Davos, 31 January 2009
Sir Phil Black was a regular visitor to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Membership was by invitation only, restricted to leading statesmen, academics and the CEOs of the world’s largest companies. For a few days every January, the world’s movers and shakers congregated in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos.
The meeting was also something of a vacation for a workaholic. Phil was usually too busy to be there for the whole conference so he just attended the last two days. Every year his private jet would land at the Mollis airfield sixty miles from Davos where a chauffeur-driven car would be waiting to take him to the Steigenberger Grand Hotel Belvedere. On the Sunday morning he would make the return journey, but this year was different.
The conference’s invitations had gone out whilst Phil was still CEO of NatScott. It would be his last chance to use Davos’ networking opportunities to get employed as a CEO of a foreign bank. This time he would attend the entire conference, although it meant flying business class to Zurich and taking a taxi. He could still afford to stay in the Steigenberger’s executive suite, though.
In previous years, he would give presentations as one of the world’s leading bankers – ruthless but respected. The respect was largely due to NatScott’s growth under his stewardship from a small Scottish bank to fifth largest bank in the world. The bank had expanded with a series of acquisitions; unfortunately the last had had a large exposure to US subprime mortgages, which lead to NatScott’s downfall. British politicians and media had labelled him “reckless”, but Phil saw himself as brave, unafraid of taking risks. Here at Davos, he believed he would be treated with respect not only by his peers but by the many foreign leaders who were attending.
The first evening Phil was in his hotel bedroom adjusting his bow tie and looking forward to the meet and greet event. It was, of course, a great opportunity to meet the people who mattered, but one person he really wanted to avoid was Mikhail Strelnikov. As a leading oligarch, he was eligible to attend. Strelnikov had been a major shareholder in NatScott and lost a substantial part of his fortune when the bank collapsed. Over the last couple of months he had made menacing phone calls asking Phil when he’d get his money back.
The social was held in the Aspen foyer; tables were laid with canapés and tapas. Phil liked the fried prawns, griddled squid and croquettes of spinach and courgettes. Waiters scurried about with trays of snacks and champagne. In the corner, a string quartet played Vivaldi.
One thing that struck Phil was the absence of bankers. Maybe they were too embarrassed to attend because of their behaviour in the global financial crisis. Well Phil had no such qualms; he had a clear conscience and could give a good account of himself. He spotted a European finance minister on his own, helping himself to a glass of champagne. They made eye contact and Phil headed in his direction. The politician immediately found someone else he needed to talk to and quickly shuffled off. This scene was repeated by a number of dignitaries that Phil tried to buttonhole. What a contrast to previous years, Phil thought. Back then he was always the centre of attention at such events. Still, Phil wasn’t going to be put off by this; he would approach the people he wanted to meet head-on and give them no wriggle room to escape his attentions.
Phil cornered the Chinese premier.
“Sir Phil, I must admit I am surprised to see you here. I thought that NatScott had collapsed.”
“Not at all, Your Excellency. Let me set the record straight. I felt my leadership style was incompatible with a newly nationalized bank so I decided to resign. My talents would be better put to use in a dynamic business centre such as Shanghai.”
“Is that so? Thank you for correcting my misunderstanding.” He bowed, “It’s been nice to see you, Sir Phil.”
The premier accepted his business card before moving on.
Phil spotted a dignitary dressed in a dishdasha in the corner of the hall. He left his half-full flute of champagne on a table, picked up an orange juice and approached the sheik.
“Sir Phil, what a surprise it is to see you. I thought you’d been dismissed from NatScott, so the pleasure in seeing you here is even greater.”
Phil corrected the sheik, and then said “Your Excellency, I feel our business models in the United Kingdom are now out of date. I’ve come to the view that the Islamic Banking model is more appropriate for the twenty-first century. I shall be relocating to the Gulf later this year, Inshallah.”
“Inshallah, we will meet again soon. I’m glad you are well, Sir Phil.”
The sheik, too, accepted his business card before moving on.
Phil took a champagne flute from a passing waiter as a voice behind him boomed, “Phil, what the heck are you doing here?”
It was Jamie Dimon, a fellow banker from J.P. Morgan whom Phil had met several times. “I thought you’d been fired.”
