A Benjamin Wright Mystery
It has become a key goal for Western governments to maintain faith in their financial systems, whether that faith is justified or not. Every so often a case like that of Bernard Madoff will burst to the surface and demonstrate the hidden risks. More often, though, corruption is hushed up and criminality is concealed for the supposed good of us all. The records of these activities are quickly destroyed so as not to jeopardize the wealth and stability of nations. What follows is an account of a criminal threat to the stability of the US and British economies. It is assembled from the very few records that exist and from the surviving participants who felt it important that the true fragility of our financial systems be exposed.
“You thought your actions had no consequences. All you bankers did.”
Henry Reeves froze on the Aubusson carpet which ran the length of his office. He turned around slowly. But still he could not make out the figure in the darkness behind his door. A single lamp shone on his broad partners’ desk. Beyond his floor to ceiling windows up on the 47th floor lay the impenetrable darkness of Central Park. Most of the lights in the apartment buildings along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West had gone out.
“Come out into the light where I can see you,” said Reeves. He had always been told he was a brilliant negotiator, fearless on the brink, always ready to shuffle that extra millimeter closer to the edge. “Then we can talk.”
“You sit up here with your Renoir on the wall, demanding to be admired. You think you deserve the money you made. You didn’t earn it. You stole it. You stole it from people who do real work. All anyone wants is a system that’s fair. And you made it unfair. You’re a fool, Reeves. You’re all fools. Greedy, ugly fools.”
The first shot pierced the thick glass window. A thin stream of freezing air whistled into the room. Reeves fell to his knees.
“Don’t be so stupid. Let’s talk,” he gasped. “Whatever this is, I’m sure I can make this up to you.”
The second shot splintered his shoulder. Reeves slumped to the floor screaming profanities. Blood seeped through his blue silk shirt and tan wool jacket.
The figure stepped from the shadows and brought the cap of his gleaming patent leather shoe up smartly into Reeves’ chin.
“I hope this teaches you and the rest of your scummy breed a lesson. You’re thieves. You may have these offices, these trinkets. But you are what you are. Your suits and fancy degrees can’t conceal it. You’re leeches. You create nothing but wealth for yourself and misery for others. And you call it capitalism. It’s not capitalism. Capitalism implies everyone gets rich. What you do is larceny.”
Reeves glanced up. He recoiled at the familiar face, with its deep creases and jutting chin, the thickly knotted bow-tie, faintly lit by the flickering numbers on the two Bloomberg screens on the desk.
“But why me?”
“We had to start somewhere.”
Two more shots shattered the window. The room was flooded with cold air.
“For Christ’s sake,” screamed Henry. The attacker grabbed his arm and pulled him up. Henry lunged for one of the Perspex blocks which lined the front of his desk, inscribed with details of his successful deals, and swung his arm round, trying to crack it against the attacker’s head. But before he could, he felt his arm jacked up behind him, the bones in his elbow grinding against each other. He was being pushed towards the open window. The killer held him on the edge and took a deep breath.
“Beautiful, isn’t it Henry? You treat yourselves very well up here. With our money.”
Reeves clutched at his shoulder. Tears were pouring down his cheeks. He tried to push backwards, but found himself in an awkward squat. The killer pulled him up by his collar while driving the barrel of his gun into the soft flesh beneath his ribcage.
“Come along, Henry. Some dignity, please. You’re a master of the universe, aren’t you? People respect you. You sit on charitable boards. Where would we all be without men like you, making free enterprise work? Working the efficient markets. Spreading the wealth.” He slapped Reeves on the left cheek. Reeves turned his head towards him.
“If it’s any consolation, Henry. You’re not going to be the last to be punished. You’re all going to pay for what you’ve done.” While he spoke, the killer dragged one foot behind him and swept it at Reeves’s legs. Reeves flew out into the darkness. His body landed a few feet below, on the sloping glass. He turned onto his belly and pressed his palms against the building, which curved down like a ski jump. He could not find a grip. His Blackberry fell from his pocket and clattered along beside him.
He began to slide, faster and faster, until he resembled a sack of flour being tossed around a loading dock. Finally he flew off the building at the third floor, where the glass flattened out and landed with a crack, on the floor of a horse carriage taking a young couple on a moonlit ride through the city. Reeves’ head lolled back against the turning wheel. The couple screamed.
High above, the killer wiped a fleck of blood from the raised bronze leg of a Degas ballerina. The dancer remained impervious, staring out into the unpitying darkness from her stand. The killer closed the door and walked quickly away from Reeves’ office leaving only the faint smell of verbena.
Wright’s throat was parched. He hated this feeling and it always happened with red wine. A glass too many and he awoke in the middle of the night, his thoughts racing and desperate for a glass of water.
He had fallen asleep just a couple of hours ago, after a raucous evening with the curatorial department of the Metropolitan Museum’s Greek and Roman collection. They had begun at a Greek restaurant in the East Village, whose ceiling was crammed with terracotta pots, and ended at around 1am here at his townhouse on East 81st Street poring over the latest catalogs from the National Museum in Athens. They had danced to Skiladiko, or “Greek turbo folk” as an attractive young doctoral student from Thessaloniki had described it as she summoned it from the depths of her iPod. She now lay naked beside him, her lustrous, dark hair sprayed across his pillows.
He pushed back his covers and walked to the bathroom. He slid the dimmer switch to give himself only the very faintest light. He found a cup and ran the tap. The metallic tang of New York water. The best water in the world, especially in the winter when the pipes ran cold.
He was now wide awake and it was still only 3am. The European markets would be open very soon. He grabbed a grey sweatshirt from the foot of his bed and walked into the study adjoining his bedroom. On one enormous screen, ten different charts flickered showing stock, bond, commodity and futures markets around the world. Wright sat down and began to scan the information. There was always so much of it, but years of watching the charts move had cultivated his intuition for what was going on. And there was definitely something going on in Europe.
Wright leaned forward and rubbed his arms vigorously to warm himself up. He enlarged the European futures index chart so it filled the screen. The prices were plummeting. Something must have happened. Something big. He clicked over to the Reuters wire. Just the usual tedious fare. The Spanish finance ministry announcing unemployment figures. Another fight between the French and British about fishing quotas. More factories closing in Germany and opening in Romania prompting the usual protests. No terrorist attacks. No natural disasters. No corporate meltdowns. What the hell was going on?
He picked up the phone and dialed a number in Paris.
“You’re up early Benjamin,” said a deep French voice. “It’s madness over here. La grande folie.” Wright could picture his old friend, Xavier Darcos, sitting in his mansion on the Rue de Bourgogne, in the large, oak-paneled office facing the garden and in the distance the Eiffel Tower. In the courtyard would be his chauffeur, in a dark suit, polishing a midnight blue Renault in preparation for the lunchtime jaunt to Laurent on the Champs Elysees, where everyone who mattered in French politics and business stopped by his table beside the window.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re trying to figure it out. It looks like someone is dumping billions of dollars in futures contracts. But we don’t know who and we don’t know how much.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“It could be a bank, a hedge fund. It could be one of the sovereign wealth funds, though they tend to act through Western intermediaries. Whatever, we reckon we’re seeing 100 billion Euros of this stuff dumped on the markets. Whoever’s doing it is either very desperate or very evil.”
“What kind of desperate?”
“They built up a big position, maybe by accident, and are now trying to cut their losses.”
“They’re intentionally trying to drive down the market. Maybe they’re planning to mop up at the bottom. Or force the central banks to act. I don’t know, Ben. All I can say is I’ve never seen anything like this. The bid-ask spreads are wider than they were on 9/11. There’s already so much uncertainty in the markets and now we have this. People are panicking. When New York opens, this could blow wide open. Listen, I’ll call you back if I hear anything.”
“Thanks, Xavier. Hang in there. Are you going to Laurent today?”
“Of course. A man has to eat.”
“Of course. The world’s markets are going to hell and you need a three Michelin star lunch.”
“Eh, bien. If we’re all going to hell, at least I’ll be the best fed. Call if you hear anything.”
Wright put down the telephone and began clicking through the wire services. Still nothing. The financial wires were just starting to report the sharp falls in Europe. Hong Kong was beginning to waver too. This was all they needed. For six months now, the markets had been jittery. The US economy seemed poised to enter recession. Companies were slashing jobs, fewer people were paying their credit card bills on time and the dollar was in freefall. It was only a matter of time.
The smartest investors had seen this coming, piling into gold when it was $200 an ounce. Now it was $900. Naturally, the idiots who ran the world’s treasury departments had sold their gold hoards at $200 on the basis that gold was finished. The British government had forfeited billions by selling at the low to finance some now failed and long-forgotten health care reform.
Now, everyone was waiting for a trigger, the unpredicted event which would precipitate the crisis. Was this it?
Wright looked at the clock. It was 3.15. It would be a long day and if he was going to get any exercise, it was now. He pulled on his trainers and shorts and stepped out onto East 81st street. The city was silent. He jogged slowly to the corner of Fifth Avenue, watching his breath form thick clouds in the air. He waited for a couple of empty taxis to pass, and crossed over to the park side of Fifth, where he could run without having to cross any streets. He could feel the blood surging to the surface of his cold legs as his strides lengthened and his toes barely touched the sidewalk. He ran past the stately Knickerbocker club on 60th street and was about to turn onto Central Park South when he saw a cluster of police lights and a barricade along 58th street. This was not a high crime district. This was where every major New York hedge fund and private equity firm had its office. He ran slowly up to a police officer guarding the street.
“Move along,” said the officer. “Nothing for you here.”
“Nothing for you, sir. Move along.” Down the street Wright saw a couple sitting on the sidewalk, their arms around each other. Not far from them, a black body bag lay strapped to a gurney, waiting to be lifted into an ambulance.
At 7am precisely, the doors to the conference room at the Federal Reserve in Washington D.C. swung open. The chairman strode in, tall, fastidious and terrifying to anyone not either in his family or close circle of friends. Around the 27-foot, Honduran mahogany table sat seven of the Fed’s governors. A row of television screens showed the faces of the regional Fed chairmen, beamed in from across the country. Everyone but the chairman seemed a little more tousled than usual, having been rousted unusually early from sleep. The chairman of the Dallas Fed looked hung over.
“This morning has seen an unusual degree of volatility in the world’s financial markets,” began the chairman. “I appreciate you all meeting at such short notice. But I felt it was important that we decide on a course of action before the markets open in New York at 9.15. I would like to hear your opinions. But first, I’d like to have Kevin give us a summary of the morning’s events and what Wall Street is asking for.”
Kevin Sheehan was the antithesis of the suave, patrician governor. The chairman stood over 6 feet tall, wore English suits and had chaired the economics faculty at Harvard. His face had been weathered by summers sailing competitively off the Maine coast. You could almost smell the wooden decks and salty air even here in Washington D.C. in the dead of winter.
Sheehan, by contrast, was pudgy and built low to the ground. He had played tackle for Rutgers, worked his way through Brooklyn Law and onto the commodities desk at Morgan Stanley. He had thrived in the thuggish world of commodities traders, adoring its combination of vulgarity, quick-wittedness and street smarts. He liked little more than spending hours figuring out global copper demand, then making lightning fast trades against his competition.
And he adored the celebrations of success. Whenever a particular trade went well, he would take his desk out for dinner at Valbella in Greenwich and plunder its treasure-stocked cellar. Even by the exorbitant standards of traders, a Sheehan celebration was one to be reckoned with.
At 37 years old, he was the youngest member of the board, but he had made himself invaluable. Whereas the other board members were retired bankers or economists at the end of their careers, Sheehan was still plugged into the Street. His daily call lists included traders at Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and the biggest hedge funds in New York and Greenwich. He submitted himself to monthly tutorials in the latest financial innovations with a professor at MIT. Others might theorize their way to solutions, but Sheehan was obsessed with practice.
“We’re still trying to understand what happened today,” said Sheehan, his elbows resting on the desk. “But let me show you.” A screen fell from the ceiling and a chart went up showing the previous four hours of price movements on the European stock futures index. Since 5 A.M., Eastern Standard Time, the drop had been sheer. A murmur went through the room.
“Sweet jumping Jesus!” thundered the voice from Dallas. The chairman smiled at Sheehan. They were both quite used to his expressive language.
“The only comparisons to what we saw this morning are 9/11, the crash of 1987 and 1929. The news we’re getting is that a single buyer began selling at around 3 A.M. our time. These were both stocks and futures contracts on movements in the main indices. The seller kept selling even as prices started to fall. If you look here,” a new chart went up, “the seller kept selling even as bid-asks widened. Whoever it was did not seem to give a damn what price he could sell for and was ready to take even ludicrously low bids just to unload. What we’re trying to unravel is how much was sold by this single seller and how much by panicked traders selling into a falling market.”
“Where’s the market now?” said Dallas.
“The European indices are down 9% already today. Pre-market opening trades on US futures suggest we’re heading for a similar fall.”
“Holy mother of god. Has anyone got the president out of bed yet?”
“You know he doesn’t like to be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. We wanted to have a plan of action ready by the time he arrives in the Oval Office at 8am.”
“Before he has a chance to stick his nose in with that half-wit at Treasury, you mean.”
“The point is that the market has already priced in a half point rate cut from us at the end of the month,” said Sheehan, ignoring Dallas’ last remark. “The street is begging us to bring this forward. They’re already telling investors, the Fed’s got your back. So do we act now?”
“We’ll look like we’re panicking,” said Eleanor Woods, the CEO of Woods and Co., one of the largest asset managers in New York. Her opinions were taken seriously, partly because they were so rarely offered. She had the dignity and reticence of a pure-bred WASP. “Can we afford to look as though we’re being panicked into responding to some as yet unknown seller? I cannot see how we can do anything until we know exactly what is going on.”
“The banks are telling us we need to be pre-emptive,” said Sheehan. “It would be better to plug the leak than try to mop up afterwards. If we cut rates deeply this morning, we can cauterize this wound before it bleeds.”
“Come on Kevin,” said Eleanor. “You know there’s much more to this than a bad day on Wall Street. Or even a single mysterious seller. We’ve all been braced for a fall for months. The credit markets are frozen, you can’t borrow to buy a gallon of milk. No one’s buying houses. The Chinese are sitting on close to a trillion dollars worth of our debt. We can’t decide interest rate policy based on a bad morning on the Paris Bourse.”
“The point is, we know we’re going to have to cut rates soon. It’s just a question of timing and degree.”
“Those aren’t trivial matters, Kevin. Timing and degree are all that we control.”
“Those bullies in Washington are going to be on us to cut rates to clean up this mortgage fiasco anyway,” said the Dallas chairman. “We’re tilting into recession and they want us to make it easier for consumers to burn up their credit cards buying more crap.”
The chairman intervened. “Our econometric models show that a swift, deep rate cut can at least bring the markets out of a nosedive. At the very least it will buy us time. If we had acted sooner in 1929, we might have averted the Great Depression. I would like to announce a three quarter point cut, more than the markets have priced in, before New York opens. And I would like your support.”
As he looked to the screens, every head nodded, even Dallas, with a scowl. Around the table, he had agreement until he came to Eleanor Woods. She shook her head.
“Respectfully, I cannot do it. We don’t know what happened this morning. What if it turns out to have been a hedge fund exploding? Or a rogue trader? We just don’t know. The Federal Reserve may end up looking like it can have its chain yanked by 25-year-old traders in Zurich. We ought to wait. The markets can always recover.”
“We have a majority, Eleanor. Your dissent will be recorded. Kevin, will you arrange for the announcement to be made at 8am precisely? Thank you all for being here.” The screens went fuzzy and the chairman rose from his seat. He walked to the tall doors at the end of the room and disappeared into his office.
Wright pushed away the last of his breakfast, an egg white omelet with tomatoes on home-baked rye, and shook out the Financial Times. It was still dark outside, but he was dressed by now in light grey flannels, a dark blue, full sleeve polo shirt and black loafers. He was still buzzing from his run and a cold shower. Win, his Burmese housekeeper, had lit a fire in the living room and Wright lay back in an armchair and began to read. A pompous Frenchman he had once met in Paris had written about the strain on trans-Atlantic relations created by the collapsing dollar. Somehow, the man had written nearly one thousand words and said nothing. Inevitably, he was chairman of an influential political think tank.
There was a long feature about how the very rich were taking to philanthropy in record numbers. Another hack job. No mention of the tax benefits, public relations boost, or indeed the guilt which drove these billionaires to give away fractions of their fortune. He flicked forward to the companies section of the newspaper. Two more mining companies were trying to merge to capitalize on the commodities boom in emerging economies. The CEOs of the respective companies looked interchangeable: both in their late 40s, both wearing rimless spectacles, both avid marathon runners, both former management consultants. Christ, why were they all the same? Wright wondered if the merger was simply an act of narcissism. The chief executives had met and fallen in love with their own reflections.
He felt a vibration in his pocket. He pulled out his cell phone and read the number before answering.
“Good morning Ashley,” he said. “An interesting few hours so far.”
“We need you over here now,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Is everything all right?”
“No. Everything is not all right. Travis wants to see you now. I’ve never seen him so upset.”
Wright called for his butler.
“Make sure the lady upstairs has everything she wants. And do give her my number. I believe her name is Athena.”
The offices of Travis Lee occupied an entire floor of the Grace building on 58th street. The building was like a giant matchbox sitting on its end, flared at the bottom. Its exterior was of black glass framed with white marble. On the ground floor was the entrance to a gaudy basement restaurant, marked by a red, neon sign.
It took Wright 20 minutes of brisk walking to reach the building. Outside, he found the usual cluster of whey-faced traders smoking and pacing around beneath the stone canopy, most preferring to stare at their email than talk to each other. Even the cigarette break, the last, desperate refuge of corporate sociability, had been killed by technology.
“Ben Wright for Mr. Travis,” he told the security guard.
“What company?” said the guard flicking through the pages of the Daily News.
“Travis Lee,” said Wright.
“You got an appointment?”
“No, I just thought I’d wander in on the off chance I might get to chat with the third richest man in the city.” The security guard looked up, like a crocodile emerging from a swamp, with a filthy gaze.
“Picture I.D.” Wright handed her his drivers’ license.
“Stand there, while I take your picture.” She pointed a small, camera, the size and shape of a golf ball, towards him. Out came a sticker with his name and picture on it. “Wait here.”
Life in the city had become a succession of these minor inconveniences, felt Wright. Everyone now endured endless checks and indignities at the hands of low-paid security guards, the brown-shirts of the private security boom which had followed 9/11. Finally she waved him through. He walked past an exuberant display of orchids and stepped into the oak-paneled elevator.
Suddenly the rush and clatter of the city seemed to evaporate. The elevator rose noiselessly to the 27th floor. Wright watched a series of soothing images on a small screen above the control panel: horses cantering along an empty beach; the sun rising over Mount Fuji; a child sitting on the prow of a yacht, the breeze in his flaxen hair.
The door opened onto a double-height atrium. The floor was a mosaic of imported Roman tile, recreating a design found in the ruins of Pompeii. The atrium ran the width of the building and the huge windows gave onto the Park on one side and midtown on the other. Sitting to the right of the windows facing the park, behind a long, low counter, were three receptionists, two white women and a black man. They were all young, attractive and wearing headsets to field the hundreds of calls and visitors pouring into the building each day.
Wright introduced himself to one of the women who smiled beautifully at him. If only that wasn’t her job, he thought. He sat down in one of the Chesterfield sofas facing the park. A television set tuned to CNBC was buried at an angle into a side table beside him. He turned up the volume and listened.
“Chaos in European and Asian markets today as investors fled stocks for the safety of gold and oil,” said one of the male bimbos who presented the breakfast show. “But the Fed struck back this morning with a three quarter point rate cut, stopping the slide in Dow futures before the opening bell rings in New York.” The show cut to a brunette at the New York Stock Exchange.
“That’s right, Bill,” she said picking up from the studio. “The Fed brought forward its long anticipated rate cut. This should allow cash-strapped consumers and companies to borrow more easily, but it will take time for this effect to be felt. The question now is whether the rate cut will stoke inflation or cause a run on the dollar. Many analysts believe the dollar could fall by as much as 20% this year as international investors lose faith in the prospects for the US economy. The rate cut just made the dollar even less attractive to these investors. The Fed does not believe inflation yet poses a serious risk, but if these rate cuts continue, that’s what we could see.”
“Do we know what prompted today’s fall in stocks?” said Bill, leaning towards the camera with a serious frown on his over-baked face.
“Investor jitters seem to have turned into full blown panic when we saw results from European banks, showing the losses in the final quarter of the year,” said the brunette. “That and the latest unemployment figures from Germany which showed a sharp year on year spike.”
“But aren’t we also hearing rumors that someone was dumping stocks on an unprecedented scale?”
“People are saying that, Ted, but so far nothing solid has emerged. But realistically, it would have to be a sale of over 100 billion euros to have this kind of impact and there’s no evidence of that kind of meltdown. It may just be classic fear and greed which caused the stampede.”
My God, thought Wright. Either these people are very naïve or very stupid. Bank losses and unemployment figures would never cause this kind of chaos. No. There was something else going on, something much more sinister than CNBC would ever understand. He was sure of it.
“Did you know Henry Reeves?” growled Arthur Travis. He was standing at the window to his office, resting one arm on a Frederick Remington sculpture, and using the other to raise a delicate, china cup of coffee to his lips. “You can leave us Ashley,” he said, noticing his assistant hovering in the doorway.
A shame thought Wright. He always enjoyed Ashley’s cool, blonde presence. Somehow, being around her, you felt like you were standing in a ski resort, Vail or Aspen perhaps, the sunlight reflecting off the snow. She was just the type short, aggressive men like Travis liked to have around, to remind them how far they had come.
Thirty years ago, Travis was just another grunt on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Now he was one of the richest men in the country, running the largest private equity firm in the world. His dark hair was combed back over his scalp, and his green eyes darted tirelessly around the room. He was wearing a white shirt, monogrammed just above his stomach, and a crimson tie. For all his success, he still worked with the verve of an ambitious 24-year-old, scouring the world for deals.
“I met him once at a birthday party for my nephew,” said Wright. “Pretty typical, as I recall.”
“Don’t hold your nose, Ben. I’ve known you since you were a kid. These are your people. Like it or not.”
“Why do you mention him?”
“He was found dead early this morning. Shot then dropped from the building across the street. Just to make sure.”
“He had two kids, didn’t he? A boy and a girl.”
“Yes. And a cheating wife. Not that he was much better. But that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is this.” He tossed a pale grey envelope across the table.
“His investments were a mess. He’d been suckered by every con man in town. You’ll recognize the names. Every over-leveraged private equity deal and imploding hedge fund you can think of.”
Wright glanced down the list. Some were a surprise. Names that were still revered, though evidently without justification.
“Everything is hitting the fan right now, Ben. Reeves was a classic symptom. Harvard MBA, with all that implies. A herd follower. Smart enough to join the right herd, for a while, but too dumb to realize it was running him off a cliff.”
“Why do you care, Art? It doesn’t sound like you thought much of him.”
“I didn’t. What I care about is the message we’re being sent.”
“Precisely, Ben. By whom. That’s what I need to know. Do you realize what could happen in this town if word gets out that investors are taking down the people who run their money? You’re going to read in the newspapers tomorrow about Reeves’ death. It will say that he was killed by a jealous husband. It’s an easy storyline to feed to the hacks. Vanity Fair will put one of their people on it and there’ll be the usual glossy tales of hedge fund excess. And that will be fine.”
“But it’s not the truth.”
“These past ten years, Ben, all the money that has flowed into my world, not all of it has been as innocent as the Florida State Pension Fund. People have taken short-cuts to raise capital. They’ve taken it from people they never should have. You hear what happened in Geneva recently? This global equities trader – really unpleasant, I met him once, hair down to his shoulders, leather jackets, coarse – tried to stop redemptions on his fund. He’d lost $10 billion in the space of a year, two thirds of the money he had under management. So he sent a letter to his clients, telling them they could not get their money out for another year, while he tried to make it back. One day, three guys in balaclavas show up at his office. They throw acid in the receptionist’s eyes, blinding her for good. Then they walk onto the trading floor, in full view of all the employees, two of them pick him up by the shoulders and the other starts kicking him in the balls. The trader is screaming and crying. The guys tell him they want their money out. They’re not leaving until they have it. They stand there while the trader executes a wire transfer. Then just as they’re about to leave, one of the goons sees a set of skis in the trader’s office. He goes back in, picks up one of them and breaks it against the trader’s right knee, smashing the guy’s knee cap. Just in case he ever thought of skiing again.
The point is, Ben, these aren’t people sitting at home waiting for their 401K statements. There is a lot of anger in the world. And it’s directed at us. Take a look at this.”
It was a grainy photograph of the back of man’s head, walking down what looked like an office corridor.
“That’s the man who killed Reeves. The bullet he used was tipped with platinum, dug out of a mine in western Siberia. This wasn’t a jealous husband, Ben. Reeves was killed because he lost people a lot of money. People who don’t just shrug their shoulders and say, it’s only money. We need to find out who it was. Until we do, that list you have in your hand is a list of the walking dead.”
Kevin Sheehan walked as fast as he could from the Delta Shuttle terminal, trying to disentangle the belt-buckle on his Burberry raincoat as he went. The markets would be open in 15 minutes and he needed to be at the New York Federal Reserve as quickly as possible. He climbed into the back of his Lincoln Town Car and snapped open his telephone.
“Marty, what’s the word?” Marty Schwartz had spent thirty years on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and there was no one Sheehan trusted more to take the pulse of the markets.
“Well, the girls from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue are getting ready to ring the opening bell,” he said, amid the clamor of the exchange.
“Come on, I don’t have time. How are they taking the rate cut?”
“No one gives a shit about what you guys do any more, Kevin. You want me to be honest. I’ve told you before. This isn’t about you anymore. It’s beyond you and your control. Your little levers are inconsequential.”
“Don’t give me the speech now, Marty. Is there any reaction?”
“The reaction was built in. Everyone knows what you’re going to do. The prices reflected that.”
“What about the falls in Europe and Asia?”
“Yes, now what is that about?”
“We don’t know. But we wanted to put a floor under it.”
“If you don’t know what’s killing the market, why would you think that anything you did could put a floor in?”
“We have to be seen to be acting, Marty. People look to the Fed to act. What do you think’s going on over there?”
“We’re hearing it’s one seller, a bank probably which found a bunch of unauthorized positions on its books. So they’re trying to unload, meanwhile everyone’s piling in just killing them. It’s like sharks and blood. They’re ripping them apart.”
“Damn, I’ve got to take this call. Keep me posted, Marty.” He flicked over to the waiting call.
“Where are you Kevin?”
“I’m on the Triboro Bridge.”
“Well, don’t go downtown. Meet me at the Brook. As soon as you can. Something has happened.”
“I don’t have time. Have you seen what’s happening? We’ve just cut rates, the markets are tanking, I can’t…”
“Don’t argue with me Kevin. Get over here. Now.”
“Forget about downtown,” Sheehan told the driver. “Take me to East 54th between Madison and Park.” He slammed his fist into the leather seat beside him.
The boardroom at the Whitegate Group was an imposing place at the best of times. But when the company’s founder, Steve Weissberg, was in a mood like he was this morning, it was terrifying. The partners of the firm sat in high-backed, black leather chairs around a long, elliptical table.
“I don’t believe this,” said Weissberg, throwing down his heavy, French fountain pen. “Will no one lend us money these days? One year ago, we could borrow eight dollars for every dollar of equity we put in. Now, what are we down to, two, three? We’re not trying hard enough. Not trying hard enough. We can’t just blame the credit markets. When I started this firm, I went to 53 people before one of them offered to give me money. Fifty-three people! So I could set this thing up so all of you could be rich. Fat and happy, men, you’re all getting fat and happy.”
They had heard this all before, many times, but none of them dared roll their eyes, or look anything other than deadly serious during their dressing down. Every man in the room – and there was not a single woman - was worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars but they stared down at their legal pads, none even risking reaching for one of the cookies laid out down the middle of the table. Weissberg was known to regard snacking as a sign of weakness, and loathed fat people. In fact, he considered extreme physical fitness and the ability to make ridiculous amounts of money as life’s two principal virtues.
Unsurprisingly, many within his firm harbored intricately thought out fantasies of killing him.
“There’s money gushing out of the ground in the Middle East. They’re digging it out in China. Did you see that the Chinese just passed South Africa as the world’s biggest producer of gold? That money should be coming to us, to invest on their behalf. We’re a fee-based business, and never forget it. The more we money we put to work, the more we earn. Come on, this is basic stuff.”
A butler entered the room carrying a silver coffee pot. He set it down beside Weissberg. As he did so, his leather shoes creaked, piercing the silence in the room.
“Change the frigging shoes, or go barefoot. We need debt and we need deals. Big deals. None of this $500 million dollar crap. We need $10-20 billion deals if we’re all going to keep our houses in the Hamptons warm this winter. We need to put this money to work. Kim, what’s happening with the auto parts deal.”
“Not good, Steve,” said his second in command.
“Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.” He paused. “Fine. Tell me.”
“The owners are refusing to budge on price and the banks won’t lend it to us. Without the degree of leverage we built into our models, the deal won’t work.”
“What’s the break-up fee?”
“$600 million for nothing. Just up in smoke. If we walk away. But what option do we have? Go to hell, Kim. How many advanced degrees do you have anyway?”
“Just the doctorate from MIT, Steve.”
“Well, it didn’t help us here did it. $600 million. Like that. Poof,” he clicked his fingers. “Because we couldn’t get our ducks in a row on a frigging spark plug manufacturer.”
Pearls of sweat were now starting to appear on his balding head, and his razor burn was beginning to throb an alarming degree of pink.
“Great job, MIT.” If only the rest of the world could have seen Weissberg now. The politicians he courted night after night in his quest to be nominated Treasury Secretary. The business magazine readers who devoured profiles detailing his financial acumen and generosity to public causes. The business school students who attended his talks as if he were Croesus, Rockefeller and Gates rolled into one.
Of course, he told them that the secret to his success was hard work and smarts. He never mentioned the psychotic outbursts, the door-slamming, the insults, the negotiating technique which verged on the pathological.
“Come on, Steve,” said Kim.
“Don’t ‘come on’ me,” he said, spraying spittle down the table. “I should get rid of all of you. Leeching on this firm. Sucking the blood from the firm I created. We need money. Go and find it.”
“We’ve been taking money from outside the United States, Steve. We’ve even lowered our bar to the kind of money we’ll take. But it’s only getting us so far.”
“Lower it again.”
“We’re getting to money we shouldn’t be touching.”
“Since when are you squeamish about touching anything, Kim? Since when? Since when did you get sterile about money?” He ran his eyes across everyone around the table. “Raise the money. I’m not interested how you do it. Raise it. Collect the fees. Invest. That’s what we do.”
Weissberg kicked back his seat and left the room, a large wet patch visible on the back of his pale blue shirt.
Wright walked quickly up Madison Avenue, his head down, oblivious to the gaudy boutiques on either side of him. At 78th Street, he pushed open the door to Sant Ambroeus and raised his hand in greeting to the waiter working the steaming coffee machine. Within a minute, he received his macchiato.
He picked up a copy of Corriere dello Sport from the rack by the window and began to read. Nothing relaxed his brain like the Italian sports pages. His Italian was creaky, but he knew enough to understand the familiar dramatic story lines of Italian soccer.
Another Juventus player had been caught out by a drug test. The owner of Inter Milan had decided to close his check-book until his team started winning. He was sick of over-paying for young Brazilians who spent more time in nightclubs than on the training pitch. There were pictures of managers, most of them former heroes of the national team, straining the veins in their necks as they shouted to their teams on the field. It was always disconcerting to see a man you had come to know as an elegant player transformed into a screaming, middle-aged Mussolini.
By 10 A.M. the morning rush of mothers, grabbing coffee after dropping off their children at the local Upper East Side nursery schools, had passed and Wright almost had the place to himself and a moment to think.
“The markets are tanking and you have time to read football scores,” said a familiar voice, behind him.
“Matteo,” said Wright, turning round. His old friend was dressed in a long, black cashmere overcoat and what looked like several meters of more black cashmere wrapped around his neck in a scarf. “Let me get you a coffee. Is it too late for a cappuccino? I know you have strict rules about that.”
“The only rule is nothing milky after lunch. No cappucino, latte. Just espresso. We’re still early enough for a cappuccino. And can I have one of those cream-filled brioches,” he said to the waitress, pointing at a glass display case opposite the bar. “The one with the sugar frosting. Yes, perfect.”
“I can’t believe you’re not 300 pounds,” said Wright.
“Ah, you should have seen me when I was 21. I was like one of those strikers in the newspaper. Swift and lithe, like a leaping salmon. But my wife prefers me like this. More to love, she says. I think she’s happy that I’m less attractive to other women.”
“What do you know about the Russians?”
“You start early these days, Ben. They started buying art in the late 90s. Now they can’t be stopped. Russian stuff mostly, but also lots of the garbage you see at the art fairs recently. You know, big dollar signs made out of neon bulbs. They love to stick them in their chalets in Chamonix, to look at while they’re drinking Petrus-Vodka cocktails.”
“They mix Petrus with Vodka?”
“Yes. Sounds disgusting to me. But you know, to them it’s doesn’t taste like red wine mixed with vodka. It just tastes of money. Why do you ask about the Russians?”
“An old friend of mine wants to know. A friend of his was murdered today. A hedge fund manager. Shot and thrown out of his office building.”
“Are the police investigating?”
“Yes. But how would you rate their chances if it really was a foreign contract killing? The killer probably flew out of Teterboro this morning on a private jet.”
“If it really was a wealthy Russian, Chinese, I can assure you that the US government isn’t going to create a diplomatic incident over one dead hedgie. There are no votes in standing up for money managers. In fact, if a political candidate proposed throwing hedge fund managers one by one from the roof of the New York Stock Exchange, he might actually win.”
“Where would you start looking if you were me?”
“Finish your coffee and come with me. I’ll show you something.”
Matteo’s gallery occupied the entire top floor of an office building on Madison Avenue, at 77th. His father had been an accomplished art conservator in Venice and he had grown up surrounded by flaking Tintorettos and Caravaggios. He thought nothing of licking his thumb and rubbing it over a 16th century masterpiece to see where it needed restoration. Paintings for him were craft objects, no different from a well-turned chair or sideboard.
Despite his personal preference for Renaissance art, however, he had turned himself into a successful contemporary art dealer. He moved seamlessly between the splashy downtown world of SoHo openings and the cloistered world of Metropolitan Museum patrons. He could talk as easily to a 20-year-old underwear model at a Chelsea warehouse party as he could to the 85-year-old widow of a Texan oil billionaire.
They walked through large, white empty room after large, white empty room. Matteo was between gallery shows. But the display of unused, wildly expensive real estate, was ostentatious in itself. Wright could hear the sound of his footsteps echoing off the plain walls. Sunlight filtered in through wide skylights. Finally, they turned down a high, narrow, book-lined corridor to reach a small atrium.
Behind a white, laminate desk sat an ethereally beautiful young woman, one of the parade of fresh-faced art history graduates and wealthy collectors’ daughters whom Matteo employed.
Matteo pushed at one of the bookshelves, which swung open to reveal his office. It was an intimate space after the prairie-like galleries. There was a blond wooden desk, piled high with catalogs, a sofa covered with cream linen and two beaten up brown leather arm chairs. A small fridge with a glass door contained neat rows of spring water bottles and two splits of Champagne.
The only light came from a desk lamp and a small alabaster window in a high corner of the room. Above one of the chairs was a small painting, no larger than an ordinary hardback book. It showed a line of Tuscan pine trees and a small figure walking between them. Wright knelt on the seat of an armchair to take a look.
“It’s a Vedder. Elihu Vedder,” he said. “American painter. Travelled to Italy in the 19th century. Couldn’t bear all the sturm und drang of the Hudson Valley school. He had a natural feel for the Italian countryside. They’re very cheap for what they are. I’ve been picking them up wherever I can. Perhaps one day the market will recognize their real worth.”
“I’m sure it will if you have anything to do with it,” said Wright.
“Did you read about this?” Matteo tossed Wright a plastic binder filled with newspaper clips. He began to flick through it. The first page showed a photograph of a human heart in a box the size of a briefcase, plated in gold and studded with diamonds, rubies. It appeared to be swathed in smoke.
“Is this thing real?”
“Yes. The smoke you see is dry ice. Beneath the heart are a series of valves which keep the heart pumping. The work is called My Funny Valentine.”
“How much did it go for?”
“Well, the headline figure was $100 million. The dealers got to the number in the end, but only after offering the buyers about 50% financing, bullet payments, 10 year payout schedule, all the usual tricks.”
“Who bought it?”
“A consortium. We don’t know the names, but we believe it was five men, all from Russia and the former Soviet Republics. The company which bought the work is registered in Rome. I believe it’s now sitting in a vault somewhere. I honestly doubt the sellers will ever get their money. But I don’t think they really care. The publicity was priceless.”
“Who do you think were the buyers?”
“Well, I understand the group was led by a man called Roman Shestakov.”
“And who is he?”
“Let me put it like this, Ben. If you can go through life never crossing paths with Roman Shestakov, you should count yourself a very lucky man.”
Sheehan stepped through the dark green door of the Brook leaving the cacophony of the city behind him. The drills, shouts and sirens were replaced by a monastic calm. A Hispanic footman offered to take his coat and briefcase and asked him who he was here to see.
“Myron Coles,” he said.
“Mr. Coles is in the second dining room on your left on the third floor.”
Sheehan looked up at the elliptical stairwell and began to climb, his shoes making no sound on the emerald carpet. As he passed the second floor, he saw a pair of elderly men in seersucker suits playing backgammon and reading the Wall Street Journal between moves. One of them, he recalled, had been Secretary of State in the Ford administration. Lots of people liked to claim to be the real powers in America. But the members of the Brook were the real thing. Discreet, moneyed and politically connected around the world.
Along the third floor of the club were a series of private dining rooms. Unlike some clubs, which forced their members into collegial eating arrangements, whether they liked it or not, the Brook respected the need for privacy. There were no absurd rules about not discussing business at the club. To establish a private club in midtown Manhattan and then ask that business not be discussed, the members of the Brook believed, would be like setting up a baseball team and then banning players from discussing pitching.
Sheehan rapped on the door of the second dining room on the left and entered. Coles was sitting on a bench placed within a bay window on one wall, staring up at the skyscrapers. He was a small man with a mane of white hair, a wide nose, flattened while boxing as a teenager, and dark brown, almost black, eyes. He wore a slightly baggy tweed suit, an old button-down blue shirt and a green tie covered with yellow tennis rackets, from his club in the Hamptons. His clothes gave no hint that he was one of the richest speculators in the world.
Sheehan stood inside the doorway, waiting for Coles to speak. He knew better than to fill the air with pleasantries.
“How’s Erin?” said Coles, finally breaking the silence.
“She’s very well, busy with the kids, you know,” said Sheehan. Erin was Coles’ niece. They had married on a glorious spring day in East Hampton. Her father, Coles’ brother, was a sweet but ineffectual man who lived in Coles’ slipstream. But Coles had never had children and regarded Erin as his own. He had used his financial and political connections to advance Sheehan’s career. The relationship had worked for both of them.
Coles nodded and took a sip of coffee.
“It’s happening Kevin.”
“What is, Myron?”
“What we’ve talked about. What we’ve talked about again and again. It’s happening.”
“Come on, Myron. One bad day in the markets, a rate cut, you’ve seen this all before. It happens when people get edgy. We’ve had a six year boom, maybe even a thirty year boom if you go really high level. We had to take our breath at some point.”
“It’s more than that Kevin. I’m afraid it’s much more. Sit down.” Sheehan tapped his chest. The acid reflux was back. He pulled out one of the walnut chairs and sat down, resting his palms on the cool, polished wood of the table.
“I got a call from Paris today,” said Coles, setting down his coffee cup. “From our friends at the Banque de France. I’ve never heard them like that. They said a single seller was dumping stocks and futures and they had no idea who. The trades were being executed electronically from an office in Switzerland, Zurich likely. And there didn’t seem to be any reason behind what was happening.”
“It could be a rogue trade or a hedge fund unwinding its positions, it could be anything Myron. There’s no need to be so apocalyptic.”
“You’re 37, Kevin. Don’t tell me when I need to be apocalyptic.” Sheehan could see the veins in Coles’ forehead starting to swell. “This is not a rogue trader. This is not some pre-pubescent hedge fund. The whole Western world has been living beyond its means these past few years. And a few people have been living far beyond their means. This is well beyond a financial problem, Kevin. The whole system is knotted up. It’s a hairball which has been getting larger and tighter and more unfair and more impossible to untangle every day. And what is happening now is that a few people have had enough. And instead of pulling at their little piece of thread, hoping to pull it out, they have given up and they are hacking at with axes and chainsaws and whatever comes to hand.”
“We cut interest rates this morning, which should help people out.”
“Don’t be so small time Kevin,” Coles snapped. “A few basis points on rates, it’s like giving aspirin to a leper.” Sheehan shrank back in his seat. “You think this is about getting some liquidity back into tract housing built on swamps in Florida?” Coles’ voice was rising now. “You think millions of people losing their jobs are going to rush back into the housing market because mortgages are ever so slightly cheaper? You think companies are going to borrow more now? You think that’s all there is to it?
In Paris, today, Kevin, men I have known for fifty years are sitting in their offices with piss trickling down their legs. It’s not because a family in Sacramento is going into foreclosure. It’s because when the world turns like this, we become animals again. Man gets desperate and returns to his most elemental. The forces which keep us separate and keep order start to break down. These men are starting to realize that the only thing which kept them from a bullet in their heads was a percentage point or two of annual returns. Well, for most of them that percentage point just turned negative and it’s going to get very ugly. In Paris, they know this now, because they are close to it. You can get in a car in Moscow and drive there. We at least have an ocean between us.
Let me tell you, the individual dumping stock in Europe today is doing so to send us a message. And the message is that when money ceases to matter, other things take their place. Like force and violence and humiliation.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to get Erin and the boys somewhere safe. My plane can take them down to the Caribbean. Then I want you to meet me at the office at Wall Street and Broad in one hour. The Treasury Secretary will be there. We need to be sure Washington is in no doubt about what is going on.”
