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Christopher Reich electrified readers with Numbered Account and The Runner, his first two international thrillers. Now the New York Times bestselling author whose work has been called “gripping” (Chicago Tribune), “chilling” (The Denver Post), “wonderful” (The New York Times Book Review), ratchets up the stakes in an ingeniously plotted story of nerve-jangling intrigue and hot-wired suspense. Using today’s cutthroat global economy as a backdrop, The First Billion explodes into a...
Christopher Reich electrified readers with Numbered Account and The Runner, his first two international thrillers. Now the New York Times bestselling author whose work has been called “gripping” (Chicago Tribune), “chilling” (The Denver Post), “wonderful” (The New York Times Book Review), ratchets up the stakes in an ingeniously plotted story of nerve-jangling intrigue and hot-wired suspense. Using today’s cutthroat global economy as a backdrop, The First Billion explodes into a breakneck tale of betrayal, revenge, and redemption...
John “Jett” Gavallan is a former fighter pilot, now the high-flying CEO of Black Jet Securities, an investment firm that earned its first billion before the techno dream crashed and burned. Poised for an offering crucial to his company’s survival, Gavallan is banking on the riskiest gamble of his dazzling career. In exactly six days, he will take Mercury Broadband, Russia’s leading media company, public on the New York Stock Exchange. But rumors of fraud have suddenly surfaced that could send the deal south. Gavallan makes a preemptive strike by dispatching his number-two man—fellow Desert Storm fighter pilot Grafton Byrnes—to Moscow to penetrate the shadowy Russian multinational. When Byrnes fails to return, Gavallan fears the worst. But the truth is even more diabolical than he can imagine.
Plunging into a desperate search for his best friend, the renegade top gun is suddenly fighting a different kind of war, where there is no safe harbor and no one he can trust. Not Konstantin Kirov, the elusive head of Mercury Broadband who may not be what he seems. Not the bankers and traders Gavallan does business with every day. Not the exotic beauty who has told him all her deepest secrets—except one. Suddenly Jett finds himself trapped in a conspiracy that could shatter the delicate balance between nations—and plunge the global economy into chaos. Hunted by the F.B.I. and a band of elite killers, Jett races from Palm Beach to Zurich to Moscow in a desperate search for answers. But for this brave ex-commando haunted by visions of war, the truth comes at a terrible price. With Mercury rising and the hours ticking down, he is moving closer to a place where murder and revenge are the currency of choice...and where the first billion is the ultimate insider secret—and the deadliest obsession of all.
With breakneck plotting, stunning realism, and a sense of danger that keeps the heart racing, The First Billion is a knockout of a novel that will linger long after the final shocking twist is revealed.
Two titles from a best-selling author, for the price of one!
“You are millionaire?” she asked.
“Me?” Grafton Byrnes pointed a finger at his chest. “No. I’m afraid not.”
“Yes,” she insisted, adding a coy smile. “You are millionaire. I can tell. You have nice suit. Beautiful tie. You are confident. It is clear. You are millionaire.”
Byrnes unglued his eyes from the leggy blond who’d taken a seat at the bar next to him and looked around the room. The place was called Metelitsa, and it was a restaurant, nightclub, and casino rolled into one, located on the Novy Arbat in the center of Moscow. Red curtains blocked out the summer evening’s glare. White tablecloths, smoked mirrors, and croupiers in black ties lent the room a touch of class. But one sniff told Byrnes different: the smoke, the perfume, the heady mix of expensive liquor and easy morals. He could recognize a cathouse by scent alone.
“I’m successful,” he said, curtly. “Nothing special.”
“You are very successful, I think. Yes, a millionaire.” She pronounced the word, mee-lone-air, and her Slavic accent and grave delivery lent the word a patina of its foregone luster. “You would like to buy me drink?”
“Sure,” he said, before he could ask himself what he was getting himself into. “What’ll you have?”
“Vodka. On rocks with twist of orange.”
“Coming right up.”
Byrnes was finding it increasingly difficult to keep his eyes off the woman next to him. To call her gorgeous would have been an injustice. She was no more than twenty-one, with white blond hair, satin blue eyes, and the kind of pouty lips that his ex-wife called “bee-stung” and that no amount of collagen injections could reproduce. Her dress was black, short, and tight; her nails were lacquered a rich maroon. But it was her bearing that Byrnes found irresistible: the inquisitive tilt of the head, the brazen posture, the adventurous twinkle to the eyes that seemed to say, “Dare me, I’ll try anything.” In short, she was every middle-aged divorcees idea of a fitting companion.
“Bartender!” As Byrnes shifted on his seat to get the barkeep’s attention, he inadvertently nudged the man next to him. “Izvinitye,” he said, offering a smile. Excuse me.
