A year earlier
“You’re delusional,” Willy said. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Spiritual my ass.”
I didn’t respond. I was calculating how many emotions a person can cram into one sentence.
“My world is ugly, but at least it’s real,” he went on, hard-nosed as ever. “The spiritual world is a load of crap.”
We were sitting in his office in one of the many towers that had sprung up around the Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan. They’re all built in the sterile style that passes for luxury in the New Age Israeli economy, and hide more than they reveal. The office blocks are home to import-export companies, insurance agencies, law firms, and of course, the headquarters of arms dealers like Willy. They’re all secretly linked together in an infinite web of vested interests, affiliations, commitments, and animosity. A lot of animosity.
The twenty-fifth floor looked out on hundreds of identical glass windows that reflected the red-gold glow of sunset. In just a few minutes it would be replaced by the harsh glare of neon lights illuminating the work of the countless minions who toiled to fatten the bank accounts of the privileged few.
“You’re so predictable,” I said.
“Really? Don’t count on it.”
Willy seemed preoccupied. His feet were up on the large, beautifully carved Indonesian desk he had hauled back from one of his many trips overseas. He was the picture of a businessman after hours, not giving a shit because he didn’t have to, not answering the phone after his secretary left for the day – “They can go to hell for all I care.”
On the desk between us was a bottle of aged Talisker from the Isle of Skye, with its hard rough taste evocative of the ocean. Two heavy glasses held generous shots. It was just the type of whiskey I’d expect Willy to drink. On the wall behind him were framed mementoes: Willy and the gang; Willy in a jeep in the Himalayas; Willy on a yacht holding an enormous swordfish and smiling at the camera; Willy on safari with an African guide standing next to an elephant; Willy in an Australian pith helmet with a huge cigar in his mouth, a camera around his neck, and a grin on his face, jauntily striking a pose á la Hemingway or Clint Eastwood. He knew he was living the good life and the adrenalin was flowing.
Over to the side were several smaller pictures of Israeli guns and weapons systems. Each had a signature in the corner, but they were too far away for me to read. A single, even smaller, photograph stood on the desk: Willy with a Yankees cap on his head, crouching down to hug two little kids, a girl and a boy, in front of Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland. It was the near-perfect picture of the ideal family. Only his ex-wife was missing. I assumed the picture had been taken on a bonding trip after the break-up.
Willy caught me looking at the picture. “That was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “You know how much I love my son, don’t you?”
I gave him an answer I knew would provoke him. “I know you think you love him. But you’re a lousy dad.”
My words drew the anticipated response. He threw me a scathing look, but quickly damped the fire in his eyes.
Willy is a cut-the-bullshit kind of guy. Every now and then someone tries to blindside him, especially one of the wannabes who pop up from time to time, mostly retired generals who now have to put an “ex” before their rank and imagine doors all over the world will automatically open for them because of who they used to be. They think they can use their connections to get the drop on him. And then all of a sudden they take a sucker punch and they haven’t the faintest idea where it came from. It’s only after they’ve already suffered the blow, particularly to their super-inflated ego, that they discover it came from Willy. He showed them who’s in charge.
I remember him telling me once, “If there’s one thing I learned growing up on the streets of downtown Haifa, it’s that life is a constant fight for survival.”
There’s only one way to talk to Willy. You have to give it to him straight, like pouring lye down a clogged toilet even when you know all the shit is going to rise to the surface. “You’d do anything for your son, except the one thing he really needs right now,” I said, aiming for the heart, “accept him for what he is, without judging him.”
He gave me that sidelong look of his. “I think your mind’s gone to mush,” he said. “You’ve been sitting in the lotus position too long.”
I laughed at his dig, but Willy didn’t let up. “I gotta say I liked the previous version of Dotan Naor better, the hard-assed Security Agency guy.”