Baron Thierry de Montbrison strode briskly from Orsay, the French bistro on Lexington Avenue where he had finished a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and black coffee with his mistress. She insisted on these public outings if their relationship was to continue, but was happy for Thierry to bury his head in the Wall Street Journal while they sat at their table, tucked away in the back of the restaurant. Thierry was far too experienced in these matters to quibble. His wife spent her time at their home in Brittany fussing over her gardens and sailing lessons for their three children. He spent six weeks with her every summer, which was quite enough for him. Aside from that, provided he kept sending the checks, she was happy for him to do as he pleased while in New York.
His pleasures included this particular young woman, the 23-year-old daughter of an old friend of his, luscious, energetic and quite dim, exactly how he liked them.
As he waited to cross over at 74th Street, he tugged down the cuff of his cream Charvet shirt and tucked up the Buddhist prayer beads he wore around his wrist. He had toyed briefly with Buddhism some ten years ago, while dating a Hollywood actress, but all that remained with him were these beads which somehow his investors found reassuring. They seemed indicative of some deeper spiritual level, which marked him out from other fund managers.
During meetings, he would put both arms behind his head, so the beads would slide visibly up his forearm. Every profile ever written of him mentioned the beads. They had become his epithet – the money guy with the Buddhist prayer beads. They provided cover however badly he behaved in private. Well, at least he’s a Buddhist. It did not matter that he knew nothing of the religion.
He flicked the back of his graying hair over the collar of his trim-fitting overcoat and kept walking, past another French restaurant where he often took his European clients. Bovine Dutch aristocrats, for the most part, feasting off capital acquired generations ago so they could spend their winters in Carejes, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and their summers in the South of France. All they sought from him was the cash to keep this life intact.
At Park Avenue, he sprinted over the island separating the six lanes of traffic, and arrived a little out of breath at the town house where he kept his office. He tapped the code to the door and stepped inside. The warm smell of orchids filled the narrow hallway. He flicked through his mail which lay on a green marble topped chest. Nothing of any great interest. He picked up the New York Post and turned to Page Six as he walked to the elevator tucked into the back of the building.
Once inside he reached over with his left hand and pressed the button for the third floor. Just as the door was closing, in the smoky mirror on the back of the cabin, he saw a hand reach in and stop it.
He smiled when he saw who it was and was about to say hello when a razor flashed between the prayer beads, cutting deep into his left wrist.
He would have screamed, were it not for the fact that his mouth was already stuffed with a yellow silk handkerchief and his head jammed down towards the floor. The blade slashed again at his right wrist, and the blood pooled beneath the leather sole of his shoes, causing him to slip and fall on his side.
The killer jammed one foot down on the side of de Montbrison’s head, driving the sharp corner of his heel into the back of his victim’s ear. De Montbrison spluttered, trying to spit out the handkerchief, but the killer leaned down and stuffed it back in. He then reached into De Montbrison’s coat and removed his wallet. He took out the cash, nearly $700, and then replaced the emptied wallet, patting it back into place. He looked at his watch, then down again at his victim. De Montbrison’s struggles were growing fainter. Once he was sure the Frenchman was dead, he picked up the copy of the Post and walked quickly out into the bright morning, stopping to smile at a crocodile of nursery children walking from a church school over towards Central Park.
“Of course I know Roman Shestakov,” said Stan Walsh pounding away on an elliptical trainer in the gym adjacent to his office on the 23rd floor of the GM building, overlooking the Plaza Hotel. “I used to follow mining stocks when I was at Goldman. Shestakov came bursting out of the former Soviet Union with control of a huge bunch of assets. Aluminum, nickel, natural gas. I heard a story once of when he was 22 years old and was fighting to get control of this huge smelter somewhere in Siberia. The thing employed thousands of people and whoever ran it would have a basic monopoly on nickel for years to come. So Shestakov and a couple of friends barricaded themselves in the manager’s office with a stack of guns for about a week. Their rivals came in force, trying to kick them out, but Shestakov held the place like it was the Alamo. Finally, it became so violent and embarrassing the government stepped in and gave him ownership. He had earned their respect. But that doesn’t make me want to take his money.”
Wright looked through the glass wall separating Walsh’ private gym from the large open floor, where trading desks were arrayed in a circle around a large circular bulls-eye from where Walsh directed his $15 billion fund. On the walls he counted three Roy Lichtensteins, two Jasper Johns and a monumental Rauschenberg which divided the office. Walsh loved anything linked to the 1960s, the decade he said that changed the world. When he bought his penthouse apartment on Beekman Place, he had ripped out room after oak-paneled room, marble fireplaces and herring bone floors and replaced them with hot pink Perspex, shag rugs and pickled white floors, all put together by a flamboyant Frenchman with a more than casual heroin habit.
But everything Walsh did, he did with a maniacal zeal. When he took up golf, he had his handicap down to 5 within a year and had weaseled himself a membership at the Augusta National Club. When he tried tennis, he played for hours a day, pounding away with a coach at the Roosevelt Island tennis club, until he qualified for the amateur tournament at the U.S. Open. When he ran, it was to come in under three hours for the New York Marathon.
“What’s this all about Ben?” said Walsh, toweling off his flushed face.
“Asshole,” shot back Walsh.
Walsh paused for a moment and stared at his friend.
“Dead of what?”
“Shot and dropped from his office. Arthur Travis wants me to find out who did it?”
“Why not the police?”
“Oh, they’ll have their investigation. But Art thinks there’s more to this than a single death. He thinks there’s more coming. Some kind of reckoning.”
“Is his back telling him this?” It was a popular tale among professional investors that Arthur Travis sold positions when his lower back started to hurt. It was a physical alarm system far more reliable than any rational analysis. “Come on. The old man must be losing it.”
“No, he’s convinced of it. He’s given me a list of funds and managers he thinks are next.”
“Am I on it?”
“No. But people we both know are.”
“Can I see it?”
“Of course not.”
“Reeves was all that was wrong in this business. Jumped up, not that smart. He thought an elephant was a reptile.”
“Our kids went to the same nursery school over on East 74th Street. They did a little play about Noah’s Ark. My daughter was a sheep. His son was an elephant. Anyway, we were standing around waiting for the thing to begin and he went up to the headmistress and said so everyone could hear, ‘I want my daughter to be a mammal not a reptile.’ It’s one of those things you don’t forget. Especially when you know the guy is running billions.”
“Anything else, you remember, apart from his problem with classification?”
“His funds were sliding. Badly. He’d over-leveraged on a few big bets. The Brazilian real. An industrial merger in Germany. Instead of cutting his losses, he was rolling the dice to get out of a bad situation. And then on the personal side, everything was going to hell. He couldn’t stop fondling the help. His wife would hire these nice Caribbean nannies, and he was all over them. Come to think of it, he was a scumbag in so many ways.”
“Do you know whose money he was managing?”
“He’d started out clean, but got dirtier over time. I don’t think he was straight with people, so the good money left him. But he had an image to maintain, so he went after the dumb money and the bad money. Small town pension funds in Norway and money out of those Viennese banks controlled by the Russians. There are probably a lot of Svens and Igors very pissed at him right now.”
“Pissed enough to kill him?”
“Hell, if people start going around killing people for bad investing, there’s going to be a lot of dead bodies.”
“That’s precisely what Arthur Travis is worried about.”
“Can you wait here for a moment? I’m going to take a shower then I’ll show you something about the trades this morning in Europe.”
Wright sat on a leather bench while Walsh disappeared into the changing room. Above his head was a long glass box, about the size of a coffin attached to the wall, filled with KY Jelly. Three shriveled plastic objects floated in the middle. They looked vaguely like fresh calamari. Wright stood up and peered closer. He found a label, crimson letters etched into black plastic at the foot of the piece. “ARSE-FISH?” it read. “Three condoms floating in lubricant symbolize the commodification of sex and the pillaging of the oceans. Man and fish are heading over the rapids TOGETHER.” A memory stirred in Wright’s brain. Yes, Walsh had paid $30 million for it last year. It had been all over the papers. The artist was a mysterious Liverpudlian artist who never shown his face, was reputed to have washed only once in six years, for his mother’s funeral, and went by the name of Orcaboy.
Following the sale, Orcaboy announced he had given $10 million of his earnings to the Colombian guerilla group FARC. He also made a large mock-up of the form showing the wire transfer to an account in Bogota which he called, somewhat thanklessly in Wright’s opinion, “FARC-Off Monied Cnuts”. Orcaboy then sold that for another exorbitant sum to another financier, who acquired it to please his wife who, despite no experience in the field, had decided to start an art gallery.
The whole episode had pleased Walsh no end. Despite his rigorous self-discipline, he delighted in the absurdities his wealth permitted him.
He emerged from his shower in a pressed white Prada shirt, slim black trousers and square toed black loafers. His closely cropped dark hair was still damp. He led Wright to his desk in the center of the trading floor which was empty but for a computer terminal, four screens and a headset.
“I don’t like doing European stuff and emerging markets,” he said. “But I have a couple of people here who follow it. They sent me these charts this morning. Take a look at this.”
Wright looked at the screen. There was a mass of lines moving across a graph. He could make no sense of it.
“Sorry, it’s the stocks on the French CAC 40 all plotted against each other. If we trend it, it looks like the whole market is falling by 10% or so.” Walsh clicked a few buttons and the chart became a single line moving downwards. “But if we break them out, you can see that there’s basically 15% of stocks which are crashing and the rest are doing fine.”
“What are the 15%?”
“They’re all linked to commodities. Shipping stocks, building, auto-makers, anyone with large commodity inputs.”
“Any reason for that?”
“Well, in a downturn they’re bound to fall, as demand decreases. But it’s definitely strange for them all to fall so much in one day of trading.”
“Travis says the trading was all being done in Geneva.”
“Yes, Zug, most likely. That’s where all these commodities bastards live – in one low-tax canton just outside the city. But I don’t see why they’d be interested in beating down the one sector on which they thrive. Either they know something big that the rest of us don’t. Or…”
“Or what, Stan?”
“Or this isn’t rational at all. Someone is just getting punished. What did Reeves own?”
Wright pulled a list from his inside jacket pocket. Walsh glanced through it. It was short, far too short for a fund of Reeves’ size.
“Look at this, Ben. All the stocks that fell through the floor today. Three quarters of them were held by Reeves.”
“I told you I didn’t want to see you again,” said the Treasury Secretary in a steely whisper. Myron Coles sat back in his leather swivel chair. The Secretary was a large man, well over six feet tall, who had played offensive tackle at Dartmouth. He loomed over the diminutive Coles. “What the hell do you want from me?”
“I need a favor,” said Coles.
“You get one. That’s it.”
“I understand Mr. Secretary. But let’s not forget where you were two years ago. If it hadn’t been for me you would not be who you are today.”
“I regret that fact every day of my life.”
“How is your wife?”
“Don’t you ever damn well mention her again. Listen Coles, I don’t like you or what you do. You helped me when I was in a fix, but I think I’ve more than repaid you for that.”
Kevin Sheehan pressed himself into the corner of the room, his arms folded tightly across his chest.
“I think I’ll be the judge of when you’ve repaid me,” said Coles, staring unflinchingly into the Secretary’s eyes. “I suggest you sit down and listen.”
The Secretary looked down at his navy, silk tie, flicked it, and sat down heavily in the chair behind him. Thirty years on Wall Street, a life of doing the right thing, serving on commissions, donating to political campaigns and artistic causes, showing up at every tedious cocktail party in New York and Washington – and then just one mistake had put him in the hands of Coles. It was if the man had been watching him, waiting for him to trip up, stalking him into his trap.
Coles reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. He slid it across the polished oak desk towards the Secretary.
“I want you to invite the press to your office, where I wish you to read the following statement. I don’t insist on the exact wording, but the message must be the same.”
The Secretary reached leerily over to pick up the paper. He pulled out a pair of bifocals and began to read.
“You must be kidding, Myron. You want me to go out there and announce that the United States economy is in its worst state since the Great Depression? And that its stock markets are under assault from foreign interests? You’ve lost it old man.”
Sheehan saw the premonitory twitch in Coles’ neck.
“I still have the photographs Chuck,” he replied, using a nickname he knew the Secretary loathed. “You and that nice young girl who travelled from Georgia to Miami – across state lines, I might add – for your soiree. The one who never made it home.”
“What’s in it for you, Myron? How many billions do you stand to make from me talking down the U.S. economy? If I read this, I may as well hand in my resignation tonight.”
“And within five minutes, those pictures will be on the desk of the New York Post as well as hand delivered to your wife and three daughters. What I’m asking you to say isn’t such an exaggeration, Chuck. This economy is in deep trouble. You know it. You’ve known it ever since you took this job. You’ve just run out of spit and chicken wire to hold it together.”
“It is not the job of the United States Treasury Secretary to talk down the U.S. economy, Myron. It’s virtually seen as treason. The White House will go ballistic. As will most of Congress.”
“But in this case, you’ll be telling the truth. You’ll be a hero for those for whom the truth matters. And furthermore, Chuck, you have no choice.”
The Secretary leaned back, removed his glasses and dangled them on the tips of his fingers.
“What is this all about, Myron? You owe me that much.”
“I owe you nothing. You owe me.”
“If I do this, my career is over.”
“No. You will have been honest. The economy is finished and it is your duty to tell the truth about that. Not to lie and try to cover it up with what little authority your office still possesses. The Russians and Chinese are taking aim at our markets, Chuck, because they can afford to.”
“The Russians and Chinese?”
“Yes. It was their funds which dumped stock this morning. And according to my information, they are going to continue doing so for as long as they can afford it.”
“You’re telling me this was a strategic assault on our stock markets? Come on.”
“And how long do you think they can afford it? How long can two autocratic governments with money pouring out of the ground afford to short the U.S. economy? Longer than you wish, Chuck.”
“But they’re holding billions of dollars in foreign reserves. They own a lot of these stocks you claim they’re shorting. It makes no sense.”
“Does any kind of warfare make sense, Chuck? Only when you understand the goal. Our enemies can smell blood. They can see what has become of us. They have read their history and they know what happens to empires. They become corrupted and the timbers which held them up become soft and rotten. That is where we are, Chuck. A lazy country of flat screens and credit cards. And they know it and they are shorting our markets.”
“But they can’t do this forever. They don’t have the money. And they certainly won’t if they destroy their main export market.”
“You’re not thinking like them. Not so long ago, they were lining up for bread and dying of plagues. They understand suffering of a kind we in this country forgot decades ago. When they call a set of actions strategic, they mean it. They are not worried about the short-term health of an export market. They are thinking about history in 3000 year cycles and usurpation of one empire by another. What happened this morning, and I shall have the information sent to you, was not a usual market crash. It was a targeted, well planned assault on America’s financial well-being.”
“I still don’t see what good it does for me to go out and say the entire U.S. economy is on the brink.”
“It does you good because it will please me. And it will be the truth. And you will have to acknowledge the fact at some point anyway.”
“But why tomorrow? Why the hurry?”
“Because we must control what we can. Events will soon run far beyond your control. The markets will be volatile in a way we have never seen in our lifetimes. And the storm will render your voice inaudible.”
“And what’s in it for you?”
“That’s my business. But if things work out as I expect they will, there may be something for you too.”
For the first time, the Secretary cracked a smile. His neck had burst out in a rash.
“And then we’ll be even?” he asked, hopefully.
“We’ll see.” Coles rose from his seat. A milky light poured through the tall, leaded windows. “But I shall be looking forward to hearing your statement tomorrow.” He left the room, nodding at Sheehan on his way out. The Secretary lolled his head back and rubbed his swollen eyes.
By 6.30 P.M., the central hall of the Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road in west London was packed. The men wore variations on the tuxedo, black suits with black shirts, dinner jackets with regular ties instead of bow-ties, tartan trousers beneath velvet smoking jackets. The women were testament to the effectiveness of London’s platoons of personal trainers, private yoga instructors and hair stylists. Most of them had made the short drive from Mayfair or their large white town houses in South Kensington and Knightsbridge to honor one of the princes of their hedge fund universe: Timothy Howard.
Howard’s English father was a house painter, his Sri Lankan mother a waitress in a café in Dover, on England’s south coast. And yet, he had worked diligently through school, a middling English university and onto the bottom rung of the City of London, trading metals on the commodities exchange and cutting deals in Eastern Europe. After three years, he had won a place at Wharton, at the University of Pennsylvania, to study for his MBA. His application essays had emphasized his hard luck roots and how he had overcome them. This naturally appealed to an American Ivy League admissions office, which tired of reading stories of over-privileged kids taking “service” holidays to broaden their experience. Howard, they could sense, was aching to succeed in a way most other applicants were not.
While at Wharton, he had devoted himself to the study of finance, and in particular the behavior of financial markets. He had written a paper critiquing George Soros’ belief in the reflexivity of markets, the mechanism by which small mis-pricings become magnified as investors act on them. This was the reason for bubbles, Soros believed. The price of an asset goes up, a group of investors see it go up and pile in hoping it will go up further, and sure enough it does thanks to increased demand, until one day, the emperor is revealed to have no clothes and the whole edifice collapses. Howard loathed any theory which depended on irrational behavior.
He was an ultra-rationalist, a state of mind reflected in his fastidious appearance: boot-black hair, neatly cut and parted on the right; a classic French wristwatch with a black leather strap; a lean frame, kept so by dawn sessions on a rowing machine in his basement and a teetotal, macro-biotic diet; a uniform of light grey suits, white shirts and woven silk ties. Even at the weekends, he wore nothing but pressed jeans, Lacoste polo shirts and blue, cotton sweaters. Predictability and order in his private life were essential, he felt, to managing the intellectual and emotional violence of his work.
Howard had submitted his Wharton thesis to a number of hedge fund managers in New York, all of whom had replied, offering him a job. He had chosen Stan Walsh, partly because he liked the man, his enthusiasms and energy and partly because Walsh was the only one to offer him the chance to run his own portfolio straight out of business school. It was an extraordinary act of trust.
For three years, he had sat at Walsh’ shoulder learning to read the tides of the markets. It was one thing to have an investment idea, quite another to know when to act on it. In this, Walsh was peerless. His knee bounced constantly beneath his desk as his eyes darted between the screens on his desk. A magazine profile of Walsh had once compared him to an artist or athlete, the way he seemed to move instinctively through the markets. The comparison had infuriated him. Investing was a science, he believed. A science you learned through hard work, and advanced through intelligent experimentation. To compare it to pottery or painting was to diminish it. Howard could not have agreed more.
Howard developed a particular taste for one of the roughest forms of investing: risk arbitrage. When it appeared that two companies might merge, the share prices of the firms would begin to fluctuate. The merger or acquisition would inevitably affect the prices of the separate firms. Betting on what exactly the effect would be was the work of the risk arbitrageur. It required a very strong stomach and an intimate knowledge not only of the companies involved but also of the law, government regulation and everything surrounding the firms. It was not trading for weaklings.
But for Howard, even this was not enough. He hankered to go one step further and become an activist investor, one who took stakes in firms and then agitated to change them. Walsh wanted none of that. It was far too bloody. But he was ready to provide Howard with the seed capital to set himself up back in London.
For the past decade, Howard had gone up against large firms in Europe and the United States, buying their shares cheap then pushing to fire the management or break up the firms. Each battle required posses of expensive lawyers and months if not years of bruising arguments and insults. But if you could handle it, as Howard could, the profits could be exorbitant. He had smashed apart Germany’s largest road haulage firm, splintered two French pharmaceutical giants and humiliated the managers of the major electricity supplier in Texas. He had had to testify before governments, had been vilified in many languages, but in the process had become one of the richest investors in Europe.
But tonight, as his Bentley pulled up in front of the Natural History Museum, the last thing on his mind was his break-up battles. He was here tonight to speak about the charitable work he and his wife, Sam, were doing. Since setting up on his own, Howard had assigned 5% of his profits to a charity to provide potable water and early childhood education in rural Asia. After five years, the charity’s funds stood at nearly half a billion dollars. Not only did the fund do enormous good, but it also provided Howard with cover. It was that much harder for politicians to attack him when he gave so much away.
Howard took Sam’s hand and led her up the wide stone stairs to the grand, Victorian-Gothic entrance. She was wearing black, silk trousers, a jade linen shirt and a multi-colored scarf from Bhutan. Her long brown hair fell easily down her back. The only make-up she wore was a vivid streak of red lipstick which stood out against her pale skin. She was, Howard reflected, the anti-thesis of the trophy hedge fund wife. She did not care for all the things they did: modern art, expensive private schools for their children, houses, the latest fads in diet and exercise. She was genuinely interested in the work of the foundation, in helping people.
As they arrived in the central hall, Howard looked up at the giant cast of Diplodocus, donated by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. He had come here once as a boy, on a day trip with his parents. Now as an adult, he came at least once a month, if not more often. He loved the spirit of scientific inquiry which permeated the Victorian stones. What would those great, bearded explorers and adventurers have made of the crowd here tonight? These preening, strutting, plumed figures, so full of their ability to accumulate wealth, as if it were a virtue.
Howard began to make his way through the crowd, the gaggles of bankers and their white-teethed wives, whose muscular haunches shifted under their sheer, tight-fitting dresses. The air was heavy with tiers of lilies arrayed on every side of the hall, and expensive personalized scents on the women. Commissioning a personal scent from a Parisian parfumier was the latest way they had found to spend money.
Back-stage, the Rolling Stones were lolling around, waiting to do their one hour set and collect their three million pounds. Even one’s gods became whores in the end.
The waiters, all students from London comprehensive schools – another nice touch to keep the Socialist wealth-snatchers at bay – moved discreetly around the room, filling up the glasses with Avaya, a sugar-less Champagne donated by a Bordelais wine broker who had invested early with Howard. The macrobiotic canapés were served on recycled plastic trays, decorated by tribes in northern Brazil.
Even though the evening was set to run until midnight, with dinner, dancing and Sir Michael Philip Jagger to follow the cocktail hour, Howard did not intend to stay. He would begin his speech at 7.15pm, be finished at 7.33pm and be back in his study at home by 8pm, with a bowl of udon noodles and a stack of company reports.
When he got to the podium in the shadow of the dinosaur’s jaw, Howard waited to be introduced by the editor of the Financial Times, a short, beetling man who cast aside his journalistic principles on occasions such as these simply to feel on the inside for once. It felt satisfyingly sinful for him to eschew the sour, tea-stained Marxism of his newspaper for an evening and wallow in all this money and physical beauty. It certainly beat another night of white wine and spaghetti Bolognese in a North London kitchen complaining about the bastards in finance.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, his nasal voice bouncing off the tiled hall. “During these difficult financial times, it is useful to be reminded of the good money can do.” Cheers rose from the floor. “And there is no better reminder than Timothy and Samantha Howard.” Deafening applause. “I need hardly enumerate Timothy’s professional accomplishments for an audience so familiar with them. U.K. hedge fund manager of the year on three separate occasions. Chief investment officer of the third largest hedge fund in London. And, I know it will embarrass him to hear this, last year, the FT’s philanthropist of the year.” The clapping was so loud, Howard worried briefly that the Diplodocus might collapse on top of him. “President Bill Clinton called Timothy a role model for the financial universe. Evidence that not everyone who has thrived out of the financial revolution this past decade is worthy of the scorn poured on them by the popular press.” The crowd booed. “Timothy and Samantha’s charitable foundation now manages half a billion pounds a year, and last year gave away 30 million pounds to causes mostly in Africa, but also to education programs here in the United Kingdom. Andrew Carnegie, the American steel tycoon, donor of this fine model dinosaur above us and author of the Gospel of Wealth, wrote that “surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community”. Today, there can be few who live Carnegie’s words with the seriousness of purpose shown by Timothy and Samantha Howard.” As the applause thundered around the room, the editor turned and waved Howard to the microphone. Howard walked slowly, his head down, averted from the throng, so many of whom he had fought and vanquished over the years.
“My friends,” he began. “My very good friends.” He was momentarily distracted by the Hollywood actress standing just a few feet below him, who seemed to have her hand looped inside the waistband of her date, a dissolute Swiss fund raiser for hedge funds.
“I am humbled that you have all chosen to come out this evening to help support ACE, Action for Children and Education. The needs of the world can never be satisfied simply by government intervention. Especially when the governments in so many countries where need is greatest are simply not effective. Having run up against a few governments in my time, I understand the challenge.” He waited for the audience to laugh, which they duly did.
“Private capital is not just a nice addition to these efforts,” he said, leaning into the podium. “It is a must-have.” A crack sounded behind him, in the knee of the dinosaur. Howard looked up and saw the barrel of a rifle flash out of sight in the balcony and a figure racing towards the Hall of the Oceans. Suddenly, security men were pushing through the crowd and up the stairs, past the statue of Charles Darwin and the cross-section of a 1300 year old sequoia. One of them pushed Howard to the ground. Samantha cowered behind him.
A murmur began to spread in the crowd, growing in intensity until it erupted into screams. Glasses fell to the ground and the waiters and waitresses were elbowed aside by the money managers rushing for the door. The actress fell to the ground where her face was ground into a shard of broken glass. Her escort kept moving, shouting backwards but failing to stop and help her up.
“Get me out of here,” screamed Howard, but the powerful security guard held him to the ground. A blast of air came in from the street as the doors swung open.
Ten guards raced down the balcony and skidded left into the hall of minerals. They moved quickly past the rows of glass-topped cases. Glancing underneath, searching for signs of the shooter. As they moved further from the entrance, the sound of panic faded, replaced by the squeak of their shoes on the stone floor.
“The elevator’s moving,” shouted one of them.
“Down. Back down. To the Blue Zone.”
They ran back towards the emergency stairs, and took them two at a time, puffing with every step. The kind of security work they did rarely involved such exertion. It was more about standing about looking intimidating. They regrouped at the rear end of the giant blue whale which dominated the soaring exhibition hall. A footfall echoed from the far end.
“Five that way, five this,” said the leader of the security team. They lumbered past hippos and a narwhal’s tusk, falling behind the shooter with every step. Finally two of them reached the end of the hall, where they pushed on a fire door. They could hear the metal steps clatter beneath them, but it was too late. Seconds later, they heard the revving of a scooter, which darted into the moving traffic and away. Its rider’s face was concealed by the visor of a large, silver helmet.
The crowd flooded across Exhibition Road, flagging down taxis, anything to get away. But many still milled around on the pavement in front of the museum, waiting for cars, smoking, dishevelled and crying. It was too lovely a London evening for such a scene. The light was golden, the air warm. Groups of teenagers were making their way up to Hyde Park for a free concert, oblivious to the fact that before them stood people who collectively controlled hundreds of billions of pounds.
As police cars wailed their way towards the museum, the security guard finally stood up and pulled Howard to his feet. He summoned another guard who was pacing around the dinosaur, eyes riveted on the balcony. He ordered him to stay with Samantha, beside the coat-check area until he returned.
“Best to get you out of here separately,” he said to Howard.
He took Howard roughly by the arm and hurried him to the front door. They ran down the stairs and towards Howard’s green Bentley which waited for him at the curb. The crowd parted to let them through. One lens of Howard’s rimless glasses was cracked down the middle.
The guard pulled open the rear door and shoved Howard onto the seat.
“Don’t stop for lights,” he said to the driver, before slamming the door shut. He then moved in front of the car and pushed through the crowd which had spilled into the road. The Bentley edged forward. Howard covered his mouth with his hand as he looked back to the museum. Finally, they were clear and the car picked up speed.
Just as it reached Queensgate, the driver tapped on the brakes. The car exploded, killing the driver and sending Timothy Howard’s body spraying across the road.
“You’re not allowed to use those things in here,” said Eleanor Woods, admonishing her nephew.
“It’s Travis, sorry,” said Wright. He looked down as discreetly as he could at the Blackberry which he held between his knees. “Timothy Howard. Killed in a car bomb. In London.”
“Heavens,” said Woods. “No tears will be shed for him.” Wright tucked his device back into the pocket of his suit. Woods always insisted he wear a decent suit when he came for tea at the Paperwhite Club. The Paperwhite only allowed women as members, though men were allowed in certain areas at certain times. It was housed in a brick mansion which took up one third of a block on Park Avenue and 68th Street. Woods had been a member since graduating from Vassar in the early 1960s and had served a term as president. Her portrait hung on the first landing as you climbed the stairs. It showed her in an aquamarine jacket and skirt, standing in front of a tall window, the light shining down on her silver hair, as if she were being anointed by the holy spirit.
They had been meeting like this every three months since Wright turned 13 and Woods considered him capable of a decent conversation. They met in the same second floor sitting room, on the Park Avenue side, Woods sitting in the corner of a green silk sofa, embroidered with cornflowers, Wright on a French wooden armchair, with legs so delicate he always worried they might snap under his weight. The waiter, an elderly Cuban who had worked at the club for decades, brought them Earl Grey tea and a plate of coconut macaroons. There was space at the other end of the room for another group to sit, but club etiquette dictated that no one did.
“Did you know Howard?” asked Wright.
“A little. He once launched one of his raids on a company where I sat on the board. A paper pulp maker down in Tennessee. It was a decent company, family run, third generation which had made the mistake of going public. It exposed it to sharks like Howard. It’s always the same story with these family firms. By the third generation, they’re getting lazy and greedy. An IPO was an easy way to get some cash out of the firm while retaining control.”
“What did Howard do?”
“Well, let’s see, there were three sleazy private investigators, an attempt to blackmail the then chief executive, whose daughter was pregnant with the child of a defensive end with the Tennessee Titans, a fire at one of our major lumber yards, squadrons of lawyers dispatched from Houston, New Orleans and Nashville to take the fight to us, articles in all the state newspapers. When Timothy Howard decided he wanted to change your firm, he did not hold back. You’re looking thin, Benjamin, have another macaroon.”
“Travis thinks there’s a pattern here. Reeves. De Montbrison. Howard.”
“Based on what?”
“His back is telling him.”
“Art and his aching back. Do you know how long he has been pulling that aching back routine? Decades. And you know why? It’s so he doesn’t have to tell you the real reason he’s doing something. Because if he did, then we’d all know and he’d have lost his edge. Why are you getting involved in this, Benjamin? Why do you get involved in any of this? You could be on one of your archaeological digs, or whatever it is you like to do.”
“Art asked me.”
“And because he’s your Daddy’s friend, you can’t say no. These are not pleasant people, you know, Ben. People who make that amount of money doing things one scarcely understands rarely are. One of the reasons you are so lucky is that you get to do the things money allows, without the boredom, compromise and stain of having to make it.”
“Spare me, Eleanor.”
“Spare you what.”
“The speech. The how lucky I am speech.”
“This morning we cut rates again. I presume you noticed that.”
“Another exercise in futility.”
“Exactly what I said.”
‘Then why did you do it?”
“The need to be seen to be doing something. Taking action. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be an independent entity, apart from the whims of politicians. But of course we’re corrupted by political expediency.”
“You want to be popular too.”
“We’re concerned about seeming too technocratic. You know, financial puppeteers, pulling the strings, oblivious to the needs of ordinary Americans. We’re supposed to see things in the long-term, to create long-term sustainability. But inevitably we end up managing for the short run, like everyone. The only governor ever worth his salt was Volcker in the early 80s. He kept raising rates until the infected wound afflicting the economy was clean. But of course, he had political support behind him. If we don’t do what Washington wants, they start blaming us. And we, poor dears, don’t like to be blamed. Prick us, do we not bleed? Yes, I’m afraid central bankers have feelings too.”
“What did you recommend?”
“I suggested we not act in response to what was happening in the markets. But that we take our time to establish cause, effect and treatment.”
“What did they say?”
“Sheehan argued we had to stop the bleeding.”
“You’ve never cared for him, have you?”
“Nothing to care for. A nasty little hack. He has no business at the Fed.”
“What are you hearing about Europe?”
“I heard it’s coming out of Switzerland.”
“The boys in Zug.”
“You ever been there?”
“A few times. But I can’t bear it. It’s one of the most pristine environments in the world, right there on a beautiful Swiss lake, but you go there and feel dirty.”
“For a money manager, you’re very squeamish about money, Eleanor.”
“It’s not the money that makes me squeamish, Benjamin. I adore money. You know that. Your father knew that. I love making it and spending it. It’s what people will do for it. We’re fortunate enough to live in a country which has torn down the obstacles to almost anyone, with some education, luck and diligence, to make a more than decent living. But still, people take short-cuts. People who should know better. London became the same and Howard was the ultimate in gruesome.”
She set down her tea cup, and smoothed out her skirt.
“Benjamin. I know you enjoy this investigative work. I know that working with the likes of me doing what your father did would bore you. But these are dangerous times. It’s not about rummaging through computer records any more or piecing together financial misdemeanors.”
“It’s about Henry Reeves, Thierry de Montbrison, Timothy Howard,” said Wright.
“I don’t know what’s behind this, Benjamin, but I can tell you that there is a lot of desperation and anger out there today. People got used to living the way they lived. And to take it away from them, the way this economy is doing, feels to them like a kind of tragedy. One which provokes a tragic response. But that’s not what worries me. What does worry me is the kind of money in the system. So much of it is toxic. It comes from people and places which should never have been allowed in.”
“They get stigmatized. But it’s not just them. It’s money from Latin America which goes through Panama and the Caribbean. It’s money from Macao which enters the system in Hong Kong or Australia. It’s even money here in the United States. Belonging to people who would rather not pay tax, or who hire people like Howard to rough up the real economy on their behalf. It’s like a contagious disease, Benjamin.
“I remember talking to the owners of that pulp firm in Tennessee. They had no idea of why Howard treated them like he did. One day, they were sitting on their porches in Carthage, sipping tea and enjoying their profits. The next, they were being savaged. After three months, the company was forced to lay off four thousand employees, many of whom had worked for the firm all their lives. All so Howard could push the value of the firm up by a few extra percent. And then, the moment he’d done that, he dumped his stock. Walked away with his profits having blasted a hole in the lives of thousands of people he had never met. These characters sitting behind their screens in New York, London and Switzerland, they think they’re making capitalism more efficient. What they’re doing is creating insecurity, despair and incessant churn in areas of the economy they recognize simply as numbers on a financial model.”
“Isn’t it a little late to be calling them out on this?” said Wright, smiling at his aunt’s indignation. Woods sat back in her seat.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I suppose it is. The belated indignation of the moral coward. We must just wait for Mother Market to wreak her revenge. But I’d still rather you kept well clear.”
“I can take care of myself, Eleanor. Anyway, here’s what I’d like you to do with my money over the next quarter.” He pulled a cream envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to her. She put on her glasses and glanced over Wright’s instructions, which he gave her every three months. In the past, they would have a discussion. But not any more. He was truly his father’s son.
“Very good, Benjamin,” she said, smiling. “These are very good.”
“I know he said,” standing up and getting ready to leave.
“I’ll call some people I know in Europe,” said Woods, looking up at her nephew. How much he’d grown from the little boy in a blazer, who would regale her with stories of soccer, baseball and the episodes in American history which fired his imagination. He was taller than his father, but had the same thick dark hair curling over his brow, the same steady gaze and economy of movement. “But darling, please, please take care.”
Wright smiled, kissed his aunt’s hand, and left.
Steve Weissberg stared down the long, empty dining room table. A setting had been laid out for his wife at the other end, but she had gone out without telling him when she might return. On either side of him hung two Renoirs, $60 million of blurry flower arrangements as far as he could tell, sold him by a dapper little dealer over on Madison Avenue. They were not just works of art, the dealer had told him, but also an extraordinary investment. If you looked back over 100 years, Impressionist Art had gone up in value more than almost any other asset class. This had clinched the deal.
In front of him lay a plate of stone crabs, his favorite, $400 a pound, flown up from Florida that very morning. He could smell the brine on them. On any other evening, he would be cracking them open and sucking out the shells. He reached for the bottle of Chablis which sat sweating in front of him. A footman rushed forward to pour it for him.
“Leave me alone,” said Weissberg, pulling at his tie. He removed his jacket. Ever since they had moved into this apartment, Weissberg had demanded that all dinners in this dining room require a jacket and tie for men, and formal attire for women. But not tonight.
He poured himself a large glass of the wine and took a long sip. It coated the back of his mouth and seemed to prick the back of his eyes. He hooked one arm over the back of his chair and looked out through the windows, framed by yards of flowery silk curtains, to the lights of the Metropolitan Museum across Fifth Avenue. There was a benefit going on, the usual thicket of Town Cars at the entrance, and a desultory group of photographers, on “wrinkly patrol” as they called it, taking pictures of rich people for the society magazines which chronicled their dismal maneuvers. It was really the bottom of the paparazzi trash pile. What they wouldn’t have given to be doing the Oscars.
Weissberg could easily have been there. $10,000 for a table. He could have been there with his hand on the knee of his decorator, Kalliope DeLuca, while her gay husband flirted with the editor of Vogue Interiors. There was no easier world to buy access to than New York’s charity circuit. And he had bought it. Only to discover it was spoiled goods.
The French clock ticked quietly on the mantelpiece. Weissberg picked up his fork and dug into one of the crabs. It was good. But not great, the way it once had been. He remembered the first time he ate them, at the Four Seasons restaurant, at a lunch to celebrate the break-up of a mid-western breakfast cereal conglomerate. The owner, Julian Niccolini, had brought them over himself, with a bottle of champagne. Weissberg was with DeLuca that day. It was the start of their affair. After the stone crab, they had pasta with white truffles, fresh strawberries and sloppy sex in a room at the Carlyle, the floor littered with wallpaper samples. It was when money still translated into pleasure for Weissberg.
It was before he became Weissberg The Iceberg, the terror of Wall Street, and the money became just a way to keep score.
What did it mean to him now to own the largest living room in Manhattan? Or to have funded the entire expansion of his son’s private school with a single check? Or to take his jet to East Hampton every weekend and see the same people he saw all week, except in shorts? Now his wife was gallivanting around town with that woman from Vanity Fair, the one who had come to profile him and spent most of the interview complaining how difficult it was to get her son into nursery school. The woman had visible roots, a nose job and handbag the size of Rhode Island. Weissberg had known untrustworthy people before, plenty of them. But most were a little more subtle about it. This woman? She’d do you over for half a sandwich. And now she had befriended his wife. Once a week, the two of them went out with his wife’s car and driver to have dinner with friends from the magazine.
Weissberg had gone with them once and never again. He had shown up in his suit and he could tell they despised him for it. Despised him for being rich and successful and serious while they flounced around coming up with picture captions for movie stars. While they bitched and feasted on tiny morsels of trivia, he made the world turn. Strip them of their jobs and expense accounts, and they were nothing again. Take away all of his trappings, and Weissberg would always be Weissberg, smart, tough, a survivor. But what was the point? You won the fight and scrambled to the top and what did you find up here in the penthouse of life? The same bunch of losers you thought you’d left at the bottom, just older and more pleased with themselves.
He took another gulp of wine and opened the manila file which lay beside his plate. It was the daily summary of his firm’s investments and ran to 20 pages. There were office buildings, and technology firms, crop science companies and the world’s largest maker of Styrofoam cups. His funds owned coal miners and can manufacturers, alternative fuel firms and oil tankers. Reading the list was one of the few things that gave Weissberg pleasure any more. All around the world were men and women working to improve his return on equity. There were Bengali ships’ captains risking pirates around the Horn of Africa and Stanford PhD’s building solar panels and French agronomists in Clermont Ferrand devising the ultimate in vitamin-enriched feed pellets. Idiots in the press accused him of doing nothing but moving money around and ignoring the “real economy”. They should spend five minutes with this list. Then they would see who ran the real economy.
As a student he had visited Mexico City and seen Diego Rivera’s great murals depicting workers in factories and fields. Sometimes Weissberg imagined Whitegate’s interests in terms of such a mural, spreading across wall after wall, showing man’s industry and ingenuity, all enabled by Whitegate’s capital and leadership.
These were bad times for the portfolio. Asset prices were down everywhere. Revenues were down. It was impossible to roll over the loans which had made the acquisition of these firms possible. Cash flows were being squeezed to a trickle. And potential buyers were running scared. But still, the list built a glorious vision in Weissberg’s mind, a vision he could never have imagined as a boy in his father’s small hardware store in Buffalo.
That was another thing his critics never gave him credit for. The fact that he was entirely self-made. He wasn’t born white shoe. It had taken sweat to get to where he had. He had worked his way through high school, earned a full scholarship to study engineering at Cornell, spent three years hustling stocks for a small firm on Wall Street, then attended Harvard Business School. Harvard had changed his outlook and his opportunities. A senior finance professor had seen something in him and introduced him around. On graduation he took a job working in the private investment office of T.R. Bancroft, a fantastically wealthy oil tycoon.
Unlike other Texan oilmen of his generation, T.R. had no interest in gambling and whoring away his fortune. When the Hunt brothers went bust trying to corner the world’s silver market, T.R. was on the other side profiting from their misfortune. When oil prices fell in the early 1980s, leaving Houston and Dallas on the brink, T.R. moved in and bought every asset he could, confident in a turnaround. He was a lean, sinewy man, with neat white hair, who lived in the same three bedroom ranch house he had owned for 50 years in the Preston Hollow area of Dallas. He did 50 press ups and 50 sit ups every morning and drank nothing stronger than black coffee. His clarity, discipline and raw intelligence provided the greatest education any young investor could have.
Weissberg had spent 8 years with T.R. scouring the world for opportunity before striking out in his own. Piqued by his departure, T.R. refused to invest with him until he could show him he had five other investors. It took Weissberg months to find the five. And when he did, he called T.R. to tell him to keep his money. Five years later, they made up over a breakfast of eggs and grits at the Driskill Hotel in Austin.
The one thing T.R. had which Weissberg coveted was a disregard for other people’s opinions. Instead, he suffered. The attacks hurt. The derision pained him. And drove him to work harder. When a story leaked out that he had been seen working through opening night at the Met, using a reading light attached to the inside of his briefcase, he felt uncouth. But what was he supposed to do for three hours of Italian chin-wobbling? When someone wrote that he wore stacked heels to compensate for being so short, he felt like a fraud. He could make all the billions he liked, but it was the details by which he would be remembered: the midget, philistine banker, with the chip on his shoulder. In recent months he had thought for the first time how much he wanted to get away. Everyone imagined he was addicted to Whitegate and his office with the French lamps and the view of Grand Central Station. They thought he could never give it up. That his achievements defined him. Never in his life had he thought like this. This was how losers thought, wasn’t it? That other things mattered. That life wasn’t all about money and power. Snap out of it Weissberg, he told himself. Snap the hell out of it.
