Last Alchemist - Free Chapter Read
Bundesbank, Frankfurt, Germany
Monday 22nd of September 2009
The canteen at Bundesbank was buzzing with life. Hans Baumler, a
senior auditor from Bundesrechnungshof, Germany’s Federal Audit Office, was
picking at his salad.
He was sitting alone. Most of his colleagues ventured out to eat.
They would find themselves a reasonably priced restaurant where they could
spend their lunch break in silence, without anyone annoying them. Hans Baumler
on the other hand enjoyed the attention. He had worked as an internal auditor,
in various international banks, for as long as he could remember. And he had
finally arrived at the conclusion that he appreciated detecting errors and
faults in protocols and processes. Most of all he appreciated discovering human
errors. Not innocent mistakes, but deliberate attempts to circumvent the banks’
protocols. Deliberate attempts of fraud.
He didn’t mind that people sometimes made mistakes. He himself did
the occasional blunder. What he detested was the human tendency to never admit
one’s mistakes. Instead of coming clean, people tried to hide and conceal what
they had done.
And in that process, without exception, they all got themselves
further into trouble. Hans Baumler almost felt like an investigative detective
when he was working. It was a given that no one tried to sit down next to him
at lunch. If they did, they would be scrutinised with extra caution. People
always had an agenda.
Like the person who had been seated at the next table for the last
twenty minutes. He had tried to be discreet, but Hans Baumler had noticed him
almost immediately. He had been sitting there, hardly touching his food, just
observing Hans Baumler. Hans Baumler assumed he was working up his confidence,
working up his confidence to approach Hans Baumler. Hans Baumler took notice of
the guy’s facial features. He would go through the employee files later that
night and find out who the guy was. And when he found him he would put him
under the magnifying glass, find his every little dirty secret.
Maybe he had managed to figure out what Hans Baumler had discovered
during the audit of the Bundesbank? For Hans Baumler the auditing work he had
completed over the last few weeks was the culmination of a long and successful
career. If he was right, something he already knew he was, he had discovered
the biggest fraud in the history of Germany.
Hans Baumler rose from his chair and carried the half-eaten salad
over to the garbage bin. He adjusted his glasses and wandered out of the
canteen with a firm grip on his briefcase. He took the escalator down to the
reception and exited the main entrance. He felt like a stroll and some fresh
air. He felt like clearing his mind before he put the finishing touches on the
He turned left outside the Bundesbank building. The sun caressed his
face and sent warm shivers throughout his body. It felt nice. He hadn’t really
gotten a lot of sunlight the last few weeks, consumed as he had been by his
work. And he had started to feel the onset of sleep deprivation and vitamin D
deficiency on his body. Maybe he should stop by a travel agent? See if he could
find a deal for a long weekend trip to another European capital? London, maybe?
Just he and his wife. Her parents could look after Oliver, his four-year-old
son. They loved to babysit anyway. He smiled. Life was good.
As he was waiting for the traffic light to turn green he got that
peculiar feeling he had experienced so many times over the last few days. It
was as if someone was watching him. He turned around. On the stairs of the
entrance of the Bundesbank, the person from the canteen stood and stared
directly at him. There was something strange about his stare, as if he didn’t
care to avert his eyes even though Hans Baumler looked straight back at him.
What can he possibly want? Hans Baumler thought before he felt his legs almost cave in beneath
him. An indescribable pain rushed through his chest. What the hell was that? The first wave of pain had hardly subsided
before the next arrived. It felt like someone had just turned on an electrical
switch and sent thousands of watts through his body. He hunched forward and had
to lean against the traffic light to avoid falling over. When the next jolt
came he was at least more prepared, but this was also somewhat different from
the first two. The third jolt didn’t disappear. Instead it was as if a python
had curled around his chest and slowly started to apply pressure. Just started
to squeeze harder and harder.
“Do you need any help?” An elderly lady, probably more than eighty
years old, gently put her hand on Hans Baumler’s left shoulder.
He managed to squeeze out a smile, all while his sweat glands were
working overtime. It was as if his head had been dunked in a bucket of water.
“I’m ok,” he muttered.
He just needed to rest. He was so incredibly tired. He leant towards
the traffic light. In the corner of his eye he could see that the man from the
stairs had disappeared.
