The Berlin Borse had opened for trading thirty minutes earlier. In the window display of the Union des Banques Suisses on Zurich’s Bahnhof Strasse, the numbers clicked like knitting needles. Bayer, Siemens, Thyssen, Daimler -up, up, up, up. The only stock falling on news of detente was Krupp.
A smart and well-dressed crowd had gathered anxiously, as they did every morning, to watch this monitor of the Reich’s economic health. Prices on the Borse had been falling for six months and a mood close to panic had seized investors. But this week, thanks to old Joe Kennedy — he always knew a thing or two about markets, old Joe: made half a billion dollars on Wall Street in his day — yes, thanks to Joe, the slide had stopped. Berlin was happy. Everyone was happy. Nobody paid attention to the couple walking up the street from the lake, not holding hands but close enough for their bodies to touch occasionally, followed by a weary-looking pair of gentlemen in fawn raincoats.
March had been given a short briefing on the customs and practices of Swiss banking the afternoon he left Berlin.
“Bahnhof Strasse is the financial centre. It looks like the main shopping street, which it is. But it’s the courtyards behind the shops and the offices above them that matter. That’s where you’ll find the banks. But you’ll have to keep your eyes open. The Swiss say: the older the money, the harder to see it. In Zurich, the money’s so old, it’s invisible.”
Beneath the paving stones and tramlines of Bahnhof Strasse -ran the catacomb of vaults in which three generations of Europe’s rich had buried their wealth. March looked at the shoppers and tourists pouring along the street and wondered upon what ancient dreams and secrets, upon what bones they were treading.
These banks were small, family-run concerns: a dozen or two employees, a suite of offices, a small brass plate. Zaugg Cie was typical. The entrance was in a side-street, behind a jewellers, scanned by a remote camera identical to the one outside Zaugg’s villa. As March rang the bell beside the discreet door he felt Charlie brush his hand.
A woman’s voice over the intercom demanded his name and business. He looked up at the camera.
“My name is March. This is Fraulein Maguire. We wish to see Herr Zaugg.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“The Herr Direktor sees no one without an appointment.”
Tell him we have a letter of authorisation for account number 2402.”
“One moment, please.”
The policemen were lounging at the entrance to the side-street. March glanced at Charlie. It seemed to him her eyes were brighter, her skin more lustrous. He supposed he flattered himself. Everything looked heightened today- the trees greener, the blossom whiter, the sky bluer, as if washed with gloss.
She was carrying a leather shoulder bag, from which she now produced a camera, a Leica. “I think a shot for the family album.”
“As you like. But leave me out of it.”
She took a photograph of Zaugg’s door and nameplate. The receptionist’s voice snapped over the intercom. “Please come to the second floor.” There was a buzz of bolts being released, and March pushed at the heavy door.
The building was an optical illusion. Small and nondescript from the outside, inside a staircase of glass and tubular chrome led to a wide reception area, decorated with modern art. Hermann Zaugg was waiting to meet them. Behind him stood one of the bodyguards from last night.
“Herr March, is it?” Zaugg extended his hand. “And Fraulein Maguire?” He shook her hand, too, and gave a slight bow. “English?”
“Ah. Good. Always a pleasure to meet our American friends.” He was like a little doll: silver hair, shiny pink face, tiny hands and feet. He wore a suit of immaculate black, a white shirt, a pearl-grey tie. “I understand you have the necessary authorisation?”
March produced the letter. Zaugg held the paper swiftly to the light and studied the signature. “Yes indeed. The hand of my youth. I fear my script has deteriorated since those years. Come.”
In his office, he directed them to a low sofa of white leather. He sat behind his desk. Now the advantage of height lay with him: the oldest trick.
March had decided to be frank. “We passed your home last night. Your privacy is well protected.”
Zaugg had his hands folded on his desk. He made a non-committal gesture with his tiny thumbs, as if to say: You know how it is. “I gather from my associates that you had protection of your own. Do I take it this visit is official, or private?”
“Both. That is to say, neither.”
“I am familiar with the situation. Next you will tell me it is "a delicate matter".”
“It is a delicate matter.”
