Appenzeller cheese, a St Gallen specialty, smells so rotten you almost gag. Though it tastes creamy-rich and delicious, it leaves a rotten aftertaste ... Rather like his "dream job."
Bud drummed his fingers on the marble table top. Why was Ushi taking so long? A herd of roasted tourists ambled past on the promenade outside. They had time to admire the gaudy sunset over Seven Mile Beach. Three cruise ships rode at anchor in the bay, their lights already twinkling.
In a minute he'd call Bruno, give him the news that Ushi hadn't bothered to show. Bud glanced around the noisy restaurant, and at the golden turtle statue in the middle of the room. Grand Cayman: famous for turtles, tourists and offshore trusts ...
"Need a refill?" asked a grinning barmaid. Women liked the looks of him, he knew: tall and fit. His padded suit made his shoulders look broader.
"No thanks, honey. And you can add my tab to Alpenbank's. We booked your private room upstairs."
"Good evening, Bud." Ushi -- who'd crept up on him like a cat -- wore her glossy black hair piled high, setting off her heart-shaped face and long neck. An evening-blue sheath hugged her dangerous curves.
Bud planted a kiss on her smooth cheek: business before pleasure ... "Whatever took you so long tonight?"
"A little glitch with the computer. Better fix it, I thought, than embarrass Bruno in front of a big fish."
"They've been waiting an hour already." Bud reached for the laptop bag, which she surrendered. Turning away, she glided towards the staircase. "Slow down, honey," he called after her. "Let's present a united front."
* * *
Pushing open the private room's mahogany door, Bud heard Bruno Habsburg soothing: "You'd be in better hands with Alpenbank." Strong-jawed, with a shock of pure white hair, the dapper banker sat across the table from a rumpled, puffy-faced man with a wispy goatee: John Jay Cobb, tax dodger extraordinaire.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Bud said smoothly.
"My associates, uncommonly late." Bruno raised a bushy, white eyebrow. "Bradley M. Hopper, a recent hire, flies back and forth to serve our customers. Ushi Hugentobler runs our branch in St Gallen. She's been with me eleven years."
"Yes, Bruno taught me all I know." She smiled demurely, revealing uneven teeth.
"So sorry we're late." Stepping in front of her Bud offered John Jay Cobb his hand, who squeezed it briefly, let it fall. "And please call me Bud, like everybody does."
"Technical problems." Gracefully Ushi seated herself at Bruno's right. Bud set the computer down on the table, which held the remains of fancy sushi and two bowls of chocolate mousse, untouched. His stomach growled.
"Is that your special gizmo?" Cobb pointed at the laptop.
"Yes," said Bruno with pride. "It's encrypted with proprietary software. We promise you complete discretion if you move your accounts to us from Bank Zeller."
"I'm tempted to, I confess." Cobb gazed down into his own dirty plate. "Things are getting too hot in the US for comfort."
"That's why we asked to meet you on Grand Cayman," said Bruno.
"In fact, I'm wondering if I shouldn't confess my sins to the IRS."
"Now why would you do a thing like that?" Bruno's blue eyes sparked. "Unlike Bank Zeller, which as you know the Feds are pursuing aggressively, Alpenbank has no branches in the U.S. We avoid any local presence there. To give our clients access to their funds, we use correspondent accounts with other banks. Or we send in runners, like Bud."
"But I hear the Feds are using special agents now, who pretend to be foreign bankers."
"How bizarre." Ushi chuckled. "That sounds like a Hollywood thriller."
"So how can I trust you people?" Crumpling up his linen napkin, Cobb deposited it on his plate. "I've got about 100 million bucks at Bank Zeller, never declared to Uncle Sam. I need to move it, right away."
"We can take care of all the details." Bruno dipped a spoon into his chocolate mousse. "As we've already done for dozens of customers who kept their assets at Bank Zeller. Your name won't even appear in our records. We can send your correspondence to a Luxembourg trust. You can read it there, whenever you like, and shred it right on the premises."
