Elsinore, Denmark, September 29, 1943
Gerhard Neilson stood at the kitchen window facing out over Snekkersten harbor. He could barely make out the fishing boats, dormant until dawn, bobbing in the light impatient chop. A dense mist that had descended just after sunset hid the stars on the moonless night. Or maybe it was the veil of secrecy that had descended on the village ever since the Nazis imposed martial law at the end of August, a month ago. The older kids had been whispering in the schoolyard just this morning about the strange comings and goings.
He recognized Father’s familiar silhouette, the bill of his oilskin cap, hands thrust into the deep pockets of his raincoat. The village might be sleeping but the tides were always at work, whispering secrets that only Father could decipher. But why would he be out so late in this weather? He was usually asleep before Gerhard.
Gerhard threw on a navy woolen sweater, overalls, and a waterproof coat and tiptoed out the front door, wary of waking Mother. Father was standing just in front of the stone retaining wall that for generations had kept the turbulent waves away from the house.
The harbor smelled like rotten fish. And salt. Like it did every day. Like it always would.
“Why are you out here, little navigator?” Father asked without bothering to look over in Gerhard’s direction.
Gerhard winced. When was Father finally going to drop the childish nickname?
“Are you judging tomorrow’s weather?” Gerhard asked. As generations of Neilsons had learned to do since the Vikings arrived. As Gerhard was certain he would never be able to learn.
“Tonight I am waiting.”
Gerhard heard the faint cry of a child from a distance. Father broke off and looked over Gerhard’s head.
Gerhard turned. Three adults and two children were struggling against the wind along the harbor wall. The woman in the lead was dressed sensibly and warmly, like Mother would be dressed on a night like this: a dark heavy coat with a thickened hood and rain boots. Father took a few steps forward to greet them.
A man and a boy stood a few paces behind the woman. The man wore a fancy coat with a gold star sewn on the lapel. He was carrying a small bag, tethered to his wrist. The boy looked to be about Gerhard’s age. Twelve or thirteen at the most. His leather shoes would not last very long in the soaked, salty air. Just behind them, the mother struggled to hold onto her head scarf in one hand and the screeching girl in the other. Their ankle-length dresses flapped wildly from under their coats. She lifted the girl to her chest and began to soothe her.
Father nodded at the woman in the lead in a familiar way. She began shouting over the wind. “Twenty-six were taken by Aksel, but there was no room for these four. Can you take them, Thalem?”
Father’s eyes turned grim. “There is nowhere to hide them until tomorrow night?”
“You know the answer.”
Father studied the boat, rocking against the rubber tires moored to the dock. It was simple but rugged, recently painted white with a small sturdy helm in the center and a polished wooden cover over the bow. Gerhard doubted it was built for the open sea, except maybe on a calm night. And how would they navigate without any visible stars or landmarks? Gerhard was a master of calculating time of arrival to their regular fishing locations, though occasionally Father lost patience with all the chatter. Gerhard enjoyed working out latitude and longitude to the last second – the only thing Gerhard liked about fishing. Father had no idea how much Gerhard could calculate in his head, beyond his simple navigational problems, like the speed of rotation of the earth or the amount of time it took sunlight to reach the earth.
Father finally turned to Gerhard. “If we are traveling four and a half kilometers at our usual speed, heading due west, given this breeze and currents being double what they usually are, how long would it take?”
Distance and direction meant Sweden, Gerhard thought. Out of the Øresund and into open seas. In this boat? And in this weather? To help complete strangers? Was Father going crazy? Gerhard closed his eyes and forced the thoughts out of his head. “Heading out into this wind? All in, three and a half hours, maybe four – unless there are other variables you haven’t factored in. Like a change in the weather or the winds once we leave the harbor.”
“Bring the woman and child to the kitchen to stay warm,” Father ordered. “Wake your mother. Then get the boat ready.” Looking over to the man with the bag he added, “Perhaps your boy can give mine a hand.” The men walked away to begin a discussion.
Gerhard studied the boy and made a quick evaluation. He was about Gerhard’s size, but his shoes and clothing would make him completely worthless tonight. “Come along, you need a pair of boots and a warm coat.” The boys exchanged names, a love of soccer, and a few minutes later, Paul was proving himself not so worthless as a boat hand.
“What’s with the yellow star your father wears on his coat?”
“The Nazis require it in the countries he travels to. And that bag he’s carrying? He calls it his inventory. Takes it with him everywhere. Like the star.”
“What kind of inventory fits in such a bag?”
“He calls it my future.” Paul added, “Though it won’t mean much if we all drown. Diamonds at the bottom of the sea.”