Who is he and what does he
want? Hans Baumler thought as the world got darker
around him. It was as if all the traffic came to a halt, it was so silent and
peaceful. A new electric jolt shook him out of his dreamstate. The pain in his
chest was extreme and he realised that he was about to die. This wasn’t a sign
that he had pushed his body too hard and needed a rest. This wasn’t a vague
pain in his jaw nor a tingling feeling in his arm, the early signs of a heart
attack that his doctor had told him to be vigilant for, now that he had turned
forty years. This was no drill. He was in the middle of a massive heart attack,
a widowmaker. To his great surprise he realised he wasn’t scared. He had just
made the most important discovery of his career. He had been allowed to finish
something that was worth living for, something bigger than himself. His
colleagues would find his briefcase. They would find his report, and they would
realise that he singlehandedly had managed to uncover this fraud. Martha, his
wife, would be proud. He would receive a proper funeral. He would be
His face unwillingly made a grimace from the sheer pain that again
rushed through his chest. He forced his eyes open; maybe there still was hope?
Maybe there still was a chance that he could survive? Heart attacks weren’t
always deadly. He tried to hold up a hand towards the person who was
approaching him. He tried to stay upright, but the legs wouldn’t listen. He
could feel that he was falling forwards, and he wanted to raise his arms, to
protect his face from the fast approaching concrete below, but his body had
shut down. Nothing worked as it should.
As he tipped forward, and was preparing to feel the pavement meet
his face, he felt a couple of strong arms grabbing him mid-air. The arms lifted
him up and placed his body gently on the ground. A rush of joy went through his
body. He would be saved.
He could feel the same strong hands now rolling him over on his
side. He was being placed in a recovery position. The person had placed him in
a safe recovery position. The Bundesbank building was located in the middle of
Frankfurt CBD. It wouldn’t take many minutes before the ambulance arrived. He
would be able to see his son Oliver grow up. He would be able to experience
Oliver’s first day at school, the awkward moment when he brought his first
He would be saved.
In front of his eyes a sea of shoes and legs materialized. They
belonged to all the people who had gathered around him. Like a wall of people,
there to help him, there to save him. He was about to smile when he felt a
sting of fear rush through his body. Someone was releasing Hans Baumler’s grip
on the briefcase. Someone was removing the precious briefcase from his hands.
He wanted to tell whoever it was to be careful, to take good care of the
briefcase. He would have no idea what it contained, what information it held,
how important it was.
But no words came out of Hans Baumler’s mouth. Instead he tried to
tilt his head up a little bit. He wanted to get a glimpse of the person who now
held his briefcase. To look him in the eye, to give him a sign, to make him
understand that he had to get that briefcase to the authorities as soon as
With a shock he realised he wasn’t even able to lift his head.
The sea of legs and shoes seemed to disperse, and in the corner of
his right eye he recognised his own briefcase. A man in a dark suit was
carrying it, he was carrying it away from Hans Baumler. Suddenly the man in the
dark suit turned his head, and for a short moment Hans Baumler could see his
face. He thought he could see a smile, and he wanted to scream with all the air
in his lungs.
He recognised the face. It was the man from the canteen, the man
with the eyes that didn’t divert.
A teardrop appeared in the corner of Hans Baumler’s right eye,
making the figure of the man with the briefcase harder to see.
With sadness Hans Baumler realised he wouldn’t be remembered after
I won’t be remembered, was his last thought as he felt someone pressing down his ribcage.
And a face above him leant closer, ready to kiss him, ready to give
him the kiss of death.
CIA HQ, Langley, USA
Tuesday, 26th of June 2013
The CIA director, Mark Green, sat down at the large mahogany table.
He felt like his hair had become visibly greyer over the last few days.
“Status report,” he said with a firm voice, studying the faces on
the fifty-inch screen in front him. They were supposed to be two of the most
experienced agents from the London office. The Winkelvoss twins from the
Facebook saga, that’s what came to Mark’s mind when he looked at them.
Identical haircuts, identical smiles - like two human robots in suits.
“There’s no change. Germany remains firm in her demands,” one of the
agents replied. The other agent raised his cup of coffee and had a sip. To test
how hot it was, it appeared. It was obvious that it was hot because his face
twitched a bit before he put the cup back onto the table. At least that proves
they are human, the CIA director thought with a sigh.
