We all convened in the great room.I’d already eaten breakfast, as had JP and Stef, but Will and Darius hadn’t had a chance, so they sat on the couch eating cereal.They weren’t early risers, and Darius had probably had to hustle to make it back here by 9 in the morning. JJ sat next to Will, but he wasn’t eating anything. Jake came walking out, looking great in casual clothes, carrying an energy bar and a cup of coffee.“Thanks for the energy bar,” he said to JJ.
“No problem,” JJ said in a friendly way.“Help yourself to anything you want.”
“I thought you had a cook?” Darius asked, as if just figuring out why there was no real breakfast.From his tone, it seemed as if he didn’t have a meeting of the minds with JJ like Will did.
“It’s her day off,” JJ said.“She asked for Thursdays and Sundays off.”
“Let’s hope we have something scheduled for lunch,” Darius said.
“Having Jacinta absent serves our plans,” JP said in his imperious way, but he was right.If she were here, we’d have to watch what we said.
“What’s our plan for today?” Will asked, getting us on track.
“We are going to meet with Jake and hopefully he will enlighten us as to what he discovered in Mexico.After that, our afternoon is free.We have a gala to go to this evening,” Stef said.
“A gala?” Will asked dubiously.
“Yes,” Stef said.“It will probably be similar to the one you attended last weekend.”
“Does that mean you get to blow someone in the bathroom?” JJ asked, joking.We were all a little stunned that he was being jovial, and not bitchy.
“If I’m lucky,” Will said.
“Uh, I told a few people you’d be there,” JJ said to the group.
“When you say ‘you’, who are you referring to?” Darius asked coldly.
“You, Will, Stef, and Dad,” JJ said.The four of us looked at each other with dread.
“What does that mean?” Darius demanded. It was rare that he was the bitchy and difficult person in the group, but I attributed it to his anger at JJ and the fact that he was probably tired after his night with Bellona.I tried not to cringe at the thought that he was sleeping with a woman who was older than me.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some recognition of your escape from the towers two years ago,” JP said.
“That’s bullshit,” Darius said.“I don’t want that.I don’t want to deal with that.” Then he turned on JJ. “This is what happens when you open your mouth.It’s as toxic as your tattle-tale routine.Just shut the fuck up.”
“They just asked me who was going to attend,” JJ said defensively.
“Darius,” I said firmly, getting him to look at me.“This isn’t a day to enjoy, it’s a day to endure.Let’s go with the flow, and we’ll get through whatever they throw at us, just like we always do.”
“Just like we always do,” Will parroted sadly.
“This isn’t JJ’s fault, he was simply asked a question, and there’s no reason for us to argue with each other,” I said, mostly to Darius.
“Fine,” Darius said grumpily.
“Besides, maybe your girlfriend will be there,” Will said to Darius, giving him shit.
“Patrick call you back?” Darius asked Will, who said nothing.“Jealous much?”
“Now that we have established our schedule, I would like to know what you found out while you were in Mexico,” JP said to Jake, bringing us back to the topic at hand.
“We’re on the brink of a massive war between the Mexican cartels,” Jake said simply.
“Why is that a problem?” I asked. I didn’t see how Mexican drug lords killing each other would cause us any heartburn.It seemed like the smart thing to do was to let them fight each other.
“If there is a war, it will engulf much of Mexico and will seriously harm many innocent civilians,” Jake predicted.“There was a CIA report done on this a few years ago that suggested such a war could possibly destabilize the Mexican government.”
“I cannot imagine that a conflagration on that level would not spill over into the United States,” JP noted.
“That was also part of the report,” Jake said.The concept of Mexico as a failed and lawless state was terrifying.
“That seems like a good enough reason to be concerned,” I said, letting go of my original attitude of avoiding involvement.
“Lord Preston flew in yesterday to see if he could stop things before they get out of hand,” Jake said, dropping that on us.There was a lot to digest in that statement, but it mostly just raised more questions.
“Why would Lord Preston be in Mexico trying to stop things before they get out of hand?” JP asked. It was disturbing to see that this had even confused him.
