Free 18 min read

Death In Davos : Day One

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Saturday 13th January 2024 — Zurich to Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: A train from Zurich to Davos — An inconvenient Frenchman — An accident with coffee — A disingenuous billionaire — A deadline in Ukraine — A dubious proposition — A gruesome death

SOMETIMES IT IS better to travel hopefully than to arrive, thought Olena, as she boarded her train in Zurich Hauptbahnhof. Whatever seasonal specials they might have on the menu when she got to the Steinberger Grand Hotel Belvedere in Davos, the staple item in her diet this coming week was going to be a well-honed investment pitch repeated over any number of pre-dawn coffees, second breakfasts, lettuce-leaf lunches, faux-coincidental collisions in hotel lobbies, time-outs from plenary sessions, novelty nibbles at cocktail parties, and night-owl cognacs in the Belvedere Bar. By the end of it all she hoped to have nailed down, one by one, one on one, her potential friends and her potential adversaries. That was the power of The Virtuous Circle.  

There would be a few surprises at The Circle, no doubt, and plenty of gossip — some of it even about her. Three years ago she had been a rising star in the office of The Doc, as the Herr Doktor, founder of The Circle, was called by everyone outside his hearing. She knew the Circle inside-out and The Circle knew her. 

But this year she was not there to jump when The Doc said jump. She was there as an official participant, the director of Reconstruct Ukraine. The chip embedded in the White Badge on her lanyard was The Circle's equivalent of Access-All-Areas — a passe-partout that would get her inside the rooms inside the rooms inside the rooms. 

For The Circle was not simply one circle, but a set of concentric circles, with The Doc at its centre. The outermost circles were for holders of colour-coded badges who were admitted to programmed talks and discussions only, and sometimes not to all of those. They were the session-fodder. Their job was to listen enraptured to the Finnish Minister of Folklore or the CEO of a Liechtenstein Landesbank while not even noticing that the rest of the room was filled with relative nobodies like themselves.

The people who mattered, and who wouldn't generally be listening to the Finnish Minister of Folklore, would tend to be talking privately to one another in their hotel suites, or gathering in other rooms around the Congress Centre in groups of 12-20 for what the staff called "Ringlets", which were by-invitation seminars convened to discuss specific topics of immediate importance to the participants.

This year, for example, big-bank CEOs would discuss whether they should maintain a united front against cryptocurrencies or whether the time had come to start offering cryptocustomer accounts.

The smallest circles had no names at all and usually took the form of breakfasts and dinners to which not even a White Badge alone was enough to ensure access. Attendance to these was reserved for two categories of people, known informally to Circle staff as "predators" and "prey".

Prey were the rare celebrities whose names any Circle member would be proud to drop once they were back in London or New York: "I tell you what Barack said to me last week ..."; "I was having breakfast with Angelina ..."; "I don't usually agree with Greta, but ..."

Predators were Circle members who were (a) presentable on such occasions and (b) only too happy to pay the non-trivial supplement for VIP status.

Olena would be in her element at The Circle, and yet somehow she wasn’t looking forward to it. How could she be? How could anybody claim to enjoy anything when Ukraine was such a bloody mess — when the whole world was such a bloody mess?

She was there to extract promises of support for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine from some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, people who could do literally anything with their money. They would be nice enough to her, mostly. They would show polite interest, mostly. They would ask intelligent questions, mostly. But all the time, every one of them would be asking themselves the same question: "What's in this for me?"   

Olena took her seat in the middle of a first-class carriage, an indulgence by her own modest standards but one that could pass for virtue-signalling among other White Badge holders who typically arrived at The Circle by private plane, helicopter, or chauffeured Mercedes-Benz. Besides, she needed some peace and quiet, calm before the storm.

She placed on the table the two (it was a long journey) cups of coffee which she had bought at a Starbucks on the platform in Zurich, and pulled out her copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day Of The Oprichnik, which she wanted to finish before Landquart, the station where she would change for the local train to Davos-Platz. But the carriage was warm and welcoming. Her eyelids were heavy. Would sleep or Sorokin prevail? Sleep, probably, and perchance to dream. Already she was drifting off, lost in thoughts of the days ahead.  

Olena had always felt sorry for first-timers at The Circle who arrived thinking that they knew how to network. Anywhere else in the world a person could easily spend their life handing out business cards and scribbling down email addresses while remaining innocent of the power-dynamics which kicked in when you tried to network at scale. At The Circle, the laws of networking operated with almost embarrassing clarity.

The basic law was that Circle members came to network up. A few at the top came to network at their own level, but nobody came to network down. The result, when you put five hundred people in a ballroom, all of whom were trying to capture and escape one another simultaneously, was a spectacle halfway between Brownian motion and ballet.

She had also felt sorry for those first-timers who came to The Circle expecting to be electrified by important people saying challenging things. The Circle was not a place for people who truly wanted to change the world in a good way. The Circle was a handsomely-upholstered comfort zone for people who had already changed the world, not necessarily for the better, and now wanted to cover their tracks.

The Doc's special genius, and the gift which he looked for in his staff, was to create an atmosphere of free-thinking debate while ensuring that everybody understood the limits of that debate and that no White Badge member was ever publicly embarrassed or deeply offended. Argument was allowed, but ad hominem argument was not. You could question somebody's facts, but you could never question their honesty, their motivation, or their importance.

Of course there were aberrations. In 2019 a young Dutch academic had gone off-piste by declaring that if the people in her plenary session did indeed care about the reputation of capitalism and the state of the world, they could best redress both by paying more taxes, or, indeed, in some cases, by paying any meaningful taxes at all.

It was not the banality of the complaint which gave offence so much as the complainant's lack of irony. She would not be invited back.

But nobody is ever thrown out of a Circle session. What happens instead is that a member of the session monitoring team — in this particular case it had been Olena herself — comes to sit down next to the trouble-fête, whispers praise for their "bold" intervention, proposes that they continue the "conversation" when the session is over, and remains sitting next to them for the balance of the session lest they be minded to make any further contributions.

In effect, The Circle was a place where most people came to talk about things instead of doing them. That wasn't actually written into The Circle's articles of association, but it might as well have been.

Think of it this way, a Circle veteran might say. All big questions are long-term questions — ten-year questions at least. So if you say that you passionately support this or that plan for the general betterment of the world, the results of which will only become apparent in ten years' time, then, all other things being equal, people will assume that you are doing something along those lines. When the results are looked for in ten years' time and it turns out that you have been doing nothing of the kind, you will say, doubtless correctly, that the fundamentals have changed radically, that the problem is now a different problem, and that a different strategy is needed.

Olena suspected that just such a fate would await one of this year's sacrificial lambs, a “taskforce on international taxation to scale up development, climate and nature action”. It was to be the subject of a keynote plenary session featuring Greta Thunberg, and a by-invitation Ringlet for oil companies. 

The name was a clunker, but the idea, floated at COP28, was logical, simple, and in essence incontrovertible.

Governments around the world were dispensing $7 trillion a year in fossil-fuel subsidies while the oil and gas industry was banking $4 trillion in profits, all due to the world's unfortunate addiction to carbon. Whatever the underlying problem, it was clearly not a shortage of money as such.

So why not redirect some of that $11 trillion toward large-scale action against climate change, action which was being demanded not only by the taxpayers who paid for the fossil-fuel subsidies, but also by the institutional shareholders who controlled most big public companies?

"Of course", Circle members would respond, while Greta Thunberg looked on expectantly. "But ... ".

And what came after that "but" would no longer matter. "But" meant "No".

To be fair on them, most members of the Circle genuinely did see private planes as something like a human right for those in a position to exercise it, a special case of freedom of movement.

But more than that, they saw governments, if not as enemies, then at least as predators, as institutions shaped by evolution to ingest money and power and then excrete it in inconvenient places.

Individual government leaders could be perfectly nice and intelligent. But anything that any government actually wanted to do, apart from privatisating and policing, was necessarily a bad thing, precisely because a government wanted to do it, and the consequence would therefore be more government. "Lovely idea", as they said at The Circle, "but sadly impossible to implement". 

Still lost in her reflections, and in the darkness of the tunnel carrying her train out of Zurich, Olena momentarily caught her reflection in the window, and saw that the stress of the past few years had taken its toll. There were dark circles under her bright green eyes. But otherwise, on The Circle's scale of grooming, she was a 3.5, midway between "poised" and "polished".

As the train finally emerged into daylight and left the last of the city behind, she looked out across the Zurichsee to the lush greenery of the foothills and the silhouettes of the Glarus Alps beyond. It was a magical moment — or would have been if an obsequious voice had not interrupted her at that very second.

"Ms Kostarenko?", the voice said. She turned to see a bespectacled man with a sad face settling into the facing seat across the table.

She responded with a curt "Yes" and a look intended to convey politely-veiled irritation at being disturbed.

"I am Alain Girard" the man offered, in lightly accented English. "We met on two or three occasions in London and Kyiv." 

Now she remembered. Girard was a French journalist who parroted Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine, not that he would put it quite that way. "One must see both both sides of an argument", he would probably say, in his flat, insistent, voice, as if reading from a script. If one "took the trouble to study the Russian perspective", one would would see that "repeated provocations" by the United States and Nato had "forced" Russia into conducting the "special military operation" simply to "ensure the security" of Russia itself. He was a creep.

"Can I ask you a few questions?" he said. Without waiting for an answer, he produced a pen and placed his own Starbucks coffee-cup on her table.

"I am sorry, but I have a lot of reading to do just now, if you don’t mind."

He wasn’t going to give up.

"Just one question, then. As a Ukrainian, where do you see President Zelenskyy a year from now?"

"Leading his country and leading it well, Mr Girard. Forgive me, but I have work to do."

He gave her a hard look which seemed to say that he, too, had a job to do, and his job was to talk to her, which made it her job to talk to him. 

But apparently he was not going to insist.

"Too bad", he said, standing up and reclaiming his coffee. "Well, another time if I may. We have four days ahead of us in which to discuss this project of yours".

"I think that's my cup", said Olena.

He looked as if to check. "No", he said, "it's mine", and off he went.

Olena opened her book and stared pointedly at a random page until Girard was out of range. Then she looked around her. The carriage was full of Circle-type people, some of whom had packed as if for a polar expedition, judging from enormous suitcases cluttering the corridor. The volume of conversation was above the norm for a Swiss railway carriage. These were people accustomed to an audience.

From the corner of her eye she registered the sliding door opening at the front end of the carriage, and an elegantly-dressed man emerging from it with his arms stretched out in front of him, concluding a video call on his mobile phone. She recognised him at once as Karl Manhof, a German billionaire whose name was at the top of her checklist for the days ahead.

Manhof had inherited a family fortune amassed from coal mining, tripled it in tech, then pivoted into green investing. In 2020 he set up his Go Green flagship fund with a few hundred million euros of his own money, opened it the following year to friends and associates, and was said now to have more than five billion euros under management.

He branded and re-branded his strategy over the years using whatever buzz-words took his fancy. First, Go Green was "ESG-enthusiastic", then it was "impact enriching", then "sustainably stewarding", and, in Dubai, it was "building COPitalism".

Manhof was said to employ an analyst whose sole job was to track the shifting market premia attaching to words and concepts used in corporate mission statements, so that Manhof could literally talk up the value of his own investments and talk down those of his rivals.

Since Manhof usually travelled in a private jet with one of Go Green’s slogans, Greening>Faster>Together, painted along the fuselage, Olena was mildly surprised to see him on her train. But presumably his staff were posting videos from his mobile phone on social media as proof of his lifelong love-affair with public transport. 

"Olenka, what a delightful surprise!", he announced upon seeing her. "You and me both walking the green talk on a Swiss train! We lead by example!"

His use of her diminutive was out of order, she thought, given that their meetings had always been strictly professional ones. Perhaps he was deliberately unsettling her. Or was he just being his over-confident, self-centred, m'as-tu-vu self?

"Good for you and well done us!" she responded, moderating her sarcasm.

Manhof sat in the same place that Alain Girard had occupied a few minutes before, crossing his arms on the table and bending towards Olena.

"So", he began. She wondered for half a second whether he had switched to German, but no, they were staying in English. "Let us compare notes", he said. "How is your to-do list for this week?"

He wanted to talk business. Good. She would give him her pitch. She assumed a formal smile.

"My briefcase" she began, "contains blueprints and term sheets for one hundred billion euros' worth of infrastructure projects, and that is just phase one. The government of Ukraine will announce the programme officially the day after a peace deal is signed.

"I won't try to give you the details here and now, but the key points are as follows. Everything will be underwritten by the EBRD. All tendering will follow EU regulations. All contractual disputes will go to international arbitration. EU-based bidders will get preference.

"The phase-one contracts are for a new international airport, a high-speed rail line from Kyiv to Warsaw, and the razing of the Chernobyl complex down to the last radioactive brick.

"Housing is also a priority, obviously, and power grids, and Black Sea port facilities. But those are areas in which Ukraine will take the lead. My agency's job is to define, prioritise and structure the projects which absolutely require international lead contractors."

Manhof nodded as though he dealt with things like this every day. "Exactly so!", he said, almost cheerfully.

Now it was his turn to set out his stall. "I said at COP in Dubai that Go Green stood ready to finance ten per cent of your programme, subject to detailed agreement on the public-private partnerships, and that I was confident other private investors would follow my example. I meant it, I haven't changed my mind, and I will say the same thing at The Circle.

"I will talk tomorrow about our moral debt as Europeans to the people of Ukraine, about the need for a sustainable Europe, about the interdependence of prosperity and peace, und so weiter. What I will not say is that the best time to invest is when there is blood in the streets, and, heaven knows, there is enough blood now in the streets of the Ukraine.

"I will not talk about blood and profit, because when I have a selfish reason to do something, and a selfless reason to do that same thing, then I publicise the selfless reason. People like me the more for it, and the ones who matter to me understand my reasoning in any case. I remind you of our Go Green motto: Do Good, Do Well, Go Green!"

By the time Manhof reached those last two words his voice was almost a shout.

Olena respected his realism. It was the truth, she thought, but was it the whole truth? She found it odd that Manhof wanted to get so deeply involved in Reconstruct Ukraine. The returns would be real enough once everything got off the ground, but that was five to ten years away. People who came from the green world generally thought long-term, but people who came from the tech world generally did not, and Karl had cut his teeth in the tech world. He must have a short-term angle. What was it?

Perhaps he was mulling a move into politics. In Germany, if you came into politics from the business world, they still liked to see a bit of dirt on your hands, the good kind of dirt. Karl in a hard-hat reconstructing Ukraine would play better than Karl in a Hugo Boss suit shorting the euro.

Or perhaps it was connected with something she had noticed when glancing over Karl's speech to the UN climate-change summit in Dubai. It used to be Karl's habit in every big speech to name-check the latest high-karma investor in Go Green — the Roman Catholic Church, for example, or the Danish royal family, or the estate of Albert Einstein. But in Dubai there had been no such revelation. Could it be that Karl was running out of new investors, and needed a new story? 

They were passing Wallensee. The view was breath-taking, chiselled cliffs plunging into the inky-dark water. Karl beamed out at the landscape as though he owned it, which might well have been the case. Then he turned back to Olena.

"Nor am I so modest", he resumed "as to imagine that it is a matter of indifference to you whether I support your project in public, or not. If I commit myself to Reconstruct Ukraine, I do not say that others will necessarily follow me, but they probably will. If, on the other hand, I distance myself, even if I just say nothing, then in every future pitch you will have to explain away my absence."

He was right, damn him. She had no choice but to persuade him. "The numbers will be solid", she said. "And once we have private capital committed for at least half the work, then the EBRD underwrites everything. But there is a window here and it may not stay open for ever."

"Because Zelenskyy might go?"

"No, because Trump might come back. Right now, consolidating Ukraine is priority number one for the European Union and priority number two for the United States. How American priorities will change with a Trump administration is anybody's guess.

"If America pulls back, the Europeans will still be there and the European money will still be there in theory. But in political terms the foundations will have shifted, not least under Nato. So if we don't have a peace deal and a reconstruction plan signed before the next American presidential election, we don't necessarily lose everything, but we do lose momentum, and some governments may lose confidence."

She was trying to give Karl things he could agree with. He wasn't quite there yet.

"Of course I am on your side, Olenka", he said, once she had paused.

"Morally, economically, politically," he continued, "the world needs a stable and prosperous Ukraine. But are you quite sure that Europe has one view on this? When I hear Viktor Orban talking, and Robert Fico, I don't hear them saying that the European Union should spend its money in Ukraine. I hear them saying that the EU should spend its money in Hungary and in Slovakia.

"I am not saying that Orban can win the argument, I am saying he can drive up the price, he can get in the way. And, while we are on the subject of Trump, you won't hear this said out loud at The Circle, but plenty of our friends there did really rather well under the last Trump presidency, and they won't be quite as averse to his return as they might like to pretend."

Again, everything that Karl said was true, and Olena had prepared for it. Time to go deeper. "Let's call things what they are", she said. "We can go with the flow and find ourselves back in the dark ages. Or we can work towards a decent and democratic future. That future passes through Ukraine. The cost of rebuilding Ukraine is something that Europe can well afford. The cost of not rebuilding Ukraine may be the loss of everything that Europe values most". 

Should she pause? Was she overselling? No, he was still listening.

"We must do it now, Karl. A road map for reconstruction will make peace possible before Trump changes the game. Next year may be too late."

Karl fidgeted in his seat and moved his hands across the table towards those of Olena. She drew her own hands back. He must not be allowed to embarrass himself. Not good for business.

"You need my support Olenka and you have it. But I also need yours."

Ah. Here came the twist. "What do you have in mind?", she said.

"I was talking to your colleague Sasha in Dubai about the advantages for everyone involved of incorporating a carbon certification mechanism into the Ukrainian reconstruction plan.

"The reconstruction will greatly increase energy efficiency in Ukraine and greatly reduce carbon emissions. I propose that stakeholders should monetise at least part of those gains in a front-loaded sale of carbon credits through a market mechanism. I want to confirm that Sasha mentioned this to you, and that you are not opposed to it."

The twist was not a welcome one. 

"Sasha did give me a note on that subject. And I believe, as a matter of fact, that you know my own view. Creating and trading carbon credits can take place credibly only where there is an advanced legal system, expert scrutiny, and effective enforcement. Until and unless those conditions obtain in Ukraine, a licence to certify carbon credits there, which I think is what you have in mind, would resemble a licence to print money, and bad money at that.

"I am not opposed to the principle of carbon trading, obviously. It is EU policy. But existing carbon markets have more than enough reputational problems even where effective regulation is supposedly in place. We should be seeking ways to eliminate historic corruption from post-war Ukraine, not introducing new ways for Ukrainians and foreigners to corrupt one another."

"That’s a bit harsh!"

"It is, and it isn’t. We can set all the net-zero targets we want, but if we can’t document them reliably they won't deserve to be taken seriously. And if we then start certifying carbon credits which may or not reflect real metrics, when even the supposedly real metrics may or may not have been measured reliably in the first place, then the end-result will be that European taxpayers get their pockets picked."

"But Sasha was rather in favour of the idea."

"So am I, Karl, in principle. Eventually. But we are working in a long-term framework, and you are looking for short-term returns. If we do set our scruples to one side and say yes to junk offsets, word will soon get out that half the paper is bogus, the blowback will be horrible, and we will be sitting up there on our moral high ground looking like swindlers and idiots."

At that very moment, a kerfuffle broke out at the far end of the carriage. Passengers were gesticulating furiously about something that had happened outside Olena's line of sight. It sounded like something serious. She and Karl got up. What on Earth was going on? 

A horrible sight awaited them when they moved closer. A man whom Olena recognised as Girard, the French journalist, was doubled up in apparent agony on the floor of the train between two rows of seats in a pool of his own excrement. His face was locked in a grimace, his body was twitching with repeated spasms. 

The number of onlookers increased. Those at the front struggled to keep a safe distance. For a moment there was silence, save for a man at the back who was calling somebody, the emergency services perhaps, on his phone. Somebody else had pushed the emergency button. The smell was unbearable. Girard was continuing to twitch, but less violently now. "Has anyone called the police?", asked Olena. But already the train was pulling into Landquart station, and there on the platform the police were waiting.

To be continued tomorrow ...

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Free 15 min read

Death In Davos : Day Two

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Sunday 14th January 2024 — Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: A tense meeting — A deniable death — The Doc takes stock — Aspiring Leaders — Philip makes a phone call — Philip meets an old flame — Olena keeps a secret — A tragic event

THE MOOD in The Circle’s subterranean Davos HQ early on Sunday morning was sombre and tense; even more so than was usual for the day before the opening of the annual meeting. But then, things weren’t usual. The Circle was in emergency mode.