“Diamonds?” For a trip to save their lives, the diamond merchant should be prepared to pay a lot. Enough to allow Father to send Gerhard away from this stupid village. Away from the stink. The first Neilson to attend university. Better to drown tonight than come back to this dead-end life.
Once they left the protection of the harbor, the wind blew up in the Øresund. The lights from the shoreline, what few there were to start with, were now invisible. There was still no star to navigate by, just Father’s instincts, and unforgiving gusts buffeting the boat. Mother and daughter sat huddled along with Paul’s father in the stern. The girl was already sick to her stomach and the mother was not in any better shape.
After about an hour, the swell increased and water began pouring in to the boat.
“Bail!” came the order from Father, and Gerhard reached under the cover for a pail. He crouched and filled it halfway, then tossed the water over the side. At least the saltwater washed away the vomit and the sickening odor.
After a couple of minutes, he felt pressure on his back. Paul had taken the second pail and was bailing furiously, though he was having trouble getting his sea legs. Back to back they worked in unison, the waves continually bringing more of the sea into the boat, saltwater stinging his eyes. They were too far out to go back. Besides, Father’s honor would sooner they all drown than give in.
Gerhard heard a scream from Father’s direction but could not hear a word. A wall of water overcame him and tossed him toward the gunwale. Then nothing but blackness.
Dawn broke on a new day. The sunlight filtered in from the horizon warming his eyelids, returning him to life. He woke with a gasp and a choke, vomiting a rush of seawater onto the deck. After a few moments he pushed his prone body from the deck to a sitting position. Paul was beside him, right leg askew at an impossible angle, face ashen. His pant leg was torn and bloodstained. Paul’s fingers were squeezing the gunwale; his teeth were clenched.
Paul forced a thin smile. “I won’t be playing much football this year.”
Gerhard rose slowly. His breathing had settled back to normal, though his head ached, but otherwise nothing felt broken. The two fathers were standing together on the pier. In the light of day, the distinction between the two men was more apparent. Father’s ruddy cheeks had been toughened by years of sun and wind. Paul’s father’s face was pale and soft. In his hand he was holding the brown felt bag. The moment of reckoning had arrived. “Bless you, Father,” Gerhard thought. Paul’s father poured a bunch of clear stones into his free hand.
“Take these, Mr. Neilson,” he said to Father. “I know you refused earlier but you have risked your lives. And surely your boat has suffered some damage.”
Father turned his head away to look at the mother and daughter. “What makes you think I’m about to change my mind? Go tend to your family. God’s thanks are all I need.”
Paul’s father tried once more to force the stones into Father’s hand, which was now closed into an unyielding fist. The same way he kept it closed to any form of temptation from the devil. “Keep them. Your journey is only beginning. Go. We must be heading back now.”
“In my community it is said that he who saves a life saves the world. Our families are linked forever by your act of selflessness. You have my vow that as long as any member of my family lives and breathes, your kindness will be rewarded. God be with you.”
Gerhard shook his head in disbelief.
The man stepped back into the boat and lifted Paul into his arms in one smooth motion. Paul screamed at the sudden movement and passed out. His father stepped off the fishing boat and did not cast his eyes backward.
“You’ve had a long night,” Father said. “Let’s get ourselves some bread and a little herring. Then we can head home. Never forget this lesson, little navigator. Serving God is of far greater value than all the diamonds on earth.”
Gerhard’s face burned. He felt a fever racing through him. A fever reminding him his life was ruined. Father, the village fool who had cheated himself out of a secure life for his family. God’s thanks was all Father needed? How selfish and shortsighted. Gerhard made his own vow that would serve him the rest of his life.
Sixty years later
Geri Neilson paced outside the Manhattan brownstone, fixated on his watch, boiling with each passing moment. The black stretch limousine pulled up at the curb, and the driver came racing around to open the passenger door.
“You’re six minutes late,” he fumed.
“Sorry, sir. It took a little longer than expected to collect the passengers.”
“Tell Mr. King to get out here for a moment.”
A moment later Red King emerged from the car, smiling. He stood a good half foot taller than Geri.
“Ready for a great weekend?” Red asked. His South African inflection had softened over the years, along with his belly.
“We need to speak. Now.”
“Geri, I’ve got our investors in the car and this is supposed to be a long weekend. Fun. No work. Remember?”
“I was up half the night. And the only reason I didn’t cancel is because we have to talk. It can’t wait. And I’m not getting in.”
Red didn’t rise to the bait. “You can’t back out now, Geri.” His tone had hardened. Geri crossed his arms. They stood facing each other for a moment. “Just get in the car, Geri.” His tone was a little softer. “I promise you we’ll talk. Tomorrow morning before the golf. The boys are inside waiting. If we’re going to keep our stock price moving up, I need you to help schmooze them.”