And boy had it been a mistake to float part of the firm. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Get some money out, appease the partners, put a value on the institution they had built. And it was also sweet to get there before Arthur Travis. Travis had been pondering an IPO for years, but never got around to it. And Weissberg had just blitzed his way to the finish line. The first man to get there and cash in his billions – ten of them to be precise. Fortune magazine had called it a stroke of genius, the latest in a career full of them. The Wall Street Journal had said the flotation marked the top of the market. And what was wrong with that? It was the perfect time to go public.
The problem had been with the Chinese. They had taken a third of the float and had not stopped bitching about it since. They had bought at 40 and watched the stock slide down to 8. And now their entire country seemed to be pissed about it. As if it were Weissberg’s fault. If the Chinese had a half decent economy, he told people in private, they would invest in that, not come sharking for American assets. But that was the way of things these days. You found your investors where you could and dealt with the consequences later. The worry in this case was that the man at China’s government investment authority who had invested in Whitegate had been found dead in a car beside the Three Gorges Dam, a reported suicide. His wife had then copied her husband, taking her life in a public garden in Beijing. Their only daughter had been made a ward of the state. If an investment in America went wrong, you sued someone. In China, you put a bullet through their brain. It certainly beat the SEC as a way of keeping folks straight.
A rap at the door disturbed Weissberg’s thoughts. His butler came in carrying a note.
“The doorman just brought this up. Most urgent, the messenger said.”
Wessiberg snatched it up off the silver tray and glowered at the butler who shuffled quickly out. Weissberg stood up and ran his finger under the fold to tear it open. He wiped one hand on a napkin and pulled out the small card, just three inches by two inches, the size of a business card. It was made of heavy stock and printed with raised, black copperplate.
Four names: Reeves, Montbrison, Howard, Weissberg.
“Three of these men died within the last 24 hours,” said Myron Coles. He had walked the two blocks from his building to Weissberg’s the moment he received his call.
Weissberg’s legs buckled and he fell backwards onto a gold silk sofa. He laid his palms down on the cushions and stared directly at the coffee table in front of him, stacked, for reasons only his wife could explain, with books about French cathedrals. Coles wore an old green sweater, grey flannels and tennis shoes. He perched on the edge of an ottoman beside the fireplace.
“At least you have been warned,” he said.
“How did they die?”
“Reeves was shot and pushed from his office. Montbrison was slashed in an elevator. Howard’s car exploded.”
“Do the police have anything?”
“Well, what am I supposed to do, Myron?”
“Don’t panic, Steve. You’re cooler than this. Do you have any idea who might want to kill you?”
“The only one I knew well was Montbrison. Reeves I’d heard of, but he wasn’t a player. And Howard was a trader. I hadn’t seen him for years. We don’t do the same thing. Or didn’t. Lots of people hated Montbrison, because he kept screwing their wives, which never goes down so well.” It was one of the reasons Coles liked Weissberg. He couldn’t help being a smartass.
“Do I call the police in on this? Then everyone knows. I’m a target. Shit, Myron. Come on.”
“You have security?”
“A couple of guys.”
“Well get a couple more. And don’t leave here. At least for a few days. Say you’re sick.”
“The Chinese are coming in tomorrow to chew me out for the share price.”
“Invite them here. They’ll take it as a mark of respect. Raid the wine cellar.”
“What do I tell Christa?”
“Will she notice? You don’t even share a bedroom anymore do you Steve?”
“How do you know that?” Coles shrugged his shoulders.
“The first thing we need to do is find out who’s behind this,” said Coles. “There must be a connection.”
“Not necessarily. Other than that we all manage other people’s money. Perhaps someone is just pissed off with us as a species.”
“Not enough to kill. So effectively.”
“Don’t tell me that, Myron. Shall I call my lawyer?”
“No,” said Coles quickly. “The fewer people who know about this the better.”
“Well how are we going to find out who’s behind this. I’ve got to tell you Myron, in all my years doing this, I’ve been threatened with all kinds of things, but never, never has the person threatening me got three fresh corpses to prove he’s serious.”
“I know a guy who deals with this. Threats, kidnappings, all the things which happen to rich people. Unfortunately. Do you know how many times a year someone threatens to do something violent to Donald Trump?”
“Are you telling me I shouldn’t be sweating this? Seriously Myron?”
“No, of course not. I’m saying that you have a lot to consider right now. Your firm is struggling. Your share price is pathetic. Your investors are restless. And you’re the poster boy for an industry that’s being blamed for taking down the U.S. economy. It’s not that surprising someone out there would like to see you dead.”
“But why am I on this list? With these stooges? Reeves and Montbrison were monkeys in this business. Howard, sure, that might make sense if it’s some class warrior at work. But taking out Reeves and Montbrison’s like taking out a Class A pitcher because you’re angry about team selection on the Yankees.” Weissberg walked over to the wet bar, hidden behind a frescoed door in a corner of the living room. He tapped the edge of the door and it swung open to reveal a dark green backsplash and tinted mirror, and a glinting array of bottles. He pulled out a twenty-five year old Scotch and poured out three fingers for himself into a heavy crystal tumbler. He dropped in two cubes of ice. The Scotch splashed onto his fingers. He licked them as he walked back to the sofa.
“Whose money have you been taking recently, Steve?”
“Only the good stuff, Myron. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund was the latest to come in.”
“No one who’d respond to a financial issue with physical violence then.”
“Not unless Canadian teachers, Californian pensioners and Floridian agricultural workers are suddenly into whacking people.”
“You sure you’re clean?”
“As sure as I can be, you know. Some money comes from family offices in Switzerland, you assume it’s reputable, but do you ever really know? We try to vet it.”
“But nothing from the Viennese banks, for instance.”
“I’m not as stupid as I look, Myron. No Russians.”
“Any trades where you pushed it? Short squeeze the wrong guys?”
“Nothing I haven’t done a hundred times before.”
“There’s one other possibility, I guess.”
“Whoever it is doesn’t actually want to kill you.”
“Come on, Myron. I’m on a list of four.”
“Yes but perhaps they just want you to think you’re going to die. It’s a lousy way to live.”
“So I’m either dead or just the living dead. It wasn’t supposed to come to this.”
Xavier Darcos picked up the heavy ormolu telephone in his hallway. It was shortly before midnight in Paris, but he was still working, sifting through the wreckage of the day’s trading.
“It’s late Ben. I wouldn’t be taking this call if it wasn’t you.”
“What happened today, Xavier?”
“I’m still not sure.”
“What was all that selling this morning? It feels like the waters have closed over it. And the markets are back to old-fashioned panicking.”
“This doesn’t sound like your usual market gossip, Ben. What’s it to you?”
“Travis thinks there’s more to this.”
“Another rogue trader perhaps.”
“Perhaps. Any word?”
“No, Ben. Nothing from the major banks. But then again, if a big bank is dumping a major position, they don’t necessarily reveal it up front. They try to sell out before we know what they’re doing and gang up on them.”
“You’re a charming bunch.”
“Come on, Ben. It’s legitimate. When there’s blood in the water, you feed. Law of nature.”
“So what do you think? You must have an opinion Xavier.”
“When you broke down the sell-off, there were a lot of commodities. We know global demand for commodities is going down, but not at the rate the sell-off suggested. The speed and volume we saw today was irrational.”
“Could it have been hedge funds liquidating positions?”
“Not on this scale. Also, we’re weeks away from the redemption dates. It wouldn’t make any sense to dump positions now when, worst case, you’re not going to have to return cash to investors for months. No it’s not the hedge funds.”
“Then who has the capacity to make a play on this scale?”
“An investment bank could do it. They could post the collateral to buy the positions or short them. But unless they were caught in some massive fraud, they wouldn’t do this kind of thing. And I’m not hearing anything about any fraud. There is maybe a handful of individual investors who could work with these kinds of volumes. But none of them would take risk on this scale. It would jeopardize all their wealth.”
“Which leaves us with what?”
“There are two commodities trading firms who have enough knowledge and market power to cause a move like this. One is here in Paris. The other is in Switzerland.”
“Yes. Is Travis interested just for his own purposes? Are his positions taking a beating?”
“No. He’s interested because...”
“What Ben?” There was a pause at the other end.
“I think I’d better tell you in person.”
Wright bounded up the curving staircase to his bedroom.
“Win!” he shouted. His butler emerged from the pantry. “I need a car to take me to JFK. And a ticket for the 10PM Air France flight to Paris. Don’t, whatever you do, put me on American like you did last time.”
Wright reached into his closet and pulled out a brown leather travel bag. He grabbed three polo shirts, two formal white shirts, two pairs of grey flannel trousers, and a spare pair of black loafers and tossed them onto the bed. He glanced around the room. Its grey walls were covered with watercolors and lithographs he had begun acquiring as a teenager. There were scenes from Greek and Roman history, many variations on the sack of Troy and the birth of the Roman Republic. There were paintings of coastal Maine, quiet beaches and pines, where he had spent so many summers. And Hyères, the town in the south France where his mother had been born. When he was not here, he yearned for this room and its collection of memories. When he was here, it could feel suffocating. He often thought how pleasant it would be to live in a bare, monastic cell, free of the past.
He walked over to his desk and picked up both of his passports, American and French, and tucked them into his jacket pocket, along with his wallet. Win could take care of the rest.
A red light was blinking on his telephone. He hit play.
“Ben, it’s Ashley at Arthur Travis’ office. Mr. Travis has some documents he’d like you to see. Please call when you can.” She even sounded great on the phone, thought Wright. He dialed Travis’ number.
“Ashley, it’s Ben Wright.”
“Thanks Ben. Are you around this evening? Mr. Travis asked me to get these documents to you as soon as possible.”
“I’m going to be leaving in 15 minutes. If you can get them up here by then.”
“I’ll bring them myself. Hold on, Mr. Travis wants a word. May I put you through?”
“Ben?” came the familiar, smoky voice. “Where are you?”
“I’m at home. I’m traveling tonight.”
“Where to? We’re swimming in dead bankers. Where are you going to?”
“Why, who else?”
“Thierry de Montbrison.”
“Hold on,” said Wright, reaching for the heavy, black fountain pen in his pocket and a note card. “Do we know how or why?”
“Montbrison was knifed in the elevator in his office. They got Howard in a car bomb, In front of all the city’s money managers. They won’t be going out again soon. I spoke to a few friends there this evening and they’re sweating fear. They think it’s going to be like Colombia, where anyone with money has to travel with bodyguards and armored cars.”
“Why couldn’t these deaths be random? What’s the connection?”
“They could be, Ben. But think about it. Imagine if in one day, three major league baseball players were murdered. All on different teams, in different places, but all major league players. You don’t think the first question would be, what’s the link? Not, wow, isn’t that a coincidence? Anyway, where are you going?”
“This is no time for Paris, Ben.”
“You asked me to find out who and why, Art. Stan Walsh showed me a list of the positions unloaded in those trades early this morning. A bunch of similar positions were owned by Henry Reeves. And the sellers were in Europe. If I’m going to find a motive, it seemed like a decent place to start.”
“Ben,” said Travis.
“We need to know how far this is going.”
“Are we done? If so, that’s fine. Three dead jerks. The world’s better off. But who do these guys want? Howard was big. If you wanted to make a point, I can understand getting him. The other two? Random. And that’s terrifying. Who do they really want, Ben? We can’t wait for the feds to figure this out, Ben. Look how long it took them to figure out Bernie Madoff was a crook.”
“I think the money will give us our answer.”
“I hope you’re right Ben. Call me if you need anything. Anything.”
Moments later, the doorbell rang. Win answered it. Ashley stood there in a black raincoat, the collar turned up. A breeze blew it open at the knee, revealing an Oriental, lime lining. She was clutching a white envelope.
“Come in,” said Wright, waving her into the hallway. She looked down at the checkered stone floor and up at the staircase which circled towards an oval skylight four stories up.
“The envelope?” said Wright.
“Sorry,” she said, handing it over. They stood there for a moment. Win appeared with Wright’s bag and a sheet of paper with his flight details. Outside, Wright could see his car pulling up behind Ashley’s. He searched for something to say.
“How’s Art doing?”
“You’ve known him for a long time haven’t you?”
“All my life. He and my father were at Columbia together. In Ben Graham’s investment class. I guess you know who Ben Graham was.”
“My dad was a broker. Other kids got bedtime stories. I got chapters from Value Investing.”
“Was your dad any good?”
“No. Mediocre. But he was a good father.”
“So how’s Art?”
“Not so good. His health hasn’t been great recently and he thinks the industry is about to fall into the grave it dug for itself. Too many dicky sharks.”
“You know, dicky sharks.” She was smiling. “Sharks who are dicks too. Like most of the men in this business.”
“I’ll remember that one.” Wright picked up his bag. “Thanks for bringing this by.”
Ashley nodded and turned to leave. They stepped onto the sidewalk together. Wright opened the rear door of Ashley’s car and she got in.
“Bon voyage” she said as he closed the door.
When he returned, Wright thought, he would have to do something about this.
Wright settled into his seat in First Class. He refused the offer of champagne, taking a glass of red wine instead. Air France still seemed to believe in hiring beautiful women in the First Class cabin, a throw-back to an earlier time. Americans might laugh at the French for running a semi-nationalized airline. But when you flew airlines cut to the bone by commercial pressures, you appreciated the benefits of the fat, government cushion beneath this one. If the U.S. government seriously believed in free markets for air travel, they’d ditch all the private planes used by government officials, from Air Force one down, and force them all to go through the frisking and other indignities of commercial airlines. As if that would ever happen.
Wright tore open the envelope Ashley had given him and began to read. There were newspaper cuttings about the three dead men, mostly about Howard. Montbrison appeared in a few gossip items involving high profiled divorces. Reeves was only mentioned in a couple of the trade magazines and Hamptons magazine, photographed with his wife at polo tournaments. There were also three neatly typed pages showing the investment portfolios of the three dead men. Howard’s was by far the longest and most convoluted, a knot of intricate derivatives. But as Wright worked through them, seeing through to the underlying assets, a clear pattern emerged.
It was just as Walsh had told him. The market plunge this morning and the deaths. They were linked. They had to be.
The plane flew over Newfoundland, beyond the reach of North American air traffic control, and out over the night-enshrouded Atlantic. Wright pulled the cashmere blanket over his head and settled back into his deep, leather seat to sleep.
The answers to his questions, he felt, lay just hours away.
The silver Mercedes fishtailed sharply on the narrow road descending the Montenegrin coast. The driver twisted the steering wheel sharply to the right, sending a spray of small stones down the rock face. The Honorable Alexander Renshaw pulled his stomach back into the seat and cursed at the driver. The flight from Zurich to Podgorica had been unsettling. But nothing like the summons which prompted it. Shestakov wanted to see him, immediately. Eugene Lvov, Shestakov’s right hand, had been unusually abrupt on the telephone. Normally the Russians were fawning.
Renshaw and his family represented something they coveted but could not buy: the dignity conferred on great wealth by time and taste. Anyone could acquire the English country houses and mega-yachts, the town houses and paintings, but the patina of class remained beyond them.
At the age of 21, on graduating from Cambridge, Renshaw had seen his opportunity. It came with the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, a young generation of Russian entrepreneurs, who seized their fortunes when the great state-owned enterprises were privatized, was looking for ways to move their money west. Renshaw offered himself up. His father had always taunted him for not being the athlete and scholar he had been. He had told him he had no promise and was a stain on the family name. Whether by intent or accident, his disdain had implanted in Alexander an overwhelming desire to surpass his father in business, to make his achievements and formidable wealth look trivial. All he required was the guts to match his ambition and cunning.
He had become a middle-man between the Russian money seeking a home and the money managers in New York and London seeking funds. The Russians were thrilled to have a young Englishman with the access they needed, who was also sympathetic to them socially. Whenever they came to London, he arranged dinners, visits to tailors and art galleries, all they desired as they learned to spend their newfound wealth. When he came to Moscow, he embraced the life of steam baths, violent drinking and orgiastic marathons which for them defined leisure.
And the money kept piling up for everyone. The funds Renshaw chose had performed well. He had made tens then hundreds of millions, finally surpassing his father’s fortune in just his seventh year of doing business. The shock had prompted his father to divorce his mother, shave his head and retire to a villa in the mountains above Lausanne, where he devoted himself to a world class orchid collection.
But for the past few years, Renshaw had suffered from a recurring nightmare. He was pulling on a rope, pulling and pulling and then suddenly there was nothing on the other end and he went tumbling into a rocky chasm. He had witnessed at first hand the Russians’ casual violence. He had seen a lawyer bludgeoned to death in a caviar bar in St. Petersburg. A treacherous girlfriend slashed across her face. The rewards for dealing with these people were exorbitant. But they were also becoming casual and cocky, behaving as if they were back in Chukotka or Minsk or whatever god-awful corner of the former Soviet Union they had come from. They were no longer just exporting aluminum, oil and gas. Their violence was moving overseas.
The car pulled onto the runway at Tivat airport where a helicopter waited, the blades of its rotor slumped against its sides. It was late afternoon and the sun blazed low across the Mediterranean. Far in the distance, around Kotor Bay, he could see boats angling towards the fishing towns of Croatia.
He took his seat alongside the pilot, a grizzled American with a thick white mustache, and in a moment, the blades were whirring and the helicopter easing off the runway into the sky, pushing up and forwards along the coast. The headphones muffled most of the noise, but Renshaw could still here the crackle of the radio as the pilot communicated with Shestakov’s yacht. “We have the passenger and are now heading north to the Serena,” said the pilot, who tapped and flicked the controls with an ease borne of years of practices. “Estimated arrival time, 6.05pm, in about half an hour.”
Renshaw rested his head on the back of the seat and closed his eyes. He tried to sleep but his mind would not let him. Shestakov was not a hysterical man. He would be calm. He never shouted. He left that to others. He owed Renshaw a lot. Without him he would never have been able to make such a seamless move to England. Buying a soccer team had been a master-stroke, and pouring millions into it even better. He had bought himself a constituency, just the way he had back in Russia where he had bought himself an entire region and created a personal tax regime to help him extract his billions. Renshaw had taught him how to shoot, and introduced him to the brutal pleasure of a bespoke Purdy’s shotgun. He had helped him shed the gold bathtubs style – and the first wife who adored it – and replace it with a more Anglicized elan. He had helped get his son into Eton and his daughter to Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Without him, Shestakov might have been just another Russian thug, rich for a while then broke and dead in a Moscow dumpster. With him, Shestakov had laid the foundations for a dynasty. Like the Renshaws, in fact. No, he could never treat him the way he had treated the lawyer or the girlfriend.
The helicopter began to dip and below him, Renshaw could see the bright yellow H marking the landing pad atop the Serena. Renshaw checked the messages on his Blackberry. There were just two. One from his assistant saying the French CAC 40 had just closed, down 10% for the day, and the futures market was tanking in after-hours trading. Terrible, but in the scheme of things not disastrous. The second was from his principal investor in New York. His main fund had been pummeled, falling three times farther than the Dow. It was as if someone had drawn a bead on everything he owned and begun shooting.
One investor’s money made up three quarters of that main fund. And Renshaw was falling through the air to see him.
Renshaw descended from the helicopter onto a bleached wooden deck, surrounded by gleaming brass railings. A young Englishwoman, her blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, her eyes shaded by mirrored sunglasses, wearing a matching navy polo shirt and shorts, had greeted him and accompanied him down to a sitting area overlooking the stern of the boat. It was curiously empty. Shestakov usually travelled with a circus of business associates, lawyers, stumpy babushkas from his village in Siberia, and a posse of girlfriends. But today, there was no one but the crew.
“Anything to drink, sir,” said the Englishwoman. “Mr Shestakov will be with you shortly.”
“Coffee,” said Renshaw.
“Cappuccino, espresso, latte?”
“Just an ordinary old cup of coffee, please.”
Within a minute, the woman returned with the coffee and a plate of chocolate covered cookies. Renshaw looked over towards the Croatian coast, lit up by the fading sun. There was something so alienating about wealth, he often thought. When you had money, it was no longer sufficient to walk in town squares at dusk and have a drink. You had to create your own micro-society at sea. There was no serendipity or chaos, no children racing around chasing each other and demanding ice cream, no new faces to see. Just the quiet hum of extravagance. The squeak of deck shoes, the hiss of the radio tower, the occasional thud of the lifeboats hanging against the side of the yacht. And then the vassals, the entire crew and guests all cravenly seeking the favor of the owner, who petulantly paid the bills.
Shestakov surprised him, walking up behind him and planting both hands on Renshaw's shoulders.
"Alex. How good of you to come." Renshaw leapt up, almost spilling his coffee. He turned and they embraced.
"I was told it was important."
"It is, it is," said Shestakov sitting down beside him, resting one hand on Renshaw's knee. He was wearing white linen trousers, leather thong sandals and a linen shirt the color of the ocean. His blonde hair was closely cropped and his face dark brown after a month at sea.
"But first tell me, how was your trip? How are things in St. Moritz?"
"It was fine. You know I prefer Switzerland in summer to winter. There's nothing like the Engadine Valley when the snow has gone."
"And the Russians."
"Well, yes. You haven't yet discovered the joys of summer hiking. It's not fast enough for you."
Shestakov smiled. "We'll slow down eventually, Alexander. As we become more civilized. But you're right. For now we want speed, excitement, pizzazz! Big, bigger, biggest yachts!" He clicked his fingers and laughed. "All those things we were starved of for so long. Maybe in ten years, we'll want to go on long walks and look at cows like you do.”
"Eugene sounded upset when he called."
"Eugene gets worried. He has always been the one to worry. Ever since we were at school. That's why he always came top in tests at school. And I came second. He worried - and I borrowed his notes. Has anything changed?"
"I can understand. The markets are a mess these days."
"You know I don't worry about the markets, Alexander. What is it the Baron de Rothschild said? When there is the blood on the streets, it is time to buy. We have cash, don't we? These should be good times for us." He patted Renshaw on the back.
"Then why am I here?"
"You're here because I wanted you here, Alexander. Because I have made you a very rich man. You're here because when I want people, they tend to accept my invitations."
Renshaw saw that Shestakov's face had turned serious. The fickleness of his moods was part of what made him so formidable. He did not abide by the normal codes of adult behavior. One moment he was the wise old Russian, sitting on the country bench offering avuncular advice. The next he seemed as irrational and self-indulgent as a three-year-old.
"You're here because I need you to do something for me."
"Anything, Roman. You know that."
"Anything, Alexander? You really mean that?" The whites of his eyes were flawlessly clear, a testament to his abstemious and disciplined lifestyle.
"Anything within reason."
"Ah yes, reason. Presumably they taught you that at Cambridge, didn't they. Reason. Rationality. Limits. All those things that are most effectively observed in the breach - that's how you say it, isn't it? The restraints cowards impose on themselves are opportunities for the brave among us. Those of us willing to seize control of our lives - and not let ourselves be serfs to the tyranny of reason. Of course, Alexander, within reason."
"How can I help?"
"Do you know a man called Myron Coles?"
"Yes of course. The investor."
"Yes, the great investor. Speculator, whatever you want to call him. The great philanthropist too, of course. The great anti-Communist. Well, I want to meet him."
"I believe something is going on, Alexander, something that he knows about. I want you to arrange for me to see him."
"Why did I have to come all the way here for you to ask me this?"
"Come, let's go and have a banya. You're right, I owe you an explanation."
The masseuse placed her full weight on Alexander Renshaw's neck, her knee pressing against the bottom of his skull. On the other side of the dark steam room, he could just make out Shestakov's face, squashed under similar pressure. The room, buried in the hull of the mega-yacht was the anti-thesis of the rest of the boat. Its walls were made of dull, black marble, and the benches were made of rough stone, which felt like breeze blocks.
Renshaw felt his skin scratching against the stone as his face was pressed down into it. Steam rose from the floor in hot, damp, infernal clouds, reeking of eucalyptus. Finally, the masseuse relented. She must have weighed 200 pounds, at least. Her thighs were the circumference of a lamp-post, courtesy of the old Soviet Olympic training regimen, her hands broad and meaty. She had thrown the javelin in Seoul in 1988.
This was not massage of the hot stones, dainty Thai woman and piped music variety. This was more like torture, or extreme physical therapy as Shestakov liked to call it.
Renshaw sat up and leaned back against the wall. His skin was prickling, the sweat pouring from his body. Whereas his chest and stomach seemed to crumple as he rested with his shoulders slouched, Shestakov was absolutely rigid, muscular and unbending. You felt you could pick up him like a surfboard and ride him in on a giant wave.
"How much have I lost with you this month, Alexander?"
"The funds you're invested in are down about 40%."
"So, let's say $8 billion."
"That's about right."
"Men have lost their lives for less, much less, you know."
"I know Roman."
"But I know this is not your fault. The money will come back. I trust you. Leveraged returns, risk, reward, I understand. Don't worry. But this man Coles. Do you remember in 1997, when Russia defaulted on its loans, and foreign money fled the country. Hot money, they call it. It's there in good times and gone in bad. Coles was one of the worst. Shorting the ruble. Shorting every one of my firms. Spreading rumors, then cleaning up once the market had bottomed out."
"Can you prove it?"
"I don't need to prove anything, Alexander, I know this all for fact. He screwed us. I don't care about him personally. He was playing the game. I don't bear a grudge. But what is happening now. You remember when I took you hunting in Kazakhstan? You can be out there, on a horse, with your gun, and you know your prey, your enemy is out there. You just cannot see him yet. I feel Coles is out there. I remember feeling this way then. And I feel it now."
"I'll do what I can. But if you suspect him, why should he want to meet you?"
"He will say yes, Alexander. If you ask. He cannot say anything else. He has no choice."
Renshaw felt the masseuse pushing him back down to the slab, and resting her knee on his backside. And then the first thwack of the birch twigs. Shestakov was undergoing the same treatment and grinning deliriously.
"8 billion," Shestakov murmured. "8 billion."
The masseuse ran the bunch of twigs up Renshaw's back and then beat his shoulders violently, moving down his body with brutal abandon. The steam, the pain and the long trip overwhelmed him and quickly, he passed out.
Alexander Renshaw decided that a simple telephone call would be best. It was 4am in the Adriatic, 10pm in New York, always a good time to catch American financiers, an hour or two before they turned off their screens for the night. He picked up his cell-phone and dialed the number. Before it could ring, he pressed the disconnect button. Sweat was beading along the lines of his palms. Perhaps he would feel better if he got dressed. Sitting in his cabin in just a towel made him feel vulnerable. It was dark outside. In a more modest boat, he would have been able to hear the splash of water and feel the rocking of waves. But this monster simply sat here in the sea, as immovable as the Sphinx.
He reached for a clean shirt and a pair of jeans, brushed his hair, and then sat down again on the edge of the bed. Surely there must be easier ways to make a fortune than working for a pathological billionaire. He dialed the number in New York. He swallowed hard as it began to ring.
“Yes,” said a voice on the other end, as clear as if he were next door.
“Who is it?”
“My name’s Alexander Renshaw.” There was silence. “I am a friend of Roman Shestakov. Mr. Shestakov asked me to arrange a meeting with you.” Still silence. “As soon as possible.” The phone clicked. “Hello?” said Renshaw. “Hello?” He sat for a moment, then re-checked the number he had been given by his office in London. No, he hadn’t dialed the wrong one. He reached over to his bedside table and poured a glass of water, which he drank in two gulps. As he set it down, his phone rang.
“I apologize, Alexander,” said the voice. “I needed to make sure who you were.”
“Yes. So Shestakov wants to meet. I never imagined he’d care to.”
“Roman is fascinated by success, Mr. Coles. And especially by those who succeed in contests where he’s a player.”
“Very flattering. I shall be leaving for London in an hour and shall be there for 48 hours. I shall be staying at the Berkeley Hotel. Have him contact me there.”
Renshaw got up and stretched. His hands struck the ceiling. He touched his toes and leaned backwards, hearing his vertebrae click. The banya had certainly loosened him up, though at a high cost in aches and bruises. No wonder the Russians had such a tortured history. Even when they wanted to relax, it involved self-inflicted pain. He turned the gold doorknob and stepped out into the narrow passageway. He was on the hunt for coffee. Perhaps that athletic young woman who had served him yesterday afternoon might be around. As he moved down the corridor, he heard the sound of pounding and heavy breathing coming from a door at the end. He stepped slowly towards it. The door was made of glass, the entry to the gym. Shestakov was in there in grey shorts and a Spartak Moscow t-shirt, drenched in sweat. He was wearing a headset and watching the news on a television which covered an entire wall. For a few moments, he did not notice Renshaw looking at him, so absorbed was he in the back and forth, up and down of his elliptical trainer. When he did, he waved him in.
“Couldn’t sleep Alexander? It’s what happens when life is so interesting.”
“I just spoke to Coles. He’s going to be in London today.”
“Excellent,” said Shestakov, stepping off the trainer and slapping Renshaw on the arm. He looked smaller somehow after a bout of exercise, as though he had perspired away body mass. But the muscles around his shoulders and along his arms bulged, not like a body builder’s but like a brick layer’s, as if the product of hard work rather than some narcissistic pursuit. “Let me get ready and we shall leave. Let’s say in 40 minutes.”
He left Renshaw standing in the gym, watching the silent screen, and badly in need of that coffee.
It never failed to delight Wright that so many of the taxis in Paris were Mercedes. It made such a change from the cramped cabs in New York. And with no thick plastic separating passenger from driver, it felt like a more equal transaction between the two parties.
“New York?” said the driver, in what Wright recognized immediately as a Haitian accent.
“Yes,” he replied. “Port-au-Prince?” He saw the driver’s smile in the rear-view mirror.
“You know Port-au-Prince?”
“I once spent a week at the Hotel Olofson.”
“Yes? You like it?”
“Charming place,” said Wright, recalling the old gingerbread hotel in the middle of the city. He had stayed in the room where Grahame Greene had written his novel The Comedians, sleeping out on a balcony, with the sound of random gunfire echoing up from the slums down by the beach. He had travelled down with Matteo, his art dealer friend, to buy paintings, the large, colorful canvasses which sold so well to the ethno-fabulous owners of mansions in Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades. The soaring, white walls of these homes could soak up any amount of art, a wonderful circumstance for an art dealer. It had been a raucous week of parties in Pétionville, the wealthy suburb up the hill from Port-au-Prince where the fairer skinned rum and sugar dynasties lived –when they weren’t flying their money out to Panama and the Cayman Islands. They could have stayed up there, but one of Matteo’s movie director clients had insisted they stay at the Olofson, and it had been an inspired choice. The food was awful, but the Wednesday night band was sensational. A group of French nurses drove in from the countryside, where they were running an AIDS clinic, and Wright had ended up under the mosquito net with a brace of them. They had even stayed for a breakfast of passion fruit and gritty eggs.
The radio was tuned to Radio France Inter’s rapid-fire morning show of news from around the world. There was news you never heard about in New York, unless you really looked for it: coups in Central Africa; elections in the French Caribbean; deadly storms in the South Pacific. And then the immutable rota of French domestic news: a teacher’s strike; a railway strike; the death of a philosopher; the opening of the annual comic book festival in Angoulême. Whenever American friends complained about the staidness and inflexibility of France, Wright always said the same thing: it’s not the wrong system, it’s just a different one. Just as flawed and wonderful in its way as anything in the United States. He was always excited to come back.
The taxi raced into the city, before coming to a halt on the périphérique, the freeway encircling Paris, hemmed in by tiny cars, Smarts, Twingos and Pandas, all jostling their drivers to work.
Wright pulled out a copy of Paris Match stuffed into the back of the driver’s seat. The front cover showed the President and his latest wife, the second since he had entered the Elysée. His first wife had run off with the Minister of Justice, a gorgeous woman of Algerian birth, whom no one had guessed was a lesbian. His second was a former television news presenter, who in the photographs looked absurdly pleased to be the subject rather than the messenger of the news. Here she was in the president’s office, sitting on the arm of her husband’s chair, resting her head on his shoulder, her hand on his knee, her white shirt unbuttoned halfway down the cleft between her breasts. Here she stood between Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at a state dinner in London. She towered over her diminutive husband, who wore a red sash beneath his tail coat and looked like a Christmas stocking stuffer. Clustered in the doorway in the background to the photograph were various members of the British royal family, all looking pained and unsettlingly equine.
If the stories were true, it would not be long before this latest model of Presidential spouse ran despairing into the arms of another man or woman. The President was said to be a vigorous philanderer, despite rudimentary sexual gifts. Speed and volume were what interested him, rather than the niceties of romance. If Jacques Chirac had been known as Mr Three Minutes - Shower Included, this president was Two Minutes at most. He had no use for the shower as he rarely removed his clothes.
Wright was stirred from his reading by the vibration of his phone.
“You were supposed to be here half an hour ago,” said Darcos.
“We’ve just passed Porte de la Chapelle.”
“Tell the driver to get off at Clignancourt and drive straight to Sciences-Po. 27 Rue St. Guillaume in the 7th. And tell him to go faster. There’s someone you have to meet.”
Aurélie Grenelle stood in front of her class, many of whom were still half asleep. The rows in the auditorium ascended steeply all around her. It had been intimidating at first, but three years in, she felt less like a Christian in the lion’s den, and more like the lion tamer. She was a member of the economics faculty, but her specialty was unique: derivatives trading. You would hardly have guessed it, but underneath the velvet jackets, multi-colored scarves and unruly mops of hair, lay some of the cleverest young men and women in France, who competed fiercely to be admitted to her class.
Grenelle cut an unusual figure, amidst the cheap tobacco and Marxist nostalgia which characterized French academia. Her scholarly credentials were impeccable. Top of her class here at Sciences Po. A masters in finance at the Ecole Polytechnique. A doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead of sprinting onto the tenure track, she had then taken three years to work as a derivatives trader at Société Générale in Paris. Not only had she made more money than she could spend in a lifetime, especially given her modest needs, she had also discovered the broad gulf which lay between practical and academic finance. The experience made her a far more formidable teacher. In her short teaching career, her course had become the most coveted in Paris, a golden ticket to a first rate trading desk.
She glanced up to the top of the classroom to see Darcos and Wright come in, breathless from running up the stairs, and find two empty seats. She smiled faintly and began to talk.
“Credit Default Swaps. Explain to me what they are. Monsieur...Farkas.” A shabby looking young man with deep acne scars sitting half-way down the class-room shuffled with his notes. He rubbed his forehead.
“Mr. Farkas?” said Grenelle.
“They are like insurance you buy if you’re worried a borrower won’t pay.”
“Very good. Carry on.”
“So if I were a lender and I was worried about a default by my borrower, I would buy a CDS from another party. I’d make payments to that other party, who in turn would promise to pay me a certain sum if my borrower did default.”
“Good. Now, here’s where it gets funny. Do you actually need to be a lender to buy a CDS?”
“No. I can buy them regardless of whether I own the debt or not. It’s a way of speculating on the credit-worthiness of companies.”
“So you are telling me, Mr. Farkas, that say I thought that General Motors was going to default on its debt, of which I held none, I could still trade in insurance against that event?”
“Yes you could.”
“And how would I think about pricing such an instrument?”
“You’d start by estimating the probability of default and the value of the debt in question, I suppose.”
“You suppose right, Mr. Farkas. Would the credit ratings agencies be of any use in this? We are talking about debt and defaults after all.”
“No. They have no idea.” The class erupted into laughter. Grenelle folded her arms and smiled.
“Exactly, Mr. Farkas. The ratings agencies have no idea. That is why we must do the hard work ourselves.” She walked over to her whiteboard. “Now, Mr. Farkas. Let’s have your calculations.”
“I wish I’d been taught finance by her,” whispered Wright to Darcos. “I might have paid attention.”
When the class ended eighty minutes later, the students coursed around Grenelle with questions, which she took, perched on the edge of her desk, drawing diagrams in the air and laughing. As the room finally thinned out, she walked over to Darcos and kissed him on both cheeks. She extended a hand to Wright. From close up, Wright could see the bias cut in her black, silk skirt. Her light blue blouse was buttoned to the neck, in a vaguely Asian fashion. Her long, brown hair was held in place by an ebony clasp. When she sat down and crossed her legs, Wright noticed the scarlet on the soles of her shoes - $800 at Christian Louboutin. Not the kind of footwear available to your average professor.
“Xavier tells me you are looking into the market movements yesterday,” she said, in flawless English.
“He tells me you’re the only person in the world he trusts to explain them.”
“Xavier is a great flatterer. Perhaps it’s why he’s so rich. Flattery is one of the safest currencies I know.”
“No one seems to know who was behind them.”
“It’s not difficult to conceal one’s actions in modern financial markets, Mr. Wright.”
“Ben. As we were discussing in class today, you can trade things you don’t own, you can trade a million derivative forms of assets you don’t own, you can trade them through intermediaries or proxies, using leverage, through dark pools, where the market can’t see you trade, off-shore, on-shore. We’re not living in a time where all you had to do was look at the shareholder register to find out who owns what.”
“I’m not one of your students, Ms. Grenelle.”
“Aurélie. This is important. I need to find out who was behind what happened yesterday.”
“Can you wait an hour? I have another class to teach. There’s a Chinese restaurant around the corner. Le Pékin. We can go there and talk.” The new batch of students was starting to arrive, shuffling in, dumping their files and removing their headphones.
“I’ll wait at the back,” said Wright. “Maybe I’ll learn something.”
A black, Mercedes S500 carved through the traffic along Knightsbridge before turning sharply into Wilton Place, past the row of sandstone mansions, and pulling up in front of the Berkeley. Of all of London’s hotels it was easily the most chic. Less pompous than Claridges. Less gratuitously fashionable than Blake’s or any of the new joints in Soho. The spacious rooms looked out over the quiet streets of Belgravia. From his suite, Coles could gaze at the handsome grey stone of St. Paul’s Wilton Place. He adored the chime of the church bells, a rural note in the heart of the roaring city.
“Your car is here, sir,” said the young valet who stood at his door.
“Five minutes,” said Coles. He looked at the screen on his laptop. Everything was in place. The short positions, the buy orders to be executed two hours after the Treasury Secretary spoke, the short-term currency trades to profit from the falling dollar. If everything went to plan, by tomorrow morning, he would be richer by $3 billion and his funds would be up by more than 60%. In such a volatile market, his strategy was a thing of remarkable beauty. Investors would be desperate to get into his funds. And he would accept a considerable number of them, for a 3% management fee and 25% of his profits. Higher than the standard 2 and 20 structure. But he was worth it. A few weeks before, he had attended a dinner at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The speaker was Art Travis, the originator of 2 and 20. “I’m sorry,” Travis told his audience of peers in private equity and hedge funds. “It was 1976. We were just getting going. There was no going rate for what we did. We thought 2 and 20 was fair. You could easily have gotten 25.” How the audience had laughed. Coles was determined to reverse Travis’ error.
He picked up his old leather portfolio and adjusted his tie. What could Shestakov want? It had been nearly a decade since he had shorted him and the ruble. If he wanted to argue with him about that, he would have done so years ago. No, this must be something good. It had to be. Shestakov had rebuilt his fortune many times over. He might have lost a few billions over the past few weeks, but when you had so many, a few scarcely mattered. He walked across the thickly carpeted floor to the door, checked in his pocket to see he had the key and left. Coles had not felt butterflies like this for 20 years. There was danger in dealing with the Russians, but the potential rewards were extraordinary. Also the dangers were for people far less prominent than he. For a Russian, to deal with Myron Coles would be the ultimate way to launder their reputation.
He strode through the lobby, where two Arabs in full djellabas and head-dress were listening to a fast-talking Englishman, ex-Army Coles guessed. The nature of the deal was inscribed in the faces and bodies of its participants. The Arabs plump and sleek. The Englishman thin, angular and hungry. One side needed it. The other could do well enough without it. There were fewer rules in London, which was perhaps why he liked it so much. The world gathered here in a way it didn’t in New York. London was accommodating and messy, whereas New York, at least in business terms, was rigid, nervous and hidebound. Manhattan was filled with lawyerly types, constantly folding and unfolding their tortoise-shell glasses, alternately pernickety and profane who ran the city’s affairs in their own image. London was about two Arabs and a Grenadier Guard agreeing to dig holes in the desert and see what came spouting out.
Shestakov’s chauffeur held open the door to the car and Coles stepped in. The armored door closed with a heavy clunk. Inside, Coles could hear nothing of the street. The driver muttered something into a headset then pulled away. It was a short drive to Shestakov’s house in the Boltons, a cluster of enormous mansions in Chelsea, set around an oval garden. Shestakov had begun with just one of these houses, but since added two more to include his office and space for his staff. In the street outside were parked a line of black Range Rovers and Mercedes. Drivers and guards stood along the railings chatting and smoking.
A heavy black gate swung open and Coles’ car drove in, under a porte-cochere. The driver opened his door and Coles walked up the steps to the entrance. A tall, blonde woman wearing a white, silk trouser suit and headset greeted him and walked him through a carpeted hallway to the living room, overlooking a lush, green garden. Standing at one of the floor to ceiling windows in jeans and a navy blazer was Shestakov. He was talking on the telephone and did not turn around. Coles surveyed the room. A neo-realist painting of Stakhanovite farm laborers, at least 10 feet wide, hung over the mantelpiece. The side tables were covered with silver-framed photographs of Shestakov with his family and various Russian politicians.
“Coffee?” whispered the woman in the white suit.
“Nothing, thank you,” said Coles. The woman directed him to a sofa facing the windows. It was another six minutes before Shestakov ended his call and turned to his guest.
The confidence Coles had felt since leaving his hotel suddenly evaporated.
“What brings you to London, Myron. It’s a happy coincidence that you were able to meet me at such short notice.” Shestakov had pulled up an ottoman in front of his guest and was leaning in towards him. Coles had never felt such a physical presence. The ghosts of Shestakov’s violent ascent seemed to haunt the room. The slain business rivals and butchered politicians who had dared stand in his way.
“I had business to attend to,” said Coles vaguely.
“Business. Yes, of course,” said Shestakov. “I’m very familiar with your business. I’ve suffered quite a bit at your hands Myron. But all’s fair, no?”
“You’ve done well in spite of me, Roman.”
“I suppose you were my education, Myron, in how the Western markets worked. So civil on the surface, and yet underneath...Not so different from where I come from.” Shestakov smiled. “But it was years ago, now. My investments are much better protected from financial raiders. Or at least they were until the last few weeks.”
“Everyone’s hurting at the moment.”
“Not true, Myron. Not everyone. The people who shorted this market are doing very well. With leverage, their funds are up 100-150%. How are you doing?”