The day began with a 6am meeting between The Doc and his "war room"; that meant Sandra Smiley, chief communication officer, a forty-something American; Philip Middlewait, a younger Brit, who was The Doc’s chef de cabinet; and Markus Bern, the greying Swiss ex-policeman who looked after The Circle's security. 

At times like these The Doc felt keenly the lack of other commanding personalities alongside his own, though he knew perfectly well why there weren't any. He signed off on all hirings, and he hired two types of people: Smart people in mid-career who deferred to him, which was the senior staff; and smart postgraduates who learned fast and left, which was the junior staff.

He was not an easy man. He knew that. His style was easy to criticise. A year ago, almost to the day, a British journalist sent to report on the annual meeting had talked to the junior staff instead and written an article headlined “Mutiny Simmers Inside Circle” which everybody had read including The Doc himself.

The Doc had been angry but not outraged. No doubt the staff did have complaints, but what staff didn't? He had been described in the article as "unaccountable to anyone" — but why should it be otherwise, for God’s sake? He had founded The Circle more than fifty years ago. He had created this institution and it was his institution. He could run it any way he wanted.

And for as long as he wanted. Or as long as he could. He was still sharp, and energetic, and he imagined that most people were surprised when they looked up his age on Wikipedia. But when he indulged, as he periodically did, in moments of silent self-criticism, he acknowledged one failing. He had put no successor in place. He had tried several times over the years to find the person who could one day become him, but nobody with the necessary autocratic disposition had proved willing to submit indefinitely to The Doc's own autocratic disposition until the job fell vacant. 

He had thought seriously of announcing his retirement at the 50th anniversary meeting, and of surprising everybody by naming a particular Canadian government minister as his successor. But while he was still hesitating, the minister found herself shortlisted for the Nato secretary-generalship, and the moment passed.

So the succession would have to look after itself. He would make do with unthreatening deputies who never questioned his decisions nor demanded the authority to make their own. Let them fight it out when the time came. Or let the Trustees decide something, for once. 

For younger staff who showed signs of being genuinely useful he had created a category which he called Circle Aspiring Leaders. A Circle Aspiring Leader could aspire to participate as a panelist or discussant in at least one session at the annual meeting, which was a step up from taking notes or handing out microphones. 

It didn't stop them leaving The Circle after two or three years, but it created something of an alumni network. It seemed that every Aspiring Leader wanted to return to The Circle as a White-Badge member, and a surprising number of them contrived to do so. They then became The Doc's devotees, such was their gratification upon finding that this Olympian figure who had once looked down upon them with impatience and irritation now appeared as quite a different man, lavishing upon them, as upon all White Badge members, his unbounded attention and courtesy.

But just now The Doc was not feeling even remotely courteous. The outside world was threatening to disrupt all of his meticulous preparations and he was determined that the world would not succeed. The three people with him were the three people whom he trusted to do exactly what he demanded at times like this.

"We are a matter of hours from the official opening", he said. "Our priority at this point is to avoid visible disruptions. The fact of this meeting is confidential. The reason for this meeting is confidential. There will be no discussion of this meeting, internally or externally. Now, Mr Bern, since you judged this meeting to be necessary, perhaps you can enlighten us as to the circumstances."

The Doc was pinching his lower lip, an unmistakable sign to those who knew him well that he was annoyed or that he couldn’t make up his mind. Or both, since the two went hand in hand. The more annoyed he was, the more indecisive he became, and vice versa.

Markus opened his notebook. He had spent decades in the Swiss gendarmerie before taking early retirement and moving to The Circle as head of security.

His job was to make sure that the Swiss police and army knew ahead of time who was expected at The Circle, how they were travelling, where they were staying and so on. He also ran The Circle's own security team within the conference centre, made up of other ex-policemen who padded invisibly around the lounges and corridors just in case they were needed, which they rarely were.

He was also the person whom the Swiss police called when something was up.

"Herr Doktor", said Markus, "my information is limited for the moment, but my contacts believe that an incident on a train from Zurich to Landquart yesterday may have been related in some way to The Circle.”

Markus's use of "Herr Doktor" went down well. The Doc, though Swabian by birth, had a Prussian streak. It still grated when colleagues called him by his first name. 

"An incident. Please enlarge."

"A man fell violently ill on the train which arrived in Landquart at 17.44. He died later in hospital. His name was Alain Girard. He was a French journalist and author. Freelance. Said to be a specialist on Russia."

"Who invited him?" asked The Doc.

"Nobody. Which is to say, not us. He was on his way here, apparently, but not as our guest. Presumably he planned to hang around and interview anyone who’d agree to talk to him."

The Doc bristled. He disliked these uninvited opportunists who descended on the cheaper hotels in Davos each year to free-ride on The Circle's hard-won prestige.

"I am sorry to learn of this, but people fall ill all the time", said The Doc. "There must be more."

"The results of the autopsy will be known tonight. I am told that Girard was diabetic, and had a heart condition, so natural causes are not being ruled out. But my contacts say this looks very much like a poisoning."

The Doc turned to Sandra Smiley, whose phone had been quietly buzzing. "This is not our affair", he said. "In fact, we are hearing about it only now. We advise that any media requiring further information about Mr Girard should contact the Swiss police or the Swiss railways. Mr Girard was not accredited as a participant in the forthcoming meeting of The Circle. We do not know what plans, if any, he may have had. Is that enough?"

"Enough for me", she replied. "But I should say that he came here as invited media in 2009 and 2010. If anybody asks, I will have to confirm that fact. Markus mentioned that Girard was a specialist on Russia. Some of his colleagues would probably put it a little differently. Girard wrote the sort of articles that usually signal some underlying financial relationship with the Russian government. I have no hard information on that point, I just want to alert us all to the fact that that there may be some complications here. Markus was right to make the call."

"All the more reason to keep our heads down and say only that he was not one of our guests", observed Philip. "We did not invite him. We weren’t aware of his presence. Nous n'y sommes pour rien."

"Precisely", said The Doc. "Mr Bern, you have acted correctly, and you can tell your friends that in all honesty we have no idea what has been going on here, that Mr Girard was last a guest at The Circle in 2010, and if we can help their investigation in any way then obviously we will do so.

"Sandra, I don't want to see us quoted in any media saying anything other than the fact that we know nothing about this regrettable event. Follow-up meeting here at mid-day. Philip please stay behind."

He liked Phillip, as much as he liked anybody. Philip had come from the Downing Street Policy Unit on the recommendation of a British banker, an old friend of The Circle. With Philip he could talk.

Philip tended to have that effect on people. People talked to Philip. Even people who didn't generally talk to people talked to Philip. Which is why The Doc wanted Philip to call a Foreign Office contact in London later that morning, ask his Foreign Office contact to patch him through to another British government department, a department that did not answer the phone to just anybody, and ask that department a single question: Was there a file on Girard?

Philip had his answer in time for the mid-day meeting, which was otherwise uneventful, Yes, there was a file. Alain Girard had, as they said in London, "a trace".

Later that afternoon Philip went for a walk, for it was Sunday, after all, and walking next him was Olena, his favourite former colleague. They had been more than just colleagues once upon a time, if the truth were told, and they were still friends, or so he hoped.

A church bell rang; a soothing, crystalline sound. Four o'clock, and they were idling down the Promenade towards the lake. Catching up. They hadn’t seen each other since Olena left The Circle.

"You haven’t changed Olia", Philip said, affectionately if not quite truthfully.

This time she didn’t mind a diminutive. Quite the opposite. "Nor have you", she replied, which in his case was accurate.

"I was thrilled to hear about your appointment", Philip continued. "I don't envy the half of you that reports to Brussels, but I do envy the half of you that reports to Zelenskyy. How's that particular mix bedding down?"

"It's tough. I don't need to tell you that. You can see it in my face. And it's not the work itself that's so tough. What's tough is trying to stay sane and focused while people are getting killed all around you and your country is getting destroyed right in front of your eyes, while knowing that in the end you are also going to have to deal politely with the people who are trying to kill you right now because they hate you. I am getting it done, but it's turning me into a person that I never expected to be."

President Zelenskyy had asked Olena to join his staff in Kyiv in 2020, a year after his election. He had come to The Circle meeting that January, she had been assigned to look after him, they had sparked, and when the invitation came three months later she had no hesitation about accepting. She missed Kyiv. She could be of real value there. And in any case, The Circle had just been shut down by Covid. She was named economic adviser to the President of Ukraine when she was barely 30.

That was her. His turn. "And you, Philip", she asked, "why are you still here? I am pleased that you are, of course, but what are you getting out of it?"

Philip, too, had been an Aspiring Leader. Perhaps he still was, unless there was now a secret order of Actual Leaders.

Whereas Olena had come to The Circle from the financial world, an American hedge fund with an office in Kyiv, Philip had come from the political world — PPE, Conservative Central Office, the Policy Unit. Then The Doc had invited him to a Swiss mountain top and shown him the world. 

"I like the job", Philip said, simply, and he showed every sign of meaning it. "Obviously it’s the only one worth having at The Circle apart from The Doc's own, but it's the one that I've got, for some reason, and I get to see everything and I get to hear everything. Even The Doc's innermost thoughts, or so I like to think, though there are times when I could manage without those. And when I say to people, 'I'm with The Circle', I can see their eyes light up. When I said to people, 'I'm with the Downing Street Policy Unit', that was not the common reaction."

She wondered what Philip was not telling her. His whole profile screamed high-flyer. A couple of years at The Circle would have been an excellent line on his cv, but she had not expected him to settle here permanently as a glorified gofer. Had he become the designated successor, perhaps?

They walked in silence for a while, each fairly sure they knew what the other was thinking.

"We were good together", said Phillip, breaking the silence. He wanted to go back there. It was in his voice.

"We still are", said Olena. "Good friends are the most valuable thing in the world, and we are good friends." What she meant was: Don't push it, this is not the time, change the subject.

"How is The Doc?"

"Quite philosophical at times. He stands there, as it were, while the current crop of world leaders comes in through one of his doors and goes out through the other. By now he registers only the churn. I suppose he is worried about his legacy in some sense, but I don't quite know in what sense. His cynicism surprises even me, a seasoned veteran of government service. I'm not sure that he wants The Circle to survive him. Either the next Doc would do it all better, or the next Doc would do it all worse, and neither of those is an inspiring prospect for the current Doc."

Now it was Philip's move to change the subject.

"By the way, did you hear about what happened on the train from Zurich yesterday?"

"Did I hear?" she interrupted with a pantomime of disbelief. "I was in the carriage!"

Phillip showed genuine astonishment, while concealing genuine interest.

"No! Tell me then! What I know is what I heard on the radio. What happened?"

"The man Alain Girard and I were in the same carriage. He vaguely knew me and he asked me to do an interview. He sat opposite me for two minutes until I told him to go away, more or less. I didn't like him. He went back to his seat at the far end of the carriage. Then I was talking to somebody else, and when I next looked Girard was writhing in agony." She paused, and risked a joke. "It wasn't me. I have witnesses."

"Never thought it for a moment. But you knew him and you didn't like him?"

"He cornered me a couple of times, trying to get information, in Kyiv and again in London, when I was with Zelenskyy. But our press people had a flag against his name. They considered him a Russian asset, based on what he wrote."

"And that was the case?"

"Google him for yourself. He’s been a Putinist for years. Just before the war he published a book called Europe Needs Russia for which he was somehow able to interview Putin himself and several oligarchs. Presumably he did a good job, because a million euros landed in his bank account at roughly the time the book came out."

"How do you know that?"

"It showed up in the Cyprus Confidential leaks. Along with quite a few similar payments to quite a few similar people."

Surely Philip must know all this, she thought. Still, no harm in his hearing it again.

"The Russians don't bribe writers and academics, they sponsor them, and they have a surprisingly light touch when they do it. If you seem to be inclining in their direction, you'll get a call from an editor or an agent who seems legitimate enough, and who says you should write this feature or that book, and promises to get you a terrific rate.

"The point of no return is when they insist that you appear on Russia Today. But people like Girard are OK with that too, because they were leaning that way in any case and all they are being asked to do now is to lean a bit harder and get well paid for it. There are hundreds if not thousands of people like that across Europe in the media, academia, advertising, think-tanks, politics. Le trahison des clercs".

"Not treason, because legal", responded Philip mildly. "The price of living in a democracy, freedom of speech and all that. I didn’t have a clue about Girard's background, as a matter of fact, but obviously, between ourselves, the police have been on to The Circle, or perhaps we have been on to the police, I am never sure how these things work, and everybody seems to be wondering whether it was natural causes or something else."

"I have never seen a natural cause which looked quite like one", shot back Olena.

"Quite so. And if we allow for the possibility of a poisoning or something similar, then my question would be this: Was this a one-off, or is there more to come?"

By now Olena was telling Philip more than she would have told anyone else, but even so there were things that she was keeping back. Like the other people in the carriage, she had been questioned by the police in Landquart, and she had given them a statement. She hadn't told the police everything, either.

Almost certainly, Girard had been poisoned. But why would the Russians want to kill their own propagandist? They might have no further use for him, he might have displeased them in some way, but it made no sense to dispose of him quite so dramatically.

Nor would anybody from the Ukrainian services have cared tuppence about Girard's existence. Of that Olena was sure. If you were going to poison somebody, you poisoned somebody worth poisoning, and Girard was nowhere near that category.

The more she thought about it all, the more she wondered about one particular incident — the muddle with the Starbucks coffee, when Girard had put his cup down next to hers, then a minute later had picked up what she thought was her cup but which he insisted was his cup.

After that incident she hadn't drunk either of her coffees. But what if Girard had drunk the coffee that he took back with him, and the poison had been in the coffee?

If so, the possibilities would seem to be these: (i) Somebody had poisoned Girard's coffee and Girard had died as intended. (ii) Girard had intended to poison her, but he had taken back the wrong cup and poisoned himself. (iii) Somebody had poisoned one of her coffees, and Girard had taken the poisoned coffee from her table by mistake.

In two out of those three cases it was her, not Girard, who was the intended victim, and it was hard to see any other variant. Starbucks coffee was bad, but it wasn't that bad.

"I need to go back to my hotel now", she said abruptly, with a look that Philip could not read. 

"A moment", he said. He pulled a business card from his side pocket and scribbled something on the back of it. "This is my real phone number. The one I answer. Use it if you need me urgently, or message me on Signal.

"I say that, because I don't yet see how various things connect, save by coincidence, and of coincidence I am not an admirer. I will do you the courtesy, and I hope you will do me the courtesy, of acknowledging a high probability that there are things which you are not telling me, and things which I am not telling you, because they are things which we think nobody else should know at this point. Whatever those things may be, I offer myself to you as an ally, and I will do anything that I can to protect you, whether in my personal or my professional capacity."

He was smiling a reassuring smile. His voice was low. He sounded like a lawyer or a private banking officer explaining the terms of a new client relationship. Those convoluted sentences! But if she read him correctly, he was saying that he feared or knew something disturbing, which he was not able to share with her, and if anything bad happened in her vicinity she should call him before she called anybody else.

All of which was more worrying than reassuring. She forced a genuine smile, pecked him on the cheek, squeezed his hand, and walked away.

The town was filling up now. No rooms at the inns for anybody without a confirmed booking made months beforehand. The Belvedere car park was lined with identically gleaming Maybachs which only their drivers could tell apart. Olena remembered reading somewhere that one-quarter of the world's private jets touched down at Davos in the course of a Circle meeting.

Overhead she heard a helicopter on approach, probably from Zurich. The helipad was just along the Promenade, no more than two hundred yards from where she was now walking. She glanced up — and stopped dead, because at that exact moment, the helicopter engine also stopped dead.

A second or so passed which might have been an eternity. It seemed that the whole world had stopped moving. Then the world started moving again, very fast indeed, horribly fast. The helicopter fell like a stone from four or five hundred feet. It smashed on to the landing pad like a dropped egg. Two or three seconds later the fuselage exploded in a ball of flame.

If she had not spent most of the past two years in a war zone she might well have screamed, or been sick, or panicked. As it was, she returned to her calculations. Philip had been ahead of her. He had raised exactly the right question when they were talking about Girard. Was Girard a one-off, he had asked, or was there more to come? Now he had his answer.

To be continued tomorrow ...

Free 13 min read

Death In Davos : Day Three

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Monday 15th January 2024 — Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: A murder is confirmed — A point of no return — A trace of nerve-gas — A suspected saboteur — A mysterious text message — A mountain-top rendezvous — A bullet-spattered betrayal

EVERY DOC will have his day, as some Circle wit had once said, and today was The Doc's big day. The annual meeting of The Circle opened that evening at 6pm in what was still officially called the Bankman-Fried Ballroom of the Congress Centre, since through some oversight the room had not yet been renamed.

The Doc would make his welcoming remarks, and then he would hand out The Circle 2024 Sustainable Diamond Awards For Inclusivity, Impassionment and Inspiration.

The junior staff voted for the Sustainable Diamond recipients. The Doc reserved a veto, but he only ever thought to exercise it on those rare occasions when he had heard of any of the nominees, which had not been the case this year. The Circle would be duly honouring a Mauritian former rapper who now edited French Vogue, an exiled Iranian Tiktok influencer, and a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to the Metaverse, the last of whom was 17 years old.

The Doc would welcome his 3,000 guests, or as many as could be fitted into the ballroom, with opening remarks in which he would incarnate, as only he could do, the spirit of The Circle — a spirit of bold yet judicious discussion, addressing the key abstractions of our time, constrained only by common courtesy, mutual respect, and an available microphone.

The title of The Doc's curtain-raiser this year was "Partnerships and Platforms". Not that he had anything in particular to say about either of those things, but the focus groups run at INSEAD in December had given this particular combination of words a very high positive-affect rating, and he knew that whatever title he took as his theme he would end up giving approximately the same opening remarks as he gave every year.

He would note approvingly that everybody was there at The Circle to work hard, whatever outsiders might think. He would remind his guests that their privileges in the world, while well-earned, were outweighed by their obligations. He would use the words trust and realism at least once per paragraph. He would make one reference to the tragic violence which afflicted so much of the world, and one reference to the unprecedented uncertainty with which they themselves must wrestle.

He always included one quotation which he did not attribute, a trick he had picked up from Ronald Reagan. Most years it was the quotation from Gramsci about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, but this year he had a new quotation which would double as the mandatory joke at the end of his remarks. He would say: "We are here on Earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I do not know". And while the room laughed and applauded, he would nod to Sandra to bring the award-winners on stage.

Such was the plan; and in just such a manner had opening nights reliably unfolded since the mid-1980s when The Circle had outgrown its scrappy beginnings and acquired a certain chic. But this year threatened to be different, and not in a good way. The bad news was getting worse.

First there had been Alain Girard, the French journalist who died on the train on Saturday. Not only was he probably some sort of Russian asset, but the police now seemed sure that he had been poisoned with some sort of Russian nerve agent.

Then there was yesterday's helicopter crash, which was a complete mystery. The victims were four Circle guests inbound from Zurich, plus their pilot. The police were doing background checks on the people, and a post-mortem on both helicopter and pilot.

As far as the newspapers were concerned, the Girard story was still "Man dies on train". No media was yet running with the poisoning angle, but that could only be a matter of time. The helicopter crash was headline news, obviously, and The Circle was part of the story. It could hardly dissociate itself entirely from its own guests.

At four o'clock that morning The Doc had done a Zoom call with the American crisis-communications consultant whom The Circle kept on retainer for just such moments. When they first hired him years ago The Doc had worried about his perverse incentives: The man might encourage a crisis to blow up every now and again just to prove his value and increase his billable hours.

But to The Doc's great satisfaction, the consultant had taken the opposite tack. His advice, roughly, was this: Go ahead. All you have so far is a coincidence. Three thousand people have come to Davos and they won't thank you for sending them home again just because four people have had an accident. Since your guests are already in town, and if there is a Grim Reaper stalking any of them, they are probably safer inside the Congress Centre than they are out on the streets.

The main thing, the consultant said, was to keep an open line to Swiss police, to do whatever they said, immediately, and to keep a timeline, a minute-by-minute timeline, of whatever the police said and of how The Circle responded. If the police say "abort the meeting" in as many words, then and only then, do you abort the meeting. At which point we talk about what you say next. But the Swiss police will probably want to settle this thing privately, if there is a thing, just as much as you do. And it may be nothing at all.

"That man just earned his retainer", thought The Doc, cutting off the call. If the police ordered him to abort the meeting he would do so, and nobody could criticise him for that, but he knew that The Circle would suffer reputationally all the same. When you dealt with the very rich and the very powerful the one thing you did not deliver was unwelcome surprises. The fact that the situation was outside your control was not, from their point of view, a point in your favour.

At nine o'clock that same morning The Doc convened an all-staff meeting in The Circle's underground conference room. Bern posted two of his security team on the door "dans le cas où" as he liked to say. When in the gendarmerie he had always been short of officers. Now he took great satisfaction in having enough of them for even the slightest of contingencies.

