The exterior ice chime sounded, warning of potential ice on the roadway, and Gerhard Miner gripped the leather steering wheel of his black Audi A6 a little tighter. His Gucci-clad foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. The sun was setting over Lake Lucerne, and a chill wind, blowing since lunch, began to pick up. Ah, what a lunch that was today, Miner thought to himself as the sleek black sedan hugged the shores of the choppy Swiss lake. It was absolutely exquisite.
Claudia Mueller, an investigator from the Federal Attorney's Office, had been pressing Miner for a face-to-face meeting to discuss a cache of armaments missing from a military base outside of Basel. Crates of special night-vision goggles, flash bang grenades, Swiss SWAT assault rifles, antitank missiles, plastique, and a couple of next-generation nonlethal weapons known as glare guns had all mysteriously disappeared.
Though Claudia had insisted her questions were just routine, Miner had been putting her off for over two months. He claimed his caseload didn't provide a single extra moment to meet with her. Surely the security of Switzerland, which Miner was charged with, overrode the necessity of asking him a few "routine" questions.
He half expected her to go away, but she didn't. Claudia wanted badly to talk with Miner and for good reason.
Five years ago, he had commanded a special division of Swiss intelligence that tested the security of military bases and weapons installations throughout the tiny country. Miner had been so successful at breaching security at the bases that his unit was shut down for fear of further embarrassment to the military establishment, and he was transferred to a different department of Swiss intelligence.
Not only had Miner commanded the special division, he had also created it. The idea for the division -- known as Der Nebel or, most appropriately, The Fog, in English -- stemmed from training Miner had received while on U.S.-Swiss cross-training exercises in Little Creek, Virginia. Little Creek was where the U.S. Navy SEAL teams involved in Atlantic, Latin American, and European operations were assigned. It was also home to the Navy's Special Warfare Development Group, not to be confused with "Dev Group," the Navy's elite counterterrorist unit formerly known as SEAL Team Six, which was based in Dam Neck, Virginia. The Special Warfare Development Group was a SEAL think tank where new weapons, equipment, communications systems, and tactics were developed.
The investigative affairs agent's long list of boring questions had been the last thing Miner was interested in sitting through, but curiosity eventually got the better of him and he ordered a copy of Claudia Mueller's personnel file. In his position as one of the Swiss government's highest-ranking intelligence officers, he did not find the file hard to get, nor did his request seem at all out of the ordinary.
Miner flipped through Mueller's file with only minimal interest. As he reached the back, he slowed. The backs of files were always the most interesting part. Included were her service photo, her most recent passport photo, and best of all, a magazine photo from a climbing competition in which she had taken first prize. In sharp contrast to the serious service and passport photos, this picture showed a proud and energetic woman. Here, her ruddy face was flushed with adrenaline and the excitement of competition. She was gorgeous. There was no need to put Claudia Mueller off any longer. At that moment, Miner not only knew he had to meet her, but he had to have her.
An hour and fifteen minutes away in Bern at the Federal Attorney's Office, known as the Bundesanwaltschaft, Claudia Mueller was studying the file of Gerhard Miner for the thousandth time. Out of all the people she had spoken with during the course of her investigation, Miner had been the toughest to nail down. Sure, Miner had his reasons for being unavailable, and they all checked out when Claudia leaned on her boss to speak with his contacts at the Ministry of Defense, but something bothered her. Call it her Swiss fetish for organization. Something about Miner just didn't jibe.
Miner was fifty-three years old and never married. He was a handsome man, tall, about six foot two, and extremely fit. His gray hair was perfect, as were his expensive custom-made Italian suits. In almost any woman's opinion, Gerhard Miner would be quite a juicy catch. She was studying the photos of him yet again, glued to his deep brown eyes, when the phone rang.
"Hello?" Claudia answered, still staring at the file in front of her.
"Fräulein Mueller, this is Gerhard Miner of the SND." Strategischer Nachrichtendienst, in Swiss German, translated to the deceptively benign sounding "Strategic Information Service." The highly secretive Nachrichtendienst was a division of the Ministry of Defense and responsible for counterespionage for Switzerland. Not much beyond that was known about it, not even by the most enlightened and connected of Swiss citizens.