“Write me a check and I’ll tell you.”
“Very good.” He slapped Coles on the knee. “Come with me Myron. Do you have some time?” He gestured towards the open hallway. Coles stood up and followed him. “We shall have lunch, but first I like to take a steam. After a morning’s work, it’s important to relax. I hear you’re a fine tennis player, Myron. It’s important to have a sport. I want to learn all about what you do. Then perhaps, I’ll write you that check. You can’t be doing any worse than most of the people who manage my money.”
The two men took a steel-walled elevator to the basement and walked along a wide, white corridor lined with glass vases filled with beads and orchids. On the walls were black and white photographs of athlete’s musculature, sections of sweating bicep or deltoid, which looked like formations of rock and water. The smell of eucalyptus drifted down from the steam room. A young woman in a white doctor’s coat, her blonde hair tied up in a bun, stood at the end of the corridor waiting for them. She pointed them towards a tiled nook lined with bleached oak benches. Shestakov began to remove his clothes down to an electric blue, satin thong.
“Are there any towels?” said Coles.
“Of course. Afterwards, Myron.”
Coles set down his portfolio and loosened his tie. Shestakov removed the last of his clothing and waited at the door to the steam room, looking back at his guest. Coles untied the laces on his black Oxfords and removed his silk socks, his only sartorial extravagance. He unbuttoned his shirt, removed his vest and slid off his trousers to reveal long, white boxer shorts. Shestakov smiled. Finally, Coles bent over and took off his shorts. He was in good shape for a 76 year old, but compared to the anatomical ideal of Shestakov, he felt shriveled and decrepit. But he threw back his shoulders and followed Shestakov into the steam room.
It was larger than Coles had imagined, 30 ft long and 20 feet wide, comfortable enough for a small crowd. Tiled, white seating ran along three sides of the room in three ascending rows, all wide enough to lie down upon. The floor was taken up with a mosaic showing the bridges and canals of St. Petersburg. On either side of the door were two metal showers, with heads the size of hub-caps.
Shestakov disappeared into the thick steam. Coles squinted as his eyes adjusted to the heat, vapor and the oily sting of the eucalyptus. He shuffled forwards until he saw Shestakov leaning up against the wall on the top row of the back corner. He stubbed his toe as he climbed up to join his host, but strained to avoid showing any pain.
“Men like us, we need to relax,” said Shestakov, slapping Coles on the shoulder.
“How much are you thinking of investing?” said Coles.
“No patience, Myron? Straight down to business.” Coles crossed his legs in a futile attempt to maintain some dignity. “I have $6 billion currently invested in financial vehicles of various kinds. The rest of my fortune, I keep in things I can touch. Real estate. Art. Metals. The $6 billion was $10 billion not so long ago. But you know how things go. Last year, I was up 23%. This year, I’m down 40%. I’d like to be the kind of man who says easy come, easy go. But, unfortunately, God did not make me that way.”
“Are you looking for less volatility? For the kinds of rewards my funds offer, I can’t promise you less risk.”
“I understand risk, Myron. I understand it better than most of the people who take my money and lecture me about it. What I’m looking for is an edge. The edge that certain managers have and others don’t. You know the kind of edge I’m talking about, Myron.” Coles rubbed his left shoulder but did not respond. “The ones with the information to move markets before they move themselves. How did you do that to me all those years ago?”
“I had sources at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development,” said Coles. “They had access to your holdings because of the smelter project they were funding in Ukraine.”
“So you knew exactly how much cash I was holding?”
“You and the others in the industry.”
“So you knew we couldn’t afford it if the price fell? You knew we would have to soak up any excess supply?”
“So you sold all of your metals holdings, shorted all of our firms and the ruble. We had to buy up all the metal, we struggled to find the cash to do it and it caused a run on our currency.”
“All because you had someone at the EBRD? Brilliant. Brilliant, Myron.”
“Those were different times, Roman. It’s not so easy any more. Fewer barriers around the world mean it’s easier for people to see what you are doing.” Coles heard a squelch as Shestakov raised his legs and swung them down onto the step where he was sitting.
“And for your next trick?”
“We believe there’s still plenty to short in banks and insurance firms.”
“Don’t give me the small shit, Myron. The money’s been made there. Sub-prime, it’s over. You had to be betting against that at the beginning of 2008. I had a few hundred million with Paulson in New York. He made me 180%. I sent him a Chagall he had admired at my home in St. Moritz. In times like this, you bet big, I know it.”
Coles inhaled a lung-full of steam. He could feel himself breathing more deeply, his shoulders easing. Should I tell him, he thought?
“There’s going to be a big fall on the American exchanges.”
“If I’m right, invest with me.”
“10%, maybe more. Today. If the markets behave as I anticipate, it will trigger a downward spiral. A 30 or 40% in the next three months.”
“How confident are you?”
“Confident enough to bet you’ll be begging to invest with me.”
Shestakov slid down to sit next to his guest. He rested a hand on Coles’ bare thigh.
“It is a great privilege for a man like me to know a man like you,” he said. “Growing up the way I did, if you wanted to make money you either joined the Communist Party, or committed yourself to a life of violence. You know my story. And I’m sure your friends at the EBRD filled you in on any details you were missing. You should know I never wanted it to be the way I was. My children are fortunate. They can look forward to making their money the way you have, with your intellect. Cleanly. Without the blood which stains my own hands.”
Coles looked at him, sympathetic rather than fearful. He had worked his way up from the Lower East Side. It had not been easy, but nothing compared to what Shestakov had endured.
“We are friends now,” he said, offering his hand to Coles. “Partners.”
“Friends,” said Coles. “Partners when you invest.”
“Of course. I shall wait for you upstairs. Take your time. We shall have an excellent lunch.” Shestakov strutted to the door, flexing the muscles in his shoulders.
Coles leaned back against the damp tile, closed his eyes and breathed. His head felt light and clear.
When Coles woke up, he had no idea how many minutes he had spent dozing in the steam room. The air felt warmer. Much warmer. Sweat was streaming from his body. He rose unsteadily and began to walk across the room. He pulled the wooden handle on the door. It would not move. He pulled again. Then again and again. He rapped on the thick glass of the book-sized window. He could not see the woman in the white coat. Her desk was empty, a red light flashing on her telephone.
The heat was becoming unbearable. Coles began to cough as the steam rose in ever denser clouds around him. It felt as though he was being coated in a film of eucalyptus oil. He began to cry as he pulled repeatedly on the door, trying to get it to budge even slightly. Every time he wiped off the mist forming on the window, it reformed in an instant. He looked back into the room, for an opening, a vent, anything. There were two broad metal vents on the floor. When he bent down to touch them, the flesh on his fingers burned and another cloud vapor exploded into his face. He clasped his hands to his eyes. The tile sizzled beneath his feet. Every surface he touched seemed hotter than the last. He staggered back to the door and pounded on it a few more desperate times, before dropping to the floor, first to his knees, then falling face first to the ground, his old body suddenly indifferent to the scorching heat.
Aurélie Grenelle reached for her fitted, olive green, knee-length coat, and wrapped a pink, silk scarf around her neck. She gathered her notes from the morning’s classes and slid them into a large, patent leather handbag. Wright walked down the steps of the auditorium to join her.
“Did you learn anything?” she said.
“Well I never knew you could create yield out of thin air.”
“Frightening, isn’t it? But that’s what so many traders have been doing these past few years. It’s the greater fool theory gone mad. How many fools can there be to buy these garbage assets? Far more than I ever imagined.”
“It’s enough to make one cynical about finance.”
“You’re being sarcastic. I’ve read about your father. Things were different when he was investing, weren’t they.”
“Not if you spoke to him. There were just as many charlatans around then. But they didn’t have the access to capital and markets they do today. They were more contained.”
Grenelle pushed on the heavy door which led out onto the street. Rain had fallen during the morning, sweetening and freshening the air. They turned right towards the Boulevard St. Germain.
“Do you mind walking?” she said. “I promise you it’s worth it.”
“Why did you leave the bank?” said Wright.
“And go into teaching?”
“Yes. You were in the sandbox with all the toys – and now you’re teaching 19 year olds about the time value of money.”
“The sandbox was full of pricks. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in a place where all anyone talks about is how much they’ve made that day or how much they’re going to make tomorrow and what they’re going to spend it on – but it’s corrosive for your soul.”
“But Xavier tells me you were good. Brilliant.”
“Do you know that John Maynard Keynes never worked on a trading floor, and yet he was one of the most successful traders of his day, as well as being a great economist. He would get up and spend the morning in his pajamas in bed, running his own money and the endowment of his Cambridge college, before rising and proposing solutions to the inter-war European economy.”
“Is that how you see yourself? In bed, trading till noon and then wandering to your office in the academy?”
“It would be pleasant, no? Sadly, I’m one of those people who once they wake up have to get on with the day. I can’t lie about drinking coffee in bed. But yes, I keep my hand in the markets. It’s good to have some practical support to all this theory.” Her hands were plunged deep into the pockets of her coat. Wright wished he had brought something warmer to wear, besides his blue sweater and sport coat. Paris was always colder than he expected.
They walked up to the intersection where the Rue Du Bac met the Boulevard St. Germain and kept walking.
“I thought we were going to the Rue de Grenelle?” said Wright.
“I changed my mind,” said Grenelle, looking both ways at the stop light. “I felt bad taking you to a Chinese restaurant in Paris. This is better.” They walked along the south side of the boulevard, along the walls of the ministry of defense, where soldiers and policeman in bulletproof vests patrolled the pavement. Up ahead, Wright could see where the road cut right to turn across the Seine, just in front of the National Assembly.
He had spent a year in Paris when he was 18, before university. He had been lent a small apartment on the Rue Pierre Leroux, just behind the Prime Minister’s residence in the 7th arrondissement, by a friend of his parents. It was in one of those old stone buildings which smelled vaguely of soup. You stepped through a heavy gate into a cool stone entryway, where a young Portuguese concierge twitched the curtains of her ground-floor apartment. His apartment consisted of a small bedroom, a galley kitchen and a narrow bathroom, all with high ceilings, wooden floors and overlooking a courtyard. He had learned some passable French, spent many happy hours in the antiquities section of the Louvre.
A New England boarding school had burdened him with all sorts of romantic and emotional notions around the subject, which were usefully discarded thanks to a 19-year-old French girlfriend, whose parents had six divorces between them. They had spent many delightful and depraved afternoons at her father’s house by the Jardin du Ranelagh. When they parted, he expected a flicker of sadness on her part. But she simply blew him a kiss and never called or wrote again. They had spent one weekend together in New York five years ago, while her husband completed a deal in the city, but nothing since. The lessons of absolute discretion and emotional indifference had served him well ever since.
“How long have you known Xavier?” said Wright.
“His younger brother was at university with me. When I graduated, Xavier helped me get my first job. His family has always been very good to me.”
“Did you ever think of moving to London? Or New York? They’re full of French traders.”
“A good reason not to. I love Paris, Ben. They say Paris is a great place to be young and a great place to be old, but terrible to be in-between. I disagree. I love all the things Americans complain about. The grey weather, the strikes, the rude people. The rudeness is a sign of spirit. I could never live somewhere where all we did was smile and wish each other a “great day”. Life is richer than that.”
They turned onto the quieter Rue St. Dominique, which was lined with restaurants, realtors and travel agencies. A group of taxi drivers were parked along one side, the sound of the radio drifting from their open doors. An elderly woman in a fur coat, her golden hair freshly done, walked towards them, pulled along by a French bulldog.
“Xavier believes it was a group of traders in Switzerland pushing down prices,” said Wright.
“He could be right.”
“But you don’t think so.” The cold wind had brought an attractive flush to Grenelle’s face and loosened a few of wisps of her hair.
“Until you know, you never know,” she said.
“No. Grenelle,” she laughed. “What I mean is that cause and effect used to be so obvious. It was easy enough to say if this asset price falls over here, then something must be happening over there. Sometimes there was fraud, but disclosure rules were clearer, money did not move so easily around the world. Today, you think something must be obvious, but it isn’t.”
“So where would you begin?”
“With some alternatives.”
Suddenly, the gothic spires of the church of Sainte Clothilde loomed above them. A few kids were skateboarding and kicking a soccer ball around on the stone square. Apartment buildings, four or five stories high, with rows of green shutters, hugged the church on all four sides. They turned into the square and the kids picked up their ball and waited for them to pass. A truck delivering groceries to a supermarket on one side of the square backfired, startling them both.
They walked to a restaurant behind the church. From outside, they could see tables pressed up against the glass walls and waiters in tuxedos darting around the room. Wright held the door open for Grenelle, who then pushed through a heavy velvet curtain to get inside.
“Madame, un vrai plaisir,” said the maitre d’ a bald, avuncular man with spectacles balancing on his nose. He took Grenelle’s coat, picked up two menus and led them through the restaurant to a table in the corner, with a full view of the square. It felt like sitting in the prow of a glass ship.
Moments later, another waiter appeared with two glasses of champagne and a basket of gougères, baked cheese puffs, wrapped in a white napkin to keep them warm.
“Salut,” said Grenelle, taking a small sip and tipping her glass towards Wright. “Do you know how a reverse desk operates, Ben?”
“I’ve heard of them, of course.”
“So a big hedge fund buys a small amount of stock and then starts selling it through various brokers. Word gets out. This big hedge fund is selling. Everyone goes crazy and starts dumping the stock. Then the same fund buys it all up cheap, knowing that the selling was nothing but unfounded rumor. It’s not illegal. It’s like a nutmeg in soccer. You play soccer?”
“Not since I was a kid.”
“I played all the way through school. You pretend to be going one way, the player in front of you spreads their legs to stop you and you flick the ball through their legs. To humiliate them. Reverse desks can make a lot of money, but they’re also used to show up the investors who have no idea what they’re doing.”
“So in this case, someone influential started selling, word got out and everyone started selling? But why the Swiss connection?”
“If the trades were coming from Switzerland, that may just be because that’s where the rumor got started. There’s enough money now in Zurich and Geneva to move markets everywhere. Maybe the rumor was leaked over lunch on Lac Leman.”
“What other alternatives are there?”
“It could have been a head-fake which ran out of control. Sometimes the really influential investors do something simply to mislead the market. They get tired of people just tracking them, so they try to shake the followers. The risk, as with the reverse trade, is that it spooks the herd and there’s a far bigger sell-off than the investor ever intended. There’s one guy in New York who loves to do this. But he always does it through intermediaries to protect his reputation. He’s up to every trick out there.
“What’s his name?”
“Stephen P. Weissberg.”
“But he’s a private equity guy, not a trader.”
“You need to look closer. There’s a firm out in Greenwich he uses. STP. It’s run by one of his old employees. They’re pure traders. About once a month, they take the street, you know, buying huge blocks of stock all at once, which they know the banks will have to buy back at inflated prices, because they’re the market makers and need to keep these stocks in their inventory. STP also loves a short squeeze. They have informants everywhere who tell them whenever there’s a big short-position out there. So they buy up the stock, the short sellers panic and start looking for stock to cover their positions, drive up the price and STP sells. It’s all just about legal.”
“I have a couple of friends who’ve worked there,” said Wright. “They told me about one of the best traders, a young Chinese guy, who was ordered to take female hormones because he was so aggressive. And when he did, his male boss propositioned him. I didn’t realize Weissberg was behind it.”
“Not many people do. It’s all through holding companies in Grand Cayman, discreet entities, the usual shell game. I heard that Weissberg’s wife had a birthday party, and the invitations were a set of playing cards with Weissberg as the King, her as the Queen and their children and household staff as the others in the deck.”
“I heard that too,” said Wright. The waiter was now standing beside them. “I need a moment. Aurélie?”
She hadn’t looked at the menu, but said without hesitation, “foie de veau avec des epinards.”
“Sole meuniere,” said Wright. “Sans epinards.”
“Come on, spinach is good for you,” said Grenelle. “Remember Popeye?”
“Spinach is one food I can’t stomach. I know that one day I’ll be stuck somewhere and it’s all there’ll be. But until that day.”
“So tell me, markets fall and rise every day. Why is the great William Wright’s son so interested in what happened yesterday?”
“It’s funny to hear you say his name like that. William Wright.”
“Did you know him well?”
“Not especially. He would come home, lock himself in his study and read Dun and Bradshaw’s company reports. Even at the weekends. There are many people who knew him far better than I ever did.”
“Were you aware that he was a genius?”
“Not until I was older. While he was alive, he was a guy in a ratty bathrobe reading the Wall Street Journal at breakfast. He didn’t much care for anything else.”
“And yet, you’re in the same line of work?”
“Not exactly. I help people, friends of my father mostly, with specific problems.”
“Ones that can’t be solved by the police?”
“Ones that maybe the police will solve, though it will take longer. And for these people, the only commodity which matters, other than money is time. They want information so they can act on it. Actionable information is what I provide.”
“Is this what you wanted for your life?”
“It’s not what I imagined. But it does give me reasons to come to Paris for lunch.”
“Who has hired you this time?”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is who might be angry enough to kill three men in 24 hours.”
“I read about Howard.”
“There were two more in New York. Henry Reeves and Thierry de Montbrison.”
“You knew him?”
“People in Paris knew him. He was one of these guys who had made it in New York and when he came back, he bragged about it.”
“In New York terms, he was small time.”
“Yes, but for us small-time French, he was managing a couple of billion, had a townhouse. He wasn’t getting on the Metro and going to work in a cubicle in La Defense. No Metro, boulot, dodo.”
“Subway, job, sleep. Metro, boulot, dodo.”
“No. He was beyond that. But it always beat me why anyone would invest with a man like that. No great expertise. A little sleazy.”
“But he knew people. You have to remember about many rich people, they don’t know what to do about their money. They end up trusting people who give the impression they do know about these things, about who’s smart, who’s making the good returns. If I were a crook, I would set up a hedge fund or fund of funds in an instant. The opportunities to relieve rich people of their money are endless.”
Their food arrived, the sole dripping butter, the foie de veau seeping blood onto a large white plate. The waiter poured out two glasses of red Bordeaux. Wright took a sip.
“Hope you like it,” said Grenelle. “I’ve never believed the bourgeois rule about white with fish. You drink what pleases you.”
“Xavier told me you could help me with this.”
Grenelle looked up from her plate. Wright was staring straight into her eyes. She felt his knee brush against hers under the table.
“I need to know what you know,” he said.
She took a bite of her liver and wiped a drop of blood from the corner of her mouth.
“A lot can happen when markets boom or plummet. It’s like a smoke bomb going off in a street market. When the air clears, you have no idea who has taken what, who’s honest and who’s not. But in my opinion, yesterday was nothing to do with normal market moves. It was forced by someone who either wanted to distract people from a bigger play elsewhere or to send a message to a certain group of people.”
“To the people who were hardest hit.”
“Do we know yet who they were?”
“It was the Russians.”
“How do you know that?”
“Firstly, they’re not the kind of people who just suck up their losses. They complain. Loudly. And they’re complaining all over Europe. To their banks, to their funds. You would think that men who grew up in poverty would be cooler about this. But habits die hard.”
“It was vicious.”
“In America, you might see acts of revenge in the markets. Weissberg likes to punish his private equity enemies by messing with all of their investments. But on this continent, you’re dealing with people capable of real hatred. When they want to punish you, they want to humiliate you. To make you feel pain.”
“But it’s only money.”
“For you. For these guys it’s all they are. You strip them financially, it’s like screwing their wife in the middle of the town square. It’s emotional. And without it, they’re exposed. You remember what happened to Khodorkovsky?”
“Yes. He was the richest man in Russia. Putin goes after him on trumped up tax charges, appropriates his firm, a few months later Khodorkovsky’s in a Siberian jail, probably until he dies. When you go from up here to down there, it’s not just about being impoverished. The people you stepped over to get up there will come after you. To make sure the cycle is complete. You started as nothing, you will end as nothing.”
“So you think this was Russians against Russians.”
“No. There’s no Russian institution with the power to make this happen. There were billions and billions of dollars of stocks and futures positions being sold. This was done with the support and capabilities of a major Western investment bank. My initial thought was that it was another rogue trader situation. Some trader had secretly amassed a huge unauthorized position. The bank uncovered it and had to sell before they were found out. Of course, they’re always found out, but if they can get rid of as much as they can before they’re identified, they can limit the damage. When Société Générale found out about Jerome Kerviel, they lost over $6 billion unwinding $50 billion of positions in secret. If they had waited for the news to come out before trying to sell, everyone would have ganged up on them to drive down the prices of the assets they were being forced to get rid of. But I’ve heard from the banks and the Banque de France that it was nothing like this. This was a concerted raid on a few investors, whose losses were big enough to shake the markets.”
“You still haven’t told me who might have been responsible.”
‘There is only one person I know with the market power to do something like this.”
“Myron Coles. Know him?”
“Thank you for lunch.”
“You’re very efficient, Ben. It’s rather unpleasant.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have a lot of time.” Wright waved over a waiter and pressed a 100 Euro bill into his hand.
“You remind me of the pricks I told you about.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Pricks never mean to be pricks, Ben. They just are. Myron Coles. He’s been doing this kind of thing for years.”
“If Coles made the markets fall to punish someone, it still doesn’t explain the three deaths. It’s not even clear the events are connected.”
“What do you think, Ben? You’ve surely seen the dead men’s portfolios.”
“Well, two were hit hard. Howard, slightly.”
“It’s not often a rich man is killed for reasons unrelated to his money. You might call it an occupational hazard. I’m sorry to be abrupt. May I make it up to you another time?
“No,” said Grenelle.
“Thank you.” Wright turned and left.
The Treasury Secretary was in a foul mood. Yesterday’s interest rate cut had stabilized the markets for a full three hours before they resumed their downward trend in after-hours trading. He had risen at 5am this morning to work out for an hour before appearing on CNBC. How he hated those smug presenters in their shirt-sleeves, questioning and smirking as if they had all the answers. Had they ever run a global investment bank? Had they ever held a cabinet position? Had they been Phi Beta Kappa and offensive tackle on the Ivy League champion football team? Yet he had to take their shit.
“Is this recession going to be U-shaped? Or L-Shaped, Mr Secretary?”
How the hell did he know? How did anyone know? You placed your bets, limited your risk and hoped for the best. Economists may as well be shamans as far as he was concerned, leaping around waving smoke from the burning jujube tree. And when everything really went down, the government waded in with its credit lines and printing presses to back-stop against disaster. Everything else, he had come to realize, was detail.
He had taken this job hoping it would be the capstone to a glorious career on Wall Street. He wanted to be known for the rest of his life as Secretary, just as lesser figures were known as Ambassador, just for cutting a check to the right candidate and being sent for three years to Bratislava or Oslo. A couple of years in politics would give him a certain heft. It would justify the oil portrait over the mantle-piece at his house in Northeast Harbor, Maine. The one his grandchildren might point to in years to come and say, “Look at Gramps. He was Treasury Secretary, you know.” Not just another stooge who lucked out when his Wall Street partnership went public.
But it had turned out to be death by inanity. His wife had refused to leave their home in Manhattan, so he was spending his weeks in a suite at the Hay-Adams hotel, across from his department. It was a grand hotel, but seedy in that Washington way, with hookers passing each other in the corridors on their way to service this or that visiting governor or senior White House aide. And as for the work, he had never witnessed such a colossal display of ass-covering. It was the bureaucratic equivalent of Napoleon’s march on Moscow: spectacular in its futility and tragic in its consequences.
Nothing got done, no one got helped, but the time-servers duly served their time.
The young team he had recruited from his old firm had slowly abandoned him, tired of the political sparring, the lack of resources, the limited ambition. Washington was just so dim-bulbed compared to New York.
And this was how it ended. A long-ago mistake held over his head by that bastard Coles. He had plenty of friends who never would have cared about the risk of blackmail. They’d just shrug it off. Pay off one wife and onto the next, with any number of infidelities along the way. It was the way of things for a certain kind of man. But not him. He had always been better than that. Supposedly. A family man, a husband and father. A governor of schools and hospitals, even a church warden. He had cloaked himself in sobriety – and there Coles saw his opportunity. No man was so perfect, he knew. If he could just find the pinprick of fallibility, it would be all the more devastating. And Coles, with his depressing view of human nature had been right. The Secretary’s sexual impulses, for so long suppressed and ignored, were seeping out like cheap insulation. All he needed was an opportunity and the illusion of secrecy. Coles had provided both, at an investment conference on Hobe Island, Florida. While the Secretary romped, with all the subtlety, vigor and grunting he had once displayed driving his full 250lbs into the faces of defensive linemen across the North East, Coles’ cameras were recording every moment.
So, in a couple of minutes, he would have to step in front of the press and tell the world the United States economy was in terrible shape – a fact everyone knew, but which the Treasury Secretary was expected not to trumpet – just so that Coles could make a fast buck on his short positions.
He stood up and walked to one of the windows in the conference room where he liked to work. The windows were dressed in fussy peach silk and lace. The room was lit by four 19th century gas chandeliers and antique brass wall sconces. The style was officially known as American Renaissance Revival of the late 19th century, but it might as well have been called old-time bordello. There were arm chairs upholstered in colorful stripes, fit for the local sheriff and madam to have a round of slap and tickle. But the Secretary had always liked the room. He had spent his life in modern office suites and conference rooms, with their monotonous paneling, steel furniture and technological hum. Here, during discussions of tax rates, Laffer curves and deficit reduction, he could let his eyes drift to the plaster cornices, walnut trim and the portraits of former secretaries. He particularly liked the female marble bust called “America, who wore a necklace inscribed with the names of U.S. Presidents as if they were former lovers.
He adored the Greek revival grandeur of the Treasury building. It had been one of the best aspects of his job, arriving at work and walking past the rows of columns, each carved from a single block of granite, and feeling like Pericles must have, walking through the Athenian agora, a powerful tool of democratic will. It was so much more invigorating than trudging through the details of another bankruptcy reorganization, merger or leveraged buy-out.
But there was always a cost to lives as rich as his had been. There would always be secrets to bury, friendships to betray, laws to side-step. Anyone who told you otherwise was lying. Financial and political success on this scale could never be achieved with clean hands. Some denied it while others were quite shameless about it. But it was a fact.
He twitched a lace curtain and saw a tour party arriving. Every day they came, from all across the country, allowed the privilege of a tour of the Treasury by their congressmen or senator. The privilege of being awestruck by the majesty of these buildings, the majesty of their government. If only they could comprehend the triviality of what went on here, the contrast between the soaring architecture and the mean-spirited midgets who populated this town.
The President was unlikely to back him up. At moments like this, the president shrank behind his chief of staff, a foul-tongued shark he had brought with him from Detroit. The Secretary could already hear the phone call, which would come within seconds of his statement. “You stupid fuck, what the fuck are you doing, fucking talking down the U.S. economy? You fucking do that on Wall Street, talk down your share price so that everyone kicks the shit out of you? Get the fuck over here, tonight, when it’s dark, so no one sees you.” And then for good measure. “For fuck’s sake.”
The chief of staff was one of those men who swore because it gave the impression that he cared. And that he was tougher than he really was. In fact, he cared for no one but himself. In just two years as a banker, between political jobs, he had made himself a $30 million fortune, a fact no one bothered to investigate for fear of antagonizing him. If newspapers could still afford an investigative reporter, it would have taken hardly any time to discover that the money had come from overseas investors as a reward for political favors granted and yet to come. The chief of staff’s extreme aggression had come to be regarded in Washington amusing, an emblem of his commitment, when in fact it was cover, a distraction from a squalid past. The desire for power, the Secretary had come to realize, originated in just two kinds of need. The first was a genuine ambition to make democracy work. This was extremely rare, saintly almost. The second, and far more common, was the need to get away with things. To appear better than one was. To obscure one’s crimes and failings. It was why politicians spent so much time on their feet applauding one another. They hoped the noise and approbation would drown out the reality.
One minute to go. His assistant rapped on the door. The Secretary gathered up his notes. Within ten minutes, he would either be fired or humiliatingly over-ruled by the White House. If he was kept in his job, it would be as a lame duck for reasons beyond his present knowledge. It was never meant to be like this.
Sheehan was waiting on a sofa in the hallway, chatting to a couple of aides. He fell in behind the Secretary, who walked quickly across the grey, stone floor. The press had gathered in a small room on the far side of the atrium. It was a larger group than usual, twenty or thirty, even a heavily made- up trio from the networks and cable. Television news was stretched so thin, these days that they rarely bothered with Treasury. At the back was the usual knot of international press, a leisurely troupe of reporters from Africa, Latin America and Australia, who were delighted to be invited to anything and would doubtless be going straight from here for a long lunch at an ethnic restaurant in Adams Morgan before deigning to file.
The dazzling television lights made everyone look pale and unwell. The secretary looked around and cleared his throat.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming at such short notice,” he began. “As you well know, these are hard economic times for the United States and the world and we are taking every measure to respond.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sheehan jabbing the buttons on his Blackberry. “We have urged Congress to pass emergency measures to help the banking sector.” Sheehan was now moving his palm sharply from side to side, as if to say stop. In front of the cameras, the Secretary could hardly do that. He kept talking. “These measures, along with the rate cuts from the Federal Reserve, we hope will…” His assistant slipped a folded note onto the lectern. “Which we hope will revive the credit markets and allow both companies and consumers to borrow at lower rates.” The note consisted of two words. “Coles disappeared”. The Secretary hesitated for a moment and looked up from his prepared text. “The message I have for you this morning is that no one should under-estimate the United States economy. It is diverse, powerful and will rebound far more quickly than most forecasters believe.” The headache which had dogged him since his first cup of coffee disappeared. “Investors who hope to make a fortune betting against the United States will be deeply disappointed. I am not peddling hope over reality, but offering you the facts as I see them. The system is now in place for this economy to recover fully and move ahead just as it has for the past century. Mistakes were certainly made over the past few years and those responsible are being held to account in the markets, and will be held to account in the courts if it is deemed necessary. Recklessness is not the American way. Reinvention, rebirth and recovery are what we do best. America’s economic future will not be determined by over-caffeinated traders on remote trading floors with no investment that cannot be withdrawn at the click of a button. It will be determined by those with long-term investments in our real economy. To them, I say, we are behind you, supporting you and ready to do all we can to ensure this downturn is no more than a natural shaking out of the markets which will soon be behind us. Thank you.”
Without waiting to take questions, the Secretary stalked out of the room. Sheehan ran to his side.
“I don’t know any more on Coles, sir, but I’ll see what I can find out.”
“The Chief of Staff for you,” said the Secretary’s assistant, handing him a cell phone.
“I have no idea what inspired you to do that, but great fucking job,” said the President’s right hand. “The President wants you to come by this evening before the reception for the Colombian president.”
“Thank you. I’d be happy to,” said the Secretary.
“If we had more like you, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess,” said the chief of staff, before abruptly hanging up.
Wright walked along the Seine to the Quai d’Orsay, the home of the French foreign ministry. The French had the Quai, the British King Charles Street and the Americans, well, it was unfortunate: Foggy Bottom. He turned onto the gravel drive where a policeman in a ribbed blue sweater stepped out of a cabin to ask whom he was coming to see. Wright handed over his EU passport and the policeman found his name on a list. He crunched up to the steps on the right of the building, where he was greeted by a footman in tails and invited to wait in a large room to the left of the entrance, painted with scenes of Napoleonic battles. Wright settled into a high, wide chair, upholstered in orange velvet.
After a couple of minutes, he heard the clatter of leather soles in the hallway and a young functionary entered, slightly out of breath. In his hand was a navy blue file, embossed with the foreign ministry’s insignia.
“Do come with me, Monsieur Wright,” he said. “The Minister is very happy to be of help. Monsieur Darcos emphasized the importance of your work.” The official led Wright up the stairs, past more Napoleonic victories, down another baroque hallway of gold pillars, marble topped sideboards and paintings, through a tall, white door, trimmed in gold. Beyond it, the decorative excesses were gone, replaced by walls paneled with pale wood and recessed lighting. It was like stepping into a modern Japanese hotel.
The official pushed on a door Wright had failed to notice. Two women were eating their lunch, a miniscule salad and tiny pots of yogurt, beside a window overlooking an interior courtyard. Without the official saying anything, they gathered up their things and left, both smiling and looking Wright up and down, taking him in as they left.
“Please take all the time you need,” said the official, setting the blue file on the table. “No one will disturb you. And if you have any questions, just dial 42. I am the third door on the right.”
Wright walked to the window. Two gardeners were at work, trimming the tops of a row of chestnuts, so they were perfectly flat. A third raked the gravel. Spring knew how to make its entrance in Paris - fashionably late and splendid looking. Two dark blue Renaults were parked next to a tall black gate, while their drivers, in shirtsleeves, polished them. Whatever else you said of the French, they did the formalities of government office exceedingly well.
A silver coffee pot and a single white cup and saucer had been set out on a silver tray, with a small jug of milk and three lollipops of crystallized brown sugar. Wright helped himself, stirred the sugar into his coffee and then sat down. The file contained both newspaper cuttings and diplomatic notes on Shestakov. 5 foot 6 inches. Born in Ingushetia, a splinter of land in the northern Caucasus. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Married to his second wife, Lena, who spent most of her time in London where she owned a children’s clothing line. How many upscale children’s clothing lines could the world sustain, Wright wondered. Designing cashmere sweaters and corduroys for toddlers seemed to be the default past-time for every young billionaire’s wife. In Manhattan, you could barely walk a city block on the Upper East Side or down in Tribeca, without passing a shop window arrayed with kiddie ball gowns and blazers. The Shestakovs had two children, twins. The boy, 13, had just arrived at Eton, the private boys’ boarding school outside London, where the uniform consisted of tailcoats and stiff collars. The girl was at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. They were doubtless the first Ingushetians at either establishment.
The list of Shestakov’s mistresses, just those observed by the French secret service, covered two, tightly spaced, pages. There were women all over Europe, though concentrated in London, the south of France and St. Moritz, where he owned the largest chalet in town. There were prostitutes and businesswomen, the wives and girlfriends of eminent men, film-stars and underwear models. Clearly, Shestakov was as dogged in his private life as he was in business. It must have taken extraordinary will and stamina to compile such a list in the 15 years since he had risen from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. He offered all of his girlfriend credit cards, so they could spend his money and he would know what they spent it on. Some of them refused, because their husbands were more than capable of meeting their financial needs, but most did not. Shestakov evidently had a classical view of power, in which it should be exercised along every possible dimension. Just as Julius Caesar determined to possess the wives, daughters, even mothers, of his friends and opponents alike, so Shestakov seemed to covet a sexual dominion, a network of secrets and obligations, to bolster his financial and political ascent.
He had first come to Moscow, Wright read, as a member of the Presidential Security Service under Boris Yeltsin in 1991. The members of the PSS were the untouchables of that rowdy, unstable time, a highly trained group spun out of the very highest levels of the old KGB and elite military units. Their only loyalty was to the president, who doted on them with gifts and privileges denied even members of his cabinet. He built a special tennis club in the center of Moscow, where the senior security officers were entertained. Ordinary Muscovites compared them to Ivan the Terrible’s death squads, the oprichniki. They drove fast and drunk around the city. They took whatever they wanted, with impunity. In an otherwise lawless country, they were the law. For Shestakov, it was an education in the license available to those in authority. And also in corruption. If he had ever been daunted by power, two years of guarding the president had stripped him of any lingering respect. Men were just animals, and the powerful more animal than the rest. In fact, the more like a beast one behaved, the more ordinary men quailed and ceded you whatever they had.
The world described in the dossier was anarchic. Following the collapse of Communism, Russia and the former Soviet states were politically bereft. Fleets of Western advisers poured in offering frameworks and prescriptions for how to rebuild the state. Their mistake was to assume they were dealing with a blank slate. Russia may have been a mess, but it retained its history, its personalities, its way of doing things. This simple observation was beyond the idiotic consultants.
Many Western investors arrived in Moscow hoping for a gold rush. What they found was an inchoate government, arbitrary laws and a small group of men favored by Yeltsin seizing control of the country’s most valuable assets. None were more rapacious than Shestakov.
The outsiders mistook the disorder for incompetence. In fact, wrote the French ambassador to Moscow during this time, it had been quite intentional. The Russians knew exactly the scale of the economic opportunity before them and wanted to exploit it all themselves. The legal system may have seemed broken to someone new to Russia, but to those familiar with it, it was perfectly arranged in their favor.
After seeing off the Communists when they tried to regain control of the country in 1991, Yeltsin returned to the worst habits of the old Soviet elite, playing tennis at his club when he wasn’t drinking. He appeared to thrive on manipulation for its own sake, pitting politicians and businessman against one another, even his own staff But he was smart enough to ensure that a good amount of the riches unleashed in Russia over the coming decade found their way to his accounts in Switzerland and France.
Below Yeltsin was a cadre of academics and economists determined to turn Russia into a free market economy. The country had a choice in those years. It could have patiently built the structure for a Swedish or German-style social democracy. Dull but stable. Or it could throw paraffin on the broken state and hope that out of the bonfire emerged a more entrepreneurial form of capitalism, more akin to America’s. Among the entrepreneurs, there was no argument. It was in chaos that you found the greatest opportunities.
The officials prepared Russia’s first privatizations in freezing cold offices wearing fur hats and greatcoats. Shops were short of food and the public finances were shot. Whatever action they took needed to be decisive and immediate. The problems were of an order no Western government had faced in 50 years, since the end of the Second World War. The government wanted to pass Russia’s state-run businesses, those acquired under the Marxist imperative of owning the means of production, back into the hands of private individuals. And yet no one had any money. Inflation had destroyed the value of everyone’s savings.
So they came up with the voucher scheme. Every Russian born by September 2 1992 was given a voucher with a face value of about $25. The cut-off date was moved from September 1 in order to accommodate the birth of the daughter of one of Yeltsin’s close friends. These vouchers could then be traded in for shares in previously state-owned companies.
At the time Shestakov was growing bored of his work in the security service. At the tennis club one day, he learned that with more than 150 million vouchers being issued, there was an extraordinary opportunity to build stakes in these companies. As he drove around Moscow, Shestakov observed the vouchers being used as a form of currency. They were being traded for bottles of vodka, cigarettes and vegetables. Consumed with the everyday, few Russians had any concept of their country’s economic resources and future. Shestakov proposed to three of his fellow secret servicemen that they find a way to accumulate as many of these vouchers as they could. They struck a deal with the mob bosses in Moscow to smuggle illegal goods from the airport onto the streets, where they were sold in exchange for vouchers. Whenever they heard of anyone else hoarding the coveted slips of paper, they donned their balaclavas and paid them a visit. Within six weeks, just in time for the first privatization, they had accumulated over 500,000 vouchers.
The first firm to be privatized was Stary Nov, the largest bicycle maker in the country. A large, excited crowd gathered in a hall in central Moscow. Western bankers arrived in vans, wearing business suits and carrying sacks brimming with vouchers. With the trove of vouchers he arrived with, and several hundred thousand more bullied from those in the crowd, Shestakov ended the day owning 10% of the new company.
While his fellow secret servicemen reveled in the success of extorting vouchers, Shestakov was already figuring out more sophisticated means of building his fortune. Holding up bankers and horse-trading with mobsters was only going to take him so far. Quicker than others, he understood the rules of this game. Lose and you face relentless poverty. The kind of poverty he had seen his parents suffer. Worthless, undignified poverty, dirty, gaunt and lifeless. Win and you become rich enough to be dangerous. So rich you could have every material thing on earth, but risk the jealousy and enmity which might kill you - or leave you to die in a faraway jail. The best way was to win then get oneself and one’s money out of Russia. You would never be safe, but at least you had a chance.
The viciousness of the new capitalism made some Russians hark back to the Soviet days, to the intense friendships and spiritualism of those pre-materialist times. Shestakov was never so nostalgic.
As the free-marketeers under Yeltsin pressed ahead, Shestakov volunteered to be their bully. Privatization was struggling to win popular support. They needed the old Soviet managers to offer up their companies for this grand experiment, and investors to buy stock. In the west, they might have placed some advertisements in The Economist or made themselves available for media interviews. In Russia, they went with shturmirovka, storm-trooping, using men like Shestakov to apply pressure. It was unpleasant, certainly for the managers who resisted, but effective.
Wright stood up and turned his head from side to side, stretching out his neck. The gardeners had left, as had the man raking the gravel. In the distance, he heard the wail of sirens, approaching, louder and louder until they stopped in front of the Quai. The minister, he presumed, returning to work after a long lunch.
He recalled Matteo telling him about a trip he had made to an art fair in Moscow in the early 1990s. The art was poor, bad modernism or parodies of Stalinist realism, but the extra-curricular activities remarkable. One evening he had visited a restaurant in a former belle époque bath-house. He gorged on Black Sea caviar, eggs the size of pearls, as dancers and singers performed folk songs. And then on the stroke of midnight, a beautiful young woman in a long, black, clinging dress, emerged holding a single red rose. The men were invited to bid. From all around the room, they rose, drunk and emotional, bellowing out their bids. The rose eventually sold for $500, an extraordinary sum in those times. The winner had walked up to the woman to receive his rose and held it aloft to cheers. All the maudlin, dime-store emotion pent-up under 70 years of Soviet rule seemed to explode in that room around one, wilting flower. How could the West ever pretend to understand these people?
He poured himself more coffee. It was excellent stuff, Caribbean he thought. Not quite Blue Mountain, but close. Probably from one of the French territories, Martinique perhaps.
The speed with which Shestakov devised new means of financial exploitation would have delighted the greatest of America’s old robber barons. When he learned that a single investment bank was advising western companies on potential Russian targets, he invited the managing director of the Moscow branch out for dinner and asked for the names of the Russian firms. His intention, he told the man frankly, was to acquire stakes in these firms and then hold out for an exorbitant price when the Western buyer moved in. The banker refused, until Shestakov offered him 20% of any profits he made on the scheme.
The banker was found dead a year later in a Fiat Panda in a nasty suburb of Rome, apparently the victim of a violent rent boy, his body violated and slashed almost beyond recognition. No murderer was ever found.
The functionaries had begun in the hope that a free market in Russia would lead to improved businesses and shared prosperity. What occurred, however, courtesy of men like Shestakov was one of the greatest robberies in the history of the world.
Shestakov, and a handful of others, perceived that the hard work of turning around Russia’s old state run enterprises would take years and offer dubious returns. The real, quick money was to be made in acquiring the state’s assets, especially its mineral resources, at depressed prices and then pumping them for cash. The opportunities to do this were vast, but required both speed and complete ruthlessness.