Geri’s shoulders relaxed. “All right,” he grumbled, following Red into the car.
Tomorrow morning they’d finally have it out. Geri took his seat on the dark leather back seat, beside Red, facing four passengers in golf attire who were laughing at the punchline of some joke. Geri recognized them all: the key fund managers who between them owned close to twenty percent of Danmark’s stock.
“Atlantic City, look out,” Red yelled over the din.
Atlantic City, my ass, Geri thought. What could be more pathetic than adults wagering their fates when the probability of winning was rigged against them? That was not the way to amass a fortune. Calculating statistical probability for success and acting on it, combining ingenuity and uncompromising standards, that is what created wealth in America. Measure the risk and exact the reward. He and Red had built Danmark from the ground up on that premise.
He’d never set foot in Atlantic City before, but he had a pretty good idea what to expect. Golf, gambling, alcohol, and servicing any other whims of these investors. Air Jordan was flying in tomorrow to join them at the country club. Red admitted that at last year’s weekend in Vegas he’d been taken for $150,000. “Well worth it,” he insisted. “You’ll never understand. I didn’t lose it to just anyone.”
Geri restrained himself through dinner, allowing Red to regale the boys with anecdotes about the world leaders he and Geri had met.
“Remember that night in Berlin with the Clintons and that Austrian couple? What were their names again? Some famous count, I think.”
Geri nodded. Faked a smile. Red didn’t really need him to keep the story going. Geri was just a prop tonight. A façade. Like what Red had set up in Ireland. If what Geri discovered yesterday proved out, it was a sham that could destroy everything they’d built.
Just after midnight Geri begged off and headed to his room. Enough of the sham.
A few minutes later he sat down at the desk in the suite and opened up his notebook, picked up the fountain pen and began to write.
The Exodus and my ten commandments"
Well over an hour later, after numerous scratches and corrections, Geri looked down at his work:
"I navigated Father home from Sweden on calm seas in a little over an hour and a half, but it was too late. Well into the morning, a gang of men in black coats and jackboots were waiting. Nazis. The barking was louder than any dog I ever heard. The leader with the lightning bolts on his shoulders ordered them to take Father away.
He didn’t return for three days, and when he did, just as Mother was serving dinner, his face was drawn and bruised. His upper lip was split and blood was caked on his cheeks. I’ll never forget his eyes. Defiant. Maybe that’s where I get it from. Mother attended to him and once she finished, Father, never one to use more words than necessary, looked up at her and said, “They’ll be back. Midnight. We go.”
That night we repeated the crossing, this time the three of us and whatever clothing and possessions I could squeeze into the boat.
What did I take from that? Father was a hero to the Jewish family, but had made us refugees. The rest of his life was struggle and failure, but I have to admit everything worked out for me. Maybe not the mythical Moses and his mythical Yahweh or God, but close, what with the crossing of the sea, wandering through Sweden and on to the promised land… America… but we’ll get to that later. It took a lifetime to realize that my stunning success was driven as much by reward as by risk."
His thoughts were interrupted by a persistent knocking at the door. He looked over at the clock. One-thirty a.m. “Are you kidding me,” he thought. “Go away, Red,” he shouted. “I’m in bed.”
The knocking persisted. Red did not shout anything back through the door, but realistically who else could it be at this hour? Nothing was impossible, but certain eventualities were far more likely than others. In this case, statistically speaking the person at the door was more likely to be Red than anyone else.
The pace of the banging accelerated with an impatience that matched Geri’s heartbeat. “Haven’t I done enough for you tonight? Go to bed. We agreed on tomorrow. Not tonight,” he shouted, to no avail. They had stayed in enough hotels over too many years and Red had interrupted too many nights of sleep.
“Enough already,” he muttered, slamming shut the notebook and sliding his blue reading glasses up onto his forehead. Geri was left with no alternative but to consider the possibility that it might be someone else, before opening the door.
In the time it took him to rise from the bed, adjust the tie on the plush white hotel robe, cross the suite, and approach the peephole, he had already run through the various permutations of potential outcomes. Game theory at play. Assume for a moment that it’s not Red. If it was an evacuation, the fire alarm would have sounded, and if the person in the next room was choking, they’d be better off calling the front desk or 911 than knocking on the door of a complete stranger who likely had no training in dealing with emergencies. Which left open the possibility of robbery – or worse.
Geri laughed. His philosophy put to the test. Measure the risk and exact the appropriate reward. There was some risk of opening the door. What reward should he exact?