“My speciality.” He adjusted his cuffs. “Sometimes, it seems to me that the whole history of twentieth-century Europe has flowed through this office. In the 1930s, it was Jewish refugees who sat where you now sit — often pathetic creatures, clutching whatever they had managed to salvage. They were usually followed closely by gentlemen from the Gestapo. In the 1940s, it was German officials of- how shall we say? — recently-acquired wealth. Sometimes the very men who had once come to close the accounts of others now returned to open new ones on their own behalf. In the 1950s, we dealt with the descendants of those who had vanished during the 1940s. Now, in the 1960s, I anticipate an increase in American custom, as your two great countries come together once more. The 1970s I shall leave to my son.”
This letter of authorisation,” said March, “how much access does it give us?”
“You have the key?”
Then you have total access.”
“We would like to begin with the account records.”
“Very well.” Zaugg studied the letter, then picked up his telephone. “Fraulein Graf, bring in the file for 2402.”
She appeared a minute later, a middle-aged woman carrying a thin sheaf of papers in a manila binding. Zaugg took it. “What do you wish to know?”
“When was the account opened?”
He looked through the papers. “July 1942. The eighth day of that month.”
“And who opened it?”
Zaugg hesitated. He was like a miser with his store of precious information: parting with each fact was agony. But under the terms of his own rules he had no choice.
He said at last: “Herr Martin Luther.”
March was making notes. “And what were the arrangements for the account?”
“One box. Four keys.”
“Four keys?” March’s eyebrows rose in surprise. That was Luther himself, and Buhler and Stuckart, presumably. But who held the fourth key? “How were they distributed?”
They were all issued to Herr Luther, along with four letters of authorisation. Naturally, what he chose to do with them is not our concern. You appreciate that this was a special form of account-an emergency, wartime account-designed to protect anonymity, and also to allow ease of access for any heirs or beneficiaries, should anything happen to the original account-holder.”
“How did he pay for the account.”
“In cash. Swiss francs. Thirty years” rental. In advance. Don’t worry, Herr March — there is nothing to pay until 1972.”
Charlie said: “Do you have a record of transactions relating to the account?”
Zaugg turned to her. “Only the dates on which the box was opened.”
“What are they?”
The eighth of July 1942. The seventeenth of December 1942. The ninth of August 1943. The thirteenth of April 1964.”
April the thirteenth! March barely suppressed a cry of triumph. His guess had been right. Luther had flown to Zurich at the start of the week. He scribbled the dates in his notebook. “Only four times?” he asked.
“And until last Monday, the box had not been opened for nearly twenty-one years?”
That is what the dates indicate.” Zaugg closed the file with a flick of annoyance. “I might add, there is nothing especially unusual about that. We have boxes here which have lain untouched for fifty years or more.”
“You set up the account originally?”
“Did Herr Luther say why he wanted to open it, or why he needed these particular arrangements?”
That is privileged information between client and banker.”
Charlie interrupted. “But we are your clients.”
“No, Fraulein Maguire. You are beneficiaries of my client. An important distinction.”
“Did Herr Luther open the box personally on each occasion?” asked March.
“Was it Luther who opened the box on Monday? What sort of mood was he in?”
“Client privilege, client privilege.” Zaugg held up his hands. “We can go on all day, Herr March. Not only am I under no obligation to give you that information, it would be illegal under the Swiss Banking Code for me to do so. I have passed on all you are entitled to know. Is there anything else?”
“Yes.” March closed his notebook and looked at Charlie. “We would like to inspect the box for ourselves.”
A SMALL elevator led down to the vault. There was just enough room for four passengers. March and Charlie, Zaugg and his bodyguard stood awkwardly pressed together. Close to, the banker reeked of eau de Cologne; his hair glistened beneath an oily pomade.
The vault was like a prison, or a mortuary: a white-tiled corridor which stretched ahead of them for thirty metres, with bars on either side. At the far end, next to the gate, a security guard sat at a desk. Zaugg pulled a heavy bunch of keys from his pocket, attached by a chain to his belt. He hummed as he searched for the right one.
The ceiling vibrated slightly as a tram passed overhead.
He let them into the cage. Steel walls gleamed in the neon light: banks of doors, each half a metre square. Zaugg moved in front of them, unlocked one at waist height and stood back. The security guard pulled out a long box, the size of a metal footlocker, and carried it over to a table.
Zaugg said: Tour key fits the lock on that box. I shall wait outside.”
There’s no need.”
Thank you, but I prefer to wait.”
Zaugg left the cage and stood outside, with his back to the bars. March looked at Charlie, and gave her the key.
“You do it.”