“And operation Aurum. What’s the status?”
“Operation is proceeding according to plan. Phase one has been
initiated,” the other Winkelvoss twin answered.
“Give me immediate feedback if anything changes. This operation is
our number one priority going forward,” the CIA director said before he pressed
the button on his remote and watched the screen turn black.
He leant back in the black leather chair, and put his feet on the
table. Maybe it was time to think about something else to do with his life? The
job wasn’t what it used to be anymore. It had been so much easier with
conventional enemies. The CIA director had enjoyed the Cold War, the cat and
mouse hunt for Soviet spies. He had even enjoyed hunting Al-Qaida terrorists
and Bin Laden. At least they were known enemies, physical enemies. Enemies a
person could respect even though he disagreed with their ideologies, motives
and actions. But mankind lived in a new world. The Chinese didn’t spy to get
their hands on military secrets; they spied to get their hands on the latest
commercial technology. Who ruled the world wasn’t determined by who had the
strongest defence army or controlled the largest fleet of warships. What
mattered was who held the economic power in the world. What mattered was who
had the biggest financial muscles, the biggest financial guns. And this balance
of power was about to change in a significant way.
The US was still in an acceptable financial shape. They still had a
large home market and a proven culture of creating global market leaders. Out
of nowhere Steve Jobs and Apple had taken over the global mobile market in less
than five years at the end of the 2000s. But now even Apple was under threat,
by a South Korean company called Samsung, by a bloody fridge maker.
Something had drastically changed over the last few years. The Asian
companies had evolved. They weren’t content with only being suppliers to
American brands anymore. They had started to innovate, to adapt.
So much so, that the top brass in Washington was starting to get
They worried that the US had outsourced too much of their
technological competence over the last decades.
The engineering know-how wasn’t located in the US anymore.
It was situated in Asia.
But there was something even more serious going on. Something that
had worried many Republicans since the early 1970s, when an important decision
had been made.
The Republicans had warned that the US at some stage would have to
pay the price for that decision, and over the last few months this band of
Republicans had gotten a lot more supporters.
It was the CIA director’s task to ensure that this whole thing
didn’t escalate into a crisis, a crisis they didn’t have any weapons to fight
Bond University, Gold Coast
of June 2013
“David, you’re up.” The Indian classmate poked David in the
shoulder. David Dypsvik turned around and shot him an annoyed look. He knew it
was his turn. He was just trying to postpone the unavoidable as long as
possible. The whole morning he had procrastinated and suffered from bad
conscience because he hadn’t prepared for the day’s lecture. He had no excuses.
There had been plenty of time. There had been plenty of opportunities.
Nevertheless he was now sitting in auditorium 14 with nothing but a couple of
blank pages in front of him. David was a full-time student in the MBA program
at Bond University on the Gold Coast in Australia. The class was relatively
small, only 32 students, and the course in entrepreneurship was generally
recognised as one of the easiest of the MBA curriculum. Despite all this he
could feel the heart race in his chest when he got up to speak.
“Professor Grossman. Unfortunately I am unable to hold my
presentation today. I am still awaiting an authorisation from my employer
regarding divulging confidential information to this class without requiring
all students to sign a strict confidentiality agreement.”
Professor Grossman coughed. “I understand your predicament David,
but we are now four weeks into the semester. It is hard for me to give you any
constructive feedback when I don’t know what you are working on.”
“I will get the authority signed before the next lecture,” David
“Make sure you do that,” Professor Grossman quipped.
David had just bought himself another week, but that was all. He
couldn’t continue to procrastinate with this project. He had to make a
decision, and he knew it would hurt.
As a replacement for David’s presentation one of the American
students entered the podium and started on his well-rehearsed speech. David
didn’t bother listening. He had heard it all before. Not exactly this presentation,
but a variation of it. The American was a typical eager-beaver. He followed the
book from beginning to end. He hadn’t prepared a business plan for a
ground-breaking new invention or idea. Instead he had chosen the safe route. He
had prepared a strategy for how an established American producer of diapers
could enter the Australian market. Yeah!
With a slick smile on his face, the American described the approach
his client would take in order to rape the Australian diaper market. Yes, those
were his exact words. Rape the Australian
diaper market. David had to listen twice before he believed it.
