Jason Serck stared at the face looking back at him from the bathroom mirror. There was no running away from it; he was getting older, looking more tired and lined. He may be a multi-billionaire hedge fund king, but nothing could hold back the passing of time. Recent months had been tough. His personal life had been shattered by the shocking death of Martha, his beloved wife of over forty years, in a car accident out near their estate in Far Hills; it was only in her absence that he had realised how much he had depended on her to give form to his life. Unsurprisingly, he’d taken his eye off the ball in his business, and Leopard-Star had blundered aimlessly about the markets for most of the year. In fact, the last major success they had enjoyed had been almost a full year ago, with the nickel play he had instituted, setting up an Austrian bank and the Russian producer Arctic Mining to be his fall guys.
Although that last had been highly profitable for Serck, via both Leopard-Star and his physical trading operation, Metal-Exx, it had also left him looking over his shoulder. (See “Shakedown”, published in Metal Bulletin October 2017.) Indeed, it had brought many changes to his life, which for him had become blurred together with the death of his wife.
Twenty minutes later, as the sun was just beginning to rise over New York, he stepped out of the door of his Park Avenue building, nodding a greeting to the porter who held it open for him. No longer did he stroll the few blocks to his office on Fifth; the implicit threat to his life from Vassily Puschkin, oligarch owner of Arctic Mining, meant that he no longer felt comfortable on the streets of the city in which he had lived for so long. As he crossed the pavement, a black Mercedes S500 drew up, and he stepped into the back seat for the short drive to the office. He pulled out his phone and started leafing through the various news services he followed, trying to get a feel for how the market was setting up today: Tokyo, Beijing, London - what had been happening? What could he glean from the price movements and news stories?
The phone trilled in his hand, and “unknown number” flashed on the screen. He accepted the call.
“Mr Serck, good morning.” The voice on the line was heavily accented; Serck was instantly sure it was Russian. “My name is Anatoly Vassiliev. You may recall, we met in the Stephansdom, in Vienna, about a year or so ago. We were attending the funeral of our mutual friend, the lamented Mr Hugo von Resch.”
“I remember you.” And indeed he did. Vassiliev was the man with the dark glasses who had warned him to keep looking over his shoulder for the wrath or revenge of Puschkin. “You threatened me on behalf of your boss. What do you want?”
“Come now, Mr Serck, that is not the language to use. I simply told you that Mr Puschkin was concerned that something may happen to you, that you should be careful. It was certainly not a threat.”
“Mmm. It sounded like a threat to me. What do you want?”
“I am in New York right now, and Mr Puschkin has asked me to visit you to outline a business proposal he would like to put before you. Something which he believes you may both find of mutual benefit. Perhaps it may be an opportunity to put the minor differences in view that you and he may have had firmly in the past. A new era of co-operation.”
“I’m sorry? You are suggesting Puschkin wants to do a deal with me?”
“That is indeed what I am suggesting. But look, we cannot discuss this on the telephone. Would it be possible for us to meet? I could come to your office, or we could meet in my suite at the Pierre, or we could meet on some neutral ground.”
Serck thought for a moment. He was always ready to hear a deal, and had dealt with some very dubious individuals in the past. Moral considerations were not at the forefront of his mind. What was, however, was the story of Russian poisonings in a British city some few months ago; whatever the truth of that, he wasn’t about to meet the man who had - whatever he said - explicitly threatened him with harm on his own ground, even if that ground were one of New York’s most celebrated hotels.
“OK, you can come in and see me in the office this morning.”
“Thank you, Mr Serck. Would around ten o’clock be acceptable to you?”
“Sure. I’ll see you then.”
“I look forward to it.”
The phone went dead in Serck’s hand.
Serck sat drumming his fingers on his desk. The screens in front of him flickered as prices moved up and down, but he ignored them. His mind was elsewhere. He had used Arctic Mining’s market power to line his own pockets a year ago, leaving them sitting on a substantial loss. Although he had not a shred of evidence, he knew Puschkin was responsible for von Resch’s death - sure, he hadn’t got his hands dirty, but he was where the order had originated. And since that warning from Vassiliev in the Stephansdom, he had indeed been looking over his shoulder. But he believed in confronting issues, not avoiding them. That was what had driven him to become the success he had, and that’s what had made him agree to see Vassiliev. What he couldn’t imagine, though, was what deal the two of them could possibly put together; after all, mutual trust would be kind of lacking.
Smack on ten o’clock, through the glass front of his office, Serck saw his PA approaching, escorting the Russian. As before, he sported a beautifully tailored suit, a heavy silk tie and the aviator shades. Serck waved them in, and stood to welcome his guest. Vassiliev advanced, hand outstretched, a smile on his face; Serck shook his hand perfunctorily, no smile cracking his features. The sun pouring through the window behind his desk glinted on Vassiliev’s shades, as Serck gestured him to sit coffee table to the side of the room.
“My dear Mr Serck, what a pleasure to see you again. And in much better circumstances. Such a shame about Herr von Resch - driving too fast, I guess, in that sports car of his. But we can put that behind us, without ever forgetting our good friend, of course.” He removed his sunglasses, and looked sorrowfully at Serck. “And I must extend my condolences, and those of Mr Puschkin, for the sad loss of your wife. I cannot imagine how that must have been; I hope in some way you are beginning to come to terms with it, although I appreciate how difficult that must be.”
“Thank you. Yes, it’s been a difficult time. I’m not sure one ever becomes reconciled to such a loss. But still, we must all go on; the world is as it is, not necessarily how we would want it to be.”
Vassiliev nodded wisely. “Indeed, indeed. We can only react to the circumstances we have before us.”
A tap on the door, and the PA brought a tray with coffee pot and cups to them. Once she had left the room, Serck said: “Well, I’m sure you didn’t come here just to commiserate with me. On the phone earlier you indicated that there was some kind of proposition that you had from Puschkin. I confess I can’t imagine what it may be, but perhaps you would like to enlighten me. After all, we are both busy men, so let’s get to the point.”
“Ah,” said Vassiliev, laughing, “the directness of the American. Of course, we can discuss it immediately.” He paused for a moment. “Well,” he began again, “you are probably the most influential man in the metals business, with not only this fund activity” - he waved his arms to encompass Leopard-Star - “but also your interests in Metal-Exx and your copper production at Congo Copper. Mr Puschkin is the owner of the biggest nickel producer in the world, and also has substantial gold, pgm and copper interests. It’s natural to assume therefore that you will from time to time have interests in common.” He laughed again. “Of course, there will also be times when those interests do not coincide.” He spoke more seriously, a cold, hard look suddenly in his eyes. “We know you outwitted us last year over the nickel scam; we also know von Resch made some stupid decisions, which cost us a lot of money. A shame he died.” The smiling face came back. “But, you know, Mr Serck we accept that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and whichever it is, you have to move forward to the next deal.”
Serck just sat back in his chair and listened.
“We believe your President has just opened up an opportunity for us, which you can help us with. We have been lucky enough to secure a very large quantity of aluminium in the United States. Your President has just put a mixture of tariffs and sanctions on the importation of such metal from the majority of your external suppliers. We believe that those tariffs render metal already in the US with the import duty - whatever it was - paid on it more valuable. In crude terms, it should increase by the level of the tariff.” He paused, evidently waiting for Serck to comment.
Serck just looked at him; then, eventually, he said: “You’re right, of course. But everybody knows this, it’s not a great secret. And why should that be of interest to us?”
Chapter Two will be published tomorrow.