I don’t like interrupting your schedule like this, but I think we need to take extra precautions right now.”
He leaned back in his chair and managed a wan smile. “Are you still happy to have me back? Now, if you will all excuse me, I need to get some rest.”
Within two hours, the horses and gear were packed up and ready for transport.
Helena’s van was easily large enough to accommodate all the gear and animals. The three humans sat abreast in the cab as the vehicle lumbered through the rear gate and onto the country road for the short trip to a safer harbor. Two small cars trailed them, carrying four dedicated working students whom Helena had requisitioned to help unload at the other end.
When they arrived just outside the Reitenlage equestrian complex, the caravan came to a standstill at a pair of electronically controlled, eight foot iron gates. Helena got out and buzzed the office.
As the gates retracted, Bret could see the entire expansive equestrian complex beyond, with its beautiful blend of forest, flower gardens and lawns. A couple of dressage horses were being schooled in an outside arena near a cross-country jumping course. But there was no polo field in sight.
The caravan made its way down a long, sinuous driveway and directly to the stabling area, where Hans Handler and his daughter, Saskia, were awaiting their arrival.
Saskia was a tall, exotic-looking woman in her late twenties, with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail under a ball cap. Thin and fit like all top professional riders, she had just started riding Grand Prix in national competition. She was thrilled to have such esteemed boarders joining her. She was doing exceedingly well with help from Falckenstein, but having Helena and Claire training in the same riding hall with her would raise the bar considerably.
The grooms and stable helpers rushed to their assistance, leading the horses from the van into the barn and relocating them in their new stalls.
Bret did his best to help, but everything seemed to be handled fine without him. Hans pulled him aside. “They have all the help they need, my friend. Let me give you a tour of the place. Besides, there is someone I think you would like to meet–the man I told you about yesterday, my new neighbor, who owns a string of polo ponies. Remember?”
“Yes, of course.” Bret appreciating the chance to play a game or two.
They walked through the large sliding doors at the far end of the barn.
“His name is Werner von der Leyen,” Hans said. “Let’s go out to the practice field and see if we can hunt him down. In the meantime, if you’d like I can share some of the historical details of the complex.”
As they passed one of the outdoor arenas, Bret learned that, in 1970, Olympic gold medal-winning horseman Dr. Joseph Neckerman–the man whose portrait featured so strongly in the vestibule of the Dreieichenhof viewing room–had summoned the most famous dressage riders in the world to the Reitenlage, to try to save Dressage from being eliminated from the Olympics. For three days and nights, riders from Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Germany had conferred. In the end, they had, in effect, invented the musical and crowd-pleasing kür, and Dressage remained a part of the Olympic Games with its dancing horses.
Bret was only listening with one ear; he was much more interested in how to make a good first impression on Werner von der Leyen. He missed playing polo, and hoped this man would invite him to play a little “stick and ball.”
“There he is by the lake,” said Hans. “You’ll soon find out for yourself that he’s very easy to talk to, and his English is impeccable. His business is making documentary films about sports and famous athletes. He’s a fascinating storyteller; you must coax him into telling you one. Just between you and me, I don’t think they are all true. But still, they’re entertaining.”
Great, thought Bret. That’s what the world needs, another bull shitter.
They walked over to Werner, who was standing in the shade of a large oak tree. Next to him sat a giant black dog with brown highlights. As they came closer, Bret could see that it was a Doberman Pinscher, fortunately leashed securely at his owner’s side.
Werner was wearing a lightweight, khaki safari jacket with a green-and-black ascot. As they came closer, he turned just enough in their direction that Bret could see a black patch covering his right eye.
Was this for real, Bret wondered, or had Werner been making movies too long?
His attention returned to the dog, whose eyes were now fixed on him. He knows I don’t belong here, Bret thought. Nice doggy. Been fed lately?
He turned to see what Werner was staring at so intently: off in the distance, three polo players exercising their horses.
“Werner,” said Hans, “I’d like you to meet the American I told you about. Bret Roemer, meet my friend, Werner von der Leyen.”
Werner’s greeting was warmer than his appearance. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Roemer,” he said in a thick but clear accent. “I understand you play polo.”
“Please call me Bret,” Bret said. “I play as a hobby, and I only started about six months ago.”
“It’s a hobby for me, as well,” said Werner, smiling. “But an expensive one, don’t you find?”
“No argument there.”
Werner gestured across the field. “These players are my best. Argentineans. They have a combined fifteen-goal rating among them.”
