A day later, the deal was agreed. Metal-Exx had agreed to take a quantity of aluminium metal from Arctic Mining in the US - it was an open agreement, to facilitate optional further purchases - to be lifted from a couple of sites in the South-West of the country. Serck and Puschkin, once having agreed the principles of the deal, and one particular detail they felt should remain just between the two of them, had left the specific negotiation to their executives. For Jason Serck, it wasn’t a huge deal. Sure, it would generate enough to make it interesting, but it was hardly the kind of operation which was going to involve much of his time. He had a final dinner with Eisenstadt to ensure all details were clear before heading back a few days later.
They drove a little way out of the city to Eisenstadt’s choice of restaurant, a villa set discreetly back in wooded countryside. The driver dropped them, and then took the car round to the car park at the side. A doorman silently opened the door for them.
As they sat in the bar, looking through the menu and the wine list, Serck asked the question he had been turning over and over in his mind.
“Why are they doing this, Max? I buy that we - you, really - have got far more experience than them in this area, but even so, they’re giving away a lot just to make things easy.”
“Yeah, it looks like that, but I think there is some logic there. I obviously asked them the same question, and they said that the metal is a kind of windfall, a quid pro quo backscratching amongst oligarchs. We know that happens; we’ve seen it before. Parcels of metal get slipped under the counter to various individuals in return for some favour or another. To be honest, we don’t really care, as long as the metal is legit. So in a way for them it’s kind of free money, so their concern is just to get rid of it and take the cash. They had no more idea there would be a change in US regulations than we did, so I guess they see the extra profit as really free money. If you look at it like that, then it kind of makes sense just to use whatever channel is easiest to dispose of it.” He grinned. “I didn’t like to ask what kind of favour someone had to do to get their hands on that volume of aluminium, neither did I ask what they paid for it. I assume it was heavily discounted, so that makes the extra price even less of an issue for them.”
The waiter came and took their order, followed by the sommelier, who knew from past visits that Eisenstadt only ever drank the top wines. True to form, the latter ordered a fine Mersault, followed by a 1997 DRC La Tâche. Serck smiled. “Max, have you ever drunk anything that’s not a premier cru?”
“Yeah, but that’s not an experience I would want to repeat or inflict on you. Listen, Jason, Switzerland is a big market for top burgundy, probably even bigger than the UK. This restaurant has one of the finest lists in the country. I like to look after you; you will never see this stuff in New York, so I have to treat you while you’re here. Seriously, we’ve all worked hard for a long time to be where we are. Let’s enjoy it, without feeling guilty about the number of zeroes in the price.”
“Sure,” replied Serck. “You won’t find me questioning that philosophy.” He paused for a moment, then resumed, “But it’s all been a bit hollow the last six months.”
“Mmm. It must be difficult without Martha. Is it beginning to get any easier?”
“Not really. Things seem like a dreamworld. To be honest, it’s been difficult to keep up to date with everything that’s going on. The fund’s performance hasn’t been particularly good, although I think most of our competitors have been struggling a bit with market conditions as well, so maybe it hasn’t seemed that obvious. I don’t know.” He sighed. “People - including the guys in the office - tell me to take six months off and just go away. But I think that would just be hollow. I need to keep focussed on something. But still, this is my problem, not yours. I just have to accept the world as it is and forget it being how I want it to be. So tell me, where is this Russian aluminium going to go?”
“Well, cars, domestic appliances, all the usual stuff. We can easily slot it in to our sales schedules. In fact, most of it will go to meet existing requirements. We could sell more. And, actually, there was a hint in the discussions yesterday that there may be more available. They dropped something into the conversation, and then clammed up when I tried to get more out of them. I will press them a bit harder to see; if there is more that gives us a real edge.”
Serck nodded. “OK. Keep me in touch.” He paused for a moment, tasted the wine. Then he continued. “You know, Max, I wonder if this should finally be the end of it. It’s been a great life, building Leopard-Star. When I think back to where we began, at home in Richmond, before moving up to New York and joining the real big time, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re the biggest commodity fund by far, we own the biggest metal trader in the world and we’ve shown over the last four years or so how well that integrated operation can work. The returns for our investors, over the long run, have been outstanding. Is there any more to do? Or should I just bow out gracefully?
“You know we’ve had the house in Verbier for a few years now.” Eisenstadt nodded. He’d been invited for some great ski-ing weekends. “Well, just before Martha died, our permanent Swiss residency came through. We were going to be spending around half the year there. Martha had been winding down her charitable work and I was trying to convince myself to take a back seat in the business. After all, you effectively run Metal-Exx, and Ed has become more and more a decision-maker at Leopard-Star.” He sighed. “It would have been so much easier if we had had children - another generation to hand it all on to. But that never happened. And now what am I looking forward to? I’ve got more money than anybody could ever spend, I can’t claim to have a completely clear conscience, and the next twenty years or whatever are going to be lonely. It’s not how it was supposed to be, Max, it really isn’t.”
“Well, yeah,” Eisenstadt began, “I can understand. I have children - and grandchildren - but they aren’t anything to do with Metal-Exx. I’ve got plenty of money, but I can’t leave the trading alone. My wife would love me to slow down, to do what you had intended, but I just can’t do it. I’m going to be coming in to Metal-Exx until the day I die.” He laughed. “Crazy, isn’t it? Pretty much anybody in the world would swop places with you and me. We have everything we could possibly want - except the ability to just relax and enjoy it. Maybe we’re flawed human beings, Jason. We have a wrong gene somewhere.”
When they had finished dinner, the driver took them back to drop Eisenstadt off at his home, and then pointed the Mercedes towards Verbier. Serck was intending to spend a couple of days there opening the house up ready for the winter season and the ski-ing. He settled back in the car and tried to sleep, but the sombre thoughts raised by the conversation over dinner wouldn’t leave his head. What was the purpose of it all now? The more he looked into the future, the more he saw a wall of bleakness.
When they arrived in Verbier, the house was warm and welcoming. Expecting him, the staff had lit the fires and left lights burning in the main rooms. The house was magnificent; not in the centre of the town, but a little outside, perched on its own rock outcrop, it was beautifully designed, with double height ceilings in the drawing room and the dining room, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool with a large terrace surrounding it. Serck poured himself an armagnac, and walked out onto the terrace. He stood at the edge, beyond the pool. There was a waist-high railing, because below was a hundred-metre drop onto jagged rocks. He stood there, leaning against the rail, drink in hand, looking at the lights twinkling down the valley.
Then he shook himself, turned and went back inside. Whatever the future held, he had things to do now, and he had to go back to New York the day after tomorrow.