At one point, the state issued an obscure law offering geologists who discovered reserves of oil and gas production licenses to develop them. Shestakov assembled several teams of geologists from Moscow’s state universities and flew them to different parts of the Arctic Circle. Over the course of several months, shivering in the frozen waste, with vodka rubbed into their cheeks to stay warm, enduring frequent fights and shoot-outs with rival teams of explorers, the men had discovered billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources on Shestakov’s behalf.
His greatest coup of all, however, was yet to come.
In late 1994, the Russian government remained mired in trouble. Its finances were still a mess and popular figures on both the right and left were threatening to unseat Yeltsin in elections in 1996. The new rich were feeling their power, with some even attacking the government through the media. The fruits of privatization had accrued to a very narrow elite, antagonizing the millions who remained poor. For Shestakov, here lay the chance to despoil the Russian state of its prize assets, the great metal producing, oil and gas companies which Western firms had been coveting for decades. They were hopelessly run, but possessed something far more important to such firms than good management: monopoly access to mineral resources.
By offering 18-months’ worth of political support, he realized, he could build a fortune for the ages. It was one of the catastrophes of Russia’s democratic experiment that the politicians’ ambitions had extended no further than retaining power. For that dubious honor, they pawned off their country’s most valuable assets for generations to come. Politicians in every country were cheap. A few thousand dollars in campaign contributions could buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts or changes in the law. But in Russia they had sold themselves and their country for kopeks, in return for an empty political victory.
Maneuvering between the President’s circle, the privatizers and the new billionaires, Shestakov devised a deal whereby the rich would provide loans to the government to pay its short-term bills, including wages, in return for stakes in its natural resource companies. If the government defaulted on any part of the loan, the lenders would have an option to increase that stake. The lenders would also give Yeltsin their support, both publicly in speeches and media appearances, and privately, with enough money to run a Western-style presidential campaign.
Conscious of how poorly this might go down with the public, the government held sham investment tenders, inviting companies to win stakes in state-owned firms if they promised to provide capital investment. For appearances’ sake, it looked as though the acquirers were being chosen on the basis of their commitment to Russia’s economy.
In a German newspaper article from the period, an American banker working in Moscow, said: “The smart Russians know there is no money in restructuring firms. All the money is in speculation, borrowing cheap money from the government and buying cheap assets. You can buy these assets for almost nothing and be confident they will almost instantly be worth many multiples more.” All you needed was blat, the right connections to get the deal.
Wright felt he could have been listening to one of his friends in private equity in New York. Management and creating value were for losers. The big money was in gathering large pools of cash, taking fees and performing elaborate feats of financial engineering. Actually improve what you bought with your funds? Create jobs? Build sound corporate structures for decades to come? If it was hard, required lots of people and took years to see a return, forget it. If it was easy and profitable, albeit disastrous for the rest of society, terrific. For all their show-boating, they were no different from Shestakov.
Since 1996, Shestakov had moved away from Russia. He still controlled his interests and had retained access to the highest levels of the Kremlin, allowing senior officials to use his myriad companies and banks to divert money from the country. But today, he spent most of his time between London, a villa near Cap d’Antibes which had once belonged to Agnelli family, who owned Fiat, and his heavily armed yacht. He had diversified his fortune through investment funds run by some of the smartest men in London and New York, and travelled with a platoon of bodyguards.
At the back of the folder was a yellow envelope, containing photographs culled from newspaper cuttings around the world. Here was Shestakov in a leather jacket with the collar turned up talking to Yeltsin in St. Petersburg. Here he was at a charity gala in London with his first wife. There were pictures of his yacht, a panoramic shot of him in the Arctic, a flock of geese passing across the cold, blue sky. Towards the bottom of the pile, the clips became yellower and almost crumbled to the touch, especially those from Russian papers. Wright licked his finger and turned them gently.
Suddenly he stopped. Three pages up from the bottom was a clip from the business pages of Izvestia. It was dated October 1991. There was the young Shestakov, smiling in a tie and loose-fitting shirt. He was sitting at a table holding a pen, about to sign a document. The caption read: “Russian entrepreneur and Western partners acquire factory through voucher program.” Around him stood four men, leaning in and resting their hands on the young tycoon’s shoulder: Henry Reeves; Thierry de Montbrison; Timothy Howard and Steven P. Weissberg.
Renshaw felt a stabbing pain behind his eyeballs. His migraines always seemed to strike at the worst possible moment. But today, he had no choice. Shestakov’s instructions were clear. He wanted out. He wanted to move everything into cash. There would be anger, complaints, refusals and screaming. Too bad. It was either that or something far, far worse.
Renshaw leafed through the letters on his desk. Every one contained the same message. “Our funds are down this year and we are halting redemptions.” In every office in Mayfair there seemed to be a hedge fund manager balled up in a corner whimpering. Two months ago, the bar at Claridges had been elbow-to-elbow with these braying geeks. Now it was empty. Mention the phrase “leveraged return” and people covered their children’s ears and crossed the road to get away from you.
But Shestakov was right. It was his money. And he wanted it out. All of it. The funds had no right to hang onto it just so they could stay afloat. It was just going to be grim. Pulling $6 billion from the hedge fund industry at a time like this was akin to putting a bullet in its leg. Not fatal, but certainly not helpful. There would be a rush of forced selling, which would drive certain markets down even further. It was always the same assets which had to be sold at times like this: the ones with obvious value, the publicly traded stocks and corporate bonds. The ones they couldn’t sell were the ones which had been hard to value at the best of times, the private equity stakes and derivative portfolios. Now these assets were illiquid or worthless - either way they were dead weight. For anyone who understood the pressures on hedge funds, and the ways they behaved, there was a fortune to be made in trading around the quarterly or annual redemption deadlines. If you knew a fund had a large position in a certain stock, but was being asked for cash by its clients, you could short the stock, knowing the fund would have to sell it and thereby drive down the price. All you needed was inside information on the funds.
Renshaw had drawn up a list. As he glanced down it, he began to feel sick. The names were those of old friends, men he had played cricket with since he was 8. All had gone into finance and all had profited from Renshaw’s introductions to Russian money. Unfortunately, many were bull market investors. When the wind changed direction, they flailed. They bluffed and dodged for a while, but their failure was as transparent as the octopus carpaccio at Harry’s Bar. They may have borne the names and titles of great English dynasties, but they had none of their forebears’ spine.
It was what his father used to say of him. “You have no spine, Alexander. No bloody spine.” Well, he had shown him. His father had gone to all the opera galas and antique shows he could, served on all the right boards and nurtured his fortune over breakfast and lunch at the Ritz on Piccadilly, but he had never had the guts to go into business with a man like Shestakov, a man untrammeled by the niceties of English society.
The sky was darkening outside. The men on his list would be feeling pummeled, not in the mood for another fight. God, he hated London. He always had. The interminable winters, the shuffling crowds. And more recently, the crass commercialism, the chipper shop assistants and boisterous advertising and design crowd who had overrun every public space with messages of money, fashion and organic food for all. There were no havens any more for men like him. Wherever you went, you found some ass with stubble adding widgets to his iPhone and lecturing you about philanthro-capitalism.
“Charlie, it’s Alexander,” he began.
“Dreadful day again, Alex.”
“I know. We need to redeem.”
“Can’t do it, Alex. Didn’t you read our letter? It’s a shitty time to be selling.”
“I read the letter. It’s worthless and you know it. We have the right to redeem every quarter.”
“But I’ve told you...”
“I’m not arguing with you Charlie.”
“If we have to sell so you can cash out, we’ll never make it through the year.”
“You’re not the Church of England, Charlie. No one cares if you’re here in a year or not. We want our money wired to our accounts in Zurich within 48 hours.”
“I wish I had time to argue with you. Sell whatever you need to sell. My investors aren’t inclined to be patient.” He could hear his old friend absorb the threat implicit in his words.
“You’re ruining me, Alex. For the sake of those bloody Russians...”
“Who’ve been paying you very well these past few years, Charlie. Don’t be ungrateful. Make sure the money gets transferred.” Renshaw rested his head in his hands. Friendships were made of such fine filament. They took years to weave, through schools, universities, parties, the exchanges of meaningless favors and yet could be ended so simply. Perhaps Shestakov was right to hold them in such disregard. To view them as purely utilitarian.
There were seven more telephone calls to be made.
Wright arrived at his apartment on the Rue Guynemer and found it in perfect order, courtesy of his family’s elderly maid. He had inherited the place from his mother, and never got around to repainting the black lacquered ceiling or the safari-style canopy bed. It still felt like a 1970s Parisian nightclub. You half expected Yves Saint Laurent to wander in with an English bulldog and a Moroccan boy and start snorting coke off a side-table. The apartment was his father’s concession to his mother. She tolerated his conservative habits in America, the well-worn clothes, the staid three bedroom co-op on Lexington Avenue bought for a pittance in the early 1960s, the used Ford Taurus. But every few months, she would come to Paris and enjoy a little flash, shopping, dinners and decorator friends for tea in this unbridled apartment. Tchotchkes lined the mantelpiece, from African fertility symbols to Haitian picture frames made from used chewing gum wrappers. The floors were covered with Algerian rugs, woven by a tribe in the region of Tizi Ouzou. She had met a delegation from the region at an event at Ministry of Culture, and invited them over for a memorable dinner, which ran until 3 in the morning and climaxed with barefoot dancing and tribal drumming on a makeshift kit of upturned salad bowls. Of all the homes he had ever known, this one carried the fondest memories. Of life as it should be lived, not as it so often was, for the approval of others.
He had called Travis, who told him Weissberg had been threatened and was holed up in his apartment.
“Probably shouting at the staff,” Travis said. The rest of New York’s financial community was quailing. “You could walk in and get a table at Per Se, if you cared to,” he told Wright, referring to the city’s most expensive restaurant, overlooking Columbus Circle. “It’s been impossible to keep a lid on this. Anyone who has lost anyone else’s money is worried they’re going to be next. You know that means about a third of the borough of Manhattan.”
The police had rumbled into action on Reeves and de Montbrison, but hadn’t yet put them together with Howard. They seemed more interested in Coles.
“Do you think it’s Shestakov?”
“I can’t say yet,” said Wright. “There’s some connection to the three dead men...”
“All you have is a photograph from nearly 17 years ago. If that’s all it takes to implicate someone, you could probably find pictures of me with ten men who have died suspiciously. I mean, shit, by that standard, we’d have to kill everyone who ever appeared in Avenue magazine.”
“We know that a lot of the losses the morning of the deaths were sustained by Russians.”
“And a lot of other people. It’s still vague, Ben. Either it is Shestakov and we hope to hell he’s done. Or it’s someone else and we still have no idea about motive. Is this a thing against rich people, Ben? Or just a few rich people?”
“Perhaps we’re due a cull.”
“No jokes, Ben.”
The lights in the Jardin Luxembourg were coming on as Wright jogged in from the Rue Guynemer. He had pulled on a pair of white shorts, a grey shirt and an old pair of Fila sneakers. No one wore Fila anymore. He crossed his feet and bent down to touch his toes ten times. Through the trees, he could make out the puppet theater, where he had spent so many happy afternoons as a child. The smell of crepes reached him from the various stands around the park. The return from school was such a wonderful ritual for French children, involving a stop at a bakery or creperie to stave off the hunger which inevitably overcame them before they got home. On every bench, there was a grandparent with a child, the child’s face smeared with jam or chocolate spread.
The gravel path between the tall iron railings and the trees inside the park was wide and shady. Wright fell in behind a group of eight firemen, all bulked up in cycling shorts and tight shirts, who chattered noisily as they ran. It was good to exercise after the long flight, and far too much coffee. The air tasted clean by Paris standards, cold and fresh. He sprinted past the firemen.
“Allez, allez!” shouted a couple of them, as Wright sprayed up stones in his wake. After 30 seconds, he slowed down again, as he approached the corner of the park. A group of men were standing by the gate, a black Renault with a flashing red light attached to the roof had pulled up onto the sidewalk. Passers-by were used to this, as several ministers kept their private homes in the area. As Wright approached, one of the men walked up and flashed an ID badge.
“Monsieur Wright. You need to come with us.”
“What’s it about?”
“Orders from the minister.” The man gripped Wright by the arm. Wright wiped the sweat off his forehead with his free hand and half-stumbled, half-walked to the car. As soon as he was in the back seat the siren went on, Wright could hear the sigh of the suspension as the car eased onto the road and moved away.
Stephen Weissberg stared at the two Bloomberg screens in his study. Everywhere he looked lay carnage. Stocks were down. Bond yields were miniscule as everyone stampeded for supposedly safer assets. Why on earth most banks were still even in existence baffled him. It would take trillions to sort out their problems. He ran a hand through his reconstituted hair. The plugs were supposed to be invisible, but he knew everyone could see them. Behind him hung a Fragonard, a woman in a swing. $30 million. For the amount of pleasure it gave him, he would have been better off buying a toasted bialy.
He ripped open the plastic on the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. He had been sitting on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations for seven years now, showing up to panels and cocktail parties full of people pretending to talk knowledgeably about Pakistan. No wonder the world loathed American diplomacy. It seemed to consist of horny old braggarts in suits and delicious young women wheeled out from the development office. And it didn’t take a horny old braggart like himself to recognize this fact. He glanced through the table of contents. It was the “Food Issue”. Lots of people with long foreign names talking about the coming global food crisis. Several of them seemed to be based in Rome, home of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. How predictable. You decide to establish an organization intended to relieve global food shortages and then locate it one of the culinary capitals of the world. Did no one think to put it in Dhaka, perhaps? Or Addis Ababa? Places where the damn thing actually mattered? Could anyone take a food expert seriously who spent every lunch guzzling down Spaghetti Carbonara and Chianti? Well, clearly, the Council on Foreign Relations did. Seriously enough to publish their windy ramblings. Weissberg tossed the magazine onto the floor.
He reached for the remote and pressed two buttons. A panel buried into the wall above the fireplace slid open to reveal a television. He checked to see how the Knicks were doing. Losing. Again. This time to the Atlanta Hawks. He flicked over to ESPN. Two college teams he didn’t care about. MSNBC had some Southern governor talking about the economic crisis, as if he knew anything, and looking very pleased to be on television.
He had told his office that he had business to attend to at home today. Lunch with the Chinese He could detect the amazement in their voices. He had never not come to the office when he was in New York, no matter what else he had to do. Suffering from colds, a fever, a broken leg, he had always made it in. He did not believe anyone did any work when he was not there. Today, they had probably hoisted a piñata in the boardroom and handed out margaritas. He had visions of his entire management staff photocopying their backsides for kicks.
Then Travis had called to tell him what he already knew. He was on a list. He shouldn’t go out. His wife had finally rolled in around 3am. He could swear he saw lipstick on her neck. That sleazebag from Vanity Fair was trying to turn his wife gay. Presumably so she would have something to write about. It couldn’t have been for the sex. He knew that much.
After an hour in his exercise room, he had dressed that morning in brown moleskin trousers, a coral pink shirt and a matching v-neck sweater. He felt like a retiree. He made telephone calls, shouted at some people, insulted others. The usual. Business was slow because of the credit crunch, but there was always someone to yell at. Even the Chinese cancelled on him. Their plane had been held up on the West Coast. At least it gave him another day to prepare his excuses for the plummeting value of their investment in his firm. His mistress was busy at Maison et Objets, a design fair in Paris, so an afternoon in the sack was out. Around 5pm he had started the latest Bob Woodward book and put it down after 10 pages. Jesus, that man had been coasting since Watergate. So politicians were turf-fighters and self-interested. Whoop-de-do.
Finally, he found the Howard Stern show. Now, here was an entertainer. He was talking to a stripper about her work and she was giving him a demonstration. Ten, even five years ago, he would have rolled a spliff. That, and wine, he considered acceptable vices. He used to have a special box, containing cigarette papers and weed, which he kept under the coffee table in his study. Watching Stern and smoking weed, he found, distanced himself from the battles of the day. They made the hysteria which surrounded him seem more trivial. It was a way of coping which he had given up on the advice of his wife, Coles and various others. No one would want to keep their money with him if word leaked that he was a practicing pot-head.
All day, he had felt a nagging pain just below his rib cage, on the right. He leaned back into the sofa and stretched his arms upwards. No difference. He moved from side to side. The pain subsided. He reached down to the dinner tray his butler had left for him and sucked out a crab claw. As he sat back, he felt the pain stab him lower, towards his kidneys and begin leaching down. He stood up and immediately began to wretch. He stumbled for the bathroom door in the corner, and jammed his leg into a sharp, metal footstool. He screamed through a mouthful of vomit.
He rose and grabbed for the door handle. He turned it and fell onto the green marble floor. The cold stone felt good against his head, which was pulsing with heat. He could see the telephone beside the toilet. He pulled himself along the ground, but the pain in his lower stomach and around his groin was excruciating. He vomited again, this time the bile was streaked with blood. He let out a strangulated roar. His butler rushed in, bent down to lift Weissberg’s head off the ground and turn it so the vomit did not back up in his throat. Weissberg now clutched at his chest. His heart was beating uncontrollably, as if determined to break out of his ribs. As Weissberg lost consciousness, he could have sworn the butler was smiling.
To Wright’s surprise, he was not taken to the ministry. The car drove up Les Invalides, but instead of going all the way to the Seine and turning left, it turned right on the Rue de Varenne and up the narrow Rue de Bourgogne, ignoring the one way signs, to pull up in front of Darcos’s house. The large wooden doors swung automatically open. Wright stepped out and one of the men took him by the arm and pulled him towards a door in the far corner of the gravel-covered courtyard. He felt under-dressed in his jogging clothes, but that was hardly his fault.
He had expected to go up to the drawing room on the second floor, but he was taken instead to a door below the staircase and hustled into a small room with a window overlooking an interior garden, where a pear tree was espaliered against the wall. The room was a work of art in itself, an entire Renaissance studiolo, torn from a Tuscan palace. Every inch of the wall was adorned with walnut, beech, oak and rosewood, inlaid with images of cabinets, stuffed with scrolls and astronomical equipment, chairs, musical instruments, even a docile hound. It was beautiful, yet claustrophobic, a fact not helped by the foreign minister’s heavy, sandalwood cologne.
The minister was tall, a fact accentuated by the low ceiling and an extra couple of inches of thick grey hair, swept back and curling over his collar. He was standing with his back to the room, with one hand resting on a plinth, which held a bust of Balzac, made by Rodin from terracotta. You could see the way the sculptor’s hands had molded the clay, in the thick lips, the rough moustache, the pudgy, butcher’s face. Darcos adored Balzac, and once he had the money had spent a good part of it acquiring these mementoes of the writer’s life. Upstairs in a glass case, as if it were a set of papal robes or samurai armor, was one of the monk’s habits Balzac liked to wear while writing.
“Roman Shestakov is not to be cast under even the slightest suspicion,” said the minister, without turning round. Wright could see his breath clouding one of the diamond shaped panels in the window. “I gave you access to his file this afternoon because Xavier asked me to. But I felt I should make it clear to you that none of what you read should be used in any way against him.” The minister turned his head slowly. His eyes were the palest blue, just visible beneath heavy, sensuous lids. Wright felt like he was being sized up for lunch by some Cretaceous beast.
Something must have happened, Wright thought. Someone must have got to the minister. Someone with enough influence to reach him and pressure him in the space of a couple of hours. The minister was not easily influenced. He knew that much. He was one of the most feared political actors in France and Europe. No one was closer to the president. In fact, while the president posed for photographs with farmers, slapped the rears of cows and glad-handed foreign dignitaries, it was the minister who made government tick, who traded favors and threats. When the party coffers needed to be replenished with oil money from West Africa, it was the minister who got on the plane to Gabon and applied the muscle to President Bongo. When environmentalists threatened a nuclear test, it was the minister who ensured their offices were burgled and their taxes scrutinized. As hard men go, he was just about the hardest, short of organized crime.
The minister thought he leavened this reputation with a sideline as a poet and historian, a rhapsodic chronicler of the Napoleonic wars, and champion of 19th century letters. But in fact, people found it even more terrifying, schizophrenic even, that he unwound from days of political knee-capping by reading Eluard and Verlaine.
“No one has accused him of anything,” said Wright. “Yet.”
“And no one will.”
“With all due respect, minister, there are two dead men in New York, one a French citizen, and another dead in London, all of whom were managing portions of Mr. Shestakov’s money. Given his reputation, it’s scarcely a big leap to think that maybe…”
The minister turned his head so it was in profile in the window.
“Do you know how much of Europe’s oil and natural gas now comes from Russia? 40%, Mr. Wright. Do you know what it would do to our continent if that supply was interrupted even for a couple of days? It would throw us into economic chaos.”
“It would hurt the suppliers too.”
“Yes, but us much more. It has been one of the most serious errors we Western Europeans have made, to build an economic system so entirely dependent on fuels provided by countries with which we have unstable relationships. We are not the United States. We have no Alaska, no Gulf of Mexico. We have no vast armies we can send to defend our energy assets in faraway deserts. We are forced to rely on the goodwill of men like Roman Shestakov. It is unfortunate, but it is a reality.”
“Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours.”
The minister turned around, his fleshy lips drawn into a wide smile.
“Yes, indeed, Mr. Wright. A good sketch is indeed worth more than a long speech. I am glad you appreciated it. Brevity is not something people associate with politicians these days. You are an admirer of Napoleon?”
“Let’s just say I’m curious.”
“That will do. Tell me Mr. Wright. Even if Shestakov was not untouchable, would we really care if a few financiers died? Would their families even care? Would the world be worse off without them? You know, here in France, we have never put men who make money on quite the pedestal you do in New York. It is not a skill we particularly admire. Perhaps it is our failing.”
“Any other group in society you’d like to see picked off?” Wright heard a brief laugh.
“It was smart of Arthur Travis to put you on this case. I know him from sailing. He comes to Brittany every couple of years with his boat. A beautiful craft. Not many men as rich as him care for the traditional boats, the wooden hulls, the sails. They like these floating mansions, with everything computer controlled. Arthur really loves to sail. It would have taken weeks for the FBI to pin this on Shestakov.”
“So you think it’s him.”
“Where it is him or not, Shestakov is one of those men who trail sulfur. He leaves everyone around him ruined or fatally compromised. If you care for my opinion, which is not to go beyond these walls, then yes, either directly or indirectly, he has caused these deaths. To touch Shestakov is to be contaminated. Depending on the dose, you will die sooner or later. The sadness about power like that is that it triumphs. You know, I’m sure, the story of Christ in the wilderness being taken to a high place by the devil and shown the kingdoms of the world. All this can be yours, the devil says. Just worship me. The power of that story is that no one in this life is like Christ. We all succumb to the devil’s offer. And I’m not even a Christian, Mr. Wright. On Sunday mornings, I play tennis in the Bois de Boulogne.”
“Are you suggesting I stop looking into this?”
“For your own good, yes.”
“But this afternoon, you were ready to let me read his file.”
“Things change, Ben. Things have changed. Shestakov is to be left alone.”
The car stopped at Wright’s building on the Rue Guynemer. He pressed the code on the keypad, and the large glass door opened into a hallway. A single light illuminated the cobbled courtyard, on one side of which was an old brick stable block with green, wooden doors. Wright took the wide marble steps up to the third floor two at a time. No way was this over. At least until Travis said so. He even felt a faint yearning to see justice done. But this passed quickly.
As he reached his floor, he saw a light under his door. He was sure he had turned everything off when he left. He tended to be meticulous about such things. Only Darcos knew he was even here. And Travis. And the French government. And they had been blunt enough to pull him in off the street. He paused for a moment. He had nothing with which to protect himself. He looked up the dark stairwell. He appeared to be alone. His neighbor across the hall was a French television presenter who spent most nights with her boyfriend, a gnarly and aggressive professor of linguistics with a garret near the Pantheon. Wright turned the handle, pushed the door open and stepped back.
There, sitting on a zebra print ottoman in front of the mirrored fireplace, drinking a gin and tonic and reading a photographic history of the color pink, was Aurélie Grenelle. She seemed delighted to see him.
“Get dressed, Ben. I’m taking you out. I’m sorry lunch ended so badly.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Wright, looking around his apartment to see what other surprises might await him. “How did you find me?”
“Xavier. And then your concierge let me in. I told her I was your sister.”
“I need to have a word with her.”
“Did you know the number of Portuguese concierges in Paris is falling? The Portuguese used to come here in the Fifties and Sixties when Portugal was a dictatorship. But now it’s rich, they stay at home. So the younger concierges tend to be from Eastern Europe. It’s an interesting example of the movement of labor in free markets.”
“Your concierge is like a museum piece from a different economic era. Like red suspenders on Wall Street.”
“I’ll make sure to take better care of her. Let me go and get dressed.”
Wright took a shower in the black marble bathroom, where jets of water shot out from every side. He put on a pair of jeans, a dark blue polo shirt and a brown tweed jacket, the clothes he kept in Paris. He slipped on a pair of tan loafers, hand-made in Oltrarno, the warren of workshops south of the Arno in Florence. They were an extravagant gift from his mother after his father’s death. When he emerged, Grenelle was waiting by the door. She had traded her olive coat for a short, leather jacket.
As they stepped down to the street, Grenelle casually took Wright’s arm. They turned a corner, and there 100 yards down protruded a glossy black awning. A golden light filtered out below it onto the street. A woman in a purple overcoat and stiletto boots with a single, waving, peacock feather tucked into her hair, stood outside smoking and staring forbiddingly at any passers-by.
“I don’t remember this place,” said Wright.
“It’s new. About six months old. One of the great French chefs closed down all his restaurants five years ago, went to train in Japanese cooking and has come back with this. It’s called Kaiseki. They say it’s like eating lines of poetry.”
“Have you ever eaten lines of poetry?”
The room was tiny, with no more than ten tables, cubes made of glossy, black plastic. Miniature dishes emerged one after another from the counter where three chefs, two Japanese, one French, worked with absolute concentration, slicing, steaming and frying with lethal precision.
“Une bouteille de Batailley,” said Grenelle to one of the elegant waitresses, who were dressed in long black robes, as if they had just left an Aikido class. “The owner knows that even with Japanese food, we still like red wine.” Wright looked down at the menu, which was engraved on thin sheaves of steel. He hadn’t seen a menu this complicated since visiting a “New Nordic” restaurant in Tribeca. There he had eaten arctic grouse smoked over hay and slathered with tiny pine shoots and summer truffles from Gotland. The overall effect, he recalled, was like getting down on one’s hands and knees in a Norwegian forest and biting chunks out of the mossy earth. Fortunately, there was plenty of vodka in which to souse the food on its way down.
“Yurine, lily bulb, Kinome, the pungent leaves of pepper ash,” Wright said, reading aloud. “Yurine?”
“Lily root. It’s delicious.” Grenelle smacked her lips and raised a finger, as if to say aha! “We must have this. Yuzu, it’s like a mandarin orange, but far richer than any mandarin orange you’ve ever had, stuffed with foie gras and soya milk.”
“Sea bream sachinim with shiso?”
“They do the fish with delicate purple flowers, like cherry blossom.”
“Custard with dashi?”
“Dried bonito flakes and kelp, they make a stock from them, and then mix it into custard.”
“What is this place?”
“Kai means bosom and seki stone. Kaiseki. It was the name given to the food carried by Zen monks in their robes in case they ever got hungry.”
“Custard flavored with seaweed? In a robe?”
“Don’t be a philistine, Ben. The history of the snack did not begin and end with the Power Bar. You’ve never wondered what made the Zen monks so Zen? Yurine and seaweed.” She seemed a different woman from the one he had met earlier in the day. She had sloughed off her professorship and seemed effervescent. When the wine came, she raised her glass.
“Salut. To creating yield from thin air.”
“Yes. Yield from thin air,” said Wright.
“Some people are snobby about Batailley. I’ve always loved it. It’s like wrapping up in a soft, woolen blanket. Don’t you think?” The wine was certainly classic, not too thin, not too robust, exactly what a Bordeaux should be. Dignified. But Wright hated talking about wine. It felt ridiculous to him. He preferred to drink it.
“You know there’s a show in the United States, a comedy show, and they have a name for what’s happening to our economy. They call it the Clusterfuck to the Poorhouse.”
Grenelle was drinking her wine but she spluttered as she laughed. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, choking and patting her chest. “It’s very appropriate.”
“How did we get into this mess?” said Wright. “Not the greed and the stupidity and the political ineptitude. I understand that. Everyone understands that. But financially. I mean, how could the math fail?”
“You really want to know? You would rather talk about this than Zen snacks?”
“Yes, I’m afraid I would.”
Grenelle set down her glass. “When I said ‘yield from thin air’, I meant it.” She took a chopstick and drew the outline of a circle in the tablecloth. “I’m sure you know all this. But structured finance is about taking various economic assets, like loans and bonds and mortgages, and pooling them together. So instead of ten different assets of varying quality, some excellent, some very poor, you now have a kind of asset stew, which on the surface, at least, looks far more appetizing than the sum of its parts. Then you start selling portions of this stew. And everyone takes a sniff and says, well this seems wonderful and nutritious, this is a first class stew. The whole is worth more than the parts. But here’s the problem. When it was just parts, you could look at each one and assess it. That’s what the ratings agencies did. They were fine when all they had to do was look at separate ingredients, laid out on a counter. But suddenly they had to rate the stew, without having any idea of what was in it. Instead of seeming foolish and saying, well, before we rate this stew, we’d like to understand the ingredients, they said, this stew tastes delicious, everyone have some. Except lurking in the stew were things that would kill you. It used to be that we looked at economic assets separately. If you bought a corporate bond, your risk was that the company would default. That’s it. And you could reduce that risk by buying another bond which might profit if that company defaulted. Once these structured asset pools were everywhere, and everyone owned these collateralized debt obligations, they were over-exposed to systemic risk, the risk of the entire economy failing. There was no diversification any more. There was no risk management. If the economy started to go down, we were all in trouble, there would be no safe havens.”
“I’m sorry, I’m French. We have to think about it in terms of food. But you would rather I be technical? When you create a pool of loan assets and issue a capital structure against them, you had better be damned right about how you’re assessing the risk of each of those assets. If you get it wrong on just a few of them, the errors are amplified when you apply a risk measure to the whole. So you then go and sell securities against the pool you think are Triple A, when in fact they’re C. And then when the economy falters, because you have this blend of assets, you’re much more exposed than if you owned traditional corporate bonds with an equal rating. If you just owned General Electric debt, you’d be in a better position than if you owned General Electric debt pooled with sub-prime mortgage debt and leveraged buy-out debt and sold as Triple A. That’s what they mean by toxic. The risk is highly contagious. And when you consider how easy it was for small mistakes to be amplified, imagine the effect of thousands of exhausted analysts, grinding out debt models they scarcely understood and then passing them on to underpaid ratings analysts, all of whom were under pressure to create ever more assets to generate ever more fees, and you can see how big the eventual miscalculation became.”
A culinary work of art was set down, pink flowers floating on a light broth, served in two black, lacquered bowls rimmed with gold.
“It seems almost wrong to eat it,” said Wright, looking at his food.
“Have you ever heard of Abdelrahman? A great caliph? When they opened his grave, they found an inscription. ‘I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen: --- O man! Place not thy confidence in this present world!' 14 days. That’s it. The greatest man of his times. Rich. Powerful. He had 14 truly happy days in his life. I teach it to my students. Only the smart ones listen. The dumb ones are still trying to figure out how to collateralize debt and sell it in tranches. So eat your broth and don’t feel guilty.”
By the time they finished dinner and stepped back into the night, where the woman in the purple coat was back for another cigarette, Wright felt such an overwhelming sense of well-being that it was all he could do to suggest Grenelle spend the night with him. She accepted without hesitation.
Renshaw decided to walk to Berkeley Square. It was just a few minutes away and he could use the exercise. The redemptions had not been easy. He could hear the panic in the fund managers’ voices. The fear of financial ruin. It was all relative of course. In five cases, they would go from being extremely rich, to merely quite rich. In three others, there was a real risk of personal bankruptcy. They had been too greedy. They had reinvested every penny they made and borrowed against their investments to buy homes and art, and educate hordes of children in England’s most expensive schools. Somehow, breeding had become a status symbol. As if the more evolved men became along certain dimensions, the more primal they became on others. Me rich, me have many children.
Their wives had joined prominent boards simply because of their husbands’ donations, and remained there for the same reason, contributing very little beyond cash and ideas for themes for the annual fundraising events. Last year, the hot theme was Bollywood. Did Indians retaliate with Merchant Ivory themed events, Renshaw had wondered. Did the elites of Mumbai dress up in tail coats and Edwardian ball gowns and speak in clipped English accents? “Oh Rajiv, you are awful!”
It was astonishing how unprepared they all were for the downturn. Hedge fund managers, their very name was meant to describe how they minimized risk and maximized reward, had operated for years without a safety net. They had behaved as if nothing would ever change. The funds would grow, performance would improve and the fees would roll in. And now they were screwed. They were going down as fast as they came up. Leverage had improved their returns. Now it was exacerbating their fall. The switchblade they had once pressed to the necks of companies was now digging into their own jugulars.
Shestakov had suffered with them. He had been hit by the fall in commodity prices. But he was still worth billions. Other Russians were worse off. They had not got out as quickly as he had. One, who had been worth $20 billion three months ago was now worth negative $20 billion, thanks to leveraged bets on the prices of the commodities mined and sold by his own firm. But he was still planning to spend the summer in the Mediterranean. It was a classic case of the debtor’s paradox. Owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. Owe them $20 billion, the bank has a problem. Foregoing a month on his yacht would not help anyone.
And the thing about Shestakov was that he didn’t fundamentally worry about the money. It could always be made back. Or stolen back if necessary. What he cared about was wielding power. Money was simply a product of power. Power, physical, mental, emotional, was what mattered. It was the antithesis of all these whimpering Englishmen.
The doorman at Annabels greeted him and Renshaw turned down the staircase which led to the basement nightclub. He handed in his coat and looked through towards the bar. It was a home from home for him. His parents had been founding members of the club, and he had been coming here since he turned 18. He could find his way through the low-ceilinged warren of rooms drunk or sober. He could not count the evenings spent on the chaotically upholstered chairs, drinking outlandishly expensive drinks and twirling on the under-lit dance-floor to “Gimme the Night.” It was a haven from all that London had become. A place where an aristocrat could still be an aristocrat and no one berated you for it. The rooms around the bar were decorated to look like an especially well-worn living room. There were deep sofas, low tables, lamps with yellow silk shades, and on the walls were clustered framed paintings, drawings and illustrations, many of them animal or sporting cartoons, of the kind which would get a loud guffaw in a Gloucestershire loo. The barmen were either Italian or Greek, and their beige jackets matched the soft light. They invited conversation but took no offence if their offer was refused. Tonight, Renshaw felt like a Manhattan, Campari, bourbon and sweet vermouth over ice. Leave the cherry, he told the barman.
It was 11 P.M. and the place was mostly empty. The recession was biting even here. A few of the restaurant tables were taken with couples not talking over their corned beef hash. Mark Birley, the founder of the club, had performed many acts of genius in a life of catering to the global upper classes, but none were as brilliant as taking an ingredient as humble as corned beef, dressing it up with a dash of Worcester sauce and a poached egg, and making it a club standard. At 20 quid a pop, it had probably the highest profit margin of any restaurant dish in the world.
Renshaw moved round to the side of the bar invisible from the entrance. He picked up a magazine called the Happy Few. It was one of those party picture glossies stuffed with advertisements for watches, page after page of midget billionaires and their statuesque wives at the launch of new perfumes, fashion lines and charitable endeavors. There was an eight page photo special on the White Turf horse races, across a frozen lake in St. Moritz. God he wished he was there now, not watching race horses, but tired after a day’s skiing, being massaged by a strong-fingered Swiss girl, and looking forward to raclette and red wine at home.
He heard her voice before he saw her. It was unmistakably confident.
“Where is he, George?” she asked the man behind the coat-check. He heard the rustle of her silk trousers. He set down his drink.
“You’re a piece of shit, Alexander,” she said and slapped him across the face. “Brandy and soda, please.” She sat down on a stool, set her burgundy, leather clasp on the bar and pulled out a cigarette.
“They’ve stopped that in here,” said Renshaw.
“Shut up. I’ve been coming here just as long as you have.” She seemed to be trembling as she tried to light her cigarette. From out of nowhere, the barman proffered a lit match. She took a long drag. “Why did it have to be so clumsy? Couldn’t you have arranged for a boating accident? Or a poisoning or a shotgun misfiring. Blowing him up in the middle of Exhibition Road, I mean come on, Alexander. You and your Russians. They’re primitives.”
“We had nothing to do with it, Sam. I promise.”
“We could have carried on, you know, Alexander. Chris knew. He didn’t care. He didn’t care what I did and it was mutual. But at least he was smart. He may have been a callous bastard, but at least he was smart. He didn’t waste his time with the thugs you do.”
“I had nothing to do with it, Sam.”
“London’s most successful investor dies in mysterious car bomb. His wife has been carrying on for years with the English consigliere to a murderous Russian gangster. No connection? If I’d ever had the nerve, I’d have found myself a better lover years ago.”
Renshaw had known Samantha Howard since he was a teenager. They had been falling in and out of bed with each other for nearly three decades, on and off. Most recently on. It was a half-hearted addiction for both of them, the closest either had to an anchor in their lives.
“What happened to us Alex? Were we destined to become this decrepit? This morally bankrupt. You know I hate seeing you. It reminds me what cowards we are, clinging to each other, whoring ourselves out for money so we can hold onto what? Status? Another year of our Annabels membership?” Renshaw folded and unfolded a napkin.
“Someone else killed Chris.”
“There was a long line. Investors. People he had screwed over. He wasn’t the most popular man in finance, Sam.”
“You think some delegation from the Icelandic finance ministry is going to come down to London, take a shot at my husband in the Natural History Museum and then blow him up?”
“It wasn’t just the Icelanders he screwed.”
“Right. Of course, the vengeful Swiss light-bulb billionaire. Or perhaps the Qatari investment office. What better way of improving the reputation of Middle Eastern money than slaughtering the man you’ve picked to invest a chunk of it.”
“You don’t understand. People hated him. He destroyed companies and careers. What he did was devastating to people’s lives.”
“But none were spending afternoons in bed with his wife. Your problem, Alex, is you have the strongest possible motive.”
Gregory Andrews jumped a foot off the ground and launched a piece of yellow chalk at an equation high up on his blackboard.
“Come on, there it is. The function we’re after. I know it’s late on a Wednesday and you have to trudge through the slush to get home, but liven up!” The 20 students in the dynamic pricing class laughed wanly. In seven years of teaching investment management at the Harvard Business School, Andrews could have sworn the quality of his students was declining. Or perhaps it was because the opportunities for them on graduation seemed less glossy. A few years ago, the very best of them could walk into a hedge fund and know they would be worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in just a few years. Today, it would be a long slog. They would actually have to earn it.
“Let’s see it in action.” Two screens dropped down from behind him, showing a stock trading simulation. “So, the trader over here has shorted stock C. Meanwhile the trader over here has been quietly accumulating a large position of stock C, using options to get around disclosure rules. The trader with the stock decides to apply the squeeze. An announcement lands on Bloomberg. The pool of tradable stock is far smaller than the short-sellers had believed. They must now scramble to buy whatever is out there in order to repay what they have borrowed. So now we see what happens to the stock price. It explodes upwards. If you’re the holder of the stock what do you do? You trickle it out to the pleading short-sellers, soaking up every last drop of cash they have. And then if you’re feeling especially cruel, you seize this moment to pound their other investments, forcing margin calls and within, let’s see,” Andrews looked down at his watch, “say three or four hours, you could crush a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. Simple. Of course the really good players are too diversified and their stop-loss rules mean they move into cash before they get trapped in a death spiral. But this kind of short squeeze is precisely what Porsche executed, acquiring the rights to Volkswagen stock while short-selling fund managers were driving down the price. Then announcing their stake and watching the hedge funds weep. Porsche has made more through its investing skill these past few years than it has building sports cars. It is worth considering as you think about where to go to work. See you next time.”
As the class drifted out, Andrews looked up at the clack on the back wall of the classroom. 5.40pm. He would just make it. He gathered up his worn, black leather satchel, a matching overnight bag and slipped on his blazer. He walked out of the classroom building and broke into a run towards the garage on the other side of campus.
He glared at the orange light on the dash of his old Mercedes, waiting for it to go out, indicating the spark plugs had warmed up. Come on. He removed the key, checked the car was in Park and tried again. The seconds passed. Finally the light went out and he turned the key. The engine juddered to life. He revved it to make sure it was warmed up and then backed out of his space. On the passenger seat beside him lay his blue blazer, a worn, black leather satchel and a matching overnight bag. As he left the car park, a group of students stepped into the road and glared at him. When they passed, he drove on out onto Soldiers Field Road and then onto the Massachusetts Turnpike towards Boston. A flurry of snow was falling and he could see the drivers leaving the city huddled in their cars, heading home as fast as the weather would allow.
He pushed the car to the speed limit and not beyond. The police seemed to be everywhere these days propping up the city’s finances with traffic fines. He sped along the turnpike for ten minutes before turning off to Atlantic Avenue. He descended the ramp into the garage below the Federal Reserve building and found a space near the elevator. 5.55pm.
He walked quickly from his car and rode the elevator up to the 17th floor. He pushed open the glass door to the Harvard Management Company, strode past the empty reception and along a thickly carpeted corridor to his office. He could hear the murmur of the open trading floor. He had been offered the Mortimer E. Steinberg Professor of Business Administration at the business school to sweeten the allure of the job Harvard really wanted him for: managing their endowment fund. The Overseers of Harvard had wanted a first class fund manager for their $30 billion endowment, but could not afford to pay anything close to what the best managers could earn in New York or Greenwich. A stubborn and short-sighted group among the university’s alumni would not allow it. The Management Company, which ran Harvard’s billions, needed a manager who was ready to take less money simply for the privilege of being part of Harvard.
Andrews’ name came up again and again during Harvard’s search. He had done a remarkable job at the University of North Carolina, from the moment he joined the endowment office as a Masters student. He had built a parallel career as a stellar academic, publishing his first article in the Journal of Finance at the age of 25, challenging the Fisher-Scholes options pricing model and offering his own variant. Andrews had finally accepted Harvard’s offer: $3 million a year in salary; a tenured chair at the department of economics; plus the business school chair thrown in for good measure. He had delivered more than 15% returns on the fund every year since his arrival.