The man looked Byrnes up and down, then rose from his stool. He was six four, about two twenty, with a Marine’s crew cut and a neck the size of a fire hydrant. He had a buddy next to him who looked like he’d fallen out of the same tree. Byrnes had been warned about guys like this. “Flat tops,” they were called. Enforcers for the Russian mafiya, or more politely, point men for the Russian business elite.
Be careful, Byrnes’s best friend had told him. Moscow isn’t Paris or Zurich or Rome. It may look like a European city, but it’s not. You’re in Russia. The whole country is in the shithouse. Two percent of the people are making a fortune and the rest don’t have a pot to piss in. It’s dangerous over there.
“Excuse me,” the Russian replied, in decent English. “I hope I not disturb you and pretty lady.”
“No,” said Byrnes. “My fault. Again, I’m sorry. Let me buy you a drink. We’ll call it even.”
“No need,” said the Russian, with grating politeness. “Have nice evening.” He made a show of adjusting his blazer and retook his place. Only a blind man would have missed the nickel-plated revolver nestled beneath his arm, a .357 Colt Python with a pearl handle, if Byrnes wasn’t mistaken.
Turning back to the girl, Byrnes found a round of drinks on the counter. Okay, he said to himself, let’s start over again. And raising his glass, “Na Strovye.”
“Na Strovye.” She took a sip, then leaned forward and gave him a lingering kiss on the cheek. “My name is Svetlana.”
“I’m Graf,” he said, knocking back the entire drink. “Good to know you.”
“You speak Russian. Why you not tell me so before?”
“Nemnogo,” he said. Just a little. The Air Force would be proud of him for having remembered as much as he did. He also knew how to say, “I am an officer,” “My serial number is . . . ,” and a few choice obscenities.
“I no like Russian men,” Svetlana confided in his ear. “So arrogant.”
“Me neither,” he complained. “So big.”
She laughed. “Tell me, Graf, why you are in Moscow?”
“Business,” he answered.
“Beez-ness? What do you do?”
Byrnes shrugged, looking away. “Nothing interesting. Just some routine stuff.”
His response couldn’t have been further from the truth. He’d arrived earlier that afternoon on an emergency visit. All very hush-hush. Forty-eight hours in country to check out the operating equipment of Mercury Broadband, a multinational Internet service and content provider his company was set to bring public in a week’s time. Questions had surfaced regarding the firm’s Moscow network operations center, namely, whether it owned all the physical assets it claimed to: routers, switches, servers, and the like. He was to find the facility, verify that it contained equipment necessary to provide broadband services to its publicized customer base of two hundred thousand people, and report back.
The IPO, or initial public offering, of shares in the company was valued at two billion dollars, and nothing less than his firm’s continued existence depended on what he discovered. A green light meant seventy million dollars in fees, a guarantee of fee-related business from Mercury down the road, and a rescue from impending insolvency.
Shelving the offering meant death, defined either as massive layoffs, the sale of the firm to a larger house, or in the worst case, shuttering up the shop and putting a “Gone Fishing” sign in the window. Permanently.
“And what you do for business?” she asked.
“Investment banking. Stocks. Bonds. Like Wall Street, you know?”
“So, I am right,” she announced proudly, dropping a hand onto his leg and allowing it to linger there. “You are millionaire.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not. Anyway, it’s not polite to talk about money.”
“I think you are wrong. Money is sexy,” she said, winking. “Aphrodisiac, I think.”
He ordered another drink, and when it came he took a greedy sip. He was getting that warm, fuzzy feeling, and liking it. From his perch at the bar, he overlooked a parquet dance floor and a small casino with slot machines and a half dozen gaming tables. A few flat tops had staked out positions at the craps pit. They were dressed to a man in snazzy black suits, open collars, and gold chains. Crisp American greenbacks were exchanged for stacks of blue and silver chips. No one was playing with less than five thousand dollars. Dice tumbled across the green baize tables. Raucous voices lofted across the room, spirited, cajoling, violent. The staccato shouts had a serrated edge and lent the place an aggressive buzz. At five past nine on a Tuesday night, the joint was beginning to jump.
“And why, Graf, you come to Metelitsa?” Svetlana’s hand had moved higher on his leg. A single finger danced along the crease of his trousers. “To see me, maybe? See Svetlana?”
She was staring at him, the magnetic blue eyes commanding him nearer. Her lips parted, and he saw a moist band of pink flashing behind the dazzling teeth. He could taste her warm, expectant breath. The scent of her hair, lilac and rosewater, drifted over him . . . enticing him . . . seducing him.