She inserted the key. It turned easily. The end of the box opened. She reached inside. There was a look of puzzlement on her face, then disappointment.
“It’s empty, I think.” Her expression changed. “No…”
She smiled and pulled out a flat cardboard box, about fifty centimetres square, five centimetres deep. The lid was sealed with red wax, with a typewritten label gummed on top: “Property of the Reich Foreign Ministry Treaty Archive, Berlin.” And underneath, in Gothic lettering: “Geheime Reichssache”. Top Secret State Document.
March broke the seal, using the key. He lifted the lid. The interior released a scent of mingled must and incense.
Another tram passed. Zaugg was still humming, jingling his keys.
Inside the cardboard box was an object wrapped in an oilcloth. March lifted it out and laid it flat on the desk. He drew back the cloth: a panel of wood, scratched and ancient; one of the corners was broken off. He turned it over.
Charlie was next to him. She murmured: “It’s beautiful.”
The edges of the panel were splintered, as if it had been wrenched from its setting. But the portrait itself was perfectly preserved. A young woman, exquisite, with pale brown eyes, was glancing to the right, a string of black beads looped twice around her neck. In her lap, in long, aristocratic fingers, she held a small animal with white fur. Not a dog, exactly; more like a weasel.
Charlie was right. It was beautiful. It seemed to suck in the light from the vault and radiate it back. The girl’s pale skin glowed -luminous, like an angel’s.
“What does it mean?” whispered Charlie.
“God knows.” March felt vaguely cheated. Was the deposit box no more than an extension of Buhler’s treasure chamber? “How much do you know about art?”
“Not much. But there is something familiar about it. May I?” She took it, held it at arm’s length. “It’s Italian, I think. You see her costume — the way the neckline of her dress is cut square, the sleeves. I’d say Renaissance. Very old, and very genuine.”
“And very stolen. Put it back.”
“Do we have to?”
“Of course. Unless you can think of a good story for the Zollgrenzschutz at Berlin Airport.”
Another painting: that was all! Cursing under his breath, March ran the oilcloth through his hands, checked the cardboard container. He turned the safety deposit box on its end and shook it. Nothing. The empty metal mocked him. What had he hoped for? He did not know. But something to give him a better clue than this.
“We must leave,” he said.
Charlie propped the panel up against the box. She crouched and took half-a-dozen photographs. Then she rewrapped the picture, replaced it in its container, and locked the box.
March called: “We’ve finished here, Herr Zaugg. Thank you.”
Zaugg reappeared with the security guard — a fraction too quickly, March thought. He guessed the banker had been straining to overhear them.
Zaugg rubbed his hands. “All is to your satisfaction, I trust?”
The guard slid the box back into the cavity, Zaugg locked the door, and the girl with the weasel was re-interred in darkness. “We have boxes here which have lain untouched for fifty years or more…” Was that how long it would be before she saw the light again?
They rode the elevator in silence. Zaugg shepherded them out at street-level. “And so we say goodbye.” He shook hands with each of them in turn.
March felt he had to say something more, should try one final tactic. “I feel I must warn you, Herr Zaugg, that two of the joint holders of this account have been murdered in the past week, and that Martin Luther himself has disappeared.”
Zaugg did not even blink. “Dear me, dear me. Old clients pass away and new ones” — he gestured to them -’take their place. And so the world turns. The only thing you can be sure of, Herr March, is that — whoever wins — still standing when the smoke of battle clears will be the banks of the cantons of Switzerland. Good day to you.”
They were out on the street and the door was closing when Charlie shouted: “Herr Zaugg!”
His face appeared and before he could withdraw it, the camera clicked. His eyes were wide, his little mouth popped into a perfect O of outrage.
Zurich’s lake was misty-blue, like a picture from a fairy-story — a landscape fit for sea-monsters and heroes to do battle in. If only the world had been as we were promised, thought March. Then castles with pointed turrets would have risen through that haze.
He was leaning against the damp stone balustrade outside the hotel, his suitcase at his feet, waiting for Charlie to settle her bill.
He wished he could have stayed longer — taken her out on the water, explored the city, the hills; had dinner in the old town; returned to his room each night, to make love, to the sound of the lake … A dream. Fifty metres to his left, sitting in their cars, his guardians from the Swiss Polizei yawned.
