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 ...

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