“Yes . . . I mean, no . . . I mean . . .” Byrnes didn’t know what he wanted to say. He wasn’t sure whether it was the vodka or just Svetlana, but suddenly he was decidedly tipsy. He was having trouble focusing, too. Placing a hand on the bar, he stood up unsteadily, bumping once more into the thug next to him.
“Watch it!” barked the linebacker.
You’re in Russia. It’s dangerous over there.
“Sorry, sorry.” Byrnes raised his hands defensively. He turned toward Svetlana. “Excuse me. I’ll be right back.” He mumbled the words “rest room” and “freshen up.”
“I help you,” she said, resting a hand on his waist. “We go upstairs together. I show you way.”
“No, no. I’m all right, really. Where do I go?”
“Up. To right side.” She pointed the way, then wrapped her arms around him. “You no leave Svetlana?”
Suddenly, she didn’t look so much the unapproachable Russian ice princess as an insecure twenty-year-old frightened she might lose her evening’s pay.
“No,” he said. “I no leave Svetlana.” Jesus, now he was even talking like her. “I come right back.”
He set off to the rest room, lurching along the bar before recovering his sea legs and guiding himself up the stairs. Inside the john, he turned the tap on full and took turns slapping cold water on his face and taking deep breaths. A minute passed and he began to feel better. That was some vodka he was drinking. Two doubles and he was on his ass. He promised himself he’d have a word with the hotel concierge, tell him he had something different in mind when asking about a place where a gentleman could get a few drinks and some dinner.
Laying both hands on the sink, he took a close look at himself in the mirror. “Come on, kid,” he whispered. “Snap out of it.”
Staring back was a vital, handsome father of two teenage sons gracefully approaching middle age. Strands of silver streaked a generous head of black hair. Fatigue shadowed his flinty eyes. His bold, clefted chin, the brunt of a thousand jokes, evidenced a slight but noticeable sag. Squinting, he wondered what had happened to the gallant airman who had flown his nation’s fighters in two armed conflicts, the able pilot who had deadstick-landed a flamed-out F-15 and bailed out over open ocean after he’d lost his hydraulics.
“Still here,” tolled a fighting voice deep within him. “Just get lost once in a while.”
“You are a huckleberry,” he said aloud, angered by his lack of self-restraint. “Your little lady friend probably had your drink spiked. Five’ll get you ten her big buddy is waiting downstairs at this very instant to give you his best regards. You came to do a job, not fuck around. Get thyself out of here. Now!”
Five minutes later, Grafton Byrnes left the rest room. His tie was straightened, if a little wet. His jacket was buttoned. His wooziness had faded, replaced by a whopping headache and an ironclad desire to get as far from the premises as possible. Walking to the head of the stairs, he glanced down at the bar. Svetlana was deep in conversation with the two bullies who’d been sitting next to him.
Idiot! he thought. It really was a put-up job.
Spinning on his heel, he headed to the dining room. An illuminated sign along the far wall read “Exit.” He snaked through the tables, bumping into diners, slowing only to offer an apology. Reaching the emergency exit, he threw open the door and found himself standing at the top of a fire escape. He put a tentative foot on the rusted landing. The entire structure swayed and groaned. The thing had been built before Stalin had even thought of the words “five-year plan.”
Retreat. Go to plan B.
But even as he turned to reenter the building, the door slammed shut. There was no handle or doorknob to gain entry.
Byrnes swallowed hard, a bolt of unease creasing his shoulders. He wasn’t sure if he was frightened or exhilarated, but a moment later he was attacking the fire escape. Rung by rung, he descended the rickety structure, his steps cautious but not unsure. Six flights of stairs took him down three floors, and when he reached the ground he stood stock still, amazed the thing had actually held together.
He was still dusting the rust off his hands when the emergency exit flung open and his favorite flat top emerged onto the landing, six floors above. “Allo, Graf,” the Russian called. “Stop. I want to talk. You owe Tatiana money.”
Tatiana? What happened to Svetlana?
It took Byrnes less than a second to decide to get the hell out of there. He might owe Svetlana, or Tatiana, or whatever her real name was, an apology for his sudden departure, but he certainly didn’t owe her any money. And even if he did, he didn’t want to give it to her pimp. Somehow he didn’t peg the guy as a believer in win-win negotiation.
A deep breath and Byrnes was off, running down the alley as fast as his Bally loafers would carry him. He didn’t look back to see if the mafiya goon was following him, the angry creaking of the fire escape told him all he needed to know on that account. The sky was a pale blue, softening to azure. A crescent moon hung in the sky. The air smelled of fried potatoes and automobile exhaust. Rounding the corner of Metelitsa, he hightailed it through the parking lot toward the street. The Novy Arbat had been built in the early sixties as Khrushchev’s answer to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Four lanes of traffic flowed in either direction, lined by a succession of nondescript offices and run-down apartment buildings, the kind where air conditioners dripped coolant from jury-rigged perches and half the windows were caked with grime. Maybe the Bowery, carped Byrnes, but Fifth? No way.