Bret nodded. The Argentineans were the best polo players in the world, and their ponies were bred exclusively for the sport. A good one was as valuable as a new Mercedes.
Werner clearly had a vested interest in keeping security at the facility high.
“Do German teams often have Argentineans playing on them?” Bret asked.
“Oh, yes. A core group of professional players relocate to Europe every summer as independent contractors. Their playing style is exciting and even reckless, which of course audiences love.”
“It’s much the same at home,” said Bret.
“Do you also find that the Argentineans are–how can I put it delicately–a free-spirited lot?”
“What do you mean, ‘free spirited?’” Hans asked.
“Well, frankly, they have well-deserved reputations for getting into trouble with fast cars and even faster women. They know how to have fun and how to spend other people’s money. Sound familiar, Bret?”
Bret nodded knowingly. Sometimes he wondered about his own attraction to polo. He saw himself as a basically conservative person, very much under control. Polo, on the other hand, was wild, unpredictable and extravagant. Perhaps the answer lay in his genes–a polo gene inherited from his Argentinean mother?
“Werner,” Hans said, “why don’t you explain the pirate patch to Bret? He’s clearly too polite to ask about it.”
“Oh, that,” Werner said. “It’s nothing. I had laser surgery yesterday to correct my vision in that eye. The patch comes off tomorrow; then I’ll be able to drive on the autobahn as fast as I want.”
“Sounds like you’ve been influenced by our Argentine friends,” said Hans. Then he grew serious. “Listen, Werner, I spoke with Falckenstein yesterday. He thinks we need more security here, including a night watchman.”
“A night watchman?” Werner bent down and patted the head of his giant companion. “I have a better idea. I could just turn little Skippy loose and he could solve the problem of intruders all by himself. He’s trained to kill, you know.”
“Yes, Werner, I know; you’ve told me many times. Has he killed anybody today, yet?”
“No,” said Werner, “but the day isn’t over. Here, I’ll show you how well-trained he is.”
“That’s not necess–”
“See the foresters over there, Bret, the ones clearing brush in the woods?” Werner pointed. “They’re just outside the chain-link fence. Watch what happens when I turn Skippy loose.”
Werner removed the chain collar and pointed in the direction he wanted the dog to go. The Doberman took off as if fired from a cannon and in seconds arrived at the fence where the men were working. There were shouts, and a few of the men jumped back. But Skippy dropped to his haunches and sat motionless at the fence, his eyes glowing red from the angle of the sun, his entire body quivering.
“Okay, Werner,” said Hans. “Call him back, will you? I’m afraid he’s going to take matters into his own hands–or should I say teeth–one day, and we’re going to have a nice big lawsuit to deal with.”
Werner let out a shrill whistle, and Skippy immediately sprinted back to his side and sat.
Bret exhaled slowly. Maybe Werner was right. The dog was far more intimidating–and motivated–than any watchman he’d ever seen.
“Actually, I have another idea,” said Werner. “We have a security guard at the studio, an older man who is getting ready to retire. I could ask him to moonlight over here for a while, if you want. He’s on the payroll anyway, so it won’t cost the stable anything. What do you say?”
“It’s a deal,” said Hans. “Falckenstein will love it. Anything to save a Deutschmark.”
“I know what you mean. He probably has more money under his mattress than you and I have in the bank, combined.”
Werner turned to Bret and invited him to come over for polo practice anytime. “I’ll introduce you to all the team members. Perhaps you could even play a bit at the charity game we have scheduled next week. You and I are about the same size and build, so all you have to do is show up and I’ll see to it that you have all the equipment and clothing you need, including boots. What do you say?”
Bret grinned. “Count me in.”
The Annex, Dreieichenhof
The next day, Bret slept until noon. He had been told that rest knocked out jet lag for good, so he’d tested the theory. As he rolled out of bed, his first impression was positive.
There was a message from Claire, asking him to meet her for dinner with Falckenstein at six o’clock at the Golf Club at Dreieichenhof. Hubertus had asked them to dress in “old clothes.” And Claire was to bring flashlights. There was no mention of the tape.
Strange requests, Bret thought. Why old clothes? And it wouldn’t be dark until nine o’clock.
He checked in with his father, then delegated his workload at the firm by e-mail and telephone. Max would pass on the information about Claire’s well-being and the status of the horses to her family.
