The Secret Donor — Prologue
“There’s a curse in being sensitive. A fierce curse. A curse so fierce I nearly ended it. Three years ago I stood on a third floor balcony and leaned over, gazing at the ground gazing back at me like a promise.
There are equations of sorrow. When this disappointment, plus that betrayal, minus that friend equals the wish to divide yourself from life.
One ‘plus’ saved me. One plus. She knows her name. One plus.
So, even when you’re feeling zero — seen from the side, or inside-out, or upside-down — center yourself on your cross and you’ll be a plus for someone caught in a crossfire of crosses.
And, just by not giving up, who knows what you’ll save?”
Jordan put down his pen. It was close to what he wanted to say. Not quite it. But close. Perhaps the best he could get, for now. After all, every human language was built on approximations.
Approximations like “The road is wiser than the one who walks on it.” At least, that’s what the psychic had insisted. And while most of her blathering, had seemed like, well, blathering, that particular statement had borne a measure of truth. A truth (like a mute but irresistible usher) that had conducted Jordan to many cities… and now to Görlitz. Faith in the wisdom of the road — and an unlikely offer late one night in Hungary.
Jordan’s initial encounter with Briskoff was orchestrated by their mutual friend Mikkel Skoldjan, a mischievous Danish philosophy professor. Jordan lived in Prague, Briskoff had an office in Vienna, so Mikkel (il)logically plotted their assignation in Budapest. They met in a crumbling art-deco palace, not too far from Oktogon, a major hub of the city.
Ensconced in a semi-elegant parlor, Briskoff motioned Jordan to plump himself down on a plush, but weathered, velvet sofa. Briskoff wore a black suit and a grey tie. In his lapel flashed a tiny golden medallion, etched with a symbol too minute to ascertain — a pin too small to pin down. His age was equally oblique — a broken speedometer hovering between seventy and ninety… years? seconds per mile? — a velocity immeasurable except that it left Jordan reeling so far behind he felt he might never catch up.
“Mikkel claims you’re quite a poet.”
“Do my best.”
“Also tells me you’re a sleuth. He mentioned the way you guys snuck into the pyramids. And Rilke’s castle near Trieste.”
“Just took a bit of luck. And audacity.”
“‘Audacity’ is a poet’s word for ‘balls,’ huh?” Briskoff guffawed.
“I suppose,” said Jordan, noticing the way Briskoff’s smile, instantly poured out, instantly evaporated. Too instantly. Jordan had become a connoisseur of smiles; this one, accompanied by an exuberant but hollow chuckle, he’d glimpsed on too many unhappy people straining to maintain an optimistic front; in Jordan’s mind flashed the image of a man pitching a tent in a hurricane — he heard the whip of the flaps.
Briskoff kneaded a few fingers through his goatee, then plunged ahead, “Well, I won’t waste time, yours nor mine. I’ve got a proposition.”
“Mikkel alluded to something of the sort.”
“Didn’t parley any details?”
“No. Just suggested we meet. Hinted it could be mutually beneficial. And dammit, though Mikkel’s brought me into some life-threatening — and, since you mentioned them, ball-threatening situations — through the years, for some reason, I still trust him. I suppose that’s why I’m here.”
“Splendid.” Briskoff jacked up one eyebrow and shot Jordan a sharp Egon Schielesque glare. “I trust Mikkel too, that’s why, generally speaking, I’m willing to expose myself to the astute whimsy of his — ” Briskoff relaxed, scanning the nails of his left hand to ensure the tips were equally clipped, equally polished. “ — recommendations. Of course, I went to the extent of swearing Mikkel to secrecy. As I must do with you now.”
“Sure, you have my word.” Jordan made a quick gesture across his lips, zipping them. Then leaned forward and squinted, for a moment trying to raise one eyebrow too, then stopped, sensing he needed more practice. “I’ll let you in on a secret — I’m good at keeping secrets. After all, there’s plenty of my own to keep under wraps. In fact, one of the notions I hold rather close to my heart is the Alchemists’ Code.”
Briskoff sniffled. “Don’t believe I’ve heard of it.”
“Four essential principles: To Know, To Will, To Dare… and To Keep Silent.”
Briskoff shuffled slightly in his chair. “Keeping Silent can be the hardest, hmm?”
“For many, perhaps. Not for me. Don’t worry, I’ve learned that the currency of a man’s word rises or falls,” Jordan coughed, leaning back into the wobbly contours of the sofa, “in strict accordance with the inflation of his promises.”
“Well then, my proposition is simple. Ever heard of Görlitz, Germany?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Not surprising. A rather small city straddling the Polish border. In fact, it’s the poorest city in Germany.”
Jordan propped himself up a little. “The poorest? That already attracts me.”
“But the city holds a secret, a secret especially valuable to me. Which I wish to hire you to crack.”
“Görlitz has a mysterious benefactor, a secret donor. Each year, the donor deposits half a million euros in a special account. The money is allocated to renovating the city, rebuilding schools, reconstructing parks, etc.”