“He is apparently well known in the Capetown underworld as the man who unified the gangs there, and brought peace to those organizations,” Jake said.“Our English peer is one of the South African cartel kingpins, if not the kingpin.”
“We suspected he was involved in some sort of disreputable business, but controlling drug cartels was a bit beyond my radar,” Stef said.
“His extracurricular activities have been well concealed, evidently,” I observed drily.
“His nickname is ‘The Shadow’ because of how stealthy he is,” Jake said.“He lives as an expatriate British peer, mingling with the upper crust in Johannesburg, but when he goes to Capetown, he’s like a Mafia Don.”
“That is an impressive balancing act,” Stef noted.My initial impression of Lord Preston as bumbling British peer, much as he’d seemed at Alex and Mary Ellen’s wedding, was fast falling apart.For him to live a dual life like that, he had to be pretty clever and he probably also had to be a pretty accomplished actor.
“I agree,” I said, putting my thoughts to words.“What is he supposed to accomplish in Mexico?”
“The Ortegas are bringing him in to meet with all of the heads of the various cartels down there,” Jake said.“His job is to negotiate some sort of deal where they divide up the turf.The alternative is to fight a battle over who has what regions or lines of business.That’s expensive and dangerous.”
“This is reminiscent of the battles with the Mafia here in the US,” JP noted.
“It works pretty much the same way,” Jake agreed, “I don’t think the Ortegas want to work out a genuine peace.”
“Why not?” I asked, not following him.
“The biggest opposing cartel is the Rubio family, run by Stef’s friend,” Jake said. “They’ve been watching the Ortegas expand, and they think this is a power grab.”
“I am not quite sure I would classify Joaquin as a friend,” Stef said, even though he probably was. Stef was obviously annoyed at being lumped into this thing.“Regardless, I am wondering how this could be a power grab?”
“The man you heard me with the other night was able to enlighten me,” Jake said with a wry grin.It was funny how after our conversation last night, and our make-out session, now I was jealous when I thought about it.“According to him, the Ortega’s plan is to negotiate an arrangement that is especially generous to the weaker cartels, which will win their loyalty and support.Then, after the deal is worked out, they plan to absorb those other cartels, either through friendly or unfriendly means.”
“So that means that after they do that, they’ll be much more powerful than they are now,” I noted.
“That’s correct,” Jake agreed.“Only at that point, they’ll be so strong, they’ll simply crush anyone, including the Rubios, who stand in their way.”
“How will the Rubios react to this?” JP asked.
“They’ll figure out the game soon enough,” Jake said with a shrug. “If not, they’ll find themselves pretty embattled.”
“I wonder if we should warn them,” Stef mused.
“No,” I insisted, a bit too strongly.“We have to keep our distance, as much as possible, from this conflict.”
“I do not know if that is possible,” Stef said.
“I think it would be a huge mistake for us to be seen as taking sides in whatever happens with these drug cartels,” JP said, backing me up.
“Until I can get rid of those border properties, we are in a situation where we are involved,” Stef said.We all seemed to realize what a smoking time bomb Buzz had left us.“I have a potential solution, but I may need your assistance,” Stef said to Jake.
“What is your solution?” I asked.
“Buzz’s estate will owe a significant amount of estate taxes to the Federal government, and those are payable in cash,” Stef said.“I am working to convince the government to accept those properties as partial payment.”
“That is quite clever,” JP said, smiling at Stef.The rest of the crowd looked confused by this discussion, so I decided to clarify things.
“If we sell the properties, we could cause more problems with either the new buyers or with the Ortegas, who will be mad that we didn’t give them to Maria,” I explained.“But if the Federal government demands them as part of the estate taxes due, there is little anyone can complain about.”Everyone nodded, and I had to agree with JP; it was a very clever solution.
“So how can I help?” Jake asked.
“The primary problem is convincing the Feds to agree to the deal,” Stef said.“I have enlisted the help of Buck Dalby, but anyone else you know who can help influence that decision would be useful.”
“I’ll make some calls,” Jake promised.
“So I don’t get why Lord Preston would be involved in this deal,” Will said.“It doesn’t sound like it’s going anywhere.Why’s he wasting his time?”
