72 HOURS AGO.
FORMER STAFF SERGEANT Shane Wagner buttoned his dress shirt’s cuffs–maybe for the last time.
Winding his tie under his shirt collar, Wagner caught himself in the mirror again. He hadn’t shaved–or even slept. His eyes were bloodshot. His black hair oily and unkempt. Yet, the freshly pressed business suit he’d put on survived the long flight from Washington D.C. to Zurich.
Wagner fumbled with his necktie in the mirror. Useless things, he thought. Wagner felt more at home in a jumpsuit working on his truck. Back in Missouri, with Wendy and the kids and dogs. But Wagner had business this morning. And he had to look the part.
He threw on his jacket, and racked the slide of his P226 Sig Sauer. With a bullet in the chamber, he tucked the sidearm in his waistband. He adjusted the knot of his tie in the mirror. One last time.
Wagner left his hotel room, snatching his return-flight tickets and the black leather briefcase next to the door.
The leather bag was an impulse buy. He planned this entire trip in under two hours, and stuffed the first thing he could find–a neon-pink gym bag–with everything he needed.
While waiting to board his flight, it struck him: walking out of one the oldest Swiss banks with only a bulging gym bag slung over his shoulder might look suspicious. Especially if he were covered in someone else’s blood.
A black leather case, he’d decided. He’d never owned a briefcase.
Wagner checked out of his hotel, and exited onto the Zurich’s busy morning streets. Sweet morning pastries and sour auto exhaust wafted on the breeze, attacking his nose.
He passed several dozen sharply dressed professionals. Probably going to work in one of Zurich’s many professional offices. Instinctively, he sized up each one, watching their hands, their gait. He assess each threat, knowing there was no one to back him up. Not any more.
Wagner walked several blocks to the Geneva Bank Suisse on Bahnhofstrasse. Wagner had picked up enough German when he was stationed in Europe. He’d always disliked how they named things. Just smashed everything together. Fitting for Europeans, he scoffed.
Is Train Station Street so damn hard?
Bahnhofstrasse was the epicenter of Swiss–and international–banking. And GB Suisse had occupied a small fortress on Bahnhofstrasse for over 230 years.
Not the largest bank in Europe, GB Suisse served its elite clientele on six continents with impeccable discretion. No one spoke of its long tradition of silence. No one spoke of the bank much at all. That’s just how Wagner’s entire team wanted it. It’s what they’d all agreed to that night.
Wagner walked up the stone steps into the bank, and young man greeted Wagner at the doorway.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Wagner!”
Wagner met the doorman’s gaze, confused. He snapped his head back, scanned up and down the street, and then the rooftop above. Just like he had done a hundred times in Fallujah. Or Mosul. Or God knows where ever else they’d dispatched his team.
“Yes, good morning,” he mumbled. He fumbled in his jacket pocket for his appointment card. “I’ve got an appointment with Mr. Brun–”
The young man smiled, “Yes, Herr Bruner is anxiously waiting. I am to take you to the second floor. He is–”
“I’d like to go right to the vault.” Wagner looked at his scratched Timex wristwatch. “I’ve gotta get back to the airport by 10:30.”
The doorman frowned. He escorted Wagner inside, which opened into large atrium overlooked by several stories of glass-windowed offices.
Another clerk brought Wagner to a waiting area outside of the vault, and gestured to a pair of leather chairs.
“Herr Bruner will be right with you.”
Wagner didn’t acknowledge the clerk. And Wagner didn’t sit–couldn’t sit–either. He scanned the bank, absorbing the scene. He watched the clerks and secretaries, going about their business, ferrying papers and folios from one desk to another. No one noticed him.
Nothing seems out of place.
Wagner waited. The large vault door loomed behind him. Already open, a giant steel maw ready to swallow up anything that GB Suisse’s customers needed to hide.
Wagner heard jingling metal. A lean, bespectacled man appeared from an elevator well. His dark blue suit, his shirt, and his slacks were crisp. His shoes polished like mirrors. A lanyard around his neck held a dozen metal keys and key cards.
“Ahhh, Herr Wagner. We heard you came in early this morning. We had coffee and breakfast for you on the second floor. It’s been many years. I thought we could talk.”
It had been years. Wagner saw that Bruner’s hair was almost entirely grey. And that he’d put on a few pounds as well. Bruner looked much younger when they first came to him 15 years ago. Bruner had to be in his sixties by now.
“Yes, many years. I see you’re well.”
Bruner smiled, and nodded slightly.
“Yes, well, I cannot complain. Not as much as I should,” he chuckled.
Bruner’s smile vanished. Bruner leaned in slightly and whispered: “No, Herr Wagner. I am quite serious.”
Wagner froze, eyes focusing on Bruner’s face. Wagner sensed the weight on his hip, the gun tucked in his waistband. The silence hung in the air for too long. Until Bruner cracked a smile.