With plenty of time left, Bret rented a car and toured the German countryside, along the way looking for a secondhand shop where he could purchase “old clothes.”
Despite getting lost once or twice, he eventually found his way back to Dreieichenhof a few minutes early. He parked his car in the courtyard, got out carrying a small shopping bag containing his change of cloths for the night, and rang the bell by the stairs leading to Claire’s apartment. He was pleased to realize there was at least some small attempt at security, however feeble.
He expected Claire to come down to meet him, but instead she suggested over the intercom that he come up, which he was more than happy to do.
As he walked up the stairs, he was greeting by a couple of the girls he had met the day before. They were going out for dinner and then on to one of their favorite discos in Frankfurt. They invited him to come along but he said he’d have to take a rain check.
“‘Rain check?’” one of them said, arching her eyebrows. ”I think that’s a good thing. It rains here in Germany nearly everyday.” And then she coyly winked at him.
“It means I’d be happy to come along another time.”
They clattered down the stairs, giggling.
Claire’s door stood slightly ajar. He knocked and announced himself, then heard Claire’s voice telling him to come in.
As he entered, she called out from the bathroom, “I’m almost finished with my hair. Have a seat anywhere. I’ll be right out.”
Bret’s curiosity got the better of him and instead of sitting he looked around at the small apartment very closely. The walls were cluttered with magazine pictures of art work, opera stars, musicians, and other people most of whom Bret didn’t recognize. Centered on one of the walls was a collage of faces of the most important figures of the twentieth century, among them scientists and intellectuals. An oversized picture of Einstein sat squarely in the middle.
A large bookcase covered an entire wall. Some of the books were novels, but many seemed to be academically oriented tomes on a wide variety of subjects. He pulled one out to have a closer look. It was a treatise on clinical psychology. The one next to it was an anthology of contemporary literature.
In just a few moments Bret had formed an impression of Claire that both intrigued and confused him. She was obviously more complex and deeply-cultured than most women he knew.
So this is the other side of Claire Fischer. An old soul in a beautiful young body.
Claire stepped out of her bathroom. For the first time, he saw her with her hair down. For practical and safety reasons, it was smart to keep long hair tied up and out of the way while riding. Now, her blond locks cascaded over her shoulders in a way that completely transformed her appearance.
Bret hadn’t seen her wearing makeup before, either. It highlighted her cheekbones and intensified her large blue eyes. He noticed how sensuous her mouth was, with full lips and perfectly white teeth. Even in her work boots, faded jeans and brown sweatshirt, she looked like a fashion model. His heart beat faster.
“How do you like my room?” she asked.
“It’s really all about you, isn’t it? Everything that’s important to you.”
“What was your first clue?”
“All the pictures. Take, for instance, this one.” Bret pointed to a portrait of Mozart. “I would really like to learn more about classical music. I’m pretty clueless about the arts. In fact, you could describe me as a functional illiterate on the topic. But this face, at least, I recognized.”
“Good choice,” she said. “He’s hands-down my favorite composer. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of going to see The Marriage of Figaro with Frau Erlich next week. She’s so knowledgeable about these things; and she’s probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about classical music. So since she already invited you…”
Bret mulled over the idea of going to an opera. “Sounds good,” he said, wanting to please, but with more enthusiasm than he really felt.
Claire pointed to the bag he had in one hand. “What do you have there?”
“Huh? Oh, I’ve been shopping for evening wear to please the King of Dreieichenhof. I hope he likes my taste in fashion.”
“Well, it’s his call tonight. The Golf Club restaurant isn’t very dressy anyway. Do you want to change while you’re here?”
“That would be great.”
Two minutes later, when Bret came out of the bathroom, Claire burst out laughing as she watched him shuffling along in huge, oversized bib overalls and a heavy, plaid cotton shirt that looked as if it had been cut out of a horse blanket. For a hat, he wore an old railroad engineering cap, puffed up in the middle; a tiny bill with a broken snap in front made it look even more ridiculous.
“How do I look?” he asked, straight-faced. “Cost me a bundle, too. Ten Euro’s for the whole outfit.”
“That much?” said Claire. “Well, big spender, you look like a cross between Paul Bunyan and Casey the Engineer. Hubertus is going to love this. Normally he’s very formal…but this promises to be a most unusual night, doesn’t it?”
“What makes you think so? –Besides the wardrobe, I mean.”
