Chapter 4. Athens
Jack Hawkins stood at the top of the steps leading down into the bar and lounge of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens; he had just arrived that afternoon and hoped to snoop out some bargain basement investments as the Greek economy tanked in the current crisis. Jack was in his sixties with a thick thatch of gray hair and the bluff and hearty manner of the British banker he had once been. He was dressed in a white linen suit, white shirt, and narrow striped tie. On his head he wore a white panama hat, on his feet were woven-straw loafers from another era. He was a figure out of a Graham Greene novel, a modern day Our Man in Athens, an image out of Empire.
He carried his stick with an emerald top which he tapped impatiently against his left palm as he surveyed the room. Wonder where all the senior men are? he thought. Then he spied a face he recognized sitting among a circle of younger men sitting dejected over their cocktails. He walked over and approached the young man.
“Hi, here’s a face I recognize…can’t quite put a name to it…but you were an intern back in London…oh a bit over ten years ago I believe…”
“Right, Gramps…before the meltdown…” said the young man in a crisp Eton accent, his eyes lighting up in recognition of the older man. “My name’s James…hedge fund is the game…” and his voice faltered and he said, “or used to be.”
Jack let the Gramps nickname slide by; he’d been called worse in these distant climes. There wasn’t a buoyant face in the youthful crowd.
“Mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all Gramps…everything else is going wrong today…”
Jack looked around the circle of depressed young men, their razor cut hair, the sleek suits, the ties now all askew. “All of you must be long Greece,” Jack said with a hearty chuckle.
They looked daggers at him. One said, “Isn’t everyone?”
“Well, no,” replied Jack.
“Who are you?” another young man asked.
“I’m Jack Hawkins of Bermuda Triangle, Ltd.”
“Oh yeah, you guys scored big in the 2012 bailout,” said another young man.
“We did rather well…”
“Then you got out…before the Syriza guys came to power…”
“Well, yes we did…”
Another young man enthusiastically entered the conversation. “I remember Bermuda Triangle…that was the hedge fund that had all of their emails read by the NSA…their email server hub in Majorca went transparent. I read ‘em all in the Snowden files.” The young man looked directly at Jack and said, “Didn’t know you had so much influence with British diplomats…”
“It was a tad overstated,” said Jack. “Just some old school stuff…you know, comparing the stripes on our ties…”
“And now?” asked James.
“We’ve a rather light footprint in Greece.”
“So why are you here?”
“Thought we’d nose around and see if any interesting deals pop up.”
“Yeah, up out of the wreckage,” chimed in another voice sarcastically.
“You a vulture capital fund?” asked another young man accusingly.
“We’ve always got our eye out for a favorably priced distress situation.”
“Well, your lucky day. Distress is all around you.”
Another young man pointed to Jack’s woven-straw loafers and exclaimed, “Look. Like out of a very old movie.”
Another young man asked James, “You knew him where? What’s the story?”
“I was an intern in London. He was a senior banker then. Remember how back in the olden days they used experience to make loans, not computers.” James looked at Jack and then back at the other young man and said, “He was rumored to have judgment.”
Jack smiled benignly. Then he asked the group collectively, “So you guys are long? What are some of the vehicles?”
“You mean in addition to the bonds?”
“Well, banks for one. BankAthens…”
“Of course,” said Jack, all jocular good humor.
“And the ferry boat company,” said another.
“Some construction and energy companies…you know capitalize on building the new Greece…the one coming with the third bailout package…”
“The water company…”
“The water company?” asked Jack, truly puzzled.
“Yeah, they were going to privatize it…then the Marxists showed up…”
“Well, after next Sunday’s referendum…maybe there’ll be a change in governments…a new start…” said Jack sympathetically.
“We need regime change…” said another.
“My brother works for the State Department. He says they do it all the time,” another young man said.
“Yeah, maybe they’ll help,” said another hopefully.
Another young man swung his head back and forth in the negative, “Naw, Obama will never go for it. After getting caught eavesdropping on Angela’s cell phone…changing one of her governments would be going too far…”
“Well, you’re on the right track,” said Jack. “When I was young, the British ambassador would just go out in his garden at night and have a whispered conversation with someone wearing a trench coat and a fedora, and presto, the government would get changed…”
“Yeah, don’t think that’ll work anymore. I hear the guys in Scotland almost changed the government in London.”