Reaching the street, he stuck his hand up in the air. “Taxi!”
It was a Russian tradition for ordinary drivers to offer their services as taxis in exchange for a few dollars, marks, or francs. In a heartbeat, a red Lada had pulled over and Byrnes was in the passenger seat.
“Hotel Baltschug,” he said, then a second later, “No, wait.” Digging his hand into his pockets, he found the address of the network operations center he was supposed to visit. If this was Russia, he wanted to get the hell out of it as quickly as possible. He checked the sky again. Plenty of light remained to get his job done. Finish tonight and he could catch the first plane out in the morning. He’d be back in San Francisco at four and in the office by five. Plowing through his E-mails would never be so much fun.
“You know Rudenev Ulitsa?”
“Rudenev?” The driver appeared confused, then it came to him. “Rudenev! Da. Da.” He was a small man, near sixty, with a Tatar’s eyes and a hairline that started about an inch above his eyebrows. Living proof the Mongols had reached the gates of Moscow.
“Rudenev Ulitsa 99,” Byrnes said, yanking a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet and handing it to the man. “And hurry!”
Five seconds later, the Lada was barreling down the center lane of the Novy Arbat. Byrnes looked over his shoulder out the back window. Late-evening traffic had already closed in around the car. For a moment, he was able to glimpse the parking lot in front of Metelitsa. A long line of cars were pulled up to the valet. Men and women ambled toward the entrance. He saw no sign of his newest friend.
“Rudenev. How long?”
The driver held up a finger. “One hour.”
Byrnes sat lower in his seat, catching his breath.
He knew it had been a lousy idea to come to Russia.
It was the coldest winter in memory. For the first time since 1962 the Lake of Zurich threatened a solid freeze. Already a shelf of blue ice clung to her shores. Farther out a transparent crust floated upon the surface. The stately paddle wheel steamships that called regularly on Zurich and her prosperous environs had taken refuge at their winter harbor in Kilchberg. At ports around the lake storm lamps burned red: danger, conditions hazardous.
The last snow had fallen only two days before, yet the city's roads were immaculate. Muddy piles of frozen slush that might sully the sidewalks of other urban centers had been removed. Recalcitrant patches of ice likewise. Even the rock salt and gravel spread to hasten their decomposition had been neatly swept up.
In any other year, the continuing bout of record low temperatures and unending snowfall would be reason for spirited discussion. Many a newspaper column would be devoted to a thorough tallying of the economic gains and losses to the country. To her agriculture and livestock--losers, as thousands of cows had frozen to death in low-lying barns; to her many Alpine ski resorts--all winners, and about time, after consecutive seasons of insufficient snowfall; and to her precious water table--also a winner, as experts forecast a restoration of the national aquifer after a decade of depletion. More conservative rags might even include a spiteful article pronouncing the much-feared "greenhouse effect" dead and buried.
But not this year. On this first Monday in January, no mention of the severe weather could be found anywhere on the front pages of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the Tages Anzeiger, or even the chronically mundane Zurcher Tagblatt. The country was struggling with something far rarer than a harsh winter: a crisis of conscience.
Signs of turmoil were not difficult to find. And Nicholas Neumann, stepping off the number thirteen tram at the Paradeplatz, immediately spotted the most prominent of them. Fifty yards ahead, along the east side of the Bahnhofstrasse, a band of men and women were gathered in front of a drab four-story building that was home to the United Swiss Bank. His destination. Most held signs, which Nick, as he preferred to be called, could read even at this distance: "Clean Up the Swiss Laundry." "Drug Money Is Blood Money." "Hitler's Bankers." Others stood with their hands shoved into their pockets, marching determinedly back and forth.
The past year had witnessed a parade of embarrassing revelations about the country's banks. Complicity in the wartime arms trade with the Third Reich; hoarding of funds belonging to survivors of Hitler's death camps; and the concealment of illicit profits deposited by the South American drug cartels. The local press had branded the banks "soulless instruments of financial chicanery" and "willing conspirators to the drug barons' deadly trade." The public had taken note. And now those accountable must be made to pay.
Worse storms had raged and passed, mused Nick, as he set off toward the bank. He didn't share in the country's self-inculpatory mood. Nor was he sure the nation's banks were solely to blame. But that was as far as his interest went. His concern was focused elsewhere that morning: on a private matter that had haunted the darkest corners of his heart for as long as he could remember.
