The son of a failing undertaker, Alves Reis learned early on that death comes quickly and a man must make his fortune while he can. In 1916, Reis left Portugal for Angola, where the hardships of colonial life dashed his dream of easy riches. In desperate straits, Alves discovers his true talent: forgery. With an unerring hand, Alves begins to counterfeit. He falsifies diplomas, government documents, currency, and countless checks on his way to perpetrating one of the greatest frauds of the twentieth century. Inspired by the true story of a master swindler, Gifford brings to life a breathtaking international scam. Before Bernie Madoff, before Frank Abagnale, there was Alves Reis—a forger with talent, vision, and an uncompromising drive to succeed, no matter what man, bank, or nation stood in his way.
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About the Author
Thomas Gifford (1937–2000) was a bestselling author of thriller novels. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, he moved to Minnesota after graduating from Harvard. After eight years as a traveling textbook salesman, he wrote Benchwarmer Bob (1974), a biography of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Bob Lurtsema. The Wind Chill Factor (1975), a novel about dark dealings among ex-Nazis, introduced John Cooper, a character Gifford would revisit in The First Sacrifice (1994). The Wind Chill Factor was one of several books Gifford set in and around Minneapolis. Gifford won an Edgar Award nomination for The Cavanaugh Quest (1976). The Glendower Legacy (1978), a story about an academic who discovers that George Washington may have been a British spy, was adapted for the film Dirty Tricks (1981), starring Elliott Gould. In the 1980s Gifford wrote suspense novels under the pen names Thomas Maxwell and Dana Clarins. In 1996 he moved back to Dubuque to renovate his childhood home. He died of cancer in 2000.
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The Man From Lisbon
By Thomas Gifford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Murray Teigh Bloom
All rights reserved.
THE EDUCATION OF ALVES REIS
Artur Virgilio Alves Reis. His earliest boyhood memory was as much a recurring dream as it was the recollection of actual events. Yet he supposed, as the years went by and his life took its final shape, that he remembered it pretty much as it had happened. It came often, haunted him like the phrase of an old tune; perhaps because the occasion itself had marked his first venture into the tightly wound complexity of human existence, into the area of refined, obstinate truth where Alves realized for the first time that everyone was not alike.
The year was 1904 and he was eight years old. A Sunday morning in the spring: it seemed to Alves that it was probably Easter. But every Sunday had been a dress-up, go-for-a-walk day. The family, turned out in its only finery, went to the church that morning—the glorious, magical Church of Sao Rocque with its priceless gold altars and tons of brilliant lapis lazuli—and then for a long walk in the feathery weightlessness of the sunshine, through the fragrant streets of Lisbon, a promenade far from the dark, narrow street where his father's mortuary catered to the people who had to scrimp enough together to launch a loved one into the great beyond.
There was Alves' faintly mustachioed mother with her short legs thumping out the pace; his short, stringy father; the older son who was afflicted with a squint; and young Alves with the innocent eyes he would never outgrow. His father had once possessed a similar innocence and a small inheritance, both of which he lost in a slightly shady deal involving inferior cork. With what was left he'd set himself up in the funeral parlor, scraped by with two worn black suits and a shiny pair of black shoes. He lived under a terrible strain that Alves understood only much later, long after his father had died. Having once enjoyed a degree of status, however slight, the elder Reis had been forced to accept his own diminution, a particularly galling fate for a Portuguese invested with the customary measure of national and personal pride. Years later he still saw his father cursing impatiently at his fate. By then Alves knew what had really been the trouble: there simply hadn't been enough money. Money, money, money.
There was an air of excitement that Sunday, almost palpable, and a fresh, ceremonial flower bloomed in his father's buttonhole. His mother's flowered shawl fluttered transparently in the breeze. His brother peered anxiously through his thick, magnifying spectacles: his eyes floated like dark olives on either side of his broad nose.
Block after block went by, past blue tiled courtyard walls, skipping beneath a glassy pale-blue sky, until finally his father pulled up abruptly, uttered a brief exclamation, and gestured down what seemed to be only another pleasant avenue, tree-lined, coolly shaded, unremarkable. He pointed excitedly at the name of the street discreetly lettered on the pink courtyard wall of a large three-story house. Young Alves was at a loss.