Another young man chipped in. “But I think Gramps is onto something. The senior partners at home get Congress to do whatever they tell them. We should communicate back to headquarters and ask them how they do it. Then we could do it here.”
“Probably use lobbyists.”
“Well, we could ask the senior partners to parachute one in to us.”
Just then Jack’s iPhone started to vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out and swiped the screen while telling his new companions, “Excuse me. Just one moment.”
Jack listened. It was Geneva. Dieter was speaking…it was almost like code. Jack’s brow furrowed as he listened to the words… “big long position in Greek bonds…major positions in Greek banks…stocks…” and then to his surprise, “the Athens water company…billions”
One of the young men, obvious concern on his face, leaned over and asked Jack, “Is that a blood pressure app on your phone, Gramps? You’re white as a sheet.”
“Just word from Geneva…we’re a little more long in Greece than I thought,” he mumbled.
The young man named Jones looked at him and mouthed the words, “Long?”
Jack nodded with a hollow look.
“Yes…” croaked Jack, disbelief across his face.
Another young man hailed the waiter and said, “Gramps needs a martini.”
“Make it a double,” said James looking at Jack like a concerned doctor.
“Okay, Gramps, welcome to the club. Welcome to the Hotel California, Athens branch. You can enter but never leave. The money stays behind.”
The waiter brought Jack his martini. He brought the glass swiftly up to his lips and took a long sip. Then he set the glass down. “There now.”
“What do we do now, Gramps?”
“We need to work the regime change angle. A new government that will strike a new deal with Europe.”
“And get the money flowing,” said James.
“But we don’t even have a lobbyist,” said another voice.
“We’ll use theirs.”
“Tomorrow, I’ve got some ideas for tomorrow morning and then in the afternoon we’ll visit the bankers.”
“But the banks are closed tomorrow, Gramps.”
“Precisely. We’ll meet them out at the Club. That’s where they’ll be. It’s up on a hill outside of town overlooking Athens. Beautiful. I remember it well.”
One of the young men ruminated with a sense of wonder. “Of course. Those are our banks. We own them. They should work with us.”
“Have you ever seen a capital city where the bankers don’t know how to own the legislature,” said Jack with an avuncular laugh.
“What bank did you work for in London, Gramps?”
“Yeah, good…I like that…they came back from the dead…”
Just then two scruffy looking dudes in levis and stained shirts showed up and plopped down in chairs.
“Great, the journalists are here,” said James. “What’s the latest scoop?”
“You tell us,” said one bedraggled scribe. “We’ve been getting the runaround all day. You ever try to talk with that finance minister?” The other journalist eyed Jack and asked, “Who’s the old guy?”
“My name is Jack Hawkings. I’m the head of the Overseas Investment Association here in Athens. Be respectful. We’re starting a major initiative tomorrow morning. Then a press conference,” said Jack as he baited the hook.
“We are?” asked one of hedgies. But the journalists’ ears had perked up. A new angle, the international investment community. Tomorrow’s story will write itself—lead with a little Pablum from a trade association. Easy work.
“Yes, I’m meeting with the British ambassador tomorrow morning. Then we’re holding a press conference just outside the embassy.” Jack looked around at the hedgies and said, “You’re all expected to attend.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” said James. “This sounds like something right out of the old Barclays.”
“Sir, there’s a Mister Jack Hawkins in the foyer to meet with you. Said it’s quite urgent.”
“There is!” exclaimed the ambassador, sputtering, “That man is in my embassy?”
“Yes sir,” said the aide. “He says it will only take a minute.”
“Okay, but only a minute.” He eyed the aide to see if he was as gullible as his announcement suggested. Didn’t he know a mountebank when he saw one?
The ambassador followed the aide down the stairs from the residential apartments to the huge foyer just inside from the massive timbered door, built in the past to hold back the most unruly of Athenian mobs.
“Nice to see you again, Sir John,” said Jack with jocular familiarity.
