It’s Saturday and I’m not being a slacker this week, so let’s to the next chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy, shall we? Don’t forget, it’s available in ebook and trade paperback from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes. You will most definitely not hurt my feelings if you decide to purchase a copy. 😉
Chapter Thirty – Three
Jo was prepared for a lot of things. She was not prepared to see Isaac walk into the living room followed by Becky and a tall, skinny man in his middle years with black hair that was greying at his temples. Both Becky and the stranger were dressed well: she in grey slacks and a light blue collared shirt, he in a dark grey sports coat and matching slacks, with a somber tie to complete the ensemble. And they both wore serious, if not quite grim, expressions on their faces.
Isaac, for his part, was dressed more casually, in a grey sweater pulled over a white collared shirt, and khakis. He nodded familiarly to Jo and Malcolm as he lead the other two into the room and said, “Good evening. I believe you already know Becky.”
She smiled and nodded in greeting to the two of them. Jo thought her smile grew a tad more warm when she greeted Malcolm, but she was not sure.
Isaac continued, “This is Jervis. He is the leader of the CFL compound in Brisbane.”
Jo was taken aback. She realized her mouth had fallen open in astonishment and quickly shut it, but noticed that Malcolm took a bit longer to recover. “Nice to meet you,” she managed. She glanced quickly from Jervis to Becky to Isaac and back. “You…” She swallowed and tried again. “You’re with the Underground in Australia?”
He nodded, looking more than a little amused.
“How…?” Jo turned her gaze on Isaac, baffled.
He smirked in response. “I think we’d better sit down. And get some drinks. This will take a while.”
* * * * *
“When I was thirty, I became a millionaire.”
Isaac said the words as though they had little meaning, and mattered even less. But they hit Jo like a ton of bricks. She had known a number of people who were well-to-do. Hell, Harold did pretty damn well; he probably made a million or more per year as COO of McAllister. But he did not flaunt it, and he certainly never talked about it. On those occasions when his salary or wealth came to be hinted at, he always deflected the subject, as though it was not something to dwell on. Like it was a sacred subject, not to be discussed. She had never met someone who was so matter-of-fact about his wealth as Isaac.
He smiled knowingly at her, his brow lifting. “I know. I am supposed to be ashamed of the fact that I made more money than most people can ever hope to earn in their lifetimes.” He shook his head, snorting. “Bollocks. I made a lot of money then. I’ve made even more since, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit it, or shove it in anyone’s face who tells me I should be.”
Jo glanced at Malcolm, unsure how to proceed. He sat next to her at Isaac’s dining room table, across from Isaac, Becky, and Jervis. Jo saw that he was as taken aback as she. And no wonder. She had just met Isaac a couple weeks earlier. He probably had known Isaac for a year or more. But then, she had suspected from the start that he had money; his clothing gave him away back at the motel. If Malcolm had not taken note… Jo smirked. Men often failed to notice obvious things like that, though. Was she really surprised that Malcolm had?
Isaac’s brow quirked upward, but instead of commenting, he raised his glass, filled with two fingers of scotch on the rocks, and took a sip. He remained silent as he lowered the glass to the table, looking at Jo with a challenging stare.
She took a breath and asked, cautiously, “But you were so casual before. A simple car. Unobtrusive clothes. And…” She gestured with her left hand toward Isaac’s burn scars without realizing she was doing it. Abashed, she pulled her hand down and took a sip from her own glass, scotch again, to cover up her slip.
“And I never had my scars repaired,” Isaac said, completing her thought. He looked down at the table, where he cradled his glass in his hands, and for a long moment was silent. Then he sighed and said, more softly, “I keep them as a reminder.”
Again Jo glanced at Malcolm. His eyes met hers, his expression as questioning as she was sure hers was. But neither he nor she voiced the obvious question. For her part, Jo figured Isaac would explain in his own time, if he wanted to.
And so they all sat in silence for a while. How long, Jo was unsure. They simply sat looking at each other, occasionally taking a sip from their glasses until finally Isaac smirked slightly.
“As I said, I made my fortune very early. I studied Engineering in University and went to work at a promising design firm in Madrid. But after a few years, I had an idea for a new product and it became clear to me that my firm had neither the ability nor the inclination to make anything of it.” Isaac sipped at his scotch again. “So I started my own business. Within two years, my product was gaining market share at a spectacular rate. We were beating the competition in both quality and ease of use, and they became frightened.” His eyes twinkled and he grinned at her. “I entertained, and turned down, no less than three different offers to buy my company, and the rights to my invention. The lowest of the offers was for over a billion credits.”
Beside her, Malcolm choked on a sip of his scotch. Jo could not blame him. A billion credits was…unimaginable.
The merry twinkle that, for a moment, had lit Isaac’s eyes faded, as did his smile. He looked at Jo, his expression becoming as grim as a mortician. “Less than a month after I refused the last offer, a swarm of government regulators descended on my business. They found us guilty of violating regulations I had never heard of before. Hundreds of citations against dozens of rules that, from what I could tell, had either only been enacted within the last several weeks or had not been enforced in decades. The fines bit into my cash flow for that quarter, but I was able to continue. But,” his tone became flat, bitter, “the next quarter there were even more citations, more fines. I tried to appeal, but was rebuffed. I filed lawsuits requesting redress, but all were denied because there was no violation of the law, only of regulatory rules. With all of my time and spare cash flow going to deal with the never-ending violations, I began to lose market share to a new competing product, one that was disturbingly similar to my invention. I tried to sue for patent infringement, and was denied because my competitors had been issued a patent that superseded my own.” Isaac’s nostril’s flared, and Jo could see the rage, still red hot after all those decades, within him. “Finally, I had no choice but to close the business and sell off the assets. But that was not enough to pay off the debts I had accumulated in starting up and in trying to fight the harassment.”