Well, David thought, packing up his blank pages, things could have
been worse. He could have been standing up there on the podium talking about
raping the Australian market for diapers.
On the way out of the auditorium he heard someone call out his name.
He turned around and looked straight into Professor Grossman’s chiselled face.
The professor didn’t look like a typical academic, more like a retired
mountaineer with his flashy white teeth and sunbaked face.
“Do you have five minutes?” Professor Grossman asked.
“Of course,” David replied, feeling a bit ambushed.
“Let’s go have a coffee,” the professor suggested, and gave David a
friendly pat on the back.
David bit his lips together. He had forgotten to wear sunscreen the
previous day, and three hours of surfing at Burleigh Heads had left a back that
was as sensitive as the new iPhone from Apple, even though it was still winter
on the Gold Coast.
“Sounds great,” David answered, uncertain of the professor’s true
intentions. He quickly assessed it could only be one of two possible reasons
the professor wanted to have a talk with him outside class. The first one was
obvious: The professor had seen through David’s little acting performance. He
had realised that David didn’t work on a business plan that required an
authorisation from an imaginary employer. And he had realised that the excuse
this morning had just been a badly executed ploy to buy David some more time.
The other alternative was more serious: Professor Grossman also taught the
financial investments course. And last week David had been pulled aside after
class. The essay he had written, about how management’s purchase of shares in
their own company could affect the share price, didn’t adequately refer to
sources. It had in fact zero footnotes. Professor Grossman had told David that
the essay was being investigated for plagiarism. David hadn’t really worried
too much. It was true he hadn’t referred to any sources. But he hadn’t copied
anyone either. Now he started to worry. Did Professor Grossman suspect David of
“You probably know why I would like to have a chat with you,”
Professor Grossman said, breaking the eerie silence between them.
“I’m not entirely sure I do,” David replied.
“I don’t get you. You are obviously among the smarter people in my
class, but it doesn’t seem like you care much about your grades. It almost
seems like you have a secret wish to fail. But you don’t have the guts to go
through with it.” Professor Grossman looked David in the eyes while they walked
towards the campus coffee shop.
David had entertained the same thought himself. If he failed a
course then his return back to Norway would have to be postponed, and the job
offer he still had from his old employer back home would be declared invalid.
The scenario would definitively buy him some more time. And maybe it was just
that extra time he needed to come up with an idea that could change his life
forever. He couldn’t’ make himself go through with it, though. He couldn’t make
himself fail a course. Even if he hadn’t been financially successful he at
least had an impeccable academic record. He didn’t want to let go of that bit
“I do my best. Even if I might not seem like I’m interested in the
lectures I am always paying attention,” David said, struggling to keep up with
the professor’s rapid walk.
“I know that’s bullshit David. I see you every week. You sit back
there, all the way in the back of the classroom. You are present, but that’s
only a physical presence. You act like you’re still in high school for Christ’s
sake. You pay what? Fifty thousand for this MBA degree? Yet you seem keener to
be at the beach than in my classroom. And I don’t believe for one second your
story about not being allowed to divulge information about your business plan.”
They had now arrived at the coffee shop and Professor Grossman
reduced the tempo. David was lost for words. He had been totally caught off
guard and had no idea how to respond. The professor talked to him like he was a
“How do you take your coffee?” the professor asked, unaffected by
the rant he had just unleashed on David. It was as if the conversation had
never taken place.
“Just tea for me. Earl Grey and a glass of water please,” David
replied. His mouth suddenly felt incredibly dry.
“Janine, could I have a flat white and a mug of Earl Grey?” The
professor flashed his white teeth to the waitress and grabbed the little number
tag she handed him.
“You’ll find water over in the corner,” he said to David, pointing
to a large water container with two rows of paper cups placed directly beneath.
“Could you find a table as well?”
David nodded and headed towards the water container. Luckily there
were hardly any students in the coffee shop. David had never enjoyed having
personal conversations in public, and he sure as hell didn’t look forward to
A few minutes later the professor joined David at the table in the
corner of the coffee shop. He placed his own cup of coffee and David’s mug of
tea onto the table.
“So, have you thought about what I just said?” the professor asked.
“I didn’t think it was a question,” David answered.