“You’re the third person this evening under that misapprehension. I was summoned by the Treasury to discuss terms for the bank’s rescue. I told them NatScott was doing nicely thank you very much and didn’t need rescuing at all.” Phil took a sip. “However news about the meeting was leaked to the media and, when the City heard that NatScott was in rescue talks the share price dropped through the floor and the Treasury’s assessment ended up being self-fulfilling.” Phil had trotted out this line so often he was beginning to believe it himself.
“So what are you doing here?”
“Networking. The mood music from the Chinese and the Arabs has been sounding pretty good. You know,” Phil emptied his glass “I’ve come to think that the future of banking no longer lies in the democratic centres of London, New York and Zurich, but in places like Shanghai and Dubai.”
“You’re the only person I know who would willingly swap the charms of Edinburgh for Shanghai or Dubai.”
“I love their O.T.T. skyscrapers. But how are you doing? How’s business?”
“We’ve come out of this crisis pretty well. We’re the only bank here, so we’ve had a lot of interest about the reception we’ll be holding on Thursday at the Hotel Europe’s Piano Bar. TB should be there; he’s a great ambassador by the way.”
“My one mistake is not employing Tony Blair when he left office. He would have persuaded the Treasury to keep off NatScott’s back. Unfortunately we weren’t able to strike a deal.”
They then continued circulating their separate ways with Phil buttonholing some more guests.
On Saturday Phil decided to attend the presentation by the British Prime Minister, Andrew Buchanan. It was held in the main hall which could accommodate over a thousand people. Phil got there early and sat close to the entrance opposite the middle row, to keep an eye on the delegates as they entered. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t missed lobbying anyone.
The hall was soon more than half full and, despite the air conditioning, was getting a bit too warm. The sound of several hundred delegates speaking in dozens of languages was getting louder too.
Mikhail Strelnikov entered the hall and Phil suddenly felt as if a blast of air straight from Siberia had blown into the hall. Strelnikov strode in as if he owned the place, which Phil realized, was entirely possible. He was nearly six feet tall with a build of a light heavyweight boxer rather than a runner. He had a slight sneer as if he were bored with the presentation before it had even begun. Flanking him were two bodyguards who were slightly taller than him and who were busy eyeing the hall and its occupants. Phil ducked his head; Strelnikov was the last person he wanted to see.
Strelnikov seated himself a few rows in front of Phil and starting looking around the nearly-full hall. He spotted Phil and started waving; Phil managed to avoid eye contact just in time by looking at the conference program.
An official went on stage and introduced the Prime Minister. The PM moved to the lectern; a portly and slightly dishevelled figure. Phil thought he had far less presence than Strelnikov. Nevertheless he was Prime Minister and the audience wanted to hear what he had to say. The buzzing hall fell silent. Out of the corner of his eye, Phil could see Strelnikov still trying to signal to him.
During the next forty minutes the Prime Minister gave his solution to the global economic crisis. During the speech Strelnikov’s two minders turned to Phil and tried to attract his attention. He ignored them. As soon as the applause died out, Phil was one of the first out of the hall. He took a taxi straight to the hotel.
Phil was aware of Strelnikov’s reputation for gangsterism and the oligarch’s appearance at the conference had spooked him. He spent the rest of the afternoon in his suite watching satellite TV, interrupted by visits to the minibar and calls for room service. After he finished a veal stew, he paced up and down the room. None of this was his fault; the government was to blame. “Strelnikov should pick a fight with them,” he said, almost convinced.
As he poured his third gin and tonic he realized he was talking to himself. He was just being paranoid. He reassured himself that whilst Strelnikov may have used gangster methods to create his business empire, this was Davos. He drained his glass. He wasn’t going to be prevented from visiting the Congress Centre that evening. The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra was playing Beethoven and Saint-Saëns. He’d been looking forward to the concert all week.