Anybody who got as far as that conference-room door would already have passed through a metal detector, an iris-scanner, a chip-reader, and several pairs of human eyes at the Congress Centre main entrance, not to mention the scrutiny of several hundred plainclothes police and soldiers patrolling the streets outside. Any danger inside the room could come only from a Circle insider. But in Bern's view, at an all-hands meeting such a danger could not be ruled out.

Some in the room were sitting round the table, others had to stand. When the guards had closed the door The Doc spoke briskly. "There has been one unexplained death and one tragic accident locally in the past 48 hours. We have no reason to think they are connected with one another, or connected with the meeting. But we have a duty of care towards our guests.

"If any of our guests, or anybody else, should ask any of you about these events, you should say only that the helicopter crash was a tragedy which has left us all deeply saddened, and of which you have no knowledge or insight beyond what you have read in the newspapers. Of Girard you can say nothing at all because you know nothing at all. Which, I may remind you, happens to be true."

The Doc at his best, thought Philip. He had their attention and they were all looking serious. The two or three members of the managing board who had come to the meeting were trying to look enigmatic, as if to hint that they were important enough to have additional information which they were not at liberty to reveal. If only, thought Philip.

The Doc continued his briefing.

"I have instructed Mr Middlewait and Colonel Bern to collate what is known about these events, and what may yet become known about them, and to inform me directly if any action on our part is required or indicated.

"I will now ask Colonel Bern to bring us up to date with the latest developments of which he is aware. Some of the facts which he reports to us will not yet be public knowledge. They are being imparted to us in confidence, so please respect this confidence. If you have any desire not to be entrusted with confidential information, please leave the room now. Your doing so will not count against you."

A good tactic, thought Philip. Rub it in. Nobody left the room. The Doc nodded to Markus Bern on his left. Markus began to speak in his level, gritty voice.

"Early this morning I met in Chur with the head of the Graubünden cantonal police. They have no doubts, following the first autopsy, that the French journalist was poisoned with an organophosphate nerve agent. On a point of information, a substance of this type is believed to have been used in a poisoning incident in the United Kingdom in 2018 which was later attributed to Russian Military Intelligence."

The Doc pinched his lower lip hard between his thumb and forefinger, as Bern continued the debrief.

"Such a nerve agent could have been smeared on any surface which was touched by Girard — a door handle, a cup of coffee. Or, indeed, dropped on food, or into a drink. No traces of the agent have yet been found in the train on which he fell ill, but it is highly likely that he was poisoned in the course of his journey. The poison is a relatively fast-acting one. Symptoms are visible within minutes of its reaching the bloodstream. The cantonal forensic unit is continuing to examine the train at Landquart, and the Federal Criminal Police have begun to investigate Girard's movements in Switzerland before he boarded at Zurich."

The Doc imagined the scene in Landquart: Police tents, plastic curtains, barriers, flashing lights, forensic officers clad from head to toe in orange hazmat gear scouring the carriage. It would surely be on the television news, and it was happening barely 40 kilometers from Davos where half the world's media were represented.

He turned to Sandra on his right, and spoke to her in a voice intended for the room:

"Ms Smiley, this is an incident in Landquart, not in Davos. We cannot assist any media in Davos or anywhere else with any information about this incident because we have no information about it apart from what we learn from the media themselves. If you are consulted by Swiss media, especially Swiss regional media, please draw to their attention that excessive and speculative reporting which needlessly associates Davos with the incident in Landquart will be detrimental to the reputation and the economy of Davos".

She gave him a look which Philip privately classified as incredulous, then said simply, "I will do my best, Herr Doktor".

The Doc turned back to Markus.

"The helicopter. What more do we know about that?"

"An inexplicable accident. Incredible, even. The pilot was Swiss. He had thousands of flight hours. He had landed at the Davos helipad hundreds of times. The helicopter was based in Klosters and had a perfect service record."

"But an accident", Sandra interjected.

"Let us hope so, if I can put it that way", observed Markus. "And until the exact cause is known, half the helicopters in Switzerland will have to stay grounded, so there is a great deal of interest in the investigation. The cantonal police are involved in that, but mainly it will be conducted by experts from the Federal Office of Civil Aviation, to the extent that technical factors and pilot error may be indicated. All four passengers were guests of The Circle."

The Doc drew the meeting to a close. "We are sorry that our preparations have been overshadowed by these tragic accidents", he said to the room. "But we are not responsible for them, and we must not allow them to overshadow the meeting itself. If any member of staff finds that they feel too distressed to discharge their duties at the meeting as they ordinarily would, please message my office this morning and we will try to arrange cover. Otherwise, let us be brave, let us be confident, and let us do our job well. The world looks to us."

While the staff filed out, The Doc signalled to Markus, Sandra and Philip to stay behind. With the room emptied and the door closed, he spoke again to Markus. "Perhaps there are some other things that we four should know".

"Perhaps", said Markus. "Here I have the names of the deceased". He produced a single printed page. Four passengers plus the pilot. All passengers were Circle participants.

‘"We understand that the helicopter was chartered by the American hedge-fund manager. He was hosting a lunchtime reception yesterday at the Hotel Baur du Lac in Zurich in honour of a charity, with about 200 guests. I have that list too.

In the course of the reception he made a general invitation to anybody who wanted to share his helicopter to Davos, because he had three spare seats. We do not know how the choice of passengers was made, but the outcome was that his fellow-travellers were, as you can see, the French economist whose obituary will doubtless be in this week's Le Monde, the British philanthropist, and the journalist from Ukraine, all of them accredited to this week's meeting. They all died on impact."

The Doc looked at his colleagues one by one. "I see nothing in these events", he said slowly, "unfortunate as they obviously are, to suggest that The Circle need take any immediate action affecting this week's meeting. We will express our condolences privately to the families of the helicopter crash victims. Sandra, you will see to that. But we will not make any statements, either to the press or within the meeting itself, which might encourage any association in the public mind between The Circle and what has occurred. Do you agree?"

They agreed.

"In which case, we have an opening session ahead of us for which we must prepare. Philip, if you see any messages from staff who want to cry off, we must try to cope. Better they cry in private than cry in public."

Philip nodded, but his mind was elsewhere. One of his phones had been vibrating. He glanced discreetly at the screen below the edge of the table. Signal. He could guess who it was. He clicked on the message.

"meet at top of seehorn. 1am tonight. have evidence". 

The Seehorn was a small mountain by Alpine standards, and just outside Davos. But even so, getting to the top of it would mean a 500-metre ascent on skis, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. Not at all impossible since Phillip was a strong skier. But why so late? And why there, rather than somewhere in town? 

He typed a hasty reply: "can do but why there. prefer in town". The reponse was just as fast: "because there not in town. will expect you". And a smiling-face emoji.

Late that evening, after making himself briefly conspicuous at the opening event, which went smoothly, with The Doc outwardly on good form, Philip returned to his apartment in Talstrasse. He prepared for his excursion.

He placed a waterproof case in the top pocket of his backpack. He would need that later. In the main pocket of his backpack he stowed an extra layer of clothing, a snack, and a flask of tea. He strapped on his ice-axe, then reached under his bed and pulled out the lockbox containing his gun, a Glock 19, which he wore in a holster on his chest below his ski jacket. He put an extra magazine into each of his outside jacket pockets.

Should he carry his avalanche transceiver? Not worth it. The risk of avalanche was almost nil. Anyway, he was on his own and nobody would ever come to his rescue. He put climbing skins on his skis, adjusted the lamp on his hat, zipped up his jacket, and went outside. It was freezing cold and half-past-eleven. It would take him a little more than an hour to reach the top of Seehorn.   

Once in the snow-covered courtyard he put on his skis, and turned along the Bündastrasse towards a footpath buried in the snow which took him to the Flüelastrasse, which was at deserted at that time of night, and from there he started his ascent.

He didn't see a soul. He was alone in the splendid solitude of the moonlit mountain at an altitude not far short of 2,000 metres. His skis slid almost soundlessly across the iced snow. He switched off his head-lamp and found his rhythm. He would be at the top of Seehorn well before 1am. He knew what he was doing. He felt good. 

The metallic coldness of the mountain air sharpened in his lungs as he climbed. The weather was closing in, the snow flurries were growing thicker and the wind more violent. The summit must be near. He could see the mountains in the distance, and, faintly, the lights of the valley below, but he could not quite make out the dome of Seehorn itself. 

He was entering a pocket of freezing fog. He paused to take stock and check his watch. His altimeter showed 2,170 metres. Fifty more metres to go. And plenty of time in hand before on o'clock, so he would put that time to good use.

Anyone waiting for him at the top of Seehorn would expect him to arrive from the south. So, instead, he would approach the summit from the north-west side, a much steeper slope. Just in case. He put on his ski crampons, took out his axe, and started working his way up the tongue of ice. 

He was almost at the top when he heard voices carrying on the wind. Two people conversing. Then a third. This was not what he had expected. And was that even a fourth voice? It was hard to be sure. Close as he was to them, whoever they all were, the slope was so steep that he couldn’t yet see them and they couldn’t see him.

There was no way there should be four of them. He made a snap decision: Back off.

Balancing in the void with the help of his axe, he took off his skis and ripped the climbing skins from them as quietly as he could, sticking them successively into the snow to make sure he didn’t lose them. With his axe as an anchor, he pushed his left ski-boot back into its binding, triggering a dull metallic snap, then the right boot, with another quiet snap. 

The voices stopped suddenly. They had heard something and they were jumpy. So was he, now. He abandoned his axe, grabbed his ski poles, pivoted sharply, and plunged into a descent. 

A moment later he heard a sudden crackle of semi-automatic gunfire above and behind him. But they were a little too slow. A stray bullet might catch him, and there were plenty of those coming his general direction, but they surely could not see him to aim.

He disappeared into the darkness. And not only into the darkness. For, as The Doc's war room would discover when it convened the next morning, Philip was disappearing completely.

To be continued tomorrow ...

Free 21 min read

Death In Davos: Day Four

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Tuesday 16th January 2024 — Davos 

IN THIS EPISODE: Philip vanishes | Sandra almost gets sacked | Colonel Bern stands up to The Doc | Rebecca Stilton's secret | The Doc sheds a tear | Olena expects a very important visitor | Karl shows his hand | A head explodes

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

THE DOC stared into his emerald-green Mountain Morning Maxivitamin smoothie. His inner composure was shaken as thoroughly as the drink itself. He couldn’t think straight, he couldn’t hold a thought, except for the very thought that he was trying not to hold: That this, just possibly, could be the beginning of the end.

Everything at The Circle was meant to look effortless, for White Badge holders at least. They put themselves in the hands of The Doc, and The Doc massaged their egos as only he knew how.

With each passing year the annual meeting, like a work of art, had acquired its own patina, a finely lacquered surface in which members could see their visions of themselves reflected. If the patina were to be cracked by some catastrophe, this year or any year, the crack would be visible for decades to come, which might as well be for ever as far as The Doc was concerned.  

And this year, at this meeting, every hour seemed to bring another blow. The autopsy on the helicopter pilot had revealed apparent traces of drug use. Girard's phone was full of text messages which the police declined to disclose even to The Doc. And now it was Philip. Philip Middlewait was nowhere to be found. How could The Doc's own chief of staff vanish into thin air just when he was needed the most? Had Philip been the next victim of this thing

Philip had failed to show up at Tuesday's 6am senior staff meeting, and nobody had the faintest idea why he was not there, nor where he might be. By 10am, at the request of Markus Bern, The Circle's security chief, police dogs were scouring the snow-clad streets of Davos in vain. A search of Phillip’s apartment had yielded nothing of possible value save for his Circle mobile phone left on the bedside table. Philip had simply evaporated, and contrived to do so in what was, at this particular moment, the most thoroughly surveilled place on earth. 

A sense of rising panic was gnawing at The Doc's innards. Until that morning he had been able to insist successfully to himself that Girard and the helicopter crash had been a coincidence, or, at any rate, that he was fully justified in proceeding as though they were a coincidence.

Now, with Philip gone, The Doc felt sure that these were not coincidences — that he and The Circle were under attack. No longer could he maintain his zen-like calm when he gave instructions to Sandra and Markus or briefed to other staff. Now he was issuing his orders in tones of desperation, most of them consisting of a single word: "No".

When Sandra Smiley, his director of communications, had proposed a minute of silence at the closing plenary session for the victims of the helicopter crash, The Doc had almost sacked her on the spot, until his common sense got the better of him. What use was a director of communications when the priority was to keep things quiet? Where could he find a director of non-communications? How long could the news of Phillip’s disappearance be kept under wraps? How could he do anything without Philip?

It was still business as usual in most of the Congress Centre and the rest of the town, though a practised observer might have noticed an unusually large number of dark-suited bystanders around the place dissembling a keen interest in the middle-distance. 

White Badge holders bustled through the inner corridors of the Congress Centre; coloured-badge holders drank coffee in the all-comers bar and studied the programme; plus-ones and vice-presidents idled in hotel lobbies, made restaurant bookings, and shopped for woolly gloves. Everybody was talking business, planning deals, exchanging New Year greetings and hugging haven't-seen-you-for-ages friends.

The accredited media, however, and the unaccredited media even more so, were visibly frisky. Rumours were circulating, and new details were being hazarded, both about the helicopter crash and about Alain Girard's death.

One journalist had talked to a passenger in Girard's train-carriage who had given a first-hand account of Girard's spasms and soilings. Another had a found a source inside the Swiss police who had said something which the journalist was keeping to herself, about the helicopter pilot. A third had been on the Promenade when the helicopter came down, and knew that helicopters did not crash quite like that.

The economics correspondent of The Guardian, charged for once with a general news story, was ready to go that night with a piece saying that the Swiss police were "expressing doubts" that the two incidents could be a mere coincidence, given the place and time. She was also aware of Girard's record as a Putinist sympathiser, and would throw that into the mix.

The New York Times Dealbook correspondent planned a different take, one that would have tormented The Doc even more if he had known it was coming. Was it wise, the correspondent would ask, given the current state of the world, for hundreds of leading figures to gather in the same place at the same time, in such numbers that even the Swiss police and Swiss army could not possibly protect all of them all of the time?

Conspiracy theories about the helicopter crash had reached The Doc's ears, but none yet seemed to incorporate hard leaks from the pilot's post-mortem. All the same, you didn't have to be Machiavelli to deduce that a verdict blaming the crash on a drugged-up pilot would suit the world's aviation manufacturers down to the ground, as it were.

Markus was tracking the staff gossip, which centred mainly on the supposed elimination of one of the helicopter's passengers — either the investigative journalist from Ukraine, or the British "philanthrocapitalist" (even The Doc hated that word), Rebecca Stilton. 

Stilton was a regular at The Circle, but this year, apparently, she had an agenda of her own, or so her recovered mobile phone revealed. She had invited a dozen other White Badge holders to an off-the-record breakfast at the Magic Mountain Spa for something that was apparently going to be called the “Dump Trump” caucus.

This last news enraged the Doc. He summoned Markus for a one-to-one. "Why didn’t I know anything about this group?", he demanded. "Obviously we cannot interfere with what people do in their own hotel suites. But nor do we want the newspapers saying a year from now that a coup against the president of the United States was planned at The Circle. It will be the oligarchs all over again!"

"I conducted a provisional investigation", began the head of security, flipping through the pages of a notebook, "in which I cross-referenced the known engagements, the unallocated diary-time, and the records of known telephone calls — metadata only — between the White Badge holders who were invited to Ms Stilton's breakfast, and others with whom they as a group were in frequent contact.

"My inference is that a particular group of perhaps two dozen or more participants have come to Davos primarily to conduct a preplanned series of private meetings, in various configurations, with one another. Given the nature of Ms Stilton's planned breakfast, we may presume that their main purpose is to organise against Mr Trump’s re-election.

"To answer your question, Herr Doktor, we had no way of knowing that such activity was under way, because we have always concerned ourselves solely with what happens inside the Congress Centre. We leave what happens outside the Congress Centre to the attention of the Swiss police. Apparently the police had no word of this. Nor, I think, would they have seen any grounds for action if they had known about it."

The Doc was suddenly furious. At any other time he would have understood that there was nothing that he could or should do save perhaps for fine-tuning next year's guest list and locating a friendly informant within this supposed caucus to tell him what was going on there. Knowledge was power. But this was not any other time and he was losing his self-control.

"Who gave you this information?", he demanded. "What else do they know and how do they know it?"

"My contacts in the Swiss services shared this information with me. I have no concrete knowledge of their technology for interrogating mobile telephones. If I were to ask for further information, and thereby to hint that we were considering some action of our own, I believe the effect would be most counter-productive, both in this instance and for the course of our future working relations with the police, which have always been excellent. But of course if you want me to take that action then I will do so.

"I am not even sure", Bern continued, "what other details there could be. This does not seem to be an organisation as such. It is a group of people who have every right to discuss their perfectly legal preoccupations, and who may well have many things to discuss besides the particular topic with which we are now concerned. I imagine that they would be justifiably indignant if anybody challenged their right to do so. At the very least they would move their discussion elsewhere."

The Doc slammed his fist on the table. He was on the point of raising his voice still further, of shouting at Bern, something to the effect that Bern's job was to do what Bern was paid to do, not to offer opinions on matters that he did not understand. Then The Doc checked himself. Inwardly, he backed off a step or two. There had been times often enough when he despised his subordinates for not having minds of their own. Now, here was Bern was talking back to him — and, The Doc had to concede, Bern was making sensible points. The man had unsuspected qualities.

The Doc decided to withdraw gracefully. "Please try to confirm how these people are otherwise connected, but discreetly", he said. "My legitimate concern is that the name of The Circle should not be associated with any political platform. We are not the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation. We do not seek to be a associated with any political current. Perhaps I am over-reacting in this particular case. I have a lot on my mind."

"I understand. Thank you, Herr Doktor."

The Doc, left alone, stared at the wall. He was suddenly feeling old and tired.

When explaining The Circle to people who did not see how it could not be political, one way or another, The Doc had a favourite analogy.

In a democratic country you had a constitution. You also had political parties. The constitution contained the principles on which everybody, including the political parties, could agree. The constitution allowed the political parties to say what they wanted to say, within the limits of the constitution. The Circle operated at the level of the constitution, not at the level of political parties.

And yet, and yet, thought The Doc. Perhaps it was only with hindsight that one came to recognise the most important characteristics of the times in which one had been living. And only quite recently had The Doc appreciated the extent to which there had actually been a desire for consensus, a world order of sorts, to which The Circle could attach itself, at least until ten or fifteen years ago. Now, not so much.

You might go back further. There had been a shock to the system on 9/11, another with the invasion of Iraq, then 2008 — but even then, most people, in most of the world, had gone on thinking that working together, getting along with one another, was a useful and desirable thing. Win-win. Now, not so much.

Trump alone had had not changed everything, but Trump and Putin and Xi and Erdogan and climate change had changed everything, and they were symptoms as well as causes. No longer did The Doc detect any universal attachment to any semblance of world order. Everything was crisis and conflict, all the way down. The whole world was made up of states of exception, to use Schmidt's term. People truly hated one another in a way that had not been seen since 1945.

The Doc's public conversation with Trump, when Trump came to The Circle a few years back, had left a bad taste in his mouth. Not only because Trump was personally so unpleasant, though The Doc would have struck him from the guest list were he not President of the United States. It was more because, after the conversation, The Doc had heard people say that he had been too deferential to Trump, sycophantic even.

"Well it wasn't me who elected him President", The Doc's first reaction had been when he had read the press comment on the Trump session. "Are they saying that we shouldn't invite the President of the United States to The Circle? And are they saying that we should be rude to him when he comes?"

At the time, it had not occurred to The Doc that it would have been anything but folly to invite the president of the United States to The Circle in order to criticise him, or not to invite the President at all when the President was minded to attend.

But cui bono, when The Circle gave dignity to demagogues? Would The Doc invite the AfD to The Circle, and be respectful to them, if they won a regional government in Germany? Would he have Putin back, once peace was restored? Would he disinvite the Dalai Lama if Xi Jinping suddenly wanted to attend?

The Doc had intended The Circle to be above ideologies, but now there was no "above". Everything in the world had been ideologised. If you tried to escape ideology, ideology came looking for you, and in the end it found you. He felt towards Putin and Xi the same way that George Soros must feel towards Viktor Orban: "I taught you how to use your knife and fork. I taught you how to sit at table. And now you spit in my soup." 

Around the same time that The Doc was inwardly cursing the leaders of the unfree world, Olena had come to the end of her day of back-to-back meetings in the Hotel Belvedere. There were worse places to do your meetings.