"But what if I need to talk to somebody?"
"You just send Bud here an SMS. Uncle Sam can't track every single message; people send billions every day. Bud can hop on a plane anytime and visit you at your home in Chicago. He's an American citizen; nobody stops him flying back and forth."
"I've even moved diamonds in a toothpaste tube," Bud boasted, and Cobb guffawed.
"Yes, those are the kinds of services we provide," said Bruno suavely.
Flopping back in his chair, Cobb stroked his goatee and peered out at the sunset's dying glow. "I just don't want to have to worry anymore I'm gonna get in trouble with the Feds. I can't sleep nights anymore, thinking how they're going to get at me through Bank Zeller."
"We want to take all the pressure off," Bruno soothed in his rich baritone. "So you can devote yourself to your business."
"To my empire of porno, you mean." Cobb leered, picking up a silver spoon.
"We don't care how you make your money, Mr. Cobb. Besides, tax fraud -- foreign tax fraud -- is not a crime in Switzerland, you know."
"How convenient." Licking mousse from the back of his spoon, Cobb got a spot on his goatee.
"Convenient for you and for us," said Bruno. "Everybody wins."
"Except Uncle Sam," Bud said cheerfully, but nobody laughed.
When John Jay Cobb sailed away in his yacht that night, he took Bruno along, for further discussions.
* * *
"So you like working for Alpenbank?" Bud stroked Ushi's naked back. The sailboat pattern on the hotel's bed sheet pointed at the birthmark above her left buttock. Three hairs sprouted from the birthmark, ugh.
"It's a job." Lazily rolling over, she reached for the last of her Scotch on the nightstand.
"Is the old goat jealous, do you think?"
"Not at all." She drained the last of the drink. "Bruno likes hearing the details of all my adventures. He's the one who gave me my first job, plucking me out of vocational school. I was his secretary three years."
"If you worked for me, I sure wouldn't let you work for anybody else." Bud brushed her creamy neck with his lips, and she giggled, shaking the big, soft bed. "You really lack all finesse. You're such an American."
"Then why do you bother to sleep with me?"
"I like some variety in my diet." Sitting up, she pushed him away.
"Oh do you have to fly back to St Gallen tomorrow? We could go scuba diving together. We could go look at the turtle farm."
"I've got some important bookkeeping for Bruno."
"And I'm supposed to fly on to New York, with three packages of gold coins."
"Well, have a good flight." Slipping out of bed, Ushi collected her scattered clothing.
"You can take me or leave me, can't you?" he asked plaintively.
"Women these days are independent, Bud. We make our own plans." Carefully, she shook out her blue silk dress before pulling it over her head.
Watching her, he felt the pangs of desire again. She piqued him like a cat's unsheathed claw; he could never get enough of Ushi.
"What's this?" He picked a silver whistle from an ashtray.
"A gift from my papa, the policeman. I always carry it, like a charm."
Bud pressed it to his lips.
"Hey don't fool around; it's piercing. Somebody might break down the door."
"Could be embarrassing." He tossed the whistle at her and she swiped it neatly.
* * *
Bud trudged down Fifth Avenue in a cold downpour, feet damp inside his Gucci loafers. You never find a cab in New York when you need one. He felt rotten as a hunk of meat in a dumpster.
That blue-haired old lady -- that penthouse queen -- had made him stand around in her foyer while she chatted on the phone. As if he delivered her groceries. He should have held out his hand for a tip.
Now he almost bumped into a plump, black Santa ringing a hand bell loud and clear. "Sorry," Bud muttered, pushing past the big red Salvation Army kettle. "Ho ho ho," Santa Claus yelled after him, like an accusation.
People with umbrellas jostled at the corner of 57th Street, in front of the windows of Tiffany & Co. Bud stopped to eye the artificial trees adorned with diamond brooches in snowflake patterns. He'd love to give Ushi one of these fabulous baubles, for Christmas.