“I don’t know,” Jake admitted.“At first, it seemed obvious, that he’d benefit by being involved in this whole consolidated cartel.”
“Maybe he is planning to run it,” I suggested.“I’d have to believe the Mexican drug trade is considerably more lucrative than those in South Africa.”
“Maybe he is,” Jake said, “but I think that’s unlikely.He’s largely being billed as a mediator, not a new CEO.They’re billing him as this superman who can develop the ultimate deal and make everyone happy.”
“He’s already in Mexico?” I asked, since I’d forgotten that important fact.
“He is,” Jake said, confirming what he’d already told us.He got really nervous when he said that.
“What?” I prompted.
“Lord Preston is playing with fire,” Jake said.“I can’t see how he can set up this meeting and survive it if things don’t go well.”
“So he could be walking into a death trap?” JP asked.
“That was my read on it, as well as that of my friends I talked to,” Jake said.I wasn’t willing to buy into that theory, but I kept my mouth shut to hear their points.If Lord Preston had indeed managed to pull of his amazing dual life in South Africa, he wasn’t likely to be oblivious to the threats these cartels presented.
“Should we try and warn him off?” JP asked.
“No,” Will said emphatically.“That man is not our friend.”
“Yet he is Alex’s father, and the son of the Duke of Suffolk,” JP responded.“And they are our friends.”
“Alright, if that’s the case, then they should also be partially on the hook for the crap things Lord Preston did this summer,” Will said.“That’s the deal.Lord Preston and Elizabeth Danfield worked pretty hard to fuck up my life, JJ’s life, and Zach’s life, and they walked away totally unharmed. We didn’t blame the Duke of Suffolk or Alex for that.”
JP didn’t like that, but he didn’t want to argue about it.“I will ponder your words.”
“Thank you,” Will said.“And then what will you do?”
“That depends on where my pondering leads me,” JP said in particularly haughty way.I wanted to laugh at how he was stumbling right into a battle with Will, something that I usually ended up doing in these situations.
“I want you to remember that we all agreed that this whole deal was based on collective decision making,” Will insisted.
“There is nothing wrong with my memory,” JP snapped.Stef and I exchanged knowing looks, even as we tried not to laugh.
“So based on what we know now, who thinks we should directly or indirectly warn Lord Preston he may be walking into an ambush?” Will asked the group.“I vote no.”
“No,” JJ said insistently.
“Nope,” Darius said, chiming in to support his brothers.
“I do not see any reason to extend any assistance to Lord Preston,” Stef said.
“Neither do I,” I said.
“And I would further note that we were unwilling to get involved to warn the Rubios, and those same reasons should preclude us from helping Lord Preston,” Stef added.
“That means you’re not allowed to be a snob, just because Lord Preston is a marquess,” Darius joked, only what he said was only too true.JP looked at all of us in annoyance, but there was no way I was going to sanction some bizarre notion of aristocratic kindness only to have Lord Preston rise up and cause us problems in the future.
“I will still ponder the situation, but I will do nothing without coming up with a reason good enough to change your minds,” he said, gallantly retreating.
“Thank you,” Will said.
“I wonder if Alex and the Duke know that Lord Preston is a drug lord?” I asked the group.
“We will have to ask them that when we see them on Saturday,” JP said.
“Indeed we will,” Stef said.That was sure to be an interesting conversation.After that, we all went out to lunch at the pub near the condo, and then we had the afternoon to do our own things, which for most of us meant taking a nap.
September 11, 2003
The Ritz Carlton, Battery Park
New York, NY
This event was being held in a big hotel ballroom just like last time, only tonight we were at the Ritz Carlton in Battery Park.It was a cool hotel, mostly because it was new, and because it was so close to the condo.And just like last time, we were all hanging out in the pre-assembly area, drinking and talking.The crowd here was significantly different than last weekend, though.Then it had largely been the mavens of the fashion industry, but tonight it was a much broader group.I noticed Mayor Bloomberg talking to some people, and wasn’t surprised to see Andrew Cuomo here as well.Darius had been flirting with one of his daughters earlier.Of course, Bellona Carter was also in attendance, only she was lording it over the fashion subset of this group instead of being the Queen of the whole thing.I watched as Grand and Stef effortlessly worked their way through the crowd, talking to people as if they lived here.