“Can’t say the same for you,” scowled the ambassador in reply, suddenly wondering where he’d placed his wallet.
“Well old school ties and all that,” said Jack as he fingered his striped rep tie.
“Hear the alumni committee overlooked sending you an invitation to the last class reunion,” said the ambassador fingering his own striped tie with a certain look of regret.
“Minor oversight, I dare say. Barclays didn’t forward it on.”
“Yes I’d heard that the proper authorities had straightened out Barclays. Sharp practices, they said.”
“Water under the London Bridge. I’m here on behalf of my associates in the Overseas Investors Association here in Athens. Wanted to make sure that Her Majesty’s Government still supported fair treatment of British investments overseas?”
“Harumph,” said the ambassador as he hoisted his girth up in a sign that a statement of implacable certitude was soon to issue. “Daresay there isn’t a million pounds sterling within a hundred kilometers of the Greek border. What do we care?”
“Understand,” agreeably said Jack.
“Do you,” said the ambassador, boring in. “Let me explain,” a sense of triumph spreading across his face, “Greece is Brussels’ problem. This is one problem we don’t even have to exit!”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” said Jack. “I’ll not be keeping you, Sir John. See you at the next reunion.”
The ambassador’s face went bleak as he watched Jack head towards the door, now held open by a formally attired usher. Something was entirely too easy here.
The ambassador mumbled to the aide, “Keep an eye on the potted palms outside. See that he doesn’t auction them off.”
“I’m going to go upstairs and make some telephone calls.”
Outside, Jack walked through the massive front gate and stood on the sidewalk. All the hedgies were there, dark suited and hiding their curiosity behind sleek sunglasses. Journalists and camera crews surrounded the gate to the embassy in a semicircle. Passing Greek pedestrians crowded around to see what the foreigners were up to.
Jack waved and then put his hands out to quiet the humdrum down. As the crowd turned silent he said, “I’ve just spoken with the ambassador. He is highly reassuring. Her Majesty’s Government stands broadly behind the principles of the Overseas Investors Association. There will not be any exit from the government’s commitment to sterling investments.”
A journalist moved to ask a question and Jack put him off with an upraised palm and said, “I’ll take the press’s questions in just a few moments.”
Jack continued, “As many of you know, our own Prince Phillip is a member of the Greek Royal House…”
“The Greek Royal House?” stammered a journalist. “There is one?”
“Yessiree,” said Jack. “The Pretender is…”
“Pretender? Is there going to a restoration of the monarchy?” asked another reporter, smelling an extraordinary scoop about to unfold.
“It hasn’t been ruled out,” said Jack
“Wow…this will be the story of the day…we better take off,” said one of the journalists, turning on his heel and racing down the street screaming, “Where’s there an Internet connection?”
The television correspondents lined up for favorable shots with the embassy in the background while cameramen vied for position. News producers coached the correspondents on dramatic leads to introduce their reports to the folks back home; the news teams were racing to make the New York evening newscasts.
Jack stood there smiling like the Cheshire cat. He turned to James, “We’ve got the Big Mo.”
“Now what?” asked James.
“The bankers this afternoon.” The plan was unfolding.
One of the hedgies pulled up in a rented convertible with driver. “Let me give you a lift back to the hotel, Gramps. We can go past the demonstration. They’re marching towards the parliament building. See what the natives are up to.”
“Yes, good idea,” said Jack as he and James got in the back seat.
The car edged through the thronging crowd. Up ahead was a large demonstration. Big red flags on poles were everywhere. The Greek Communist party was enjoying a resurgence. The police line was holding them back.
“Can you stop the car just behind the police line?” asked Jack.
“Sure,” said the driver.
“Do you think you can get a loud hailer from the police captain?” asked Jack to the driver.
“For a hundred euros, sure.”
James whipped a hundred euro note out of his wallet. The driver parked the car just behind the police line, walked over to a police captain and haggled over borrowing the electric megaphone, passed the captain the hundred euro note, and brought it back.
Jack stepped out of the car, took the megaphone from the driver, and said to the other hedgies, “Let’s see how good their English is?” Jack jumped on the hood of the car.
The driver jumped up beside him and said, “Let me translate.”