“Earlier,” she said, “when I got back from the Reitanlage, Manuel was moving hay from the barn into the courtyard. That’s very unusual, even for this time of year when the weather is good. The hay is always stored inside. I started thinking about the sabotage incident and got concerned so I talked to him about it for the first time personally. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said he didn’t know. Herr Falckenstein had told him just to do it, for tonight only. Curious, huh?”
“Definitely. Do you believe him”
“I’ll know the answer to that after we look at the tape.”
“I haven’t told a soul about it and I think Helen forgot I made it. It’s just you and I that know about it.”
“Great! Come on, Claire. Let’s go. You’re making me nervous.”
Hubertus Falckenstein was waiting for them when they arrived at the golf club restaurant. He was seated at his favorite corner table where he could see out the window into the courtyard below and at the same time monitor the traffic in and out of his restaurant. It hadn’t been that long ago when the clubhouse and restaurant had been nothing more than a large, empty pigeon house. Recently converted, it was now home to one of the finest golf clubs in central Germany.
As Bret and Claire approached, Hubertus raised his six-foot-four-inch frame to greet them. He gave Claire a kiss on the cheek and shook Bret’s hand, meanwhile looking him over very carefully. “That is you, isn’t it, Bret?” he said, lifting up the front of Bret’s cap to get a better look at his partially hidden face.
After they took their seats, Hubertus said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of ordering dinner for us. A specialty here in Germany, called Martin’s Gans. It’s a little bit like your Thanksgiving dinner, but we use goose instead of turkey. Bret, I won’t bore you with the story of St. Martin. Claire knows it well enough and can share it with you later. Being the good attorney that you are, the facts of this allegory may leave you a little skeptical about the historic accuracy of such a tall tale; but the moral is a worthy one, nevertheless.”
“Does it have anything to do with the expression we have in America–going on a wild goose chase?”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Claire, foiling the blunt end of Bret’s guffaw. “Your first cultural immersion class starts promptly tomorrow.” An over-broad but beguiling smile followed.
The waitress carried a bottle of Falckenstein’s Private Label Riesling to the table. After he approved the selection, she pulled the cork. “It’s our finest white wine,” Hubertus said. “Very dry. I think you will like it. We drink it only on special occasions. Please let me apologize for asking you to bring flashlights and to dress in old clothes. I’ll explain in a moment, but first, a toast.”
The bottle made the rounds, and they all held up their glasses. “Here is to my young friends–and especially to Claire, who, I believe, has enough talent and the right horses to make the U.S. team.”
Claire blushed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Hubertus, but if you really believe that, there are some issues I think we need to revisit first.”
“Revisit what issues? I believe I have thought everything through carefully and thoroughly.”
“I’m sure have Hubertus. You always do but there are three things that must be resolved before my riding for the American team can be anything more than a pipe dream. We’ve discussed them before with Aunt Madelein.”
Falckenstein nodded as Claire took a deep breath.
”To begin with, somebody needs to pay the bills.”
“That’s an easy one,” Falckenstein said with a smile. “Madeleine, of course, will be happy to do that for you, as she has so far.”
“But if I start competing on the international circuit, things will get a lot more expensive. Eventually, like everyone else, I’ll need a sponsor with very deep pockets, preferably one with the patience of Jobe, too.–and you know better than I do how difficult that’s going to be.”
Hubertus sipped his wine. “You have a point there.”
“The next one is a little harder. Please don’t my next comments as sounding unappreciative. I am eternally greatful to you for all that you have done for me hear in Germany. But have you already forgotten that I intend to pursue something known as a higher education, which in the long run is more important to me than horses? I’m here on borrowed time. My own.”
Falckenstein had heard this argument before, so it didn’t hurt his feelings in the least. In fact, he agreed philosophically with Claire’s priorities, being a father himself. “Yes, Claire, I remember all too well. But, as you’ve said before, education is for the long run. You are still only twenty-something.” He winked at Bret. “You have plenty of time for education in the years ahead of you. The opportunity to ride for your country has a very narrow window. Seize it now, so you will have no regrets later.” He turned his head. “Ah, here is our goose. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The waitress carved and served. Once their plates were full, Hubertus turned once more to Claire. “Now, tell me what the third thing is, so we can enjoy our dinner.”
“Can’t you guess?”
Hubertus thought for a moment. “Is there a man in your life?” He looked at Bret.
Claire laughed. “Yes, you could say that. Now guess who it is.”
“I don’t want to guess, Claire. In fact, I’m sorry I brought it up,” Hubertus said, looking sheepish.