"This avenue," his father declaimed, "with all its grand houses and fine trees—" he swept his hand in a broad arc, building the suspense—"Avenue Francisco da Silva Reis, is named in honor of a great man, my sons ... a man who was an admiral of the Portuguese fleet!" He fixed the boys with a slightly mad gaze as if a candle were flickering in the depths of his dark, onyx eyes. Alves instinctively reached for his mother's warm hand.
His father embarked on another of his frequent disquisitions on the role of the sea and sailors in the life of the Portuguese. The sea, he pointed out, was the highway used to establish the most magnificent empire in the history of the world, the most far-flung, the most powerful ... He summoned up the names of the greatest of all navigators, men like Henry the Navigator and Bartolemeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and the mighty Magellan, who had sailed off from the mouth of the Tagus River to circumnavigate the globe! He may have glossed the surface of history a trifle, but the fact was that little glossing was needed: the two boys listened, swept on by their father's eloquence. He told them of how the Portuguese crown had rejected Christopher Columbus' requests because they had no need of yet another great seaman, sent him packing back to Queen Isabella ... otherwise, Portugal would have sponsored the voyage to discover North America.
"And, my sons, Admiral Francisco da Silva Reis was your great-uncle! Yes, your great-uncle ! The blood of da Silva Reis flows in your veins! You must never forget that—never." He leaned down and placed his arms around their shoulders. "You are not the sons of an undertaker, my boys—you are the great-nephews of the great Admiral da Silva Reis ... after whom a great avenue of Lisbon is named." It was a very long time before Alves Reis, a grown man, realized what a price his father must have paid as he spoke. Humility, he knew by then, came hard to a Portuguese.
The blood of da Silva Reis flows in my veins ... It was a peculiar idea for little Alves to cope with, an abstraction that made precious little sense. What did it mean?
He pondered the possible implications of his father's claim as he and his brother skipped ahead of their parents on the walk home to the Sao Tiago district. They trampled the jacaranda leaves on the paving stones and the purple stains spread, leaving a trail. And Admiral da Silva Reis, grand as he may well have been, faded from their minds as they ran, faded as they crumpled the leaves of the orange and tangerine trees in their tiny fists, inhaling the released essence, pungent, intense, concentrated. The scents clung to Alves, like his memory of the day, as the years multiplied.
Although the sky was still vividly blue when they turned toward home, the street itself was engulfed in deep shadow, the structures on either side seeming to tilt forward, as if trying to lean against one another for support above the slippery smooth cobblestones. Alves smelled his grandmother's cooking before he reached the doorstep: fish stew—and, having gone without lunch, he was ravenous.
Grandmother was a short, stumplike woman with thick gray hair, shapeless dresses, a deeply lined face the color of stained oak, and she spoke a dialect he only partly understood. He did not realize then just how primitive her life had been, how much a product of the Middle Ages she was; but he knew that her grandmother had survived the earthquake of 1755 that had destroyed much of Lisbon. Through her he had glimpsed for the first time his Portuguese past, the days of the limitless empire when Portuguese seamen ruled so much of the globe.... Even as a boy of eight he had learned those lessons. And such a grandmother made the lessons take on the pulse of life. At times it seemed that, surely, she must have marched to the Tagus to watch Henry the Navigator set sail.
The shadowy, narrow house was dark. There was no electricity anywhere on the block. A skylight provided a glow and there were lanterns, candles, firelight. His grandmother was humming a tuneless peasant song, her breath whistling in spaces where there had been no teeth for half a century. He went to taste the pot of stew, answered her cursory questions about the afternoon's stroll, stuck his tongue against the wooden spoon and drew back from the scorching brew. Climbing up on a stool to watch the old woman cook, Alves felt secure as only a child can feel in familiar surroundings, however modest.
