Read an Excerpt
By Gerald A. Browne
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Pulse Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chesser had come to London ten times a year for the past ten years.
He always stayed at the Connaught, although not in the same corner suite, the one he now occupied. He was such a regular that the hotel no longer requested his passport when he registered and he knew many of the white-gloved, white-tied hotel employees by first name. They knew him as a more generous than average tipper.
This time Chesser had intended to be in London only overnight, to leave for Antwerp as soon as he picked up his packet. His business in Antwerp would require a few hours at most. After that he would be free to meet Maren in Chantilly, where he wanted to be.
But Maren's call had changed those plans. Through a bad, crackling connection that made her sound more distant, she'd said it was raining miserably in Chantilly and, although everything was now green and fresh, the workmen were still repairing the roof of her house, causing a mess. And the terrace pool hadn't been cleaned as promised. She wanted to be with Chesser. She wanted to be with him in London. It was her favorite city in May.
Chesser's first reaction was to console her and tell her to hold out one more day. He was confident enough to realize that most of Maren's discontent with Chantilly was caused by his absence. Her house there was one of the special places where they had truly shared one another, and Chesser thought to remind her of that. But he left it unsaid. He also held back telling her he would much rather be in Chantilly, how much he'd been anticipating the country peace and the indulgences permitted by isolation. London was too close to The System, too close for comfort.
No matter. With his love he couldn't deny Maren anything that might increase her happiness. She would arrive that afternoon on BEA from Le Bourget. Chesser's mind already saw her. He would meet her at the airport if The System cooperated by granting him an early enough appointment.
Now, he sat nude on the edge of the hotel bed, within reach of the telephone. He had to call them. He would have to lie to them about yesterday. He wished he'd gone in to The System yesterday, as scheduled. The reason he hadn't was vague, even to him. He had merely remained in his room, told himself he should get dressed, read the morning Times down to its society items, procrastinated until the time for his appointment had passed. And when it was too late he felt strangely relieved, more victorious than guilty, for some reason.
That was yesterday. Today he had to go in.
He quickly decided that the most acceptable excuse was to lie and say he'd just arrived. Conveniently, there was some sort of airlines strike in New York that he could put to use, although actually he'd come in from Nice.
He helped himself to a piece of sweet roll from his breakfast tray, spread it with butter that had gone very soft by now and dipped it into a cup half full of cold black coffee. He noticed the oil from the butter caused a silvery film on the black surface. He brought his mind back to the telephone, discarded the roll, and reached for the instrument.
He gave the number to the hotel operator. While he waited he brought his free hand to the socket of his other arm. He was perspiring. He resented that symptom of his anxiety. The number was ringing. It answered after the third ring, as was customary. He could have predicted it. A precise and ideal female voice wished him an automatic good morning instead of announcing the company's name. He asked for Mr. Meecham and was put through to Meecham's secretary.
She asked, "Who is calling Mr. Meecham?"
He told her. His last name.
"Mr. Meecham is conducting a sight," she informed him. "Mr. Berkely will speak with you."
Berkely was far down the ladder, under Meecham. Meecham was president of The System. Chesser, in all his ten years of dealing with The System, hadn't spoken to Meecham more than a dozen times. It was usually Berkely or someone else; usually someone else, in accord with the relatively modest value of Chesser's packet.
Finally Berkely came on the line. "Ah, Chesser," he said, as though finding something useful that had been lost. "We expected you yesterday."
"I was delayed." Chesser put off telling the lie. Fortunately.
"How was the flight from Nice?"
"I always prefer that late flight," said Berkely and then hesitated, perhaps purposely. "You're stopping at the Connaught, of course."
A long moment's silence into which, apparently, Chesser was supposed to insert his excuse. However, he was using the time to invent another one.
Berkely prompted. "Let's see. Chesser, Chesser ..." Evidently he was consulting a list. "You were scheduled for yesterday afternoon."
"I wasn't feeling well yesterday."
"Oh? Sorry to hear that. You should have rung us up."
"I meant to."
"Undoubtedly you had good reason for not calling." A half question. Then an indulgent sigh around Berkely's next words: "Now, what can we do for you?"
"I'd like to come in today."
"That may not be possible."
"I'll only pick it up. I won't need to look at it."
"I'm looking at the schedule. It's difficult, especially today. It's the last day for these sights, you know."
Chesser knew that only too well. "Perhaps you could send my packet here, to the hotel."