Nick moved easily through the crowd. He had broad shoulders and stood just over six feet tall. His step was confident and purposeful and, except for a faint limp, commanding. Veterans of the parade ground would note the curled hand laid along the rail of the trousers, the shoulders pushed back a breath more than was comfortable, and immediately recognize him as one of their own.
His face was cast from a serious mold, framed by a crop of straight black hair. His nose was prominent and spoke of a distinct, if unlanded, European heritage. His chin was sturdy rather than stubborn. But it was his eyes that caught people's attention. They were a pale blue and surrounded by a network of fine lines unexpected in someone his age. They offered a furtive challenge. His fiancee said once that they were the eyes of another man, someone older, someone wearier than a twenty-eight-year-old had any right to be. Someone she no longer knew. She'd left him the next day.
Nick quickly covered the short distance to the bank. A freezing drizzle had begun to fall, whipped up by a stiff lake breeze. Flakes of snow darkened his trench coat, but the foul weather did not intrude on his thoughts. Threading his way through the crowd of demonstrators, he kept his eyes fixed on the twin revolving doors that sat before him at the top of a broad flight of granite stairs.
The United Swiss Bank.
Forty years ago his father had begun his employ here. Apprentice at sixteen, portfolio manager at twenty-five, vice president at thirty-three, Alexander Neumann had been on the fast track to the top. Executive vice president. Board of directors. Anything was possible. And everything expected.
Nick checked his wristwatch, then climbed the stairs and entered the lobby of the bank. Somewhere close by, a church bell tolled the hour. Nine o'clock. His stomach fluttered and he recognized the uneasy frisson of a mission at hand. He smiled inwardly, giving silent greeting to the once familiar sensation, then continued across the marble floor toward a lectern marked "Reception" in letters of gold relief.
"I have an appointment with Mr. Cerruti," he said to the hall porter. "I'm to begin work today."
"Your papers?" demanded the porter, an older man resplendent in a navy topcoat with braided silver epaulets.
Nick passed across the counter an envelope bearing the bank's embossed logo.
The porter withdrew the letter of engagement and looked it over "Identification?"
Nick presented two passports: one navy blue with a golden eagle emblazoned on its cover, the other a bold red with a prim white cross painted upon its face. The porter examined both, then returned them. "I'll announce your arrival. Take a seat, please. Over there." He motioned toward a grouping of leather chairs.
But Nick preferred to remain standing and walked slowly through the great hall. He took in the elegantly dressed customers waiting for their favorite tellers and the gray executives hurrying across the shiny floor. He listened to the stubble of hushed conversations and the whisper of computer-assisted commerce. His thoughts drifted to the flight over from New York two nights earlier, and then back further, to Cambridge, to Quantico to California. He'd been headed this way for years, without even knowing it.
A telephone buzzed behind the porter's lectern. The porter snapped the receiver to his ear and nodded crisply in time to his every grunted response. Moments later, Nick was being shown across the lobby to a bank of antiquated elevators. The porter walked ahead with perfectly measured strides as if determined to establish the exact distance to the waiting elevator, and once there, made a show of sweeping open its smoked glass door.
"Second floor," he said, in his clipped voice. "Someone will be waiting for you."
Nick thanked him and stepped into the elevator. It was small with maroon carpeting, burled wood paneling, and a polished brass balustrade. Immediately, he caught scent of a medley of familiar fragrances: the blunt trail of stale cigar smoke; the nasal pinch of well-polished shoes, and most distinctly, the bracing note, at once sweet and antiseptic, of Kolnisches Wasser, his father's favorite eau de cologne. The masculine odors assaulted his senses, conjuring up a fractured image of his dad: wine black hair cropped unfashionably short; unblinking blue eyes capped by unruly eyebrows; stern mouth locked in a downcast expression of disapproval.
The porter grew impatient. "You must go to the second floor. `Second floor,'" he said, this time in English. "You're expected. Please, sir."
But Nick did not hear a word. His back remained to the open door, his eyes staring blindly ahead. He struggled to fit the separate images together, to bind them into a finished portrait. He recalled the powerful feelings of awe and pride and fear he'd experienced when in his father's company, but nothing more. His memories remained incomplete and somehow disjointed, wanting for some essential fabric that he did not possess.
"Young man, are you all right?" the porter asked.
Nick spun to face him, banishing the disconcerting images from his mind. "I'm fine," he said. "Just fine."
The porter placed a foot into the elevator. "You're sure you are ready to begin work today?"
Nick raised his chin and fought the porter's inquisitive stare. "Yes," he said gravely, giving an imperceptible nod of his head. "I've been ready for a long time."
Offering an apologetic smile, he let the elevator door close and pressed the button for the second floor.