What could I say? Give him a full run-down of what I’ve been doing since I was kicked out of the Agency a few years ago? Ever since I opened the detective agency with Shai, I’ve spent my time looking for one lost Israeli or another, learning martial arts, and sitting at the feet of spiritual guides in the East. He wouldn’t understand.
I realized we hadn’t spoken since I’d struck out in this new direction, but of course he knew what I’d been up to. So I threw him a line I was sorry about later, because some things are better left unsaid. “I still have to rough someone up now and then, it comes with the job, but as a way of life it seems meaningless to me these days.”
He gave me a steely look. “So now you’re judging me?”
“No. You asked if I believe you love your son, and I gave you my answer. You don’t like it, no worries. I’ll shut up.”
“Go ahead, kick me in the balls. I can take it.”
I could hear the bile rising in his throat, like the burning sensation you get from eating toasted white bread.
“You want me to go on?”
“You wanna squeeze them too? Be my guest.”
“It wasn’t so long ago that you were the smug dad of a bright kid with an active mind, a prodigy on the way to making a name for himself.”
“Exactly right. And what’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong? He changed, and you refuse to accept it. You think it’s just a phase. Even worse, you think he’s turning his back on his true destiny. He was supposed to become one of the leading attorneys in the country. You already imagined how proud you’ll be when he’s the youngest person ever to make partner in a prestigious law firm. To make a long story short, you thought your son would stroke your paternal ego. You never stopped to ask yourself if he was happy.”
“Happy? Happy is a hefty bank account. When you can afford everything you’ve ever wanted in this shitty life. And you can’t deny it, life is full of shit.”
I was about to give him a serious answer, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. I knew if I didn’t choose my words carefully I’d lose him, and I could see how upset he was about his son. That was the essence of the message he was sending.
Willy refilled his glass, raised it to his nose, and sniffed the whiskey with obvious pleasure. “You’re very good at fucking with a guy’s head,” he said, taking a sip and licking his lips indulgently, a sure sign he’d cooled off. “Want a cigar? I just got back from the Dominican Republic. I brought home some of the finest.”
I didn’t ask what he’d been doing there, in that hidden paradise yet to be discovered by Israeli tourists. Willy could always surprise me. I knew he had a number of footholds in Southeast Asia. There was even one country, whose name it’s better not to mention, where he was the unofficial king. If the admiral of the fleet had a disagreement with the commander of the army, they called on him to mediate. But Willy was too restless to stay put in any place for very long. He was always on the lookout for new clients. The greatest potential was in unstable Third World nations where the dictator at the top of the pyramid was under threat, or better still, deranged. It was best if there were hostilities with some neighboring country. Quiet borders didn’t yield profits. The border the Dominican Republic shared with its impoverished neighbor Haiti wasn’t quiet. That was enough for Willy to go sniffing around, and not just for cigars.
“Later,” I said. “It’s too early for me.”
He laughed. “Let’s have dinner. There’s a new Italian place downstairs. Not bad, and the waitresses are a thing of beauty. The wine too.”
Willy took another sip of whiskey and looked at his glass appreciatively before going on. “It’s easy for you to talk,” he said. “You come and go as you please. No one to answer to. No lasting relationships. I’d like to see what you’d say if you paid through the nose so your 21-year-old daughter could study dancing for two years at the most expensive school in Amsterdam, and then she brings her Portuguese girlfriend home and announces, ‘Dad, I’m a lesbian and we’re moving in together’. Of course, she wants you to pay for that too. What would you say then?”
“It happens?” He looked like he was about to explode. “And she’s just the first course. My darling boy Itiel. The perfect kid. I was so proud when he finished first in his class at Tel Aviv University Law School, and then one of the biggest law firms in the city invited him to do his internship there. You don’t get an offer like that every day. That’s why it was so hard when the kid comes and tells me he doesn’t want to be a lawyer any more, that – how did he put it? – that the material world has lost its appeal for him, and he’s decided to go live in northern India and become a Buddhist. He’s going on retreat to an ashram, he says. God knows what that means. You tell me, is that what I busted my ass for all these years? Didn’t I fulfill my moral obligations to my family? Didn’t I give them everything so they wouldn’t have to eat shit like I did? I paved the way for them. Not just any way, a red carpet they walked down with a silver spoon in their mouth. And what do I get in return?”