“Okay, then, I’ll tell you.” Claire hesitated for a moment, then leaned across the table and whispered in his ear, “It’s the coach….” Leaning back again in her chair she continued in audible tone. “Whoever he turns out to be. Before I make my international debut, I’ll have to make a selection for the State Federation. And you know what they say, Hubertus: ‘Good riders and good horses come and go, but good coaches only come along once in a while.’”
Bret watched Falckenstein’s face as the great man’s own words came back at him from Claire’s lips, only with a twist. What Bret saw was a rough and tough street fighter melting before his very eyes. Vitually non-plused. “You catch on fast, Claire,” Falckenstein said. “Very fast indeed. Now, let’s eat our beautiful goose dinner.”
During the meal, conversation was centered on Falckenstein’s experiences with various colorful characters he’d encountered during his most recent visit to the United States. Then, as they drank coffee, his mood grew more serious. “Bret,” he said, “Claire…I have been asked by your families to share certain secrets of Dreieichenhof with you. I would like to do so tonight.”
“We’ve been told quite a bit already, Hubertus,” said Claire. “By my father and Aunt.”
“Well, there is more to it than you know, I’m sure. Of course, it happened so long ago that even my own children have difficulty understanding it.”
Bret and Claire leaned forward in their chairs, looking at Falckenstein intently.
“My father risked his own life and the welfare of his family to do what he thought was right during the war,” Falckenstein said. It was a time when many people, including some of our neighbors, were willing to sell their souls to the devil to save their own necks. I don’t like to speak badly about my countrymen, because I have always loved my homeland, but that was a dark time, when people were preoccupied with their own survival, and, I’m sorry to say, too often their behavior was ruled by base motives.
“In those days, it was very hard for anyone to travel freely about the country, let alone children without adults accompanying them. However, my father’s work with the Agricultural Department was privileged, allowing him to travel anywhere. Consequently, he got to know all the farmers from Frankfurt to the Swiss border. And he learned that there was a secret underground network, farm to farm, that smuggled people out.
“At the time I was too young to appreciate the danger, but I remember vividly the year your father and aunt stayed with us, Claire. There was a nursery next to my parent’s bedroom, an annex which was converted to a safe room for the new children passing along the network. My parents thought of them as their own, and except for not being allowed out of the room, they were treated exactly like members of our own family.
” I remember your aunt asking almost every day if she could see the horses when no one was around. Once in a while, she would sneak down to the stables in the dark of night. She just had to pet them and say good night to them.”
“She never told me that,” Claire said. “Is the room still there? The annex?”
“A brick wall was built across the front of the room to separate it from the rest of the house. At the time it had a small entrance hidden by an armoire, but after your father and aunt were transported out of the country, we bricked it over for good. There was also a trap door leading up from the stable below, hidden by hay bales. But it could be lowered by rope and pulley in an emergency, such as a fire.”
“Now I get it,” Claire said. “That’s why you had Manuel move the hay out of the stables today, isn’t it?”
“And why we’re dressed this way,” Bret added, “and why we have flashlights. It’s still up there, isn’t it? The annex?”
Falckenstein nodded. “Everything was left just the way it was the last day the annex was occupied, in 1944.”
Bret reached for a little more coffee. “The Fischers never came back to look at it?”
“In all the times Claire’s Aunt Madeleine visited us, she never once asked to go back inside…and I wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. As for Claire’s father, I only met him here once. He came to personally thank my mother and father for saving his life, but he also did not ask to see the room. It has so many memories for all of us. I can understand his emotional reaction very well.”
“Why leave it sealed up, though?” Bret asked. “I would have thought you’d want the whole world to know how heroic your family was.”
Falckenstein hesitated a moment. “This may be difficult for an American to understand, but there are still segments of German society that disapprove of those who helped the Jews during the war. I choose not to deal with such people on a daily basis. But history can and does repeat itself. The incidents in Europe, including right here in Dreieichenhof, are I’m afraid the prelude of things to come. I hope I’m wrong for the sake of my father’s memory.”
Falckenstein was right–it would be easy, and wrong, for Bret, to pass judgment since he was always free to return to his home four thousand miles away.
Hubertus rose from his chair. “Let’s go now, before it gets too late. And don’t forget your flashlights.”
They left the restaurant and followed Falckenstein across the courtyard to the stables. Inside, seeing was difficult in the dark, but Falckenstein entreated them to leave the flashlights off. As they followed close behind him, he made his way unerringly to toward the frayed old rope which was still tied to a pulley mechanism fastened to the wall.