"MARCO CERRUTI IS ILL. Out with some virus or bug, who knows what," explained a tall, sandy-haired executive well on the downslope to forty, who was waiting for Nick on the second-floor landing. "Probably the lousy water in that part of the world--Middle East, that is. The Fertile Crescent: that's our territory. Believe it or not, we bankers did not give it that name."
Nick stepped out of the elevator and offering the required smile, introduced himself.
"'Course, you're Neumann. Who else would I be waiting for?" The sandy-haired man thrust out his hand and gave a vigorous shake. "I'm Peter Sprecher. Don't let the accent fool you. I'm Swiss as William Tell. Did my schooling in England. Still know the words to `God Save the Queen.'" He pulled at an expensive cuff and winked. "Old man Cerruti is just back from his Christmas run. I call it his yearly Crusade: Cairo, Riyadh, Dubai, and then off to points unknown--probably a sunny port where he can work on his tan while the rest of us back at head office wilt. Guess it didn't work out as planned. Word's come down he'll be out at least a week. The bad news is you're with me."
Nick listened to the rambling outpouring of information, doing his best to digest it all. "And the good news?"
But Peter Sprecher had disappeared down a narrow corridor. "Ah, yes, the good news," he called over his shoulder. "Well, the good news is that there is a mountain of work to be done. We're a bit shorthanded at the moment, so you won't be sitting on your duff reading a sackful of annual reports. We're sending you out into the blue, pronto."
"Into the blue?"
Sprecher stopped at a closed door on the left-hand side of the hallway. "Clients, chum. We have to put somebody's pretty mug in front of our trusting customers. You look like an honest type. Got all your teeth, do you? Should be able to fool them."
"Today?" Nick asked, ruffled.
"No, not today," Sprecher answered, grinning. "The bank usually likes to provide a little training. You can count on at least a month to learn the ropes." He leaned on the handle and opened the door. He walked inside the small meeting room and tossed the manila envelope he'd been carrying onto the conference table. "Take a seat," he said, flinging himself into one of the quilted leather chairs. "Make yourself at home."
Nick pulled out a chair and sat across the table from his new boss. His momentary panic settled, giving way to the usual vague unease that accompanied his arrival at a new post. But he recognized a new sensation, too--a stubborn disbelief that he was actually there.
You're in, Nick told himself in the admonishing tone that had belonged to his father. Keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Become one of them.
Peter Sprecher pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope. "Your life in four lines, single spaced. Says here you're from Los Angeles."
"I grew up there, but I haven't called it home for a while."
"Ah, Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one. Love the place, myself." Sprecher shook loose a Marlboro and offered the pack to Nick, who declined. "Didn't figure you for a tobacco fiend. You look fit enough to run a damned marathon. Some advice? Calm down, boy. You're in Switzerland. Slow and steady, that's our motto. Remember that."
"I'll keep it in mind."
"Liar," Sprecher laughed. "I can see you've got a bee buzzing about your bonnet. Sit too damn straight. That will be Cerruti's problem, not mine." He lowered his head and puffed on his cigarette while studying the new employee's papers. "Marine, eh? An officer. That explains it."
"Four years," said Nick. He was trying hard to sit more casually--drop a shoulder, maybe slouch a little. It wasn't easy.
"What d'ya do?"
"Infantry. I had a reconnaissance platoon. Half the time we trained. The other half we floated around the Pacific waiting for a crisis to flare up so that we could put our training to use. We never did." That was the company line, and he'd been sworn to keep it.
"Says here you worked in New York. Four months only. What happened?"
Nick kept his answer brief. When lying, he knew it best to stay within the shadow of the truth. "It wasn't what I had expected. I didn't feel at home there, at work or in the city."
"So you decided to seek your fortune abroad?"
"I've lived in the States my whole life. One day I realized that it was time for something new. Once I made the decision, I got out as quickly as I could."
"Wish I'd had the guts to do something like that. Alas, for me it's too late." Sprecher exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. "Been here before?"
"To the bank?"
"To Switzerland. Someone in your family is Swiss, isn't he? Hard to pick up a passport any other way."
"It's been a long time," said Nick, purposely keeping his answer oblique. Seventeen years, actually. He'd been eleven, and his father had brought him inside this same building. It had been a social visit, the great Alex Neumann poking his head into the offices of his former colleagues, exchanging a few words before presenting little Nicholas as if he were an exotic trophy from a far-off land. "The passport comes from my father's side. We spoke Swiss-German together at home."
"Did you? How quaint." Sprecher stubbed out his cigarette and brought his chair closer to the table so that he sat directly facing Nick. "Enough small talk, then. Welcome to the United Swiss Bank, Mr. Neumann. You've been assigned to Finanz Kundenberatung, Abteilung 4. Financial Client Management, section 4. Our small family deals with private individuals from the Middle East and southern Europe, that is Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Right now we handle approximately seven hundred accounts with assets totaling over two billion U.S. dollars. In the end that's still the only currency worth a damn.