Willy made an obscene gesture that involved his elbow. “You know what? I’m willing to bet whatever you want that it’s all bullshit. Itiel’s spirituality is bullshit, just like his sister being a lesbian all of a sudden. It’s trendy, they’re experimenting, all part of the crazy mixed-up thinking that comes from the fucked-up, so-called liberal society we’re living in today.”
I kept silent. Anything I said would just add fuel to the fire. His tone had turned sarcastic. “Nowadays, if you’re not gay you’re not sensitive enough, if you’re not spiritual you’re material. It’s all crap. Believe me, if I had him here now, I’d give him such a shaking his mother would turn over in her grave.”
“You think that would help?”
“You better believe it.”
“I don’t think it would.”
“Wanna bet?” he asked, and his face instantly broke into the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. It was the smile of an innocent babe, of unconditional delight.
Willy is a betting man. He’ll bet on anything any time. If he loses, and that happens sometimes, he always holds up his end of the bargain. He once flew a friend from London to New York and back again, by Concorde, after he bet him dinner in a famous restaurant and lost. His pay-offs are legendary. Always on a grand scale.
“You pick the stakes.”
“I still don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Willy didn’t answer. He refilled the glasses again. By now the bottle was half-empty. The sun had set long ago.
“You’re right. I’ll start at the beginning.” He took a long swallow before going on. “Itiel’s in a place called – just a minute, let me check. I marked it on Google Earth.”
He reached for his reading glasses and perched them on the end of his nose. The small gesture suddenly revealed him to me in the clear light of age, a man over fifty suffering a certain mental fatigue. But that still didn’t explain his bitterness. Maybe Willy was finally starting to understand that true happiness doesn’t come from power or money. Probably not. He didn’t get it yet. A man like him doesn’t get it until life punches him in the face.
“Found it,” he said, pointing to the computer screen. “It’s a state in northern India, Sikkim. He’s at some retreat outside a large monastery called Rumtek with twenty others, Tibetans and Westerners. He says he spends most of his time reading sacred texts and meditating, and he’s also doing community work and something ecological. What, you can’t do community work here? With the money Itiel would be making, he could start a dozen charitable organizations. And wouldn’t I give him a leg up? You bet I would.”
Willy fell silent. He adjusted his glasses with an impatient gesture. I realized it was a new thing, those glasses, the kind of thing that hit his huge ego right where it hurt. Then he got to the point.
“It’s his last email that’s really got me worried. He says that at the end of the year he’s going to an even more remote retreat to meditate for three years, three months, and three days. He’ll be cut off from all contact with the outside world.”
He paused, puffing silently on his cigar and taking a sip of whiskey.
“Any questions so far?”
“No,” I said evenly, as if it was a routine matter, something I talked about on a daily basis. “It’s a traditional Tibetan form of meditation. They usually do it in the dark.”
He gave me a long penetrating look. The added information was like gasoline dripping onto a flame that had already been burning for some time. “I can’t let that happen, and I won’t,” he said finally. “I have to do something before I lose him for good.”
I didn’t respond. I could see he was weighing an idea, probably one he’d been turning over and over in his mind before he’d made his decision.
“Here’s where our bet comes in,” he said.
“I’ll bet you that within a year from today Itiel will be here in this office with a wife and baby, and he’ll say, ‘Dad, you were right about everything’. What’re you willing to bet?”
I hesitated for a minute, and not because I was afraid of losing the bet. I was afraid of things I had intimate knowledge of and Willy didn’t have a clue about. I knew what happened when you started messing with a person’s karma, even if it was someone close to you. You nudge them a little in a certain direction, but you never know where they’ll end up and what the collateral damage will be. It’s like standing on top of a cliff and kicking a small stone that starts rolling downhill and suddenly there’s a massive rockslide.