Karl Manhof, her seemingly loyal hedge-fund tycoon, had said that, since he was now her anchor investor, and since Go Green was proposing to match, euro for euro, all the public funding that went into Reconstruct Ukraine, Karl considered himself part of the Reconstruct Ukraine team, and he expected to join all of Olena's meetings in Davos.

She was taken aback, but she decided to agree. There was nothing confidential in her pitches. All the terms and conditions of the tenders would be public. To have Karl alongside her at her meetings would be a net plus. So Reconstruct Ukraine set up shop in the reception room of Karl's suite at the Belvedere, a suite which, when the last delegation had departed, he began praising as an example of his own good taste.

"You are thinking: Why such modesty? Why only the Thomas Mann Suite?". He waved at the hundred square metres of carpeted floor which surrounded them. "Why am I not in the Gorbachev Suite, or the Kashoggi Suite, or the Nursultan Nazarbayev Presidential Supersuite?

"Because it is too easy to show off here. Let everybody else do that. I will top them all by not competing. You see, Olenka, I do not want people to admire my wealth. I want them to admire my taste".

The arrogance of the man! She wanted to tell him to stop using her diminutive. Or call him "Karlchen" and see how he liked it. But given the child-like sense of entitlement which pervaded everything Karl did, he might well like it very much, and then where would they be? She reined herself in. She needed his money. She needed his goodwill. She needed to put up with him.

They had spent most of the day discussing phase-one projects — the airport, the high-speed rail, Chernobyl — with delegations from countries and organisations that had already promised to support Ukraine’s reconstruction.

She gave the same pitch each time. And, each time, Karl added his pledge to match public money with private capital. She and Karl enacted excitement in front of each new interlocutor about the "sustainable Ukraine" they would build: Energy-efficient infrastructure, ultra-low-carbon industry, high-speed railways in place of traffic-jammed roads, rewilding where Chernobyl once stood, an international airport for the first generation of electric-powered aviation.

And, each time, the same closing closing remarks came back across the table: "We will look at this with utmost seriousness". "Ukraine’s future is our future". "You have our full support". "Please keep us updated".

It was past 6pm. Olena stood up, muttered a compliment to Karl about his suite, stretched, sighed theatrically, and said in an end-of-day voice:

"My summary of progress to date. If Ukraine could be reconstructed out of lame assurances, we could turn Kyiv into Manhattan tomorrow."

"That’s a bit harsh!", said Karl, in one what evidently one of his favourite phrases.

She was not blind to the fact that Karl had successfully manipulated her. She was treating him as a colleague when she should have been treating him as a counterparty. But it was too late to undo that now, and, in any case, his insights were useful. Perhaps she could provoke more of them by pushing him a bit and looking for the moments when he dropped his smile.

"Let’s face it, Karl", she began. "On the train down here I gave you my pitch, the pitch you have heard me giving over and over again today. Let's you and me zoom out.

"I know, and you know, that the Americans and most of the Europeans are cutting back on military assistance and even economic assistance, to Ukraine. If that continues, who is going to be queueing up to invest in Ukraine at all, let alone in a 'green and sustainable manner'? Why board a bus if it isn't going to move?

"Ukraine will never willingly agree to a peace treaty without a guaranteed reconstruction programme, and nobody is going to sign off on a reconstruction programme without a peace treaty ready to be ratified. How do we square the circle? I am not speaking on behalf of the Ukrainian government, this is me talking because I need to think this through."

"Listen", retorted Karl, with his self-confidence unruffled. "The optimal outcome is a fully-funded reconstruction programme, so we work for that outcome. Nobody ever wants to go first, so I have gone first. Already you are in a stronger position than most people with a dance-card to fill.

"I have my reasons for supporting you, and I have shared them with you. As it happens, I don’t think the Americans will let you down. Also, I have reason to think the Germans are more open to persuasion than you seem to assume, so long as it is done in an appropriate way. Scholz is not Merkel. He is not thinking a century ahead, he is thinking three months ahead. In the end he will do what the newspapers tell him to do.

"And besides, the three Americans who came this afternoon seemed pretty keen. It's actually a positive for American financial investors that the tenders are designed to favour EU contractors, because that means a smaller circle of qualified bidders, the bids will therefore be higher, and the margins on those bids will be higher. Americans don't really want to invest in Ukraine, you must see this, they want to invest in the European companies that will win the tenders."

Another piece of Karl's calculation fell into place for her. Nobody could know ahead of time who would win the tenders, but Karl could was putting himself into a position where he would know better than anybody else who was likely to win the tenders. He could invest accordingly, and people who understood Karl's positioning could invest through or with Karl.

"But the Americans will want to say that they are investing in Ukraine, and we can give them that", Olena said. Karl nodded approvingly. "Look, Karl. You have may heard this. I am not supposed to tell anybody, but it is hardly a state secret. President Zelenskyy will be here in two days for the closing day of The Circle.

"Zelenskyy", she continued, "will set aside one hour to see people that I want him to see, people who will commit to the reconstruction, or, better still, have already committed. You will get an invitation, obviously. I need Zelenskyy to leave here feeling good. I need him to start talking about the reconstruction as though it is something real, as though it is his own legacy. I want him to win the war, however that works at this point, but I want him to plan for the peace."

"Patience!" smiled Karl. "Two days is a long time in Davos. You will see twenty more people tomorrow, all of them with something to offer. If they say that they are supportive, ask them for letters that you can pass on to Zelenskyy, letters in which they say how much they support the reconstruction, how much they look forward to working with Ukraine.

"A letter commits them to nothing. But then you arrange for the writers of the strongest letters to meet Zelenskyy. They will want to meet him, and they can hardly say then that they have suddenly got cold feet, or that their level of commitment has been misunderstood, when he has their letters in his hand.

"Among the people we saw today you should ask for such a letter tonight from the USAID representative. And from Bouygues. And from that American Senator who seemed to think that there were contractors in his home state who would want to be considered, and who promised help in Congress."

She stared at him with an air of disbelief. Would she ever dream of telling him how to run Go Green? But actually, it was a sign of her fatigue that she hadn't come up with a strategy like that herself. Also of her underlying depression.

She had listened to The Doc the previous night and she had felt as though she and The Doc were synced on some telepathic wavelength. She knew that he was saying one thing and thinking another. He was going through the motions, he was performing for them all, like the orchestra that went on playing when the Titanic went down.

Maybe the orchestra was hoping that the Titanic would miraculously right itself, or the musicians didn't know what else to do, or they thought that history would appreciate the gesture.

That was the vibe she had got from The Doc last night, the dog-whistle she heard him blowing. It was something about his facial expression, or his tone of voice, when he made his stock references to tragic violence and unprecedented uncertainty.

She remembered those formulae from her days as an Aspiring Leader. But she felt now, and she knew somehow that The Doc felt this too, that very soon there would be nothing left in the world except tragic violence and unprecedented uncertainty. The Doc needed to cry wolf for real, there was a giant herd of wolves covering the whole horizon, but he had devalued his words so much by over-use that they no longer alarmed anybody and he had no new words to replace them.

As for Olena, whatever she might say in her pitches, she was now certain of a Trump victory in November, and after that a final lurch into global chaos. She had come to understand belatedly that most Americans in most parts of America actually wanted a president like Trump. His previous victory had not been an aberration or a misunderstanding or a one-off protest vote. The American id had found its spokesman and was delighted with the results. Biden had been a reflexive spasm, a posthumous twitching of liberal democracy, but it had not been nearly enough. The future, absurd as that sounded, was Trump.

"I’ve written off the US", she said suddenly to Karl. If the world was going to end, she decided on impulse, no sense in pretending. "The odds of Trump winning are high. The odds of the United States becoming a de facto dictatorship are significant. Then we are f—ed. No more NATO, no more this, no more that, no more Ukraine. If that doesn't happen now it will happen soon. The trend is decidedly not our friend, my friend."

Karl looked at her quizzically. Was this a gambit of some kind, or an honest outburst? In either case, his response would be the same.

"‘Olenka!", he said. "People have a remarkably bad record of prophesying the future. They do not even understand the metaphysics of it. When The Doc talked about 'unprecedented uncertainty' last night I wanted to jump up and object. The only certain thing about uncertainty is that it is never unprecedented. Uncertainty is always present and always absolute. Uncertainty describes a situation in which not only the outcomes, but the model itself, are unknown — and if you or The Doc knows God's model for the Universe I take my hat off to you both.

"One must never confuse uncertainty with ranges of possibilities or degrees of probability or absence of data. They are quite different things. The Doc has forgotten his F.H. Knight. And, quite besides that, one must always oppose the inevitable, because if one does not oppose it then one will never know how inevitable it truly was."

She had to smile. She had been right to sound off. He had not only wrapped her despair into a neat little package, but had returned it to sender with a ribbon on top. She shook her head to indicate that the incident was best forgotten, looked at her watch, and saw that it was 6.45pm.

"Let’s call it a day. In fact the Senator has texted me asking me to join him for a drink downstairs. With his wife."

‘There, you see. Things aren’t as bad as all that!’

Olena bundled up her papers. In the lift down she started scrolling through her unopened emails and messages. Her WhatsApp screen was full of ex-colleagues from The Circle asking her whether she knew anything about Philip. Apparently Philip had disappeared and nobody knew where he was. The consensus chatter was that his disappearance was a non-trivial part of an emerging pattern of bad things. As one message wondered: "has he he found them or have they found him?".

She took her puffer jacket from the coat rack, rummaged through the pockets, and found the number that Philip had given her on Sunday. She couldn’t be late for the Senator, but she needed to make the call. She downloaded the Signal app, which was new to her, then send him a message: “p: how are you and where are you? please respond. olia”. Off it went, and on she went to find the Senator.  

The lobby was packed. Dozens of Circle guests were leaving, the men in black tie, for a plenary dinner at the Congress Centre. A queue of cars waited for them in the icy courtyard, advancing one by one for pick-ups at the hotel door. Beyond the colony of penguin look-alikes Olena spotted the Congressman, his wife at his side. She went over to them and shook their hands. 

‘How very nice to see you again, Mr Senator, and to meet you, Madame ...’

"The pleasure is mine, Ms. Kostarenko" he interrupted. "Please call me Ishmael. It happens to be my name, unfortunately. My parents were literary types. Where shall we go? Do you have a recommended spot?"

She expected him to have somewhere in mind, but she knew exactly where she herself would prefer to go: to the Peeperkorn Bar, on the far side of the lobby. It would be relatively quiet, given that so many people were going out to dinner. They played only the gentlest of background music in the bar, which was important to her. Conversations were delicate things and should not be interrupted unnecessarily. She liked the look of the Senator and his wife. They could become real friends. Useful friends too.

"If it would suit you both, let me suggest that we stay here in the Belvedere and ...

That was as far as she got. The Senator's head somehow exploded. Glass shattered somewhere nearby. The Senator's wife screamed. Then Olena screamed. Then everybody in the lobby screamed.

The Senator seemed to fold up and tumble sideways. Two seconds later he was flat on the carpet with blood pouring from his head and his wife kneeling beside him. She was weeping, then shouting, then muttering, looking at the Senator and then looking around for help.

Four men appeared beside them. Perhaps the men had always been in the lobby and she hadn't noticed them. They were wearing dark suits and they had guns in their hands. One of them was talking urgently into an earpiece. They were police.

Two more plainclothes officers arrived, then another two, and another two. They formed a ring around the dead man — for dead he surely was — and gestured the bystanders to move back. An ambulance arrived outside, lights flashing. The crew raced in, put the body on a stretcher, and took the stretcher out to the ambulance.

Two policemen escorted the Senator's wife into an unmarked car which pulled up in place of the ambulance. The car drove away in pursuit of the ambulance. Two policemen stood with Olena, one on either side. They asked her to remain in place for moment, and would she like a chair? She would. She was shaking violently. She was terrified.

Twenty minutes later Olena was alone in her own hotel room with a police officer outside her door. The police had driven her there, verified her identity while she was still in the car, and asked her what she was doing with the Senator. After she had managed to put a few sentences together, she was escorted up to her room and invited to rest. A nurse would be with her shortly. The police would talk to her again when the shock had passed. And, in the meantime, if she remembered anything about those one or two minutes before the Senator was shot, when she was standing next to him, or anything else that she had noticed in the hotel lobby, she should she write it down. They gave her a notepad and a ballpoint.

She looked at her phone. Markus Bern had called her. The Doc had called her. They must have heard. They must know she was OK. She didn't want to talk to them.

The only person she wanted to talk to was Philip. She opened Signal and saw a message from him, timed at 6.52pm, in reply to her own: "i am fine olia but off grid in coming days. take good care".

With trembling fingers she typed: "man shot next to me just now. senator. need advice. please help".

She watched while Philip messaged back to her: "presume you now in hotel and police with you. if so go nowhere. if not call bern. i will tell you what to do next".  

Tell her what to do next?

She sent off another text: "please explain how you know what is happening".

Philip again: "i know things other people do not. not all but some. please trust me".

Then he was gone.

At the hospital, the Senator was pronounced dead, and his wife wept again. At the Congress Centre the dinner came to its end and The Doc was quietly informed that police and soldiers were saturating the streets leading from the Centre to the Belvedere and to a few other big hotels.

At the Schweizerhof, the nurse arrived, the police officer let the nurse in to Olena's room, the nurse injected Olena with a sedative, and within minutes Olena was asleep. A dreamless sleep, thankfully, for her dreams would not have been pretty.

 To be continued tomorrow ...

Free 17 min read

Death In Davos : Day Five

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Wednesday 17th January 2024 – Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: The balloon goes up — Davos in lockdown — Snipers at large — The Doc appeals for calm — A catastrophic error — Anger mounts — Rebellion in the Congress Centre — Poor Mr Massover

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

THE DOC liked to talk about "Circle Moments" — things that could happen only at The Circle, like being there when Xi Jinping was playing the piano while Sinead O'Connor was singing Moon River, or seeing Lyndon LaRouche in the Belvedere Bar sharing jokes with Kathy Acker and Angela Davis. But, as Circle moments went, this one was off the scale. It had started on Tuesday night and seemed as though it might never end.

When the the gala dinner was winding down at the Congress Center on Tuesday night, the police took The Doc aside. Half an hour later, when most guests should have reached their hotels, an urgent alert was issued in The Doc's name on LiveRadius, The Circle’s messaging app, asking “all participants” to remain in their hotel rooms. If they were not in their hotels they should go directly to their hotels. The Circle "regretted the inconvenience", but was "following police instructions", and "recommended" that everybody do likewise.

The hundreds of guests walking or cabbing back to their hotels from the Congress Centre saw that something was up, well before they saw The Doc's alert. Armoured vehicles stood at every street-corner. There was a soldier in combat gear every five meters or so along the pavements. Helicopters were clattering through the skies, sweeping the mountains with spotlights. Outside the Belvedere a cordon had been erected and arrivals were being funnelled in through a side entrance. 

If the intention was that people should go straight to bed, the result was rather the opposite. Inside the hotels, and at every bar around the Congress Centre, until those bars were closed by the police, people were drinking into the early hours, checking their phones, and comparing notes on what they had heard; in a few cases, on what they had seen.

The Circle hadn’t been this interesting for years, people joked; after which they went on to agree that, actually, it wasn't that great if people were getting killed; the sessions would be disrupted and they had come all this way; the Swiss Army wouldn't be mobilising unless something big was happening; and maybe this wasn't an amusing situation after all; in fact, maybe it was vaguely scary to find yourself in the middle of a near-war zone when you had brought your other half along and you were planning to talk business and catch up on some skiing. But at least they were all in it together, which was a good thing, except, you know, if it wasn't a good thing, if it made them all a target, and apparently the New York Times was running a piece saying something along those lines.

Everybody on social media was debating the timeline. First, somebody had been poisoned on a train from Zurich to Davos on Saturday — not a somebody whom anybody in the Belvedere Bar knew personally, but somebody who was coming to The Circle, anyhow.

Then there was the helicopter crash on Sunday. A tragic accident, and maybe now it wasn't an accident. And that paled beside the two shootings which occurred hours ago while people were heading for dinner. A US Senator was killed right there in the lobby of the Belvedere. The CEO of a major American bank was shot dead a few blocks away.

It had been a sensible move, they agreed, to allow them all to return to their hotels after dinner while the killers were still at large and the streets were being flooded with soldiers. Kudos to The Doc and to the Swiss. Anywhere else they would have been shut into the Congress Centre for the night while the police locked down the town.

And what was going on? Maybe there was one real target — some thought the bank CEO, others thought the Senator — and the rest were red herrings. But it was a hell of a red herring to bring down a helo; and killings this good were expensive. There were people who knew about this sort of thing, which is to say people who had people who knew about this sort of thing. If it was just the bank CEO or the Senator that the bad guys were really after, they could have got the job done for — what — "a hundred thousand bucks" somebody hazarded, and not under the noses of the Swiss police either.

Whatever was happening here was costing somebody millions if they were paying market. It had to be terrorism of a highly organised kind. Sure, plenty of people talked about The Circle being a conspiracy to run the world in league with Bilderberg and the Trilateral Commission and the Rockefellers and the United Nations. But did any serious player have the money and the stupidity and the motivation to act on that insane theory? And if they did, what was the endgame?

The details which trickled out during the night did nothing to calm anybody's nerves, nor did the smell of soap from the Belvedere lobby. Three hours after the shootings, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was saying on its website that each of the victims had been hit with one 7.62×51mm NATO round, probably from a considerable distance. On a windless night a bullet like that could carry more than a mile.

What that strongly implied was that these shootings were planned long in advance and had involved at least four highly-trained hands-on professionals — two expert snipers, each with a spotter to make the wind call. So long as they had a line of sight, the shooters could have been anywhere at all, with all the time in the world to break down their guns and move on before the police could even begin to guess at the trajectory of the bullets.

Those staying in the Belvedere were soon congratulating themselves on their choice of hotel. A contingent which ordered a minibus to take them from the Belvedere Bar back to the hotel at which they were staying in Klosters, ten kilometers along the valley, reappeared in the Belvedere Bar half an hour later. The police had sealed all exits from the town. The valley was closed in both directions.

They were cut off. They were role-playing an Agatha Christie mystery. Where was Hercule Poirot?

The novelty of the situation took the edge off what might otherwise have been some early indignation. A representation to the concierge of the Belvedere, who had temporarily relocated his perch from the lobby to the corner of the bar, returned with the information that the Belvedere had no more rooms, which they all knew; but also that, according to the hoteliers' intranet, no other hotel in Davos had any rooms, and all airbnb listings had been mopped up months ago.

The Belvedere Bar rapidly turned into a clearing-house of sorts, as did many other hotel bars. People with suites offered up their spare rooms; a few with twin-bedded rooms offered up their second beds; many bad jokes were made; the concierge announced that the Swiss army would shortly be making a delivery of camp-beds which would be installed in the hotel ballroom. Never in the history of The Circle had there been such a sense of Gemütlichkeit among members. Nor would this one last beyond the morning. 

In the course of the night a few mutinous guests tried to outsmart the police, deciding after one-too-many drinks to slip out of the valley on foot or on skis. No chance. The Flüela and Wolfgang passes on the Klosters side were heavily guarded and closed to any kind of traffic – trains, cars, people, even skidoos; as was the Albula pass at the other end of the valley. 

Around 2am one clutch of hedge-fund managers resolved to ski-tour their way over the Strela pass. "Not a problem", insisted their ringleader, who had been bragging to them about his ultra-trail exploits around Verbier. "All of us are fit. Some of us are super-fit. Any stragglers, I'll pick them up and carry them myself. Cherry on the cake: I’ve ordered a limo minivan that will be waiting for us near Klosters. We’ll be at Zurich airport by lunchtime."

A Swiss investor in the group who also happened to be a reserve officer in the Swiss army advised otherwise. He pointed out that this pass would also be closed, as would all other high-altitude routes including the Sertig and Scaletta passes. The Swiss knew where their mountains were and they knew where their mountain passes were. Every viable route, and more besides, would be under close surveillance by the Swiss army’s mountain troops, and probably also by members of the AAD10, the special-forces unit. Another round of schnaps was ordered.

On Wednesday morning a meaningful proportion of White Badge holders awoke with a hangover. An alert on LiveRadius invited them to attend an "important information meeting" in the Congress Centre at 9am. It had not been a dream.

They trudged in twos and threes to the Congress Centre, passing the soldiers and armoured vehicles still stationed along the route. The sun was out, and so were some gizmos that no visitor had ever seen before: revolving motorised mirrors on tall stalks, flashing the reflected sun towards the neighbouring mountains, in case any sniper out there might be planning another shot.

Well before nine the plenary room in the Congress Centre was full. So, too, were adjacent rooms, connected via video to hold the overflow. The atmosphere in the main room was one of impatient hubbub. These were not the sort of people to whom this sort of thing was meant to happen. Ever.

