Before a Titan cavalry captain left his blade in the belly of a King; before the first Seasons had been contested; before the forging of the Rules; before the Pantheon was even an inkling – Raymond J Pearlman, who would one day take the name of a god, scowled over his glass.
Trust Ballantyne to force vintage champagne on them. Fizz had never been to Pearlman’s taste, and now the stuff had soured his innards.
It was 1997, Hallowe’en, and somewhere above their heads in the main rooms of Julian Ballantyne’s Hampshire mansion, there was a party going on. Rivers of champagne, mountains of cocaine, serving staff dressed like Celtic chieftains. Marcella – Ballantyne’s formidable wife – had decided that her gathering should have none of that nonsense American import and had instead based it on the ancient Gaelic celebration of Samhain, which once marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. Her theming was haphazard. The Celts had been joined by security guards in Roman robes and girls dressed as princesses of the Orient, but Marcella always carried off these events with such diligent panache that everyone was too busy having a good time to notice.
Everyone except Pearlman.
Parties were really not his thing, and Ballantyne’s jamborees tested his endurance to the limit. But each year, whenever their calendars allowed, Pearlman, Ballantyne and three others got together somewhere in the world to talk business, weigh the odds, shape plans – and Ballantyne invariably ensured the day’s discussions were followed by a night of debauchery.
‘Goddamn pantomime,’ had been Pearlman’s opinion as he perched on the cushioned sill of a vast bay window, back to the Hampshire night, watching the party ebb and flow around an ornate drawing room.
Beside him a small, neat man had smiled. Zhang Huateng was also in his forties, startlingly handsome and attired in a grey designer polo neck. ‘I think, perhaps, you’re old before your time, my friend.’
‘Bollocks. I just wish that one year we could meet without the accompanying showbiz.’
Mercifully, Ballantyne had disengaged himself from the throng, gathered Mikhail Malutin and Jacob Steinberg, and approached the other two men by the window. Six-foot-three, blonde, ramrod straight and oozing charm, Ballantyne looked every bit the lord of the land, although there had been times when the other four had seen him mad with fury, manic with joy and black with gloom. The secret mess of the man.
‘Come,’ he had said softly, drawing them to their feet. ‘I’ve something special I want to show you downstairs.’
So now the five of them sat in a darkened cinema in the basement – except there was no screen, just a large circle of sand below their tiered seating.
‘What the hell?’ growled Malutin. It was almost twenty years since Pearlman had first met the Russian. Back then, the man had been a broad-shouldered giant, with a smile and a physique to blow the ladies away, but two decades of high living had run him to fat, and his flushed face now glistened in the lights.
The men had splintered themselves across the seating to give them room to stretch and eye one another. They had been friends once. High-flying lads done good. But in recent years they had sparred too many times over market assets: competed too hard for the best kills, outbid each other too shamelessly and gloated too much when one of them cocked up. Now their annual meetings were frosted with rivalries, but it still suited them to get face-to-face, look each other in the eye and weigh up their competition.
Ballantyne had placed himself in the power position towards the back, forcing the others to turn to engage him. He smiled at their surprise. ‘I’ve organised a little theatre just for us. A bit of sport. I thought perhaps you’d enjoy a private wager away from the antics upstairs.’
He clicked his fingers and there was movement in the shadows. Four men strode onto the floodlit sand. Two of them were bound and were led by the others using leather thongs around their necks. They were positioned next to each other, facing the audience.
‘Ah,’ said Steinberg with an agreeable nod. ‘A fight. Always a pleasant diversion.’
‘Gloved or bare knuckle?’ demanded Malutin.
Ballantyne allowed a playful pause. ‘Just place your bets on what you see.’
Pearlman pondered the figures on the sand, his innards and his black mood temporarily forgotten. One of them was significantly taller than the other, with powerful legs and a longer reach, but his adversary looked sharp and agile, like he could handle himself.
‘A hundred on the bigger one,’ said Huateng softly.
Steinberg raised a finger. ‘I’ll put another hundred on him.’
Pearlman snorted. ‘Then I guess I’d better put two on the little guy, just to make things more interesting.’