I looked at my phone, noticing that I had a message, so I moved away from the bar to a quieter place to listen to it.I found a corner that was pretty convenient, one that gave me a view of the whole area. I played the message and smiled when I heard Patrick’s voice.“Hey Will, sorry I didn’t call you earlier.I’m planning to be at that event tonight, so I’ll see you there.Maybe we can hang out after that.”I smiled at my phone, and then frowned when I noticed that there was another number that was conspicuously absent.I hadn’t talked to Zach since Sunday.I’d put off calling him because I took Matt and Stef’s advice to heart and decided not to chase after him, but in reality, I’d decided that was a pretty low risk strategy.I’d figured there was no way he wouldn’t at least call me on 9-11.As the guy who had helped me through that nightmare, he’d know what a tough day this was for me.I was totally confident that he still loved me and cared about me enough to worry about how I was doing, and I was absolutely sure he’d reach out to me. Only he hadn’t.I sighed and put my phone away, deciding that it was still early in California, and using that as an excuse to pretend he’d call me later to check up on me.
I saw my father at the bar, and stared at him long enough that he must have felt my eyes on him.He got his drink and strolled over to my corner.“You found a nice place to hide.”
“I’m not hiding, I’m observing,” I joked.
“You seen Darius lately?” he asked.
“He was hanging around with JJ and Bellona, but I haven’t seen him for a little bit,” I said, wondering where he was.“Where’s Jake?”
“He went ahead and flew down to DC, to see if he could help Stef dump that land on the border,” Dad said.
“You were gone for a while last night,” I teased.
“I just went to welcome Jake to New York.We talked, then made out for a while,” he said.
“How was it?” I asked, totally excited for him.
“Hot,” he answered, cracking me up.
“No doubt,” I said.“But you didn’t fuck him?”
“No,” he said, and seemed confused.“I’ll fill you in on why when we fly down to Goodwell.” Whatever happened with Jake freaked him out a bit, and he obviously didn’t want to talk about it. I resolved not to be an asshole and hound him about it, especially here, and especially on 9-11.
“Cool,” I said, then used my own issues to distract him.“Zach didn’t call me yet.”
“It’s still early in California,” he said, using my same reasoning.I was distracted from arguing about that when I saw Darius at the bar.He was looking around in a way that I knew for him was almost frantic, but would look normal to anyone else.As soon as he spotted Dad and me, he all but charged over to our corner.
“I found out what the plan is for tonight,” he said.He was really pissed off, so much that his eyes were almost shooting fire, and his nose was flaring not unlike Matt’s did when he was mad, only Darius had to be a lot more pissed off for his nose to flare out than Matt did.
“What?” I asked calmly, trying to get him to settle down a bit.
“Did you know about this?” he asked Dad.
“About what?” Dad asked, and seemed genuinely confused.
“They’re going to recognize us for escaping from the tower,” Darius snapped.“They’re going to give us keys to the city.”
“What?” I asked, totally stunned.
“That’s quite an honor,” Dad said, then withered under truly evil looks from Darius and me.
“I don’t want to relive that fucking day, and I sure as fuck don’t want to relive it in front of cameras, reporters, and politicians,” Darius said, much too loudly.
“Shut the fuck up,” I snapped.He just glared at me.“Do not make a scene.”
“You’re saying this?” he demanded, like I was constantly making an ass of myself at fancy balls.
“I’m saying this,” I said, even as my mind whirled with what he said.
“I’m so out of here,” Darius said, and made to leave.I grabbed his arm to stop him, and when he turned around to face me, he instinctively cocked his fist.
“You can’t do that without causing big problems,” Dad snapped, using his full power posture, one that probably saved me from taking a fist in my stomach.“You still planning to go into the Navy?”
“Yeah,” Darius said, as if Dad were stating the obvious.
“Then you can’t go running out of here and embarrassing a bunch of powerful politicians,” Dad said logically.