As the Centre was just four hundred yards from the hotel, Phil decided to walk. As soon as he came out of hotel’s door, he felt very cold; he’d forgotten to bring down his hat and gloves. An electronic clock opposite the hotel displayed the time and temperature; it was minus 14◦C. A taxi was waiting by the hotel entrance so Phil decided to take it rather than walk. Because of the one-way system, the cab had to take a slightly longer route, going down Kurgartenstrasse, then turning left at Talstrasse. The taxi stopped at a junction to allow a blind man to cross the street. The blind man, with his tousled straw-blond hair reminded Phil of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. As soon as the blind man drew level with the car, he suddenly opened the door and jumped into the passenger seat. At the same time, another man ran from behind a bus shelter and leapt into the seat next to Phil. Instead of turning left for the final one hundred yards to the Congress Centre, the cab sped off.
Phil felt the blood drain from his head and his heart pounded as if his body was a punch bag. Boris turned to Phil and spoke with a distinct Russian accent. “Mr Strelnikov cordially invites you for drinks.”
“I was planning to go to the concert,” Phil managed to blurt out.
“Mr Strelnikov would be most offended if you didn’t accept his invitation,” said Boris.
Phil was so stunned he didn’t know how to react. At first he felt anger at missing the concert, but this was quickly replaced by fear. This was no drinks invitation. Was he going to be murdered or just tortured? He was more afraid of torture; even if he agreed to give his entire fortune to Strelnikov, this was still less than one tenth of one per cent of what the man had lost in NatScott, and would not appease him.
Phil began to wonder about the driver’s role in all this. Was he too acting out of fear, or was he one of the gang?
They drove out of town past the frozen Davos Lake. Phil broke the silence. “I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you turn back and drop me off at the Congress Centre.” Phil wasn’t sure if he’d managed to keep the fear out of his voice.
The second man, a skinhead, turned to Phil and said, “Mr Strelnikov is generous employer. There is no need for us to moonlight to earn extra cash.”
“Twenty thousand dollars. Each.”
“Wow. Sixty thousand dollars,” the skinhead said. “That must be some concert. Mr Strelnikov is wealthy man, but I don’t think he ever paid sixty thousand dollars to see concert.”
“That’s not quite true,” Boris said. “Mr Strelnikov did once fly a rock band from Seattle to his villa in Sochi for private performance. Cost him three hundred thousand dollars for ninety minute grunge show.”
This isn’t going to work, thought Phil. No matter how much he’d offer these goons. Skinhead had also included the driver in the bribe, so it was clear whose side he was on.
They drove through a secluded wooded area and, after a mile, they stopped in front of a gate. On either side was a chain fence topped with razor wire. The gate slowly opened and they drove another two hundred yards and stopped by a chalet that was four stories high. Skinhead made it clear that Phil should get out. He was then spread-eagled over the car bonnet and frisked; his camera phone was taken.
The main door was opened by a servant dressed in eighteenth century livery, complete with powdered wig. Behind him was Mikhail Strelnikov. “Sir Phil, welcome to my humble Swiss cottage. I’m glad you were able to accept my invitation. I’m sorry about the rather dramatic way it was delivered.”
His smile revealed a gap between his front teeth and a couple of gold molars, which did little to reassure Phil. He probably lost his teeth in a fight when he was an up-and-coming gangster.
“I only became aware you were in Davos this morning and I must return to Moscow early tomorrow. I did try to attract your attention at this morning’s excellent talk by your Prime Minister, but you seemed somewhat preoccupied.”
“Mr Strelnikov, if it’s about your NatScott investment,” said Phil not managing to avoid sounding nervous. He still wasn’t convinced this was a drinks party.
“Please this is a social invitation, not business,” said Strelnikov.
“Do you always search your invited guests?” said Phil, gaining confidence.
“Unfortunately, in the world we live in there are people who want to kill me. My guards have standing orders to search everyone. It’s nothing personal, Sir Phil.”
“And you remove your guests’ telephones?”
“Some have tried to take photos of my home, presumably to sell on to celebrity magazines. I value my privacy as I’m sure you do. Jeeves, some mulled wine for our guest.”
A second servant approached, dressed in traditional butlers’ uniform: short black jacket, grey waistcoat, white shirt with a winged collar, black necktie and white gloves.
He was no Jeeves. He was in his twenties – fit with a military-style haircut. He must have been a commando or bouncer before he became a butler, thought Phil.
Jeeves held a tray of glasses; both Strelnikov and Phil helped themselves.
“British butlers are the best in the world,” Strelnikov said. “However for various reasons, I only employ Russian ones. But first let me give you a guided tour of my cottage.”