"Most of our clients are individuals who hold numbered accounts with the bank. You might see their names penciled somewhere inside their files. Penciled, mind you. Erasable. They are to remain officially anonymous. We don't keep permanent records regarding their identity in the office. That information is kept in DZ, Dokumentation Zentrale. Stalag 17, we call it." Sprecher wagged a long finger at Nick. "Several of our more important clients are known only to the top brass of the bank. Keep it that way. Any inclination you may have about getting to know them personally had better stop now. Understood?"
"Understood," said Nick. The help does not mix with the guests.
"Here's the drill: A client will call, give you his account number, probably want to know his cash balance or the value of the stocks in his portfolio. Before you give out any information, confirm his or her identity. All our clients have code words to identify themselves. Ask for it. Maybe ask their birthday on top of that. Makes them feel secure. But that's as far as your curiosity runs. If a client wants to transfer fifty thousand deutsche marks a week to an account in Palermo, you say, `Prego, Signore. Con gusto.' If he insists on sending monthly cash wires to a dozen John Does at a dozen different banks in Washington, D.C., you say, `Of course, sir. It's my pleasure.' Where our clients' money comes from and what they choose to do with it are entirely their own business."
Nick kept his wry comments to himself and concentrated on keeping straight all the information being tossed his way.
Sprecher stood from his chair and walked to the window, which overlooked the Bahnhofstrasse. "Hear the drums?" he asked, tilting his head toward the demonstrators who paraded in front of the bank. "No? Get up and come over here. Look down there."
Nick rose and walked to Sprecher's side, from where he could see the assembly of fifteen or twenty protesters.
"Barbarians at the gate," said Sprecher. "The natives are growing restless."
"There have been calls for greater disclosure of the bank's activities in the past," Nick said. "The search for assets belonging to customers killed during the Second War. The banks handled that problem."
"By using the nation's gold reserves to set up a survivors' fund. Cost us seven billion francs! And still we stonewalled them over direct access to our records. The past is verboten. You can be sure of one thing: Swiss banks must be built of the hardest Bernadino granite, not of porous sandstone." Sprecher glanced at his watch, then dismissed the demonstrators with a wave. "Now more than ever we have to keep our mouths shut and do as we're told. Granite, Neumann. Anyway, that's enough of Saint Peter's pap for now. You're to go to Dr. Schon at personnel to have an identification card made up, get a handbook, and take care of all the other niceties that make our beloved institution such a wonderful place to work. Rules, Mr. Neumann. Rules."
Nick leaned forward, listening carefully while directions to the personnel director's office were given. Rules, he repeated to himself. The admonition sent him back to his first day at Officer Candidate School. The voices here were softer and the barracks nicer, but all in all it was the same. New organization, new rules, and no room to mess up.
"And one last thing," said Sprecher. "Dr. Schon can be a little testy sometimes. Americans are not a favorite topic. The less said the better."
FROM HIS WINDOW on the Fourth Floor, Wolfgang Kaiser stared down upon the damp heads of the demonstrators gathered in front of his bank. Forty years he had worked at the United Swiss Bank, the last seventeen as chairman. In that time, he could recall only one other demonstration taking place on the steps of the bank--a protest against the bank's investments in South Africa. He had frowned on the practice of apartheid as much as the next man, but politics simply didn't factor into a business decision. As a rule, Afrikaners were damned good clients. Paid back their loans on time. Kept a decent amount on deposit. Lord knows they held gold bars up to their eyeballs.
Kaiser gave each end of his mustache a brief tug and moved away from the window. Though of medium height, he was a formidable man. Clothed, as was his custom, in bespoke navy worsted, he could be mistaken only for Lord of the Manor. But his broad shoulders, plowman's back, and stout legs testified to a common upbringing. And of his less than noble parentage he carried a permanent reminder: his left arm, damaged at birth by the enthusiastic forceps of a drunken midwife, was thin and limp, a paralyzed appendage. Despite constant exercise during his early years, the arm had remained atrophied and would always be two inches shorter than the right.
Kaiser circled his desk, staring at the telephone. He was waiting for a call. A brief message that would bring the past into the present. Word that the circle was closing. He could not expel from his mind the message written on one of the crude placards below. "Child Killers," it read. He didn't know what exactly it made reference to, but still the words stung. Damned press! Vultures were thrilled to have such an easy target. The evil bankers so eager to accommodate the world's baddies. Horseshit! If not us, then somebody else. Austria, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands. The competition was closing in.
The phone on his desk buzzed, He pounced on it in three swift steps. "Kaiser."