“Good idea.” Jack shouted into the megaphone, “Comrades!”
The translator leaned over and shouted the translation through the megaphone. Many of the demonstrators stopped and looked over towards the man in the white suit standing on top of the car.
“Comrades, don’t look to Moscow, look to London!”
People in the crowd looked at each other with puzzled glances. No Moscow? London?
“London is the last free capital in Europe not dominated by the euro tyranny directed by Brussels and Berlin!”
“And Frankfurt,” shouted a demonstrator in the crowd. “Frankfurt controls the ATMs! Freedom to the ATMs!”
The crowd started to look interested. Yes, London was not in the eurozone.
“Why is London still free?” shouted Jack.
The crowd stood stock still, mesmerized by the question.
“It is not because our government is strong. Our prime minister, like your prime minister, is a mere boy. They can’t stand up to Angela!”
Yes, the crowd thought, mere boys cannot stand up to the dominatrix in Berlin.
“What stands between the government in London and the euro lords in Brussels is the Queen. The Queen of England keeps Great Britain free of euro domination. Her powerful shield of sovereignty.”
The crowd cheered, the red flags pumped up and down on their staffs, people clapped and shouted, “Vive la reine.”
The translator shouted into Jack’s ear, “That’s the phrase they see in the French movies.” Jack smiled. Any queen in a storm.
“So, let me speak to you,” shouted Jack. “As a leading Monarchist-Leninist, I say—we must bring the monarchy back—to protect the free people of Greece from the tyranny of Brussels.”
“Vive le monarchy!” shouted the crowd. Others yelled, “The Englishman speaks the truth.”
“Petition the parliament,” shouted Jack through the megaphone.
“To the parliament,” shouted the crowd and surged forward down the street towards the parliament building.
Jack climbed down off the hood of the car and got back in and said to James, “Let’s get back to the hotel and then on to the bankers.”
The taxis swung into the parking lot in front of the whitewashed club house, the faded tiles on the roof a soft red in the afternoon sunlight. A doorman rushed out to block the entrance—so many unwanted guests these days. Jack alighted and with air of authority approached the doorman, “We’re from the Overseas Investors Associations. We’re here to meet the chairman of BankAthens and EuroGreece bank. I believe we’re expected.”
“Let me check,” said the doorman, eyeing the visitors warily. Salesman had been knocking at the door to the Club all week trying to sell islands to distinguished members who thought they already owned all the islands. He soon returned and from the entrance waved them forward, saying, “This way gentlemen. On the patio. They received the ambassador’s call that you were coming.”
“Very thoughtful of the ambassador,” said Jack as he fingered his striped tie.
The hedgies looked at one another—impressed. Maybe Jack had more grease in a country that was starting to look like it needed a lot of oiling to get anything done.
Jack and the other hedgies walked in and down past the sparkling blue waters of the swimming pool towards a large patio overlooking Athens below. Two distinguished looking gray-haired men in their sixties in dark glasses stood by a table and watched the visitors approach.
“I’m Jack Hawkins,” said Jack by way of introduction.
“Yes, we saw you on TV,” said one of the men, nodding towards a big screen TV in the shade beside the patio bar.
“We’re part of the Overseas Investors Association,” said Jack.
“So what?” said one of the bankers. He looked at his friend, “What do you think, Dimitrios?”
“Well, many of our members have substantial investments in your banks’ common stock,” said Jack agreeably. Didn’t want to put any threats crudely.
“So what?” said Dimitrios. He turned back to the other banker, “You tell ‘em, Costas.”
Costas said, “That and a twenty euro bill will get you a cab ride back to Athens.”
James stepped forwards and politely said, with just an edge of investor impatience, “Sir, possibly you don’t understand. We have majority control of your stock.”
“Possibly you don’t understand,” mimicked Dimitrios as he mocked James. “Another Anglo Saxon is going to tell us about the Magna Carta.”
“Just papers blowing in the wind,” said Costas.
“And rule of the law,” said Dimitrios with a disdainful shrug.
“Us, who have slaughtered the Ottoman legions…raped the sultan’s youngest daughters…impaled the Moslems on spear points…in answer to the eternal law…” continued Costas like a Greek chorus.
