They found it.
At least, they might have found it. Normally calm and patient, Arthur twisted upright, swiveling the chair behind his broad mahogany desk to look out of his office window high over Park Avenue. He was puzzled.
The dank grayish brown of the New York winter was giving way to the brief warmth of the afternoon sun. He considered what Dr. Fulani, his longtime doctor and friend, had told him to do as he looked ahead to his 72nd birthday. Arthur inhaled as deeply as he could, then exhaled. It wasn’t helping much.
Arthur spun his chair around to face his desk and reviewed all the information available. On a sheet of paper, he drew a circle with an outwardly projecting line for each data point he could confirm. He’d found such mind-mapping helpful when working through complex decisions. It made the ethereal visible.
He had been at the Four Seasons the day before for a luncheon and meeting pertaining to his purchase of a Japanese bank. His proposal was the conversion of an old-style bank into a less regulated private equity fund. A simple concept, the idea was loaded with intricate details. The deal was mutually beneficial to both parties. The Japanese could legally remove a slate of regulatory issues and return higher capital value to their investors. Arthur would assign much-needed capital and credibility to the bank and receive a stunning return on restructured assets he would now own.
During a break in the meeting, one of the Japanese ministers, Mr. Nihao, had beckoned to Arthur to speak to him privately. Arthur was hopeful of reaching an agreement without extended delays and expected the man to offer something useful on the deal.
Ever-vigilant about privacy, Arthur urged the other man to join him under one of the large African acacia trees below the high ceiling of the main dining room. Both men were cordial, but unsmiling. They were close to an understanding on the key points, but were meeting resistance from several older members of the Japanese delegation. They had concerns about the employees and were weighing Arthur’s suggestions. Arthur did not expect the process to complete conclude quickly. But he needed it to happen faster this time.
Nihao began. “We have something that belongs to you. To your family.”
Arthur thought, Oh? With Arthur’s access to information, such surprises were rare.
“My associate, Mr. Lo, brought it to me only a few weeks ago. After he returned from the Bakka Valley he was confused and did not know what he had.” Nihao paused for a moment, looking into Arthur’s eyes for any sign of recognition for what he was about to say. Nothing.
The Minister continued. “For 13 years, Mr. Lo has researched this… document… but after all this time he has only partial answers. He was dispirited, but is now happy, that he has identified you as the owner.” Nihao again looked closely at Arthur, who was busy trying to connect the banking deal he cared about to Nihao’s comments.
Nihao sighed quietly and resumed. He spoke directly. “We believe the item I am speaking about belongs to you, Arthur.”
Arthur nodded, still uncertain about exactly what Nihao was talking about. He was also calculating whether this was a distraction from the complex negotiations. A tactic.
“He is an honorable man,” Nihao continued. “Mr. Lo is very sick now, and he told me that he wants to be sure that the book ends up in the right hands. The identity of the owner has taken him many years to determine.” A respectful pause. “It will be Mr. Lo’s last significant contribution to the field of archeology.”
Archeology! Arthur’s mind turned in on itself, and what Nihao had stated became clear.
The Bakka. This was a familiar Magnus family story. Arthur was familiar with the clandestine UN mission trip to the Bakka—just months before had hell broken loose in the sky over the United States.
Through a family foundation, Arthur had become the key investor in an emergency cultural commission project. The proposal sounded alarmist, Arthur recalled. Who would blow up a Buddhist monument? He distinctly remembered saying to the High Commissioner, near Christmas of 2000—“Olaf, that’s crazy! The Buddhists are the most peaceful people on the planet.” Nevertheless, in February 2001 a group of trained scientists was sent into the desert to save three giant Buddhist sculptures of Bamiyan from obliteration.
The group failed utterly. It was no fault of theirs; the political conditions were untenable. From what the experts could tell, mere minutes after the team left the site Taliban operatives blew up sixteen centuries worth of civilization-shaping art and artifacts into sand and shards of rock.
“This item. What is it exactly?” Arthur inquired of Nihao.
“Why Mr. Magnus, surely you must know.” Nihao smiled kindly. He respected Arthur and considered him a colleague of the highest order. “It is a book, and a very old one. A collection of some very useful information.”
Arthur took a moment to grasp Nihao’s claim. “My great grandfather’s book?”
“We suspect so.” The minister’s voice was flat now. He turned to glance over his shoulder. No one was there.
“Are you aware of how, shall we say, precious the information is—in this… document…?” Arthur was recalling all he knew.
The book itself was a family legend. A banking ancestor with a travel bug had left his Paris business for several months to pursue a new popular fashion of the time, archaeology. He traveled with his painter friend, Michel Dureau, one of the few known painters who had seen the wall art and the giant monuments and put them to canvas. As his friend painted, Arthur’s great grandfather would have been chipping and brushing at rocks. But he was also a fastidious note-taker and collector.
Arthur’s memory repainted the picture in his mind. Before a roaring fire, when Arthur was just ten, his grandfather had told vivid stories of his father’s travels. Of the typhoid sickness that struck the expedition. The fighting between tribal members—and the need to always carry a sidearm and keep the weapons under guard of the team’s most trusted and disciplined officers. As Arthur wondered about the dangers, he was told their purpose.