"Guten Morgen, Herr Direktor. Brunner speaking."
"The boy has arrived," said the hall porter. "He came in at nine o'clock sharp."
"And how is he?" Kaiser had seen photographs of him over the years. More recently, he had viewed a videotape of the boy's interview. Still, he could not stop himself from asking, "Does he look like his father?"
"A few pounds heavier, perhaps. Otherwise, a spitting image. I sent him to Mr. Sprecher."
"Yes, I've been informed. Thank you, Hugo."
Kaiser hung up the phone and took a seat behind his desk. He turned his thoughts to the young man sitting two floors below him, and soon a faint smile pushed up the corners of his mouth. "Welcome to Switzerland, Nicholas Alexander Neumann," he whispered. "It's been so long since we last met. So very, very long."
Posted February 2, 2009
Actor and Audie Award finalist James Daniels gives a riveting performance of this globe spanning story propelled by rapid fire action and dark intrigue. His voice ably conveys toughness, compassion, and regret. He doesn't over-dramatize, allowing Reich's powerful words to carry listeners along. As many know, Reich has earned an enviable reputation as a master of international intrigue. The First Billion, his third book, again mesmerizes with a tale of frightening possibilities. Jett Gavalian is a former fighter pilot, having served in the Gulf War. What he saw there inspired him to begin Black Jet Securities, an international financial consulting firm. He intends to use his profits to help rather than harm, improve the possibilities for life on this planet. Jett made his first billion in jig time, and now he's working on the next by putting Mercury Broadband, a Russian media company, on the New York Stock Exchange. However, he's soon made aware that the company may not be all he believed. Jeff sends his best friend, Grafton Byrnes, to Moscow to look into the situation, which appears murkier by the minute. There's not much time as Mercury Broadband is due to go up in a mere six days, and the future of Black Jet hinges on it. We hear: 'The IPO, or initial public offering, of shares in the company was valued at two billion dollars, and nothing less than his firm's continued existence depended on what he discovered. A green light meant seventy million dollars in fees, a guarantee of fee-related business from Mercury down the road, and a rescue from impending insolvency.' What Grafton finds in Moscow is more terrifying than he or Jett could ever have imagined. Just when we think Reich has pulled out all the stops and couldn't possibly have another trick up his author's sleeve, he galvanizes with the unexpected. Enjoy! - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 18, 2005
I really enjoyed reading Reich's first book, Numbered Account. This book, First Billion, has an interesting story that's somewhat plausible given todays corporate environment (Enron, Worldcom...) The story does drag for a bit, but it eventually picks up. I only wish the author would obtain a proof-reader who's familar with military/police operations and equipment. There are MANY TECHNICAL & DESCRIPTIVE ERRORS which detract from the reading enjoyment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 30, 2005
I read 'Devil's Banker' first and loved it, really well written and exciting but 'The First Billion' was a big step down. Story was very slow in developing, I was bored, and forced myself to complete it, hoping that the climax would be worth the wait. I was wrong. Sorry Christopher.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 13, 2002
I loved it and couldn't say it better than the New York Times. 'So much fun... There has been no shortage of writers aspiring to be the John Grisham of Wall Street... REICH DESERVES THE GRISHAM MANTLE...(he) conjures up a rich evocative world... deftly splices technical information into his characters' dialogue...and with the fewest words, the author often speaks volumes...' A fast fun read, interesting financial details, finely drawn characters, definately worth reading.
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Posted August 20, 2002
Fabulous read! This is the first book in a very long time that my husband and I had to race eachother for whenever it was put down. Interesting, intelligent, good characters. All in all a great romp!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
John ¿Jett¿ Gavallan knows his Black Jet Securities Company has been in trouble since the bottom fell out of the dot.com world. Borrowing from his days as a fighter pilot, Jett takes a major chance on a Russian firm Mercury Broadband that he plans to go public via the New York Stock Exchange. <P>However, an online highly regarded financial analyst, Private Eye-PO, warns people that Mercury Broadband is a bad investment stunning Jett with the revelations. Jett¿s assistant Grafton Byrnes travels incognito to Moscow to uncover the truth while Jett tries to locate Private Eye-PO. Soon Jett heads to Russia to confront Kirov, the CEO of Mercury Broadband, who may be part of the Russian Mafia. <P>Though not quite on a par with NUMBERED ACCOUNT, THE FIRST BILLION is an interesting financial thriller that is at its best when Jett struggles between ethics and the deal of a lifetime. The latter half of the story line turns into an international chase tale with body counts outgrowing monetary accounts and Jett acting more like John Wayne. Still readers will find this adventure exhilarating but would have preferred that Christopher Reich keep the hero continuing his work on the bottom line of a ledger sheet rather than body bags. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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