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.
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?"
"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 ...