Would it impress her? Not at all; nothing could warm her heart of ice. She'd laughed in his face when he urged her to quit:
"Bud, don't be silly. I love this work."
"But look at this." He'd pulled out a folded piece of paper, laid it on her desk in the St Gallen branch. "Somebody pushed this under my door." Pasted together from English words cut from a glossy magazine it read: "We know what you are up to. You should STOP it, while you can."
Ushi's expression didn't change. "Maybe it's a practical joke. Maybe somebody's jealous of the fortune you're making at Alpenbank."
"Or the bank has a mole, and the Feds are after us."
Snorting, Ushi crumpled the paper and stuffed it down the nearest shredder. "Let's get back to work, Bud. I've got the new list of American customers."
Shivering now in his damp overcoat, he turned left into the noise and fumes of 42nd Street. Headlines at a newstand blared: "Porn King Busted for Unpaid Taxes." John Jay Cobb glared from the photo, hollow-eyed, looking like an old man. Bud bought a Post and used it to shield his head from the driving rain.
At the Banquet Hotel, an obese man in livery pulled the door open and stuck out his hand.
"Sorry, no change today," Bud muttered, making a bee-line for the elevator.
All alone inside, he inspected himself in a dirty mirror framed in faux-gold. He looked haggard, and chills rippled through his body. Was he coming down with the flu? Should he tell Bruno he needed a few weeks off from flying back and forth?
Oh, why put off the inevitable? Bud pressed his hands to the mirror, leaving clear prints as the elevator rattled on upwards. Maybe he should call the Department of Justice, and blow the whistle on Alpenbank? If he fingered Bruno, the mastermind, maybe he could cut a deal for himself?
What about Ushi? He couldn't bear the thought of getting her into trouble. Not that she cared about US laws. She herself was Swiss.
He was an American though. And Bruno used him to lure more Americans.
Bud shuddered at the thought of sharing a steel cage soon with hard-faced men, of swapping his well-cut, expensive suits for a set of orange overalls.
Golden doors slid open on 14 (you'll find no 13th floors in New York), and Bud sighed deeply and turned left. When a sweet-faced chambermaid pushing her cart wished him a Merry Christmas, he just nodded and picked up his pace. Muzak carols trailed him down the long halls. Distracted, he took a wrong turn then and rambled around the irritating maze till he finally found his room. Swiping a key-card through the lock he got a green light: go.
The room smelled musty, but someone had made the bed and set out chocolates on the pillow. Ripping off the wrappers Bud crunched them down, and they tasted bitter as poison.
His laptop waited on the faux-walnut table. Slumping down, he tapped into the internet and looked up the Justice Department's number. With sweating hands he pulled out his cell phone ...
The hotel phone burbled from a bedside shelf. Picking it up mechanically, Bud heard Bruno's reassuring voice: "Good evening, Bradley."
He wanted to hang up; he didn't, though. Why was his boss calling now? In the middle of the night, St Gallen time.
"Hi, Bruno." His own voice sounded shaky. "I just got back from making deliveries."
"You won't have to do that anymore. I've hired a pretty girl, fresh out of law school. She's an American too."
"Then what am I supposed to -- ?"
"Bradley, I am promoting you. You can help Ushi market us. We need to rapidly hunt more U.S. customers. I'll pay you a bounty for each one."
"But Bruno, I think -- "
"What's to think? Money talks; it's the universal tongue."
"OK," said Bud weakly. It wasn't OK, but he had to get the old man off the phone -- this greedy vampire who'd sucked him dry. "I'll be back in St Gallen by tomorrow evening."
"Very good. You come straight to Rorschach Street." The phone made a weird, hollow sound like a coffin lid banging down.
Feeling awful, Bud sprawled on the creaking bed. Should he take a cab to the nearest ER? You have to wait for hours in those places, while people with bullet holes or knife wounds bleed all over the floor.