Ballantyne grinned. ‘A good choice. That’s the one Marcella chose, and eight out of ten times she gets it right. My wife is a woman who knows her fighters. So, boys, we have two hundred thousand sterling from our dear Raymond. Let’s keep it coming.’
Raymond J Pearlman had first crossed paths with Julian Ballantyne in 1973, when he had returned to the Chicago School of Economics after his Rhodes Scholarship year at Balliol College, Oxford. Ballantyne – a Corpus Christi man – was a couple of years older, but already a growing legend in the world of high finance. The two men had been chalk and cheese, but their Oxford experiences bound them, and gradually Ballantyne took the other man under his wing and showed him how real money was made. With the Englishman’s guidance, Pearlman soon found he had a talent for spotting and buying undervalued companies and making alpha returns. He loved the thrill, the paranoia, the sheer adrenaline rush of living and dying by immediate choices. He became one of a fledgling group of Chicago graduates that Ballantyne coined the Young Eagles. They were the new kids, smashing barriers, breaking rules, toying with a fresh field of finance that would later be called ‘hedge funding’.
But that was only the start.
On 24 March 1976, Pearlman was running his fund accounts from a growing Manhattan office, when Ballantyne’s call came through.
‘Switch on your tv.’
Pearlman watched grainy black-and-white news footage of helicopter flights and explosions blossoming across a blackened city. ‘What am I seeing?’
‘Videla’s junta is taking Argentina. Peron was detained last night.’ Ballantyne’s voice was smooth, but there was no hiding his excitement.
The images changed to a high-ranking officer, sagging under the weight of his medals. ‘People are advised that as of today the country is under the operational control of the Joint Chiefs General of the Armed Forces.’
‘Why’re you bothering me about this, Julian?’
‘Because it’s a disaster! Full blown, off-the-Richter-scale, disaster. And don’t we just love it!’
‘You’re going to have to wind back on this one. Who’s behind the coup?’
‘We are, Pearlman. We are.’
And it was true. Fellow Chicago Boys were flown into Buenos Aires and given top economic posts – secretary of finance, president of the central bank, research director for the treasury. They oversaw the junta’s dismantling of Argentina’s prosperous public sector. They removed workers’ rights, banned strikes, lifted price controls and removed all restrictions on foreign ownership. Over the next few months, amidst the terror, the despair, the disappearances and thirty thousand deaths, Ballantyne led his Young Eagles into the fray – and they took everything. Pearlman had never realised such riches could be made.
Argentina was just the start. Over the succeeding decades, they used their networks to ensure they were always ready to help foment the next economic disaster. When a revolution was initiated, the suddenness of the violence and the collapse of security placed a population in such shock that it was unable to react logically in its own defence – it was utterly malleable. That was when the Eagles swooped. Bolivia, Uruguay, Poland, Sri Lanka, even Russia. From the jaws of disaster, countless fortunes had sprung.
Now, in the little cinema in the bowels of the mansion, the Eagles placed their bets and watched while the two figures were led away. When they returned, their hands were free and one held a short sword, while the other gripped a three-pronged trident and a net.
‘What the hell?’ Malutin said again, and all heads turned to Ballantyne at the rear.
He shrugged. ‘I thought we’d make it more interesting.’
Pearlman felt a frisson of excitement as the adversaries began to circle each other. Suddenly the party upstairs meant nothing. Here was something new, something wrong. Dangerous. What had he just wagered two hundred grand on?
The figures exploded towards each other, all muscle and power. The taller man evaded the steel points of the trident and shouldered into the other, taking him backwards and thrusting with his sword. Somehow his foe kept on his feet and twisted beyond the blow, and the taller man had to leap back as the trident came raking towards his chest.
The audience was entranced. No one shifted or looked away.
The taller man attacked again, but this time he had misjudged it. His adversary possessed the weapon with the longer reach and he jerked it forward into the path of the swordsman. The prongs caught him in the shoulder, twisting him backwards with a howl. He pulled himself free. Now the room was hot. Heavy with the fug of sweat and the metallic tang of blood.
‘What are you doing, Ballantyne?’ Pearlman said slowly, his eyes not shifting from the fight.
‘Do you have a problem? You hunt, Raymond. You shoot.’