With the passage of time, the pulleys had nearly frozen in place. But as Falckenstein pulled on the rope the wheels began to turn with a squeaky-scratchy sound that was difficult to endure, since they were making every effort to be quiet. Nevertheless, they were committed.
Falckenstein lowered the gangplank until it came to rest on the floor in front of them. Foot blocks formed a makeshift ladder. “Turn your flashlights on now and follow me, one at a time. I’m afraid this old wood won’t hold us all.”
As Falckenstein reached the hatch above and pushed it open, years of accumulated dust were dislodged, turning Bret and Claire’s flashlight beams into searchlights. Falckenstein momentarily vanished from sight as he stepped inside the annex above. Then they heard his voice: “You can come up now.”
First Claire, then Bret struggled up the old wooden ladder, which creaked and groaned with each step. Once inside, no one spoke.
The combined light was enough to allow them to see well enough, even into the corners of the small room. A bunk bed rested against the far wall. The bedding on it was practically gone; over the years, it had probably been used as nesting material by rats. A tiny dresser stood next to it, and not far away were two school desks. Several hooks on the wall were hung with clothing that had turned to tattered rags.
Falckenstein shined his flashlight on an electric switch on the wall. “I’m tempted to flick this on to see if this still works.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Mr. Falckenstein,” Bret said. “If it shorts out, the pop might be loud enough to be heard next door. Why take a chance?”
“No doubt you’re right,” Falckenstein said. “Look here–this is the wall my father and I built to hide this room.”
Bret stood directly behind her coach and mentor as he examined the bricks and mortar he and his father had used to conceal the annex. Claire noticed his stooped shoulders and head hanging low. “You seem so sad, Hubertus,” she said, taking his arm. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine. It’s just that there are so many memories here. Maybe I’m just getting too sentimental or just getting old. I remember everything like it was yesterday, exactly as it was like back in those days. We were as close as any family could be, Madeleine and your father and I, and we made a solemn pledge to keep our secret from the rest of the world. In my youthful innocence, it felt like an adventure. My mother always made us bring our schoolbooks with us when we came up here to visit. And what we had learned in school that day, we shared with Ari and Madeleine. We spent hours here, reading and telling stories. As with all normal children, our imaginations created the fantasy world we desperately needed in order to cope with the grim reality of the war outside.”
While Falckenstein was talking, Bret took a few steps toward the corner of the room. “Claire,” he said, unable to stop himself from breaking into Falckenstein’s musings, “look at this.”
On the floor in front of him squatted a trunk with an inch of dust blanketing it. Claire shined her flashlight from close range. “Let’s see what’s inside. Would that be all right, Hubertus? My heart’s beating so hard I can hardly move.”
Falckenstein came over take a closer look. “It’s a steamer trunk, used as luggage at the time. I remember this one. It contained all the childrens’ worldly belongings when they arrived here in 1943.”
He took a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and wiped away the dust. “Here. Shine the light down here.”
Beneath the brass lock and catch mechanism was fastened a rolled brass plate inscribed “P&S Fischer, Coblenz, Deutschland” inscribed on it.
“My grandparents,” Claire whispered.
“Do you want to open it now,” Falckenstein said, “or would you rather wait until you’re back in your room?”
“Now,please. I can’t wait.” Claire said softly. She flipped up the latch and lifted the trunk lid slowly, reverently, as though she were opening the Ark of the Covenant. “Oh, my God. It’s full of things, all kinds of things. Look! An old box of crayons. And something that appears to be a diary. And this!” She took out a small frame containing two photographs. “Here, I think these are pictures of my grandparents! I’ve never seen them so young….”
Hubertus reached down and gently placed his hand on her shoulder as she started to weep aloud. “Bret and I will help carry the chest back to your room, so you can look through the rest of the contents in private.”
Claire nodded through her tears, then turned and headed back toward the trap door.
Bret and Falckenstein tried to lift the trunk by the leather handles on either side, but the straps broke instantly. “I thought that might happen,” said Falckenstein, “even if it is German leather.”
Picking the trunk up by its corners was awkward, and the ladder creaked and groaned under their combined weight, but eventually they succeeded in maneuvering themselves and their treasure to the ground floor.
