Category Archives: Our Modern Pantheon


Brett Lewis was doing well. He had a good, steady job at the construction company, a nice pile of savings from the work he’d done since he was sixteen. He got along okay with women when the fancy struck him, but he felt no great need to settle down. And he was in peak physical condition.

He first met Dr. Shukti Prajapati when his boss at the firm made him go in for a routine check-up. He never bothered with those things, figured he knew his body best. Not like he smoked, and he ate healthy enough.

“How are you feeling today, sir?” asked the doc, and he was surprised not to hear an accent, because she was definitely not from around here.

“I’m feeling just fine,” he said, “other than the big fat check I’m gonna have to write for this check-up.”

“Most insurance policies cover this,” she assured him.

“Most insurance policies,” he countered, “are scams, which is why I don’t have one.”

“I see,” said Dr. Prajapati, and continued with the examination.

She wanted to say something pithy, like “Well, then I guess you have only yourself to blame,” but that would be unbecoming, not to mention unprofessional, and she could tell from the man’s body-language he was already uncomfortable with her—whether it was her race or sex didn’t really matter—and she was already on thin ice when it came to the hospital administration. they didn’t like her meddling with her patients by recommending insurance policies. They said it was none of her business; “Doctors should be doctors,” they said, “and leave the insurance stuff to the folks who know about it.” But wasn’t her job to care for the sick? Hadn’t she taken an oath to do no harm? If a family was financially ruined paying for a treatment that she recommended, with the result they wouldn’t properly feed themselves, wasn’t that her business as a doctor?

“Hmm…” she said, in her conversation with Mr. Lewis.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“No reason to be alarmed,” she said. “I just might have to run some tests.”

“Nuh-uh, I ain’t paying for no tests.”

“But this could be important.” She explained what she’d found at the possible implications. She tries to be as simple as possible without being condescending or imprecise.

“No, no, no, no, no,” said Brett. “Nice try, Shama-lama, but you’re not getting me with all your mumbo-jumbo, I ain’t paying for no tests.”

And that was the end of it, she thought. There was a chance he had a condition. There was a chance that condition could be life-threatening, but without insurance, the test would be pricey. Not as pricey as the treatment, of course, but for this man (especially without insurance) the burden might weigh more than the risk.

So Brett Lewis got his clean bill of health (with a caveat) and returned to work, while Dr. Prajapati returned to feeling uneasy about healthcare. Maybe her medical school teachers were right. Maybe her heart was too good for America, her commitment too wide.

There were problems with Britain’s NHS, but it couldn’t be as bad as this—could it? Pharmaceutical companies creating new drugs they don’t actually need to feed money into testing them to justify driving up prices on everything else? The best equipment in the world that no one could afford to use? Food that makes people sick? Common-sense cures barred from even research to keep profits high on expensive invasive treatments that shouldn’t even be necessary? And all the while, the only way ordinary working-class citizens can afford to take care of themselves when the worst happens is to pay thousands a year to private insurance companies that take every conceivable excuse to line their own pockets by raising prices and denying claims.

“You should buy insurance now,” she said to Brett Lewis just before he walked.

“They won’t cover you with a preexisting condition and this could become a problem.”

“Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he shot back.

But then it became a problem. Six months after this check-up, after assuming that it was all bullshit, Brett Lewis started showing symptoms. They were exactly the kinds of symptoms Dr. Prajapati had described. Uncanny, even. He put off going in—“Doctors are quacks anyway”—and didn’t even tell anyone—“I ain’t no snowflake,” he would say in the mirror, “I can take care of myself”—until one day he collapsed while at work.

“You will die,” was the verdict from these new quacks, “without proper treatment. “And it was burning a hole in his pocket.

“Don’t worry,” said his boss, “we take care of our own.” But was that fair to them? Asking that kind of charity? A man takes care of himself, takes care of his family, if he has one. What kind of man lets other men pay off his debts for him?

“The kind of man who’s fallen ill,” said Dr. Prajapati. She found him when he was admitted at the hospital and remembered him. “We can’t solve every problem ourselves,” she added, “the modern world is too complicated for every single person to know every single thing well enough to surive in it unaided. And the human body? Not even doctors can be expected to know everything by now, and never make a mistake. So where does that leave you?”

“It’s a scam,” he insisted, and she didn’t disagree. “They take and they take and they take, and what do we get for it? Debts that can never be repaid. And what choice have we got?”

“You can die,” she reminded him.

“We’d be better off without all this shit.”

“No, you would be dead,” she reminded him. “And there would be no choice.”

“I could pay for all this myself.”

“Can you, though?”

Of course he couldn’t.

“The system isn’t perfect. Of course it’s not. But is the answer to get rid of it altogether? Let every man fend for himself? Where would that leave you? No, if something isn’t perfect, the last thing you do is throw it away. What we need is to fix it.”

In the end, though, the entire point was rendered moot. Brett Lewis made a miraculous recovery just before his money ran out. He gave the credit to supernatural forces and earned a fortune from the book deal and endless subsequent touring.

And Dr. Shukti Prajapati went deeper into politics, ultimately abandoning the hospital for the bigger picture because she couldn’t bear to see people like Mr. Lewis spiraling into endless debt—and taking their families and sometimes even friends with them—just on the slim chance of one day being well. 


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?”

“Benevolent dictatorship?”

“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.