Phil looked into his dark, dull eyes. Was he just playing games with him while his staff made preparations for the execution to follow? Or maybe this was just how oligarchs entertained, frisking their guests beforehand? Phil wasn’t sure which; he desperately hoped it was the latter.
They went upstairs and entered a lounge. “This is the Bakatin room, for use by junior members of staff,” said Strelnikov. Inside were a black leather sofa and a few matching armchairs. “This is an Isfahan carpet,” he said pointing to a large Persian rug on the floor.
They moved to a second room, larger than the first but similarly furnished.
“This is the Chebrikov room, for use by senior members of my staff.”
“It’s a Tabriz,” said Phil looking at a rug on the floor. He was finding the small-talk difficult.
“Very good. You know your carpets, Sir Phil.”
The third room had a billiard table at its centre. “This is the Fedorchuk room. Do you play billiards, Sir Phil?” Phil shook his head. “No? Of course you are an expert golfer.”
Next they entered a room with its walls and ceilings covered with amber panels decorated with gold leaf and mirrors. The chamber had a dazzling chandelier and in the centre was a Rococo style table large enough for about twenty diners.
“Wow,” said Phil trying to sound impressed. He thought the room was dreadful; typical bad taste you’d expect of the nouveau riche.
“This is the Andropov room. Over a ton of amber was used in its construction and the table itself has inlaid amber. The chandelier is made from Strass Swarovski crystal.”
Phil’s eyes were drawn to a gold candlestick telephone on a stand in the corner.
Strelnikov briskly moved towards it. “It’s pure gold; twenty four carat.” There was just the hint of menace in Strelnikov’s boastful tone. Phil noticed that Strelnikov’s hand was firmly on the receiver.
They viewed the library. Strelnikov took a book from a shelf “This is an 1870 signed copy of War and Peace. I hope when you come to write your memoirs, Sir Phil, you will be good enough to provide me with an autographed copy.”
Was this civility for real? Maybe this was just a drinks invitation after all. The tour finished with a quick inspection of the gym and the sauna. Phil asked if he could use the toilet.
“Of course. Jeeves, show our guest the way.”
Jeeves led Phil down a corridor and pointed to a room at the end. Phil entered it and felt an obstruction as he tried to close the door; it was Jeeves’s foot. Phil was in no doubt now; this was not a drinks party. The fear which had faded during the house tour quickly returned; he could feel it crawl up his spine. He felt humiliated. He couldn’t even relieve himself without a guard looking on.
Phil joined Strelnikov again and as he was led into a lounge on the ground floor, he noticed a staircase heading into the basement which had not been included in the tour. He wondered if it led to some sort of torture chamber or shark-infested swimming pool.
They sat down in armchairs placed next to a roaring fireplace. Strelnikov handed back Phil’s phone. “It was wrong of my men to take your camera phone. I know you are a gentleman and can be trusted not to abuse my hospitality by taking photos.”
Jeeves brought blinis, caviar and vodka and laid them all out on a coffee table. The doorman, Boris and Skinhead were also in the room. They stood in the corners examining their fingernails.
“You should try the caviar. It’s very good; Beluga actually,” said Strelnikov. “Sir Phil, the real reason I invited you here is to talk about golf. I bought this cottage because I am a winter sports enthusiast, but there are a couple of golf courses in the area and I would like to learn to play. Perhaps you could teach me this summer.”
Strelnikov walked to a bag and pulled out a putter. “What do you use this club for, Sir Phil?”
He bit his lip, and said, “You use it on the putting green to roll the ball towards the hole.” Phil could hear his own voice trembling.
Strelnikov replaced the club and pulled out a wood. “What would you use this for?”
“You would use it for a driving shot. You can hit the ball two or three hundred metres with that.”
Strelnikov passed the club to his butler and said “Jeeves, could you hit a ball three hundred metres with a club like this?”
“I don’t think so, Mr Strelnikov.”
Suddenly, Boris, Skinhead and the doorman seized Phil and pinned him to the floor. One of them pushed a cloth into Phil’s mouth and Jeeves smashed the golf club into Phil’s left ankle, his screams were muffled by the cloth.