“It is an old joke!” Bruner laughed. “You and your associates, you always had a sense of humor. Mr. Tim made this joke.”
Wagner eased up. Tim was a joke.
“I’d like to get on with my business, Mr. Bruner. I’ve gotta get back to the airport. Only need 15 minutes in the vault.”
Bruner nodded again and escorted Wagner through the vault’s gaping door. The steel cavern contained rows of unassuming brass cabinets, stacked atop each other. Wagner spied the date book on the table in the center of the room. He signed his name without ceremony.
Bruner seemed satisfied.
“Herr Wagner, I understand you wish to open boxes 1081 and 1082. The terms of the agreement provide that all 13 men must be present to open the boxes.”
Bruner hesitated. “Subject to the other provisions.”
Wagner nodded, “Yes.”
“Because of recent events, any one of you is authorized to open the boxes.” Bruner paused. “If he has the black key.”
Brunner looked over the rims of his glasses, silently asking the question.
Wagner fished a small brass key from his pocket and displayed it in his open palm. The end of the brass key was painted black.
“Good. I am noting that you have shown me the black key. And that it is a key issued from our bank.”
Bruner retrieved a steel key from the lanyard around his neck and unlocked both boxes 1081 and 1082. Bruner himself pulled the long steel containers from their vaults and set them on a table in the center of the room.
“I will leave you here. Please lock the boxes when you are finished and place them back into the vault.” Bruner began to leave the room.
“Herr Wagner,” he called out.
Wagner froze again.
“As this may be the last time we speak, Geneva Bank Suisse has appreciated your–” he paused awkwardly. “Patronage. If we may be of
service in the future.”
Wagner exhaled. “Thank you.” And Wagner was finally alone in the vault.
Wagner looked at the top of the boxes, each with a crudely painted tiger hastily drawn on it. He laughed. He remembered that Santiago
said he was going to paint that stupid tiger on there.
Too bad Santiago had to die with the rest of those poor bastards.
Wagner unlocked the steel lid of box 1081. Inside the box were 19 bricks of paper, each cocooned in plastic wrap. Wagner removed bundle after bundle from the steel box, and put them in his briefcase. He did the mental math again:
500 sheets per bundle.
$10,000 per sheet.
Shane already knew the answer. He’d done the same calculation a dozen times on the 8-hour flight. And he did it one last while he moved another brick to his briefcase. He grinned triumphantly. It took over 15 years to get here. To be able to take these…
And then he paused. The doubt set it. This was. It didn’t make sense. There were 19 bricks. That’s what they started with. Why would the bricks even be in the box?
Didn’t Rimes and Santiago take the bricks to Zurich to…
Panicking, Wagner picked up the 16th bundle. He flipped open a pocket knife, and sawed through the plastic wrap, clawing at it, stretching it away.
He thumbed through the ream of blank paper.
What the hell?
Wagner clawed another ream of paper open. He dropped the second bundle of blank copy paper to the floor.
Confused, he gripped his knife like an icepick and ripped through a third ream, slicing right through it. Copy paper, again. Wagner cut through each ream of paper.
Copy paper, all of them.
Enraged, Shane hurled the steel lock box against a wall full of brasswork.
Where is the goddamn money?!
Wagner was visibly shaking. He snapped his eyes back to the vault door. But he was alone. No footsteps. No whispers. No one was coming.
It should be here. I got the call. They sent me the key. I made it here. I survived. They didn’t. Where is it?
Still shaking, he eyed the still-unopened Box 1082. The tiger painted on the surface of the metal box smiled back at him.
Shane jammed the black key into the lock on box 1082, twisted it open, and nearly ripped the steel door off of its hinge. A thin line of taut wire snapped, slashing Shane’s forearm.
Shane Wagner looked in the box and glimpsed his last words. Dull green letters embossed on a Claymore antipersonnel mine: FRONT TOWARD ENEMY. And he’d just pulled the trigger wire.
The explosion rocked the bank’s first floor and belched a swirling cloud of black smoke and paper into the bank’s atrium. The bank’s alarm system screeched to life and the sprinkler system rained onto the fine marble floor.
Panicking, frantic bank employees slipped and stumbled through the puddles of water and spilled into the street outside the lobby. Soon the bank was empty and silent. Except for the alarm. And the spattering sound of sprinkler rain.
And Karl Bruner.
Bruner looked out at this planned chaos from his second floor office. Calmly, Bruner walked to his desk, and sat in his chair. He removed a flip phone from his desk drawer, autodialed a single number, and put the dialing phone to his ear.
The ringing stopped, and the line picked up. There was no greeting. Just the sound of an open line.
Bruner calmly stated: “Wagner has expired.”
No response came. Bruner waited, drumming his fingers on the desk. He adjusted his tie. Finally, a garbled voice replied.
“Six players surviving.”
And the line disconnected.