Instantly, Claudia's attention shifted from the pictures in front of her to the voice on the other end of the phone. "Well, Herr Miner, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" Claudia asked pleasantly, masking her eagerness. After leaving messages and being dodged by Miner for the last two months, she was excited to finally have the man himself on the phone.
Miner leaned back in his chair and wondered what Claudia might be wearing. He pictured her in a highly provocative outfit, completely unlike what a woman of her position actually wore to the office. His mind continued to wander as he answered smoothly, as if on automatic pilot, "I should say the pleasure is all mine. I can't remember the last time a woman pursued me as aggressively as you have."
"I hardly believe my repeated requests for information in a formal investigation to be in the same category as you are imagining, Herr Miner."
"Of course not. I apologize. I'll tell you what, I have time available tomorrow to meet with you if you still want, but after that I will be quite busy with an ongoing assignment."
"Done," replied Claudia. "I'll meet you at your office say -- "
"Oh, I'm quite sorry once again."
"I won't be in my office tomorrow. I'm taking a little time off and will be at my home in Lucerne."
It wasn't unusual for government officials to keep a small apartment in the capital and then commute home on the weekends. The Swiss were extremely loyal to their cantons and ancestral homes. Claudia herself spent many weekends with her family back in Grindelwald in the house that would one day pass to her when her parents were gone.
She paused to figure out how long it would take her to get from Bern to Lucerne and whether she should go by car or by train.
"I'll tell you what," began Miner.
Again with "I'll tell you what," Claudia thought. After being dodged for two months, Claudia was ready to jump down Miner's throat, but she knew she had to be careful. She had recently applied for a new position within her organization, and stepping on the toes of one of the Ministry of Defense's most respected officers wouldn't help her move any quicker up the ladder.
Life at the Bundesanwaltschaft had grown to be extremely tedious for Claudia. She had taken the job with the Federal Attorney's Office right out of law school. She was fluent in all four official languages of Switzerland: German, Italian, French, and even the rarely spoken Romansch. She was also fluent in English. Her enviable ability with languages, tenacious manner, and keen eye for detail made Claudia a shoo-in for the Bundespolizei, the investigative affairs division of the Bundesanwaltschaft. As much as Claudia had enjoyed her job in civil intelligence at the outset, she longed for the promotion that would take her out of the mundane business of being a glorified detective and put her on cases that were much more exciting and that she could actually prosecute.
But no matter how badly Claudia wanted to switch to another department, she would not for a moment compromise an ongoing investigation. Worse than stepping on a few Ministry of Defense toes would be not solving this case. And if she couldn't solve this one, she was sure she would end up staying exactly where she was, or worse, she would get demoted, or possibly even fired.
Claudia's boss, Arianne Küess, had been handpicked to be head prosecutor for the war crimes tribunal at the United Nations Court. This meant that the missing weapons case was being led by the very disagreeable Deputy Federal Attorney, Urs Schnell. This was Schnell's first case and he wanted it wrapped up with a ribbon ASAP. He had placed a very high priority on this, and the weight rode chafingly on Claudia's shoulders. The problem was that she had not made any progress and was quickly running out of leads.
"Let's meet for lunch here. Is that convenient for you?" Without even waiting for a reply, Miner continued, "We'll meet at the restaurant in the Hotel des Balances in the Old Town. Say, twelve-thirty?"
No, it wouldn't be convenient for her to travel to Lucerne, but Claudia needed to speak with Miner, so she agreed and hung up the phone. That evening, she agonized over what to wear. She wanted to appear professional, but knowing Miner's penchant for women, she couldn't help but want to play her good looks for all they were worth. She was scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel and she knew it, but she was desperate. She chose an attractive, tight-fitting navy blue skirt that rode just above the knee and a form-fitting navy blue blazer with a funky silver blouse. She left one button undone and then undid the second upon entering the lobby of the hotel at twelve-twenty-five the following day.