Must be some aspirin left, in the bathroom. He'd gulp two tablets, try to rest. "Rest in peace, oh dearly beloved," the parson crooned at Dad's funeral. A heart attack took Dad -- just like that. Better than knowing how you're failing ...
A cell door clanged in the back of Bud's mind, and he groaned out loud. Next door somebody was drunkenly warbling "Jingle Bells."
Bud staggered to the bathroom and gulped three pills with water that tasted like a swimming pool. Still dressed, he kicked off his sodden loafers and flopped back onto the hard and narrow bed.
Feeling feverish and exhausted, he thought he heard his mother's voice: "Come on, Buddy; you can open your presents now." When she pushed back the wooden screen, he saw his spoiled-only-child gifts piled up high. He ripped through every box while she snapped flash photos, and then he squatted on the rug with his loot, surrounded by crumpled paper and feeling almost sickened, almost sad.
Your treasure today is garbage tomorrow. Money won't buy you love or joy. Too much is never enough, however. That's why you're still working for Bruno.
* * *
Icy snow dropped through the streets of St Gallen, hard little grains mixed into the fog. Bud couldn't see down the block, let alone the scenic hills that ring the town.
Striding down Rorschach Street, he hunched his neck and shoulders to the bitter cold. Just ten minutes till 6 PM, when the basement vault shut for the night ... He'd lifted the combination to Cobb's box from a confidential file. Anyone who saw him down in the vault would assume he acted on Cobb's instructions.
The buildings along Rorschach Street, most of them exclusive banks, looked neat and unobtrusive, their windows lined with empty flower boxes. All Switzerland had fattened on the money stashed here by dictators, criminals and tax evaders ...
Tonight he'd claim his own, little slice of the cheese; he deserved it; he'd worked hard for it; his one-way ticket to Caracas burning a hole in his inner pocket. Before Bruno noticed he'd be long gone, and nobody would dare to press charges. How can you steal from thieves?
Reaching Alpenbank, Bud stepped inside quickly, out of the cold. With a nod to the squinting teller on duty, he strode across the plushly carpeted room and tapped down the steep, stone steps to the vault.
Fritz, the grizzled guard, lurched from his stool as if shaken awake. "Good evening, Mr. Hopper," he said in clipped English, and turned the lock on the curlicued gates of cast iron which should have adorned a botanical garden.
Bud pulled down a leather-bound book chained to a shelf and scribbled his name and the time. Striding to the end of the single aisle, he bent over a jumbo safe deposit box in the bottom row: 13. Funny; you'd think a criminal like Cobb would be superstitious ...
Bud fiddled with the combination, and the door popped open with a hollow sound. Inside stood a bag of plain, white paper -- and that's all. Somebody's sick idea of a joke?
How it stank: a musty, barnyard smell. Heart thumping, Bud peered inside, at a crumbling round of moldy cheese stamped "Appenzeller Extra," in red letters.
Now footsteps clattered on the stairs. "Fritz, bitte nimm dieses Paket auf, zu Emma," he heard Bruno say. Taking the package from the dark-suited banker, old Fritz limped slowly up the stairs.
"Good evening," Bruno went on in his warm baritone. "As you can see, Ushi already came and went." Drawing a handgun from his pocket, he pointed it at Bud's heart.
Dropping the bag with the rotten cheese, Bud raised both hands: "What do you mean, Bruno?"
"She was the mole, I heard from a friend. The Feds must have paid her a king's ransom. They bugged the computer she brought to Grand Cayman. Don't be embarrassed; she fooled me too. "
"So what do we do?"
"The bank is ruined. We can die like gentlemen."
"Wait, I am not -- "
But Bruno shot him. Slumping, Bud heard a second shot and saw the dapper banker fall.
Then he saw a splendid Christmas tree, whose branches seemed to stroke the clouds. "Hey Bud," he heard faintly and far away. "You can open your presents. It's time."