The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Twenty-Eight


Day Nine
Fort Smith, Canada
Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, is a prosperous town of two thousand people, most of them farmers and cattle ranchers, with a sprinkling of merchants. The climate itself is demanding, with long and rigorous winters, and the town is living proof of Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest.
William Mann was one of the fit ones, a survivor. He had been born in Michigan, but in his early thirties he had passed through Fort Smith on a fishing trip and had decided that the community needed another good bank. He had seized the opportunity. There was only one other bank there, and it took William Mann less than two years to put his competitor out of business. Mann ran his bank the way a bank should be run. His god was mathematics, and he saw to it that the numbers always came out to his benefit. His favourite story was the joke about the man who went to a banker pleading for a loan so that his young son could have an immediate operation to save his life. When the applicant said he had no security, the banker told him to get out of his office.
"I'll go," the man said, "but I want to tell you that in all my years, I've never met anyone as coldhearted as you are."
"Wait a minute," the banker replied. "I'll make you a sporting proposition. One of my eyes is a glass eye. If you can tell me which one it is, I'll give you the loan."
Instantly, the man said, "Your left one."
The banker was amazed. "No one knows that. How could you tell?"
The man said, "That's easy. For a moment, I thought I detected a gleam of sympathy in your left eye, so I knew it must be your glass eye."
That, to William Mann, was a good businessman's story. One did not conduct business based on sympathy. You had to look at the bottom line. While other banks in Canada and the United States were toppling like tenpins, William Mann's bank was stronger than ever. His philosophy was simple: no loans to start up businesses; no investments in junk bonds; no loans to neighbours whose children might desperately need an operation.
Mann had a respect that bordered on awe for the Swiss banking system. The gnomes of Zurich were bankers' bankers. So, one day, William Mann decided to go to Switzerland to speak to some of the bankers there to learn if there was anything he was missing, any way he could squeeze more cents out of the Canadian dollar. He had been received graciously, but in the end he had learned nothing new. His own banking methods were admirable, and the Swiss bankers had not hesitated to tell him so.
On the day he was to leave for home, Mann decided to treat himself to a tour of the Alps. He had found the tour boring. The scenery was interesting, but no prettier than the scenery around I; Fort Smith. One of the passengers, a Texan, had dared try to persuade him to make a loan on a ranch that was going into bankruptcy. He had laughed in the man's face. The only thing about the tour that was of any interest was the crash of the so-called flying saucer. Mann had not believed in the reality of that for an instant. He was sure it had been staged by the Swiss government to impress tourists. He had been to Disney World and he had seen similar things that looked real, but were faked. It's Switzerland's glass eye, he thought sardonically.
William Mann was happy to return home.
Every minute of the banker's day was meticulously scheduled, and when his secretary came in and said that a stranger wished to see him, Mann's first instinct was to dismiss him. "What is it he wants?"
"He says he wants to do an interview with you. He's writing an article about bankers."
That was a different matter entirely. Publicity of the right kind was good for business. William Mann straightened his jacket, smoothed down his hair, and said, "Send him in."
His visitor was an American. He was well dressed, which indicated that he worked for one of the better magazines or newspapers.
"Mr Mann?"
"Robert Bellamy."
"My secretary tells me you want to do an article about me."
"Well, not entirely about you," Robert said. "But you'll certainly be prominent in it. My newspaper ..."
"Which newspaper is that?"
"The Wall Street Journal."
Ah, yes. This was going to be excellent.
"The Journal feels that most bankers are too isolated from what's going on in the rest of the world. They seldom travel, they don't go to other countries. You, on the other hand, Mr Mann, have the reputation of being very well travelled."
"I suppose I am," Mann said modestly. "As a matter of fact, I came back from a trip to Switzerland just last week."
"Really? Did you enjoy it?"
"Yes. I met with several other bankers there. We discussed world economics."
Robert had pulled out a notebook and was making notes. "Did you have any time for pleasure?"
"Not really. Oh, I took a little tour on one of those buses. I had never seen the Alps before."
Robert made another note. "A tour. Now that's exactly the kind of thing we're looking for," Robert said, encouragingly. "I imagine you met a lot of interesting people on the bus."
"Interesting?" He thought about the Texan who had tried to borrow money. "Not really."
Mann looked at him. The reporter obviously expected him to say more. You'll certainly be prominent in the article. "There was this Russian girl."
Robert made a note. "Really? Tell me about her."
"Well, we got to talking, and I explained to her how backward Russia was and what terrible trouble they were heading for unless they changed."
"She must have been very impressed," Robert said.
"Oh, she was. Seemed like a bright girl. For a Russian, that is. They're all pretty insulated, you know."
"Did she mention her name?"
"No. Wait. It was Olga something."
"Did she happen to say where she was from?"
"Yes. She works as a librarian at the main branch in Kiev. It was her first trip abroad, I guess because of glasnost. If you want my opinion ..." he stopped to make sure Robert was writing it down, "Gorbachev sent Russia to hell in a hand basket. East Germany was handed to Bonn on a plate. On the political front Gorbachev moved too fast, and on the economic front he moved too slowly."
"That's fascinating," Robert murmured. He spent another half hour with the banker, listening to his opinionated comments on everything from the Common Market to arms control. He was able to get no further information about other passengers.
When Robert returned to his hotel, he telephoned General Hilliard's office.