The greatest joys lay ahead of the excursion. And for this group, this place in the Bakaa would be its greatest discovery. A Buddha in the center, Salsal and Shamama at each side, slightly shorter, but still large at 70 feet high. They were made of stone and hay-enriched clay, a brickmaking technique that kept the mixture strong. Each statue was pushed back into the caves to protect them from the elements. And they were painted, once very brightly, to exaggerate detail.
Such color sensibility in awareness-raising had always been part of Buddhist tradition, like the saffron-colored robes and the delicate sand mandalas that are swept away shortly after they are completed.. Bright colors are intended to awaken sleeping sensibilities. All this was recorded in his great grandfather’s writings, along with other findings from other trips. Arthur was told that the book had become a compilation of the world’s greatest artistic, intellectual and mystical observations.
Political intrigue over the centuries had kept others from pursuing these religious and artistic treasures. Arthur now understood the value of the item. But, he wondered, why were the Japanese so eager to be rid of the book?
“How do you want to handle this?” asked Arthur. “If it’s a matter of money …”
The Minister looked vaguely irritated. “Nothing of the sort, Mr. Magnus. Please consider this a gesture of thanks from my government—we will have the item delivered to your office later this week. It is at our consulate in Washington at this time.”
Arthur nodded appreciatively. He prided himself on his patience, yet his mind kept seeking information about the book. He was hungry now to learn more.
His grandfather had mentioned to him a series of notes and calculations, often in code. Some of these represented clients, since the family was then deeply invested in the bonds of several nations. There were names of important people with notes on ownership of bonds and sometimes large tracts of land still belonging to ancestral owners. Many of these documents pertained to families that even today remained large and significant with resources–and people. The information was the root business history of numerous large global fortunes. Arthur’s grandfather had told him it was important information at the time, and that he used it carefully.
Arthur was still rushing in his mind trying to recall distant talks. “So it’s a history book then, grandfather?” he had asked his Grandfather Gabriel. Much more than that, the old man had replied. The information was enough to give him power over other men. To Maslow it was all information if it could one day prove useful for maintaining control, and for gaining more control.
“Where is it now?” Arthur remembered asking. Lost, said his grandfather with a laugh, adding that his father never told anyone about the book. “We all knew about the travels, and I was in the banking and bonds business,” his grandfather had said.
“On his deathbed, things changed for him,” continued the old man to the boy. “Father had spent much of the last years of his life retracing his steps. We disregarded many of the stories, until he confirmed them before he died. But he never let on to any of his outside associates what he’d done: lost the records he considered his greatest source of power.”
Arthur’s grandfather laughed. “Yes. Until he was near death we all thought he was a bit superstitious and imaginative.” He added solemnly, “But we never found it. Not a trace.”
“But where did it go?” the boy persisted.
“No one knows for sure, but he always had the book with him,” said his grandfather. “It is the family mystery to this day.”
The memory of this boyhood talk and Nihao’s offer evaporated from Arthur’s mind as Arthur again looked out over New York City. The sun was breaking through the early evening sky. He agreed with Nihao to accept the package. It would be couriered by diplomatic pouch to the United Nations from the Japanese consulate in Washington the next day.
Was Nihao about to unlock the family puzzle? If he was, Arthur supposed he would need to share the story with his children before it arrived. And before the story leaked out to the press. To business adversaries. There would be many people eager to learn what Arthur had acquired – and none of the prospects were pleasing. He’d worry about that later.
His investment in the mission to save the statues had been in vain but, apparently, his lifelong curiosity about his great grandfather’s little black book was about to be satisfied.
It’s funny how life can turn out, Arthur thought, gently patting his leg.
He had inherited a kind nature from his grandfather. He was not quick to judge others. He exuded personal warmth and a sense of inclusion. His daughter, Sophie, gently chided him about this style. She called it ‘unbecoming for a man of his station.’ “People take you literally, Daddy,” she said once. “You have to be more careful, even distant, less accessible.” Arthur knew what she meant: His attitude should reflect his wealth. She wanted him to be serious and exacting—always. But self-absorption was not his way, and she had enough intelligence and admiration to accept his little affections for those he depended on.
He smiled again and in the inclusive tone his daughter Sophia disapproved of called out to his longtime assistant to her desk just outside his open door. “Okay, Judith, let’s go home.”
“Yessir,” she replied evenly. She smiled, knowing he was leaving a littler earlier than usual. She put aside the background report she was preparing for Arthur and the Board for a meeting on trust structures the following week . Judith Nassman was a striking woman, medium height, a skillfully blended blonde in her early fifties with the legs of a showgirl, a degree in finance and the martial skills of a Aikido master. Her purpose was evident to anyone who met her: she was to be Arthur’s eyes, ears and if need be, his fists. She often sat in on key meetings and was occasionally invited to comment. He valued Judith deeply and respected her and her opinions fully.
Arthur’s car of choice for the City was a black Mercedes 550S sedan, a roomy but energetic automobile that allowed for comfort without excess showiness. He left that to others – some younger, some just more brash, immature or less willing to admit to aging than he. “Your chariot awaits to speed you home,” said his confidante. They were alone now.
“And Arthur,” Judith said firmly, her face serious, “Your driver, Hans, has asked that you allow him to drive this evening. He asked ever so nicely.”