At nine precisely the Doc appeared on stage, looking out at the room. The fuss slowly subsided. He was stiffer than usual, hesitant, distinctly ill at ease. To one side of him stood a tall middle-aged man whom he introduced as Alois Hersli, the Swiss federal official in overall charge of security at Davos. 

The Doc spoke at the lectern from notes. Swiss army psychological experts had drummed his talking points into him during the night and he was not going to depart from them an inch.

"These are troubling times", he began. The room was transfixed, not by what he said, but by the way that he said it. This was not The Doc they were used to. All the affect had gone from voice and his body-language. There was no twinkle in his eye. He was not even looking up. He was, in fact, under instructions from the army experts not to "connect emotionally" with his audience at all, and he was embracing that ambition fervently.

"As you probably all know by now, yesterday evening two of our guests — our colleagues, our friends, I should probably say — were shot dead by unknown hands at around seven o'clock, while many of us were sitting down to dinner in this very building. I offer my deepest condolences to their families, as, I am sure, do we all." He paused for a few seconds to allow for a sympathetic murmur.

"After these tragic events, the Graubünden canton police force, in conjunction with the Swiss federal authorities, decided to close the valley with immediate effect, for a limited period, the better to proceed with their investigation, and, hopefully, to apprehend as rapidly as possible the perpetrators of these abominable crimes. 

"The police, the army, and the federal authorities have made this decision. We must respect it and allow them to do their work. I fear that it may be inappropriate, and perhaps the police will consider it impossible, for The Circle to continue with its planned programme, so we shall not be holding any sessions today, and we shall update you via LiveRadius as to tomorrow.

"I regret the tremendous inconvenience this causes to all of you. On behalf of The Circle, and I know that the authorities feel similarly, I beg for your patience and understanding. As always, we are your service. Our director of communications — he nodded to Sandra Smiley — is here to answer any questions that you may have, but first Mr Hersli will say a few words."

The Doc stood back. Once Hersli was at the lectern, The Doc disappeared from view, to a chair made ready for him behind the stage.

He had been up all night with the army and he still had no complete picture of what was going on out there. Why him? Why The Circle?

And where was Philip? If only Philip were here, Philip would deal with all these people and brief him on what needed to be done. The absence of his chief of staff tormented him in some ways more than last night's assassinations; the latter were, to him, relative abstractions, even though he had known both victims. Assassinations were things that did not belong in The Doc's universe. Philip did.

Alois Hersli spoke in accented but effective English. He noted first the death of Alain Girard, then the helicopter crash, and only then the shootings. He said that each event was being thoroughly investigated by the Swiss authorities with assistance from appropriate services overseas where this was indicated.

He remarked that the shootings were probably not, as he put it, "amateur crimes". Beyond that, he could not speculate. The killers would be found and their motives established. The Swiss government was deploying a wide range of resources. In past years this might have been called a "manhunt". He apologised in particular that it had proved necessary to close the valley, but he hoped that everybody would bear with him until the police were confident that the valley could be opened again. He could not say when this might be expected. He raised his head from the lectern, thanked his audience for its patience, and stepped back. 

His remarks were received with a polite silence, which gave way to a murmuring, which grew into an outcry. "You cannot keep us here", shouted one voice. "We demand a proper explanation", shouted another. Several people were booing loudly. A few were standing. "Where's The Doc" someone cried.

Sandra drew a deep breath and made her way to the lectern. The room quieted again. She introduced herself as The Circle's Director of Communications — "So communicate!", shouted someone at the back — and, in the circumstances, it was her pleasure, or rather her duty, to answer questions relating to the "ongoing situation", as she put it. Probably, she said, she knew no more than they did. Doubtless they were all following social media as well as mainstream media. She would be happy to confirm what The Circle believed to be facts — as opposed to speculation, in which they would not wish her to indulge. They were "all in this together", she said with a cautious smile. Note-takers, as in regular Circle plenary meetings, would capture keywords and phrases voiced in the room, and input them to a word cloud on the screen behind her. She looked out at the room. Chaos ensued. 

The Aspiring Leaders and the temporary staff did their best, but nobody who got a microphone wanted to give it back. Soon sections of the room were almost fighting for possession, while everybody seemed to be shouting questions or insults without waiting to be noticed from the lectern. It looked to Sandra like the cast of Succession re-enacting Lord Of The Flies.

Markus Bern's security people were communicating feverishly on their earpieces, and were able to report that nobody was getting visible assaulted. 

Individual voices broke through the cacophony. Was it true that all these crimes were related to the visit of President Zelenskyy? Would Zelenskyy still come? Was it true that Circle staffers had been taken hostage? 

The note-takers were struggling to catch as much as they could, and the screen behind Sandra was filling with phrases and keywords. It was probably an error to be projecting them in bright red, as this made them look even angrier:

— "When did you know?"
— "Is Zelenskyy coming?"
— "Was the pilot on drugs?"
— "When can we go?"
— "Where is Middlewait?"
— "Is it the Russians?"
— "When can we go?"
— "You cannot treat us like this"
— "You are responsible"
— "When can we go?"

As the outbursts continued, four words gradually emerged in massive point-sizes to dominate the word cloud. They were "Go", "Know", "Sue", and "Zelenskyy".

The room was on fire. She could see a New York Times correspondent, who had a White Badge, talking into two phones at once. The next person was doing the same. Every phone and tablet in the room — probably averaging three per person — was pinging with social media notifications. Sandra took several deep breaths. It was not about her, she reminded herself. She was a well-paid lightning rod. Improvise but do not invent. 

She called into her microphone for silence. When she called for the fourth or fifth time, the brouhaha subsided, and she began to speak:

"Let me address the question regarding the duration of the lockdown, which is obviously a matter of immediate concern ..."

She had not even finished that first sentence when a man in his fifties stood up at the front of the hall with a microphone in his hand and interrupted her. She recognised him as the foreign minister of one of the newer BRICS countries, so she let him speak.

"Is it true", he demanded, "that the US Secretary of State has already left Davos, together with all US Congressmen attending this annual meeting?"

All except for one Congressman, thought Sandra. They had indeed.

In a major error of judgment, Markus had revealed this piece of unbelievably sensitive information during an early-morning meeting attended by the managing board of The Circle. At about 4am the eight surviving American government VIPs had left for Zurich in two bullet-proofed, road-bomb-resistant minivans which the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service kept on hand for moments like this.

Sandra hesitated fatally. She could not deny the facts and she did not wish to confirm them. Her face flushed. Her mouth was dry. In the second or two that it took her to formulate an answer — she was minded to say that The Circle had made no such arrangements, which was true — her interruptor turned to looked at the room while waving a clenched fist. He began to shout, with a practised rhythm and an emphasis on the first syllable of the word:

"Disgrace! Disgrace! Disgrace!"

Then he jumped up on the stage, and continued in full flow:

"Shame on The Circle! Shame on The Circle! Shame on The Circle! One rule for Americans, one rule for everyone else, and no rules at all for the Americans who make the rules.

"Many of you here are Americans. Is it right that your officials go free while you are imprisoned? Is this what American democracy means? What will you say when the Swiss let you go free because you have American passports, and they keep the rest of us here, we people who don't have American or European Union passports, because they haven't found their shooter and we look more like their idea of terrorists?

"Is this what The Circle means by diversity? That we are welcome to decorate their oh-so-inclusive panels and plenary sessions, but not free to go home afterwards? That our White Badges are not quite white?"

He seemed to have the sympathy of the room, even getting applause for that last phrase, which was no small achievement given that the room was filled in large part with Americans and Europeans who had probably last applauded language like this when they were in college.

He was playing them and they were playing him. Nobody in the room wanted to be cooped up indefinitely, and if a muscular show of political correctness led by this accidental fireball was the fastest way of getting them out, then give it a go. Besides, they were pissed off, especially the Americans, about the Americans.

"Follow me to the Promenade", cried the newly endorsed Pied Piper. "We shall walk our way out of Davos. We shall assert our rights as citizens to move about freely and peaceably. We are not intimidated by the police, nor by the police state so genially represented here by Herr Hersli. We have no need of paternalism under the guise of protection. What is right for American officials is right for American citizens, and what is right for American citizens is right for citizens of all countries. Is that not so?"

He had reached his peroration.

"We demand that The Circle apologise to us all for its moral cowardice, for its double standards, and for its readiness to conspire with American and Swiss governments to imprison its own guests. The Circle says it does not know why we are detained here. Why then does it detain us? Let us all leave Davos together. We meet on the Promenade in one hour."

The Doc watched all of this on a monitor behind the stage. The terrible thing was, if you stripped away the more contentious phrasing, this was not very far from the truth. They had thought it the most natural thing in the world that Americans alone should be spirited away. The Circle was now the creature of the Swiss police. The Doc had invited three thousand people to Davos to change the world when his own authority stopped at the walls of the Congress Centre.

He recognised effective rhetoric, and he gave the foreign minister high marks. The minister had said just enough that was factually correct, and had leveraged that minimum viable truthiness into a specious justification for what he knew his audience wanted to hear, and, ultimately, what the minister himself presumably wanted to achieve, namely, the condemnation of The Circle in the name of its own members.

Half of The Doc was appalled, half of him was fascinated. If he had his life over again, The Doc thought, he would want to be standing where that man was standing. That was where the real argument was.

As it was, he had appointed himself Admiral of a fleet that was now sailing away without him, before his very eyes, towards a New World disorder in which power would belong to a violent cabal of disparate countries bound to one another only by their common hatred for the remnants of the old order which The Doc had devoted his life to nurturing, and which he had imagined to be eternal; an order which was "not an ideology", as he liked to say, "but an equilibrium".

But The Doc was not The Doc because he gave in easily, nor because he lacked adaptive instincts. Listening to the foreign minister, he could almost feel own his certainties shifting. As he liked to remind The Circle each year in his opening remarks, he was at heart a principled pragmatist, a realist who believed in the reality of ideals, an optimist of the will — and now this turmoil was speaking to the pragmatist in him. It was telling him something. In a sense, it was happening in order to tell him something.

How in this week's opening sessions had he neglected to single out and charm this foreign minister who was now emerging as his nemesis? Why had nobody flagged the name for him? Obviously this man ought to be his objective ally. He was only stirring discord now in order to demand The Doc's attention, to win The Doc's respect.

The world was changing. The Circle had to change. Structurally. Seriously. Not superficially, as before. It was not the method that was wrong but the mix. The Circle needed less America, roughly the same amount of a wider Europe, more BRICS even if they kept on interrupting. Let new people push in new directions. Listen to them. Learn from them. Steady them as they go.

The Doc halted his reflections for a moment. He was overturning his convictions of half a century in the space of half a minute. Was he going mad?

At that same moment the foreign minister jumped down the stage and gestured to the audience to follow him.

The plenary room in the Congress Centre had seen many standing ovations, but none quite like this one. The crowd rose to its feet applauding. Then it surged towards the exits. If the Congress Centre had been a football stadium, the stampede might have killed dozens. As it was, there were enough doors. The crowd solved for equilibrium by adjusting their demeanour to that of opera-goers leaving Lincoln Center.

Olena had been standing at the back of room behind the last row of chairs. She was not among those rushing to leave, since she was hoping to spot Karl, and she had resigned herself to being jostled by the throng. Then she noticed that the man in the chair just in front of her, who had stood up to leave, seemed to be swaying. A lot. He was clutching at the chair in front. He was trying not to fall over.

She heard him speak: "Can someone help me please? I feel very dizzy …"

She recognised him. It was Mark Massover, the CEO of Carbon Markets Integrity. He had been pinging her for a meeting since Sunday.

"What's the problem?", asked Massover's departing neighbour to the left, who turned back when Massover spoke.

"I have to confess", said Massover, now in desperately weak tones, "that I don't feel at all well. I fear I may pass out. Could you possibly call a doctor?"

If Massover seriously expected anybody to find him a doctor in this hubbub, thought Olena, he was definitely in a bad way. Subsequent events confirmed her diagnosis. Massover collapsed sideways and his head hit the carpeted concrete floor with a thump that even Olena could hear. 

 To be continued tomorrow ...

Free 20 min read

Death in Davos: Day Six

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Thursday 18th January 2024 - Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: A sleepless night for Olena — What the Internet says — The private life of a helicopter pilot — Provocations on the Promenade — A car pulls up — Where the Swiss keep their guns — A brooch with a secret

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

IT HAD BEEN a short night for Olena. Despite the vial of sleeping tablets left for her by the nurse, she had woken in the early hours and had tossed and turned in bed waiting for dawn.

She almost succeeded in getting back to sleep around 5am, but an image of the Senator's face jerked her into wakefulness — not the moment when the bullet had struck, but the moment just before that, when the Senator had been smiling at her, and the world was still more or less normal, and she was about to go for a drink with him, and his wife was smiling too.

She gave up on sleep. It was practically day anyway. She reached for her laptop.  

Fresh waves of emails and messages had flooded her inboxes overnight. The badge on her homescreen showed an unread-message count for WhatsApp well into three figures; the count on LinkedIn was four figures. She ignored them all and opened Signal, where she saw a message from Philip timed at 3am: "thinking of you. you are safe. i am offline but will msg again later today. p"

She stared at the text, trying to reverse-engineer what Philip must have been thinking as he sent it. What did he mean by safe? Was it only her who was safe, or everyone now? Why was he offline? Was he even in Davos? What was this other life of his, and had he always had it, even when they together?

Philip had as much as told her not to contact him, so pressing him for an explanation would have to wait. What could she piece together from the fragments of information in her possession?

After yesterday morning's near-riot, and the protest march led by the minister of infernal affairs, as she had come to think of him, she had spent most of the afternoon in a temporary operational headquarters that the Swiss police and army had set up inside the Congress Centre.

The police questioned her, very politely but very methodically, about what she remembered of the Senator's shooting, why she had been on the spot, whether anybody knew that she or the Senator were going to be in that place at that time.

She explained that the Senator had come to see her earlier in the day to say that he was a friend of Ukraine, a very public and committed friend, and please would she relay to President Zelenskyy that he, the Senator, was happy to stick his neck out in Congress whenever that would help, Zelenskyy was a great man.

The Senator had gone on to say that he knew Reconstruct Ukraine was a European-led programme, and rightly so, but it so happened that he had several large manufacturing companies based in his state, one of which specialised in aspects of airport construction, another of which had experience of decontaminating toxic waste dumps, and if there was a way for those companies to partner-up with European bidders then that might work out positively for everybody involved.

An hour or so later, she had received a text message from him, as the police could verify, since she had allowed them to download the contents of her phone, proposing that they have a drink together that same evening at seven o'clock, meeting in the lobby of the Belvedere and going on from there. His wife would be with him, a touch which Olena appreciated.

Olena had duly arrived in the lobby a few minutes before seven o'clock. She did not mention to the police her Signal messages with Philip just beforehand, but she knew they could find them on her mobile phone if they hadn't done so already.

She had spotted the Senator and his wife; she went over to them, greeted them; the Senator said, "Where shall we go", she suggested the lobby bar ... and then hell came calling. Her recollections of that moment were vivid, excessively so.

"Like a film?", asked one policeman gently.

Just so, she said, and she understood the implication, but she did vividly remember the bullet hitting the senator's head, which was to say that she remembered the effect of the impact, which was more like an eruption than an explosion — for a moment she felt sick, then recovered herself — and she had heard the sound of glass breaking at the same time or maybe just after. Then the Senator was on the floor, his wife was crying, and police were all around them.

"And you were splashed with blood?"

She was. She hadn't noticed it at the time, it went on her clothes, not on her face, but the police officer on duty outside her door that night had said that the police would require her clothing and unfortunately would not be able to return it.

"Was this how you were all standing?", said the police officer, showing a computer-generated image which must have been constructed from photographs of the lobby with figures representing the Senator, and the Senator's wife, and Olena, dropped into it where they stood when the bullet hit. She remembered only then that a policeman had marked the floor at her feet with a piece of chalk while asking her to "remain in place" at that horrible scene.

She confirmed that the positioning was exactly as she remembered it. Other policemen took over the questioning and asked her more or less the same questions in different ways. She knew they were testing her recollection, and perhaps her veracity, and she did her dutiful best.

What the police did not do, she noticed, was ask her about the Girard affair, or where she was when the helicopter crashed, or whether she had known any of the helicopter passengers.

They must know that she had been in Girard's carriage, since she had given a statement to the police at Landquart. There were CCTV cameras on the Promenade which must have recorded her presence at the time of the helicopter crash.

But either the police were not making these connections, or they had already made them to their own satisfaction. Should she have volunteered to them there and then that she had "forgotten" to mention the coffee cup incident in her statement at Landquart? Better not. Better wait for Philip and talk to him first.

In her hotel room at the Schweizerhof as the dawn was breaking she tried again to connect the dots, one of which seemed to be her. If she was an innocent bystander — of course she was innocent, she meant uninvolved, yet she was involved — then she had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She had been on the train.

She had seen the helicopter crash, she had known the Ukrainian journalist who was in it and it turned out that she knew very faintly another one of the dead.

She was right there at the Senator's shooting.

Mark Massover's collapse in the Congress Centre had happened within an arm's length of her, and Massover had been asking her for a meeting.

She had not seen the banker being shot, perhaps only because that would have required her to be in two places at once. 

Any reasonable person considering all of these things would conclude that she, Olena, had some designated role, perhaps even some leading role, in this "series of unfortunate events"? The Lemony Snicket tag came naturally to her mind and she found its humour comforting.

If I myself were a target, she thought, surely I would already be dead ... There again, perhaps if Girard had done his job correctly I would indeed be dead, so that doesn't really get me anywhere ... The sniper might have been aiming at me rather than at the Senator ... But a sniper capable of doing a job like that would not have missed, and could have taken a second shot.  

So where to look next for clues? Olena looked in on a private WhatsApp group for junior Circle staff and ex-staff to which she still had access. The latest posts centred on The Doc’s behaviour. He had gone to ground somewhere after the lockdown mutiny. His location was known only to Markus Bern.

Nobody had news about Philip, though everybody wondered where he was. One theory was that The Doc had sacked him in a fit of temper on Monday.

It was quite common for The Doc to sack Aspiring Leaders in fits of temper, often because The Doc learned that the Aspiring Leader had aspired to a retainer from a corporate member to nudge a particular topic on to the program of the annual meeting and get the company a place on the panel.

Philip was too senior for that, it would have been too obvious. But he might have clashed with The Doc over something else. One person who must have been talking to one of Bern's people said that Philip's skis and mountain gear had disappeared from his apartment, but nothing much else, and might he be under an avalanche?

Next Olena Googled her own name, adding “Circle 2024” as search terms. She found herself staring at 642,152 hits, or at any rate the first twenty of them. She ran an eye down the first few, which were not quite as outrageous as they might have been. The algorithms were having a good day.

— "Ukraine may hold key to Davos tragedies"
— "Davos: The Kyiv connection"
— "Bystanders tell of Senator's murder"
— "Ukrainian woman 'at centre' of Davos tragedies"
— "Police interview Ukrainian woman about Davos crash and shootings"

In each result the excerpted text contained her highlighted name. Then things started to go downhill, and she understood why people talked about "doom-scrolling":

— "Woman 'lured Senator to death', say bystanders"
— "Davos honeytrap claims top US victim"
— "Mystery woman in train poison death"
— "Who is Olena Kostarenko?"
— "I know Olena Kostarenko. You should too"
— "Is Kostarenko Ukraine's black widow?"

She thought of adding "helicopter" as a search term, then thought better of it. She was lucky that journalists were not besieging her hotel room. Then she remembered the police officer still on duty outside, and the instructions which had no doubt been given to reception. You had to hand it to the Swiss.

Olena clicked over to the New York Times. The two shootings were the front page lede. Below a live news panel headlined, "Davos in Lockdown After Multiple Deaths" the Times had re-upped its earlier piece about the vulnerability of Circle meetings: "Why Do Top People Make Themselves Targets?"

The Guardian was leading with a story about UK train strikes, followed by two Davos stories: "Russia's Hand Visible In Davos Turmoil, Say Experts" and "Billionaires Mutiny Against Davos Lockdown".

Olena decided it would be prudent to read the Times and Guardian stories; in fact she could not stop herself doing so, though she promised herself that she would not read the comments.

The Times reported that the dead banker had been "universally respected" and a "close adviser" to "top Democrats". Biden was believed to have pitched him for the job of Treasury Secretary. There was "no plausible theory" as to why he had been targeted. As for the Senator, he had been "a leading advocate of military aid to Ukraine". US investigators had flown to Switzerland and would be looking into a possible political motive.

The Guardian's stories were more breathless, even, to Olena's eye, a touch slapdash. But they had one scoop which she had not seen elsewhere.