"Just a moment, Commander Bellamy."
He heard a series of clicks, and then General Hilliard was on the line.
"Yes, Commander?"
"I've traced another passenger, General."
"The name?"
"William Mann. He owns a bank in Fort Smith, Canada."
"Thank you. I'll have the Canadian authorities speak to him right away."
"By the way, he gave me another lead. I'll be flying to Russia this evening. I'll need a visa from Intourist."
"Where are you calling from?"
"Fort Smith."
"Stop at the Visigoth Hotel in Stockholm. There will be an envelope for you at the desk."
"Thank you."
At eleven o'clock that evening William Mann's doorbell rang. He was not expecting anyone, and he disliked unannounced callers. His housekeeper had retired, and his wife was in her room upstairs, asleep. Annoyed, Mann opened the front door. Two men dressed in black suits stood in the doorway.
"William Mann?"
One of the men pulled out an identification card. "We're from the Bank of Canada. May we come in?"
Mann frowned. "What's this about?"
"We would prefer to discuss that inside if you don't mind."
"Very well." He led the men into the living room.
"You were recently in Switzerland, were you not?"
The question threw him off guard. "What? Yes, but what on earth ...?"
"While you were gone we had your books audited, Mr Mann. Are you aware that there is a shortage in your bank of one million dollars?"
William Mann looked at the two men, aghast. "What are you talking about? I check those books every week myself. There has never been one penny missing!"
"One million dollars, Mr Mann. We think you're responsible for embezzling it."
His face was turning red. He found himself sputtering. "How ... how dare you! Get out of here before I call the police."
"That won't do you any good. What we want you to do is repent."
He was staring at them now, confused. "Repent? Repent what! You're crazy!"
"No, sir."
One of the men pulled out a gun. "Sit down, Mr Mann."
Oh, my God! I'm being robbed. "Look," Mann said, "take whatever you want. There's no need for violence and ..."
"Sit down, please."
The second man walked over to the liquor cabinet. It was locked. He smashed the glass and pulled the cabinet open. He picked up a large water glass, filled it with scotch, and carried it over to where Mann was seated.
"Drink this. It will relax you."
"I ... I never drink after dinner. My doctor ..."
The other man put the gun to William Mann's temple. "Drink it or the glass is going to be full of your brains."
Mann understood now that he was in the hands of two maniacs. He took the glass in his shaking hand and took a sip.
"Drink it down."
He took a larger swallow. "What ... what is it you want?" He raised his voice, hoping that his wife might hear and come downstairs, but it was a vain hope. He knew what a sound sleeper she was. The men were obviously here to rob the house. Why don't they just get on with it?
"Take anything," he said. "I won't stop you."
"Finish up what's in the glass."
"This isn't necessary. I ..."
The man punched him hard above his ear. Mann gasped with pain. "Finish it."
He swallowed the rest of the whisky in one gulp, and felt it burning as it went down. He was beginning to feel giddy. "My safe is upstairs in the bedroom," he said. His words were beginning to slur. "I'll open it for you." Maybe that would wake his wife and she could call the police.
"There's no hurry," the man with the gun said. "You have plenty of time for another drink."
The second man went back to the liquor cabinet and filled the glass to the brim again. "Here."
"No, really," William Mann protested. "I don't want it."
The glass was shoved into his hand. "Drink it down."
"I really don't ..."
A fist slammed into the same spot above his ear. Mann almost fainted from the pain.
"Drink it."
Well, if that's what they want, why not? The quicker this nightmare is over with, the better. He took a big swallow and gagged.
"If I drink any more, I'm gonna be sick."
The man said quietly, "If you get sick, I'll kill you."
Mann looked up at him and then at his partner. There seemed to be two of everybody.
"What do all of you want?" he mumbled.
"We told you, Mr Mann. We want you to repent."
William Mann nodded drunkenly. "Okay, I repent."
The man smiled. "You see, that's all we ask. Now ..." He put a piece of paper in Mann's hand. "All you have to do is write, 'I'm sorry. Forgive me.'"
William Mann looked up blearily. "Tha's all?"
"That's all. And then we'll leave."
He felt a sudden sense of elation. So that was what this was all about. They were religious fanatics. As soon as they left he would call the police and have them arrested. I'll see to it that the bastards are hanged.
"Write, Mr Mann."
It was difficult for him to focus. "What did you say you want me to write?"
"Just write, 'I'm sorry. Forgive me.'"
"Right." He had difficulty holding the pen. He concentrated very hard and began to write. I'm sorry. Forgive me.
The man took the paper from Mann's hand, holding it by the edges. "That's very good, Mr Mann. See how easy that was?"
The room was beginning to spin around. "Yeah. Thank you. I've repented. Now would you leave?"
"I see that you're left-handed."
"You're left-handed."
"There's been a lot of crime around here lately, Mr Mann. We're going to give you this gun to keep."
He felt a gun being placed in his left hand.
"Do you know how to use a gun?"
"It's very simple. You use it like this ..." The man lifted the gun to William Mann's temple and squeezed Mann's finger on the trigger. There was a muffled roar. The bloodstained note dropped to the floor.
"That's all there is to it," one of the men said. "Good night, Mr Mann."
Day Ten
Fort Smith, Canada
The following morning, the bank examiners reported a million dollars missing from Mann's bank. The police listed Mann's death as a suicide. The missing money was never found.