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.
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
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 ...