Miner had been considerate enough to select one of the restaurant's quieter tables. The booth was framed at one end by a window facing onto the Reuss River. Beyond a clutch of empty iron patio tables, a group of Lucerne's swans paddled slowly past the city's historic, covered Kapellbrücke bridge. Miner appeared to be watching them as they up-ended their snow white tails, plumbing the depths of the quickly flowing current in search of food. In reality, he was using the reflection of the window to observe Investigative Affairs Agent Mueller's entrance, as well as the rest of the lunch patrons who had entered the restaurant in the last twenty minutes. Miner watched Claudia walk almost the length of the dining room, then feigned surprise when she finally reached the table.
"Herr Miner, good afternoon. Sorry to startle you." Claudia leaned over to shake his hand, certain that he had seen her entrance.
The game was on.
Two hours later, dissatisfied and angry, she left the Hotel des Balances. She needed to walk a little and clear her head. Claudia made her way up the hotel's short cobblestone driveway toward the Weinmarkt, in Lucerne's Old Town.
The Old Town, on Lucerne's right bank, was a pedestrianized area of aging cobblestone streets and buildings from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Many of the facades were decorated with frescoes depicting Swiss life. The ground floors of the buildings housed boutiques, restaurants, and small shops. One couldn't walk two meters in this part of town without seeing displays of watches or cuckoo clocks. There was no question that it was geared heavily toward tourists, but its beauty always had a soothing effect on Claudia.
She wandered aimlessly past the shops along the Kapellgasse trying to make some sense of her meeting with Miner. He had been cordial, but cordial to the point of condescension. It hadn't taken Claudia long to realize that Miner wasn't going to reveal anything, at least not willingly. He was extremely uncooperative, choosing to shroud himself in the cloak of national security whenever Claudia put a direct question to him.
"Where were you on the night the weapons were stolen?"
"On assignment where and for what?"
"I cannot say."
"Can't say where, or can't say for what?"
"And why can't you say?"
"It is a matter of national security."
"And a large amount of sensitive weaponry missing from a Swiss defense depot isn't a matter of national security?"
"All I can say is, it is not my matter. It's yours."
"Herr Miner, is it that you can't tell me your whereabouts on the night in question, or is it that you just won't?"
"It is both," Miner replied. "I won't tell you because I can't."
"Are you aware, Herr Miner, that I can get a court order to compel you to answer my questions?"
"So, why don't you make it easier on both of us: answer my questions and I will go back to Bern to pursue my investigation from there."
"Fräulein Mueller, I am not in the business of making your job easy. I serve the Federal Republic of Switzerland. I'm not at liberty to answer the questions you're asking. Should you wish to attempt to compel me to answer, I assure you your efforts will be met with much resistance. I do a job for the people of Switzerland that is, shall we say, delicate. I have done this job for more years than you have even been alive. My position does not require me to answer your questions. I have told you I would be of no value to your investigation, yet you pursued me nonetheless."
Claudia was determined to get something out of him and, so, changed course. "Perhaps, then, as you are an expert on the security of Swiss military installations, maybe you could suggest to me how such a theft would be possible and where such weaponry might be secreted or sold, if that was the intent."
"Fräulein Mueller, I have learned that there are many ways to enter one of our bases undetected. A person or persons could have done so with or without assistance from someone inside. Were there any signs of a forced entry?"
"Not according to our investigation."
"Were the security measures functioning properly at the time the theft was assumed to have taken place?"
"Yes, they were."
"You of course questioned the entire base staff to see if anyone saw or heard anything unusual during the time in question?"
"And, no, nothing unusual was seen or heard."
"Fine, then, that brings us to your next question. As far as where such merchandise could be hidden, the answer is, anywhere. And, as far as where such merchandise could be sold, my answer again is, anywhere. You simply do not have enough evidence to even begin to formulate a hypothesis as to what happened. You are chasing ghosts, and I frankly do not see much hope for a successful outcome to your investigation. But, your day is not a complete loss. Since you have come all the way from Bern, you can at least enjoy your lunch and perhaps we can take a stroll together afterward."