Swiss police were apparently attaching significance to a meeting between the helicopter pilot and a "mystery woman" (the journalese was catching) in a café in Zurich around lunchtime on day of the crash. The two had met on Tinder, where the "depressed" pilot had opened an account months earlier after a "painful" divorce. The woman's Tinder profile was "mostly or entirely fake", although that in itself was not unusual. The IP address she had used to create her account "pointed to Russia", specifically to Poltavka, a town in Siberia "close to the border with China". 

This was the basis for the Guardian's claim of a "Russian hand" in events. Other media must have followed that up. She did another Google search adding the search term "pilot".

Bingo. Lots of hits from the past three hours. But none with much to add, save that the Guardian's story seemed to be holding up. There had been a meeting, there had been a "mystery woman", the café served alcohol though the waiter could not remember whether any had been ordered; some speculation that the mystery woman might have dropped a delayed-action poison into the pilot's food or drink, but Olena thought that unlikely, the timing of the crash had been too precise.

More probably the mystery woman had been tasked with ensuring that the pilot was nowhere near his helicopter for an hour or two, while somebody else was hacking a remote-control kill-switch into the helicopter's engine. Olena had been told anecdotally that the GRU had done something similar when fixing Prigozhin's plane, and the detail had stuck in her mind. She also wondered if the pilot had eaten a poppy-seed bagel with his lunch, which could have triggered a positive reading for trace opiates if the blood test had been ultra-sensitive.

She googled again with a German search term, Davos Dorf, and and started picking her way through the top story, time-stamped "one hour ago", from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The newspaper was reporting, from “senior government sources”, that the blockade was due to be lifted at mid-day.

The Swiss government was not saying as much directly, but very probably the snipers and their support team had left the valley. Swiss special forces had found ski tracks near the Strela and Chüpfenflue peaks. The slopes down from there led towards Schmitten, a tiny village where locals, when the police got to them on Wednesday mid-morning, reported hearing two or three cars coming and going in the small hours of the night.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung went on to report without attribution what the Swiss government had probably said off the record. The shootings must have been prepared well in advance. The logistics were executed unbelievably well. The Swiss special forces were impressed, apparently. The escape route was one that they themselves would have chosen. Someone had known the terrain very well indeed. The killers would be in Austria by now, or Liechstenstein, or further afield. Nobody was saying Russia but everybody was thinking it.

Olena closed her laptop. She knew more now, but she didn't understand her place in events any better. If the Russians intended to include her in their body count, why her? Technically she was not even an enemy national, since Russia had not bothered to declare war on Ukraine before invading. She had a key job, but it would not kick in until peace had been declared. And even the Russians would want Ukraine back in working order eventually.

It was entirely possible that Russian assets frozen in foreign banks would be sequestered and used for the reconstruction, but killing her would not change that. That was a matter for negotiators when there were negotiations.

She opened the curtains. The snowy night had given way to an intense blue morning sky. Her window faced on to the Strela, now at its majestic best, its chiselled white contours sharp against the sky. The departing killers had probably passed that way.

She wanted to get outside. Especially if nobody was shooting people any more. The police officer at her door offered to go with her, as she had done yesterday, but she did not insist. She seemed to think it was a good idea: "Clear your head".  

The Promenade was busy for 9am. There were always people walking there, it was the little Champs Elysées of Davos, but when the Circle was having its annual meeting the Promenade turned into a sort of trade fair with crowds to match.

The owners of the old family businesses along the Promenade mostly took a holiday when The Circle met. They accepted eye-popping offers for short-term rentals from the Circle’s tech, financial and media "partners", handed over their keys, and returned a week or so later. 

She passed the shop-front on the Promenade where, for 51 weeks of the year, a traditional Graubünden café and konditorei went about its business. A few years back, if she remembered correctly, it had been reskinned for the week of The Circle's meeting as a half-timbered Tudor banqueting hall by a tech company promoting a chatbot called "shAIkespear".

This year it had been made over as a Bedouin tent promoting the same new shariah-compliant international bank that had decorated Zurich airport with ads saying Earn Rial Interest and Hands-Off Banking (Just Joking!™).

Now some other party had reconfigured this shop-front yet again, and, from the looks of it, much of the Promenade. Shopfronts as far as she could see were covered with posters and graffiti.

The posters covering the windows of the konditorei-turned-tent read Balls To The Circle; One law for US, another law for us; Circle = American Pi (that one was clever, she thought). Across the posters, and across the entire window, was a spray-painted legend, Climate Justice For All, which she took to be the work of a later and more prosaic hand.

At Arkadenparkplatz there was a shop which usually sold handmade leather goods, but which this week had been refurbished as the cabin of a private jet, on behalf on NetJets. Somebody with a sense of humour, if not a very up-to-date one, had covered most of the window with a poster saying Only Fokkers Here.

 Next door to NetJets, an international accounting firm had converted the Chocolatier des Alpes into a caricature of a prison cell complete with bars across the windows, where clients could discuss escaping whatever tax liabilities they might inadvertently have incurred. Across this window was a poster in French: "Derrière chaque fortune se cache un crime tout aussi grave"

As she continued along the Promenade, absorbing the decor, she decided that, while their wit and wisdom varied, all of these impromptu outpourings voiced a common sentiment: Enough is Enough. Enough of America. Enough of the West. She snapped a photograph of the poster which summed it up best: “The Circle: Improving the State of YOUR World, not OURS. Signed: The REST”. 

Olena wondered how the fly-posters had got away with such an impressive performance right under the noses of the cantonal police. A little further down the Promenade she found the answer.

The freedom march of the White Badges towards Klosters had been politely but effectively blocked by the police the previous day. The Circle mutineers had return to town and relocated their campaign to the Promenade.

In front of Schneider’s Restaurant, with fifty or so people around him, the foreign minister was parleying with a police officer, holding his white badge in one hand and his diplomatic passport in the other. Several people had peeled away to slap more posters on more shop fronts. 

Olena recognised several faces in the crowd: The CEO of a big Asian retailer, the dean of a Singapore private university, a finance minister from sub-Saharan Africa, a central banker from Latin America, and others including at least one clergyman to whom she couldn’t put names but whose faces she knew from the press.

They were a good-humoured and resolute group. All of them were wearing White Badges on lanyards. All of them were determined to be heard. She quite envied them. 

Further along the Promenade she came upon yet another group, this one of about twenty people, apparently composed of White Badge holders and climate-justice demonstrators in equal proportion. As she passed them she was handed a leaflet. She began to read. It was a print-out of an op-ed published that morning in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal

The authors, three government ministers whom she had seen this week in Davos, argued that the "Western bloc" had lost its economic supremacy and its moral high ground for reasons which they briefly enumerated. Then they got to their main point, which was to denounce The Circle as the most insidious outreach organ of this Western bloc. The purpose of The Circle was to neutralise truly critical voices by co-opting them when they became threatening. The Circle disarmed them with flattery and offered them sinecures if they abandoned their authenticity and role-played their radicalism behind closed doors in Switzerland to amuse the ultra-rich.

The final sentences of the article were rather well done, Olena thought, if the aim was to sow doubt even among Circle loyalists: “For more than fifty years The Circle has purported to embrace progressive ideas such as inclusion, collaboration, partnership, equal justice, and economic equality. It has purported to embrace them, not in order to act upon them, but to drain them of their meaning and power, to turn them into caricatures of themselves, to render them useless for genuinely radical discourse. We ask only this: What has The Circle ever done for the rest of us?"

The piece contained no references to the week's tragedies. It had doubtless been commissioned and written well before the meeting began. The Journal editorial page was known to make a show of contrarianism every now and again, as if to prove its liberté d'esprit. Probably the editors had laughed out loud when they read the submission and thought of three government ministers, who were themselves attending The Circle, demanding to know what The Circle had ever "done for the rest of us".

But on this occasion the Journal might inadvertently have published a bombshell.

Olena looked around her. The protests did not seem contagious. No locals were showing enthusiasm. Circle types on their way to the Congress Centre walked with their heads down and shoulders bowed as if an order had gone out for them to appear preoccupied or studiously indifferent. The previous days’ events had left their mark. Everybody was on edge. 

As Olena was crossing Kurgatenstrasse, a man appeared at her side. He was tall, with dark glasses masking the upper part of his face, wearing a bulky quilted jacket which was half-open.

"Ms Kostarenko. Philip Middlewait would like a word. Would you mind following me?"

Olena had seen enough films to understand the meaning of a half-open jacket in the freezing cold. She took a look around her, then asked anxiously, "Where to?"

"Just over there", said the man, gesturing with his head to a car parked on the pavement.

It was very big and very black. Anywhere else it might have been conspicuous, but not in Davos right now. She took in the non-Swiss numberplate. 

The man caught her gaze. "Diplomatic plates", he said quietly. "Even so, can't park on the pavement for ever. Would you mind proceeding briskly?"

There were other people nearby. Several men and at least two women seemed to be just standing there. Was that normal? Olena suddenly worried that the whole thing was a set-up. But if it was, what could she do?

"How can I be sure that Philip, Mr Middlewait, is in there?", she asked. "Why did he send you, and not come himself?"

"Please Ms Kostarenko. You will go to the car, or the car will depart."

She followed him. He opened the door. She got in. It was not a set-up. Philip was sitting in the front passenger seat. In the back seat, next to her, was a man with a large gun on his lap who was staring out into the street and didn't acknowledge her presence. The man who had brought her to the car had disappeared. The driver pulled on to the street. Philip turned.

"Philip", she said, pre-empting him, and with an exaggerated pause between each word: "What the f—k is going on?"  

The car turned left on to Tallstrasse, where four black SUVs materialised out of the traffic, two in front and two behind. The one immediately in front had foreign diplomatic plates. They were heading in the direction of the lake.

"Who are they? Who are you, come to that?’

"American friends. Looking after us."

The road was empty and they were moving fast.

"Olia, I work for the good guys", Philip resumed. "That's all I can tell you. The less you know the safer you are. You can see we have had a bit of a situation here. I won't claim to have the full picture now, but we may be talking about acts of war."


"The word is over-used in my view. Wars on drugs, wars on terror. We call everything a war. Then the Russians start a war and refuse to call it one. You know what a war looks like. What I said was 'acts of war'. Things that a political actor does when they are willing to risk a war or if they intend deliberately to provoke a war."

"Thanks. You might remember that I minored in political science." She was regaining her spirits. "You are making a certain amount of sense but not nearly enough for my taste, Philip. Try this one: What the hell has this got to do with me, Olena Kostarenko, Ukrainian national, public servant, formerly of The Circle?"

"I cannot tell you that, and you can certainly surmise my probable logic for taking that line."

They had reached a field next to Davosersee closed off by fencing and barbed wire. In the middle of the field was an enclosure the size of a large house blinded by sheer walls of steel. A soldier in military fatigues opened the gate. They drove in and stopped.

"This is our destination? A field with a fence and a large metal shed?"

"That is a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft installation manned by the Swiss army. It’s set up for the duration of the meeting to protect the town against possible missile attack or a suicide-attack from the air. I do not propose to leave you here, though this is one of the safest places in Switzerland just now. I have brought you here as evidence that I am roughly who you should hope I am. This is my social proof, my public key, if you like. The people here are not in the habit of providing free parking for strangers. Ask the sentry."  

They got out of the car. Philip walked round to face Olena.

"You’re freezing", he said.

"I’m petrified", she replied.

"Olia", he said, "you have to do something for us".

"You must be joking. But yes. I suppose so. What is it?"

"Forgive the cliché, but what we currently have is a jigsaw with some pieces missing. I believe you can help us localise those pieces."

"First, do I die in the process? Second, what makes you think I am capable of doing anything remotely like that? I don't have a secret life as Batwoman."

"As to the first, absolutely not. We are not in that stage of the process any more. As to the second, flattered as I am by the implication, what I will ask you to do is entirely within your existing skills and routines. OK?"


"The helicopter, the shootings, we didn't expect them, but we do understand them. A message, quite a complicated message, is being sent, and we think we know roughly what it is. Obviously we would like to reply to the senders by return of post. All of them. But we are still tying up a couple of loose ends, incidents which may or may not be part of the same picture. Incidents from 'another opera', as I think one says in Russian."


"Girard and Massover. Massover died late yesterday, not from the poisoning but from the brain damage."

"Ugh", she said with a shiver.

"Both showed the same chemical signature, an organophosphate. I won't press you now about Girard, but a very faint trace of the compound which killed him was found on your table on the train. I don't think you were poisoning him, which only leaves two possibilities: He was intending to poison you, or he approached you and then poisoned himself."

"What is it you need me to do?"

"Go back to Davos. The blockade will be lifted at 2pm. The Doc will be told to resume Friday's programme. Zelenskyy is still hoping to come and I admire him for that. Make contact with Karl Manhof again, tell him that you want to resume your meetings for Reconstruct Ukraine. Show up at the Congress Centre when The Doc gets something on the road."

She let out a nervous laugh. "Let me try this pitch on you first". She assumed a stage voice: "Hey, Karl, I know things have gone a bit pear-shaped, what with people getting killed and the town getting barricaded and The Circle having a mutiny. But we're both still here in Davos and so are a bunch of other people and I hear The Doc may try to get something going again and Zelenskyy is still a maybe, so how about you and I make like nothing much has happened and resume our pitching for Reconstruct Ukraine".

"Exactly", said Philip, ignoring the sarcasm. "If you say more or less exactly that, Karl will go along with you. I can assure you now that there will be no near-term additions to the body-count, so you will be able to work in peace. And if you do feel vulnerable, please know that you are among friends, even if your friends prefer to stay out of sight. These gentlemen" — he turned to indicate the dozen or so figures clustered around the SUVs — "these gentlemen know that you eat with us."

"Finally, continued Philip, "you may wish to imagine that I am now giving you a polite kiss, as I ought to be doing, but which would not be best practice in these particular circumstances, but even so, accept from me this really rather beautiful gift."

He handed her a brooch of turquoise and yellow gold, the colours of Ukraine, with a cabochon ruby at its centre like a tiny drop of blood.

"Pretty, isn’t it? Don't step on it by mistake. Pin it to your chest, and keep it pinned there, please. It will make you our eyes and ears, and we will know that you are well."

To be continued tomorrow ...

Free 22 min read

Death In Davos: Day Seven

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

Speculate and debate on Discord here.

Friday 19th January 2024 — Davos

IN THIS EPISODE: The lockdown lifts | An exodus threatens| The Doc fights back | A Kevlar moment | The Founding Fathers intervene | A sensational arrest | A peculiar proposition | Olena in the dock | Waiting for Zelenskyy

EVEN IN A REGULAR year, the final day of an annual meeting of The Circle never entirely escaped what Philip Middlewait called a "dying fall". If the previous days had been energetic and intense, then by Friday people were tired. If not, they were fidgety.

The Doc was good at reading the mood. When people were tired he gave them a piano Friday, letting each speaker run on for a few extra minutes so that there was less pressure for Q&A. If people were reporting a deficit of magic moments, then The Doc would cook up some forte fireworks for his closing remarks, like inviting Chris Rock and Will Smith to join him on stage, knowing that the last moments of any event were the moments that stuck in people's memories.

This was not a regular year, of course, and until Thursday afternoon the odds had been against any Friday session at all. Only at 3pm on Thursday, after the lockdown was lifted, did the police tell The Doc that, as far as they were concerned, he was welcome to resume his programme. They did not expect further incidents, and, in any case, they would rather have his surviving guests inside the Congress Centre than outside it.

The Doc had remarkable powers of recovery, and an experienced actor's capacity to put on a consistent performance whatever his inner state.

He almost cracked on Thursday, but only after a sleepless night spent in the company of Swiss army psyops experts who were tutoring him on crowd-control, just in case things got nasty inside the Congress Centre. He wished he had invited the psyops experts to share their insights with him much earlier and in less fraught circumstances. He had learned useful things about facial expressions and the framing of expectations, not to mention ingenious uses for public address systems, bright lights and water-jets, things that were new to him even after fifty years at the lectern.

When the all-clear came, The Doc called an all-hands meeting in the underground staff conference hall. They would resume the programme for Friday, he said. They would move into Friday's programme at least some of the sessions which had been cancelled on Thursday. It would be the job of each session-runner, usually an Aspiring Leader, to pick substitutes for speakers and panelists who had left Davos prematurely.

The Doc ran briskly though Thursday's aborted timeline, prioritising the sessions which could be moved to Friday.

Grassroots Geopolitics In A Rewilding World was a must for Friday. Marjorie Taylor Green had gone, but Taylor Swift would surely step up.

Fintech For Fine Art had attracted more sign-ups than any other Thursday-afternoon session. If they lost Rybolovlev then they should get Bouvier. The Doc was on the point of saying "send a helicopter for him" before checking himself.

Closet Primacy: The Challenge Of Paleo Clothing was another session to be rescheduled if at all possible. Most of the nano-fashion and bio-fashion people had rented space on the Promenade and would stay until the weekend.

As for Friday's existing programme, the forum on Effective Altruism In Crypto could be dropped. Sign-ups had been trivial, they were a year too late.

Kwasi Kwarteng had gone back to London, so they could safely cut his session on Breaking The Fiscal Mould: The UK Experience.

How Big Banks Save Lives would have to go, despite the high sign-up rate, since the main speaker was now in a morgue.

"I will give my closing remarks at noon as usual", continued The Doc. "My title will be Disclusion And Regagement. Trademark both words please. I will pay tribute briefly to all who have distinguished themselves in this difficult week. Leiden macht stärker.

"We are in touch with President Zelenskyy. The invitation remains in place. We do not expect a decision until the morning, but if he arrives, I will introduce him in the course of my closing remarks, and invite him to address the room for a reasonable length of time before we pack up. Prepare some holding slides for his presentation, starting with a title slide. I propose: From Ukraine To Newkraine"

An unidentified voice from the room interrupted: "Sounds too much like nuke, Herr Doktor. And besides, they plan to stay as Ukraine".

The Doc: "What do you suggest?"

The Voice: "Ukraine At The Crossroads"

The Doc: "Horrible. Fine. Go with that. And prepare a slide with three bullet-points. He will probably be winging it in any case. Here are the concepts:

(i) European destiny of Ukraine
(ii) Front line of democracy
(iii) Munich — Budapest — Kyiv?

The Voice: "Will they get that last bullet, er, bullet-point? Won't they think Hitler for Munich and Orban for Budapest and wonder what he's getting at?"

The Doc (resignedly): "OK. Change it to 'One more year'. He can decide what point he is making. All badge-facing staff please take into account that tomorrow's programme may not finish until 2.30pm, not at 1pm as previously scheduled."

As soon as people had learned on the Thursday that the lockdown was over, an exodus threatened. People wanted out just in case the lockdown came back, or somebody else got killed, and in any case it was not until four o'clock on Thursday afternoon that The Doc's message got around saying that Friday's sessions were on.

Those who were not vacating the valley at once included senior executives of companies that had committed significant parts of their European marketing budgets to what were now graffiti-strafed shopfronts on a deserted street, and who were sitting with their PR people seeking ways of sharing this recent lived experience as an empathic narrative arc.

The Sikorsky people decided: Can't really get there from here, even though it hadn't been one of their helicopters.

The American bank which had lost its CEO debated whether to turn its Promenade shopfront into a memorial shrine, then decided that a storytelling strategy would make the healing process more inclusive. Passers-by would be invited to step in and talk on camera with Teller, the bank's new chatbot, about things that made them feel safe — locked doors, money in the bank, teddy bears, mobile phones, policemen, guns, and so on — and the bank would select clips for sharing on TikTok under the tagline Your Current Account.

One of the fast-fashion companies ordered up two thousand T-shirts reading I Survived The Circle from a factory near Zurich, then thought better of it, brainstormed a second time, and decided to offer fitted Kevlar tees which could be sized and ordered on the Promenade then despatched from Japan to any address worldwide within 24 hours.

Geico did nothing special. It soaked the protesters' posters off its windows, cleaned up its slice of pavement, made sure that its life insurance leaflets were visible from the street, and waited for a bump in business.

There was definite attrition in the quantity and quality of those still in Davos by the time Friday morning came. Decisions to leave correlated both with how many times people had been to The Circle already (first-timers were much more likely to stay); and how insensitive they were to the cost of travel. The Belvedere brought in two off-duty receptionists as acting concierges to cope with the demand for urgent travel bookings, and provided a desk and chair for a NetJets rep who was a fixture of the (deep-cleaned) lobby that day.

By 8.45am on Friday there was not exactly a crowd in the Congress Centre, but there were more than enough people to make things look viable. Those who had stayed were calling themselves "remainers", and often seemed aggrieved with those who had left.