“Honey, I know you’re standing on other side of door, but it’s not polite to keep a girl waiting.” There was the slightest inflection, and she stood far enough back from the peephole to allow him to identify her as a blonde in a low-cut red dress. Low enough to tell the story. This was not her first late-night appointment.
“Who sent you?” Geri asked.
Geri laughed and opened the door all the way. “I must be the first?” He couldn’t trust Red, but after forty years he had become all too predictable.
“Nice suite,” she said, scanning the living room. “Call me Angel. You Geri?” He nodded. He wasn’t born Geri, but Gerhard was not a name that would allow an immigrant high school kid any chance of survival.
“Do I know you, Angel?” There was an air of familiarity to her. He recalled some sociological theory about cross-race bias he’d read about before his last trip to China, suggesting most Asians looked the same to Caucasians. Geri had to stop reading mid-way through. Like most theories, worth nothing until proved through scientific method. All theories had to be carefully tested and retested, then analyzed and criticized by a broad community of experts. The essence of science. The core of a great pharma business.
She laughed. “You’ll get to know me really well, Geri.” She did not need directions to the bedroom.
Angel looked surprisingly muscular for a girl in this line of work. She carried a large handbag, and as she passed Geri on the way to the bedroom, the hem of her skirt swayed a good eighteen inches above the knee. No doubt about the length and tone of those thighs and what they may be capable of achieving. The view was spectacular when she bent over the bed to unzip the bag in preparation for whatever was coming. The pink thong left nothing to the imagination, except for what might transpire in the next half hour.
Geri looked over at the prescription bottle on the night table. Maybe he should grab the heart medication in advance. Except that would be a sign of weakness and his rapid heartbeat was beginning to slow. To hell with the idiot cardiologist who doled out warnings about self-restraint like someone who wasn’t getting it anymore. Geri made a mental note to get to the pills later. She laid her own small bottle and a couple of condoms at the foot of the bed.
“Come. Lie down, honey,” she said without turning around.
Geri propped himself up on the silk-lined pillows at the head of the bed and crossed his ankles.
“Close your eyes, honey. Relax. You’re so tense. Like you think too much.” She laughed. Geri sighed. He closed his eyes. She uncrossed his legs and began to massage his feet. The lotion was warming.
The shuffling of thoughts in his brain resumed, accompanied by a crackling from the foot of the bed. She was probably preparing the condom.
“You need a little help, honey. Keep your eyes closed. I’ll get you ready.”
Relax, Geri. The reward is coming. Keep your eyes closed, he thought. Something just wasn’t working. Her annoying inflection. Or was it something else? His tenth commandment. Never close your eyes to risk.
Never close your eyes. Fuck, the voice screamed in his head. His eyes bulged open. The syringe in her hand was poised to enter between his toes. His leg jerked upward, sending it twirling like a majorette’s baton. The follow-through caught her flush on the jaw. She howled in pain while his other heel kicked her in the chest and off the bed.
That’s when he felt the constriction in his chest, the paralyzing pain in his left arm, the feeling he was drowning. He collapsed back on the bed as she rose off the floor, rubbing her jaw with one hand, grabbing her purse with the other, momentarily studying him. Hesitating. If she had worked for him, she would know what she had to do immediately. If you start a job, you finish it. He closed his eyes.
Angel closed the bathroom door behind her, reached for the burner phone, and dialed a number.
“Needle broke. But he’s having the heart attack anyway.”
“Did you administer the drug?”
“Did you leave any residue?”
“Hold on.” She left the bathroom and got down on hands and knees, crawling across the room, phone in hand, tamping on the beige carpet with the other for traces of moisture. “Carpet’s dry. No stain.”
“Is that him moaning?”
“More like choking.”
“Collect everything and leave him there. You delivered the message. Perhaps this is a better result. Return to Shannon on the next flight.”
Angel gathered her things, the plastic syringe and the broken needle and stuffed them in the handbag. Geri was gasping as she eased the door closed behind her. She measured her pace to the elevator. When the car arrived empty, she let the door close behind her, then hit the stop button, moved to the corner underneath the camera, then commenced her methodical transformation: she carefully removed the wig and red dress and placed them at her feet, then appraised her face in the compact mirror. The bruising at the jawline wasn’t too bad, but would be in about an hour. She applied the cover-up in coats until she was satisfied, opened the bag and reached for the folded full-length black dress, slipped it over her head, then rolled the wig into the red dress and placed it in the bag; scanned the elevator floor for any traces of blond hair. Finally, she restarted the elevator and emerged in the lobby as Li Shan.
The moment the door had clicked shut, Geri picked up the house phone, dialed 0, and called for help. It takes more than an ordinary assassin to kill Geri Neilson, he gloated. I’ll deal with Red in the morning. Then he fainted.