The deal worked without a hitch. Trucks rolled in to car plants, consumer goods factories, extrusion works and the rest, all across the country. The split of the profit between the two parties was satisfying to both sides, and when Max Eisenstadt tried to get more quantities, out it came, a bit here, a bit there, but totalling all in quite a lot of tonnage above the original plan. Eisenstadt - untypically - didn’t ask himself how more could keep appearing; he and his team were kept busy staying on top of their side of it.
Jason Serck, meantime, to the concern of his colleagues, was becoming more and more distant from the Leopard-Star family. Whereas for years he’d spent the whole week in New York and only the weekends - when he was in the country - at the Far Hills estate, now he was more and more frequently out in New Jersey and spending correspondingly less time in his office. Autumn was in full colour and he’d taken to walking the dogs almost daily to the little cemetery where his wife Martha was buried.
One day in mid-November, a day of cold rain and low grey clouds, he had just stepped back into the house after one such walk when his mobile phone rang.
He hit the green button, and answered.
“Mr Serck, good morning,” came the Russian-accented voice down the line. “This is Anatoly Vassiliev. I hope you are well. I am phoning you on behalf of Mr Puschkin. We have some information that we think you should be concerned about.” He stopped, obviously waiting for a reply.
“OK. What do you want to tell me?”
“I’m sure you remember the aluminium deal we have been co-operating on together these last few months?”
“Yes, of course. I understand from my people that it is working very smoothly.”
“Ah, yes. For the moment.”
“What do you mean, for the moment? Do you see some problem ahead?”
“Well, sadly, Mr Serck, we believe there may be an issue. We have to look at the geo-political situation.” Serck said nothing. “You are obviously aware that relations between our two countries have been a little strained of late.”
“Of course. That’s what was the genesis of this business.”
“Yes. Well. Our president, Mr Ansonov, has been meeting with some of our major industrialists, including Mr Puschkin. He is concerned to try and improve matters between our two nations. To this end, he has asked our most powerful men to do everything they can to make sure their trade with the United States - where it is possible - is genuinely clean and regulated. Unfortunately, Mr Puschkin will be obliged to reveal the details of that private conversation you and he had when setting this business up. Particularly the bit where he informed you - and you accepted - that the metal we were supplying you was in fact not all duty paid in the country when you agreed to buy it. Indeed, that it came in after the sanctions were imposed, which of course it should not have done. And our little government service mole in Washington, who supplied the false customs numbers to enable the trains to roll across the border from Mexico, he will soon find himself facing a judge and jury. Still, he has a lot of money now to ease things. ” He paused. “Have you any comment, Mr Serck?”
“Not really. But why would you do this? What have you to gain?”
“To gain, Mr Serck? Oh, that is very clear. Last year, you cost Mr Puschkin a great deal of money, with the way you cheated us in your nickel price manipulation game. And I warned you. I told you at von Resch’s funeral in the Stephansdom to keep looking over your shoulder. You forgot to do that. Mr Puschkin does not take it lightly when people make a fool of him. This will destroy your career, Mr Serck. You will be a pariah; your country doesn’t like sanctions-busting, we’ve seen that before. And these sanctions apply directly to your own borders. You too will soon face a court, and Mr Puschkin instructs me particularly to wish you a comfortable retirement, in whatever correctional facility they choose to put you. Good-bye, Mr Serck.”
The phone went dead.
Jason Serck sat in the Gulfstream, deep in thought. However he could resolve this, he couldn’t do it from home in the US. He needed to get out, fast, and into Switzerland. To stay would mean detention and who knew what else. The Swiss residency would give him a degree of protection, once he reached that country, and buy him some time.
A new covering of snow had fallen as the car drove him up from Geneva airport to Verbier, but as they approached the mountains, the sky cleared to show a blood-red sun sinking below the peaks. It was dark as they reached his house, and his footsteps crunched on the rapidly freezing snow as he walked to the front door. Again, advised of his arrival, the staff had prepared the house and he heard sounds from the kitchen as the chef set about cooking dinner for him.
He went out onto the terrace, past the now winter-covered swimming pool. He stood at the railing. There was no moon, but a clear sky was sprinkled with glimmering stars. He looked out. Why had he done it? Why had he agreed to a deal which clearly infringed a pretty serious law? Just to prove that he could? Because he was by nature a gambler, and the odds of success had looked good, with the certainty the Russian had had that his scheme was unbreakable? Which, of course, it was, save for the fact that Puschkin had simply been setting him up.
Maybe things were catching him up. Although the press had mostly portrayed him as the acceptable face of the hedge fund business, with his Virginian charm, his low-key persona and his wife’s huge charity involvement, he knew that was just a facade. He’d cheated, broken the rules, ignored all but his own interest, just like the rest of them. There was a big debit on the balance sheet, headed by the death all those years ago of Mack McKee (see ‘Tarnished Copper’, by Geoffrey Sambrook, published by Twenty-First Century Publishers). Money he might have, but if he was put in front of a court, a lot of other stuff would inevitably come out as well. That’s how it worked. Reputation, everything would be shredded by the media, and he couldn’t really defend it.
He looked out. Down below, in the valley, hundreds of lights marked the dwellings. Above him, millions of stars lit the sky. He wasn’t a religious man, but somewhere out there amongst the twinkling stars was Martha. Surely that was better? Slowly, almost without making a conscious decision, he leaned further and further over the railing, into the void. He stared into the darkness below him; just a brief ferry-ride with Charon, and there would be Martha, waiting for him on the other bank of the Styx. He reached the point of balance, went beyond it and then seconds later there was a thud as he hit the raggedy, jaggedy rocks a hundred metres below.
The news bulletins led the next day with the seemingly unexplained death of one of the world’s billionaire financiers. The usual praise was lavished on him - ‘honourable man, acceptable face of capitalism, charity works, put together the biggest conglomerate in the metals business, highly influential, yet low-key’ - and all the rest of it.
Then, two days later, things changed a little. On the BBC Radio Four ‘Today” programme, John Humphrys introduced the next item at 7:20. “Now, here is Simon Jack, business editor, with a big breaking story. Simon, what have you got to tell us?”
“Well, listeners will no doubt be aware that a couple of days ago, Jason Serck, one of that rarified breed of billionaire hedge fund managers, was found dead at his chalet in Switzerland. Since then, the media has praised both his business, and the man himself. Now, though, it seems that perhaps all was not as it looked. According to sources in Washington, the FBI will today launch an investigation into his hedge fund, Leopard-Star, and his trading company, Metal-Exx, based in Geneva. It is apparently alleged that they had been colluding, maybe with Russian interests, we don’t know, to bust US sanctions on the import of Russian aluminium. If proven, this will have huge ramifications, because the Serck companies are without any question the most influential in trading metals across the world. Already metal prices are rising, as speculators and investors consider the likelihood of severe disruptions to business and supplies if Serck’s companies’ operation are compromised by the investigation. It’s also politically potentially embarrassing; these sanctions have not been universally popular, and opening the whole story again will restart that debate.”
“So it’s a big deal, then? And what about Serck himself? What does this do to his reputation? I’ve certainly heard a lot of praise heaped on him since his death was announced.”
“Yes, well, watch this space. This story has got it all: reputations, international finance, billionaires, Russian involvement. It’s a big story, and it looks as though it’s not going to go away.”