Claudia spent the rest of their lunch probing for answers while Miner deftly parried each question. Miner also had the indecency to try to seduce her. He found Claudia attractive, and, in all fairness, she had attempted to use her wiles to goad a little more information out of him. Instead of coughing up some information, though, he had come on to her even more strongly. Claudia felt she should have known better. Though everything about him indicated he had a passion for women, passion did not necessarily equal weakness, and gambling that it might had been Claudia's mistake.
The end of their lunch was no less frustrating than its beginning. Without even consulting her, Miner ordered dessert for the two of them. This was a liberty that sent Claudia's already boiling blood over onto the stove. Number one, he ordered liquor, which Claudia didn't touch while working, and number two, he went on to lecture Claudia on her poor taste for turning down a fabulous dessert wine that the hotel Food & Beverage manager kept specially in the cellar for him. No doubt, Claudia thought to herself, Miner had something good on the F&B manager to rate such treatment. She made a mental note to check the manager out when she got back to Bern.
It wasn't enough that he let her know the wine was a special delicacy the hotel reserved solely for him. No, Miner had to go on and make sure that uneducated little Claudia knew exactly what she was missing. In a tone that was entirely haughty, and which entirely suited Gerhard Miner, he launched into what sounded like a rote recitation of a wine club's tasting notes.
Vin de Constance was a dessert wine from the Constantia estate in South Africa. It was a favorite of Napoléon Bonaparte, who had thirty bottles a month shipped to Elba to ease the misery of his banishment. The king of Prussia as well as Louis XVI loved Vin de Constance. Dickens celebrated it in Edwin Drood, and Baudelaire said, "only the lips of a lover surpassed it in heavenly sweetness." Only twelve thousand bottles were produced annually, with almost all of them accounted for before they hit the market. An American colleague who had introduced Miner to the stuff helped arrange for a case to be sent to Switzerland. No small feat, as Vin de Constance was one of the most coveted wines in the world.
Throughout this ridiculous speech, Claudia developed a pretty good plan for where Miner could put his wine if the hotel's cellar ever got overcrowded. Though she had already politely declined Miner's offer, he poured the expensive liquid into her glass anyway. A faint sneer developed at the corner of Miner's mouth when Claudia grabbed the neck of the bottle and repeated, "I said, no thank you." The sneer, which Miner quickly masked with a false smile, proved to Claudia that the man was not completely impenetrable. She counted this as one small victory in the series of sharp defeats that had been their lunch.
Claudia had so strongly insisted on questioning Miner because he was her last possible lead. She had exhausted everything else. Claudia had gone back and questioned the military base staff again and again. She had monitored their bank accounts and purchasing patterns, hoping that if there was someone involved on the inside, he or she would slip up and make a large deposit or a large purchase that couldn't be explained away. To date, nothing had come to light. Nothing had turned up in Switzerland, and nothing had turned up on the black markets abroad.
The Vin de Constance lecture notwithstanding, Claudia felt as if she didn't know any more today than she had yesterday and that her whole trip to Lucerne had been a waste of time. As far as the missing weapons were concerned, Miner did have better means than anyone else in all of Switzerland to steal them. Claudia was dead-on. But just because Miner had once been involved in government-sanctioned exercises testing the security of Swiss military establishments didn't mean that he had anything to do with her theft.
Miner was also right about something. Any attempt to try to get a judge to compel him to answer her questions would be met with resistance from the highest ranks of the Swiss government. Lacking any evidence whatsoever against Miner, there was no way anyone would force him to cooperate.
With Miner refusing to cooperate, Claudia didn't even have straws to grasp at. All she had was air. Her investigation had been marked by failure after failure. Though her gut told her one thing, her mind told her it was a million-to-one shot that she could have turned Miner into a bona fide suspect. Now Claudia Mueller's investigation and her career were at a complete standstill.
As Gerhard Miner pulled into the long-term parking lot at Zurich International Airport, he was no longer thinking about Claudia; his mind was back on his mission. The sudden schedule change had bothered him, but such was the nature of his business. Heads of state often shortened trips or changed plans altogether at the last minute. As this trip was set to coincide with the birthday of the American president's fifteen-year-old daughter, Miner had been certain that, barring any international incident, the president would spend as much time as he could on his ski trip. The fact that the president was now planning to cut it short by a couple of days was inconvenient, but it didn't make the mission impossible.