The public areas through which one passed when entering or leaving the Congress Centre, usually alive with buttonholing journalists and other accredited gawpers (was that George Clooney?), were all but empty save for a few White Badge holders who, on closer inspection, had been handed their White Badges by their departing bosses, and were hesitating over whether the badges would work for them too. A happy surprise awaited them. The Doc had ordered, sub rosa, that on this day anybody could go anywhere so long as they had entry-level accreditation. The thing was to fill the rooms.

In the café corners it was a different story – the conversation here was buzzier and busier than on a usual meeting day.

If Sandra had been running one of her word clouds in the Mandela Lounge (previously the Hayek Bar) that morning, the words emerging in the largest point-sizes would have been an alphabet soup: "CIA", "FBI", "FSB", "GRU".

MI6 might possibly have been up there too, but was handicapped by name-space issues. Some people said "SIS", others said "MI6", a knowing few said "Six", while most people just said "the British".

After the acronyms, whole words followed: "Mossad", "Trump", "Zelenskyy", "Russia", "Ukraine".

Then in smaller type: "unbelievable", "never again".

Absolutely no-one said: "I read on X ..."

Sandra Smiley had a name for the effect of word clouds: She called it "enhanced confusion". She saw it as a conversation partner in its own right. When the first big words started dominating the screen, people were primed by what they saw there, and asked more questions involving those words. People who wanted to raise quite different points grew disheartened and gave up. The big words always won.  

Olena was sipping a Klosters Karbonated (Just Joking!™) Kinwa Kooler in the open-plan Turkmenbashi Tusovka on the mezzanine, and remembering the story about when the Turkmen ambassador offered an incredible sum to have every single room in the Congress Centre renamed The Turkmenbashi Room (The Circle had to turn that one down on logistical grounds), when she spotted Karl Manhof across the concourse by the entrance of the Seehorn room.

Karl was talking on his handy, and something in his body-language made her feel he was not his usual self, which was to say that he was neither preening before an imaginary mirror nor wearing the smile of a man who had unexpectedly won a sum of money at cards. He was, she thought, nervous, though since Karl was never knowingly nervous it was hard to benchmark this intution. He saw her and ended his call. She put her Kooler on the table and walked over to him.

"Hi Karl, how are you doing?", she asked, but she didn't wait to hear the answer. Karl was a quantum being: By observing him you produced his behaviour. His smile had returned and she didn't trust it.

"I’m quite tempted by the session on Trump", she continued. "The one called Are American Presidents Randomised Variables? The speakers' part has been cut back to 45 minutes because Anthony Weiner has pulled out, and I never stay for Q&A. Why don't you join me?"

"OK, why not", said Karl. His mind was visibly somewhere else for an instant. Then he flooded her with attention and noticed the pin she was wearing: "Very pretty — and very patriotic", he said. The turquoise and gold in the brooch echoed the colours of the Ukrainian flag. It stood out against the black of Olena's cashmere roll-neck. "I didn’t have you down as jewellery sort of girl", he said. An angel passed while that faux-pas hung in the air. Then he said: "I meant, I haven't seen it before."

"It’s not every day that I prepare to meet my president, though it does happen quite often, I admit. Still, no harm in a subtle show of solidarity on foreign soil."


They sat next to each other at the back of the room. The session was what The Circle called "two-bod-plus-mod", rather than "three-bod-plus-mod" as originally planned. Both bodies were American and male, an academic and a hedge-fund-guy.

The hedge-fund-guy had arrived expecting to talk about how actual random variables worked, how politics could be captured algebraically, and how AI now did just that. The session runner begged him to lean more on the human side of politics, in view of Weiner's absence, so he was scribbling fresh notes.

The academic, meanwhile, was arguing that the 2024 election would be a turning-point in American history, much more so than 2016. In 2016 people expected that Trump would raise his game once in office much as Ronald Reagan had done in the 1980s, or would be contained and operated by his staff. Now it was clear that Trump was half-deranged, uncontrollable, and wholly malign. This was no longer a case of asymmetric information.

The speaker approached the end of his prepared remarks: 

"Is Trump a fascist? It depends on the context, as my esteemed colleague Claudine Gay so rightly said in another context. In the context of American democracy, yes he is a fascist.

"There has always been a space in American politics which is roughly fascist-shaped, but it does not usually get filled effectively. Trump fills it more perfectly than any previous president has ever filled any space.

"Trump has been impeached twice. He is standing trial or will stand trial on more than one hundred civil and criminal charges. He promises that if he is elected he will use his office to punish his political opponents. Is this governance within the bounds of democracy as we know it? No it is not. It is an overturning of democracy. For which there are precedents, and by no means encouraging ones."

Now it was the hedge-fund-guy's turn.

"It is the democracy we have got", he began, scarcely missing a beat, "and the only democracy we have got.

"The Founding Fathers gave us our constitution, and our constitution has been a beacon and a guardian to America and the world for more than two hundred years. We do not tear up this constitution and start over when the constitution delivers a result of which we disapprove. Donald Trump is democracy, if and when he wins. Democracy means celebrating the sovereignty of the voting machine, and accepting defeat when the machine so decides, as Donald Trump did in 2020".

The academic was on the point of interrupting here on a point of fact, and a buzz went around the room, but the hedge-fund-guy ploughed on.

"We have government by institutions in America, not by individuals. Every president we elect is a message to those institutions — which, by the way, we do not elect — about what the people of America, ordinary people like me, and other people, are thinking and feeling and losing patience with. A message to the Supreme Court, to the SEC, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Federal Reserve Board. And if you do not happen to think that a strong message needs to be sent by America and to America just now, my Harvard friend, you are not getting out of your ivory tower often enough."  

This was strong stuff by Circle standards. The room applauded. So did Olena, despite herself.

The moderator, an ageless political journalist, was also American and also male.  He pitched a question to the hedge-fund-guy: Was he aware of the statement made the previous week by Dan Murphy, the big-bank CEO who had been gunned down in Davos this week? 

Murphy had been asked at a conference in New York what a Trump victory would mean for the American economy and financial markets. 

"His response was this", said the moderator, putting on his glasses and opening his notebook. “A Trump presidency would be destructive and ultimately disastrous, not only for the US but also for the rest of the world, because it would undermine the rule of law, which is the indispensable foundation of our capitalist system. It is the duty of every law-abiding capitalist in America to do everything they can to prevent a Trump victory.” 

The moderator closed his notebook, looked out at the room, and then turned back to the speaker: "Do you agree?"

"No, I don’t. And let me tell you that most investors and bankers in America did not agree with Dan either. God rest Dan's soul, but the man liked a microphone. If you had said to Dan some other time, 'Will you support a coup d'état against an elected American president?', he would surely have said 'No'. Which is what we are talking about here, bar the timing. I can tell you that Dan's bonuses through the last Trump presidency totalled more than one hunded million dollars. I guess the capitalist system was working pretty well even then."

You could almost hear the pennies dropping around the room. Some in the audience knew that Dan was a bundler for the Democrats, as were many people on Wall Street, but few realised quite how strongly he felt about Trump, nor that he had started to go public. A young woman from the audience stood up and said out loud what all of them were thinking:

"After what we just heard, I have to ask. We have just had twin shootings here in Davos, of a Democratic Senator and of an anti-Trump senior banker. Do these shootings have a partisan political subtext? Did somebody shoot on Trump's behalf, as it were? I do not mean that Trump was personally involved, of course. What do the panelists think?"

"Now that’s a question. This really is the most interesting Circle in years", said the moderator with a wry smile. "Who would like to take this question?" 

The moderator's money was on the academic to say that Trump was openly inciting crazy people to do crazy things and so Trump's moral responsibility for the killings was as clear as if he had pulled the trigger himself. The academic started to say exactly that, when a disturbance in the room caught his attention.

Eight men, five in civilian clothes and three in the uniform of the Graubünden cantonal police, had walked briskly and silently from a nearby door towards two men seated in the first row. They stood in front of the men, whispered something to them, then escorted them out of the room. The last of the escorts paused by the door and requested a microphone from a meeting monitor. "Ladies and gentlemen. We apologise for the interruption. Entirely routine. I wish you an excellent session". He handed back the microphone and left.

The moderator resumed moderating as though nothing had happened, which it barely had done by that week's exacting standards.

The hedge-fund-guy seized his chance to refer to the Swiss police as "the sort of democracy that they have in other countries".

The academic said he was "glad to see the rule of law in action".

The moderator declared the session closed one minute before deadline, and only then did the audience, particularly those who had been sitting at the front, have a chance to talk about it, a chance which they fell upon hungrily.

Who had been arrested? Some had seen their badges and even spoken to them. One was from Ukraine, the other from Slovakia. Or perhaps Slovenia. They were both businessmen. Both were quite well-known in their home countries, apparently.

Googling filled out some background. They were "billionaires" and "oligarchs", as was any business-person from eastern Europe when you looked them up on a mobile phone. Both were more like sixty-something than thirty-something, suggesting that they had made their fortunes in the bargain-basement privatisations after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

There was a sort reputational amnesty awarded by The Circle for fortunes acquired in post-communist economies by any means before 2000. Mikhail Khodorkovsky achieved that when he came to The Circle in 2001 and pointed out that Professor Andrei Shleifer had been sent from Harvard to Russia in the early 1990s to teach Russians the power of the Coase Theorem, so why was anybody surprised to see the Coase Theorem put into action? The Russian state sold its assets for one cent on the dollar, then the assets found their optimal owners by Darwinian selection. In the case of the assets which became Yukos, for example, the fittest owner turned out to be Khodorkovsky himself (though it later proved that there was some disagreement on this point).

If you had old money by post-communist standards and if you applied for Upper Circle or Grand Circle membership of The Circle, then probably you were in. But when Philip became The Doc's chief of staff he insisted that all bodyguards must surrender their guns when entering the Congress Centre, even if the bodyguards had White Badges of their own, which meant a lively metallic clattering at the reception desk throughout the day as safety catches were engaged, bullets were removed, and handguns, always quite impressive ones, were surrendered.

"What did you make of that?", Karl asked Olena as they made their way out of the room.

"The police, you mean? Certainly not a routine happening in my experience."

"The Ukrainian oligarch — is he a friend of yours?"

"One has to deal with all sorts of people. A friend, no. I know him by sight. I have seen in him the offices of the administration. He has clout. Zelenskyy supported a law requiring oligarchs to disclose their assets and stop funding political parties. It was assumed that this man was one of the people at whom the law was primarily aimed, and that he would have to lose influence or go to jail. But here he is. Perhaps there are certain people, even now, to whom certain laws do not apply."

"Call me an idealist", said Karl, implausibly, "and tell me that my standards are too high. But you only have to have be a box-checking bureaucrat, which they generally are in Brussels, to see a problem here. You are asking Western countries to fund your reconstruction, while acknowledging, even privately, that once the money gets to Ukraine it may well disappear into an oligarch's pocket."

This particular line of argument infuriated Olena. If you imagined a spectrum of business ethics with, say, Noma at one end and a skid-row bar in Myanmar at the other, then Ukraine was unfortunately not at the Noma end of the scale. But Ukraine could only ever hope to domesticate its predators as a result of engagement with Europe, not as a precondition for it. You could not, in fact, pull yourself up by your own bootlaces. There were people rolling around Kyiv in wheelchairs because they had wanted to award a tender according to law. Norms mattered even more than laws. Bring Ukraine into Europe and Ukraine would become more like Europe. Parts of Europe, anyway.

But that was not the narrative that Zelenskyy's people encouraged, and in tactical terms they were right. Once you were safely inside the EU, you could blame pre-existing conditions on the EU, which was what the EU was for, in a way. So Olena changed tack: "Anyway, we don't even know they have been arrested. They might have been taken away for their own protection. I’m sure the real reason will come to light soon."

Olena was still thinking about Mark Massover, the man who had collapsed in front of her. She pointed Karl towards a sofa in an alcove. They sat down and she asked him point-blank:

"What happened with Mark Massover, the head of Carbon Markets Integrity? I thought you might have an idea".

He stiffened. Almost, but not quite, imperceptibly.

"Not somebody I know well, if at all, though the name rings a bell."

"He was poisoned, and died yesterday from a concussion he sustained when he fell over. I'm surprised you didn't know. It was on the news".

"Missed it, then."

"And nobody mentioned it to you in conversation?"

"Olenka, I missed something, my bad. I've had my head down in papers, I've been on calls to my office, I've been preoccupied with Ukraine, and I've been in your company more than anybody else's. I hate to say 'One more dead person', but it does start to feel that way. Where are we going with this?"

"I’m not sure, Karl. I was right there at yet another bad thing, and you know what they say: A worry shared is a worry halved. Or maybe they say something different in German."

"One thing they say in Germany is: If your neighbour dies, then use another well. Though I am not sure exactly how that applies in this case."

She was silent for a moment, then returned to business.

"You and I have had some useful meetings despite everything. I do have a couple of presentable letters if Zelenskyy shows up — thank you for that suggestion — and I hope he will understand that I did my best in difficult circumstances. That is a concept with which he is familiar. But you and I can at least remove the square brackets from our own discussions. You said on the train on Saturday that you wanted a mechanism in place to certify carbon offsets in Ukraine, apparently under your control. Is that in fact the case? And what is the price of not doing that?"

"I wasn’t categoric. I didn't say dealbreaker. But I think you are far more likely to get the coalitions you need, if you allow the people in those coalitions to enjoy the present value of the future gains they are creating. Structure a derivative, if you prefer, which will be market-tradeable when the offset gain is realised, but which can be pledged as collateral before then. Delivery risk will end up deep in some random bank's balance sheet."

He stopped for a second, wondering if he could be overheard by the couple standing down the hallway, decided not, and carried on.

"I understand your worry about bogus credits, blowback, conflicts of interest, fraud, all of that. I agree that existing carbon credit markets are often grossly manipulated and don't get me started on net-zero claims. Welcome to the green world.

"All I am trying to say is that you have the means at your disposal to self-finance a significant part of your own reconstruction programme. You will be cutting Ukraine's carbon-dioxide emissions by half, decade on decade. That unlocks billions of euros' worth of carbon credits — two billion euros at current prices over ten years, and those prices are going to go up maybe tenfold if governments get serious. And, by the way, if you propose to tell your investors that Ukraine will remain too chaotic and corrupt for the foreseeable future to anchor a relatively small financial market, that will not be a good footnote for your prospectus."

"As opposed to a footnote", Olena shot back, "saying that one stakeholder will be financing some projects on normal commercial terms while simultaneously writing themselves carbon credits based on their own evaluations of their own projects in ten years' time? I am not sure that conflict of interest is quite the right term here, since all of the interests will be your own. Triple dipping?"

"It depends how you look at it. We can put in a Chinese wall. Or have the credit certification mechanism itself certified by the Swiss Accreditation System or an equivalent authority."

"So everything will be triple-A", said Olena, not unkindly, "just like mortgage-backed bonds in 2007."

"I tell you what, Karl", she continued. "How about this: Reconstruct Ukraine pledges itself to the creation of a carbon credit mechanism and a regulated carbon market in Ukraine within ten years. You set up a company which offers to buy long-term call options written by contractors and anybody else on the credits to which you think they will have title when the mechanism and the market are ready. You securitise your option pool and we take the view that we have nothing to do with it."

Olena enjoyed Karl's discomfiture and moved on.

"By the way, we never got a chance to discuss the governance of this new dedicated fund you say you plan to create to hold your portion of the Ukraine programme."

"Good point. Let me lay any concerns to rest. My idea is to create a foundation."

"A nice cuddly not-for-profit, you mean? Or a numbered proxy-run stiftung in Liechstenstein?"

"A not-for-profit. Location to be decided, but EEA or EFTA. We put a ten-year lock-up on capital that goes in, starting with my own. When we start generating returns, the board of the foundation will ensure that profits are directed to funding additional projects within Ukraine. The first of those projects, to close the circle, could be an independent authority charged with certifying carbon credits and making a market in them."

"But you would own this independent authority?"

"The board of the foundation will be sovereign and can choose to appoint independent directors for the new authority."

"So who do you put on your foundation board?"

"I have several names in mind. I am sorry to say, Olena, that with three or four hundred million euros of my own money probably at risk by this point, I will be the chairman. But you will allow me that weakness.

"All other things being equal I would insist that a seat was offered to you. There is a German professor emeritus for whom I have the utmost respect, and whose name you will certainly know, who would be a valuable addition. I am evaluating a member of The Circle's managing board, and I will ask your advice if we come close to appointing this person. And there should be somebody to make the board-meetings amusing – Andrey Kurkov perhaps."

Karl was running the conversation again, without having given any real ground on the carbon credits. In fact he had gained ground by exposing her willingness to talk modalities. All of his spiel about the foundation board was a wrap-around for the offer of a board seat to her, and by not saying No at once she had created her own conflict of interest. And he had dodged her questions about Massover. All of this while she thought she was doing well. Time for a time-out.

"Karl, Thank you. A productive conversation. I want a bathroom and then some fresh air." 

She was on standby now for Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy's people would know of the intention to make time for her, but they might not have told The Circle — if Zelenskyy was even on his way.

She pushed open one of the heavy doors and walked out of the Congress Centre in the direction of the Promenade, turning the conversation with Karl over in her mind. He was good value, she had to admit. But if she imagined a prosecuting counsel examining her in court, with a transcript of that conversation in hand, how would the examination go?

"The proposal was to create a foundation, a non-profit?"

— Yes.

"But apparently there would be profits, and these would be reinvested in Ukraine?"

— Yes.

"All of them?"

— Not sure of that.

"And the status of these reinvested profits. Would they be invested in non-profits in Ukraine?"

— Not sure of that either, now you ask.

"And the board of this foundation, under the chairmanship of Mr Manhof himself, would consist of a retired German economics professor and a Venezuelan former deputy foreign minister, neither of whom spoke a word of Ukrainian or had prior experience in any financial institution?

— I suppose so. And me.

"And you, Ms Kostarenko. You, who agreed the terms on which Mr Manhof would make his investments, who shared with him your very considerable knowledge of the bidding process which was in large part of your own design, and who agreed to the creation of a carbon-credit market in Ukraine despite your own well- documented doubts, a market which would in its early stages be dominated by your own foundation".

— I hadn't really thought it through.

"Which is why, Ms Kostarenko, you are now standing trial for accepting a bribe in kind and for conspiring to defraud the European Union and your own investment partners".

Whoa. Put like that, she did not look good. She pulled her fur hat down and her jacket collar up against the falling snow, made sure that her phone was set to maximum ring-volume, and increased her pace.

It wasn't that Karl was necessarily a crook. But he took advantage of people, he couldn't help himself, that was his nature. It was the job of other people to push back. 

She remembered the pin that Philip had given her. It was transmitting to someone who was presumably relaying the action to Philip. She opened the top button of her jacket and pretended to be speaking into her mobile phone while directing her voice down towards the pin. "Philip", she said, "reel me in. I have done what you asked. I may be called in to see Zelenskyy in an hour or two but I am not going to bug my own president on your behalf. If you want any more out of me you will have to explain yourself, and I doubt I will want to do it even then".

The phone into which she had been pretending to talk suddenly buzzed into life. A call from an +881 country code. But not a country. An Iridium satellite phone. Zelenskyy's entourage. She took the call.

To be continued, but not tomorrow ...

A note from "Emily Adjarian":

This feels like the right time for a break in the story, don't you think, at least for the weekend?

You have probably worked out by now how and why most of what has happened has happened (as fiction, I mean). You will have a view on Philip's comings and goings, whether Karl is on the level, whether The Doc is really back in the saddle, and so on.

But question marks still hang over the arrest of those two people in the Congress Centre just now; and why the helicopter crashed; and whether Olena is, in fact, telling us her whole truth and nothing but. After all, she is still hiding one or two things from the police; she does some odd things at times; and there are such things as unreliable narrators.

I will return on 23rd January, to recount how the loose ends which perplex us have been tied up by Philip, or perhaps by somebody else in his line of work — EA

Free 19 min read

Death In Davos : Epilogue

By "Emily Adjarian"

Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven

London — 23rd January 2024

IN THIS EPILOGUE: Sensational claims on YouTube | A safe house in London | Philip shares a secret | A meeting in the Kremlin | What Wagner did | The affair of the coffee cups | What Karl was hiding | A message to President Zelenskyy

THE DOC's face filled the screen; then the camera zoomed out to show him seated behind an imposing desk with his hands clasped. He looked a little ill-at-ease on video calls even now, despite having done thousands of them, every one of which he had hated, during the pandemic. Through the tinted glass of the French windows there was a glimpse of Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains in the distance.

First came a few seconds of introductory music, then the sound of the other voice on the call, clearly recognisable as that of Sandra Smiley, Director Of Communications at The Circle. Sandra's tone was formal and deferential.

Sandra: "Herr Doktor, what are your thoughts and feelings in response to the events surrounding your chief of staff at The Circle, Philip Middlewait?"