After they placed the trunk inside Claire’s apartment, Falckenstein excused himself, saying that he was going back to raise the gangplank and make sure there was little evidence of their clandestine entry. “When we speak of this later,” he said, “it should only be to each other. No one else but Claire’s family would understand it.” He walked away, leaving them alone.
Moments later, as Bret said good night to Claire, he gave in to an irresistible urge and pulled her into an embrace. He then kissed her gently on the forehead. “This was quite an experience. I’ll see you early tomorrow Claire.”
She hugged him back and nodded, but said nothing. He turned and walked down the stairs. It was quiet now in the courtyard…surprisingly so with no sign of Falckenstein. Finding himself alone, a deep sense of tranquility and peacefulness consumed him.
Night has finally fallen over Dreieichenhof. A rare harvest moon peered over the eastern horizon. It was like a crimson torch from Olympus, announcing the coming of another evening to this small patch of Deutschland. And Bret knew at that moment, as well as he knew anything, that he had been hopelessly enveloped in its magic and charm.
Wiesbaden, Germany, is located just northwest of Frankfurt. The city is renown for two things: a major U.S. Army base created after WWII and one of the most prestigious horse show venues on the planet. This green-forested enclave seems more typical of a private estate than a public park; the ornate mansion house is one of the most photographed in Europe. Elite riders from all over the world compete there for the unparalleled recognition in establishing their international ranking.
For the third consecutive year, Helena had qualified to ride Excalibur in the Grand Prix. This would be the first time she would ride her new musical freestyle in competition. Falckenstein had approved the changes in her program because he knew the judges would be consistent in their scoring. Judges circulated from country to country and appeared many times at the same venues. There was a down side to this practice: The judges knew the horses and riders so well that it became difficult for them to change their minds, even in the face of marked improvement. A relatively unknown rider could only hope for an average score, even if his or her performance was brilliant. On the other hand, even on a bad day, a poor performance by a popular or proven competitor–like Helena–could bring a high score.
Not that Falckenstein expected the playing field to be level in world-class dressage competition; it never was. The well-established game of political scoring had become potentially self-destructive, thanks to the judging scandal at Vail. As with all games, some athletes were better than others. Some would cheat. And some, like Falckenstein’s, didn’t have to. If he held sway over certain judges, it was because he had used his vast experience and acumen from the business world to improve the sport he loved. Although he knew the meaning of enlightened self-interest, he practiced it judiciously. Others, mostly his arch-rivals whose world was limited to the business of horses, were preoccupied by pettiness. Men and women who brought prestige, dignity and integrity into the sport operated within a much larger picture frame. Helena de Groot was one of them, a fortunate beneficiary of her association with Falckenstein.
It was an unusually warm summer day for central Europe, with the sun shining down brightly over the small city of Wiesbaden. Claire, Bret and several of the working students helped Helena move into the sequestered and highly secure stabling area on the show grounds. Official competition wouldn’t begin until the following morning.
Helena had been through this process many times before. Bret was extremely impressed with her organizational skills. She was very focused, able to keep track of seemingly endless details without getting rattled or losing her cool, as she sometimes did at home.
“Let’s take a walk,” said Claire. “There isn’t much left for us to do around here, and now’s the best time to get a look at the competitors, since the public’s not around.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Bret. “This is the most beautiful horse show grounds I’ve ever seen. Nothing can compare to it at home.”
With passes pinned to their shirts, they moved about freely from venue to venue, watching the competitors scurrying around getting their equipment and personnel organized.
When they reached the jumpers’ warm-up arenas, Bret wanted to stop and observe firsthand the contrasting styles and techniques. Having done some jumping, he had a more educated eye for it than for dressage. It was also an ideal opportunity to see how the best riders in the world worked with their coaches.
They watched jumper after jumper go through their practice rounds. After a while, Claire said, “That’s where the money is. I hope one day dressage will come close to approaching that kind of popularity.”
“Look,” said Bret. “Those two over there with the USA jackets. Do you recognize them?”
“No, we’re too far away. We can buy a program tomorrow. They’ll all be listed there. And just as importantly, their sponsors will be listed, too. That kind of information should be very interesting.” She paused, then added, “It might even be more interesting to see which companies are sponsoring jumping and not dressage. It’s about time I started taking mental notes on who’s sponsoring who. With any luck, I’ll need a sponsor soon myself.”
As they returned to the dressage stabling area, they spotted Falckenstein speaking to Helena.