‘Not bloody humans, I don’t.’
‘Well what do you expect for nigh on a quarter of a million?’ Ballantyne sounded peeved in the back row.
The fighters were gasping now, their eyes wide, their faces creased with terror. They attacked again. Steel prodded. Flesh tore.
‘Fuck,’ said Steinberg, almost to himself.
The sand was blotched with crimson. Both men were becoming sheeted with blood, so no one could tell who was most grievously wounded.
‘Are we really going to let this go on?’ asked Pearlman.
‘Shut up,’ Malutin retorted, his eyes glued.
And then it happened. The smaller man kicked a spray of sand at his opponent, flung his net out and watched as the eyes of the swordsman followed the net. Then he stepped low and impaled the man on the end of his trident. There was a momentary silence, all motion gone, and then the tall man shuddered and vomited blood. Creasing into himself and pawing at the steel in his gut, his coughing became a mewing and the blood kept coming. He stumbled to his knees, raised himself briefly to look at the victor and then collapsed on the sand.
‘Christ,’ swore Pearlman and turned on Ballantyne, but their host was already rising and applauding the winner.
‘Bravo, what a performance.’
‘Looked more like murder to me.’
Ballantyne ceased his clapping and his face darkened. ‘It’s only murder, my friend, if you get caught. Besides, our performers knew the risk. They accepted the terms. They understood only one of them would receive the victor’s ample rewards.’
There was a thorny silence as the remaining fighter bowed and disappeared, and his fallen adversary was dragged away by his heels.
‘An unexpected change to your usual entertainments, Julian,’ said Huateng eventually.
‘And what is your verdict?’
Huateng considered this. ‘I’ve witnessed governments fall, countries burn and no doubt many people die, all for the sake of wealth. But this was different. Death and money entwined and distilled into something so simple. A wager. A reward. A weapon. A fight. An outcome. I admit it was stimulating while it lasted.’
‘Exactly,’ hissed Ballantyne, his eyes hard. ‘Tell me truthfully, is there anything more stimulating than holding a human life in your hands? Just like the emperors of Rome. The thumb up or the thumb down. That, gentlemen, is power.’
Steinberg voiced his agreement, but the others were silent and Ballantyne, still rankled by Pearlman’s criticism, let the moment die and heaved a self-indulgent sigh.
‘Oh well, I suppose it was too much to expect unanimous enthusiasm for such ancient art,’ he concluded tartly. ‘My banker will sort your wagers and meantime we should return to the fray. Marcella will be missing us.’
Malutin hauled his bulk upright and raised his glass. ‘Well, I say bravo to you, Julian. I’m a hundred grand down for five minutes of entertainment, but I’d pay twice as much to see it again.’
Steinberg concurred. ‘Although it would need to last longer and play much more to the gallery.’
Pearlman was still grim when he exited the cinema. He had expected a normal, run-of-the-mill party. A bit of letting off steam after their business meeting. But bloody Ballantyne decided they should witness a man get butchered. And yet… And yet, somewhere beneath his indignation, he could feel his heart still pumping and the adrenaline sneaking through his veins. He had wagered on a man’s life. For sport. And, in the moments before the poor bastard’s death, the spectacle had been consuming.
‘Tell me, Raymond,’ said Huateng, coming close. ‘You, the man who shoots lions, yet protests the loudest. Surely you felt a prickle of excitement?’
Pearlman was damned if he was going to speak openly in this company. Rule number one: keep your cards close. ‘What we witnessed in there bears no resemblance to the exhilaration of a hunt. The planning, the tracking, the chase. The battle of wits between prey and predator. That? That was just…’
‘Another goddamn pantomime?’ Huateng interrupted archly.
‘Exactly. Bloody Julian.’
They wound their way back to the celebrations and the night evaporated in decadence. The next morning, they boarded their jets and went their separate ways. And that should have been that for another year.
But this time, the weekend in Hampshire would linger long on the Eagle’s minds. Not the business meeting or Marcella’s stupid party. No, it was Julian’s piece of theatre that haunted them. Money and death. Risk and reward.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, the goddamn pantomime would return to claim them all.
For the gods were calling.