"We'd rather not, in this case."
Shove the packet. Shove the whole System, Chesser wanted to say. He said nothing. It was a silent request for a pardon.
Berkely must have sensed that. "We'd prefer you came in."
"Promptly at three. Does that suit you?"
"I'll be there at three."
"You're feeling better, I take it?"
"Much better, thanks."
"Good," said Berkely, and clicked off without a good-bye.
Chesser placed the phone back onto its cradle but continued looking at it. He swore at Berkely but immediately directed his indignation more accurately at The System. Berkely was only an intermediary. It was The System that had just reprimanded Chesser as though he were a schoolboy caught playing hooky. He stood suddenly, attempting to cut his anger with sharp movement. But it stayed with him.
How the hell did they know he'd come from Nice? And the exact flight? For ten years he'd always kept his appointments. Ten times each year. What reason did they have to place him under such close scrutiny? There had only been that negotiation in Marrakesh, but that had been in 1966, years ago. It was impossible for them to know about that. The money from that had been in cash, and now it was represented only by a secret account number in Geneva. So, Chesser thought, it couldn't be the Marrakesh deal. What then? His affair with Maren? Possibly. But he doubted it. Besides, he and Maren had always been discreet. Hadn't they? He answered himself: More so in the beginning. Wherever they went together in the beginning they'd always taken an extra room in her name, although for the past year they hadn't been particularly careful. That was only natural.
He lighted a cigarette, inhaled deeper than usual, and blew out noisily, as though trying to eject more than smoke. He asked the distorted rectangle of sunlight that was hitting the hotel rug: Did The System always keep such close check on everyone with whom it dealt?
An hour later, after shower and razor, after he'd dressed in a conservatively cut suit of navy, because navy was this side of doleful black and the other side of casual brown, after he'd checked the contents of his dark blue alligator business case and snapped shut its pure gold catch, he still had the same question in mind. Really, did The System secretly observe everyone's behavior?
He decided he was being paranoid. He decided he was being absurd. The System wouldn't do that. Couldn't.
Chesser was wrong.CHAPTER 2
In the A to Z London atlas and street index, Harrowhouse Street, EC1 may be found on page 64, reference square 3-C. To locate it on the map, the help of a magnifying glass is suggested, for the street is so short that the mapmaker was forced to reduce greatly and crowd his lettering.
Harrowhouse Street is near enough to Saint Paul's for an aesthetic if not reverent view. And even closer to Old Bailey. It is within easy walking distance of Fleet Street's churning urgency, and, in the opposite direction, there is the Bank of England, which was once considered the paragon of stability. Proximity to these formidable features is not, however, the significance of Harrowhouse Street, not the reason that address is known well by many affluent persons throughout the world.
The street itself gives no overt clue to its special importance. Like so many other streets in the maze of London, it is barely two car-widths across, and any vehicle stopped to discharge a passenger is apt to cause immediate congestion. Its sidewalks are equally unaccommodating. Persons walking in pairs cannot pass without at least one having to give way.
The buildings on both sides of the street are all of nineteenth-century quality, as much related in style as they are in space. There are no sheer contemporary facades on Harrowhouse. No neon lights, no plate-glass store fronts, no advertising of any sort. The feeling of the street has been preserved. That feeling is maturity.
Despite its appearance to the contrary, Harrowhouse is a street of commerce. The building numbered 12, for example, contains the executive offices of a maritime insurance company. Across the way at number 13 are the directors of Mid-Continental Oil. There is a dealer of rare books and manuscripts on the second floor of number 32. And the United Kingdom representative of an American plastics firm occupies a portion of the third floor at number 24. Plastics and oil, rare books and insurance. These four are the outsiders, the only trespassers among the other hundred or more companies on Harrowhouse that share a common pursuit of profits.
From that, one might assume the street is merely a satellite of the ancient diamond district called Hatton Garden, located nearby. In Hatton Garden gems can be seen in abundance, glittering authentically in store windows, and there is the constant activity of independent dealers attached to the small, drawstring purses in which they carry their precious stones for trading. However, the relationship between Hatton Garden and Harrowhouse Street is the reverse of the obvious. Hatton Garden looks to Harrowhouse with established respect.
Number 11 is the reason.
It is also the reason why so many diamond merchants are eager to conduct business on that quiet, minor street. They are like particles unable to resist a powerful magnet. They feel fortunate to be there, as close to number 11 as possible.