“Is it a question you want?” Professor Grossman asked, slightly
raising his left eyebrow. “Well, tell me David, tell me why you spend fifty
thousand dollars, plus lost income and one and a half years of your life
wandering around here at campus if you don’t like it.”
David stared at the bottom of his teacup, the bag of Lipton Earl
Grey slowly dispersing a stream of brownish colour into the clear water.
“Change, I wanted change.”
“And have you got change?”
“But not the change you wanted?”
“So tell me what you want, David. It is frustrating for me to try to
create enthusiasm in the classroom when it is clear as daylight that you really
want to be somewhere else.”
“I wanted to change. I thought that if I travelled to the opposite
side of the globe, to a place where nobody knew me, then I could change. That I
could become the person I’m supposed to be.”
“And who exactly is that?”
“I don’t know. I only know that I’m not meant to be stuck in a job
where I work from nine to five every day. Trapped in a job I don’t even like.
Everyone I know is making fortunes on real estate, shares and God knows what.
And still I’m stuck in a job where I work from January to May to pay tax, and
the next seven months to pay the other bills. I’m tired of being measured on
everything I do in my job. I live like a modern slave and I hate it.” David’s
voice almost broke as he spit the words out. He had never before told a living
soul what he really felt about his own life. And now he sat here, spilling his
innermost secret to a total stranger. This hadn’t gone as planned.
“You’re not that unique, David.” Professor Grossman looked straight
into his eyes. He had a look that wasn’t intrusive, but it still was as if he
saw straight through David.
“Most of the bright students I talk to feel the same. They don’t
however arrive at this realisation until much later in life. So consider
yourself lucky, David.” Professor Grossman adjusted his slim and slender body
in the seat. “I have a suggestion for you, David. You won’t get much time to
consider. This is a proposal you either say yes or no to. And that decision
will have to be made here today, before I finish my coffee.” Professor Grossman
took a large drink of his cup.
David didn’t know what to say. He was confused.
“I have a job offer for you,” Professor Grossman started.
“A job offer? Thanks. But I’m not interested,” David replied.
“Don’t you want to know what you are saying no to?” the professor
“Of course,” David replied a little embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to
be so crass. It’s just that…well, I came here to change my life. When I start
working again, when I finally graduate, then I’m back where I started.”
“Maybe this job offer is different from what you expect,” the
professor said. “It is correct that you worked as a journalist a few years
back, isn’t it?”
David hadn’t noticed, but Professor Grossman had placed a copy of
David’s CV on the table in front of them. He
must have gotten it from the admissions office, David thought. “That’s
correct. I worked a year and a half for a Norwegian newspaper, focusing on
“Did you like it?”
“Yes and no. I enjoyed meeting people, learning how they had built
their business and succeeded in their careers. It was inspiring. The other side
of the coin was that those stories didn’t sell any papers. I had to write
stories that people would read, but that sometimes ruined good people’s lives.
I guess that’s why I quit. In the end I couldn’t stomach it anymore.”
“I have just concluded a study, David. A study about wealth. A study
into the reasons why some people make fortunes while others struggle
financially their whole lives.”
“What’s the conclusion? Is there any hope for me?” David said with a
Professor Grossman ignored the ill-attempted joke. “I believe I’ve
found some shocking connections,” he instead began. “This study will force
radical changes to the education system and open a lot of people’s eyes on how
great wealth is actually created. But as it is almost impossible to convince
the established academic world about long-needed changes to the system, I have
devised my own little plan. I have written the draft for a new book, David. A
book about ten simple principles that lead to great wealth. And that is why I
need your help.”
“My help? To do what?”
“To help me market my book,” Professor Grossman replied.
David adjusted his back. He felt uncomfortable in the hard plastic
seat. “Why me? I don’t have a marketing background, and I’m sure there are
other students with better grades,” David said. It came out a bit harsher than
he had expected.
“I don’t need somebody with straight A’s,” Professor Grossman said.
“I need someone with the right attitude.”
“I still don’t understand why you want me,” David replied, staring
down at the bottom of his tea cup.