Miner entered the empty first-class line and presented his ticket and passport. He went out of his way to be extra flirtatious with the female desk staff, who wondered why such a handsome man did not have an attractive woman traveling with him to Athens.
While waiting in the Swissair lounge for his flight to board, he changed tack and acted enraged when a young waitress spilled a glass of cabernet all over his trousers. The poor young girl thought it was her fault, when, in fact, Miner had leaned his shoulder forward and nudged her tray as she was placing a cocktail napkin on the table. His explosion earned him an effusive apology that lasted from the first-class lounge all the way to the gate from a Swissair airport services manager. Once Miner had been seated on the plane, the manager again apologized and asked the chief first-class flight attendant to take especially good care of this long-suffering passenger. Miner had achieved exactly what he wanted. At least five people would be able to vouch that he had boarded the Swissair flight to Greece.
He spent the next week and a half in the popular ports of Paros and Mykonos, spending too much money entertaining new friends and repairing repeated "mechanical problems" on his rented sailboat. He overtipped waiters, barmen, and harbormasters. Not only would Miner be remembered, but many would be anxiously awaiting the return of the man and his easy-flowing money next season.
Secure that his alibi was well established, Miner sailed to the uninhabited island of Despotiko, about three hours southwest of Mykonos. Waiting there for Miner, just as planned, was his cousin from the Swiss town of Hochdorf, a carpenter who bore an incredible likeness to him.
Happy to have a free vacation and knowing the sensitivity of his cousin's occupation, the carpenter from Hochdorf never asked any questions. The plan was for him to continue sailing south to Santorini and then Crete, where he would leave the rented yacht, citing a string of mechanical problems as the reason. The carpenter would then make his way to the western port of Patras, where a first-class cabin was booked on a Minoan Line cruise ship to Venice.
His cousin would be traveling on Miner's passport and Visa credit card. Knowing that cabin stewards present first-class passengers' passports for them to customs officials as a courtesy, Miner was not worried about his cousin or his passport receiving any undue scrutiny. The carpenter was to spend a week in northern Italy before proceeding via train to France.
Miner had booked his cousin on an overnight train in a first-class compartment. As the train would be crossing the French border while passengers were sleeping, the steward would gather passports as passengers boarded, present them to border officials sometime during the night, and then return them with breakfast in the morning.
After a week in France, the carpenter would take a final overnight train back to Switzerland, where the customary passport collection by the steward would once again be conducted. When the steward delivered the passport with breakfast the next morning, the carpenter was to place it in a thick, manila envelope with the canceled train tickets, credit card receipts, and other odds and ends he had been told to accumulate during his wonderful vacation. The envelope was addressed to a post office box in Lucerne and stamped with more than enough postage. When the train arrived in Bern, the carpenter would mail the envelope from the train station post box before catching his connecting train back to Hochdorf.
With eyewitnesses, customs records, and a credit card trail that would lead through three European countries all but guaranteed, Miner entered Turkey from Greece with a false Maltese passport as part of a tour group, feeling quite confident that his alibi, if ever needed, would be airtight.
Twenty-four hours later, the people seated in the airline's waiting area paid no attention to the rumpled western European businessman who sat reading a day old copy of The International Herald Tribune. Disguised with blond hair, a full beard, blue contacts, and padding that made him appear twenty kilos overweight, Miner was now traveling on a Dutch passport as Henk Van DenHuevel of Utrecht.
He sat reading an article he had found quite by chance. It dealt with the upcoming ski vacation United States president Jack Rutledge was to take with his daughter, Amanda, and what it would cost American taxpayers.
As first-class passengers were welcomed aboard flight 7440 from Istanbul to New York, Miner folded the newspaper under his arm and made his way toward the gate thinking, They have absolutely no idea what this trip is going to cost.
Copyright © 2002 by Brad Thor