A novel by Alex Alvarova (Translation Marc di Duca)
London, Christmas 2011
A short walk from Trafalgar Square, on the fourth floor of a well-known London bank, Scott was sitting bored, waiting for a decision. He was ensconced in a leather club chair and was flicking through some glossy magazines about finance targeted firmly at those in finance. Nobody ever really read them, he thought to himself, but the bosses like to see themselves in full colour. My god, what a load of shit.
The meeting room door was concealed behind a heavy curtain backed in muffling velvet. Anyone standing next to the door would hear very little of what was going on inside.
For the first time in a long while, Scott had shaved and bought a new suit, though he’d always hated that sort of thing. The businessman look, even after a decade in business, didn’t really suit him — he was a boy from Virginia, and preferred a more casual approach. In the clothes shop he’d also discovered he’d put on weight, a fact that hadn’t put him in the best of moods.
The secretary behind a desk in front of the door to the meeting room was watching his every move. It had made him laugh — every time he got up and appeared to be going somewhere, she strained her neck and lifted her derriere from her seat to see where.
After what seemed like an endless hour, the door was finally flung open and several people emerged. Scott recognized some of them, respected figures in the City and members of the Conservative Party. While still at Goldman Sachs he’d had dealings with some of them.
The Iranian billionaire Amin Parviz also walked out. Yes, it was him alright. The hedge fund legend with those greying curls of his.
When Scott was just starting at Goldman, some there had considered Parviz little more than a crook and arms dealer. But how times had changed, thought Scott. Now the crook was sitting at the same table as the cream of the British Establishment.
Then he saw something that made his heart stop. The last person to leave the room was Renata Gallagher. The glass of water the secretary had poured for him slipped from Scott’s hand, spilling down his trouser leg. Renata didn’t notice him as she drifted through the heavy, wood-panelled interior towards the exit.
„You look as though you suffer from incontinence,“ Karl Cohen teased Scott, passing him a handful of paper towels. Wiping himself down, Scott had a very straightforward question on his mind: Since when do top London bankers sit around chatting with members of international crime syndicates? What in god’s name was America’s richest woman doing here?
But he kept the question to himself. He was well aware that he was asking Karl for money. A lot of money.
„Scott, the board has decided to put up 65 million to begin with. The only condition is you take over the company as director, and we deal directly with you. Those young kids aren’t trustworthy in the slightest. I had some enquiries made — one of them is a former actor, the other pimps underage boys to Hollywood studio bosses. But your business plan is sound and has a bit of zest to it. So the only condition is that you are in charge. We really don’t want to deal with people like them!“
Scott gave a huge sigh of relief as well as exhilaration. „What about lunch?“
Karl Cohen gave him a slap on the back and said. „I’ve already got something else, but why not. Join us.“
They strolled across Trafalgar Square to the corner of Charing Cross Road. “The most expensive steaks in town, but the best,“ stated Cohen, opening the door for Scott. From one corner of the restaurant an elegant-looking gentleman with jet-black hair and the look of an actor from the silent film era was waving to them.
„Scott, let me introduce Miguel Vasquez. The UK’s most successful internet propaganda genius.““
The words „most successful“ and „genius“ hit Scott where it stung most. Even he was surprised how much it hurt.
„What line of business are you in, Scott?“ inquired Vasquez after a while.
„The gaming industry,“ answered Scott tersely, cursing himself for agreeing to the lunch. With Vasquez, it was dislike at first sight. Like some kind of greasy marriage fraudster, he thought to himself.
„Oho, so we are neighbours! I’m also involved in the internet world. Behavioural psychology, propaganda, things like that. But I can’t say too much.“
„His company works for the government,“ interrupted Karl, smirking like someone with inside knowledge.
„Propaganda?“ Scott said, feigning polite interest.