“You really think Mayor Bloomberg is gonna track me down and cause me problems for bailing on this party?” Darius demanded.
“He’ll know that you were here, and then when they announce the award, and only Will goes up to get it, he’ll know you left,” Dad said.“That’s the kind of thing that can bite you in the ass later on.”
“Fuck,” Darius said, with resignation.I wasn’t convinced it would really be that big of a problem, but running away wasn’t the right thing to do, so I didn’t argue about it.“So you’re OK with this?” he demanded of me.
“It’s not my first choice, but if that’s what they have planned, I’ll go with the flow,” I said.It was almost surreal that Darius was freaking out, kind of like I had been known to do a few times, while I was pretty relaxed about things.
“Remember my 40th birthday,” Dad said to us.“I got to the airport, all pissed off, and was determined to just go back to work.If I’d have done that, I’d have completely fucked up your plans.”
“You’re the only guy I know who gets pissed off by a good blow job,” I teased him, reminding him about his ride to the airport.He ignored me.
“And then that night, when it was time for me to go downstairs, I thought briefly about stalling, but I knew that you guys had gone to a lot of trouble to set that up for me, and I didn’t want to be a dick and ruin it, or embarrass you,” he said, ignoring my taunt.
“So?” Darius said.
“If you do that, if you bail on the Mayor and these people, that’s what you’re doing.They want to honor you for your bravery, and if you just skip out on them, you make them look like asses,” Dad explained.
“Besides, no way you can’t get laid after they give you the key to the city,” I joked.
“I already got that covered,” Darius said, then got more thoughtful as he thought of his date.“I don’t think Bellona would appreciate me doing that either.”
“Probably not,” Dad said.It was annoying that only when he factored in Bellona’s reaction did Darius seem to fully realize how stuck we were.
“Fine, I’ll do it, but only if you do the talking,” he said to me.He usually pawned that off on me, because he hated talking to crowds like this.
“I can do that,” I said, even as my mind began to whirl with a new idea.
“I better get back to the party,” he said, and walked off at a much more deliberate pace than that which he’d used to get here.
“Did he work things out with JJ?” Dad asked.
I laughed.“Yeah.They did it in about seven words.”
“I’m glad,” he said. “So what are you planning?”
“What do you mean?”
He rolled his eyes at me.“You’re working on something.What are you planning to say?” It was irritating that he could read me so well these days.It was so much easier to hide things from him when he was fucked up.
“We’re having the talent show next weekend, and that’s going to end up being a big tribute to Grand,” I said, confiding in him.
“That’s a nice thing to do,” he said approvingly.
“Thanks, but I’ve been worried that it would upset Stef. It may make him think we’re neglecting him when we pay total attention to Grand,” I told him.It was cool that he didn’t give me a bunch of bullshit arguments, but recognized the situation and how sensitive Stef could be about these things.
“That could happen,” he agreed nervously.
“I wanted to include him in the talent show celebration, to make it a joint deal for him and Grand, but I got vetoed. It won’t really work,” I said.“Instead, I’ve tried to get him all involved in our plans, so it’s his deal too.”
“That’s a good idea,” Dad said, smiling at me.
“Thanks, but we still haven’t done anything for Stef,” I said.“So tonight, when I get to talk, I’ll make sure I do that.”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate that,” Dad said, even as he thought about it.
“This is more his crowd,” I added.
“He’s almost as popular here as he is in LA,” Dad noted.It was amazing what billions of dollars would do for your image.I saw Patrick walk up to the bar, and noted that he was alone.
“I’ll see you later,” I said, and strode purposely away from Dad toward Patrick.He saw me when I was about ten feet away from him, and it was awesome that at huge smile seemed to erupt on his face.
“Hey Will!” he said, and gave me a big man-hug to make us look like bros.
“It is so good to see you!” I told him honestly.“You here solo?”
“I am, but I’m not real popular at home right now,” he grimaced.
“You’re popular here,” I flirted.“I was staying at our condo, but it’s a little crowded.I was thinking about getting a room here.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked, raising his eyebrow suggestively.
“I’d hate to be here alone, though,” I said.“Maybe you could keep me company?”