His grandmother was stealthily sneaking up behind the family dog, a spirited, bedraggled specimen who snored peacefully beneath the scarred kitchen table. Carefully she took hold of a few strands of flank hair, wrapped it around her finger and proceeded to saw it clean through with a kitchen knife. Suddenly aware that something out of the ordinary was being done to his body, the hound awoke with some alarm, skulled himself on the underside of the tabletop, staggered dizzily toward the center of the room, upending his dinner dish, and wobbled yelping down the hallway toward the front door through which the undertaker and his wife were just now appearing. Their meeting produced several peculiar sounds as the dog in his confusion mistook them for his attacker. Several minutes were required to restore the house's normal somber tranquillity. The dog retired to a safe distance, crawling beneath the bed shared by the two brothers, and in the meantime Alves watched his grandmother carry out the errand for which she had required the dog's hair.
The old woman methodically wrapped the hair in a triangle of gray cloth, tied it with a piece of greasy string from the pocket of her apron and with a dozen hearty whacks of her hammer—adding immeasurably to what Alves felt was the hugely enjoyable din—nailed the packet to the plaster wall behind the back door that led to the alleyway. One of the structure's countless cheaply framed reproductions of Sao Rocque and his dog, the saint for whom their church was named and whose devotion it so sumptuously celebrated, leaped from the wall by the door and clattered to the floor. Alves hugged his knees at the excitement.
When the racket had subsided he took his grandmother's hand and drew her to the packet of hair nailed to the wall.
"Why is this necessary, Grandma? What does it do?"
The old woman gave a snort as if to say that there was obviously little hope for the twentieth century if young men of eight still needed to ask such questions.
"Because," she whistled elaborately, "the dog has been staying out all night, getting into unimaginable mischief ... bothering our neighbors! I thought even you, a child, knew that the dog's hair behind the door made sure there would be no more such excursions. I thought everyone knew that—maybe your father forgot to tell you that.... You make sure you remember and when the time comes you tell your children." She waddled back to the wood-burning iron stove.
A family of several cousins was expected for dinner that evening, and by chance they brought with them the son of a friend, a boy Alves had met before and to whom he had taken quite a shine. José dos Santos Bandeira, three years older than Alves, was a slender, olive-skinned eleven-year-old with the eyes of an old man, or at least a cynic, punctuating what showed every sign of becoming exceedingly handsome features. The Bandeira family owned land south of Lisbon and maintained residences both in the city and the country. Alves had first encountered José on a visit to these same cousins, had spent a long, grass-stained afternoon of rough-and-tumble on the lawn of the country home, during the course of which he had confided that his father was a mortician and regularly laid hands upon the bodies of the dead! The effect on José had been galvanic: nothing would do but that he visit Alves' father's place of business.
Now, with the chance to impress his new and much older friend both with his grandmother's delicious stew and one of his father's corpses, Alves was quite nearly beside himself with excitement. He took pains to show José the dog hair behind the door and the dog himself beneath the bed. José, whose family was more sophisticated and less saturated with superstition, found the packet of hair most amusing and congratulated Alves on his choice of a grandmother. Alves was enjoying his role of host.
But the evening itself was less than first-rate entertainment for the two boys. The conversation was tedious adult stuff that left José yawning and Alves desperate for diversion. If this were to be the extent of the evening, Alves imagined he'd be lucky even to see José again, let alone become his friend.
Deliverance came in the form of a young doctor knocking at the door with a rather grisly tale. An elderly gentleman a few doors away had passed on and a quick trip to the mortuary was called for, Sunday or not, since death had occurred the previous night and the doctor had not been notified until a few minutes before he appeared at Senhor Reis' door.
"A new client," Alves' father announced with grim solemnity to the guests, vaguely underlining his own indispensability. "I must go when I am called...." He slipped into his black suitcoat, tightened the knot in his tie.
At the door he turned to Alves and José, who had followed him, half afraid to ask if they might accompany him. "Do you want to come with me, boys? My assistant won't be there, not on Sunday night—I might need some help." Alves' heart leaped. He forgot the fear he'd always had, forgot all the times in the past year he and Alfonso had turned down opportunities to go with their father. Tonight was different. José was there, and Alves had bragged about what he could show him.
The mortuary was a few winding streets away, a dark, narrow building, windowless and forbidding. Many of the inhabitants of the Sao Tiago held tight to their old beliefs, the beliefs of their peasant origins. They knew of the dead within and they hurried to pass.
In front was a waiting room for the family of the newly departed; beyond it, through heavy moth-eaten draperies, a chamber for viewing the prepared remains; a catafalque made of rough-hewn beams hidden by a purple velvet cloth; two back rooms with mortuary tables, containers of chemicals, the various gleaming tools of the trade.
