When Brandon Kostley started at BertHold, he thought he had it made. Investment supervisors may lose a lot of money sometimes, but they never starve, least not the way he figured it. And on top of his great fortune getting that gig, practically his first day in the city, he happened to be seated at a restaurant next to Hank Hunt.
BertHold was a great company, don’t misunderstand, but Hank Hunt ran the city and had for like twenty years. that was what Brandon thought. Never mind Hunt’s twelve bankruptcies—after all, he always managed to get back on top. So with this man as his mentor, as he was after only a brief conversation, Brandon was confident he would soon be rich beyond his wildest dreams.
But then old man Bentley, the owner, died, leaving controlling interest and more to his grandson: Damian Bentley-Hoag.
If Hank Hunt was the most powerful man in the most powerful city in the world, Damian Bentley-Hoag was the most dangerous. Oh, most people wouldn’t think so, of course. Most people later on would insist he was a champion of the people, a real stand-up guy with a lot to offer, who offered it freely.
Here’s what made Damian Bentley-Hoag dangerous: he actually believed trickle-down economics, but not the way his peers wanted people believing in it. When he got an influx of money for the company, he turned right around and invested it—but not in the stock market, not in the banking system. He used it to actually buy new and better equipment, to hire more people, to give raises to the people on the bottom—and one time, he even used the extra cash to lower product prices. “We got a good product,” he said, “Not just somehting people want, but something they’ll use, something that’ll actualy work. i want people to buy it, real people. And I don’t want them going broke to do so.”
“But Damian,” one of the board members condescended, “What about us? What do we get out of this?”
“What exactly have you put into this?” asked Damian.
What followed was an enumeration of every one of that board member’s personal contributions to the company. It was very detailed, but for every monetary scheme, Damian had a moral riposte, until finally the board man insisted “I have put my soul into this company!”
“No,” said Damian, “you have put money into this company, and have gotten money in return. Your soul, as far as I can tell, is on a golf course in Hilton Head, and you are free to retrieve it at any time. The people who have put their souls into this company are the ones who found themselves too desperate to keep looking for something better and settled for working for my grandfather, and for you, who didn’t pay them enough.”
“You’re not going to get away with this,” the man on the board said.
Damian only looked at him, his elbows on the table, his left hand covering his right fist covering his mouth.
That board member was not invited to any more meetings.
“He can’t do that,” Hank Hunt insisted when Brandon brought the news to him.
“Actually, I’m afraid he can. He still owns the company, so he’s free to do whatever he wants with it.”
“Well, he’s not gonna get away with it.” Hunt’s face darkened. “I can tell you that much for sure.”
Then he dipped his fork into a mountain of kaviar.
The problem was, Damian did get away with it. He had been barely 21 and still in college somewhere overseas when he took over, but the boy had a knowledge of business and of politics that woudl drive most men mad. Maybe it had driven him mad, at that—but every decision he made was successful.
Meanwhile, the boy himself lived modestly, in a converted tenement in the Bronx, and commuted to Manhattan. The security in his apartment was supplemented by the fact that most of his bodyguards lived there, too, with their families, and even some of his low-level employees. He said it kept him honest, kept him in touch with the people who actually ran the company.
Most of his personal wealth, meanwhile, went directly to building the company.
“Who the hell does he think he is?” Hank Hunt asked, staring out the window of his Manhattan Penthouse past the gold-plated columns. “He’s a loser, that’s what he is. And he knows it, that’s why he lives like he does—he knows he can’t keep this up. He knows it!
“Somebody oughtta teach that asshole a lesson.”
Three days later, there was an explosion at the tenement, just over Damian’s own apartment. He wasn’t home—fortunately, neither were the folks above him. They were a nice Puerto Rican family he’d been sponsoring for citizenship, and he had taken them out for Chinese. No one else was hurt.
At first, it looked like a gas leak, they said. That was the police. But the fire department had a different story. Brandon Kostley didn’t come forward, though. He told himself he didn’t really know anything. It was all just speculation, after all. Second hand. Subjunctive.
There was an investigation, but the trail went cold.
But that was when something happened that was really unexpected.
Hank Hunt disappeared.
It was actually the perfect, classic locked-room mystery. He was shup up in his office, “Do Not Disturb” and all that, secretary outside the door, and suddenly no answer. He was just gone.
That was when Brandon Kostley came forward. It got him in a bit of trouble, not having revealed that Hunt had made his threat against Damian’s life, but the judge decided he was a good kid, who just didn’t want to tarnish the old man’s reputation. He was certain, though, he said, that Damian had something to do with the disappearance.
Well, based on that, there was an investigation, but the trial never made it past a hearing. There just wasn’t any evidence. After the trial, Damian was heard remarking a few times on the fact that Hank Hunt hadn’t even been put through that much, although there was some evidence there. But of course, it didn’t really matter.
Brandon had already left the company by then. He did it voluntarily; Damian insisted he wouldn’t fire a man for following his conscience.
One night, though, Brandon came home to find Damian in his kitchen with a very expensive bottle of wine Brandon couldn’t pronounce the name of.
“How did you get in here?” Brandon demanded.
“I thought it was high time we talked,” Damian told him, and poured the wine. Then he proceeded to make dinner.
“You see,” he told Brandon, “the business world, as it seems to me, is at odds with democracy. We stand on high here making decisions, and the people? What do they matter to us? They are trees our money grows on, and trees are not meant to make decisions. Our employees depend on us for their livelihoods, and our customers for the actual things that they need. But I’m here at the top. I’m the monarch. The way my grandfather put this company together, I get to make all the decisions. No one can stop me. My power is absolute.
“Does that mean I can get away with murder? No. It shouldn’t. But it does mean that I have every right to treat my employees fairly.
“You know what the best form of government is, Mr. Kostley?”
“I prefer the term ‘Enlightened Despotism’. That’s how I like to think of myself—which is a dangerous line of thinking, of course. But I figure it’s better than only thnking of myself, and not about the consequences of my actions.”
Whirlwinds of responses soon overwhelmed Brandon’s brain. Was he thinking of the consequences for his board members? For the business community at large? But then he remembered the kaviar and the gold-plated bathroom and his own childhood in the bad parts of Detroit.
It’s been quite some time since anyone’s heard from Hank Hunt. Now and then, it’s said he’ll be spotted by an associate or a member of the press in Thailand or Mogadishu or the Sarajevo slums. But the witnesses are never able to reach him, never even get close.
And in New York, Damian’s strategy is catching.