Number 11 is one of the larger structures on Harrowhouse—a wider building of five stories, marked by four windows across at every level. The top floor slants to the roof, and the quartet of windows there is set back slightly, each with identical eaves. The building is painted black and crisply trimmed with white. Its entrance is only a degree warmer. Tall double doors of richly varnished oak. On the right-hand door is a rectangle of solid brass, originally chosen thick enough so that now it symbolizes durability and longevity after nearly thirty thousand polishings.
On the brass name plate there is no name. Only the words number eleven, in Spencerian script. Marking the headquarters of the Consolidated Selling System, or, as those in the business call it with no less veneration, The System.
It is here that The System maintains control of approximately ninety per cent of the world's diamonds, choking or releasing the supply according to its judgment.
It is a flagrant cartel, enjoying all the advantages of such an arrangement. From its own mines in South Africa and South West Africa comes sixty per cent of the world's supply. With this nucleus of power, The System either buys up or receives on consignment practically all the rough stones found elsewhere in the world.
The System has no competition. In its eighty years of existence there have been only a few challengers, and these have been swiftly dealt with, either dissolved or absorbed. Actually, no one in the business of diamonds wants to slay or even disturb the giant. It is better to have the giant, The System, in absolute control. Otherwise, there might be great fluctuations in price. Surely there would be underselling, and the entire market would be adversely affected. So, to the diamond merchant, The System plays a vital and rather heroic role. It stabilizes price. At least it dictates that the price of diamonds should go up and never down. And that seems to please everyone, including even those who finally purchase the cut gems for substantial investment or precious decoration.
While The System is a far-reaching and complex organization, its method of marketing is ingeniously simple.
Ten times each year invitations are cabled to a select group of two hundred diamond dealers and wholesalers. No one declines, for such an invitation is considered comparable to a gratuity. To be so included is a financial privilege, often handed down from father to son.
Prior to the arrival of these dealers, The System makes up individual packets of diamonds, choosing the stones from its inventory. One packet for each dealer. The size, quality, and number of stones in each packet are decided entirely by The System, and a price, also arbitrarily predetermined, is placed on each packet. Some packets are modestly valued — for example, at a mere twenty-five thousand dollars. Others have been known to be priced as high as nine million. Depending upon what The System dictates.
The dealer arrives at number 11. He is presented with his packet, and, if he chooses, he may examine its contents. Such an examination is called a sight. However, most buyers accept their packets without opening them. Not really a show of blind confidence. Merely an acknowledgement of The System's irrefutable terms, which are: No buyer may dispute what he finds in his packet, he may not utter a single questioning word about price, and he must accept all the stones in his packet, or none. If a buyer refuses his packet he is never invited again.
The System's volume is approximately six hundred million dollars a year.
On Friday, May 1st, at precisely two fifty-five P.M., a chauffeured black Daimler deposited Chesser at the entrance to number 11 Harrowhouse Street.
Chesser approached the door and reached for its imposing brass latch. Only the very tips of his fingers contacted the metal, for the door was immediately pulled open to admit him. He should have remembered that from all the previous times, but he was distracted, anticipating what his mind had developed into a confrontation. He didn't want to see Berkely, or even Meecham, especially not Meecham. He wanted to get his packet and get the hell out of there. Maren's plane was due in at six.
Chesser entered and was greeted by the one who always opened the door with such perfect timing. The man's name was Miller. A large man, evidently strong. He was a guard, although that was not apparent from his dress. He wore a black suit and tie. He might have been a funeral director. Miller's post had been the front door of number 11 as long as Chesser could remember. Miller was a friendly sort, always had a smile ready. But as Chesser saw him now he realized that the man would be formidable to anyone uninvited.
Chesser went deeper into the reception area, a wide, impressive center hall that led to a full-width stairway. He heard his steps on the patterned black-and-white marble floor. For some reason, his hearing seemed overly acute. He was also aware of his body's reluctance to move. He didn't want to be there.
He sat on a bench that was genuine Queen Anne and placed his business case beside him. He was minutes early. He preoccupied himself with the wall opposite, where a large painting was hung. A snowscape, well done in convincing soft whites, peaceful, glistening. He had the urge to smoke, but decided to wait. He noticed there wasn't an ashtray on the nearby table. Miller was standing in his place by the entrance. They exchanged friendly expressions.
Excerpted from 11 Harrowhouse by Gerald A. Browne. Copyright © 1986 Pulse Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.