Jordan sat up straight. “Wait, half a… million? That is substantial. Who decides where the money goes?”
“A board of directors field proposals. Each year they determine which projects merit support.”
“Yes. Over the years, it’s become a local, I’d say, legend — even flaunted in the glossy pages of the tourist brochures. No one knows who this mysterious, and profligate… small town saint is. I’m hiring you to find out.”
“You want me to find out who the hell it is — this, this secret donor?”
“Precisely. You’ll find out. Tell me. Then I’ll publicly reveal it. And you’ll be highly rewarded.”
“Beyond your dreams, my boy.”
“Give me the numbers.”
“Well, upon your arrival in Görlitz, I’ll see to it that you have a thousand euros deposited in your account for each month you remain on the job. You can take breaks, of course, the pace of the — hmm, shall I say ‘quest’ — is up to you.”
“A thousand euros… that’s generous! But I don’t have a bank account.”
“Then I’ll see that it’s delivered in cash.”
“Yes, yes… I thought you’d like that. Mikkel told me you live quite hand to mouth in Prague.”
“True. It comes in waves though.”
“Well, consider this a bright wave then, an exceedingly bright wave. A tsunami — but a good one.”
“And what do I get if I crack this mystery, discover this donor?”
Briskoff paused, and tugging out a pristine silk handkerchief, dabbed a few beads of perspiration from his temples. “Six hundred thousand.”
Jordan pitched forward, nearly falling off the sofa, “Six hundred thousand?! Six hundred thousand what?”
“Six hundred thousand euros. To be deposited in a Swiss bank account, which I’ll personally procure for you. In your name, er number — Swiss banks are renowned for their discretion.”
“Well, I have to think about it.” Jordan dug his hand in his pocket, ferreting out a rather tattered kleenex, which he brushed across his brow to mop up the sweat. “I’ll do it.”
Upon receiving a few tips from Briskoff, and the promise of further instructions once he’d actually arrived in Görlitz, Jordan tottered out of the building in a daze. Six hundred thousand! Money worries… gone! A round the world trip — with a lovely woman in tow. A house in Greece (Santorini? Amorgos? Crete? Amorgos.) Someone to tease a modicum of order out of his passion-scattered papers and loose scraps of vision (A secretary…! Blonde? Brunette? Maybe try a Red Head?) The liberty to write poetry and never be tempted by a day job’s honey-coated noose.
Strutting past glossy posters for concerts (but a glance at the dates — last week — confirmed he was only being proffered joys he’d missed), Jordan sensed the dusty sprawl of Budapest reeling round him like a drunken Rome. Turning a corner adjacent to the main boulevard, he paused to glance in the window of an antique bookstore, then strolled alongside a massive bronze sculpture of Franz Liszt, the great composer’s hands rippling down in a steep arc to pound an invisible piano with thunderous force. Then shuffled into a small park where, huddled under a towering oak, he phoned Mikkel.
“This dude, Briskoff, is he for real?”
“How’d ya mean?”
“Well, he’s offered me a lot of money for something.”
“Thought he might. Oh, when it comes to loot, Briskoff always follows through. He’s loaded.”
“And when it comes to things… besides money?”
“Bit more tricky.”
“Oh Briskoff’ll reveal his ‘whats’ quite freely, but dredging up his ‘whys…’ well that’s another matter. Nearly impossible. At least in my experience.”
“Hmm — ” Jordan sighed into the phone, a whoosh of air blossoming to a sonic huff of static in Mikkel’s ear. “How well do you know him?”
“Years. An old friend of the family. Mother introduced us… when I was a boy. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t know precisely how they first met. Mother’s always held him in great esteem though. Once or twice she dropped hints about his acts of courage in the war.”
Jordan jutted up against the tree, sensing through his jacket its firm, leathery bark jutting back. “Which war? World War II, I assume?”
“Yes, yes, World War II. Must have been just a teenager, but Briskoff joined the Resistance. Mother insists ole Briskoff displayed remarkable prowess as a sniper, managing to take out some quite major Nazis. Later, I think, wait, I know this — come to think of it, the old fart once showed me his medal — he applied his skills as an assassin to less violent aims, representing Austria in the Olympics, where he got a silver medal in archery.”
“Alright. Well, if you trust him, I suppose I can trust your trust. Though you trust me, which certainly isn’t the best sign.” Jordan and Mikkel relished an overlapping chuckle. “Let’s just say, like a mature mafioso, ‘ole Briskoff’s’ offered me a deal I can’t refuse. But he sure seemed to slip through numerous faces, and though I looked, and looked… I couldn’t tell how many were masks.”
“That may well be true. Like an onion, as layer after layer strips away you might ultimately find you hold in your hand… only your hand. Do keep me updated on what transpires.”
“Yeh, sure thing. Thanks Mikkel. Be well.”
“You too. Take care.”
Stepping back into the mercurial drift of the city, Jordan saw a lithe and radiant woman whisk past, obviously in a hurry to get somewhere. Somewhere else. He turned to watch. The shadow of her legs, black scissors cutting the street she simultaneously patched up like a master surgeon.