“And the Anglo Saxon wants to talk to us about the paper law…” spat out Dimitrios with the contempt of the East for the West.
“Yes,” stammered James, “I see…just paper blowing in the wind…” He stepped back.
Jack took a step forward and said soothingly, “Now, now. Let’s all have a drink and find the common ground.” He waved at a waiter, who came over. Jack pulled out a hundred euro note and said, “What are we all having?”
“Cinzano,” said Dimitrios. He looked at Costas and gave a what-the-hell shrug and sat down.
“Cinzano all around,” said Jack to the barman.
“We’re listening, English,” said Dimitrios.
“There’s a good lad,” said Jack with jocular familiarity as he sat down and the other hedgies dragged up chairs and sat in a circle around the table where the two bankers sat with Jack.
“We’re concerned about our investments,” said Jack. “The wrong government, bank nationalizations…”
“Bank nationalizations?” said the two Greeks in unison, a sense of shock seeping into their voices. Where’d that come from?
“Those were red flags at the Communist street demonstration today.”
“Yes…” said Dimitrios. Not that he’d worried; they’d been paying off the Communists for decades. Watching the TV, he had simply found the British banker standing on the car hood shouting at Communist demonstrators truly entertaining.
“But we have…how do you say…acquired great influence in the Syriza party,” said Costas.
“But what happens if the Communist claque wins out over the moderate side?” said Jack.
“So, some Communists in the cabinet,” said Costas, not tipping his hand.
“Well, if that triggers the Olive Revolution…” said Jack.
“The Olive Revolution?” said Dimitrios, an edge of uncertainty in his voice.
“Yes, speaking with the SIS liaison this morning at the embassy,” said Jack in a lowered voice, “I presume the ambassador put you in the picture…”
The two bankers looked at each other. Picture? Olive Revolution?
“Well, yes, the ambassador mentioned many things…what do you propose?” asked Dimitrios.
“We need to get some of the old Marxists on our side to help form a government that will negotiate for a third bailout and stay in the euro. The right Communists in the cabinet might just be the ticket…”
“How do we do that?”
“You explain how thoroughly you’re screwing the capitalists in Germany and elsewhere.”
“Well, there’s truth in that,” said Costas. “But that’s not enough. They’re tough old birds.”
“Well, just tell them the international investors insist that the banks form advisory committees to advise on community development…some generous retainers might be available…”
“Yes, that would work…and warn off the other ministries…”
“Yes,” said Jack. “The best cooperation is always paid for.”
“Yes, an old Greek proverb,” said Costas. “We can arrange for you to meet, English, with some of old Marxists of the Syriza party…before the referendum…you will be able to see that it will not be easy…”
“Easy?” asked Dimitrios, perplexity spreading across his face. “What happens if you lose the referendum on Sunday?”
“That’s why we need to line up the support now. No matter which way the election goes on Sunday, we need a coalition government to form on Monday that will negotiate on Tuesday.”
“He likes his new house. He’ll blow with the wind.”
“They all do,” said Costa. He turned to Dimitrios and said, “The Englishman is smarter than he looks.”
“Then talks on Tuesday with the Europe,” said Jack.
“And on Wednesday your investments soar in value,” said Costas.
“That’s the hope,” said Jack.
“But if you’re wrong and the Germans push Greece out of the euro on Wednesday, then what, English?” asked Dimitrios.
“The Europeans want a deal. We deliver in Athens, they’ll deliver in Frankfurt and Brussels.”
“Okay, we’ll help, English,” said Costas.
Dimitrios took a long pull on his Cinzano and said, “English, we watch television, too. If things go badly on Wednesday, you better pull a Queen of Greece out of your bag of tricks on Thursday!”
“Or we’ll all be Red on Friday,” said Costas.
“A cousin of Prince Phillip at least,” said Jack with a broad smile. “We won’t keep you gentlemen longer,” he said as he stood up.
“The last king of Greece was a nephew of the Kaiser,” said Costas. “Not good. Let’s not repeat…can’t we get a princess from Monaco?”
“You’re smarter than you look, Costas!” said Jack with a wave.