His secretary had gone home for the evening. Andrews unbuckled his satchel and removed a sheaf of papers. He sat down at his desk and glanced across the three live trading screens in front of him. He moved his cursor to one of them and opened up a new window, which came up grey with a single orange bar along the middle with a flashing cursor. He typed in a 10-digit alpha-numeric password and the screen went blank for several seconds. Suddenly, eight columns of data appeared on the screen. It was exactly as he had hoped. He smiled. All eight funds were scrambling to liquidate. But it was a mess. Spreads were widening everywhere, but especially for those assets the funds were trying to unload. The market had spotted their vulnerability and was punishing them. forcing them to sell at heavy discounts.
His eyes scanned the screen, imbibing every last scrap of data. In a side panel, he entered a new set of trading instructions. They were to be executed in exactly 12 hours.
When he was finished, he shut down his computer, gathered his things and glanced around the room. He left his car in the garage, hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to Logan Airport. At 7.30pm, he sat in a business class aboard Swiss Air flight 564 as it took off for Zurich.
In a one room office at 1440 Bahnhofstrasse in Zug, while the entire building lay quiet, the lights on a single hard drive placed on a narrow shelf below the desk began to flash green.
“They got Weissberg,” said Travis. Wright rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It was 4 in the morning in Paris. He could feel the four glasses of Batailley pulsing behind his eyes.
“Um, right, how?” Wright glanced to his left. He could see the imprint of Grenelle’s body. He reached out with his hand. The sheet was still warm.
“Poisoned. Thallium, his office told me. It’s what Saddam Hussein used to use on his victims. He’d tell them they were being released from jail and give them a drink to celebrate. A few days later, they’d drop dead from thallium in the drink. Whoever killed Weissberg wasn’t so patient. They injected the stuff into his stone crabs. Heavy doses. There was enough to kill him in just one crab. Did I wake you Ben?’
“Sort of. That means the only person in that photograph not to have been killed in the last 72 hours is Roman Shestakov. Which either makes him the killer or the next victim.”
“What if he isn’t the killer? Who else could it be?”
“I have no idea Art. It seems there are a lot of people who don’t like rich people these days.”
“Thank you Ben. But how many of them have the ability to kill four in such quick succession? In such a variety of ways. We have a shooting, a knifing, a car bomb and a poisoning on two continents in a short space of time.”
“Or extreme organization.”
“Isn’t it time to bring the police in on this? To tell them what we know?”
“Which is that four men whose only connection is that they appeared in a photograph 13 years ago with one of the most powerful men in Europe are dead. What else do we know Ben?”
“That if Shestakov dies, we may never know why.”
“You’d better make sure that doesn’t happen, hadn’t you?”
Shestakov had scarcely finished his morning exercises when his assistant rapped on the door of the basement gym. Before he could answer, she opened the door. Shestakov was wearing drawstring pants and nothing else. The veins in his forehead were throbbing quickly and he was out of breath.
“Special Branch, Sir. They say they must see you.”
“Yes sir. They are in the living room.”
Shestakov reached for a towel. He took a glass and filled it with water from a large jug, in which floated slices of orange. The mist filled his garden, cloaking the hornbeam hedge lining the paths on either side. Could they have linked Coles’ death to him so quickly? No, not possible. He put on a khaki T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops and went upstairs.
Two men and a woman, all in suits and trench-coats, rose to greet him. All had availed themselves of coffee and croissants. Shestakov walked over to a chair, with its back to the windows, and rested his hand on the back of it, without sitting down.
“We’re from the protection squad, sir,” said the woman, trim, medium height with a severe face under a blonde fringe. She reminded Shestakov of the teachers at the old KGB academy. “My name is Inspector Mount, Helen Mount. Sorry to disturb you so early, but we received alerts from the American and French security services that your life may be at risk.” Shestakov remained expressionless.
“In the past 72 hours, four men have been killed who we believe you may have known. Henry Reeves. Thierry de Montbrison. Timothy Howard and Stephen Weissberg.” They watched for some reaction. Nothing. Shestakov waved to his assistant, who promptly brought over a cup of green tea.
“We understand you knew the four men from business dealings some time ago.”
“It was many years ago. 16 or 17 years ago. It was one deal. That’s all.”
“In any case, sir, the role of the Specialist Protection division of the Metropolitan Police is to provide security for public figures we believe may be at risk of terrorism or any kind of physical threat. Until we can be confident the threat against you has been dealt with, I’m afraid you’ll be living with us.”
“I have my own security.”
“Yes, of course you do, sir. We’ll provide an extra layer. We’ll also be liaising with the foreign security services as they try to establish what exactly is going on.” Shestakov turned and faced the window again. “I’m afraid we’ll have to keep you here today, sir, unless absolutely necessary. We have cars stationed at the entrance to this street and in front of the house. Do you have any questions sir?”
“Tonight,” said Shestakov. The three officers looked at each other inquiringly.
“Tonight?” said Mount.
“My team is playing the Champions League, semi-final. Against Zenit St. Petersburg. I will need to be there.”
“I’m afraid not, sir. Far too risky.”
“I own the team, Inspector. I have attended every single European match they have played. I have a plane full of dignitaries flying in from Russia, expecting to see me and be entertained by me. I cannot be absent.”
“Really, Mr. Shestakov, a stadium full of people isn’t where you need to be today.”
“I’m not arguing with you Inspector. If I am to be your hostage, then I suggest you draw up the necessary paperwork. If not, then I suggest you protect me as and how I ask you to.”
“Very well,” said Mount, clearly displeased. “It will require a lot more resources.”
“Send me the bill.”
As Mount left the house, she muttered to her colleagues, “git”. Shestakov continued to sip his green tea and thought to himself. So this is how they think they can control me.
Wright’s Air France flight landed at Heathrow shortly after 9 A.M. It had been a scramble to get to Charles de Gaulle in time, but he had made it. He had breakfast on the plane, black coffee and a near frozen apple. At Terminal One, he was greeted by the mingled odors of bacon sandwiches and bus fumes. He wrapped his covert coat tightly around him and knotted his black, cashmere scarf and was about to step out into the chilly air, when he was grabbed by the arm.
“Mr Benjamin Wright?”
“Specialist Protection, Metropolitan Police,” said a man flashing him a badge. “Think you’d better come with us.”
Jesus, thought Wright. What is it with these European special services? It was the second time in 12 hours he had been manhandled and led off. Couldn’t they just call?
Once they were in the back of a brown Ford Mondeo, the policeman turned and smiled.
“Sorry to be so abrupt, sir. We’ve had to work quickly since early this morning. Got a message from the Americans, your lot, sir, about Roman Shestakov and a possible attempt on his life. Very important he’s kept alive. We understand you know quite a bit about him.”
Wright shifted in his seat. The policeman evidently knew far more than he was letting on.
“Only what I’ve picked up in the past 48 hours.”
“Seems like financiers are going down like coconuts, sir.”
“Yes, I suppose. Coconuts.”
“And the Americans seem to think Shestakov will be next. He’s done wonders for Brompton, though. The football club. Spent a fortune bringing in players. I’m a Charlton fan, myself - we’ve never seen that kind of money in South London. Shame.”
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, sorry, I should have said. We’re going to headquarters. Inspector Mount who’s running this show wanted a word. She’s got the whole picture for you. I just know what they tell me.”
Wright settled back in his seat, and looked out at the industrial fringes of London racing past his window. When they reached Chiswick the driver turned on the siren and the car weaved through the traffic towards the Embankment.
Kevin Sheehan was unable to sleep. The disappearance of Myron Coles had done more than unnerve him. It had turned him into a wreck. There had been something in the Treasury Secretary’s reaction. It was more than just relief. He seemed gleeful about it. As if it marked the completion of a successful business acquisition.
Over dinner at the Hay-Adams in Washington D.C. last night, he had never seen him so full of pep, wolfing down his steak and drinking nearly three quarters of a bottle of red wine from his vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains. He yammered on about improving trade relations with China and India, finding a way to re-start the Doha round of global trade talks and an upcoming tour of Latin America. He would be touring ethanol plants in Brazil, hydro-electric projects in Venezuela and spending four days at a summit in Buenos Aires, a city he loved and where he had many friends. He even spoke of buying an apartment in Recoleta, the Parisian-style neighborhood in central Buenos Aires, close to the race track and polo grounds.
“I’ve always wanted a place with cowhides on the floor, Kevin,” the Secretary had enthused over a second slice of cheesecake. “Horns coming out of the backs of chairs. And it’s a 9-hour flight with no jet lag, a straight shot south.” Was it the relief of a man spared just at the moment his head lay on the guillotine? Perhaps. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was bad news to have people dying around you.
“If I were back in the private sector right now, Kevin, I’d be smacking my lips. If you’ve got a little cash, there are bargains everywhere. You know you could buy a blue chip stock portfolio for about half what it would have cost you a year ago? And the prices are still falling. As for debt, you can get it for pennies on the dollar, it puts you high up in the capital structure and when all of this shakes out, which it will Kevin, it will, you’ll be making 8, 10 times your money.”
Sheehan had simply eaten and stayed silent. The tactic had served him well with rich men. Stay quiet and let them talk when they want to. Dialogue was not their thing at the best of times. And when they were in this kind of mood, you had to let the monologue roll, or risk being kicked down like a yappy dog. As he stared at the ceiling of his apartment at 760 Park Avenue, he could feel his wife breathing slowly beside him. A bottle of sleeping pills lay at her side. You imagine money will elevate you out of trouble, he thought, to the upper floors of expensive apartment buildings, far from the ugly throng. But it turns out the stakes get higher and the trouble gets worse.
How many times in his professional life had he played hardball? Ordered that a rival’s plans be “killed” or “screwed with” or “crushed”. Well, these weren’t just words anymore and he yearned for the first time in his life to become invisible.
“It’s not often we get a request for help from the Americans,” said Helen Mount, leaning back in her mesh-backed chair and tapping her pencil on her blotter. “They tend to like to handle things themselves. Life and death matters are one of the few things you can’t outsource. Though I imagine they’ll find a way.”
Wright had loosened his coat and scarf and was sitting opposite Mount in a glass-walled office facing north over the Thames towards the Tate Gallery. He was nursing a cup of coffee, holding his hands around it for warmth. He could never get used to the damp in London. A long barge, loaded with containers, chugged slowly down the muddy river. Mount’s steel desk was empty but for a single manila file and a telephone. The inspector rested her elbows on the desk and leaned towards her guest.
“What I’m telling you, Mr. Wright, is that this is all quite peculiar. And we’ve been told that you may be able to help us. It would be extremely embarrassing if Roman Shestakov were to be murdered on British soil. The Foreign Ministry here has been in contact with the Russians, the French, the Americans, it’s all far above my head. What is within my control is the fact that in about 10 hours, Shestakov will leave his house in Chelsea, travel to a football match, a sodding football match, and then return home. For 90 minutes, he is going to be sitting in a stadium with 55,000 people, any one of whom could probably take a clean shot at him. Of course, we’re going to be doing everything we can to make sure that shot misses, but it would be even better if we knew who might want to kill him.”
Wright was silent. Maybe Eleanor Woods had been right. He didn’t need to do this kind of work. It had started out as a few corporate intelligence gigs for friends. It was more interesting than analyzing companies. It gave his otherwise gilded life some meaning. Applying his mind to problems which couldn’t be solved through the usual channels. But in the past few years, the problems had become darker. It wasn’t a question of finding out which CEO was faking the numbers or funneling payments to his accounts in Grand Cayman any more. The entire business world seemed to have moved into shadow, even those parts which the world thought operated in broadest daylight.
Good companies and decent people had compromised themselves for the sake of profit. They had fallen in with corrupt regimes, bullies in China, murderers in Russia, kleptocrats in Africa, and found all kinds of twisted logic to justify their actions.
Prominent investors who accepted awards for their charitable work waged less visible wars to minimize their taxes, through legislation, avoidance or simple evasion. Last year he had attended a ludicrous ceremony at Harvard Business School honoring five famous alumni, three of whom he knew to be out and out crooks. He had sat in the back of the school’s auditorium watching the Dean, a simpering finance professor with half-moon spectacles, reading out their preposterous testimonials: “For fanning the flames of finance and finessing the filigree of funding, we salute this master of management, this profit engineer par excellence.” You’d think the man had organized the moon landing, instead of raping a few companies for his own enrichment and insider trading on a colossal scale. But what did academics know? They were too busy kissing up for donations so they could continue their life of pompous indolence.
“Mr. Wright?” Mount interrupted.
“Yes, what do I know?” Wright pulled himself up in his chair and set down his coffee. He wished he could talk to Travis. This was meant to be a private investigation. Now the police were involved, surely his work was done. “Perhaps I should tell you how I got involved in this.”
“Good idea,” said Mount.
“When Henry Reeves was murdered, an old friend of mine asked me to see what I could find out.”
“Why not leave it to the police?”
“There are a lot of very nervous people in New York at the moment. It used to be that if you lost a bit of client money, the worst that could happen was an angry telephone call. But the clients have changed and the reactions have changed. The worst that can happen is, well, what happened to Reeves. With all due respect, people want their own information, aside from the official sources.”
“And the Frenchman? And Howard and Weissberg?”
“If you’ve spoken to the French, you must know about them.”
“You over-estimate our ability to understand the French. We understand the men all collaborated with Shestakov somehow nearly 20 years ago.”
“Yes. They provided the funding for his first successful acquisition in Russia. A bicycle factory.”
“But if that’s the link, why would someone wait all this time?”
“I don’t know. The other thing is the trading around these guys’ portfolios.”
“You’ll have to talk English, I’m afraid sir. We’re not intelligence here, just protection. Just have to make sure the bugger’s safe.”
“It may be connected. For the last three days, there has been some highly unusual trading activity coming out of Switzerland. It’s been big enough to affect markets here in Europe and the US, but since everything seems to be going down anyway, it hasn’t got the public’s attention. But I can tell you that the Federal Reserve in the US and lots of traders are baffled. Either it’s a big bank trying to get out of a set of positions that weren’t authorized. We’ll know if that’s the case soon enough as they’ll have to announce it when they’re done. What’s really weird, though, is that if you map the assets which are being pounded to those held by the dead men, there’s a strong correlation.”
“You mean someone is bankrupting them then killing them?”
“And Shestakov too?”
“He’s been especially hard hit.”
“Hard to say. He owns so much. But I’d say he’s lost around half his net worth.”
“He didn’t seem too worried when I saw him this morning.”
“Well, you go from $30 billion to $20 billion, or whatever it is, it doesn’t change your life that much.”
“I wouldn’t know, would I, Mr Wright. So, the person or persons we’re looking for may or may not be Russian, are capable of shooting, knifing, poisoning, planting explosives and maliciously impoverishing multi-millionaires.”
“Narrows it down. Given what you know, which doesn’t seem like an awful lot, how might they go after Mr. Shestakov in a crowded soccer stadium?”
“Assuming they can’t get close enough to stab him and the area will be swept for explosives, the only thing I can imagine is a long range shot. They missed Howard, and I don’t see they’ll get much closer than they were there.”
“It would have to be a hell of a shot. From the roof of the stadium, most likely. We’ll have people up there, of course.”
“Or they wait. The four murders came so fast, they were a surprise. If Shestakov really is the next target, whoever is doing this must have figured out he’d be much more heavily guarded. If they were sensible, they’d have got him first.”
“Or maybe they wanted him to sweat. To feel hunted. It’s the difference between knowing you’re going to die and dropping dead of a heart attack. Most people would much rather the latter.”
“Have you questioned Shestakov?”
“Mr. Shestakov is not a suspect.”
“Do you know what kind of man Roman Shestakov is? He’s more than capable of doing...”
“As I said, Mr. Wright, Mr. Shestakov is not a suspect. As far as we are concerned, he is an important foreign national facing a serious physical threat on British soil. And by my reckoning, given the subject’s insistence on attending a football match, we have, let’s see, it’s 10am now, kick-off will be at 8.45pm, we have until around 11.30pm, or 12 and a half hours, before we can get Roman Shestakov out of this country so it can be someone else’s problem. Until then, we’ll need your full cooperation.”
“You’ll have it. There’s one person I need to see, though. Immediately.”
“There’s a car downstairs, you can use it.”
Gregory Andrews climbed into a silver Mercedes C Class at the Hertz garage in Zurich. He was due to begin his presentation on derivative strips at the European Hedge Fund Conference at 6 P.M.. He had three hours. It would take him half an hour to get to Zug, half an hour back, so he would have two hours in the office. That should be more than enough.
The car felt firm and powerful as it sped out of the city, threading south through the immaculate suburbs, past granite flashes of Lake Zurich in the spring sunshine. It was such a relief to drive with people who knew how to drive, rather than the spatially-challenged maniacs of Boston, who got in their cars high on Dunkin Donuts and drove as if in spasms from all that sugar.
He turned on the radio and hit scan. He heard blasts of the news in French, German and Italian, bursts of Europop, and finally something he recognized. Coldplay. He hit the set button and drummed his fingers to the music.
It was a cliche to say that life in Switzerland was orderly. But it was a cliche for good reason. The lines on the roads were freshly painted, the sidewalks were even, there were proper cafes with tables and awnings and people sitting outside reading the newspaper, not drive-thrus where you bought half a liter of weak coffee and tucked it between your thighs for the commute to work.
One day, he thought to himself. One day, I’ll live here and ski every weekend, go to bed at 10pm and rise at 6am and walk by the lake and grow orchids and read and listen to Bach in high-walled hotel rooms with moldings and french doors opening onto balconies overlooking the lake. One day. But for now, he needed to be in America.
Ahead rose the mountains which separated Lake Zug from Bern, some of the most magnificent in Switzerland. If he kept driving south, he could reach in Italy in a couple of hours. There was none of the empty space you found in America. Every inch of this continent was layered with history and significance. There were no blank slates here.
If he had the time, he would have stopped for lunch in one of the superb Italian restaurants on the lake. But today, he parked in front of the old Capuchin church in the center of Zug, walked across the street and into a grey, office building. He tapped in a security code for the elevator and took it to the fourth floor. There were only four other offices on his corridor, three of them family offices for Greek industrial dynasties. All the doors were closed. His was the only one without any marker. He slipped the key into the palm of his hand and opened the door.
The slatted blind over the window, which looked onto the street, was pulled shut. The room smelled faintly of carpet cleaner. Andrews threw his satchel to the ground and sat heavily on the chair facing four, flickering computer screens. He checked the time.
It was a dull, down day in the markets. Everyone was taking a breather it seemed from the vertiginous slide of the past few weeks. He could imagine the brokers in London and New York slumped at their desks, fretting over paying for the next year’s school fees and ski holidays. It was funny how quickly the Big Swinging Dicks of the trading floor became the playthings of the market, kicked around and abused by forces they thought they controlled. For all their boasts, few of them really understood what they did. They watched pairs of numbers and responded to the gap between them. It was Pavlovian. And for that they made millions. Ask them what the numbers signified or the mathematics behind them, and they would bluster. It was why ripping them off was so easy.
For months now, Andrews had been watching one of the hedge fund community’s favorite trades. The German pharmaceutical giant, Vilksen, was one of those big, ugly conglomerates, bolted together from the industrial relics of Nazi Germany, and for decades now an indestructible global giant. It made everything from aspirin to advanced cancer drugs in plants around the world, but its headquarters, and corporate identity, remained rooted in the small Bavarian town of Alensburg.
Despite being a public company, Vilksen was still controlled by its founding family, a disputatious group of plump, Bavarian burghers and decadent heirs, who bickered over everything, but were wise enough to stop short of ever jeopardizing the flow of cash which had made them all exceedingly rich.
Of the current generation, however, one had struck out on his own. Gerd Vilksen had spent 15 years at the family firm, rising to be head of research. He had both a daunting academic record - doctorates in pharmacology from the universities of Berlin and Stanford - and a set of business achievements which would have marked him out even without his famous name. At 48, he had been married four times, had eight children, and was known to have some of the more depraved interests ever witnessed in the red light districts of western Europe. Naturally, the German tabloids adored him.
Four years earlier, he had decided to leave Vilksen, an announcement he made at the annual shareholder meeting. For months, the share price of the firm fell. Gerd Vilksen was known to manage the pipeline of new drugs a the firm. He said he had grown tired of the inertia of working at a corporation. His passion was finding new treatments, not pushing them through regulatory approval and out into the market. He was setting up his own firm, a commercial bio-tech laboratory which would offer up its research to whichever pharmaceutical company in the world wanted it. The family offered him a fortune to be their unique partner, an offer he refused. He had celebrated in a Munich dungeon with his second and third wives and seven Ethiopian men and women, their bodies painted with flames and snarling African spirits. The photographs had somehow made it into Stern.
Exactly one year ago, Gerd Vilksen announced he would be launching a takeover bid for Vilksen. The markets scoffed. Vilksen’s market capitalization was over $50 billion. Gerd’s bio-tech firm was worth $5 billion at most. The Vilksen family owned just 15% of Vilksen, but in preferred shares which gave them a controlling interest. There was no way they would give in to the ambitions of their wayward scion.
Gerd Vilksen, however, caught the attention of Andrews not for his pharmaceutical work, but through his private investments. From his perch at the Harvard Management Company, Andrews had watched hundreds of wealthy individuals navigate the world of alternative investments. He had seen them try hedge funds and private equity funds, funds of funds, and emerge either wealthy or hurt and confused. But there were none with the skill of Gerd Vilksen.
Money managers were terrified of him and were reluctant to have him as a client, so clever and aggressive was he in pointing out their failures. So Vilksen had hired a single investor, a 30-year-old philosophy graduate from Oxford whom he personally trained, and invested his own money. No instrument, however complex, daunted him.
He had started investing with $200 million of his own money, and increased it to nearly $4 billion in the space of four years. He was quick to escape losing positions, and gutsy in tough markets. He was also, Andrews had noted, devastatingly cynical. If a corporate executive or investor announced all was rosy, you could be sure that within seconds, Vilksen had sold out of that firm. He believed that the only way to trade on information, once it became public, was against it.
Once the herd was in the know, asset prices always went too far in one direction or another. This was probably the only rule he followed with any consistency.
At the moment Gerd had announced his take-over ambitions, though they seemed far-fetched, the share price in Vilksen rose. Analysts suddenly paid more attention to the firm. Perhaps it had been unfairly priced, they thought. Mutual fund managers increased their stake, on the premise that even if Gerd’s attempt failed, perhaps some other global rival might step in. There wasn’t a pharmaceutical firm out there, after all, that wasn’t in the same position, needing more drugs and a greater global presence to grow.
Among hedge fund managers, however, the view took hold that Vilksen was over-valued. Gerd’s bid was quixotic. It would never succeed, and once everyone realized that, the price would fall again. Shorting Vilksen became one of the most popular trades in Mayfair and Greenwich, the British and American hubs of the hedge fund industry. For some traders, it became their only trade, a big, juicy target with a guaranteed 5-10% return before leverage multiplied that five or six-fold. It was just a question of time.
What the fools had failed to see was a fact Andrews had stumbled upon during the diligence process on one of Vilksen’s rivals, whose shares he was considering buying for Harvard. The conservative veneer of Germany’s family-owned firmed was an illusion. Under the surface, lay a tangle of holding companies. Some were created to hold real estate or collect revenue from patents. Others held just one or two financial assets. The more closely held a firm, it seemed, the more entangled the undergrowth.
Andrews’ academic interest was piqued. The complexity of these holding companies not only provided an advanced form of defense but also a broad umbrella for hiding any number of activities, legal or not. Anyone who wanted to understand them would need both time and a sophisticated understanding of German corporate law, far beyond the patience and knowledge of most hedge fund managers.
It was in this netherworld that he discovered that what Gerd Vilksen was doing was far more imaginative than anything of which the idiots betting against him could possibly conceive.
The United Intelligence Institute occupied the top three floors of a townhouse on the north side of St. James’ Square. The ground floor was home to a conservative think tank, staffed by the sons and daughters of members of parliament and funded by a consortium of foreign businesses. As Wright stepped into the hall, he could hear through the half-open door the sound of employees not working: the rustle of newspapers, laughter, the splash of a coffee into mugs, the recounting of the previous night’s drinking.
He climbed a narrow, carpeted flight of stairs. These buildings always looked bigger from the outside than they turned out to be. A single brass plaque announced the Institute. Wright opened the door and stepped into a poky little lobby. An attractive middle-aged woman in a tweed blazer and pencil skirt stood behind a reception desk photocopying a stack of papers.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“I was wondering if James was available.”
“Who can I say is here?”
“Wright. Ben Wright. I’m an old pupil of his.”
“Very good. Take a seat.” She hit a couple of buttons on her telephone.
“Is Professor Burns available? Says he’s an old pupil. Mr Wright. Very good.”
“Up one more flight and it’s the door on the right.”
Wright thanked her and walked up another flight, past a row of engravings showing great British naval victories. He entered a boxy room where another secretary directed him to an open door. He could see wreaths of cigar smoke drifting across the sunlight which poured into the room. He knew he must be in the right place.
Professor James Burns sat at a polished, ash desk. Beneath it was a large plastic dome, glowing purple, the amplifier for two speakers, 12-inch plastic torpedoes which sat on either side of his computer screen, emitting Schubert’s melancholy lieder. An Uppman Cinco Bocas cigar sat in a wide ashtray, painted with a likeness of Lenin. Burns raised the palm of one hand. The other was holding a telephone.
“Will you be serving mayonnaise?” he said in his Mid-Atlantic drawl, the product of a California upbringing and an adulthood spent between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London. “I ask because much as I admire the legacy of Marshall Mannerheim, I cannot come all the way to Helsinki for your conference if I have to spend my entire weekend worrying about the presence of mayonnaise in the menu. I realize it sounds strange, Madam, but, how can I put it? The ingredients of a hydrogen bomb are, by themselves, perfectly harmless. But put them together and....BOOM. I can eat eggs and oil separately. I love eggs and oil. But put them together in mayonnaise, madam, and there follow explosions. Do I make myself clear? Excellent. I have your assurance. Thank you.” He set the phone back in its cradle. “Benjamin. What a wonderful surprise.”
Burns rose from his seat. He stood around 5 foot 7 inches, had thin blond hair and wore large, horn-rimmed glasses which covered the entire upper half of his face. His lips were fleshy and especially expressive when conveying disgust. He wore the uniform of an earlier generation of Ivy-league Americans: button-down shirt, Windsor-knotted tie, cavalry twill khakis and a navy blazer. He lit his first cigar in the morning, to be smoked with Kenyan coffee, and his last at night, with a freezing shot of Ukranian vodka and a plate of zakuski.
“May I presume some disaster has befallen you to bring you to my squalid HQ.”
“Not exactly. A little reconnaissance.”
“Ah, yes, of course, the dilettante super-agent. Sit down.” He pointed him to one end of a wide, plum, damask window seat. Burns opened the top half of the window to let in the fresh, morning air and sat down at the other end of the window.
“I don’t know why you still refuse my money to help out with this place,” said Wright.
“You were my pupil, Benjamin. Not the hardest working, but certainly one of my favorites. If I took your money, it would change the tenor of our friendship. I would become beholden to you. In any case, we muddle along. I still have enough money for these,” he waggled the cigar he was holding. “Courtesy of the Scandinavians. They’re tremendous the Scandis. Serious, generous, hands-off. And they seem to take what I say seriously. It makes a change after being paid and ignored by the Ministry of Defence here for so many years. But let’s not get into on that. It will ruin my day.”
“Roman Shestakov,” said Wright. Burns threw back his head in laughter, then jacked it forward again as he began to splutter on cigar smoke. Wright worried for a moment as Burns pounded his chest and his face turned red. Finally the coughing abated.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have guessed that one day your paths would cross. One of the world’s most stupendous pieces of shit. A truly gold plated turd. What’s he done now?”
“We think someone wants to kill him.”
“Someone? I could probably give you a list of 500 people who want to kill him.”
“It’s someone who has a grudge dating back to the early 1990s.”
“We’re down to 490.”
“Someone who has already killed four Western financiers who associated with him back then.”
“I see,” said Burns, turning serious.
“In the past two days. In New York and London.”
“And what’s it to do with you?”
“I was asked to investigate the first death in New York. You know how jumpy the financial community is these days. They’ve screwed over so many people. They hear the stories coming out of Austria and Switzerland, of money managers getting beaten up or killed. They’re worried it’ll be their turn next.”
“So they should be,” said Burns.
“One dead body led to another. The last little Indian left standing in this story is Shestakov. And the British don’t want him dying on them. Apparently he’s much too important.”
“Shestakov’s not important. The interests he represents are. Oil. Natural gas. The new Russian empire. The West has made itself dependent on these interests. They fear the slightest hiccough, such as Shestakov’s murder in the UK, would affect them for the worse. No one gives a damn whether Roman Shestakov himself lives or dies. What they fear are the consequences.”
“Do you still have your contacts in Moscow?”
“Yes. I may need to blow the dust off them.”
“I need to know about Shestakov’s acquisition of the Stary Nov bicycle factory.”
“The first great privatization in Moscow. 1994. I was there for it. It was a brutal time.”
“The four dead bankers were involved in the privatization as advisers and sources of funds for Shestakov. It is the only event which seems to link the dead men.”
“A lot of people hated Shestakov for what he did then. To amass the money and privatization vouchers he needed to buy that place, he crossed a lot of lines. Shed a lot of blood. But he was protected by the Kremlin. They were so desperate to prove that privatization and free markets could work in Russia, they closed their eyes to what went on. They needed brutes, animals like Shestakov to break the crust of Communism. To convince the country, and themselves, that they weren’t still imprisoned by the economic ideology of the Soviet era, And the Westerners who cooperated...they were no better.” He drew on his cigar. “They were so dazzled by the prospect of new markets, new opportunities, they were ready to tolerate anything. They thought like General Pinochet. To make an omelette, you must break eggs. But when those eggs are lives and families, they don’t always just accept being broken. Sometimes they want revenge. And you know what the capitalists say when these people complain? They call them bitter. I saw it in Chile. Mothers who lost their sons, who were just students when Pinochet rounded them up, flew them out in helicopters over the Pacific and slit open their bellies so they would sink when they fell into the ocean. These mothers were called bitter, resentful. Their unwilling sacrifice had been necessary for Chile to become the economic success story of Latin America.”
“What happened to your conservatism?”
“You can be a conservative without being an utter bastard, Ben. I hope that much stayed with you from our tutorials.”
“Yes, it did,” said Wright, thinking back to the year of his Marshall Scholarship at Cambridge. Burns had taught him international relations on Wednesday afternoons over pints of bitter in a low-ceilinged pub. “It absolutely did.”
“Just as you can be a liberal without being an utter fool,” Burns added. “I think.”
Wright smiled and looked out at the daffodils breaking through the cold ground in the park, the students and writers tying their bikes to the railings and heading for the London Library in the corner of the square. How covetable their lives seemed. What could anyone need, after all, besides food and shelter, a bicycle and a library card?
“Call me at lunchtime, Ben. I’ll see what I can find out. Though I’m not sure the world wouldn’t be better off without Roman Shestakov.”
“I’m beginning to think I might agree with you.”
“Tighter than a gnat’s arse, ma’am,” said the young officer to Helen Mount, when the head of Special Protection arrived at Westbury Park. “There’ll be no bags allowed inside the stadium. We have metal detectors at every gate and the sniffer dogs are going around now and will be doing it again before the game starts. We’ve also put up a sheet of bulletproof glass in front of Mr. Shestakov’s box.”
“Good work, son,” said Mount looking up at the towering stadium. It was easy to hate Brompton. All that money, foreign players, easy success. It symbolized all that was wrong with modern London. “Do you have the list of stadium employees I asked you for?”
Mount took a clip board from the young officer’s hands. There were more than 600 names, many of them Eastern European, representing players, trainers and scores of Polish and Hungarian contract workers who ran the stadium’s restaurants and bars. “Wonder how many of this lot have proper working papers,” said Mount. “But I suppose we’ve become too lazy to do the work ourselves.” She handed back the clip board. “Run them all through the computer. See if anything comes up. Doubt it will.”
Mount turned up the collar on her raincoat and walked over to a catering van.
“Bacon sandwich and a cup of tea,” she said to the young Turkish man with slick, dark hair, serving behind the counter. Mount stamped her feet and pulled a five pound note from her wallet. “Ketchup on that, please,” she added.
The moment the milky, sugary tea hit her tongue, Mount felt her brain slip into gear. Now if she wanted to kill Roman Shestakov today, how would she do it? There was a good chance the person who had killed Timothy Howard was still in London. It had been less than 36 hours ago. But the police hadn’t turned up anything. They hadn’t even found the getaway scooter. They had extracted the bullet from the bone of the dinosaur, but forensics were still working on it. They were also still trying to identify the explosives used to blow up Howard’s car. London had become a bazaar for this kind of expertise in recent years. You could find men who had blown up vehicles everywhere from Belfast to Islamabad, living in plain sight. Sourcing explosives was a cinch.
No, the only way you caught these international assassins was in the act. The moment they were done, it would be impossible to track them down. And even if you did, there were enough places in the world ready to protect them. Look at the Russians. They had sent a man to poison a Russian national on British soil, and let him trail his poison all over the south of England. But when the British asked for the killer to be extradited, the Russians gave them the finger. Or what about Bin Laden? The most wanted man in the world, pursued with all the might and resources of an angry United States, and still he was free. You had to catch them in flagrante these days, or you didn’t catch them at all.
The bacon sandwich came wrapped in wax paper, to soak up some of the grease. Mount took a bite and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She took another sip of tea. She had tried that green tea her husband insisted she drank, but it wasn’t the same. More like licking the front lawn. Tea was brown, she had told him, brown, milky and sweet. If he had seen her now with her mouth full of artery blockers, he would have thrown a fit. Well, at least he cared.
Mount thanked the Turkish man and began to walk through the car park up to the stadium. She walked through the turnstiles and saw the pitch up ahead, flashes of green through the seats and aisles. They could plant another bomb in Shestakov’s car. But that would be caught today. There were dogs and inspectors everywhere. It would be impossible to get a bomb into the stadium. In any case, whoever was killing these bankers was quite clinical. Even Howard’s driver had been spared the worst of the explosion, as the bomb had been tucked behind the back seat. While Howard was killed instantly, the driver would be out of hospital in a couple of days. No, this was not someone who wanted to kill anyone unnecessarily. They wanted Shestakov and Shestakov alone. They had a reason to kill, not some random bloodlust.
Mount walked along the lower rows of seats and then swung one leg over an advertising hoarding to get onto the pitch. She winced as she straddled the hoarding before pulling the other leg over. She walked past the goal and towards the center circle. There were any number of places from where you could get off a shot. From one of the luxury boxes, perhaps. Or up on the roof. Anyone going into or out of the boxes would be searched like everyone else. There would be men stationed every 75 feet on the roof. But even then, any bullet would hit the glass in front of Shestakov’s box. Then they’d know what direction it came from and the assassin would be caught within seconds. If this person wanted to get away with killing Shestakov, tonight would be a foolish night to try.
The announcement flashed up on Stan Walsh’s Bloomberg screen at 9am, Eastern Standard Time. He was just wrapping up his morning meeting, half-listening to his shipping analyst try to predict dry-bulk rates for the next few months, half thinking about the contemporary auction at Sotheby’s last night. He had just missed out on a Gerhard Richter triptych, but had the satisfaction of knowing that he had pushed the eventual buyer to way over-paying. His wife had insisted he buy a set of furniture made of plush toys by a pair of Brazilian designers. It was for their children’s playroom in the Hamptons. $170,000 for a bunch of Mickeys, Donalds and Goofy’s sewn together.
“Gerd Vilksen announces he now controls 75% of Vilksen.”
Walsh snapped forward on his chair and clicked on the story.
“German biotech investor, Gerd Vilksen, announced this afternoon that he now controls 75% of his family’s pharmaceutical giant, Vilksen. The controlling stake is made up of shares and options on Vilksen stock. Of the outstanding 25% of Vilksen stock, 15% is preferred stock owned by other members of the family, 5% is owned by the state government of Bavaria, leaving just 5% in free float. The news is expected to cause a reverse in the widespread shorting of Vilksen.”
You bet it’s going to cause a reverse, thought Walsh. He shouted across the room to his pharmaceuticals trader.
“You seen this about Vilksen? We’re out of this, right? Tell me we’re out.”
“We’re out. Since three weeks ago.”
Now Walsh could simply sit back and enjoy the destruction.
Renshaw had just finished his main course of grilled turbot, when his cellphone began to vibrate. He tried to ignore it as he was having lunch with his godfather, Sir Anthony Vane-Stewart, a former director of Christies, the auction house. He was an especially tall man with wavy, dark hair and an exuberant disposition, unclouded by a life of drinking and adultery on an epic scale.
Here at Wilton’s, an old-fashioned fish restaurant on Jermyn Street, he seemed to know everyone. The former editor of The Daily Telegraph stopped by, and the two harrumphed and guffawed for several minutes about a recent weekend of fishing on the Tweed. The chairman of the Conservative Party paused for a moment of levity, putting his hand to his face and hiding a grimace at his own lunch date, a portly multi-millionaire who had made his fortune in self-assembly furniture and was now offering to put some of it into the Party - on condition it re-thought its policy towards the European Union. The poor man looked as though he would much rather be addressing a pork pie and a pint of bitter than a glass of white burgundy and the staring eyes of a grilled snapper.
Even the matronly waitresses, dressed in black with white lace aprons, seemed to have their spirits lifted by Sir Anthony. The only person not sharing in the general bonhomie was Renshaw.
“Come on, boy,” said Sir Anthony. “Those Russkies getting you down? Told you they would. Everyone got bloody excited about them buying art. We spent a fortune wooing them and you know what? Bloody late payers. If at all. Tedious bastards as well. Once you’ve had ten Moscow nights swinging from the chandeliers with cocaine up your backside, you’ve had them all.”
He burst into laughter and even Renshaw tried a smile. Sir Anthony had been playing this role ever since he had first taken an interest in his godson, around the time Renshaw hit puberty. Up to that point, Sir Anthony could not reasonably have shared most of his interests or offered any useful advice. But since then, he had been a wonderful counterfoil to the seriousness and expectations of Renshaw’s own father. Sir Anthony was a reminder that a life of privilege and money could be about fun, not just responsibility and tedious competition.
“Did I tell you about Frank Ponsonby?” said Sir Anthony. “Tremendous fast-bowler at school. Went into the City, made a mint, married, four children, never stopped having it on the side. Formidable stick man.” Renshaw could feel his phone vibrating like an insect, gnawing at his thigh.
“No, you didn’t. Do you have any friends who aren’t stick men?”
“Come to think of it, no. You’re right. Every chap I know is a tremendous shagger. Either says something about the company I keep, or about men in general. Anyway, Ponsonby had this absolutely stunning mistress. French bird. 24 years old. Daughter of some marquess or another. Anyway, one day, they’re in this restaurant having Lobster Thermidor. And she says to him, ‘Frankie, what do lobster thermidor and blow jobs have in common?’ And Frankie almost spits out his lobster claw. ‘What, cherie?’ ‘You don’t get either at home.’ So Frank bloody loves this and tells all his mates the story, very proud of it. Next time he’s in London for the weekend, he decides to bring his wife and three sprogs here, to Wilton’s, for lunch. And at the next table happen to be three of the partners at his firm in the City. Frank says hello, introduces his wife and kids, sits down. Then the three partners one after another tell the waitress: “Lobster Thermidor for me!” Poor bloody Frank spends the whole meal red in the face, listening to these chaps slurping away and his wife doesn’t understand what’s going on.” Sir Anthony slapped the table, leaving an imprint of his hand in the thick linen. Renshaw smiled tensely. “You in some sort of trouble, boy? Can I help?”
“No,” said Renshaw, haltingly. “I’m, um, fine. I just need to go to the bathroom.”
He got up and walked to the back of the restaurant, went into one of the wooden stalls and locked the door. He quickly reached for his phone. There were seven missed calls, five voice messages and six emails. The first email was a Bloomberg alert, the same one Walsh had read ten minutes earlier in New York. The next five were from fund managers he had spoken to the previous evening. He dialed his code and listened to the voice messages. Three of the same fund managers. Two had called twice. As he was listening, the red light on his phone began to flash again. It was a text message. From Shestakov. Renshaw’s hand shook as he clicked on it.
“What is going on?”
Renshaw walked back into the restaurant and thanked his godfather, without sitting down.
“You all right Alex? You’re absolutely white. I didn’t shock you with the lobster thermidor story, I hope.”
“No, no, of course not. Something has just, um, come up. I need to get back to the office.” As he made to leave, Sir Anthony grabbed his hand.
“Listen to me, boy. Whatever it is, it’s not worth it.”
“I don’t think you do, boy. Look at me. Look me in the bloody eye.” He had raised his voice, drawing the attention of furniture tycoon in the corner. He was gripping Renshaw’s hand. “If there’s something going, you tell me, all right? I know you’re terrified of your father, but you tell me. I may be a fool sometimes, but I can make things right. I know people, Alex. Everything can be made right.” He could feel the sweat in Renshaw’s palm as it slipped from his palm.
“Thanks. I’ll bear it in mind.” Renshaw turned and walked out, turning right on Jermyn Street towards his office and quickly breaking into a run.
Gregory Andrews could not take his eyes off the Vilksen stock chart. He had it open in one corner of his computer screen. Since the announcement of Gerd Vilksen’s holdings, the price of Vilksen stock had gone upwards in a near vertical line. Even if you wanted to buy it, you couldn’t. Unless Gerd Vilksen decided to sell to you, which for now at least he didn’t. It was the most perfect short-squeeze he had seen in his life.
The math was simple. Hedge funds has sold short 20% of Vilksen. They had borrowed stock, sold it and expected to buy it back when the price fell to return it to their lenders. Their profit would be the difference between the price they sold and the price they bought. But at 2pm GMT, they had discovered that there was just 10% of stock now out there for them to buy. The rest was basically illiquid or under the control of Gerd Vilksen. Of that 10%, Andrews held 7.
The scramble for the outstanding stock was as ugly as Andrews had ever seen. The market capitalization of Vilksen when the markets opened that Monday had been $18 billion. By 3pm, it was over $200 billion, more than Exxon, the most valuable company in the world.