“Well, first of all I would strongly advise you to never talk yourself
out of a job offer before you know what the job is. I can still change my mind,
you know. But you are entitled to a proper explanation,” Professor Grossman
said before adjusting the glasses on the tip of his nose. “I’ve conducted a
small search of your library activity. It might not entirely be in line with
the official privacy policies of the university, but sometimes you have to do
what you have to do. And the result speaks for itself. In April and May you
borrowed half a dozen books about real estate, investing in shares and boring
biographies about successful people. You may not be best in class David, and
you may not read all the prescribed reading material or prepare for every
lecture, but you do something much more important; you choose what you want to
learn more about. And still, you seem to be able to stay somewhere near the top
of the class in most of the courses you take. I come from a business
background, and I have no problems admitting that most of the MBA curriculum is
overly theoretical and holds limited value in the real world.” Professor
Grossman put both his hands on the table and leant in closer to David. “What
value do you think an MBA degree has to a prospective employer?” he asked,
peering into David’s eyes. It was clear to David that he might as well be
“I believe that an MBA degree shows that I have ambition. That I
have a thirst for knowledge, and that I’m willing to sacrifice something today
for a better tomorrow.”
“Exactly, you’ve hit the nail on the head, David,” Professor
Grossman said enthusiastically. “The important thing is not what you learn. The important thing is
that you learn to learn. That’s what’s important for an employer: Ambition and
a hunger for learning.” The professor removed his hands from the table before
continuing. “An MBA degree is in other words nothing but a paper confirming
that you had the willpower to spend a year and a half of your life to study and
memorize theories with little practical value, because you wanted to climb the
corporate ladder. It is abundantly clear that such a person could be an asset
for any company, but not necessarily for me,” Professor Grossman said. His eyes
narrowed before he continued. “I need someone who wants to contribute. Someone
who seeks the true answer to the eternal question of why some people get rich,
while most others struggle financially their whole life. The fact that you
choose to spend your personal time investigating how people really make their
money tells me that you have a secret wish to break out of the life you are
currently living. A life where you work for a pay check every month, a life
most of your MBA colleagues are destined to live.”
“It doesn’t sound like you are too impressed by the standard of my
MBA colleagues,” David said, studying Professor Grossman’s face for his
“It’s not that I’m not impressed,” Professor Grossman said. “There
are some very smart people in your class. Some a lot smarter than you. But
being good at academics can only take you so far,” he said, stretching his arms
out to the sides to illustrate his point. “To succeed in life you need
something more to offer. I have worked at some of the very best universities
around the world, and something that never fails to astound me is what happens
at the ten-year anniversary of my student’s graduation. I always have scores of
students coming up to me, telling me that their years at university were the
best of their lives. That’s nice to hear. And it makes me happy that they
enjoyed their time at uni. But I also always have this thought in the back of
my mind, this thought that won’t go away. I believe that a lot of these people
think back of their student years as the best of their lives because they still
had opportunities back then. They still had dreams back then. Ten years after
graduation your life is pretty much set on a course. You have chosen a career.
You may have started a family. You definitively have commitments and
responsibilities. And what many realise on this night of celebration is that
life has not turned out the way they thought it would ten years earlier. They
catch up with old friends, and even though they may have established themselves
with a nice life and a good career, they realise that others have done better.
Other people who were inferior to them at university. A lot of my students
leave these anniversary gatherings with a sour feeling in their stomach, a
feeling that life isn’t fair. They have worked hard and made lots of
sacrifices, yet others seem to have just fallen into wealth. It is quite frankly
upsetting to me that so many of my old students leave what should have been a
pleasant gathering with old friends, feeling that they have failed in their
lives. So David, it is not that I’m not impressed by your MBA colleagues; I
just don’t think they are using all their abilities – because nobody has told
them what is really required when they leave the university grounds and enter
the real world. We can help these people, David, we can help them get another
perspective on the world, so that the years after university may be the best
ones for a lot more people.”
David nodded. Professor Grossman had just pointed out the exact
thing David was fearful of. “It sounds interesting, but when you say help with
marketing…what is it that you really want me to do?” David asked.
“Everything will be explained, David. Meet me at my office tomorrow
at eight am, and I will give you some more information. You have an exciting
week ahead of you. You will be introduced to Yossar Devan.”
And with that comment Professor Grossman rose from the table,
grabbed his empty cup of coffee, and left. David remained seated at the table,
left in solitude, with only his half empty cup of tea and his thoughts as
company. He couldn’t really fathom what had just happened. He had never heard
about a professor named Yossar Devan at Bond University, but something told him
the following week would not be an ordinary one.