Isaac shook his head. “When all was said and done, I still had a goodly amount of money left. Enough to live comfortably. But I was ruined, all the same.” He drew a deep breath and drank again, draining his glass completely. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet, somber. “Have you ever heard of an early twentieth century writer named Ayn Rand?”
Malcolm shook his head, but the name rang a bell in Jo’s head, somewhere.
Isaac smiled slightly at Jo’s recognition. “In her book, Atlas Shrugged, the businessmen, the successful people, have enough of the burdens foisted upon them by the world and go on strike, bringing society down so it can be rebuilt. I only read that book a few years ago, and I will tell you it is tripe.” His eyebrows lifted, and that sarcastic smirk Jo had seen him wear several times returned. “I agree with some of the principles she discussed, but it could never work. There are too many idealistic, naive young people who come of age and want to do great things. Too many people who would never quit trying no matter what.” He looked down at the glass he held cradled in his hands and tumbled the ice around for a second. “And too many men like me.”
Isaac went silent and his face twisted into a grimace. He worked his jaw for a long several moments as he fought to hold back some deep emotion that Jo could only guess at.
Beside him, Becky leaned forward and gently took the glass from his hands. She stood and moved over to the liquor cabinet – she moved stiffly, with a pronounced limp, Jo noticed – and refilled Isaac’s glass, then returned it to him and sat back down.
“Thank you, my dear,” Isaac said, and took another drink, smaller this time, barely more than a sip. Then he drew a deep breath and looked back up at Jo. “It was obvious what happened. My competitors were large conglomerates with deep fingers into government power, and they used that power to shut me, an impudent upstart, down so I could not threaten their position. I resolved to never let that happen again. So, I started over. But this time I spent most of my time courting favor in Geneva: contributing to campaigns, dining politicians and regulators, supplying favors, that sort of thing. By the time I had a new product to offer, I had a firm cadre of cronies in the government, and this time they were able to shield me. Over the next forty years, I became a behemoth. Growing my influence, and with it my marketshare. Eventually, I became big enough that the major conglomerates that once tried to destroy me welcomed me into the club with open arms.”
He shuddered. “Along the way, of course, I had to eliminate my own competition, whether by acquiring them or forcing them out. I knew that I was committing the same sin that had been done to me, and ignored it. To use a term from the Bible, I actively seared my conscience so that eventually I never even felt a hint of guilt as I loosed the power of government to bring them down and enhance my own standing. Until one of them forced me to see what I had done.
“Peter Henderson was his name. He had a promising software company that was on the rise. And, like me, he refused to sell. So I crushed him. Or rather, I had my cronies in Geneva do it. They even managed to find a little known criminal statute that would allow them to prosecute. Not only did he lose everything he had built, but he spent five years in prison. All for daring to challenge me. My friends,” Isaac smirked bitterly. “Not friends. I had no friends, only business associates and co-conspirators. They all cheered what I had done to Mr. Henderson, lifted it up as the greatest coup in memory. And it was. But when he got out of prison, he was fixed on revenge. He did not blame the prosecutor, or the bureaucrats who had snuffed out his business. No, he knew where the blame truly fell, and he came to find me.
“And find me he did. I was in Fiji, along with my daughter, Helen, her husband, and their newborn baby. It was Helen’s birthday and I decided to take them all on a trip to celebrate. It took everything I could muster to convince them to come; we had not spoken in years, not since her mother and I split, and she was angry with me. But somehow I convinced her husband that I wanted to make amends – I really did – and they came for a week of fun in the sun.” Isaac’s voice broke and he lifted his hand to his mouth to cover up a small sob. “Oh how I wish they had not.”
It took a minute or more for Isaac to compose himself, but when he did it was obvious he still was holding back strong feelings. His lips were tight and Jo thought he trembled a bit. But his eyes were resolute as he raised his head and looked her in the eye. “I had security guards, of course, but what I did not know was that Henderson had, before University, served with an elite unit of the armed forces. My guards were no match for him. And so he burst into my villa, brandishing a gun, as I was preparing to serve dinner to my family. He cursed me – oh how he cursed me – as a thief and a coward. He spelled out every detail of what had happened to him in prison, how his wife had left him. But worst of all, he told me he would have been content to lose a fair competition with me, if only I had allowed it. All those things rang true, but it was this last that struck a part of my conscience that I did not know still existed, for that was exactly how I felt when they had destroyed my first company, all those years ago.”
Isaac sighed, a sigh so filled with regret and remorse that it almost broke Jo’s heart to hear it. “I tried to tell Henderson that I understood, that this was not the end for him. That he could start again and overcome, as I had. He just laughed and said he would rather die than be a soulless wretch like me.” His voice caught again, but he did not look down this time; he let the tears well up openly. “I noticed the remote detonator in his free hand a second before he pressed the button. He was wearing five kilograms of explosives beneath his shirt.”
Jo gasped in shock.
Isaac continued. “I was standing behind the counter. It was made of marble, and shielded me from most of the blast. Helen and her family, though…” He looked away then, revealing his scars more fully for Jo’s eyes. “Even without these,” he gestured to the scars, “I could never forget. But they are a reminder, nonetheless.”
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting a couple months to read the rest book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.