The Doc: "My former chief of staff, I should say. Disappointment. Betrayal. Outrage. When Middlewait came to The Circle he was commended to me by a very senior person in the City of London, a person who had been a member of The Circle for decades, a person whom I trusted and whom I even considered a personal friend. But I did not suspect how close the ties were between the City of London and the British intelligence services. Perhaps there is no real difference between them."

Sandra: "Why do you use the word 'betrayal'?"

The Doc: "Because Middlewait was betraying my trust and the trust of every member of The Circle. He was not truly working for me at all. He was working as a spy in my office. He had access to all of my personal communications. He had physical access to all of my telephones and computers. He could send emails and make telephone calls in my name. He placed audio-recording devices in my offices. He had access to all of our records and databases. The person holding the most sensitive position at the Circle for the past 24 months was a traitor in our midst."

Sandra: "What was his objective?"

The Doc: "His aim was to compromise the telephones and email accounts and other secure channels of every member of The Circle and of every guest at every meeting of The Circle — including heads of state and government, heads of corporations, bankers, advisers, journalists. He used his access to The Circle's internet servers and to the Congress Centre's telecoms networks to ensure that zero-click spyware was installed on every mobile device that was used, even once, by anyone inside the Congress Centre."

Sandra: "He was using Pegasus, the Israeli software, to covertly intercept emails, phone calls and text messages?"

The Doc: "That, or some variant of it. I have to assume that this surveillance technology has infected the telephones and mobile devices of everybody who attended this year's meeting and very probably previous meetings too. I profoundly apologize to every one of them. I rely upon the Swiss government and the governments of the world to hold the British government to account. This attack has been a cowardly and contemptible violation of Swiss sovereignty. I hope that every government and corporation whose security has been compromised will confront the British government and its intelligence service."

The Doc disappeared from view briefly while background music played again and the screen showed a series of images of world leaders — Trump, Putin, Xi, Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, Modi, Erdogan — at meetings of The Circle. Then The Doc's face was back and the dialogue resumed.

Sandra: "Herr Doktor, must we assume that these government leaders, these victims of the British special operation, are now being spied upon not only by the British secret services but also by the American CIA, since he who pays the piper…?"

The Doc (after a deep breath): "I am not a specialist in these matters, unfortunately. What can I say? Highly likely. Yes." 

Sandra: "Let me be sure that I understand the situation correctly. This special operation has enabled the British and the Americans to spy on their closest allies as well as their traditional targets, by subverting meetings of an independent foundation in a neutral country where people relaxed their guard because they believed they were among friends. And we have learned about it only because the British spy at the centre of the operation disappeared while a series of terrorist attacks was being conducted in Davos. Presumably this was not a coincidence."

The Doc: "It will be for the Swiss authorities to reveal their findings regarding the terrorist attacks. I have the greatest respect for the Swiss authorities. The Circle has always had an excellent relationship with them. I hope they will find out the truth. How much they will feel able to disclose publicly will be another matter, since, as you know, the American government is also participating in the investigations. American interests are involved, and very probably there will be things that certain American agencies will not wish to have disclosed."

Sandra: "Can you be more specific, Herr Doktor?"

The Doc: "I will do my best. I personally interpret the terrorist incidents in Davos as provocations carried out by the American services on the orders of the Biden administration. Remember that Middlewait was working for the CIA as well as the British secret service. The intention is to link the attacks to Trump sympathisers, thereby further discrediting Trump and barring his return to the presidency. I can confirm that extremists opposed to Trump's re-election were meeting privately in Davos to further their plans for a coup d'état against the American electoral process."

Sandra: "There are also credible reports that the Senator who was assassinated with NATO-issue bullets had been planning to share new compromising materials about Trump with anti-Trump conspirators at Davos."

The Doc: "I can confirm that such a meeting was planned ... " 

Philip hit pause on his iPad. "Technically a quite good deep-fake", he said. "In my view they go off the rails a bit on the content side when they start getting into the Trump stuff, but many people will take it all as true, and many more will retain the core message that something is being covered up whatever that might be. I hate to imagine what The Doc will think when he sees this."

Philip and Olena were sitting in a house in London, a coach house at the end of a stuccoed terrace in Belsize Park. It was not Philip's house, apparently — nor anybody else's, to judge from the lack of bric-a-brac. But Philip had the keys, and there they were. They had flown together from Zurich to London City the previous day, and a car had been waiting for them.

Olena was staying in the house, Philip was not. He had just arrived, it was mid-morning, they had made coffee, he had just shown Olena the video posted that day to YouTube, and now he began his own explanation of events.

"On one point of fact only does that Russian deep-fake have any relationship with the truth", Philip said. "There is a department of the British Government called the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. Its existence is a matter of public record, which was not always the case. But anybody who works in the operations divisions of SIS is forbidden to tell anybody else that they work there. So you will forgive me if I neglect to confirm a possible inference here.

"The Service has been worried for years about The Circle", Philip continued. "They think it is a horrible idea for 3,000 high-value targets to get together at the same place in the Swiss Alps every year and say: 'Here are the exact rooms and the exact times at which you can take us hostage. Or blow us up. Unless you'd rather catch us on the ski slopes.' But the views of His Majesty's Government lose their salience by the time they reach Switzerland. So the Service limits itself to keeping a watchful eye on The Circle and its reckless lifestyle.

"When the Service needs new rapporteur at The Circle, HR casts around for somebody who likes skiing and reads books and has a plausible cv. Then it arranges for recommendations to go to The Doc from long-standing Circle members who are no strangers to the doors of the Service in days gone by. With luck the Trojan Horse rolls in through the gate. The Service shares any product with its American friends, who also take a lively interest in the longevity of their VIPs.

"For a long time, nothing much happened at The Circle, at least in our terms. Now and again somebody might apply for press accreditation, somebody whom we believed to have a different skill-set entirely. Somebody might check into the Belvedere with a parabolic microphone and a handgun and one would wonder: 'Where do they plan to point those things?' Then, this year, everything happened at once. Because of Ukraine, basically, and to some extent because of Wagner. 

"Russia has burned its bridges with the West", Philip continued, "and the bridges will stay burned for as long as Putin is in power. Russia isn't blowing up London but it wouldn't mind if somebody else did so. It is also far from indifferent to the all-you-can-eat buffet of Western VIPs on offer in Davos each year, and we now believe that in the middle of last year the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, started contingency planning to put people in Davos in time for this year's Circle meeting, with the intention of tasking them closer to the time."

"And Wagner?", said Olena.

"I don't have to tell you what Wagner is, nor that the FSB beheaded it last year on behalf of the Russian Defence Ministry. Wagner's combat troops in Russia and Ukraine were absorbed into the regular army. The African operations were taken over by GRU. But Wagner also had special forces, very good ones, mainly for use in Africa and the Balkans. They were based in a compound outside Tver. When the mutiny happened they were cut off from the world, fed and watered, then told that they had been placed under the direct control of the Presidental Administration, reserved for special tasks. Shall I continue the monologue, or do you want a pause at this point?"


"Fast forward to December. By now the GRU has killers and kit suited to all kinds of entertainments stashed in and around Davos, courtesy of Wagner's special forces. And, obviously, when you have a resource, the temptation grows to use it, if only to wreak a bit of deniable havoc. 

"Putin's right hand for this sort of thing is a man called Banashev. Blood-brother of Putin in every sense. I imagine they had a very small meeting somewhere deep in the Kremlin. GRU and FSB represented, but not MFA. Banashev says something like: 'The Wagner guys are good. I keep on telling them, no hard feelings. But they get restless. We use them or we lose them. I say use them for something they will enjoy doing. And we can keep it deniable.'

"Putin tells him not to touch the US Secretary of State, and beyond that Putin doesn't want to hear, he will be reading the newspapers with interest that week. Banashev goes back to his office and runs his finger down the Circle guest list looking for conspicuous friends of Ukraine."

"That was the Senator?" asked Olena.

"That was the Senator. Then Banashev looks for something to muddy the waters. In our world, and I think you know what I mean by that, seemingly-random killing has a quality all its own when you are pretty sure it's being done by a state actor. Does not compute. Very disorienting. 

"Banashev's generation hasn't entirely discarded its predecessors' ways of thinking, so a titan of capitalism is always an attractive breakable. And a multi-purpose one. Banks have a hand in everything, good and bad. You can pop a banker and then decide later why it happened — climate justice, Gaza, Mexican cartels, Jeffrey Epstein, anything that passes the Alex Jones test."

"So that was the banker."

"So that was the banker. Conspiracy theories connecting his death with Trump are a bonus, from the Russian point of view. 

"As for the helicopter, it was pure opportunism, not to say pure evil. Lots of helicopters get chartered, that one got chosen. A chance for the Wagner guys to do what they do best, refresh their skills, admire their own handiwork on television, which they didn't get a chance to do often in the Congo. They would doubtless have been told that the helicopter, maybe the entire Circle, was filled with CIA agents and that all kills were good — not that they would have cared."

Philip was showing traces of anger in his voice. He paused, and reverted to his discursive tone. 

"I mentioned that the people who did the initial planning were GRU, but the operatives and close support were from Wagner. Are you following?"

"Very much so."

"Now, think of the Russian Presidential Administration as a cabal of cuthroats." 

"I already do", Olena shot back.

"At the top, they work as a consolidated unit around Putin when Putin is there. But they each have their personal pathologies. 

"We think that Putin possesses a significant degree of realism, in the political sense only. He knows that he will have to end the war in Ukraine at some point and negotiate a peace. He expects to get part of the country but not all of it. Sorry, Olena, that's how it looks. 

"Banashev doesn't see things that way. He thinks they can get the whole of Ukraine if they stick at it. If there isn't much of Ukraine left above ground by that point that's fine by Banashev. That's where you come in."

"I hang on your every word", said Olena.

"There is a feeling, at least in the corridors of the West, that Putin will talk if Zelenskyy will talk. There is also a feeling that Zelenskyy is more likely to talk, and eventually to accept the loss of Donbass, even of Crimea, if he can count on money flooding into his part of Ukraine pretty much the next day. The heating goes back on, buildings go up, jobs for everyone, EU membership ahead. Meanwhile, in the Russian lands, they are burning balalaikas for firewood. 

"Of course people in Ukraine will still say that Zelenskyy lost the war, especially the people who were fighting the war. They will be angry as hell. He will need close protection for the rest of his life. But he can say that he won the peace, that he built the Ukraine that worked, and history will vindicate him"

The sheer coherence of Philip's explanation was starting to bewilder Olena. But Philip was not nearly finished. 

"Banashev cannot do much to change the course of the war on the ground, but he can interfere with anything that might lead to peace. So when at some point in their researches Banashev's people decided that you were Zelenskyy's indispensable person for the reconstruction plan, that made you a piece to be removed from the board, since a reconstruction plan would be a precondition for a peace deal. Of course you would be replaced, but almost certainly by somebody less credible. Reconstruct Ukraine would spin its wheels for a while and might never quite get its traction back."

"So the train thing was about me", said Olena.

"It was", confirmed Philip. "Alain Girard wasn't Wagner, obviously, or even quite GRU. But he was dangerous in his way. We had a file on him. That's how I first knew that something was going on.

"I don't know if you read Alexander Dugin, the man whose daughter was killed, but your people were not entirely wrong in their assessment of him. Dugin's admirers are practically a religious cult. Dugin preaches a mumbo-jumbo vision of a holy Russia with prehistoric roots. He says the Russians are a chosen people whose destiny is to reconquer the Russian Empire in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he prays for a new tsar modelled on Ivan the Terrible. He thinks Putin is a step in the right direction, but not nearly terrible enough. 

"Girard bought into all that. He translated one of Dugin's books. He got himself on to the GRU's radar. Dugin's father was GRU. Perhaps the GRU asked Dugin himself or somebody like him to talk to Girard and persuade Girard that he could render a great service to Russia."

"The great service being to poison me?", Olena asked.

"Correct", replied Philip. "They gave Girard the poison in a dropper. They also gave Girard himself a large dose of amphetamine, presumably telling him that it would keep him alert, soldiers took it all the time. The intended effect was to disable his inhibitions. He was an amateur, he might bottle. Suitably revved-up, he would feel as though he could do anything — though his concentration would have been jumping all over the place.

"Girard had a handler as far as the train door. The GRU also put a tail on you, and the tail watched you buy coffee at the station. They hadn't determined exactly how the deed would be done, Girard would have to choose his opportunity, but here was one option. Your GRU tail bought a coffee identical to yours, gave it to Girard, and Girard got into your carriage."

"So he did mix up the coffees?"

"Fortunately, yes. I'm amazed that he then drank any coffee at all, given what he knew. You abandoned your cups merely because you thought he might have touched one of them, without having the slightest idea of what was at stake. But that's another thing about amphetamines. They bring on a thirst. Not to mention states of distraction, as when Girard confused the cups."

"And Massover?"

"A similar nerve agent was used, in the form of a gel. Applied by his neighbour, that nice lady who turned to ask him what was wrong when he felt ill. She would have asked him to hold something for a moment, perhaps while she took off her coat or jumper. He would not have noticed that she was wearing skin-tight transparent graphene gloves. Almost invisible. Your own proximity was a coincidence but you did have a connection with him through Karl Manhof.

"Karl is not a crook. He is a hedge-fund guy and actually quite ethical by those standards. He is clever and he likes being clever. Rich, if not as rich as he lets people think. He believes that Ukraine can and should be reconstructed. He believes that your reconstruction plan can be the key to a peace deal. He believes that he can make lots of money while doing good in Ukraine. In many ways he is your ideal business partner."

"There is a 'but' coming, isn't there?"

"But he is also an ideal business partner for the Dobrovo Group. They are by no means the worst of all Russian oligarchs. They have long been cleared for all sorts of sensitive business in the West and they have made huge investments here which are now variously sanctioned and frozen. They are also stalwarts of The Circle, though that is incidental.                   

"Dobrovo is grown-up enough to take a long-term view of the world. Its CEO was born in Ukraine. Dobrovo sees post-war Ukraine as a country with massive potential, more so than Russia. They are on-side with the European destiny of Ukraine and all that. They want to be back in there, all the more so if their own frozen assets are going to be spent there. They would like to help with the spending."

"So they talked to Karl?"

"So they talked to Karl. They were ready to work with him on his usual terms. If he got his two and twenty then fine by them. But they wanted the offsets, the carbon credits, for themselves. They had done the math, they knew there was fantastic free money for the person with the right rubber stamp. 

"In exchange for the offsets, Dobrovo would deliver Putin to the table. It would be Putin's decision of course, but Dobrovo could manipulate the people that Putin saw regularly and the things that got reported to him. Banashev, for example, would test positive for Covid. Putin would conclude of his own free will that peace was now in the Russian interest, and would act accordingly. 

"But Dobrovo did want all the offsets. And to help Karl see how easily that could be arranged, they commissioned an expert study on how carbon credits could be created, certified, and traded in Ukraine."

Olena gave a swallow. "A study from Massover?"

Philip nodded. "Top carbon consultant in the field. It was an excellent study. I read it myself. The only oversight was, they neglected to tell Massover that they themselves would exercise effective control of the certifying body. 

When Massover discovered that detail later, in a conversation with Karl of all people, Massover was horrified. He said they couldn't do it that way, he was implicated, he would report them to the EU and the UN etc etc".

"They must have been terrified", said Olena. It was a joke.

"Just so. Nobody was terrified, but Karl was angry. He was in constant touch with Dobrovo and a few other not unrelated people and we rather imagine that he said something to somebody along these lines: 'This Massover is going to ruin everything. If only we could be rid of him'. As a result of which, we had a Becket-type situation, with Massover as turbulent priest. I can't draw you a precise diagram of the kill-chain, but somebody talked to somebody and so on until an offer came back from somebody in the loop at GRU to do the job almost as a favour, since they had people in place who could use the exercise."

"And the arrested oligarchs?", asked Olena.

Philip explained to her that the Ukrainian oligarch, whom the Swiss police had pulled out of a Circle session together with his Slovakian neighbour, had approached Philip in the Congress Centre on the opening day of the Circle meeting, the day after the helicopter crash. 

The oligarch told Philip that he had received a message from a "former associate" who was now an undeclared FSB agent in Geneva (the oligarch gave a wry smile as if to say, such was life) and who claimed to possess verifiable signal intercepts tying the sabotage of the helicopter to a person of interest at a senior level in the Russian government. 

"He wants to sell the intercepts", the oligarch had told Philip. "For cash. Then disappear. He says he has done a lot of things for the FSB and they are not always nice things and he is getting old. He says they already know he has gone and will soon know he has taken the intercepts which were not his to take. He says: 'Tell this to Philip Middlewait'. So now I tell you. And that is all. I am not an asker of questions. Thank you."

Philip told the oligarch that, in his capacacity of chef de cabinet to the chief executive of The Circle, the request fell outside his usual remit, he could not think why it had been directed to him, but now he came to think about it, there probably was someone to whom he could pass it on. 

Philip went to his office, used his private laptop, and ordered a spot trace on the oligarch's "former associate", which came back almost at once. A man existed with the name which the oligarch had given to Philip, he was presumed FSB, he had been in place for a while, he hadn't just been invented for the purposes of a dangle.

Then Philip ordered a deep trace, and learned that there had been four or five coded signals in the previous couple of hours out of the Russian UN Mission in Geneva reporting that "Anatoly" had "taken an unplanned leave of absence". 

After which Philip ordered a deep trace on the Ukrainian oligarch himself, and was provided with a long list of horrible things which, regrettably, made the tip-off more likely to be authentic.

Philip went to meet "Anatoly" that same night. Anatoly was indeed waiting for him, on the Seehorn mountain just outside Davos. But so were three other people, all of them with guns. Philip fled the scene before they spotted him. He went directly to a house in town rented by the American Secret Service contingent, where he was given a bed, and, later, breakfast; which was when Philip disappeared from view as far as The Doc and everybody else was concerned.

"I am afraid, Olena", said Philip, as he wrapped up this account, "that there is also a bit of unfinished business here".

"We didn't want to spoil President Zelenskyy's day in Davos", he continued, "so when we escorted the two men out of the session, we expressed our concerns to them, and then the Swiss Police invited them to leave the country. All done with a minimum of fuss and absolutely no publicity. 

"I do admire Zelenskyy's Churchillian spirit, a little less his choice of friends. Karl was right when he said to you that there were rules in Brussels, and one of those rules was 'no stealing of our money by oligarchs', a rule which OLAF is actually quite efficient at enforcing."

"How did you ...?" Olena interrupted, then stopped when she remembered the brooch. They had been listening to everything. 

"The upshot is that His Majesty's Government" continued Philip, "which is no longer a member of the EU but is an admirer of Reconstruct Ukraine, and of President Zelenskyy, and of you, would be only too pleased if you were to find a moment to talk again to President Zelenskyy. 

"You might say to him that it would be a pity if oligarchs in general and this Mr Moneybags in particular were to get in the way of his reconstruction programme. So please would he put Mr Moneybags in jail, and if that has to be preceded by a trial then we have a long list of things with which to charge him. Mr Moneybags is not quite Mr Mogilevich, but near enough. He also has several fingers in the pie which Karl is cooking, to strain a metaphor, although Karl doesn't know that. 

"If President Zelenskyy locks up Mr Moneybags, he will be our hero of the day. If we have to deal with Mr Moneybags ourselves, then President Zelenskyy, while still very much admired, will get a very faint question mark pencilled in beside his name."

"Message received", said Olena. "And now let's talk about you, Philip. I don't suppose you will be going back to The Circle."

Philip burst out laughing, the first time Olena had seen him laugh out loud since he had watched her fall over while they were skiing together five years earlier.

"It's time for The Doc to find a new chief of staff", Philip said, still smiling broadly, then turning more serious. "It's also time for The Circle to find a new Doc, if you ask me. And it's time for The Circle to throw in the towel entirely if you ask some people in HMG."

"So where will you go".

"Don't know. Can't say. Sometimes we make our own rain. A period in London, I imagine. Being denounced on YouTube, even in a deep-fake, makes one stand out a bit, though memories do fade.

"Speaking of which", Philip went on, "I don't know if Reconstruct Ukraine has thought of setting up a London representative office, which in my personal view it clearly requires. You would then need a representative. I can recommend somebody for the job who is a British national, who speaks decent Russian, German and French, who would like to improve his Ukrainian, who admires Ukraine, and who knows his way around the chancelleries of Europe." 

Olena was stunned into silence. Philip would work for her? Well, some of the time anyway, and the other things he did seemed to be in the Western interest and therefore in the Ukrainian interest. He had a stellar cv, he had effectively run The Circle day-to-day which was no small thing, he could help cope with Karl if his arrival didn't scare Karl away. In fact she should have thought of this herself.

"Let me think about that", she said.

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