A tense silence hung in the air between us. We both knew what came next. When Willy was in a “sporting” mood, fueled by half a bottle of fine whiskey and enveloped in a cloud of cigar smoke, there was no way I was going to get out of taking that bet. And it was obvious he planned to win. Willy viewed life as a war zone. “Winning is the only thing that matters,” he liked to say. That was also the reason that the only book on the shelf behind him, aside from the Ministry of Defense’s Guide to Military Exports, was a Hebrew translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
This time he was going to lose. Big time. But I didn’t know that then.
If I were as wise as Sun Tzu, I would’ve opened his book and read out to Willy, “If you don’t know the enemy and you don’t know yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” But how many of us are as wise as the ancient Chinese general. There probably isn’t anyone on his level today even in China.
So we bet a bottle of single malt.
“I’m making a note on my calendar,” he said, turning the screen around so I could see. “Today is April 20th. Exactly one year from today, same time, same place, you’re putting a bottle of Talisker on my desk and Itiel is standing here with his wife and kid and a big grin on his face.”
Willy emptied his glass and puffed on his cigar without speaking. “Tell me, Dotan,” he said finally, “would you have agreed if I’d just asked you to do it as a favor to me?”
It took me a minute to grasp his meaning. “Try to convince your son to change his mind?”
“Uh-huh,” he grunted, sending an aromatic smoke ring into the air.
“I’m glad to have the chance to get to know him better. He always seemed like a good kid. And as your friend, I’m happy to talk to him for you. But I’m only doing it to put your mind at ease, so you can stop worrying that he’s off his rocker.”
“That’s all?” he asked, examining me closely.
I kept silent, trying to figure out what he was getting at. And then it dawned on me. This wasn’t just a casual conversation; it had been mapped out very carefully in advance. The bet was the culmination of typical Willy strategy. Every detail of what I had thought was simply two old friends catching up had been programmed precisely. It was the work of a shrewd arms dealer who thought solely in terms of confrontation and war, who planned three steps ahead to make sure he was always on the winning side. I wondered if he’d ever been beaten when it came to business.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s all.”
“But it’s what you do, you rescue Israelis in distress, bring kids back home.”
“Yes and no.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I try to save lives,” I said, “not always by conventional means, but I do what I can.”
“Isn’t that what I’m asking you to do?” he persisted.
“No, not at all. You’re asking me to convince Itiel that the path he’s chosen is the wrong one. That’s not the sort of thing that can be accomplished by using reason, or even force.”
I didn’t add that there was only one way to do it, with love. I’d tried to tell him before. He didn’t get it, or maybe he didn’t want to hear it. In retrospect, I was sorry I hadn’t kept at him, that I hadn’t said it then, when there was still time. “Listen,” I should have told him, “the only thing your son needs from you is love. Everything else will work itself out.” Maybe he would have listened and maybe something would have sunk in and the whole thing would have played out differently. Maybe.
But I didn’t say it. Willy nearly leapt out of his chair. “You’re wrong,” he said angrily. “Someone has to show him who’s the boss. Put some sense in his head.”
I took a deep breath. The last thing I needed was a raging Willy.
He thrust his hand out for the bottle in an effort to calm himself. It was empty. “Let’s do the Italian place some other time,” he said.
I left him sitting in his chair with his feet up on his expensive desk, lost in thought within a cloud of smoke. I had no idea it was the last time I’d ever see Willy alive.
There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
Would I have taken the bet if I’d known that as a result Israelis would be murdered, innocent people would die, the popular Israeli image of India would be shattered, India and Pakistan would be on the verge of a violent conflict that threatened to spiral into a nuclear war, and the valleys of the Himalayas – the Shangri-La of earthly paradise, the isolated land of eternal happiness – would be set ablaze by the fires of terrorism?
The answer is obvious.
But what I know now I didn’t know then. How could I?