„What do you think about propaganda?“
Scott was enjoying his rather tasty steak, and didn’t really want to speak in front of this buffed up Ken doll. „Yeah, nonmilitary warfare, Sun Tzu, all that. Essentially you can use it to invade places even before the fighting begins.“
„Oho,“ exclaimed Miguel, so impressed he once again used his signature „oho“.
So few US businessmen knew anything about these things that he usually didn’t expect much of an answer. But this Yank in his ill-fitting suit was on the ball. „And psychological operations? Behavioural manipulation? Reflexive Control?“ he said, tossing balls for Scott to catch.
„The Soviets came up with it first. If Lefebvre, Lunyev, Bittman, Patsepa, Mitrokhin and some of those others hadn’t emigrated, we would have lost the Cold War and we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.“
Miguel Vasquez was staring at Scott in astonishment, but Karl Cohen wore a bemused look: „Who in the world have I just borrowed money to?“
Scott didn’t let himself be distracted from his juicy steak. The pepper sauce was slowly oozing over it, and the meat needed to cool down. He cut into the soft meat around the edges. That’s the bit he loved most. He should have ordered a double portion.
„I’d say we could learn a lot from the media during WWII,“ an enthusiastic Miguel continued.
„Of course. In his time, Hitler and Robert Zajonc never met, but the former was adept a working with Persuasion Theory.“
„That’s just it. If you repeat a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth. Ingenious, isn’t it? How come you know so much about it?“ Miguel interrupted. His eyes were ablaze with excitement.
„I’ve always wanted to be involved in it. But I finished up a banker,“ said Scott, dipping the last piece of his steak into the silky, molten sauce. „But generally I prefer images. Through the medium of film, Leni Riefenstahl achieved a hundred times more than the Der Sturmer or Volkischer Beobachter newspapers did in a whole year of issues. People have a tendency not to read so much.
“My god, don’t say you know The Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will?“ Miguel exclaimed in amazement.
These were propaganda films by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director of choice. Her movies depicted the Führer dressed in white like Lohengrin, lighting up the darkness with medieval torches, the ecstatic faces of men, women and children chanting his name, soldiers marching in rank and cunning Jewish traders with their devious expressions. They showed Hitler, his troops and his people becoming a single body, a single mindset. Where they went one, they went all.
„I must have seen it a hundred times. What inner beauty, what perfection! I’ve never seen finer propaganda. Well, that was a great steak. Thanks for inviting me, Karl. But now I really have to get to the airport.“
Scott said goodbye to both men, exchanging business cards with Miguel. As he walked away, he took a last look at the marriage fraudster. Not the half-wit he looks, he thought. Knows his stuff.
„Karl, I simply have to get to know that guy better,“ said Miguel after Scott had left the private dining room where they had eaten. „I’ve been waiting for someone like him to come along for a long time. Who does he work for?“
The waiter arrived with the bill. „That’s OK, Miguel. It’s on the company,“ Said Karl.
Karl Cohen needed some fresh air. He left the restaurant with a strange feeling in his stomach. He couldn’t help recalling how he had once watched some Nazi propaganda with his friends at college. He hadn’t even lasted a couple of minutes in front of the images.
His classmates had found him in the toilets. He’d had an epileptic fit. They got there just in time — he almost choked on his own vomit.
Karl was a Jew. His mother and father had both died at Auschwitz. A young British banker had saved him along with hundreds of other Jewish children from their fate in the concentration camps of Nazi Europe. He’d decided to help out a friend from a British humanitarian organization assisting refugees, rather than taking a luxury holiday in Switzerland.
Karl was only one year old. A woman had brought him to the train in his pram, pretending to be his nanny when they got to the border. He never knew her name. He never saw his parents again. But he did remember the name of the man who saved his life — that British banker was Nicholas Winton.
He wondered how someone could watch what was, in essence, a celebratory prologue of the apocalypse to follow. Just like that, from professional interest and enthusiasm for the work they did. He felt dizzy, his head in a queasy spin.