“I can do that,” he said. “I understand I’m sitting at your table tonight.”
“Don’t get into a fight with Darius,” I teased.“I’ll be back.”I left him and went to the front desk and splurged for the biggest suite they had available.The dude working at the front desk was stunningly slow, so by the time I got a couple of keys and went back to the gala, I discovered that pretty much everyonehad gone into the ballroom and taken their seats.I managed to find my table, and found myself sandwiched in between Dad and Patrick, while Stef was on Patrick’s other side.Those two were deep in conversation, so I talked to Dad. “I decided to stay here tonight, so you have your own room.”
“I wonder why,” he said sarcastically, even as he looked beyond me at Patrick.“Damn, you have good taste in men.”
“So do you,” I reminded him.Dinner conversation was pretty fun and lively, and there was the added dimension of all of us trying not to laugh our asses off at Darius working his moves on Bellona.
After dinner was pretty much over, the mayor walked up to the stage and smiled out at the audience for a few seconds, then got somber and started speaking.“We are here tonight to remember one of the darkest days in the history of our city, an event that tore at our fabric, but at the same time brought us closer together.”He rambled on with that theme for a while, and paused to recognize some of the other dignitaries who were there.“I’ve been fortunate enough to honor many of our citizens who were true heroes on that day, but tonight I have an opportunity to recognize two young men, one who wasn’t quite 15 at the time, who braved the fires and heat of the South Tower to fight their way out of that burning pyre, and they did it while carrying their baby sister with them.”He read off our names, and there was an aide there to shepherd Darius and me up onto the stage even as the mayor expanded on what we’d been through, reading one of the more flowery descriptions that had been published.His words pierced through my shields as he made me relive that horrible day, and while both Darius and I may have seemed calm and stoic as we stood there listening to our tale, the tears running out of our eyes gave away how awful this was. I looked at him and we connected with our eyes, drawing strength from each other, and blocking out the mayor’s voice.
In fact, we’d zoned out enough that I was almost surprised when he handed us these nice velvet boxes with a gold key in each one.The key was pretty cool.It was about five inches long, and was engraved with the words “Facsimile of key made in 1812 for the door of City Hall, New York.” The keys featured the New York City seal and the mayor’s name on their shafts.I’d been so absorbed in my ordeal that I’d almost forgotten what I was planning to say.There was a pregnant pause, but a look from Darius spurred me into action.
“Thank you, Your Honor, for the kind words you said, and for these keys to the city.That day was the worst day of our lives,” I said, nodding to Darius.“The bravery you give us credit for, though, was really just us following the example of a man who has been a guiding force in our lives, our grandfather, Stefan Schluter.”I paused and stretched my arm out, pointing at Stef, until he finally stood up, even as he pretended to be reluctant to do so.The crowd gave him a huge ovation.“Stef taught us to look for opportunities, and when we find them, to seize them,” I said.“That was the thing that propelled us to make the initial decision to start going down those stairs.He also instilled in us the importance of trusting our instincts, and that’s the thing that kept us going down even when others were going up, and that’s the thing that gave us the power to fight through the heat and the smoke around the 80th floor.So we thank you for this honor, but we in turn have to thank our grandfather, Stefan Schluter, for teaching us to take advantages of opportunities and to trust our instincts.His training, his example, is the reason we’re standing here today.With your permission, we’d like it if he could join us on this stage.”
“With pleasure,” the mayor said.Stef walked up onto the stage to a standing ovation, while the mayor smiled at him and shook his hand.“Stefan Schluter, the man who is currently four slots ahead of me on the Forbes 400 list,” he joked, getting a laugh from everyone.
“When this year’s rankings come out, we will have to see if you have widened or narrowed the gap this year,” Stef responded.He didn’t say anything else, he just turned and gave Darius and me each a huge hug. After that, we walked back to our table, even as the crowd clapped for us.
“Thank you both for that wonderful tribute,” Stef said, and was so emotional he was crying.
“It was true,” Darius said, and even though I’d exaggerated quite a bit, I nodded in agreement.I was hoping that beyond this venue, our tribute to Stef would help him decide not to hate me.