“You are being modest, Jeeves. I think you would be quite good at golf.” Strelnikov turned to Phil. He spoke politely but it was no longer the tone of a host but that of a boss. “Sir Phil, I understand you wanted to go to the concert at the Congress Centre. Fortunately for you it is being televised. Please make yourself comfortable and help yourself to the blinis and caviar. Beethoven and Saint-Saëns are not to my taste so you will excuse me if I leave.”
Strelnikov switched on a huge plasma screen and selected the program with the concert, which had just begun. He then left the room.
Phil was in a state of shock caused by the combination of extreme pain and the suddenness of the attack. His muscles had tensed; he was sweating profusely and hyperventilating. A feeling of total powerlessness overwhelmed him; his fate was completely in the hands of others.
After a couple of minutes, Phil stopped screaming and the cloth was removed. He continued dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was still in excruciating pain; however he managed to heave himself off the floor and into an armchair. He sat through the concert but was in no state to appreciate the music. He couldn’t keep some very dark thoughts from entering his head. Was the breaking of his ankle just for starters, with the main course to follow? Had Strelnikov gone to let the sharks into the swimming pool?
A way out then occurred to Phil: he had his phone back and could call the police. Only Boris, standing in the corner, was left in the room to guard him. He thought he had a good chance of dialling out without Boris noticing. He put the phone under a cushion to muffle any sounds and switched it on.
“I wouldn’t bother trying,” said Boris. “SIM card has been removed.”
Phil sank back into his chair totally deflated. The concert lasted the best part of two hours and at the end of it Strelnikov entered the room accompanied by Skinhead.
“I forgot to show you one room in our little tour earlier. We have a small hospital in the basement. As most members of my staff are keen skiers, from time to time we have a broken leg to deal with. My personal doctor is a first class orthopaedic surgeon and he will look after you.”
Phil was carried out of the room by Boris and Skinhead. They were accompanied by Strelnikov. As they headed down the stairs Phil started to struggle. Boris and Skinhead tightened their grip on him.
They entered a room which had a bed, operating table, x-ray machine and other medical equipment. They were joined by a man in his fifties with silver hair and steel rimmed glasses. Without any introduction, he rolled up Phil’s sleeve and thrust a hypodermic needle into his arm. The painkiller almost immediately eased the agony.
His ankle was x-rayed and after studying the photos the doctor declared “It’s a Potts fracture. It will not require surgery, just several weeks in plaster. With a younger man I would have said six weeks but in this case it will be more like nine.”
Strelnikov left the room and the doctor started to apply the plaster.
After the plastering had been completed Phil was carried back to the lounge and placed in his armchair. Strelnikov was already seated opposite. Jeeves brought a tray with a single glass which Strelnikov took. “I would normally offer you a brandy, Sir Phil, but as you have just received a large dose of painkiller I don’t think it would be wise.”
Phil felt a little relieved; he reckoned he would be leaving the place alive. After all, why would Strelnikov plaster his leg if he was planning to kill him? Phil was desperately thirsty but decided against asking for some water; he didn’t want to beg favours from Strelnikov.
“Sir Phil you have not been treating me with respect. Do you know how much I was worth just one year ago?”
Sir Phil did not know what to answer but mumbled “Quite a lot I should imagine.”
“More than five billion dollars. And now just one billion, because my four billion dollars of shares in NatScott are worthless. I asked you nearly three months ago how you planned to give me back my money. You have not given me a serious reply.”
“Mr Strelnikov, I assure you I have been lobbying hard on your behalf with the bank’s new board and with the Prime Minister himself.”
“You didn’t ask the Prime Minister at this morning’s presentation when I would get my money back.”
Strelnikov took a sip of his brandy. “Sir Phil, the doctor says the plaster will come off in nine weeks. So in nine weeks’ time I would like you to give me a business plan, in which you will explain how you will fully repay me over the next two years. Together with the business plan, I expect you to return me the first ten per cent. Hopefully, the plaster will remind you of your number one priority. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Mr Strelnikov.”
“Good. By the way, if anyone asks about your leg, you broke it in a skiing accident.”
Shortly afterwards, Phil was driven back to the Steigenberger. The following morning he flew back to Scotland in an air ambulance. In a way it was a sort of private jet.