While Senhor Reis went to the back door to meet the doctor and take possession of his cumbersome parcel, the boys waited in the front room. José peered cautiously into the viewing chamber. Alves hesitated, his enthusiasm fading fast, riding to extinction on the familiar scent of the rooms. Death had a bad smell, chemical and rotting. It summoned up childhood's horrible images—fears that the back rooms must look like the butcher's work tables, stained and running with blood....
José beckoned him.
"Reis," he whispered urgently. "You promised. There's a box in there." He nodded toward the curtains and beyond. "I'll bet there's a dead one in it." His eyes had grown round. "You promised ..."
The viewing chamber was lighted by candles that jumped and flickered in a draft. The curtains closed behind him. Ominous muffled thuds came from the rear of the building. Slowly, on tiptoe, they crept toward the coffin, Alves praying that it would be either empty or nailed shut. It was both open and occupied. Sweat broke out like a rash on Alves' face; José exclaimed softly, his hand to his mouth. A fog of sudden fear cloaked Alves' vision, smudged the corners, providing him with a kind of tunnel view that magnified the fear growing in his bowels and spreading through him like a fever. Bogeys from the grave, remembrances of his grandmother's tales of bodies rising from beneath ancient scarred tombstones to snatch small boys who forgot to say their prayers ... The face before them as they reached the plain wooden coffin was waxen, cheerily cosmeticized, wore a hideous false smile as if he were somehow enjoying the bad joke of his own death....
José leaned over the corpse, unafraid, grinning in amazement. Alves clamped his eyes shut, fighting off a rising tide of nausea. His nostrils filled with the death smell. Eyes closed, he still saw the false face like a feast-day mask. Even at the age of eight he recognized what he had done, that he had impulsively gone too far, begun something without thinking it through or considering the consequences. He had done it before, leaped in without looking and sworn to himself past veils of tears that he would never do it again. He opened his eyes. José was reaching for the face.
"Stop," Alves gurgled. "Don't touch it." His own whisper sounded hollow. "It leaves marks, Papa says!"
"Then you touch," José said. "You know how to do it. Just on the tip of his nose, that won't leave a mark." He was still grinning, sensing Alves' discomfort. "You told me you'd touched lots of dead ones."
Gritting his teeth to keep the stew in his stomach where it belonged, squinting through shut eyes, Alves extended a small shaking hand and slowly touched the tip of the shiny dead nose.
José leaned forward. "He's breathing!"
Alves screamed, stumbled backward, very nearly upsetting the pedestal bearing the candelabra, darted through the curtain, on through the waiting room, into the street, where his stomach turned itself inside out.
Alves' friendship with José grew during the next few years. José's greater age and experience made him the natural leader, with the younger boy grateful to be included. José's daring, his willingness to sidestep parental commands, the useful ability to make one thing appear something else altogether at just the crucial moment—all this established his superiority.
There was, for instance, the matter of the relics. Now, that struck Alves as a markedly childish prank, even as he willingly engaged in it. However much he had felt his heart pound fit to burst on those occasions the swindle had worked, however much he had sweated out the hours of possible detection, he had always felt that while for José it was a money-making enterprise, for him it was only a lark.
The relics included bits of animal bone from the bins behind the butchery, splinters of old wooden beams the boys scouted out in Lisbon's vacant, sandy, weed-ridden lots. In the name of earning a few extra escudos—José was fifteen, Alves twelve—the two boys met to discuss profitable means of spending the school holidays. There seemed to be vast numbers of foreigners on tour—mostly Germans, Englishmen and Italians—with pronounced interests in the various old and ornately bedecked churches, wealthy foreigners who seemed always on the lookout for bits and pieces to buy, presumably to prove they had been there. José, in the grip of the proclivities which were to give his life its unique texture, leaped on the idea of religious relics and embellished it handsomely.
Excerpted from The Man From Lisbon by Thomas Gifford. Copyright © 1977 Murray Teigh Bloom. 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.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE THE EDUCATION OF ALVES REIS,
PART TWO PERIL POINT,
PART THREE THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALVES REIS 1966,