At those valuations, the 7% stake held in Andrews’ Swiss holding company was now worth $14 billion.
He moved the cursor up to a box in the top left corner of his screen, clicked the boxes on seven separate counter-parties, all based in London and placed the order to sell.
“I can’t find enough of it,” said the first fund manager Renshaw called.
“How big is the short?”
“We put in $300 million.”
“Where’s the price now?”
“$85 a share.”
“Look at your screen.”
Renshaw’s computer had frozen. He slammed the side of the screen with his palm. Nothing.
“What have we lost?” said Renshaw.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I’m so sorry.” Renshaw could hear the man choking back sobs.
“What have we lost, Charlie? Tell me.”
“We’re in for nearly $3 billion.”
“And us? How much are we down?”
“You told me to lever it up. To invest on margin.”
“Tell me, Charlie.”
“About $2.4 billion.”
Renshaw set the phone back in its cradle and ran a hand through his hair. Yesterday he had been asking to redeem the money. Now he was worried there might not be any money to redeem. His phone buzzed again. It was another text, from Shestakov’s assistant: “Call in now.”
Wait, thought Renshaw. Wait till we know for sure. He called the six other funds he invested in. On three, he was kept on hold for several minutes. He could hear the panic in their voices. So recently they were so cocky. As if the golden era of 2 and 20 fees would go on for ever. As if convertible Bentleys and hundred million dollar a year incomes were a birthright. Now the market had turned and they were cowering in their trenches wondering where all the bombs had come from. Shouldn’t they all have know this was a scam? That 90% of the hedge fund industry was made up of chancers, good at assembling pools of money, lousy at managing it. Perhaps they did all know But no one wanted to turn on the lights and end the party. Everyone was having too much fun. It was no good having perspective now, though. Not when grown men were crying at their reversal of fortune.
Everywhere, it was the same. All seven of the funds in which Renshaw had invested Shestakov’s money had shorted Vilksen and done so on margin. Renshaw jotted down the numbers on a notepad in front of him. There were another two hours of trading left in the day. But at that very moment, if his calculations were right, Roman Shestakov was facing financial ruin - and Renshaw was to blame.
Wright tried Aurélie Grenelle’s cellphone for the fifth time since he left Paris that morning. He badly wanted to speak to her, if nothing else to thank her for dinner. He was unused to women disappearing in the middle of the night. If anyone was going to behave so cavalierly, he would rather it was him.
The only lead he had now was Burns’ sources in Russia. Wright’s original suspect, Roman Shestakov, was the prime target and Terry Mount seemed to be closing down half of West London to protect him. He was beginning to feel superfluous.
He collected the key to the room at his hotel, 11 Cadogan Gardens, a brick town-house in Knightsbridge, where he stayed in a suite overlooking a small, but perfectly maintained garden. Princess Diana used to have trysts with the captain of the England rugby team in the next door suite. That was years ago, but there was still an illicit whiff about the place, which Wright found attractive. It wasn’t the kind of characteristic you found rated in Fodor’s.
As he tipped the bellboy, he asked for a pot of coffee and a club sandwich to be brought to his room.
He reached up and then down to touch his toes. He ran the cold tap in the bathroom and splashed his face. If all Travis cared about was that the murders were not “systemic”, that the killer had an agenda narrower than taking vengeance on the entire financial class, then the mission was accomplished. This was about Roman Shestakov and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in his wake. As the French foreign minister had told him, he was sulfurous. Like Satan.
There was a rap at the door. Very prompt, thought Wright. He fished a five pound note from his wallet, but before he could turn the handle of the door, it burst open, knocking him back to the floor. An enormous man with an earpiece, a long, blue overcoat and leather gloves looked around the room, inspecting it, then turned to Wright.
“Yes,” said Wright, picking himself up. The man gave a beckoning wave and in walked Roman Shestakov. He was wearing a tan leather jacket over a black shirt, jeans and moccasins. He looked around the room, at Wright and then jerked his head, indicating the bodyguard was to leave. As he did so, the bellboy arrived with Wright’s lunch. Shestakov took the tray, tipped the young man himself, and put it on the desk facing the window.
“May I?” he said to Wright. Wright nodded and sat on the edge of his bed. Shestakov poured two cups of coffee.
“Milk, sugar?” he said.
“No thanks,” said Wright. Shestakov added three cubes of brown sugar to his own coffee and stirred. The only sound in the room was the clink of his spoon going around the inside of the china cup.
“I met Arthur Travis once in Moscow,” said Shestakov. “He wanted to get in on the privatization of Gazprom. He thought I could help him. I could have, perhaps. But I was sick of Americans by then.” He looked up from his cup, straight at Wright. “I did not kill those four men, Mr. Wright. I knew them. But I did not kill them. I will be very frank with you as I am with everyone. My ambition for the past ten years has been to leave Russia behind. The country has not changed nearly as much as many of us hoped it would. Some of us have become rich. But it has only been by selling off what was already there, the gas, the oil, the minerals under our very feet. We have not built anything of value. There is no Russian Microsoft or General Electric. Even the Chinese have done better than us at building real companies, not just digging out our resources and selling them.”
Wright stared into his coffee.
“Could you pass me my sandwich?” he said.
Shestakov turned, took the plate and passed it to Wright.
“Whether you killed the men or not, it seems you’re very well protected,” said Wright.
“For as long as I still control what I control. But I’m not in the business of taking unnecessary risks. My hope is one day to become an American, Mr. Wright. If I remain under the slightest suspicion, that becomes much harder. It was easy to come to London. London is a whore of a city. Anyone with the money can possess it. America is more protective of its virtue. You understand? You must help me clear my name.”
“You’ll have to tell me everything you know. Especially about Stary Nov.”
Shestakov gave a quick nod and stood up to remove his jacket.
“Yegor Ivanov introduced us,” said Shestakov. “Yegor was close to Yeltsin. He worked with him when Yeltsin was mayor of Moscow. He was kind of a go-between, between the old Soviets and the younger economists. The older guys still had control of the system the younger ones wanted to change. There was going to have to be some kind of exchange. Everybody liked Yegor and everyone knew him. The heads of the big state-run factories on the other side of the country came to see him whenever they came to town. He took them out for nights they’re probably still talking about. And when the Westerners started to arrive, Yegot was there to greet them. He’d grown up in New York. His father was a diplomat at the United Nations. He’d been there when Khrushchev banged his shoe. He knew Americans and the English. He wasn’t afraid of them like many Russians were. He didn’t have the peasant shame.”
“I’d met Yegor in my work for the Presidential Security Service. He was always looking for young people to join his great experiment. He used to throw his arm around me and say ‘you’re our future, God help us!’. He knew I was ambitious and wanted to make some money. So when the chance came to buy into Stary Nov, he helped me. He introduced me to Stephen Weissberg, first. He was working for a Swiss bank at the time and you could tell he thought Moscow was the end of the world. He wanted to be in New York. But he was clever. The government needed to get this privatization program together in just a few weeks. They couldn’t have done it without men like Weissberg working through the night to get the paperwork ready and the investors lined up. Through Weissberg, I met Henry Reeves and Chris Howard. They were just associates for a small English bank. Reeves was lazy, but Howard, you could tell, was like me. He was hungry. He didn’t spend his nights with hookers the way Reeves did. He was clean.”
“The Frenchman was the last one in. He loved Moscow. But his tastes were a little more sophisticated than Reeves’. Reeves was like a horny teenager. Montbrison was more picky. He was on his own in the city. Trying to put something together. Anything. Trying to find some luck. His luck was that he’d spent three years on the professional tennis tour in his early 20s. If you could play tennis and Yeltsin and his entourage heard about it, you were in.
There were many more important deals being done in Russia at the time. But none had our energy, you know. We were Boris’ kids. There were plenty of people trying to get things done the right way back then. But they were moving too slow. Boris wanted people ready to stay up late, cut a few corners if necessary, just get it done before everyone in Russia got sick of capitalism and said let’s go back to the good old days. Yeltsin was paranoid about the country sliding back. We were going to be his poster boys. Like those old Soviet athletes. Their victories were advertised as victories for the whole Soviet system. It was bullshit.”
Shestakov paused. He walked into the bathroom, poured himself a glass of water then returned to the chair facing Wright.
“The game was collecting vouchers. You know what they were?”
“Stary Nov was going to be the first privatization in post-Soviet Russia. All these vouchers had been issued to ordinary citizens, but it wasn’t clear that they knew how to use them. The risk was that the auction of the company would be a disaster. There would be no interest and the entire free market program would collapse. You understand? We had one day to go before the auction and he had enough vouchers to buy maybe 5% of the company. It was taking too long to gather the vouchers one by one. We needed hundreds of thousands of them to get to 10%, which is what Boris was demanding of us. The four foreigners were on the telephone day and night trying to put this together. I was trying. I had my men on the street, but all we could ever get was a few hundred here and there from small-time cigarette smugglers. We needed something big.
That was when I heard about the professor. At Moscow State University. He was a kind of national hero. A chess champion and mathematician. He’d been involved in the space program. So I went to see him. He lived in one of the apartments given to those favored under the Soviet regime. The elevator in the building worked. It didn’t stink of piss. I showed him my badge and he let me in.” Shestakov stopped again. He seemed almost to be crying. He stood up.
“He was playing chess with himself and listening to the radio. I don’t know why I remember this, but he had a tomato, cut open, on a plate beside him. I told him what I wanted and the price I was willing to pay. He laughed and said no. I told him again and offered him more. He said, “why don’t we wait till there’s a real market for these, not just you and me?” He put his hand on the seat of his chair, and I knew right then where they were. I gave him a chance, Mr. Wright. I gave him several chances before I had to take them from him.”
“Do you remember his name?”
“Alenichev. Andrei Alenichev.”
“Do you have a fax machine, Ben?” asked James Burns.
“You’re living in the 20th century James.”
“Fine, I’ll read it to you. It’s in Russian anyway. Andrei Alenichev, hero of the Soviet Union murdered by thugs at home. This is from Izvestia. March 3rd 1993.”
“It says his body was found at his apartment, shot once, cleanly, in the head from close range. Nothing appeared to have been stolen from the home. Police are investigating a local gang of Chechen youths who have been terrorizing this area of Moscow for several weeks.”
“I spoke to a friend at the Moscow Police department. He said the investigation was cursory. Alenichev’s wife had tried for a couple of years to have the case examined more closely. But after she managed to send her children to live with family outside Russia, she drowned herself in the Moskva River.”
“Anything about the children?”
“A boy and a girl. The boy was 20 at the time of the killing. His father’s star pupil. The girl 16.”
“Where did they go?”
“Let me see.” Wright could hear him leafing through a stack of papers and brushing cigar ash from them. “Now this was considerably harder. They’ve fully assimilated and Anglicized their names. The son went to America. A professor at Harvard, no less. Gregory Andrews. The daughter, definitely your type, Ben, to France. Also a professor. Aurélie Grenelle.”
“Do you understand how many people enter this country on any given day, Mr. Wright?”
“I know, Inspector. But you asked for my help. I’m giving it to you.”
Mount looked at the two names written on a piece of hotel note paper.
“All right. We’ll run them by the Home Office, see if they’ve come into the country in the last 24 hours. You say you know Miss Grenelle.”
“A recent acquaintance, yes.”
“And you saw her in Paris yesterday evening? So if her intention was to knock off our Mr. Shestakov, she’d have had to come over today. From France. That narrows it down a little. I’ll also get onto the US about Andrews. See if there’s been any activity on his library card. Two professors, Mr. Wright. Who’d have thought two bookworms could cause such trouble for a man like Roman Shestakov.”
“We don’t know it for sure.”
“Well we never do until we do, do we?”
As soon as the London exchanges closed, the last in Europe, Gregory Andrews set to work. There could not be any trace of what had occurred in this small office over the past four days. He closed down all the applications running on the hard drive and opened a new one. An image of a lemon Jello, a favorite of hackers, appeared in the middle of the screen. Andrews clicked on it and the entire screen turned wavy for a few seconds, before going gray. All that showed was a question mark in the bottom right hand corner. He unplugged the hard drive and tucked it into a small canvas bag. The keyboards closed up to the size of a remote control. Finally, he dismantled the screens, which folded in half twice, and laid them on the top of the bag, before zipping it shut. He walked to the window and pulled the shutters open slightly. It was dusk outside. He wiped down the desk and the arms of his chair to remove any last fingerprints. He had exactly half an hour before his speech at the conference.
He picked up his bag and left the office, locking the door behind him. He dropped the key in a box beside the front desk. The final installment for renting the office would be drawn from an account in the name of a non-existent company, which would close immediately afterwards.
He walked out onto the cold street. The lights were on in the restaurants along the lake. He did a mental tally of his trading activity over the past four days. The first two days, he had managed to dump $50 billion worth of commodities futures, linked tightly to Russian firms, which he had amassed using just $500 million of Harvard Management Company collateral to underpin a Swiss shell operation. The effect had been to depress commodity prices by nearly 10% and cause Shestakov to lose nearly 40% of his net worth. The losses Andrews incurred dumping the futures, he had more than made back on the Vilksen trade. $2 billion more, which now sat in an unmarked account in Grand Cayman. The trading firm he had created no longer existed. All that was left were shadows of trades, accounts, profits and losses, none of which could be tied to him. He waited for the garbage truck to come down the street. 5.28 precisely. You could always trust the Swiss public services. He tossed the bag containing the hardware into a trash bin on the corner of the street then walked to his car. He sat in the drivers’ seat and waited. Two minutes later, a fork descended from the back of truck, lifted the bin up and emptied it. He watched the pistons compact the last scraps of evidence.
Thirty minutes later, he stood at a podium, in a smart navy suit, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Before him at circular tables stretching into the back of a cavernous hall room were the cream of Europe’s hedge funds.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he began. “It has been a remarkable day, good for some of you, bad for others, I presume.” A nervous laugh filled the room. Many in the room had been badly hit by he Vilksen short squeeze, but none so much as the handful of London-based funds Andrews had selected as his victims. “But this evening I wish to focus on the derivatives trading of the future. It is in the future, after all, that we must live.”
The odor of warm beer and cheese and onion crisps struck Renshaw as he entered the Ye Grapes pub in Shepherd Market in the heart of Mayfair. It had just turned 6 o’clock and the pub was filling up with traders, emerging from the nearby hedge funds. He could hear the name Vilksen in every conversation.
He walked to the far end of the pub, where he found Charlie Shepherd staring into a pint of bitter.
Shepherd got up when he saw Renshaw, awkwardly bumping the table with his knees. Renshaw had never seen him look so pathetic. His lank blond hair hung down to his collar, as it always had, right back to his glory days as a schoolboy sporting hero, whether leading the rugby team to victory in the Berkshire Cup or hurtling in from the pavilion end of the cricket pitch to deliver a lethally fast ball to some quailing top of the order batsman. He had filled out in the way young athletes do when they stop exercising before middle age. His face was blotchy and there were dark bags under his eyes. Renshaw noted a slight tremor in his hand.
“Thanks for coming,” said Shepherd. “Really appreciate it Alex.”
Renshaw sat and folded his arms.
“Shit storm out there today.” Renshaw said nothing. He could see Shepherd’s eye twitching. His face was the color of his red corduroys. Shepherd wiped a trickle of beer from the side of his glass. He looked as though he had just emerged from heavy bombardment, shell shocked.
“How bad was it, Charlie?” said Renshaw.
“Bloody awful, Alex. We didn’t see it coming. Everything. We lost everything.”
“Come on, you must have diversified. You can’t have had everything riding on one stock.”
“We’d levered up. We put in 10% of our fund, then geared it ten times. It was the only winning play we had Alex. Everything else has been shit for months. We needed something this year. 2% management fees don’t cut it anymore. You know how it is, a couple of down quarters, you get redemptions, it’s over...”
“Ten times? You exposed the whole fund to this thing?”
“It was stupid, I know Alex. But I have three boys at school, one girl.”
“I don’t have time for this Charlie.”
“We’ve got the house in London, the place in Wiltshire, we’ve just got these expenses.” Renshaw leaned across the table and grabbed Shepherd by the shirt-front.
“You need to get yourself together, Charlie. You need to get yourself together, go home, talk to Helen. You need to sort this out.” He sat back and pulled a cheese and onion crisp from the packet on the table. He turned it back round. “Come on, mate. Have a crisp.”
Tears were now streaming down Shepherd’s face, his shoulders were heaving.
“There just wasn’t any stock.” Renshaw could feel people looking at them. “We tried Alex. We bought it going up and we kept buying. We dumped everything decent we owned to buy it. But we couldn’t find enough.”
“Stop crying, Charlie.”
Shepherd wiped the tears from his face and blinked several times.
“I should have stayed at one of the big firms. What was I thinking? I could have been a partner or MD, you know, making a decent living, pay for the kids, skiing holidays...” Renshaw tore a beer mat in half.
“Oh, do shut up Charlie,” he said, rose and pushed his way out of the pub.
“Your Miss Grenelle,” said Mount standing behind Wright, who had been given a few feet of desk space on the main floor of the Special Protection unit’s office. “Turns out she was in this country a couple of nights ago, when Mr. Howard blew up. Came here Monday morning, left Tuesday morning. The problem is she does this every week. She does a seminar at the London School of Economics about structured finance and emerging markets, whatever that means.”
“How does she usually come over?”
“Train. Occasionally the plane.”
“And no sign of her today?”
“No, nothing on the Eurostar or at any of the airports. I suppose she could have come over on the ferry, but it’s not something you’d choose if you were pressed for time. Coming over with a bunch of school-trippers smoking and throwing up. Either she found some other way in, or she’s not coming. Which would be a relief. As for Mr. Andrews, he is currently addressing a conference in Zurich and is due to attend a dinner there this evening.”
“Take a look at this,” said Wright, passing her two printed sheets, sent him by Stan Walsh. Mount glanced over the two pages.
“What is it?”
“Looks like Roman Shestakov had a very bad day today. It’s hard to say, because the funds he invests in don’t disclose their information. But from what I’m hearing he could have been wiped out.”
“I thought he was worth billions.”
“Easy come, easy go.”
“We’re heading over to Shestakov’s place. You should come with me. We’re leaving in three minutes.”
Two police cars pulled up on the campus of the Harvard Business School and at the Harvard Management Company in downtown Boston. Three officers disgorged from each and asked in each case to see the office of Professor Gregory Andrews.
At the Business School, they strode quickly past a large mosaic taken whole from a Roman Villa which adorned the ground floor of a soaring atrium, and turned left towards the cluster of offices reserved for tenured finance professors. Three assistants sitting in cubicles outside Andrews’ office popped their heads up, like prairie dogs, but did not say a word. The officers asked one of them to unlock the door. They barged in. One officer headed straight for Andrews’ computer terminal, to unplug and remove it. Another began rifling through a filing cabinet in one corner. The third prowled slowly around the room. He paused to look at the two large charts pinned above the desk, which showed head-shots of all the students in his two First Year classes, laid out according to where they sat. He looked closely at the rows of books, impenetrable technical works about finance, statistics and computer programming. Behind the door hung Andrews’ various degree certificates, bachelors’ from MIT, masters and doctorates from Stanford, Oxford and Harvard. There was only photograph in the room, framed on a desk, which showed Andrews and several others in athletic gear holding their bicycles aloft on top of a peak, with forested hills falling away behind them. A metal plaque on the bottom of the frame read: “Adirondacks 2007”.
The inspectors heard a kerfuffle in the corridor outside. A bald man in round, wire-framed spectacles stood in the doorway, oozing pomposity.
“Good afternoon gentlemen. I’m Professor Joseph Clark, the dean of the school.” He held his hands together and smiled, as if waiting for the visitors to be impressed.
One of the inspectors held out the search warrant. Clark took it and read it.
“It would have been a courtesy to ask if you could do this. Professor Andrews is one of our most highly respected faculty members and...”
“He’s also a suspect in four murders, Dean. I suggest you leave us alone.” He slammed the door in Clark’s face.
At the Harvard Management Company, a similar scene was unfolding. One investigator dismantled Andrews’ hard drive and screens while two others boxed up his files and asked his assistant for any records, digital or otherwise. An investment committee meeting in the conference room adjacent to Andrews’ office was brought to a halt, and the members of the committee lingered in the corridor watching the search, none daring to ask a question or intervene. When they were done, the three men marched back into the elevator and down to their car, which squealed out into the afternoon traffic around South Station.
The crowds of fans were filling the streets around Westbury Park, most in blue shirts, chanting and pumping their fists. To a group of three baffled French women standing on Kings’ Road: “You’re French. And you know you are. You’re French. And you know you are.”
It was a cool evening and inside the stadium the players were looking forward to the game. They had finished working out on the pristine pitch and were now relaxing in the dressing room, watching a Will Smith film. The Russians were astonished at the luxury which surrounded them. In St. Petersburg, they were used to hard wooden benches, breeze-block walls and freezing showers. Here they had leather sofas, flat-screen televisions and ice baths in which to recover after the game. Three Russians on the Brompton squad had invited them out to dinner afterwards to an Italian restaurant followed by a trip to a nightclub - and offered to pay for it all. No wonder every single player in the world wanted to play for an English club.
Shestakov was waiting inside his front door when Mount, Wright and the rest of the Special Protection Unit arrived. Two police officers stood on the steps to his house, and another two were guarding the entrance to the Boltons. Two helicopters hovered overhead, ensuring the route to the stadium was clear. Mount walked up to the house, rapped twice on the door and then turned to face the car. From behind her came two bodyguards, looming over Shestakov, who walked behind them and in front of another two. Wright watched him. He looked calm in the middle of all this. You would never guess he had lost so much today. Or that his life was at risk. In fact you would never have been able to guess anything at all from just the look on his face. The front pair of guards held open the rear door to an armored black BMW 750 GI, waited for Shestakov to climb in, then slammed it shut.
Mount took a walkie talkie from one of the policemen on the steps.
“Stay close and don’t stop for anything.”
He then looked up into the air again and jogged down the steps to his car. Once he was in, he raised a finger and moved it sharply forward. His driver pressed the accelerator and the convoy moved swiftly out of the Boltons, two cars in front of Shestakov and two behind, with barely two feet between each of them. The police had closed off the one way Gilston Road, so the cars did not have to weave through several narrow streets to get to the Fulham Road. Once they hit the Fulham Road, they found a clear passage straight down to Westbury Park, which was less than a mile. The cars pulled up in front of a rear entrance to the stadium, where both Special Protection and Shestakov’s bodyguards formed a phalanx from the car to the doorway.
The coach of the team, a handsome Dutchman stood inside the entrance, waiting to greet his employer. Shestakov shook him by the hand and the two men walked into the stadium, talking about the team’s strategy for the evening. Mount and Wright fell in behind, hearing the cacophony of the waiting crowd.
As Shestakov entered his box, the crowd raised their hands above their heads to applaud and they began singing to the tune of Lord of the Dance: “Debt free, wherever you may be/ We’re gonna buy everyone we see/ Cos we don’t give a fuck about the transfer fee/ We are the wealthy BFC.” Shestakov smiled and waved. The crowd sang louder than ever. The floodlights blazed down on the stadium and at 8pm precisely, the players trotted out onto the field, kicking their legs up behind them, both teams together in parallel lines.
From his perch at the back of Shestakov’s box, Wright could see two young boys in uniforms matching those of the players running out to the center circle, accompanied by the captains of each side. They shook hands and unfurled a banner promising “Fair Play”. At each end of the pitch, players curled balls from impossibly far away into corners of the goal. In the private boxes around Shestakov, men stood, shook hands and talked, laughing above the noise. Shestakov himself had not sat down. He was staring down at the pitch, glancing from one end to another, like a chess player considering his next five moves. He had tucked his hands into his trouser pockets and no one was talking to him.
“I’m going to walk around,” said Wright to Mount.
“What?” said Mount, unable to hear.
Wright made a walking gesture with his index and second finger. Mount nodded. Wright walked out into the aisle and up towards the wide, echoing passageway which ran around the stadium. He heard the referee’s whistle blow and a roar behind him as Brompton pushed forward, aggressive from the start. There were no lines at the concession stands now, as everyone was watching the game. Wright bought himself a hot dog, slathered it with mustard, took one bite and threw it away. He bought a Coke to wash away the taste. He walked down one block and up the ramp leading to the seats. He looked over towards Shestakov who was staring at the game. He looked up at the roof of the stadium where he could see the outlines of policemen positioned, as Mount had promised, every 75 feet. Watching 50,000 people, each of whom had paid over a hundred pounds for their night out here, it was difficult to believe the world was tumbling into depression.
Wright walked back into the concession area and round another two blocks of seats. If he wanted to kill Roman Shestakov, what would he do? There were surely easier ways than taking him out in a soccer stadium. But the longer you waited, the tighter the security around him became. Unless of course, he no longer merited security. Unless he was no longer rich. Then any protection he had would vanish. He would be exposed. It was what drove these men to be richer than anyone in the West. The more they had, the more they had to lose. Fear as much as greed kept them hungry.
He listened to the chants and watched the ball darting from player to player. It was a so much faster, more aggressive game when you watched it at this level. The defenders were built like oxen, and as they chased the forwards hurtling towards goal, you feared for the smaller players’ limbs, if not their lives. The closer you got to the pitch you could hear the panting of the players and the crunch of every tackle. Perhaps it was this gladiatorial aspect, this physical combat which appealed to Shestakov.
Wright looked up again at Shestakov’s box. A group of men with flushed faces and boxy suits, looking like city government officials the world over, were just arriving. It must have been the St. Petersburg delegation whom Shestakov had insisted on coming here to meet. They looked awestruck by the stadium. Finally, Shestakov took his eyes off the game and greeted them one by one with embraces and slaps on the back. They shuffled along their row to their seats, each clutching a program. Suddenly, the crowd grew louder.
A Brompton player, short and powerful, was dribbling the ball down the right side of the pitch to his opponents’ penalty box. A defender backed up in front of him. He feinted to the right and flicked the ball left, through the defender’s legs. The crowd screamed. The Brompton player dodged around, picked up the ball, looked up and saw one of his team-mates running towards the far corner of the goal. With only the slightest back-lift, he floated the ball over the head of the approaching goal-keeper.
As it crossed the goal-mouth, his team-mate leapt forward and headed the ball into the net. The crowd was on its feet, the Brompton players hurtling around the pitch, their arms aloft, pretending to be airplanes. Wright jumped to see over the thicket of bodies what was happening in Shestakov’s box. He could see another group arriving, younger this time, better turned out. The business guests accompanying the mayor, he presumed.
After a minute or so, the crowd sat down again. Wright could see clearly now. His eye was drawn immediately to the second row, behind Shestakov and three seats over. He could not believe it. Sitting tidily, clutching her handbag, unflustered by the commotion around her was Aurélie Grenelle.
Wright backed out of the stands. Surely she couldn’t kill Shestakov here. To have gone to so much trouble with the others, it made no sense. She was surrounded. If they wanted to pick her up now, they could. All Wright had to do was get a signal to Mount. But then what? They only had Shestakov’s account of how he had killed her parents. And the fact that she was often in London. That wasn’t close to enough for an arrest. What the hell was she doing?
He looked down both ways along the passage behind the stands. The only people around were those selling food and a short line emerging from the Men’s room. The noise from the stands reverberated from the concrete and metal.
He needed to talk to her. But there was no way he could do it, not with Mount and the Special Protection division operating on a hair-trigger. The moment they knew it was her, they would have her out of there. Or worse.
It was brilliant, though. To have come in with the delegation. It explained why there had been no record of her arrival in the UK. She must have flown in with the Russians. On Shestakov’s jet, of all things. It made perfect sense. She was an expert on municipal bonds and St. Petersburg was trying to make its first bond issuance, to fund work on its crumbling system of canals. She had found a way to get in close to Shestakov without him having the slightest idea who she was.
Wright walked back up the ramp. The crowd was on its feet as the Brompton players surged forward again against the hapless Russians. But then, a mistimed kick and the ball was back with the other side. The crowd fell back in its seats with a huge sigh. Suddenly Wright was exposed. He was staring down at the box when he caught the eye of Mount. Mount followed Wright’s gaze. Grenelle looked up and saw Wright across the crowd. She was sitting on the aisle, so she got up and began to walk away. Mount began talking into the microphone on his lapel and pushing along the row behind Shestakov. Wright ran back down the ramp and turned left, sprinting towards Shestakov’s box. He was 30 feet away when he saw Grenelle walk quickly in front of him, lift the counter of a pizza stand, and disappear through a door in the back. Wright followed her. Behind him, he could hear the crackle of radios and the sound of rubber soled shoes squeaking along the concrete floor as Mount’s unit gathered.
Wright pushed open the door at the back of the pizza stand.
“You’re not meant to go through there, mate,” said a young man with terrible skin and a paper hat. Wright did not answer. He looked both ways. The hiss of steam and the damp stench of fried food filled the brightly lit corridor. Set high into the wall was a row of narrow windows, which opened onto the sheer walls of the stadium. There was no way she could get through there.
Wright heard faint steps off to his right. He ran towards them, his arms pumping up and down. A door opened and a heavy steel trolley was pushed into his way. Wright crashed into it, screaming as one of his knees was trapped against the wall. He heaved it away and ran on, wincing with every step.
He saw a red Exit sign up ahead. The door was slowly closing. He sprinted and pushed down on the bar to open it again. He was on a steel walkway, high above the ground. He saw a train approaching along the track beside the stadium, on its way to West Brompton Station. He looked down the fire escape steps. He couldn’t see her. He looked over the side. There she was, the flash of the coat, not bothering with the stairs, but going down the side, dropping from level to level like a trapeze artist grabbing at each floor as she fell, to slow herself down.
“Wait,” Wright screamed. It was useless. The police had closed the exits. There was no way out. He saw her run across the car park and dodge behind a line of Range Rovers, belonging to the bankers who drove from all over London to support Brompton.
He clattered down the stairs. Behind him came Mount, breathing heavily.
“Where’d she go?”
Wright did not answer, but kept his focus on taking the steps three at a time. The moment he reached the ground, he saw the lights of the train coming north. It was moving fast, faster than trains usually went above ground in central London. He ran across the car park, down one side of the embankment and up the other, just in time to grab a safety bar attached to the rear carriage. His body whipped painfully across the back of the train as it sped away.
“The next station’s West Brompton. But it’s not stopping there. We need a helicopter on it. And get Shestakov out of here. No arguing,” shouted Mount.
Within seconds, two policemen stood either side of Roman Shestakov, each pulling him up by the arm. Shestakov’s bodyguards tried to intervene, but he waved them off. He shook off the officers.
“Not so rough,” he said tersely. He smiled at his guests. “Enjoy the rest of the game. Unfortunately I have some business to take care of.” The mayor of St. Petersburg rose to embrace him, but the officers hustled him away.
“Now, sir. Please,” said one of them. “No time for that.” They walked quickly to the private staircase which led to the club house and straight down to Shestakov’s car. One of them went ahead to ensure the way was clear, then waved Shestakov over to the car. He was about to push Shestakov’s head down into the car, but the Russian glared at him and he held off. Two Special Protection cars waited on the other side of Shestakov’s, ready to fall in line, one in front, one behind.
Mount ran over and ordered: “RAF Northolt. No stopping.”
Aurélie Grenelle lay flat on the front carriage of the train. She could see the lights of the station approach and then flash past below her. It was now quite dark. She could see the lights of the city in the distance, but immediately around was nothing. She moved both hands over to the right side of the train and then swung herself down. There was nowhere to rest her feet. So she tucked them up under her and pushed off, arcing backwards into the air like a champion backstroker at the start of a race. She landed on her hands on the steep, cold ground, jarring her wrists, then sprang down onto her feet. She slid several feet down to the bottom of the embankment. When she stopped, she shook out her hands to ease the pain. Ahead of her was a thick, hornbeam hedge, about eight feet high. She ran alongside it, looking for a thin patch where she could scramble through. Finally, she found one, and crawled through the sharp branches, which tore at her clothes and scratched her face. There was only a thin crescent of moon, shaded by clouds. But the tombstones and trees confirmed that she was in the Brompton Cemetery.
She had to get away. She had to find out if they had identified Gregory as well. She picked her way through the tombstones towards the colonnade which ran from the chapel, at the south end of the cemetery close to the Fulham Road, northwards along the top of the buried catacombs. She stopped, reached into her bag and found her cellphone. She dialed her brother’s number. She was passed to voicemail.
She tried his number in Boston, at the Management Company. His assistant answered the phone. She sounded scared.
“What is it?” said Grenelle. She had known the assistant for four years, ever since Gregory had begun work there. It was unusual for her not to want a long, gossipy conversation.
“The police were just here,” she whispered.
“But Gregory’s in Zurich,” said Grenelle.
“They took everything from his office.”
That was fine, thought Grenelle. She was sure her brother had destroyed everything, according to their plan.
“It’s probably just routine,” said Grenelle, trying to sound casual. “I’ll bet half the financiers in Boston are being checked out these days.” The assistant did not laugh. Grenelle clicked her phone shut. She heard the crunch of gravel. She pushed her body back into a corner of the limestone colonnade. It was a man, in his early 50s perhaps, with silver hair and tortoise-shell glasses. He was wearing a dark overcoat and carrying a small flashlight.
“I’m here,” he heard him whisper. Another man emerged from behind a large tombstone of angel blaring on a trumpet and took the first man by the hand. They disappeared together.
Wright had ruined her plans. But it had been stupid of her to get so close to him. She needed to get back to France, back to her life, to break this connection Wright had made, and wait for another chance with Shestakov. She had already waited 13 years.
Suddenly, several rows of headlights appeared at the north end of the cemetery. She heard police officers running in every direction, sealing off the exits. The two men who had just gone into the shadows together reappeared, fumbling with their clothes and running in different directions. Grenelle squinted into the darkness. In the far corner of the colonnade, she saw a pair of iron gates. She ran towards them. They were padlocked. She pulled a hairpin from her hair and slid it into the lock. She could hear sounds and footsteps on every side of the cemetery. The lock was rusty and would not give. She kept pushing at it, but could feel the hairpin bending. If it broke inside the lock, she could never get it open. She could see flashlights moving across the cemetery. More pairs of men came fumbling out the darkness, running to get away from the police, assuming they were the target of the raid. A helicopter was now approaching along the train line, pointing its searchlight across the tracks. She discarded one hairpin and picked out another. She pushed it in firmly and lifted it up. There was a click, muffled by powdery rust. She opened the lock, eased off the chain holding the gates together and opened them. Once inside, she slid the lock back through the chain and clicked it shut.
She turned to see a flight of steps, curling down into darkness. Even if there had been a light, she could not risk turning it on. She pressed her back against the wall and began to walk downwards, making as little noise as she could on the echoing stone. A faint stench grew stronger the further she went. Several steps down, she froze.
A flashlight shone into the stairwell from the other side of the gates.
Shestakov’s convoy moved swiftly towards RAF Northolt, a military airport close to Heathrow commonly used by private jets. The cars did not even stop at the entrance, as Mount had called ahead to ensure the barriers were raised. They simply drove out onto the runway, weaving through helicopters and smaller jets towards Shestakov’s Falcon 7. Its three engines, arrayed around the raised tail of the plane, were already stirring to life. The pilot and two stewardesses stood at the foot of the steps leading up the cabin. Mount stepped out of the lead car, walked back towards Shestakov’s and opened the rear door. Shestakov did not even acknowledge Mount. He simply walked straight up and into his plane.
“You’re very welcome, sir” Mount muttered to herself.
Two bodyguards and the pilot followed Shestakov, and finally the stewardesses climbed aboard, pulling up the steps behind them.
Shestakov took his usual seat, alone, in the back of the open cabin. He stared out of the window at the moving lights of the airport. The other planes landing and readying for take-off. The rickshaws of global capitalism. The lights inside the cabin were dimmed. One of the stewardesses brought him a glass of ginger ale and set it on the table in front of him. He did not appear to notice. From the cockpit came the sound of the pilot obtaining the final clearances for take-off. Shestakov looked at the television set mounted on a stand in front of his chair. The sound was turned off and a news ticker ran along the bottom of the screen. At half time, his team was up by a goal.
He tried to keep his mind clear. He needed it to be. The commodity price slump. The short-squeeze. And now the Alenichev murder returning to haunt him.
All at the very moment he was poised to obtain American citizenship.
It was to be his reward for murdering Coles. With that, Russia would be behind him. He would be cleansed of all that filth. The hucksters in the Kremlin trying to take a piece of everything he had. The gangsters masquerading as businessmen and politicians. He would be an American billionaire now, not a Russian oligarch, with all the sleaze that title implied. It might take years to become fully accepted, but at least his children would be able to enjoy what he had built without looking over their shoulders, fearful of everyone.
The plane began to move, turning in a wide arc to the end of the runway. Shestakov, picked up the telephone handset in the arm of his chair. He scrolled through the numbers until he found Renshaw’s cell.
The crowd at the Dorchester Club on Park Lane was thin, even for 10 o’clock in the middle of the week. Renshaw had always liked the tawdry anonymity of the place, the changing cast of clueless rich. He ate a hamburger alone at the bar. He could see the editor of one of London’s Sunday newspapers dancing with a woman who was very obviously being paid for her services. She was a Middle-Eastern looking brunette who wore a gold sheath dress, slit all the way up to the waist.
She was dancing slowly in front of her date, holding her hands together above her head and pouting while the editor looked down at his shuffling feet in absurd concentration. The only other couple on the dance floor could not have been more than 21. They were part of a birthday party group. They were dancing for the amusement of their friends, doing the Running Man and Mashed Potato, thrusting and grinding. The DJ’s playlist by this time rarely changed from night to night. The members of the club liked the music to be as predictable as the doorman, the drinks and the food. Renshaw slid from his stool and walked to the bathroom.
He rested his hands on the ceramic sink. The light was flatteringly low, but he could see how tired he looked. He ran the tap and splashed his face with water. He flicked out one of the linen hand towels and dried himself. He gave himself a spritz of cologne. The music was piped quietly into the bathroom.
“Saddle up and ride your pony Sit around and you'll be lonely Saddle up and make the dust fly Sit around and you will just cry,” went the song.
He heard his phone ring. He picked it out of his pocket.
“Roman,” he said, trying to sound confident.
“How bad was it today, Alexander?”
“Very bad, I’m afraid.”
“How much did we lose?”
Renshaw paused. He looked at himself in the mirror. There was no good way to say it.
“What do you mean everything?”
“We lost what we had invested, plus more on margin calls.”
“You mean I have to sell my assets to pay for this?”
Renshaw knew exactly what was going through Shestakov’s mind. Let them try. Let those Western sissy-boys just try to get the money out of me. He always wanted to play by two sets of rules. The cool, Western financier with the Russians. The Russian hoodlum with the Westerners. Now he had to choose. If he defaulted now, he could never leave Russia again. He would have to fall on the mercy of the Kremlin and demand protection. If he paid, he could stay in the West, but he would have to start all over again.
“I am flying to Switzerland. I want to see you there tomorrow. 6A.M. At the club.” Shestakov put the telephone down.
Renshaw felt his brow. It was cold. He stepped into the cubicle and knelt on the marble floor. He lurched forward, wretching, but nothing came out. He slumped back into the corner. He kicked the lavatory brush behind the toilet with his shoe, and watched it topple slowly to the ground. The editor came into the bathroom. He did not notice Renshaw at first. He peed, washed his hands and then dabbed the sweat from his head with a hand towel. He pulled in his stomach and grinned broadly to inspect his teeth. He then slapped his own face several times and took a series of deep breaths, exhaling with a loud “Hoo!” at the end of each one. Finally he spotted Renshaw on the floor.
“You OK? Do you want me to get someone?” he asked, solicitously. Renshaw shook his head weakly, leaned forward and pulled the heavy wooden door shut.
Shestakov’s plane roared into the air and flew east across London, above Westbury Park, whose floodlights still blazed into the night, and on. In two hours it would be the last plane that night to land in the small airport just below St. Moritz.
The stench grew stronger the further Aurélie Grenelle descended into the catacombs below the cemetery. She could feel her shoes slipping on the damp steps. Above her, she could hear the rattle of the gates. Finally she reached the bottom. The darkness was total. She kept moving her hands along the wall. One moment it was stone, the next wood, the next cold, soft lead. The old oak coffins had rotted through to the lead linings. The coffins were stacked three high, each in their own niche carved out of the earth. Grenelle could feel sharp corners of chipped stone, the result of a century of neglect and the crude work of grave robbers.
The gates went quiet again. She paused and breathed. The air was foul. She could hear the scurrying of mice, or were they rats? She closed her eyes and tried to remember why she was here. Her father’s body, slumped over the chess set in their living room. Her mother staring silently out of the window for months on end, a beautiful, lively woman rendered dumb with sudden grief. Wearing the same dress, light green covered with red flowers, the one she had worn the day of his death, day after day, washing and pressing it every night as if somehow that day could be relived in a different way.
She thought of her and her brother, separated and smuggled out of the country for their own safety, once the police told Shestakov that he had been identified. That he had been seen coming out of the apartment by Alenichev’s children who happened to be studying with a friend along the corridor at the moment their father had been killed.
She had not seen Gregory for fifteen years. They had both been studying, she in France, he in America, feverishly piling up the academic honors their father would have wished for them, dreaming and plotting one day to have their revenge. For anyone who asked, they had created stories of their emigration, myths to conceal the truth. As Shestakov became more powerful, the more they feared he would find them one day, seek them out and eradicate the last witnesses to his original sin.
They had tried to get their mother out of Moscow, but her visa requests had been refused. Shestakov’s friends helped keep her where she would be bait for her children. He wanted them to come back. To show their faces again. So he could kill them.
The four bankers had to die, not for revenge, but because they knew. When Shestakov conjured all those vouchers from nothing, he told them how he had done it. It was part boast, part threat. He had forced on them a blood compact. Any of them could have walked away. But they didn’t, because they were terrified of the consequences of their knowledge. They went ahead with Stary Nov and the rest of their careers, piling up fortunes on her father’s corpse.