Many years ago, when March was a young detective in the Hamburg Kripo, he had been ordered to escort a prisoner serving a life-sentence for robbery, who had been given a special day-pass. The man’s trial had been in the papers; his childhood sweetheart had seen the publicity and written to him; had visited him in gaol; agreed to marry him. The affair had touched that streak of sentimentality that runs so strong in the German psyche. There had been a public campaign to let the ceremony go ahead. The authorities had relented. So March took him to his wedding, stood handcuffed beside him throughout the service and even during the wedding pictures, like an unusually attentive best man.
The reception had been in a grim hall next to the church. Towards the end, the groom had whispered that there was a storeroom with a rug in it, that the priest had no objections… And March — young husband that he was -had checked the storeroom and seen there were no windows and had left the man and his wife alone for twenty minutes. The priest — who had worked as a chaplain in Hamburg’s docks for thirty years, and seen most things — had given March a grave wink.
On the way back to prison, as the high walls came into view, March had expected the man to be depressed, to plead for extra time, maybe even dive for the door. Not at all. He had sat smiling, finishing his cigar. Standing by the Zurich See, March realised how he had felt. It had been sufficient to know that the possibility of another life existed; one day of it had been enough.
He felt Charlie come up beside him. She kissed him lightly on the cheek.
A SHOP at Zurich airport was piled high with brightly coloured gifts — cuckoo clocks, toy skis, ashtrays glazed with pictures of the Matterhorn, and chocolates. March picked out one of the musical boxes with “Birthday Greetings to Our Beloved Fuhrer, 1964” written on the lid and took it to the counter where a plump middle-aged woman was waiting.
“Could you wrap this and send it for me?”
“No problem, sir. Write down where you want it to go.”
She gave him a form and a pencil and March wrote Hannelore Jaeger’s name and address. Hannelore was even fatter than her husband, a lover of chocolates. He hoped Max would see the joke.
The assistant wrapped the box swiftly in brown paper, with skilled fingers.
“Do you sell many of these?”
“Hundreds. You Germans certainly love your Fuhrer.”
“We do, it is true.” He was looking at the parcel. It was wrapped exactly like the one he had taken from Buhler’s mailbox. “You don’t, I suppose, keep a record of the places to which you send these packages?”
“That would be impossible.” She addressed it, stuck on a stamp, and added it to the pile behind her.
“Of course. And you wouldn’t remember serving an elderly German here, about four o’clock on Monday afternoon? He had thick glasses and runny eyes.”
Her face was suddenly hard with suspicion. “What are you? A policeman?”
“It’s of no importance.” He paid for the chocolates, and also for a mug with “i LOVE ZURICH” printed on the side.
Luther would not have come all the way to Switzerland to put that painting in the bank vault, thought March. Even as a retired Foreign Ministry official, he could never have smuggled a package that size, stamped top secret, past the Zollgrenzschutz. He must have come here to retrieve something, to take it back to Germany. And as it was the first time he had visited the vault for twenty-one years, and as there were three other keys, and as he trusted nobody, he must have had doubts about whether that other thing would still be here.
He stood looking at the departure lounge and tried to imagine the elderly man hurrying into the terminal building, clutching his precious cargo, his weak heart beating sharply against his ribs. The chocolates must have been a message of success: so far, my old comrades, so good. What could he have been carrying? Not paintings or money, surely; they had plenty of both in Germany.
“What?” Charlie, who had been waiting for him in the concourse, turned round in surprise.
“That must have been the link. Paper. They were all civil servants. They lived their lives by paper, on paper.”
He pictured them in wartime Berlin — sitting in their offices at night, circulating memos and minutes in a perpetual bureaucratic paper chase, building themselves a paper fortress. Millions of Germans had fought in the war: in the freezing mud of the Steppes, or in the Libyan desert, or in the clear skies over southern England, or — like March — at sea. But these old men had fought their war — had bled and expended their middle age — on paper.
Charlie was shaking her head. “You’re making no sense.”
“I know. To myself, perhaps. I bought you this.”
She unwrapped the mug and laughed; clasped it to her heart.
“I shall treasure it.”
They walked quickly through passport control. Beyond the barrier, March turned for a final look. The two Swiss policemen were watching from the ticket desk. One of them — the one who had rescued them outside Zaugg’s villa — raised his hand. March waved in return.
Their flight number was being called for the last time: “Passengers for Lufthansa flight 227 to Berlin must report immediately…”
He let his arm fall back and turned towards the departure gate.