He looked up as they approached. “Hello; I’m glad you are here. I have some good news. I was just telling Helena that I spoke to Warner von der Leyen yesterday. He has agreed to film a series of instructional tapes to accompany my new book. Claire, I have decided I want Helena and you to be the demo riders.”
A big smile spread across Claire’s face.
Just then a man approached Falckenstein. He was a dapper gentleman, with a ruddy complexion and a ready smile, white hair and a rather large mustache, with matching bushy eyebrows. “Hello, Hubertus,” he said in a rolling British upper-crust accent. “How nice to see you.”
“Colonel Sullivan,” Hubertus said, “please meet my American friends. This is Claire Fischer, who is training with me, and her attorney friend, Mr. Bret Roemer, from New York. Please meet Colonel Sullivan, one of our ‘O’ judges.”
An “O” judge was one of a select few qualified to sit on the jury at prestigious international shows such as Wiesbaden. Sullivan had formerly been a cavalry officer, and Hubertus considered him to be one of the good guys in the sport and a friend he trusted implicitly.
For his part, Bret had to laugh to himself at the colonel’s appearance. It seemed genuine enough but like something out of an old Hollywood movie.
The colonel passed his walking stick from his right to left hand, then reached out to shake Claire’s hand, and then Bret’s. “Very pleased to meet you both. And Helena, so nice to see you again. I’m terribly sorry about what happened to Geronimo. I watched you at The Hague in March, and I don’t think I’ve seen you ride better. Who are you riding today? Excalibur? Well, he is still magnificent, despite his age.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Helena said. “I hope you feel that way when you judge me next time. Can you excuse me? I need to go to the stable and check on the horses.”
“Of course,” said the colonel. “Good luck tomorrow.”
As Helena walked away, Colonel Sullivan turned to Falckenstein. “I need to talk to you, Hubertus, but I don’t have much time. Do you have a minute now?”
“Do you mind if Claire and Bret join us?”
Sullivan hesitated for a moment, then said, “Certainly, old boy. It’s not confidential what I have to tell you, but it is extremely sensitive. Let’s get something to drink and sit down for a moment.”
They walked a short distance to one of the many food stands, sat down at a small table shielded by an umbrella and ordered coffee.
After checking to make certain that no one else was within earshot, Sullivan turned to Falckenstein. “Have you heard about the revised report from Lausanne?”
“No, it’s not due out until later this year. What have you heard?”
“Only that it’s going to take effect after 2012.”
”Who did you hear this from?” asked Hubertus.
“From the Contessa. As you know, she’s on the Executive Board at the OOSC. She told me the Commission had finished its work, and yesterday, she called some of her friends, warning us to be prepared.”
“She wouldn’t divulge any specifics, but told me that we won’t like it.”
Just then, the coffee arrived. Hubertus picked up the check.
When the waiter left, Falckenstein turned to Bret. “I’m sure Claire recognizes the Contessa’s name, but you probably don’t, Bret. Contessa Ballestora de Tarrentino has been the head of the World Equestrian Institute for many years. Without her help, equestrian events might have been eliminated from the Games long ago. The President of the OOSC, also Italian, made a deal with her that, if she supported his programs, he wouldn’t touch the equestrian events. That relationship has gone along smoothly for years. So I’m surprised to hear what has happened.”
“So am I,” said the colonel. “But she told me that, now that Sebastiani is facing retirement, he’s become cool to a number of his Congress members. It sounds as if he’s trying to get some of the dirty work done before the new president takes over.”
“Just when it seems we’ve gotten the foot-and-mouth crisis behind us, now this,” said Falckenstein with disgust.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, my friend. But I thought you ought to know.”
“What report are you talking about?” said Claire.
“Ever since the OOSC issued its hit list of sports that are to be eliminated from the official Olympic Programme, the Executive Board has gone underground. All discussions are behind closed doors. They even changed the rules so that just the eleven members of the Executive Board can vote up or down, not the full Congress of one hundred members.
“I’m afraid it’s sounding more and more like the fix is on, Hubertus.” said the colonel.
“So am I.” said Hubertus. “Claire, I want you to know that I intend to fight this cost cutting rampage. They plan to eliminate Eventing first and then go after Dressage and Jumping. They won’t be satisfied until they get rid of all equestrian sports in the Olympics.”
“Fight to win, Hubertus. If we all work together, we have nothing to fear.” said the colonel.
“Is there any other way, my friend?” said Falckenstein, looking at Claire as though it were primarily for her benefit.