It was the way of the rich to develop justifications for whatever they did. When the law disagreed with them, they hired lobbyists and bought politicians to change it. When the markets turned and their malfeasance was exposed, they tossed the ticking bomb into the arms of government and ran away. They hogged their profits for themselves and forced everyone to share in their losses, like it or not. Gregory had been able to stomach the hypocrisy he saw at Harvard. The dismal executives boasting of their records, weeks before being fired for back-dating their options or bankrupting their firms. Crooks like Steven Weissberg bragging about the hard work and smarts which had brought him to the top, failing to mention the seedy side deals and tax evasions which gave him his edge. The corrupt professors with their board seats and consultancies, preaching ethics and social responsibility as if they knew the first thing about it.
Aurélie preferred France where business people kept quiet for fear the tax authorities would come after them.
She felt something run across her foot. A mouse, she hoped. Please, just a mouse. She sidestepped further into the darkness. She could hear the rattle of the chain, then it coming loose and falling to the ground. She groped along the wall, feeling the rotting wood crumbling in her fingers, hearing the scratching of rodents all around her. The path through the catacombs seemed to be bending, following the path of the colonnade above them, which curved into a semi-circle, mirroring the one on the other side, to create a circular piazza in the heart of the cemetery. If she kept going, perhaps there was an exit at the other end. Surely they could not have got all these coffins down here using just that one, narrow entryway. But then again, this was not a place anyone expected to leave. She pressed on. A faint light appeared behind her on the staircase. She needed to get away. She broke into a run, using both hands to guide her. She splashed in a puddle and drops of the fetid water sprayed up above her knees.
It was Wright. He shouted again.
“Aurélie. If that’s you, stop.”
She did not take the chance, but kept running. Something sticky caught on her face, a spider’s web, she hoped. She brushed it away and spat it out of her mouth. Still she could see nothing. There was no other exit. The only way out was the way she had come in.
Kevin Sheehan hated Maine. The lobstermen, the islands, the fresh air. Give him New York any day. But the Secretary loved it. His house in North East Harbor was where he came at every opportunity, summer or winter, when most other houses in the small town on the edge of Acadia National Park, were boarded up.
It was set on a bluff just off South Shore Road, facing east towards Bear Island. When the Secretary had bought it twenty years earlier, it was called Toad Hall. He had renamed it Briarcliff, expanded it, ripped off the old siding and replaced it with cedar shingles which had turned silvery gray. Inside, the house was a perfect replica of the home of a sea-faring WASP, with scrimshaw on the mantel, a pair of oars hanging in the hallway, scuffed white sofas and a well-worn grand piano for evening sing-alongs. Except, there was rarely anyone here besides the Secretary.
His wife loathed it. She loathed the fact that her husband so yearned to join the town’s country club and had been prepared to grovel for it for years. She hated the petty WASP rituals, tea at the Asticou hotel, tiny little sandwiches and the endless gossip about New York. She despised her husband for taking up carriage-riding, dressing up in boots, frock coat and top hat, and riding along the island’s carriage paths laid out by the Rockefellers. Their children hated it because there was nothing they wanted to do. Their father hoped they might sail, but had done nothing but pay for unwanted lessons when they were young. He was always too busy to teach them himself. For them, the house in North East Harbor was nothing but a reminder of summers of abandonment to nannies, tutors and coaches.
Sheehan’s Town Car stopped on the brick driveway. The lights were on in the house, but no one answered when he rang the bell. It was getting dark and the wind blew in sharply from the Atlantic. He walked around to the main lawn which sloped down to a crescent of beach. The beach had been grey and stony when the Secretary had bought the house, so he had dumped down several tons of sand from the Hamptons to improve it. But when he heard how tasteless his neighbors thought this was, he had the Hamptons sand removed and the austere, grubby beach restored. A wooden jetty ran out over the rocks close to the shore to a boat dock. He could see the Secretary in the smaller of his sailboats working busily on the deck.
Sheehan could feel the jetty creaking beneath him. He held onto the railing with one hand and gripped his briefcase with the other. When he looked at the sea, all he saw were churning waves, impenetrable depths and death. He hated even being close to it, which was why probably why the Secretary kept making him come up here.
The Secretary called out but did not disembark. He was folding the main sail and polishing the deck following an afternoon at sea. Tomorrow morning he would be back out on the water again before returning to Washington for lunch.
Sheehan stopped alongside the boat. There were no more railings to hold. He watched the boat bobbing in the sea and felt quite sick.
“What is it, Kevin? Why did you have to bother me up here?”
“It’s Shestakov, Mr. Secretary.”
“He wants his citizenship fast-tracked. Like you promised.”
“All in good time.”
“He says he did what you wanted. With Coles. And now he wants to be repaid.”
The Secretary did not break from his task. Sheehan could see where the sea water had splashed onto his glasses. He noticed he was not wearing any socks under his deck shoes.
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d ask you. I said we’d see what we could do. If you asked me, I’d say he sounded desperate.”
“Desperate? Roman? Come on. Men like him don’t get desperate.” The Secretary swung around the main mast, opened a storage bin and pushed in the sail.
“Well, maybe after today...”
“What do you mean?”
Sheehan got down on his knees and opened his briefcase. He kept one hand on the papers to stop the blowing away and pulled out three sheets, stapled together.
“It seems that Shestakov’s been wiped out.”
The Secretary stepped to the side of his boat, keeping his stance wide for balance. Sheehan handed him the papers.
“What kind of piece of crap portfolio was this?”
“Looks like he trusted the wrong people.”
The Secretary was smiling broadly as the boat rocked beneath him. The wind was picking up and blowing Sheehan’s hair into his eyes. The Secretary kept reading.
“What do we know about Gerd Vilksen?”
“Very little. Rich, private German. A genius, people say.”
“They’re not wrong about that. He’s the man we should be rewarding. Jesus. I didn’t think you could do this. Lose billions in an afternoon like this. Have you read this Sheehan? He had all these funds all investing in the same thing. All leveraged. Either there really wasn’t an original thought between them, or they wanted to bankrupt him.”
“Shestakov is flying out to Switzerland. He called from his plane. He wants to know when he can expect to get his citizenship.”
The Secretary folded up the documents and handed them back to Sheehan. He gripped one of the ropes running up the mast and shouted above the sound of the boat bumping against the dock and the strong wind.
“You can tell Roman Shestakov to go to hell.”
Aurélie’s hands suddenly came to a gap in the wall. She stopped and felt its outline in the dark. She wished she had something to block out the stench of rotting wood and who knew what else lay in this hideous vault. The gap was a couple of feet high and ran horizontally about half way up the wall. It was an empty space waiting for a coffin. She looked behind her. She could see the light dancing against the wall back down the corridor, the pools of water, the creatures scurrying along the ground. She pulled herself up into the gap, head first, then swung up her legs. She wriggled round so she was lying on her back, her face turned towards the opening. The space was dug out of the ground. There was nothing separating her from the cold earth.
“Aurélie,” said Wright. His voice sounded muffled, soaked up by the walls of the tunnel. “I need to talk. I know that Shestakov killed your father. Shestakov told me.”
Aurélie could feel a frozen lump of earth pressing into the base of her spine, but she could not move. without falling out of the opening. As she breathed, her breath bounced straight off the dirt millimeters above her and back into her face.
“I can help you get out of here. I don’t care if you killed those four men. I don’t care if your brother did it. They probably deserved to die.” He spoke slowly, passing his flashlight over the walls of the tunnel. All he could see were the damaged coffins, the dull glint of their lead linings and the faded brass plaques identifying the corpses within. He could smell her now. It was the same faint scent of tuberose she had left on his sheets in Paris that morning. He stepped carefully over a puddle.
“Aurélie. I’m not here to arrest you. I can’t arrest you. My only job is to find the truth,” barely had he got the words out than her hand flew out and struck him on the carotid artery, just below his right ear. He fell to his knees, dropping the flashlight. Aurélie pivoted out of her hiding place and placed her fingers on the artery which fed blood to his brain, pressing down hard. Wright fell forward onto the ground. She checked he was still breathing, placing her hand to his mouth. Thirty seconds later he regained consciousness. Aurelie stood over him, pointing a Sig handgun between his eyes.
“Take off your clothes,” she said. “Quickly.”
“Now?” said Wright, rubbing his neck. “24 hours ago we were eating lines of poetry together.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to kill you Ben. We only have Shestakov to go. Come on. Quick.” Wright could not believe the gentleness in her eyes while she spoke about murder. “My brother and I have waited 16 years for this. I wasn’t going to kill Shestakov tonight. I was just going to get close. To meet him and find a way in. That’s all. I like you very much Ben. But you’re not going to stop us.”
Wright stared at her. Even in the gloom of the catacomb she was beautiful. She seemed to be holding back tears. But then the image of the four dead men flashed through his brain. Reeves, shot and dropped into 58th Street. De Montbrison butchered in his elevator. Weissberg crawling through his apartment, his body wracked by the pain of thallium. And Howard. Bloody chunks of his body littered across Exhibition Road, a hand lying in the gutter, terrifying a passer-by.
He sat up. She kept the gun trained on him. He slipped off his blazer, then his jeans.
“After Shestakov, you’re done?”
“Then we’ll have killed them all, the men who killed my father.”
“Do you think the police are just going to abandon their investigation into the deaths of the four dead men? You’ll be running from this for the rest of your life. It’s part of you, forever.”
“It became part of me the moment Shestakov killed my father.”
“Everyone has a choice, Aurelie. You chose revenge.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
She was still smiling, but Wright could sense the tension in her body. He pitied her. For all her intelligence and beauty, she was ruled by a single motive, a single, awful memory.
“You wouldn’t turn me in Ben. I know you wouldn’t.”
The last thing she put on was a Brompton Football Club baseball cap which Wright had picked up at the stadium. She tucked up her hair and pulled the cap down tight.
“Don’t follow me, Ben. I don’t want to use this on you.
Once she reached the top of the steps, she pushed open the iron gates and began to run for the northern exit of the cemetery. A police car was parked there, its lights blazing towards her. She could see a trickle of figures moving towards the exit, junkies, men interrupted in the middle of anonymous sex. She joined them, keeping her head down, her face averted from the headlights.
“Get out of there, come one, clear out,” she heard Mount shouting to the group as they walked towards the exit. Mount turned towards a group of officers. One of them approached him and she overheard him telling the head of Special Protection, “Shestakov was wheels up at 9.37 P.M., sir. Left British air space 20 minutes later. Should be landing in St. Moritz soon after 11 P.M. our time.”
“Well that’s a bloody relief,” said Mount. She opened the car door. “Let’s leave the manhunt to the criminal division,” she said and ordered his driver to take him home.
Wright stood in the shadow of the catacombs in his boxer shorts and loafers. Once the police cars had gone, he began to walk home. Travis’ questions had been answered.
The day of the Brabazon Trophy races was one of the busiest at the St. Moritz Toboggan Club as riders old and new dressed to descend the fastest toboggan run in Europe. The newer riders wore traditional Victorian outfits, baggy corduroys and thick woolen sweaters, over which they strapped metal knee and elbow pads. On their feet, they wore heavy leather boots, with spikes fanning out from their toes, which could be dug into the ice to control their speed as they descended face down, head first down the run. Fully dressed, they looked like deranged Vikings. Renshaw struggled to find an empty spot on one of the two benches running the length of the changing room.
The more seasoned riders wore lycra body suits into which the padding and protection was already sewn. They sat around the clubhouse with the top half of the body suits hanging around their waist, swapping stories from the previous night at the Dracula Club. The accents ranged from upper crust English to upper crust English with a hint of German. “So Jurgen went up to this girl, a beautiful Dominican thing, and gives her his usual chat up line,” said one red-faced Englishman. “‘Hallo, my name is Jurgen Glott. I own the Glott Palace Hotel and have a huge cock. Any questions?’ Turns out her father was sitting behind her. He boxed in the Olympics. Turns round and slugs Jurgen in the jaw. Jurgen falls backwards just as Harry Dalkeith is flying down the stairs on a tea tray and gets clocked again! Then Dalkeith, all 300 pounds of him, lands on him.” A group of similarly ruddy faced men burst out laughing.
“Come on Alex, what’s the matter with you?” one of them brayed.
Renshaw was focussing on getting dressed, thinking about the race ahead. Shestakov would be going down behind him. He had introduced the Russians to the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club, and many of the older members had never forgiven him. The arrivistes did not appreciate the rituals of the club, the slightly tatty facilities, the worn carpets in the club-house, the dreary food, ham sandwiches and potato chips slathered in Worcestershire sauce, all carefully put together to conjure up the atmosphere of a 1930s English boarding school.
Renshaw had been coming to the Cresta Run since he was a teenager, as a guest and member and eventual champion. His name now appeared on the boards listing the winners of the various annual contests, over a hundred years of daredevil dilettantes with the time, money and nerve to hurl themselves down an ice chute at 80 miles per hour.
“Sorry,” he said, turning to his friends. “Thinking how to avoid coming off at Shuttlecock. Hear it’s a bit slushy today.” Shuttlecock was the deadliest corner on the Cresta Run. It was about half way down, a wide, deep right to left turn where you were either catapulted into a fast descent or sent flying into the air, to land hard on a pile of hay bales. Many riders came off here, breaking arms, ribs and legs if they failed to push away their heavy sleds before landing.
“Slushy’s going to slow you down.”
“Less control though,” said Renshaw. “More unpredictable.”
“Your Russian coming today,” said another member. At that very moment, the door to the steaming changing room opened and Shestakov stepped inside, already dressed in matt black lycra, holding his helmet in one hand, his boots in the other. He nodded towards Renshaw and found a few inches of bench on which to finish getting dressed.
“Supplementary List Riders to the Clubhouse for your briefing please,” said a voice over the wheezing tannoy system. “Brabazon Riders will begin practice after the conclusion of the SL session, at 7.30 A.M.. Racing to commence at 8.30.”
The changing room began to empty out as the SL riders, or beginners, walked upstairs, their spiked boots clacking on the hard stairs. Shestakov had finished tying his boots. Renshaw could feel his stare. He turned to look at him.
“Splendid morning, Alexander.”
“Yes, isn’t it.”
“Perhaps it will be the day for the first Russian champion.”
“How many times have you won the Brabazon Cup, Alexander.”
Shestakov stood up, walked across the changing room and rested one hand on Renshaw’s bare shoulder. A couple of the older members scurried nervously away.
“Come and have a bullshot with me, Alexander. To help me steady my nerves.”
Renshaw shrugged the rest of his body suit over his torso, and zipped it up to within a few inches of his chin. He tied on his boots, checked his padding and followed Shestakov up the stairs, past the photographs showing groups of Cresta Riders of years gone by, all laughing in the sunshine and snow.
The bar at the club was surrounded on all sides by large windows giving onto the mountains and a view of the Run. The walls were covered with photographs, wooden boards painted with the names of the winners of the annual Cresta races and trophies. Even this early in the day, it was thick with cigarette smoke and ribald conversation. Stretching along one side of the room was the bar itself, staffed by dapper Swiss and Italian barmen, efficient and utterly unmoved by the adrenalin seething around them. They mixed plastic jugs of fiery Bloody Mary and Bullshots, vodka and beef consomme, which they served in wine glasses filled with ice. They sold cigarettes, stubby little cigars and plates of greasy fried eggs.
Over in the far corner, the beginners’ briefing was underway. As he did every morning, the retired colonel who served as secretary of the club had hung up an x-ray of a skeleton, marked up with all the injuries suffered by Cresta riders over the years. No human bone, it seemed, had been spared. Renshaw recalled his own induction into this bizarre ceremony, when he was 15 years old. The same colonel had told him to stop chattering and listen, or risk a Cresta Kiss, the ice wall tearing at his face if you went down the wrong way. “No signet rings, or those things I understand some people call wedding rings,” said the colonel. “If they get caught, it will be your finger which they saw off at the Celerina Hospital.”
Shestakov had been desperate to join the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club the moment Renshaw had described it to him. It was the exorbitant privilege of the British, to have invented so many hazardous, pointless and uncomfortable traditions and see the rest of the world strive to mimic them. In fact the more hazardous, pointless and uncomfortable, the greater the cachet.
“Jug of bullshot,” said Renshaw to one of the passing waiters. He and Shestakov stood at the bar. Several racers stopped to greet Renshaw and exchange tips on the condition of the run. None spoke to Shestakov.
“How much, Alexander?” said Shestakov, staring straight ahead.
“I told you last night, Roman.”
“What if this was your money? Your family? They have survived four hundred years of persecution as Jews in Europe. What if someone came to them and told them they had lost everything.”
“It happened. Several times. They rebuilt it. They survived by rebuilding, not by hanging on.”
“By plundering from fools like me. What did you lose yesterday, Alexander? Everything?”
Renshaw did not answer. He took a sip of his bullshot, feeling the tang of Tabasco sauce and pepper on his lips. An elegant young woman in a long, mink coat, her long blond hair tucked under a white, cashmere cap, appeared in the door of the clubhouse, looking for someone. One of the barman waved her away. “No Women”, he barked. She would doubtless be at the Kulm Hotel’s Sunny Bar for lunch. It was where most of the riders and their escorts ended up after a morning on the Run. On any other day, Renshaw would have made a mental note to find a seat next to her. See if she would spend the afternoon with him “polishing his toboggan” as the old boys at the club liked to call it. But today, he could think of nothing but the threat he now faced from Shestakov.
He knew what happened to those who let him down. Their bodies lay at the bottom of the Moscow River. Buried under drifts of snow along the Rublevskoye Highway, so they appeared during the spring melt for all their neighbors, the wealthiest of Moscow, to see. Beaten beyond recognition in their offices in Geneva, but too frightened to report their assaults to police. Renshaw knew all of this, but had banished it to a corner of his brain where it could be ignored. Except when he feared he might be next.
Shestakov had not taken a sip of his drink.
“I want it back, Alexander. All of it. You’re going to help me.”
“We can delay payment on some of it. Reinvest see what we can do.”
“All of it. You know what I had to do to make that money. I’m not losing it because you and your friends failed to manage it prudently.”
“We did nothing more than what you asked us. The returns you made these past few years were more than commensurate with the risks you asked us...”
“Shut up, Alexander. I want it all back. And I will get it all back. I’m not interested in what you have to say about risk and return. We all know how little that means. If it were a fair calculation, this club would not exist and nor would all of its inbred members. You think these people took more risk to make their money than someone trying to sell cigarettes on the streets of Moscow? Or sell her body in a Prague strip club? And what do they get? Cancer. AIDS. Harassed by the police. Molested by drunk Englishmen. No Alexander, you tell me to follow the rules and we both know the rules mean nothing. The only thing that matters is power. How you can make the rules to your own advantage. It’s no different where I come from or where you come from. You just pretend it is. Humans are the same everywhere. They use money to hide the truth. And the richer they are, the more they have to hide.”
“You could refuse to pay the margin calls.”
“Then there will be lawsuits.”
Shestakov waved that threat away with a flick of his hand.
“You know how close I was to being out, Alexander? To being out of all the shit that has clung to me all my life? I was this close.” He held up the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, millimeters apart. “This close to leaving Moscow behind for good, and London for that matter. Moscow on the Thames.”
“Come on Alex, practice is starting,” said one of the other riders, walking past and slapping Renshaw on the shoulder. “I’m going to beat you this year.”
Renshaw finished his Bullshot and picked up his helmet.
“You coming Roman?” he said. Shestakov nodded and turned to follow him out into the sun.
The beginners gathered outside the clubhouse, a nervous, boisterous bunch, swapping jokes to quell their fear. Once the race practice was over, they would have their turn, going from two thirds of the way up the course at a point known as Junction.
The experienced riders gathered up their toboggans and began climbing the steps to the top of the run, each one imagining their descent, 80, 85 miles per hour, whipping down the icy chute, a single mistake away from the emergency room. Go too fast into a corner and you risked the toboggan overturning, and crushing you all the way down. Hit the sides on a straight and you could be ricocheted hard against the walls all the way down, smashing every bone in your arms. Fly off the run entirely at Shuttlecock Corner and you could snap your neck. The Cresta was insanity, but of the sort which made certain kinds of lives worth living. Renshaw tried to clear his head, but all he could think of was Shestakov’s tread behind him, light, yet firm, even in his spiked boots, the tread of a light-weight wrestler dancing across a mat, searching for an opening.
The sky was empty, the sun blazing down. Aside from the Cresta riders, only the shop-owners and hotel employees were awake in St. Moritz. Everyone else was sleeping off the night before, the northern Italian wines and shots of Kummel. The ski slopes visible from the top of the run were empty but for the colossal snowcats crawling up and down grooming the snow. They would not start to fill up with skiers until 10 A.M. As the noise of the SL riders disappeared behind them, the race riders could only hear their footsteps and breathing, the occasional clatter as one of their toboggans hit the stone steps.
There were 12 of them gathered at the top of the run. The race coordinator, an Englishman in his early seventies, who had turned a large inheritance into a very large fortune through property development and tax evasion, was waiting for them. He wore a baggy, blue Barbour jacket over a thick, red turtleneck sweater, and gold rimmed sunglasses, which matched his Rolex. He had a wife, his third, who lived in Monaco while he spent his winters here in St. Moritz, helping out at the Cresta Run and chasing women. Despite his age and appearance, he had remarkable success with women of all ages thanks to his persistence. He was not above begging women to have sex with him on the grounds that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only a few more weeks to live. Twice a week, he drove over into Austria, to one of the state-sanctioned brothels. “Wonderfully clean,” he liked to boast at the bar after the morning races. “And they keep the girls turning over, so you’ll never get the same one twice.”
“All right chaps,” he said this morning. “You know the drill. Don’t go till I say and that’ll be when the chap before you has made it down in one piece. No buggering around. I’m told the ice is a little slushy. We’ve done some work compacting it, but don’t overdo it. Not worth killing yourself for.” He paused. “Or maybe it is. You get two practice runs then two timed runs. The fastest combined times from the two runs wins. No points for form. Just speed. Very simple. Good luck. Alexander, show them how it’s done. Shestakov you’ll be up next.”
The riders began to stretch, squatting down and bouncing up, touching their toes, twisting their torsos from side to side. Renshaw clapped his hands hard and picked up his toboggan. He stepped up onto the box beside the track, then down into the run. He set down his toboggan and tried to focus on the skeleton frame, to fix in his mind its black outline against the blue ice, to imagine the first few turns, the forces he would have to fight to keep his line, the sound of the wind whistling past his helmet. He placed his hands on either side of the toboggan and dug his spikes into the ice. He pivoted back and forth several times, from his heel to the ball of his foot, then began to run, pushing the toboggan, trying to get up as much speed as he could. After twenty paces, he hurled himself down onto the moving skeleton and pulled forward, so his head lay just above the front of the toboggan, inches from the ice. He lifted his feet slightly, clear of the run and let gravity do its work.
As he turned the first corner, he heard a shout. His helmet muffled the sound, but he was sure it was the race coordinator, screaming “Get back!” There was no room for Renshaw to turn and look backwards. But he began to hear a sound he had never heard in all his years descending the Cresta Run.
It was the sound of another rider coming fast behind him.
Shestakov had pushed past the race coordinator, shoving him aside with his toboggan. The other riders had tried to intervene, but he had kicked out at them with the spikes on the toe of his boot.
“Don’t be bloody insane, Shestakov,” one of the riders, a British army officer, had barked. “You’ll kill yourself and Renshaw.”
Shestakov had flipped down the visor on his helmet and smiled. He began sprinting down the run, kicking up shards of blue ice and threw himself down onto his toboggan, its runners slotting into the path left by Renshaw’s. There was no reason to Shestakov’s actions, just an animal thrill. All he could see was the blinding white of the run and the red of what looked like bursting veins. He felt alive in a way he hadn’t felt for years. It was a feeling that all his money and responsibility had deadened, suffocated. It was something he had not felt since those early days of his career, when nothing mattered, when even the most vicious action had no consequence. It was pure passion, pure physical feeling, stripped of redundant forms and convention, the expectations and rules set by others. He wanted to kill Renshaw and he would do it now, here, in front of his people. To show them that nothing could protect them. Life had given them so much, they chose to risk it in a pursuit like the Cresta Run. He would teach them how spoiled they were, and how frightened they should be. They thought they had banished danger from their lives, relegated it to where the rest of the world lived. He would show them how close it really was.
The tannoy system on top of the control tower burst into life.
“Achtung, achtung, two riders are on the run. Everyone step far from the course. This is extremely dangerous. Achtung. Clear the course. Clear the course.”
As Renshaw swung into the first wide turn, he could turn his head slightly to the left. He could see the black of Shestakov’s body suit less than 10 feet behind him. He turned back just in time to pull his sled down the rising turn and back to the bottom of the run. He tucked his arms in and pulled himself as far forward as he could, willing himself down the slope. For the first time in years of descending the run, he could feel his entire body tense. He had trained himself to relax as he hurtled down, to find a line and do as little work as possible guiding the skeleton. But now his muscles were tight. He flashed past Junction and glimpsed the feet of the SL riders. He wanted to jam his spikes into the ice and stop this insanity, to talk, but there was no way to know Shestakov would stop behind him. If the Russian kept coming at 80 miles per hour and struck him with his toboggan, they would both die, instantly. Renshaw had no choice. He had to get to the bottom of the run, to where it flattened out and slowed down, to where there might be someone to help him.
He knew the turns of the run by heart and the distance between them. But he had never had to worry about someone coming behind him
The stretch past Junction was the closest thing to a pause the Cresta offered. After that, you were swung through the corners and shot through the straights like a stone from a catapult.
Inch by inch, Shestakov closed in. The spray of ice from Renshaw’s toboggan fell on his visor. Soon, he would be able to reach out and touch Renshaw’s boot. He tapped the ice behind him with his spikes to keep himself in Renshaw’s slipstream, slowing ever so slightly. He could think of nothing now but catching his prey. Of stopping it and slaughtering it. As he panted, he could feel the taste of blood in his mouth.
Gregory Andrews stood just beside Shuttlecock Corner. Within seconds, the two men would shoot past him. He had no desire to kill Renshaw. But Shestakov. He had dreamt of it for years. He had plotted with Aurélie for years. The eyes of everyone along the course were on the two men. No one, even those up in Tower who were supposed to be scanning the length of the run for dangers, had seen him emerge from the line of pine trees and pick up the rake which lay against the pile of hay used to cushion the falls of riders who flew off the track.
He had driven up from Zurich during the night after hearing from his sister. Shestakov was flying to St. Moritz, she told him. He had spent the night in his car, watching Shestakov’s chalet, waiting for him to emerge. And he had followed him here, with no idea what he would do. He had parked on a side street next to the run and waited in the shadow of the trees, wondering when his chance might come.
He had heard Renshaw’s name being called and then the cries of warning. He could hear the scrape of the two toboggans. He had to decide. Unlike Reeves, de Montbrison and Weissberg, he had not planned this murder. This was supposed to be Aurélie’s. She had killed Howard and she was supposed to have killed Shestakov, to close this cycle of revenge. He had not schemed as he had with the financial punishment, plotting out every detail to ensure he would never be caught. If he was seen, that was it. All the effort at concealment would have been wasted. He would spend the rest of his life in prison, a pitiful way to avenge his father, who had been so ambitious for him.
From six feet away, he tossed the rake into the air and walked quickly away, back into the line of pines. He heard the crackle of the tannoy. “Obstruction on the run! Achtung!”
Neither Renshaw nor Shestakov could hear the warnings. It was too late anyway. Renshaw turned first into Shuttlecock, gliding swiftly to the top of the deep turn, and speeding along the rim. The rake span slowly round, the handle now pointing upwards. Renshaw reached out with his left hand to push it away, grazing his arm painfully on the ice. But he could not avoid it. His toboggan clipped the side of the rake and skidded sharply, almost turning over.
Shestakov shot into the turn, taking a lower line than Renshaw. The rake was still spinning in the middle of the track. Shestakov tried to steer upwards to avoid it. He dug in with the spikes on his left foot. His left leg was dragged downwards as the toboggan was carried up the face of the turn. The rake turned, its prongs now rotating towards Shestakov’s skeleton. Within the silence of his helmet, Shestakov screamed.
The toboggan struck the rake, caught its prongs and catapulted forward. Shestakov’s tried to push the heavy sled away, but the glove on his left hand was caught in the runner. It crashed into the rim of Shuttlecock corner, smashing Shestakov’s ribcage and pelvis beneath it, then slid back down, dragging the Russian’s body and leaving a smear of crimson across the blue-white ice.
Andrews shut the door of his car and waited. He could hear several ambulances careening from town towards the run. The residents of the nearby houses stepped out onto the sidewalk to observe the fuss. He could not drive away now. It would be too obvious. So he got back out of the car and joined the gathering throng.
The ambulance crews pulled up at the bottom of the run. The drivers and nurses jumped out, yanked opened their rear doors and rolled out their gurneys. Renshaw came down the final stretch of the run, his arms lying limply beside him, his head lolling over the front of the toboggan. He bumped from side to side of the run, scraping along the ice, his feet dragging behind him. The nurses stepped down into the chute and lifted up the toboggan and Renshaw’s body together. Once they had him on the flat snow, they turned him over onto a board. They undid the straps under his helmet and saw a slight mist forming on the inside of the visor.
He was still alive. Just.
As they were strapping him down and taking him to the ambulance, Shestakov’s body slid under the weight of the toboggan slid slowly towards them, trailing blood, his broken bones jutting through his body suit and scraping long grooves in the ice.
A group came running down from the clubhouse, noisy and fussing, and had to be held back by the Swiss hospital crew. Somewhat redundantly, the announcer at Tower declared all racing over for the day.
Finally, the rake Andrews had thrown onto the run coasted noiselessly into the back of Shestakov’s body, just as the nurses were prizing the toboggan from his rigid hands.
Andrews waited for the crowd on the street to thin out, then slipped back into his car and pulled away. Within ten minutes, he had descended into the trough of the Engadine Valley and was speeding south towards Milan and a noon flight back to Boston.
“Henry Reeves, Thierry de Montbrison, Stephen P. Weissberg - note the P., officer - Timothy Howard and Myron Coles. Quite a list for two days work. Wouldn’t you say Mr. Renshaw?”
Renshaw wore a sling on his right arm and a brace on his left foot. It was a week after Shestakov’s death. He was sitting in a narrow room in New Scotland Yard, the grim glass and metal home of London’s Metropolitan Police, His tailor at Huntsman had re-cut the jacket and trousers of three suits to accommodate his injuries. His face had been protected by his helmet, but the rest of his body had been badly bruised. He had been unable to walk for three days and still the lingering effects of whiplash were agony.
“The Americans are convinced that your man Shestakov was responsible for killing the lot of them. He’d lost money with four of them at least. And Coles. Well, you know about that. You sent him to Shestakov’s house after all didn’t you?”
The day after Shestakov’s death, the police had raided his mansion in the Boltons at the urging of the FBI. They found Coles’ naked body jammed into the bottom of a teak chest in the basement exercise area, covered with a drawer holding freshly laundered towels and surrounded by melting bags of ice.
A check of Coles’ telephone records had turned up Renshaw’s name on the day he had gone missing.
Renshaw stared up at a narrow window which ran the length of the room, letting in a little of the spring sunshine. He could hear the chimes of Big Ben nearby. His father had called him that morning. He had expected him to shout, to call him a fool, a greedy little bastard who had tried to short cut his way to a fortune, when there were no short cuts. Tell him that everything had its price. You could shift the cost away for a while, but one day it would come back to you. But he hadn’t. He asked him how he could help. He had offered him the services of his lawyer, a philandering alcoholic 71-year-old who also happened to be the finest barrister London. His godfather had called, laughed about his time down the Cresta Run and invited him to stay for the weekend in Wiltshire. He had a couple of nice young girls, friends of his kids, he wanted him to meet. It would cheer him up, he told him. Big dinner on Saturday night, Sunday lunch, red wine, brisk walk, or as much as he could manage “on that gammy leg of yours, and maybe “a good murder mystery on the goggle box” at night. Renshaw had thanked him but refused.
“Obviously it’s always easier for everyone when the main suspect in a series of murders is dead,” said the officer. “We don’t have to worry about the bugger killing anyone else. Takes the pressure off, if you like. But we still need to straighten this out, Mr. Renshaw. We need your full cooperation.”
“Ask me anything you like,” he said, quietly. He could not implicate Shestakov in anything. He still had no idea of the reasons for all that had occurred. But he needed to be rid of this. He needed to start again.
Aurélie Grenelle sat at the desk in her suite at the Eliot Hotel, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. She flicked on CNBC.
“The American people have a right to be angry,” rasped the Treasury Secretary, speaking in the East Room of the White House to an audience of financial and union leaders. The President stood at his shoulder, his chin raised, his eyes looking off in the distance, as if posing for an official portrait. “What has happened over the past few years in the financial system has hurt all of us. We need to remind Wall Street of its responsibility to Main Street. No one has a right to a bonus when it comes at the expense of the American taxpayer. Certain fundamental truths seem to have been forgotten during this golden age for financial services. We can assure the American people that we will be doing everything within our power to purge this system and set in place the regulations to guarantee it functions healthily in the years to come.” The president joined the rest of the audience in applause. Grenelle turned it off.
As if anything would change, she thought. The very people who made their fortunes buying with leverage had long since turned to buying distressed debt. And now the government was going to help them. It was going to provide the speculators with loans to buy the very toxic assets they had created and sold in the first place. For much less than they had sold them for. And it was going to guarantee those loans in case of default. Why did anyone ever swallow this stuff? The rules of the world’s super-rich were simple: heads we win, tails you lose. Politicians were too weak and craven to change it. No, a politician vowing to change the behavior of the financial elite was like a witch doctor vowing to change bad weather. They could walk in circles and shake their calabash rattles, but it was all just show. Human nature would have its way.
She rose from her seat, put on her coat and gathered up her bag. She folded up the newspaper, which had she had brought with her from London, detailing the story of Shestakov’s alleged murders. She left the hotel and turned right up towards the Boston Public Garden. The magnolia trees along Commonwealth Avenue were showing their buds. A group of runners from Boston University ran past her. It was a wonderful feeling to be alone in a foreign city. It was a long weekend in France and she had four days free.
Andrews stood against the railings on the south end of the public garden. He was wearing a sports jacket, a blue cotton shirt, jeans and pair of sunglasses. He was reading the Financial Times. Grenelle waited to cross Arlington Street then walked over to her brother. He folded his newspaper and they embraced, staring into each other’s faces, drinking each other in. She took his hand and they strolled into the park, past the statue of George Washington on horseback, up towards the bridge crossing the lagoon. They found a bench, beside a willow tree facing the water and sat down to watch the swan boats carrying the first of the spring’s tourists.
“We still have $2 billion,” said Andrews, resting his arms on the back of the bench.
“Profits? From the trades?”
“Yes. It turned out to be cheaper than I thought to bankrupt Shestakov and ruin the others. Never trust a financial model, I guess.”
“Where is it?”
“British Virgin Islands. Don’t worry. Many bank accounts and transfers away from Switzerland.”
“And the banks aren’t going to scream?”
“Why should they? On paper, they’ve lost nothing. If they went public with this, they would look like fools. Which is the last thing they can afford right now. We’re clear, Aurélie. The money is untraceable and the murders have been pinned on Shestakov. The police seem adamant about this.”
“What would Papa have wanted us to do? With the money?”
“Multiply it,” said Andrews, leaning his head back against the bench, and feeling the sunshine on his face.
Wright pushed away the remnants of his breakfast, two eggs, bacon and home fries, a reward for having played three sets of tennis, two of which he had won, by 8am. Win, his butler, came in to clear the table.
“We have the group from that archaeological dig in Turkey, the one I visited last year, coming round tonight. You making something delicious for them?”
“Ohno Kauswe. Burmese chicken curry. And we have plenty of beer.”
Wright picked up his keys, slung on the jacket of his light grey suit and turned out of his house towards the Metropolitan Museum.
He found Eleanor Woods sitting beside the fountain in the Greek and Roman Collection. She rose to kiss him on the cheek. They were the first ones there.
“So where’s your pot,” she said.
“It’s not any old pot,” said Wright. “It’s a krater.”
“2500 years old. Used for mixing wine and water. An ancient kind of spritzer.”
Wright walked her over to a glassed in cabinet in which stood four such pots, all Attic, black- figure, showing men with bulging thighs and pointed beards prancing and carousing.
“You see this man in the middle, with the red shawl and the wreath on his head. Dionysos. And all around him are satyrs, the horny uncontrollable devils who followed him around, and maenads, their female counterparts. Those rods you see them carrying, they’re thyrsi. The maenads could strike the ground and water would come gushing out. They would tear apart any human or animal which crossed their path.”
“And you want to buy it? For the museum?”
“Yes. It’s on loan from Greece. But the archaeological museum in Athens could use the cash.”
“What do you find so fascinating about these old bits and pieces, Ben?”
“They take me away from all this,” he said, stepping back from the pot and narrowing his eyes to focus on the bunches of grapes trailing behind the drunken satyrs. “It’s easy to get confused when all you do is live in the present. You get distracted by the noise, and everyone’s lies. You see something like this and it reminds you of what we are. Really. Stripped of all our boasts.”
“Did you ever find out what all that selling was, in Zug?”
Wright was about to speak. But he hesitated and raised his hand to his mouth, as if concentrating on the pot.
“No,” he said. “All a mystery.”
Woods looked at him. She could tell he was lying.
“Well, whatever it was, the markets are still going down. I suppose you heard about the Vilksen short squeeze. That showed us which of the hedge funds were swimming without any trunks on. And now the Federal Reserve has no room left to cut rates. It was a stupid decision. All we can do now is print money and hope the system unclogs. We’re lions led by donkeys, Ben.”
“I know you’re not a donkey, Eleanor.”
“You are sweet, darling. Now how much is this thing?”
“As your father used to say, it’s your money.”
“Thank you. Can you make sure we can cut the check today?”
“Yes, I promised the director here that I’d buy it for him today. Before the Greeks have a chance to change their mind. I’ve already had to put him off a few days because of this whole Travis business.”
“Whatever you say, Ben.”
As Wright walked past the band shell in Central Park, his cell phone rang. He held it to his ear and answered.
“Hello?” The line was awful. “Hello?”
“Ah. I wasn’t sure I’d hear from you again.”
“I’m sorry again about London. Are you feeling better?”
“Congratulations on Shestakov. I’m not sure I need to know how you did it.”
“I’d like to see you.”
“I’m not into murderers, I’m afraid. Or swindlers for that matter. At least not for a while.”
“You still don’t understand, do you? You don’t want to understand. I want to see you Benjamin and tell you…”
He clicked the phone shut and turned it off.
There was the usual traffic in and out of Travis Lee, small groups of immaculately attired bankers clutching lap tops and emailing with one hand while they walked. Wright walked up to the security guard. She was reading the television pages of The Daily News.
“Benjamin Wright for Travis Lee.”
She looked up and curled her lip.
“You again. License please. I’m assuming you’ve got an appointment.”
“Yes, just like last time.”
He stepped into the elevator just ahead of a cluster of young associates, all clutching coffees, a few of them reeking of cigarette smoke. “I was here till 3 A.M.” this morning, said one. “I didn’t get home till 5. Then I just turned round and came right back,” said another. They were taking their hazing, like young military officers, forced to work beyond human endurance as the price of admission to a club which might make them very rich indeed. Such were the potential rewards, their griping rarely got to the point they were ready to leave and do something else.
CNBC was still burbling away in the reception area.
“Erin, what are we to make of this latest jobs data?” said a smug looking host with layers of gel in his hair. “It looks like government hiring is starting to kick in, but still the construction slump seems to be driving these numbers down.” Erin smiled vapidly at the camera. “This is the real story,” she said. “Jobs. All this high level financial stuff only really means anything to most people when there aren’t enough jobs to round.”
Not so vapid after all, thought Wright as he took his place on the Chesterfield facing the soaring windows. After a few moments, Ashley appeared. She was wearing a fawn skirt, white blouse and the faintest pink frosting on her lips.
“Mr. Lee’s ready to see you, Ben,”
“Thanks,” he said, getting up from his seat, and returning his copy of Fortune to the coffee table in front of him. “How have you been?”
“Busy, you know.”
“He can speak for himself.” She showed him into Travis’ office. Travis coughed on his second cigar of the day.
“So it was the Russian all along,” he said. “Thank you Ashley.” She reluctantly closed the door.
“It appears so.” Travis sensed the doubt in Wright’s voice.
“You don’t think so?”
“It scarcely matters does it?”
“It does if there’s going to be more deaths.”
“I think we’re done. For now.”
“You’re not being as reassuring as I’d like you to be, Ben.”
“What can I say? Shestakov is dead. Everyone is safe from Shestakov.”
“I saw Kevin Sheehan at the Brook this morning. I know you think he’s a jerk. He seemed convinced about Shestakov. He said the Treasury Secretary was convinced too. That he’d even passed on a request to the police to drop any further inquiries. Don’t know why it’s any of his damned business, but that’s what he said.”
“I still don’t understand why he killed Coles. The others were linked to Shestakov from way back. Coles, I don’t think he knew him.”
“I could give you ten good reasons right now, ten, no problem, for killing Myron Coles. I never understood what the man did. When you play currencies and commodities on the scale he did, you’re going to run into some pretty bad company.”
“What happens next Art?”
“To what? To me?”
“No. To this financial world. The one that is crashing down around us.”
Lee waved his cigar in the air. “Don’t worry about that. These are big boys. They’ll be fine. They said it would never be the same again after the 1980s, when Michael Milken went down. Again after the dot com bubble burst. Didn’t your father tell you this, Ben? It’s always the same again. People don’t change. The search for opportunity doesn’t change. We’ll recover and be right back here in a decade. The trick is riding the cycles, Ben, not trying to avoid them.”
“And here endeth the lesson.”
“Don’t be smart. I’ve wired you the money. Your fee. $2 million. You did well, Ben.”
Wright stood and left the office. Ashley’s desk was shielded from the corridor by a thick pane of patterned glass. She was on the telephone when Wright emerged, but immediately ended her call.
“So?” she said. “How was he?”
“He never changes.”
“I know, it’s one of the wonderful things about him.”
“Ashley, I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner tomorrow night.”
She looked down at her desk and adjusted a stack of papers.
“I’m sorry, Ben. I’m seeing someone.”
“Ah.” He rapped his knuckles on her desk. “I see.”
“He’s in finance.”
“Oh, Christ. Well, he probably won’t be for much longer.” She laughed. Wright began to walk away and push on the heavy door leading back into the reception.
“But tomorrow would be fine,” said Ashley. “Yes. I could do tomorrow.”
“Very good,” said Wright. “Ever tried Kaiseki?”